Dürer, The Witch (detail)
Albrecht Dürer, The Witch (detail), ca. 1500. Engraving, 4 ½ × 2 ¾ inches. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Witches and deadly creatures have existed in popular culture for centuries. Art historian Yassana Croizat-Glazer examines their relationship at a particular moment in time.

Table of Contents:
Some Familiar Historical Ideas on What Makes a Witch
A Note On Evil Goats and Their Connection to Witches and the Devil
From Evil Goats to Scapegoats
Witches Behaving Badly
Sexuality, Threat, and Decay: When the Representation of Witches and Eve Intersect

When I was kid, I couldn’t get enough of She-Ra, Shrinky Dinks, Legos—and deadly animals. Long before the marketing coup that is “Shark Week” erupted into our living rooms, I knew what a goblin shark looked like and could recite by heart the timeline of the 1916 New Jersey attacks. And while sharks were—and always will be—my favorite apex predators, many others have caught my eye since, from bark scorpions and blue-ringed octopuses to Komodo dragons and black mambas. 

At some point during my Play-Doh-eating years, an adult expressed consternation over my fascination, buttressing their surprise with a “but kittens are soooo much cuddlier” and twitchy smile. As my interests in sharp teeth and animal venom grew, so did some people’s need to reconcile what they perceived as a weird and somewhat disturbing side of my personality with the more “conventional” rest of me.

These days, we think of goats more as petting zoo material but their horns can cause serious damage; to the Early Modern mind, these farm animals were symbolic of lust and associated with the devil himself, often portrayed with horns, hooves and shaggy fur.

I could have become a herpetologist, an entomologist, or even a plain old biologist, but ultimately, I chose to become an art historian. My interest in deadly things was to remain a hobby … Or so I thought. From the onset of my studies, I found myself especially drawn to the art of Northern Europe of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, a period when the relationship between women, death, and deadly creatures was a source of great fascination. With my favorite holiday (Halloween of course) nearly upon us, it seems like just the right time to delve into this haunting imagery—and the beliefs behind it.

Some Familiar Historical Ideas on What Makes a Witch

To the Western imagination, nothing quite encompasses the trinity of woman, death, and deadly animal like a witch. In Europe, much of the foundations of what constitutes a witch as she exists today in popular culture was laid as early as the 1430s. At that time, several texts appeared that established the core characteristics of this marginalized category of person, including subverting Christianity, worshipping Satan, consuming human flesh (especially babies), and participating in wild, orgiastic gatherings known as sabbaths. 

“Experts” on the matter, including theologians and jurists, weighed in on questions such as whether witches had the power to cause disease and desire in others, transform themselves into animals, or alter the weather—a very frightening possibility given that disastrous storms meant destitution and famine. Defining these “clues” was important because to combat such nefarious individuals, it was first necessary to identify them. 

The Witches’ Kitchen, Ulrich Molitor
The Witches’ Kitchen, from Ulrich Molitor, De Laniss et phitonicis mulieribus (On Witches and Sorceresses). Reutlingen: J. Otmar, 1489.

In a country like Germany, where much literature on witches originated, attitudes on the subject were more complex than we might think today. In fact, witch trials were less systematic than they were destined to become in places like 17th-century Salem, and the nature and extent of a witch’s power were regularly debated. 

Published in 1488–89, Ulrich Molitor’s “On Witches” advanced, for example, the idea that sabbaths were really a conjuring trick of the devil, a mirage of sorts. Although Molitor was skeptical of witchcraft, his text is particularly remarkable for its inclusion of seven woodcuts showing witches engaged in various activities—an unusual feature at a time when they were most often described through word rather than image.

In one of these illustrations, two otherwise ordinary, if slightly haggard, women are shown brewing a hailstorm. Inherently dangerous, the (phallic) snake is allied within the space of the picture to the (masculine) cock, a symbol of lust; both are made even more threatening by the fact that they are handled by women who make strange potions and wield powers shrouded in secrecy. 

Dürer, The Four Witches
Albrecht Dürer, The Four Witches (Four Naked Women), 1497. Engraving, 7 ½ × 5 3/16 inches. Cleveland, Cleveland Museum of Art.
Dürer, The Witch
Albrecht Dürer, The Witch, ca. 1500. Engraving, 4 ½ × 2 ¾ inches. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A Note On Evil Goats and Their Connection to Witches and the Devil

Around two decades later famed German printmaker, Albrecht Dürer, sunk his burin so to speak into the topic of witches, and from that moment on, the sexualization of sorceresses in art had arrived with a capital A. In fact, his first dated engraving shows four seductive nude women in an interior strewn with bones, presumably working at the behest of the devil in the background—an image clearly presenting witches as treacherous seductresses.

Dürer is to me one of the greatest creators ever, and certainly one of the top people to pop into my head when asked what historical figure I would most like to share a meal with. I’m pretty sure that sharing a schnitzel with Dürer, preferably bedecked in slashed black and white satin, would be just the right mix of raucous fun and deeply melancholic moments. High on my list of topics to pick his brain about would be his engraving of a witch riding a flying goat backwards. 

