Final Thoughts

I’ve now officially finished writing the EPQ. I can’t express how much I’ve learned during this process and how much it’s taught me about academic investment into a passion project. While I’m not completely satisfied with the literary quality of the essay, everything I’ve written about has come from a place of fascination, interest and an incredibly detailed research investigation. It has helped my love of literature and its diverging structures (plays, poems, political and religous texts, novels and children’s literature) as well as introducing me to media texts that I may otherwise not have been exposed to (The Witch, The Craft, Bewitched etc.). Doing this project has fortified my decision to study English Literature as university, but also made me realise that I don’t want to limit myself to canonical texts and ideologies – comparing Beyonce to Shakespeare really was a highlight of this project! Being creative with this project was one of my favourite aspects about it. If I saw a connection between witch representations, there was nothing stopping me linking then in innovative ways that connotes cultural meanings and demonstrates similarities and differences between time periods.

Similarly, whilst I thought that this project would open me up to academic thinking, it did a lot more than intended. Witchcraft has fascinated me and while I have no religous or spiritual ties to its contemporary place in society, I have garnered a huge level of respect and interest for Neo-Pagans in the world today. Getting to speak to people whose lives are affected by witchcraft has opened my eyes to diversity in the world. It has become more than an acedemic project for me as I’ve realised how lucky I am to live in a part of the world where places such as Burley and Brighton share a history of folklore and mythology. Speaking to Maggie, Sylvie and Beryl was so interesting as not only did it bring the issue of witchcraft to life, but it helped my confidence in conversing with others.

I hope that I can utilise this project in my future, as part of an academic task or a personal activity, as witches remain fascinating characters in a modern society that is still conflicted with gender and cultural issues that demonise the foregin unknown. It is only by turning back to history and stories that have affected our society that we can recognise those same illusions haunting us. It may have been about the niche character of the witch, but it can be applied to so much more – I’m now inspired to read about monstrous women, even through women’s own portrayals that further explores how women see themselves in a society that projects their own archetypes upon them.

 

A Literary History of Witches

As far as popular fascinations go, few have endured for as long, or created as robust a bibliography, as witches. While the word “witch” has its etymological roots (wicce) in Old English, the concept has antecedents much older and geographically widespread. Written accounts of women who practice magic are as old as recorded history, and continue to the present day. And while there is a broad spectrum of witch stories out there, there is a through-line common to them all: witches are women whose embodiment of femininity in some way transgresses society’s accepted boundaries – they are too old, too powerful, too sexually aggressive, too vain, too undesirable.

The only daughter of Titans Perseus and Asteria, Hecate was a goddess of Greek mythology with a particularly large wheelhouse, associated variably with magic, witchcraft, the night, the moon, ghosts, and necromancy, as well as lighter fare like athletic games, courts of law, birth, and cattle-tending. In later periods, she was often depicted in triple form, in connection with the phases of the moon. Hecate plays a crucial role in the myth of Persephone’s abduction by Hades; the only witness to the kidnapping besides Helios, she uses her iconographic torch to help Demeter scour the Earth for her lost daughter. Hecate also appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and is identified in Hesiod’s Theogeny as the goddess Zeus valued above all others. The Orphic Hymns describe Hecate as she has come to be most known in the popular imagination: “Sepulchral, in a saffron veil array’d, leas’d with dark ghosts that wander thro’ the shade.”

First referenced in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, Morgan le Fay was an enchantress-cum-antagonist of Arthurian Legend. Similarly to Hecate, Morgan le Fay’s narrative took on darkness over time. Portrayed as a healer in the early chivalric romances of Monmouth and Chrétien de Troyes, she appears in the later medieval stories as the half-sister and bitter adversary of King Arthur, plotter against Excalibur, apprentice of Merlin, and sexually menacing temptress whose obsessive love for Lancelot goes unrequited. Yet even at her most unequivocally villainous, it is Morgan le Fay who bears an injured Arthur to the island of Avalon after he is wounded in the Battle of Camlann.

Referred to as the “weyward sisters” in Macbeth‘s first folio, this trio of witches delivers the dual prophecies that set the entire play’s course of events into motion: that the eponymous Scottish general will become king, while his companion, Banquo, will generate a line of kings. The Weird Sisters as described by Shakespeare are not only hag-like—with “chappy fingers” and “skinny lips”—but masculine with beards. This latter characteristic connects them to Macbeth’s other villainous female figure: Lady Macbeth, who entreats the spirits to “unsex [her] here” while plotting the murder of King Duncan. In a disputed scene in the play’s third act, the Weird Sisters reappear with O.G. Hecate, who chastises them for meddling in Macbeth’s future without her. During their last appearance in act 4, the witches conjure a series of ominous visions for the now-king Macbeth that foreshadow his imminent fall.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales—known more popularly today as Grimm’s Fairy Tales—were roundly criticized upon their original printing for the explicit sex and violence they contained, making them rather inappropriate for both children and the household. Nevertheless, the Brothers Grimm Tales contain two stories, “Snow White” and “Hansel and Gretel,” which feature some of popular culture’s most iconic witches. Both the stepmother of “Snow White” and the forest hag of “Hansel and Gretel,” who eats children rather than produce and rear them, are perversions of the virtuous and repentant mother: the ideal symbol of womanhood in the eyes of the church.

The title figure of John Keats’s 1819 ballad is a longhaired, wild-eyed “faery’s child” discovered in a meadow by the poem’s knight narrator. The two embark on a dreamlike love affair—replete with sex (“fragrant zone,” “she sighed full sore”) scattered throughout the poem. But the knight’s happiness quickly sours when La Belle Dame brings him to her Elfin grotto and he falls into a nightmare, finding himself surrounded by the starved and dying princes, kings, and warriors who were also seduced by his lover. He awakes pale, weakened, and alone “On the cold hill’s side.”

On the heels of the Enlightenment, the Victorian era saw a reevaluation of witchcraft as a cruel and widespread delusion. In the mid 19th century, Scots journalist Charles McKay published a history of mass hysteria which included an entire section on “Witch Mania.” McKay noted the small amount of evidence required to convict someone of witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as the fact that accusations of witchcraft were often initiated out of revenge, or to settle scores between associates and neighbors.

In L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, there is a witch for each cardinal direction: North and South are good, while East and West are wicked. A Kansan tornado lands young Dorothy in this magical kingdom—and makes her the perpetrator of accidental manslaughter (R.I.P. Wicked Witch of the East, we hardly knew ye). News of the death is greeted happily by the Good Witch of the North, who gifts Dorothy with the Witch of the East’s magical silver shoes; this infuriates the Wicked Witch of the West, who is obsessed with obtaining the shoes to increase her own power. Portrayed as green-skinned, broomstick-riding, and fortress-dwelling in the famous 1939 film adaptation, the West Witch of the book inhabits luxurious rooms and totes around an ornate umbrella. She does, however, have only one eye, and a supernatural power over animals. The last of Baum’s witches, Glinda the Good Witch of the South, is said to be as elderly as the rest, yet has been able to keep her appearance young and beautiful. Coincidentally (read: not at all), she is also the one who becomes a mother figure to the true heir of Oz later in Baum’s series.

