The other day I happened to catch the tail end of Elizabeth Montgomery’s one-hour Biography special. It reminded me how fascinated I was by her witchy housewife on Bewitched when I was a little girl. I wasn’t used to seeing women be the powerful, clever character. I adored her. I wanted to be her.
Later that night I watched Witches of East End, a new Lifetime show. I only did because Julia Ormond, whose character in Legends of the Fall blew my mind for an entire decade, stars in it. (She loved with as much abandon as I do. A post for another day). Soon the pattern dawned on me: I’ve loved witches for as long as I can remember.
One of the characters that most fascinated me in my childhood was Maleficent, the kick-ass villain in Sleeping Beauty. Oh, sure, I loved barefoot Aurora romping through the forest with the guy she’d count on to rescue her from her helplessness later. (And, boy, did I pay attention to that archetype). But Maleficent! Demanding. Intriguing. I will still sometimes do a Maleficent imitation while sending my kids to the store: “Go, and do not fail me.” She even makes an appearance in my book.
Maleficent is the villain in the story, as is the Wicked Witch of the West and so many of the witch characters we see. But even when I was very young I suspected the motives of the tellers of these tales. Aurora’s parents, sanctimonious jerks, did not invite Maleficent to what was probably not just a great party but also an important regional event, the christening of the first child of the leader of the land. Dorothy dropped a house on the Wicked Witch’s sister. So, yes, they were both pissed off.
But, alas, history is written by the victors. And female anger makes everyone very nervous.
That’s what’s intriguing about the witch archetype: the raw feminine power. Witches dare to act in the world instead of passively wait for things to be given. Witches want. Witches get. With their cauldrons and their spells witches seek to affect the outcomes of things. They are the things women should not be: flawed and sometimes angry and always steeped in a sense of their power. They want to do things. Change things. Know things. Of course (mostly male) storytellers must make them ugly in their retelling of things. Witches deserve punishment by not defining themselves by how much men want to screw them.
Every time I see a witch onscreen, or read about one, I thrill at her courage. In fact, I know that the caricature we see of witches today represents the struggles of legions of women who dared to make their own way at times when it was dangerous to do so. Eleven generations ago, women right here in what would become the United States were persecuted and hanged for witchcraft. Women in Saudi Arabia are still convicted of sorcery today. Their crimes (talismans, midwifery) touch on the fears people have of women who seek to control outcomes.
At Halloween I revel in the opportunity to show my love of witches so openly. I put up images of them outside and I indulge in my own witchy fantasies through costumes. But here’s to heeding the call of the witch within every day if the year.
Go get your witch on!
For your viewing pleasure, “Go, and do not fail me.” I do a great Maleficent: