Sunday, February 22, 2015

Fairy Tale Witches

What is a witch?

It's difficult to determine the meaning of the word witch in fairy tales largely because in English the word witch has been tossed around so loosey goosy thatl it's picked up dozens of meanings. Take, for example, the witch from the fairy tale "The Dragon of the North." The protagonist of the tale seeks to steal a magical ring from this witch so he waits in hiding, while she comes to bathe in a stream of water, at last when night comes;

"She went to the spring, looked up to the full moon, then knelt down and bathed her face nine times, then looked up to the moon again and walked nine times round the well, and as she walked she sang this song:

‘Full-faced moon with light unshaded,
Let my beauty ne’er be faded.
Never let my cheek grow pale!
While the moon is waning nightly,
May the maiden bloom more brightly,
May her freshness never fail!’

Then she dried her face with her long hair, and was about to go away, when her eye suddenly fell upon the spot where the young man was sitting, and she turned towards the tree where the youth was hiding.... Tell me truly who you are and how you came to this place, where no mortal has ever set foot before.’"

Think about this set up, especially the last line; "where no mortal has ever set foot before."

This begs the question, was the witch in this story originally intended to be a mortal or is she a goddess or fairy of some form?

It's often difficult to tell. Take also, for example, the classic witch from the story of "Hansel and Gretel."'

"Witches have red eyes, and cannot see far, but they have a keen scent like the beasts, and are aware when human beings draw near."

This line makes the witch seem like a strange foreign entity, and indeed she is. As I argue in my upcoming book, it's likely she was originally a guardian to the realm of the dead, which in lore could be reached deep in the forest. Like the witch this female guardian often had trouble seeing humans, what's more they often put children to work as she did with Gretel and in Eastern Europe spirits of the dead were deceived with the same bone trick that Hansel uses in "Hansel and Gretel."

In other words the most classic of fairy tale witches may not be human at all, even thought people at the time clearly believed that witches were human.

Often when a person in fairy tales is a witch the fairy tale doesn't say it. Take, for example, the Grimm Brother's version of Cinderella in which;

It happened that the father was once going to the fair, and he asked his two step-daughters what he should bring back for them. Beautiful dresses, said one, pearls and jewels, said the second.
And you, cinderella, said he, what will you have. Father break off for me the first branch which knocks against your hat on your way home. 

So he bought beautiful dresses, pearls and jewels for his two step-daughters, and on his way home, as he was riding through a green thicket, a hazel twig brushed against him and knocked off his hat. Then he broke off the branch and took it with him. When he reached home he gave his step-daughters the things which they had wished for, and to cinderella he gave the branch from the hazel-bush. 

Cinderella thanked him, went to her mother's grave and planted the branch on it, and wept so much that the tears fell down on it and watered it. And it grew and became a handsome tree. Thrice a day cinderella went and sat beneath it, and wept and prayed, and a little white bird always came on the tree, and if cinderella expressed a wish, the bird threw down to her what she had wished for.

That's right, Cinderella made her own fairy godmother, who was the spirit of her real mother. She was a necromancer, a witch. Even in the French version where the fairy godmother shows up out of no where she talks to birds and mice.

This is why I say it's tricky to define witches in fairy tale. Because, while fairy tales often call non-human beings "witches," and don't call humans anything there were certainly enough people were accused of witchcraft in the past that one would think people once thought of witches as human.

Consider also the British stories in which the protagonists seek secret knowledge from henwives (the women who look after the chickens). For example in "The Childe Rowland"

And he went on a little further, till he came to an old woman in a grey cloak, and he asked her if she knew where the Dark Tower of the King of Elfland was. "Go on a, little further," said the hen-wife, "till you come to a round green hill, surrounded with terrace-rings, from the bottom to the top; go round it three times, widershins, and each time say:

  Open, door! open, door!
  And let me come in.

Consider also the story of "Kate Crackernuts" in which;

The queen was jealous of the king's daughter being bonnier than her own, and cast about to spoil her beauty. So she took counsel of the henwife, who told her to send the lassie to her next morning fasting.

Here a wicked seeks advice from a henwife on how to destroy their stepdaughters. There are dozens of these stories, in which henwifes aren't so overtly supernatural as Cinderella is, but they are very definitely "wise women" who are supernatural adjacent.

So there are a number of characters who perhaps shouldn't be called witches that are, and characters which should be given some supernatural name, but are not.

Part of the reason for this lack of distinction likely comes from our modern re-appropriation of the term witch, mixed with the fact that each region of the UK seems to have, at one time, used the term a bit differently form the others. The other problem comes from the fact that we often translate words we probably shouldn't. Take, for example, the Japanese story of "The Witch of the Mountain." in which the Yamauba is translated as witch. Yet Yamauba are clearly not witches exactly, though they sometimes eat children. They also have giants as their children (as shown in the movie "Spirited Away") Yamauba are difficult to define with a Western word because no word we regularly use fits them exactly. When this happens translators often use words like witch as a catch all for any magical female figure which might be dangerous.

Of course, witches, weren't just female, indeed many men were accused of and burned of witchcraft and there are a number of men in fairy tales who could be thought of as "witches" depending on how you want to define the term.

As a general rule I've tended to define the term witch "as a person who is remnant of older shamanistic traditions within an agricultural society." But clearly this doesn't fit all the uses of the term in fairy tales.

It may be impossible to define the term witch any longer as it's a term that generally just means supernatural being with human like qualities. You could of course, say that witches are humans, and therefore ignore calling the witch from "Hansel and Gretel" or "The Dragon of the North" a witch, but that would confuse a lot of people who believe think of those stories when they think of the word witch.

More Tales With Cool Witches

Miranda and the Lord of the Dead

The true snow queen story, Miranda is a heroine who saves the world from the Lord of the Dead with the help of a male witch. Again, though it's difficult to know if these characters are human or if they are magical deities. The story doesn't call them either and it never uses the word witch, but they clearly aren't normal. Consider for example the following...

Princess Miranda called together her brave army, and led them into the field, to fight the wicked Kosciey. But he, blowing on them with his poisonous breath, sent them all fast asleep, and he was just going to lay hands upon the princess, when she, throwing a glance of scorn at him, changed him into a lump of ice

This story is long, but it's worth it. I could write an entire book based on the themes within it which include everything from spirit journeys to dragons.

The Corpse Watchers

A girl who is hired to watch a corpse through the night ends up rescuing a soul from the land of the dead with the help of a fairy.

Boots and the Troll

One of the first rules in spotting a witch in lore - they're the ones that everyone makes fun of for being simple or lazy. In this tale Boots's older brothers say of him.

'As for you', they said, 'you're fit for nothing but to sit and poke about in the ashes.'

In this story Boots is able to steal silver ducks and other magical objects from troll land.

The Boy Who Visited Fairyland

Sort of a warning tale for a boy who was given favors by the fairies for a while, but lost them due to greed.

The Witch Girl

A story of a soldier who defeats an evil witch