Dead Calm Film Study

Dead Calm movie poster landscape

Sometimes horror movies are even more terrifying when read metaphorically. In Dead Calm, the story of a husband and wife at sea with a murderous intruder is bad enough, but what if the murderer doesn’t exist?

Dead Calm is a well-executed but outdated psychological horror, adapted in 1989 for film from a 1963 novel by the same name by America Charles K. Williams (1909 – 1975).

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The Symbolism of Broomsticks

Henry Meynell Rheam - A Maid Sweeping

Broomsticks are useful storytelling symbols that serve double duty — they are a symbol of female oppression (tied to the house and the drudgery of housework) but also, by leap of imagination, turn into a vehicle by which to escape. Broomsticks may keep a woman housebound, but also afford the imaginative freedom to fly.

illustrator of the Toby Twirl books was the British artist Edward Jeffrey from Durham, 1898 -1978
illustrator of the Toby Twirl books was the British artist Edward Jeffrey from Durham, 1898 -1978

This is how broomsticks became associated with witches. There is another theory about why broomsticks became connected to witchcraft. (It’s not safe for work, possible paywall.) Witches broomsticks were meant to have been made out of hard and polished elm wood (to make it more aerodynamic).

For those of us with vacuum cleaners, it’s hard to imagine the amount of time once tied to brooms, brushes and dustpans. The task of keeping dirt and dust from the home was constant — and necessary — because without constant attention the home would attract rodents. At certain times in history, rodents in the house meant death.

For this reason, in Ancient times brooms in a temple were considered sacred. You had to have clean hands to use one.

There are plenty of superstitions concerning brooms, because the act of sweeping is inherently metaphorical.

One version of ‘correct’ sweeping looked like this: Start by the door and sweep inwards. If you sweep your dust outwards towards the front door you will sweep your luck away. (I’ve been doing it wrong my whole life.)

Brooms have had both indoor and outdoor uses, all resulting in hard work.

Weeding the Pavement 1882 George Henry Boughton 1833-1905 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01539
Weeding the Pavement 1882 George Henry Boughton 1833-1905

Brooms have phallic associations (and doesn’t everything?). According to one old superstition, if a single woman stepped over a broom lying on the floor, she would become pregnant out of wedlock. The degree to which people imagine stuffing things inside women to control us will forever baffle me.

It wasn’t just women who have been symbolically tied to brooms. Victorian era British art often depicts boys alongside brooms, as a shorthand symbol of poverty. These are working class boys, some are perhaps chimney sweeps.

The boy below is sitting outside in the dark. Darkness and brooms don’t go luckily together. In Europe it considered unlucky to sweep your home after dark.

A broomstick made from tying twigs around a stick is known as a besom. Besom originates from the old English besema meaning ‘woman’ (because guess who did all the sweeping). ‘Besom’ has the same root word as ‘bosom’.

The first broom sticks typically used twigs from the broom plant (hence the name).

Augustus Edwin Mulready - A London Jo - the end of the day 1884
Augustus Edwin Mulready – A London Jo – the end of the day 1884
Augustus Edwin Mulready - The Little Spies 1886
Augustus Edwin Mulready – The Little Spies 1886

The broom does another double duty — in the pleasant and calming scene depicted below, the broom seems to simply add balance to the composition, and also act as another feature of the home, alongside gardens and pets.

Charles Edward Wilson - Feeding the Pets ca. 1890
Charles Edward Wilson – Feeding the Pets ca. 1890

Here’s a similar bucolic composition from the same painter:

Charles Edward Wilson - Louisa - The Rabbit ca. 1920
Charles Edward Wilson – Louisa – The Rabbit ca. 1920
George Bernard O'Neill - The Surprise
George Bernard O’Neill – The Surprise
William Henry Lippincott - Farm Interior - Breton Children Feeding Rabbits
William Henry Lippincott – Farm Interior – Breton Children Feeding Rabbits
William Hahn - Forbidden to go Sleigh Riding
William Hahn – Forbidden to go Sleigh Riding

The outdoors equivalent of the hygge broom is the garden rake:

Charles James Lewis - Mother and Child
Charles James Lewis – Mother and Child
George Sheridan Knowles - Summer's Fun
George Sheridan Knowles – Summer’s Fun
John Burr - Waking Dreams 1869
John Burr – Waking Dreams 1869

In the painting below we may wonder at the inclusion of the broom. We see a pretty girl admiring herself in the mirror — what’s with the broom edging into the scene?

It all becomes clear when we learn the title of the painting: Borrowed Plumes. A plume is a long, soft feather or arrangement of feathers used by a bird for display or worn by a person for ornament, or anything that spreads itself out as a bird plumes its feathers.

So these are not her clothes. This is a little brown bird dressing up as a fancier bird. The broom nearby tells us she’ll never be free of her mundane duties though, significantly, the broom isn’t positioned to appear in the mirror image.

George Goodwin Kilburne - Borrowed Plumes
George Goodwin Kilburne – Borrowed Plumes

Below, children dress up for play. A broom is a mandatory accoutrement when dressing as Cinderella.

