“She cannot be a witch, he tells himself. Witches do not study philosophy; witches do not practice scientia nova. She belongs to a new age, a future he longs to be a part of.” – The Witch of Cologne, Tobsha Learner
This week’s post has a double purpose. It’s a continuation of my Halloween reflections inspired by Tobsha Learner’s The Witch of Cologne; but it’s also a post that I’m writing for Magickal Samhain, a Facebook event that celebrates the month of October and in particular, Halloween weekend.
Magickal Samhain is a journey through paranormal and occult stories by multiple authors. The main event, which runs October 27-30, will have lots of prizes and giveaways, including two grand prizes: a Kindle reader and $170 in cash.
I’ll be hosting live on Thursday, October 27, from 7:30-9:00pm. If you stop by to visit and comment during my session, I’ll enter your name in a raffle for a free copy of Sword of Shadows. I hope you will join us. It’s going to be fun!
In the meantime…let’s talk about witches.
Tobsha Learner’s wonderful novel has a somewhat incongruous title because in truth, there isn’t a single witch in the story. The main character, Ruth, is a midwife who has studied modern medicine – as modern as it got in 17th century Europe. She lives as an outcast in her own community, having run away from home to escape an arranged marriage.
Although she is publicly reviled, Ruth is respected for her gifts as a healer. When women of Cologne – rich or poor – go into labor, their families do not hesitate to call on Ruth, though they often do so in secret.
Early in the novel, Ruth is accused of witchcraft as part of a personal vendetta. She is collateral damage in a larger political game; innocent of the charges but almost certainly doomed for the simple reason that the Inquisitor, a man of power and influence, wants her dead. Ruth finds allies along the way, but will they be enough to save her? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
Ruth’s situation resonated deeply with me, reminding me of the tens of thousands of women who have been executed under accusations of witchcraft over the centuries. “Witches” have been hunted and killed across all ages and many cultures; in some countries, people are still executed for witchcraft today.
This begs the question of why we fear the Witch, and witchcraft, so much – and why women, in particular, have been the enduring target of witch hunts.
For my part, I don’t feel the same instinctive horror toward the Witch as I do toward the Inquisitor. As an archetypal figure, the Inquisitor inspires a much greater terror, and seems beyond redemption. There’s only one type of Inquisitor, and he is always bad news.
The Witch, on the other hand, is a much more varied and complex figure. There’s the evil witch in the woods, who eats children in Hansel and Gretel or hunts campers in The Blair Witch Project. But a witch can also be good, like Glenda or Dorothy or Tabitha. She can be old and wise, young and innocent, or somewhere in between. Often, as in The Witch of Cologne, the “witch” is not a witch at all; she’s just a terrified woman falsely accused by a corrupt system.
There is one thing that all witches seem to have in common: they are knowledgeable, privy to secrets and mysteries outside the grasp of many others. Some might know how to birth babies or which plants of the forest serve as medicines. Others seem to be in touch with worlds and realities beyond our own perception. They might commune with spirits or faeries and gnomes. Or maybe they are simply aware of the greater purpose that guides their life; a conviction that gives them confidence and vision.
Because of this knowledge and confidence, witches are not to be messed with.
Not all witches are women, but when these particular qualities – knowledge, confidence, and power – intersect with the feminine spirit, the result sometimes ignites irrational fear. Women like Ruth, who do not bow to convention, who thirst for knowledge and seek to understand nature, are often not well liked – and hunted as witches.
The term “witch” is so mutable and diverse, it’s really tough to make generalizations about who the Witch is and how she is manifest in today’s world. There are simply too many ways to be a witch. Though the evil and terrible witch persists in our imagination, it’s my impression that witches of today are, on the whole, a more accepted and admired lot. We aren’t quite so fearful of their knowledge or their mystery. And we kind of like their sass.
What do you think? How do you perceive witches, past, present and future? Who are some of your favorite witches in fiction (or life), and why? Inquiring witches want to know.