- The Virago Book of Witches edited by Shahrukh Husain
Virago, 244 pp, £14.99, October 1993, ISBN 1 85381 562 4
The last person to be formally executed for witchcraft in England was Alice Molland, hanged in Exeter in 1682. But I have found tales of witch-lynchings in 19th-century England, even (in a little local history pamphlet) a murder in 1950s Oxfordshire that bore all the hallmarks of a witch-lynching. Swiss peasants used to calm storms by laying a scythe on the ground with the cutting edge uppermost to wound the storm-witch and Jung, writing in the late Fifties, described how he watched a ‘Strudel’, or local witchdoctor, taking the spell off a stable just beside the Gotthard international railway line. European witches were largely blamed for sudden and unexplained illness and death as well as for destroying male potency, for causing storms and ruining the crops, for spoiling the butter and killing livestock. The Witchdoctor (in English, the cunning man or woman) was brought in to counter the black magic and identify the witch responsible. The fear of witchcraft was considerable and so the prestige of the witchdoctor was high. They were a sort of alternative priesthood, and were often tolerated by the Church.
Somewhere between the 15th and the 18th century, the nobility and clergy of continental Europe and Scotland took to the sport of torturing and executing large numbers of women and men suspected of being witches. These witchhunts were orchestrated from above, and though the defendants were still charged with all the old crimes, they were also accused of signing a pact with Satan and attending (sometimes flying through the air to get there) Sabbats or orgies where they copulated with fiends and drank the blood of newborn babies. The rewards of the Satanic pact were usually financial, and often consisted of no more than a promise that the witch would never be hungry again. It is the cross-fertilisation of these two elements that has given us the witch of Halloween, Roald Dahl’s witches, Doctor Faustus etc. In England, where witches were hanged, not burned, the prosecutions and executions continued to follow the old, more haphazard pattern. Matthew Hopkins, in 1645, rounded up large numbers of suspects, tortured them by keeping them awake or starving them, and obtained confessions of satanic pacts and sexual intercourse with the fiend. It is no coincidence that the Doctor Faustus story came to England from Germany, as do some of the best-known witch stories – ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Rapunzel’, ‘Snow White’.
The Grimms’ ‘Hansel and Gretel’ is not included in the Virago collection, but it contains a vital element which Shahrukh Husain doesn’t fully discuss in her introduction, an element which is not in the least muted by the brother’s sanitisation – the witch as bad mother. (The crudest form of this belief is still held by present-day Tories: she is a single parent and breeds monsters). Originally, all the bad stepmothers were mothers, and my own 1907 Gothic-script version of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ forgets to call her the stepmother as the story gains momentum. The mother refuses to feed the children and sends them out to die. They meet the witch, who feeds them only in order to eat them. When Hansel and Gretel come home after Gretel has burned the witch in her own womblike oven, they find the bad mother dead, and can live well on the witch’s treasure on their own with the father. It is the mother who has been assassinated: it could only be done by turning her into a witch. This is not merely society’s judgment on undutiful mothers, but an expression of the thwarted child’s unpermitted rage, inevitable in any culture where women are delegated to tend and slap children.
The witch is also a nature goddess, however, like Frau Holle who shook the feathers out of her bedding and made it snow. Holle was once a powerful deity, sometimes called Hulda, sometimes identified with Diana-Hecate, Queen of Witches: she made the crops grow, brought babies, and sent her followers out to cure sickness and reward good housewives. She led a furious army through the sky, candidates for the original flying witches. Two women were executed for following her in 14th-century Milan, and made one of the earliest known confessions of intercourse with a devil – something so out of character with the stories about Hulda that it was probably the suggestion of the torturer.
For modern-day feminists, the broomstick ride stands as an expression of feisty exuberance and ferocity. Though it is often supposed to represent a fertility ritual conducted with a phallic object, the broomstick itself might in fact represent an enormously extended clitoris, such as African women are frightened into clitoridectomy to avoid. In either case, it is an emblem of female potency. The great witchhunts have been re-mythologised as women-hunts, where strong women, midwives, shamanastic healers, were mopped up and martyred by patriarchy. The distinction between witch and witchdoctor has been lost in the flames where both perished, so that the maleficent witch has been canonised as a misrepresented wise woman. And yet the historical black witch, often a post-menopausal woman struggling with poverty, represents women’s predicament: maleficium was an emanation of suppressed female violence that could only be expressed in cursing. The only thing all witches had in common was that ‘she ys deveelishe of her tonge.’
Norman Cohn argued that the witch’s Sabbat was a projection of the witchhunters’ own minds, comparing it to the orgies of which the ancient Romans accused the Christians and the Christians, in their turn, accused dissident groups: meetings ‘at which babies or small children were ritually slaughtered and feasts at which the remains of these victims were ritually devoured’ and ‘erotic orgies at which every form of intercourse, including incest between parents and children, was freely practised’. The scenario of satanic child abuse, in fact. Yet I have been assured by professionals who are neither paranoid nor born-again Christians that there is compelling evidence that ritual abuse happens. Are latterday Satanists acting out the fantasies of the Romans and the witchhunters, or have such horrors always been with us? Is the difference between us and earlier generations only that, being ‘civilised’, we have no place in our conscious minds to deal with such knowledge?
The Virago Book of Witches doesn’t duck this darker side of the psyche, and in her introduction Husain sets it out in Jungian terms: ‘just as they [black witches] are alienated and isolated from society, so their qualities are disowned by individuals and driven underground into the unexplored subconscious deep within ourselves, creating something fearful and ever-present. It is this creation of an incomplete creature of pure evil within us that makes us susceptible to the fear witches generate.’ It is her intention to show the witch in all her aspects, and the collection deals with fairies, nature-goddesses, wise old women, as well as the creature’s destructive aspects. What it demonstrates is the amazing coherence of mythological material, underneath the superficial differences. She opens with an Indian story which she has retold herself (and inserted the raunchy undercurrents she ‘sensed simmering beneath the surface of the sanitised versions I was told as a child’.) ‘Indravati and the Seven Sisters’ features seven randy witches who kidnap the heroine’s husband. They plan to keep him and use him for their sexual pleasure, but he refuses the food they offer him and the resourceful heroine makes a dangerous journey (she narrowly escapes being raped by the god Indra) to rescue him. This of course is the female quest motif, which exists whether or not the sexual content is made as explicit as Husain makes it. It is the plot of the ‘Princess and the Glass Mountain’, of ‘Cupid and Psyche’ and of ‘Hansel and Gretel’. The prince is imprisoned (like Hansel) by a witch who wishes to enjoy him, and is rescued by his female partner. It is perhaps not surprising that all these stories occur within file Indo-European language family, but the collection includes a Chinese demon story: the husband has his heart eaten out by a ravenous demon masquerading as a beautiful young woman and his Wife endures hardship to restore him. In Chinese culture, the story reinforces the duty of widows to be faithful to their dead husbands, but the underlying motif of illicit female voracity is the same – eating and sex being interchangeable.
To be eaten can also be to be reborn, to be fed. The story of Vikram, eaten by Kali the doyenne of witches, twins with the story of Taliesn, ‘The Cauldron-Born’, and I can’t understand why they aren’t side by side in the collection. In the one case Kali, in the other the Old One, eat their prey – the difference being that Taliesin’s previous self Gwion runs away from the Old One, whereas Vikram offers himself up to Kali willingly, hoping to outwit her. The cauldron in which Vikram is cooked to a crisp replicates ‘the fluid darkness’ of the Old One’s womb, and both stories of pain and loss of self can represent the almost intolerable shamanic journey from which you may emerge a poet, like Taliesin, or a healer, like Vikram.
