There’s a chill in the air and pumpkin spice flows like wine, so let the season of witchery begin! In the service of expanding Spooky Season beyond October, this week we’re talking about witches. What is a witch? How should they figure in your story? How does their magic work, and is the whole idea sexist? We cover all that and more, plus a return to Oren’s Discworld Corner.
Generously transcribed by Ala. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You are listening to the mythcreants podcast. With your hosts Oren Ashkenazi west Matlock and Chris Winkle[Intro Music]
Wes: Hello. You’re listening to the mythcreants podcast. I’m your host Wes and with me today is Chris and Oren. And today we’re talking about witches because the weather here in Seattle has just felt particularly witchy of late. The chill breeze, the smell of compost, earthy mushrooms. The leaves on my trees are dying. There’s maybe like a light drizzle the other day, or maybe I imagined that- it doesn’t matter. It’s all very witchy. And I want to talk about witches, who doesn’t love witches.
Oren: I mean jokes on you. I drink pumpkin spice tea all year. So really all seasons are fall now.
Wes: Oren’s life is very witchy
Oren: Extremely pumpkin at the very least, or wait, no, maybe there’s no pumpkin in pumpkin spice. That’s the thing people get mad about sometimes.
Chris: No, there is now. Okay. If we’re specifically talking about the PSL, the Starbucks latte, which pumpkin spice is beyond the latte, you can have pumpkin spice candles and pumpkin spice tea. Just putting that out there, but they did finally, as far as I know, add pumpkin to the pumpkin spice. But the last time I bought, like, a pumpkin spice flavoring, I was extremely disappointed that it was just the spices associated with pumpkin and not actual pumpkin flavoring. I felt very cheated.
Oren: Well, I don’t know if there’s any pumpkin in my pumpkin spice tea. But if I was a witch, I could add some with magic, boom, segue.
Wes: We talked about wizards like forever ago now, and I just think witches are infinitely more interesting. And I think everybody would agree with me.
Oren: The wizard podcast wasn’t that long ago. It just feels like a long time because we spent the whole thing arguing about what a wizard is, you know, that felt like it took a while.
Wes: Witches, we’ll still talk definition, but they’re just better, better to bring into focus.
Chris: I mean, I’m not going to disagree with you that witches are more interesting, I think they’ve just got more sides to them and kind of almost like a deeper history that is tied in with some cultural stuff, not all of it, good, but I’m sure somebody is mad. Some listener is shaking their fist at you right now.
Wes: That listeners should just step outside, breathe deep, and then I’ll hex them,
Oren: Witches have great hats. I think that’s something that’s very witchy.
Chris: Yes. Somebody has come aboard. My aesthetic definition, all hail the aesthetics.
Wes. I think that’s a great starting point, Chris, that was just like, we got to get at it. The hat.
Oren: That’s certainly one thing a witch might have.
Chris: Oh no. Oren is already stubbornly holding to his own theories,
Oren: But is a witch a sandwich?
Chris: If she has a broom and a cauldron, but not a pointy hat, she’s still a witch- or they are- or if they have, you know, a cauldron and a pointy hat, right, they’re probably still a witch. How many things do we remove before they’re no longer a witch?
Oren: Well, I got my butt handed to me when I tried to rigorously define what a wizard is. So my new definition of what a witch is, is if they call it a witch in the story it’s a witch now.
There we go. Very helpful, extremely useful definition. So you guys are talking about like the classic and I put quotes around that because like, by classic, I mean, like since the wizard of Oz movie came out, witch. Wears black and has a hat and a cauldron and a broomstick. There are various extremely dubious claims that these trappings, uh, stretch back farther and have roots in actual folklore. They are mostly in the form of Tumblr memes, which I don’t typically trust for historical information.
That’s what the classic witch looks like, but you can also have more modern, urban fantasy, witches. They might go the new age route and have, like, crystals and silver jewelry and what have you. Or they might go, like, digital witch, and have a smartphone with their spells on it. They probably have a familiar though, but I think that’s mainly because people love animals and any excuse to give the main character an animal companion. Why would you not take that?
Wes: Because the DM will just kill it.
Chris: Oh, no. I would say that if you choose to call a character a witch in a story you’re at least choosing to invoke all of the cultural sort of ideas about witches. And it could be to subvert them, or it could be to love the hats and brooms and cauldrons. But at the same time, you’re choosing to sort of tap into that zeitgeist.
