October 25, 2017

Witches in Print

Or How the Patriarchy Weaponized the Printing Press to Silence Independent Women

Though definitions of witchcraft and superstition vary through civilizations and evolve through the passage of time, there is no culture that does not contain within it some form of magic. Magic is found everywhere, from early Babylonian texts, Pre-Columbian Mexican murals, and Greco-Roman ruins to Brahmin astrology, the shamanism of Korea, Siberia, Africa and Australia, and the writings of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Sometimes, prayer and magic are indistinguishable. Likewise, in Europe until the Middle Ages, it was extremely difficult to differentiate between magic and medicine. Lay healers of all genders often worked in isolated communities, creating herbal remedies, consulting astrology and other magical means as a way of diagnosing and treating illness, and creating amulets and protection against harmful, unexplainable forces.

In the 15th century, however, the European church made a concentrated effort to outline what types of magic were acceptable and to punish those who did not follow its mandates. The printing press, invented around 1440, dramatically changed the way by which literate populations were able to circulate information. Though the early presses were typically used for text, many books contained reproductions of drawings or prints, which allowed a greater audience access to information. The church and those in power made expert use of the printing press, weaponizing it to disseminate propaganda that declared magic and witchcraft inherently evil. With the intent of identifying and punishing women who did not submit to their will, then the church used reproducible media to associate independent women with witchcraft, regardless of their actual experience with magic. As described in Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, “The witch-craze took different forms at different times and places, but never lost its essential character: that of a ruling class campaign of terror directed against the female peasant population. Witches represented a political, religious and sexual threat to the Protestant and Catholic churches alike, as well as to the state.” From their very inception, witch hunts were organized, initiated, financed, and executed by the church and state in an attempt to control women and much of the imagery was disseminated through the mass production made possible through the printing press.

Usually translated from Latin as Hammer of Witches, the Malleus Maleficarum was a widely read treatise on witchcraft, written by two Dominican inquisitors wherein sorcery and witchcraft were elevated to the criminal status of heresy and therefore punishable by death. Where previously all genders were considered to be plausibly involved in magical practices, the Malleus Maleficarum draws a definitive link between witchcraft and women, citing women’s inability to control their emotions and feelings, especially those of a sexual nature. The text states that “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil” and “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable.” The text also emphasized a connection between witches and the devil and outlined identification, torture, and punishment techniques.

Published shortly after the Malleus MaleficarumDe Lamiis et Pythonicis Mulieribus, translated to On Witches and Female Soothsayers, was the first illustrated treatise on witchcraft. The treatise discussed the many powers of witches and their relationships with numerous demons and stated that witches were able to assume animal forms, often choosing forms the devil was fond of, like goats which represented lust, or wolves that spread terror throughout the countryside. The ability to change shape and form made witches much less human and much more like demons themselves. Animal “familiars” were also frequently depicted alongside witches. Perhaps because both witches and cats can never be domesticated or fully tamed – which makes them willful and therefore dangerous in the eyes of authority – black cats were regarded as demons incarnate and linked to witches, a trope that continues to this day. Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s woodcut, printed in 1845 in Japan, where woodblock printed books were made as early as the eighth century, depicts the then widely held belief that if a girl visited a temple alone at night, she risked running into a witch who had taken the form of a cat or was disguised as an innocuous old woman. Another witch-hunting manual, Compendium Maleficarum, gives detailed descriptions of witches’ powers and pacts with the devil and included an illustration of a witch honouring the devil by kissing his posterior – the osculum infame, also called the “kiss of shame,” because it was regarded as an act of abasement.

Frequently nude, witches were commonly depicted in one of two ways. Monstrous, old, shrieking hags and crones performed spells surrounded by evil forces and existed in full contradiction to honourable society, while beautiful seductive temptresses, full of potential treachery and intent on bewitching, misled proper and honest men. Both were depicted as dangerous to the established, the church decreed, patriarchal order. The Sabbath was depicted as a continuation of bacchanalia, a gloomy and terrifying setting where witches degraded themselves with demons and the devil. The use of the Sabbath, or ritual gathering of witches, in illustrations was an attempt to discourage groups of women from gathering en masse. Cauldrons, previously used to make medicinal concoctions or food, were then used for evil “unguents” that allow witches to fly. Nudity and sex were used to create the image of the witch as carnal and immoral.  In “Linda Maestra,” an old witch transports a prostitute on her broom. Goya includes an owl (the world for an owl, búho, was slang for prostitute) to ensure there was no questioning the correlation between the “sinful” prostitute and the witch. “The Church associated women with sex, and all pleasure in sex was condemned, because it could only come from the devil. Witches were supposed to have gotten pleasure from copulation with the devil (despite the icy-cold organ he was reputed to possess) and they, in turn, infected men. Lust in either man or wife, then, was blamed on the female. On the other hand, witches were accused of making men impotent and of causing their penises to disappear.”

In addition to depicting witches engaged in debaucherous and evil affairs, illustrations of their punishments were also widespread, showing women being tortured, hung, and burned at the stake. Women, and occasionally men, would be charged with witchcraft for a variety of church-determined digressions, including political subversion, blasphemy, or lewdness. The images of those being punished sent a clear message – anyone, regardless of their knowledge or participation in witchcraft, who does not follow the rules outlined by the church is in danger of being punished or killed. Eventually, the powers of the church waned and changes in laws and perspectives led to a decrease in the frequency of witch trials and executions.

As memories of witch hunts and executions began to fade and printing presses became more accessible to a larger range of communities, so did the diversity of images of witches. While José Guadalupe Posada’s “Oraculo Mignon” follows in the traditional witch imagery of the past, complete with cat, owl, and cauldron, his witch adorns the front of a leaflet for astrology readings based on the date of a child’s birth. She is an essential oracle, not a symbol of carnal lust. Similarly, the witches depicted on early 20th century postcards reference the dangerous temptress witches of the past, but take on new meaning when purchased and sent by women as symbols of feminine power.

Unsurprisingly, when women began to have reliable access to printing presses, depictions of witches became more complex and often reflective of real life. Unlike the familiar owls and cats used by Goya and Kuniyoshi which were meant to embody sinful behaviour, Pitseolak Ashoona, who often features birds in her work, is likely representing the positive attributes of a shaman’s spirit helper in “The Shaman’s Wife.” In her ‘Silueta’ series, Ana Mendieta documents the use of her physical body to create impressions in the landscape that reference her childhood experiences with Santeria. Belkis Ayón’s prints focus on the mythology of Abakuá, a secret, exclusively male Afro-Cuban association which has very few visual representations, allowing her the freedom to create her own interpretations.

In her “Warrior Women Wizards: Mystical Magical Mysteries” series Robin Holder channels past priestesses, wise men, medicine women and seers as guides. Stanya Kahn’s printed books use undefined cosmic space to discuss patriarchy, where power lies, and where it comes from.  A proponent of social justice, the anonymous activist group WITCH PDX has distributed their zine online in the form of a free download.

Despite the efforts of the church and state to utilize the printing press to silence those who they viewed as rebellious and therefore dangerous to the established order, the figure of the witch continues to represent empowerment in direct contrast with socially constructed, traditional gender roles. Hundreds of years of treatises, witch hunts, and executions have solidified the figure of the witch as a powerful, independent force, valued for wisdom and fortitude rather than submission. Though no longer the most efficient way of disseminating information, the printing press remains a formidable, and now far more equitable, method of recording history. Appropriately, it is perhaps the outrage from centuries of patriarchal depictions of witches, written and illustrated by the men who ruled the cities and wrote the history, that has in part generated the current increase in visibility and representation of the many different types of witches in reproducible media and printed culture.

  1. Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1973
  2. There have been and continue to be witch hunts and executions throughout the world. In the early seventeenth century, witch trials in Columbia resulted in the deaths of many Afro-Caribbean women, and many slaves brought to the Americas who held African beliefs and folk magic customs were murdered for those practices. This article is limited in that it focuses directly on mass-produced depictions of women engaging in witchcraft as a result of the printing press, which affected Europe beginning in the 15th century. Though printing presses travelled outside the European continent early on, they were often owned and operated by Europeans, and imperialist and colonialist depictions of magical practices have been intentionally not included.
  3. Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1973


All contributions and bequests are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by federal and state law. The Women’s Museum of California is a 501(c)(3) non-profit charitable corporation. Tax ID is 95-3893212.

This Page is Coming Soon

We are in the process of re-designing our website.
Thank you for your patience.