Crafting Magic

There’s a disingenuousness about an extremely wealthy white man claiming he’s the victim of a “witch hunt.” Such super-slurring devalues the many thousands of lives lost in actual witch hunts, most of them female. Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve long been fascinated by witches, and since I have so little time, Very Short Introductions are appealing. Malcolm Gaskill’s such introduction on Witchcraft is a surprisingly sensitive book that manages to touch on many important aspects of those who spend time thinking. The relationship between religion and science, for example. Witches force that question in various ways. The main takeaway, however, is another that the witch-in-chief would do well to take to heart—we must learn from history. History may be the key to human survival.

Gaskill has an unnerving balance when it comes to witch hunts. In places his attempts at objectivity can appear a little cold—history has demonstrated that the numbers of people killed in Europe’s witch madness aren’t as high as often claimed. Still, the loss of over 100,000 lives to propitiate our collective fears is tragic. This little book crams a lot of information in and it carries an appropriately warning tone. We don’t really understand what witches are, and we do still live in a world where hunts for them take place. Our psychies, ever so rational, crave magic. Societies from earliest times feared as well as desired it. Our belief in witches, and witchcraft, betrays quite a lot of what it means to be human.

This quick study isn’t all about witch hunts, though. It also explores the world of witchcraft, both in ancient and modern times. From Mesopotamian diviners to Wiccans, “the craft” has always been with us and is believed in by a surprisingly large number of people in industrialized societies. Magic, of course, generally leads to unexpected results. And the metaphor of its power over our imagination is forgotten at a terrible price. As Gaskill makes clear, the “witch” can be a stand-in for the other—the other religion, the other nationality, the other we fear and, now with government sanction, drive out or destroy. There is no magic to a wealthy man buying the presidency of the nation. There is, however, a culpability, a reckoning, if you will, that must attend abuses of this metaphor. The GOP has become a party of familiars in this compact with the Devil, it seems. That’s just a metaphor. But then again, metaphors can sometimes truly be magic.

Belief Matters

What you believe matters. This is shown clearly in the case of exorcism. Brian P. Levack admits to personal reasons for interest in this dark subject. His The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West is a masterful treatment of a topic that it considers from many angles. As a form of Christian practice it goes all the way back to the beginning—Jesus’ initial fame was as an exorcist of sorts. He didn’t require any ritual or authority to expel demons, but he became a public figure largely because of his ability to do so. Levack’s study focuses mainly on the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. The latter was the high-water mark of possessions until the resurgent interest of the post-Exorcist twentieth century.

An aspect of exorcism that had raised my curiosity more than once was its Catholic disposition. Many Protestants believe in demons, but only the Roman Church has the grand ritual to drive them out. There are Protestant exorcisms, but they have a different goal—they’re intended to eliminate sin. This leads Levack to a strong contrast between Catholicism and that most extreme of Protestant traditions, Calvinism. Few Calvinists suffered from possession. Those who did were not held blameless, as in Catholicism (if you were being controlled by a demon you could hardly be held responsible for your actions). Calvinists believed only the sinful could be possessed and since their God is Republican you can hardly count on any mercy. In fact, if you were possessed, chances were you would become a witch. And everyone in early modernity knew what the cure for that would be.

We tend to think that the Enlightenment drove such beliefs extinct. In fact, the height of both witch hunts and demonic possession came after the scientific paradigm took hold. Levack makes the point that this is a kind of theater—performance undeniably plays a part in exorcisms. Both science and Calvinism, taken neat, can leave a body feeling cold and in need of some emotion. As the book notes, you could generally find a Catholic priest who’d be glad to drive out your demons. It seems that the great forces of good and evil play themselves out not only in the spiritual realm, but in the varieties of religious experiences in the all-too-political world of the church. The Devil Within is a fascinating book with a plausible thesis written by an author who understands that ideas have consequences that aren’t always easy to expel.