Oren: People can call their magic users whatever they want, but if they opened up a story and it was like, here are the witches, and they exclusively shoot laser beams from their eyes. I would be a little confused. I would wonder why you were calling those witches. Like technically yeah, I guess they can be,
Wes: That’s actually, like a weird Superman comic they’re Kryptonian witches
Oren: There are certain tropes here you are invoking when you use that term. And it’s good to be aware of them just so that you could set expectations properly.
Chris: So, you know, while witches at this point shouldn’t just be women. They should be all genders. It’s clearly still a feminine label.
Oren: I do hope that we are done with the thing of calling the same kind of magic by different terms when a person of a different gender uses it. I’m not going to name any names for which books might’ve done that. But if your magic school’s name is “magic done by a woman” and “magic done by a man”, but it’s the same magic, you know, that’s probably not a great sign. You know, you probably need to reconsider your terminology.
Chris: Also. Warlocks are something else now
Wes: It’s an interesting word. All genders can be warlocks and let’s just have more interesting different stuff,
Chris: There aren’t witches in D&D are there?
Oren: I mean, it depends on what edition you’re using and what campaign setting. I don’t think there’s a 5e witch class, but there have been witch classes in the past,and they follow pretty much what you would expect, in that they are arcane casters with, like, at least in theory, a focus on subtle magic. Uh, now, it’s D&D. So the magic only gets so subtle.[Laugh]
Oren: Like the witch that we had in our 3.5 campaign, mostly cast lightning bolt, but in theory, she had access to more subtle spells than the wizard. Which is hard, cause the wizard has, like, the biggest spell list, no matter what edition you’re in. So it’s tricky to try to make the witch feel distinct from that
Wes: Spells is a good enough segue to like- witches generally seem to be associated with charms, curses, hexes, and, uh, fantastic brews and excellent teas. The subtle magic is a good way to say, enchantment spells as opposed to like, a wizard. So what I like about witches is witches are just kind of practical, maybe they have just, like, a little bit of a community, like, business arrangement kind of thing. It’s like, you know, I’m not going to just sit in my tower and not help anybody and unravel the mysteries of the universe with my academia. I’m out in the forest, you know, collecting things and selling potions for people that want to hex, you know, their partners and look good, entirely practical and reasonable.
Chris: Well, good thing that you, I think, mentioned the wizards in this context, because wizards have such an ivory tower connotation of being separate from the world and being aloof and off in the sky. Right. And, you know, above worldly concerns, whereas the witch is very much in the woods, probably in a cottage, you know, maybe with lots of flowers around it, or maybe the woods are dark and spooky, what have you, grabbing ingredients from nature and, you know, just cooking things. Right. And just very like down to earth.
Oren: Well, as a podcast host of culture, I have also read Discworld. And yes, that is basically the Discworld approach to witches and wizards. In some books it’s more gendered than it should be, but by the end, it’s pretty clear that the actual difference is, in the setting, is how they use matters.
Like, uh, witches are defined basically by being community oriented and a wizard is defined by being like, removed and either alone or in the company of mostly other wizards. To the extent that it is gendered, it’s a social pressure thing by the end, Pratchett had made that pretty clear. Which is a perfectly good way to define witches versus wizards. If you ask me it gets a little confusing, cause Discworld also plays with the concept of like, the scary witch that everyone in town is freaked out by because they think she’s evil. Granny Weatherwax is described as being evil a couple of times, but she’s not. And it’s a little unclear where the book was going with that.
Chris: Should we talk about evil witches?
Wes: Some of the best characters are evil witches.
Chris: I do think at this point, there’s a couple of things that I would avoid. For one, the sort of idea that witches are like a separate species that is all inherently evil, just feels a little weird. Doesn’t even feel believable. Like there’s, I think these days an expectation that witches are human, but like in the movie, The Witches, where they all, you know, have a hideous face underneath and think boys smell gross.
Wes: I never looked into it if Roald Dahl was drawing on anything for that, or if he was just making it up,
Chris: Do you think that the idea of witches like, abducting children is from folklore?
Wes: They don’t have any hair. They’re almost more like serpents. I haven’t seen that suggested anywhere. Certainly the children part.
