Reuters Discover the Witches (on True Blood)

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 13, 2011 — 41 Comments

Last year at this time the popular HBO cable television series “True Blood,” a show loosely based on a series of novels by Charlaine Harris, announced that 2011 would be the “year of the witch.” The cast of (generally sexy) vampires, werewolves, and the humans they interact with would be joined by an array of spellcasters of various inclinations. The previous season had already introduced a Wiccan character, Holly Cleary (played by Lauren Bowles), and this season they’ve introduced a small coven lead by Marnie Stonebrook (played by Fiona Shaw), a local palm-reader and shop owner, the spirit of a dead Witch that inhabits her, and a family of Catemaco Brujos. This being “True Blood” there’s plenty of violence, sex, and mayhem mixed in. With all this witchy-ness about it was only a matter of time before news outlets started tracking down some real Witches and Wiccans to get their opinion. It looks like the news agency Reuters is first out of the gate.

A Witches' Coven in "True Blood"

“I’m absolutely disappointed with the portrayal of Marnie,” said one witch — and professor of biology at a college in New England — who goes by the magickal name Taarna RavenHawk. [...] Elaanie Stormbender, a witch and mother of five who lives in Jackson, Mississippi, said all the members of the small community of witches to which she belongs are displeased with Marnie’s behavior.”

In addition to the opinions of Taarna and Elaanie, Reuters also asks two prominent Pagan authors/teachers, Christopher Penczak and Ellen Dugan, for their take on the “year of the witch.”

“Marnie does communicate with the dead but she comes into witchcraft lacking groundedness,” said Penczak [...]  ”A witch who gets good training usually learns to balance that with discipline, strength and focus. I would have liked to see a witch who was more competent and had a clearer sense of will and purpose.” [...]  ”My witch friends are rabid fans of ‘True Blood,’ and watch it every week,” said Ellen Dugan, a witch and priestess of a six-member coven she co-founded in St. Louis, Missouri. Dugan [...] conceded that Marnie’s portrayal contains a sensational element, but noted that her witch friends laughed during a recent levitation scene. ”Most witches have a good enough sense of humor,” she said.

Since I don’t have cable, and probably won’t be able to watch this latest season until it comes out on DVD, I don’t feel qualified to comment on the opinions given in this piece. So I turned to my Pagan Newswire Collective colleague Laura LaVoie, who writes for our culture blog “The Juggler,” and has been covering this season of “True Blood,” for her take.

“I think as soon as you add vampires and werewolves to a story, all bets are off. Sure, Wicca is real but it now exists in this fictional world created by Charlaine Harris and the writers and producers of the television series. I want to see Pagans portrayed in a positive light in the media as well, but I’m not sure we have the full story on the Bon Temps witches yet. I have also read the series of books, and while the portrayal there is by no means perfect either, there is a sense that Harris tried to research the real Wiccan community to write about her witches. If the producers stay close to the story line, there might be more to the witches than meets the eye. However, I do not want to spoil anything.”

LaVoie also points out that attitudes concerning the portrayal of Witches and Wiccans in “True Blood” may come down to how you’re watching the show, summing up one recent episode as “we just want to be left alone to practice our religion.” In the end LaVoie believes “there are bigger things to worry about,” and “if we spend all of our time raging against a fantasy television series that has yet to even prove whether it is pro- or anti- Wicca, we lose a lot of our power when we try to defend our religious choices against real threats.” As for the Reuters article, I think this is only the first of its kind. We can surely expect more opinions from “real” Witches as this season progresses. Possibly some examining what was only briefly mentioned in the Reuters article, that “True Blood” is creating more interest in Witchcraft among younger viewers. A narrative that was in full bloom for many years during the height of the Harry Potter craze.

