From Circe to Clinton: why powerful girls are cast as witches

A misogynist insult in Washington and Westminster, a force for good in Hollywood for centuries, witches have represented fear of assertive females. But why does the stereotype persist?

During the 2016 US presidential election, American social media was flooded with images of Hillary Clinton wearing a black hat and riding a broom, or else cackling with green scalp. Her foes named her The Wicked Witch of the Left, claimed they had sources witnessing that she reeked of sulphur, and took particular delight in depictions of her being melted. Dedicated that the last witch trial in the US was more than 100 hundred years ago, what are we to induce of this?

In the late 19 th century, the suffragette Matilda Joslyn Gage asserted something revolutionary. The persecution of witches, she said, had nothing to do with fighting evil or defying the demon. It was simply entrenched social misogyny, the goal of which was to repress the intellect of women. A witch, she said, wasn’t wicked. She didn’t fly on a broomstick naked in the dark, or consort with demons. She was, instead, likely to be a woman” of superior knowledge “. As a thought experiment, she suggested that for “witches” we should read instead “women”. Their histories, she intimated, operate hand in hand.

Obviously, she was on to something. When we say witch, we almost exclusively mean female. Sure, humen have also been accused of sorcery, but the objective is by far the minority. Further, the words used to describe men with magical powers- warlock, magus, sorcerer, wizard- don’t carry the same stigma.

A better parallel to “witch” is the word “whore”. Both are time-honoured tools for policing females, meant to dishonor them into socially prescribed behaviour. A harlot transgresses norms of female sexuality; a witch transgresses norms of female power. Witches are often called unnatural because of their ability to threaten men. With her spells, a witch can transform you into a pig, or defeat you in battle. She can curse you, blight your harvests, dismis you, refuse you, correct you. Penalise witches accomplishes two things: it ends security threats and builds others afraid to follow in the unruly woman’s footsteps.

Yet, despite all the attempts to stamp out witches, they are as strongly with us as ever, from Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch in the Avengers movies, to the recent movie The Love Witch , to the television series American Horror Story , to non-fiction volumes such as Stacy Schiff’s The Witches: Salem, 1692 . The stereotypical image of the witch- green skin, pointed hat, warts, black cat- has become entrenched, but beneath that surface lies a dazzling assortment; a rich diversity of women who have frightened, possessed and inspired us over the centuries.

Bones of contention … montages of Hillary Clinton as a witch have inundated social media

Let’s start with the classic: the evil, aged crone. This image took firm root in the Christian era, when witches were women who consorted with the devil; but old and ugly witches predated Jesus. Roman literature portrayed witches as pathetic beings with false teeth and grey hair, who dug in the ground by moonlight, tore animals with their teeth and used the organs of boys they starved to death for their spells. They had two main pastimes: making love potions, and casting curses. The poet Ovid blamed a disappointing sex performance on a witch employing a sort of Roman voodoo doll to take away his potency.( Sure Ovid, that was my first guessed, too .)

The most well known of this kind must be Shakespeare’s weird sisters from Macbeth . They are repulsive” midnight hags”, with skinny lips, chapped thumbs and beards. Their spells- eye of newt and toe of frog- are as disgusting as their appearances and curse anyone who crosses them. The classic fairytale witch, like the one in the story of Hansel and Gretel who fees infants, also fits into this category, as does the Slavic Baba Yaga, and the Wicked Witch of the West from L Frank Baum’s Oz series, built famous by performer Margaret Hamilton. The role was originally offered to the glamorous Gale Sondergaard, but she turned it down because she didn’t want to appear ugly.

Spellbound … Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, who was accused of witchcraft. Photograph: Allstar/ 20 th Century Fox

And ugliness, of course, is key. The haggish outsides of these witches are meant to match their evil insides, and testify to their unnaturalness, since women are supposed to be as neat, attractive and young as is practicable. But the association with age also contains a kernel of truth: many of the women accused of witchcraft were so-called ” wise girls”, older figures, often poor widows, who scratched out a living in the community with their experience as midwives, herbalists and hedge-doctors. Their solitary, vulnerable status and unusual knowledge built them perfect targets for people’s rage and dread when crops failed or newborns died.

Foreign females were also vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, and business associations between immigrants and sorcery goes back at least to Greek mythology. The witch Medea was the princess of Colchis, on the eastern edge of the Black Sea, which to the notoriously xenophobic ancient Greeks was alien and suspect. When Jason and his Argonauts came to claim the Golden Fleece from her parent, Medea fell in love with Jason and aided him with her spells, so that he and the Argonauts were able to seize the fleece and escape. In gratitude, Jason wedded Medea, but back home in his kingdom she was shunned, her witchcraft and foreignness merging into a single undesirable trait. The notion seems to have been: no wonder she’s a murderous sorceress, she’s from the east.

This type of nativism also pops up in Shakespeare’s The Tempest . Sycorax, the witch mom of Caliban, is from Algiers, and though she never appears in the play, she is a harrowing, hideous figure, a” blue-eyed hag “, who is hunched over with” age and jealousy “. She was cast out from Algiers( the implication is that she was too wicked even for them ), and came to the island, where she “litter[ed]” her deformed son, practised her magic and worshipped her pagan-sounding divinity, Setebos. Towards the end of the 17 th century, the slave Tituba, who may have been South American, was is the responsibility of resulting the innocent( white) daughters of Salem into evil. Her experience as an foreigner among the witch-hysterical Puritan is brilliantly imagined in Maryse Conde’s novel, I Tituba, Black Witch of Salem .

Fears of sorcery grounded in racism persist even today. The Roma, longtime outcasts in Europe, have frequently been accused of evil sorcery. And African-influenced voodoo is routinely used by Hollywood as a horror movie plot point.

