“Old Mother Frost” is a German fairy tale also known as “Mother Holle“, “Mother Hulda” and “Frau Holle“. Across cultures, other weather conditions are used: Lady Snowstorm, Old Mother Blizzard in Russia. The Grimm Brothers collected this story for their book Children’s and Household Tales (1812). The narrative seems to comprise jigsaw pieces from Cinderella (for the wicked stepsister and mother), The Frog Princess (for the well/spring) and religious dualistic thinking. It’s clearly a story for and by women and girls. The central image of the spindle suggests it was told among spinsters. This one also has a didactic function: Good girls do housework; bad girls slack off.Continue reading “Old Mother Frost”
Pitschi is a picture book written and illustrated by Swiss storyteller Hans Fischer, first published in 1948. Pitschi is a good example of a post war children’s book: dangerously cosy with a stay at home message.Continue reading “Pitschi by Hans Fischer (1948)”
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney (1982) is a beautiful picture book with a gentle message encouraging children to create beauty in the world. Cooney’s art is a mixture of full-bleed landscapes and spot illustration.
That said, this is a classic example of an old picture book with an environmental message which has not held up well, at least outside America.
(Actually, not so well within America, either. Miss Rumphius features cigar store Indians in it and on the prow of the ship.)Continue reading “Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney”
“The Little Governess” (1915) is one of the most functionally useful stories Katherine Mansfield wrote. It’s a cautionary tale without the Perrault didacticism. It’s Little Red Riding Hood, but social realism. This story exists to say, “You’re not alone.” It’s a gendered story, about the specifically femme experience of being alone in public space. Some critics find the ending inadequate. This is a stellar example of a lyrical short story with emotional closure but no plot closure. And it only succeeds in offering emotional closure if the reader can identify with the experience.
Tricksters, villains and criminals are everywhere in narrative. But throughout storytelling, across history the femme seule must deal with a particular subcategory of predator: The sexually predatory trickster. “The Little Governess” is Mansfield’s treatment of that particular dynamic.
Though this story is over 100 years old, it hasn’t dated as much as we might have hoped. Have you ever got a bad feeling about somebody but didn’t want to seem rude, so went along with their plan anyway? “The Little Governess” is a case study into why a young woman might ignore her instincts and find herself isolated.Continue reading “The Little Governess by Katherine Mansfield”
Ah, I have a soft spot for short stories about spinsters about town, enjoying their passions in solitary fashion. “Tricks” by Alice Munro calls to mind Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill”, especially after mention of the symbolic scarf: Miss Brill, you may recall, wears a fur. Robin of Munro’s story “Tricks” does not; she is instead disturbed by someone else’s fox scarf in the Lost and Found. If settings could collide and time elide, I imagine that ‘disgusting-looking brownish fox scarf’ was left there by Miss Brill herself. (That fur had never been the same, of course, after having her fashion choice dissed by strangers at the park.)
Like Miss Brill, Robin finds herself permanently unpartnered.
But of all Katherine Mansfield’s women, Alice Munro’s Robin reminds me most of Bertha — Bertha of “At The Bay”, who constantly imagines men (and women) admiring her and might easily fall immediately and hopelessly in love, because her expansive imaginative world keeps her primed for it. Perhaps if Katherine Mansfield had lived as long as Alice Munro she’d have written Bertha as an older woman, and then Bertha may have found the strength of character that was always evident in Robin.
THE EMOTIONAL RESONANCE OF LONGING
The final sentence of this story delivers a punch to the gut. Where does the emotional resonance of “Tricks” come from?
The plot of this story begins like that of Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” trilogy. In Linklater’s initial film:
A young man and woman meet on a train in Europe, and wind up spending one evening together in Vienna. Unfortunately, both know that this will probably be their only night together.
Likewise in part one of “Tricks”, a man and a woman meet by chance encounter, start to fall in love, then are parted for a length of time. They agree to meet again in one year to recreate the romance: Same place, same dress.
Nicholas Sparks makes a meal of such longing in his love tragedies. Of all the emotions, I find the ‘yearning’ emotion is successfully recreated in many fictional simulations of it. At first glance there doesn’t seem to be much of a trick to writing a moving story like this:
- set up a chance encounter between two people
- create some reason why the potential lovers must remain apart
- then keep them apart for ages, possibly forever.
All romantic stories will include a stretch of longing. (Approximately 120 minutes of it in fact, in a romantic film.)
The hard part these days, in a hyperconnected world, is coming up with a believable reason why two lovers can’t just get together. This particular story is starts off in the 1960s, which helps.
Alice Munro also makes Danilo Montenegrin. By prior arrangement he is going back there from Canada. (Is he going to collect his brother because ailing parents no longer can?)
Am I glossing over a few essential ingredients of writing a love story about romantic longing?
First the writer must create characters who are obviously meant for one another. This isn’t so easy. We have to like both characters and we must want them to find love.
In “Tricks”, Alice Munro presents Robin in all her defective glory. We don’t get inside Danilo’s head but we observe him as Robin sees him — he is a gentleman. Why do I think he’s a gentleman? Because he has many opportunities to murder her and does not. I tell you, the bar for strange men is low. I worry for Robin when she goes into his house. I worry again when they go for a walk along the river. (The horror riverspace of popular culture is strewn with murdered women’s bodies, thanks, Green River Killer.)
To be fair, Danilo does seem a nice man. He lends money to a stranger in need. Okay, he may have romantic motives, and if Robin weren’t wearing that beautiful green dress, would he have been so kind?
Could green symbolise longing as well as envy? Isn’t envy a subcategory of longing? (Robin’s original dress is avocado with a full skirt and a pinched waist. The replacement is lime green.)
Also important in stories of yearning and longing — if not vital then at least very common: The two romantic partners meet by chance. If any number of factors had been different, they would never have met at all.
George Michael’s “Different Corner” asks us to consider the random nature of love:
Turn a different corner and we never would have met
I put it to you that fatalism, especially when it comes to love, is a comforting worldview. It is quite disturbing to really get our heads around the statistics — why this exact combination of me and not all those other millions of sperms? Why me with all these riches? Why am I not one of the 820 million humans who still don’t have enough to eat? If I’d hadn’t gone to the pub/nightclub/party that Friday, who would be my life partner/boy friend/girl friend right now instead of the one I’ve got now (or not)?
What if? The what if question is hugely resonant in story and if you can create it in narrative you’ll be leaving the audience with something. The ‘what if’ doesn’t have to involve romance but it will probably involve human relationships. In The Wrestler (starring Mickey Rourke basically as himself) the what if spans family and acquaintance relationships as well as a romantic one.
In “Tricks”, what if Robin had not lost her handbag? What if she had not visited the Lost and Found before sitting down right at the moment Danilo happened to pass by? Turn a different corner and they never would have met.
It is common to believe when we fall in love that our lover was made for us. Solipsistic? Yes, but it’s very common. In Danilo’s absence, Robin falls into this way of thinking herself, while doing research on Danilo’s home country:
The thought of him was there when she woke up, and in lulls at work. The Christmas celebrations brought her thoughts round to ceremonies in the Orthodox Church, which she had read about, bearded priests in gold vestments, candles and incense and deep mournful chanting n a foreign tongue. The cold weather and the ice far out into the lake made her think of winter in the mountains. She felt as if she had been chosen to be connected to that strange part of the world, chosen for a different sort of fate. These were the words she used to herself. Fate. Lover. Not boyfriend. Lover.
STORY WORLD OF “TRICKS”
Specific real world places are mentioned, for example Downie Street, Stratford (Ontario).
I find it hard to get a handle on Ontario’s geography, but it seems Robin has travelled to Perth County to see As You Like It, which is where she met Danilo all those years ago.
“Tricks” is a story which seems set in a mythic, nowhere time — he’s a clockmaker, same as Belle’s father in the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast. This is a vocation that goes back as far as… well, clocks. Because Danilo has an ancient profession. There must be something more to this ‘clockmaker in a timeless setting’ thing.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SPACE AND PLACE
Montenegro is a foreign, exotic place to Robin, much like Iceland is a duality of real PLACE and imaginary, mythical SPACE in “The Bear Came Over The Mountain“.
The distinction between ‘place’ and ‘space’ is important, in both stories. Harvard professor Lawrence Buell made the distinction, with his career-long interest in how literature interacts with environment (spatial theory). Buell built upon a conversation started by E. V. Walter, who wrote:
people do not experience abstract space; they experience places. A place is seen, heard, smelled, imagined, loved, hated, feared, revered, enjoyed, or avoided
In theory, it’s possible to be familiar with a ‘space’ without being familiar with a ‘place’. By going to the library and researching Montenegro, Robin has created an imaginative space without being familiar with the real world place.
This is an important distinction in the work of Alice Munro. Her characters often live, imaginatively, in a space and this space has an influence on how they act in the real world. This makes the imaginative space no less real than if they knew the place, though its influence is different.
Often these characters experience fernweh. I experience this myself — two places in particular. One is for Canada (hence my interest in the work of Alice Munro). I’ve never set foot in Canada and I don’t want to, lest my imaginative space become sullied. The other is for my home country, New Zealand. I’ve been away for long enough that my home country has changed a lot. It seems quite foreign to me now. I don’t understand the in-jokes, the TV celebrities have died or been replaced. (Or become disturbingly old.) From Australia I listen to Radio New Zealand podcasts, I read some New Zealand news, get social media updates from now-distant friends. I have recreated an imaginative space in my mind. I’d love to move back to New Zealand. It seems quite perfect to me now. Yet once I couldn’t wait to leave. I remind myself that my imaginative space of New Zealand is different from the real place.
Related: John Cheever’s “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” is also about fernweh, and imaginative space. See also Munro’s “Jakarta”. That story is not set in the place of Jakarta but in the imaginative, mythical space, created by the Canadian character.
Alice Munro’s characters don’t always pick a different country as their imaginative space. “Cortes Island” is one Canadian example, conjured by a Canadian character.
In “Tricks”, the river is another heavily symbolic place. Robin’s view of it changes over the course of the story to reflect her mood. At first it might be a horrorspace — is this man going to murder her down there? When they have their romantic evening, that same river is transformed into a romantic scene, with lamps lighting her way along its banks. After rejection she notices the black duck — the odd one out.
Part Two goes into a beachspace as setting. The changes around the beach show how much things in general change over time:
The beach is no longer surrounded by railway sheds and warehouses — you can walk on a boardwalk for a mile along the lake.
As happened to coastal beaches in Australia, the beach around Lake Ontario has become increasingly more urban as the city and its suburbs encroach further onto the sand, no longer an industrial arena but one of entertainment and relaxation.
THE SEASONS OF STORYTELLING
Part one takes place in two winter times, but at the beginning of winter. Part two takes place after Christmas. When it comes to the symbolism of seasons in Western narrative, the beginning of winter is quite different from the downhill slide that happens after Christmas. The build-up is exciting; after the celebrations are over, there’s February to get through, and March, with little to look forward to except slush and going back to routine.
The ice is rough, in some places it looks as if big waves had been frozen in place. Workmen are out taking down the Christmas lights. Flu is reported. People’s eyes water from walking against the wind. Most women are into their winter uniform of sweatpants and ski jackets.
Once again, Alice Munro screws with my sense of time. I don’t realise until ‘Joanne has been dead for eighteen years’ that this is not the end of the very same winter. This must be deliberate, of course, otherwise it would’ve been said in the opening sentence to part two.
Why? Why is Alice Munro messing with me again? For Robin, time has stood still. This has just been described in her appearance — unlike the married women, this single woman remains a sophisticate in appearance.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “TRICKS”
Like “Trespasses”, the preceding short story in Munro’s Runaway collection, “Tricks” opens with a dramatic scene — not disposal of a mystery box, but a different kind of mystery: What’s so important about a green dress that Robin will ‘die’ if she doesn’t get it back from the dry-cleaner’s?
That green dress is the first thing we learn about Robin: She is really worried about a particular green dress. Why? What’s with the dress? Munro encourages the reader to side with the characters playing rummy nearby, who mock her for caring so much.
Why do they mock her? Why do we mock her, perhaps? This is an older woman going out on a date with herself. The media mocked Emma Watson when she said she’s ‘self-partnered‘. What does the dominant culture find so detestable about this? (Long story short, women are rendered less intimidating when viewed in relation to men.)
When Robin admires herself in the bathroom mirror, we as readers are invited to cast further judgement. She chastises herself: perhaps she lost her hand bag because she was admiring her back in the mirror. Alongside Robin, we code this behaviour as shallow and vain.
But I think there’s a bigger cultural sin here: Who, exactly, is this woman trying to impress? No one, as it happens. We mock her for caring about her dress because she is going on a date with herself. At least, that’s how Alice Munro sets it up. I didn’t initially realise the opening scene is chronologically subsequent to admiring herself in the mirror and losing her handbag. A second reading reveals this time jump to be clear, but I believe the elision of times is deliberate on Munro’s part — this episode in the bathroom is depicted as almost iterative, even though meeting the man is very much singulative.
So I don’t code Robin as shallow and vain. I see her as, well, ’empowered’ (an annoying word). She’s not sitting back and watching the world pass her by; Robin enjoys plays, so she will enjoy them alone. Loneliness does not consume her. Of course, this is exactly where you want to be when entering a new relationship: comfortable in your own company.
Nonetheless, Robin irritates me at times.
As an erstwhile cleaner myself, who handed in vast quantities of found cash (lecture theatre seats are good at flipping wallets out of back pockets), the following observation troubles me whenever I come across it — the prejudice that people near the bottom of the socio economic rung are somehow less trustworthy than those at the top:
[Robin] could imagine Joanne saying that the cleaning man had already stashed her purse away to take home to his wife or his daughter, that is what they were like in a place like this.
Despite the class prejudices, Robin possesses a reasonably woke attitude towards what we nowadays know as ‘othering‘. Othering is not a new concept but only recently do people untrained in social sciences and philosophy know what it means. Robin knows the concept but uses her own language to expres her discomfort in talking to a foreigner:
It was rude, she supposed, to keep asking him things. To make him feel like a specimen. She would have to control herself, though now she could come up with a host of questions.
Robin is an introverted character. This is not told but shown, for example by Robin’s reaction to a more recognisable, extraverted character:
Through the train window she saw rain starting. She did not even have an umbrella. And in the seat across from her was a passenger she knew, a woman who had had her gallbladder out just a few months ago, at the hospital. This woman had a married daughter in Stratford. She was a person who thought that two people known to each other, meeting on the train and headed for the same place, should keep up a conversation.
Throughout the story, Robin is infantalised somewhat. The sister keeps tabs, which is infantalising. At one point Robin ends up sitting in the back of a car with kids, surprised that she hasn’t ended up with Popsicle on her nice dress. The person who offered her a ride has obviously read her as childlike. She feels nervous before meeting Danilo, and compares her nervousness to incidents from childhood — being asked at school to demonstrate a math problem. Others treat her as a child; and at 26, she still sees herself as such. Perhaps this is why Alice Munro describes Joanne, the sister, as resembling a child. To describe Robin as looking like a child as well as feeling like a child would seem a bit on the nose. Also, the sisters are mirror characters — two sides of the same coin. Joanne, who cannot go on home-away-home adventures for health reasons, is the shut-in that Robin might easily become.
Robin wants to follow her passions. She wants alone time. She also wants romance if she gets the opportunity.
Robin’s older sister Joanne is her Opponent at home — frail, asthmatic, passively judgmental and thereby stifling.
Danilo is the Romantic Opponent. There always has to be a bit of tension/opposition in a romance story.
But first, the reader must be shown as early as possible that two characters would be good together. How does Munro show that in “Tricks”? She uses what Matt Bird calls an ‘I understand you’ moment.
The reason so many love stories fail, and so many lame love interests drag stories down, is that the writers have failed to add “I understand you” scenes.
“I understand you” moments don’t have anything to do with wanting to change the other person and everything to do with accepting: We don’t root for Beauty and the Beast to get together until the beast gives Belle his library.
Sometimes you can establish that the two characters understand each other before they even meet.Matt Bird, Secrets of Story
The reader can see these two are compatible at a fundamental level because both Danilo and Robin appreciate a slow life as interested observers. For Robin, this means enjoying plays on her own. For Danilo, this means a childlike enjoyment of rides on trains.
“What are you smiling at?” he said.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, you can go on smiling,” he said, “because I will be happy to lend you some money for the train. What time does it go?”
She told him, and he said, “All right. But before that you should have some food. Or you will be hungry and not enjoy the train ride. […] he spoke of her enjoying the train ride. Nobody she knew would speak of a grown person doing that. But he spoke of it as being quite natural and necessary.
Trains in Munro stories are symbolic — train journey as journey through life. Danilo’s attitude towards train rides signals his attitude towards life.
The plan is basic: Two potential lovers will meet in exactly one year.
At point of reunion in Part One, the plot becomes similar to that of “Louisa, Please Come Home“. Someone who wanted to meet her so badly (Danilo) doesn’t even recognise the young woman he wanted. He slams the door shut in her face.
We don’t learn what happens to Robin in the immediate aftermath of having a door slammed in her face. Instead, we learn where she is in late middle age. This is when she gets her revelation — not so much about herself — she’s had years to do that. This sequences gives her some reasons.
All these years she has been active in a theatre society. Munro slips a bit of intertextuality into the story by revealing that Robin once played a character from an Ibsen play. Hedda Gabler, in Ibsen’s play, is newly married to a man she has never loved. She married him because she thought her years of youthful abandon are over. When she gets bored with her marriage and life, she seeks to influence a human fate for the first time.
How is Hedda Gabler connected to Robin in “Tricks”? Like Joanne, the dead sister, the fictional character of Hedda Gabler serves as a mirror — Hedda got married because she thought she had to whereas Robin went the opposite direction, perhaps partly because she had that door slammed in her face.
I’m sure there are other reasons why Robin never married. She was already an established independent thinker before she even met Danilo. But it may be that the slammed-door incident has shaped her memory of how and why her life went the way it did.
Significantly, Robin now works in a psychiatric ward, caring for patients whose minds have departed from consensus realities. Robin herself let herself be deluded once — when she was young and prone to romantic fantasy. In the interim she has got her fantasy fix in a prescribed, safe manner — through her involvement in theatre. Fantasies come fully formed (e.g. by Ibsen). The patients of the psychiatric ward serve as a kind of worst-case scenario for Robin, who can probably see that imaginative power lies on a continuum, and that all of us sit somewhere along it.
At the conclusion of “Tricks” Munro gives us another man’s story, filtered through Robin. He is a patient in the mental ward, clearly deluded. Why do we get a character sketch of this man? What is his story function?
- Through the retelling of this man’s story we learn that Robin has in the past slept with patients, after their release. Rather than presented as salacious, Robin has found these experiences ‘comforting’. Though I can’t imagine this is an ethical thing to do. ‘With a little encouragement, a little shift in his attention, he could perhaps fall in love with her.’ The phrase ‘with a little encouragement’ worries me deeply, and reveals Robin as the baddie of the piece; in a psychological horror, she definitely would be the baddie: the once-spurned spinster who works in a psych ward to groom mentally ill men at their most vulnerable, and use them for sex and comfort. (While Canadian guidelines may differ, and may differ again for nurses, here are the Australian guidelines for sexual boundaries in the doctor-patient relationship.)
