For as long as there have been creative arts, withches and witchcraft have served as inspiration for those various arts and continue to do so at an ever-increasing rate. Witches have always served as creative muse, one way or another, although how witches and their craft have been interpreted and depicted depends upon era, culture, and often the individual artist’s inclinations.
Should one attempt to delete the presence of witches and witchcraft from the various creative arts, as some have periodically wished to do, there would be tremendous gaps: no Macbeth, no Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings or Chronicles of Narnia. The number of films that would disappear from history is almost unimaginable, as would be the number of popular songs in virtually every genre—from Frank Sinatra singing “Witchcraft” to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You” to that country music classic, “Under Your Spell Again.”
The powerful presence of witches in the creative arts is highly appropriate as most of what are now considered “creative” arts were once also considered magical, shamanic, and spiritual arts:
Dance and music are historically powerfully rooted in shamanism and are traditionally used to cast spells, summon and banish spirits and generate magic energy, as well as to generate entertainment and fun.
Although we don’t necessarily understand them, based upon surviving imagery and location (deep within often difficult-to-access caves), the earliest known visual arts—cave paintings—were created for ritual and/or magical purposes.
Western theatrical performance derives from the sacred rites of Dionysus; theatrical traditions from other parts of Earth derive from similar spiritual and magical roots.
Witchcraft has inspired modern artists just as powerfully as ancient ones. Many of the earliest films were devoted to occult themes, especially witchcraft and witches. Most of the first comic-book heroes and heroines were inspired by tales of magic and sorcery. Various depictions of witchcraft flew off the presses virtually as soon as the printing press was invented—not only witch-hunters’ manuals and handbooks of magic but also fictional depictions of witches. The book that is considered the first true Western novel (La Celestina) is named for the witch who is its central character.
Witches have inspired art but those works of art, many of which are powerful, profound, and influential, have also intensely shaped and influenced how people have perceived and understood witches, whether favorably or not. The following section of The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft explores some of these witches and the manner in which they have been depicted.
Witches have inspired literally countless works of art. Thousands of pages could be devoted to these witches alone; what follows is by necessity only a random sampling of some of the more significant witches who have entertained, informed, amused, thrilled, chilled, and served as role models, inspiration, and objects of fear over the ages. My apologies if I have omitted any of your favorites. Because these are creative arts, often meant to do nothing more than entertain, many of these witches by definition are not realistic but are figures of fantasy, or at least partially so. Characters identified as witches or similar magical practitioners are included, regardless of which definition of witchcraft they may fall under; in addition, creative works that feature witchcraft and what are often understood by at least some as its practices are also included.
What do most standard comic-book heroes have in common? Whatever their differences, most crusaders for justice share two aspects: supernatural powers; costumes, or at least distinctive clothing. Now who on Earth has supernatural powers? No need to invent back-stories or rationales about abandoned babies from outer space, or magic powers derived from scientific experiments gone awry: witches, sorcerers, and magicians come by their supernatural powers naturally or through education—or at least they do according to some definitions of witchcraft.
The first superheroes were occult practitioners. After all, who else has supernatural powers if not a witch? As for that distinctive clothing, in a sense, one can trace the roots of comic-book villains back to witch-hunt era woodcuts and illustrations created for penny-dreadfuls, intended to entertain, titillate, shock, and enthrall their audiences as much as to offer “moral instruction.” (See page 314, Visual Arts: Woodcuts.) How would you identify the witch in those popular illustrations? Easy. By her distinctive clothing or, conversely, her total lack thereof. Those imaginary witches may be considered among the first cartoon villains or anti-heroes.
Exactly what are comics? At their most basic, comics are defined as an art form consisting of multiple sequential images that usually form a narrative or tell a story and that usually, but not always, incorporate written text. A single image or “panel” is defined as a cartoon, not as a comic. Those medieval woodcuts featuring images of witches cavorting with Satan may be understood as “cartoons.”
Comics in the form they exist today blossomed as a phenomenon in the twentieth century. What is now nostalgically remembered as the Golden Age of Comics is usually dated as occurring between 1930 and 1951. Superman first appeared in 1938. (His creators were influenced by magical stories of the Golem of Prague. Mandrake the Magician had already appeared four years earlier.
In the United States, comic books were eventually marketed exclusively to children and adolescents (this was not originally the case, nor was it the case elsewhere in the world, most notably in Japan; see Manga, page 297). On the one hand this added to the aura of worthlessness surrounding comics; on the other it also stimulated a powerful desire in some people to sanitize the genre so that it would be truly suitable for children, similar to the desire some have to clean up and child-proof fairy tales.
This was taken very seriously: in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s comics were popularly blamed for juvenile delinquency and “moral degradation.” They were accused of glorifying crime and making heroes of seedy, shadowy, disreputable, morally ambiguous characters, occult practitioners not least among these (see The Black Widow). The United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency investigated the influence of comic books. Schools and parental organizations held public comic-book burnings. Comic books were banned in some cities. Circulation of comic books declined sharply; only the tamest of comic books thrived in what may be considered the comic books’ Dark Ages. They have never entirely regained their mass popularity although newer comics, which once again address metaphysical issues, feature occult practitioners and are frequently targeted to a mature audience, are now appreciated as an art form.
By definition, “comic-book witches,” past or present, are not realistic. The entire genre of comic books is typically not a realistic medium but one devoted to fantasy and fun.
A major comic-book theme focuses on illusionists who, as the witch-finders feared, only pretend to be mere illusionists. Their sleight-of-hand only serves as a cover for true supernatural powers and/or magical skills. The very first superhero’s uniform was a stage magician’s costume. (See Mandrake the Magician, Vampirella, Zatanna, Zatara.)
Changes in the last 50 years of metaphysical history may be tracked through comic-book heroes:
During the Golden Age of Comics, magicians invariably studied with ascended masters in Tibet. Frequently they had magical partners, disguised as valets or servants, who were really adepts from Africa or China.
Modern comics, on the other hand, frequently feature what at least appear to be youthful female witches, flexing their magical muscles (some are secretly thousands of years old). These witches are often drawn to resemble a fantasy of what a modern practitioner of Wicca might look like, even though, again, be cautioned, this is not a reality-based genre.
The following are but a sampling of the most popular and most significant comics incorporating witchcraft and the magical arts as major themes. There are many more. (If characters are identified as witches or as practitioners of the magical arts, I’ve included them, regardless which definition of “witch” the character fulfills.) I have also attempted to impose a semblance of consistency over the genre and to note the first appearance of the magical character, not necessarily of the comic book with which they are now most popularly associated. (Records are not always clear.)
The Black Widow
Marvel Comics, first appeared in 1940.
Is the Black Widow a heroine or a villain? That’s a tough call. On the one hand, she dispatches villains like the finest superhero. On the other, she works directly for Satan; her mission is to kill evil-doers so that her boss can collect their souls. That scenario leads to all sorts of interesting spiritual, religious, and metaphysical speculation. The Black Widow is based on the stereotype of the witch as the tool of Satan; however, she is as much a crime-fighter and wrong-righter as Superman or any other hero.
Once upon a time, in her debut issue, Claire Voyant was an attractive psychic presiding over séances. Hired by a family wishing to contact a lost loved one, Satan insinuates himself into this séance and manipulates activities so that all but one member of the family ends up dead. During the séance, under Satan’s influence, Claire issues a witch’s curse. The client, who fails to understand the gravity of the situation, complains, “I came for a séance, not a lesson in witchcraft.” When the family perishes, the sole survivor blames Claire and murders her.
Satan claims her soul and transforms her into “The Black Widow.” (And is the inference that psychics and fortune-tellers, whether fraudulent or real, have sold their souls?) Like any superheroine she now sports distinctive clothing—a sexy, black spider-themed costume. The devil gives her supernatural powers, too.
Her first victim is her murderer: she materializes before him in a ball of flame. All she has to do is lay her hand on his forehead and he’s dead, leaving a spider-shaped burn as the sole clue to her identity. After this act of vengeance, the Black Widow focuses on purging Earth of villains.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Black Widow had a limited run, only appearing in a few comics. It was a pretty racy story for its time: its “heroine” reports to Hell and there is at least a visual implication of a sexual relationship between the Black Widow and the devil. Not only was Claire’s costume sexy and seductive, but Satan himself, drawn as a horned red devil, was very obviously naked—with the exception of his scarlet cape, always strategically, arranged to hide his private parts.
See also WORMWOOD: Dangers of Witchcraft: Curses; MAGICAL ARTS: Divination; Necromancy.
The Books of Magic
This comic book mini-series written by Neil Gaiman first appeared in January 1991. (See page 230, The Sandman.) Teenager Timothy Hunter is visited by four mysterious strangers, including John Constantine (see page 228, Hellblazer), who take him on a tour of the universe, informing him that he has the potential to be the world’s greatest magician. The comic book series and its later spin-offs follow Timothy’s magical education and his attempts to fulfill his destiny. A skinny angst-filled adolescent with glasses and an owl familiar attending an academy devoted to the magical arts, many find Timothy disconcertingly similar to Harry Potter. Their respective action figure dolls can be particularly difficult to distinguish. (Timothy is the one without the facial scar.) However the resemblances are superficial; the actual plot line is different. (See page 285, Literature: Harry Potter Series.)
Timothy Hunter’s adventures continue in other Vertigo comic mini-series, The Names of Magic and Hunter: The Age of Magic.
Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts
Marvel Comics, first appeared in 1963.
Dr Stephen Strange was once a brilliant surgeon; however he was also cold, narcissistic, pompous, and selfish—in short, a jerk. He also had a dangerous tendency to hit the bottle a little too hard; one dark stormy night, driving while drunk out of his mind, Strange crashed his car, in the process killing his pregnant wife and unborn child and forever damaging his hands so that he’s no longer able to practice his craft. His entire previously well-organized life is gone. Strange sinks deep into depression, hits the bottle even harder and ends up on the street, all the while, however, seeking for spiritual solace, direction, and resolution for his grief.
At the very end of his tether, he hears of a miracle-working cave-dwelling Tibetan lama, “The Ancient One,” and goes to seek assistance. First deemed unworthy of assistance, although perhaps this was a metaphysical test, Strange gets stuck in the snows of Tibet over the winter. Through a series of circumstances, he proves himself changed for the better and the Ancient One accepts him as a student of magic, explaining to Strange that it’s not his hands that are broken; it’s his soul. Strange moves into the cave and begins to study the secrets of sorcery and the magic of the mystic arts, transforming into a superhero and a very popular one at that.
Strange remains a viable, vital character. In addition to sometimes starring in his own comic books, over the years he’s made frequent appearances in various other series. He’s evolved over the years: in 1988 he was promoted to Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme. (See page 234, Witches.)
Vertigo Comics, comic series first published in 1988.
The star of this comic book series, the master sorcerer John Constantine, first appeared as a character in the horror comic-book series Swamp Thing. He is a featured character in many graphic novels and is also featured in other Vertigo comics including Books of Magic and The Sandman. Constantine reportedly dated Zatanna while they were in college. (See Zatanna, page 235.)
A film adaptation of Hellblazer, featuring Keanu Reeves as Constantine, is scheduled for release in 2005. Allegedly his creator Alan Moore modeled Constantine’s physical appearance after the singer Sting.
Constantine has no standard super-powers similar to a conventional comic-book hero; his magical powers consist of magical skill and knowledge. This trench-coated, chain-smoking sorcerer anti-hero initially used these magical powers for unethical goals. (Chain-smoking eventually led to lung cancer; however Constantine was magically able to force the Lords of Hell to heal him.) He is still a brutal practitioner when needs-be in order to save his skin from his many enemies, however Constantine has now dedicated himself to realigning the world’s balance towards good and righteousness. (Or at least away from evil.)
Constantine derives from the mold of the classic medieval sorcerer whose interests lie in demons and hell. Like Mandrake (see page 229), he is a master hypnotist; Constantine is also shown conducting séances and exorcisms and creating sigils. Constantine is a hereditary witch; his family includes a tremendously long line of occult practitioners. He began his own occult education during adolescence and is truly a master, however he is also an egotist who frequently overestimates his talents, landing him in scrapes from which he must magically extricate himself.
Ibis the Invincible
This turbaned crime-fighting master magician first appeared in 1940. With the exception of Mandrake the Magician, he was the most successful of the magician superheroes.
Once upon a time, some four thousand years ago, Ibis was the Egyptian prince Amentep, magical adept, student of the Egyptian mysteries, and next in line for the throne. He was also deeply in love with a beautiful Theban princess. All was going so well for Amentep—that is, until an evil magician known as “the Black Pharaoh” seized the throne, and Amentep’s ladylove as well.
Through the use of a magic wand known as the “ibistick” Amentep transformed into the superhero Ibis the Invincible. He was able to rescue his beloved, Princess Taia, however unfortunately, in shades reminiscent of “Sleeping Beauty,” the Black Pharaoh had placed her in a coma destined to last for four thousand years; a spell Ibis was unable to break. Not a problem: Ibis magically placed himself in an equivalent suspended animation. When the series begins, it’s 1940 and the sleeping spell has finally worn off. The two ancient Egyptians, now mummified, discover themselves housed in separate European museums. Through his magic powers, Ibis is able to create a reunion. Once this is accomplished he dedicates himself to fighting evil with the magical ibistick. Targets include werewolves and vampires. (Later versions of the comic suggest that the ibistick is a gift from Thoth; the earliest versions suggest that it was a miscalculated gift from the Black Pharaoh.) (See DIVINE WITCH: Thoth.)
Mandrake the Magician
This is where the tradition starts. In 1924, when he was 19 years old, Lee Falk first created the character Mandrake the Magician, initially drawing two weeks’ worth of strips. Ten years later he sold the character to King Features, the company that is often credited with creating the modern comic.
Mandrake the Magician first appeared as a newspaper comic-strip character in 1934. The comic strip and the character were extremely successful. Mandrake was a popular phenomenon although attempts at converting the strip into comic books never matched that success. In 1939, Columbia Pictures released a 12-part serial inspired by Mandrake the Magician, starring Warren Hull (January 17, 1903-September 14, 1974) as the crime-fighting superhero. The Mandrake radio serial aired from November 11, 1940 until February 6, 1942. Originally slated as a three-day-a-week program, by 1941 it ran five days a week.
Mandrake the Magician was the first superpowered costumed crime fighter. His costume was that of a stage magician. Although he appeared to be a mere illusionist, nothing more than an entertainer, that was actually a cover for his deeper supernatural powers, in the same way that Clark Kent’s career as a news hound was the front for his existence as Superman.
Mandrake set the standard for the superheroes of the future, magical or otherwise. According to the plot-line, Mandrake acquired his powers in Tibet where he had studied the magical arts since childhood. Among his teachers was one known as Luciphor, who eventually decided to use his power and knowledge for selfish purposes and was transformed into the evil “Cobra.” Mandrake’s faithful valet, Lothar, is really an African prince in disguise and another magical adept. (In response to changing times, over the years Lothar has transformed from employee to friend.)
Mandrake’s success inspired a multitude of other similar characters including Marvelo the Monarch of Magicians, Tor the Magic Master, and perhaps most notably, Zatara the Magician. He still makes periodic appearances; in 1986 he was among the superheroes on an animated television series, Defenders of the Earth, alongside such stalwarts as Flash Gordon.
Sabrina the Teenage Witch
The character Sabrina the Teenage Witch first appeared in the back pages of an Archie Comics magazine in October 1962. Many characters make brief appearances and then disappear forever, however Sabrina from the start had that certain something, that je ne sais quoi that kept her from comic-book oblivion. A fun, youthful, lively witch with ordinary teenage problems (and some others as well) she would eventually become the most successful Archie Comics adaptation. Sabrina became a main character in 1969 but wasn’t featured in her own comic book until April 1971. Since then she has been featured in various television animated cartoons before the hit live-action television series began in 1996. Since the success of the television show, the comic book has been revived frequently, with the actress Melissa Joan Hart (television’s Sabrina) on the cover.
(See page 313, Television: Sabrina the Teenage Witch.)
DC Comics/Vertigo, first appeared in 1988.
There have been several comic series featuring a character named the Sandman, dating as far back as 1939. These characters and series are, at best, tangentially related. Our “The Sandman” refers to the series that ran from January 1988 to March 1996.
The “Sandman” makes reference to the nursery rhyme character who enters bedrooms bearing “sleepy dust” and enables people, especially children, to sleep and dream. “Sandman” is the nickname for the protagonist of this comic series who is also called Dream, the Lord of Dreams, perhaps more familiar to lovers of Greek mythology as Morpheus, Lord of Dreams and grandson of Nyx. (See DIVINE WITCH: Nyx.) When the British writer Neil Gaiman was requested to revive the comic-book hero the Sandman (and it is important to note that comics aren’t necessarily comedic) he was allowed to take the character in directions that interested him. His interests were obviously shared by many readers. What was initially intended to be limited to perhaps seven issues became immensely popular and led DC Comics to create their imprint Vertigo, which publishes comics directed toward a mature audience, frequently featuring occult-oriented themes and more sexually and violently graphic than its child-friendly parent DC Comics. (See also Books of Magic, Hellblazer and The Witching.)
According to the basic plot line, in 1916, the magician Roderick Burgess attempted to trap Death but instead catches Dream (our “Sandman”) instead. Burgess resembles an Aleister Crowley-style magician. His devotees address him as “Magus.” His magical goals are, like those of the medieval sorcerers, selfish and purely for personal benefit. Having caught Dream, Burgess attempts to pry his secrets from him but can’t. Rather than freeing him, he keeps Dream imprisoned under glass while attempting to negotiate with him. (Dream finally escapes in 1988 as the series begins.) In the meantime, Dream’s absence has stimulated worldwide sleep disorders and spiritual havoc.
The series is heavily influenced by Greek mythology and has been collected into graphic novels.
The character Thessaly first appeared in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman story “A Game of You.” Described as the last and most powerful of the legendary Thessalian witches, Thess intrigued many readers. In 2004 she starred in her own four-part mini-series, published by Vertigo Comics, entitled Thessaly Witch for Hire.
The Scarlet Witch
Marvel Comics, first appeared in 1964.
The Scarlet Witch is a recurring character who has periodically starred in her own comic series as well as making countless guest appearances with other characters including the X-Men, her husband the android hero, The Vision and her twin brother, Quicksilver.
The Scarlet Witch’s origins are particularly murky, even for a comic-book character. Because she has been around for a long time, her backstory has evolved and changed, becoming longer and more complex over the years. The Scarlet Witch is the nom de guerre of Wanda Maximoff, who was originally introduced as the daughter of Magnus the Mutant and a Romany woman named Magda. Her mother, terrified by what she has learned of Magnus’ goals of world domination, runs away from him just before giving birth. She finds sanctuary in a citadel devoted to secret scientific experiments somewhere in the Balkans where she eventually gives birth to twins with the help of a midwife named Bova, who looks like a woman but is really a genetically transformed cow. (Bova, bovine, get it?)
Magda is scared that Magnus will find her and the babies and so, abandoning the babies to the midwife’s care, wanders out into the wilderness to die. The midwife isn’t sure quite what to do with the seemingly “normal” babies but wishes to protect them from genetic experimentation. After various convoluted plans fail, the children are given to a Romany couple, Django and Marya Maximoff, whose own two children were murdered in the Romany Holocaust of World War II. So the half-mutant, half-Gypsy future superheroes are sent off to live a nomadic life with the Gypsies, poor but happy.
Happiness is short-lived: when Django is caught stealing food for his starving family, villagers attack them. The parents are killed but Wanda and brother Pietro escape. They wander Central Europe for several years until eventually Wanda’s emerging magic powers draw negative attention. Wanda has various innate powers including the ability to cause spontaneous flames, however she doesn’t know how to control what are called her “hex powers.” In a burst of anti-witch mob violence, villagers try to kill Wanda and Pietro but they are saved by Magneto (who may or may not be their real natural father).
The Scarlet Witch is identified as a witch by her title; her early childhood was steeped in rural traditional Romany culture and one might assume that she had picked up some magical training. Perhaps this was the original intent of the storyline. Certainly someone involved in creating Wanda’s back-story was a fan of Romany culture. Her adoptive father’s name is a tribute to two real Gypsy heroes, the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and the author Mateo Maximoff.
Her powers are described as “hex-powers.” (See DICTIONARY: Hex.) Wanda is able to accomplish the impossible 80 percent of the time using what she calls “hex-bolts” and “hexspheres.” (Her powers are found to be unreliable 20 percent of the time, which many witches would suggest is not a bad track record.) Wanda also conceives via hex-power. (She thinks the Vision is the father but really her desire has activated a magical pregnancy.)
However, the plot-line also suggests that Wanda Maximoff may not be a real witch but may instead be a mutant from outer space with special extra-planetary powers. In order to learn how to use and control her own innate powers and develop new skills, Wanda receives help from a real witch, Agatha Harkness. (To the series’ credit, Agatha looks nothing like a stereotyped witch, appearing to be a perfectly innocuous and refined older woman.)
Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose
Broadsword Comics, first appeared 2000.
The first issue of Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose was dedicated to the witches of the world. (Cemetery workers of the world, too!) Its eponymous heroine is named Tarot. A cardreading witch and member of the Black Rose coven, Tarot is the daughter of a long-line of hereditary witches, some of whom were burned at the stake because, in Tarot’s words, “they were proud enough to call themselves witches.”
The anti-heroine, if you will, is Tarot’s sister Raven Hex, although she is no simple, ordinary villain. Raven Hex is obsessed with avenging crimes against witchkind and ushering in a new age, to be ruled by witches. Her goal is to vanquish those who are intolerant towards the Craft and bring prosperity to every sorceress. Sounds pretty good, huh? Unfortunately, as Tarot foresees, this plot is actually doomed to ignite new Burning Times. Tarot must secure the future for witches and the world in general.
Tarot is a beautiful, red-haired, scantily clad (when she’s clad!), sexy fantasy witch with hereditary super-powers who resides in a mansion in Witch Hollow, Salem, Massachusetts. When girded for battle Tarot sports pentacles on her clothing, a majestic horned headdress, and a magic sword. Her faithful familiar Pooka is an adorable but fierce bat-winged black goblin cat.
Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose is unique and revolutionary because, while grounded in the tradition of comics as fun, entertaining, fantasy adventure it also displays genuine, authentic knowledge of witchcraft. Unlike other series, there is no ambivalence toward witchcraft: Tarot, Raven Hex, their mother, and other witches are proud, strong, autonomous, and independently powerful. The series expli-citly rejects the notion of witches as devil-worshippers. (Raven Hex informs a young would-be apprentice that witches don’t believe in the existence of Satan but that if he did exist, he would worship her!)
Tarot is as sexy as any other pin-up witch but witchcraft as an art, skill, and culture is presented responsibly.
Jim Balent, creator, writer, and artist of Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose, worked on the DC Comics series Catwoman from 1993 until 1999 when he began his own independent company Broadsword. Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose was Broadsword’s first production; subsequent works are also inspired by metaphysical themes including witchcraft and vampires.
Comic-book back pages are traditionally filled with all sorts of extras and bonuses like briefer strips featuring special characters, interviews, jokes or short stories. Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose features interviews with “real” witches and occult practitioners (interviewees have included Laurie Cabot, Fiona Horne, and Raven Grimassi) as well as spells or magical information. Different tarot decks are featured monthly.
Characters first appeared in 1969, initially published by Warren Magazines.
Vampirella appeared on Earth as a refugee from the doomed planet Drakulon where everyone drinks blood. No need to attack anyone for that blood; rivers on Drakulon flow with blood, like rivers on Earth flow with water. Turn on the tap; you’ve got blood.
She’s not the witch. Her compatriot, however, Mordecai Pendragon the Great, is a formerly successful sorcerer now reduced to laboring as a sideshow magician. When the series began Pendragon served as Vampi’s guide to Earth and mentor in magical training. They met when Vampirella rescued him from the demon Asmodeus. In gratitude, he offered her a job as his assistant in his show, which perhaps serves as the rationale for her increasingly skimpy costumes.
Eventually she learns a lot about magic. Can a vampire be a witch? Maybe. During the evertwisting plot, Vampirella discovered that her mother is Lilith, the Semitic spirit who, according to myth, is the real first woman. (See DIVINE WITCH: Lilith.) Lilith, depending upon which version of her myth is chosen, may be both witch and vampire. (The Vampirella series identifies Lilith as the first vampire.) Because of this genetic history, Vampirella is immune to the traditional banes of vampires such as crosses, sunlight, and Holy Water.
In 1983, Warren Comics ceased operations but, as we know, vampires never die. The company’s assets were purchased and Vampirella was resurrected in 1988. The series is now published by Harris Comics. Vampirella appears in graphic novel form as well as in comic books. A 1996 live-action movie starred Talisa Soto as Vampirella.
The focus of the series has shifted chiefly to erotica and is now intended for mature audiences; however Vampirella is still a vampire, and metaphysics and witchcraft haven’t been entirely abandoned. Pendragon still makes an occasional appearance; every once in a while Vampirella still serves as his assistant at the Worlds End Circus.
Wendy the Good Little Witch
Wendy the Good Little Witch first appeared in 1954 in the back pages of Casper the Friendly Ghost comics. She was eventually popular enough to merit her own comic series and was also featured in a cartoon television show. (Harvey Comics has been “on hiatus” since the 1990s. Wendy’s future, along with the other Harvey characters, remains uncertain.)
Wendy is Casper the Ghost’s friend. She often shares pages with Casper, and they make appearances in each other’s series. She serves a very similar function to Casper, although in witch-world, rather than the realm of ghosts. Just as Casper is the sole “friendly” ghost amidst a bunch of dour chain-clankers, Wendy is the only nice witch amongst a sour bunch.
Wendy dresses entirely in red and wears a baby’s one-piece outfit complete with peaked hat/hood, although she’s not an infant. Her age is indeterminate; she appears to be a small child although she comes and goes independently and quite competently. She has a magic wand with a glowing red tip and flies a broom. Her lack of green skin and warts annoys the other witches.
Wendy is seemingly the only good witch, an anomaly. Wendy lives with her aunts, “The Witch Sisters,” typical, stereotyped green-faced crones with hooked noses. They specialize in stinky brews and trouble. Wendy serves as sort of a subtle peace enforcer, protecting people from her relatives and also protecting her aunts from malicious humans. There are various other witch characters; other little girl witches wear identical costumes but theirs are usually blue. None are nice or intelligent like Wendy. One sorry little witch is named Dumbella while another is Bratty Lou. Although the series was meant to be “cute” it reinforces negative stereotypes. A comic book produced in 1970 shows the frustrated Witch Sisters hiring a tutor, Miss Moldee, to teach Wendy “the witch way,” defined as being “mean” and “unpleasant.” The series was geared for younger children and thus nothing really bad can happen, there’s no violence or real drama; the witches’ mean spirit usually translates into their playing tricks on animals, usually transforming cute ones into less attractive species.
Witches debuted in June 2004. A new breed of witch-oriented comic books has emerged that seems to be structured along the lines of Charlie’s Angels. A prominent male character recruits what at least look like young witches to work their magic powers.
In the case of Witches, a dangerous magical book, The Tome of Zhered-Na, has been accidentally opened, releasing its malevolent powers. Acknowledging a new era in magic, our old friend Dr Strange (see page 228) can’t do the job by himself but recruits three young female witches (Jennifer Kale, Satana, and Topaz) to help him save the world. These three represent the threefold power of women—maiden, mother, and crone—although as befitting comic-book heroines, even the one representing the crone sure looks like a sexy young witch. Dr Strange is still treated with respect; at least one young witch refers to him as “Master Strange.” Various metaphysical themes emerge and eventually Lilith, who may be the comics’ favorite goddess, makes an appearance. (See page 233, Vampirella and DIVINE WITCH: Lilith.)
Vertigo Comics, launched June 2004.
Like Witches (above) this similarly named series also features a trio of witches, Elsa, Kara, and Sook, however these girls don’t need Dr Strange. They have the Vertigo character Lucifer Morningstar instead. (Yes, that Lucifer.)
“Elsa Grimston, Witch,” as she identifies herself, represents the crone of this triad. She was conceived on what she calls a “black magick altar” during a sex magic ritual attempting to implant a lunar spirit into a human child. Her father, Henry Grimston, is a Crowley-style magician who, Elsa says, initially believed himself to be more powerful than the devil. His error was subsequently proven to him and so he turned into a devotee of the devil.
Elsa learned magic directly from the finest teachers, the fate goddesses. (See WOMEN’S MYSTERIES: Spinning.) When the series starts, all she really wants to do is go home to the moon for some peace and quiet, but she’s ordered back to Earth to magically preserve Earth’s power balance. Elsa must recruit a maiden and mother for her trinity. She discovers Sook, a fun-loving Korean girl from Texas, and Kara, a young singer whose mother is a not particularly competent spell-casting witch. As with Witches it’s too soon to tell whether this will be a limited series or whether the characters will exist indefinitely.
Zatanna, The Magician
DC Comics, first appeared in 1964.
In 1964, DC Comics considered reviving their old magician hero Zatara (see next entry). Instead they created a new character, his daughter Zatanna.
According to the plot-line, 14 years after Zatara’s mysterious disappearance, his daughter comes looking for him. She knows little about him or his disappearance but during the search, in which she is aided by various superheroes including no less than Batman, Zatanna discovers her own magic powers. Just like her father, by speaking backwards she can create wonderful, powerful magical transformations.
Zatanna was revolutionary because she is a female character who conforms to the theme of the illusionist who is really a magical practitioner in disguise. Like the medieval sorcerers, that type of conjurer is virtually always identified as male. (And for good reason: men do dominate the field of illusionists, most of whom today are genuinely only illusionists.) (See HALL OF FAME: Black Herman Rucker; Jan Eric Hanussen.)
Zatanna adapts the costume of the traditional male stage magician to suit herself, including top hat, tuxedo jacket with tails, high heels, and fishnet stockings. Zatanna made periodic appearances during the years as a guest star in various series including Batman, Hawkman and The Green Lantern. (She is a member of DC’s Justice League.) The circumstances of her birth remained unrevealed until 1980. Without revealing any secrets, let’s just say she inherited many magic powers from her mother’s side too.
Eventually Zatanna succeeds in rescuing her father from his magical imprisonment and comes into her own powers as a superhero. (In one story she journeys to the magical Breton kingdom of Ys. See DIVINE WITCH: Dahut.)
Zatara, The Magician
DC Comics, first appeared in 1938.
Zatara made his debut in DC’s Action Comics #1, the very same issue that launched the man of steel, Superman. He existed as a comic hero until 1950 when he was retired. (Considering whether to revive him inspired DC Comics to create his daughter Zatanna instead. See previous entry.) Giovanni Zatara, of Italian origin, only appears to be a simple stage magician. True, it was all he originally expected to be. He practiced the craft of illusions until he was a master. At some point, however, he discovered that he possessed genuine magic powers, which he now uses to protect the world from wrongdoers. (He attributes his powers to the possibility of unknown magical ancestors including Leonardo da Vinci.)
Zatara has a special magical trick: speaking backwards. By doing this he can cause anyone or anything to bend to his will: true commanding and compelling powers that would make any medieval sorcerer proud. Zatara eventually reappeared in the series devoted to his daughter Zatanna but was finally killed off (or so it presently seems) in 1986.
Among the many other comic-book enchantresses, sorcerers, and witches are
Magic Master Tor
Morgaine Le Fey
Sargon the Sorcerer
Beyond casting spells and stirring the cauldron, when one envisions traditional witches, what are they usually doing? Popular depictions of witches flying through the air may be a distorted misunderstanding of shamanic soul-journeying. Witch-hunters’ allegations of baby stealing, cannibalism, and incest are defamation. The single realistic and consistent description of witches shared by both those who love them and those who despise them is that witches dance.
