A fearsome being of fairytale and myth, the witch has carved out a home in nearly every culture across the world and time. Indeed, the witch represents the dark side of the female presence: she has power that cannot be controlled.
While this time of year brings about depictions of aging, ugly, hook-nosed women surrounding their cauldrons and inflicting toil and trouble on the masses, history tells us that the witch’s origins are far less sinister. In fact, those whom we consider to be witches have often been healers.
Carole Fontaine, an internationally recognized American biblical scholar, argues in an interview that the idea of the witch has been around as long as humanity has tried to deal with disease and avert disaster.
In the earliest centuries of human civilization, witches were the women who served the goddesses, and therefore were revered throughout their communities.
In the Middle East, ancient civilizations not only worshiped powerful female deities, but it was often women who practiced the holiest of rituals. Trained in the sacred arts, these priestesses became known as wise women, and may have been some of the earliest manifestations of what we now recognize as the witch.
These wise women made house calls, delivered babies, dealt with infertility, and cured impotence. According to Fontaine,
What’s interesting about them is that they are so clearly understood to be positive figures in their society. No king could be without their counsel, no army could recover from a defeat without their ritual activity, no baby could be born without their presence.
So how did the benevolent image of a wise woman transform into the malevolent figure of the witch we know today?