Monday, 2 November 2015

Wiccans and Margaret Murray’s ‘Witch-Cult’ in Popular Culture



The representation of witches and witchcraft I will discuss today are amongst those I personally find the least interesting. Primarily this is because there were no ‘wiccans’ in early modern Europe, yet I am with some regularity asked about what Margaret Murray called the “Witch-cult” in early modern Europe.[1] The idea that the modern iterations of magic, occultism, Satanism, and wicca have ancient antecedents, or have existed as an enduring culture in just plain wrong. As with so many things we think of as being 'old' or 'traditional', they are recent inventions which use ancient ‘trappings’ to legitimise them.

In this post I will argue that most pop culture representations of a female-dominated mystical religion/magical practise which is primarily benign in nature, owe their underlying precepts to Margaret Murray, and to feminist interpretations of witchcraft – some of whom still continue to trot out thismyth to attack ‘the patriarchy’ and the forces of social conformity. And that the use f these ideas in popular culture continues to influence some of the representation of witchcraft we read in books, and see on our television screens or at the movies, even now.

The most notable popular culture outcome of these ideas was the TV series Charmed (1998-2006). Its premise was that the Halliwell sisters were part of an ancient magical family, and were supposed to use their powers for good, to defend and protect the human race.

The series placed the three sisters inter-relationship to one another at the heart of a female-driven series, which fed nicely into 1990s girl-power movement, and embraced (or at least used) some aspects of Third-Wave Feminism. It also gelled well with the other significant contemporary pop-culture supernatural series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003).

Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer were joined by Sabrina the Teenage Witch, creating a triumvirate of supernatural shows (each in a different genre, and aiming at a slightly different audience) but all containing characters called witches, who were seen as benign forces on the side of the good guys(for the most part, although going ‘evil’ is used fairly often in these style of shows, for example see ‘Dark Willow’) .

Witches as persecuted outcasts also made an appearance in both the novel and film of Practical Magic (1995 and 1998, respectively), when two sisters find that only together can they overcome an ancient curse, and find happiness within a community that has rejected and despised them. The themes of sisterhood, and the way in which they must work together are echoed by Charmed’s premise, though the genre differences are quite stark.

Both Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have been the focus of feminist discussion and have been studied by academics. I don’t intend today to examine those shows further,  not only because a lot already been said about them, but because I want to look at the use of wiccans as the descendant of Murray's fertility cult outside of thse two Tv shows.  Today I want to look in depth at an example of wiccans as 'witches' in a piece of popular culture which isn’t consciously attempting to be either ‘girl-power’ or feminist minded.

Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series has come in for quite a lot of serious criticism of incidences of casualmisogyny, usually as an outcome of the main character’s POV. It is an urban fantasy series, centring on a wizard who is aware that others within his world view some of his behaviour as somewhat misogynist (as obviously, do may of his readers). Notably the wiccans in the Dresden Files appear as a victimised group in only one book, White Night (Dresden Files, Book Nine).

In White Night, the hero of the series Harry Dresden, is brought in to examine an apparent suicide. He soon discovers that the killer has used some of the murdered woman’s ‘sacred water’ from her holy chalice on her shrine (no Da Vinci Code jokes intended… I think) to inscribe Exodus 22:18:

Murphy furrowed her brow and stared at it. ‘A Bible verse?’


‘I don’t know that one,’ she said. ‘Do you?’

I nodded. ‘It’s one that stuck in my head: “Suffer not a witch to live.”’[2]

Dresden then explain to police officer who uses him as a Private Detective-Wizard-Consultant, that while not all ‘wiccans’ are witches (that is practise actual magic), their beliefs still form the basis of a religion.

What follows is one of the more interesting interpretations of religion and witchcraft in urban fantasy, after Murphy points out that the biblical reference seems pretty straight forwards in its meaning:

‘I dunno. “Suffer not a witch to live.” Seems fairly clear.’

‘Out of context, but clear,’ I said. ‘Keep in mind that this appears in the same book of the Bible that approves the death sentence for a child who curses his parents, owners of oxen who injure someone through the owner’s negligence, anybody who works or kindles a fire on Sunday, and anyone who has sex with an animal.’

Murphy snorted.

‘Also keep in mind that the original text was written thousands of years ago. In Hebrew. The actual word that they used in that verse describes someone who casts spells that do harm to others. There was a distinction, in that culture, between harmful and beneficial magic.

‘By the time we got to the Middle Ages, the general attitude within the faith was that anyone who practiced any kind of magic was automatically evil. There was no distinction between white and black magic. And when the verse came over to English, King James had a thing about witches, so “harmful caster of spells” just got translated to “witch.”’

‘Put that way, it sounds like maybe someone took it out of context,’ Murphy said. ‘But you’d get arguments from all kinds of people that the Bible has got to be perfect. That God would not permit such errors to be made in the Holy Word.’

‘I thought God gave everyone free will,’ I said. ‘Which presumably – and evidently – includes the freedom to be incorrect when translating one language into another.’

