The Revival of the Witch as Muse by Tasmin Petrie
In celebration of Samhain and the blurring of the boundary between us and the spirit world, Tasmin explores the witch figures in a selection of Leonora Carrington’s works, and how ultimately, Carrington’s oeuvre re-signified the witch as powerful muse
Samhain, known as the Witches’ New Year, is the Celtic festival marking summer’s end; a transitional period during which we turn inward to the darker winter months. Samhain, amongst other Celtic celebrations and folkloric tales, formed part of a rich seam of inspiration and enchantment for Leonora Carrington during her childhood; an interest which was nourished by her maternal Grandmother Moorhead. Granting Carrington an understanding of and proximity to the spirit realm from a young age, Grandmother Moorhead’s tales of Celtic deities nourished the artist’s curiosity for paranormal activity and witchcraft, which later formed an intrinsic part of her oeuvre. Carrington’s artistic practice was grounded in Celtic symbols compounded with her exploration of Mother Goddess, or Magna Mater, iconography. This investigation into the potent feminine energy of the primordial goddess was certainly bolstered by her reading of Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, published in 1948; an instrumental text in shaping her feminist consciousness deeply rooted in the protection of the natural world; now recognised as a precursor to ecofeminist praxis and thought. Encapsulated by Gloria Feman Orenstein as the “reclaiming of a new Goddess consciousness,” this channelling of learned women figures and ancestral practice was a means of harnessing the sacred mind-body totality of the primordial goddess, in turn reclaiming the power of intuition as a legitimate thought system. Indeed, this statement extends to the power of the witch, owing to her status as a practitioner of ancient healing methods rooted in divination, herbal medicine and empirical thought.
It was particularly during the 1950s that Carrington’s syncretic visual language flourished. During this period, her study of Graves’ The White Goddess was crucial as an aperture to create a symbiosis between symbols of Celtic mythology and the iconography of Western occult practice, in which Carrington was well-versed through her study of the teachings of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. Carrington’s works from this period are imbued with imagery of hermetic discipline, with her witch and goddess figures depicted as active agents in the alchemical process. The Giantess (1950), is an outstanding expression of Carrington’s syncretic visual lexicon; framing an allegorical vision of Ceres, the Roman goddess of crops and fertility, within a backdrop of alchemical transmutation. The Giantess is a towering figure of golden wheat hair, existing in clear synchronicity with the elements of her natural surroundings. Her child-like features and golden, glowing aura at first seem to differ from conventional depictions of the witch, contrasting considerably with visions of the witch throughout art history as elderly crones.
That said, I consider the Giantess to embody the very characteristics which define the witch as a learned figure and practitioner of magic, namely a symbiosis with the natural elements which facilitates her spells and sorcery. Carrington depicts the intrinsic connection between the Giantess and the elements of her surroundings through the birds and creatures encircling her in the foreground of the canvas. The motif of birds highlights her connection to the spirit world, given that within Celtic mythology birds are believed to be mediators to pagan gods. In this sense, it can be said that both the Giantess and the birds inhabit a liminal position between the human and spirit realms. In reading the Giantess as a witch figure, I identify the birds performing as her familiars; aiding the witch in the facilitation of divine esoteric ritual and spells. In fusing the influences of Celtic folklore and Western occultism, Carrington creates a certain amalgam between these elements, demonstrating the potential of the witch to embody multiple guises simultaneously.
Crucially, Carrington’s depiction of the Giantess’ delicate, almost child-like features breaks with more sinister depictions of witches as aged, decrepit women. Perhaps playing with the construct of the femme-enfant, Carrington inverts the passivity placed on this figure by male Surrealists, and rather, ascribes the Giantess with agency over her physical body and surrounding environment. Particularly if we consider The Giantess alongside Francisco Goya’s witch figures in the series The Witches and Old Women Album, Carrington’s works certainly offer a diametrically opposed vision to Goya’s grotesque incarnations of witches. Lauded as a precursor to surrealist depictions of hybrid beings, Goya most certainly would have been a point of reference for Carrington and her contemporaries. However, I do consider Carrington’s visions of witches to reverse the conventional connotations conjured by the witch as a diabolical, sexually deviant figure; a construct which ostensibly stems from patriarchal anxiety to curb not only witches’ agency over their physical bodies and sexuality, but also that of all ideologically liberated, autonomous women. The publication of Malleus Maleficarum in 1487 was pivotal in shaping a skewed perception of the witch as a malevolent character and natural antithesis to the doctrine-led patriarchy and Catholic church, thus ostracising her to the fringes of society. By reviving the witch as muse, Carrington reinstates the position of the witch as a feminist symbol and harbinger of ideological and sexual liberation of women.