- In a previous scene, Robin thinks she sees Danilo come in as a patient from another unit. At first I think she must be correct — I trust her version — this is an old man version of a man from long ago. But then Munro tells us that his name is different. It now seems very unlikely that this is the same man. Robin uses a ‘mind trick’ to spin a story — he must have given her the wrong name all those years ago. This must be his real name.
When we blur that line between psychosis and reality, it is common to say things like, “I know this sounds crazy but…” With delusions and psychosis, a patient can often see the lack of logic and likelihood, but is nonetheless convinced of delusion as fact. This speaks to the realness of delusion. If we experience something as real, it is all but impossible to cast it aside as our own insanity.
Thus, Robin is presented as a mind situated at that border between fantasy and psychosis.
It is only after we learn that she’s been having sex with released patients that she isn’t all that wrong — this man is Danilo’s brother. Naturally they would look very similar.
Then we learn they are twins, and now for the big reveal: It was the deaf/mute brother who slammed the door all those years ago.
Now we get the big what if:
He must have gone out on an errand. A brief errand. He would not leave that brother in charge for very long. Perhaps the screen door was hooked—she had never tried to push it open. Perhaps he had told his brother to hook it and not open it while he himself was giving Juno a walk around the block. She had wondered why Juno wasn’t there.
If she had come a little later. A little earlier. If she had stayed till the play was over or skipped the play altogether. If she had not bothered with her hair.
But Robin is older now, and finally she is revealed to be sensible, however much I doubt her for her decision to sleep with patients after their release (possibly grooming them).
She is glad the relationship ended swiftly. She can’t imagine a relationship with Danilo would have been good, considering Robin’s asthmatic sister and Danilo’s deaf-mute brother.
However, ‘she is not going to spare a moment’s gratitude for the trick that has been played. But she’ll come round to being grateful for the discovery of it.’
Finally, Robin is revealed to be fully aware of the difference between reality and fantasy, and even that murky interstitial place — perhaps something akin to Edward Soja’s concept of Thirdspace — an amalgamation of reality (Firstspace) and fantasy (Secondspace), encompassing the space of history, temporality and spatiality.
That was another world they had been in, surely. As much as any world concocted on the stage.
Find “Tricks” published in the Runaway collection (2004).
Feminist linguist Debbie Cameron writes about the word ‘spinster’ and why she has reclaimed it in her Twitter handle.
“A Rose For Emily” is a short story by Mississippi born William Faulkner, first published 1930. I didn’t know of the short story when I listened to the podcast Shit Town.
The theme song to Shit Town is A Rose For Emily by The Zombies. There’s exists a disturbing ironic distance between the sadness of the narrative and the upbeat tune. Now I’ve read the short story and also listened to the podcast, I can see why this song was chosen.
As for the short story itself, “A Rose For Emily” is often returned as an excellent example of naturalism.
William Faulkner‘s A Rose for Emily, a story about a woman who killed her lover, is considered an example of a narrative within the naturalism category. This story, which also used Gothic elements, presented a tale that highlighted the extraordinary and excessive features in human nature and the social environment that influences them. The protagonist, Miss Emily, was forced to lead an isolated life, and that — combined with her mental illness — made insanity her inevitable fate. The environment in the forms of a class structure based on slavery and social change, together with heredity, represented the forces beyond her control.Wikipedia, Naturalism
FEATURES OF LITERARY NATURALISM
- Naturalism is a movement from late 1800s to early 1900s.
- Realism came after Romanticism. (See Wikipedia’s list of literary movements.) Naturalism is basically ‘extreme realism’.
- Naturalism is all about exploring common values of the ordinary individual, whereas movements which came before included a lot of symbolism, idealism and even supernatural treatment.
- In naturalism there’s an emphasis on the setting and an exploration of how setting shapes character.
- Naturalism is based around the idea that science (rather than supernatural explanations) account for all social phenomena.
- Darwin pretty much changed everything, and naturalism is his influence on art.
- How do humans interact with nature to become who we are? Naturalist writers explored this question via stories about: natural law, evolution, atavism, and degeneration.
- We’re now in a ‘post-naturalism’ literary period,
Rather than a ‘gothic‘ tale per se, “A Rose For Emily” might better be described as a callback to a twisted Southern Gothic tale. Faulkner borrowed tropes from this movement without belonging to this earlier movement himself.
STORYWORLD OF “A ROSE FOR EMILY”
Emily’s house is your classic house-as-character. Faulkner uses words that more ‘correctly’ describe a human, not an edifice.
It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps—an eyesore among eyesores. And now Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in the cedar-bemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the big struggle of Jefferson.
Faulkner’s famous description of that house is known as dialectical montage — a technique which emphasises, rather than hides, the discontinuity between one image and another. Montage tends to emphasise connections rather than discontinuities, but not this kind. Dialectical = concerned with or acting through opposing forces.
Note that we learn about Emily’s house before we learn about Emily. Emily = her house.
The local history of this Deep South town is the Civil War, the ghost of “A Rose For Emily”. The war is off the page, but influential nonetheless.
At least one scholar has placed Jefferson in Faulkner’s native Mississippi due to an obscure reference. The narrator mentions many cedars in the cemetery. There are no true cedars in North America, but the misnamed Atlantic White cedar, which is actually a cypress, is native and common to Mississippi. There are few to none Atlantic White cedars in the neighboring states.TV Tropes
Faulkner talks about Emily’s lineage — her great aunt and so on, and achieves what Annie Proulx also aims for in her short stories — to paint a portrait of a collection of people living in a community, not just one individual. This is based on the idea that individuals never exist in isolation and are therefore pretty uninteresting on their own.
Faulkner plays around with time as if it doesn’t move like an arrow through space. Miss Emily cuts her hair short, ‘making her look like a girl’ once more.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “A ROSE FOR EMILY”
A lot has been said about the narration of “A Rose For Emily”, because it is a stand-out example of narration which moves seamlessly from multiple perspective to single. Peter Selgin wrote more about that here, in a guide for writers.
The story opens with Faulkner’s narrator describing men as feeling the appropriate emotions around any dead person (respectful affection) and the women as feeling the inappropriate, unfeeling state of ‘curiosity to see the inside of her house’. Immediately I feel more empathy for the men, but also a little irritated at the gender binary summary. Is this going to be an irritating woman-hating tale? This is literally the first I’ve ever read of Faulkner.
I don’t dig far before finding a thesis which suggests Faulkner wrote women according to four main types:
- The Unvanquished — Black and white women who kept the plantations going during the Civil War, or those who held their families together amid disruption.
- Ghosts — De-sexed women, usually spinsters, who have lived the greater part of their lives as barren ‘ladies’. Their puritanical backgrounds have caused them to live these unnatural and tragic lives.
- Earth Mothers — women who scorn traditional codes and allow their primitive female urges to take over.
- Rebels — The inverse of the chaste Southern lady. These women openly reject Southern ideals of womanhood.
Each of these types has her own stock shortcoming. Emily is clearly depicted as belonging to the second category of Faulkner’s women. But she is revealed to be a Rebel.
That was two years after her father’s death and a short time after her sweetheart—the one we believed would marry her — had deserted her. After her father’s death she went out very little; after her sweetheart went away, people hardly saw her at all.
Faulkner is writing a variation of the Madwoman In The Attic trope:
As they recrossed the lawn, a window that had been dark was lighted and Miss Emily sat in it, the light behind her, and her upright torso motionless as that of an idol. […] We did not say she was crazy then.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins is another example of this trope.
There is a full list of tropes used in “A Rose For Emily” at TV Tropes.
But is Emily the main character? The town is the main character really. Emily is an interesting artifact of it. Their shortcoming is that they crave drama, pretend to themselves that they care when they’re really just curious. Worst, their curiosity is misplaced. The narrator describes Emily as looking like an ‘idol’ (as in a statue that doesn’t move) without realising that Emily has created an actual statue of her own. The townsfolk have misjudged and underestimated this woman, thinking her pathetic and ‘mad’ when really she is dangerous and Machiavellian.
It’s more about what Emily does not want.
She does not want to leave her house. She’s a shut-in. She does not want to pay her taxes. We can safely assume she can’t at this stage.
The new aldermen and mayor, who want Emily to start paying her taxes.
The townspeople want her place cleaned up because it smells bad.
Four men break into Emily’s house and scatter lime to get rid of the smell. This does get rid of the smell and they consider their job done. They don’t look beneath the surface, to find whatever’s making that smell.
The Battle scene is in section five, which returns to the beginning of the tale (with seconds two, three and four existing as backstory). The townspeople make the gruesome discovery.
Not all horror has to be directly bloody or violent with its language. For example, William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” is a good example of a violent story which avoids being directly bloody and violent. Faulkner offers subtle cues and creates an air of mystery without truly revealing Emily’s dark side until the end of the tale—
The man himself lay in the bed. For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him. What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust.
In this passage, Faulkner tells the audience what happened to a man that disappeared from Emily’s town (and the story) years before. He has been found—or rather, his skeleton, which is subtly revealed through the language: a “fleshless grin.” The reader learns that there has been a murder, who the murderer is, and that Emily is more disturbed than anyone ever could have imagined.
The plot reveal also explains the title. The ‘rose’ in the title is the gay man who Emily took for herself, killing him for her own purposes.
With her Black servant escaped and Emily herself dead, all that’s left of the family is a good story for the townsfolk to tell and retell over and over. The storyteller narrator may have embellished parts of it, but we’ll never know.
“Miss Brill” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, written 1920, three years before she died. The emotional valence of “Miss Brill” is similar to that in “Bliss“. In both stories, a young woman starts off happy but then an unwelcome Anagnorisis sends her plunging into a downcast mood. In both stories, the reader must do a little work to understand what, exactly, she has realised.
What [Mansfield] does so brilliantly in her writing is to capture the mood of a moment, the feelings that go with some particular event.Susanna Fullerton
In a letter, Mansfield compared her story “Miss Brill” to a piece of music, demonstrating to us how carefully she chose each word: ‘I chose not only the length of every sentence, but even the sound of every sentence. I chose the rise and fall of every paragraph to fit her.’
Connection To Katherine Mansfield’s Own Life
“Miss Brill” is a story about loneliness in a city. There’s something ironic about cities — that you can be chronically lonely even while surrounded by people.
Stories about people who are in some way on the move and have mislaid their roots are so numerous that to express this category as a fraction would be impossible. […] Katherine Mansfield the expatriate colonial, the doubly uprooted, had come on the scene with a talent precisely fitted to the rootless age of solitude in cities, constant movement and dreams of travel.Anthony Alpers, 1984
Another of Mansfield’s stories about a woman alone in a city is “Pictures“. Ada Moss could almost be Miss Brill but a theatrical, older version.
Miss Brill and Me
My boss used to call me ‘Miss Brill’. This was the early 2000s and I was a young high school English teacher. One of my three sets of clothing was a zip up sweater with fur collar, a knee-length skirt, fishnet stockings and shiny black heels with a buckle strap. Pale face, bright lips. I wasn’t consciously emulating a character from the Year 10 short story syllabus, but there you go.
Students had another name for me. Around that time the live action Scooby Doo movies came out. Even my friends told me they were shocked at how much I resembled ‘Velma Dinkley’ as played by Linda Cardellini. That’s when I stopped wearing the orangey red sweater. However, I didn’t mind looking like Miss Brill.
Let it be known that my fur collar was wholly synthetic. But I’m just old enough to remember when men really did give their women fox furs as romantic gifts. My grandmother’s second husband was into that kind of thing, and though I never saw Nana actually wear her dead fox — by then the fashion was well-and-truly over — its beautiful orange fur lay dead and curled up on one of her spare beds. That’s the bed I was required to sleep in when I visited for holidays. The enduring memories of sleeping over at Nana’s: She wouldn’t let me use the main bathroom (for fear I’d mess it up), the sheets were tucked in so firmly that you woke up stiff as a board, and touching that scary fox fur, which looked for all the world like an emaciated sleeping animal, head intact. Furs have a distinctive smell about them, too — nothing animal about it — it’s probably the chemicals used in the process of preservation. That smell is the smell of death to me.
There’s nothing like the skin of a dead mammal to remind a child of death, and I believe the fox fur in this story foreshadows Miss Brill’s Anagnorisis, which is of the Heidegger’s Being-toward-death variety: Miss Brill sees herself as elderly for the first time ever.
What Happens In “Miss Brill”?
A young woman called Miss Brill visits the French Public Gardens on a chilly fine Sunday. She’s wearing a fur animal draped around her neck, after having taken it out of its box, where she probably stored it for summer. The eyes seem sad to her, though of course it’s Miss Brill herself who feels sad. (Pathetic fallacy.) She sits on a seat she considers her special seat.
At the park, Miss Brill surveys the scene around her:
- There’s a band in a rotunda, playing as if there’s no audience.
- She notices what people are wearing, and whether or not the clothing is new.
- Miss Brill doesn’t seem to have a deep understanding of music because she hasn’t the words to describe it, but she appreciates ‘the little “flutey” bit’.
- Two characters share her seat: an old man and woman, together but not speaking. As an adept voyeur, Miss Brill would love to listen in on anything they have to say.
- There’s a flash back to the previous Sunday, showing that Miss Brill is a creature of habit and comes here at the same time each week. She remembers an Englishman and his wife and describes their clothes. She’s a noticer of fashion. Miss Brill reveals herself to be a judgemental snob as well as a voyeur. Their conversation had been about spectacles, a narrative (and actual) symbol of middle-age. Miss Brill had grown inwardly impatient with the woman, who kept making excuses for why she couldn’t wear glasses.
- Bored by the elderly couple with nothing to say, she turns her attention to the antics of the children, and the mothers who remind her of hens with their chicks.
- Miss Brill considers the elderly people sitting on the benches odd. She can’t identify with them (even though she’s sitting on the very same bench, also silent).
- She thinks instead of the children, who juxtapose with the elderly people.
- Eventually a young couple join Miss Brill to replace the elderly couple on the seat. The young man is trying to cajole his beau into something — into kissing him, probably. Miss Brill overhears the young man disparagingly refer to herself as ‘old’, wishing she’d go away. The young woman describes Miss Brill’s fur as reminiscent of ‘fried whiting’, which isn’t in itself a particular insult, but means Miss Brill has become an object of ridicule. She’s now also on the receiving end of her own trick of noticing what other people are wearing, then comparing them to other things for her own amusement.
- Miss Brill normally buys a honey-cake at the baker’s on her way home from sitting in the garden but today she does not.
- At home, she takes off her fur animal and puts it in the box. She imagines she hears ‘something’ crying.
SYMBOL WEB OF “MISS BRILL”
SYMBOLISM OF SEASON
We can infer that this story takes place in autumn. Autumn is well-understood to symbolise late middle age, before the winter which precedes death. Mansfield hints at the season — to say it directly would feel a little too on the nose. We know because of the sunny chill in the air and because of the moth powder, which indicates the fur has been in long storage. Then we are told about the yellow leaves, with emphasis on the sky — the Heavens — arena of death:
Behind the rotunda the slender trees with yellow leaves down drooping, and through them just a line of sea, and beyond the blue sky with gold-veined clouds.
To have something literally dead hanging around one’s neck is no better reminder of one’s own impending death. But that’s not how a fashionable young woman would have seen it back in 1920. This is before animal rights activists did their work in educating the general public on all the very good reasons to avoid wearing fur. At the beginning of this story Miss Brill doesn’t see her fur as a dead creature at all. She sees it as a fashion item, even as she describes its eyes and its nose. But by the end of the story she can no longer manage that. The animal fur now has an emotion; the dead fur feels nothing — this is how Miss Brill feels.
Miss Brill’s foil (proxy) character also wears fur — an ermine (stoat) toque.
The young woman who appears at the end with her beau describes Miss Brill’s fur as ‘fried whiting’, which is presumably not the look Miss Brill was going for. She’s now being compared to food rather than described as a beautiful ‘young lady’.
The spectacles are an obvious symbol for middle-age, and the older woman’s vain refusal to accept her own entrance into that phase of life. But as Marina Warner has said, glasses are one of those things which can mean two opposite things in a story:
Like the absurd figure of the learned ass in popular comic lore, Mother Goose often dons spectacles; in her bird shape, with glasses perched on her beak, she presides before the blackboard in children’s books like Chest Loomis’s Mother Goose Tales.
Spectacles carry a double meaning: in medieval painting, the rabbi at Jesus’ circumcision sometimes wears them, and Saint Anne, too, lays them down in the crease of her Bible. But the learned can be fools, as in Swift’s kingdom of Laputa, were the scholars all wear spectacles and see nothing. And fools, on the other hand, can be wise.Marina Warner, From The Beast To The Blonde
Like the colour yellow in “Bedrock” and blackberries in “Heart songs“, both by Annie Proulx, Mansfield’s glasses in “Miss Brill” carry double, contradictory meaning. Such items are invaluable to a short story writer because they can be absolutely milked for deeper meaning.
The double meaning of glasses: Unless one dons spectacles, admitting one’s own middle age, one will never have the ‘foresight’ to see one needs them in the first place.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “MISS BRILL”
Critic Mieke Bal has called Miss Brill a “Sunday Wanderer” archetype. The Sunday Wanderer is a highly sensitive individual who enjoys observing their surroundings. There are overlaps with the Flaneur. Like a literary flaneur, the Sunday Wanderer is a focaliser. These highly observant characters are great tools for when the author wants to appear to step right out of the picture. The story doesn’t need an unseen narrator adding extra information when the character is as observant as any good author.
When reading a story about a Sunday Wanderer, the reader is invited to wander alongside.
But Miss Brill can’t get inside other characters’ heads. She is limited to what she can observe, and imagine. She can only imagine their motivations. ‘She glanced, sideways, at the old couple. Perhaps they would go soon.’ What Miss Brill imagines says more about her than about the characters she describes.
Like Miss Brill, the reader Sunday Wanderer will be required to fill in the gaps. Here’s how I fill in the gaps:
Miss Brill is so caught up on noticing fashions — ephemeral by their nature — that she has thus far failed to see how quickly the seasons of fashion pass. By extension she hasn’t seen how quickly her own life will pass. Until she understands the ephemeral nature of her own life, she will fail to make the most of it.
[“Miss Brill”] is about an elderly lady who’s obviously English. She’s teaching in France.It’s a job that she absolutely hates and it’s one of her days off and she goes off to a park to just enjoy watching people. And what Katherine Mansfield makes so clear is that Miss Brill has very few friends, she’s very much a woman on her own. And her position is so vulnerable, because the teaching work will run out, she’s having to cope with very little money, she obviously has no security in her life, and that comes through very strongly indeed in the story.
As the story progressed, I had a realisation that Miss Brill — though ‘Miss’ and not ‘Mrs’ (the only two titles available to women in 1920) — was not as young as her childlike voice, with its onomatopoeic turn of phrase and frequent exclamation points. She speaks of the ‘young girls’ with their ‘two young soldiers’ as if they are still children, yet they’re obviously of dating age.
To be old, female and single is a dangerous state in 1920. Women in this position were likely to fall into poverty as they grew older. Even if she worked her whole life, women did not have pay equality. A woman teacher was paid on the assumption that she was earning pocket money until a man came along to turn her into a mother.
Miss Brill wants to do the same thing every Sunday and be entertained by those around her. She hopes interesting people will enter her orbit and carry out amusing, inconsequential conversations so that she might listen in and complete their narratives in her own head.