This is a fairly international image: witches all over the world are described as dancers. Wherever traditional witches congregate and rendezvous, observers claim that they dance. (Witches themselves most often maintain professional secrecy.) In fact, Reginald Scot, the Elizabethan authority on witchcraft, quoted witch-hunter Jean Bodin’s suggestion that witches shouldn’t be defined as night-walkers, but instead as night-dancers. (See BOOKS: Witch-Hunt Books: Bodin; Scot.)
In fact dancing is so integral a part of historical witchcraft that among the countless definitions of witchcraft is one that defines it as the persistently surviving vestiges of “Neolithic dance cults.”
Now “dance cult,” like “fertility cult,” is a vague, nebulous term. What is that definition trying to express? Dancing is among the most ancient magical arts of all. It is to some extent a forgotten magical art because information regarding it is fragmentary at best. Dancing was taught by doing; although ancient images depict magical and ritual dance they are by necessity static. We see the dancer frozen at one step; we can’t see the dance as a whole. And prior to modern technological-oriented entertainments such as television, films, computers, video games, and so forth, for millennia dance, whether as a participatory act or as performance, was an incredibly popular form of entertainment, as well as a major component of magical practice and spiritual ritual, including serving as a method of healing.
Even today among traditional spiritual traditions, an incredibly high percentage of rituals involve dance. Dance for spiritual purposes was suppressed in Christianity and Judaism. In 1231, as only one example, the Council of Rouen forbade dancing in church. (Dance-centered spirituality survives in pockets of Islam, most notably the Sufi dervishes; however this too remains controversial and somewhat countercultural.) Church disapproval was based on a variety of reasons:
Dances retained pagan elements—in Judaism, for instance, dancing in groves was associated with devotion to the suppressed goddess Lady Asherah.
Dances incorporated cross-dressing, masking, and the impersonation of animals and deities.
Dances were intrinsic components of female-centered or even female-dominant spiritual traditions.
In modern mainstream Western society, among the majority of those who adhere to the monotheistic faiths, people dance for pleasure, entertainment, enjoyment, and exercise, and also as part of theatrical performance. Witches, however, are persistent preservers of ancient traditions. Some witches still dance with other motivation in mind. Because of course there’s the crucial matter of why people dance.
Why do people dance?
Traditionally and historically there have been rain dances, initiation dances, puberty, fertility, and healing dances. There are harvest dances in particular—grain and wine dances. There are war, victory, and peace dances.
People dance for purposes of entrancement, to induce trances.
People dance for purposes of spell-casting.
Dances honor and appease all kinds of spirits.
Dance is a powerful method of inviting the spirits to appear, as opposed to the commanding and compelling techniques that sorcerers depend upon (see MAGICAL ARTS:Commanding and Compelling).
Dance is frequently the method by which spirits are invited to enter the dancer’s body—usually a trained devotee who then temporarily serves as a vehicle for prophecy and healing (see MAGICAL ARTS: Ritual Possession).
Dance, conversely, is among the methods for exorcising malevolent spirits or those who’ve overstayed their welcome.
Dance is a method for aligning one’s personal energy and rhythm with that belonging to Earth.
Many people dance just for joy. Dance is one of the paths to ecstasy, the magical shamanic state. To this day some types of dance—that of the so-called whirling dervishes, for instance—are defined as “ecstatic dance.”
Dance is among the most accessible and powerful methods of generating fresh magical energy.
Fire-walking, an ancient shamanic art still occasionally practiced, may also be understood as an aspect of dance. Dance is a component of the rituals leading up to the actual fire-walking; participants are as likely to dance over the glowing coals as to walk over them.
Although dance is fun, traditional dance can also be serious business. Many traditional societies have specific social organizations devoted to dances: these include women’s societies, men’s societies, cross-dressers’ societies, sometimes, depending upon the dance, societies that integrate the genders so that women and men dance together, and sometimes even dance/spiritual societies for which being trans-gendered is a requirement of entry. Because harvests, health, fertility, weather, and other crucial issues are understood as dependent upon and controlled by the dance, it’s crucial that the dances are performed correctly and that the dancers adhere to all the ritual and magical requirements so that disaster may be averted.
Those scholars who define witchcraft as a vestige of “Neolithic dance cults” understand witches’ covens to be surviving tokens of these frequently secret dance societies, each of which had stringent initiation requirements.
This type of dance-centered spirituality still exists among Earth’s traditional peoples. Witches’ balls may certainly be understood as the remnants of similar traditions. (See HORNED ONE.)
By necessity, the information that follows is fragmentary. If only there had been video cameras to capture ancient dancers’ moves.
Circle, Ring or Round Dance
Perhaps the most ancient dances of all, round dances are reminiscent of fairy rings and magic circles. Although some ring dances are complex with specific turns, steps, and sequences, at their most primal these are exceedingly simple dances: people join hands and dance around in a circle. No artistic skill is needed, nor is there need for special preparation: the simplest round dances are egalitarian. With the exception of the exceedingly frail or those whose mobility is challenged, virtually anyone can join in.
A Paleolithic drawing depicts women wearing peaked hoods dancing around a central phallic symbol: it’s very tempting to see in this the ancestral roots of witches dancing around a Maypole, or perhaps around a costumed, horned figure.
Ring dances are frequently danced around something that serves as a central focus: that something might be a stone, an altar, a statue or an animal.
Some shamanic bear dances actually circled around a real living bear, although other dances circle around bear skulls or other ritual paraphernalia.
Ring dances may circle around a person, who may be costumed and/or masked, or sometimes enthroned.
Modern witches do the circle dance to raise the cone of power. (See DICTIONARY:Cone of Power.)
Witches dance to demarcate the sacred circle.
Dancers may encircle a high priestess, initiate or priest.
Dancers may encircle living trees, as did the Italian witches of Benevento. They may also dance around cut trees, carved phallic poles, pillars or Maypoles.
Some ritual groups include a single man together with many women; the women may dance around the man, who may or may not be costumed. This may be what witch-hunters understood as a diabolical sabbat: witches circling a man costumed to resemble a goat or a horned, hoofed deity.
Ring dances, perhaps because they are so basic and primal, have the highest survival rate of what may have once been a huge magical repertoire of dances.
Dance of the Seven Veils
Salome performed the Dance of the Seven Veils for her stepfather King Herod Antipas, the husband of her mother Herodias. King Herod was so moved by her performance that he offered to give her whatever she desired. At the behest of her mother, Salome requested that the head of the prophet John the Baptist be served to her atop a silver platter as her reward.
As with so many other legends, it is unknown whether this story is true or how much of it is true; however it is a deeply entrenched legend and many consider it to be gospel. Indeed aspects of the tale are included in the Gospel of Mark (6:21-28) and the Gospel of Matthew (14:6-11). The Gospels do not name the dance, although neither do they name the dancer. The legend as it is known today derives from an amalgamation of sources. Disagreements regarding details of this story still arouse tremendous passions, not least as to whether the Bible can be considered a historical source.
Herodias, the actual manipulator of events, the brains behind Salome’s beauty, emerged as a prototype for the evil anti-Christian witch. Centuries later, Herodias would emerge as a European Queen of Witches, in the company of Diana and Lilith. (See DIVINE WITCH: Aradia; Diana; Herodias; Lilith.)
There are two versions of the motivation behind John the Baptist’s murder. The original historical motive explains that John the Baptist, then an important prophet whom some considered to be the Messiah, publicly denounced the marriage of Herodias and Herod Antipas. Both had been previously married, she to his brother. They engaged in an extra-marital affair, eventually divorcing their respective spouses so that they could marry. Due to technicalities of Jewish law, their marriage could be construed as incest.
The House of Herod had been imposed upon the Jewish nation by their Roman occupiers and was exceedingly unpopular. John the Baptist’s criticism could be understood as rabble-rousing. Herodias took this personally; taking matters into her own hands, according to the legend, she decided to eliminate John, reminiscent of the actions of that other hated biblical queen, Jezebel. The authors of the Old Testament despised Jezebel, not only because of her murderous behavior but also because she was the high priestess of Lady Asherah, Judaism’s forbidden goddess.
That’s the version that draws on proven historical events, as well as the basic gist of what’s contained in the two Gospels. However that version didn’t bewitch nineteenth-century storytellers nearly as much as the idea of beautiful, lascivious Salome dancing with a severed head. A new plot-line eventually emerged suggesting that Salome was sexually obsessed with the handsome ascetic prophet. When he rejected her advances, she decided she’d have him one way or another, dead or alive.
As traditionally told this story focuses on perverse, ruthless women. If one focuses on the dance itself, rather than on female depravity, an entirely different perspective emerges. Neither of the versions explains two aspects of the tale:
What was the dance of the seven veils?
Why was Herod so moved?
The Dance of the Seven Veils reproduces the goddess Inanna-Ishtar’s mythological descent to the underworld, the realm of death ruled by her twin sister. Readying herself for the visit, Inanna-Ishtar dons all her finery so that she will appear as powerful and divine as possible. She begins the journey secure and arrogant in her identity as the beautiful Queen of Heaven. At each of the seven gates leading to her sister’s kingdom, however, Inanna-Ishtar is forced to relinquish one item of clothing (her crown of stars, her famous lapis lazuli necklace, and so on) until finally she approaches Death completely naked, vulnerable, and powerless.
Once upon a time back in Mesopotamia, Inanna-Ishtar’s priestesses channeled the deity during the annual sacred marriage and during other crucial rituals. (See DICTIONARY: Great Rite; MAGICAL ARTS: Ritual Possession.) The Dance of the Seven Veils reproduces Inanna-Ishtar’s solitary journey to Hell. At the very least, the dancer impersonated Inanna-Ishtar; perhaps she also ritually channeled her. This would not have been mere entertainment but a tremendously potent act of spirituality. In first-century Judea, it would also have been a highly controversial, forbidden spiritual act, which would perhaps explain Herod’s excessive reaction to what many consider nothing more than a striptease.
If Herodias did initiate the performance, than her resemblance to Jezebel might be intended to imply something about her spiritual inclinations. Devotion to the goddess may have been what earned Herodias’ reputation as a witch.
The dancer sheds one veil as she passes through each gate; her final nudity may have shared as much with the danse macabre as it does with erotic entertainment. (See page 241, Danse Macabre.) Inanna-Ishtar’s ancient myth may be understood literally, allegorically or as a shamanic soul-journey. Although the war goddess Inanna-Ishtar also has dominion over sex and fertility, and many of her hymns are very erotic, this particular myth is not a particularly titillating story—or not unless one finds any reference to female nakedness to be sexually stimulating, which may have been the case in medieval Europe but was not necessarily so for a king like Herod who presumably had access to naked female flesh whenever he wanted.
The Dance of the Seven Veils developed a reputation as a bewitching erotic performance that held men irresistibly spellbound and persuaded them to commit all sorts of foolish, perverse, and evil acts. The name “Dance of the Seven Veils” retained an aura of powerful bewitchment and so was incorporated into many forbidden sex shows and theatrical performances. By the early twentieth century, the Dance of the Seven Veils had become just another version of the burlesque hoochy-coochy, only with some implied extra erotic magic powers.
The legend continues to evolve: the spiritual components of the dance have once again risen to the forefront. Ruth St Denis (1880—1968), the grande dame of early modern dance, described herself as a prophetess and devoted much of her life to sacred dance. Among her sacred dances was one entitled “Ishtar of the Seven Gates.” Many modern belly dancers have choreographed their own personal interpretations of the Dance of the Seven Veils, frequently in tribute to Inanna-Ishtar.
Dances of Death
These particular “dances of death” do not refer to a specific dance but to the motivation behind a genre of witches’ dances. The danse macabre, which is sometimes also called the dance of death, and is a specific type of dance, is discussed in its own entry on page 241.
Witches famously dance in the graveyard. This is true not just in witch-hunt era Europe but wherever one finds cemeteries. They don’t even have to be cemeteries in terms of literal burial grounds: in India, magical practitioners devoted to Kali and Shiva dance in cremation grounds.
This is an old stereotype involving ancient legends, traditions, and practices. Witches still gather in cemeteries to dance as well as to conduct rituals, cast spells and commune with ghosts, ancestors, and spirits. Why do they do so?
Dances were once traditional components of funerals. These dances stem from many motivations and serve different purposes:
Dances help see the dead soul off on his journey to the next realm
Dances invite (and then dispel) necessary funerary spirits—the ones who’ll make sure the dead soul departs in a timely fashion and reaches his destination safely.
Merry-making propitiates the spirits, honors ancestral spirits and pleases ghosts, some or all of whom may join the living dancers in their revelry.
Dancing dispels fear and gloom, the existence of which increases malevolent magical powers.
Dancing cheers the living.
Because these are pre-Christian traditions, it stands to reason that they would meet with disapproval from the Church. Witches may be understood as maintaining (or at least attempting to maintain) their ancient practices. Fairy tales where the heroine is forced to gather magical materials in the cemetery inevitably find her doing so in the midst of dancing witches.
Cemeteries are also threshold areas packed with highly charged magic power (see DICTIONARY: Threshold). There are few, if any, places on Earth with more power and so magical practitioners go to cemeteries to gather materials, cast spells, hold rituals, commune with spirits, ancestors and ghosts and, yes, not least, to dance. (See MAGICAL ARTS: Necromancy; PLACES: Cemeteries.)
Exactly what kind of dances are these dances of death? Although they vary depending upon culture, region, tradition, and individual, two types of dances are consistently popular: circle dances, especially around grave markers, the cemetery’s central cross or other monuments, and serpentine line dances that spiral around graves and throughout the entire cemetery.
Danse Macabre or The Dance of Death
Many of the names for medieval dances are used somewhat interchangeably and carelessly today. The French term danse macabre is sometimes used to refer to any type of dance having anything to do with death, cemeteries or skeletons. It is also sometimes classified among the various dance manias that swept Europe during and after the Black Death, characterized by masses of frenzied dancers unable to stop dancing. (See Tarantella, page 248.)
However, in the context of this book, “danse macabre” refers very specifically to a medieval dance in which a figure representing death leads a procession to the graveyard. It is sometimes also called the Dance of Death. Death may be personified as a black-cloaked figure or as a naked skeleton. Death is not to be confused with the devil but is an independent entity.
The danse macabre is most familiar today as a visual image. The theme first achieved popularity in the fifteenth century and was incorporated into various styles of art, including woodcuts, carvings, frescoes, and paintings on canvas. The danse macabre was painted by innumerable unknown artists as well as by masters like Hans Holbein the Younger. Images corresponding to this theme were painted or carved onto church walls, chapels, ossuaries, and family vaults. Artistic depictions still resonate even to this day: the danse macabre may be witnessed among modern Halloween imagery, although it is now favored because it is “spooky.” Images of dancing skeletons hark back to the danse macabre.
The danse macabre is more than just a visual device, however; it was once an actual and very popular dance. A masked, costumed figure sometimes carrying a scythe represented Death. This person led a serpentine chain dance of the living, each person holding the hands of those on either side. Perhaps originally this procession did sometimes ultimately terminate in the cemetery but eventually it became popular enough to be integrated into public processional performances (see page 245, Processions), including those sponsored by local churches.
Although there are sufficient artistic depictions so that the dance is easily recognized, only a little information exists regarding actual dance practices. It is believed to have first originated in France as a reaction to the devastation of the Black Death. The earliest documented depiction of the danse macabre comes from Paris and is dated 1424.
The danse macabre grabbed hold of the public imagination. It spread throughout Europe. As it entered new regions, it evolved, eventually traveling far from its roots as a simple serpentine dance and transforming into elaborate theatrical productions, particularly in Denmark and the German lands.
There are two ways of understanding this image and perhaps also the motivation behind the dance. These perspectives are not mutually exclusive:
The conventional interpretation of the danse macabre suggests that Death is the great equalizer. Everyone dies, rich and poor, noble or peasant, no one can purchase or ordain immunity. In images devoted to the danse macabre, Death often leads emperors, princes, noble churchmen, leaders, and the obviously wealthy by the hand. (The theme behind this image survives in the tarot card entitled Death.)
It is common metaphysical practice to analyze images by looking at them out of context: in other words, what do you actually see, when you don’t think about what you’re supposed to see? In the case of the danse macabre, one sees the living dancing happily and peacefully with the dead, the spiritual motivation for many traditional witches’ serpentine dances of death.
A recreation of the danse macabre may be witnessed at the conclusion of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film, The Seventh Seal.
The Goat Dance
Once upon a time (and still in some places) men impersonated the horned one and danced masked and costumed as an animal, frequently a goat. (See HORNED ONE.) Witch-hunters, perhaps initially misunderstanding reports, envisioned Satan as an upright male goat dancing amid witches during sabbats.
In either situation, “goats” are seen to dance; however the goat dance refers to a genre of folk dance, still existing in Greece, Romania, the Balkan region, and elsewhere, mainly centered in the god Dionysus’ old stomping grounds. Although there are regional differences, there are recognizably related goat dances everywhere Dionysus once held influence.
The goat dance is danced by men traditionally dressed in goatskins, crowned with horns and/or wearing goat leather masks. There are two variations of the dance:
The goat dance is fast, frenetic, and vigorous and exemplifies the goat as a rambunctious male fertility figure.
The goat dance is a solemn dance that re-enacts the sacrifice and sometimes eventual resurrection of the goat.
Because the two themes are sometimes combined into one lengthy narrative, dances that incorporate only the frenetic or only the mournful aspect may be understood as edited or taken out of what once may have been a larger context. In either or both cases, the dancer who impersonates the goat may be understood to represent either a real goat or any one of the innumerable spirits who manifest in goat shape. These spirits in general are tricksters, personifying male procreative energy. In general, however, the goat dance is believed to honor, remember and, quite literally, memorialize Dionysus.
Generally believed to have originated in Italy, this folk dance eventually became extremely popular and spread throughout Europe. Its name is translated as “the turning.” Although no longer the rage, dance historians still consider la volta significant if only because it’s believed to be the progenitor of the world-famous waltz.
And how did this Italian folk dance travel across Europe? Allegedly, through the powers of witchcraft. Not just any folk dance, la volta is believed to have initially been a witches’ dance; it was first danced at sabbats and witches’ balls. Reginald Scot, the English authority on witchcraft, suggested that witches brought this dance from Italy to France. (See BOOKS: Witch-Hunt Books: Scot.) Elegant, masked observers of witches’ balls learned the dance and began enjoying it elsewhere.
As befitting its origins, la volta was scandalous. It is not a processional, a line or a circle dance. Instead, like the waltz, it’s a partner dance for two, traditionally a man and a woman. Unlike other dances of that era, partners faced each other and held each other close—not customary during the sixteenth century. The turn for which the dance is named was executed by the man who simultaneously held the woman up in the air, holding her tightly by the waist. (La volta was a folk dance, not a ballroom dance and was considerably more athletic and vigorous than the modern waltz.)
Conservative society was quick to condemn la volta. The dance was called shameful and indecent. Dancers were warned that it would stimulate miscarriage and murder.
Nevertheless la volta continued to cast its spell: Catherine de Medici (April 13, 1519-January 5, 1589), the Italian-born queen of France famed for her love of the occult and patronage of its practitioners including Nostradamus (there were whispered suggestions that she, too, was a witch), is believed to have introduced the dance to the French court, from whence it spread to the world. Elizabeth I of England (September 7, 1533-March 24, 1603) was also reputed to be very fond of it.
When anthropologists mutter about witchcraft as surviving vestiges of dance cults, frequently what’s really being implied, without being explicitly spoken because, of course, this can never be scientifically proven, is that in one form or another the Maenads survive.
The Maenads were the female devotees of Dionysus. Among Dionysus’ titles is Lord of the Dance. The word “Maenad” would also eventually come to be used as a synonym for female “witch.”
The Maenads were not sedate women, at least not during rituals: they danced, sang, reveled, and drank. Magical practices were incorporated, as was ritual possession. When possessed by the deity, the Maenads were wild and fierce. Whether they really tore animals to bits by hand and consumed them raw is unknown, however that was their reputation in Greece. Conventional society considered the Maenads dangerous, disreputable, and out of control. Women had few rights in classical Greece and were expected to remain quiet, discreet, and well behaved. The Maenads defied convention.
Very little information survives regarding the Maenads. What exists tends towards the sensational, written by observers and, in general, by those who beheld these independent women with vehement disapproval. Virtually the one neutral thing that can be established about the Maenads is that they danced.
The Maenads danced bull dances, erotic dances, and labyrinth dances. They danced in public ritual as part of Dionysus’ processionals, and they danced in secret in moonlit forests, where they ritually channeled Dionysus and perhaps other spirits, too. (Many spirits joined in Dionysus’ retinue, including Pan the goatfoot god, Hecate, and Kybele.)
The Maenads were frequently depicted in Greek sculpture and vase paintings, often in the company of satyrs and very often dancing. Much of what we know of their dances is derived from this imagery, which of course is static. However, this much is generally believed:
Their dances were characterized by an absence of symmetry, thus they did not have the appearance of “orderliness” typically valued by classical Greek civilization. The women dance together in a group but each dances as an individual with slight variations.
Their movements were loose and flexible, characterized by stiff or waving arms and deep back bends, followed by immediate deep forward bends. Sometimes the movements seem unconsciously erotic: in other words, there is no self-conscious attempt to titillate the viewer.
They whirled, presumably whirling themselves into an ecstatic state, similar to the so-called whirling dervishes.
They danced holding lit torches as well as the thyrsus, the magic wand associated with Dionysus, which consists of a stiff fennel stalk topped with a pine-cone. They struck the ground with the thyrsus.
The Maenads accompanied their dance with castanets, cymbals, and frame drums. They attached small bells to their clothing.
They wore swirling scarves and capes while they danced. There is no indication of veils. Instead, in some depictions, the Maenads dance so hard, their breasts fall out of their clothes, seemingly causing no distress or embarrassment.
Dances involved walking, running, and leaping, often executed on their toes or on the balls of their bare feet. (This may or may not reproduce the “shaman’s limp”—see The Step of Yu page 248.)
Perchtentanz or Perchta’s Dance
The Perchta in question is the Germanic witchgoddess who is now among the leaders of the Wild Hunt. Perchta leads a horde known as the Perchten.
In Austria and southern Germany, Twelfth Night is Perchtennacht, when Perchta leads that horde across the night sky. At some point during the twelve days of Christmas, the dance known as the Perchtentanz is traditionally performed on solid ground. The Perchtentanz is a masked, costumed, choreographed performance, now much beloved by tourists. Scholars and historians love it too: the Perchtentanz is classified among sword dances and is related to the so-called Moorish dances, which typically re-enact battles between the forces of good and evil, light and darkness, as personified by Christians and Moors. Out of all of these dances, the Perchtentanz is believed to have retained the most pagan elements. The performance is believed to contain vestiges of pre-Christian German devotion to Perchta. The original intent may have been to drive out the forces of winter, dispel malicious spirits, and stimulate the coming harvest.
There are regional variations in the way the Perchtentanz is performed; as an example, the Perchtentanz of Salzburg, Austria traditionally features two factions: the “beautiful Perchten” have elaborate headdresses and are bedecked with bows, bells, ribbons, and flowers, while the “evil Perchten” wear grotesque masks and tattered rags. They engage in hand-to-hand combat, reminiscent perhaps of the Italian Benandanti, the “good walkers” who magically battle the forces of evil. (See CALENDAR: Walpurgis; DICTIONARY: Benandanti; Wild Hunt; DIVINE WITCH: Perchta.)
The Roman victory “triumph,” all sorts of parades, and modern Carnival and Mardi Gras processions complete with floats are rooted in the sacred tradition of the ancient processional. These may be further rooted in primal “follow the leader” type dances, line dances or serpentine snake dances (see Snake Dance, page 246).
Processions were frequent components of ancient spiritual festivals. An image, person or sacred object representing the deity being honored was transported in a wagon. The deity was accompanied by an honor guard of priestesses, priests, devotees, pilgrims, sacred animals, musicians, and, especially, dancers. Sideshow magicians who give crowd-pleasing “magical” performances may be understood to derive from these theatrical traditions, as do sacred clowns.
Processions would proceed in a line from one point—frequently the deity’s official shrine—to a chosen destination: typically another shrine, the ocean or another sacred place. (The procession may or may not eventually circle back to the starting point.) Frequent scheduled stops might be made, as with some modern parades. There might be theatrical performances at these stops or rituals, often incorporating music and dance, masking, and guising.
Many African Diaspora spiritual ceremonials including those of Vodou and Candomble invite the spirits to join the living; the spirits are expected to arrive in a somewhat orderly fashion. This parade of spirits may be understood as similar to the ancient processionals.
Although processions were crucial to the devotional rituals of many spirits including Bastet, Durga, Hathor, Hera, Herta, Isis, Kybele, and Perchta, they are most famously identified with Dionysus, and his processions are believed to have served as the prototype for the medieval processions that eventually evolved into modern parades. A sacred object representing the deity, often a pine tree, phallic pole or other phallic symbol, was transported from one point to another. It was accompanied by an entourage of spirits, including Pan and often Hecate, Kybele, and others.
The Maenads danced in Dionysus’ processions while accompanying themselves with percussion instruments including frame drums, cymbals, and castanets, instruments still associated with women’s tribal dances. Dionysus’ sacred animals were in attendance including donkeys, mules, and leopards. Participants and observers were often masked and costumed. Dionysus was Lord of the Dance and of Theater: the parade would periodically be punctuated with theatrical performances. Dionysus was also Lord of Wine and Intoxication: the sacred blends with the profane. Participants and observers often indulged in Dionysus’ sacraments. Raucous, drunken, masked Carnival celebrations are in direct line of descent from the celebratory parades of Dionysus. (The famous Carnival of Rio de Janeiro remains dominated by traditional dance clubs; each club spends a year preparing choreography and costumes for their Carnival performance.)
Similar processionals—although rarely if ever incorporating the aspect of intoxication specific to Dionysus as Lord of Wine—are common to many indigenous traditions of Africa, Asia, North America, and elsewhere. The concept of a procession incorporating masked and/or costumed dancers, musicians, singers, and theatrical performances for magical and/or ritual purposes is among the oldest spiritual traditions of all.
Even after other pagan customs were forbidden, the much beloved procession went undercover and survived until the Middle Ages in traditions associated with the Feast of Fools, the Feast of the Ass, and similar festivals. Modern Roman Catholic feast days that incorporate a parade featuring the honored saint’s statue pulled on a wagon may be understood as continuing this tradition, particularly when the parade is held in conjunction with a fair. Many traditional Church processions still incorporate special dances performed only at these festivals. (See CALENDAR: February Feasts: Saint Agatha.) Many parades that today honor specific sacred Madonna’s are indistinguishable from parades that once honored pagan goddesses.
The Wild Hunt reproduces the concept of the sacred processional. A sacred rider leads a procession of fairies, ghosts, and spirits. They are accompanied by animals, most notably hounds, and by music in the form of horns. The witches who allegedly join the Hunt as dancers may be understood as stepping in the shoes of the Maenads in Dionysus’ old processions.
Snake, Serpentine or Spiral Dances
There are two types of snake dances:
Dancing with snakes
Dancing the spiral or serpentine dance
There is no animal more associated with magic, witchcraft, and women’s power than snakes. Although men dance with snakes, too, snake dances are largely women’s dances.
Because he invented and forged tools devoted to agriculture, circumcision, and warfare, traditionally considered “men’s business,” Ogun, the West African deity of iron, is often considered a “man’s deity.” However, once upon a time, another aspect of Ogun’s devotions, now largely abandoned, involved snake charming and dancing. Women were his chief devotees in this aspect of his cult.
Snakes are beautiful, flexible, and often goodnatured: they’re willing to be handled and may participate in the dance. Women from all over Earth have danced with snakes as part of magical and spiritual rites. Some belly dancers and other traditional dancers still dance with snakes; this is not an abandoned, forgotten tradition.
Historically significant snake dancers include:
The Maenads, who allegedly danced with snakes, engaged in snake charming and wore snakes in their hair as crowns. (Deities like Brigid, Hecate, Lilith, and Persephone are depicted with similar hair-dos. Snake-haired Medusa may also be understood to embody this concept.)
The Italian deity Angitia was the niece of the sorceress-spirit Circe. She learned her aunt’s magical secrets including fire-walking and snake charming and brought them to the Roman region. (See DIVINE WITCH:Angitia.)
Marie Laveau, the self-proclaimed Pope of Voodoo, famously danced with her snake, the Grand Zombi, during Midsummer’s Eve rituals on the Bayou St John. Her snake’s name often confuses because it sounds identical to the zombis, the living dead, of Haitian lore. However, in this case, Zombi is a variant of what is now most commonly spelled Simbi in English. Simbi is a powerful water-snake deity of Congolese origin.
Mami Waters, currently an extremely popular West and Central African deity, is most often depicted in the guise of a snake charmer. Mami Waters was originally a water-snake spirit, similar to a mermaid. Once a minor, regional spirit, during the later twentieth century she emerged as among the most popular deities of a newly urbanized sub-Saharan Africa. An old German theatrical poster promoting a snake charmer somehow became identified with Mami Waters; it is now her most popular devotional icon.
There is also a different type of snake dance, which may or may not incorporate living snakes. This dance is also known as a serpentine—or line—dance. A company of dancers—the more numerous the more effective—forms a sinuous, twisting line that mimics the motion of a snake. This type of dance is also commonly called a spiral dance.
The serpentine dance is an affirmation of life and the potential for resurrection. The original danse macabre in its primitive form reproduced the movements of the serpentine line dance although no apparent conscious associations with snakes exist. In this context the danse macabre may be understood as either affirming life in the face of death or of succumbing to the despair of the Black Death.
Neolithic statuettes and other surviving stone and pottery crafts are often embellished with spirals; these spirals curve around bodies, most typically around those anatomical parts most associated with sex and procreation. These spirals are understood as representing serpentine power: they protect, preserve, enhance, and increase generative, creative power.
The twisting line of serpentine dancers essentially recreates a giant, magical snake that spirals around sacred sites, trees, mountains, and homes (or anything else); the dancers reproduce the motif of the spiraling snake; they, too, generate magical energy and blessings.
The Step of Yu
This dance step associated with Taoist shamans (and often particularly with female shamans) commemorates Da-yu (also spelled Ta-yu) or Yu the Great, the mythical founder of China’s Xia Dynasty. Yu was also a great shaman, allegedly able to control storms and floods. He was partially paralyzed and walked with a limp; an imitation of his step was transformed into a shamanic dance—or so the legend says.
The earliest written reference to “the Step of Yu” (or in Chinese, Yu-bu) derives from the fourth century BCE with a description from the Taoist philosopher Ko Hong. The Step of Yu was a hopping dance: the dancer first leads with the left foot, then shifts to the right, in the meantime, simultaneously, dragging the other leg.
The limping step may be understood as more than mere imitation. Although the dance is named for Yu, the limping step associated with shamans may be far older.
For reasons that remain mysterious, a tremendous number of shamanic heroes from all over Earth possess myths that involve wearing only one shoe or detail an injured or somehow vulnerable (special) foot. These include Achilles, Jason of the Argonauts, Oedipus, Hephaestus, Wayland the Smith, and the biblical Jacob. The motif isn’t exclusive to men: in one story Medea removes one single sandal. One way of interpreting the secret meaning of the loss of Cinderella’s shoe is as a tale of successful shamanic initiation. (Shoes also represent female genitalia and so there are also other ways of interpreting the glass slipper that serves as the prince’s tool for identifying his perfect match.) Cinderella is able to escape from the degradation imposed on her when she learns to access her magic and shamanic powers. Walking with one shoe on and one shoe off demonstrates her successful initiation as a shaman.
Many of the trickster spirits who are so often sponsors of shamanism are also depicted limping, most notably perhaps Africa’s Papa Legba. Medieval depictions of the devil incorporated this image of the limping trickster. Satan was often portrayed during the witch-hunt era as having one shod human foot and one bare cloven goat’s hoof, causing him to limp. (See HORNED ONE.)
