Late October. And whether you celebrate Samhain, or Hallowe’en (remember when the apostrophe was essential?), it’s always the season of the Witch. So I thought the Hallowed Holiday most appropriate for sharing my thoughts on two artistic renditions of the Witch in history: a stunning collection of poetry by Emma Bolden from 2013 titled Maleficae, and the 2015 film, complete with archaic kerning, The VVitch: A New-England Folktale, written and directed by Robert Eggers.
Maleficae (2013), Emma Bolden’s magnificent collection, takes its title from the Latin for “witch,” or “sorceress.” It was also a term for black magic, or evil-doing, and the ending “-cae,” makes the gender form of the word clearly female. The image on the cover is from a seventeenth-century (1608) woodcut for Francesco Maria Guazzo’s Compendium Maleficarum, a witch-hunting manual, and illustrated the chapter titled “On Incendiary Witchcraft.” Bolden lets the reader know before the cover is cracked open that these poems aim to set fire to the reader’s core, while also foreshadowing how we already know it ends (spoiler alert: the witch burns).
It’s refreshing to read a “non-Salem-focused witch” collection, and Bolden doesn’t hold back, mining the theological as well as the mythological and the historical to portray one lone woman’s descent into the hell of accusations, arrest, and execution. These are well-researched poems that are fully inspired by the primary sources (Biblical quotes, witch-hunting manuals, trial records, folklore and herbalism) that make up this tragic and misogynistic history, and the language is lyrical, incantatory, as if viewing history through–dare I say it?–a veil.
I don’t have permission to quote from the book, so I’ll link to two of Bolden’s poems here, from the Cortland Review:
The VVitch: A New-England Folktale (2015) is a horror film that puts forth the idea, “what if the concept of witches and witchcraft, in the Medieval European sense, was true?” and places it in the context of one family banished from their colonial community (Plymoth, Massachusetts is implied).
This film captures a belief system at one point in history. While the setting of the story is clearly colonial New England, it wasn’t Salem-esque; rather, the mythology of the Continental belief in witches were used. And the more the viewer knows about the trials, in the sense of what was constructed as the mythology of witches, the more they’ll appreciate what was woven into the film.
The crew worked for four years with Plimoth Plantation staff to get the time period correct, although it’s not meant to serve as a historical documentary. (My only historian criticism: I had a difficult time suspending disbelief to believe one banished family of six could build a house that size.)
There is a Eurocentric hubris in this New World setting that drives the whole film, and permeates it with a constant tenor of foreboding. Embracing the theological narrative that women are inherently evil, the artistic imaginings of the witches in these New England woods come straight out of the text of the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches). These include nuances that emphasize the idea of control, that the colonists “own” the land, can tame the land and woods, can repress women. It was a brilliant choice to have the continental trials as the focus of the witch portrayals and of the dialogue, instead of the expected Salem Village, given the Plimoth Plantation-like setting.
The microcosm of the family spiraling out of control in their attempt to exert control on their new environment while still desperately clinging to their continental views of witchcraft and women, mirrors the macrocosm of what women are politically and socially facing now: men pushing back against women asserting themselves and their own agency. It’s possible that this reflection of our current cultural struggles, artistically and wondrously portrayed in a time where the rootedness of those beliefs began that offers the real horror here, and why so many people feel it speaks to a “now” even more than “then.”
Happy Halloween. Live Deliciously.