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Discovering Witches

We are so over vampires. Yes, the Twilight franchise is still flapping, and Johnny Depp is showing off his teeth in yet another remake of Dark Shadows, but all this says is that creatures of the night have become safe, bankable, pop culture staples.

But, witches. They’re something else. 

Powerfully linked to our past and our present, at an intersection between history and fantasy, they tap into age-old legends about the power of women, but also reflect the borderline between science and spirituality that was once much more permeable.  Two standout fantasy novels specifically explore these tensions in portrayals of what may really be the world’s oldest profession. (Lilith, the character in Jewish mythology cast as Adam’s first wife, is portrayed as a form of witch.}   

Katherine Howe is the descendant of two woman tried at the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials of 1692 (as her flyleaf notes wryly, “one survived, one didn’t.”)   She draws on this potent tradition for the setting of her debut novel “The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane,” in which a scholar of Colonial America in search of a career-making primary source discovers instead that she is descended from a long line of practicing witches. 

Howe lives near Salem, America’s witchcraft central.  She says the modern-day town is “a lot of fun, especially around Halloween,” but that she was “very intrigued by the fact that our understanding of witchcraft today, of what a witch is—pointy hats, broomstick, all that fun stuff—is very different today, in fact there’s almost no resemblance to the way the early New Englanders actually understood witchcraft.”  So the premise of her book was “If magic were real the way the Salem villagers understood it, how would it look, and who would do it?  What if one of the Salem witches were the real thing?"

Witches have a complex taxonomy, combining historical fact, literary tradition, and modern-day practice.    

“Most people who were accused as witches in the 17th century, were accused not because of anything that they did. They were accused because they were the wrong kind of person,” notes Howe. “So a typical witch would usually be a woman, who was argumentative, who was problematic, who maybe struggled with anger, or who was in some other way out of step with her culture.”

Salem Witch TrialsHowe says that the puritanical rigor of New England society led historians to believe that there was no folk magic tradition, but it turns out that one thing that traveled from the Old World to the New was what is referred to as “the cunning folk tradition.”

“There would be someone in your village, who could help you out with occult problems.”  These might include dousing for water, conjuring to find lost objects, and 'un-bewitching.'  “Because in the time before the scientific revolution, when there wasn’t a real clear understanding of the causes of disease…bewitchment or cursing was one things that was blamed for unfortunate things happening to a family,” says Howe.

“This idea of the cunning person really informed the idea of what a witch could be,” Howe continues.  “Because of course the word 'cunning' in English is a very specific word.  It means 'smart and capable,' but it also means 'sneaky,' and maybe a little bit underhanded.”

Howe’s Deliverance Dane is just such a woman, a healer in her village, but also secretive and contentious.  We meet her first ministering to a dying child (the book alternates between 1692 and 1991), but her next appearance is in court, suing the child’s father for slander.  This is because one way Howe, and her heroine Connie Goodwin, traced witches and witchcraft was through the legal system.  “Witchcraft in early New England was a capital crime, which sounds a little like stating the obvious because of course you can’t have a witch trial unless it’s against the law, but I actually think that it’s an interesting point, because we don’t bother to pass laws against things we don’t believe are real.  It kind of underscores the fact that witchcraft was a going concern in the intellectual and spiritual landscape of early modern New England.”

To protect themselves from gossip that might lead to formal charges, accused witches often brought slander suits in the hopes of controlling their public images (sound familiar?)

Connie, Howe's heroine, uses just these research techniques in her search for evidence of Deliverance Dane and most importantly, for her “Physick Book.” Howe drew on historical precedence for this concept too:

“Physick is an old English word meaning ‘medicine.’  Of course in the 15th and 16th century, what is medicine, and what is folk remedy and what is foodstuff, is actually a fairly hazy border.”  Linked to this is a tradition, Howe says, of instructional chapbooks assembled for young women to help prepare them for marriage, that might combine what we traditionally think of as recipe (jellied eels, “very important”) and what we’d categorize as remedies or nostrums (poultices, potions, etc.) “I was intrigued by this idea of a gendered set of knowledge that is valued differently depending on who possesses it.”

In “Physick Book,” the book itself proves elusive because there was no clear terminology to describe it. In modern fantasy literature, and in the modern practice of Wicca, books of this type are often called a Book of Shadows, “a secret body of knowledge that is passed from person to person.”  (Fans of the television series “Charmed” (1998-2006) may remember that the Halliwell sisters are transformed from perky twenty-somethings into modern-day witches by an incantation from a shadow book they find in their attic.) And this is the tradition on which the CW network’s new teen thriller “The Secret Circle” draws, with its clueless high school heroine Cassie learning about her magical heritage from her new classmates. Here, too, there is a Book of Shadows as a potent source of unrealized power. 

