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Bothered and Bewildered

Diane Purkiss’s analysis of the contemporary witchcraft movement, like her analysis of their myths, though generally critical, is occasionally and almost reluctantly admiring. She points out that witchcraft is not a thing of the past, but exists here and there in modern England and America in many different forms. Purkiss does not attempt to classify these forms, but Shelley Rabinovitch, in her contribution to James R. Lewis’s Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft,3 has done so most capably. Rabinovitch distinguishes three main types: Religionist, God/dess Celebrants, and Ecopagans, though she notes that many individual groups combine aspects of more than one type.

American and British “religionist witches” usually describe themselves as Wiccans: they are often “concerned with legitimization of their belief systems as a bona fide religion.”4 They are the most hierarchical of the three groups, and the most dependent on ritual objects and ceremonies, such as the burning of incense and the consecration of the elements of water and salt; they focus on what Rabinovitch calls “power-over.” Members of these groups tend to come from the more ceremonial branches of Christianity and other faiths. Religionist groups often include men, and leaders of many are men—as in the ones I myself have visited in England and Ireland.

God/dess Celebrants, Rabinovitch says, are extremely eclectic: they include Radical Faeries (all-male), radical feminists (all-female), and Dianic (coed, but mainly female) groups. They tend to be more loosely organized, lack formalized leadership, and favor poetic do-it-yourself rituals. Their main goal is “to free the participants, and through them society at large, from patriarchal restraints and assumptions.” They focus on what Rabinovitch calls “power-from-within” and may also practice alone, like Shirley Jackson.

Ecopagans, though they may worship a god/goddess and celebrate the usual pagan holidays (the four solstices, May Day, Beltane, Halloween, etc.), are seriously concerned with social and environmental issues. Rabinovitch speaks of them as focusing on “power-with,” and they often cooperate with organizations like Greenpeace, the Quakers, and animal rights activists.

It is clear that for Diane Purkiss only Ecopagan witches are really admirable, and even they could improve. She praises the groups who took part in the antinuclear protests at Greenham Common, helped to halt roadbuilding projects through ancient forests, and challenged English laws against New Age travelers—laws which she sees as designed to keep “the undeserving and undeferential poor” in the cities, leaving the countryside as a refuge for the upper and middle classes. But she also complains that “witches emerge only rarely from Pagan activities to make common cause with other women” in campaigns for equal pay or reproductive rights. In my experience, this is not always so: often witches working on such issues deliberately conceal their identity so as not to compromise the campaign and cause bad publicity.

Some of Diane Purkiss’s charges against modern witchcraft suggest a Marxist viewpoint. Witches, she says, do not recognize how deeply they are involved in “capitalism and consumerism.” They buy expensive equipment for Wiccan rites, for instance, which is manufactured and sold through catalogs that list, among other items, “genuine black heavy cast-iron traditional three-legged cauldrons.” Moreover, many of their magic spells are “actually narcissistic rites of self-contemplation.” Rituals are valued as bringing psychic health; the emphasis is on changing oneself rather than altering the world, and “the self constructed is the familiar self of late capitalism.”

In spite of her many criticisms, Diane Purkiss ends her survey of contemporary witchcraft and its myths with the suggestion that feminist historians might learn something from modern witches, and a self-critical and rather odd postmodern vision of what might be the consequences. A

feminist history which sought to draw on the strengths of this movement rather than simply pointing to its weaknesses might be exciting…. It might be speculative, unreliable, often wrong, sometimes ridiculous, politically very useful, …and absolutely scandalous in the academy.

The remainder of The Witch in History is less speculative. Purkiss suggests that in any era, historians define witches as “the Other.” Whatever a witch is, the historian is not. Witches are poor, female, uneducated; the historian is well-off, well-educated, and male. Witches are credulous, prejudiced, and primitive; the historian is skeptical, open- minded, and civilized. It is quite true that this formulation works for Robin Briggs—but except for her gender, it seems equally to apply to Diane Purkiss.

More interestingly, Purkiss suggests that women in early modern Europe also saw the witch as “the Other.” The witch was “a kind of anti-housewife,” who destroyed rather than created and nourished, and wished ill rather than good to her family. A good housewife was skilled in what can seem a sort of white magic; she turned milk into butter, wool into yarn and cloth, inedible animal and vegetable matter into tasty and nourishing meals, and squalling infants into well-behaved, hardworking children. This was the front on which the witch attacked, and her black magic was blamed when butter did not come, yarn tangled, milk went sour, and babies and children sickened and died. Purkiss suggests that the witch “acts as a metaphor for the experience of watching a child’s illness and being able to do nothing as it suffers, an agonisingly common experience for early modern families.”

