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BRIGHTON — For people travelling to this year’s Witchfest in Brighton, there will be additional entertainment option: the premiere of the play Doreen: An English Witch. This new theatrical production is the brainchild of director Roman Withers and writer Gavin Caine of Normal People Productions. The Wild Hunt caught up with Caine and Withers to talk about the play, its impact, and the creative process that led to its birth.

doreen-flyer

Withers explained how a meeting with the late John Belham Payne inspired the very latest celebration of Valiente’s life:

“We met John Belham Payne last November, as he was the Head of the Doreen Valiente Foundation, and knew Doreen, so I decided it would be really good to put a play on. We’re both in the craft ourselves and it seemed only fitting as Doreen lived in Brighton and spent many, many years here.”

The play Doreen: An English Witch is the second outing of Normal People Productions, an up and coming new theatre company. As Withers says, “It was only founded about a year-and-a-half ago and this is our second show. Our first show was last year, that was called Cabalesque – which luckily was sold out. That was a combination of cabaret and burlesque that went down last December and will be performed again at Brighton Fringe next year.”

Withers continued on to say, “This is our second play and we’ve got a couple more lined up for next year. But this one has been quite hard work. It’s been intriguing but it’s taken all year to go from start to finish, so it’s taken a lot of time but it’s been very enjoyable.’

The company is keen to stress that it wished to avoid a documentary-style showing and have described their latest effort as covering “certain stories and things that are said or remembered about Doreen.” Writer Gavin Caine says, “We wanted to include things that are told of her, some of the better-known and lesser-known stories of her life.

“We’re not trying to replicate Doreen herself, or do a documentary piece. It’s a work of fiction inspired by a magnificent woman with stories about her that are known by quite a lot of people, or known by fewer people and that are quite interesting or funny.”

Withers adds, “The play covers some of Doreen’s stories, obviously, but it doesn’t cover all of them as there’s about 30 or 40 stories that we could have used, so we had to break it down a little bit. I like to think we’ve picked the best ones and the ones that express how Doreen went about her daily life.”

The play is set in Doreen’s flat, and Withers explains that it begins with Doreen (Sharon Drain) hosting an interview with someone, a young lady (Charlotte Dearing), and the things that follow from that.

Caine and Withers have gone to great lengths to ensure the play is a fitting tribute to the first lady of the Craft but also wanted to make sure it was accessible for non-pagans. Withers says, “When the play was written, we had to make sure that non-craft people would enjoy it as well. I would like to think that the story has been done well, so that if people didn’t know who Doreen Valiente was they can still follow it and enjoy it. There are quite a lot of funny moments in it as well, so I hope we’ve found the find balance between that.”

Caine adds, “It’s trying to find that balance between the Pagans and particularly the Wiccans, because obviously that’s the legacy that we know best, of Doreen and to understand, but that it’s also accessible to people who are not into that area of witchcraft or paganism or any area of witchcraft or paganism to be able to come and see the play and get something from it, and go away from it having learned something and enjoyed it.”

Withers and Caine have been keen to represent, in some way, all aspects of Doreen’s work in the performance. As an example, Caine says, “We […] wanted to give air to some of Doreen’s poetry, which she always thought her best work and which I love and many others do.”

Doreen’s ritual work is also referred to in the play. As Caine enigmatically states,“There’s some suggestion of magical ritual in the play but I can’t say what.” When pushed, he demures, “There’s a magic coconut.”

The play will be presented at the Marlborough Theatre in Brighton from November 21-27. “We wanted to do it at the same time as Witchfest as we thought that would be more helpful for us, as if people were travelling from different parts of the UK they are also able to come and see it,” says Withers.

On the closing night, the performance will include a question and answer session with a panel including Philip Hesleton, author of the recently published biography Doreen Valiente: Witch; Ashley Mortimer, a Trustee of the Doreen Valiente Foundation and the Director of the Centre for Pagan Studies; Julie Payne, a Trustee of the Doreen Valiente Foundation.

Since word of the play’s production went public, there has been huge international interest. “We’re having people come from around the world,” says Withers, “We had a ticket bought the other day from Australia, so we feel very, very humbled.”

The company has decided to make the play available on commercial release as a DVD. Withers says, “The play will also be professionally filmed. We’ve had a lot of interest from Wiccans in America asking if we’re going to tour it in America, so we’re having it professionally filmed and we’re turning it into a DVD.” The DVD release will be announced on Facebook, and the upcoming play website.

Rumours also abound that the play will tour in England in 2017, so watch that space for updates.

There is no doubt that the play has been close to Withers and Caines’s hearts. Caine says, “Doreen’s writings are some of the most inspiring things and have contributed a lot towards bringing people into the craft, as is the case for me, so it was a labour of love in that respect.”

Withers agrees, “We wanted to get her stories out to as many people as possible. A lot of people know her stories anyway, but I wanted to spread the word of Doreen Valiente really. She was a remarkable woman and I hope as many people as possible get to see it.”

He adds, “All the profits from the play will be going to the Doreen Valiente Foundation. I’m not doing this for my own gain, I just wanted to get the word of Doreen out there and to help the Doreen Valiente Foundation.”

Looking ahead, there are already new projects in the pipeline for Normal People Productions. Withers says, “We’re working with Preston Manor in Brighton, where the Doreen Valiente exhibition is currently, to produce a play about two of their famous ghost stories.” For now though, the spotlight is firmly on Doreen as this iconic figure takes her rightful place centre stage.

Cast and Crew of “Doreen: An English Witch” do the Mannequin Challenge

CHICAGO, Ill. — On Feb. 6, a performance collective named WITCH will be hosting a ritual protest in Logan Square in support of local housing rights.The organizers describe the event as a “hexing and protective spell action,” which will include recognizable elements of Witchcraft practice. Due to this design, the protest has been attracting both mainstream media attention and social media backlash. We spoke with the group’s founders to find out more.

W.I.T.C.H. action, Nov 2015 [Courtesy Photo]

WITCH protest action, Nov 2015 [Courtesy Photo]

“Gentrification has been affecting Logan Square for the last 15+ years. Our action is concentrating on the increasing lack of affordable housing, which is certainly affected by gentrification, but far from the only issue surrounding it. We have all been impacted by housing speculation and insecurity, though our personal experiences vary,” explained Jessica Caponigro, Amaranta Isyemille Lara, and Chiara Galimberti, the three women who make up WITCH.

Jessica Caponigro is an interdisciplinary artist, educator, and activist. Originally from Pennsylvania, she is currently working as an adjunct instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago. Amaranta Isyemille Lara is a student, poet, and single mother. She is working toward a master’s in linguistics and has lived in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood since 2004. And, Chiara Galimberti is an artist, activist, parent, and educator. She is currently working toward becoming a herbalist and acupuncturist.

Galimberti said, “My relationship to Chicago has been very difficult as housing insecurity has deeply affected me and my daughters. I have been working multiple jobs since moving to Chicago and I have never been able to afford rent without public assistance. I know that my situation is by no means unique and that the vast majority of people in the city is negatively impacted by housing speculation, especially as that reality combines with endemic racism and sexism.”

This is the type of personal experience that inspired the three women to come together and form the performance collective. Their first organizational meeting was in October 2015 and, at that time, they chose to name the group WITCH. The acronym stands for Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell and was used by a number of affiliated but separate women’s groups within the broader feminist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The original WITCH organization was formed in New York City on Halloween 1968. Its members created a manifesto that began:

WITCH is an all-woman Everything. It’s theater, revolution, magic, terror, joy, garlic flowers, spells. It’s an awareness that witches and gypsies were the original guerrillas and resistance fighters against oppression – particularly the oppression of women – down through the ages. Witches have always been women who dared to be: groovy, courageous, aggressive, intelligent, nonconformist, explorative, curious, independent, sexually liberated, revolutionary … [From the WITCH Manifesto, 1969]

This group of feminists chose to adopt the image and concept of the Witch to represent female empowerment in a way that was antithetical to socially-constructed, traditional gender roles and that flew, pun intended, in face of the patriarchal expectations. Several Pagan writers and historians, such as Chas Clifton, Margo Adler and Ethan Doyle White, have mentioned the 1960s WITCH organization in their writings, highlighting the similarities between that movement and the early modern Pagan movement in the U.S. In his book Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America,Clifton wrote, “WITCH was not religious, yet as Eller, and before her, Margot Adler note, it was a small step from the intense, intimate feminist consciousness-raising discussion group of the early 1970s to the Witches’ coven.”(Clifton, p 120)

witch manifesto

Forty-seven years later, Galimberti, Caponigro, and Isyemille Lara decided to resurrect the name, capturing that energy, history and legacy for their own work. While their Chicago protests are not embedded in any specific organized feminist movement, the three modern women have found empowerment and purpose within the original group’s message. They explained, “We think of Witches as historically being women (and some men) who were at the forefront of resistance against oppressive systems, and we strongly believe that there is not one way to be a Witch. We are interested in looking at the connection between social justice, feminism, and the figure of the Witch.”

In November, the women staged their first protest action. It was held in front of Chicago’s Thompson Center on Randolph Street. Similar to the upcoming event, the November action was staged to “protest disparities caused by inequality, chanting to hex those who cause it and protect those who suffer as a result.”

Then, on Jan 3, WITCH announced its second action and created a corresponding Facebook event page. Unlike the November action, the new Feb 6 protest would be held in conjunction with a local art festival called 2nd Floor Rear 2016, a “DIY” event that features art in “experimental contexts.” The protest is listed on the festival site as one of the featured happenings.

Since that Jan. 3 announcement, the group has received media attention from various mainstream outlets, as well as backlash from the online Pagan community. Jezebel and the Chicagoist each published an article titled, “Chicago Witches Will Exorcise ‘Gentrification’ Demons.” The online site Dazed titled its article,”Chicago Witches Hoping to Cast Out Gentrification.” As is often the case for mainstream Witch articles, all three included flashy stills from the The Craft (1996)

Galimberti, Caponigro, and Isyemille Lara expressed disappointment in the treatment of their story within these news articles, calling them “unfortunate and misleading.” And, it may have been this misrepresentation that is at least partially responsible for the subsequent social media backlash predominantly found on Facebook. One user wrote, “So you fight colonialism by using cultural appropriation … For many this is a way of life, and you mock it as merely a public art spectacle.” Comments like this one continued on with accusations that the women were disingenuously appropriating Witchcraft or Pagan traditions to serve their own artistic or political objectives. Another user posted, “YOU are not WITCH! You have no concept. I and many like me are witches. The real deal. How about you mock some other group inappropriately.”

But are they? The issue of their own religious or spiritual identity, or practice, was not publicly addressed. So we asked them, “Do you identify as Witches in a religious or spiritual sense? Are you Pagan?”

Caponigro said, “I most certainly identify as a Witch. I come from a long line of independent Sicilian women who strongly believed in holistic medicine and the powers of the earth and intuition, and passed down their spirit and knowledge to me and my sibling. Though I’m not currently practicing, there are parts of my life when I have identified as Wiccan.”

To this question, Isyemille Lara said, “I identify as a Witch. To me, being a Witch has to do most with using an honest and balanced voice to impart support, empathy, protection and power whenever necessary. Witchcraft is personal and adaptive. My family is from the northern deserts of Mexico. I carry this stoic intuition in my veins.”

And, Galimberti said, “I grew up in Italy, where the tradition of Witchcraft is different than in the United States. The memory of Witch hunts and persecution is still present, mixed with a classism that sees Witchcraft and Paganism as part of working class practices, and thus not taken seriously. I was raised largely by my grandmother who practices Malocchio, which mostly included a healthy skepticism for authority (whether of the state or the church), and a rich knowledge of herbs for healing and daily practices that allowed a connection with the spiritual world. I am studying Herbology and Acupuncture and I think of myself as a healer-in-training, with spirituality being a component of that identity.”

The three members of WITCH added that they are not in anyway mocking anyone’s system of belief. “We are empathetic to those who are angry because they mistakenly think we are appropriating their beliefs,” they said. “Those accusing us of being disingenuous or culturally appropriating Witchcraft are working under the assumption that because we do not practice in their particular way, our sincere connection to Witchcraft is somehow less valid.”

They added that Witchcraft has long and varied history, saying, “Witches were and are healers, spiritual workers, subversive independent thinkers, in addition to the definition of “witch” in the Pagan religious sense. The figure of the Witch is present in most cultures around the world, and can come to signify many different practices and beliefs.”

1969 WITCH protest in front of Chicago Federal Building [Courtesy WITCH]

1969 WITCH protest in front of Chicago Federal Building [Courtesy WITCH]

As for the group’s mission, the women explained that the Feb. 6 action will hopefully attract the attention of “politicians and companies that are profiting from housing development at the expense of most Chicagoans and especially working class people.” They were quick to add that they are no experts and can’t speak for everyone who has been “impacted by predatory housing” practices. However, they do hope to give voice to those who have such stories.

“During the action people will be invited to speak out about their experience with housing insecurity, the impact of high rents, and speculative development on their lives,” they explained. “We will then perform a protective charm that acknowledges the people and organizations that have been working on these issues for decades, including the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and the Grassroots Illinois Action.”

Galimberti, Caponigro, and Isyemille Lara described the upcoming protest action as a “combination of both magical ritual and performative gesture” that will be based on their collective “experiences and knowledge.” They welcome anyone to come and join them, Pagan or not. It is not a private or restricted event. They said, “We take our relationship with spirituality, Witchcraft, and social justice very seriously,” adding “Nothing scares the patriarchy more than a non-conformist, sexually liberated, independent thinker. Nothing scares the patriarchy more than a WITCH.”

ITALY – There are many popular mythological figures associated with the winter holiday season. We’ve all heard of Santa Claus, Rudolf, Father Christmas and Jack Frost. This past December Krampus, a figure in Germanic folklore, became a household name through the release of a new horror movie. But there is another figure, who stands out within the canon of European winter holiday lore, and is beloved by those who honor her. She is called La Befana.

“La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!”

traditional song

La Befana, sometimes called “an old woman” and sometimes “the Witch of Christmas,” is part of a long-held Italian holiday tradition. In modern times, she has become an integral figure of the Christian celebration of the Epiphany. In fact, it is believed by some that this religious connection is how the old woman got her name. According to those sources, La Befana is a derivative of the Ancient Greek work for Epiphany, or epiphaneia.

The Epiphany, also called Three Kings Day, is generally celebrated on Jan. 6 as the day that the three wise men, the Magi, visit the baby Jesus in the manager. As the most common story goes, the three men stopped at an old woman’s house on their journey to the manager. She offered them food and rest. Upon leaving the three asked if she wanted to accompany them to meet the baby Jesus, but she refused, saying that she was too busy with household chores. After the men were gone, the old woman changed her mind and set out to find them or to find the baby Jesus. She found neither. But in her searching, she visited every household, leaving sweets for all well-behaved children and coal or onions for the naughty ones.

La Befana’s night is celebrated on Jan. 5, the evening before the Epiphany. It is also called Twelfth Night or Magic Night. Children leave socks out in anticipation of the old woman’s visit, and adults will sometimes leave her wine and broccoli. Before Santa Claus became well-known in Italy, it was La Befana who made the sugarplums dance in children’s dreams.

