Symbolism of Shoes, Feet and Footprints

The Modern Magic Shoes by Maxfield Parrish

Shoes and footwear contain plenty of symbolic meaning. Horse shoes are different again, but I’ll include horse shoes here for comparison.

Early Nancy Drew stories were high concept hooks which generally paired two disparate things which are nonetheless related in some obscure way. In The Clue of the Tapping Heels, those two things are tap dancing and morse code. Tap dancing is a ‘girl’ thing; Morse code is a detective thing. Both involve tapping, voila, there’s the basis for a story.

Why does the imagery of disembodied shoes with a life of their own intrigue us? Why does it work beautifully as horror comedy? There’s a long fairytale history of dancing shoes. Some of these stories end in genuine horror and are commonly dialled down for a young audience.

In fairytales, shoes come in a variety of types: ballet shoes, slippers (all Medieval shoes were like slippers), moccasins, clogs, sandals and other marvellous footwear. One example of marvellous footwear were seven league boots.

Seven League Boots

Tom Thumb in his Seven League Boots by Tenggren
Tom Thumb in his Seven League Boots by Tenggren

A league is an ancient measure of distance, equivalent to about 3 miles. Seven league boots come up frequently in fairy tales. These were boots which allowed the wearer to traverse vast distances in a single leap. The mythology clearly influenced the modern superhero narrative. In children’s literature, Roald Dahl‘s The BFG is also able to traverse vast distances. Ostensibly this is because the character is a giant and has very long legs, but the distances covered suggests he is aided by some kind of fairytale magic akin to the seven league boots of fairytale.

Keahi Seymour needed to get to the airport, but Manhattan traffic was gridlocked. So he ran the two-and-change miles across the island — in 12 minutes. “A taxi driver was like, ‘You beat me across the whole of Manhattan!’” Seymour isn’t a sprinter or a distance runner, but his five-minute miles were made possible with help from the Bionic Boots he’s invented, which allow him to run up to 25 miles an hour. Looking like a seven-foot-tall superhero when he wears them, he towers over the average person. “Nice robot legs!” shouted a child he passed on the street.

Building A Faster, Stronger Human: Who are the prosthetics and exoskeletons of the future for?
Monro Scott illustration of the witch from the story 'Sweetheart Roland' from the book 'Grimm's Fairy Tales' illustrated by Monro Scott Orr, 1919
Monro Scott illustration of the witch from the story ‘Sweetheart Roland’ from the book ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales’ illustrated by Monro Scott Orr, 1919

More widely, then, shoes symbolise travel. This symbolic meaning precedes the era of quick and easy motorised transport. Your shoes were your vehicle.

Dugald Stewart Walker illustrator, Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) writer, 'Rainbow gold; poems old and new selected for boys and girls' 1922-6. Similar to seven league boots: winged feet.
Dugald Stewart Walker illustrator, Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) writer, ‘Rainbow gold; poems old and new selected for boys and girls’ 1922-6. Similar to seven league boots: winged feet.

In some Northern European territories (The Netherlands, Germany and Iceland) children leave shoes out instead of stockings. Father Christmas fills the shoes with gifts. The symbolism is two-fold:

  • Father Christmas has himself made an arduous journey
  • His gifts help children with their ‘journey’ over the coming year. (In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Father Christmas appears — weirdly — and gives the children gifts which are very clearly meant to help them on their journeys.)
J.C. Leyendecker- Christmas stocking

Boots which take you to faraway places very quickly go back further than fairytales, back to Greek and Roman legend. Hermes and Perseus have winged sandals, basically the mythological equivalent of flying shoes found in fairytales.

Shoes of Invisibility

In fairytale, certain shoes can also render one invisible. In fantasy, various garments are used in this way, commonly coats and cloaks, or a pelt if you’re a shepherd boy. Caps and hats are also common.

Uncomfortable Shoes

Iron shoes come up in fairy tales all the time. They’re sometimes a punishment, sometimes a trial to be endured, in order to achieve something or expiate some ill. Everything in fairy tales is both real and a metaphor. That’s the way that they work. In this case … (it’s) all the horrible poisonous narratives that women kind of have to drag around with them in order to navigate the world. Early on in this story, Tabitha is thinking about shoes and thinking about, isn’t it odd that in stories, the shoes that men get to wear make everything easier – their seven-league boots or their winged sandals – but the shoes women wear are made of glass or are iron shoes that are heated red hot? I definitely feel like there are two governing metaphors in this. These are two women who have very different lives. One of them is governed entirely by constraint. She can only survive if she holds completely still, and someone else has to constantly endure hardship. These are equal and opposite terrible situations.

Amal El-Mohtar
First Pair of Heels by Amos Sewell (1901-1983) The Saturday Evening Post cover March 1956
First Pair of Heels by Amos Sewell (1901-1983) The Saturday Evening Post cover March 1956
Clarence Coles Phillips (October 3, 1880 – June 13, 1927) shoes
Clarence Coles Phillips (October 3, 1880 – June 13, 1927)
Panic, Topor, City Lights, 1965 the first high heels
Panic, Topor, City Lights, 1965 the first high heels

Even more famous than the iron shoes of fairytales: The glass slipper dropped by Cinderella. Early versions of Cinderella have no glass slipper. It was an old European tradition that a potential suitor would show his sincerity by making a pair of fur boots for his potential wife. The word for ‘fur’ was vair. Scholars think that vair was confused with verre, meaning glass. The glass slipper may have started as a mistranslation but caught on because this is a beautifully resonant and unexpected detail.

Untitled 1936 Claude Cahun 1894-1954

There’s another similar tale from ancient Greece.

Rhodopis” is an ancient tale about a Greek slave girl who marries the king of Egypt. The story was first recorded by the Greek historian Strabo in the late first century BC or early first century AD and is considered the earliest known variant of the “Cinderella” story.


In that tale, Psammetichos catches sight of Rhodopis’s sandal and basically becomes sexually aroused.

The Iron Heel

The Shoe As Sexual Symbol

Great Grandmother Goose by Helen Cooper, illustrated by Krystyna Turska, Hamish Hamilton, London 1978 shoe
Great Grandmother Goose by Helen Cooper, illustrated by Krystyna Turska, Hamish Hamilton, London 1978

Feet and footwear are traditionally linked to sexuality. Going back to the Cinderella example, the old word for fur happens to share its roots with a word meaning ‘sheath’.

Shoes and slippers are historically very sexualised in parts of China, where foot-binding practices occurred until late in the 20th century. In Northern China the word for ‘slipper’ and ‘mutual agreement’ are homophones, which is partly why slippers are given as wedding presents.

The Shoe As Status Symbol

Perhaps more than anything else worn on the body, shoes indicate how much money you have. While it’s always been possible to buy a cheaper coat or a cheaper dress, shoes have until very recently remained a major expense even for middle class families.

Gustave Dore London, shoes for sale
Gustave Dore, London, shoes for sale.

This is why shoes are a status symbol. Since slaves generally went barefoot, to wear shoes meant you were not a slave.

But going barefoot for free children equals more freedom.

The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, an Easter story by Dubois Hayward with illustrations by Marjorie Flack (1939). Nowadays considered a feminist and anti-racist statement. Cottontail succeeds in a jack rabbit’s world, all while teaching her children to be useful and self-sufficient.

The gold shoes in this story function as seven league boots from classic fairytales.

In the fairytale “Puss In Boots“, the high boots worn by the cat are a caricature of pretended high social status. This is a classic example of ‘dress for the job you want, not for the job you have.’

Shoes As Ownership Of Territory

In many sacred places around the world visitors must remove shoes before entering. Why is that? It’s partly about dirt and wear-and-tear inside ancient buildings but there’s more to it than that. Why would the wearing of shoes offend the gods?

Symbolically, when you place your foot upon the ground, you are taking possession of the earth beneath it. This is why some people get so irrationally cranky about trespassers.

Territory at a holy site does not symbolically belong to humans. It belongs to the supernatural realm. This is the main reason why you take your shoes off. You are acknowledging to the gods that you are a visitor in this space and have no claim to sacred territory. The space really belongs to the gods.


Мануйлов (Мануилов) Михаил Владимирович (1918–1980-е) «Следы дикаря» 1970
Мануйлов (Мануилов) Михаил Владимирович (1918–1980-е) «Следы дикаря» 1970
The Mystery of the Flaming Footprints The Three Investigators

Famously, there’s a scene in Robinson Crusoe where the hero discovers a footprint. At this moment he realises he is not alone. Any scene in which one character discovers footprints will be reminiscent of this famous one.

Illustration by Louis Wain of Robinson Crusoe as a cat
Ernest Aris (English, 1882-1963) from Twinkletoes and Nibblenuts written by May Byron, 1915 footprints
Ernest Aris (English, 1882-1963) from Twinkletoes and Nibblenuts written by May Byron, 1915
Now That Days Are Colder by Aileen Fisher, Designed & Illustrated by Gordon Laite, Lettering by Paul Taylor (1973) weasel tracks
Now That Days Are Colder by Aileen Fisher, Designed & Illustrated by Gordon Laite, Lettering by Paul Taylor (1973)

There’s also a footprints sequence in The Wind In The Willows when Ratty goes searching for Mole, who has been attracted to the home of the mysterious Badger.

Oftentimes when we go somewhere, we may aim to leave nothing behind but we can’t help but leave footprints. Therefore, footprints are of use to characters in chase scenes, whether in detective stories, thrillers or Westerns. Footprint is a proxy for any sort of left-behind-evidence, especially in stories relying on easily recognisable tropes, such as picture books. The footprint is the ‘storybook forensic evidence’.

Virgil Finlay (1914 - 1971) 1939 illustration for Seven Footprints to Satan by A. Merritt
Virgil Finlay (1914 – 1971) 1939 illustration for Seven Footprints to Satan by A. Merritt

In the winter of 1855, after a heavy fall of snow, residents across a large area of the county of Devon, in the South West of the UK, awoke to find a mysterious trail of prints in the snow. Looking like an hoof, the single-file line of prints allegedly covered a distance of some 100 miles, ignoring obstructions in their path and continuing over high walls hayricks and even the roofs of houses. No satisfactory explanation has ever been given for the event, which became known as the Great Devon Mystery.

Although the case has been widely reported, interestingly it is not the only time that this has happened. Very similar lines of marks have been found in different parts of the world over the last 175 years or so. It’s just that the other cases are much more obscure.

The Folklore Podcast

Shoes As Amulets

As a child I was never allowed to put a new box of shoes on the table. If I ever did this, it elicited a cry of alarm from my superstitious parent. Depending on what you do with them, shoes can bring both bad luck and good luck.

Concealed shoes hidden in the fabric of a building have been discovered in many European countries, as well as in other parts of the world, since at least the early modern period. Independent researcher Brian Hoggard has observed that the locations in which these shoes are typically found – in chimneys, under floors, above ceilings, around doors and windows, in the roof – suggest that some may have been concealed as magical charms to protect the occupants of the building against evil influences such as demons, ghosts and witches. Others may have been intended to bestow fertility on a female member of the household, or been an offering to a household deity.

Illustrator makes use of the concealed shoe in her illustration of Snow White's pregnant mother.
Illustrator makes use of the concealed shoe in her illustration of Snow White’s pregnant mother. Can you see it in the wall?

Cats … shoes … bottles … coins. At first glance these objects don’t seem to have much in common. But these, and many other objects, are all items which have been found concealed within the fabric of old buildings during renovations or other works. Why were they placed there?

Joining host Mark Norman on this episode of The Folklore Podcast is Dr Ceri Houlbrook, an historical ethnographer and archaeologist who works as research assistant on the Concealed Revealed project, which is asking just this question.

Abandoned Shoes

In many ways, shoes function the same as a coat. A pair of abandoned shoes, like a coat, suggests the presence of a person, even when the person is not there.

Wilhelm Trübner (German, 1851 - 1917) Balcony and Interior at Starnberg Lake, 1912
Wilhelm Trübner (German, 1851 – 1917) Balcony and Interior at Starnberg Lake, 1912

Horse Shoes

First, horse shoes may be older technology than you realise:

Writers and artists like Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin popularized the image of the Middle Ages as an unmechanical, rustic arcadia. This latest revision has greatly influenced our own view of the Middle Ages, and has given rise to the idea that medieval society was both untechnological, and uninterested in technology.

This notion is altogether mistaken. The Middle Ages not only produced illuminated books, but also eyeglasses, not only the cathedral, but also the coal mine. Revolutionary changes occurred in both primary industry and manufacturing. The first recorded instance of mass production — of horse-shoes — occurred during the Middle Ages.

Home by Witold Rybczynski
Shoeing exhibited 1844 Sir Edwin Henry Landseer

Okay so horse shoes are technically also ‘footwear’ but the symbolism behind horse shoes has nothing to do with the symbolism behind human shoes. The symbolism of the horse shoe comes partly from its shape.

The horse shoe is shaped like an arc. The arc was one of the first sacred symbols to represent the vault of the Heavens.

Upside down, the horse shoe resembles the last letter in the Greek alphabet, the omega.

Turn it again. Now you have a crescent moon. Now the shape invokes the Moon Goddess. Added to that, it kind of reminds people of yoni (the womb). (Does everything end up reminding people of penises, breasts and wombs?)

Apart from that, the horse shoe is made of iron, a heavy, protective metal. This imbues the horse shoe with the apotropaic power of an amulet. The horse shoe is therefore a good luck charm. People nail them over doorways, give them to newlyweds as gifts.

No one can agree which way up the lucky horse shoe should go. I’ve been told to hold a wedding souvenir horseshoe as if it’s a vessel, so its imaginary luck can’t ‘tip out’. But in the pre-Christian era, it was meant to be held the other way so it resembles the sky (and also the womb, with a vaginal opening the right way down, presumably).

Also, iron was thought to repel fairies. That exaplains why horseshoes, nails and shears have all been used to keep travellers and newborns safe. Smiths and smithys, who worked with iron, were seen as magical places in former times, probably because their work was highly skilled and so important to humanity. On top of that, objects made of iron are clearly human constructions, and represent humans’ ability to dominate nature, with nature including evil fairies. In Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, Evan-Wentz says that the fairies of Britian and Ireland were unable to make iron and that’s why they feared it. They may also be afraid of its magnetic properties (which is more a comment on human fear of magnetic properties: “What on earth are these two pieces of metal doing? They feel alive in my hands!.”)

Wynken, Blynken and Nod, Art by Emil Flohri
Wynken, Blynken and Nod, Art by Emil Flohri
Trygve Marentius Davidsen, Norwegian illustrator (1895) shoe
Trygve Marentius Davidsen, Norwegian illustrator (1895)


Read a lot of fairytales and you’ll soon notice how many weird feet there are. Feet which are actually hooves, chicken feet, deformed feet…

John Bauer You rogue!
John Bauer You rogue!


The shoe in Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter is especially interesting.

The Elves and the Shoemaker isn’t really about shoe symbolism despite the story being full of shoes. But it is a very interesting example of a fairytale whose meaning changed pretty much permanently after the Grimm Brothers wrote a certain version down. If shoes are important in this story, it’s because they are highly desirable. Until just two or three generations ago, footwear was very expensive.

Jeanna Bauck (Swedish painter) 1840 - 1926, Madonnan Ger Spelmannen Sin ena Sko, 1915 for 'Spelmannen som fick Madonnans guldsko' by Emil Linders in 'Bland tomtar och troll' (Among Gnomes and Trolls)
Jeanna Bauck (Swedish painter) 1840 – 1926, Madonnan Ger Spelmannen Sin ena Sko, 1915 for ‘Spelmannen som fick Madonnans guldsko’ by Emil Linders in ‘Bland tomtar och troll’ (Among Gnomes and Trolls)


City of the future c 1900
City of the future c 1900



BUSKINS: (kothorni in Greek) Buskins is a Renaissance term for the laced boots worn by actors in ancient Greek tragedy. The buskins later became elevator shoes that made the actor wearing them unusually tall to emphasize the royal status or importance of the character.

