Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Witch Queens and Women's Power

If as I suggested in my last post, the ‘wickedness’ of the witch is derived from a male fear and rejection of female power that goes back a very, very long way, Ursula K Le Guin embarked on a long-term exploration of that idea in her Earthsea novels. In the first of the series, A Wizard of Earthsea, whether wizards are old scholars or young students, they are men. Women need not apply, and those who show aptitude or an interest in magic are not to be trusted. When he's only a boy on Gont, Ged is tempted by a girl to try a spell beyond his skill. Disaster almost follows and his master Ogion rebukes him:

‘You do not remember what I told you, that that girl’s mother, the Lord’s wife, is an enchantress? … The girl herself is half a witch already. It may be the mother who sent the girl to talk to you. It may be she who opened the book to the page you read. The powers she serves are not the powers I serve: I do not know her will, but I know she does not will me well.’

Later in the book, Ged meets the girl again. Dressed in stylish witch queen garb of ‘white and silver, with a net of silver crowning her hair that fell straight down like a fall of black water’, she is now lady of the Court of the Terrenon, which is an evil spirit imprisoned in a foundation stone. Telling Ged that ‘only darkness can defeat the dark,’ she uses her beauty and apparent helplessness to tempt him into trying to bend the spirit to his will, knowing it will enslave him. (‘The beauty of the lady of the Keep confused his mind.’) In reality she’s a dangerous, double-crossing witch who comes to a sticky end. In this book magic, that is to say power, is best left to men: women have no business with it, since ‘the powers they serve’ are likely to be evil. A couple of Gontish proverbs express this well: Weak as women’s magic, and wicked as women’s magic. ‘Good’ women in A Wizard of Earthsea are unlearned and domestic. 

In next book, The Tombs of Atuan, the fourteen year-old Kargish heroine Arha (‘the Eaten One’) is High Priestess of these ancient Tombs and the labryrinthine tunnels beneath them. The Tombs are dedicated to the Nameless Ones: chthonic forces of darkness whose guardians are priestesses or eunuch slaves, all dressed in black, who form a society as barren of joy or purpose as the desert that surrounds them. When Arha encounters Ged as he explores the Undertomb in search of the broken half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, she traps him down there in the dark – triggering a moral and emotional struggle within herself as to what his fate shall be. 

Initially cruel out of fear and anger, Arha moves to the decision to save Ged, and by doing so saves herself, reconnecting with her true identity and her childhood name, Tenar. Each needs the other: to be whole, we need both halves of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, Le Guin is saying: but the Priestesses of the Tombs are a discouraging example of an all-female society. Not until the fourth book of the series, Tehanu, did Le Guin begin exploring the dark, abusive aspect of male power, and the love and strength of women. Moss, the village witch on Re Albi, is the very picture of a wicked crone who lures little childen away to cook them: but in fact she helps Tenar look after the burned and voiceless child Tehanu. 

Moss] took the child into the fields and showed her a lark’s nest in the green hay, or into the marshes to gather white hallows, wild mint and blueberries. She did not have to shut the child in an oven, or change her into a monster, or seal her in stone. That had all been done already. 

And done by men.

Le Guin abandoned the witch queen sterotype to explore positive possibilities for female agency, but there still are plenty of witch queens in fantasy fiction. Following in the old Jezebel tradition, these are usually beautiful sexual women of great power, selfishness and cruelty. The first time we meet TH White’s Queen Morgause of Orkney, she is boiling a live cat – all for nothing; nearing the end of the spell, she loses interest and can’t be bothered to continue. Morgause is adored by her sons Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth, but she alternately neglects, torments and smothers them. She uses everyone she meets and is the ruin of most. The title of the book in which she appears, The Queen of Air and Darkness, comes from the well known poem by AE Housman, worth quoting in full: 
Her strong enchantments failing,
Her towers of fear in wreck,
Her limbecks dried of poisons
And the knife at her neck

The Queen of air and darkness
Begins to shrill and cry,
'O young man, O my slayer.
Tomorrow you shall die.'

O Queen of air and darkness,
I think 'tis truth you say,
And I shall die tomorrow,
But you shall die today.

