Thursday, 16 June 2016

Violent rhetoric and its poisonous effects

Today it seems that everywhere I look I see acts of violence fuelled by a rhetoric of hate, and I think that something must be said about that.

This blog usually concerns itself with academic tidbits, or the interaction between popular culture and aspects of my doctoral thesis, but all of my academic endeavours have focused on the question of how a society creates an internal other and then viciously, and – often murderously – seeks to oppress, control and eradicate that other. So this is an opinion piece, not my usual mini essay.

But why should you listen to my opinion on violence and hate speech? Well, I have so far completed theses on the origins of Apartheid and the failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda, and I am now completing my doctorate on the largest single witch-hunt in early modern England. If researching and writing my Honours, Master’s and Doctorate taught me anything, it is how little empathy most of people feel for those whose are in need. This is especially true if we believe that providing for them might impinge on our own opportunities or entitlements.

There is a long history in our society of marginalising, blaming and punishing those who we perceive to be a burden on our society. Of course it is little comfort to those who are caught up in the latest crisis of empathy to realise that this is an ongoing problem (victim-blaming, for example). And hate-speech and demagoguery exploits our fears and latent dislike f that which is different, painting it as a terrible, imminent threat to us as individuals, and our society as a whole.

There is a well-known theory of English witch prosecutions that argues that a significant proportion of witch trials had their origin in the denial of charity, usually by young women to elderly impoverished widows. Although it is drawn from an incomplete body of evidence, there has also been some suggestion that rising inflation leads to rising numbers of witch trials. That our intolerance rises with our sense of insecurity shouldn’t be surprising. My doctoral thesis for example examines the largest sustained episode of witch-hunting in early modern England, which just happened to coincide with a civil war that severely strained the country’s social and religious cohesion and severely depleted its finances.

In fact the conditions prevalent during early modern European witch hunts are very similar to Genocide Watch’s stages of genocide: witches were classified as servants of the Devil; there was a physical description of the ‘old witch’ that would have been widely known; they were dehumanised as murderesses and adulteresses, who delighted in infanticide and cannibalism; in many places organised hunts were orchestrated, though in other places they were informal; lists of witches are made and updated with new names, especially during large chain reaction hunts where accused witches were tortured until they named those they knew to be witches; and then comes the hanging or burning of the accused witches (with denial replaced with more blame, either for the witch, or, occasionally, the accusers).

In order to ignore the plight of those in desperate need we often blame them for the situation they are in, and comfort ourselves that ‘we’ are not like ‘them’, and so we can avoid their fate. At the heart of that comfort is a fear, a fear that fuels dangerous and violent rhetoric aimed at those we fear in order to earn our votes.

As I listen to the news each night, which so often chooses to paint the world in simplistic narratives (us and them, good and evil, right and wrong), I often think we have not come very far at all from the society the produced the witch trials of the seventeenth-century. Then too a language of fear and atmosphere and suspicion fuelled acts of violence against innocent people.

How different are we from those villagers who helped magistrates and witchfinders tie old women to chairs, or tie their thumbs to the opposing ankle before lowering them into streams or dams to ‘swim’ them? How many of us could be certain we wouldn’t have helped? How can we know if that same hatred might not turn on us?

This week a man in Orlando, America murdered 49 people he presumed to be homosexual, a teenager was arrested in Sydney, Australia on terrorism charges, and yesterday a man shot a British politician. I wish I could think these events occurred in isolation, but they don’t. They are fuelled by intolerance, and a rhetoric of hate working upon disturbed minds. No one thinks all Norwegians or all right-wing Norwegians are violent killers because of Anders Breivik, why should we think it of any other race, creed or political idea that produces other perpetrators of violence?

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Some say that words are just words, and rhetoric won’t do any harm. But it does, it is the first step in a slippery slope, and letting it slide by because it isn’t aimed at us is the worst kind of cowardice. I am reminded of the famous words of Martin Niemöller:
“Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten,    When the Nazis came for the communists,
habe ich geschwiegen;                                 
I remained silent;
ich war ja kein Kommunist.                        
I was not a communist.

Als sie die Sozialdemokraten einsperrten,
When they locked up the social democrats,
habe ich geschwiegen;                                
I remained silent;
ich war ja kein Sozialdemokrat.                  I was not a social democrat.

Als sie die Gewerkschafter holten,            
When they came for the trade unionists,
habe ich nicht protestiert;                          
I did not speak out;
ich war ja kein Gewerkschafter.                
I was not a trade unionist.

