feminine furies

Throughout worldwide mythology, there have been tales of women whose righteous anger cannot be contained. Though mythology in its printed form often takes on the misogyny of the hand that printed it, the women beneath are powerful. The Erinyes or Furies of Greek and Roman myth, were born of blood and earth and darkest night and seek righteous vengeance against mortals who have wronged. Aphrodite, born of sea foam, wields power over mortal men. Lilith of Jewish folklore, the first woman, refuses to lie beneath her husband and becomes a demon or succubus - creatures who feed on men's blood. And Ceridwen of the Mabinogion shapeshifts from greyhound to otter to hawk and swallows up her prey for wronging her. These women are queens, they are goddesses, they are shapeshifters, they are witches.

"Lilith" by John Collier (1892)
I chose the new name of my blog because of how important these women have become to me. The witch is a symbol of female power, of disobedience, of revolution. In the fight against patriarchy which acts by outlawing our power, forcing us to tone it down a bit, witches are the ultimate symbol. A recent issue of the New Inquiry summarises it thus:
"In a male-supremacist society, female power must logically appear illogical, mysterious, intimate, threatening. “Witch” stands for all those unnamable shadow acts of disappearance and withdrawal, self-cultivation, and self-medication that elude the social and sexual order." 
Sylvia Federici, in her book "Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation", describes the witch hunt as a necessary precursor to the modern formulation of capitalist patriarchy. Her work was what first drew my attention to witches and has since transformed my feminism and my socialism. In her introduction, she describes the witch as:
"the embodiment of a world of female subjects that capitalism had to destroy: the heretic, the healer, the disobedient wife, the woman who dared to live alone, the obeah woman who poisoned the master's food." 
A witch trial
The characters appear throughout literature - their power stemming sometimes from supernatural sources and sometimes from speaking their minds. Yesterday in my English literature class we studied an extract of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, where Hippolita - a woman now ruined by an extramarital affair - confronts her former lover. She is the play's first voice of rage, dressed all in black and speaking of blood and hell and angels. When the object of her attacks bids her to be calm, she interrupts him with "Call me not dear." (He also calls her "violent" and "passed all rules of sense" - my friend joked that we'd heard this conversation a few too many times in our own lives). Her name is taken from an Amazonian Queen of Greek myth; she speaks of "the devil in my blood"; she is a witch.

Hippolita in a production of 'Tis Pity
Photo source: {x}

Alison, the Wife of Bath, is another witch: clad all in scarlet and telling esteemed men of the clergy exactly how she will live. She is treated with respect throughout her tale, and is given more time to speak than any of the men. This is very much reflective of her time: Chaucer was writing as heretic movements - which often put women on much more equal terms - were posing a serious challenge to the Church. Some half a century later, Joan of Arc, an archetype of female power, was burned at the stake under accusations of heresy. By the time 'Tis Pity She's a Whore was written, the witch hunt was at its peak across Europe and the position of women was greatly changed. Read by Ford's audiences, the protagonist of The Wife of Bath would surely have been deemed a witch. The women of 'Tis Pity certainly were, all but one of whom meet grisly ends, including one burned alive (the other, a minor character, becomes a nun). Notably, Hippolita dies by poison meant for her lover - another sign of witchcraft, at a time when the use of contraceptive potions could result in women being burnt at the stake. The exercise of power - be it by speaking freely or by exercising control over their bodies - would see women branded whores and witches. The purpose of the witch-hunt was to eradicate female power and to restore women to the Church's prescribed position of subservience. It was undoubtedly one of the greatest campaigns of femicide in history.

In the 21st century, the idea is much the same. Violence against women is so endemic that I could justifiably call it a modern witch-hunt (a topic which I will explore with more words than I can here). But women are restrained more subtly by the expectations of femininity. Displays of female power are improper. Rather than "witch", we are labelled "bitch". Women who shout, whose cheeks go red and whose voices break are too much, too loud, too unfeminine. We must be quiet and small and we must shrink ourselves. Our power is destroyed not by burning, but by diets, by the word "dear", by boys who get little smirks on their faces when a woman speaks. Five centuries after 'Tis Pity was written, to be a woman and to show power is still a battle. Laurie Penny wrote four years ago, in an article that changed my life, the phrase "I refuse to shrink myself to fit into the narrow coffin that society lays out for young women". This refusal to shrink and to shut up is still one of the most revolutionary feminist acts.

The Malleus Maleficarum, the textbook of the witch-hunts, is the sort of misogynistic diatribe you'd find on Return of Kings these days. It contains the phrase "Women are by nature instruments of Satan -- they are by nature carnal, a structural defect rooted in the original creation.” Female power is carnal; it is raw and elemental and made of blood and earth and night like the Furies. The witch-hunts outlawed carnality, but it is ours to reclaim: we must allow anger to burst from our throats and tears to well in our eyes and our nails to make moon-shaped welts in our hands. We will not, must not, be silent.