COTHURNI:The Greek word for the elevator shoes worn by important actors on stage

SHOD ALL ROUND: A parson who attends a funeral is said to be shod all round, when he receives a hat-band, gloves, and scarf: many shoeings being only partial. (from a 1703 dictionary of slang)

SHOEMAKER’S STOCKS: New or strait shows. I was in the shoemaker’s stocks; i.e. had on a new pair of shoes that were too small for me. (from a 1703 dictionary of slang)

Lemon girl young adult novella


Header illustration: The Modern Magic Shoes by Maxfield Parrish

Unmentionable by Paul Jennings

Unmentionable Paul Jennings

Unmentionable (1991) is a collection of 9 hi-lo short stories by iconic Australian author Paul Jennings.


In “Ice Maiden”, a boy falls in love with an ice statue, but he gets over his love for the ice once he meets a real girl.

I have some sympathy for the phenomenon whereby adolescents lust after (hopefully) safe targets — celebrities, cartoon characters, teachers, coaches. These objects feel safe because they will never reciprocate our nascent lust.

“Ice Maiden” is about the humiliation sometimes felt when lusting after someone — or something — utterly unattainable.

There are strong echoes of Pygmalion in any story with a plot like this. Jennings has rewritten Pygmalion knowingly, with mention of a Greek statue. I’ve written about Pygmalion previously. The Greek myth is inherently sexist. When writing this humorous retelling for kids, Paul Jennings didn’t manage to subvert that aspect at all. I don’t believe he manages any subversion in “Ice Maiden”.

The image of the beautiful frozen girl is also inside a glass case, which has echoes of fairytales such as Snow White.


I just wouldn’t go anywhere near a redhead.

Jennings opens the story like that and I’m immediately suspicious. But Jennings reassures us:

Now don’t get me wrong and start calling me a hairist or something like that. Listen to what I have to say, then make up your mind.

The moral shortcoming of the narrator is that he doesn’t like redheads, and refuses to be friends with Mr Mantolini’s cousin.


The narrator wants to continue lusting after an ice statue in the fish shop window, but she’s about to perish under the hot sun. His object of desire will no longer exist.


Mr Mantolini, who wants to replace the statue of an ice maiden with a new one.


My plan was to take her to the butcher. I would pay him to keep the ice maiden in his freezer where I could visit her every day.

Jennings makes use of a ticking clock device:

The sun was rising in the sky. I had to hurry.


The Battle sequence begins with the narrator kissing the ice statue on the mouth. The slap stick gag is that his lips get stuck to her. We all know the gag, and accept that, in stories, ice is dangerous in this way.

The narrator takes the statue into the sea, aiming to melt her in sea water.

Paul Jennings uses the trope of ‘life flashing before eyes’ to insert back story, including the revelation that the narrator himself has red hair. At least, it’s a reveal if you aren’t reading an edition with this picture on the front:

Ice Maiden Paul Jennings

This is meant to be a subversion of redhead bigotry. I.e., You can’t possibly hate red headed people if you have red hair yourself. But this doesn’t take into account the phenomenon of internalised hatred and lateral violence. So this reveal feels like a failed ‘subversion’ to me.


The entire story feels as if it were written around a pithy closing paragraph:

I guess that’s when I discovered that an ice maiden who is dead is not sad. And a nice maiden who is red, is not bad.

A big reveal is that the narrator’s red hair probably helped save him (because it made him more visible to rescuers in the water). We are therefore meant to conclude that red hair is a good thing now.

Another big reveal is that ‘Tony’ is a girl. She is beautiful despite being a red head. This reveal is a little forced. Tony is a gender neutral name, but this is the way boys spell it. All the girl Tonis I’ve known have spell their name with an ‘i’. However, once Jennings spelt the name with a ‘y’, he had to keep spelling it like that. Or, chose to.

The reveal also relies upon a fractured, non-native rendition of English of Mr Mantolini, which doesn’t quite work.


We extrapolate that the boy is no longer sad about losing the ice version of a crush because he can now fixate upon the girl who inspired the ice creation, in the same objectifying, dehumanising way.

If the reader is familiar with the ur-Story of Pygmalion, we might imagine they will have a son and daughter together.


“Birdman” plays on the wish fulfilment fantasy of flying, common in children’s literature. It also fulfils the fantasy of winning against your biggest enemy.


Sean wants to win a flying competition. We deduce he’s after prestige.


Sean is trying to fly.


Spider is ostensibly an ally, helping Sean to fly. But he’s also encouraging Sean to perform beyond his capability. The boy friendship combo in which our main character is the Every Boy and his best friend is an even lower-mimetic hero is common, even today. We see it in Wimpy Kid (Greg is the Every Boy, Rowley is his chubby, hapless best friend); we see it in Monster House (DJ and Chowder); we see it most famously in Harry Potter (Harry Potter and Ron Wesley). When we see it in Hollywood, often with grown men, these are known as Buddy Comedies.

Note that Jennings has used the trick of alliterative names to link two characters together. (Both Spider and Sean begin with ‘s’. Katherine Mansfield, who wrote a very different sort of short story, made use of this also e.g. in “The Garden Party“.)

Buggins is the kid who always wins the competition. He is also vindictive. He deliberately ruins Sean’s wings. This is the big bad opponent.

The mother is an opponent because she doesn’t want her son to participate in this competition.


Without really requiring a plan, Sean and Spider happen upon ‘treasure’ buried at the beach. They find a dead cat in the shape of a hat, which is a blend of gross-out and black humour.

Their plan is to pick up the uncle’s hang glider from the railway station. But they are dismissed by the authority figures there. The cat takes over Spider’s body and makes him boom like a man. The hat is thereby proven magic, in a way hats often are. With a hat, a character changes roles completely.


The boys know immediately that the cat opens its eyes and copies what it sees. This leads to a series of humiliation gags:

  • The father puts on the cat hat and ends up eating dog food like the dog
  • Sean follows girls into the changing room, in a gag which I doubt was ever funny to girls. It now has an extra level of ick post Trump’s boasts about hanging out in the changing rooms at Miss Teen USA competitions.


At first Sean and Spider choose not to use the cat hat, because it’s too unpredictable and risky to make use of in a high stakes flying competition.

But of course the cat hat is used. We expect this. The revelation is in how it’s going to be used.


We extrapolate that Buggins will end up with poo on his head and face. This is a highly satisfying ending for many in the child audience. As a kid I was delighted by Roald Dahl’s poem “The Cow” included in Dirty Beasts, which ends:

She dived and using all her power
She got to sixty miles an hour
‘’Bombs gone!’’ she cried. ‘’Take that’’ she said,
And dropped a cowpat on his head.

I took my copy of Dirty Beasts to school. Our teacher read it naively, but before he had read the final line, he cast the book aside in disgust. My classmates turned to me and with accusing tones said I’d personally ruined storytime (which they wanted to last longer). Obviously, I’m scarred for life. (But not by the vengeful poo conclusion.)


From the title of “Little Squirt” we can tell: A small boy underdog gets his own back after being bullied by larger boys than him.

This is so short it’s almost micro fiction. It’s a story of a literal pissing contest between boys.


The story opens with an actual pissing competition (used metaphorically mostly, to describe hierarchical struggles between boys and men). Sure enough, Weesle is little and therefore at the bottom of the hierarchy.


Weesle wants to be better than his big brother at competitions.


Sam and the other boys, who are bigger and therefore better than him at competitions.


His mother sits him down and tells him to practise. If he practises, he’ll be better than the other boys.


By talking about the running race, Jennings misdirects us. We don’t see the big finale of the running race; we see a repeat of the pissing competition in the toilets.


The gag is that when the earnest mother sat Weesle down and told him to practise, Weesle didn’t interpret that as ‘practise for the running race’. He interpreted that as ‘practise for the pissing competition’.


Weesle is now proud of himself.


“The Mouth Organ” feels like Paul Jennings making up for his hitherto use and misuse of girl characters. The main character in this story is a girl. The saviour is a woman. Right there, on the page, Jennings writes:

There’s nothing to say that the man has to be the brave one. Why shouldn’t it be a woman?

Why a girl in this story? I have a working theory that stories with heavily symbolic use of trees tend to be more feminine, especially when the trees are a flowering variety. Flowers = pretty = femininity.


The exact nature of the problem is revealed slowly.

Nicole has accidentally killed a tree. The tree must flower, because until it flowers, Mr Hardbristle has — with no real rhyme nor reason — decided that he won’t forgive himself for his wife’s death until the magnolia tree, planted upon her grave, flowers.

Nicole feels that it is her personal responsibility to mange the feelings of Mr Hardbristle, which is another reason why Jennings may have (unconsciously or consciously) chosen a girl to be the main character of this one. In stories, across the board, girls are considered givers of emotional labour. A stand-out example of this dynamic in children’s literature is a Nick Bland picture book called The Very Cranky Bear. In that story, a female sheep saves the day by donating her own fleece. The gendering of the animals in that story is no accident.


Nicole wants to replace the dead magnolia tree, which will eventually make Mr Hardbristle happy.


Nicole wants Mr Hardbristle to be happy and to forgive himself. Mr Hardbristle can’t seem to manage that, despite his extra decades of emotional maturity, so that makes Mr Hardbristle the girl’s opponent.

When the man with the mouth organ appears, we wait to see if this guy is an opponent or an ally. This is a Paul Jennings story so we know: He’ll be an opponent at first, until the child learns to use the magic he gives her. Then, when she has learned to manipulate his magic, he’ll be proven a firm ally.


Busk, earn money, buy a new magnolia tree.

This plan isn’t working at first because nobody gives Nicole much money.


There is a level 1 metadiegetic level to this story which describes the fire which killed Mrs Hardbristle. This has its own big struggle — in fact, it’s mostly big struggle sequence.

The big struggle sequence of the level 0 busking story starts with a slapstick, carnivalesque scene in which tourists rip their clothes off because the girl is playing a strip tease tune.

Paul Jennings makes use of a ticking clock (it feels a little forced) because the mouth organ wants to return to its owner. She needs to earn $1000 for a tree but she hasn’t got enough yet.

Nicole has a personal big struggle with the mouth organ itself when it lodges itself inside her mouth, like a sideways banana. This puts her classmates in a trance:

The class close around me with outstretched fingers. Their nails are like claws.

The entire class chases her through town as if they are wild animals.


When Nicole has been through the mill, accidentally turning the townsfolk to wood, she meets the Ponytail Guy again.

There’s been a misunderstanding. The Ponytail Guy reveals that the mouth organ ‘does good for those who do good. And bad for those who do bad.’

When Nicole tells him what she wants money for, the mouth organ suddenly starts to do good.


The story ends on a ‘tune of love’. The magnolia tree is in full bloom.

This is a very feminine ending and I would have liked Paul Jennings to use a boy main character for this story. Ironically, perhaps, this would have been more gender subversive.


“The Velvet Throne” is a bit of a departure for Paul Jennings. The main character is not a child. The twist is a little more difficult to piece together. It relies on a basic knowledge of divination — the practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means.


Mr Simpkin is a carer for his brother — Gobble — who has an insatiable appetite. Mr Simpkin is a victim of this appetite because there’s never enough food left for him, and Gobble makes insatiable demands. Gobble is verbally abusive.

Mr Simpkin is spineless, which is his main problem. This character flaw allows him to be mistreated.


This is the story of a downtrodden man’s awakening. He starts off wanting to keep his brother happy and go to work, but he will develop a real Desire in the Anagnorisis.

In the meantime, he needs a proxy desire, to get him to that point. He wants to get away from his opponent…


Gobble, Mr Simpkin’s brother, who is enormously fat. emotionally abusive and demanding. Gobble is a human dragon character, sitting on a hoard of money which belongs to Mr Simpkin in the first place.

The man who locks Mr Simpkin in the toilet block.


He’s doing a bit of a Marion Crane, though with his own money, by running away and booking into a hotel.

That’s the plan, but he gets locked in the public toilet.


The night in the toilet block is pure psychological horror. And it plays on a fear we’ve probably all had at some point — getting locked inside a building because we haven’t managed to find our way out before closing time. Some of these fantasies are utopian — getting locked in a supermarket and eating all the marshmallows. But this one is dystopian. It’s cold, it rains, and toilet wall graffiti functions as divination.


The revelation is that whatever’s written on the toilet wall as graffiti comes true. So Mr Simpkin realises he can get rid of his abusive brother in one fell swoop.


He writes damning graffiti on the wall, gets home and finds he no longer has a brother.


“Cry Baby” is more like “The Mouth Organ” than any other of his stories, both in structure and in tone. This one stars a boy who cries, which is gender transgressive for Paul Jennings. Unfortunately the entire story is called “Cry Baby”, which shames a boy for his tears, undoing what might otherwise be a nice message — that a boy crying actually saved the day.

There is the weirdness of the bum on photocopier, which today doesn’t have quite the same air of jocularity to it. We’re a lot more careful about images of naked children these days, even ones taken by the children themselves, because we have to be.


Gavin, a.k.a. Cry Baby’s shortcoming is that he cries more than is socially acceptable for a boy. He is also a non-judicious prankster. (An odd combination, now I think about it.)

His problem is that he’s been suspended from school for photocopying his butt and putting it on the pinboard. Another sulky mother — the mother won’t talk to him.

The school incident is a bit of a MacGuffin. His next problem is that he cries on his mother’s precious writing pad and ruins it.


Gavin wants to get himself out of trouble.


Teacher followed by mother.

Then the road rage men, covered in tattoos, back when only rough characters got tatts. (Now pretty much every second Australian seems to have tatts.) Tellingly, they’re driving a Ford.


Outside, looking for his mother, Gavin just happens to spy his grandfather, who is off on a trip to find the water-holding frog. These are frogs who live in Western Australia. They have adapted to a climate with a rainy season followed by lengthy drought.

Gavin decides to escape his mother’s anger by taking off on a frog-scouting jaunt with his grandfather.

It doesn’t take much to endanger your own life in the Australian outback. Leaving the tap of water on will do it.


The Battle sequence is Gavin looking for the frog while his grandfather naps, almost dead of thirst, according to Gavin.


He finds the frog by crying on the ground. His anagnorisis is that something shameful can save the day.


I’m wondering if they’re going to have to suck the frog dry in order to survive. People do gross things for water. But by complete coincidence, at that exact moment, there’s a rain storm. So I extrapolate that they don’t need to kill the frog they’ve come in search of.


“Ex Poser” is another very short story based around humiliating someone — a girl, this time — for adolescent nascent love. This set up feels borderline abusive. My problem with this story is that the narrator’s actions and intentions are rewarded with the love of a popular, rich girl. His humiliation tactics are never questioned, because the reader will side with him, the underdog. Also, girls aren’t stupid. Girls don’t typically like boys who humiliate them, and I hate to see it modelled.


A boy has pimples and he is not rich. He feels he has bad luck because of this.


When a boy called Boffin makes an accurate lie detector, the boy would like to humiliate the snobbiest girl in the class by asking her questions about her love life. He does this in front of an audience for maximum impact.


The narrator’s love opponent is the girl he humiliates.


He plans to ask Sandra Morris embarrassing questions for the sheer joy of humiliation.


The Battle scene is where the narrator asks Sandra who she likes.


The big twist is that she doesn’t like the equally rich and popular boy in the class — she likes him.


I’d like to think Sandra realises she doesn’t want to be with a boy who humiliates her and reveals that she only said that to get him back for the stunt, but this is a happy ever after ending. Boy gets girl.


“Sloppy Jalopy” is another revenge story, this time against a teacher who confiscates jewellery. Before he is able to exact revenge, the young narrator must endure quite a lot of humiliating hijinks himself.


A boy isn’t allowed to wear an earring to school. His father is also a character who does wacky things like cut the top off a standard Holden to turn it into a (non) convertible in the name of uniqueness. This means they can’t go out in the rain.


He wants his earring replaced.


The teacher who confiscates his earring, along with the chorus of his sister, who seems to agree with the teacher about no jewellery at school.

Next the father is an opponent for being wacky.

Inside the earring shop, the opponents sell the boy an earring which attracts rubbish.

The main opponent is the filthy tanker truck who covers them in muck. This reminds me of Steven Spielberg’s early film Duel (basically Jaws but set on a highway).


The narrator will escape the rubbish by getting into a taxi. This doesn’t work. The taxi becomes dangerously covered in rubbish.


This story is somewhat divided in two — the first Battle is the near death experience after the narrator is covered in gunk.

The second half of the story is the big struggle against every bit of rubbish which wants to stick to him. This is the Muck Monster trope. Except there’s no environmental message. This is pure gross-out slapstick comedy.


