Of course, there was the one in Walt Disney’s Snow White, all stringy gray hair under her black hood, a wart on her crooked nose, her inane rictus revealing a single tooth left in her lower gum, and the heavy brows over her crazy eyes further exaggerating her wicked expression. But she is not the witch who made the biggest impression on my childhood: that honor goes to Flutter Mildweather.
Flutter appears in The Glassblower’s Children, a children’s novel by the Swedish writer Maria Gripe, which is set in an imaginary Nordic country. She lives in a house perched on a hilltop and nestled beneath a very old apple tree, the shape of which is visible from far away, outlined against the sky. The region is peaceful and lovely, but the inhabitants of the nearby village avoid wandering that way, for a gallows once stood there. At night, you may catch a faint glimmer at the window while the old woman weaves and chats to her crow, Wise Wit, who has been one-eyed ever since he lost the other by looking too deeply into the Well of Wisdom. More than the witch’s magical powers, I was impressed by the aura she had, a blend of deep serenity, mystery and insight.
I was fascinated by the way Flutter was depicted: “she always walked about wearing a big indigo cloak with a shoulder cape. The deep, scalloped edge flapped like huge wings on her shoulders”—hence her first name, “Flutter.”1 “And on her head she wore a very remarkable hat. Its flower-strewn brim belled out beneath a high violet peak decorated with butterflies.” All who crossed her path were struck by the vitality of her blue eyes, which “were changing all the time and had great power over people.” Perhaps, much later, with my adult interest in fashion, it was this image of Flutter Mildweather that allowed me to appreciate the imposing creations of Yohji Yamamoto—his capacious garments, his vast hats, like shelters of fabric—the polar opposite to the dominant aesthetic diktat that women should show as much of their skin and shape as possible.2 A benevolent shadow, Flutter remained stored away in me like a talisman, a memory of what a woman of stature could be.
I also used to like the somewhat withdrawn life Flutter led and her relationship with the nearby community, at once distant and connected. The hill where her house stands, Gripe writes, seems to keep the village safe, as if it is “resting comfortably in its protection.” The witch weaves extraordinary carpets: “She sat at her loom day in and day out, brooding somewhat anxiously about the people and the life down in the village. And then one day she discovered that she knew what was going to happen to them. She could see it in the carpet design that grew under her hands.”3 Her appearances in the village streets, infrequent and fleeting as they are, become a sign of hope for those who see her go by: she owes the second part of her nickname—no one seems to know her true name—to the fact that she is never seen in winter and that her reappearance is a sure sign of spring’s imminence, even if that day the thermometer is still at “thirty degrees below freezing.”
Even the scary witches—the one in “Hansel and Gretel”; Baba Yaga of the Russian fairy tales, lurking in her izba perched on chicken feet—all inspired in me more excitement than repugnance. They stirred my imagination, sparked delicious shivers of terror, gave me a sense of adventure and opened doors onto other worlds. At primary school, faced with the inexplicable composure of the teaching staff and left to our own devices, my schoolmates and I would spend our breaks tracking down the witch who had set up home behind the playground hedge. Danger danced hand in hand with intrigue. Suddenly we felt that anything might happen, and perhaps, too, that unthreatening prettiness and cooing sweetness were not the only fate imaginable for women. Without this excitement, childhood would have lacked depth of flavor. But, in Flutter Mildweather, the figure of the witch ultimately became a positive one for me. It was the witch who had the last word, who made the baddies bite the dust. She offered the promise of revenge over any adversary who underestimated you; like Fantômette, in a way, only with the power of her wit rather than her talents as a Lycra-clad gymnast—which suited me, as I hated sport.4 Through Flutter, I arrived at the idea that being a woman could mean having additional power, whereas up to that point my vague impressions suggested quite the opposite. Since then, wherever it appears, the word “witch” has had a magnetic hold on me, as if still promising some power that could one day be mine. Something about it fizzes with energy. The word speaks of a knowledge that lies close to the ground, a vital power, an accumulated force of experience that official sources disdain or repress. I also like the idea of an art that we can go on perfecting throughout our lives, to which we dedicate ourselves and which protects us against everything, or almost everything, if only due to the passion we invest in it. The witch embodies woman free of all domination, all limitation; she is an ideal to aim for; she shows us the way.