Zora Neale Hurston conducted anthropological fieldwork in Jamaica and Haiti from 1936 and 1937, studying the politics and history of the islands as well as the practice of voodoo. Hurston describes voodoo as “the old, old, mysticism of the world in African terms… a religion of creation and life. It is the worship of the sun, the water and other natural forces.” In her writing, she approaches the religion and its rituals as an initiate, rather than a skeptic, and even provides photographs of a purported zombie.

With the character of Jadis, C.S. Lewis returned the witch to a position of villainy – not surprising, given his renowned Christian leanings. The White Witch of the Chronicles of Narnia series is not only beautiful, but imposing: at seven feet tall, she towers over most and is strong enough to break iron with her bare hands. At the start of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Jadis rules as the Queen of Narnia, having cast the kingdom into an endless, Christmas-less winter.

Arthur Miller’s retelling of the Salem witch trials is an allegory of McCarthyism, when the mid-century Red Scare led the U.S. government to blacklist alleged communists—many of them actors, writers, and artists in addition to politicians. Hundreds were imprisoned under the auspices of Joseph McCarthy, in concert with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee; several thousand others lost their jobs. In The Crucible, the play’s major antagonist, Abigail Williams, is not a witch but a witch-accuser. While the play reverses this particular paradigm, however, Abigail is still portrayed as a (teenage) temptress, having seduced the married John Proctor while working as his family’s maid. Proctor, on the other hand, is redeemed and dies a martyr; his wife Elizabeth even apologizes for her coldness and takes responsibility for his affair. While Abigail begins by levying her accusations against Salem’s weak and outsiders—like the slave Tituba—she soon becomes opportunistic, and ultimately uses them as revenge, a practice that Charles McKay wrote of in Extraordinary Popular Delusions.

Perhaps no one has done more to redeem the term “witch” than J.K. Rowling, whose books have sold, to date, more than 450 million copies. In the universe of Harry Potter, “witch” is a title free of negative historical implications, serving only as the female counterpart to “wizard.” In Rowling’s series, practicing the Dark Arts is not a particularly gendered affair, nor are female evil-doers uniformly haggard or dazzling. And while we all know that Harry, The Boy Who Lived, is indisputably the alpha and omega of these books, perhaps no one proves themselves more resourceful, capable, and gifted than young Hermione Granger: “The brightest witch of her age.”

 

Archetypal Patterns in Women’s Fiction: WITCHCRAFT

Singleness and Solitude

In fiction dealing with women’s love for other women, characters often move away from the margins of patriarchal space and into a core of centralised being, a place of integrated selfhood that I have termed a new space or new cosmosis. The remarkable thing about such fiction is that it leads the reader away from the normative point of view and towards the antinormative one. The tension between society and the individual embodied in these narrative structures creates an implosion of consciousness, opening the way for a radical shift in vision. Lesbian heroes, precisely because of their marginal perspective, are able to illuminate the nature of patriarchal experience and to posit alternatives for it. This same insight radiates from much of what I define as old-woman fiction. I use the term to describe fiction in which the hero tries to live on her own (whether or not she has been married or is involved in affairs); she is ‘odd’ because she is not half of a couple and fulfils not set function within a nuclear family. She thus holds the same position as the “fallen woman” with regard to her society: “tainted” as her sexually active counterpart is “ruined,” she is an “old-maid”, a target of much of the same scorn heaped upon the sexual renegade.

Single Women and Witchcraft

The accusation of “witch” as we can see in Sarton’s Joanna and Ulysses, springs from an intense societal fear of a powerful, untrammelled woman who, by daring to enjoy her unmarried state, defies social norms. In the past, of course, it was the label of the witch that had brought nine million woman to violent deaths in Western Europe, very often midwives who eased the pain of childbirth and who were the only source of safe abortions. “The role of witch”, remarks Mary Daly,

“was often ascribed to social deviants whose power was feared. All women are deviants from the male norm of humanity (a point emphasised by the “misbegotten male” theory of Aristotle and Aquinas, the “penis-envy” dogma of the Freudians, and other psychological theories such as the “inner-space” doctrine of Erikson and the “anima” theory of Jung). However, those singled out as witches were frequently characterised by the fact that they had or were believed to have power arising from a particular kind of knowledge, as in the case of “wise women” who knew the curative powers of herbs and to whom people went to counsel and help. Defined as evil, they became the scapegoats of society, and in this process, the dominant ethos was reinforced.”

 The old maid is frequently associated in popular culture with the witch, the two stereotypes springing from a common gynophobic fear of self-determined women. Thus, Mary Wilkins Freeman, in an unpublished manuscript, “Jane Lenox”, has a single woman hero declare herself perfectly contented with a status that she recognises as “monstrous” to the normal point of view:

“I am a rebel and what is worse than a rebel against the over-government of all creation… I even dare to think that, infinitesimal as I am… I, through my rebellion, have power. I, Jane Lennox, spinster… living quietly, and apparently harmlessly in the old Lenox homestead in Baywater, am a power.

And another thing which was my birth right: the character of the usual woman. I am a graft on the tree of womanhood. I am a hybrid. Sometimes I think I am a monster, and the worst of it is, I certainty take pleasure in it.”

 I will speak in “witches’ incantations, poetry, old women’s mutterings,” declared poet Robin Morgan one hundred years later. “I/am/a/monster. I am/a/monster. /I am a monster. /And I am proud.” Like Pangela Hansford Johnson and Rosamond Lehmann, such authors recognise that the being they relish is necessarily transformational, a new gender beyond maleness and femaleness.

Two novels, Esther Forbes’s historical novel A Mirror for Witches (1928) and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (1926), make an interesting pair, taking opposite sides in extending the old-maid debate to cover the subject of witches. In Forbes’s novel, the author condemns the central character from the very beginning. Doll Bilby is dragged away from the pyre where her parents are being burned to death to be adopted by a kindly New England sea captain, against whose family she gradually works her inherited evil. “Bewitched,” she will “bewitch” others, and the novel merely shows how the inevitable results of her evil blood unfold. Lolly Willowes, in contrast, is a carefully balanced portrait of an unmarried woman who becomes a witch, dealing first with her old-maid situation and then with her quest towards a completely satisfying and self-determined status as a member of a coven.

From her childhood Laura, has known that to “come out” and marry will be to dwarf her personality. Townsend Warner describes her as a young girl:

“her legs were very slim and frisky, they liked climbing trees and jumping over haycocks, they had no wish to retire from the world and to belong to a young lady… Sooner or later she must be subdued into young-ladyhood; and it seemed befitting that the change should come gravely rather than with the conventional polite uproar and fuss of “coming-out”- which odd term meant as far as she could see, and when once the champagne bottles were emptied and the flimsy ball-dress lifted off the thin shoulders, going in.”