‘Stop making me think,’ Murphy said. ‘I’m believing over here.’[3]

Butcher was far from the first fantasy writer to note a relationship between his own work and the actual events of the early modern witch trials. For example, Harry Potter engaged with the history of witch trials through Harry’s study of the book A History of Magic. In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry is writing an essay which cited the history of a woman known as Wendelin the Weird who enjoyed the effects of being burned alive (she used a charm so that it tickled instead of burning) so much, that she allowed herself to be caught repeatedly.
But very few books, TV series, or films go as far Butcher does, in trying to actually discuss the problems of belief, tolerance, and interaction between the magical and the mystical in the present day, and relating it to historical events, ideas and theology (the series also includes allusions to Dresden being a descendant of Merlin, and one of his allies in the series is dressed like a modern day Knight Templar).
Of course, the basis of the conversation I quoted above is problematic, as theology would suggest any use of magic magic (as opposed to God-granted miracles) is wrong. Nor was it solely because of King James that the term witch (with all its pejorative and gendered meanings) was used in the English vernacular. In fact each vernacular translation uses similar words, for example an early Spanish vernacular bible uses the term ‘hechicera’, the later French translation by Louis Segonde had ‘magicienne’, while an even later Italian translation in 1927, used the term ‘Strega’, and many German versions have used the term ‘Zauberinnen’ - all of which are terms for female users of magic.

To return to the way Butcher uses witches of the Margaret Murray-type, my point is that although Butcher’s narrative denies the ‘wiccans’ in his narrative their agency by making them victims of a sadistic vampire who feeds on despair, he uses the same rhetoric that led the character of Xander  in Buffy the Vampire Slayer to sing:

'Cause witches, they were persecuted
Wicca good and love the earth
And women power
and I'll be over here

Nor is Butcher alone in picking up on this concept and using it in a very different context. Similar ideas permeate several recent supernatural works, including Angelina Jolie’s titular character in Maleficent (2014), which is a paean to female virtue overcoming hatred and male greed, with rape metaphors thrown in for good measure. While Maleficent is not technically a witch, but rather a fairy, her appearance (and that of the cartoon character on whom she was based) owe a great deal to the iconography of witches (and the original cartoon character was spiteful, vengeful and jealous of young Aurora in a mode familiar to readers of last week’s entry).

There is so much more to say on this topic. For example Butcher’s wiccans only appeared in a later book, while one of his earlier works featured a vengeful trio of ex-wives (some of whom were pornographic film actresses. Yes, really) murdering potential lovers of their husband (or ex-husband) under the influence of a vampire (not the despair-feeding variety, but the kind that feeds off sexual energy. Yes, really).

Butcher’s Dresden Files  books therefore manage to use and abuse both extremes of the witch trope: promiscuous, greedy and vengeful in Blood Rites, and a sisterhood of essentially good people, who are also victims in White Night. Later these minor practitioners who are also wiccans become part of Dresden’s wider network of allies, though they have yet to play any important role.

But what does this use of two kinds of witches, one bad one good, have to do with witches in early modern Europe? You could possibly argue that ‘good witches’ in modern fiction play the role of Cunning Folk, as sources of magical lore who can also perform minor acts of magic (such characters have appeared in other series, for example Vorna in David Gemmell’s Rigante series).

But Butcher purposefully cites wiccan as separate from the magic practitioners who were persecuted in early modern times:

[“]Three hundred years ago, it made cream turn sour, disturbed animals, and tended to encourage minor skin infections in wizards. Gave them blemishes and moles and pockmarks.”[4]

In other words it was practitioners, and there is no mention of wiccan pre-existing modern iterations of the wiccan religion (in other words, this is a modern development).

So what are we to make of this late nineties moment, when witches were good, part of a sisterhood, and descended from those who were persecuted during the early modern period? Was this just a moment of cultural alignment, between a popular version of feminism in ‘girl-power’, and the interweaving notions of wiccans on the one-hand, and Margaret Murray on the other gelled? And what will its consequences be?

Witches of all kinds are present on TV, in movies, and books. Since the successes of Harry Potter and Twilight a lot of authors have written series for children, young adults and adults, that revolve around the supernatural, and are set in the current era. On the big screen Nicholas Cage has appeared in two horror/adventure movies, The Last Witch-Hunter (2015), Season of the Witch (2011) which revolve around witchcraft, and on TV there are American Horror Story: Coven, and The Witches of East End on TV.  Nor are they alone with series like Game of Thrones, taking high fantasy from ‘nerd’ to ‘cool’, and subverting witch tropes in the process.

While The Witches of East End features a female-centric cast, which features two pairs of witches who are sisters, most representations of witches in recent media have tended to be at least questionable characters, if not outright villains. Some would undoubtedly argue that this is a backwards step for feminism, but I am left unsure if building a positive female character on a basically flawed historical theory (that witches were part of a female-dominated fertility cult of pagan origin) was ever a good idea.

* I apologise for this post being a day late, but my internet provider has had some sort of ongoing issue, so my internet connection is on the fritz. As a result I have spent unmentionable hours going through "push one, push two, push three" on the phone, and I have found that when you actually reach a human being they are inevitably from the wrong department, so they transfer you to someone else who always want to ask if you have tried turning the device off and on...

[1] Margaret Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, (1921); see also Margaret Murray, The God of the Witches, (1933); Margaret Murray, The Divine King of England, (1954).

[2] Jim Butcher, White Night (Dresden Case Files): p. 8. Note, I personally still very much enjoy these books in spite of needing to roll my eyes at the main character’s sexism. Which is, in my opinion, is significantly less sexist than most stand-up comedy, and quite a few prime time TV shows of the past decade – hell the past few years. Nor is it as un-self-aware as the sexism of Patrick Rothfuss.

[3] Butcher, White Night, pp. 10-11

[4] Jim Butcher, Cold Days: A Dresden Files Novel (The Dresden Files) (p. 184).

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