The perception of witches in literature has been highly influenced by the cultural, historical, and social atmospheres of the time. The Salem Witch Trials, which began in the Spring of 1692, is a glaring example of some of the religious fanaticism, misogyny, psychological distress, and mass hysteria that permeated throughout the contemporary era as it relates to magical practices.
In the 21st century, our perception of witches has started to change. It became clear that these mass accusations of witchcraft were merely covering up the rising fear of women’s independence. With modern feminism steadily on the rise, women all over have started reclaiming the term “witch” as a form of empowerment. These powerful women are no longer helpless victims weighed down by a strict power structure. They are not inherently evil either, as many of these characters have received their complex retellings with a feminist twist.
Feminist literature, like most media, has served its purpose by challenging preconceived notions about the nature of witches and women in general. Whether they are naughty or nice, powerful women are telling their tales in the realm of fiction. From wise old women to quirky teen girls, here are some of the most empowering and memorable witches in literature.
The Wicked Witch of the West
From L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), the Wicked Witch of the West emerged as the most memorable witch in modern media. Most audiences will recall her appearance from the film adaptation, where she is depicted with green skin, a pointed hat, and a broomstick. This image has become synonymous with many witches in popular culture.
In Baum’s tale, she is a villainous MacGuffin with the goal of killing Dorothy (and her little dog, too!) to avenge her sister and retrieve the silver slippers. Here, the Wicked Witch is merely a plot device used to get the story moving along. It wasn’t until 1995 that this character received a more empowering rebrand in Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.
In Maguire’s novel, the Wicked Witch is given the name Elphaba along with some insight into how she became so wicked in the first place. Her green skin and powerful magic make her an outcast within society, which fuels her need to fight against injustice and marginalization. Unfortunately, her will to fight back has unintended consequences. Maguire’s novel would eventually become an award-winning musical in 2003 that continues to perform to this day.
While she remains “wicked” in most of her iterations, the Wicked Witch is far more multifaceted than ever before!
Originating from Greek mythology, Circe remains a prominent figure in Homer’s epic poem Odyssey. In Homer’s tale, Circe was a powerful goddess that dwelled on the secluded island of Aeaea. On this island, Circe had her throne, where she was attended by nymphs and tamed beasts. She is knowledgeable of herbs and potions, but her most notorious ability is turning humans into animals. In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus and his sailors believe they have found refuge in Circe’s home. However, upon eating one of her meals, the men begin to transform into pigs. Before encountering Odysseus and his sailors on the island, Circe had performed other acts of vengeance.
In another tale, she is rejected by Glaucus, a minor sea god who solely had eyes for a maiden named Scylla. Scorned, the enchantress recites a spell that transforms Scylla into one of the ship-wrecking sea monsters later shown in epics alongside characters such as Odysseus, Jason, and Aeneas.
For many readers, Homer’s Odyssey seems to skim over any adequate explanation for Circe’s actions. In 2018, author Madeline Miller sought to reframe this tale and offer insight into Circe’s psyche in her novel Circe. In Miller’s novel, Circe’s actions are not merely an act of sadism. From her perspective, Circe’s tale becomes one where the enchantress must channel her loneliness into independence as she fights against antagonistic forces that challenge her status as a magic wielder as well as a woman. Even her curse on Scylla is reframed, having the goddess express remorse for all the suffering she has caused. It is this regret that provokes the goddess to put an end to her own careless violence.
Morgan le Faye
Morgan le Fay is another witchy character that teeters between good and evil, depending on the text. She has been solidified as a leading character in many of the stories and legends surrounding King Arthur. Morgan’s story can be traced back to Celtic legends and stories where she was often depicted as a shapeshifter or a fairy.
In these earlier legends, Morgan maintained the status of a wise healer. However, later versions of the Arthur myth would go on to depict her as a trickster or witch that acts as King Arthur’s most fearsome enemy, despite being his half-sister. She would go on to commit questionable acts such as seducing Merlin, antagonizing Arthur, and plotting murder. This shift in persona can be linked back to the cultural stigma within medieval times, with magic often being linked to the devil. Although the wizard Merlin is also a magical practitioner within the story, his status as a male, as well as Arthur’s protector, can explain why he is favored within the story (despite certain interactions describing him as the son of the devil).
Later in the twentieth century, Morgan seems to be regaining her status as a relatively good or empowering figure, even a feminist icon. Traces of her complexity reemerge in more modern texts where she becomes the morally gray and mysterious enchantress. In her 1983 historical fantasy novel, Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley offers a more righteous motivation for Morgan’s actions. Bradley’s novel depicts Morgan as a protector of the old pagan religion amidst the rise in Christian values.
In any version, Morgan continues to represent a figure who refuses to swear allegiance to any form of authority, thus making her deviate away from society’s social codes.
Esmerelda “Granny” Weatherwax
In Terry Pratchett’s fantasy series Discworld, Esmerelda “Granny” Weatherwax emerged as a formidable witch. She debuted in the third novel of the series Equal Rites as one of the witches residing in the kingdom of Lancre.
