The dead are useful for understanding who we are in time


“…the dead don’t bother us: we bother them – endlessly. Certain trades specialize in this: necromancers, sorcerers, Spiritualist mediums, and historians. Why? Because there is power in what precedes us; the dead are useful for understanding who we are in time.

“Ghosts are symbols, conduits of meaning; they are ambiguous, but that only increases their connectivity with our unconscious selves. As we saw at the beginning, witches, too, mediate between states of being: life/death, temporal/celestial, good/evil, desire/fulfilment – those opposites that we force apart but inwardly need to bridge to make sense of life.”

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) p.2, chapter 8 (Culture) in e-pub version of: Malcolm Gaskill (2010) Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Teenage Witches


In his review of Helen A. Berger and Douglas Ezzy. Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for the Self (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2007), Brian J. Gibbons had the following to say:

This is a study of a relatively new phenomenon: the rise of the teenage witch since the 1990s. Berger and Ezzy have studied ninety adolescents and young adults from the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, all of whom have identified themselves as ‘‘witches’’ for at least a year. The authors give a clear picture of their route into the modern witchcraft movement, its role in helping them to construct a sense of selfhood, and its impact on their ethical and political outlook. They locate the phenomenon in the conditions of postmodernity: globalization (including the importance of the Internet), ‘‘the death of grand narratives,’’ and the growth of relativism.

There is little in this book that will surprise anyone acquainted with young witches. We learn that both the Internet and books play a major role in introducing them to witchcraft and in developing their beliefs. The teenage witches form a community of sorts, but it is often a virtual one; they are less likely than their older coreligionists to be part of formal groups such as covens. While the possibilities offered by instrumental magic often play a part in interesting them in witchcraft in the first place, most appear to move on to a more spiritual understanding of the movement, which represents ‘‘a technology of the self ’’ (p. 112).” (p.210)

“Whatever its limits as a sociological survey, this book is thoroughly enjoyable to read, introducing the reader to a group of thoughtful, ethically concerned, and charming young
people.” (p.211)

Ref: Brian J. Gibbons (2008) Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for the Self Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, Volume 3, Number 2, Winter 2008, pp. 210-211 (Review)

Amy L. Best, meanwhile (and I hope I’m not overquoting from this review!), describes it as “an engaging and thoughtful investigation into the world of teenage Witches.” (p.270) She goes on:  Berger and Ezzy define Witchcraft as an earth-based religious movement associated with Neo-paganism and belonging under the broad category of new religious movements (NRM) that have gained in popularity. The book is organized thematically with a series of vignettes that sit nicely alongside the  substantive chapters. The vignettes allow readers to understand the complexities and consequences of becoming a Witch for young adults, the different spiritual paths they follow, and the narrative and identity sense-making involved in the formation of their mystical worldview. The stories are highly personal, reflecting the diverse circumstances that led to an interest in Witchcraft. In the substantive chapters, readers are introduced to a number of salient themes that will no doubt be familiar terrain for sociologists of religion: the process of conversion, the formation and meaning of community, and the importance of the self. In the book’s theoretical opening, special mention is given to the centrality of the self in late modernity, a period they identify as marked by increased rootlessness, the expansion of global media forms, the ubiquity of the market and commercial influence and subsequent emergence of a spiritual marketplace, and preoccupation with self inquiry, reflexivity, and transformation. Drawing upon the work of Anthony Giddens and Zygmunt Bauman, Ezzy and Berger show that growing interest for young adults in Witchcraft is an expression of a post-traditional social order where individualism has all but triumphed over more traditional collectivities. Young adults turn to Witchcraft, arguing in search of a worldview or “personal myth” (p. 231) that will serve as a kind of cognitive map for social action.

Berger and Ezzy see the media and Internet as central to understanding the process by which teenagers come to participate in Witchcraft and thus is a theme given considerable attention. They successfully demonstrate that contemporary Witchcraft, more than any other religion, is inseparable from the media of late modernity.” (p.270)

“We have witnessed a bevy of images of teenagers from Harry Potter, to Sabrina the Teenage Witch, to Buffy the Vampire Slayer who wield magic to defeat evildoing. These images have come to occupy a more visible place in our collective imagination, helping to explain a shift in the cultural orientation whereby Witchcraft is presented in more positive terms and is therefore far more accessible to young adults.” (p.271)