When a newspaper, newswire, or tabloid calls us up looking for a “real Witch” to give an opinion on “True Blood” we need to decide which narrative we are going to feed. Whether we feel positively, negatively, or don’t really care, we should always emphasize that we realize this is simply fiction, and that we are engaging with it on that level. That we are dealing with a show that places a priority on melodrama, blood, and sex. We should reference the Harry Potter years and point out that it never turned out to be a significant recruiting tool for Witchcraft traditions, and that we don’t expect “True Blood” to be either. If “True Blood,” when the season closes, ends up being a largely positive portrayal of Wicca or Witchcraft then all better, but even if it isn’t we have bigger things to worry about than a television show that mainly exists to show off attractive people in various states of undress.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Janet/Wildevine

    “…as soon as you add vampires and werewolves to a story, all bets are off” This is the key to it all. People need to learn that fiction is fiction. If anyone thinks they are going to learn reality from a fantasy show, they need get real. Wiccans need to chill and play it down. Going on and on about it is just going to add fuel to the nonsense fires that are sure to spring up. If someone ask me “is that what you do?” I would say “um…not so much”. But damn, I love me some True Blood.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1309881889 Lezlie Kinyon

    I like “True Blood” with it’s high campy-ness, ever more improbable plot-line, terrific musical soundtrack, & (it must be admitted) the hot vampire guys don’t hurt. I also like Harris’ books as a nice, campy & fun, example of urban fantasy. (Which take the plot in a very different more nuanced direction.) I don’t mind witches on “True Blood” – but – did they really have to stray so far from Charlene Harris’ nuanced plot-line with it’s fairly reasonable and acceptable definitions & bring Wicca into it? In the same breath as necromancy…? (and- really- killing off Claudine — !) The are small “w” , make believe witches, with very little to do with the real thing. “Marnie” is unethical (to an extreme) and would be – pretty much – shunned in most communities, while also asked to consider mental health care. I’d worry a bit about the wannabes taking a bit too seriously..

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1309881889 Lezlie Kinyon

      Post script: Even I, the sincerest of adaptation-for-TV skeptics, have to admit – HBO has done some really creative things- but, in the genre of adaptation of fantasy literature, I think “Game of Thrones” wins out over this season’s “True Blood” in terms of plot, scripting, and acting. A even in the portrayal of “sorcery” and Pagan themes.

      • http://vermillionrush.wordpress.com Vermillion

        Game of Thrones hands down was the best thing on TV this entire year.

        • http://kauko-niskala.blogspot.com Kauko

          Agreed. On the other hand, my nominee for the most disappointing thing on TV this year is Camelot.

          • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

            Can’t argue with that. It was terrible.

        • jeflin3

          Torchwood and Doctor who have not finished their statements yet.

  • http://twitter.com/lysana Brenda Daverin

    I’m glad to see there are more pagans being level-headed about media portrayals. I’d prefer to concern ourselves more with how we discuss each other or how non-fiction handles our faiths.

  • Dea Syria

    I wonder if Taarnie and Elaanie know to pronounce those Ayins as voiced laryngeal approximants?

    • http://kauko-niskala.blogspot.com Kauko

      You have to love a letter that sounds like someone choking on something.

    • http://www.OccultCorpus.com Caliban

      Oh! I didn’t get the memo! Am I supposed to be Caalibaan now?

      • Grimmorrigan

        Ohh OHH Can I be Griimmmmoorriiggaann? Please?!

  • http://moma-fauna.blogspot.com/ Moma Fauna

    I am curious to see what the media outlets round up because they never interview the plain Jane, station wagon driving, grocery shopping, stay-at-home mom Witches. It is too often that the less sophisticated media (*cough* FOX) find some sensational unknown. It always makes for some agitated amusement.

  • http://vermillionrush.wordpress.com Vermillion

    I said it last year when word of this storyline got out and I’ll say it again:

    I do not look to HBO & True Blood for accurate portrayals of Witchcraft. I look for as many naked shots of Alexander Skarsgard as possible. Bless Alan Ball for fulfilling my request *leer*

    Like Janet/Wildvine said though fiction is FICTION. TB itself takes place in a heightened reality, of course the Witches don’t function like folks THINK they should. Marnie really is the only batty one out of the bunch, the other members of her coven are a lot more grounded. Also it should be noticed that Marnie is very much about choices, in the last episode (and I’m trying to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t seen) she specifically states that she only wants people who CHOOSE to roll with her, folks are under no duress to follow her lead.

    Look I’m all for empowering portrayals of minority religions of ALL types. But let us not forget that these books are based on Urban Paranormal Romance. They’re more concerned with who Sookie currently has in her bed then anything else.

