Wicked Witches of the North - Donecker - 2010

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Wicked Witches of the North ·

Stefan Donecker · Wien 2010 · Verlag:  · Ed 1

Reihe: Wicked Witches of the North · ,
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Sprache: English · (v1.00, Volltext)
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Donecker, Stefan: Wicked Witches of the North (Wien 2010). In: eLib.at (Hrg.), 21. Oktober 2014. URL: http://elib.at/
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Skandinavistik · Hexe · Witch · Schlagwort · Schlagwort
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Dieser Beitrag wurde von Stefan Donecker (@ red bekannt) im Rahmen der eLib.at Textdays eingereicht. Wir bedanken uns herzlich!


Wicked Witches of the North


Stefan Donecker


Pierre de l'Ancre was an expert on witches. In 1609, the zealous judge of Bordeaux headed one of the most notorious witch-hunts of early modern Europe. De l'Ancre had been assigned by the king to root out all diabolic sorcery in the French province of Labourd along the Spanish border, a task he fulfilled with frightening diligence. He prided himself with having sent more than six hundred people to the stake, before the reluctant Parliament of Bordeaux managed to force his resignation. But even though this number is most certainly exaggerated, de l'Ancre was indeed a disturbingly efficient witch hunter.

De l'Ancre was convinced that he and his fellow officials faced a conspiracy of enormous proportions. He estimated the number of witches in rural Labourd alone at 3.000 individuals, roughly ten percent of the province's population. Sorcerous practices were thought to threaten Christianity all over Europe, yet de l'Ancre believed he could single out the origin of this menace: "Sorcerers used to be less numerous than they are today," he stated in 1613. "They dwelt at remote places; in the mountains, in deserts or in the Northern lands, such as Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Götaland, Ireland and Livonia."[1]

To Pierre de l'Ancre and his contemporaries, the North was an abode of witchcraft and idolatry.[2] Scholarly treatises and travel accounts of the 15th and 16th century offered their readers alarming perspectives on the abominable powers of northern witches and sorcerers, their evil nature and the misdeeds they committed on unsuspecting travellers. "Most witches and sorcerers are to be found in the Northern lands," wrote de l'Ancre's famous countryman, the erudite jurist and philosopher Jean Bodin, "because the devil holds more power over Septentrio. There are more warlocks in Norway and Livonia and other Septentrional areas than in the entire rest of the world."[3]

Faced with the alarming phenomenon of northern witchcraft, early modern scholars could refer to the Old Testament, which seemed to indicate that great evil would emanate from the North. "Out of the north an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land," the Lord himself predicts in the Book of Jeremiah.[4] And Lucifer, the fallen morning star, had haughtily announced: "I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High."[5] If the North was the seat of the devil, as these verses imply, it was hardly surprising that so many of his disciples and associates, the witches and sorcerers, gathered there.

Such biblical testimony corresponded to the disturbing reports which European scholars received from the North.[6] Olaus Magnus, an exiled Swedish Catholic clergyman living in Italy, provided detailed descriptions of all the marvels of the North in his widely read "History of the Northern People" (Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, 1555).[7] The inhabitants of Finland and Lapland, he states, are well-versed in sorcery and "exercise this devilish art, of all the arts of the world, to admiration".[8] They were particularly famous for controlling the wind and summoning storms[9], and were even willing to make a profit from their abilities, by selling magical wind-knots to foreign sailors:


The Finlanders were wont formerly, amongst their other errors of gentilism, to sell winds to merchants that were stopped on their coasts by contrary weather; and when they had their price, they knit three magical knots [...] bound up with a thong, and they gave them unto the merchants; observing that rule, that when they unloosed the first, they should have a good gale of wind: when the second, a stronger wind: but when they untied the third, they should have such cruel tempests, that they should not be able to look out of the forecastle to avoid the rocks, nor move a foot to pull down the sails, nor stand at the helm to govern the ship.[10]


The wind summoners of the North were, allegedly, so powerful that they could even defy royal authority. In 1589, King James VI of Scotland, the future James I of England, had to face the witches' mastery over wind and weather. The fleet that should bring his future wife, Anne of Denmark, to Scotland was battered by fierce storms and forced to seek shelter in Norway. In what has been called "the one romantic episode of his life"[11] James set out from Scotland to rescue his bride and eventually managed to bring Anne safely to Edinburgh, although their voyage continued to be impeded by abysmal weather.[12] Inquiries later indicated that Norwegian and Scottish witches had, in a rare act of international sorcerous cooperation, conspired to drown the royal couple.

Ten years later, Anne's younger brother, Danish-Norwegian king Christian IV, had to endure similar misfortune.[13] In an effort to strengthen Danish rule over northernmost Scandinavia, he personally led a naval expedition beyond the North Cape. When a man from the king's retinue stole the cat of a local woman, the royal fleet was nearly destroyed in an unnaturally powerful storm. The expedition was only saved when the cat, which had been identified as a diabolic familiar, was set adrift in a boat with food for a month. The storm calmed on the same evening.[14]

Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus had different problems with northern witches.[15] In his case, they didn't endanger his life, but rather his reputation. During the Thirty Years' War, Gustavus had intervened in support of the hard-pressed German Lutherans, and was enthusiastically celebrated as the saviour of Protestantism. Contemporary sources depict Gustavus as a virtuous champion of Christianity. It must have therefore been rather embarrassing when Catholic propagandists spread the rumour that the pious king was in league with the infernal wind-wizards of his Scandinavian homeland. According to their accusations, the military victories of the Swedish king depended on the sorcery practised by the Finns and Laplanders among his soldiers, who continually harassed the Catholic armies with bad weather. It seems that Gustavus reacted to this bad publicity and issued demonstratively strict regulations against witchcraft in the Swedish army.[16]

While mastery over wind and weather was the domain of Finnish sorcerers, other regions of the North had different supernatural specialisations. The inhabitants of Livonia, a territory roughly corresponding to modern Estonia and Latvia, were notorious for their shape-changing abilities.[17] Olaus Magnus vividly describes the bands of vicious werewolves that roam the land during the winter, raiding isolated settlements and savaging men and cattle alike. After their atrocities the werewolves like to go down to the cellar and drink all the beer that they can find. This habit, he convincingly observes, distinguishes them from normal wolves.

