Monika Behrens and Rochelle Haley’s exquisite watercolours exhibited in Second Sight feature delicately detailed flora and fauna, including rabbits, toads, and birds, amid carefully rendered lollypop-coloured sex toys. This is a forest of enchanted dildos, which evoke the long-held associations between herbalism, women, and sexuality within the histories of witchcraft and botanical illustration. These images are playful and aestheticised, but also political. How does this art help us better understand the visual histories of witchcraft and of botanical illustration and, further, the relationship between knowledge and folklore?
Phallic Theft and Threat
The title of Behrens and Haley’s Witch’s Hammer (2011) directly references the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), the well-known witchcraft manual first published in 1486. That source identified witchcraft as a key cause of impotence, and reported cases of penis-stealing witches. Published the same year, Hans Vintler’s Buch der Tugend—a book of virtues and vices—depicted nests or baskets of phallic collections , reflecting accounts in the Malleus. Widespread illustrations of witches plucking members from sleeping victims, or from the bodies of hanged men, reveal the extent of anxiety around castration and impotence in the early modern period (1450–1750), and the displacement of that anxiety onto those deemed witches. Witchcraft and the classical god Saturn—famously castrated within a tradition of sexual violence between fathers and sons—became commonly associated from the sixteenth century. Albrecht Dürer’s Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat (c. 1500) alludes to both Saturn and Venus: the distaff clutched by the witch, rising from her crotch, is an appropriated phallus that symbolises the sexual disorder associated with witches, and prefigures Behrens and Haley’s decorative dildos.
Beyond Europe, magical women and the animal world were believed to deprive men of their virility. Koro (genital retraction syndrome) is common in many cultures, with folk beliefs attributing, variously, female fox spirits (Japan) or other ghosts with penis theft. West African cultures attribute penis theft with sorcerers; in Malaysia (the site of Behrens and Haley’s 2009 residency) and south-east Asia, spirits of women who died in childbirth return to exact retribution. In Behrens and Haley’s fairytale world, pastel-coloured phallic objects inhabit the natural world: hence, the rabbit in Witch’s Hammer is juxtaposed with its commercial equivalent, the ‘rabbit’ vibrator . Historians of sexuality have noted the transformative role played by commercial sex toys since the 1970s, and their complex relationship with second-wave feminism. Behrens and Haley literally naturalise these objects, yet colour and form emphasise their careful composition.
Gardens of Delight and Danger
Henbane, hemlock, foxglove, poppies, and a variety of other plants flourish in the imagined landscapes of Behrens and Haley’s watercolours. While witches are commonly thought of as being linked to herbal healing traditions, research shows the correlation to be weak. Few accused witches in Europe appear to have been healers, and fewer still were brought to trial for herbal practices. Yet, potent images connected witches and magical plants. Many speculated about ‘flight-ointment’, believed to aid a witch’s power of flight and enable her attendance at diabolical events. A rich vein of folk traditions associated plants with aphrodisiac qualities, which could be symbolic—plant parts shaped like hearts or sexual organs—or related to their stimulating (or irritating) qualities. Linked to the excessive sexuality of witches, the playful association by Behrens and Haley of the plant and the corrugated lemon-coloured sex toy in Henbane (2011) is both historical and visual, with the toy’s corrugations mimicking the upturned flowers. With its distinctive humanoid shape, the mandrake root depicted in In Search for Long Life (2011) featured in many magical concoctions, as did foxglove (also known as witches’ gloves), which appears in Love Potion (2011), whose genus Digitalis is effective in treating heart conditions in modern pharmacological forms. The toads that hop through Behrens and Hayley’s gardens evoke the fact that their skins, which contain hallucinogenic substances, were popularly imagined in potion recipes, much like the mushrooms that lurk behind flowers or frame the scene in Witch’s Hammer.
Transformation and Familiarity
In the rich visual culture of witchcraft, associations of the occult, women, and animals join with the popular conflation of women and herbalism. Second Sight also features Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione’s Circe with Companions of Ulysses Changed into Animals (c. 1650–1651), which illustrates the classical sorceress’s gifts of transformation.
Whether or not witches could themselves transform into animals was a constant source of speculation: the Malleus emphasises this, even if the court records reveal little evidence. But the visual codes of witchcraft, established in the sixteenth century, relied on the close association of witches with particular animals, especially familiar spirits. These relationships destabilised the human–nonhuman divide, in ways that often made women and other marginal members of society vulnerable to violence and control. Other forms of animal–human transformations are more playful or humorous. For example, the hummingbird whose beak penetrates the foxgloves in Love Potion draws on the long tradition of phallic birds, common since Roman times.
Botanical Illustration and Knowledge
Behrens and Hayley’s watercolours play with the conventions of botanical illustration, a highly refined and formally schematic visual and scientific system. Because botanical specimens traditionally had a limited period in which they could convey knowledge, illustration prolonged their meaning-making potential. European understandings of nature as a source of wonder changed alongside emerging Enlightenment natural history; botanical illustrations changed from images based on classical textual sources, myth, and hearsay to increasingly analytical images based on direct observation. Science drew on and transformed vernacular and folk knowledge in Europe as it did in the New World. European voyages of exploration exponentially grew botanical collections, often informed by Indigenous knowledge. Eight days of scientific collecting resulted in the naming of Botany Bay, based on Joseph Banks’s botanical team on James Cook’s 1768–1771 Endeavour voyage. On his return, popular culture remade Banks’s image: prurient interest in Banks’s botanical and sexual encounters in the global south was embodied in Matthew Darly’s caricature “The Botanic Macaroni” (1772). Linnaean binomial classification was based on identifying plants’ reproductive organs. Linnaeus’s coy metaphors—closed flower buds as nuptial beds, and plant ‘marriages’ as public or clandestine, mirroring current customs—contributed to the erotic image of botany, and to the satirical yoking of Banks’s sexual encounters with Tahitian women and his enthusiasm for Linnaean botany. Behrens and Hayley’s playfully erotic environments thus join a long tradition that invokes global fascination with the interactions between natural and human worlds.
Anna Johnston is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Queensland. She is Deputy Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH), and has collaborated with IASH colleagues and The University of Queensland Art Museum on the 2019 exhibition Second Sight: Witchcraft, Ritual, Power. Her research focuses on colonial and postcolonial print culture, with particular interests in colonial knowledge production. She is keenly interested in collaborations between academic researchers and cultural institutions, and their potential to make new work and to reach new audiences.
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