Her character embodies the archetypal witch with her no-nonsense attitude and old wisdom. While she can move objects and start fires, Granny prefers more stealthy means of getting what she wants compared to her peers. She practices headology, which allows her to manipulate the minds of others—for better or for worse. Without lifting a finger, Granny can convince another being that they’ve been cursed by her. On other occasions, she can convince someone to not only face their fears but fight them as well.
Granny may seem harsh at first, but her heart’s in the right place. She is all about doing what needs to be done, no matter how hard it seems at first. She also refuses to see things from a black-or-white perspective. Rather than trying to categorize ourselves as wholly “good” or “evil,” Granny’s philosophy suggests focusing on individual behaviors with the goal of making the best possible choices.
With her striking characterization and Pratchett’s consistent wit throughout the series, Granny continues to charm her way into the minds of many readers.
This quirky teen made her first appearance in October of 1962 when Archie Comics published Archie Madhouse #22. Sabrina Spellman is a half-witch, half-mortal teenager who lives with her aunts, Hilda and Zelda, as well as her talking cat, Salem. She originally started out in short, comedic stories in various Archie publications. Eventually, due to her rise in popularity, Sabrina was gifted her own comic series titled Sabrina the Teenage Witch in 1971.
Sabrina offered a youthful, teen-friendly rendition of the witch archetype. Her struggles in balancing her magical craft with teenage life were presented with a lighthearted and whimsical nature that made for fun and unpredictable storylines. Her character would see various interpretations for years to come. She would eventually grace the screens of a wider audience from 1996 to 2003 in the form of a live-action sitcom starring Melissa Joan Hart as Sabrina.
Of course, this witch was not immune to having a dark side. In 2014, Sabrina would see a major reimagining in the form of a more mature adaptation titled The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and illustrated by Robert Hack. This series of comics is currently discontinued, but the nine issues published offer a more occult vision of Sabrina that plenty of readers may fancy. These comics would also gain a TV adaptation in the 2018 Netflix series of the same name, this time starring Kiernan Shipka as a version of Sabrina with more moral ambiguity.
Unlike some of the other witches on this list, this witch desired normalcy. Alice Hoffman’s 1995 novel Practical Magic follows the enchanted lives of two sisters: Sally and Gillian Owens. The story takes place in a town in Massachusetts where the Owe’sn women are shunned for their eccentricity. Practical and cautious, Sally tries her hardest to distance herself from her family’s magical heritage. Sally wants nothing more than to suppress her abilities. As the novel progresses, however, this proves to be an impossible feat.
Many stories will explore the fear of witches, but few will dive into how these witches may sometimes come to fear themselves. Hoffman’s novel places a lot of emphasis on the theme of self-acceptance, especially for one’s unique abilities. Suppressing her powers only leads to further complications throughout the novel. Upon diving into her family lineage, Sally is able to heal and rediscover herself.
The novel also speaks on the importance of female relationships, particularly between Sally, her sister Gillian, and their aunts, Frances and Jet. The Owens women must come to empathize with one another as they start to understand themselves on a deeper level. With time, Sally finds the strength to help her family break the barriers and offer hope to a new generation.
Hoffman’s novel would later receive a 1998 film adaptation of the same name starring Sandra Bullock as Sally Owens and Nicole Kidman as Gillian.
The Golden Trio wouldn’t be complete without the intelligence and courage of Hermione Granger. Her character remains iconic in how she was able to take center stage in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, starting with Harry Potter and The Sorceror’s Stone (Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone for UK audiences).
While the novels themselves are noted for how they promoted literacy for young readers, Hermione portrayed a complex female character that many readers, regardless of gender, could be inspired by. Whether she is battling trolls or challenging authority, Hermione always sought to do what was right. As she grows throughout the series, readers can grow with her. She starts to gain confidence in her abilities whilst balancing empathy with intellect. With her quick-thinking and problem-solving skills, Hermione played a large role in the trio’s success.
Another relatable aspect of Hermione is her status as an outsider in the wizarding world. Often branded as a “mudblood”—which is a witch or wizard with two muggle (human) parents—by her taunting peers, Hermione had to overcome adversity in the face of a society obsessed with purity. It’s this discrimination that urges her to seek out knowledge in all aspects of life. This knowledge kept her self-assured and highly capable in most situations. Hermione’s importance would later be emphasized in the film adaptations of the same name, where she is portrayed by Emma Watson, who is a feminist herself.
Harry Potter may have been the chosen one in the series, but Hermione Granger was a hero in her own right.
The effects of the Salem Witch Trials still linger in the present day. However, society’s fear of the unknown is slowly waning as we begin to celebrate our differences. Witches are no longer the fearful figures they once were. Through sympathetic characters like Hermione Granger and Circe, many readers may start to question their fears of the unknown. For others, this could mean discovering their path toward empowerment.
For more witch-related topics, click here for a list of spellbinding titles for aspiring witches!