This October, Sommer Leigh is hosting a Monsterfest. That’s right, we’re tracking down and categorizing monsters and demons alike, forming a “Field Guide of the Weird”. And while I was tempted to write about vampires or werewolves (both of which will be covered by other Monsterologists), I decided to do something a little different. I’m going to discuss witches.
Now, I know what you’re going to say. Witches aren’t monsters. And you’re right – modern witches mostly aren’t. But I’m gonna kick it old school here, and go back to a pre-Potter time when witches were gruesome and demonic beings that were not – quite – human.
Of course, I’m not talking about the poor men and women persecuted during the witch trials in Europe and Massachusetts from 1580 to the late 1690’s. They were merely caught in a rapidly evolving and highly suspicious time where anyone remotely different was feared and accused of devilry. When I use the term “witch”, I’m referring to the incredibly creepy and terrifying creatures from our nightmares, classic literature, sinister movies, and – strangely enough – the fairy tales of our childhood.
I want to first point out that, besides the dark and sinister sorceresses I’m categorizing, there are of course “white witches” as well, benevolent creatures that follow the code “and it harm none” in their practice. Also, I’d also like to note that many dark witches come in sets of three – Shakespeare’s Macbeth witches, Hocus Pocus’s Sanderson sisters, Lloyd Alexander’s witches of the Marshes of Morva. A magical number, it's not much of a surprise that they come in triads.
Now that that’s been said, I’d like to move onto a list of their dark powers and practices:
It was a long existing belief that witches would sneak into nurseries and steal babies from their cribs, much like the enchantress from Rapunzel. Upon her birth, the evil witch took the baby girl from her desperate parents and locked her away in a tower. Furthermore, in Roald Dahl’s The Witches, the sub-human witches snatch children from their homes, trapping them in paintings and making sure they’re never to be found.
Witches are often depicted with familiars – animals they can control and aid them in their sorcery. A black cat is the most typical example, though there are many others. In Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent has a black crow which she uses as a spy. And in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West is able to control many different animals, using a magical whistle to unleash a pack of wolves, a flock of crows and a swarm of bees on Dorothy and her friends.
Stealing of Youth:
Witches, sometimes referred to as crones or hags, often desire youth and beauty. It is therefore a great fear that in order to attain their desires, they must take it from another. For example, in Hocus Pocus, the Sanderson sisters find a spell that allows them to steal the youth of all Salem’s children, sucking out their lives and subjecting them to death in order to obtain beauty and immortality. Similarly, in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, the three witch sisters wait for a star to fall to the earth, murder her and eat her heart in order to be young once more.
Part of what lead to the witch hunts and trials was a fear of witch’s corruption of political and religious systems, and their general demonic powers. These fears make their way into many of classical literary works, granting us demonic creatures that seduce, enchant and destroy many. In Arthurian legends, Morgan le Fay is often portrayed as such. Sometimes written as Arthur’s half sister, she is depicted as calculating, coveting her brother’s rule for herself. She, and her sometimes-son Mordred, are integral to the destruction of utopian Camelot.
Poisoning and Potions:
What is one of the most recognizable symbols of a witch’s dark powers? – A bubbling cauldron? A poison apple? Yes to both. Our fear of witching potions has long since influinced our archetypal image of a witch, making its way into many of our modern stories. The Evil Queen from Snow White used her knowledge of poisons to cast a spell over Snow White, making her appear dead for many years. Similarly, in Roald Dahl’s tale, the witches come up with a potion to turn all the children of England into mice.
There has always been a great fear in a witch’s power to enchant and enthrall us. In Sleeping Beauty, the wicked witch Maleficent casts a magical enchantment, causing Aurora to fall into a deep, one hundred-year slumber after she pricks her finger on the spindle. Furthermore, in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The White Witch casts a spell over the entire land so it’s always winter in Narnia.
One of their more gruesome and terrifying traits, witches are sometimes feared as cannibals. They are mostly seen eating children, much like the oh-so-scary gingerbread-house-owning witch of Hansel and Gretel. She sets out traps for small children, making her house the ultimate childhood fantasy in order ensnare them, fatten them up and cook them for supper, illustrating the cannibalistic aspect of traditional witchery.
More than anything, our fear of witches stems from our belief in their supernatural and demonic power – as they often straddle the line between the real and the supernatural worlds. In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, he depicts some of the most famous witches of all time. These three witches are prophetesses, closely connected with the supernatural. They represent darkness, chaos and conflict, and are devices of impending doom. Though it is not clear in his work if they are masters of fate, or mere agents, but either way, they seem to always know more than they should, and give the other characters murky advice that most always leads to their impending doom.
Now, I will not go so far as to say that ALL witches are evil and to be feared. Harry Potter and his friends seem super cool, and it’s possible that, as Gregory Maguire suggests, the Wicked Witch of the West is merely misunderstood. However, based on the evidence at hand, I’d say Mad Eye Moody had the right idea.
Constant vigilance my friends. Constant vigilance.