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There Are Witches in These Woods: Untangling the Fairy-Tale of the Wild Feminine

Our cultural obsession with witches parallels our preoccupation with wilderness. This infatuation may provide insight into how we see our place in the natural world.

Our cultural obsession with witches parallels our preoccupation with wilderness. This infatuation may provide insight into how we see our place in the natural world.

My grandfather Jószef was a Hungarian witch. At least, that’s what my Dad told my brothers and I in the dim glow of a nightlight. Under the covers with wide-open eyes and ears, we walked with Jószef and his book of spells into the woods. Save for the moon glistening through thick brush and the flicker of Grandpa’s lonesome candle, the forest was pitch-black.

We had heard this story before, but it didn’t matter. We loved to be told the same stories over and over. Dad was a great storyteller. Every night we were granted another colourful tale to help tuck us in. But this story? This was my personal favourite. It was a spooky tale—one that made my spine shiver.

My brothers and I partially grew up in Aurora, Ontario, in a house my father built with his own hands. In our backyard there was a garden full of veggies, a sandbox and swing set, and grass that Dad religiously maintained. The yard was his pride and joy, and our happy hunting ground.

Beyond the train tracks, there was a forest which was an enigma to us. With it’s impenetrably dark pine trees and, to us, uncharted paths, it was where wolves howled to the Harvest Moon, bears scratched their backs on great pines, and all manner of creatures lurked. When Dad told us stories these woods are where I pictured them taking place. It made my Grandpa’s magical endeavors even more visceral. There were witches in these woods.

Doubtful that the spell would work and feeling unnerved by a sudden chill in the air, Grandpa Jószef had cold feet. He packed up his bag and rushed out, pushing branches and bushes out of his way. He wasn’t supposed to be practicing magic. He wasn’t supposed to be summoning spirits in the night.

Spooked by a horse whinnying and what he thought was a woman’s cry in the distance, he moved closer to the noise. His heart raced as he reached an area in the field illuminated by diffused light. In a white dress, a lady stood there beckoning—Jószef was as frightened as he was beguiled by this pale figure.

Who was the lady in white my Dad spoke of earnestly so many nights ago? And was my Grandpa really practicing witchcraft? Unfortunately, I never got the chance to ask either of them more questions about this mysterious past.

Vasilisa by Tin Can Forest

Upon a little research I discovered that the White Lady is a common legend in Hungarian mythology. She appears in a variety of folklore from around the world. A White Lady is the spirit of a woman bound to a specific location who had died due to violent means such as suicide, murder, or during imprisonment. However, there may be another explanation for this supernatural sighting.

Enter the szépasszony. Pronounced sayp-uh-sohn-ye. She is a pre-Christian Hungarian goddess that has been demoted to witch-spirit status. An alluring but menacing witch, her name literally translates to “beautiful woman”. She often manifests as a White Lady, with fair-skin, silvery hair, and a white gown. Post-Christianity, the szépasszony has developed a bit of a reputation as a baddie—a femme fatale, a demon who lures children away in a manner very similar to many villains in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tales. If she sounds familiar, that’s because she is.

The beautiful yet dangerous witch trope is abundant in media. Women’s bodies, especially depicted in a sexual, terrifying, or an enchanted way can be seen everywhere from paintings to books, movies, TV shows, songs, and even political discussions, just to name a few. She is the wicked witch, the intelligent, dominating woman, the whore, and the crone. Regardless of which sub-category—classic, wicked, or hot, it doesn’t matter—the female witch trope can be powerful, magical, and unsettling. Witches are intoxicating. They have been for millennia.

Witches in art have been examined before, such as in the Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibit at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. The exhibit explores witches and women’s bodies in art over the past 500 years. What I’m curious about witchy imagery is it’s association with nature.

Before we get down to the crux of the matter, who or what do I mean by witches?

WYTCHES: VOLUME 1. Graphic novel. Story by ScottSnyder. Art by Jock. Image Comics, 2015.

Defining the witch is difficult because the practice of witchcraft has varied among cultural and societal groups. Dictionary definitions predominantly tell us that a witch is a “woman with magical and/or evil powers“, or an “ugly, ill-tempered old woman.”

Certainly witches were not only women. In fact, during historical witch-hunts there were persons accused of witchcraft from all races and genders, such as Tituba, a South American native who was enslaved in Salem by a Puritan minister and the first to be accused of witchcraft during the 1692 Salem witch trials. Conversely, John Samond of Danbury was a male beer-brewer accused of being a “common enchanter and witch” in 1560.

