The use and abuse of ‘the witch’ in contemporary culture

Sheilagh O’Brien considers how the idea of the wicked witch continues to be mobilised to malign women in politics during the twenty-first century.

The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) in the MGM feature film The Wizard of Oz (1939).

If you type the name of a leading female politician into a search engine alongside the word ‘witch,’ a surprising number of hits will emerge. Some may recall the cackles (pun intended) of ‘Ding Dong (the witch is dead),’ the famous tune from the popular film The Wizard of Oz (1939), following the death of Margaret Thatcher. But Thatcher wasn’t the first woman or the first politician accused of witchcraft. We need only think of Joan of Arc or Johannes Junius, a man who has left to posterity a letter detailing how he went from Mayor of Bamberg to being burned at the stake for witchcraft in seventeenth-century Germany.

Australians will recall ‘Ditch the Witch,’ the epithet directed at Prime Minister Julia Gillard during a 2011 No Carbon Tax Rally outside Parliament House. Observers of the recent American and British elections in 2016 and 2017 will see that both female candidates, Hillary Clinton and Teresa May, received remarkably similar witchy makeovers into the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West.

Angela Merkel has received some similar treatment, including one particularly bizarre 2016 cartoon which shows her tossing the Bundesadler (German Eagle) into a cauldron beneath the European Union stars and before a line of Catholic clergy. Presumably this is related to the conspiracy theory that the European Union is a Roman Catholic-driven attempt at world domination and devil worship which strips the good protestant European man of power and godliness.

But please don’t search for any of this online – it is a rabbit-hole of perpetual darkness that may have a bad effect on your mental equilibrium.

Wicked Women, Wicked Witches

What all these images have in common is the idea that women who seek or have political power are not to be trusted because they are fundamentally dangerous, deceitful, and diabolical. Their political platforms vary wildly, but it isn’t their policies – or even their public appearances or statements – upon which these images fixate.

Instead, they focus on the image of the witch within a very particular, theatrical interpretation – and often this interpretation is the wicked witch as depicted in the film The Wizard of Oz.

‘The Witch’s Threat,’ by William Stout, 1999. Image via Tom Simpson, Flickr.

Witchcraft functioned in medieval and early modern society as the ultimate political smear. The accusation was often impossible to escape, and for women it could be a dangerous crime of which to be accused. Its continued use as an epithet represents, I believe, the embedding of a particularly violent and virulent strain of misogyny in our culture, one that seems difficult to escape even today. To name just two, women such as Joan of Arc and Anne Boleyn had the accusation tacked onto their trials as much because it blackened their reputation as because they were generally or genuinely believed to be sorcerers. Witchcraft accusations at court almost always involved sex and power – particularly the possibility of access to or influence over the reigning monarch.

I am currently working on a chapter about witchcraft in Game of Thrones for a book about the television series, and I find myself pondering the strange way in which the ‘witch’ as a figure so often appears in political debates involving female influence or power. This sometimes even extends to the problematic nature of feminine or feminised men in similar positions. From Anne Boleyn to Hillary Clinton, women seeking political power and influence have been cast as wicked women. Strange desires for power seem, to their accusers, to represent a wholly unnatural and diabolic version of womanhood.

Mora witch trial, Sweden, 1670. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In a recent piece in the London Review of Books, classicist Mary Beard describes the ancient and deep-seated roots of our fear of female power, female rule, and female desire. How does this relate to witches specifically? In spite of seeking answers throughout my postgraduate studies, I am still wondering about what it is that we truly fear about the witch. I can give you an academic answer rooted in gender theory and based on the ideas I see in early modern texts about male (and female) concerns over female sexuality, female power, and the susceptibility of women to the Devil, yet I am unsatisfied by those answers, and most perturbed when I see it happening in the present – particularly to women who seek or have political power.

