Archives For Witchcraft

Rob Collins as Waruu West in ABCs Cleverman

Rob Collins as Waruu West in ABCs Cleverman [Publicity Still]

“Firstly, it’s The Dreaming. Present tense. Our stories are not static, they’re not locked in the past, bound, just as Hairypeople are not bound by what is,” says Waruu West (Rob Collins) in ABC’s latest original Australian drama Cleverman.  Found in the second instalment ‘Containment,’ this moment stood out. Collins, playing an Indigenous spokesperson on a TV news panel discussion, delivers the line with acid on his tongue, shifting in his seat and barely able to maintain his countenance to suit the panel’s format, which is supposed to represent the epitome of polite society in serious discussion.

In the world of Cleverman, the Dreaming is mentioned here with the same condescension it might be on an actual TV weekly news and current affairs panel. I’ve seen enough Aboriginal Elders and commentators on such shows to know that Collins did not have to look very far to inspire his character’s reaction in this moment. As an Indigenous man himself, Collins probably didn’t even need that.

In the make-believe dystopian near future of Cleverman, not six months before the action takes up with the first episode, the Dreaming just materialised in the form of the Hairypeople. What was once thought of as just an Aboriginal story and a monster to scare children, is now flesh and blood. They are an entirely different species of human that is stronger, faster, harder, covered in hair, and absolutely not a figment of some distant story derived from an uncivilised past. This narrative fact makes the host’s condescension in this scene all the more misplaced, purposefully nasty.

[Above: Q&A Monday 09 June, 2014. Aunty Rosalie Kunoth-Monks’ “I am not the problem” speech, in conversation regarding John Pilger’s Utopia.]

This point in the show also created a moment during which, it was white Australian viewers’ turn to shift uncomfortably in their seats, if they had not already. In that scene, with its similarity to real day-to-day viewing, it felt like director Wayne Blair, and writers Michael Miller and Jon Bell were speaking directly to us. And I confess: it was my turn for a little bit of solidarity with my Indigenous Brothers and Sisters fist pumping. Waruu’s statement contained within it something that could easily translate to my own experience as a Pagan and a Witch: Our Mythos. Present tense. Our stories are not static, they’re not locked in the past, bound, just as the Otherworlds are not bound by what is.

Cleverman is a futuristic sci-fi narrative told using the contemporary language of television and chocked full of very real and very current issues. Included in its themes are Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, forced imprisonment, our nation’s crimes against humanity, as well as the physical, mental, and emotional trauma suffered at our hands by those most vulnerable: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, immigrants, and refugees. Additionally, the show includes the Scientific Frankenstein, the Shady Media Mogul, themes of fear, terror, racism, bigotry, atrocity, isolation, desperation, violence, and police brutality.

These details are all woven together in a sprawling story that we should in fact not be confused about at all. However, it is the twist with which it’s told that is the real highlight. The fictional Hairypeople are lifted directly from several Aboriginal Dreaming stories. They speak Gumbaynggirr, a language from northern New South Wales, as is the Namorrodor, the monster stalking urban Sydney. Indigenous actors dominate in both the Indigenous and Hairypeople roles. The Cleverman is a cultural facticity.

Hunter Page-Lochard as Koen West on Cleverman show poster

Hunter Page-Lochard as Koen West on Cleverman [Publicity Poster for SundanceTV]

Our reluctant hero Koen West, is Aboriginal, a refreshing change from what we so often see highlighted by Australian and international news. Koen, an opportunistic young Indigenous man who refuses to choose a tribe, has suddenly had the Cleverman superhero powers thrust upon him. The power is real and present in this show’s world. It is manifest in Koen, Waruu, in the Hairypeople, and in the short (but always sparkling) performance of Jack Charles as Uncle Jimmy the Cleverman who passes the nulla nulla (or waddi a warrior’s club) of the Cleverman onto Koen.

If Koen stands as a proxy for young Indigenous viewers, then the narrative comes with a dare: Pick up your power, claim your strength. Our Dreaming is not static. None are left to wonder about the nature of that strength and power. It’s Indigenous and it comes from a very real place.

In this way, Cleverman is the Dreaming. The show is Indigenous story soaked with a real Indigenous past and a contemporary Indigenous experience. With the help of CGI and special effects, the show demonstrates how the Dreaming contains within it the ability to confront new issues and problems with no less potency. The Dreaming refuses to stay static.

The Dreaming is not at odds with western science, political systems, media, or indeed, the future. Rather, here, the Dreaming uses all these modern ideas and formats to its own end. Standing alongside these contemporary mainstream Australian institutions as equally valid and powerful, the show tells a story of change, of how it is made manifest in those who engage with it, and how it can reclaim itself – its Indigenousness – from those very institutions who have sought to diminish it. The Dreaming claims itself, as strong, powerful, old, political, and social, and entirely relevant, in the now.

It is here, precisely at this moment, that Australian Pagans and Witches should feel the pangs of empathy. This is art as story magic.

In the first place, we should be familiar with the historical arc that underpins the show. In summary, cultural practices, myths and stories are outlawed, then, after a time, they are repackaged as oddities from a distant past for children’s entertainment. Then, finally, adults start taking these “oddities” back.

Pagans around the world know this story. In recent times, we have seen a major resurgence in many myths and folktales. Appearing on the small and silver screens alike, these stories are being torn apart and remade with entirely relevant themes and contemporary issues, and very often strictly for adults. Examples range from American Horror Story: Coven‘s unabashed, subversive femaleness in all its complicated and messy glory; to the miraculous image at the end of The Witch showing power embraced as the young protagonist is liberated; to Michael Hirst’s Vikings in which a historical Pagan worldview is given prominence over early Christian ideas. Even at Disney, the early and mid-20th Century children’s stories are being approached anew, with the likes of Angelina Jolie’s turn as the Mistress of All Evil in MaleficentWe get this.

However, these things – our myths, reimagined in the mainstream, artistic, and pop culture spheres – can serve to be a hindrance to the legitimisation of contemporary Pagan and Witchcraft discourse. They can be wildly disrespectful and further propagate tired tropes and negative stereotypes that influence the very real lives of the Neopagan and Witchcraft communities. These things do not exist in a vacuum. But at their best, they can serve as a powerful quickening to such communities, who, in turn, find the inspiration to readdress the magical and mythical narratives within the ritual space itself.

These modern retellings can normalise themes and ideas in the mainstream, which can then further legitimise those same ideas as they are contained within our contemporary discourse. The young and aspiring seeker of the Craft, for example, can find heroes and heroines in these places, urging them to look further.

Pick up your power, claim your strength. Our Myths are not static.

As a story and as a Dreaming narrative, Cleverman excels at demonstrating that power is best realised through the creative vision, voice and bodies of those who are living a direct experience of it already. Inside contemporary culture, it further demonstrates the power of community support and participation required to push forward with these new narratives. Cleverman‘s mainstream success and positive reviews are a testament to two hundreds years of fighting to legitimise Indigenous voices.

This is a lesson Pagans in Australia can take away. It is a salient reminder that our own myths are strong, powerful, old, political, and social, and entirely relevant, now.

Especially as Australian Pagan communities begin to increasingly realise their social and political voices, it is this thought that should stay in the back of our minds when we engage with Pagan discourse, writing, art, and craft, and reimagine our stories inside our ritual space to confront and work with contemporary and very real social and political issues. It is important to promote that same creative talent inside our communities in order to achieve change, justice, fairness, highlight social issues right now.

These ideas and concepts are all on top of the stand-alone joy of engaging with Australian Indigenous voices and creative talent as found through Cleverman. The final episode of season one was aired Thursday, July 7.  This particular episode felt like one giant teaser for season two. It left me wanting much more.

We left our anti-hero, Koen, much less “anti” and coming finally into his own, as all sides are baying for war. I agree with AV Club‘s Brandon Nowalk, whose review pointed out the first season was more promise than delivery in terms of story.  It was a season of exposition that has left a carefully crafted set of characters ready for the real meat of season two.

But that exposition can be easily forgiven. After all, there would only be a handful of people on this continent with enough knowledge of Aboriginal Law and Dreaming not to require background information. I can only imagine the culture shock and complete lack of context for those watching in the US and, shortly, the UK.

Thankfully, for those interested, there are a few helpful guides that wade into the dystopian near future of Cleverman‘s Sydney. This includes Zebbie Watson’s guide at Inverse, and The Guardian‘s episode by episode recaps. For some extra fun, check out the behind the scenes video with Adam Briggs and, one of my favourite Australian voices, Gurrumul Yunupingu and the inspiration for the Cleverman theme song.