This is an extraordinary conjuration of fear and violence, of antagonism not only between the sexes but between generations. Housman allows no sympathy, no possibility of mercy towards this Queen. She is to be destroyed as one might kill a snake. White was a man tormented by his own sexuality and suppressed sado-masochistic tendencies. He had a terrible relationship with his own mother and once wrote to his friend David Garnett (asking him to call on her): ‘She is a witch, so look out, if you go.’ Elisabeth Brewer, in her critical work, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, 1993, quotes White describing Morgause thus:

She should have all the frightful power and mystery of women. Yet she should be quite shallow, cruel, selfish…One important thing is her Celtic blood. Let her be the worst West-of-Ireland type: the one with cunning bred in the bone. Let her be mealy-mouthed: butter would not melt in it. Yet also she must be full of blood and power.

Blood, frightful mystery, power (and racism): White is clearly very frightened of this woman, who both fascinates and repels him. He didn’t find her in Malory, whose Queen Morgawse isn’t even an enchantress like her half-sister Morgan Le Fay (seen above wearing a come-on-if-you-dare look and seemingly seven feet tall), but a great lady whose sins are adulterous rather than sorcerous. No: White created his Morgause out of his own fears and loathings. 

Whether or not The Once and Future King is really a book for children – I first read it in my teens – the Narnia books are, and they contain two excellent examples of the witch queen: Jadis of The Magician’s Nephew, who reappears as the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (or the other way around, depending which you read first) and the Green Lady of The Silver Chair, who shares many characteristics with fairy queens of the Unseelie Court. And I have to remark in passing that the Unseelie fairy queens of modern YA fiction have very much moved across into witch queen territory. In the wake of Holly Black’s Ironside and Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely we've been introduced to an entire generation of sexy, cruel, powerful fairy queens whose penchant for sadism, in spite of the teenage heroines who combat them, I find disturbingly retrograde. Most of these books are written by women. But is this really the way we still wish to depict female power? 

Lewis’s White Witch owes much to Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen: both are tall, striking, wintry figures wrapped in furs who drive sleighs and lure little boys away. Both are cold. The White Witch is ruthless and cruel, and in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe we are told she descends from Lilith – a demon for whom Raphael Patai provided an entertaining resumĂ©: 

No she-demon has ever achieved as fantastic a career as Lilith, who started out from the lowliest of origins, was a failure as Adam’s intended wife, became the paramour of lascivious spirits, rose to be the bride of Samael the Demon King, ruled as Queen of Zermagad and Sheba, and ended up [in Kabbalistic legend] as the consort of God himself. 

The Hebrew Goddess, 221

Lilith supposedly spent her time seducing men and killing children; she was sometimes described as a beautiful woman from the waist up and flaming fire from the waist down. I do not know whether a demon can be a witch (or a witch, a demon) but whatever else she is, Lilith is Unmistakably Bad. (Lewis of course knew George Macdonald's rather creepy fantasy novel, Lilith.) No child could possibly know any of this, and I think Lewis made Lilith the White Witch’s ancestor mainly to add a little exoticism to the story, and to make the point that the Witch isn’t human. At least that’s how I took it, age nine; children are often more intrigued than baffled by this kind of esoteric reference. 

Jadis ‘is’ the same person as the White Witch, but her character is more carefully drawn. And the comedy of the chapter in which she riots through London on top of a hansom cab (the episode is borrowed from E Nesbit) expresses the author's delight in her sheer wicked energy. Jadis has all the style and magnificence a witch queen could desire, but in spite of her having caused the (offstage) destruction of the whole world of Charn, nothing she does in The Magician’s Nephew has the emotional impact of the White Witch’s killing of Aslan. The Green Lady of The Silver Chair is certainly a witch, but she is derived from the fairy queens of medieval romances like Marie de France’s Lanval, and of border ballads like True Thomas. Softly spoken, charming, ‘feminine’, she is also sly, dangerous and deceitful. Grown women, Lewis clearly feels, should be neither domineering nor manipulative, but he darkly suspects they may be both.

Under the dubious influence of Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, Celtic legends provide the attributes of many a 20th century witch queen. For me the front runner must be Alan Garner’s Morrigan: it's the name of an Irish battle goddess who could transform into a crow, variously translated as Great Queen or Phantom Queen. Some of the Morrigan’s best lines come from Irish and Scottish tales: the sinister threat to Colin – ‘nothing of you shall escape from the place into which you have come, save what birds will carry away in their claws’ is a quotation from the Irish Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel while the curse, ‘The wish of my heart to you, dwarf!’ which she shrieks at Uthecar in The Moon of Gomrath and the dwarf nimbly averts by crying, ‘The wish of your heart, carlin, be on yonder grey stone!’ comes from a folk tale, ‘Ewen and the Carlin Wife’ in J G Campbell’s The Gaelic Otherworld. In both cases the witch in question is a cailleach or a gruagach: an old woman with supernatural powers. 

