Reprint: “Of Witchcraft, Brewsters and Beer”

Preface – How I Learned the True Tale of the Witch

The conference poster

I first met noted beer anthropologist Alan Eames in 2006 when he (along with comic artist Stephen Bissette and Joe Citro) organized the first (and sadly, only) “Lovecraft In Vermont” conference in Brattleboro. The conference was a weekend affair, primarily taking place with speakers and films on Saturday, and with evening readings on Friday and walking tours of Lovecraftian sights on Sunday. The talks on Saturday were all immensely fascinating, and were some of the first scholarly exploration of the author I had ever heard. I had a terrific time there with my friend C. and was looking forward to Alan and company’s next event, as it had been over 5 years since the final NecronomiCon had occurred in Providence, Rhode Island.

Alan’s roots as a scholar, anthropologist, and researcher were well demonstrated by his unearthing of a review from the Brattleboro Reformer from 1928 comparing Lovecraft to Poe and discussing his visit to Guilford. He wrote his own analysis of Lovecraft in the selfsame publication nearly 80 years later!

When I later heard Alan speaking on NPR on the topic of “the iconic Halloween witch” and the origin of that symbol, I was delighted to hear more from this learned fellow – and the knowledge he dropped in his story really gripped me with its poignancy: in particular that the “winners” write history, and yet can never truly eradicate the “loser” from their narrative without erasing their own story of triumph; how little things change over time and how history repeats itself so tragically; and how a bit of cultural and historical context can completely and forever change one’s perception of a thing.

Unfortunately, I was not to meet Alan again, and the conference itself never repeated. His sudden death had a sonderful impact on me; I wished we had connected more on the things we both enjoyed, and that he could have continued his anthropological and scholarly work. I took it upon myself to retell his story of the origin of the witch icon when I found an opportunity; since Halloween looms once more, I will do so this time with Alan’s own words, in an article he penned since I cannot currently access the NPR audio recording where he told the tale.

I have decided to reprint the entirety of Alan’s article here due to the fact that it is only available online as a cached copy at the Internet Archive, and I want to see his scholarly opinion survive long into the future and be inscribed onto the computer medium he never really used. Please enjoy!

Of Witchcraft, Brewsters and Beer

By Alan D. Eames

ASN Vol. 14, No. 5 (October – November 2005, Pg. 10)


“How now, you secret, black and midnight hags?”
Macbeth IV, I

Some 10 years ago on a warm Vermont autumn afternoon I saw the witch. I had an epiphany – an overwhelming, instantaneous revelation that drew the threads of 30 years’ experience as a cultural anthropologist into crystal clear focus. She wasn’t a real witch, only a child’s Halloween decoration resting in a shop window in this drowsy small town. My witch was made of jig-sawed wood – just a silhouette. She stood bent, old and ugly, broomstick in hand, over a foam-topped cauldron while her black cat gazed on. The cat, the kettle, the witch’s pointed hat and broom; all these details of Halloween struck me full force. This cut-out witch woman, the stuff of childhood memory, was a brewster! No doubt about it, she was making beer! Her black cauldron – impossible to mistake – was a brewing vessel, its shape unchanged for thousands of years. There was even barm – yeast – bubbling over the top.

Returning home, I began sorting through hundreds of pictures I had taken all over the world. In photo after photo, century after century, the strict design of these beer pots – some pre-dating the beginning of recorded history – was always the same. The beer pot’s distinctive shape, narrow neck and fat round bottom had evolved through trial and error and is unique among all ancient and modern ceramics.

In the myths and legends of ancient times, we find that witches have always been with us. There is, however, a difference between the witch of the ancient world and our dearly held version. To the Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, witches were not old, ugly, withered crones. To the contrary. If there was one singular feature to ancient world witches, it was the view that a witch was always a creature of outstanding beauty. Ancient witches seduced men, not with spells but through drop-dead good looks. The transformation in popular imagination of the witch from young and beautiful enchantress into old, hideous hag did not occur until the middle of the 15th century, about the time the Christian Church began to muscle in on the beer business.

My dictionary defines a witch as:

  1. a person, especially a woman, who practices magic;
  2. an ugly or malignant woman; hag. Witch, in Old English, is from Wiccan, meaning to practice sorcery.

To lend perspective, bear in mind that the knowledge of what happens in brewing – what process is at work when beer is brewed – lies less than 130 years in our past. Until Louis Pasteur came to rescue the French beer and wine industry, no one knew how and why fermentation occurred. Before Pasteur, it was all goddesses, spirits, and magic. Secret female stuff.

For thousands of years, beer making was the exclusive domain of women, until the age of Industrial Revolution (in the mid-19th century). Before this, women maintained power and status in male dominated societies through their skills as brewsters. In all ancient cultures, beer was believed to be a gift from a goddess – never a male god. Still surviving in the world’s most remote places – Mongolia to the Amazon, from Africa to isolated Scandinavian villages – places where the long shadow of Budweiser does not fall.only women brew.
How did this happen? How was the ubiquitous village brewster transformed into witch – an old crone consorting with the Devil, who worked only evil?

