Magic and Enchantment in Literature at the British Library

The British Library runs many courses in connection with their exhibitions. To accompany the current smash hit ‘Harry Potter: A History of Magic’ exhibit, several fantasy fiction-related events have been run and in January I was lucky enough to attend the study day on Magic and Enchantment in Literature.

There were some very informative talks from Dr Gwilym Jones on ‘Enchanting Early Modern Theatre’, Dr Stuart D Lee on ‘The Magic (or lack of it) in the Works of J R R Tolkien’, and Alison Bailey on ‘Charms and Portals from George MacDonald to Alan Garner’. But I’m going to focus on three talks that carried through a common thread on witchcraft in society and literature from the classical world to today.

Professor Barbara Goff presented a talk on ‘Powers and Precious Objects: Magic in Antiquity’. This included several examples of defixiones, or katadesomi, spells and curses inscribed onto tablets, typically made of lead, folded and sealed with nails and buried underground. These curses required no special magical ability to perform – people from all walks of life seem to have used them for the most mundane reasons. Tablets have been found asking to bind the tongues of advocates in legal cases; bring misfortune down upon rival shopkeepers; disable opponents in chariot racing; even to make thieves bring back stolen goods. One particularly gruesome curse requested that whoever stole a valuable bowl from the aggrieved author should pour their own blood into it. But perhaps the most frequent subject of these bindings was love. Time and again, spurned suitors seem to have turned to magic to break up their would-be lover from a rival, or to compel someone to love them in return.

The form of the curses often involved repetitive language reinforcing the request, pleas to deities and demons to assist in the binding of the spell, and specific information to identify the target. Despite the tablets being written in a deeply patriarchal society it is telling that targets were typically identified by naming the target’s mother, not their father. This could have been due to some connection being made between the feminine and earthly magic, or simply a matter of pragmatism, since the mother’s identity couldn’t be readily mistaken.

Professor Goff also ran through the earliest instances of witch-like characters appearing in classical literature. Many of them were associated with poisons and drugs, a common thread that runs through portrayals of witches to the modern-day, linked to traditional domestic roles involving cookery and herbal healing. Circe was renowned for her ability to create potions and turned men into animals in Homer’s Odyssey. Medea was a descendant of Circe who also used poisons and is most famous for killing children, another common thread with witchy stereotypes. I was particularly taken with the story of Erictho in Lucan’s Pharsalia, an incredibly powerful witch who can reanimate the dead. In one story she brings back a dead soldier on the battlefield to hear a prophecy about the war. She also sends messages to the underworld by whispering into the mouths of corpses. I hadn’t realised before now, but this Erictho is the same witch who Virgil says has previously summoned a soul out of hell in Dante’s Inferno. Most of these women live on the margins of society, and are viewed as hideous and unnatural, and in them we can see the formation of how the popular idea of witches would evolve.

Professor Catherine Spooner then presented the history of the Pendle Witches, who were tried in Lancashire 1612, and how those events have been viewed over the past 400 years. The Pendle Witch trial is among the largest and best documented witchcraft trials of the age. Of the 12 accused, 1 died in prison; 1 was found innocent; the 10 who were found guilty, 8 women and 2 men, were executed by hanging. They were joined in trial by several other women from Lancashire who had been separately accused, 1 of whom was found guilty and executed.

Some of the women who were tried had been locally regarded as witches or ‘cunning women’ for many years, and some genuinely considered themselves to be witches. One day, one of the women, Alizon Device, asked a travelling merchant for some pins. Whether she wanted to purchase them or was begging for them was contested at the trial. Either way, the merchant refused, and shortly afterwards collapsed with paralysis, something that was most likely a stroke. His family accused Alizon of witchcraft. Alizon’s grandmother, Elizabeth Southerns (also known locally by the demonic nickname Demdike) was feared within the local community and was swiftly dragged into the accusations of witchcraft, along with two members of another local family. Both families lived in extreme poverty and were viewed with suspicion by others. After the four were arrested, family and friends gathered for a meal to discuss how to help them, and stole a sheep to eat. The authorities accused the gathering of being a coven and arrested all those who attended, including the two men.

It’s easy to see how the label of ‘witch’ could be made to stick. All but one of the accused was poor; some had disabilities; Lancashire was regarded as being a dark corner of England in which demonic forces could flourish. There was extreme anti-Catholic sentiment among the authorities, and some of the ‘spells’ that were reported were in fact garbled versions of Catholic prayers. These reports were made in a publication by Thomas Potts, the court clerk, in The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. Potts’ work was intended to be a rational account of events but took liberties with the truth and it ultimately set the tone for social attitudes towards witches that followed. Suspicion of witchcraft was further stoked by King James I, who not only believed in its existence but considered himself an expert, writing a book on the subject called Daemonologie which professed that witches should be put to death.

In 1633 another large witchcraft trial arose in Lancashire. A pair of London playwrights, Hayward & Brome, capitalised on the public appetite for scandal by writing the play The Late Lancashire Witches. Within the world of the play, witchcraft is entirely real. The play features moments of comedy as the witches overturn the social order; wives trick husbands, servants trick employers, children trick parents. But ultimately, the witches are discovered and prosecuted, and traditional hierarchy is restored. Bizarrely, the play was performed in public before the trial had reached a conclusion – the guilt of the central women on trial was assumed within the play, but in reality, all accused were ultimately pardoned by King Charles I after a witness recanted.

In 1735 an Act of Parliament was passed making it illegal to accuse someone of witchcraft. Trials like those of the Pendle Witches became historical stories, and attitudes towards such events gradually changed.

Over the centuries many novels have been published about the Pendle Witches. Ainsworth’s The Lancashire Witches: A Romance of Pendle Forest (1848) is a sweeping gothic epic, a multi-generational family saga which wholeheartedly embraces the supernatural and invents an entire demonic backstory to the events. Although the witches may be wicked, they do wield tremendous power. Neill’s Mist Over Pendle (1951) treats the idea of witchcraft as a fiction, but one that is wholeheartedly believed by the villainous women at the heart of the story. Both books were hugely popular, and what this tells us about prevailing social attitudes towards women, the first published in the early Victorian era and the second in the 1950s, is an interesting topic.

By the 1990s, retellings of the Pendle Witch Trial tended to emphasise victimhood of those accused, rationalising away magic and refocusing on the politics of the story. When Jeanette Winterson published her novella The Daylight Gate (2012) she faced criticism for giving the women in her fictionalised retelling magical powers, as if this diluted the political message people wanted to read, some even accusing her of insulting those who died through an untruthful story. But how can any retelling of historic events reflect ‘truth’ when that truth can only be viewed through the lens of contemporary culture?

The Daylight Gate was published for the 400th anniversary. Professor Spooner pointed out that many of the official events to mark the occasion were overburdened with an air of shared remorse, shame, grief and sympathy, but not so much empathy. White stones were erected along the path the ‘witches’ would have walked, inscribed with lines from a poem by Carol Anne Duffy the Poet Laureat, in an area that now has a thriving tourist industry linked to the trial. The dominant tone from the establishment was one of sombre memorialisation. A separate attempt to mark the occasion by writing a giant (but temporary) “1612” along the hillsides was denied planning permission following an objection from the local Bishop. However, a local brewery stepped in to fund it, and the night before the anniversary, the temporary numbers were put in place under cover of darkness, using frost protection material that would cause no damage to the environment. Despite looking like numbers on a Christian tombstone, the image of the tall white numbers on the hillside echo the pagan tradition of carving giant chalk figures like the Cerne Abbas Giant. I much prefer this piece of lightly subversive transient art.

Clitheroe Pendle Witches Memorial 8147Pendle Hill 1612 painting 

Dr Chloe Buckley then picked up the theme of witchcraft in the late 20th and early 21st century through the lens of film, TV and pop culture portrayals.

