The Wind Blows by Katherine Mansfield

The Wind Blows Katherine Mansfield

On the surface level, “The Wind Blows” by Katherine Mansfield is a coming-of-age short story about an adolescent girl (Matilda) who wakes up one morning, nervous and tense. While the wind blows outside, she gets ready for her music lesson. Before she leaves she has a minor disagreement with her mother. She has her music lesson, goes home, meets her brother walks with him to the sea. They stand together and watch a ship in the water. Then she imagines a time in the future when she and her brother will be leaving their home on a ship like this one.

(The ship is carrying coal. Mansfield uses the word ‘coal hulk’. Interestingly, these ships used to be used as prisons, as well as for freight.)

On the metaphorical level, the wind is an extended metaphor for the feelings of adolescence. It’s not easy to tell whether Katherine Mansfield is empathetic to the tumultuous feelings of adolescence, or if she’s poking fun. She has written “The Wind Blows” in a melodramatic tone. Critics have called this story ‘the most purely symbolist of her stories to this date.. a highly sophisticated and modernist story…achieving new intensity’ (Claire Hanson and Andrew Gurr).


In general, it pays not to conflate characters with their creators. But In Katherine Mansfield: The woman and the writer, Gillian Boddy provides good reasons why we might read Matilda with Katherine Mansfield herself:

Clearly based on the memories she had shared with Leslie during the summer of 1915, this story has a strange power. Matilda is K.M., she used the pseudonym Matilda Berry at this time, while Bogey was the family name for Leslie, which K.M. later transferred to Murry. It gives a hint, too, of the Trowell’s house in Buller Street which must have been central to her artistic development. This presumably led her to the choice of the music teacher’s name — Mr. Bullen. Could her remarkable memory have failed her by one letter, was the change deliberate, or was there perhaps an error in transcribing the story from her handwriting? Is Mr Bullen another composite figure, based on Mr Trowell and her piano teacher Mr Robert Parker?

Gillian Boddy
René François Xavier Prinet, The Sonata, 1901, the stuff of girlhood fantasy
René François Xavier Prinet, The Sonata, 1901, the stuff of girlhood fantasy

Sadly, Mansfield’s brother Leslie died only a days after this story was published. Once you know that, the admonishment ‘don’t forget’ near the end of the story becomes darkly resonant.



Katherine Mansfield grew up in the capital of New Zealand: Wellington. Central Wellington. The family later moved out to Karori, which is still Wellington.

Anyone who has lived in Wellington will recognise immediately the relentless wind that drives inexorably through the story; not for nothing is K.M.’s birthplace nicknamed ‘Windy Wellington’. It is also, with the sea, a dominant symbol in this story about a girl’s transition into the adult world.

Gillian Boddy

Unless you’ve been to Wellington on a windy day, it’s hard to imagine HOW windy Wellington is.

Wellington in New Zealand is ranked as the world’s windiest city.

World Atlas

The older houses make a lot of rattling noise, which soon blends into white noise as you adjust. If you dare hang washing outside on the line, it’ll dry just fine, but you’ll be untangling it before bringing it in. In exposed areas, trees grow sideways. Dreadlocks are a very sensible hairstyle. Riding a pushbike? Come on. You might as well just walk. Wear well-fitting hats with strings and toggles. Don’t try badminton with the gymnasium window ajar. Fancy skirts? Make them long and heavy or stick to the trusty trouser.

This is the weather Katherine Mansfield grew up with. I’ve no doubt that after she grew older and left New Zealand entirely, windy days would have reminded her of her childhood. (I bet Mansfield would’ve worn her hair in dreadlocks, too, had they been a thing back for white Kiwi girls at the turn of the 20th century. She seems that kind of bohemian.)

In storytelling, when authors make a big thing out of the weather, linking it to emotions of their characters, it’s called pathetic fallacy. When characters are sad it just so happens to be raining outside, that kind of thing.

When authors use the weather and connect it to human emotion, they very often write the environment as if it were alive. Super common. You might want to check out this post: How Can Setting Be Character?

The pull quotes relevant from “The Wind Blows”:

It is only the wind shaking the house, rattling the windows, banging a piece of iron on the roof and making her bed tremble.


This sentence (from the opening paragraph) reminds me of a creepy-ass poem my parents used to chant when I was a toddler and wouldn’t jump straight into bed at the first request.

Wee Willie Winkie rins through the toon, Up stairs an’ doon stairs in his nicht-gown, Tirlin’ at the window, crying at the lock, “Are the weans in their bed, for it’s now ten o’clock?”

(Except I’m fifth generation New Zealander. It wasn’t said in that awesome Scottish accent.)

I’m confident Katherine Mansfield would’ve known that poem, too, along with various other stories of bugaboos who were meant to come and get you if you didn’t do exactly as you were told, “im-me-diately”. (See what I did there?) Funnily enough, Matilda calls her little brother ‘Bogey’, which is a term used to describe creatures that come in the night. (These days in New Zealand it usually refers to that grossity plucked from the nostril. In real life, we do know that Mansfield called John Murry — her husband — the nickname of Bogey.) The character of Matilda is a fantasist type, imo. I’m reminded of the character played by Emily Blunt in My Summer of Love. That entire film has a Katherine Mansfield vibe, come to think of it.

The-girl-before-her has just started playing MacDowell’s ‘To An Iceberg’. There’s no such song — Katherine Mansfield changed the title slightly. American composer Edward MacDowell was a favourite of hers. The song is probably “From A Wandering Iceberg”.

Matilda misquotes poetry by Shelly. ‘I bring fresh flowers to the leaves and showers’ is based on the opening line of “The Cloud”. Why the misquotation? Matilda doesn’t have a great memory for poetry.


All the trees and bushes beat about her. 

… outside Mr Bullen’s gate she can hear the sea sob: “Ah!… Ah!… Ah-h!”

The cry appears to come from within Matilda. (This juxtaposes with Mr Bullen’s drawing room, which is quiet — a haven.)

It’s the bed that is frightening. There it lies, sound asleep… stockings knotted up on the quilt like a coil of snakes

Where is the asphalt zig-zag mentioned in the story?

‘They cannot walk fast enough. Their heads bent, their legs just touching, they stride like one eager person through the tow, down the asphalt zigzag where the fennel grows wild, and on to the esplanade. It is dusky – just getting dusky. The wind is so strong that they have to fight their way through it, rocking like two old drunkards. All the poor little pohutukawas on the esplanade are bent to the ground.’

The esplanade is now Thorndon Quay. There is no longer fennel growing here. If you’d like to see some photos, see this post at the Wellington Steps blog.

This is the closest I can get on Google Earth.


Each new scene includes a sentence or two which makes it seem alive.

The wind is so strong that they have to fight their way through it, rocking like two old drunkards. All the poor little pahutukawas on the esplanade are bent to the ground.

This story was written before Maori spelling was standardised. Now: ‘pohutakawa’ (a native New Zealand tree with fiery red flowers)


Mansfield has set her story in autumn, partly because this is a windy month. Partly because things are changing. We often view childhood as ‘summery’. We like to imagine a yellow hue cast over childhood memories. Autumn would therefore mark the end of childhood — an in-between state. Matilda feels ‘everything is ugly’. Self-confidence is not exactly at an all-time high during adolescence. It takes time to get used to the image in the mirror.


“The Wind Blows” is a snapshot of historical racism of a kind which only recently mutated into something more covert. My own grandmother used the phrase ‘Chinaman’ (to refer to anyone with an Asian face), and she’d say, “I’m not your little black boy!” by way of reminding us kids that we should be doing for ourselves. (The implication being: if she were a little black boy, she’d happily slave away.)

Contemporary Wellingtonians won’t likely recognise the Wellington of this story:

The carts rattle by, swinging from side to side; two Chinamen lollop along under their wooden yokes with the straining vegetable baskets  –  their pigtails and blue blouses fly out in the wind.

No one dresses like that anymore.

In waves, in clouds, in big round whirls the dust comes stinging, and with it little bits of straw and chaff and manure. […] through the town, down the asphalt zigzag where the fennel grows wild, and on to the esplanade

The roads are not sealed and wild vegetation grows where everything is now turned to concrete.

She wears an ‘ulster’ — a Victorian working daytime overcoat, with a cape and sleeves.

Tenerife work refers to handmade lace from the Canary Islands.


“The Wind Blows” has a single focaliser — Matilda. This aligns the reader to Matilda. Everything we experience is through Matilda’s senses.

The narration offers no definitive commentary on the specific situation of the focalising character, Matilda. We don’t know what came before or what will happen after. Instead, events of a single day give readers an insight into Matilda’s personality and into her complicated relationship within the family. Mansfield shows us Matilda’s state of mind by presenting selected concrete detail rather than by depicting the mind of the character. Chekhov also wrote like this. There’s a Latin phrase sometimes used to describe these characters who have no backstory: in statu nascendi (in the state of being born).

To the reader, it feels like Matilda is placed in a series of random situations. ‘Slice of life’ stories are often written like this. The ‘random’ slices create an unsettling mosaic but these slices are bound together by a single symbol: The wind.


What’s with the repetition of ‘wind’?

The repetition of a single word “wind” in “The Wind Blows” (five times compounded as “The wind — the wind,” functions not only to reinforce, as though physiologically, the reader’s sense of the intensity and persistence of a Wellington windstorm but also as a sotr of mantra for the central character, a formulaic verbal utterance that here at once invokes change and mediates against it, producing tension.

Reading Mansfield and Metaphors of Form by William Herbert New

Mansfield juxtaposes lyrical details against base, realistic details such as the three-legged dog, the burned porridge and the dust that came ‘stinging and with it little bits of straw and chaff and manure’.

Some of the details make the environment seem literally alive. There’s the roaring sound from the trees in the gardens, the piece of paper flying like a lost kite.


[“The Wind Blows”] is a sharp contrast to “The Woman At The Store”; some readers complain ‘but it’s not a story, nothing happens.’ It is a story of a different kind, oblique, episodic, with its shift in time level, and the move into interior monologue at the beginning of the second part.

Gillian Boddy

In common with many children’s picture books, “The Wind Blows” is the story a childlike character and begins with her waking up and ends in the evening. (Unlike in a picture book, we don’t see Matilda tucked into bed.) There is a particular symbolism attached to stories that take place over 12 hours.


Matilda, whose name we don’t actually know until her mother calls her, is hormonal. Over the course of one day, she is at the mercy of her up-and-down emotions.


The desire in this particular story is not a burning, surface one. Characters often don’t know what it is they want. Especially young characters. Knowing what you want is in itself a skill.

Matilda of “The Wind Blows” is a character going about her daily life, one small desire soon replaced by another. But under that surface, Matilda’s desires are strong; she is driven by hormones and angst.


Matilda’s main opponent is her mother. Mothers often bear the brunt. Mansfield has used contemporary language of the time: “Go to hell,” which lends “The Wind Blows” a contemporary feel. In this story, notice how Matilda is never near her mother.

Note that Mansfield manages to portray tension without resorting to the exclamation mark, which would cheapen the prose. The verb ‘shouts’ does the work of punctuation.

There’s also Marie Swainson, who is a vague irritation to Matilda. That said, Mansfield has done her usual trick (seen also in “The Garden Party”) of presenting the two girls as equals by giving them names that begin with the same letter. That’s not how Matilda sees it — she mocks Marie’s shortening of ‘chrysanthemum’ and wishes she had more time alone with the music teacher — Marie intrudes upon her alone-time.

Stories require human opposition to work, but some commentators have said that the wind itself serves as an opponent in “The Wind Blows”. It seems to be working against Matilda in a ghostly kind of way. It tears her ‘best little Teneriff-work teacloth’ and tries to lift her skirts. The wind bangs a piece of iron on the roof and makes her bed tremble. It causes her to wake up abruptly and ‘dreadfully’.


Matilda herself has no plans for her day, which is in keeping with how the story ends. (She loses childhood and doesn’t have plans for what comes next.)

In a story where the main character has no plans, they are carried along by other people’s plans. Her music lesson is something she does out of habit. It’s even Bogey who suggests their walk along the esplanade. Matilda isn’t exactly the proactive type. She’s more of a mooning type. Matilda’s lack of plans are in keeping with the mood of the story — she is a ship (see below) being carried along by the tide of life.


In stories of this style, the big struggle section is often entirely symbolic. In “The Wind Blows”, Mansfield’s description of the dangerous sea is a proxy for a big fight scene. Pick out a few words from these paragraphs, and you could easily transplant them into an actual big struggle scene:

  • They cannot walk fast enough. (As if chased by something.)
  • zigzag (road)
  • (fennel) grows wild
  • strong (wind)
  • drunkards (which are actually flowers, not exactly dangerous people out on the street)
  • waves ‘breaking’, Bogey’s voice ‘breaking’
  • thump (onomatopoeia of the waves)
  • ‘the inside of her mouth tastes wet and cold’ (as if something terrible just happened)


It’s the light that makes her look so awfully beautiful and mysterious… They are on board leaning over the rail arm in arm. 

” … Who are they?” 

” … Brother and sister.” 

Matilda imagines she and Bogey on board the ship; in fact, they ‘are’ the ship. Nothing will stop these children from ploughing through the rough seas of adolescence into adulthood, not even the ‘wind’ – the turbulent emotions every adolescent must steam through.

“Look, Bogey, there’s the town. Doesn’t it look small?”

Mansfield is making use of miniatures in storytelling. This is seen much more clearly in “The Fly“, which she wrote just months before she died.


There’s a particular type of Anagnorisis seen in some stories — even in stories for children — in which the main character says goodbye to childhood. I say ‘even’ in stories for children, because a child audience can’t possibly understand it fully. Children are super smart and understand a whole lot of things, but this is the one thing I can think of in which children and adults are distinct as audience members.

When Matilda says, “How many years ago!” we know that Matilda feels she is no longer a child. She says goodbye to the ‘little island’ (the ship), and she is saying goodbye to childhood.

A ‘saying goodbye to childhood’ scene is utilised to great effect in Toy Story 3, when Andy tells Woody what he thinks of him. Until this moment Woody has never known. “He’s  been my pal as long as I can remember…”

“The thing that makes Woody special is that he’ll never give up on you, ever. Do you think you can take care of him for me?” Woody understands that everything he always wanted to be, he was. Then the viewpoint switches to Andy. Andy is trying one last time to keep hold of his childhood when he grabs Woody back from the little girl. This is the last time he’ll ever play with Woody. What does that do to the audience? We all realise we’ve either lost our childhood or we’re losing it.

Children don’t cry at this Toy Story 3. This is an adult ending that was designed for both children and adults. From a child’s perspective, children get their own ending, which is happy: Woody gets to hang out with his friends. They’re together! For children, Toy Story 3 is happy from beginning to end. Children under about 13 don’t have any concern for Andy’s feelings — they’re identifying with the toys. There is no Anagnorisis for the child audience. This scene is so sad because most adults didn’t know when we were saying goodbye to our childhood. In hindsight, it seems one moment we were children, the next we were adults. This scene allows us to weep for the loss of our own childhood.

In Peter Pan, Wendy says goodbye to her childhood when she says goodbye to Peter (who represents childhood).

Other stories with resonant ‘saying goodbye to childhood’ anagnorisis scenes: A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck (which is the saddest thing I’ve read in my life), Winnie the Pooh and Boyhood, the film by Richard Linklater.

I expect the full emotional impact of the Anagnorisis scene in Mansfield’s “The Wind Blows” would be felt (if not understood) by a post-adolescent readership.

Although we’re talking about a ship on a sea, there’s a bit of river symbolism going on here. A body of water represents the inevitable passing of time, sweeping us along with it, as we get older and older, no turning back.

God, this is depressing.


Now the dark stretches a wing over the tumbling water. They can’t see those two any more. Good-bye, good-bye. Don’t forget… But the ship is gone, now. 

The wind  –  the wind.

The ending is only suggestive and left open to interpretation. It’s really not important what happened between the scene on the shore and the final scene on the boat or how they got there. This ending really only makes sense when you think of the disappearing ship as disappearing childhood. Think of this ending as Matilda’s change in perspective. She feels alienated from other characters.

The final ‘the wind — the wind’ reminds me of ‘Tumbleweeds’ (which is a more modern trope, riffing on old Western movies, and spoofed subsequently by pop culture.)

If Mansfield were writing today, she might have ended with ‘Tumbleweed’ instead. Okay, maybe not, but I interpret that ending as, ‘Childhood was gone now, but nothing had appeared to replace it, yet.’

