The Inventions of Witches


Arts & Culture

On witches, Derrida, and the impossibility of ever being truly known. 

John William Waterhouse, The Magic Circle, 1886.

The inquisitors wanted something old from each witch they tortured—a Sabbath orgy or blood oath or cat demon or wolf-faced baby or some other verification of the stories they already believed. They also wanted something new, so they could feel, with each trial and execution, as if they were getting somewhere: With what instruments do you fly? What did the toad in the pot say? Which direction do you turn the horseshoe over the door to summon your demon?

According to Joseph Glanvill’s 1681 volume Saducismus triumphatus, or, Full and plain evidence concerning witches and apparitions in two parts: the first treating of their possibility, the second of their real existence, the convicted witch Elizabeth Styles’s offering to the investigators in 1664 was that her demon sucked blood. He came to her often. Even when she was tied up in a dungeon, still he came to her pole in the form of a butterfly, to suck her blood as he always did.

Though it may seem strange to us now, that the devil came as an apparition of a butterfly was very old news in 1664. Only the bloodsucking was new. Even the great botanist and first ecologist Maria Sibylla Merian, who discovered and documented insect metamorphosis in the same century, had to be careful about her reputation and keep her room of silkworms and caterpillars secret, because there were many who still believed in witches and their power to take the form of butterflies and spoil the milk.

Evelyn De Morgan, The Love Potion, 1903.

The Greeks, who had a rich tradition of witchcraft, called butterflies “psyches,” the same word they used for souls. I wonder about that, and about what in each of us is part witch. In his book Psyche, Jacques Derrida writes about each moment of speech, each endeavor to charm or interest a listener, as an invention. An invention, he says, is by its nature an attempt to unsettle the status quo. It requires a moment of destruction. He writes, “An invention always presupposes some illegality, the breaking of an implicit contract.” And adds, “A strange proposition. We have said that every invention tends to unsettle the statutes that one would like to assign it at the moment it takes place.” An invention, then, is the butterfly in each of us, the witch in each of us: it is our striving to be something to each other.

Elizabeth Styles was accused by a thirteen-year-old girl also named Elizabeth. This other Elizabeth had been having strange fits, lasting three hours or more, and when the episodes passed she’d have holes in her hands, wrists, face, and neck. There would be thorns in her flesh. For this, she blamed Styles.

In addition to the butterfly business, Styles confessed that the devil had appeared to her about ten years before, in the form of a handsome man or sometimes a black dog who promised her money. He said that she should live gallantly and have the “Pleasure of the World” for twelve years if she would sign in blood a paper handing over her soul.

In his chapter on witchcraft theory, the historian Walter Stephens suggests inquisitors were conducting a form of theological research in their trials. In a way, they were anticipating the creation of empirical data and a scientific method. They were inventing the proof they were desperate to receive.

“The attitude of witchcraft theorists towards their theories was not belief,” Stephens writes, “but rather resistance to skepticism, a desperate attempt to maintain belief, and it betrays an uncommonly desperate need to believe.” We could say, then, that Elizabeth Styles’s inquisitor was one of the great innovators of the form.

What a comfort it would be if we could believe criminal justice as literary genre was a phenomenon of the past. If it was only once upon a time that interrogations were a form of coauthorship between the accuser and the accused.

The psyche is the part of you that can be separated from your body. This capacity to become yourself and your other self creates opportunities for feelings like romance and ecstasy. And if you are someone who can’t seem to get yourself out of yourself? Well, perhaps you will be consoled by watching others escape the self of their bodies. Torture gets the soul out almost every time.

To have a soul is to flutter about spoiling the milk and destabilizing the script of how we talk to each other.

A vintage photograph of witches.

I often feel like a witch in the way I do a poor job performing the role of a friend or a casual acquaintance. This is because I want to charm, to show kindness, to understand, to console, to be someone to the people I meet, and the script only allows us to pass each other briefly and superficially without creating an event. I always love an event. Therefore, if need be, I will be the event that happened to you. Like a kindness.

Say for example you’re a soldier walking home from the war. Or the maiden working in your stepmother’s garden. Or the miller with a cart and a broken axel. A wild-haired woman will stop and, in her kindness, give you a gift of great power and significance. A jewelry box, for example, that can summon three dogs of great, greater, and greatest size. Or a letter from that old love you try never to think of. Maybe a bag that can hold everything up to you, including death itself. And now your ordinary life of meandering pleasures is jacked up with purpose and an unwieldy power that may be a help to you but may also rear its head back and bite a curse on your nose. I want to give you such an invention, even if you are not a soldier or a miller, and all I have done is leave you unexpectedly teary in the break room while waiting for the microwave to ding.

