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Witches in Western Literature

A cackling green woman on a broomstick; a sinister voodoo priest turning a handsome young man into a frog; a beautiful queen who makes herself into a hideous hag to become the fairest one of all. These are images that we associate with witches today. But where did they come from? They have been imprinted upon society by popular media, yes, but they must have begun somewhere. Witches in popular culture root from images and characters that have been around for centuries, sometimes millennia. Perhaps without realizing it, the Greeks and Romans of the ancient world started a tradition that would withstand the test of time.

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus, Waterhouse 1891

The Beautiful Enchantress and The Ugly Old Hags

The word “witch” was a creation of the English in the late 13th century; until then men and women who practiced the magical arts were known as “sorcerers” or “enchantresses,” and the Greek and Romans were no different. There are several mentions of women who practice magic in the epic poems of Ovid and Homer. One example of such a woman is Circe, who appears in both Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Homer’s Odyssey. Circe’s origins were never explained, but one can assume from her actions that she is the victim of a broken heart. In Metamorphoses, she turns the lover of her own beloved into a rock for scorning her. In The Odyssey, Circe tricks Odysseus’s men into drinking a magic potion, turning them all into pigs. Odysseus saves his men (with some help from Hermes) and they escape (Read the whole story here).

Circe has been portrayed in painting and sculpture as a beautiful woman wearing beautiful flowing clothes and a golden crown, often offering the potion to Odysseus. The enchantress tried to charm the captain of the ship with her sexuality, though it was to no avail. Greek and Roman mythology also tells of a group of spirit sorceresses known in Greek mythology as the Graeae. The sisters were born of sea foam, and with the bodies of swans and heads of women, they are depicted with ragged clothes. They shared one eye and one tooth among them, which the hero Perseus stole from them to get information on how to kill their sister, the Gorgon Medusa. The Graeae were perhaps the first image of a hag that was connected to sorcery (Find a link to the story here).

Perseus and the Graeae, Burne-Jones 1882

The Greek and Roman image of a sorceress followed a trend unusual to that of the rest of their myths—they had no intention for their actions. Circe, while having a reason to transform a woman into stone in the myth itself, has no back story. Was she scorned earlier in life? Was it a broken heart by punishment from Aphrodite? And as for the Graeae, were they simply evil for evil’s sake? Or were they simply misunderstood? This pattern of witches with no reasoning or justification for what they do continued on through the centuries and into later folklore—particularly in fairy tales.

Happily Ever After?

As long as children have misbehaved, there have been fairy tales. And as long as there have been fairy tales, there have been villains who scare children into doing what they are told. Many of the fairy tales that we know today were passed on from parent to child for generations before they were written on paper by authors like Hans Christian Anderson or the Grimm brothers, and many were much darker than we know them today; Cinderella’s stepsisters cut pieces of their feet off to fit into the golden slipper, the third little pig has a stew waiting at the bottom of his chimney to catch the big bad wolf as a finishing touch to his dinner, and Rumpelstiltskin is so upset that the story’s heroine finds out his name that he tears himself in half. But what of the witches?

Beauty and the Beast storybook illustration, Crane 1874

Modern storytellers would have us believe that the sea witch in The Little Mermaid was banished from the palace and now seeks revenge from the King of the Sea, or that Rapunzel’s keeper was simply a lonely old woman with no children of her own, who longed for the joys of motherhood, but truth be told, many of these haggard old women have no past; they exist merely to drive the plot of the story, to scare children into listening to their parents or not talking to strangers. A perfect example being the sorceress who turns a selfish young prince into a hideous monster in the French story La Belle et La Bete or Beauty and the Beast (link to the complete story here). The sorceress, as she is so called in the story, turns the prince into a beast as a punishment for his selfish ways. She does not appear in the story, nor is there ever an explanation of where she came from. And so the trend continued, even through the most talented storytellers in history.

Double double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble…

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth told the (slightly altered) true story of a Scottish thane who overthrows his king for control of the kingdom. One of the main differences between the true story and Shakespeare’s retelling is the presence of three witches who in many ways drive the plot of the story. They prophesize Macbeth becoming king, but later also tell him that “Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until/Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill/Shall come against him.” The king interprets their prophesy as a sign that he will live forever (“Who can impress the forest, bid the tree/Unfix his earth-bound root?”), though he sadly realizes the witches’ trickery when the opposing army cuts the trunks of Birnam wood and brings them as door rammers to his castle on Dunsinane hill.

