Learning To Fly

It’s perhaps the most deeply rooted human dream.  Flying.  Women Who Fly, by Serinity Young, is a fascinating book.  Subtitled Goddesses, Witches, Mystics, and Other Airborne Females, the book covers all of these and more.  The dream of flying is played out in many ways here, but often the narrative comes back to how patriarchy imprisons women.  Is it any wonder they want to fly?  Very wide in historical scope, the book can’t cover all cases in equal depth.  It nevertheless demonstrates how pervasive the idea is.  Beginning with ancient female figurines bearing bird-like features, Young moves through the related concepts of captivity, transcendence, sexuality, and immortality, showing how female characters are related to these idea in universal and unrelenting ways in the form of flying females.

There are many lenses through which to view patriarchy.  It can be explained as a consequence of settled agricultural existence with its subsequent division of labor.  Such a scenario raises questions of whether women dreamed of flight before that, and I believe the answer must be yes.  For as long as we’ve observed birds and associated the sky with gods we have longed for flight.  Although birds make it look easy, it is an incredibly difficult and costly adaptation.  Still, women dream of travel without obstacles (let the reader understand) to the realms where deities dwell.  It is difficult to summarize a book that covers so much historical territory.  Young doesn’t limit herself to western religions but also spends a fair bit of time among Buddhist, Hindu, and Daoist ideas of flying women.  She covers mythical, folkloristic, human, and historical flying females all the way up to modern astronauts.

As I was coming to the close of the book the real message hit me—I can be thick at times, although much of my own writing is metaphorical—men have actively tried to clip women’s wings for a long time.  Often under the auspices of religion.  Think of it: for centuries of existence the major monotheistic traditions have refused female leadership.  The one (inevitably male) god has set up a boys’ club of sacerdotal leadership.  As Young points out, even the named angels in the Bible are male.  I used to comfort myself with the explanation that male leaders were simply too self-centered to consider others, but it is becoming clearer, the more I read, that men have always had a tendency to try to keep women down.  And thus they fly.  There’s much in this book for both women and men to ponder.

Bodies and the Fall

Less common than it once was, the term “Dark Ages” was formerly used to denote what in Europe was known as the Medieval Period.  We now know that the pervasive darkness ascribed to the time was only partial: science, legal thinking, and rationalism were well underway.  Nevertheless, the sway of the church was enormous, and even until and beyond the days of Isaac Newton, the supernatural was assumed to exist.  Dyan Elliott’s Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality and Demonology in the Middle Ages is a fascinating journey through this contradictory time.  Elliott explores how the mysteries of sex (nocturnal emissions and menstruation loom large among them) played important roles in the development of Catholic theology that ultimately led to the close association of demons and witches.  Concerns with priestly purity, largely due to concerns about transubstantiation, led to enforced celibacy and the (further) denigration of women.

It would be difficult to summarize this insightful book.  Although relatively brief, it packs a wallop.  Concerns about purity go back to the Bible and before.  Ancient cultures had recognized aspects of contagion and knew that some diseases spread by contact.  Their perception of biology was “scientific” according to their current understanding, but it lacked microscopes and knew no shortage of supernatural entities.  Demons had great explanatory value in such a world.  As Elliott shows, they often appear in disquisitions about sex.  How can spiritual beings engage in physical relations with human bodies?  What were they made of?  Were they all bad?  Although demons had explanatory value they also raised many questions.

Fallen Bodies draws correlations between the dismissal of priests’ wives and the evolution of witches.  As the Eucharist became more and more holy, stricter controls had to be placed on consecrating hands.  Sex was the great source of pollution, and the Virgin Mary became rather less human through her own miraculously sterile conception.  The implied misogyny may not have been so much intentional as a reflection of the struggle to understand what modern medical science generally explains materially.  We still grapple with the mystery of life.  Conception can be viewed clinically, and biological responses can be “explained” scientifically (anyone who’s been in love will admit to the mystery of it, though).  Denizens of the Middle Ages worked with the tools they had to make sense of a world often bewildering.  Even physics still has to deal with quantum realities.  History teaches by its unfortunate missteps.  Someday those who “govern” the world may learn to read it and exorcise demons now otherwise readily explained.