The Morrigan appears in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath as the death or crone aspect of the triple Moon Goddess – the roles of maiden and mother being taken respectively by Colin’s sister Susan, and Angharad Goldenhand, Lady of the Lake. Dividing up the feminine in this way allows the author to approve maiden and mother on the time-honoured Madonna pattern, while disapproving of the crone. In fact the Morrigan isn’t all that old, but she seems so to the children, and for a witch queen she is physically unattractive: 

She looked about forty-five years old, was powerfully built (“fat” was the word Susan used to describe her), and her head rested firmly upon her shoulders without appearing to have much of a neck at all. Two deep lines ran from either side of her nose to the corners of her wide, thin-lipped mouth, and her eyes were rather too small for her broad head. Strangely enough her legs were long and spindly, so that in outline she resembled a well-fed sparrow, but again that was Susan’s description… Her eyes rolled upwards and the lids came down till only an unpleasant white line showed; and then she began to whisper to herself.

‘Fat was the word Susan used’ – ‘but again that was Susan's description' – this is oddly arch, for Garner. He manages to make the Morrigan sound sinister while at the same time disassociating himself from Susan's opinion; the subtext is that you might not want to believe her – but why? Because Susan may be jealous? Because you can never really trust what one female says about another? Anyway. Frightening, powerful, ruthless, the Morrigan wastes no time in trying to conjure the children into her car so that she can take the ‘Bridestone’. In the second book, The Moon of Gomrath, the Morrigan is revealed in her full strength, and even after years of re-reading my spine still prickles as Susan faces her outside the ruined house which is only ‘there’ in moonlight:

Now Susan felt the true weight of her danger, when she looked into eyes that were as luminous as an owl’s with blackness swirling in their depths. The moon charged the Morrigan with such power that when she lifted her hand even the voice of the stream died, and the air was sweet with fear. 

Susan and the Morrigan vie with one another, black and silver lances of power jetting from their mirror-opposite bracelets, and when at last Susan wins by blowing the horn of Angharad Goldenhand, it’s an all-female victory by which the world is unsettlingly changed. Susan’s brother Colin hears a sound ‘so beautiful he never found rest again’, and ‘the Old Magic was free for ever, and the moon was new.’ Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It’s left unresolved. 

In fact, Garner is forced into an awkward distinction between the Black Magic practised by the Morrigan, and the Old Magic of the elemental Wild Hunt and the moon maidens Susan and Angharad. It seems a little awkward to brand the Old Moon as bad while the New and Full Moons are good. I’m not sure quite where the Morrigan’s evil really resides; Le Guin would say that we need the darkness as well as the light. In his 2012 adult novel Boneland, which wows me although I don’t pretend to understand it, the character of Meg appears to unite these identities while the adult Colin is haunted by the childhood loss of his twin sister Susan (the other half of his nature?) although we’re left uncertain if indeed she ever existed. The ageing Colin split from his sister is a lonely, damaged figure, and the book seems to look for personal and cosmic union and wholeness.  

Blodeuwedd in The Owl Service is also a divided figure. In the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogion she was made from flowers for a man’s use, then punished for her unfaithfulness by being changed into an owl. The pressure of this old tragic legend penned up in a Welsh valley compels those who live there to repeat it over and over. Blodeuwedd/Alison can only be one thing or the other, claws or petals, owls or flowers. But she can’t choose which. Her frightening power – ‘She is coming and will use what she finds, and you have only hate in you,’ says Huw to his son Gwyn – is all derived from men. Only when Roger exercises tenderness and compassion does the endless cycle turn to flowers again. We’re left with the image of Alison lying on the kitchen table, just opening her eyes perhaps, for Roger says ‘Hello Ali’ – while the room fills with gently-falling petals. It’s a beautiful ending but it’s also very Sleeping Beauty and I find it hard to imagine what Alison is going to say or do when she sits up. Who is she really? Who is she?

