What makes a witch?
These days, we’d probably answer something along the lines of “a person who can cast spells.” Maybe we’d throw something in about cauldrons and broomsticks, or a big pointy hat, or maybe a black cat. If we’re a certain type of person we’d bring up neo-paganism, and tarot cards and crystals, and white witches.
In all, it tends to boil down to this: someone, usually female, who uses magic, whether magic is meant literally or in a more spiritual, ritualistic sense. Around Hallowe’en especially there’s a connection of witchcraft with horror and evil, but the idea of the witch, in 2017, no longer automatically means “bad,” except in certain religiously-informed ideologies.
Not so for all of history. When the idea of the “witch” first exploded in the (western) cultural imaginary, it was very tied up with ideas of evil and morality. It was also a lot less gendered that you likely believe, particularly when prosecuted by the courts and not on a more popular, hysterical level.
The reason for this is that there were two kinds of witches.
In the Middle Ages, practitioners of what we would now call “magic” were common in villages and amongst the common folk of Europe. They were usually a sort of medicine person for those around them, healing ailments and selling cures, sometimes in the form of charms. It was only when their magic was assumed to be causing harm or mischief – when it became what was called maleficium – that people would label that person a witch. Sometimes it wasn’t even someone previously associated with magic at all that would bear the accusation, but the basic pattern follows: a misfortune would befall the town or the people in it (usually either affecting crops or something to do with an unfortunate pregnancy, although all sorts of things have been attributed to maleficium in the records we have), and people would go looking for a scapegoat. That scapegoat would be called a witch. Hence, one part of the famous witch trials.
But these were only one version of the witch trials, and they were caused by only one definition of “witch”. Because out of the courts and churches and schools of Europe, another definition was born: to the learned wealthy, a witch was someone who made a deal with the devil (or a demon). This version is what lead to the more widespread and hysterical nature of the height of the witch trials, because it adds in an extra layer of spiritual morality. At a time when national and imperial boundaries were shifting and the power of the church was merging with the power of the state, that moral scare was a way of exerting control over a scared and superstitious populace.
Why the history lesson? Partly just because I think it’s interesting. But also because I think that knowing how and why these two versions of witchcraft originally developed makes tracking contemporary depictions of witches a lot easier. Think about it – the witches in film or tv who are the antagonists, who we’re meant to read as evil (eg The Craft)? Almost all of them have some sort of demonic pact in their backstory. And the quirky witches we’re just meant to love and laugh with (Sabrina, Bewitched) – well, they’re just women with magic. Often, the latter also have some sort of matriarchal or other overtly feminine line of inheritance to their power, tapping into the influence of the ahistorical neopagan resurgence of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
To be honest with you, though, I just love witches. It doesn’t matter what their historical lineage, or whether their surrounding story wants the audience to view them as good or evil. Give a girl some magic, and I’m there.
I guess it’s got to do with power. Not ease – although I can’t deny the attraction of being able to snap my fingers or wiggle my nose and have any sort of comfort I like – and not power as in magic, but power. Witches might be hunted and killed, or maybe they’ve only got to deal with all manner of zany mishaps from not understanding or misusing their magic, but in the end they’ve got power.
To be a girl is to be hunted anyways. Imagine knowing you have the ability to always save yourself. Imagine how much you could get done, with the time and energy you waste worrying how to be safe.
Of course, there’s always something else to worry about instead.
In the spirit of Hallowe’en, this month’s GIRLisms is a little different. Instead of talking about one specific character, I give you: my top five girl witches in popular culture.
Mildred Hubble, The Worst Witch
Several decades before Hogwarts, there was Miss Cackle’s Academy For Witches. And there was poor Mildred Hubble, a well-intentioned but clumsy and seemingly untalented outcast, the titular “worst witch” at the school. Originally a series of charming books in the vein of Roald Dahl, written and illustrated by Jill Murphy, The Worst Witch became a cult classic TV movie in 1986, starring Fairuza Balk and Tim Curry. A further TV series adaptation ran from 1998-2001.
What makes The Worst Witch so charming is what so much children’s literature is about: a character figuring out who they are and how they belong in the world. Mildred might be the “worst witch” at the school, regularly scolded by her teacher Miss Hardbroom for not trying hard enough. And her friends might not be much better, nervous and trouble-seeking as they are. And their snobby classmate Ethel might really have it out for them. But in the end, it’s Mildred who saves the day and the school, just like we always knew she could.
Hermione Granger, Harry Potter
In some ways, Hermione Granger is at first a lot like Mildred Hubble: a little bit of an outcast, two dear friends, just trying to get through school. But the similarities are superficial. Where Mildred struggles with both magic and self-doubt, Hermione is “the brightest witch of her age”. Her no-nonsense hard-working approach is combined with a natural gift for magic, and she saved Harry and Ron’s grades more than once each book, never mind throughout the series. (Also, let’s be honest, their lives. We wouldn’t have reached book 7 if it hadn’t been for Hermione.)
But Hermione Granger was incredibly important to me, growing up, precisely because she was a bookish know-it-all. Like many children who turn to stories for companionship (and, indeed, like many Harry Potter fans), I didn’t have many friends as a child. I preferred my books, which didn’t subtly or not-so-subtly ridicule me for trying to hang around with them. And in Harry Potter and Hermione, I found a character that showed me that it was okay – it was admirable – to be smart, to love books, to stick to your guns. JK Rowling made a lot of mistakes both in and after her famous series, but reminding kids that it’s important to stay true to yourself wasn’t one of them.