 Here we have the eventual old maid as a young tomboy who, in refusing to “grow up grotesque,” becomes “odd” from the point of view of a society whose norms the hero dislikes. Laura remains on her parents’ estate, which is a brewery (brewsters in England were originally women wise in herbs, we learn) until she gives in, after her parents’ death, to her brother’s demand that she lives with him and his wife. There she stays for twenty years, suffering the full opprobrium of an old-maid relative as “Lolly”, until one day she takes it into her mind to go and live by herself as “Great Mop.”

The brother’s reaction expresses the civil status of the unmarried female in a capsule: “lolly! I cannot allow this. You are my sister. I consider you my charge,” but when it turns out that he has lost half of her money in stupid investments, she takes what remains and goes. At first she works with a hen wife and “felt wise and potent. She remembered the hen wife in the fairy tales… She was sister to the spaewife, and close cousin to the witch.” She gradually realises that all of the villagers are members of a coven and goes with them to the all night dance, hardly the evil conclave described in Forbes:

“These depressing thoughts were interrupted by red-haired Emily, who came spinning from her partner’s arms, seized hold of Laura and carried her back into the dance. Laura liked dancing with Emily; the pasty-faced and anaemic young slattern whom she had seen dawdling about the village danced with a fervour that annihilated every misgiving. They whirled faster and faster, fused together like two suns that whirl and blaze in a single destruction. A strand of the red hair came undone and brushed across Laura’s ace. The contact made her tingle from head to foot. She shut her eyes and dived into obliviousness- with Emily for a partner she could dance until the gunpowder ran out of the heels of her boots.”

Like the “five-pointed flower” of June Arnold’s lesbian collective, the energy of the dancing women generates from a communal acceptance and solidarity and redeems them from the “normal” frustrations of the patriarchy. The dance transforms “Lolly” back into Laura, her true self, the witch experience becoming a redemptive one for the woman who has been thwarted from development by a couple-filled world.

Townsend Warner thus redefines the negative old-maid/ witch stereotype, developing not a “cute” portrait of a “good coven” for its fantasy effect but a picture of a mutually supportive community. “When I think of witches,” remarks Laura to the devil,

“I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries and as unregarded. I see them, wives and sisters of respectable men, chapel members and blacksmiths… listening to men talk together in a way that men talk and women listen. Quite different to the way that women talk, and men listen, if they listen at all… Is it true that you can poke the fire with a stick of dynamite in perfect safety?… Anyhow, even if it isn’t true of dynamite, and long for the concussion that may justify them. Some may get religion, then they’re all right, I expect. But for the others, for so many, what can there be but witchcraft? That strikes them real.”

Reacting to patriarchal bonds, which make them “outsiders” in their own world, knowing themselves to be full of spunk and rage, these women long for a space where they can bond with like-minded spirt and “be natural” without censure.

Witchcraft and the Reformation

The representation of witchcraft in Reformation texts not only enthused attitudes towards magic but also encouraged religiously-motivated violence against the oppressed, evident in works leading up to the Reformation. In 1487, a book was published in Latin as the Maleus Maleficarum, usually translated as Hammer of Witches by Catholic clergyman, Heinrich Kramer. It is the best-known treatise on witchcraft, endorsing the extermination of witches as intrinsically correlated with the Christian religion, appealing to a highly religious society and becoming the second highest selling book for 200 years, behind only the Bible. In the period following the Reformation, it’s estimated that over 100,000 men and women were convicted of witchcraft. Due to the origin of the printing press in 1440, ideas and perspectives were easier to access than ever, thus spreading a hateful belief across Europe that would perhaps not have been so easily accessible a century before. It served as a guidebook for Inquisitors during the Inquisition and was designed to aid them in the identification, prosecution, and dispatching of Witches. It set forth, as well, many of the modern misconceptions and fears concerning witches and the influence of witchcraft. The questions, definitions, and accusations it set forth in regard to witches, which were reinforced by its use during the Inquisition, came to be widely regarded as irrefutable truth. Those beliefs are held even today by a majority of Christians in regard to practitioners of the modern “revived” religion of Witchcraft, or Wicca. And while the Malleus itself is largely unknown in modern times, its effects have proved long lasting. Questions are evidently raised, including why practices that had been tolerated for centuries suddenly became a threat. What brought the prosecution of witchcraft to an end, and where there any people in Europe that could ever, sincerely, be called a witch?

 

Before the discussion of the European witchcraft trials, it’s important to examine what came before it. The late medieval period is one where the possibility and power of magic is one that permeates the entire society, from the highest to the lowest classes. It is common to recognise three main ideas about magical witchcraft. The first is the belief in black magic, maleficium, that would harm and destroy societies, especially prevalent in fears of disease and illness. Infection would spread through villages and towns, with local people believing the sickness was sent either by God to punish, or by a sorcerer who had made a pact with the devil. Conversely, there were also ideas about individuals who could work good through magic: ‘white witches’ could heal such disease and disarray. This is predominantly evidenced in the ‘wise women’ of a local village- many people could not afford apothecaries, so wise women would act as midwives and provide others with herbal remedies to cure them of their sickness. Originating from centuries ago, the idea of witches was gendered: these women would witness the most significant powers of life (birth, death, growth), and they had the power to disrupt these events entirely, greatly concerning the men in power at the time. Their treatments also meant that the lower classes were living longer, having more opportunity to access education and gain better financial prospects, endangering the power of the wealth. Lower class women caring for a village granted them an authority that was threatening to that of a King, and to prevent this matriarchal power growing was to prevent the women from exercising such methods. Interestingly, many cunning folk and white witches were not demonised and prosecuted during the period of growing witch-trials, mostly because ‘good’ magic was in the interest of those who needed cures for disease and illness. Their execution would of be no service to common society. Therefore, there was a very longstanding set of beliefs about black and white magic that was prevalent throughout the dark ages. What really changes at this period is an essential precondition of the period of witch trials is a third layer of belief, in witchcraft as demonic and diabolic.

 

The witchcraft craze started before the Reformation, making Maleus partly interesting because it was written out of inquisitive experience of a failed witch panic in 1485. These witch panics came from fears that the devil was at work in the world, forming a new type of heresy that had to be attacked. What’s fascinating, is that once the Reformation occurred, witch-hunting appeared to stop. The people who had been formed by the Reformation and the counter-Reformation were the ones significantly interested in witchcraft. This begins in the 1560s but climaxed in the 1580s, uniting both Catholic and Protestant Christians in their beliefs about witchcraft. What is revealed (partly due to growth in the printing press), is that most of these beliefs are spread by Catholic Priests and Bishops in Germany, the significance of religion at the time meaning that it was wealthy Christians who controlled the freedom of information in Europe. It was believed that, in Germany, there were approximately 20,000 executions, about half the total statistics are aware of for Western Europe. Given that Catholics and Protestants were opposed in most ways, it’s interesting to compare their own reactions to the growing presence of witches and magicians. It’s especially puzzling comparing their polarising views on women, the feminine so often correlated with witchcraft. Catholics venerated Mary, whilst Protestants saw her as an example for all Christians, a vessel for human goodness. Similarly, Catholics insisted on the importance of the convent and a spiritual role for women, whereas Protestants were rapidly closing convents. Yet, they both share similar views on witches.