After the taxi big struggle, the revelation is that the earring is what’s attracting rubbish. He gets the earring back from the taxi driver.


The new plan, which belongs to the bookended story set at school, is to take the earring to school in a jar (apparently if it’s inside a glass jar it doesn’t attract rubbish), and hope to get it confiscated so that the mean teacher will become covered in rubbish.

We extrapolate that this is what happens next, creating a circular story structure.


“Eyes Knows” is a cautionary tale against doing things just because someone else says so. The wrapper story is the more serious narrative of a child who is forced to choose between his separating parents.


The main character has been sabotaged by a ‘little robot man’ who tells him what to do. The problem is that he’s now stuck high up a ladder, scared that he will fall.

In the backstory we learn that Harry is in a vulnerable position because his parents are separating. They are forcing him to make a decision about who he wants to live with. This is an impossible choice. In this vulnerable position, he accepted the appearance of a decision-maker.

Jennings uses a save the cat moment near the beginning of the story (save the caterpillar).


Harry wants to be able to make a decision. Since he can’t, he is going to outsource it. Once he decides to put his trust in the robot man, he no longer has to make any moral decisions.


Since Jennings opened with Harry in peril we know from the start that the robot man is his opponent. (A fake ally opponent, to be specific.)


Now Harry has been established as a do-gooder (with the caterpillars), he continues on his do-gooder mission when he tries to save the old people from the nurse, who treats them like children.


Harry and the old people embark upon a carnivalesque escape. In a trope utilised later by Speed, one of the characters on that bus has a history of fast driving (because he used to be a racing car driver, not because he got lots of speeding tickets).


When Harry entrusts the robot to make the divorce decision for him (in the wrapper story of separating parents), he realises this shouldn’t be his decision to make. He confronts his parents, who come to their own realisation.


Harry discards the little robot and other kids find it. This creates another circular story, in which we imagine a similar caper happening all over again.

Lemon girl young adult novella


A Glossary of Witch Words

Circe offering the Cup to Ulysses

Before we get into the witch glossary, what is a witch?

As witchcraft 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.

“I am that very witch. When I sleep my spirit slips away from my body and dances naked with the Devil.”

from The Witch, Robert Eggers (2015)

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

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, disability, 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.


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


needles and pins are classic amulets of evil. Experienced jinxers recommend sulfur and gum arabic. Graveyard dust and coffin nails are good for causing harm. 


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.


A one-year-old boy. The very old and the very young were vulnerable when it came to ritual sacrifice in the rites of the maleficus.


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. 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


If you’ve read Snow White you’ll already know the association between apples and 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. After submitting to cravings, 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.


“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.

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 powers, 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.


Medieval folklore also described bats as witches’ familiars, and seeing a bat on Halloween was considered to be quite an ominous sign. One myth was that if a bat was spotted flying around one’s house three times, it meant that someone in that house would soon die. Another myth was that if a bat flew into your house on Halloween, it was a sign that your house was haunted because ghosts had let the bat in. (Live Science)


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.) In Italy, la Befana is the “Epiphany Witch,” and is celebrated on January 6th (The Feast of the Epiphany). In Venice, there is a special Epiphany Regatta held on the Grand Canal, with rowers dressed as witches racing from San Tomà to the Rialto Bridge, where the finish line — an enormous sock — hangs down.

La Befana illustration from the 1950s
La Befana illustration from the 1950s

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


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.


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


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. 


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.


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.


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.

The Saturday Evening. Post, June 10, 1950 - Stevan Dohanos (American, 1907-1994)
The Saturday Evening. Post, June 10, 1950 – Stevan Dohanos (American, 1907-1994)

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.)


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.


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). 


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


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.

Burlesque witch

This character archetype is very old, starting out as Baba Yaga types, evolving into Mother Goose types, and the Internet burlesque witch can be seen in characters such as (fictional) Betty White, Catherine Tate’s Nan and the old women who drink and dance a lot on Facebook feeds.

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.

The burning times/witch craze period in Europe remains a fascinating period to this day, often revisited in fiction via a contemporary gaze.

Wolf Hall meets The Favourite in this beguiling debut novel that brilliantly brings to life the residents of a small English town in the grip of the seventeenth-century witch trials and the young woman tasked with saving them all from themselves.

England, 1643. Puritanical fervor has gripped the nation. And in Manningtree, a town depleted of men since the wars began, the hot terror of damnation burns in the hearts of women left to their own devices.

Rebecca West, fatherless and husbandless, chafes against the drudgery of her days, livened only occasionally by her infatuation with the handsome young clerk John Edes. But then a newcomer, Matthew Hopkins, arrives. A mysterious, pious figure dressed from head to toe in black, he takes over the Thorn Inn and begins to ask questions about what the women on the margins of this diminished community are up to. Dangerous rumors of covens, pacts, and bodily wants have begun to hang over women like Rebecca–and the future is as frightening as it is thrilling.

Burning In Water

There is a myth that witches burn in water. As an excellent example of how even children’s literature can add to the mythology of witches, this is an invented mythology from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum. He probably knew about the body-burning of witches and also about the witch craze misconception that witches float during water torture, so combined these tropes for his story.

Cakes and Wine

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


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”. 


This Scottish term means a magic spell. It tends to be the minor, mischievous kind. (Witches can be tricksters.)

Cantrip 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.


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-Orthodox (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.

Cat Sìth

The Cat Sìth is a fairy creature from Celtic mythology, said to resemble a large black cat with a white spot on its chest. Legend has it that the spectral cat haunts the Scottish Highlands. The legends surrounding this creature are more common in Scottish folklore, but a few occur in Irish. Some common folklore suggested that the Cat Sìth was not a fairy, but a witch that could transform into a cat nine times. Some people believed that the Cat Sìth was a witch that could transform voluntarily into its cat form and back eight times. If one of these witches chose to go back into their cat form for the ninth time, they would remain a cat for the rest of their lives. It is believed by some that this is how the idea of a cat having nine lives originated. (Wikipedia.)


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
Charles Addams (American, 1912–1988), creator of The Addams Family witch cauldron
Charles Addams (American, 1912–1988), creator of The Addams Family

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.


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 Demon

Chimneys, 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.)

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.


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. 


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.


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.


These witches from Mexico are said to be the ghosts of women who died in childbirth. They stole babies to eat in revenge. They are thought to gather at crossroads. People leave offerings at crossroads, hoping to save their own children.


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.


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.


the location of the coven


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


Anyone who is not a witch.


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.


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). 

The gardener, the king, and the magician are three mature personifications of the archetypal masculine. They correspond to the sacred trinity of the feminine personified by the maiden, mother, and crone.

 Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés

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.


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.


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.)

Spring of 1620 in a Lancashire fishing community and the memory of the slaughter at Pendle is tight around the neck of Sarah Haworth. A birthmark reveals that Sarah, like her mother, is a witch. Torn between yearning for an ordinary life and desire to discover what dark power she might possess, Sarah’s one hope is that her young sister Annie will be spared this fate.

The Haworth family eke out a meagre existence in the old plague village adjoining a God-fearing community presided over by a seedy magistrate. A society built upon looking the other way, the villagers’ godliness is merely a veneer. But the Haworth women, with their salves and poultices, are judged the real threat to morality.

When Sarah meets lonely farmer’s son Daniel, she begins to dream of a better future. Daniel is in thrall to the wild girl with storms in her eyes, but their bond is tested when a zealous new magistrate vows to root out sins and sinners. In a frenzy of fear and fury, the community begins to turn on one another, and it’s not long before they direct their gaze towards the old plague village … and does Daniel trust that the power Sarah wields over him is truly love, or could it be mere sorcery?


a solemn utterance intended to invoke a supernatural power to inflict harm or punishment on someone or something. There are people who believe curses work and they are sometimes taken seriously at government level. Emil Boc was Prime Minister of Romania 2008 – 2012, He announced a 16% tax on fortune-telling. Several self-described witches, including a celebrity called Bratara, threatened him by saying her curses always worked and if the PM were to go ahead with the taxation, bad things would happen to politicians.

Romania has many celebrity witches. They have websites, appear on TV and make public apparitions. They are on Facebook and Twitter. There is a link between witches, parapsychology and popular media. They make their money as clairvoyants, healers and from celebrity appearances. They share stories about alien abductions, paranormal phenomena and general occult practices. Before elections, they are asked for numerological interpretations of candidates, so they have a very real effect on who becomes elected. This is how Bratara has the confidence to publicly put a curse on the prime minister. She knows she has real power, though it’s not exactly mystical.
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.


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


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


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. 


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” usually 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.


sometimes considered the Goddess of all Witches


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 (The Discoverie 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 treatise 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


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.)


Although the dominant world tradition of Halloween associates witches with the season of autumn, Sweden has an Easter witch. What do witches have to do with Christianity? On the first Maundy Thursday Judas betrayed Jesus. On this day, evil was released into the world. ‘Evil’ obviously includes witches. Swedes believed the evil witches would fly on their broomsticks to Blåkulla. On this island the Devil would welcome them to his court. You can protect yourself from this threat by creating bonfires. Big fires scare Easter witches away.

Jenny Nyströ, 'Glad Påsk', vintage Swedish Happy Easter postcard
Jenny Nyströ, ‘Glad Påsk’, vintage Swedish Happy Easter postcard

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.


During the European Witch Craze it was commonly believed that witches travelled about in egg-shells. This is probably because in Germany, for instance, elves and sprites were long thought to hatch out of eggs. If an egg was laid before sunrise, you could see the pixie inside, apparently. However, you don’t want to break one of these eggs with supernatural beings inside. You’d die.


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

Elizabethan 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 parishioners. It follows that those people became much more hated and resented than before.


(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.


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

Evil Eye

Colloquially known today as ‘the evils’ (in New Zealand) or ‘stink eye’ (in a funny scene from the film Juno), a threatening gaze or stare was once thought to be so powerful it caused actual harm. As a result, numerous amulets and charms have been invented, thought to protect one from the harms of the Evil Eye. The concept of the malevolent stare features in many cultures, including for example in connection with Balor in Irish mythology, who has become known as Balor of the Evil Eye. The commonly recognised symbol of the evil eye is the Arabic hamsa, common throughout North Africa-Middle East. This symbol in turn comes from Tanit, the principal goddess of ancient Phoenicia. This symbol is often affixed to the prows of ships, for example, as an amulet. It is meant to ward off the Evil Eye, but because language is weird, the amulet itself is also called the Evil Eye. (It’s basically an imaginary stare down competition.) See also:  The Evil Eye: An account of this ancient and wide spread superstition by Fredrick Thomas Elworthy (1895).

Faery Wicca

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


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.”


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 familiars 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. 


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


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


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.


In the Edo period of Japan (1603–1867), beliefs around kitsune (foxes) share commonalities with witch legend from all over the world. For one, kitsune can shapeshift. When a kitsune changes shape, its hoshi no tama holds a portion of its magical power. Another tradition is that the pearl represents the kitsune’s soul; the kitsune will die if separated from it for long. Those who obtain the ball may be able to extract a promise from the kitsune to help them in exchange for its return. This is similar to the Greek legend of the Graeae. (The fox’s tendency to creep about at night and murder essential livestock probably contributed to the association between foxes and witches. Also, I feel like a fox is the imaginative cross between a cat and a wolf.)

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.


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?)


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.)


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


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.

Granny suffered from robustly healthy teeth, which she considered a big drawback in a witch.  She really envied Nanny Annaple, the witch over the mountain, who managed to lose all her teeth by the time she was twenty and had real crone-credibility.  It meant you ate a lot of soup, but you also get a lot of respect.

Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites

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


“old women”, “grey ones”, or “grey witches” from Greek mythology. These sisters shared one eye and one tooth between them, suggesting they are each a different facet of the same individual. (This was played with in the picture book The Widow’s Broom by Chris Van Allsburg.) These witch sisters are called Deino (or Dino), Enyo, and Pemphredo (or Pephredo). Their weakness is that they had to take their eye out and share it between them. Perseus took advantage of this, and while they were passing it between them he nicked it, and wouldn’t give it back until  they revealed the location of the three objects needed to kill Medusa (or the location of Medusa). Their other sisters are the Gorgons. While the Gorgons lost their beauty but retained their immortality, the Graiae lost their youth and became old hags dependant on one tooth and one eye to see. In Clash of the Titans, the Graeae are called The Stygian Witches.


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.


Why are witches green?


a book of spells


a shortened version of the Old English word “hægtesse”, literally meaning “witch”. 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 (i.e.. a witch). The word hag is probably a shortening of Old English hægtesse, “witch fury”. Now, the word hag is most commonly used now in a derogatory, misogynistic way.

For the past decade, the depiction of an oft-nude elderly woman has been particularly prevalent in horror films. She is a hackneyed hag: at once generic and disturbing, capturing essences of real women along with otherworldly terrors. Either of portly or slight frame with a cascading stream of unkempt hair often the only thing cloaking her body, she dons signs of decay which manifest in an aging body and senescent aura.


a person born of a witch or a woman considered wicked


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. 


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.


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.


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


a scolding (even vicious) old woman


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.


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 labour 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. 


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
Science and Invention 1924-04 no artist credited, scientific mating
Science and Invention 1924-04 no artist credited. Unrequited love is a painful thing. Humans have been fantasising about coaxing others to love them in various different ways. Some even like to imagine science can do it.
Fairyland Annual 1969 Stories By Joan Fisher, Illustrations By Hutchings, 1968 the witch's cold
Fairyland Annual 1969 Stories By Joan Fisher, Illustrations By Hutchings, 1968

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).

Holy water

Water blessed by a priest is thought to repel witches. In the Catalan region of Spain and France (Catalonia), people would sprinkle holy water around their doors and around other liminal spaces of the home (chimneys and windows) because New Year is an example of a liminal time of year, and according to Catalan folklore, witches are thought to steal children away at New Year unless Holy water is used in this way.

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, 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.


a series of words said as a magic spell or charm


Another word for wizard or enchanter.


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


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. 


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 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’).


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).


brings sexual power (voodoo/hoodoo)


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.)


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 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.

Found in several ancient Hebrew language texts, the word “lilith” is commonly translated as “night monster” or “night hag”. The medieval text Alphabetum Siracidis, Othijoth ben Sira – a compilation of Aramaic and Hebrew folk-tales – is the earliest surviving written account giving Lilith as the name of the first woman in the Garden of Eden. The story of Adam’s first wife is much older than that however, written of (or at least alluded to) in The Book of Genesis, which is now thought to have been written circa 600 BCE.

The Daughters of Lilith, Daily Grail

Loki is a cunning, shapeshifting trickster god in Norse mythology.  Loki could change gender. They were the father/mother of all evil women (witches and giantesses).

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.


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.


In the Malleus Maleficarum by Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer (1487), which became the handbook for the inquisition and torture of many people, most of them women, we find the following passage:

[According to the old proverbs t]here are three things that are never satisfied, yea, a fourth thing which says not, It is enough; that is, the mouth of the womb. Wherefore for the sake of fulfilling their lusts they consort even with devils. More such reasons could be brought forward, but to the understanding it is sufficiently clear that it is no matter for wonder that there are more women than men found infected with the heresy of witchcraft. And in consequence of this, it is better called the heresy of witches than of wizards, since the name is taken from the more powerful party. And blessed be the Highest Who has so far preserved the male sex from so great a crime: for since He was willing to be born and to suffer for us, therefore He has granted to men the privilege.

Part I, Question VI from the 1487 text Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer of Witches“)

Subtext: Women are witches because women are too lustful because women can have more than one orgasm, which is far, far too many.

[W]hat sort of women more than others are found to be superstitious and infected with witchcraft; it must be said, as was shown in the preceding inquiry, that three general vices appear to have special dominion over wicked women, namely, infidelity, ambition, and lust. Therefore they are more than others inclined towards witchcraft, who more than others are given to these vices.

Part I, Question VI from the 1487 text Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer of Witches“)

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.


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.


the witch Charles LeLand claimed to have met. 


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


Witches didn’t invent magic. Early human societies had magical thinking. They were superstitious, did things they thought would make their crops grow, other things to keep women safe during childbirth etc. So what changed? Why did people (“witches”) suddenly start being persecuted for performing magic during the witch craze? In the 1400s, a divide opened up — not between the ‘magical’ and the ‘non-magical’ but between the high-level magic of learned men and… well, the magic of those other people: Women, the poor, the generally disenfranchised. Also, the Malleus Maleficarum happened, aka Hammer of Witches, published in 1487 by Henry Institoris, which was a guidebook on witches and how to spot them. Witches were supposed to have got their magic from the devil. And because women were weaker than men, they were more susceptible to the devil’s tricks. Also, women were more emotional and unpredictable and wouldn’t use magic for good ends, only to punish men who had scorned them.


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. On the BBC’s Woman’s Hour program, Cambridge classicist Mary Beard described ‘witch’ magic as a way of changing the world to suit and accommodate yourself. Older women who strive to do this are therefore often called witches (often intended as an insult).

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 between two worlds — the realm of the gods and the realm of the humans. Cosmic power is concentrated here. 


said to create conjugal contentment (voodoo/hoodoo)


Latin phrase meaning “evil tongue”. (See also: evil eye.) Certain contemporary traditions around the world abide by this concept. For instance, Lashon hara is considered to be a very serious sin in the Jewish tradition. Lashon hara describes derogatory speech about a someone which emotionally or financially damages them or lowers them in the estimation of others.

The phrase mala lingua can be found in The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot


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.

Male Witches

In most countries, more women than men were tortured and murdered as suspected witches. There are a few exceptions: In Iceland and Finland, male witches outnumbered female. In Iceland, the reason for this was the fact that the magic openly performed in the Icelandic society had come to be associated with men. Likewise, in Finland, the traditional profession of a folk healer or cunning folk and the practice of magic were attributed more of often to men than to women, and that this category was the most common target of the witch trials.

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.

The Witch Finder by Thomas L. O'Brien
The Witch Craze era was the perfect time for sociopaths and sadists.

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


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.)


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.


Communicating with the dead, usually hoping to predict the future. The adjective is necromantic.

The idea of necromancy had been around for centuries, with Isidore of Seville writing about it back in the 7th century, but by the 15th century it was established in England that necromancy was the reserve of very educated men. Necromancy was not any old craft that a peasant could learn, but a very elite form of magic. Only men who could read and write; who had been to university; and who had access to a wealth of books could learn the skills required to perform it. This became of vital importance to accusations against royal women in the 15th century. A woman, even of such high status as to be part of the English royal family, would not be believed by the masses to have the knowledge to perform necromancy themselves.

History Extra
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.


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.


Vapores et nidores refers to ‘steam and the odour of roasting victims’. Similarly, cadaverinie nidores refers to ‘the odour of carrion’. Both phrases refer to the sacrificial offerings essential to the performance of certain rites connected to witchcraft.

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.) Also called the Night Hag.

These evil spirits, which bring terrible dreams, are known in German and Slavic folklore as “mara” or “mare”, and so the Night Hag becomes the nightmare. The mare were thought to ride horses through the hours of darkness, leaving the creatures tired and sweating in the morning, and humans too could find themselves much depleted after a visit from the Night Hag; a night of being “hag-ridden”.

The Daughters of Lilith, Daily Grail
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.

If you want gold you can have that too the witch told the soldier  from the Tenngren Tell It Again Book, Gustaf Tenngren
“If you want gold you can have that too the witch told the soldier” from the Tenngren Tell It Again Book, Gustaf Tenngren
Adrienne Adams (1906-2002), children's book illustrator. A Woggle of Witches, 1971
Adrienne Adams (1906-2002), children’s book illustrator. A Woggle of Witches, 1971

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.)


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


According to a 15th century guide to detecting and eradicating witchcraft, witches were capable of making penises vanish—and some even kept them in nests and fed them oats. (See more at Vice.)


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.


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.)


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. 


(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. 


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 coincided 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.

Royal witches

Royals were not immune to accusations of witchcraft. In the early 1400s in England, Dowager Queen Joan of Navarre (c1370-1437), second wife of King Henry IV of England, was accused of using evil magic to try to kill her stepson, Henry V, alongside a small handful of accomplices. She was imprisoned in Leeds Castle for several years, until Henry V released her upon his deathbed.

A few decades later, Joan’s step-daughter-in-law, Eleanor Cobham (c1400–52), who was Duchess of Gloucester, was also accused of using evil magic to kill the king, this time Henry’s son, King Henry VI of England.

By the end of the 1400s, the idea that women use sorcery for their own ends was well established. Richard III claimed Elizabeth Woodville with her mother, Jacquetta, had used witchcraft to make Edward IV fall in love with Elizabeth. No one with power questioned it.

Because of these widespread beliefs that women were manipulative, magical and invisibly dangerous, royal women had the burden of behaving in ways which would not make people think ‘witchcraft’! For them, as for the least powerful women living in poverty in the village fringes, beliefs about witchcraft kept them in a kind of prison.

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.


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 Palaeolithic 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).

Cows in a stable; witches in the four corners, Roelant Savery, 1615
Cows in a stable; witches in the four corners, Roelant Savery, 1615. (I’ve lightened this image a little so you can make out those witches hiding in the shadows. Take note that this painting was executed when people really did believe witches might be lurking in the corners of their stables.

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


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).


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.

Satanic Panic

Satanic ritual abuse is the subject of a moral panic (often referred to as the Satanic Panic) that originated in the United States in the 1980s, spreading throughout many parts of the world by the late 1990s, and persists today.

Inspired by the McMartin preschool trials and the Satanic Panic of the ‘80s, the critically acclaimed author of The Remaking delivers another pulse pounding, true-crime-based horror novel.

Richard doesn’t have a past. For him, there is only the present: a new marriage to Tamara, a first chance at fatherhood to her son Elijah, and a quiet but pleasant life as an art teacher at Elijah’s elementary school in Danvers, Virginia. Then the body of a rabbit, ritualistically murdered, appears on the school grounds with a birthday card for Richard tucked beneath it. Richard doesn’t have a birthday—but Sean does . . .

Sean is a five-year-old boy who has just moved to Greenfield, Virginia, with his mother. Like most mothers of the 1980s, she’s worried about bills, childcare, putting food on the table . . . and an encroaching threat to American life that can take the face of anyone: a politician, a friendly neighbor, or even a teacher. When Sean’s school sends a letter to the parents revealing that Sean’s favorite teacher is under investigation, a white lie from Sean lights a fire that engulfs the entire nation—and Sean and his mother are left holding the match.

Now, thirty years later, someone is here to remind Richard that they remember what Sean did. And though Sean doesn’t exist anymore, someone needs to pay the price for his lies.


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.)


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.


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.

George Hoyningen Huene, Lee Miller, 1925 crystal ball
George Hoyningen Huene, Lee Miller, 1925 crystal ball

Doreen Valiente, in her classic Witchcraft for Tomorrow, talks about the “magic mirror” (1999). Storytellers have played with our lowkey fear of mirrors for ages.

Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563

Under the Scottish Witchcraft Act 1563 both the practice of witchcraft and consulting with witches were capital offences. This Act stayed on Scottish statute books until repealed as a result of a House of Lords amendment to the bill for the post-union Witchcraft Act 1735. Professor Julian Goodare wrote of the act, “Few acts of the Scottish parliament can have had such deadly consequences… The result was the execution of up to two thousand people over the next century and a half.” For more on this, see this interactive map of Isobel Young’s story, which is especially useful when studying the context of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.


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. 


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


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.

Carlos Schwabe Illustrations for Charles Baudelaire's 'Les Fleurs du Mal witch
Carlos Schwabe Illustrations for Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Les Fleurs du Mal witch
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.)


There’s a close connection between snakes/serpents and trickster women (cf. Eve in the Garden of Eden) and anything connected more specifically to women is prone to becoming connected (at some point in history) to witchcraft. In Ancient Greece it was thought that contact with a snake would give you the gifts of prophecy. Hey, witches also have the gift of prophecy. Snakes are also widely coded as Satanic, associated with evil, also with temptation, baby-killing vampire spirits and all things awful. This is no doubt an outworking of our natural fear of snakes, combined with a very human love of storytelling. These narratives are in fact adaptive, because they encourage us to give snakes a wide berth. Too bad about the side-serve of misogyny, hey.


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

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).


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.


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

Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, The

collects data pertaining to three-hundred and five witch-trials which took place between 1590 and 1662 (representing roughly ten percent of the total in Scotland during that period).


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”. 


from Medieval folklore, a female demon believed to have sexual intercourse with (rape) 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. There is a passage in The Babylonian Talmud (3rd-5th C) with three references to Lilith (Tractate Shabbath 151b).

R. Hanina said: One may not sleep in a house alone, and whoever sleeps in a house alone is seized by Lilith.

An important part of the folkore around Lilith is her transfiguration into a succbus. This passage is sometimes interpreted as that part of the story.

Don’t spend too much time with a succubus or your health, wealth and wellbeing will be affected. You might even die. The succubus is the embodiment of disgust with female genitalia.

There are accounts of men being forced to perform cunnilingus on succubi, whose vaginas dripped urine, dung and other vile juices and smells.

The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft & Wicca by Rosemary Ellen Guiley

The succubus is also a way for men to absolve themselves from sex acts for which they might otherwise feel guilty. As part of the story, men are helpless in the presence of a succubus, no matter how disgusted of her he may also be.


Around 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.

There are trolls, goblins, and witches. Which kind of monster is Sophie?

Sophie is a monster expert. Thanks to her Big Book of Monsters and her vivid imagination, Sophie can identify the monsters in her school and neighborhood. Clearly, the bullies are trolls and goblins. Her nice neighbor must be a good witch, and Sophie’s new best friend is obviously a fairy. But what about Sophie? She’s convinced she is definitely a monster because of the “monster mark” on her face. At least that’s what she calls it. The doctors call it a blood tumor. Sophie tries to hide it but it covers almost half her face. And if she’s a monster on the outside, then she must be a monster on the inside, too.

Being the new kid at school is hard. Being called a monster is even harder. Sophie knows that it’s only a matter of time before the other kids, the doctors, and even her mom figure it out. And then her mom will probably leave — just like her dad did.

Because who would want to live with a real monster?

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).


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 lynching 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 people through ‘ordeals’ (torture) e.g. dunking.

Trio of Witches — The number three is hugely important in the practice of witchcraft, and it goes back a long way. Goddess triads are common in Classical mythology. Likewise, literature and art offers numerous examples of witches who hang out in groups of three. The Weird Sisters of Shakespeare’s Macbeth are one standout example. (Acknowledging the influence of ancient mythology in Macbeth, the Goddess Hecate is mentioned on the page, Act 3, Scene 5.) Then there are the Three Witches of Ben Johnson. Aside from the tentpole examples, witch trios are seen in stories from all over the world, e.g. in Greek and Slavic traditions. The three witches often come in a trio of maiden, mother and crone, representing how women are typically divvied up by life stage (and perceived usefulness). The storybook trio of witches can be seen in real life. In Romania in 2010, after an election which involved occultists and accusations of spritual interference from influential people, a group of three witches staged an event outside the Congress of the Social-Democrat Party. These white witches held candles and healing plants and offered to extort “the violet flame” out of the Party. They said that their benevolent powers were the only way to defeat the dark power of the violet flame which was influencing events inside government house.

Dame! Dame! the watch is set.
Quickly come, we all are met.
From the lakes and from the fens,
From the rocks and from the dens,
From the woods and from the caves,
From the churchyards, from the graves,
From the dungeon, from the tree
That they die on, here are we!

Witches’ Charm, Ben Jonson, included in Mists and Magic chosen and edited by Dorothy Edwards illustrated by Jill Bennett

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


to release someone 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. In the Northern Hemisphere, this time of year leads people into darkness. It is believed that on Walpurgis Night we become visibly closer to the dead. Placate the dead with sweets. Or, frighten them with loud noises and horrible masks.

Walpurgis Night, 1923 Heinrich Kley; 1863-1945
Walpurgis Night, 1923 Heinrich Kley; 1863-1945
Walpurginacht, German post card, date and artist not found
Walpurginacht, German post card, date and artist not found

May have tree worship at its root (ha). 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. 


Witches and water don’t go well together. There are a number of reasons for this. They would have suffered from PTSD after being tortured and thrown into a body of water to see whether they sank (not a witch) or swim (a witch). According to some beliefs, e.g. in Catalonia, Holy water was supposed to repel them, though it wasn’t the water that was the problem in this case, more the fact that it had been blessed by a priest, using white magic to counteract her black magic. According to this same folklore, witches avoided washing because they didn’t want to expose their witch marks, thereby exposing them to torture. It is rare to find skin that is perfect. Anyone susceptible to witch accusations would have been sensibly loathe to reveal her body to strangers. In Robert Burns’ poem ‘Tam O’Shanter‘ (1791), witches are shown to be afraid to cross a stream. A running stream they dare na cross.” (If you’re being pursued by a witch, cross a stream to shake her off.)

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. Witches are thought to lurk in dark crevices, much like evil hobgoblins.
Weird Sisters

the three sister 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.)

Witch’s tit

The phrase ‘colder than a witch’s tit’ usually refers to an emotional response which is less warm than expected. The breasts depicted in images of hags from the Middle Ages are those typical for a woman who has spent her life using her own body to nurture and feed others. These breasts are the inverse of the young, pre-pregnant breasts of sexually appealing women.

The Witch, Albrecht Dürer, 1498 - 1502
The Witch, Albrecht Dürer, 1498 – 1502.
White candles

often used on the altar

White magic

the use of supernatural powers or magic for selfless purposes.

‘…a white magician is just a black magician with a good housekeeper.’

Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites
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.


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.


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).

by Robin Jacques for A Book of Witches by Ruth Manning-Saunders (1965). The witches in this illustration resemble autumn leaves.
by Robin Jacques for A Book of Witches by Ruth Manning-Saunders (1965). The witches in this illustration resemble autumn leaves.

Children’s stories led me to believe that wizards were basically male witches. But no, witches can be any gender (though most are women). The English words “magician” and “witch” have different etymologies. A “magician” practised legerdemain (card tricks, sleight of hand), whereas “witch” referred to those who were supposed to have dealings with the devil or other evil spirits. With their cooperation she was supposed to perform supernatural acts.

‘Men’s minds work different from ours, see. Their magic’s all numbers and angles and edges and what the stars are doing, as if that really mattered. It’s all power. It’s all-’ Granny paused, and dredged up her favourite word to describe all she despised in wizardry, ‘-jommetry.’ 

Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites

In the Middle Ages people thought witches rode around on wolves (for their own sexual pleasure). Yes, that is a wolf, not the Muppet version of a llama.

1491 edition of ‘Won den unholden oder hexen’ by Ulrich Molitor
1491 edition of ‘Won den unholden oder hexen’ by Ulrich Molitor

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


‘Diane Purkiss … insists on taking witches seriously. Her refusal to write witch-believers off as unenlightened has produced some richly intelligent meditations on their — and our — world.’ – The Observer

‘An invigorating and challenging book … sets many hares running.’ – The Times Higher Education Supplement

One of America’s leading anthropolgists offers solutions to the perplexing question of why people behave the way they do.

Why do Hindus worship cows?

Why do Jews and Moslems refuse to eat pork?

Why did so many people in post-medieval Europe believe in witches?

Marvin Harris answers these and other perplexing questions about human behavior, showing that no matter how bizarre a people’s behavior may seem, it always stems from identifiable and intelligble sources.

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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.

Stephen King’s IT Storytelling Techniques

IT 2017 movie poster

IT is a 1986 horror novel by Stephen King, first adapted for screen in 1990, and most recently in 2017. This blog post is about the storytelling of the 2017 film.


I liked what one reviewer had to say about IT: The monster in this film is whatever the story requires him to be for the scene. Indeed, this monster is the ultimate shapeshifter, sometimes calm, sometimes unleashed. This monster is a writer’s dream — he seems to have no rules. Why doesn’t every horror writer create a monster like this? He’s awesome.

He’s also one-dimensional.

Here’s the golden rule about movie-length (or novel-length) stories about unpredictable monster villains with no redeeming features: Villain versus hero cannot, in itself, sustain a story. The character web is simply not interesting enough. Alongside the monstrous villain the writer must create a very human web of opposition. We see this time and time again in popular storytelling:

  • In Twister we have man versus tornado, but the human opposition comes from a couple of professional storm-chasers on the brink of divorce as well as an entire band of rival storm-chasers who aim to beat our heroes in their storm-chasing game.
  • In Jaws we have man versus shark, but the interest comes once again from the human opposition. Sheriff Martin Brody wants to close the beach, but this is opposed by local businessmen. Then there’s the most subtle, macho opposition between manly-man Quint and the others on his boat.
  • In Jurassic Park we have man versus velociraptor, but a park employee attempts to steal Hammond’s dinosaur embryos, among other interpersonal opposition.