Als sie die Juden holten,                               
When they came for the Jews,
habe ich geschwiegen;                                 
I remained silent;
ich war ja kein Jude.                                     
I wasn't a Jew.

Als sie mich holten,                                         
When they came for me,
gab es keinen mehr, der protestieren konnte
.”  there was no one left to speak out.

I don’t believe history should be treated as a guide to the present and future, but it does show us what happens when we let the language of hate become an accepted part of our civil discourse. It gives rise to violence, which in turn creates more hate and fear, which become more acts of violence. We must stop legitimising the rhetoric of hate it must stop being the best drawcard for the media’s attention, and politicians who use it should be shunned by their own parties.

I recently posted on Facebook Beatrice Evelyn Hall’s oft quoted distillation of Voltaire’s views on free speech: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” And I hold to that where difference of opinion is the crux of the issue, but there is something beyond disagreement. The use of violent speech “they are coming to kill your children and rape your daughters”, “kill the cockroaches”, “it’s us or them” is often appealing to those who want to grab the attention of the news media. The media is drawn to those whose speech is vicious, is violent, and to which many people experience a visceral reaction – the ultimate form of clickbait.

When those in positions of power begin to denigrate one group of human beings for political advantage we should all be wary. When they wish to lock up those who have committed no crime, we should be concerned. When we are told our society will suffer if we allow in those who are different from ourselves (Afrikaner Nationalists worried about gelijkstelling), we should be worried.

We know that in the past millions of innocent people have paid in blood when the majority of those around them were content to allow others to be sacrificed because it was not in their personal interest to intervene. If we are not wary, if we do not voice our concern and do nothing, then like Martin Niemöller, we may eventually find ourselves on one of those lists of undesirables, and who will be left to speak for us? 

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Blogging elsewhere

Please have a look at my post and article over at Cerae:

And if you haven't yet seen my piece for The Conversation, it can be found here:
This blog will be on a summer hiatus, and return in the new year.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Strange and wonderful history of Mother Shipton

I am afraid I have been very unwell and ended up in hospital this week, so the post on flying witches hasn’t been finished. So in the interest of getting a post up on time (while also getting my prescribed rest) I am instead posting a small piece of analysis which was originally part of my doctoral thesis. Although interesting in and of itself, it did not in the end drive home my thesis’ main argument, and was therefore taken out of my thesis earlier this year. But I hope you may find this short exploration of The Strange and wonderful history of Mother Shipton, by Richard Head, moderately interesting. Apologies for the change of plans, but the flying witches will be here next year,  in February. 

I have argued throughout this thesis that there is an interaction between elite debates and popular representations of witchcraft. Though the details of the Restoration debates on witchcraft are beyond the scope of this thesis, the sense of their scope and some of their key ideas can be found in popular texts and trials. One of the most frequently re-published was The Strange and wonderful history of Mother Shipton, by Richard Head, which was first published in 1677 – the same year as John Webster’s assault[1] on Glanvill’s defence of witchcraft beliefs and trials.[2]

Head’s narrative centres on a young Mother Shipton who had ‘made a Hellish Contract’ with the Devil.[3] The ‘Strange and wonderful history’ Head relates has many features which accord with the ‘unusual’ demonology of the East Anglia trials, and also illustrates the confusion and contention over what witches and the Devil could and could not do.

Head’s The Life and death of Mother Shipton claims that Mother Shipton’s ‘hellish contract’ was a form of marriage, and that following her agreement theirs was a wedding ceremony between the witch and the Devil. This work recalled Henry More’s Antidote against Atheism and its rationalisation of the Devil’s cold body.[4] This 1653 commentary on the feeling of the Devil when he physically interacted with witches was also discussed in Head’s The life and deth of Mother Shipton, where Shipton reports to her midwife that the Devil was ‘cold as ice’.[5]

Head’s account of Mother Shipton continues on from their wedding night to discuss how Shipton’s liaison with the Devil was uncovered when she became pregnant to him. She was ‘discovered by the great swelling of her Belly, to be with Child’.[6] Head reports that ‘The people could not tell what to think, or who should be the Father, concluding that none would be so vile and wicked, as to have Copulation with a Devil incarnate; neither could they believe a Spirit had either desire or power, to generate with any humane Creature’.[7]

Although Shipton, in the narrative, admits her child was begotten ‘by no mortal Wight’, she is not believed. As she cannot provide bail two ‘Gentlemen as they appeared by their habits’ arrive to free her, but as soon as their bail is accepted and Mother Shipton is set free, they vanish.[8]

It is easy to see in this narrative a reflection of the demonological debates of the era, especially in terms of the questions people had about whether the Devil did or did not have copulation with witches, and his ability to take physical form. Head’s discussion of the contestation of witch beliefs therefore reflected the debate playing out in demonological and theological works in the late seventeenth-century.[9]

[1] John Webster, The displaying of supposed witchcraft wherein is affirmed that there are many sorts of deceivers and impostors and divers persons under a passive delusion of melancholy and fancy, but that there is a corporeal league made betwixt the Devil and the witch ... is utterly denied and disproved, (1677).

