Calling Gloria Steinem and Dr. Freud: Hans Baldung’s Witches

The German artist, Han Baldung, active throughout the early 1500s, was a supporter of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, and seems to have had a bit of an obsession with portraying witches in different media, from woodcuts to drawings. In this image, Baldung imagines four nude women, presumably in the woods alone at night, with a cat. Baldung is no feminist. He appears to believe that only the foulest deeds can come of women, nude and unaccompanied by men, who gather outside the confines of town.

With her rear, one of the women is starting a fire, or inflaming the concoction of a spell, while the cat vomits. Another woman holds a stick with skewered sausages or intestines on it, but the image may also be sublimating a male fear of castration. Witches making off with men’s penises would not have been a joke among men in Europe at this time. The “Malleus Maleficarum,” for example, speaks of witches who “collect male organs in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird’s nest . . .” (Summers translation p. 121).

Baldung’s witches, perhaps evoking little more than curiousity today, may have carried a more powerful punch on being viewed by people not accustomed, as we are, to explicit and scatalogical images.  

Baldung’s portrayals of witches were not just art, but assisted the culture in controlling women’s range of behavior. His portrayals would have stirred passions against women who might be suffering from mental illness, or who seemed otherwise odd, or noncomformist.

What we look on today with relative indifference, amusement, or annoyance, would not have been viewed so in the early 1500s.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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