Hags, Hexes and Harpies

21 Feb 2021

By Joe Smith

Witches have long captured the imagination. Today’s event Hags, Hexes and Harpies with Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Rebecca Tamás, brought this imaginary to life.

The discussion began with some general questions from Kirsty Logan about favourite witches and about why the issue of witches had become so topical in recent years. Both Kiran and Rebecca identified witches as being examples of ‘strong women’ and reflected on the roles and representations of witches that had attracted their attention from an early age.

Rebecca attributed the growing interest in witches to the new waves of feminism that were emerging, and the corresponding need to reassess contemporary images of women and the assumptions that surrounded this both past and present. There was also agreement that patriarchal structures had always acted to obstruct ‘magic’ and there was perhaps some optimism in its reappearance in various forms. Kiran talked about the desire of women to develop new foundations for themselves, including the consideration of a new language to express how they felt. This appeared to involve the exploration of previously esoteric areas such as the occult and Tarot.

Kiran went on to criticise the misuse of the term ‘witch hunt’, using Donald Trump as an example of oppressors turning themselves into victims through the misappropriation of language.

When asked about contemporary comparisons with witches, both writers had reservations about the potential for drawing similarities across time. Kiran identified this as a slippery issue but said that there were definitely parallels in the circumstances that lead to the oppression of certain individuals and groups. Using King James of Scotland as an example, she talked very insightfully about the political process of creating a moral panic that everyone could rally behind, a common enemy to focus the anger of the people, directing it downwards, away from the powerful. If any parallels existed, then the treatment of trans and gender non-conforming groups, brought them closer to the plight of women. Kiran stated that we should all be working together to combat the divide and rule tactics we are subjected to.

Rebecca agreed that women’s oppression and gender non-conforming oppression were ultimately the same. She argued that valorising gender fluidity involved the same process of liberation for all.

Reflecting on the work of Silvia Federici, a Feminist Marxist writer whose research and writing has made a major contribution to the issue of the persecution of women (and some men) as witches, Rebecca noted that witch hunts served to restructure society in a time of great social and economic transformation. The aims of this type of persecution were primarily to reduce the power of women, alter the structure of the family within society and to create a growing inequality between men and women (to find out more you can access an online version of Silvia Federici’s book Caliban and the Witch here.)

As the two writers discussed these issues and went on to read extracts from their work, the comments section buzzed with appreciation and questions. The audience to the live online event totalled over 300 and there was considerable interest in all aspects of the conversations. A question from the audience was picked up by Kirsty:

“Do the authors think "crones" (older wise women - Granny Weatherwax) are more accepted because they are not sexually threatening? Was their decision to write younger witches a conscious choice?”

This was a great question that animated both Kiran and Rebecca. Kiran agreed that there was something unfortunate about the fact that stereotypically, young women were sexualised while older women were denied their sexuality. Rebecca added that the image of the crone connects with the archetypes surrounding witches, before returning once more to Federici’s work to discuss the way this was reflected in her writing.

Alas, the hour passed with much left unexplored, and many of the audience’s questions yet to be addressed. There is no doubt that this issue raised many points for further exploration. The depiction of the witch and her persecution across many centuries brings to light a whole range of contemporary forms of discrimination and persecution. As this event showed this is a good time for women to reassess their power and its potential.

If you missed Kirsty Logan's curated event, Hags, Hexes and Harpies you can watch again with this link until 26th March. Kirsty, Rebecca and Kiran's books are all available here to purchase

There's still time to register for tickets for Paisley Book Festival events here