How Witches Got
To Be Wicked
by Jarad Johnson
Witchcraft and witches are a motif across many literary and cultural themes, so it’s only fitting that they appear in fairy tales as reflections of the culture they come from. Although the fantasy genre has many different variations on the witch, when they pop up in fairy tales, they’re usually up to no good. Baking and eating small children and handing out poison apples. But witches have changed a little over time. Let’s look at some of these stories from long ago and their modern counterparts to see what it tells us about culture and women’s roles and exactly how witches got to be so wicked - at least in the eyes of those who told these stories. (Remember, this is a look into how western culture came to portray witches as evil! It does not reflect the feelings of any of us at sacred chickens about the long history of herb women, witches, or anyone who currently professes paganism or practices holistic medicine.)
The fairy tales that we know today evolved from stories told for generation upon generation. Of course, societal views on witchcraft are fundamental to the ways in which they are portrayed in the stories. Professor of Comparative Literature, Jack Zipes says “The image of the Witch in Children and Household Tales, originated gradually from the literary portrayal of the sorceress and the shrilly witch documents from the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries.”
It was during sometime during the fifteenth century, that a dramatic change in the dominant social narrative about witches occurred. Before that time, Zipes says that “Fairy tales evolved and were shaped by ancient pagan beliefs in goddesses and gods.” However, when the Roman Catholic Church began the demonization of those pagan beliefs around the fifteenth century, there was a prominent shift from mostly benevolent gods and goddesses to evil women in league with Satan. This shift is important to highlight if we are to examine what kinds of messages fairy tales have about women and how those tales in turn influenced culture and views about women's roles in society.
One interesting idea seems to be that witches in fairy tales are equated to mothers in a very strange way. A witch is almost an anti-mother. Instead of feeding children, a witch devours them. If society only holds a place for women as mothers, anything outside of this, especially if it seems a position of power, is antithetical to woman. It is this viewpoint upon which many fairy tales are based. Robin Briggs, an Oxford historian says that fairy tales reflect the inherent fear that, “female sexuality might appropriate male power ”. Women don’t come out in a great light in the tales, especially the witches. After a while, the question has to be asked about what the underlying message of those themes are.
So, let’s start with Baba Yaga and her crazy house on chicken legs. She is one of the oldest archetypal witches in folklore and fairy tales, and her story is still popular today. She’s often characterized as the devil’s servant. She rides on a mortar and pestle carried by demons, that death and destruction follow her wake. Going along with the theme of the anti-mother, she eats human flesh, usually children. She is rarely, if ever, a central figure in the story, but always plays an important role.
In the tale, “Vasilissa the Beautiful” a young girl’s father marries an evil stepmother, who wishes to put the child in danger. The stepmother, “would send Vasilissa on one errand or other into the forest” so that she might encounter Baba Yaga and be eaten (When the girl came to no harm because of the assistance of her doll, the stepmother becomes angry. In this case, the wicked stepmother seeks the help of a physical embodiment of her anti-mother self.
Here, as in Hansel and Gretel, there is a parallel between the stepmother and the witch. The stepmother sends Vasilissa on various tasks so that she might come to harm, even using a ruse to extinguish all the fires in the house, so that the girl would be sent to Baba Yaga’s hut. Baba Yaga also does this, giving the girl unachievable tasks so that she might eat her. But when Vasilissa completes all the tasks perfectly, “The old witch was greatly angered, but was obliged to pretend to be pleased” (Sur La Lune, “Vasilissa the Beautiful”). Both women have tried to trick the girl to cause her harm, and it is not lost on the reader that they are similar figures in the girl’s life, and in many ways mirror images of each other.
Stepmothers in fairy tales are often equated with witches, and in fairy tales, witches are dark, unnatural creatures meaning harm to children, and are in many ways the epitome of the unnatural mother or indeed the unnatural woman. Maria Tatar, the John L. Loeb Research Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures, notes that “the many faces of maternal evil in fairy tales represent the obverse of all the qualities associated with mothers”. We can only assume that as the stories evolved over the years, a wicked woman was in the eyes of the storytellers the opposite of what society expected women to be. If women’s only role is to care for children and they do not care for children…they must hate and devour children.
