Ever since I was a child, I’ve adored witches. Not the modern ones, all glamourous and regal (though Elsa was amazing and I still find myself singing Let It Go in the shower,) but the old, fairy-tale witches, full of cunning tricks and ancient magic. Witches who saw the future and taught young girls secret charms to ward off ghosts. Witches who could turn a comb into a forest and mirrors into lakes. Witches who outwitted giants, who loved a challenge and a chase. But most of all, I loved, and still love, the witches who showed up to offer advice and wisdom whenever the hero or heroine found themselves in over their head. They never solved the hero’s problems for them, that was always very clear (what would be the point of the hero, otherwise?) but most of them were at least willing to give a beleaguered protagonist a nudge towards salvation. For me, they were the best part of the story, adding another layer of magic and mystery to the world while conducting themselves with a wild, independent surety that made the so-called hero all but fade into the background.
And yet, their contribution to the quintessential hero’s quest is rarely acknowledged as it should be. Heroes and heroines from countless stories around the world have only ever been able to overcome their enemies and win their heart’s desire with the aid of a witch or enchantress. And while this can be seen in more modern stories as well (oh Potter, you rotter,) it’s easiest to spot in older folk and fairy tales, when magic was the order of the day.
We’ll start in Scotland with a subtle example: the mothers of heroes in such tales as Debonay of the Lake and The Red Ettin. These goodwives often baked blessed bannock-cakes for their intrepid children that not only tasted wonderful, but prompted the travellers and fairies who ate of them to share invaluable advice with the hero, or warn them of dangers in their path. They pop up most often in tales with three questing siblings: inevitably, the two elder children hoard the cake for themselves and perish horribly as a result, whereas the youngest brother or sister gives everything away, but keeps their soul and body intact.
In Greek mythology we find a classic: Ariadne’s magical thread saved Theseus from starving to death in the labyrinth, and the sword she snuck past King Minos’s guards was the only thing that stopped him from becoming lunch for the Minotaur. And where would Odysseus have ended up if Circe hadn’t tested his resolve to return home with her magical banquet? Perhaps transformed into a fox by her magic and doomed to devour his own porcine crew members, or forever lost at sea without her directions, without which he would never have found his way home.
Then there’s the ur-witch, the infamous Russian enchantress Baba Yaga and her sisters. How would Prince Ivan have rescued Vasilisa the Wise had she not told him the secret of killing Koschei, the deathless king of Slavic nightmare? How could other callow heroes across Europe and England have survived, if not for the magical gifts and determination wielded by these crones and the young women they trained to become their magical equals?
Each and every witch was different, and lent a different flavour to the story they were in. We don’t remember the Frog Tzarena for Ivan or Vasilisa: we remember it for Baba Yaga and her monstrous walking hut. If I mentioned Macbeth, how many of you immediately thought of ‘double, double, toil and trouble,’ and the three witches on the heath?
Of course, there was always a price to paid: a witch’s knowledge never came free, whether the cost was a bite of cake or a pint of blood. But for me, any sacrifice the hero made was always secondary to the witch herself, and how she untangled the obstacles waiting in the hero’s path.
Unlike the endlessly recurring Campbellian farm boy, with his overly sharp sword and princess fetish, these spell-slinging enchantresses actually had character. They were brave and independent, and more than capable of solving their own problems (or persuading others to solve their problems for them). They didn’t wait around to be rescued: they found their own way out, either by buying a hero’s muscle or outwitting demons and gods alike. If anything, they completed the so-called hero of the story, rounding out his callowness with wisdom and giving his one-dimensional character arc some weight.
And yet, whenever a witch and a hero share a spotlight, the dung-eared farm boy with his sharp sword always seems to get all the credit, despite the fact that, without the witch’s help, none of his great deeds would have been possible. In fact, the stories often go out of their way to debase and humiliate the witches seemingly for existing, even if any previous atrocities have been forgiven. Of course, there is always a way for these witches to be saved from persecution: marriage, or subservience, to the hero they assisted. That isn’t to say there aren’t tales of true love and sacrifice where such ‘happily ever afters’ work perfectly well, but many witches are portrayed as independent, self-assured spellcasters who are more than happy to make their own decisions, thank you very much. Almost every time they dare to go against a hero’s will, however, they find themselves punished for it.
