*Please note, this post contains some obscenities. If you find that offensive, please do not continue reading.
When it comes to fictional witches on our television screens (or our computers or tablets, come to think of it) there is often a simple dichotomy: good sisters of an ancient wiccan-style religion, or evil, licentious backstabbers using harmful magic to get ahead whatever the cost.
Over this post, and the next two, ending with the post on November 1st (All Saints Day), I want to examine some of the common tropes used to portray witchcraft in our contemporary media, and contrast these with early modern examples and concepts. Next week I intend to discuss the use of age and vanity as a trope in depictions of evil witches, and on November 1st I want to examine the 1990s obsession with witches of the first kind described above – witches who owe a great deal to the fertility cult conception of Margaret Murray adopted by many modern wiccans.
But this week and next week I want to discuss popular depictions of witches that have far more in common with how most people in early modern Europe would have conceived of them: members of a satanic cult which sought personal gain at the expense of their souls.
In 1928 the occultist, Priest, and early modern drama enthusiast Montague Summers translated the Malleus Maleficarum, a late fifteenth-century work on demonology and witchcraft. The Malleus is most famous (or infamous) for serving as a practical guide to discovering witches in early modern Europe. Summers endorsed the content of the Malleus, and by increasing its availability, and translating it into English he obviously extended the reach of its ideas.
For example when a group of young drama students (including me) went looking for rituals associated with witchcraft and Satanism at the university library, the Summers 1928 edition of the Malleus was still available (sadly it lacked the sort of things we were looking for).
In the last century wicked witches have often taken the form of hags: older, warty, suffering from an unfortunate case of verdigris, cackling and mean to children.
However there is another popular conception of witches as attractive women, often promiscuous, treacherous, vengeful and driven by their lusts (with a sub-category of extremely vain witches, I will examine next week).
Unsurprisingly the CW channel show Supernatural (2005-present) has tended to use witches of youthful, attractive sort. The first truly witch-centric episode of the show came in Season Three, with the amusingly titled “Malleus Maleficarum”.
One of the opening scenes shows the two heroes of the show, brothers Dean and Sam, discussing witches in a rather long piece of exposition which both rhetorically references and dispenses with the concept of the old hag:
DEAN So we’re thinking witch?
SAM Uh, yeah, and not some new age wicked water douser either. This is Old World black magic Dean, I mean, warts and all.
The exposition continues with:
DEAN So what are we thinking, we’re uh, looking for some old craggy blair bitch in the woods.
SAM No it could be anyone. Neighbor, coworker, man, woman that’s the problem Dean, they’re human, they’re like everyone else.
In the end the brothers discover a coven of women, three of whom were driven by petty desires to do better materially.
In brief, one of the witches committed the first murder seen in the episode, in order to get revenge against her ex-lover (she kills his wife). That witch is then killed by another member of the coven, in order to protect them from her ‘instability’ – this other member of the coven is later revealed to actually be a demon disguised as their friend, and the instigator of the women’s decision to use witchcraft by providing them with the spellbook they use.
The kind of witches that appear most commonly as antagonists in Supernatural owe their trajectory to the real witches of the early modern period. They have made a deal with the Devil in return for powers in order to gain the things they desire in life. The Examination and confession of certaine wytches at Chensforde (1566), described how an accused witch called Elizabeth Francis was offered material wealth by an evil spirit, who came to her in the form of a cat:
this Elizabeth desired firste of the sayde Cat (callinge it Sathan) that she might be ryche and to haue goodes, and he promised her she shoulde, askinge her what she would haue, and she sayde shepe […] & this Cat forthwith brought shepe into her pasture to the nu[m]ber of .xviii blacke and whyte, whych continued wyth her for a tyme, but in the ende dyd all weare awaye she knewe not howe[…]
[W]hen she had gotten these shepe, she desired to haue on Andrew Byles to her husband, which was a man of some welth, and the cat dyd promyse she shold, but that he sayde she must fyrste consent that this Andrew shuld abuse her, and she so did.
And after when this Andrew had thus abused her he would not mary her, wherfore she willed Sathan to waste his goodes, which he forthwith did, and yet not beyng contentid with this, she wild him to touch his body, whych he forthewith dyd whereof he died.[i]
The comparisons with the witches in the episode of Supernatural are easy to spot. These are witches who would not have surprised the early modern observer.
The other aspect of this episode that is of interest is the presence of a demon as a member of the coven. The use of a human figure who introduces a witch to the diabolic arts, but who may also be the Devil appeared in the famous case at Warboys, in the late 1580s and early 1590s.
After the guilty verdict and executions were announced at the trial of the Warboys witches (the Samuel family), the elderly Alice Samuel pleaded that she should be reprieved as she was pregnant, and a jury of women was therefore appointed to examine her. Given her advanced years, the women appointed to examine her determined ‘that she was not with childe, unlesse (as some saide) it was with the Diuell,& no marueile’.[ii]
This part of the case was discussed in detail in Philip Almond’s The Witches of Warboys. Almond suggests that the idea that the Devil may have impregnated Alice may have been put to the women by Henry Pickering, who was both involved in trial, and had some knowledge of continental cases where witches claimed to have copulated with Devils and been impregnated by them.[iii] The extent of Pickering’s influence may perhaps also be seen in Alice’s confession that she had allowed William Langley, from whom she received her spirits, to have ‘carnall knowledge of her bodie’ when he handed over her familiars.[iv] The pamphlet goes on to suggest that: ‘Some are of opinion, that [Langley] was the Diuel in mans likenesse.’[v]
So the idea that the Devil could masquerade as a witch in order to tempt others into becoming witches also has precedent in early modern Europe.
While witches had – until Season 10 – played a minor role in the show, the problems over the show’s treatment of women have been raised by quite a few different writers, fans, and even a member of the show’s cast. Many of those questioning the simplistic characterisations – and often violent demises – of the show’s female characters have described the show as blatantly sexist and misogynistic. However, Supernatural is part of a genre that is quite famous for its misogyny. The punishment of women in horror for sexual behaviour, or for being anything other than virtuous and/or maternal figures is quite well-recognised (and even has a Wikipedia page).
Hence the use of early modern conceptions of witches as women who are either promiscuous, greedy, venal, vengeful servants of the Devil or so stupid as to get involved in such clearly diabolic schemes, is unsurprising. The failure in this case is that Supernatural has shown so little desire to play with these tropes – as shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Game of Thrones have – and therefore create a dialogue with their audience’s preconceptions of gender and witchcraft. And I don’t see that happening any time soon.
This blog post was originally uploaded at http://witchcrafthistory.blogspot.com.au/