In some Northern regions, dances associated elsewhere with goats are performed in honor of bears. The shaman Yu was allegedly able to transform into a bear.
You’ve heard of the dance called “the monkey”? How about “the pony”? Well, the tarantella means “the spider.”
The tarantella was born in Italy. It was more than a mere dance; the tarantella might more accurately be described as a phenomenon that lasted some 300 years, although depending upon how you interpret its history, the tarantella’s roots may stretch back much further.
Some considered the tarantella an act of magical healing; others described it as mass hysteria, and still others muttered about a resurgence of witchcraft and pagan practices.
The tarantella arose in response to a condition known as “tarantism,” allegedly caused by a spider’s bite. The first victims were workers, predominately but not exclusively female, who manually harvested grain. The initial symptom of tarantism was intense melancholia followed by pain, swelling, vomiting, priapism (involuntary, often painful erections that refuse to abate), and what was described as “shameless exhibitionism.” The end result was delirium and then eventually death. Victims were said to die either laughing or crying wildly.
What is believed to be the first case of tarantism was recorded in 1370 near what was once ancient Tarentum, a formerly Greek settlement on Italy’s southern coast, known in modern times as Taranto. The dance, the condition, and eventually the name of a class of arachnids were named after the town. Tarantulas were named after Taranto, not the other way around.
There was only one known cure for tarantism: a magical dance known as the tarantella. The spider’s victims, known as the tarantati, sought relief via the tarantella—a dance that allegedly flushed the venom from the victim’s body. No drugs or medicinals were used; only music and prolonged, intense, sweat-inducing dance.
Victims were made to dance for three or four hours at a time, then allowed to rest a little before once again resuming. The dance was performed continually for three to four days at a time—a veritable dance marathon!—after which the victims were consistently free from the symptoms with its fatal climax, although some victims would have repeat attacks annually, necessitating repeat performances. Tarantism was seasonal; it wasn’t common during the winter but coincided with the Dog Days of summer and the local grain harvest.
The tarantella is but one of many dances included in what is now described as the dance mania that emerged in Europe and Northern Africa following the Black Death, most notably St Vitus’ Dance. Whether or not the tarantella is related to these other dances is subject to debate. St Vitus’ Dance, and other such dances, was an affliction. Dancers could not stop dancing: similar to the fairy story of the fatal red shoes, the dancer dances to death. The tarantella, on the other hand, allegedly prevented death. The dancer died if she didn’t dance.
While dancing, the tarantati spoke and acted obscenely in a manner considered shockingly out of character for the victims. They are also described as “playing” with branches and swords. It’s unclear who discovered the dancing cure; some suggested that the bites themselves incited them to dance. In other words, the spider made them do it! The tarantella, according to this description, initially emerged as an involuntary reaction to the spider’s bite: the dancer might be understood to be possessed by the spider in the manner that those who engage in ritual possession dance in the manner of the specific spirit that they channel.
Although tarantism was initially blamed on the spider’s bite, the condition was also contagious. It could be spread from one person to another. Although much of the criticism of the tarantati was directed toward women, men as well as women, both young and old, are described as infected with the tarantella bug. Children as young as five years old are reported as dancing. It was not restricted to Italians: Albanians, black Africans and Romanies are also described as afflicted with the illness and participating in the cure. From Italy, the tarantella mania traveled to southern France, Spain, and the Croatian coast.
Originally dancers may have whirled alone, however eventually it became considered unlucky to dance a solo tarantella. The dance evolved into either a couple’s dance or a dance performed by several women. (The dance also differed depending upon region.) Sometimes a man and a woman danced surrounded by a circle of other dancers. Should one of the dancers in the center of the circle tire, someone else would immediately serve as a replacement.
This tarantella was a circle dance and was traditionally accompanied by castanets, mandolins, violins, and tambourines. The music changes tempo, speeding up as the dancers change direction. As the tarantella evolved into a group or couple’s dance, the fun, pleasurable aspects of it began to transcend its origins as a shamanic dancing cure.
The tarantella as a magical healing dance reached its height in the seventeenth century. By the late eighteenth century the hysteria had declined, although the dance remained popular—as it does still. Today the tarantella is considered a romantic, sensuous dance and is often prominently featured during traditional Italian wedding celebrations, although not many recall its origins as a reaction to a spider bite.
Perhaps this is because the aspect regarding the spider bite and the tarantella’s origins remains mysterious and controversial. Despite the dance’s name, the culprit is not a tarantula as understood in the modern sense but is most frequently identified as Lycosa tarantula, the European wolf spider. This ground-dwelling spider doesn’t spin a web to catch its prey but is fleet of foot and so actually chases and captures it instead. It lives in burrows in the ground and spins silk in order to cover the openings of these burrows. It is very plausible that harvesters could have encountered it in the fields and very possible that they could have been bitten. However, modern scientific testing suggests that no serious injury results from the bite of this spider but merely some pain, itching, and swelling. In other words, whatever was happening to the tarantati doesn’t seem to have been caused by this spider.
There are many unresolved questions regarding the tarantella: did anybody actually die if they didn’t dance the tarantella? (If so, it wasn’t simply because of the spider’s bite.) And who invented this cure anyway? In other words, exactly what was going on?
These are not new questions, nor are there definitive answers. Back in 1672, the Neapolitan physician Dr Thomas Cornelius accused the tarantati of being malingerers, half-wits, and wanton young women. He claimed that many, especially the women, simulated being bitten in order that they would be able to dance and rave.
Some historians have suggested that the tarantella actually masked forbidden pagan harvest dances, or secretly surviving Maenad traditions, or even perhaps vestiges of devotions to an ancient spider spirit. (The area where the tarantella first emerged is one strongly associated with stregheria, the Italian tradition of folk magic. It was an area where the Maenads once exerted their presence and where there was a history of devotion to the corn mother Demeter.)
According to Charles Godfrey Leland, an authority on Italian witchcraft, the tarantella was the “awakening dance” of the Italian witch-meetings known as the treguenda (see next entry).
Some historians claim to recognize the tarantella from images on ancient Greek vases and on the wall paintings of Pompeii. This dance wasn’t known as the tarantella yet but was called the Lucia and the Villanella among other names.
Although the hysterical condition became very widespread, the tarantella seems to have been concentrated in a largely female core group. Certain families were strongly identified with the magical dance. Some dancers had annual attacks, typically around the Feast of St Paul.
Although there’s no way to “prove” what happened, the description of normally modest, reticent people suddenly spouting obscenities and engaging in sexually explicit, usually embarrassing behavior corresponds with standard descriptions of spiritual possession, voluntary and involuntary, common to all areas of Earth and innumerable spiritual traditions. (The standard explanation given by anthropologists, for instance those who have studied Africa’s zar, is that these characteristics of possession are the rationale given for women’s occasional breakdowns under excessively repressive societies.)
See also ANIMALS: Spiders; DICTIONARY: Zar; ERGOT; WOMEN’S MYSTERIES: Spinning.
Treguenda or Danza Alla Strega
This Italian dance is based on a witches’ ritual in which an invisible web is woven to entrap unwary travelers. Because of the connection with spiders, some historians associate the treguenda with the tarantella.
According to Charles Godfrey Leland’s book Aradia or The Gospel of the Witches (see BOOKS: Grimoires: Aradia), treguenda is also the term used to denote a sabbat or witch-meeting. Italian witch-trial transcripts put great emphasis on dancing as an element of the witches’ sabbat.
Witches of all kinds cast their web of enchantment over the movies. From the very earliest days of film, witches, witchcraft, and occult themes have been popular movie subjects.
Because there are so many cinematic witches, some main characters, others limited to brief cameos, this list is only a sampling of some of the more significant movies featuring occult practitioners or those characters specifically identified within their respective films as witches (regardless what type of “witch” she may be). Characters identified solely as fortunetellers have, regretfully, been omitted, most notably perhaps Marlene Dietrich in Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil. It is by no means a definitive list—that would entail a book of its own.
Films are filled with “witches” but what kind of witches are these? The following section examines how witches have been depicted in various films, from art-house movies to crowdpleasing blockbusters to B-movie horror flicks. The only thing that unites many of them is witchcraft.
The question of whether movies depict reality or create fantasy (or some combination of the two) has been debated since cinema’s invention. This is particularly significant when witches are shown on screen as the various definitions of “witch,” depending upon whose opinion is counted, include both figures of reality and fantasy. “Reality” isn’t necessarily expected when films evoke a fairy-tale quality (e.g., The Wizard of Oz or The Mask of Satan), however it’s crucial to realize that many movies that appear to be real aren’t necessarily any more realistic in regards to witchcraft than any of the more obvious fantasies.
How witches are cinematically portrayed is significant because false images and stereotypes regarding witchcraft contributed to the persecution of millions. (And whether or not millions were executed during the Burning Times, it’s safe to say that millions suffered, in one way or another, from its effects.) On one hand, there’s the tendency to dismiss movies as mere entertainment, not to be taken seriously; on the other, these often powerful images contribute to how modern people understand—or think they understand—witches.
Movies also too often feature historical inaccuracies: no matter how many movies you’ve seen that indicate otherwise, no witches were burned in Salem, Massachusetts: that’s not how they were killed there. But of course, based on the movie version of witchcraft, one would think that all witches’ ancestors once lived in Salem, and that what got those poor Puritan girls so fired up in the first place was some kind of “voodoo ritual,” none of which is true. Although much of witchcraft’s history is shadowy, quite a lot is well-documented, and to depict, as many films do, witches being burned in Salem is a little like filming a version of A Tale of Two Cities with gibbets or pyres instead of the guillotine.
Warning! Spoilers! Some of the more significant movies are discussed in depth including detailed plot-lines. Please be forewarned that in order to discuss certain films, what were intended as moments of suspense or surprise may be revealed.
H. H. Ewers’ 1911 novel Alraune has inspired no less than five film adaptations. The title Alraune names the film’s heroine (or anti-heroine, as she was actually intended); alraune, the German name for the magical botanical mandrake root, derives originally from the name for Germanic shamans, the alraunas. Alraune is sometimes used as a synonym for “witch.” So the title may be understood to indicate a woman’s name, an amuletic root or to simply mean “witch.” (See DICTIONARY: Alrauna.) English-language versions of the film sometimes call the main character Mandrake.
The plot is based on one of the many legends regarding the magical mandrake (see BOTANICALS: Mandrake). According to this one, mandrakes take root when sperm, involuntarily ejaculated by a criminal as he dies by hanging, hits the bare Earth under the gallows at a crossroads. In the novel and films, this (false) legend inspires a genetic scientist to experiment by obtaining sperm from a hanged criminal and using it to artificially inseminate a street-walker, who serves as the human stand-in for Earth.
The scientist’s ostensible goal is to determine whether it is environment or genetics that influences character. He raises the result of his experiment, a baby girl he names Alraune, as his own daughter, sending her to convent school so that she may have only the “purest” environmental influences. (Please see Literature: Alraune, page 276 for further details on the novel and its author.)
Is Alraune a witch? Her name suggests that she is intended to be perceived as one. Furthermore, the film suggests that her power to hold men spellbound is a supernatural one; she epitomizes the alluring witch, the femme fatale. Her beauty and charisma and the power she derives from them are presented as being something more than human.
Two different versions of the film were made in 1918, both by Hungarian directors although only one film was a Hungarian production; the other was made in Germany. Both films are now believed lost. Other versions were made in 1928, 1930, and 1952.
Director: Eugen (Jenö) Illes, 1918, Germany
Director: Mihaly Kertesz, 1918, Hungary
(Kertesz would eventually emigrate to Hollywood where he would become Michael Curtiz and direct Casablanca.)
Director: Henrik Galeen, 1928, Germany
Also released with the English titles A Daughter of Destiny,Mandrake, and Unholy Love.
Starring Brigitte Helm as Alraune and Paul Wegener as the mad scientist Jakob ten Brinken, Alraune is considered a classic of German silent cinema. Alraune was intended to shock its audience: it was considered scandalous and controversial at the time of its release because of implied promiscuity, pre-marital sex, and incest.
However, much of what was considered scandalous behavior for a woman in 1928 isn’t out of the ordinary today. Alraune just seems more “modern” than her fellow movie characters. Alraune smokes, has sex when and with whomever she wants, isn’t intimidated by the nuns who are her teachers, and runs away with the circus. (Yes, she also encourages young men to steal and disobey their parents; however this can be understood in the context of how very few options for empowerment women then possessed, although that is not how it was intended to be understood: Alraune was meant to represent the worst dangers of womanhood—a rotten corrupting influence on everyone she meets.)
Director: Richard Oswald, 1930, Germany. Also known as Daughter of Evil.
Brigitte Helm was an important German movie star: Marlene Dietrich was only cast in the Blue Angel after Helm turned down the part. Helm’s most famous film was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, however Alraune was something of a signature part for her as she played this role twice, this time in a film with sound.
Director: Arthur Maria Rabenalt, 1952, Germany. Also released as The Fruit of Evil and Unnatural.
Starring Erich von Stroheim as the scientist and Hildegarde Neff as the title character.
Bell, Book and Candle
Director: Richard Quine, 1958, United States
John Van Druten’s play Bell, Book and Candle was initially intended as a serious look at modern witchcraft, although its first audiences didn’t appreciate this—instead they laughed in unexpected places. Rather than shelving the play, it was adapted so as to become a light comedy. In this new incarnation, Bell, Book and Candle opened on Broadway on Valentine’s Day, 1950 with Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer in the starring roles. It was a major success and a film version was scheduled. Jennifer Jones was initially set to star as Gillian but she became pregnant and withdrew from production.
Kim Novak, reportedly America’s numberone box-office attraction in 1956, was subsequently cast in the starring role as the glamorous Greenwich Village witch Gillian Holroyd, back in the day when the Village was New York City’s bohemian enclave. Bell, Book and Candle features very stylish, fun-loving, arty, interesting witches.
Gillian is but the most powerful of a pack of these witches including her aunt Queenie (Elsa Lanchester) and the regal Bianca De Passe (Hermione Gingold.) A young Jack Lemmon plays Gillian’s bongo-playing brother Nicky, identified as a warlock. (The film repeatedly and emphatically makes the point that male witches are known as warlocks, although as one of the characters is a purported authority on witchcraft who is consistently shown to be something less than expert, perhaps that’s meant as a sly joke.) (See DICTIONARY: Warlock.) The movie’s true star may be Gillian’s familiar, the Siamese cat Pyewacket.
Pyewacket’s name derives from a famous woodcut made in 1647, which portrays Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins alongside two accused witches seen naming their familiars. (Although the woodcut names the cat Pyewacket, the actual trial transcripts suggest that its name may have really been Pynewacket.)
Bell, Book and Candle was advertised as a bewitching comedy about an enchanted subject. The title refers to rites of exorcism that a character in the film describes incorrectly as being used to exorcise witches. (These rites are really intended to exorcise demons, however, once again, as the character, ostensibly an expert on witchcraft is consistently shown to be sorely lacking in knowledge, it’s unknown whether that error was intentional—an insider’s joke—or not.) There is no exorcism ritual in the movie, and the most prominent bell is the one around Pyewacket’s neck.
Although the witches are smart, attractive, and fun, the movie’s depiction of witchcraft is not entirely positive: Gillian is an ambivalent witch. She longs to spend Christmas Eve in a little church listening to carols rather than at the jazz club where the witches hold court. (Jimmy Stewart’s character, unknowingly finding himself in this company of witches, complains that atmosphere at the Zodiac Club seems more like Halloween than Christmas.)
According to Bell, Book and Candle, witches can’t fall in love, can’t blush, can’t sink in water, and are unable to cry. The film itself defines witches as people who live by magic and as people who possess powers that others lack.
Bell, Book and Candle is unusual in that it prominently features a male witch, Nicky Holroyd, played by Jack Lemmon. Nicky’s favorite trick—magically dimming street lights—may have inspired Harry Potter’s wizard Albus Dumbledore.
The Blair Witch Project
Directors: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez, 1999, United States
Baba Yaga lives! That’s the subliminal message of The Blair Witch Project, however be forewarned; this movie has nothing to do with witchcraft but everything to do with local legends and perceptions of witchcraft. There is no witch in The Blair Witch Project; there is only fear, panic, and superstition.
Three student film-makers disappeared in October 1994 while filming a documentary in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland. They were never found but one year later their film footage was recovered. The Blair Witch Project is that footage, the only evidence of what happened to these students. Many who watched the whole movie failed to realize that it was not a documentary but was instead really a work of creative fiction. Word of mouth parlayed this extremely low-budget “mockumentary” into sales of over $140 million in the United States alone, making it one of the most profitable independent films ever.
This is not a witch-friendly movie. Instead it feeds off fairy-tale fears of vengeful, cannibal killer witches. According to the basic plot a fervently held local legend insists that a witch (or her ghost) haunts the woods near Blair, Maryland. A woman, accused of witchcraft in the eighteenth century, was banished to the forest. Since then responsibility for two centuries’ worth of strange disappearances, particularly of children, and mysterious murders, has been laid at her forest-hut’s door.
What happens when you underestimate the power of the forest? If one seeks to find any true metaphysical theme in The Blair Witch Project then that question sums it up. Young people venture into allegedly haunted woods with all sorts of technical tools: maps, compasses, flashlights, cameras plus the arrogance of youth but with absolutely no magical preparation, knowledge or skill. The students seek to research “witchcraft” as a spooky phenomenon yet they have no preparatory knowledge of witchcraft itself.
What happens when you dabble in something or research something without actually respecting it enough to truly obtain an education on the subject? Once the film-makers enter the forest, leaving the realm of civilization behind, strange things begin to happen; they are completely out of their depth. They are unable to distinguish whether the mysterious craft markings, cairns, and wicker work that begin to appear are malevolent or otherwise. The students know how to work a camera and conduct an interview but they are clueless about magical practices, presumably local ones. Once panic sets in, which doesn’t take long, and the tools of civilization brought with them into the woods are lost, it becomes clear that these students don’t know how to navigate and survive the forest either. The Blair Witch Project may be understood as warning against dabbling in dangerous areas outside one’s expertise, with witchcraft and wild nature falling into that danger-zone category.
Burn, Witch, Burn!
Director: Sidney Hayers, 1962, United States
Also known as Night of the Eagle.
How’s this for confusing: although this movie borrows its title from Abraham Merritt’s novel Burn, Witch, Burn! it is actually the most faithful of the three cinematic renderings of Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife. (See also Weird Woman and Witches’ Brew, pages 271 and 272.)
Peter Wyngarde plays Norman, a narcissistic and somewhat pompous British anthropology professor. Janet Blair plays his American wife, Tansy. He thinks he knows everything there is to know about witchcraft and the occult, which he considers superstition rather than reality, valuable only as an academic topic. Little does he know…When Norman discovers magical charms actively in use by Tansy, he burns them and insists that she cease and desist from all magical activity. Of course, this being intended as a horror-suspense movie, all hell immediately breaks out and the professor and his wife are left vulnerable to the wiles of fellow-professor and witch, Margaret Johnston.
The witches are depicted as extremely conventional, even conservative, women. There is nothing stereotypically witch-like about them, appearance or behavior-wise. There’s nary a black dress on the screen, let alone a pointy hat. There is nothing that distinguishes these witches from any other women and the film in fact suggests that all women are witches; men, the rational species, just aren’t aware of the fact.
The spells and charms described in Fritz Leiber’s novel are reasonably realistic folk magic, with a hoodoo flavor. Tansy learned them while on a research trip to the southern United States. Although Burn, Witch, Burn! follows the plot of the novel fairly faithfully, like the other movie versions of the book, this type of magic was apparently deemed not “dramatic” enough. In Burn, Witch, Burn! Tansy learns her tricks in “the Islands,” and the style has shifted to sensational movie-voodoo with no relationship to the real thing.
As times change, different things develop and lose the power to shock. Although intended as a horror film and “midnight movie” there is little in Burn, Witch, Burn! to scare a twenty-first-century audience. However, what might be most shocking to modern eyes is the film’s premise that it is normal and acceptable for a husband to determine what his wife may believe and practice. The film expresses no outrage that Norman should bully Tansy or destroy her personal property and handiwork. There is no suggestion that a man might consider respecting his wife’s spiritual beliefs.
Although women are presented as the power behind men, men, in their turn, are presented as women’s masters and the arbiters of what is spiritually acceptable. (See Literature: Burn, Witch, Burn!; Conjure Wife.)
The Burning Times
Director: Donna Read, 1990, Canada
Produced by the National Film Board of Canada, this film is the second part of the Women and Spirituality trilogy, which also includes Goddess Remembered and Full Circle. The Burning Times is a documentary tracing the history and roots of the European Witchcraze. “Witches” are defined as devotees of womencentered spiritual traditions who were eventually condemned by the Church as worshippers of the devil.
The film features original music by Lorena McKennitt and on-screen interviews with prominent modern witches and priestesses Margo Adler and Starhawk. It incorporates African-derived and Latin American traditions as well as European into its vision of what has been labeled as “witchcraft.” Witchcraft is presented as genuine practice and, despite the Witchcraze, as one that is vital and continues to flourish today.
Director: Jacques Tourneur, 1942, United States
The cat in Cat People isn’t just some kitty-cat; it’s a magnificent black panther fit for a Maenad. And the “heroine” of this film, Irena Dubrovna, comes from Dionysus’ old territory: the Balkans.
What happens if a small group of persistent, defiant “witches” flee into the mountains and cling to their ancestral pagan traditions? What happens if these witches eventually develop (or perhaps always possessed) hereditary transformative magic powers? These witches can’t help it; they’re born with their powers and can’t shed them. And what happens if, over the centuries, these witches (or at least some of their descendants) become so indoctrinated and influenced by the dominant Christian culture that even they believe that witches are evil, sinful, destructive, and dangerous. This is the premise of Cat People.
Val Lewton produced a series of what might be termed horror-noir psychological thrillers containing vaguely metaphysical elements for RKO Pictures. Cat People, shot in one month on an exceedingly low budget, is considered among his finest. Its “witch” is the kittenish French film star Simone Simon as Irena Dubrovna, a Serbian fashion artist living in the United States.
Cat People’s persistent motif is a Christian knight (Serbian King John) spearing a black panther, very similar to the image of St George slaying the dragon. Irena explains that the symbol isn’t intended to be understood literally: the panther represents witches and ancient pagan traditions that Irena fervently considers “evil ways.” Reference is also made to the leopard as the evil beast of the Book of Revelation. The panther is Irena’s alter-ego and double.
Sex and strong negative emotions (jealousy, rage) cause Irena’s inner panther to take control. Irena isn’t an ambivalent witch like Gillian of Bell, Book and Candle; she’s a tortured, anguished witch, caught between worlds and torn between desires. (Elizabeth Russell’s brief but powerful cameo as another cat woman indicates that not all of Irena’s compatriots suffer as she does. Her feline features accentuated, dressed in a tight black sequined dress with a hair bow tied to resemble horns, the Russell cat woman recognizes Irena as her “sister,” although Irena fears and rejects her.)
Cat People is something of a Rorschach test: those who watch it may view Irena with sympathy or horror. It may also be understood on many levels: one character points out that Irena never lied, however the other characters are unable to believe her until after it’s too late. Irena knows things that the other characters refuse to believe. On one level, the Balkan witch is surrounded by arrogant American innocents, convinced of their own superior knowledge, but the film, produced by Europeans in Hollywood during World War II, may also be understood on a political level as well as on a psychological one: Irena is terrified of her own sexuality, passion, and power—her animal nature.
Be warned: Cat People does not end happily for either witch or panther.
The film was remade in 1982 under the same title but it is not the same story, and the metaphysical concerns have shifted to erotica.
The Conqueror Worm
Director: Michael Reeves, 1968, United Kingdom
Also known as The Witchfinder General
This move derives its title from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Conqueror Worm” but the poem has nothing to do with the plot on any literal level. Instead, it affirms that the Conqueror Worm (i.e. death) is the hero of “…the tragedy, ’Man.’” Because Edgar Allan Poe was considered a sure draw for horror movie audiences, this film is sometimes titled Edgar Allan Poe’s Conqueror Worm but this was only a marketing ploy. The movie’s alternate title is more accurate: Vincent Price stars in this costume drama as the East Anglian witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins, who adopted the title Witchfinder General.
Although the film is not exactly accurate, it is based on historical events; its premise is that tension between Royalists and Cromwell’s forces during England’s Civil War resulted in women’s increased vulnerability to charges of witchcraft.
Conqueror Worm was considered a very violent film when it was released. It also incorporates scenes of sexuality and doesn’t shy away from the sexual satisfaction witch-finders and torturers sought from their endeavors. Because torture scenes are integral to the plot, rather than just gratuitous, witch trials lend themselves to exploitation by horror movies. Conqueror Worm was revolutionary because it unequivocally portrayed the witch-hunters, rather than witches, as the true source of evil. Matthew Hopkins and his henchmen are portrayed as the monsters, rather than the people he persecutes. True horror is shown to exist, not in witchcraft, but in the pleasure some take in tormenting others. See WITCHCRAZE!: England.
Director: Andrew Fleming, 1996, United States
Troubled teens dabble in witchcraft, discover their power and find more trouble. That about sums up the plot of this movie. Superficially this is a witch-friendly movie but at its core it’s about the dangers of playing with witchcraft.
The heroine, Sarah, has shown manifestations of psychic power since childhood. The movie begins as she moves to Los Angeles. Sarah is enrolled in a Catholic school where she meets a party of three would-be witches searching for a fourth so that each of the cardinal directions may be represented by an individual witch during rituals.
The girls are self-taught. Sarah is seen reading the Witches’ Almanac. (See BOOKS: Almanacs.) They haunt an occult bookshop where the other girls encourage Sarah to shoplift. The store’s proprietor, an experienced, educated witch, is the closest The Craft gets to a true heroine.
The film defines witches as people who “make things happen.” Witchcraft is used for healing scars and protection but is most often used in The Craft for “getting back” at enemies. The Craft features the girls engaging in assorted “witchcraft rituals” that are strongly influenced by high ritual magic and Gardnerian Wicca.
On the one hand, witchcraft isn’t mocked and the girls aren’t shown as ridiculous for engaging in magical practices. Magic is demonstrated as genuine and valid, albeit unpredictable and dangerous. However, it’s crucial to realize that The Craft was intended as a horror fantasy in the same manner as Cat People or Burn, Witch, Burn! One doesn’t expect reality from horror fantasy and although the four young “witches” wear modern clothing and engage in rituals that resemble witchcraft, The Craft is not a depiction of modern Wicca or Neo-Paganism, nor is it any more real than any other cinematic version of witchcraft. If one wished to view this movie in a positive fashion, one could say that it shows that those who play with magic without knowledge or respect destroy themselves and others in the process. However scenes that allegedly depict spiritual invocation are just as false and disrespectful as the way old Hollywood movies depicted Voodoo and pagan spirituality in general.
See DICTIONARY: Wicca; HORNED ONE: Krampus; MAGICAL ARTS: Ritual Possession.
Disney’s Animated Witches
Walt Disney Studios has become synonymous with animated family features; wicked witches are among Disney’s most popular villains. “Popular” is the proper term; although Disney’s animated witches almost inevitably conform to stereotyped visions of evil witches, many adore them and consider them the true stars of the movies in which they star—their power and energy redeeming what many otherwise might consider insipid features.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Premiering on December 21, 1937, this was the very first full-length animated film. Before its premiere, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was considered to be Walt Disney’s folly, his crazy experiment; conventional wisdom suggested that no one would sit through a 90-minute cartoon. Walt Disney literally bet the house on his experiment; he mortgaged his home to pay for the film’s production. Conventional wisdom was proved wrong: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became one of the biggest hits of motion picture history and set the stage for the plethora of animated films that followed.
Another animated wicked stepmother witch-queen complete with magic hand mirror exists in the 1933 Fleischer Studio’s Betty Boop cartoon Snow White. This witch sings “Magic mirror in my hand, who’s the fairest in the land?” and flies on her broomstick as Cab Calloway sings St James Infirmary Blues over the seemingly dead Snow White.
The movie’s plot is loosely based on the Grimm’s fairy tale of the same name. A cartoon witch also appeared in the 1932 short, “Babes in the Woods,” one of Disney’s Silly Symphonies. She may have served as the model for Snow White’s crone-witch. The actress Gale Sondergaard was among the inspirations for the coldly beautiful witch-queen. Ironically, Sondergaard would eventually be considered “too attractive” to portray The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West.
The witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs literally has two faces: she is a coldly beautiful, villainous queen but when she wishes to appear otherwise, she is able to transform herself into the very stereotype of the fairy-tale witch: the old, bent-over, warty crone. The witch is shown as a true occult practitioner; her prize possession is an interactive magic mirror complete with accurate astrological sigils. Her pet raven serves as her familiar and she possesses an underground laboratory fit for an alchemist.
Although now considered a children’s classic, Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was initially considered too frightening for children. The film was considered terrifying—particularly the scene with the witch’s dungeon-laboratory with its spider and skeleton. In England, censors ruled that children under the age of 16 couldn’t see the film without adult accompaniment for fear that it would cause nightmares.
There’s no witch in Disney’s Cinderella! Or is there? Hmm, who might the witch be? Could it be the evil stepmother? Well, if one subscribes to the definition of “witch” as an evil, abusive woman, then I suppose she could be made to fit the mold. However, what about that other character, the older woman with her peaked cape, magic wand, magic spells, proclivity for pumpkins, and magic chant of “Bibbidi, Bobbidi, Boo!” Could she be the witch? Oh, no, that’s right she’s the “fairy godmother!”
What makes her a fairy rather than a witch? Well, she calls herself a fairy godmother. Maybe more importantly, she’s good rather than wicked. In truth, there’s often very little difference between supernatural witches and supernatural fairies, however Cinderella’s fairy godmother demonstrates the inability of Disney animated features (and many others as well) to allow for any witch other than an evil one.
That Cinderella herself, who is portrayed as conversing with animals, communing with fairies, and covered in soot like some pagan devotee, might also be construed as a witch—or at least a witch in training—is another story…
See FAIRIES; HORNED ONE: Chimney Sweep.
World premier: January 29, 1959.
Disney’s Sleeping Beauty’s “witch” is the flipside of Disney’s Cinderella’s “fairy godmother.” What is initially introduced as a “bad fairy” quickly transforms into an “evil witch.” The evil fairy-witch’s very name, Maleficent, derives from Maleficia: the practice of negative—and often fatal—witchcraft. The word, although obscure, is most famous from its use in the titles of witch-hunters’ manuals such as the Malleus Maleficarum. The movie’s “three good fairies” take the royal baby so as to keep her safe from the “evil witch Maleficent.”
The film is extremely dualist: the “good fairies” are completely good; the evil witch has no saving grace although, like Disney’s other witches in such films as The Little Mermaid and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Maleficent lights up the screen with her vitality and is often considered to steal the show from the “good” characters.
Maleficent is a goddess-like witch whose elements derive from traditional visions of witchcraft. She wears a black and red cape, the witches’ colors. Ravens serve as her familiars; her tool is the spindle and she has a magic staff. Maleficent shape-shifts into Hecate’s creature, the dragon, complete with bat’s wings. (The three good fairies may also be understood as stand-ins for the Fates or the Weird Sisters.)
See DIVINE WITCH: Hecate; WOMEN’S MYSTERIES: Spinning; Spinning Goddesses.
The Little Mermaid
This 1989 animated feature film was very loosely adapted from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Little Mermaid. (The fairy tale lacks singing crabs or a happy ending.)
