Notable Witches from Fairy Tales, Folklore, Myth, and Legend: Hekate, Goddess of Witches

Notable Witches from Fairy Tales, Folklore, Myth, and Legend: Hekate, Goddess of Witches

By Derek Newman-Stille

A Roman sculpture of triple Hecate, (Vatican Museum)

Most readers probably best know Hekate from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where her name is spelled “Hecate” and she appears before the three witches, angry at their interactions with Macbeth. The association between witches and Hekate extends back long before Shakespeare and in the ancient Greek and Roman world she was frequently referred to as the goddess of witches.

Hekate was a Titaness, a race of deities before the Olympain gods and is often associated with Chthonic things (underworldly things). She is frequently depicted holding torches, and occasionally with a black dog since black dogs were offered to her as sacrifices. She has an association with crossroads and texts often portray her rituals happening at crossroads. She is often depicted as having three forms as Hekate Triformis.

Not only was Hekate considered a goddess of witchcraft, she was also associated with the night, the moon, necromancy (divination through the dead), and ghosts in general. Her approach was believed to be preceded by the howling and wining of gods and she was described as wandering along with the restless dead. Yet despite her frightful associations, she was often associated with protection and her shines were often placed at dangerous areas like crossroads and doorways (areas where things intersect). The ancient Greeks often used frightful imagery as apotropaic charms (charms to ward off evil), frequently employing Medusa’s frightening visage for this purpose, so it makes sense that Hekate, a goddess with frightful associations, would be used in a similar vein.

Her helpful form shows up in the Kore/Persephone myth. When Hades abducts Kore/Persephone, Demeter searches for the young goddess who was her daughter and Hekate aids her in her search. She is even described in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter as “tender-hearted” and “bright-coiffed”.

Hecate is mentioned in Hesiod’s Theogony where she is described as a goddess who was honoured “above all” by Zeus, who gave her shares of the earth, sea, and sky. Hesiod associates her with giving wealth to human beings, bestowing judgement, and giving victory in games.

One of the most famous witches in Ancient Greek literature, Medea, is described as a priestess of Hekate in The Argonautica, by Apollonius Rhodius. Unlike most priestesses, who learn their worship from other priestesses, Medea was described by Apollonius as learning her craft directly from the goddess. In the Argonautica, Apollonius refuses to describe the rituals Medea performs to Hekate, saying “For Medea bade them land and propitiate Hekate with sacrifice. Now all that the maiden prepared for offering the sacrifice may no man know, and may my soul not urge me to sing thereof. Awe restrains my lips, yet from that time the altar which the heroes raised on the beach to the goddess remains till now, a sight to men of a later day” (translated by Douglas Killings). For Apollonius, Hekate’s rituals were meant to be kept a mystery and veiled in secrecy. Apollonius does let slip that honey was used as an offering to the goddess. When Medea’s husband, Jason, invokes the goddess, Apollonius describes the ritual: “he dug a pit in the ground of a cubit’s depth and heaped up billets of wood, and over it he cut the throat of the sheep, and duly placed the carcas above; and he kindled the logs placing fire beneath, and poured over them mingled libations, calling on Hekate Brimo to aid him in the contests. And when he had called on her he drew back; and she heard him, the dread goddess, from the uttermost depths and came to the sacrifice of Aeson’s son; and round her horrible serpents twined themselves among the oak boughs; and there was a gleam of countless torches; and sharply howled around her the hounds of the underworld. All the meadows trembled at her step; and the nymphs that haunt the marsh and the river shrieked, all who dance round that mead of Amarantian Phasis” (translated by Douglas Killings). Hekate’s presence causes fear and dread to spread and even the sound of her steps scare away other supernatural creatures like nymphs.

Ovid describes the shrine to Hekate that Medea visits as being deep in the forest.

In Euripides’ play Medea, the witch Medea calls upon her chosen goddess by saying “So help me She who of all Gods hath been the best to me, of all my chosen queen and helpmate, Hekate, who dwells apart, the flame of flame, in my fire’s inmost heart” (translated by Gilbert Murray) before she proceeds to kill her own children. Hekate is evoked by Medea both to help protect Jason, and then to take vengeance on his children.

The Roman playwright Seneca also wrote a version of Medea‘s story, and in it, he refers to Media setting up an altar to Hekate within her house. She invokes the goddess with the words “Now summoned by my rites, appear, you heavenly globe of night, displaying your most hostile looks, with menace in every face”, Hekate is associated with the moon in this prayer and is multifaced. Medea later refers to Hekate receiving her prayers with the words “My prayers are received: Thrice has bold Hekate vouchsafed the barking of dogs, and set off uncanny fires with her light-bearing torch”.

Hekate was frequently evoked in curse tablets in the ancient Greek and Roman world, her name inscribed on iron alongside the intended victim. The iron was then pierced with nails and dropped into areas that were considered close to the underworld like underground springs, caves, and graveyards.

The Orphic Hymn to Hekate refers to her primarily as the goddess of roads and crossroads and calls her a “tomb spirit, revelling in the souls of the dead”, yet the hymn also calls her beautiful. It reveals that she is a goddess of complexity and contradiction. She is described as norcturnal, monstrous, and repelling… but it also calls her a beautiful goddess, a youth, and a maiden. She is described as delighting in wild places and loving deer, but she is also described as a devourer of beasts.

Hekate, like magic itself in the ancient Greek and Roman world, is complex, multifaceted, and inconsistent. Her complexity may be reflected in the fact that she is depicted with three forms, not able to capture her contradictory nature in one single form.

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Not Grimm… But Grim

Not Grimm… But Grim

A review of Willow Dawson and Shelley Tanaka’s White as Milk, Red as Blood: The Forgotten Fairy Tales of Franz Xaver von Schonwerth (Alfred A Knopf Canada, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

When I first read the fairy tales recorded by Bavarian folklore collector  Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, the tales seemed whimsically short and light even though many of the tales featured the grim characteristics of fairy tales like abuse, murder, violence, hunger, and torture. This underscores the power of translation and the influence that it has on the way we read folk narratives. Simple things like word choice, tone, or presentation on the page can shift our readings of fairy tales.

When I encountered Willow Dawson and Shelley Tanaka’s White as Milk, Red as Blood: The Forgotten Fairy Tales of Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, my reading of von Schonwerth’s tales changed drastically, and I attribute the way the stories were read in this collection with that shift. The tales suddenly took on darker tones, words stood out like blood, witch, wolf, hunt, strangled, and death. Despite the way that words suddenly spoke themselves suffused with melancholy and anger, it wasn’t Tanaka’s translation alone that triggered the shift in reading. Rather, it was the magical binding of Tanaka’s words to Dawson’s art. Dawson’s illustrations of the tales were able to play with the intrusion of the inhuman into the human world, underscoring the threatening potential of these tales. She evoked a beauty tinged with tragedy in her art, interweaving flowers with bodies and blood.

Text is scattered across Dawson’s images, which gives them a weighty presence in the narrative, making them part of the story rather than a side note, addendum, or marginalia. Dawson is able to pull words out of Tanaka’s translation to emphasize parts of the tale that the reader might disregard.

Dawson’s art incorporates aspects of folk art, giving the work a timeless quality, and reminding the reader that this is folklore in motion – always shifting and changing, but maintaining its roots.

Although Tanaka and Dawson don’t use all of von Schonwerth’s tales, they create a representative sample, a tasting of the folklore that von Schonwerth was able to collect. By incorporating the visual with the textual, Tanaka and Dawson are able to capture some of the multivocality and mutability of fairy tales, highlighting the way that fairy tales can take on new meanings through their contexts.

to find out more about White as Milk, Red as Blood: The Forgotten Fairy Tales of Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, go to https://penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/546931/white-milk-red-blood#9780345812186

To discover more about Willow Dawson, go to https://www.willowdawson.com

to discover more about Shelley Tanaka, go to https://www.writersunion.ca/member/shelley-tanaka

Accessing The Mermaid

Accessing The Mermaid

Accessing the MermaidA review of Angeline Woon’s “The Mermaid and the Prince of Dirt” in Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories, edited by Kaitlin Tremblay and Kelsi Morris (Exile, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille

In “The Mermaid and the Prince of Dirt”, Angeline Woon takes the exploration of essential otherness in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and reworks it into a tale of disability and trying to fit into a world that actively prevents spaces of accommodation. The Little Mermaid was already a tale about ideas of belonging and spaces that prevented access, but Woon’s reimagining of the tale focuses on the way that our social and physical environments are made to exclude and reject certain bodies. 

Woon’s narrator is a mermaid who sought the land not due to her obsession over a human prince, but because she wanted to escape the control of her older sisters who regularly made decisions for her. As a mermaid, she already felt like an outsider. Annalee seeks out a witch who can give her access to the surface world and, like the mermaid in Andersen’s tale, Annalee gives her voice in order to gain the ability to walk on the surface world.

