For my December pick, I decided to go with an article that matches the season–my April article on Mary titled “Of Hope and Expectation.” I enjoyed writing this one because I love seeing how mythology and story structure help us better understand and explore the world we live in. When we use the phrase “life’s not a fairy tale” as some sort of platitude to mean “life doesn’t always end happily,” it’s because we’ve forgotten that not even all fairy tales have “happy” endings, or even expected endings. But they do have right endings. Just because the story ends unexpectedly does not mean it ends wrongly. And just because darkness seems to have won doesn’t mean it has. We are living a story right now. The belief in a meta-narrative gives us hope that, in the end, all will end right.
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.
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, 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, 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.
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 Counter 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