Jim Aitken reviews Hex, by Jenni Fagan, published by Birlinn
There can be little doubt that part of the success of Jenni Fagan’s previous novel, Luckenbooth (2021), can be attributed to the way she managed to evoke Edinburgh’s Old Town with its grey tenements, cobbles and closes. In her recent novel, Hex (2022), she has returned to the Old Town of the sixteenth century as well as taking us out to East Lothian and to the North Berwick witch trials of 1590-92.
The novel was written for Geillis Duncan and she is in fact the novel’s main character. Geillis was hanged as a witch when she was only 15 years old. Other characters mentioned in the novel were also real historical characters like Geillis – Doctor John Fian, Agnes Sampson, Barbara Napier and Euphame MacCalzean.
While the outing of witches had been going on for some considerable time, under both Catholicism and Protestantism throughout Europe, the rule of James V1 of Scotland, 1st of England, certainly contributed to the frenzied atmosphere. A storm had blown James’ wife to be, Anne of Denmark, off course and the ship was forced on to the Norwegian coast. James set sail from Leith to fetch Anne personally – although he had a retinue of some 300 men with him.
Witchcraft and torture
James and Anne were formally married in Oslo and as they travelled to Denmark it became apparent that here was a country familiar with witchcraft and this sparked James’ interest. Witches were blamed for creating the sea storm and James personally supervised the torture of women accused of witchcraft back home in Scotland. Fagan refers to James in her novel and castigates him accordingly and she gives us a portrait of him at the end of his life as ‘an incoherent slobberer, his tongue grown too big for his mouth.’
A pamphlet that was produced at the time of the North Berwick witch trials was titled Newes from Scotland and James used this pamphlet to conclude his work Daemonologie (1597) which was published again when he ascended the English throne in 1603. Jacobean England was home to Ben Johnson, Francis Bacon, John Donne and William Shakespeare and the concluding part of James’ work was used by Shakespeare to write Macbeth (1606).
Geillis Duncan, like all other women accused of witchcraft, was wholly innocent. Under torture she implicated other people who were also hanged. Fagan is totally sympathetic to Geillis – and to all women more generally who have had to endure centuries of misogyny and who have been scapegoated for the failings of men, particularly those men who have been in power.
While Hex enables a real historical character to have her voice back, Fagan also creates a fictionalised character to be with her in her cell as she awaits execution. This character is called Iris and she comes from our period. Iris was the Greek Goddess of the rainbow, something that symbolises hope and the flower Iris is also said to cleanse areas. Iris has come out of the ether, or Null as Fagan calls it. She brings comfort, support and understanding.
Iris is related to Geillis by being a woman herself who has also known misogyny and they share their stories. Iris tells Geillis about some of the awful things done to women today and she refers to the two Met officers who took photographs of two murdered sisters. These officers were meant to guard the murder scene but instead they took photos of the two ‘dead birds’ they circulated to friends on WhatsApp. This happened in 2021and such actions by such men have been going on during the time of Geillis Duncan – and before – and in our own time.
Iris later turns into a crow and this gives the novel an air of the supernatural that fits perfectly with the subject matter she is writing about. It works well and Iris is also said to be Geillis’ ‘familiar’, a clever device she may well have used from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy from 1995-2000.
Fagan does try to offer some answers as to why men behave in this way. She seems to suggest that it is not just male-dominated power structures that are at fault but there seems a deeper existential element as to why many men behave the way they do. Fagan has Iris say that, ‘Men want to know how they got trapped on earth.’ The reason for being here is certainly something that many men have thought about – most of our greatest philosophers have been men who attempted to answer this question. However, as the questioning continues and men look around seeking answers Iris tells Geillis, ‘There is no man on earth who didn’t get here except by a woman parting her thighs.’
Geillis is housekeeper to David Seaton and she is a hard-working girl who knows her place. She causes no offence ever, averts her smile and her eyes and her lightness of being. She maintains that Seaton cannot deal with her ‘Light.’ Women from nothing can give birth to life and are so much more related to nature than men because of this. This light in their lives, in Geillis’ case, enables her to marvel at the moon and the stars, to listen to the sea and find joy in looking at a seashell and taking it home with her.
Seaton, according to Geillis, ‘started the North Berwick witch trials to get Euphame’s money.’ Disputes over inheritance, envies and jealousies, particularly of women of independent wealth and means, was responsible for many women being accused of witchcraft. Geillis liked to go out at night and look at the stars or go down to the beach on her own and this condemned her. Seaton also discovered her seashell and this somehow implied her pact with the Devil.
