Henry Purcell’s Sorceress: Operatic Witches in the Era of the Witch Trials
Dido and Aeneas is an opera by the English Baroque composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695), written sometime before 1688. As an early example of English-language opera, it causes some consternation among musicologists - among some of the complaints are its length (it’s short as far as operas go!), the large gaps in the plot, the unexplained motives of some of the characters, and its premiere at a girls’ boarding school instead of on the stage of a national theatre. However, despite all these musicological criticisms, it is an oft-performed work today. And, for the purposes of this post, it provides an interesting, albeit brief, glimpse into an operatic portrayal of witchcraft during the era of the witch trials.
The story of the opera is taken from Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid, although a few of the elements have been changed. (Of particular interest, of course, is the inclusion of the character of the Sorceress and her coven of witches, which Virgil does not include in his version.) Summarized briefly, the opera tells the story of Aeneas landing at Carthage and falling in love with the queen, Dido. From motives only hinted at in the score, the Sorceress sends her ‘elf’ in the form of the god Mercury to Aeneas, and tells him he must seek his fortunes elsewhere and leave Dido. This he does, and thereafter Dido dies of a broken heart. And thus ends the opera.
As Purcell was, essentially, a primary source, the opera could give us another image in the study of European (specifically English) traditional witchcraft. What were the Sorceress’s motives? What were her methods? What was the reason she was included in the opera, as a departure from the original material by Virgil?
The inclusion of the Sorceress was, arguably, a very pragmatic move - in Virgil’s story, the gods and goddesses collude and micromanage the affairs of the doomed lovers, which would make for a wordy and tedious opera. Instead, Purcell and Nahum Tate, his librettist (a fancy title for script-writer), conceived of a Sorceress who, for reasons not entirely clear, hates Dido and wants to see her suffer. Thus, Purcell manages to avoid the tedium of Virgil’s pantheon, instead paring the story down and hinging the whole impetus of the plot on the Sorceress.
However, apart from the pragmatism of a simpler plot, the inclusion of the stereotype of the Sorceress as a malevolent force surely has historical value. Nahum Tate surely could have conceived of any number of easier solutions, yet he decided to use, presumably, an easily-understood image. Keeping in mind that the opera was written for, and premiered by, an all-girls’ boarding school, would the villain have struck a familiar chord with the students? Would they have learned a moral lesson by performing this opera?
To keep this post from becoming too lengthy, I will quote a few of the relevant lines from the opera and avoid delving too far into the musicological discussions which I am prone to doing. Alas, I am a geek and an academic.
(The following excerpt, Act II Scene I, is from the score of the opera, available online at imslp.org.)
Sorceress: Wayward sisters, you that fright The lonely traveller by night, Who, like dismal ravens crying, Beat the windows of the dying, Appear! appear at my call, And share in the fame Of a mischief shall make all Carthage flame. Appear! appear! appear! appear!
1st Witch: Say, Beldame, say, what’s thy will.
Chorus: Harm’s our delight and mischief all our skill.
Sorceress: The queen of Carthage, whom we hate, As we do all in prosp’rous state, Ere sunset, shall most wretched prove, Depriv’d of fame, of life and love.
1st & 2nd Witches: Ruin’d ere the set of sun? Tell us, how shall this be done?
Sorceress: The Trojan Prince, you know, is bound by Fate To seek Italian ground; The Queen and he are now in chase.
1st Witch: Hark! hark! the cry comes on apace.
Sorceress: But, when they’ve done, my trusty Elf, In form of Mercury himself As sent from Jove, shall chide his stay, And charge him sail tonight with all his fleet away.
1st & 2nd Witches: But, ere we this perform, We’ll conjure for a storm. To mar their hunting sport, And drive ‘em back to court.
Chorus: In our deep vaulted cell the charm we’ll prepare, Too dreadful a practice for this open air.
The most interesting lines, in my opinion, are those of the Sorceress. Firstly, “The queen of Carthage, whom we hate, / As we do all in prosp’rous state….” What especially strikes me about this line is that, arguably, it forms the turning point of the whole opera. This is the only explanation we get as to why the Sorceress uses her power to separate Dido and Aeneas. As I mentioned earlier, musicologists sometimes puzzle over the lack of motive behind the Sorceress’s deception. However, in the context of the era, this explanation makes sense - witches were seen as destructive forces, eager to wreak havoc merely for havoc’s sake.
