Witch No. 15: The Snow Witch

“I hope you have remembered to bring along your discs.”

There are many book genres that I love, but high fantasy has probably always been my favourite. The love affair started in primary school, when my gang of nerdy friends and I would devour all the fantasy content we could get our hands on: Dungeons & Dragons rule books, Warhammer magazines, and, yes, an ancient computer game set in medieval Germany. It was during this period that a friend first introduced me to a choose your own adventure book, titled The Citadel of Chaos. I thought it was marvellous. I started my own collection, gathering together a whole shelf of books with delightfully lurid titles. City of Thieves. Crypt of the Sorcerer. House of Hell.

And, inevitably, Caverns of the Snow Witch.


Depending on which edition you have, Caverns of the Snow Witch is either the ninth or tenth entry in the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series, which was created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Each book in the series is like a personal Dungeons & Dragons adventure, with the reader assigned a clichéd fantasy objective: most of the time it’s simply “kill the evil wizard.” Readers navigate the book by making a decision at the end of each reference, flipping through the book to find out what happens next – “If you wish to turn left, turn to 61” – and are regularly tasked with rolling dice to fight a monster. The books are definitely a bit nerdy, but they’re also good, honest fun.

But enough about that – let’s get to the witch! Caverns of the Snow Witch opens with the hero trekking up the snowy Icefinger Mountains, on a mission to slay a rampaging yeti. The yeti is swiftly defeated, but a dying fur trapper offers a new call to adventure: he has recently discovered an entrance to the legendary Crystal Caves, carved into a glacier by the followers of the evil Snow Witch. The witch is plotting to use her dark powers to bring on a new ice age, and so must be slain as soon as possible. So, what are you waiting for? Get questing!


Like most Fighting Fantasy books, Caverns of the Snow Witch takes place in the high fantasy world of Allansia, a world seemingly populated by every fantasy monster ever invented. As such, the denizens of the Crystal Caves are an eclectic bunch: you can fight snow wolves and Neanderthals and a frost giant, which are all pleasantly on-theme, but you’ll also need to defeat an illusionist, a “brain slayer,” and a rather flamboyant minstrel. When you do catch up with the titular Snow Witch, it turns out she’s secretly been a vampire all along, and can only be killed by a stake through the heart. What a twist!


Hilariously, there’s so little narrative logic in this fantasy world that the Snow Witch doesn’t even cast any cold-based spells; even when you fight one of the witch’s Crystal Warriors, the text is quick to point out that the warrior is made of quartz crystals, not ice. It’s all rather ridiculous, but things just go from bad to worse in the climactic exchange between hero and villain, when the player convinces the witch to take part in a battle of wits. Here’s a sample of the dramatic dialogue:

The Snow Witch looks surprised and displeased at the defeat of her Zombies. Suddenly she says, ‘The game we are going to play is called Discs. You will not win, of course. But in the unlikely event that you do, I will give you the chance to escape. I hope you have remembered to bring along your discs. Without them you lose!’ She laughs sadistically at the thought of making up the rules on the spur of the moment.”

“Discs,” it turns out, is just an off-brand version of “rock-paper-scissors.” The reader chooses a shape, and the witch calls out another shape. If the reader’s shape beats the witch’s shape, the witch is immediately vanquished.

It is quite possibly the worst climactic battle I’ve ever read.


Even so, Caverns of the Snow Witch is still a lot of fun, so long as you know what you’re getting into. When I read the book again this week I died almost immediately at the hands of the witch herself (I didn’t manage to find a wooden stake), but I did make it through to the end on my second attempt, with only a little bit of flip-ahead cheating. For a choose your own adventure book, the narrative path is surprisingly linear; mapping out the choices with pen and paper reveals a pretty simple route to the end.

My pro tip? Don’t pay the first ferry man you meet. You’ll thank me later.

Final Musings

— To be clear, Caverns of the Snow Witch is not my favourite Fighting Fantasy book. Ian Livingstone’s stories generally require the reader to find the “one true path” to make it even slightly close to the end, and I find it discouraging to have an adventure cut short just because I didn’t find a certain mystical doodad. You’ll get a much better role playing experience out of Creature of Havoc, House of Hell, and especially the Sorcery! quartet, all of which were written by Steve Jackson.

