Astronomers and Pirates

In an effort not to travel, the internet offers a great resource while it’s still free. If you don’t want to wander from home, it brings movies you might’ve missed right to your domicile. This year has been so busy that we’d missed completely Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. I know, as the Pirate movies spin on and on they become more special effects extravaganzas with insipid, if complex, plots. Still, we’ve been watching from the beginning, so last night we decided to see it through. The movies are fun, if less well written than they were at the beginning (and the movie began without a script). There are moments worth attention, however.

The story follows Carina Smyth as she attempts to discover her father through following his diary. This, of course, brings her path across that of Captain Jack Sparrow. Smyth is an astronomer and horologist. Because she’s female and this is the eighteenth century, she’s labeled a witch. Both the proximate and ultimate cause of the accusation is her gender. Although she proves to be the real hero of the film, the men can’t help thinking she’s a witch although she’s using science to find answers. In fact, if a male astronomer did the same things she did, there’d be no story here. This is a post-Galileo world. It’s also post-Salem. We don’t watch these films for history, of course, but it is true that although the witchcraft trials ended at the turn of that century, the accusations continued for some time after. The woman of science is a threat to the male establishment. She alone, however, discerns the truth.

Swashbuckler cinema was a male invention. Still, even in the twenty-first century too much of it comes at the expense of women. Jack Sparrow’s famous compass, for example, is passed on to him aboard a ship called the “Wicked Wench.” Surely this is meant to be funny, but at whose expense? The other women in the movie hardly come off better. Shansa actually is a witch, working for the establishment. Beatrice Kelly, in Jack Sparrow’s noose wedding, is portrayed as an undesirable bride, purely for laughs. Disney is famous for its princesses, but also for its wicked women. Even the strong female characters such as Mulan, Moana, and Anna find themselves being helped to success by male characters. Obviously the genders do interact in real life, and as recent history has shown us, men will demonize women if it helps them get ahead. You might think a movie of anti-heroes, however, would show the most intelligent character receiving a bit more respect. Especially since she’s a woman in a pirate’s world.

Pagan Religion

TriumphMoonFraming. Much of what we call “religion” has to do with framing. At one time it was standard practice to assume “pagan” was distasteful, if not downright evil. “Witch” was a pejorative term intended to humiliate and excoriate. Ronald Hutton is one of the few scholars who has taken the time to consider Wicca and related religions seriously. The Triumph of the Moon: a History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft has been on my reading list for quite some time. It is a big book, but this is a complex subject that can’t be dealt with briefly. Taking the time to get to know witches, with a historian’s patience, Hutton has given the world a valuable, balanced resource. Without prejudice, he traces how paganism, Wicca, and witchcraft are religions difficult to define or even categorize. There is little to frame them.

Rumor and hearsay make poor substitutes for understanding a religion. Most of what I grew up learning about witches was, in short, completely wrong. I wonder how much more pleasant the world might be if people assumed religions all to be similar in many ways. They are varied attempts to find ways of being moral in a world that gives little clear instruction on the matter. Witches and pagans are only evil in the uninformed opinions of more powerfully established religions. Religions of empire, whether real or only imagined. Those that had political backing and brute force to anathematize those who were different. Theirs is still a stigma that persists.

The Triumph of the Moon recounts the development, since the early part of the last century, of a somewhat organized experiment of religion as it grows organically. Without a leading figure or spokesperson, radically egalitarian, these groups, while sometimes in conflict, coalesce around the practice of finding something magical in the world. Theirs is an educated, literate world that does not judge other religions. It isn’t perfect, but then what religion is? The belief structure isn’t so different than many established religions except in the matter of degree. It is private and secretive in a way that we could only wish in many religions, if they could be counted on to behave themselves. I’m not likely to do a sky-clad spiral dance any time soon, but I would say that if we took religions at their word for being what they say they are, we might have a lot more resembling that of the noble pagan.

