Season of the witch, 2019
Updated: Nov 11, 2019
The word 'witch' often conjures thoughts of Salem, witch hunts, and the religious fever infused in the trials that took place across both Europe and America. For some, 'witch' might instead summon images from the Satanic Panic of the late twentieth century, or perhaps the revival of the witch in popular culture, first in the 1990s and more recently in the re-imagining of shows such as Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Charmed, and the pending re-make of Practical Magic as a TV series.
From my experience, there are few who would hear this word and immediately think of the Victorian era, or even the long nineteenth century. However, the absence of the Victorian witch in pop culture now does not mean that she was absent from the public's imagination nor sphere then. In fact, witchcraft and the superstitions that accompany it became increasingly prevalent towards the turn of the century. For instance, various occult groups were formed, the most well-known today being The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which attracted (at least supposedly) celebrities such as Arthur Conan Doyle, E. Nesbit, and Bram Stoker.
But it was not just the wealthy and the famous who participated in various forms of witchcraft, or at the very least revered it as a force to be reckoned with. Especially in poorer, more rural communities, superstition was still rife and many regarded folklore almost as a sort of gospel. This is evident both in fiction (such as Elizabeth Gaskell's character Betty Barnes, who burns a cat in a ritual of revenge)* and fact (see below!).
It is possible to identify various authors and artists who began to paint and pen stories concerning witches and witchcraft. These range from sympathetic tales using witch trials as a means to demonstrate society's injustices against innocent and chaste women (as is the case with Lois the Witch, The Amber Witch, and Bound by a Spell), to powerful images of strong-willed, sexually-liberated and independent women (such as those in 'The Ebony Frame', 'The Witch of the Marsh', and Luis Ricardo Falero's paintings).
To demonstrate the various ways that witches and witchcraft still haunted the minds and streets of the Victorian era – and as an excuse to celebrate one of my favourite tropes – I've spent October tweeting various pieces of nineteenth-century literature, art, and folklore concerning witchcraft:
1) Coral rattle (1823-4, c. 1862)
Red coral has been used to keep evil forces away as early as antiquity. It was therefore often used in toys for infant children, including rattles, where it would form the handle (also doubling up as a teething piece). Edith Wharton was given such a rattle as a baby, with her name engraved on the coral.
2) 'Viy' (1835), by Nikolai Gogol
A Russian novella about a philosophy student who is tormented by an evil old witch during the night, who he ultimately murders. Following his narrow escape, the student is suddenly summoned to perform the death rites of a mysterious, wealthy lady. The witch in 'Viy' also has vampiric traits, venturing out at night and drinking blood.
3) ‘The Magic Circle’ (1886), by J. W. Waterhouse
Magic is a common theme in Waterhouse’s paintings, which include depictions of Circe, Medea, undines, sirens, and other magical beings.
Although this painting seems to depict a witch, symbols usually associated with witches (ravens, skulls, frogs) sit outside her magic circle, which contains only herself and some blossoming flowers. Additionally, although the landscape around her looks like a barren wasteland, the entrance to a cave can be seen and is illuminated by a flaming torch with four foreboding figures (three crouching in the entrance and one standing to the side) watching her practice her magic.
4) 'Lois the Witch' (1861), by Elizabeth Gaskell
A short story about Lois, an English woman who travels across the Atlantic to live with relatives in America following her parents' deaths. To Lois's dismay, her American aunt does not welcome the stranger that is her niece, and her cousins' varying degrees of malice culminate in Lois's implications in the Salem witch trials.
5) Pierced animal hearts (c. 1870-1916)
Witches were believed to cast spells causing tempestuous storms to torment sailors and sink ships. As a charm to counter such spells, animal hearts (especially those of agricultural animals like cows and sheep) pierced with iron pins and nails were carried by sailors to repel evil magic.
This practice expanded to become a general remedy for hexes. For example, there was a farmer in East London who, believing his cows had been cursed, followed the advice of a wise woman to hang the heart of one of the 'cursed' cows in his chimney to rid himself of the evil. Ultimately, a local man heard the advice given to the farmer by the wise woman (perhaps a witch herself?) and, fearing for his safety, came forward to confess that he had in fact poisoned the cows himself.
6) ‘The Witch’ (c. 1893-1908), by Mary E. Coleridge
I have walked a great while over the snow,
And I am not tall nor strong.
My clothes are wet, and my teeth are set,
And the way was hard and long.
I have wandered over the fruitful earth,
But I never came here before.
Oh, lift me over the threshold, and let me in at the door!
The cutting wind is a cruel foe.
I dare not stand in the blast.