Who is the woman of power and how does she discover herself? Returning to Earthsea, there’s a (longish) short story Ursula le Guin wrote after Tehanu and published in Tales of Earthsea – before The Other Wind. It’s called ‘Dragonfly’ and tells of a young girl, the only child of a proud, bitter man, the Master of Old Iria on the island of Way. The motherless girl grows up neglected and half wild, and when it’s time for her to be given her true name, her father rages that there’s no one to do it but Rose, the village witch, whom he rules is unfit. But Dragonfly persuades the witch to do it secretly that night, at the spring under Iria Hill. ‘How do you know what name to say, Rose?’ she asks. ‘It comes,’ the witch tells her. ‘You take away the child name, and then you wait’:

‘In the water there. You open your mind up, like. Like opening the doors of a house to the wind. So it comes. Your tongue speaks it, the name. Your breath makes it… That’s the power, the way it works. It’s all like that. It’s not a thing you do. You have to know how to let it do. That’s all the mastery.’
            ‘Mages can do more than that,’ the girl said after a while.
            ‘Nobody can do more than that,’ said Rose.

The witch gives her the name Irian, which angers the girl as it is connected to her father: she feels she is something more. When a young sorcerer tells her tales of the wizards’ school on the Island of Roke, she goes there with him to find out what power is within her. He tries to to trick her into sleeping with him, but is ashamed when she trusts him with her name. He enspells her to look like a man so she can be admitted to the Great House. His illusion fools no one, but the Doorkeeper lets her in, calling her ‘daughter’, and the Master Patterner gives her the freedom of the Immanent Grove. Others, under the leadership of Thorion the Master Summoner, think it sacrilege for a woman – a witch! – to come among them. 

‘Lord Thorion has returned from death to save us all,’ Windkey said, clearly and fiercely. ‘He will be Archmage. Under his rule Roke will be as it was. The king will receive the true crown from his head and rule with his guidance… No witches will defile sacred ground. No dragons will threaten the Inmost Sea. There will be order, safety and peace.’ 

This nostalgic appeal to a past order is doomed. ‘I am not a witch,’ says Irian in a ‘high, metallic’ voice, ‘I have no art. No knowledge. I come to learn.’ She adds, facing him, ‘Tell me who I am.’

‘Learn your place, woman,’ the mage said with cold passion.
‘My place,’ she said, slowly, the words dragging – ‘my place is on the hill. Where things as as they are. Tell the dead man I will meet him there.’

Their dialogue reveals that Windkey has no notion what Irian is, or what a woman is, and since all magic in the world of Earthsea is the true naming of things – learning the true name and true nature – we can see that this ignorance is a great flaw in his power. Windkey cannot not even see, as Irian sees, that Thorion the Summoner is literally the walking dead. From this crucial point we cease to be given insights into Irian’s mind: Le Guin makes us onlookers like the rest. As evening comes, Irian leads the four Masters who taken her side to Roke Knoll, the holiest place on the island, to meet Thorion. He commands her to leave or be banished: she commands him to climb the hill with her, and he cannot.

She left him standing at the waymeet, on level ground, and walked up the hill for a little way, and few strides. ‘What keeps you from the hill?’ she said.
            The air was darkening around them. The west was only a dull red line, the eastern sky was shadowy above the sea.

Thorion tries to control her in the Language of the Making: ‘Irian, by your name, I summon you and bind you to obey me!’ But because he does not know who or what she is, he has no power over her. Crying, ‘I am not only Irian!’ she towers over him in flames and vast wings, and ‘bowing down before her, bowing slowly down to earth’, Thorion is revealed as he truly is – dry bones, long dead.

The business of the wise in the world of Earthsea has been to preserve its balance, the Equilibrium, but the story show that the world cannot be in balance, when only the power of men is valued. As she goes on up the hill in the gathering darkness, the onlookers see Irian’s nature revealed, as, ‘with a rattle like the shaking of sheets of brass’, she springs into the air in dragon form and flies beyond the west to seek her mother’s people and her other name. If women can be dragons…! ‘What must we do now?’ asks the Patterner, who loves her. And echoing the words of Rose, the witch who named Irian and told her that power was like ‘opening the doors of a house to the wind’, the Doorkeeper suggests that the next duty of the Masters of Roke should be to ‘go to our house, and open its doors’. To welcome whoever comes, to let in the fiery breath of truth, the other wind.

Picture credits;

Medea by Frederick Sandys
Morgan le Fay by John Spencer Stanhope c. 1880 
The White Witch by Pauline Baynes
Jadis by Pauline Baynes
The White Goddess by Leonora Carrington
The Owl Service endpapers: the plates can be either owls or flowers
Detail from 'The Scroll of Nine Dragons', hand-copied by me many years ago...

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Goddesses, Queens and Witch-Queens

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 protegĂ©e 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. 

Picture credits:

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)