At end of Vasilissa’s story, she goes to stay with another woman, after her stepmother and stepsisters have been burned to death by Baba Yaga’s skull. Like Baba Yaga, she also refers to this woman as grandmother, but she is not afraid of her, and indeed the woman is of great help to her. If we are to see the stepmother as a mirror image of Baba Yaga, then the old, kindly grandmother that Vasilissa stays with is her opposite. The roles here are almost reversed, in that Vasilissa asks the elderly woman to do things for her, instead of being assigned tasks with many pitfalls. The woman actually helps her by showing her fabric to the Tsar and not taking credit for the work that Vasilissa did. This woman performs the task of caring for a child and thus is seen as good…both by her moral choices and the cultural roles she chooses to play.
Another familiar story is that of Rapunzel, about a girl with extremely long hair who is locked away in a tower, which is…weird. But here we are. Here again, we see the unnatural mother equated with a witch meant to do harm to a child. It’s a story that’s somewhat opaque to the modern mind, as it opens with a man going into a witch’s garden (never a good idea) to steal a variety of lettuce called Rapunzel to satisfy his pregnant wife’s cravings. Of course, the witch catches him, and demands in return for his thievery his first-born child. This harkens back to the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, where a first-born child was also demanded as payment. Given that it is highly likely that the tale of Rumpelstiltskin was intended to have Anti-Semitic overtones, one wonders if that is also the case here.
However, we never really get a description of the witch. We know that Rapunzel calls her old, but it’s interesting to consider if a description of her is even needed. Perhaps it isn’t there because the children listening and the adults telling the story already had a general idea of what a witch would look like. Even today, when you think of a witch, you may or may not think of an old woman, the crone, stirring a cauldron and cackling, but most of us would think of a pointy hat, magic, potions, broomsticks, and if you were crafting a story about witches, it may not be necessary to explicitly lay down each of those aspects in detail, because your audience will already have that idea in their minds. Anyway…back to the point.
The story of Rapunzel seems to indicate that the witch wants to be a mother very badly. When Rapunzel’s father is in the garden, the witch becomes very angry with him. According to the Grimm’s brothers, this is only when she learns of the pregnant woman, “that the witch’s anger died down.”. The witch appears to almost have sympathy for the woman, saying to the man, “You may take as much Rapunzel as you wish,” with, “one condition,” of course (Grimm, p.108). The witch demands the child as compensation for the lost lettuce, which doesn’t seem exactly a fair trade. Lettuce for a child? The audience must be asking why the witch wants the child, and what she intends to do with the girl. They must also assume that the witch is quite terrifying if the man agrees to give up the child. Again…the plot leaves a bit to be desired.
We learn later in the story that the witch locks her away in a tower, and that Rapunzel, “grew to be the loveliest child under the sun”. She lets her hair down when the witch asks her. It is the only access to the tower. But one day a prince hears her singing, and climbs up to see her.
Here is an important point in the story. As is the case in Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel is leaving her childhood, and entering the adult world of sexuality. Her hair represents her beauty, and when the witch learns of her relations to the prince, she cuts her hair off, effectively trying to keep her in her childhood state. The stepmother/witch in Rapunzel is certainly the main source of conflict; however, in this particular story, there isn’t enough evidence that the witch is evil; rather, she seems overprotective, unwilling to let go of Rapunzel. The story never tells us that she was cruel to Rapunzel, before she banished her to the desert, of course. She did lock her in a tower, but it seems that Rapunzel is one of the few tales that shows any motivation in a witch other than a desire to eat children. One could even argue that the witch might care for Rapunzel, in an overbearing sort of way. This is not a tale where the witch dies-Rapunzel and the prince simply live happily ever after. In this way, the story of Rapunzel deviates somewhat from the traditional witch motif, but she must still escape a bad “mother.”
So, what do these stories tell us about witches? Largely and strangely, that they are “anti-mothers” or in the case of Rapunzel, very poor mothers. The most important thing to consider however, is not what these stories tell us about witches, but what they tell us about women in the societies that produce them. If a woman cannot fill the one mold that society has produced for her she becomes and outcast. A woman who is not a mother is immediately seen as taking power from the masculine society around her and feared. This dichotomy has long been present in our society and still lingers in our story telling.
Stay tuned as we discuss a few more stories in this series!
Jarad recently graduated from college at MTSU, loves tea and coffee, and tries to spend every spare second reading. He is a fervent gardener and is fascinated by all related topics and has spent several years writing about this passion. He has been gardening for 6 years and believes that Nature is our greatest teacher. He majored in English with a concentration in literature and plans to pursue and master’s degree in Ecocriticism.