Saturday, 19 October 2013

A Witch in Time : Magic and Mind-Reading Part 1

This is the first part of a fun weekend of myth and magic in honour of the fact that it is the magical month of October.  Today I'm looking at possibly the most popular costume worn at Halloween...

Now, as most of you will be aware, we're just over a week away from 31st October or Halloween, All Hallow's Eve and 'Turn the lights out and pretend we're not home!' night.  In Britain there have been some fairly awful controversies over bad taste halloween costumes available in supermarkets and on-line, for example this one, Lord save us all...

Nice.  Most worrying is that I actually dress a bit like that normally, so we better move on.  Yes, you can buy all manner of 'mental patient' outfits and my personal favourite 'Anna Rexia' the skeleton girl.  For goodness sake.  Best stick with something nice and traditional.  Something inoffensive.  Like a witch...

Me on my way to the Harry Potter Studio Tour.
Yes, I loved my cheeky witch outfit, but giving it more thought, should we be dressing up as witches?  I mean, what does it all mean?

The Magic Circle (1886) John William Waterhouse
It's unsurprising to learn that the Victorian's loved the image of a witch.  One of the most archaic of archetype, the witch, wise woman, cunning woman or whatever else you want to call her, found a safe place among the supernatural elements of Victorian culture.  I find it incredible that the last 'witch' tried in England was Helen Duncan during the Second World War, but reading Agatha Christie tells you that even well into the twentieth century, witches were acknowledged members of society.  Waterhouse, above, shows the more glamorous side of witchery.  Possibly drawn from magic women of antiquity, his witch is a beautiful sorceress, much in the style of Medea...

Medea Frederick Sandys
Would you class these women as witches?  Or are they merely women who do magic?  Is there a difference?  Well there is definitely a difference in costume, no black and pointy hats for these glam girls.  Maybe because they seem to exist in a split-second where their magic is respected, is attractive to the viewer.  What they are doing is as potent and fascinating as their beautiful faces and our admiration of them means we will not be harmed.  Possibly some attraction was in the fact that you wouldn't mind getting harmed by these girls.  Maybe your average Victorian gentleman would have fancied getting hexed-up by these wicked women.

It seems almost rude to call these girls 'witches', maybe 'sorceress' is a more elegant word for their graceful conjuring?  It maybe semantics but we are in the domain of words and images and what they mean.  A sorceress will charm you, conjure with your feelings and you will be helpless to resist but something tells me you'll quite enjoy it.  Witches however are another matter...

Visit to the Witch (1882) Edward Brewtnall
This lady is probably a little more like what most people would think of when you say the word 'witch'- a  wizened, black-clothed crone with a cauldron, a cat and a broomstick with no doubt a bit of spirited cackling thrown in for good measure.  I find it interesting that although your average, traditional, Home-Counties witch is quite a solitary figure, she doesn't have any trouble in bringing other women to her as customers...

Girl and a Witch Beatrice Offor
Young women seem to be drawn irresistibly to the company of the witch, possibly for something they lack.  They come for love potions, spells to make themselves more beautiful, possibly conceive a baby, but really what they seek is knowledge.  The witch has the benefit of experience, that is where the magic comes from.  The irony that this old, often ugly, woman has the secret to turn men's hearts, win their love them over a possibly more 'worthy' subject is not lost and is possibly where the danger lies.  If a man's desire is caught by a beautiful young woman, that's one thing.  If the one who makes you fall in love against your will is a wrinkled old crone, well, that's entirely another matter.

An Arrest for Witchcraft in Olden Times (1886) John Pettie
It's no wonder that people lynched witches.  No hang on, let me get one thing straight.  I would bet money that no witch has ever been arrested, tried, hung, drowned, burnt or any of the other things.  Not one.  I shall tell you why and my answer is two-fold.  Firstly, I don't actually think witches exist, but I like to keep an open mind so I shall go on to my perfectly reasonable second argument.  If witches exist and have the power of magic behind them why on earth would they allow themselves to be caught, let alone killed by the frightened mob?  Not a chance.  Okay, I'll allow that possibly a couple got caught unawares, maybe while asleep or drunk or knitting.  On the whole I think you'll find that the women burnt, hung or dunked in a pond until they were dead could be summed up in two words: Inconvenient women.  Has some old woman got property you want?  Witch!  Want someone to blame for your failure and know an old woman?  Witch!  Want to get rid of your wife or the wife of a chap you quite fancy?  Witch!  Gain, hatred, fear, ergot poisoning, any number of religions looking for a bit of affirmation, all jolly fine reasons for shouting witch!

The Witches (1897) Lovis Corinth
I love this picture as it has a lovely ambiguity which I think the subject requires.  Who are the witches?  Are they all witches?  The young woman has taken off her sumptuous ball gown and mask and is apparently washing.  Why are the older women laughing?  I think there is a hint that the young woman is an old woman in disguise, hence the mask, and the bath at the front of the picture stands for a cauldron and magic.  The old women are gleeful as their turn may come to be young again and find a young man to have jolly fun with.  Saucy baggages...

