Saturday, June 28, 2014

We Will All Go Down Together: An Alphabet (Part One)

Hey, all. As We Will All Go Down Together: Stories of the Five-Family Coven slouches towards publication on August 19th, I've decided to preface it with a bunch of new posts, another alphabetized compendium of themes and characters from the book. Here's the first one, right at the end of June:

A is for All Of Them Witches

The phrase in question references Rosemary's Baby—it's what the first girl the coven who eventually foist an antichrist on our titular character tries to warn her of, with middling results—but primarily it's the phrase that the term “witch” always sparks in my mind, or maybe my personal witchcraft hashtag. And it's certainly appropriate here, where so many of our characters actually are witches, even the ones who don't identify as such.

The Five-Family Coven is, as its name suggests, made up of five families whose brief partnership dates back to the 1600s, when they met during the reign of James the Sixth (of Scotland) and First (of England). Three of these families trace their descent back to three women, two peasants and one upwardly mobile, all witches—a sort of coven inside the coven. The other two are both artistocratic, one led by a changeling and primarily made up of her half- and quarter-Fae descendants, the other led by the latest in a string of hereditary warlocks/heirarchical magicians, who married into the changeling's family. This class disparity allows the aristocrats to eventually betray and abandon their non-aristocratic partners, leaving them to face the mechanics of the Scots witch-hunting machine, and every bit of bad blood between all five families can be traced back to that particular source.

My personal opinion about witchcraft, to head a potential philosophical sidebar off at the pass, is that obviously it doesn't “work” per se IRL, except in a purely metaphorical sense. But I've been fascinated since I was very young by the question of how people could ever think that it did, both from the witch-hunter angle and the witch/warlock angle. One of the first places I ran across a precis of the primary Burning Times myth was in Barbara Ninde Byfield's sadly out of print 1967 The Book of Weird (also known as The Glass Harmonica: A Lexicon of the Fantastical). It's a sort of proto-Tough Guide to Fantasyland in many ways, defining and explicating creatures such as Cockatrices, Dragons, Ghouls etc., while also charting the differences of degree between linked subjects like Wizards and Sorceresses, Giants, Ogres and Trolls, or Oafs, Churls, Louts and Knaves. Yet it also touches here and there on not-so-simple human evils, like Torture, Punishment and Execution.

Byfield's version of witchcraft makes it look nasty, brutish and short, definitely spinning on the idea that the people who ended up accused of witchcraft were, in the main, poor, indigent, ill and female. They swapped their immortal souls for a certain amount of temporal power, but like Schrodinger's Cat, it was the sort which stopped working the minute anybody looked at it (especially anybody from the Church). And while it's possible that Colin Wilson has something with his theory that after a while, people—like Isobel Gowdie, the Scots housewife who just suddenly confessed to witchcraft, without prompting or torment—might imprint on the generalized witchcraft narrative and fetishize it, treating it like the world's most epiphanic S/M fantasy scene, it seems far more likely to me that for people like the Pendle Witches (see Jeannette Winterson's The Daylight Gate), witchcraft provided a kind of outlet for those who felt utterly powerless to effect anything around them, people to whom the devil would necessarily seem like a better invisible friend than the God who propped up all the authoritative structures which kept them excluded.

I also think it's possible to argue that while there may indeed not have been any “real” witch-cults at the beginning of the Burning Times—just vaguely pagan mainly-women (midwives, herballists, etc.) who broke the mold and had to be put down, or aristocrats whose money and lands the king wanted, or scapegoats for whom witchcraft accusations were the further demonization needed to whip public disapproval into a killing frenzy—there actually might have been some, by the end. That these might have been second- or third-generation philosophical “terrorists” who'd seen their families destroyed by witchcraft accusations, and thought: okay, well, if everyone's going to assume I'm a witch anyways... then why not form a little cell of similar malcontents, go down to the graveyard every month and dance back-to-back, eat filth, act out displays of cursing your neighbours, kiss the ass of some dude in a devil suit, engage in an orgy, repeat?

When the North Berwick Witches tried to kill King James by melting a wax doll with his name on it, it may well have been at the instigation of his cousin Francis Stewart, the Earl of Bothwell, who himself took on the persona of Black Man at the sabbat: weaponized witchcraft. The myth come full circle.

Anyhow, that's where the image of witches in We Will All Go Down Together comes from. I'm not saying it's true, because it's not. I'm saying “what if?”, and acting accordingly.