Nor are these the only problematic uses of the history of witch persecution in our modern media culture. Often the terms ‘witch’ or ‘witch-hunt’ are used recklessly by those who have no reason to fear actual violent deaths at the hands of witchfinders or the Inquisition. Indeed those who most often claim they are the victims of witch-hunts – for example, Donald Trump – are amongst the most powerful and privileged in our society. Alternatively, some people who label themselves witches claim to be part of a heritage that was invented (as so many other traditions were) during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

What, then, to make of an author who decries the ‘subversion’ of the image of the witch for commercial gain? In her new book Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive (2017), Kristen J. Sollee argues, somewhat problematically, that all the women and men accused of witchcraft were inherently witches, feminists, and rebels. But what stood out was her belief that her ‘identity’ has been commercialised. After all, such an image was itself invented for commercial gain around the same time new age pagan and wiccan traditions were evolving. I have nothing against self-proclaimed witches, but I am often perturbed by their failure to grasp that the overwhelming majority of those killed for witchcraft never did the things to which they confessed. Their supposed rebelliousness was similarly a figment of the fearful imaginations of their prosecutors.

In fact, let me be clear about something important: Joan of Arc wasn’t a witch. Nor was Anne Boleyn, Julia Gillard, Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Theresa May, or anyone else so smeared because they entered the political fray. Nor were the many thousands of other women and men, rich and influential or poor and desperate, who were accused falsely of diabolism and maleficium in Europe in the medieval and early modern period. Were there cunning-folk or practises of folk medicine or superstitious practisers caught up in the witch trials? Yes. But they were not the majority, who were merely victims of misfortune in the community and of fearful persecution by the authorities.

Following epithets such as ‘Nasty Woman,’ the the figure of the witch was re-appropriated at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. Photograph by Mike Maguire. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Nor are those who still face everything from being ostracised to brutal deaths as a result of the word witch being recklessly used against them in communities from South America to Africa, the Middle East, South-East Asia, and across the Pacific. Communal misfortunes like unexplained illness and death still play a horrific role in turning people – mostly women forced to the margins of society by socio-economic strain – into targets of their neighbour’s wrath.

When we use, even for comic purposes, the witch trope against female politicians we are buying into a set of beliefs about women’s fundamental nature: the suggestion that women should not seek power. We are claiming that women who do are dangerous and diabolic, that they should be feared, cast out, destroyed – usually violently. I don’t know any quick answer to this ongoing strain of hatred towards women, or the disproportionate desire to blame them for what goes wrong in our society. But I do think the more we discuss it, the better educated we all are in spotting it when it occurs in the world around us. Then we only need the courage to call out when we see that kind of rhetoric being used, especially by our own side of the political spectrum – always easier to do in your mind than it is in real life.

And if you need further encouragement, I suggest you read the letter Johannes Junius wrote to his daughter on the eve of his execution in 1628. Johannes described how the progressively more violent torture led him not only to confess, but to name others from his town as witches, writing in part:

Many hundred thousand good-nights, dearly beloved daughter Veronica. Innocent have I come into prison, innocent have I been tortured, innocent must I die. For whoever comes into the witch prison must become a witch or be tortured until he invents something out of his head and – God pity him – bethinks him of something[.]

Good night, for your father Johannes Junius will never see you more. […] Dear child, six have confessed against me at once: the Chancellor, his son, Neudecker, Zaner, Hoffmaisters Ursel, and Hoppfen Elss – all false, through compulsion, as they have all told me, and begged my forgiveness in God’s name before they were executed.

They know nothing but good of me. They were forced to say it, just as I myself was[.]


Original: Sheilagh O’Brien, ‘The Politics of Witchcraft Accusation,’ Enchanted History, July 1, 2017.

Listen to Sheilagh O’Brien’s ABC Radio’s Nightlife interview with Cassie McCullagh.


Sheilagh Ilona O’Brien was recently awarded her Doctorate in early modern history at The University of Queensland. Her Ph.D. thesis investigated witchcraft and diabolism in early modern England. Prior to her doctoral studies she completed a Masters in International Studies (Peace & Conflict Resolution), with a thesis on the failure of international responses to the Rwandan genocide. Sheilagh holds a Bachelor of Arts (History, Hons I) with an honours thesis on the religious and cultural underpinnings of Afrikaner nationalism in the early twentieth century.

Follow Sheilagh on Twitter @SheilaghIlona.

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