blackphillip

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After Thomasin’s entire family dies (one at her own hands) or disappears (what happened to the twins, exactly?) in The Witch her ominously handsome goat Black Phillip talks to her. Black Phillip, who has his own, excellent Twitter account, seems to be an animal familiar, a representative or conduit of some sort of witch or demon. He’s possibly even The Devil Himself.

After everything Thomasin’s witnessed, endured, and done up to this point, she’s now willing to both hear Black Phillip’s voice and get bewitched by his enticing promises. In the world of this movie, Puritan religious preoccupation with swirling witch tales aren’t just paranoia. The film draws heavily from Christian folktales and then delivers them in a kind of realism as if they were literally true, turning the film itself into an extension of this folklore. In the process it de-cutesifies the common tropes we’ve come to associate with witches in popular culture.

In the public consciousness, the culmination of witch paranoia is the 17th century Salem witch trials. In hindsight, we see that the true monsters were the accusers, not the ones accused of witchcraft. The fear and myth of witchcraft far pre-dates this famous witch hunt: panic over witchcraft first started brewing in medieval and Renaissance Europe, and it has a lot more to do with taking drugs and bucking traditional norms than it does with killing babies, inhabiting the bodies of animals and actually flying.

Once he has been conjured by Thomasin, Black Phillip asks her if she would like butter and a new dress. He wants to know if she’d like to see the world. Her entire life has been nothing but hardship, isolation, and being misunderstood. Her whole world has been a meager survival in with a desperate, terrified family who constantly speak of piety and prayer, but are willing to turn on each other in an instant. Forget traveling the world, butter and dresses sound like a fabulous proposition in this situation. “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” he asked. Black Phillip’s seduction is itself odd and meager, he seems to be tempting her with both too much and too little. Black Phillip’s a supernatural figure, possibly Satan himself, but his methods are the same as any power-crazy cult leader: preying on young people with difficult pasts who hunger for more from life, but don’t exactly know what that more could be. “Follow me,” cult leaders like to say. “I’ll give you everything you think you deserve, and much more.”

Satan is closely tied to goat imagery for many reasons. In the Torah + Christian Old Testament, cloven-footed animals like the goat were seen as “unclean.” The horned god Baphomet is sometimes depicted as a goat. After the Roman Catholic Church was established in 325 C.E. The Greek god Pan, who was half-goat and half-man and represented an impish wildness started to be aligned with the concept of Satan. Interestingly enough, Pan’s consort Dionysus is also often seen as a symbol of evil because of his descendant hedonism, but his story parallels many of the details of Jesus’ life. Pan himself has been aligned with Jesus because of his half-human, half-god status, a link made mostly by Christian poets like John Milton. Goats’ sometimes massive and majestically curved horns, and their slit eyes that seems both familiar and other at the same time to us make for compellingly “evil” imagery.

Signing the Devil’s Book is a major part of The Witch, and also has links to witch hysteria, most notably the testimony of accused Salem witch Tituba, a black slave who may have also been part Native American. Tituba worked for the family of Betty Parris, one of the girls who accused people of being witches. During her official questioning before magistrates, Tituba first demurred, but then broke into a highly illustrative confession that drew from centuries of witch lore.

Tituba said she was, in fact, a witch, and had become one by striking a deal with a man from Boston, who came to her dressed in black. He promised her enticing things if she worked for him for six years doing things to hurt children, and she agreed to his pact. To seal the deal, Tituba said she wrote her name in his book, which also had other names written in it. She didn’t know most of the names in the book, but she said she saw Sarah Good and Sarah Osbourne, the other women who were accused with her. She said they were all witches, that she could fly through the air on a pole, and that she frequently saw animal familiars. The man who visited her had a canary near his shoulder, but she also saw demonically influenced cats, wolves, and dogs. Even though Tituba was of African descent, her accounts of witchcraft were strictly European. She later recanted her confession, citing pressure from her owner, but it was too late. The things she had said laid a strong foundation for the events in Salem.

witchesflyingointment

The reference to flying on a pole, or broomstick, is also a key part of the witch imagery in The Witch. While a cartoonlike witch flying on her broomstick is an iconic, cliche witch characteristic in pop culture, a seemingly meaningless stylistic touch, the truth is that it was an essential part of real life “witchcraft” crazes in Europe. Their crafts and potions weren’t about literally flying through the sky, but flying in the mind.

Much like in Salem, there was a witch panic in Europe during the Middle Ages. There are reports from some of these witch roundups of discovering potions and pastes in the offenders homes. Upon inspection and experimentation (the executioner’s wife was lathered down with the stuff from head to toe) they found these “witches brews” to be ground up hallucinogenic herbs like belladonna, nightshade, henbane, mandrake and jimsonweed. The people who experimented with these drugs found taking them orally would induce vomiting, so as an alternative they would “annoint” themselves on the skin. Being absorbed through most parts of the body could take a long time, so to speed things along they would put a bit on a broom handle, and anoint their genitals. That’s how the history of witches flying on their broomsticks was born. They didn’t transcend gravity on those brooms like the coven in The Witch, they just got high.

Other stories of interest:

Myth of The Wicker Man: The History behind Radiohead’s Burn the Witch video

The true story behind The Exorcist

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