I love Festa della Befana from Ashley Bartner on Vimeo

Journalist and Wiccan High Priest Davide Marrè said that Santa was not common in his youth, and that it was “young little Jesus” who actually brought the Christmas gifts. Marrè is a native of Arona, Italy and currently lives in Milan. He said that he believed in La Befana for much longer than he ever believed in Santa. “I don’t know why,” he said. ” I was more confident with Befana than Santa.”

Marrè added, laughing, “I still remember that, below the sweets at the end of a sock one year, I found a big onion because – maybe –  I had not been so good! I am still traumatized.”

La Befana’s story comes in many forms, including some suggesting that her own children were murdered or died of disease. In these tales, La Befana actually finds the baby Jesus during her evening ride and gives to him all of her dead children’s belongings. Then, on her journey home, she leaves the sweets or onions and coal for the children.

While La Befana is often called a Witch, this feature of her story is considered quite tenuous. In many cases, she is simply called an “old woman” and depicted as a village crone. Less commonly, she is called a sprite or fairy. La Befana doesn’t always ride a broomstick; sometimes it is a goat or donkey. And she rarely wears a pointed hat; a head-scarf is more common.

However, historically speaking, the cultural lines between this type of solitary crone figure and the typical Witch character have always been crossed and blurred. In the most common modern tellings of the Italian tale, La Befana’s famous midnight ride is done on a broom, which is an iconic element of both the Witch and of the homestead. Over centuries of storytelling, the broom has become one of the common cultural signifiers for both the old woman and the Witch.

The very first mention of La Befana within a modern text is reportedly in a poem written in 1549 by Italian poet Agnolo Firenzuola, who was particularly known for his “burlesque and licentious” work [i]. According several accounts, Firenzuola only calls her “an old, ugly woman.”[ii]  But, at that time, the concept of a Witch as a crone who flies on a broom was already well-established in popular European folklore, as demonstrated by art and literature. The infamous Malleus Maleficarum, originally published in 1486, confirms this fact, stating:

Now the following is their method of being transported. They take the unguent […] and anoint with it a chair or a broomstick; whereupon they are immediately carried up into the air, either by day or by night, and either visibly or, if they wish, invisibly; (Part 2; Section I, Chapter III)

Therefore, it is not a difficult leap to understand how a story of an old woman flying around on a broom looking for a manager could be translated as a “Christmas Witch.”

But folktales are fluid, moving in and out of society and time, through adaptation and cultural nuance. There is no clear picture on the timeline of La Befana’s construction within Italian culture. The evolution of her story is buried within multiple layers of meaning and influenced by diverse regional differences.

In 1823, for example, La Befana is mentioned in a book called Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs: Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicilywritten by Anglican Priest John James Blunt. He calls her “supernatural” and “a sprite.” Blunt also comments on the “burlesque” nature of the “Beffana” traditions. He ascribes these to the “heathen celebrations” associated with the Goddess Strenia, who also brought New Year’s gifts. (p. 119-120)

As suggested by Blunt’s comments, it is widely accepted that La Befana does have pre-Christian influences, even Neolithic. Aside from the already noted Goddess Strenia, La Befana has also been linked specifically to the traditions related to the Italian agricultural cycle. In some regions, her appearance is associated to ancestor worship and divination. In others, Befana is considered to be linked to the magic of Twelfth Night – a holiday highlighted in Shakespeare play of the same name.[iii] In many of these stories, Befana’s arrival marks a seasonal finale of sorts, and she uses her iconic broom to sweep away the old to make space for the new. Anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco explore La Befana’s mythology and traditions in their books A House Without Doors (1996) and The Magic and Mythogy: Toward an Anthropology of La Befana (2006).[iv]

Marrè shared another theory on La Befana’s ancient origins. He said, “Romans thought that, on the Twelfth Night after Natali Sol Invictus, a woman flew over the cultivated fields to give fertility for the future harvest. For some this flying woman was identified with Diaba because of  the link to vegetation; for others she was Satia or Abundia. The Catholic Church forbid rural rituals and this kind of story.”

A statement made in Blunt’s 18th century account corroborates Marrè’s last comment. Speaking about the Goddess Strenia from whom he believes Befana originated. Blunt writes, “Her solemnities were vigorously opposed by the early Christians on account of their noisy, riotus, and licentious character.”

[Photo Credit: Simone Zucchelli / Flickr ]

[Photo Credit: Simone Zucchelli / Flickr ]

Many modern Pagans are finding a renewed interest in La Befana. Some enjoy her simply for her Witch aspect and others for her relationship to seasonal cycles. Through this latter concept, Marrè and his fellow Wiccans have been incorporating their beloved Befana childhood tradition into their modern Wiccan practice.

Marrè is board president of Circolo dei Trivi, a Wiccan group based in Milan. Every Imbolc, the group incorporates La Befana into their celebrations. Marrè said that this annual tradition is more feast than ritual, and focuses on the turning of the wheel of the year from the old to the new. The group blends two uniquely Italian folktales together to create a new seasonal story that brings meaning to the February sabbat. In this case, La Befana represents the final joys of the old year giving her final “gifts” at Imbolc. And, another Witch, named Giobiana represents the old year’s baggage and dust that must be removed to make way for renewal.

Marrè explained, “Giobiana is another old tradition that is celebrated in the northern part of Italy, near Lombardia (Varese and Como). The legend says that Giobiana was a bad big Witch with very long legs. She lived in the wood and, obviously this is folklore, scared all the children. On the last Thursday of January, she would eat one child. Then, one year, a mother was so worried for her son that she decided to trick Giobana. The mother prepared yellow rice with saffron and sausage (rissotto giallo con la luganega, a very typical food in this area), and she put it in the window. Giobiana smelled the rice and arrived to eat it. It was so good that she forgot that it was dawn, and she was burned by the sun.”

The Giobiana legend is very similar to many other folk stories containing a frightening old crone in the woods, such as the Baba Yaga of Russian lore or the famous Witch of Hansel & Gretel. In fact, in some traditions, La Befana and Giobiana are considered one and the same. Regardless, the Circolo dei Trivi has reincorporated these two different regional stories into their own Wiccan theology, pairing them with their seasonal celebration of Imbolc.

Marrè said, “For us the two legends, Befana and Giobiana, are linked. Befana is the good face of the crone while Giobiana is the bad one. One is the nature that gives us the last gifts, and the second is the nature that, without renewal, will start to ‘eat children.’ He speculates that this had to be important in ancient times because the cold winter months were “when the mortality rate for childhood was at its maximum.” He adds, “So it is really important that the crone is transformed into the young goddess that we represent as Belisama, the Brigid of Cisalpine Gaul.”

La Befana Night in Northern Italian 2013 [Photo Credit: Bas_Ernst / Flickr]

La Befana Night in Northern Italian 2013 [Photo Credit: Bas_Ernst / Flickr]

Similar to modern community traditions in the northern Italian towns, Circolo dei Trivi burns an effigy, a representation of Giobiana, within their ritual space. They collect the ashes and tell the story of nature’s death and rebirth, through the death of Giobiana and the birth of Belisama. In that process, they also thank nature, represented as La Befana, for bringing the final gifts from the previous year. Grazie, La Befana.

As with many regional traditions, La Befana’s modern construction and appearance were developed over an expansive amount of time and stem from a diverse number of cultural elements. Her story has been adapted over and over to fit into a variety of different social or religious structures.

As the international community becomes more integrated, La Befana has become increasingly recognized outside of the small Italian towns from where she came.[v] And, some wonder and even worry … will La Befana follow Santa Claus’ lead and become a largely commercial and secular figure in our global holiday season? Will she lose her regional meaning and connections to Italian culture? Will the Christmas Witch one day grace the label on a Coca-Cola bottle or appear in her own animated holiday special on CBS?

