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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

Celtic Womanhood and the Banshee

by Juliette F. Martin

Try to imagine the terror of it: It’s dark, near midnight, and you sit beside the bed of an Bansheeailing family member. Through the window comes the sound of a woman in the grips of deepest grief. She is unrestrained in her keening, raw with sorrow. It is not merely the mysterious sounds that fill you with fear, but also the knowledge that in the day that follows, a member of your household will pass from the world. The source of this wailing is a banshee. She is a fairy, though she is far from what a modern American imagination might summon up at the word: this is no mischievous winged sprite, but rather an omen given a woman’s form.

The banshee evokes an even earlier tradition of feminine warnings of death: in pre-Christian Celtic mythology, the badb, an aspect of the triplicate death goddess known as The Morrígan, was said to appear as a crow predicting the imminent death of an individual or the outcome of a battle. These omens are self-evidencing of a tie in the pre-modern Celtic world between death and womanhood, and an examination of the social forces at play give some insight as to why.

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In order to examine the tie between femininity and death in the Celtic world, one must first understand the concept of liminal spaces. Deriving from the field of anthropology, “liminality” is usually used to denote a ritualistic space in which participants cross from one stage of life to another. The experience of liminality occurs right at the threshold between the two, when the participant is neither one nor the other.[i] Though often associated with coming-of-age rituals, liminality has strong ties to concepts of morality and death. Essentially, in entering the liminal space of ritual, the person who entered effectively dies and a new one is reborn.

Because of the frequency in which women died in childbirth in the pre-modern world, women had a unique relationship with this life-and-death liminality. Every time a woman entered the process of labor, she faced the very real risk that in striving to bring new life into the world, her own would be made forfeit. Women also inhabited a liminal space in the familial structure. Celtic society was organized into clans, built upon kinship lines. In order to sustain the lineage, which was traced patrilineally, women had to be brought in from outside.[ii] As such, the wife was both a vital part of her family structure and an outsider.

This duality of familiarity and strangeness may also have contributed to the concepts of witches and witchcraft.[iii] The Celtic wife would have been responsible for the management and feeding of the household, and even as she worked to sustain the family and continue it’s lineage, an unhappy wife with a certain amount of knowledge of plant lore could make her family very sick—even to the point of death. We can only speculate about the source of fears associated with witchcraft, but perhaps the witch served as a focal point for anxieties around this familiar/foreign liminal state.

Burton_The_Aran_Fisherman_s_Drowned_Child_1841_Keening_woman-316x593Like the ancient Celtic wife, the banshee too is a liminal being. Banshees usually appear at midnight, the liminal moment between two days, and represent a person’s passage into a sort of pre-death space in which they continue to live but are known to be near death. They also were heard from outside of homes, but never seem to enter them—the inverse of an ordinary woman, who would be strongly associated with hearth and home. Also like the ancient Celtic wife, the banshee has strained but important ties to the line of kinship: certain families were believed to be “followed” by a banshee. To be from a family followed by a banshee may have been a symbol of a certain rank and a point of pride.[iv] Despite the sorrow and darkness they represented, they remained important and valued.

The lore of the banshee carries with it a lot of the contradiction of life as a pre-modern Celtic wife—life and death, familiarity and strangeness. She is both a man’s fear at the potential damage his wife could do to the family line, and a woman’s grief at the suffering she must endure. Though any modern scholar can only guess at the societal forces behind mythology and lore, the shared liminality between the banshee and the Celtic wife does present a strong rationale for the persistent ties between death and femininity in ancient Celtic societies.

In the ancient world, centuries of oppression lent a certain darkness to femininity—after all, why shouldn’t the husband fear the wrath of a woman taken from her birth family and constrained to the hearth, doomed to watch her brothers and sons die in wars entirely outside her control? There is power in a woman’s rage and a woman’s grief. Perhaps fear of that power is what gave rise to the prevalence of the badb and the banshee.

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[i] “Liminality – Oxford Reference”. Oxfordreference.Com, 2018, http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100106133. Accessed 23 Aug 2018.

[ii] Lysaght, Patricia. “Irish Banshee Traditions: A Preliminary Survey”. Béaloideas, vol 4244, 1974, p. 94. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/20521375.

[iii] Kimpton, Bettina N. “”Blow The House Down”: Coding, The Banshee, And Woman’s Place”. Proceedings Of The Harvard Celtic Colloquium, vol 13, 1993, p. 39. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20557254.

[iv] Ibid., 44

The Lady of the Lake: The Good, the Bad, and the Complicated

By: E.J. Lawrence

I once heard a saying–I don’t know how true it is–that in the ancient eras, boys were more often associated with water, while girls were more often associated with fire. The reasoning given to me was that boys spent more time in the outdoors and were more prone to fall into wells, rivers, oceans, etc., while girls spent more time indoors or around fires and were more prone to burning themselves.

