Broom-toting and green-tinged, the Halloween witch is known for cackling, brewing potions, and casting mean-spirited spells on innocents. Or, in recent years, she’s often simply sexy. Here are 11 witches—and “witches”—throughout history who defy the Halloween stereotype.
1. THE WEIRD WITCHES
“You should be women/ And yet your beards forbid me to interpret/ That you are so,” says Banquo in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The Three Witches, also known as the “Weird Sisters,” are some of the most mysterious characters in theater and literature. With their dark, tattered clothing and bubbling cauldron, the Three Witches fit the nightmare image of Europe’s (and, not much later, America’s) witch hysteria of the era. However, their gender-defying beards seemed to imbue them with an “otherness”—and possibly a power—that went beyond the popular understanding of a witch.
The Three Witches have served as muses for countless works of art, and modern productions of Macbeth have reinterpreted the witches as everything from army nurses to goth school girls to drugged-out hippies to sidewalk peddlers. J.K. Rowling even named a rock band that appears in her Harry Potter series “The Weird Sisters.”
2. THE RICH WITCH
Nicknamed the “Witch of Wall Street,” Hetty Green became known for both her extreme frugality and her shrewd business sense during the Gilded Age. Though she was foulmouthed, smelly, and wore the same ragged black clothes day after day, Green was worth what would be billions today. She was the first woman to become a Wall Street magnate.
While other successful Wall Street investors lived in sprawling mansions, Green lived in cramped apartments in Brooklyn and Hoboken. She ate cheap meals of oatmeal warmed over the radiator and discounted pies. To save money on soap, she reportedly insisted that the launderer only clean the hems of her skirts. Many biographers believe that, in an attempt to save money on doctor’s bills, Green neglected an injury to her son Ned’s leg for so long that the limb had to be amputated, but according to Charles Slack’s 2005 Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America’s First Female Tycoon, the amputation wasn’t Green’s fault. Slack claims that Ned was “the principal love of her life.” According to biographer Janet Wallach, Green once pulled a gun on a businessman who threatened Ned.
Green’s strict Quaker upbringing was believed to be the source of her thriftiness. It was also a source of her financial savvy. By the age of six, she was reading financial papers to her wealthy, ailing father and apparently learned quite a bit in the process. When she turned 21, Green began investing an inheritance and multiplied her fortune several times over until she died in 1916. She was often feared and disliked because of her eccentric ways and wasn’t trusted because she barely spent the fortune she amassed. “In the end, her principal crime seems to have been that the rules she chose to live by were her own rather than society’s,” Slack told the New York Times.
3. THE NOT-WICKED WITCH
In the 1939 film classic The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West is the very embodiment of the Halloween witch. Green skin? Check. Pointy hat? Check. Mean, petty, cackling and broomstick-riding? Check.
But the Wicked Witch is not the only witch in the movie. With her sparkling crown, voluminous gown and gentle demeanor, Glinda, otherwise known as the Good Witch, helps the courageous and mostly self-reliant Dorothy make her way through Oz, evade the Wicked Witch, and arrive safely back home with Toto in tow.
4. THE NAZI-FIGHTING WITCHES
When World War II began, the Soviet Union forbid women from enlisting in the military. But in 1941, Joseph Stalin created three female fighter pilot units at the urging of Marina Raskova, “the Soviet Amelia Earhart,” who agreed to train them.
The women wore oversized, hand-me-down uniforms from male pilots, and their missions were dangerous and numerous. Mostly in their teens and early 20s, the female pilots had no guns, parachutes, radar or radios—only compasses and maps. All their missions took place at night, and their faces would often freeze in the breezy, wide-open cockpits. Their planes were flimsy plywood-and-canvas models that were typically used only for crop-dusting.
The whispery “whooshing” noises the planes made as they flew through the night reminded the Nazis of the sound of a broomstick, so they called the women “Nachthexen,” or “Night Witches.” The Nazis also started bizarre rumors about the female pilots. “The Germans spread stories that we were given special injections and pills which gave us a feline’s perfect vision at night,” Nadezhda Popova, one of the Russian pilots, told historian Albert Axell. “This was nonsense, of course. What we did have were clever, educated, very talented girls.”
Flying 30,000 missions over a span of four years, the Night Witches (the pilots adopted the name as a badge of honor) dropped 23,000 tons of bombs on the invading Nazis.
5. THE DOMESTICATED WITCH
In 1964, The Feminine Mystique was brand-new in paperback and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which included a prohibition on sex discrimination. That same year, Bewitched became a TV sensation. The show centered around Darrin Stephens, a successful Madison Avenue ad man, and his loving wife Samantha, a housewife who also happened to be an all-powerful witch. With a mere twitch of her nose, Samantha could easily, if she wanted, have complete power over her mere-mortal husband. (Imagine if Betty Draper had had that same power over Don. The Drapers are, after all, of the same era.)