Behind the Theme Song – “Cleverman” from Goalpost Pictures on Vimeo.

A new independent fiction film exploring Witchcraft has hit the festival circuit. Anna Biller‘s latest film The Love Witch is a colorful feast of pathological obsession, violence, narcissism, love and Witchcraft. Filmed in 35mm, the film contains a remarkable retro flair combined with a contemporary sensibility. Through the film, Biller explores both modern themes, such as the expression of female fantasy and non-traditional religious practice, along with age-old struggles involving gender politics and romantic love.

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In an interview, Biller told The Wild Hunt, “I can’t remember the exact moment I decided to make this film, but it initially came from getting interested in pulp novel covers and being struck by the images of witches on some of them.” Her research began while shooting publicity stills for the film VIVA. Biller said, “The first real eureka moment I remember was being in a pulp novel bookstore in San Francisco several years ago, and picking up a 1970s pulp novel called ‘For the Witch, a Stone.’ That novel sparked the beginnings of my script.”

The Love Witch tells the story of Elaine, a single woman and Witch, who lives in northern California. We meet her as she first moves into a new apartment within a classic Victorian home. The space is owned by a friend and Wiccan High Priestess named Barbara and was decorated to reflect a Witchcraft aesthetic.The film then follows Elaine through her negotiations of love, dating, friendship and ritual practice.

It sounds as if the film might be better described as a drama or maybe even a romantic comedy. However, it’s neither. This is horror film. Elaine is a sociopath, who moves through the extremes of desire devouring men, in hopes of finding true love. The film, in many ways, can be described as George Romero’s Hungry Wives (1972) meets Bret Easton Ellis novel American Psycho. While neither work is a perfect comparison, The Love Witch fits somewhere between the two. Hungry Wives tells the story of a lost middle-age woman searching to regain her power, and ultimately finding it in Witchcraft. American Psycho tells the story of a violent sociopath who empowers himself through the extremes of a narcissistic and violent male fantasy.

Elaine, like Joan in Hungry Wives, is a victim of a male-dominated society. As demonstrated in a flashback voice over, Elaine’s father calls her stupid, crazy and “a fatty,” and her ex-husband complains about her cooking and the housekeeping. Like Joan, Elaine turns to Witchcraft to find her own power. She tells a police offer, “Witchcraft saved my life.”

Yet, at the same time, Elaine takes this self-empowerment tool to an obsessive extreme. Like American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman, Elaine is a sociopath who functions through the realization of personal fantasy regardless of the outcome. The expression of that extreme becomes the basis of film’s theme and where it finds its horror.

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When discussing her use of horror, Biller said that she wanted to “use the genre to subvert the genre.” She explained, “When you market your film as horror it sets up certain expectations, and then through the course of the film you can subvert these expectations.”

Traditional horror films present women as the victims of male violence and aggression, the over-sexualized subject of the male gaze and the monstrous unknownable, which is often a witch. Biller says, “Elaine is not a monster, except insofar as she is selfish and narcissistic. She does not destroy out of some evil power, but because she is unstable and is the type of person who creates chaos around her. But she is fully human, and she is sympathetic because you can see why she’s turned out the way she has. So you don’t get the stereotype of an evil witch or an evil temptress.”

In addition, traditional American horror films, specifically those from the 1970s, conflate violence, Witchcraft, Satanism, occultism and voyeuristic displays of the female body. After 1968, there was a huge upswing in the number of these American exploitation films centering on Satanic witchcraft (e.g., Rosemary’s Baby, 1968; Necromancy, 1972). They were all created by men, many of whom gained notoriety making “nudies” or “sexploitation” films during the previous decade. To build their witchcraft scenes, these filmmakers relied heavily on newly published or newly available occult material by Anton le Vey, Paul Huson, Gerald Gardner, Raymond Buckland, Sybil Leek and others. They took what they needed in order to form a highly sensationalized product that fed a growing “counterculture” audience. While this particular sub-genre lost momentum by 1980, the expression of ritual Witchcraft practice has never fully emerged beyond that trope in mainstream American film.

While The Love Witch recalls those period films, in its retro styling and striking visuals. it actually subverts the genre, as Biller suggested, in a number of ways that are reflected in her presentation of Witchcraft. First, the male gaze, as defined by feminist film critic and theorist Laura Mulvy, doesn’t exist.The film’s display of nudity is not focused only on women’s bodies, but on both men and women equally. While the scenes are visually graphic, they are not exploitative. In the older horror witch films, it was typical for ritual or coven scenes to contain only naked, or partially naked, women (e.g., Blood Sabbath, 1972). There are rarely any men. In Biller’s film, both genders participate sky clad around the sabbat circle and both genders, fully clothed, serve as on-lookers in robes. There is a gender equality in the visual display of Witchcraft ritual.

All displays of female bodies in a true voyeuristic setting, such as in the dance club, are purposeful and part of Biller’s commentary as suggested by her framing choices. The camera doesn’t caress.

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In addition, the typical horror tropes used to define Witchcraft were completely absent. The ceremonial practice is not defined as demonic-based, evil, fantastical, or derived from an historical Salem mythos. In fact, part of Biller’s project was to present Paganism in a contemporary light. To make this possible, she began her research with books and films from prominent authors, including Janet Farrar, Amber K, Aleister Crowley, Gerald Gardner, Alex and Maxine Sanders, and others. She said, “Several people in the cast who played witches were practicing witches, and I talked with them about their practices. I also lurked on internet forums and read a lot of blogs and articles, and interviewed some of my friends who are witches.”

But her work took her even further into exploring Paganism, and she reached out to the community. Biller said that, while writing the script, she attended “a few rituals, classes and study groups […] and did some solitary practice.” She added, “I have always been an uncanny sort of person and slightly psychic.” She received her first Tarot deck, the Marseilles Tarot, as a child. And, she owns a copy of a rare edition of Crowley’s Magick Without Tears, which was originally given to her father as a gift. Biller said that, while she doesn’t identify as a Witch, she does “practice magic and the Tarot at home” and “believes in spiritual entities.”

Although the presentation of Witchcraft is contemporary and remarkably accurate in many of its details, there is also a stylized exaggeration to the entire presentation that makes the Pagan reality feel completely contrived. The ritual scenes look almost like cartoon versions of Wiccan ceremonies with bold washes of color and stylized set decor. Elaine’s potion making recalls a mad scientist rather than a witch, and the coven’s unexpected appearance as Renaissance Medieval players is almost laughable.

With that said, this is just how the film represents its entire universe – not just the practice of Witchcraft. Elaine herself is caricature – a life sculpted to conform to the unreality of a heterosexual male fantasy. “Give men what they want,” Elaine advises her friend Trish. The contrived nature of the film plays out consistently from the visual elements and dialog to the narrative and themes. The large blocks of vivid color, such as the red of her purse, the purple on the walls, the blue on her eyelids, give the film a dramatic and surreal look that reflects the bizarre extremes found in the main character’s inner world.

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Biller said, “The design comes mostly from character symbolism. I tried to create Elaine’s character according to her self-fantasies, in which she is a sexy, 1960s-styled done-up burlesque pulp-novel cover witch who drives a cool car; the tea room is pink and Victorian as a way of pointing up Elaine’s personal fairy princess fantasies; the renaissance faire is styled liked Elaine’s wedding fantasies”  And that technique goes beyond Elaine’s development. Biller said, “The police station looks like the police stations in television shows in which absolute authority was suggested, enhancing the character of the lead cop, Griff.”

This technique is partly what gives The Love Witch its theatrical, or seemingly contrived, look and feel. Although it takes some getting use to as viewer, it does work for Biller’s thesis – most of the time.

As noted earlier, Biller’s recent interest in “pulp novel covers from the ‘60s” and the way they “depicted witches as fierce powerful, sexual women,” is what led to the making of The Love Witch. She said, “I wanted to use that imagery and combine that with the feelings of persecution I’ve felt as a woman, and all of the issues women have to face with self-presentation and sexual identity in a man’s world.”

Ths film does this with no apologies.

While The Love Witch is not a completely polished film, it is packed with meaning, embedded in its stunning visuals, the use of music, and the narrative presentation. The incredible attention to symbolic detail make The Love Witch a juicy film to watch. Film buffs will enjoy the visual texture that comes across in 35 mm, if seen it in that form, as well as the careful nods to old film constructions, including the resident “expert” on Witchcraft and the close-up framing on Elaine’s eyes. Biller even employs classic high pitch repetitive noise and music, similar to what is found in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), to signal danger and cue tension, such as in the scene in which she first meets Wayne.