Ariel, the title character, is a sea princess who’d rather be human. In this context she may be understood as descended from Bell, Book and Candle’s Gillian or Bewitched’s Samantha, except that Ariel is a mermaid, not a witch. In order to fulfill her dream, Ariel must negotiate with Ursula, the sea witch. Ursula, another of Disney’s goddess-like witches, is an octopuswoman who dwells in a grotto to which she has been banished. The plot hinges on Ursula’s past history as a ruler and her desire to return to power and wreak revenge on those who have supplanted her, namely Ariel’s father, King Triton. Ursula’s personal myth is strongly reminiscent of Lilith and of Medusa. She possesses the accoutrements of the traditional witch: she has a magic mirror, crystal ball, potions, and two eel familiars, Flotsam and Jetsam, who resemble sea snakes and venture out to do her bidding. Pat Carroll voiced Ursula’s character, which (according to rumor anyway), was inspired by the actor Divine.
Director: Paul Wegener, 1920, Germany
According to legend, the golem was a huge, powerful artificial man crafted by Rabbi Judah Loewe to serve as a magical bodyguard for the oppressed Jewish community who lived locked in Prague’s Ghetto. (See HALL OF FAME: Rabbi Judah Loewe for further details.) The story was wildly popular and inspired many others, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The tale also inspired no less than three Paul Wegener movies, all loosely based on the original legend. This one, the last, still exists, as does a 1914 version, although a third is believed lost. Wegener was a pioneering star of early German cinema; in addition to directing this film, he also played the part of the Golem.
The Golem presents a vision of Rabbi Loewe casting a magic circle and engaging in high ritual magic as part of the creation of the Golem. He conjures up a spirit who breathes out smoky letters spelling the magic word that will animate the clay man. It is one of the most complete and complex scenes of magical work and is also considered a masterpiece of early cinema because of the effects used and created. Occult themes inspired much of Wegener’s work (see also Alraune and The Magician).
Harry Potter Film Series
There are scheduled to be seven books in author J. K. Rowling’s series featuring the boy wizard Harry Potter, however at the time of writing The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft only five books have yet been published. Likewise, seven movie adaptations are scheduled, one per book, however only three are, as yet, complete:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Director: Chris Columbus, released 2001
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Director: Chris Columbus, released 2002
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Director: Alfonso Cuaron, released 2004
The movies are fairly faithful, although edited, versions of the books and are thus discussed in depth later, in Literature: Harry Potter.
Häxan (The Witch)
Director Benjamin Christensen, 1922, Sweden
Born in Denmark in 1879, Christensen is considered a cinematic innovator and film-pioneer in the same league as directors like D.W. Griffith and Louis Feuillade. The surrealists found him inspirational and he is considered a major influence on the Spanish master director, Luis Buñuel. His epic silent film Häxan (pronounced hek-sen) was made in Sweden at the invitation of Svensk Filmindustri.
Häxan presents itself as an examination of witchcraft from a “cultural and historical perspective.” Initially it looks just like a straightforward documentary, but Christensen constantly plays with notions of reality. Häxan switches back and forth from documentary mode to reenactments of different eras told from different perspectives. The film is dizzying—like trying to define witchcraft. Häxan begins with ancient spirits (Pazuzu, Taweret, and Set, although Häxan identifies none by name) and progresses to medieval woodcuts that depict witches as grotesque. Eventually these woodcuts are brought to life. Christensen’s first witches are no less grotesque than the woodcuts they inspired, nor is their magic. A love potion, for instance, is crafted of cat feces and doves’ hearts.
Christensen casts himself as the devil, complete with horns and protruding tongue, and seems to have a lot of fun playing the part. Witches are portrayed making compacts with Satan and kissing his hind-quarters. (This may also be Christensen’s sardonic comment regarding what actors will do to gain a director’s favor.)
Häxan eventually shifts to tell the tale of witch persecutions from different perspectives and with very different witches. These witches include an old beggar woman as well as a very pretty young woman whose only crime may be stimulating lust in the heart of a repressed young priest. In general, women are depicted as susceptible to the wiles of Satan, including nuns. The witches’ sabbat includes heresy and desecration of church rites.
In 1967, the British film-maker Anthony Balch produced a sound version of Häxan, retitled Witchcraft Through the Ages, with a narrative provided by the writer William Burroughs and a jazz score featuring violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.
Häxan contains some nudity and was risqué for its time. Just when you think Häxan is an extremely unsympathetic, negative view of witches and their persecution, the film’s perspective and sympathies shift. It proceeds to demonstrate fairly historically accurate renderings of the physical and emotional torture suffered by those accused of witchcraft. (Christensen really did make an intensive study of witchcraft and the Witchcraze.) The film graphically demonstrates instruments of torture and how they were used. Häxan doesn’t shy away from the sexual aspect of torture and the perversities of the torturers. It demonstrates how a mother’s desire to do anything to protect her child is fatally turned against her. Häxan eventually shifts again, bringing the history of witchcraft up to its own day. “Witchcraft” is now defined as an emotional disorder linked to depression, hysteria, and kleptomania. The film quotes eight million as the number of witches burned during Europe’s Witchcraze, although it does not cite its sources.
I Married A Witch
Director: René Clair, 1942, United States
Europe’s political turbulence stimulated the acclaimed French film director René Clair to labor in the United States. He brought his surrealist influences with him and thus created I Married A Witch, a magical film about a revived Salem witch and her old sorcerer dad. I Married A Witch is a smart, charming, funny fantasy and thus questions of historical accuracy are irrelevant, although obviously witches were not burned in New England.
I Married A Witch was very loosely based on Thorne Smith’s unfinished novel “The Passionate Witch.” (Smith, the author of the work on which the movie Topper is based, died before this, his final novel, was complete.) Veronica Lake stars as the witch Jennifer, although according to Lake’s autobiography, Clair initially did not want her, considering her to be little more than a starlet and fearing that she lacked the necessary comedic skills. (According to Lake, he apologized for his error within one week of start of filming.) Cecil Kellaway plays her incorrigible old sorcerer dad. (And just how old is father Daniel? He claims to be 80,000 years old. There’s some discrepancy in the movie as to whether Jennifer has existed since at least the time of Pompeii or whether she is only 290 years old.)
Various special effects include the witches traveling as smoke, Jennifer flying on a broomstick, and disapparating, as well as a flying automobile decades before Harry Potter. Jennifer is a charming, beautiful, child-like witch with a hearty appetite for food, fun, and romance. And although she does fall in love with a mortal (unwillingly; a spell goes wrong) she doesn’t suffer the angst of Bell, Book and Candle’s Gillian or the self-doubt of Cat People’s Irena. Jennifer is self-confident, determined, and happy with herself. The movie ends with the strong suggestion that this lineage of hereditary witches hasn’t ended just because Jennifer married a mortal.
Kiki’s Delivery Service
Director: Hayao Miyazaki, 1989, Japan
The premise of this animated children’s feature film is that when witches turn 13 years old they must leave home for a year of independent study before they can become full-fledged witches. Kiki is one such student witch and the movie chronicles her adventures during this year.
Kiki’s Delivery Service ostensibly takes place in France but it’s really an alternative universe where towns have resident witches who provide services to the community including healing, spell-casting, and fortune-telling. (Kiki’s mother, for instance, is a potions master.) There is no suggestion that witches must hide their identity or skills. Kiki gets in trouble when her shaky broom-flight almost causes a traffic accident; however had she flown well, her appearance on a broom would not have raised eyebrows.
That flying broom is among the traditional witchcraft motifs in Kiki’s Delivery Service. (A crafty witch, Kiki makes her own brooms.) Witches look like regular people and are shown to come in various shapes and sizes; Kiki’s costume includes a big red hair bow and red shoes. She has a talking black cat, Jiji, as her familiar. (Black cats are the prevalent familiars in Kiki’s Delivery Service.) According to this movie, having a good heart is what makes a fine witch.
Macbeth remains among William Shakespeare’s most beloved works. The play and its witches are discussed in further detail in Literature: Macbeth, including why certain of the play’s witch scenes, including those incorporating the goddess Hecate, are most frequently omitted from modern productions.
There are many filmed versions of the Scottish play including animated feature films intended for children. The following are some of the most significant recent versions.
Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth
Director: Trevor Nunn, 1978, United Kingdom
Although the film was released in 1978, it features the Royal Shakespeare Company in director Trevor Nunn’s 1976 production of Macbeth featuring Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench as Lord and Lady Macbeth. This Macbeth is played in modern dress. The witches aren’t portrayed in stereotypical fashion in terms of resembling Halloween witches with pointy hats but are portrayed as ragged and disheveled. They could be any homeless women; nothing about their appearance particularly identifies them as witches. (Likewise the king, with whom the film visually contrasts them, wears no crown and appears clerical, rather than royal.)
Although two of the women are fair, their clothes are dark, as opposed to the king who is dressed in glowing white and wears a prominent cross. There is a strong visual contrast between the immaculate king in shining white and the dark ragged witches during the film’s opening scene. There is a primal, almost animal-like quality to these witches. The shining eyes of one of the witches suggests the ecstasies of shamanism. These dark storm-raising witches are contrasted with images of devout Christianity and are potent enough to scare and unnerve the warrior Macbeth.
Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth includes depiction of image magic, the piercing of a poppet (see MAGICAL ARTS: Image Magic). The movie omits Act 3, Scene 5 (the scene with Hecate on the heath).
Roman Polanski’s Macbeth
Director: Roman Polanski, 1971, United States
Roman Polanski’s Macbeth was produced by Playboy Productions. The screenplay was written by Polanski and Kenneth Tynan.The film opens with the Weird Sisters on the beach. There are no Halloween-style witch costumes but these are witches that witch-hunters would recognize. Their spell ingredients are grotesque. A gallows scene evokes witchcraze-era woodcuts. A young witch performs ana suromai, the ritual act of exposing the female genitals.
The story of Macbeth obviously held personal resonance for Polanski who lost his own wife and child through murder, as does McDuff. His is a very passionate version of the play. Polanski doesn’t soften Macbeth nor does he flinch from the cruelty of its times (scenes of bear-baiting are included, for instance), or the darkness and desolation of the play. Roman Polanski’s Macbeth powerfully depicts the true violence of what was done to McDuff ’s family: arson and the rape and murder of women and children. The killers enjoy themselves in the process.
An entire crowd of naked witches is shown at a sabbat, not merely the three Weird Sisters, although there is no devil present. Until Macbeth’s arrival, only women are present. In Polanski’s version of Macbeth, the “something wicked” of the infamous witches’ line, “by the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes” clearly indicates Macbeth. The extra witches’ scene with Hecate is omitted but there is a surprise ending with Donalbain, who is jealous of his brother Malcolm, seeking out the Weird Sisters.
Orson Welles’ Macbeth
Director: Orson Welles, 1948, United States
Orson Welles’ Macbeth is not the version of Macbeth the director is most famous for. His Black Macbeth, also known as The Voodoo Macbeth, set in nineteenth-century Haiti was not filmed. This 1936 theatrical production was created for the Negro Theater Unit, an off-shoot of the Federal Theater Project, part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s depression-era New Deal program. It featured an all black cast set in Haiti with voodooist witches. Allegedly a “genuine witchdoctor” was hired to serve as consultant. The Hecate scene was left in although the goddess was played by a man. Like his later film version, Black Macbeth met with snide reviews but was enormously successful, and had a sold-out ten-week run as well as a national tour.
This dark (literally!) low-budget production and expressionistic vision of Macbeth was completed in 23 days. Welles created a new character, a monk, to serve in opposition to the witches. His version explores the question, do the witches reveal his destiny or do they tempt Macbeth to do evil? The first image in the movie is of the three Weird Sisters, the witches as Fates. The witches brandish the Y-shaped sign of ancient womanhood (the downward facing triangle atop a staff) but are chased away by the sign of the cross.
She may be understood as summoning spirits but also fulfills the classical Greek definition of witch as poisoner. (She drugs the king’s guards’ drinks.)
The “extra” witchcraft scenes are omitted.
Orson Welles’ Macbeth was the last film the director made in the United States before beginning a long European exile. His intent was to prove he could make a low-budget film. The film was not initially a success; the studio for which he made it hated it, although the film has since achieved much praise. The studio objected to the Scottish accents that Welles used to provide authenticity, redubbed the voices and insisted on sizable edits.
Director: Ingmar Bergman, 1958, Sweden
Also known as The Face
Dr Vogler’s Magnetic Health Theatre arrives in Stockholm in 1846. The troupe features Vogler (Max von Sydow), a traveling conjurer, his young male assistant, who turns out to be Vogler’s beautiful wife disguised in drag, and his 200-year-old grandmother, a traditional witch. Naima Wifstrand plays Granny Vogler. The troupe, an old-fashioned medicine show, incorporating sleight-of-hand with healing, fortunetelling, and magical practice, is on the run from the law. They must obtain legal permission to perform in Stockholm and so attract further attention from the authorities, who seek to humiliate Vogler.
A wealthy merchant and a menacing physician conspire to experiment on Vogler to determine scientifically whether or not magic powers really do exist. Vogler’s tormentors hold him captive and insist that he demonstrate his alleged powers or expose himself as a fraud. In the meantime Granny Vogler is selling her surefire home-made love potion underneath the nose of the authorities and a grieving mother fervently hopes that Vogler’s powers are real.
Granny Vogler is a wonderful witch: smart, sharp, and confident of her power; simultaneously the genuine article and a con artist.
The Magician illustrates the split caused or aggravated during the witch-hunt era between various branches descended from shamanism. If sleight-of-hand artists publicly acknowledged that their act was mere tricks and illusion, than theoretically they were free from accusations of sorcery or witchcraft. Safety arises from denying magic and denouncing witches.
Director: Rex Ingram, 1926, United States
This black-and-white silent film starring Paul Wegener as the title character is considered an early horror classic and served as inspiration for many others movies. The film is loosely based on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Magician, which was inspired by Aleister Crowley. (See Literature: The Magician.)
Ingram read Maugham’s novel shortly after it was published in 1908. Crowley was then still alive and at the height of his notoriety. The film is rumored to have contained fairly “realistic” scenes of necromancy and diabolism, although exactly what is meant by this is unknown. Critics hated the movie, describing it as sordid and vulgar. Maugham allegedly wasn’t pleased with it either. Within a few years, the three existing prints had disappeared and have never been found. The Magician is believed lost forever. Only a few still photographs survive. Ingram’s career, previously very distinguished, went into decline and never recovered amid some muttering about “the curse of Crowley.”
The Mask of Satan (La Maschera del Demonio)
Director: Mario Bava, 1960, Italy
Also called Black Sunday (US) and The Revenge of the Vampire (UK)
Mario Bava (1914—1980) was the master and originator of gialla, the Italian genre of horrorthriller films. The Mask of Satan was Bava’s directorial debut. (The cameraman/director of photography had “rescued” other projects behind the scenes, however.) The plot was very loosely based on Nikolai Gogol’s story The Vij first published in 1835. Bava allegedly wanted to film it ever since he read it aloud to his children and terrified them.
Barbara Steele plays the dual roles of Princess Asa and Princess Katia. The Mask of Satan is a very dark fairy tale. Many were confused as to whom the movie was targeted and so it was a controversial film upon its release. It was clearly oriented for adults yet the story is a fairy tale complete with witches and vampires, popularly perceived as fare for juveniles, during those pre-Anne Rice, pre-occult renaissance days.
As a result, American International Pictures barred its theatrical exhibition to children under the age of 12. When the film was released in the US in 1961, it had been re-dubbed and rescored, with over three minutes of erotic and violent content deleted. (The original director’s cut is now available on a DVD from Image Entertainment.) The film remained banned in the UK until 1968. It was reassessed following the success of Conqueror Worm (see page 257).
Mask of Satan begins with a witch burning that takes place circa 1630 in Moldavia. Princess Asa is a vampire-witch although in this part of the world there is traditionally a close connection between the two. (The belief is that witches transform into vampires when they die.) Princess Asa remains in her crypt for 200 years until a scientist inadvertently releases her and she sallies forth to wreak revenge on the descendants of those who tortured her and her beloved partner, who was also burned at the stake as a witch.
Exactly what is Princess Asa—a Satanist, witch, vampire, some or all of the above? It’s never definitively clear. Although she is accused of devotion to Satan, there is nothing to indicate exactly what form that devotion takes. One could substitute the name for any pagan deity and the film would still work. There is no traditional diabolism as in Rosemary’s Baby, although these are traditional vampires who cringe and flee when faced with the cross.
The Grand Inquisitor is the witch Princess Asa’s own brother. (There is also some question as to the relationship between the Princess and her faithful companion Juvutich. Although this is glossed over in the English dub, the original version suggests that he is another brother and that incest is their true crime.)
Although conceived as a “horror” film, the horrors are real: the witch is branded and a “mask of Satan” is hammered onto her face, practices that existed. (The film’s mask is described as bronze; real-life ones would likely have been iron.) Satan’s mask is tusked like a boar. Of course Mask of Satan is not realistic: even when lashed to the stake, Barbara Steele is very beautiful. If the film were to be true to life, all her hair, including her eyebrows, would have been shorn and she would have been naked rather than clothed, as she is here, although she is disheveled and her clothes are erotically torn.
As the mask is hammered onto Princess Asa’s face, it is filmed so that it appears to momentarily be placed over the viewer’s own face. For that moment, we too are lashed to the stake and gaze through the eyes of the Mask of Satan.
This cinematic fairy tale features many elements of traditional witchcraft: the magic powers of the forest, swamp, and cemetery are illustrated. Toads, bats, and dragons appear and a portrait of Princess Asa depicts her naked with a snake. The film also includes the popular theme of the skeptical, arrogant scientist who is confronted with mysterious, unbelievable (to him) occult truths, as in Burn, Witch, Burn! or Weird Woman.
Note: this remains a horror film even if by the standards of the twenty-first century it is no longer quite as scary as when it was first produced. Certain touches remain grotesque: for instance, the vampires must be staked through the left eye, rather than the more customary (and discreet) heart.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
Director: Clint Eastwood, 1997, United States
This film adaptation of John Berendt’s book of the same name, itself based on true events, opens with a shot of the root-worker Minerva, played by Irma P. Hall. Although she is not as significant a character as she is in the book—based on the movie alone, it’s unclear how important a part Minerva plays—she still exerts her power over the film. She is shown in the courthouse, the graveyard, and in a park and is responsible for articulating one of the movie’s major themes when she says that in order to understand the living, one must commune with the dead.
Minerva is a conjure woman in her own right but is also introduced as the widow of the famous hoodoo doctor, Dr Buzzard. Minerva is much more fully fleshed-out in the novel. Whether you understand why Minerva is introduced as the “most important person of the defense team” depends largely upon how many stories about Dr Buzzard you’ve heard; the movie doesn’t spell it out. Dr Buzzard acquired much of his renown because of his alleged ability to magically “fix” court cases for his clientele. A flamboyant, easily recognized man, Dr Buzzard attended daily sessions of court on behalf of his clients; his was a very public presence. Minerva, as Dr Buzzard’s spouse, presumably learned his tricks or maybe even taught him a trick or two. She is seen faithfully attending court, the way Dr Buzzard did; the implication is that her client’s final victory may be credited to her magical skill.
Director: Roman Polanski, 1968, United States
Rosemary’s Baby was adapted from the Ira Levin novel of the same name. Both the novel and film were extremely popular. Mia Farrow stars as Rosemary, a young, devout woman originally from the Midwestern United States, the “heartland,” now living in New York City with her husband Guy, an actor. The film begins as they move into a spacious Gothic-styled apartment building, the Branford, although a trusted friend with metaphysical interests has warned them of the interesting people who were once tenants. Apparently some cannibal witches known as the Trench Sisters lived there at one time; another witch, Adrian Marcato, was allegedly murdered in the building’s courtyard. Guy and Rosemary laugh but Rosemary, at least, won’t be laughing for long. (In actual fact, the building Rosemary’s Baby calls the Branford is really the Dakota, genuinely renowned for its interesting artistic residents, most notably John Lennon and Yoko Ono.)
Initially everything seems to be going so well for Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse: their apartment is beautiful, the neighbors are friendly, if perhaps overly solicitous, Guy’s career soars, and Rosemary becomes pregnant, but odd occurrences with the neighbors and what seem to be disturbing dreams make Rosemary fear that something is very wrong. Indeed she is correct. Those lovely neighbors, an eccentric elderly couple named Minnie and Roman Castevet, played by Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer, are witches, and they have big plans for Rosemary’s baby.
When first released, Rosemary’s Baby was considered shocking and surprising: the film begins so innocuously that its diabolical plot, complete with scheming, secretive devil-worshipping witches, was perceived as a surprise twist. The face of evil, in Rosemary’s Baby, wears a kindly smile and is, at least superficially, warm and nurturing. The closest thing to a “telltale sign of witchcraft” is the witch Minnie Castevet’s knowledge of herbs and her production of home-made healing potions. Spells are cast through food, most notably the delicious chocolate mousse that, as Rosemary comments, possesses an “undertaste.”
Ruth Gordon won the Oscar and Golden Globe awards for best supporting actress for her role as the chatty Upper West Side witch, Minnie Castevet—the only person ever to win an Oscar for playing a witch.
Rosemary’s Baby’s witches correspond to the deepest fears of the medieval witch-hunters. These witches aren’t just casting little money spells or playing in the herb garden; they’re part of a murderous conspiracy whose raison d’etre is to fatally undermine the Roman Catholic Church. And how one perceives the Vatican, frankly, will color just how frightening and evil Rosemary’s Baby’s witches will be perceived.
The true underlying theme of Rosemary’s Baby is betrayal and whether one ever really knows those whom we think we know most intimately. This reflects medieval witch-hunters’ warnings that one never knows where Satan and his attendant witches lie in wait.
The Seventh Seal
Director: Ingmar Bergman, 1957, Sweden
The movie’s plot revolves around a fourteenthcentury crusader knight and his burly squire, who have returned home to a Sweden ravaged by the Black Death. Among those they encounter is a young “witch” convicted of having carnal knowledge of the devil.
The Seventh Seal is not necessarily historically accurate for its specific time and place; however it is a reasonably accurate depiction of what was done to those accused of witchcraft at the height of the witchcraze. In other words, what is shown may be not accurate for fourteenth-century Sweden but is reasonably accurate for sixteenth-century German or French territories.
The witch is first seen in stocks. She has been accused of causing the plague. Her hair is shorn. She has clearly been tortured and is emotionally as well as physically broken. She is then transported to her execution, carried backwards in a wagon. Her hands are broken; she is tied to a ladder. Through the eyes of the various witnesses (the knight, his squire, and the motley entourage they have acquired) the witch’s burning is perceived as terribly brutal, even evil (the burning, not the witch). It is vividly clear that this burning is a horrible miscarriage of justice—cruel, callous, corrupt, and pointless.
Siberian Lady Macbeth (Sibirska Ledi Magbet)
Director: Andrzej Wajda, 1962, Yugoslavia
Also known as Fury is a Woman
The great Polish film director Andrzej Wajda filmed this Yugoslavian production adapted from a story by N. S. Ljeskov Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. It also obliquely draws on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Macbeth’s trio of witches does not appear in Siberian Lady Macbeth. So then, who is the witch? There are scholars who consider that Lady Macbeth may represent a fourth witch or that if the Weird Sisters are understood to really be Fate goddesses, then perhaps Lady Macbeth is the true witch. This is particularly so if her speech in Shakespeare’s Act 1, Scene 5, regarding the spirits, is understood literally. In that case, Lady Macbeth conjures her own spirits independently.
The “heroine” of Siberian Lady Macbeth, Katarina Lvovna (played by Olivera Markovic) doesn’t know her “place.” Her father-in-law suggests that she’s ungodly, doesn’t read her scriptures and, in short, is not a good Christian woman. She’s too bold, too sexually assertive, doesn’t do housework, although she brews a killer cup of tea, and is accused of infertility, which is understood as her “fault,” a punishment on her ungodly ways.
The witchcraft in Siberian Lady Macbeth is subtle. Katarina casts a fertility spell involving a mare, which sets the rest of the plot in motion. The spell comes true but in an unexpected manner, as spells are often wont to do. Siberian Lady Macbeth obliquely cautions that the danger of spell-casting is that a chain of reactions is initiated that can’t necessarily be predicted or stopped.
Spirited Away (Sen To Chihiro No Kamikakushi)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki, 2001, Japan
This animated feature film is considered to be among director Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpieces. Spirited Away won Miyazaki an Oscar for animation and shared the prize for best film at the Berlin Film Festival.
Spirited Away plots the adventures of tenyear-old Chihiro, first observed moving to a new home with her parents. On the way, they wander into a mysterious abandoned ghost town. In a scene worthy of Circe, the parents wolf down the delicious food discovered in a deserted restaurant. As night falls and the spirits who reside in this town wake, Chihiro’s parents transform into pigs.
It turns out that what appeared to be an empty landscape is actually a resort-town centering on Abura-ya, the Bathhouse of the Spirits. Spirits journey from all over Japan to visit the bathhouse, take the herbal baths, rest, and recuperate.
Chihiro is rescued by a mysterious boy, who tells her that the only way to save herself and her parents is to labor in the Bathhouse of the Spirits. The manager of the bathhouse is the witch Yubaba. (Suzanne Pleshette does Yubaba’s voice for the English language version of Spirited Away.)
Yubaba resembles an elderly, elegant Central or Eastern European lady, although she does possess the stereotypical witch’s large wart. Yubaba is greedy, sharp-tongued, and hardhearted. In nature, if not in appearance, she resembles the great Russian witch, Baba Yaga. Yubaba is able to transform into a bird and fly. The plot will eventually hinge on her rivalry with her sister-witch.
See DIVINE WITCH: Baba Yaga; PLACES: Bathhouse.
Throne of Blood (Kumonosu Jo)
Director: Akira Kurosawa, 1957, Japan
Also known as Castle of the Spider’s Web
Throne of Blood transplants William Shakespeare’s Macbeth to sixteenth-century Japan, a period of tremendous feudal conflict. It stars Toshiro Mifune as Captain Washizu, the Macbeth role. The film is strongly influenced by Japanese Noh theatre, and perhaps because it is a Japanese film it doesn’t play into Western stereotypes of witches.
The characters corresponding to Macbeth and Banquo, Washizu and Miki, are lost in the woods, in this particular case the labyrinthine “Cobweb Forest.” There they discover a mysterious, solitary apparition, an elderly spinner who may be a witch, an old lady or a spider spirit. The witch resembles a white spider (and in East Asia, the color white is often associated with death and decay). She proceeds to sing their fate.
The “witch” or “old ghost woman” is played by Chieko Naniwa. She’s identified as a “witch” or as the “woman in the forest” in the English subtitles. The “witch” spins and sings in a little hut in the forest. Although the witch is not stereotyped, the reactions to her are. One character suggests that Washizu and Miki are “bewitched” and acting under her spell rather than responsible for their own actions, which refers to the paradox central to Macbeth: does a prophecy reveal reality or create it?
Eventually, Washizu goes back to the forest seeking what he calls the “Evil Spirit.” The very forest mocks him. The old forest woman now manifests to him as a shape-shifting androgynous witch who prophesies near a human skull and bones, similar to a Baba Yagalike death goddess. (See DIVINE WITCH: Baba Yaga.)
Director: Reginald LeBorg, 1944, United States
The earliest of the three movies based on Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife, Weird Woman was the second of six low-budget horror movies produced by Universal Pictures as part of its Inner Sanctum Mystery series. (At the time, Inner Sanctum was an immensely popular radio program in the United States; the movie series was an attempt to translate this popularity to the big screen.)
Lon Chaney Jr stars as an anthropology professor whose specialty is the occult and ancient spirituality. For him this is purely an academic subject; he has no belief in his chosen topic and even less respect for it. Anne Gwynne plays his young island bride, a white woman, a professor’s orphaned daughter, brought up by Natives and thus, according to the movie, infected by their primitive superstition. Her new husband wants to return her to civilization and rid her of her superstitious beliefs, although he is not averse to using her as his primary source for authoring a bestseller.
Anne Gwynne, as the witch, is the most sympathetic character in the movie. She is sweet, sincere, spiritual, loving, and good. Her magic spells are cast solely to protect her loved ones. She is shown casting spells in the cemetery, however the worst that can be said of her is that she is weird and misguided. There is never a suggestion that she is evil, unlike her rival, a conniving, jealous ex-lover of the professor, who is clearly not a witch.
A prominent theme of Conjure Wife is that all women are witches. Weird Woman shies away from this; only Anne Gwynne and the Polynesian priestess are depicted as “genuine” witches. However, at the film’s conclusion, one of the rational characters, not a witch, played by Elizabeth Russell (Cat People’s unabashed cat-woman and The Seventh Victim’s Mimi) casts an amazingly effective and deadly spell without realizing what she’s done. Although at the last minute it’s rationalized as a spooky coincidence, Weird Woman clearly shows that anyone—or at least any women—possessing passion and motivation can cast a spell.
Witch Hammer (Kladivona Carodejnice)
Director: Otakar Vavra, 1969, Czechoslovakia
Witch Hammer is adapted from Vaclav Kaplicky’s novel of the same name, which recounts the disasters that befall when witch-hunters are invited to investigate witchcraft in a Moravian town during the seventeenth century. (See Literature: Witch Hammer, page 295.)
Vavra, the renowned Czech director, became fascinated with the topic of the witch trials. He sought out an archivist who translated the original accounts of approximately two hundred seventeenth-century witch trials. Authentic quotes were incorporated into the screenplay, which was written by Vavra himself together with screenwriter Ester Krumbachova.
Kaplicky’s novel is a straightforward tale of the effects of witch-hunting on a Moravian town and its inhabitants. However, in the film version, similar to Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, the witch trials were intended to serve as a political metaphor. In his autobiography Vavra said that the witch trials reminded him of the political trials staged by the Communist government in the 1950s.
In post-1968 Czechoslovakia, witch trial as metaphor was only too clear: fearing that it would stimulate discussion and rebellion, government authorities refused to allow screenings of Witch Hammer in Prague. Witch Hammer was only shown well outside the city but was still a very successful film in Czechoslovakia. It was also shown throughout Western Europe and in Canada. Witch Hammer won a special award for artistic achievement at the Mar del Plata International Film Festival in 1971.
Director: Richard Shorr, 1979, United States
The third and most recent version of Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife featured Richard Benjamin as the professor, Terri Garr as his witchy wife, and Lana Turner in her final role as Vivian, the powerful older witch. (See Burn, Witch, Burn!, page 255 and Weird Woman, page 271.)
The basic framework of the story is retained: a professor of ethnology is successful because his wife has cast various spells. He refuses (or is unable) to believe in magic; when the spells are removed, however, all hell breaks loose, disaster strikes. The wife becomes vulnerable and he himself is forced to resort to witchcraft to save her.
Witches’ Brew takes place on a modern suburban campus. The witches are depicted as suburban matrons. Their spells are disgusting, rather than seductive (ingredients include lamb’s blood, cat urine, and bat guano) and lack any basis in any magical tradition whatsoever.
Unlike the book or the two earlier filmed versions, the witches now openly practice on their husbands. The husband doesn’t believe in magic any more than in other versions, however in Witches’ Brew he humors his wife and cooperates with her spells: he describes witchcraft as his wife’s “hobby.” The notion that a husband can destroy his wife’s personal property and order her about was deemed too old-fashioned for this version of Conjure Wife. Instead, the aggravated wife takes a “vacation from witchcraft” to teach her disbelieving husband a lesson. She voluntarily removes all spells herself, leaving herself as well as her husband vulnerable to magical attack.
Also for the first time, the witches are implied to be diabolical; some of them hatch Lucifer from a stone egg. Witches’ Brew’s witches and their spells and rituals lack any basis in any historical, folkloric or spiritual magical tradition: according to the film the rule of witchcraft is “use only as much force as needed to get the work done.”
The Wizard of Oz
Director: Victor Fleming, 1939, United States
The 1939 MGM film based loosely on L. Frank Baum’s novel of the same name is considered a film classic, an exciting modern fairy tale for children. The story recounts the adventures of young Dorothy Gale of Kansas who gets caught up in a whirlwind with her loyal dog Toto and lands in the magical land of Oz, from where she desperately strives to return to Kansas. Along the way she meets all kinds of interesting creatures, not least being two powerful witches: a good one dressed in pink, and a green-skinned wicked witch whose image draws deeply upon traditional witch-lore.