Unfortunately for Miss Brill, if she’s going to wait around for voyeuristic opportunities, she’s going to overhear conversations she’d rather not. One of these conversations will lead her to an epiphany she’d rather not have.
Miss Brill’s weekly date with herself is to sit in the public gardens on her ‘special’ bench and wait for people to join her on the other end of it. She pretends to be listening to the band, though she has no real appreciation of music. (Rather than listening to the music, she’s imagining there is no audience at all.)
The Battle scene takes place not between the main character (Miss Brill) and an opponent she encounters along her journey. Mansfield does something slightly different: The Battle happens between Miss Brill’s proxy and the man who blows smoke in her face—a blatant and insulting form of rejection.
The day was so charming—didn’t he agree? And wouldn’t he, perhaps?… But he shook his head, lighted a cigarette, slowly breathed a great deep puff into her face, and even while she was still talking and laughing, flicked the match away and walked on. The ermine toque was alone; she smiled more brightly than ever.
“Miss Brill” … employs ironic narrative juxtaposition, contrasting Miss Brill’s preoccupation with a detached narrator’s perspective. Miss Brill’s search for knowledge is involuntary and, for better or worse, she is momentarily forced to quit her shell of self-delusion. The narrator first elevates the character to the pinnacle of comfortable delusion, by means of fantasies, dreams or distorted visions and then throws him/her into deep despair. The narrator, extra-diegetic and detached, leaves Miss Brill heart-broken at the end.
Mansfield often follows this formula of ironic narrational parallax. It is in the narrative juxtaposition of perspectives that Mansfield’s basically Impressionist achievement lies. The method may be seen as the fundamental source of Mansfield’s irony. Mansfield’s view of reality is ephemeral and evanescent, constantly shifting its meaning and continually defying precise definition.
Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism, Julia van Gunsteren
I notice as I examine the structure of short stories as opposed to films and picture books and any other kind of story, that the Anagnorisis phase is the most fully fleshed out. When it comes to short stories, it’s all about the Anagnorisis.
But what is Miss Brill’s realisation? The women who just had smoke blown into her face ‘smiles more brightly than ever’ — and Miss Brill recognise this for what it is — repression. Mansfield was very interested in repression. You can see it clearly in other short stories such as “The Fly” and “Bliss”.
Miss Brill’s youthful narcissism—regardless of her age in years— affects her view of her surroundings to the point where she thinks the world bends to fit her own emotions at any given time:
But even the band seemed to know what she was feeling and played more softly, played tenderly, and the drum beat, “The Brute! The Brute!” over and over.
Miss Brill won’t lose her youthful narcissism, but she’s just lost her feeling of youth.
Not immediately, however.
At first she stays sitting there on the bench, trying to enjoy the day as she had before, only with avid determination to enjoy herself no matter what:
Oh, how fascinating it was! How she enjoyed it! How she loved sitting here, watching it all! It was like a play. It was exactly like a play.
She’s also trying to convince herself that this ‘play’ playing out before her is completely separate from herself, as actors are separate from their audience. She’s earlier described the band inversely to how she describes this woman in the ermine toque — as no different from audience members, as if they were playing in their own living rooms. Oh but now Miss Brill is determined to draw a strong line between herself and what she sees around her. Why’s that?
Because she doesn’t want to admit that she is old and alone like the woman who just had smoke blown into her face. Then she tries to convince herself that she’s important, a cast member of a play that happens every Sunday in the gardens. She’s not some nobody, dammit.
She thinks that this is her Anagnorisis. In contrast to her repressed Anagnorisis, she’s very conscious of this one:
How strange she’d never thought of it like that before!
But even consciously, Miss Brill knows she hasn’t filled in the details of her fantasy about the characters in the garden:
And Miss Brill’s eyes filled with tears and she looked smiling at all the other members of the company. Yes, we understand, we understand, she thought— though what they understood she didn’t know.
This phase is followed by the real Anagnorisis — that the young lovers see her as ‘old’ and laughable. But she refuses to dwell on that. She gets up and leaves, in a hurry to get home.
At home, Miss Brill feels she sits in a cupboard, just like all those old people whose home lives she has imagined. The fur animal, too, is put into a box. Along with the dead animal, her youth is put away.
Charles May interprets this moment as Miss Brill’s revelation, with the story ending there. We don’t see her New Situation:
The short story, standing alone, with no life before it or after it, can receive no … comforting merging of the extraordinary with the ordinary [like the novel can]. For example, we might hypothesise that after Miss Brill has been so emphatically made aware of her role in the park each Sunday, she will still go on with her life, but Katherine Mansfield’s story titled “Miss Brill” gives us no such comforting afterthought based on our confidence that “life goes on”, for it ends with the revelation.Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity: Excursions in short story theory and analysis
- Here is the transcript a 2010 interview between Ramona Koval (The Australian Book Show) and Susannah Fullerton, a Kiwi Katherine Mansfield specialist.
- Alice Munro’s short story “Tricks” reminds me quite a lot of “Miss Brill”, and I like to think the symbolism of the fur is a nod to Katherine Mansfield.
- Psychoanalytic Approach To Miss Brill’s Behaviours
First, what is a witch?
As witch expert Diane Purkiss explains on Episode 83 of the English Heritage podcast:
The definition of witch changes over time. The word witch dates from around 800 AD. It originally referred to men who practise witchcraft but 200 years later refered to female magicians and sorceresses. Later it meant women who were meant to cooperate with the devil or other evil spirits.
“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.
Actaeon — a famous hero in Greek mythology and, in Witchcraft, the actaeon is the stag-horned God of the Forest. The Greek hero came to a bit of an unfortunate end. He was in the forest one day when he accidentally saw Artemis naked. She was bathing starkers in the woods. The goddess caught him looking at her, entranced by her beauty. She told him not to speak again or he would transmogrify into a deer. But then he heard his hunting dogs and called out to them. Of course he turned into a deer. He started running deeper into the woods, but he’d trained his dogs to hunt deer, you see. They tore him to pieces. What’s he got to do with witchcraft? The Horned God is one of the two main deities of Wicca. Actaeon ALSO had horns, see? When traditions/beliefs/rituals come from several different strains of thought, we call it ‘syncretic’. The Horned God is a classic syncretic deity. You see it a lot in fantasy and horror. One of my favourite contemporary horror films is The Ritual, in which the stag-horned God of the Forest has clearly influenced the monster.
Age Discrimination — When it comes to accusations of witchcraft, disablity, gender and age intersect. The people most likely to be called witches were a category of people considered surplus to social requirements, without a place in village life: elderly, women, past childbearing age. An enduring philosophical problem: What are elderly women for? If a woman’s major function is to provide children, women who cannot do that are considered useless. Worse, during times of food scarcity, barren women are considered a waste of food. Elderly women have always troubled society. The more ugly and poor they are, the more upsetting they are. On top of all this, once it was a crime to be Catholic in England, the last ones still praying in Latin were of course the elderly, who liked to pray as they always had. This proved a problem for Agnes Waterhouse, the first woman hanged in England for witchcraft. Among other things, Agnes was hanged for praying in Latin, the language she had always used for prayer. When customs change and old customs are construed as ‘witchcraft’, the elderly are vulnerable, and sometimes charged with the heinous crime of simply failing to keep up with the times.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream — A Renaissance fairy story turned into a famous play by William Shakespeare. The Tempest is another Shakespearian play featuring witches but is not generally considered his ‘witch play’.
Alice Kyteler — Ireland’s first convicted witch. In 1324 she was accused of having sex with a demon. In paintings, she’s shown with red hair parted down the middle, with a single plait at the back. (I’m willing to bet her stand-out ‘misdemeanour’ was the growing of red hair.) By lingering reputation she was also beautiful, and heterosexual men who were attracted to her felt she had power of manipulation. She also had a few husbands die on her (from illness), and it was decided she must have cast some sort of spell to kill them.
Altar — the consecrated place that holds the witch’s implements — a table, bench, tree stump or rock. Some traditions recommend that the alter be circular, and that it stand within a magic circle, drawn on the ground.
Amulet — needles and pins are classic amulets of evil. Sulfur and gum arabic are also highly recommended by experienced jinxers. Graveyard dust and coffin nails are good for causing harm.
Anjana — A type of witch from the Hispanic tradition. The name may be related to Diana or Jana. This type of witch is a beautiful young woman in her true form, but takes the form of an old woman to test people’s charity. When she doesn’t look like an old woman, she has blonde hair, blue eyes, and wears tunics made of flowers and silver stars. She carries a gold staff and wears green stockings. She otherwise spends her days watching over animals, and hanging out in her underground palace which is full of treasure and jewels. She has a lot of treasure because everything she touches with her staff can turn into treasure.
Anti-Semitism — Bigotry directed towards the Jewish communities. Why do modern witches so often wear tall, black, pointy hats? There’s a theory that it came from anti-Semitism in the 13th century. Jews were forced to wear identifying pointed caps, which became associated with Satan-worship and black magic. Jews were accused of such things. Others suggest the pointed hat came from anti-Quaker prejudice. There’s another theory that the black hats are a take on alewife hats, worn by women who sold home-brewed beer. Cf. conical hat
Apples — If you’ve read Snow White you’ll already know how apples are associated with old women who poison younger women. Apples make a frequent appearance in folktales, as do other fruits and vegetables. It seems that pica for fruit and vegetables was very common — not surprising in times of food shortages, when unborn babies are sapping nutrients from the mothers. Pregnant women were punished for giving in to these cravings. It was believed that supernatural forces would intervene and make life terrible for the unborn child (see Rapunzel). For a pregnant woman on the verge of starvation, an apple would be an easy sell. In early stories of witch craft, witches become associated with apples. The apples are used to gain power of young women (and also over children).
Arrow position — A physical position similar to the Eastern asana and mudra. During certain Pagan rituals participants adopt this position. Feet are placed together and the arms are raised directly overhead, palms touching.
Athame (or athalme) — a black handled, double edged dagger with a magnetised blade. It represents the witch’s power and is used in rituals. It’s a clear phallic symbol, though the pointed blade suggests the element of fire, which it also symbolises. The act of plunging it into the Chalice represents the union of the male and female principles. It’s also used to mark a magical circle. It’s not used for cutting. If witches want to actually cut something they use a bolline.
Auto-da-fé — “act of faith”. A ritual held during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. Religious authorities would decide if someone accused of a crime was guilty or not. After that, there was a public ritual, known as Auto-da-fé. Civil authorities performed the punishment. Originally punishment comprised a variety of forms but eventually became equated with just one form, burning to death.
A Year And A Day — a unit of time used frequently in witchcraft. e.g. “I dedicate myself to studying with this coven for a year and a day”.
Baba Yaga — Baba Yaga is a legendary Slavic witch, or a hag, who lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs and who flies through the air in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder. The predatory Baba Yaga, who has a special liking for children, is a subcategory of crone. She’s also known as Old Hag Yaga. Her name is synonymous with ved’ma, which means witch in Russian.
Badmouth — these days, to badmouth someone means to criticise them, probably behind their backs. But the origin of the word originally meant hexing and cursing someone.
Barrow tomb — A barrow tomb is a mound of earth and stones raised over a grave or graves. Also called: Tumulus (plural tumuli) burial mounds or kurgans. Over the world, this has been a common way to bury the dead. Turning now to Anglo Saxon society in England: The Anglo Saxons were Christian, but they started to work themselves up about a particular urban legend. They believed mysterious people were showing up at barrow tombs to summon the dead by pouring blood all over the tombs. Why would anyone want to do that? Well, they thought the summoned dead had some useful special poweres, such as telling the future etc. They didn’t want this happening, so the Anglo Saxons built gallows on the hillsides of barrow tombs. That way, they could at least consign all the dangerous criminals and hypothetical, supernatural baddies to the same area.
Bats — 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)
Befana — Witches tend to be divided into ‘good and bad’. Befana is the ‘good witch’ from Italy who brings presents to children on Epiphany. (Many other countries get a male Santa Clause instead.) 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.
Befano — Consort of Befana. From the God Faunus (the Roman horned-god of the Forest, known as Actaeon to the Ancient Greeks).
Beldame — An ugly looking, evil old woman. Also spelt beldam. We fear the elderly because they remind us that we all get old, if we’re lucky.
Bell, Book and Candle — This phrase actually comes from Catholicism. It refers to the ritual of excommunication: the ringing of a bell, the closing of the Bible, and the snuffing of a candle. For some reason, a number of modern witches like this ritual and use it to close any ritual of their own. This may have been the influence of a rom-com play called Bell, Book and Candle (1950). In this narrative, a witch loses her witchy powers if she happens to fall in love. Hence, the connection between the phrase and witchcraft became established.
Benandanti — Italy enjoys a goodly number of ‘good witches’. These ones fought ritual battles against the Malandanti (bad ones) over the fate of the harvest.
Besom — The witch broomstick isn’t just any old broomstick. It is technically a besom. The brush of a normal modern broom tends to be narrow and wide, whereas the brush of a besom tends to be circular.
Bewitching — To bewitch is to cast a spell on someone with witchcraft or to capture their attention in another way. The American witch does a lot of bewitching; European witches not so much. Witches can bewitch people, animals and objects.
Bigghes — ceremonial jewels worn by queens (the crown, garter, necklace, bracelet).
Black Book — Witches originally used a ‘black book’ to handwrite their spells/recipes/chants and so on. When Gerald Gardner came along he changed the name to Book of Shadows.
Black virgin — a german witch hunting invention. An iron case the size of a human body covered in spikes. It was closed around the victim and designed to torture but not kill when it closed around her.
Black witch — “Black witches are usually shown with evil tendencies and rarely get happy endings.” (N’ganga Makhosi) Examples: “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s” Rosalind Walker, “The Vampire Diaries’” Bonnie Bennett, “American Horror Story: Coven’s” Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau and Queenie, CW’s “Charmed” reboot, as Macy Vaughn becomes an evil witch. “Black witches have a tendency to fall into two categories — supportive friends to the more powerful and popular protagonist or a witch with some malevolent quality.”
Blessed be — found in many modern religions but typical of NeoWiccan. Shortened to BB. In ritual, it basically means “let this be blessed.” Sometimes an officiating member says it and participants repeat it after. In her novel The Handmaids Tale, Margaret Atwood uses a similar phrase for her dystopian world: “blessed be the fruit”. The people of Gilead greet each other in this way. It’s based on this from the Bible: “Blessed be the fruit of your womb, the produce of your soil and the offspring of your livestock, the issue of your herds and the young of your flocks” (Deuteronomy). But because “blessed be” is also associated with witches, there are definite witchy vibes in Atwood’s Gilead greeting.
Bracelet — Men wear gold bracelets and the women wear silver. In some sects everyone wears it on their left wrist. In other sects men wear theirs on the right wrist. The witch’s name and degree is engraved into their bracelet. For the new age witches into palm reading, the bracelet also refers to the lines below the palm.
Broomstick — witches’ equipment is specific to the witch, as brushes are specific to the artist, clubs specific to the player. It becomes filled with the user’s vibrations and takes on magical properties for the user. It makes decisions independently of the user. The broomstick is used for flying to the witches’ Sabbat or sweeping the house. Made of hawthorn, hazel, rowan, willow, broom, birch or blackthorn twigs. Like the wand, is a reminder of the tree worship of old. The original broom was actually a stalk of broom plant with tufts of leaves at the end. The broom plant has always been associated with the giving and blasting of fertility. It was the custom of witches to leave ordinary brooms in their beds to fool their husbands when they took off for the Sabbat. In some handfasting rituals with the couple jumping over the broomstick/besom. (Jumping over a broom to get married isn’t limited to witches.) (See: Besom)
Broomstick ointment — rubbed onto a broomstick to turn it into something that can fly. Aconite, deadly nightshade, hemlock, cinquefoil, sweet flag, poplar leaves, parsley, soot, bats’ blood, the fat of unbaptised infants. (The first three are highly hallucinogenic in small doses and lethal in large ones.)
Bodkin — There is a long historical connection between women and sewing, as sewing is women’s work of yore. With this in mind, it probably makes some sort of sick sense than a sewing instrument would be used to torture so-called witches. Modern bodkins function like a tweezer to draw elastic, cording and so on through tubing and casings. Old bodkins were shaped like miniature ice picks. During the Witch Craze, the story went that when a witch sold her soul in a pact with the Devil, the Devil would mark her with a spot. (A Devil’s Mark.) This spot would be insensitive to pain. Inquisitors would ‘check’ a woman’s entire body with the sharp bodkin hoping to find the Devil’s Mark. Eventually, under extreme pain, people black out. At this point, the torturer would conclude that the Devil’s Mark had been found.
Bolline (or biolline) — a white handled knife used to make other magical objects or tools or to incise letters or symbols on wood or wax. It is shaped like the crescent moon and is silver in colour, also in deference to the moon. Some Wiccans say this knife is never for paring cheese or carving roasts but others will use it for cutting herbs or for cutting mistletoe directly from the tree or for similar practical purposes. This knife is also used in Druid tradition.
Bottles — In the 17th century, people started burying bottles around their yards to ward off evil. Inside the bottles: hair/pins/urine and so on. These were known as witch bottles. (Listen to a podcast about witch bottles here.)
Book, The — Witches make a deal with the devil and this big tome is the official set of bound papers straight from Hell. A witch will try to get you to sign it.
Book of Shadows — Influential neopagan Gerald Gardner seems to have renamed the ‘Black Book’ the ‘Book of Shadows’. But he might have stolen this lovely phrase from from a 1949 article in the Occult Observer, “The Book of Shadows” by Mir Bahir. Spells, incantations, rituals and recipes are recorded. It’s best that the book itself is made by the witch. Leather or cloth for the cover, handmade paper or parchment for pages. The book must be destroyed upon the witch’s death. This is why so little remains about witchcraft today — it exists as an oral tradition. In some sects, new witches are meant to copy out The Book of Shadows by hand. Considering this intense labour, it’s ironic (or perhaps natural) that “The Book of Shadows” is so often shortened to BoS. According to Gerald Gardner, he got the Book of Shadows from Old Dorothy’s ancient coven, surviving from the 16th century. Modern witches don’t necessarily take him at his word, by the way. Anyone who has studied Elizabethan English knows that whoever wrote it made a hash job of trying to make it sound old. The Book of Shadows is factually incorrect in places, e.g. it talks about witches being burned alive in England (when in fact they were hanged). It also plagiarises (from Aleister Crowley and a magazine article about an Old Sanskrit manuscript).
Boschetto — An Italian word for a coven of witches, literally a ‘grove’. (Related to the beautiful English word ‘bosky’, meaning wooded. In Middle English, ‘bosk’ was a variant of ‘bush’.)
Bowl of salt and water — on the altar to represent the elements
Bruja — Spanish word for ‘witch’. (Male witch is ‘brujo’.) The word used to be used in Mexico to refer to a woman knowledgeable about folk magic but these days the word doesn’t have such a great connotation.
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.
Cats — Ancient Egyptians associated the cat with the moon. To them the cat was sacred to the goddesses Isis and Bast (the guardian of marriage). Black cats are associated with darkness and death. In witch folklore, cats often make use of black cats as familiars, but as you can see, the ideas around cats, especially black ones, go beyond witchcraft.
