As a mainstay of the season, witches come along with all the other familiar characters: skeletons, jack-o-lanterns, spiders and ghouls. But in 2018, more than a year after the #MeToo movement took off in earnest, witches have renewed significance. The rebels of their day, witches are an enduring symbol of resistance in the face of oppression.
Witches have been getting trendy for years, but this year, it's clear they have more significance than ever. "Circe," a retelling of the story of the world's "first" divine witch, became one of Amazon's top-rated books
of the year. This month, Netflix released a brilliantly fun "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" remake. Sephora was going to start selling "Starter Witch Kit
" but called it off after a social media backlash. Starbucks has a Witch's Brew Frappuccino
. Pinterest says
searches of the "Witch Aesthetic" are up 281% among Generation Z users, along with magic-related themes across the board. And on multiple occasions, witches from around the United States promised they would be gathering to "hex Trump," and other officials, like Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh
It's clear this cultural obsession with witches goes far beyond just Halloween — it's deeply related to themes of feminism and women's power. "The stereotype of the witch is deeply connected with women's power and our fear of it," Starhawk, a California-based author, teacher, and self-proclaimed witch, told me.
The witch we're all most familiar with is old, haggard and warty, with tattered clothes and scraggly hair. Judging by the eye of newt she's tossing into the cauldron, and the wide smile on her face, she's also definitely up to something.
This witch is a mashup of the images that emerged in full force during the Middle Ages
. At first regarded as just a phantom of superstition, the concept of a witch evolved into someone who should be feared and reviled. It was a time of intense social and political upheaval that gave rise to the Protestant Reformation and the Inquisition. Misunderstood tragedies -- like famine, plague and infant mortality -- made people even more afraid of the unknown.
In hopes of uniting people against a common enemy, religious leaders began to emphasize that Satan was at work in the world, and witches were his servants on Earth, according to history books like "The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe
They encouraged people to report anyone who might be a witch, be it their neighbor, their midwife, their friend or even their mother. Between the mid-1400s and the mid-1700s, conservative estimates are that 110,000 to 200,000 people were jailed, about 80% of them women. About half of them eventually were put to death, says Anne Llewellyn Barstow, a retired history professor and author of the book "Witchcraze
It was a time when, as Barstow says, "any woman might have felt like a hunted animal."
Flying on a broomstick may sound pretty fun today, but authorities at the time were practiced at making women and witches sound as threatening, dangerous and worthy of burning as possible.
"When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil ... she is an imperfect animal and she will always deceive," wrote
Heinrich Kramer, a German inquisitor and Catholic monk who wrote the handbook on hunting witches,"The Malleus Maleficarum" (in English, "The Witch Hammer").
The 1487 tome was a veritable bestseller of its day, printed nearly as much as the Bible. "What else is a woman ... (but) an an evil of nature, painted with fair color ... (who is) more carnal than a man," Kramer wrote
in the chapter titled "Question VI." "Women are intellectually like children. ... And since they are feebler in both mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come under the spell of witchcraft."
In recently published books like "