L. Frank Baum intended his book to serve as a modern fairy tale for modern children. (See Literature: Wicked; The Wizard of Oz.) MGM Studios was inspired by the success of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to create a family-friendly fantasy film. The movie was not easy to make: there were dilemmas regarding casting (it was originally envisioned as a vehicle for Shirley Temple, not Judy Garland) and direction. Several versions of the script were written and doctored by several different people before The Wizard of Oz was completed.
Baum’s book The Wizard of Oz has Dorothy encountering many threats and obstacles in an Odyssey-like journey to get home. In the movie, only the Wicked Witch remains. The book is about Dorothy’s Odyssey; the movie is almost as much about killing the witch as it is about getting home. Margaret Hamilton’s witch only appears for a total of 12 minutes on screen and yet her presence is absolutely pervasive.
The word “witch” pops up early in the movie, well before Dorothy’s arrival in Oz: Dorothy calls Miss Gulch “a wicked old witch” with “witch” intended in its pejorative sense. When Dorothy runs away, she meets Professor Marvel, a medicine show conjuror. He is an occultist or at least pretends to be one, illusionist, and bona fide scam artist. His Gypsy caravan, crystal ball, occultist’s turban, and the mask over his door all evoke actual witchcraft traditions. And the cyclone itself may be interpreted as a sign of witchcraft, as it would be in many places from rural Mexico to Russia. Witches traditionally travel in the form of destructive whirlwinds. (Dorothy’s first glimpse of the Wicked Witch on her broom comes in the midst of this storm.)
L. Frank Baum’s book initially had four witches: the movie reduces them to three but only two are actually shown on-screen. No Miss Gulch exists in Baum’s book. The screenwriter Noel Langley, assigned by MGM to write a treatment for the Wizard of Oz, invented Miss Gulch, who then reappears as the Wicked Witch of the West.
Glinda the Good Witch announces “Let the joyous news be spread, the wicked old witch is dead!” An incredibly joyful, catchy song follows as everyone celebrates “Ding dong! The witch is dead!” Can you imagine if any other profession, ethnic, religious or spiritual group were substituted for the “witch” in that song? It is hard to envision that so many would sing it so blithely, carelessly, and happily although it is truly an extremely infectious tune.
The Wizard of Oz turns the notion of witch-burning on its head: instead of burn, witch, burn, it gives us melt, witch, melt.
The Wizard of Oz displays some double-standards when it comes to the Wicked Witch and her alter ego, Miss Gulch:
Why exactly is the Wicked Witch wicked? Dorothy manages to kill two witches and is not described as “wicked.” Although she never intentionally meant to kill them, neither does she show even a moment’s remorse. Dorothy returns to the Wizard quite happily bragging about melting the witch.
What was Toto’s crime? In the words of Dorothy, he chased Miss Gulch’s “nasty old cat.” (The cat is the stereotyped witch-animal.) Why is Miss Gulch not expected to defend her pet in the manner that Dorothy defends Toto? Like Rapunzel’s father, Toto and Dorothy have been repeatedly trespassing in the witch’s garden and although this is glossed over, apparently Toto bit Miss Gulch. Would the movie be this light-hearted if an animal had bitten Dorothy?
When Dorothy says witches are old and ugly, Glinda’s response is that “only bad witches are ugly.” Compare this to the response of the old grandmother witch in Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician. When a pretty young girl comments on how old and ugly the witch is, she calmly responds that the girl will look no better herself when she reaches the witch’s advanced age.
Like the Blair Witch Project (see page 254) and so many fairy tales, Dorothy’s journey through the woods is characterized by fear; fear of darkness, wild animals, lions, tigers, and bears. The Wicked Witch, however, is at home in the “Haunted Forest” just like fairy-tale witches and assorted witch-goddesses from Artemis and Kybele to Baba Yaga.
Dorothy is unhappy in the woods but comfortable and secure in the Emerald City, where everything is artificial and completely controlled. Even if everything is green in the Emerald City, there’s no natural foliage. It is a world of illusion (good, acceptable magic because it isn’t really magic) versus the primal symbolism of the Wicked Witch.
What kind of a witch is the Wicked Witch? In some ways she’s a supernatural witch: she throws fireballs by hand and literally rides through the sky on her broomstick. On the other hand, she’s also associated with traditional and very realistic elements of witchcraft and magical practice: the Wicked Witch is a crystal gazer. She’s also seen with a mortar and pestle, the pestle stained red. She casts a sleeping spell on Dorothy with red poppies, flowers that are not only traditionally identified with anesthesia but also with women’s primal menstrual power and that are sacred to many powerful goddesses. (See BOTANICALS: Opium Poppy.)
The witches were initially not considered central to the movie. Look at early posters and advertisements for The Wizard of Oz: Judy Garland, her three pals, and even the Wizard are featured prominently, but rarely is either the good or wicked witch. The witches were initially understood as so unimportant that an earlier Wizard of Oz movie, director Larry Semon’s 1925 silent version featuring Oliver Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy fame) as the Tin Woodsman, doesn’t even include witches at all. (The wizard does appear as a shyster illusionist identified by the title cards as a “Wizard of the Black Art.”)
Nor was the Wicked Witch of the West originally envisioned as a grotesque green crone. She was initially envisioned being as beautiful as Glinda the Good Witch. The producer’s original plan was to cast Gale Sondergaard, who specialized in playing cold, villainous but gorgeous anti-heroines, as a glamorous, wicked witch. However there were objections from too many people who insisted that a witch must be ugly and hateful. (This early concept of the Wicked Witch as evil and sinister but also seductively beautiful was influenced by Disney’s Snow White’s witch-queen: a glamorous, fascinating, alluring woman.) Screen tests of Sondergaard as a “glamorous evil witch” left viewers dissatisfied: they didn’t fulfill audience fantasies of what a “witch” should be. (Columnist Louella Parsons noted at the time that Sondergaard was “too pretty” for the part of the wicked witch.)
Exit Sondergaard and enter Margaret Hamilton. Initially she was merely intended to look disheveled, but her appearance was gradually adjusted: her nose and chin were restructured to appear scary and grotesque, and her hair was restyled, pulled back tight so as to emphasize her new jagged profile.
Attempts to create a scary witch were almost too successful: in addition to trimming the movie for reasons of length, the director Victor Fleming decided, based on the reactions of preview audiences, to tone down some of the more threatening aspects of the Wicked Witch. Children were apparently terrified; some scared enough to run from the theater. At least a dozen of Margaret Hamilton’s lines were cut from various scenes, including some verbal threats to Dorothy and her friends. Her skywriting threat was edited from “Surrender Dorothy or die WWW” to just the first two words.
Of course, the Wicked Witch of the West is not the only witch in the movie. Billie Burke, the widow of the impresario Florenz Ziegfield, played Glinda, the Good Witch. (Billie Burke was also not originally envisioned in that role; among the first casting suggestions for Glinda were Fanny Brice and Beatrice Lillie.)
Glinda emerges from a bubble, and wears a high crown and wings. While described as a witch, she corresponds to the stereotype of the fairy queen. Although Glinda looks beautiful and is self-identified as a “good witch” she’s not always very nice: Glinda teases the Wicked Witch with the ruby slippers, then slips the shoes onto Dorothy’s feet. After the Wicked Witch goes up in red smoke and flames, Glinda advises Dorothy that the young girl has made a “bad enemy” of the Wicked Witch, but it is Glinda who has orchestrated it.
Literature: Novels and Plays
Witches feature in literature of all kinds, from classical to Gothic to pulp fiction to fantasy to reality-based historic novels. There are so many witches featured in literary works that what is discussed here may be considered only the tip of the iceberg. Included below are some of the most historically significant, popular or influential literary works including witches. The only thing many of these works have in common is their inclusion of witches or witchcraft themes.
Obviously it is unfair to limit great works of art such as Faust, Macbeth or The Master and Margarita to discussions of witchcraft, however the interested reader will find a tremendous quantity of literary analysis devoted to these works. In general, the magical aspect in these analyses is ignored in favor of “greater” themes. However, as this is an Encyclopedia of Witchcraft the opposite tack has been taken. Discussion and analysis is devoted to each works’ witch or magical practitioner including how witches and witchcraft are portrayed. Significant metaphysical elements that may be overlooked or misunderstood by the general reader are also pointed out.
Warning! Spoilers! Unfortunately it is sometimes impossible to discuss aspects of literature and witchcraft without revealing important plot details, mysteries, and secrets.
It cannot be overemphasized that this is only the tip of the iceberg: given space, one could include literally thousands more books. An interesting phenomenon has been the rise at the very end of the twentieth century of the witch as a character in literature targeted to children and young adults. Several hundred years before, witches were banned and burned. Even up until the later part of the twentieth century, witches, pagans, and magical practitioners were perceived as disreputable, and hardly good role models for children. And yet, in the post-Harry Potter world, children’s books are filled with witches who are as likely to be positive or humorous as they are to be scary and malevolent.
Hanns Heinz Ewers (1871—1943) was a notorious, scandalous, commercially successful and very prolific German author, the bad boy of German popular literature. At the height of his popularity he was lauded as the “new Edgar Allan Poe.” Ewers specialized in supernatural tales of the occult, laced with lots of decadence, sex, blood, and violence. He wrote novels, stories, radio plays, and opera librettos. Ewers wrote the screenplay for the 1913 German silent movie The Student of Prague, whose story involves a student’s compact with Satan and which featured Paul Wegener, who would eventually star in a movie version of Alraune (see Films: Alraune, page 252).
Ewers was a fervent nationalist in the 1920s, although he apparently never actually joined the Nazi party. He mingled with Nazi bigwigs, among them Adolf Hitler, a social acquaintance who, according to Ewers, personally requested that he write an “official” biography of Horst Wessel, the Nazi “martyr.”
Although the Nazis initially found Ewers attractive, he soon fell from their favor. By 1935 his works were banned, existing copies were destroyed and Ewers was branded a non-person and reduced to abject poverty. (He died of tuberculosis sometime in 1943.)
Conventional wisdom suggests that various Nazi officials, initially impressed by Ewers’ celebrity, eventually actually read his books and found their decadent contents offensive and inappropriate. In addition, based on the content of his books, especially Vampire, some believe Ewers may have been a philo-Semite, rather than its opposite, which could also have been problematic. He traveled in the same circles as Erik Jan Hanussen the clairvoyant, who also fell from Nazi graces, albeit, in his case, fatally. Ewers also corresponded with Aleister Crowley who published his fiction. (See HALL OF FAME: Aleister Crowley; Erik Jan Hanussen.)
Alraune, first published in 1911, was the second part of a trilogy of novels devoted to the ubermensch Frank Braun, all of which have metaphysical themes. (Some elements are believed autobiographical.) The other two books in the series are The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1907) and Vampire (1921).
Alraune was a major commercial success and established Ewers as among the most popular supernaturalist fiction writers. “Alraune” is a German name for mandrake; it derives from “alrauna,” the title of ancient Germanic prophetesses. Alraune also eventually became a synonym for “witch” and so the title of the novel may be understood to imply “Witch.”(See BOTANICALS: Mandrake; DICTIONARY: Alrauna.)
Alraune inspired five film versions plus a silent film, Alraune and the Golem (1919).
Many legends explain the supposed origins of the mandrake root and Alraune is based on one of these. Men frequently ejaculate as they are hanged to death; allegedly mandrakes spring up where this sperm hits Earth beneath the gallows at a crossroads. Ewers’ novel is also believed influenced by the Christian writer Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225), who described the female genitalia as the gateway to Hell.
Burn, Witch, Burn!
The American author Abraham Merritt (January 20, 1884-August 21, 1943) was one of the most popular and prolific producers of a literary genre that goes by many names: “fantastic fiction,” “post-Gothic,” or perhaps most accurately “supernaturalist literature.” Many of his stories and novels were inspired by metaphysical themes, including witchcraft. His witches are powerful and magically charismatic figures of horror.
Burn, Witch, Burn! was published in 1933 and recounts the adventures of a mafia don and a prominent physician, strange bedfellows who team up to solve a series of perplexing murders. All clues lead to a mysterious shop selling extremely beautiful hand-made dolls. Its proprietor, Madame Mandilip, is eventually identified as a witch who kills via magical means. Her weapons are her magic powers and those cunning dolls.
Burn, Witch, Burn! was intended as a horror novel and Madame Mandilip is a terrifying character: brilliant and powerful but irredeemably evil. For most of the novel, she is also presented as physically grotesque and the opposite of the current feminine ideal: huge, ugly, imposing, sharp-tongued and -featured.
The movie known as Burn, Witch, Burn! uses Merritt’s title but has nothing to do with his book; instead it is a version of Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife (see page 280). The novel Burn, Witch, Burn! was made into a movie, directed by the legendary Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks), and named The Devil Doll (1936). Erich von Stroheim co-authored its screenplay.
The Devil Doll is not included among the films in this Encyclopedia for the same reason its evocative old title could no longer be used: there’s no witch left to burn. She’s been transformed into a mad scientist. The witch isn’t a woman anymore either: Lionel Barrymore played Madame Mandilip in drag. The entire plot was softened; Mandilip is no longer an evil witch plotting world domination but an innocent wronged man seeking justice and revenge, forced to hide disguised as a woman.
La Celestina, a Spanish novel written in dialogue, is considered the first true novel to appear in the West and a classic of Spanish literature. (English, French, German, and Italian translations exist.) Its title character, Celestina, a witch, dominates its pages. La Celestina was immensely popular: there were 80 Spanish editions by the end of the sixteenth century and 18 editions of the Italian translation appeared by 1551, although it is less well known in English.
Initially published anonymously in 1491, the origins of La Celestina are shrouded in mystery; the name Fernando de Rojas appeared in acrostics on the second edition (1501) and he is generally acknowledged as the author. De Rojas was a Jewish converso from near Toledo, Spain, a city renowned (or notorious) for its magicians, alchemists, and occultists.
The book was first published anonymously for good reason: La Celestina, published at the height of the Spanish Inquisition, mocks the gentry, while simultaneously expressing empathy for witches, prostitutes, and poor struggling women in general. In the novel, spells are cast; the witch mutters and uses herbs. Although Celestina the witch is responsible for these actions, characters don’t create themselves: obviously the author had some knowledge of the topic—or so the Inquisition might have said. Writing a novel like La Celestina was a risky proposition as the author was aware: witch persecutions are mentioned in the book; Celestina was once publicly punished in stocks.
Celestina is not only a spell-casting witch: she’s a perfumer, midwife, herbalist, healer, a procuress, madam, and professional go-between. Her specialty is renewing female virginity via her sophisticated sewing skills. The novel’s plot involves a nobleman who hires Celestina to help him seduce a young noblewoman. The lovers are narcissistic, selfish, and empty headed, their lives manipulated by their servants. Celestina and her prostitutes are sharp, smart, and lively. Celestina is described as the center of merriment wherever she goes, although genteel, respectable characters are shown recoiling from the “Old Whore” or at least in public.
La Celestina examines the professional urban witch. Witchcraft, magical healing, and prostitution: all were illegal and disreputable but all ranked among the very few options then available to women who lacked male economic support. This is articulated in the novel; when objection is made to her professions, Celestina asks whether she’s expected to live on air.
This best-selling novel by Joanne Harris, published in 2000, begins with the arrival of Vianne Rocher in a French village during Carnival. Vianne decides to stay and opens up a chocolate store where she weaves enchantment.
Vianne’s mother was a witch, or at least she called herself one, as Vianne points out. She taught Vianne various magical skills, most notably the transformation of bad luck into good. Although Vianne avoids the label “witch” the neighbors assume that she is one and she is shown privately engaging in practices such as tarot card reading that would confirm their suspicions.
There is also another witch in the novel: an elderly neighbor Armande Voizin asks Vianne whether she is a witch. When Vianne asks why she asks, Armande says it takes one to know one. Armande has a reputation in the village as an old witch; she wears scarlet, the witch’s color. Reference is made to her red scarf and red petticoats.
Vianne opens her store during Lent; it is located directly opposite the village church and is kept open on Sundays, tempting church-goers with her chocolates. Its presence encourages parishioners to break their Lenten vows. And Vianne’s chocolate is not just any chocolate. The psychically attuned Vianne magically knows each customer’s desires and needs. People are transformed after contact with Vianne and consumption of her chocolate.
Among the themes expressed in Chocolat is witchcraft as resistance to the Church, a theme quite familiar to the witch-hunters who exerted their presence in rural France for centuries. However in Chocolat, this theme is expressed through the perspective of the witch. (In the very popular film adaptation, Chocolat’s spiritual, magical, and religious aspects were muted. Significantly, the character of the parish priest, Vianne’s primary opponent, was transformed into a mayor, a secular authority.)
Inspiration for the novel came from the author’s own family background. According to the biographical information on the novel’s jacket, Harris was born in her grandparents’ candy shop in France and is the great-granddaughter of a woman known locally as a healer and witch.
The Chronicles of Narnia
C. S. Lewis (November 29, 1898-November 22, 1963) was a scholar, professor, and author of many popular works. Fascinated by fairy tales since childhood, Lewis was a tremendous spiritual seeker. As a teenager, he was fascinated by Norse mythology and Wagner’s Ring Cycle, temporarily abandoning his Christian faith at this time. He eventually became a theist and then on September 28, 1931, following a conversation with his close friend, author J. R. R. Tolkien, himself a devout Roman Catholic, Lewis again deeply embraced the Christian faith. Christian themes are highly significant in his work.
The Chronicles of Narnia, his beloved adventure series, consists of seven novels written between 1950 and 1956. They may be enjoyed purely as children’s fantasy or as subtle Christian metaphor. A witch is a prominent character in two of the books.
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) was the first book of the series to be published. The witch of the title is Jadis, the White Witch. Four children are evacuated from London during the air raids of World War II and sent to live in an old house in the countryside belonging to one Professor Kirke. While exploring the house, the children discover a portal to another realm, Narnia. Narnia suffers under a spell cast by the White Witch: it is perpetually winter. (This draws from the old theme of the witch as Snow Queen; the witch, a spirit of desolation, is represented as a force against fertility.)
Jadis makes a second appearance in The Magician’s Nephew (1955), something of a prequel explaining how Narnia fell under Jadis’ spell. Two children, Polly Plummer and Digory Kirke, live next door to each other in London. Digory is the title character: he lives with his uncle, an evil magician. The uncle straddles that razorthin margin dividing sorcerer from mad scientist; as a result of his magical experiments, Polly and Digory are transported into another realm—not Narnia but the desolate land of Charn, ruled over by Queen Jadis, already powerful but not yet the White Witch.
Although the Chronicles of Narnia may be read purely as an exciting story, it is Christian allegory: witches and magicians do not fare well. However Jadis has tremendous energy and vitality; although intended as evil, she is a lot of fun, particularly her detour into the real world (portals in the Chronicles of Narnia are presented according to conventional magical wisdom: they are accessible from either direction), where she creates havoc in London. Many consider Jadis their favorite character.
The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem
The conjure man is dead. Or is he? And if he is, who killed him? That’s the mystery at the heart of The Conjure-Man Dies, published in 1932 and thought to be the first published mystery novel written by an African-American. Its author, physician Rudolph Fisher (May 9, 1897—December 26, 1934) is considered among the principal writers of the Harlem Renaissance.
N’Gana Frimbo, the conjure man of the novel’s title, is a Harvard-educated African king living in 1930s Harlem who mysteriously chooses to work as a conjure-man, a fortuneteller and spell-caster for hire. (The sign on his door advertising his services reads “N. Frimbo, Psychist.”) Frimbo is not just any card or palm reader. He doesn’t pander to his clientele nor is he shown engaging in stereotyped behavior. Frimbo possesses unique, elaborate, and intimidating methods of consultation whereby he sits in complete darkness while his client is bathed in intense light, similar but even more extreme than old-fashioned police interviews.
When Frimbo is found dead, his clients come under suspicion. In addition to its historic value, The Conjure-Man Dies is a good mystery and offers a vivid portrait of pre-World War II Harlem, although Frimbo is clearly not your standard conjure-man. All characters, including the conjure-man and his clients, are treated respectfully. Frimbo is a man of superior intellect and insight. Consulting a fortune-teller is portrayed as being no different than consulting any other professional.
Fritz Leiber (December 24, 1910-September 5, 1992) is considered a pioneer of supernaturalist fiction and one of its greatest exponents. (He himself coined the term “swords and sorcery” to describe the genre.) Conjure Wife was his first novel. First serialized in the magazine Unknown Worlds in 1943, Conjure Wife was repackaged as a novel in 1953.
Conjure Wife envisions witchcraft in a university setting. It was conceived as a modern horror story: witchcraft is modern and contemporary, not antique, ancient or a relic from lost worlds. Conjure Wife’s witches are thoroughly modern and very well-educated women.
Its protagonist, Norman Saylor, is a rationalist professor of ethnology. (His papers include “The Social Background of the Modern Voodoo Cult” and “Feminine Element in Superstition.”) When he discovers Tansy, his wife, putting his fieldwork in “Negro Conjure Magic” into practice, he forces her to stop and burns all her protective charms and amulets. Hell immediately breaks loose: a student threatens him with a gun, another falsely accuses him of sexual abuse, and he is passed over for a promotion that appeared guaranteed.
Tansy reveals that she’s not the only witch on campus; her actions have protected Norman from other spell-casting faculty wives who are now exploiting the Saylors’ lack of magical protection. A bad situation gets worse and Norman is forced to resort to magic himself in order to save Tansy’s life. Witchcraft is the only solution.
Conjure Wife is considered the most influential of the supernaturalist novels having to do with witchcraft and was extremely popular. Three Hollywood film adaptations were made. (See Films: Burn, Witch, Burn!; Weird Woman; Witches’ Brew.) Conjure Wife was also adapted as an episode of the American television program, Moment of Fear, in 1960.
Although this is ostensibly a horror novel, witchcraft is treated seriously: its existence isn’t questioned and it may be understood as a necessity: since everyone else is casting spells, one must do so also just to survive. The witches are not treated as supernatural monsters as in other examples of this genre such as Alraune or Burn, Witch, Burn! (see pages 276 and 277) but are “normal” women with comprehensible motivations. The novel may be interpreted as mocking ethnologists, rather than magical practitioners.
The magical practices depicted in Conjure Wife are drawn from southern-style Hoodoo and Conjure. Norman discovers Tansy’s boxes of graveyard dirt, herbs, horseshoe nails, lodestones covered with iron filings, and old silver coins as well as squares cut from flannel with which to create mojo hands. These magical practices are real and authentic, but they are often a disappointment to those familiar with witchcraft only as fantasy who expect greater drama and more spectacular “special effects.” Although each of the three movie versions of Conjure Wife has retained the novel’s basic plot, each has also changed what it is that the witches do so as to appear more dramatic and sensational. None of the magical practices depicted in any of the films demonstrates magical reality as do some, although not all of the practices in Fritz Leiber’s novel.
Creep, Shadow, Creep!
Author Abraham Merritt returns to the scene of the crime last witnessed in his earlier novel, Burn, Witch, Burn! (see page 277). This followup was published in 1934.
Madame Mandilip, villain-witch of the earlier book, has been dispatched but her old sorcerer companion still lives, as does his beautiful daughter Dahut, and they have some nefarious plans of their own. The plot of Creep, Shadow, Creep! is closely based on the saga of the Breton witch-goddess Dahut (see DIVINE WITCH: Dahut) and the lost city of Ys, although Creep, Shadow, Creep! takes place in the modern era and Dahut has been reduced to an evil goddess-like witch. Other magical motifs include the goddesses’ hell-hounds and the standing stones of Carnac.
Arthur Miller (October 17, 1915—February 10, 2005) was already a successful playwright (Death of a Salesman) in 1953 when his play The Crucible was first produced and published. The play is inspired by the infamous witch trials that occurred in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. The initial Broadway production was very popular, winning a Tony award. There have since been two television productions, one made in the United States and the other in Great Britain, as well as two film versions, one French and one American.
Two questions invariably arise when discussing The Crucible:
Does The Crucible accurately depict what really happened in Salem?
Is The Crucible really about the Salem witch trials or is it actually about something else entirely?
Second question first: The Crucible is frequently understood to use the witch trials as a metaphor, although specifically as to what remains subject to debate. The most popular theory is that The Crucible is really about the United States’ Congressional investigation of political subversion during the late 1940s and early 1950s when Senator Joseph McCarthy was at the height of his influence. Another theory suggests that the play is really about the case of accused Communist spies, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who might have saved themselves from execution had they confessed.
The Crucible may also be understood as a more general political analogy, transcending specific eras and situations. Regardless how The Crucible is interpreted however, what is literally shown on-stage is the Salem witch trials. Names of characters and the events portrayed in The Crucible are all borrowed from historical events. However it is not a literal depiction of what actually occurred in Salem. Miller himself has said that he was writing a fictional story about a historical event and that what fascinated him about Salem was the personal integrity and heroism of the victims of the witch hunts.
Much of the play is fictionalized:
There are fewer girls in The Crucible than actually existed.
The Crucible suggests that the witchcraft accusations stem at least partially, if not entirely, from a love triangle between Abigail Williams and Elizabeth and John Proctor. This is not based on historical fact or even innuendo, nor is it very likely to be true as at the time of the witch trials Abigail was really only 11 years old and Proctor was over sixty. (In the play, Abigail is older.)
The magical practices that initially stimulated accusations of witchcraft have been altered, whether for the sake of theatricality or because it is inconceivable to modern audiences that simple folk magic could stimulate such hysteria. In The Crucible, young girls are accused of conjuring spirits in the forest. It is suggested that at least some of the girls danced naked. As far as is known and documented, the only magical activity in which the girls engaged was simple household divination.
Tituba, an enslaved woman from Barbados, a stranger from another culture, immediately fell under suspicion of witchcraft. The Crucible suggests that she led the girls in “voodoo-style” rituals but this too is more sensational than what actually occurred: Tituba entertained the girls with thrilling stories and also later baked a witch-cake, a magical method of determining whether the child Betty Parris had been bewitched and, if so, by whom.
The Crucible however does depict some of the Puritan anxieties that may have stimulated Salem’s witch hysteria: not only sexual repression but also their terrible fear of the forest, the wild nature that encircled them. Miller is able to make this point by moving the magical activity into the forest. The Puritans considered themselves God’s tiny outpost on the edge of the wilderness, which they perceived as the devil’s citadel, filled with heathens, the dispossessed Native Americans whom the Puritans feared were in league with the witches.
See WITCHCRAZE!: British Colonies.
The legend of the sorcerer and/or alchemist Dr Faust has served as the basis for many works of fiction. Further information about the historical Dr Faust and the legends surrounding him may be found in HALL OF FAME: Faust. Two basic themes, however, are central to the works that these legends have inspired:
The immortal human soul may be sold to the devil in exchange for something (and that something is negotiable).
Great occult power can be gained in exchange for the immortal human soul.
The first point was revolutionary: the legend of Dr Faust emerged in the midst of the European witchcraze. Witch-hunters accused witches of giving their souls to Satan, of dedicating their lives to him, but this was frequently understood as a one-way bargain: the witches gained little if anything from the compact. The witches were servants of Satan forced to do his bidding. Yes, they received familiars, but these familiars often bossed them around and sucked their blood. Yes, they could fly, but that’s because they were required to show up wherever and whenever Satan commanded. Satan’s final joke on witches, many believed, was his failure to rescue them during witch trials. Women were believed most susceptible to the wiles of Satan because women were believed to be utterly carnal, uncontrollably lascivious creatures. There was no logical reason to make a deal with the devil. Only women were believed stupid enough to offer themselves to Satan for nothing; most men were too smart to fall for the devil’s tricks, or so the witch-hunters claimed.
And yet, men were sorcerers—and not just any men either. Among the men suspected, accused and/or convicted of witchcraft were theologians, physicians and other exceptionally well-educated men. Men wrote, compiled, published, and studied grimoires. These men could not be dismissed as stupid or ignorant and yet they too were fascinated with occult, forbidden knowledge. The legend of Faust attempts to reconcile these contradictions. The immortal soul is not given away for nothing: instead it is the prize with which one can negotiate with Satan to obtain one’s heart’s desires or the solution to dire emergencies.
The second theme regarding the acquisition of occult knowledge is more subtle. At issue is the cost of knowledge and whether the thirst for knowledge is innately diabolical or whether it is a commendable, valuable, honorable pursuit.
The legend of Dr Faust as well as exploration of one or both of these themes has served to inspire various works of fiction and drama. The original Dr Faust was a magician and alchemist; stories that hew closely to the original legend possess an inherent metaphysical theme. Some works, most notably Goethe’s Faust and those that take their inspiration from it incorporate additional scenes of traditional witchcraft and magic. However, later works from the modern era frequently present the deal with the devil metaphorically rather than literally, and completely ignore witchcraft or metaphysics.
Works devoted to the legend of Dr Faust are listed below in chronological order:
J. Spies collected various legends of Dr Faust and published them in German in 1587 as Historia von Doctor J Faustus. The gist is that Faust sells his soul to the devil in exchange for wealth, power, and pleasure. Translated into various languages, it became popular all over Europe.
An English translation began to circulate in England in the form of a chapbook in approximately 1587. The History of the damnable life, and deserved death of Doctor Iohn Faustus was translated by P. F. Gent and recounts the sins of the historical Dr Faust. It was published at a time when chapbooks (inexpensively printed pamphlets, the tabloids or pulp magazines of their time) featuring tales of witches and sorcerers were all the rage. This particular chapbook has two claims to fame:
1. It inspired Christopher Marlowe to write his own rendition of the Faust legend (see below).
2. In virtually all subsequent workings of the Faust legend, Satan is called Mephistopheles, a mysterious name of unknown origin. This chapbook is believed to contain the earliest reference to that name.
The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr Faustus. This was the first dramatized version of the Faust legend; it served as inspiration for Goethe’s now more famous drama. The Tragical History of Dr Faustus was Christopher Marlowe’s most often read and performed play. It is believed to have first been performed in 1589, although it is unknown exactly when it was written. The text was first printed in 1604, 11 years after Marlowe died. A second version is dated 1616; considerably longer, the tone has changed somewhat (many perceive Mephistopheles to be more seductive in the earlier version), and it is generally believed to have been extended by unknown hands following Marlowe’s death.
Christopher Marlowe (baptized February 26, 1654-May 30, 1593), the Elizabethan dramatist and poet, was vilified as an atheist, a Roman Catholic, a sodomite and a tavern-brawler with an unhealthy interest in unsavory subjects like the occult. He was also rumored to be a spy for the Queen’s Spymaster. At the time of his death Marlowe faced charges of blasphemy and heresy. (The man who accused him did so under torture.) Marlowe allegedly died, at age 29, following a fight in a London tavern, which may or may not have been related to espionage. Charges against those who killed him were dismissed. Some believe that Marlowe did not die but was forced into hiding, where he wrote plays under William Shakespeare’s name.
Faustus is described as a necromancer; he conjures and raises spirits. A large portion of the play is spent watching Faust enjoy his devilbegotten powers. “Sweet Mephistopheles” is Faustus’ constant companion. Although in other versions of Faust, the devil is ultimately cheated of his prize, Marlowe’s Faustus must pay the price and is quite definitely damned.
Goethe’s Faust: A Tragedy. When the average person thinks of Faust, this is the version most commonly considered. Faust: A Tragedy, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (August 28, 1749-March 22, 1832) was written in stages, occupying Goethe for the best part of sixty years. The drama consists of two parts; the first part was published in 1808 but it was only published in its entirety after Goethe’s death.
