The Witch Literary Canon

I’ve been thinking lately about a certain iconic character that crops up again and again in gothic literature: the witch. Witches embody the greatest fears of the societies they belong to, from devil worship to the idea of women wielding power. They are some of literature’s most controversial figures, and some of my favorite to read about. Thus, I felt they deserved their own literary canon. (Click here to see the other literary canon lists I’ve done.) Below are a few of the central texts in the body of witchy literature:

  1. Malleus Maleficarum (or, The Hammer of Witches) by Heinrich Kramer (1487)

This witch-hunting guide shaped the perception of witches for centuries to come and contributed to the widespread persecution of those thought to be practicing witchcraft. The book is intended as a nonfiction treatise, but modern readers will find many of its claims more outlandish and entertaining than informative. It popularized many key aspects that have come to define our idea of a witch, particularly as someone who has made a pact with the Devil, gathers with other witches for Satanic rituals, eats babies, and can fly through the air. Perhaps more importantly, it promoted the idea that women were more susceptible than men to witchcraft’s allure and showed a bizarre preoccupation with sex and female sexuality. Some of its strangest passages go into great detail about the tendency of witches to steal and hide men’s genitals….

  1. Macbeth by William Shakespeare (1623)

The three Weird sisters from Shakespeare’s Scottish play are some of the most iconic witches in literature. They set the tone in the play’s opening scene, then reappear several times to give Macbeth prophecies of the future. Their initial pronouncement that he shall soon be king is what spurs the rest of the action of the play. The way the witches have been depicted in productions of the play varies widely, but the text presents us with an image of witches that has become quite familiar: a group of women dancing around a cauldron, speaking in rhyme as they toss in unsavory ingredients like “eye of newt.” The play has influenced countless other works of literature, but perhaps one of the most famous is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. You’ll notice that apart from surface-level similarities like making potions out of animal body parts, both stories contain strong themes of witches giving self-fulfilling prophecies.

  1. “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1835)

Nathaniel Hawthorne is an American writer who was descended from John Hathorne, the judge involved in the Salem witch trials. With a family history like that, Hawthorne grapples with witchcraft in many of his works. His most famous book is The Scarlet Letter, a novel about a Puritan woman Hester Prynne who is shamed by her community for committing the sin of adultery. One of the side characters, Mistress Hibbins, a witch who tries to tempt Hester into joining her coven, is based on a real historical woman who was executed for witchcraft in the 1600s. But Nathaniel Hawthorne also wrote a short story that deals even more directly with the topic of witchcraft. In “Young Goodman Brown,” the titular character goes on an errand through the woods at night. Along the way, he meets a man who may very well be the devil, as well as a number of his fellow townsfolk all headed in the same direction. At the end, it turns out that they are all heading to a witches’ gathering, and Goodman Brown and his wife are both inducted into the devil-worshiping society. The story presents the typical Puritan conception of witchcraft as corrupted Christian rituals performed secretly in the woods around a blazing fire. But more striking is the hypocrisy suggested by the fact that the crowd is composed of neighbors that Goodman Brown always thought to be paragons of virtue. If the woman who taught you your catechism is secretly a devil-worshiper, what hope is there for the world?

  1. The Lancashire Witches by William Harrison Ainsworth (1848)

William Harrison Ainsworth was a prolific British novelist during the nineteenth century who enjoyed great success during his lifetime but now is not quite as well known. The Lancashire Witches is one of his more Gothic historical novels and is based on the true tale of the Pendle witches who were tried and executed for witchcraft in 1612. The novel features a rivalry between two sets of witches: the evil Demdike clan and the more sympathetic Mother Chattox and Alice Nutter. Caught between them is the young Alizon Device who must ward off the Demdikes’ attempts to corrupt her while also trying to save the soul of her estranged mother, Alice. This novel moves away from the entirely negative depiction of witches as in those mentioned above, and shows them not just as instruments of evil and objects of horror but also as people, capable of redemption. Though not commonly read anymore, this most famous of Ainsworth’s novels influenced a number of later authors—for example, you may recognize some of the characters’ surnames from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet’s Good Omens.

  1. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling (1997)

Did you really think I was going to write a whole post on witches without including Harry Potter? This children’s series has totally changed the landscape of how witches are viewed across Europe and America. Of course, there are still some people who assume the books must be Satanic and try to get them banned in schools, but for the most part, modern audiences have embraced this fantasy world where magic-wielding witches and wizards live secretly among us. I’ve mentioned how the series continues the literary tradition of witches and prophecies highlighted in Macbeth, but the books also reject many traditional elements of the genre. One of the biggest of these is the religious aspect—in many of the depictions mentioned above, witches are viewed as anti-Christians who have sold their souls to the Devil and participate in backwards rituals. Rowling’s books have no mention of religious rituals and most of her characters are fairly secular Christians. In addition, instead of focusing on conflict between witches and non-witches, Rowling’s story is immersed within the magical world, with witches and wizards fighting against each other, though in quite a different way than they do in Ainsworth’s novel. Yet there are some surface level tropes that can trace their roots back to the Malleus Maleficarum, such as the image of witches flying on broomsticks—though in this case they do so mainly for sport, rather than as a means to attend Satanic gatherings. Nowadays, the word “witch” is as likely to conjure up images of a kid dressed as their favorite Hogwarts protagonist at a midnight book release as it is to make you think of elderly women cackling over a cauldron. The genre has come a long way.

What other works would you consider part of the Witch Literary Canon? Disagree with anything I’ve included? Tell me your thoughts in the comments!

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