Secondly, the Sorceress’s explanation of how she will accomplish her revenge provides a fascinating glimpse into early modern knowledge of witchcraft: “But, when they’ve done, my trusty Elf, / In form of Mercury himself / As sent from Jove, shall chide his stay, / And charge him sail tonight with all his fleet away.” In this context, “elf” seems like an interesting choice. The idea described here greatly resembles elements of witches’ confessions of the same period; that is, the ability to send out a familiar spirit to torment others on behalf of the witch, or even the witch shape-shifting herself in order to torment her neighbors. I have never read of witches referring to their familiars as elves, but in the context of the opera it seems very likely that the word choice merely fulfills a poetic function as an easy rhyme for “himself.”
Other elements alluded to are the call to the witches’ sabbat, in the line “Appear! appear at my call,” and the reference to conjuring up a storm to “mar their hunting sport.”
I hope this basic overview of Purcell’s opera and of the magical elements therein, while not exhaustive or detailed, can spark discussion on the musical depictions of witchcraft in the era of the witch trials. As an artistic primary source, I believe this opera, along with other examples in the musical repertoire, can give us another picture to draw from in our understanding of witchcraft in the Early Modern Era. I encourage all of you to take a listen to this opera and hear what people of this era heard and understood about witchcraft. Who knows? - maybe a witch listened to this opera as well!
Twas the night of the premier. Spider-Man Homecoming was finally coming out, your boyfriends hard work was going to be shown to millions of fans worldwide and you couldn’t be happier. In the car there, Tom’s nervousness was obvious. The way his leg bounced quickly as he chewed his bottom lip, wide, brown eyes full of excitement and fear. What happens if people hated this? If no one liked his portrayal of this iconic character? There had already been movies made by two brilliantly amazing actors, so what if Tom’s movie flopped? He would be a laughing stock, not able to get another job, shunned out of acting forever. You took his hand, squeezing it gently to pull his attention over to you. You saw his ragged breathing, eyebrows raised as his internalised panic leaked out onto his features. Slowly, you raised his hand to your lips as you maintained eye contact, and kissed each finger with ease, his eyes transfixed on your every movement. You flipped over his hand, kissing the pulse point on his wrist before leaning over and placing a small kiss on his lips. “I’ll always be here for you,” you whispered, watching as his eyes closed as he let out a shuddering breath. He blinked them open again, and in his eyes you only saw adoration.
As the car pulled up to the red carpet, his hands squeezed yours, looking for the support. You squeezed it back, rubbing your thumb over his. He gulped before letting go, and with a quick nod to himself, he opened the door and got out. The roar of the fans, the clicking of cameras, the desperate shouts of attention, it overwhelmed you. They didn’t know you were there, they didn’t know how you looked like yet, so when Tom reached back in to help you out, the shouting and clicking got louder with excitement. You stepped out gracefully, reminding yourself to take this one step at a time. It was now your turn to squeeze Tom’s hand, and in response, he leant over and kissed your temple as he murmured “my love” just loud enough for you to hear. You took a steadying breath before nodding, smoothing the black silk under your fingertips.
You both matched, both wearing black with white accessories. He looked as stunning as ever, wearing a white crisp shirt under a jet black fitted jacket. His shoes were polished to perfection, reflecting the lights surrounding the two of you as you made your way down the carpet, his tight legged trousers making his slim legs look longer. You wore all black, clutching a pearly white clutch in your hands. The bracelets which adorned your wrists matched Tom’s cufflinks, chosen out for this very occasion. Camera’s flashed from all sides as you both made your way over to the crowds waiting. Your heart was beating quickly in your chest, louder in your ears than any of the noises surrounding you two. It was only Tom’s warm presence next to you that kept you grounded, reminded you that, yes, this was real. Your really walking with your boyfriend down the red carpet at his premier. You couldn’t be prouder of him. He had achieved so much, worked so hard, and he is finally getting what he deserves, getting to live out his dream, and you’re right there next to him.
As you reach the crowds, Harrison rushes over to the two of you with the biggest smile on his face. Tom cheers, pulling him into a one armed hug as the two of them babbled over one another in excitement. You grinned, rolling your eyes at how the two seemed to bounce in one another’s presence. Tugging Tom’s hand, you nodding towards the waiting crowds, and with a pained smile, you let go of his hand. You instantly missed the warmness of it, how his fingers curled protectively around yours, how he squeezed your hand almost without thinking when you’d tense up. He pulled you into a full hug, arms pulling you closer as your chests met together. For a moment, everything else faded away as your two hearts beat as one, two bodies, souls, people, became one. But he pulled back, kissing you with as much passion as he could before pulling away completely. His hands remained on your waist as he squeezed one more time before guiding you towards Harrison. Your arm found the crook of Harrison’s elbow, and with a last blown kiss, you were whisked off the carpet, back to the shadows you seemed to love. You didn’t mind sitting back and watching Tom be adored by others, because you knew he was yours. You had stepped out together as a couple, had multiple photos taken as a couple, and you supported each other as a couple, which is why he didn’t argue when you asked if you could step out halfway down the carpet. This was Tom’s moment, and you were glad you got to spend it with him.