    • Crystal Kendrick

      I agree with most of what you have said, with one exception. Harris’ novels are part of a paranormal mystery series. Her fans obsess more about the romance aspect than she ever intended. The whole Eric and Sookie drama has taken on a life of its own- but thank goodness for it because without it there would not be as many nude Skarsgard scenes. ; )

      • http://vermillionrush.wordpress.com Vermillion

        Have they veered from the sex? I remember the first couple of books were chock full of them.

        • Crystal Kendrick

          Nah, there is still lots of sex. But nearly every book opens with three mysterious and gruesome deaths. Plus the official series title is Southern Vampire Mysteries. It’s just my librarian love of correctly identified genres. ; )

  • Ursyl

    I like your take on this series. Between this and “Game of Thrones,” I kind of wish we had HBO. Used to enjoy “Dark Shadows” back in the day, old and new….

    • http://www.myspace.com/kadynastar Khryseis_Astra

      Though I’m not a fan of True Blood, most of my favorite shows have come from HBO… Rome, Six Feet Under, Carnivale, to name a few… and now I’m getting into Game of Thrones. They usually have at least one or two amazing shows going at any given time. :)

      • http://egregores.wordpress.com Apuleius Platonicus

        OK, I guess I am now going to have to finally check out Game of Thrones!!

  • http://www.OccultCorpus.com Caliban

    “It isn’t we have bigger things to worry about than a television show that mainly exists to show off attractive people in various states of undress.”

    I would hazard a guess (I’ve not seen the show) that True Blood’s witches are all female, all young and all thin. Am I right? I have to say that it entirely at odds with my own coven experiences over the years.

    • Keith Campbell

      Wrong on all three counts, actually. The on-screen coven in question has included men (gay and straight, or at least one of the men wasn’t obviously gay), women of ages ranging from mid-twenties to early fifties, and while none of them are as heavy as we might expect to find examples of in a typical gathering of pagans (or the general population, for that matter — this is television, after all), the non-leads do not all have perfect bodies by any means.

      Sure, the main characters are attractive in their various ways. This is True Blood, after all, and I agree with Vermillion, any show that regularly shows me Alexander Skarsgard, Joe Manganiello, Ryan Kwanten et al in the buff or nearly so is at least worth looking at. Some aspects of the series annoy me (esp. their portrayal of Mab, who could have been much better cast IMO), but overall I enjoy it.

      The most troubling thing to me about their portrayal of witchcraft (not that I think True Blood should be held accountable for a realistic or responsible portrayal of witchcraft, I just wish they’d separate it from Wicca a bit more) is Marnie’s consciously chosen utter subservience to the spirit she’s contacted. No witch worth their salt, trad-trained or self-taught, would ever sublimate their own will to an unknown spirit and allow that spirit to dominate them completely (or take anyone as a student who was inclined to do such a thing), and I worry that there are idiot teenagers (temporal or emotional) who will follow exactly her example, either in attempt to produce similar results or simply as a magical/religious excuse for the cutting they’re already inclined to do (or already doing) anyway. I worry about that, but I don’t think there’s any reason to hold the show accountable for it, any more than I think there’s any reason to hold Criminal Minds responsible if someone who’s already headed toward being a psychopath gets an idea from the show for their upcoming killing spree.

      • Crystal Kendrick

        I thought that part of the plot line WAS that Marnie is not worth her salt. I mean, she’s weak from the beginning. She’s a third rate witch who gets in over her head. It’s kind of the point. Without her weak character there wouldn’t be a storyline- well, not as entertaining of a storyline at any rate.

        • Anna

          Yeah, this. One of the things that impresses me so far about the Wicca storyline is that I’ve known more than one Marnie in my time, well-meaning, good-hearted, but not really disciplined or grounded and who did get in over their heads because they let go of judgment, discernment and common sense. I think that’s actually a little on the nose for some pagans. It’s certainly no less accurate than the Fellowship of the Sun fanatics, who are a thinly veiled portrayal of the very worst of hypocritical right wing Christianity that still has a grain of truth in it.

          But I suppose it could be argued that simply because Wicca is a minority religion, and there are very few positive portrayals, its a much bigger issue than the FotS storyline.

