The Definition of the Word “Witch”

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The Definition of the Word Witch

Definition of words is probably one of the most controversial topics in linguistics. Moreover, the cognitive perception of some words may differ from one reader to another. Therefore, it is important to take into account a reader’s background, culture and époque. For example, Shakespeare’s Macbeth would be perceived differently by a person from the past century living in Dublin compared to a modern-day individual from New York. Therefore, considering the issue of the definition of a particular word by an author, it can be stated that it acquires new shades of meaning as time and place changes, as well as it depends on the audience. The main purpose of this paper is to show how the word witch is defined in novels and poems of different periods. This research is aimed at demonstrating how the perception of this concept has changed from century to century and provide a definition of this concept based on personal opinion.

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The analysis and comparison of eight different literary works representing different époques will be used to trace the historical peculiarities and the evolution of the word “witch,” as well as the changes if public attitude towards the phenomenon of witchcraft. The discussion is presented in chronological order starting with the earliest work – Euripides’ Medea that was created in 431 BC. It should be emphasized that at during that period, witches were regarded as beautiful, mystic, and charming but extremely dangerous goddesses. For example, Medea is described as follows:

It’s obvious the cloud of bitter grief

rising inside her is only just the start.

As her temper grows even more intense,

it will soon catch fire. She’s a passionate soul,

hard to restrain. What will she do next,

now her heart’s been bitten by these injuries? (Euripides 138)

This description points out that Medea is not only a passionate woman, but she is capable of unexpected, bad or wrong actions. However, at the same time, Medea uses magic to help her lover to cope with the challenges he undergoes and to complete some tasks. Therefore, in 431 BCE magic was taken as something frightening and, by all means, dangerous. It is interesting to mention that there is no mentioning of the word “witch” in the play, but there is a concept of witch that is evident throughout the work. It should be noted that the witch in the play although being dangerous and impulsive, demonstrates positive qualities by helping her beloved.

On the contrary, Homer’s Circe has an obvious negative image. In The Odyssey, at the beginning, she is portrayed as a beautiful woman that was forced to take this path. In the poem, Circe comes to Greeks and, with a friendly smile, offers them a meal. The goddess-witch offers delicious dishes to the travelers, having added some magic potion into the food aiming to revenge men. When the Greeks taste the food, Circe touches him magic wand, turns them into pigs and, with a malicious grin, drives into a pigsty. Homer writes:

When she had got them into her house, she set them upon benches and seats and mixed them a mess with cheese, honey, meal, and Pramnian but she drugged it with wicked poisons to make them forget their homes, and when they had drunk she turned them into pigs by a stroke of her wand, and shut them up in her pigsties. They were like pigs-head, hair, and all, and they grunted just as pigs do; but their senses were the same as before, and they remembered everything. (Homer 124-125)

From the poem, witches of those times are perceived negatively as evil and dangerous creatures.

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The following époque does not develop any positive attitude to the concept neither. Moreover, the perception of a witch as a beautiful woman with divine qualities changes radically. Shakespeare’s Macbeth starts with the scene of a terrible thunder and lightning – three witch-sisters decide where they will meet Macbeth. In the next scene, a wounded warrior King Duncan of Scotland reports that his generals Macbeth and Banquo defeated forces of Norway and Ireland. Noble Macbeth is praised for his courage and bravery. At that period, people are afraid of witches. The latter are viewed as worse than rebels, “the most notorious traitor and rebel that can be.” The witches are considered as political and spiritual traitors. In the play, they represent conflict, evil, chaos, darkness, but at the same time are witnesses and agents. At the same time, the three witches represent enormous power and are described as women who can control the nature and the weather:

Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse The curtain’d sleep; witchcraft celebrates Pale Hecate’s offerings, and wither’d murder, Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf, Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace. (Shakespeare 14)

The Wonderful Discovery of Elizabeth Sawyer, a Witch by Henry Goodcole and The Witch of Edmonton by William Rowley, written in of 1621, have an attitude representative of the social and religious conditions of the period. Needless to mention, since 15th century launching of the witch-hunt, which continued up to the17th century, people’s attitude towards magic was extremely repulsive. During these two blood-shedding centuries, thousands of women were tortured to death because of their beauty, “magical” capabilities or other reasons that could have been even personal dislike. It is interesting to note that in The Wonderful Discovery, the author even apologizes to all Christian readers. It means that the mere concept of a witch is found offensive and to a certain extent even dangerous:

The Publication of this subject whereof now I write, hath bin by importunities extorted from me, who would have been content to have concealed it, knowing the diversities of opinions concerning things of this nature, and that not among the ignorant, but among some of the learned… And the rather doe I now publish this to purchase my peace, which without it being done, I could scare at any time be at quiet, for many who would take no nay, but still desired of me written Copies of this insulting declaration (Goodcole 26-27).

