Resistance witches at a protest. Photograph: Scott Eisen/Getty Images
This year alone we have seen Lucie McKnight Hardys Shirley Jackson-esque novel
Water Shall Refuse Them; Elle Nashs Animals Eat Each Other, a dark, obsessive coming-ofage novella; WITCH by Rebecca Tams; The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea (a rare look at male witch trials, set in Iceland). Then last year there was , Millers reimagining of the story of the witch from the Circe Odyssey. Shortlisted for the Womens prize and soon to become an HBO series, the novel sees Circe, a victim of rape, turn men into pigs in a spell that Miller reframed as self-defence.
In the opening of the fearless, transgressive poetry collection
WITCH, readers are greeted with a penis hex. Later there are spells for exile, for online porn, for UN resolutions, all written in a voice that is radical in its freedom, evoking sensual imagery of earth, blood, sex and body as a way of unravelling femininity and its history. Tams explores how an affinity with nature and a talent for herbal remedies were cast as something dark and evil, and how women resisted. In the poem WITCH TRIALS, we catch a glimpse of what underpins the desire, or need, for magic: the witch tries to think about how it started /maybe it was when a girl came home late at / night with half her clothes missing / maybe it was when the witch made beds in the cellar / for everyone coming to abort their unwanted babies.
I wanted to write a book of a poetry that would somehow interrogate or sound out silenced and repressed female history the thousands of years of lived experience that we have almost no record of, says Tams. For me, the witch represents all of that repressed agency which constantly bubbles up to the surface [in] an unsettling vision of female power, female sexuality, female independence.
Of course, the literary witch is nothing new. She has existed since storytelling began, from Circe, the first witch in western literature, to Hecate, Morgan le Fay, Baba Yaga, the Weird Sisters, the Wicked Witch of the West and Hermione Granger. At their worst, literary witches are stereotypical and derivative; at their best they are symbols of resistance against patriarchy and the harnessing of feminine power.
recently, I was struck by how witchy it is. Not only is Jane referred to as such by Rochester (How well you read me, you witch! he says to her, also calling her an imp, a sorceress, a sprite and someone who has the look of another world), but she also has visions and premonitory dreams, consults what she thinks is a fortune teller, and paints strange symbolic paintings. These are fitting allusions when considering Charlotte Bronts depiction of the subtle power dynamics between Jane and Rochester. Jane is defiant and resisting of male control even in childhood, and as the novel develops, the balance of power shifts in her favour. Jane Eyre
Another famous literary portrayal of witchcraft, this time by a male novelist, is John Updikes 1984 novel
, written in part as a response to accusations regarding Updikes male chauvinist depiction of women. Readers still dont seem to agree as to whether it is feminist or, as it has been called, a great misogynist novel. Rather satirically, Updikes witches, who can fly through the air and perform hexes, only gain their power when they get divorced, though that doesnt mean that they have lost interest in men: they are witches as seductresses, their power is carnal. They are also dangerous. If youre wired heterosexually, the author once told Margaret Atwood, women can be strange, elusive, and frightening to a degree. The Witches of Eastwick
In an interview not long before his death, Updike reflected on his inspiration for writing the novel: The era in which I wrote it was full of feminism and talk about how women should be in charge of the world. There would be no war. There would be nothing unpleasant, in fact, if women were in charge of the world. So I tried to write this book about women who, in achieving freedom of a sort, acquired power, the power that witches would have if there were witches. And they use it to kill another witch. So they behave no better with their power than men do. That was my chauvinistic thought.
Feminist or misogynist? the 1987 film adaptation of John Updikes The Witches of Eastwick. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/WARNER BROS/Allstar/Cinetext/Warner Bros
It seems rather feminist to me, at least more so than the witches I grew up with on television. Updike wrote his witches as quite ambiguous figures, partly inspiring and partly villainous, says professor Gibson. But the 1987 film of the book presented them as much more glamorous, empowering women, part of a trend of young, sexy witches which continued throughout the 90s.
Thankfully, portrayals of witches are now nuanced again. In
, Lucie McKnight Hardy gives us the teenage Nif, who in the stifling summer of 1976 performs strange rituals as she grieves for her dead sister. McKnight Hardy, who is from Wales, tells me she was inspired by a local chapel ministers autobiography in which he wrote about women in the local area who were performing witchcraft. This really struck a chord with me: we dont often think of witchcraft as being something of the present day we tend to consign it to history so the idea that there were still women practising black magic in the area where I grew up was deliciously intriguing. Water Shall Refuse Them
There is a sense of the present in the work of Elle Nash, a founding editor of Witch Craft magazine, too. Though she was fascinated by the witches in
Macbeth and cites Mary Shelleys Frankenstein as an influence on her writing, her novel has more contemporary concerns, examining as it does a fraught relationship between a satanic tattoo artist and his girlfriend. She drew influence from Anton LaVeys Satanic Bible and the Nine Satanic Statements, she says, and wanted to see how they might apply in real time to a person who is just beginning to understand and explore herself in the face of the desires and needs of others.
The modern witch is anything but stereotypical, something a flourishing indie publishing scene has no doubt contributed to. Now we often get witch-figures that are more complex: good and bad, female and male, straight, gay, non-binary and so on, says Gibson. Tamss shifting approach to gender in her collection is a case in point.
Right now, witches feel especially relevant because we are in a moment of refiguring the possibilities of what a woman might be, in the wake of #MeToo and much else, says Tams, who also co-edited the anthology
Spells: 21st-Century Occult Poetry. Witches give us an image of virulent, unapologetic female power that escapes gender binaries and rigid structures. That power is subversive, fluid and confronting, and it wants to put a spell on you.