Cape (or coat) — confers magical powers. It’s usually dark blue or black with magical signs or symbols embroidered or painted upon it in gold. Magical alphabets, pentagrams and zodiacal emblems are decorative elements. In all religions, certain garments are worn only int he presence of the deities and are put aside when returning to “the world”.
Cantrip — This Scottish term means a magic spell. It tends to be the minor, mischievous kind. (Witches can be tricksters.) It has been used in novels and role-playing games and means whatever the creator wants it to mean. It sometimes refers to a spell that reads the same forwards and backwards.
Catholicism — Agnes Waterhouse, the first woman hanged for witchcraft in England, was accused of praying in Latin. In 1566 it was a crime to be a witch, and it was also a crime to be Catholic. In the case of Agnes Waterhouse, the two crimes intersected and resulted in her murder by the state. Historically, the transition from Catholicism to Protestantism mirrors the transition from Paganism to Christianity. Once a society moves on in its common belief system, practices once considered Orthodox are now considered not-Othodox (and also mysterious). These practices, once considered normal (in this case praying in Latin) is now considered witchcraft.
In the Middle Ages praying in Latin was associated with healing magic, but after the Protestant Reformation was now a sign that you were speaking to Satan.
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.)
Cauldron — An iron cauldron or kettle for preparing Sabbat feasts, magical brews and potions. Sometimes the fire is kindled in the cauldron itself. Some witches actually use ordinary household pots — consecrated, of course. The shape often resembles the belly of a pregnant woman, and is therefore a symbol of fertility. Most of all, it symbolises the massive pregnant belly of the woman who gave birth to the world, the Great Goddess. Its circular shape symbolises never-ending life and regeneration. Things are heated inside a cauldron, transforming from one thing into another, hence the cauldron also symbolises germination and transformation. Traditional cauldrons have three legs, representing the triple aspect of the Great Goddess or the three fates. In Celtic legend, cauldrons contain an unending supply of knowledge or food. In these stories the dead are frequently thrown into the cauldron and crawl out alive the next day. Despite many stories in which witches cook food in cauldrons, that’s not what they’re for. They’re for lighting fires and for filling with water and flowers.
Censer — incense burner
Chalice (or drinking horn) — for sacrificial wine or water. In some traditions the sacred marriage (sexual union between incarnate god and worshipper) is performed symbolically by plunging the athame into the chalice. (The athame represents fire and the chalice represents water, so they balance each other.)
Charge of the Goddess — a gospel used by many modern witches in a variety of adapted forms.
Charles LeLand — an amateur folklorist who argued for the survival of pagan religious beliefs in Europe. He wrote Aradia, Or The Gospel Of The Witches. He claimed to have met a woman called Maddalena who had come from a long line of witches.
Chelmsford — The earliest English witch trial happened in Chelmsford, Essex, in 1566. Agnes Waterhouse (a.k.a. Mother Waterhouse) (c. 1503 – 29 July 1566) was the first woman executed for witchcraft after this trial. She was tried along with two other women from the same village. Agnes confessed to having been a witch and said her familiar was a cat (later turned into a toad). She called the cat Satan, sometimes spelled Sathan, which originally belonged to Elizabeth Francis. The cat/toad detail sticks out, but among many other things, Agnes was charged with praying in Latin. We know all this because it’s written down in a pamphlet. You can read the contents here, with modernised spelling, which makes it a bit easier.
Christianity — Unlke Pagans, who were happy to say occult powers came from some uncatalogued minor deity, Christians were hung up on the question of where supernatural beings came from. Christianity couldn’t sit happily with Pagan ideas because, according to Christianity, there is only one God. This is how Christianity ended up with a more thorough theology of the occult, eventually leading them to the conclusion that if occult powers don’t come from that one singular God, they must come from his opponent — Satan. The 12th century onwards was a period when ideas about Satan, devils and Hell became concretised in people’s imagination. This way of thinking ended up costing about 30,000 people their lives.
Circe — the first great witch in literature, described by Homer as “goddess or girl, we couldn’t tell” and when she’s first seen by Odysseus’ men she seems a sweet young weaver, weaving ‘ambrosial fabric sheer and bright,/ by that craft known to the goddesses of heaven.” Before her loom she sings ‘a chill, sweet song’. She doesn’t seem to be a witch at all, but witch she is and she accused of: enthralling men, turning them into swing, the power to make men impotent, both sexually and otherwise.
Cimaruta — An amulet meaning ‘sprig of rue’ in Italian, also known as the Witch Charm. This amulet is made of silver and resembles a sprig of rue with various other symbols in its three branches (generally a crescent moon, key, stars, daggers and flowers). The cimaruta dates back as far as 4500 BC. It might be worn as a pendant or larger ones may be hung in the doorway of a witch’s home. The cimaruta is double-sided. The three silver branches of the cimaruta relate to the Triple Goddess.
Cingulum — A consecrated witch’s cord. It’s either nine feet long or based on measurements of the witch’s body. Witches use it to mark out a circle for ritual. The cingulum may be worn around the waist to represent the initiation level of the witch (similar to a karate belt). It might also have meaningful knots tied into it. The knots might be used sort of like Catholic rosary beads, or indicate status to other witches, or the knot masses may function like amulets.
Civateteo — 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.
Cloves — worn around the neck in a conjure bag promote friendship (voodoo/hoodoo)
Common knowledge — People never asked themselves whether witches were real or not. Everyone just knew they were real — I mean, they lived in every village! That question only started to be asked towards the end of the 17th century.
Cone of power — a metaphor for the will of the group. They ask for things as a group and consider that they can hold sway over distant things.
Conspiracy theories — the contemporary equivalent of modern witchcraft. A subculture comes up with a theory to explain misfortune. People are very reluctant to accept the stochasticity of life. This tendency to search for causes of misfortune can be seen from the 1550s onwards, connected to the Reformation and nascent Protestantism. This kind of thinking holds true today. We still don’t like the idea that we are unable to decide our own fates. We prefer a causal account of things that happen to us. The Early Modern belief that bad things happened because of witches was an Early Modern version of conspiracy theory.
Conical hat — associated with heretics in the Middle Ages. May derive from horns worn by many pagan deities to denote power. The brim is probably a 17th century addition. Pointed headdresses have always aroused the accusation of deviltry. Gnomes now wear it too, though they dye it red and shrink it.
Conjure bags (or charm bags) — These belong to the voodoo/hoodoo witch tradition rather than the European one. Many contemporary witches use them. They are little drawstring pouches (of red flannel or leather) worn around the neck or waist of the conjurer. They’re hung upon trees on the property of one whose luck one wishes to affect — usually for ill. “Laying the trick” refers to planting a charm bag where the intended subject must cross over it. The bags contain 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 or 13 objects: gemstones, herbs, powdered sulfur, coffin nails, pins, needles, graveyard dust, rabbits’ feet, lodestones, scarabs, horseshoes, nail clippings, photographs, locks of hair, dice, and counterfeit coins.
Contagion of the Deity — the idea that holy objects should not be used in other than holy places. (This is not just witchcraft but common to all religions.) It’s therefore unlucky to steal something from a place of worship.
Cookbook Witch — A witch who has tried to teach themselves witchcraft and spells out of a book. (Think of Daniel in The Karate Kid before he is taken on by Mr Miyagi.)
Cord (or cingulam) — the magical binding cord that the witch wears around her waist and uses for symbolic binding rituals of all sorts. It is red, nine feet in length, and plaited. Natural materials such as cotton, silk or wool are preferred.
Corn Dolly — A woven wheat stalk in the form of a figure. Also called corn mothers. They’re meant to look like women, but some of them don’t much. In any case, the corn dolly symbolises fertility and the harvest. (Shapes made out of wheat stalks figure large in horror, along with haystacks, which tend to look a bit like monsters at night.) In American English, corn refers more generally to ‘grain’.
Cosmic Mother Of All — Starhawk, a modern feminist witch, uses this phrase to describe the Mother Earth-type character “whose breasts poured milk into the firmament and who birthed new stars, whose curved and luscious body was the very earth they trod on”. This figure stands in contrast to the Judeo-Christian/Islamic notion of a masculine God creating everything alone, while sidelining the female body entirely. “Images-of-women feminism” is Diane Purkiss’s phrase to describe a way of thinking about femininity in a way that is “annihilatingly prescriptive”. This thinking prescribes that positive images of women are: lactating, motherly, strong, authoritative. There is no thought to who mothers her. This idealised imagery in fact supports the patriarchal notion of the woman as nurturer of others. Many thinkers have believed in an “originary matriarchy”; this isn’t limited to witchcraft: Robert Briffault, Erich Neumann, J.J. Bachofen, Jane Harrison, Arthur Evans, and especially J.G. Frazer. The Goddess Of Everything (whatever we might call her) was originally invented/discovered by male scholars, not by empowered woman witches. The narrative goes like this: Women are subordinated today because The Great Mother (standing in for women in general) originally controlled everyone, and men had to wrest back some control of their own because women were so oppressive and also incompetent as leaders. And that, folks, is why the patriarchy exists. Tl;dr: Patriarchy is women’s punishment, and the natural order of things. Unfortunately, modern witchcraft doesn’t always do a great job of dismantling that particular narrative.
Coven — traditionally 13 in number but anywhere between 3 and 20. They begin by ‘casting the circle’, which isolates and purifies the holy place where magic will occur, where gods and goddesses will manifest, where time will disappear, where faith will become incarnate.
Covenant of the Goddess — In 1975 a number of covens banded together and formed Covenant of the Goddess. The organisation was founded by Starhawk in California and people can still join it today.
Covenstead — the location of the coven
Covendom — the area around the covenstead. Traditionally one league in size. (About three miles in all directions.)
Cowan — Anyone who is not a witch.
Craft — A shortening of ‘witchcraft’. (It is also used by Freemasons to describe their fraternity without publicly naming it.) Sometimes people say ‘Art and Craft’, meaning witchcraft.
Craft-names — the name a witch receives after an initiation ritual. Craft names tend to allude to favourite deities. (Covens are also named.)
Crossing The Bridge — Corresponds to ‘funeral’.
(Filthy Peasant) Crone — Adrienne Rich’s term for a midwife/sister/woman in touch with the earth and all things natural. We see similar outworking of this archetype in fairytales, and in contemporary folktales written for children. These women might be quite stupid e.g. Hildilid. They are often surrounded by a menagerie of pets and farm animals (who she considers pets). They often display hyper empathy with these animals (and I suspect they’re unable to slaughter them).
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
Crowns — Modern witches wear thin bands of silver with a silver crescent moon at the front. This and the garter might convey rank.
Crow’s foot — Crows were feared as an indicator of death, and witches apparently used them when casting spells against enemies. Crows’ feet were therefore known as ‘witches feet’. It was also believed that witches could transform themselves into crows to travel unnoticed to sabbats. The word ‘crow’s foot’ also refers to the wrinkles around the eyes, and thereby also indicate the inevitable approach of death.
Crucible — A ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures. Metaphorically, a situation of severe trial, or in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new.
Crucible, The — a play by Arthur Miller and later a movie starring Winona Ryder. The real Abigail Williams was somewhere between 10-12 years old, but Miller turned her into a seductive, lustful teenager. Thematically, The Crucible is a straight-forward denunciation of mass hysteria and intolerance. Contrast this with other works of fiction which try to help their audience find a way of keeping strange characters as part of our society, without the martyrdom e.g. the poem “Song of Power” by Elaine Feinstein.
Cruentation — one of the medieval methods of finding proof against a suspected murderer. The common belief was that the body of the victim would spontaneously bleed in the presence of the murderer. Is mentioned in Daemonologie, King James’s crazed book about witches, who he believed would kill him.
Cunning Folk — The cunning folk in Britain were professional or semi-professional practitioners of magic in Britain, active from the Medieval period through the early 20th century. The cunning woman is a witch-like character seen in plays such as The Wise Woman of Hogsdon by Thomas Heywood (1638), The Alchemist (1610) by Ben Jonson. During this long era, people could set themselves up as “cunning folk” and sell services such as curing illness, finding missing objects/buried treasure, and also removing the dark magic imposed by some other witch. So any village with a dark, terrifying witch would also be home to a number of people claiming they’re able to defeat that dark witch with their own magic. Those cunning folk were identified as witches by the people doing the prosecuting. Ultimately, the prosecutors decided who got to live and die, so it was a bit dangerous setting yourself up as one of the cunning folk. The cunning folk were real people, not just fictional. There would have been cunning folk in just about every village in England in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially at the peak of the witch hunts in the British Isles. (For more on Cunning Folk, listen to this podcast.)
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?
Curse — 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 fortunetelling. 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.
Deals with the Devil — In Scotland, witchcraft was understood as a deal between a ‘witch’ and the devil. We know this because there exist records of Scottish interrogators asking women about supernatural encounters (more so than happened in England). (Look up the story of Elspeth Reoch.)
Degrees of Witchcraft — There are four levels of witchcraft, first, second, another second and third — neophyte, middle stage, second middle stage and fully fledged. Each degree has its own symbol. Sometimes witches write the symbol after their name: an inverted triangle, a triangle, a pentagram (star), and finally a triangle on top of a pentagram. The triangle is also known as the ‘three-fold salute’ and during initiation the shape of this inverted triangle is also drawn in the air, and in sequence on the breast, breast, genitals and breast.
Daemonologie — King James of England had an obsession with witches and witchcraft and wrote a book about them, called Daemonologie (1599). Its subtitle is much longer. He was convinced witches were going to kill him. He supervised the torture of women who were meant to be Witches. In 1604 he had passed repressive anti-Witchcraft laws. He commissioned a group of scholars to translate the Bible into English. King James insisted that “his” Bible must be Protestant and passages must not support the Catholic Church. He also demanded that Witches should be condemned as evil at every opportunity. In 1611, the King James Version of the Bible was published. King James refused to pay the people who had done the massive job of translating it. In short, he inflicted much suffering on people who deserved so much better. In the end he wasn’t killed by witches at all. He died of a stroke. He also had a case of severe dysentery (bloody diarrhea). This is caused by particularly nasty gut bacteria or parasites. But he probably blamed that on witches, too.
Daughter coven — a breakaway coven, still under the guidance of the mother coven
Dedicant — Someone who dedicates themselves to a period of study/practice with a coven
Demons — As the witch craze was kicking off, attention turned to monks and their wet dreams. Monks were required to confess their sins, and were asked about what happened during their wet dreams. Typically the dream would involve a dominant female figure and being sat on. The Scholastics then came up with an elaborate narrative in which monks were accompanied to their dormitories by demons, disguised as monks. They decided the demons must be there to harvest the monks’ seed. Why would demons want monks’ seed? Because of the cold and moist natures of demons, they acquired as much male seed as possible. This is also exactly how they thought of women. They believed women were sexually insatiable. Because of women’s cold and moist natures, women were constantly trying to perfect themselves by acquiring copious amounts of male seed. This is one example of how demons, witches and women became lumped in together.
Then they make a connection with women who think they fly through the night with the aid of a supernatural being. The concept of the witch’s sabbath comes from these two ideas amalgamated. As soon as these ideas are brought together the whole legal process changes to be about that narrative.
Deosil — Clockwise. In Scottish folklore, deosil/sunwise/sunward (clockwise) was considered the “prosperous course”, turning from east to west in the direction of the sun. The opposite course, counterclockwise, was known as widdershins (Lowland Scots), or tuathal (Scottish Gaelic). (For more on the symbolism of cardinal direction see here.) In witchcraft, “deosil” ususually refers to the direction of a witch’s dance or circle-casting.
Devil’s Marks — areas on a witch’s body seen to be insensitive to pain. See also: teats. Spelled witch ‘markes’ or witch ‘signalls’ in documents.
Diana — sometimes considered the Goddess of all Witches
Dianus — Margaret Murray’s God of the Witches. Margaret Murray was a feminist trailblazer in some ways, entering anthropology and going off on digging adventures before it was acceptable for women to do so. Still, people are complicated. She conceived the God of the witches as male, turning Diana into what she considers a masculine name.
Discovery of Witchcraft — by Reginald Scot (1584), an English MP who had been trained in Latin and who could therefore refer to a number of texts unavailable to the masses. His Discovery of Witchcraft work includes invocations, demons’ names, potion ingredients and so on. This was an inspiration to playwrights and storytellers. Reginald Scot actually wrote this tretise to try and prove witchcraft was not a thing. Reginald Scot was a Reformed Protestant. He therefore believed God was responsible for everything, not witches. He was also caught up in a mystical religion at the time known as Family of Love. He clearly had a deep interest in mystical stuff, and I’m not sure he managed to persuade anyone to stop believing in witchcraft. He probably made many of his readers extra interested in it.
Doreen Valiente — After Gerald Gardner started his witchcraft cult, based on what he said he’d heard from Old Dorothy, a disciple of his called Doreen Valiente became one of his main helpers. She said in her autobiography that she even wrote some of the rituals. But Gardner preferred to credit anything he hadn’t done himself to the mystical Old Dorothy and never acknowledged Valiente. This example speaks to the way in which witch cults, like any other, tend to be led by men, with the work of women hidden, despite women disciples being necessary to the entire operations.
Dorothy Clutterbuck — The real witch from an old witch family that Gerald Gardner claimed to have met. He called her ‘Old Dorothy’ and everything he didn’t make up himself, he attributed to her. Apparently Old Dorothy belonged to a coven of hereditary witches who had practised witchcraft for centuries. (Leland told a very similar story, but about a woman called Maddalena.)
Drawing down the moon — A ritual by which the High Priestess becomes in effect a goddess for the duration of the ritual. The rite is performed on the first night of the full moon, at midnight, the “witching hour.” The witch evokes the goddess within herself—that is, becomes the goddess incarnate. The goddess is she whom we call the triple goddess, the moon goddess, with her three phases—waxing, full, waning. She is Diana/Artemis, Astarte, Aphrodite, the Mother Goddess, and thus associated with birth, death, rebirth, and the lunar cycles. Meditation, chanting, dancing, and singing may all be used to evoke the goddess. The point is to reach a state in which human and divine edge for a time within the person of the dear of the coven.
Drawing down the sun — a newer expression based on ‘drawing down the moon’. This sometimes describes the riual in which the High Priest becomes in effect a god for the duration of a ritual. (The male equivalent of drawing down the moon.)
Drinking horn or chalice — filled with wine
Dunking — a form of water torture also known as ducking or ‘swimming’. It was thought that one way to identify a witch was to bind her hands and feet and throw her into a body of water. A real witch would float. (And if she wasn’t a witch, she would have sunk and drowned unless hastily rescued.)
Easter — 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.
Eclectic — The word means ‘deriving ideas, style, or taste from a broad and diverse range of sources.’ It is used to describe Pagans and Pagan traditions which borrow from various different sources. Pagans took their culture from spiritual beliefs, philosophy, magic practices and created their own way of life. Modern Eclectic Witchcraft or Eclectic Wicca works the same way, even drawing from popular fantasy novels such as The Mists of Avalon.
Eggs — 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.
Elder — In some covens you count as an elder if you’ve been the leader of a coven for nine years.
Elizabethen Poor Laws — These laws led to a lot of misery for a lot of people. The people most likely to be accused of witchcraft were those considered disposable to society. Beforehand, some of society’s poorest were accommodated by monasteries, but then came the dissolution of monasteries. Now, poor/disabled/aged/illegitimate people without family to support them became the burden of individual parisioners. It follows that those people became much more hated and resented than before.
