So Halloween is a time when all things darkling are celebrated; a relic from the old times when our ancestors celebrated the death of summer, the plentiful harvest and the winter to come.
And although there are many who feel this ancient pagan tradition of nature worship and season reverence, Halloween has become something else, too - a celebration of all things supernatural and once perceived devilish; from plastic ghouls, to blow up witches, to zombies on yard-sticks - halloween has become a playful nod to the occult and esoteric; a way in which we can all exorcise our own secret fears, and laugh in the face of them.
Of all the halloween icons, the one that continues to reign supreme is that of the witch - so why? In the twenty first century, why are we still fascinated by this idea of the witch and where did these cultural ideas manifest?
The history of witches runs within the history of women, for the much of the notion of witches came from a deep fear and superstition of women by a patriarchy that felt threatened by the extraordinary powers women demonstrated over the powers of life and death. Women were a walking embodiment of Nature's fertility - of her abundance - of her power; and as such, it was a thing that threatened to bring down the very order of the patricarchal universe.
In order to control this awesome power over nature, men constructed a society which repressed sexuality, constrained fertility into tight social organisations such as marriage and nunneries. Women who transgressed these social structures, who rebelled against this male attempt to constrain women's autonomy and power had to be defined as 'wrong' as 'immoral' as 'ungodly' - as Satan's whore - as 'witch'
Such was the fear that over the course of hundreds of years, thousands upon thousands of women were tortured and murdered because of their lack of conformity, and because of ideas put forward by the Catholic church in regards to how evil had infiltrated the human race. Catholic propagandists perpetrated the belief that women were essentially the weak link; after all, it had been Eve who had eaten of the apple and uncovered the true nature of a universe both full of good and evil.
Luther, an incredibly influential religious voice of the late 1400's and early 1500's was a firm believer in witchcraft, a fear that had come down from his own mother's fear of witches after she recalled to her son how she had met a witch that tried to murder her. Luther believed that all witches - regardless whether they were to be considered harmless or not, should be burned for making a deal with Satan - and even though there was discussion about the ineffectiveness of torture as a means of eliciting confession, brutal and barbaric torture was still inflicted on tens of thousands of women - it is said that his policies led to the deaths of over 20,000 persons, most of them women.
Witch mania literally swept through Europe - and humiliation of the body was one of the principle methods of an almost sexually focused torture - but it would be wrong to suggest this was just a terror inflicted on women; men and children were subject to such accusations and barbarisms, too.
As the middle ages turned to the ages of enlightenment things began to change, and by the Georgian and Victorian periods the idea of Witchcraft and witches had almost become romanticised; the figure of the witch becoming something linked to an almost pastoral idyl, and a rising wave of feminism began to explore the history of witchcraft through a new historical perspective ---- however that didn't stop those ancient fears transferring to a different set of peoples - those of the colonies.
With the rampant colonialism of the African states and South Americas, fears found a new home in the exoticism of 'strange and ungodly' practices in tribal communities, leading to a resurgence in interest and fascination in the 'dark arts' - and an outpouring of literature that saw explorers facing new supernatural frontiers and the embedding of voodoo in our European cultural rhetoric.
The turbulent events of the early twentieth century and the subsequent post-modern malaise led to a rapid emergence of alternative religions, cults and pseudo Messiah followings. The establishment of several powerful and influential 'religions' and organisations were founded, one of the most famous leaders being that of Aleister Crowley.
By the 1960's and 1970's, (Possibly correlating with the rise of more mainstream drug usage) and the 'Hippy movement' there were several churches of Satan established - adopting much of the paraphernalia of the traditional church, these soon became rich pickings for the many horror films that came out during that period.
I have always been fascinated by the history and representation of witches in both literature, folklore and social history. My series, 'The Meadowsweet Chronicles' explores many of the very different legends and folklore that have grown up around the idea of witches - and being a planned seven book series, plays with these legends on a global scale, as well as challenges many of the stereotypes that have grown up around these legends.
You can begin your journey alongside the Meadowsweet Sisters with Book 1 of the series, 'Witchcraft' which is currently free on all eBook platforms.
AMAZON US amazon.com/dp/B00NG5CLTE
AMAZON UK amazon.co.uk/dp/B00NG5CLTE