My hands are stone, and my voice a groan,
And the worst of death is past.
I am but a little maiden still,
My little white feet are sore.
Oh, lift me over the threshold, and let me in at the door!
Her voice was the voice that women have,
Who plead for their heart’s desire.
She came—she came—and the quivering flame
Sunk and died in the fire.
It never was lit again on my hearth
Since I hurried across the floor,
To lift her over the threshold, and let her in at the door.
7) 'Weird Sisters' (c. 1820-1870), by William E. Frost
Painting depicting the Weird Sisters, or three witches, of Shakespeare's 'Macbeth'. A classically 'witchy' image, warts and all.
8) Crossed Blades (19th century)
It was a common superstition that placing crossed objects on the floor or in front of a door would deter witches from entering your household. The most frequent objects used for such protection were brooms, scissors, or knives, like the two steel blades in the image below. These two particular blades were found in the thatched roof of a nineteenth-century cottage in Dunham. Both knives were unused and found with a homemade leather sheath.
9) Forty Years in a Moorland Parish (1891), by J. C. Atkinson
A collection of stories about the local history and folklore of rural Yorkshire, which includes various stories about superstition, witches, and witchcraft. My personal favourite describes a group of men who, during an unsuccessful hunt in the forest, meet an old woman sitting by her cottage. The lady promises the men a hare to pursue on the condition that they will not allow their dog to make chase, to which they readily agree. Following this, she disappears into her home and a hare magically appears before the men. Surprise, surprise, it is the old woman, who transforms herself into the hare and lets them give chase around her cottage.
Not sure why, but there's something entertaining about this witch winding the men up further by making them do circles around her house, thinking that it's a genuine hare they are pursuing and not knowing that they would never be able to catch her.
You can read the story about the Witch and the Hare, and the rest of the text, here: https://archive.org/details/cu31924028026254/page/n101
10) Witch in a flask (c. 1850)
A small glass flask which is purported to contain an imprisoned witch. When it was given to the Pitt Rivers Museum, the collector was warned by the old woman who possessed it that "They do say there be a witch in it, and if you let him out there'll be a peck o' trouble".
To date, the wax seal remains unbroken, and no one knows exactly what the bottle contains. Some people believe that it was used not to catch a witch, but a ghost. When I last visited the Museum, a curator told me that they had the flask x-rayed and found that there is some form of organic matter within, concluding that this might be the ashes of a small animal, such as a cat. This may have led to speculation from the bottle's contemporaries of it being a familiar stored inside, which may have ultimately led to the belief that it contains a witch.
11) 'The Young Sorceress' (c. 1857), by Antoine Wiertz
Oil painting of a young woman being introduced to witchcraft by an older witch. I love the business of this image, especially with the contorted mass of people, animals, and other imagery in the background that floats ominously above the two central figures. This, combined with the yellow and purple colour-scheme, the lighting, the stars on the old witch's cloak, and the fire pit (the proper name escapes me) all coalesce to create a wonderfully magical atmosphere. The devil really is in the details.
That and the fact I completely identify with the older witch, who is basically me every Monday morning when I open my emails at work.
12) The Amber Witch (original 1838, translation 1844), by Wilhelm Meinhold and translated into English by Lady Gordon-Duff
This novel is presented as a found 1600s manuscript, written by a fictional pastor from a small town in Germany during the Thirty Years' War. It tells the tale of the havoc and devastation that ensues from an accusation of witchcraft against the pastor's daughter by an evil nobleman, a superstitious village, and (ironically) the local witch herself.
The writing and presentation of the text was deemed so authentic, that Meinhold's contemporaries supposedly believed it to be a genuine history; even after Meinhold came forward and confessed it was a hoax, critics still studied the book to try and ascertain which parts were truth and which were fabricated by the author.
Above (in order of appearance): title page for the English translation, two illustrations from the English translation
13) Belemnite (c. 1870-1916)
Although a fossil bone of a now extinct squid-like sea creature, it was originally believed to be lightning bolts that had fallen to earth from a storm. As mentioned previously, witches were thought to brew storms to torment sailors, and people would collect these 'lightning bolts' to use as protection from the lightning.
14) ‘Metamorphosis - black cats transforming’ (c. 1880-1923), by Théophile Alexandre Steinlen
A sketch of witches flying naked over a city at night while their familiars howl at them (or perhaps transform into witches themselves, considering the title). I'm not entirely sure if this is Victorian as I can't find a specific date for the image, but you have to admit it is pretty glorious. Exactly how I had planned to spend my Halloween...maybe next year, when it's not on a weekday (#OfficeLife).
