If you had to find a witch, where would you start?
I bet you’d look into the nearest forest, preferably by night, with a full moon in the sky.
Something about this setting feels right when talking about witches, and it’s not by chance.
Here I’m going to explore what witches and forests represent in popular imagery and stories, particularly in Dante’s the Divina Commedia and the folk tale “the Sleeping Beauty“.
First let’s clarify a few things about the Moon.
As the sun brings light to the world, the Moon defines the night. Together they are the mythical eyes of Horus.
By day all life thrives, visibly defined by the sunlight. Everything appears as it should be, giving us comfort and clarity of thought.
But at night things change. Shadows surround us, logic weakens and uncertainties arise. As the outer world gradually fades away, the inner world awakens. Thanks to the moonlight we are able to see the outline of a landscape, but the prevalent darkness will leave plenty of room to our imagination. We can therefore say that there are two distinct aspects of the Moon: the comforting light it brings to the night, but also an unsettling way of concealing and playing with darkness and our imagination.
Here we’ll talk about the second aspect, that we’ll conveniently call the Dark Moon, the primordial feminine force in its obscure aspect (Lilith in some mythologies), as to differentiate it from the other Moon, the one associated to feelings and intuitive understanding.
Moon, Witches and Forests are images through which the force of the “inner world” is symbolically expressed in the arts and myths, like different branches of the same tree.
Now that we’ve clarified what a Dark Moon is, let’s look at the forest and see how they might be symbolically related.
The forest is a necessary accessory of the witch, as Vladimir Propp puts it, a perfect metaphor of the insidious twists and turns of the unconscious mind. It’s also motherly in a way, but this mother aspect is a harsh teacher. It can capture you and cast you into despair, like someone teaching a child how to swim by throwing him into a river.
It’s no coincidence that Dante, in the Divina Commedia, starts his journey in a dark forest. In fact, he simply finds himself into one , not knowing how he ended up there. The experience is so terrifying that he can’t find words to describe it.
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.
I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
So full was I of slumber at the moment
In which I had abandoned the true way.
Imagine that. The poet who wrote about hell itself couldn’t find words to describe a forest? What kind of forest was that?
The forest is a metaphor of the depths of the unconscious mind, the inner world. It overwhelmed him so much that he was “full of slumber” like the Sleeping Beauty. In modern times we would describe such emotional state as confusion, depression or anxiety.
The “true way” is one of the many possible translations for the italian “retta via“, which also means straight and right, as to signify the way of reason.
Lastly, by slumber he means the sleep of rationality and the following panic.
Summarizing: he lost his reason and found himself in confusion and panic. He’s talking about those critical moments in one’s life when we feel like we hit a wall, we can’t find clarity of thought, we are lost, lonely and miserable.
This illustration by Gustave Doré is a perfect interpretation of Dante’s writing.
The composition lines tell the story as appropriately as the images themselves. The diagonal running from the top left corner down to the bottom right guides our eyes to Dante, delivering the idea of a “fall”, rather than that of journey.
Then we can see that Dante is looking behind because there’s only darkness ahead, but he can’t walk back because roots obstruct the way, almost entangling his feet. There’s an evident sense of entrapment and stillness in the scene.
Roots and branches are often used to represent the aliveness of the forest, its imaginary arms. Sometimes artists like to depict them in the shape of boney hands. We’ll find them again in the Sleeping Beauty tale.
Ultimately the whole journey from hell to heaven is an allegorical inner journey where Dante confronts his own demons (Hell), then cleanses himself (Purgatory) and finally meets his beloved in Heaven, the sacred feminine (Beatrice and the Virgin Mary) in the kingdom of God (the Self).
The sacred feminine is the White Moon (or simply Moon, as we said at the beginning), which is the feminine principle of the High Priestess of the Tarot, which unites man to the divine mind by acting as its messenger: intuition and emotion.
The White Moon aspect is quite obvious in the last Chant (Chant XXXIII) of Heaven, especially when Dante meets the Virgin Mary. But looking into it now would take too long, so we’ll keep focusing on the Dark Moon.
In the end it’s interesting to notice the two polarities in the Divina Commedia: the Dark Moon of the forest at the beginning and the White Moon at the end.
It’s all allegorical, not religious dogma, despite Dante’s use of religious themes. What it means is that no trips to heaven start without falling into the horrifying dark forest of the unconscious mind. Dante faced his own shadow, which in Jungian terminology means precisely the unconscious and its content.
I must clarify that some researchers use the term “shadow” to signify evil, unproductive fears, discomfort or other things, but here I use it as Jung does. I like the word he chose because the unconscious is mysterious and filled with repressed content that might be scary and uneasy to look at, but it’s not evil, even though eventual evil acts arise as a consequence of the repressed content of the unconscious. Great studies have been done into the nature of evil and psychosis, but the shadow (unconscious and its content) is common to all human beings obviously.
Now take a look at this famous work by Francisco Goya.
Goya titled it “The sleep of reason produces monsters”.
It’s the perfect summary of what we’ve seen so far.
Fortunately for Dante, he met reason in the body and mind of his mentor Virgilio. He’s the one who guided him through hell. Another very interesting allegory. Without reason we succumb in the dark forest, which is ultimately the Dark Moon’s domain.
So we’ve seen what the forest represents, but we haven’t seen the witch.
Sometimes there’s no need to explicitly show an actual witch to suggest her oppressive presence. The movie “The Blair Witch Project” is a good example of this. Personal taste aside, one can’t deny the terror of pure darkness in some of the most effective horror movies.
It’s simply the fear of the unknown or the unseen. The blackness becomes an open canvas for our obscure and imaginary projections. The more tormented we are inwardly the more terrorizing the experience will be.
In Part II we’ll finally meet the witch by taking a look at the Sleeping Beauty tale and the Tarot, but first we can conclude adding two more classic accessories to the witch: the broom and the black cat.
Without going too deep into these motifs let’s just say that they are emanations of the very same symbols we’ve seen so far. The broom is like a leafless tree of a dry forest, and the black cat is the wild and unpredictable lunar power whose eyes reflect light in the dark, while his whole body remains concealed.