Iceland was, likewise, closely associated with satanic powers. It was commonly believed that Mount Hekla, a volcano in southern Iceland, contained the gateway to Hell, and that is was possible to hear the wails of tormented sinners in the vicinity of the fiery mountain. Some sources even claim to have seen the devils as they fling the screaming souls of the damned into the crater of Hekla.[18]

16th- and 17th-century sources envisioned a broad panorama of northern wickedness, ranging from the infernal Mount Hekla to the wind-wizards of Finland and the shape-changers of Livonia. The witch trials that occurred in Scandinavia were closely monitored by the erudite elites of Europe. Cases such as the Swedish witch craze of 1668 to 1676[19] received great attention (even if they were far from extraordinary, compared to similar events in other parts of Europe), because they seemed to confirm the dread image of the diabolical North. Pamphlets provided fanciful and exaggerated accounts of northern witch trials, and European audiences read with morbid fascination of "wretched Satan's grim wrath, and the cruel persecutions and temptations of mankind which this enemy of all our souls commits in the northern lands through damnable witchcraft and sorcery".[20]

It is hardly surprising that a common stereotype such as the northern witch also found her way into early modern literature. I have chosen three representative cases, from the writings of three of the most eminent intellectuals of early modern Europe: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, William Shakespeare and Johannes Kepler. Subsequently, intend to turn my attention to the descendants of these early modern witches and examine three influential tales of the supernatural North dating from the 19th and the 20th century: H. C. Andersen"'s The Snow Queen (1845), Clemence Housman"'s The Were-Wolf (1896) and finally C. S. Lewis"' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950).


Miguel de Cervantes: The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda

The romance of Persiles and Sigismunda (Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda) was Cervantes' last work, completed shortly before his death and published posthumously in 1617. The book is certainly overshadowed by Don Quixote and hardly known nowadays, but Cervantes himself regarded Persiles y Sigismunda as his masterpiece. Among 17th-century readers, it was extremely popular. The novel is subtitled "historia setentrional", a "northern history", and Cervantes takes his protagonists on a spiritual journey from the pagan and savage lands of remote northern Europe to Rome, the centre of civilization and catholic Christianity. The image of the uncanny North which Cervantes creates becomes particularly evident in the tale of Rutilio, one of the supporting characters.

Rutilio is a dancing teacher from Siena who, unwisely, begins an affair with one of his pupils. The girl's father, a rich and influential man, is outraged by this liaison and has Rutilio thrown into prison and condemned to death. In the dungeon, awaiting execution, Rutilio is approached by a dubious woman who offers to help him escape. By means of sorcery, she takes him through the air into a strange land, which turns out to be Norway. Upon arrival, Rutilio finds himself in an awkward situation: in an unfamiliar country, alone with a witch. And even a northern witch cannot resist the charm of an Italian dancing teacher:


With these words she embraced me after a lascivious manner. I thrust her back with my arms: and by the brightness of the morning which then began to shed light, I perceived that she who embraced me was in the shape of a wolf. This vision troubled my wits, and turned my heart topsy turvy. But as it falls out in great perils often times, that small hope to prevail draws courage from such whose forces are desperate; the little which I had, made me to lay hold on a knife which by chance I had about me, and with enraged fear, I furiously thrust it into her body whom I believed to have been a wolf: who falling to the earth, lost this horrible figure, instead whereof I found dead and bleeding this unhappy sorceress. Consider a little I pray you in what case I was then; in a strange land, and without any person to conduct me. Long time I waited for the day, but it came not, neither did any token of sun-rising appear in the horizon.[21]


In this brief scene, Cervantes establishes a very straightforward connection between northernness and sorcery. Norway is depicted as a land of darkness: The polar night[22] which Rutilio has to experience seems to be more than a mundane occurrence. It is a spiritual darkness, a manifestation of the same forces of evil that grant the werewolf witch her magical abilities. Supernatural powers and wonders of nature were, in a 17th-century perspective, intimately linked.


William Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Macbeth

The Weird Sisters of Shakespeare's Macbeth, undoubtedly the most famous literary witches of the early modern period, seem, at first glance, unrelated to the stereotypical image of the northern sorceress. Yet I would like to argue that a certain resemblance can hardly be overlooked, although the association with the North is far less obvious than in the case of Cervantes or Kepler.

Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577/87) provided Shakespeare with his main inspiration. "As Macbeth and Banquo journeyed towards Forres," Holinshed relates, "they went sporting by the way together without other company save only themselves, passing through the woods and fields, when suddenly, in the midst of a laund, there met them three women in strange and wild apparel, resembling creatures of elder world. [...] But afterwards the common opinion was, that these women were either the weird sisters, that is (as ye would say) the goddesses of destiny, or else some nymphs or fairies endued with knowledge of prophecy by their necromantical science, because everything came to pass as they had spoken.[23]

Shakespeare expanded this scholarly account into his unparalleled tale of prophecy, treason and doom. His witches seem very much rooted in the Scottish setting of the play. Through their superior, Hecate, the Goddess of Witchcraft "“ possibly a later interpolation that was not found in Shakespeare's original version "“ they are also linked to classical mythology. However, they also share several notable traits with the witches of Scandinavia:

First of all, the Weird Sisters are capable of raising wind and controlling storms. Immediately before the fateful encounter with Macbeth and Banquo, the First Witch gloats and describes how she will undo a sailor whose wife has treated her unkindly:


First Witch:

A sailor's wife had chestnuts in her lap,/ And munch'd, and munch'd, and munch'd. "Give me!" quoth I:/ "Aroint thee, witch!" the rump-fed ronyon cries./ Her husband's to Aleppo gone, master o' the Tiger:/ But in a sieve I'll thither sail,/ And, like a rat without a tail,/ I'll do, I'll do, and I'll do.

