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.

22 responses to “Witches and Trees

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