Friday Hoydens: witches, hags, crones and harpies

I don’t have time to do justice to the mountains of myths about women who have positions of some status and authority amongst other women as advisors, counsellors and healers. Any such woman who also had authority amongst men had even more tales told of them, especially if they did, or even if they didn’t, claim to have any sort of shamanic or other supernatural powers. Suffice to say, a more vilified group of women throughout history would be difficult to find.

An old engraving of a woman called a witch, accompanied by two ravens


a shot of two legs from the knees down, adorned with red and white stripy wool socks

Modern Day Witch of the West by knitting iris, on Flickr

There’s been a trend in fantasy fiction bubbling quietly away for a few decades now, where old stories of evil hags and harpies are re-imagined to show why those woman are in fact making hard and necessary decisions for the survival of others, and why the traditional hero/heroine is in fact the real villain of the tale. Sheri S. Tepper’s Beauty strings together a series of such fairy tales.

At the same time, a sentimentalisation and cutesification of witches has taken place, with the TV show Bewitched! in the vanguard. There’s also the sexy kickarse witches of Buffy, Charmed et al appropriating the mythology.

So, who’s your favourite witch, wisewoman or female shaman?

Categories: history

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23 replies

  1. The wise women of “Year of Wonders”, written by Geraldine Brooks: the village midwives and herbalists, Mem Gowdie, and her niece, Anys; and of course Anna Frith who narrates this brilliant piece of historical fiction (or fictionalised history?)

  2. Oooh, I think it really has to be a tie between Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Or possibly Tiffany Aching, from same.

    • I love what Pratchett does with the Lancre witches and the idea that what they do is all about margins and edges.
      It’s a great nutshell of exactly what such non-conformity offers compared to the dominant social narratives.

  3. P.S. One day, some time, I was born to play Nanny Ogg on a stage.

    Oh my, YES 🙂 I want tickets.

  4. Well, I’m not my favorite but I do seem to be turning into a stereotypical witch. I have two facial moles that were flat brown spots all during my life until my forties. Then, oh so slowly, they started to grow and now they are both fairly prominent. The one near my lips even has a hair that I have to pluck. The other one is on my nose! Oh, if it were only a wart, then there would be no doubt!
    Other ways I’m growing witchier: I am deeply cynical about organized religion. I believe and trust women. Men frequently make me laugh, if not cackle. I’m more likely every day to go my own way. I have a black cat.
    All I have to do is let my longish hair go completely gray, stop shaving my legs and pick up some eye of newt and I’m there!

  5. Deanna and Nanny Rawley from Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. Even though the outside with nature thing is really not my scene I appreciate their wisdom and connection with it.
    And of course Nanny Ogg, Granny Weatherwax and Tiffany Aching!

    • Something I find interesting in my own headspace is that as a skeptic I don’t believe, not one little bit, in supernatural/magical/psionic powers, yet I love mythology and fiction about people who have them.
      Particularly for women with magical powers, the difference that makes for them compared to the normal/expected life that awaits other magically-ungifted women is a very effective method of exploring the boundaries of gender role stereotypes as part of a narrative.

  6. Thessaly from The Sandman. It’s been a long time since I read the whole series but I remember she guided two women through a dream-environment in one of the graphic novels. And she wears glasses like I do.
    The Bene Gesserit in the Dune series are called “witches” but they’re not really magical.

    • Just thinking about the politics of women accused of witchery via a well-known case in history (since I watched the concluding episode of The Tudors this week) – Henry’s two queens who were beheaded (Anne Boleyn and her cousin Katherine Howard) were both charged with bewitching him as part of the treason charges against them. Otherwise how could a king show such poor judgement in choosing such an unsatisfactory wife, twice, eh?

  7. In my early highschool years my class used to call me a witch, because of my interest in herblore and books and old things generally. They meant it to be mean, but secretly I was quite proud. My sister theorizes that we were so into witches because of all the pressure in our household to be good little girls – they were a wonderful bad girl alternate persona.
    One more vote for Year of Wonders. Also the Cowboy Junkies song Witches is great. And I have just been teaching The Winter’s Tale, in which Paulina isn’t actually a witch, but is called one by the king, and almost tauntingly invites the claim in the last act when she orchestrates Hermione’s “magical” revival.

  8. I’m very fond of Viviane (and, of course, Morgaine) from Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
    Also must credit modern Dianic witch Starhawk for first exposing me to intersectionality via her book Dreaming the Dark.

  9. It is really hard to think of any character in fiction that gets the same sort of reaction as Medea. Enchanting, fratricidal, passionate, cunning and ruthless. One of my favourite characters from myth ever, and one that defies easy categorisation.
    My favourite real life witch is Sydney artist Rosaleen Norton, the “Witch of Kings Cross”. Creative, scandalous, and as an occultist quite ahead of her time.

  10. I think my favourite fictional witch is Hecky from Eva Ibbotson’s ‘Not just a witch’. She’s an animal rights and human rights activist. It’s just that her form of activism is to turn evil people into animals. And she makes her own familiar from an unhappy duck, which turns out to be a dragworm – half dragon, half worm.
    When I picture me and my best friend as old women, I see her as Nanny Ogg and me as Granny Weatherwax. It’s going to be awesome.

  11. just want to say- thank you for the recommendation of ‘Beauty’ fuck me it is a gorgeous poignant book. There’s is so much in it I was trying to give a synopsis to an interested bystander and came off sounding insane (which of course, maybe more a reflection on me than the book).
    I’m not too sure if I like the bit of the theme that horror and hurt and negativity dosent come out of plain old ignorance and arrogance, but it was Lovely none the less.

  12. Modern: Hermione Granger
    Ancient: Ishtar
    recent historical widow who would prob have been burnt as a witch in the past: Mrs Durrell (Gerry, Margot, Leslie and Larry’s mum)

  13. The character of Hepzibah in Nina Bawden’s children’s book “Carrie’s War” really stands out for me as a memorable witch-like character. I actually remember almost nothing about the book except the character of Hepzibah, the beautiful witch. I can’t even remember if she was openly described as a ‘real’, practising witch, or if she was just an unconventional, powerful woman. Probably the latter.
    Although not a personal favourite of mine, Nanny McPhee is quite a good witch character from recent times. I mention her mainly because I just saw Jon Stewart interview Emma Thompson and he asked her why, since she is the writer, did she make her character quite so ugly? What a dim wit.
    My personal favourites are the Lancre witches. I have a soft spot for Magrat, because she was such a failure as a witch, and sort or slipped into conventionality against her better judgement. Sadly, I kind of get that.

  14. I happen to be already aware that the kids are getting me a witchy-book for my birthday tomorrow. Woot!
    (although I’m not quite sure how Better Read Than Dead has it out on its front tables when it’s not supposed to be published in the UK until next Thursday – but I’m not complaining!)

  15. My copy is coming from the Book Depository so I guess I’m waiting till after the official UK release. No posting spoilers now!

  16. Nanny Mcphee was originally Nurse Matilda, in a quite lovely series of Victorian English children’s books, which were certainly not written by Emma Thomson. And she did, in the books, start out very ugly and become progressively more lovely as the children got better behaved.

  17. The Witch of Blackbird Pond was a rather charming novel of the try-to-get-teenagers-to-read-something-other-than-trash romance/adventure variety, about a girl in Puritan New England accused of witchcraft for being all outspoken and non-conformist.

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