The next time you saw Tom was when he stepped out onto the stage before his film started. You cheered and clapped, both you and Harrison on your feet as you showed the support the best you could. Instantly your eyes met, and his smile grew, taking over his whole face as his nerves melted away. He waved back, laughing at his two best people. With a quick “hey everyone”, Tom won the hearts of the guests present. And you couldn’t be any happier.
tucked into the Berkeley Hills outside of San Francisco, it is the premiere boarding school for the children of prominent people from all over the globe; two miles outside of the school lies the quaint town of New Rome, where the students can be found on any given day after school; the school is also surrounded by well-known hiking trails and features a river known as the Little Tiber; the students are notorious for throwing amazing parties that somehow never get broken up by police, most likely due to the political influence many of their last names carry; their crest is the golden eagle standard of Rome, as the founder was said to be a descendent of Romulus; the kids refer to themselves as Legionnaires and there is a popular hazing ritual where right before leaving the school, students receive a tattoo to commemorate their time at the Academy– “once a legionnaire, always a legionnaire”
My favourite DESTIEL fics can be found here. COCKLES, too, but mainly DESTIEL. List is in no particular order, most are found on AO3. ENJOY!
(PS: My own commentary will be like 99% be positive, since they’re my fave fics on here, but you can trust my judgement. I’ve read a lot of fic.)
Title: A Canticle for Dr. Sexy Author: tikistitch Words: 53,560 (6/6 chapters) Summary: The Croatoan virus has brought down civilization as we know it. Dean
Winchester, leader of a motley group of survivors, is searching for
volume 25 the Video Safari limited edition box set of Dr. Sexy MD when
he stumbles into Cas, an amnesiac grubbing for a can of beans at an
abandoned Piggly Wiggly. Together with his brother, Sam, who may be a
prophet of the Lord, and some friends they meet along the way, they
embark on a cross-country road trip to find a cure for the virus and
save humanity. But the journey takes our heroes straight into the
middle of an angelic feud. Own Thoughts: I always love me some End!Verse. Very well written, I loved it! Amazing read!
Title: Does He Run On Batteries? Author: flibblesd Words: 14,353 (1/1) Summary: Mechanic Dean gets his hands on some expensive tech in the form
of a full fledged android. He knows it’ll be perfect to tear down and
sell so they can finally afford the hardware Sam desperately needs.
However, when it’s splayed out on his worktable he can’t help but notice
something odd.“Does it- does it look like its breathing?”AI software CAS occupies a human body and takes a liking to Sam. Dean is displeased with basically every turn of these events. Own Thoughts: I greatly enjoy AUs like this one, with androids etc. Loved it! I honestly need more from this ‘verse, it’s so good! Must read!
Title: A Song of Wind and Wings Author: triedunture Words: 10,734 (1/1) Summary: The Angelborn have not been seen in Westeros in hundreds of years. Lord
Dean Winchester and his brother Ser Sam arrive in Lady Ellen’s Highroad
Keep after receiving word that one has been taken captive. Own Thoughts: Fantasy AUs are my life. Must read this one, as well. It’s GoT inspired, by the way. God, I really love this fic, it’s so amazing. Couldn’t stop reading, I swear.
Title: The King’s Angel Author: brimac0518 Words: 6,850 (1/1) Summary: Long has Castiel, the Angel of Azare, stood by his king’s side. Yet in
the face of a possible arranged marriage, can Dean, the king of Azare,
let his knight go? Own Thoughts: Fantasy/Medieval AU. My ultimate weakness. This one was way too short in my opinion. Still great, though, I love jealous!Dean.
