The woodcut of 1510 projects the viewer into a world of chaos: one full of night terrors, indecorous women who fly through the air on cooking forks and goats, brew up volatile poultices, cannibalize infants, fornicate with demons, and unleash maleficia upon the innocent people of Christendom. Depending on the audience, the chiaroscuro woodcut confirms male fears and fantasies about witches. The appearance of sausages in the image alludes to the belief that witches could castrate men, appropriate their victim’s phalluses for their own pleasure and diabolical purposes, and leave their victims uncertain whether their castration is actual or illusory. By depicting witchcraft as realistically as possible, Hans Baldung Grien forced his viewers to question the differences between reality and fantasy.
Early modern European literature on demonology described the effects of witchcraft as fantastic images – images created by the imagination. Theorists who were skeptical about the reality of witchcraft and the source of a witch’s power argued that these women who believed they could fly at night, were victims of their own deluded imaginations. The theorist Jan Wier (also known as Johann Weyer) argued in De praestigiis daemonum (1651-1652) that witchcraft occurred only as an illusion in the imagination. According to Wier, women fell pray to the devil’s tricks because melancholia weakened their imaginations. Consequently, Wier believed that witchcraft was an image of the mind.
During the Renaissance fantasy became linked with the concept of an artist’s melancholy. For women, melancholy meant a despondent temperament related to femininity, but its valence changed when connected to masculinity. For men melancholy was a form of femininity through which masculinity was defined. Melancholy was associated with intellectual or creative achievement for artists like Albrecht Dürer and Michaelangelo Buonarotti. Melancholy worked in tandem with the concepts of the imagination, fantasy, and genius. People also understood that the imagination and fantasy were vulnerable to demonic influences because of the images they produced. The demonological literature of the time ranged from adamant conviction in the reality of witches to hesitant doubt. However, skepticism about the ability of individuals to perform witchcraft did not lesson theorists’ beliefs in the power of the devil.
Central to many educated Europeans’ understanding of witchcraft lay the belief that witches forged a face-to-face pact with the Devil. This pact initiated witches into his service and gave them the power of maleficia: the practice of black, harmful, or maleficent magic through preternatural or supernatural means, used to inflict sickness, cause disease, and even death. The workers of these acts were called malefici or maleficae, the genered Latin words used to denote male or female witches. Witches met Satan for the first time at the Sabbath where they congregated, sometimes in the hundreds or thousands, to perform their unholy rituals. Theorists believed the Devil would appear with lesser demons to accept infant sacrifices and feast on their bodies. At the Sabbath witches would dance naked, engage in orgiastic rites, blaspheme the Christian faith, and create salves and unguents to further their foul work. Witchcraft theorists strongly believed that witches were an organized sect of Satan’s worshippers; an apostate group that was the ultimate threat to Christian society.
The representations of witchcraft in the works of Hans Buldung Grien and artists like him reveal what it would look like to live in an inverted world, one full of darkness and terror, full of possibilities, and rife with mystery. Their images work simultaneously as projects of reality and fantasy. By manufacturing images for witchcraft treatises and manuals, artists played a key role in developing modern conceptions of witchcraft. They entranced viewers by taking a subject rife with illusion and sexuality and presenting it realistically. Artists made images of witchcraft fantastically improbable by obfuscating distinctions between the natural and unnatural. They complicated ideas of the real world by depicting fantastical events as realistically as possible.
In Hans Baldung Grien’s first independent work, the woodcut of 1510, often misnamed Witches Sabbath or Witches Preparing for Sabbath Flight (fig. 1). The scene in the chiaroscuro woodcut depicts an assembly of witches sitting around a cauldron, flying through the air, feasting in a nocturnal setting. Three cooking forks lie around the cauldron in the shape of a triangle, symbolically binding the witches’ ritual circle together.[i] Above their heads a witch seated backwards on a goat flies through the night sky. She holds a cooking fork and uses it to carry a pot with dubious contents; the bones of an infant, which witches used for transformations and rubbing of their bodies, stew inside the pot. Below the goat-rider another witch holds a brazier towards the night sky and above her another witch flies off, most of her body obscured by a vaporous cloud that leaves only her head and feet visible.
