Monday 16 August 2010

Witches (1) A word about witches

This is going to be the first in a couple of posts about witches. In the next one I’m going to be talking specifically about witches in children’s fiction, but first some thoughts about witches in general.

The earliest witch I can think of is the Witch of Endor in the Bible.  Though she’s never actually called a witch, the inference appears to be that if she has a familiar spirit and can communicate with dead, that’s what she must be. Nowadays she might be called a medium. (The column-header gloss of my 1810 Bible says quite definitely: ‘Saul confulteth a witch’) In spite of having ‘banished from the land all who trafficked with ghosts and spirits,' King Saul visits her secretly, in disguise and asks her to call up the spirit of Samuel. “Tell me my fortunes by consulting the dead,” he demands. The woman reluctantly obliges. It’s not clear from the Bible account that Saul ever sees Samuel at all: the woman does, and describes him: “An old man cometh up, and he is covered with a mantle.” Of course it ends in disaster for Saul, since the displeased Samuel prophesies his death. (1 Samuel 28).

It’s a complex story which may be read as critical of Saul’s hypocrisy in first banning consultations with the dead and then employing them himself. On the other hand, Saul is desperate. “I am in great trouble; the Philistines are pressing me and God has turned away; he no longer answers me through prophets or through dreams, and I have summoned you to tell me what I should do.” This is a clearly a story from a time of great religious conflict when the monotheistic worship of Jehovah was battling it out against the polytheistic religions of the area. Samuel tells Saul that one reason the Lord “has torn the kingdom from your hand and given it… to David”, is that Saul has “not obeyed the Lord, or executed his judgement against the Amalekites”. (Read: not massacred them.)  It’s a tough row to hoe, being king of Israel. But I don’t find the Bible account especially critical of the woman. Saul puts her in an awkward spot and she does what she’s asked, that’s all.

So why, in popular culture, are witches nearly always women? Or to put it another way round, why has women’s wisdom over the past few millennia so often been distrusted as likely to be ungodly in origin – and therefore evil? In one sense it’s obvious. Polytheisms are usually tolerant of rival beliefs, not seeing them as rivals. A monotheistic religion, if it is to remain monotheistic, cannot tolerate diversity of opinion.  This is also why so many monotheistic religions devolve into schisms and splinter groups, and persecute one another. The Christian martyrs suffered because of a head-on collision between a system that asked for recognition of all other gods, including the reigning Emperor, and a system that demanded recognition of none but One.

Monotheisms must control their adherents by strict codes of belief and behaviour. (Saul ought to have destroyed those Amalekites.) These codes are usually administrated by men. Controllers are always jumpy about the possibility of mutiny among the controlled. So a woman is approved as long as she adheres to the codes and the rules. If she steps outside those bounds, for example by living alone with no man to ‘govern’ her, or by performing cures or charms independently of the church’s rules, these will be disapproved. Her knowledge and supposed powers, not being monitored and channelled by the officials of God, must – the logic proceeds – come from the Other Place. Many a widowed or single woman, struggling to support herself in one of the few practical ways available to her in a man’s world, must have crossed this boundary from sheer necessity as much as from choice.

A couple of years ago, some children came to visit us whose parents are delightful born-again Christians. I suggested putting on a Disney video to keep them entertained, and their mother hesitated. Which one did I have in mind? Knowing that anything involving a witch would be disallowed, I did a rapid mental check – not ‘The Little Mermaid’, then, which has the Sea Witch – not ‘Snow White’ –

“The Sword in the Stone?”

She shook her head. “There’s a wizard in it.”

“But – the wizard’s Merlin – he’s a good wizard!”

“But his powers don’t come from Christ,” she said gently.

Well, the children watched “The Incredibles” instead, and I refrained from pointing out that the ‘Incredible’ powers enabling the characters to run like the wind, extend rubbery arms down entire blocks, become invisible, or whatever it is, might just as well be termed magic. It’s all in the name, it seems.

I often wonder how a religion whose founder Christ once said ‘By their fruits ye shall know them’, and who told the parable of the Good Samaritan with the specific message that goodness can come in the shape of the person you are most prejudiced against, has so much trouble with the Harry Potter books. Surely what’s important is to recognise goodness in whatever shape it comes, even if it happens to be wearing a pointed black hat at the time?