And in IT, we have the evil outside villain (the shapeshifting clown), but there is a very strong human gang of bullies who are just as scary. The gang of bully kids is a common way to flesh out a web of opposition, especially in stories about children. Suzie Templeton used the bully opposition web for her short film adaptation of Peter and the Wolf.


IT is very explicit about the symbolism of the clown, and why it is a shapeshifter. But this is the typical modern horror monster. I have written previously: What is the horror genre for? IT is a modern horror, having moved away from Christian symbolism and into psychological symbolism. The monster is a representation of whatever terrible thing happens to be in your own life.


Realism interpretation of the IT setting: There is no clown. Georgie Denbrough drowns while trying to retrieve his paper boat from a drain. The body is never found. Bill bonds with the others in his vicinity who each have their own significant trauma: incest, Munchausen syndrome by proxy and so on. The monster is different depending on who sees him. This is like the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter. Whoever looks into it sees their own unfulfilled desire. The Mirror of Erised is a descendent of an old fairy tale device, such as the mirror in stories such as Snow White.

Horror is one of the three most symbolic genres in existence. (The other two are science fiction and Western.) Much has already been said about the symbolism and, frankly, if you’ve seen a lot of horror, it doesn’t need saying.

A Fixer Upper 1946 illustration by John Falter. This house looks like the old house visited by the children of IT.
A Fixer Upper 1946 illustration by John Falter. This house looks like the old house visited by the children of IT.


One thing that struck me while watching IT: The smart aleck dialogue, especially the crass sexual jokes in the dialogue of Richie Tozier, felt realistic. The irony is that this dialogue would never be acceptable in books for children of that age. These kids are meant to be 13, which upper middle grade, lower young adult. In children’s literature you never read dialogue such as:

Richie Tozier : You punched me, made me walk through shitty water, dragged me through a crackhouse… and now I’m gonna have to kill this fucking clown.

Richie Tozier : I hear the list is longer than my wang.
Stanley Uris : That’s not saying much.

Richie Tozier : Hey Eddie, are these your birth control pills?
Eddie Kaspbrak : Yeah, I’m saving them for your sister!

I have known adolescent boys who talk very much like this. Another difference between stories for adults and stories for children: Children in stories for children must function, to some extent, as role models. Child characters in children’s stories are more naive and wholesome than many real-life counterparts.

It’s not just the horror elements of this film which keep this movie out of children’s hands. The clown, all told, isn’t that scary for many kids. The clown is clearly a monster. But the stone throwing, the chase, the fat shaming, the mutilation on a boy’s belly — those elements all feel uncomfortably real.


Listen to the IT soundtrack (composed and arranged by Benjamin Wallfisch) and you’ll hear a very creepy, echoey version of Oranges and Lemons, music box inspired atmospheric tunes and children singing, slowly and without instrumental accompaniment.

This technique is common across horror and thriller films. Quentin Tarantino understood the creepiness of Shivaree’s 2000 song entitled ‘Goodnight Moon‘ when he chose for the soundtrack of Kill Bill Vol. 2.

There’s a nail in the door
And there’s glass on the lawn
Tacks on the floor
And the TV is on
And I always sleep with my guns
When you’re gone

There’s a blade by the bed
And a phone in my hand
A dog on the floor
And some cash on the nightstand
When I’m all alone the dreaming stops
And I just can’t stand

On it goes. Fans of child literature, however, are more likely to think of the eponymous but innocent story by Margaret Wise Brown.

That link to the well-known picture book is part of what makes for the creepiness of the song. There’s something about the admixture of horror and childhood familiarities such as songs, clowns, circuses and picture books which intensifies the creepiness of the creepy bit. This is how the folk at TV Tropes put it:

If a program or film wants to add fear to a scene one of the most creepy ways is to have a Creepy Child, or a whole creepy choir, singing somewhere in the distance or background, usually the tune is a mournful nursery rhyme. Sometimes it will seem like the characters can hear it and they may even call out, asking if anyone is there.

Creepy Children Singing

The Wire is a TV series for adults, creepy because of its uncomfortable realism. The character Omar Comin is particularly interesting, due to his role as sometime-comic relief, for his incongruous same-sex attraction in an overwhelmingly macho environment, and for his sociopathic ability to kill. Regular viewers of the show will soon learn that when Omar Comin starts to whistle Farmer In The Dell, bad stuff is going to happen. In this clip, bystanders realise from the whistle that Omar is up to very bad business.

Why Farmer In The Dell? Because viewers familiar with the tune will associate it with innocence, childlike naivete and comfort. The tune works well in the story because Omar is probably using one of his own childhood favourites for dual purpose: To set up a nonchalant persona for himself in the eyes of others, and also to steady his own nerves. The words themselves may also have thematic significance, though The Wire is not known for its ham-handed metaphors in the manner of Mad Men, so this may be an overanalysis.

The tinkle of bells, the fast-to-slow tune of a music box, the call of the ice-cream van — all make for excellent horror soundtracks and IT makes use of it too.


10 Things You Might Not Know About Stephen King’s IT from Mental Floss

How IT handles the book’s most controversial scene from Entertainment Weekly

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Baba Yaga: Witch or old woman?

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.

Vladimir Panov ‘Russian fairy tales’ by A. Nechaev, 1959 Baba Yaga's house
Vladimir Panov ‘Russian fairy tales’ by A. Nechaev, 1959 Baba Yaga’s house



The first extant mentions of Baba Yaga in text date to the 18th century.

Sometimes ‘Baba’ is translated into English as ‘Granny‘ but the word ‘baba’ contains no respect for age. A closer translation would be something like ‘crone‘, even though ‘baba’ is a shortening of the respectful ‘babushka‘ (grandmother). A minor insult is “Babka”, meaning a grumpy old woman.

She might be a chthonic goddess. (Chthonic means relating to or inhabiting the underworld.) Vladamir Propp proposed that her house on legs might serve as a cultural memory of initiation rituals.

Yaga‘ may be related to Slavic words for grudge or brawl, or to the Russian word for eating.

Baba Yaga may be a genius loci (protective spirit). On the other hand, she doesn’t appear to be a protectress of specific social groups. She’s not their enemy, either.


Femme coded monsters in general have backstories in which they become monsters because of masculine brutality and injustice.


Cannibalism more generally is related to pregnancy, and our collective fear around it. (Before people had a good understanding of human anatomy, a pregnant woman appeared she had eaten someone.)

Baba Yaga is connected to children, first because she eats them, second because in some stories she has daughters (but never sons). Actually, though, in the classic Baba Yaga stories, she never actually eats the children. She threatens to. She also teaches the girls to do housework. She is a tool in a young person’s rite of passage into adulthood. In this way, Baba Yaga fulfils a specific cultural function: She teaches young people traditional values and rules of adult society so that they will grow up to be useful, functioning members of it. How does she select her victims? She preys upon those who deviate in this way.

She’s the slavic folktale equivalent of the Aunt Lydia character invented by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, upholding the social norms of her own oppressors.


In Russian imagination she is the aunt or mistress of all witches. She is sometimes compared to Hecate, the Greek goddess of magic, witchcraft, the night, moon, ghosts and necromancy.

Like your bog standard witch, Baba Yaga is cunning. She’s in control of natural and supernatural magic and above all of food supplies. She dispenses hospitality capriciously: Sometimes she’s welcoming, other times wants you to leave her the hell alone.

Here’s what Jack Zipes has to say about her:

[She is] not just a dangerous witch but also a maternal benefactress, probably related to a pagan goddess. [She] is inscrutable and so powerful that she does not ow allegiance to the Devil or God or even to her storytellers. In fact, she opposes all Judeo-Christian and Muslim deities and beliefs. She is her own woman, a pathogenetic mother, and she decides on a case-by-case basis whether she will help or kill the people who come to her hut that rotates on chicken legs.

Jack Zipes

(Pathogenetic: Pertaining to genetic cause of a disease or an abnormal condition.)

Sometimes she is said to be the mother of dragons.


Her house is in the forest. More specifically than that, it’s in the land of the “thrice-nine kingdom“, the land of the living dead. This realm lies between the world of the living and the thrice-ten kingdom, the land of the truly dead.

Baba Yaga is unusually specific for a fairy tale character — she is often individuated. In fact there is something very specific and unusual about her: She lives in a woodland cottage that runs about on chicken legs.

She sets snapping teeth on her door for a lock, with hands to bolt it and human limbs to support it. Tiles are made of pancake, the walls of pies. A big oven blazes in the hearth where she sleeps at night.

Also, she fences her domain in the forest with the skulls and bones of her victims whose eyes glow by moonlight. (The skulls are used to decorate the pickets of the fence.)


Baba Yaga also has an unusual mode of flight. She ferries through the air in a pestle and mortar, sweeping her tracks with besom as she goes. (The pestle is the rudder.) Sometimes she travels in a flying cauldron. In her wake, tempests, hurricanes and tornadoes boil and roil.


This tale is a close cousin of the witch from Hansel and Gretel. Clever children are able to trick her.

Witch can have several meanings and exist on several axes. What’s the gender inverse of witch? Sometimes wizard (magic), sometimes ogre (gruesome).

She has witchy traits. When we say Baba Yaga is the equivalent of a witch, she’s the kind of witch who corresponds to the female ogre.

She can take shape of bird or cat (a sexist trope which predominates throughout all types of modern literature). This shows how very old is the tendency to link femininity to birds and to cats.

Sometimes, occasionally though, Baba Yaga is just a regular old woman, like the queen of Snow White.

"Baba Yaga" Russian folk tale Illustrator Nikolay Kochergin
“Baba Yaga” Russian folk tale Illustrator Nikolay Kochergin


Baba Yaga is not always malignant. In fact, she is notoriously ambiguous, giving rise to the archetype of the dualistic woman. Her cottage can be considered a liminal space, functioning as a sort of portal between the light and the dark sides, or the border between life and death. She can swing in either direction.

One of the best-known and strangest characters (from a Western perspective) in Russian [Slavic] folk tales is a witch called Baba Yaga. According to Elizabeth Warner, there are two Baba Yagas, a good one and a bad one. Sometimes within a single narrative, Baba Yaga may display good and evil characteristics. She benignly feeds the hero in “little Ivan The Clever Young Man,” for example, and provides him with a “hot steam-bath,” but threatens to devour Vasilisa the Beautiful. Baba Yaga lives in a dense and dark forest in a cottage built on chicken’s legs that revolves on command. She is an aged, ugly crone and her nose and teeth are long and sharp. Not only is she emaciated like a skeleton, but the fence and gates of her house are built of human bones. According to Warner, “some scholars say” that Baba Yaga’s house guards the frontier between the mortal and spirit worlds.

Carolyn Davis, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature
Baba Yaga Illustration of Yelena Polenova to the Russian folk tale "Son Filipko", 1890s
Baba Yaga Illustration of Yelena Polenova to the Russian folk tale “Son Filipko”, 1890s


Baba Yaga, like Hansel and Gretel’s adversary, has a penchant for human flesh and kidnaps small children. Vasilisa escapes from Baba Yaga’s clutches because she has her “mother’s blessing” to help her, embodied in a doll which advises her and performs the tasks set her by the witch. When Baba Yaga finds out that Vasilisa has been blessed, she sends her home to her stepmother and stepsisters unharmed and with the light they had sent her to fetch. The light given to Vasilisa by the witch is contained in a skull stuck on a pole. The blazing eyes of the skull stare straight at the stepmother and her daughters. “They tried to hide but everywhere they went the eyes followed them. By morning they were shrivelled to a cinder and only Vasilisa was left”. Vasilisa subsequently takes a room with an old woman and waits for her father to return from his business trip. With the doll’s help, she spins a quantity of fine linen thread, weaves a cloth “so delicate it could be drawn through the eye of a needle” and sews twelve shirts for the Tsar. The Tsar is delighted with her work and invites the seamstress to his palace, falls in love with her and asks her to marry him. When Vasilisa’s father returns he is overjoyed to hear of the good fortune that has befallen his daughter. He and the old woman, with whom Vasilisa has been living, come to live in the palace.

The trajectory of the story of “Vasilisa the Beautiful” is similar to that of Hansel and Gretel in a number of ways. Just as they did, Vasilisa must come to terms with the dualistic nature of the mother figure and develop a meaningful relationship with her father/the symbolic order. Her stepmother expels her from the house and sends her into the forest, just as Hansel’s and Gretel’s did, and her stepmother and the witch figure also epitomize the bad breast/mother figure. For Vasilisa the doll embodies the blessing or loving and nurturing aspects of the mother, while the stepmother/witch again represents the evil, cannibalistic characteristics. Vasilisa is not lured into Baba Yaga’s house as Hansel and Gretel are, however. Instead, she recognizes the threat the house and the witch represent but must still approach and comply with Baba Yaga’s commands, fulfilling the onerous tasks she sets. Thus, Vasilisa must face up to the deal with that which she fears just as Maggie Kilgour suggests the infant must do in relation to the breast. The step/mother is again dealt with through matricide but Vasilisa retains the best parts of the mother figure in the body of the doll, which she carries “in her pocket until the day she dies”. Arguably Vasilisa has reconciled with her ambivalent feelings toward her mother who is then reclaimed in the figure of the old woman. Again in this story, economic wealth is associated with the paternal and provides a happy ever after ending.

The emphasis on the devouring aspects of these wicked witches is significant. Baba Yaga’s sharp teeth and the bones and skulls with which her house is constructed are described in oral sadistic terms as Campbell suggests. Vasilisa must enter the witch’s domain through gates made of human legs, with human hands for bolts and a mouth with sharp teeth for a lock. Freud discussed the significance of the teeth (in dreams) and proposed that they represented the female genitals, the lower part of the body being transposed to the upper so that “it is ost likely that the mouth refers to the vagina and the rows of teeth which open and close to a phantasy about castrating vaginal teeth”. The gateway to Baba Yaga’s house suggests some transposition of the lower body to the upper and certainly emphasizes the incorporative aspects of the maternal mouths. The devouring vagina mouth with teeth — the vagina dentata — is a symbol for the castrating and incorporating aspects of the cannibalistic female.

Carolyn Davis, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature
Baba Yaga in a mortar Illustrator M. Alekseev, 1970s
Baba Yaga in a mortar Illustrator M. Alekseev, 1970s


Being a bit of a Japanophile, I can’t help but notice how popular the tale of Baba Yaga is in Japan. Here in the West, I grew up without ever hearing of such a folktale, but in Japan you might see its influence all over the place.

It was Diana Wynne Jones (British) who wrote Howl’s Travelling Castle upon which the anime is based but I can’t help but think of Baba Yaga when I see Hayao Miyazaki’s version of it on the big screen.

Howl's Travelling Castle
Howl’s Travelling Castle as envisioned by Studio Ghibli

Miyazaki includes the character Baba Yaga in Mr Dough And The Egg Princess, which apparently you can only see screening at the Ghibli museum in Japan.

For more examples of houses on legs, see here.

Some people think that Baba Yaga equals the Yubaba in Spirited Away. I can see how they got there — Yubaba does fly away, after turning into a creepy crow. There is a good and an evil version of her. Interestingly, the proto-Slavic word for grandma ‘baba’ may simply be coincidentally phonetically similar to the Japanese ‘Baba’, which also comes from the native Japanese word for grandmother/old woman (obaasan). It’s important to note that Baba is a derogatory term. I believe it’s derogatory in both the Japanese and in the Slavic. But Baba is not a loanword in Japanese. In fact, it’s listed here, in a list of native Japanese words often thought to be from abroad. It may have been this very phonetic correspondence that spurred Hayao Miyazaki’s imagination when it came to the creation of Yubaba. It’s a false cognate, but in Japanese the word baba also refers to an old hag. The worst thing you could call a woman is a kusobaba — a ‘shit crone’.

