Imagining the (queer) Witch

“Queer­ing the Witch opens up the def­i­n­i­tion of who is con­sid­ered a witch. His­tor­i­cal­ly speak­ing, the major­i­ty of accused and con­vict­ed witch­es are iden­ti­fied as women; but why not expand the def­i­n­i­tion to include oth­er com­mu­ni­ties that face dis­crim­i­na­tion because they con­tra­dict the so-called norm?”

TEXT Esther Bartke LEKTORAT Lara Helena FOTO Cottonbro

Lisa Simp­son once asked: “Why is it when a woman is con­fi­dent and pow­er­ful, they call her a witch?” Every­one has an image of the Witch in their mind. It’s cer­tain­ly not exact­ly the same as mine, but it’s com­plex and one is not any more or any less true than the oth­er. Influ­enced by his­to­ry and media, this image could look some­thing like the Wicked Witch of the West, Bon­nie Bon­net from the Vam­pire Diaries, or Baba Yaga from the Slav­ic folk­lore. The Witch is some­thing we all know and yet their def­i­n­i­tion and inter­pre­ta­tion is diverse and end­less. Grow­ing up inter­est­ed in every­thing witchy while patri­ar­chal pow­er dynam­ics and every­day sex­ism revealed them­selves to me, I start­ed con­nect­ing witch­es and witch­craft with fem­i­nist beliefs and the­o­ries, like many before me did. Pow­er­ful witch­es — which are often com­pared to inde­pen­dent and (sex­u­al­ly) empow­ered women who could pose a poten­tial threat to men, or more specif­i­cal­ly: chal­lenge patri­ar­chal pow­er struc­tures — were and are some­thing invari­ably fas­ci­nat­ing to me. Woman, Church, and State from 1893 by Matil­da Joslyn Gage is one of the first known attempts at link­ing witch hunts to misog­y­ny. (1) And even though my own real­i­ty dif­fers from that of  women in ear­ly mod­ern times, look­ing at how they were treat­ed I feel an odd sense of connection.

Notably, the infa­mous Salem Witch Tri­als are often used to describe misog­y­ny dur­ing ear­ly mod­ern times and are ref­er­enced in var­i­ous con­texts to this day. Witch hunts and exe­cu­tions of alleged witch­es also took place in Europe, most­ly dur­ing the 15th to 17th cen­turies. One of the more well-known bases for such prac­tices, which has been very influ­en­tial dur­ing its time, is the Malleus malefi­carum from 1486 (Latin for “The Ham­mer of the Witch­es”) by Hein­rich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. (2) Their work dis­cuss­es and argues for the exis­tence of witch­es and sup­pos­ed­ly legit­imizes the hunt­ing as well as exe­cut­ing of alleged witch­es. Fur­ther­more, James Sharpe states: “The Malleus was marked by a deeply misog­y­nis­tic streak”. (3) In the con­text of mod­ern times, it might be com­pared to anti-fem­i­nist ideologies. 

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Con­nect­ing witch­craft to fem­i­nism also inher­ent­ly means queer­ing the archive. David Halperin argues that every­thing con­tra­dict­ing the norm is queer. (4) I would agree, and add that women being accused of witch­craft in a soci­ety that fears mag­ic and iden­ti­fies witch­es as dan­ger­ous out­casts falls under said cat­e­go­ry as well. In her paper, Queer­ing the Spin­ster. Sin­gle Mid­dle-Class Women in Nor­way dur­ing 1880–1920, Tone Helle­sund notes: “[t]he queer­ing of the spin­ster is more than any­thing linked to her ambi­gu­i­ty. […] Her con­tem­po­raries did not man­age to cat­e­go­rize her, as she lived her life in the gaps between var­i­ous def­i­n­i­tions, per­cep­tions and cat­e­gories.”(5) Although Hellesund’s research focus­es on a dif­fer­ent time and anoth­er cul­tur­al con­text, her argu­ments on queer­ing the spin­ster can be trans­lat­ed into ear­ly mod­ern societies.

