Terrible Tresses: the Maleficent Meaning of the Hair of Witches


The witch-hunt mania in mediaeval Europe and early America did much to crystallize cultural ideas about witches and their diabolical craft. The iconography of witches has adapted over time but has consistently drawn from established motifs in its depiction of practitioners of the Dark Arts. One of the most commonly repeated elements in artistic representation of witches is long, unbound hair. Popular imagination universally conjures the composite image of a crone with wild tresses, sometimes escaping from beneath a pointed hat. While this enduring symbol seems like the stuff of folklore and fairytales, the tradition of a long-haired witch is rooted in deep magical, and arguably satanic, traditions making witches the diametric antithesis of the Godly woman whose uncut hair symbolizes her acceptance of Biblical order and supernaturally empowers and protects her (I Cor. 11.10).

In 1486, Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch’s Hammer) was published in response to a bull set forth by Pope Innocent VIII lamenting the discovery of witches, especially in Northern Germany. The Malleus became a widely-used manual in the identification and persecution of alleged witches. Authored by appointees of the pope, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, the treatise fully develops the ancient ideas set forth by ante-Nicene writers like Irenaeus and Tertullian who identified the antediluvian “Sons of God” in Genesis 6 as fallen angels. Cited among the characteristics of a woman likely to attract demonic attention were those with “beautiful hair” (Kramer & Sprenger 166). Headcoverings, which were widely worn during the Middle Ages, were particularly important for this reason. According to the Malleus, uncovered hair could invite demonic interference, and an accused witch should be completely shaven in order to rid her of any hiding place of charms or talismans and to break her ability to remain silent before her inquisitors (Kramer & Sprenger 229-230). Sir James Frazer, a respected British folklorist, writes: “Here in Europe it used to be thought that the maleficent powers of witches and wizards resided in their hair, and that nothing could make any impression on these miscreants so long as they their hair on” (Frazer 485). Depilation was almost universally believed to elicit confessions. In Toulouse, Millaeus, an inquisitor, records the confessions of several persons after they were stripped and shaven. In Scotland, Satan was declared to have preached from the pulpit of North Berwick church telling his evil followers that they could not be harmed “sa lang as their hair wes on” (Dalyell 637-639).

In the 16th Century, artists began depicting witches in woodcuts and drawings. Albrecht Dürer and Hans Baldung Grien produced some of the most grotesque depictions of witches. Many of the artworks illustrate the Witches’ Sabbath, in which they consort with demons and produce exploding potions in cauldrons, surrounded by bones, broomsticks, and familiars. The viewer cannot help but notice the hair of the haggard witch. The witches’ hair is usually unbound, uncovered, and flying. In a print produced in 1500, Dürer shows an old witch perched backwards on a flying goat, symbol of the devil. Her reverse seat symbolizes her rejection of natural order, and her hair stands straight out from her head in the wrong direction, against the current of wind that would be produced by the flight. In a Baldung chiaroscuro woodcut from 1510, several witches are shown at a Sabbath, each ones hair extended in its own direction. The apparent independence of their hair from elements of weather or wind produces the effect of magical animation. The hair is visually part of the Black worship they perform and, in agreement with the Malleus, symbolizes wantonness and lust. In German custom, married women were required to veil their heads (Parr 47). The freed tresses of the witches’ heads show their rejection of familial, social, and ecclesiastical order. Samuel admonished Saul: “Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft” (I Sam. 15.23), and she stands opposite the submitted woman whose hair signifies her subjection to Christ and her husband.

According to The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, if a witch shakes her hair a spell will become twice as powerful (Guiley 147). In 1633, Bessie Skebister was accused and convicted in Scotland of causing her neighbor, Margaret Mudie, to become sick by shaking her hair at her (Cooper 197). Even amongst heathen cultures in India and Mexico, witches were deprived of their powerful hair. The ancient Aztecs would crop the hair of a witch taking from them “all their power of sorcery and enchantment . . .” (Frazer 486).

It has been observed that for every sacred establishment of God, Satan has produced a profane counterfeit. This is certainly true of the hair of a witch, traditionally pervaded with satanic power. The careful student of superstition, iconography and history cannot deny the endurance of the connection between the witch and her hair. Even the cartoon witches of Halloween are depicted with long tresses. Her loathsome locks contrast with the God-given covering of beauty, glory, and power prescribed by Paul for the adornment and supernatural protection of Christian women. The fact that Satan recognizes the value of long hair and re-purposes it as a sign of evil, disorder, and demonic power should instill in Pentecostal women a renewed appreciation for their own veil of hair, a divinely ordained and anointed symbol of God’s order and a weapon of righteousness and godliness.

Sources:

Cooper, Wendy. Hair: Sex Society Symbolism. Stein and Day, New York: 1971.

Dalyell, J.G. The Darker Superstitions of Scotland. Edinburgh: 1834.

Frazer, Sir James George. Folk-Lore in the Old Testament: Studies in Comparative Religion, Legend, & Law, v. 2. Macmillian and Co., London: 1918.

Guiley, Rosemary. The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft 2nd ed. Checkmark Books, New York: 1999.

Kramer, Heinrich and James Sprenger. The Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer & Sprenger. Montague Summer, ed. and trans. Dover Publications, Inc., New York: 1971.

Parr, Elizabeth. Wayward Women [Thesis]. University of Oregon, June 2004.

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One Response to “Terrible Tresses: the Maleficent Meaning of the Hair of Witches”

  1. Terrible Tresses: the Maleficent Meaning of the Hair of Witches « Holy Magic Hair - Heresy Exposed Says:

    […] Parr, Elizabeth. Wayward Women [Thesis]. University of Oregon, June 2004. Source: http://www.oldlandmark.wordpress.com […]

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