 

The Malleus Maleficarum and the witch craze that ensued took advantage of the increasing intolerance of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in Europe, where the Protestant and Catholic camps, pitted against one another, each enthusiastically strove to maintain what they each deemed to be the purity of faith. Citizens were struggling to comprehend that there could be two ways to perceive God, and one method to understand this ideology was the impression that the devil had escaped and was wreaking havoc with humanity. Before the Reformation, the ideology of witchcraft was already being quite well formed, and so what is seen from the later middle ages into the early modern period were trials for heresy and a more centralised idea for the Catholic church links into witchcraft, mostly to do with the inclusion of the devil. This is seen in the Western Christian tradition in St Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine through the demonic coming into Christian deviance by ordinary human beings forming pacts with Satan. This idea was introduced before the Reformation, but it was this period that a monopoly for Christian truth was being divided into more of a free market of ideas between the two Christian denominations, opening a fault line in society from the top to the bottom in both popular and learned tradition.

 

It’s important to remember that there were preconceived philosophies of tradition that richly encompassed Reformation culture, featuring archaic ideas about magic and healing, as well as persecution before the Reformation that brought to the forefront ideas about the devil being named and causing destruction. witchcraft never means just one thing. it’s always in itself a contested definition, even from the beginning of the dark ages. It’s an area where other ideas about society, culture and religion can be united, acting as a symbolic vehicle throughout these peoples’ lives. Protestant reformers actually argued that the devil was idle during the pre-Reformation period and believed the Pope to be ant-Christ, charging through the world in order to lead ordinary Christians to their own damnation. For many radical Protestant thinkers, this, therefore foreshadowed the last days of man, motivating these groups to rapidly and successfully defeat all such evil in the world.

 

Meteorological conditions of the time played a very important part in this period. The early modern period was often called the ‘little ice age’ as there was an overall dip in temperatures across Europe that affected crop yields, sometimes linked with its coinciding with the witch craze. In the 1590s in England, the prosecution of witches grew immensely, corresponding with failed harvests and crops. This reduces the quality of life for most people and increased competition amongst some communities, causing tensions between neighbours that might be expressed as a witchcraft accusation, directly leading to witch hunting. At a time when people were teetering on the edge of survival, it was a logical assumption that witches could manipulate the weather, destroying harvests and thus damaging villages. One of the triggers for the persecution of witches in the German city of Trier was, in fact, a severe hail storm in the 1580s. Instead of allowing such perceived treachery to occur, people started to petition their over laws to bring prosecution against the witches that have caused such catastrophe.

 

Maleus Maleficarum by Kramer had a relentless drive that propelled the book’s meaning.

The concept of sorcery is characterised by the conviction that those guilty engage in six activities:

  1. A pact entered into with the Devil (and concomitant apostasy from Christianity)
  2. Sexual relations with the Devil
  3. Aerial flight for the purpose of attending;
  4. An assembly presided over by Satan himself (at which initiates entered into the pact, and incest and promiscuous sex were engaged in by the attendees)
  5. The practice of maleficent magic
  6. The slaughter of babies.

 

Kramer thought that there was a community of witches out to attack Christendom, believing that most sorcerers were women. The reasons for this is the suggestion that women are “prone to believing and because the demon basically seeks to corrupt the faith, he assails them in particular.” They also apparently had a “temperament towards flux” and “loose tongues”. They “are defective in all the powers of both soul and body” and are stated to be more lustful than men. The major reason is that at the foundation of sorcery is denial of faith and “woman, therefore, is evil as a result of nature because she doubts more quickly in the faith.” He writes endless misogynistic and detailed passages that describe how they hold assemblies against men, and kidnap, murder and kill children in banquets. He saw them as weak in faith, body and mind, and completely governed by their carnal lusts, more likely to be liable for seduction by the devil. Misogyny wasn’t something that was unusual in the Reformation society, and patriarchy was evident in all layers of political society and authority. Society was structured on the foundation of misogyny; there wasn’t an exact equation between women and evil, or women and witches, but there was an association based on the Biblical authority and tradition that women were morally weaker and thus vulnerable to diabolical temptation, despite 25% of the people persecuted for witchcraft being male. It wasn’t just that women were sexually open to the deductive wiles of the devil, but the idea that sexual relations with the devil, from the perspective of women, could lead to no consequences. The devil was perceived to attack fertility in the human as well as the natural world, combining superstitious thought about the destruction of the harvest. This combines fears to do with death and disease that significantly affected children and infants, fears which were at the root of all magic, terrors felt by humanity for centuries. While the text is set up like a treatise with questions and answers with intellectual authorities to appeal to, it also features extraordinary stories. The very title of the Malleus Maleficarum is feminine, the use of the feminine Latin form alluding to the idea that it was women who were the villains. These sometimes comical stories were said to have been collected during Kramer’s interrogation of witches, but also that they might have come out of popular culture. This includes a tale that seems to oppose the rule of clergymen by mocking their protective nature over the size of their genitals. The text became a mix of settling scores, heavy theology, folk tales and misogyny, trying to find a way to turn secular village people into something sinister and associated with magic. Nearly all of the accused were women and consisted primarily of outcasts and other suspicious persons such as old women, midwives, Jews, Poets and Gypsies. Anyone who did not fit within the contemporary view of pious Christians were suspect, and easily branded “Witch”, usually to devastating effect.

 

James V1 of Scotland wrote the famous ‘Daemonologie’, that described his fearful thoughts about black magic, including werewolves, vampires and witches. He was a man of the highest authority in Scotland, born after the Reformation and thus absorbing the daemonologies of those before him. This returns us to the question of politics and a constitutional insecurity. Behind James’ interest in magic and witchcraft, the text is about the political state, divine right kingship that James felt so strongly about during his reign in both Scotland and England, and the anxiety that centralising monarchies would be feeling in the 16th century. James was triggered to write the book by a marriage match between a Danish princess and himself. There were rumours of witches in North Berwick in Scotland who tried to sink the ship that he was on. When James found out, he took a personal interest in the examination of such witches, and to prove their magic, one of the witches whispered into his ear the words his bride said on their wedding night. The witch-hunting culture consequently wasn’t a just a folk superstition among common people, but a political debate among Kings.

 

Reputation was also imminent in this era, evidenced in the case of a woman prosecuted in 1671 at the age of 56- she’d been reputed a witch since the age of eleven. The representation of witches through word of mouth and oral storytelling was prevalent in an age where many people could not read or write, and reputation could be built up before an actual accusation was made. Women were perceived as sexually deviant, and yet their punishments were perverse in many ways. Some held the superstition that the devil kept powerful charms in the hair of witches, so many women were completely shaved, sexually humiliating them. Many of the persecuted confessed before any torture was inflicted on them, because of the degradation involved. Executioners at the time were ‘dishonourable’ due to their own crimes, so to be touched by him made the victim, too, dishonourable, further excluding them from society.

