Roots of the Modern Witch

This is the first in a series of articles looking at how the “ancients” have influenced our lives, especially in pop culture.

Have you ever noticed how most versions of witches in literature, television, and the movies have a similar personal, beyond what they look like? Most people draw on references from the fairy tales given to us by The Brothers Grimm, especially after the popular movie The Brothers Grimm and television series Once Upon a Time. However, their stories, based on the Brothers Grimm’s 1812 book, Children’s and Household Tales, are not their own. They are borrowed from oral tales dating back to the time of the ancients, but with a modern-day twist, to appeal to a growing literate audience in the 1800’s. Unfortunately, the Wikipedia page for Once Upon a Time somewhat perpetuates this misnomer by stating the show, “borrows elements and characters from the Disney franchise and popular Western literature, folklore, and fairy tales.” Failing to cite the main inspiration for all of these interpretations, the mythology of the ancient world. This combination of ancient inspired oral tales and creative story telling from the Brothers Grimm, allowed for the creation of the “stock fairytale” and “stock version” of a witch.

The “witches” of the ancient world include Hecate, Circe, and Medea. Characters you may be familiar with from your high school or college literature class. Hecate was the daughter of a Titan, a goddess and witch, referred to in a handful of myths and stories. Most famously, she was said to have helped Demeter find her daughter Persephone after she was snatched to the underworld by Hades. She is also the aunt to Medea, and her an inspiration to witches. Medea is the famous witch in the story Jason and the Argonaut. She is the reason Jason successfully recovers the golden fleece. Circe, probably the most recognizable of the three, is the infamous maiden that delays Odysseus’s trip home in Homer’s The Odyssey.

What you may not remember is the underlying theme the stories these women are featured in portray: the need to obtain revenge or seek justice. A theme that is repeated throughout the ancient myths, as well as popular literature and movies. Remember back to the overall themes in Snow White, The Wizard of Oz, or Maleficent, each “witch” was looking for revenge and will stop at nothing to attain it. This “nothing” is often portrayed as the manipulation of magic through the use of special herbs or “potions,” like our witches in ancient times. Circe, in The Odyssey, uses her knowledge of herbs to create a potion to turn Odysseus’s men into pigs. Medea uses her magic and power to manipulate different people, all ending in tragedy to those that cross her. 

In more recent examples, we see a similar use of magic. In the Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West uses the poppies to cast a spell on Dorothy and her companions.

Maleficent, probably the best example of the witch wronged, is based on the Brothers Grimm’s Little Briar Rose. Maleficent exemplifies the true character of the ancient Greek witch who inspired the Brothers Grimm. Maleficent is betrayed by the man she deems her true love, Stefan, all for his quest of power in the kingdom. This sends her into a rage that motivates her to seek justice and to cast a witch’s spell on King Stefan’s daughter at her christening.

 

Finally, in one of Disney’s most famous scenes, the Wicked Queen in Snow White focuses her energy on creating her poison apple to finally gain her revenge. Hell hath no fury like a woman or witch, scorn. Thankfully, in these modern-day fairytales, there are happy endings and with the witch defeated, our faith in humans has been restored.  

All of these ancient myths help to create an ideal story featuring a witch that is both comforting and exciting at the same time. We have seen her before, we know what to expect from our favorite witches. Allowing storytellers to create a narrative that is fun and familiar for all ages.