In art, the witch is overwhelmingly a female figure. She has long, flowing hair that is tangled by the wind. She often has pale skin, dark crimson lips, and a wild look brewing in her eyes. The witch may be riding a broomstick beneath a full moon, tending to a cauldron bubbling with unknown elixirs, or accompanied by a gaggle of witches and their animal companions—an owl, a black cat, a bat, or a snake. The women dance around a fire or crawl up fireplaces chaperoned by diabolical creatures. They may form a circle under a full moon’s light, wreathed by a forest.

The witch motif has been used so often in media that it has become a little unoriginal. Think store-bought witch costumes and the surge in campy witch-themed TV, film, and books. Then there’s the witchy aesthetic of Halloween season all over social media, and all-year round in alternative subcultures. Not that I don’t love a little camp and Gothic witch glam—it has its place and time. Despite the witch’s sometimes ready-made traits, she serves as an archetype that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

It can help us to look at the psychology of archetypes. These can be used to understand why some of us are drawn to witches in the first place. Archetypes are representations of collective tendencies within us. They use images, patterns, and characteristics that help us understand human behavior and even the psyche. According to Carl Jung, archetypes are unconsciously played out and can be observed in motivation, desire, and action.

In the archetypes of Jung the witch is represented by both the Witch and the Priestess. They are two sides of the same coin; like Yin and Yang, the Witch is the shadow side while the Priestess is the light. Although witches are often portrayed in a dark light, they have also historically been the healers of our communities. They revered the natural world for it’s physical, psychological, and spiritual healing qualities.

Fairy-tales, horror stories, and artwork throughout the ages have trained us to associate witches with evil, destruction, and wickedness. On the light face of the coin, witches are also a representation of the healing power of nature, and the importance of respecting the Earth.

Fear of Magic, Female Sexuality, and Propaganda About Witches

IN 16TH CENTURY SCOTLAND, MAGIC WAS REAL. It was the undertone to everyday life: written into the natural landscape, in the wind, the trees and the rippling streams. Folkloric beings like faeries, the Kelpie, and ‘cunning folk’ were palpable. ‘Cunning folk’ were also known as ‘white witches’, ‘blessing witches’ and devinsgurisseurs in France. For a fee, these good witches attempted to cure diseases, counter evil curses, tell fortunes, and find lost property or treasure using folkloric and herbal remedies. There was an intense fear of malign magic during this period and artists helped ignite this hysteria. Fear of female sexuality, suspicions about women, and propaganda about witches embedded stories in people’s imaginations about who witches were and what they did.

Witches in the Woods

WITCHES TRADITIONALLY DWELL AND CONVENE IN THE WOODS. Witnesses to witch convents frequently mention witches flying into the woods and forming circles in which they complete their pledges to the devil. While historians have questioned whether these witness reports are always reliable, the woods have remained the accepted domain of witches.

The woods may be so closely linked to witches because the forest both represents and is what is beyond the confines of our civilization. Indeed, many of those who are accused of witchcraft are often women who defy societal expectations in one way or another.

“…as soon as the Sun sets they assemble in orchards of plum trees, or among ancient ruins, while on summer nights they hold their revels in barns, old hollow trees, by dark hedges or in subterranean caverns… When a wild wild is blowing the witches love dearly to dance.”

Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune-Telling, Charles Godfrey Leland

The fear of the forest is also an incredibly old motif that survives even today with many stories featuring The Forbidden or Lost Forest. Forbidden Forests are eerie, enchanting, breathing, or full of abominations. When outings into the forest are depicted as terrifying this is the Don’t Go in the Woods trope.

Examples of this trope are rampant in horror films such as in The Blair Witch Project, where things don’t go well for three lost film students researching a witch in the forests of Burkittsville. Evil Dead is situated in a cabin in the woods where all sorts of ungodly Eldritch demons are unleashed and a tree itself commits rape—a visceral illustration of this trope. The trope is also invoked in Antichrist, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Village, The Witch (or VVitch, if you will) and countless others.

Some witches are not only in the woods, they are described as being of the woods. They are one with nature. Witches may experience life differently by not seeing a division between people, animals, rocks, or plants. The ability to see the connections between all life on Earth comes naturally to the witch.

Not only does it affect her experience of the world, nature is also the source of a witch’s power. A witch utilizes the natural elements to perform magic, and can even conduct the elements with the pointing of a finger or wand. Many magical potions or spells require a blend of ingredients that can be found in nature. This is the Priestess showing her face in Jung’s Witch archetype through showing us the many benefits our environment can provide us.