Chris: The other thing that I would really not like to see anymore is specifically the idea that witches get their power from having sex with the devil.
Oren: Yeah. We can be done with that
Chris: Or any, honestly, any association with the devil, I would rather not see that. Um, that’s just very, very closely tied with, you know, the actual murder of women in history and the justifications used for it. So besides just being like slut shamey, and just- that whole thing is just kind of gross.
Hocus Pocus as a movie is a lot of fun and everybody loves the evil witches. And I can’t regret the scene where they find some random guy in a devil costume and decide he’s their master, because it’s just so funny. They are PCs they’re in a role-playing game and it just feels like they decided to go off track and hang out with this random NPC that was around. At the same time, that idea, you know, I would discourage using.
Oren: I mean, Hocus Pocus is a really bad movie saved by incredibly over the top, witch performances in which they just completely disrespect the movie that they’re in and just do their own thing. They don’t match the movie. Like they don’t fit with the rest of the movie at all. And the parts where you’re not with them are actually very boring. I don’t think that Hocus Pocus is something to be emulated. But I can see why it’s popular, even though these witches are technically the bad guys, they just completely steal the show because they’re so much more charismatic than anyone else in the movie.
Uh, and then when they die, it’s kind of like, oh yeah, I guess there’s still five minutes of movie left technically, but like, do we have to watch it? Can we just stop here?
Chris: It also comes with the idea that, you know, women can only be powerful by getting their power from a man. I would let go of that. But if we have an individual villainous, witch like Ursula-
Wes: Yes, the best.
Chris: Some really great female characters, some of the only female characters that, you know, previously were allowed to just be empowered on screen were villains. So I would never, I would never turn down an Ursula.
Oren: I’m not against the concept of an antagonistic witch, I just would prefer to avoid tropes that imply that witch trials were correct. Ursula is interesting cause they call her a witch, but it’s not really clear to me what her powers even are. I know she does contracts, but like, everyone in that setting has magic.
Chris: She also uses ingredients and throws them in a cauldron-like thing, despite the fact that she’s underwater.
Oren: How does that work? How does this stuff say in the cauldron
Wes: Magic, Oren
Chris: Her black octopus, like, aesthetic is designed to look like a black witches dress. I think, in the original story is based on, it was a sea witch who was much more human looking
Wes: Also in the original version, like there’s no happy ending for the prince. Like, how does she turn back into a mermaid? Oh, right. You got to spill some blood.
Chris, Or, in the original story actually, the prince gets his happy ending. Um, little mermaid does not, she chooses not to murder him, but yeah, the, witch was definitely playing a devious game with her and him,
Wes: Witches fill just like a really good, just ambiguously threatening role. Like even the word, like if you were reading a story or watching a show and somebody just mentions that there’s like a witch, it kind of puts you on alert. And I really liked that aspect about it, even though there are plenty of benevolent witches, it’s just like, oh yeah, there’s a witch that lives in the country. It’s like, okay, tell me more.
Oren: Yeah, that was definitely something that Discworld played with was the idea that the witches are like, inherently intimidating in some capacity. I always thought that was a little weird. I always thought that didn’t really fit with everything else it establishes about witches. Other than Granny Weatherwax personally, who is just, you know, kind of an aggressive person
Chris: For the most part in a lot of popular stories, or at least movies, the idea of witch just being inherently, like, evil and ugly has fallen out of favor. Somewhat like, yes, we can say vampires all evil, but then sooner or later we’re going to introduce the sexy love interest vampire. I think there’s the same thing going on with witches where sooner or later, we want that one sexy witch who is good and still uses magic. So you see less stories where they’re just inherently evil just by being witches.
Oren: Doesn’t that happen in the movie The Witches? Doesn’t one of the witches randomly turn good for no reason? And then at the end she’s wearing white. Doesn’t that happen? Did I imagine it?
Chris: No, it does happen. Again, the way that they’re depicted, it’s just being like another species. That’s still, I wouldn’t still go there, but yes, even The Witches has the one good witch who helps them and turns them back into like boys at the end, cause they’re still mice
Oren: Witches having magic- anyone with magic makes a pretty good antagonist, right? Because magic makes them powerful and it allows them to do weird stuff that your protagonist doesn’t understand. And that makes it scarier. I’m not against that. You know, I did that in a story we have on the site. But I would also try to avoid things that make it seem like, you know, this witch is inherently evil by nature of being a witch. Because even if you try to make witch gender neutral, it still has feminine implications. And that’s actually why I had the character at the end of that story also use magic, because the idea was that this was like, an evil person, rather than like an evil species. I’m not against the concept. I just, I do think you have to be careful with it.
