By Femke Boom
“Most books on witchcraft will tell you that witches work naked. This is because books on witchcraft are written by men.” (Gaiman, Pratchett)
Good Omens is one of my favourite novels. It is, among others, about witches and prophecy. Yet there are no naked witches, bubbling cauldrons, or any pointy hats to be found. The sheer depth of this book is what enticed me to write my bachelor thesis on it; the more I read, wrote and discussed with peers, the more I discovered in my beloved book. The authors, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, play with prejudice and stereotypes throughout Good Omens. The witches are no exception; if anything, the witches of Good Omens are the most sensible characters to be found within the book.
Before I move into the details of Good Omens, I shall tell you a bit more about witches and witchcraft. Witchcraft is usually associated with the feminine. Women are witches, men are wizards (a notion that actually sprang from Harry Potter). The stereotypical image of a witch is that of an old crone – crooked nose, covered in warts, probably tempted to cook and eat children. The one of a wizard tends to be alike one of a philosopher; a wise old man. The image of witchcraft – and witches – has taken on a variety of forms over the centuries. Many of the images that people conjure up when they think of the word ‘witch’ is the aforementioned old crone, usually in a medieval setting.
History and Witch Hunts
Magic was regarded as a science for a while during the Middle Ages. ‘The Book of the Dannel’, a manuscript in Sloane 3853 that dates back to sixteenth century England, is actually a sort of manual on how to do magic. The interesting bit is – prepareth thou gender assumptions – that this manuscript focuses on men as the audience. Only a man could practice magic in this case. This is likely due to the common view that women were weak or somehow defiled, a notion that has its roots in the whole ‘Adam and Eve’ story.
You might be thinking by now “but what of those famous witch hunts like the one in Salem?”. The witch hunts mainly took place in the seventeenth century, particularly after the arrival of Puritans in ‘the New World’. How the witch hunts exactly started is difficult to pinpoint. A former mentor mentioned once to me that he believed it may have had something to do with someone having had views, be it political or social, that were not acceptable for the time. Hence, they would be labelled a witch; it would also be an easy way to get rid of someone. It may have been a combination of that and religious issues, as the witch hunts did take on a religious role. Both men and women would be persecuted, however, mostly the women were found guilty. That sounds odd, does it not? Imagine there is a seventeenth-century town, and most of its inhabitants are Puritan (a particular orthodox strain of Christianity). There is a strong focus on Christianity in this place; there is a clear division between vice and virtue. A woman is brought to court on suspicion of witchcraft, even though she pleads innocent. She does not practice witchcraft at all. The persecutors keep questioning her, pressuring her. “Are you sure you have always been virtuous?”
Women were very self-conscious at the time – they knew right from wrong and were incredibly self-aware of their thoughts and actions. So much that they considered small wrongdoings to be vice as well. The woman in court thinks of this. Sure, she did something wrong in the past. She is not 100% virtuous. And she confesses. Anything, no matter how small, was considered to be consorting with the devil. In short: she is a witch, and is found guilty. Men cared less about this issue. Even if they were brought to court, they saw ‘the small wrongdoings’ as something not inherently bad. They would not plead guilty, and instead keep saying they were innocent. This mentality caused a large difference in numbers between men and women regarding conducting witchcraft. Women were more easily swayed by the idea that they must have done something, anything, wrong. “Women were more likely to interpret their own sin, no matter how ordinary, as a tacit covenant with Satan, a spiritual renunciation of God.” (Reis). This notion was further stimulated by the Christian view of women being weak and susceptible to vice. This is tied to the tale of Eve eating from ‘the forbidden fruit’ first and then tempting Adam to do the same; Eve was the first to give into vice, hence all women are likely to do the same.
Common Sense is a Kind of Magic
There are two ‘obvious’ witches: Agnes Nutter and her descendant Anathema Device. Madame Tracy dabbles in the occult as well, but she is represented in an entirely different manner in comparison to Agnes and Anathema. The character of Agnes Nutter was indeed placed in the seventeenth century. Now, she was intriguing as a person and quite rational although her last name begs to differ. She wrote the book ‘the Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch’ within Good Omens, and it tells of the coming Armageddon. Why would a woman proclaim herself a witch and write a book about prophecies during that time? Books about this subject were not that uncommon, think of the Nostradamus’ Prophecies from the sixteenth century.