The Weird Sisters or The Three Witches, Fussli 1783

Shakespeare portrays his witches as terrifying, haggard old witches who seem to only be in the story to trick Macbeth into thinking that he is invincible. They serve no purpose otherwise, and disappear as quickly as they came. Some Shakespeare experts believe that the three witches are supposed to represent the Graeae, but there is no proof that they are one-eyed sisters of Greek and Roman lore.

A Different Kind of Witch

American writers in the earlier part of the 19th century wrote stories with heavy religious overtones, which lent themselves to very clear and easy villains: sinners. And perhaps the worst and most heinous of all of the sinners were those who danced with the devil—namely, witches. Beginning with this movement of literature, witchcraft was no longer always associated with magic that had been seen in folklore and fairytales. Instead, a witch might just be someone of which an example need be made. A huge proponent of this ideal was Nathaniel Hawthorne. While Hawthorne did not necessarily agree with the teachings of the puritan church, his stories looked at the witch in his society and culture, and saw her as a sinner.

Hawthorne’s short story, Young Goodman Brown tells of a young man who follows an old crone into the woods one night to find his all of the members of his town’s congregation, including his wife, Faith, in the forest, dancing around a fire and promising allegiance to “the wicked one.” He doesn’t know the next morning if it was real or a dream, and lives his life out with her in deep gloom and mistrust.

The White Witch, Baynes 1950

With stories like Hawthorne’s, another layer was added on to the already negative connotations of a woman practicing witchcraft, the notion that a witch could be anyone—a notion that was short lived. Perhaps it was too frightening to think that someone close to you could be so deceptive and evil. For whatever reason, the witch quickly reverted back to something mysterious and other-worldly… for the time being.

By the prickling of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes…

In the 20th century, images of witches have changed substantially, they’ve taken aspects from literature’s past and progress to create a vast variety of witches, good and evil, and place them on the page; it continues to evolve to this day! C.S. Lewis terrified his young readers with the White Witch, who cast an everlasting winter over Narnia in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, teaching children not to trust just any beautiful woman offering turkish delights; L. Frank Baum taught us that witches are sometimes good, and can help us find our way home; J.K. Rowling made an entire generation of children believe that, maybe, if they behave well enough, they may see an owl at their rafter with a letter bearing an embossed “H” in its beak. Perhaps the years to come will see a new kind if witch in literature, or perhaps Circe and the Graeae will be the models for witches for the rest of eternity—only time will tell.

 

Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead!

The Wicked Witch of the West, Denslow 1900

On April 17th, 1900 readers across America were introduced to a young girl and her dog, then men made of straw and tin, and a cowardly lion, followed them on their journey to the City of Emeralds. L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz wowed readers all over the country, and soon the world, with its colorful descriptions Baum created. In addition to the lush fields of poppies, gleaming emerald towers and shining Yellow Brick Road, the quintessential wicked witch was born, though she would undergo severe changes before Margaret Hamilton graced the screen as the Wicked Witch of the West. Baum’s original description of the witch is as follows:

The Wicked Witch had only one eye, but it was as powerful as a telescope, and could see everywhere. She always carried an umbrella with her, and made a point to avoid contact with water. It was said that she was so wicked, the blood in her had dried up many years ago.

Margaret Hamilton as The Wicked Witch of the West

The witch is depicted four times in Baum’s novel, twice in color, and in neither of the illustrations was her skin green. When MGM was making plans for the film adaptation new technicolor technology offered a chance for the filmmakers to use as many colors as possible. Therefore, the witch’s skin was turned green, as homage to Celtic witch mythology that portrayed witches as having skin “as ugly as their souls.”

Over half a century after Margaret Hamilton first appeared as the Wicked Witch of the West, contemporary author Gregory Maguire did something that no one had done before; he told the story of Elphaba Thropp in Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Readers were captivated by the young green girl who secretly yearned for acceptance underneath a hard exterior. Readers closed the book feeling surprising sympathy for the witch, who, it seemed, was merely a misunderstood woman depressed after years of loss and heartache. And perhaps, just perhaps, she was not all that wicked after all.

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