A Writer’s Life

WeHaveAlwaysLivedSometimes, an experienced editor once told me, the author’s life is just as important as the book she’s written. I can’t pretend to know much about Shirley Jackson, beyond that she wrote compelling fiction and that her name is barely recognized today. Best known for her short story “The Lottery” and her novel The Haunting of Hill House, she didn’t match the output of more prolific writers and therefore, in a world driven by capitalism, didn’t receive much notice. Her work is difficult to classify. Not exactly horror, it is nevertheless unsettling by implication. There’s something wrong beneath the surface. Jackson apparently suffered neuroses for much of her adult life, and her ability to translate angst into literature has gathered her a following among fans of ghost stories. I just finished reading her last novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a funny, quirky, and serious story about two young women who live alone and who, one suspects, are thought to be witches by the local population.

This little novel is difficult to lay aside for long. The characters of Constance and Merricat are too compelling to leave alone for any length of time. The fact that they are pariahs makes the reader want to ensure that they are safe as they remain carefully inside the home they’ve always known. Even though you know one of them murdered her family, you want them to be happy and secure, perhaps because the whole town is against them. I wouldn’t presume to say what Jackson meant by this story, but to me it seems a clear description of xenophobia by a woman who felt she was never accepted. Women being persecuted in New England always brings witch trials to mind. Although we don’t know why one of the girls killed her family, it is easy for the mind to fill in the blanks.

Although Jackson died prematurely, her work has influenced novelists such as Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. Uncompromising in her outlook, she allows her characters access to those strange places of the human mind where many of us wander from time to time. Merricat, for example, practices that sympathetic magic that we all, if we’re honest, admit that we attempt every now and again. Hoping in magic doesn’t make one a witch any more than prayer makes one a priest. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, although as old as I am, reflects a world in which reality can’t be pinned down. Assumptions are made and challenged. Protectors turn out to be exploiters, and the only ghosts are very human characters hated by the community in which they live. Still this is an uncanny tale, haunted by a reality that women still face in even the most progressive countries. Listening to their voices, even if from beyond the grave, may demonstrate just how much a writer’s life might mean.

Strixology

One of the fascinations of parenthood is learning to see things through the eyes of a young person again. When my daughter was fascinated with dinosaurs, I found myself learning such tongue-twisters as micropachycephalosaurus (I spelled that without looking it up just now) and struthiomimus just to remain conversant with her. (That, and I never really grew up.) When she took a childhood interest in insects, I found myself picking up bugs that would have sent me running just a few short years before, in my bare hands, to take them home to show her. All of this is by way of introducing my current continuing interest in witch trials. My wife (and consequently our daughter) is a direct descendent of the Towne family that included three innocent women accused as witches in the 1690s—Rebecca Nurse, Mary Easty, and Sarah Cloyce. When my daughter found out, the next long weekend from school we drove to Salem. I’ve been reading about witches ever since. I recently finished Brian A. Pavlac’s excellent Witch Hunts in the Western World. Well, as excellent as any book about such a gruesome topic can be. In the course of reading it, an unexpected connection dawned on me.

Many of those accused of witchcraft in the early modern period in Europe were accused of killing babies. The vast majority of them were women, often midwives. Those so accused had their bodies stripped and examined in public venues, generally only to have confessions tortured out of them later, under the eyes of male magistrates. The church had given credence to the superstition that witches actually existed and were in league with the Devil. Suddenly as I read, I heard the echo of a familiar refrain that comes from modern witch hunters. Those who, like the magistrates of old, are men; men telling women what they may or may not do with their bodies. Who draw their self-righteousness from their religion and who claim that birth control is of the Devil. Who accuse women of killing babies. Texas begins to sound like the rebirth of the Holy Roman Empire. In all of Europe that was where the most women were slaughtered, in thousands, by men who burned with the zealotry of a religion that had lost touch with reality.