Matilda has a crush on her married music teacher (well, I guess he was married, since he wears a ring), but he’s way too old for her. Romantically, and in every other way, Matilda is stuck in teen limbo for a good while yet, unable to see how her adult life can get started.

Notice how Mansfield frames the main story: She begins by describing a whole newspaper wagging in the air like a lost kite. With that simple imagery she ties something from the boring adult world (a newspaper) to something from childhood (a kite). The childhood kite ends up ‘spiked on a pine tree’. Childhood has been killed, basically.


A few years back I wrote my own retelling of “The Wind Blows”. I had spent an entire week immersed in Katherine Mansfield, and the story flowed easily. (Not all of them do.)

  • “The Wind Blows” is 1623 words. I recommend you make yours about that length, too.
  • What season is your story set?
  • The story starts in the morning and ends around evening sometime.
  • Everything that happens throughout the day causes some kind of strong emotion. Each emotion juxtaposes with the emotion that came before — positive, negative, positive, negative. There’s no external influence on these emotions — they seem random, and that’s the point.
  • You don’t have to use wind as pathetic fallacy. You might use something else instead as a metaphor for tumult: a ride at a theme park, a hairdryer, a flooded creek… Or you could use pathetic fallacy ironically. Pick a sweltering hot day and juxtapose that against the up-and-down emotions of adolescence.
  • Mansfield uses the girl’s mother as her main opponent, but you could pick someone else. A teacher, perhaps. A best friend. A sibling, auntie.
  • Perhaps your character is the mooning type, in which case other characters will carry them along in their plans.
  • The Battle scene will be a proxy battle — a dangerous description of something rather than an actually dangerous something.
  • The anagnorisis — in keeping with this story — may be that ‘childhood has ended’. Or you might substitute with something else.
  • Like Mansfield, don’t waste time on ‘transitions’, getting your character from place to place. Mansfield whips Matilda out of her music lesson and transplants her straight into her own bedroom. The transition is ‘The wind — the wind’.
  • Mansfield has opened her story with a very particular sentence construction. She closes in this way, too. Try doing the same, see if it works. Even better, write imagery to open which reflects the Anagnorisis. Mansfield used the kite spiked on the tree to foreshadow the end of childhood.

A Dill Pickle by Katherine Mansfield

Bank Holiday 1912 William Strang

“A Dill Pickle” is a 1917 short story by Katherine Mansfield. Over the course of a single cafe scene, a woman meets up with a former beau. This is a feminist story about how men and women tend to communicate, and illuminates Mansfield’s deep interest in psychology.

Download full text of “A Dill Pickle” by Katherine Mansfield (pdf)


A man and woman meet after six years apart. It is revealed that they used to be prospective lovers/beaus. The entire story is a conversation between them, and the reader sees (hopefully) that this partnership is doomed. A modern reader can probably put names to some of the psychological tricks going down. 

Continue reading “A Dill Pickle by Katherine Mansfield”

A Glossary of Witch Words

Circe offering the Cup to Ulysses

First, what is a witch?

As witch expert Diane Purkiss explains on Episode 83 of the English Heritage podcast:

The definition of witch changes over time. The word witch dates from around 800 AD. It originally referred to men who practise witchcraft but 200 years later refered to female magicians and sorceresses. Later it meant women who were meant to cooperate with the devil or other evil spirits.

Focusing on the time when most witch marks were made, a witch is someone who can do harm simply by wanting to do harm, by using a power intrinsic to her body or by calling on a larger, darker power in the cosmos. She perhaps wants to harm you because she’s envious, or because you’ve been rude to her outside a shop one day. Some witches can harm you by simply looking in your direction, but others must swap parts of their body (usually their blood) for the service of those occult powers.

“The Witch”, by Kandaurov Anton (1899), a Russian postcard

Actaeon — a famous hero in Greek mythology and, in Witchcraft, the actaeon is the stag-horned God of the Forest. The Greek hero came to a bit of an unfortunate end. He was in the forest one day when he accidentally saw Artemis naked. She was bathing starkers in the woods. The goddess caught him looking at her, entranced by her beauty. She told him not to speak again or he would transmogrify into a deer. But then he heard his hunting dogs and called out to them. Of course he turned into a deer. He started running deeper into the woods, but he’d trained his dogs to hunt deer, you see. They tore him to pieces. What’s he got to do with witchcraft? The Horned God is one of the two main deities of Wicca. Actaeon ALSO had horns, see? When traditions/beliefs/rituals come from several different strains of thought, we call it ‘syncretic’. The Horned God is a classic syncretic deity. You see it a lot in fantasy and horror. One of my favourite contemporary horror films is The Ritual, in which the stag-horned God of the Forest has clearly influenced the monster.

Age Discrimination — When it comes to accusations of witchcraft, disablity, gender and age intersect. The people most likely to be called witches were a category of people considered surplus to social requirements, without a place in village life: elderly, women, past childbearing age. An enduring philosophical problem: What are elderly women for? If a woman’s major function is to provide children, women who cannot do that are considered useless. Worse, during times of food scarcity, barren women are considered a waste of food. Elderly women have always troubled society. The more ugly and poor they are, the more upsetting they are. On top of all this, once it was a crime to be Catholic in England, the last ones still praying in Latin were of course the elderly, who liked to pray as they always had. This proved a problem for Agnes Waterhouse, the first woman hanged in England for witchcraft. Among other things, Agnes was hanged for praying in Latin, the language she had always used for prayer. When customs change and old customs are construed as ‘witchcraft’, the elderly are vulnerable, and sometimes charged with the heinous crime of simply failing to keep up with the times.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream — A Renaissance fairy story turned into a famous play by William Shakespeare. The Tempest is another Shakespearian play featuring witches but is not generally considered his ‘witch play’.

Alice Kyteler — Ireland’s first convicted witch. In 1324 she was accused of having sex with a demon. In paintings, she’s shown with red hair parted down the middle, with a single plait at the back. (I’m willing to bet her stand-out ‘misdemeanour’ was the growing of red hair.) By lingering reputation she was also beautiful, and heterosexual men who were attracted to her felt she had power of manipulation. She also had a few husbands die on her (from illness), and it was decided she must have cast some sort of spell to kill them.

Altar — the consecrated place that holds the witch’s implements — a table, bench, tree stump or rock. Some traditions recommend that the alter be circular, and that it stand within a magic circle, drawn on the ground. 

Amulet — needles and pins are classic amulets of evil. Sulfur and gum arabic are also highly recommended by experienced jinxers. Graveyard dust and coffin nails are good for causing harm. 

Anjana — A type of witch from the Hispanic tradition. The name may be related to Diana or Jana. This type of witch is a beautiful young woman in her true form, but takes the form of an old woman to test people’s charity. When she doesn’t look like an old woman, she has blonde hair, blue eyes, and wears tunics made of flowers and silver stars. She carries a gold staff and wears green stockings. She otherwise spends her days watching over animals, and hanging out in her underground palace which is full of treasure and jewels. She has a lot of treasure because everything she touches with her staff can turn into treasure.

Anti-Semitism — Bigotry directed towards the Jewish communities. Why do modern witches so often wear tall, black, pointy hats? There’s a theory that it came from anti-Semitism in the 13th century. Jews were forced to wear identifying pointed caps, which became associated with Satan-worship and black magic. Jews were accused of such things. Others suggest the pointed hat came from anti-Quaker prejudice. There’s another theory that the black hats are a take on alewife hats, worn by women who sold home-brewed beer. Cf. conical hat

Apples — If you’ve read Snow White you’ll already know how apples are associated with old women who poison younger women. Apples make a frequent appearance in folktales, as do other fruits and vegetables. It seems that pica for fruit and vegetables was very common — not surprising in times of food shortages, when unborn babies are sapping nutrients from the mothers. Pregnant women were punished for giving in to these cravings. It was believed that supernatural forces would intervene and make life terrible for the unborn child (see Rapunzel). For a pregnant woman on the verge of starvation, an apple would be an easy sell. In early stories of witch craft, witches become associated with apples. The apples are used to gain power of young women (and also over children).

Arrow position — A physical position similar to the Eastern asana and mudra. During certain Pagan rituals participants adopt this position. Feet are placed together and the arms are raised directly overhead, palms touching.

Athame (or athalme) — a black handled, double edged dagger with a magnetised blade. It represents the witch’s power and is used in rituals. It’s a clear phallic symbol, though the pointed blade suggests the element of fire, which it also symbolises. The act of plunging it into the Chalice represents the union of the male and female principles. It’s also used to mark a magical circle. It’s not used for cutting. If witches want to actually cut something they use a bolline.

Auto-da-fé — “act of faith”. A ritual held during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. Religious authorities would decide if someone accused of a crime was guilty or not. After that, there was a public ritual, known as Auto-da-fé. Civil authorities performed the punishment. Originally punishment comprised a variety of forms but eventually became equated with just one form, burning to death. 

A Year And A Day — a unit of time used frequently in witchcraft. e.g. “I dedicate myself to studying with this coven for a year and a day”.

Baba Yaga — Baba Yaga is a legendary Slavic witch, or a hag, who lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs and who flies through the air in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder. The predatory Baba Yaga, who has a special liking for children, is a subcategory of crone. She’s also known as Old Hag Yaga. Her name is synonymous with ved’ma, which means witch in Russian.

‘The Witch’ 1978 by Barry Windsor-Smith, British. Probably due to the Baba Yaga tradition, this witch has chicken feet.

Badmouth — these days, to badmouth someone means to criticise them, probably behind their backs. But the origin of the word originally meant hexing and cursing someone.

Barrow tomb — A barrow tomb is a mound of earth and stones raised over a grave or graves. Also called: Tumulus (plural tumuli) burial mounds or kurgans. Over the world, this has been a common way to bury the dead. Turning now to Anglo Saxon society in England: The Anglo Saxons were Christian, but they started to work themselves up about a particular urban legend. They believed mysterious people were showing up at barrow tombs to summon the dead by pouring blood all over the tombs. Why would anyone want to do that? Well, they thought the summoned dead had some useful special poweres, such as telling the future etc. They didn’t want this happening, so the Anglo Saxons built gallows on the hillsides of barrow tombs. That way, they could at least consign all the dangerous criminals and hypothetical, supernatural baddies to the same area.

Befana — Witches tend to be divided into ‘good and bad’. Befana is the ‘good witch’ from Italy who brings presents to children on Epiphany. (Many other countries get a male Santa Clause instead.)

Befano — Consort of Befana. From the God Faunus (the Roman horned-god of the Forest, known as Actaeon to the Ancient Greeks).

Beldame — An ugly looking, evil old woman. Also spelt beldam. We fear the elderly because they remind us that we all get old, if we’re lucky.

Bell, Book and Candle — This phrase actually comes from Catholicism. It refers to the ritual of excommunication: the ringing of a bell, the closing of the Bible, and the snuffing of a candle. For some reason, a number of modern witches like this ritual and use it to close any ritual of their own. This may have been the influence of a rom-com play called Bell, Book and Candle (1950). In this narrative, a witch loses her witchy powers if she happens to fall in love. Hence, the connection between the phrase and witchcraft became established.

Benandanti — Italy enjoys a goodly number of ‘good witches’. These ones fought ritual battles against the Malandanti (bad ones) over the fate of the harvest.

Besom — The witch broomstick isn’t just any old broomstick. It is technically a besom. The brush of a normal modern broom tends to be narrow and wide, whereas the brush of a besom tends to be circular. 

Bewitching — To bewitch is to cast a spell on someone with witchcraft or to capture their attention in another way. The American witch does a lot of bewitching; European witches not so much. Witches can bewitch people, animals and objects.

Bigghes — ceremonial jewels worn by queens (the crown, garter, necklace, bracelet).

Black Book — Witches originally used a ‘black book’ to handwrite their spells/recipes/chants and so on. When Gerald Gardner came along he changed the name to Book of Shadows.

Black virgin — a german witch hunting invention. An iron case the size of a human body covered in spikes. It was closed around the victim and designed to torture but not kill when it closed around her.

Black witch — “Black witches are usually shown with evil tendencies and rarely get happy endings.” (N’ganga Makhosi) Examples: “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s” Rosalind Walker, “The Vampire Diaries’” Bonnie Bennett, “American Horror Story: Coven’s” Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau and Queenie, CW’s “Charmed” reboot, as Macy Vaughn becomes an evil witch. “Black witches have a tendency to fall into two categories — supportive friends to the more powerful and popular protagonist or a witch with some malevolent quality.”

Blessed be — found in many modern religions but typical of NeoWiccan. Shortened to BB. In ritual, it basically means “let this be blessed.” Sometimes an officiating member says it and participants repeat it after. In her novel The Handmaids Tale, Margaret Atwood uses a similar phrase for her dystopian world: “blessed be the fruit”. The people of Gilead greet each other in this way. It’s based on this from the Bible: “Blessed be the fruit of your womb, the produce of your soil and the offspring of your livestock, the issue of your herds and the young of your flocks” (Deuteronomy). But because “blessed be” is also associated with witches, there are definite witchy vibes in Atwood’s Gilead greeting.

Bracelet — Men wear gold bracelets and the women wear silver. In some sects everyone wears it on their left wrist. In other sects men wear theirs on the right wrist. The witch’s name and degree is engraved into their bracelet. For the new age witches into palm reading, the bracelet also refers to the lines below the palm.

Broomstick — witches’ equipment is specific to the witch, as brushes are specific to the artist, clubs specific to the player. It becomes filled with the user’s vibrations and takes on magical properties for the user. It makes decisions independently of the user. The broomstick is used for flying to the witches’ Sabbat or sweeping the house. Made of hawthorn, hazel, rowan, willow, broom, birch or blackthorn twigs. Like the wand, is a reminder of the tree worship of old. The original broom was actually a stalk of broom plant with tufts of leaves at the end. The broom plant has always been associated with the giving and blasting of fertility. It was the custom of witches to leave ordinary brooms in their beds to fool their husbands when they took off for the Sabbat. In some handfasting rituals with the couple jumping over the broomstick/besom. (Jumping over a broom to get married isn’t limited to witches.) (See: Besom)

Broomstick ointment — rubbed onto a broomstick to turn it into something that can fly. Aconite, deadly nightshade, hemlock, cinquefoil, sweet flag, poplar leaves, parsley, soot, bats’ blood, the fat of unbaptised infants. (The first three are highly hallucinogenic in small doses and lethal in large ones.)

Bodkin — There is a long historical connection between women and sewing, as sewing is women’s work of yore. With this in mind, it probably makes some sort of sick sense than a sewing instrument would be used to torture so-called witches. Modern bodkins function like a tweezer to draw elastic, cording and so on through tubing and casings. Old bodkins were shaped like miniature ice picks. During the Witch Craze, the story went that when a witch sold her soul in a pact with the Devil, the Devil would mark her with a spot. (A Devil’s Mark.) This spot would be insensitive to pain. Inquisitors would ‘check’ a woman’s entire body with the sharp bodkin hoping to find the Devil’s Mark. Eventually, under extreme pain, people black out. At this point, the torturer would conclude that the Devil’s Mark had been found.

Bolline (or biolline) — a white handled knife used to make other magical objects or tools or to incise letters or symbols on wood or wax. It is shaped like the crescent moon and is silver in colour, also in deference to the moon. Some Wiccans say this knife is never for paring cheese or carving roasts but others will use it for cutting herbs or for cutting mistletoe directly from the tree or for similar practical purposes. This knife is also used in Druid tradition.

Bottles — In the 17th century, people started burying bottles around their yards to ward off evil. Inside the bottles: hair/pins/urine and so on. These were known as witch bottles. (Listen to a podcast about witch bottles here.)

Book, The — Witches make a deal with the devil and this big tome is the official set of bound papers straight from Hell. A witch will try to get you to sign it.

Book of Shadows — Influential neopagan Gerald Gardner seems to have renamed the ‘Black Book’ the ‘Book of Shadows’. But he might have stolen this lovely phrase from from a 1949 article in the Occult Observer, “The Book of Shadows” by Mir Bahir. Spells, incantations, rituals and recipes are recorded. It’s best that the book itself is made by the witch. Leather or cloth for the cover, handmade paper or parchment for pages. The book must be destroyed upon the witch’s death. This is why so little remains about witchcraft today — it exists as an oral tradition. In some sects, new witches are meant to copy out The Book of Shadows by hand. Considering this intense labour, it’s ironic (or perhaps natural) that “The Book of Shadows” is so often shortened to BoS. According to Gerald Gardner, he got the Book of Shadows from Old Dorothy’s ancient coven, surviving from the 16th century. Modern witches don’t necessarily take him at his word, by the way. Anyone who has studied Elizabethan English knows that whoever wrote it made a hash job of trying to make it sound old. The Book of Shadows is factually incorrect in places, e.g. it talks about witches being burned alive in England (when in fact they were hanged). It also plagiarises (from Aleister Crowley and a magazine article about an Old Sanskrit manuscript). 