Notes:
[i] This description was used by Henry W. Longfellow in his book Poets and Poetry of Europe published by Carey and Hart in 1845. Firenzuola also did reportedly write more serious works. Interestingly, he also recorded conversations on feminine beauty, which wasn’t published until 1892.
[ii] We were unable to obtain a copy of this poem in time for publication.
[iii] Written around 1599, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is believed to have been based on several Italian plays, and was created specifically to celebrate the final festive evening of the Christmas season. (Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. Pelican Books. 1986)
[iv] Neither book appears to be available in English translation at this time.
[v] La Befana’s story, for example, is featured in a children’s book by American author and illustrator Tomie dePaolo. The Legend of Old Befana was published in 1980 by Sandpiper. Tomie dePaolo is also the author of the popular Stega Nona series.

salem

WGN America’s Salem Promotional Poster

The WGN America network released the new show Salem last month, once again bringing the character of the “Witch” to the television screen. There continues to be an influx of witch-related shows in the last several years, and this has not gone unnoticed by the general Pagan community.

American Horror Story: Coven (2013), Witches of East End (2013) and Sleepy Hollow (2013) are all new shows that feature witchcraft as a prominent theme in the storyline. The new show Salem has reignited a firestorm of concern around shows that feature witchy characters, bringing even more fear of greater society response than other shows before it. Salem appears to have gathered Pagan community attention because it is based on a Puritan perspective of witches in a time when it was thought that witches were evil and aligned with Satan. The inclusion of Marilyn Manson’s song “Cupid Carries a Gun” adds a creepy layer to the already demonic storyline as do the creative moving camera angles.

Much like with the American Horror Story franchise, Salem is a fantasy horror show that capitalizes on the fears of its audience. These fears are that witchcraft is about pacts with the devil, animal sacrifice and being decorated with blood in the woods. They are based on old-fashioned bigotry and rekindle a lot of misconceptions of those on the Pagan path. Concerns of modern-day witch hunts and fears around the identification of practitioners continues to expand among modern day Witches.

This brings us to question whether these fears are warranted in this day and age, or whether the total of our community identifies with a trauma-based history that is not ours? A loaded question indeed, and one that is very complex in nature. Do modern Pagans over-identify with the profile of persecution from our past further perpetuating fears of persecution in our present?

Today we know that those who were executed for witchcraft in the Salem witch trials, or in the burning times, were not actually Witches by modern-day definitions. While theories of ergot poisoning and church conspiracy are used to help explain away the happenings in the Salem Witch trials of 1692, today we have an understanding that they were not practitioners of the Craft and were common citizens of their time that became victims. So why is our community so concerned with a fictional television show that we know to be a warped reflection of history and no real reflection of Paganism? The responses to fears of shows like Salem within the community have been vastly different. Posts on social media sites and on the previous Wild Hunt review have not shown across-the-board similar concerns.

The range of responses vacillate from viewing the show as pure entertainment to views that are encouraging a call-to-arms from practitioners of the Craft. Lady Pythia, elder and Priestess with Covenant of the Goddess, posted on her Facebook page a retelling of her experience of a Witch hunt in the late 70’s:

Please know that naiveté will not make all of our work up to this point enough. Another tide is coming, and I ask you all to prepare now, so that there isn’t a last-minute scramble, as we’ve had to do 3 times now, all since March! I share the following in solidarity with all who have survived real-world oppression as Pagans, Witches and/or Wiccans, in a far more objective mode than at that time, and not from mere self-indulgence or any need for personal ego-reinforcement. Our struggle has been going on for decades.

Communications Coordinator at Circle Sanctuary Florence Edwards-Miller posted on the Wild Hunt article about the release of Salem. She took a different angle in examining concerns with the new show:

What bothers me here is the use of a real historical event that was plenty horrific even before you add in scary camera work. At base, a whole bunch of people were accused of crimes they didn’t commit, but couldn’t prove their innocence, and several of them were tortured and murdered. That’s terrifying, and it says something really disturbing about the human condition that it happened then and continues to happen in other contexts to this day. I think that, even in a fantastical way, retroactively going back and making some of them actually guilty of something like what they were killed for is very distasteful, even if the storytellers are trying to insert another social message in there.

In approaching several others who are currently watching the show, I got yet again more inconsistencies in response to this issue.

“I feel the same way about Salem that I have felt about most of the other “Witch” shows made for TV. I appreciate that there is enough interest to warrant shows about witches and witchcraft while always keeping in mind the need for Hollywood to twist it into what it wants in order to provoke the reaction from mainstream viewers that it’s targeting. Salem is a straightforward horror show made as dark and disgusting as possible. There is little historically accurate information being portrayed regarding the characters and plot. The horrors are created from the old witch hunters “lore” and atrocities. The period costumes and settings are nicely done.” – Cynthia Jurkovic

Taylor Ellwood, Managing Non-Fiction Editor of Immanion Press, took a totally different approach to the idea of shows like Salem bringing attention to magic in helpful ways:

“I think the show Salem is hilarious because of how over the top it is. It’s clearly a horror show, which draws on some rather quaint stereotypes about witchcraft. Precisely because it is so over the top I don’t feel concerned that it’ll reflect poorly on the modern day practitioner, especially because there are so many other shows on magic available as well which show various depictions, none of which are all that accurate. Salem is one presentation, but it is one that is primarily done for entertainment purposes and we need to remember that. Additionally, its important to remember that any depiction of magic and the supernatural only makes such topics more and more acceptable to mainstream culture. While such shows draws on stereotypes, they nonetheless fascinate people and highlight the necessity of magic. At one time there were similar concerns with the Harry Potter movies, Charmed, etc., and nonetheless our community has actually benefited from such media because of how they’ve piqued the interests of the mainstream” – Taylor Ellwood.

I like it for a fantasy show. My only concern is the sexual nature of the two main witches, and sensationalizing of a couple of women, one being a woman of color with power that is linked to evil.

I think that we as a community do a great job of showing people we are not devil worshipers or evil hags. Why do you think there is a fear of shows like this in the Pagan community? I think that we don’t think a person can separate reality from fiction. This is a fictional show that is for entertainment purposes…it is no different than AHS Coven or Bewitched.” – Melissa Murry

WGN America's Salem Promotional Poster

WGN America’s Salem Promotional Poster

Several posts and opinions on the internet have been aligning shows like this with active or past oppression of Pagans – expressing concerns that shows like this warp the minds of the general public who are unaware of what Paganism is. There are many different ways that oppression is categorized in society, and the Pagan community does not seem to be in accord about this classification. Is this an issue of the active oppression of Pagans that is exacerbated by the perpetual image of evil that is associated with Hollywood depictions of the Witch? Or are we looking at the reality that minority religious experiences are going to be vastly different than the mainstream religious over-culture? This type of marginalization of a minority group is not necessarily the same as oppression of a group. In reality the fear of oppression can be just as damaging as oppression itself. Should we be afraid?

“These kind of shows/movies plant seeds. even though they are fictional, there is the resonation factor. People will have these messages mixed into their mental margarita, and drink it up.” – Wild Hunt commenter Boo-Boo.

“I think the Pagan community fears such shows because of the stereotypes drawn upon and the fear that fundamentalist Christians will take that and use it as an excuse to attack Pagans, with an additional fear that people in the mainstream will believe that’s what Paganism is about. However, I think the community greatly overestimates the power of such shows to do that. While there are stereotypes drawn upon, the manner in which they are depicted is so theatrical and over the top that it actually shoots holes in the stereotypes, while also making people curious about what magic is really like.” – Taylor Ellwood.

