Modern witches are harnessing the power of dark forces to create their own cultural identity—one that seeks to smash the patriarchal systems that have long suppressed women and all those labeled as “other.” Girded for battle, darklings clothe themselves in black garments festooned with occult sigils, both Satanic and pagan, and adorn themselves with bats, spiders, and snakes. The snake, perhaps, does not seem to belong in that Gothic bestiary. And yet it is the true clavicle to understanding the construction of witches as toxic vixens—an anti-woman trope, now reclaimed—that has proven an effective weapon in our fight for freedom in an increasingly oppressive culture.
Serpents and Contagion
The medieval world inherited snake lore as part of Christian mythology. In early saints’ lives and miracle tales, serpents and dragons were conflated into a reptilian source of both plague and heresy. Saint Sylvester, for example, was said to have saved Rome from a dragon whose plague-inducing breath killed three hundred people a day. He proved the hero by stitching the dragon’s mouth shut and binding it with a cruciform wax seal. In the sixth century CE, Pope Gregory the Great wrote a letter complaining that people in Rome were dying from a plague caused by the exhalations of serpents infesting the Tiber River. Saints Hilary, Martin of Tours, and Patrick (as well as George, no longer a saint) fought dragons and defeated them with spiritual and physical weapons. In all of these examples, the serpent’s toxic breath was equated with the false doctrines of heretics, a spiritual plague that infected the Christian social body and threatened the patriarchal authority of the Church.
And then there was the original snake—the serpent who slithered through frescoes of the Garden of Eden. Not yet associated fully with either Satan or Lilith (whose midrash tale was unknown to medieval Christians), the Eden Serpent was often depicted as a snake-woman curling around the tree of knowledge and beckoning to a rather confused Eve. It was this female serpent, wise and cunning, who brought humans out of clueless obedience and into inquisitive autonomy. Modern witches see the glory in this. Medieval Christian clerics did not.
Woman as Snake
From the thirteenth century forward, snakes and women became increasingly intertwined in texts—to neither’s benefit. In bestiaries, snakes were described as cold and moist, Aristotelian qualities that scholastic philosophers associated with corruption and evil. They were legless and low in their postlapsarian state, born of fetid soil and bound to the earth for eternity. And of course they were toxic. The basilisk and dipsa were serpents so poisonous that their breath killed from a distance. To be spotted by one of these creatures was to die.
Similar themes are found in the work of anti-woman authors such as Jacques de Vitry (d. 1240) and Pseudo-Albertus Magnus (late-13th / early 14th century), both of whom associated serpentine toxicity with feminine evil. In sermons, de Vitry described women as spider-like and poisonous creatures whose sexual depredations caused devils to flee. Pseudo-Albertus Magnus, on the other hand, moved beyond metaphor and attempted to prove the venomous nature of women by cherry-picking medical theory and forcing it into the service of theology. In The Secrets of Women, he argued that women’s bodies were cold and moist (phlegmatic) in youth and cold and dry (melancholic) in old age. These humoral complexions linked the female body with elemental water and earth, both of which engendered corruption, decay, and the birth of fetid creatures such as snakes through spontaneous generation. A woman was most toxic during menstruation. According to Pseudo-Albertus, a menstruating woman’s body became so cold and humid that if one were to bury her “venomous” hair in earth it would soon spawn snakes. These snakes were “extremely venomous, for the matter from which [each] was produced was exceedingly putrid.” One of his commentators explains that “the reason for this is that hairs are made from vapors that have risen to the cerebrum, and these humors are undigested in women, and they are poisonous because of the cold that remains in them; therefore, from this type of rotting, a serpent is generated” (The Secrets of Women, 96).
The Evil Eye
For many male clerics, the true source of a woman’s toxicity was her corrupt womb, filled with fetid menses—a condition that intensified after menopause when the body no longer shed its rotting blood. Noxious blood fumes rose from the womb through the body and exited through the hair (as we have seen), the breath, and the eyes. In the medieval world, the act of seeing involved physical contact. Pneuma, a sort of rarefied air inside of the body, traveled through the eye, reached out to the object seen, touched it, and returned with information to the brain. If a poisonous woman stared too long at another person, she could physically infect them with her toxic pneuma. The Secrets of Women warns men to avoid such women, “because from this foulness the air is corrupted, and the insides of a man are brought to disorder” (128). Children were particularly susceptible, for “the humors first infect the eyes, then the eyes infect the air, which infects the child” (Secrets, 129). The wicked woman’s saliva also contained venom, so even spitting was seen as a cursed form of poisoning.
Satan’s Poisonous Witches
Venomous women are at the dark heart of late-medieval and early modern witchcraft treatises. In the terrified male imagination, the witch not only produced poisonous substances from her body, but also used Satanic poisons and unguents concocted with the help of demons. Building on the Malleus Maleficarum (1486), Nicholas Remy’s Demonolatry (1595) argues that witches used three types of poison powders. “The powder which kills is black; that which only causes sickness is ashen, or sometimes reddish in color” (Remy, 3). A white powder mimicked miracles and mocked the Christian god. Where did witches get these powders? According to the Demonmania of Witches (1580), Satan distributed them to the faithful at the Sabbath (Bodin, 116-17). These poisons were then administered to sleeping victims “by the light of a candle burning with a sulphurous flame” (Remy 104). Witches also concocted toxic unguents such as the “flying ointment” from toads and snakes as well as the boiled flesh of “murdered children” (Guazzo 34; Lancre 139). While lethal to others, both powdered poisons and unguents were harmless to the witches who came into frequent contact with them. Like snakes, witches were “naturally poisoned,” therefore they could not “poison themselves” (Secrets, 131). Instead, their contact with poisons only fortified their already venomous power.
Venomous Bitches Unite
The construction of woman as toxic serpent is deeply rooted in the Christian West. In a world where the patriarchal war on women is gaining power from conservative forces, let us embrace our inner snakes—for this is what they fear most. Bear your fangs, hiss with glee, slither naked through cool grass and sleep in the warm sun. Frolic in nature for it belongs to you, Dear Dirgeling. And never cease to seek knowledge and uncover hidden truths. Eat that apple. Share it around. You are the Eden Snake, and the garden belongs to you.
Bodin, Jean. On the Demonmania of Witches, trans. Randy A. Scott (Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 1995).
Guazzo, Francesca Maria. Compendium Maleficarum, trans. Montague Summers (New York: Dover, 1988).
Jacques de Vitry, Sermones Feriales et Communes 18.4 in The Faces of Women in the Sermons of Jacques de Vitry, trans. Carolyn Muessig, (Toronto: Peregrina Publishing, 1999), 25.
Lancre, Pierre de. On the Inconstancy of Witches, trans. Joseph O’Connor et al. (Tempe: ACMRS Publications, 2006).
Lemay, Helen Rodnite. A Translation of Pseudo Albertus Magnus’ De Secretis Mulierum with Commentaries (Albany, NY: SUNY University Press, 1992).
Remy, Nicholas. Demonolatry, trans. Montague Summers (New York: Dover, 2008).