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Presnell English 1103 22 April 2013 The Modern-Day Witch I have always been very attracted to anything that relates to Halloween, scary movies, things of that sort. I’ve always loved witches in movies, watching them brew potions in long, black capes and cast spells to gain eternal youth and beauty. When roaming around the bookstore one day, I found a book about Wicca (a how-to guide, teaching beliefs, rituals, etc.) and was instantly interested. When flipping through the book, I was kind of shocked—I was expecting evil. I was expecting to find everything I had been fed by the media since I was a little kid. What I was reading was totally different. I didn’t even know Witchcraft was a religion. It got me thinking—why are witches depicted in such a negative light by the media, when their religion is actually the exact opposite of what we are being told by movies and books? Common Stereotypes of Wiccans When most people hear the word, “witch,” they probably think of old, green hags, using their powers for evil, harming others. The media has done a stupendous job at making us think of witches as ugly and maleficent. That’s what we’ve read in fairy tales. That’s what we saw in Halloween movies. The media also portrays witches as Satan worshippers or having a connection to the Devil in some way. Another common stereotype Wiccans receive is that they are freeloving tree huggers, waving crystals and herbs all over the place. They are viewed as kind of crazy, chanting naked in the woods in the moonlight and all. Wiccan Beliefs So, what does it really mean to be a witch? There are so many stereotypes associated with witches, but what most people don’t know is that witches are actually a peaceful group of
people. The whole reason the name of the religion, “Witchcraft” evolved into “Wicca” was to avoid negative connotations. When searching the official Church and School of Wicca website, I found that Witchcraft, also known as the Old Religion, is meant to teach people about ethical ways to use magic. Spells that bring luck, healing, and self-empowerment are some examples of magical practices that Wiccans deem “ethical.” Witches are “harmonious thinkers,” according to this site. The Church and School of Wicca provides several courses teaching subjects such as tantric yoga, psychic and herbal healing, prediction, mystical awareness, astrology, and the essentials of Witchcraft. Wicca is a nature-based religion and most Wiccans focus on the power and independence of females. Ilil Arbel, a writer with a Ph.D. in mythology and folklore, undoubtedly believes that magic exists in our world and I completely agree with her. I have always believed that some of us just have innate abilities—psychic abilities, abilities to communicate with spirits, etc. When reading her article, I found it very interesting that she also believes that people have these natural talents; “Some people have psychic powers, just as others have a natural talent for painting or music. When trained, the powers are enhanced. When used in the correct manner, they are quite successful. Naturally, these powers can be used either for good or for evil. Those who use it for good tend to become witches.” In Arbel’s article, she also touches on some of the primary beliefs/practices of witches. She says that most Wiccans believe that their magical powers come from within their bodies, which is why they usually perform “sky-clad” (nude). She also talks about the emphasis witches put on out-of-body-experiences. Since Medieval Times, witches have practiced with the separation of body and soul in order for the soul to travel to far off places. This practice very well may be where the stereotype of the “flying witch” came from. Arbel says that witches from the Middle Ages were so convinced that they could fly during OBE’s that they told their tormentors (witch-hunters/executioners) about it, thus creating the basis of this particular legend. Carrol Fry, a professor at Minnesota State University, has published several works on 18 century British literature, fantasy literature, and science fiction literature. One of these works includes Cinema of the Occult: New Age, Satanism, Wicca, and Spiritualism in Film, a book discussing the beliefs and depictions of witches throughout history. In one chapter, Season of the Witch, the section titled Drawing down the Moon: Wiccan Practices and Beliefs talks
specifically about what it actually means to be a Wiccan. According to Fry, most Wiccans meet in covens, groups of 13 or less. He says that certain practices vary from coven to coven, but there is some common ground for all types of witches. For example, most witches worship a goddess and a horned/hooved god, Cernunno. This belief originated from the Middle Ages; archeologists have found cave paintings depicting this goddess and god. The very first witches were led by powerful/magical “wise women” of the village, known as priestesses. Priestesses would lead religious ceremonies in the village, during which covens would celebrate the femininity of nature. In this chapter, I also found out that Wiccans believe it is actually Christianity that ruined the reputation of their religion. Christian priests in the Middle Ages associated Pagan’s hooved god with Satan, and this belief is still prevalent today. In fact, this is probably where the stereotype that witches are “Satan worshippers” came from. There are several different paths a Wiccan can follow: Gardnarian (named after the “father of Wicca,” Gerald Gardener), Dianic (feminist witches), or Alexandrian (named after the British witch, Alex Sanders). A few holy dates Wiccans celebrate include Beltane, Samhain, and Yule. A typical celebration includes a meeting in nature, where the witches sing and dance. The celebration begins with a “casting of a circle,” followed by the use of the ceremonial knife (athame), candles, pentangles, etc. Most importantly, I have found that witches are very passionate about denying any connection with Satan or evil. Tech. Sgt. Brandon Longcrier, leader of the Air Force Academy’s Earth-Centered Spirituality community, says that if a witch “follows the Rede,” he/she wouldn’t practice black magic. The Rede is a fundamental statement that most all Wiccans live by: “An it harm none, do what ye will.” Almost all Pagans follow this Rede and let it serve as the base of their moral standards. I interpret it as, “If it doesn’t hurt anyone else, practice your magic however you please.” Media’s Depictions of Witches After learning about the harmonious religion that is Wicca, I began to think about how incorrectly it’s displayed in the movies that I watched growing up. There are copious amounts of popular movies and books that negatively/incorrectly portray Witchcraft. Going back to Fry’s book Cinema of the Occult, I found that he also includes several examples of major motion