The main issue with Agnes was not per se that she was actually a self-proclaimed witch, but rather that she gave unwarranted advice. Like mentioned above, she was a rational person and would give the inhabitants of her village advice – this was about mundane things like nutrition, exercise and hygiene. Nothing to write home about really nowadays, but it was undesired by her neighbours. She was simply too clever for her time, which resulted in a whole torches-and-pitchforks scenario. Her prophecies were not even witchcraft in the sense that there was no scrying, no tarot, nor any other form that is associated with it. Her ability was to recall memories, albeit ones from her descendants and not her own. This allowed for a tunnel vision of the future, only related to her distant family. Jessica Walker, a scholar who wrote an article about the relation between gender and ancestry regarding Good Omens, suggests that Agnes’ reason for writing down the prophecies was to help her next of kin, a notion that was not entirely uncommon at that time. Walker tells of two female authors, Lady Anne Clifford and Lady Ann Fanshawe, who wrote their own as well as their family’s struggles in order to help future generations. Agnes’ prophecies relied upon what is to come though rather than her own struggles, but it is nevertheless also meant to strengthen familial bonds. Through the use of the prophecies, she was able to create a family identity instead of preserving the old one, because the majority of her descendants ended up writing comments in the margins of the prophecy book (Walker). Good intentions or not, Agnes was nevertheless hunted down by witchfinder Thou-Shalt-Not-Commit-Adultery Pulsifer (yes, that is his full name). She was well aware of what was to come and complied with her persecutor. She did not go entirely without protest though; she had hidden nails and gunpowder in her skirts so she would take the witchfinder and any bystanders to the grave once she was burnt at the stake.
The reader sees one of Agnes’ descendants throughout Good Omens, namely Anathema. Anathema lives according to the prophecy book and is trying her best to find the cause of the impending Apocalypse. Like her ancestor, she has much common sense, unlike the stereotypical witch of fairytales. This is emphasised in the novel itself:
“Young women should not go alone on dark nights, even in Oxfordshire. But any prowling maniac would have had more than his work cut out if he had accosted Anathema Device. She was a witch, after all. And precisely because she was a witch, and therefore sensible, she put little faith in protective amulets and spells; she saved it all for a foot-long breadknife which she kept in her belt.” (Gaiman, Pratchett)
Anathema compares herself to Agnes quite often; she feels that she is like her ancestor, not merely because of practising magic, but even her manner of thinking and use of language. Much of what appears to be Anathema’s defining characteristics are quintessentially Agnes’: “(…) Anathema has no sense of self beyond her family identity.” (Walker). Although Agnes’ prophecies are the family guidebook, it appears to affect Anathema the most. She even moves into Agnes’ old home, which is near the apocalyptic events in the village of Tadfield. The prophecies were written with the best of intentions, but they only hold Anathema back. Anathema is a paradox. On the one hand she is being limited, as she has a sort of lack in agency. And on the other, she is a free person. Additionally, Anathema unconsciously sets the events in motion that lead up to the apocalypse as she manages to influence the Anti-Christ with her interest in the occult. Funnily enough, it was a positive influence as she adds to the Anti-Christ’s love of the world. She is not aware of this though, since she finds out too late to whom she was actually speaking.
Whereas Agnes and Anathema are rational and have more typical masculine traits, the witchfinders are the complete opposite. Witchfinders embody the hysterical, are portrayed in a way that women often were in literature (i.e. overly emotional, severe lack of common sense), and are a parody on the Puritans: “There was a time when witchfinders were respected, although it didn’t last very long.”(Gaiman, Pratchett). The Witchfinders is an old group, but there are no details on its origin in the novel. There is an example of its sheer ludicrousness; a witchfinder tried to uncover a ‘satanic orgy’ in 1933, which turned out to be just a business-related party. It is also important to note that the Witchfinders is a male-only organisation. The Witchfinders relate a strain of Christianity to misogyny as Walker noted: “Certainly not all historical Puritans were misogynists or witchhunters, but Gaiman and Pratchett make use of the way popular culture often associates misogyny and persecution with Puritanism.”.
Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell takes hysteria to a whole other level. He is obsessed with finding witches and demonic activity, although all of his knowledge is based on popular culture and hearsay. He favours traditional gender roles, has a whole plethora of colourful words to call Madame Tracy (e.g. ‘harlot’) and Aziraphale (‘Southern pansy’), and even his advertisement for Witchfinders says: “Be a man!”. He is oddly fascinated with bodily parts, and he thinks that the best way to find a witch is to count someone’s nipples. He questions his newest recruit Newt on his nipple-amount. Shadwell tells Newt to look for an odd amount if he goes to Tadfield in search of witches. There is character growth for Shadwell though in Good Omens: he stops his witchfinding career and has a budding relationship with Madame Tracy in the end.
Newt appears to lack the whole hysteric behaviour, fortunately. He embodies the gentler feminine side rather than the highly irrational one. Newt appears to walk the fine line between witchcraft and witchfinding; his name is related to magic (e.g. ‘eye of Newt’, from Macbeth), he has a witchfinder ancestor and is a recruit himself although without all the enthusiasm. He is anything but tech savvy. Computers literally break down if he touches them. Technology is often associated with the masculine, so it is interesting to see it break down in the hands of a man. He does not favour violence, and when he comes across Anathema he falls in love instead of attempting to persecute her. In the end it results in a tryst between the two of them, although Anathema comments that the notes in Agnes’ book say they only do ‘it’ once and that there is nothing more. This is much to Newt’s embarrassment and horror – imagine someone’s ancestor(s) knowing or seeing what happened. Their tryst has an important role though as it is “key to the novel’s resolution; having struggled with her family’s history, Anathema makes peace with it through her union with Newt.” and offers “a resolution to the gendered oppression her ancestor experienced.”(Walker). This results in the end of witchfinding.
Come and Find Me if You Can
Traditionally speaking witches are associated with negative feminine traits: sin, seduction, and fickleness. The witches of Good Omens do not conform to this hegemonic notion, and are rational persons instead. Their characteristics lean more towards the masculine. The witchfinders are supposed to be traditionally masculine: strong, protective, and level-headed. Like the witches, the witchfinders do not fit with the norm of their own respective group. Shadwell has the ideals of masculinity but is an excitable person, perhaps even the most irrational person in the book. Newt has traditional values, but he is also an amalgamation of naiveté, clumsiness and conflict-avoidance. The witches and witchfinders are opposites; not only the groups’ essence but the characters as well. They can even be paired off: Anathema and Newt, Shadwell and Tracy. Agnes and Pulsifer were more against each other and their conflict remained unresolved unlike with the aforementioned pairs. It becomes clear in the characteristics of these pairs that they are opposites: Anathema’s sensibility versus Newt’s naiveté, and Tracy’s patience versus Shadwell’s hysterics. Anathema and Newt, however, are not merely opposites, since they share much as well. They both suffer the consequences of their ancestors, although they are not aware of it.
Good Omens subverts traditional gender roles, as the witches and witchfinders do not conform to their group’s respective traditional gender role expectations. This is also in combination with the breakdown of hegemonic patriarchal norms through the disbandment of the witchfinders, which allows for a resolution at the end. The end of the witchfinders puts a stop to the toxic masculinity in Good Omens.
I quite like Adam’s (the Anti-Christ) take on witches and witchfinding. He perceives it as a game, and he does not see it as two clearly defined sides that should remain separated. He quite literally speaks of a role reversal, adding in this way to the ambiguity (morals, gender, and so on) that is prevalent throughout Good Omens:
“Today we’ll go out witchfinding, an’ tomorrow we could hide, an’ it’d be the witches’ turn to find US…”
Gaiman, Neil, and, Pratchett, Terry. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. Harper Collins: New York (2006).
Reis, Elizabeth. “Confess or Deny? What’s a “Witch” to Do?” OAH Magazine of History, 17:4 (2003): 11-13.
Walker, Jessica. ““Anathema liked to read about herself”: Preserving the Female Line in Good Omens”, in Feminisms in the Worlds of Neil Gaiman, ed. Prescott and Drucker (McFarland: 2012): 246-260.