Witches – an icon or a threat?

With the Enlightenment, the image of witches also changed. The witch has become an icon of modern paganism, an inspiration to artists and independent women. The book “Witchcraft” is now published in the Pocket Editor’s “Library of Esoterica”. With countless illustrations and illuminating texts.

The work was written by Pam Grossmann. You and Jessica Hundley, editor of the Library of Esoterica, call yourself witches in the prefaces. Potsdam cultural scientist Katharina Rein took a closer look at the book. And has mixed feelings: On the one hand, it is very pleasant to see so many artistic works brought together on the theme of witchcraft. “It is of course a great treasure.”

The Strong Witch’s Tale

At the same time, however, she also felt the book was very programmatic, Rein says. It is very focused on the narrative that the witch has become a symbol of female power and self-determination. “It’s fading out a bit too much for it not to be entirely without a problem.”

It is not for nothing that the book places a strong emphasis on the 20th century. The romanticization of the witch figure in art, literature and poetry began around nineteen hundred, says Rein. The book tries to emphasize the positive portrayal and tick the negative things to the side.

Threat or powerful woman?

In fact, witchcraft can also be read as feminist. It is important to distinguish between external description and self-description.

“In the external description it is (the witch, editor’s note) a rather negative term,” says Rein. He defends excess, sin and irrepressible sexuality, perceived as threatening. It is not for nothing that it is often men who persecute witches: “Their own sexuality is demonized, and the woman is blamed for it.

In the case of self-description, it is the opposite: the irrepressible woman with liberated sexuality does what she wants. “He stands outside the community, is individual and stubborn.” Witchcraft is the instrument for this.

Circe offers the cup to Ulysses, here played by John William Waterhouse. © photo alliance / Bildagentur-online / UIG

According to Rein, the witch is a “rocking figure”: depending on the perspective, a threat or a powerful woman who has her own life under control.

No history-conscious reassessment

A typical representation in art is the drawing “The Witch” by Italian designer Salvator Rosa, which was created during the height of the witch hunt during the Thirty Years’ War. The witches were then blamed for the economic hardship, Rein says. The typical representation is that of the isolated, poor, half-naked woman.

In this regard, the book is not very historical: “Both sexes were victims of the witch hunt,” says Rein. Although it actually mainly affects women, but also men. And there were regional differences.

Scenes that seem threatening: the portrait of witches by Salvator Rosa. © photo alliance / Héritage-Images

The cultural scientist believes that the portrayal of witches is also not very differentiated in pop culture. There is a division between good and bad witches. Overall, male protagonists dominated, fighting for important things like power, while women were more likely to appear as sidekicks.

Despite the reviews, Rein considers the book to be a very beautiful illustrated book that is worthwhile for anyone interested in witchcraft, especially for its portrayal in art. You also learn a lot about witchcraft, but more in an esoteric sense, says Rein.

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