I remember reading a review of the Penguin Book of Witches, which pointed out that so often the driving force behind witch hunts was a fear of the “other”. I blogged about it here.
But the reason that figures of fear like witches are so often portrayed as haggard old women is also a fear of women’s power.
NPR has a great piece on this that takes a whistlestop tour through the folklore of different communities from Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America and Russia.
It’s not all negative though. Stories of scary old women who cause harm and danger abound, but there are also traditions in which these women are wise and life-giving:
“Old women in fairy tales and folklore practically keep civilization together. They judge, reward, harm and heal; and they’re often the most intriguing characters in the story.”