Tag: John Williams Waterhouse

Oct 17

Which Witch?

Can I make a confession? I kinda sorta love witches. In fact, I’ve loved them ever since I was a kid.

Which kind, you might ask? (I hope you do ask, so my title makes sense.)

Whether you’ve asked or not, I’ll answer. Not the evil kind. I’m not really a fan of Disney’s animated Maleficent or the evil witch in Snow White; I don’t prefer the ones in Roald Dahl’s The Witches, either (though I do love Dahl’s writing). The White Witch in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Harry Potter’s Bellatrix Lestrange are both equally magnificent and repulsive. I wouldn’t want to know either one personally. Oh, and the Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys? Forget about it.


You know who this looks like, don’t you?

I like some dark stuff, but not that dark.

So, which kind of witch do I enjoy? The cool kind, of course. The powerful and independent kind, even the mystical and spooky kind. (Nah, Glinda the Good Witch of the South, with her cotton-candy sweetness, isn’t really my type, either.)

Pop culture has some pretty awesome ones: there’s Willow from Buffy The Vampire Slayer and the ones I adored in childhood, Samantha from Bewitched  and Dorrie the little witch, from the series of books by Patricia Coombs. The witches from the Harry Potter series truly are some of the best: Hermione and the ever-awesome Professor McGonagall, to name the best of the best.

Yet, I had to go back to the late 1800s to find some witches who, in a single image, embody what I’m trying to express. Thank you for your glorious creations, John William Waterhouse. I’ve chosen three of his beautiful paintings to help capture what I love most about witches.

The first, and the one which most closely represents my meaning, The Magic Circle (1886).  john_william_waterhouse_-_magic_circle

John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
PD-1923– published before 1923 and public domain in the US.

I mean, really, check her out.

There’s some darkness in this painting: the woman is alone in the middle of a barren landscape, working her magic under the scrutiny of a flock of ravens. If you’ll notice, though, inside the circle where the woman is, there is fire and light and beauty–she, herself, is beautiful, as are the flowers growing near her. The woman is connected with the earth physically through her bare feet and the moon through the sickle she holds; she is associated with nature and warmth and creation. Yes, I think Waterhouse must have kinda sorta loved witches, too.

Here’s another, Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses (1891): Circe, by John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
PD-1923– published before 1923 and public domain in the US.

Who’s the star now, buddy?

So, who is the VIP in this painting? Circe, the witch? Or Ulysses, the guy we see reflected in the mirror, bending into a bow? That’s right, it sure isn’t Ulysses. (He looks kind of inconsequential for an epic hero, don’t you think?) Just look at Circe’s body language. She’s peering down on us (and Ulysses) from high up on her throne-ish seat, emanating regalness in her form and beauty. Time to drink up, hero boy.

My final share is another of the mythological Circe, Circe Invidiosa (1892):

Circe Invidiosa, by John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
PD-1923– published before 1923 and public domain in the US.

Can you say, “Intense?”

In this one, Circe is standing above (or on) her rival, the beautiful nymph, Scylla, whom she’s already turned into a grotesque sea monster with her baptism of poison. Here, we have the witch as femme fatale. Maybe not the most flattering depiction of female power, but enough to make you pause and take heed.

Waterhouse clearly loved the power of a woman in her state of independence. So do I. Though I am not always strong and my independence has certainly lessened some over the years (which is another topic entirely), I love it whenever I feel capable and self-sufficient. In some ways, I am and have always been a free spirit. Yet, I don’t believe any of this does anything to detract from myself as a woman or as a mother and wife.

As Helen Reddy said, “I am woman, hear me roar.”

pixababy Cupoheld

Image via pixabay/Cupoheld

Come on, ladies, let me hear it!

To me, Waterhouse captures how witches should be represented: attuned to their own strength and female powers (their intelligence and intuition, their ability to give birth and nourish life, their embracing of their sensuality and sexuality, their strong ties to nature, and so on). To me, witches can and should revel in their independence and uniqueness.

Waterhouse’s subjects claim their spots in the limelight, nudging aside the males who normally dominate their stories (Circe from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Echo from the myth of Narcissus, Medea from the myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece, etc.). These heroines are full of life; they lose nothing in claiming their innate power. Some men might shrink before such blatant femininity, but Waterhouse doesn’t. Yay, Waterhouse!

Thankfully, he’s not the only man who can appreciate female strength. My husband, for example, seems perfectly fine with my mine, whenever it shows itself. Also, just recently, I read a writer friend’s blog post, in which he discussed witches and helped inspire me to go ahead with this and related posts.

Since Walker said it so much better than I can paraphrase, I’ll quote him directly.

“Witches: Given the origins of the “witch” concept in western culture—fear of female power and independence—it surprises me that this remains such a common fiction menace. Maybe it’s been stripped of its cultural origins—the witch in Blair Witch is little more than a faceless supernatural threat. Fortunately, the “witch” concept is also used to denote positive female empowerment, as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and countless others.” – Walker McKnight, It’s Hard to Build a Monster

So, yes, I love witches and I love the power of women, in general. After all, we each have our own sort of magic, don’t we? As I said in my last post, fall is utterly witchy. As such, it seems like a perfect time to reclaim our inner witchiness.

pixabay 27707

Image via pixabay/27707

Of course I can drive a stick!

How do you feel about witches? What about how they’ve been represented throughout the ages? Since I love witches so much, I know I won’t be able to limit myself to one post on them. Hope you’ll come back for more!