Friday, 21 March 2014

Why Witches?

Most of us don't believe in magic, and yet it constantly bleeds into our stories, and has done for as long as we've been telling them. So what is it about witchcraft that still fascinates us? Why are we still reading - and writing - about it?

Even now there's still a stream of new releases either inspired by witchcraft or featuring witches. Books like the Harry Potter series and Laura Powell's Burn Mark have brought witches into modern day Britain, as has the newly released Half Bad by Sally Green, which came out just this month.

Or if the Salem Witch Trials are of more interest to you, July will see the release of Katherine Howe's Conversion, and last year saw the premiere of American Horror Story: Coven.

Or if you'd rather not read something set in the modern day, this month will also see the release of Paula Brackston's latest novel, The Midnight Witch.

As someone from Britain, I whole heartedly believe that witchcraft is a big part of British culture. That may sound odd. I'm not trying to say that the population of Britain is sitting around performing the odd magic spell while their neighbours aren't looking, merely that it's an undeniably huge part of our history, and so it should be. During the witch hunting frenzy of the 16th and 17th centuries, 40,000 people were executed for witchcraft in Britain alone. If we look at how many people populated Britain's largest cities in the early 17th century, then the number of people executed is the entire population of Newcastle four times over.

In hindsight we know now that the witch trials in Britain came about because of superstition - particularly after England broke away from Rome and adopted Protestantism over Catholicism - and fear. Fear quickly turned into hysteria, and hysteria turned into slaughter. It's worth mentioning that throughout the rest of Europe there was a fairly even split between men and women who were executed for witchcraft, whereas in Britain over 90% of the victims were women.

These were independent women - in the sense that they often lived and worked alone, making it easier for their neighbours to turn against them - many of whom were practicing an early form of science. In a society ruled by men, religion, or a combination of the two, these women were a threat to the social norms, and to the immortal souls of the other townspeople.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Historical Fiction is often used as a way to say something about the present; it appears as though it's talking about a time long ago, and then suddenly you find yourself discovering echoes of the story, and of whatever time period you were reading, in the world around you. It's clever that way.

Though, as I said, men were accused of witchcraft, it is a predominantly female thing, and in a lot of fiction I think we can view it as a metaphor. In a way magic is representative of the repressed potential so many women have inside them, and how they were unable to convey this potential in an era of history ruled over by a superstitious and sexist patriarchy. Essentially, they were women before their time.

After all, not only were women accused of carrying out the devil's bidding, but also of sleeping with him. So not only had these women dared to have sex - for pleasure - outside of marriage, they'd done it with the worst imaginable creature.

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of a woman ahead of her time is Anne Boleyn, the second, ill-fated wife of Henry VIII. Whether you believe she was a whore, a martyr, or you don't care all that much, there's no denying that she was fiercely intelligent and ambitious, and ultimately her ambition cost her her life.

The crimes for which she was executed? Adultery and witchcraft.

We might not like to think it, but there are echoes of this kind of behaviour even now. How often are women shamed for wanting a career over wanting children? How often are women made to feel ashamed of being aware of their own sexuality, by men and even by other women, and of happening to enjoy safe sex with as many partners as they choose? More often, I imagine, than we would like to admit.

Obviously feminism has come a long way since the 16th century, but it still has a way to go. That, I believe, is one of the reasons why we still read and write stories about witchcraft today. It's about giving women their power back, and giving them voices that matter.

Magic is power, and so often in stories we like to see power reside in the hands of those who most deserve to wield it.

Thanks for reading! J.

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