Fri 29 Oct 2010
The Moral Panic and the Myth: “ Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Exodus 22:18)
Across the face of the glowing, leering moon speeds a figure in black riding on a broomstick. Her robes flutter behind her, the tip of her long pointed black hat cuts a trail through the mists and the hideous cackle of her broken voice shatters the peace of the night. Women clutch their infants to their breast, children pull the covers up over their head and men seethe in fearful, impotent anger and dream of this evil that assails them strapped to a stake burning in holy cleansing fire.
- Good Witches
- Bad Witches
- Black Witches
- White Witches
- Sorcerers and Sorceresses
- And a host of other subtle variations.
With one common theme running through them all, the “doer of magic” is frightening because “They can hurt you and yours without even being there!”
A magician uses magic to subvert the laws of nature to their own end, if they take it in to their head to destroy you, they can. They can ruin your livelihood, steal your possessions, replace members of your family with evil doppelgangers, send demons after to you, give you bad dreams, make you ill, seduce you and KILL YOU. And there is nothing you can do to stop it.
Even the power of the church is helpless before witchcraft, which is why the bible tells us it is permissible to kill a witch. Unlike a Vampire or a werewolf or a ghost, you don’t need holy writ, silver or special tools to kill a witch, just a good big bonfire and of course the lack of mental intuition to ask, “Why, if they are so powerful, are they so easy to kill?”
Easy. It’s “Headology” as the famous Witch Granny Weatherwax (See the works of Terry Pratchett) would say–They will have you kill someone else and let you think it was they.
The Literary Witch
Of all the horror genre monsters, the witch has the most complicated back-story and the most liberal of generic rules. The witch in fiction is not to be compared or confused with the many factions who claim to be actual witches in the real world any more than the sad deluded ‘Sanguine-Aryan’ blood drinking cults of California and the rest of world are to be compared or confused with literary Vampire.
There is uniquely among the eight primordial literary monsters, Biblical precedent for the Witch. Both in the form of “The Witch of Endor” First Book of Samuel, chapter 28:3–25, (though she should more rightly be thought of as a medium) and among many others in the admonishment from Exodus quoted above.
Witches appear in every mythology throughout the entire world and even have sanctioned form in many major religions.
Shamans, Witch Doctors, Medicine Men, Cabalists, Christian Spiritualist all are more or less legitimate forms of witchcraft practitioners, restrained and tolerated because of their oath to do no wrong to their fellow man by means of the powers at their disposal. These too have their place in the genre.
So What are Witches?
There is no simple answer.
Mythology acknowledges the existence of witches, but it has little to say on their origins other than that the gods loathe them. It has been up to various authors to fill in the gaps drawing on various traditions. Six major ideas have emerged on what a witch is.
- The Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son-In some fantasy novels a child born in these circumstances will become a wizard or witch, either by nature or by a dieing magician taking it as a sign to pass on the power entrusted to them. See Terry Pratchett’s “Equal Rites” for an example.
- The Tolkien-In the works of J.R.R. Tolkien magic workers are a separate race from normal humans in the same way that elves and dwarfs are, however since Tolkien never mentions female wizards it is uncertain how they reproduce among themselves or if they marry human women. The most famous off shoot from this idea was Sol Saks’ long running TV show “Bewitched” about the troubled marriage between a human man a witch woman it developed in time in to:-
- Homo Magi-An alternate form of humanity. We can thank sci- fi writer Gerry Conway and Dick Dillin for this term and idea first put forward in 1979. Witches are an evolutionary off shoot of ‘normal’ humanity. They are much lower in number than we are but are gifted with the ability to tap the natural flow of energy around them and use it bend and overpower the laws of nature. They are neither inherently evil nor good; they are human and as fickle as any other human. This idea has now become the basis for the most famous of all witchcraft stories the “Harry Potter” series.
- The Alien/Royal Witch-First posited by C.S. Lewis in his novel “The Magicians Nephew” True Witches are of royal blood decent and though anyone may learn witchcraft only those with the bloodline can exploit properly. According to Lewis on the Planet Charn this lead to a great Witch War between two sisters. Jardis and her unnamed sibling, culminating in the end of the world when one of them dares utter the ultimate spell “The Deplorable Word”. In modern literature the idea of a Witch Queen is quite common and has been used to great effect by Anne Rice in her “Mayfair Witches” books, where a family of once noble birth has by centuries of inbreeding purified their bloodline enough to create a perfect witch, while building up a huge fortune along the way.