Modern Witches and Pagans will also find this film fascinating, if only because it is unusual to see Pagan practice presented in a quasi-realistic, non-judgmental, contemporary fiction setting. Many details will be recognizable, including the five-fold kiss, spoken spells and prayers, sabbats, aesthetics, and the infamous Witch’s Bottle. Interestingly, Biller even captured a modern Pagan debate. High Priest Gahan recalls the “olden days” when his community wasn’t so “uptight.”  He says, “we hung Baphomet posters” and “made love freely.” According to Gahan, nobody cared whether you were a Witch, a Thelemite, a Druid a Satanist or a Wiccan.

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Biller’s film is a creative, aggressive and open commentary on life as a woman in modern society, both in body and heart, as well as a treatise on love as it exists between the genders. It is a horror film, not because of its use of Witchcraft, but rather because the narrative presents a uncomfortable expression of the extremes reached to fulfill a fantasy.  And the ending is unsettling.

Biller wrote in a press release, “My hope is that other women will identify with Elaine as I do: as a woman seeking love, who is driven mad by never really being loved for who she is, but only for the male fantasies she has been brainwashed to fulfill.”

Currently The Love Witch is being shown only in select festivals around the world. As it gets picked up, Biller updates the screening list on her site. Eventually, the film will go to video and will be available for streaming. That date is not yet available.

Paganisms and Witchcraft traditions in Australia are no less subject to the times as they are anywhere else in the world. While we draw vast inspiration from the past of Europe, Christian and pre-Christian, we are subject to the influences of contemporary pop-culture, public discourse, prevailing political paradigms and social trends as they are manifest in post-colonial Australia. This influence can go one of two ways in terms of our practices. First, as a minority spiritual school(s) of thought, as a sub-culture, or indeed, a counter-culture, standing outside the square and looking in on society writ large, modern Pagans and contemporary Witches can be deeply progressive, revolutionary, subversive and flat out contrarian. Or, our practices change according to the influences of the over-culture.

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[Photo Credit: Pöllö / Wikimedia Commons]


Our collective strength is in our ability to inhabit the Janus Head and look both ways, drawing inspiration from that past and being completely free to adapt it according to our present needs and into the future. We are not beholden to a dogma, our focus in on praxis, on the demonstrable, the experience of the individual such that the modern Pagan, or Witch, is free to completely re-examine our relationships with spirit, and indeed, notions of belief entirely. A literal reading of our collective myths is not required as it is in Christianity, nowhere is it written that we must subjugate our Will.

This is particularly true of Witchcraft. Here, the key lessons pertain to power; who has it, what doesn’t, how the web of Wyrd subtlety connects us all and moves us, how to see what has power over us, and how to diminish that influence, and exert our own, according to our Will. This key ability or fundamental lesson is not boxed in and cut off from any sphere of human activity or thought, we can, and do apply it broadly and examine power structures and influences in the broader culture as well.

It is precisely these freedoms and considerations that mean, in Australia, most Pagans and Witches celebrate Samhain at the end of April. Anyone with eyes can see that Samhain is linked to a particular power structure in Nature – a particular shift that allows a moment we often describe as the thinning veil between the Worlds. And anyone with eyes in Oz knows that shift in power doesn’t happen at the end of November, it happens on or around April 30.

That is a kind of power that one does not need to be a Witch to see. Everyone in the Southern Hemisphere is well acquainted with it, as is everyone in the Northern Hemisphere.

In Australia and New Zealand though, something else happens in late April: ANZAC Day. Increasingly, it pops up in reference to Samhain, or All Hallow’s Eve. And in terms of mainstream Australian culture and dominant political paradigms, it has become extremely powerful and, at the same time, increasingly contentious. The question I find myself asking is simply this: How well have Australian Pagans and Witches considered the influence and power of ANZAC Day to either the growth or detriment of the aims of our ancestral based practices at Samhain and All Hallow’s Eve?

Online advertisement for ANZAC Day 2016 including specials for restaurant Bivianos in Dural in regional NSW.

ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day falls on April 25, the anniversary of the Gallipoli Landing in 1915. Historically, it marks the operation of the Allied Forces in WWI designed to capture the Gallipoli Penisula and open the Black Sea to the Allied navies. In terms of engagement, ANZAC Day completely overshadows November’s Remembrance Day, which is the day to commemorate the end of the First World War as well as a day to honor all who have died in war.

In terms of the place, one might be forgiven for thinking Australians had a hand at winning the battle fought on the Gallipoli beaches. But, we didn’t. We lost; the Allies never took the Cove and Çanakkale Savaşı (The Battle of Çanakkale) remains one of the most celebrated WWI victories for the Ottoman Empire.

Since 1990, the annual pilgrimage to the Turkish shore has only increased, and the land suffers yearly from Australians’ collective rubbish, which is particularly lovely given the area is a National Park. The bones of the fallen are exposed due to foot traffic, and various efforts have been made to develop and redevelop the area to accommodate the yearly tourist visits. This big business is threatening smaller local enterprise.

At home, it has become acceptable to crack a tinny (open a can of beer) directly after an ANZAC Dawn Service, which is early even for most Australians. This has somehow become a patriotic duty according to both beer companies and former military leaders who advertise the very tinny that one should patriotically crack. And while Australia’s alcohol problem is conveniently forgotten for ANZAC Day, we also blatantly change the rules regarding gambling, so we can all partake of the (illegal every other day)  “Australian Diggers’ Game” of Two-up. While my tone may suggest that we have a serious gambling problem as a culture, fear not. In 2004, during a debate regarding the legalisation of Two-up, the then New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, told the House:

One of the charities most involved in problem gambling, the Wesley Community Legal Service, a body dealing with problem gamblers, has confirmed it has never encountered a problem gambler addicted to two-up. That is an interesting bit of trivia for everyone to take home with them. If anything, a slight extension of two-up to other days of significance would fit in with the Australian commemorative tradition when we remember our war dead not with strident nationalism but with a beer, a laugh and a few of these harmless games.

Perhaps that is the story of how Australia came to be known as “the lucky country.”

To many an Aussie, my complaints may just be examples of a lack of honour, duty, and the increasingly sacred tenet of Australian society; mateship. This is symptomatic of the fact I’m not a “digger,” not a patriot, and most definitely un-Australian. Peter Cochrane gathered a litany of such criticisms in his article for The Conversation’s article ‘The past is not sacred: the ‘history wars’ over Anzac.‘ Included in this piece is a quote from The Australian, originally published April 26, 2013. It reads:

The best advice we can offer is that they ignore the tortured arguments of the intellectuals and listen to the people, the true custodians of this occasion. They must recognise that the current intellectual zeitgeist is at odds with the spirit of Anzac. It recognises neither the significance of a war that had to be fought nor the importance of patriotism. Honour, duty and mateship are foreign to their thinking. They may be experts on many things, but on the subject of Anzac, they have little useful to say.

Arguably, ANZAC Day has become a leviathan of government and privately funded advertising, and the furtherance of an erroneous myth of Australianness that supports and underlies an increased sense of Australia as a military nation. It expresses a nationalism that feeds troubling social trends and promotes Anglo-centric white Australian patriotism.

ANZAC Day is supposed to be a remembrance, not just of the Gallipoli Campaign, but of all wars in which the Australian military have engaged, from the Boer War to Afghanistan. But we must not be confused, ANZAC Day is not for everyone.

The above video shows Murrawarri man Fred Hooper – a man who usually marches in official parades with his non-Indigenous Navy colleagues. Hooper’s grandfather served in WWI, and his great uncle was Harold West, who inspired ‘The Coloured Digger,’ a famous poem by WWII soldier Bert Beros. The poem was written while Beros and West were still on active duty, and it tells of the bravery of Private West, who attacked a Japanese machine-gun pit “single handed.” The final two stanzas read:

He’d heard us talk Democracy –
They preach it to his face –
Yet knows that in our Federal House
There’s no one of his race.
He feels we push his kinsmen out,
Where cities do not reach,
And Parliament has yet to hear
The abo’s maiden speech.

One day he’ll leave the Army,
Then join the League he shall,
And he hopes we’ll give a better deal
To the aboriginal

In 2015, Hooper decided to make the trip to Canberra to lead the ‘undeclared Frontier Wars’ march. As the Australian Federal Police Officer pointed out, “this day is not for you“, Mr Hooper.

In case you thought the AFP officer was just being nasty, or worse racist, he wasn’t really. They are, after all, the undeclared Frontier Wars. Wouldn’t it be disingenuous of us as a nation to recognise an Aboriginal military force as being raised and active at a time when we didn’t actually consider them a people; during a time when we didn’t consider them civilised enough to have so complex an institution as a military or even a guerilla force? Such things would fly in the face of terra nullius.

