It is difficult to think of too many words in the English language with such differing perceptions than ‘witch’. Although they may be creations of mere fantasy, witches are commonly portrayed and depicted as evil villains with quirky, though sinister powers, while in some literary cases they are treated with a greater degree of warmth and reverence.
Let’s begin first by comparing the words ‘witch’ and ‘wizard’. On first inspection, these would be nothing more than male and female equivalents, but wizards have traditionally been viewed as wise, sage-like individuals with maybe a hint of a mischievous streak. They predominantly use their power for good, and their portrayal in literature and in the media throughout the centuries has made them appear like amiable men who just happen to possess magical powers.
With witches come plenty more baggage. They have regularly been stereotyped to be middle-aged women who own cats, take broomsticks out for a joy ride, and contain powers of unearthly proportions. They are treated with the utmost suspicion and wariness, perhaps inspired by their supposed persecution in medieval times.
‘Witch’ is a word commonly used to describe an unreasonable or disagreeable woman, whereas calling somebody a ‘wizard’ suggests that they are gifted at a particular subject or activity; or possess some kind of unique quality.
Such usage is further extended in artistic works as notable as The Wizard Of Oz. The eponymous wizard is described as a wonderful ‘wiz of a wiz’, who lives in the glitzy emerald city. Meanwhile, the story also contains the Wicked Witch of the West and the Wicked Witch of the East, the primary antagonists who have evil character traits and so don’t compare well.
The use of witches for the purposes of fictional villainy continue in another classic 20th century work; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The arch-nemesis on this occasion is the White Witch, who, while rarely displaying an array of special powers, creates a miserable, despotic landscape and is intent on permanent rule.
This all stems from old-fashioned beliefs and practices, but doesn’t explain why wizards have not been subjected to the same unflattering treatment of their female counterparts. Here is a background of how attitudes towards sorcery have developed and manifested themselves during bygone eras:
Fear of so-called witches was rife during a period of history where figures in authority were innately suspicious of any signs of abnormality. The very notion of magical powers was feared greatly, leading to those accused of being witches facing capital punishment, often through drowning, or being burned at the stake.
The desperation of historical communities to eliminate ‘witches’ was such that hundreds of innocent women were put to death. This reached its peak in the 17th century during the bizarre reign of Matthew Hopkins, where a range of peculiar tests were carried out to theoretically uncover the true nature of unfortunate victims.
Hopkins christened himself as England’s very own Witch-finder General, an unofficial title to pronounce his supposed aptitude for tracking down ‘witches’ and bringing them to justice. A man of fairly humble origin, Hopkins gained nationwide recognition during the English Civil War, making a career through his hypothesis that any woman that floats on water *must* be a witch.
This entire campaign embodies the attitudes surrounding witchcraft during that era, but perhaps recent literature might also have been a factor. A little over 30 years previously, William Shakespeare had produced his darkest and most thought-provoking of plays, where witches feature prominently.
The three witches portrayed in Macbeth are both mysterious and powerful in equal measure. They have the capability to see into the future, and ultimately ensure that a violent series of events driven by temptation and a fierce yearning for power, plays out with typically tragic consequences.
They appear in the opening scene, visualising their next meeting, where Macbeth is also present. After the witches pronounce that he will shortly take the title of Thane of Cawdor and eventually become king of Scotland, Macbeth becomes intrigued by their powers, and they act as a driving force behind his gory actions during the rest of the play.
The portrayal of the witches throughout Macbeth is open to interpretation, but they are shown to be creatures that spread death and danger through their ability to prey upon fundamental human flaws. It is mixed with terrifying imagery such as the cauldron scene, where a clear distinction is made between the witches and the human characters.
It is a triumph for Shakespeare’s vivid imagination, but as the centuries have passed and witches have become recognised as as solely supernatural beings, their presence in formal adult literature has disappeared and they now reign supreme in children’s books, and other media.
Many of most renowned children’s authors of recent years have involved witches in their stories, and in most instances they are considerably more benign, yet some familiar traits remain. They still ride broomsticks; they still have creepy abilities to conjure harmful apparitions, and they are still treated with more suspicion than wizards.
Yet they are primarily characters of fun, as Jacqueline Wilson and Julia Donaldson proved with The Worst Witch and Room on the Broom respectively. However, one giant of children’s literature treated us to his own, entirely different interpretation.
The characterisation and features of The Witches in Roald Dahl’s award-winning book of the same name differs enormously from all that had gone before it. Dahl doesn’t hide from the fact that all witches are women, while he also creates a level of suspense which is rarely so prevalent in novels aimed towards an audience of children aged 13 and under.
Maybe that’s why the characterisation is so distinctive. Dahl’s witches share a hatred of children, and plot to neutralise them by any means possible. They use elaborate accessories to disguise their bald heads; clawed fingers, and square feet, and answer to the Grand High Witch.
The Grand High Witch personifies all the negative connotations surrounding witches. She is deceptive and ruthless, and possibly Dahl’s darkest creation. When she removes her mask to reveal a disembodied face, it represents another departure from the stereotypes.
However, at no point does Dahl discriminate between witch and wizard, and shows that the portrayal of such beings is open to interpretation. Now that it’s generally accepted that witches were not at large during the English Civil War and the preceding years, they have no clear definition. That many fictional witches have similar traits is simply a reinforcement of traditional inspirations.
We even see that in the world of video-gaming, where the primary antagonist in the Banjo-Kazooie series is a green-skinned witch called Gruntilda. At the opposite end of the spectrum alongside the likes of Dahl, we have dramatic portrayals in films like The Witches of Eastwick, who are three apparently normal women who discover underlying powers.
Sitting almost slap bang in the middle is the most notorious series of novels in recent times, the Harry Potter books. Author J.K. Rowling has created her own world, with its own unique and clearly defined identity, which has permanently altered the thinking behind how witches and wizards can be depicted in literature.
Aside from The Wizard of Oz, this is the only example within this article that offers the chance of direct comparison between the male and female characters. And on the whole, witches and wizards in Harry Potter are treated predominantly as equals.
Both witches and wizards practice in the Dark Arts; they both have equal rights to an education, and are shown to be just as gifted as each other. Even Quidditch is a level playing field, as teams are made up by both men and women.
The only slight disparity is the lack of women in the top jobs, such as at the Ministry of Magic, but on the whole, the fact that Hogwarts itself is shown to be founded by an equal number of witches and wizards (two each) states the parity that exists. Indeed, discrimination in Harry Potter is largely limited to bloodline, and prejudice towards magical creatures.
One line that sums up the amelioration of the word ‘witch’ appears in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. While escaping the campsite at the Quidditch World Cup, Harry and his friends run into Draco Malfoy, who informs them slyly that Hermione Granger may be at risk from the Death Eaters, who are in the act of persecuting Muggles.
‘Hermione’s a witch’, snarls Harry in response.
This may seem like a very unremarkable, average piece of dialogue; after all it is only three words long and may seem as though Harry is just stating a fact. However, the implication of this line shows that the state of being a witch is a good thing, something to be proud of.
To illustrate the point, to refer to somebody as a witch in most forms of literature and other media suggests that that character is evil and/or untrustworthy. As Harry and Hermione are clearly protagonists in this particular series, we know immediately that Harry’s remark is far from disparaging; indeed it is meant as a compliment.
And that sums up the journey that fictional witches have embarked on over time, as historic and medieval beliefs towards their supposed existence have become gradually more obsolete. The stereotypes still remain, and they are used for the purpose of entertainment and extravagance, but the wider range of depictions now in evidence provides a belief that they can obtain something close to equal footing with fictional wizards.