Night Terrors

TerrorInTheNightNightmares are the stuff dreams are made of. Or maybe I’ve got that the wrong way around. Having grown up subject to frequent nightmares, I still occasionally have them. I suppose it is easy enough to assume someone who reads about monsters and watches horror films should not find this unexpected, however, I’m not sure they’re related. My nightmares visit issues that horror films avoid, and most of my monster reading is, well, academic. Surely the scientific study of nightmares has advanced since David J. Hufford’s The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions, but it remains a very important book. As someone familiar with the phenomenon, I found Hufford’s study somewhat therapeutic, and it certainly does raise some interesting questions.

Apart from the unfortunately, inherently sexist, folk-title “the old hag,” Hufford is addressing a universal experience of people of all ages. Using his original setting in remote Newfoundland where his work began, Hufford collected tales of what might technically be called sleep paralysis with a specific hypnogogic hallucination of being attacked. A designation, he acknowledges, that is quite awkward for repeated use. Back in the early 1980’s, when the book was published, these accounts of nighttime attacks—a person waking up, or not having yet fallen asleep, sensing a presence in the room, finding her- or himself unable to move, and sometimes seeing or hearing an entity and feeling it on his or her chest—were rarely discussed. Especially in scientific literature. They seem a kind of embarrassing medievalism related to the ancient concepts of incubi and succubi, and even vampires. Having “the old hag” (a moniker relating to witches) is what the experience is known as in Newfoundland. Hufford, taking these accounts seriously, investigated what the sufferers had experienced. Unwilling to judge whether the event “actually happened,” Hufford’s scientific objectivity is truly admirable. Since the time of his book, the concept has become widely known and the argument is often made that having heard of sleep paralysis episodes feeds those with hypnogogic hallucinations the idea of a supernatural oppressor. In other words, now that we know about it, we don’t have to take it seriously.

Hufford is one of a small number of academics that is willing to engage with the supernatural on its own terms. Religion scholars do, of course, but we are generally dismissed from the starting block anyway. Most scientists disregard the possibility of anything beyond deluded brains and say nightmares are normal. Just deal with it. Those who’ve experienced the nighttime attack know that it feels very different than a garden variety nightmare. You can tell when you’re awake. Of course, we’re of the generation who’ve seen The Matrix and Inception, and we know that, at least in popular thought, reality has become negotiable. Nobody is much surprised any more by the idea of such an attack in the night. Waking nightmares have become as common as the headlines. If only more scholars would take human experience as more than just “old wives tales” we might all be surprised at how just rolling over can change everything for the better.

Hansel and Regretel

HanselGretelHansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters was on offer on the trans-Atlantic flight. Since I missed it in theaters, I decided to watch it on my mini-screen inches from my face. Witches, among the classical monsters, have a strange longevity into the world of science—like van Helsing (of movie fame) the protagonists have steam-punkish gadgets to destroy the naturally invincible foes. What’s not to like? I could not help but be disturbed, however, at what seemed to be the inherent misogyny of the film. Perhaps it was the lighting on the plane, but I saw only one male witch among the monstrous hordes of females who were battered, shot, and burned with apparent sangfroid. Women were guilty, it seemed, until proven innocent. And Mina, the white witch, again underscores that women who are “clean” are still potential witches underneath. Naturally, she dies before it’s over, but in a noble way.

The witches in the movie are strangely removed from a traditional, satanic context. They derive their power, like modern wiccans, from nature and strange mixes. The source of their magic is never explored very deeply, but when they catch trespassers in their forest, their queen states that even God himself fears to go there. Bewitching bravado, to be sure, but where does this image of God originate? A god afraid of the very nature that (in a film such as this, certainly) “he” created? The sacrifice of children is a good biblical trope, but seems to do little more here than to build the tension.