“In the­o­ry any woman might be accused of witch­craft, but in prac­tice a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of accused witch­es tend­ed to be old, social­ly iso­lat­ed, poor and to have an estab­lished rep­u­ta­tion in their com­mu­ni­ties for being trou­ble­some.” (6)

The old spin­ster stereo­type also links to today’s queer cul­ture. Old, unmar­ried women liv­ing alone or with oth­er unmar­ried women might be queer cod­ed through my 21st cen­tu­ry queer lens. But, as Halperin and Helle­sund put it: being queer includes every­thing that is exclud­ed from the norm. His­to­ri­ans are retelling what has hap­pened from a spe­cif­ic view­point. Thus his­to­ry will always be inter­pret­ed sub­jec­tive­ly. To chal­lenge main­stream het­ero­nor­ma­tive telling of his­to­ries, queer­ing what we know about witch­es might offer new per­spec­tives and vis­i­bil­i­ty. As Ann Cvetkovich argues “[t]he impor­tance of fan­ta­sy as a way of cre­at­ing his­to­ry from absences, so evi­dent in queer doc­u­men­tary and oth­er cul­tur­al gen­res, demands cre­ative and alter­na­tive archives.” (7) Espe­cial­ly queer rep­re­sen­ta­tion lacks in the way his­to­ry is told, which is why the need to cre­ate one’s own is indisputable. 

In con­trast to the Col­lec­tive Imag­i­na­tive Queer Archive of the Witch, the UK Nation­al Archives offer a more con­ven­tion­al and data­based approach to the witch. One can find sev­er­al doc­u­ments con­cern­ing witch tri­als in ear­ly mod­ern Eng­land, from accu­sa­tions to witch­es’ con­fes­sions. (8)

Pex­els

Room for imag­i­na­tion and a community’s sub­jec­tive feel­ings is what dis­tin­guish­es the Col­lec­tive Archive of the Witch from a tra­di­tion­al archive like the Nation­al Archives in the UK.

Pop cul­ture has trans­formed, trans­lat­ed and reimag­ined the Witch. Imag­in­ing the Witch cre­ates an ever grow­ing col­lec­tive archive. This archive can hard­ly be con­trolled and is unlike­ly to ever be fin­ished. Exam­ples of it include books, movies or songs. There is real­ly no lim­it, for it  exists and grows main­ly in our imag­i­na­tion. Fear Street: 1666, the third part of a Net­flix tril­o­gy series, plays with the Queered Archive of the Witch. The two queer pro­tag­o­nists Sarah and Han­nah are in love. “Their love isn’t only for­bid­den but direct­ly asso­ci­at­ed with witch­craft.”(9) The show thus com­bines the his­to­ry of witch hunts with queer­ness of the alleged witch­es. Sarah and Han­nah con­tra­dict the norm of an ear­ly mod­ern soci­ety and there­fore are seen as trou­ble­some. Such instances of rep­re­sen­ta­tion in a show or any kind of media can give the queer audi­ence a sense of own­er­ship over their his­to­ries. Queer­ing the Witch also opens up the def­i­n­i­tion of who is con­sid­ered a witch. His­tor­i­cal­ly speak­ing, the major­i­ty of accused and con­vict­ed witch­es are iden­ti­fied as women; but why not expand the def­i­n­i­tion to include oth­er com­mu­ni­ties that face dis­crim­i­na­tion because they con­tra­dict the so-called norm? 

Kris­ten Sol­lée, author of Witch­es, Sluts, Fem­i­nists, argues that the cur­rent, ris­ing inter­est in witch­es goes hand in hand with women’s rights move­ments like #MeToo.(10) Witch­es seem to have a cul­tur­al impact that reach­es from TV shows to demon­stra­tions for equal rights. The con­no­ta­tions of the Witch also shift­ed, at least in west­ern coun­tries. Being a witch once meant being hunt­ed and pos­si­bly exe­cut­ed, but now a lot of women are will­ing­ly using the term to describe them­selves. Reclaim­ing the word “Witch” and adding new mean­ing to it also belongs in the Col­lec­tive Imag­i­na­tive Queer Archive of the Witch. Nev­er­the­less, it must be not­ed that my asso­ci­a­tions and expe­ri­ences with witch­es and witch­craft def­i­nite­ly come from a priv­i­leged per­spec­tive. They are filled with pop cul­tur­al ref­er­ences, roman­ti­cized prac­tices and a more or less accu­rate trans­la­tion into fem­i­nist beliefs. I am using witch­craft and the term witch to feel empow­ered, while actu­al witch hunts are still tak­ing place and putting women in very real dan­ger. (11)