Boschetto — An Italian word for a coven of witches, literally a ‘grove’. (Related to the beautiful English word ‘bosky’, meaning wooded. In Middle English, ‘bosk’ was a variant of ‘bush’.)

Bowl of salt and water — on the altar to represent the elements

Bruja — Spanish word for ‘witch’. (Male witch is ‘brujo’.) The word used to be used in Mexico to refer to a woman knowledgeable about folk magic but these days the word doesn’t have such a great connotation.

Burning Times — refers to the witch craze, with emphasis on the body-burning aspect of torture. Burning has become eroticised, linking death and pain with sexuality. Anne Sexton became known as a poet with “Her King”, in which Sexton identifies with the witch archetype, a desirable version of herself. (See the final stanza for a good example of eroticised burning). The eroticised burning woman can also be seen throughout the work of Sylvia Plath e.g. in “Witch Burning”. For both poets, burning works as a metaphor for “a caress that accepts the body’s responsiveness” (in the words of Diane Purkiss), and pain equals passion.

Cakes and Wine — the end to any ritual. A small ‘feast’. Might actually be bread and ale.

Cats — Ancient Egyptians associated the cat with the moon. To them the cat was sacred to the goddesses Isis and Bast (the guardian of marriage). Black cats are associated with darkness and death. In witch folklore, cats often make use of black cats as familiars, but as you can see, the ideas around cats, especially black ones, go beyond witchcraft.

Cape (or coat) — confers magical powers. It’s usually dark blue or black with magical signs or symbols embroidered or painted upon it in gold. Magical alphabets, pentagrams and zodiacal emblems are decorative elements. In all religions, certain garments are worn only int he presence of the deities and are put aside when returning to “the world”. 

Cantrip — This Scottish term means a magic spell. It tends to be the minor, mischievous kind. (Witches can be tricksters.) It has been used in novels and role-playing games and means whatever the creator wants it to mean. It sometimes refers to a spell that reads the same forwards and backwards.

Catholicism — Agnes Waterhouse, the first woman hanged for witchcraft in England, was accused of praying in Latin. In 1566 it was a crime to be a witch, and it was also a crime to be Catholic. In the case of Agnes Waterhouse, the two crimes intersected and resulted in her murder by the state. Historically, the transition from Catholicism to Protestantism mirrors the transition from Paganism to Christianity. Once a society moves on in its common belief system, practices once considered Orthodox are now considered not-Othodox (and also mysterious). These practices, once considered normal (in this case praying in Latin) is now considered witchcraft.

In the Middle Ages praying in Latin was associated with healing magic, but after the Protestant Reformation was now a sign that you were speaking to Satan.

Cauldron — An iron cauldron or kettle for preparing Sabbat feasts, magical brews and potions. Sometimes the fire is kindled in the cauldron itself. Some witches actually use ordinary household pots — consecrated, of course. The shape often resembles the belly of a pregnant woman, and is therefore a symbol of fertility. Most of all, it symbolises the massive pregnant belly of the woman who gave birth to the world, the Great Goddess. Its circular shape symbolises never-ending life and regeneration. Things are heated inside a cauldron, transforming from one thing into another, hence the cauldron also symbolises germination and transformation. Traditional cauldrons have three legs, representing the triple aspect of the Great Goddess or the three fates. In Celtic legend, cauldrons contain an unending supply of knowledge or food. In these stories the dead are frequently thrown into the cauldron and crawl out alive the next day. Despite many stories in which witches cook food in cauldrons, that’s not what they’re for. They’re for lighting fires and for filling with water and flowers.

Edward Frederick Brewtnall - Visit to the Witch 1882
Edward Frederick Brewtnall – Visit to the Witch 1882
Apuleius Lucianus, Asinus, Vienna, 1918. In 1918, Artur Wolf Verlag, from Vienna Der Goldene Esel witch
Apuleius Lucianus, Asinus, Vienna, 1918. In 1918, Artur Wolf Verlag, from Vienna Der Goldene Esel

Censer — incense burner

Chalice (or drinking horn) — for sacrificial wine or water. In some traditions the sacred marriage (sexual union between incarnate god and worshipper) is performed symbolically by plunging the athame into the chalice. (The athame represents fire and the chalice represents water, so they balance each other.)

Charge of the Goddess — a gospel used by many modern witches in a variety of adapted forms. 

Charles LeLand — an amateur folklorist who argued for the survival of pagan religious beliefs in Europe. He wrote Aradia, Or The Gospel Of The Witches. He claimed to have met a woman called Maddalena who had come from a long line of witches.

Chelmsford — The earliest English witch trial happened in Chelmsford, Essex, in 1566. Agnes Waterhouse (a.k.a. Mother Waterhouse) (c. 1503 – 29 July 1566) was the first woman executed for witchcraft after this trial. She was tried along with two other women from the same village. Agnes confessed to having been a witch and said her familiar was a cat (later turned into a toad). She called the cat Satan, sometimes spelled Sathan, which originally belonged to Elizabeth Francis. The cat/toad detail sticks out, but among many other things, Agnes was charged with praying in Latin. We know all this because it’s written down in a pamphlet. You can read the contents here, with modernised spelling, which makes it a bit easier.

Chimney DemonChimneys, windows and doors are considered liminal spaces where bad spirits can enter the home. Among the creatures that may fly down your chimney: witches, of course.

The Witch's Pool, 1904, Arthur Rackham
The Witch’s Pool, 1904, Arthur Rackham. Witches of yore were sometimes depicted as black because they were covered in dirt or chimney soot. (Witches were a type of chimney demon.)

Christianity — Unlke Pagans, who were happy to say occult powers came from some uncatalogued minor deity, Christians were hung up on the question of where supernatural beings came from. Christianity couldn’t sit happily with Pagan ideas because, according to Christianity, there is only one God. This is how Christianity ended up with a more thorough theology of the occult, eventually leading them to the conclusion that if occult powers don’t come from that one singular God, they must come from his opponent — Satan. The 12th century onwards was a period when ideas about Satan, devils and Hell became concretised in people’s imagination. This way of thinking ended up costing about 30,000 people their lives.

Circe — the first great witch in literature, described by Homer as “goddess or girl, we couldn’t tell” and when she’s first seen by Odysseus’ men she seems a sweet young weaver, weaving ‘ambrosial fabric sheer and bright,/ by that craft known to the goddesses of heaven.” Before her loom she sings ‘a chill, sweet song’. She doesn’t seem to be a witch at all, but witch she is and she accused of: enthralling men, turning them into swing, the power to make men impotent, both sexually and otherwise. 

Cimaruta — An amulet meaning ‘sprig of rue’ in Italian, also known as the Witch Charm. This amulet is made of silver and resembles a sprig of rue with various other symbols in its three branches (generally a crescent moon, key, stars, daggers and flowers). The cimaruta dates back as far as 4500 BC. It might be worn as a pendant or larger ones may be hung in the doorway of a witch’s home. The cimaruta is double-sided. The three silver branches of the cimaruta relate to the Triple Goddess.

Cingulum — A consecrated witch’s cord. It’s either nine feet long or based on measurements of the witch’s body. Witches use it to mark out a circle for ritual. The cingulum may be worn around the waist to represent the initiation level of the witch (similar to a karate belt). It might also have meaningful knots tied into it. The knots might be used sort of like Catholic rosary beads, or indicate status to other witches, or the knot masses may function like amulets.

Cloves — worn around the neck in a conjure bag promote friendship (voodoo/hoodoo)

Common knowledge — People never asked themselves whether witches were real or not. Everyone just knew they were real — I mean, they lived in every village! That question only started to be asked towards the end of the 17th century. 

Cone of power — a metaphor for the will of the group. They ask for things as a group and consider that they can hold sway over distant things.

Conspiracy theories — the contemporary equivalent of modern witchcraft. A subculture comes up with a theory to explain misfortune. People are very reluctant to accept the stochasticity of life. This tendency to search for causes of misfortune can be seen from the 1550s onwards, connected to the Reformation and nascent Protestantism. This kind of thinking holds true today. We still don’t like the idea that we are unable to decide our own fates. We prefer a causal account of things that happen to us. The Early Modern belief that bad things happened because of witches was an Early Modern version of conspiracy theory.

Conical hat — associated with heretics in the Middle Ages. May derive from horns worn by many pagan deities to denote power. The brim is probably a 17th century addition. Pointed headdresses have always aroused the accusation of deviltry. Gnomes now wear it too, though they dye it red and shrink it. 

SERGIO TOPPI 1932-2012 La Sorcière (The Witch)
SERGIO TOPPI 1932-2012 La Sorcière (The Witch)

Conjure bags (or charm bags) — These belong to the voodoo/hoodoo witch tradition rather than the European one. Many contemporary witches use them. They are little drawstring pouches (of red flannel or leather) worn around the neck or waist of the conjurer. They’re hung upon trees on the property of one whose luck one wishes to affect — usually for ill. “Laying the trick” refers to planting a charm bag where the intended subject must cross over it. The bags contain 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 or 13 objects: gemstones, herbs, powdered sulfur, coffin nails, pins, needles, graveyard dust, rabbits’ feet, lodestones, scarabs, horseshoes, nail clippings, photographs, locks of hair, dice, and counterfeit coins. 

Contagion of the Deity — the idea that holy objects should not be used in other than holy places. (This is not just witchcraft but common to all religions.) It’s therefore unlucky to steal something from a place of worship. 

Cookbook Witch — A witch who has tried to teach themselves witchcraft and spells out of a book. (Think of Daniel in The Karate Kid before he is taken on by Mr Miyagi.)

Cord (or cingulam) — the magical binding cord that the witch wears around her waist and uses for symbolic binding rituals of all sorts. It is red, nine feet in length, and plaited. Natural materials such as cotton, silk or wool are preferred.

Corn Dolly — A woven wheat stalk in the form of a figure. Also called corn mothers. They’re meant to look like women, but some of them don’t much. In any case, the corn dolly symbolises fertility and the harvest. (Shapes made out of wheat stalks figure large in horror, along with haystacks, which tend to look a bit like monsters at night.) In American English, corn refers more generally to ‘grain’.

Cosmic Mother Of All — Starhawk, a modern feminist witch, uses this phrase to describe the Mother Earth-type character “whose breasts poured milk into the firmament and who birthed new stars, whose curved and luscious body was the very earth they trod on”. This figure stands in contrast to the Judeo-Christian/Islamic notion of a masculine God creating everything alone, while sidelining the female body entirely. “Images-of-women feminism” is Diane Purkiss’s phrase to describe a way of thinking about femininity in a way that is “annihilatingly prescriptive”. This thinking prescribes that positive images of women are: lactating, motherly, strong, authoritative. There is no thought to who mothers her. This idealised imagery in fact supports the patriarchal notion of the woman as nurturer of others. Many thinkers have believed in an “originary matriarchy”; this isn’t limited to witchcraft: Robert Briffault, Erich Neumann, J.J. Bachofen, Jane Harrison, Arthur Evans, and especially J.G. Frazer. The Goddess Of Everything (whatever we might call her) was originally invented/discovered by male scholars, not by empowered woman witches. The narrative goes like this: Women are subordinated today because The Great Mother (standing in for women in general) originally controlled everyone, and men had to wrest back some control of their own because women were so oppressive and also incompetent as leaders. And that, folks, is why the patriarchy exists. Tl;dr: Patriarchy is women’s punishment, and the natural order of things. Unfortunately, modern witchcraft doesn’t always do a great job of dismantling that particular narrative.

Coven — traditionally 13 in number but anywhere between 3 and 20. They begin by ‘casting the circle’, which isolates and purifies the holy place where magic will occur, where gods and goddesses will manifest, where time will disappear, where faith will become incarnate.

Covenant of the Goddess — In 1975 a number of covens banded together and formed Covenant of the Goddess. The organisation was founded by Starhawk in California and people can still join it today.

Covenstead — the location of the coven

Covendom — the area around the covenstead. Traditionally one league in size. (About three miles in all directions.)

Cowan — Anyone who is not a witch.

Craft — A shortening of ‘witchcraft’. (It is also used by Freemasons to describe their fraternity without publicly naming it.) Sometimes people say ‘Art and Craft’, meaning witchcraft.

Craft-names — the name a witch receives after an initiation ritual. Craft names tend to allude to favourite deities. (Covens are also named.) 

Crossing The Bridge — Corresponds to ‘funeral’.

(Filthy Peasant) Crone — Adrienne Rich’s term for a midwife/sister/woman in touch with the earth and all things natural. We see similar outworking of this archetype in fairytales, and in contemporary folktales written for children. These women might be quite stupid e.g. Hildilid. They are often surrounded by a menagerie of pets and farm animals (who she considers pets). They often display hyper empathy with these animals (and I suspect they’re unable to slaughter them). 

Crowns — Modern witches wear thin bands of silver with a silver crescent moon at the front. This and the garter might convey rank. 

Crow’s foot — Crows were feared as an indicator of death, and witches apparently used them when casting spells against enemies. Crows’ feet were therefore known as ‘witches feet’. It was also believed that witches could transform themselves into crows to travel unnoticed to sabbats. The word ‘crow’s foot’ also refers to the wrinkles around the eyes, and thereby also indicate the inevitable approach of death.

Crucible — A ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures. Metaphorically, a situation of severe trial, or in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new.

Crucible, The — a play by Arthur Miller and later a movie starring Winona Ryder. The real Abigail Williams was somewhere between 10-12 years old, but Miller turned her into a seductive, lustful teenager. Thematically, The Crucible is a straight-forward denunciation of mass hysteria and intolerance. Contrast this with other works of fiction which try to help their audience find a way of keeping strange characters as part of our society, without the martyrdom e.g. the poem “Song of Power” by Elaine Feinstein.

Cruentation — one of the medieval methods of finding proof against a suspected murderer. The common belief was that the body of the victim would spontaneously bleed in the presence of the murderer. Is mentioned in Daemonologie, King James’s crazed book about witches, who he believed would kill him.

Cunning Folk — The cunning folk in Britain were professional or semi-professional practitioners of magic in Britain, active from the Medieval period through the early 20th century. The cunning woman is a witch-like character seen in plays such as The Wise Woman of Hogsdon by Thomas Heywood (1638), The Alchemist (1610) by Ben Jonson. During this long era, people could set themselves up as “cunning folk” and sell services such as curing illness, finding missing objects/buried treasure, and also removing the dark magic imposed by some other witch. So any village with a dark, terrifying witch would also be home to a number of people claiming they’re able to defeat that dark witch with their own magic. Those cunning folk were identified as witches by the people doing the prosecuting. Ultimately, the prosecutors decided who got to live and die, so it was a bit dangerous setting yourself up as one of the cunning folk. The cunning folk were real people, not just fictional. There would have been cunning folk in just about every village in England in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially at the peak of the witch hunts in the British Isles. (For more on Cunning Folk, listen to this podcast.)

Deals with the Devil — In Scotland, witchcraft was understood as a deal between a ‘witch’ and the devil. We know this because there exist records of Scottish interrogators asking women about supernatural encounters (more so than happened in England). (Look up the story of Elspeth Reoch.)

Degrees of Witchcraft — There are four levels of witchcraft, first, second, another second and third — neophyte, middle stage, second middle stage and fully fledged. Each degree has its own symbol. Sometimes witches write the symbol after their name: an inverted triangle, a triangle, a pentagram (star), and finally a triangle on top of a pentagram. The triangle is also known as the ‘three-fold salute’ and during initiation the shape of this inverted triangle is also drawn in the air, and in sequence on the breast, breast, genitals and breast.

