Witches are usually relegated to the realm of fairy tales and sometimes explained as the manifestation of subconscious fears. They populate picture books, appear in fantasy-based films and television series, and their stereotypical features inspire Halloween costumes.
But history provides numerous accounts of real witches. These were flesh-and-blood women who either seriously practised magic and believed in its efficacy, identified as witches or, perhaps more fascinating, enacted certain stereotypical behaviours that, whether they liked it or not, aligned them with the frightening witches of fairy tales.
A distinction must be made here between the stereotype and contemporary women who may identify as witches within Wicca or Neo-Pagan traditions. It’s not Wiccans who are the focus, but women who have historically been linked to – willingly or otherwise – warty, black-clad, potion-making deviants.
Australia’s own self-proclaimed witch, Rosaleen Norton (1917-1979), embraced the stereotype to express her powerful, innate and lived experience as an occult practitioner. Norton, a devotee of the Greek god Pan, and esoteric artist, practised rituals frequently defined as Satanic by a hostile public and mass media.
She regularly retaliated by donning the witch’s stereotypical garb and hamming it up for a performance of provocation.
Was she a real witch? A real living, breathing witch from the pages of fairy tales? Many aspects of her life, her beliefs and appearance suggest so.
Going back in time and relocating to another continent, there’s Ursula Southeil (c. 1488-1561), better known as Mother Shipton. Here’s a woman whose connections to the witch stereotype rival those of Rosaleen Norton. While Norton claimed to have been born amid a wild storm, Shipton was said to have been born in a cave (now known as Mother Shipton’s Cave, in Knaresboroug, Yorkshire).
Mother Shipton allegedly possessed all the hallmarks of a witch. In a chapbook attributed to Richard Head (1684), she was described as possessing a frightening appearance, with fiery eyes, a huge nose, warts and a crooked body.
And, as befitting the stereotype, she was apparently a soothsayer par excellence. In the transmission of predictions attributed to her, however, numerous corruptions, forgeries and interpolations make it difficult to determine her apparent skills in this respect. Indeed, some folklorists nowadays doubt her very existence.
While these two witches look the part, neither of them were particularly nasty, merciless and unscrupulous manifestations of femininity.
Witches of America
Traversing continents once more, our last two case studies come from the United States. One is the well-known, historical figure, Tituba and the other, a contemporary woman who is far more frightening.
Tituba was a major presence during the infamous Salem Witch Trials (1692). She was brought to Salem from Barbados and became a slave in the house of Samuel Parris (1653-1720), the future Puritan minister at the centre of the witch hysteria and father of one of the frenzied girls, Betty, whose behaviour ignited the accusations.
Tituba was accused of being a witch after she was involved in making a “witch cake”. Made of rye meal and the urine of those believed to be bewitched, such cakes were fed to animals to detect signs of demonic possession (consuming the essence of a suspected victim of possession, the animal would exhibit certain responses).
Additional evidence of Tituba’s alleged sorcery was apparently proffered by Betty Parris and her cousin, Abigail Williams. And while legends abound of Tituba’s fortune-telling and other occult practices, the most damning evidence against her was her outsider status – she was despised as a slave and regarded as racially inferior. She is the stereotypical witch as the exotic and uncanny other. Unlike many of her fellow-accused, Tituba was not executed. After a short time in prison, she was released and disappeared from history.
Evil in witch form
Like Norton and Mother Shipton, Tituba may well have been an occultist who possessed some stereotypical characteristics of the witch but she was not evil.
Perhaps this notorious trait of the stereotypical witch is most powerfully illustrated by a recent news report from Oklahoma. The report details the abuse of several children at the hands of a witch called Nelda.
Nelda allegedly had help from ghosts and goblins that lived in an attic and an equally evil flesh-and-blood creature who called himself “Crew Crow”. Nelda wore a black witch’s hat, a wig, a mask and a cape. She threatened to eat bad children and, with the help of Crew Crow, would mete out severe physical and emotional punishments.
When authorities initially investigated the accusations against Nelda and Crew Crow, their neighbours were emphatically credulous. Surely these are the wild tales of mischievous children? Surely Nelda and Crew Crow are nothing more than overactive imaginations?
However, the malnourished, bruised and unkempt taletellers were victims of their own grandmother, Geneva Robinson and her partner, Joshua Granger.
In a case described by a reporter as a storybook nightmare, Geneva Robinson was indeed Nelda and Joshua Granger was Crew Crow. A witch’s costume and related paraphernalia were found inside the Oklahoma house.
There is both criminal genius and wicked stupidity in the creation of Nelda and Crew Crow. The former is evidenced by the adoption of a persona traditionally, and perhaps unwisely, relegated to fairy tales, which ensured the abuse was initially disbelieved by some. The latter is seen in underestimating the willingness of others to listen to the stories of children, even if that meant suspending disbelief.
While Tituba escaped prison, it seems that Nelda and Crew Crow will not escape justice.
This article is part of The Conversation’s Religion + Mythology series.