15) Witch soap adverts (1880-1910)
Yes, you read that right. I'm afraid I know very little about the context for this rather bizarre pairing of soap and witches, so please get in touch if you have any information or speculations!
Above (in order of appearance): Pears soap (1889); Sapolio soap, Cosmopolitan magazine (1899); Lux Soap, 'Illustrated London News' (1906)
16) 'The Hollow of Three Hills' (1830), by Nathaniel Hawthorne
A short story about two women who meet in an isolated part of an ancient forest, reputed for its longstanding association with witchcraft and the devil. The younger of the two appeals to the older for help with learning the fate of the family she left behind to escape a secret past.
Nathaniel Hawthorne often returned to narratives of witchcraft, puritanism, and Salem. In fact, Hawthorne was the great-great grandson of John Hathorne, who was one of the judges leading the Salem witch trials and the only one to express no remorse for the people he sentenced to death. The shame that Nathaniel Hawthorne felt led him to add the 'w' to his name as a means of distancing himself. (Additionally, this guilt can be seen in his story 'Young Goodman Brown', which is listed below...)
17) Poppet of a woman pierced with a stiletto dagger (c. 1909-1913)
Poppets are dolls made in the image of a particular person, which are then used to inflict magic, often of a malicious nature, upon the person it signifies. I found the example below in the Ashmolean's Spellbound catalogue. As you can tell, the creator of this doll probably didn't get along especially well with the subject who inspired it.
18) ‘The Ebony Frame’ (1893), by E. Nesbit
This short story begins with a man finding two deliberately hidden portraits in his attic: one of his ancestor and the other a strikingly beautiful young woman. The man becomes utterly bewitched by the latter, who happens to be both the ancestor's lover and a witch killed centuries ago, yet whose soul seems to be alive and bound within the ebony frame of her portrait.
19) Félicien Rops's occult and satanic paintings (1882-1897)
What can I say; these speak for themselves... Rops painted a variety of art concerned with eroticism and satanic images, including those below.
Above (in order of appearance): 'The Abduction' (1882); 'The Sacrifice', (c.1882); 'Petite Sorciere' or 'Little Witch', (1897)
20) ‘Young Goodman Brown’ (1835), by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Another Hawthorne short story. This one relates the story of a man in Salem who, against his wife's wishes, bids her farewell to go on an ominous journey at night in the forest. He does not tell his wife, Faith, where he is going or why and leaves her alone at home. In the woods, he meets a mysterious guide, who slowly reveals the sinister truth of his seemingly quiet puritan village.
I must say that I had very little expectations when I started reading, and it has ended up being one of my new favourites; it was unexpectedly chilling.
21) ‘Witch’s ladder’ (1887-1911)
A rope that has feathers tied to it at regular intervals, originally believed to belong to a witch in Somerset. Local people saw the rope hanging from a barn near a relatively isolated cottage, and concluded that it was used by the witch to climb into people's houses (as a spectre) to inflict malicious magic upon sleeping residents. However, further speculation and research now suggests that the 'ladder' was simply a sewel (a type of scarecrow used to scare deer aware from crops).
Click the caption below the image to learn more about this item.
22) Départ pour le Sabbat' (1910) and ‘Après le Sabbat’ (1911), by Albert Joseph Pénot
Two paintings depicting a witch leaving for and returning from a witches' sabbath. (And an accurate 'before & after' for me at most Halloween parties.)
23) 'The Witch of the Marsh' (1893), by Henry B. Marriott-Watson
A short story about a man who, at his lover's request, ventures into a foggy marsh to meet her. Upon entering the marsh, he gradually learns the truth of his lover, a beautiful and mysterious young woman, who seems to have an unnatural connection to the misty landscape that surrounds them.
24) Garland of feathers (1911)
A charm made of feathers and bones. These garlands, or 'ghirlande delle streghe' ("witches' garlands"), were purportedly used by witches in nineteenth-century Tuscany to kill their enemies by placing it under the target’s mattress.
You can learn more about this in the Spellbound catalogue from the Inner Lives exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum.
25) Zwei Hexen (c.1880-1910), by Simon Glücklich
Translates to 'Two Witches'. This seems to be an unusual work for this particular painter, whose earlier art mostly fell into genre painting, later venturing into cheerful mythological scenes and landscapes. I'm not entirely sure exactly when this one was painted, and would be interested to know whether Glücklich had any particular mythological narrative in mind when creating it, or if they are two witches of his own imagining.
26) 'The Enchanted Woman' (1888), by Anna Bonus Kingsford
Kingsford was an active member of Helena Blavatsky's Theosophical movement, becoming president of the London Lodge of the Theosophical Society in 1883, and later formed her own occult movement (called the Hermetic Society) in 1884.