Illustration shows William Blake's 'The Witch of Endor' - and do check out this wonderful collection of other witch-related art: Witches and Apparitions at the National Gallery


  1. Oh, oh, oh I can so relate to your experience with respect to which video the children could watch. I have a distant cousin who is a born-again Christian. Her six children are utterly delightful and love my bookshelves with a passion but their mother insists on vetting everything they read first - and that means they are missing out on some of the very best in children's literature. I just have to hope they will grow up to think and read for themselves - because she enjoyed much of it as a child.

  2. What an interesting point about goodness coming in different forms! And how odd that the moms weren't allowed to watch a movie with a witch... yikes. I guess born-again Christians where I'm from aren't as strict!

  3. Not all Christians feel they must protect their children to such a degree. I am one.

    My children have watched all the disney movies you mentioned and few more besides. One of our favourite TV series is Merlin. We are avid readers of fantasy including books by JK Rowling and Emily Rodda.

    I'm an aspiring author. I write YA fantasy, complete with magic and mages and fantastical creatures.

    I know some people would say I'm wrong for exposing my children to such things, let alone for writing it. But I don't think we do our children any favors by shielding them from such stories. Fantasy is fantasy. Aside from being a great source of entertainment there's a lot that this genre can teach us about ourselves.

    Some of the best loved stories of our culture are fantasy. C.S Lewis' Narnia series and JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings are the first to spring to mind. Both written by Christians, both have magic and witches or magicians/mages woven into their stories. I'd never dream of denying my children the joy of delving into pages of these books.

    Sorry to rant.
    A Christian passionate about fantasy.

  4. Thanks for all these comments! An Pen, good for you! I so agree. I don't think there is anything un-Christian about reading fantasy: but some families do seem to feel a need to stick to so-called realism in fiction. I wonder whether it's because - reading the Bible literally as many do - they feel uncomfortable with something in the form of a book which CANNOT be taken for real. But I believe that an exposure to make-belief and an understanding of metaphor are vital for our development as human beings.

  5. Great post :) I always wondered why witches seemed to almost always be female. Reminds me of readings I had to do for Macbeth.

    I was raised Catholic but no one has ever discouraged me from reading fantasy. I loved the Harry Potter books as a kid and they definitely nurtured good values. Funnily enough, a few years ago when the Lord of the Rings movies were being released in the cinema, the priests that were a part of my parish dressed up as wizards for the last movie which sounds a little odd but they were fans of the trilogy lol.

    That sort of strictness is kind of scary though.

  6. I think that what we're talking about here isn't a matter of the godliness of the magic, witches, etc. but the more elusive issue of trust. The parents you mention don't seem to trust their children at all. Why not simply watch the movie with the kids, stop it occasionally and talk about it?

    I write a lot about trust in my book. The boarding school that my main character goes to gives the students a lot of freedom - but also makes sure that they know what behaviors are expected. For example, boys and girls are allowed in each other's rooms. In my book this leads the characters to make choices and learn from them.

  7. That's a very good point, Samantha. It's much better to trust your kids and talk about things with them, than to be afraid for them and keep them in ignorance.

    Glaiza, I love the image of the priests in your neighbourhood dressing up as wizards. It suggests great confidence - and yes, trust - in their parishioners.

  8. Thanks for another thoughtful and thought provoking post. Interesting as ever!

    I just wanted to mention that some scholars would argue that early Judaism (as it developed out of Zoroastrianism) was itself polytheistic in belief, but monotheistic in worship - think of all those other gods in the O.T. Also, polytheism in no way protects diversity, and it certainly doesn't prevent women from being labeled as witches. See:
    I'm afraid the demon patriarchy can take many forms and ride on the coattails of any configuration of religious belief.

    'By your fruits you will know them...'
    As an Anglican priest I'll tell you that me and half my fellow (then) theological students donned our cloaks and college scarfs to go and watch one of the Harry Potter films at the cinema. The other half didn't go because it offended their cultural sensibilities, not their religious sensibilities!

