Ad Astra 2015 day 1: The beldam, the hag, and the hedgewitch: Witches in popular culture

Panelists: Derek Newman-Stille, Kate Story, Karen Dales, and Gail Z. Martin

GZM: How has the trope of the witch been used in the past?

KS: In the European tradition, witches were evil. We have a countercultural fascination with them.

GZM: That might depend on your point of view.

KD: The roots of the word witch are from the Anglo Saxon wicce/wicca. It means wise. The vilification of witches came about as a result of the Inquisition and the malleum malificarum (the witches hammer). Disney’s portrayals of witches have cemented the pejorative image witches have.

GZM: Every village had a hedgewitch. Someone wise, who knew about herbs, could deliver a baby, and so forth.

KD: Hereditary witches are still around today.

DNS: In Greek and Roman times, the practitioners were mostly men. They used curse tablets and imported Egyptian and Jewish words.

KS: Nnedi Okorafor writes about witches in her young adult novels. In Nigeria, there are actual witch camps.

GZM: Voodoun and Hoodoo, though they started in similar ways, are very different traditions. Santeria, too, started with the mystification of Catholic saints and ritual.

KS: One of the lenses we’re looking through is the appeal of the witch to young people. It’s the attraction of the unseen, ghosts, supernatural abilities; it’s the longing to see and work with these things.

KD: Llewellyn publications has seen a massive uptake in sales of their informational magic books. In Toronto, we have four occult shops. Young women are attracted to wiccan practice thanks to shows like Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Willow). The attraction is the ability to have a personal relationship with the divine without an intermediary.

GZM: The young protagonist may not even know what’s happening to them.

DNS: There’s actually an organization called the Harry Potter Alliance and they are activists. They do good for a lot of different people in a lot of different situations.

GZM: In Bewitched, the curses the witches made were all to Hecate. The Kathryn Kurtz novel Lammas Night was based on true events.

KD: Sir Terry Pratchett went to the Pan-European Convention to conduct research for his novels.

GZM: Butcher’s Dresden was not an evil character, but, because he was taught by an unscrupulous master, he suffered repercussions for decades afterward.

DNS: We love delving into the darker aspects of the witch. Look at “Dark Willow” from Buffy, and Stephen King’s Carrie.

GZM: A character can find an ouija board and an old book and suddenly there are unforeseen consequences.

DNS: It plays into political conservatism. If you experiment, bad things will happen to you. Essentially, it’s fear of knowledge.

GZM: You have to take responsibility for your actions.

KD: In The Mummy, the characters are told not to read the book. She reads it anyway and releases the mummy.

KS: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Q: Do you find in fictional depictions that it’s the girls who are called to the dark side? Boys seem to get away with anything.

KD: Maybe the guys can handle it and the girls can’t? I’d argue that’s societal bias and not necessarily accurate.

GZM: Our culture is still struggling with women who have power. In reality, there are just as many foolish boys as there are foolish girls.

DNS: Knowledge is still forbidden to women in many ways. In fiction, it’s often a traumatic event that triggers the emergence of power. It reflects institutionalized abuse.

GZM: In Norse culture, it’s okay for women to have power.

KD: In Celtic legends the king could only assume power—and keep it—by virtue of having ritualized sex with the goddess, or her representative.

KS: There’s a South African contemporary dancer who has recently revealed that he is from a long line of shaman. That’s how he channels his dance.

DNS: The curse tablets I mentioned earlier were meant to harness Cthonic powers (under the earth). England is a particularly rich source because they used lead tablets which were then rolled. These have lasted much longer that their stone equivalents. They were stabbed with nails to enact the curse.


And that was my short hand for what was a lively discussion of witches in various popular media 🙂

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