In elementary school, as I remember, there was a fuss made about Halloween. Like all holidays and occasions, it gave the teacher a creative focus for the class. I don’t recall being allowed to wear a costume in the classroom, but there were pumpkins and scarecrows pinned to the bulletin board. And I’m pretty sure Casper the friendly ghost made an appearance there as well.
I remember breathing behind a plastic mask of Bugs Bunny and shivering in a thin cotton rabbit costume in the cool evening for trick or treating. When I became too mature to get a store-bought costume, I dressed as a shipwrecked sailor with a white blouse tied at the waist, rolled up cutoff jeans, and a straw hat. That costume worked for years.
I never thought of dressing as a witch. Nor, given my mother’s religiosity, would I have been allowed to dress up as a witch. I don’t know what the most popular costumes were when I was a child, but the witch has been a bestselling costume at Halloween for the last 20 years along with more powerful women appearing in all facets of society. But what really is a witch?
Mysteriously, witch – as a term – has no real etymology. Some dictionaries guess that it relates to the words wiccian/wicce/wicca, and historically, those words were applied to people with a skill. Horse trainers were called wiccas. Midwives were called wicces as were healers. Stone masonry was called the craft. It seems to me that those skills just mentioned require a lot of intuition – something that can’t be taught, but has to be felt. Meaning, even if all the rules of becoming a horse whisperer were written down, not everyone is going to be good with horses. Flashback to the Middle Ages and this intuition could seem like magic. The women who held moldy bread to wounds, years before Fleming would discover penicillin in the mold of bread, well, their acts would seem otherworldly. Or, if they threw a toad into the stew cauldron and it cured an ailment – long before modern pharmaceutical companies used the slime of toads and a chemical in their brains to make antibiotics (gross, but true), well, that would seem like magic. The stone masons who built the church arches that held so magically would not give away their secret engineering formula except to apprentices, ergo, witchcraft. Wiccacraft. Not a bad word until the Church got involved.
Another dictionary attributes the etymology of witch to the English word weg (to wake) or to wikkjaz – one who wakes the dead. But where does that leave the horse trainers? And one really doesn’t want that terminology related to midwives.
Merge all this with the turmoil of the Reformation followed by the Great Plague and the beginning of the Inquisition and witches seem a good place to project the cause of evil. Let the witch-hunting begin. Amid the hysteria, a priest Inquisitor named Kramer published Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Evil People), a guide to recognizing witches. It was easy. According to this book, a witch was a woman who was unmarried, lived alone, and grew herbs. One woman was arrested for changing her underwear once a week. The book outlined methods of torture – feet on hot coals of the fire, hands tied behind the back and strung up to the ceiling, the rack, waterboarding (yes, they invented it). The Catholic Church rejected the book after a few years, but it was published in twenty editions in Latin. Who could read it except clerics and the judiciary? And the torture didn’t stop.
Men and women were also burned at the stake as witches, and although there is dispute on the numbers (anywhere from 60,000 to 5 million), it was certainly an effective deterrent to obtaining secret knowledge of a skill and an inspiration toward the confessional. As the Chinese say, “kill one, frighten 10,000.”
At any rate, the Inquisition lasted a mere 400 years, give or take a decade or two **, and the term witch became synonymous with bad, bad, bad, awful bad. Women became desperate to get married and stopped dabbling with toads and herbs – except the opium in laudanum. And witches were basically ignored until MGM’s The Wizard of Oz gave us the current image of the witch with the green skin, warts, and those fabulous flying monkeys.
**ADDENDUM: The Inquisition officially ended in 1834, and the same year, the corset was invented.