Blog

“Witches: The Threat of Change” — My December Pick

by K.P. Kulski

Last year we used the month of December to pick out our favorite posts of the year. First up, E.J., Carrie, and I will talk about our favorite articles to write and then bring you our favorite guest article of the year.

So here’s my December pick “Witches: The Threat of Change.”

Of course this one wasn’t all that long ago, but it was my favorite simply because of subject matter. The idea of historic witches and society holds endless fascination for me. Long ago I wondered why witch hysteria occurred when it did, a question that led to some moderate research. The more source material I read, I couldn’t help but frame the primary sources against the greater social situation, I realized how often these hysterias occurred alongside great social change.

My October article was born of that curiosity and investigation. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Unbound

by K.P. Kulski

You tell ’em I’m coming… and Hell’s coming with me.

I’ve often thought these words, while said by Wyatt Earp in the movie Tombstone, had to have been first uttered by a pissed-off witch somewhere in history.

Women overcrowd the rosters of those who bear the label of witch. Even in the modern lexicon, the very word summons the image of a woman… specifically a threatening woman. But why? What is it about these women that are threatening? What about them warranted the extreme punishments we’ve all read about? Was it really just religious?

In my opinion, it was not so simple. I see witch hysteria as one of the many incarnations of the status quo reaction to female agency.

Interestingly enough, the major historic witch hysterias occurred during periods of significant change or disruptions to social norms. In fact, attacks on women in general have been…

View original post 833 more words

‘We Raise Our Sisters on Our Shields:’ The Modern Valkyrie

By Kristin Jacques, author of Ragnarök Unwound, forthcoming from Sky Forest Press

The Valkyrie has made a comeback in a big way. While this Norse mythological figure has cropped up from time to time in the modern era, the influx and influence of mythology in recent media has lifted the Valkyrie in a new direction. There is now an abundance of depictions in comic books, novels, television shows and blockbuster films, where the Valkyrie has become synonymous with the B.A.M. (Bad Ass Motha), the tough-as-nails female heroine. This archetypal heroine is a cornerstone in several genres, such as Urban Fantasy.

440px-Valkyrie_by_Arbo
Valkyrie, Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1864

This representation is not a far cry from their Norse origins, though newer incarnations present a somewhat sanitized version of the original myth, focusing on the noble characteristics of these female extensions of the All Father. The hint of their dark origins is in the etymology of their name.

valkyries-1900778_1920To break down the old Norse Valkyrjur, Valr referred to the slain of the battlefield and kjósa, meant ‘to choose.’ Valkyrie translated to ‘Choosers of the Slain,’ a title that not only encompassed their choice of which warriors were granted Valhalla status, but who would die in battle. Valkyries didn’t shy away from invoking some heavy-duty black magics to ensure their choices came to fruition. In Njal’s Saga, there is an instance of twelve Valkyrie gathered around a loom, weaving fate like the Norns, though their materials are far grimmer. Here, the Valkyrie use intestines for thread, severed heads for weights, and swords and arrows for beaters, while they gleefully chant their hit list. The Saga of the Volsungs compares the sight of a Valkyrie to ‘staring into an open flame.’ To the Anglo-Saxons, they were spirits of carnage.

At some point the representation shifted from ‘warrior’ to ‘shield maiden,’ and there, a fine distinction began to surface. Valkyrie served as projections, parts of a greater whole. The Valkyrie were an extension of Odin, but as the focus shifted to their nobler deeds, so too did their autonomy expand. Odin might dictate their choice of who died in battle, but the Valkyrie, such as Brunhild or Sigrun, chose their lovers. They chose mortals to favor and protect. They became susceptible to the vices and failings of mortals, just like other Norse deities. They became more human.

tessa thompson

It was this association with fairness, brightness, gold, and bloodshed that has resurfaced in depictions of the modern Valkyrie. There has also been a bit of an amputation from the All Father. A single Valkyrie is a B.A.M., but she comes with a sisterhood. Recent Valkyrie representations include everything from Tessa Thompson’s very memorable kick-butt turn as Marvel’s Valkyrie in the third Thor outing to Rachel Skarsten’s Tamsin in the fantasy femme fatale brawl that is Lost Girl. [pictured: Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok.]

