Eroticism and Hysteria

In the 16th century, witches were feared and persecuted across Europe and depicted in various witch-hunt manuals that were most likely accessible to Baldung.

Image of the clair obscure wood Witches by Hans Baldung Grien from 1510. lent by Stiftung Schloss Friedenstein Gotha. The artwork shows different people looking very angry and all are naked. The artwork was part of an exhibition at the Kunsthalle Karlsruhe.

Baldung’s depiction of witches in various works contributes to our present-day perception of “sorcery” . His Witches’ Sabbath, a woodcut from 1510, depicts some familiar gestures, poses and artefacts that substantiate our modern clichés about witches and sorcery, such as a cat, a cauldron and a forest hideaway.

Other elements of the picture are less common on today’s representations of sorcery. This applies to the witch riding a goat, for example, and to the sausages hanging over a fork, an illustration of the belief that witches could make men impotent. Another 16th-century superstition was that witches concluded pacts with the devil and were women who had intercourse with demons.

Deeds and Poses

The drawing by Hans Baldung in the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe shows three naked women. They are all lying on the ground and anxiously looking at the sky. In heaven is another naked woman riding a broomstick.

Illustrations in books on witch hunts focused on the magical curse that wives of ordinary people could impose, thanks to their connivance with evil powers. By contrast, Baldung described witches as “wild” women with unrestrained sexuality.

Baldung’s naked witches, often depicted in contorted erotic or vulgar poses, were sensational for their novelty.

Witch Hunts and White Magic

Media campaigns that are based on nothing but suspicion and involve public figures – generally men –are popularly described as “witch hunts”. President Donald Trump, for example, uses the term to discredit his detractors, and “witch hunt” became a trending term on Twitter. Conversely, people often talk of “white magic” to improve the status of “the witch”.

The picture by the artist Hans Baldung shows two naked women. A woman can be seen from behind. She is holding a towel in her hand. The other woman is sitting and holding a bottle. Behind them is a child, holding a staff. The picture was part of an exhibition at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe.

Most of the victims of witches’ persecution in the early modern period were unmarried women, or those who happened to live independently of men, such as widows and healers helping people and in particular pregnant women.

Long ago persecuted, these free women with special powers and in touch with nature were reinterpreted by feminists in the 1970s, so that the figure of the witch is now celebrated as a female icon whose incredible powers were rooted in spirituality and closeness to nature.

New Hype or Spiritual Turn?

Today’s influencers underscore the positive character of the witch and the spiritual aspect of sorcery. They arrange tarot cards or advertise natural therapies. Music streaming platforms compile special playlists for each star sign, while dating apps offer tips on how to choose a partner by horoscope. Couture designers showcase sorcery-inspired collections on the catwalk, and high street chains display witch-themed fashion in store windows. Witches on the silver screen were always popular, for example, the remake of the television show Sabrina. The Teenage Witch.

The witches’ hype in fashion and lifestyle, as well as on social media, film and television touches on our desire to be attuned to nature and offers a spiritual alternative to wall-to-wall virtual reality. It also results from the revival of the feminist movement of the 1970s that highlighted marginalized women.

Memory work

Memorials and commemorative plaques to the victims of yesterday’s witch hunts are examples of the memory work developed in recent years to pay homage to the women and men who suffered under these cruel persecution campaigns.