Sighs

Suspiria is a movie intentionally difficult to follow.  The original 1977 version was an Italian film about witches posing as dance instructors.  After watching it, I felt I didn’t have enough backstory to understand the action.  Then a remake was released last year and I felt I needed, like a dancer, to try again.  I have to confess I’m not a dancer.  Luca Guadagnino’s remake left me scratching my head again, although it underscored a point I make in Holy Horror: in horror films with remakes the role of the Bible changes.  Now, it’s been years since I’ve seen the first Suspiria, but I don’t recall the Bible appearing.  It does, however, in the 2018 remake.  The protagonist, Susie Bannion, is an American enrolled at a German dance school.  She is, in the remake, a Mennonite from Ohio.

Not only does this situation allow religion to take once again an important role in a horror film, it is also the opportunity to show the Bible visually.  Susie’s mother, who objects to her daughter engaging in such a showy profession as dancing (and given the performance of Volk in the film, the nature of this objection can be easily guessed), is dying as the film begins.  Her Mennonite community watches and prays over her, sitting with Bibles clutched in their hands.  To take a page from Holy Horror, this suggests that the Good Book is powerless to save.  While the movie itself is a little confusing on this point, it seems that Susie’s mother dies as her daughter becomes the head witch of the dance academy.  Since Holy Writ famously contains verses condemning witches, the impotence of Scripture is underscored.

Italian folklore about witches appears to be remarkably robust.  From Strega Nona to Suspiria, the wizened women of society have power against which men are powerless.  Some of the bleakest moments in the film (from the point of view of the male gaze) are when the witches taunt powerless, naked men who cannot in any way defend themselves.  Turnabout, of course, is fair play—at least if folk sayings have any validity.  Here it’s worth considering that if male religions hold females down—the Mennonite women are shown in bonnets and uncomfortable clothes—then being a witch is remarkably freeing.  Indeed, there is the energy of a life-force evident in the dancing of the young women and the academy is closed to men, apart from public performances.  I’m still scratching my head over Suspiria, but it seems that the direct engagement with religion and the power of women makes this a movie worthy of rewatching and attempting to understand.

Witch Way from Here?

Häxan is often considered a horror film.  Produced by Benjamin Christensen, it was released in 1922, the same year as Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens.  Both are silent films and the term “horror movie” didn’t exist that early.  Framed as a documentary of sorts, Häxan deals with witches, or more precisely, with ideas about witches.  Taking a remarkably modern view, it presents how the church led to the persecution of women during the witch hunts.  It had been on my “to see” list for many years before I realized it is now in the public domain and is rather easily found on YouTube for free.  It presents reenactments that are still difficult to watch, although silent films have a difficult time scaring viewers used to CGI verging on virtual reality.

Banned in the United States upon its initial release, the movie dares address that sacred ruminant, the foibles of the church.  Christensen was largely correct in placing the blame for harm inflicted on thousands of innocent people—mostly women—on the zeal of a masculine church.  The prolonged dramatization of the destruction of an entire family based on forced confession and trickery, often by well-fed monks, makes the point clearly.  While modern explanations have recourse to the psychological motivations, often unknown to those whose worldview was ecclesiastical, we still haven’t relinquished the misogyny of the Middle Ages.  Considering that Häxan is nearly a century old itself, there’s cause for embarrassment in a world largely run by technology.  We still tend to ban that which causes us ridicule.  

When tragedies occur, it’s only too natural to blame someone or something for it.  Why the burden of that blame was laid on women by a male hierarchy is sadly only too easy to guess.  Häxan is one of those examples of the way horror can cross over between fact and fiction.  Today it can’t be taken as a documentary with any kind of seriousness, but it maintains an atmosphere of dread that finds it classified as horror before the genre itself began.  Movies about witches continue in the genre up to the present, and most are quite aware of the male culpability behind this particular variety of “monster.”  To test if witch trials continue all we need to do is watch how men in power continue to behave toward women.  It’s almost enough to make us believe hexes are real.

