witches witch witchcraft wicca wiccan paganism halloween stereotypes
A Wiccan altar. Note the emphasis on nurturing, peace, the Earth, and the feminine as well as the absence of, UH, literally everything we are told about witches.

I read my daughter Roald Dahl’s “The Witches” last summer. She enjoyed it, as did I. But before we started the book, we had to have a discussion that most people don’t seem to have with their children: Witches are real people just like you and me. They are hardworking, taxpaying Americans with families, not scary monsters.

I’ve criticized Halloween before. But today, it’s not my intention to exhaustively explore Wicca and witchcraft and their misrepresentation — often in ageist or overly sexualized, sometimes almost mysogynistic ways — nor to delve into our patriarchal society’s unhealthy relationship with sex or how it almost reflexively oppresses the feminine aspect of, well, just about anything. I would love go into detail on Earth-based versus sky-based religious thought and how that dichotomy plays out in real time on a daily basis through global politics or discuss how art has historically misportrayed Wicca, Paganism, and witchcraft in vivid and fantastic but unrealistic ways, encouraging the proliferation of various silly stereotypes in Western culture.

witches witch witchcraft wicca wiccan paganism halloween stereotypes
Witches are always naked in Renaissance paintings, probably because of Europe’s tropical climate.

I’m tempted to, but I won’t, at least not now. My point is simply that Wiccans and witches are a part of our society, and ridiculing Wicca is hypocritical at best and straight-up idiotic at worst.

I’m not Wiccan, but I’ve known several Wiccans and witches throughout my life, and some have been very close friends. I can even name a few in Cedar City, although I don’t associate with them. Wicca is a tradition of witchcraft that falls under the umbrella of Paganism. In truth, Paganism, Wicca, and witchcraft are all somewhat of a jumble. Wiccans are witches and pagans. Some Pagans practice witchcraft but aren’t Wiccans. There are a variety of Pagans other than Wiccans just as there are a variety of Christians other than Catholics (not that Wicca is a denomination of Paganism). And then there are those who identify as witches — employing magic, ritual, and traditions of witchcraft — but are not strictly Wiccan.

Witchcraft has been confused with Satanism and devil worship. Wiccans don’t worship the devil. (Satanists don’t even worship the devil.) Furthermore, witchcraft has to do with directing energies and is not inherently evil. Similar practices are used even in Judeo-Christian traditions. This same practice is called prayer in those contexts, wherein energies are directed toward God or toward an individual or group or God is implored to send energies at the prayer’s behest. Anyone who has been involved in the laying on of hands, either as a participant or recipient, should see nothing strange in witchcraft — it’s the difference between an ice cream cone and an ice cream sandwich.

witches witch witchcraft wicca wiccan paganism halloween stereotypes
Call me crazy, but I find this symbol less offensive than a torture and execution device used by the Roman Empire and less fantastical than a fairy playing the trumpet. Or is that supposed to be a blow gun? I don’t know.

The Wiccan religion was formally and legally recognized in the United States in 1986. This is hard for some to accept, particularly as so many have accepted what is an overblown cult as a legitimate religion. But as far as legitimacy goes, Wiccan practice not only far outdates Christianity but doesn’t co-opt it or any other preexisting religion in an attempt to capitalize on it as some supposed religions do.

That said, Paganism, Wicca, and witchcraft collectively as well as independently have a far stronger claim to authenticity than some religions (or cults presenting themselves as religions).

Yet witches are annually trivialized and mocked at the end of October by unaware Americans and their ignorant brood.

Let’s put it in perspective by turning the tables with a hypothetical situation: Maybe I’ll dress up as a stereotyped portrayal of a Mormon for Halloween. Here’s my backstory for when I go to Halloween parties.

I’m going to have an entourage of young girls whom I have married and impregnated. I’m going to steal other men’s wives as well as their daughters and treat them like cattle. I’m going to wear magical underwear that I believe repels fire, bullets, Superman’s laser vision, and critical thinking. I’m going to keep a magic rock in my pocket, and I’m going to ramble on about golden plates that I swear I’ve seen but have no evidence of seeing and that have magically disappeared, even though their glaring absence destroys the credibility of the rest of my story. I’m going to repeat nonsensical versions of American history that resemble J.R. Tolkein’s discarded rough drafts. I’m going to stare into a hatful of rocks and mumble gibberish phrased in King Jamesy verbiage, which I will then write down as “scripture,” and I’m going to be chased out of town after town for my antisocial behavior. I’m going to cheat my neighbors, circumvent the law, disregard civil rights, behave in a generally nepotistic and usurious manner, use secret societies like Freemasonry in order to undermine the rest of society, and treat the environment like my personal dumpster. I’ll be chased out of town again and again for my intolerable behavior and act like a martyr for it, yet I’m going to chase other people off of their land, and if people want to come and join me on my stolen land, I’ll murder every fucking one of them — except for the kids, whom I’ll assimilate. Hey, I might be able to marry some of them. Just can’t get enough of that underage tail.