I found the answer to this paradox in dusty archives in France, Germany, and Scotland. Court records hold minimal information regarding those accused of witchcraft; name, age (if known), and occupation. In the last category, I discovered a clue. Zeroing in on the occupations of condemned women, I was stunned to discover that some 60 percent of those who had occupations referred to themselves as brewster, alewife, or midwife. Remember that our notion of “witch” came along simultaneously with

  1. The rise and spread of the early Church;
  2. The birth of commercial male-run breweries; and
  3. The creation of guilds for physicians/surgeons.

The Christian campaign against witchcraft erupted in the middle of the 15th century. Like a plague, it spread. Thousands were tortured, burned at the stake, or hung. This frenzy was – at its heart – a suppression of women and all things feminine; a hallmark of the early Church. Anxiety over female sexuality – became an either/or proposition – the Virgin Mary or the harlot. With the rise of cities and towns came commercial breweries. Only recently had men begun to brew within the walls of monasteries and church compounds. Governments quickly saw that large, established brewing enterprises offered rich sources of revenue via taxes. By the year 1445, the first “men only” brewers’ guild was established. Prior to this time, beer making was virtually nonexistent outside the home. All married women baked their own bread and brewed their own beer.

In both Old Europe and in the New World, a woman with a surplus of beer found ready cash by selling ale to any thirsty passersby. To promote this source of income, women would place a broom in the road in front of their house. As villages turned into cities, women with a reputation for good beer permanently moved their brooms from the road to hang perpendicular over the door to their cottage. In time, houses became so crowded together, some enterprising brewster hung her broom – cantilevered – over the door – thus was born the first of all trade signs. The association of brooms with brewery is still seen from Africa to Peru, a lingering sign that beer making was a trade unique to women. Why the broom? By the 10th century, the ubiquitous broom had become the quintessential symbol of a woman’s household.

Consider next the witch’s hat, that tall-steepled black headgear every child associates with “witch”. Our witch/midwife has her best days selling ales at fairs and festivals. These events – not entirely unlike our own county fairs and carnivals – drew the biggest, longest, free-spending thirsty audiences to the brewsters. Extending even to the weekly rural market days, people crowded into these events from all over the surrounding area. Amidst throngs of customers and vendors – alewives found the best way to sell was to be seen. Looking down an endless line of booths, a brewster was easy to find towering over everyone with her two to three foot high “witch” hat. By the 16th century the brewster’s hat, along with her broomstick, became the hallmarks of her trade.

Every witch has a cat. It’s an expected prerequisite to witch fashion. Why the cat? Anyone who has had stores of grain in the house will know. Rats! Rural women whose livelihood depended on the reputation of their ale protected their costly ingredients. Unlike today, cats were expected to feed themselves, guarding grain stores in the process. To the early Church, cats became the fabled “familiars”: agents of the Devil, nourished on its owner’s blood through a witch’s teat – a hidden nipple bestowed by the Devil himself. Some historians (myself included) ascribe many European outbreaks of plague and other pandemics to the Church having killed off tens of thousands of cats. Seeing Puss as a diabolical agent of Satan, it’s a miracle any of them survived.


“Midwives and nurses mediated the mysteries of birth, procreation, illness and death. They touched the untouchable, handled excrement and vomit as well as milk, swaddled the dead as well as the newborn. They brewed medicines from plants and roots, and presided over neighborhood gatherings of women.”
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale (1990).

Here then is a profile of a European witch and/or her New World counterpart. These women resemble, in every way, our beloved Halloween icon. A figure of fear and menace spawned by the fevered, misogynist imagination of the early Church. Widowed or never married, our witch is an independent woman living alone earning her living as a midwife while dispensing herbal lore and treatments. Of middle years, our witch – along with many in her village – adhere to the gods of the old religion: goddesses of fertility and nature. Anthropologist Margaret Murray observed: “The god of the old religion becomes the devil of the new.” Refusing religious conversion, our brewster soon becomes a target for the clergy and their interests. As an herbalist and healer, our witch well knows the properties and powers of the plants she gathers in the woods. Further, she well knows the mind and mood altering power to be found in some mushrooms and herbs. Then, as now, people seek out that which is most desirable. In beer, this is another way of saying the strongest will always be in greatest demand.

Elsewhere, in town, new commercial ale breweries must operate within established business hours almost always set by Church officials. Our witch had no such constraints on trade and would sell to anyone, anytime, who had the coin to pay. An additional burden on the male-operated breweries and taverns were taxes placed on the beer they sold.
Lastly, the emerging trade of doctor/surgeon has been established with its own guild to strengthen and protect the medical profession. Then, as now, doctors frowned on alternative medicine. Faced with growing ire from the Church, doctors, commercial brewing interest, tavern keepers, and tax collectors – it was inevitable that these eccentric brewster/midwives would feed the fires of an inquisition that would claim the lives of tens of thousands of women.

Now, only the faintest echo lingers from the voices of these doomed women. Once a year, in October, the image of these unfortunate women emerges – at Halloween.

NOTE: This article is dedicated to the memory of my ancestor, Rebecca Eames of Boxford, MA. She was condemned to death for witchcraft on September 17, 1692. Rebecca Eames was unique – not only confessing to having had sex with the Devil – but worse – having enjoyed it.

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