Witches & Beer; a Weird History
How the modern image of the witch was influenced by early European beer production
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
This is one of the most famous lines in English literature, said by the trio of witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The play was first performed in 1606, but the idea of witchcraft in Europe was around long before Shakespeare. Witches are even mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible (the Witch of Endor).
Witches have been an integral part of western society, for better or worse, for hundreds of years. In medieval Europe, women, who were independent and outsiders in their societies, were often tried for witchcraft. While in modern western society, witches are everywhere with shows like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, books like Harry Potter, and people who identify as real witches.
Our modern idea of the witch usually includes a pointy hat, cauldron, broom, and a black cat. But, the women who were tried for witchcraft in Europe and in North America didn’t use or wear those things. Who did? Women brewsters in the early Middle Ages, or Alewives.
While the history of brewing beer dates back to ancient Mesopotamia, in Europe until the 1500s when women were basically banned from brewing beer, women were brewers of beer just as much — if not more than — men.
At the market, these women had interesting ways to advertise their products. A tall hat would stand out in the crowds and would be easily recognizable. Brooms were a symbol of the trade, and women would place them outside their homes or taverns to let potential customers know there was beer for sale. The purity of the beer would be indicated by a six-sided star, which was important in a time when the plague was such a major concern.
The cauldron and the cat came out of necessity for the brewing itself. The beer would be brewed (boiled and bubbled) in a large cauldron, while the cat would keep vermin out of the grains.
As a lucrative business, the Catholic church started weaseling their way in; and as soon as they were in they started fully controlling brewing and subsequently healing, both of which were dominated by women until then.
The turning point for witchcraft in medieval Europe was the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum (“The Hammer of Witches”) in 1486. While it was certainly not the only publication on witchcraft in that era, it was the most well-known because of the new conveniences of the German printing press and it was published at the height of the witch “crisis”.
This new book transformed witchcraft from a superstition — those who were punished for witchcraft by the church were simply charged with heresy — to a more serious crime, rooted in the idea of devil worship. Most of those who were executed for witchcraft were women, who were seen as more susceptible to the powers of the devil. Those who were targetted for witchcraft charges were often in the margins of society; the poor, widows, and other outsiders.
It was a dangerous time to be a woman who knew how to heal with herbs and plants. The witchhunts led to the fields of beer brewing and healing being dominated by men.
Raven hair and ruby lips
Sparks fly from her fingertips
Echoed voices in the night
She’s a restless spirit on an endless flight — Witchy Woman, The Eagles
The idea of witches flying dates back to before the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum, as early as the 11th century. Though, the nighttime flights were done while the woman was asleep, and was being held captive by the devil. Of course, though, it was all part of the superstition and not considered a real threat.
As the witch crisis grew and the opinions of witchcraft transformed, the image of a witch flying continued. Witchcraft was no longer just a superstition, it was a very real fear and the idea of witches flying was just as real as any other aspect of it.
Flying was considered a “learned” magic, present in magic manuals— in contrast with “common” magic like healing — and was associated with secret witch gatherings (the witches’ sabbath). As the seriousness of witchcraft increased and was combined with the image of women’s night flights, medieval authorities were worried women were going to be corrupted by demons they couldn’t control.
Men were featured in images of witches flying, but almost always seen on a demon horse. The broomstick as a vehicle simply solidifies the domestic mold in which women were constantly kept.
One thing is very clear, women were viewed as a threat when they began to throw off established social norms. While both men and women were tried for witchcraft, women were seen as more susceptible to the influences of demons and the devil and thus more likely to be witches.
The modern image of witches is such a natural part of Western culture, especially in October, but it’s easy to forget the tumultuous history and the misogyny that led to these icons being associated with witches.
Next time you have a beer, toast to all the witches that made it possible.