But it wasn’t just vulnerable women who depicted accusations of witchcraft. It was also women with serious political power. Joan of Arc resulted the French to victory against the English and was renowned in France for her purity, cleverness and faith in her “voices”. When the English leadership couldn’t beat her, they undermined her, crediting her success to demonic entails, since, of course, a young lady could never perform such wonders on her own. When she was captured, they tried her for witchcraft, citing as partial proof of her unnaturalness the tremendous fearlessnes she presented in combat, and her they are able to outwit her examiners in debate.

Magic circle … the new Wrinkle in Time film features Mrs Which, Mrs Who and Mrs Whatsit. Photograph: Atsushi Nishijima/ Disney/ Kobal/ Rex/ Shutterstock

Cleopatra and Anne Boleyn were likewise accused of witchcraft, with rumors that Anne even bore physical marks of her compact with the demon, such as a third teat, moles and a sixth thumb on her right hand. Such accusations were a clever and effective route for a woman’s political enemies to smear her since, as countless other women accused of witchcraft learned, it is impossible to offer definitive proof that one is not a witch. Perhaps what is most shocking about this catch-2 2 is the way in which it continues to be played out today. Aside from Hillary Clinton, who has been called a witch since she was first lady, there was also the case of Julia Gillard, first female premier of Australia, who met with tauntings of” ditch the witch” from protesters. Nancy Pelosi, the minority speaker of the US House of Representatives, has faced similar witch-related insults, and lately Theresa May was filmed giggling aloud, and her so-called ” witch’s cackle” promptly ran viral. The misogyny of all this is obvious. Debating and defeating these leaders politically isn’t enough- as women who show aspiration, they are abominations who must be deemed evil and cast out.

From JW Waterhouse’s portrait of Circe Invidiosa. Photo: Alamy

The tradition of the sexy witch, who lures men with her beauty, is beloved by modern-day adult costume-makers, but goes all the route back to the first witch in western literature: the divine sorceress Circe. She first appears in Homer’s Odyssey , after Odysseus and his crew have washed up on her island, exhausted and grieving for the loss of their comrades. They run searching for inhabitants and find a palatial home with tamed lions and wolves lolling around in the garden. A shining goddess comes to the door, and invites them in. She gives them food and wine which she has drugged with spell-herbs, then lifts her wand and turns them into pigs.

Circe’s story brings together many classic witchy motifs: a skill with herbs and potions, a sorcery wand, control over animals. But what is most notable is her moral ambiguity- though she begins the episode as a figure of menace, after she and Odysseus become fans, she transforms his men back and offers vital resources and advice to Odysseus for his journey home. Not all seductive witches demonstrate a similar ambiguity( CS Lewis’s White Witch surely does not ), but Morgan le Fay, Morticia Addams and Melisandre from Game of Thrones all fall into this category.

This brings us to our last type: the very best witch. Before we get to the famous examples, let’s start with the unknown ones- the countless women of history who used their knowledge of herbs, healing and midwifery to serve their communities as de facto doctors and chemists. In hours when dependable medical treatment was scarce and costly, they offered the first, and often only, help a suffering person would be given. Matilda Joslyn Gage, in her treatise Woman, Church and State , hailed this local herb-woman as” the profoundest intellectual, the most advanced scientist” of her age. Gage’s name is largely unknown now, but her work lives vibrantly on: she was the mother-in-law of Baum, and directly influenced his creation of Glinda, one of the most iconic good witches in popular culture. Glinda is a sparkly, memorable presence in the 1939 movie, and plays a meaty role in the books, protecting the good people of Oz with passion and wisdom. We may likewise watch Gage’s spirit in Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked , which reimagines the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba, as a heroic, misunderstand character.

Of course no discussion of good witches can be complete without the superlative Hermione Granger. Throughout JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Hermione’s intellect, kindness, sense of justice and determination make her a role model for young girls- and boys- everywhere. And she’s only one of dozens of fascinating witches Rowling created, who run the gamut from good( Minerva McGonagall) to cruelly wicked( Bellatrix Lestrange ).

Rupert Grint, left, and Daniel Radcliffe with Emma Watson as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban( 2004 ). Photograph: Allstar/ Warner Bros

Which brings us back to the multiplicity and diversity of witches. The truth is that witches cannot really be contained by types; they leap over borders, exploding out of categories as fast we build them. They are constantly changing as we change, reflecting our ideas about women back to ourselves.

If this is so, then there is much to feel encouraged by. The image of the good witch is ascendant in popular culture( aside from Hermione, as exemplified by the Scarlet Witch, Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer , and the new A Wrinkle in Time movie, prominently featuring Mrs Which, Mrs Who and Mrs Whatsit ). Women have constructed powerful steps towards equality, and we are seeing an unprecedented awareness of sexual harassment, assault and the silencing of women. More of these secret abuses are coming to light every day, and more of the perpetrators are being removed from power.

Despite this progress, there is also sobering news. In the past several decades, United Nation officials have reported an increase in females killed for witchcraft across the globe. In India the problem is particularly well-documented, with older girls being targeted as scapegoats or as a pretext for confiscating their lands and goods. In Saudi Arabia, women have been convicted of sorcery in the courts, and in Ghana they have been exiled to so-called ” witch camps”, an injustice movingly addressed in the award-winning cinema, I Am Not a Witch . And in the United States, a Gallup poll found that 21% of people believed in witches( and not the Hermione Granger kind ).

We stand therefore at a crossroads- which is fitting, since crossroads are sacred to Hecate, Greek goddess of witchcraft. Will we continue to fear and penalize women with power? To call them evil? Or perhaps we can at last celebrate female strength, recognising that witches- and women- are not going away *

* Circe by Madeline Miller is published by Bloomsbury( PS16. 99 ). To b uy it for PS12. 99 go to .

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