Goethe was a poet, dramatist, politician, philosopher, humanist, and scientist. (He was among Charles Darwin’s inspirations.) It is impossible to overstate his influence over the nineteenth century, particularly in Germanspeaking lands. Faust, his masterpiece, is more than just a play or a piece of literature; it is considered the masterpiece of the romantic era. It is often interpreted metaphorically: selling one’s soul to the devil for immediate physical gain has been interpreted as referring to the terrible human price paid for technological and industrial advances. Goethe’s Faust also inspired many later works that equate deals with the devil with various twentiethcentury social and political situations.
That said, if you want witches and sorcery, this is the version of Faust that has them. Faust has an alchemist’s laboratory; he visits a witch’s kitchen. Faust creates a homunculus with Mephistopheles’ help. Moreover, Faust attends not one but two witches’ sabbats: a traditional Walpurgis Night sabbat at the Brocken Mountain (see PLACES: The Brocken) and a “classical” sabbat attended by figures from Greek mythology. Among the “witches” attending the classical sabbat are Baubo, Lilith, and Medusa. With Mephistopheles help, Faust enters into a love affair with Helen of Troy.
Marlowe’s Tragical History of Dr Faustus was popularly performed as puppet shows in Germany. This is how Goethe first encountered Marlowe’s work. Goethe was also inspired by the life of the magician Cornelius Agrippa. The drama may be understood to be about Agrippa as much, if not more, than about the historical Dr Faust. Many of the details seem taken from Agrippa’s life: Mephistopheles first appears to Faust in the form of a black poodle; Agrippa owned a very beloved black poodle, popularly rumored to be a demon in disguise.
Faust is not damned at the play’s conclusion but is saved and redeemed at the last minute. Mephistopheles is cheated of his prize.
Goethe’s Faust inspired many other works of creative fiction. Some of the most significant include:
Klaus Mann’s Mephisto (1936)
Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus (1947)
Michael Swanwick’s Jack Faust (1997)
The Golden Ass, also known as The Transformations of Lucius
The Golden Ass, written in the second century CE, is the only Latin novel to survive in its entirety and as such is very famous. Even though it is ancient, it is still accessible and highly readable. Much of The Golden Ass is devoted to tales of witchcraft.
Lucius, the hero of The Golden Ass (and the name of its author), is a young man completely enthralled by magic, witchcraft, and the occult. He travels to Thessaly where he hears horrible, shivery stories about the legendary Thessalian witches. Lucius gets his chance to see these witches, up close and personal. His host’s wife turns out to be the renowned witch Pamphile.
Lucius is warned not to pry and meddle but he’s determined to learn some magical secrets. He courts Pamphile’s maid, persuading her to let him spy on her mistress in action. He peeps through a crack in the door and watches Pamphile strip naked, apply unguents to her body, transform into an owl, and fly away. (She is literally a striga.)
Lucius begs the maid to steal the unguent for him; unfortunately she lifts the wrong box and instead of an owl, Lucius is transformed into an ass. The novel follows his adventures until the goddess Isis lifts the spell and he becomes her devotee.
The novel is believed to be somewhat autobiographical. Its author, Lucius Apuleius, was a Romanized Berber born in a Roman colony in what is now Algeria. Lucius studied in Carthage, Athens, Asia Minor, and Egypt. He was genuinely initiated into the Mysteries of Isis, was a metaphysical adept, and was brought to trial on charges of using witchcraft to gain the fortune and favors of a widow (her stepchildren brought the charges).
The witches in The Golden Ass are powerful, but although some are physically beautiful, they are not attractive. The book (or at least the first part; the latter half is more spiritually inclined) was intended as an entertaining tale of horror. Women’s magic and the magic of the poor was held in ill repute; many of the stereotypes popular in the witch-hunt era and that still exist today may be traced to the classical age. Of course, Isis, too, the compassionate savior of The Golden Ass, has her associations with magic and witchcraft: how much of The Golden Ass was meant literally and how much was meant as fun is subject to interpretation.
See ANIMALS: Donkeys; Ferrets and Weasels; Owls; DIVINE WITCH: Isis; PLACES: Thessaly.
Harry Potter Series
Harry Potter names a series of books devoted to the adventures of a boy-wizard, but it also names a literary phenomenon that has impacted the history of witchcraft.
Harry Potter is an orphan living with his abusive only relatives, the Dursleys. On his 11th birthday, everything changes, however. Harry receives information that transforms his life: he learns that he is not an ordinary person, but that he is really a wizard with innate magical powers that he can learn to enhance, control, and manipulate: Harry has been accepted as a student at Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft.
Harry learns that there is an entire alternative witch universe with various portals linking the worlds of witches and wizards with those of the muggles, the name given to non-magical folks. In the muggle-world, Harry is pathetic and deprived but he quickly discovers that in the magical world, he is a wealthy celebrity. Harry’s parents did not die in a car accident as the Dursleys have always maintained; instead they died protecting Harry from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, Lord Voldemort, the Dark Lord of the Witchcraft World, ending Voldemort’s fascist regime of terror in the process.
Harry’s arrival in this magical world coincides with the gradual emergence of Voldemort, who had been forced into hiding following the deaths of Harry’s parents—as had Harry in only one of many parallels between them. Voldemort wants his power back and Harry discovers that he is Voldemort’s primary opponent and target.
The first novel in the Harry Potter series was published in 1997; a total of seven books are planned, each book encompassing one school year at Hogwarts. According to author J.K. Rowling (born July 31, 1965) the Harry Potter story appeared in her head fully formed while traveling on a train between Manchester and London. A single mother of an infant, she famously wrote the first manuscript by hand in a café, one hand rocking the baby, the other scribbling. Following Harry Potter’s amazing commercial success, she is now a multi-millionaire.
The books in the series so far comprise:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (US title)/Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (UK title) (1997)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005)
It cannot be overstated: the Harry Potter series is a phenomenon. Books fly off the shelves at publication. Children who previously resisted reading won’t put it down. The books hit the top of best-seller lists and stay there, and they have been translated into many languages. Moreover, the books are just as popular with adults as they are with children. There is also a parallel movie series, complete with tie-in merchandising.
Not all the attention garnered by Harry Potter has been favorable. Fundamentalist Christian groups have objected to the series claiming that it glorifies the occult, and the books have been frequent targets of book burnings. This is somewhat ironic, as the books are clearly fantasy, written by someone outside the modern witchcraft community. Although witchcraft is portrayed as powerful and glamorous, in Harry Potter’s world, not just anyone can become a witch, no matter how badly you desire to be one.
Defining exactly who is a witch/wizard is part of the book’s plot; although witchcraft is hereditary, magical power is not guaranteed. Sometimes muggles are born with magic powers; with education and training, they can then become part of the magical world although many of those who perceive themselves as “pure-blood” retain prejudices against them. Witchcraft is a combination of training and innate ability; without that ability, one is doomed to remain a muggle forever.
Harry Potter is not about magic; witchcraft and wizardry are an entertaining motif. Thematically, Harry Potter may be understood as descended from Charles Dickens’ novels, just with added magic. (Poor, deprived, orphaned, noble youth, forced to live with terrible people who don’t appreciate him and oppressively make him labor until his true inheritance is miraculously discovered: this could as easily be Oliver Twist as Harry Potter. And to Oliver, the London underworld is, at least initially, a magical new world filled with danger.)
Harry Potter no more offers a realistic perspective of witchcraft than it does of boarding school. Superficial elements are borrowed from traditional witchcraft and sorcery (wardrobe, broomsticks, the concept of familiars and the animals depicted as such: owls, cats, snakes). However the series does offer an original vision of witches and wizards that is neither rooted in the traditional folkloric witch, nor in modern Wicca or Neo-Paganism.
Although the Harry Potter books do not contain a realistic depiction of either witches or magic, because the magical world it does depict is so interesting, fun, and attractive, because the witches and wizards are such magnificent characters and because many of the muggles in the book are either unpleasant or played as fools, the series of books offered a sense of pride to those who consider themselves magical rather than muggle, and is as popular within the magical community as without.
The Harry Potter series opened a doorway to discussions of witchcraft and magic that previously did not exist. For many it was a fascinating introduction to a topic that was previously considered somewhat unsavory. It also changed the perception of books about magic from marginal, often disreputable publications to bestselling blockbusters. Harry Potter opened the floodgates for countless other publications involving witches and magic targeted to both adult and juvenile audiences.
However, Harry Potter also introduced the notion that witchcraft and magic were topics intended for children. Because the series now serves as an introduction to magic for many, those who assume this notion to be true are often surprised and disconcerted at the adult nature of much traditional witchcraft and magical practice.
His Dark Materials
Witches are heroic, brave, fierce, and female in the trilogy of novels entitled His Dark Materials written by Philip Pullman (born October 19, 1946). The title of the series derives from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The trilogy comprises:
The Golden Compass (US title)/Northern Lights (UK title) (1995)
The Subtle Knife (1997)
The Amber Spyglass (2000)
The novels feature the adventures of the young heroine Lyra Bellacqua and her compatriots in an alternative universe populated by witches, angels, fearsome cliff ghosts, talking armored bears, and a mysterious tribal shaman.
This alternative universe (everyone lives in this universe, not just the witches) is somewhat recognizable as our own but also very different. Lyra’s hometown is a university town called Oxford but it’s not exactly that Oxford. The human characters are also very similar to regular humans but also very different, particularly as regards to their daemons. These are an intensive form of soul-sharing animal ally; everyone possesses a personal daemon, a life-long animal companion that is born with you and vanishes when you die.
The books’ heroes include witches, the “Gyptians” (a distinct ethnic group, whose name and various characteristic elements clearly derive from British Gypsy culture) and the armored bear (a shamanic animal).
The witches are a distinct species:
Witches fly on cloud-pine branches and wear strips of black silk.
Witches are not immortal but live extremely extended lives; the eldest is nearly one thousand.
Witches are exclusively women, like Amazons; men serve them or are their lovers or husbands.
Witches have their own goddess, Yambe-Akka, the joyful deity who comes to witches as they are about to die.
Yambe-Akka’s name resembles those of Saami goddesses, and Lyra’s adventures begin when she travels to the polar regions in a desperate attempt to rescue kidnapped children from the nefarious clutches of evil scientists and religious authorities acting in collusion.
The witches are fierce, beautiful, and righteous. They provide safety for children rather than attempting to harm them. Clearly in these novels, the witches fight on the side of justice and freedom.
His Dark Materials is notable for providing some of the most profound, realistic depictions of the divination experience from the perspective of the seer. Although the divination device (the “alethiometer”) is unique to the novels, the descriptions of the divination process will fascinate those familiar with those arts. One character also utilizes the I-Ching, the traditional Chinese method of divination.
Like the Harry Potter series, the books have been accused of being anti-Christian. Some have also suggested that His Dark Materials is a direct rebuttal of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series. Both series begin with a young girl hidden in a wardrobe or cabinet, and there are other parallels. However, the witches of His Dark Materials help rescue civilization, rather than freeze or destroy it, as does Narnia’s White Witch.
Because it is a fantasy-adventure tale featuring youthful heroes, His Dark Materials is targeted toward a juvenile market. However, even more than the Harry Potter or Narnia series, these are not merely “children’s books.” Although His Dark Materials may be read as nothing more than a thrilling adventure series, it does contain deep spiritual, magical, and theological content. His Dark Materials subject matter is deeper, darker, and more adult than that of the other two series.
The Jungle Book
What do you call a boy raised by wolves? How about a witch? Most modern audiences are familiar with Mowgli, the feral hero of The Jungle Book from movies and animated versions, however the aspects of the story relating to witchcraft are almost invariably deleted from these adaptations.
The Jungle Book (1894) is a collection of stories written by Rudyard Kipling (December 30, 1865-January 18, 1936), the British author and poet born in India (The Jungle Book, however, was written in Vermont). Kipling was immensely popular and influential at one time, not only on a literary level but also socially; he is credited with coining the phrase “the white man’s burden.” Among those inspired by his work was Gerald Gardner, father of modern Wicca.
The Jungle Book was followed by The Second Jungle Book (1895), where the witchcraft theme is further expanded. In the story “Letting in the Jungle” Mowgli is accused of sorcery and driven out of the village. He eventually returns to discover his adoptive mother Messua and her husband have been charged with witchcraft because of their relationship with Mowgli. They are about to be executed but Mowgli rescues them.
Lives of the Mayfair Witches
A witch is a person who can attract and manipulate unseen forces, or so witches are defined in the pages of the trilogy of novels known as Lives of the Mayfair Witches.
Their author Anne Rice (born October 4, 1941) is most famous for her very popular series of vampire novels, most notably Interview With The Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, and Queen of the Damned.
The individual novels of Lives of the Mayfair Witches include:
The Witching Hour (1993)
The Witching Hour introduces a dynasty of powerful witches beginning with Suzanne of the Mayfair and culminating with her descendant, Rowan Mayfair, a witch of the thirteenth generation.
Suzanne conjured up a spirit that she named Lasher; Lasher becomes passionately attached to the family, choosing an individual witch in each generation as his consort, although some maintain marriages or relationships as well. Whether Lasher protects the Mayfairs or drives them to their doom is subject to interpretation and debate. (The Taltos of the third novel belongs to a race of supernatural beings; other than the name the concept has nothing thing to do with the historical taltos, the traditional Hungarian shaman. See DICTIONARY: Taltos.)
Lives of the Mayfair Witches offers readers a tour of Western witchcraft history, beginning in Scotland, traveling through Europe (Holland and France), and then on to the Caribbean, Louisiana, and California. Two witches are burned, one in Scotland, the other in France. The descriptions are explicit: Rice accurately depicts how witch-burnings served as popular Church-sanctioned mass entertainment.
Some of the witches’ powers are innate; witches heal and kill via magical means. Doll magic is prominently featured (see MAGICAL ARTS: Image Magic), as is telekinesis. Methods depicted of raising and conjuring spirits are not traditional and some of the witches’ magical experiments verge on mad science that would not be out of place in Alraune or Burn, Witch, Burn! (see pages 276 and 277).
Merrick, a later novel by Anne Rice (2001), may be read as a continuation of Lives of the Mayfair Witches. Merrick, described as a “voodoo-witch,” is a distant relative, descended from the wealthy Mayfairs and their Haitian slaves. Merrick is extremely beautiful, tough, harddrinking, and maybe the most powerful witch of all. Rice merges two of her genres: Merrick is a witch/vampire novel. Some of Rice’s most beloved vampire characters (Louis, Lestat, Claudia) make guest appearances.
Different witches possess different skills. Suzanne, the first Mayfair witch, is a Scottish healer; Stella, a New Orleans witch, is described as a “real voodoo queen” familiar with powders, potions, and ceremonials. She also tells fortunes with cards. (Magical arts, in general, are described rather than witnessed; there are no depictions of true Vodoun or traditional witchcraft.) The witches are powerful, brave, beautiful, glamorous, alluring, and tragic. Their characters are complex: whether they are evil, heroines or victimized is subject to interpretation. There is also a male Mayfair, Julien, who may or may not be among the 13 Mayfair Witches.
Lord of the Rings
The wizard Gandalf may be considered a peer of such magical masters as Merlin or Dr Faust and yet unlike those legendary characters, Gandalf is not based on a historical personality but is the literary creation of J.R.R. Tolkien (January 3, 1892-September 2, 1973). Tolkien was a university professor, scholar, etymologist, and prolific author. Although his works do not contain witches, several prominently feature powerful, archetypal wizards, especially Gandalf the Grey.
Gandalf makes his first appearance in The Hobbit (1937) initially targeted toward youthful readers. He then reappears, alongside his sometime ally and sometime rival Saruman, in The Lord of the Rings, a trilogy of novels comprising:
The Fellowship of the Ring (1954)
The Two Towers (1954)
The Return of the King (1955)
Tolkien was a master of etymology, the study of words and language, so it’s unlikely to be a coincidence that although explicitly identified as wizards, Gandalf and Saruman are also linked to witches:
Wizards are known as Istari “the wise ones” in the Elven tongue.
Saruman’s Elvish name translates as “man of skill” or cunning-man.
Gandalf may be crotchety and secretive at times but he is good and righteous and fights exclusively on the side of justice. He does not allow himself to be tempted by the forces of Sauron, the Dark Lord, as does his compatriot wizard Saruman. The wizards resemble Merlin-type magicians; they possess magic swords and staffs. Great books of power and crystal ball-like “seeing stones” also appear in the trilogy.
Gandalf appears most frequently as a dusty, elderly traveler, an old grey-bearded man wearing a grey cloak. In this guise, he is reminiscent of the Norse warrior-shaman deity Odin, himself a master magician. (Odin, too, has alliances with dwarves and elves.) Gandalf, like Odin, is also occasionally mistaken for a simple conjurer.
The Lord of the Rings inspired a highly successful trilogy of movies directed by Peter Jackson, beginning with The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). Each of the two subsequent films was released one year later. Sir Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee respectively starred as the dueling wizards, Gandalf and Saruman.
The Ojibwa (also known as the Anishinabe or Chippewa) are the third largest Native American community in the United States. They live in the Northern United States as well as in Canada. Love Medicine, published in 1984, is the first of several novels by Louise Erdrich (born June 7, 1954) that take place in the Ojibwa community over an extended period of time. Although the novels are not officially a “series” they feature many of the same characters and may be read in the manner of a series. These other novels include:
The Beet Queen (1986)
The Bingo Palace (1994)
Tales of Burning Love (1996)
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2002)
Louise Erdrich’s novels are often categorized as “magical realism,” however they are deeply influenced by the extensive and sophisticated system of traditional Ojibwa folklore and spiritual and magical practices. Many of these practices are respectfully incorporated into her novels.
Erdrich herself is of French, German, and Ojibwa ancestry. The novels’ characters are equally complex: some embrace their ancient traditions, while others, now devout Christians, fervently reject them.
The books are not written in chronological order, which lends a magical dizzying effect. In other words, Love Medicine was the first book written and published but in terms of chronological events it could be the third book: the witch character Fleur Pillager is an elderly woman, whereas she is young in Tracks, which recounts earlier events.
Fleur terrifies people; she has a reputation of placing powerful spells on those who’ve crossed or wronged her. She is not above playing tricks of all kinds; magic is shown as both real and illusion. Fleur is wild, defiant, and autonomous. She appreciates the power of her reputation as a witch and cultivates it.
“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes…”
Macbeth’s Weird Sisters are among the most famous, influential literary witches of all time. William Shakespeare (baptized April 26, 1564-May 3, 1616) composed his play Macbeth in approximately 1605; it had its stage premier in 1606. Macbeth did not appear in print until the First Folio version in 1623.
Macbeth was inspired by the need to court royal favor; Shakespeare had been successful under Elizabeth I and wished to maintain this success under the reign of her successor, James I. James came from Scotland and was passionately interested in witches and witchcraft. He himself composed a book of demonology, a rebuttal to Reginald Scot’s rationalist view of witchcraft, and also personally presided over several witchcraft trials, especially those of North Berwick. (See BOOKS: Witch-Hunt Books: James I.) James believed that the North Berwick witches had attempted to kill him via magic. A Scottish play that made favorable reference to his ancestry and that featured scenes of witchcraft was believed able to please the king. Macbeth remains among Shakespeare’s most beloved and most frequently staged plays.
The story of Macbeth derives from various sources, but mainly from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, a popular history book of his day. Shakespeare, however, combined, altered and embellished several of the stories recounted by Holinshed.
The question posed of the Weird Sisters since Macbeth was first produced is do the witches foretell the future or do they actually set the future in motion?
The witches open the play with their words, “When shall we three meet again…” Macbeth’s witches are active at night. They have a cauldron full of eerie ingredients. They invoke Hecate as their goddess and conjure up apparitions for Macbeth as requested. The three witches resemble Fate goddesses or Norns; “Weird Sisters” names the Anglo-Saxon variation on that theme. (See WOMEN’S MYSTERIES: Spinning.) Some understand Lady Macbeth to be a fourth, solitary witch. Her speech requesting spiritual assistance (“Come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts!”) might be understood literally, although contemporary audiences rarely interpret it this way.
Macbeth features several scenes of witchcraft; however, how many of these you are able to enjoy depends upon the theatrical production. Back in the seventeenth century, witches were a huge draw: there is some scholarly belief that someone, not Shakespeare, added extra scenes of witchcraft. Although some may find this unbelievable, others feel that these extra witchcraft scenes detract from the plot and pacing and so they are most often deleted. Two songs, in Act 3, Scene 5 and Act 4, Scene 1, are believed to have originated in Thomas Middleton’s play The Witch and to be later interpolations. The scenes in which Hecate appears are also believed to be interpolations.
See Films: Macbeth, page 263, and WITCHCRAZE!: England; Scotland.
W. Somerset Maugham (January 25, 1874-December 16, 1965) met the magus Aleister Crowley in Paris. They traveled in the same circles and dined at the same restaurant Le Chat Blanc (the restaurant appears in the novel). Maugham disliked Crowley but was fascinated by him and he was thus inspired to write his novel, The Magician.
Maugham wrote the novel in the first half of 1907 but his publisher then declined to release the book as its subject matter was deemed excessively shocking. A new publisher was found and the book was eventually published in 1908.
Crowley served as the model for the magician of the title, Oliver Haddo, although he merely inspired the character. When another character humiliates Oliver Haddo, who claims to be a powerful magician, Haddo wreaks revenge by magically stealing and destroying his enemy’s fiancée. The book has nothing really to do with Crowley, with whom Maugham was only slightly acquainted, and the story itself is fictionalized—although the character of Margaret Dauncey, the erstwhile fiancée, is allegedly based on that of Crowley’s wife, Rose Kelly.
See Films: The Magician, page 265; HALL OF FAME: Aleister Crowley.
The Master and Margarita
The devil visits Moscow in the 1930s and masquerades as Woland, the Master Magician, a theatrical conjurer who carries a poodle-headed cane, reminiscent of the black poodle that transforms into Mephistopheles in Faust. He is accompanied by an entourage including Hella, a naked red-headed witch, Behemoth, his huge, talking, vodka-quaffing, chess-playing black cat, and the evil but sometimes helpful angels, Azazelo and Asmodeus. As they say, all hell breaks loose.
The Master and Margarita, written by Mikhail Bulgakov (May 15, 1891-March 10, 1940), draws much of its inspiration from Goethe’s Faust (and from Gounod’s opera, which derives from Goethe). It is Margarita who makes the deal with the devil in order to rescue her beloved Master, an author who has been pilloried for daring to write a novel about Jesus Christ in the officially atheist Soviet Union. (The Master and Margarita contains two parallel novels: one recounting a dialogue between Christ and Pontius Pilate, the other the Faustian bargain.) By making this deal, Margarita is transformed into a witch.
Margarita is the heroine of the novel; she is not damned or evil. She is instead perhaps the kindest, most sensible character in the novel. Whether Woland and his entourage are evil is subject for debate: certainly they are not gentle but dispense punishment to the rude, greedy, stupid and/or bad-mannered Muscovites they meet. They are dangerous figures and not to be trifled with, but when compared with some of the human inhabitants of the book, it’s debatable exactly where evil lies.
The Rolling Stones’ song “Sympathy for the Devil” with its devil who demands sympathy and taste was allegedly inspired by The Master and Margarita.
The Soviet novelist and physician Bulgakov was from Kiev, near Bald Mountain, famed home of Slavic witches’ sabbats. He was briefly Josef Stalin’s favorite playwright, which may have saved him from the dire fate that awaited many of his contemporaries. Several of Bulgakov’s works mocked the Soviet regime and he eventually fell out of favor. In 1929, all his works were banned. He couldn’t publish anything and was refused permission to emigrate.
Bulgakov started writing The Master and Margarita in 1928. He completed the manuscript but continued to revise it until his death. A censored version was published in 1966—67. It was finally published in its entirety in Moscow in 1973 and it is considered a classic among modern Russian novels. Four English translations are available.
First published in 1796, The Monk was a scandalous novel full of sex, sacrilege, and violence. It is considered among the first and finest of the genre of Gothic novels and was so popular that its author, Matthew Lewis, is still sometimes called Monk Lewis.
Lewis (July 9, 1775-May 14, 1818) was the son of a wealthy landowner in Jamaica who eventually became the British Deputy-Secretary of War. Matthew’s mother, Frances, left her husband and children to run away with a music master, causing a major public scandal. Matthew grew up to be the intermediary between his parents. The Monk is characterized by his sense of compassion for women in tight situations. The vulnerability of women and their reputations as well as women’s economic dependence on men are major themes of The Monk.
Lewis graduated from Christ Church, Oxford in 1794, determined to pursue a theatrical career. He traveled extensively in France and Germany, where he met Goethe. (The primary character in The Monk, the monk Ambrosio, sells his soul to the devil, as did Faust.) He eventually became a Member of Parliament.
The Monk was extremely popular but also extremely controversial and scandalous. Many perceived it as a work of blasphemy. It is as much or more about the dangers of celibacy and sanctimony as it is about witchcraft. The British author held negative opinions regarding Roman Catholicism and the Spanish Inquisition and these were expressed in the novel.
The Monk features magical books of power, necromancy, magic circles, and mirrors plus a poisoner-witch. Sorcerers conjure up spirits in the crypt. They summon, command and compel no less than a reluctant Lucifer to do their bidding (and The Monk features a beautiful Lucifer; there’s no hairy horned goat.) The witch compels Satan to commit the crime. Ambrosio the monk is primarily guilty of pride, hypocrisy, and lust. Tellingly, having already confessed to rape and murder, the monk can’t bring himself to admit sorcery, despite torture.
The Secrets of Dr Taverner
Dion Fortune (December 6, 1890-January 8, 1946) wrote six books of metaphysical, esoteric fiction but The Secrets of Dr Taverner was the first, published in 1926. Many consider it to be her finest work of fiction although all her novels have their adherents. Fortune was among the most influential and significant occultists during the first half of the twentieth century. She was a prolific writer and published books and pamphlets on many subjects including magic, psychic self-defense, vegetarianism, and contraception.
The Secrets of Dr Taverner consists of one dozen short stories recounting the psychic adventures of a detective similar to Sherlock Holmes. Taverner is a healer who nurtures ailing souls using esoteric techniques. Many of Fortune’s characters were based on real people; Dr Taverner was allegedly based on Dion Fortune’s teacher, Dr Theodore Moriarty, who specialized in what she described as astro-etheric psychological conditions. The short stories are dictated by Taverner’s assistant Dr Rhodes, who plays the part of Dr Watson.
Dion Fortune remains beloved in metaphysical circles but she can be difficult to read as her work frequently expresses the ethnic and racial bigotry common to her time. Her other novels may be described as metaphysical romances, for example, in one book the heroine is rescued from being sacrificed at a Black Mass. Fortune’s heroines would be understood today as witches; however her novels were written before the repeal of the witchcraft laws and the emergence of modern witchcraft, and so these heroines are identified as priestesses. Roots of Neo-Paganism may be observed in Fortune’s books and much magical information is incorporated into the texts.
Her other esoteric fiction includes: The Demon Lover (1927); The Winged Bull (1935); The Goat Foot God (1936); The Sea Priestess (1938) and Moon Magic (published posthumously in 1956; incomplete at the time of her death, the last section of the novel was channeled by a medium).
One of William Shakespeare’s last plays The Tempest was performed for the first time on November 11, 1611 in London. It recounts the tale of the sorcerer Prospero, formerly the Duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda who have been banished to an enchanted desert island, where they are served by the spirit Ariel, summoned at will by Prospero.
The witch Sycorax, who had also been exiled to the island but who had died before Prospero’s arrival, was responsible for enchanting the island (and Ariel). Her son Caliban is compelled to labor as Prospero’s servant. Prospero treats him harshly because Caliban lusts after Miranda.
The character of Prospero is believed to have been inspired by Dr John Dee, who served as Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer and advisor. Her successor King James was rather less tolerant of the occult and although not officially banished, Dr Dee’s retreat from court to the safety of his home at Mortlake may have resembled exile.
Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
Although the movie and book versions of The Wizard of Oz remain extremely popular, many find them puzzling and frustrating. Why, for instance, is the Wicked Witch of the West called wicked? What exactly is it that she does to be characterized that way? The Wicked Witch never lies, unlike say “the Wonderful Wizard of Oz” or Glinda, the Good Witch, who at best plays fast and loose with the truth. These musings inspired Gregory Maguire’s bestselling novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995)—an exploration of the nature of evil and how “wickedness” is defined.
Maguire draws his inspiration from both the literary and cinematic versions of L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, however he uses them as a jumping-off point for his own original vision. The Wicked Witch has previously been nameless. Maguire bestows upon her the name Elphaba, derived from her creator Baum’s initials.
The characters and events of Baum’s books provide the framework for Wicked. The anti-witchcraft bias of the older book and movie is made clear: Dorothy and her companions make brief appearances, wreaking havoc wherever they go: they kill Elphaba’s beloved dogs, crows, and bees. Elphaba’s sister, Nessarose (another witch) is also killed, as is eventually Elphaba.
Elphaba’s green skin and various other unusual characteristics were perceived by her fundamentalist religious father as being punishment for her mother’s sins. Elphaba eventually goes to college in the Emerald City where she rooms with the shallow but beautiful Galinda, not yet Glinda the Good Witch. The Wizard has taken over the government of Oz in a political coup; indigenous people are exploited and oppressed. Their land is raped for its resources; an ancient goddess-oriented religion has been suppressed. Elphaba becomes involved in animal rights and eventually in the underground political resistance to the Wizard of Oz. From the perspective of the oppressor Wizard and his collaborators, Elphaba is wicked and, because she is powerful, she must be eliminated.
Wicked also includes brief, mysterious but evocative appearances by Yackle, a character who more closely corresponds to the traditional image of a witch than does Elphaba.
In 1680, the midwife in a Moravian hamlet discovers that her cow is dry. She fears it’s been bewitched and pays a local beggar-woman to steal a Communion wafer for her so that she can use it in a spell to counteract the malevolent spell. The beggar-woman is caught and this small incident touches off a murderous witchhunting frenzy that lasts two decades.
These incidents form the basis of the Czech novel Witch Hammer by Vaclav Kaplicky (1895—1982), first published in 1963 to popular acclaim and commercial success in Czechoslovakia. An English translation was published in 1990. Witch Hammer derives its name from the infamous witch-hunters’ manual The Malleus Maleficarum or The Hammer of the Witches (see BOOKS: Witch-Hunt Books: Malleus Maleficarum). The novel is based on real events that occurred in seventeenth-century North Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic but then an ethnically mixed, heavily German-influenced area. Kaplicky derived his source material from actual witch-trial transcripts.
The protagonist is a kind, tolerant priest who watches in horror as witch-hunters are invited to the small town to examine the witch. The witch-hunters’ motivations are selfish: they are well aware of the power they exert over all inhabitants, including the wealthy and noble who initially see no danger for themselves.
As the witch-hunters’ web tightens around the inhabitants, the book is almost painful to read. Although people engage in folk magic, no one corresponds to the witch-hunters’ vision of diabolical witchcraft, although the witch-hunters have methods of making anyone confess to whatever charges are brought.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written by L. Frank Baum (May 15, 1856-May 6, 1919) in 1899 but published in 1900 to coincide with the new century, perceived as a new age. It was intended as a new kind of fairy tale for a new nation on the brink of a new century, completely independent of the standards of older European fairy tales, their enchantments and cruelty. The book’s first illustrations were drawn by W.W. Denslow.
In his introduction, Baum wrote that “…the time has come for a series of newer ’wonder tales’ in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf or fairy are eliminated…” But not, apparently, time for the stereotyped witch to disappear.
Those only familiar with the MGM musical The Wizard of Oz may find the book upon which it is based very surprising. The book features two good witches and two wicked witches, four witches all together, but there is no Miss Gulch, who was an invention of the 1939 movie’s screenwriters.
The film’s famous ruby slippers were originally silver.
Dorothy is identified as a sorceress because she wears white and, according to the book, “only witches and sorceresses wear white.”
The Wicked Witch of the West has but one eye, “as powerful as a telescope and could see everywhere.”
