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.”

 

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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.

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.

Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and The Canterbury Tales

In the early modern period, witchcraft was not merely viewed as a belief and religion, but as a central feature of societal life.

Witchcraft in Europe between 500-1750 was believed to be a combination of sorcery and heresy. While sorcery attempts to produce negative supernatural effects through formulas and rituals, heresy is the Christian contribution to witchcraft in which an individual makes a pact with the Devil. In addition, heresy denies witches the recognition of important Christian values such as baptism, salvation, Christ and sacraments.

In Early Modern European tradition, witches were stereotypically, though not exclusively, women. European pagan belief in witchcraft was associated with the goddess Diana and dismissed as “diabolical fantasies” by medieval Christian authors. The familiar witch of folklore and popular superstition is a combination of numerous influences. The characterization of the witch as an evil magic user developed over time. Most witchcraft historians now agree that popular and learned notions of witchcraft informed each other at various times and in different ways. Some notions of witchcraft that demonologists cited from classical Greek and Roman literature were themselves the product of learned commentaries on popular beliefs, such as the characteristics of the mythological witch figures Diana and Hecate, the metamorphoses of witches in the works of Ovid and Apuleius, and the description of bacchanalian orgies in ancient times that contributed to the origin of the idea of the witches’ Sabbath. The belief of some demonologists and judges that witches could fly provides one of the best examples of the interaction between popular beliefs, some of which had a history stretching back into ancient and medieval times, and demonological ideas anchored in scholastic theology regarding the power of the devil to move people and objects through the air. Early converts to Christianity looked to Christian clergy to work magic more effectively than the old methods under Roman paganism, and Christianity provided a methodology involving saints and relics, similar to the gods and amulets of the Pagan world. As Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe, its concern with magic lessened.

The Protestant Christian explanation for witchcraft, such as those typified in the confessions of the Pendle witches, commonly involves a diabolical pact or at least an appeal to the intervention of the spirits of evil. The witches or wizards engaged in such practices were alleged to reject Jesus and the sacraments; observe “the witches’ sabbath” (performing infernal rites that often parodied the Mass or other sacraments of the Church); pay Divine honour to the Prince of Darkness; and, in return, receive from him preternatural powers. It was a folkloric belief that a Devil’s Mark, like the brand on cattle, was placed upon a witch’s skin by the devil to signify that this pact had been made. Witches were most often characterized as women. Witches disrupted the societal institutions, and more specifically, marriage. It was believed that a witch often joined a pact with the devil to gain powers to deal with infertility, immense fear for her children’s well-being, or revenge against a lover. They were also depicted as lustful and perverted, and it was thought that they copulated with the devil at the Sabbath.
The Church and European society were not always so zealous in hunting witches or blaming them for misfortunes. Saint Boniface declared in the 8th century that belief in the existence of witches was un-Christian. The emperor Charlemagne decreed that the burning of supposed witches was a pagan custom that would be punished by the death penalty. In 820 the Bishop of Lyon and others repudiated the belief that witches could make bad weather, fly in the night, and change their shape. This denial was accepted into Canon law until it was reversed in later centuries as the witch-hunt gained force. Other rulers such as King Coloman of Hungary declared that witch-hunts should cease because witches (more specifically, strigas) do not exist.

The Church did not invent the idea of witchcraft as a potentially harmful force whose practitioners should be put to death. This idea is commonplace in pre-Christian religions. According to the scholar Max Dashu, the concept of medieval witchcraft contained many of its elements even before the emergence of Christianity. These can be found in Bacchanalias, especially in the time when they were led by priestess Paculla Annia (188BC–186BC).

