Witches, Women and Power

I’ve just got back from an amazing weekend in Tuebingen in Germany, where I attended a conference called Ambiguous Representations: Witches, Women and Power in Literature and Critical Theory. I came home having learned a lot; I have a long reading list to investigate and a notebook packed with new ideas for poems. 

On the way home, I was thinking about that reading list, and how so many of the presentations related to art by women in all its forms being rediscovered or given the recognition it deserves. I wonder if one of the reasons that the witch remains an ambiguous figure is because so much work by women on the subject remains in the margins. I’m not sure that’s entirely the case, I think there’s something more at work on a symbolic level regarding the witch, but I think it contributes to it. Female artists who explore the ongoing fascination with the Medea myth provide extensive insight into the story and use emotional intelligence and empathy to explore what it means. What we mostly remember, though, is the headline story – Medea the witch murders her own children in revenge. That in itself doesn’t explain why the story endures, unless perhaps as a deep-rooted fear, or why it’s rather satisfying that she escapes punishment. 

In my PhD, I’m looking at precisely why female poets continue to return to the figure of the witch and what came through loud and clear was the fact that a witch remains a relevant figure in the modern world, closely identifiable with much of the female experience. From Mary Webb’s connection with nature to Marina Carr’s social commentary, the witch is at once a flexible symbol and one that stands for something very ‘other’ compared to mainstream society. 

I loved hearing from so many intelligent women throughout the week and not just what they were sharing but also the enthusiasm and array of projects from academic studies to creative projects. These demonstrate not just the enduring appeal of the witch but the continual rise of a vibrant addition to culture from female scholarship and creativity. I don’t think it’s as simple as calling it a sisterhood – there’s no reason why women should all have the same views on anything, after all. I think it stems more from this idea of a complex identity in which being a woman remains somewhat similar to being a witch. It is, in Shakespeare’s words, “A deed without a name.” Any work that looks to explore and name the experience does provide a collective benefit, even if that isn’t the intent.

The witch is a figure of disruption and gives permission to misbehave. I had so many lovely conversations over the weekend, and during those chats discovered some weird and wonderful facts and personal fascinations. All of the subjects we covered both inside and outside the conference room showed that being outside of things, being different and perhaps misbehaving a little can be a glorious and beautiful thing.

I am hugely grateful to the conference for providing me with a scholarship that allowed me to attend the Witch Summer School. I am not entirely sure if there is a way to thank the organisers for their generosity, but I will do so the only way I know how – by working on all the poems the weekend gave me and sending them out in the world.