Monster movies, I realize, are “guy flicks.” Something about all that testosterone seems to be energized by images of ordinary people fighting monsters, against incredible odds. The monsters here, however, are barely distinguishable from regular women. Folklore has a deep well of traditions about witches from which the savvy might draw to write an intelligent, entertaining tale of witch-hunters. After all, the real antagonist, traditionally, is the male devil. He is, in medieval tradition, the source of witching magic. By removing Satan from the picture, we are left with strong women who must be repressed, and the world is really no safer when Hansel and Gretel are done. In fact, the end of the movie implies that they will never be finished. An opportunity for a subtle shift of paradigm was missed in this film, and, as usual, it is women who end up paying the price.

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.

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.

Lesson of Salem

I married a witch. I suppose I ought to clarify that a bit. My wife is descended from Rebecca Nurse’s brother Jacob. Rebecca Nurse was one of those unfortunately hanged as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. My family has been spending the last couple of days touring Salem, seeking to get in touch with our heritage. Yesterday we had the rare opportunity to tour the home of Rebecca Nurse which, remarkably, still stands over 300 years after the tortured events of the late seventeenth century. Our tour guide was impressively knowledgeable about the witch hysteria. She noted that in the Puritan (Reformed) mindset, with no science to speak of, evil could only be explained by the Devil. If misfortune came, the Devil was to blame. Even after the “witches” were exonerated (too late to save 20 lives), it was understood that the Devil incited the girls to make their false claims against their ultimately and penultimately righteous neighbors. Without the Devil none of this made sense.

The Rebecca Nurse homestead

Salem was founded as a utopian community free to live out its Puritan religion. It was named after Jerusalem, a city of peace (!). As our guide noted, religious freedom was not the same as tolerance; the Puritans wanted the freedom to celebrate their own religion, but were extremely suspicious of all others. One of those hanged as a witch, George Jacobs, had nearly beaten a neighbor to death simply because he was a Quaker. Rebecca Nurse, however, at 72 years old, was no threat to anybody. She was a member of a Christian community that turned on her. Condemned for charges the nearly deaf woman could not even hear properly, she was hanged for consorting with a mythical Devil.

Rev. Parris's house, where the witch hysteria began

No doubt the religion of the Puritans was a harsh religion with a God nearly as unforgiving as that of Sweeny Todd. The problems occurred, however, when the law came into the hands of religious leaders. There is an allegory and a moral to this story. Today many of the tourist attractions in Salem focus on the need for true tolerance. They no doubt come closer to the spirit of the founder of Christianity than the Puritans ever did. As I stood looking over the hole in the ground that is all that remains of Rev. Parris’ parsonage—the very location the witch hysteria began as his daughter Betty started to act odd after hearing the stories of the slave Tituba—a profound sadness afflicted me. Twenty people died and many lost all their worldly possessions because of an uncontrolled mythology of a church convinced of its own righteousness. An allegory and moral for the twenty-first century indeed. Have we yet learned the lesson of Salem?

Terror Able

Saturday afternoons were made for B movies. After a hectic week, nothing soothes like grainy picture quality and poor dialogue. This weekend offered a chance to view The Terror. This 1963 Roger Corman film won its bad marks the honest way – by earning them. Nevertheless with Jack Nicholson playing against Boris Karloff and a plot so convoluted that I had to draw a chart to figure out what I’d just watched, the movie lived up to its grade. Throw in Francis Ford Coppola as an associate producer and it’s party time. Corman’s legendary cheapness and fondness for disproportionate claims of scares that never materialize only add to the charm. After watching the opening sequence one gets the distinct impression that Franklin J. Schaffner had watched this film before setting up the climatic scene of Planet of the Apes.

In keeping with a recent trend on this blog, the plot involved a witch. An old woman from Poland resettles in France to avenge her murdered son. The crone casts a spell transforming a bird into a beautiful young woman. The first words of the spells sent me fumbling for the “rewind” button. “Tetragrammaton, tetragrammaton,” the old woman intones to begin her spell. In a movie fraught with dialogue problems, this might be considered simply a choice of foreign-sounding, mysterious syllables to be uttered for an audience not expected to know that tetragrammaton is the title of the sacred four-letter name of Yahweh. By this point the plot was so convoluted that making God the agent behind a pagan curse seemed almost natural.

