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Author Patricia Nicol reveals a selection of the best books about: Witches

Author Patricia Nicol reveals a selection of the best books about: Witches

  • Patricia Nicol, who is in Scotland, said Halloween preparations have begun
  • Group of wise women train rebels the ‘weird’ ways in Frank Herbert’s Dune
  • Charlotte Higgins’ Greek Myths explores the stories of Ovid and Homer


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I’m writing from my parents’ home in Scotland, where Halloween preparations are in full swing. The children who live opposite have put out pumpkins. And I was amused to see a wedding dress boutique changed its elegant window from virgin ivory silk robes to something more Dracula’s bride.

Scotland is steeped in ghostliness, from tales of kelpies, banshees and monsters to one of Europe’s centers of witch-hunting for two centuries. After the Scottish Witchcraft Act in 1563, as many as 4,000 were prosecuted – mostly women – and an estimated 2,500 were tortured and executed. Now an Edinburgh QC, Claire Mitchell, is campaigning for a retrospective pardon and a national monument to mark that miscarriage of justice.

Who were those women? Well, many of the symbols we associate with witches — broomsticks, cauldrons, and pointed hats — were also used by “alewives,” amateur brewers who made their living selling beer in the Middle Ages. When brewing became big business, their brews were reviled.

Charlotte Higgins's Greek Myths: A New Retelling (pictured), explores the stories of Ovid and Homer from a female point of view

Charlotte Higgins's Greek Myths: A New Retelling (pictured), explores the stories of Ovid and Homer from a female point of view

Patricia Nicol picks a selection of the best witch books, including Frank Herbert’s Dune (pictured left) and Charlotte Higgins’ Greek Myths (pictured right)

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet depicts the life and death of Shakespeare’s only son. Her heroine Agnes is wise, with knowledge of herbs, concoctions and potions passed down from her mother. The people of Stratford look at her with suspicion. But when Agnes marries Shakespeare, her mother-in-law is impressed by her domestic skills. Those skills haunt Agnes when she can’t save her child.

Gifted female outsiders are often viewed with suspicion. Charlotte Higgins’ Greek Myths: A New Retelling, explores the stories of Ovid and Homer from a feminine point of view. Her story about the witch Medea is touching. She is urged to use her powers to help Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece, but is then scorned by him. She unleashes hell.

The new movie version of Dune by Frank Herbert is out. Her Lady Jessica is a scion of the Bene Gesserit Order, a group of wise women with mind-control powers who can choose the sex of their child. In the end, she trains rebels in the ‘weird’ ways.

Have these books cast a spell.

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