Witchy Women: Female Magic and Otherness in Western Literature

June 7, 2019 by Essay Writer

Tales of women as sorceresses and magic-wielders abound in the literature and mythology of cultures that promote the gendered binary of culture over nature, activity over passivity, and reason over superstition. In these patriarchal societies, women are marginalized from society and have no agency of their own; to get what they want, they must resort to outside-of-society means like magic. Problems arise when what women want has catastrophic results for men: a number of different literary genres, including Greek mythology, Shakespearean plays, and Roman literature, point out that women use magic either to bewitch a man into bed or to revenge an untrue lover. The wrath of wronged women like Medea, Dido, and Phaedra wreak havoc on the lives of men, and the beguiling powers of Cleopatra and the sorceresses of the Odyssey detain men from performing their masculine duties. Because of the negative impact that women’s magic has on patriarchal order, the universal association between women and magic not only creates the perception of women as the “Other,” but also reinforces it: because woman is the Other, she uses magic; because she uses magic, she is the Other.That a good number of sorceresses are also foreigners is not a coincidence; magic emphasizes the alien nature of women, and foreign women are even more alien than native women. Moreover, foreign or exiled women have even less agency and fewer rights than others, and thus the only options open to them are unconventional ones. When Medea is exiled from her native Colchis and then abandoned by Jason in Greece, she is without any lawful means of recourse. Politically and socially helpless, and on the verge of being exiled yet again, Medea resorts to witchcraft, her “natural gift” (Medea 382), in order to punish Jason for his betrayal. By poisoning Jason’s new bride, murdering his sons, and killing the king of Corinth, Medea presents a serious threat to the patriarchal order. In a supreme reversal of power roles, a foreign woman trumps not only her husband, but also a Greek king.Medea draws a clear line between magic that is practiced in civilization and in so-called barbaric lands. Ironically, in Corinth, Medea is feared and reviled for the same skills that won Jason’s heart in Colchis. When Medea’s sorcery helped Jason to win the Golden Fleece, her magical skills were a valuable asset; indeed, they may have been her primary bargaining chip in extracting a vow of marriage from him. Once she is away from her foreign and barbarian land, however, her once-prized talent for magic becomes strange and uncivilized, not only to the people of Greece, but also to her husband. Undoubtedly, part of the reason that Jason so expediently discards his wife is that in Greece, her magic is out of place: indeed, he accuses her of doing things that “no Greek woman would ever have done,” and claims that she is “not a woman at all, but a tigress” (Medea 1342-1345). The play’s dark references to her pact with Hecate, the patroness of black magic, further accentuate the dangerous and subversive nature of her skills seen in the light of civilization. In Corinth, Medea’s sorcery merely emphasizes her otherness, while in her native land, it may not have had such a negative connotation. In this way, Medea makes clear civilization’s horror of women who deal in the occult.Like Medea, Virgil’s Dido is a foreign woman in exile who resorts to “barbarian” forms of magic when she has no other means of expressing herself. Because Dido is the queen of Carthage, whereas Medea is politically at the mercy of King Creon, she seems to have more options open to her. However, a brief history given by Venus at the beginning of the poem reveals that, like Medea, Dido is also a foreign woman in exile who has suffered at the hands of the patriarchy. Originally from Phoenicia, Dido is forced to flee to Carthage after her husband is killed in order to escape her tyrant brother’s persecution. As the queen of Carthage, finally away from the influence of men, she begins to build her own city and is presented as an extremely competent and just ruler. When Aeneas lands on her shore, however, Dido’s life is once again defined by the actions of the men around her. After falling in love with him, she neglects her political duties and allows her city to fall into ruin while she devotes all of her time and energy to Aeneas. Once Aeneas comes to the realization that he must leave to found Rome, however, Dido is swept aside so that he can fulfill his civic duty. Just as Medea is discarded once Jason discovers that he can advance his station in life by marrying the Corinthian princess, Dido’s wishes become secondary to Aeneas’ political priorities. When all seems to be lost, both women resort to magic in a desperate attempt to reassert their own desires.Once she learns of Aeneas’ plan to escape in the night, a desperate Dido calls upon an Ethiopian priestess versed in the magical arts for help. A bizarre and perverse scene ensues as Dido builds a pyre and burns an effigy of Aeneas while the wild-haired enchantress calls upon the dark gods, with venomous herbs and “a love charm torn from the forehead of a newborn foal” (Aeneid 711-715) in hand. The perception of woman as the Other is clear in the stark contrast between the frenzied women chanting their spells over a blazing fire and Aeneas, who is sleeping peacefully on his ship. The subversive and devilish images of disheveled hair, burning effigies, and sinister magical charms combine to create a scene that is more reminiscent of pagan ritual than civilized society. The foreignness and female-ness of both Dido and the Ethiopian enchantress only enhance that sense of otherness.The Aeneid shows that when women like Dido are incapable of wielding magical powers themselves, they will seek out other women who can. This shared female affinity for magic emphasizes women’s otherness and underlines their alienation from the world of men. Like Dido, when Phaedra of Hippolytus is