Every time a movie or tv show about Witches is made, we are confronted with the reality of the past, and the fear that the atrocities of that past could potentially happen again. I have participated publicly in spiritual activism in  working to educate the mainstream about what Witches really are and what we do.“ – Cynthia Jurkovic.

We do know of many different stories of individuals that have had some horrific experiences of discrimination due to their Pagan beliefs. Various forms of discrimination happen in many facets of society, and Pagans are not exempt from this societal concern. Language and cultural nuances within the Pagan community refer to “coming out of the broom closet” and other references that imply a culture of minority discrimination.

Whether the individual accounts of problems related to a person’s Pagan beliefs are enough to say we are an oppressed religious group is not something easily answered. Yet I personally feel that attempts to categorize Pagans with historically-persecuted and oppressed groups of people, like African Americans, the Natives or Jews, are a big stretch. But I do recognize that prejudice does happen to those who follow a Pagan path, contributing to a fear of persecution and concern. Shows like Salem might have the potential of confirming concerns for those who already question the modern concept of a spiritual Witch, but those people are the ones that are the hardest to reach regardless. The people who are critical thinkers, and not romanticized by fictionalized Hollywood versions of super powers and evil pacts with Satan, will be the ones to remember that television is rarely true, and is meant purely for entertainment.

 

It’s an almost universal truism that coverage of Witches, witchcraft, the occult, and anything else vaguely magical in nature skyrockets during October. It’s a no-brainer content filler in a media landscape that is constantly hungry for more content, no matter how re-hashed, derivative, or lacking in an actual story-hook. This year has almost been too easy, what with (at least) three new television shows that focus on witchcraft in some form or another. If one were to look at a theme, it would be that witchcraft, and the occult more broadly, has become widely normalized within (pop) culture. To underline this, a recent CNN article runs through the many witch-themed tourist travel spots around the world (including Salem).

131021133539-salem-tourist-trade-witches-story-top

 

“Today, Salem’s witchlore has resulted in a booming tourist trade. Over 100,000 visitors pour into town during the month-long Haunted Happenings festival, which takes place every October. ‘About 85% of visitors we asked say they’re interested in the witch trials, and 80% say they’re interested in modern witches,’ explains Kate Fox, the executive director of Destination Salem. The town also boasts a strong Wiccan community, with many setting up spell shops and psychic stalls where visitors can get their palms read. While witch costumes are encouraged, green face paint is not smiled upon.”

Like it or not, Halloween has established itself as the dark mirror of Christmas in the Western holiday calendar. Anything vaguely related to death, magic, or the otherworld gets pulled into its wake, sometimes in spite of objections from the cultures being pulled in. Vodou/Voodoo is quickly becoming associated with the witchcraft-drenched autumnal season, urged on by popular shows like American Horror Story: Coven, while the pre-Columbian Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos grows in popularity every year.

Decorated skulls for Sale at Chichen Itza.

Decorated skulls for Sale at Chichen Itza.

“The tradition, initially a summer holiday, began hundreds of years ago in Mexico’s Aztec cultures, explains Louis Alvarez, one of Orale’s owners. European settlers moved the pagan ritual to coincide with the Catholic holidays of All Souls’ and All Saints’ days and helped to spread the idea to other countries.  Alvarez, 46, who was born in Ecuador and came to New Jersey at age 13, did not experience the holiday in his native land, but has seen its popularity spread during many years working in Latin restaurants. ‘It just keeps elevating every year,’ he says.”

For those of us who lay claim to the title of “Witch,” this holiday has always been a double-edged gift. On one hand it has allowed Pagan faiths increased access to popular media, on the other, much of that media has been sensationalist in nature, and often warps our message in the service of ratings. However, the bright lining in all of this attention is that the figure of the witch is changing dramatically before our very eyes. It is now deeply embedded in our culture that witchcraft is no longer solely malefic, and for every evil magic-using character, there are a growing number of sympathetic, and at times heroic, individuals who cast spells, and lay claim to the title of Witch. Some even believe this development could bring empowerment to women, changing the way we see their power.

“While not all movies and shows about witches are necessarily good, the concept of a woman being a witch and deriving her power from within presents us with the novel idea that a female-specific concept doesn’t have to be a double-edged sword.”

On a secular level, Halloween is a multi-billion dollar business, which means that the attention, and all that comes with it, will most likely not be ending any time soon. For those dismayed at what Halloween has done to sacred holidays and customs, associating them with free candy, terrible costumes, and bacchanals of excess, there’s little to be done to reverse this commercial juggernaut. However, within the fake cob-webs, horror movies, and capitalist striving, there is an opportunity to slowly change culture by merely existing within it in an uncompromising manner. By weathering the trends, by staying true to our beliefs and traditions, we become still points of reference in a maelstrom of commerce, ultimately bending the season to something more fitting our tastes. We’ve seen this slowly happen over the last 30 years, and it’s a process we can continue as this new occult obsession accelerates.

Don’t forget, make a donation to our Fall Funding Drive so The Wild Hunt can run for another year!

Unleash the Hounds is one of my longest running, and popular, features at The Wild Hunt. It is, in essence, a link roundup. A place where I find stories in the mainstream media concerning Paganism, occult practices, indigenous religions, and other topics of interest to our interconnected communities. The birth of this series came out of necessity, as more stuff is being written now than I could possible write about in-depth week-to-week. If you enjoy this feature, please take some time to make a donation to our Fall Funding Drive, so we can continue to bring you this, and other features, for another year. Thank you to everyone who helped us raise over $4000 dollars in the first few days of our drive, let’s keep the momentum going, and be sure to spread the word! Now, on to the links!

  •  A House Oversight Committee hearing this Wednesday got so intense, that Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA) decided to inject a little levity by asking Affordable Care Act Office Director Sarah Hall Ingram if she was a witch. Quote: “A Democratic Congressman mocked the GOP’s effort to demonize an IRS official during a House Oversight Committee hearing on Wednesday by asking her if she was a witch consorting with the devil. The official, Affordable Care Act Office Director Sarah Hall Ingram, said in response to questioning from Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA) that she has never worked with the devil, could not fly, and was not responsible for perverting the youth ‘in Salem or anywhere else.'” One can only imagine what would have happened had the answer been: “yes, I am a Witch, one of the many New England traditional covens.” Whatever the case, satire is a tricky thing these days.
  • Speaking of witches and witchcraft, they are so very, very, hot right now (in pop-culture). Just ask CNN“So, maybe they’re a kind of gendered response to the suave, seductive male vampire figure. Or maybe it’s just cyclical, and all of the childhood fans of ‘Hocus Pocus,’ ‘Sabrina the Teenage Witch’ and ‘Charmed’ are writing for TV now! […] The featured supernatural characters on those shows are usually men, too (not exclusively, but overwhelmingly). These new witch characters are giving women more power and agency to control their destinies, instead of just being objects of desire in need of saving, which is a nice change.” The article notes that “Hollywood now can’t seem to get enough of witches.”
  • Did Roman aristocrats fabricate the story of Jesus? Probably not. But here’s a documentary claiming exactly that! Quote: “On October 19 Atwill will present some provocative new findings in London. Atwill’s thesis is that the New Testament was written by first-century Roman aristocrats who fabricated the entire story of Jesus Christ. Per Atwill: ‘The Caesars committed a crime against consciousness. They reached into the minds of their subjects and planted false concepts to make them easier to control.’ Atwill claims to have iron-clad proof of his claims.” Hey, remember all those religions that disappeared after various individuals debunked them? Yeah, me neither.
  • Fox News reports on the witchcraft tourist trade in Nicaragua. Quote: “Americans get dressed up for Halloween, take kids trick or treating, and tell tales about ghosts and witches. But in Nicaragua, some locals and curious tourists seek out real, live witches—or brujos, who claim to be able to cast spells on people and cure all sorts of ailments, including impotency, male pattern baldness and more.” The reporter spends a lot of time trying to see if the local witches will reveal secrets or do malefic magic for him. They seem, understandably, hesitant to indulge him.
  • Hammer Films has purchased the film rights to Jeanette Winterson’s novella “The Daylight Gate”, about one of England’s most infamous witch-trials. Quote: “I was interested to take the Hammer novella commission to write a good story around the notorious Pendle witch trials of 1612. Now I am intrigued and excited to see what new form these ghosts can inhabit. Stories from the past are always present; it is our imaginations that make it so.” The pop-culture witch trend continues…
A promotional still from American Horror Story: Coven.

