Origins of the Witch Hat: A Caricature of Hate

Witchcraft: a white-faced witch meeting a black-faced witch with a great beast. Woodcut, 1720.
Witchcraft: a white-faced witch meeting a black-faced witch with a great beast. Woodcut, 1720.

I wanted to discuss the “Witch Caricature”. A caricature I had come back to time and again as an offensive stereotype caricature that many people seemingly have no issue at all with although it deeply troubled many others including myself. The “Witch Caricature”, and its components such as the “Witch Hat”. I concluded that there are culturally demeaning elements that are directly linked to all forms of stereotypical and discriminatory caricatures. Including that of the “Witch Caricature”.

Culturally Demeaning Appropriation

The Oxford English Dictionary defines Cultural Appropriation as: “The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”

As our Sanctuary is diverse in Paths, Cultures, and Ethnicities, the litmus we use to determine if something is Cultural Appropriation or not mainly deals with the reverence an individual has as well as the cultural distinctness of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. If we want to split hairs, every single thing and view is culturally appropriated. At some point, a culture started smelting metal, and other cultures appropriated it. So we tend to as a society immediately omit advances in civilization and philosophy. We as a society have also become hyper-sensitive to proclaim something as cultural appropriation when it is not. Debates like the “Dreadlock” debate is a good example of false associations of Cultural Appropriation as the style was not culturally distinct and had developed in numerous other cultures globally. This does not however mean there are no instances where “Dreadlocks” are worn in an insensitive manner with a demeaning intent of active discrimination. It just means in general, it is a non-issue.

There are plenty of stronger examples of actual forms of appropriation. However, my point is to establish a connection between Caricature and Demeaning Appropriation that is actual or perceived as well as to lay a foundational belief that the quantum of one’s blood does not dictate the religious beliefs they are allowed to hold. There is an element of gatekeeping that if you do not come from this or that culture, it is inappropriate for you to have a belief system from it, which is a categorically false guilt trip. The issue is in the irreverence and insensitivity of a culture and its practices, such as appropriating to mock the culture of another group, stereotyping, stereotype costume, and offensive likenesses are stronger examples of actual appropriation, which are also examples of caricature.

Black Hat Origins

Paris of Troy wearing a Phrygian cap. Marble, Roman artwork from the Hadrianic period (117–138 CE)
Paris of Troy wearing a Phrygian cap. Marble, Roman artwork from the Hadrianic period (117–138 CE)

The near iconic “Black Hat” has some varied origin stories. Some believe it comes from the hat worn by Alewives. Some believe it has origins in hats worn by the Priests of Mithras, known as a Phrygian cap. However, the Phrygian cap was not exclusive to the Priests of Mithras and had developed independently across numerous cultures. It was a common hat, and while at times symbolic, it was rarely used in a negative context.

The Love of Helen and Paris by Jacques-Louis David (oil on canvas, 1788, Louvre, Paris)
The Love of Helen and Paris by Jacques-Louis David (oil on canvas, 1788, Louvre, Paris)

Another origin theory is that it came from the Judenhut which is honestly the most likely origin. The Judenhut had a few variations in style, but the function was the same, it was a punishment hat to identify an individual as belonging to an undesirable group.

There is undoubtedly some level of conflation between these ideas, and they did lend to an extent, an amalgam of iconography. Often used to demean women if they were financially independent, such as Alewives.

Judenhut and Cauldron

German Jews of the twelfth century. From Herrad von Landsperg, Hortus deliciarum
German Jews of the twelfth century. From Herrad von Landsperg, Hortus deliciarum

The Judenhut as the name suggests was commonly forced upon the Jewish community. However, it was also forced upon those who had folk practices, followed the old beliefs, used folk medicine, and was also forced upon criminals to wear to remove the prior standing of their class publicly. This being the case, individuals who identify as a Witch or a Pagan today would find themselves in this hat in Medieval Europe.

As bigotry grew through Christianized Europe so did extreme fundamentalism, racism, and general hate of anyone different. They began limiting the movement of individuals who were forced to wear such hats to ghettos. There would be waves of Panic that would result in mass executions of those rounded up in these ghettos. Cauldrons were used in many ways to conduct mass executions, from very large caldrons they literally threw people in while boiling, to using boiling water, oil, and even metals to pour over groups of people.

Other characteristics such as warts, legions, and green skin are also all interconnected. Exposure to arsenic through reading books dyed green, or dyed green garments would lead to legions and warts and could ultimately cause severe poisoning that could take one’s life. Copper was commonly used in restraints, turning skin green for those who had been kept in the restraints.

While Alewives undoubtedly used Cauldrons in their trade, and there was indeed misinformation mounting that the brews made by Alewives were less sanitary, less pure, and of a lower quality, it was more of a conflation of earlier stereotypes that evolved in iconography of the times demeaning of Alewives. Much how modern memes work on a conflation of often humorous or demeaning content from various times in both modern and historical, the same was done with wood cuttings and paintings, and other forms of illustration throughout history. In premise, the iconographic conflation in medieval times is akin to what we would call a meme today. Several attributes would get amalgamated to promote hate and demeaning caricatures.


This was a time of mass illiteracy in Medieval Europe, so a commoner being able to read and write would be a threat to the status quo and control, especially if a woman could read or write. This was a time when imagery, symbology, illustrations, iconography, and other forms of visual art would be used to convey laws, teachings, beliefs, and news.

People were also very superstitious yet knew there were some associations to books and warts as well as green skin and copper restraints. In these times, an image of a person wearing a Judenhut appearing next to a cauldron would be a strong warning that if someone forced to wear that hat were caught in that area, they would be executed.

You can see when you bring all these elements together that there is a lot of hate actually in the image of a warty green witch next to a caldron while wearing a black pointy hat. Similar to anti-Semitic and other Racist caricatures. It is an amalgam of hate and stereotypes.

Modern Usage – Reclamation or Hate Speech

In our modern day, the usage of these symbolized forms of hate speech is widely regarded as kitsch and fun. However, there is a contextual element that is being overlooked that lends that it is still undignified and a characterization in hateful forms of appropriation.

Ceremoniously, reclamation makes sense. There is an active “Taking Back” in reverence of the symbols, prying it from the derogatory meaning. Similar to how Pagans reclaimed the word, Pagan. But when done as a joke, or to be funny, there is a bit of an ethical problem because one is obliging ridicule. A practicing witch would not let a child take their altar tools to scrape up against cement with permission, and we should be as mindful of the symbolic reminders that we would be executed for existing. Reclamation is empowerment, not disenfranchisement. This is why a white person painting themselves in “Blackface” is wildly inappropriate. It is disenfranchisement, Hate Speech, and Ridicule. The same goes for the Warty Green Witch and any other “Witch Caricature”. Unironically, we too are fighting to this day for our civil rights.

Final Thoughts

While many in the Pagan and Witch community enjoy these symbols and often incorporate or utilize them in an empowering way, we have to be mindful of what the history is and respectful of what our predecessors had endured. It is not to say that fun can not be part of empowerment. However, there is a fine line between fun and giving power to stereotypes and hate. These objects are to be as respected as any other religious relic, not to be misused or made fun of by those who adhere to it. Give proper care and use with empowering intent, not some kind of kitsch that demeans the symbols for the pleasure of others. Be careful also, that these symbols transcend gender identity and biological sex. There is also a fine line between and misogyny as well as misandry steeping into supremacy. Have fun and grow confidence, but do not feed that which others use to sew hate against our collective cross-sectioning beliefs. Most of all, Blessed Be!