Daemonologie — King James of England had an obsession with witches and witchcraft and wrote a book about them, called Daemonologie (1599). Its subtitle is much longer. He was convinced witches were going to kill him. He supervised the torture of women who were meant to be Witches. In 1604 he had passed repressive anti-Witchcraft laws. He commissioned a group of scholars to translate the Bible into English. King James insisted that “his” Bible must be Protestant and passages must not support the Catholic Church. He also demanded that Witches should be condemned as evil at every opportunity. In 1611, the King James Version of the Bible was published. King James refused to pay the people who had done the massive job of translating it. In short, he inflicted much suffering on people who deserved so much better. In the end he wasn’t killed by witches at all. He died of a stroke. He also had a case of severe dysentery (bloody diarrhea). This is caused by particularly nasty gut bacteria or parasites. But he probably blamed that on witches, too.

Daughter coven — a breakaway coven, still under the guidance of the mother coven

Dedicant — Someone who dedicates themselves to a period of study/practice with a coven

Demons — As the witch craze was kicking off, attention turned to monks and their wet dreams. Monks were required to confess their sins, and were asked about what happened during their wet dreams. Typically the dream would involve a dominant female figure and being sat on. The Scholastics then came up with an elaborate narrative in which monks were accompanied to their dormitories by demons, disguised as monks. They decided the demons must be there to harvest the monks’ seed. Why would demons want monks’ seed? Because of the cold and moist natures of demons, they acquired as much male seed as possible. This is also exactly how they thought of women. They believed women were sexually insatiable. Because of women’s cold and moist natures, women were constantly trying to perfect themselves by acquiring copious amounts of male seed. This is one example of how demons, witches and women became lumped in together. 

Then they make a connection with women who think they fly through the night with the aid of a supernatural being. The concept of the witch’s sabbath comes from these two ideas amalgamated. As soon as these ideas are brought together the whole legal process changes to be about that narrative. 

Deosil — Clockwise. In Scottish folklore, deosil/sunwise/sunward (clockwise) was considered the “prosperous course”, turning from east to west in the direction of the sun. The opposite course, counterclockwise, was known as widdershins (Lowland Scots), or tuathal (Scottish Gaelic). (For more on the symbolism of cardinal direction see here.) In witchcraft, “deosil” ususually refers to the direction of a witch’s dance or circle-casting.

Devil’s Marks — areas on a witch’s body seen to be insensitive to pain. See also: teats. Spelled witch ‘markes’ or witch ‘signalls’ in documents.

Diana — sometimes considered the Goddess of all Witches

Dianus — Margaret Murray’s God of the Witches. Margaret Murray was a feminist trailblazer in some ways, entering anthropology and going off on digging adventures before it was acceptable for women to do so. Still, people are complicated. She conceived the God of the witches as male, turning Diana into what she considers a masculine name. 

Discovery of Witchcraft — by Reginald Scot (1584), an English MP who had been trained in Latin and who could therefore refer to a number of texts unavailable to the masses. His Discovery of Witchcraft work includes invocations, demons’ names, potion ingredients and so on. This was an inspiration to playwrights and storytellers. Reginald Scot actually wrote this tretise to try and prove witchcraft was not a thing. Reginald Scot was a Reformed Protestant. He therefore believed God was responsible for everything, not witches. He was also caught up in a mystical religion at the time known as Family of Love. He clearly had a deep interest in mystical stuff, and I’m not sure he managed to persuade anyone to stop believing in witchcraft. He probably made many of his readers extra interested in it.

Doreen Valiente — After Gerald Gardner started his witchcraft cult, based on what he said he’d heard from Old Dorothy, a disciple of his called Doreen Valiente became one of his main helpers. She said in her autobiography that she even wrote some of the rituals. But Gardner preferred to credit anything he hadn’t done himself to the mystical Old Dorothy and never acknowledged Valiente. This example speaks to the way in which witch cults, like any other, tend to be led by men, with the work of women hidden, despite women disciples being necessary to the entire operations.

Dorothy Clutterbuck — The real witch from an old witch family that Gerald Gardner claimed to have met. He called her ‘Old Dorothy’ and everything he didn’t make up himself, he attributed to her. Apparently Old Dorothy belonged to a coven of hereditary witches who had practised witchcraft for centuries. (Leland told a very similar story, but about a woman called Maddalena.)

Drawing down the moon — A ritual by which the High Priestess  becomes in effect a goddess for the duration of the ritual. The rite is performed on the first night of the full moon, at midnight, the “witching hour.” The witch evokes the goddess within herself—that is, becomes the goddess incarnate. The goddess is she whom we call the triple goddess, the moon goddess, with her three phases—waxing, full, waning. She is Diana/Artemis, Astarte, Aphrodite, the Mother Goddess, and thus associated with birth, death, rebirth, and the lunar cycles. Meditation, chanting, dancing, and singing may all be used to evoke the goddess. The point is to reach a state in which human and divine edge for a time within the person of the dear of the coven.

Drawing down the sun — a newer expression based on ‘drawing down the moon’. This sometimes describes the riual in which the High Priest becomes in effect a god for the duration of a ritual. (The male equivalent of drawing down the moon.)

Drinking horn or chalice — filled with wine

Dunking — a form of water torture also known as ducking or ‘swimming’. It was thought that one way to identify a witch was to bind her hands and feet and throw her into a body of water. A real witch would float. (And if she wasn’t a witch, she would have sunk and drowned unless hastily rescued.)

Eclectic — The word means ‘deriving ideas, style, or taste from a broad and diverse range of sources.’ It is used to describe Pagans and Pagan traditions which borrow from various different sources. Pagans took their culture from spiritual beliefs, philosophy, magic practices and created their own way of life. Modern Eclectic Witchcraft or Eclectic Wicca works the same way, even drawing from popular fantasy novels such as The Mists of Avalon.

Elder — In some covens you count as an elder if you’ve been the leader of a coven for nine years.

Elizabethen Poor Laws — These laws led to a lot of misery for a lot of people. The people most likely to be accused of witchcraft were those considered disposable to society. Beforehand, some of society’s poorest were accommodated by monasteries, but then came the dissolution of monasteries. Now, poor/disabled/aged/illegitimate people without family to support them became the burden of individual parisioners. It follows that those people became much more hated and resented than before.

Eostara — (the initial ‘e’ is silent) is one of the Lesser Wiccan Sabbats, usually celebrated on the Vernal or Spring Equinox (March 21 in the Northern hemisphere). Also known as Eostre’s Day, Rite of Eostre, Festival of the Trees and Lady Day.

Esbat — a small gathering of local witches. A ‘small Sabbat’. 

Faery Wicca — the intersection of fairies and witches. People who practice fairy wicca work with nature spirits.

Fairies — Diane Purkiss is an expert on witches and also on fairies (see her book Troublesome Things.) She explains that occult powers were once thought to come from fairies, but not the Tinkerbell fairies we think of today — from the older, darker, hairy fairies. These fairies might help you with the housework… or completely take over your life. What have ancient fairies got to do with witches? After the Protestant Reformation people didn’t want to believe in fairies anymore because the concept didn’t fit with the teachings of the Bible or with the fundamentalist idea of the afterlife. At this point, fairies became re-interpreted as devils. Now, any witch who calls on such beings is thought to be summoning the powers of hell to assist her. The so-called witch is even more threatening and scary than she ever was before. People believed they needed to take even more measures to guard themselves against her.

Fairy cross — a rock in the shape of a stone, thought to function apotropaically (warding off bad luck). The points represent earth, air, fire and water, and Christian has also influenced the thinking behind crosses as good luck charms. Also called: andalusite, chiastolite, staurolite.

False confessions — If you really believe in witches and witchcraft, you are also susceptible to believing that your, yourself, may have such powers. There are a surprising number of people recorded in history who came forward to confess they had killed or harmed someone using their own witchcraft. During the Witch Craze, this could be a suicidal act. “False confessions are not rare […] young people are particularly vulnerable to confessing, especially when stressed, tired, or traumatized.”

Familiar — short for familiar spirit — a common domestic animal given to the witch by the Devil — according to Inquisitors — to do her malicious bidding. They suckle on the witch’s blood, probably through one of her extra teats. The notion of the witch’s familiar comes out of the folklore of household fairies — brownies, elves and hobs, but not all famliars are fairies. Familiars can also be the ghosts of dead children, demons and ghosts. The concept of the familiar came from Scotland and England. Like fairies, familiars originally exhibited all forms of morality (they could anywhere between the extremes of good and bad), but after the Reformation, belief in the supernatural became very black and white — from that point on, all supernatural creatures were either good or bad.

Elvira Mistress of the Dark aka Cassandra Peterson (American, b. 1951, Manhattan, KS, USA)

Household fairies were considered demons. (Because they’re not angels.) After the Reformation, the animal familiar of a witch is considered an imp in disguise, a low-ranking demon, around to serve those in league with satan (similar to the lover’s valet, footman or chambermaid in 18th century opera). The familiar does small, bad deeds, leaping over fences the witch can’t clear, secreting itself in places where a witch can’t hide. Dogs, cats, bees, mice, rabbits, bats have all been cited in witch trials. They had fanciful names: Various British witch trials record a gray cat called Tittey, a black toad called Pigin, a black lamb called Tyffin, a black dog called Suckin, and a “red lion” called Lyerd. There were also assorted imps called Great Dick, Little Dick, Willet, Pluck, Catch, Holt, Jamara, Vinegar Tom, Pyewackett, Grizzel, and Greedigut. It was believed that the imp fed on human blood from the witch’s teat. (The teats might actually be little warts or polyps or wens.) A wen = a common cyst of the skin; filled with fatty matter (sebum) that is secreted by a sebaceous gland that has been blocked. If a woman had these, it was ‘proof’ that a woman was a witch. The familiars crave human blood. According to science, their little bodies are so mightily debauched that their bodies are subject to the continual reflux of particles and require some nutriment to supply the place of the fugacious atoms. They do this by sucking the blood of witches. 

Famtrad — Short for “Family Tradition.” This refers to a Wiccan or Witchcraft tradition that is centered around the beliefs and practices of a single family as opposed to a tradition centered around individual personalities or a coven.

Fascinous — caused or acting by witchcraft (obsolete). From Latin fascinum (“witchcraft”).

Flogging — We tend to see flogging as a kind of punishment or deterrent today, but in antiquity, that’s not what flogging was for. Flogging was for purification. Someone would get flogged to bewitch them, or more generally, to deal with any situation implying spiritual impotence.

Fraudulent Medium’s Act — in 1951 this act in England and Wales replaced the witchcraft statutes and affected how some witches went about their business. Gerald Gardner, for instance, started publishing nonfiction works about witchcraft, then formed his own coven. He got his first followers from the members of his nudist club. This act remains a residual power that the state can draw on. There have been campaigns to abolish the last vestiges of witchcraft law (ie. the Fraudulent Mediums Act), and also attempts in Scotland to issue a free pardon to accused witches.

Garter — green, buckled in silver. Has magical powers, probably. Green is the fairy color, associated with Robin Hood, the green man and wood sprites. Some witch queens have as many as seven buckles on their garters. It might be red, made of silk, with long red ribbons and a pink rosette. Perhaps they’re used to remind them to behave well sexually. (Or perhaps the buckles are like notches on the bedposts?)

Ged — a fictional magician invented by Ursula Le Guin, but cited as if a ‘real’ sage rather than fiction by Starhawk. Modern witches sometimes conflate fiction with their witchcraft reality. 

Gerald Gardner — The leader of the Gardnerian sect of modern witches. Gerald, who was English, is probably the most famous neopagan and was around for the 1960s, which is good for him — an era ripe for new-old things. Unfortunately for Gerald he didn’t make it til the end of the sixties. He died in 1964 at the age of 79 on board a ship to Tunis (the capital of Tunisia). Gardner is known as The Father of Wicca, not to be confused with The King, Alex Sanders. (Notice how the founding figures of modern wicca are thought to be a handful of men? The history of modern witchcraft isn’t empoweringly feminist.)

Gibbet — any instrument of public execution including guillotine, executioner’s block, impalement stake, hanging gallows, or related scaffold

Gloves — when witches wear gloves they are made of cat skin with fur on the inside.

Gobber tooth — a protruding front tooth. John Gaule, a 17th century clergyman listed gobber tooth as one way to tell a witch, along with a wrinkled face, furrowed brow, hairy lip, squint eye, squeaking voice, scolding tongue, rugged coat, skull-cap on her head, a spindle in her hand and a dog or cat by her side.

Goety — an archaic word for the black magic or witchcraft in which the assistance of evil spirits is invoked. Necromancy.

Grandmaster — witch cults were highly organised. There were twelve to a coven led by a grandmaster. The grandmaster’s assistant was Maiden of the coven, sometimes called Maid Marian where the legend of Robin Hood was strong.

Green Why are witches green?

Grimoire — a book of spells

Hag — In its 14th century sense, hag meant a repulsive, vicious or malicious old woman. By the mid 1500s it had come to mean an evil spirit, demon or infernal being in female form. By the 1580s it meant a woman who had dealings with Satan (ie. a witch). The word hag is probably a shortening of Old English hægtesse, “witch fury”.

Hagborn — a person born of a witch or a woman considered wicked

Hag-ridden — something ridden by hags (like a horse) and therefore afflicted with nightmare. This term is just one example of how we still make use of supernatural/witchy thinking to describe our psychological state. Other examples are ‘haunted’ (by a memory or dream), ‘diabolical’ (difficulties), ‘possessed’ (by an idea), and I’ve lately noticed a resurgence of ‘cursed’, especially among kids, to describe something unpleasant or weird in general. 

Halloween — a holiday that recognises (and seeks to remedy) the sun’s retreat. In pre-Christian times, great bonfires were lit to stimulate the sun to imitation. Anglo-Saxons called them ‘need fires’. Christians changed this autumn holiday to All Saints’ Day but pagan symbolism lingered. October 31 has variously been called: November Eve, Samhain, All Hallow’s Eve, and today Halloween. It is a bonfire holiday and a harvest holiday, incorporating the ideas of harvesting both the fruits of the earth and the souls of the dead. The Great Mother relinquishes her power to the winter god (The Horned God). Halloween is a liminal time — the last night before full winter (in the Northern Hemisphere) when the darkness is thickening. To this day, the idea of the Winter Solstice comes with a degree of anxiety.

Handfasting — traditionally refers to any sort of ‘making fast’ of a pledge by the shaking or joining of hands without official means, mostly an unofficial marriage (usually until such a time that a couple can get married legally). The term fell out of use as the practice itself did, but has seen a bit of a revival with neopaganism. Neopagans sometimes say “handfasting” in place of “wedding” or “marriage” to avoid perceived non-Pagan religious connotations associated with those terms.

Hanging — During the English witch craze, accused witches were hanged rather than burned. 

Harridan — a scolding (even vicious) old woman

Hecate — a.k.a. Hekate is a goddess in ancient Greek religion and mythology, similar to a witch. She is most often shown holding a pair of torches or a key. In later periods she is depicted in triple form. Hecate is associated with crossroads, entrance-ways, night, light, magic, witchcraft, knowledge of herbs and poisonous plants, ghosts, necromancy, and sorcery.

Herbs — the most famous in witchcraft: mandrake, henbane, monkshood, hemlock, thorn apple, deadly nightshade. The richest in legend and lore: mandrake, henbane, deadly nightshade, thorn apple, monkshood. Witches discovered the majority of the drugs in modern pharmacopeia e.g. digitalis (for heart disease), ephedrine (for hay fever and asthma). Ergonovine (from ergo) and atropine (from belladonna) were discovered by witches and used in the management of labor and delivery. Witches gathered herbs at night, not just for self-concealment but because they had to be plucked during specific phases of the moon in order to work. Some when the moon was waning, some during full moon, some during an eclipse. Often she had to be sky clad. 

Herb-lore — The idea that (herbalist) witches make use of herbs for healing/midwifery and so on. Metaphorically, in narrative, the herbs can stand for ‘agriculture’ and for ‘untamed nature’. The herbalist witch is a modern fantasy in which it is believed domestic skills were once valued, and only became lost once men started to take over the sphere of medicine and midwifery. This particular fantasy is sometimes called ‘cottagecore’ in contemporary-speak. See it also in a 1987 short story called “The Green Woman” by Meghan B. Collins, about a good witch’s bad love affair. (Included in the collection Don’t Bet On The Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England, edited by Jack Zipes. Another example is Earth Magic: A Wisewoman’s Guide to Herbal, Astrological and Folk Remedies by Claire Nahmad and The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. These texts share in common an ‘escape to the country’ fantasy, juxtaposing urban life against country life. (Country life is timeless, unchanging, stable and natural, so this fantasy also appeals to those who feel the times are moving too quickly, and the fear that we will be hopelessly left behind.)