  • http://kallisti.writingkaye.com Kaye Bohémier

    I actually thought the portrayal of Maenads in the second season was a bit offensive, although what I’ve seen of the witch plot from the close of the 3rd season is just a bit funny — especially the “herbal remedies are my religious stuff!” exchange with Sam Merlotte. My sister thought the same exact thing because we grew up Neopagan and the Opened Book in Hannibal, MO, was full of massage oils, incense, and the like (and the only place where we could get that kind of stuff). When my sister became an atheist, she gifted me her awesome “pagan” massage oils because she identified anything that smelled awesome with paganism and polytheism.

    But going back to the Maenad thing … lots of people I know have some kind of relationship with Dionysos and I don’t think “Dionysian” should equate “human sacrifice in front of a giant meat statue.” It wouldn’t matter as much if there were more positive popular media portrayals to offer a counterweight to that onslaught of ridiculousness, but there really aren’t.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      “When my sister became an atheist [...] she identified anything that smelled awesome with paganism and polytheism.”

      What a sad turn of events for your sister, to cut herself off from a joyous aspect of the world because she didn’t believe it had been deliberately created that way. I didn’t cut myself off like that when I was an atheist. (Of course, I became Pagan…)

  • http://www.facebook.com/zaracon Larry Zaracon Sodders

    i have said this in other comments reference this show it is a fantasy and when the were panthers march on the Louisiana Capital Building I’m right there with them , until then i will see this as fantasy and focus on the real wolves at the door to actually take arms up against. such as DC40 and African witchhunts

  • http://sari0009.xanga.com/ Karen A. Scofield

    It’s never a good idea to gather what monotheism, “others,” witchcraft or magic “are” from Hollywood movies, HBO fiction/fantasy series, moral panics, bandwagon effects and so on.

    Besides exercising an ability to seek our more credible accurate information in our more serious moments, it’s wonderful and divine (!) to recognize when something’s a mixed bag yet mindfully, and sometimes after some harmless entertainment, create **that which better reflects an informed worldview bent on equality, beauty, joy, and justice.** For real.

    That’s what really matters. That demonstrates who we are and that’s what people of many different stripes can share in common.

    I like True Blood. It’s fun, sexy, imaginative, sexy, awful, hilarious, stupid, steamy and genius. And it does kind of warn you by starting with a “God Hates Fangs” sign, a reference to the contemporary real life “God Hates Fags” stuff, of course. It’s a hoot of a mixed bag.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Right, if all you know about Catholicism was from watching “Shoes of the Fisherman” and “Da Vinci Code” you’d be in a fine muddle.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Anne-Newkirk-Niven/1587887377 Anne Newkirk Niven

    A sidenote: clearly the producers knew that real Wiccans exist. How do I know? Because they contacted us for permission to use an issue of Witches&Pagans magazine to dress the set. Which I was cool with, once I got the permission of Ellen Dugan (they are using copies of issue 21 which had her on the cover) to do so. No $ changed hands, but it’s fun to imagine
    the crew of the show flipping through our magazine while they are killing time between takes.

    • Ursyl

      I hope they did too!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=562316634 Lisa Cowley Morgenstern

    I’m a huge fan of True Blood, and Marnie is a “Wanna-Blessed-Be.” My witchy friends agree, heck my Heathen friends, agree that it’s just stupid to give your self up to a disembodied spirit and tell it to “use” you. She may claim Wicca but the Vampires call them Necromancers and Witches, and frankly she’s a fool. Sadly while the whole possessed-crazy spellwork stuff is not realistic, the “dabbler” that Marnie is, is realistic. I see plenty of people who know a little teeny bit open a shop and become convinced they know it all. I don’t think that anyone is going to think the Witches on True Blood have anything to do with real Wiccans.

    Charlaine Harris herself has comments about Wiccans and the “Witches” in the books, Marnie’s character, etc, laugh about the foolish “Wiccans” who they say are weak because of their Wiccan Rede. So anyway, I don’t feel threatened by a TV show.

