Authentic Witches

During my recent online discussion about the authenticity of the TV show Merlin, a pagan friend of mine brought up a more serious objection. She pointed out that all the female magic users are portrayed as evil—there’s simply no positive portrayal of women following the Old Religion. And that got me thinking (not for the first time) about the more general question of taking liberties with historical (or current) facts about wicca, druidism, paganism and other non-mainstream religions.
Back in the pulp age (or even when I was a kid in the sixties) portraying Druids as depraved fanatics whose nature magic was fueled by human sacrifice, or were secretly devotees of Lovecraft’s Old Ones wouldn’t have been at all out of line. Druidism, after all, was dead—and I think there was a general sense that just as you can’t slander the dead, you can’t defame their religion.
In the 21st century, however, druidism is a recognized religion. Ditto wicca and paganism in various forms. So is it still kosher to distort them?
At one level, I think sure. I’m a Christian and I don’t bat an eye at fictional portrayals of God or Jesus that are, shall we say, non-canonical or negative. So I don’t feel that much scruple regarding other religions either. On the other hand, witches/paganism remain one of the big bugaboos (“it’s … witchcraft!”) to Christianity and a lot of non-Christians. Showing them as evil when millions of people already think so seems like portraying Jews as evil Christ-haters or killing Christian children to drain their blood. Distortion is one thing, but feeding an established stereotype is another.
More specifically:
•If we portray present-day wicca, or pagans, or druids, we should do it accurately. Get their beliefs right, and their magic (whatever it is) correct. Personally I think some settings, like comic-books are an exception (they’re a world where Jewish mystics really can make golems and Satan creates superhumans, so Wicca should have more power than they do in real life) but I know some Wiccans object to that too.
•The historical details should be accurate. Or if we’re going to change them for purposes of story, we should keep the other details accurate. And avoid stereotypes.
•If we’re accurate we may still offend people. A lot of pagan deities weren’t very likeable (Greek gods were pretty fond of rape, for instance). The God of the Old Testament is extremely wrathful and vicious.
•It’s okay to call bullshit on someone’s religious views. If you think Wiccans or Christians or Muslims (or all religious people) are deluding themselves that anyone’s listening, I don’t think it’s wrong to write a story that expresses that view, assuming it’s relevant. And done well.
witchinghour1
•I’m not sure what to do about the word “witch.” It has, after all, been used as a generic word for female (and sometimes male) practictioners for centuries, in various context. I don’t feel as if Wiccans get to claim the word or that all witches (past or present, real or fictional) have to be Wiccans. On the other hand, I’ve read articles by Wiccans who clearly feel that since they call themselves witches, presentations of witches in fiction affect how people see Wiccans today. And I do feel there’s something unsavory in portraying say, the victims of the Salem Witch Trials as real, honest to gosh evil witches—it’s like suggesting the Japanese we interned in WW II really were spies.
Of course, I’m a member of a powerful religion so I have the luxury to think what I will about this. If anyone with a pagan/Wiccan background sees gaping flaws in my views, don’t hesitate to let me know.
(Cover by Peter Cardy, rights with current holder)

10 Comments

Filed under TV, Writing

10 responses to “Authentic Witches

  1. Fraser, as a neo-pagan, I find what you say very thought-provoking, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss these matters.

    I should say first that I am not a “fundamentalist” pagan. I do not, for example, think that I or anyone else has any magical powers (except for clairvoyance. I believe that I have met at least one person in my life who is definitely clairvoyant: Lady Olivia Robertson, co-found of the Fellowship of Isis, which is based in Ireland.) I might, in a group setting, engage in a ritual magic simply as a form of very focused “positive thinking,” but I’m highly unlikely to do so on my own.

    About the neo-pagan use of the word “witch,” I mostly avoid using the term because I think it has such an entrenched negative connotation in Western culture that it may be impossible to “rehabilitate.” There are many neo-pagans that I know, however, who are devoted to the use of the term, something that came to be, ironically, because of a reputed error in the 1929 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica:

    According to the 1990 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica (which I own), modern witches “usually turn out to be entirely sincere but misguided people who have been directly or indirectly influenced by Margaret Murray’s article ‘Witchcraft’ published in the 14th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica (1929), which put forth in its most popular form her theory that the witches of western Europe were the lingering adherents of a once general pagan religion that has been displaced, though not completely, by Christianity. This highly imaginative but now discredited theory gave a new respectability to witchcraft and, along with the more practical influence of such modern practitioners as Aleister Crowley and Gerald Gardner, contributed to the emergence of self-styled witches that are sometimes featured in the sensationalist press.” (This paragraph was taken from “Occultism: The modern, secular world” in volume 25, page 95 of Britannica.)

    It’s fine for Britannica to say “Oops, my bad,” but the horse was let loose from the barn, and there’s no putting it back at this point. Many modern neo-pagans are passionately defensive of the term “witch,” and it would be a mighty waste of time to argue with them about it. And, after all, the author of the article I’ve just quoted seems to have a strong prejudice towards modern witches and witchcraft. Perhaps Margaret Murray’s theory is not as quite so discredited as the author of the article thinks. One thing is certain: the article that someone else contributed to the same edition of Britannica under the heading “neo–pagan” was quite complimentary in tone!

    To me, it does not matter at all whether my religion hails back to pre-Christian Europe or was invented last week; I think it is a good religion regardless. It is one that considers nature to be sacred, and conceives of the Divine (whatever that is) as wearing a female “face” as readily as a “male” one. I grew up a Presbyterian, and as a child was wounded by the notion that a woman named Eve was responsible for the misery of humankind, and that God could be viewed as a Father or a Son, but never as a Mother or a Daughter. (Fortunately for them, Catholics at least grow up with reverence for Mother Mary and the female saints. Protestants are not provided with any such concepts of the Feminine Divine.)

    In my writing here, I am approaching this subject from a rational, analytic point of view. Such a mind-set is death to the actual experience of religion. When I engage in ritual with my fellow neo-pagans, it is my intuitive, sensual self that I bring to the experience. We surround ourselves during ritual with beautiful sights, smells, and sounds. The words and actions of our rituals are graceful and lovely. We are children of nature; we gather at least eight times a year to celebrate the cycle of the seasons.

    I must also acknowledge that neo-paganism is the “Wild West” of religions. In the twenty-six years I’ve been involved with the religion, I’ve encountered pagan groups and pagan individuals (i.e. solitaire practitioners) who are doing wonderful things and others who are doing very questionable things. Although there are some large pagan organizations such as The Fellowship of Isis who operate within clearly-stated parameters, others are completely self-created and involve very questionable practices. For anyone looking to get involved in a pagan group, I strongly suggest doing plenty of reading on the subject first, and ask plenty of questions concerning the beliefs and practices of a group before you get involved with it.

  2. frasersherman

    Well stated, thanks.

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