I used to take vows of silence every morning because of how my love and fear of invention could make me so sick to my stomach. In this way, conversational invention is like any other endeavor at which one might fail.

When I hiked up a mountain with my old, dear friend, I was so excited because I have a good, amusing script for mountains. I invented it back when I lived near one and went up it every Saturday. It involves cursing and hating the mountain all the way up because when the path is just sharp stones pointing ever higher I can tell the mountain is trying to push me down. But then I finally reach the lake and I and the crags can admit to each other that we were actually in love this whole time.

What I’ve always loved about this friend of mine is how easy he is to charm and how he is full of unexpected questions that inspire one to inventions. I’ve never seen anyone make an unexpected comment he didn’t sincerely admire. But there have been a few intervening years between us and I didn’t know he’d been busy all this time turning into John Muir conquering peaks at breakneck pace so you can’t keep up to talk to him. On the mountain, charm is not what’s on his mind.

I know it is an absurd exaggeration, but there are days when I feel like the rag woman with cobwebs in my hair, muttering a shuffle at the edge of town. I’m the kind of witch that means well, but I know when someone is so invented—and let’s admit it, “invented” just means “off”—when someone is so off, it’s hard for someone else to say whether they mean well or not and even if they do mean well, whether they are capable of doing well with all that meaning.

When I see the woodcuts of these women on the scaffolding waiting for their stick of flame, ax to the block, or ring of rope, I wonder why they couldn’t just keep it to themselves. Is it really so hard to pretend?

From Compendium maleficarum by Francesco Mario Guazzo (1608)

But that’s also the reason why I like these failed witches so much. It feels hard to me because it really is hard and hard for most everybody to resist invention, even, or perhaps especially, the inventions that disturb the norms, the statutes, or the rules. We want to be kind, we want to make something of our kindness, we are inventors and our minds can’t stop inventing. But our mouths don’t run smoothly along the track of the social contract they had no hand in signing and no will to.

There are aspects of an inquisition I would really enjoy. The collaborative invention of the world we all wish were true would be one part. Adding decorative touches to the archetype of the devil would be another. It’s the kind of game my friend and I used to play every Monday at the bar. What are the names of the horses pulling your chariot of the apocalypse? What’s in your bag of fascist tropes tonight? What three embellishments would you make when your turn came to host the witches’ Sabbath?

On the mountain most of my words were answered with silence, but when I was gasping and holding my side, he offered this: “To get fast, I had to figure out I wasn’t going to drown on the need for air. There’s air everywhere, so I let the breathing take care of itself.” And on the way down, when I was crab-crawling my way through the slipping dust he said, between a hop and a stride, “Try it like a drunken monk.”

Driving home, I excoriated myself for my so-much talking about that bitch of a mountain that never once got a laugh. I had seen my friend, but I still missed him. After years and much else, your friend may be the same river, but he is not the same water. And now all of my memories were the grating sound of my own voice.

The vow of silence is not necessarily a refusal to invent. It is not necessarily to retreat into yourself or try it like a miserably sober monk. It can be simply a promise not to invent each other. On a surprising note of hope for the future of human relationships, given that he is the philosopher who proved over and again how we cannot say what we mean, Derrida concludes, “The other is what is never inventable and will never have waited for your invention.”

Not so long ago, at a Mother’s Day brunch, I remarked that our gregarious father had, when I was a timid and awkward girl, tried so hard to teach me how to get along with other people. He made it seem so simple—just ask them questions about themselves and their interests, he said. People love to talk about themselves and they will feel you are being kind. I remarked that after twenty years of practice, I think I might be getting good at this.

My brother, who is mostly a silent person but skillful at the sports and home remodeling scripts, was chuckling when he said, “Yeah, but your questions are all like”—and here he switched on his best head-cocked robot voice—“How does it feel to be you, Human?’”

Would you understand me if I said even though I know he was being a little mean, I have never felt so loved and understood by another person as I did at that moment? It was like he had invented a figure of me from soft wax with his own hands and then handed me that homunculus. I could ask her all of these questions and listen to each of her ingenious new confessions.


Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of the essay collection, Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past and two poetry collections, The End of Pink and Rag & Bone. She is an associate professor of creative writing at University of Central Missouri, where she also directs Pleiades Press.