A promotional still from American Horror Story: Coven.

  • A Flavorwire, Michele Dean can’t wait for pop-culture to embrace witchcraft once more. Quote: “In the 1990s, when I was a teenager, witches were everywhere. Today people often reference the Fairuza Balk/Neve Campbell movie The Craft as though it were the driver of that trend in the culture. But it actually came awfully late in my experience of fellow young-nerd-women who retreated into Wicca and Paganism as a way of coping with social ostracization. They weren’t the ordinary-looking witches of Charmed or even Buffy, but people who enjoyed wearing velvet chokers and thanking the Goddess and drawing Celtic runes. It was very often very silly, I agree, and there were certainly paths that even my extremely socially disenfranchised self declined to follow them down. But while their actual powers were a matter of dispute, just the practice and ritual seemed to be enough to give them a measure of much-needed self-respect.” A message to my fellow Witches out there, prepare for a new deluge. Seriously.
  • The Huffington Post interviews Incan Shaman Elena Radford. Quote: “That’s what a shaman does — tune into the energy of the environment: mountains, animals, plants, people in the past, and energies from other worlds. These skills that come through the heart allow a shaman to communicate with these different realities.” 
  • Oh, and did I mention that the New York Times has also chimed in about the pop-culture resurgence of the witch? Quote: “There’s something very beautiful about witch stories — the full moon, the mystery, the chants — but it’s also a way to explore female power […] To me, witch stories are really female versions of superhero stories. They’re fantasies. And there’s something very potent about those fantasies. On one level, this is a fun yarn about women learning to use these supernatural gifts, but it’s also a metaphor for things that we all need to do in our lives, in our adulthood, to own who we really are and feel comfortable with it. To not be afraid to use our gifts.” Also, Glamour is totally on board with the return of witches.
  • Dangerous Minds (almost) attends a Gnostic Mass. They do not eat the Cakes of Light. Quote: “This is a special, invitational Gnostic Mass, and a couple, like me, are invitees (though presumably bona fide neophytes rather than tremulous hacks). At least one seems a little nervous, while the OTO initiates—mostly middle aged men with either long hair or none, each with unusually pale blue eyes—inspect us with that slightly salacious curiosity with which people on one side of an experience examine those at its verge. In the pub Adrian had referred to magick as ‘psychological transgression.’ I can see what he means! The atmosphere is a distinct mixture of the religious and the illicit—as if we were all here for an afternoon of metaphysical dogging.”
  • There’s a new edition of Robert Graves’ “The White Goddess” out, you can read an excerpt at Tor.com. Quote: “This labyrinthine and extraordinary book, first published more than sixty years ago, was the outcome of Robert Graves’ vast reading and curious research into strange territories of folklore, mythology, religion, and magic. Erudite and impassioned, it is a scholar-poet’s quest for the meaning of European myths, a polemic about the relations between man and woman, and also an intensely personal document in which Graves explored the sources of his own inspiration and, as he believed, all true poetry. This new edition has been prepared by Grevel Lindop, who has written an illuminating introduction. The text of the book incorporates all of Graves’s final revisions, his replies to two of the original reviewers, and a long essay in which he describes the months of inspiration in which The White Goddess was written.”

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. Don’t forget, make a donation to our Fall Funding Drive so The Wild Hunt can run for another year!

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.

Nina Davuluri

Nina Davuluri

meet

  • Sometimes the tourist-attraction witch business is so good you decide to go solo, at least that seems to be the case with the latest Wookey Hole witch, Sunny Van der Pas, who wants to launch her own clothing line. Quote: “Actress Sunny Van der Pas is leaving her role after two years to launch her own clothing line based upon her costumes. But now directors at the popular tourist attraction need a little magic of their own to find a replacement witch in time for Halloween. […] The attraction employs a witch pro rata, largely over the summer holidays, Halloween and Christmas, They are expected to live in the site’s caves during busy periods and to teach witchcraft and magic. The role normally attracts thousands of applicants, who then compete in for the post X Factor style auditions.” For the uninitiated, the Wookey Hole cave system in the UK (about 20 miles from Bath) has become something like the British version of Salem here (except even more tourist-y).
  • NPR highlights Candomblé in Brazil, spurred by a recent survey that saw an uptick in adherents. Quote: “Sitting among the faithful here is Marcilio Costa, who is the commercial officer at a foreign consulate in Sao Paulo. He became an initiate a year and a half ago, and he says he’s open about it. ‘Among Brazilians, yes. People understand better now. … All my friends know my religion, every single one of them,’ Costa says. ‘I don’t hide from no one.'”
  • The Paris Review interviews poet Gregory Orr, who opines on the nature of myths. Quote: “The beautiful thing about myths is that you’re never telling a myth, you’re retelling it. People already know the story. You don’t have to create a narrative structure, and you don’t have to figure out where it ends. As a lyric poet, you can take the moments of greatest intensity in the myth, or the moments that interest you most, or the ways of looking at the story that you think would be most fun to rethink—you don’t have to do the whole story. You want to know what human mystery can be revealed by retelling it. D. H. Lawrence said that myths are symbols of inexhaustible human mysteries. You can tell them a hundred, a thousand times, and you’ll never exhaust the mystery that’s coded into that story. That may be a little hyperbolic, but I believe it.” 
  • The Secular Student Alliance has launched the “Secular Safe Zones” program at high schools and colleges. Quote: “The program enlists ‘allies’ like Schmidt among faculty, administrators, counselors and others on college and high school campuses who are trained in the needs of nonreligious — or ‘secular’ — students. So far, there are Secular Safe Zone allies at 26 college and high school campuses in 14 states, including California, Nevada, Ohio, Utah, Illinois, Florida and New York.” This is based off of similar LGBTQ efforts, and you have to wonder how long it will be before various religious groups launch their own “safe zone” programs.
  • Blah, blah, blah, Christian persecution in the United States, blah, blah, blah, Obama is a pagan, blah blah blah. Quote: “As Barber explained, the Obama administration is the “modern-day equivalent” of ancient Rome, demanding that citizens must worship Caesar in the form of progressiveism.”

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.

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.

Evo Morales receiving the blessing of the Aymara priests.

Evo Morales receiving the blessing of the Aymara priests.