In Marvel’s hot take, the Valkyrie were an elite band of female warriors who served in Odin’s army, with Thompson’s character adrift and rudderless without her sisters. (Slight spoiler: she comes back swinging.) Here at least Odin is present, but the Valkyrie, particularly Thompson, have complete autonomy over themselves.

Lost Girl - Season 5
LOST GIRL — “Like Hell Pt. 1” Episode 501 — Pictured: Rachel Skarsten as Tamsin — (Photo by: Steve Wilkie/Prodigy Pictures)

The Valkyrie in the Canadian fantasy drama Lost Girl give a fair nod to their dark origins. Here, the Valkyrie don’t answer to Odin at all, but to Freyja. They still have the soul-taker gig, but with a twist.  The Valkyrie consider one another sisters, and they fight like sisters, though the hair is off-limits.

For my own depiction of Valkyrie in Ragnarök Unwound, I draw on the more bombastic qualities present in the myths and modern incarnations in the creation of Hildr—fierce, loyal, and quite literal. Isolated from her sisters, Hildr builds a new sisterhood with the other female characters of the novel to fight the good fight.

A common factor in these modern depictions is while the Valkyrie are singularly B.A.M., the Sisterhood is a force of nature. They draw strength from one another and in turn give their strength to one another.

This mentality of sisterhood carries over into women’s culture. We all want to be Wonder Woman. We want to be the B.A.M., but we are strongest when we lift each other. We raise our sisters on our shields. No matter the depiction, the world they inhabit, or who their boss is, Valkyrie are the Sisterhood of the Fierce.


Sources:
The Saga of the Volsungs
The Viking Spirit by Daniel McCoy
Norse-mythology.org
Lost Girl
Thor: Ragnarok

Featured image: Arthur Rackham, “Wagner’s Ring Cycle: The Valkyrie,” 1910

Featured Article – NYT Review: A History of Female Friendship

In the spirit of this month’s theme, we’d like to share this old but great review that discusses the book “The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship” by Marilyn Yalom and Theresa Donovan Brown.

Depictions of female bonds have long been missing from history, from the ancient world to modern day, yet we have a sense of close nonsexual female relationships. Today, we even use the term “bestie” to describe such a role. Yalom and Brown’s book shed some light on how that’s always been the case, whether history recorded it or not. Enjoy!

NYT Review: A History of Female Friendship

“Thou and I are One”: What As You Like It Teaches Us about Friendship

By: E.J. Lawrence

I am currently in the middle of teaching my Shakespeare unit to my students. I suppose that’s why, when the theme of female friendship came up this month, I immediately thought of Rosalind and Celia from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. While this isn’t a play I’ve ever taught before, it is one of my favorites, and one of the reasons I love it so much is because of the beautiful depiction of friendship between these two women.

In this play, Rosalind is a young woman whose father is out of favor with his brother, the treacherous duke–and he is thus exiled–but Celia, the duke’s daughter, so loves her friend that she begs Rosalind be allowed to stay. The duke dotes on his daughter and cannot deny her this request…until he, for no real reason other than mad jealousy, rescinds his offer and tells Rosalind she must leave immediately, on pain of death. Celia tries to beg for her friend and cousin’s life again, but this time, is denied. Rather than stay at home and mourn for her lost companion, Celia chooses to run away with Rosalind, and the two girls escape to the forest where they meet a shepherd, a band of merry men, and their eventual love interests.

When we first meet Rosalind and Celia, Celia is trying to cheer up Rosalind because of her father’s exile. Though Rosalind is initially reticent, the two end that portion of their conversation with an exchange of witty repartee. The wordplay shows both women to be intelligent and quick, treating conversation like a skill they’ve both sharpened on each other for years. It’s a game they enjoy and are both good at, so it makes for not only comedic dialogue, but also shows that the two friends “get” each other. They even often conspire to “outfool the fool” when they make jokes at Touchstone’s (“the fool’s”) expense. While they’re talking about whether Fortune and Nature work together or not, Touchstone enters, and their course of conversation turns to make fun at his expense:

CELIA

No? when Nature hath made a fair creature, may she
not by Fortune fall into the fire? Though Nature
hath given us wit to flout at Fortune, hath not
Fortune sent in this fool to cut off the argument?