But before considering this image, I have to ask whether you’ve seen the 2015 movie “The Witch” (directed by Robert Eggers)? If not, do yourself a favor and watch it, though you may not sleep for a few days. I bring it up here because it stars the world’s scariest goat, which has since acquired quasi-cult status. These days, we think of goats more as petting zoo material but their horns can cause serious damage; to the Early Modern mind, these farm animals were symbolic of lust and associated with the devil himself, often portrayed with horns, hooves and shaggy fur

So, please keep that cinematic goat and its wild eyes in your thoughts when you look at Dürer’s print, and you’ll be reminded of just how terrifying these hooved mammals can be. Take an even closer look and you’ll notice that the shrieking, naked woman riding backwards on the goat has hair that flows in the wrong direction—proof that she goes against the natural order of things, just like the hailstorm she has conjured.

With one hand, she holds a spindle (or broom) of which the tip disappears between her legs, while with the other she grabs the goat’s horn (conveniently aligned with her buttock)—all gestures with lascivious meanings. The fact that she is lustful yet too old to bear children is yet another sign of her perversion. Beneath the witch, mischievous winged babies engage in various activities, such as holding an alchemist’s pot that can double as her cauldron, or a thorn apple plant, then believed to hold magical properties. Even the artist’s AD monogram is backwards—further evidence of the menace of inversion posed by witchcraft. 

From Evil Goats to Scapegoats 

Dürer’s memorable images likely emerged when they did for different reasons. In the prosperous city of Nüremberg, the artist moved in erudite circles where the literature of ancient Greece and Rome was being studied, including texts with all manner of women with supernatural powers. In fact, Dürer’s image of a witch flying backwards on a goat may have been inspired by Canidia, a character featured in the writings of Roman authors Horace and Lucian. The emergence of the “Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches),” a demonological treatise written by the Dominican Inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and Swiss Jacob Sprenger, likely played a role as well. 

The root causes of the period’s fear of sexual desire in women are varied, but certainly part of it had to do with concern that infidelity could lead to illegitimate heirs and therefore to the acquisition of one man’s property by another man’s child.

First published in 1487, this highly popular text served as a manual for affirming the existence of witches, describing their practices and asserting the fact they were more commonly women than men. This is not to say that men were not targeted as witches in various parts of Europe in this period—in 16th-century Normandy for instance, male shepherds and priests were frequently accused of casting spells using toad venom and stolen eucharists, acts for which they were prosecuted. 

While in practice, men were definitely victims, women held a particular attraction for witch-crazed authorities, and in many ways this was validated by the “Malleus Maleficarum,” The text made it easier to pursue individuals on the margins of society, such as women healers (especially elderly ones), and also reinforced patriarchal structures by encouraging the limitation of women’s agency and their perpetual domestication.

Baldung, The Witches’ Sabbath
Hans Baldung, The Witches’ Sabbath, 1510. Color woodcut from two blocks, tone block orange-brown, 14 5/8 × 10 inches. London, British Museum.

“The Hammer of Witches” describes in minute detail how witches are in league with the devil, essentially acting as their earthly helpers, how they went about recruiting other witches, what kind of powers they had (basically those rehashed in Molitor’s text mentioned above) and how best to prosecute them, including various torture techniques. Sabbaths, too, were a point of discussion, becoming the subject of possibly the most famous of witchcraft images from the period, a woodcut by Dürer’s pupil, Hans Baldung Grien. (In case you were wondering, in a perfect world, my dream dinner with Albrecht would end with Hans joining us for a Schnaps tasting and me asking lots of questions).   

Scary goats make an appearance in Baldung’s vision as well, and so too does the naked female body, whether old, young, voluptuous or desiccated, and seen from all angles. The artist’s first step in conveying the hyper-sexuality of these figures, and therefore their depravity, was to strip them of their clothing, markers of civility and propriety. Their “loose” postures are meant to suggest equally loose morals. In case there was any doubt these ladies are up to no good, human skeletal remains (leftover from a snack?), misappropriated liturgical paraphernalia and simmering flying potions act as additional proof that evil is afoot. By using an orange woodblock tone for his figures and highlights, Baldung further enhanced the image’s hellish atmosphere. As the “Hammer of Witches” was not illustrated, this kind of easily disseminated print united just the right elements to fuel imaginations hungry for more than just verbal descriptions of orgiastic gatherings of flying, cannibalistic, nymphomaniac women taking place beyond the reach of male scrutiny. 

Baldung, New Year’s Greeting with Three Witches
Hans Baldung, New Year’s Greeting with Three Witches, 1514. Pen and white ink, heightened with white, on brown prepared paper. 12 × 8 ¼ inches, Vienna, Albertina Museum.