  • Peg

    I do think it’s difficult to discuss the portrayal of “real” witches on a show that deals with supernatural beings. Grounding the portrayal of witches in actual Wicca is problematic for me, but something we have seen a number of times in films and TV in recent years. It seems producers and writers are wanting authentic contexts for stories, while not wanting to let go of the desire to use special effects and spectacular events. Supernatural storytelling is more exciting than the portrayal of how modern witchcraft “really” looks. That said, True Blood has offered some very interesting takes on traditional horror tropes and supernatural beings. The storyline with Mary Ann Forester the maenad was closer to an exploration of paganism than this current focus on witches seems to be, but I can’t speak to it directly until I am caught up on this season’s episodes, which I am hoping to be by tomorrow.

  • lizet

    I hate Marnie because she hurt Eric,whom I love !

  • Root And Rock

    Here’s been my statement: “Like any work of fantasy and fiction, this one pulls no punches in it’s depiction of the things that go bump in the night. What is seen on the series has little or no relation to reality. After all, who has ever seen a small, Southern town filled with people who, by all rights, ought to be models? It’s good fun, and very campy – but I’d worry far more about anyone taking such a show seriously than I do about what the show actually shows.”

  • Cernowain Greenman

    I have watched the show True Blood from the beginning, and enjoy the fantasy. One thing I don’t like in this season is that they have presented the idea that the Witch Hunt craze of the 1600′s was actually a war between vampires and witches. They re-enforce the idea of the myth of “the Burning Times” in suggesting that “real” witches were being burned at the stake. I know the show is fantasy, but I don’t like it when they resurrect false myths that many people believe are true.

    • Laura M. LaVoie

      I have taken it that Antonia is actually quite Catholic, she just happens to have skill in magic. I don’t think the vampires truly understood how powerful she was until it was too late.

  • Ravenna

    Does anyone remember Willow from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”? How she was supposedly “the most powerful wicca in the world?” Did anyone believe that crap then? “True Blood” is fiction. It’s TV. Anyone who takes that and thinks it’s real life needs to have their head re-examined. And people should really stop getting all up in arms about this crap. Hollywood/TV will ALWAYS sensationalize a subject, because that’s the only way to get the attention of the masses in order to make a $.

    The day I believe something I see on tv is the day flying pigs fly out my arse.

  • Kate

    I am so sick of our religions being depicted as fantasy. I don’t think that portraying Wicca as the only religion in a fantasy world benefits Wiccans, Witches, Pagans or the other earth religions associated with Wicca. My religion is not fiction. Catholics have the Christian privilege to get away with stories about their magical powers to combat vampires and werewolves, but we don’t. We’re still fighting for basic civil rights in a lot of places in the US and this is just another way to make it look like Wicca is fake religion that doesn’t fall under Constitution freedoms.

  • Kilmrnock

    I tend to agree w/ a few previous comments altho i’m not too thrilled w/ the hollywood and media depictions of witches , wiccans and pagans in general . None of this is going to change any time soon . Tis only a tv show folks, get over it . We just have to deal w/ this nonsence as the need arises. In the meantime we do have bigger fish to fry.We need to keep dispelling all the misconceptions and getting the real truth out there .Jioning interfaith groups making your presense know at Pagan Pride Days and Ren Faires is one of the ways we can do this. And please for our own sakes, vote for politicians that are tolerant and environmental friendly. Also i believe more of us need to be out of the closet and knowelgable when asked questions about our community as a whole .Altho Wicca is the best known , there are many other types and flavors of us. Pagans in general need to atleast have an understanding of who and what we all are, and what we do. tis a good starting point . Kilm

  • Lionstardust

    I liked Marnie and give me a moment to say why. Understandably this is just a TV show but since this is such a big discussion I feel left out. To me I see Marnie as hurt and misunderstood which in reality a lot of practicing witches have faced these emotions. The feelings of being that outcast, or pushed aside, or to the extent of being considered evil or poison to people around you. Marnie takes these feelings and they overwhelm her when she is given this gift of power. It makes me wonder how we might handle this if it was one of us. I myself had fantasies of revenge at some point in life for things I have gone through. Marnie to me reflects how I know I would probably lose focus and be overrun with emotions. I don’t feel the writers were trying to demonize witches in anyway but more or less say witches are human with pent up feelings.