Casting a Coven

In anticipation of Samhain—and yes, also, Halloween—I would like to cast a coven of 13 of my favorite witches from fiction. These particular practitioners of the craft are strong women, assertive and gifted, who inspire and embolden me as much as they sometimes scare those who don't understand them. Please note that you don't have to be Celtic, or Pagan, or Wiccan, or even a fan of Turkish Delight to enjoy this casting, but it might enhance your experience if you get into the Halloween spirit a little.

 

Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga is a superstar of Slavic folklore. Variously described as having wooden legs and iron teeth, this forest-dwelling sorceress flies in a giant mortar wielding a pestle, and lives in a hut built on chicken legs (although sometimes a single chicken leg). The roles she plays range from maternal to pastoral, from ambiguous to bloodcurdlingly hostile. She was famously illustrated at the turn of the last century by Ivan Bilibin in a 19th-century telling of the Russian fairy tale Vasilisa the Beautiful and Baba Yaga. In more current storytelling, Baba Yaga is a vital figure in Hellboy comics, first in Wake the Devil, and then, much more prominently in Darkness Calls, The Storm and the Fury and Hellboy in Hell. In the Mignolaverse, Baba Yaga controls the also-Slavic folkloric figure Koschei the Deathless and keeps his soul inside an egg, hidden inside a duck, inside a rabbit, inside a goat (see horryfing image of her extracting it). And she ends up doing damage to Hellboy that cannot be undone, even by magic. She also gets very weird in the highly recommended (by me, to you) small press comic Baba Yaga and the Wolf by Tin Can Forest. Depending on the telling, she's as frightening as any witch can be, but she's also infinitely resourceful, and surprisingly wise. By virtue of being so distinctive and enduring, I would want Baba Yaga on my side.

 

Marique

Take several seats, Piper, Phoebe, and Prue Halliwell—and you too, Paige Matthews (played by Holly Marie Combs, Alyssa Milano, Shannen Doherty, and Rose McGowan, respectively, for eight seasons of Charmed), because Rose McGowan also played the witch Marique in the 2011 version of Conan the Barbarian. The daughter of the villain Khalar Zym, Marique is gifted and skillful enough to invoke soldiers from the very sands of Hyperborea. Although she's predictably overpowered by Conan, she's the single most memorable element of the movie. And we had to wait four more years—until the release of the music video for her song RM486—for Rose McGowan to look so compellingly bizarre.

 

The Bene Gesserit 

And when I say "The Bene Gesserit," I mean any one of the multitudinous sisterhood from the Dune Universe. But in particular, I mean the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, played by Siân Phillips (seated at the left in the image) in the film adaption by David Lynch (1984) and Zuzana Geislerová in the television miniseries (2001). She was first introduced in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune (1965) and appeared in its sequel, Dune Messiah (1969), then reappeared in the Prelude to Dune prequel trilogy (19992001) by Frank's son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. Like the Jedi in the Dune-influenced Star Wars Universe, the Bene Gesserit condition their minds and bodies over the course of many strenuous years and develop superhuman abilities that only seem like strange magic. They are only occasionally referred to as such, but the Bene Gesserit are most definitely witches, organized as a far-flung coven whose arcane knowledge and hidden wisdom grant them sociopolitical power that reaches across the known universe. One of their most witchlike abilities is their use of "The Voice" which they use to control people "merely by selected tone shadings" of their speaking voices. Which, crafty! Although the description of these women as possessing unfathomable emotional depth and hypnotic subtlety occasionally reads like something only a man would write about a woman—and indeed, Frank Herbert modeled the Lady Jessica (center) after his own wife Beverly Herbert—the Bene Gesserit are authoritative females in a mostly male science fiction series. They literally have a voice, and that voice is literally commanding.

 

Scarlet Witch

 

She may not be a witch in the traditional sense, but Wanda Maximoff can confound minds, levitate objects, alter probability, and has an undeniable fashion sense. Translation: She's a witch! Born on Wundagore Mountain in the believable sounding yet still fictitious Southeastern European country of Transia, Wanda is the daughter of Magneto and his wife Magda, and the fraternal twin sister of Pietro (better known as Quicksilver). Her powers are the result of a mutation that developed on a cellular level, and they come as naturally to her as her father's magnetism comes to him. She was tutored by a non-mutant witch named Agatha Harkness, and developed into an impressive sorceress in her own right, although she does still lack the ability to completely control her power. From her first appearance as a member of Magneto's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in The X-Men issue 4 in 1964, to her live action incarnation (Elizabeth Olsen in red leather jackets) in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Scarlet Witch has been warping reality and mesmerizing minds. In the upcoming Scarlet Witch series written by James Robinson (with a character re-design and covers by Kevin Wada), Wanda Maximoff will travel the world assisting other witches, and the origin of her name will be revealed to be more than just a straightforward reference to her hair color and wardrobe choices.

