I have always been fascinated with the villains in fairy tales. In many of the most traditional ones, the antagonist always seems so shallow: the evil Queen’s jealousy of Snow White’s beauty, Rapunzel’s witch’s selfishness, and even an evil fairy’s insult at not being invited to a Christening results in a 100 year long grudge. These grievances seem so slight, that I have long wondered what the real story was behind these women. In my search for an answer, I started to look at real witches and witchcraft.
During the height of witch hunting in Europe, magic was not so distinguished from science and often the two were mistaken or intertwined. Widows, or single women who needed to make their way in the world without the help of a man often resorted to duties many later described as witchcraft. Knowledge of herbs, birthings and medicines was in short supply and whomever had any experience with these also had a profitable opportunity. Many who were accused of witchcraft were also reported to sell ‘magical charms or spells’, playing upon superstition with charlatanry. Others supplemented their medical careers with prostitution. All of these were the reported doings of convicted witches. Indeed, the more I researched, the more it seemed that these women’s only distinction from those not classified as a witch was that they were able to make a livelihood without marriage.
Where then did storytellers get their idea of magic? Depending on the timeframe, it seems that the idea of the supernatural was inextricably linked with scientific theory. Plato’s theory of heavenly forms dictating earthly realities played heavily into academic thought until at least the 17th century. It also appears that the idea of the heavens, (celestial bodies, etc.) is closely intertwined with the idea of heaven, (angels, and the virtuous dead). Each planet corresponds to a set of earthly occurrences, (such as war or love, etc.), which also corresponds to a patron angel or demon, all of which are linked with particular physical representations, such as colors, symbols, etc. Magic was seen as the method which God, the Devil and their supernatural cohorts employed to bring reality about. Thus, ‘good magic’ was openly employed by physicians and priests as a combination of scientific fact and religious ritual. ‘Witchcraft’ is the broader term for evil, black or Devil-worshipping magic. I have to say, when I discovered this I was deflated. The idea of a witch as the source of all magic was an ever-present childhood daydream of mine. Yet here, I find that evil is inherently woven into the fabric of the witch’s history. Through this lens, I can see how the Brothers Grimm saw their witches, (even if their glasses needed a bit of cleaning).
But as a modern, liberated young woman I am not satisfied with this befuddled monicker. Historians have re-examined convicted witches and found their stories less than overtly magical and certainly a long way away from evil. I believe it is time to re-examine the witches in our favorite stories with a similar fine-toothed comb. It is time we consider their backgrounds and personal growth as well as those of our heroes. Our philosophic shift from magical to scientific thinking has encouraged us to view things impartially, without the classification of good or evil. Perhaps our favorite stories need a similar shift in outlook. Perhaps those stories could benefit from the admittance that villains are not completely evil, and heroes are not completely good. Perhaps if they did, we would not be so quick to judge those who’ve wronged us as irredeemable, or those who’ve helped us as immaculate.
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