If you’re Mormon, I’m guessing you feel somewhat outraged by the above paragraph. Rest assured that I can just as easily do this with Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, etc. I chose Mormonism only because it is the predominant religion here. Were I in Tennessee, I might have portrayed Southern Baptist stereotypes to make my point. I’d come to church hung over, be unable to name all four gospels, smoke a joint after Sunday School, marry my cousin, etc.

These are all contemporary stereotypes, and the point is that I didn’t make them up.

But it’s offensive when I perpetuate them, isn’t it?

How do you think a Wiccan feels when he or she is portrayed with green skin, numerous warts, black gowns, and a pointy hat? Wiccans revere life — most that I knew were vegetarian — so how do you think one would feel about being portrayed as making soup out of bat wings, newt eyes, frogs, etc?

Then there’s the broom stereotype. If you knew what that’s all about, you’d probably think twice. Allow me to summarize.

witches witch witchcraft wicca wiccan paganism halloween stereotypesWitches used dildos — or so the more fanciful story goes, used broom handles as dildos — to apply a tropane alkaloid concoction derived from ergot that has a hallucinatory effect similar to LSD to the mucous membranes of the genitals. (See Michael Pollan’s “The Botany of Desire.”) Good times. The tropane alkaloid comes from a fungus called ergot that grows on rye, and it’s responsible for a great deal of raving lunatic behavior from the 13th through the 17th century. And now we have this absurd and utterly inaccurate stereotype of a witch “riding” a broom.

When you dress your kid up as a witch and give her a broom, why not go the extra mile and get one that vibrates?

To be clear, I’m not one to defend religion from mockery. I think that religion as a whole is entirely irrational and as worthy of ridicule as anything in the history of human civilization. Ultimately, religious thought is grounded in delusion, and as such I strongly believe that it does far more harm than good.

But that is not to say that religious people should be mocked. People pursue religion because they have serious questions and settle for dumb answers. Some people just aren’t that smart, and you can’t fault them for not being able to out-think religion. (Those who try to out-think reason itself in order to protect their religious delusions, however, are another matter entirely.) But people can be wrong and still be worthy of dignity. Freedom of religion is one of the few truly great things we have left about this country, and I think it should be defended at all cost. I celebrate the choice to believe in totally crazy and thoroughly indefensible things.

Rather, I’m one to point out hypocrisy when I see it. We live in a predominantly Judeo-Christian society. It’s been touted as a melting pot, but anymore it’s really more of a cancerous Borg-like entity that absorbs and homogenizes everything it encounters. As such, our white-bread ethnocentric traditions are incredibly callous to so many religions, ethnicities, beliefs, practices, heritages, and other human elements that make up the fabric of our society.

And dressing up as witches for Halloween ridicules Wicca. It is society-at-large poking fun at a minority and getting their kids in on the action.

If we are going to dress up as monsters and distribute garbage to children, let’s at least be sensitive of who we are calling monsters in the process.

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Widely regarded as the greatest writer of all time, copy editor and staff writer Jason Gottfried is a freelance editor, writer, multi-instrumental musician, and composer transplanted to Utah from Nashville by way of Gainesville, Florida.

He was formerly opinion editor of The Independent and wrote album reviews, opinion pieces, and satire news. Before that, he was editor of SOKY Happenings magazine and wrote a column, The Vociferous Vegan. He was also general manager of Nashville’s fabled The Wild Cow Vegetarian Restaurant and briefly co-owner of Gainesville’s longtime staple vegetarian restaurant, Book Lover’s Cafe.

When he is away from the computer, he plays between Colorado and California as a live and session musician. His albums with Sean McDonald as ambient electroacoustic duo Vesica Piscis are streaming online:

indolerecords.bandcamp.com/album/twin-yang
mmmsound.bandcamp.com/album/optical-mystic

He sexually identifies as an Apache AH-64 attack helicopter and his pronouns are “zap,” “quack,” and “boing.”