Second Witch:

I'll give thee a wind.

First Witch:

Thou'rt kind.

Third Witch:

And I another.

First Witch:

I myself have all the other,/ And the very ports they blow,/ All the quarters that they know. [...] Though his bark cannot be lost,/ Yet it shall be tempest-toss'd./ Look what I have.

Second Witch:

Show me, show me.

First Witch:

Here I have a pilot's thumb,/ Wreck'd as homeward he did come.[24]


The mastery over wind and weather, especially at sea, is the defining ability of northern witches, as described by Olaus Magnus and numerous of his contemporaries. It is probably also no coincidence that the witches first appear to Macbeth after he had defeated a Norwegian army. Early modern intellectuals, familiar with Olaus Magnus' account of northern sorcery, would hardly be surprised that witches are to be found "where the Norweyan banners flout the sky" and "Norway himself, with terrible numbers" threatens the Kingdom of Scotland.

Macbeth may have been performed by the King's Company in front of James I of England and his brother-in-law, Christian IV of Denmark, at Hampton Court on August 7th, 1606.[25] As mentioned previously, both kings had personally experienced life-threatening storms which had allegedly been conjured by northern witches. Recently, researchers have questioned whether the court performance in 1606 really took place. But even if the two kings did not personally attend the play, it is obvious that Macbeth is in line with the personal interests of James I, on whose patronage Shakespeare relied. The King himself was a Scotsman and might have appreciated the setting of the play, and after his perilous encounter with the northern witches in 1589, he was keenly interested in demonology and witch hunting and had, himself, written a book on the subject.

The "Scottish Play" seems to be, at least partially, influenced by the personal experiences of Shakespeare's royal patron. The Norwegian witches that allegedly attempted to drown James I and his wife in 1589 and the Three Witches of Macbeth share two main characteristics: both seek to cause the death of the legitimate king, and both are capable of summoning storms at sea. The Weird Sisters differ from the conspirators of 1589 only in their method: Whereas the latter depended on their wind magic for their nefarious goal, the former relied on prophecies to manipulate Macbeth into regicide. Although the hags of Macbeth were capable of wind summoning just like the typical witches of the North, their ominous predictions certainly make for a much better theatrical plot.


Johannes Kepler: Somnium

Somnium, "The Dream", is a short prose narrative written by the eminent astronomer Johannes Kepler during the 1620s and published posthumously in 1634. The text has often been regarded as a milestone in science fiction literature. Kepler embedded his scientific theories on the movements of celestial bodies into a fantastic tale of witches, spiritualist séances and lunar demons. Isaac Asimov considered Somnium to be the first true science fiction story ever written.

Somnium tells the tale of a young Icelander, Duracotus, the son of a witch named Fiolxhilda. As a boy, he accidentally ruins one of his mother's magic charms. In a fit of anger, the witch sells her son to a sailor who takes young Duracotus to Denmark. There, he eventually becomes a student of the famous astronomer Tycho Brahe. After several years, he returns to Iceland and is reunited with his mother, who has come to regret her rash decision. Together, Fiolxhilda and Duracotus seek to unravel the mysteries of the moon and the lunar demons that dwell there.

In his unpretentious prose, Kepler sketches an interesting image of Duracotus caught between the scholarly erudition he has gained abroad (personified by Tycho Brahe) and the sorcerous customs of his homeland (personified by his mother), and eventually managing to reconcile both traditions. Scholars have observed that Somnium contains several autobiographical elements: Duracotus is taught astronomy by Tycho Brahe, who had been Kepler's own teacher. The sorcery performed by Duracotus' mother Fiolxhilda seems to reflect a crucial moment in Kepler's life. In 1620/21 he defended his mother Katharina Kepler, who had been accused of witchcraft, in a lengthy trial and eventually managed to secure her release.

Despite the obvious similarities between Duracotus' life and his own biography, Kepler chose an exotic background for his protagonist: Both Duracotus and his mother are Icelanders. As an erudite man, Kepler was familiar with the numerous accounts of northern witchcraft and chose Iceland as an appropriate setting for the supernatural events of his story. "Writers say that magic is common among the people of the north," he states, "and it is credible that those spirits of darkness lie in wait for those long nights".[26]

The mysteries of Iceland form the antithesis to the civilized world of Tycho Brahe and the learned astronomers. It is depicted as a "half-savage country" whose barbarous inhabitants reject the ideals of scholarly learning and even refuse to teach their children how to write, because they distrust this "art". Yet through their sorcery "“ facilitated by demonic spirits who are attracted by the rough climate and the darkness "“ the Icelanders manage to gain knowledge that rivals the erudition of the astronomers. In Fiolxhilde's own words:


Advantages have been conferred, Duracotus my son, not only on all those other regions to which you went but also on our country, too.  To be sure, we are burdened with cold and darkness and other discomforts, which I feel only now, after I have learned from you about the salubriousness of the other lands.  But we have plenty of clever persons. At our service are very wise spirits, who detest the bright light of the other lands and their noisy people.  They long for our shadows, and they talk to us intimately. [...] Most of the things which you saw with your own eyes or learned by hearsay or absorbed from books, [my familiar] related to me just as you did.[27]


Duracotus' mother has many of the typical traits associated with northern witches: She dwells in the vicinity of Mount Hekla, the volcano thought to be the entrance of hell. When Duracotus was a boy, she used to take him on excursions up the slopes of the infamous mountain. Like the northern sorcerers described by Olaus Magnus, Fiolxhilde earns her living by selling magical items to foreign sailors. Kepler varies the motif slightly and replaces the wind-knots in Magnus' account with more mundane herbal charms, but the basic idea is essentially the same.[28] The spiritual journeys she undertakes with the help of her familiars are also clearly inspired by the account in Magnus' "History of the Northern People". Needless to say, the demonic familiars in Kepler's story speak fluent Icelandic, as befits the spirits of the North.