[2] See Joseph Glanvill, A philosophical endeavour towards the defence of the being of vvitches and apparitions. In a letter to the much honoured, Robert Hunt, esq; by a member of the Royal Society, (1666) [later re-pblished in several editions, including as Saducismus triumphatus, or, Full and plain evidence concerning witches and apparitions in two parts: the first treating of their possibility, the second of their real existence (1681)].

[3] Note, Mother Shipton was widely discussed in this period. Not only were there several publications on her during the Civil War, but she was also a matter of discussion, according to the diary of Samue Pepys, in the Royal Family and was of particular import during and after the Great Fire of London. See Samuel Pepys, Samuel Pepys Diary “Entry for Saturday 20 October 1666”. See also ‘Mother Shipton’ [Anon], A true coppy of Mother Shiptons last prophesies as they were taken from one Joane Waller in the year of our Lord 1625 who died in March last, 1641 being ninety foure yeares of age of whom Mother Shipton had prophesided that she should live to heare of wars within this kingdome but not to see them, also predicting other wonderfull events that should befall in the clymate in these times, with two other strange prophesies threunto annexed, all which were never published before, (1642); [Anon], Fourteene strange prophesies: besides Mother Shiptons, and Mr. Salmarsh, predicting wonderfull events to betide these yeares of calamity, in this climate, whereof divers are already come to passe, worthy of observation, (1648); Head, The life and death of Mother Shipton.

[4] M2639 Henry More, An antidote against atheisme, or, An appeal to the natural faculties of the minde of man, whether there be not a God, (London: Prnted by Roger Daniel, 1653): p.138

[5] Head, The Life and death of Mother Shipton,  p. 3.

[6] Head, The Life and death of Mother Shipton,  p. 9.

[7] Head, The Life and death of Mother Shipton,  p. 9.

[8] Head, The Life and death of Mother Shipton,  p. 9.

[9] See Jonathan Barry, Witchcraft and Demonology in South-West England, 1640-1789 (2011); and  Ian Bostridge, Witchcraft and Its Transformations, c.1650-1750, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Distance and Sabbats in early modern English ‘witch plays’