Time spent on history is never wasted. At times we seem to have come so far, but then I look back over my shoulder and see the suchomimus of unbridled male fantasy closing fast. We have worked hard to bring equality to all people, but at the start of yet another millennium, we are still measuring the worth of humans by the gonads they carry. Based on outdated views from a book that was once meant to be inspirational. Sadly, the legacy often left by religion is only a residue of superstition. The reasoning behind the witch hunts of yesteryear and those of today is the same—the desire to control the behavior of others. It is the cocktail of religion and politics that inebriates those who crave power. What was true then remains true today. In the words of Pavlac, “A history of the Middle Ages shows the intensifying entanglement of magical thinking with political power, which produced the European witch hunts.” Substitute “Modern Day” for “Middle Ages” and “Planned Parenthood” for “European” and see if you can’t find a pattern.

Tortured Gospel

Tornadoes? I don't see any tornadoes.

It is a little difficult to force yourself to think of tornadoes when you’re in sunny California. On my flight into Santa Barbara I could see the tail end of the gray whale migration from a few thousand feet in the air. Outside the tiny municipal airport (with its full-body scanner) I see palm trees swaying in the wind. The air smells like flowers. Life is too easy in California for me ever to live here. I need more angst in my diet. I can’t come to the sunny coast, however, without the Eagle’s “Hotel California” replaying endlessly in my head. It was the running joke at Nashotah House that the real Hotel California was located in the woods just outside Delafield, Wisconsin. The haunting lyrics by Don Felder, Don Henley, and Glenn Frey managed to capture the witch’s brew of mind control, humiliation, and desire that laced that little, gothic seminary in the woods. Yet even sitting in California with its full greenery in March, I see that Pat Robertson is blaming the devastation of the recent tornadoes on lack of prayer.

Blaming the victim is a classic fascist technique, and it is very easy to proclaim one’s own righteousness when not in harm’s way. Herein lies the darkest sin of the self-justified; they think themselves specially blessed and therefore not responsible to help the victims. While flying over the Santa Ynez Mountains, seeing the smoke from California wildfires climbing like the terminal flames of Babylon, I could hear a voice like a choir of fascists singing, “Alleluia And her smoke rose up for ever and ever.” Schadenfreude fuels too much of the evangelical worldview. According the Gospel writers, when Jesus foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem, he wept. WWJD, Rev. Robertson?

Tornadoes look so much like divine judgment that it is almost understandable how a naïve believer might see them as coming from God. We, however, are the gods destroying our own planet with the accompanying degradation of the weather. Neo-cons deny the fact of global warming. It is not a myth or a theory, there is inconvertible proof that it is happening. Still, it is more convenient to blame God. After all, chances of him showing up to deny false charges, as history repeatedly shows, are very slim. Ask any innocent woman tied to a stake in Medieval Europe accused of being a witch. Apparently the divine calendar is too full to worry about the troubles of hundreds of thousands, or even a few millions who are falsely accused. Why not send some terror from the sky? It is hard to think of such things in sunny California. Yet as the “good news” of the televangelists spreads to the ends of the earth, even those forever in the sun will need to stand in judgment before a very capricious deity.

Ashes to Ashes

It was just a small blurb in the paper. Down at the bottom of page 17, it could have been easily overlooked. “Alleged witch killed by being set on fire” the small headline stated. And the date was 18 February 2012. This sad incident took place in Nepal. The story notes that “Each year hundreds of women in rural Nepal are abused after being accused of being witches.” Just last week, to the scorn of many, Cologne, Germany reopened the case of Katarina Henot, a woman burned as a witch 385 years ago. Katarina Henot was declared innocent because of the efforts of a priest to raise awareness of the persecution of women around the world. Five days after the story hit the news, Theganidevi Mahato was burned to death in Nepal. Although some called the action in Cologne a publicity stunt, it was anything but. We need to put names on those we continue to allow society to brutalize. Katarina Henot and Theganidevi Mahato, separated by 385 years and many, many miles, both died for the insanity that equates tragedy with women.