burning with passion for her stepson, she turns to other women for help. Her old nurse offers to give her a “philtre, a soothing charm for love” that she promises will “conjoin one willing love out of two” (Hippolytus 506-512). Both Phaedra’s nurse and Dido’s Ethiopian princess are willing to help their fellow women bend the will of their unenthusiastic lovers. In literature, these women are portrayed as in collusion with one another, forging alliances that pit women’s desires against those of men. The mysterious and conspiratorial nature of the transactions that take place behind closed doors reinforces the male fear that women are plotting against them. Magic is decidedly confined to the realm of women.Unfortunately for both Phaedra and Dido, their potions and spells do not work in the manner planned. In the end, unrequited love drives both women to suicide. Phaedra hangs herself once she learns of Hippolytus’ rejection, and the implication of the Aeneid is that using black magic contributes to Dido’s descent into madness and suicide. The fact that both women resorted to sorcery emphasizes their almost inhuman desperation after being rejected. In particular, the image of Dido shortly before her death is that of a woman completely disintegrated: “eyes bloodshot and rolling, and her quivering cheeks flecked with stains” (Aeneid 889-891), she finally takes her life on top of the burning pyre. Though Dido and Phaedra both pay for their love with their lives, their magic is not completely useless: just as Medea is able to exact revenge on Jason, Dido is finally able to free herself of her love for Aeneas, and Phaedra punishes Hippolytus for his rejection with her incriminating suicide letter.Both Medea and the Aeneid illustrate a prominent lesson of literature and mythology: that relationships with women detain men from doing their duty. By poisoning Jason’s new wife, Medea stops him from fulfilling the ultimate masculine goal of inheriting a throne; similarly, Dido’s spells attempt to charm Aeneas away from pursuing his destiny as the founder of Rome. The ultimate story of a man detained from his goal by women’s magic, however, has to be Homer’s The Odyssey. During his lengthy journey back home, Odysseus is constantly sidetracked by sorceresses who beguile him into staying with them. Two of the most famous are Calypso, the nymph who enthralls Odysseus for seven years, and Circe, the enchantress who turns his men into beasts. Isolated on islands with no men around, both women live on the fringe of society and embody the conception of woman as the Other. Indeed, they are almost inhuman in their total alienation from civilization: as they sing eerily and weave “enchanting web[s]” on their “immortal loom[s]” (The Odyssey 10.244), they resemble nothing more than deadly spiders waiting to ensnare helpless men.It is this very otherness that is both mesmerizing and repulsive at the same time. Circe and Calypso have a brand of frightening seductiveness that captivates Odysseus’ men and renders even the god Hermes “spellbound” (Odyssey 5.84). Unlike Medea, Dido, and Phaedra, who only resort to magic when they are thwarted in love, the two sorceresses use their magical wiles for the sole purpose of bewitching men. Like revenge magic, their enticing charms are portrayed in a negative light because they delay Odysseus from fulfilling his socially-prescribed masculine duty. Instead of reclaiming his kingdom and fending off his wife’s suitors, Odysseus dallies with Calypso for seven years in a sensual but vegetative state of helplessness. Similarly, he surrenders to Circe’s powers for a full year, and is only roused to action when his men start to complain of restlessness.It is interesting to note that, like Aeneas, Odysseus is only able to counter both Circe’s and Calypso’s magic with the help of the messenger god Hermes. While Aeneas is sleeping soundly on his ship as Dido chants her magic spells, it is Hermes who warns him to leave; similarly, it is Hermes who shows Odysseus how to defeat Circe’s magic (through the extremely phallic method of showing her his sword and then sleeping with her), and who tells Calypso that she must relinquish her hold on the king. The theme of men helping men continues when Odysseus fails to disentangle himself from Circe after a year and needs the urging of his shipmates before he can gather his wits and leave. In this manner, both the Aeneid and The Odyssey oppose the world of women to that of men; in both poems, there is little intra-gender interaction that isn’t limited to sex and magic. The only constructive relationships, and the only ones that further Aeneas’ or Odysseus’ political goals, are those between men. The women merely provide troublesome magical traps along the way. For that, they are punished: all of the women involved get short shrift as they and their magical charms are abandoned without a second thought at the bidding of other men and gods. As usual, in the end, women’s magic is defeated by the proper patriarchal order.Centuries after the Aeneid and The Odyssey were written, William Shakespeare would take up the same theme of women using magic to beguile men and detain them from doing their duty in his play Antony and Cleopatra. Unlike Circe and Calypso, who are clearly enchantresses with magical powers, the queen of Egypt is never explicitly attributed with magical skills. However, the numerous references to her as a “gypsy” and the general theme of occultism that runs throughout the play in the form of the soothsayer all reinforce the impression that magic is at work. Antony’s men grumble that she has bewitched their general, and his enemy Pompey rejoices that Cleopatra’s “witchcraft” (Antony and Cleopatra 2.1.22) has made him lazy and forgetful. Indeed, even Antony, when he is far from the charms of Cleopatra, describes the time he spent in Egypt as “poisoned hours” (Antony 2.2.96) during which he neglects his duty to the state.In the end, the unnatural hold that Cleopatra has over Antony costs him his share in the triumvirate. During the pivotal naval battle in