As Stacy Schiff writes in The Witches, a history of the Salem Witch Trials, it’s interesting that a witch’s choice of aircraft is a broom: a symbol of what was once domestic, women’s work in the home.
You can’t talk critically about witchcraft, particularly in the United States, without mentioning feminism—and the women who just don’t fit into the patriarchy. Witchcraft is the worship of the Goddess, after all, a real appropriation of mother nature. While most world religions seem to see all Gods as male, paganism worships a female, life-bearing figure.
But even aside from the religious implications of witchcraft, writers of fiction and nonfiction have drawn life lessons from this group of women on the fringes of society—powerhouses who embraced independence and self-reliance. Here, we share a few of those empowering, witchy reads to inspire you this Halloween.
Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel tells the story of Laura Willowes, a single woman who doesn’t exactly fit into the societal norms of her day. Being single, when her father dies, she goes to live with her sister’s family, a decision that ends up being exasperating for everyone involved. So Laura retreats to the woods and finds unbridled happiness in living off the grid, communing with nature, and practicing witchcraft. It’s hard to say what was more controversial at the time: a woman practicing witchcraft, or living happily on her own.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Mary Katherine Blackwood, or “Merricat,” the narrator of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, begins by telling readers, “I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.” After everyone in the family is poisoned, the two sisters live together in their old family manse, reviling the rest of the town. Merricat is knowledgeable in the botanical arts and distrusts any outsiders, especially men.
The Witches of Eastwick
John Updike’s 1984 novel is often read as the black sheep of his other books. One of the only novels of Updike’s to feature female characters and written from the female perspective, The Witches of Eastwick tells the story of three women who stumble upon the dark arts after all suffering losses in love. Their coven is disturbed by the arrival of a man named Daryl van Horne, obviously a proxy for the Devil himself. Though Updike later described his novel as a book about “female power, a power that patriarchal societies have denied,” critics have called it misogynist, and a 1987 film adaptation starring Jack Nicholson certainly didn’t help the cause.
The Mists of Avalon
Marion Zimmer Bradley’s cult 1983 novel The Mists of Avalon tells the Arthurian Legend from the female perspective. The matrilineal characters, like Morgaine (Morgan Le Fay) and Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere), rather than Arthur and Lancelot, take center stage. In other versions of the Arthurian Legend, Morgaine is portrayed as an evil witch. In The Mists of Avalon, she is a smart, sympathetic character who longs to save her ancient religion that worships the Goddess from the rising popularity of Christianity.
Witches of America
Writer Alex Mar, inspired by a documentary she made on the same subject, publishes Witches of America this week, a study of paganism and witchcraft as it exists today in the United States. Over the course of five years, Mar traveled all over the country to study real-life witches and their religious practice in San Francisco, New England, New Orleans, and even Illinois. The characters she meets along the way all have different stories on how and why they chose to worship the Goddess. Witches of America is a smart investigation into a largely misunderstood (and very real) way of life.
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Featured Photo: Cover of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson