Witches and Trees

It strikes me that there are many historical, folkloric, and cultural connections between witches and trees: witches are often described and depicted as gathering under, hanging from, and riding on branches of trees, “witches’ broom” is a tree disease or deformity, the rowan tree was traditionally associated with the warding off of witches. I’m leaving aside the arboreal associations of modern witchcraft. There’s something about the forest primeval in general, and trees in particular, that creates an environment of secrecy and sorcery: this was a setting that was cultivated by Renaissance etchers and resurrected by Victorian illustrators. The trees are often spindly, haggard, misshapen, and barren, like the women underneath them.

Witches Hopfer BM

Witches under a tree 1878


Daniel Hopfer, Gib Frid (Let me Go), early 16th century etching, British Museum; Edward Gurden Dalziel, illustration from Judy Magazine, 13 February 1878, British Museum; Arthur Rackham, ‘The Witches Sabbath’ illustration for ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, George Harrap & Co, 1928.

The association seems to be strongest in the folklore associated with Italian witchcraft. In Benevento, the “City of Witches” (occasionally referenced as the “Italian Salem”), witches from all over the world were said to gather annually under a storied walnut tree–a tree that was definitely fruitful. It’s an age-old, deeply-rooted story whose origins seem impossible to trace (at least for a short blog post), but the streghe under the walnut tree have certainly inspired a variety of cultural expressions and commodities, from works of art to musical compositions to the famous Strega digestif, manufactured right in Benevento since 1860.

Witches at Walnut Tree Guglielmo della Porto mid16th met


PicMonkey Collage

Guglielmo della Porta, The Witches at the Walnut Tree of Benevento, pen and ink drawing, mid 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Lithographed songsheet for Paganini’s Dance of the Witches, 1830s, British Museum; Strega label and walnut tree outside the Alberti factory in Benevento.

To the north there is another representation of witches gathered under a fertile tree:  the famous mural of Massa Maritimma, dating from the mid- to late 13th century and uncovered in 2000. Situated on a wall in the town center enclosing the communal “Fountain of Abundance”, this tree bears strange fruit:  phalluses which the women below are picking and gathering. The discovery of the obscene (???) mural was shocking for some (and its subsequent cleaning remains controversial—you can read about it here), but not to anyone who has any familiarity with the Malleus Maleficarum (the “Witches’ Hammer)  a practical guide to identifying, detecting and prosecuting witches published in 1487. Due to its sheer popularity, which is evidenced by many editions and translations, most historians believe that the Malleus contributed to the intensification of witch-hunting in the early modern era, though its exact role is open to debate. It seems pretty clear to me that the book’s popularity is based in its accessibility, and the sensationalistic anecdotes that its authors (Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger–probably more the former than the latter) include, among them oft-cited passages about witches stealing men’s “virile members” and hiding them in nests nestled in the branches of trees.


Massa Maritime detail

The Massa Marittima Mural and detail; you can see it in situ here, and read more about its symbolism here.

23 responses to “Witches and Trees

  • edmooneyphotography

    Fascinating post, thanks for sharing, 🙂

  • informationforager

    Very good. Very interesting. It’s something I’ve never heard before. The association of witches and trees is kind of sensible in a way.

    In the past(pre 1900) the world was dark. I mean extremely dark. Leaving the city, the fort, or the group meant plunging oneself in a dark abyss. A torch or lamp only provided light for a short distance and whatever shadows were created would be greatly magnified and scary. Early man huddled around campfires and would never venture out at dark. So where must the witches be? Out in the forest, living in the trees.

    Before electrical light man’s methods of illumination were very poor. At the same time it was possible to see clear starred nights like many of us never observed. According to the Bortle Dark Sky Scale


    the area that I currently live in has never allowed us locals to actually see a starry, starry night.

    Whenever I do venture out in the dark I frequently conjure up Dorothy with her exclamation of “Lions, and tigers and bears oh my!” Even then she encountered the witches on her travails. Thanks.

  • Brian Bixby

    Coincidentally, I’ve just been reading “America Bewitched” by Owen Davies (Oxford U. Press, 2013), his account of how witchcraft continued to be a social problem in the U.S long, long after Salem, with witchcraft accusations and killings extending into the 20th century. Informative, though Davies’ attempt to straddle an academic and popular audience doesn’t serve him well in this book, and, sadly, not overabundant in pictures.

    • daseger

      Coincidentally, this book is in the over-stuffed basked under my nightstand, Brian. I’ve been meaning to get to it for a while but just can’t seem to find the time to open it up. I like your comment; that’s what I’m trying to do with the book I’m writing now so maybe I should read Davies as an example of what not to do. How can you pursue a popular audience without images–especially for this topic???

  • markd60

    Some of the images- OK, they look like Halloween witches. But, in the other images from centuries ago, what makes us modern folk think they are witches?

    • daseger

      That’s a great question, Mark–you have to look at lots of contemporary images to see how witches were depicted, and common characteristics emerge: usually (but not always) witches were depicted as crones, and there’s also an increasing tendency to depict them in groups, in the midst of conspiratorial sabbaths.You never see witch’s hats, but brooms or some sort of flying apparatus appear from the late 15th century on.

  • Out of Time

    Fascinating stuff. I had never thought of this connection. Thanks for sharing!

  • learnearnandreturn

    Interesting. I’m sure you are right about the connection, but I also wonder whether some of those later images are influenced by all the Wild Wood/ Brothers Grimm notions of a pagan past. Both Robert Graves in The White Goddess and James Frazier in The Golden Bough make a big deal of trees – Graves even has a pretty specious Celtic tree calendar. It gets hard to untangle original ideas from a re-imagined past. Your Strega walnut tree story is a wonderful example of genuine continuity. Is Strega made from walnuts?

    • daseger

      Your comment about a re-imagined past is spot on–I totally agree. The trees are in the early modern past and then they reappear in the nineteenth and 20th centuries–I’m not sure about continuity. Strega is made of an herbal blend with lots of saffron that gives it its yellow color–the walnut tree is just a reference to the past.

  • jane

    Black walnuts grow on our land. They have yellow casings when they fall off the trees this time of year – about the same color as Strega. The hulls are very caustic. They will burn the skin. (My son wears protective gloves when he removes them.) They turn everything greeny- black and are a natural dye. The inner shells are very tough to crack, thick and knarled (sp?) Other plants often do not like to grow near the walnuts. The horses will not graze under the trees.
    Seems like a good tree to inspire folk tales about witches.

  • Melinda

    Great post and discussion! On the subject of dark night, another good one is:
    “At Day’s Close”, by AR Ekirch.

  • Stephen Fredette

    I’m so charmed. I went searching for the illustration you mentioned and wound up here.

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