Nancy Downs, The Craft
Fairuza Balk again! Nancy is the only character who is technically an antagonist on this list, but she is by far the most important witch in this ‘90s cult classic film, even if she does go a little evil and murder-y.
After all, the dude Nancy kills tried to rape one of her friends. And, okay, after that she does go pretty much off the rails, and turns against said friend violently and viciously. But where the film clearly wants us to cheer for Sarah (the friend), it’s Nancy all of us remember. It’s Nancy whose style is still being copied by troubled and broody teenaged girls around the world.
And it’s Nancy’s story that is the most compelling, really. The Craft is just one of many pieces of culture (including another one on this list) that uses magic and witchcraft as a metaphor for addiction, and it’s Nancy who becomes the most addicted. But this obvious parallel means that Sarah’s storyline can come off as preachy and moralizing, especially when she doesn’t lose her powers unlike every other member of the coven. That looks a lot like special privileges in the cold light of retrospect. Besides, remember what I said earlier, about power? It’s Nancy who refuses to be a victim, who tries to use her magic to take control, instead of constantly reacting. So she goes about it the wrong way. Everybody’s a little bit fucked up as a teenager.
Sabrina Spellman, Sabrina the Teenage Witch
In almost every way thinkable, Sabrina (of the 1998-2003 TV show, but also the Sabrina of the original Archie Comics surrounding the character) is the polar opposite of Nancy Downs. Sabrina is blonde and peppy and fashionable; she gets the dream boyfriend; she has a loving if strangely-shaped family; she might be a bit of an outsider at school, at least at first, but she doesn’t want to be. She mostly just wants to fit in.
Like Nancy, though, Sabrina loves being a witch. Once she settles into her powers she delights in them, even as they constantly lead to bizarre and hilarious mishaps. And it’s those mishaps that are the reason Sabrina makes it all the way to number two on this list. Sabrina the Teenage Witch was at one point the biggest show on TV, at least for the kid-to-teen demographic, netting detailed cameos by everyone from Britney Spears to *NSYNC and back again. The best word to describe the show is probably zany, with its mix of high school drama, magically-created surreal situations, and appropriately silly humour.
Which is why I’m so curious about the CW’s upcoming Sabrina reboot, by the same creative team behind Riverdale. That team includes the man who gave us both the Afterlife With Archie and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the latter of which is apparently going to be the basis for this new series. Chilling Adventures is dark, dark, dark, drawing on Lovecraft and other horror writers, as well as the kind of conceptions of witchcraft that lead to the hysterical spread of trials in the Middle Ages. It’s the kind of dark that I don’t think will make it to TV easily, but even a more aestheticized and pseudo-dark melodrama version of Sabrina, a la Riverdale, will be a heck of a lot of fun to watch.
Willow Rosenberg, Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Of course. It couldn’t be anyone else but Willow. She isn’t just the most important pop cultural teen witch in my mind, she’s one of the most important characters to grace our televisions in the last few decades.
I don’t think anyone watching season one of Buffy would have guessed how important shy computer geek Willow would turn out to be. Of course we realized that she’d be a long-running member of Buffy’s Scooby Gang; the show makes it clear how important friendship is. But in the first season she’s often overshadowed by Xander, not to mention her own meekness.
As the show develops, though, so too does Willow, probably the furthest and most compellingly of any character. She goes from that pigtailed big-sweatered nerd to Buffy’s closest friend and powerful ally, the kind of girl you both want and can trust to have your back. Her immersion into witchcraft isn’t just a development into being one more pretty kickass girl on the show, but something tinged with questions of what power actually is; why we search for it; and, like The Craft, addiction. But unlike The Craft, the further question of what drives someone to addiction is also explored. More than any other character on this list, Willow’s witchcraft is tied up with her own very human struggles with things like jealousy and self-confidence and grief and sexuality.
That humanity, and the sexuality that goes along with it, is what makes Willow so important, not just as a witch but in a broader pop cultural context. Willow’s relationship with her girlfriend, Tara, was the first long-running lesbian relationship on TV, something that was, for all of Buffy’s other faults, treated sensitively and humanely. Willow’s character development feels real because she’s given enough time to grow, and the same goes for her and Tara’s relationship. The calm matter-of-factness with which both she and the show as a whole approach the relationship is something that hasn’t been done so well again to this day.
And when Buffy made the horrible, still-unforgiven mistake of killing Tara for shock value? Well, at least they got Willow’s reaction right. Looking back as someone who has been through the hellish depths of grief and struggled out the other side, Willow became a character even more important to me, something I’d previously not thought possible. Because the show had the ability to metaphorize her grief through her magic, the way Willow deals with loss is, still, one of the best and most (ironically) realistic depictions of grief I’ve ever seen on TV.
Despite everything else Joss Whedon has done, we still got really, really lucky when he gave us Willow. •
Jacqui Deighton still considers London, England “home”, but currently lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia and is pretty okay with that. Her writing has appeared in One Week / One Band, Goblin Fruit and elsewhere, as well as winning some awards. She likes lip gloss, stompy boots, and cephalopods. Probably she was Remus Lupin in a past life.
Jacqui is a Shakespeare and Punk staff writer. GIRLisms, a column about girls and the worlds they hold inside themselves, is her brainchild.