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The Witches Hat

Samhain Greetings to you all! Today we have the second instalment of Nell's wonderful blog series.


The Witches Hat.


Those of you who did not grow up in Blighty, or who were born after the death of Elvis may not recognise this picture.

It is a Witches Hat, one of the scariest, most exciting, and deathly dangerous of all the many forms of playground equipment which were banned in the course of the 1980’s. This was a period during which the realisation slowly dawned that small children, high velocities and concrete surfaces were not such a good mix. Needless to say, you couldn’t get me off the things. I fell off repeatedly, I also threw myself off, as I did with swings, slides, those manic roundabout things, even the tandem rocking horse. This sort of thing was considered as a mark of valour and a character-building challenge to which one could only rise with honour or sink with shame in the playgrounds of the early Thatcher years. I draw attention to the Witches Hat to illustrate just how ingrained this symbolic shape is. The playground equipment was actually patented as ‘The Ocean Wave’ when it was invented in the early Twentieth Century, but even the campaign to have it re-instituted refers to it as ‘The Witches Hat’. The real ‘Witches’ Hat is a bit of a contentious issue. Its important to bear in mind that even the things we think of as iconic and immoveable are innovations, the Green Skinned Wicked Witch of the West was a victim of technological change just as much as Dorothy’s Slippers: changed from Silver to Ruby, which just looked so much better in Glorious Technicolour. The real or imagined antiquity of a tradition has a bizarre moral force. Things aren’t really hallowed by time, if they were then slavery, domestic violence and stoning would all be considered sacred. In fact all three have been supported by arguments of ‘time immemorial’, Biblical Authority and indeed legal precedent. Rather than recycle claims about pointy hats and ancient magical practices, in this post I’d like to briefly examine the how the symbolic importance of the Hat evolved in print.


In discussing the symbolic value of the Witches Hat there is no better place to start than with a quote concerning one of my favourite Witches, Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax, from her apprentice Esk: ‘It’s a Witches hat because you wear it. But you’re a Witch because you wear the hat’. Granny, whose combination of headology and herbology makes her a woman after my own heart, invests heavily in her costume. Looking the part is essential to the ‘Headology’, which lends efficacy to her Craft. Another of Pratchett’s Witches the ancient Eumenides Treason orders fancy dress accoutrements and interior decor from the Boffo Novelty and Joke Emporium. Her apprentice adopts the name ‘Boffo’ as the term for ‘putting on a show’. Like Granny, Mother Treason employs Boffo to inspire the appropriate respect for herself and her Witchery and to activate the powers of both expectation and suggestion, all essential aspects of Headology. Granny wears her Hat in public, not in the forest. She wears it to be seen, this is real power dressing, albeit without the big hair and shoulder pads.


The point is, if you’ll pardon the pun, Hats are extremely visible, some of them quite literally eyecatching, especially tall pointy ones, which lends a great deal of power to their symbolic use, and their role as easily identified marks of status. In the era of Westerns the Black Hat and White Hat of the Cowboys performed this function, a trope which has now crossed over to differentiate different types of computer Hackers. The status which a Hat marks can vary however. The alleged Heretics prosecuted by the Spanish Inquistion were made to wear paper Capirotes, at the highly public ceremonies, the ‘Auto de Fe’, which sealed their fate. Red hats were worn by those sentenced to death, whereas penitents and other criminals wore Hats of different colours. In an interesting twist, Silk versions of these are still worn by the Penitent Orders in Catholic Countries.


As in this picture, different colour denote different Penitential organizations.

They are worn so they don’t draw attention to themselves, apparently. Ironically, these are colourful versions of the sort of robes and headgear now more readily associated with the notoriously anti-Catholic Klu Klux Klan. The visible power of the Hat is obvious, even when it is worn for the purposes of anonymity.


Goya’s painting ‘The Witches Flight’ completed in 1798, clearly draws on the notion of the Witch or indeed Wizard, as Heretic, they all wear the Capirote as they devour their victim mid-air.

But this painting is generally understood to be a critical judgement on the ritual violence and superstition of an earlier period, it was not intended to be a portrait of reality. In a similar vein the produce of the popular press in the Eighteenth Centuries was probably the as important a contribution to the image of the Witch’s Hat as that of the Seventeenth Century was to the Witch Hunts themselves. The expansion of the printing press fed the popular appetite for appetite for news and sensation. Written in tones from extreme scepticism to a National Enquirer type credulity these covered all manner of strange occurrences, monstrous births, and aberrant crimes. Sandra Clark argue sin her book on Elizabethan Pamphleteers that Witchcraft made particularly good pamphlet fodder since the accounts could be at once informative, entertaining, and sensational. There were many illustrations of Witches and their nefarious goings on, with the Devil, their familiars and their acts of Maleficia, can be seen from these images from 1493, 1612 and 1643.

















