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:
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.
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 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.
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