But despite pressure from her Darrin-disapproving mother to use her power liberally and Darrin’s requests that she curb it, Samantha always managed, by the end of each episode, to strike a fair, healthy balance between the two.
6. THE CHART-TOPPING WITCH
After reading the novel Triad by Mary Leader in the mid-1970s, Stevie Nicks was inspired. The story centered on a woman who is possessed by an otherworldly entity named Rhiannon. Nicks decided to write a song based on the novel, titling it “Rhiannon,” and it became her first huge radio hit with her band Fleetwood Mac. On stage, Nicks often prefaced the performance by saying, “This is a song about an old Welsh witch.” She also took on an intense, witchy stage persona and began wearing all-black outfits.
It wasn’t until several years after the song became legendary that Nicks realized that her memory of the novel had been wrong: her muse wasn’t a witch at all, but a goddess. However, by that point, rumors had long been circulating that Nicks herself practiced witchcraft. “I stopped wearing black for about two years because I was freaked out that someone would come and kidnap me because I was a witch,” Nicks told CBS’s Rita Braver in 2007. “This was crazy because I am not. I like to think that I’m Glinda or something, but I am not a black magic witch.”
A multitude of fans were apparently undaunted by the name’s witchy connotation. Rhiannon, which had been pretty much unheard of in the United States before the song, was a popular baby name throughout the remainder of the ‘70s.
7. THE BANNED WITCHES
The witches in Roald Dahl’s 1983 book The Witches are so hideously grotesque and diabolical (apparently way beyond the ugliness and nastiness of the typical Halloween witch) that the book eventually wound up on the American Library Association’s list of the most frequently challenged books. Some libraries in England have banned it because of perceived misogyny.
However, Jemma Crew argues in the New Statesman that The Witches isn’t sexist because “the story rebels against the aesthetic rules imposed on women."
8. THE HONOR-STUDENT WITCH
Studious and slightly dorky, Sabrina the Teenage Witch used her powers to awkwardly navigate the hell that is adolescence. “Every teenage girl feels like a freak,” Nell Scovell, the TV show’s creator, told The New Yorker’s Susan Orlean at the height of the sitcom’s popularity in 1998. “Sabrina is a normal teenage girl who really is a freak.”
So, basically, Sabrina was just like the rest of us mortals in our teen years, except she commanded the attention of a massive TV audience.
9. THE KNOW-IT-ALL WITCH
When we first meet young Hermione Granger, Harry Potter’s sidekick comes across as a bit of an irritating know-it-all, but throughout the series, Hermione proves herself to be a fiercely loyal friend, a brave and whip-smart associate, and even a compassionate social activist, though still a know-it-all. She was voted the best film role model by children, according to The Telegraph.
Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has said that Hermione was modeled after herself as a child.
10. THE ROCKSTAR WITCH
For decades, Yoko Ono was accused of breaking up The Beatles. So when Ono released an album called Yes, I’m A Witch in 2007, it was hard not to think of it as a retort to all the haters. When Pitchfork asked her about the title of the album, Ono replied, “I'm a witch! Because I'm a witch! The thing is, when I wrote and produced that song in 1974, it was such an incredibly controversial song that everyone said, ‘Don't put it out.’ And it was shelved, you know. …I think that all women are witches, in the sense that a witch is a magical being. And a wizard, which is a male version of a witch, is kind of revered, and people respect wizards. But a witch, my god, we have to burn them.”
Last year, Paul McCartney finally set the record straight when he told David Frost of Al Jazeera English that Ono “certainly didn’t break the group up.”
11. THE POLITICAL WITCH
In 2010, when tea partier Christine O’Donnell was running for Delaware’s Senate seat, Bill Maher released on “Real Time,” his new HBO show, a vintage clip of O’Donnell admitting that she had dabbled in witchcraft.
In a 1999 interview on Maher’s old show Politically Incorrect, O’Donnell told the comedian, "I dabbled into witchcraft. I hung around people who were doing these things. I’m not making this stuff up. I know what they told me they do." She went on to say that one of her first dates with a witch was on a satanic altar, which was smeared with a tiny bit of blood.
O’Donnell responded to the leak by issuing a TV ad in which she insisted, “I am not a witch. I’m not anything like you’ve heard. I’m you.”
Saturday Night Live did a parody, with Kristen Wiig as O’Donnell declaring, “I am you, and just like you, I have to constantly deny that I’m a witch. Isn’t that what the people of Delaware deserve? A candidate who promises first and foremost that she’s not a witch?”
Last year, nearly two years after he leaked the witch tape, Maher apologized to O’Donnell in person on his show. “I gotta say, I don’t agree with your ideas, but it shouldn’t have hung on that stupid witch thing.”
This post originally appeared last year.