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Guest Reviewer: Amber Rose

Drawing on personal experiences and folklore of witchcraft, Gloriann Langva’s Elysium Fields invites viewers into a dreamscape of murder, fantasy, and resurrection. Her exhibit, which showcases ceramic figurines of a mother goddess and her more-or-less immortal daughters, is a creative reflection of mythologized moments of her own life and tropes drawn from centuries of artistic exploration of witch legends and tales.

 

The host of supernaturally endowed, rule-breaking, threatening, powerful female figures called, with regrettable linguistic flattening, “witches,” insist on recognition in virtually all Western societies (and indeed beyond)—but the demonical witch, aligned with Satan and the forces of hell, did not appear until the early modern period in Europe. The late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were beset by witches, in folk legend, demonological treatises, courtly missives, and, not least, in the productions of artists newly fascinated by the figure of the witch. She became, as the title of Linda Hult’s 2011 book suggests, a muse of virtually inexhaustible inspiration.[1]

But if these early modern woodcuts and drawings explored the witch as an expression of contemporary “discourses of female sexuality and gender disorder” and as “fantasies of sexual seduction and sensual pleasure,” as art historian Charles Zika puts it, Langva’s productions reclaim witches as sites of female power, rejuvenating and unashamed.[2] In this sense, Langva’s art refers also to more recent traditions of witchcraft, those associated with neopagan movements like Wicca, which similarly repatriate the witch as a positive, nurturing, but still powerful female icon.

In her use of animals and animalesque figures, Langva draws on both modern neopaganism, which values and sacralizes the natural world, and on elements of early modern diabolical witchcraft. In the older tradition, witches were accompanied and not infrequently seduced by bestial demons, led of course by the great bestial monster himself, the animalistic Devil. In several folk traditions, witches were also understood to employ familiars—demon helpers—that took the form of an animal, and beliefs in witches’ own theriomorphism were common throughout Europe. Langva’s frog-women figurines might reflect this (frogs, after all, are a mainstay of modern folklore about witches), but also refer to mythological traditions that cite frogs as symbolic creatures of rebirth, animals that are neither wholly aquatic nor wholly terrestrial, that transform from legless tadpoles into legged creatures.
 

A strong Greek influence is visible in Langva’s work, from her Gaia-like mother goddess figure to the three witch daughters, whose number and power remind viewers of the three Moirai, or fates, and also—particularly in their more warlike aspects—of the Amazons; but instead of Greek weaponry, these women brandish the cooking-forks made popular in early sixteenth century witch iconography by the woodcut artist Hans Baldung Grien. Langva’s witches do not ride these devices, as several of Bandung’s do, but they do each traverse atop an animal, another common mode of conveyance in early modern witch beliefs. In contemporary American tradition, witches are more comfortable riding on broomsticks through the sky, but their early modern predecessors were more versatile, riding rakes, cooking forks, distaffs, and other quotidian implements of women’s work, placing them between their legs in an obvious appropriation of masculinity, as Allison Coudert and others have observed.[3]
 

In Langva’s artwork, this power dynamic is subverted: in a scene recalling the Egyptian myth of the murder and dismembering of Osiris, who is subsequently reanimated by his magically endowed wife Isis, the only male figure in Langva’s production is killing and dismembering one of the witches. Death is a male talent, here. But the talents of women, from Isis to Langva’s figurines, are recreation, rejuvenation, and a reclamation. Langva’s art is wholly her own, but in its myriad references is also, itself, a recreation, rejuvenation, and reclamation—of witches, goddesses, and the dark muddled area between them.

 

 

Amber J. Rose

Ph.D. candidate, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic (Scandinavian Studies–Folklore)

 

[1] Hults, Linda C. 2011. The Witch as Muse: Art, Gender, and Power in Early Modern Europe. University of Pennsylvania Press.

[2] Zika, Charles. 2007. The Appearance of Witchcraft: Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-Century Europe. Routledge. 7.

[3] Coudert, Allison. 2008. “Probing Women and Penetrating Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe,” in Hidden Intervourse: Eros and Sexuality in the History of Western Esotericism, ed. Wouter J. Hanegraaff and Jeffery J. Kripal (231–279). 242. See also Zika 2007, 29.