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Albrecht Durer : “Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat” (c. 1500)

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This enigmatic print by Dürer most likely depicts a witch being transported to a sabbat. According to Te Papa curator Mark Stocker, “She clutches one of its horns in one hand and a broomstick or spindle in the other. Her hair flies out behind her and the stones of a hailstorm rain down towards her from the upper right. Witches were then believed capable of raising storms and other forms of destruction. Below her, four putti disport themselves, the arrangement of their bodies forming a ring shape with the goat. The latter is symbol of lust and was thought to embody the devil. One putto carries an alchemist’s pot to use as her cauldron, another holds a thorn apple plant, an ingredient with magical properties…” A hallucinogen and deliriant notorious for its terrifying and life-threatening effects, the thorn apple is speculated to have been a principle component in the mysterious “flying ointment” by which early modern witches are supposed to have achieved visionary experiences associated with the sensation of flight.

All the important objects held by the witch and her putti are subject to interpretation. The Royal Collection Trust rejects the broomstick in favor of a spindle and staff, “connoting weaving, the typical womanly act of the witch…also used as a figure of speech for making mischief, weaving spells or magic.” For the Minneapolis Institute of Art, one putto “struggles to retain control of the unstable sphere of fate,” not a cauldron, while the other “precariously supports a potted plant, perhaps a symbol of man’s taming of nature,” rather than a hallucinogen for the witch’s use.

Her backward position on the goat, as well as the reversal of Dürer’s monogram, evoke the perversity of witchcraft, which inverts the natural order of things.

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