ROSALIND

Indeed, there is Fortune too hard for Nature, when
Fortune makes Nature’s natural the cutter-off of
Nature’s wit.

CELIA

Peradventure this is not Fortune’s work neither, but
Nature’s; who perceiveth our natural wits too dull
to reason of such goddesses and hath sent this
natural for our whetstone; for always the dulness of
the fool is the whetstone of the wits. How now,
wit! whither wander you?1

1200px-Before_the_Duke's_Palace–Rosalind,_Celia,_Orlando,_the_Duke_&_Attendants_(Shakespeare,_As_You_Like_It,_Act_1,_Scene_2)_MET_DP85957
“Before the Duke’s Palace” (1800)

This joke, which is essentially saying that fools exist to be made fun of, and that must be why Touchstone has arrived, has built for several lines. Such a joke requires the skill and teamwork of two people who have known each other for some time, and thus know how to set each other up for a punchline. We all have someone with whom we share jokes–inside jokes, puns, etc. These “shared” jokes are usually only between those with whom we share more than just jokes. Witty back-and-forths require a connection, and inside jokes–like the one here between Celia and Rosalind–require an “inner circle” connection. We don’t often joke around in this manner with someone we aren’t close to, and we certainly don’t expect mere acquaintances or “friends of circumstances” to deliver when we set them up for a punchline. These two have a friendship built on common intellect, yes, but also on years of close communication.

It’s more than just their sense of humor that cements them as friends. It’s also their willingness to walk through fire for one another. When Rosalind is banished by Celia’s father, she declares she is now alone. Celia responds: “Rosalind lacks then the love/ Which teacheth thee that thou and I am one:/ Shall we be sunder’d? shall we part, sweet girl?/ No: let my father seek another heir.”2 Celia is not banished; she isn’t the one who must leave. She could have provided her friend with some supplies and sent her on her way, choosing to continue her life in comfort. Instead, she dons the clothes of a peasant girl and runs with her cousin into the forest, giving up every scrap of wealth and comfort she had to give her closest companion some comfort.

To me, that’s the greatest depiction of friendship there is. John 15:13 says, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”3 That, essentially, is what Celia does for Rosalind. She risks death and physical discomfort for her closest companion.

Rosalind_and_Celia
“Rosalind and Celia” (1870)

Once in the forest, Rosalind disguises herself as a man and Celia disguises herself as a peasant, and the two women conceal each other’s identities as they find mischief, mayhem, love, and family in the forest. In the end, in true comedic fashion, everything works out for both women–mostly thanks to Rosalind’s quick-thinking and Celia’s careful protection of her friend’s identity. And while, for me, the play holds many great moments (Jacques’ speeches speak to my soul…which should probably alarm me), my favorite part has always been the beautiful friendship between Celia and Rosalind–their matched wits, their compassion, and the way they protect and look out for each other in the darkest of circumstances.

  1. Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. Act I.Scene 2, http://shakespeare.mit.edu/asyoulikeit/full.html
  2. —. As You Like It. Act I. Scene 2, http://shakespeare.mit.edu/asyoulikeit/full.html
  3. The Bible, King James Version, Bible Gateway, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+15%3A13&version=KJV
  4. Featured Picture: “Rosalind and Celia” (1909)

Female Friendships in Jacques’s Ragnarok Unwound

“[Friendship] was a bond worth fighting for.” – Ragnarök Unwound

I have the pleasure of introducing this month’s theme—female friendship! We’re going to do things a little bit differently today. As you know, here on Unbound, I write about the depiction of women in fiction. As you may not know, I run a micro-press called Sky Forest Press. We focus on science fiction and fantasy novels with female protagonists and diverse casts. I chose to focus on this niche because it’s a little harder to find in the bookstore, especially adult epic fantasy with female protagonists.

ruThat’s one of the reasons I was attracted to Ragnarök Unwound, written by Kristin Jacques, author of Zombies Vs. Aliens and the upcoming Marrow Charm from Parliament House Press. Ragnarök Unwound is the story of Ikepela Ives, who is known as the Fate Cipher. The Fate Cipher’s job is to untangle the threads of fate. The only problem is Ives is the first part-mortal Cipher, and no one ever taught her how to use her powers. She runs away from her duty until one day, she can’t anymore. A Valkyrie locates her in a bar and pleads for her help in stopping Ragnarök, which has been set in motion. Jacques blends Norse and Hawaiian mythology for a truly unique tale filled with a unique ensemble cast.