Evelyn De Morgan - The Love Potion
Evelyn De Morgan – The Love Potion

Hex — These days a hex is an evil spell or a curse but hex is also another word for witch. The witch meaning is older. This word originated in the United States of America, from German hexe (to practise witchcraft).

Horned God — known by his powerful door of male goat. His eyes blaze with passion and he has an immediate sexual effect upon all females present. He might manifest as Pan or a normal goat or just an object of lust. See also: Actaeon.

High Priestess — the leader of a coven

Hoodoo/VoodooHoodoo, also known in the West as conjuring or rootwork, is a cultural tradition practiced largely in the southern United States with ties to Yoruba religious spirits and deities, similar to voodoo and Santeria. “One film that serves as a slight reprieve from the racist storylines is Paramount Pictures’ “Spell.” Featuring a predominantly Black cast, the thriller still showcases Black witchcraft but without demonizing hoodoo as a whole.” Voodoo is based on a real religion which has been appropriated by white culture to suggest a witchy, supernatural, often drug-induced vibe.

Incubus — a male demon believed to lie on sleeping persons and to do sex to sleeping women (a.k.a. rape). An incubus also refers to someone who depresses or worries others, or to a situation resembling a terrifying dream

Infertility — Most witches were either single or post menopause. There’s a particular horror about a woman whose marriage is no longer or never was fruitful. Anxiety about barrenness. Again it’s about transmission — the assumption is that you’ll pass barrenness on somehow through your eyes to somebody’s flock of sheep/crop/orchard. 

Initiation — a metaphor for rebirth. (The torture of witches is also known by the same name.) When tortured, she receives a witch’s mark (a tattoo?), a new name and a kiss to the Grandmaster of the coven, usually the kiss of infamy. The initiation of witches is similar to the initiations which take place at puberty in various cultures around the world.

In The Broom Closet — a riff on ‘in the closet’, borrowed from LGBTQIA+ communities. Refers to a witch who isn’t out to their family/friends/co-workers about their beliefs.

Isis — Isis is a healer witch first mentioned in the Old Kingdom (2686–2181 BC). She was the Goddess of magic and wisdom. She used her magic to protect children and heal the sick. In art, she sometimes wears a sheath dress and a headdress with her name on it. Sometimes she’s wearing a crown of cow horns with a sun disk, or a crown with a cobra above her head. Isis is also the reason behind tyet amulets (a.k.a. ‘the knot of Isis’).

Jinx — an evil spell, or a person believed to bring bad luck to others around them

King of the Witches — Alex Sanders, from Birkenhead, England. June Jones wrote a book about this guy. (She called her book King of the Witches, so that’s what Alex was called after that.) Media loved him. It helped that he loved to wear a loincloth. His story was that he’d been initiated into witchcraft by his grandma. His first wife wasn’t really into the supernatural, so that marriage didn’t last. He went for a walk one day and met up with a wealthy couple who said he looked just like their son. They became his patrons. Alex Sanders was a a colourful figure, and key to the neopagan revival of late 20th century England. He died in 1988 (lung cancer). Between 1998 and 2003 neowiccans were able to chat with him from the spirit world but the ghost of Alex Sanders seems to have moved on (for now).

Kiss of Infamy — a kiss on the devil’s ass. Also called the kiss of shame, the shameful kiss, the osculum infame. It was commonly believed during the witch craze that all witches paid homage to the devil by kissing his rump.

Knot of Isis — Also called tyet amulets. These amulets signify the binary nature of life and in the Old Kingdom were typically placed on mummies in the hope that Isis’s power would shield them from disease and evil. These days when you see any depiction of a generic ‘Ancient Egyptian goddesses’, notice they’re wearing amulets to ward off bad vibes. Witch healer Isis is behind this. 

Lady Lilith — a seductive witch created by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (English poet, illustrator, painter and translator, 1828-1882). Lady Lilith is just one example of the new breed of glamorised witches who began entering fiction, poetry and art at the fin de siècle (end of the 19th century). Other examples of seductive (rather than crone/hag) witches are Morgan Le Fay as portrayed by Frederick Sandy and Sidonia Van Bork created by Edward Burne-Jones. These male artists created their sorceresses for a number of reasons, most probably because the seductive witch was a male fantasy, but evil and seductive witches were also supposed to warn women away from embracing their own desires. These sorceresses were evil but also signified freedom, and their freedom became their punishment. These new glamorous witches also served as a warning to men against the emasculating magic of a beautiful woman. However, real women tended to enjoy these freedom stories and created fantasies of their own. Woman writers started creating their own glamorous witches in which sex appeal became one of their occult powers (e.g. Evelyn de Morgan).

Lavender — brings sexual power (voodoo/hoodoo)

Law — As soon as laws are made against witchcraft, it inevitably follows that this law is applied. One of the earliest law codes we have, the code of Hammurabi (Babylonian) has a statute against sorcery. When the Henrician and Elizabethan witchcraft statutes were passed in England, culture changed. Previously, if you suspected your misfortune was down to witchcraft, you’d go and privately hire a white witch to remove the bad magic for you. But once the anti-witch laws were in place, as well as doing that, you could make a formal complaint. England’s anti-witchcraft movement lasted in law from about 1500-1710, about 200 years. This spans the period when the elite believed in witchcraft. (Makes sense, since the elite were in charge of making the laws.)

Leechcraft — the art of healing, medical knowledge and skill

Letters On Demonology and Witchcraft — A book by Sir Walter Scott, first published in 1830. Scott had always been big into the supernatural. This book is a collection of his knowledge, with information gleaned from all over the place. The book was a hit. Many people wrote him letters telling him of their own witch experiences, and about obscure witch stories he’d forgotten to include. Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft was the inspiration for a tradition of Victorian novels on necromantic themes that includes Harrison Ainsworth’s The Lancashire Witches and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

F. Armytage from an 1868 edition of Sir Walter Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830)

Lilith — Lilith is an example of an ancient witch. Ideas about witches predate Christianity. Lilith is a character in Jewish mythology, developed in the Babylonian Talmud (3rd to 5th century AD). Lilith is just one character providing us with evidence that ideas about witches existed in Ancient Greece and Rome. Ancient Near Eastern civilisation created an especially rich corpus of stories about female demons, and also left evidence of many carefully crafted protection spells.

Long Compton — The last witch prosecution in England was 1709. But there were still witch lynching e.g. in 1893 in the village of Long Compton. Long Compton is on the Warwickshire/Oxfordshire border. This village is historically interesting in part due to the nearby stone circle. (These kinds of artefacts often function to keep beliefs alive.) 1893 is long after the law credits witchcraft accusations. After the law stopped dealing with witchcraft, people continued vigilante justice against those they believed were witches. In 1893, one woman in Long Compton was stabbed to death with a pitchfork. It was thought that if you stabbed a witch above the heart, this would remove the spell. Clearly that’s what someone was trying to do. 1893 is not that long ago, and is almost 200 years after the last legal witch prosecution in England.

Lookism — Discriminatory treatment of people considered physically unattractive. Discrimination based on appearance is still a major problem for modern society, but right up into the Early Modern era, lookism had another troubling layer to it. From ancient times until Early Modern times, people really did believe that if you looked at something ugly it will somehow come out in any malleable or formative part of yourself. Related to this kind of transmogrification, people literally believed that if at the point of conception the woman looks at a picture of a Black man, then her baby’s skin would be black. They believed all sorts of related wacky things. Another example: A woman’s baby would be covered with hair if she looked at a picture of John the Baptist. People invented stories to explain routine birth defects, and of course the mothers were blamed for causing defects by doing something she shouldn’t have. If you believe this is how the world works, it follows that everything you see is something that you’re “allowing into” yourself. If you go out and see a woman with one eye, a crooked tooth/back, limping, you don’t look at her, because she can transfer some of her bad luck onto you, just by looking at you.

Love Magick — The Greeks and Romans had many laws covering in particular the area of love magic. Each witch has her own method for helping people fall in love. One method is to draw a minikin on a piece of paper meditating on the beloved person. It has to be 13 inches tall. If the loved person has drawn on the paper or touched it, that works better. Use this manikin to cut a pattern out of an old bedsheet, folded over. If the persona has been on your bed, don’t wash the sheet and use that. Use the two halves to sew the manikin. Leave the head open for stuffing. Turn it inside out. However, modern witchcraft is a watered down, sanitised version of the love magic that was once practised in Ancient times. Ancient people were pretty vengeful! One of the most terrifying kinds of Greek and Roman magic is curse magic, where someone might invoke the power of a particular deity (most famously Hecate), but also Athena/Minerva at Aquae Sulis, to cast a curse on someone who had turned you down. This magic ensured this person could never have sex with anyone else so long as you lived. Curses are disturbingly graphic and physical. People might cast a curse to make someone’s genitals disappear, or to make someone’s thighs permanently stitched shut. Unfortunately, literal infibulation is not simply a figment in the imagination of the ancient spurned lover trying to cast a curse to help themselves feel better: the ritual removal of the external female genitalia and the suturing of the vulva is practised today.

Love philtre — a drink credited with magical power; can make the one who takes it love the one who gave it

Love Poppets — poppet means puppet. In sympathetic magic, witches are called upon to bring lovers together by binding does representing them, while saying invocations and burning candles. The poppets might be made of cloth, straw, clay or wax. In the clay and wax models, bits of hair, nails and skin might be incorporated into it. The doll is stuffed with herbs sacred to Venus. A potpourri of dried rosebuds, blackberry leaf, dittany. Elderberry, motherwort and vervain should be tried. Chant the lover’s name all the while you’re doing this. Make a similar poppet to represent yourself out of using cloth you have touched or used. Decorate the doll in some way that represents them. Bind them together using red ribbon previously consecrated to Venus. It has to be cut in some multiple of seven (inches) long. Or even better, the same number of inches as the age of the beloved. (Does metric work?) They have to be laid on an altar and invoke the aid of the gods. Afterwards you can put it in a cigar chest or linen close and the potpourri love poppets will make your clothes smell nice. Do this ritual on a Friday, which is sacred to Venus and also to freya the Norse goddess of love. Repeat for another two Fridays. Repeat as necessary.

Mab — The Fairy Queen or Queen of the Fairies. Mab is a figure from Irish and British folklore, believed to rule the fairies. Based on Shakespeare’s creation, in English-speaking cultures she is often named Titania or Mab.

Macbeth — One of Shakespeare’s most popular and enduring plays, created around 1606. Shakespeare’s Three Witches conform to a stereotype of ugliness. These witches appear “wither’d and so wild in their attire”. They “don’t look like inhabitants of the earth”. Note that Macbeth was published a few years after King James’s Daemonologie. Shakespeare was heavily influenced/inspired by real life witch trials and superstition.

Maddalena — the witch Charles LeLand claimed to have met. 

Maenad — A female follower of Dionysus, associated with intense reveling. Also an excessively wild or emotional woman.

Magick — contemporary witches prefer to spell it with a ‘k’ at the end. Magick performed in kitchens is no less effective than magick performed in churches. 

Magickal Childe — a child thought to have been caught up in witchcraft or with a witch for a mother, or a child conceived during magical sex acts.

Magick circle — nine feet in diameter and cast (drawn in the air) with the athame. It is the place betweenn two worlds — the realm of the gods and the realm of the humans. Cosmic power is concentrated here. 

Magnolia — said to create conjugal contentment (voodoo/hoodoo)

Malefica —  Maleficium is the Latin word used in court proceedings to describe witchcraft used to inflict harm (evil deeds). Torturing and witch hunting was worse on the European continent than in England. In England, witches were punished for malefica (evil deeds), not for heresy. For example, witches were charged for causing blight to crops, babies to die, illness. These were civil rather than ecclesiastical crimes. In England witches at least had to be punished under civil law, which had constraints against torture and burning. (In England, witches weren’t burned — they were hanged.) ‘Malefick witchcraft’ is also a phrase seen in documents. In Elizabethan England, the maleficium laws turned ordinary citizens into spies on one another, exacerbating anxiety, creating mistrust.

Mallen streak — a type of hair colouring, and a sign of witchy otherness and alternative beauty. The bolt of traditionally, but not always, white hair has been popularised by celebrities such as Billie Eilish and Mimi Wade. The mallen streak has only been called that since the 70s. In the 1950s it was called a hair flash and was part of rockabilly culture. The name ‘mallen streak’ originally comes from the Latin ‘malignus’ (meaning bad kind) and was first coined by pop novelist Catherine Cookson in her ‘Mallen’ trilogy. In pop culture, villainous women are often identified by their mallen streaks: Cruella de Vil, Bellatrix Lestrange, Lily Munster, Rogue, Bride of Frankenstein. During the witch craze, a naturally occuring mallen streak may have served as ‘evidence’ that a woman was a witch. Unfortunately, hair tends to grey from the front, and often in patches.

Margaret Murray — A woman who  believed the god of the witches is called Dianus. Her model of witchcraft is a fertility cult centring on the worship of a horned god. She wrote The Witch-Cult in Western Europe in 1921, and is considered an authority by many modern witches. She believed that people prosecuted for witchcraft were members of a nature religion surviving from pre-Christian times. They weren’t accepted by Christians because they had ritual sex with a hairy god. 

Matthew Hopkins — ‘Witch Finder Generall’. Matthew Hopkins (c. 1620 – 1647) was an English witch-hunter whose career flourished during the English Civil War. His title of witch finder was bestowed upon himself by himself. He mainly murdered people in East Anglia. He ‘only’ murdered people over a span of three years, but he and his mates managed to murder more people for witchcraft than had been murdered over the previous 100. He was radicalised after reading Daemonologie by King James. He probably died of T.B., but he’s now a legendary bogeyman anti-hero and there are various sensationalist stories around his life and death. We do know he died young, before his late twenties.

Matrifocal — focusing on women. Modern witchcraft sects are interested in this aspect.

Mirror — A witch looks into a mirror and sees other things than simply a reflection. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the step-mother (witch’s) mirror even talks. A witch’s mirror is black and shiny enough to reflect somethin, but not so reflective that you get back a perfect mirror image. A black shiny surface is therefore good for scrying (fortune telling). When Charlie Brooker wrote his Black Mirror series he took the historical supernatural witch’s mirror and gave it double duty: The modern black mirror is a tablet computer or iPhone.

Witchcraft is hurting you poster illustrated by Frederick ‘Fritz’ Siebel 1956
Witchcraft is hurting you poster illustrated by Frederick ‘Fritz’ Siebel 1956

Mists of Avalon — a series of novels by Marion Bradley, and influential to the practice of some modern witches. The story is a retelling of of the Arthuriad which itself draws on writing by modern witches. This book perfectly exemplifies the link between practising modern witches and fantasy fiction. 

Modern witchcraft — As a practice, modern witchcraft dates back only so far as the end of the second world war. However, its discursive origins date back to the Romantic period. People who lived in the Romantic period were into pantheism. We can see that today in fiction and poetry. You don’t have to be a witch to have a residual belief in maleficent witchcraft. When we feel animosity, we can believe that sense is harmful in its own right. This seems to be a natural human tendency which needs to be critiqued and examined before it’s discarded.

Mother Shipton — May or may not have been a real person. Although almost everything about her has been invented, she was probably a real woman living in York c. 1530. There’s always an old woman oracle in the culture. We’re always looking for people to tell the future. Henry the eighth is thought to have written about her but how reliable was he? He dictated a letter to the Duke of Norfolk with the instruction to send certain traitors his way. On the list was the Witch of York. Some sources think this Witch of York was ‘Mother Shipton’: sometimes an oracle, sometimes a witch, sometimes daughter of the devil. Stories about Mother Shipton and her prophecies formed an entire genre in the late 17th century. She became a stock character. (Listen to a podcast about Mother Shipton at Stuff You Missed In History Class.)

Necklace — some have magical properties. Some are made of seashells, acorns, seeds and wood. Others are made of blue glass beads (worn today in the Middle East as protection against the Evil Eye). Others contain crescent moons, symbols of Diana, the goddess most often associated with the witch cult.

Necromancy — communicating with the dead, usually hoping to predict the future. The adjective is necromantic.

North Berwick witches — The North Berwick witch trials were the first major witch trials in Scotland. They happened in 1590. A number of people from East Lothian, Scotland, were accused of witchcraft in the St Andrew’s Auld Kirk of North Berwick. They ran for two years and implicated over seventy people. Many confessed under torture that they’d met up with the devil at night. These trials are apparently what inspired Shakespeare when he wrote Macbeth.

