The Witch, 1498-1502, copper engraving by Albrecht Dürer
When I started writing my book, The Witch of Glenaster, I immediately felt uneasy about having as my main villain a woman. Mindful of the association of witchcraft with misogyny and our fear of those different from us, I decided that my witch’s nemesis must also be female, not only to deflect any potential accusations that I was just another male writer visiting virtual punishment on women through fiction, but also because I felt the dynamic of two women – or a woman and a girl – squaring up to each other was more interesting than a man and a woman. My story was about revenge, and loss, and what it can do to us (with added monsters), and I was anxious to try and avoid any subtext that might distract from this.
Whether or not I succeeded is for my readers to judge; but, whatever the results, I remain fascinated by witches, and so, it seems, does everybody else, if popular culture is any guide: American Horror Story, Witches of East End, the upcoming film version of Into the Woods – it seems we can’t get enough of witches, who these days are more likely to be seen, here in the West at least, as figures of female empowerment, rather than the evil hags of yore.
Of course, we rightly look with horror at the attitudes of our forebears towards women, a good number of whom – lonely, eccentric, or just a little bit too sexually confident for their times – suffered and died, along with not a few men, during the period of the witch hunts of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth centuries. In some parts of the world, they suffer still – and not just adults, but children too, condemned, beaten and murdered in parts of Africa, and in Europe, also.
Our desire to find scapegoats for our ills has cost the lives of many innocents over the centuries, and this is far more shocking than anything in a book or TV show. There is a scene in The Witch of Glenaster where the people of a village sacrifice a young woman to appease their god, and it is sobering to think that this kind of thing still goes on, now, in the 21st Century. We should never become inured to such things; they ought to shock us.