Act III, Cleopatra turns tail and, “through the noble ruin of her magic” (Antony 3.10.19), Antony follows her. By doing so, he forfeits the battle. Blaming his defeat on Cleopatra, he refers to her as a “witch” in Act IV (Antony 4.2.37). It is the same theme as in The Odyssey: the bewitching enchantress arrays passion against duty. As surely as if she had drugged him with one of Circe’s magic potions, Cleopatra’s charms make Antony forget all about Roman politics and surrender to sensuality. His very manhood suffers because of Cleopatra’s magic: by dillydallying in her bed and then losing the naval battle, Antony is emasculated in front of his men. The play makes it clear that it is Cleopatra’s influence alone that is having this effect on Antony; whenever he returns to Rome and to the company of men, he reverts to being hard-headed and “masculinized.” Just as Dido would have willingly detained Aeneas from founding Rome, Antony and Cleopatra reveals that women are dangerous sidetracks that end up costing men their masculinity and making them forget their duty as citizens.Like the sorceresses in The Odyssey, it is partially Cleopatra’s open sexuality that makes her so bewitching. Throughout the play, she is depicted as ribald and lusty, just as the sorceresses are “lover[s] all too willing” (Odyssey 5.172). The sensual existence of Antony in Egypt closely parallels that of Odysseus on the isles of Circe and Calypso; for both men, the days are filled with feasting and the nights with sexual pleasure. The fact is, all of the women who use magic place a lot of importance on their sexual lives. Medea’s relationship with her husband trumps her maternal role, Dido’s sex life with Aeneas causes her political prowess to disintegrate, and Phaedra’s illicit lust for her stepson drives her to suicide. Similarly, Calypso seem to exist for the sole purpose of bewitching men into sleeping with her and the only way that Circe can be placated is in bed, while Cleopatra is constantly referred to as “wanton,” “lusty,” “salt,” and a “strumpet” to highlight her strong sex drive. In this way, literature reinforces the male fear of female sexuality by portraying sexual women as dangerous and deadly magic users who ensnare men in their erotic traps.Interestingly, one of the few occasions that a man and not a woman is accused of using magic also occurs in one of Shakespeare’s works. In Othello, the Moorish general is accused of using witchcraft to lure the white Desdemona into marriage. Her father, Brabantio, claims that without “enchant[ing] her” in “chains of magic,” Desdemona would have never consented to marry a black man; instead, Othello must have “practiced on her with foul charms, / Abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals / That weaken motion” (Othello 1.3.64-74). Othello is the exception that proves the rule: as a black man in a predominantly white society, he is just as much “the Other” as women are. Othello reveals cultural beliefs that people who are different‹whether they are women or men of a minority race‹are unable to wield any kind of power without recourse to an outside means of help. To the men who do conform to the societal norm, whenever a person who is marginalized by society accomplishes the same things as male citizens do, they “must be” using subversive magical means.The perceived affinity of women for the dark arts both creates and reinforces the image of women as the Other: operating outside of society, against the gods and man-made laws, the sorceress acts only to fulfill her own agenda. The problem lies in the fact that a woman’s agenda is rarely compatible with a man’s. The real threat of women’s magic lies in its negative effects on men: by either exacting revenge or bewitching men into bed, women are able to rob men of their masculinity and will-power. By poisoning his wife, Medea turns Jason into a helpless exile; similarly, Circe and Calypso reduce Odysseus to a passive sybarite, while Cleopatra clouds Antony’s mind and erases all thoughts of politics. In all of these cases, women succeed in using magic to separate men from the rest of the community, either by robbing them of their political ties or captivating them with their sexual charms so that they can only live for the passion of the moment. Because magic-wielding women take power of men’s hands and put it into their own through revenge or bewitchment, they present a threat to the patriarchal order. This threat is amplified by their interference with men’s civic duty, which has heightened ramifications for Greek and Roman societies in which the State is all-important.Through poison or love philters, these sorceresses are able to turn the tables on men. Because of women’s magic, men become disintegrated from the masculine world; in its place, they are constrained to the same solitude and separation that is a woman’s common lot in society. By thus alienating men from society, women drag their lovers and ex-lovers into “otherness” with them. However, this situation never seems to last long: the bewitched and love-struck men always come to their senses and remember their masculine duties, only to abandon the women who once charmed them. The women, in turn, are always punished for their transgressions: Dido, Phaedra, and Cleopatra are driven to suicide, a male god forces Calypso to relinquish her hold on Odysseus, and Circe is abandoned by Odysseus at the persuasion of his men. Even Medea, who is arguably the most successful of these emasculating and magic-wielding women, escapes to Corinth to live with Aegeus in Athens. Still forced to rely on a man for survival, she is not truly escaping the patriarchal system either. By scripting the repeated abandonment and punishment of female magicians in literature and mythology, patriarchal societies attempt to allay male fears of independent, sexual women who band together to form powerful alliances against men. Although women may temporarily succeed in dragging men into otherness with them, they are always silenced in the end.

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