Willow is, in my opinion, far and away the best modern depiction of a witch in popular culture, because she’s a normal girl. Kind of a geeky girl, actually. Oh - and she’s gay.
Admittedly, things go a bit fantasy here and there, especially later in the series when she becomes a supernatural demon-type with red eyes – the possibilities of a paranormal character and storyline is pretty tempting for any writer, and we do have to remember that Willow operates in a world where vampires are real from day one. So her role as a witch is always an interesting one, because Buffy mixes “real” occultism and Wicca, in Willow’s case, with storybook fantasy magic throughout the series. Hard to do but obviously Joss Whedon is a god.
So apart from being a brilliant representation of a young lesbian, with a sensitive and realistic relationship, Willow learns how to be a witch, and gets better over time. She’s bookish and reads a lot. She tries stuff out and gets it wrong. Her personal power develops because of her commitment rather than she just wakes up one day and poof! She’s a witch. Magic for Willow is not something she is born with or is bestowed by some kind of paranormal process. She works at it. Also, at one stage in the series, she has a virtual circle of fellow witches that help her cast spells online. This is in fact mirrored now by a number of virtual groups getting together to mediate and run healing sessions online. I remember thinking at the time how cool it was that Willow did that – boom, years later, I’m attending Goddess Healing Meditation via facebook on a Sunday night, 9pm-9.30pm.
2. Sandra Bullock as Sally in Practical Magic
Oh to be Sally in this film. Not only does she have just the most perfect hair in the world, but she has that lovely little herbal pharmacy-come-White Company-shop and makes lots of semi-medicinal potions in smart shiny bottles, and hooks up with a hot odd-eyed policeman at the end. What’s not to love?
Apart from the hair and the toiletries, what I really love about Practical Magic is that Sally belongs to a family of witches that are at least a little depicted as witches that do realistic things like attend seasonal festivals and help out local women with their love lives. Oh, and grow plants. (I love the earth energy in this film). The bringing the man back from the dead spell is obviously fluff, and irritating because they (presumably deliberately) mispronounce the Goddess they are appealing to for help as Heck-tate instead of Hecate – Heck-ah-tee, Greek goddess of magic, witches, the moon.
Still, midnight margaritas with Dianne Wiest and Stockard Channing? Yes please.
3. Fairuza Balk as Nancy Downs in The Craft
In 1996, The Craft happened. I was 19, and already a wannabe witch.
Oddly, I didn’t really rate The Craft when I first saw it. I think it was because (spoiler alert) Nancy goes mad at the end of the film from being possessed by a made-up god, and I thought that was some kind of unnecessary party-pooper warning about the dangers of witchcraft. Despite that bit, the film has a great emphasis on four teen girls forming their own coven and, particularly in one scene, dedicating themselves to being witches in a thoughtful and semi-accurate way: being outside, somewhere beautiful; calling in the elements:
Nancy: Hail to the guardians of the watchtowers of the East, the powers of air and invention. Hear me! Us! Hear us!
Bonnie: Hail to the guardians of the watchtowers of the South, the powers of fire and feeling. Hear us.
Rochelle: Hail to the guardians of the watchtowers of the West, powers of water and intuition. Hear us.
Sarah: Hail to the guardians of the watchtowers of the North, by the powers of mother and earth. Hear us.
Nancy: Aid us in our magical workings on this May's eve.
Nancy, despite being the “bad” character who “goes too far” with the magic and ends up in a bad way, is pleasingly gothy, punky and troubled, and has the advantage as a fictional witch of being someone that, again, learns how do magic rather than someone that has exceptional natural powers, which is often the go-to approach for witch fitch (my term), and the case for her fellow character, “good” witch, Sarah. She is the one that takes the girls to their local new age shop (which, apparently, in real life, she bought). The film apparently had a Wiccan high priestess as an advisor, and you can see it in the detail of the rituals they conduct and the overall philosophy they follow, though only so far of course. Nancy is by far the coolest character in The Craft, and I think subconsciously I based my character Demelza at least a little on her.
