From Macbeth to the Wizard of Oz: New exhibition explores the erotic side of witchcraft

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Images of witches have always had a sexual aspect, as a new show in Edinburgh vividly demonstrates

The "weird sisters" of Shakespeare's Macbeth who prompt the murder of a king. The sexually indeterminate old crones in popular 16th-century etchings with elongated duds and penises. The half-naked figures seated next to cadavers in Salvator Rosa's seminal painting, Witches at their incantations. The green-faced hag that made The Wizard of Oz the stuff of children's nightmares. These are some of the most memorable representations of the apparently heretical, wayward and sexually perverse women who have come to be called, and condemned, as "witches" through the ages.

The notion of the witch – a woman with nefarious magical abilities – is discernible first in the ancient world in seductive, sorceress figures such as Circe and Medea, and then in medieval Christian societies that fought out sectarian battles through female scapegoating, from Joan of Arc to the Pendle and Salem witch trials.

Two forthcoming exhibitions will examine the imagery around the witch: among the highlights of the British Film Institute's Gothic season this autumn is the screening of the cult silent horror, Häxan (Witchcraft Through the Ages), based on the mass hysteria surrounding witch-hunts, which caused enough controversy on its 1922 release to be banned in some countries.

Click here or on "View Images" for a picture preview

Heather Stewart, creative director of the BFI, says British culture, particularly in its Celtic hinterlands where paganism was once prevalent, "seems to have been obsessed by witches". The last known "witch" to have been executed in Europe was in Scotland, as late as 1727, she says.

Meanwhile, Witches & Wicked Bodies, an exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, opening in Edinburgh on 27 July, will be one of the most comprehensive surveys of its kind. The show charts the way witches were presented on the canvas from the Renaissance onwards, and includes the work of Goya, Dürer, William Blake and Lucas Cranach the Elder as well as contemporary artists such as Paula Rego and Cindy Sherman.

While the figure of the witch has always preoccupied fearful and liminal spaces in ancient societies, Deanna Petherbridge, curator of the show, believes that the concept of witchcraft saw its popular spread across Europe in the 15th century. "Witchcraft," she thinks, "is directly linked to the print revolution, not only in the spread of demonological texts… but also in individual broadsheets with shocking or titillating images of witchcraft."

Albrecht Dürer's engaving, The Four Witches (1497) shows four naked women standing in a circle, whose classic stance seems almost to imitate The Three Graces.

The Four Witches (Bartsch No. 75 (89))
Dürer, Engraving on paper 19.00 x 13.10 cm The Four Witches (Bartsch No. 75 (89)) Dürer, Engraving on paper 19.00 x 13.10 cm

Hans Mielich's Witches' Gathering (1535) reflects the perverted sexuality that witches were said to embody, with one naked woman brandishing a large phallic sausage and another with her hand up her skirt in a provocatively lascivious gesture.

Witches were feared and loathed for their carnality and their bodily emissions, so Goya's many representations include a drawing in which a sexually indeterminate woman is holding a rigid, farting baby.

Blake's The Whore of Babylon (1809), meanwhile, transforms the witch into a far more seductive, bare-breasted sorceress – but the dangerous sexuality remains: his watercolour depicts the biblical judgement of "the great whore… with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication". She holds a cup full to the brim with "her sins" while riding a devilish, hump-backed creature. Stewart says the unleashing of a demonic female sexuality is a theme that runs through gothic and horror films too, such as Rosemary's Baby and The Wicker Man.

The witch became closely connected to religious dogma in the Middle Ages. "Until then, Jews were considered to be dangerous and to kill infants. The witch took over around this period," reflects Petherbridge. One of the most potent and widely read demonological texts – the "deeply misogynistic" Malleus Maleficarum (otherwise known as Hammer of the Witches) written by two Dominican friars, was a German guide for inquisitors which came in 1486/7 and did the greatest harm in spreading moral panic about witchcraft. Today, the witch can easily be seen as a patriarchal and misogynistic invention – encompassing both a cultural fear of women and a loathing. To that end, the exhibition in Edinburgh has already begun to be labelled – informally – as a visual history of misogyny.

For many academic feminists and art historians, these images of lewd sexual disinhibition and obscene corporeality (the women are invariably naked, open-legged, farting and with masculine features such as beards or penises) all arise from ancient fears that have surrounded women's sexual desire, as well as the even graver fear of its ability to emasculate men.

Goya's Linda Maestra! (Pretty Teacher!) perfectly captures the anxieties around the liberated female libido. The etching shows two women, naked with distended bodies and wizened faces, who are flying a broom with legs akimbo. Currently hanging in the Museo del Prado, its explanatory text reads: "The broom is one of the most necessary implements for witches… at times they turn the broom into a saddle mule [a dildo]'.

Woman Bewitched by the Moon No. 2 [Opus 0.175], 1956
Alan Davie, Oil on Masonite, 152.80 x 122.00 cm Woman Bewitched by the Moon No. 2 [Opus 0.175], 1956 Alan Davie, Oil on Masonite, 152.80 x 122.00 cm

The motifs that surround witches have often been domestic – the broom, the cauldron and magic potions – stemming from traditional female roles as cooks, healers and midwives, which require specialist knowledge of herbs but also give women – even in prohibitively patriarchal cultures – a unique kind of power.

By the late 18th century, the witch was sanitised and rehabilitated for children's stories, becoming a pointy-hatted figure who provided a frisson of fear but without the religious or sexual menace she had presented in previous centuries. Nowadays, artists such as Rego and Kiki Smith have used the figure in politicised ways; in Rego's case, to illustrate the brutality of female genital mutilation or to reflect on how older women are perceived. The witch is no longer to be feared or condemned, but a victim of history, inspiring appalled fascination, and reflecting the dark desires, fears and astonishing cruelty that history meted out to its most subversive women.

Witches & Wicked Bodies, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh (0131 624 6200) 27 July to 3 November; 'Häxan (Witchcraft Through the Ages)' will be screened at the British Film Institute, London SE1 (bfi.org.uk) as part of its Gothic season, from 21 October to 31 January

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?