pictures that reference witches and why witches are depicted in this light. All the way up to the 20th century, churches taught that witches were servants of the Devil. Script writers have sort of just accepted the medieval view of witches because it allows for a good horror film. In medieval times, witch hunting became very popular because of God’s command to Moses in the Bible: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” These legends of witches lasted all the way up to the 1960s, making stereotypes nearly impossible to dispel. This was around the time that the writings of Gerald Gardner were becoming more popular. So, naturally, a film was made and turned these beliefs into negative ones. “The British film The Witches…, takes the concept of the family coven as described by Gardner…and makes them servants of Satan” (Fry). This film also inspired the book, The Little Wax Doll by Norah Loft, in which the writer once again depicts witches as Satanists. One of my favorite movies of all time is the Disney classic Hocus Pocus. I grew up on this movie, and I still watch it every Halloween. The movie focuses on a coven of three witches, known as the Sanderson Sisters. Killed during the 17th century witch hysteria in Salem, the witches return from the dead 300 years later when a group of young kids light a black-flamed candle in their old home. As expected, Hollywood depicts these witches as old, ugly, hags, who feed on the lives of children in order to regain their youth and beauty. Entertaining as the movie is, depictions of these witches are almost entirely false. The movie implies that the witches are worshippers of the Devil, calling him “master” on several occasions. They also use magic for evil, for harming others, for selfish gain, etc., which is the complete opposite of what witches really do. I am also a huge, huge fan of the 1981 gore/horror film Evil Dead, and when I heard of the 2013 remake, I was beyond ecstatic. So, of course, when it was released last week, you can bet I was at the very first show time, eager to see if it would live up to the original. (It did, by the way, and it was amazing.) However, within the first 20 minutes or so, I noticed a glaring witch stereotype: when a few of the characters venture into the eerie, malodorous basement of their cabin, they find a room filled with a multitude of horrors. Burnt corpses of small cats and other animals are hung from the ceiling, candles, a mysterious object wrapped in plastic and barbed wire, and other types of creepy paraphernalia blanket a table, and it is obvious that something was tied to a post and burned in the room. Immediately, one of the main characters asks in
horror, “Is this some kind of Witchcraft or something?” For the rest of the movie, he refers to the evils occurring around them as “Witchcraft.” With my inquiry paper in mind, I could not help but scream, (in my head, of course) “Wrong! It is not Witchcraft!” It really made me realize exactly how many people are uneducated about the subject—a lot of people probably just accepted that witch reference without a second thought. It makes me a little sad to think that we may be in too deep with these misconceptions—for the sake of Hollywood and popular culture, witches will probably always be depicted as malicious, Satanic, evil creatures. Discrimination against Witches Due to these common stereotypes created by society, Wiccans have received a lot of unfair treatment. When searching government document archives, I found an EEOC Compliance Manual on “Religious Discrimination.” It provides an example of a Wiccan denied time off of work on October 31 to attend the Samhain Sabbat because her boss considered her religion to be illogical, which violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Like many people, her boss believed Witchcraft to be an illegitimate religion. I also found an article by Jacqueline Loweree, a writer part of a journalist organization in El Paso, Texas. In her article, Stereotypes Create Wicca Discrimination, she talks of a young Wiccan, Nicole McGriff, attending Riverside High School, whose teacher assigned extra homework and repeatedly said, “I’ll pray for your soul,” when her religion was discovered. In response, McGriff tells sources, “People are prejudiced against Wiccans either because they are ignorant on the topic or their religion encourages them to deny these people.” Loweree also says that Wiccans receive discrimination in a variety of forms—“they are fired from their jobs, denied housing and educational privileges, and in some countries, police make approximately 10,000 arrests annually of practitioners.” All because of these false stereotypes depicted in popular culture, witches worldwide are suffering from mistreatment. I was also extremely astonished to find that this discrimination even goes so far as to remove Wiccans from the military. I found several articles discussing the case of Wiccan military chaplain, Don Larsen. Alan Cooperman, Washington Post Staff Writer, talks about how Larsen applied to become the first Wiccan chaplain in the military. In response to this, the Pentagon stripped him of his current chaplaincy and he was discharged from the military all because of his conversion to Witchcraft. Americans are always all about religious freedom and
whatnot; but when a man, willing to serve/represent his country, is found out about his religion, he is stripped of his privileges to serve in the military by the very same people who preach religious equality. Wiccans are People, Too I truly wish that all negative stereotypes associated with Wiccans would be dispelled. The very First Amendment to the Constitution says that everyone has the right to exercise religious freedom. Everyone has the right to believe whatever they choose to believe, without having to fear hatred or abuse because of their faith. However, witches are still mistreated and discriminated against because their religion is misunderstood. And sadly, I don’t think many are too concerned with the subject—Hollywood has too much fun playing with the idea of the evil witch. Unfortunately, I don’t really see these stereotypes ever completely deteriorating. However, I can only hope that people don’t continue to fear Wiccans or treat them unfairly simply because they are uninformed about the true beliefs and practice of witches.
Works Cited Arbel, Ilil. “Witchcraft.” Encyclopedia Mythica. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2013. Branum, Don, Staff Sgt. "Freethinkers, Pagans Discuss Intersections of Mind, Spirit." The Official Website of the U.S. Air Force. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Apr. 2013. "Compliance Manual Section 12 - Religious Discrimination." Eeoc.gov. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Apr. 2013. Cooperman, Alan. "For Gods and Country." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 19 Feb. 2007. Web. 4 Apr. 2013. Fry, Carrol L. Cinema of the Occult: New Age, Satanism, Wicca, and Spiritualism in Film. Bethlehem: Lehigh UP, 2008. Print. Loweree, Jacqueline. "Stereotypes Create Wicca Discrimination." My High School Journalism. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Apr. 2013. "The Church and School of Wicca." The Church and School of Wicca. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Apr. 2013.