There is no direct equivalent of Baba Yaga in Japanese folklore, but indeed, the Japanese do not need her because they have a lengthy list of weird folkloric creatures of their own. I can only deduce that Baba Yaga fits in well with the weirdness, hence Studio Ghibli’s fascination for her. Japan does have a fire breathing chicken type thing and ghosts that eat corpses. Then there’s the bird-demon created from the spirits of freshly dead corpses.

Here’s a more in depth look at some similarities between Slavic and Japanese folkloric old ‘hags’.

Mythological cannibals don’t seem to be all that common in other cultures. I expected the Wikipedia category to be much bigger in fact. Perhaps Russia and Japan are historically more similar than I’d thought?

Adrienne Segur, French (1901-1981) 'Baba Yaga's Cat.'
Adrienne Segur, French (1901-1981) ‘Baba Yaga’s Cat.’

Happy dreams. Once Upon A Blog Baba Yaga

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Fairytales and Modern Storytelling

This is my collection of fairytale links. I’m interested in fairytales from a writing perspective — how do fairytales help us to create new, contemporary stories?


  1. the “serene, anonymous” voice in which it’s told
  2. the “conventional, stock figures” who inhabit it.

This is according to American poet James Merrill , as described at the opening of “The Book of Ephraim”.


Boy George has said that the difference between a pop song and an unpopular song is repetition. The same can be said of many popular things, including fairy tales.

Many fairytales are harrowing. Nothing written fresh today would get published and heavily marketed for children if it included cannibalism and other child abuse. Yet many of us still read Hansel and Gretel to our children before bedtime. Perhaps my real question is: Why are popular fairytales so awful, and why are they still here?

Conservative Ethics

Fairytales do not become mythic unless they are in almost perfect accord with the underlying principles of how the male members of society seek to arrange object relations to satisfy their wants and needs.

Jack Zipes

The ethics of a fairytale are not completely static; they do evolve somewhat with the times.

As they spread, folktales evolve like biological species, from The Conversation


Celerity: swiftness is a great virtue in the fairy tale. A good tale moves with a dreamlike speed from event to event, pausing only to say as much as is needed and no more. The best tales are perfect examples of what you do need and what you don’t: in Rudyard Kipling’s image, fires that blaze brightly because all the ashes have been raked out.

The opening of a tale, for example. All we need is the word ‘Once . . .’ and we’re off […]

The speed is exhilarating. You can only go that fast, however, if you’re travelling light; so none of the information you’d look for in a modern work of fiction – names, appearances, background, social context, etc – is present.

Philip Pullman


Modern publishers know how most picturebooks are read: at night, by parents, to put their children to sleep. Harrowing as the content may be, a home-away-from home structure is considered essential for putting young kids to sleep, and fairytales provide just that. (At least, the enduring ones that get published over and over again.)



Myths and folktales are assumed to be the very first stories in the history of humankind, closely related to rites of passage. Thus, a fairytale becomes a travel instruction for a young person on the way toward adulthood, directions on exactly how to behave in various situations. […] The hero’s task in a folktale is totally impossible for an “ordinary” human being, it is always a symbolic or allegorical depiction. Allegories (like Dante’s Divina Commedia or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) are also travel instructions. But the addressee knows that you cannot die and then rise from the dead, nor be eaten by a whale and then come out again, nor descend into the realm of death, and so on. When the March sisters try to follow Bunyan’s instructions for a journey, they have to “translate” the allegory into more everyday conditions. […] The modern version of a travel instruction is formula fiction in all its forms: crime novel, science fiction, horror, romance, soap opera, and so on. The addressee of these texts also knows that the story has very little to do with life. On the contrary, the text is based on detachment, especially through its exotic settings and incredible events. Many scholars have noted the similarities between fairytales and formula fiction. As early as the 1920s Propp suggested that his model for folktale analysis could be applied to novels of chivalry and other texts with fixed narrative structures.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature
Harrington Mann The Fairy Tale 1902
The Fairy Tale 1902 Harrington Mann (1864-1937)

Interview with Maria Tatar from Kim Hill, Saturday Morning, RNZ, 2011

Maria Tatar chairs the Program in Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University, where she teaches courses in German Studies, Folklore, and Children’s Literature.

Maria Tatar is the author of Enchanted Hunters: The power of stories in childhood. ‘Enchanted Hunters’ is the name of the hotel in Lolita where Humbert Humbert does the bad thing. An edgy title was chosen to reappropriate that title for children because it describes so well what happens to children when they read. Children fall under a spell when they’re reading but they are also active seekers of meaning, looking for knowledge, trying to make sense of a world in which there is pain and violence and death. (Literacy specialists call this ‘ludic reading‘.)

Most of the old stories did have happy endings. The Hans Christian Andersen tales are sadistic, and those were inspired by stories told in spinning rooms where he had been eavesdropping. Modern audiences often have a different response to fairytales. As a child, one of the most heart-rending books on my shelf was The Little Match Girl. But The Little Match Girl does have an intended happy ending. The little girl goes to heaven and meets her grandmother.

The beauty of the fairytale in the oral storytelling tradition is that the child survives. The storyteller puts the child into the worst scenario possible, with villains, treachery, danger out in the world and yet, like Little Red Riding Hood, if you use your wits and are courageous, you can survive.

In the Grimms’ version of “Little Red Riding Hood” you may say the girl needs the hunter, but in the early versions recorded in 19th C France, Little Red Riding Hood outwits the wolf, managing to escape on her own, without patriarchal help.

Classic tales are elastic, shapeshifting into new versions of themselves. They are symptomatic of a culture, and deal with the issues that are profoundly important to us: Innocence and seduction in “Little Red Riding Hood”, Monstrosity and Compassion in “Beauty And The Beast“. These tales tap right into our cultural anxieties.

The Bedtime Story

When did we start the tradition and practice of the bedtime story? This isn’t easy to document. Little Women seems to have the first scene of reading where parents argue about what to do at bedtime — force the child to go to sleep or ‘coddle’ the child by reading to them?

Peter and Wendy is another foundational story and happens at night-time. This can be terrifying for children. The Lost Boys who have fallen out of their prams are a terrifying concept for a child. Where’s the comfort in all that? The Darling children do return home. Maybe this is more comforting for adult readers, because we learn that children always have this place for magic and enchantment. Many children are sensation seekers so they do need to be scared to explore imaginatively what will happen to them if they are taken away, if they go to a different and scary place. Above all, how do we get back home? Is there a way to get back home?

Now I lay me down to sleep…

This bedtime prayer is really quite dark. (If I should die before I wake…) That’s the time that a child’s thoughts turn.

Charlotte’s Web begins with Where’s Papa going with that axe?

Even the benign Goodnight Moon, ‘Goodnight noises everywhere’ suggests creepy things lurking in every nook. But the story ultimately reassures. Everything will be there in the morning. (The last sentence does pack a bit of a punch.) Children like to read this book over and over because the story reassures.

The Countdown To Sleep Story

The conundrum for parents putting children to sleep is that a good, exciting story can keep kids awake. Modern publishing offers titles such as One Minute Bedtime Stories. There are dozens of these books, ‘guaranteed’ to put your child to sleep. There are many ‘countdown to sleep’ type of plots.

This is a modern change. Children’s stories used to contain plenty of excitement, with chapters ending on cliffhangers, so of course children wanted to keep reading, much to the distress of some parents who were hoping the story would lull the child to sleep.

We’re desperate now to have our children read more, but it’s not long since having a child with its head in a book was a bad thing, and big readers were encouraged to go out and enjoy themselves in the sunshine. Many children today are still described as being ‘bookworms’ or voracious in a negative way. Negative connotations remain — reading as an antisocial activity. (The word ‘antisocial’ is most often used incorrectly. These people often mean ‘asocial’ activity, and in that they are still wrong.)

Books can be read in isolation. But what the book offers that real life cannot is the opportunity to see inside somebody’s mind, to really know what they’re thinking. Book characters can be like friends for a child. In real life we can’t mind read — people are always misrepresenting what they’re really thinking.

Some champions of electronic media say reading leaves little room for improvisation, social interaction and creativity. Maria Tatar is astonished that fairytales seem to thrive in a culture of electronic entertainments. Fairytales migrate well into many media, and can still provide a visceral entertainment. Fairytale get us talking about the characters, about the right thing to do in any given situation, and about how to manage in a world full of perils and opportunities.

It’s not the ‘reading’ — it’s the ‘story’. We reshape the messages and make them our own.

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How can setting be a character?

setting as character

When asked to write something about setting, for an essay or an exam, what exactly are we being asked to describe?

When I was in high school my English teachers advised us all against writing the exam essay on setting. So I did. But I wouldn’t advise the same thing. Setting essays provide plenty of opportunity for demonstrating knowledge and understanding of a work.

At about junior high school level, setting comprises two things: TIME and PLACE.

But a more sophisticated breakdown of the concept of setting involves different aspects to include:


a story’s place in time. This can actually be broken down further into ‘author period‘ (the time when the author originally created or published the work, and ‘narrator period‘, which is the time when the narrator of a work supposedly narrates the story. (Reader period. Counterpoint this against when the reader reads the work, if this is useful.)


a story’s length through time. Maybe it takes place over a year, cycling through each season. Maybe it takes place over 24 hours. Some people call this the temporal setting. In many stories we don’t know exactly how long something is meant to take, and we are given no point in time. In that case we might say ‘atemporal’. Highly symbolic stories tend to be atemporal, to emphasis their universality and the state of dreaming, which is unbound by time (and space).


a story’s place in space — On a continuum: a real place, fictional but based on a real place, completely made up, otherworldly.


towns, cities, parks. Manmade places tend to symbolise the conscious, tamed part of our minds.

People are like cities: We all have alleys and gardens and secret rooftops and places where daisies sprout between the sidewalk cracks, but most of the time all we let each other see is is a postcard glimpse of a skyline or a polished square. Love lets you find those hidden places in another person, even the ones they didn’t know were there, even the ones they wouldn’t have thought to call beautiful themselves.

Hilary T. Smith (Wild Awake)


forests (which usually border a town in fairytales) tend to represent the subconscious. Forests are especially interesting, but we also have rivers and mountains.


in a fantasy it might be a system of magic in lieu of technology. In speculative fiction this will be at the forefront. Even in non-SF work, the tech of the time is relevant to setting.


the story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles. If ‘time and place’ refers to temporal and physical location, this refers to the social one. What’s going on in the wider world of the story, politically, socially, environmentally…? A ten dollar word to use here is ‘milieu’.

When talking about setting and conflict we might also talk about how the apparent setting lines up (or conflicts) with the reality of the setting once we really get to know it.

The fact is, settings wear narrative masks as much as characters do; the fairground an example of a ‘masked character’, or what we might also call a ‘Snail Under The Leaf’ setting, because all you need to do is scratch the surface of a perceived utopia and you get something completely different. Behind its glossy surface the fairground is always a very different beast, even if all that is is ‘not all that fun’. Suburbs and small towns are also commonly depicted as utopias with a dark side.

If applied to Breaking Bad:

  1. PERIOD — The first season aired 2008, and the story is set in either that year or very close to that year.
  2. DURATION — Although the series has taken 6 years to watch due to the time it takes to produce a series, the duration of the story is 2 years.
  3. LOCATIONAlbuquerque, New Mexico; Mexico; in the homes of Walt, Jesse, Hank; in factories and small local businesses
  4. MANMADE SPACES — the houses, the factories, the high school, the streets, the hotel (depending on the episode, there are many)
  5. NATURAL SETTINGS — the Albuquerque desert, which can also kill you if you’re not careful
  6. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — equipment to produce methamphetamine, later in its purest form
  7. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — At a time when teachers aren’t paid enough to support a family, when health care is unaffordable to those working in the caring professions, when methamphetamine use is causing criminal harm and much victimization

If applied to Courage the Cowardly Dog:

  1. PERIOD — The style of house, the dress of the characters suggest contemporary late 1990s.
  2. DURATION — Each episode seems to ‘reset’ back to the beginning as if nothing happened before and nothing was learned. As evidence, Courage is never, ever believed when he raises the alarm about intruders. If this was a story which built upon itself, you’d expect Muriel to take him seriously after a while, because he’s never wrong.
  3. LOCATION — The fiction town of ‘Nowhere’ represents any Midwest rural town in America — anywhere flat, where it’s possible to live miles from anyone else.
  4. MANMADE SPACES — the house, the retail outlets, the nearby factories and experimental labs.
  5. NATURAL SETTINGS — the Midwest plains
  6. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — Opponents bring their own technology to each episode and use whatever they’ve got to try and defeat Courage. Courage has only a PC at his disposal, which is anthropomorphised and talks to him. It doesn’t give Courage the information he wants. This represents an early form of search engines, and comments on to a time when people were just starting to use the Internet. The Internet was much smaller then, and results were much fewer.
  7. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — Some have hypothesised that the setting of the farmhouse in Nowhere represents a dog’s experience rather than a real place — that Courage’s experiences are those of any dog who is housebound, not taken out for regular walks, and who sees every visitor as an opponent no matter their intention. The entire series could be considered a metaphor for what goes on inside a dog’s head, presented as understandable to human viewers, using familiar human tropes.

The cinema’s master storytellers give us the double-edged encounter we crave. First, the discovery of a world we do not know. No matter how intimate or epic, contemporary or historical, concrete or fantasized, the world of an eminent artist always strikes us as somewhat exotic or strange. Like an explorer parting forest leaves, we step wide-eyed into an untouched society, a cliche-free zone where the ordinary becomes extraordinary. Second, once inside this alien world, we find ourselves. Deep within these characters and their conflicts we discover our own humanity. We go to the movies to enter a new, fascinating world, to inhabit vicariously another human being who at first seems so unlike us and yet at heart is like us, to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality. We do not wish to escape life but to find life, to use our minds in fresh, experimental ways, to flex our emotions, to enjoy, to learn, to add depth to our days. Story was written to foster films of archetypal power and beauty that will give the world this dual pleasure.

Robert McKee


When talking about places as characters in literature, the Latin term Genius loci is useful. In classical Roman religion, a genius loci was the protective spirit of a place. If you ever come across a picture of a figure holding a bowl or a snake, that’s probably an ornament of the genius loci. (The plural is genii, by the way.) Light is important here. The genius loci is powered by the sun.

If you go to somewhere like Japan, or watch Japanese anime, you’ll see the Eastern equivalent, for example the butsudan in traditional Japanese homes. (A butsudan is a corner of a room where you put photos of dead loved ones and incense and food offerings.)

But in the West we mostly refer to ‘the spirit of the place’ rather than something that’s actively guarding.

The term used to refer specifically to gardens, but now can describe the spirit of any kind of place.

"Autumn Leaves", Cover of Collier's Magazine, by illustrator Franklin Booth. November of 1911
“Autumn Leaves”, Cover of Collier’s Magazine, by illustrator Franklin Booth. November of 1911


Then there’s the ultimate in sophisticated essays about setting. This is where you write about how setting is basically one of the characters.

What do people mean when they talk about setting as character?

To the list above, let’s add the following of any work:

  • Who else is there (apart from the main character)?
  • How are these characters interconnected?
  • What values do they share and disagree on?

Now to that fourth dimension: How is the setting a character in its own right? Let’s start with what makes a ‘character’.

  • They have to want something. (If they don’t seem to want anything, they have to at least actively resist something, otherwise there’s no story.) Almost every story guru talks about this — it’s so elemental in narrative theory that I’m surprised I wasn’t taught it in school.
  • Characters need to have something psychologically wrong with them.
  • The most interesting characters also have a moral shortcoming — some way in which they’re treating others badly.
  • The characters should have some kind of spiritual/psychological/actual big struggle, which eventually leads to some sort of anagnorisis.
  • There should be some kind of character change. The change doesn’t have to be large — the ‘range of change’ might in fact be very small, but again, if there’s no change in the characters you haven’t got a story.

Let’s address these specifically human attributes one by one, as applied — this time — to a setting.

How does a setting want something?

Unless you subscribe to an olde worlde religion where you believe spirits exist in the river, in the mountains, in the trees, you probably agree that a physical setting doesn’t want anything — it just is.

However, there are certain aspects of setting — such as weather events — which can take on the persona of a monstrous character. A tornado behaves like a horror villain in its ‘single-minded’ wish to follow its course, caring not for the havoc its wreaks upon those in its path.