— I should also mention that Caverns of the Snow Witch doesn’t actually end with that thrilling game of Discs. Early in the book the hero tries to read some strange symbols on a piece of parchment; it later transpires that the symbols were a Death Spell, and so even though the witch has been defeated, the hero is still doomed to die. Finding the cure is a complicated affair involving a banshee and a pegasus, which is business as usual for Allansia.

— Honestly, the scariest thing about the Snow Witch is the terrifying set of skeleton-filled icicles on the front cover. Credit goes to Les Edwards for that inspired background detail, and also to Gary Ward and Edward Crosby, for their excellent woodcut-style illustrations throughout. The book is actually worth a read just for those amazing monster pictures alone.

— There’s also a witch named Alianna in The Shamutanti Hills, which is the first entry in that brilliant Sorcery! miniseries I mentioned. She doesn’t hang around for long, but she does turn a chair into a wood golem, which is pretty cool.

— Would I ever write a choose your own adventure book? Yes, I absolutely would. In fact, if you Google hard enough, you can still find a piece of writing I entered in a Fighting Fantasy short story competition, back when I was a teenager. Or you could just click here.

— Okay, okay – I only completed Caverns of the Snow Witch with a lot of flip-ahead cheating. But believe me, flipping ahead to sneak a look at an outcome is an essential part of the choose your own adventure experience. Just pretend your hero is a psychic, and you’re good to go!

Happy witching!

Witches 19

Witch No. 14: Daisy O’Grady

“Does she wear a long black dress? Guess!”

As an Australian writer fascinated by all things witchy, I’m always on the lookout for witches with a distinctly Australian flair. Unfortunately, throughout my reading life so far, such witches have been virtually non-existent – with one notable exception. Daisy O’Grady is a terrifying Australian sorceress, her face gaunt, her hair wild, with a literal skeleton tucked away in her closet. She wears a macabre fox stole around her neck, and proudly mixes potions containing rats’ tails, toe-nails and dead lizards’ scales.

Oh – and she also happens to be the main character in a picture book for children.


Guess What? is a 1988 picture book written by Mem Fox and illustrated by Vivienne Goodman. It’s a book that sets you up to feel uneasy from the very beginning, establishing a fleeting sense of distance (“Far away from here lives a crazy lady called Daisy O’Grady”) before slowly drawing the reader closer to its mysterious protagonist. Each of the simple, sinister questions asked by Fox (“Is she tall?” “Is she thin?”) gives a further clue to Daisy O’Grady’s identity, building and building until the conclusion of the story seems terrifyingly, unsettlingly inevitable. You hope that Daisy won’t be a witch. You hope there’s going to be a twist. You hope the book won’t give you nightmares.

And, well, there is a twist – but I’m certainly not going to ruin that here!


Fox’s prose is a masterclass in creating a sense of looming dread, but it’s Vivienne Goodman’s illustrations that give the book its distinctly Australian flavour. Through a series of vivid, almost photorealistic pictures, Goodman provides a detailed insight into Daisy O’Grady’s world, documenting everything from her modest scrubland shack (complete with corrugated iron roof and brick outhouse) to the native animals that live both inside and outside her abode. Every illustration is cluttered with incredible, recognisable detail: The Weekend Australian lying crumpled on the floor; a reconciliation badge pinned to Daisy’s black hat; an ordinary tin of Keen’s Mustard sitting beside a jar of blowfly eyes. It’s a perfect snapshot of Australian farm life, filtered through a weird, witchy gauze. I’ve spoken earlier in this blog about my love for witch products in The Jolly Postman, and Goodman’s own creations – “Lifeless Lizards Scale Powder,” “Heinz Big Red Blood Sauce” – form a lovely complement to that text.


I’ve always thought of Guess What? as being an edgy, enthralling picture book, and so I was recently fascinated (if not surprised) to learn that, in American libraries, the book was the 66th most challenged book of the 1990s. According to one library website I found, the book was most likely challenged because of its “age-appropriateness and offensive language” – and while age-appropriateness is too subjective to easily refute, I am truly baffled by the second accusation. Does the charge relate to Daisy O’Grady’s wicked collection of 1970s pin badges, which includes buttons that say Sex Pistols and ABBA is Dead? Possibly – but it’s hard to shake the feeling that certain parents were looking for any excuse to object to the book once they found out there was a witch lurking inside.

But don’t let those “offensive” badges put you off – Guess What? is a magnificent picture book, perfectly designed to spook a child even as it delights them. The world needs more witches like Daisy O’Grady: cursing, cackling and cranky while remaining entirely, wonderfully Australian.

Final Musings

— I first had Guess What? read to me when I was one year old. I know this because my copy of the book is signed to me by Mem Fox, with an inscription dated 1992. My witch lit credentials are super legit.

— Mem Fox is notable for having written many, many famous picture books, but my other favourite book of hers is Possum Magic, from 1983. There isn’t a lot of magic in Australian literature, but with these two picture books Fox sets out a vision of a mythic Australia that was hugely influential on me as a young reader. (I even had a pet brush-tailed possum called Hush, rescued from the forest beside our house.)

— From all reports, the best reading of Guess What? you’ll ever hear is by Mem Fox herself. I can’t find a video of her performance anywhere on the web, but my mum recalls that a great, urgent emphasis must be placed on the constant refrain of “Guess? Yes!” In lieu of a video, you can read about how Fox developed the book on her website.

That’s all for now – happy witching!

Witches 18

The Troll Heart – Out Now!

A blog post worth waiting for.

Yes, I admit it – it has been way too long since I posted anything on this blog. We’ll address that later. First, let’s enjoy some excellent, marvellous, wonderful news.


The Troll Heart is the first sequel to The Vampire Knife, and is the second book in The Witching Hours series. It’s an extra special book for me because I based it on the first fairy tale I ever wrote – or at least, the first fairy tale I wrote that I thought was any good. The story came about in 2013, when I took a trip to England with my grandfather, Kenny, who had suddenly decided (at the age of 81) that he’d quite like to see the British countryside. We visited London and Brighton and Kings Lynn, and even met the Queen’s horses at Sandringham, which meant by the time we got to the city of Bath, poor old Kenny was feeling rather worn out. So I went for a walk on my own – and on this walk, I crossed a bridge.

Toll Bridge JPEG

It costs one shilling to cross the Batheaston Toll Bridge. Or rather, that’s how much it costs if you’re travelling in a motor lorry. If you’re travelling in a carriage drawn by two horses, it costs four pennies, and if you’re crossing with any sheep or pigs, it’ll cost you an additional six pennies per score. (And yes, I know what you’re thinking: how much does it cost to cross in a wheelchair drawn by a donkey? Answer: three pennies.) All of these archaic tolls are specified on a old sign at the start of the bridge – an old sign that left me utterly enthralled.

The concept of the different tolls sat in my head for the rest of our trip, and when I returned home I quickly wrote the outline of a fairy tale, about a wicked troll who controls the bridges surrounding a woe-begotten village. I didn’t end up using any of those wonderful tolls, but I still liked the story. It was the first thing I had written in a long time that I was really proud of.

Two years later, in 2015, I created the characters of Anna and Max, and after their initial tousle with the vampire, I knew just the adventure I wanted to send them on next.

And so that’s why I’m finally breaking my blogging dry spell: to announce the birth of my beautiful new book (and thanks again go to Ryan Andrews for the amazing cover). I’m sorry I was away for so long! Here’s the behind-the-scenes take: in the first half of 2017, I wrote more than 10,000 words for this blog, when what I should have been doing is writing 10,000 words for the third book in the series. Now book three has almost reached its final copyedit, and the temptation is to go blog-crazy once again… but the deadline for book four is also just around the corner. Hopefully I’ll be able to strike more of a balance between the two mediums going forward!

Either way – thanks a bunch for stopping by and reading all about The Troll Heart. If you like scary stories about mists and monsters and weird old magics, this might be the book for you. If you read it, I hope you enjoy it!

Happy witching!

Witches 17

The Vampire Knife – Out Now!

Happy ending not guaranteed.


Today, on August 1, 2017, my first ever novel officially enters the world. It’s really, really, ridiculously exciting. You can find The Vampire Knife in bookshops, and in department stores, and on heaps of websites, too. It’s everywhere!

I wrote The Vampire Knife in the winter of 2015: the longest, coldest winter that Melbourne has experienced in my lifetime. I spun the novel out of a horror story I’d made up to scare my cousin Gypsy the year before, about a girl at a sleepover who hears a strange calling in the middle of the night. As I expanded on that initial idea, I filled the book with as many spooky and terrible things as I could think of: wolves and bears, castles and dungeons, knives and storms and prisoners and blood. Each night I sat at my desk and wrote another thousand words, trying not to feel scared as the wind and rain beat against my bedroom window, typing away until the sun rose once more.

When I was done, I sent the story away to Hardie Grant Egmont (a publishing house in Melbourne that specialises in children’s literature) and they agreed to turn my story into a real book. They found a brilliant artist called Ryan Andrews to illustrate the cover (and to draw some incredible internal pictures too), and they decided to publish the rest of The Witching Hours series as well. Now I get to write five more adventures starring Anna and Max, which is simply the best job I ever could have hoped for.


You can buy The Vampire Knife at bookshops all through Australia; it’s recommend for all brave children aged 8-12. If you have a local bookshop, you should try and buy it there, but otherwise you can order it online from The Little Bookroom, or Booktopia, or Angus & Robertson, or anywhere else you’d care to Google. I really hope you enjoy reading it.

Got any questions? I’d love to hear them! Comment on this post and I’ll do my best to answer you. I’m currently hard at work finishing off book 3 in the series, but I’ll be back posting more blogs as soon as I’m done. The Year of the Witch must go on!

Thanks for reading – happy witching!

Witches 16



Witch No. 13: Yubaba

“You humans always make a mess of things.”

Yep, that’s right – we’re doing a Studio Ghibli double feature!

Yubaba 2

Kiki’s Delivery Service is a lovely film, but Hayao Miyazaki’s later work Spirited Away (2001) is an absolute masterpiece. The film tells the story of Chihiro, a ten-year-old girl whose curious parents accidentally lead her into a magical world. When her parents are transformed into pigs, Chihiro seeks refuge beside a bizarre bathhouse that caters to spirits and monsters: a haven for the strange creatures to replenish their energies. Chihiro makes a friend, Haku, who tells her that she must take a job at the bathhouse to ensure her safety in the spirit world. To receive her work contract, Chihiro must face Yubaba, ruler of the bathhouse: a grand old witch of considerable power.

Yubaba 3

Hayao Miyazaki has featured witches in quite a few of his films, but Yubaba is by far his most menacing creation. More than anything else, Yubaba is big; her mouth looks wide enough to swallow a child whole, and her bright red fingernails are as long and sharp as daggers. Her work at the bathhouse has also made her rich. Enormous jewelled rings glitter beside her knuckles, and her penthouse apartment is filled with gold and precious stones.

Is Yubaba wicked? Yes, she is – but it’s truer to say that she’s just a very shrewd businesswoman. She takes Chihiro’s name from her as payment (rechristening her as Sen) and sets her to work washing floors and scrubbing tubs, hoping that the girl might forget her name and remain a servant forever.

Yubaba 10

I know this is a post about witches, but it should also be said that the other spirits and monsters in Spirited Away are an absolute pleasure to behold. The most memorable is probably No-Face, a mute phantom who lures victims in with promises of gold and trinkets, but all of the creatures are dazzling in their own right. There’s Kamaji, the spider-limbed man who works in the boiler room; the River Spirit, a heavily polluted nature being with the head of a golden skull; and even Chihiro’s friend Haku, who can take the form of a coiling sky dragon. Yubaba also has three monstrous henchmen of her own: a giant baby (apparently her son), a trio of bouncing green heads, and a jet black raven with Yubaba’s own face. The film radiates with inventive visuals; every single frame is a work of art.

Yubaba 8

Yubaba ends up getting distracted by No-Face’s ravenous rampage, and so Chihiro is able to free Haku from his servitude and force the witch to allow her to bargain for her freedom. Yubaba then reveals her final test: to return home with her parents, Chihiro must inspect a line of pigs and correctly choose which of the swine are her mother and father. It’s a wonderful little puzzle, but the wise and brave Chihiro solves it almost at once, leaving Yubaba fuming. Chihiro thanks Yubaba for everything, and then leaves the spirit world once and for all.

And so ends one of the best and most beautiful films ever made.

Final Musings

— Really, no other filmmaker gets me empathising like Miyazaki. When Chihiro faces a challenging situation, I genuinely fear for her; when she displays kindness, she genuinely moves me. Spirited Away gets me bad, but the empathy hits me even worse in My Neighbour Totoro; the character Mei reduces me to a blubbering wreck almost as soon as the film starts.

— But I do really love Chihiro. She starts the film with less courage than Mei or Kiki, but she still faces obstacles with the same compassion and determination found in all of Miyazaki’s young heroines. I’d love to see all three characters share a scene together!

— The Japanese spirit world of Spirited Away shares quite a few similarities with the worlds of European fairy tales. In both cases, food is shown to be of high importance: in traditional fairy lore, eating fairy food will entrap a human in the fairy realm forever, and in Spirited Away, eating the feast outside the bathhouse is what turns Chihiro’s parents into pigs. A human character having to remember their true name is another theme common to both sets of stories.

— I’ve glossed over a lot of plot strands in my summary above, but it’s worth mentioning that Yubaba has a twin sister who is also a witch. The twin’s name is Zeniba, and she gives Chihiro a special hair tie when Chihiro returns the witch’s magical golden seal. This is a very normal scene by Miyazaki’s standards.

— Another unexplored aspect of Yubaba’s backstory is her casual remark that she never should have taken that oath to “give a job to anyone who asks.” Why did she do that?

— Now that I think about it, the two antagonists of Spirited Away really are consistently fascinating characters. Throughout the story, both No-Face and Yubaba seem to help Chihiro just as much as they hinder her, and she ends the film on good terms with both. Like most Studio Ghibli films, Spirited Away defies narrative conventions!

Spirited Away has the best spirits and monsters of any Miyazaki film, but there are also some very good creatures in My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Princess Mononoke (1997), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), and Ponyo (2008). Ponyo was the first Miyazaki film I ever saw, and it completely hooked me on his unique brand of storytelling and visual creativity. If you don’t know where to start, you might as well start there!

Ponyo and Howl’s Moving Castle also have witch characters in them, but I think we’ve delved into enough Studio Ghibli films for now. Next time, we’ll be looking at an Australian witch – which I think is the only Australian witch I’ve ever managed to find. Come back soon and read all about it!

Happy witching!

Witches 15

Witch No. 12: Kiki

“Flying used to be fun, until I started doing it for a living.”

How does a girl become a witch? This, for me, is a key question in unpacking the spookiness of witchcraft – although in some cases, the answer isn’t spooky at all. In Hayao Miyazaki’s delightful 1989 film Kiki’s Delivery Service, the solution is simple: at the age of thirteen, each young witch must leave their home (and the witch community) for one whole year, using magic to make their way in the world. Only then will their training be complete.

And so it is that Kiki, a plucky thirteen-year-old girl with a black cat and a broomstick, sets out at midnight on her first great adventure.

Kiki 2

In a first for this blog, Kiki is not a wicked witch. Despite wearing a purple-black robe and flying on a broom, Kiki is defined by her kindness and her work ethic – a strange reversal of the usual witchy tropes. Weirdly, and perhaps even disappointingly, she only ever exhibits two specific powers: the ability to fly a broomstick, and the ability to talk to her cat familiar, Jiji. Upon landing in her new seaside town, the resourceful Kiki thus starts a broomstick delivery service, using the income to pay for room and board.

There may not be a lot of magic on display, but like all of Miyazaki’s best films, Kiki’s Delivery Service is primarily a story about girlhood. The swooping broomstick chases are exciting, but it’s Kiki’s small moments of insecurity that stayed with me when the film was over. I cringed in fear at the scene where Kiki walks past a trio of chatty, popular girls, scared that they might comment on her “ugly” witch dress. My heart sank as she flew home in the rain, already knowing that she wouldn’t be able to meet her one new friend because her clothes were now soaking wet. Kiki is so good, so noble, that I’m genuinely tormented by the setbacks she faces, however small. How can bad things happen to such a nice witch?

Kiki 3

Bizarrely, Kiki’s Delivery Service ends long before the set period of one year has passed, and so we never see Kiki complete her witchy training. Most of Miyazaki’s films knowingly defy narrative conventions (often to wondrous effect), but more than any of his other movies, the lack of closure here feels jarring. Did Kiki learn any new spells? Did she return home safely? Did she become a real witch? These questions seem so important that it took me a while to appreciate Kiki’s Delivery Service as much as the rest of Miyazaki’s filmography. In the end though (with some effort), I managed to accept that the magic in this story simply isn’t the most important thing. What’s important is Kiki: a girl who always strives to do the right thing, and who eventually succeeds in being proud of who she is. She just so happens to be a witch – a good witch, with a good heart. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

 Final Musings

Kiki’s Delivery Service is based on a 1985 book of the same name, written by Eiko Kadona. She also wrote five sequels. I guess if I really wanted closure, I could learn Japanese and read the whole series. Hm…

— Although Kiki’s training is supposed to occur in isolation, we do briefly meet two other witches in the film: Kiki’s mother, who specialises in potions, and a haughty fellow trainee witch, whom Kiki meets mid-flight on her journey to the sea. The haughty witch tells Kiki that her speciality is fortune telling, although she can clearly fly a broomstick as well. So what other spells can Kiki learn?

— Broomstick riding is also something of a mystery. Kiki’s mother insists that Kiki uses her old broom on the night Kiki leaves, because she can “rely on it time after time, in any kind of weather.” Later, when her mother’s broom snaps, Kiki is seen crafting a witch’s broom of her own. But then, at the climax of the film, Kiki commandeers a normal broom from a street sweeper, and is able to fly on that broom as well. So where is the magic coming from? I know I’m not going to get any answers to these questions, but I want them just the same!

Kiki 4

— If you watch the English dub of the film (which I did), that’s Kirsten Dunst voicing Kiki. Also, Phil Hartman voices the cat Jiji, and Tress MacNeille voices the baker Osono, which sometimes makes the film feel oddly like an episode of The Simpsons.

— I consider myself a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki, but I must admit I’m yet to see his three earliest feature films: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), and Castle in the Sky (1986). Of the films I have seen, my favourite is My Neighbour Totoro (1988) – which I loved so much that I now declare it one of my (three) favourite films of all time.

— Hayao Miyazaki is a co-founder of Studio Ghibli, but not all Studio Ghibli films are Hayao Miyazaki films. At present, I’ve only seen the Miyazaki-directed movies, but I really need to get around to watching Grave of the Fireflies (1988), which is supposed to be equally fantastic (but also quite harrowing).

— Earlier this year, I spent two weeks in Japan, and decided to buy myself a Totoro plush toy as a souvenir. Every toy store I went into had a big Studio Ghibli section, and Totoro was always the most popular toy there – but Jiji the black cat was always running a very close second!

Happy witching!

Witches 14

Witch No. 11: Medea

“Oh, what an evil power love has in people’s lives!”

And we’re back! This week, we’re taking another deep dive into Ancient Greek mythology, to examine a witch so powerful, so wicked, that even her own family were subject to her evil wrath. This is the story of Medea, granddaughter of the sun itself, and the spells she cast to steal the Golden Fleece.

Medea 1

Some backstory: long before Medea enters this tale, trouble was brewing in the kingdom of Thessaly. Aeson, the rightful king, was overthrown by his half-brother, the villainous Pelias; Pelias assumed the throne, and killed as many of Aeson’s children as he could find. But, one of those children – Jason – escaped, and was trained as a hero by a centaur named Chiron. Some years later, Jason returned to Thessaly, and Pelias agreed to give up the throne if Jason could bring him the Golden Fleece. Jason agreed, bringing together a crew of famous heroes (including Orpheus and Heracles) to join him in his boat the Argo. Thus, Jason and the Argonauts sailed forth.

Eventually, after a number of incidental adventures, the Argonauts reached the kingdom of Colchis, where King Aeetes held the Golden Fleece. Upon hearing of Jason’s quest, Aeetes agreed to hand over the treasure – on one condition. First, Jason had to succeed in harnessing the Khalkotauroi: two fire-breathing bronze bulls which grazed in the king’s field. Jason immediately realised that the task was impossible, and hung his head in despair.

Enter Medea.

Now, here’s a difficult truth: in the pantheon of Greek heroes, Jason isn’t really that heroic. If he hadn’t had 50-60 Argonauts by his side (who are, remember, a crew of heroes and demigods), he probably wouldn’t have made it to Colchis in the first place. But, Jason’s one saving grace at this point in the story is that he once helped an old lady cross a river. That woman was the goddess Hera in disguise – and now Hera wants to help Jason succeed. So Hera speaks to Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, who in turn speaks to her baby son Eros (ie Cupid), god of desire, and promises him a magic golden ball if he’ll go and shoot a love arrow at Medea, the daughter of King Aeetes. Eros agrees – and so Medea is overcome with an absolute, burning desire to help out the new hero in town.

This is where the story gets really good. King Aeetes is the son of the sun-titan Helios, making Medea part-titan as well, and it turns out she’s channelled those innate powers into some particularly potent witchcraft. As described by the ancient poet Apollonius of Rhodes in his Argonautica, Medea has succeeded in harvesting an extraordinarily rare plant: a purple flower on twin stalks, which only sprouts in blood spilled from the titan Prometheus. The root of the plant looks like newly-cut flesh; to harvest it, Medea had to travel deep into the underworld, gathering the dark sap in a seashell that she wears around her neck. Luckily for Jason, the so-called “charm of Prometheus” bestows two specific powers upon the user: immunity to cuts from bronze, and immunity to fire. With Medea’s magical assistance, the bronze Colchis Bulls don’t stand a chance.

Medea 2

So: Jason performs a sacrifice to Hecate, goddess of magic (which includes “pouring from a goblet the hive-stored labour of bees” – a beautiful line), and smears his body with the dark juice of the flower, after which he is able to yoke the bronze bulls and plough the king’s field. Understandably, King Aeetes is furious, and begins plotting a new scheme to ensure Jason’s downfall. Medea, fearing for Jason’s safety, flees the city, promising Jason that she will help him steal the fleece. She leads him to the grove of trees where the fleece is guarded by an enormous serpent, subsequently performing her biggest spell yet:

But right in front the serpent with his keen sleepless eyes saw them coming, and stretched out his long neck and hissed in awful rise … and as he writhed, the maiden came before his eyes, with sweet voice calling to her aid sleep, highest of gods, to charm the monster … but still he raised aloft his grisly head, eager to enclose them both in his murderous jaws. But she with a newly cut spray of juniper, dipping and drawing untempered charms from her mystic brew, sprinkled his eyes, while she chanted her song … and on the very spot he let his jaw sink down.”

The serpent sleeps; the fleece is stolen; Jason, Medea and the Argonauts sail away; King Aeetes furiously gives chase. Infamously, Aeetes has a son, Apsyrtus, who leads the charge to recover the fleece: Medea, out of love for Jason, captures her brother, kills her brother, and then sprinkles the pieces of his body in the ocean so that her father has to stop and pick them up. That scene isn’t included in the version of the Argonautica I read, because in the 3rd century BC poets were already censoring Medea’s awful deeds. What a witch!

There are some more good stories from the long journey home (including one scene where Medea kills an enormous bronze warrior named Talos by summoning a pack of hellhounds), but the story is best concluded in the play Medea by Euripides, produced in the year 431 BC. Set some years after their quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece, the play sees Jason abandoning Medea to marry the princess of Corinth, thus exiling Medea and their two sons. Suffice to say, Medea is not impressed. She takes an enchanted dress and a golden coronet (left to her by her grandfather, the sun-titan) and sends them to the princess as a wedding gift; the coronet bursts into flames around the princess’s head, sending blood and fire dripping down her face, whilst the dress begins devouring her flesh, tearing at her skin with poisonous fangs. Afterwards, the king runs in and picks up his dying daughter, and the dress attacks him as well, melting the flesh directly from his bones.

And then things get even worse.

You see, at this stage Medea will do anything to hurt Jason, even if it means hurting herself. And so – and be warned, because this is pretty terrible – she enters her house, locks the door, and murders their two sons. Grandfather Helios sends Medea a chariot pulled by dragons to aide her escape, and so the witch is able to taunt Jason as she flies away with the bodies, gleefully denying him the chance to bury his children. And that’s the play. Medea gets away. There isn’t any punishment.