Eostara — (the initial ‘e’ is silent) is one of the Lesser Wiccan Sabbats, usually celebrated on the Vernal or Spring Equinox (March 21 in the Northern hemisphere). Also known as Eostre’s Day, Rite of Eostre, Festival of the Trees and Lady Day.
Esbat — a small gathering of local witches. A ‘small Sabbat’.
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.
Fairies — Diane Purkiss is an expert on witches and also on fairies (see her book Troublesome Things.) She explains that occult powers were once thought to come from fairies, but not the Tinkerbell fairies we think of today — from the older, darker, hairy fairies. These fairies might help you with the housework… or completely take over your life. What have ancient fairies got to do with witches? After the Protestant Reformation people didn’t want to believe in fairies anymore because the concept didn’t fit with the teachings of the Bible or with the fundamentalist idea of the afterlife. At this point, fairies became re-interpreted as devils. Now, any witch who calls on such beings is thought to be summoning the powers of hell to assist her. The so-called witch is even more threatening and scary than she ever was before. People believed they needed to take even more measures to guard themselves against her.
Fairy cross — a rock in the shape of a stone, thought to function apotropaically (warding off bad luck). The points represent earth, air, fire and water, and Christian has also influenced the thinking behind crosses as good luck charms. Also called: andalusite, chiastolite, staurolite.
False confessions — If you really believe in witches and witchcraft, you are also susceptible to believing that your, yourself, may have such powers. There are a surprising number of people recorded in history who came forward to confess they had killed or harmed someone using their own witchcraft. During the Witch Craze, this could be a suicidal act. “False confessions are not rare […] young people are particularly vulnerable to confessing, especially when stressed, tired, or traumatized.”
Familiar — short for familiar spirit — a common domestic animal given to the witch by the Devil — according to Inquisitors — to do her malicious bidding. They suckle on the witch’s blood, probably through one of her extra teats. The notion of the witch’s familiar comes out of the folklore of household fairies — brownies, elves and hobs, but not all famliars are fairies. Familiars can also be the ghosts of dead children, demons and ghosts. The concept of the familiar came from Scotland and England. Like fairies, familiars originally exhibited all forms of morality (they could anywhere between the extremes of good and bad), but after the Reformation, belief in the supernatural became very black and white — from that point on, all supernatural creatures were either good or bad.
Household fairies were considered demons. (Because they’re not angels.) After the Reformation, the animal familiar of a witch is considered an imp in disguise, a low-ranking demon, around to serve those in league with satan (similar to the lover’s valet, footman or chambermaid in 18th century opera). The familiar does small, bad deeds, leaping over fences the witch can’t clear, secreting itself in places where a witch can’t hide. Dogs, cats, bees, mice, rabbits, bats have all been cited in witch trials. They had fanciful names: Various British witch trials record a gray cat called Tittey, a black toad called Pigin, a black lamb called Tyffin, a black dog called Suckin, and a “red lion” called Lyerd. There were also assorted imps called Great Dick, Little Dick, Willet, Pluck, Catch, Holt, Jamara, Vinegar Tom, Pyewackett, Grizzel, and Greedigut. It was believed that the imp fed on human blood from the witch’s teat. (The teats might actually be little warts or polyps or wens.) A wen = a common cyst of the skin; filled with fatty matter (sebum) that is secreted by a sebaceous gland that has been blocked. If a woman had these, it was ‘proof’ that a woman was a witch. The familiars crave human blood. According to science, their little bodies are so mightily debauched that their bodies are subject to the continual reflux of particles and require some nutriment to supply the place of the fugacious atoms. They do this by sucking the blood of witches.
Famtrad — Short for “Family Tradition.” This refers to a Wiccan or Witchcraft tradition that is centered around the beliefs and practices of a single family as opposed to a tradition centered around individual personalities or a coven.
Fascinous — caused or acting by witchcraft (obsolete). From Latin fascinum (“witchcraft”).
Flogging — We tend to see flogging as a kind of punishment or deterrent today, but in antiquity, that’s not what flogging was for. Flogging was for purification. Someone would get flogged to bewitch them, or more generally, to deal with any situation implying spiritual impotence.
Foxes — 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.
Garter — green, buckled in silver. Has magical powers, probably. Green is the fairy color, associated with Robin Hood, the green man and wood sprites. Some witch queens have as many as seven buckles on their garters. It might be red, made of silk, with long red ribbons and a pink rosette. Perhaps they’re used to remind them to behave well sexually. (Or perhaps the buckles are like notches on the bedposts?)
Ged — a fictional magician invented by Ursula Le Guin, but cited as if a ‘real’ sage rather than fiction by Starhawk. Modern witches sometimes conflate fiction with their witchcraft reality.
Gerald Gardner — The leader of the Gardnerian sect of modern witches. Gerald, who was English, is probably the most famous neopagan and was around for the 1960s, which is good for him — an era ripe for new-old things. Unfortunately for Gerald he didn’t make it til the end of the sixties. He died in 1964 at the age of 79 on board a ship to Tunis (the capital of Tunisia). Gardner is known as The Father of Wicca, not to be confused with The King, Alex Sanders. (Notice how the founding figures of modern wicca are thought to be a handful of men? The history of modern witchcraft isn’t empoweringly feminist.)
Gibbet — any instrument of public execution including guillotine, executioner’s block, impalement stake, hanging gallows, or related scaffold
Gloves — when witches wear gloves they are made of cat skin with fur on the inside.
Gobber tooth — a protruding front tooth. John Gaule, a 17th century clergyman listed gobber tooth as one way to tell a witch, along with a wrinkled face, furrowed brow, hairy lip, squint eye, squeaking voice, scolding tongue, rugged coat, skull-cap on her head, a spindle in her hand and a dog or cat by her side.
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
Goety — an archaic word for the black magic or witchcraft in which the assistance of evil spirits is invoked. Necromancy.
Graeae — “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.
Grandmaster — Witch cults were highly organised. There were twelve to a coven led by a grandmaster. The grandmaster’s assistant was Maiden of the coven, sometimes called Maid Marian where the legend of Robin Hood was strong.
Green — Why are witches green?
Grimoire — a book of spells
Hag — 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 (ie. 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.
Hagborn — a person born of a witch or a woman considered wicked
Hag-ridden — something ridden by hags (like a horse) and therefore afflicted with nightmare. This term is just one example of how we still make use of supernatural/witchy thinking to describe our psychological state. Other examples are ‘haunted’ (by a memory or dream), ‘diabolical’ (difficulties), ‘possessed’ (by an idea), and I’ve lately noticed a resurgence of ‘cursed’, especially among kids, to describe something unpleasant or weird in general.
Halloween — a holiday that recognises (and seeks to remedy) the sun’s retreat. In pre-Christian times, great bonfires were lit to stimulate the sun to imitation. Anglo-Saxons called them ‘need fires’. Christians changed this autumn holiday to All Saints’ Day but pagan symbolism lingered. October 31 has variously been called: November Eve, Samhain, All Hallow’s Eve, and today Halloween. It is a bonfire holiday and a harvest holiday, incorporating the ideas of harvesting both the fruits of the earth and the souls of the dead. The Great Mother relinquishes her power to the winter god (The Horned God). Halloween is a liminal time — the last night before full winter (in the Northern Hemisphere) when the darkness is thickening. To this day, the idea of the Winter Solstice comes with a degree of anxiety.
Handfasting — traditionally refers to any sort of ‘making fast’ of a pledge by the shaking or joining of hands without official means, mostly an unofficial marriage (usually until such a time that a couple can get married legally). The term fell out of use as the practice itself did, but has seen a bit of a revival with neopaganism. Neopagans sometimes say “handfasting” in place of “wedding” or “marriage” to avoid perceived non-Pagan religious connotations associated with those terms.
Hanging — During the English witch craze, accused witches were hanged rather than burned.
Harridan — a scolding (even vicious) old woman
Hecate — a.k.a. Hekate is a goddess in ancient Greek religion and mythology, similar to a witch. She is most often shown holding a pair of torches or a key. In later periods she is depicted in triple form. Hecate is associated with crossroads, entrance-ways, night, light, magic, witchcraft, knowledge of herbs and poisonous plants, ghosts, necromancy, and sorcery.
Herbs — the most famous in witchcraft: mandrake, henbane, monkshood, hemlock, thorn apple, deadly nightshade. The richest in legend and lore: mandrake, henbane, deadly nightshade, thorn apple, monkshood. Witches discovered the majority of the drugs in modern pharmacopeia e.g. digitalis (for heart disease), ephedrine (for hay fever and asthma). Ergonovine (from ergo) and atropine (from belladonna) were discovered by witches and used in the management of labor and delivery. Witches gathered herbs at night, not just for self-concealment but because they had to be plucked during specific phases of the moon in order to work. Some when the moon was waning, some during full moon, some during an eclipse. Often she had to be sky clad.
Herb-lore — The idea that (herbalist) witches make use of herbs for healing/midwifery and so on. Metaphorically, in narrative, the herbs can stand for ‘agriculture’ and for ‘untamed nature’. The herbalist witch is a modern fantasy in which it is believed domestic skills were once valued, and only became lost once men started to take over the sphere of medicine and midwifery. This particular fantasy is sometimes called ‘cottagecore’ in contemporary-speak. See it also in a 1987 short story called “The Green Woman” by Meghan B. Collins, about a good witch’s bad love affair. (Included in the collection Don’t Bet On The Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England, edited by Jack Zipes. Another example is Earth Magic: A Wisewoman’s Guide to Herbal, Astrological and Folk Remedies by Claire Nahmad and The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. These texts share in common an ‘escape to the country’ fantasy, juxtaposing urban life against country life. (Country life is timeless, unchanging, stable and natural, so this fantasy also appeals to those who feel the times are moving too quickly, and the fear that we will be hopelessly left behind.)
Hex — These days a hex is an evil spell or a curse but hex is also another word for witch. The witch meaning is older. This word originated in the United States of America, from German hexe (to practise witchcraft).
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/Voodoo — 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.
Incubus — a male demon believed to lie on sleeping persons and to do sex to sleeping women (a.k.a. rape). An incubus also refers to someone who depresses or worries others, or to a situation resembling a terrifying dream
Infertility — Most witches were either single or post menopause. There’s a particular horror about a woman whose marriage is no longer or never was fruitful. Anxiety about barrenness. Again it’s about transmission — the assumption is that you’ll pass barrenness on somehow through your eyes to somebody’s flock of sheep/crop/orchard.
Initiation — a metaphor for rebirth. (The torture of witches is also known by the same name.) When tortured, she receives a witch’s mark (a tattoo?), a new name and a kiss to the Grandmaster of the coven, usually the kiss of infamy. The initiation of witches is similar to the initiations which take place at puberty in various cultures around the world.
In The Broom Closet — a riff on ‘in the closet’, borrowed from LGBTQIA+ communities. Refers to a witch who isn’t out to their family/friends/co-workers about their beliefs.
Isis — Isis is a healer witch first mentioned in the Old Kingdom (2686–2181 BC). She was the Goddess of magic and wisdom. She used her magic to protect children and heal the sick. In art, she sometimes wears a sheath dress and a headdress with her name on it. Sometimes she’s wearing a crown of cow horns with a sun disk, or a crown with a cobra above her head. Isis is also the reason behind tyet amulets (a.k.a. ‘the knot of Isis’).
Jinx — an evil spell, or a person believed to bring bad luck to others around them
King of the Witches — Alex Sanders, from Birkenhead, England. June Jones wrote a book about this guy. (She called her book King of the Witches, so that’s what Alex was called after that.) Media loved him. It helped that he loved to wear a loincloth. His story was that he’d been initiated into witchcraft by his grandma. His first wife wasn’t really into the supernatural, so that marriage didn’t last. He went for a walk one day and met up with a wealthy couple who said he looked just like their son. They became his patrons. Alex Sanders was a a colourful figure, and key to the neopagan revival of late 20th century England. He died in 1988 (lung cancer). Between 1998 and 2003 neowiccans were able to chat with him from the spirit world but the ghost of Alex Sanders seems to have moved on (for now).
Kiss of Infamy — a kiss on the devil’s ass. Also called the kiss of shame, the shameful kiss, the osculum infame. It was commonly believed during the witch craze that all witches paid homage to the devil by kissing his rump.
Knot of Isis — Also called tyet amulets. These amulets signify the binary nature of life and in the Old Kingdom were typically placed on mummies in the hope that Isis’s power would shield them from disease and evil. These days when you see any depiction of a generic ‘Ancient Egyptian goddesses’, notice they’re wearing amulets to ward off bad vibes. Witch healer Isis is behind this.
Lady Lilith — a seductive witch created by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (English poet, illustrator, painter and translator, 1828-1882). Lady Lilith is just one example of the new breed of glamorised witches who began entering fiction, poetry and art at the fin de siècle (end of the 19th century). Other examples of seductive (rather than crone/hag) witches are Morgan Le Fay as portrayed by Frederick Sandy and Sidonia Van Bork created by Edward Burne-Jones. These male artists created their sorceresses for a number of reasons, most probably because the seductive witch was a male fantasy, but evil and seductive witches were also supposed to warn women away from embracing their own desires. These sorceresses were evil but also signified freedom, and their freedom became their punishment. These new glamorous witches also served as a warning to men against the emasculating magic of a beautiful woman. However, real women tended to enjoy these freedom stories and created fantasies of their own. Woman writers started creating their own glamorous witches in which sex appeal became one of their occult powers (e.g. Evelyn de Morgan).
Lavender — brings sexual power (voodoo/hoodoo)
Law — As soon as laws are made against witchcraft, it inevitably follows that this law is applied. One of the earliest law codes we have, the code of Hammurabi (Babylonian) has a statute against sorcery. When the Henrician and Elizabethan witchcraft statutes were passed in England, culture changed. Previously, if you suspected your misfortune was down to witchcraft, you’d go and privately hire a white witch to remove the bad magic for you. But once the anti-witch laws were in place, as well as doing that, you could make a formal complaint. England’s anti-witchcraft movement lasted in law from about 1500-1710, about 200 years. This spans the period when the elite believed in witchcraft. (Makes sense, since the elite were in charge of making the laws.)
Leechcraft — the art of healing, medical knowledge and skill
Letters On Demonology and Witchcraft — A book by Sir Walter Scott, first published in 1830. Scott had always been big into the supernatural. This book is a collection of his knowledge, with information gleaned from all over the place. The book was a hit. Many people wrote him letters telling him of their own witch experiences, and about obscure witch stories he’d forgotten to include. Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft was the inspiration for a tradition of Victorian novels on necromantic themes that includes Harrison Ainsworth’s The Lancashire Witches and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Lilith — Lilith is an example of an ancient witch. Ideas about witches predate Christianity. Lilith is a character in Jewish mythology, developed in the Babylonian Talmud (3rd to 5th century AD). Lilith is just one character providing us with evidence that ideas about witches existed in Ancient Greece and Rome. Ancient Near Eastern civilisation created an especially rich corpus of stories about female demons, and also left evidence of many carefully crafted protection spells.
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 — 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.
Lookism — Discriminatory treatment of people considered physically unattractive. Discrimination based on appearance is still a major problem for modern society, but right up into the Early Modern era, lookism had another troubling layer to it. From ancient times until Early Modern times, people really did believe that if you looked at something ugly it will somehow come out in any malleable or formative part of yourself. Related to this kind of transmogrification, people literally believed that if at the point of conception the woman looks at a picture of a Black man, then her baby’s skin would be black. They believed all sorts of related wacky things. Another example: A woman’s baby would be covered with hair if she looked at a picture of John the Baptist. People invented stories to explain routine birth defects, and of course the mothers were blamed for causing defects by doing something she shouldn’t have. If you believe this is how the world works, it follows that everything you see is something that you’re “allowing into” yourself. If you go out and see a woman with one eye, a crooked tooth/back, limping, you don’t look at her, because she can transfer some of her bad luck onto you, just by looking at you.
Love Magick — The Greeks and Romans had many laws covering in particular the area of love magic. Each witch has her own method for helping people fall in love. One method is to draw a minikin on a piece of paper meditating on the beloved person. It has to be 13 inches tall. If the loved person has drawn on the paper or touched it, that works better. Use this manikin to cut a pattern out of an old bedsheet, folded over. If the persona has been on your bed, don’t wash the sheet and use that. Use the two halves to sew the manikin. Leave the head open for stuffing. Turn it inside out. However, modern witchcraft is a watered down, sanitised version of the love magic that was once practised in Ancient times. Ancient people were pretty vengeful! One of the most terrifying kinds of Greek and Roman magic is curse magic, where someone might invoke the power of a particular deity (most famously Hecate), but also Athena/Minerva at Aquae Sulis, to cast a curse on someone who had turned you down. This magic ensured this person could never have sex with anyone else so long as you lived. Curses are disturbingly graphic and physical. People might cast a curse to make someone’s genitals disappear, or to make someone’s thighs permanently stitched shut. Unfortunately, literal infibulation is not simply a figment in the imagination of the ancient spurned lover trying to cast a curse to help themselves feel better: the ritual removal of the external female genitalia and the suturing of the vulva is practised today.
Love philtre — a drink credited with magical power; can make the one who takes it love the one who gave it
Love Poppets — poppet means puppet. In sympathetic magic, witches are called upon to bring lovers together by binding does representing them, while saying invocations and burning candles. The poppets might be made of cloth, straw, clay or wax. In the clay and wax models, bits of hair, nails and skin might be incorporated into it. The doll is stuffed with herbs sacred to Venus. A potpourri of dried rosebuds, blackberry leaf, dittany. Elderberry, motherwort and vervain should be tried. Chant the lover’s name all the while you’re doing this. Make a similar poppet to represent yourself out of using cloth you have touched or used. Decorate the doll in some way that represents them. Bind them together using red ribbon previously consecrated to Venus. It has to be cut in some multiple of seven (inches) long. Or even better, the same number of inches as the age of the beloved. (Does metric work?) They have to be laid on an altar and invoke the aid of the gods. Afterwards you can put it in a cigar chest or linen close and the potpourri love poppets will make your clothes smell nice. Do this ritual on a Friday, which is sacred to Venus and also to freya the Norse goddess of love. Repeat for another two Fridays. Repeat as necessary.
Lust — 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“)
Mab — The Fairy Queen or Queen of the Fairies. Mab is a figure from Irish and British folklore, believed to rule the fairies. Based on Shakespeare’s creation, in English-speaking cultures she is often named Titania or Mab.
Macbeth — One of Shakespeare’s most popular and enduring plays, created around 1606. Shakespeare’s Three Witches conform to a stereotype of ugliness. These witches appear “wither’d and so wild in their attire”. They “don’t look like inhabitants of the earth”. Note that Macbeth was published a few years after King James’s Daemonologie. Shakespeare was heavily influenced/inspired by real life witch trials and superstition.
Maddalena — the witch Charles LeLand claimed to have met.
Maenad — A female follower of Dionysus, associated with intense reveling. Also an excessively wild or emotional woman.
Magic — 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.
Magick — contemporary witches prefer to spell it with a ‘k’ at the end. Magick performed in kitchens is no less effective than magick performed in churches. 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 betweenn two worlds — the realm of the gods and the realm of the humans. Cosmic power is concentrated here.
