Alternate Title: Why cliched pointy hats and crooked noses have to go.
I would like to extend a special thank you to GLE and Warboar for educating me about this and providing resources to make this post possible.
Its normal for marginalized groups to try and reclaim things that have been used against them. You see this in countless cultures and subcultures such as the LGBTQ+ community reclaiming the word “queer” or pink triangles as a sign of pride, or using the term “tree hugger” by environmentalists, or the use of the word “bitch” by some women. This is not a new phenomenon by any means. It is something that is called reappropriation, and according to wikipedia it is:
the cultural process by which a group reclaims—re-appropriates—terms or artifacts that were previously used in a way disparaging of that group
And I think that this reappropriation has occurred within the Pagan/polytheist scene, too. We’re a relatively marginalized group within the US culture and there have been attempts to carve out an acceptable and respectable space for ourselves. Even use of the term “Pagan” is reappropriative, as the term “pagan” wasn’t always used with happy connotations.
In addition to reappropriating the word Pagan, I believe that many of us have tried to reappropriate what a witch looks like. In most modern media, witches aren’t represented in a great light. I mean, look at the Wizard of Oz. The Wicked Witch of the West is rendered as the villain and shown with green skin and less than ideal facial features. You’ve got Witchhazel in Donald Duck’s Trick or Treat, who doesn’t look much better. There is the witch in Snow White and Ursula is called a Sea Witch in the Little Mermaid.
Each of these women have something in common- they are rendered as ugly, evil, wearing dark clothing, and in most cases- they are wearing the standardized “witch’s uniform” of dark robes, pointed hats, and hooked noses (with warts!). You know the one:
I think many of us in the pagan and witchcraft communities see these images, and want to try and recraft the standard “witch” into something that is accepted- warts and all. However, the problem with reappropriating this imagery is that it’s not ours to reappropriate.
These stereotypical images of what a witch looks like are not based off of modern Pagans, or even off of witches in antiquity. These images are largely based off of anti-Semitic propaganda from the Middle Ages that has persisted into the modern era. Because these images are not tied to pagan “culture” or witches (past and present), we really have no place touching them or reappropriating them into our modern Pagan culture. Because they don’t belong to us, when you dress up like this (or dress your kids up like this) you are, in fact, perpetuating anti-Semitism.
To give some perspective on this, Pagans trying to reclaim the witch’s getup would be the same as non-LGBTQ+ people trying to reappropriate the pink triangles mentioned above. These triangles do not play a role in their history, and they have no claim on the symbol, and therefore, no right in trying to reappropriate it. Same goes for modern Pagans and the witch’s uniform.
The History of the “Witch’s Uniform”
Please note: the sheer volume of information on how anti-Semitism got its start in the Medieval era is way more than I can cover in one blog post, so consider this a very very short walk through on some of the major points of history during this time. If you are interested in learning more, please check out the links below.
It can be difficult to track down exactly how or where the standard “iconic” witch came from. Based off of what I have seen, it appears as though things shifted gradually over time, and many small pieces added up together to make the standardized “iconic witch” mentioned above. To start piecing how all of this happened, you have to go back to the 1200’s to see when some of the first changes were enacted.
One of the initial things that the Jewish people underwent in Europe was the wearing of special garments to denote that they were, in fact, Jews. There were badges, belts, and hats that were implemented over the course of history. These hats became the basis for the witches hat that we all know today:
According to Robert Wistrich:
In fact, the literal understanding of horns in the Psalter inspired the horned hat (pileum cornutum) that Jews were forced to wear from the thirteenth century on. It too began to appear in art in the ninth century and is visually derived from late versions of the Magi’s hats and from the Phrygian caps worn be deniers of Christ in the Stuttgart Psalter. These hats vary in form but have one thing in common: a single point or hump which simultaneously covers and calls attention to the horn the Jew was believed to have. That these hats denote an identification with the devil is shown in thirteenth century illuminations in which there is no clear differentiation between a demon’s single horn and pointed hats. By revealing the horn the Jews skillfully hide, these pointed hats acted as a mark of Cain. (pg 55-56)
As well as:
While continuing their role as Christ’s torturers and deniers, from the thirteenth century on they also appear – identified by the Jew’s hat – as Apocalyptic riders, false prophets, worshipers of Antichrist, and companions of the heretics in Hell. In such works, Antichrist, demons, apocalyptic killers, heretics, and Jews often have hooked noses. This originally demonic feature became associated specifically with Jews by the thirteenth century, and has remained an accepted stereotype to this day. (pg 53)
During this time frame, there were many changes made to art and other religious iconography that were made to demonize and dehumanize Jewish people. This included adding horns to Jewish Biblical figures such as Moses and David.