Occasionally Purkiss, like Briggs, suggests that the psychological mechanism of projection was at work in some witchcraft cases: that the witch was accused of doing what the mother unconsciously wanted to do in moments of exasperation. This seems possible; after all, what housewife hasn’t sometimes wanted to set a burnt supper before a grumpy husband? She also remarks that “stories of child bewitchment express and manage mothers’ fears that their children will not love them or will reject them” and “reveal deeper fears of children themselves….” In early modern Europe, children who behaved very badly could be said to be bewitched or possessed—thus relieving their parents of guilt—a ploy that has also been used occasionally by fundamentalists in contemporary America.

Purkiss suggests that the witch also disrupted the boundaries between the home and the world, entering her neighbor’s house when not invited, refusing to return borrowed tools that belonged there, and sometimes leaving unwanted and dangerous objects like knives and hammers in magically dangerous places, such as “near the threshold or in bedstraw.” At other times, the witch was seen as wanting to invade the home and take over the role of the victim as housewife or mother.

Though the witch trials ended in the early eighteenth century, Purkiss says, faith in the existence of witches did not. “Nineteenth- and twentieth-century folklorists record numerous stories and beliefs…which exactly parallel the tropes, narratives, and ideas” found in the classic trial depositions. This remains true: not so long ago I heard a friend who was seriously ill ask that a certain acquaintance not be admitted to her house. “I always feel worse after she’s been here,” my friend said, only half-joking, “and I think those wheat-germ cookies she brought last time made me sick. I’m sure she’s a witch, really.”

Like my friend, Diane Purkiss seems at times to half-believe in the supernatural. She criticizes Reginald Scot’s famous skeptical treatise, the Discoverie of Witchcraft, saying that it “begins the long process of recuperating women’s supernatural power as hysteria and madness,” though she adds in a footnote that Scot also explained witchcraft as everyday trickery. For Scot, real witchcraft was impossible because God would not allow it; he could not possibly “be made obedient and servile to obey and perform the will and commandment of a malicious old witch….” But in Purkiss’s opinion, even modern analyses of witch stories have a fatal drawback: “They cannot admit the possibility that the supernatural might actually exist.” She also claims a little later that “the supernatural is the repressed unconscious of historical narrative,” whatever that means.

Like many poststructuralist writers, Diane Purkiss is much involved with ideas about what is called “the body.” Somewhat confusingly she proposes that the witch (who, for her, is always female) represents “a very specific fantasy about the female body…. [She] is a fantasy-image of the huge, controlling, scattered, polluted, leaky …maternal body of the Imaginary.” This female body, however, is not only formless and shapeless, but (as others have suggested) a metaphor for the house. One familiar example of this equivalence is the magic house made of bread or gingerbread in “Hansel and Gretel,” which according to Purkiss “embodies and represents” the witch’s magical power. Like many other commentators, she remarks that the witch is the bad mother who wishes to eat children rather than feed them. In modern versions, she points out, the house is often made of candy and cake instead of bread, and “the lost children are no longer eating from need, but gorge themselves on food which would normally be rationed by caring parents.” “The witch becomes the modern idea of a ‘bad mother,’ a greedy consumer who sacrifices children to her own needs and fails to discipline their oral cravings so that they become as monstrously greedy as she is.”

Purkiss also discusses the witch’s familiar, which she sees as a kind of demon child, suckled by the witch with blood rather than milk. As she says, this identification made sense in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when breastfeeding was more dangerous than it is today, not only because of the possibility of infections but because if a woman’s diet was poor, feeding a child could weaken her seriously. (Even today many nursing mothers develop cavities if they don’t get enough calcium.) Some familiars were affectionate and helpful; others were difficult or unreliable. “Joan Upney’s familiars proved…unsatisfactory: her mole pined away and died, and her replacement toads kept abandoning her for other people”—exactly like real children, who tend to marry and move away.

Purkiss, like Robin Briggs, notes that the identity of witch was usually imposed from without rather than chosen, and most people refused it at first. Even after legal accusation and torture, many died protesting their innocence. A few, however, accepted the role of witch sooner, sometimes even without being accused. Apart from the danger of a trial, this role had certain advantages. Claiming to be a witch or a cunning woman could change your social status and give you the sort of power few poor peasants had.5

The final section of Diane Purkiss’s book, which deals with witchcraft in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, is sure to annoy many readers. She begins with a polemic against critics who see “literary texts” as central to history, or as reflecting or challenging current ideas. For her, works of literature (to use an earlier term) are peripheral or even irrelevant. “Apparently modest claims for the role of literary texts in disseminating ‘meaning,”’ she says, “have a narcissistic end: save our jobs.” Essentially she complains that there are no significant connections between witchcraft cases and most of the plays about witches written in this period. Rather, the plays tend to draw on a mixture of popular belief and elite tradition, especially Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft.