Magnolia — said to create conjugal contentment (voodoo/hoodoo)
Malefica — Maleficium is the Latin word used in court proceedings to describe witchcraft used to inflict harm (evil deeds). Torturing and witch hunting was worse on the European continent than in England. In England, witches were punished for malefica (evil deeds), not for heresy. For example, witches were charged for causing blight to crops, babies to die, illness. These were civil rather than ecclesiastical crimes. In England witches at least had to be punished under civil law, which had constraints against torture and burning. (In England, witches weren’t burned — they were hanged.) ‘Malefick witchcraft’ is also a phrase seen in documents. In Elizabethan England, the maleficium laws turned ordinary citizens into spies on one another, exacerbating anxiety, creating mistrust.
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.
Matrifocal — focusing on women. Modern witchcraft sects are interested in this aspect.
Mirror — A witch looks into a mirror and sees other things than simply a reflection. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the step-mother (witch’s) mirror even talks. A witch’s mirror is black and shiny enough to reflect somethin, but not so reflective that you get back a perfect mirror image. A black shiny surface is therefore good for scrying (fortune telling). When Charlie Brooker wrote his Black Mirror series he took the historical supernatural witch’s mirror and gave it double duty: The modern black mirror is a tablet computer or iPhone.
Mists of Avalon — a series of novels by Marion Bradley, and influential to the practice of some modern witches. The story is a retelling of of the Arthuriad which itself draws on writing by modern witches. This book perfectly exemplifies the link between practising modern witches and fantasy fiction.
Modern witchcraft — As a practice, modern witchcraft dates back only so far as the end of the second world war. However, its discursive origins date back to the Romantic period. People who lived in the Romantic period were into pantheism. We can see that today in fiction and poetry. You don’t have to be a witch to have a residual belief in maleficent witchcraft. When we feel animosity, we can believe that sense is harmful in its own right. This seems to be a natural human tendency which needs to be critiqued and examined before it’s discarded.
Mother Shipton — May or may not have been a real person. Although almost everything about her has been invented, she was probably a real woman living in York c. 1530. There’s always an old woman oracle in the culture. We’re always looking for people to tell the future. Henry the eighth is thought to have written about her but how reliable was he? He dictated a letter to the Duke of Norfolk with the instruction to send certain traitors his way. On the list was the Witch of York. Some sources think this Witch of York was ‘Mother Shipton’: sometimes an oracle, sometimes a witch, sometimes daughter of the devil. Stories about Mother Shipton and her prophecies formed an entire genre in the late 17th century. She became a stock character. (Listen to a podcast about Mother Shipton at Stuff You Missed In History Class.)
Necklace — some have magical properties. Some are made of seashells, acorns, seeds and wood. Others are made of blue glass beads (worn today in the Middle East as protection against the Evil Eye). Others contain crescent moons, symbols of Diana, the goddess most often associated with the witch cult.
Necromancy — Communicating with the dead, usually hoping to predict the future. The adjective is necromantic.
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.
Obeah — A form of folk magic, medicine or witchcraft originating in Africa and practised in parts of the Caribbean. Also refers to witch doctor or spell. Origin uncertain; apparently from a Caribbean creole, probably ultimately from a West African language.
Old Hag Syndrome — Before we knew about sleep paralysis, it was known as Old Hag Syndrome. The name comes from a people who feel like a hag is sitting on their chest at night, preventing them from moving. In medieval folklore the demonic Incubus and Succubus were blamed for this condition. (Listen to this podcast about Old Hag Syndrome.) 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.
Paganism — Most people these days have a sense of witchcraft which comes from fantasy/children’s literature. Those ideas are far removed from reality. As an example, we have an idea that the ‘real’ historical witch comes from Roman Paganism. Instead, most historians of witchcraft say Christianity functioned to stigmatise what were once Orthodox Pagan beliefs by calling Orthodox Pagan beliefs witchcraft. Early Christians (up to the 11th or 12th C) treated witchcraft as a joke. If women ever confessed in church that they were having witchy dreams and so on, confession manuals from this era (studied by people working in the church) advised that women should be told to calm down. Witch stories were considered nonsense. As evidence, an 11th century penitential advises people to tell their parishioners that if they say they’ve gone flying at night with Diana that they’re making it up, it was just a bad dream. Paganism did not actually influence the beginning of the witch craze. (Cf. Scholasticism, which had far more to do with the witch craze than Paganism.) Today, not all Pagans identify as witches. Witches exist on a particular branch of Paganism. Some don’t want to use the word ‘witch’ because of all the baggage. (For example, many people think witches are Satanists. In another misrepresentation, witches are associated with the New Age movement, which many witches also despise.)
Panpharmacon — a solution or remedy for all difficulties or diseases. A panacea
Penises — 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.)
Pishogue — An Anglo-Irish word meaning witchcraft, a spell or magic, especially spells which make people better or increase production of milk in cows and so on.
Poppet — Pretty much the same as a voodoo/hoodoo doll except usually just a piece of wax or knotted rag, or any sort of stand-in that doesn’t have to look like the victim much at all. (If anything can be a poppet, then anything at all found around a so-called witch’s house can be used as evidence in court.)
Poulaine — the long-toed, phallic shoe shoe point sometimes grew so extended that it had to be stuffed and canned to the ankle to prevent it from tripping the wearer. Introduced to France during the eleventh century, it took on such exaggerated proportions that the phrase ‘your poulaine is more man than you’ became a taunt for laggard lovers. Both phallic and horn imagery are evoked. This shoe (along with the horned headdress) was denounced from the pulpit.
Puffballs (or girdle of puffballs) — strung together with a magical pouch hanging in their midst. Different from the cingulum. The pouch itself contains the witch’s charms and amulets. It’s made of skin. It’s a variation on the voodoo/hoodoo charm bag.
Radio — Widespread radio seems to be the thing which finally put an end to popular belief in witchcraft in England.
Red hair — When regular people believed they lived in a world inhabited by witches, anything slightly different about your body could easily distinguish you as a witch. Red hair is unusual, and therefore was dangerously associated with witchcraft. The link between witches and red hair continued long after the witch craze — Anne of Green Gables was written in the early 1900s, long after people ostensibly stopped believing in witches. But there was a very good reason why Anne did not appreciate her red hair. It wasn’t just vanity; red-headed girls battled very real prejudice.
Richard the Third — Richard III (1452 – 1485) was King of England and Lord of Ireland from 1483 until his death in 1485. During his reign, there were stories going around about how witches were trying to assassinate him using witchcraft. In the public imagination, the countryside was populated with ugly little old ladies with the powers to take down a King, despite all his guards and so on. This was terrifying. Until now, witches hadn’t been taken too seriously by the elite ruling class (the top 5%). But now the ruling class started to join the rest of the population, wondering if witches really were a great menace. This coincinced with witchcraft becoming theologised. Now the ruling class in the British Isles, as well as the peasants, started to take witches seriously. Now life started to get really terrible for anyone accused of witchcraft.
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.
Sabbat — witches’ sabbath. A melange of meeting, dance, orgy, love feast, bacchanal, feast of Priapus, and a parody of Christianity. May derive from fertility dances of Paleolithic times around the antlered representation of the incarnate god. But it borrowed from every religion through the ages, and finally from Christianity. Witches were said to fly to Sabbat on broomsticks, up chimneys, through billowing clouds. When they arrived they oiled themselves for the dance using powerful hallucinogenic ointments which may have been introduced vaginally. What do witches do at sabbat? That depends on which country we’re talking about. English witches were not thought to have wonderful sexy times at Sabbath — English witches just ate a lot. If your food had been stolen from your English barn, say, you’d likely blame a witch, since English witches were thought to have a capacious appetite (for food).
Sado-State — a term used by Mary Daly, referring to states which use torture, dismemberment and murder to control the population.
Salem — In Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, more than 200 people were accused of witchcraft, with 14 women executed by hanging. The town of Salem is today a tourist trap but the illage itself renamed itself Danvers in the 1800s, so many tourists don’t realise it’s there. In Danvers you’ll find a memorial to the Salem witches who lived there. The best-known is Rebecca Nurse. You can visit her house. Remember, Salem was just a tiny village in the woods with a population of about 200 people. This clearing was quite a way from the village (especially if you travelled by foot).
Salem Martyr, The — A Salem witch depicted by Thomas Satterwhite Noble in a painting he called “The Salem Martyr” (1869).
Samhain — October 31st, a.k.a. the Celtic New Year, Hallowe’en, All Hallow’s Eve, November Eve. Importantly for witches, this is This holiday is the Wiccan new year. Many people celebrate with costume parties and trick-or-treating. Samhain is the night when the God dies and leaves the Goddess alone until Yule, when he is born again. Halloween/Samhain is a time when the doors between real world and the supernatural open to each other.
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.
Satanism — Modern witchcraft is not Satanism and nothing like Satanism. Even Satanists often feel misunderstood because people think they worship Satan. Organised Satanism is a mixture of atheism, libertarianism and Machiavallian pragmatism. Satanists celebrate the freedom to indulge. (For Satanists, Satan is a symbol only; they are skeptics who don’t believe in supernatural beings.)
Scholasticism — According to one historical theory, Scholasticism had far more to do with starting the witch craze than Paganism ever did. Scholasticism was an attempt to arrive at a really complicated empirical theory of everything. This way of thinking also developed as a way of defeating heresy. Scholastics had excellent imaginations and as part of their theory of everything, they really did start to believe that there were evil demons hanging around at night, stealing men’s seed.
Scrying — a.k.a. “seeing” or “peeping”. The practice of looking into a suitable medium (e.g. a crystal ball or a black mirror) in the hope of detecting significant messages or visions.
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.
Skyclad — naked. Clothing reduces the power that emanates from the human body. In cold climates they practise energetic circle dances to warm up before stripping off.
Secrecy — the reason for secrecy is that it’s thought secrecy brings spiritual power.
Sects — In modern witchcraft there’s no single person in charge, and there is no single set of unified practices and beliefs. Sects include: Gardnerians (Gerald Gardner), Dianics, racial faeries, Alexandrians (see: Alex Sanders), hedge-witches, famtrads (family witches). Witches like their diversity, as diversity is evidence of freedom. Beliefs in common: Worship of a Mother Goddess and her male consort (polytheism). All sects understand the natural world as a spiritually significant place (pantheism). All sects adopt a festive calendar similar to those from the ancient world, with feasts. Witchcraft is all about ritual, some old, some invented anew.
Self-Blessing (or Self-Dedication) — a personal ritual whereby the witch dedicates herself to the service of the Mother Goddess and the Horned God. It can be done with a coven or before one’s own alter. Use oil, incense, candles or water, wine and salt. Do it when you feel you need to rededicate yourself to the path. It might be done naked in a tranquil place. Stand on sprinkled salt, light candle, anoint the eyes, nose, mouth, breast, loins, feet with water and wine.
Slavic witchcraft — Witchcraft from Russia, the Ukraine, and Belarus, the Balkans and the Baltic states takes a slightly different form. This 2,000 year old tradition has only a thin Christian veneer over its pagan origins. Slavic pagan gods and goddesses acquired new lives as the saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church. (Russian hereditary witch,occultist and witchcraft scholar Natasha Helvin joins podcast host Mark Norman to discuss the beliefs, traditions and practices associated with witchcraft in the Slavic tradition.)
Snakes — 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.
Sorceress — In England, during the witch-craze, 90% of people accused of witchcraft were women. But in other countries more than half were men. The image of the ‘seductive sorceress’ we see in pre-Raphaelite art comes from medieval and Arthurian legend. (Modern examples include Queen of the goths, Morticia Addams, goth schoolgirls.) But in reality, most of the women tried for witchcraft during the witch craze were elderly, disabled and had some ‘unevenness of body’ such as a missing limb or eye, or differently coloured eyes. The view of sorcery we have today is romanticized and post- Victorian. (Modern examples include the green-skinned Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz.)
Starhawk — a modern Jewish witch who wrote the book Dreaming the Dark (1982), arguing for disarmament, environmental action and sexual liberation (as well as emphasising inner tranquility).
Strappado — a form of punishment or torture in which the victim was secured to a rope and made to fall from a height almost to the ground before being stopped with an abrupt jerk. Also refers to the instrument that does this.
Strix — There’s a hefty body of anxious legislation about a figure called the Strix who is an evil sorceress.
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 — Supernatural thinking almost always comes down to the following: birth, sex and death. Modern stories tend to convert supernatural beliefs of the past into metaphors for psychological states. For instance, modern productions/interpretations of Hamlet present the witches and ghosts as metaphors for Hamlet’s inner state, considered figments of Hamlet’s imagination. Earlier audiences who actually believed in these things would have understood the supernatural aspects of Hamlet more literally.
Sympathetic (or Imitative) Magic — primitive or magical ritual using objects or actions resembling or symbolically associated with the event or person over which influence is sought. Sailors feared women who whistled because of the sympathetic magic implied in “whistling up the wind”.
Succubus — from Medieval folklore, a female demon believed to have sexual intercourse with (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.
Teat — 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).
Trial — We don’t have the complete records but, perhaps influenced by Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, people today tend to assume that once you were accused of witchcraft, that’s it, that’s curtains for you. In fact, most English cases resulted in acquittal. About 25% of English witches were convicted once they went to trial. However, even if you were acquitted you could still die in jail. We have no figures on that. Not counting lynchings and people who died in jail, England records about 3000 deaths, maybe more. This is how trials tended to proceed: In England, before a witch trial took place, a Justice of the Peace would be doing the rounds trying to work out if there was a witchcraft problem in the area. The JP would build up a file of depositions and also probably confessions from the accused. Other witches would commonly be named, and this might lead to a trial with a jury. Important to remember: There were no defence barristers or prosecution lawyers in Early Modern law courts. If you were accused of witchcraft and taken to court, there was no one to stand up for you.
Trial by ordeal — Trials which put peple through ‘ordeals’ (torture) e.g. dunking.
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.Witches’ Charm, Ben Jonson, included in Mists and Magic chosen and edited by Dorothy Edwards illustrated by Jill Bennett
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!
Tunriða — Old Norse word meaning “hedge-rider”. (Along with Old High German zunritha. Refers to both witches and ghosts.
Unwitch — 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.
Wand — may have tree worship at its root. These are magical branches plucked from sacred trees in sacred groves. The best wand will be made of one of the woods sacred to the White Goddess: elderberry, willow, rowan, hazel, oak or mistletoe. A straight and slender branch should be hollowed at the centre (the pith removed). Some traditions require it be transcribed with a pentagram as well as the witch’s ritual name (the name given to the witch on her initiation). More importantly it has to be blessed in the name of the Mother Goddess and consecrated as a tool of the witch’s will. The stronger the witch’s will, the more invincible the wand.
Water — 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.
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.
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.
Witch-craze — The historical repression of witches during one particular period in modern history. Witchcraft (or sorcery) has always existed. Ideas of witches exist, really, from the very earliest human societies. There has never been a time in human history when people didn’t have an idea of malign magic. Unlike sorcery itself, or the concept of witches, the witch-craze was a distinctly modern historical phenomenon, like Nazism or Stalinism. Multitudes of human beings, mostly women, were condemned to horrible deaths for ‘crimes’ which today we consider wholly fanciful. Witch-craze lasted from 14th through to the 17th century.
Witching hour — There is controversy about what witching hour is. We know that witching hour is a notion of a magical time when the barrier between the other world and where undead, restless entities may be able to pass over from the other world into the material world. This includes witches and their familiars. Shakespeare used it a fair bit in his plays. Witching hour is generally considered to be between midnight and 3 a.m. in England’s Early Modern period.
Witch mark — Witch marks may refer to an extra nipple or similar, thought to be bodily evidence that someone is a witch. Witch marks is also the name given to protective markings found on old buildings. These marks are good evidence that even once the elite stopped believing in witchcraft, the common people continued. Witch marks are about trying to invoke an idea of goodness. If you believe that old, ugly lame women will transmit all this to others, you also believe that beauty can be similarly transverted, that beauty and evenness are the best way to counter that kind of ugly unevenness. So making a beautiful ritual mark is itself a good protection against an ugly person/spirit. Witch marks mostly survive domestically. Witch marks survive best in houses that are themselves crooked and uneven.
Witch of Endor — There are mentions of witches in the Bible. One appears in the book of Samuel (written 931-721 BC): the Witch of Endor, or the Endorian Sorceress. This woman summoned the spirit of prophet Samuel. She’s depicted in an 1857 painting
Witch trials — As part of the witch craze, The Great Age of Witch Trials took place in Europe between 1550 and 1700. Nobody agrees on how many people were murdered. Estimates range between 500,000 and 9 million. Many were burned alive. After 1700 trials disappeared almost completely. Why the sudden change in 1550? Until then, Christian authorities had refused to acknowledge the existence of witches. But in 1550 they reversed their position, resulting in a witch hunt across Christendom. There were probably economic factors involved. Also, Old women are terrifying — they remind us all of death. No coincidence that the witch trials begin at the same moment as the European Reformation in religion, which radically reset relations with the dead by deleting purgatory and the cult of the saints. Before that the living could be useful to the dead by praying for them. This was a way of managing emotions around dead loved ones. It worked both ways — you could ask the dead to act on your behalf in front of God. But the Reformation got rid of this transactional relationship with the dead.
Witch-pricker — a tool used by inquisitors to prick so-called witches skin. The blade slid into the handle under pressure and if the witch didn’t seem to feel it this was proof of her guilt.
Witch’s Year — Keyed to agricultural times and seasonal changes. Spring (March 21), Beltane (April 30), Midsummer, Lugnasadh (August 1), Autumn, Samhain, Yule (December 21), Imbolc (February 1).
Wizard — 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
Wolves — 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.
Zunritha —Old High German word meaning “hedge-rider”, along with Old Norse tunriða.
- The 5 best books on witches and witchcraft, as picked by Diane Purkiss, Professor of English Literature, Fellow and Tutor at Keble College, Oxford. These books don’t at first glance appear to be about witches.
- Diane Purkiss wrote a wonderful book about witches: The Witch in History: Early modern and twentieth-century representations
- Witches in children’s literature
- Why are witches green?
- Burlesque witch archetype
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.
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.
FEATURES OF BABA YAGA?
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. Vladamir Propp proposed that her house on legs might serve as a cultural memory of initiation rituals.
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.
‘Yaga’ May be related to Slavic words for grudge or brawl. Or the Russian word for eating.
Baba Yaga is a genius loci (protective spirit).
She 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.
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.)
In Russian imagination she is the aunt or mistress of all witches.
She has been compared to Hecate, the Greek goddess of magic, witchcraft, the night, moon, ghosts and necromancy.
Sometimes she is said to be the mother of dragons.
She is cunning.
She’s in control of natural and supernatural magic and above all of food supplies.
She dispenses hospitality capriciously.
Baba Yaga is unusually specific for a fairy tale character — she is often individuated.
She lives in a woodland cottage that runs about on chicken legs.
Unusual mode of flight 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.
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.)
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.
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.
THE DUALISTIC WOMAN
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
SIMILARITIES TO HANSEL AND GRETEL
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 empahsis 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 JAPAN
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.
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?
Happy dreams. Once Upon A Blog Baba Yaga
In The Middle Of The Night is a young adult horror novel by American author Robert Cormier. Written in the mid 1990s, this was one of his later works.
PARATEXT OF “IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT”
The cover reads like the poster for a horror film and gives us a horror tagline: “The sin of the father will be visited upon the son.”
