The primary reason writers still use the witch's hat in their literature is because the pointy hat is a form of writer's shorthand, a means to indicate to the reader we are seeing a witch, a being of power, of dark pacts, potentially dangerous, to be respected and feared. Yes, it is the very definition of stereotyping, but it works.
This image of the witch is personified for most modern people by the portrayal of the Wicked Witch of the West. (see below)
History of the Witches Hat
The stereotypical images of a witch is that of an ugly, old hag wearing a tall, black, pointed hat with a broad rim. There are different theories as to the origin of this stereotype, none of them certain.
- Most likely, the hat is a fairly modern artist’s creation. In medieval woodcuts, witches are shown wearing various costumes of the times, including headscarves and hats of different fashions. Many are shown bareheaded, with locks flying in the wind.
It is possible that the witch’s hat is an exaggeration of the tall, conical “dunce’s hat” that was popular in the royal courts of the 15th century or the tall but blunt-topped hats worn by Puritans and the Welsh. No matter what the fashion, pointed hats were frowned upon by the Church, which associated points with the horns of the devil.
Brimless, conical hats have long been associated with male wizards and magicians. Goya painted witches with such hats. It is possible that an artist, somewhere along the way, added a brim to make the hats more appropriate for women.
One theory holds that the stereotypical witch’s hat came into being in Victorian times or around the turn of the century, in illustrations of children’s fairy tales. The tall, black, conical hat and the ugly crone became readily identifiable symbols of wickedness, to be feared by children.
Witches in the Air, Goya, 1798
Witches in the Air is eerie. These witches wear pointed hats but are unusual in most other ways. They fly but need no broomsticks, they are young and, most importantly, they are male. I don’t know where the idea of witching being a purely female pursuit came from, it is by now the common idea, but it was not accepted in Goya’s time that only girls could grow to be witches.
In the painting a few witches have flown down and have scooped a man away from his friends. One survivor is making a run for it with a sheet over his head. He has his thumbs stuck out between the index and second fingers of each hand. This gesture is called the figa and it is to ward away evil.
This painting is not only scary because it features different kinds of witches from those we are used to. It seems the victim has been picked-on at random. The picture feels like a snapshot of a crime-in-progress. The witnesses and the inclusion of a commonplace donkey make it seem like a rural scene that has gone suddenly wrong. The witches are not frail wispy things cackling in the shadows. They are painted brightly. They are healthy and in great shape. The have lifted their victim into the air, as he kicks and screams. The witches are leaning in and appear to be eating him.
It is images like this one which help to cement the pointed hat as a harbinger of magic, of potential evil, of forces dark and beyond the ken of mortal men. The history of wizards hats didn't hurt their reputations either.
Doing my own research, I noticed there were many images that included a buckle, much like a Quaker's hat, which has the same appearance except with a round dome. Among the Quakers, their hat was a symbol of social power and allegiance to their religion and each other.
The culture of witches (as interpreted by religious people) may have included the idea of an allegiance to Satan, a collection of witches, and their pointy hat was a symbol (a pointed horn showing an allegiance to Satan). It was this kind of project which added to the mystique (such as it was) of witches.
Manuals for fighting witches also included lifestyles, clothing, demonic marks used to recognize them. Such manuals were revised over the centuries and may have also led to the recognition of the pointed hat as a potential marker.
- The Malleus Maleficarum, (Latin for "Hammer of The Witches) was an infamous witch-hunting manual written in 1486 by two German monks, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. It was used by both Catholics and Protestants for several hundred years, outlining how to identify a witch, what makes a woman more likely than a man to be a witch, how to put a witch on trial, and how to punish a witch. The book defines a witch as evil and typically female. This book was not given the official Imprimatur of the Catholic Church, which would have made it approved by church authorities, but was used by the Inquisition nevertheless.