“When I think of witches, I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and unregarded.” So says the title character in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s beloved novel Lolly Willowes. “There they are, child-rearing, house-keeping, hanging washed dishcloths on currant bushes… all the time being thrust further down into dullness… That’s why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure.”
Who is the witch? This is the question of BBC Sounds’ Witch, a new series by India Rakusen, creator of the BBC’s podcast on periods, 28ish Days Later. Ronald Hutton, a history professor at Bristol University with a special interest in witches, gives us four definitions: the oldest, that a witch is someone who uses magic to hurt people; the second, and almost as old, that a witch is someone who uses magic for any purpose. Two more modern interpretations, originating in the 19th century, posit the witch as a feisty or fiery woman persecuted for her independence by the patriarchy, or as a practitioner of a pagan, nature-based religion.
These different meanings “are knocking into each other like dodgem cars at a fairground ride at the moment, and I have to keep stepping out of the way”, Hutton says. Rakusen reminds us of various historical images of the witch – Circe, a great ancient witch who could turn men into pigs, Hecate, the Greek and Roman goddess of witchcraft, Baba Yaga of Slavic folklore, who lived in a house propped up by chicken legs – as well as pop culture iterations from The Craft to Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
Rakusen meets many people who identify as witches today, asking them what they think the term means, and engaging in burning and chanting rituals with them. The listener will have to decide for themselves whether these are acts of self-delusion or moving attempts to claim power in a mysterious world. A bit like any other religion, then, really.
BBC Radio 4, 30 May, 11pm
[See also: Were men really accused of witchcraft?]
This article appears in the 24 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Crack-Up