Many of these dehumanizing actions came to a head during the Inquisition during the 1600’s and 1700’s. According to an excerpt from Stephen Haliczer:
During the fourteenth century, with the breakdown of the old toleration that had permitted Christian, Jew, and Moslem to live side by side in relative harmony, the Jew became more and more identified as the chief enemy of Christianity. By the time of the Cortes of Toro in 1371, the Jews were described as “rash and evil men, who sow corruption with impunity so that the greater part of our kingdom is ruined by them in contempt of Christians and the Catholic faith.” […]
By the 1380s the weakened condition of the Jewish communities and the relativistic philosophy then popular among Jewish intellectuals were producing numerous conversions. After the rioting of 1391, Jews converted en masse, led by their rabbis, and from then on Spain’s Jewish communities became smaller and more impoverished while the converted Jews grew in numbers, wealth, and political importance. By the middle of the fifteenth century, however, resentment of the conversos was giving rise to a polemical literature that rejected the possibility of their true conversion to Christianity and blamed them for all the crimes normally attributed to Jews. The most interesting and important of these writings was the Fortalitium Fidei (Fortress of the Faith) by the Franciscan Alonso de Espina, first published in 1460. The work is divided into four volumes, each dedicated to describing the iniquity of one of the four chief enemies of the Catholic faith: heretics, Muslims, Jews, and demons. For Espina, Jews and converts did not exist as a separate category; there were only “public Jews and secret Jews.” Since conversos were secret Jews, they were naturally guilty of all the offenses traditionally attributed to Jews by European folk tradition, including profanation of Hosts and the murder of Christian children and the use of their blood or body parts in religious rituals. According to Espina, Jewish law, which is equally binding on both Jews and converts, commands the destruction of Christians and Christianity, which they actively strive to accomplish by starting fires, poisoning wells, and doing other evil deeds.
It was left to the Spanish Inquisition, however, to officialize medieval demonological myths about Jews and apply them to Jewish converts to Christianity in such a way as to keep alive the flames of Spanish anti-Semitism long after the expulsion of the Jews themselves. This process began with the case of the so-called Holy Child (Santo Niño) of La Guardia when both Jews and converts were accused of working together to commit a crime of unimaginable horror which threatened the very existence of Christian Spain. So successful were the inquisitors in this that the La Guardia case served to create in the public imagination a kind of bogyman, a larger-than-life image of the Jew/converso who was at once child murderer, blood sucker, rebel, and demonic sorcerer who sought to reverse the divinely established order of things by destroying Christianity so that, according to Licenciado Vegas, the Holy Child’s first chronicler, the Jews “would become the absolute lords of the earth.”
Just by examining these few texts alone, it is easy to see how everything comes together. The Jews were forced to wear different clothing, which mirrors the typical “witches clothing” that we envision now. The hooked nose became synonymous with Jewish people, and was utilized as a means to demean Jewish people. And the Jews were often cited as stealing and killing children, as well as poisoning people and performing witchcraft, which likely explains the green skin witches are “attested” to have.
All of these symbolic items were meant to demonize Jews, and they have persisted into the modern era, albeit detached (to an extent) from the original meaning behind these symbols.
What does this mean for Pagans?
There are plenty of posts out there that talk about eradicating things like racism, ableism and sexism in our community, however I have seen very little about eradicating anti-Semitism. From my perspective, the fact that the iconic witch is anti-Semitic should be reason enough to no longer utilize those items in any capacity, because to continue to ignore the anti-Semitic origins of the witch’s uniform would be the equivalent of continuing the oppression of a group of people.
However, there do seem to be certain groups of people who believe that Jews are somehow immune to things like oppression or bigotry. I would like to completely smash that idea to pieces, if possible, by reminding everyone who is reading this post that anti-Semitism is on the rise, and is a huge problem in multiple countries across the world. Anti-Semitism didn’t die with Hitler and the end of World War II. Anti-Semitism is not something of the past that no longer exists. It still exists in the here and now and is something we should be fighting to eradicate.
So, in other words, if something like this bothers you:
Then this should bother you, too:
Because both are perpetuating oppression of a group of people.
So how do we remedy this situation?
I think the first thing that we should do is to simply stop utilizing the stereotypical witch’s trope. Remember that it’s not ours to reclaim. Find other ways to express your witchiness, if that’s something you enjoy doing. Find other ways to express yourself and your practices that doesn’t rely on imagery that has been used to oppress people. Stopping the usage of pointy hats and crooked noses probably doesn’t seem like much, but its the small things that add up to larger things in the long run. And no longer utilizing these symbols is an easy step that we can all take.
From there, look into other ways to support the Jewish community. Raise awareness about anti-Semitism that occurs in our community, and remember not to speak for Jews, but instead to help their voices be heard. Remember that this isn’t about us as witches, but about Jewish people who have been experiencing oppression for centuries now.
If anyone has any other links relevant to this topic, please let me know so I can add them below.
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