8 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve been a Wiccan or the last 22 years and I have never been offended by witch costumes at Halloween. In fact I even decorate my house with them. Nor have I been offended by witches in horror movies or tv shows. The movie The Craft prompted many people to research what real Wicca actually is. We don’t get angry about The Wicked Witch from Oz or even how we are portrayed on American Horror Story. In fact, we watch these and are entertained. While I appreciate your outrage on behalf of Wiccans and researching our history, honestly we don’t waste our time getting upset about images of the green faced witch. This version has been around hundreds of years in fables and fairy tales. We do care about people accepting who we really are and what we believe but if they get their info about Wicca from a fairy tale or Hollywood, that’s on them. It’s just fiction. As for the costumes, the green faced witch isn’t dressing up as a Wiccan. A Wiccan’s costume to quote Wednesday Adams is just as ourselves because “we look like everyone else.”

    • My intention was not to defend Wiccans but rather to point out the hypocrisy of a populace that alleges to cherish freedom of religion but allows social themes such as these to persist unchallenged as well as to note that the dominant religions are quite uppity about being criticized or portrayed in a less than flattering light, even more so than usual here in Utah. I have never seen a Wiccan become outraged over this; the usual response in my experience has been more along the lines of a facepalm or eye rolling. As for the distinction between green-faced witches and Wiccans, the general public is generally ignorant of the distinction as well as most of the 2000 or so religions that currently exist in our country. And as Wiccans care about being accepted as who they really are, I feel that calling attention to the difference between a Wiccan and a green-faced witch is a step towards understanding, which is a step towards acceptance.

      • I appreciate your effort to call out what is sometimes one of many examples of bigotry still recurring in our society. There is one thing I’d like to point out, though. There is a difference between historical witchcraft and modern witchcraft. Historical witchcraft is multi-limbed and doesn’t just pertain to folk practices of or persecutions associated with European and Salem witchcraft trials, practically ever culture has had its own brand of folk practices (both magic and healing) and persecuted individuals. Sadly, this is still readily evident in some Asian and African countries. The foolishness Neopagans sometimes encounter pale in comparison to the atrocities that are being committed elsewhere.

        Generally, witchcraft is not a religion and can be practiced outside of a religious context. Wicca is a pagan religion that employs witchcraft (traditional Wicca is a pagan priesthood). However, Wicca isn’t a historical witchcraft. Traditional Wicca dates back to the mid-20th century and traces to an earlier British witchcraft that, at most, came about in the 19th century. What distinct form, if at all, predates that is unknown and, therefore, not claimed. Often what people encounter today is solitary/eclectic pagan witchcraft which sometimes also calls itself Wicca and that primarily traces back to 1980/90s. However, many of the concepts traditionally found in Wicca and some eclectic practices do pre-date Christianity.

        So, I tend to agree with Domestic Witch in that most Pagan and Witches (of any kind) mostly are not bothered by the Hollywood/stereotypical depictions, it’s just when some ignorant individual uses them for prejudicial purposes. Then we respond like anyone else who’s subjected to bigotry and stereotype. Ultimately it’s all about intent, we’re not so thin-skinned as not to enjoy fantasy as much as the next person. Dressing up like the Wicked Witch of the West is not offensive to Wiccans unless some cretin’s intent is to ridicule and cause harm.

        • Thank you the clarifications and extra info. As these religions and practices, as they exist in their present forms, trace their roots back to ancient practices rather than codified institutions, it’s difficult to be both brief and accurate simultaneously. I believe that it would be beneficial if the public were more aware of the wide diversity of religious practice in America today.

  2. Halloween predates modern Wiccan religions. The origin of modern Wicca goes back to Gerald Gardner in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A previous commentator made note of this. There is no proof of an ongoing historical lineage connecting the modern religion to the ancient Goddess religions of the past. On that note, your article does bring to light one of the many religions in this country, and it is important to dispell the myths and rumors surrounding the Wiccan religion. The witches burned to death up until the late 1700s represented a vast array of belief systems, and in some cases had nothing to do with religion. If you happened to be deformed or excessively ugly you could get nailed. (or extremely beautiful for that matter uhhhum) It has been proven that the Salem witch burning craze originated from ergot poisoning – i.e ergot poison contains LSD 25. No I am not a Wiccan, but I believe that a person’s religion, no matter what, deserves to be respected. So I will not dress up as a witch this Halloween just to be sensative. Note: Some Satanic groups do believe in Satan – see the Process Church & Aquino’s church of Set. Also the Freemsons these days are just a good ole boy charity network with little or no influence as was the case back in the day. 🙂

  3. As a Wiccan of 25 years, fictional Witch stereotypes or Halloween-style Witches have never bothered or offended me.

    What bothers me more is when people perpetuate inaccuracies about our religion, like saying it’s older than Christianity. It’s not; it’s approximately 70 years old. The ‘Old Religion’ theories have been debunked by reputable historians. ‘Witchcraft’ was never an ancient religion; it was an umbrella term that had a lot of meanings, but it was not a Pagan religion until the early 1900s.

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