They don't always wear a hat, but when they do, it's pointy.
Why do fantasy writers depict pointy hats as the headgear of choice for Witches and Wizards?
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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)
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.
Man, Myth and Magic: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Mythology, Religion and the Unknown, Richard Cavendish (Author)
Jews were forced to wear special "Jew hats" in 13, 14th and 15th century Europe. It was common to demonize Jews, so it's a fairly small step to imagine that figures wearing these hats were caricatured as being in league with the devil.
The pointed hat (of witchcraft/wizardry) is a grotesque symbol of religious bigotry.
One relatively modern theory for the witch's pointy hat has to do with brewing, and how female brewers got sidelined via accusations of witchcraft.
In order to catch as many eyes as possible, and to signal from a distance what they were selling, these “brewsters” wore tall hats.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, small-scale ale producers, mostly brewsters, began to face accusations of a whole host of immoralities that caused irreparable damage to their reputations. According to Judith Bennett, the preeminent historian of women brewers in this period of England’s history, both the public and the male-dominated brewing industry accused brewsters of diluting or adulterating their ale with cheaper brews, and thus of cheating customers. Brewsters were also accused of selling tainted ales that could make drinkers sick, perhaps intentionally. And generally speaking, at this time, a woman having a working knowledge of herbal concoctions and medicines was highly suspect, and might face rumors that she was using her knowledge for nefarious ends. Thus, the sign of the humble alewife’s hat came to be associated with all the same evil maliciousness of a poison-peddling witch.
It is, admittedly, not a position without controversy.
Some historians deny the veracity of this association, such as Dr. Christina Wade of the blog Braciatrix, devoted to the history of women in brewing and bartending. She argues that during the later Middle Ages, when images of brewsters in such tall hats come into the historical record, witches weren’t yet associated with them. (Let alone the fact that it's unlikely that brewsters across Europe, a rag-tag assembly of home-spun brewers to begin with, collectively agreed on the tall hats as a form of marketing.)
A witch is a healer, plain and simple, and they've been persecuted throughout the centuries for the same reasons any other non-mainstream groups have been: fear of the unknown, and ignorance.
Witches are not creatures of evil, and they've never swooped down from the sky to harass people or eat small children. A witch is a protector, not a destroyer, and each witch has a unique personality, just like any other human being.
As for the hat... the cone-shaped hat traditionally worn by witches is symbolic of wisdom and intelligence, not being a dunce (good hell, the person who thought that one up needs a swift kick in the ankle). Its pointed shape represents the cone of power, which is associated with the circle, the symbol of the sun, unity, eternity, rebirth, and the triangle.