The void of female representation in history is an ongoing narrative. Giving a voice to the persecuted and silenced individuals of our past is essential if we want to develop a more equal and just society. By researching the history of women and witchcraft, authors Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Rebecca Tamás have attempted to repopulate the past with figures that were always there from a narrative that wasn’t allowed to be lived, thereby showing the variety of women’s voices in the modern world.
Kirsty Logan hosted the ‘Hags, Hexes and Harpies’ online event at this year’s Paisley Book Festival. The festival’s theme is Radical New Futures, asking authors and audiences to imagine the future they’d like to see post-pandemic. Hargrave and Tamás shared their perspective on the relationship between witchcraft and feminism, which is something they have both illuminated in their writing.
Hargrave’s 2020 novel The Mercies is a powerful and heart-breaking true story set in 1600 Norway about a community of women and a dangerous new incomer. This tale is a vehicle to express and explore the anger she has felt about lack of documentation of everyday women in history. For her, this particular story had a “chalk outline” of information, as she knew there was something remarkable about these women and their involvement in witch trials that had been lost. Due to the lack of historical evidence, she wanted to fill the missing gap of women’s voices through her fiction.
Tamás read from her first full-length poetry collection, 2019’s Witch – as full of earth, blood, sex, and curses, and sharing the same violence and anger, that speaks through Hargrave’s The Mercies. Tamás was similarly inspired by the void in female history and the patriarchy that has prevented recordings of women’s lives, with exceptions only for elite women, such as the royalty. This loss is so huge that she wanted to register a different female narrative was there – one that didn’t have to be the portrayal of witches as fear-inducing and negative, but instead symbols of power and resistance.
Tamás suggests we keep returning to witches, and particularly now as new waves of feminism develop, because there is a constant need for new images of what kinds of women we can be. As potentially more freedoms open up against our patriarchal society, who do we look to? Without their history, she explains, women are having to invent new versions of reality for themselves, thus informing a desire to reshape what the feminine or the female might be. On the other hand, Tamás acknowledges the growing interest in the irrational, such as astrology and tarot, and suggests people are making more room for these ambiguities to shift the attitude towards our changing gender dynamics, meaning women no longer have to conform to the set binary of femininities.
Hargrave agrees there is a genuine desire to create a historical foundation for women. We need past figures to point to as a way of proving women have always been here, existed, and behaved as we do now. There is a real necessity for us to challenge the paradigm we have been forced into.
These authors focus on the importance of having language to express how we’re feeling. Hargrave suggests women are trying to reach for something collectively, which is why she used The Mercies as a direct response to Donald Trump’s misogynistic discourse, but expressed her concern that the language of the oppressed is becoming the language of the oppressor. Therefore, we need witches and symbols of powerful women who are often ridiculed and feared to fight back.
Hargrave’s attention to language and view of its colonisation powerfully shows how it has been turned against the very people who need it. This is incredibly relevant with populist leaders dominating our political landscape. She focused on Trump’s use of language when he argued the impeachment trial was the greatest witch-hunt in the history of the United States. This is coming from a man who has lived in a country that has seen the virtual eradication of its indigenous peoples and the most famous witch-hunts of the world because of an overriding populism and imperial culture. Hargrave’s frustration that Trump wasn’t entirely incorrect because language is fluid, and shaped by what people believe, fuels the necessity to wrestle this language back and suggests that this is where stories and words become so important.
Witches offer women an opportunity to change the subservient role they have been forced to play in society. These witch narratives show powerful, innovative, and intimidating versions of women, thus repopulating history with such remarkable figures that shatter the gender constrained assumptions of the ‘female’.
Illustration: Shona Hogg
Illustration depicts a hand holding tarot cards