Personifications of Danger: “The Noon Witch”

February 6, 2013

While driving home this afternoon, I heard Dvorak’s tone poem “The Noon Witch.” I don’t think I’d ever heard this piece before, and it’s worth listening to. The composition was prefaced on the radio with a bit of background about the villain from Slavic folklore that inspired it, Pscipolnitsa. Having never heard of this character before, I was rather intrigued.

So when I got home, I looked her up. Wikipedia says this:

“Pscipolnitsa, who makes herself more evident in the middle of hot summer days, takes the form of whirling dust clouds and carries a scythe or shears, but it is likely that the shears would be of an older style, and not akin to modern scissors. She will stop people in the field to ask them difficult questions or engage them in conversation. If anyone fails to answer a question or tries to change the subject, she will cut off their head or strike them with illness. She may appear as an old hag, a beautiful woman, or a 12-year-old girl, and she was useful in scaring children away from valuable crops. She is only seen on the hottest part of the day and is a personification of a sun-stroke.”

What interested me most about the radio announcer‘s description was the point made explicit in the last sentence of the Wikipedia quote. This witch, or demon, was an anthropomorphic personification of the danger of sun stroke. Cultures have developed such personalized manifestations for many of the risks that may beset one in life. Ones like this, where the line between the reality of the danger and the mythologized monstrosity is so narrow, I find particularly effective and fascinating.

Envision a scene: A Bohemian serf is at work in the fields, in the heat of July, far from the well. He begins to feel woozy, and a hallucinated figure appears before him. It questions him, but as the heat addles his mind, he cannot comprehend the questions or give them proper answers. Then he falls headlong upon the clay, overtaken with sunstroke. It’s only a tiny step to make the mirage a real person, who bewitched him and made him ill. (I imagine the shears are a later elaboration upon the primordial myth.)

These kinds of maleficent spirits are common, and they can often be usefully adapted for fiction. Their effectiveness as storytelling devices derives from two closely related features. First, they represent mythologized versions of familiar real-world hazards, helping to ground otherwise fantastical stories with a sense of reality. Second, they are common to the folklore of so many cultures that they can fit into many mythopoeic settings. Perhaps the most familiar of these monsters are the witches that lead travellers astray in the woods. Howard adapted a version of this character in “The Frost Giant’s Daughter,” taking place in the icy wastes of Scandinavia/Hyperborea.

Moreover, effective adaptations don’t need to be restricted to the fantasy genre. Another famous personification of a particular danger is the Wendigo, a monster from Algonquian folklore that drove people to cannibalism in the cold winters of upper North America. An encounter with the Wendigo out in the snowy wastes could turn a fellow into a man-eater—or into another incarnation of the Wendigo itself, in some versions of the story. The best fictionalization of this kind of story that I know of is the 1982 film The Thing. (The Campbell novella, “Who Goes There?” that inspired it is extremely original, but less viscerally effective, in my opinion.) The story of The Thing is that of the Wendigo, translated from a magical worldview into a technological one. The creature comes from the coldness of Antarctica, and a solitary encounter with it will transform a man into beast that will devour even more humans.

The fact that this works so well illustrates what I think is an important point about the relationship between fantasy and science fiction literature. In the modern world, believing in magic is not respectable, but believing in stupefyingly advanced technology can be. Some of the best contemporary stories move what are basically fantasy ideas into the science fiction domain—replacing monsters with aliens, thunderbolts with lasers, zombies with robots. Jack Kirby’s incomplete Fourth World comic book epic, especially The New Gods title (which has my wholehearted admiration) was an intentional transformation of gods into more modern forms. The characters still represent the personification of various traits and activities (Darkseid being the embodiment of tyranny), but they exert their control over the world with machines and computers, not spiritualism and magic. (Kirby also recognized the value of presenting an epic in a popular, rather than affectedly literary form, but that’s a separate topic.)

This transposition of folklore and mythic elements into more technological contexts happens outside the arena of fiction as well. Alien abduction claims are a modernized version of the demonic possession incidents of old. Being anesthetized and probed by a gray is fundamentally the same activity as having an incubus lie on you in your bed. And the sociological roles of claims of abduction or possession are very similar as well; such claims bring attention and thus a temporary measure of control over a difficult world to the victims.


2 Responses to “Personifications of Danger: “The Noon Witch””

  1. It’s nice that you have a larger forum to share intriguing things like this. I disagree with “believing in magic is not respectable” in modern life, however; that may be true among the intelligentsia, but it’s a very limited subset of the overall human population. First world problem, yo.

    • Buzz Says:

      It’s true that the magical world-view is still widespread. The transition from a fantastical to a more scientific-sounding view of the invisible world is well advanced in the West, but less so where the population is less educated.

      This reminded me of the huge controversy from several years back about the use of bomb detection devices by the security forces in Iraq. The Iraqi government spend tens of millions of dollars on boxes with swiveling antennas, which basically functioned as divining rods. What was fascinating was that, in the extensive media coverage of the worthless detectors, I heard a lot of interviews with people promoting them and with the men who were operating them in the field. Assuming the translations from Arabic were reasonably accurate, the way people (both the sellers and the users) talked about the devices ranged from a clearly magical view of them, to a purely technological one, but with a lot of shading in between.

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