Although Goodreads reminds me I read (and reviewed!) this book back in 2013, I have zero recollection of ever picking it up. This probably says more about my memory than about the book, though I do have strong memories of some of Cormier’s other work, particularly Fade, which I read as a teenager and which left a strong impression.
I’m reading In The Middle Of The Night again making read-along notes as I go, hoping to learn what I can about horror and suspense from a master of the form.
This time as a learning exercise I am reading a thriller/horror taking notes as I read. I want to see how a master storyteller controls his reveals and reversals. You’ll see I was wrong about a few things, and had trouble working out what was going on in the beginning. This is the book’s biggest shortcoming. Another look at Goodreads reviews tells me other readers had the same trouble. Why did I have trouble? For some reason, Cormier used the name Dennis twice, for two separate, unconnected people. The first was a minor character, Dennis Denehan, brother of Lulu’s best childhood friend. Later I was confused by the name Denny, the name of our main character. Why did Cormier do this? I guess it makes sense that within the world of the story, Jean Paul might have named his own son after one of the boys he felt responsible for killing, but it really did affect my ability to work out what was going on.
The other factor for contemporary readers picking up this book from the mid nineties, both the ‘contemporary’ world and the ‘past’ world of the story feel a bit retro now, so the usual markers that stand out as markers of time don’t work quite as well — I had no idea really about screening eras of I Love Lucy.
Beginner writers are often told not to write prologues, which stands in direct opposition to the fact that a lot of popular books open with prologues. (There are problems with prologues and other people have explained all the reasons why. Bear in mind, it’s #NotAllPrologues.) Cormier, too, opens this story with a prologue. He ticks a few things off in this prologue:
- Some of the novel is written in first person, and ideally, with a first-person homodiegetic narrator, the reader gets a reason why all of this is being written down. “I am writing all this down. I have never kept a diary or a journal or anything like that. My thoughts and memories were enough, but now that she has begun to assert herself. I find that it’s necessary to keep a record. Why? For my own good, my own testimony, in case anything happens.” Likewise, readers are given a reason why Greg Heffley writes his Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and why two girls are writing The Popularity Papers (by Amy Ignatow). I am constantly amazed how authors come up with original reasons for why their storytellers are writing things down. (You’d think there would only be a couple of reasons, right?)
- The middle grade examples I gave are comedies, but Cormier has given us a creepier reason for writing something down: We immediately feel the character might die. And that is another function of this prologue — to introduce the creepy tone. Cormier even lampshades the story problem he has just created for himself — the problem EVERY writer creates for themselves when they want to do two incongruous things, making us wonder if the character will die but also having that person still alive to write the story — he writes “Stop pretending, she says. You know what’s going to happen.”
- Cormier also introduces a slightly creepy brother/sister relationship. Anyone who has previously read Fade by the same author might be wondering if this is going to be a story of incest.
- Aunt Mary is introduced. Cormier contrives a situation where adults won’t be a problem; first of all these kids are orphans. Second, their spinster aunt is well-meaning but busy, with a childlike naivety. So she’s not going to stand in anyone’s way.
- We get some idea of the time. This is a time when kids are play-acting I Love Lucy. As a non-American reader I’m a bit confused about the setting — this is a show from the 1960s, but perhaps kids of the 90s watch re-runs? Mention of the ‘phonograph’ makes this a bit clearer. Yes, this boy is writing as an adult.
- Lulu is established as an unreliable character. She likes to make up stories to cheer her brother up.
- The narrator is established as Lulu’s mirror character. Whereas Lulu is loud and lively and makes friends easily, the narrator is bookish and quiet.
- We’re introduced to Dennis — the brother of Lulu’s best friend and neighbour, Eileen.
- We have basic details about the geographical setting: A town called Wickburg with its own local traditions. They live on the second floor (of low income housing?) below a big family of kids.
- Foreshadowing: The magician likes to make people disappear. Who else is going to disappear?
- Clues about the horror genre of this story: The parents who died apparently went to see a horror film at the drive-in. That’s a good clue that this story, too, is a horror.
- Sure enough, by the end of the prologue, Lulu is dead.
Why was this written as a prologue and not Chapter One? Because the rest of the novel has its own structure, with four parts. Chapter One switches to third person narration.
We don’t know this is about Denny (briefly mentioned in the prologue) until a page and a half in, but Denny is now 16 and his family gets a phone call in the middle of the night every year, starting a few weeks before the anniversary (of Lulu’s death).
I remain confused about the name Denny for a while. Is the older Denny the younger Denny’s uncle? Why has this name been recycled? Or is it the same guy?
The Power Of Not Naming A Character
We’re back to first person. Interestingly, we don’t know this guy’s name. Who is he? At first I haven’t picked up the switch in generations. Am I the only one with this particular problem, or would the story have benefitted from something like ‘Twenty five years later’ under the chapter heading, to show this guy is no longer a kid?
At this point we only know the first person narrator by the nickname Lulu bestowed upon him: “Baby” , or “Baby-Boy”. This in itself seems weird. Is he really messed up? Lives alone as a serial killer? An possibly incestuous background, obviously full of the trauma of death?
Is This A Ghost Or Is This A Nutter?
It’s clear pretty immediately that Lulu is a ghost, which explains Cormier’s decision to avoid conventional dialogue punctuation in favour of italics for Ghost Lulu. (Ghosts can’t talk in the conventional way, or so we would assume.) Alternatively, this could be a setting in which ghosts aren’t actually a thing — perhaps our main character simply thinks they’re a thing — and Baby-Boy is having some kind of hallucination, and will act on what he imagines to be Lulu’s behalf. His reliability is not yet established. (I mean, he hasn’t even told us his name.) “A sigh escaped me, like a ghost abandoning my body” encourages that interpretation. Lulu tells Baby-Boy that it’s time to stop calling and time to do something by way of retribution. Baby-Boy tries to persuade her not to.
Revenge Theme Established
In stories (as in real life) vengeful characters suffer the consequences of their actions. This is obviously going to be a story about revenge. What will Cormier have to say about revenge?
Now that we’re back to Denny’s third person narration it’s clear this book is going to take the form of alternating points of view by chapter.
We have a classic 1950s-esque scene with the mother in the kitchen watching coffee percolate while the father reads the newspaper. This is your classic ‘cozy kitchen’ scene. Denny’s life is safe and normal. But we know from the phone call at midnight that this is not a genuine utopia but an apparent one.
Denny’s eating tasteless shredded wheat, which is a sign of the era. (Eras can be marked pretty clearly according to what characters eat for breakfast.) This is the 1990s. With the mother standing watching the coffee rather than cooking the breakfast and being all cheerful, I detect some nostalgia on the writer’s part about what a morning should really look like (and it is dependent upon the mother’s emotional and domestic labour.) In close third person point of view, the son gives us a critique of how old his mother looks. (I assume the mother, ideally, should look pretty and young, to boot.)
Cormier gives us something similar to a ‘looking in a mirror’ thumbnail sketch of Denny: “Himself: what did his mtoher and father see when they looked at him? The obvious: dutiful son, good student — not brilliant, not a genius (definitely not a genius), but a regular kid. Did not give them cause for alarm. Polite. Oh, sarcastic sometimes, when things piled up and no one spoke or said anything. Unco-ordinated, awkward at sports, quiet. Spent a lot of time in his room. Reading, mostly jink but some good junk too — the 87th Precinct novels he was racing through./That’s what someone would see, peeking through the window: a regular family.” In short, Denny is the boy equivalent of Bella Swan — very useful as the main character of a horror/supernatural story because this boy can function as The Every Kid. He has zero distinguishing features, at least according to him.
A horror story Every Kid is especially terrifying — This could happen to you, too, young readers. It also means Denny doesn’t have much in the way of distinguishing Shortcoming or Need. Instead, we are given surface details about him. Denny is portrayed as quite different from his own father — whereas the father is small and neat, Denny seems to attract grime and creases. Will this prove metaphorical? Just as likely: Readers are being reminded that Denny is not his father, and sons should not be punished for their fathers’ wrongdoing.
This hasn’t always been the case. It’s a modern, Western idea that children are separate from their families. Throughout history, and in other parts of the modern world, people are very regularly punished for something a family member has done. This is more likely in less individualistic societies, where family members are considered different facets of the same ‘person’.
By mentioning the imaginary audience looking in through the window I am put in mind of a horror film camera technique whereby the camera sort of follows a character as they go about their ordinary business. The scene thereby seems to almost be taking place underwater, with the camera as some kind of shark, floating without sound towards its target, waiting to surprise. An opening scene of Broadchurch uses this technique, and you’ll see it in Panic Room and various other horror suspense films. The ocean has two distinct parts to it: the ocean surface, which you can see, and the ocean deep, which you can’t.
The mother suggests they take the phone out. “Especially this year.” Unfortunately I’ve already read spoilers on the back cover and so I know this year is significant because Denny is sixteen — the same age Dennis was when he did something which lead to the death of Lulu. This says something interesting about back cover copy. When Cormier wrote this book did he mean for the publisher to give so much away on the back? (While the inside of a book is created by the author, the cover illustration and copy belong entirely to the publisher.) Did the publisher forfeit suspense in favour of selling more copies, or was theirs a literary decision? Did they think Cormier wasn’t giving enough away, early enough, so helped readers along?
The horror genre is furthered in the reader’s mind when we see Denny has assigned horror monster names to the kids at the bus stop. This is similar to ‘genre parody’, except there’s no comedy element here. Instead it becomes simply metafictive: The character in a story immerses himself in the genre of the story he himself is in. This is done for comic effect in a completely different kind of story — Jane The Virgin. In that story, Jane immerses herself in telenovelas. The story Jane The Virgin itself is a spoof of a telenovela, using conventions from that genre such as a high number of coincidences, melodrama and a character web who become more and more entangled with each other.
At the bus stop Denny is cast as a sympathetic underdog — he’s the eldest by far (and therefore alone), and also humiliated somewhat, as his father won’t let him get a car until he’s seventeen. Nor will he get a licence. Humiliation is one of those top-tier emotions readers can easily identify with: when a reader feels humiliated for something out of their control we are on their side. The younger kid knows Denny is old enough to have a licence. As well as reinforcing his humiliation, we as readers now know Denny’s exact age without having to be told directly. Is this story going to espouse the dominant ideology of underdog stories?
We also see from the bus stop scene that Denny is passive. He lets a younger girl step in to break up a fight (a kiddie fight which nevertheless foreshadows a high-stakes big struggle to come). “See?” Denny tells her when she confronts him, in unsympathetic, bossy-boots fashion. “It’s like a war. You win one big struggle and the war still goes on.” This sounds like it might be a theme in a nutshell. We are also reminded that Denny has been running from something his whole life and has basically given up the fight. I predict a Call To Adventure which he won’t be able to turn down, because the safety of his family will be at stake. Later in the story he will double down on this and fight to ‘the death’ (spiritual death, coming out a different person).
The girl — a bluestocking, Hermione Granger type — sits next to Denny on the bus. I’m disappointed in this dynamic, or rather, sick of seeing it. Why do men write attractive fictional who seem sexually interested in boys who have just proven themselves to be hopeless?
The narrator briefly alludes to a character called Chloe. Who is Chloe? A girlfriend he had at a former place, before the family were forced to move?
School Buildings As Haunted Mansion
Norman Preparatory Academy, introduced in chapter four, is the perfect example of ‘school as haunted mansion’:
It was the nickname for Norman Preparatory Academy, named for Samuel J. Norman, a deceased Barstow millionaire, whose former home, a three-story mansion, now served as the academy’s administration building. It was so damn normal, which is exactly what Denny liked about it. And hated about it. Both at the same time.
The school looked almost too normal: two class-room buildings, located at right angles to the mansion, bright red brick with clinging climbing ivy, two storeys in height. The lawn between the buildings was mowed to such perfection that it resembled artificial turf, although no one would dare play football on its surface or even walk across it. An iron gate guarded the entrance to the academy.
We knew as soon as we heard ‘Normal’ Prep that this was going to be no ordinary school. Like Denny’s house, the school, too, is introduced as a possible snail under the leaf setting.
(By the way, my expectation that this novel was going to alternate points-of-view by chapter has been foiled. I’m pretty glad actually, because every time the narrator change it pulls us out of the story.)
Rich and Poor Together
I have assumed — naturally — that Denny comes from a rich family if he’s being sent to this fancy school, but Cormier correctly predicts my erroneous assumption and tells us that his father has to work overtime at the factory in order to send him there. This could introduce another interesting dynamic: Denny is now a working-class boy attending a school full of rich boys. Whenever writers put rich and poor together they get instant conflict — interesting kinds of conflicts, because the values are very often different.
A Geographical Setting That Gets More Specific As The Story Progresses
We’re told Denny’s family used to live ‘down near the Connecticut border’, which gives us a more precise location within the American continent. (Perhaps American readers have already worked out exactly where this story takes place?) On the other hand, this ‘zooming in’ slowly on the physical setting turns the reader into a kind of ghost in our own right — like the ghost of Lulu, if we get a little more information about this family, we too will be able to follow them around and haunt them.
(Though there are places in America called ‘Barstow’, is this particular Barstow supposed to be a real place?)
Cormier uses a ghost metaphor to describe the way Denny moves through his day — at school in body, but not in spirit. Nobody ‘sees’ him. This aligns him with the actual ghost who presumably plots to kill him. The reader can see this — the characters themselves cannot. Revenge related message: The person you hate the most is more like you than you think.
Manic Pixie Dream Girlfriends
We’re given the backstory of Chloe. She was his first sort-of girlfriend — Denny is so passive that he lets girls make all the moves. Like the girl at the bus stop, Chloe was also full of action.
On the steps, Denny is ‘stopped by’ a guy called Jimmy Burke. At first I expect Jimmy to be your classic school bully (also, bullying incidents often take place on stairs). But no, this is a different sort of Opponent. Jimmy is well-intentioned — presumably inviting Denny onto the student council for the specific purpose of including an outsider, helping him to make friends. That said, an opponent in fiction doesn’t have to be ill-intentioned. Jimmy is an opponent because he stands in opposition to what Denny wants from school: To blend in, unnoticed. Parents in young adult fiction are also quite often well-intentioned opponents, standing in the way of the young adult with the intention of keeping them safe or whatever.
Chapter 4 ends with Denny on the bus wondering if he’s up for a big struggle. This is in reference to joining the school council, standing against some bad stuff going down under the surface of the snail under the leaf setting of school, but speaks to the bigger big struggle to come. There is nothing subtle about this story structure (and ‘not subtle’ is not a bad thing).
Denny is back in his apartment now. The phone is ringing.
Symbolic Character Quirk
The mother has ‘a strange approach to labelling’. She writes ‘coffee’ on the cookie jar. This little character quirk has a deeper meaning: Denny’s mother is constantly hiding. Her homelife is literally ‘not what it says on the tin’.
When Denny finally answers the call and it’s a mysterious girl. She says something mysterious about them not being friends ‘yet’. Cormier describes the voice in ambiguous terms — Denny can’t be sure whether the voice comes from a girl or a woman or what. (This could therefore still be the deluded alive brother acting on Lulu’s behalf.)
Flashback scene. Angry father in kitchen telling Denny to never, ever answer the phone.
Another flashback scene to when Denny was seven years old. Shifts in settings are easy in horror: This scene is introduced with the sentence fragments, “Seven years old. Third grade. Home from school.” Mom is sick in the bathroom — she says it’s a 24 hour bug. Denny answers the phone for the first time, presumably.
We learn the father’s name: John Paul Colbert.
Mother comes up behind Denny and scolds him for answering the phone, momentarily at least turning the mother into her own sort of monster. With both parents lying to him or hiding things from him Denny is totally alone in the world. We are even told in this scene that he’s never even had a babysitter. Denny realises ‘he’s never been really alone’, which is the opposite of reality — Denny is nothing if not perpetually alone in the world.
Double carriage return, back to the present. ‘Answering the telephone’ are the two incidents that link this scene to the flashback scenes.
Desire Is Solidified
“Suddenly he was eager for the telephone to ring.” This marks a change in Denny. He desires something. Until now he has been completely passive. He has been hankering for some kind of big struggle, and this person on the other end of the line is going to provide him with one. Ironically, as soon as he wants the phone call it doesn’t come in the middle of the night.
“But something had awakened him.” Turns out to be his father. This is almost mandatory in a horror story: Once the main character starts to be scared they are on edge (as the audience is). Something will happen but it turns out to be benign. In the Australian crocodile horror movie Black Water, something nudges ominously against the tin boat, but it turns out to be a petrol can. Minutes later the entire boat is overturned by an evil croc. Audiences know this trick as used in horror stories, but it works anyway. It may even be mandatory, though I’ve yet to explore that sufficiently.
Cormier does not shy away from stating symbolism which may be obvious to an experienced reader but not to many younger ones, and this is perhaps what makes this a young adult novel. Of Denny’s father:
Sitting there, forlorn, in the middle of the night. But he and his father and mother were living in a kind of middle of the night even when the sun was shining.
Thus, the double meaning of the title is explained, and I learn that writers shouldn’t necessarily shy away from that.
The story switches back to Baby-Boy. We know this not because it’s sign-posted at the top but because of the presence of Lulu and the first-person point of view.
Wait, what? In a flashback to the scene of the accident in the theatre, we get a surreal, white scene in which we learn Lulu never died at all. She made a ‘miraculous’ recovery. “I’m not Lazarus,” she tells her brother. I don’t know anything about Lazarus, apart from the idiom ‘back from the dead’. Bible readers will know the Raising of Lazarus story from the Bible. Jesus restored him to life four days after he died and he became a saint. The subtext of Lulu’s words: She is no saint. It is implied at this point that she died, then came back as a kind of vengeful machine, perhaps sent instead from the Devil. She has come back with one mission: To get even with whoever caused the balcony accident.
The horror genre is full of Biblical references and, honestly, most of what I know about the Bible I’ve learned from looking something up after watching a horror.
The end of this chapter, and of part one, provides the Evil Monster (Lulu, back from the dead) a clear motivation for wrong-doing, and makes us wonder how she’s going to exact revenge upon young Denny and his family.
Writers are advised to set up the rules of the setting early on. It’s interesting that I’m still not sure about the rules of the supernatural in this particular story. I had thought Lulu was a ghost but now she is a different kind of ghost — more like a vengeful zombie. It’s probably enough that I know this story contains supernatural elements, and it’s okay if I am slightly wrong about these, amending my vision of the world as I progress.
Finally we get some questions answered.
This is what Denny’s father, John Paul Colbert, thought about in the middle of the night: how his life changed for ever at the age of sixteen when he became assistant manager/head usher at the Globe Theatre in downtown Wickburg, Massachussetts.
Naturally, we’re expected to have worked this out for ourselves by now. Cormier was a fan of making readers work a bit. Eventually we’re told whether we’re on the right track or not. The reader should have had this question: How is thread A of the novel related to thread B? It’s a safe question to assume readers have asked. Readers always want to know how two different stories are related.
This is still third person point of view, but the ‘camera’ has homed in on Denny’s father.
This chapter takes us to the part where the balcony has just collapsed.
Mostly an action chapter, concluding with John Paul waking up after six days in hospital. His parents show him a newspaper article and we learn that John Paul is to be questioned.
