Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Illicit magic; the term is not clearly distinguishable from "sorcery", though the word "witch" is nowadays usually associated with women while sorcery (i.e., Magic which apes priestly ritual) tends to be seen as a male prerogative. Some writers use "warlock" to designate male witches, although this usage has no proper etymological warrant; during the witch-persecutions of the 15th-17th centuries the word "witch" was applied to both sexes.

Western Europe inherited a series of witch-images from Classical myth and literature, including Femmes Fatales like Circe and Medea and hagwives like Erichtho (in Lucan's Pharsalia), Ovid's Dipsas and Horace's Canidia. The alleged power of witches is mocked in the depiction of Pamphile in Lucian's The Golden Ass. Witches in Teutonic mythology (see Nordic Fantasy) are all hagwives and hedge-riders, usually busy mixing potions in their cauldrons; this was the image inherited by the witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth (performed circa 1606; 1623), although the invocation of Hecate links these to the Classical tradition. A similar Hecate-led crew appears in The Witch (circa 1620) by Thomas Middleton (1580-1627), one of several English witch-plays produced in the wake of the trial (1612) of the Lancashire Witches, whose fictional representations include the play The Lancashire Witches (produced 1681) by Thomas Shadwell (circa 1642-1692) and the novels The Lancashire Witches (1848) by W Harrison Ainsworth and Mist Over Pendle (1951) by Robert Neill.

Although witch-persecution was never as fierce in Britain as on the European mainland, several notable British writers – including Daniel Defoe and Sir Walter Scott – produced popular "nonfiction" books full of witch-anecdotes which provided sources for later writers. The fact that only one significant witch-trial ever took placed in the USA (at Salem, 1692) did not diminish that country's interest in the least. The tale is retold in numerous literary works, ranging from the wholly credulous Yesterday Never Dies (1941) by Esther Barstow Hammond to the scathingly sceptical play The Crucible (1953) by Arthur Miller (1915-2005); and the incident inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne's keen interest in witchcraft, displayed in "Young Goodman Brown" (1835) and The Scarlet Letter (1850). The only other witchcraft trial to have attracted such copious attention is that in 1634 of the French priest Urbain Grandier, featured in Dreams of Roses and Fire (1949 Sweden) by Eyvind Johnson (1900-1976) and in the documentary The Devils of Loudun (1952) by Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), the latter filmed by Ken Russell as The Devils (1970). Other novels based (usually very loosely) on actual cases include Sidonia the Sorceress (1848 Germany) by Wilhelm Meinhold (1797-1851), The Blue Firedrake (1892) by Thomas Wright (1859-1936), The Devil's Mistress (1910) by J W Brodie-Innes (1848-1923) and the third part of The Witches (fixup 1969 France) by Françoise Mallet-Joris; only the last is as effective as the purely exemplary trial described in By Firelight (1948) by Edith Pargeter, and Meinhold's Sidonia is far inferior to his wholly imaginary account, The Amber Witch (1843 Germany).

The image of the witch underwent a dramatic overhaul following the publication of the carefully calculated Scholarly Fantasy La sorcière (1862) by Jules Michelet (1798-1874), an essay in strident anticlericalism that used the Church's persecution of witches as proof of its tyranny and irrationality, arguing that by charging innocent women – many of them midwives and practitioners of folk medicine – with making Pacts with the Devil and worshipping Satan at Sabbats the Inquisition had actually justified (and perhaps created) Satanism as a form of rebellion. This thesis was modified by Charles Godfrey Leland (1824-1903) in his literary hoax Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches (1899) to the claim that the persecuted witches had actually been pagan worshippers of a Mother Goddess – a thesis recapitulated in The Horned Shepherd (1904) by Edgar Jepson and much elaborated in The Witch Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret Murray (1863-1963). This notion has had a great impact on modern Genre Fantasy, whose witch-images have mostly been modelled according to some version of the thesis. Novels attempting to represent the Anthropology of witchcraft more realistically are very rare, although The Witch in the Cave (1986) by Martin H Brice makes a noteworthy attempt. Cautionary tales warning against the dangers of witch-hunting are more common; they include Talk of the Devil (1956) by Frank Baker and The Devil on the Road (1978) by Robert Westall.

The idea of witchcraft surviving unnoticed in a modern setting is commonplace, and is sometimes ambivalently invoked in Urban Fantasy as a problematic disruption of normality. Stories of this kind which combine comedy and sentimentality in varying proportions include Living Alone (1919) by Stella Benson, Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman (1926) by Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Passionate Witch (1941) by Thorne Smith and Norman Matson – filmed as I Married a Witch (1942) – the play Bell, Book and Candle (1956) by John Van Druten and A Likeness to Voices (1963) by Mary Savage. More earnest uses of the same notion are mostly best considered under the heading of Occult Fantasy.

Most of the many relevant theme anthologies include far more occult fiction than fantasy, but some recent ones tip the balance the other way; one notable example is Hecate's Caldron (anth 1982) ed Susan Shwartz. [BS]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.