As Alan Stephens wrote for ABC s ‘The Drum’ in 2014:

According to the Australian War Memorial Act (1980), the AWM’s purpose is to recognise “active service in war or warlike operations by members of the Defence Force”. The act then defines “Defence Force” as “any naval or military force raised in Australia before the establishment of the Commonwealth”.

That definition allows the AWM to commemorate the wars of choice fought by white “Australians” in the Sudan, South Africa, and China before Federation, but excludes the war of necessity fought by Indigenous “Australians” for Australia itself between 1788 and the 1920s.

In other words, pre-Federation white volunteers who chose to fight overseas for the British crown and its commercial and colonial interests have been legally defined as “Australians”, while pre-Federation Indigenous warriors who fought invaders for their homeland, their families, and their way of life, have been officially defined out of our war commemoration history.

Samhain and All Hallow’s Eve have always been a way through which the neo-Pagan and Witch engages directly with the Ancestors. We actively feed them, their memory and propagate their wisdom, keeping that which enriches our lives. Not the positive and the happy memories alone, but also the negative, the difficult things as well. We recognise within these lessons and wisdom, which, by keeping, we strive against repeating mistakes of the past, in order to live more whole, healthier, and happier lives.

As ANZAC Day exerts its not so subtle influence on our lives and increasingly becomes associated with our Sabbat, what powers and structures are we feeding alongside our Beloved Dead? Are we so certain that “lest we forget” as a catch-phrase represents a concept wholly aligned with our goals at All Hallow’s? Here are some quotes:

Calypso Apothecary writes, “Today is Anzac Day. Gathering at dawn, today is a day to show respect and honour the men and women that served and died at war, fighting for our freedom. For me, this day also marks the beginning of Samhain. The decent into the dark part of the year and with the whole of Australia honoring those that have died, today they begin to walk among us.”

Coralturner writes, “In Australia Samhain occurs around the same time as Anzac Day. I find this significant as Anzac Day is the time of year that those from Australia and New Zealand remember those who died prematurely in war. Anzac Day is Ritualized across the country with services, parades, people getting together for meals to remember their deceased friends and relatives. Anzac biscuits are eaten and the game of Two-ups is played.”

Frances Billinghurst‘s, author of Dancing the Sacred Wheel: A Journey through the Southern Sabbats, wrote,On the eve of 30 April those of us south of the equator pause in silent contemplation and remembrance of our ancestors. Following on the heels of Anzac Day (the day when those fallen in combat from Australia and New Zealand are remembered as well as the increasing number of victims of war), the timing for the Southern Samhain could not really be any better.”

The following was published on Spheres of Light: “It is a time to honour those who have gone before us and it is a poignant co-incidence that Australia and New Zealand’s day of Remembrance for their fallen in war, ANZAC Day on April 25, should be so close to the southern Samhain.”

Venerating the war dead is not new or unusual. Indeed, there are many military uniforms present on my own shrine to my Beloved Dead, and each serves to remind me to be thankful that for two generations, and counting, my family has not known war.  It is never a bad activity to remember the one thing that all wars have in common is a body count. The fact that, as a nation, Australia has troops currently deployed in conflict zones should be more readily discussed. History is written by the victors and we should examine how that fact has resulted in the otherwise contradictory nature of, on one hand, unabashed celebration of a mammoth defeat in a battle in a war we ultimately won, while on the other, denying completely the existence of a war fought on our own soil.

Another quote comes to us from writer Lee Pike, who lives in Perth. Ruminating on Samhain and ANZAC Day together, Pike writes:

I have been thinking a lot, too, about the role that my ancestors have on how I have been shaped and who I am today. How much are we products of our blood or of our soil? Do the dead remain on this plane or another? What can ancestor work offer a magical path? What would the Anzacs truly think about these ‘festivities’? I am sure the answers would be as diverse as they were. War is complex and so is the notion of sacrifice. When remembering the dead, the last thing we should do is boil it down to simple, digestible, and marketable slogans… and brands.

Lest we forget.

[The Wild Hunt welcomes journalist Claire Dixon to our weekly news team. She is our U.K. correspondent and will be covering news and events specifically in that region, as well around the world. To learn more about Dixon’s background and her experience, check out her bio page.]

BRIGHTON, England — The doors opened on an exhibition of artifacts from the Doreen Valiente collection this month, but it was the new biography of the U.K.’s most famous Witch that caused the biggest stir. Why? The book revealed that Valiente had worked at the legendary MI6 spy base Bletchley Park during the Second World War.

doreen valiente

[Courtesy Doreen Valiente Foundation]

As reported in The Wild Hunt in January, Philip Heselton’s book, Doreen Valiente Witch, was published by the Doreen Valiente Foundation (DVF) to coincide with the landmark exhibition in Brighton, West Sussex. It is the book’s third chapter, titled Glimpses Through the Shadows (Or What Doreen Did During the War), which has been attracting the most interest.

MI6 used Bletchley in Buckinghamshire as its code-cracking centre and would intercept all manner of German ciphers. The most famous was the Enigma code, because it had more than 100 million variations. Heselton states that Valiente had signed the Official Secrets Act and was part of Bletchley’s ISOS division, whose job it was to translate intercepted messages.

DVF trustee Ashley Mortimer said that Heselton, in his research for the book, had finally confirmed a long-standing suspicion that she was involved with this code-cracking. The discovery was an exciting development for DVF and the Pagan community, in general.

Mortimer said, “John and Julie (Belham-Payne, founders of the foundation) had always believed Doreen was involved in secret work during the war, they’d both speculated that Doreen may even have been at Bletchley Park. So to have this confirmed by Philip was truly thrilling.” He added, “This aspect of Doreen’s life, now revealed, throws a new perspective on other aspects – certainly her ability to be secretive and to take her promises seriously, as she plainly did with the Official Secrets Act.”

Unfortunately, this new chapter of Valiente’s story, which Heselton has now opened, may never be fully told. The work carried out at Bletchley Park was first disclosed in the 1970s. But because Valiente signed the Official Secrets Act, she was prohibited from speaking about the nature of her business with the government. For intelligence work, this limitation would usually apply to the remainder of the signatory’s lifetime and , furthermore, any information covered by the Act can sometimes be officially classified for up to 100 years.

So what do we actually know? According to Heselton, the ISOS division, which was based in Hut 18 at Bletchley, was part of the effort to counter the Abwehr, or German military intelligence. Abwehr had spread itself through Europe by sending out spies posing as refugees fleeing the Nazi regime. These spies would then report back on enemy military sites, training regimes and so on. ISOS worked to intercept those messages, crack ciphers, and track down the spies.

Once detected, German spies were given a stark choice. They could become double agents or face execution. Many chose the former, which led to the creation of the highly successful double-cross system. False information was fed back to German, and one very notable success was to convince the Nazis that the Allies would be landing at Calais rather than Normandy on D-Day. These double-agents went unnoticed by the Germans, and it is estimated that the work of Valiente and her colleagues at Bletchley saved millions of lives, cutting the length of the war by up to four years.

Heselton also claims that Valiente spent a lot of the Second World War travelling between Bletchley and South Wales. She was reportedly gathering information from foreign merchant navy men regarding the Battle of the Atlantic, at the core of which was the Allied blockade of Germany. It was during this time that Valiente met her first husband Joanis Vlachopolous, who drowned only six months after they were married in 1941. However, Valiente’s role in South Wales is less clear than her role at Bletchley.

Heselton’s research has undoubtedly added an important new dimension to Valiente’s story, and the Pagan community is abuzz with questions. However, as noted earlier, given her signing of the Official Secrets Act, we may never know the true extent or nature of her work during the war – or at least not for some time. Mortimer said, “The research continues, and we are all convinced that there will be further information and other revelations to discover. Doreen Valiente remains an enigma and it seems the more we find out about her the more we realise how little we know.”

Bletchley Park was contacted for a comment but did not reply.

[Courtesy Doreen Valiente Foundation]

[Courtesy Doreen Valiente Foundation]

Meanwhile, another interesting disclosure in Heselton’s biography is Valiente’s acquaintance with the British royal family – particularly the Queen Mother (who passed away in 2002). Heselton told the Brighton Argus: “I have had it from a number of people that she indeed knew the Queen Mother. As with a lot of her life, much of this is a mystery and will remain so but we have certain clues to their relationship.”