'The Enchanted Woman' was published posthumously at her request in her collection Dreams & Dream Stories, which features a selection of dreams and visions she experienced when either asleep or in a trance-like state. It describes Kingsford finding herself in a strange and hostile world, where she watches a film about an evil sorcerer pursuing a beautiful woman, which ultimately results in the horrific transformation of a world that seemed to be so beautiful and pure.
27) Histoire De La Magie: du monde Surnaturel et de la fatalité à travers les Temps et les Peuples (1870), by Jean-Baptiste Pitois
Translates to History of Magic: the Supernatural World & Fate, through Times & Peoples. As the title suggests, this text served as an extensive study in the history of the occult throughout the ages. It was penned with great caution to avoid repulsing the predominately French Catholic audience, and published under the pen name 'Paul Christian'. Regardles of its controversial content, the book was enormously popular and was translated into English in 1910.
Above: extracts from Histoire De La Magie: du monde Surnaturel et de la fatalité à travers les Temps et les Peuples (1870).
You can read the original (French) text and look at the illustrations here: https://archive.org/details/PaulChristianJeanBaptistePitoisHistoireDeLaMagie
28) ‘The Trial of George Jacobs’ (1855), by Thompkins H. Matteson
Painting depicting the court proceedings of George Jacobs, who was accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials. George's primary accuser was his granddaughter, Margaret Jacobs, who supposedly directed blame at him in order to save her own life.
In Matteson's painting, Margaret can be seen in the black and yellow dress pointing at George, who wears a red cape and is shown kneeling before the court. George's daughter-in-law (Rebecca) can be seen in a red shawl holding up her arms and standing to the right of Margaret while being restrained. George's son (George Jr.) is similarly featured to the right of George, also kneeling and reaching his hand towards his father while being held back by a guard.
Additional figures include: a fainting boy, supposedly affected by George's witchcraft (bottom left); a young girl lying in a woman's arms and thought to be either Ann Putnam or Sarah Churchill, George's servant (bottom centre); and John Hathorne (in the centre holding a book out to Margaret).
29) Hidden shoes (c. 1850, c. 1860-1880)
Items of clothing have been purposefully concealed under floorboards, up chimneys, and behind roof-beams as early as the 1600s. Shoes were one of the most common of such items to be placed in hidden spaces around old houses, and it is thought that this might be in relation to some sort of ritual to bind home and tenants, or perhaps to bring good fortune. Usually, such shoes were worn (not new) and only one of the pair would be concealed within the building. According to the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, over 3,000 of such shoes have been discovered since 1950, mostly from houses dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Above (in order of appearance): mid-nineteenth century shoes found in a house in Otley (Otley museum, Yorkshire); mid- to late-nineteenth-century shoes and other clothing discovers in a house in Brackley (© Northampton museum and Art gallery).
Images and description from Spellbound catalogue.
30) Bound by a Spell: The Hunted Witch of the Forest (1885), by Louisa Lilias Greene
This novel narrates the story of a small Swiss village, exploring the effects of small-town gossip, jealousy, superstition, and grief upon various residents.
Outside the seemingly peaceful village lies a wood where a witch was hanged, which is now supposedly infested with werewolves and haunted by her lingering resentment towards her old neighbours. The majority of the novel follows Pierre, a man so consumed by his hatred of an old woman living in the forest (whom he believes to be both a witch and werewolf), that he devotes his life to capturing her ethereal 'cub', a ghostly boy who haunts the minds and consciences of each villager in turn.
I was surprised by how this story diverged from other, similar witch narratives which also strive to evoke empathy and advocate reason over superstition and mob-mentality. The gradual reveal of the history behind the young boy and the shift between the different villagers was especially enjoyable.
31) Luis Ricardo Falero's witch paintings (1880-1882)
Of course, I had to save my favourite until last. If you're ever in doubt of the Victorian's capacity to enjoy the witch and associated imagery to the fullest, have a look at these beauties.
Above (in order of appearance): 'Witches on the Sabbath' (1878); 'Festival of the Witches' (1880); 'The witch, painted on a tambourine' (1882).
This is obviously not an extensive list. In fact, I have omitted literature and art about two of arguably the most iconic witches to capture the Victorian imagination: Circe and Morgan le Fay. However, these are some of my favourite snippets of history concerning witchcraft in the nineteenth century, so I hope you enjoyed them!
For those interested in learning more about the significance of the witch as a figure in nineteenth-century literature and art, I'm planning to write another post looking into the significance of the books and painting outlined above.
* Chapter 45, North and South