The perception of witches and witchcraft has changed immensely over time, becoming more glamorized in popular culture — yet it wasn’t always this way. When looking at witches through traditional folklore, a much different picture is painted. There are no teen witches traipsing through mystical towns with vampires or teen witches learning to cope with their magical powers through the ups and downs of their high school years. Instead, witches were viewed as evil entities whose purpose was to destroy mankind.
Traditional folklore often portrays witches as evil old women, usually trying to cause harm to others. If you think about the Grimm Brothers’ fairytales, all the witches were awful; some even ate children! And then even in our Disney favorites, based off of traditional fairytales, we see witches portrayed in a negative light. We have Ursula the Sea Witch, the Evil Queen in Snow White, Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty: all women who demonstrate some kind of mystical powers to do harm. This negative image of witches is likely related to the association of witches with Satanism, a belief that dates back to somewhere around the 15th century.
It’s impossible to talk about witchcraft without mentioning the infamous Salem Witch Trials. This was a period of hysteria caused by deep-rooted religious beliefs as well as the lack of understanding of medicines and sickness. Soon, accusations were thrown, and the most defenseless women were often targeted: slaves, the poor, the old, and anyone who did not regularly attend church. Many were brought up on charges of witchcraft — often blamed for bewitching someone who had become suddenly ill — and were executed by hanging or burning at the stake.
The idea of religious control over a population was in full force. Religion portrayed witches as the workers of the devil, so they needed to be purged from the group. Ultimately, it was an attempt to keep people devout to the church and to settle down the men who feared the increasing power and knowledge among women (especially unmarried ones). The 1953 play The Crucible by Arthur Miller is a wonderful example of a somewhat fictional story about the events that occurred in this time; the finger pointing and the betrayal that occurred was unimaginable.
However, witches today are portrayed in a much different light. Wiccans are recognized as a religious group not synonymous with Satanism, and witches are often seen as the embodiment of the female spirit. We see time and time again in popular movies and television shows that good witches exist. The earliest example I can think of is Bewitched in the late ’60s. It was a positive portrayal of a witch who wasn’t the typical old crone and who was married to a mortal; even the warlocks weren’t evil! Since then we have seen a turn in how witches are portrayed in popular culture.
Now, we see strong female characters emerge in some of our favorite movies and shows, and we want to be them: Sabrina, the Teenage Witch; the women of Harry Potter; the cast of Charmed; Willow from Buffy. We aren’t afraid of their mystical abilities. Instead, we admire their strength; we look up to these women. Witches are rising up again in a more powerful and positive light than they’ve ever been portrayed before.