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 However, the representation of witches and magic has developed through time, leaving outdated stereotypes behind.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: Folklore Roots in The Viy
Witchcraft in Literature 101: Satire in The Master and Margarita
Witchcraft in Literature 101: Social Commentary in The Witches of Eastwick
Witchcraft in Literature 101: Gothic Tendencies in Lives of the Mayfair Witches
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
Folklore Roots in The Viy
Since the old times, witchcraft has been associated with dark forces. Witches were inseparably linked to the concept of Evil, which is usually associated with the unfamiliar and weird, and “any social structure tends to exclude anything radically different from itself” or anything that has “a possible power to disturb the familiar and the known” (Jackson, 2013, p.53). In patriarchal societies, women with power were seen as defiant and unacceptable, and in turn, massively shunned, hunted, and feared. This cultural prejudice found its reflection in folklore, as since the beginning of time people used to tell stories which incorporated their hopes and beliefs, fears, and superstitions. Slavic culture is very rich in fairy tales and folk stories, and that is where the Russian-Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol found inspiration for his famous supernatural novella "The Viy" (1835).
Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (1809-1852) is a Ukrainian-born Russian novelist, mainly known for his short stories, such as "The Nose" (1835), "The Overcoat" (1843), a play The Government Inspector (1836), and a novel Dead Souls (1842). In his work, he used the technique of the grotesque in order to satirise human follies and exaggerate the image of social and political issues in the Russian Empire. His Ukrainian upbringing and local folklore inspired in him an interest in the supernatural and heavily influenced his work. The collection of the short stories Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (1832) and the novella "The Viy" (1835) represent the mystical and irrational beliefs of the simple folk. In these stories demons, witches, ghouls, goblins, and other dark forces, and a shapeshifting Devil himself – are a part of the normal reality. Gogol was fascinated by both the divine and the demonic, though to him all the supernatural aspects of life were absolutely real. “In his habits of thought and outlook, the overlapping of the ordinary with the supernatural and magical was simply a fact of Russian life” (Hardy, Stanton, 2002, p.126). In some sense, Gogol’s stories belong to the tradition of Magical Realism. Thus, addressing the first mystery: who is Viy?
The Viy is a monstrous creation of popular fancy. It is the name which the inhabitants of Little Russia give to the king of gnomes, whose eyelashes reach to the ground. The following story is a specimen of such folklore. I have made no alterations, but reproduce it in the same simple form in which I heard it (Gogol, Field, 2011, para.1).
In the introduction to the novella, Gogol himself claims that this story is absolutely real, and he presents it as a part of the local folklore. It might be that Viy was entirely Gogol’s invention, and with his note, he intended to demonstrate how deeply people believed in their mystical folk traditions.
The plot of "The Viy" follows three monastery students who get lost in the dark on their journey home through the countryside. They find shelter for the night in a lonely cottage where an old grouchy woman provides them with separated lodgings. This night, the old woman visits a philosophy student named Thomas. She starts grabbing at him as if trying to catch him, and when Thomas, frightened, tries to push her away, she jumps on his back. He runs out of the hut, carrying her on his shoulders. The old woman bewitches Thomas, taking control over his body, as “a strange, oppressive, and yet sweet sensation took possession of his heart” (Gogol, Field, 2011, para. 71). Everything that happens next is experienced by Thomas as a vivid dream. The witch rides on Thomas’s back until he summons prayers in his mind and becomes conscious again. He picks up a piece of wood, jumps on the witch’s back instead, and begins to beat her up until she collapses. Defeated, the old witch transforms into a young and beautiful girl. In the morning, after the strange incident, Thomas finds out that the daughter of the village’s chief (pannochka in the original text) passed away under strange circumstances. Thomas is invited to pray over her dead body before it is buried for the following three consecutive nights.