The premise of the story is that the Wizard of Oz will not send Dorothy home to Kansas unless she performs the service of killing the Wicked Witch of the West. No one questions why and no explanation is given. It seems natural that the wise and powerful should wish to exterminate a wicked witch. The Wizard asks for a wicked thing but since the Witch is a “wicked witch” no one questions his actions.
The Wicked Witch of the West is served by talking wolves, crows, and bees. They do not survive Dorothy and her friends: the Tin Man kills forty wolves. The scarecrow kills forty crows (he wrings their necks). The bees are killed by trickery.
A nameless witch of the north kisses Dorothy at the beginning of her journey leaving a protective mark, something like the Mark of Cain. No one will touch her including the Wicked Witch, although Dorothy is not made aware of this.
Dorothy is forced to labor for the Wicked Witch, in the same manner that Vasilisa must labor for Baba Yaga. (See FAIRY-TALE WITCHES: Vasilisa the Wise; DIVINE WITCH: Baba Yaga.) Dorothy must keep the witch’s fire fed with wood, except that, unlike Vasilisa, Dorothy is really a saboteur. Dorothy throws water on the witch because through trickery the witch has stolen one of Dorothy’s silver slippers. She puts an iron bar in the middle of the kitchen floor, casting a spell over it so that it is invisible. Dorothy trips over it and one shoe flies off which the witch immediately puts on her foot. The motif of having one shoe on and one shoe off links both female characters to the archetype of the limping shaman. (See Dance: The Step of Yu, page 248.)
The Wizard is a charlatan with no magical powers but witches are described as able to do “wonderful things.” “Good” witches, however, won’t harm the wizard.
Baum intended for readers to see Oz as a real place, an alternate realm where a real child one day discovered herself. (The movie transforms Oz and Dorothy’s adventures into a dream.)
Manga and Anime
Manga are Japanese graphic novels; anime are Japanese animated films. They differ from American-style comics and animation in terms of style and artistry; aficionados of either genre may find that appreciating the other requires some adjustment.
American-style comics and Japanese manga both fall under the category of sequential art. The traditions arose independently: the roots of manga stretch back to medieval Japanese woodblock prints. The term manga (usually translated as “whimsical sketches”) was first coined by the renowned artist Hokusai in 1814 to describe his sketchbooks filled with drawings.
Fans of the Japanese genre bitterly resent having manga defined as “Japanese comics.” The schism between fans of manga and comics can sometimes be almost as profound as that between magical illusionists and magical practitioners. Because many, on both sides of the divide, passionately feel that the differences between these closely related genres are extremely significant, comics and manga have been categorized separately in this book.
Although manga can be devoted to anything, as with comics, a good percentage features occult, mythological or folkloric themes including witches and other magical practitioners. What is listed below is, once again, only a snapshot.
Manga is a vibrant, vital genre; once exclusive to Japan, it now has global popularity particularly among young readers. As fans outside Japan began to create their own manga, the genre continues to evolve: Korean-style manga is technically known as manwha. Under the Glass Moon, for example, listed on page 299, is technically a manwha, as is the popular Demon Diary.
This is an extremely fluid genre; it can be very difficult to separate manga and anime. The same story or its characters may appear in manga form, as a televised anime series, and also sometimes as feature films. Characters from one series also sometimes pay visits to other series, as do American-style comic-book characters.
The following are some of the more significant manga and anime featuring witches or witchcraft. All are available in English translation. Like comics, this is a genre devoted to fantasy and entertainment; while some elements may derive from authentic tradition and reality, don’t expect realistic depictions of witches, witchcraft or many other things for that matter.
Manga are created by artists and then published. Each publishing house has its personal specialties, artistic vision, and flavor, in the same way that DC Comics, Harvey, Vertigo, and Marvel comics each possess distinct flavors and visions.
Card Captor Sakura
Creator: CLAMP; Publisher: TOKYOPOP
CLAMP is a popular all-female mangacreating team comprising Nanase Ohkawa, Mokona Apapa, Mick Nekoi, and Satsuki Igarashi.
Once upon a time an English sorcerer, Clow Reed, combined Western and East Asian magic to create a magical deck of cards, the Clow Cards. For decades these cards lay hidden inside a big, dusty book until one day a young Japanese girl named Sakura was poking around in her father’s library. She picked up this curious book, opened it…and all the cards flew out! Sakura managed to catch only one.
A strange-looking creature also emerged from the book (he’s supposed to be a winged lion), identifying himself as the book’s gatekeeper and guardian. Cerberus, or Kero-chan as he is affectionately known, informs Sakura that, having opened the book, she is now the Cardcaptor and it is her responsibility to retrieve the missing cards. The cards, which somewhat resemble tarot cards, bestow magical power. Eventually, after many adventures, Sakura collects them all, becoming the powerful Master of the Clow. (Kero-chan serves as her familiar, as well as Guardian of the Clow. Another familiar in the series sometimes takes the form of a winged black cat and sometimes of a panther.)
Card Captor Sakura was extremely successful: there is a series of manga as well as an animated television series and two feature films. There is even a Card Captor Sakura board game. Card Captor Sakura was also briefly featured on American television, debuting on July 20th, 2001, where it became embroiled in controversy. In January 2002, Taco Bell proposed giving out replicas of the magic Clow Cards as a prize-promotional included in a children’s meal. This promotion was terminated when the Christian organization American Family Association protested, complaining that it encouraged children to dabble in tarot and the occult.
Creator: CLAMP; Publisher: TOKYOPOP
Subaru Sumeragi is the 13th Head of the Sumeragi Clan, although he’s a mere youth. Subaru describes himself as just an “ordinary Onmyoji” but there’s no such thing. The Onmyoji are Japanese magical practitioners; the term is sometimes translated as “yin-yang magician.” Part shamans, part exorcists, part wizards, the Onmyoji magical tradition is extremely powerful and Subaru is the current master. Subaru is a hereditary magician; his grandmother was the last Head of the Clan and helped train him in the art. Subaru keeps Tokyo safe from magical harm.
Assisted by a revolving cast of fellow practitioners from various magical traditions, including his twin sister, Subaru solves supernatural mysteries. Although Tokyo Babylon is frequently classified as an “action-fantasy” series, it is perhaps the series most strongly rooted in traditional, realistic occult practice. Constant reference is made to magical traditions; Subaru’s wardrobe and as his magical methods resemble those of the historic Onmyoji practitioner.
Tokyo Babylon appears as a manga series; two anime episodes were also created.
See DICTIONARY: Onmyoji.
Under the Glass Moon
Creator: Ko Ya-Seong; Publisher: TOKYOPOP
Luka Guillaume Reinhardt is currently the world’s greatest Dark Wizard; he and his sorcerer brother live next door to a witch, Madame Batolli and her young witch-apprentice daughter Nell. Luka has his own apprentice; having all these powerful magical practitioners in such close quarters encourages not only magical battles but also some love triangles. Because the male characters are so androgynous (as they tend to be in many manga), trying to determine exactly who is interested in whom and the nature of the relationships can be dizzying. Madame Batolli periodically saves the day; she dresses for action in traditional, albeit sexy witch garb including pointy hat and a very short black dress. She flies an industrial strength broom-thruster capable of speeds that break the sound barrier.
Under the Glass Moon appears as a manwha.
Witch Hunter Robin
Creators: Sunrise and Bandai Entertainment
STNJ is a covert government operation that captures witches. They used to kill them but new methods have been developed to deactivate their power, rendering the witches harmless, and so capture is now preferred as the more humane method. Anyone familiar with historical witch-hunting may find the title and premise of this anime chilling, although the plot is somewhat more complicated.
The witches aren’t exactly witches; the finest witch-hunter is a witch. Witches, as defined in Witch Hunter Robin, seem like normal people but possess special supernatural powers. These powers are usually hereditary, which helps the organization keep track of witches: they know who to watch based on ancestry. Not every member of these lineages develops into a witch; often individuals aren’t aware that they are “witches” until their powers suddenly awaken. There’s nothing particularly magical, witchy or shamanic about these witches: they’re more like rogue humans with supernatural powers. There’s nothing metaphysical or spiritual about them.
The mysterious STNJ captures these witches, deactivates their powers, and sends them to the mysterious Factory—although for what purpose or fate is unknown.
The witch-hunter of the title is Robin Sena, born in Japan but raised in an Italian convent. At age 16 she returns to Japan where she joins the STNJ as their newest witch-hunter. Robin is a genuine witch although she initially keeps this fact secret; to distinguish her from her quarry, she is described as a “craft user.” Her character is intended to at least superficially resemble a young practitioner of Wicca, although nothing really resembles Wiccan tradition. Robin’s methods are vaguely like those of an Onmyoji. She is considered the most powerful witch in the series, able to exert considerable powers over fire.
Creator: CLAMP; Publisher: Delrey/Kodansha
Watanuki Kimihiro is haunted by visions of ghosts and spirits. He can see them but is unable to control these visions, turn them off when they threaten to overwhelm him, or put his innate powers to practical, positive use. His most fervent wish is for these visions to cease. One day, pursued by nightmare visions, he feels compelled to enter a mysterious building, where he discovers Yuko the Witch awaiting him.
Yuko, the “Time-Space Witch,” is the proprietress of a wish-granting store. She is poised, beautiful, serene, and mysteriously omniscient. She asks the boy his name and birthday, only later cautioning him that if someone knows your name, they can control your soul and that astrological information allows someone to plot another’s life path. Without being told, Yuko knows of Watanuki’s powers, his predicament, and his secret wish. She promises to help him. Of course, Watanuki must first pay for her services that he hasn’t exactly asked for by laboring in her store. XXXHolic is related to those fairy tales where the protagonist must labor in the witch’s kitchen as a form of initiation, like Vasilisa the Wise, Mother Holle or Hansel and Gretel. (See FAIRY-TALE WITCHES.)
XXXHolic appears as a manga and anime.
Yu Yu Hakusho
Creator: Yoshihiro Togashi; Publisher: Shonen Jump
Yusuke Urameshi, a 14-year-old juvenile delinquent, spontaneously saves another child from being hit by a car but in the process is fatally run over himself. No one in the Spirit World ever expected Yusuke to behave so nobly and so his demise wasn’t anticipated: there’s no allotted space for him in the after-Life. Yusuke’s ghost is sent back to Earth where after a complicated, convoluted plot he emerges as a supernatural detective solving mysteries involving demons, ghosts, and spirits.
He’s not the witch although there is one in the series: Botan, Yusuke’s compatriot and assistant as well as the ferry-girl responsible for ferrying souls over the River Styx. (Old Charon from Greek mythology must finally have retired, or maybe Botan is in charge of the Japanese division.) Botan rides an oar rather than a broomstick and possesses some magical healing powers.
Virtually all the female characters in Yu Yu Hakusho display magical inclinations, and Yu Yu Hakusho exists as manga, anime, and as a feature-length animated film.
Other than spell-casting, dancing is the activity most often traditionally associated with witches. Dancing is inspired by music. Music is among the primordial shamanic arts.
Greek mythology considered Earth’s greatest musician to be the shaman Orpheus, and music has been an integral part of global magical and spiritual rites since that proverbial time immemorial. According to traditional wisdom, music possesses extremely potent magic powers, which have historically been used for the following purposes:
To inspire ecstasy
To generate additional magic power
To foretell the future
To beckon and exorcise spirits as needed
To communicate with spirits
To appease ghosts
In healing, and in particular the treatment of mental and emotional illness and imbalance.
Many anthropologists believe that shamans were among the first to invent and play musical instruments. Instruments were incorporated into magical, spiritual, and religious rites not only in the Pagan world but also in Jewish and Christian traditions, and although dancing in Church would eventually be forbidden, music remained. By the early Middle Ages, the Church taught that individual musical notes and the melodies formed from them potentially held certain spiritual powers. Music here is considered from two perspectives: The musical instruments most powerfully identified with witchcraft—flutes, drums and percussion instruments, and the violin—and, how witchcraft and witches have served as inspiration for composers, musicians, and songwriters. Some of the most significant instances are listed below.
Drums and Percussion Instruments
Drums and other percussion instruments are the most ancient, most widely distributed and most ritually significant musical instruments of all. There are drums or percussion instruments for every conceivable magical or ritual use. Drums are so primordial that their origins are unknown. (Although the most ancient surviving instrument is a flute (see page 303), this is believed to be because ancient drums were made from perishable materials.)
Drums evoke the heartbeat: the first sound a human being hears is that of his or her mother’s heart while still in the womb, as well as the percussive pulsing of her blood. It is no accident that according to myth, drums were invented by the primal mother deity, Kybele: despite modern associations of drums as a masculine instrument, they were once almost exclusively associated with women and goddess-oriented spirituality, particularly the frame drum.
Drums and percussion instruments were women’s instruments:
The Maenads are commonly depicted with castanets and tambourines; both would also be integral to the tarantella (see Dance, page 248) as well as to modern belly dance.
The Hebrew prophetess Miriam led the women in dance to the accompaniment of tambourines.
Deities like Hathor, Isis, and Kybele are commonly depicted with drums.
Male deities closely identified with drums, such as Bes, Shiva, and Shango, tend to possess powerful associations with women as well.
As modern drums have become larger and more physically imposing, they have become stereotyped as “male” instruments; the tambourine, however, still retains its feminine associations—as legions of tambourine-shaking female backing singers can attest.
Drums are commonly viewed, in traditional magical perspective, as possessing and radiating primal female power: they represent the womb or the vulva and are the counterpart to the male flute. Both flutes and drums are shamanic instruments and are frequently played in conjunction—as they were during witches’ sabbats, allegedly. (They are also frequently paired outside the magical context, as with fifes and drums.)
Drums traditionally associated most exclusively with women are usually played with bare hands, as with the frame drum or dumbek. Drums most closely associated with shamanism, however, whether played by women or men, are often struck with a bone, horn or stick. (The nickname given a cooked leg of poultry, the “drumstick,” recalls what would once have been the bone’s eventual fate.)
Flutes aren’t the only phallic symbol used to balance the feminine drum; the drumstick serves the same purpose. Playing the drum with the stick is magically akin to grinding the pestle within the mortar or hammering nails in a horseshoe: all echo sexual intercourse and magically affirm the creative power of generation.
Drums are used for various magical purposes, most especially:
Spirit summoning: drums are used to invoke spirits. In African Diaspora traditions, every spirit possesses its own specific rhythm with which it may be summoned, with which it announces its arrival (drummers are psychically inspired to play the rhythm) or which can be used as a mode of communication.
Childbirth: drumming was once an integral part of childbirth rituals, intended to entice and direct the baby’s path from the womb as well as to entrance, relax, and direct the laboring woman.
Spiritual cleansing: the sound of percussion, especially when the instruments incorporate metal, allegedly drives off low-level spiritual entities and removes spiritual debris, thus creating a magical cleansing and purification effect. This may be understood as bonus effect that occurs even when drums are intended for other purposes.
Shamanic journeys: what in English is described as a “soul-journey” was, for the Saami people in what is now northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and north-west Russia, known as “the way of the drum.” Drums were used to guide and stimulate global shamanic forays into other realms and to assist the return journey.
Achievement of ecstasy: this was considered crucial in witchcraft and shamanic ritual. Ecstasy generates fresh magical energy.
Trance: drums are used to mesmerize and entrance. In this manner, they are also used for divination and prophecy, as well as to help ease ritual possession.
Divination: the most famous drums used as divination tools belonged to the traditional nomadic Saami people of the European Arctic. Magical designs were painted on the drumheads. Each drum was unique; inspiration for the design came to the shaman in dreams. Bones were placed on the drumhead: when the drum is beaten, the items jump and dance. Interpretations are made based on their movement, sound, and also the manner in which the items interact with the painted designs. Similar drums were popular as fortune-telling devices until recently among traditional Hungarian and Romany shamans and witches, although designs tend to be less complex and beans, rings or other small objects usually substituted for bones.
Various types of percussion have traditionally been identified with witchcraft and women’s spiritual traditions.
Castanets (finger cymbals) are so ancient their origins are lost in the mist. Castanets were widely distributed at a very early date in ancient Egypt, Phoenicia, and throughout the Mediterranean. Castanets were identified with Kybele and with the Maenads.
The damaru is an hour-glass shaped drum traditionally formed from two human skulls. It is not intended to be grotesque or “spooky” but to serve as a reminder of the transience of life and also that new life emerges from death. This Himalayan instrument is considered a shamanic tool and is most often identified with Shiva, although Durga, India’s warrior-goddess, also plays the damaru. Damaru are also made from ivory or wood carved to resemble skulls.
Frame drums and tambourines. No instrument is more associated with female spirituality and power than the frame drum (tambourines are frame drums with jingles attached). Female deities are often depicted holding frame drums; although some are anonymous, others can be identified—most notably Kybele. The frame drum is used to empower and spiritually and magically reinvigorate women.
The sistrum is an ancient rattle consisting of a metal or wooden frame with perforations through which rods and discs are strung. The instrument is most associated with the Egyptian deity Hathor.
Slit-drums of Central and South America are believed to potentially possess human or animal powers, particularly those of the jaguar. One style of drum made by indigenous people from Columbia has a woman’s head at one end and an alligator at the other.
The primal association of drums and percussion with witchcraft and women’s power survives in the tradition of Halloween noise makers. Although no longer so popular, until approximately the end of the first half of the twentieth century, in some communities, Halloween noise makers were as integral a part of Halloween festivities as costumes or trick-or-treating. Halloween revelers, children and adults, took to the streets with inexpensive rattles, tambourines, and similar noise makers. These noise makers, in addition to providing the joy of annoying the neighbors, were believed able to magically provide safety for their bearer while amidst the ghosts and spirits of All Hallows’ Eve. These instruments were customized for Halloween and so, like ancient magical drums, they were decorated with witchcraft motifs, most especially witches, black cats, owls, bats, spiders, and ghosts.
Further reading: Layne Redmond’s When the Drummers Were Women (Three Rivers Press, 1997).
See Dance: Tarantella, page 248; DICTIONARY: Maenad; DIVINE WITCH: Kybele; Shiva; MAGICAL ARTS: Divination; Spirit Working.
The oldest surviving musical instrument on Earth is a Neanderthal flute crafted from a cave bear’s femur with four holes discovered in what is today Slovenia. Its age has been estimated as between 43,000 and 82,000 years old. Not only are flutes among the most ancient musical instruments, they are also among the most widely distributed.
Flutes may have initially been discovered accidentally by blowing into hollow bones, stems (bamboo or reed) or pipes. Eventually instruments were created which could produce tones. (Experts believe that the Neanderthal bone flute replicates the modern do-re-mi scale.) They come in two varieties:
Transverse flutes, which have a side hole like the modern flute
Although the transverse is now the standard modern flute, it is a far more recent invention than the vertical flute: the earliest depictions of transverse flutes come from tenth-century Byzantium. Vertical flutes, of which there are many variations including Pan pipes, are the ones most identified with magic and witchcraft.
Flutes are understood to magically posses and transmit primal phallic power:
Women were forbidden to play flutes in many traditional societies.
“Playing the flute” is a metaphor popularly used in Chinese erotic texts to discuss certain sexual acts; the image of a female flute player may be understood as a visual euphemism.
Flutes, according to traditional magical wisdom from New Guinea, may be used by men to curtail women’s power.
Among the magical purposes ascribed to the flute are romance, fertility, and renewal of life.
Flutes were used in magical healing rituals and were a popular component of funerary rites.
Flutes were buried with the dead and carried as amulets by the living.
Flutes are used to disperse ghosts or to shamanically guide them to their next destination.
Flutes are also used for spirit summoning and for magical communication with animals.
As the earliest flutes were crafted from bone, flutes were considered powerful tools for necromancy (communication with the deceased) as well as exorcisms. The type of bone used to craft the flute would influence its powers. According to legend, Eastern Slav magicians once crafted flutes from human leg bones, which when played, forced all within earshot, except presumably the flautist, to fall sound asleep.
Deities associated with flutes include Athena, Dionysus, Hathor, Kokopelli, Krishna, Mami Waters, Pan, Tammuz, and Tezcatlipoca. Greek mythology credits Athena with inventing the flute. The sound of wind blowing through hollow bones reminded her of the hooting of an owl, her familiar. (And if one understands the owl to be Athena’s alter ego, then the sound of the flute is the sound of Athena herself.) Athena created a bone flute, which intensely delighted her—as it did her fellow deities, animals, and humans. She played it constantly until one day she realized some of those fellow deities were snickering at her. Puzzled, she caught sight of her reflection while blowing and became aware that she looked silly and undignified with her cheeks puffed out. She immediately threw the flute away and never touched it again, although the flute remained among her attributes.
Athena is a deity with an extremely complex history; she transformed herself from an ancient Libyan snake spirit with dominion over women’s mysteries into the staunchest upholder of Greek patriarchy, and thus her act of throwing away the flute, the instrument most associated with snake charming, may be understood metaphorically.
Yet another legend suggests that Athena was inspired to invent the flute by the sounds made by the hissing snakes on Medusa’s head as she was decapitated. Athena’s later impulse to distance herself from the flute came when she realized that, while playing, her face resembled the Gorgon’s mask.
Pan is credited with creating the variation of the vertical flute named in his honor, the Pan pipes. By the classical era, Pan pipes represented wild, carnal, elemental, physical nature and were looked down upon, as opposed to stringed instruments like the harp or lyre, which were under the dominion of Apollo and associated with order and “civilization.” Pan pipes were associated with stubborn rural backward culture, the type that would eventually become labeled “pagan,” rather than with sophisticated, educated, urban musicians. Pan pipes had powerful associations with goat herds and unruly horned deities. Pan pipe-style flutes are indigenous to Africa, Asia, and South America as well as to Europe.
See DIVINE WITCH: Dionysus; Tezcatlipoca; HALL OF FAME: Cagliostro; MAGICAL ARTS: Necromancy.
The violin as it exists today first appeared in Italy in the latter half of the sixteenth century but did not gain widespread popularity until the early seventeenth century. The folk name for violin is “fiddle” and both names are sometimes used to refer to any sort of lutetype instrument played with a bow. The use of the bow for playing the lute arose sometime prior to the ninth century, most probably in Asia.
Despite being a relatively recent invention, it quickly developed a reputation as a potent magical tool. Because the phallic bow is used to evoke music from the instrument’s curvaceous wooden body, playing the violin is magically understood as a metaphor for the act of creation; the instrument combines male and female primal power. In addition, the sound of the violin is identified with the human voice.
The violin evoked passionate responses. European Jews and Romany adored the violin. It is virtually impossible to envision Jewish klezmer music without violins, and many find it utterly impossible to envision Romany music without the instrument either.
Violins were not merely musical instruments however: European Jews and Romany perceived that the violin shared and expressed the soulessence of their cultures. They had tremendous symbolic value. Violins were considered powerfully magical, bordering on the sacred:
Images of violins were carved on Jewish tombstones.
Violins were painted on a synagogue ceiling possessing an astrological motif in Vaslui, Romania.
Violin strings were used as Romany amulets, wrapped around a child’s wrist for protection in the manner that other cultures use red string or ribbon.
In both cultures violins are used for summoning spells and, especially, for romantic magic. As a Jewish proverb states, “A wedding without a violin is like a funeral without tears.”
This favorable perception was not universal; the opposing reaction was equally passionate and intense. Up until the last century Christian folklore considered the violin the devil’s own instrument: violins were potentially diabolical and spiritually dangerous. This perception gave rise to a complex folklore—for instance when you play the violin, you communicate directly with Satan. Not that you’ll ever play as well as he does or at least not without his help: among the professions Satan sometimes assumes is that of violin teacher. Master violinists were believed to have obtained their skills directly from the devil. To request private lessons, meet him at the crossroads.
According to European superstition, should you dance to the playing of an unknown fiddler, your soul could be in danger. A commonly told story, an antique version of what would now be called an urban myth, describes an innocent, unsuspecting maiden who meets a group of women joyously dancing to the sound of one lone man playing the violin. He’s usually either described as a black man or he’s dressed in black; he frequently wears a black cape. The man is either sinister and scary, or exceptionally handsome, or both. The girl joins the party but discovers by the end of the dance that she has unwittingly been irrevocably initiated as a witch.
Another old legend says that fairies dance to violins. If a human joins them, he or she will fall under their power, becoming bewitched and enchanted. Whether this is a problem or a privilege depends upon one’s perceptions of fairies.
According to Christian folklore, Satan doesn’t just play the violin for his own pleasure; he plays it specifically so that witches can dance. And of course, the violin has been known to inspire wild, wear-your-shoes-out dancing. Those who only associate violins with staid classical music should listen to Romany and klezmer music, both of which prominently feature violins that once fueled week-long wedding festivities. The violin’s powerful associations with the tarantella also did not help its reputation.
The violinist most identified with the violin’s magical and diabolical associations was Niccolo Paganini (October 27, 1782-May 27, 1840). Paganini was acknowledged as the greatest violinist in his native Italy and throughout Europe; people speculated about how he became so great and soon rumors began to fly. Paganini developed a demonic reputation; his brilliant playing was attributed to a Faustian deal with the devil. He was even labeled a “Hexensohn” (witch’s brat). Paganini seemed to enjoy these rumors; he never denied them but instead seem to encourage them. He dressed completely in black and would arrive at his concerts in a black coach drawn by black horses. Among his most famous compositions was Streghe, translated as The Witches or Witches’ Dances.
(Rumors about Paganini’s deal with the devil weren’t laid to rest when he died. On his deathbed, Paganini refused the final sacraments; the Church refused to bury him. His body was kept in a basement for five years until finally his family’s petition to have him buried was accepted.)
Madame Helena Blavatsky is renowned for writing serious metaphysical tomes like Isis Unveiled but she also wrote horror stories. In her story The Ensouled Violin (1891), an occultist turned passionate violinist hears Paganini and becomes incredibly depressed, fearing that he will never achieve such greatness. Instead of just telling him that practice makes perfect, his violin teacher attempts to comfort him by advising that Paganini only achieved his unworldly mastery with Satan’s help and, furthermore, that Paganini’s violin has unique strings, crafted from the intestines of a human victim who willingly offered his body for music’s sake.
Further information: American Violinist Rachel Barton’s CD Instrument of the Devil explores the mythic and literary associations of the violin. Selections include Paganini’s The Witches (Cedille Records, 2003).
The violin teacher assumes that this information will appall his student, leaving him satisfied with his normal human talent, but, of course, one must never assume. The student’s reaction? “’By the witches of Thessaly and the dark arts of Circe!’ he exclaimed, with foaming mouth and his eyes burning like coals; ’…I now swear…never to touch a violin again until I can string it with four human chords.’”
Music of all kinds has been inspired by witches, witchcraft, and the magical arts.
Operas incorporating images of witches:
Arabella (Richard Strauss)
Dido and Aeneas (Henry Purcell)
Hansel and Gretel (Englebert Humperdinck)
The Love for Three Oranges (Sergei Prokofiev)
Macbeth (versions by Giuseppe Verdi and Ernest Bloch)
The Magic Flute (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)
The Masked Ball (Giuseppe Verdi)
The Medium (Gian-Carlo Menotti)
Ruddigore or The Witch’s Curse (W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan)
Rusalka (Antonín Dvořák)
Il Trovatore (Giuseppe Verdi)
Popular songs inspired by witches, witchcraft and magical practices include:
Black Magic Woman (Fleetwood Mac, Santana)
Ju Ju Man (Brinsley Schwarz)
Rhiannon (Fleetwood Mac—Rhiannon is the name of a Welsh deity; however the song’s composer Stevie Nicks has described it as being about “a Welsh witch”)
Season of the Witch (Donovan, Brian Auger’s Trinity featuring Julie Driscoll)
That Old Black Magic (Harold Arlen classic popularized by Sammy Davis Jr, Ella Fitzgerald and countless others)
Under Your Spell Again (country music classic covered by Buck Owens, Gram Parsons, Waylon Jennings and countless others)
Witch Doctor (David Seville, Alvin and the Chipmunks)
Witch Queen of New Orleans (Redbone)
Witchcraft (popularized by Frank Sinatra, this standard by Carolyn Leigh and Cy Coleman has also been covered by Chris Connor, Julie Wilson and countless others)
Witchy Woman (The Eagles)
Blues and Rhythm and Blues
Blues and its descendant, rhythm and blues, must be considered separately from other forms of popular music because of the unique nature of its references to witchcraft, divination, and magical practices.
With very few exceptions, references to witches, witchcraft, spells or other magical practices in other genres of popular music are intended as metaphor; in blues and rhythm and blues references to fortune-tellers, swamp witches, and mojo hands are meant literally. These references are also unique because of their matter-of-fact nature. They are totally lacking in sensationalism or diabolism: when Benny Spellman sings of going to see the fortune-teller it seems like the most natural thing in the world, just like consulting any other professional. And when Muddy Waters sings of going down to Louisiana to get a mojo hand, it is absolutely matter of fact, totally without shame or sensationalism. (Of course this matter-of-fact acceptance of magical practice, in conjunction with its celebration of carnal pleasures, may have helped earn the blues its old sobriquet, “the devil’s music”…)
In what other genre does a man boast of the efficacy of his amulet as does Muddy Waters in “I Got My Mojo Working,” a concept so foreign for many that they presumed the song must be about something else, leading to new definitions for “mojo” as in the Austin Powers movies? In what other genre of popular music could a paean to divination as sweet and sincere as Bettye Lavette’s Fortune Teller even exist?
The following songs are but the tip of the iceberg:
Fortune Teller (Benny Spellman)
Fortune Teller (Bettye Lavette)
Gypsy Woman (Muddy Waters)
Hoodoo Lady (Memphis Minnie)
Hoodoo Man Blues (Junior Wells)
Hoodoo Party (Tabby Thomas)
I Got My Mojo Working (Muddy Waters)
I’m Blue (The Ikettes)
I’m A Mojo Man (Lonesome Sundown)
I Put A Spell On You (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins)
Louisiana Blues (Muddy Waters)
Mojo Hand (Lightning Hopkins)
Mojo Hannah (Betty Harris)
Seventh Son (Willie Mabon)
Somebody Done Hoodooed the Hoodoo Man (Louis Jordan)
Two Headed Woman (Junior Wells)
Witches are comparatively sparsely represented on television, especially in comparison to the multitudes featured in books and movies. Why this should be so is subject for speculation. Television, at least up until the advent of cable, has been a notoriously conservative medium. American network television, in particular, is dependent on the favor of advertisers who generally prefer not to associate themselves with witchcraft or the occult. Television programming is, in essence, also brought directly into the home in a way that other media aren’t. Witches are often considered controversial company, not suitable for children.
There is always an exception to the rule of course; many television programs, in particular comedies, feature annual Halloween episodes. These frequently feature witches. However, in general, these are merely cameo appearances with little character development or nuance; what is presented are caricatures of witches.
Few television witches display depth of character; most of those that do are listed below. Perhaps because of the nature of television—shows appear weekly (or even daily as with Bewitched or Dark Shadows)—characters can become very familiar to viewers; in general, recurring characters identified as witches are treated sympathetically and with affection. Even a character intended initially as a villain, like Dark Shadows’ Angélique or one who becomes dangerous, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Willow are audience favorites.
The Addams Family
Among the most beloved television series, The Addams Family ran from September 18, 1964 until September 2, 1966. Gomez and Morticia Addams lived in a spooky, Gothic mansion along with their unusual, eccentric family in an otherwise conventional town. They were Gothic before “Gothic” existed. The deathly-white skinned Morticia sported long black Lilith tresses and always dressed in a skin-tight black gown reminiscent of a spider. (Arguments could also be made for that other witch creature, the octopus.) Always serene and soft-spoken but nonetheless a powerful, committed matriarch, everyone in her family adored her.
The series was inspired by the cartoons of American artist Charles Addams (January 7, 1912-September 28, 1988) that appeared in The New Yorker magazine from 1935 until 1988 and which remain available in several published collections. The original characters had no names. The television show bestowed names upon them and fleshed out their personalities and relationships.