Ives is an endearing protagonist. She’s a little bit snarky, a little bit messy, a little bit awesome. She deals with having one foot in the world of mortals and one foot in the world of gods—if not gracefully, then with an awful lot of heart. But the real charm of the book is the friendships she makes. At the beginning of the story, she’s already friends with Jules, a brownie. Along her journey to stop Ragnarök, she acquires Hildr the Valkyrie and Hel, the Goddess of Death, too (and a few boys, but that’s not what this post is about!).

And each woman is unique. Jules, because she’s a brownie, humorously loves cleaning, and she owes Ives a blood oath. That’s not why she sticks around, though. She sticks around because she’s friends with Ives, truly, and does whatever is in her faerie power to protect her. Hildr is a Valkyrie, a warrior from Norse mythology. She’s quite the opposite of Ives and Jules—stoic and unfamiliar with human customs. Even so, she proves her loyalty and does her part in stopping the coming apocalypse. Jacques puts a spin on Hel, the Goddess of Death, and portrays her quite differently from Cate Blanchett’s turn as Hela in Thor: Ragnarok. Here, she’s a gamer who doesn’t often visit the mortal realm because half her body is skeletal. With Ives, she doesn’t feel the need to glamour herself to appear normal. Even though the gang is up against nearly insurmountable odds, the strength of these friendships is what gets Ives through.

hela
Cate Blanchett as Hela in Thor: Ragnarok

I love stories of oddball people banding together to save the world, and that’s really what attracted me to this story and why I wanted it for Sky Forest Press. I’m hopeful that you’ll enjoy it, too! Ragnarök Unwound will be published on January 8, 2019, but you can add it to your Goodreads list now. You can also check out Kristin and Sky Forest Press on Twitter.

[Featured image: The Ride of the Valkyrs by John Charles Dollman. 1909]

From Witch Hysteria to Sephora Kits: Reclaiming Words and Power

by Sara Tantlinger

Witchcraft possesses some deep and dark historical roots that make it a fascinating area of endless study. While men were also targeted during the trials, such as with Giles Corey who was pressed to death by large stones[1], the word “witch” itself is more often associated with women and carries quite a few connotations. So while we have gone from witch hysteria to the concept of being a witch as something more trendy, (and I mean hey, I enjoy listening to my Queen Stevie Nicks and am happy to blast “Sisters of the Moon” anytime of the year while twirling around in a black shawl, so I understand the appeal), but at the same time, the actual study of witchcraft has become deeply commercialized by superficial brands and consumers.

Earlier this year, perfume-brand Pinrose announced they were going to sell a “Starter Witch Kit” through Sephora stores with a retail price of $42. The kit was set to include

Screen Shot 2018-10-27 at 12.35.56 PM
“Starter Witch Kit” https://hellogiggles.com/news/sephora-starter-witch-kit-pulled/

sage, rose quartz crystal, and tarot cards, according to altpress.com[2]. The backlash from those citing witchcraft as a real religion and not a gimmick to make teens feel on trend was loud enough to get the kit pulled from being manufactured. I was kind of fascinated by this whole ordeal because it reminded me of how, over these many years, we have gone from witch hysteria, associating it with the devil, and of course murdering real women over false accusations, to trying to package it into something pretty and aim it at target audiences for entertainment purposes. I don’t identify as a witch religiously, but I can certainly identify with the rage that comes from being damned over something until it suddenly becomes fashionable.

One of the reasons why I am interested in the whole concept of witchcraft is because of the power that one word holds. When I hear the word, I think of a woman who is not afraid to use her identity and power, who is in touch with her individual spirituality, and who, at the end of the day, does not care if her power scares those who toss the word around like an insult. Okay, in that regard maybe I do identify with some aspects of being a witchy woman, but I know the word has different definitions, practices, and aspects that make it truly hard to logistically define. But then again, I think women are sick of being defined in static ways, which is one of the reasons why I roll my eyes when I hear the term “strong, female character” in the writing world. Well yeah, all women are strong. I don’t need to be told that. Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer was an

Screen Shot 2018-10-27 at 12.33.32 PM
Willow Rosenberg: https://buffy.fandom.com/wiki/Willow_Rosenberg

incredibly strong witch, but she was also wicked smart, a loyal friend, and experienced some incredible growth in terms of her identity, sexuality, and overall powers. I imagine she’d easily flay open anyone who came to try and execute her for witchcraft. While her powers at one point came from some dark places, she never sold her soul to the devil, which is what many believed witches did during the times of the trials and witch hunts.