However, Fiolxhilde is an unusually benevolent witch. Admittedly, she banishes her son for a trivial misdemeanour, but it seems that she simply overreacted and had no malicious intentions towards Duracotus. After her son returns, she is "deliriously happy" and refuses to leave his side wherever he goes, after all the "prolonged grief over the son she had lost through her impetuosity".[29]

On one occasion, Kepler hints that Fiolxhilde's familiar spirits might be unpleasant entities: The solar eclipses that allow these nocturnal beings to roam freely are dreaded by mankind, but Kepler does not specify what the spirits do to be feared that much. This single remark is the only indication that Fiolxhilde might be involved in black magic. She has all the abilities of a malicious northern witch, but throughout the story she appears as a very kind old lady. Kepler might have modelled Fiolxhilde on his own mother Katharina, ironically commenting on the witchcraft accusations raised against her, and in doing so, created a likeable character that stands in sharp contrast to the vicious and nefarious northern witches of other 17th-century texts.


After their heyday in early modern literature, the witches of the North became quite rare in the writings of the 18th century. The enlightenment understood witchcraft no longer as a factual force of evil, but rather as a mixture of superstition and charlatanry. Sorcerers and soothsayers were seen either as irrational enthusiasts who believed in their own abilities, or as unscrupulous impostors who deceived the simple-minded masses. This new understanding of sorcery also led to a rethinking of the geography of witchcraft: Fraudulent sorcery became associated with the "feverish imagination" of southern climates, while the serious and simple inhabitants of the North seemed less inclined to such a vice.[30]


Hans Christian Andersen: The Snow Queen

Sneedronningen ("The Snow Queen", 1845), the famous fairy tale of Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, re-introduced the image of the northern sorceress to the European imagination. Andersen tells the story of a little boy, Kay, and a little girl, Gerda, who live next to each other in an unnamed large city and who care for each other as much as if they were brother and sister. However, one day Kay is afflicted by the splinters of a troll-mirror, created by the devil to show all that is ugly and bad in people and things. The splinters get into his heart and eyes, changing his personality and making him cruel and aggressive. Kay is abducted by the Snow Queen in her sleigh and taken to her palace on Spitsbergen, and Gerda sets out on an adventurous journey to find, save and win back her friend.

The Snow Queen is probably the most iconic representation of the archetypical northern sorceress in European literature. "The snow-flakes grew larger and larger, till at last they looked just like great white fowls. Suddenly they flew on one side; the large sledge stopped, and the person who drove rose up. It was a lady; her cloak and cap were of snow. She was tall and of slender figure, and of a dazzling whiteness. It was the Snow Queen."[31] To Kay she appears "very beautiful", "a more clever, or a more lovely countenance he could not fancy to himself". In her sleigh, she soars through the air over her icy domain and its creatures: "[T]hey flew over woods and lakes, over seas, and many lands; and beneath them the chilling storm rushed fast, the wolves howled, the snow crackled; above them flew large screaming crows." The imagery of ice and frost is further emphasised in the description of the Queen's palace: "The walls of the palace were of driving snow, and the windows and doors of cutting winds. There were more than a hundred halls there, according as the snow was driven by the winds. The largest was many miles in extent; all were lighted up by the powerful Aurora Borealis, and all were so large, so empty, so icy cold, and so resplendent!

But Andersen's Snow Queen is much more than yet another Arctic witch. When Kay first encounters her, he "was quite frightened, and he tried to repeat the Lord's Prayer; but all he could do, he was only able to remember the multiplication table." In the Queen's presence, faith has become irrelevant; only intellect remains. Accordingly, as soon as the Queen has kissed him and he is not afraid any longer, Kay tries to impress her with his knowledge and, again, with mathematics: "[H]e did not fear her at all, and told her that he could calculate in his head and with fractions, even; that he knew the number of square miles there were in the different countries, and how many inhabitants they contained; and she smiled while he spoke." The Snow Queen is not just an evil woman with supernatural abilities, like the northern witches of the early modern period. She is an embodiment of pure reason and cold intellect.

Compared, for example, to the White Witch in C. S. Lewis' Narnia novels "“ a character strongly influenced by Andersen's fairy tale "“ the Snow Queen can hardly be considered evil. While the White Witch is consciously and intentionally cruel, the Snow Queen is simply dispassionate and devoid of an individualistic agenda. She destroys by virtue of what she is, not through any deliberate deeds. Consequently, the Snow Queen is not destroyed at the end of the story "“ she is simply absent when Gerda saves Kay. Rationality cannot possibly be slain.[32]

Casual readers of Andersen's fairy tale might overlook the fact that it tells not only of one supernatural female figure in the North, but that there are actually two. The second one, overshadowed by the enigmatic figure of the Snow Queen, is the "Finland Woman" (Finnekonen). She appears as a very traditional northern witch that seems almost directly taken from Olaus Magnus' 16th-century description of the wonders of the North. Andersen describes her as diminutive and dirty, living in some kind of sauna without a door, so that Gerda has to knock at the chimney when she visits her. This detail seems to imply that she enters and leaves her domicile by flying through the chimney, as witches are known to do. Inside her sauna hut it is so hot that the Finn woman is almost naked. The heat indicates that the Finland Woman is an antithesis to the icy Snow Queen "“ although they both share an Arctic abode.