This week’s post will be short and sweet, and be my first return to the early modern period in four weeks.
In her book Witchcraft and Society in England and America, 1550-1750, Marion Gibson pointed out that Thomas Middleton distanced the sabbat led by Hecate in his play The Witch, by placing the narrative in a foreign, Catholic location.[1] Geographic displacement is a trait shared by two other plays from the seventeenth-century which featured a witches’ meeting or ‘sabbat’. A multitude of authors on witchcraft in early modern England, from the very first writers like C. L’Estrange Ewen, Wallace Notestein, and G.L. Kitteridge, to more recent works by James Sharpe have argued that the sabbat as it was conceptualised on the continent (as a black mass, a diabolic inversion of Roman Catholic ceremony) never truly made it into popular beliefs in England.
More recently James Sharpe has argued that meetings did develop in a small number of isolated cases in the seventeenth century and cited some of the more extraordinary cases. The earliest recorded gatherings in witch trials of large groups of witches, or of suspected associations of witches occurred in the 1570s and 1580s. Witches’ sabbats also appeared both in print and on stage.  
What is interesting about the majority of sabbats in print on stage and in print is that they were, as Gibson pointed out in relation to Middleton’s The Witch, were geographically distant. In plays they are in places that are distant from London, in Scotland, Italy and Lancashire. Not all witch plays were distanced, some were far closer geographically, but those didn’t 
I have written here before about Macbeth, a play which opens with three women who may be fairies, goddesses, fates, or witches. In 1618 several more direct witchcraft references in Macbeth were added from Middleton’s The Witch, suggesting that contemporaries therefore chose the last option and interpreted the weird sisters as witches.
I would suggest that the same distancing takes place at the beginning of The Late Lancashire Witches in 1634:
Corrantoes failing, and no foot post
Possessing us with Newe; of forraine State,
No accidents abroad worthy Relation
Arriving here, we are forc'd from our owne Nation
To ground the Scene that's now in agitation.
The Project unto many here well knowne;
Those Witches the fat Iaylor brought to Towne,
An Argument so thin, persons so low
Can neither yeeld much matter, nor great show.
Expect no more than can from such be rais'd,
So may the Scene passe pardon’d, though not prais'd.
This distancing suggests that these incidences of witchcraft are alien to the audience watching the play, and that Lancashire is as much a strange and foreign place as Italy or Scotland. Since no news has come from a foreign state which is strange enough to entertain.
These three places are interesting sites to place a sabbat. In Italy witches sabbats had long been described in trials; Scotland likewise had a longer history of large trials featuring groups of witches who met together to plan acts of maleficium. Lancashire, with its population of recusants, and distance from the London audience, must have seemed (and sometimes still does, depending on who you are talking to) a strange and foreign land, almost as alien as medieval Scotland or Roman Catholic Italy.
Richard Wilson has suggested that the representation of a satanic conspiracy would have been both frighteningly alien and strangely familiar to Shakespeare’s London audience in 1604. [2] A year later the Gunpowder Plot would have made it even more disturbingly familiar.
Wilson goes on to argue that the appearance of witches meeting late at night in strange and distant lands would influence not only a whole generation of ‘witch plays’ (including The Witch  and The Late Lancashire Witches).[3]
Witches who meet on stage or in real life in England have too often been dismissed as foreign aberrations, and the distancing of locales in witches might meet on stage seems to mirror that.  Yet sabbats were often depicted in the same manner across Europe. Yet some people Matthew Hopkins, believed he lived next to the site of a witches’ meeting:
he had some seven or eight of that horrible sect of Witches living in the Towne where he lived, a Towne in Essex called Maningtree, with divers other adjacent Witches of other towns, who every six weeks in the night (being alwayes on the Friday night) had their meeting close by his house, and had their severall solemne sacrifices there offered to the Devill, one of which this discoverer heard speaking to her Imps one night[.]
So to return to my three examples: the courtly intrigues presented in both Macbeth and The Witch needed to be distanced from the English courts where in Macbeth’s case, the new Scottish King ruled (and had a sideline as the only ruler to both take a personal hand in discovering witches, and writing his own guide to finding witches); and in The Late Lancashire Witches, the distance is emphasised as not actually a foreign place, but the strangest and most exotic story the playwrights could come up with, given the lack of exciting news from foreign lands.

Witches meetings have been on my mind this week as I edit the chapters of my thesis that deal with them. The problem of distance is tied up in the consensus that they are an English idea at all, and were imported from the continent. I suppose in the end i am agreeing that there reasons for distance in all three cases. But there is also something in the hypothesis that full fledged black masses were very unusual (if not downright alien) to English witch beliefs.
In these theatrical examples there are certainly ideas which can be seen as continental intruders, and next week I intend to continue with this exploration of distance, foreign ideas and plays, by examining flying witches in England. From Macbeth to a Civil War battleground, witches who flew were even rarer than their compatriots who met at distant locales to feast, exchange familiars, and worship the Devil.

[1] Gibson, Witchcraft and Society in England and America, 1550-1750, pp. 97-98.
[2]  Richard Wilson, “The. pilot's. thumb: Macbeth and. the. Jesuits”, in The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories, p. 127.
[3]  Wilson, “The pilot’s thumb”, p. 127.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Wiccans and Margaret Murray’s ‘Witch-Cult’ in Popular Culture



The representation of witches and witchcraft I will discuss today are amongst those I personally find the least interesting. Primarily this is because there were no ‘wiccans’ in early modern Europe, yet I am with some regularity asked about what Margaret Murray called the “Witch-cult” in early modern Europe.[1] The idea that the modern iterations of magic, occultism, Satanism, and wicca have ancient antecedents, or have existed as an enduring culture in just plain wrong. As with so many things we think of as being 'old' or 'traditional', they are recent inventions which use ancient ‘trappings’ to legitimise them.

In this post I will argue that most pop culture representations of a female-dominated mystical religion/magical practise which is primarily benign in nature, owe their underlying precepts to Margaret Murray, and to feminist interpretations of witchcraft – some of whom still continue to trot out thismyth to attack ‘the patriarchy’ and the forces of social conformity. And that the use f these ideas in popular culture continues to influence some of the representation of witchcraft we read in books, and see on our television screens or at the movies, even now.

The most notable popular culture outcome of these ideas was the TV series Charmed (1998-2006). Its premise was that the Halliwell sisters were part of an ancient magical family, and were supposed to use their powers for good, to defend and protect the human race.

