Witches of September

I’ve never read any John Updike before.  I understand that his novels foreground religion, which I didn’t realize.  I have watched The Witches of Eastwick, in movie form, a time or two.  In fact, I wrote a bit about the film in one of my books.  This got me curious to read the novel and I found a copy at a used book sale up in Ithaca some months back.  Now that September’s here, it seemed like an opportunity to see what the original story had to say about witches.  There is a problem, of course, in having watched the movie first.  Not only does it tell you which actors the characters should look like, but it also predisposes your orientation to what will happen.  In this case up that will mislead you.

The movie centers on Jack Nicholson’s Darryl Van Horne—like most Nicholson movies, his character takes over—whereas the novel is definitely centered on the three witches, Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie.  They don’t fall into the background, but neither do they always work in concert.  The movie tells, in other words, a very different story.  Updike’s literary treatment focuses on female characters and the mischief they cause.  Nor is it entirely clear that Van Horne is demonic, as in the movie.  A church features prominently in both versions, amusingly Unitarian in the novel, with Van Horne not upstaging the sermon but giving an invited one himself.  No fear of sacred places here.

The wrath of the witches isn’t directed toward Van Horne either.  A character left out of the film, who marries Van Horne and whose brother is his real target of affection, is hexed and killed by the witches instead.  In many ways this could be construed as a kind of gentle horror story, although it’s never marketed that way.  I kept waiting for certain scenes in the movie to be narrated, as it were, in the flesh.  This led to the revelation that these scenes were invented for the cinematic version.  Both novels and movies are stories.  When shown on the big screen, we expect them to be adapted.  My personal preference is for the film to present the same story.  It can’t always be done, of course.  In this case the movie left some questions open that I hoped the novel would answer.  Since the stories are so different, the questions remain.  I have a feeling I’ll read more Updike down the road, but I’ll avoid watching the movie first.


Which Wednesday

I’m not superstitious but it’s still pretty dusky when I go for my constitutional on cloudy days.  I was walking along thinking about Cernunnos, the way one does, when a black cat darted out of the underbrush and across my path.  My thoughts turned to witches.  Then a large toad jumped out in front of me in the half-light.  Perhaps it was because I picked up a booklet about witches recently, but this felt very uncanny to me.  There’s a place where the woods close in on both sides of the path.  The sun wasn’t yet up, and the clouds meant it wouldn’t have much mattered anyway.  When the bird calls stopped I began thinking about turning around and going home.  Nobody else was out this morning and although I don’t mind starting my day with the weird, I was thinking “not on a Wednesday.”

A thick mist lay over part of the path and I realized just how uncomfortable we tend to be when we can’t see clearly.  Despite that, and the black cat and the toad, I’ve never really been afraid of witches.  I guess I try to please people too much to think that someone might want to harm me supernaturally (at least among those who know me).  I recently found a booklet on witches—one of those strange impulse buys after being mostly house-bound for the better part of a year-and-a-half—that perhaps prompted my thinking this morning.  Although it seems to be most interested in earth-centered religions, it has an article about Salem.  Despite the more modern embrace of witchcraft in Salem, historically it had to do with human fear and hatred, a combination that is scary indeed when applied by those who are superstitious.

Cernunnos is a Celtic god generally portrayed with deer antlers.  Although lack of literature means we know little about him, he’s been adopted as the male counterpart to the female earth-goddess in some traditions.  Modern witchcraft is based on an orientation toward nature.  It’s kind of a ground-up religion rather than a top-down one.  Christians traditionally labelled it “Devil worship,” as they tended to do with anything they objected to.  Such demonizing helps no one, of course.  And when these ideas grow into superstitions people get hurt.  So I’m out here in the half-light because in the mornings days are shortening quickly and I have less and less time before work begin after the sun rises.  And I have witchery on my mind.


Witchfinder, Generally

In Holy Horror I describe the “unholy trinity” of movies that figure strongly Christian themes: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen.  These movies span 1968 through 1976 and all were extremely successful.  Another writer earlier dubbed another three horror films from the same era the “unholy trinity” (I didn’t realize I was being trite) of folk horror: Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man.  These three were low budget and not particularly successful at the box office.  They’ve all become cult classics, however.  I suppose that together these six films help mark the late sixties and early seventies as the beginning of a new realm of horror films.  Folk horror continued to exist but wasn’t terribly common.  It has recently been given a high profile by The Witch and Midsommar.

Of all of these films Witchfinder General stands out as the least obviously marked by horror tropes.  It’s set as a fictionalized account of the historical Matthew Hopkins, a man actually responsible for about a fifth of all British witch executions in the seventeenth century.  There’s nothing really supernatural in the film and its horror reputation is attributed to the cruel tortures depicted—these really pushed the envelope in 1968.  Not only was Rosemary’s Baby released that same year but so was Night of the Living Dead, another defining horror film.  The sixties were a chaotic time—the birth pangs of a new outlook that is still being resisted by many politicians.  We all know about the music of the era, but the cinematic impact was also immense, as these six films show.

As different as they are, these two trinities all feature horror that is fueled by religion.  Although this had been pointed out earlier in the century, people were now being made aware that, apart from the good religion does, it also brings potential evil into the world.  There’s no question that misguided over-protectiveness of Christianity led to many, many innocent deaths.  The more cynical might note that the Christianity being “protected” is actually key to an economic system that benefits the rich—that supports the interests of the wealthy.  The historical Matthew Hopkins was the son of a clergyman.  Apart from his reprehensible role in rekindling the witch trials in England, not much is known of his life apart from his preoccupation will executing “witches.”  As time has gone on, we’ve unfortunately circled back toward the religious conflicts in the folk horror trinity.  Watching horror may yield some valuable lessons.  


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?

DSCN0565

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?