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.

Movie v. Book

The debate is about as old as celluloid itself; which is better, the book or the movie? The response obviously depends on personal taste, and I suspect that many people base their answer on criteria that can’t exactly be quantified. Often it’s a matter of the specifics—which book? Which movie? In my own experience I’ve done it both ways, read the book first and watched the movie initially. I’ve even gone to movies not realizing there was a book and, of course, some movies aren’t based on books at all. You couldn’t grow up when I did, however, and not know that The Exorcist was a movie based on a book. I never saw the movie in a theater. There was a lot of buzz about it in my hometown, of course. I hadn’t been introduced to modern horror yet—still being a Fundamentalist at the time—and besides, it was rated “R” and I wasn’t.

I finally got around to reading the book. At this point in my life I’ve seen the movie several times, so I knew how the story was “supposed to go” beforehand. The fact that William Peter Blatty wrote the screenplay suggested it would be close to the novel, and indeed that’s the case. Novels, by their nature, tend to have more information about the storyline than is obvious from a film. The author can take time to explain things that don’t translate visually, including scenes where one character lectures another, like this blog. Since I’m writing a book about demons in movies, I paid careful attention to this. One of the themes from the novel that didn’t make it to the movie was witches.

That surprised me a bit. I had seen the movie first and it was plenty scary just as it was. I had to remind myself that my younger years coincided with the rebirth of the fear of witches. Literal ones. I’m not an astute enough sociologist to say whether the “witch hunts” of McCarthyism led to a hypostatized fear of real witches or not, but people were afraid in those days, as I recall. The Exorcist tapped into cultural fears in a way rare for a horror movie. It spoke to the fears of the era, but it didn’t mention witches. I couldn’t help but make the comparison with Rosemary’s Baby, which hit theaters shortly after The Exorcist. Rosemary believes the Satanists are witches. There’s a whole supernatural concoction of malevolent entities on the loose. Witches, ultimately in the novel, are simply one avenue the desperate Chris MacNeil explores to find out what’s wrong with Regan. The movie, wisely in my opinion, chose to leave it out. Demons are scary enough on their own, but of course even that’s debatable.

Imagine Devils

One of the more encouraging events of recent times took place on Tuesday. In elections across the country many public offices were won by women. After a year of official misogyny from the Comrade in Chief—it started long before the election, of course—I felt hope for the first time. You see, I’d been reading Carol F. Karlsen’s The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. I’ve been interested in witches as part of my general exploration of religious views of monstrosity, and in the Early Modern Period, witches were still lurking in the imagination of many. Karlsen’s book isn’t focused solely on Salem. There were other outbreaks of witchcraft accusations, and a general air of suspicion had hung over New England from its founding.

Why women? Karlsen’s question haunts much of human history. Why one gender, or gender construct, why one race, or racial construct, feels itself superior to others is an issue not easily resolved. It doesn’t come, necessarily, from being a “white” male, but it is a disease that primarily effects that demographic. It’s a myth of superiority. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman is not an easy book for a man to read. Centuries of bad behavior don’t exonerate those who, although their belief was sincere, found an outlet for their faith in the destruction of others. Karlsen demonstrates that quite often the background issues were those of inheritance—in a patriarchal society, land passed to male heirs. Women who owned property complicated a social picture that was already under stress. Consider: any family with two sons would halve (although the proportions were not equal) its land each generation. The only way to keep the wealthy wealthy was to snatch land wherever they could.

It wasn’t so simple as that, but the basic economics—which haven’t changed much—set colonial New England up for disaster. Birth control was considered evil. Men still had to be gratified, however, and population increased as land size remained the same. The system is untenable. Just a year ago the electoral college made love to an angry white man. A man who “owns” lots of “valuable” property. A man who demeans women and those of other “races.” When his own shady dealing come into the light he cries “witch hunt!” History is full of ironies. One of the greatest of them in the fact that women have been held back long after circumstances had advanced enough to allow equality in a stable society. There may still be witch hunts, but they flow in the direction they always have—toward those denied autonomy and civil rights. Maybe Tuesday was finally a sign of hope.