According to Heselton, the Queen Mother flew Valiente to Balmoral, which is the royal family’s official summer residence in the Scottish Highlands, by private jet in the 1980s to warn her that the government of the time was thinking about outlawing Witchcraft again. Witchcraft had been banned in Britain in the 16th century under the reign of Henry VIII and was punishable by death. Notable purges include the North Berwick witch trials in East Lothian, Scotland (1590) and the Pendle witches trial in Lancashire, northern England (1612).

However, in 1735 a new Witchcraft Act was passed to reflect the Enlightenment values of the times. Being a practitioner was no longer punishable but belief in witchcraft was. The maximum penalty was one year’s imprisonment or a fine, and the Act remained statute law until 1951.

When Gerald Gardner introduced Wicca to popular culture in 1954, Witchcraft began to enjoy a resurgence. Therefore, the possibility of a fresh ban must have been alarming. Heselton was unclear on the exact timing of Valiente’s flight to Balmoral, but he said, “My impression is that her meeting with the Queen Mother was some time in the 1980s.”

Another related rumour cited by Heselton is that the hand-held mirror used by Valiente in her rituals, which can be seen in the current DVF exhibition, once belonged to the Queen Mother. Valiente reportedly picked it up at a jumble sale at a village neighbouring Balmoral after the Queen Mother had a clear-out. She is said to have got chatting to the Queen Mother at the sale, who confirmed that the mirror was hers. However, there is at present no way of verifying this story.

As with this rumour and the Bletchley tale, it would appear that there are many more stories to be told about Valiente. We will keep reporting as they continue to surface.

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

georgia sealATLANTA, Ga. – On Monday, March 28, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal vetoed HB 757, a notorious state RFRA legislative bill. Deal said that it “contained language [that] could give rise to state-sanctioned discrimination.” He added, “I did have problems with that and made my concerns known as did many other individuals and organizations, including some within the faith-based community.”

“Religious freedom” legislation in some form has been circulating within the Georgia legislature for several years. The subject attracted national attention in Spring 2015 after Aquarian Tabernacle priest Dusty Dionne spoke publicly about SB129, one of several RFRA incarnations. Dionne thanked the Georgia state legislature for its “forward thinking” on “religious freedom issues,” adding, “This new bill will create sweeping changes that will open the doors for the Wiccans within Georgian communities to worship, work, and LIVE their religion to its fullest.” While SB 129 stalled in the house, new legislation was eventually born. After HB 757 was adopted by both the house and senate, it was sent to the Governor, where it was promptly vetoed.

In his statement, Gov. Deal said, “If indeed our religious liberty is conferred by God and not by man-made government, we should heed the ‘hands-off’ admonition of the First Amendment to our Constitution. When legislative bodies attempt to do otherwise, the inclusions and omissions in their statutes can lead to discrimination, even though it may be unintentional. That is too great a risk to take.”

We asked Dionne for a reaction to the recent veto. He said, “Georgia’s veto of this dangerous bill shows that those that the people of GA elected to protect themselves and make them prosperous, have the hearts needed to serve the entirety of their constituents, not just a radical minority. They deserve all of the praise given to those that protect the free world.”

Other Religious Freedom News

    • Could the Christian Bible become the official state book of Tennessee? On Apr 6, the Tennessee state legislature approved the “Holy Bible” as its official state book. Within its various amendments, legislators further defined which texts were included in the term “Holy Bible.” The bill will now head to Governor Bill Haslam, where it is expected to meet some resistance. Gov. Haslam reportedly feels the legislation is “disrespectful” to what the Bible means and is. Additionally, the state attorney general has expressed concern over the unconstitutionality of the measure. Meanwhile, the ACLU of Tennessee has been watching closely and is reportedly “on ready” should the bill pass. The ACLU wrote, in part, “While the Bible is an important book to many state residents, Tennesseans come from a rich diversity of faiths. Privileging one religion over another not only tramples on the Constitution, it marginalizes the tens of thousands of Tennesseans who choose to practice other religions or not to practice religion at all.” If Gov. Haslam does not veto the bill within ten days of its approval, it will automatically become law.
    • In February, we reported on the Satanic Temple’s fight to offer an invocation before a city council meeting in Phoenix, Arizona. Shortly after adopting a moment of silence in an effort to prevent the TST invocation, the city council brought back religious invocations. However, the new policy only allows police and fire chaplains to give those prayers. TST is reportedly planning to sue the city. In the meantime, the organization has been preparing to deliver an invocation at the July 6 meeting of the Scottsdale, Arizona city council. In an interview with AZCentral, TST spokesperson Stu de Haan discussed exactly what TST plans to say in its prayer. According to the article, TST will “ask the audience to reason our solutions with agnosticism in all things while standing firm against any and all arbitrary authority that threatens personal sovereignty.” However, TST may never be granted this opportunity. Scottsdale is reportedly looking for a legal way out, just as Phoenix did. This story is not yet over.
    • Further north, in the state of Colorado, The Satanic Temple is taking on an entirely different religious freedom issue. Together with the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), the two organizations are challenging the distribution of the Gideons Bibles to middle and high school students in Delta County. According to reports, the school district ignored complaints from local atheist organizations, who finally turned to these national groups. After being informed about a similar situation in Orange County Florida, the Delta County school board relented and allowed all informational material. On Apr 1, children in the Delta County district were offered TST’s The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities, along with a number of atheist pamphlets from various organizations. While all of the pamphlets were permitted on campus, one particular one, entitled “The X-Rated Bible: Sex and Obscenity in the Bible,” was first censored with a sticker before it was allowed out for distribution. FRFF did say that it doesn’t believe schools should be a religious battle ground, but it will continue to challenge unconstitutional policies where they exist. The Delta County School District is reportedly rethinking their non-curricular information distribution policy.

[Courtesy Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers / Facebook]

[Courtesy Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers / Facebook]

In Other News

      • In a lengthy interview and full report, The Washington Post shares details about the infamous #Boneghazi story. The article is titled, “21st century ‘witch’ hunt: Tumblr sleuths lead authorities to person who took human bones from a La. cemetery.” In December, social media lit up with tales of human bones being stolen from a “poor man’s cemetery” in New Orleans. A dialog ensued, inciting rage and inviting controversy. In January, officials began a full investigation, while the discourse evolved into an serious and in-depth concern over local gentrification, race, class and religion.
      • In a recent feature, Broadly profiled “The White Witch of Los Angeles” As the article begins, Maja D’Aoust “uses her science background to examine the world through her lecture series, tarot readings, and insightful performances as the Oracle.”
      • In another article, Broadly featured a report on “The Real Witches of Salem Massachusetts.” While such a subject is not at all surprising for our readers, it may be surprising for a portion of the general mainstream population. Broadly interviewed a few local Witches from the famous “Witch City,” as well as discussing the economic aspects of the city’s unique tourist industry.
      • On the lighter side, Salem’s police ran into an all-too-common modern day problem; a digital fumble, if you will. That fumble, caused by autocorrect, was particular amusing considering Salem’s witchy reputation. The error made social media rounds and provided many people with a good laugh. In March, the city’s police tweeted the following:


Beyond the U.S.

    • According to The National, religious belief and affiliation is on the decline in Scotland. The article reads, “The Scottish Social Attitudes survey show 52 percent of people say they are not religious, compared with 40 percent of those who were asked in 1999 when the survey began.” Despite the overall decline, the article also notes that local Pagan organizations have reported an increase in those identifying as Pagan.
    • A similar article was recently published in The Reykjavik GrapevineAccording to this article, “Church membership has declined by about 10% since 2009” in Iceland. However, just as reported in Scotland, “registered Pagans [in Iceland] are on the rise.” The article reads, “Registered members of the Zuists have increased by over 3,000 over the past year. The faith professes worship of the ancient Sumerian gods, but also promises to refund government religious subsidies to its members. At the same time, members of the Ásatrú Society – which follows the rites and ethics of the Old Norse gods – have also increased, by over 500 members.”
    • According to the New York Times, the indigenous women of North Africa’s Amazigh, also called the “Berber” women, “have banded together to fight political Islamism, polygamy, child marriage, and impunity for perpetrators of domestic violence.” Their matriarchal traditions and language are currently being threatened. The article profiles their unique culture, as well as their fight against terrorism and other forms of oppression.
    • The Washington Post published an article titled, “Rare photos show the lives of Russia’s forgotten Mari Pagans.” The article reads, “The attempted suppression of the nature-worshiping Mari has a long and dark history.” The article details that history, as well as their struggle against oppression. In photos and words, the article also highlights the unique and vibrant, living culture of the Mari Pagans.
    • Lastly, Witches aren’t only for Halloween. According to The Daily Mail, “little Witches” come out to cast spells every Easter in Finland. “small colorful witches appear on Finnish doorsteps in a blend of eastern and western religious traditions related to spring. They hand over catkin branches, reciting healthy wishes in exchange for payment that is traditionally chocolate or other candies.”