 

The Wicked Witch of the West

The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (first published in 1900) is much better known by Margaret Hamilton's portrayal of the character in the musical film adaptation The Wizard of Oz (first released in 1939). And although she's rarely even mentioned in the subsequent 13 books, after her death in the first, she has become the single character most closely associated with all things Oz. She has taken many forms in adaptations and re-imaginings since her first appearance more than a century ago: as Evillene in The Wiz (1974), Elphaba Thropp in Wicked (1996), Azkadellia in Tin Man (2007), Theodora in Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) and Zelena in Once Upon a Time (2014). But the iconic image of this witch remains Hamilton with a face full of green grease paint. And that famous hue was a potentially toxic copper-based make-up that could have been fatal if accidently ingested, so she's reported to have lived on a mostly liquid diet while in make-up, and her face retained a greenish stain for weeks afterward. The adaptation may not have been very faithful to the source material, but like Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster, Hamilton's green skin, large nose and pointy chin (complete with conspicuous mole) codified the image of an ominous witch-face and her sinister delivery made cinematic history. Every coven needs an archetype.

RUNNER-UP: The Wicked Witch of the East, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and met her demise when Dorothy Gale's house landed on her, but was at least remembered for her good taste in shoes.

 

The Wicked Witch of the North

The Wicked Witch of the North, whose proper name is Mombi, is the lesser-known yet longer-living witch in the land of Oz. She's the strong female antagonist in The Marvelous Land of Oz and is referenced throughout the other books. She plays a significant role in the fictional history of Oz, and is a major player in the nightmares of any child who saw the film adaption Return to Oz. Jean Marsh (who some geeks might recognize from Willow) plays Head Nurse Wilson at the asylum in Kansas, and then she plays Mombi. And just when you think that Dorothy is in a vivid dream again ("And you were there! And you were there!"), Mombi is revealed to have many heads with many personalities, some more mesmerizing than others, each more menacing than the last. Mombi is formidable for having enslaved King Pastoria, effectively dethroning the Royal Family of Oz, then empowering herself and the much more-famous Wicked Witches of the South, East and West to divide the kingdom among them. In a continuing demonstration of her savvy, Mombi also negotiated with the Nome King to trap Princess Ozma in an enchanted mirror. In exchange, he made Mombi a princess with thirty heads that she can change to suit her mood. He also gave her the entirety of the Emerald City (after he reclaimed all the emeralds, of course), so she knows how to make a deal. When a fragile and wary Fairuza Balk as Dorothy Gale encounters Mombi in her ramshackle palace, Mombi is instantly enamored of Dorothy's precious head and locks her in a tower, with every intention of taking that head once it grows to adult size. That plan doesn't actually work out. The results are quite frightening, and not safe for Broadway. Seriously. NSFB.

RUNNER-UP: The Wicked Witch of the South, the previous ruler of the Quadling Country until Glinda overthrew her. (Yes, everyone's precious Glinda overthrows sisters.)


The White Witch

 

Technically, her name is Her Imperial Majesty, Jadis, Queen of Narnia, Chatelaine of Cair Paravel, Empress of the Lone Islands. But. What's important is that she's the offspring of a Giant and a Jinn (who are themselves descended from the Lilith of Jewish legend) who grew up to become the last queen of Charn, only to be accidentally transported to Narnia, where she became versed in the Deep Magic, and planned to rule as queen. Part of her plan involved sending all of Narnia into a 100-year winter, which earned her the name White Witch. She appears in only three of the seven Chronicles: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, then briefly in The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader," and in The Magician's Nephew, where her heritage is revealed. She has the features of a runway model (portrayed with magnificent androgyny by Tilda Swinton in the 2005 film adaptation) and the unflinching nerve of an autocrat. Her most significant sorcery might be her power to expose CS Lewis's latent misogyny and fear of the unchristian (for example, being a descendant of Adam's first wife Lilith, and not of Eve, automatically disqualifies her from her queenly aspirations). If Aslan is the Christ Figure in The Chronicles of Narnia, Jadis is the Devil, Pontius Pilate and the Roman Soldiers all rolled into one. She's a woman of extraordinary beauty, who can build a power structure using only weather patterns and a stone knife, and she has plenty of Turkish Delights to go around, which makes her one of the most delectable witches in all of fiction.

 

Tia Dalma

Tia Dalma is a witch of color, and of verifiable power, played by Naomie Harris in two of the (unfortunately) four Pirates of the Caribbean films: the second, Dead Man's Chest, and the third, At World's End, in which a considerable part of the plot involves her and her magical competencies. In fact, in At World's End, we learn that she was once the sea goddess Calypso, but had been swindled by the First Brethren Court and imprisoned in the body of a mortal woman. But that mortal woman is an Obeah sorceress (a practitioner of real-world Afro-Caribbean Shamanism) and although she might also be described as a Hoodoo priestess or a Voodoo Queen, it's indisputable that she's a badass—not malevolent, but not to be trifled with. Her resiliency makes her not only sympathetic, but inspiring too.