The Witches in Macbeth (1842) Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps
When witches come in plurals then more often than not they come in threes.  Thank you Shakespeare for that.  The Virgin, the Mother and the Crone (or Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat as discussed in the last post, turning the order around) are the three stages of womanhood, and are reflected in number of witches.  It's always struck me that the witches stand for Lady Macbeth in the play - they are a supernatural manifestation of her evil, an excuse to soften the blow that she is the powerhouse of ruthless and relentless ambition.  They are her very bad qualities made flesh.  They are like the dark mirror images of Faith, Hope and Charity.  Lady Macbeth rang true to the Victorians in a very dangerous way.  A woman in charge was familiar but the lesson in Macbeth was worrying:  let women control and subversion results.  The witches and the wife make a murderous traitor of Macbeth.  Sure, it is an acknowledgement, possibly realistic, that evil lurks in every man's heart, but let a woman in there and you lose control.

The Witch (1913) John Currie
Maybe a little subversion of the world of men is not a bad thing.  We should embrace the witch if she shakes up the status quo, right?  What if you consider that the 'world of men' seemingly consists of science, reason, learning, knowledge?  Still want to rebel?  It seems to me that the world of women is pigeonholed as being that of nature, feeling, intuition as opposed to those qualities of the 'man's world'.  Our embrace of the witch therefore is just further reinforcing the misogynistic equilibrium.  Damn.

As a side note, actually the most terrifying image of witches in my humble opinion is not of female witches, but of men...

Witches in Flight (Witches' Sabbath) (1798) Goya
I think it is the silence in this picture that unnerves me.  Horrible.  Anyway back to women and covens.  Although three is a magic number, when the girls get together then anything is possible.  And by anything, I obviously mean nudity...

The Witches Luis Falero
I'm not sure where to start.  Well, there is all sorts going on here, starting with an old crone grabbing some luscious lovelies fleshy bits as she rides her broomstick.  The more you look, the dodgier it becomes.  There's a goat, a lizard, a cat, a bat and any amount of bottoms you care to mention.  Heavens, witchcraft seems to be awfully energetic.

The Witch Luis Falero
I couldn't resist giving you this one too.  God, I love Falero.  It is macaroon-pastel filth and I want more.  The fire in this witch's hair against that midnight blue is delicious.  Moving on.

Walpurgis Sabbath Adolf Munzer
The role of witches in what amounts to arty soft porn is fairly extablished.  They famously get their kit off on a regular basis and must have been young at some point and so it's perfectly legitimate to show these nubile, broom-riding lasses.  Am I allowed to question the wisdom of naked broom-riding?  Moving on...

Maybe my point is this:  Seemingly we never question the role of the witch as woman, in fact we embrace her as a positive female archetype.  She is disruption, destabilising in a world when men rule.  The least powerful women in society have a secret source of power that is unavailable to those in charge and that is a thing of terror to those who rain terror down on us.  So far so good, the witch is an icon of subversion.

Before you clutch her to you too tightly, bare in mind that she is also a poster-girl for why women were held back, she is the excuse used to put so many innocent, inconvenient women to death, she is the embodiment for all those attributes that mark us as less intelligent, less rational, less reasonable, heavens, less clothed.  The witch who provides charms to women is just one fool peddling mischief to others while men sit back and mock.  A witch can give you spells to make something you are not entitled to yours, probably at the expense of another woman.  Right on, Sisters.

In the end, it's only fun, only costume on a dark autumn night.  Which of us ladies hasn't donned a pointy hat and longed to fly on a broom?  Plus, there is that promise of eternal youth by magical means.  I already wear a lot of black, I think I feel a future career calling.  See you tomorrow for the mind reader in my own home...


  1. Heck! I love the Falero! That's my Halloween card right there!

  2. Dear Kirsty
    What is it with the Victorians and nudity? I suppose as they were so 'proper' on the outside, their real proclivities had to come out somewhere! Put nudity and witches together and well... I feel sorry for the women who were executed for being 'witches' - living on your own, and having a knowledge of plant remedies would have been enough to convict any woman. I would hope things have moved on, but I'm not so sure.
    Another fascinating post.
    Best wishes

  3. Thank you for your comments. The role of witch is an odd one, although if you go with Falero's interpretation, the costume is really cheap...

  4. A great post - this..

    "maybe 'sorceress' is a more elegant word for their graceful conjuring? It maybe semantics but we are in the domain of words and images and what they mean. A sorceress will charm you, conjure with your feelings and you will be helpless to resist but something tells me you'll quite enjoy it"

    ... I think maybe the best word would be 'enchantress'?

    best wishes from the Haunted Shoreline

  5. You wouldn't be saying this if you had been turned into a toad! I was, but I got better. :)

  6. Excellent post and thanks for exposing me to Falero, great stuff!


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx