Witch No. 4: Circe

“Be off to the pigsty, and make your lair with the rest of them!”

I’ve always been fascinated by ancient mythology. As a writer of fantasy, it’s inherently pleasing to imagine a time when gods and monsters walked the earth, and it’s amazing to note just how long some classic monsters have existed in the public imagination. Today’s sorceress, the wise and wicked Circe, lives alone in a forest, brews evil poisons, and can turn men into pigs with a wave of her wand. By modern standards, she is instantly recognisable as a witch – and yet the character of Circe is more than 2800 years old.

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Circe has appeared in a number of ancient Greek (and Roman) stories, but she’s best known for her appearance in Homer’s Odyssey, as one of the many obstacles encountered by Odysseus on his long voyage home. Odysseus and his men have just escaped from an island of cannibalistic ogres when they are washed up on Circe’s shore; exhausted, the sailors make their way to the witch’s stone house in the centre of the woods. They are greeted at the door by mountain wolves and lions, who wag their tails and rub their noses against the men. Circe then welcomes the sailors through the gates and presents them with a feast of cheese, honey, and wine – but the food has been laced with a magic poison, and the men immediately forget their homes. With a final flourish, Circe waves her wand and turns the sailors into pigs, locking them up in her pigsties to await their fate.

It really is a delightfully evil set up, particularly given that the Odyssey was written more than a millennium ago. Unfortunately, the end of the story isn’t quite as good; Odysseus (who stayed behind) sets off to find his men, and meets the messenger god Hermes on the way. Hermes tells him all about Circe, and gives him a magic herb called “Moly” to protect him from enchantment. Odysseus then strolls into the stone house, eats the poisoned food with no ill effect, and then waves his sword at Circe until she agrees to turn the pigs back into men. It may well be the original deus ex machina.

Circe continues to prove her witchy skills, however, as she is able to provide Odysseus with all sorts of useful advice for his future journeys. First she tells him how to reach the port of the dead, so that he might commune with ghosts by offering sacrifices of food and blood. Later, she describes how to sail past the evil sirens, who seek to lure ships over the rocks with their wondrous songs:

There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them. Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men’s ears with wax that none of them may hear. But if you like you can listen yourself, for you may get the men to bind you [to the mast], that you may have the pleasure of listening. If you beg and pray the men to unloose you, then they must bind you faster!

I really love these final passages. In my own writing, I like to question how a witch might have achieved her power; here, Homer indicates that Circe’s power is tied to her immense knowledge of the magical world, including the places and monsters which reside within it. This, for me, is the best answer that can ever be given. Humans, by definition, should not be magical – but a human who has learnt of magical beings might be able to harness some of that power for their own personal use, thus becoming a witch. So how did Circe learn the things she knows? I feel like there’s a great untold story here: of Circe’s own voyage to the dead men’s sea, where she met the sirens and other sea monsters, and learnt to control the winds themselves.

Actually, that’s not a bad idea. Where’s my notebook?

Final Musings

— Circe is most often pronounced “SUR-see,” or “KIR-kee” if you’re Greek. It’s certainly not pronounced “SUR-ss,” which is how I’ve said it for most of my life.

— I read Circe’s chapters in the Odyssey for the first time whilst researching this post. Before this, my favourite telling of the Circe myth may well have been a quest from the video game Age of Mythology. It’s not a very faithful adaptation, but playing the first stage of the mission as a pig was a novel twist on the usual formula. You can watch a YouTuber playing that mission in the video above.

— Depending on who you ask, Circe might be a witch, goddess, or nymph; she might even be the daughter of Hecate, the Greek goddess of witchcraft. It’s all a bit confusing, and definitely another reason why an origin story would be useful.

— “Moly” is described in the Odyssey as having black roots and a flower as white as milk. (This note is mainly for myself, so that I can remember this authentically witchy plant for future writing.)

— Reading old myths and legends always makes me feel like I’m Indiana Jones, which only makes me want to read even more of them. I’ve never been to Greece, but I travelled to Egypt in 2010, and standing between the Sphinx and the pyramids was probably the closest thing I’ll ever have to a religious experience.

— In reading these posts, you might think there’s a witchy villain in every one of my books. Sadly, there isn’t; the villain in my first book is a vampire. But my series is called “The Witching Hours,” which hopefully does indicate that some serious witching is on the way …

Happy witching!

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Witch No. 3: Fiona Goode

“Who’s the baddest witch in town?”

This witch is not suitable for children.

For our third entry, I’m going to skip to the most recent witch I’ve encountered: the fearsome Fiona Goode. This delightful sorceress is the main antagonist / protagonist of American Horror Story: Coven, the third season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s anthology horror television series.

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In the world of AHS, witches operate in covens; the show’s titular coven is run out of a boarding house in New Orleans, Louisiana. The show teaches us that once every generation, one particularly powerful witch is ordained as the Supreme; this witch can perform magic which is varied and grand, and has an implied responsibility to lead the coven towards greatness. At the outset of the season, Fiona Goode has held the position of Supreme for over 40 years.

But Fiona has not been a good Supreme. Despite possessing great magical prowess and a delightfully wicked wit, Fiona has used her powers to grant herself a life of luxury, forsaking the needs of the coven to pursue her own selfish desires. As age catches up with her, these desires are focussed into a single goal: finding a means to recapture her squandered youth. How can she do this? By locating and killing the next Supreme, preventing her power from being sucked away entirely by the ascending witch.

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As a viewer, I loved Fiona. Her wit always cut just as fiercely as her spells, and her insistence on dressing in black was a pleasing nod to witchy tradition – she even wears a pointed hat on Halloween! She is a 21st century witch done right, a heady mix of magic and modernity, played to perfection by the indomitable Jessica Lange. Fiona’s pursuit of eternal youth makes her a relatable protagonist, just as her betrayal of the young coven makes her a barbaric antagonist. It really is an enjoyable arc.

It’s disappointing, then, that the show unravels so completely in its final episodes. Early on, I began to suspect that the writers’ motto for the show must have been “what’s the most entertaining thing that could possibly happen next?” – a philosophy which did hook me for the first half of the season, however ridiculous those twists and turns may have been. But in the second half of the season, it becomes apparent that far too many secondary plot threads have been introduced. Fiona’s quest for youth is buried beneath conflicts with misogynistic witch hunters and puritan neighbours; the show’s preoccupation with racial hate crimes further muddles the season arc. Fiona is absent for most of the final episode, which does both the show and the character a huge disservice. As the major villain of the piece, the Supreme deserved a more memorable farewell.

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Fiona may have been the standout, but I liked all the other Coven witches too. Teen witch Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) was great as a new coven member suffering from a macabre curse. Emma Roberts was delightfully snarky in the role of Madison Montgomery, a young celebrity witch who seems destined to follow in Fiona’s errant footsteps. Nan (Jamie Brewer) made me laugh a lot with her psychic commentaries, and Queenie’s (Gabourney Sidibe) ability to turn herself into a human voodoo doll was possibly the wickedest power of all.

Swamp witch Misty Day (Lily Rabe) was good too, although her power of “resurgence” – the ability to bring dead things back to life – made things a bit boring later on. Here’s a spoiler: by my tally, there are sixteen major characters in the show, and fourteen of them die at some point in the season. Some of them even die twice! It’s pretty hard to create any narrative tension in a world where death isn’t a real consequence.

Still! Critique of the show aside, I enjoyed AHS for its smart portrayal of so many stylish, modern witches. Plus, the first episode of the season is called “Bitchcraft”. Can witches get any cooler than that?

Final Musings

— This is the only season of American Horror Story that I’ve watched; the seasons can be watched in any order, so obviously I started with my favourite setting! I’ve read elsewhere that Asylum is the best season, and I’m also intrigued by Murder House and Roanoke. The writing of Coven may have disappointed me in the end, but I suspect I’ll give AHS another chance sometime in the future.

— Jessica Lange is one of only 23 people to have won the “Triple Crown of Acting,” a feat achieved by winning an Academy Award, an Emmy Award, and a Tony Award. One of her two Emmy Awards was for her portrayal of the Supreme witch.

Coven plays with a lot of racial imagery throughout the season; most of this imagery involves white people doing horrible things to black people. Like, really horrible things. To begin with, it looked as if the character of Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) was being set up for a redemptive arc, as the friendship she forms with Queenie (a black witch) seems to make her regret the appalling crimes she once committed against her slaves. But then the arc ultimately comes to nothing, which made all the racial torture seem like it was just horror for horror’s sake. A bit unpleasant.

— I loved the Axeman though. Did you know he was a real serial killer?

— I know two contradictory things about witches: that they live alone in the woods, and that they work together in covens. I like both of these ideas, but it’s hard to reconcile them into a cohesive whole within my own magical universe. Witches don’t appear in my first book, though, so I’ve still got a bit of time to work this out.

— It was really hard to choose a pull quote for this post, because everything Fiona says is eminently quotable. I’ll finish off here with one more of the best:

In this whole wide wicked world, the only thing you have to be afraid of … is me.”

Happy witching!

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Witch No. 2: The Gingerbread Witch

“Who is nibbling at my little house?”

Our first witch was big. Is it possible for our second witch to be even bigger?

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The witch from Hansel and Gretel – referred to here as the Gingerbread Witch – is a truly marvellous villain, and is likely to be the first witch many children encounter. As established by the Brothers Grimm in their 1812 recounting of the tale, this is a witch who lives alone in the centre of a deep, dark wood, waiting for travellers to stumble across her home so she can cook them in her oven. She enshrines two of the most enduring witchy archetypes: solitude and cannibalism.

What sets the Gingerbread Witch apart, however, is her sense of style. Her famous house is so utterly iconic that it elevates her – and the fairy tale as a whole – to the highest echelons of the craft: a trap so memorable, so wicked, that the story remains essential today, some 200 years after it was first collected by the Grimms. Indeed, “magical baking” is the only power the Gingerbread Witch ever exhibits, although the original text also claims that all witches have a superior sense of smell:

When a child fell into her power, she killed it, cooked it and ate it, and that was a feast day with her. Witches have red eyes, and cannot see far, but they have a keen scent like the beasts, and are aware when human beings draw near.”

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The other factor that makes Hansel and Gretel such a stone-cold classic is its absolute commitment to one theme: hunger. Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the woods because their parents cannot afford to feed them. They cannot find their way home because the hungry birds have eaten their trail of breadcrumbs; they are lured to the witch through the delicious smell of the gingerbread house. The witch has lured the children to her home because she, too, is hungry; she dies when she is pushed into her own oven. Hansel and Gretel returns to the theme of hunger again and again, revisiting the theme in new and unexpected ways as the story progresses. In doing so, it reaches a level of narrative harmony that few other fairy tales have ever been able to match – or indeed, that few other stories have ever been able to match. Come for the witch, but stay for the masterclass in creative writing!

Everything turns out okay in the end, of course. The witch is burnt to death (a nice nod to tradition), and Hansel and Gretel return home to their father, their pockets full of pearls. We never find out what happens to the gingerbread house: whether the birds peck it apart, perhaps, or if another witch moves inside. Regardless, the Gingerbread Witch will always be one of my favourite witches, and gingerbread will always be one of my favourite foods.


Final Musings

— I don’t want to oversell the point, but the thematic resonance of Hansel and Gretel is rendered even more significant by the complete lack of internal logic found in most fairy tales. I’ll admit that a certain level of randomness can be fun – these are the forests where fairies live, after all – but in reading The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales from cover to cover there were many instances where I felt that the authors had quite literally lost the plot. Even so, there are many other delightful witches described in that collection, so expect to hear more from the Grimms later on.

— My copy of The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales is a beautiful cloth-bound edition with illustrations by Arthur Rackham (two of which are found above). My girlfriend, despite never having shown an interest in fairy tales before, bought it for herself from Paradise Bookshop in Daylesford, Victoria; as far as I know, she never even opened it. I stole it from her and read every single story in the lead up to writing my first book, The Vampire Knife. I like to think of The Vampire Knife as a modern fairy tale, with the horror and excitement ramped up to eleven.

— Neil Gaiman released his own telling of Hansel and Gretel in 2014, illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti. I call it a telling rather than a retelling because Gaiman’s story is wonderfully faithful to the original text; his own little inventions are integrated so seamlessly that you’ll barely notice they weren’t there before. This entry doesn’t count as being a “Neil Gaiman witch,” but Gaiman is a hero of mine, and has created many fantastic witches throughout his career, so we’ll certainly be seeing a lot more of him further down the track.

— I haven’t seen Tommy Wirkola’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013). It’s got a pretty bad reputation, but if it’s ever available on Netflix I may give it a watch.

— How chilling is that excerpt from the original tale? I’ve been trying to make my books as scary as possible, but it’s hard to top the brutal simplicity of that first sentence. Those storytellers from 200 years ago really knew how to frighten children!

That’s all for now. Happy witching!

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Witch No. 1: The Wicked Witch of the West

“I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!”

Why not start with one of the greats?

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Armed with a fearsome arsenal of enchanted artefacts, magic spells and winged monkeys, the Wicked Witch of the West has been one of the most famous villains in all of popular culture for over one hundred years. In 1900 she attacked Dorothy Gale and her companions with wolves, crows and bees; in 2017 she flew onto the silver screen as an enemy of Batman in The Lego Batman Movie. Her 1939 appearance in Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz is so utterly iconic that it defined the style of almost every witch who followed.

Oddly, the Wicked Witch’s first appearance in print introduced very few of her famous features. As written by L. Frank Baum in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the witch’s most striking physical attribute is her single eye – although that eye is “as powerful as a telescope, and could see everywhere.” Her powers are drawn mainly from the weird artefacts she has collected: a silver whistle which summons armies of various animals, and the golden cap which allows her (by aide of an amusing incantation) to call upon the fearsome winged monkeys – but only three times. She doesn’t carry a broomstick, but rather an umbrella, which makes a lot of sense given her crippling weakness. Baum never describes the witch in any great detail, but W.W. Denslow’s original illustrations endowed her with one more key feature: the tall, pointed hat.

Although the witch is able to at one point turn an iron bar invisible through “her magic arts,” her reliance on enchanted artefacts to perform spells is delightfully traditional. The chapter featuring the witch (and it really is just one chapter) is also quite a good little fairy tale in its own right, with Dorothy’s servitude in the castle providing a satisfying build-up to the witch’s inevitable demise.

There’s also this line from Baum, which is an absolute cracker:

The Witch did not bleed when she was bitten, for she was so wicked that the blood in her had dried up many years before.”

It would be another forty years before the Wicked Witch of the West assumed her most familiar form. Margaret Hamilton bursts into the filmic Oz from behind a plume of terrifying red smoke, disrupting the insipid Munchkins before they can sing the final note of their annoyingly twee welcome song. Her skin is green; her hat is black; her cackle is pure evil. (Glinda’s nonchalance in the face of all this is pretty hilarious.) She can throw fireballs from her hand, and execute skywriting on her broomstick. Unlike the book, the film witch’s control over the winged monkeys knows no limits.

I never read Baum’s book as a child, which makes the film my sole reason for fearing the Wicked Witch. Although Margaret Hamilton is seen early in the movie as the straight-laced Miss Gulch, her appearance as the witch in Munchkinland is a smart departure from the source material, allowing the villain to be glimpsed from the very beginning – and boy, does she look the part. Her jet black robe immediately sets her apart from the wondrous colour of Oz, and her famous threat to Dorothy serves to contradict the rapturous reception the girl has received thus far. The beauty of the Emerald City is parodied perversely by the witch’s green skin; the city’s splendour is constantly undermined by the witch’s absolute ugliness.

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I also love / hate the trope of the twisted, dying woods surrounding the witch’s home. If there was any one scene where the danger of the Wicked Witch became unbearable for me, this would have been it. Although as far as warning signs go, “I’d turn back if I were you!” is undeniably excellent.

The details of the filmic death scene don’t quite match up to the arc in the book; why would a witch with a weakness to water leave a full pail lying around on the battlements? But the melting is a wonderful visual effect, and is deservedly iconic. A frightening end for one of the most frightening witches of all – oh, what a world, indeed!

Final Musings

— Watching the film again in 2017, not even those obviously painted backdrops can take the lustre off Oz. The level of visual invention on display here really is second to none. Do you remember the scene where the Munchkin coroner is called upon to produce a death certificate for the Wicked Witch of the East? I sure didn’t.

— Speaking of the Wicked Witch of the East, she’s a little short changed in the film adaptation. The book fleshes out a couple of her wicked acts, with one neat fairy tale detailing her role in the creation of the Tin Woodsman. But she still flies a distant second to the Witch of the West in terms of memorability, and is mostly useful as an answer to the trivia question “Who did Dorothy kill with her house?”

— The Witch of the West has played important roles in a number of other texts, the most notable of which is probably Gregory Maguire’s Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and its subsequent Broadway adaptation. Unfortunately I haven’t read the book or seen the musical, so at this stage I’m unable to comment. Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful, on the other hand, should definitely be avoided.

— No disrespect to Sam Raimi, though. He’s created some fine witches in his time, and I’m sure we’ll take a look at some of them later in the year.

— The Wicked Witch was killed by water, but Margaret Hamilton was almost killed by fire while portraying her. The actress was left with severe burns when the trapdoor elevator in Munchkinland failed to deploy at the correct time, leaving her in harm’s way when flames ignited beside her. Hamilton spent six weeks in hospital recovering, and upon her return refused to act in any scenes with dangerous effects; her stunt-double was subsequently injured when the smoke mechanism on the broomstick underwent a similar malfunction.


And that’s all, folks! Thanks for reading to the end. Not every post will be as long as this one, just as not every witch will be quite so famous. The publication of this post also marks the first time my blog will be made public, which is very exciting. I don’t know how you found your way to this meagre webpage, but you’re very welcome to come back anytime, and particularly so when I’ve got my actual book to spruik. Right now, it’s still a fair way off – but September’s getting closer every day.

Happy witching!

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Welcome, reader

…to the blog grand opening.

G’day!

My name is Jack. Later this year, I’m going to be the author of a book – a real, proper book, with pictures and page numbers and everything. I even put a vampire in it.

But the book isn’t out yet. One day soon, when I’m a real, professional author, I’ll put up all sorts of posts about writing, or plotting, or how to have a knife-fight with a bear. But not yet. For now, I’m just going to be blogging about things that interest me.

One of those things will be witches.

It’s a brand new year, and in 2017 this blog will celebrate the Year of the Witch. Each week (or thereabouts) I’ll be writing about a different sorceress, a record that will include figures drawn from history, literature, or my own personal adventures. Hopefully these posts will be entertaining. For me, they might even be cathartic.

Don’t tell anyone this, but I’ve been afraid of witches my entire life.

So, thanks for finding me, and thanks for reading. I hope you’ll still be here later on, when I’ve got an actual book to promote. You’ll have to be brave, though. Things are about to get spooky around here.

Happy New Year!

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