Witchcraft takes on many forms and perspectives in various works of literature. It finds its origins in folklore and myths, it carries the traits of gothic and horror, but it is also used in satire and comedy, and undoubtedly plays a major role in fantasy. The mystical and supernatural have always been associated with all things dark, scary, and evil. However, the representation of witches and magic has developed through time, leaving outdated stereotypes behind. The aesthetics of horror, the weird, grotesque, and everything else different from normal reality have switched from being repulsive and feared to being attractive. Eventually, witches transform into the protagonists of the story and make witchcraft seem appealing.
Witchcraft in Literature 101 will be divided into seven different chapters:
Witchcraft in Literature 101: Feminism in Witches Series and Good Omens
Witchcraft in Literature 101: Wonders of Magic in Harry Potter
Witchcraft in Literature 101: Retelling Mythology in Circe
Feminism in Witches Series and Good Omens
After centuries of being associated only with horror and negative connotations, witches eventually found their place in the comedy genre as role models, due to the work of two prominent fantasy writers Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) and Neil Gaiman (1960-). Pratchett and Gaiman are both British authors, whose literary works contain many supernatural elements. The main corpus of Pratchett’s work – the Discworld series (1983-2015) – includes story-lines about witches, wizards, Death-personified and other fantastic figures. His novels often contain elements of parody and allusions to medieval times, classic literary works, historical figures and famous characters from popular culture. Pratchett’s novels are deeply ironic and satirical, even though they have been generally defined as comedic fantasy. Neil Gaiman became famous as a writer of fiction only after the publication of his collaborative work with Pratchett, the novel Good Omens (1990). Since then, he has become renowned especially for his dark fantasy novels, containing gothic elements, like Neverwhere (1996), Stardust (1999), Coraline (2002), and his mythology-inspired works American Gods (2001) and Norse Mythology (2017). Both these authors share similarities in their literary work and in particular, in their fascinating approach to witchcraft where they present witches from exceptionally feminist perspective.
The collaborative novel by Gaiman and Pratchett, Good Omens, is a comedic take on the Apocalypse, involving demons and angels, Antichrist, the Four Horsemen, witches and witch-hunters. Despite being a light-hearted and amusing novel, Good Omens refers to the past witch-hunts and the infamous trials. The plot features two witch characters: Agnes Nutter, a prophetess from the seventeenth century, and Anathema Device, her descendant in the present time of the story. It is not a coincidence that these characters were named after the original Pendle witches, – those accused in 1612, in Lancashire, during one of the most well-known witchcraft prosecutions in British history (Castelow, 2019). Back then, in England, as in America and most of Europe, Christian society had widely relied on the concept of witchcraft presented in Malleus Maleficarum, which caused thousands of individuals being executed as a result of the years of witch craze (Levack, 2013). The majority of the accused were female, who “were often sharp-tongued, bad-tempered, and quarrelsome, and they tended to be from the lower levels of the settled community” (Bever, 2002, p. 968). For centuries the patriarchal institutions hunted and executed a great number of women who behaved in an unsatisfactory or unusual way, inconsistent with the submissive roles they were assigned by society.
Good Omens makes an ironic reference to the witch trials through the story of Agnes. Being a healer before her prosecution, which attributes to the common social role of the real witches in the past, she informs the villagers about the importance of washing hands, eating fibre, and physical activity for a prolonged living. For people in her time “she was considered pretty mad even by the standards of the seventeenth-century Lancashire, where mad prophetesses were a growth industry” (Gaiman, Pratchett, 1990, p. 197). Agnes is described as a very independent and intelligent woman, obviously far ahead of her time, as well as “the Witchfinder Army’s great failure”, who does not take religious institutions and the authority seriously (Gaiman, Pratchett, 1990, p. 184). Even being hunted by the whole village, Agnes chooses her own faith and walks to the pyre by herself, leaving the crowd astonished, also, hiding gunpowder and nails in her skirts, which causes an explosion and kills the Witchfinder and nearly every bystander. Pratchett’s female characters are traditionally those who “create the power to subvert or break from constructed narratives”, and Agnes is obviously one of them, refusing the role of the victim (Sinclair, 2015, p. 2). It is likely that through her figure, the authors expressed their attitude towards the cruelty people were capable of on the account of their ignorance and fear, as so many innocent women were tortured and killed during the times of the witch-craze.
After her death, Agnes leaves behind a book for the future generations that contains puzzling and awkward predictions, called Nice and Accurate Prophecies. In the present time of the story, the young witch Anathema continues the work her ancestor had begun. In some way the book can be perceived as the Book of Shadows, which many witches have in their possession. According to Malleus Maleficarum, “even deviant women must be under male-control” and the book with spells is given to women by the Devil (Wells, 2007, p.51). However, the novel mocks the idea of the male-gaze, as "The books on witchcraft will tell you that the witches work naked. This is because most books on witchcraft are written by men"(Gaiman, Pratchett, 1990, p. 80). According to Kimberly Ann Wells, a researcher in philosophy, “the Magical Feminist version of the Book of Shadows is often more like a cookbook or recipe journal, or even history textbook” (Wells, 2007, p. 52). This approach to the variations on the Book of Shadows demonstrates how the fictional witches rely not on the Devil’s work but on “the feminine knowledge of generations of women” (Wells, 2007, p. 53). In the same way Agnes’s work has shaped Anathema’s personality and formed her life path, as her family have possessed the Nice and Accurate Prophecies for generations, relying on Agnes’ wisdom.
