Halloween approaches..."When the night wind howls..." and it seemed appropriate to invite Dr. Wendy Perriman who hails, like Mary Sharratt (and my own family) from the home of the Lancashire Witches, to Hoydens to talk about witches...
This Halloween we will be opening our doors to an array of costumed children and no doubt the witches will be out in force. I am sure the Land of Oz will provide Glinda the Good Witch and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. Hermione may fly in from Hogwarts, and of course we can expect a few Ravennas (Snow White and the Huntsman) among the gatherings of light-up witches, Disney characters, Charmed ladies, and little Kandy Korn moppets. And what will they all share in common? They will be pretty or funny or cute. We have come a long way from William Shakespeare’s terrifying portrayal of the Weird Sisters in Macbeth (1606).
Though The Bible instructs “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” the early theologian St. Augustine argued nothing is more powerful than God, so the late medieval church took little interest in pagan magic until the thirteenth century when they needed to purge the Cathar heretics who were challenging orthodox Catholicism. The Cathars believed God and Satan were at war battling for the individual souls of men, and in order to discredit these rebels the church claimed they worshipped the devil. Inquisitors were sent out to track down all forms of heresy and before long the witch trials were breaking out across Europe. But in 1484, when two misogynist friars called Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger published Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer of Witches”) the threat became clearly defined – witches are predominantly female, they copulate with demons, they commit all manner of atrocities, and they conspire with familiar spirits to undermine male Christian morality and virtue. Because of “the first temptress Eve”, all women are inherently “wicked”, “superstitious”, “impressionable”, “weak”, and “intellectually like children.” The two authors conclude, “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.” Now although the face of a witch is described as “a burning wind” and her voice is “the hissing of serpents” she appears before her male victims as a beautiful seductress, an influence evident in the etymology of such words as bewitching, charming, beguiling, glamorous, powerful, enchanting, alluring, entrancing, attractive, captivating, enticing, tempting, etc. Shakespeare, however, makes his witches three bearded old hags, “So wither’d and so wild in their attire, / That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth.” And this representation became the standard image for the next 400 years, until Hollywood challenged the European tradition.
Carl Jung’s Triple Goddess archetype explains the three female stages of life as Maiden – Mother – Crone. Women are either pre-pubescent girls - suitable sexual partners – or too old to attract male interest. But when the Triple goddess is juxtaposed against the male Trinity and we get Father / Mother, Son / Maiden, and Holy Ghost / Crone, it becomes apparent why wise old women were such a threat to the patriarchal church, especially in the Stuart Era when these village elders performed as midwives, doctors, herbalists, abortionists, charmers and fortune tellers, at a time when qualified surgeons were rare and expensive. It is also not surprising that Shakespeare chose to target the powerful Crone in Macbeth, for his benefactor was King James I, a man so personally obsessed with supernatural forces that he had written his own witch-finder manual, Daemonologie (1597). Indeed, many modern scholars believe that the matriarchal threat of gifted cunning folk was the central reason for the European persecutions, and it may well explain why the powerful witch has continually been portrayed as ugly, old, and evil.
The traditional portrayal of old, ugly women as found in The Lancashire Witches by William Harrison Ainsworth (1848).
Growing up in the Pendle Hill area of Lancashire, I celebrated Halloween in a far less commercialized way than happens today. Local youth organizations held fancy dress parties where everyone came in home-made costumes, generally engineered from white sheets, sacking, or recycled black clothes. Witches vied with each other to look as decrepit and scary as possible using floor mops for hair, fake plastic teeth, and stick-on warts. We bobbed for apples – ate donuts dangling from a clothesline with hands tied behind our backs – played team games – went on torchlight ghost hunts – and “passed-the-parcel” where each layer of paper contained a spooky dare. As we grew older we climbed to the top of Pendle Hill and sat telling ghost stories until the early hours of the morning. And in all these years it never crossed our minds that witches might be pretty or funny or cute. They were sinister, mystical hags – the stuff of nightmares.
And then Hollywood arrived on British TV. An entire generation fell in love with Elizabeth Montgomery, the fabulous star of Bewitched, who challenged the stereotypical sorceress on so many levels throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. Her character Samantha Stephens was not only beautiful, but also an honorable, caring, nurturing, and immensely sympathetic wife and mother. In 1987, Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeifer played The Witches of Eastwick against Jack Nicholson’s equally seductive devil, followed in 1996 with The Craft, headed up by Neve Campbell’s hypnotic performance. And so the stage was set for more pretty, romantic, and glamorous witches to emerge, which has since resulted in Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and others. It is interesting to note that as the American sorceress has grown more physically attractive, she has reverted from being the Crone of the early Disney witches – to the Mother in Bewitched – through the single women of Eastwick, and finally back to the Maiden teen in Sabrina. We see the mythical transformation in reverse of the European tradition, and I would like to offer some suggestions why.
The first possible reason is political advancement. Shakespeare was writing only six years before the Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612, where eight women and two men were executed on the testimony of a nine-year-old child. Here, the authorities targeted rival families headed by the two most infamous crones in the area, Old Demdike (Elizabeth Sowtherns) and Old Chattox (Anne Whittle). These matriarchs, thought to be in their eighties, were the local cunning women of Pendle, and may well have been persecuted by various factions seeking to curry favor with King James.
A second reason is the Modernist movement of the early twentieth century whereby American intellectuals and artists made a deliberate break from their European heritage, wishing to create a new, distinctly American tradition. Not only do we see this in literature, music, painting, dance, and sculpting, but it becomes a founding philosophy in the emerging film industry from The Birth of a Nation onward. Therefore, as British stage witches were loathsome old biddies, the Americans chose to present more appealing sorceresses instead.
A third probability is Hollywood commercialism. One of the most lucrative audiences is the Young Adult market which favors pro-active, attractive characters teens can readily identify with. Warrior women are in great demand, especially those with supernatural powers who become romantically involved with their handsome male counterparts.
And finally, I wonder if America still feels some communal guilt for the tragedy of the Salem Witch Trials? It seems barely credible a country that founded itself on religious tolerance could persecute its own people, and so in today’s politically correct society there may have been a backlash toward acceptance of all forms of worship, churches, and cults. Instead of the sorceress being the outcast or reject she is now an accepted member of society, for there has been a huge movement to normalize witches and present them as gifted mothers, wives, and daughters.
And this may be why, when we open our doors on October 31st, we will meet with a delightful coven of colorful, regular witches who look pretty or funny or cute. Foul has once again become fair!
Dr. Perriman is the author of three books of poetry, two scholarly books, and the historical pirate fiction Fire On Dark Water (Penguin, 2011). She recently completed a literary western The Last Squaw, and is currently working on a novel about the second Lancashire Witch Trials called Blackest of Magic.You can find Wendy at her website