  • Is Bolivia imposing an animist/indigenous worldview on Christians? That’s the charge some Christian groups are making in the wake of a new law which oversees the recognition of religious groups in the country. Quote: “They want to control the activities of the evangelical churches,” Agustín Aguilera, president of ANDEB, told the Santa Cruz newspaper El Deber. “Article 15 (of the law) would force all religious organizations to carry out our activities within the parameters of the ‘horizon of good living,’ which is based on the [ethnic] Aymara worldview. This is an imposition of a cultural and spiritual worldview totally foreign to ours.” It should be noted that the ethos of “Living Well,” while originating in indigenous thought, does not force a particular theology. Since Christianity Today is so concerned with people being forced to conform to religious philosophies not of their choosing, I’m sure they’ll speak out against a monarch in Nigeria who converted to Christianity and is now jettisoning traditional practices beloved by the locals. Right? Any day now…
  • Sociologist Robert Bartholomew says there’s a “sudden upsurge” in cases of mass psychogenic illness, better known in the common parlance as “mass hysteria” Worse, Bartholomew says that it can now spread via social media, which is bad news for those trying to prevent another “Satanic Panic,” or plain-old witch-hunt for that matter. Quote: “In a paper titled “Mass Psychogenic Illness and the Social Network: is it changing the pattern of outbreaks?” Bartholomew writes, ‘Local priests, who were inevitably summoned to exorcise the ‘demons’, faced a daunting task given the widespread belief in witchcraft, but they were fortunate in one regard: they did not have to contend with mobile phones, Twitter and Facebook.’ However, the old and the new are more intertwined than one might expect. Two separate strangers messaged Thera through Facebook saying she needed an exorcism.”
  • Greek Jews live in fear of the Golden Dawn, an extremist political party that’s been on the rise in the wake of austerity and fiscal crisis. Their words and actions are getting increasingly reminiscent of another European political party that arose during a time of fiscal crisis.  Quote: “In Athens on July 24, another song was heard — a Greek version of a Horst Wessel song, a Nazi anthem. The Golden Dawn Party blasted it outside its headquarters while handing out free food to “Greeks only.” Golden Dawn says it wants to “clean” Greece of foreigners. Its black-shirted supporters attack poor South Asian and African migrants, claiming they’re all in Greece illegally. The violence scares Orietta Treveza, a Greek-Jewish educator who has three young daughters. ‘It’s very scary because we think that we are next,’ she says. ‘It’s not going to end with the immigrants.'” For those wondering, the party did/does embrace nationalistic pseudo-pagan trappings, but has also realized the populist potential of catering to Greek Orthodoxy. Like most fascists, belief and tradition are simply avenues to power.
  • Satanic Panic bottom-feeder Bob Larson and his troupe of teenage exorcists have hit London, and the results are pretty much exactly what you’d expect. Quote: “Savannah seriously weighed in on why London is full of dark forces, explaining, ‘I think it’s been centuries in the making, but I believe it all kind of came to a pinnacle, a peak, with the Harry Potter books that have come out, and the Harry Potter rage that swept across England.’ Her sister Tess agreed, commenting, ‘The spells and things that you’re reading in the Harry Potter books? Those aren’t just something that are made up– those are actual spells. Those are things that came from witchcraft books.'” There’s the fruit of reality television for you, anything so long as it draws attention. Oh, and there’s going to be new Harry Potter soon, so I guess Satan wins again?
  • A United Nations housing expert has criticized a new “bedroom tax” in the UK, so naturally the Daily Fail accuses her of being a Marxist Witch. Quote: “Her lengthy CV lists countless qualifications, civic achievements, books and publications – but Raquel Rolnik makes no mention of dabbling in witchcraft. Yet the architect and urban planner appears to be an avid follower of Candomble, an African-Brazilian religion that originated during the slave trade. The academic, brought up a Marxist, actually offered an animal sacrifice to Karl Marx…” This is yet another reason why Pagans should not support or link to this tabloid.
An image from the "Abused Goddesses" campaign against domestic violence.

An image from the “Abused Goddesses” campaign against domestic violence.

  • A lot of attention has been paid recently to the “Abused Goddesses” awareness campaign against domestic violence, which features representations of Hindu goddesses that carry bruises and cuts from beatings. However, reactions from Hindus have been somewhat mixed. Praneta Jha of the Hindustan Times says that “trapping women into images of a supposed ideal is one of the oldest strategies of patriarchy – and if we do not fit the image, it is deemed alright to ‘punish’ and violate us.” Sayantani DasGupta at The Feminist Wire notes that “these images of Hindu goddesses looking sorrowful and downtrodden undermine culturally located sources of female power – however ‘contradictory’.” Lakshmi Chaudhry calls it a “giant step backward for womankind,” and USF professor Vamsee Juluri adds that “there has been such a great deal of misrepresentation, if not outright malicious propaganda, about Hinduism, that the campaign already seems to many Hindus to be a perpetuation of that, rather than a sincere attempt to address the real problem of domestic violence.” Finally, Suhag A. Shukla says that “what will be the ultimate test of the success of this campaign, however, is if it is able to stop the first of many abusers from letting his raised hand meet its intended target.”
  • Does philosophy have a problem with women? Katy Waldman at Slate.com ponders: “Taken one by one, the various explanations for philosophy’s woman problem are like Zeno’s arrow, inching ever closer to a target they can’t quite hit.”
  • In Israel, the tradition of participating in the kaparot ritual using a live chicken has caused debate after MK Rabbi Dov Lipman of Yesh Atid called the practice “deplorable” and “pagan.” Quote: “The ritual involves circling a live chicken over one’s head three times and symbolically transferring one’s sins to the animal. The chicken is then slaughtered and eaten. Many have the practice of donating the chicken’s meat to the poor […] Lipman urged Jews to perform the kaparot ritual with money or with flowers instead, as many currently do.”
  • Mitch Horowitz writes about how the occult brought cremation to America. Quote: “Cremation was introduced to America in the 1870s by a retired Civil War colonel, Henry Steel Olcott. As a Union Army staff colonel and military investigator, Olcott had amassed a distinguished record, which included routing out fraud among defense contractors and making some of the first arrests in the Lincoln assassination. In his post-military life as a lawyer and journalist, Olcott developed a deep interest in the esoteric and paranormal — which drove his fascination with the then-exotic rite of burning the dead.”
  • Definition of a slow news day: these leaves and overgrowth on power lines look somewhat like a witch! Wow! Really? Let’s get that spread around as quickly as possible.

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.

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.

Vic Toews

Vic Toews

After the katsina handover, Hopi and the delegation exchanged gifts.

After the katsina handover, Hopi and the delegation exchanged gifts.

  • Back in April, the sale of sacred Hopi objects in France went ahead despite protests from the Hopi tribe of northeastern Arizona, Survival International, and the actor Robert Redford, who called the sale “a sacrilege, a criminal gesture that contains grave moral repercussions.”  Now, Survival International reports that at least one sacred katsina was returned by a buyer who participated in the auction to retrieve it for the Hopi. Quote: “M. Servan-Schreiber then bought one katsina at the auction to return it to the Hopi. He said, ‘It is my way of telling the Hopi that we only lost a battle and not the war. I am convinced that in the future, those who believe that not everything should be up for sale will prevail. In the meantime, the Hopi will not have lost everything since two of these sacred objects have been saved from being sold.’” A second katsina acquired at the auction by another buyer will be returned to the Hopi later this year.
  • Are prisoners in the UK claiming to be Pagan to get extra benefits? Possibly! Though, this is a tabloid so no real data is given other than that self-described Pagans behind bars has nearly doubled to 602 since 2009. Quote: “The surge in paganism behind bars has sparked fears some may be converting for an easier life.” A Prison Service spokesperson noted that Pagan prisoners receive 4 days off per year, and no more.
  • The New York Times profiles the Living Interfaith Church in Washington, a religion that embraces all religions, even Pagans. Quote: “Some of the congregants began arriving to help. There was Steve Crawford, who had spent his youth in Campus Crusade for Christ, and Gloria Parker, raised Lutheran and married to a Catholic, and Patrick McKenna, who had been brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness and now called himself a pagan.” One wonders if the local Unitarian-Universalist congregation wasn’t theologically inclusive enough? Religion scholar Stephen Prothero notes that “one reason we have different religions is that we have different rituals and different beliefs. Those are not insignificant.”
  • Is 2013 the year of the Witch? Pam Grossman at the Huffington Post seems to think so. Quote: “As the year progresses I predict we will all more fully channel the spirit of the witch. Honoring the earth and our bodies; shifting away from mass-market medicines and agri-business toward natural healing and whole foods; sharing our resources rather than focusing on mere accumulation of goods; collaborating and communicating more openly; helping to elevate women and girls to equality all over the world: these are all grand workings of feminine magic that we are manifesting together.” Pardon me while I pick up every stitch.
  • Lisa Derrick at La Figa isn’t fond of Rick Perry voodoo dolls, saying “they perpetuate dangerous, off-base stereotypes and do nothing to help either pro-choice factions or non-Christians.”