Obeah — A form of folk magic, medicine or witchcraft originating in Africa and practised in parts of the Caribbean. Also refers to witch doctor or spell. Origin uncertain; apparently from a Caribbean creole, probably ultimately from a West African language.

Old Hag Syndrome — Before we knew about sleep paralysis, it was known as Old Hag Syndrome. The name comes from a people who feel like a hag is sitting on their chest at night, preventing them from moving. In medieval folklore the demonic Incubus and Succubus were blamed for this condition. (Listen to this podcast about Old Hag Syndrome.)

Old Race — Some use ‘The Old Race’ to describe witch-like communities thought to live in the centre of the forest. People who live in towns and villages harbour a fear that one day they’ll swarm out from the forest and descend upon the rulers. In contrast, the disenfranchised harbour a fantasy that if they went deep into the forest they would be welcomed, or that the Old Race will come out of the forest and liberate them.

Paganism — Most people these days have a sense of witchcraft which comes from fantasy/children’s literature. Those ideas are far removed from reality. As an example, we have an idea that the ‘real’ historical witch comes from Roman Paganism. Instead, most historians of witchcraft say Christianity functioned to stigmatise what were once Orthodox Pagan beliefs by calling Orthodox Pagan beliefs witchcraft. Early Christians (up to the 11th or 12th C) treated witchcraft as a joke. If women ever confessed in church that they were having witchy dreams and so on, confession manuals from this era (studied by people working in the church) advised that women should be told to calm down. Witch stories were considered nonsense. As evidence, an 11th century penitential advises people to tell their parishioners that if they say they’ve gone flying at night with Diana that they’re making it up, it was just a bad dream. Paganism did not actually influence the beginning of the witch craze. (Cf. Scholasticism, which had far more to do with the witch craze than Paganism.) Today, not all Pagans identify as witches. Witches exist on a particular branch of Paganism. Some don’t want to use the word ‘witch’ because of all the baggage. (For example, many people think witches are Satanists. In another misrepresentation, witches are associated with the New Age movement, which many witches also despise.)

Panpharmacon — a solution or remedy for all difficulties or diseases. A panacea

Pishogue — An Anglo-Irish word meaning witchcraft, a spell or magic, especially spells which make people better or increase production of milk in cows and so on.

Poppet — Pretty much the same as a voodoo/hoodoo doll except usually just a piece of wax or knotted rag, or any sort of stand-in that doesn’t have to look like the victim much at all. (If anything can be a poppet, then anything at all found around a so-called witch’s house can be used as evidence in court.)

Poulaine — the long-toed, phallic shoe shoe point sometimes grew so extended that it had to be stuffed and canned to the ankle to prevent it from tripping the wearer. Introduced to France during the eleventh century, it took on such exaggerated proportions that the phrase ‘your poulaine is more man than you’ became a taunt for laggard lovers. Both phallic and horn imagery are evoked. This shoe (along with the horned headdress) was denounced from the pulpit. 

Puffballs (or girdle of puffballs) — strung together with a magical pouch hanging in their midst. Different from the cingulum. The pouch itself contains the witch’s charms and amulets. It’s made of skin. It’s a variation on the voodoo/hoodoo charm bag. 

Radio — Widespread radio seems to be the thing which finally put an end to popular belief in witchcraft in England. 

Red hair — When regular people believed they lived in a world inhabited by witches, anything slightly different about your body could easily distinguish you as a witch. Red hair is unusual, and therefore was dangerously associated with witchcraft. The link between witches and red hair continued long after the witch craze — Anne of Green Gables was written in the early 1900s, long after people ostensibly stopped believing in witches. But there was a very good reason why Anne did not appreciate her red hair. It wasn’t just vanity; red-headed girls battled very real prejudice.

The Witches Sabbath by Luis Ricardo Falero, 1880

Richard the Third — Richard III (1452 – 1485) was King of England and Lord of Ireland from 1483 until his death in 1485. During his reign, there were stories going around about how witches were trying to assassinate him using witchcraft. In the public imagination, the countryside was populated with ugly little old ladies with the powers to take down a King, despite all his guards and so on. This was terrifying. Until now, witches hadn’t been taken too seriously by the elite ruling class (the top 5%). But now the ruling class started to join the rest of the population, wondering if witches really were a great menace. This coincinced with witchcraft becoming theologised. Now the ruling class in the British Isles, as well as the peasants, started to take witches seriously. Now life started to get really terrible for anyone accused of witchcraft.

Rue plant — the rue plant (depicted in the silver amulet the cimaruta) is both protective and a tool of witches, who use it to cast spells and throw hexes.

Sabbat — witches’ sabbath. A melange of meeting, dance, orgy, love feast, bacchanal, feast of Priapus, and a parody of Christianity. May derive from fertility dances of Paleolithic times around the antlered representation of the incarnate god. But it borrowed from every religion through the ages, and finally from Christianity. Witches were said to fly to Sabbat on broomsticks, up chimneys, through billowing clouds. When they arrived they oiled themselves for the dance using powerful hallucinogenic ointments which may have been introduced vaginally. What do witches do at sabbat? That depends on which country we’re talking about. English witches were not thought to have wonderful sexy times at Sabbath — English witches just ate a lot. If your food had been stolen from your English barn, say, you’d likely blame a witch, since English witches were thought to have a capacious appetite (for food).

Sado-State — a term used by Mary Daly, referring to states which use torture, dismemberment and murder to control the population.

Salem — In Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, more than 200 people were accused of witchcraft, with 14 women executed by hanging. The town of Salem is today a tourist trap but the illage itself renamed itself Danvers in the 1800s, so many tourists don’t realise it’s there. In Danvers you’ll find a memorial to the Salem witches who lived there. The best-known is Rebecca Nurse. You can visit her house. Remember, Salem was just a tiny village in the woods with a population of about 200 people. This clearing was quite a way from the village (especially if you travelled by foot).

“Examination of a Witch by Thompkins H. Matteson. The assault of a young woman, stripped semi-naked and examined by the most important people in her village for any mark on her skin that might confirm their supernatural beliefs that she is a witch and deserves to be killed.

Salem Martyr, The — A Salem witch depicted by Thomas Satterwhite Noble in a painting he called “The Salem Martyr” (1869).

Samhain — October 31st, a.k.a. the Celtic New Year, Hallowe’en, All Hallow’s Eve, November Eve. Importantly for witches, this is This holiday is the Wiccan new year. Many people celebrate with costume parties and trick-or-treating. Samhain is the night when the God dies and leaves the Goddess alone until Yule, when he is born again. Halloween/Samhain is a time when the doors between real world and the supernatural open to each other.

Satanism — Modern witchcraft is not Satanism and nothing like Satanism. Even Satanists often feel misunderstood because people think they worship Satan. Organised Satanism is a mixture of atheism, libertarianism and Machiavallian pragmatism. Satanists celebrate the freedom to indulge. (For Satanists, Satan is a symbol only; they are skeptics who don’t believe in supernatural beings.)

Scholasticism — According to one historical theory, Scholasticism had far more to do with starting the witch craze than Paganism ever did. Scholasticism was an attempt to arrive at a really complicated empirical theory of everything. This way of thinking also developed as a way of defeating heresy. Scholastics had excellent imaginations and as part of their theory of everything, they really did start to believe that there were evil demons hanging around at night, stealing men’s seed.

Scrying — a.k.a. “seeing” or “peeping”. The practice of looking into a suitable medium (e.g. a crystal ball or a black mirror) in the hope of detecting significant messages or visions.

Skyclad — naked. Clothing reduces the power that emanates from the human body. In cold climates they practise energetic circle dances to warm up before stripping off. 

Secrecy — the reason for secrecy is that it’s thought secrecy brings spiritual power.

Sects — In modern witchcraft there’s no single person in charge, and there is no single set of unified practices and beliefs. Sects include: Gardnerians (Gerald Gardner), Dianics, racial faeries, Alexandrians (see: Alex Sanders), hedge-witches, famtrads (family witches). Witches like their diversity, as diversity is evidence of freedom. Beliefs in common: Worship of a Mother Goddess and her male consort (polytheism). All sects understand the natural world as a spiritually significant place (pantheism). All sects adopt a festive calendar similar to those from the ancient world, with feasts. Witchcraft is all about ritual, some old, some invented anew.

Self-Blessing (or Self-Dedication) — a personal ritual whereby the witch dedicates herself to the service of the Mother Goddess and the Horned God. It can be done with a coven or before one’s own alter. Use oil, incense, candles or water, wine and salt. Do it when you feel you need to rededicate yourself to the path. It might be done naked in a tranquil place. Stand on sprinkled salt, light candle, anoint the eyes, nose, mouth, breast, loins, feet with water and wine.

Slavic witchcraft — Witchcraft from Russia, the Ukraine, and Belarus, the Balkans and the Baltic states takes a slightly different form. This 2,000 year old tradition has only a thin Christian veneer over its pagan origins. Slavic pagan gods and goddesses acquired new lives as the saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church. (Russian hereditary witch,occultist and witchcraft scholar Natasha Helvin joins podcast host Mark Norman to discuss the beliefs, traditions and practices associated with witchcraft in the Slavic tradition.)

Sorceress — In England, during the witch-craze, 90% of people accused of witchcraft were women. But in other countries more than half were men. The image of the ‘seductive sorceress’ we see in pre-Raphaelite art comes from medieval and Arthurian legend. (Modern examples include Queen of the goths, Morticia Addams, goth schoolgirls.) But in reality, most of the women tried for witchcraft during the witch craze were elderly, disabled and had some ‘unevenness of body’ such as a missing limb or eye, or differently coloured eyes. The view of sorcery we have today is romanticized and post- Victorian. (Modern examples include the green-skinned Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz.)

John William Waterhouse - Sorceress
John William Waterhouse – Sorceress

Starhawk — a modern Jewish witch who wrote the book Dreaming the Dark (1982), arguing for disarmament, environmental action and sexual liberation (as well as emphasising inner tranquility).

Strappado — a form of punishment or torture in which the victim was secured to a rope and made to fall from a height almost to the ground before being stopped with an abrupt jerk. Also refers to the instrument that does this.

Strix — There’s a hefty body of anxious legislation about a figure called the Strix who is an evil sorceress.

Supernatural — Supernatural thinking almost always comes down to the following: birth, sex and death. Modern stories tend to convert supernatural beliefs of the past into metaphors for psychological states. For instance, modern productions/interpretations of Hamlet present the witches and ghosts as metaphors for Hamlet’s inner state, considered figments of Hamlet’s imagination. Earlier audiences who actually believed in these things would have understood the supernatural aspects of Hamlet more literally.

Sympathetic (or Imitative) Magic — primitive or magical ritual using objects or actions resembling or symbolically associated with the event or person over which influence is sought. Sailors feared women who whistled because of the sympathetic magic implied in “whistling up the wind”. 

Succubus — from Medieval folklore, a female demon believed to have sexual intercourse with sleeping men. As happens to almost every other word which originally means ‘woman’ something, has also come to mean sex worker. The word succuba is also used.

TeatAround one in 500 humans, or 0.2%, have “supernumerary nipples”. If you were unlucky enough to be American during their witch craze, your extra nipple may have been considered evidence that you are a witch. Other normal and common marks may have been used against you as well. They are collectively known as ‘witch marks’. But the supernumerary nipples were thought to be for suckling familiars. It was believed that witches couldn’t feel these areas if they were poked and prodded.

Thomas Middleton — A Jacobean playwright who wrote a play called “The Witch” sometime between 1613 and 1616. It wasn’t published until 1778. We don’t know why it wasn’t performed on stage. It may have failed with audiences, or it may have been pulled for political reasons. Middleton’s primary source for material on witches was the Discovery of Witchcraft of Reginald Scot (1584).

Trial — We don’t have the complete records but, perhaps influenced by Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, people today tend to assume that once you were accused of witchcraft, that’s it, that’s curtains for you. In fact, most English cases resulted in acquittal. About 25% of English witches were convicted once they went to trial.  However, even if you were acquitted you could still die in jail. We have no figures on that. Not counting lynchings and people who died in jail, England records about 3000 deaths, maybe more. This is how trials tended to proceed: In England, before a witch trial took place, a Justice of the Peace would be doing the rounds trying to work out if there was a witchcraft problem in the area. The JP would build up a file of depositions and also probably confessions from the accused. Other witches would commonly be named, and this might lead to a trial with a jury. Important to remember: There were no defence barristers or prosecution lawyers in Early Modern law courts. If you were accused of witchcraft and taken to court, there was no one to stand up for you.

Trial by ordeal — Trials which put peple through ‘ordeals’ (torture) e.g. dunking.

Tunriða — Old Norse word meaning “hedge-rider”. (Along with Old High German zunritha. Refers to both witches and ghosts.

Unwitch — to release someoen from a witch or from witchcraft

Walpurgis Night — Walpurgis Night (Saint Walpurgis Night) is the eve of the Christian feast day of Saint Walpurga, an 8th-century abbess in Francia, and is celebrated on the night of 30 April and the day of 1 May. Saint Walpurga was hailed by the Christians of Germany for battling “pest, rabies and whooping cough, as well as against witchcraft.” Christians prayed to God through the intercession of Saint Walpurga to protect themselves from witchcraft.

Wand — may have tree worship at its root. These are magical branches plucked from sacred trees in sacred groves. The best wand will be made of one of the woods sacred to the White Goddess: elderberry, willow, rowan, hazel, oak or mistletoe. A straight and slender branch should be hollowed at the centre (the pith removed). Some traditions require it be transcribed with a pentagram as well as the witch’s ritual name (the name given to the witch on her initiation). More importantly it has to be blessed in the name of the Mother Goddess and consecrated as a tool of the witch’s will. The stronger the witch’s will, the more invincible the wand. 

Weigh house — A weigh house was a public building where product was weighed but during the witch craze, they found another purpose: for weighing people accused of witchcraft. If the victim were lighter than a certain weight, they called her a witch and she’d have to pay them money to avoid persecution. In 1931, friends Jan Waslh and M.C. Escher wrote and illustrated a book called The Terrible Adventures of Scholastica. The story is about the witch of Oudewater. Oudewater is a small town in the Netherlands famous for its Witch’s Scales. Defendants wanted to be tried in Oudewater because they did not rig their scales there. As a result of this honesty, no one was ever found guilty of witchcraft.

Scholastica Illustration, 1931, M.C. Escher
Scholastica Illustration, 1931, M.C. Escher

Weird Sisters — the witches of Macbeth by William Shakespeare, considered Shakespeare’s witch play.

Wise Woman — a (rural) woman historically considered to be knowledgeable in matters such as herbal healing, magic charms, or other traditional lore. A witch, basically. This healing wise woman witch is a modern witch archetype, seen in fiction such as Wise Woman by Monica Furlong, about the single, liberated woman healer/midwife who lives on the edge of a town, in that liminal space where civilisation meets forest. She grows herbs in her garden and is (to modern audiences) harmless, perhaps genuinely healing to those who dare visit. In reality, the midwives during the Witch Craze were more likely to side with the persecutors. Also, women accused of witchcraft were often married with young families to care for, and quite likely accused of witchcraft by another woman. (We know this from evidence given by women at trials.) The midwives were the Aunt Lydias, regulating rather than liberating women’s bodies and sexuality. They were in a good position to search for witch marks, or determine whether a woman was pregnant or not, at the behest of state power. Just because the midwives had great knowledge about women’s bodies it doesn’t naturally follow that they were using this knowledge for good. The concept of the witch as healer is worldwide e.g. Spanish curandera, ‘female healer’ (witch).

Witch cake — a cake made from rye meal and the pee of little witch girls. Sometimes ash would be among the ingredients. The story of the witch cake came out of Salem in America. Tituba was the slave of a local minister and supposedly baked a cake using these ingredients. A white neighbour ‘admitted to’ telling Tituba how to bake one of these magic cakes. What was the point of witch cakes? If a dog eats a witch cake the dog (a familiar) supposedly reveals the identity of the witch. (Not sure if they thought the dog would talk?) Anyhow, Tituba was trying to identify the person responsible for bewitching young Betty Parris. Later she was accused of being a witch herself, because she dabbled in witch magic. (Didn’t make any difference that the magic didn’t work.)

White candles — often used on the altar

William Dawson Bellhouse — William Dawson Bellhouse (1814-1870) was a magician, surgeon and galvanist and other things besides. Basically, he was a ‘cunning man’. His personal magical workbook, the survival of which is uncommon among 19th century cunning folk, is now in the collection of the New York Public Library. Listen to a podcast about him here.