The series placed the three sisters inter-relationship to one another at the heart of a female-driven series, which fed nicely into 1990s girl-power movement, and embraced (or at least used) some aspects of Third-Wave Feminism. It also gelled well with the other significant contemporary pop-culture supernatural series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003).

Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer were joined by Sabrina the Teenage Witch, creating a triumvirate of supernatural shows (each in a different genre, and aiming at a slightly different audience) but all containing characters called witches, who were seen as benign forces on the side of the good guys(for the most part, although going ‘evil’ is used fairly often in these style of shows, for example see ‘Dark Willow’) .

Witches as persecuted outcasts also made an appearance in both the novel and film of Practical Magic (1995 and 1998, respectively), when two sisters find that only together can they overcome an ancient curse, and find happiness within a community that has rejected and despised them. The themes of sisterhood, and the way in which they must work together are echoed by Charmed’s premise, though the genre differences are quite stark.

Both Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have been the focus of feminist discussion and have been studied by academics. I don’t intend today to examine those shows further,  not only because a lot already been said about them, but because I want to look at the use of wiccans as the descendant of Murray's fertility cult outside of thse two Tv shows.  Today I want to look in depth at an example of wiccans as 'witches' in a piece of popular culture which isn’t consciously attempting to be either ‘girl-power’ or feminist minded.

Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series has come in for quite a lot of serious criticism of incidences of casualmisogyny, usually as an outcome of the main character’s POV. It is an urban fantasy series, centring on a wizard who is aware that others within his world view some of his behaviour as somewhat misogynist (as obviously, do may of his readers). Notably the wiccans in the Dresden Files appear as a victimised group in only one book, White Night (Dresden Files, Book Nine).

In White Night, the hero of the series Harry Dresden, is brought in to examine an apparent suicide. He soon discovers that the killer has used some of the murdered woman’s ‘sacred water’ from her holy chalice on her shrine (no Da Vinci Code jokes intended… I think) to inscribe Exodus 22:18:

Murphy furrowed her brow and stared at it. ‘A Bible verse?’


‘I don’t know that one,’ she said. ‘Do you?’

I nodded. ‘It’s one that stuck in my head: “Suffer not a witch to live.”’[2]

Dresden then explain to police officer who uses him as a Private Detective-Wizard-Consultant, that while not all ‘wiccans’ are witches (that is practise actual magic), their beliefs still form the basis of a religion.

What follows is one of the more interesting interpretations of religion and witchcraft in urban fantasy, after Murphy points out that the biblical reference seems pretty straight forwards in its meaning:

‘I dunno. “Suffer not a witch to live.” Seems fairly clear.’

‘Out of context, but clear,’ I said. ‘Keep in mind that this appears in the same book of the Bible that approves the death sentence for a child who curses his parents, owners of oxen who injure someone through the owner’s negligence, anybody who works or kindles a fire on Sunday, and anyone who has sex with an animal.’

Murphy snorted.

‘Also keep in mind that the original text was written thousands of years ago. In Hebrew. The actual word that they used in that verse describes someone who casts spells that do harm to others. There was a distinction, in that culture, between harmful and beneficial magic.

‘By the time we got to the Middle Ages, the general attitude within the faith was that anyone who practiced any kind of magic was automatically evil. There was no distinction between white and black magic. And when the verse came over to English, King James had a thing about witches, so “harmful caster of spells” just got translated to “witch.”’

‘Put that way, it sounds like maybe someone took it out of context,’ Murphy said. ‘But you’d get arguments from all kinds of people that the Bible has got to be perfect. That God would not permit such errors to be made in the Holy Word.’

‘I thought God gave everyone free will,’ I said. ‘Which presumably – and evidently – includes the freedom to be incorrect when translating one language into another.’

‘Stop making me think,’ Murphy said. ‘I’m believing over here.’[3]

Butcher was far from the first fantasy writer to note a relationship between his own work and the actual events of the early modern witch trials. For example, Harry Potter engaged with the history of witch trials through Harry’s study of the book A History of Magic. In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry is writing an essay which cited the history of a woman known as Wendelin the Weird who enjoyed the effects of being burned alive (she used a charm so that it tickled instead of burning) so much, that she allowed herself to be caught repeatedly.
But very few books, TV series, or films go as far Butcher does, in trying to actually discuss the problems of belief, tolerance, and interaction between the magical and the mystical in the present day, and relating it to historical events, ideas and theology (the series also includes allusions to Dresden being a descendant of Merlin, and one of his allies in the series is dressed like a modern day Knight Templar).
Of course, the basis of the conversation I quoted above is problematic, as theology would suggest any use of magic magic (as opposed to God-granted miracles) is wrong. Nor was it solely because of King James that the term witch (with all its pejorative and gendered meanings) was used in the English vernacular. In fact each vernacular translation uses similar words, for example an early Spanish vernacular bible uses the term ‘hechicera’, the later French translation by Louis Segonde had ‘magicienne’, while an even later Italian translation in 1927, used the term ‘Strega’, and many German versions have used the term ‘Zauberinnen’ - all of which are terms for female users of magic.