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.

I am starting this journey in the early days of American cinema; from its inception in 1895 through its development into a viable culturally-influential industry. I’ve dated this period as “pre-1939.”  Many of you will recognize 1939 as being the release date of Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM)’s classic film The Wizard of Oz, a film that contains the most iconic Hollywood witch in American cultural history.

From 1895 to 1916 moving pictures were just a technical novelty. As film historian Jeanine Basinger said, “No one really took movies very seriously. It was thought that they were a fad.” Most early movies depicted actual events, landscape photography, historical re-enactments or popular stories. (Basinger, American Cinema, 1994)

During these first two decades, only nine American films contained a witch.  Of these nine, five were dramatizations of beloved fantasy stories. The list includes The Magic Sword (1901), The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910), His Majesty the Scarecrow (1914), Mary PIckford in Cinderella (1914), and Snow White (1916).

In all of these films, the witch is a non-threatening, non-theological fairy tale construct. Her appearance and behavior recall the circus-clown or court jester with a big round collar and colorful patchwork clothing, or a heavy wizard cape and cone hat.  She plays the role of the buffoon.

William Wenslow's Wicked Witch from the original printing of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

William Wenslow’s Wicked Witch from the original printing of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Because this is the silent film era, filmmakers primarily used visual cues to define character. To do so, they had to draw from pre-cinematic cultural sources in order to speak to their viewers.  The witch as clown motif can be found in still renderings from that time period. It is even a common element in Mother Goose drawings. Additionally, all of these stooped, elderly witches are surrounded by other non-cinematic icons such as brooms, cauldrons, and pointed hats.

The concept of magic focuses on transformation and trickery. For example, In His Majesty the Scarecrow (1914), Mombi the Witch transforms her three ugly companions into beautiful maidens. In Snow White (1916), the witch transforms the Queen from bland to beautiful. The use of magic in this way is reminiscent of something you might find in a Shakespearean comedy of mistaken identity (e.g. As You Like It)

Of the earliest nine films, the remaining four did not recreate fantasy stories. However, they have very little influence on the construction of the Hollywood witch. These include a lost animated experimental short called Bewitched Matches (1913). The first filming of Shakespeare’s MacBeth (1916) and an historical narrative called The Witch of Salem (1913).

The fourth film, The Mysteries of Myra (1915), is the most interesting of these early witch movies. The popular seventeen part film serial recounts the tale of Myra Maynard, the daughter of an Occult leader, who is repeatedly hunted by her dead father’s devil-worshipping Order. In each episode, the narrative tackles an Occult subject with no mention of witchcraft until episode thirteen. In this aptly numbered episode, a cloaked witch helps Myra escape the satanic Order.

Film restoration artist Eric Stedman, notes that episode thirteen is the only one to “introduce traditional fantasy – magic and characters rather than concepts derived from then – current spiritualism.”  What spiritualism? He is referring to  the public’s growing interest in Occult practice and, of course, Aleister Crowley. Some of the film’s Occult imagery  recalls the popular images of Crowley himself.  Interestingly, at the time of filming, Crowley was living in New England not terribly far from the production lots in Ithaca, NY.  .

Shot from one of the Occult scenes from The Mysteries of Myra (1915)

Shot from one of the Occult scenes from The Mysteries of Myra (1915)

Despite the narrative proximity of witchcraft and Satanism in the serial, the writers clearly separated the two magical practices.  In this way, the witch remained a fantasy construction.  At some point in the pre-cinematic entertainment world, the witch was separated from her satanic connection and became trapped within a fairy tale.  As such, she is denied all theological relevance or esoteric meaning – good or bad.  Although it is outside my exploration, I would speculate that this is the result of Victorian cultural styling and the increasing dominance of rational thought.

Now, let’s move to the period ranging from 1916 to 1932.  During these sixteen years, there is only one Witch film – a lost animated short called At Rainbow’s End (1925).  Why did the witch disappear? At this time movies had transitioned from novelty to commodity. The new industry, now located in California, had to maintain viewer interest through realistic sensationalized marketing strategies.  Remember, this is before the Production Code. The fantasy witch had no place in salacious, adult entertainment and, therefore, disappeared.  (Eric Smoodin, Animating Culture, 1993)

However, by 1932, the world and Hollywood had drastically changed.  Silent films turned to sound (Talkies) and the Hayes Commission began enforcing its Catholic-based moral censorship code. Additionally, the country had lived through a World War, the free-wheeling roaring 1920s and was now in a deep economic depression. Hollywood responded with wholesome, upbeat and glittery escapist films. Not surprisingly the fantasy witch reappears.  From 1932-1939, Hollywood produced five witch films including Disney’s Babes in the Woods (1932), Betty Boop’s Snow White (1933), Betty Boop’s Baby Be Good (1935), The Greedy Humpty Dumpty (1937) and Disney’s Snow White (1937).

At first glance, these animated witches appear to be similar to the earlier variety.  They are “hags in rags” with cauldrons, brooms and pointy hats.  However, there is a difference.  In Disney’s Babes in the Woods (1932), the witch plays the buffoon, but she is more grotesque in form.  Her pointy face and emaciated body are gangly and sharply angled.  Her clothes, now dark and ragged, are topped with a flowing torn cape.  This iconic look is repeated over and over throughout the period.

wicked-queen-685

Walt Disney’s Wicked Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Then in 1937 Disney released what would become his masterpiece – the first full-length animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  In its wake, the film created a famous American Hollywood witch – the Wicked Queen. She is the first witch to step out of the side-show act and enter the realm of macabre.  Disney’s Queen is an amalgam of the early fairy tale witch, the 1930s animated hag and something new, something darker.  While she is still trapped within the fairy tale narrative, she is frightening and intense in both her forms:  “a hag in rags” and glamorous queen.

In addition, for the first time in Hollywood’s history, we witness the witch as a representative of “transgressive female sexuality.” Film professor Elizabeth Bell notes that Disney’s production papers describe the Queen’s “beauty as sinister, mature [with] plenty of curves.” The Wicked Queen is a femme fatale who is defined as “represent[ing] demonic natural forces that, like a cyclone, threaten to uproot man from himself.”  In this historic film, the Hollywood witch transmutes into what feminist film theorist Barbara Creed calls “the monstrous feminine.”  (Elizabeth Bell, “Somatexts at the Disney Shop,” From Mouse to Mermaid, 1995)

During the Pre-1939 period, the witch began her journey as a side-show act devoid of any esoteric or theological meaning.  By the end, she had transformed into an allegory for the powerful, independent, sexualized woman.  Was this a function of America’s need to reinforce traditional gender roles during the Depression? Or was it simply a function of Disney’s own conservative nature?

In the next post, we’ll move on and follow the transformation.  Next stop, the year 1939 with the release of The Wizard of Oz and the birth of the all-American Hollywood Witch.