Annalee doesn’t rankle at her loss of voice and finds that as long as she can move and dance, she can express herself, but her sisters view her as incomplete without having a voice and decide that she can’t be complete unless she has one, so they unilaterally make the decision to trade with the witch to get Annalee’s voice back. The witch decides to take away most of Annalee’s legs as part of the bargain and Annalee becomes a wheelchair user. Decisions over her body are still being made by her sisters and she is assumed incapable of making her own decisions.

Rather than seeking a prince, Annalee finds Liam, a person who experiences mental health issues, but is also willing to believe her when she says that she is a mermaid, which most people refuse to do. Although Liam doesn’t come from noble blood, he is a prince to Annalee because he is one of the few people who is willing to make spaces accessible to her body. 

Woon’s reworking of The Little Mermaid becomes social commentary, bringing attention to the way that accessibility is still not a priority for most people, issues with government financial assistance (both the lack of it, and the constant requirement to prove disability), and the willingness and readiness of our society to assume the worst of people experiencing mental illness. 

To discover more about Those Who Make Us, visit https://thosewhomakeus.wordpress.com and http://www.exileeditions.com/shop/those-who-make-us-the-exile-book-of-anthology-series-number-thirteen/

To discover more about Angeline Woon, visit https://angelinewoon.wordpress.com

Fairy Tale Mock Trial

By Derek Newman-Stille

This is an activity I have designed for my Fairy Tale students at Trent University that allows them to explore fairy tale texts in a unique and exciting way, while also developing argumentative skills. The mock trial format allows them to critically interrogate the text and develop arguments from their exploration. I was inspired to develop this activity by watching “How to Get Away With Murder”.

__________

How to Get Away With Murdering a Fairy Tale Witch: The Trial of Hansel and Gretel

Why a Trial?

It develops several academic skills including:

  • How to create well-structured arguments
  • Augmenting your critical thinking skills
  • How to critically analyze an opposing argument and use evidence to respond to these arguments
  • Oral discussion skills

This type of debate is like scholarship. In academic research, you have to see the points someone else has raised about your topic and create responses to those points that are more persuasive.

The trial will allow you to interact with the text in a unique way, examining it as an evidentiary document. You will find that you remember more about the text.

This is an exploration of active learning since you have to learn on the spot as things are happening around you.

Above all – IT IS FUN!!

 

Instructions:

You will be divided into two groups: the prosecution and defence. It is the job of the prosecution to represent the state and prove that the person or people on trial are guilty. It is the duty of the defence to prove the innocence of the accused person. You will be divided randomly to make this more exciting and to allow you to develop an argument that you may not entirely agree with.

Read through The Grimm Brothers’ “Hansel and Gretel”. Mine this text for evidence of BOTH sides – remember, you will have to think in advance of any arguments the opposing side may come up with and counter them. Ask yourself: What are the details of the case? What could Hansel and Gretel be accused of? Consider what would be compelling arguments to persuade a jury.

Make sure not to speak while the other side is presenting their arguments. Take notes silently and observe so you don’t miss anything.

The Trial

  1. Take 10 minutes to confer with the rest of your legal team and play your case. Each person in the group should contribute. Make sure to take notes while the other side is presenting their case so you can counter them.
  2. Each of you will then have 10 minutes to present their case. Prosecution first, and then defence. Each member of the group should try to make at least one point.
  3. Take 5 minutes to prepare a rebuttal of the opposing team’s statements. Rely on the notes that you took when the opposing team was speaking.
  4. Each of you will then have 10 minutes to present their case. Prosecution first, and then defence. Each member of the group should try to make at least one point.
  5. Your professor will judge the trial and determine the guilt of Hansel and Gretel.

 

 

 

Harvested

HarvestedA review of Garth Nix’s “Hansel’s Eyes” in A Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (Aladdin Paperbacks, New York)

By Derek Newman-Stille

In “Hansel’s Eyes”, Garth Nix’s re-telling of the Hansel and Gretel tale, the two siblings cope with parents who are constantly trying to get rid of them. Set in a modern urban environment, Hansel and Gretel generally cope with these attempts at abandonment by bringing maps, compasses, water, and food. However, when their ‘hagmother’ decides to use chloroform on them, they wake up in an abandoned part of the city, run down due to economic decay.

Lured into a video game store that is the only thing still functioning in the abandoned parts of the city, Hansel and Gretel are abducted by a witch to be harvested for their organs and sold piece-by-piece to wealthy members of society. 

