Archives For True Blood

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

Not since the 1990s has witchcraft been such a popular subject matter within pop-culture. Wicca and Brujería mingle with more fantasy-oriented versions of witchcraft on the HBO series “True Blood,” while  the CW is set to launch “The Secret Circle” this Fall, a teen-oriented show based on a series of books that focuses on a coven of genetic witches. To top it all off, there seems to be plans for a new take on the 1960s classic television show “Bewitched”.

“In the latest classic TV title getting considered for a reboot, CBS and Sony are developing a script for remake of the classic sitcom Bewitched. This is still in very early stages, but it’s definitely a project worth keeping an eye on.”

Several media critics are skeptical of such a relaunch, but could this be a great opportunity to have a truly subversive show about witchcraft (or capital-W Witchcraft) on television? With the current craze of shows set in the 1960s (ie “Mad Men,” “The Playboy Club,” “Pan Am”) you could even make it a period piece with little trouble, thus avoiding much of the meta-horribleness that was the 2005 movie.

Witchcraft in television and movies has often worked best when it’s a signifier for something else. In the 1958 movie adaptation of “Bell, Book, and Candle” (of which, I have many strong opinions) witchcraft stands in for 1950s-era bohemia, women’s empowerment, and the gay subtext of Jack Lemmon’s Nicky. Much of this subtext was adopted, though further sanitized, when “Bewitched” launched five years later. By this time, real-live Witches of various stripes were making news in England, though it had yet to penetrate the American consciousness. Elizabeth Montgomery’s Samantha seemed to be embodying the bubbling tensions over feminism in the early seasons as she struggled to be the good wife while denying her innate power (much to the chagrin of her liberated mother).  While there’s no trace of religion in the show’s depiction of witchcraft, it did feature a eerily prescient episode in the first season where the witches decide to protest their depiction as ugly old Halloween hags.

“The Witches Are Out” from season one is the first episode where witches are presented as a minority group. They are referred to as such in the episode in which one of Darrin’ clients (portrayed by Shelley Berman) wants his Halloween candy represented by a wart-nosed, broom-riding witch. Meanwhile, Samantha and her witch committee are trying to actively combat the negative images associated with witches during Halloween.

A decade later figures like Laurie Cabot would be making the news for staging similar protests. So “Bewitched,” in a way, set the stage for real-live Witches while using the show’s “witchcraft” as a stand-in for other issues.

Today we exist in a world where Pagan religions and Witches are a reality, not a fantasy. The temptation to bring some of that into a fantasy setting can be overwhelming, though it often just produces confusing mish-mashes as seen in shows like “Charmed” or with characters like Willow in “Buffy”. You also see terribly overwrought metaphors in shows like “Camelot,” where magic=drug abuse. As seen with “True Blood,” such portrayals don’t endear you to those depicted. I think there should be a clear firewall between fantasy witchcraft, and modern Pagan religion. Let Samantha be Samantha (or let Willow be Willow), and let us decide what her magic means to us.

The minute you make a character Wiccan, you’re treading into theological waters that are best left alone. If a television show or movie wants to incorporate Pagans and Wiccans into a script, it should strive to portray them accurately instead of merging them with already well-established fantasy tropes. If you want Wiccans in a television drama, why not adapt The Bast Mysteries, or perhaps the work of MR Sellars? I think they’d work great on the PBS series “Mystery!”.

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.

The sexy vampire phenomenon (as opposed to the sparkly vampire phenomenon) True Blood (based on The Southern Vampire Mysteries novels by Charlaine Harris) has grown a respectable cult audience as it ends its third season on HBO, and while the show has flirted with Pagan themes before, that’s going to become much more explicit when season 4 starts. Creator/producer Alan Ball says that next year will be the “year of the witch”, and they have introduced Holly Clearly, a “Wiccan” character who will play a bigger role in season 4. Played by Lauren Bowles, she talks to Movieweb about her role, and the religion of Wicca, and it’s pretty clear she doesn’t know much more than what the script tells her.

