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The Three Witches from William Shakespeare's Macbeth, 1775 painting by Daniel Gardner.

Witches are women who are said to have magical powers which enable them to cast spells, fly on broomsticks, make potions, and change the form or appearance of animals and people. They may have the power to invoke spirits and predict the future. According to some, witches are born with their powers, according to others, witchcraft can be learned. Witches are often thought of as being evil and are usually depicted as old hags but this is not always the case. Some people believe in witches who use their magic only to do good. Beautiful young witches, both good and evil, have also appeared in fiction.

Although they are often thought of as being evil or wicked, witches continue to feature frequently in modern popular culture.

Originally, the word "witch" had no gender connotation. Over time, the word "witch" came to apply only to females, with the male equivalent of a witch being a warlock.

Witches in history

The word "witch" is derived from the Old English word for "wise". Throughout history and across cultures, there has been a widespread belief that certain women have supernatural powers that the other members of the society do not possess.

1585 illustration by Johann Jakob Vick that depicts the execution by burning of three alleged witches in Baden, Switzerland.

Depending on the time and location, those women have either been treated with awe and respect or with fear and hatred. It was not uncommon for a community to turn against somebody who had previously been considered to be a helpful "wise woman" and come to see her instead as an evil witch, conveniently blaming all of their misfortune on her when crops failed, animals died or other unfortunate events happened.

In medieval Europe, a belief arose that witches (some of whom may have been followers of an earlier religion) were enemies of Christianity and followers of the Devil. In the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, people who were accused of witchcraft in Europe and parts of North America, most famously Salem, Massachusetts, were often hanged or burnt at the stake.

Some modern followers of Wicca and other Neo-Pagan religions choose to self-identify as witches.

Witches in fiction

Appearance and attributes

Image of a witch flying on a broomstick on the front cover of the October 27, 1923 issue of the American magazine The Saturday Evening Post.

In fiction, witches are most commonly portrayed as being evil.

Witches are now commonly imagined as being green skinned hags with warts who wear black clothes, including pointy black hats. They are usually imagined as having some sort of animal as a familiar, which is sometimes said to carry out any wicked command that the witch gives it. The most common familiar in fiction is a black cat. Witches are often depicted with a cauldron which is said to be used for rituals and is used to make magic potions and medicines in. Last but not least is the witch's broom, a magical form of transportation for witches who believe they possess the powers of flight.

Some witches are also noted to have a crystal ball, while others or not. They are also commonly thought of as wanting to fatten children up and eat them, such as in the popular children's tale "Hansel and Gretel". This would imply that witches may be cannibals.


According to tradition, it is possible to ward off a witch in a number of ways. Witches are said to be attracted to dead cats and other animals, therefore it is possible to use dead animals to distract a witch's attention and keep her from harming people.

Famous witches

Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West and Judy Garland as Dorothy. Publicity picture for the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz.

  • The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz, (named Elphaba in Wicked) and Glinda, the Good Witch of the North.
  • Samantha from Bewitched, also her family including Endora, Serena, and Tabitha.
  • Broom Hilda, a comic strip character.
  • Winsome Witch, the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character.
  • Morgan La Fey (or  Morgana) from the Arthurian legends.
  • The Sea Witch from "The Little Mermaid" by Hans Christian Andersen.
  • The Three Witches in William Shakespeare's Macbeth.
  • Eglantine Price in Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
  • Circe
  • Hecate
  • The Witch in "Hansel and Gretel".
  • Baba Yaga, a character in Russian folklore.
  • The Sanderson Sisters from the Disney film Hocus Pocus.
  • The unnamed witch who is the protagonist of the children's picture book Room on the Broom and its animated TV adaptation.
  • Winnie the Witch, the title character of the 1987 children's book of the same name and the protagonist of its many sequels.
  • Honey Halfwitch, an animated cartoon character created in 1965.

Additional fiction including witches

See also

External links