Hex Marks the Spot

Public versus private has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Partially it’s because I’ve been reading about magical beliefs and their persistence. It always amazes me how publicly we declare ourselves rational and uninfluenced by the supernatural. Once we get behind the closed doors of our domiciles, however, a transformation takes place. Our insecurities and uncertainties surface. Given the right circumstances we might even confess that we believe in magic. I know I’m generalizing here, but private space does allow for private thoughts and getting out with others can bring a much-needed relief. I was reading about Hex Hollow in an article a friend sent me from Roadtrippers. Hex Hollow is a small town in my native Pennsylvania where a murder took place over witchcraft. I won’t go into the details here—the Roadtripper story is quite brief and tells the tale—but it turns out a man was killed for being a witch. His murderer was also a witch who’d been sent to him by yet a third witch. The crime took place in 1928.

Think about the timeframe for a second. It was between the World Wars. Technology was fairly advanced. Witch trials had ended centuries ago. Still, some people believed enough in witches to kill for their conviction. Historians of religion have pointed out that Americans have never really outgrown the belief in magic that we deny so assiduously. I’m not trying to single out one nation here—there is widespread evidence that magical thinking is endemic to the human thought process. We aren’t so quick to let something go that, according to reason, has served us well. Had magical thinking been purely detrimental it should’ve died out long ago. We need our magic.

As yesterday, so today.

I’m not suggesting witchcraft is real. At the same time I know that it’s natural enough for thoughts to move into familiar terrain when stressed out. In Hex Hollow the man who did the murdering was convinced he’d been hexed by his victim. Perhaps he’d climbed the ladder of inference (what we tend to call confirmation bias) to a rung where the only way down was a criminal act of desperation. That’s no excuse to kill someone, of course, but it fits with what we know of an all-too-human form of stress relief. Nor is it rustic rubes to blame. Psychics in New York City are abundant and even US presidents have been known to consult the stars a time or two. Of course, once I step outside that door I’ll say it’s all nonsense.

Whither the Weather?

The weather which we’re having, showing the impact of imaginary global warming, has been quite dramatic of late. I recently had occasion to be out driving during one of the more intense weather events when the sun broke through only to reveal an impressive array of clouds heading in—all the way from the ground to the gray ceiling of the firmament itself. It was quite beautiful in a threatening way. Of course, I’ve been fascinated by the weather for years, going so far as to write a book about weather in the Bible. A friend recently sent me a story reminding me of an under-recognized aspect of witchery. Our standard cultural myth suggests witches are all about casting spells on your cow, or your family. In reality, many witchcraft accusations were about bad weather.

The story by Pollyanna Jones, “Storm Callers—The Art of Weather Magic,” describes beliefs in witches and weather magic. I couldn’t help but think of our current situation. We live in an age of empowered climate change deniers who also happen to be misogynists. Can this be mere coincidence? 45 and others of his caliber seems to think that women are the cause of all masculine problems, which are, after all, the only problems that really matter. The red states do seem to have a preference for the dark ages, overall. I don’t need to worry about them reading this because electricity is of the Devil and the internet doesn’t really exist. It’s amazing how liberating blinders can be. February was spring this year and April feels like January. Must be some woman to blame.

The truly tragic aspect of this tiresome repetition of misogyny parading as righteousness is that the myths behind it have been thoroughly debunked. The atmosphere’s so complex that even with all our understanding of fluid dynamics and chaotic systems we still can’t be sure what tomorrow’s weather will be like. The atmosphere, by definition, is larger than the surface of the earth and is constantly trying to adjust itself like a passenger on a long-distance commute. Yet we go from McCarthyism to Watergate to Reaganomics to 45 rpm, each one as tawdry as the previous attempts to blame the poor for the woes of the rich. “He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust,” Scripture saith. That doesn’t sit well with true believers, however. It’s much easier to hunt for witches than to deal with facts.

