Witches: In Fairy Tales and Reality

This is a bit of a re-hash of this post about witches from last October. Witches feature heavily in my writing, and I find them fascinating characters for may reasons. Witches are also common is fairy tales, and are usually depicted as evil within this genre. However, the term ‘witch’ is one of the widest and most ambiguous around.

In his book The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre, Jack Zipes says that ‘witch is memetically loaded’ and in Western countries, we use the word ‘as if we all know what a witch is.’

So, what is a witch?

According to the dictionary, ‘witch’ has three meanings:

  •  A person, now especially a woman, who professes or is supposed to practice magic,  especially black magic or the black art; sorceress.
  •  An ugly or mean old woman; hag.
  •  A person who uses a divining rod; dowser.

Now, I think there’s a few things a bit off here. Firstly, not all witches practice ‘black magic or the black art.’ As Zipes points out, in modern society most people fail to recognise that the concept of a witch is ‘rooted in pagan cultural traditions’ and that the word has ‘undergone a process of “demonization.” Contrary to popular belief, witches are not all wicked or Satanistic. In reality, they are derived from pagan gods and goddesses, and the whole point of Paganism is to protect help and protect one another and Mother Nature. The Wiccan Rede says it all:

The Wiccan Rede
No mention of curses, voodoo or sacrifice… Image from The Wonderful World of Wicca.

Secondly, neither are all witches an ‘ugly or mean old woman.’ This definition seems to be the epitome of the fairy tale stereotype. Characters like Baba Yaga spring to mind. However, not all witches are old or mean. What about Mildred and Sabrina, or the Halliwell sisters from Charmed? Whilst these are more modern examples of witches, the fact that they are all young women who are just trying to make the best of their powers still stands. Moreover, what about real-life witches? Not all members of the pagan community are old, or even women!

As for someone who uses a divining rod, well. That has got to be the most vague use of ‘witch’ ever.

From a young age, I’ve maintained a fascination with witches — whether they be in stories and fairy tales or history books. When I was a teenager I started collecting spell books, much to my mother’s anguish. I had to reassure her several times that no I wasn’t going to curse anyone and no I wasn’t going to try and summon demons into our attic.

Johann Jakob Wick witches
Burning alive was just one of the awful punishments available to accused witches. Image by Johann Jakob Wick, found on Wikipedia.

Throughout history, witches (or at least suspected witches) have been persecuted. Thousands of women were tortured and killed because they were labelled as such. Even today, the word ‘witch’ has negative connotations, but it seems to me that this prejudice is born out of ignorance. As Zipes said, people think they know what a witch is, but in reality, there’s a lot more to it than a mean woman covered in warts with a pointy hat. Many people don’t understand the positive concept of paganism, or the deep-rooted origins of witches in mythology and folklore. The women who were put to death in the past suffered because they were different; because they didn’t fit in – owned a black cat, had a birthmark, used herbal remedies, or had bad luck with harvests. They were the scapegoats, the ones people blamed for society’s problems using these irrelevant details as evidence, because it was easier to remove them from the community than try to understand them.

Witches feature in most versions of the fairy tale ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ Sometimes they’re Wise Women, goddesses, or fairies, showing the interchangeable nature of characters in fairy tales. The witches in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ serve no real purpose, other than to seal the girl’s fate and act as a catalyst for the story. The gifts given by the good witches are benign, trivial things, such as beauty, grace, and a good singing voice, with the intention of moulding her into the perfect stereotype of a female. They are present to show the contrast between good and evil magic, when the bad witch turns up and curses the girl to prick her finger and die.

The Thorn Rose Errol le Cain
Sleeping Beauty: The twelve good fairies/witches travelling to the princess’s christening, unaware that the evil one is following. Illustration from The Thorn Rose by Errol le Cain, found on Cherry Coloured.

The bad witch represents deviation and impurity, and seeks to corrupt the girl and liberate her from the ties placed upon her. One reading of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is that it is a metaphor for the inevitability of sexual awakening, and the bad witch can be seen as the instigator of this. But that doesn’t make her evil, just practical. All she does is forecast the inevitable. If anything, it’s the girl’s parents and the good fairies who are evil for attempting to control her life and prevent her from maturing.

Sleeping Beauty Carabosse
The bad witch, Carabosse, in the ballet production of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ holding the spindle. Image from The Ballet Bag.

 Witches are one of the broadest and most ambiguous topics in the world of folklore and fairy tales, and also in reality. I’m sure I’ll be returning to them in future posts. I’d love to get a discussion going about this, so what are your thoughts on witches? In relation fairy tales and/or life in general? Let me know in the comments!

Featured image from Tumblr

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Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in Creative Writing, and is Senior Editor for Folklore Thursday. She loves travelling and collecting stories, and spent 15 months living in Japan doing this alongside teaching English. Currently she is studying for a masters degree in Ethnology & Folklore at the University of Aberdeen. Amelia blogs about folklore and fairy tales at The Willow Web. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize.

2 thoughts on “Witches: In Fairy Tales and Reality

  1. Some more great examples, but you're right. The fact that people still dress the same way as witches on Halloween each year just shows that the stereotype is still strong! And I haven't seen that Monty Python scene, I'm not all that familiar with it to be honest but will have a look 🙂

    As for the Rule of Three, it's basically the idea that whatever you put out into the Universe will come back on you three times over. So, in terms of witchcraft, if you were to do a bad spell then that negative energy would return to you three times worse than what you originally cast. And the same goes for positive energy, so minding the rule is about minding what you send out in order to keep yourself & those around you full of positivity rather than harming yourself/them. I suppose it could in some fairy tales. If a character does something & then three things happen to them in retaliation, then that would be fitting but it depends on the context.

  2. Witches have been more recently seen in a better light, you mention Charmed and Sabrina; also Buffy the Vampire Slayer's character Willow and of course the whole Harry Potter series at least got people thinking about viewing witches in a different light. However, we're still a long way from letting go of the traditional version of witches you see people dressing up as for Halloween each year.

    Whenever I think of historical witches/the witch burning craze, I think of the scene from Monty Python.

    I had never seen the Wiccan Rede before. What does it mean with the Rule of Threes? Could that have correlation to the pattern of threes in fairy tales?

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