Witch hunters primarily focused on nonsensical confessions and often linked a woman accused of witchcraft as being someone who had sexual relations to the devil. Take the story of Märet Jonsdotter, for example, who was accused of having intercourse with the devil, riding a man as a horse into a legendary meadow, and attending witches’ Sabbaths there. In 17th century Sweden, she was the first to be tried during their witch hunt, also known as “The Great Noise.” [3] At first, she denied the accusations and was not able to be executed until the laws changed as witch hysteria continued to rise. The laws in Sweden changed in regard to confession, and Jonsdotter was accused of witchcraft, sentenced to death, decapitated, and then burned at the stake. Unfortunately, much of this happened after one of Jonsdotter’s suitors was attacked by another suitor, so I get the feeling her death was more due to the patriarchy as opposed to casting curses in the meadow. [4] This whole concept of women being synonymous with the devil throughout history and religion is something I’ve embraced as being delicious and hilarious because in my mind, it all comes down to people fearing women who use their power to embrace their ambitions and perhaps choose to live an unconventional life that does not appease societal norms.

Witch is power, not a commercialized trend or makeup kit, and women should be reclaiming the word and taking back how we define it, just as we have done with many other slurs and insults. We get called these words and many others, usually for scaring those who don’t want women to be in charge, and frankly, those people should be scared. If anything, I believe in the power of rhetoric and words, so taking back what others use as an insult and evolving it into a meaning of empowerment for women is true magic in my eyes.

 

  1. http://historyofmassachusetts.org/the-curse-of-giles-corey/
  2. https://www.altpress.com/news/sephora-pulls-pinrose-starter-witch-kit/
  3. https://listverse.com/2012/11/10/top-10-notorious-witches/
  4. https://www.revolvy.com/page/Märet-Jonsdotter

 

 

 

“A Curse on Being a Woman:” The Witch in Maryse Conde’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem

The Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts are one of those dark spots of American history that continue to intrigue us even as they warn us about the dangers of mass hysteria and the necessity of due process. As is often the case, the history surrounding this has not been kind to some of these women. We remember the initial accusers—Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, and others—as hysterical and attention-seeking, a view that Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible only solidified.

TitubaandtheChildren-Fredericks
Alfred Fredericks, Designer; Winham, Engraver – from “A Popular History of the United States”, Vol. 2, by William Cullen Bryant, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1878, p. 457

Some women, like Tituba, we barely remember at all, and what we do is hardly accurate. She’s been immortalized in works such as Miller’s or Marion Starkey’s 1949 book The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry Into the Salem Witch Trials, both of which depict her as the cause, however unwittingly and indirectly, of the witch hunt. Starkey suggests that, “in the absence of the elder Parrises, Tituba yielded to the temptation to show [Betty and Abigail] tricks and spells, fragments of something like voodoo remembered from the Barbados” (Starkey 30). She goes so far as to say she put Betty under “the spell of an evil, thrilling dream” (30). Neither is Miller concerned with historical truth when he suggests that hysteria arises because Samuel Parris catches his daughter, Betty, and his niece, Abigail, in the forest with Tituba, dancing and “traffick[ing] with spirits” (Miller 10). He then says to Abigail, “I saw Tituba waving her arms over the fire when I came on you. Why was she doing that? And I heard a screeching and gibberish coming from her mouth. She were swaying like a dumb beast over that fire!” (10)

Essentially, both Starkey and Miller attribute the cause of the hysteria to Tituba’s otherness, whether she’s simply telling the girls stories from her home of Barbados or deliberately teaching them “voodoo.” In reality, we know very little about Tituba. But in her 1986 novel, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Maryse Condé blends history and fantasy in order to give Tituba a fully realized narrative.