Looking for Light

The one problem with Halloween is that most people suppose that when it’s over we need to wait another year for the scary stuff to come around again. Since we tend to skip from holiday to commercialized holiday, we have a capitalism-induced mindset of Halloween—brief pause for Thanksgiving—Black Friday—Christmas, spending money all along the way. Halloween, however, is a marker that stands near the beginning of half the year. The half with short days and long nights. Traditionally the holiday associated with ghost stories was Christmas, which falls near the shortest day of the year. Once the light starts creeping back, however, we tend to find reason to be optimistic that the chill can’t last forever and light follows darkness just as surely as life ends in death. All of this is prologue to say that a friend recently sent me a story about Irish witches which got me to thinking about origins once again.

The story, a piece called “Witches of Ireland,” by James Slaven, tells a few tales of Hibernian lore involving witches. As I read the article I was thinking about the origin of witches. Some of the phenomena associated with witches parallels that associated with demon possession—contortion, spitting up needles and nails, even levitating. There is a complex of ideas here that revolves around unseen forces that are categorized as evil. We tend to think the Enlightenment opened the door and shed strong sunlight into the closet, but that’s only true for half the year. The other half we’re mostly in the dark.

Pondering origins, I wonder where these associations began. We have no “histories” to tell us whence these ideas arose. Witches and demons both had, in Christianity, associations with the Devil. That connection doesn’t apply in other religions which, I suspect, is where the origin of many tales of witchcraft lie. You see, the Christian god is a jealous fellow—it says so right there in the Good Book—and displays of power over nature that most good monotheists lack will always be suspect. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to our pagan forebears.

Source: www.imagesfrombulgaria.com; perspective- and color-adjusted by Martha Forsyth (Wikimedia Commons)

Source: http://www.imagesfrombulgaria.com; perspective- and color-adjusted by Martha Forsyth (Wikimedia Commons)

These are merely nighttime thoughts, written in the dark. Already I begin to see the sun rise as I reluctantly trudge eastward across the island of Manhattan. I welcome the longer days, but somehow I strangely miss the comfort of the longer nights of yesteryear.

Gray Magic

Fashion. Okay, I’ll wait here while you check your URL to make sure you’re on the right webpage. Back? Okay. Fashion is something about which I care so little that it surprises even me that I’m addressing it. I can blame my wife, since she sent me the article. In The Guardian. Entitled “Salem style: why this is the season of the witch.” Now it all starts to add up, even if it doesn’t make sense. Witches are among my favorite topics. If I have to go through fabric swatches to get there, I will. So it seems that the fashion world has cast its eyes back on Salem this year. A number of recent, high-profile books have addressed witches, and a number of movies have backed them up. As Priya Elan points out in his article, the political situation helps too. We’ve got a witch-hunter as the GOP candidate and, like in the good old days, being a woman is enough to qualify you as as witch in the language of elephants. Could it be that the fashion industry is making social commentary?

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Why are witches so compelling? Perhaps the failure of true gender equality to take hold has spawned a backlash. Women are still paid less than men for the same work. White men line up at the white elephant sale to say how marginalized they are. How hard it is to exist in a world where you can’t even buy a slave or two any more. Unless you call them employees and then you have to pay them something. Primate society rebels against unfairness. This, pure and simple, is evolution. Biologically, we’re told, evolution has no goals. Where we are, however, is progress. We don’t live in the Dark Ages, after all. In the Dark Ages they believed in witches. Wait, what?

Our throwbacks to Salem should be telling us something. The Witch remains one of the most haunting movies of last year. In just a month the Blair Witch reboot opens in theaters. The Harry Potter series has come back from the dead. Like Rosemary opening the brown paper parcel, we realize witches are everywhere. We fear those with power over us. We call them evil and try to find legal ways to burn them at the stake. Or hang them. Or invoke the second amendment. I may not care for fashion, but I can still spot a prophecy some distance off. It doesn’t take a witch to see the future. Or perhaps it does.

