It seems like witches are everywhere these days. And frankly, it’s a little disappointing. There are so many different types and mythologies out there now that keeping it all straight has become something of a headache (Amazing’s very own Astrid Nielsch has done a great job categorizing many different kinds through different modes of art. Check out her post about Old Witches and her post about New Witches). I’m definitely not opposed to genres evolving or departing from their origin. In fact, I believe that in some ways, it is exactly this migration of forms that allows for deep contemplation and enjoyment of even the simplest themes. I would say that probably the most noticeable departure from canon (and probably the most talked about and contested) is probably that of the vampire (close second being the werewolf). I’d say zombies have undergone a pretty significant transformation as well. No longer are they the enslaved minions of voodoo priests or the wage-less laborers of American corporations but free agents, limited only by . . . pretty much everything.
However, I did not think we would see such diversion with witches and in many ways, I feel we’ve taken a step backwards.
A Brief History of the Witch Part I:
I won’t write a Part II, so this will have to be super brief. I’ve been doing some research, and it would appear that the role Witches played in fiction was very specific. Mainly, they were scapegoats. Women who did not fit into customary roles which society had (arbitrarily) constructed were labeled and then — because of ignorance and bigotry — persecuted for anything which (primarily male) society could not explain. It seems there are two famous instances of this persecution. The first took place in Europe (mid-1400’s and 15oo’s respectively) during recurrences of The Plague. The second, here in America during the early 1690’s (Salem Witch Trials). Portrayals of Witches in literature have reflected this animosity towards women and perpetuated themes of misogyny which we are only now starting to break away from.
Scholar Daphne Antonia Lawless, notes in her thesis that 19th century folk tale editors also had a large impact on the conception of Witches. Witches were still women, and still hated because of they did not fit into stereotypical gender definitions; however, there was an added dimension because of the type of literature they occupied. Folktales are meant to teach and inspire morals, lessons, and virtues into children. Lawless argues that children reading folktales inherently view Witches as ‘punishing mother’ figures completing the child’s education as misogynist and leaving no ‘bad woman’ unscathed.
However, recent decades seemed to preform a rewrite on these views. Witches went from ‘hated outsider’ and ‘punishing mother’ to ‘Necessary Outsider’ who, though not participatory in society’s stereo-typical roles, were necessary to ensure it’s survival (much like male detectives such as Dupin, Poirot, etc.) Lawless points to Science Fiction and Fantasy (specifically Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series) as being instrumental in the changing of these old conceptions. I feel it is also important to mention all the Witch type shows that were rampant during the 90’s such as Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Charmed (that one was more for teens, not about teens). Maybe a little campy, and ridiculous, but they seemed to present strong, independent and motivated women who where necessary to keep the status quo.
My quibble with the Coven
Now I’d like to talk about the step backwards. I see it a little bit each week in American Horror Story: Coven and most recently, in a book by Toby Barlow titled Baba Yaga (can read my review here). I think a huge part of the drama from each of these features comes from battles between Witches. Pitting their powers against each other for supremacy over one another. In Coven it sometimes feels like lunch-room gossip with super powers. Not a flattering portrayal of women by any means. It’s a little humorous (and terrifying) from the younger girls in Coven but I feel that perhaps the older Witches might have bigger fish to fry. In Baba Yaga it’s downright repulsive. The older Witch, Elga, decides she must execute the much younger and more beautiful Zoya seemingly on a whim. For the life of me I’m not sure why. A switch gets flipped and hell hath no fury.
I think what bothers me the most, is that these portrayals revert back to Witches as not having a place in our society and seems to demonize them as much if not more than our old folk tales. I cannot refute the strength and independence of the women in Coven or Baba Yaga but their presence seems more disruptive to the larger world they live in than any previous incarnation of WITCH.
Of course I’m always curious for other opinions (the more different the better). I’m by no means an expert so if you have strong convictions (or even mild ones) about anything I’ve said, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts.