Throughout history you will find mentions and whispers of witches in literature. From Circe, the first witch mentioned in western literature, to Hecate, Morgan le Fay, Baba Yaga, the Wicked Witch of the West, and the most recent witch starlet— Hermione Granger.
Who were witches in real life?
In real life Witches were someone who you came to for help. They gave you advice for your life, saw your future and helped cure small ailments and diseases. But as the town started relying on witches healing more and more, people started spinning lies and rumors to take away her ‘power’. This started a crazy wave of witch trials in the fifteenth to eighteenth century.
Women who people thought to be witches were drowned, burned alive, and hung. The American suffragist and abolitionist Matilda Joslyn Gage wrote in her own book, Woman, Church, and State (1893), that the women who were accused of being witches during the European and New England witch hunts were in fact “among the most profoundly scientific persons of the age,” and she mentions how they were persecuted by the Church because they were deemed a threat to the patriarchy. These trials themselves started a wave in horror literature depicting the ‘new’ witch — one who was selfish, evil, and out to get you.
The witch has been living in such stories for centuries. When we first hear mentions of her she serves as a warning. She is an old hag who represents what happens when you step outside of social norms. Then she was turned into someone who works beside the devil, someone who leads you into darkness. Yet witches in literature symbolized fighting for your rights, being your own boss, and feminine power.
Witches in literature
This dramatic shift in how literature portrays witches did not just happen over night. One of the first accounts of a ‘good witch’ I could find in popular literature was actually from the The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1990). In they story you see a great example of how the demeanor of a witch shifts from being bad and evil to someone who could guide and help you. You have the Wicked Witch of the West who fits your nasty category.
Then you have the good Witch of the North who is the shifted and changed version of a witch— she is actually good and helpful. They are complete opposites of one another and serve completely different purposes in the story arc. You can see the shift from fearing the unknown and magic to finding it beautiful and full of fascination. This fascination of magic has been incorporated into modern culture as we start to explore the feminism side to being a witch and what she is able to represent for the modern woman.
The modern witch
Jumping to one of the most famous books of witches and wizards of our time, Harry Potter, we do see witches who resemble the new outlook on how we think about magic. We are in awe, we want to be magical, and society is rooting for magic. Despite all of that we are still seeing the old stereotype rearing up in the story.
If you look at Bellatrix LeStrange she is a gaunt, mean, and dark witch. This is relatively the same portrayal of witches, but with a modern spin. She, even though evil and dark, is a woman who is a force to be contended with. Powerful enough to be in the inner circle of Voldemort and she has a modern woman attitude.
Witches in literature have had a wild ride. And while I believe that no matter what we do, or how far we progress, witches will always have some darkness and fear associated with them. They hold a mysticism about them that still startles people and causes anger and confusion. And they truly make great evil characters.
So while we have many varieties of witches in literature, there is something to be said of the transformation they went through. From a portrayal of evil, that spilled into real life and caused mass murders, to being beautiful and fantastical, spilling into real life to create theme parks and portraying a woman standing up for herself.