Think­ing of empow­er­ment inter­sec­tion­al­ly is inter­twined with the ongo­ing process of fem­i­nist move­ments. A queered archive should also hold space for active­ly anti-racist archiv­ing. Author Maryse Condé chal­lenges the vic­tim­ized Black Witch in her work as she rewrites the sto­ry of Titu­ba, one of the first con­vict­ed witch­es of Salem. “For Condé, His­to­ry is a nar­ra­tive dis­course that can be suf­fered, or it can be tak­en on and invert­ed in a way that rejects the val­ues of the col­o­niz­ers. […] she wants Titu­ba to sub­vert his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tives and cul­tur­al codes rad­i­cal­ly in order to re-invent her­self in her own words.”(12)

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The Col­lec­tive Imag­i­na­tive Queer Archive of the Witch cre­ates space and vis­i­bil­i­ty for minori­ties in a far more acces­si­ble way than aca­d­e­m­ic the­o­ries com­mon­ly do. Uni­ver­si­ties are still a place of priv­i­lege. Hav­ing access to it means to have at least one of the cap­i­tals defined by Bour­dieu, prefer­ably the eco­nom­ic one, aka mon­ey. Learn­ing through pop cul­ture, e.g. films, books or fan­fic­tion, may not ful­fill the high­est stan­dards of schol­ar­ly teach­ing, but it reach­es and teach­es peo­ple in ways uni­ver­si­ties can’t. As the late author and social activist belle hooks put it: “Whether we’re talk­ing about race or gen­der or class, pop­u­lar cul­ture is where the ped­a­gogy is, it’s where the learn­ing is.”

The Witch in the con­text of the Col­lec­tive Imag­i­na­tive Queer Archive offers a space for learn­ing out­side of the con­ven­tion­al class­room that should not be underestimated. 

And to answer Lisa’s ques­tion: they call them witch­es because they are still scared of us. 


1 Cf. Gage, Matil­da Joslyn. Woman, Church and State. Litres, 2018.
2 Cf. Sharpe, James: Instru­ments of Dark­ness: Witch­craft in Eng­land 1550 — 1750. Ch.7: Women and Witch­craft. 1. publ, Hamish Hamil­ton, 1996. p. 170.
3 ibid.
4 Cf. David M. Halperin: Saint Fou­cault: Toward a Gay Hagiog­ra­phy. Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, Oxford 1995, p. 62.
5 Helle­sund, Tone: Queer­ing the Spin­sters: Sin­gle Mid­dle-Class Women in Nor­way, 1880–1920. In: Jour­nal of homo­sex­u­al­i­ty 54.1–2. 2008. p. 44.
6 Sharpe, James: Instru­ments of Dark­ness: Witch­craft in Eng­land 1550 — 1750. 1. publ, Hamish Hamil­ton, (1996). p.172.
7 Cvetkovich, Ann: In the archive of les­bian feel­ing, An Archive of Feel­ings: Trau­ma, Sex­u­al­i­ty, and Les­bian Pub­lic Cul­tures. Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press: Durham, 2003. p. 271.
8 Cf. The Nation­al Archives — Home­page. The Nation­al Archives, https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/ resources/ear­ly-mod­ern-witch-tri­al­s/. Last access 12. Dezem­ber 2021.
9 Upad­hyaya, Kay­la Kumari: Fear Street: 1666‘ Brings The Tril­o­gy to a Very Gay Close. Autostrad­dle, 19. Juli 2021, https://www.autostraddle.com/fear-street-1666-gay/.
10 Cf. Sol­lée, Kris­ten: Witch­es, Sluts, Fem­i­nists.
11 Cf. Spiek­er, Markus: Grausame Real­ität: Hex­en­ver­fol­gung in Indi­en.
12 Moss, Jane: Post­mod­ern­iz­ing the Salem Witch­craze: Maryse Conde’s I, Titu­ba, Black Witch of Salem. In: Col­by Quar­ter­ly 35.1 (1999): 3. p. 11.

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