Diane Purkiss Part I

This weekend I finally finished sifting through Diane Purkiss’ book of essays The Witch in History. While she covers several different themes in her essays, the ones that are most pertinent to this class are the ones that center on how various groups have appropriated the witch figure to construct their own identities and how the lore surrounding a witch’s powers represented the fear of early modern women. Given the amount in each essay, I will split up my thoughts into two or three posts.


What I particularly like about the introduction to this collection is that it introduced me to new concepts and a particular way of being able to word my own thoughts and ideas about this course. While I have been building on the idea of the witch as a portrayal of fears and fascinations, Purkiss’ assertion that in some ways the witch is a figure created to specifically deal with these fears and fascinations had not occurred to me before. For me, the witch is not a new character. She (the witch) has always been a part of my life, but as much as women might want to believe in the witch as being this ancient being, in reality, someone had to create and build the various forms that now are abundant in literature and pop culture.

In addition, Purkiss moves to discuss the witch as a figure that allowed women to define and manage fears and anxieties that were otherwise unspeakable or denied legitimate expression. Specifically, Purkiss claims that these fears are centered around the domestic duties and trials of being a mother.

Finally, Purkiss makes note that she is by no means trying to cover everything in this book, but give a glimpse into this topic. I think for me, that is a really important fact to remember. As much as I want this course to be comprehensive and cover every important literary work and historical occurrence that are connected to witches and their craft, I can’t. I must remember to focus and show the piece of it that I am able in order to get more people thinking about this topic, and perhaps then they will explore more of it on their own.

Essay #1: A Holocaust of one’s own, The myth of the Burning Times

This first essay of Purkiss’ serves to dissect the traditional myth about the witch craze in Europe and how early radical feminists have been using that traditional, but inaccurate, myth to forge new, but problematic, identities. For instance, three of the main characteristics of the traditional myth are that the targeted women were midwives, men made most of the accusations, and that witches were executed by being burned at the stake. In fact, midwives often helped witch-hunters in order to protect themselves, women made just as many accusations as men, and the majority of witches were hung. While by themselves each one of these might not seem too significant in changing the purpose of the story,  together they create a much different story, one that allows women to paint those who died as the perfect victims brought down by fear of the patriarchy. In addition, Purkiss’ asserts that many writers who use this myth also tie it to the idea of this original and ancient matriarchy, essentially defining a “religion” for women who want to reclaim space.

Purkiss argues  that it is not that the need to reclaim space is problematic, but that some of the techniques used to use the witch as a banner figure are. There is such a high degree of flexibility to the term witch and how it is used among various discourses that it loses a bit of validity. Not to mention, that because Purkiss is looking at the witch through the lens of radical feminism, she also is considering how the questions of authority, authenticity, and public politics figure into the various constructions.

In addition, Purkiss explores how by refusing to add a level of historical authenticity to the various constructions, early radical feminists build themselves into a corner where the witch is used as a synonym of the pointless persecution of women in touch with nature and their sexualities by scared men. Yet in doing so, most of the discourses link women and witches back to this primal, ancient, and primitive power that has existed since the dawn of time. And the witches in these stories always burn. Always. It seems that these writers latch onto this idea of fire as being cleansing and horrifying but also some sort of necessary martyr ritual through which their created ancestors had to go through in order to fully ascend into history. In short, Purkiss claims that these writers have created a “Holocaust for women”, the myth of the Burning Times, which she then goes on to expose as “morally dubious and politically naive”. Perhaps one of my favorite criticisms (as it is one I have often voiced) of Purkiss’ is the following:”Seeing yourself as eternally oppressed is not really liberating unless you are also presented with some inkling of a solution.” (18) Purkiss concludes the essay with the assertion that this myth of the Burning Times is problematic because it covers up historical accuracy in order to attempt and unite women under this idea that they are the “Most Persecuted and Innocent Victim”, which therefore silences a lot of the words and discourse surrounding the truth about early modern women and the factors that brought about the witch craze.

I think that perhaps the most important facet of this essay is the questions it poses. Purkiss’ is unafraid of tearing down classic feminist stories in order to bring about a better understanding of our situation and the history behind the witch as a feminist figure. She forces us to look at things differently, something this essay has in common with the introduction to Sarah Vowell’s The Partly Cloudy Patriot. 

A few semesters ago I took a class titled “Queer Sociology” in which we explored the history of the LGBT movement and both classic/modern discourses surrounding the people who belong to it. One of the things my professor said that stuck with me is that “we must constantly queer Queer Theory.” Now, what does that mean? In such literature and theory, there is often a lot that is new and groundbreaking simply because of the subject material. The purpose of those theories is to open people’s eyes to new possibilities and to attempt to map space not even previously recognized as space. However, such theory and discussion runs the same risks of any topic. That is, they become stagnant and prone to the things they criticize others for. As scholars and people who are part of these discussions, we must constantly remember to open our eyes and see what problems there are in our current argument to make it better, stronger, and more inclusive. That is exactly what Purkiss does here, she “feminizes” the feminine theories and discourses on the witch, and I think reading this essay will not only open up new areas of discussion, but serve as a reminder to keep an open mind through the rest of the class.


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