TAOS, NM — After four hours of deliberation a Taos jury found 51-year-old West Virginia native Ivan Dennings Cales Jr. guilty of the murder of Roxanne Houston and of tampering with evidence. During the investigation as was brought forward during the trial, the state found data and gathered testimonies, suggesting that the accused may have been on a modern day Witch hunt.

[Photo Credit: Billy Hathorn /Wikipedia]

[Photo Credit: Billy Hathorn /Wikipedia]

Houston, a Wiccan practitioner from Colorado, disappeared in July 2014 after moving to New Mexico. Her body was found by a hiker near the “Two Peaks area” in December of that same year. According to a local news agency, “Elizabeth Hagerty said she was walking with her husband, Robert, and their two dogs when one canine began rolling on what appeared to be a burnt part of a brassiere.” Police later identified the body as Houston’s and launched an investigation.

Prior to her 2014 disappearance in New Mexico, Houston’s life was reportedly complicated and unstable. According to her estranged ex-husband George Houston, Roxy, as she was called, was bi-polar and had been off medication for quite some time. She has four children, who all live with adoptive parents, and was frequently moving between relationships.

In June 2015, Mr. Houston, a non-Pagan, laments his own involvement and failures to help his wife. In a public Facebook post, he demonstrates his continued affection for her, despite their past problems. He pledged to fight for justice in the courts.

As the story goes, Roxy reportedly left Colorado in 2013 with a boyfriend, and arrived in Carson, NM. The couple camped for some time and, eventually, moved into a home with several other male housemates. She lived at that location until her death.

Houston was last seen hiking in June 2014, but her body wasn’t discovered for six months. Then, after a long investigation, Cales was found living at a local shelter and arrested Feb 23, 2015. The Taos Sheriff’s office noted that this case was particularly difficult because many of the involved parties were “transients,” including Cales, who had only arrived in New Mexico in April 2014.

In a post on the Rainbow Gathering Family site, Cales described himself as a survivalist, and includes “loves the outdoors. open minded. non drug user. native American beliefs.” In 1999, he renounced his American citizenship in an AIM forum titled, “The American Indian Movement” on the basis that the government was illegal. He reportedly met Houston when he moved into the residence where she was living.

During the March trial, Cales’ cellmate Raymond Martinez reportedly testified that Cales actually claimed “Native American” heritage and connected that fact to his motivation to kill Witches. He reportedly said that he was on a “witch-hunt” and that Houston was a Witch. As the local paper reports:

He testified Cales drew pictures of a witch hunt […] He said Cales told him he was Native American, and that Native Americans believed if a witch cast a spell on them, they needed to kill the witch to break the spell. Artwork that looked like pencil sketches of a witch hunt — done in jail and presumably signed by Cales as “Kwenishguery Manito Lenepe Witch Hunter 2000”— were exhibited in the courtroom as evidence.

Another witness Thomas Thebo reportedly testified that Cales said, “If a Wiccan ever cast a spell on him, he would have to kill the witch to get rid of the spell.” We reached out to the Lenape Nation for a reaction to the testimony, but did not get a response back by publication time.

In a number of media interviews, Cales’ defense attorney Thomas Clark calls the Witchcraft testimony “nonsense.” Before the trial began, he filed a motion to have these documents and the Martinez testimony removed from the case. The motion was denied. All evidence pointing to the Witch hunt was included.

District attorney Donald Gallegos also suggested that Cales was in love with Houston, making the alleged Witchcraft accusations simply a mask. In his public post asking for prayers, Houston’s ex-husband also suggested that there may have been a love triangle. But Gallegos also reminded reporters, “the unrequited love and the witch theories are just that — theories. However, he and his staff are sure that Cales is Houston’s killer.”

Houston was given what was called a “New Age, mystic, pagan service” funeral. Her boyfriend and other roommates did not attend. We reached out to several local Pagans in the region, but did not get a response by publication time.

While Roxy’s mental illness was well-known and led to instability, she was remembered fondly by the few that knew her. As reported in the news, “several local residents […] remembered her for the compassion she is said to have demonstrated towards neighbors. Houston reportedly worked as a caretaker for one neighbor and is also said to have lent a hand distributing food to Carson area residents.”

Upon learning the guilty verdict, Houston’s friend Cheryl Bailey Payne wrote a note to the Taos Sheriff’s office, saying “Thank you from the bottom of not only my, but my daughter’s, and Roxanne’s sister’s hearts – RIP Roxanne – we love you!!”

*   *   *

Although Houston’s case was not labeled a hate crime, the concerns over such aggression and violence directed at Witches and other minorities do loom in the background for many. Ardanane Learning Center, located in New Mexico, will be running an online two-part seminar dealing specifically with the subject of “Hate Crimes.”

Logo-n-logotype-tag

Over those two days, instructor and former investigator Kerr Cuhulain will “share the lessons he learned dealing with hate crimes during the Satanic Panic of the 80s and 90s and his experiences with educating law enforcement and other public agencies about Pagan religions.” The classes will take place on March 26 and April 2.

Review: The Witch (2016)

Heather Greene —  February 21, 2016 — 31 Comments

[Editor’s Note: This review does contain some spoilers.]

The Witch is an unsettling and cinematically-beautiful film that challenges its viewers through its themes and multilayered construction. But it is not at all what you might expect.

MV5BMTY4MTU2NjMyNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzUwMDk4NzE@._V1_UY1200_CR90,0,630,1200_AL_Written and directed by Robert Eggers, The Witch is the latest film to capitalize on the public’s continued obsession with witch stories and, even more specifically, the Salem mythos. Subtitled “A New England Folk Tale,” the title alone sets a definitive tone for an American audience before a single ticket is purchased and the lights go down in the theater. The legendary connection between witches and New England is woven into the very fabric of the American story, captivating the imagination and intriguing the mind. We know the drill, so to speak.

However, The Witch is set in 1630, decades before the infamous Salem witch trials, but it retains the same ethos. Because we, as American viewers, have legacy with the story, we enter this one with a certain knowing. Religious faith, defined by Christianity, will be challenged. Someone, most likely a young woman, is going to be accused of witchcraft and, as with the most recent Salem retellings, magic is actually “afoot.”

This is how Eggers’ film works. He uses well-known, culturally and religiously-based tropes as well as very familiar folkloric iconography to build his world. A family leaves its community due to religious differences and finds itself living alone in a field at the edge of a dark forest, a place typically associated with mystery, evil and magic. Throughout the film, Eggers punctuates the narrative with images of this woodland area, and he lingers within these shots as if to contemplate what is actually going on within its darkness. He conjures folkloric iconography to enrich his tale, including visual or spoken references to Hansel and Gretel, Red Riding Hood and Baba Yaga, wolves, apples and woodland huts. Additionally, to play into the growing fear, Eggers throws in icons long associated in the western world with satanic witchcraft as defined by Catholicism, such as goats, hares, and crows.

But Eggers doesn’t simply dive into a fantasy-based horror film pitting “man against the wood.” This is not Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013). The Witch is an historically-based, fiction tale complete with “thine” and “thou” and other such speak. While he employs the fairytale trope of the forbidden forest and all that it implies, Eggers weaves a 17th-century morality tale, in which extreme religious piety slowly strangles a family, figuratively speaking. In that way, the entire film thematically becomes an exercise in exploring the limits of human control; of self, of others and of the world. The film pits the extremes of the uncontrolled, or the wild, against the extremes of the controlled, or religious fanaticism.

The Witch opens with a close-up of Thomasin, a teenage girl and the oldest child in the family (Anya Taylor-Joy), and it remains on her face as the voice of her father William (Ralph Ineson) explains how they can no longer live in the Puritan community due to religious differences. From the start, the film sets up a patriarchal family structure, led by a self-confident father with a deep, booming voice. The film then proceeds onward as the family makes its way into unexplored territory to set up a homestead and attempt to survive alone.

After baby Samuel disappears into the woods, the family structure begins to break down. As control slowly erodes, parents William and Katherine (Kate Dickie) cling desperately to their Christian faith. Their answer is always to pray harder and to pray more; to confess and to be pious. But that fails them personally, just as it fails the family as a whole. William’s own frustration is expressed by his obsessive need to chop wood, a small symbol of what is consuming his family. As his daughter remarks, he can’t farm and he can’t hunt – two other ways of taming the wild. So he chops wood and prays; this is eventually where he meets his end.