An insulting meaning of the notion is also evident in the novel by Edmonton:

M. Saw. Dost call me witch? O. Banks. I do, witch, I do; and worse I would, knew I a name more hateful. What makest thou upon my ground? M. Saw. Gather a few rotten sticks to warm me. (Rowley 98)

The two works are a bright representation how the definition of a witch acquires a more and more negative perception by the society. It is explained by the period characterized by the persecution of the so-called witches as well as public hatred and fear of the phenomenon of witchcraft.

No Witchcraft for Sale by Lessing and The Crucible by Miller were written in the early 1950s. The novels represent a new attitude towards magic. Speaking about the definition of the concept under discussion, a witch is viewed as a powerful and knowledgeable, possessing the positive skills of a healer. In No Witchcraft for Sale, Lessing describes witches as “witch-doctors” and says:

The magical drug would remain where it was, unknown and useless except for the tiny scattering of Africans who had the knowledge … who were still born to healing, hereditary healers, being the nephews or sons of the old witch doctors whose ugly masks and bits of bone and all the uncouth properties of magic were the outward signs of real power and wisdom. (Lessing 87)

The Crucible by Arthur Miller covers the period of the rise of witch-hunt. However, the concept is used as an allegory of the social issues of the 1950’s.The definition of the witch has a deeply negative coloring and is even represented as a murderer:

ANN: They were murdered, Mister Parris! And mark this proof! –mark it! Last night my Ruth were ever so close to their little spirits …. For how else is she stuck dumb now except some power of darkness would stop her mouth …

PUTNAM: Don‘t you understand it, sir? There is a murdering witch among us bound to keep herself in the dark. Let your enemies make of it what they will, you cannot blink it more. (Miller 195-196)

Witches of the Atlantic World narrates about witches but does not represent them as something negative or bad. Nevertheless, the book discusses witches of all times, the beliefs about witches and witchcraft in XV-XVII centuries, Greek mythology and nowadays. It even provides references to documents about witchcraft, “… details of her statement cover nearly the whole ground of them. While indicating, in most respects, a mind at the lowest level of general intelligence, they give evidence of cunning and wariness in the highest degree.” A witch is described as a mythical being, “The thing with two legs and a face like a wom.,” ‘hums” into a full woman. The “hairy thing” becomes “a thingall over hairy, all the face hairy, and a long nose, and I don’t know how to tell how the face looks: is about two or three feet high, and goeth upright like a ma. and, last night, it stood before the fire in Mr. Parris’s hall.” (Breslaw 5-6). From the description, it is evident that the notion has obtained a particular perception, which is very different from that of the early periods. From a beautiful goddess the definition of a witch has shifted to an indescribable creature, however, scary and linked to evil sources.

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Finally, it is important to mention that there are two main and unchangeable concepts used to define the word “witch.” First, no matter the period, they were described mainly in a negative context. Either in Greek mythology, Roman works and even nowadays – witches are being perceived as greedy, resentful and angry women who follow only bad intentions. The second issue that requires consideration the fact that all the accusation of witchcraft in its negative meaning related to women. It can be explained by the fact that, according to the mentioned novels, all women were offended by men; in other words, they had some “bad feelings” or “bad love”. The second reason is that witches helped their beloved to reach some goals with the help of black magic, which did not lead to anything good because of the initial intention of personal gain. The last but not the least, witches were claimed to use spells, which are rooted in “women’s spirit” or “women’s magic.”


As seen from the analysis, the word “witch” was defined differently during different époques. However, a common tendency is present throughout various literary works. Witches tend to be perceived negatively. They are feared and perceived as dangerous and extremely powerful. From the other side, I would categorize a witch as a women who was hurt and wants revenge. As a rule, they have been hurt by a man or men – and that is one of the main reasons why goddesses and simple women become into witches.

Speaking about the difference in the definition of the word “witch” in Greek period and 15-17th centuries, the perception is different, although it contains similar features of danger and evil. Greek period describes witchcraft more gloriously. It is viewed as magic. The17th century witches are viewed as human beings that have to be killed without any hesitations. Witch concept has shifted from divine and magical to the connotations associated with murder, killing, and evil. However, modern literature provides a more neutral definition and attitude.

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