Alewives: A History Lesson on Witches and Beer

We associate cats with witches because alewives’ beer was made of grain, that attracted mice. Having a pet cat dealt with the mice.

Friday the 13th, like Halloween, rolls in each year with its parade of ghosts and spirits, ranging from the grotesque to the comical.

While largely stripped of its pagan past, our subconscious still needs to acknowledge our mortality in ritual context, celebrate our connection to the mysteries of life, and honour those who came before. It’s a party as old as time.

Prominent among the tropes of the spooky season is the witch. A pointy black hat with a sooty cauldron to match comprise her signature look; a cat and flying broomstick her entourage. A vaguely evil , almost exclusively female cliché, she brings with her spellcraft and weird bubbling potions. Little thought is generally given to the origins of this character.

The witch trope as we know it today is a direct result of the vilification of alewives and herbalists, often one and the same, during the 15th and 16th centuries, as a result of the Spanish Inquisition.

Before modern systems, beer was usually safer to drink than water. Women did the vast majority of the brewing through all-but-relatively-recent history, while the rural population still depended on village healer women, even as the male medical profession was emerging in cities.

The henin, a hat in the shape of a cone or steeple, was a familiar item at the time. Alewives, women who brewed beer commercially, had taken a taller dark version of the hat as a symbol of their trade, a uniform of sorts, allowing them to easily stand out and be known on street corners, markets, or festivals.

The original trade sign post was the alewive’s stake, a broomstick shoved in the ground by her gate or suspended above her front door. Most peasants were illiterate at that time, so this kind of signage was the agreed upon symbol for “a beer witch lives here.” Yes, they called them that.

Beer and ale are made of grain, so mice were an issue. Cats were a must, so they were often an alewife’s companion at her blackened cauldron as her beer fermented, and thus produced the legendary froth of the witch’s brew.

Hops are a relatively new ingredient in beer, replacing the magical , medicinal, and psychotropic herbs once used in brewing. These beers were often healing, and produced psychedelic states. The introduction of hops quelled this pagan healing brew, and also made beer last longer, beginning its commodification. Meanwhile medicines derived from these earlier healing herbs are commonly used today.

Long story short, the ruling class saw money to be made in the increasingly profitable fields of brewing and medicine. They commenced their transfer to the church and state, out of the decentralized hands of the innumerable women scattered across hills and glens who’d passed these arts down for generations. They were declared heretics, tortured, and burnt alive. True story.

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