I am sure you will all have noticed that there is not a pointy hat amongst them. They all have their heads covered though, unlike this 1510 Woodcut of Hans Buldung Grien, an example of the more salacious Sabbat images which were developed as a new iconography of Witchcraft through the course of Sixteenth Century Germany.

These were images specially crafted to suggest the Witch as inverting all the forms of behaviour proper to the pious Christian woman, as such their unbound flowing locks are as much as sign that the ladies are up to no good as their nakedness and the presence of skulls and cauldrons. It is very important to remember that no decent, or indeed indecent, Woman would be seen dead beyond her own front door without a head covering. It would be tempting to blame St Paul for this state of affairs, but really he was simply reflecting the cultural norms of his times. Across the World head coverings for married women is a staple of status fashion, my own Grandmother, born in 1916, never left the House without a Hat and Gloves, it wasn’t the done thing until well into the 1960’s.


So where did the fixation with the pointy hat come from? I have taken a thorough, if unscientific, peruse through the pamphlet and other illustrations of Witchery – including those of the Wellcome Library Database, Witch Trial Chapbooks and Pamphlets of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and Charles Zika’s ‘Appearance of Witchcraft’.


The earliest image of a Witch wearing a pointy hat appears to be this illustration from Cotton Mather’s account of the diabolical goings on at Salem in 1691 ‘Wonders of the Invisible World’, published in England in 1693.

One Witch out of the 3 wears a conical hat but there are other signs which indicate Witchery both to the Early Modern and the Modern mind, not least the large demon, and flying on broomsticks. Nevertheless, in the context of 1693 the Hat may carry a symbolic load of a different sort, that of Quakerism, an evil which Mather listed alongside the diabolical sorceries and murderous raids of Native Americans, Royal Officials and drunkenness as presenting the gravest threats to the New England congregational community. The expansion of other dissenting denominations including Baptists, and the official Anglican Church, of which the newly appointed Governor of Massachusetts was a committed and vocal member, were considered a threat to the religious primacy and self-governance of the Godly communities which Salem and Mather represented. The Edict of 1691 extending freedom of worship to all Protestant groups and some political voice to previously disenfranchised Quakers and Anglicans were considered an outrageous abuse, not least because they probably reflected realities on the ground. Conversions reached a new height in 1688 with the preaching campaign of new emigre George Keith, and a large Quaker settlement was based close to the several settlements which thereafter became embroiled in the Witch hunts. The tall, wide brimmed ‘Quaker’s Hat’ as it was later known in America was actually a slightly later form of the fashionable Capotain or Pilgrim’s Hat, as depicted here, sported by as Guy Fawkes, probably as doctrinally distinct from a Quaker as a person could be.

This was the style of dress worn by those who founded the first successful Godly communities in New England during the first half of the Seventeenth Century. In later centuries the Quakers were known for being as conservative in their style of dress and speech, as they were radical in their ideas, a combination which may have fed the association with tall hats and Witchcraft.

Although the classical ‘pointy hat’ certainly existed in the latter Seventeenth Century in England, the two fine Ladies pictured here, the minaturist Esther Inglis d. 1624, and Matriarchal Widow Mrs Elizabeth Salesbury d. 1693, would have certainly seen you whipped for making any snide remarks about their headgear.



Not only were they forces to be reckoned with, even in the patriarchal nightmare of their times, but these portraits are deliberately posed and dressed to emphasise their unassailable respectability, wealth and status. The existence of the pointy hat does not point to it as a ‘Witches’ Hat, it had to be made into one, by association over the course of the Eighteenth Century.


The pointy black hat rose to prominence in children’s literature, pamphlets, and books in which a person, usually a woman, sometimes elderly, sometimes wearing a black peaked hat, was depicted brewing up storms, conversing with Demons or riding Broomsticks or other implements, as in this woodcut depicting Mother Shipton, from 1720. These individual aspects did not always appear, and certainly not necessarily together. Witches kept their bonnets on and let their hair down in print for a very long time. But with repetition and time these individual signs each began to symbolize the ‘evil’ of their subject matter, thus the hat becomes a Witch’s Hat, a signifier for a Witch. In these texts the turbulence of the previous two centuries is viewed through a distancing mechanism, a tone of rational superiority. The increasingly fashionable skepticism of the Eighteenth Century drew on earlier works such as Reginald Scot’s ‘Discovery of Witches’, which described those executed as Witches as poor, deluded, old Women, to dissociate themselves from the superstitious irrationality and violence of the recent past . This developing discourse of what a Witch was, developed further into what the accepted image of a Witch came to be.



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