In the 1960s, mainstream television shows like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie domesticated their witches, taking the magical powers of the central women and making them safe by bringing them into a traditional patriarchal home environment where the primary focus of the witches is the wellbeing of their husbands. But by the 1970s things become ambiguous. Dr Buckley compared two early films in the British ‘folk horror’ movement. Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) transposes fears about flower power and sexual liberation into the 17th century. A mysterious object found in the woods leads to the formation of a satanic cult among local youth, who gather in the forest to perform rituals. The leader of the cult is a beautiful young woman whose sexuality is predictably weaponised, but by the end, the local men led by a Judge defeat the evil forces and restore the social order. But two years later in The Wicker Man (1973) there would be no clear-cut victory for the traditional forces of goodness. As the hero burns against the setting sun, it gives us a remarkably equivocal ending. Who exactly has won, here? It is impossible to say without knowing who is right, and the film offers no answers. If Sergeant Howie’s Christian faith is true, then despite his death, he has ‘won’ by remaining uncorrupted, and his predictions for the failure of the next year’s crops will come true; but if the pagan religion of Summerisle is true, then they will have achieved the aim of their sacrifice. And if all their faiths are misplaced, where has any of it led them? The Wicker Man is widely considered a classic film and I believe this sense of ambiguity is a large part of its enduring popularity, as well as the quality of the filmmaking.

Dr Buckley then compared this to the terrible 2006 remake. One major change made by Neil LaBute is to remove the role of Lord Summerisle (played by Christopher Lee in the original) as the leader of the island and make the community a specifically matriarchal one, led by Sister Summerisle (Ellen Burstyn). The women are descended from a long line of witches who were persecuted both in England and, later, in Salem. The film plays into every one of the old stereotypes of witches – child sacrifice, fear of women with power, and mistrust of female sexuality. While the ending of the burning of the wicker man remains, there is no room for ambiguity here. In 1973, Detective Howie met his end in prayer; in 2006, Detective Malus (good grief, that name) just screams sexualised obscenities at the women before going up in flames. This matriarchal society is portrayed as simply evil and their beliefs as hopelessly misguided, like the witchcraft in Mist Over Pendle. It’s a terrible movie for many reasons, but those Nic Cage memes never stop being funny.

Stepping back to the 90s, the days of the Spice Girls and ‘girl power’, there was a proliferation of what Dr Buckley called ‘soft focus’ witches in pop culture. Buffy, Charmed, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch on TV and films like The Craft offered a version of witchcraft which is essentially neither good nor bad, but a powerful tool that can be wielded by good or bad people. While there are men with powers in many of these, the focus is very much on the young women at the centre of the stories who become their own heroes and villains, undefined by domesticity. But did it change anything in the way the term ‘witch’ is used? Not really. Dr Buckley showed two recent political memes, a right-wing meme showing Hillary Clinton made up as the Wicked Witch of the West, and a left-wing meme turning Theresa May into a witch. I also recall, on the death of Margaret Thatcher, the song ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ from The Wizard of Oz making the Top 40 chart. Sadly, it’s still a go-to insult for women in power with only negative connotations. Ultimately Dr Buckley questioned whether it is even possible to reclaim the idea of the ‘witch’ in a positive way when it is weighted down with centuries of meaning.

Since the study day I’ve been thinking about some of the very popular fantasy books like Harry Potter and Discworld where magic is real, and the world is filled with witches and wizards, both good and bad. What is it that makes a witch like Hermione Granger a fairly safe cultural heroine in most parts of the world? I think it’s because, in these fictional universes, even the magical world has a social order to be upheld. There are schools and universities, there are people in authority, there are rewards and punishments, and the way they work isn’t so very different to our own world. Whereas the traditional dangerous witch lives on the fringe, their power uncontrolled, their existence a threat to the status quo.

I absolutely loved the study day and would recommend anyone within striking distance of London and an interest in literature to take a look at their upcoming schedule. I’ll definitely be going back for more! I’d also love to hear from you about any interesting representations of witches that come to mind so please leave a comment below.


The ‘Harry Potter: A History of Magic’ exhibition runs until 28 February 2018. The full programme from the study day with details of all the speakers can be found here.

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