Witchcraft Act — The Witchcraft Act of 1735 continued to be used until relatively recently, notably in the famous witchcraft case in England during WW2. Designated as Hellish Nell, Helen Duncan (by vocation a spiritualist and medium, 1857-1956) was prosecuted after claiming the spirit materialization of a sailor told her HMS Barham had been sunk. (Unfortunately for her, it had actually sunk.) She probably got these details from a friend in the navy, but because she seemed to know all this before it had been officially announced, and because she was known as a spiritualist and medium, Helen Duncan was one of the last people convicted under this act, soon to be replaced in 1951 with the Fraudulent Medium’s Act.

Witch-craze — The historical repression of witches during one particular period in modern history. Witchcraft (or sorcery) has always existed. Ideas of witches exist, really, from the very earliest human societies. There has never been a time in human history when people didn’t have an idea of malign magic.  Unlike sorcery itself, or the concept of witches, the witch-craze was a distinctly modern historical phenomenon, like Nazism or Stalinism. Multitudes of human beings, mostly women, were condemned to horrible deaths for ‘crimes’ which today we consider wholly fanciful. Witch-craze lasted from 14th through to the 17th century.

Witching hour — There is controversy about what witching hour is. We know that witching hour is a notion of a magical time when the barrier between the other world and where undead, restless entities may be able to pass over from the other world into the material world. This includes witches and their familiars. Shakespeare used it a fair bit in his plays. Witching hour is generally considered to be between midnight and 3 a.m. in England’s Early Modern period.

Witch mark — Witch marks may refer to an extra nipple or similar, thought to be bodily evidence that someone is a witch. Witch marks is also the name given to protective markings found on old buildings. These marks are good evidence that even once the elite stopped believing in witchcraft, the common people continued.  Witch marks are about trying to invoke an idea of goodness. If you believe that old, ugly lame women will transmit all this to others, you also believe that beauty can be similarly transverted, that beauty and evenness are the best way to counter that kind of ugly unevenness. So making a beautiful ritual mark is itself a good protection against an ugly person/spirit. Witch marks mostly survive domestically. Witch marks survive best in houses that are themselves crooked and uneven. 

Witch of Endor — There are mentions of witches in the Bible. One appears in the book of Samuel (written 931-721 BC): the Witch of Endor, or the Endorian Sorceress. This woman summoned the spirit of prophet Samuel. She’s depicted in an 1857 painting

"The Endorian Sorceress Causes the Shade of Samuel" (Martynov, Dmitry Nikiforovich, 1857)
“The Endorian Sorceress Causes the Shade of Samuel” (Martynov, Dmitry Nikiforovich, 1857)

Witch trials — As part of the witch craze, The Great Age of Witch Trials took place in Europe between 1550 and 1700. Nobody agrees on how many people were murdered. Estimates range between 500,000 and 9 million. Many were burned alive. After 1700 trials disappeared almost completely. Why the sudden change in 1550? Until then, Christian authorities had refused to acknowledge the existence of witches. But in 1550 they reversed their position, resulting in a witch hunt across Christendom. There were probably economic factors involved. Also, Old women are terrifying — they remind us all of death. No coincidence that the witch trials begin at the same moment as the European Reformation in religion, which radically reset relations with the dead by deleting purgatory and the cult of the saints. Before that the living could be useful to the dead by praying for them. This was a way of managing emotions around dead loved ones. It worked both ways — you could ask the dead to act on your behalf in front of God. But the Reformation got rid of this transactional relationship with the dead.

Witch-pricker — a tool used by inquisitors to prick so-called witches skin. The blade slid into the handle under pressure and if the witch didn’t seem to feel it this was proof of her guilt.

Witch’s Year — Keyed to agricultural times and seasonal changes. Spring (March 21), Beltane (April 30), Midsummer, Lugnasadh (August 1), Autumn, Samhain, Yule (December 21), Imbolc (February 1).

Zunritha —Old High German word meaning “hedge-rider”, along with Old Norse tunriða.


The header image is a pre-Raphaelite painting by John William Waterhouse, of Circe Offering The Cup To Ulysses. In Greek mythology, Circa was a goddess of magic or sometimes a nymph, enchantress or sorceress. For more similar images see this post at the Art of Myth blog.

I Know Your True Name Trope

Rumpelstiltskin Monro S. Orr

There’s a really old storytelling trope: A trickster girl — and it is usually a girl — overcomes an Opponent with word play rather than physical tousle. Oftentimes the ‘word play’ is simply guessing the opponent’s real name.

This post contains Breaking Bad spoilers. But hopefully you’ve already seen that if you wanted to.

The Importance Of Names

It’s common for characters on ego-trips to insist on usage of their name. One of my primary school principals insisted on being called “Miss Jones” at the end of every single sentence. If you slipped up and said “Yes” to one of her questions, she pulled you up and required you to say “Yes, Miss Jones.” She was a lot of fun. And probably military trained.

Miss Jones was my real-life 1980s example of “I’m the god damn Batman.” Getting your name all over the place is the ultimate power trip.

But in story, outsized ego often leads to your own downfall. This is because one’s name is a metonym for honour and reputation, more so in some cultures than in others. According to the mythology of Scotland, for instance, everyone came from the one ancestral clan, passed down through the male line. Even after marriage Scottish women traditionally keep their own names, but this isn’t for a feminist reason: names are so very important to one’s identity that you can’t get a new one simply by getting married. Women are accepted as demi-members of their husbands’ families — demi because they aren’t given his name.

In storytelling, to lose your name is one way of losing your identity. This is utilised by Hayao Miyazaki in Spirited Away when Chihiro becomes Sen when she starts working at the bathhouse. She will only get her name back after she proves her dedication to hard work as the salve to all of her problems.

There are other ways storytellers convey the idea that losing one’s identity is the worst. In Peter Pan and Wendy (and later in Hook) to grow up is to lose your identity. However, it’s interesting that the loss of name, or replacement of ‘real’ name with ‘nick name’ often happens in stories where your identity is more generally lost.

The I Know Your True Name Trope

You will see this trope across fairytales. The stand-out example: Rumpelstiltskin. When the princess discovers the goblin’s name she has won the Big Struggle.

In the classic Rumpelstiltskin plot, the princess hasn’t simply learned the goblin’s name: She has learned how mean he really is. She’s got the measure of him. The name stands for True Self.

When you’re really, really bad, the act of being known is in itself a destructive act. Ironically, the really, really bad character puts up the challenge: See if you can work out who I really am. Bet you can’t. I’m smarter than you, after all.

The trope can also be seen in myths from antiquity, such as the story of Lilith, who had a number of secret names. When Elijah learned her names — and also the nature of her evil — he had the upper hand.

The Say My Name Trope In Contemporary Storytelling

You’ll see the Say My Name trope in contemporary storytelling — not just in old fairytales.

It often goes hand in hand with shapeshifting: Once the hero(ine) says the opponent’s name, the opponent may change into something else.


Recently I watched Split (by M. Night Shyalaman) and noticed the initial Big Struggle scene was Rumpelstiltskin-esque. Spoiler (actually the film spoils itself — I have several issues with it, politically): the abducted surviving heroine finds a note from the baddy’s newly murdered psychologist instructing her to use the baddy’s real name in order to snap him out of his dissociative state.

Kevin Wendell Crumb!” she chants. “Kevin Wendell Crumb!” This sends the DID (dissociative identity disordered) opponent into a tailspin and precipitates a (long, drawn-out) big struggle between the forces of good and evil.

The baddie changes into The Beast. Shapeshifting.

Straight out of Rumpelstiltskin.


“Say My Name” is the title of the seventh episode of Breaking Bad in its fifth season. So, Walter White is almost dead now.

The episode was originally titled something different, but the writers room must have intuited how great that quote is, and pulled it for the episode title.

“Say my name” refers to Walter’s demand for Declan to call him Heisenberg during their confrontation by urging him to “say my name”. Some viewers have called the Say My Name scene Walt’s ‘Icarus Moment’, when his ego is at its peak. (Icarus is more broadly about ego. I’m after a name more specific when referring to this trope.)

Walter White, like Rumpelstiltskin, is on a power trip. And like Rumpelstiltskin, he’s about to meet his maker. In many versions of the fairytale, Rumpelstiltskin dies after stomping in fire. (Nope, in fairytales stomping on fire does not put the fire out — it puts you out.) In Breaking Bad, Walter is also ‘put out’ in a blaze of fire (gun fire). So is Hank, his foil.

By the airing of the “Say My Name” episode, everyone (including me) was waiting with bated breath to find out how Breaking Bad was going to end. Only in hindsight, everything was right there for us, leading to exactly that ending. If I’d seen the Rumpelstiltskin connection, and how Walt was so insistent about people knowing and using his name, I’d have predicted his fate.

This is how writers make endings feel both surprising and inevitable. I wonder if even the writers made the Rumpelstiltskin connection, or if they were telling the story of Walter White at a deeply subconscious level.

(The Breaking Bad writers made use of many more fairytale tropes.)

For more examples, see the I Know Your True Name entry at TV Tropes.

Why is this trope so enduring?

Just guessing here, but maybe angry mothers have been calling children by their full-names literally since children EVEN HAD full names. When our mothers call us by our full names we don’t call that a trope, but in fiction it’s known as the Full Name Ultimatum. Full names are scary!

In her book From The Beast To The Blonde, Marina Warner has a more considered answer for us. First, she begins with by describing a main function of fairytales:

Fairy tales […] concern themselves with sexual distinctions, and with sexual transgression, with defining differences according to morals and mores. This interest forms part of the genre’s larger engagement with the marvellous, for the marvellous is understood to be impossible. The realms of wonder and impossibility converge, and fairy tales function to conjure the first in order to delineate the second: magic paradoxically defines normality. Hence the recurrence, in such stories, of metamorphoses, disguises and above all the impossible tasks—the adynata—of folk narrative.

Did you know what adynaton is, as literary technique? (Me neither.) Now we get examples:

These can take an active form: that the protagonist should fill a crippled pail with four-leaved clovers, as in Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy’s ‘Serpentin vert‘, or that the quester should come neither clothed nor naked, neither riding nor walking, neither bearing a gift nor not bearing one.

This is all part of a wider chapter about The Queen of Sheba, a character from the Bible.

This riddling demand, made in traditional tales in many different languages, was given to King Solomon and the Trickster Marcoulf in medieval texts, and to the poor peasant’s clever daughter in the Russian fairy tale, collected in the nineteenth century. Verbal riddles do not always invite performed solutions, but Sheba’s to Solomon do, and in her role in these stories she takes the place of the lowlife, cunning figure, like Marcolf, or the quick-witted peasant girl, as she tries to have the advantage over Solomon. This riddle is solved when the subject of the challenge rides on a goat (or a hare), with one shoe off and one shoe on, one leg on the ground, draped only in a net, and carrying a hare (or a quail) which springs to freedom as soon as he or she arrives.

The riddling story is found all over the place, Warner explains:

The riddles posed by Sheba relate to the matter and the manner of many fairy tales, which dramatise ‘witches’ duels‘: in these the heroine or hero confounds the powers of fairy evil by surpassing them in verbal adroitness, in tricksters.

The Devil is the ultimate trickster.

The Devil turns tricks, but those who elude him can outsmart him at his own game.

The Elfin-Knight is a famous Scottish ballad. (This trope seems especially popular in Scotland. The tale of Whuppity Stourie is the Scottish version of “Rumpelstiltskin”.)

In one of the highly popular ballad versions of ‘The Elfin-Knight’, for instance, a story which exists in different forms all over the world (the most famous being ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, hero of the Brothers Grimm’s popular tale of that name), the heroine wrestles with the Elfin-Knight, who would snatch her away to the underworld as his bride, by using her verbal wit against his power. The Devil who has come for her in marriage sets her ten riddling questions, and she replies staunchly to all of them. […]

This all relates back to a religious view of earlier times. People really did used to believe this, hence the entire concept of blasphemy:

Only God can remain the Unnameable: naming the Devil, knowing him for what he is, undoes his power.

See also: Symbolic Names in Storytelling

The Fly by Katherine Mansfield

Frank Watson Wood - The Cronies ca. 1900

The Fly” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, published 1922.

Mansfield’s short stories are out of copyright and available at various places online. Download “The Fly”by Katherine Mansfield as a document.


Mansfield wrote “The Fly” in February 1922 as she was finding her tuberculosis treatment debilitating. She died in January of  1923, soon after its publication. Thirty-four seems young to be contemplating old age, and to write about an elderly character with any sort of gravitas, but it’s likely Mansfield always had empathy for the elderly. She had probably sensed she would die young. For one thing, she’d faced plague. The Beauchamp family escaped central Wellington to live in Karori, probably to evade the bacterial infections which were highly dangerous to Wellingtonians at the turn of the 20th century. Aside from that, Mansfield grew up with weak lungs. The family doctor told her family (if not Mansfield herself?) that she was a case of tuberculosis waiting to happen.

By the time Mansfield actually did succumb to tuberculosis, I wonder how she had processed the concept of ‘inevitability’. The modern-day analogue is a person who knows they carry genes which put them in the firing line for future health problems and a likely early death (e.g. for breast cancer, Huntingdons, early onset Alzheimers). The more we learn about genetics, the more all of us will be expected to either confront death (by paying for gene sequencing, say), or to ignore it completely (like The Boss in this story). How much should we mull over our own deaths? What is the perfect amount of death-mulling in order to live a good life? This is the ultimate moral dilemma for privileged people of the modern age.

We can only read her stories and speculate about how Mansfield lived with ill-health, but putting her writing to one side, she did live life to the fullest, perhaps because she was always under the spectre of death.

When facing death, it’s common for people to readjust our sense of scale. Big things seem smaller (we realise we are not invincible), important are cast as freshly irrelevant. The flip side: small lives become more meaningful: A fly can lose its life just like that. And we’re no different. Everything feels more connected. (Users of psilocybin will tell you of similar experiences, without necessarily facing their own mortality.)

This is partly why imagery surrounding ‘miniatures‘ is so commonly utilised by storytellers. You can make the argument that all stories are about life, and therefore all stories are about death.

Frank Henry Bellew's A Bad Boy's First Reader
Frank Henry Bellew’s A Bad Boy’s First Reader Fly

What Happens In “The Fly”?

Old Woodifield is an elderly man who goes to visit his former boss at the boss’s office. He’s impressed that the boss is still doing well in the workplace, even though he’s a full five years older than himself.

Old Woodifield forgets what he came to say, but after a tipple of whiskey (which his health properly forbids), he remembers: His daughters visited France recently, including the graves at Flanders Fields, where both old men lost sons.

Old Woodifield tells his boss that they also found the boss’s son’s grave, and would like to reassure him the grave is very well kept. Then Woodifield leaves, unaware of how he has plunged his former boss into the depths of despair.

The reader stays in the room and we watch on as The Boss slowly kills a fly entrapped in his ink pot.

Setting of “The Fly”

The story is set when it was written, in the post-WW1 era.

The story is set in England, near London. “The City” is capitalised, so refers to “The City” district of central London. France is revealed to be a foreign country with very foreign customs when Old Woodifield offers the anecdote about paying for the entire jar of jam. (There is an historic cultural juxtaposition between England and France.)

Some of the language indicates its era:

  • “Toss off” now means something else entirely, but back then meant to ‘down’ a drink.
  • ‘Wiped his moustaches’ — this word has evolved in the opposite direction of trousers (which were once considered plural, now considered singular, often called ‘trouser’).
  • ‘Chaps’ now refers almost exclusively to the butt-less leather trousers, sometimes worn by gay men on the prowl. Back then the word referred to the same leggings and belt, but not in place of butt-covering attire. The word was pronounced ‘shaps’, fyi.

Narration In “The Fly”

This story is told with omniscient narration, neither entering too far into the mind of the boss nor Mr Woodifield.

“The Fly” is typical of Mansfield’s story-telling technique: The reader is moved through a series of incidents, carried along with the action. Eventually the reader discovers causal relationships.  Honeymoon, The Voyage and Prelude make use of the same narrative technique.

Character Web of “The Fly”

The Boss

As first presented, the Boss appears to be the archetypal godlike figure, giving life and taking it away. The Boss is given no name—he is known simply as ‘Boss’—authority, father figure to both Woodifield and to Macey. He gives a little drop of whiskey to Woodifield, insisting it wouldn’t hurt a child, even though alcohol is forbidden to the old man. This interaction is very reminiscent of a scene in Annie Proulx’s much later short story “On The Antler“, though in Proulx’s story the alcohol is literally poisoned. (To someone who can’t drink for health reasons, alcohol on its own can be poison.)