The analog with the Bible soon became clear. The Bible holds its sway over many because of its often beautiful rhetoric. Sparing the time to study what the rhetoric might have meant in its original context is an exercise few believers can afford to undertake. Our world has become so full of things that taking time to explore the implications of one’s religion must compete with ever increasing Internet options, thousands of channels of television, and plain, old-fashioned figuring out how to get along. Religion is a luxury item and, as experience tells us, it is best not to look too closely at luxuries – their flaws too readily appear upon detailed inspection. Allowing religion its exotic sounding mumbo-jumbo preserves its mystery and power. And if a witch says a theologically freighted word we can just chalk it up to entertainment. We are too busy to examine what our religions really say. Roger Corman may have unintentionally discovered a real terror in a movie that will keep no one awake at night.

Which Witch?

Witches have been flying all over the Internet the last few days. A story from AP Online, picked up by several websites, reports that witches in Romania are planning to cast spells on the government. Now, I have to admit to having been tempted to cast a few spells myself during the Bush years, but since I don’t believe in magic the desire simply fizzled. These witches, however, are serious. Cat excrement in hand, the carcass of a dog nearby, these witches are outraged. Perhaps even more surprising is that some government officials are taking it seriously too, according to the article. The reason for the hexes? Romania has just started charging witches income tax.

Romania is a nation that evokes the darkness of primal forests haunted by werewolves and terrorized by vampires. The one-time domicile of Vlad the Impaler, the region has retained this mystique into the twenty-first century while elsewhere rovers roll around the surface of Mars and instantaneous world-wide communications are available at the press of a button. I am nevertheless encouraged by this display of activism. These supernatural citizens are challenging what they perceive to be unfair government practices. Statesmen wear purple on auspicious days to mitigate the effects of enchanters who are in touch with the financial struggles of the vast majority of religious specialists. Most of us just sit back and take it.

Meanwhile, as thousands of blackbirds fall from the sky, members of our own government are posturing to take back the modest health care improvements President Obama has helped to institute. Emotional Republicans are getting ready to strike back at programs designed to help those less fortunate than they are (apparently so they’ll have someone to pray for at grace over meals). “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father” (Mt 10.29). Never mind casting spells, the government will always find ways of making life less comfortable for those they see as threats. Which witch would you choose? I’d select the one with a moral compass, even if she has cat excrement in her hand.

Sinful Moonsters

Wednesday night a student asked me about the moon god Sin. The name “Sin” has nothing etymologically in common with the usual English word for wrongdoing; they are simply homonyms. Nevertheless, when students first encounter this odd juxtaposition they often think that there must be something to it. This particular student pointed out that many activities classified as sinful take place at night, under the moon. Could they be connected? Linguistically, no; but it did get me thinking about the idea of the moon’s baleful influence on various creatures of the night.

Serious academic works seldom take vampires, werewolves and witches, some of the moon’s most infamously unholy acolytes, to be worthy of valuable research time. Meanwhile Stephanie Meyer and company are laughing all the way to the blood bank. Popular culture gives credence to the children of the night that the academic world ignores. I tried to do a little research on the moon and its mythology only to find that most moon books deal either with serious attempts at astronomy or serious attempts at astrology, neither of which I was seeking. I wanted to know when the moon had slipped from being the gentle god/goddess of the night into its role as the overseer of evil.

Evidence was scant, but it seems that in the Middle Ages, maybe influenced by late Roman ideas, scholars began to recognize the moon’s potential as a dismal influence. The moon has long been popular in folklore as a source of lunacy and luck. Lovers crave the moonlight, but so do teenage vampires and raging werewolves. This is, apparently, a concept of no great ancient pedigree. In any case, the moon here has nothing to do with sin.