Unlike many modern horror films, Eggers doesn’t rush through telling of his story, nor does he complicate the narrative. The Witch maintains an effective stillness that values the simplicity of visual tension over loud, graphically-explicit content as typically found in modern films. Eggers moves along very slowly and precisely, lingering within shots and cutting to black at poignant moments. The mood is only disrupted by a few “jump” moments and a limited amount of gore, violence and nudity. The music, or lack thereof, and the gray cinematography contribute to the film’s eerie environment, paralleling both the extremes of religious piety and the fear of what is lurking in the wood.

The folklore references, which are known to the viewer, are also known to the family members, and that is partly what entraps and encircles them either by their fear or by their reality. This is where the film gets complicated and perhaps loses its strength to some degree. Is the presented fantasy folklore a product of the family’s religious beliefs or is it real? In other words, is there really a witch in the woods?

Plot-wise, the answer is yes. There is a witch in the woods. Near the beginning, the Baba Yaga figure is shown without any juxtaposition, visually or otherwise, to a family member’s experience. This suggests that she is real. However, this is only time that happens. All other visuals of magic or witches are directly linked to a family member’s process in some way, which leaves the viewer questioning whether the presented magic is simply a product of fear and desire as characters lose their self control.

For example, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), the adolescent son, is seduced by a witch disguised as a beautiful maiden. The mother is lured into chaos by images of her dead sons. The disrespectful and creepy Hansel and Gretel-like twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), are said to be under the control of the family billy goat named Black Phillip. Are these characters suffering from delusions after being overtaken by the pain of loss, the boredom of social isolation and the fear of desire? In the end, the answer doesn’t matter. Whether or not the witch and the magic are real or simply products of the fanatic mind is irrelevant, because ultimately the wild wins.

[still from the film]

Thomasin [From the film: “The Witch” (2016)]

This brings us back to Thomasin, the teenage girl, who is the film’s protagonist. In most Salem narratives and in most fantasy witch tales, there is a prominent adolescent girl who has reached the point of maturity. That character is typically at the center of the majority of American witch movies; not every one but most. Eggers’ film is no different. As noted by her mother, Thomasin has reached this point of womanhood. However, Eggers does something radically different with Thomasin’s story. There is no cinematic male gaze, as suggested by the promotional imagery and posters. The film’s focus does not fall on Thomasin’s sexuality but rather on her place within an unstable social setting.

In more traditional Salem-based or satanic witch films, a young woman’s sexuality, expression of or protection of, becomes paramount. She must be saved from a symbolic defiling or, if she willingly becomes wild, she must be brought back and reincorporated into proper society or otherwise killed. In addition, traditionally speaking, the teenage girl in the western fairy tale must struggle against an angry mother as part of her journey toward womanhood. In the end, the wild is vanquished and society upheld by a man’s heroics. In one way or another, we are returned to a status quo, purging the bad and upholding the good.

However, in Eggers’ film, Thomasin is the only character who “holds it together” as the family society erodes. She does what she is told, washing clothes, caring for and comforting her siblings, working with the goats, remembering her prayers and loving her parents. She even tries desperately to soothe her angry mother. Thomasin is not at all seduced by the wild, like the others. Even when she accused of witchcraft by the twins and even jokes about it, the label does not stick. She consistently fails to uphold her expected role as the classic adolescent female horror victim.

In the end, it is Thomasin who survives by finally giving into the wild and becoming a witch. The opening scene of her face jailed by camera’s close-up as her father’s voice booms over her is juxtaposed beautifully by the final image her naked body floating in the forest, near the tree tops, with sounds of laughter and chanting. She is free. The young woman survives by rewilding herself, and the film cuts to black.

While some viewers may view this dark ending as simply promoting Satanism or Witchcraft, that is far too simple of a reading. The film works on an allegorical level in various ways, exploring humanity’s extreme and failed attempts to control nature – that of self and that of the world. More specifically, it speaks to a society facing environmental collapse at its own hands and to women attempting to toss off the shackles of the constructed patriarchy in order to embrace true female agency. There is also cautionary tale embedded in the film, one that is not at all new. Nature will win.

However, with all that said, there is one caveat here. To be free and embrace the wild, Thomasin must sign Satan’s book. Modern Witches may find discomfort with the film’s very stereotypical depiction of witchcraft as defined within Christian terms. This point also begs the question of whether Thomasin is actually free at all. Did she leave one patriarchy just to join another?

Regardless, taking the film as a pure allegory and looking at it in terms of the canon of Hollywood witch films, Eggers does make a radical turn. He allows his heroine Thomasin to embrace a radical lifestyle that is contrary to everything she was taught, religiously and socially, and allows her to remain in that space without question. This detail alone is what makes the film unsettling even after the lights go up in the theater. What the characters know and believe as right, becomes wrong and is destroyed. And, what is believed to be wrong is eventually embraced.

The Witch is an interesting exercise in thematic storytelling encapsulated in a beautiful imagery. However, it will disappoint those viewers looking for a more typical modern horror film. While Eggers does use some common horror elements, the film is not scary or frightening in the expected sense. The horror of this film is in the disturbing extremes; not in sensationalized violence or gore. It is in the parents’ desperate attempts to maintain control through faith (e.g., blood letting) as well as in the chaos of the wild world as it takes over (e.g., death of animals). The film moves slowly by modern standards and spends much of its time in contemplation and observance, which ultimately is the position of the protagonist Thomasin.

Filmed in northern Ontario, The Witch earned critical acclaim at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and  Eggers won the festival’s directing award in the U.S. Dramatic category. The film also won the Sutherland Prize for Best Debut Feature in London. Currently, Eggers is working on a fim called “The Knight: a medieval epic.” And, will be working on a “reimagining of F.W. Murnau’s classic film, Nosferatu.”

The Witch is Eggers’ debut film. It runs for 92 minutes and is now playing widely in cinemas across the country.

CAMEROON — In early January, Chiefs from the Eastern regions of Cameroon requested permission to use Witchcraft against the terrorist group Boko Haram. The news came through a tweet by respected investigative journalist and Chief Bisong Etahoben on Feb. 1. Shortly after, President Paul Biya responded back welcoming the assistance and use of Witchcraft in the fight to protect the nation and its people. In response to this news, Witches outside of the country are looking to help and add their magic to the protection of the region and the eradication of terrorism.

Lake Nyos, Cameroon [Courtesy Encyclopedia of the Earth]

Lake Nyos, Cameroon [Courtesy Encyclopedia of the Earth]

Cameroon is located in the central west portion of Africa, just south of Nigeria, where Boko Haram was originally founded. The terrorist organization is believed to have formed around 2003 in the northeastern region of Nigeria. Its earliest members were the followers of a “young, charismatic preacher named Mohammed Yusuf.” The name Boko Haram is typically translated as “Western education is forbidden” or “Western Fraud.” In 2009, the group first clashed openly with authorities; Yusuf and hundreds of others, including innocent people, were killed. After that uprising, Boko Haram slowly regrouped and began again in 2010. But its actions didn’t attract intentional attention until, in 2014, members kidnapped 276 girls from the town of Chibok.

But the ongoing crisis is not limited to the borders of Nigeria. Cameroon has also been under attack. As noted in a BBC article, Amnesty International reports that Boko Haram has killed over 17,000 people since 2009. Cameroon has been increasingly engaged in the military actions against the group, entering into a anti-terrorist coalition with Chad, Niger, Benin and Nigeria. In recent months, the Cameroon military was able to release a reported 900 hostages who were being held by Boko Haram in its northeastern region, and there has been some hope.

However, the continued violence is unsettling for the locals in those northeastern villages. And, therefore, regional Chiefs have stepped up to offer their own communities’ services for the cause. Journalist Bisong Etahoben reported:

According to reports, the Chiefs along with regional Governor Miyazawa recently contacted Cameroon President Paul Biya for permission to use Witchcraft, which he allegedly granted. Etahoben reports,”The head of state has demanded that an aspect of witchcraft be integrated into the fight against Boko Haram, Far North Governor Midjiyawa.” In response, a local Christian from Nigeria tweeted back, “Nigerians are with you on this, wipe out those blood thirsty sect and send your armies of witches to Nigeria.”

The call for the use of Witchcraft is an interesting turn of events considering the complicated position that Witches and Witchcraft have in sub-Saharan Africa. This is an area of the world in which people can be ostracized, beaten, killed and jailed for the alleged practice of Witchcraft. In other cases, people have been dismembered and killed by those who reportedly practice Witchcraft. It is a extremely complicated culturally, politically and religiously embedded situation that many of the governments, as we have recently reported, are trying desperately to negotiate.