Nix transforms the original tale of hunger and cannibalism into a modern re-visioning of wealth disparity and the treatment of the poor as disposable commodities. Nix points to the issues with the current economic system in its exploitation of the bodies of the economically oppressed in order to make further wealth for the rich, but rather than exploiting the labour of these bodies, he makes this bodily deprivation literal, illustrating the dangers in de-valuing the lives of people in poverty and elevating the lives of the wealthy. Nix illustrates that we are already living in a cannibalistic society that feeds off of bodies in poverty through exploitation, funnelling the excess of wealth to a smaller and smaller population. 

The connection between organ harvesting and the Hansel and Gretel tale is made more explicit by portraying the witch as blind and wanting new eyes. Despite the ableist potentials of this tale by presenting a woman with disabilities as the villain (as so many fairy tales do), Nix creates a complex tale of the consumptive narrative of modern capitalism, making Hansel’s eyes just another part of the system that consumes bodies in order to benefit the wealthy and powerful. In this case, the power represented is magic and its seductive quality is illustrated by Nix in his portrayal of the allure of magic for Gretel and the danger of her forgetting where she came from in order to access this new level of influence and potency. 

To discover more about Garth Nix, visit http://www.garthnix.com 

The Sweet Taste of Mortality

The Sweet Taste of Mortality

A review of Jackson Pearce’s Sweetly (Little, Brown and Company, 2011).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Hansel and Gretel is a tale of hunger and displacement. Focussing on the two children losing their home due to hunger and eating of a witch’s house and inspiring her to try to eat them, the tale is one where a loss of home and hunger are intertwined. Jackson Pearce sets her Hansel and Gretel revision in small town America where populations dwindle as people search for homes in areas where they can get work and where the economy is starving. 

Her brother and sister team are re-named Ansel and Gretchen and they end up moving into a small town candy shop owned by a young woman named Sophia. Sophia has been blamed with the loss of young women who leave each year to seek work in larger cities and she is ostracised because she is seen to be responsible. In this blame game, Jackson Pearce points to the other side of the fairy tale, the side of gossip and the tales that spread through small towns as people seek to find people to blame for the social issues that occur in their town. The town is also living its own “once upon a time” by constantly trying to portray itself as the quaint but prosperous community it once was, glorifying its past to hide from the issues in its present.

Where the town is glorifying the past, Ansel, Gretchen, and Sophia are all trying to hide from their pasts, changing themselves from the people they once were to avoid the threat of traumatic memories. They carry traumas of the past with them as they seek to re-make themselves and find new possible ways of interacting with the world, wanting to change themselves. 

Yet, this is not just a tale of economies in small town America. The woods are places full of horrors and places where no one wants to wander off or get lost. Pearce’s tale is filled with magic, but it is also filled with horror and fear. Ansel, Gretchen, and Sophia are all linked by a desire to make things better, but they are also linked by a shared fear, an uncertainty about the future and the threats that proliferate around them.

To discover more about Jackson Pearce, visit her website at http://jackson-pearce.com/sweetly/ 

Ozpressed

Ozpressed
A review of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (ReganBooks, 1995)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Gregory Maguire’s Wicked is a tale of oppression and marginalisation. Maguire centralises his narrative on the life of the Wicked Witch of the West from L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, giving readers the opportunity to question the singular portrayal of a narrative and opening up the possibility that any narrative only speaks one truth among many. Maguire explores the Wicked Witch’s life from her own perspective, giving new context to her tale and examining her as a marginalised figure.

Like many figures who have been socially assigned to the category of “problem”, Elphaba, the Wicked Witch, had characteristics that others could point to as “different”. She was the only green skinned person in Oz, making her a target for discrimination, assumptions about her origins, and threats to her safety. Even her own father thought that she was a physical manifestation of his own sin, illustrating the compulsion to moralize difference.

Elphaba’s birth and life come at a time when the social political situation of Oz is already uncertain. The citizens of Oz have sat by while the Wizard of Oz has exploited the existing discriminatory attitudes of the citizens to launch campaigns of rights denial, ghettoisation, and ultimately extermination for Oz’s marginalized populations. Elphaba, a person who has lived her entire life through the lens of discrimination, launches a campaign of freedom fighting against the Wizard, seeking to find a place for herself in the world by getting rid of the horrors of the world.

Steeped in philosophical debate about the nature of evil, battles of political discrimination, and, of course, fairy tale battles against those who inherit the title “witch”, Maguire’s tale is fundamentally one about belonging. It is about the desire for home, and the question of whether a home can be made or something one has to be born into. It is about what constitutes belonging and who doesn’t belong when we create barriers around belonging. And, of course, it is about the horrors visited on those who the people in power decide don’t belong.

To discover more about Gregory Maguire, visit http://gregorymaguire.com