The word “witch” derives from the Old English masculine and feminine nouns for male and female sorcerers, wicca and wicce respectively.
Witches, or their equivalents, appear in folklore from throughout the world – the Witch of Endor in the First Book of Samuel in the Bible, or Baba Yaga, the morally ambiguous witch-like figure from Slavic tradition – and they are often, though not exclusively, female.
In the Scottish ballad Tam Lin, Tam is captured by the Queen of Elphame – the queen of the fairies – and is eventually rescued by the love of a human woman. When Andro Man was tried for witchcraft in Aberdeenshire in 1597, he mentions having children with the Queen of Elphame, though this seems to represent a classic male fantasy of being coerced into mating with a beautiful, mysterious woman!
There is a strong correlation between witches and fairies, especially in Celtic mythology, where the fairy folk – the aos sí of Irish folklore – are often dangerous or even malevolent creatures, and not to be crossed. Such stories inspired the writing of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, where the banshee – bean sídhe, or “woman of the mounds” (where the fairies have their abode) – appears in several guises, and is usually a herald of woe. Likewise, in Robert Burns’s Tam o’ Shanter, the eponymous hero only just escapes from Nannie Dee and the witches of Alloway Kirk (see earlier post, Witches on canvas).
Living in a post-Enlightenment society, it is very tempting to regard with disdain the mediaeval world and its attitudes towards witches, or monsters in general – certainly some of the explanations our ancestors came up with for common phenomena such as a bad harvest or terrible pestilence seem baffling if not horrifying to us in the 21st Century, yet the picture is always more complex than it might at first appear.
Heinrich Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), originally published in 1486, has become (in)famous in recent years thanks to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Kramer was undoubtedly a misogynist, and was obsessed with the idea that women were highly susceptible to witchcraft and sex with demons. Yet Brown makes somewhat exaggerated claims for the book’s importance, and even at the time of its publication it was attacked by many theologians and leading clergy (in 1490 Kramer was condemned by his own Dominican Order, and in 1526 the Spanish Inquisition declared the Malleus worthless). Incidentally, Brown’s claims that five million women were executed for witchcraft between 1400 and 1700 (roughly the period of the witch hunts) is also vastly inflated – it was more like 30-40,000, and there were male victims also.
So the attitudes of authority towards women and female power in earlier centuries were often contradictory and confused; nevertheless, there is no doubt that fear and hatred of women runs like a nasty seam through much of human history, as sadly it still does today. I want to explore in future posts what this has meant specifically for folklore, and for our interpretations of it, and particularly for the role the witch plays in such stories, good and bad.
Witches’ Sabbath, Francisco Goya, 1798