Title: The Academy of Absent Fathers(COCKLES!) (Jensen/Misha) Author: kriari, qthelights Words: 84,754 (14/14) Summary: As one of the premiere boarding schools on the east coast, Ellis Academy
plays host to the preeminent financiers, businessmen, and politicians
of tomorrow. The very dirt stinks of privilege and as a long-time foster
child, Misha Collins has no idea how he ended up here. To make matters
worse, he’s stuck rooming with the equivalent of Ellis royalty. Jensen
Ackles is a lifer - captain of the lacrosse team, do-gooder and textbook
overachiever. And they hate each other. Mostly. But as they move from
hate to something more, secrets from their unknown yet inextricably
linked pasts threaten to destroy everything they’ve built. And the worst
part? They have no idea what’s coming… Own Thoughts: All in all a great read, I enjoyed it. Somewhat cliched, though, but it’s a High School AU, so that was to be expected, I guess. Still liked the characterisations and it’s very well written.
Title: Things Dean Winchester Loves Author: tuesday Words: 3,623 (1/1) Summary: Castiel makes a list, Sam gives good advice, and Dean takes a while to catch on. Own Thoughts: Extremely cute. Cas makes a list and it’s just so adorable.
Title: Between a Wall and a Hard Place (COCKLES!) Author: qthelights Words: 4,423 (1/1) Summary: Jensen lets Misha pick where they’re drinking. Misha picks a gay bar. It doesn’t go to plan. Own Thoughts: One of my fav Cockles fics, definitely worth your while!
Title: Ghost Dance Author: omphalos Words: 51,194 (9/9) Summary: In post-apocalyptic isolation, Castiel nurses Dean back to something
like his former self, but will a time come when Dean’s recovered –and
rediscovered– too much? Own Thoughts: Awesome. Amazing. Literally so dang good. Oh my good, you definitely have to read this one! It’s angsty but sooo worth it! SO WORTH IT!
Title: Your Dirty Secret Author: bellacatbee Words: 5,428 (1/1) Summary: “Your yard looks like crap. I’ll come round after school and sort it for
you if you pay me ten bucks.” Those were the first words Dean ever said
to Castiel. How was Castiel supposed to know then that he was going to
fall in love with Dean? AU. Own Thoughts: Yes, there is a big Age Difference, but I still enjoyed it a lot. It’s good!
Title: Baggage Author: Mikey (mikes_grrl) Words: 19,413 (1/1) Summary: Dean is a lonely cab driver trying to straighten out his life since his
brother left for college, and Castiel is the strange and otherworldly
“escort” who snares his heart. Are daddy issues the only thing they have
in common? Or is there something more to what is happening between
them? Own Thoughts: A slightly different AU, very readable. I can recommend this one very much.
Title: Brother Lover Author: twentysomething Words: 4,234 (1/1) Summary: “However- and it doesn’t happen a lot- they have to invoke ‘I saw her first’.” Own Thoughts: Great fic with great humour. It’s great and Dean’s being a little jealous. A little bit. Go read!
Title: The One Thing You Can’t Lose Author: MajorEnglishEsquire Words: 4,955 (1/1) Summary: You know what I like a lot? The thought that Dean can just tug Cas
anywhere at any time and Cas, who can lift tons without effort, who can
demolish things with the light of his grace, who has battled and gone to
war, has defended and broken, will just let Dean do it. Own Thoughts: The most cute. So cute. Adorable. Loved this one dearly, it’s amazing fluff.
Title: Through The Dark Author: endversed Words: 43,196 (18/18) Summary: Castiel Novak is a low level reporter for the New York Post, up until he
gets his big break: ASL star Dean Winchester has broken a goal scoring
record and Castiel has been assigned to his personal story, meaning two
weeks of close proximities. Except, the thing is; they’ve kind of got
history. Own Thoughts: Amazing, truly amazing! Great plot and it’s very interesting to follow! Awesome fic.
Title: Broadway Musical Author: Griftings Words: 12,453 (1/1) Summary:
This is the day that marked the Holy and Blessed Union of Dean Winchester and Jo Harvelle.The merging of prominent bloodlines is always a grand
occurrence, but breeding pedigree hunter families like Winchester and
Harvelle is something to be rejoiced. It is also something to be
meticulously planned, which thankfully the Host is very good at.Or, the romantic comedy where Dean Winchester and Jo Harvelle are
destined to get married, Castiel is given the task of playing matchmaker
and fails terribly, the entire Heavenly Host becomes a sitcom audience,
God warns against male pregnancy, and Jimmy Novak is incredibly
unimpressed with angels in general. Own Thoughts: This ist probably the funniest thing ever. So much humour, I couldn’t stop laughing. Obviously a must read!
