Every witch way: The image problem of sorceresses
A 20-YEAR-OLD mother is accused of witchcraft by the relatives of a six-year-old boy who has died. A mob strips, tortures and binds her, then burns her alive in front of hundreds of witnesses.
This is this year in Papua New Guinea, where violent witch hunts are on the rise and, until last month, a belief in black magic could be used as a partial defence for killing someone suspected of inflicting harm through sorcery. Across the world, in Africa in particular, witchcraft is alive and kicking, with sick children and cattle and failing crops being blamed on those believed to have evil powers. It’s no coincidence the accused often also have a perceived economic advantage, and are usually female and vulnerable.
Roll back 400 years and our own seaside town of North Berwick was the scene of equally horrific witch trials in 1590 after more than 70 people were accused of sorcery. These were sparked by the stormy crossing experienced by obsessive witch-hater King James VI on his voyage to Denmark to meet his future wife. Like many of his contemporaries, he was a firm believer in the existence of witches, and examined one of the accused himself at Holyrood House. Agnes Sampson was fastened to the wall of her cell by a witch’s bridle – an iron device with four sharp prongs forced into the mouth and cheeks – had a rope pulled around her head and was deprived of sleep until she confessed. She was then strangled and burned to death.
According to historian TC Smout, between 3,000 and 4,000 accused witches may have been killed in Scotland between 1560 and 1707. Of those executed, 85 per cent were women and 85 per cent were aged 30 or over. The history of persecution of women in particular as witches goes back hundreds of years, and worldwide shows no sign of letting up, such is the enduring belief in their existence. Whatever the reality of their physical appearance, they are generally depicted as wild-haired, naked, sexually voracious, bestial, old, ugly and unnatural, although the flipside of that can see them depicted as beguilingly beautiful temptresses.
It is the representations of female witches in western art that particularly interests artist, writer and curator Deanna Petherbridge, who has been instrumental in the staging of the exhibition Witches and Wicked Bodies, which opens at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art next weekend. Covering 500 years of the depiction of witches from the late 15th century to the present, there are outstanding images from artists such as Albrecht Dürer, John William Waterhouse, William Blake and bang up-to-date interpretations from Paula Rego, Kiki Smith and Cindy Sherman. The show is also linked to Edinburgh Filmhouse’s Gothic film season this autumn.
“Deanna Petherbridge brought the idea to us and it’s a fascinating topic that will catch the public’s imagination,” says Dr Patricia Allerston, National Galleries’ deputy director and one of the curators of the exhibition. “The artists involved in depicting witches are amazing and include the most famous artists of all time.
“There are images people might take exception to, paraphernalia and symbols associated with witchcraft, but witchcraft is not the focus; it’s about how the women have been represented. Also, some people might be horrified by the depravity of the women – it’s not suitable for the whole family. The predominant image is a witch, and one who doesn’t have any clothes on.”
The first images on show coincide with the Reformation and religious upheaval during which witches were seen as a threat. At the same time, artists and writers were revisiting ancient Greek and Roman texts that often featured sorceresses, and with the invention of the printing press in 1450 the images were disseminated all over Europe, fuelling the persecution. One of the books hot off the new presses was the 1486 Malleus Maleficarum, a witch-catchers’ manual that became the handbook for courts throughout Europe and fuelled even more brutal persecution.
According to Malleus: “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable,” and women were more at risk from demonic temptations “because of the weakness of their gender”.
The fascination with witches continues with Milton and Shakespeare, and 19th-century culture vultures devoured anything spooky or supernatural. “Every generation has an interest and that’s reflected in the art and images of each period,” says Allerston. “The exhibition comes up to the modern day with strong works by women artists who revisit the theme, putting themselves in the images and subverting the visual ideas of male artists.”
Whether there have ever been as many witches as it is believed, or any at all for that matter, the imagery that exists is a fantastical view, imaginary, prompted by literature. What is being exhibited is how artists have portrayed the idea of witches, and in many cases it’s the propaganda of the witch-hunters, giving an insight into perceptions of the time. What’s on show are classical images of bad women that the artists or their commissioners wanted to produce, often a great excuse for a little nudity and/or bestiality.
“There are consistent tropes, either old ugly women, or beautiful and dangerous,” says Allerston. “Albrecht Dürer’s 1497 engraving of four witches shows voluptuous naked women, while Frederick Sandys’ Medea from 1866 is beautiful. Then Cindy Sherman and Kiki Smith highlight how the images are exaggerated, the long nose for instance, making you think about why.”
