I obviously have an interest in witches and magic. I’ve been exploring spiritual shops and tarot readings lately. I wrote a young adult fantasy novel where the protagonists are witches (The Travelers). And I’m now delving into the world of Harry Potter for the first time. Fun side note, when my book was going through the editing stages, one editor circled a paragraph and said “this reads too much like Harry Potter.” I could only laugh because I’d never read any Harry Potter books at the time so I didn’t know how to make it not read like Harry Potter.
All of this witch exploration got me thinking about female witches in popular culture. When did this love of all things witchy really take hold? How far back does it go? Before the spicy spell-casting scarlet-haired Willow and the brilliant, bold wand-yielding Hermione, who were the witches that paved the way for them?
Here are some of my favorites that I found in my search for the pioneers of magical history.
Freyja, Norse Goddess (1,000 BCE): Goddess of love, beauty, fertility, magic, war and death. Freyja was the most famous of the vǫlur (shamans) known for war-mongering and causing screams of anguish, blood and death. She sounds like a blast to hang out with at parties.
- Circe, The Odyssey (8th Century BC): Circe is often attributed with embodying the first true witch. In the Odyssey, she lures Odysseus away from his quest into her forest, drugs all his men and turns them into pigs. She was kind of a bad ass.
- Medea of Greek Mythology (3rd Century BC): Sticking with the Greeks because, wow, they really liked the magic, Medea was Circe’s niece and granddaughter of the sun god. However, most famously, she was wife to Jason (of Argonauts fame). In that story she’s abandoned by the feckless Jason and decides to enact some pretty terrible witchy revenge. Jeez, when do we get to the stories of nice witches?
- Carman, Celtic Mythology (c. 5th Century AD): Carman was a warrior and sorceress from Athens who tried to invade Ireland in the days of the Tuatha Dé Danann, along with her three sons, Dub (“black”), Dother (“evil”) and Dian (“violence”). She used her magical powers to destroy all the fruit of Ireland. She’s generally known as the Celtic goddess of evil magic. (So, she’s also not big with the love and hugs.)
- Baba Yaga, Slavic folklore (c. 1755): This witch-like character often appears as a ferocious-looking woman who flies around on a giant mortar and pestle while she kidnaps and threatens to eat small children. She apparently also lives in a house that walks around on giant chicken feet. (Um…OK.)
- Evil Queen in Snow White (1812): Disney has no shortage of witches in their cartoon fairy tale creations, but the Evil Queen’s witchy notoriety goes far beyond kid movies. She’s a Brother’s Grimm original and has been re-imagined and retold in countless novels, graphic novels, movies and TV shows. (Also have to give a shout out to the witch in Hansel and Gretel.)
- Three Witches Shakespeare’s Macbeth (born c. 1603–1607): No, they weren’t the protagonists. But, these witches knew how to brew a cauldron and predict some toil and trouble. And they weren’t 100% evil, thank goodness. Now we’re getting somewhere.
- Morgan LeFay of King Arthur’s legends (c. 1150): The powerful witch is difficult to describe succinctly. Her shape (mermaid, witch, crone, fairy, etc) and motives are fluid from story to story. Sometimes she’s good, sometimes she’s not. Let’s just say she was complicated and refused to be categorized. (This one is more like my kind of girl, mysterious and crafty.)
- Wizard of Oz (book published 1900): Good witches of the North and South (yay, good witches, finally!), bad witches of the east and west (boo), the Wizard of Oz certainly helped to put witches on the “map.” It was made into an iconic movie and two award-winning Broadway musicals (The Wiz, Wicked), and many other remakes and re-imaginations.
- Samantha Stephens from Betwitched (first aired 1964): Alright, she seems a little out of place on this list maybe. But, maybe not. We’re talking about pioneering witches and this nose twitching house-wife might be the first truly funny good witch. She paved the way for the quirky, sweet, sometimes goofy Wiccan woman in TV and movies today. (You’re welcome Sabrina the Teenage witch, Charmed Sisters, and other modern-day quirky witches.)