Here we are in October with Hallowe'en coming up in only a couple of weeks, and it seems a good time to write a post about witches. (In fact, maybe two posts. Maybe three.)
‘Witch’ is not a neutral word. There can be good wizards or bad wizards, it seems, so that when you encounter a fictional wizard you cannot be certain at first which way he leans. Gandalf is good, Saruman was good once and then turned out to be bad. But the default option for any fictional witch is wickedness unless qualifying adjectives are used, such as ‘white’ (or possibly 'hedge'). Why? After all, wizards and witches both use magic, so why the gender-based difference? In later posts I want to consider some of the many witches who appear in children’s literature. But there’s some interesting background to cover first.
Off the top of my head, the earliest witch I can think of is the Witch of En-dor in the Hebrew Bible (1 Samuel 28: you see her, pictured below). In fact the Bible never describes her as a witch, but the inference down the centuries has been that since she has a familiar spirit and can communicate with the dead, that’s what she must be. Nowadays she'd probably be called a medium, but the column header of my 1810 Bible states quite definitely: ‘Saul confulteth a witch’. In spite of having banished from the land all who have trafficked with ghosts and spirits, King Saul – desperate because he's got a Philistine army mustering on his borders and God is ignoring him – visits the woman secretly in disguise and asks her to call up the spirit of the prophet Samuel, whom he hopes will give him counsel. (Imagine if Aragorn had tried to summon up the ghost of Gandalf after his plunge into the abyss – it might not have been the best plan.) With extreme reluctance, the woman obliges, and though it’s not clear from the Bible account if Saul ever sees Samuel at all, the woman does: she describes him rising from the earth ‘like an old man coming up, wrapped in a cloak’. Of course it ends in disaster for Saul, as the displeased Samuel foretells his death.
The narrative is critical of Saul’s hypocrisy in banning consultations with the dead and then employing them himself, but it’s hard not to feel some sympathy with the hard-pressed king. It’s a time of bloody conflict: Samuel informs 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 on the Amalekites’. For which read: hasn't massacred them. But the Bible account isn't especially critical of the woman herself. While Saul collapses in terror at Samuel’s words, she first scolds him – ‘I listened to what you said and I risked my life to obey you’ – and then cooks him a much-needed meal. Saul has put her in an awkward position, and she did what he asked, that’s all. She really doesn't deserve to go down in history as a wicked witch.
Then why in popular culture, are witches nearly always women? To put it another way, why has women’s wisdom over the past couple of millennia so often been distrusted as likely to be ungodly in origin and therefore evil? In one sense it’s obvious: by their nature polytheisms may be (they aren’t always) relaxed about other gods, able to welcome or absorb them. But a monotheistic religion, if it is to remain so, must insist that rival gods are evil or null. The Christian martyrs suffered because of a head-on collision between a system that was uninterested in private faith but required a public gesture of submission to the Roman State by a sacrifice to its gods, especially the reigning emperor – and a system that absolutely forbade submission to any but One.
And monotheisms seem to centre on gods, male gods. There seems no special reason why there couldn't be a monotheistic religion centred on a goddess but I'm not aware that such a thing has ever existed. Of course, to say that God is male or female makes no sense if he/she/they is pure spirit, but people naturally anthropomorphise. An inscription dated circa 800 BCE found on a large storage jar in north-east Sinai reads in part: ‘May you be blessed by Yahweh and his Asherah’, while another at a site a few miles from Hebron reads: ‘Uriah the rich has caused it to be written: Blessed be Uriah by Yahweh and his Asherah: from his enemies he has saved him.’ This, says Rafael Patai in his book The Hebrew Goddess, suggests with other evidence that ‘the worship of [the goddess] Asherah as the consort of Yahweh … was an integral element of religious life in ancient Israel prior to the reforms introduced by King Josiah in 621 BCE.’
|Ivory box-lid depicting Asherah |
representing the Tree of Life feeding a pair of goats.
Though a God who could be symbolically addressed as King, Lord of Hosts, Master of the Universe and so on may have been a good fit for a patriarchal, warlike Iron Age society, Asherah was very important too. Patai explains:
"For about six centuries [after the arrival of the Israelite tribes in Canaan]; that is to say, down to the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE, the Hebrews worshipped Asherah (and next to her also other, originally Canaanite gods and goddesses) in most places and most times. Only intermittently, although with gradually increasing intensity and frequency, did the prophetic demand for the worship of Yahweh as the one and only god make itself be heard and was heeded by the people and their leaders."
Asherah, who is named many times in the Bible, was the top Canaanite mother-goddess right back to the 14th century BCE. As ‘Lady Asherah of the Sea’ or simply Elath (‘goddess’) her husband was the chief god El (‘god’) who ruled the sky, Baal (‘lord’) was their son, and the war-goddess Anat was their daughter. Asherah’s worship in the form of a cultic image, a pole or pillar, was introduced into the temple by Rehoboam circa 928 BCE: in following centuries such pillars, set up in hilltop shrines, were being destroyed by reforming Yahwistic kings like Hezekiah and Josiah. Despite these struggles her cult and that of her daughter Anat/Astarte remained popular right down to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE. When the prophet Jeremiah told the people that the calamity of the Exile had been Yahweh’s punishment for their wicked idolatry, they rejected it. In fact they claimed it was the other way around, that their troubles were all due to having neglected the goddess who used to care for them.