So… can we all agree that Medea is the wickedest witch of all time?

Final Musings

— Whoa, this was a big one! Hopefully it was worth the wait. The Year of the Witch is back with a vengeance! (Although it’s still nowhere near as vengeful as Medea.)

— Art credits: the first painting featured in this post is Medea (1868) by Frederick Sandys. The second painting is Jason and Medea (1907) by John William Waterhouse.

— Here’s a good question: what is the Golden Fleece, anyway? Well, one time the sea god Poseidon had a child with a nymph who was also a granddaughter of Helios, and that child was called Nephele. Nephele grew up and had kids of her own, and later helped them escape their wicked stepmother by turning herself into a golden ram with wings and carrying the children away on his / her back (the pronouns get confusing here, because rams are male). Nephele’s son later sacrificed the ram, which sent him / her back to Poseidon, and the son then left the fleece with his new family in Colchis, where it remained until Jason came to find it. Fun!

— An exciting detail: Circe makes a cameo in the Argonautica! I was a bit confused about Circe’s ancestry when I first wrote my post about her, but apparently she’s also a daughter of Helios, which makes her Aeetes’ sister, and Medea’s aunt. Anyway, Jason and Medea visit Circe after killing Apsyrtus, so that she can perform a ritual that absolves them of the murder. It should be really exciting to see these two great witches meeting each other, but Circe isn’t happy about the murder and Medea is completely overcome with shame, so unfortunately they don’t get to bond in any meaningful way.

— There are some cracking descriptions of Medea’s magic in the Argonautica. Here’s the paragraph where she takes down Talos, the bronze guardian of Crete:

And with songs did she propitiate and invoke the Death-spirits, devourers of life, the swift hounds of Hades, who, hovering through all the air, swoop down on the living. Kneeling in supplication, thrice she called on them with songs, and thrice with prayers; and, shaping her soul to mischief, with her hostile glance she bewitched the eyes of Talos, the man of bronze; and her teeth gnashed bitter wrath against him, and she sent forth baneful phantoms in the frenzy of her rage.”

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— The flower of Prometheus is just one of the magic herbs that Medea has collected; the Argonautica states that in her room she has “a casket wherein lay many drugs, some for healing, others for killing.” The punishment of Prometheus, by the way, is one of my absolute favourite Greek legends. It sees the great titan chained to a rock, with an eagle visiting him each day to eat his liver; because he’s a titan, the liver grows back each night, ready for the eagle to eat it again. This ties in neatly to the Medea story, because as the eagle flies home after each meal, blood drips from its beak onto the earth, allowing the magic flower to grow. Cool!

— That picture above is of a faux-Greek urn I made in a Year 8 art class. Seriously, I have always loved these stories.

— You might recall that when Odysseus and his crew came upon the Sirens, they were able to resist the alluring songs by stopping their ears with wax. The Argonauts found a different solution: Orpheus just played his lyre really, really loudly. One of the Argonauts still jumped overboard and died, but for the most part the plan was a success.

— I highly recommend the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, directed by Don Chaffey. It’s a hugely entertaining film, complete with iconic stop-motion monsters animated by Ray Harryhausen, but unfortunately Medea’s role in the story has been greatly reduced, to the point where she no longer even performs magic. Still, it’s marvellous fun, and this famous sequence with the skeleton warriors is really top notch:

— The play Medea is really gruesome, but it’s also remarkable for its progressive portrayal of the female protagonist: Medea is villainous, yes, but she’s also given the agency to pursue her own narrative, despite the machinations of Jason and the king. Best of all, Euripides clearly knew what he was doing. I’ll leave you now with this wonderful musing on gender equality, as first spoken by a “chorus of Corinthian women” more than 2000 years ago:

Legend will now reverse our reputation;

A time comes when the female sex is honoured;

                That old discordant slander

                Shall no more hold us subject.

Male poets of past ages, with their ballads

Of faithless women, shall go out of fashion;

                For Phoebus, Prince of Music,

Never bestowed the lyric inspiration

                Through female understanding –

                Or we’d find themes for poems,

We’d counter with our epics against man.

Oh, Time is old; and in his store of tales

                Men figure no less famous

                Or infamous than women.

Happy witching!

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