“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.
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)
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)
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.
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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