Even before finally locating the book, Connie is set on a road of self-discovery. “I think a lot of us like to think that we haven’t uncovered all of our abilities,” says Howe. “I was attracted by the idea—what if you were a witch, and you didn’t know it?’

Connie is a driven ambitious modern academic wedded to fact and with little time for the numinous, sensuous, or marvelous.  Her quest leads to subtle alterations in her character and emotional life, changes that come to a head when she discovers that she can alter the world around her with just a thought.

“That was definitely the part of the story that required the biggest stretch of the imagination. There are a number of different cultures that believe in a kind of intangible life force or energy—qi is probably the most catchall term—and so in imagining the kind of magic that Connie was able to do, I started from that concept and then tried to dial it up a little. Witches and cunning folk were thought to operate on a relatively small scale, with skills pertaining in individuals, bodies, health, and relationships, rather than on a macro-cosmic scale. I also thought that Connie doesn't know that she is a character in a novel—she thinks she is a real person, in the real world. And if something magical or difficult to explain happened in the real world, it would be utterly shocking, even if it were very small. So that was the kind of idiom I tried to conjure in describing the magic of the Dane women.”

As a teenager with a dark side, Howe says it was “the coolest thing ever,” to discover her family’s connection to the Salem witches, but now, as an historian, she views it as keeping alive a link to a problematic moment in American society, one that has become a template for fear and intolerance.  The trials were the inspiration for Arthur Miller’s anti-McCarthy play “The Crucible,” which was playing on Broadway the night that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, suspected Communist sympathizers, were executed for treason.

“Witches still play that role in American culture today—they still raise questions about what is security, what is safety, and who is trustworthy? We’re never truly done with Salem,” says Howe.

And why witches now?  “I do know that we live in a time of great fear and uncertainty,” one that mirrors some of the anxieties of the 1950s.” “Or,” she adds more lightly, “it could just be that witches are a lot of fun.” 

While Connie Goodwin is ransacking Harvard’s Widener Library in search of Deliverance’s book, Diana Bishop, the heroine of Deborah Harkness’s “A Discovery of Witches,” is busy at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.

Harkness is professor of history at the University of Southern California, and uses the history of alchemy, which was the subject of her non-fiction book “The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution,” to create a world in which magical creatures (witches, vampires, and demons) have their rigid social order overthrown by revolutionary biological and alchemical discoveries, just as Darwinism exposed the false presumptions behind real-world racial prejudice.  The key to unlocking these discoveries is an ancient manuscript, Ashmole 782.

In an interview with Nancy Pearl, Harkness said that her book is “a love letter to books and libraries.”  In “Discovery” the manuscript reveals its secrets only to the novel’s reluctant witch, a Yale historian whose academic life is a barrier to the dark and uncontrollable world of magic. Harkness artfully draws on current research in gene coding and the natural sciences to link her two worlds.

Like Howe, Harkness modelled Diana’s day-to-day world on her own academic environment, but was also inspired by her observation of her students in imagining her heroine's transition from reluctant, to practicing, witch.  “I see so many young people, with so many gifts, but they are kind of afraid to unleash them.”

“Unleash” is the right word.  Like Katherine Howe, Harkness began her novel as an answer to a question: “If there really are witches and vampires—what on earth do they do all day, what do they do for a living?”  But Harkness’s book follows more fully the literary tradition of romantic fantasy, and this includes endowing Diana with a torrent of powers she can barely control or understand; mating her to a dashing, broody vampire; and sending a boatload of paranormal trouble her way.  (“Discovery” is the first of what she is calling the “All Souls Trilogy.” The second book, “Shadow of Night,” is due out this summer.)

In the fictional worlds of both Katherine Howe and Deborah Harkness, their characters’ hard-won academic parity is undermined by a much older power, connecting them to a side of themselves they have deliberately suppressed, just as alchemy proposes the possibility of transformation of the natural world for those able to unlock its secrets.

Pre-feminism, the power of women represented by witchcraft was something to be feared, punished, or at least constrained or curtailed.  One thinks of the dispiriting 1958 Broadway play (and later film) “Bell, Book, and Candle,” which features a modern witch abandoning her birthright to become a housewife (the work was the basis for the hit TV series “Bewitched,” in which Samantha, the witch, has to constantly pretend to anxious husband Darren that she is not using her powers.)

Today, Howe notes, witchcraft is trope for gendered power.  It is also an alternative religion, and a thriving branch of the inexhaustible fantasy market. Perhaps one of its most charming incarnations is Alice Hoffman’s sly bestseller “Practical Magic,” in which generations of un-conforming Owens women are suspected of being witches.  Magic just provocatively infuses the book, but was made explicit in the film adaptation, a few years later, starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, with Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest deliciously presiding as the senior generation of witches.  Welcoming a bevy of nervous housewives who are about to become an impromptu coven, Wiest’s character notes serenely, “There’s a little witch in all of us.”   

Listen to an interview with Katherine Howe at the link above.