Charles Hunt - Cinderella
Charles Hunt – Cinderella

The broomstick below serves to anthropomorphise the mouse.

Thumbelina From Andersen’s Fairy Tales (1928) ~ Milo Winter~ American Children’s Book Illustrator/Artist
BROOMSTICK WEDDINGS

Broomstick weddings were common term during the 18th and 19th century England and referred to weddings not regarded legal.

In America slaves who lived on plantations were often refused the right to marry. Naturally they fell in love and yearned to commit themselves to the love of their life. When two lovers jumped over a broom together they were considered married. This tradition is related to the metaphorical act of ‘sweeping away’ — and fresh beginnings.

Others claim the stick on the ground represented a division between their old home and the new. Lovers thereby jump into their new home together, this time as a couple.

The Old Plantation, attributed to John Rose, Beaufort County, South Carolina, probably 1785–1790
The Old Plantation, attributed to John Rose, Beaufort County, South Carolina, probably 1785–1790

Supernatural Creatures

Brooms can be used to get rid of unpleasant things from the house — other than just dirt and dust.

  • According to Chinese folklore, you can get rid of a vampire (jiangshi) by sweeping it out with a broom.
  • According to French folklore it’s considered bad form to sweep up after dark in case good luck is swept away with the dirt.
  • In Ancient Rome special broomsticks were used by sacred ‘midwives’ or wise women to symbolically sweep away any negative influences from a house in which a baby had just been born. These midwives were precursors to the modern conception of a witch, who flies around on a broomstick.

Paintings tagged with ‘broom’ at the Tate Online

A Glossary of Witch Words

Circe offering the Cup to Ulysses

A Midsummer Night’s Dream — A Renaissance fairy story turned into a famous play by William Shakespeare.

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. 

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).

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.

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.

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

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.

Blessed be — found in many modern religions but typical of NeoWiccan. Shortened to BB. 

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. 

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.)

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.

Book of Shadows — the book the witch keeps to record all that she has learned of witchcraft. 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.

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

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”. 

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 resembles the belly of a pregnant woman, and is therefore a symbol of fertility. 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 3 legs, representing the triple aspect of the Great Goddess or the 3 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.

Edward Frederick Brewtnall - Visit to the Witch 1882
Edward Frederick Brewtnall – Visit to the Witch 1882

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.)

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.

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

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.

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 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. 

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.

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. 

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 movie starring Winona Ryder based on the play by Arthur Miller. The real Abigail Williams was somewhere between 10-12 years old, but Miller turned her into a seductive, lustful teenager.

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.

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. 

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.

Devil’s Marks — areas on a witch’s body seen to be insensitive to pain. 

Drinking horn or chalice — filled with wine

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

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

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

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

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?)

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

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.

Grimoire — a book of spells

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

Hag-ridden — something ridden by hags (like a horse) and therefore afflicted with nightmare.

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). 

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. 

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

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

High Priestess — the leader of a coven

Incubus — a male demon believed to lie on sleeping persons and to have sexual intercourse with sleeping women; someone who depresses or worries others; a situation resembling a terrifying dream

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.

Kiss of Infamy — a kiss on the devil’s ass.

Lavender — brings sexual power (voodoo)

Leechcraft — the art of healing, medical knowledge and skill

Love Magick — 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.

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.

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. 

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)

Malefica —  Torturing and witch hunting was worse on the continent than in England. In England, witches were punished for malefica (evil deeds), not heresy. For example, causing blight to crops, babies to die, illness. It was a civil rather than ecclesiastical crime. She had to be punished under civil law, which had constraints against torture and burning.

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.

Paganism — Most people these days have a sense of witchcraft which derives from fantasy/children’s literature. Those ideas are far removed from the reality of popular witch beliefs about real people. We also have an idea that the ‘real’ historical witch comes from Roman Paganism. There’s a hefty body of anxious legislation about a figure called the Strix who is an evil sorceress. We have this idea that Roman law influenced European law codes. But 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. Paganism did not actually influence the beginning of the witch craze. Scholasticism had far more to do with the witch craze than Paganism.

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

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 charm bag. 

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. 

Salem — 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).

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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

John William Waterhouse - Sorceress
John William Waterhouse – Sorceress

Supernatural — Supernatural thinking almost always comes down to the following: birth, sex and death.

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 — a female demon believed to have sexual intercourse with sleeping men

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

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. 

White candles — often used on the altar

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

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. One of the earliest law codes we have, the code of Hammurabi (Babylonian) has a statute against sorcery.  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.

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

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

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

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

FURTHER READING

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.

Burlesque Witches In Storytelling

Witches have a long history in storytelling, but they aren’t always scary. They aren’t always Baba Yaga types, sometimes murderous, sometimes helpful. There’s another variety of crone who is a ribald storyteller. She’s related to the classic witch, but her function in stories is quite different.

She is known as the burlesque witch. For a definition of burlesque, see here.

What is her name?

From eighteenth century nursery rhymes:

What does she look like?