The novella highlights interesting stereotypes connected to the witches. The popularised image of the witch in the culture portrays her as an ugly, old woman who uses her powers with solely evil intentions. In fiction, witches are often used to depict wicked characters and antagonists. This tradition can be traced back to folklore, specifically – to fairy tales. For instance, The Grimm Brothers were deeply inspired by Germanic folk tales and myths and “there is much magic found in the tales”, as well as witches, magicians and fairies (Witches in Myth, Legends and Fairy Tales, 2002, para. 10). There are several witches who appear in Grimms’ Fairy Tales (1812) and who have become widely popular due to their characters' appearance in Disney adaptations. In Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, witches are portrayed as pure evil; they cast curses, hex, boil potions, shapeshift, and hate children. In Russian folklore, the canonical figure of the witch is represented by Baba Yaga. Similarly to the witches in other fairy tales, she has the appearance of an old ugly hag who likes to “steal young children, cook them in her oven and then eat them” (Witches in Myth, Legends and Fairy Tales, 2002, para. 12). She is known for her hut that stands on chickens’ legs and constantly spins around as well as for her ability to ride through the air in a mortar or cauldron.
Gogol incorporated many of the typical folklore's witchcraft traits in his novella. It is also worth noting that the witch in "The Viy" appears first as an old hag who possesses men and rides on their backs only to transform into a young and beautiful girl later on. Her activities and characteristics in the story carry certain erotic undertones as well. This fear of “unnatural sexuality” was first presented in The Malleus Maleficarum (1486), where witches were described as sexually perverse. “According to these defining myths of witches, women, then, in being filled with insatiable lusts, corrupt men because of their natural propensity for evil” (Wells, 2007, p. 43). The young chief’s daughter in the story fulfils these characteristics, as back in the village Thomas discovers that the “young mistress” was in fact in contact with “evil spirits” (Gogol, Field, 2011, para.166-167). The local folk share with Thomas the stories about her seducing men in the village, attacking other women, and sucking the blood of newborn babies (Gogol, Field, 2011).
In addition, the young girl in the story shares common characteristics with ghouls, as it is typical for vampires to manipulate, hypnotise, and seduce their victims as well as to possess an aura of sexuality. “Gogol’ therefore often uses the vampire as a seducer to represent diabolic temptation and the deceitful beauty which may hide evil” (Swensen, 1993, p. 493). During the first night of Thomas’s service in the church, he looks at the dead girl's body lying in a coffin and thinks, “In truth, there was something terrible about the beauty of the dead girl. Perhaps she would not have inspired so much fear had she been less beautiful;” (Gogol, Field, 2011, para. 209). In Russian folklore, vampirism assumes a sacrilegious significance, as it was associated with an unclean spirit possessing a dead body (Swensen, 1993). In the following nights, the young chief’s daughter gets up from the coffin and tries to attack Thomas. He resists the dark forces using his prayers but fails in the end. When the witch summons the monsters to attack Thomas, ghouls and goblins fill in the church and bring their terrible king - Viy. When Viy seizes the monsters on Thomas, he falls to the ground and dies of terror. In the end, the monastery's students come to the conclusion that their friend was defeated by Evil because he lacked faith.
"The Viy" by Nikolai Gogol is a mystical story that finds its origins in Slavic folklore. The story opposes supernatural elements with ordinary life, peaceful scenes with terror, and magic with religion. The representation of witchcraft in the story is based on vernacular superstitions, connecting it with exclusively perverse and wicked deeds. The evil witch is portrayed as a villain, absorbing in her character common primal fears associated with this archetype. Despite its partly obsolete perspective, the novella is a work of great imagination. "The Viy" was adapted on screen by Soviet filmmakers in 1967 and it is still seen as a fascinating work of horror.
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Jackson, R. (2013). Fantasy. Taylor and Francis. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315015958
Swensen, A. (1993). Vampirism in Gogol’s Short Fiction. The Slavic and East European Journal, 37(4), 490–509. https://doi.org/10.2307/308458
Wells, K. A. (2007). Screaming, flying, and laughing: Magical Feminism's witches in contemporary film, television, and novels. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
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Figure 1: Tin Can Forest. (n.d.) Witch and Demon. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://nl.pinterest.com/pin/651614639847255378/
Figure 2: Stein, R. (1901). The Viy. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Вий_(мифология)
Figure 3: Bilibin, I. (1900). Baba Yaga. [Illustration]. Retreived from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bilibin._Baba_Yaga.jpg
Figure 4: Mosfilm. (1967). Pannochka and Thomas. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://wap.filmz.ru/film/9559/
Cover image: Tin Can Forest. (n.d.) Vasilisa High Priestess. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://tincanforest.com/product/vasilisa-high-priestess/