The witch-hunting craze continued in later centuries, evidenced in the work of witch finder Matthew Hopkins, who took advantage of the polarised political and religious divides during the English Civil Wars. Because of the dangers of such a significant war, many national legalities were discarded and significance was placed more on local authorities and justice in East Anglia where witchcraft could get out of hand. He had no official authority, but the professionals and judges that enforced law through proper procedures and trials were occupied with the legalities of the Civil War. It was an aberration, not a normal political ministry of circumstance.

Witchcraft in Modern Music

The image of the witch runs deep in feminist and female-centred art. In today’s current climate, a potent and fascinating shift is happening in the use of this witch imagery in pop music. It’s a shift that was typified by Beyoncé’s surprise release of the music video for her song Formation released in February 2016. There are heavy spiritual overtones to several of her personas in the video, becoming less typical of Christianity and instead being interpreted as a conjuring of Black spirituality, Santeria or Houdou. The song’s theme is of reawakening, combining religious, ethnic and cultural practices with spiritual regeneration. In some scenes, Beyoncé appears in a visionary light from beneath the brim of her black hat, similar to the fashionable ‘witch’ aesthetic as seen in modern media: American Horror Story: Coven.

In other shots, she moves with mystical elegance atop a New Orleans police car that’s sitting in the middle of a flooded body of water. On her blog Red Clay Scholar, Dr. Regina Bradley describes these roles as Beyoncé embodying “conjuring women.” She asks whether the scene of Beyoncé on top of the police car could be intending to summon Mami Wata, the water deity who could be either a healer or lure travellers to their watery grave.

Yet the commentary, paired with Beyoncé and the car’s ‘drowning,’ doubly connotes how the modern world fetishizes black death and the feminine power of water and rebirth. “Conjuring blackness is physical, conceptual, and spiritual,” writes Dr. Bradley. “All three are necessary to make protest and resurrection possible.”

The sense of magic isn’t just presented through Beyoncé, but through the entire black southern culture that she so identifies with, the one that is targeted and oppressed so significantly. The dancing boy contains magic so tangible he gets the police officers to put their hands up, reversing the traditional narrative seen in allusions to the murder of Trayvon Martin – who would’ve celebrated his 21st birthday on February 5th –Dr. Nettrice Gaskins offers a reading of the boy as Ghede Nibo, the spirit of a young man violently murdered and in death serves as a leader of the dead.

There’s possibly no more outspoken pop witch than rapper Azealia Banks. On Twitter last year, Banks declared herself a witch, prompting backlash that Sady Doyle summed up in a Guardian article “It was the strangest thing: simply by calling herself a witch in public, Banks had managed to evoke real fear,” writes Doyle. “Rightwingers treated her as if she were actually planning to blight crops and hex her enemies, all the while claiming that they didn’t believe in witchcraft.” Much like Beyoncé, Banks overtly links the role of spirituality with her Black heritage by surrounding herself with owls and occult symbols in between fighting riot police. There’s a connection between protest and mysticism in this video: The witch draws on a power that exists beyond real-world weapons and uniforms. It suggests magic as a potent way of challenging existing power structures.

Magic is thus a form inhabited by the oppressed and the misunderstood, taking the form of racial minorities, children and women, and demonstrating the supernatural beauty and vitality of their culture.

The current with aesthetic has significantly evolved from the introverted, ethereal fashion of artists like Kate Bush and Stevie Nicks from the late 70s. It now resides more as a symbol of protest, particularly occupied by black artists- singers such as Lorde and Florence Welch inhabit the traditional form of mystical ambiguity, perhaps as the symbol of the witch is a privilege to white women and not a protest. Today’s witchy music videos are incandescent with anger—they engage with the world and are recognized as a threat to the status quo.

Part of the power of these pop music witches is to disrupt expectations. The supernatural is unsettling, it upends assumptions of normal behaviour. It alludes to Regan licking her tutor’s ankle in The Exorcist and Gloria from Orange is the New Black taking down a powerful enemy with eggs, spices, and dog hair. That unsettling quality is what British artist FKA twigs’ sexuality-laced music videos are all about. FKA twigs is a master of surreal imagery and shape-shifting. Her 2015 video “Glass & Patron” opens in a forest heavy with a stillness associated with The Blair Witch Project before cutting to a white van parked ominously amid the trees. This narrative feels like it isn’t going to end well—what story of a woman left in the back of a van in the woods does? But Twigs takes command of the narrative with dizzying speed and force. In the video, her long-nailed fingers spider suggestively down her belly. Then suddenly, frighteningly, she pulls a many-colored scarf out of her body, and dancers envelope her through the fabric: dreamy, tender, suspended in space.

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In the video for her song “Video Girl,” FKA twigs splits into two selves as she watches the execution of a man convicted of racial violence. One of her selves weeps behind the glass, while the other self straddles him, turning into a taunting contortionist as he lies dying. Here, she is both powerful and tearful in the face of the world. This is seen again in Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’; Dr. Kinitra Brooks reads her womanhood in the video as a manifestation of ManMan Brigitte, a vulgar female spirit that loves hot pepper and embodies both sex and death. It’s that raw power combined with nuance of understanding—radically, exultantly individual—that is the hallmark of the modern witch: an indomitable spirituality that defies the violence of the human world.

The appeal of Witchcraft to women

The tradition of witchcraft has a rich history that is consistently and continuously correlated with girlhood. Consider the story of Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, whose accusations of witchcraft sparked the Salem Witch Trials. Ten-year-old Betty and her older cousin Abigail would meet up with other young girls in Salem to practice what they called “little sorceries.” Most of their activities revolved around divining who their future husbands would be, because for a 17th century girl, the greatest indicator of how your life would play out was who you married and what social status you achieved through that marriage. To find this out, the girls used a form of ovomancy, or egg magic, called a “Venus glass,” which worked by dripping the white of an egg into a glass of water. By watching the shape the egg white took, the girls hoped to find clues about their futures.

While fortune-telling might seem to be at odds with the conservative form of Christianity practiced by the Puritans, the truth is that folk magic or, as they called it, “white magic,” was frequently (if secretly) practiced by women in early American Puritan communities. In fact, when Betty and Abigail began to experience strange fits and other signs of bewitchment—signs which appeared, interestingly enough, shortly after they’d been playing at sorcery—one of the first remedies tried was a bit of folk magic called a witch’s cake. This cake—which was suggested by the girls’ neighbour Mary Sibley—was made of rye flour mixed with urine from the afflicted girls. The cake was then fed to a dog with the hope that the dog’s behaviour would somehow reveal the identity of the person bewitching the girls.

Although the intentions behind the witch cake were noble, when Betty’s father, the Reverend Samuel Parris, found out about it, he took to his pulpit to denounce Mary Sibley, calling the witch’s cake “diabolical.” Mary Sibley immediately confessed and repented; had she not, she would likely have been among those convicted and killed for witchcraft. From this story and the story of Betty and Abigail and their friends practicing divination, we can conclude two things: firstly, that charms and spells and other types of folk magic were commonly used even in strict Puritan communities, and secondly, that no matter how “white” the magic was, the women who performed it were always suspected of evil.

