Writer Cam Cochrane explores how literary depictions of witches have changed over time.
The witch as a character has always intrigued me. Her depictions are all over the place, a formidable woman, a scheming demon, or even a misunderstood outcast. The journey of the “witch” has not been a linear one.
The witch features heavily in children’s literature. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe depicts a terrifying ice witch, hellbent on killing our protagonists and claiming Narnia as her own. A scenario that seems to find itself on loop. The Witches by Roald Dahl share similar characteristics; aiming to kill the children and rule the land. In fact, the witch is often the largest threat in adolescent literature. Children are the root of families, the epitome of security and love. To target the innocence of a child is an unforgivable sin and very quickly gains the witch a distinct reputation. In children’s literature at least, the witch is often portrayed as a bitter old woman, represented as being unable or unwilling to have children, so she resorts to taking someone else’s. The literature’s impact is important here as it frames these women within a social context. Though the fantastical nature of the ice witch may seem confined to children’s stories, it has often carried real-world consequences and perpetuates vicious ideology used to oppress women. Ableist, misogynistic and racist ideologies are often bound up in the way we imagine witches.
“Though the fantastical nature of the ice witch may seem confined to children’s stories, it has often carried real-world consequences and perpetuates vicious ideology used to oppress women.”
In Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Abigail Williams and other local girls are subjected to the Salem Witch trials to identify witches hiding among them. Though these trials stemmed from a frantic hysteria and paranoia of being tried without evidence, they resulted in the death of many men and women, often those of less socio-political “importance”. Though The Crucible doesn’t feature a singular witch, the ideas of the witch being linked with the devil and inherently being evil are at play here. We begin to see political and spiritual importance being attached to the witch. If she is depicted as the agent of the devil, then she is a rejection of faith and a rejection of all that faith holds dear. Thus, reinforcing the spiritual and familial link of the witch, mother and child.
Looking to other literature we see similar recurring aspects of the witch. Coraline by Neil Gaiman includes the Other Mother, a witch-figure that poses as the ideal mother to young Coraline, only to steal the essence of the child once she has gained their trust. Another classic, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West was described as having a horrible green deformity and a proclivity for hating other young pretty girls. These ideas of pitting women against ugly deformed witches are rife in our stories. They draw upon pre-existing ideas of beauty and ableism to exacerbate the divide between good and evil, firmly entrenching those that look like witches or act like witches to be shunned.
“They draw upon pre-existing ideas of beauty and ableism to exacerbate the divide between good and evil…”
Yet, there appears to be a recent shift in our collective imagination. Witchcraft, spiritual healing, and redemption appear to be new key themes in the way we imagine the witch. Circe by Madeline Miller aims to reframe the story of Circe, an all-powerful witch that appears in the Odyssey to trick Odysseus and turn his crew into pigs, shifting the public perception of the Witch as someone who has been ill-treated, misunderstood, and oppressed. Circe is a complicated and compassionate character that faces the oppressive structure of a patriarchal society that is very similar to one of now. The introduction of a new vulnerability and motherhood into Circe’s story aims to ground her not just as a non-threatening witch, but as a woman. A living, breathing figure. This imagined shift is not only found in Circe but in countless books about modern witchcraft. Practitioners of the craft have found new confidence in claiming the power of the witch and have found an accepting community built upon rejecting traditional tools of oppression. I believe the resurgence of witchcraft has been a response tactic. With witchcraft valuing the earth, internal power, and the fall of oppressive systems it seems clear that this practice will pave a new way of life. A practice of reclaiming identity and reclaiming power.