The reader now has a question: What could the 16 year old usher possibly have done to be thought responsible for the collapse of a balcony? My experience of real life news makes me think of a tragedy in my own country, in which a group of tertiary students were standing on a balcony in a National Park. The platform had not been made for that many people. New Zealanders know it as the Cave Creek disaster. That happened in April 1995, coincidentally the same year this book was published. Given the lag in publishing, Cormier no doubt wrote this story before the Cave Creek disaster.
Could the character of John Paul be guilty of allowing too many people onto the balcony? Did it collapse from overweight? I’m keen to find out, and also wondering from a writers’ perspective what kind of theories other readers might have regarding John Paul’s culpability.
The details of the disaster continues to be conveyed via John Paul reading newspaper reports. This is a writing technique that no longer works — now it would be the Internet, with far more theories and much more information for someone to sift through before getting to any semblance of ‘truth’. A young audience today reading about John Paul on the Internet wouldn’t necessarily believe the Internet news in the way that we and John Paul are obviously meant to believe the journalists.
In this chapter we also have the emergence of another ‘ghost’ like character in the form of a woman who points at John Paul with a long, bony finger. “You killed my Joey!” she screamed (whether she’s real or hallucinated.) What is it about the gendering of these accusing apparitions? Notice that in stories, characters are less often tortured by a male character pointing an accusing finger. Paranormal creatures who kill us are more likely to be gendered male. I believe this narrative gendering comes back to that old truism: Men are terrified women will laugh at them (disapprove of them); women are terrified men will kill them. This woman is terrifying because she disapproves.
It becomes clearer later in the chapter that this ghostly woman is not a ghost at all, but a real woman. (Other people can see her and they talk about her.) This is the second time Cormier has played this trick on us, making us wonder if a female character is an apparition, then telling us she’s actually real.
My theory about a balcony collapse has more to it — there’s a fire. We are left at the end of this chapter knowing John Paul had something to do with a fire. The fire weakened the structure. How did John Paul start a fire? Was this pyromania or entirely accidental?
As John Paul leaves the hospital we can see he’s a crucified young man. People are holding pickets up in protest of whatever it is he did.
Notice Cormier has given John Paul the revelation before he’s given it to the reader. John Paul knows exactly what he’s done wrong, but we readers will have to keep reading to find out. If Cormier does this well, readers will have our own kind of revelation, applying John Paul’s mistake to our own lives.
John Paul is going through a depressed phase of his life. Cormier does not shy away from a bit of pathetic fallacy:
The coldness of November greeted him as he stepped out of the house, and he raised the collar of his jacket. The sky, dark and low, pressed down upon him. Tree branches, stark and leafless, were like spiderwebs climbing against the greyness of the sky.
Cormier has used the symbolism of the seasons to match up with John Paul’s inner state. He was happy in summer, with his plum summer job and the pretty girl, but now his life is terrible and sure enough it’s also winter. It’s rare to find a happy main character in winter. A writer can still subvert this convention by contrasting a downcast character against the happiness of a blue sky and people going about their summertime activities.
The scene with the librarian and the microfiche took me right back to the nineties. Ah, microfiche. University students no longer need to be inducted to the joys of research with the microfiche machines as I was in 1996.
We learn that John Paul has been ‘cleared of responsibility’ for the tragedy. But John Paul was still ‘a part of it’. Because this is a character with a conscience, being legally in the clear doesn’t count for much. This aspect of a character endears them to a (non-sociopathic) reading audience.
The nice letter from the girl — Nina Citrone — shows just how much this male character puts stock on what girls/women think of him. This seems to be a theme running through Cormier’s work (at least, those novels that I have read so far); Cormier’s teenage boys are very, very concerned about what women and girls think of them. A glance from the right girl can make or break his year. (When girl characters are written this way, readers tend to think the girls ‘pathetic’ and the books are thrown into the romance category, even when the romance is a subplot.) This is why the phrase ‘strong female character’ has become problematic in recent years — it comes from an acknowledged double standard that female characters have to be strong. Strong does not equal real.
When there are no big headlines about John Paul being cleared of wrongdoing, Cormier is saying something about the nature of the media. The media loves a witch hunt, but stories fizzle out and the protagonists of those real life stories are left to deal with consequences and clearances on their own. Also, plotwise, if John Paul was never publicly cleared of wrong-doing, this explains why there are people who can never move on.
We are told that John Paul has a difficult relationship with newspapers. This takes us back to the first time the reader met John Paul — ‘hiding behind’ a newspaper in the kitchen but not really reading it, from Denny’s point of view. The newspaper in this story is serving as a character motif. What does it symbolise? When John Paul ‘hides behind’ the newspaper, it stands for his public reputation as contrasted with his private self.
John Paul goes back to school. No one is paying attention to him. Remember the logline for this book: “The sin of the father will be visited upon the son.” A large portion of Part One was dedicated to showing the reader how invisible his son is — actively invisible. (That’s actually a useful concept — even the most passive characters in a good story are ‘actively passive’ — they go out of their way to do nothing.)
John Paul meets Nina — like the son, John Paul attracts actively romantic girls. He now has a sort of girlfriend.
Question: Is this Denny’s mother? (In real life, unlikely. In stories, however, teenage romances are more likely to last.)
Notice how Cormier ends this chapter. He’s sent John Paul on an emotional, heart-soaring high, but an anonymous quip calling him a ‘killer’ brings him plummeting back down to earth.
Question: Who sent that to John Paul. (We kind of know, don’t we? Baby-Boy or his sister.)
We’re back to Denny’s point of view. Cormier makes sure we know this by starting the first sentence with ‘Denny Colbert’. He’s waiting for the telephone to ring. Whereas his father is symbolically connected to newspapers, Cormier is going out of his way to connect Denny to phones.
After yet another mention I’m moved to look up ’87th Precinct novels’. I learn that ‘the 87th Precinct is a series of police procedural novels and stories written by Ed McBain (pseudonym of Evan Hunter).’ They were published from the mid 1950s to the mid 2000s. Perhaps this series was important to Robert Cormier, and because they continued to be published, perhaps American readers are familiar with this series. I’d never heard of them. Now that Cormier has started talking about a mystery/detective series, I’m guessing this novel is going to metafictively switch tracks — I am now expecting Cormier to make use of some conventions from the detective genre.
We get a bit of backstory about when Denny first began his job at the theatre — an insight into the relationship between Denny and his own father. This is a story about the connections between fathers and sons.
The point of view switches back to Denny. Denny is teased about his ‘girlfriend’ on the bus. Cormier provides us (and Denny) with the girl’s name after a few pages. Dawn is an unsympathetic character to this ‘girl’ reader — the classic guy’s gal, who thinks girls are too bitchy and boys easier to get along with. (Does this endear her to boys, though? Does this make her the perfect Cool Girl?)
Cormier really rams home how passive Denny is: He fails to get the number of the girl he has fallen instantly in love with. He walks past a fight where he could have stepped in. He avoids giving an answer to the guy who wants him to join council and make a difference. The difference is, now he’s starting to get angry with himself.
He finally does something active by applying for a part-time job. The man at the convenience store is looking for someone older, though. The wish to be slightly older is probably pretty common when it comes to sixteen year olds (though I never felt that way personally). Most YA readers can probably relate.
Something exciting has to happen in this chapter after all that passivity and disappointment. Trouble comes with a knock at the door. A smarmy reporter wanting the ‘human side’ of John Paul’s story, through the son. We know that he’s untrustworthy because Cormier has him hand over a grimy business card.
On the way to church Denny has a conversation with his mother about his father and how nice he is, visiting the dead kids’ cemeteries as his own version of church. The chapter ends quietly.
Another quiet chapter. Why does this chapter exist?
The council guy is still keen for Denny to run. This guy’s enthusiasm contrasts with Denny’s reluctance to do anything much at all. Though Denny does want something. He wants money and a learners’ permit. (Freedom.) Denny’s desire is entirely selfish — he hasn’t yet learned to look outside himself.
The chapter about Denny having trouble even getting a part-time job contrasts with his father’s getting a plum job at the theatre at the same age. This is Denny assuming his father is going to be against him getting a job at all (because his own experience turned out so tragically) but being pleasantly surprised to learn that John Paul is a reasonable man.
So this chapter was about reinforcing contrasts. I feel neutral about Denny as a person — he hasn’t inspired empathy yet. Is he going to turn out a hero or is his passivity going to lead to his downfall?
Okayyy, so Denny is actually a stalker. I had a feeling this might happen. Cormier definitely has voyeuristic interests, at least in his work.
One afternoon, [Denny] stood outside Barstow High School in another attempt to find Dawn. He had discovered that Normal Prep’s school day ended aa half-hour earlier than Barstow High and that he could, with luck and perfect timing, reach dawn’s school a minute or two before hundreds of students burst out of the place as classes ended for the day.
He had stationed himself in front of the school near the nine orange buses whose engines throbbed while waiting for their passengers. Denny figured Dawn would be getting on one of the buses.
Have you noticed that Denny is not the only stalker in this story? But, so far, Denny’s stalking is presented as ‘the normal thing to do if you’ve missed out on getting a girl’s number’, whereas the stalking done by the female character — the vengeful ghost chick — is crazy. This is a common dynamic employed by Hollywood screenwriters. While stalking behaviour in male characters is rewarded, women are killed. Will Cormier subvert this trope? Please don’t let Denny ‘get the girl’. I do see what Cormier is doing — I have already established that Lulu and Denny are mirror characters, so they must both also do their own version of stalking.
He doesn’t find Dawn (this time) and goes home alone.
Finally, with no good reason, Denny picks up the phone. The smokey voice on the other end of the line has a lot to tell him — specifically him, not his father. Denny hangs up, at first thrilled but suddenly terrified.
Point of view switch to Baby-Boy, describing his sister, the crazy stalker woman, Lulu. As Lulu and Baby-Boy talk about how it’s not the father’s fault, it is clear that Lulu is a horror machine — she won’t be stopped, not by reason, not by anything. She has a ‘cruel slash of a mouth’ and her face is ‘taut’. The old Lulu is gone. This is the archetypal horror genre monster. Cormier has linked her to the Christian church by talking about Heaven/Hell/Limbo — horror tropes come straight from the church.
Part Three ends with Lulu doubling down on whatever horrible thing it is she plans to do.
Halloween is approaching — a great time for horror happenings in suburbia, especially in children’s stories. It kind of makes me wish we had Halloween here in Australia — it would be nice to feel a frisson of fear. Note that Cormier has specified ‘no rain yet’. (No tears yet — no catharsis of emotion, but just you wait…) The wind blows the leaves in swirls — another kind of pathetic fallacy indicating change to come.
Denny is sullen and pessimistic about Halloween, disapproving of all the pumpkins. Denny is anti-childhood, and will be until he is confident he himself has left childhood behind. At the moment he’s stuck in his own kind of limbo — along with his mirror character, Lulu — between adulthood and childhood. He doesn’t like the painted faces on other peoples’ pumpkins but he still wants his father to carve him his own.
Denny finds something nauseating when he gets home. He has to clean it up. Cormier withholds from the reader what he has found. I’m thinking maybe a dead animal, small enough to flush down a toilet. No, it is human poo.
Now Cormier reveals that Denny and Lulu have had a number of conversations that the narrator hadn’t told us about. It seems Denny is falling in love with her a little. Cormier made sure to show us that Denny is the sort of boy who falls in love in an instant, so this makes sense.
Lulu is using her sexuality — basically a version of literary phone sex — to control Denny. This is where Cormier really makes the most of the season symbolism already introduced — Lulu categorises women according to season — summer is a voluptuous woman, Halloween is a witch. It’s clear Denny is responding to her only because of her sex appeal because the middle-aged male reporter tried to get Denny talking, to no avail. So here’s another gender trope: Women use their sexuality to get what they want from men.
Back to the present — Denny waiting for Lulu to call him on the phone, but she does not.
The horrible twelve-year-old boy at the bus stop tells Denny that Dawn works in a certain shop at the mall, and comments lasciviously on the size of her breasts. Denny is apparently disgusted by this phrase, but probably only because another boy is saying it — he has objectified her similarly himself.
Denny has undergone an overnight character change and for once in his life he’s proactive. He goes straight to the counter where Dawn works. Dawn is delighted to see him. Turns out she even called him a few times, though Denny didn’t answer.
Okay, so now our alarm bells are supposed to be going off, right? How did she get his number? Normally I’d assume from the phone book, but the Colberts have an unlisted number. This has been established. Is Dawn Lulu? Somehow? A tool of Lulu? Possessed by Lulu? Significantly, Dawn works at the perfume counter — a symbol of bewitching femininity. In stories perfume can work almost like a poison, or a magic spell — always women casting spells upon men. (Well, I’ve yet to read a story about a women bewitched by Lynx, though the marketers of Lynx inverted the trope to comic effect in their The Lynx Effect series of commercials — which nonetheless still manage to sexualise women.)
Anyhow, by now we are supposed to be suspicious of Dawn. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be, but now I am.
Lulu asks Denny, “Would you like to know what I look like?” This is masterful on Cormier’s part because he now knows I want to know if Dawn is Lulu, somehow. A few pages later the narrator tells us “But Dawn Chelmsford was not the voice on the telephone,” thereby answering the question I had at the exact right time. If Denny himself had not started to wonder, I would have considered him stupid and irritating as a character. Denny says the voices are different, but I’m thinking of all the horror films I’ve seen and I know that when someone is possessed, the demon changes their voice.
Denny rushes home from school for his afternoon session of weird ghostly phone sex but is momentarily delayed by the reporter, who this time tries to garner his sympathy by saying he has a wife and kids and mouths to feed. Denny still does not talk to him.
A creepy conversation between Lulu and Baby-Boy. Baby-Boy is the conscience, telling Lulu off for enjoying playing with the emotions of a teenage boy. In a faux-feminist way, Lulu asks him if it’s wrong to enjoy what she’s doing. She’s never had a sexual relationship with anyone. I have suspected she is grotesque after her injuries from the accident — now I’m more sure. The exact nature of her injuries will probably be revealed later… In stories a deformity equals malice. I previously normal-looking character who subsequently becomes deformed becomes malicious. Let’s see.
The previous creepy scene juxtaposes with this scene: Denny bored to tears in history class.
Between classes, Denny runs into the guy who didn’t fight back. Denny asks why he didn’t fight back. The guy tells Denny to think about it, thereby forcing the reader to also think about it. Why don’t people fight back? Also, why is Lulu so intent on fighting back? That afternoon we get a theme of the book imparted via this guy’s dialogue:
“Know what? I didn’t figure I was the victim that day. They were. Those guys avoid me now, they look ashamed like they did something dirty. And you look at me almost the same way…”
There’s a small reveal: Everyone at Normal knows Denny’s secret. Denny had assumed he was anonymous, but he’s been exposed the entire time. I sense this small revelation is prelude to a larger but related one.
Cormier is using Halloween as a bit of a ticking clock device now, telling us that Halloween is in just three days and the reporter’s deadline is tomorrow, after which he risks massive exposure again.
This chapter is divided into two parts. In the second part Denny and Jean Paul are up at the same time in the middle of the night. They have a rare heart-to-heart and I realise why Cormier has made the father an immigrant — to put a mild communication barrier between them. (Though it’s unrealistic that the father wouldn’t speak native-level American English, having immigrated so young.)
Denny has a anagnorisis:
“Sixteen, Dad. You were sixteen when it happened! You were my age.” The knowledge overwhelmed him. He didn’t know how he would have handled such a thing. All those children dead an all those accusations. But his father had handled it. Had endured, had survived.
In short, Denny realises he’s not so old after all, and that things aren’t always as bad as you fear and that people can endure a lot before breaking. Denny realises that not fighting is one way of ‘dealing with’ things. (This goes back to what I earlier noticed about how Denny is actively passive himself.)
Cormier puts Denny’s anagnorisis into action by sending him to a telephone box to tell the reporter (in that passively-active way) “No comment”. So there’s a writing tip: if the anagnorisis happens during a conversation, have the character do something — however small — to put that new awareness into action. This scene also marks the end of the reporter subthread. We won’t be left wondering what happened to Les Albert.
I’ve started to really wonder if Dave in the store is Baby-Boy. I’m confident Cormier wants me to think this. Dave has flu the same day Lulu does not call, and as we know, these two are always together.
Lulu calls the following day and sure enough, Halloween is D-Day. They arrange to meet on Halloween night at the corner of Denny’s street. No, Denny! Don’t do it! Remember the shit stain!
Next we have Les Albert’s article, where the reader is told exactly how the blaze started (well, sort of? I don’t see why the match was lit? As a torch?) There is a moment of tenderness between father and son. The mother pops in to suggest they go away for the weekend and avoid the attention but father and son are united: they’re staying right where they are. This story began with a huge emotional wedge between father and son but the relationship itself has undergone a character arc and now they are close.
The big reveal! Dave is at the wheel. (I guess ‘roof’ is an American word for ‘toupe’?)
This is the big struggle chapter. Dave turns out to have a conscience, and sacrifices his sister to save Denny. A reveal at the end of the chapter tells us he took his own life, too.
I suspect Cormier struggled a bit to come up with sufficient motivation for Lulu. The idea that Lulu was terrified by the nothingness of ‘death’ is at odds with my own thoughts on how it works. I’ve read Elisabeth Kubler Ross, who said that two types of people tend to have the least problem with death: the very religious and the confidently atheist. It’s that murky middle part you want to avoid. I do remember Christopher Hitchens saying, right up to the last, that he was comforted by the idea that there would be nothing.
But this is fiction, after all.
I appreciate that Cormier did not give Lulu a deformity. She was grotesque because she was old, though she didn’t have use of her legs due to the accident, not because she was old.
The chapter concludes with another anagnorisis — maybe home is the place you go to because there’s nowhere else to go. However bleak that sounds, having a home at all is a fortunate thing.
Since the big struggle scene is over all that’s left is for us to get a sense of the new situation. Oh no, hang on, we need to know if Dawn is connected to any of this business.
The chapter opens with the jostling at the bus stop juxtaposing with the sorry scene with two deaths. But this return to normality has an interesting change: there’s a creepy new kid there, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. This boy immediately feels like a symbol — a new ‘cancer’ in Denny’s life.
We’re told the phone keeps ringing. At first it could be that the evil didn’t die with Lulu. But then I learn that this is reporters.
As the book ends we’re told — as if it’s important to us, like it is to Denny — that Dave’s name is Dave O’Hearn. Plotwise, Cormier is making sure we’ve connected the dots, I guess. Baby-Boy is to be replaced with a more ordinary, human-sounding name. Also, knowing the guy’s full time achieves a kind of verisimilitude, and a sense of real closure. When you know someone’s full name there is the illusion that you really know them.
The scene with Denny in church, knowing about the blankness while his mother prays shows that Denny is now even more separated from his mother than he was before, and now he has several secrets he’ll keep from his parents, on his way to becoming a man.
Cormier pulls together the ghost theme, alerting me to some symbolism that hadn’t even crossed my mind: “He had loved nothing, loved nobody, because the Lulu who spoke those words to him had not been real, hadn’t even been a ghost or a phantom, only a fantasy.”
The story has to end with Dawn and Denny sitting silently, side-by-side on the bus. Because if he had ‘got the girl’, this would have been one of those stories where the crazy stalker woman gets killed, but the crazy stalkerish boy who has nothing to really offer a girl gets rewarded. I was pretty worried Cormier was going to let me down for a moment there, but I am breathing a sigh of relief that this is not one of those stories.