In the 300 years that have elapsed since the Salem Witch Trials, our preoccupation with witches hasn’t waned, although thankfully it has grown less deadly. We’re just as fascinated by witches as our ancestors—perhaps even more so. Certainly the past few years have seen a resurgence of witches in pop culture (The Witch, a 2015 film and American Horror Story: Coven a 2013 television show).

The terms ‘witch’ or ‘witchy’ cover a broad spectrum of things—it might mean someone who practices witchcraft (who may or may not align with a particular pagan or neopagan religion), but then again it might not. In some ways, 2016’s version of “witchy” might seem to refer to more of an Instagrammable aesthetic choice than anything else—wearing dark lipstick and crystal pendants, growing cute kitchen herb gardens, and arranging household altars of dried flowers and animal skulls. It’s tempting to write these things off as being merely superficial affectations, but to do so would be a grave underestimation. Beneath all that glossy packaging hums the same idea that has tantalized girls for millennia: the fact that to be a witch is to be a woman with power in a world where women are often otherwise powerless.

On some level, all of the contemporary trappings of witchiness tap into that desire to feel powerful. Black or dark purple lipstick might currently be in vogue, but on some level they subvert traditional feminine beauty standards and the ability to subvert or reject the status quo often confers a sense of power. To grow your own kitchen herbs and have some knowledge of herb lore are powerful in the sense that the ability to provide for yourself—even on a small scale—is a type of power. And, of course, the idea that setting out a particular arrangement of objects in a particular way with the intent of influencing real-life events is a type of power.

According to Ayşe Tuzlak, who has a PhD in religion and specializes in gender and ritual in the ancient world, it was women’s inability to obtain power through established means and their subsequent attempts to access it through other channels that informed western ideas of what it meant to be a witch:

“European Christian women in late antiquity and the Middle Ages were generally barred access to institutional power, and thus women who expressed their religiosity in unapproved ways, or in ways that were ‘too feminine’ by the standards of the culture, were branded as witches or heretics. The institutions of that time and place had certain assumptions about appropriate behaviour for men and women, and what was considered real Christianity and what was not. Thus the people who had a vested interest in those institutions began to pay neurotically close attention to anything that looked ‘too feminine,’ and expanded the significance of feminine symbols–like the broom, an ordinary domestic tool–to include dangerous associations, for example flying at night to secret meetings. Because if a woman looked like she was seizing spiritual power that wasn’t hers by right, then everything “feminine” about her because suspect and morally charged.”

‘Witch’ is a highly gendered term, and like most such terms, its masculine counterparts—terms like wizard, warlock, sorcerer, or mage—do not quite mean exactly the same thing. This is not to say that witches are never men, or that men have never been killed for practicing witchcraft, but rather that the vast bulk of those accused of being witches have been women.

Tuzlak explains that just as the term slut—a term so gendered that people will often say man-slut if they are using it to refer to a man—says more about how a woman is viewed than it does about her sexual history, so too does the historical use of witch tell us more about how well a woman fit into contemporary gender roles than it does about her actual use of magic:

“I tend to see ‘witch’ as a social category imposed upon a woman who doesn’t fit acceptable religious categories. Which is why I usually put words like ‘witchcraft’ in scare-quotes; for me the word ‘witch’ is kind of like the word ‘slut,’ in that it’s a way to mark a woman as unacceptable and Other, rather than an objective measure of her religion or her sexual behaviour. Just as you can’t tell how much sex a woman actually has by how often she’s called a slut, so also you can’t really tell anything about a woman’s religion based on whether a priest or a neighbour calls her a witch. And some women who have lots of sex or heretical opinions might pass under the radar because they can perform social acceptability in other ways.”

Given all of that, what exactly does witch mean? The term walks that tricky knife’s edge of a slur that has been reclaimed by some of the people it might be used against. How do we figure out how to balance the fact that witch is both an accusation that has been historically deadly to women, and also an identity that many find empowering? For Tuzlak, the answer lies in understanding the place the witch has traditionally occupied in cultural hierarchies:

“I tend to understand things in terms of power structures and insider/outsider status with regard to institutions. So, to use our own culture as an example, if someone offers me drugs in a carpeted office, neatly groomed, wearing a white lab coat, with a name tag that says Dr. Something on it, then I will probably assume that that person has my best interests at heart and that the drugs he or she is giving me are going to help me (even though none of those things are necessarily true). If someone wearing a hoodie offers me drugs in an alleyway out of a baggie, I will likely assume that the drugs are ‘just for fun,’ and that the person is dangerous and not especially committed to my well-being (though none of those things might be true either). There are lots of shades of grey between these two extremes of licit and illicit, too–the friend of a friend who can get you weed, the naturopath who advertises in the back of a new age magazine, your auntie who’s just really good at helping pregnant women with their morning sickness, the not-quite-legal-but-never-really-busted dispensary, the friend who’s not taking Lyrica anymore and gives you the rest of her scrip when you’re hard up.

“Assuming we’re talking about ‘real’ witches here (i.e., not just someone who’s accused of witchcraft by an inquisition, but a local wise woman or healer), I see the witch’s work as falling on a similar spectrum. She is clearly not offering the ‘official’ help that a physician or priest would, which brings with it a lot of risks, but which also allows someone to work outside a system that doesn’t necessarily offer her what she needs. I think the ‘witch’ in this sense is a crucial contribution to the social health of a culture, especially a culture that is under the heel of powerful institutions that do not take women or other marginalized groups seriously.”

And yet it’s hard not to notice that as much as the idea of the witch subverts traditional gender roles, it also, in some ways, upholds them. This is especially apparent in our modern take on the witch, especially when it comes to the Neopagan movement, a set of modern pagan religions of which Wicca is the most well-known. Many practices and beliefs in various sects of Neopaganism can be very rigid and cis-normative in their treatment of gender, and this, of course, has the unfortunate consequence of perpetuating gender stereotypes. As Tuzlak puts it:

“The image of the ‘witch’ can be both liberating and oppressive to women, very often at the same time. The history of modern witchcraft makes gendered language very hard to escape. Keep in mind that most of the primary branches of Neopagan practice were shaped by men, which means that Gardnerian/Alexandrian/Crowleyan constructions of masculinity and femininity arise out of very conservative views on gender, in line with the assumptions of 19th-century English esotericists and the medieval/early modern texts they were working with. As a result, a lot of introductory magic textbooks talk in a very uncritical way about the ‘masculine’ sun and the ‘feminine’ moon, ‘masculine’ fire and ‘feminine’ water, and so on. That said, Gardnerian and Alexandrian branches aren’t all there is, and there were smart, badass, complicated women like Helena Blavatsky, Dion Fortune, and Doreen Valiente involved even in the earliest stages of modern witchcraft, and in the past few decades there has been a move to make Neopaganism more intersectional and queer.”