4. Vivienne Le Fay Morgan / Morgan Le Fay
The archetypal witch, Morgan Le Fay – Morgan of the Fairies – is Queen of Magic. Enchantress and sister of Arthur, she is represented in a variety of positive and not-so-positive ways by a number of authors. In Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon and Fay Sampson’s Daughter of Tintagel, she is a priestess of the Old Religion. In some poetry she is more the Goddess herself. In Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, Geraldine McEwan plays her as Morgana, a batty old crone with crazy hair living in a subterranean dry-iced lair, sticking her talons into eggs full of blood (wherever one would get THOSE - the blood looks suspiciously like sweet & sour sauce. Ohhh the production value). Eva Green played a gorgeous seductress Morgana Pendragon in the (criminally, in my view – it was brilliant, much better than the BBC’s crap Merlin) discontinued TV series Camelot.
My favourite, though, is Dion Fortune’s Vivienne Le Fay Morgan, witch and Sea Priestess, in the books The Sea Priestess and Moon Magic. She’s a proper witch, knowing the mysteries of the sea, and inducting a clueless civil servant type into sea and moon magic whilst all the time it’s implicated that she is the original timeless Morgan Le Fay herself, Queen of Magic. Tinglingly good.
5. Gloria and Stella in Switch
Switch was another series that never made it past the first series, and it really should have because it was/is (you can still see it on Netflix) absolutely brilliant. The premise is that four young witches share a flat in Camden and do magic (admittedly of the finding a boyfriend sort) by getting together over a large cooking pot, chucking some random herbs in it and joining hands for a “SWITCH”. The good thing about it is, though, as well as featuring a black character and a lesbian, and being funny and well-written, that the four characters represent (very clearly, IMO) earth, air, fire and water. So, Stella (Lacey Turner in a pleasant change from Eastenders) is earth and is businessy, works in advertising, wears nice clothes, has plenty of money. Jude’s a sexy, creative Leo; Grace is a sensitive, caring water sign and Hannah’s an airy free spirit traveller.
The other thing I loved about it was Gloria, Grace’s mum, played by Caroline Quentin, is a wonderful, warm, funny and pretty well depicted pagan mum that’s involved in a the community, and appears in a couple of episodes chivvying the girls along to be better witches and to come and take part in a solstice.
6. The Halliwell sisters in Charmed
I can’t really narrow it down to one of them. I loved them all. If I had to pick… Piper, probably. She owns a bar and she’s got the best hair. Again, a mega series of the 90s, now on perpetual rerun, Charmed is about witch sisters living in modern day San Francisco, in an awesome house with a big family grimoire in the attic which always seems to have the information they need in it, despite the series being about a trillion episodes long and I’m sure the book isn’t that big.
Charmed (which has the best theme music of probably any TV show apart from maybe Robin of Sherwood in the 80s) has the central premise that the three sisters are the Charmed Ones, possessing special unbeatable powers, and are guardians of humanity against a wealth of horrible demons and paranormal beings. The Charmed Ones operate the Power of Three, the combination of their power together being virtually unstoppable. The thing I like about this is that three is a sacred number in terms of the Goddess in paganism and witchcraft, with the Goddess – the feminine aspect of the universe, being depicted as a trinity of Maid-Mother-Crone. The sisters don’t represent this as they’re all young – although Piper becomes a mother – but at least the notion of a powerful trinity of women is in there somewhere, as it is throughout literature from the three witches in Macbeth onwards.
(Other favourites are Xayide in The Neverending Story, Susan Sarandon in The Witches of Eastwick, and all the witches in the original book – oh and the (again discontinued) TV series Eastwick; Tenar in The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin, Circe in The Odyssey and Madame Serena in the much underrated 80s film Teen Witch, which has to be seen if only for its bizarre song in the girls changing room in an otherwise not musical film at all.)
So that’s my 6 – or in fact 9 – favourite fictional witches, with footnotes of many more which deserve their own post. That’s another post for another time. But in the meantime - merry meet, merry part, and merry meet again, dear friends. The Power of Three be with you; SWITCH, blessed be and hail to the guardians of the watchtowers of the east, west, north and south.