Hollywood is fond of odd-couple films, so you’ll be familiar with stories in which two contrasting characters are stuck together to achieve some kind of goal. Lethal Weapon, The African Queen, and Rush Hour are stand-out examples of that genre. Sometimes you get an odd-couple film which doesn’t contrast two characters — instead, it contrasts a character with their setting. This is known as a fish-out-of-water story.  Beverly Hills Cop, City Slickers, Splash and so on.

When a setting is used to contrast a human character, the setting itself seems to take on human qualities, turning a story into a different take on the odd couple story. Hero against setting this time. People have a tendency to anthropomorphise, and sometimes it really does seem like nature itself is against you. In reality, the setting doesn’t ‘want’ anything, but when it rains six weekends in a row and you want to get out into the garden, it can seem like the weather has some sort of vendetta against you.

Writers can utilise the cognitive bias of anthropomorising natural events by juxtaposing the main character’s goals against natural events in the environment. Weather is a great one, but it might be a forest which characters can get lost in, or something much less dramatic, like a tall building which prevents an old man’s yard from getting any sun, thereby affecting his tomatoes.

How does a setting have a psychological shortcoming?

The only way a setting can have a psychological shortcoming is if we’re talking about the collective shortcoming of the people who are there — its visitors or inhabitants. For instance, the insularity of a community who is forced to accommodate strangers, or the lack of community of a big city which is later forced to band together to fight a common evil.

The concept of pathetic fallacy is crucial here.

If a setting is ‘gloomy’, that’s because the viewpoint character feels gloomy. Of course, in real life, a setting just is. If everything around you seems gloomy that’s because you’re seeing it that way. In fiction causality is presumed to work backwards — a character feels gloomy because the setting is gloomy. In earlier times in history, people really did think backwards in this way.

We in this country are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even.

from “America’s Enduring Caste System”, NYT. A beautiful example of a house as metaphor for human history.

How does a setting have a moral shortcoming?

How does a setting treat ‘other’ characters badly? Your human characters can feel let down and abandoned by their home environment if they’ve dutifully tended to the land only to be faced with a drought which renders them unable to survive. In this way, farms can ‘betray’ farmers. Of course, it’s the farmers feeling this emotion. It’s entirely one-sided. That doesn’t matter in fiction.

How does a setting get caught up in a big struggle?

In a disaster story like Twister, the setting creates the big struggle. But it doesn’t have to seem ‘proactive’ — a desert just sits there minding its own business, but because a desert is inhospitable to human life, any human who tries to walk across desert sands is going to find themselves in a big struggle against the desert.

How does a setting have a anagnorisis?

Since this stage is inextricably linked to the ‘psychological shortcoming’ part of a story, the same holds true. A community of people can realise something at once, after some common big struggle. Or, maybe the community doesn’t realise anything, but the reader does.

How does a setting undergo a character arc?

To sum up, this portion of  Cheryl Klein’s newsletter explains what most people mean when they talk about ‘setting as character’:

I would love any tips on how to make the setting come alive. Seems sometimes the setting is like a character.

I’d say treat the setting like a character, and try to develop it the way you would a character. Some questions to contemplate:  What is the history of this place? Write out a timeline of it. What did it look like before any beings lived on/in it—its landscape, its climate? If it’s a human-made place (e.g. a house or a business or a town), who built it, and for what purpose, and why at that location? Who has occupied this place since, and how have they used it? If there were a “spirit of the place,” what would that spirit be like, and how would it have reacted to each of these occupants? Think of at least three specific details for each of its historical iterations:  the kind of flora and fauna that dwelled there, a game played there, the surnames of the families that lived there. Which of those details have survived into the present day of your story?



  1. Write about the people who live(d) there.
  2. Write about how the setting either props up or opposes humans who enter its territory.
  3. Personify the setting at a line level. (I write about the difference between personification and anthropomorphism in this post.)

Individual writers create their own regular tricks to evoke the feeling that a setting is alive.

Annie Proulx is a master at this. For example, Proulx doesn’t care if a verb is transitive or intransitive. She uses it as she sees fit. Below she describes a snowy, sleety, windy scene in which a family of men are about to go out hunting:

Something outside, the garbage can cover, hurled along, stuttering metal.

A Run of Bad Luck

Hurl is a transitive verb — it takes an object — but Proulx using it as an intransitive verb. This has the effect of making the environment sound like it is alive, and also like it’s antagonistic. I’d say the technique of manipulating standard grammar is related to personification, but not quite.

Animation cel of the witch from Walt Disney’s Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937) witch apple
Animation cel of the witch from Walt Disney’s Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937).


If you’ve read Educated by Tara Westover, Matt Bird has a blog post about why (rather than how) Westover turns her mountain into a character.

For a different take on the exact same topic as this post see Person, Place or Thing?: Characterizing Setting by AYŞE PAPATYA BUCAK at Fiction Writers’ Review

The Earth Is Just As Alive As You Are from the New York Times

“The history of life on Earth is the history of life remaking Earth.”

A Meditation on Our Relationship to the Landscapes We Inhabit from the New York Times

“Lessard devotes much of the book to exploring what she terms America’s ‘atopia,’ our vast, seemingly unplanned, inchoate, exurban sprawl, which remains to her largely inscrutable and tragic. She writes about such places from what you might call an exalted literary remove. The mode is epistolary, poetic, occasionally honest to a fault.”

The way in which place interacts with human beings is one of the focal points in philosophy, so if you want to know more about that, philosophy is the place to go. For example, Heidegger coined the phrase Dasein to describe the state of ‘being-in-the-world’.


Buildings As Character In Fiction

Lemon girl young adult novella


Animal Kingdom Modern Fairy Tale

Animal Kingdom poster

Animal Kingdom is an Australian movie based on a Melbourne family who wreaked a lot of havoc in the 1980s. This movie was the inspiration for the American TV spin-off set in San Diego. Below I make the case that Animal Kingdom is a modern fairytale.

Breaking Bad is also a modern fairytale blended with crime and heist plot elements. I believe the Animal Kingdom writers modelled this show on Breaking Bad. But I prefer the female characters in Animal Kingdom. Breaking Bad feels like a story made for and about men. Animal Kingdom includes women. The male actors are oftentimes subjected to the female gaze; a sure sign that women as audience have been considered this time.


The word ‘Kingdom’ is very fairytale. Here we have a family who consider themselves head honchos of their local area. The world around them is their kingdom, and the spoils are there for their taking. This harks back to the medieval social structure of aristocrats versus serfs, in which aristocrats had everything and serfs owned nothing. They maintained this hierarchy by switching off empathy for others and bald brutality.


animal kingdom fairytale characters
Joshua (J)

Joshua is the poor boy with no mother and no father. Our initial viewpoint character loses his mother to potions (drugs). Many children’s stories in particular use this plot device. A character without a mother is a sympathetic character.

In English fairy tales, the sympathetic character is often called ‘Jack’ or ‘John’. Jack and the Beanstalk is one of the most famous. In this story, Joshua is shortened to J. This guy is one of the J crew who often stars in fairy tales.


Smurf is the wicked grandmother — the archetypal witch. Smurf uses what looks like magic, but which is really street smarts and wits, in a complex system of crime few would get away with in reality. The audience must suspend disbelief. Like a wicked witch, Smurf can grant great riches but take them away just as easily. Like a fairy tale witch, she often seems to be doing the prince a favour: In a fairy tale the witch turns a prince into a tree, but perhaps to assuage her own guilt, she grants him the body of a dove for two hours per day. Likewise, Smurf does all the kind, motherly things for her sons, but maintains complete control.

Smurf lives in a ‘house made of candy’ in the middle of a suburban forest — an opulent gated mansion which attracts hangers-on from all around.

There’s something eerie about Smurf, as played by Ellen Barkin. She is glamorous in the original, magical sense of the world. In fairytales, as in medieval times, the elderly were treated with great suspicion. Smurf is in transition when it comes to her relationship with her boys; she’s in danger of clicking over from ‘wise and respected’ old person to a nuisance. This comes to the fore in season four. See: Sacrificing One’s Grandmother. This has been foreshadowed with J’s abandonment of the elderly woman with dementia.

Cody is a Gaelic name, but I believe if there’s any symbolism to Janine Cody’s last name, it’s down to American frontiersman and showman Buffalo Bill Cody (1846-1917).

In fairy tales — witches and godmothers excepted — girls and women do not have agency. Men rule the world. While the female characters in this show do have some basic agency — Nicky chooses to move in with J. Ordinary women will never be a part of this world. They need some kind of superpower. Smurf the Witch is of course the exception, conforming to the age old rule that in order to have true agency in a story, a female character must be magical. Smurf could take other women under her wing, but instead sees other women as threats rather than allies. If she takes them in, it’s because she’s keeping her enemies closer.

Ellen Barkin’s character is not entirely fairytale — her character is a more modern take on the witch. Witches in the Grimm era and previously were sexually repulsive, but Smurf uses her sexuality to get what she wants. This power is waning, but only because of her age. Smurf is an intriguing admixture of the sexualised and the grotesque aspects of a witch, who even uses her sexuality to influence her own sons. (This was set up in the pilot, but perhaps it was a bridge too far, because little has been done with this incestuous plot line, yet.)

The Brothers

The three brothers are the archetypal three brothers from a fairytale.

One brother, Pope, has been on a big journey (prison) and returns at the beginning of the tale. Though Pope is the eldest of Smurf’s sons, he doesn’t play the role of eldest son and heir to the throne. He has been usurped by Baz, the orphan rescued from drowning in the river.

The youngest brother, Deren, is gay, which marks him out as not fitting into this macho world. He wants out of the world of magic. He wants to become a woodworker (own a simple pub) and live in the pious world. The problem is, he’s been brought up on crime and has no idea how to live in the law-abiding world, paying taxes and dismissing staff fairly and so on. He can never put aside the fact that he grew up in a house of magic. He doesn’t belong there.

Another brother, Craig, is the lazy one, interested in getting high and parties and sleeping with women. This is his main fault, and it will be his downfall.

A fourth ‘brother’, Baz, is Smurf’s favourite, in a way. This brother is not related by blood. Perhaps this means he’s not imbued by the same magic. He soon loses his life. This conforms to a very primitive and conservative idea which runs throughout storytelling — that blood family is your true family. Any outsiders will be punished eventually.

The new brother (the nephew) eventually becomes the replacement for Baz, the favourite ‘brother’ — favourite because he is more wily than Smurf’s actual sons. J is the ultimate trickster. The complex system of crime Smurf has set up requires a smart person to take over.

Smurf’s own sons have clearly delineated flaws and each their own demons which make it impossible for them to take on Smurf’s role as she retires. Pope is volatile. Craig is lazy. Deren is conflicted and suspicious and not really invested in a life of crime anyway.

For more on fairy tale character archetypes, see this post.


After his mother overdoses on heroin, J is taken in by his grandmother. He realises he has landed in a cottage in the forest and that his new, extended family is evil. So this is why his mother worked hard to keep him away from them. He immediately faces a moral dilemma: Do I separate myself from these people or do I learn their way of life? He must choose between light and dark, good and evil. This is a stark moral dilemma reminiscent of the black and white nature of fairy tales.

Sometimes in fairy tales, witches have their powers taken away. This happens to Smurf when she is sent to prison.

Nicky is the naive, pretty (but not dangerously beautiful) peasant girl who doesn’t fully understand the danger of the outside world. Nicky is abducted by Cody enemies partly because of her own naivety. Nicky plays the part of Little Red Riding Hood, warned of the dangers of other people, constantly refusing to listen. Eventually she finds her world so limited that the only safe place for her is within the walls of the Cody Mansion, and even then she’s vulnerable due to her own naivety.

Snow White is basically the same character archetype as Little Red Riding Hood — kind and simple and sweet and vulnerable. Nicky finds herself in a Snow White tale, doing the washing and cleaning for the male ‘dwarfs’ around her, who go out to work each day and allow her to stay there out of their own good graces. There are plenty of fairy tales about young women who find themselves cooking and cleaning for large groups of men in the woods — it just so happens that Snow White is the most famous of the subgenre. In season three, when Mia Trujillo infiltrates the Cody Mansion, Snow White has basically been tricked by another kind of witch. (So has J — even more so.) Or, you could see Mia as a classic trickster character. All wicked witches are also tricksters, despite the powers available to them.

In the “Prey” episode of season three, J and one of his uncles have a problem with a demented tenant. Knowing she’ll soon be questioned by police, J tests her (tests are also common in fairytales) and realises she can’t keep his story straight. So now he has to get rid of her. First the men discuss if they should kill her. No, that is too confronting for them. Instead, the writers borrow from fairy tale logic. They take her far away, dump her at a bus stop, tell her they’re going to bring her a milkshake then drive off, leaving her alone with her beloved cat.  This subplot has the story structure of Hansel and Gretel. Gerontricide was a reality in earlier human eras, especially when we were still nomadic.

Animal Kingdom is basically a return to an earlier, more brutal time, and reminds us that our veneer of civility is just that; a veneer. We all have a price.

Lemon girl young adult novella


Cameras In Storytelling

The invention of cameras was a boon for storytellers. Writers and film directors have this new narrative tool — in the shape of a camera — which allows them to play around with perspective, to use as a metaphor and as a way to explore death. (No kidding. Read on!)


Some characters use a camera. These characters love their camera. They’ll have the device with them everywhere they go and they’ll use it well, usually sticking it in the most unwelcome of places – they’ll take the most inane pictures they can, record everything they see or all of the above (maybe even at the risk of life or limb). Something embarrassing happens? They’ll snap a shot. Important plot event? They caught it on tape. You can always expect this character to wear their camera on their sleeve for any important or non-important moment that may arise, probably becoming uncomfortable without the object at near. It’s possible that they derive some kind of strange pleasure from watching people, though its best not to get into that.

TV Tropes

Twelve-year-old Circa Monroe has a knack for restoring old photographs. It’s a skill she learned from her dad, who loves old pictures and putting fun digital twists on them. His altered “Shopt” photos look so real that they could fool nearly anybody, and Circa treasures the fun stories he makes up to explain each creation.

One day, her father receives a strange phone call requesting an urgent delivery, and he heads out into a storm. The unimaginable happens: a tornado, then a terrible accident. Just as Circa and her mom begin to pick up the pieces, a mysterious boy shows up on their doorstep, a boy called Miles who remembers nothing about his past. The only thing he has with him is the photograph that Circa’s dad intended to deliver on the day he died.

As Circa tries to help Miles recover his identity, she begins to notice something strange about the photos she and her father retouched-the digital flourishes added to the old photos seem to exist in real life. The mysteries of the Shopt photos and Miles’s past are intertwined, and in order to solve both, Circa will have to figure out what’s real and what’s an illusion.

Why have photography hobbyists become such a popular trope, especially in young adult novels?

Photography affords YA novelists an opportunity to explore the relationship between agency, death and discourse. […] Novels that employ photography create many opportunities for characters to explore metaphorically the relationship between subject and object, betwween acting and being acted upon. 

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

Death In Children’s Literature

Seelinger Trites works with the theory that death and narrative structure are linked. 

[Many YA] novels employ photographing protagonists as metaphors for the relationship between power and agency. The metaphor of the camera bestowing upon the photographer a sense of empowerment based on the communicative abilities of photographs occurs often in literature. 

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
Fred Irvin (American, b. 1914). The Photo Booth, Catholic Digest cover, October 1960
Fred Irvin (American, b. 1914). The Photo Booth, Catholic Digest cover, October 1960

As examples, Seelinger Trites analyses the following:

  • A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry (1977)
  • Witch Baby by Francesca Lia Block (1991) 
  • Spite Fences by Trudy Krisher (1994)

Now that cameras are ubiquitous, it’s no surprise photography has become increasingly common in stories for YA. More modern examples (created after Seelinger Trites wrote Disturbing The Universe):

  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl — the viewpoint character makes experimental short movies — Lowry’s A Summer To Die sounds like it might have been the mother of Jesse Andrews’ novel. Both are about teenagers standing nearby as another teenager dies. 
  • The Secret History Of Us by Jess Kirby — the viewpoint character has lost her memory in an accident. Photographic evidence helps her to work out the mystery of what happened to her and provokes the return of certain memories.
  • The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw — a love story about a shy photographer and a girl who is slowly turning into glass.
  • Hold Still by Nina LaCour — photography is a means of expression for Caitlin, functioning kind of like a diary
  • Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan — When Blake snaps a picture of a street person for his photography homework, he never dreamed that the woman in the photo was his friend Marissa’s long-lost meth addicted mom. The flash is especially metaphorical: “You got too close to the subject. So the flash overexposed her.”