- The Satanist-one who has sold their soul to the devil in exchange for unnatural powers. Always evil, always up to bad things and thriving on the mischief that they make. Dennis Wheatly’s Mr Mocata is a prime example of this kind of witch.
- The Wise One-By far and away the most common form of Witch is the person who has simply learned from forbidden knowledge and or the possession of magical artefacts, how to do magic. Some of them have more of a knack for it than others but the knowledge is kept between an elite few and is passed on in a form of apprenticeship. Stan Lee’s Doctor Strange, Allan Moore’s John Constantine and Gardner Fox’s Doctor Fate are all modern version of this type of witch.
The Genre Rules for Witch Stories
1. The Witch maybe male or female. As a rule of thumb, female witches are more powerful and more evil because they are more frightening to men. A male witch IS NOT a Warlock,. Warlock means “oath-breaker” or one who has betrayed God. Sol Saks popularised the term as the title of a male witch but he was wrong.
2. The Witch is a tragic flawed character. He or she will have a character trait that will prove their undoing; often it is arrogance or over confidence but sometimes it is subtler such as a lingering conscience or the longing for a child of their own.
3. The Witch will have a physical problem held in check by magic. In the days of the Witch Finders such as Matthew Hopkin and his ilk, it was believed that the Devil placed his mark on his own. Therefore the witch will have a limp, will be of great age but looks young, will suffer a terrible illness but is kept alive in spite of it or as in the case of Frank L. Baum’s famous “Wicked Witch of the West” will no longer have any blood and so will dissolve in water.
4. Possession of a mystical item or the soul of an innocent must be intrinsic to the plot. The Stygian witches were blind and shared a single crystal eye that was the source of their gift of prophesy, Mocata desired the soul of the son of his greatest enemy and so set out to corrupt him, Whateley in “The Dunwich Horror” seeks possession of the fabled volume the Necronomicon. Even Morgan Le Fay of Le mort de Arthur seeks possession of the Throne of England for her son and with it the power of the Sangraal and Excalibur.
5. The Witch is always motivated by fear of a master or superior or the terms of a spell for his/her own safety or well-being. Every Witch knows there is a price to pay for the use of the unnatural powers at their command, the price is always fearful and if not paid by someone else will be exacted from the Witches themselves. Therefore there must always be others to be sacrificed.
6. The Nemisis of the Witch will always be one who I pure in heart and refuses for one reason or another to believe witchcraft can overcome goodness, natural law or logic. This is simple fairy tale logic; good will out against evil, no matter how powerful.
If an alternate Magic user is pitted against a ‘bad witch’ they will fail. So to this end most ‘good witches’ will have an assistant or apprentice who is either inept at magic or is just a none magical servant. Magic can never be seen to be right, even when it is used for good, since magic is seen as inherently evil a good sorcerer can not win alone, he requires the help of none magical pure good, see 6 above.
A bad Witch’s apprentice will always betray them. By horror story lore: To want to be a Witch indicates you are a bad person, therefore you are untrustworthy and impatient or sometimes the betrayal is an act of redemption. Q.E.D.
The Witch at the climax must perish by one of the four ancient elements, earth wind fire or water. This is to say the Witch will be: burned, (the classic way to kill a witch) drowned, (Ducking Stools and trial by water) buried (a traditional way of trying a witch was to ‘press’ them for an answer. This involved placing a board over them and pilling on heavier and heavier stones until he or she was crushed to death) or killed by wind (Remember the Wicked Witch of the East killed by having a house dropped on her from the plume of a hurricane). This of course stems from the fact that witches manipulate the elements for their powers and so if you live by the sword you will die by the sword.
Len Hazell is 46 years old from the north east of England, holds a degree in Media, and is majoring in writing for the print and broadcast media. He has published in various magazines in the UK, fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, and has had plays produced throughout England. He is currently working on his own musical adaptation of Arsenic and old Lace which he hope to stage in 2011.