Whether this is true or not (and it isn’t like our ancestors are known for their super meticulous record keeping and preserving), it is interesting how few stories one can find that associate women with water. The ones that do tend to be negative–sirens, mermaids, women on a ship as “bad luck.” Which is why I find the connection between women and water in the Arthurian legends fascinating–first, because they exist, and second, because they are equal parts “good” and “bad.”

Really, “good” and “bad” are too simplistic a way of describing the relationship women in these legends have with water. Women in the Arthurian canon are notoriously complicated characters, but they also make a valuable contribution to the medieval discussion about the roles of women. From a theological (and thus academic) standpoint, there were two primary schools of thought on women. Camp A: Women are like Eve; they are all temptresses who work to bring about the downfall of mankind and their passions must be kept in check (see: Tertullian, Augustine). Camp B: Women are like Mary; they are good and chaste and through them, we receive hope (children) for the future (see: Julian of Norwich, Hildegard).

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The answer to the question “Are women more like Eve or Mary?” is probably “yes.” Also, “no.” Which is precisely how many of the Arthurian texts answer this same question. Particularly when it comes to the women associated with water.

Though there are several, I will briefly cover two Arthurian women and their complex, watery ways.

The first that comes to mind is probably the Lady of the Lake. Depending on which

CRANE_King_Arthur_asks_the_lady_of_the_lake_for_the_sword_Excalibur
(Walter Crane, 1911)

version of the legend one reads, she goes by many names: Nimue, Vivienne, or simply “The Lady of the Lake”…and any spelling variations of those. Many might consider her “good”–she gives Arthur his famed sword, Excalibur, after all!

…But she does so with the caveat that Arthur will owe her a favor one day (spoiler alert: This particular deal never goes well in literature.)

The “favor” she asks for later is that he behead Balin, one of his own knights. So this would seem to make her evil again.

Arthur refuses, and Balin takes of the lady’s head instead. Arthur is unhappy, but the lady doesn’t die; she’s a fairy, after all.

She also raises a human boy as her own. His name is “Lancelot du Lake”–or “Lancelot of the Lake.” See? She’s good again!

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Beguiling of Merlin (Edward Burne-Jones, 1872-1877)

…But later, she forces Merlin to teach her all of his secrets of magic and then traps him in a tree for all eternity, depriving Arthur of his adviser just when he needs him most. So…evil again.

When Arthur dies, he asks Sir Bedivere to return the sword Excalibur to the lake. After three tries, Bedivere finally does so and sees a woman’s hand reach up from the lake, grab the sword, brandish it three times and then disappear. It is then Arthur knows he can cross the sea to Avalon. So…perhaps she is good, after all.

Accompanying Arthur across the sea is also his sister Morgan le Fay, whom I’ve written on extensively here and here. Morgan le Fay (also a “fay” or “faerie”) shares many of the Lady of the Lake’s qualities–she, too, is sometimes “good,” acting in the best interests of Arthur’s kingdom, and sometimes “evil,” acting against Arthur and his kingdom.

But perhaps it’s best to view these two women as acting in their own interests more so than determining their morality based on how they act in the interest of others. Considering the significance of symbolism to the medieval world, I think the fact that these two women in particular are associated with water helps to show their fluid nature, as well as the fact they “ebb and flow” according to what is needed. Are they Eve or Mary?

Yes. And no.

Though this fluidity might make them seem fickle, it’s important to note there is a consistency to their actions. Both the Lady of the Lake and Morgan le Fay pursue their own interests and goals to the exclusion of others’, and while their own goals come into conflict with Arthur’s at times, everything in the Arthurian narrative works toward the ultimate goal of bringing the downfall of Camelot.

Still, this is one of the reasons I adore the women of the Arthurian canon–they are complicated. Though popular narrative has tried to boil them down to “good” or “bad” distinctions (Morgan le Fay, “bad”; Lady of the Lake, “good”), when one actually digs into the stories themselves, it just isn’t that simple. Medieval literature is known for its driving plots, not its complex characterization. Which makes it all the more interesting to see these types of nuanced female characters represented in medieval narratives.

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The Death of King Arthur (James Archer, 1860)

 

Runner Up Idea: I really want to write about Perceval’s sister one of these months, and I thought about writing her story here since she meets the Grail Knights by boat…but the Lady of the Lake seemed to align more closely to the theme. But keep an eye out for my discussion of Perceval’s sister!

 

Source Note: All summaries in this article are from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, both the Winchester and Caxton MS.