On fairy tales and witches

Agostino Veneziano (fl. 1509–1536), The Witches’ Rout (The Carcass). Engraving, c. 1520.

Agostino Veneziano (fl. 1509–1536), The Witches’ Rout (The Carcass). Engraving, c. 1520.

I’ve recently started reading Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner - something which coincided with a visit to the Witches & Wicked Bodies exhibition at the British Museum, so following on from my previous posts about #mythology in connection with my artwork (such as Making Myths) I’ve been thinking about myths and fairy tales - and witches seem to occupy that intersection.

Fairy tales: not suitable for children

In Marina Warner’s book one of the most interesting things for me is her point that earlier versions of fairy tales were grittier and more violent (and sometimes more sexual), the recent English translation by Jack Zipes of the original, less santised, first edition versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales being a prime example.

Rowan Williams, in an article in the New Statesman discussing both Warner’s book and Zipes’ new translation, sums it up nicely:

The tales of the first edition have a more discernible bias towards the underdog; they sometimes (though by no means always) give us wicked mothers rather than just stepmothers, as in the earliest version of “Snow White”; they include stories later deemed to be insufficiently strictly Germanic in origin; and they are occasionally more explicit about sexuality (as in the original version of “Rapunzel”, where the witch discovers that Rapunzel has been receiving a male visitor when her clothes become too tight).

Reading through a few of the tales in Zipes’ translation, I’m struck by the casual familial treachery and violence as well. Although a lot of this is still present in the modern editions it seems less cartoon-like in the earlier versions.

In my blog post More about Nature and Myth on here back in October last year I wrote:

Primal myths have been sanitised over the centuries as people have found ways to overpower nature. It’s easy to blame the Victorians, but I think it must go much further back. The fear of the forest—and the knowledge that it also provides food and shelter—probably started abating back in Neolithic times when humans started widespread clearance of the forests across the British Isles & Ireland.

The fear is now safely packaged for children in fairy tales about witches living in cottages in the depths of the wood, as in Hansel & Gretel.

So while I feel safe in my conjecture that myths have been sanitised and watered down over the years, I should not have dismissively compared the results to a fairy tale, which has simply suffered the same fate.

The difference between fairy tales and myths

Marina Warner posits that myths and fairy tales will converge: fairy tales are gradually turning into myths.

Of course there’s also the opposite view: that old myths have turned into fairy tales over the centuries and our modern distinction between myths and fairy tales is purely arbitrary.

Warner does offer a distinction:

Unlike myths, which are about gods and superheroes, fairytale protagonists are recognizably ordinary working people, toiling at ordinary occupations over a long period of history, before industrialization and mass literacy.

This is true to a point, but there are enough fairytale protagonists who are princes or princesses (who I wouldn’t really count as “ordinary working people”) to stop this being a valid distinction.

I don’t think we can offer a working distinction between fairy tales and myths - I think it’s a particularly Northern European distinction that arose in the nineteenth century based purely on the context in which they are presented. Certainly, as Warner points out, some other languages don’t seem to distinguish: Italian bundles fairy tale, folk tale, and fable into the word fiaba.

The witch in art & fairy tales

Witches in fairy tales do certainly seem to adhere to a single stereotype, however.

The exhibition catalogue for Witches & Wicked Bodies Deanna Petherbridge defines two:

Over the centuries witches have been either depicted as hideous and emaciated old crones with long dugs and wild hair intertwined with writhing snakes, or as beautiful seductresses who ‘bewitch’ unwary men with their dangerous charms.

In art the beautiful witch seems confined to myths (Circe, Medea, Morgan le Fay, Vivien) and seems to date from at least classical times. In the late 15th Century the “old crone” seems to have started to become the dominant artistic depiction. Dürer depicted both: his 1497 engraving The Four Witches shows four young women, whereas his 1500 engraving Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat shows an old women, so perhaps this is an interstitial stage where both depictions were commonplace.

Albrecht Dürer: The Four Witches Albrecht Dürer: Witch Riding Backwards On A Goat

Thereafter the ugly old crone figure seems predominant in art, with the exceptions of depictions of the temptation of St Anthony (presumably because an ugly old crone wouldn’t be considered much of a temptation?) and Classical/Arthurian mythological scenes where the witch character is described in the myth as being young or beautiful.

Apart from rampant misogyny—which will have been a huge factor—there is one other probable reason for predominance of the “ugly old crone” stereotype in visual art in the 15th–18th centuries: it was mainly an illiterate public viewing the artwork, so each character would need to be visually identifiable, and once the “ugly old crone” stereotype became accepted as the way to depict a witch then it stuck as an identifiable signifier. And it definitely stuck in fairy tales where—as far as I have read so far—all witches conform to this depiction, warts and all.

The witch in my artwork

I haven’t yet explicitly explored the witch in my artwork yet, although I have depicted Medea, most recently in a lino print, and as a Priestess of Hecate, a Greek goddess strongly connected with witchcraft, she could certainly be described as a witch (although my depiction doesn’t depict any sorcerous elements).

Considering the long and widespread depiction of the witch as a misogynistic tool in the suppression of women I’m very reticent to start playing with the archetype, especially as it has only fairly recently started to be reclaimed and/or critiqued by female artists such as Cindy Sherman and Paula Rego.

I’m considering whether a sorceress would be an avenue to explore. While witch and sorceress are really just synonyms, I don’t think that the term sorceress carries the same burden of misogynistic use over the centuries. And if I do then I’ll certainly be avoiding both stereotypes of “ugly old crone” and “beautiful seductress”.

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

References & further reading

Grimm, J., & Grimm, W., (2014). Original folk & fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm: the complete first edition. (J. Zipes, Trans.). Oxford: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1815)

Petherbridge, D. (2013). Witches & wicked bodies. Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland.

Warner, M. (2014). Once upon a time: A short history of fairy tale. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Williams, R. (2014, December 22). Rowan Williams: why we need fairy tales now more than ever. Retrieved January 6, 2015, from http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/12/rowan-williams-why-we-need-fairy-tales-now-more-ever

NPR Staff (2014, November 16). Today's Fairy Tales Started Out (Even More) Dark And Harrowing. Retrieved January 6, 2015, from http://www.npr.org/2014/11/16/364089661/todays-fairy-tales-started-out-even-more-dark-and-harrowing

Myth and Masks bookNote: A version of this blog post has since been published, along with others on the subject of myth and the “English Eerie” and pieces of my artwork, in my 2016 hardback book of art and writings Myth and Masks, available exclusively from our online shop.