What is a Witch?

Cover of "Witches Abroad (Discworld)"

Cover of Witches Abroad (Discworld)

No this isn’t another article about Rebekah Brooks, though I suspect that the ex NOTW staff replace the W with a B.

No this is about the more traditional type of witch. Although it is in many ways another excuse for me to write about the Discworld. I tried in an earlier article to describe what I think the Discworld is, though I wasn’t particularly successful: but given that Sir Terry Pratchett: the author of books concerning said circular flat planet rotating atop the backs of four great elephants standing on the carapace of a 12,000 mile long turtle, says he doesn’t know what it is any more, I am I suppose in good company.

I wondered if a better way to go would be to think about the characters on the Discworld, and what better place to start than my favourite Discworld character Granny Weatherwax. I think I should note before I begin in Ernest, (No no Oscar Wilde is not going to come into this, or at least I don’t think so, who knows with narrative causality) that I think it his quite hard to be completely clear where the ‘real’ world ends and where the Discworld begins. The Discworld might be a fantasy, but it is one of those fantasies which illuminate the real world, just as much as it helps the reader to escape from the real world, for the duration of the story line.

A theme which pops up in the Discworld books, again and again is: ‘What everybody knows’ and of course how often ‘what everybody knows’ turns out to have been wrong all along. Granny Weatherwax is of course a Witch, and ‘what everybody knows about Witches’ is of course that they wear Black, have a cat somewhere, usually of an intemperate disposition, ride broomsticks, and most important of all wear a pointy black hat.

Now Granny Weatherwax does wear black, and despite claiming not to be ‘a cat person’ does indeed have a cat, named ‘You’ as in, ‘get of the shelf you’, or ‘drink your milk you’, or ‘come here you’, despite being white, dozy and nominally harmless ‘You’ manages to intimidate even the most disreputable and despicable of other witches cats, witness Greebo, Nanny Ogg‘s (The other permanent member of Granny’s coven) cat, battle scared and victorious in every other encounter, hiding behind the sofa if You is in the room. Granny also has a broomstick, which does indeed fly, with a little persuasion, a good run up, a bump start, and even jumping off cliffs being required to get the thing airborne at times, it’s temperamentality being a mystery since both handle and bristles have been replaced on several occasions.

Most importantly Granny Weatherwax does have a pointy black hat.  Now Grannys hat is magical, but not quite in the way that a Roundworld person might imagine. Before considering the role of Granny’s or any other witches hat, there are two ideas closely associated with Granny that need highlighting. First Headology, and Second Borrowing.

Granny Weatherwax is perfectly capable of the fireworks normally associated with magic of all kinds, and has engaged in duels with arch chancellors of Unseen University, with sufficient vigour that arch chancellors have backed down rather than risk pushing the test of power to it’s ultimate conclusion, she has also sent entire countries years into the future. However on a normal day to day basis, Headology is the central plank of almost all the magic that granny engages in. Which is interesting since for all intents and purposes, Headology would work on Roundworld, just as well as it does on the Discworld.

Headology is something akin to Psychology, but whereas a psychologist would try to convince the man who believes he is being chased by vampires, that there were no such thing as vampires, someone working with headology would give the person a bulb of garlic, a crucifix, a sharpened wooden stick, and a cosy cupboard under the stairs to hide in. Though of course on the Discworld, being chased by vampires is a real possibility, as not all have yet joined the temperance league or wear the black ribbon.

Borrowing superficially at least seems more like the traditional idea of magic, granny goes into a deathlike trance, props a sign on her chest with the words ‘I ate’nt dead’ written on it, and sits inside the mind of some creature and guides it without it’s knowledge, a useful thing to do since borrowing the mind of an eagle gives granny a better map than google earth could possibly manage.  At first sight this doesn’t have a lot to do with Headology, or indeed hats, however I think the two are intimately linked. For Headology, or even psychology to work the practitioner needs to have a very good understanding of how others see the world, it seems to me that borrowing is a very good way of symbolising this insight into others.

How has any of this got anything to do with hat’s? I hear you cry, or perhaps you don’t care, anyhow, I am now going to talk about hat’s whether you do or don’t.

Well actually that’s only half right, I will talk about hats, but first I am going to talk about ‘white coats.’

This relates to a Psychologist known as Milgram, and an experiment of his which is now known as ‘the Milgram experiment.’ Which is a little unfair, since it wasn’t the only experiment he ever did, but it is by far the most famous, though these days the ethics committee of any reputable university would throw it out as morally suspect.

Put simply through cunning use of a white lab coat, Milgram managed to persuade 80% of people invited to participate in his ‘research’, to ultimately kill another person with a fatal electric shock. So you can see why ethics committees are these days reluctant to repeat the experiment. The person didn’t really die, it wasn’t that, extremely unethical an experiment, but the people taking part believed he had died. If the person ordering the participants to give the electric shock took the white lab coat off, a lot fewer people were willing to give a fatal shock (Though still an uncomfortable large proportion).