As Marina Warner describes in From The Beast To The Blonde:

  • crone features
  • chapfallen jaw
  • toothless bight of chin and nose in profile
  • a Punch-like proboscis
  • carries a stick
  • wears a conical hat
  • apron and petticoats

The Burlesque Witch In Greek Myth

There is a fearsome cannibalistic mother from Greek myth, unable to save her own babies, and so vengeful against life, the universe and everything that she won’t let anyone else have babies either. So she eats children. Her name is Lamia.

Lamia tied to a tree, tortured by a satyr.

Diane Purkiss describes Lamia like this:

In a culture that values youth and finds age repulsive, like that of Ancient Greece (or like our own culture), Lamia’s predatory abduction of youth might signify the way children and parents are divided by age. … Lamia is invariably depicted marked by the terrible stigmata of the childbearing woman. A fifth-century Athenian vas shows her as a naked woman tied to a palm tree, and tortured by satyrs. She has a sagging belly and pendulous breasts, signs of ageing, and in particular, of the ageing that follows childbearing. The result of being taken over by that demonic child inside is to become an object of fright to the very child who has stolen her youth. In trying to rob children of their youth to restore her own, Lamia is a picture of the tangled feelings of the mother whose own youth has been absorbed, eaten, by the child she bears.

Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things: A history of fairies and fairy stories

The modern Internet burlesque witch, too, bears the kind of ageing specific to women who have given birth, though she is never shown with her (now grown) children. She is clearly a descendent of Lamia, but as happens to all fearsome female mythic creatures, she is either sexualised or rendered laughable. The burlesque witch is an interesting mixture of both, because both of these things have happened: her sexuality is grotesque, and that’s what makes her laughable.

Examples Burlesque Witches in Modern Pop Culture

  • Maxine is the cartoon character who most regularly comes through my feed. Maxine is a Hallmark character who has her own Facebook page, of course. She’s a grumpy, wise-cracking old woman.
  • You’ll find Maxine characters on many comedy series. The Simpsons gives us Patty and Selma.
  • violet crawley quotes is in the Burlesque Witch tradition, but she is of the upper class. One of the main character jokes is that she looks down on the middle-class, because her upper-class status is so fragile.
  • Catherine Tate’s Nan is an excellent example of the Burlesque Witch because she has a very reliable habit of being nasty-nice. She’ll be fake lovely, then as soon as someone leaves the room she turns. Nan is simply a modern take on the Baba Yaga character, who can be nice or mean, and we never know what we’re going to get at any given moment.
  • Betty White is the standout example. We like to imagine her as she appeared in The Golden Girls. A popular Twitter handle makes use of her name. Its MO is to point out the ridiculousness of politics in particular, from behind the jaded wisdom of an old woman who has seen it all. The real Betty White’s twitter feed is quite different.
  • Here in Australia, the Betty White parody account has been emulated, but uses recently retired SBS newsreader Lee Lin Chin as its avatar. Here we get the double comedy factor of an older woman (who is meant to be buttoned-up) crossed with a serious newsreader, who spends all day saying serious things. When ‘Lee Lin Chin’ joined Twitter, a lot of us wondered if this really was Lee Lin Chin. We hadn’t seen much of Lee Lin Chin outside her news reading role, but every Australian can see that her fashion sense masked a flamboyant personality. Now and again we got a glimpse. One famous blooper shows Lee Lin Chin saying, “Who is that handsome…” of a young male news reporter, not realising the camera had flipped back to her. We loved that, and could could imagine this ribald twitter account really was written by Lee Lin Chin, even though the twitter personality was more like that of a hard-drinking frat boy. Lee Lin Chin was also asked to play herself in a series of short films, in which she does play this character.

The Internet Burlesque Witch

I’ve seen plenty of burlesque witches on my mother and aunties’ social media feeds. Women who share these memes tend to share images of women older than they are, in true ‘old age’ rather than ‘late middle age’. The joke is that an old woman

  1. Sees herself as still sexually attractive/active
  2. Sees herself as not still sexually attractive/active.

As a result, the burlesque witch can be mined for sexual comedy in either direction:

Who's that sexy beast
Who's there

Sometimes the burlesque witch is simply making light out of old age. Often the joke is that she feels like a young woman stuck in an old woman’s body:

I believe my house is haunted

But of course, old women are appropriated by younger people making ageist memes based on the regular tropes:

Half mile of open on ramp

Others are based on stereotypes but are shared by older women themselves:

Knitting noodles

Features of the Internet Burlesque Witch

Chin Gin
  • Sagging breasts (often exaggeratedly so — a common joke is that they drag on the ground, be tucked into a belt or be mistaken for testicles)
  • Fashion sense is youthful. She wears clothing more typically worn by teenagers, and doesn’t care.
  • Loves to drink and although she doesn’t feel bad about this, she does mention it a lot.
  • She carries a lot of middle-aged belly fat, but we can imagine she was ‘curvy’ in her youth.
  • She eschews exercise, except for ‘exercise’ such as picking up massive wine bottles, pulling the lever on her recliner and other minimal efforts.
  • Chocolate is a favourite food, standing in for any of life’s little luxuries.
  • She speaks her mind, and is often depicted with a large mouth wide open.
  • Rather than a chapfallen chin, she has a double/triple/quadruple chin.