Ariadne is abandoned in every permutation of her story, mostly on the shores of Naxos by Theseus, but in others the Greek hero all but sells her to the God of Wine, Dionysus, who has become infatuated with her. Odysseus is no better, staying with Circe for a year to eat her food and share her bed despite his passionate declaration to return home to his wife, only to sail away once he’s tired of her, leaving her pregnant with his son (and eventual murderer). And what about the mothers who baked those magical, advice-granting cakes for their sons? Forgotten, almost as soon as the bannocks left the oven. Usually, they aren’t even named. Only the Baba Yaga escapes relatively unscathed, but that’s because she’s an amoral force of nature, the archetypical wild woman who passes down forbidden knowledge.
Perhaps that’s why witches are so feared by dung-eared farmboys across literature. From the Baba Yaga to Macbeth’s cackling trio, witches deal in knowledge the hero barely understands, or perhaps refuses to understand. So many would-be champions have met grisly ends because they didn’t pay enough attention to the advice given them, from the farmboys who brought the wrong amount of water for their bannock-cake to the older brothers of Childe Roland, who were simply too fired up by the thought of adventure to pay their benefactors the proper respect.
Heroines, on the other hand, are renowned for listening carefully to the most frightening of hags, and putting their lessons to good use. Vasilisa the Beautiful, for example, performs the Baba Yaga’s frightening chores so perfectly, and assists the crone with such composure, that she manages to impress the old witch and win a skull burning with eternal flame to warm her family.
Another apprentice, the simply-titled Giant’s Daughter, is the only person I could find who has actually beaten Baba Yaga at her own game, solving all of the riddles Baba poses to her kind but foolish lover before using the ancient witch’s own rage to trap her in a lake made from an enchanted mirror. In this sense, the witch taking on and instructing an apprentice is a quintessentially feminine act, the passing down of (from the hero’s perspective,) dark mysteries that he cannot and never will comprehend. While this knowledge can help the hero, it also terrifies him. After all, nothing is more terrifying than the unknown and the unknowable.
And yet, every hero seems to forget that, more often than not, the witches offer this knowledge to him as well, often of their own free will. Maybe if they just cleaned the dung out of their ears and listened for a while longer, past the essentials of how to slay this monster and how to unlock that door, they might realise that independence isn’t a crime, and a witch’s counsel should be received with respect, not fear.
I can think of more than one ‘hero’ in the real world who could stand to learn that, too.
Callie Doyle-Scott was born in Tasmania in 1990, but has since travelled around Australia: she currently resides in Canberra. A graduate of RMIT University’s Creative Writing program in 2013, she never quite lost the study bug: her speciality is culinary history, specifically that of Victorian England and Japan throughout the ages, though she loves to research old folktales in her spare time. Callie started writing stories when she was ten (her first being about a cave that could turn people into animals,) and was first published in Dickson College’s CLIO History Journal with two articles on Renaissance heroines Caterina Sforza and Lucrezia Borgia. While studying, she went on to found and edit Verity La’s Out of Limbo project (an online archive devoted to the coming-out stories of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex individuals,) and participate in Bryce Courtney’s final writing masterclass in 2012. Since then, she has written articles for the Verity La and Writer’s Bloc webjournals, and hopes to establish a wider portfolio over the coming months. She is currently working to finish the draft of her first novel, a gastronomic fantasy entitled Soup for the Moon, in the hopes of approaching a publisher by the end of the year.
This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.
Great writing Callie. Congratulations on this succinct survey of wonderful (and not so wonderful) witches through time.
Such great phrases. I especially like “conducting themselves with a wild independent surety”.