To return to the way Butcher uses witches of the Margaret Murray-type, my point is that although Butcher’s narrative denies the ‘wiccans’ in his narrative their agency by making them victims of a sadistic vampire who feeds on despair, he uses the same rhetoric that led the character of Xander  in Buffy the Vampire Slayer to sing:

'Cause witches, they were persecuted
Wicca good and love the earth
And women power
and I'll be over here

Nor is Butcher alone in picking up on this concept and using it in a very different context. Similar ideas permeate several recent supernatural works, including Angelina Jolie’s titular character in Maleficent (2014), which is a paean to female virtue overcoming hatred and male greed, with rape metaphors thrown in for good measure. While Maleficent is not technically a witch, but rather a fairy, her appearance (and that of the cartoon character on whom she was based) owe a great deal to the iconography of witches (and the original cartoon character was spiteful, vengeful and jealous of young Aurora in a mode familiar to readers of last week’s entry).

There is so much more to say on this topic. For example Butcher’s wiccans only appeared in a later book, while one of his earlier works featured a vengeful trio of ex-wives (some of whom were pornographic film actresses. Yes, really) murdering potential lovers of their husband (or ex-husband) under the influence of a vampire (not the despair-feeding variety, but the kind that feeds off sexual energy. Yes, really).

Butcher’s Dresden Files  books therefore manage to use and abuse both extremes of the witch trope: promiscuous, greedy and vengeful in Blood Rites, and a sisterhood of essentially good people, who are also victims in White Night. Later these minor practitioners who are also wiccans become part of Dresden’s wider network of allies, though they have yet to play any important role.

But what does this use of two kinds of witches, one bad one good, have to do with witches in early modern Europe? You could possibly argue that ‘good witches’ in modern fiction play the role of Cunning Folk, as sources of magical lore who can also perform minor acts of magic (such characters have appeared in other series, for example Vorna in David Gemmell’s Rigante series).

But Butcher purposefully cites wiccan as separate from the magic practitioners who were persecuted in early modern times:

[“]Three hundred years ago, it made cream turn sour, disturbed animals, and tended to encourage minor skin infections in wizards. Gave them blemishes and moles and pockmarks.”[4]

In other words it was practitioners, and there is no mention of wiccan pre-existing modern iterations of the wiccan religion (in other words, this is a modern development).

So what are we to make of this late nineties moment, when witches were good, part of a sisterhood, and descended from those who were persecuted during the early modern period? Was this just a moment of cultural alignment, between a popular version of feminism in ‘girl-power’, and the interweaving notions of wiccans on the one-hand, and Margaret Murray on the other gelled? And what will its consequences be?

Witches of all kinds are present on TV, in movies, and books. Since the successes of Harry Potter and Twilight a lot of authors have written series for children, young adults and adults, that revolve around the supernatural, and are set in the current era. On the big screen Nicholas Cage has appeared in two horror/adventure movies, The Last Witch-Hunter (2015), Season of the Witch (2011) which revolve around witchcraft, and on TV there are American Horror Story: Coven, and The Witches of East End on TV.  Nor are they alone with series like Game of Thrones, taking high fantasy from ‘nerd’ to ‘cool’, and subverting witch tropes in the process.

While The Witches of East End features a female-centric cast, which features two pairs of witches who are sisters, most representations of witches in recent media have tended to be at least questionable characters, if not outright villains. Some would undoubtedly argue that this is a backwards step for feminism, but I am left unsure if building a positive female character on a basically flawed historical theory (that witches were part of a female-dominated fertility cult of pagan origin) was ever a good idea.

* I apologise for this post being a day late, but my internet provider has had some sort of ongoing issue, so my internet connection is on the fritz. As a result I have spent unmentionable hours going through "push one, push two, push three" on the phone, and I have found that when you actually reach a human being they are inevitably from the wrong department, so they transfer you to someone else who always want to ask if you have tried turning the device off and on...

[1] Margaret Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, (1921); see also Margaret Murray, The God of the Witches, (1933); Margaret Murray, The Divine King of England, (1954).