    In my experience, the people who stop their children from watching Harry Potter would be conservatives/conformists in whatever religion they happened to follow. If you can name and identify the darkness, you can box up and hide away, and the darkness can be controlled, whether it be in witches, homosexuals or even women priests! I think we can all understand the impulse, and, man, it would be so much simpler to see the world in such stark terms. Isn't that why we like triumph of good over evil stories?

    John Henry Newman said that the modern novel gives us a God's eye view of the world and allows us to imagine the world differently. It allows us to imagine a world in which fairy dust really does enable people to fly, and where three school friends with broomsticks really can save the world. By exercising our imaginations, Newman thought that we might even be able to imagine a world in which a divinity is at work in the evolving work of creation. You might want to mention that to your 'born again' friends. ;)

  9. A thoughtful post. Historically there were good reasons for some of the witch burnings (land ownership being one of them) although it has to be said there were fault on both sides of the religious/pagan divide. It all depends of definitions of witch as well. Some of the old woman burnt as witches would never have identified themselves under that label. Let alone related at all to a modern witch definition. However the fear and stigma attached to the old burnings casts a long shadow and I know of several modern day witches who have lost jobs when their practice became apparent in the community Not to mention that in some parts of the world witchburnings still continue.

  10. What are miracles, if not magic? From God, perhaps, but magic never-the-less. And it's interesting that women in the bible don't get to perform many miracles.

    I disagree that ultra-conservative Christians read the bible literally, because it is a book that cannot be read literally. There are far too many contradictions, and far too many laws and rules (think Levitical Law) which, if read and followed literally, would make their lives unlivable in modern society.

    I have a large, ultra-born again family, and it seems to me they pick and choose what parts of the bible they want to believe.

  11. Well I'm so glad I put this post up, because what a wonderful set of comments it has elicited!

    Avalonrising - 'Polytheistic in belief but monotheistic in worship' - I would never have thought of putting it that way, but it seems a brilliant summary of how early Judaism must have 'felt'. You can tell from all those bits of the Old Testament, can't you, that Baal and co were considered pretty vivid forces. Karen Armstrong, in 'A history of Jerusalem' has some interesting stuff about early gods in Israel/Palestine, and I must go back and reread. And I guess you are also right that polytheistic religions don't necessarily protect women against witchcraft accusations; but i was thinking that for the Romans and Greeks, for instance, there was at least an 'official' place for women like the Witch of Endor. They might be regarded as sibyls or seers or oracles, and could fit into the religious framework instead of being excluded from it.

    Josephine, I take your point completely that many of the poor souls burnt as witches would not so have self-defined. And I doubt the so-called 'witch' of Endor would, either. In my next post (or posts if it runs rater long) I'll be considering the withc in children's fiction, and the definition is of interest here - why are witches nearly always supposed to be 'bad', while wizards - the male equivalent, are more often thought of as 'good'? Now, I mean, not in the 16th century, which is a whole other story.

    Mockingbirdsatmidnight - I know exactly what you mean, and agree it's not really possible. But I meant to convey the fundamentalist take on the Bible, ie NOT reading it as a medley of myth, metaphor and ancient history (which still is of value) but as the inspired and flawless Word of God. People are capable of double-think and tying themselves in mental knots, and many do at least attempt a literal reading. At least, I personally know some who would say that's what they do.

  12. (Apologies for the typos in that last rather long scrawl - it's on the early side, and I haven't had any coffee yet!)

  13. Kath, in African culture, witches are, I believe, often men. The historical English witch prosecution, which would end with execution by hanging, not burning, resembled 3rd-world witchhunts. Someone is ill,or their cattle all die, or their house burns down, and they look for someone to blame. They often go to a witch-doctor, who can identify the witch, who may be a man or a woman. The witch-doctor was a 'cunning man' or 'cunning woman' in England, often conflated with the witch for reasons I shall unroll below if you get that far. In English law, accusation by a cunning person was sufficient to bring a 'witch' before a grand jury. The witch might be an old person who took advantage of her/his reputation to get people to give them things, or just someone who was unfortunate enough to have got on the wrong side of the community, wouldn't always be prosecuted and hanged, though. Often they died in their beds.
    However, things were different in Scotland and on the Continent, where witches were burned. The Great Witchhunt brought in enormous quantities of people, men and women, and it was there that midwives and cunning folk were accused of witchcraft, tortured and hanged.
    Popular culture has conflated the Great Witchhunt with the more leisurely English witch beliefs, which were also the way things were on the Continent and Scotland during medieval and Tudor times, I believe.
    In Salem, men were accused alongside women, also Matthew Hopkins, in a rare instance of mass witch-hunting in England, rounded up men too.
    I agree however, that stories about witches almost always feature women, especially in Grimm, and then there's Baba Yaga, too - though, maybe mirroring Russian legal practice as regards witches, which resembled English custom, she's a helpful figure in some of the stories.

