Blog posts with the tag: "witches"

 

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I first heard about the film The Witch last summer while I was writing a thesis on the depiction of witches in modern film and television. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this film since critics clearly adored it, yet the trailer showed an all too familiar notion of the witch as the frightening old hag of fairy tales and witch-hunting propaganda. Despite the many ‘cool’ young witches in television shows such as Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the short-lived series The Witches of East End and The Secret Circle, film incarnations of witches still tended to favour the wizened crone with a habit of hunting children and serving the devil.

 

The Witch is set in New England, a few decades prior to the infamous Salem witch trials. Indeed, the film is subtitled as A New-England Folktale. The story begins with a puritan couple, William and Katherine, and their five children, being banished from their settlement after William argues with the church elders. Beyond the safety of the fortress-like plantation, they are thrust out into an ominous hinterland at the edge of a deep looming forest. Tensions rise within the family when their crop fails and the baby, Sam, disappears while under the watch of eldest child Thomasin.

 

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While William and the eldest boy, Caleb, must resort to hunting for food, Katherine descends into utter despair over the loss of her infant, and Thomasin is left to discipline her young siblings, the twins, Mercy and Jonas. It is Mercy who first mentions the word witch, as she is playing by the river and pretending to ride a broomstick. To frighten her, Thomasin jokes that she is the witch. When Caleb goes missing and returns in a frightening condition, Thomasin is accused of witchcraft. It is frightening to think that such accusations happened so readily throughout the time when witch-hunting was prevalent, both in ‘the New World’ and especially in Europe. Those accused were rarely found innocent, as they were usually forced to confess to bargaining with the devil through various methods of torture.

 

A woman had no rights in those times, and as any form of birth control was deemed sinful, no rights over her body either. At one point in the film, Katherine and William discuss sending Thomasin to work for another family, as a way for them to make some money. Thomasin is trapped between serving in a secondary mother role and farm worker within her own family or serving another family, who would probably have less respect for her than her own kin. Women were also the most frequently blamed for witchcraft because they were deemed weaker, both physically and morally, and were, therefore, more likely to be susceptible to temptations.

 

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Women are to be controlled and tamed, their wild nature suppressed by a patriarchal society who fears them. It is the female who, with her abject, unclean body, is more closely situated to the animal. As explained by Barbara Creed in her work, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis;

 

“In patriarchal cultures woman is aligned with the animal. Like the animal, woman also has a blood cycle, becomes pregnant, gives birth, sheds afterbirth, lactates, and suckles her young […] Unlike the idealised male body, the female body is not taut, discrete and classical; the female body is unstable.”

 

The shadowy scenes of the witch in this film shows her as a hunched woman with drooping breasts and wrinkled skin. The barren body of the elderly woman was frightening to men in the age of witch-hunting because it had no function – it could no longer procreate, and was no longer desirable. This certainly echoes modern society’s prejudices against the aging female form and the lack of representation of the older woman in popular media. In this age of photoshopping and plastic surgery, youthful physical perfection is the holy grail.

 

The sylvan setting for the film is a metaphor for the feminine. As the family travel toward their new home, William states that they must “tame the wilderness”, just as the women are tamed – confined in their corsets and cumbersome clothes, confined in their roles of mother and wife, and confined in the domestic sphere.

 

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This could also be a metaphor for the ethnic cleansing of the Native Americans. Though Europeans only populated a small area of North America at that time, only two Native Americans are shown in the film; glimpsed through the closing gates of the colony. The first settlers to those shores were disgusted by the ‘savage’ ways of the natives. Their lack of understanding of the native ways made them intolerant of their traditions and beliefs. Their lack of clothing and seemingly primitive religions rendered them sinful in the eyes of Christians. Yet the Europeans filled in their gaps of understanding with superstitions and medicine which appears savage in modern terms. We see Katherine trying to cure the feverish Caleb by cutting his face with a knife, yet bloodletting was common practice in that time. This certainly highlights the intolerances we still hold in society today in regards to other cultures.

 

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The forest is a common setting for nefarious witches seen in fairy tales, as well as a place of temptation for young maidens on the cusp of womanhood. In his seminal book, The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim writes; “Since ancient times the near impenetrable forest in which we get lost has symbolized the dark, hidden, near-impenetrable world of our unconscious.”

 

This film is rich with the mythology and beliefs of witchcraft held in the past, beliefs encouraged by such propaganda as in the books Malleus Maleficarum and Daemonologie, the latter written by King James I of England who believed witches conjured ferocious storms to kill him as he sailed back from Denmark with his new bride.