It’s not hard to understand why witches and witchcraft continue to hold sway over women—especially young women on the cusp of adulthood who are faced with a world that refuses to take them seriously except as sexual objects. Not only has witchcraft historically offered women power that they might not otherwise be able to access, but witches offer girls and women an alternative role model to the ubiquitous young, beautiful Disney princess. A witch can be any age; a witch does not need to be conventionally attractive; a witch does not wait for a prince charming, nor does she rely on anyone but herself. Given that, the witch’s appeal is easy to appreciate. Tuzlak theorizes that young women’s attraction to witchcraft goes beyond even that and taps into our deep-seated need for ritual:

“Both boys and girls can be badly wounded by traditional Christian or Anglo-American gender roles, especially if they’re queer or trans or otherwise ill-fitting to those roles, and girls are going to suffer more acutely if the family is more reactionary in its politics. Magic is an unofficial shortcut to a feeling of spiritual power and belonging when legitimate methods have been closed off to you, and that happens to girls more often and more traumatically than boys in our culture. But I think that magic appeals to a lot of people who feel like they’re out of place in their local religious or social landscape. I don’t think Christian rituals (at least in many white/mainline/evangelical/Protestant churches–Christianity is very diverse and I do not like generalizing) serve young people very well, and I don’t think they serve young girls well in particular, which is another reason why young people find ways to fulfil their ritual needs elsewhere. There are so few formal, public rituals that recognize and affirm girls.”

It’s impossible to say where witchcraft will go from here or what “witchy” will look like a century or two from now. What seems certain is that as long as our society remains invested in hierarchical power structures that function by excluding certain groups of people, then those outsiders will continue to look for other things that fulfil their needs. And so long as the tradition of the witch exists, those who struggle to find legitimacy in traditional power structures will almost certainly be drawn to witchcraft—whatever that word or practice might mean to them. Because as much as we might try to define what a witch is or what she does, the truth is that the term is much broader than any one definition can contain. Or perhaps it is easier to simply say that a witch is someone who, when faced with a brick wall, learns to dig a tunnel.

A witch is a survivor and witchcraft is a means of survival in a world that does not always value your life.

 

The Tempest and Magic

 

Written in an age of exploration, The Tempest was heavily influenced by contemporary politics and contained some of Shakespeare’s most celebrated verse. It’s been seen by some as a commentary on colonialism, and by others as a meditation on the nature of theatre itself.

Written about 1611, The Tempest is perceived as Shakespeare’s last solo play. It was performed 8 years after the death of Elizabeth 1 and well into the reign of James 1. Political change mattered greatly for Shakespeare, because even though his plays were for public consumption, he knew that at any moment his dramas could be requested to be performed in front of the monarch in court. He therefore needed to think carefully about not offending the monarch and putting on plays about things that the monarch was interested in. What’s striking about the plays Shakespeare wrote after 1603, after the death of Elizabeth, is that the later plays are always interested in questions of family, in a way that some of the earlier plays weren’t. This is unsurprising as Queen Elizabeth was infamous for being unmarried, yet King James was conscious of the fact that he had a son, a daughter, and the question of who they married was of great political importance. James was also very interested in magic, the idea that there might be such a thing as good magic. Of course, he was also interested in bad magic, evident in the 1604 Witchcraft Act across England as it was one of the first things he accomplished as a ruling monarch.

During this period, theatre is also becoming increasingly similar to court masque, through the increasing use of indoor theatres that use more technological special effects and artificial light to create the illusion of the storm at the beginning of the play. This also reflects the monarch’s extravagant and flamboyant nature- he encouraged theatrical performances and spent severe amounts of parliamentary money on his own pleasure and enjoyment of the court, instead of nationwide matters such as foreign policy and religious uniformity. Plays are increasingly being written by Shakespeare with a view of possible performance before a very grand, courtly audience. This leads to a more spectacular theatre, more dependent on visual spectacle. It also begins the age of new exploration- in 1600 John Dee presented Elizabeth 1 with the phrase, ‘The British Empire’, starting an age of expression and surge of national identity. While lots of Shakespeare’s plays have non-English settings, this setting isn’t in any recognisable European country, a long way from what’s credited as being part of European civilisation. This is a new perspective of the time, with a sense of looking into the unknown, discovering new forms of life that a Jacobean audience will view as something not even quite human, evidenced from Caliban’s description as a ‘salvage and deformed slave’. Prospero’s values are authoritarian and inherently European, that don’t have much value in a non-European being. The island is a setting where there’s both the possibility of non-human nature, such as plants and animals being unfamiliar to Europeans, and included in that is human-like creatures that are unaccounted and unknown.

The Tempest has nine carefully crafted scenes and after Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors, it’s his shortest play. The entirety of the play, except the first scene, is set on a foreign island, and there are no elements of familiarity given to the European audience. Likewise, it’s suggested that the play’s events are going to cover approximately four hours of an afternoon, a specificity and pressured concentration not usually present in Shakespeare’s plays. Thematically The Tempest is very much a play about theatre and art, and the structure itself brings attention to that- the scenes pair with each other and point inwards to the central scene (Act 3 Scene i) which is the courtship of Miranda and Ferdinand. The idea of creation (whether it be magic or art) is essential to the play: Prospero creates the storm and therefore the play’s conflict, and makes his own ending through the epilogue. The very stage is reflective of the empty, barren island, and Shakespeare fills it with people, much like Prospero brings people to the stage through creating the storm. Prospero is in a sense scripting and directing the performance of the play the audience witnesses, much like Shakespeare himself, perhaps as a goodbye in his final solo play.

The plot of The Tempest is unlike many of Shakespeare’s other plays in that it depends almost entirely on the use of supernatural powers. In Macbeth, for example, the witches may have an influence on the hero’s behaviour but he has free will and is thud capable of determining his own actions. This is not true of The Tempest, however, where the destiny of everyone from Prospero to Ariel, from Alonso to Caliban, is decided by supernatural intervention rather than by their characters or their actions. Part of the belief for witchcraft in society was the result of living in a harsh society where education was limited to the few and where there often seemed no natural explanation for events. An additional point worthy of some consideration is that certain places were associated with magic: wells, cross-roads, hawthorn groves. In The Tempest, the entire island has strong associations with the supernatural. Caliban’s mother, Sycorax, a renowned witch, was banished there; Ariel and the other spirits belong on the island; Prospero’s magic powers seem to have developed only after he reached it and they are given up before he leaves. It is as if the island is enchanted.

