Okay, I’ll admit it: I used to go out with a self-declared good witch -a white witch, apparently, as she insisted on pointing out to anybody who asked. I don’t think it had nothing to do with her ethnicity or skin colour, though -her complexion was a mahogany shade of brown. It was never clear to me just what would prompt anybody to ask, although maybe it was her name -Lubba. Or maybe she sometimes exhibited specific witch-like properties that remained hidden to me because of my involvement. I mean, she didn’t look like a witch; she had short dark hair and wore glasses, but I never saw a broom or one of those pointy hats in her apartment. Of course they may have been hidden in her closet whenever I visited, even if she did keep some other unusual knick-knacks on her book shelves to which she had given bizarre names. They were witch-names, I suppose, but at the time they didn’t seem to possess any magical powers or anything. The interesting thing was that they never appeared to be in the same place the next time I visited. Maybe she just dusted more thoroughly than I did in my apartment, however. Still, perhaps I should have guessed her provenance much earlier because she seemed to be able to read my mind as well as the purpose of my visits, and when we were through, she’d kind of cackle at my naïveté. It was embarrassing, to tell the truth.
But at any rate, I remained fascinated with witch-hood (if that’s what you call interest in the witch and not so much in what they did) even after she suddenly moved away. Well, actually her disappearance was mysterious and helped to keep my curiosity simmering until I received a phone call from her one night; she was trying to blackmail me. I didn’t really understand the reasons, though, and I laughed at her. Then, after she tried some incoherent mumblings on me that I suspect were supposed to be curses, I hung up. I hoped that was the end of it and that maybe she would talk somebody else into giving her money, and anyway, maybe I’d only been talking to her familiar. At any rate, I eventually decided I’d just been having a nightmare…
I’ve never really understood witches, I have to admit. Like, why were they persecuted, and why was their paraphernalia so uniform? Even in Shakespeare’s witch scene in Macbeth, there are three old women huddling around a boiling cauldron they are stirring. Why old women, why a cauldron -and why the legend about pointed hats, not to mention their fascination with cats…?
Curiosity is good; it drove me to a truly epiphanous article in the Conversation, written by Laken Brooks, at the time a doctoral student of English at the University of Florida. https://theconversation.com/women-used-to-dominate-the-beer-industry-until-the-witch-accusations-started-pouring-in-155940
According to Brooks, ‘Up until the 1500s, brewing was primarily women’s work – that is, until a smear campaign accused women brewers of being witches. Much of the iconography we associate with witches today, from the pointy hat to the broom, emerged from their connection to female brewers… From the Stone Age to the 1700s, ale – and, later, beer – was a household staple for most families in England and other parts of Europe. The drink was an inexpensive way to consume and preserve grains. For the working class, beer provided an important source of nutrients, full of carbohydrates and proteins. Because the beverage was such a common part of the average person’s diet, fermenting was, for many women, one of their normal household tasks. Some enterprising women took this household skill to the marketplace and began selling beer.’
Now, the story gets even more interesting. ‘They wore the tall, pointy hats so that their customers could see them in the crowded marketplace. They transported their brew in cauldrons. And those who sold their beer out of stores had cats not as demon familiars, but to keep mice away from the grain.’ Huhh!
Then, just as women were beginning to get into the brewing business, the Inquisition began. This, of course, was a fundamentalist religious movement, which originated in the early 16th century, and ‘preached stricter gender norms and condemned witchcraft.’
Brooks sees that as a convenient opportunity for the village men to reduce their competition and so they ‘accused female brewers of being witches and using their cauldrons to brew up magic potions instead of booze.’ I don’t know; that sounds a little too contrived from this side of the curtain -it took a lot of work to be a brewer. ‘The process took time and dedication: hours to prepare the ale, sweep the floors clean and lift heavy bundles of rye and grain,’ so why would men want to ruin a good thing? Why change women’s work? Unless, of course, they wanted to change nappies, or to get up and sooth a screaming infant in the middle of the night. I mean, who knows?
But getting back to my witch friend, Lubba, her involvement with me didn’t stop with the blackmail attempt, unfortunately. She’d also been an artist -clever and inventive, but… well, strange.
One summer, shortly after I started dating her, she gave me one of her paintings. It featured a solid grey background with two curving white lines looking for all the world like they were bracketing something that wasn’t there. I remember admiring it as something… I don’t know, existential or whatever -it was the 60ies, eh? At any rate, she gave it to me as a present. We took to calling it her ‘Parentheses’ and I always hung it on my wall at home -wherever that happened to be.
I moved a lot in those days, and took the painting with me, as I said. A year or two after Lubba disappeared from my life, and I was in yet another apartment in another city, I thought Parentheses would look good hanging on the wall over the head of my bed. I was seeing another woman by then, of course, and I remember us coming back late from a dinner at a neighbourhood restaurant. There was a thunderstorm raging outside, so the lights were flickering as we entered the apartment. We decided to lie in bed and watch a movie on TV when the lights flickered off again.
Suddenly, I heard my friend scream as something banged onto the bed coincident with a clap of thunder just outside the building, and the walls shaking from the reverberation. Just as the lights came back on and I saw the Parentheses lying on the bed between us, my phone rang.
There was a chuckle -no, let’s call it a cackle- at the other end of the line and what I recognized as the long-lost witch’s voice whispered “Serves you right…”
Or was that just another Lubba dream…? Life with aging neurons is not easy at the best of times. I mean, I really don’t believe in witches of whatever variety, but I do avoid certain names, and remain suspicious of women who cackle at me. Still, I hardly think they have anything to worry about with me – I don’t even like beer.