By JILLIAN KRISTINA
On the eve of Walpurgisnacht, the fires raged high as the sky, seemingly licking the stars with their tantalizing flicks of flame. This beacon of light reached far and wide, extending an invitation to the sabbath celebration to those women waiting in the darkened wood; those who would mount their brooms, or perhaps creatures supplied by the devil himself in the form of goats, rams, or even dogs, as they took to the night sky, naked and wailing and cutting through the clouds as they soared across the moon, ecstatic with desire, returning the call of the beguiling fire. It is here that they would commune and worship at the hooves of their master, the horned one, consummating their commitments and reveling in blasphemous anarchy.
As we approach this weekend’s fire festival, Beltane – also known as May Day – these images are conjured in our collective psyches, and why not? Throughout history, the witches sabbath is vastly depicted in art and literature in this fashion, drawing largely from such baneful sources as MALLEUS MALEFICARUM (HAMMER OF THE WITCHES), co-authored and published in 1487 by none other than the infamously vile Inquisitor, Heinrich (Institoris) Kramer. During the 15th century, it was commonly accepted that these bedeviled women kidnapped and murdered unbaptized infants, rendering their fat and fluids to create a magical mixture that came to be known as ‘flying ointment.’ Francis Bacon famously commented on the ingredients of this ointment “that witches use… reported to be made of the fat of children, digged out of their graves; of the juices of smallage, wolfebane, and cinque foil, mingled with the meal of fine wheat: but I suppose that the soporiferous medicines are likest to do it, which are hen-bane, hemlock, mandrake, moonshade, tobacco, opium, saffron, poplar leaves, etc.”
The latter part of Bacon’s statement was the most logical, and, surprisingly, accurate. In ITALIAN MAGIC: SECRET LIVES OF WITCHES, Karyn Crisis confirms the usage of henbane, mandrake, tobacco, opium, saffron, belladonna (moonshade), as well as listing datura stramonium, amanita muscaria mushroom, Artemisia absinthe, and aconito aconite, all toxic herbs that, when applied topically, could induce trance-like, hallucinogenic experiences which could simulate ‘flying,’ or astral travel. In addition, she adds that these “ointments were made thicker with the use of wax and animal fat, toad fat or bear fat, sometimes imbued with blood.”
Blood. There is power in the blood.
The witch of the woods knew that. Eventually, Thomasin would, too.
In 2016’s starkly stunning directorial debut, The VVITCH: A NEW ENGLAND FOLKTALE, Robert Eggers captures the dark, paralyzing power that held a Puritan family in its grip during the 1630s, just over 50 years before hysteria struck the Massachusetts Bay Colony town of Salem Village (now Danvers, MA) in 1692. Ostracized from their original settlement, the exiled family finds momentary solace and shelter in the thick of the woods. As they begin to settle into their new home, tragedy strikes – the infant, Samuel, is mysteriously snatched during a game of peekaboo, just below the playful eyes of his eldest sister, Thomasin (Anya-Taylor Joy). One second, here’s there, and the next – vanished.
Devastation and fear grip the family as Katherine (Kate Dickie) laments her child’s unbaptized soul, and with good reason; we see the infant’s fate at the hands of the dreaded witch, as she rubs a mixture of fat and blood over her body before mounting her broom, taking off into the night sky.
But it doesn’t end there, as Thomasin would come to know. Because when hysteria hits home after the disappearance of her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and an accusation made by her younger twin siblings, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), she herself would be cast as the witch. She herself would know fear and persecution, and eventually, she would know the power of blood; defending herself from her homicidal mother, she grabs a knife and swings…and swings and swings…slicing her matron to death, a shower of maternal blood washing over her face and chest. An end, but also a beginning, because it’s covered in this spray of blood that she walks through the darkness towards a crackling, cackling fire in the heart of the woods. And it is through this layer of blood that she watches a circle of naked, chanting, writhing women, as they mount their rough hewn sticks and levitate amongst the shadowed trees.
It is through this baptism of blood that she, too, levitates. Cackling, smiling. Free.
And on the other side of freedom lies confinement. Enter Adams Family Films bombastic bloodfest, 2021’s HELLBENDER. Following the lives of a mother (Toby Poser) and daughter Izzy (Zelda Adams) who dwell on a remote mountain in an almost pulsating forest, themes of power, magic, concealment, and an electric current of violence simmering just beneath the surface permeate this lush cinematic tapestry. Here, blood takes center stage, revealing itself to be so much more than just an ingredient in the mother’s protection magic, which, incidentally, very much courts the mythos of flying ointment.
Very early on in the film, we see the mother alone in the woods, wrapping small twigs with strands of her hair, downed trees surrounding her, seemingly forming a natural sigil all their own, encompassing her, framing her work – her magic. She plucks the inside of her mouth with her finger, allowing a thick stream of blood to ooze through her lips onto her hands. She dresses the sigil in her blood, sending it into the air, watching as it levitates above her…
“Winter eats Fall. Fall eats Summer. Summer eats Spring. And Spring eats Winter.”
In another scene, she again uses her blood, drawing an eye-like sigil on a flat surface, encircling it with berries and lichen and roughage from the forest. Lifting her left hand to her eye, her right hand covering the sigil, her sight travels – hovers – over where Izzy is walking along a path in the wilderness. She watches, she waits, she finds what she’s sensing.
And just like that, she’s there, standing between the intruder and her daughter. A lost hiker who just happens to have taken a picture of a found sigil, he answers her questions truthfully; not married, no children.
As she wields her power and raises him into the air, she draws blood from the levitating stranger’s hand, dipping her fingers into the warm, running liquid, touching the crimson heat to her tongue. Ecstasy washes over her as she sways, closing her eyes, right before vaporizing him to ash.
“The more fear pumping through the blood, the more power.”
In this story, it seems that the blood is directed by the intentions of the practitioner; the mother casts spells with the intention of protecting her daughter from their true legacy, while Izzy looks to embrace the darkness, the death – the Hellbender – within. So when Izzy dresses a stick with blood, it gravitates towards the earth, burying itself beneath the moss-laden soil.
It turned its back on heaven and “bent towards hell.”
Throughout history, blood has been demonized, mainly associated with sacrifice, ritual, and as a main ingredient in spellwork, as we see in both of these films. It is both feared and revered, both necessary and vile. It could be said it embodies the paradox of the Witch herself – cast out, cursed, exiled…except for when a cure is needed, or a spell, or a prediction. After her services are complete, she is once again the outcast. The haggard wretch. The evil soul lurking deep within the blackened wood, always hungry for the flesh and blood of children. Of the innocent.
Of the pure.
Within both of these films lies themes of fear, of isolation, of danger in the ‘other’ – those who have the power to wield otherworldly magic or forces to be used against humanity. Those who would be forced to deny themselves, their truth, their essence, in favor of the status quo. In favor of the idea of ‘safety.’ But what if we didn’t fear those who dwell on the outskirts of society? Those we’ve been systematically taught to revile, to shun, to hunt? What if we chose to see them, to meet them, to engage with them – to know them? What if, instead of seeing those who are different from us as a perceived threat, we saw each individual for what they truly are – people. We are all dynamic, composed of myriad opposites and our own personal indwelling magic and power. We are all composed of blood, and all of the power and magic within it. Because make no mistake – there is power in blood. And it is up to each and everyone one of us to wield that power with the utmost diligence, the utmost respect, and the utmost regard for the world within which we all have the deep, deep honoring and privilege of living.