White Magic

Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England

by T.M. Luhrmann
Harvard University Press, 382 pp., $25.00

The word “witch” still carries a tremendous charge, at least to those brought up on fairy tale and myth, who half-remember the stony gaze of Medusa; and the Graeae “by the shore of the freezing sea, nodding upon a white log of drift-wood, beneath the cold white winter moon”; and mothers who turn out to be stepmothers, grandmothers who are wolves in disguise, godmothers who bestow a curse when they are not invited to the party. These witches are always women (the magician figure is different altogether) and often they seem beautiful—the cannibal witch in Hansel and Gretel lives in a house made of delicious sweets—beautiful enough to entice you into their power. In my dreams of witches in childhood you were safe as long as you pretended to be fooled by them. The word “wicked” automatically goes with this witch; there are fairy godmothers, of course, and benign fairies, but in comparison they are rather wishy-washy figures. Whether the frisson is there for someone nourished only on TV and comics I don’t know; I suspect it is, even if faintly. Even before the organized persecution of the witch hunts, there has always been an image in the mind of a dangerously powerful woman, either a beautiful Belle Dame sans Merci or a hideous hag. When Papageno in The Magic Flute is tricked into uncovering the false Papagena, it is the witch-hag he finds.

It may be a psychoanalytic cliché that the image arises from the fact that we start our lives in the hands of a powerful woman who sometimes frustrates us, and that (for men) she tempts and frustrates again in adulthood; but I think it is true. In old, durable myths the powerful good/bad woman, instead of being split into wicked witch and fairy godmother, is more realistically worshiped as a giver of both pleasure and pain—as Kali in India, or the very temperamental Greek goddesses, or (as the modern witches studied by Dr. Luhrmann maintain) a fertility goddess behind all religions such as the German Holda, still extant when Grimm was researching. Holda brings fertility to women and farmers, but can turn into a hag with huge teeth when she is angry.

Though we are still wary of the witch, the traditional European trappings—pointed hat, cauldron, and so on—have become Disneyfied, Halloweenized, and have lost meaning. To Shakespeare’s audiences the witches of Macbeth were terrifying, but I have never seen a performance where there was not a suppressed giggle; and who can forget the hag stirring her cauldron in Trovatore while the Marx Brothers zip up and down the back-cloths, in A Night at the Opera? To be frightening the witch dresses up differently now—as Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction, perhaps.

The modern London witches studied by Dr. Luhrmann do not wear pointed hats with stars on, and strongly dissociate themselves from the wickedness stereotype. Though the dangerous and the holy, the curser and the blesser, are …

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