“Tree of mine! O tree of mine! Have you seen my naughty little maid.”
Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) from “The Two Sisters” in an old English book, English Fairy Tales, written by Flora Annie Steel.
Witches’ Sabbath, Andries Jacobsz (1580–1648).

Wilderness as Evil

In Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind (1967/1982), he points out that the wilderness is characterized as “cursed” land and a “kind of hell”. The Puritan settlers of New England who were influenced by this biblical worldview, believed that the American wilderness was the environment of evil. The settlers both loathed and feared wild country.

This conflict between civilization and wilderness is portrayed well in The Witch (2015), where a family is forced to live at the edge of an impassable forest that they fear is inhabited by a witch.

“The woods are full of horrors.”

WYTCHES: VOLUME 1. Graphic novel. Story by ScottSnyder. Art by Jock. Image Comics, 2015.

Lilith, the Huluppu Tree, and the Wild Feminine

Lilith, one of the oldest known female spirits, was arguably one of the first witches in history. Her name comes from the word lilitu which means spirit or female demon. She is known for her seductive, magnetic beauty, and her uncontrollable sexuality.

Lilith made her first appearance in the myth Inanna and the Huluppu Tree as a storm demon. In this myth, the goddess Inanna gains her allure, sexuality, and power from a huluppu tree. She tends to the tree to make it her throne. However, a snake, an Anzu-bird, and the demon Lilith made their home in the tree’s cavity and branches.

“He entered Inanna’s holy garden.
Gilgamesh struck the serpent who could not be charmed.
The Anzu-bird flew with his young to the mountains;
And Lilith smashed her home and fled to the wild, uninhabited places.

Gilgamesh then loosened the roots of the huluppa-tree;
And the sons of the city, who accompanied him, cut off the branches. From the trunk of the tree he carved a throne for his holy sister.”

From “Inanna queen of heaven and earth: Her stories and hymns from Sumer.” Wolkstein, Diane & Samuel Noah Kramer. (1983).

In this myth there are two forms of feminine ideals. These are similar to the Priestess and Witch archetypes of Carl Jung: the goddess Inanna and the demon spirit Lilith. The huluppu tree in this myth represents women’s power, sexuality, and fertility, but also nature. Sergio Ribichini has also proposed that the term lilith could mean infertility or sterility. The imagery of Lilith living in the tree’s cavity, robbing Inanna of her power, helps us to understand Lillith’s connection to fertility.

While Lilith fled to the wild, the huluppu tree was carved. The carving of the tree is a representation of our desire to cultivate nature. Furthermore, it showcases man’s desire to have control over Inanna’s power and sexuality, though it rightfully belonged to her. Conversely, the uninhabited wilderness remained the domain of the wild feminine which was represented by Lilith in this story. We repeatedly see women and nature portrayed as either wild or domesticated.

“The Temptation of Adam and Eve”, fresco in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo, 1509. Michelangelo painted Lilith swirled around the Tree of Knowledge as a half-serpent, half-woman. Being associated with the demonic, Lilith has been identified as the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden by some medieval texts.

Women and Nature Dichotomized

The forest is a place where life abounds, but it is also a place of danger. Similarly, women’s power, sexuality, and fertility have been seen as both life-giving and dangerous. When women have control over their sexuality it is unbridled sexual hunger. The wild hair of witches symbolizes their uncontrolled lust. The witch’s associations with the goat also represent their links to the devil as well as lust.

Carolyn Merchant illustrates how images of women and nature are dichotomized in similar ways:

“the virgin nymph offered peace and serenity, the earth mother nurture and fertility, but nature also brought plagues, famines, and tempests. Similarly, woman was both virgin and witch… the witch, symbol of violence and nature, raised storms, caused illness, destroyed crops, obstructed generation, and killed infants”.

Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution

Nature is expected to be nurturing or violent, as represented by feminine symbols such as the mother, the goddess, or the witch. This has interesting implications for how we view and interact with nature as well as women.

Goya Critiqued Superstitions About Witches

Ridiculous Folly, etching, aquatint. and drypoint printed in black ink on wove paper, Francisco Goya, ca. 1816. One print in a series called Los Caprichos (The Follies).

Francisco Goya is perhaps the most important Spanish artist of all time, being one of the last of the Old Masters and the first of the moderns. His series, Los Caprichos (The Follies), was a bizarre and unsettling artistic experiment with 80 prints that depicted subjects such as clergy, prostitutes, and witches. Goya satirised what he considered the follies of mankind. His series chided the absurdities in Spanish society during 1797-1798 and he criticized the prevailing culture of superstition, the decline of rationality, as well as the ignorance of various members of the ruling class. Goya believed that art should serve a purpose and that it could make a difference; he was not happy to simply say art exists for art’s sake. The series was not just a critique of 18th century Spain but of humanity as a whole. The fear of witches was one of the superstitions Goya satirized.

Surrealism, Witches, and Nature Imagery

L’Appel de la Nuit (The Call of the Night), oil on canvas, Paul Delvaux (1938).

L’Appel de La Nuit is a dream-landscape with a distinct contrast between the inviting nudes and the harsh, lifeless landscape. Note the dead trees, one with a skull grinning in front of it, and a skeleton laying behind. The rocks and rock formations seem to be structured in a symbolic way, open for interpretation. Leaves appear to grow from the nude women’s heads.

Delvaux’s art was part of the Surrealism movement which unearthed images from the subconscious mind, such as themes related to sexuality, desire, and death. The Surrealists believed that our subconscious thoughts and desires are more authentic than our conscious thoughts. They are therefore more powerful. Sexuality was and is still often a taboo subject. Surrealists sought to break convention and to shock by depicting nudity, erotic scenes, and even distorted bodies.

Witches in the Woods Today

Photography by Rik Garrett, from the “Earth Magic” series.

TODAY THE WITCH in the woods motif is just as spirited as ever. Artists and storytellers of different mediums continue to earmark witchy women as subjects, protagonists, and villains. One such artist is American photographer Rik Garrett, who created “Earth Magic”. His series explores the links between femininity, nature, and the occult. In it women pose nude in the forest, channeling oracular energy and wild fascination. Using an old camera and a nineteenth-century wet plate collodion process, the “Earth Magic” collection gives viewers the sense that these photographs were taken in a curious time and place where witches performed occult rituals in secluded, dark woods.

The Wild is a Fairy-Tale We’re Still Telling

OUR CULTURAL OBSESSION WITH WITCHES parallels our preoccupation with wilderness. Witches and women can act as a symbol of both wildness and our urge to dominate it—we want to have our cake and eat it too. We want the wild in all its sublimity, and we want complete control over it. This is more than an impractical ideal—it’s impossible.

Women have been seen in a similar light. “Be alluring but natural. Be a little wild, but don’t be too free or you run the risk of being feral.”

While feminism has helped society to molt this absurd ideal for women, the fairy-tale of wilderness is still very much alive today in spite of environmental movements flourishing worldwide. Witches are linked to the fantasy of a natural world which belongs to us to experience, benefit from, and manipulate—rather than grasping that we are the natural world.

I think back to nights when Dad told us folktales of witches and monsters under a ceiling splattered with glow-in-the-dark stars. I am blanketed in a sense of mysterious warmth. The moon’s light spilled into my childhood bedroom where I peered out towards the woods.

The forest holds the same magic to me as it did back then. I am still in awe when I touch the quiet beauty of green moss sparkling with dew, or happen upon a spider’s web at golden hour. I still feel it in my bones when I stand beneath the dome of a woodland cathedral.

We fear and respect witches for their ability to be undomesticated; we idealize their natural power. Witches are like the Lost, Forbidden Forests that terrify and allure us all at once. We are drawn to their magic. At the same time, we want to reign over nature’s wildness. We can’t imagine what it might mean to let go—it’s terrifying. That is why wild things, like witches, scare and fascinate us so much; wild things let nature reign.

The trouble with this association is that in both cases we strip the forest and witches from their realities. Forests may contain unknown creatures and wonders, sure, but in the real world forests are also so much more. Forests are multi-faceted: harsh, both life and death giving, not really untouched by humans at all, and sometimes even boring. In the same vein, witches aren’t only either wicked or good—they can be entirely complicated and human.

I try to untangle myself from the romanticization of nature and it’s hard. I revere the wild, but do I respect it? I am so tied to the comforts of modernity that it’s easy for me to only see wildness as beauty. And wildness is beautiful. And it is not. Wildness is chaotic and deathly and it does not exist for our sake. And yet it does. Nature is a provider and a destroyer, but what more? It is in this space in between where I unravel the fairy-tale of wildness. This is where I work the tale loose.

Baba Yaga with Moth and Beetle by Tin Can Forest

This is Part Three in The Art of Trees series.

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