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

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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.

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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

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