[2] Jim Butcher, White Night (Dresden Case Files): p. 8. Note, I personally still very much enjoy these books in spite of needing to roll my eyes at the main character’s sexism. Which is, in my opinion, is significantly less sexist than most stand-up comedy, and quite a few prime time TV shows of the past decade – hell the past few years. Nor is it as un-self-aware as the sexism of Patrick Rothfuss.

[3] Butcher, White Night, pp. 10-11

[4] Jim Butcher, Cold Days: A Dresden Files Novel (The Dresden Files) (p. 184).

Sunday, 25 October 2015

"Hags"?: Transformation and the problem of age in modern fantasy and fairytales

What do the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1996-2003), the musical Into the Woods (2014), the film of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (2007), and Doctor Who's “The Shakespeare Code” (2007) have in common?
They all show witches who appear as young and beautiful as the coven from Supernatural in last week’s post, but are in reality a middle aged mother (desperately wishing to relive teenage glory years), hags seeking to restore their youth, or an alien who looks like a hag, disguising herself as a young woman to seduce victims. Nor are they alone. Women who use magic to attain a youthful appearance, or who are deeply threatened by women who are younger are recurring theme in modern fantastical fiction, and adaptations of fairytales.
This trope is almost an ugly duckling in reverse, and I think exposes an ongoing concern with the ephemeral nature of beauty, and concerns over the behaviour of women 'of a certain age'. Unlike the Ugly Duckling however, these women rarely experience a permanent transformation, and are usually severely punished.
The problem with this trope is there are very few cases from history where witches used witchcraft to restore their youth (after all, botox and face lifts weren’t available in the early modern period). However the quest for an elixir of youth or the desire to restore one’s youth and beauty certainly did appear in Gothic literature, and the exchange of one’s soul for youth has been incredibly influential ever since Oscar Wilde penned his hedonistic Faust-tale The Picture of Dorian Grey.
In fact these witches owe far more of their trope to Dorian Grey, the stereotypes associated with female vanity, and ideas about the transitory nature of female beauty ( which is an illusion that amount to subterfuge where hags appear as beautiful younger women, like Michelle Pfeiffer’s Lamia in Stardust), than they do to actual early modern witchcraft cases. ), there are no direct parallels in the cases I look at in early modern England.
However there are other links that should be briefly addressed here. In Thinking with Demons Stuart Clark points to complaints about the use of masks in popular festivals as a Devilish, and were derided in language that mimicked critiques of witches’ sabbats.[i] For the witches in Stardust, the heart of a Star can maintain their youth, but it is not a permanent change, or solution. Like the elixir made from Harry Potter’s eponymous Philosopher’s Stone, this is a youth booster, not true eternal life.
It has been contended in the media that we live in a world which prefers women to be young, but any attempts to maintain female youth are through invasive surgery are treated as the domain of the foolishly vain. To say we, as a society, have a problematic relationship with female appearance would be an understatement.
In Films like Stardust the witches are contrasted with both the eternally youthful, beautiful and good Yvaine, and the gracefully aging Princess Una (whose many years of imprisonment by the witch Ditchwater Sal have not aged her apart from a single streak of white hair). While the witches in Stardust are portrayed as greedy, vicious, selfish murderers, while Yvaine and Una are generous, loving, and selfless.[ii]
In “Beyond Wicked Witches And Fairy Godparents: Ageing and Gender in Children's Fantasy on Screen”, Rebecca-Anne C. Do Rozarion and Deb Waterhouse-Watson argue that “Crones [...] are frequently penalised for the magical appropriation of youthful, beautiful bodies, as more adult fantasy films such as Stardust [...] and Into the Woods [...] show.”[iii]
I would argue that in the case of Stardust the punishment is meted out primarily be turning Lamia’s deteriorating youth into a recurring joke. In early modern plays, witches’ lust and stupidity (or the gullibility of their victims) could similarly be played for comic affect, as in The Late Lancashire Witches (1634).
I suspect there is quite a deal to say about our current obsession with youth and beauty (particularly in relation to women) in these portrayals of witches. An obsession we might likewise compare with early modern concerns over female sexuality and the susceptibility of women to the Devil’s influence (though I would argue that those concerns also play a role in our current obsession with female beauty).
Last week I suggested that witches on supernatural were simply updated caricatures of early modern conceptions of witches - with a little occultism thrown in for good measure. They were the worst nightmares of early modern theologians come to life. The witches in Stardust, and other films present different nightmares: that young women are or will soon be hags; that ‘bad women’ lie about their appearance to deceive others; and that age is a punishment – particularly for women.