If you want to know more about Milgram�s experiment, wikipedia’s entry is reasonable.


Now Milgram was interested in obedience and authority, mainly in an attempt to understand why otherwise normal people participated in the Nazi Holocaust. What he showed is that most people will obey orders and do as they are told, particularly if something endows the person giving the orders with an authority accepted by the person receiving the order. Such as a uniform.

This is why Granny’s, or any other Witches hat is so important, without it a Witch is just an old lady in a black dress, and it doesn’t matter if she can or can’t turn someone into a toad, because without her hat, the idea that she might turn someone into a toad doesn’t occur to the potential toad. With her hat on the other hand, the witch similarly doesn’t have to be able to turn anything into anything, since the potential toad, knows she or he is dealing with a witch and is going to do as they are told, just in case they can turn her or him into a toad.

The issue is of course power, which really highlights something more important about Granny Weatherwax, which is that doing what is ‘Right’ is more important than anything else. There is something in this about great power bearing great responsibility, which only goes to show that the Discworld has Spiderman covered too.

One thing that ‘everybody knows’ about witches of course is that they are nasty and evil, and tempt children with Gingerbread cottages, and would roast said children up in an oven given half a chance, though how hot you might get an oven made out of gingerbread is an open question.

Clearly the Witches of the Discworld generally don’t fall into this category, though Granny’s sister Lily did, but did not look particularly Witch like, in fact looking rather pleasant by the description. In fact apart from the adventures recounted by Sir Terry, the impression is that the Witches live rather quiet and ordinary lives, doing things which are to them ordinary. Which amounts to being the local midwife, helping people out with the little difficulties of life, and generally being Wise Women.

This raises the paradox of the Witch, somehow they have a reputation as  nasty and evil,  despite the characters on which they are beased being principally, grandmothers, midwifes and generally the wise women of any given village.` Mostly this seems to be because some man in a dress said so, and as far as anyone could tell his particular agenda was just to get bum’s on pews in his particular church, that church being the one with the recurrent image of the man nailed to a bit of wood for saying we should all be nice to each other, but who somehow inexplicably ended up as the main excuse for being rather unpleasant to an awful lot of people, not just Witches.

Like Dragons Witches have had a bad press. In the end a witch is just a wise woman, and in the real ‘Roundworld’ magic is just what we don’t understand, and since for a long time men were writing the history, and it is almost axiomatic that men don’t understand women, what wise old women did must have been magic. Mix in issues of protecting male power bases and naturally wise old women would automatically become nasty evil witches.

What sir Terry offers us in the form of Granny Weatherwax, and to an extent, Nanny Ogg and Granny Aching, is a rehabilitation of the image of the Wise woman, that it is a man doing it might be a minor irritation, though we might consider it a recompense for the less enlightened approach of his literary forbears. Though I suspect that Sir Terry’s wife is likely to be a quite formidable woman, and his mother was probably something else again.

As I noted to begin with although I have focused on Discworld Witches, I have inevitably ended up talking about what Witches in the real ‘Roundworld’ are. I also began by saying this was not going to be�about Rebekah Brooks. Yet as I close I find I have reminded myself that Granny Weatherwax’s sister, was more fair in appearance, but much more evil in intent, posing as a fairy godmother in the country of Genua, (And you thought it was an original idea, in Shrek, think again, [though it gave Jennifer Saunders some work so we might forgive them.]) Now it also occurred to me that Lily Weatherwax used ‘fairytale,’ or ‘Story’, magic to control Genua, thinking she was the ‘good sister’, whilst all the time doing awful things to try to make the stroies turn ou the way she thought they should.

As I came towards the end of writing this It occurred to me that this is not so dissimilar from what Rebekah Brooks has been doing, controlling stories, creating narratives. And I wonder if Ms Brooks is going to find her self image reflected back at her in a way similar to the mirror trick Granny plays on her sister at the end of ‘Witches Abroad,’ I wonder if Ms brooks will be able to find her real self.

Which only goes to show that narrative causality is tricky to handle.


About Transremaxculver

An entirely fictitious username I created for posting on 'alt.religion.scientology', Scientology is something of which I am highly critical. For those of you who don't know, the Church of Scientology have a habit of making life very uncomfortable for even the most legitimate of critics, which is why this username is completely anonymous. Anyway I have become quite fond of this username, and although it has to some extent outgrown it's original purpose, I think a blog is perhaps the right place for me/it to continue to grow and develop.
This entry was posted in British Politics, Politics, Sir Terry Pratchett and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What is a Witch?

  1. Pingback: Word of the Week Wednesday: widdershins « On Language

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s