The talking reindeer that guides Gerda on her adventurous journey remarks on the Finn woman's ability to summon winds "“ the quintessential ability of all northern witches since the 16th century: "You are so clever," said the Reindeer; "you can, I know, twist all the winds of the world together in a knot. If the seaman loosens one knot, then he has a good wind; if a second, then it blows pretty stiffly; if he undoes the third and fourth, then it rages so that the forests are upturned. Will you give the little maiden a potion, that she may possess the strength of twelve men, and vanquish the Snow Queen?"

The Finland Woman is a very old-fashioned northern witch "“ but she is a benevolent character, much like Kepler's Fiolxhilde. When Gerda and the Reindeer implore her to help them against the Snow Queen, the Finland Woman answers: "I can give her no more power than what she has already. Don't you see how great it is? Don't you see how men and animals are forced to serve her; how well she gets through the world barefooted? She must not hear of her power from us; that power lies in her heart, because she is a sweet and innocent child!" As the sorceress had said, Gerda, in her childish innocence, is able to prevail without any magical aid. Assaulted by the horrid snow-flake creatures that guard the Snow Queen's ice palace, Gerda finds strength in the Lord's Prayer and is able to free Kay from the cold, empty splendour of the Queen's realm.

The two supernatural women that dwell in the North embody two diametrically opposed principles: the strikingly beautiful Snow Queen, enigmatic and aloof, stands for the cold, sterile intellect which is, to Andersen, the death of faith, and marks the end of the carefree life of a child[33]; while the humble, dirty, unpretentious Finland Woman allows Gerda to embrace her faith and the power that lies in her childish heart. Following the path that the Finland Woman has laid out for them, Gerda and Kay manage to retain some of their childhood innocence into their adult life: "There sat the two grown-up persons; grown-up, and yet children; children at least in heart; and it was summer-time; summer, glorious summer!"


Clemence Housman: The Were-Wolf

Clemence Housman (1861-1955), a British suffragette activist, published a short allegorical novel with the simple title The Were-Wolf in 1896. Regarded by many critics as the definite werewolf tale of the Victorian era, the novel tells the story of an isolated Norse farmstead in a forbidding, winterly wilderness. Tensions rise when an alluring, enigmatic young woman who introduces herself as "White Fell" appears at the farm. Everyone in the small community is instantly infatuated by the beautiful visitor; only one young man, Christian, realises that she is not what she seems. After a child and an old woman disappear, dragged away by an unknown beast, Christian understands that his brother Sweyn will be the next victim. Christian must convince his headstrong brother that the woman whom he loves is, in truth, an inhuman werewolf.

Throughout the novel, White Fell is closely linked to the untameable nature of the North, to frost and snow: Her first appearance is preceded by a gust of bitter wind that sweeps the farm with its chill, yet "a deadlier chill of fear came swifter, and seemed to freeze the beating of hearts".[34] Innocent Rol, the infant who later becomes her first victim, calls her "pretty White Fell, who kissed like a snowflake". Her main attribute, that also gave her her name ("fell" being an archaic term for an animal's pelt), is the white fur tunic she wears. The idea of a dangerous seductress clad in furs raises associations to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs (1870), but White Fell belongs to a very different setting than Sacher-Masoch's aristocratic, sophisticated decadence: She is a creature of the wilderness, a lithe and athletic huntress and as merciless as the icy nature. Christian is eventually able to overcome her, but only after he dares to leave the security of the farmstead. He ventures into her domain, braves the cold wilderness, and chases her down after an arduous pursuit through darkness and snow, proving his superiority as a hunter.

The novel never describes White Fell as a witch, though she clearly stands in the tradition of the sorcerous, supernatural females of the North. Housman's inspiration seems to have been "The Werewolf", a story that forms part of Frederick Maryat's novel The Phantom Ship (1839), which also features an unsuspecting man falling for a beguiling female lycanthrope.[35] Yet ultimately, White Fell is a direct descendant of the werewolves and shape-changing witches that early modern sources located in the northern lands.

Housman's White Fell shares many traits with Cervantes' Norwegian werewolf sorceress, roughly four hundred years earlier: Both women are associated with northern nature, which symbolises their character and being: In Cervantes' tale, the spiritual darkness of the werewolf witch is mirrored by the factual darkness of the polar night; and in Housman's novel, White Fell's cruelty is expressed by the icy wilderness from where she appears.

Both stories revolve around erotic tension "“ but while Cervantes' werewolf is openly, even blatantly, lecherous, White Fell is sexually passive. She uses her beauty to lure Sweyn to his doom, but there is no indication that she desires him sexually. Their attraction is very unequal: While Sweyn desperately craves to be her lover, White Fell is coldly manipulating him towards her only goal: to kill and devour him. The sorceress in Persiles and Sigismunda is very human in her sexual desire, while White Fell is utterly bestial. It is telling that Cervantes' werewolf sorceress assumes a human shape at the moment of her death, whereas White Fell reverts to wolf shape as she dies "“ indicating that she is not a human being turned into a wolf, but rather an inhuman entity, a wolf turned into a woman.