How blithely the word “witch-hunt” spills off the tongue. Each time we invoke it, the very phrase trails the ghosts of many thousands of women made to pay the price for society’s paranoia. The answers to why such tragedies occur may never be fully understood, but the events are preventable. The key is education. Even in the most advanced culture in the world, as we like to style ourselves, we heap contempt upon education, claiming that teachers barely work and that professors get paid for doing nothing. We have fallen into the fallacy that one size fits all—not all jobs can be measured by the wicked, black dip-stick of the oil industry, or the quick-cash-and-crash of the stock exchange. Education is a lifelong process, and as the political ridiculousness we constantly hear reminds us, lessons must be endlessly repeated until they sink in. Too many people think it is just easier to burn witches.

Witch-hunts arise when societies are stressed. Scapegoating is one of the most unfortunate legacies religion has left us. Evidence points to the scapegoat as being earlier than the Bible, although it takes its characteristic form there. We hear how the sins of the people were transferred to the goat on a day not so different from Ash Wednesday, to be symbolically born away where the animal would die instead of us. Somehow we’ve come to believe that burning the representative of our neuroses will somehow cure our society. Does it? Has it ever? This day as millions of Christians contemplate their sins and wear ashes on their heads, I suggest that we think of the women whom religion has allowed to become its victims. Whether due to the superstition of a remote village in Nepal or the irrational fear of “civilized” Europe with the blessing of the church, we’ve let scapegoating go too far. And those who’ve been killed are not the nameless females of forgotten times, but are the Katarinas, Theganidevis, Marys, and Rebeccas who were just as human as their neighbors.

What are their names?

Witch Crazy

The self-destructive tendencies of human societies should be of major interest to those who study the mind. Why a highly evolved species would forego reason—or create an entire false logic—to give itself an excuse to mass-murder its own is among the greatest trials of theodicy. Can God be justified in such circumstances? With or without divine approval, God is nevertheless implicated. One of those homicidal events, the European witch craze of early modern history is a prime example. Anne Llewellyn Barstow’s Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts is a disturbing book on many levels. For a human being with any level of empathy, reading about the torturous destruction of at least 100,000 people—generally women—is hard going. We don’t want to be reminded that we were ever so naïve as to believe that women slept with the devil, flew through the air to meet with other witches, and were trying to bring down society. The “upright,” as Barstow makes very clear, feared for the church. Concern for the ways of God excused—demanded even—the death of the innocent. Many of the victims confessed, under torture, that the godly men had got it right.

Barstow contends that economic stresses and fear for the sanctity of the church, along with a generous dose of native misogyny, fueled this holocaust. She notes that it happened in the same society that would initiate another holocaust a mere three centuries later. But why women? Coming out of the medieval period, societies were strengthening centralized governments. Roles of power that belonged to women were highly individualized, and therefore considered threats. The healer, in absence of a medical profession, was often female, frequently a midwife. In days of high infant mortality, they were sometimes blamed for performing abortions, something men in power simply couldn’t accept. Barstow points out that population increases were stressing the economic production of the period. The newly minted Reformation advocated a very active devil in the world. Since the devil, like God, was a guy, well, women satisfied his lust.

The most disturbing aspect of reading this book for me, however, is the fact that our society has come to resemble that one once again. Strong centralized governments control what citizens do through fear—what else would compel us to allow Patriot Acts to pass? They target women as scapegoats—otherwise the issue of abortion would not command such male attention. Fear for the sanctity of God is repeatedly invoked. Sometimes these modern witches are persecuted on the basis of ethnic background as well as gender. And in both the witch hunter society and that of today an elite class has collected the wealth and sits back to let the remainder incinerate itself in the name of God. Witches don’t fly through the night to meet a fictional devil. The real threat to society is right here among us, but its not who the powerful want us to think it is. And it is very human.