“Most [of these young witches] profess to be solitary practitioners of their faith; few are involved in covens. Most are informally trained, having learned about Witchcraft from books and the Internet. Berger and Ezzy characterize Wiccans as a community of interest, that is a “group of people who interact around an area of mutual concern” (p.158). This community of interest is entirely without a centralized authority structure and is fluid in form and membership and thus there is no formal channel to becoming a Witch. For most of the teen Witches interviewed, their initial interest in Witchcraft developed independent of any organization. They are highly selective of which aspects of Wiccan spiritual practice they chose to observe. They draw heavily upon the ethical system Witchcraft provides as they develop a worldview to guide them in their social conduct. They embrace a relational ethics and radical empathy rooted in the Wiccan rede, “if it harm none, do as thou will.”  Yet, this worldview does not translate into a set of political commitments as is the case for earlier adherents. Involvement for older Wiccans was tied to feminist and environmental commitments and was an expression of a distinct political orientation. For young Wiccan’s there is little political basis to their participation. Most expressed a deep respect for the earth and tended to recycle, but few saw their religious beliefs in political terms and few reported being involved in any collective environmental group. Likewise, few identified themselves as feminists. Most expressed support for gender equality, assumed a stance of openness toward homosexuality and other “alternative lifestyle choices,” but more as a worldview than as a set political priorities.” (p.271)

Ref: Amy L. Best Review: Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for the Self, by Helen A. Berger and Douglas Ezzy. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007. 278pp. $21.95 paper. ISBN: 0813540216. Contemporary Sociology 37, 3, pp.270-271

Attitudes towards Science and Magic


“Science is the magic that works”

~John Campbell, cited p18 in Roberts

“This attitude toward science and magic,” Roberts continues, “allows science fiction writers to reclaim magic as science. Especially important for women, valorizing or validating magic has a historical dimension. Similar in nature, magic and science have been criticized or praised according to the sex of the practitioner. So-called ‘witches’ in Europe were persecuted from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, in part because they posed a threat to the emerging field of medicine. Witches competed with doctors and priests for the custom of the people. Witches actually practiced what we today call the scientific method – trial and experiment – and witches used many drugs we now use, such as belladona, ergot, and digitalis. Both male writers like Frank Herbert and female writers like Anne McCaffrey use ‘witches’ in their fiction. In so doing, these science fiction writers ask us to reconsider the past – historical witches – and the future – what the universe might be like if we knew how to control magical powers.” (18)

Ref: Robin Roberts (1996) Anne McCaffrey; A Critical Companion. Greenwood Press: Westport, CT

Witches and Wiccans in Contemporary Teen Fiction


Christine Jarvis writes quite a thought-provoking article on the work of Cate Tiernan (among others who write about teenage Wiccans). Jarvis writes: “Fictional witches are usually represented as supernatural beings, or as humans with supernatural abilities. There is, however, a small body of work for teenagers which presents witchcraft as a religious choice for human beings. Witches are identified as Wiccans, adherents of the contemporary pagan religion, who learn to be witches/Wiccans. Although these texts represent a minor proportion of teenage fiction, they are very popular. The success of Isobel Bird’s Circle of Three series, dealing with the experiences of three school friends when they begin to follow the Wiccan religion, led to 15 books. The witch, Willow, in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS) has cult status; she also started life as an ordinary schoolgirl, who learned about Wicca, although Wiccan deities are not featured, as Winslade (2001) has noted. Cate Tiernan’s Wicca series (known as Sweep in the United States) also sold enough copies to [-p.44] warrant 15 publications and has been reissued recently.” (43)

“Strmiska (2006) recounts a history of violence and repressive attitudes towards paganism from mainstream religions that may account for the relatively low profile maintained by most Wiccans. This, combined with the fact that the religion has no one orthodox form or leader, and has any number of solitary practitioners, makes membership hard to quantify. He draws on the 2001 American Religious Identity Survey, undertaken by City University of New York, to note that 307,000 Americans identified themselves as Wiccan, Pagan or Druid. The anthropologist Margaret Murray posited a view of witchcraft’s history that gained considerable popularity (Murray 1921). She argued that it was the surviving form of a pagan religion that had been suppressed by Christianity. Her views were taken up by Gerald Gardner (1954) in his Witchcraft Today. Most modern versions of Wicca can be traced back to his work, which he claimed was based on his links with a surviving coven based in England’s New Forest. Murray’s thesis has been widely criticised and some (Trevor-Roper 1970; Thomas 1971; Kelly 1991) claim that Gardner created Wicca; that there was no survival from ancient times. Ronald Hutton (2000) presents a balanced, detailed view of this debate. He notes there is no good evidence for the existence of Wicca before the end of the 1940s and agrees that Gardner probably wrote some of the rituals and chants himself. He identifies many differences between Wicca and the pagan religions of ancient Europe. Nevertheless, Wicca, he argues, did not come from a vacuum, but draws on a ‘rich and complex collection of cultural impulses and processes’ (Hutton 2000, p. 115). He sees it as a continuation of four traditions: ritual magic, cunning craft, folk customs and classical art and literature. Modern witches practise many forms of the craft. Murray’s thesis is one that still has some hold in the popular imagination.