Witches Behaving Badly 

Another remarkable image by Baldung illustrating witches is a small drawing from 1514 inscribed “to the cleric, a good year.” Yet again, the artist portrays women of different ages simultaneously, and announces their diabolical nature through their nudity, bizarre behavior, and the presence of a fuming potion. Gone from Baldung’s drawing are most of the trappings of witchcraft seen in the sabbath woodcut, in particular the animals, a role fulfilled here in a way by the women themselves. 

Their animalistic character is emphasized through the arrangement of their bodies, in which parts appear disconnected, self-pleasuring occurs, and wide eyes seem to float beneath a thigh, a formula that lives up to “The Hammer of Witches ” declaration that “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.”

The root causes of the period’s fear of sexual desire in women are varied, but certainly part of it had to do with concern that infidelity could lead to illegitimate heirs and therefore to the acquisition of one man’s property by another man’s child. Baldung’s grotesque touches were likely meant to add a comic note to his compositions, possibly again a reference to witch-related literature of the ancient world, which frequently had a humorous component. Sexual jokes were also very much a part of contemporary demonological treatises. 

So what are we to make of this drawing given that it was a New Year’s greeting to a cleric? It was probably meant as an illustration of the blasphemous malice the cleric in question would have been fighting through his religious work. It may also have been meant to crack a smile, and certainly invite a lingering look—to act as a teasing gift for New Year’s, a time when greater behavioral license was encouraged to let off some steam (and also a moment, as historian Lyndal Roper remarks, when clerics were supposed to renew their vows of celibacy).  

Baldung, Young Witch and Dragon
Hans Baldung, Young Witch and Dragon, 1515. Chiaroscuro drawing, pen and black ink, grey wash, brush and pen in white on brown primed paper, 11 ½ × 8 1/8 inches. Karlsruhe, Staatliche Kunsthalle.
Baldung, Eve, the Serpent, and Death
Hans Baldung, Eve, the Serpent, and Death, c. 1510–15. Oil on panel, 25 ¼ × 13 inches. Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada.

The subject of witchcraft ignited Baldung’s mind in different ways, resulting in other examples of unusual, disturbing iconography, including “Young Witch and Dragon,” in which a stream connects a young woman’s vagina to a dragon’s mouth. The direction of the fluid remains a matter of discussion, though it may represent menstrual blood flowing from the girl to the terrifying beast, menstruation being yet another source of consternation and suspicion toward women in early-16th-century Europe. 

Sexuality, Threat and Decay: When the Representation of Witches and Eve Intersect

To conclude our journey into the intriguing world of Hans Baldung’s imagery, let’s consider the artist’s portrayal of Eve, because like witches, this biblical figure offered the artist an outlet for exploring the connection between feminine sexuality, death and danger. This focus is especially apparent in the extraordinary painting shown here where the Garden of Eden, home to the first couple, Adam and Eve, according to the Old Testament, is reduced to a tree and dark background.

The Bible relates how the pair was instructed by God not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, a prohibition ignored by Eve who tempts Adam with its fruit. Through this act, she brings about their Fall from paradise, and humanity’s discovery of lust, pain and all sorts of other suffering. 

Many aspects of witchcraft itself are alive and well today in different forms, including in the Wicca religion.

Casting a sly, sideways glance, Baldung’s Eve sashays toward the serpent, while from behind the Tree emerges a decaying body worthy of the scariest of horror flics. The decomposing figure holds an apple, suggesting it’s Adam, whose putrefaction is already under way. At the same time, Eve clutches the snake—hello again, phallic reference—just as Adam is bitten by it while grabbing her, a gesture conveying his longing for her but also the idea that sexual desire is the root cause of his annihilation. 

Just like Baldung’s images of witches often simultaneously stir revulsion, amusement and yearning, so too does this representation of Eve, symbolic of every woman, who is presented as beautiful yet devastating. The message, just like the period’s prevailing attitude toward women, is contradictory. By putting Eve’s nudity on full display, Baldung invites the viewer to ogle her; at the same time, he warns against desiring her by suggesting that left to her own devices, a woman will necessarily bring about destruction. 

Witchcraft continued to inspire artists in the following centuries, as attested to by the nightmarish paintings of Francisco de Goya, Henry Fuseli and others. More recently, women artists such as Hilma af Klint, Leonor Fini and Liz Ophoven have explored subjects including Spiritism, the occult and witches, bringing a fresh perspective to an area traditionally visualized by men.

Moreover, many aspects of witchcraft itself are alive and well today in different forms, including in the Wicca religion. By zeroing in here on a few German artists who developed a complex and often fascinating approach to representing witches at a specific time, my hope was to spotlight several remarkable works of art—and the origins of some harmful clichés and chauvinisms that persist to this day. As for me, marginalized and maligned women in art will continue to hold my attention, and I’ll never apologize for loving tiger sharks more than ponies. 

And lastly, if you happen to look for me this Halloween, you’ll find me in my “Eve” costume hanging by the herpetariums at the Central Park Zoo…