A Victim of the Moderns
It has taken me a surprisingly long time to appreciate the degree of misunderstanding within this magnet for fantasy, this image of a heroine with superpowers—as witches are portrayed in all dominant cultural productions going. Half a lifetime to understand that, before becoming a spark to the imagination or a badge of honor, the word “witch” had been the very worst seal of shame, the false charge which caused the torture and death of tens of thousands of women. The witch-hunts that took place in Europe, principally during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, occupy a strange place in the collective consciousness. Witch trials were based on wild accusations—of night-time flights to reach sabbath meetings, of pacts and copulation with the Devil—which seem to have dragged witches with them into the sphere of the unreal, tearing them away from their genuine historical roots. To our eyes, when we come across her these days, the first known representation of a woman flying on a broomstick, in the margin of Martin Le Franc’s manuscript Le Champion des dames (The Champion of Women, 1441–2), appears unserious, facetious even, as though she might have swooped straight out of a Tim Burton film or from the credits to Bewitched, or even been intended as a Halloween decoration. And yet, at the time the drawing was made—around 1440—she heralded centuries of suffering. On the invention of the witches’ sabbath, historian Guy Bechtel says: “This great ideological poem has been responsible for many murders.”5 As for the sexual dimension of the torture the accused suffered, the truth of this seems to have been dissolved into Sadean imagery and the troubling emotions that provokes.
In 2016, Bruges’ Sint-Janshospitaal museum devoted an exhibition to “Bruegel’s Witches,” the Flemish master being among the first painters to take up this theme. On one panel, he listed the names of dozens of the city’s women who were burned as witches in the public square. “Many of Bruges’ inhabitants still bear these surnames and, before visiting the exhibition, they had no idea they could have an ancestor accused of witchcraft,” the museum’s director commented in the documentary Dans le sillage des sorcières de Bruegel. This was said with a smile, as if the fact of finding in your family tree an innocent woman murdered on grounds of delusional allegations were a cute little anecdote for dinner-party gossip. And it begs the question: which other mass crime, even one long-past, is it possible to speak of like this—with a smile?
By wiping out entire families, by inducing a reign of terror and by pitilessly repressing certain behaviors and practices that had come to be seen as unacceptable, the witch-hunts contributed to shaping the world we live in now. Had they not occurred, we would probably be living in very different societies. They tell us much about choices that were made, about paths that were preferred and those that were condemned. Yet we refuse to confront them directly. Even when we do accept the truth about this period of history, we go on finding ways to keep our distance from it. For example, we often make the mistake of considering the witch-hunts part of the Middle Ages, which is generally considered a regressive and obscurantist period, nothing to do with us now—yet the most extensive witch-hunts occurred during the Renaissance: they began around 1400 and had become a major phenomenon by 1560. Executions were still taking place at the end of the eighteenth century—for example, that of Anna Göldi, who was beheaded at Glarus, in Switzerland, in 1782. As Guy Bechtel writes, the witch “was a victim of the Moderns, not the Ancients.”6
Likewise, we tend to explain the persecutions as a religious fanaticism led by perverted inquisitors. Yet, the Inquisition, which was above all concerned with heretics, made very little attempt to discover witches; the vast majority of condemnations for witchcraft took place in the civil courts. The secular court judges revealed themselves to be “more cruel and more fanatical than Rome”7 when it came to witchcraft. Besides, this distinction is only moderately useful in a world where there was no belief system beyond the religious. Even among the few who spoke out against the persecutions—such as the Dutch physician Johann Weyer, who, in 1563, condemned the “bloodbath of innocents”—none doubted the existence of the Devil. As for the Protestants, despite their reputation as the greater rationalists, they hunted down witches with the same ardour as the Catholics. The return to literalist readings of the Bible, championed by the Reformation, did not favor clemency—quite the contrary. In Geneva, under Calvin, thirty-five “witches” were executed in accordance with one line from the Book of Exodus: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18). The intolerant climate of the time, the bloody orgies of the religious wars—3,000 Protestants were killed in Paris on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572—only boosted the cruelty of both camps toward witches.
Copyright © 2018 by Mona Chollet