In terms of female characters within the play, Miranda is the only women on stage and she is both assaulted and honoured for her virginity. Despite the main theme of magic, no female character is a witch, subverting typical narratives relating femininity and magic. Despite this, her life still revolves around the traditional female narrative of love and marriage. Sycorax is an unseen character in the play. She is a vicious and powerful witch and the mother of Caliban, one of the few native inhabitants of the island. She has produced what other characters deem to be a ‘salvage and deformed slave’, differing from the magician Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, who is described as ‘a goddess’ by Ferdinand. Sycorax directly introduces the idea of magic into the play, and at its most basic interpretation, the female witch commands black magic, whereas the male magician has the possibility for good magic, magic that is all too often correlated with art and beauty. Shakespeare was inspired by magic through his reading of Ovid and Medea, which accompanied all his plays. The fine line between Sycorax’s black magic and Prospero’s white blurs even further during his renunciation of magic in Act V, a speech which has strong parallels to one given by the dark witch Medea in the Metamorphoses. In comparing himself to Medea, Prospero is implicitly comparing himself to Sycorax. Emphasizing the relationship between Prospero and Sycorax demonstrates the ambiguity of Prospero’s supposedly benevolent character. The idea of magic is powerful, and there’s another topical reference that Jacobeans would’ve been aware of at the time of the play’s performance: the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, known as the wizard emperor, had his reign usurped by his younger brother. He buried himself in magic books and appeared to be content with giving up his position, unlike Prospero’s reaction to his brother’s reign. Antonio usurps the throne of Milan and Prospero sees this as the wicked overturning of a lawful authority, even though Prospero had neglected his duties (as he himself admits).

Prospero and Sycorax are extreme ends in the spectrums of power and gender. The patriarchy that Prospero enforces is not an independent or coherent system; rather, it reacts to its opposite, which Sycorax symbolizes. Although some dismiss Sycorax as “long dead by the time the play’s events take place” (Ann Thompson 339), she still shapes the characters’ perceptions of power and gender. While one can analyse male characters directly by their actions on stage, one can analyse Sycorax only by her influence on these characters. With Sycorax absent, Prospero envisions her as his female opposite. Through Prospero, Sycorax symbolizes everything that may question patriarchy. Sycorax exists only in male characters’ accounts; however, Sycorax influences the men’s perception of power because she is absent. Scholars generally agree that Sycorax, a foil for Prospero, is closely related to the Medea of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Contextually, there was the idea of black magic involving witches being in league with the devil, but there was also the idea of white magic (as supported by the monarch himself), that involved the magician harnessing the forces of nature to good effect and purpose. Prospero sees himself as a white magician, whereas Sycorax is presented as the black magician, perhaps as a reference to the racial ignorance of Jacobean and Eurocentric society. Similarly, while Prospero has numerous speeches and soliloquies to defend his magic, Sycorax is already dead by the time the narrative begins- she is given no voice, a reference to the crimes convicted of innocent women during 17th century witch trials. Despite this, many post colonialist writers and critics see Sycorax as giving voice to people, particularly women, recovering from the effects of colonisation. Sycorax’s silent role plays an important part in postcolonial interpretations of The Tempest. Because she is native to Algiers and her story is only heard through others (Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban), she is celebrated by some scholars as a representation of the silenced black woman. Interpretations of Sycorax as silenced focus not only on her race but her gender as well. Most of what is said about her in the play is said by Prospero. However, Prospero has never met Sycorax—all he learned about her he learned from Ariel—and his suspicion of women makes him an unreliable source of information. Sceptical of female virtue in general, he refuses to accept Caliban’s prior claim to the island, accusing him of being a bastard “got by the devil himself / Upon thy wicked dam.” Prospero’s comments around Sycorax describe her as an ancient and foul witch native to Algiers, and banished to the island for practicing sorcery “so strong / That [she] could control the Moon”. Prospero further relates to how, many years prior, sailors had brought her to the island, while she was pregnant with her bestial son, Caliban, and abandoned her there, as by some ambiguous reason, she was spared being put to death. The reference to her ‘bestial son’ implies that she is closer to animals and nature than humanity, a criticism that is in current society as a reconnection with pagan roots. One of the questions the play asks is whether Prospero’s white magic is so very different to Sycorax’s black. In some sense, they’re the same kind of magic, linking not only to progressive ethnic ideas in Jacobean Britain, but also to the questioning of binary oppositions and the duplicity of something unknown and unidentifiable as magic. While Sycorax tortured the island’s spirits, Prospero tortures and bullies Caliban.

Sycorax has been described as the matriarchal figure of The Tempest. Modernist authors such as Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes have alluded to Sycorax in their writing in order to illustrate destructive feminine power. As Hughes writes, “…the difficult task of any poet in English is to locate the force which Shakespeare called Venus in his first poems and Sycorax in his last.” By emphasising the female power found in characters such as Sycorax, Plath and Hughes hoped to counteract what they saw as the patriarchal nature of canonical Western literature. Feminist critics, however, have maintained that matriarchal readings of Sycorax are shallow, as they often find importance only in Sycorax’s motherhood rather than her thoughts, feelings, and past life.

Witchcraft isn’t just seen in the characters of Prospero and Sycorax, but also in the gender-fluent character of Ariel. As his name implies, Ariel is a spirit of the air, swift and delicate, ethereal and occasionally mischievous. He has never lied or cheated: ‘Remember I have done thee worthy service:/ Told thee no lies, made no mistakings, serv’d/ Without grudge or grumblings’ (I.2.247-9). It is interesting to contrast the terms of endearment applied to Ariel, ‘my dainty Ariel’, ‘my bird’, ‘my Ariel, chick’ (interestingly all terms related to femininity) with the terms of opprobrium hurled at Caliban. He maintains magic within himself, one of his key roles to provide music, His melodies are heard throughout the island and they can control the actions of the characters. Caliban is frequently lulled by airs: ‘that give delight’ (III.2.134) and Ferdinand is lured to his meeting with Miranda by Ariel’s music.

Ultimately, according to Orgel, The Tempest provides enough evidence about the women in the play for us to speculate about them, but not enough for us to make any justified conclusions or arguments. The Tempest does not provide us with enough evidence to analyse Sycorax like one analyses the male characters physically present on stage; however, the male characters, especially Prospero, continually recount and emphasize Sycorax’s absence. The Tempest‘s dramatis personae names only one woman, yet the possibility of women in power is present. Prospero is a white, male patriarch, and Sycorax is a woman, possibly of colour. Yet, their genders push them into opposing extremes, and this opposition creates tension in the patriarchy and space for potential female power. Sycorax, however, is not like the woman in early modern England; she is not even physically present. Her absence is an extreme example of women lacking agency and representation. In demonizing Sycorax and projecting his fears onto her, Prospero only creates her into something powerful enough to incite fear. Although constructed and absent, Sycorax is a serious threat, because Prospero names her a witch. Attempting to make her out to be as evil as possible, Prospero endows Sycorax with his greatest fear: losing his patriarchal power. In calling her a witch, Prospero reveals his anxiety about women, especially their potential power to challenge patriarchy. ‘Witch’ was a common insult in early modern England and was usually directed towards women because women were believed to be “desirous of power” (Mendelson and Crawford 71). Gendered insults “built on specific fears.” Most of all witch meant the “mirror reversal of all that the patriarchy deemed good in a woman”. It was a name for women who threatened to upset the patriarchy. In calling Sycorax a witch, Prospero is identifying her as a threat to patriarchy, and his anger shows that the threat is serious enough to enrage him. In trying to condemn Sycorax, Prospero shows that her power remains in a new form despite her absence.