There are no explicit statements in The Were-Wolf that associate White Fell with diabolic forces. However, her opponent, Christian, is clearly and apparently characterised as a godly hero. All the other inhabitants of the farm have old Norse names of a pagan, archaic nature "“ Sweyn, Thora etc. Christian, however, has the most Christian name possible. "His faith," Housman writes, "was as firm as any that wrought miracles in days past, simple as a child's wish, strong as a man's will." As he hunts White Fell through the snow, only his prayers give him the strength to continue his pursuit. In the end of the novel, Housman dispenses with the allegorical hints and bluntly likens Christian to Christ: Unable to escape, White Fell attacks, overwhelms and savages him, but the blood he sacrifices to save his brother kills the werewolf even as he, himself, dies: "[N]o holy water could be more holy, more potent to destroy an evil-thing than the life-blood of a pure heart poured out for another in willing devotion. [...] And [Sweyn] knew surely that to him Christian had been as Christ, and had suffered and died to save him from his sins."

The explicit analogy between Christian and Christ seems to imply that White Fell is an allegory of evil. Bearing in mind that Clemence Housman was an early feminist, one could read her novel as a comment on men's fear of the predatory nature of women, in particular females outside their traditional gender roles. Yet White Fell is, I believe, far too inhuman to warrant such a social interpretation. It seems that Housman narrated a very simple, straightforward but powerful story of good and evil, of self-sacrifice and devotion. The predominant motif, however, is humanity's struggle with merciless nature, exemplified by the homely farmstead, isolated in the desolate winter landscape and threatened by the creature from the wilderness. To express the antagonism between civilization and nature, Housman has chosen the traditional image of a northern shape-changer that has been part of the European imagination for centuries.


C. S. Lewis: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Jadis, the White Witch, is certainly the most archetypical northern sorceress of 20th-century fantasy. She was introduced as the main antagonist in C. S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) and re-appeared five years later in The Magician's Nephew, a novel which narrates her origin and her rise to power.

In Lewis' fictional world of Narnia, Jadis is the ultimate embodiment of evil: a pale, cruel beauty, power-hungry, sadistic, arrogant and narcissistic. She is not a very complex character "“ a straightforward villainess without any redeeming qualities. Her association with the ice and snow is equally obvious: After her arrival to Narnia, Jadis settles in the Wild Lands of the North where she hones her magical powers and prepares to usurp power over the world. After she gained control over Narnia and proclaimed herself queen, she used her dark sorcery to plunge the realm into an everlasting winter. The Long Winter oppressed and plagued the creatures of Narnia for a hundred years, before the heroes of Lewis' first novel put an end to the witch's tyranny and dispelled the eternal frost.

When Jadis is first encountered by Edmund Pevensie, one of the protagonists, she appears as a strikingly beautiful, statuesque woman: "a great lady, taller than any woman Edmund had ever seen. She also was covered in white fur up to her throat and held a long straight golden wand in her right hand and wore a golden crown on her head. Her face was white "“ not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing sugar, except for her very red mouth. It was a beautiful face in other respects, but proud and cold and stern."[36] The description is very similar to H. C. Andersen's Snow Queen, an affinity further accented by the fact that both women choose a sleigh as their mode of transportation. Edmund's corruption and eventual redemption is clearly paralleled by Kay's enchantment and deliverance in Andersen's tale.

Ironically, the White Witch, as a personification of ice and frost, offers to warm and comfort Edmund at their first meeting: "'My poor child,' she said in quite a different voice, 'how cold you look! Come and sit with me here on the sledge and I will put my mantle around you and we will talk."[37] The contradictory nature of the scene "“ again, closely resembling Andersen's "Snow Queen" "“ provides an ominous foreshadowing that Jadis' promises are indeed treacherous. In addition to Andersen's fairy tale, Lewis drew his inspiration for the White Witch from several famous deceivers of English fiction: Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost, the enchantress Duessa from Spenser's Faerie Queene[38] and the immortal and irresistible sorceress Ayesha in H. Rider Haggard's colonial fantasy She.

Like her literary predecessors, Jadis is a temptress. But despite her beauty, she is devoid of any sexual allure. The Snow Queen in Andersen's tale seduces her captive, Kai, with kisses that make him forget his home and all those whom he had left behind. Kai appears as a boy on the verge of manhood, and his adoration for the Queen encompasses both longing for a mother figure as well as erotic desire for an older, experienced woman.[39] This ambiguity is completely missing in Lewis' novel: Jadis' temptations are completely childish "“ after inviting Edmund to her sleigh, she pampers him with Turkish delight and a hot drink. C. S. Lewis had a strong aversion against erotic motives in his novels, and his preference for Jadis distributing candy instead of kisses is an unmistakable expression of his prudish convictions.[40]

Jadis' role in the Narnia chronicles is, essentially, that of the devil. Many critics have commented on the religious imagery in Lewis' fiction, who was known as one of the most influential Christian apologists of his time. Her seduction of Edmund Pevensie is an allegory on the Fall of Man, and just as Christ redeemed mankind through his own suffering, Aslan the Lion "“ the creator and saviour of Narnia "“ surrenders himself to Jadis so that Edmund can be spared. Like Christ, Aslan is publicly executed, but comes back to live and, concluding the allegory, defeats and destroys the Witch. In choosing a northern sorceress as the Narnian equivalent of Satan, C. S. Lewis relates to the traditional, early modern notion of the North as the realm of the devil. The success and influence of the Narnia novels have made sure that the archaic archetype of the northern sorceress retains a place in the imagery of modern 20th- and 21st-century fantasy.