After her mother is hanged for stabbing her master in self-defense, Tituba learns about healing herbs from a woman on the island named Mama Yaya. Mama Yaya also teaches her that “death is merely a passageway and the door always remains open” (Condé 124). Throughout the novel, Tituba is able to talk to and consult with her dead loved ones, her mother and Mama Yaya among them.

As E.J. wrote about Baba Yaga, the witch Condé presents is just as adept at healing as at harming. “I was born to heal,” Tituba says, “not frighten” (12). In death, Mama Yaya warns her that even though she won’t be able to escape the white man’s world, she needs to use her powers to serve others and not for revenge.

1024px-Personal_photo_Crucible_Kathy_and_Tuesday_1967
Kathleen Cody as Betty Parris and Tuesday Weld as Abigail Williams in The Crucible, 1967

This is tested when Samuel Parris brings Tituba and her husband, John Indian, to Massachusetts as slaves. Here, the story becomes familiar. Tituba grows fond of Parris’s wife, Elizabeth, and their daughter, Betsey. They’re sickly and have little stimulation, so she makes herbal remedies to help them feel better and entertains them with stories about Barbados. It’s Abigail, though, who learns of Tituba’s innocent acts and turns their intentions sinister. Eventually, she’s the one who leads Betsey and the other girls in the accusations.

Condé deliberately ties the girls’ accusation of Tituba to her blackness. In Salem Village, the adults view Tituba and John as having “close connections with Satan” simply because of their skin color. Betsey and the rest of the girls pick up on this belief and eventually turn against Tituba. Later, once Tituba has left Salem Village, she learns that “[t]he girls were being manipulated by their parents. It was all a question of land, money, and old rivalries” (129). She was merely a scapegoat, like many “witches” throughout history. Witches make easy scapegoats because, as K.P. wrote, they live on the outskirts of society while challenging the power structures in place. Tituba was an easy target because of her otherness. She was black and had knowledge the villagers of Salem couldn’t fit into their worldview.

In different parts of the novel, “witch” is defined differently. The girls, before they’re afflicted, define a witch as “someone who has made a pact with the devil” (61). Hester tells Tituba what Cotton Mather says of witches: “Witches do strange and evil things. They cannot perform true miracles; these can only be accomplished by the visible saints and emissaries of the Lord.” (96)

It’s not until late in Tituba’s story, when yet another man has demanded yet another thing from her, that she realizes the truth. “Everyone gives that word [witch] a different meaning. Everyone believes he can fashion a witch to his way of thinking so that she will satisfy his ambitions, dreams, and desires…” (146)

wickedmenzwitch
Idina Menzel as Elphaba Thropp in Wicked. http://www.playbill.com.

Therein lies the truth of this novel. A witch can’t define herself. Society always does it for her. Tituba doesn’t think of herself as a witch until she’s called one by others. People like Abigail Williams demand unreasonable things from witches, and when these demands can’t be fulfilled, they turn on them. Witches hardly ever get to tell their story, which is part of the reason audiences latch onto stories like Elphaba’s in Wicked. Similarly, in I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Maryse Condé gives Tituba the voice she’s been denied all these centuries.


Works Cited:

Condé, Maryse. I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. The Random House Publishing Group.
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. Penguin Books.
Starkey, Marion. The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials. Anchor Books.

Witches: The Threat of Change

by K.P. Kulski

You tell ’em I’m coming… and Hell’s coming with me.

I’ve often thought these words, while said by Wyatt Earp in the movie Tombstone, had to have been first uttered by a pissed-off witch somewhere in history.

Women overcrowd the rosters of those who bear the label of witch. Even in the modern lexicon, the very word summons the image of a woman… specifically a threatening woman. But why? What is it about these women that are threatening? What about them warranted the extreme punishments we’ve all read about? Was it really just religious?

In my opinion, it was not so simple. I see witch hysteria as one of the many incarnations of the status quo reaction to female agency.

Interestingly enough, the major historic witch hysterias occurred during periods of significant change or disruptions to social norms. In fact, attacks on women in general have been heightened when a social system feels threatened by change.