“I haven’t gone to Wiccan ceremonies, I must admit. I have done my own perusing. Way back, I had a friend that was way into the Wiccan world. I was also a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As you know, Willow was a big witch. I didn’t want to be Wiccan. I haven’t gotten to know any. Are there support groups for such a thing? Are there churches? I don’t really know … I wonder what their ceremonies are like. When people started comparing it to a religion, I never thought of it as that. I always thought of it as spells. I thought it was much more active than just praying to a God or a Goddess. I thought that you were always trying to do something, with all the spells. Weren’t you?”

This interview isn’t exactly reassuring that they’ll portray Wicca in an accurate or balanced fashion. But then, Bowles doesn’t have to be accurate, just a good actress. It’s Alan Ball and the scriptwriters who have to do the research. The question is how much Wiccan religion will be included? How will it be portrayed? It’s one thing to have witches, they have been stock folkloric characters for generations. But once you invoke the word “Wicca” you’re opening yourself up to greater scrutiny (at least from our communities). And season 4 looks like it will have a lot of witchy action if it follows the novels at all (possible spoilers at the link).

“Hallow Stonebrook is the lead witch of a coven that causes a lot of problems for Sookie and crew. The wiki page for “Dead To the World,”  The True Blood book that most prominently features Hallow and her crew, describes a fairly epic confrontation between the denizens of Bon Temps and the wicked witches of the bayou.”

Good witches, bad witches, and Wiccans. This may be the first series to have a regular Wiccan-identified character (“Wicca”  and witchcraft in Buffy bore little resemblance to the actual faith), as opposed to the often disappointing one-time appearances in shows like The Mentalist and Bones. There’s going to be a lot of attention on this upcoming season, especially since it’s becoming so popular. Whether the portrayal of the Wiccan character(s) will be good or bad, this could be an important teaching moment for our communities. Either by correcting bad information, or by holding up a fair portrayal for praise. What should be made clear, both for fans and for pop-culture oriented journalists, is that there is a clear distinction between fantasy “witchcraft”, and what the faith and practice of Wicca is. The lines are no doubt going to get blurry, which is fine, this is a fictional universe after all, but it might be wise for a coalition of Wiccan groups to issue a “True Blood fact sheet” that will be there for those made curious by the show, and for Hollywood scribes looking to interview “real” Witches.

To my readers, are you a fan of True Blood? What do you think of the impending “year of the witch”?

(Pagan) News of Note

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 26, 2009 — 6 Comments

My semi-regular round-up of articles, essays, and opinions of note for discerning Pagans and Heathens.

Charles Arthur Roberts, who is serving five years in prison for aggravated assault, is suing the Texas prison system for preventing him from practicing Wicca while incarcerated.

“Roberts alleges in a pro se lawsuit that he made repeated requests practice Wicca to the chaplain and administrators at TDCJ’s Lopez Unit off El Cibolo Road in Edinburg … The 28-year-old Brownsville native claims that prison administrators allow Catholic, Protestant and Moslem services but will not allow him to practice his Wiccan faith. Roberts wrote in his lawsuit that administrators told him they needed a Wiccan volunteer to hold a service for him but that they never attempted to obtain a volunteer. The jailed Wiccan claims he even tried to contact administrators at a state level but never received a reply. “I have been dealing with the defendants for a year to get things for my religion but they have not tried to get anything started, which is a violation of my Constitutional rights,” Roberts wrote in his lawsuit.”

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice won’t comment on the case, but did reveal that three inmates and an outside volunteer are required before they will allow scheduled sessions. If Roberts could not meet the three-inmate threshold, the case could be dismissed if he can’t also prove prison officials blocked attempts to find an outside volunteer or acquire Wiccan religious materials. While many jail-house lawsuits can be frivolous, we shouldn’t forget that according to Pagan chaplain Patrick McCollum there is “endemic” discrimination against incarcerated religious minorities.

The Maine Family Policy Council, formerly known as the Christian Civic League of Maine, are back to spreading lies about Rita Moran, Chair of the Kennebec County Democratic Committee, who was one of two openly Pagan delegates at the Democratic National Convention. Not content with first outing her as a Pagan and then stalking her, they are now trying to play the victim by misquoting an interview she did with a Pagan podcast back in 2007.