Conclusion

Wicked Witches of the North have a long history. They have been with us for more than five hundred years, and they continue to inspire the imagination of contemporary popular culture. Hardly any fantasy franchise lacks its own ice sorceress[41], usually more or less creatively based on Andersen's Snow Queen or Lewis' White Witch[42]: The popular Warhammer Fantasy game setting has Tzarina Katarin, the Ice Queen of Kislev; Tad Williams' trilogy Memory, Sorrow and Thorn provides Utuk'ku, the Norn queen; The Dark Eye, the most successful German role-playing game features Glorana, the frost witch, who started as a moderately interesting character and developed into a very poor copy of Andersen's Snow Queen. The Sailor Moon anime franchise contributed Princess Snow Kaguya, the main villain of Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon S: The Movie (2004).[43]

The witches of the North also play an important role in Philip Pullman's fantasy series His Dark Materials (in addition to numerous other marvels of the Arctic, such as talking armoured polar bears). Pullman's pronouncedly secular trilogy can be seen as a rebuttal of the ostentatious Christian symbolism in C. S. Lewis' Narnia books, which Pullman has denounced as being "evil" and "exalting cruelty".[44] Consequently, the northern witches in Pullman's novels are generally benevolent characters, diametrically opposed to the diabolic White Witch of the Narnia series.

Influences of the northern witch archetype can be felt even beyond the fantasy genre. Miranda Frost, the evil Bond girl of Die Another Day (2002), is essentially a northern witch without supernatural abilities: Unsubtle names are, of course, customary for Bond girls, and Miranda's surname guarantees that even the most casual audience notices her association with the North. Ms Frost is a pale, blonde beauty of icy demeanour, and she both beds and betrays 007 in an ice palace, on Iceland "“ the allusions to the North are as obvious as one could expect from a Bond movie. If one would include such "mundane" versions of the northern witch, the number of examples would quickly become insurveyable.

Northern witches have been with us for a long time "“ from Olaus Magnus and Pierre de l'Ancre to H. C. Andersen and C. S. Lewis, and beyond. Scholars and novelists have envisioned them as embodiments of pure evil, as manifestations of nature itself and as personifications of cold reason. They have been fair and foul and very often both at the same time. And it seems that they are going to continue to haunt the imaginary North of future generations.