‘Anancy and the Hideaway Garden’ (James Berry’s excellent rendering), gives us the opposite scenario. Old Witch-Sister has a beautiful garden which Anancy Spider-man wants to enjoy. ‘Look at fattest vegetables! Look at shining fruits and flowers!’ So he tricks the witch and her gardener to their deaths, only to find that the garden withers away without them. Here the image of the nature-goddess witch is used to punish greed, yet she punishes through her powerlessness. Mother Holle, by contrast, is extremely powerful. She has large teeth that frighten the young girl whom she befriends, and she doesn’t scruple to tar the young girl’s stepsister who doesn’t want to work or do anyone a favour. In Russia, she becomes Baba Yaga, the bony-legged witch who lives in a chicken-legged hut, and may eat children but may also reward diligence and kindliness. In a peasant economy, good housekeeping, spinning and churning were productive work, and their practitioners businesswomen. Holle and her variants were the tutelary deities of this kind of housewife. Lazy girls were simply refusing to take advantage of the opportunities offered them, though sometimes, like the protagonists of the ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ / ‘Habetrot’ / ‘Tom Tit Tot’ group of stories, the spineless minxes got supernatural help to slide out of their duties and marry into the aristocracy or even royalty.
Husain includes stories of undeniably human witches too. There is a witch who spoils the butter (beer and butter were favourite targets for minor maleficia, probably because their success was chancy and depended on climatic factors). There is a story, from North America, of a witch-ridden man – but you may find examples of this genre all over Europe – which demonstrates men’s fear of women’s subversive power. Biddy Early from Ireland, however, was a real village witchdoctor or cunning woman in the 19th century, mischievous enough to make obstinate pigs take to the air by giving their owner a charm to ram up their arseholes, and to engage in a trial of strength with the village priest when she was mortally ill. She won, of course. After her death, the priest called her ‘a great, wonderful, charitable, good woman’, which illustrates the tolerance that the clergy could extend to cunning folk. I know of several English cases where they were called in to find stolen church property.
One of the strongest points about the book is the inclusion of stories from the Irish oral tradition that demonstrate how much closer we are to the real witch-belief than we might think. ‘Johnny, Draw the Knife’ is a story about a storm-witch. ‘If the sea is going to overwhelm you, which it will, if you get a very big one, if you have a penknife of steel in your pocket, anything sharp, of steel you know, something that will penetrate the flesh, and cast it into the middle of the wave, you’ll be quite safe.’ Which the fisherman does, in a storm, and a woman appears with the knife stuck in her breast. Just like the Swiss peasant with his scythe turned blade-upwards to disable the storm-witches ‘Hag-Rog’ is a Canadian story retold by the editor: it bears all the traditional features of maleficia: an unexplained illness cured only by making the witch suffer. The victim is advised by her doctor to piss into a bottle and cork it up so that the witch becomes unable to piss. The victim’s neighbour begins to scream and is identified as the witch. Just as Alan Macfarlane, studying Essex witches, found a large proportion of physicians among the cunning men, here the witchdoctor is an actual doctor. But the reference to ‘newfangled machines in smart new hospitals’ indicates that it has been in common currency recently, if it isn’t still.
I wish Husain had given us one of the earlier versions of ‘Snow White’, in which the attempts on the princess’s life are made by her mother, and the person who kisses her into wakefulness is her real father, rather than the prince. I have read these in German, and it would surely have been possible to translate them or reconstruct them, as Husian does the Indian stories, from the Brothers Grimm’s notes. I wish she’d given us the earlier version of the Holle story that she refers to, tantalisingly, in her own notes, in which ‘the heroine demands for her own convenience certain actions of the creatures and objects that she meets.’ There will always be more stories than can be fitted in, but there are certainly some, in this collection, that could have been left out. Under this heading I would put all the stories about fairies – there are plenty of these elsewhere – and some of the nature myths about brothers and sisters, or pairs of lovers. One occasionally senses a note of feminist conformism, a regrettable desire to sanitise the witch.