Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Pointy Hats and Magic Spells: A Mina's Bookshelf Halloween Treat

Quite a few of us will be parading down the streets with flowing black robes and wide-brimmed black hats this coming Halloween, but do we even know where the stereotype of the pointy-hatted crone comes from? How did the simple garment become a social code for witchcraft?  While the disconcerting truth about the association of brooms and witches is now validated by all sorts of researches (and hardly leaves any room for guessing), the origin of the conic shaped hat as one of the key identifiers of a sorceress is still dubious and open to interpretation.
The visual representation of witches wearing tapering caps is peculiar to American and Western European (specifically British Isles) folklore. There is no depiction of witches wearing funnel-shaped caps in either medieval icons or 16th century woodcuts: the first often showed them naked and bare-headed, the latter portrayed them outfitted in common bonnets and scarves. We have to wait until the 1700s when traditional street songs, postcards, and chapbooks from England and Colonial America introduced the pointed hat as the evocative mark of black magic and spell casting.
The stereotype caught on and the Victorian era, with its popular collections of myths, legends, and ghost stories, fueled the association of crowned headgears and evil. The reason? There might be a few, more or less plausible. According to legends, witches in Medieval England were forced to wear  Church-steeple-shaped caps there were supposed to invoke God's grace. Equally weak is the theory maintaining that pointed hats were the visual representation of the Cone of Power used by witches during pagan rituals.
(Mrs Salesbury with her Grandchildren Edward and Elizabeth Bagot, c. 1676, by John Michael Wright)
Much more probable are the explanations offered by Gary Jensen in his The Path Of The Devil: Early Modern Witch Hunts. Jensen claims that the witches' pointy hats were modeled on the Jewish horned skullcaps already in use during the Middle Ages as a way of stigmatizing first-time sorcery offenders in public. The hat controversy was also connected to the 17th and 18th century growing popularity of the Quaker religious movement in England and American Colonies. It doesn't surprise that both groups (Jews and Quakers) were marginalized and frequently charged with religious blasphemy from the beginning of their rise. They represented a social, political, and economic challenge to the Puritan order—and what better way to eradicate enemies of the establishment than demonizing them and associating them with heresy and witchcraft? The fact that there were several women among the early Quaker ministers just helped the Church of England's campaign of religious persecution.
On a lighter and much sweeter note, 'Witches Hats' make 'spook-tacular' Halloween treats. Try them with Hershey Kisses or ice cream cones (filled either with chocolate mousse or M&Ms),  on an upside down fudge striped cookie, a cup cake, or an Oreo cookie. Deliciously creepy and so easy to prepare: no baking required. Happy Halloween!

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