Perhaps playing with the construct of the femme-enfant, Carrington inverts the passivity placed on this figure by male Surrealists, and rather, ascribes the Giantess with agency over her physical body and surrounding environment.
Carrington demonstrates the use of what I describe as an alchemical colour palette, a thread connecting The Giantess with later works Samain (1951) and The Chrysopoeia of Mary the Jewess (1964). The alchemical colour palette encapsulates the three stages of alchemical transformation: nigredo, albedo and rubedo. The dark upper section of the canvas represents nigredo, the initial conversion stage of base materials into alchemical substances, synonymous with the colour black. Albedo, the silver or moon state is evoked by the Giantess’ luminescent cloak imbued with overtones of silver. The final stage of alchemical transformation, rubedo, the golden sun state, is symbolised by the Giantess’ golden wheat hair; depicting the materialisation of the base materials into gold. Precisely by interweaving each stage of the alchemical process into the piece, Carrington underscores the Giantess’ prowess as an alchemical witch and practitioner of sorcery.
This notion is echoed in Samain, which is dominated by dark overtones, evoking the initial nigredo stage, indicating that the figures are just beginning their transformation into fully fledged witches. I view the hive of alchemical activity depicted in Samain as a coven gathering. Each witch represents a different stage of alchemical transformation; some enriched with iridescent albedo tones; another with a red-hued face symbolising rubedo. Despite representing differing stages of transcendence into witches, each member of the coven is linked by the central Mother Goddess figure in the foreground of the canvas. Appearing next to an alchemical egg, which functions both as a vessel during the alchemical process and a symbol of fertility, she exudes the wisdom and intuitive, protective energy of a learned witch figure who guides her coven members on their own path to transcendence.
In The Chrysopoeia of Mary the Jewess, Carrington elevates her syncretic visual language to fuse motifs of witchcraft with Cabbala and shamanism. Mary the Jewess herself was a subversive feminist muse, as she was one of the first female alchemists to emerge in a male-dominated field. Renowned as the Mother of Western Alchemy, Mary the Jewess is depicted as a witch in complete command of her domain; charged beams of energy emanate from her hand towards a cauldron, the classical hub of witchcraft and alchemical transmutation. Strikingly, it is the hybridity of Mary’s physical body which represents the focal point of transformation within the piece, as she appears as both a lion and witch figure. Arguably, this is an expression of a Nagual, or ‘transforming witch,’ the spirit animal guise adopted by shamans in their practice of healing rituals. During the mid 1960s, Carrington’s artistic production was heavily influenced by the shamanic traditions of Mesoamerican culture, proving to be a fertile ground in terms of broadening the artist’s knowledge of sorcery, tarot, curanderia and brujeria. As such, I infer that Mary the Jewess straddles the realms of Western occultism and Mesoamerican shamanism, breathing new life into the once gendered pursuit of alchemy.
During the mid 1960s, Carrington’s artistic production was heavily influenced by the shamanic traditions of Mesoamerican culture, proving to be a fertile ground in terms of broadening the artist’s knowledge of sorcery, tarot, curanderia and brujeria.
The works discussed here offer just a snapshot into Carrington’s depictions of female figures charged with esoteric power throughout her oeuvre. Although, The Giantess, Samain and The Chrysopoeia of Mary the Jewess, clearly carve out the path of evolution undertaken by the witch; repositioning her from the obscurity of nigredo to the intensely vivid rubedo state. In this sense, the process of alchemical transformation acts as an allegory of the witch’s transformation from demonised enemy number one of the patriarchy, to a revered symbol of women’s liberation which continues to resonate within a contemporary context. In transgressing her marginalised position on the fringes of society – the blackness of nigredo – to reinstating her position as a fervent muse within the art historical canon, the witch’s trajectory speaks to that of all women throughout history who have been persecuted for vehemently refuting the doctrines of patriarchal society. Carrington’s own identification with the witch not only resides in the works of her oeuvre but is also reflected in her creative and interpersonal bond with Remedios Varo and Kati Horna. Known as las tres brujas, the artists’ production was nourished by the support network of the coven they formed in Mexico City. In reclaiming the witch as muse, I like to think that Carrington, Varo and Horna also channelled the essence of the witch as a beacon of hope and empowerment within their own women-led collective.
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Tasmin holds a MA in Italian & Spanish and MLitt in History of Art from the University of Glasgow. She first encountered Carrington’s work during her undergraduate degree; an interest she then nourished during the six-month period she spent living and working in Mexico in 2018. Latterly she has focused her research on Latin American modern and contemporary women artists, investigating the healing potential of contemporary Latin American women’s art production as a mode of resistance against patriarchal control