The Boss is also set up as materialistic. Mansfield both shows and tells us this fact.

[SHOWING] ‘New carpet,’ and he pointed to the bright red carpet with a pattern of large white rings. ‘New furniture,’ and he nodded towards the massive bookcase and the table with legs like twisted treacle. ‘Electric heating!’ He waved almost exultantly towards the five transparent, pearly sausages glowing so softly in the tilted copper pan.

[TELLING] But he did not draw old Woodifield’s attention to the photograph over the table of a grave-looking boy in uniform standing in one of those spectral photographers’ parks with photographers’ storm-clouds behind him. It was not new. It had been there for over six years.

Some critics have said this indicates an earlier, less polished time in Mansfield’s writing development because succinctness is highly prized. However, I’m not on board with that view. I think succinctness can  be too highly prized. Like any other kind of emphasis, emphasis achieved by both showing and telling is acceptable to me as a reader.

More interesting: Why did Mansfield want to underscore this facet of The Boss’s personality?

  • Materialistic characters are non-empathetic characters. That’s a rule.
  • He’s also a braggart. A rich, powerful man who is also a braggart is the worst kind of rich, powerful man.
  • But he is also pitiable in his own strange way. Braggarts are showing their shortcoming: They’re not as confident as they hope to appear. A man who brags about his possessions is making up for something very weak about himself. The reader draws this conclusion early (subconsciously, if nothing else) and so when we see his actions at the end, the ending is both surprising and expected. (The rule for endings.)
  • On second reading (or in hindsight) we understand that by fixating on objects, The Boss can avoid thinking about death. Objects cannot die. Flies can die. Flies are not objects. But he seems to consider the fly a kind of object, as a part of the room itself, until he is hit by its tiny death.

I conclude that Mansfield had good reason to underscore the materialistic views of The Boss.

The Boss’s Son

We don’t know what the son was really like because we’re viewing him from the father’s point of view. Bereaved family members have a tendency to remember only the best of the dearly departed. It’s highly likely the son wasn’t anything like the angel he remains in his father’s memory.

Also possible: The Boss required the son to come and work for him whether son wanted to or not, and The Boss refused to listen to anything else. It’s possible The Boss has sociopathic tendencies. While most neurotypical people think nothing of killing a fly, I think most of us prefer a swift and painless death for any living creature.

Like many parents, The Boss had hoped to achieve immortality via his son. Losing his only son means losing his own immortality.

The Fly

When the Boss begins to play with the fly, birth imagery appears and readers remembers that Woodifield was described as a baby. As the fly struggles to recover from the persistent blobs of ink The Boss drops on him, readers understand that the fly is a symbol for humanity and the fly’s struggle is the struggle of humankind.

Flies also ‘fly’. Katherine Mansfield is making use of The Symbolism of Flight. Flies can soar through the heavens and perhaps they have lots of fun, escaping any kind of earth-bound reality. But flies die in the end. Alongside us, flies endure an ordinary and inevitable lifecycle: birth, youth, ‘old age’ (for a fly), death. There is struggle, even for free creatures.

But along with the struggle there are moments of flight, desires, hopes, aspirations. If we put ourselves in the fly’s position, it probably thinks it can get away, until the deathly amount of ink is dropped upon it.

Old Woodifield

Where did Katherine Mansfield come down on the Freudian concept of repression? Old Woodifield has repressed nothing. But look at him. He’s five years younger than The Boss, already retired, his health is at the point where he can’t take whiskey and he seems to be losing his memory, possibly hastened by the stroke which caused his retirement. He is now under the care of his wife and daughters.

We can’t apply a cause and effect analysis to how humans age in real life, but we’re talking about fiction here. Could it be that in “The Fly”, Old Woodfield’s openness towards mortality has actually hastened his own?

Helen Garner wrote a novel called The Spare Room, in which a woman is cast into the reluctant role of caregiver when a friend comes to stay. The friend is undergoing cancer treatment. In interviews, Garner has said that ‘denial of one’s impending death’ is one way of dealing with death. Since death comes anyway, there’s no right or wrong way of dealing with it.

My brother, a hospital nurse, also tells me that it is very, very common to be admitted to hospital in the late stages of a deadly illness and still not ‘accept’ death is happening.

One possible reading of “The Fly”: By repressing thoughts of death, we don’t ever have to deal with it. (By the time we’ve dealt with it, we’ll be fully dead., which is not dealing.) In the meantime, keep working, keep busy.

Western governments, spurred on by a rapidly ageing population, probably take The Boss’s view.

Alternate reading: Old Woodifield has ‘Old’ in his name, but is consistently described as a baby. We could look at this both ways: Old people are helpless like babies and there’s your comparison. When Mansfield calls Old Woodifield a baby, she might simply be underscoring his old age. On the other hand, his acceptance of Heidegger’s Being-toward-death makes him immortal, in a way. Once we learn that death is a thing, and that it will eventually come for us, we’re ‘outside’ death. (‘Forever young’, despite all evidence to the contrary.)

Symbol Web of “The Fly”

In the first episode in “The Fly” Woodifield and the Boss are contrasted in using imagistic patterns.

Old Woodifield, though five years younger, is nearing his grave. He’s ‘boxed up‘ and looks ‘like a baby in his pram’ but still likes to go out as ‘he clings’ to his ‘last pleasures as the tree clings to its last leaves’. He ‘pipes’, ‘peers’, has ‘shuffling footsteps’ is frail’ and ‘old’ (stated seventeen times) and ‘on his last pins’.

The Boss, on the other hand, though described in less imagistic language, is still ‘at the helm’, ‘going strong’, rolls in his chair, and ‘flips’ the Financial Times, interested as he is in his business and life. The Boss has a strong lust for life and shows a great capacity to survive. The imagery that defines the environment is remarkably positive, and equally rich in suggestions of the boss’s energy, his strength, warmth and generosity.

Indeed the implication, especially through contrasting comparisons with old Woodifield, is that the Boss has an unaging vitality. He seems to be immune to life’s ravages and this suggests an important theme. The very effect of the description of the room and the boss’s subsequent conversation with Woodifield is to establish a dichotomy between the two men as well as to portray them naturally in a realistic social context.

Mortality, already implied by the contrasting images, is directly conveyed by the striking verbal metaphor of the boss’s son in his grave: ‘It was exactly as though the earth had opened and he had seen the boy lying there with Woodifield’s girls staring down at him’. This momento mori together with his son’s photograph make him forget the six years, although his mental grasp has weakened. But the Boss has built up not only his thriving business but also an effective defence mechanism. There are no tears to shed.

By sheer accident the boss finds a fly in the inkwell and unconsciously picks it out, watching the struggling fly brushing off the ink in order to survive, the Boss finds in its fight for life an analogy with his own will to survive. The introductory, contrasting images have generated a sense of the boss’s zest for life, which is also evident in the action.

Killing the fly he paradoxically wishes it to weather adversity, increasingly identifying himself as the courageous little insect in the animal images: ‘like a minute little cat’, ‘the little beggar’ and ‘he’s a plucky little devil.’ Time and his zest for life ‘(‘for the life of him’) have healed the wound in his heart.

The images reveal the true nature of the Boss and inform and extend the meaning of the action in the short story. With Mansfield’s method of narrative restraint, which eschews expository comments, the boss’s final oblivion is expressed in the referential narrator’s discourse, but the full weight of the boss’s fight for survival is expressed by imagistic patterns.

Julia van Gunsteren, Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism



The Boss represses his own hard emotions, pressing reset again and again, which leaves him open to continued small wounds when he leasts expects them.

The Boss is the archetype of the broken man who wants to embed himself in his work in order to forget other kinds of pain. The men of Mad Men are uniformly of that type. If they were to understand their own difficult emotions, those emotions would absolutely break them.

Short stories are well-known for their epiphanic moments, and for characters who change just a smudge. (There’s little time for massive character arcs.) “The Fly” is an excellent example of minimal character change (if any at all).


The Boss seems quite happy to continue on as Top Dog of his own company, and no doubt enjoys the authority that comes with it. But this was an era in which men did tend to retire at a certain, fixed age.

The Boss hasn’t retired, which suggests he wants to live in the past. Today starts off as many other days must have, no different from how days have looked his whole working life.

I’m filling in gaps, but I imagine The Boss pretends he’s a much younger man, and that his son is also younger, safely ensconced in his school work, or at home with his mother, still alive and still full of promise.


Old Woodifield is the opponent because in contrast to The Boss, this is an old man who has come to terms with his impending death. (He’s long since retired.) He’s also come to terms with his own son’s death in the war, to the point where he can talk at length about how well the graves are tended. This is a man who has not repressed his grief, or his own fear of death.

When confronted with such a peer, The Boss is asked to confront his own dark emotions. This is the unique trait of a same-aged peer, and why school reunions in particular can be so confronting. We can look at a much older person and separate ourselves from their mortality. We look at much younger people and we consider them almost ageless. But when we look at those the exact same age, we tend to compare ourselves to our peers in every facet—how are we doing in life? How old do we appear to others?

Only our same-aged peers can show us.

In storytelling terms, Old Woodifield is The Boss’s foil.

Foil: A character with behaviour and/or values that contrast those of another character in order to highlight the distinctive temperament of that character.

Foils work best when they’re the same in many ways:

  • Same approximate age
  • Same milieu
  • Same life tragedies


You’ll have heard of Save The Cat as a writing technique. (Kill The Dog is its inverse, though Kill The Dog isn’t dissimilar in function: It is used to show an audience the good in a main character.)

Often in a story, a character will save the life of an insect to show the audience how empathetic they are, deep down. This technique was utilised numerous times throughout the coming-of-age film American Honey, for instance.  After the main character does something questionable, she is shown to save an insect, until eventually we see her do something really nice for some hungry kids. It’s also utilised in one of the first scenes of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, to get us onside with Frances McDormand’s character. Mildred Hayes is presented as a tough nut who may or may not be in the right, insofar as the audience knows, so in the same confrontational opening scene the writer/director has her walk over to the windowsill and flip a beetle back onto its feet.

But in “The Fly”, a man is presented to the reader as your regular Boss (hence the lack of a name — this guy is an archetype). But then, when he sort of tortures a harmless — if annoying — little fly, Mansfield breaks archetype to add a little extra. That little extra is not good. It’s uncomfortable to read and now we definitely don’t like this guy. (Even if we don’t like flies either.) This story represents the true inverse of Save The Cat.


The Battle between The Boss and Fly is heavily stacked, and obviously ‘won’ by the Boss, but for him it’ll be a pyrrhic victory, since the death of the fly can only remind him of death in general… his son’s, his own. (And possibly his wife’s as well — in the eras before birth control, an only child often indicated death of a parent, outside secondary infertility.)


One reading of this short story is that The Boss realises his own mortality for the first time after Old Woodifield’s visit, but I’m not on board with that reading. The final sentence indicates The Boss has had many chances to come to terms with his own mortality (and with the death of his son), but each occasion leads him to repress any uncomfortable grief and…


…he presses the reset button.

For the life of him, he could not remember.

On the other hand, the words ‘for the life of him’ are chosen carefully. You could argue that because of the word ‘life’, The Boss is left with a newly intimate, though subconscious, knowledge of his own mortality.

Once again, Old Woodifield has been set up as his foil. For Old Woodifield we decode the text as indicative of dementia, but for The Boss, forgetting is an act of will.


  • “The Fly” is offered as an example of a ‘lyrical’ short story.
  • I’m not entirely sure Mansfield did a great job of depicting old age. She never made it to old age herself (and I’m not there yet, either). Time will tell, and I may shift my position. But have a read of Kevin Barry’s award winning short story “Beer Trip To Llandudno”, which explores the middle-aged version of Heidegger’s Being-toward-death. That is a story about middle aged men, written by a middle aged man. As a middle aged person myself, these men’s attitude towards death rings true. The self-realisations about death in “The Fly” feel like middle-aged realisations rather than old-age revelations. Or perhaps Mansfield’s position on death is different yet again, for precisely the reason that Mansfield never made it, even to middle age, and knew full well she would not.

Header painting: Frank Watson Wood – The Cronies ca. 1900

Reunion by John Cheever Short Story

“Reunion” is a short story by John Cheever, first published 1962 in The New Yorker. You can listen to it read by Richard Ford.


As Richard Ford says, Grand Central Station is a place where anything could happen — any two people could meet.

The story is set in the 1950s or 60s, the heyday of ‘the perfect nuclear family’. It was a big deal back then not to have a father. Divorce was rare. Women were not financially supported. It is highly probable the boy was the only child in his class without a father at home. This would add to the pain of missing him.


“Reunion” is a compact short story of around 1000 words. Most of Cheever’s stories are much longer than this one. The reader deduces a lot:

  • The father has probably been kicked out of ‘the club’ and couldn’t take his son there even if he wanted to.
  • His terrible personality is the reason the narrator’s mother divorced him in the first place.
  • The father is showing off to the son, probably more than he usually does, because of the limited time he has with his boy.
  • He has a white collar job, and no doubt treats his co-workers and secretary in the same way. I’m imagining he works on Madison Avenue, in the Mad Men world.
  • I imagine the father has some kind of personality disorder which gives him the ability to turn off empathy at will.

Cheever partly achieves compactness by:

  • Telling rather than always showing. The first paragraph is an excellent example of that.
  • Omitting the narrator’s reactions, focusing only on the father’s mesmerising horribleness. We only get the narrator’s reaction in the final sentence when it becomes clear he has decided not to see his father again (perhaps only later, after processing events).
Grand Central Station, New-york... illustrator Robinson, early '60s
Grand Central Station, New-york… illustrator Robinson, early ’60s


A son looks forward to seeing his father for the first time in three years, but when they meet he witnesses how his father treats others, and comes to the realisation that he is a terrible person.



This story is an example of a viewpoint character as first person narrator. The main character of this story is the father. The narrator is the Every Boy, who looks up to his father. However, you could equally argue the ‘main character’ status is shared, because it’s the child who has the anagnorisis at the end. This is why the concept of ‘main character’ is problematic.

The shortcoming of the narrator is that he is a child. He can’t choose his father. By the father’s absence, the  narrator has been idolising an image of his father who was never real.

The shortcoming of the father is huge. He has no empathy for other people, does not respect rules, and is trying to get his son to join him in his assholery.


The narrator wants to enjoy some time with his father. As a child, he is automatically predisposed to giving him respect.

The father wants to show his son how to be a man. Perhaps because he senses he has limited time in which to do so, he goes over the top in his dick-waving oneupmanship, and is terrible to everyone he meets.


Father and son start off as allies and switch over to opponents at some point in the story.


The plan comes from the opponent — the father plans to take his son out to eat, and to impress him with his wit.


Every encounter in this story is a minor big struggle. Unlike in, say, a classic mythical structure, these big struggles don’t escalate. I mean, the big struggles don’t get worse. Each person reacts in basically the same way — avoidantly. But it is the cumulation of behaviours which make it seem to the son, and to us, like the big struggle is getting worse and worse.


There is no exact point when the son realises his father is terrible — rather, it’s a cumulation of things. Perhaps he could’ve forgiven his father if he was rude once. But Cheever gives us more than enough incidents to make the father’s terrible behaviour a pattern.

It is revealed why the father behaves the way he does right at the end, when the father says, “I want to get a rise out of this chap.” He’s using these people as playthings.


“Goodbye, Daddy,” I said, and I went down the stairs and got my train, and that was the last time I saw my father.


Another short story that would be appreciated by high school aged boys especially:

The Hoaxer by Walter Kirn. “The Hoaxer”  is published in 12 Short Stories and Their Making, edited by Paul Mandelbaum. This book includes an interview with Walter Kirn about why he wrote this story.

Download a compare and contrast juxtaposing Cheever’s and Kirn’s short stories about father and son.

Richard Ford wrote a short story in homage to Cheever’s, also called Reunion. Read them side by side for a case study in how a favourite short story can inspire your own creation.


  • What have you learnt about the adults in your life since you were a child?
  • Was there a moment when your parent’s humanity became apparent to you?
  • Are there members of your family and extended family who embarrass you? Why? Do you agree with the way your adults treat other people?
  • Who are you most similar to in your family? Whose does your public behaviour most resemble? What about your behaviour in private, within the family?
  • What, if anything, would you change about an important adult in your life?