Warts and All: Cooks as Witches, Witches as Cooks

The cauldron , symbol of cooking, food, and nourishment.

And of the basest, most primal horrors imaginable, the power of the Dark Arts, magic, and blasphemy. Everyone who’s ever read Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” recalls THE scene, the one with the three witches stirring the pot, chanting.

From Le voyage du puys sainct Patrix auquel lieu on voit les peines de Purgatoire et aussi les joyes de Paradis by Claude Noury, Lyon 1506.


Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.


Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Macbeth, Act 4, Scene I

I think of the “ingredients” cast into the cauldron by these three and cannot help but recall that many, many of the early cookbooks so lavishly praised by food writers always contained a series of recipes for various health and medical cures. While they were not grimoires, these books shared some characteristics with some of them, for instance, the Petit Albert. Until the medical profession became predominantly male by the end of the 19th century, healing was the prerogative of women, a divide driven by class and status. This well-known fact, discussed by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English in Witches, Midwives, and Nurses (1973, reprinted 2010), forces me to wonder about cooks in general and not just wise women, as such healers were (and are) known.

“Bitch” and “witch,” ever notice how close the two words seem?

Cooking, the hearth, women, and the sacred – all became bound up together.

That the cauldron became a symbol of witches, one that we still tune into at Halloween,  says a lot, I think, about how our society still views women. Underneath it all, perhaps, images of the cauldron still emit a frisson of fear, of poisoning, of Sirenic enchantment, and dark moonless nights in the thick and impenetrable forest.

Not all witches wore skirts, for some men found themselves labeled as witches as well.  The cook Richard Roose – a poisoner, graphically brought back to life as it were in an episode of “The Tudors” – might not have been tarred with the brush of witchcraft, yet he lived at a time when the fear of witchcraft permeated English society. His gruesome death by boiling while alive apparently happened through the use of a large cauldron.

Death by poisoning, though, remained one of the greatest fears, so much so that many hired tasters to be sure that their food remained pure enough to eat. A hint of this fear, it seems to me, lingers in the current distrust of highly processed foods, especially in the urgent need to ascertain just where one’s food is grown and who grows it.


William Blake’s “Europe, a Prophecy” (1794)

© 2016 C. Bertelsen


4 thoughts on “Warts and All: Cooks as Witches, Witches as Cooks

  1. You scratch the surface of a complex topic–or perhaps are letting it simmer:)
    I think food, life, death are all connected. And it is often women who do the cooking, as well as bringing new life into the world, caring for the sick, and laying out the dead. (There’s also a blood, menstruation, and mother’s milk.)

    Midwives brought new life into the world, but were also often accused of bring death and consorting with the devil. Likewise, women who gave birth to deformed babies or “monstrous” births were accused of being immoral (at best) or evil or witches.


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