I was listening this morning to an audiobook I read in paper form many, many years ago. Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein. It is a complex future fiction book and deals with many cultural taboos in quite a forthright manner, with major characters driving a plot line from positions of liberal anarchy which can seem quite unreasonable from initial inspection. The book disentangles how we learn our culture; we are not born knowing instinctively how to act, but are steered into it. Not by rote or through designed lesson plans, but through peer acceptance and rejection of mores and customs from a very early age.
I begin thus because earlier today on a photography web site I frequent a photo was uploaded of a piñata in the stereotypical form of a witch. It wasn’t a bad photo, and I certainly wasn’t offended – I tend not to, or at least try not to, take offence. I commented that witches had been hanged and in a few cases burned, but I wasn’t aware of them being beaten with sticks until their insides fell out. I was being playful, but it was clear the person who made the image hadn’t given a moments thought to either the activity she was promoting for her children and friends, nor that actual witches still walked the planet.
There is, nowadays, a standard image for witches. Harry Potter may have all the relevant aspects of a witch, although he’s referred to as a wizard, but he has avoided the conical hat, the green face and hooked nose. Admittedly he still has the besom…
Given that witches do exist – you may even know a few, although perhaps you might not know you know – there is a tacit harm in being derogatory about them. You may have a religious aversion to these non-standard spiritual practitioners, but they have every right to expect the same decent treatment you do.
They probably don’t have green faces.
How many folk ask themselves why the green face, why the warty nose? What is the reason for the broomstick, the cat and the hat. Is there room on the broom for any truth, or is it simply a folk tale? Because they never have any truth in them do they…
The green face is quite modern, and goes back to the late 1930’s and the development of technicolour films. The green face stood out well in the Wizard of Oz (the book has no such face colour) and ever since then witches have had the facial tones previously reserved for the forest folk and, of course, the Green Man. Conical hats were quite a common and simple design in medieval times (consider the steepled hats of noble women in the Middle Ages).
The broomstick might have come into play for the genital application of hallucinogens, although that seems so marvellously pervy I’m slightly sceptical. It’s on a level with amanita muscaria and reindeer urine, Father Christmas and tree decorations. But the hooked nose… that’s simple mysogenistic anti-semitism, born of the middle ages, reactivated by Nazi Germany and carried on my every children’s author from Roald Dahl to Julia Donaldson.
It occurs to me, being of such a certain age that I collected jam jar tokens, if we switched the witch piñata with a Robinson’s Golly there might be considerably more comment, nor to mention approbrium and legal action. The witch pinata is a thing our culture has adopted as harmless fun, the gollywog as a reprehensible reminder of quite recent atrocity. And so I return to my audiobook, where even now the protagonist is making the case that cannibalism figures in every person’s heritage and often more recently that we would expect, or wish.
As Halloween approaches, may we all find the best in each other. May we remember not every ancestor thought as we do, nor did as we would wish. Let’s whack the hell out of that piñata, but always remember it’s a paper sack of kids toys and sweets, and has nothing at all to do with modern witches following an honourable tradition (old or new) of non-mainstream individual spiritual questing. Be mindful descendants of all your bloodlines. This has been a bit of fun stream of consciousness waffle. Hope you Grokked it. You’re welcome.