Title: grip them tight and raise them from pernicion Author: Flux Words: 20,122 (1/1) Summary: Dean and Cas have been at each other’s throats for years, but Anna and
Sam are determined to change that for the better. With a well-placed
love letter and some careful direction, they manage to get the two into a
semi-antagonistic, fiercely competitive, and emotionally confusing game
of relationship chicken. Now they just need to get to prom. Own Thoughts: High School AU alert! Very amusing, I highly recommend it. I love when it starts out antagonistic but then they fall in deep, deep love.
Title: Professional Couple Only Author: saltyfeathers Words: 37,153 (1/1) Summary: There’s a haunted apartment building in Vermont, and the ad says “Professional couple only”. Dean and Cas rise to the occasion. Own Thoughts: Yes! Yes, love it! Fake/Pretend relationships… you know how it is. You know you love it. I know you do.
Title: Ain’t A One Of Us Perfect (And That’s Okay) Author: peppermint_wow Words: 14,285 (1/1) Summary: Fantasy AU. Every kingdom demands order. Michael’s kingdom demands
perfection. He finds such perfection in the creations cleverly crafted
by a metalsmith named Castiel. But will Castiel’s greatest invention
live up to all of Michael’s high expectations? Own Thoughts: It’s wow. Wow. Just wow. It’s so great and so different and I’m in love???? I think I remember it kinda breaking my heart at some point, though? Must read.
odyssey hall is a premiere boarding school that lies just outside New York City in the Hudson Valley, which translates to many unsanctioned student trips into the city; founded by an ancient Greece enthusiast, it features greek revival architecture and replicas of greek ruins can be found throughout the grounds; it mostly serves the children of the board members of the ichor group and many of their associates, though the children of politicians and celebrities also attend; there is an upper school and a lower school with many kids attending from kindergarten through twelfth grade; this school is known as a gateway to virtually any future a student could want for themselves; there are various activities on the grounds for the kids, including a canoe lake, a greenhouse, a massive library, and game rooms on every floor of the dormitory buildings; their mascot is an owl, who the students call Odysseus– there is a statue of him in the west wing of the main building and if you’re around during midterms and finals, you can see all the offerings that students leave to him hoping for help on their exams
NICK SPENCER sits at a desk with his head in his hands, moaning softly as he consumes an entire box of Krispy Kreme donuts.
I just don’t understand…it’s so edgy…so topical….
TOM BREVOORT stands with his back to Nick, gazing pensively out the window.
Don’t worry. All great art is controversial in its time.
But they all hate me! And Chris Evans has already hated me for months. He sent me a really weird, threatening text last night too.
Chris Evans doesn’t hate you. He’s an actor. He can’t appreciate the work we do here.
NICK (stuffing another donut into his mouth)
That’s true. No one can.
Tom crosses the room to stand behind Nick, dropping a hand on his shoulder.
I appreciate your work.
Thanks. That means a lot.
He pauses, trying to be brave, but clearly having a hard time.
How long do you think we’ll have to stay in here?
Both look toward the window, where far below an angry crowd stretches around the building, blocking all exits and brandishing homemade signs with extremely hurtful personal attacks.
Oh, I don’t know. Hard to say. Could be weeks.
But I have Zumba tonight!
Art is suffering, Nick. You must sacrifice.
NICK (bitterly cramming in another donut)
Fucking bleeding-heart liberals. When will they understand that I’m the new master of the Captain America story? If I say he’s HYDRA, then goddammit, he’s HYDRA! We’ve been dropping hints! It’s edgy!
He breaks off, crying quietly around his donut. Tom gently rubs the back of his neck.
TOM (quietly, reaching over his shoulder to take a donut of his own)
I know it is, Nick. I know it is.
EXT. WEST HOLLYWOOD ZUMBA STUDIO – EARLY MORNING
CHRIS EVANS towels off, getting into his very-fancy-yet-somehow-still-practical car, possibly a Toyota of some sort. He presses the CALL button on the complicated dashboard panel.
Marisa, cancel all my appointments for today. I have some … business to take care of.
He drops his phone on the empty seat next to him, leaving visible the TIME article with all of Tom Brevoort’s smug comments.
MARISA (on speakerphone)
Even hot yoga?
EXTREME CLOSE-UP of Chris Evans’s eyes narrowing in determination.
Not hot yoga. I’ll be back by then.
He DRIVES OFF, passing the sign for the LOS ANGELES AIRPORT. In the backseat of his car, just barely visible, we see the CAPTAIN AMERICA SHIELD that he likes to take out and play with when he gets drunk at parties (or, occasionally, alone). VAGUELY OMINOUS, HEROIC MUSIC plays faintly as we…