Powers typically attributed to European witches include turning food poisonous or inedible, flying on broomsticks or pitchforks, casting spells, cursing people, making livestock ill and crops fail, and creating fear and local chaos.
However, even at a later date, not all witches were assumed to be harmful users of the craft. In England, the provision of this curative magic was the job of a witch doctor, also known as a cunning man, white witch, or wise man. The term “witch doctor” was in use in England before it came to be associated with Africa. Toad doctors were also credited with the ability to undo evil witchcraft. (Other folk magicians had their own purviews. Girdle-measurers specialised in diagnosing ailments caused by fairies, while magical cures for more mundane ailments, such as burns or toothache, could be had from charmers.)
In the north of England, the superstition lingers to an almost inconceivable extent.
Historians Keith Thomas and his student Alan Brock MacFarlane study witchcraft by combining historical research with concepts drawn from anthropology. They argued that English witchcraft, like African witchcraft, was endemic rather than epidemic. Older women were the favourite targets because they were marginal, dependent members of the community and therefore more likely to arouse feelings of both hostility and guilt, and less likely to have defenders of importance inside the community. Witchcraft accusations were the village’s reaction to the breakdown of its internal community, coupled with the emergence of a newer set of values that was generating psychic stress.

Although the Inquisition began in the late Medieval Period, it was during the Early Modern period that the witch hunt in Europe began in earnest, beginning with the early witch trials in the 15th Century. In England, for example, the first Act of Parliament directed specifically against witchcraft was the act “De hæretico comburendo”, passed at the instigation of Archbishop Thomas Arundel in 1401. It specifically named witchcraft or sorcery as a species of heresy, and provided that, unless the accused witches abjured these beliefs, they were to be burnt at the stake. Further and broader Witchcraft Acts were passed by Queen Elizabeth I in 1563 and by King James I in 1604, making witchcraft a felony, and removing the accused witches from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts to the courts of common law.

Looking at works written during the medieval period, Chaucer’s, ‘The Canterbury Tales’ remains one of the most iconic works of the period, perhaps due to its religious significance, wide variety of interpretation and comic value evidenced such tales as, The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.

As Melanie Bussiere wrote in her essay, Angelic Demons: Witchcraft and Sorcery in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, “When Glinda the Witch of the North first encounters Dorothy Gale, she asks her, ‘Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?'” Bussiere suggests that the alignment of a character to good or evil could be determined by the type of sorcery or witchcraft they employed within the Middle Ages. As Christianity increased its foothold in the British Isles, the use of sorcery in order to find love, save crops, ensure stability or see the future was increasingly condemned as heresy and could be punished by harsher and harsher standards. A practicing witch or sorcerer who was caught could find him or herself burnt at the stake for heresy. Geoffrey Chaucer uses this concept while writing his Canterbury Tales. Characters qualified as “good magic users would more than likely be using different types of nature magic. Characters qualified as “evil” or dangerous would be using forms of magic requiring education or prior knowledge.
Chaucer’s England would see any acts of sorcery inherently linked to demonic allegiance. The necromancer, alchemist, witch or sorcerer would face dire consequences if convicted of heresy. As time progressed, all acts of magical influence were lumped under the definition of “witchcraft,” and all were seen as inherently evil, regardless of function or intention. In “From Sorcery to Witchcraft,” Michael D. Bailey says the “heightened clerical concern over harmful sorcery and changing understandings of how magic operated combined with other factors to push authorities slowly but inexorably into accepting, defining, and promulgating the full horrors of witchcraft”. The Church’s position on any use of magic made it heretical, as it was only through the supplication of the Devil that magic could be worked.

The Wife of Bath tells a tale of a young knight who rapes a beautiful young maiden. The people are repulsed by the knight’s behaviour, and demand justice. Although the law demands that the knight be beheaded, the queen begs the king to be allowed to determine the knight’s fate. The queen then gives the knight a year to discover what women most desire. The knight comes across some beautiful maidens dancing in a forest:

“In al this care, under a forest side,
Wher as he saugh upon a daunce go
Of lades foure and twenty, and yet mo;
Toward the whiche daubce he drow ful yerne,
In hope that som wisdom sholde he lerne.
But certainly, er he cam fully there,
Vanished was this duance, he niste where.
No creature saugh he that bar lyf,
Save on the grene he saugh sittinge a wyf;
A fouler wight ther no man devise.
Again the knight this olde wyf gan rise”