Chris: Another thing that I would be a little bit careful about is a lot of like newer movies that include, like, protagonists that are doing witchcraft, incorporate some level of the Wiccan religion, and that is somebody’s religion. I would say, do not appropriate that, you know, make up whatever you want about urban fantasy characters who are, witches is doing magic and just, you know, leave people to practice their religion and peace, unless you actually want to represent them and you have a wiccan character, in which case you need to put that representation first, right. And that might change how you have to depict magic, which you probably don’t want to do. Has to be really important to you if you actually want to include Wicca. Otherwise it’s better to just, you know, leave that stuff alone.
Oren: On of the weirdest witch portrayals I’ve seen was probably in Buffy where I spent the whole show trying to figure out what even is a witch in this setting,
Chris: There are witches in Buffy? Oh yeah, that’s right.
Oren: Well, it’s weird because at first Buffy had book magic. Like you did magic by reading from a book and it seemed like anybody could do it. Once we start to get into the later seasons, particularly season four, although this might have been earlier, but season four is the one where I really remember it getting off the ground where we established that witches are characters who have inborn magic, you know, Tara and Willow can like levitate a refrigerator across the room. Like no spell books involved. And they also do book magic, but that’s somehow different from what Giles was doing. I was kind of, I was like, what is happening? What is going on here? How does this matter?
Chris: Buffy magic system is just whatever they feel like at any given moment. Yeah. It’s a complete mess, which is too bad because I did like the creepy book aesthetic that Buffy had, but then they just wanted to make Willow way too powerful.
Oren: My favorite line is don’t speak Latin in front of the books. That’s a great line. Oh man. Another group of witches. I really like are from Madoka Magica and at first they seem like weird monsters that are called witches for no reason. Why are they called witches? They’re just weird monsters. You know, their most defining trait is they create a labyrinth and that’s like a thing a Minotaur does- why don’t we call the minotaurs? And then you find out that, you know, spoilers for Monica Magica if you haven’t seen it already- that you find out that they’re called that because magical girls turn into them. The Kyubey species was like, well, a magical girl is a child who is magical. And so when they grow up and become an adult, then they would become a witch. So that’s what we’re going to call the monsters they turn into. And it’s like, man, you are the worst, okay.
Chris: And of course, part of it is that Matoka Magica has wonderful music and a wonderful aesthetic. Honestly, the witches in there are cool, partly because they have a unique animation style. changes, animation style when you go into the labyrinth. They just look cool, and there’s cool music playing and they’re also very dangerous. Since this is a dark story where people actually perish,
Wes: It gets back to the importance of the aesthetics. Aesthetics are critical for witches.
Chris: I mean, that’s honestly what sets most different types of magic workers apart. They can all just wave their hands, do spells, but it’s ascetics that really makes them distinct
Oren: I do think you could maybe get some interesting mileage out of a set, a setting that has like different magic styles that are using different terms for mage. Like you can have witchcraft potions and I dunno, subtle magic. And then like wizardry could be lightning bolts that you read out of a book. I think there’s some mileage you could get from that
Wes: Just when you mix everything together and then have to pump Giles full of like other witchy magic, just to deal with dark Willow, for reasons
Oren: You do want to be careful because like in general, you don’t want to make your magic system more complicated than it needs to be, and adding multiple types of things is making it more complicated. So like, that should be pretty important to your plot, if you’re going to do that.
Chris: I do have to say that a lot of people who are using witches in their stories, they want to tap into all the folklore and they want the aesthetics like the cauldrons and all of the ingredients. And so oftentimes the magic system ends up being complicated or non-existent because they’re prioritizing the aesthetics. And I do have an article on making what I call them, eclectic magic systems. Where you’ve got all of these various aesthetic pieces you want, and now you want to figure out, how do I make a magic system with them.
So you work backwards thinking about, like, okay, I want cauldrons and brooms, or what-have-you in my magic casting, now how do I figure out what the purpose of all of those things is in casting magic. So you can still do a system that’s like, really structured and logical and pretty rational. Doing that it’s a little trickier though, because you try to incorporate every piece of folklore in your setting.