All witches are dangerous, but more than that, they are influencing, they can spread their ideas to others, they are able to trick or enchant others to their will. Witches are not merely black sheep who do not fit into the social structure, they are dangerous because they are women who buck the system. Even further, they have the ability to instill their ideas as the foundation of a new configuration, disrupting the original power structure, converting it into something new if left unchecked. This is why, during times of witch hysteria, it became important for the existing power structure to expose and eliminate witches. These women were powerful and threatening because they were capable of changing minds and bringing new ideas that decrease the authority of the existing order. It is important we identify witches less with witchcraft, but with women whose ideas, lifestyle and practices challenge patriarchy.

cropped_Children_lir_witch_swans
Children of Lir © Irish Central

Classical tales seek to teach that women of power are not only dangerous to entire families but also communities. Witches are featured prominently as the stepmother who is wicked and has usurped not only the position of a loved mother but male power. From hunting Snow White to turning children into swans[1], she disrupts the status quo to the detriment of all. The lesson is clear, if women get power they will cause harm for everyone, men and women alike. It is no wonder, when we examine historic accounts of witch trials, torture, executions and burials they are all conducted with a sense of urgency. It seems that people of the past feared that even in death, these women had the power to spread her ideas. Her very existence having happened at all, is threatening.

Witches feature prominently in my fiction. Sometimes they are purely tattered ghosts of my imagination, but frequently, they are based on a historic figure. In my short story, Tides and Lavender[2], I created a fictionalized version of the Scottish witch Lilias Adie. What attracted me to her was the manner in which she was buried.

After being tortured and confessing to being a witch, Lilias Adie died in prison and was subsequently buried within a brackish mudflat. Beliefs from the time included the fear that dead witch could rise again, animated by the devil himself, so a hefty stone was placed over her grave sight to ensure she was unable to do so.

_78408982_slabdouglas
Grave of Lilias Adie © Douglas Speirs BBC

In my story, Lilas is buried alive and of course, she does indeed rise again. The fear surrounding a revenant is less about the actions of the undead, but the ability to extend their corruption beyond themselves; zombies bite and create new zombies, vampires suck the blood of others and turn them into mindless servants, companions or new fully independent vampires. They can spread these things to people you know and love, turning them into not only strangers but into villains in their own right. But witches, even in their monstrous fictional form do not spread a physical “disease,” for lack of a better term. Witches spread ideas that are counter to the civilized structure of the society.

Western witch hysterias of the 17th and 18th centuries coincides with the Reformation and 12Counter Reformation. For a society dominated by the rules of Catholic Christianity for centuries, the threat of Protestantism was just as threatening to the social structure as it was the spiritual. Witches in Catholic regions were accused of fouling the Eucharist or using it for spells. Protestant regions were much more susceptible to this phenomenon. This may be due to the intense need to differentiate themselves from the Catholic Church as beacons of righteousness and in doing so, validate their emerging social structures. This opened the possibility for many ideas and it is no wonder that female agency was particularly suppressed during this transition.

The Lilias Adie of my story is victim to all these things. She recognizes that the label of witch is an attempt to separate her from other women and that the strategy of “divide and conquer” has been effective against women. She chooses otherwise, even in the face of betrayals from her fellow women. In doing so, she plants the seeds of female resistance.

My fictional Lilias is terrifying and angry, she is raw with pain. She is the victim, but despite her torture and death, she rises again. She can’t be held down, no matter how many stones that are put over her grave.

When she rises, it is terrible, but more importantly it is infectious.

 

Featured Image: Oz the Great and Powerful – Movie Poster 2013

______________________________________

[1] From the Irish tale, Children of Lir

[2] (Note that I use an alternate spelling of the name “Lileas” in the story) K.P. Kulski, “Tides and Lavender.” Typhon: A Monster Anthology Volume 2, Edited by Sarah Read, Pantheon Magazine, 2017.

Good Witch, Bad Witch–Which is Witch?

By: E.J. Lawrence

My apologies to the reader for the really bad pun in the title. I just couldn’t resist.

I have a very vivid memory from childhood. I was four or five, and I was sitting in the living room of our apartment watching The Little Mermaid on VHS. My dad was on the couch watching with me. I don’t remember how I felt about the movie up until this point, but I do remember the moment that terrified me.

To add some context, I happened to be a pretty adventurous child who wasn’t afraid of much–no monsters in my closet or under my bed. No night terrors or fear of the dark. But the most scared I ever remember being as a small child happened toward the end of The Little Mermaid. It’s the moment when the sea-witch Ursula’s identity is revealed, and suddenly, she begins to grow…and grow…and grow. I remember screaming, “Daddy, turn it off!” as I covered my eyes with my hands. I didn’t watch The Little Mermaid for probably another ten years.