 

The witch of this film looks like the monstrous women in Francesco Goya and Albrecht Dürer’s artwork – crudely naked and sinewy with hanging breasts – and she was believed to have the power to shape-shift into such animals as hares and ravens to outsmart her captors. In many of these paintings, she is seen with a black horned goat –  the devil – and some of the most memorable scenes from The Witch involve the family’s capricious goat, Black Philip.

 

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It is refreshing to see a horror movie with a historical setting. And it is refreshing to see such an unsettling and beautiful horror film. Although I tend to dislike the typical portrayal of witches, I believe here, that the witch can be seen as a transcendent figure who has moved beyond the boundaries set by patriarchy. The scene in which we think we see the witch about to sacrifice the infant (it’s all about suggestion – we never find out what happens to Sam) could be symbolic for women having autonomy over her right to choose childbirth or not. The witch lives beyond a typical societal structure, she makes up her own rules and is not ashamed of her body, nor her sexuality.

 

The acting is very believable, unnervingly so at times. The script uses genuine old phrasing taken from diaries and other documentation from that era. Probably my favourite aspect of this film is the ambiguity of it. Is there indeed a witch toying with the family? Is it all down to over-active imaginations or fantasies, or, as the subtitle suggests, is it all merely a folktale?

 

For further reading on the subjects raised here, I suggest the following books:

 

The Witches: Salem, 1962 by Stacy Schiff

 

The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim

 

Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation by Silvia Frederici

 

Women Who Run With the Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman by Clarissa Pinkola Estes

 

The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis by Barbara Creed

 

What did you think of The Witch?

 

 

 

 

Gravestone in Greyfriar's Kirk

Gravestone in Greyfriar’s Kirk

 

On the second day we seemed to spend a long time searching for the elusive Gallery of Modern Art, which is quite a walk away from Prince’s Street. My mum ended up asking two different people for directions while I squinted begrudgingly at my unhelpful map (I am really stubborn about asking for help and try to do everything myself, which is silly, I know). Eventually we got there and of course the first thing we did was have coffee and cheesy, herby scones with butter.

 

I was intent in visiting this gallery, and indeed it was the main reasoning behind my visit to Edinburgh, other than the fact that my novel is set in Scotland. The reason being because of the exhibition called Witches and Wicked Bodies (it ends November 1st though so anyone interested had better hurry). This was quite an extensive collection and showed many famous paintings that I had heard of before, such as John William Waterhouse’s exquisite The Magic Circle (indeed, one of my favourite painters; magic and myth were a constant subject of his paintings). The first few rooms showed mainly grotesque woodcuts of old naked crones with drooping breasts, wild hair and whiskered chins such as Albrecht Durer’s Die Hexe and they often lacked any feminine facial features at all, such as in Henry Fuseli’s Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth. This was the most common way in which the witches were portrayed and fuelled the belief that they were vile hags, sexual predators and that they cavorted with the devil. The only other representation of these women was the polar opposite; of radiant young beauties as depicted by Waterhouse and Frederick Sandys. My mum wondered aloud where all the paintings were of the classic witch with a pointed hat and green skin – but this was more of a twentieth century stereotype created by film studios and the commercialisation of Halloween. I suspect the movie version of The Wizard of Oz had something to do with it.

 

That evening, we had yummy fish and chips Deacon Brodie’s Tavern, named after William Brodie, one of  the inspirations behind Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Fantastic food served there and had the cranachan for pudding, another Scottish dish, which was delicious. Then we embarked on another underground adventure, this time visiting The Real Mary King’s Close. This was a close, like many of the others still seen today running down either side of the High Street but is now underground, along with what seemed like a labyrinthine array of rooms and corridors (the tour only took us around a small part of it, I believe, as we passed many closed-off areas). The close was covered up when the City Chambers were built over it, because when the city was walled, yet expanding, the only places they could build were up or down. We really enjoyed this tour, and although there were only a  few ghostly tales thrown in, it was interesting to hear how cramped and horrific the conditions were back then.

