Welcome to another Expanded Universe column where I feature essays from authors and editors of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as from established readers and reviewers. This is a continuation of my series on fairy-tale archetypes.
This past spring, I taught a class on fairy tales and fairy tale adaptations (you can see some of my student’s final projects here). I structured the class around archetypal characters or relationships, such as the Trickster or the Sibling Rivalry. One of the archetypes that I find the most fascinating, however, is that of the sexy witch.
When I was growing up, I had one view of witches: the hairy-chinned, warty-nosed hag with the pointy hat. If she was stirring a cauldron of luminous green liquid, so much the better. Cackling on a broom was a given; a black cat familiar was just icing on the cake. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I thought that all witches were “old and ugly.”
The identification of witchcraft with old women has a long history. Many folk and fairy tales dating back centuries feature a crone figure, sometimes with magical powers, such as the Slavic witch Baba Yaga, whose name is often translated as Grandmother Yaga. Shakespeare’s Macbeth features iconic scenes of witches described as “secret, black, and midnight hags” whose appearance is “so withered and so wild” that they look unearthly.
The positive side of the crone-witch is the preserver of memory, the bone gatherer with her folk remedies and midwifery skills. She is aged but ageless, in tune with deeper truths of the universe, like Mrs. Whatsit from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. At the same time, she represents winter, death, and endings. Even in her darker connotations, though, the crone witch is not always evil as much as an uncanny figure whose goals may not be in line with the people who seek her help (as with Macbeth).
As I grew up, I realized that life was not that easily compartmentalized: not all villains twirl their mustaches, not all devils have pointy tails, and not all witches were old women. I encountered the even-more frightening figure of the witch who hides evil behind a lovely face. She is the mother-witch figure: a figure of fertility, sexuality, and power. While this figure can be good, Glinda was wrong when she told Dorothy that “only bad witches are ugly.” In many fairy tales, specifically those in the Aarne-Thompson 709 grouping (the same grouping where we find Snow White), the beautiful woman seeks to maintain her beauty and power at the expense of the life of an innocent. In the Scottish fairy tale Silver-Tree and Gold-Tree, the queen Silver-Tree seeks to kill her daughter Gold-Tree for being more beautiful than she is. Like in the Snow White story, she asks to eat one of her daughter’s organs — in this case, her liver. When that fails, she stabs Gold-Tree’s finger with a poisoned splinter, and when that fails, she tries to poison her with a “precious drink.”
It is not explicitly stated that Silver-Tree is a witch. Perhaps she’s just a jealous queen. Perhaps all of her methods of murdering Gold-Tree are mundane, simply rat poison well-applied. But I don’t think so. Eating someone’s vital organ could merely be a handy way to prove that they are dead, and therefore no longer a threat to one’s status. But I think there is a more sinister reason that this story, and many others like it, demand the heart, lungs, liver, intestines, or a vial of blood from the young girl. In an act of black magic, the woman is taking the girl’s essence, using it to stay young and beautiful, similar to stories that circulated about Countess Elizabeth Bathory bathing in the blood of virgins to maintain her youth.
What’s behind these stories is complicated, but it’s clear that the concept of the mother-witch is bound up with sexuality. On the one hand, these horrific Snow White narratives mirror misogynistic fears of the mature woman as a sexual being. In medieval and early modern literature, there are concerns that women who know about sex can be corrupting influences on young women and men of any age. By passing on their knowledge of the arts of seduction, they can ruin a young girl’s innocence. By using their own knowledge of the arts of seduction, they can ruin a man’s reason, his reputation, his very life. The Malleus maleficarum, an early-modern treatise on witches, says that “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.”
So it’s no coincidence that charges of witchcraft, along with charges of incest and adultery, were brought against Anne Boleyn in her trial. Here was a woman who, in the public imagination, brought church, king, and country to its knees. Of course she was using some kind of weird sexy ju-ju to get inside Henry VIII’s head! Another early modern trial, that of Frances Howard, involved charges of magically-induced impotence (and inspired Thomas Middleton to write his play, The Witch, from which scenes in Macbeth were later taken). These stories blur the borders between sex and magic until every sexually-experienced woman becomes a potential witch. With these fears in mind, it only makes sense that fairy tales might portray the triumph of innocence and purity over sex-appeal and knowledge.
On the other hand, the portrayal of the beautiful mother-witch hearkens back to ancient pagan goddesses of fertility and life. The primeval procreative power that women have has always been mysterious and awe-inspiring. We see these positive aspects of the mother-witch in medieval tales of fairy queens who enrapture young knights, as in the lay of Lanval by Marie de France. Lanval meets a young woman whose body was “well-shaped and sweet.” She offers him her love, “and what’s more, her body!” In the end, she rescues him from execution, bearing him off to Faerie and joy forever. We also see the life-giving aspects in the fairy godmothers that populate French fairytales. These marvelous women act as donors, giving treasure, talent, and luck to young men or women who need their help — often leading them to love and families of their own, perpetuating the cycle of life.
 Perhaps too fascinating. My students told me I talked about sex too much, although, as one of them said, that was “typical for an English class.”
Readers, we’d love to hear your thoughts on witches in fairy tales. One commenter will win a book from our Stacks.
I actually laughed out loud at “sexy ju-ju” and the idea that you talked about sex too much in class. :) Thanks for another excellent and thought-provoking essay, Kate!
Yeah, that comment made me laugh, too. I didn’t realize it was possible to talk about sex too much when discussing fairy tales. I’m sure it’s my critical bias, but when I read fairy-tales, all I see is sublimated sex.
Is it possible to see anything else??
Love it! Sexy witches forever!
Fascinating! I guess I just took the sexy witch for granted, but I can now see when that change occurred between old and ugly and beautiful but deadly. Thanks!
not only does it sound like a fun class, but based on the final projects, a thought-provoking one as well. Plus sex talk! What lucky students!
Aw, thanks, Bill! I was VERY proud of their final projects.
This idea of sexy witches keeping their youth through eating the young is making me want to do a reading of Argento’s Suspiria as a fairy tale.
That is a great idea!