The relevant question of course is whether the beautiful and brilliant Morticia (played by Carolyn Jones) is a witch. Many assume that she is; certainly the standard mass-marketed Halloween witch costume is now based on Morticia’s tight-fitting black spider gown. However, Morticia is never actually explicitly identified as a witch. She does possess some supernatural powers (when Morticia smokes, her body literally smokes; there’s no need for cigarettes) and she does know how to conduct a séance, but whether that is sufficient to consider her a witch is subject to debate. Morticia certainly fulfills many expectations of what a witch should look like. (There is also a school of thought that considers Morticia to really be a vampire, however this too is based purely on superficial evidence—mainly her extreme pallor and languor.)
The Addams Family does have other characters explicitly identified as witches, most notably Morticia’s mother-in-law, Grandmama (Blossom Rock). The show’s joke was that the witch was in many ways the most conventional member of the family. In addition, Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West from the MGM musical The Wizard of Oz, made two appearances as Morticia’s mother, Grandma Hester Frump, and is identified as a witch. If witchcraft is hereditary, then Morticia is a witch.
Witchcraft occasionally emerged as a theme on the show as well. In one episode, the Addams children are terrified by the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, which Morticia deems too violent for children because of the murder of the witch.
In the 1965 Halloween episode, Gomez and Morticia attempt to counter the falsehood taught to their children by outsiders that there’s no such thing as witches. This would have been the moment for Morticia to emerge from the broom closet and announce her identity; notably she does not. However, she does conduct a séance in an attempt to contact her Great-Great-Great-Aunt Singe, a witch who was burned at Salem so that she’ll tell the kids the truth: witches really do exist. When others express doubt as to whether Singe will materialize, Morticia says confidently, “What rightthinking witch would turn down a child on Halloween?”
The Addams Family refuses to die. After the demise of the original show, it continued in syndication, remaining a cult favorite. The original cast reunited for a 1977 Halloween special. The Addams Family has since inspired a televised cartoon series and two feature films, The Addams Family (1991) and Addams Family Values (1993). Anjelica Huston played Morticia in both movies; Judith Malina portrayed Grandmama in the first while Carol Kane assumed the role for the second.
Bewitched aired on the ABC network from September 17, 1964 until July 1, 1972. The show was incredibly popular (in its first season, it was second in ratings only to the Western classic Bonanza.) Bewitched was not only a weekly series; in addition, beginning in January 1968, ABC replayed episodes daily until September 1973. Bewitched held the record of highest-rated half-hour weekly series ever to air from its inception until 1977.
Bewitched was revolutionary: the witch was completely and unambiguously the heroine. Samantha is a fantasy witch blessed with supernatural powers. Seemingly all she had to do was wiggle her nose and whatever she envisioned was accomplished, although every once in a while she was shown struggling to master a spell.
Samantha was beautiful, intelligent, kind, ethical, and in many ways utterly conventional. The only ambivalence shown to witchcraft comes in Samantha’s own attitude toward it: she’d prefer to be an ordinary human and periodically vows to abandon witchcraft for good. Her preference for doing household chores manually rather than magically is the only sign indicating that Samantha might be somewhat less than brilliant. Morticia surely would not make that mistake, and neither did Samantha’s mother.
Bewitched had two witches appearing as series regulars: Samantha was played by Elizabeth Montgomery; Endora, her sardonic mother who was less than enchanted with Samantha’s fascination with all things human, was played by Agnes Moorehead who, unbeknownst to most television viewers, had an illustrious career behind her: she was a founding member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater, appeared in his Citizen Kane, and earned multiple Academy Award nominations. Endora thought Samantha a fool for missing out on all the fun, excitement, and glamour of witchcraft; she disapproved of her attempts to behave as a “mortal” and was the epitome of the evil mother-in-law, constantly casting (very funny) spells on Samantha’s beloved.
The seeds of Bewitched derive from the films I Married A Witch and (especially) Bell, Book and Candle, whose leading lady Gillian epitomizes the ambivalent witch.
A feature film version of Bewitched is planned, starring Nicole Kidman.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Can a cheerleader slay vampires? That’s the dilemma posed by the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy derives from a dualist premise: if forces of evil exist then the forces necessary to combat them must exist too (see the Introduction for a discussion of dualist thinking). In every generation, according to this television show, there is a “Chosen One,” the “Slayer” who stands fast against these forces of evil. Who could possibly defend the world from evil more effectively than a 5’3” blonde highschool cheerleader from California named Buffy?
Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered on March 10, 1997 as a mid-season replacement; it was not expected to do particularly well. Defying expectations, Buffy seized the public imagination, becoming a very popular program. The television series was inspired by Fran Rubel Kuzui’s movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), which was not a financial success but lingered as a cult favorite.
The vampires of Buffy are not classic Count Dracula-style vampires nor do they conform to traditional Balkan vampire mythology. They are perhaps better characterized as vampiricdemonic beings. It’s Buffy’s destiny to preserve the world from them, even at the risk of her death. Buffy is not a witch, however characters explicitly identified as “witches” and themes related to witchcraft appear consistently.
Buffy’s not the witch but her best friend becomes one. Willow Rosenberg is a brilliant computer geek played by Alyson Hannigan. Willow is not only Buffy’s friend but her ally and assistant. She is the only character aside from Buffy to appear in every episode of the series.
Originally Willow researched computer websites devoted to magic spells, witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-Paganism only in order to assist Buffy in her exploits; soon she gets hooked by the topic however and delves deep in the world of the magical arts and Wicca. Eventually Willow becomes an accomplished spell-caster and a dedicated practitioner. She is explicitly identified as a Wiccan, although Buffy the Vampire Slayer is no less devoted to fantasy than Bewitched: its depictions of Wiccans, witchcraft or metaphysical themes in general should not be considered realistic by any means.
Willow’s interest in witchcraft eventually leads to obsession and disaster. Although Willow is treated sympathetically the underlying message is that practicing the magical arts is dangerous. Determined to save Buffy’s life, which is hanging in the balance, Willow summons “the Books of Dark Magic” and drains them of their contents, absorbing their knowledge into her own body: her normally red hair turns black and her eyes darken. Thus transformed into Dark Witch Willow, Willow goes to the hospital, orders the doctors and nurses to leave, and magically heals Buffy.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer has provoked some serious philosophical discussions and has even been the subject of university seminars. Beneath the humor and fantasy, the show can be interpreted more seriously as depicting a dualist battle between forces of evil and righteousness.
Charmed premiered in October 1998: the three Halliwell sisters, Prue, Piper, and Phoebe, are reunited at their childhood home in San Francisco following the death of their grandmother. They discover a Book of Shadows in the attic that foretells of “The Charmed Ones”—three witches who will become the most powerful of a long line of “good witches.” Each of the Charmed Ones shall inherit one power:
The power to manipulate objects
The power to freeze time
The power to see the future
The Halliwell sisters realize that they’re the Charmed Ones! They learn that they must stay in the mansion and assume their role.
Charmed, described as a “supernatural drama,” is based on an interesting concept: witches as enemies of demons rather than their allies. Reminiscent of the Italian magical practitioners, the Benandanti, Charmed depicts witches as protectors of the innocent and enemies of the wicked. Evil forces are relentless in their attempts to destroy the Charmed Ones and usurp their powers.
Shannen Doherty, who originally played the part of Prue Halliwell, allegedly refused to sign a two-year contract extension in June 2001 and so Prue was thrown through a wall in the last episode of the third season and is now presumed dead. The Charmed Ones were at a loss; the show’s premise is rooted in the concept of the power of three—as in the Triple Goddess and the three stages of women (maiden, mother, crone.) In order to achieve maximum power, the Charmed Ones needed a third witch. Luckily, Paige Matthews (played by Rose McGowan) soon appeared, a long-lost sister of the Charmed Ones.
The Charmed Ones’ lineage began with their maternal ancestor, Melinda Warren, who although born in Virginia eventually moved to Salem, Massachusetts. She possessed all three of the Charmed Ones’ powers. A warlock tricked her, copied her powers and turned her over to the authorities. (On Charmed, warlocks are not male witches but evil ones who happen to be male.) Melinda was burned at the stake during the Salem witch trials. (And no, witches were not burned at the stake in Salem, or elsewhere in New England. They were hung, a fate that never seems sufficiently grizzly for fantasy versions of witchcraft.)
Charmed draws deeply on Wiccan terminology and ritual, although this show is also a fantasy and should not be taken as representing the reality of Wicca, witchcraft or metaphysical practice in general. That said, Charmed treats Wicca with respect and it has a following in the modern witchcraft community.
See DICTIONARY: Benandanti; Wicca.
Dark Shadows was a Gothic soap opera that recounted the tangled history of the Collins family of Collinsport, Maine. It was the first daytime serial devoted to vampires, werewolves, and witches and featured mortals-vampire romances decades before Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Dark Shadows debuted on June 27, 1966 and ran for five years until April 1971. A daily half-hour soap opera, the show was televised in the late afternoon and so became popular as an after-school program for older children as well as for adults.
It was originally merely a Gothic-flavored soap opera, which was not initially very popular until, nine months into the program, the character of the vampire Barnabas Collins was introduced. Barnabas caught the public eye as he did that of many of the program’s female characters. Once the vampire theme was introduced, the show genuinely became suspenseful and even scary although the plot was never less than convoluted.
Barnabas was released from his slumber in the family mausoleum in a plot-line reminiscent of what was then a cult movie favorite, The Mask of Satan (see Films, page 266). His vampiric condition was caused by a witch: in 1795, he had scorned her love and she cursed him. As that old saying goes, hell hath no fury…the witch, Angélique, periodically made appearances on Dark Shadows just to make sure Barnabas never re-attained mortal status.
Angélique made her first appearance on the show during a séance conducted for the purpose of revealing Barnabas’ history. She then made several appearances in various incarnations and under different names, most notably the modern character Cassandra. In the guise of Cassandra, she continues to study and practice witchcraft.
Lara Parker played Angélique in all her incarnations. Angélique is a beautiful, seductive blonde displaying lots of cleavage. Although she was a “villain” she was not portrayed unsympathetically. Dark Shadows drew much of its inspiration from Gothic novels and imagery; its vision of malevolent witchcraft does not contradict that of traditional folklore. Malevolent witchcraft is fueled by anger, jealousy, and rage; in this particular case, Angélique possessed tremendous resentment of the class barriers obstructing her relationship with Barnabas Collins whom she desired, loved, and despised simultaneously.
Dark Shadows did not lack controversy. Fundamentalist Christian groups protested its presence on television, describing Dark Shadows as “Satan’s favorite television show.” Witches and vampires may have been dangerous but they weren’t the show’s true villains; that role was assumed by stern, conservative patriarchs and hypocrite preachers. It was also not a light comedy like Bewitched or The Addams Family with witchcraft played for laughs; instead the primary witch and vampire were very seductive.
Dark Shadows inspired two films. Various attempts have been made over the years to resurrect the television series with a new cast. The old series remains popular; fans continue to hold annual conventions.
Sabrina the Teenage Witch
Sabrina the Teenage Witch has had many incarnations over many years:
She debuted in the comic book Archie’s Madhouse in October 1962.
She emerged as a lead character in Archie’s TV Laugh Out in December 1969.
In September 1971, Sabrina was featured in the animated television series Sabrina the Teenage Witch. She also made appearances on another series The Groovy Ghoulies.
In 1994, actor Melissa Joan Hart was cast in a made-for-television movie, inspired by the comic character, as Sabrina Sawyer—a young girl who learns she’s a witch after she goes to live with her two aunts.
Finally Hart went on to star in this popular television series, which ran from September 1996 until April 2003. The character of the young witch learning to use her powers was renamed Sabrina Spellman. Her two witch aunts were Hilda (Caroline Rhea) and Zelda (Beth Broderick).
The show is a light comedy in the vein of Bewitched. Sabrina, like Samantha, is ambivalent about being a witch: it deprives her of much of the fun of a regular teenager. Her aunts are stricter than Bewitched’s Endora, or perhaps Sabrina merely has a more responsible vision of witchcraft. Although she is a hereditary witch, one of those semi-immortal supernatural beings who just look human, there are still many rules and regulations for Sabrina to learn and abide by in order for her to become a full-fledged witch. Sabrina lives with her aunts in a conventional community; although they may appear a little eccentric, they must keep their identity as witches secret.
Sabrina the Teenage Witch draws its witchcraft imagery from traditional folklore: Sabrina has a huge interactive grimoire. The family includes a sardonic, talking black cat named Salem. (Salem is a transformed witch; he was punished by the Witch Council for attempting world domination.)
A film version of Sabrina the Teenage Witch is scheduled to begin in late 2006 with Sarah Michele Geller (Buffy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) starring as Sabrina.
Visual Arts: Paintings, Postcards, and Woodcuts
Witches and witchcraft have inspired artists and served as their muse but, conversely, artists have also exerted tremendous influence over popular perceptions of witches and witchcraft. Artists have continually shaped and reshaped how the general public views and understands witches and witchcraft. This was especially true when there was little competition from any other media.
Images of powerful women have always held people spellbound. Among Earth’s oldest surviving works of creative “art” are Paleolithic and Neolithic carvings of powerful females (see the Introduction). One may trace changing perceptions of witches (and of women in general) through centuries of art. There are countless artistic depictions of witches or themes related to witchcraft, too many to ever include in one book; however certain eras, schools of art and individual artists are especially identified with the topic:
The Northern Renaissance
The Spanish painter Francisco Goya
Victorian-era painters including the Pre-Raphaelites
Halloween postcards from the turn of the twentieth century
As with masterpieces of literature or film, some may consider it unfair to reduce some of the world’s finest artistic representations to discussions of witchcraft, however that is what ties these very disparate styles, eras and perceptions together. It is also not usual for fine art and popular culture to be considered side by side; however in terms of historical impact, popular forms like woodcuts or postcards have exerted extraordinary influence over how witchcraft is portrayed and perceived. The anonymous masters of propaganda who created those medieval woodcuts also helped create the image of the witch as monstrous consort of Satan. And the early twentieth-century fine artists, often equally anonymous, who strove to earn a living by painting postcards, conversely helped redeem witches, popularizing the notion of the beautiful, playful or sweet witch.
Popular perceptions of witches were shaped by the paintings and engravings of acclaimed masters like Goya, Dürer or Hans Baldung Grien, and also by popular penny-dreadfuls, broadsides, and turn-of-the-twentieth-century postcards. Whether they are equally worthy as art is subject to debate; they are equal in terms of their impact on witchcraft.
Medieval Woodcuts, Engravings, and the Northern Renaissance
Although these genres are usually considered separately, when the main focus is on depictions of witchcraft, they are almost impossible to separate as the masters of the Northern Renaissance often used the same production techniques as those used by the anonymous illustrators of penny-dreadfuls and broadsides. The significant difference between the genres is the level of artistic skill of the renowned masters and the almost absolute anonymity of the medieval craftsmen.
The invention of the printing press not only promoted notions of general literacy; another by-product was the then-revolutionary concept of “popular art.” Up until the fifteenth century European art was almost completely religious in nature. Religious topics were the only topics with very, very, very few exceptions. The concept of art as popular entertainment or mass secular information had yet to be born.
“Woodcut” and “engraving” refer to methods of creating art. These methods were incorporated by the masters of what is now considered the Northern Renaissance in addition to conventional painting, however the term “medieval woodcuts” is also often used as a blanket term to refer to illustrations made using that method in the popular media of the day.
Woodcut is a printing method in which images are carved onto the surface of a flat block of wood. The printing parts remain level with the surface; the non-printing parts are removed usually with a chisel. Ink is rolled over the surface using a roller; the ink is only applied to the flat surfaces. Paper is then placed face-down on the inked woodblock and pressure applied to its back. Ink is transferred to the paper and a mirror-image of woodblock is created. Multiple colors can be printed although the simplest woodcuts are monochromatic.
Woodcuts and the new printing process made it possible for inexpensive illustrations to be created for mass consumption. Literacy was still rare but anyone could view and comprehend pictures. And as the name of one type of publication, the penny-dreadful, indicates, soon almost anyone could afford them.
Medieval woodcuts as a genre tend toward the sensational and macabre: witches are a favorite theme. There are countless of images of witches in that genre: witches flying to sabbats or applying ointments, witches casting spells or curses, witches cavorting with Satan or witches just being generally evil and disgusting. These images were incredibly influential: many who previously had no idea what a witch looked like were convinced they did once they had seen these images.
If you didn’t fear witches before you saw these broadsides and penny-dreadfuls, you likely would afterwards. Witches were typically given grotesque features: warts, hooked noses, many are deeply wrinkled and look ancient. During an era when life expectancy was low and when death during childbirth was common, women of advanced age were popularly considered unnatural. Merely to be a very old woman was sometimes considered among the sure telltale signs of witchcraft or diabolical affiliations.
Witches are not only identified by their pointy hats and broomsticks. In addition, certain motifs are fairly unique to depictions of witches:
Witches are commonly depicted reading. This may not seem unusual today, however up until the eighteenth century artists rarely depicted women in the act of reading with two significant exceptions: women who are clearly studying devotional material and witches who study books of magic.
Witches are commonly depicted naked. During very conservative eras, the only women who frequently appeared naked were witches, which just went to prove what kind of women they were, even if they had been forcibly unclothed. (During public executions, condemned witches frequently died unclothed, as did Joan of Arc; it was considered the ultimate punishment and humiliation.)
It is surmised that Albrecht Dürer and other witch-hunt era artists painted witches specifically because they desired to paint the female nude, and the only women whom it was considered acceptable to paint naked were witches.
There is a powerfully sadistic, pornographic quality to much popular witch-hunt era imagery; there are tremendous quantities of naked witch imagery, in many of them witches are engaged in various sexual acts with Satan, demons, familiars, each other, men, you name it. Other images depict the accused undergoing torture and physical examination. Often the unclothed woman (if she has clothes, they may be ripped to shreds) is chained to a board, chair or pole while a pack of men examine or torture her. Witch-hunt era images are direct precursors of similar imagery found centuries later in many pulp or pornographic magazines.
A tremendous quantity of medieval woodcuts survive; however, virtually all the illustrators are anonymous.
The Northern Renaissance
Renaissance means “rebirth” and usually refers to the flowering of artistry and intellect in Italy beginning in the fourteenth century and spreading throughout Northern Europe during the sixteenth. It is considered the transitional period between the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Modern Age.
The Northern Renaissance occurred concurrently with some of the most virulent witch-hunts. Whatever their personal opinions (and many of these works are considered ambiguous), images of witches and their sabbats became popular in high art as well as low, with images of witches’ sabbats created in woodcuts, engravings, and paintings by masters of the Northern Renaissance. Although the artistry may be finer and the techniques more sophisticated, many of the themes, images, and topics are no different than those of the anonymous medieval carvers. Witch-hunts were current events for these artists; they were aware of popular depictions of witchcraft and drew their inspiration from the same sources.
The Northern Renaissance artist most associated with themes of witchcraft is Hans Baldung Grien (c. 1484—1545), who is considered responsible for introducing erotic and supernatural themes into German art. Witches were among his favorite themes.
Grien received part of his artistic training in Albrecht Dürer’s workshop as designer of graphic illustrations (1505—1507) and is considered among Dürer’s most gifted students. He eventually became a member of his workshop. Grien painted religious pieces as well as practitioners of the magical arts. His best-known work is the High Altar of the Cathedral at Freiburg in Germany.
Grien was a member of the Strasbourg Town Council and official painter to the Episcopate. He lived in Strasbourg during a time when the city was preoccupied with witch-hunting. The Pope had appointed the Bishop of Strasbourg to supervise enforcement of witchcraft laws in the area and to discover hidden witches. Grien became a wealthy property owner who took an active role in Strasbourg civic life during this time.
His witchcraft-themed works include:
The Witches’ Sabbath (1510); considered among his masterpieces, it featured a new technique known as chiaroscuro or tonal woodcut that resulted in a print resembling something between a woodcut and a painting
Scare of Witchcraft (1510)
The Witches (1510)
Witch with a Monster (1515); the monster, a dragon, anally penetrates the young, naked blonde witch with his incredibly long tongue.
Two Weather Witches (1523)
Departing for the Sabbath (date unknown)
Three Witches (date unknown)
The Bewitched Groom also known as Sleeping Groom and the Sorceress (1544)
Other artists and their works associated with witchcraft themes include:
Niklaus Manuel Deutsch (1484—1530): Witch Porting the Skull of Manuel; Old Witch; Female Flautist
Albrecht Dürer (1471—1528): The Four Sorcerers; The Witch; Witch Riding a Ram Backwards
David Teniers the Younger (1610—1690): Witches Preparing for a Sabbat
Hans Weiditz II (also sometimes spelled Wyditz) (c. 1495-c. 1536). This Flemish artist is considered a master of the Northern Renaissance. He specialized in woodcuts and is an important exception to the rule regarding the anonymity of this genre. His woodcuts include: Witch Turned Werewolf Attacking Travelers; Witches Celebrating; The Alchemist; Witch Fighting a Devil; Witch Brewing Potion; and Devil Seducing Witch
When it comes to witchcraft (and perhaps in other ways as well) the artist who was born Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (March 30, 1746-April 16, 1828) transcends genres. Goya created a prodigious output of work; a high percentage involved witchcraft themes including a series of paintings known as The Witchcraft Paintings.
Goya’s mother came from the lowest rung of Aragonese nobility. His father, a master gilder, traced his family’s roots to Basque ancestry. The Basque region was identified with witchcraft and had earlier been the site of one of the few major Spanish witch-hunts (see WITCHCRAZE!: Spain). The Basque word for sabbat, Aquelarre, is the title often given one of Goya’s most famous paintings, called in English The Witches’ Sabbat.
His depiction of witchcraft is ambiguous and there is much speculation as to his true beliefs. His witches are grotesque but powerful. They are consistently painted in conjunction with the devil in the form of a human-sized goat. However, Goya also created images of individual witches punished by the Inquisition and these may be interpreted as being quite sympathetic.
Goya had his own troubles with the Inquisition himself, although they did not include charges of witchcraft. Goya was perhaps the first master of social or political art and so often interpreters seek metaphors in his works devoted to witchcraft. However, scenes of Spanish witchcraft (brujeria) were very popular in late eighteenth-century Spain, if only as a joke about ancestral superstitions, and were a favored theme not only in visual art but also in literature: many plays about witchcraft and diabolism (assumed to be intrinsically related) were produced in the Spanish theater during Goya’s time. Antonio de Zamora, the Spanish playwright and author of The Stone Guest, is believed to have helped inspire Goya’s Witchcraft Paintings, for instance. Few of these witchcraft-related works are familiar to English speakers and thus Goya’s work is often interpreted out of context.
Although Goya painted witches throughout his life, they are prominently featured in three specific series:
This series of numbered satirical prints are known as the Caprices, Capriccios or Caprichos, and consist of etchings with acquatint. They are named and numbered. The word “caprice” derives from the unpredictable jumping and hopping of a young goat. Approximately one-quarter of the 80 final plates in the Caprices represent witches or witchcraft. They were published in 1799 but attracted the attention of the Inquisition. Goya withdrew them from public sale and offered them to the Spanish King. They appear in the royal inventory of 1803.
Examples of the nature of witchcraft-related caprices:
All Will Fall: Capricho 19 possesses a hallucinatory quality. It depicts winged malevolent spirits including a traditional siren (a bird-woman, not a mermaid) high in a tree overlooking three women, presumably witches. The old grotesque woman/witch looks up while two younger, attractive, buxom women amuse themselves by anally penetrating a captured flying demon (or bird) who suffers in their hands.
There Was No Remedy: Capricho 24 depicts a female victim of the Inquisition riding on a donkey. She is often interpreted as a witch although her “crime” is unclear. She’s barebreasted, wearing the long peaked, striped hat of humiliation. (Stripes were once representative of criminality as in some modern prison garb.) The woman shines white and luminous while the crowd leers and jeers at her from the darkness.
Other caprices with witchcraft themes include Capricho 60: Trials; Capricho 61: Volaverunt; Capricho 67: Wait Until You’ve Been Anointed; Capricho 68: Pretty Teacher (a young naked witch clings to a wizened elderly cone on a flying broomstick).
Goya painted six oil paintings devoted to sorcery and witchcraft during 1797 and 1798. The series consists of six individual paintings, thematically related but not forming a coherent narrative. Two are now lost. In June 1798, the so-called Witchcraft Paintings were sold to his patron the Duke of Osuna who, together with his wife, is believed to have commissioned them. The surviving paintings comprise:
Aquelarre or The Witches’ Sabbath
The Flying Witches
The Spell or The Incantation
The Black Paintings
In 1819, Goya bought a country home known as “The House of the Deaf Man.” (Quinta del Sordo). Ironically, although Goya was deaf (he became permanently deaf in 1792), the house was not named in his honor; the previous owner had been a deaf farmer. Between 1820 and 1823, Goya created 14 paintings directly on the plaster walls of the house. (There is also a school of thought that suggests these paintings were actually made by his son.) They are now known as the “Black Paintings” both because of their literal color and the darkness of their mood. In several of the works, Goya once again returned to the theme of witchcraft.
In 1860, long after Goya’s death, the paintings were removed from the walls, restored and transferred onto canvas. In 1881, the then owner of the house gave the paintings to the Spanish State, which passed them on to Madrid’s Prado Museum where they remain today. The house itself was demolished to make way for a railway siding, which now bears Goya’s name. Among the Black Paintings devoted to themes related to witchcraft are The Goat and Las Parcas (The Fates).
Nineteenth-century Paintings Including the Pre-Raphaelites
The nineteenth century was characterized by a reassessment of art and women’s societal roles in general, and of witchcraft and witches in particular. Among other artistic movements, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded by a group of seven English painters in 1848 as an extension of the Romantic movement dedicated to re-defining “art.” They, together with other artists, were fascinated by mythology, mysticism, and women’s mysteries, which became extraordinarily popular themes and remain so today.
Once again witches and sorceresses became a common artistic motif, although the witches now being produced were like nothing ever seen before. Previously, one could safely say that depictions of witches were generally grotesque, at best ambiguous. Images of witches created during this era were frequently at worst ambiguous; in general, they are beautiful, powerful, and mysterious even when they are threatening.
These witchcraft paintings remain extremely popular; although many are unfamiliar with the artists’ names, the images themselves are often incredibly familiar, appearing all over the Internet on sources devoted to Wicca and witchcraft. They appear on the covers of multitudes of books devoted to witchcraft as well as other unrelated topics. It can be difficult at first glance to distinguish between the several books currently available all featuring John William Waterhouse’s The Magic Circle on the cover, for example.
A popular artistic theme during this era was the mysterious power of women. (This was a period where women were first beginning to demand political rights and social and economic equality.) These artistic depictions may not have been intended favorably although modern eyes tend to view them in a positive manner. The concept many of these paintings intended to convey was that of the femme fatale, the belle dame sans merci. Although beautiful, seductive, and alluring, this woman is ultimately deadly: a Salome or a Jezebel, a Circe or a Medea, or even just some generic sorceress or witch.
Witches were still dangerous but they were beautifully so rather than grotesque. Whether this style of art reeks of misogyny or celebrates these magical, powerful women is subject to interpretation and strong cases have been made for both sides of that particular argument.
Among the artists most devoted to painting witches and sorceresses was John William Waterhouse (April 6, 1849-February 10,1917). Waterhouse enjoyed painting the theme of the femme fatale. Among his many works featuring themes relating to witchcraft are:
The Household Gods (1880)
Consulting the Oracle (1882)
The Magic Circle (1886)
Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses (1891)
Circe Invidiosa (1892)
The Crystal Ball (1902)
Jason and Medea (1907)
Circe (1911), also known as The Sorceress
The Charmer (1911)
The Love Philtre (1914)
Tristan and Isolde with the Potion (c. 1916)
There are too many paintings related to witchcraft in this genre to ever count. However, some other significant paintings from this era include:
A Bacchante Arthur Hacker (1913)
Circe John Collier (date unknown)
Circe Arthur Hacker (1893)
Circe Lucien Levy-Dhurmer (1895 and 1897)
In the Venusberg (Tannhauser) John Collier (1901)
The Laboratory Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1849)
Lilith John Collier (1887)
The Love Potion Evelyn de Morgan (1903)
The Magic Crystal Sir Frank Dicksee (1894)
Medea Anthony Frederick Sandys (1878)
Priestess of Delphi John Collier (1891)
The Prophetess Libuse Vitezlav Karel Masek (1893)
The Sorceress Lucien Levy-Dhurmer (1897)
The Sorceress Henry Meynell Rheam (1898)
The Vision of Faust Luis Ricardo Falero (1878)
Witch Gustav Klimt (1898)
The Witches’ Sabbath Luis Ricardo Falero (1880)
The very first official government-sanctioned postal card was unveiled in Austria on October 1, 1869. Postcards were an immediate hit: it is estimated that nine million of them were sold in their first year of existence and sales continued to increase exponentially.
Originally postcards were intended as a very simple, less-expensive method of postal communication. The first postcards were uniform and had minimal imagery. In 1878, standard dimensions were assigned at the World Congress of the Universal Postal Union. In the 1890s, governments began relinquishing control of this profitable product, granting publishing licenses to private industry.
Simultaneously, refinement of a color-printing technique known as chromolithography occurred. Postcards could easily and inexpensively have individual images on one side, leaving room for written messages and address information on the other.
The first chromolithograph centers were in Germany, where most early art-postcards were produced. These cards are characterized by their long-lasting vibrant colors—colors created by toxic materials that are now no longer in use. The artwork on turn-of-the-century postcards, thus, is often more vivid and exciting than on more recent examples and as such are highly valued by modern collectors.
Postcards emerged in all different varieties. From approximately 1900 until 1930 sending Halloween postcards was as popular as sending Christmas cards remains today, and perhaps even more so. Hundreds of postcards were produced featuring Halloween imagery, especially witches. Many were also devoted to divination techniques. Today they are highly prized collectibles, and the finest ones in mint condition fetch extremely high prices. For many, this financial value is the most significant aspect of antique postal cards. However, from a witchcraft perspective, these postcards created a magical image of witchcraft perhaps never seen before.
“Fine artist” unfortunately too often translates to “starving artist”; however, postcard-production created job opportunities for many talented artists. Many labored anonymously but some postcards are signed and now are avidly collected. Because the goal was to sell postcards, images might be attractively spooky or even a little shivery but they were rarely truly grotesque. The artists had fun creating the images: many are very playful and thus express the side of witchcraft that is fun and joyful as well as powerful.
These postcards rely on mythic, folkloric, and modern imagery. Popular turn-of-the-century Halloween postcard imagery include vegetable people and other harvest motifs including Corn Mothers masquerading as witches, fortune-telling and other divination techniques, Halloween pranks, and (especially) witches and the fertility-based motifs most associated with them: owls, bats, cats, cauldrons, spiders, broomsticks, and so forth.
Relatively few witches are grotesque; even the old crones are powerful, evocative, and drawn as worthy of respect. Witches wear green, black, and red—especially red: red shoes, ribbons, bows, dresses, and stockings. There are child witches and beautiful witches (even very occasionally male witches). In general (and there are exceptions), they may be characterized as fun and powerful and welcoming. Often witches are shown interacting with conventional people, usually assisting young women with romantic divination or observing Halloween festivities.
Some of the most popular publishers of these postcards include American Postcard Company, Gibson, International Art Publishing Company, Lubrie & Elkins, Tuck, Valentine & Sons, Whitney, John Winsch, and Wolf Brothers.
Some of the most popular artists responsible for classic Halloween postcards include Francis Brundage, Ellen Clapsaddle, Jason Freixas, H.B. Griggs, and Samuel Schmucker.
Witches also appear on Easter postcards from Sweden and Finland. They are characteristic of Swedish Easter witch tradition and are usually depicted with their coffeepots as well as their brooms and cats.