Oren: Still have to be willing to choose what you’re going to include, because your article is very good and shows how you can make a very cool magic system, but it’s still limited in what it has. It still can’t have everything, which a lot of authors want.
Chris: We’ve talked about urban fantasy before and the issue that it often doesn’t have very strong theming because people are starting with the idea of the world as they know it, which is not strongly themed. And then they want to add like, all of the urban fantasy tropes. As opposed to Teen Wolf, which actually decided, no, we’re not doing the vampires.
Oren:I’m still amazed
Wes: That’s restraint.
Chris: Yeah. I’m still amazed that they did not introduce vampires into Teen Wolf. [Laughter] They decided cowboys, but. Well, it’s love for 10. (?) Their theming is perfect. We want weird supernatural cowboys, but not vampires.
Oren: TV promises that I’m amazed were kept. It’s that one and no romance between Sherlock and Watson in Elementary. I still can’t believe they stuck with both of those promises for five years. They never specifically promise no vampires in teen Wolf, as far as I could tell, but it was like an implicit promise.
Chris: Again, if you want all urban fantasy tropes, it is harder to make magic that just universally seems to share certain logic. And metaphysical properties. Whereas if you’re okay with like, theming your setting and making it more about witches, or more about vampires or what have you, then it’s a lot easier to do that.
Oren: Yeah. I’m especially not a huge fan of the urban fantasy thing where that’s like, okay, so we’re going to have all of these different non-human species or what have you. And then we’re going to have witches or wizards and, you know, in the case of the Dresden Files. It’s like, these are regular humans, but they have magic powers. And like that always creates problems because their magic powers ended up just being completely chaotic and unmanageable compared to like, a werewolf that has like, you know, a fixed set of powers that you can always work with.
I’ve noticed that among some authors that witches tend to encourage authors to go towards the oppressed mages trope.
I would just like to caution- like that isn’t going to work any better if you call them witches, than if you call them something else. Magic is still magic. I know that we have this idea in our heads that witches were oppressed because of witch trials. I keep having to say this. Those were not actual witches. Those were, in the most cases, ostracized women from their community, occasionally people of a different religion, but they were not witches. They didn’t have magic powers. So when you have a witch who you’re like- “she’s going to get witch trialed because of her magic”, it’s like, that doesn’t make any more sense than if you called her a sorcerer or, you know, a grand arc mage or what have you.
Chris: I think at the very least you need a power behind the witch trials that also has magic. And what this really is, is some kind of warfare between different groups of magic workers. I think if you want the aesthetics of the witch trials, and I think that’s really what a lot of people actually want. Don’t get me wrong- people also want to actually have oppressed mages, which we don’t recommend- but some people, they just want the aesthetics of that kind of like, the witch hunts, the witch witch trials. You have to make the side that’s behind those witch trials also have magic and be super powerful. When a witch is caught, you know, their magic is disabled or something by other spells.
Oren: Oppression flows from power, not towards it. And if you have a bunch of mundane people attacking a witch for having magic, you’re breaking that rule. But like, if you have two magic factions fighting each other, and one of them, you know, uses witch trials as a way of getting at its enemies. Sure, that’s the thing you could do. I don’t have a problem with that.
I know that everyone who does this is definitely looking for my personal approval. [Laughter] I think we can say that’s pretty important.
Wes: Something that we nodded to at the beginning that we should probably close on is, since we three love witches so much, you know, and witches generally have familiars- what familiar would you have if you can choose
Oren: I mean, we already both have a cat. So that’s probably going to be that.
Chris: I’m a sucker for cats, but I might give my cat bat wings.
Wes: That would be fun.
Oren: Winged cats are the greatest. This is true. Also very partial to foxes. I can’t own a fox in real life, but you know, if I was a witch and I could have a fox familiar. Yeah. I’d go for that.
Wes: I go back and forth. I mean, I like birds a lot, but I always think it’s fun to just have, a hare. Just because they’re very quiet and they’re very soft and they can kick real hard. Maybe I’ll also puts some bat wings on it.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, just put wings on everything. If you can put wings on a cat, why can’t you put wings on any other animal?
Wes: That’s right. All right. Well, I think with that, we will call this episode to a close, but before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons.
First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
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