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.
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.
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 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.