Geillis was brutally tortured and made to confess and as she says herself, under torture, ‘You will do anything.’ We know this from our own time with Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram, Northern Ireland and all the unknown sites of extraordinary rendition. Seaton had enabled Geillis to be tortured in a room she had previously cleaned for him and she says of her torturers, ‘So much fun laying into a girl, right? Exciting for them. It made them hard.’
Geillis also had the misfortune to be able to assist women in child-birth and she was ‘cursed with the ability to cure the ill’ by knowing which herbs and plants could be used to alleviate certain ailments. At the top of the Royal Mile, on Castlehill, there is a so called Witches’ Well which stands just opposite the site where women were once hanged for witchcraft. The well was commissioned by Patrick Geddes (1854- 1932) in 1894 and the artist John Duncan (1866-1945) was urged to produce a cast iron fountain to honour the people who were burned or hanged between the 15th and 18th centuries. During the 16th century more women were murdered at this site than anywhere else in Scotland.
Creating a fearful panic in society can aid the entrenchment of power and the witchcraft frenzy could also be used to settle old scores, enrich individuals at the expense of others and keep women subordinate to men. While men were also outed as sorcerers or magicians and burned and hanged, over 80% of those said to be in league with the Devil were women – more generally peasant women – and that was true throughout Europe of this period.
Iris speaks for Geillis and her outrage at the treatment being meted out to her sister, and she speaks to us with a contemporary voice. She is appalled at how people accepted this. She tries to analyse it by saying that although many must have known that Geillis was innocent ‘they want to believe the people in charge know what they are doing.’ This, for them, is a greater need. It brings to mind £350 million a week for the NHS painted on the side of a bus.
What price solidarity?
Iris also says that, ‘Silence is complicity. Non-action is a form of approval.’ Brecht would certainly agree with her but so too would Edmund Burke (1729-1797) when he said, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ The past that Fagan has so wonderfully evoked for us begs much the same questions of us all today. Will white people, realising that we are all one, stand shoulder to shoulder with Black Lives Matter activists? Will men stand shoulder to shoulder with women in supporting their demands for the murdering of their sisters to stop? Will Christians and non-Christians support Moslems from being scapegoated? Will we indigenous people stand firm against the scapegoating of immigrants? And will those of us who live comfortably come to the support of those being thrown deeper and deeper into poverty?
All questions like these ones – and more – are implied by Iris’ statement. Fagan raises many issues in Hex. She makes us think about all the injustices that are allowed to thrive and, more importantly, who benefits from those injustices. The witchcraft frenzy kept the churches full and their power was assured by the state-engendered climate that was created. In our world division of people simply ingrains the rich in their plunder for more riches.
Fagan tells us the witchcraft panic was ‘a plague… a thought plague.’ This certainly rings true and, of course, we must be on guard against all such ‘thought plagues’ that exist today. Fagan also speaks of ‘the delusions of others.’ These two comments could not exist without the organisational ability of the state to spread such disinformation and infect the minds of the populace. Every day the leading Tory papers – the Daily Mail, Telegraph and Express all have their campaigns against ‘wokery’ (the new witchery?) which has the effect of enabling readers of these papers to ridicule campaigns against racial injustice, climate change, our imperial past and the statuary associated with it, women campaigning against male violence and so much more besides. In other words, all thought and opinion that is not Tory is demonised. This too is a form of ‘thought plague.’
In one of the few studies of the witchcraft mania that spread in Europe, Norman Cohn in Europe’s Inner Demons (1975), argued that the entire period seemed to convulse in a particularly provocative set of delusions. His work examined the fake documents of the time and he showed how a dangerous irrationalism took hold of nations. There were no witches according to him. And we must not forget a similar psychological underpinning for the rise of fascism last century. Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) in The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1946) argued that it was not solely economic and political factors that contributed to the rise of fascism. He also pointed to what he called ‘the collective expression of average human beings, whose primary biological needs have been ruthlessly crushed by an authoritarian and sexually inhibited society.’ Fascism seemed a way out because of its simple appeals but, of course, it led to even greater authoritarianism. The danger for us today is that similarly simple appeals are being made all over again.
In the US the conspiracy theorists of QAnon circulate the view that Washington is the seat of Satan-worshipping paedophiles and millions of Americans believe this. Some 21% of Americans also believe – according to a poll conducted in recent years – that witches are still around and brewing up their fiendish brews. During the 2016 Presidential election Hilary Clinton was demonised, particularly on social media, with images of her in a black hat riding a broom. She was also dubbed The Wicked Witch of the Left ( if only!) and in Australia the first woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, had protests against her with placards proclaiming, Ditch the Witch.
A revolutionary push towards communalism
Any woman in power seems fair game. Fagan says as much in Hex. Powerful women have simply got above their station and they have to be taught a lesson. This happened to Cleopatra and Anne Boleyn who was said to have three nipples implicating her allegiance with the Devil. Joan of Arc simply had to be a witch by being able to win battles against the English and she was burned at the stake. And if we think of the way our children can also be conditioned to think in this way then consider the tale of Hansel and Gretel or the Slavic tale of Baba Yaga.
Silvia Federici, in books like Caliban and the Witch (2018) and in other works by her, says that the attacks on women as witches came about as feudalism gave way to capitalism. The peasantry of feudal times had to be made to adapt to this new system. Interestingly, Federici argues that the witch hunts occurred around the same time as colonialism and the extermination of the populations of the New World, the English enclosures, the beginning of the slave trade and the laws against vagabonds and beggars. Witch- hunting, she says, peaked from 1580-1630 ‘when feudal relations were giving way to economic and political institutions typical of mercantile capitalism.’ Effectively, for Federici, the witch hunts represented ‘class war by other means.’
She also maintained that there was also what she calls ‘an intervening revolutionary push toward communalism.’ Men and women at this time grew their crops together and their homes and their work were much the same. They worked in both. However, under capitalism waged labourers had to work outside the home all the time. This left women to do what work was required in the home themselves. Witch-hunts pushed them into the home and brought into play a form of subjugation. There would be no move to any form of communalism.
And pregnancy and child-birth, once simply considered a natural function, became a job that women did for ‘their husband-bosses’. For Federici, this was essentially now a form of ‘alienated labour’. The realm of women who once were the midwives, abortionists and herbalists who provided contraception were demonised as witches to ‘cement patriarchal power.’ Intelligent women threaten men, powerful women threaten them even more and the female ‘body has been for women in capitalist society what the factory has been for male waged labour… the primary ground of their exploitation and resistance.’
The use of the word ‘resistance’ is crucial here. If women are not free then neither are men, according to Hegel’s master/slave dialectic. And since men and women are clearly in relation to one another and women make up half the human race, it should be abundantly obvious that any struggle by women should also be a struggle by men.
Geillis Duncan goes to her death with dignity proclaiming her innocence. Iris says she will ‘place a hex on every man, woman and child who takes pleasure in Geillis’ death.’ The locals of the Old Town, along with civic dignitaries and douce church-going folk all assemble to see Geillis hang. However, Iris has seemed to call forth – a bit like Hitchcock in The Birds (1963) – birds ‘from all over the country to rest on rooftops and lintels and chimneys and windows.’
Edinburgh’s Old Town remains atmospheric to this day but this image of Geillis being hanged at Castlehill with all these birds watching is an incredibly compelling and eerie one. It has been achieved, like in other parts of the book, with a poetic style of writing. In fact Fagan has written a poem for her heroine at the end of the book called A Grey Rose fir Geillis Duncan.
The light of Geillis Duncan shines brightly in this book that is dedicated to her. Geillis is an Everywoman for Everytime. The injustice she suffered is the injustice all women have suffered and still continue to suffer. Their collective problem seems to be what Fagan calls, ‘The purest light’ attracting ‘the most impenetrable darkness.’ And that darkness is not simply down to toxic masculinity, it is also down to a toxic economic and political system that wants more and more from women as mothers, wives, lovers, workers, sex objects and figures to venerate. Men are coaxed into seeking pure Madonnas on the one hand and erotic La Belle Dame sans Merci figures on the other – a difficult business for any woman to achieve and a ludicrous dualism for any man to wish.
Fagan does recognise the ‘good men too’ and they simply have to grow in number so that all people of all nations, all races, all faiths, all men and all women can come to inherit the better world that is ‘Somewhere out there’ in ‘a different time.’ In the struggle ahead to get there the story of Geillis Duncan in Hex can surely be a guide.
Jim Aitken is a poet and dramatist living and working in Edinburgh. He is a tutor in Scottish Cultural Studies with Adult Education and he organises literary walks around the city.