The trio of witches sitting around the cauldron forms the center of the scene. The cauldron rests between the legs of one witch; it has pseudo-Hebraic writing inscribed on its surface. The witch sitting to her right leans in and raises a drinking cup to reveal some sausages hanging from a cooking fork over the cauldron. Her gesture points towards something in the distance. Between these two witches kneels a third extending both her hands towards the sky; with them she holds some drapery and a charger with avian remains. The gazes of these witches direct the viewer to the main activity of the scene, the working of maleficia. The witch gesturing with her glass and the witch raising her platter excitedly look towards the one who pries the cauldron lid open with a serving ladle. She stares at the heterogeneous mixture that spews forth from the cauldron. Frogs and other miscellaneous reagents make up the beginnings of a hailstorm, one of the main forms of maleficium in the witches repertoire. Baldung invokes the theme of the magical female body through the vaporous fluid that gushes forth from the pot. The indeterminate nature of the fluid reflects men’s fear of the evil powers of menstrual blood. His witches’ expellation of menses is reflected in the unruly blowing of her hair. The Malleus Malificarum warned inquisitors that witch’s hair is magical and contains malicious charms. Inquisitors were instructed to shave witches before putting them on trial because within the hair of witches the secret interior space of the female body and their hidden knowledge was reflected. Inquisitors found it necessary to expose the entirety of women’s space. [ii]
Artists and theologians communicated across disciplines to synthesize the developing concept of witchcraft. They developed symbols like the cauldron and flaming pot to emphasize the female body as a site of unholy terror. The cauldron became a motif for representing the female body. Through its repeated use, it connected witchcraft with femininity. In the woodcut of 1510 the group of three women gathered around a cauldron working magic and preparing for the Sabbath immediately identifies them as witches. Associating the cauldron with female activities centered around the hearth and domestic responsibilities such as the preparation of food, nourishing the family, and care for the young and elderly linked witchcraft with the feminine. The 1510 woodcut links female labor and maleficia. While good women prepare food from the cauldron to nourish their husbands and families, witches do the opposite by stealing infants and draining their communities of life for demonic purposes. The presence of the cauldron in this image highlights the physically destructive activities of witches while their naked bodies emphasize the morally destructive powers of women’s flesh.
Male fears and anxieties about female power and female spaces appear in the woodcut of 1510. The woodcut draws the male viewer in voyeuristically by placing him “on the brink of discovery, at the moment his authority is threatened.” [iii] It allows for male viewers to explore the areas of feminine sexuality forbidden to them. Baldung presents his viewers with witchcraft imagery and uses it to explore female bodies, develop his own artistic identity, and promote his authority over the subject matter.
By placing the viewer on the brink of discovery, Baldung allows his audience to experience the unseen, unwitnessed, and the hidden. At first the viewer sees the voluptuous bodies of the naked women and is drawn into the image. None of the witches return his gaze: he can stare undisturbed from his perch, the position of the voyeur. Upon closer inspection though, the viewer sees the cauldron, the sausages, the catalogue of maleficia, and the supernatural activities and realizes what kind of scene he has stumbled upon. Like Pentheus or Acteon, if he allows himself to be seduced, he will inevitably face castration and/or death.
Baldung represents the seizure of male power through the motif of sausages. The viewer can see sausages roasting over a blazing fire underneath the arm of the witch raising her cup. They symbolize witches’ appropriation of male societal roles. In both literary and visual images of carnival sausages represented phalluses and evoked vulgar notions of sexuality during that festival. During carnival the natural order of things became reversed. The lower body, represented by sausages or the bauble, took precedence over the upper body; physical instinct replaced reason. In the 1510 woodcut sausages represented witchcraft as such an inversion, and more specifically, an inversion of the gender order.[iv] The sausages in this ritual scene call attention to the witches’ ability to reverse the gender order by castrating men, thus rendering them impotent. Contemporary viewers also believed witches use maleficia to obtain phalluses in order to procure semen for their demon lovers at the Sabbath.[v] The sausages in the image denote the simple sausage and connote the castrated phallus. Their meaning depends entirely upon the ability of the viewer to read into the image.
Hans Baldung Grien and artists like him enabled viewers to experience witchcraft in all its forms and affirm their beliefs about the spiritual world. Their images had the power to communicate to any group of society regardless of its socioeconomic status. Viewers read the image relative to the level of familiarity they had with the subject of witchcraft. These multivalent images of witchcraft draw upon codes, symbols, and references to history, mythology, and the Bible. The references embedded within the images gave artists an expanded lexicon from which to draw and by linking their works to those of their predecessors they gained authority. For the viewer, the task of seeing the image doubled with the task of reading the image. The viewer might glean a simple message from the image or understand the full range of meaning.
Today we understand witchcraft as fantasy and superstition, but for those who lived in the burning times, it was a real threat. Today the witch returns every Halloween, we see her on screen, in film, in literature, and in video games. For the most part she is harmless, yet the old beliefs are still wrapped into current representations of witches and witchcraft. 
[i] Charles Zika, The Appearance of Witchcraft (New York: Routledge, 2007), 11; Linda Hults, The Witch as Muse (Philidelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 77.
[ii] Joseph Leo Koerner, The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 330-344.
[iii] Linda C. Hults, The Witch as Muse: Art, Gender, and Power in Early Modern Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2005), 82-84.
[iv] Zika, The Appearance of Witchcraft, 13.
[v] Jane P. Davidson, The Witch in Northern European Art (Luca Verlag Freren, 1987), 22.
Solomon Salim Moore resides in Altadena, California at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. He helps manage a farmers’ market and started a fermentation club with his neighbors. When he is not fermenting things like sauerkraut and beer he spends his time making DIY crafts projects, hiking, and meditating through ecstatic dance. This guest post is an excerpt from Salim's thesis "Out of the Cauldron: Witchcraft in the Artwork of Hans Baldung Grien and David Teniers the Younger" (2011).