Academic journal article Gender Forum

Chaos Reigns - Women as Witches in Contemporary Film and the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

Academic journal article Gender Forum

Chaos Reigns - Women as Witches in Contemporary Film and the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

Article excerpt

1 An obscure hut in sinister woods, secluded from the outside world, inhabited by an old and wicked, often deformed woman. The image of the witch is etched on the memory from childhood on, characterised by her portrayal in fairy tales and shaped by popular culture, especially contemporary film. Although of pre-Christian origin, and exploited during the peak of the witch-hunts from the late 15th to the middle of the 18th century, the belief in witches has barely forfeited its sometimes dubious popularity. While the commercialisation of other magical and monstrous creatures such as vampires, elves and werewolves follows the trend of Hollywood marketing experts and the development of youth culture, the witch appears to be a constant fictive companion in bed-, children's and living rooms. Be it as animalistic grandmother-gone-bad in the Grimm's Hansel and Gretel or as narcissistic queen in the form of Charlize Theron in Snow White and the Huntsman, the depiction of female witches [1] is versatile, as can be seen by comparing diverse cinematic witch characters with their literary ancestors by the Brothers Grimm.

2 Like every legendary figure, real or imagined, the witch is attributed a certain set of characteristics which distinguishes her from others and makes her identifiable. First of all, it is curious that while there is no consistent definition of witchcraft(Kiekhefer 7), many resources are able to draw a clear picture of it. Jacob Grimm in his work about German mythologies for example described witches as old women, who have become unable to love and work (cf. Grimm 599). He considered women in general to be predestined for clandestine magic because they, as opposed to the hard working and war conducting men, have enough time to dedicate themselves to the preparation of healing ointments and from there on it is only a small step to the practice of witchcraft(cf. 599). Their high powers of imagination make them receptive for superstition of any kind. Further it was believed that witches are women who had been seduced by the devil [2] and "achieve their malevolent, destructive effects only with the aid of Satan and demons" (Easlea 7). The use of "malevolent" here clearly shows a value judgement. The witch's magic is equated with black magic that is used to harm others, for example by bringing them illness, turning them into animals or objects or influencing their love lives. This is opposed to the so-called white magic, which for example was believed to restore health with herbal medicine among others. The witch's magic however is a "tapping into the forces of nature" (Berger 19) which changes its order, as often believed to the worse.

3 The witch's outer appearance may not be further described by sources, but her supposed behaviour and disposition all the more. From a sociological perspective, the witch was the opposite of the woman's image as propagandized by the church, "the repentant woman who spent her life cloistered or serving men in order to do penance for her original sin" (van Vuuren 72). She was used to point out difference (Sempruch 2), namely between the good, virtuous woman and the foul one. Especially sexuality plays a crucial role here, because witches were believed to fornicate with the devil and precipitate the demoralization of society. While the ordinary woman was chaste, the witch was characterized as knowing no sexual boundaries and seducing helpless men whenever she got the chance to do so. But it was not only men who were threatened by witches. It was common belief that witches engage in infanticide and cannibalism (cf. Levack 20), which not only changed but also perverted the idea of the woman as nurturing mother. The witch-hunts hence functioned as a necessary means to secure society's "moral boundaries" (Ben-Yehuda 14). In times reigned by poor survival conditions, witches became scapegoats that were held responsible for moral decline and epidemics and led to the so-called witch craze.

4 A popular instrument which played an important part in the witch-hunts, and also focussed heavily on women's sexuality, was the so-called Malleus Maleficarum, the "Hammer of the Witches", a tract composed in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, which was supposed to serve as evidence for witchcraftand the evilness of women. …

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