 

Yubaba ( 湯婆婆 "bathhouse witch")

In the Studio Ghibli masterpeice Spirited Awaythe sorceress Yubaba is also the proprietress of the spirit bathhouse, and mama to the giant baby Boh, chillingly voiced by Mari Natsuki (and nicely dubbed into English by a leathery–voiced Suzanne Pleshette). She is monstrously unattractive yet strangely fabulous, overseeing the bathhouse with an exquisitely manicured and bejeweled fist, seemingly unmoved by anything but profit. When we first meet her she's nightmarishly forceful, but despite her surreal physical propositions, she eventually reveals herself to be as morally ambiguous as any character in Miyazaki's canon (see also: Princess Kushana from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Eboshi Gozen from Princess Mononoke, or Porco Rosso, from... um... Porco Rosso). Sometimes greedy, sometimes intimidating, she's ultimately empathetic and fair. By the time she releases Sen from her contract, Yubaba is no longer terrifying, but we still know she has the power to zipper our mouths closed if we forget our manners. We could use more witches like this running things.

RUNNER-UP: Yubaba's twin sister Zeniba ( 銭婆 "money witch" )

 

Serafina Pekkala

For readers not yet enlightened by the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, dæmons are the external physical manifestation of a person's innermost self that take the form of an animal. But unlike a Power Animal in real-world neoshamanism, or a Patronus in the world of Harry Potter, dæmons have human intelligence, human speech, and function as characters in their own right. Serafina Pekkala's dæmon is Kaisa, a large grey goose. No, not the French Vodka. An actual animal. And the grey goose perfectly suits this robust yet elegant woman. A witch queen from Inari, Finland, Serafina claims to be more than three hundred years old, and that her clan's oldest witch mother is almost a millennium in age. She's passionate about flying, and does so as often as she can, using a bundle of Cloud-Pine branches. Although she can feel the cold, she acknowledges that any attempt to protect herself from it would prevent from her experiencing it—and the other wonders of the natural world—authentically. In Pullman's world, witches own nothing, and are unaffected by harassment or attempts at oppression, which make them exemplary strong female characters. In what was planned as the first in a trilogy of film adaptations (titled The Golden Compass to correspond with the US retitling of the first book), Serafina Pekkala is played by Eva Green, a casting that works uncannily well. She's self-assured and self-reliant with a reverence for nature and an appreciation for beauty. As opaque as her motivation may sometimes seem, her intensity is matched only by her integrity. Which is all any witchy woman can ask of herself.

 

Willow Rosenberg

A core member of Joss Whedon's Scooby Gang, Willow Rosenberg is an unmatched practitioner of the magical arts. In episode one, she and Xander Harris, already best friends, almost immediately befriend the new girl in school—Buffy Summers, who turns out to be the titular Vampire Slayer. When we first meet her, Willow is a shy and soft-spoken geek with a fashion sense Cordelia Chase once described as “the softer side of Sears.” But in the same way that her personal style becomes quirkier and more distinct, her magical abilities also become apparent. She studies witchcraft mostly alone during high school, and it's not until her first year of college, when she joins a Wicca group on campus, and meets Tara Maclay, that her powers truly blossom. Willow and Tara become one of the first (and remain one of the most accurate and well-developed) lesbian couples on television. As the series progresses, Willow becomes increasingly self-assured and skillful, a complicated character full of nuances and wit, at once as vulnerable and as resilient as her botanical namesake. Throughout the series—which begins with a handful of characters and ends (at least onscreen) with a literal army of Slayers—she grows and changes the most. Yes, even more than Buffy. She's also the only character besides Buffy to appear in every episode of the series (and the story continues to unfold in the Dark Horse comic series). From her first attempts at twirling a pencil in midair, to casting her first spell (the Ritual of Restoration of Angelus's soul), to resurrecting Buffy, from loving Tara to losing her, from developing her magical abilities and overcoming her addiction to them, all the way to her alliance with the Slayer Fray two hundred years in the future, Willow has been dynamic, compelling, relatable, and you know, kind of role-model-y.

 

Tara Maclay

Because we would never have Willow as we know her without Tara Maclay, played with all the charm a small screen can contain by Amber Benson. Tara inspired Willow, taught her, defended her, danced with her, comforted her, loved her, and loved her enough to leave her. No one could offer Willow what Tara gave so selflessly. Her kindness was her most powerful magic. And I'm still under her spell.

 

Hermione Granger

Hermione Jean Granger, from a certain Harry Potter series by somebody named J.K. Rowling (who described the character as an exaggerated version of her own younger self), was known for being a logical, fastidious perfectionist. But she was also compassionate, founding the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare in year four, and selfless, using a Memory Charm on her own parents to keep them safe from Voldemort and his Death Eaters. Played in the eight film adaptations with flawless poise and enviable eyebrows by Emma Watson, this character was described by Watson as "the greatest role model a girl could have," and has since become a feminist icon. Hermione is intelligent, resilient, formidable, and kind, the brightest witch of her age that Professor Remus Lupin had ever met, and the brains behind everything Harry and Ron did, from The Philosopher's Stone to The Deathly Hallows. Voldemort was vanquished in very large part because of Hermione, and that makes her an absolutely essential member of any coven.

 

And that's 13! Which witches would you cast in your coven? Comment, my pretties, comment!

Aria Baci's picture
on October 30, 2015

EDITOR IN CHIEF