  14. Fascinating debate going on here - and so passionate yet undogmatic. As very much a practising Christian (i.e. I have heaps to learn)I find the best mythologies make me reflect upon the spiritual, not tell me what to think. Thus I am grateful to Mr Pullman, for example, though I cannot agree with him -especially about C.S. Lewis.

  15. "the best mythologies make me reflect upon the spiritual, not tell me what to think"

    That's a great statement that goes to the heart of it.

    Leslie, thanks for that excellent brief history of witchcraft (or should that be An Excellent Briefe Historie...?) I'd forgotten about African witches - not that I know much about them. I don't remember any in children's books, though - unless you count Rider Haggard's 'King Solomon's Mines', which I was given as a school prize in long-ago times, but which I would nowadays hesitate to trust. (Anyone know anything about Rider Haggard? I must look him up.)

    Anyway, fuelled with all this, I will go and have a good hard think about my post for next week.

  16. I have a horrible feeling that in a different century I'd have been burnt at the stake by now... woman living without man, writing fantasy, and with a black cat too...

  17. Wow! This is a wonderful and timely post. The comments are some of the best I have ever heard on the topic.

    I love the line from the Woody Allen movie, "Hannah and Her Sisters," when a moody old artist (played by Max von Sydow) says, "If Jesus could come back and see what people are doing in his name, he would never stop throwing up."

    I won't identify myself by my religious beliefs because I have concerns about the times in which we live and the rise of fundamentalism (in its varied religious guises). I have friends from many different backgrounds and prefer the company of people who are tolerant, even if they feel very strongly about their own beliefs. Most of the people who have challenged me about the appropriateness of reading material (or movies, music . . .), when questioned, could not tell me that they had evaluated the work for themselves. They were responding to a dictate from another authority. When people (including children) are loved and feel relatively safe (and are sane), they will err on the side of goodness, which means that anything they read will go through their personal filter and become useful to them in their pursuit of goodness, or just plain fun, which is something we all need. I have never dictated what my children should read and only nixed certain movies if I believed that there was a chance I would have to stay up all night to provide comfort. I value sleep too much when I can get it.

    It's ironic that those who read fantasy and those who prefer magical thinking to rationality in real life are often lumped together when they have very little in common. I wouldn't want to live in a world without unicorns even though I know that I live in a world without unicorns, if you know what I mean.

  18. Beautifully put, Cathrin. You've reminded me that once, as a child, I told my mother a discovery I thought I'd made: "Unicorns ARE real, Mummy, aren't they, because ideas are real."

  19. I just got here and have thoroughly enjoyed both the post and the comment thread, but I just want to second Kath about Cathrin's point - "I wouldn't want to live in a world without unicorns even though I know that I live in a world without unicorns". That's lovely.

  20. Ah, but some people believe unicorns are real! Or at least they used to be in ancient times - they weren't romantic white horses with golden horns, though... more small goat-like creatures.

    I'm naturally a bit biased here, having a unicorn for a muse. But I'm firmly of the belief that "There are more things in heaven and earth, etc..." And if you want proof, I think you can still buy powdered unicorn horn in some parts of the world!

  21. In the original tales, actually, Merlin (or Myrlinn) actually did get his powers from Christ (sorta). He was born of a nun who was raped by an incubus, but he was consecrated the very second he was born, sealing his fate as basically a holy man, with some powers having been attributed from his dad.
    Oh yeh, and how are Disney movies with witches bad? I mean, sure, when I see the Evil Queen in Snow White get horribly crushed and then eaten by vultures, I just hope to live in her footsteps, but still...

  22. Good point, Jakob - and thanks for bringing me back to consider this post!