800px-Bilibin._Baba_Yaga.jpg
Baba Yaga–Now try to sleep at night

To date, no mythical or fairy tale creature terrifies me quite like the witch. She can steal your voice; your life; your very soul. The Slavic Baba Yaga is particularly fearsome–her house stands on chicken legs. And, well…there’s just something not quite natural about a house that’s stilted on two chicken legs.

Witches. Are. Terrifying.

And yet, one of the little-known (or little emphasized) points about the fairy tale witch is that she’s as likely to help as harm. In a Russian version of Cinderella–“Vasilisa the Fair”–Baba Yaga threatens to eat Vasilisa if she does not do as she’s told; however, Vasilisa does as the old woman requires, and it is through her patience that Baba Yaga helps her to marry the Tsar in the end.

This doesn’t make Baba Yaga good; but it does show how even the witches in these stories have their own codes of honor and are perhaps more nuanced than we often give them credit for.

Suushi_Yama-uba
Yama Uba

In Japanese folklore, there’s the Yama Uba who, like Baba Yaga, can be harsh, but will also help a lost traveler or bestow wealth on the needy. I have heard the argument that the witch in “Sleeping Beauty” isn’t all bad–she puts the girl to sleep, after all, rather than kill her. Perhaps even she had a modicum of feeling?

Fairy tale witches–like everything else in a fairy tale–serve more as symbols than independent characters. Though, what they’re symbols for has stirred a great deal of debate.

Some argue that witches are women who represent an independence that society fears; that she is the unbridled power of women.1 Some argue that witches represent the fears of the female protagonist–the part of herself that she represses, but a very real, tangible image of what she has the potential to become.2 Still others say that the witch is a symbol of the negative aspects of femininity–rather than nurture children, she eats them; rather than create healing herbs, she dabbles in poisons and harmful potions.3 Perhaps the fairy tale witch is all of these, or at least a mixture of some.

What I think is interesting to point out when trying to determine the role of the fairy tale witch is the etymology of the word itself. For one, the word is so old that determining its exact etymology is difficult. The OED marks it of “indeterminate origin,” but that doesn’t stop there from being theories. On the one hand, it could be cognate with the words “wicked” and “wicce” (meaning “bad”). On the other, it could be kin to the words “wizard” and “wise”–both words with positive connotations.4 In many early English manuscripts, the word was used interchangeably to refer to a woman who dabbled in dark magic or a woman who used healing herbs to save someone’s life. It seems that the English language has long recognized the nuance and the duality of the term, even if they more often associate the word with the former rather than the latter.

Balai_sorcière_admin.jpg
“Ladies’ Champion” (Martin le Franc, 1451)

And yet, all of that seems to be consistent with what we know of fairy tale witches themselves. They can be malicious and malevolent, seeking to harm two poor children lost in the woods or poisoning their stepdaughter with a shiny red apple. But they can also be good, helping a young maiden escape her evil stepmother and find love or casting charms of protection when it suits her purposes. But perhaps it is her unpredictability or perceived capriciousness that causes the word “witch” to give us such uneasiness. I can’t say for sure.5

Yet, I can think of no other fairy tale character as nuanced or as complicated as the witch. Even within the confines of the fairy tale universe, she stands apart as independent, making decisions as they come; wielding her skills and talents as she pleases. Whether or not this is a “good” thing, I don’t know.

And, in fact, neither does she.

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/24/witch-symbol-feminist-power-azealia-banks
  2. http://www.anngadd.co.za/2014/12/fairytales-symbols/
  3. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/transcending-the-past/201605/mothers-witches-and-the-power-archetypes
  4. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/witch?s=t
  5. I can say, however, that it wasn’t Ursula’s capriciousness that frightened me when I was a child. I’m pretty sure it was her stealing Ariel’s voice and then growing into a giant octopus.

Gone Fishing

It’s that time of year that our little team is drowning in work. We are taking a week of hiatus on Unbound before returning next week. But when we do, in honor of the month of Halloween, we will be writing about witches. Stay tuned! Have a lovely week, my friends!