“In a recently discovered podcast, Rita Moran, Chairwoman of the Kennebec County Democrats, claims she cast a spell on the Administrator of the Christian Civic League, Mike Hein, in response to her outing by the League as a practitioner of the occult … In the podcast, Moran presents herself as a practitioner of an “earth-based” religion, but states she does not wear a pentacle, for the sake of ‘plausible deniability.’ If asked, she tells people she is a practitioner of an ‘earth-based’ religion. During the interview, Moran also expresses a desire to form a national “Pagan Caucus” within the Democratic Party, so that the Democrat Party and paganism can come together in a “positive way.” When asked if Mike Hein suffered any backlash from her outing, she replied that she is certain that there was an occult backlash, based on her casting of an “earth spell” on Hein.”

I happened to have listened to the podcast in question (mp3 link), from the now-defunct Lance and Graal show, and it clearly says that she cast a “mirror” spell (not an “earth” spell, whatever that means). In other words, the only malefic thing Mike Hein may have received spiritually is what he was already dishing out against Moran. It is truly sad that some supposedly moral Christians feel the need to lie, break laws, and harass innocent people to feel superior. One has to wonder if Focus on the Family knows what sort of things this “affiliated” group gets up to in the name of Christ.

Warning! Some minor True Blood second-season spoilers follow! Do you watch the HBO vampire series True Blood? If not, you’re apparently missing out on some hot-and-heavy pagan themes in addition to all the vampire-lovin’ that’s already going on. A character introduced in the current (second) season, Maryann, was revealed to be a maenad, and some Pagans are seriously unhappy with the way things are being portrayed.

“…they could have called her a Maenad and been done with it – I wouldn’t have been thrilled with that, but I expected it. They went WAY too far with this, IMO. They have to bring in Lilith, Isis, Gaia, the Horned God AND Dionysus? To abuse the name of Isis, the favorite name of the Goddess, in that way was particularly offensive to me. The Christian devil imagery is so predictable and cliche – you may be right, the writers need to do some research.”

I’ve heard similar rumblings from other Pagans as well, but I’ll reserve personal judgement for after the season closes, and I’ve seen the episodes. However, if you aren’t spoiler-averse and want a taste of the way things are going, check out this recap of episode ten for some of the Dionysian mayhem currently on display.

Reuters covers the festival of Lurol in Tibet, a time that displays the syncretic mix between Tibetan Buddhism and the animist/shamanic Bon faith.

Dressed in special clothes, his long hair carefully cut and braided, Damtsengbon waits for his spirit, Amyesrmachen, the most sacred mountain god in the region. Other villagers call the spirit’s name while Damtsengbon, who like many Tibetans only goes by one name, enters a trance, twitching and jerking. “I am the third generation to channel this god, so it is not just about me. For three generations the god has manifested himself through us, and even living Buddhas recognize this … I think it’s a way for me to serve my people. It keeps us together and protects us, so it’s an honor to serve them.”

I recommend reading the entirety of this fascinating look into Tibetan religion and culture.

In a final note, be sure and check out presentations from friends-of-this-blog John W. Morehead and Chas Clifton at the recently-held 2009 CENSUR conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. Chas Clifton’s presentation, “In the Mists of Avalon: How Contemporary Paganism Dodges the ‘Crisis of History’”, is particularly interesting for those wondering why Wicca and modern Paganism didn’t collapse with the advent of better scholarship.

“Contemplating the crisis—or crises—of history as they affect contemporary Paganism, the Wiccan journalist Margot Alder comments,  “Traditionally, religions with indefensible histories and dogmas cling to them tenaciously. The Craft avoided this through the realization, often unconscious, that its real sources lie in the mind, in art, in creative work.”[31] By relying on the fictive power of books and other creative products to provide a sort of sacred story, the contemporary Pagans described thus step out of history while retaining a modern respect for the historian’s scholarship and thus postponing a collision between historical narrative and mythic past.”

For those interested in the study of new religious movements, you should check out all the “cyberproceedings” available online.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!