[Photo Credit: AK Rockefeller / Flickr]

[Photo Credit: AK Rockefeller / Flickr]

In the wake of the most recent Boko Haram attacks on a group of Nigerian children, several U.S. Witches have now joined the efforts to use Witchcraft to help stop this terrorist group. Calling themselves the Social Justice Witches Working, these women are asking Witches and other magical workers from around the world to come together on Feb. 13 to stop the violence perpetrated by the Nigerian-based terrorist organization.

One of the organizers, Boneweaver, more commonly known as Pamela V Jones, told The Wild Hunt, “There was little to no coverage of the children being burnt. The people in Nigeria have been forgotten. The Dead are being forgotten. We are heavy on working with the Beloved Dead, and heavy hearted about the continued slaughtering of innocents while the world turns away, while this country focused on the Super Bowl in the media.”

Boneweaver is a “a Reclaiming and Feri initiated Witch of the Victor Anderson path through the Starhawk line. [She is] a member of Spiralheart, the mid-Atlantic Reclaiming cell.” She lives in the Pittsburgh area where she and a friend teach and have recently started Reclaiming Pittsburgh. Boneweaver said, “I didn’t realize there was a Boko Haram Witchcraft call [from Cameroon], though I am not surprised there is one. A friend here on FB, after we’d participated in a similar working last week against Roosh, the Return of the Kings guy who was pro-rape, asked were we […] ready to do one against Boko Haram.”

Organized by herself and another, the ritual action date was set for Feb. 13 and the group Social Justice Witches Working was born. As Jones noted, the organizers had no idea that the Chiefs, the Cameroon Governor or allegedly the President had even called for Witchcraft help. On the surface, it would appear to be a complete coincidence.

When asked if she or the other organizers had any connection to Cameroon or Nigeria, she said, “I don’t have personal ties with the region. I’m coming at it from the perspective that collective magic is a force for change. We shake the Web, push the energies, and create potential for things to shift. Everything and everyone is connected energetically.”

The date was chosen specifically for its astrological readings, which are explained in detail on Boneweaver’s blog post. She wrote, in part:

The moon is waxing, we can’t help that, but she’s void of course and her last aspect before that is a bad one, so she won’t give any succor to the enemy. Saturday is Saturn’s and working in Saturn’s hour will give it extra oomph: as the founder’s Saturn (great malefic) is in his eighth house (the house of death), we like the reminder of that bit of harrowing doom in the chart. Mars is in Scorpio; invite him to invite more snakes and stingy bugs to the party.

Boneweaver admits that she is not the astrologer in the organizing efforts; her role was to do the setup of the Facebook event page and any research or further organization. She also wrote a poem to be used by anyone who needs some inspiration. It begins, “We see you, Boko Haram.”

Social Justice Witches Working (SJWW) has planned this action for Feb. 13 and invites people from around the world to join. Boneweaver added that this will not be the last planned event for the new activist group. The name itself is meant to be very general so that it can be applied to any future actions and calls for global magic. When ask if there is anything else planned now, she said not specifically. However, Boneweaver did say that she “wouldn’t rule out a public [ritual against Daesh] in the future.” But this one was chosen specifically “because it has slipped from the media’s attention.”

If the reports from journalist Etahoben are accurate, Boneweaver and the magical practitioners who do join the SJWW Feb 13 action may find themselves sharing magical space with the Cameroon and maybe even Nigerian Witches and Wizards, as they are locally known, in a true global effort to end Boko Haram’s reign of terror in the eastern regions of those two African nations.

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.”

SOUTH AFRICA — After years of lobbying by Pagan groups in the country, the South African Law Reform Commission has determined that portions of that nation’s Witchcraft Suppression Act are unconstitutional. Witches should be able to identify themselves as such, the commission found, as well as practice divination. However, the proposed replacement law still has its problems, according to members of the South African Pagan Rights Alliance, because it singles out “harmful witchcraft practices” for regulation on the basis that they can cause “intimidation with the intent to cause psychological distress or terror.” SAPRA members are drafting a response to the bill and hope to see changes in it before it becomes law.sapralogoThe Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957 is, like most similar laws in African nations, based on 1735 Witchcraft Act of the United Kingdom, which was itself repealed in 1951. SAPRA requested a review of this law in 2007, an effort which was joined by the South African Pagan Council and the Traditional Healers Association. That slow process has finally resulted in the release of a lengthy issue paper by the SALRC, an independent body created in 1973 to investigate South African laws and make recommendations to the national and provincial governments for reform.

In that issue paper, members of the SALRC agreed that by making it illegal to identify as a Witch, the act violates the right to religious expression guaranteed in the South African constitution. Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that there is no definition of Witchcraft in the legislation. In other words, Wiccans and other Pagans fell into the same category as those who are more traditionally considered Witches in sub-Saharan Africa, a place where the word “witch” is often associated with people who use supernatural powers to cause harm.

Where the SALRC paper deviates from the hoped-for outcome is in how it tries to make distinctions between the different uses of the word “witch.” According to Damon Leff, who has been working on this cause for years, “The draft bill is focused on preventing accusations of witchcraft and witch-hunts, human mutilations and ritual murder, and what the Commission calls ‘harmful witchcraft practices.’ ” In Leff’s view, that lumps together actions which should be unacceptable for any person to commit with beliefs that are protected.

We believe that existing laws may be used to deal with human mutilations and ritual murder – we already have a Human Tissues Act which prohibits the harvest and sale of human body parts, and murder is already illegal. We also believe that what the Commission calls ‘harmful witchcraft practices,’ in the absence of actual demonstrable criminal activity, cannot be proven in any court of law to exist without reference to belief, and since the Bill of Rights protects the right to belief, ‘witchcraft beliefs’ aught to play no role in the determination of actual criminal guilt.

The bill has apparently been structured to address concerns that the widespread belief in malevolent magic makes it possible for one person to cause very real harm to another by convincing them that they intend to cast such a spell. Leff provided a copy of the response that SAPRA is drafting, which lays it out thus:

Whilst certain crimes may indeed be motivated by belief, those crimes identified in the Commission’s definition of alleged ‘harmful witchcraft’ practices, specifically, intimidation with the intent to cause psychological distress or terror, may be committed by a member of any (or no) religious faith. Indeed, there is sufficient evidence to show that some Christians and Traditional Healers have in the past attempted to justify their criminal acts by appealing to their beliefs as motivation for such acts.

Traditional healers may also underlie muti murders, committed to obtain a specific human body part for the purposes of healing another. Children, the elderly and disabled are most susceptible to these kinds of attacks. The draft response reads:

SAPRA must argue that since the perpetrators of such practices, specifically those who trade in human body parts, do not self-identify as Witches or as practitioners of Witchcraft, but have in the past been identified as traditional healers or as practitioners of traditional African religion (who do not self-identify as Witches), the application of the term ‘witchcraft’ to such practices constitutes an equally inaccurate misnomer. Muthi murders have nothing to do with Witchcraft, because actual Witches are not the perpetrators of such crimes.

Instead, they argue, such crimes should be enforced under the existing Human Tissues Act, which was passed specifically to prevent such crimes.

From the SALRC issue paper, it appears that the Traditional Healers Organization has pushed for a clear definition of Witchcraft in a new law, and regulation of the harmful practices associated with it. Traditional healers, according to Leff, would never identify as “Witches” because of the strong cultural bias against the term, which has only been challenged recently with the spread of Wicca and related religions.

Proudly_Pagan_PFD_KZN_2009

Pagan Freedom Day in South Africa [Photo Credit: Ginney May / Wikimedia]

Another problem with the replacement bill, insofar as Pagans are concerned, is that while accusations of Witchcraft are banned, it doesn’t go far enough to protect those accused. The existing law has even been flouted by public officials. SAPRA’s draft response asserts, “Such a Bill must however not merely prohibit accusations of Witchcraft and punish those who do make accusations of Witchcraft which lead to harm against the accused, it must also provide the victims of accusation, living refugees of accusation, with access and means to victim support and restorative justice,” Since the lifting of apartheid, restorative justice has become a powerful concept in South Africa.

In short, SAPRA’s position is that laws should be based on verifiable evidence of wrongdoing, and no crime should be associated with a belief system such as Witchcraft, since heinous acts can be committed by anyone regardless of their religion or lack thereof. The comment period on the draft bill and related issue paper ends in April, and it could be another year before it is presented as a white paper, and submitted to parliament for consideration.

“If the SALRC goes ahead with the proposal, the Bill will be sent to Parliament for review before it is published, and only after that, could it become an Act of Parliament,” explained Leff. “We plan to stop that from happening.”