The knight explains his quest to an old woman, who transforms from a group of 24 young maidens as an emphasis of the idea that to be ugly is to be wise. He finds the magic woman in a forest which is a significant setting that demonstrates woman’s correlation with nature. Women are also simultaneously presented as transient, malleable and exploiters of male sexuality: the woman can appear beautiful, but the man will only listen to her when she contorts her appearance. Either way, she is in control of her body, a theme that is present throughout the Wife’s Prologue and Tale. This links to Keith Thomas’ ideology that older, lone women were the most favoured targets of witch representations, because they were marginal, dependent members of the community who hadn’t married; they either had something wrong with them, or they couldn’t be ‘controlled’ by a man. Likewise, The Wife of Bath contradicts the Medieval Church’s disproval of sex; she won’t apologise and try to suppress what she views as ‘natural’. Instead she takes this word as her defence. The text is full of references to her sexual nature (‘chambre of Venus from a good felawe), and the vagina is spoken of enthusiastically by the Wife. Female sexuality isn’t presented as sinful, the only sinful act presented in the text being the rape committed by the knight in the tale. This all-consuming ‘desire’ for sex is therefore found not in a woman, as the medieval texts suggested, but in a man.
Throughout the Wife’s tale, traditional values and headships such as leadership and supremacy, are reversed or overthrown. At the beginning of the tale, King Arthur submits to the rule of Guinevere (thus abandoning both his headship of the state and his headship of the family), the ladies of the court, instead of the men, serve as justices and the authority of books and scriptures gives way to experience. Furthermore, the knight, a rapist who has violated the sanctity of a young girl’s virginity, is redeemed by another woman. Finally, in the choice the old woman offers the knight, both choices are intolerable. Thus, when he lets her make the decision, he has abandoned the male’s sovereignty in favour of the woman’s rule, thus turning the medieval world-picture “up-so-doun.”

In the Wife’s Prologue, she offers readers a complex portrait of a medieval woman. On one hand, the Wife of Bath is shameless about her sexual exploits and the way she uses sexual power to obtain what she wishes. On the other hand, by doing exactly these things she is confirming negative stereotypes about women and proving that women are manipulative and deceitful. Even though her actions might at first seem to be rebellion against the male-dominated society in The Canterbury Tales, and more generally, the medieval period for women, there is very little that she does that is truly revolutionary or empowering for women of her time.

Medieval female transformation is represented by the ‘loathly lady’ stories (a woman cursed with ugliness is freed by a knight who agrees to marry her and to give her control over her own appearance) and male transformation by the ‘churlish knight’ (an ugly and unchivalrous knight is transformed by the hero’s unfailing courtesy). In both of these kinds of tale, magic can deceive the senses, resulting in an appearance that does not reflect reality. These gendered representations are rather different magical beings from those of 12th-century romance. In most, although not all, cases, they are the victims of magic rather than the users of it. Many of the romances blame the lady or knight’s transformation on a magic-wielding villain, often a woman. This, Heidi Breuer argues (in Gendering Magic in Medieval and Early Modern England), reflects the growing economic opportunities open to women in this period, especially before marriage or in widowhood. The wicked women of these romances are women who are not mothers themselves, and they reflect the anxiety generated by the new economic possibilities for single women and widows.

In my opinion, Chaucer presents the idea of the supernatural and femininity as something which is natural. While there is a definite argument for the author taking an anti-feminist stance on a feminist character, this only emphasises the character’s glorious contradictions, imperfections and societal internalization of misogynist thought. This type of character, as well as the magic woman who teaches the knight respect and kindness towards women, is strikingly similar to roles written in the 20th and 21st century, where feminism became a cultural and political movement. The witch therefore, while demonized by early modern society, has still remained an icon on independence, femininity and strength.

References:

Chaucer The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale

Michael Carosone Geoffrey Chaucer: Feminist Or Not?

Donald C. Baker Witchcraft in the Dispute between Chaucer’s Friar and Summoner

Wilma Karssen Witchcraft in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Friar’s Tale

Heidi Breuer Gendering Magic in Medieval and Early Modern England