"We will not listen to what you tell us … We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and pour libations to her as we used to do, we, our fathers, our kings and our princes, in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem. For then we had plenty of food and were content; no calamity touched us. But since we stopped burning incense and pouring libations to her, we have been in great want and have fallen victim to sword and famine. And the women said, ‘It was not we alone who burned incense to the Queen of Heaven, and poured libations to her. Our husbands knew very well that we were making cakes marked with her image, and pouring libations to her.’ " [Jeremiah, 44, 15-19]
It must have been troubling to give up (and risk offending) such a powerful protector. Asherah was the home-town goddess worshipped by the princess of Sidon, Jezebel, daughter of the ruler of the Phoenician empire, who married the Israelite king Ahab (873-852 BCE). It was usual for princesses marrying abroad to retain their own religious customs, so Ahab made a shrine for Jezebel where she could worship Baal and Asherah. This went down badly with the Yahwist prophet Elijah and his supporters, and Jezebel wasn’t the conciliatory sort. A religious tit-for-tat ensued, in which both sides destroyed the others' shrines and slaughtered their priests. It couldn't end well.
How much of this really happened is debatable: the scholar and archeologist Israel Finkelstein writes that the Biblical narrative of Jezebel and Ahab contains so many inconsistencies and anachronisms that it should be regarded as ‘more of a historical novel than an accurate historical chronicle’. But I’ve always liked Jezebel's courage and style as she defies her last enemy Jehu – frankly a thug: a king’s officer whom Elijah’s protegée and successor Elisha hand-picked to kill the king and take his place. Ahab is dead by now, and the new king is Jezebel’s son-in-law Jehoram. Seeing Jehu driving furiously towards the city of Jezreel in his chariot, Jehoram sends out messengers to enquire his purpose; when Jehu ignores them, he comes out to meet him himself. ‘Is it peace, Jehu?’ he optimistically enquires. Jehu responds, ‘Do you call it peace when your mother Jezebel keeps up her obscene idol-worship and monstrous sorceries?’ As Jehoram wheels around to flee, Jehu bends his bow and shoots him in the back.
Hearing this news, Jezebel must have known she was a dead woman. She reacts like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra (‘Give me my robe, put on my crown. I have/Immortal longings in me…’) as with her hair dressed and her eyes painted, she stands royally visible in the window of the palace, looking down. As Jehu enters the gate below her, she calls a deliberately provocative challenge: ‘Is it peace, you Zimri, you murderer of your master?’ Zimri was a chariot commander who decades before had murdered his lord King Elah of Judah, after which he lived only seven days. For her to use his name as an insult suggests his treachery had become a byword: to call someone ‘Zimri’ may have been very like calling them ‘Judas’ now.
Jehu looked up at the window and said, ‘Who is on my side, who?’ Two or three eunuchs looked out, and he said, ‘Throw her down.’ They threw her down, and some of her blood splashed on the wall and the horses, who trampled her underfoot. Then he went in and ate and drank. ‘See to this accursed woman,’ he said, ‘and bury her, for she is a king’s daughter.’ But when they went to bury her they found nothing of her but the skull, the feet, and the palms of the hands.
Jehu claims that Jezebel's end fulfills Elijah’s prophecy that dogs would devour her and no one would be able to say where she was buried. Maybe so, but her splendidly arrogant defiance lives on. She was certainly no angel – the story says she ordered Naboth’s murder so that her husband Ahab could take his vineyard – but it hardly compares with the violence and cruelty of Jehu who continues his service to Yahweh by having all seventy princes of the house of Ahab slain and their heads piled in two heaps on either side of the city gate. He follows this deed with yet more massacres, and is praised by Yahweh for doing well. Then as now, atrocities are only committed by the other side.
Queen Jezebel was not a witch queen, but she might as well have been one. Her name is now practically synonymous with a wicked, glamorous, dangerous woman. What is a witch queen but a stereotype of feared and disapproved-of female power? The violence of Jezebel's death, along with the contempt and hatred which Jehu expresses towards her, testifies to the violence of feeling among Yahweh’s extremist followers: the effects of that far-off struggle persist to this day. Calling a woman a witch is never complimentary, but neither is it entirely without positive implications. A witch is a woman whose enemies perceive her as (illicitly) powerful, inspiring their fear and envy. A witch is a woman who cannot be ignored.
Next time: Witch Queens and Women's Power in YA & children's literature.
Morgan le Fay - by Frederick Sandys, 1864
The Witch of Endor (detail from "The Endorian Sorceress Invokes the Shade of Samuel") by Dmitry Nikiforovich Martynov, 1857
Ivory box-lid found at Ugarit (1300 BCE) depicting Asherah representing the Tree of Life, feeding a pair of goats.
Jezebel - by John Liston Byam Shaw (1872 - 1919)