Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Something Wicked This Way Comes

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.

Animal Control:
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.

Political Upheaval:
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.


  1. Which is worse, the witch who is a demonic creature, and does these evil things because they are evil at their very core, or the witch who sacrifices their humanity for power?

  2. "How do you know she's a witch?"
    "She turned me into a newt!"
    ... ? ...
    "Well, I got better."

    I love the Sanderson Sisters. Hocus Pocus is my favorite Halloween movie ever.

  3. Oh Andy, always the subversive commentator. Obviously the second one, morally speaking. But that doesn't make the first any less dangerous in my opinion.

    Cookie - LOVE the Monty Python reference! And I agree...Hocus Pocus is my very favorite Halloween movie too!

  4. You should read Baba Yaga stories (Slavic folk tradition). She is CRAZY monsterish. And she flies around in a bell, and lives in a house stilted on enormous chicken claws.

  5. I love this post - it reminded me of all the reasons I love reading about witches. (At the top of my list are Roald Dahl, Oz, and cannibalism; I'm not sure what that says about me...)

  6. Hah. My comments aren't subversive at all. Also, that wasn't exactly the question I was asking (although it's my bad for not phrasing it better).

    Which is more evil (not morally wrong...): Someone/thing that is created to be evil, or someone/thing that chooses to be evil?

    On a slight tangent, are there stories about how witches come about? I assume that there is a myth about where the fates came from, but it's eluding me at the moment. For the other witches (not humans that can do magic) how do they come into being?

  7. Alexis - I will definitely check that out! Sounds awesome.

    Jillian - It says you're awesome, that's what.

    Andy - I would say choosing to be evil is still more evil than being created that way. Something about the choice makes it that much worse in my opinion.

    There are several different myths behind it. Some believe that ALL witches make the choice to be a witch (thus are all humans who choice to follow an evil practice). Others believe that witches are demonic beings, like hellhounds or garden variety demons. They're born with the devil's blood running through their veins, thus making them a "born" evil.

  8. So you think Darth Vader is more evil than the Daleks...


  9. Love this. So interesting. Thanks,

  10. Fascinating stuff! I absolutely love reading about things like this... I think you should definitely research witches like Baba Yaga, as somebody suggested. Her story is at times laughable, but you wouldn't want to mess with her that's for sure.

    Thanks for this, was really interesting to read and also a good reference for fantasy writers etc.

    It's Halloween soooooon, I'm getting my Hocus Pocus DVD ready!!

  11. Great post. I've always been fascinated with witches, good and bad.

    Have a wonderful weekend.

  12. haha love the last line. so very true!! Hocus Pocus is a good film. Thanks for the info!!


  13. In Sandman #38, THE HUNT (collected in Fables and Reflections), there's a sort-of-Slavic werewolf tale complete with Baba Yaga and her flying mortar and pestle - babies die when she passes overhead and milk curdles.

    She can be either an antagonist or a helper - but she's always rough news. "Baba" is a title or a name for an old woman - fairly pejorative in Czech, and I think similarly so in Russian.

    She's a GREAT figure.

    Nice coverage on the post, too!

  14. I've always had a soft spot for wicked witches. Hocus Pocus is awesome and I can't wait to introduce my kids to the film! And, of course, Maleficent is the best Disney villain.