Photographers as main characters aren’t limited to YA by any means — Nora Roberts likes a photographer as character. Goodreads has a list of novels with characters who love photography.


Seelinger Trites explains that photography has a specific function in YA, and the pattern is repeated. The camera is a ‘metaphorical representation for achieving agency’. When you’re on the snapping side of the camera you are no longer the object. You’re in control. You’re the one doing the observing, the judging. In a photography narrative, the main character becomes more and more aware of their own agency. That’s the character change. 

Pictures are important not so much in and of themselves but for what they teach the adolescent, especially as they become repeated artifacts that allow the character to witness the same scene during several different points in her or his development.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

[The] need to recognize one’s own agency is a central pattern of adoleescent literature; we achieve adulthood more comfortably if we recognize that we have some control over the various subject positions we occupy than if we feel entirely like objects, pawns, in other people’s movements. But conversely, maturity also depends on our ability to maintain, when necessary, an object position, for we are all objects of the cultural forces that constantly shape us. Again, the relationship between subjecta nd object is a fluid one, but gaining an increased understanding of one’s power as an acting subject is inevitable during maturation.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe


In 1977, Susan Sontag produced a collection of essays On Photography. It’s pretty famous. Points especially relevant to YA:

  • In their ubiquity and passivity, photographs can become a source of aggression.
  • Cameras can create a sense of vicariousness that may also sanction the photographer’s nonintervention in painful issues.
  • For characters who take pictures instead of becoming involved, photography can become a source of complicity, a way to approve tacitly that which they may not otherwise be able to change.
  • Cameras serve to both empower and disempower adolescents’ agency.


Until recently, regular kids didn’t have access to cameras. Now every adult carries a camera in their pocket and we give our older models to our kids. Kids take photos now. Perhaps this is part of the reason photography as a metaphor has come down into MG.

Though this novel wasn’t originally written for children, the camera plays a starring role in Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk, in which the town vagabond is entrusted with a camera which has been won — along with a lifetime’s supply of film — by the main character’s family. When I read this story I assumed the camera had been included for the sake of the plot, even though the setting is based on the author’s own grandparents’ farm, but as it turns out they really did win a lifetime’s supply of photos after the war, when film and development was very expensive. In Wolf Hollow Toby is a what TV Tropes refers to as a ‘camera fiend’.

The reason I assumed the camera was a plot device is because it’s a very good one. When a story is written using anything other than an omniscient viewpoint, a camera can offer insights and evidence concerning happenings outside the realm of the characters’ knowledge. In this MG novel, the camera isn’t really used as part of the main character’s change to someone with agency, but as part of the mystery plot. Mystery writers must come up with various ways their young characters can solve mysteries — talking to adults, keeping watch from the shadows and finding evidence such photos are common tricks.


It is generally assumed in story that the camera does not lie. While this has been true until recently, that’s changing. We’re yet to see many stories come through — at least for younger children — which make use of the fact that photos can be easily doctored by anyone with appropriate software. I predict ‘fake news’ as a huge theme in YA fiction in the coming years.


There are definitely camera as gun elements to Wolk’s Wolf Hollow, in which Toby is hunted as wolf while he in turn is only as dangerous as a camera, shooting nothing more than photos.

In Surfacing, Margaret Atwood also uses the camera as a stand-in for a gun. It’s handy that in English the word ‘shoot’ is used for both taking a photo and using a gun. Cameras are a recurring motif throughout Atwood’s work.

Note that when we say ‘camera as gun’ we are talking about the invasive nature of cameras. When you have a camera pushed into your face without your consent, and when the photos of you are seen by others without your consent, this is invasive.

It is a superstition of many Real Life religions and cultures that cameras and photography are harmful, with many believing that being photographed may steal their soul and taking great pains to avoid it (This is ostensibly the Soul Jar variant of the Phantom Zone Picture).

Magical Camera


Absent from classic fairy tales: Cameras. Tales as collected by Grimm are not about self-reflection. Characters don’t grow. They exist as archetypes. Fairy tales are told by an unseen omniscient narrator, avoiding the more modern narrative tricks.

But there is a fairytale camera equivalent, I believe, and that is the mirror. When Snow White’s mother asks the mirror to educate her on the fairest in the land, she knows and we know that it is telling her the truth. (Mirrors aren’t known for their diplomacy, and nor are cameras.)

In Northern Lights (The Golden Compass), Philip Pullman creates a fantasy world with a palimpsest of our real world — Oxford, Whitehall, Lapland, Berlin. Accordingly, he includes fantasy elements which are connected to real world technologies. Early in the story we see the Scholars — with Lyra hidden in the wardrobe — showing what Pullman calls ‘photograms‘ from an expedition to the North. These photograms are in black and white, in keeping with the olde worlde feel of Oxford and the patriarchal set up depicted. Some of the photos from the expedition have been developed using the normal emulsion, but some of them have been developed using ‘special emulsion’. This reveals a different landscape altogether — the Scholars and Lyra can now see a hidden city, existing in a world separate but connected from our own.

A photogram is not something entirely made up by Pullman. It is a picture produced with photographic materials, such as light-sensitive paper, but without a camera. How do you take a photo without a camera, you might ask? By placing objects directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material such as photographic paper and then exposing it to light.

Later the word ‘photogram’ was used to refer to the earliest photographs. The word has now fallen out of use.

In fantasy, a variety of tools can be used for the purpose of seeing into a parallel, magical world. In The Spiderwick Chronicles, Holly Webb invents a ‘seeing stone’ which allows the main characters to see hobgoblins in the garden.

Scene from The Spiderwick Chronicles movie


How To Make Friends With A Ghost camera dusty camera lens
from How To Make Friends With A Ghost by Rebecca Green, a cosy picture book ghost story
Insidious Movie Poster

The trope in which cameras reveal what the eye cannot see is used heavily in the horror genre. The camera which can see paranormal activity is a type of magical camera, reminiscent of the fairy tale magic mirror. 

For instance, in the film Insidious, a medium and her crew come to a haunted house, and by putting different ‘magical’ filters on the camera they are able to see scary, ghostly creatures hovering behind the boy, getting closer and closer until finally they are right inside him, inhabiting his body.

In one shot we see a picture of the sympathetic father but through the lens of the camera we learn he has been possessed by this hideous creature:

Insidious The Last Key camera
Insidious The Last Key camera

Insidious is not a particularly original horror film but it does what it does very well, making an excellent job of evoking a nightmare. Once the father is in the other world — the world we’ve been shown glimpses of via the camera in the familiar world — there is no longer any need for the camera as such, but that doesn’t mean cameras are not of influence. As he wanders around the scary mansion he finds gothic and grotesque creatures who stand (almost perfectly) still, as if their photograph has been taken and now that’s all that’s left of them.

Here he examines a woman who stands completely still in the middle of ironing in a 1950s version of his living room, except when she blinks and scares the living daylights of both him and the audience.


Though The Blair Witch Project is also a horror, it uses the camera differently. This film tells the story of characters who have been killed. We know at the beginning of the story that they are dead, which adds suspense and intrigue from the start. This lets us sit through the slightly unpleasant and somewhat boring experience of watching unedited footage as three film students pack for a hike in the woods, asking each other about film and equipment etc. The ‘unfound (and unedited) footage’ story provides the narrative reason why anyone knows what happened.

Blair Witch Evil Hides In The Woods movie poster landscape
Blair Witch Evil Hides In The Woods
The memorable Blair Witch selfie with close up of nose
The memorable Blair Witch selfie

The Blair Witch Project is the archetypal example of the In-Universe Camera trope.

Lemon girl young adult novella


Goldilocks and The Three Bears Fairy Tale Analysis

Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Katharine Pyle - Boucle d'OrGoldilocks and the Three Bears by Katharine Pyle - Boucle d'Or

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at a classic fairytale, Goldilocks and the Three Bears.


Here’s the version I’m looking at:

Goldilocks, wildflower picker, enters the snug little cottage in the woods, knowing or not knowing whose it is, the owners absent as if by arrangement. Three pots of porridge, three chairs, three beds. Too hot, too cold, too high, too wide, too hard, too soft. Just right. The rule of three. G eats, breaks, crawls in. The owners return. There has been an intruder!

The Goldilocks Variations from The American Reader


This is an interesting question, because you could pick Goldilocks or you could pick ‘The Three Bears’, with focus on the Baby Bear, since the target audience is going to identify with him.

I’m going to pick Goldilocks. The human girl is slightly closer to the human child reader, and we’re with Goldilocks when she enters the bears’ house in the woods, which means we’re exploring a new environment along with her. You could also argue that Baby Bear is just as convincing as ‘the main character’, but if in doubt, ask the question ‘Who changes the most?’ I’d wager Goldilocks gets the biggest fright and learns the biggest lesson.

What is wrong with Goldilocks?

Oh! I just realized! You know why this struck such a chord with me? No, of course you don’t. Well, I’ll tell you: I’ve been rearranging all of our fairy tale picture books, and so I’ve been thinking a lot about various stories and whatnot, but especially about how Goldilocks is SUCH A JERK. I mean, she breaks into someone’s house, eats their food and breaks their stuff, and somehow we’re supposed to care about/root for her? NO, THANK YOU. Anyway, I love that This is Not My Hat is kind of the anti-Goldilocks.

Bookshelves Of Doom

I’m not so hard on Goldilocks, because I code her as about five or six. She probably shouldn’t have been left to wander into the woods in the first place. In most versions from my childhood, she is illustrated as a well-dressed, upper-class little girl with the Sunday frock and the ribbons. If I was illustrating her, I would dress her in a ragged tunic and bare feet. Because a well-dressed little girl wouldn’t have been afforded that amount of freedom.

On the other hand, this is the escapist longing of that well-dressed, upper-class little girl, who would never be allowed into the woods. Of course.


A lot of children’s stories start out with a character who is basically bored. Goldilocks seems driven by pure curiosity. She’s not a thief, she’s not a starving urchin who has broken in with any purpose.


This information is withheld until the middle, used as a reveal when the three bears arrive back home after a stroll in the woods.


Goldilocks is fascinated by a cabin in the woods, goes in and tries to work out who lives there by conducting small experiments: testing each bowl of porridge


The climax (Big Battle) is very obvious: The bears find Goldilocks asleep in Baby Bear’s bed. She is so startled she escapes out the window.

Walter Crane, illustration for The Three Bears, 1873
Walter Crane illustration for The Three Bears, 1873

This is one of those fairy tales which is designed to be retold orally, perhaps by adults who have never been taught to read and write. When the bears find Goldilocks asleep, this provides opportunity for a jump scare — a pounce, a tickle and a great burst of laughter. Another fairy tale good for this purpose is Red Riding Hood, in which the wolf eats the girl.

JESSIE WILLCOX SMITH (American, 1863-1935) Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Swift's Premium Soap Products calendar illustration, 1916
JESSIE WILLCOX SMITH (American, 1863-1935) Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Swift’s Premium Soap Products calendar illustration, 1916


The rest of the story is chopped off, but the narrative still feels complete because we can extrapolate (guess) the rest.

Goldilocks learns that when you break into someone’s house you might meet with danger.

In any fairy tale, it’s not just the fictional character who learns something, but also the reader:

When [Goldilocks] samples the three chairs, porridges, and beds, Goldilocks discovers that Papa Bear’s items are not right and that Mama Bear’s don’t suit; only Baby Bear’s chair, porridge, and bed are perfect. As psychologist Bruno Bettelheim suggests, this story teaches the child two things: that there are roles in the family and just which one is theirs. (It teaches this lesson, we might add, by means of bears.)

Jerry Griswold
A tense scene from Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Arthur Rackham (1867 - 1939)
A tense scene from Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Arthur Rackham (1867 – 1939)


I’m guessing those bears were left in peace, at least by Goldilocks. Someone needs to write a story about how Goldilocks became a breaker and enterer, and did three and a half years’ bird as a small-time crim.


For a very brief synopsis of each of the main versions: The Goldilocks Variations from The American Reader

An early version is quite disturbing to modern sensibilities. Marina Warner writes of the story written and illustrated by Eleanor Mure:

Controlling children through bogeys, rather than lulling their terrors through merriment, inspires many famous tales in English in the nineteenth century. The earliest written version of “Goldilocks”, called “The Three Bears” in a manuscript of 1831, does not feature the little girl of today but another witchy old woman, and in much less benign spirit than the characters of nursery rhymes. At first, she stoves in the chair she sits on and lands, legs flailing, on her bottom; her pranks in this story are at first intended to be funny but turn ambiguous. For the end appals: the bears ‘drag forth the dame, half expiring with fear’, maltreat her for a witch, throwing her on the fire to burn her, and then ‘swimming ‘ her in a pond where, like a reputed witch, she floats. As if this were not enough, they then ‘chuck her aloft of St Paul’s churchyard steeple’. The teller also illustrated her manuscript, which she was giving as a present to her nephew. The three bears’ house is very large, gracious and well-appointed, and stands behind bayonet railings: the little nephew was learning about the social order. Violence in children’s literature changes form, and its targets differ—but it never disappears.

From The Beast To The Blonde, Marina Warner
Fairy Gold A Book Of Chosen Fairytales
Fairy Gold A Book Of Chosen Fairytales
The Three Bears large house
Not the quaint cottage today’s children are more familiar with.
Three Bears Kill Old Lady
‘Expiring’ is obviously a more child friendly way to say ‘kill’.
Burning Old Lady
You may notice the fairytale reference to witch burning.

This tale has changed a lot over the years, as all fairytales have. Originally, the intruder was an old woman. Then she was aged down, then she was given blonde hair, named ‘Goldilocks’ and has been known as Goldilocks since. Sometimes it only takes one version or illustrator to lead to a big change like that. Snow White was changed permanently by Disney, who gave the dwarves the jobs of miners. Previously they weren’t miners, and they didn’t have those names.

Clothes, or No Clothes?

The Three Bears in The Golden Goose Book, 1905, are not dressed; they live in a charming house that seems to have been transported to the wood from Hampstead Garden Suburb; they are not fearsome except by their sheer size. Their animal faces have deftly indicated human expressions of surprise and censure at their discoveries and absurd parental pride in the antics of the small Bear who wails and grouses like a child or jumps and somersaults in excited fun and naughtiness. Their bear home is full of fancies with punning human words, pictures, ornaments and books turned into their bear equivalents.

Animal Land, Margaret Blount
naked bears

 Faulty Physics In Goldilocks And The Three Bears

Baby Bear Is Mad
Gets me every time.

Fair enough that the largest bowl of porridge is too hot. Fair enough that the mother’s medium sized bowl is too cold. But how can the baby bear’s even smaller bowl of porridge be just right? If it’s the smallest mass of the lot, it holds its heat for the shortest time. It should be even colder. This just doesn’t make sense.

(Unless, of course, three separate batches of porridge were made from scratch, to cater to everyone’s preferred consistency. I do know families who prepare meals like this.)

There’s a feminist issue in here. I’m sure of it. I understand the three bears went for a walk to let their porridge cool down. Whose idea was that? I presume from the state in which Goldilocks found the porridge, that it was only the father bear’s porridge which had been too hot; I imagine also that the mother bear went along with him, even though her own porridge was probably just right and she wanted to eat it then and there. She should’ve let him go out for his own bloody walk. Then none of this sorry saga would’ve happened.

Kay Nielsen, The Story of the Three Bears, 1930
The bears all growled at once from the Tenngren Tell It Again Book, Gustaf Tenngren
The bears all growled at once from the Tenngren Tell It Again Book, Gustaf Tenngren
The Big Book of Nursery Tales retold by Evelyn Andreas illustrated by Leonard Weisgard (1954) goldilocks three bears house
The Big Book of Nursery Tales retold by Evelyn Andreas illustrated by Leonard Weisgard (1954). For more examples of cutaway houses, see here.


After researching the history of this fairy tale I wrote my own, called “The Porridge Thief”. I went back to the story’s roots and my version is an allegory of homelessness, which affects older women in particular, even today.

JESSIE WILLCOX SMITH Goldilocks and the three Bears
JESSIE WILLCOX SMITH Goldilocks and the three Bears