New World Witches

MarWitchOne of the most coveted phenomena in the publishing world is the bad review. Controversy sells a book like nothing else. It wasn’t because of the controversy, however, that I read Alex Mar’s Witches of America. Looking back, I wasn’t even sure of what to expect. Witches can mean many things and there is little one can do, beyond reading the blurbs and summaries (and who has time for that?) to know beforehand what a book’s really about. I like books about witches, so I just read it. I soon found myself engrossed in a spiritual memoir. Perhaps even more than books on witches, I’m drawn to women’s experience of religion. Many such accounts have haunted me over the years, but Mar’s story was different than most I’ve read. Women often write of escaping intolerant, priapic religions of a conservative stripe. Mar may be the first account I’ve read of a spiritual seeking becoming part of modern paganism.

The negative reviews largely focus on what they perceive as a false bill of goods. A woman passing herself off as an authentic seeker just to write a book that violates confidences. As a writer, and as someone who knows authors, I was a little taken aback at this. Those who know writers know they’re disruptive personalities. They look at things differently than most other people do. More than that, their experiences are subjective and must be explained in that vein. Some reviewers claim Mar was just wanting to write a book. Writers know that books write the authors. Spiritual experience is notoriously difficult to capture in words. I’ve read plenty of books about modern witchcraft, including the balanced, academic titles everyone commends. Mar was able, however, to explain the lure far better by taking a personal approach.

There are inherent dangers to sharing your innermost experiences. Other people are involved and honest perceptions will sometimes hurt. A writer finds it difficult to hold back. Spiritual experiences are something complex, multilayered, and scandalous. Often I was told, as an undergraduate at a conservative Christian college, that mystical experiences were to be avoided. They are powerful, frightening, and addictive. I can’t say if Mar violated any confidences, but it seems to me that the portraits she paints of witches are complimentary, and generally feel heartfelt. Then again, Christianity has been analyzed seven ways to Sunday, so it may feel like violation if a religion is still largely secretive. Were it not for the negative reviews, I would’ve never guessed that I’d read anything more shocking than the spiritual memoir that offers other ways of looking at what we think we already know. Oh, and did I mention the book was about witches?

The Devil Made Me

TheWitchesWitch-hunts, I suspect, will become all the rage again if a certain presidential candidate is elected. The fear of witches is not easily explained in a world driven by materialism, but certainly misogyny plays an unholy role in much of it. Stacy Schiff’s The Witches: Salem, 1692 has been selling well. Since my wife is one of the many descendants of the Towne family that suffered three witch accusations resulting in two executions (Rebecca Nurse, Mary Esty, and Sarah Cloyce) we read this book together. It is a detailed account of the year we went mad. A year when being different, especially not being Puritan, and not being male, was dangerous. Religious tolerance was not a gleam in the colonists’ eyes since religious freedom translated into not being forced into the government church, not allowing others the same privilege. Indeed, as Schiff points out, religious tolerance was considered by many to be a satanic idea. If ministers starved due to such freedom, it would be easy for Satan to take over. As it was, the Dark Prince seems to have done a pretty good job among the Puritans without such tolerance.

The idea of the Devil has been (and still is) the ultimate scapegoat. People in a capitalist society are naturally frustrated—surprisingly few see this—and frustration always seeks a reason for its own existence. That is patently clear at Salem: blame the Indians, blame the French, blame the Quakers, blame the women. Any and all may be agents of the Devil. Even the descriptions of the Lord of Darkness varied so much that, were he a human, no one could be quite sure who it was they saw. The Devil always takes the form of your enemy. All it takes is an influential clergy willing to push tense believers over the edge. Soon we begin building walls. Then we build gallows.

Religious tolerance has always been a frightening thought. Protestantism challenged a somewhat uniform Catholicism and the mite of a doubt burrowed deeply into peoples minds: is my religion the wrong one? Tolerating other religions means admitting that yours might be wrong. The logic that plays itself out is a terrifying one to some. Belief is never easily changed. States can’t stand dissenters. The only capital crime for which the federal government still executes citizens is treason. Treason sits uncomfortably on the other side of the coin whose obverse reads “tolerance.” You’d think that three centuries would be long enough to learn something. Unfortunately some lessons—often tragic ones for the powerless—have to be played out over and over before we start to comprehend that Satan can be anyone we want him to be.