On the last idea, I was particularly struck when I recently watched Into the Woods. The film is of Sondheim’s musical, and in the witch becomes the meeting point for different fairytales: she is both Rapunzel’s abductor  and the source of Jack and the Beanstalks’ magic beans. Meryl Streep’s character declares early on:
The Witch: You see, when I had inherited that garden, my mother had warned me I would be punished if I were ever to lose any of the Beans.
In flashback we see how The Witch was transformed into the crazy-haired hag figure we see in the first two-thirds of the film. The Witch’s desire to break her mother’s curse and regain her beauty is both the driving force behind the narrative of the film, and an interesting comment on the relativity of youth and beauty (after all it is still Meryl Streep, she doesn’t transform into a girl of 20).
Similarly Michelle Pfeiffer, while acclaimed as one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood, is not ‘young’ in the traditional sense either. So perhaps the concern here is really with that mid-life period, where women are no longer nubile girls, but not yet crones either. When botox injections, cosmetic surgery, and cosmetics can deceive the eye, I suppose a concern with appearance (not unknown in the early modern era either) and magic's transformative powers in that area seems a rich vein for fictional witches to exploit. The other side of this trend is that in which vanity leads the wicked woman to be jealous of young women’s beauty (see Evil Queen in the various adaptation of Snow White),[iv] and attempt to use magic to destroy her, with sometimes drastically ageing consequences, as in Mirror Mirror.
While this might seem just desserts for a would-be murderer, it is the motivations of 'femme fatales' (including the non-witches) in fantasy films that often strikes me. As with the recent (scintillating) portrayal of the wicked stepmother in Cinderella (2015) by Cate Blanchett, and Angela Lansbury's earlier turn in the same role in Ever After (1998), women 'of a certain age', are viewed as predatory, and a little bit desperate. And not only for themselves, but for their daughters. There is often a sense that these women see the clock moving forwards, and while they cannot (as Lamia and other witches do) move time backwards, but they can ensure that their daughters do not waste their own youth (and/or beauty). In an aside, one of the more amusing comments on this portrayal was an assertion on Hollywood Life that this was the most evil portrayal, because Blanchett emphasised the Evil Stepmother's envy and jealousy.
So as I attempt to wrap up what has rapidly become something of a ramble, let me say that there has been quite a good deal said on the topic of female age, and our societies apparent disposal of women over a certain age. The portrayal of women over 30 in fantasy or modern interpretations of fairytales often show these women as aware of their fading youth, and enraged by it (if they are not saintly mothers, or the heroine. And yes, we are definitely in Madonna/whore territory here - see Stardust, above). 
These women who rage at middle age is perhaps best epitomised by the mother who literally steals her daughter's body in Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Season One episode "Witch":
Catherine:  How dare you raise your hand to your mother! I gave you birth. I gave up my life so you could drag that worthless carcass around and call it living?
As always, Catherine is punished for her crimes with what she wanted: to return to her glory days as cheerleader, albeit forever trapped as the moving eyes of her own cheerleading trophy.
I suppose the question I am really posing here is: what is our problem with women and the ageing process that it recurs so frequently in recent portrayals of witches?
I hope you have caught on by now that I don't think this is a recent development, after all older women make up a significant percentage of early modern witch trials in some jurisdictions, and men have been concerned about women's use of cosmetics to falsify youth and beauty for millennia. I would argue that little has altered to our perception since Snow White was first penned that women who are vain cannot be good, or that old chestnut that true beauty comes from within (though being physically attractive is usually also a requirement, even if it involves its own transformation).
As with the recurrence of the coven of sexy young women who are avaricious and stupid enough to become enslaved to the Devil (see last week’s post), I don’t see this trope fading away. So expect to see more vain women trying to use magic to either transform themselves, or eliminate their younger competitors. As long as we still associate age with ugliness and female envy, there will probably be witches on film who rue the loss of their youth, and are prepared to do anything to get it back.  

[i] Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, 1996: 22.
[ii] The only other notable female character, Victoria, is also portrayed as vain, greedy, and self-interested.
[iii] Rebecca-Anne C. Do Rozarion and Deb Waterhouse-Watson “Beyond Wicked Witches And Fairy Godparents: Ageing and Gender in Children's Fantasy on Screen” in Imelda Whelehan and Joel Gwynne eds., Ageing, Popular Culture and Contemporary Feminism: Harleys and Hormones, (2014).
[iv] As with Lamia in Stardust, these witches are portrayed by famously beautiful actresses, Charlize Theron and Julia Roberts.