I’ve got a bit of a ‘thing’ about witches. To make that sound less weird – I suppose you could say I’ve got a ‘thing’ for the occult in general, and a special interest in women and the supernatural. Now – I could talk at length about my childhood obsessions with Buffy and Sabrina, or the fact that I once spent a whole week drawing life-size faces of vampires and decorating my bedroom wall with them. But, while this might offer fascinating insights into my psyche, if you dig just a little deeper, the subject of evil, magic and women gets a lot more interesting.
We all know who started it, don’t we? Eve. Fucking Eve, getting hot under the definitely-only-proverbial collar over a piece of fruit (FFS). She gets poor, blameless, totally-innocent-honest-Guvnor-apple-eating Adam chucked out of the Garden of Eden and lands the rest of us with the dangers and agonies of childbirth, for all eternity. Not to mention the embarrassment of purchasing super-plus tampons from a spotty teenage cashier, whilst crying. Cheers, Eve. (Presumably, up until this point, babies were laid and hatched painlessly. Like frogspawn.)
But there you have it. Original sin. Women seeking out knowledge when they should be washing up, and fucking things up for everybody. Our first ‘monstrous woman’.
Since then, Western culture has loved associating femininity with the forces of evil. Just compare the connotations of the word ‘witch’ with her male counterparts: ‘wizard’ and ‘warlock’.
Women, as the weaker sex (both physically and intellectually) have often been depicted as being more susceptible to evil forces. Men get angry – women get hysterical. Cultural history would tell us that there has always been a close link between femininity and madness, but we live in a culture that has spent an awful lot of time and energy policing women’s minds and bodies, and locking them up for mental disorders such as ‘novel reading’. We withheld all traditional sources of knowledge and power, and demonised any alternatives they sought out.
Woman has ‘a closer affinity to the night-side of nature than man, and is especially exposed to the temptations of Satan. Deceit, curiosity, indiscretion, the desire to enslave man by her charms… incline her to the study and practice of forbidden knowledge.’
(from Ennemoser’s History of Magic, Vol.I)
The thing you need to understand about women, of course, is that – thanks to centuries of patriarchal cultural conditioning – we are not people. We are the ‘Other’ to man’s ‘Self’. And, as the Other, when it comes to storytelling, rather than faffing about with pesky features like personality and individuality that are better spent on men, we get to fall neatly into one of two categories:
Men ‘seem impelled to invent myths whenever they encounter strangers on the borders of their world,’ and such creatures are typically defined as ‘superhuman or subhuman, divine or diabolic.’
We become angels or demons, virgins or whores, desirable or monstrous.
And each side of this binary perpetuates the other. The more patriarchy raised up notions of what constituted a ‘good’ woman (purity, innocence, beauty, motherhood, nurture etc etc), the more horrified we all became by any woman who transgressed. To be old, or ugly, or clever, or strong, is to be ‘unfeminine’, and ‘unnatural’. Women who try to step outside their ‘natural’ sphere of being desirable to men and raising children? Got to be dark forces at work there.
And we get very upset when women ‘go bad’, because, unlike men, who get (lucky devils) things like ‘aggressive’, ‘dominant’, ‘virile’ and ‘war-mongering’ pre-stitched into the labels of their ‘masculinity’ t-shirts, these traits are seen as deeply wrong in women. It disturbs us, in those deep, dark places of our minds that culture has formed without us even noticing. It fills us with the dread of malign, supernatural forces. Look at the portrayal of women like Myra Hindley who commit violent crimes, in comparison to their male counterparts. Look at Lady Macbeth, who calls on supernatural forces to ‘unsex’ her, before she can persuade her husband to commit murder for the sake of ambition.
‘Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts! Unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top full
Of direst cruelty…’
Evil women disturb us more than evil men, because women are supposed to be mothers and nurturers; they’re supposed to be good and soft and ignorant and innocent.
Accusations of witchcraft have and even continue to be used to silence women who are seen to betray the ‘natural’ expectations of their sex. Patriarchy, and those who benefit from it, has always been frightened of women. So frightened that, even now, it fiercely resists letting them into our strongholds of masculine power: the centres of our religious institutions, our parliaments, our top boardrooms. Witches, and other ‘monstrous women’, are patriarchy’s nightmares manifest. As such, I see them as a symbol of female strength and rebellion. Witch to the core, me.
And, well… patriarchy and its defenders should be frightened. Men – I’d like to point out – have nothing to fear. But patriarchy – you’ve got it spot on. For you, we mean death. We mean the end of the world as you know it. We’re bringing fucking Armageddon on the back of our broomsticks.
ABI HYNES BIO + LINK TO STIRRED PERFORMANCE OF ANNE BOLEYN
Abi is a drama, poetry and fiction writer. As a playwright, she has trained at the Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse and the Royal Exchange Theatre, and is part of the Octagon Writers’ Network at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton. She has also had her work staged at the 24:7 Theatre Festival, Manchester, The Traverse, Edinburgh, and Grosvenor Open Air Theatre, Chester. She performs her fiction and poetry in and around Manchester pretty much whenever anybody will give her any stage time.
She also runs First Draft cabaret nights at The Castle Hotel and is Artistic Director of theatre and film company Faro Productions, who will be staging her latest play, 7 Veils, at The Kings Arms in Salford in November.
Follow Abi on Twitter: @AbiFaro