 

Greyfriar's Kirk

Greyfriar’s Kirk

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A Wee Bit of Live Music

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Edinburgh Cafe

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A Selection of Scottish Children’s Books

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Greyfriar’s Bobby

 

On our final day in Edinburgh, we visited Holyrood Palace (just from the outside), ate haggis yet again and had an amazing Eton mess cheesecake at the World’s End Pub, plus made our way around Greyfiar’s Kirk to see the grave and statue of little Greyfriar’s Bobby. Final stop was at the Writers’ Museum which is dedicated to the three great Scottish writers Robert Burns, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Much is made of the men’s lives and travels and there are portraits and personal objects belonging to the writers.
We had a wonderful time, and I got plenty of writing inspiration. I wish we had had time to see the Mary Queen of Scots exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland, the Edinburgh Dungeons and much more, but I’m sure I’ll return to Auld Reekie soon enough.

Edinburgh from the castle

Edinburgh from the castle

 

Last week I was lucky enough to visit Edinburgh with my mum for a wee research trip for my novel, as well as doing some sightseeing. I have been plenty of times before but on this occasion I felt like there was a lot more on offer to see and do.

 

After checking in to our hotel, we visited The Scottish National Gallery to see Rodin’s The Kiss before climbing up the many steps towards the Royal Mile. En route we stopped off at the Whiski Rooms because I needed to eat some haggis, neeps and tatties. Yes, needed to. I don’t know if it’s because Scotland is in my blood, but I absolutely love Scottish cuisine. It is one of my favourites, especially in colder weather. So I ate some pretty amazing vegetarian haggis (I’m excited because I went into my local Waitrose and they sell it there) and neeps and tatties all washed down with a lovely red wine. So far so good.

 

The Royal Mile

The Royal Mile

 

Walking up the Royal Mile (slowly, because I had a food baby) we stopped to peruse some of the (many) Scottish-themed shops along the high street. I’m sure to the people who live in Edinburgh, they might be tiresome with their incessant bagpipe music and tartan everywhere the eye can see, but I find them pretty charming and I always end up stocking up on some Heather flavoured tea and having a quick glance over the tartan and info cards about my maternal family name Munro. Plus all the plush toys of Scottish Terriers and Nessies and Highland Cows are pretty cute (although the Scottie dogs did tug at my heartstrings as I lost my beloved Scottish Terrier Sweep last year to cancer). I also ended up buying the Horrible Histories Scotland book. I don’t care if they are aimed at kids – they are entertaining and I enjoyed reading the Ireland edition during my recent holiday in the Emerald Isle.

 

Just before you arrive at Edinburgh Castle (which up close is fascinating but never as breathtaking as when you first see it, majestically looming over the city from Castle Rock as viewed from Prince’s Street), you come to the hotel and restaurant The Witchery. I keep intending to dine there as I’m a bit of a foodie and from what I have seen from the website, the interiors are wonderfully gothic. Just opposite and quite tucked away, so I’m not sure how many people notice it, is the Witches’ Well. It is a cast iron wall fountain, which is quite small, but is there to commemorate the place where over three hundred people were burned at the stake for accusations of witchcraft. The Witchcraft Act was in force between 1563 and 1736 with well over 3,000 people throughout Scotland accused. In the 16th Century more witch were burnt at the stake at Castlehill than anywhere else in Scotland, with the victims often suffering brutal torture before being put to death.

 

Witches' Well

Witches’ Well

 

 

It is difficult to imagine the fear, superstition and hysteria that were experienced in those times, but if you are interested in the history of witchcraft and witch-hunts, it is well worth seeking out this small memorial of those who perished. For more information on the Scottish witch trials see here

 

We were lucky as two of the days we were in Edinburgh we were blessed with crisp, sunny weather, so climbing up to Edinburgh Castle was well worth it for the panoramic views of the city alone, stretching out to Arthur’s Seat and the Firth of Forth.

 

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle

 

We explored the Castle, taking in the Crown Jewels, the Stone of Destiny, as well as the chapel and the prisons. My mum and I searched fruitlessly for the dungeons and tunnels that legend tells weave beneath the castle. I felt sure that as I child I visited them – but perhaps I am muddling this part up with another castle. If there are any deep tunnels below the castle then they are kept secret – which is no surprise really since the Castle is a military garrison and I’m sure they don’t want people sneaking in!

 

Hello!
Heather Blanchard

Welcome. Are you a writer, a bookworm, a daydreamer? Are you still clinging on to that magic that pervaded childhood? Pull up an armchair and get cosy. This blog is my dreamscape through an enchanted forest to a world of stories and the little things that make me happy; a chance to add a dash of sparkle to the daily grind. Here you will find the whimsical, the coveted, the Gothic and the romantic. Happy exploring!

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