Beg to Differ

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“What do you burn apart from witches?” “More witches!” Earning a doctorate is kind of like learning how to get lost. It certainly doesn’t make you either cool or employable, but it allows you a few years to accumulate enough debt to keep you out of trouble for awhile. One of the things I learned along the way is that you should always follow the crowd. I look at the schools that only hire Harvard grads and there can be no doubt. I look at all the Trump supporters and I know there can be no question. Yes, the ayes have it. So, I never learned to tell which bands were truly worth listening to until I learned to follow the critics. I never studied music. Like most people, I know what I like but I can’t say why. I only discovered Radiohead in the last few months. Some of my critics claim my complaint of lack of time is only an excuse, but I don’t listen to music unless I can really listen to music. It can’t be pure filler. Put on Beethoven’s seventh and you’ll see what I mean.

In any case, my wife alerted me to the new Radiohead song “Burn the Witch.” And you can’t listen to a new song without watching it as well. This time it’s worth it. The claymation video accompanying the song (conveniently found here on NPR) is a reprisal of “The Wicker Man,” one of the truly intellectual movies in the horror genre. Of course, that’s something I picked up from the crowd. We’re told by the most powerful and charismatic bigots of our age that life is all about acquiring stuff. Were I to argue with that, well, I guess I’d be the witch to be burnt. Before listening to/watching the Radiohead song, do yourself a favor and watch “The Wicker Man” (the original, please, accept no substitutes). Go on, everybody’s doing it.

The most dangerous thing in the world is an independent thinker. No, I didn’t learn that at Harvard. On my first walking tour through Edinburgh with one of my doctoral advisors he pointed out the part of town where they used to kill witches. He was truly an original thinker (still is) and taught me to be one too. Problem is, I should’ve been following the crowd all along. You want people to pay attention to you? Go to Harvard! Want people to vote for you? Clearly show you’ve got what it takes (money). Give a man a little cash and anything will do for brains, to paraphrase one of the smartest movies of all time. The only way forward is to do what everyone else is doing. And pick up some kindling along the way—you’re going to need it.

Ordinary Magic

ConjuringSpirits copyThe concept of grimoires, as well as being seasonal, has been on my mind as I finish up my paper for the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting next month. Grimoires, books of magic, have eluded, for the most part, the interests of scholars. Who takes magic seriously, anyway? Slowly our gaze is working its way away from our noses and out to the magical world beyond. Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Magic is a textbook example of what happens when you bring the two together (scholars and magic, that is). Like most collected works, the pieces range from fascinating to somewhat magical in their ability to cause the eyes to close. Nevertheless I learned quite a bit from this book edited by Claire Fanger. Magic is not nearly so rare as we like to claim it is.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from these essays is that grimoires were not only written by witches. Indeed, in the Middle Ages many of them were written by clerics and monks. They were avidly used by doctors, as science likely has its roots in magic rather than in some sudden enlightenment that matter is all there is. Medicine was still beholden to Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen. Humors and stars could make you unwell, and the wise physician would do well to pay attention to magic as well. Today we’re too sophisticated for that, but we still call the unexplained the placebo effect.

Although the church became the great enemy of magic, it was also one of its main sources. The Mass, with transubstantiation, seemed alchemical. Miracles of healing, known throughout the Bible, suggested that the improbable was indeed possible. A number of grimoires contained instructions to work such wonders. One of the most vehemently condemned was a book informing how to attain the beatific vision—a worthy enough goal—but it did so in a way that circumvented the power of the church. Garden variety magic was also available, of course, as were recipes calling for brain of black cat and blood of bat. Witches, after all, were mainly sought out by the church. Those with power are not easily compelled to relinquish it. It should surprise no one then that magic continues to thrive.