In Elizabethan England, she points out, it was important for a dramatist not to present a strong negative female figure who might be thought to personify the Queen; witches on stage therefore tended to be weak, comic, lower-class frauds. But under James I stage witches remained figures of irrational stupidity—as in Ben Jonson’s antimasque to The Masque of Queens, where the witches represented “Ignorance, Credulity, &c, the opposites to good Fame.”

Purkiss especially dislikes Shakespeare’s use of witchcraft. According to her “the witches of Macbeth are a low-budget, frankly exploitative collage of randomly chosen bits of witch-lore, selected not for thematic significance but for its sensation value.” She accuses Shakespeare of suppressing female voices and says that he “buries popular culture under a thick top-dressing of exploitative sensationalism, unblushingly strip-mining both popular culture and every learned text he can lay his hands on for the sake of creating an arresting stage event.” She is so concerned to show how little aware Macbeth is of the realities of village life that sometimes she makes questionable assumptions. The statement of the Second Witch that she has been “killing swine” is said to suggest not ordinary spells against domestic animals like those Robin Briggs documents so thoroughly, but “the elaborate pig-fictions of Continental demonology, which systematically conflated notions of the pig’s uncleanness with groups deemed beyond the pale, including Jews and witches.” And the cauldron scene, though interestingly analyzed in terms of contemporary allusions, is finally described as “the sensationalism of the Jacobean stage at its worst.” It would be difficult to gather from this book that Macbeth is a brilliant and complex play and that people who like it are more than deluded “Bardophiles,” as Purkiss calls them.

Purkiss’s discussion of other witch plays, such as Middleton’s The Witch, is equally dismissive of literary values. She concentrates instead on the fact that witches were often presented as examples of popular superstition, and that “then as now, popular superstition was always apt to be feminized.” It enrages her that so many people made money out of “the displaying of witchcraft,” and that actual court cases, when turned into drama, were altered in favor of sensation and entertainment—an objection which, if taken seriously, would deprive us of much of classic and modern literature.

Purkiss concludes that we “are much more interested in witches than early modern dramatists were”—a statement that is rather hard to prove. She points to the ubiquitous presence of witches in fairy tales and children’s stories, and says that today our witch is “a shrieking hag on a broomstick” who “represents the dark forces of unreason.” But a few pages later she is claiming that “we no longer find the witch frightening” and that she has “been sanitized” and become “clean, pretty, a herbalist with a promising career in midwifery, a feminist,…sexually liberated.” It is another instance of the double voice that speaks through this sometimes fascinating and sometimes infuriating book.

Throughout her book, Purkiss is scornful of male historians’ disregard of feminist and poststructuralist ideas about witchcraft. “Having created a powerful myth in which the male Enlightenment investigator is a great hero doing battle with various more or less feminine darknesses, historians have been in no great hurry to abandon their fantasy in favor of alternative theories…,” she remarks. Most historians, Purkiss says, claim that poststructuralist approaches “lead either to nihilism or relativism.” Even if this is so, she claims, “the fact that poststructuralism threatens to throw historians out of work does not make it untrue.” Her solution is for us to see all historical texts as stories, and pay less attention to what is said and more to “the way in which things are said.” The question here, of course, is, who is to analyze these stories, and from what point of view?

Modern authorities on witchcraft like Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane, Purkiss thinks, have a patronizing view of witches as merely “harmless old beggars.” They deny them not only supernatural power but “all social and cultural power” and assume that the domestic disasters that witches were believed to cause were usually trivial and unimportant, “a view which reflects both snobbish incapacity to grasp what might matter to the poor, and the devaluation of women’s work.” Robin Briggs is not in fact guilty of these charges; he fully recognizes the damage such disasters can do to an entire community that believes in a witch’s power for evil.

It is a pity that Witches and Neighbors was not published before The Witch in History. If Diane Purkiss could forgive Robin Briggs for being male, she might have made good use of his detailed data and elegant analysis.6

  1. 3

    SUNY Press, 1996.

  2. 4

    This concern, and the difficulties involved in going public, are well-illustrated in the contemporary American coven studied by Allen Scarboro, Nancy Campbell, and Shirley Stave in Living Witchcraft (Praeger, 1994).

  3. 5

    The same process of choice can be observed in nineteenth-century spiritualist circles, where lower-middle-class women who successfully claimed to communicate with the spirit world could not only evade the Victorian rules for proper self-effacing, homebound female behavior, but achieve unexpected fame and fortune, as Verena Tarrant does—though only for a while—in Henry James’s The Bostonians.

  4. 6

    Both Briggs’s and Purkiss’s books, though they have excellent indexes, lack a full bibliography, and (especially in Witches and Neighbors) the notes are condensed and abbreviated in a way that makes it extremely hard to find source material. I hope this is not a coming trend in scholarly publishing.

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