Anathema Device is a nineteen-year-witch with a Ph.D., who prefers to call herself “an occultist” (Gaiman, Pratchett, 1990, p. 132). The authors highlight her intellect, instead of her beauty, nevertheless describing her as attractive. Her character proves that “the witches’ power comes not from masculine bravado not feminine submission but from their psychological ingenuity and a stubborn Kantian ethic of not treating people as things” (Sinclair, 2015, p. 9). Anathema’s main powers prove to be both her intelligence and empathy, as she is able to see people’s auras and sense the energies, and she is very good at solving Agnes’ predictions. Anathema follows a heroic narrative, as she comes to Tadfield with a mission and plays an important role among the others in preventing the Apocalypse. During her journey she unknowingly becomes friends with Adam Young, the Antichrist, and, ironically, seduces the Witchfinder, Newt Pulsifer. The novel portrays both Agnes and Anathema as rational and carrying more typically masculine traits, while the Witchfinders appear as overly emotional and naïve. Good Omens “subverts traditional gender roles, as the witches and witch-finders do not conform to their group’s respective traditional gender role expectations” (Boom, 2021, para. 10). Furthermore, it mocks the toxic masculinity through the figure of the Witchfinder Shedwell, who is superstitious and completely irrational. The witch-hunt comes to an end when Newt falls in love with Anathema, instead of prosecuting her.
Anathema belongs to the tradition of heroic, magical women created by Terry Pratchett, like Granny Weatherwax, Magrat Garlick, Nanny Ogg, Eskarina Smith, Tiffany Aching, and many other outstanding characters from the Witches series (1987-2015). Lian Sinclair, a researcher on the gender topics in Discworld, argues that “by creating women heroes, Pratchett challenges the conventions of gender in fantasy genre”, and even though he is not the only author who critically explores gender roles, he remains part of a minority of writers in the field who do so consistently (Sinclair, 2015, p.7). In his 1985’s speech Why Gandalf Never Married, Pratchett expressed a concern over the patriarchal consensus within the fantasy universes, which present wizards as clever and powerful, and witches as solely evil and harmful. During the speech, he posed a question, if it is possible for a girl to get a place in a magical University, or in other words, “Can you imagine a female Gandalf?” (Pratchett, 1985, para. 22). The first book in the Witches series, Equal Rites (1987), answers this question, by presenting a witch Eskarina Smith who is accidentally ‘chosen’ to become a wizard and to attend the Unseen University (Sinclair, 2015). The rest of the story challenges the patriarchal order of the wizards and the traditional view of gender roles.
The most outstanding of Pratchett’s characters are those who interfere with the strict order of gender roles and break free from the expected narratives. Granny Weatherwax appears in a few books of the series, as she is a powerful witch and her “ability to straddle the masculine and feminine magics makes her one of the most important and formidable characters in the Discworld” (Sinclair, 2015, p. 7). The second book in the Witches series, Wyrd Sisters, parodies Shakespeare’s literary works and mirrors one of the first fictional representation of witches, the Weird Sisters from Macbeth (1623). In the novel Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick become the protagonists of the story and represent the spiritual trio of crone, mother, and maiden. In Witches Abroad the three witches help the princess Ella escape the unwanted marriage with a price, making the allusions on Cinderella fairy-tale (1697) and deconstructing the existing narrative. The Wee Free Man (2003), first book in the sub-series about Tiffany Aching, tells a story about a farm-girl who dreams about becoming a powerful witch. Through the series, she abandons her expected role, fights the authority, defeats the villains, breaks free from the loner archetype, and eventually becomes a respected and content witch. Pratchett’s characters ultimately assert that stories, historical constructions, and social expectations cannot be allowed to shape people’s roles. Female characters of the Discworld are very diverse, however, they always prove to be intelligent, brave, and self-determined witches and women who create their own paths.
Throughout time, witches have become common characters and the protagonists in various works of fiction: from the supernatural stories and folklore to the horror and gothic literature. However, their traditional dark narrative has changed, thanks to Gaiman’s and Pratchett’s comedic approach. In their literary works, the authors address serious historical events and explore philosophical issues, always with a sense of humour, which helps them deliver the intended wisdom. As Pratchett has explained, people can mistake funny as meaning the opposite of serious: “Laughter can get through the keyhole while seriousness is still hammering on the door. New ideas can ride on the back of a joke, old ideas can be given an added edge” (Pratchett, Flood, 2017, para. 4). Both authors create light-hearted stories that allow them to ironise the existing stigma around witchcraft and the history of witch-hunts, trials and prosecutions. Good Omens and Witches series deny toxic demarcation of the traditional gender roles and portray witchcraft as a positive force that helps the characters to break free from the constraints of narrative. They also present witchcraft as a power that requires equally intellect and empathy, rationality and emotions. It is a dual truth about a witch’s power that comes from knowing “when to adhere to narrative causality and when to subvert it”, and “when to utilise feminine and masculine magics” (Sinclair, 2015, p. 13). This notion creates multi-faceted characters with a strong will who choose their own paths, instead of submitting to the patriarchal order and following social expectations, – and in the end that is what feminism is about.
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Wells, K. A. (2007). Screaming, flying, and laughing: Magical Feminism's witches in contemporary film, television, and novels. [Dissertation, Texas A&M University]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Figure 1: Amazon/BBC Studios. "Good Omens". (2019). Agnes Nutter being tied to the pyre by the Witchfinder. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.radiotimes.com/tv/fantasy/good-omens-agnes-nutter-josie-lawrence-neil-gaiman-tv-series/
Figure 2: Amazon/BBC Studios. "Good Omens". (2019). Anathema Device at work. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://wall.alphacoders.com/big.php?i=1124379
Figure 3: Dennis, P. (2013). The Witches of Discworld. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/1790803/witches-discworld-game
Figure 4: IrenHorrors. (2020). Autumnal Day. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.deviantart.com/irenhorrors/art/Autumnal-Day-854048647