Meanwhile, over in Aberdour in Fife, Christine Quick, aka the Green Witch, is doing her best to subvert traditional images of witches too. With short blonde hair, a normal-sized nose and a sunny disposition, she laughs a lot and looks nothing like the hideous hags of popular imagination. She also has no qualms whatsoever in describing herself as a witch.
“I look like somebody’s mother,” she says. “I don’t look like the idea of a witch with long, dark hair and a pointy nose. People come in the shop to see what a witch looks like, especially kids, and are quite astounded when they see me. I suppose city witches can be goth-like, but you can’t do that in a little village. I will put my cloak on to judge the Halloween lantern competition, but that’s about it. And I once went to a village cooking thing and put eye of newt and toe of bat on my jar labels, but the eyes were actually juniper berries.”
At her Mystique Moments shop, she sells crystals and cauldrons, herbal remedies and wands, pagan and witch-oriented books and all of the paraphernalia a witch could require. On her website she has spells that cover everything from purifying the home and encouraging fidelity to the more pragmatic selling houses and weight loss, while her “get rich quick” potion flies off the shelves.
“People used to ask me if I was a witch and I said, ‘No, they’re bad’, but I started looking it up in books and thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s all the things I do’, so I realised that’s what I was. That’s why I do the witch thing in a big way, to show it’s a good thing. I refuse to hide. It was the village that named me the Green Witch.”
Quick arrived in Fife 25 years ago and has run the shop for the past 17 years. A typical day will see customers asking for help with everything from bereavement to midges to cancer, to getting a man into their life. “It’s mainly people who want help with something and what I give them will depend on what they want. Often they’ve been sent in here when all else fails. I look at things in a different way, and mix remedies by dousing with a pendulum, but people could do it themselves and empower it with a spell.”
Doesn’t using words such as “spells” put people off or frighten them away, not to mention attract the wrong sort – Satanists perhaps?
“Oh no, there’s nothing in my shop for Satanists. I don’t have any Aleister Crowley on the shelves or anything like that, and all my pentagrams are the right way up. As for spells, that’s just an action you take to calm something down and I don’t do them – I give people the tools they need to do them themselves because they’re the ones with the power. To me, when someone goes into a church and lights a candle to help someone get better, or makes a wish blowing out birthday candles, that’s a spell. Spell is just a word, and so is witch.”
Born in Lincolnshire, 54-year-old Quick grew up in a fishing and farming community where she says no-one batted an eyelid at people who muttered at the moon and wouldn’t allow women on fishing boats.
“Everyone was very superstitious so I thought it was normal. I realised later it’s not. Men would be lost at sea or if the crops failed times would be hard, so it made sense. My grandmother was like me, with a garden where she grew plants for remedies. She read tea leaves. I read the tarot after a gypsy told me I should learn and gave me a set of cards.”
Quick’s interest in the power of plants arose from being a mother to three children with intolerances who couldn’t be treated with various medicines. Being a resourceful sort, she started growing and mixing her own herbal versions.
“I didn’t think I was doing anything special, then people started asking me for them and it grew from there. It started to take over my house so I moved into a shop. I went on a ‘women into business’ course with Scottish Enterprise and I have a banking and accounting background too, so it all worked out.”
The premises she took over in the Fife village already had a link with witchcraft stretching back generations, a fact she was unaware of until some of the older inhabitants told her of its history. “The previous village witch, Maggie Cumming, lived in this building until 1905, and also the Earl of Moray fought – and failed – to save the life of the one who lived here before that. Maggie still lives here and although I’m not psychic, when I’m using my pendulum I know it’s her that’s dealing with it. I consult the mafia of witches,” she laughs.
Quick credits Harry Potter for a softening of attitudes to witches and spells, but it wasn’t always so easy to find acceptance. “The witches we knew were in Macbeth and Rabbie Burns, bad ones. And Disney has a lot to answer for. But it’s better now,” she says.
“I did have problems years ago when we had a Church of Scotland minister who used to rant about me from the pulpit on Sundays. He went on TV and said I preyed on the vulnerable like pimps, drug-pushers and prostitutes.
“I don’t think he knew why he hated me, but there was a bit in the King James Bible that says, ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’. Anyway, he’s not here anymore,” she says and laughs (a merry giggle, in case you’re wondering, as far from an evil cackle as you could get).
“The new minister is wonderful and we work as a team – he looks after the souls and I do the bodies.
“People blame witches for things, but they only have one rule and that’s ‘Do what you will but harm no-one’,” she says. n
Witches and Wicked Bodies, £7, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two), 73 Belford Road, Edinburgh, 27 July to 3 November (0131-624 6200, www.nationalgalleries.org)
The Green Witch, Mystique Moments, 59 High Street, Aberdour, Burntisland, Fife (01383 860106, www.greenwitch.co.uk)