Endnotes

  1. Pierre de l"'Ancre: Tablaeu de l"'inconstance des mauvais anges et demons (Paris 1613), p. 268 [author's translation].
  2. Cf. Peter Davidson: The Idea of North (London 2005); Marijke Spies: Arctic Routes to Fabled Lands. Olivier Brunel and the Passage to China and Cathay in the Sixteenth Century (Amsterdam 1997), in particular pp. 80-82; Rune Blix Hagen: "Satan in the North" (1999). http://www.ub.uit.no/northernlights/eng/myths02.htm; Stefan Donecker: "The Lion, the Witch and the Walrus. Images of the Sorcerous North in the 16th and 17th centuries". TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17 (2010). http://www.inst.at/trans/17Nr/4-5/4-5_donecker.htm.
  3. Jean Bodin: De magorum dæmonomania. Vom außgelasenen wütigen Teuffelsheer, allerhand Zauberern, Hexen unnd Hexenmeistern, trans. Johann Fischart (Straßburg 1591), pp. 113-114 [author"'s translation].
  4. Jeremiah 1:14.
  5. Isaiah 14:13-14.
  6. The early modern belief in northern witchcraft might be partially based on older traditions. Finnish sorcerers belong to the typical villains of medieval Icelandic sagas, where they are often credited with extraordinary feats of shape-changing. These tales are most likely inspired by encounters with Saami shamanism. In German folklore, a female being known as Holle or Perchta plays an important role as ruler over the winter season and mistress of the Wild Hunt. A somewhat toned-down version is the central figure in the Grimm fairy tale "Mother Hulda" (Frau Holle). Holle resp. Perchta is usually not located in the geographical North, but her association with winter and snow point into the same direction. Cf. Lotte Motz: "The Winter Goddess: Pecht, Holda, and Related Figures". Folklore 95 (1984). Early modern scholarship did not invent the nightmare image of northern witchcraft, but it was rediscovered in the context of the European witch-hunts and integrated into the framework of erudite demonology.
  7. Other famous descriptions of Finnish witchcraft were written by Jacob Ziegler (Schondia, 1532), Sebastian Franck (Weltbuch, 1539), Damião de Góis (Lappiae Descriptio, 1540) and Johannes Scheffer (Lapponia, 1673). Cf. Ernest J. Moyne: Raising the Wind. The Legend of Lapland and Finland Wizards in Literature (Newark 1981), pp. 17-34.
  8. Olaus Magnus: A compendious history of the Goths, Swedes, & Vandals, and other northern nations (London 1658), p. 47.
  9. Cf. Moyne, Raising the Wind (see note 7).
  10. Magnus, A compendious history (see note 8), p. 47.
  11. David Harris Willson: King James VI & I (London 1956), p. 85.
  12. Bengt Ankarloo et al.: The Period of the Witch Trials (= The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe 4; London 2002), pp. 79-80.
  13. Rune Blix Hagen: "The King, the Cat, and the Chaplain. King Christian IV's encounter with the Sami shamans of northern Norway and northern Russia in 1599". In: Communicating with the Spirits, ed. Gábor Klaniczay and Éva Pócs (= Demons, Spirits, Witches 1; Budapest / New York 2005).
  14. Both kings later took measures to have their revenge on the witches that had supposedly threatened their lives. The North Berwick witch trials of 1590, the first major witchcraft persecution in Scotland, were a direct result of the perilous journey of James and Anne. The king was known to supervise the torture of suspected witches personally. Christian IV instigated one of the worst witch-hunts of early modern Europe in the North Calotte, a decade after his encounter with the wind summoners.
  15. Cf. Moyne, Raising the Wind (see note 7), pp. 29-30.
  16. Gustavus was killed in the Battle of Lützen in 1632, at the height of his military success, merely two years after his intervention in the war. In a dense fog, the short-sighted king became separated from his troops, got too close to the enemy lines and was fatally shot by an Imperial cavalryman. There are, however, no indications that the fateful fog was seen as unnatural "“ though it would be tempting to suspect the Finnish weather wizards who wanted to punish the ungrateful king who had disavowed them.
  17. Cf. Hermann von Bruiningk: "Der Werwolf in Livland und das letzte im Wendenschen Landgericht und Dörptschen Hofgericht i. J. 1692 deshalb stattgehabte Strafverfahren". Mitteilungen aus der livländischen Geschichte 22 (1924); Karlis Straubergs: "Om varulvarna i Baltikum". In: Studier och översikter tillägnade Erik Nylander den 30. januari 1955, ed. Sigurd Erixon (= Liv och folkkultur 1; Stockholm 1955); Stefan Donecker: "Livland und seine Werwölfe. Ethnizität und Monstrosität an der europäischen Peripherie, 1550-1700". Jahrbuch des baltischen Deutschtums 56 (2009).
  18. Konrad Maurer: "Die Hölle auf Island". Zeitschrift des Vereins für Volkskunde 4 (1894); Hiram Morgan: "The island defenders: humanist patriots in early modern Iceland and Ireland" (2001). http://www.ucc.ie/acad/CNLS/lectures/Morgan_iceland.html.
  19. Cf. Bengt Ankarloo: "Sweden: The Mass Burnings (1668-1676)". In: Early Modern European Witchcraft. Centres and Peripheries., ed. Bengt Ankarloo and Gustav Henningsen (Oxford 1990).
  20. Theophilus Sincerus: Nord-schwedische Hexerey/ Oder Simia Dei, Gottes Affe [...] (s.l. 1677), fol. A2r [author"'s translation].
  21. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: The Travels of Persiles and Sigismunda. A Northern History [...] (London 1619), p. 40.
  22. It is never explained why Rutilio has to endure the polar night right after he discovered the lupine shape of the sorceress in the light of the dawn. This seems to be an unintentional contradiction within the text.
  23. Raphael Holinshed: Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587). http://blogs.dalton.org/commentpress/chronicle-of-england-scotlande-and-irelande-i577/.
  24. Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3.
  25. Edward H. Thompson: "Macbeth, King James and the Witches(1994). http://homepages.tesco.net/~eandcthomp/macbeth.htm.
  26. Kepler"'s Somnium. The Dream, or posthumous work on lunar astronomy, trans. Edward Rosen (Mineola 2003), pp. 48-49.
  27. Ibid., p. 14.
  28. In the notes attached to his "Astronomical Dream", Kepler provides a version that is very close to Magnus' account: "The geographers commonly say, whether rightly or wrongly, that the pilots of ships sailing from Iceland produce whatever wind they want by opening a wind bag" (ibid., p. 44).
  29. Ibid., p. 13.
  30. See, for example, Lucas Mario Gisi: Einbildungskraft und Mythologie. Die Verschränkung von Anthropologie und Geschichte im 18. Jahrhundert (= Spectrum Literaturwissenschaft 11; Berlin 2007), p. 108.
  31. All quotations from Andersen"'s "Snow Queen" are taken from the online edition at http://www.online-literature.com/hans_christian_andersen/972/.
  32. Gracia Fay Ellwood: "Matters of Grave Import". Mythlore 8 (1981), p. 23.
  33. Cf. Wolfgang Lederer: The Kiss of the Snow Queen. Hans Christian Andersen and Man's Redemption by Woman (Berkeley 1986), p. 65.
  34. All quotations from Housman"'s The Were-Wolf are taken from the online edition at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/13131.
  35. Stefan Dziemianowicz: "The Werewolf". In: Icons of Horror and the Supernatural. An Encyclopedia of Our Worst Nightmares, ed. S. T. Joshi (Westport / London 2007), vol. II, pp. 658-659
  36. C. S. Lewis: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), chapter 3.
  37. Ibid., chapter 4.
  38. Elisabeth Baird Hardy: Milton, Spenser and the Chronicles of Narnia. Literary sources for the C.S. Lewis Novels (Jefferson 2007).
  39. Jennifer L. Miller: "No Sex in Narnia? How Hans Christian Andersen"'s "˜Snow Queen"' Problematizes C.S. Lewis"'s The Chronicles of Narnia". Mythlore 28 (2009); Jorgen Dines Johansen: "Counteracting the Fall: "˜Sneedronningen"' and "˜Iisjomfruen"'. The Problem of Adult Sexuality in Fairytale and Story". Scandinavian Studies 74 (2002), p. 140.
  40. Jadis asexuality was subverted by Neil Gaiman in his 2004 short story The Problem of Susan, an homage to the character of Susan Pevensie and a critique of Lewis' treatment of her character. Gaiman tells the story of a researcher who interviews an elderly professor of literature, the grown-up Susan Pevensie. After the interview, the researcher is plagued by nightmares of Narnia: Aslan "“ the great lion who is an allegory of Christ in Lewis' novels "“ and the White Witch, murdering and devouring the Pevensie siblings and indulging in bestial sex amidst the carnage. The graphically described sexual encounter enables Gaiman to create a deeply disturbing atmosphere which allows him to address the problematic aspects of Susan Pevensie's role in the Narnia chronicles.
  41. Interestingly enough, L. Frank Baum's Oz books, which contain the most exhaustive topology of witches in any fantasy setting, lack a true Wicked Witch of the North. Wicked Witches reside in the West (the main antagonist in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) and the East (famously crushed by Dorothy's falling house at the beginning of the novel). The Witch of the North is actually a Good Witch, although the sorceress Mombi is, in the later Oz novels, occasionally referred to as the Wicked Witch of the North.
  42. I am very grateful to Matthias Stockinger for his advice and his expertise on contemporary fantasy.
  43. Many more examples can be found at the formidable TV Tropes wiki at http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/WinterRoyalLady.
  44. Mark Abley: "Writing the book on intolerance" (2007). http://www.thestar.com/comment/article/282172. All online sources have been accessed on January 12th, 2011.

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