Quick Note: Digging Deeper on Romanian Witch Tax

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 22, 2011 — 8 Comments

The mainstream media, and various popular blogs, have had a lot of fun with the news that Romania would start taxing the practice of witchcraft. Most treatments (including mine) focused on the anger of various Romanian witches, as though they were some sort of mystical European analog to our own anti-tax activists.  So it’s admirable to see The New Republic trying to dig a little deeper than the newswires to find out why witchcraft is being taxed now, and what its ramifications might be.

“But, to start, how did witchcraft—subject throughout continental Europe to persecution and prosecution from roughly 1400 to 1800—become business as (not-so) usual in Romania in the first place? The answer might have something to do with the level of superstition that persists even in modern-day Romania. In 2009, following the presidential elections, the leader of the Social Democrats—a man who had previously served as the ambassador to Washington and was expected to make a strong showing at the polls—blamed his surprising demise on an occult attack. In 2010, after the release of a nationwide study, the English-language Romanian newspaper Nine O’clock wrote that fortune-telling and evil-eye precautions play a large role in many Romanians’ lives, and that three-quarters of the population “believes” in horoscopes. And lawmakers reportedly backed down from a similar act to tax witches last September out of fears that they would be cursed. Meanwhile, people claiming to be witches have capitalized on public superstition. The exact scale of the witchcraft economy in Romania is difficult to gauge, but, ten years ago,the BBC reported on “Romanian witches’ roaring trade,” and business seems to have boomed in the meantime.”

Writer Chloe Schama ventures into the possibility that this new tax may mask some latent (and not so latent) anti-Roma feelings in Romania, and she quotes Romanian-born poet/writer Andrei Codrescu, who sees it as “a cheap populist, nationalist move.” Schama also touches on those Romanian witches who see this as a positive development, one that will validate their profession in the eyes of the law.

“From my point of view, this law adopted now is very good and I’m very happy because the Romanian government considered that our magic skills, which are recognized and accepted worldwide, are now authorized in Romania too.” – Mihela Minca, Romanian Witch, interviewed by NPR

Where I part company from The New Republic is the closing paragraph, where Schama talks with Brian Pavlac, author of “Witch Hunts in the Western World: Persecution and Punishment from the Inquisition through the Salem Trials”, who opines that this move of validation and recognition might carry unintended negative consequences. These hypothetical consequences aren’t really dealt with, other than a somewhat snarky closing line about vampire hunters (a topic touched on in a recent issue of Harpers). I don’t see validating or legalizing fortune telling or witchcraft as something that is inherently irrational or backward. Instead, I think placing these activities and professions into the light of day will dispel some of their worst excesses, and force a greater accountability to those who practice these arts.

Witch-hunts and persecutions happen when we allow disinformation and marginalization to prosper.  Removing some of the mystery and secrecy might damage the potency of some Romanian witches, but I also think it will help inoculate the populace against moral panics. While I disagree with the closing of this essay, I do give credit to The New Republic for taking this story (for the most part) seriously, and looking beyond the “News of the Weird” angle.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Looks to me like a selective tax on religion, unless Romanian witches do not regard their practice as religion.

    Pavlac's remarks sound like knee-jerk Humanism. Unitarian Universalist Pagans ran into a lot of that intramurally when we were getting started in the 1980s.

  • http://hecatedemetersdatter.blogspot.com Hecate

    The answer might have something to do with the level of superstition that persists even in modern-day Romania

    This goes to my regular emphasis on framing, but I'd like to see us push back against the word "superstition" as applied to Witchcraft. "Belief in the supernatural," or "openness to occult ideas," or "traditional beliefs," or, simply, "acceptance of Witchcraft" all work just as well without the negative connotations.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      My problem with "superstition" is that it's unevenly applied — to folk beliefs but not to organized churches. In fact a tacit definition of the term is "supernatural belief not authorized by an organized church." IIRC Catholic theologians use it this way explicitly.

  • http://www.yowitch.nl Rick

    Also being taxed for the first time are fortune tellers, who probably saw this coming.

    • http://www.hecatedemetersdatter.blogspot.com Hecate

      /Golf clap.

    • http://www.facebook.com/kdugery Kelly Dugery

      Seems to me that people in the Pagan community need to separate the practice of magic from the practice of religion. The two are not automatically synonymous.

      If someone is performing a service for money I don't see a problem with the government asking for their share of the proceeds. If I'm selling my skills as a Witch, using that as a form of income, then I don't see where it is any different than selling my skills as an artist, a carpenter, or a baker. But even if I am performing religious services, if I am performing them FOR MONEY… making that a source of income… I see no reason for that income not to be subjected to the same income tax as any other job/profession.

      The thing with regards to baptisms and exorcisms within the context of Christianity (I assume) is that those services are not, as far as I know, charged for. When a person is baptized in their church they are not sent a bill for services rendered. When an exorcism is performed by *legitimate* church clergy, it is done free of charge, AFAIK. (Those so-called "professional exorcists" that have crawled out of the rotted evangelical woodpile are a whole 'nuther story)

      Seems to me the easiest way to avoid the problem is if you don't want to be charged income tax on your magical or religious services, don't charge money for them. No income FROM Witchcraft, no income tax ON Witchcraft.

      • Robin Artisson

        Yes, baptisms, weddings, and all the like are charged for by many Christian churches, and certainly all of the Orthodox churches- Catholic, Greek Orthodox, etc- which command the vast bulk of the world's 1.5 billion Christians.

  • http://norsealchemist.blogspot.com Norse Alchemist

    I agree, this sounds like a selective tax on religion. Are they going to tax baptisms and exorcisms? Those seem like spiritual services of protection like that listed above.

    And, frankly, I can see how this could lead to backlash and trouble. Wasn't there something on here a while back about some states in America doing something similar? Does the tax come with a business license, either here or in Romania? I just wanna know if something happens and you can't get a license (should one be needed) are you then prevented from practice? If such a thing came about, I could see it being used to suppress our ways in a perfectly legal manner.

    It is reasonable to charge taxes for commercial services, but unless all religions are being taxed the same way, I wouldn't go cheering this as a sign of acceptance just yet.