The notion of a secret survival of ancient knowledge, access to power and ritual and a rather romanticised history of oppression makes the religion an appealing topic for fictional treatment. The idea that witches and witchcraft have survived hidden for centuries is central to Tiernan’s novels. Studies of contemporary Wicca and witchcraft reveal considerable diversity of practice and belief (Scarboro and Luck 1997; Greenwood et al. 1995; Salomonsen 2002; Greenwood 2000). Greenwood indicates that the term Wicca should only be used to denote those witches following the Gardnerian tradition. In practice the term is often used by others, probably to dispel some of the opprobrium still attached to the word witch.” (44)

Wicca is monistic rather than dualistic, so does not divide the world into polarised good and evil, seeing these instead as part of a totality; this is reflected in its treatment of common moral issues. It differs from the larger monotheistic religions in its attitude towards women and sexuality and in its eclecticism and egalitarianism. Although scholars raise many points of detail, the consensus generally is that Wicca is a nature religion that stresses the immanence of the divine rather than transcendence, which in turn leads to a strong emphasis on responsibility, rather than rules. It also leads to inclusive forms of organisation, in which there is no [-p.45] mediator between the individual and the Divine. It focuses on the holiness of nature and the earth and its festivals, sabbats and esbats follow the cycles of the year. It respects male and female principles and worships a god and a goddess, although in many forms of Wicca the goddess appears to be dominant and is occasionally the sole deity. Women’s physicality is celebrated in contrast to the more equivocal attitudes towards the female body found in monotheistic religions. In its current form, then, it is compatible with a great many liberal, secular perspectives—particularly feminism and the Green movement.

Witchcraft has strong connections with the women’s movement…. The feminist orientation of contemporary witchcraft may explain its appeal to teenage girls.” (44-45)

“The presence of witches in teenage fiction has received attention from scholars (Mosely 2002; Moody 2005; Waller 2004). Mosely, concentrating on material such as Sabrina and the film The Craft looks at the potential for transgression in images of witchcraft, but argues that in teen fiction this is largely controlled and conventionalised. Focusing on the dual meaning of the term ‘glamour’ she notes how acceptable use of power is largely confined to the domestic, ‘glamorous, not excessive and bodily’ (p. 422). Alison Waller’s study of Margaret Mahy’s witches makes a similar point. Mahy’s witches, Waller argues, are placed ‘firmly back into domesticity and reality as soon as they have become comfortable with their magic’(p. 85). Moody also notes a degree of conformity in the presentation of young witches in these commercially successful products. She argues, however, that they do provide scope for ‘negotiating issues of consumption, feminism and alternative lifestyle’ (p. 57) and that the fantasy elements in the story provide opportunities to ‘subvert emerging and prevailing social norms’ (p. 57).

In this article I want to focus on something that has not been addressed directly—the intersection between fantasy and the socially and historically grounded portrayal of spiritual/religious experience and practice. The texts are interesting because they reflect a growing interest in spirituality amongst young people. I show how these texts use religious awakening as a vehicle and a metaphor for exploring questions of teenage female identity and personal growth. By choosing Wicca, with its monistic rather than dualistic morality, the books model a [-p.46] sophisticated approach to morality, values and decision making, which reflects the moral complexities of young people’s lives in postmodern, Western societies. I shall begin by considering the texts’ portrayal of the impact of religious belief in three areas of teenage life—the family, learning and self-discipline, and sex and sexuality, and then go on to look at how both romance and fantasy work alongside this social realism.” (45-46)

Jarvis concludes: “These texts offer girls the opportunity to undergo a fictional experience that takes religious and spiritual conversion and commitment seriously. Youth can be a time when religious feeling is particularly intense; the texts meet a need for religious experience and a connection with something greater than the self. The girls at the centre of the stories engage with a religion that challenges them. They feel empowered through a connection with an immanent pantheistic divinity; the experiences described are intense and life changing. In some respects this version of Wicca offers a counterbalance to youth culture; through their religion the girls are integrated with tradition, with ancient beliefs and with a community of older people who are not their guardians, just believers with more experience.” (51)

Ref: Christine Jarvis (2008) ‘Becoming a Woman Through Wicca: Witches and Wiccans in Contemporary Teen Fiction’ Children’s Literature in Education 39:43–52

Witch trials and social hierarchy


What do witchcraft and witch trials tell us about power and social hierarchy?“asks Faisa Maria Toivo (9). “Witch trials have often enough been explained in terms of social relations and schisms, particularly in local contexts, in a highly competitive world, disagreements resulted from and caused both attacks by suspected witches and accusations made against them. … Witchcraft and witch beliefs were closely connected to questions of power and hierarchy in local as well as national contexts.” (9)

In the late seventeenth century,” she explains, “there was a change in the number and nature of witchcraft accusations in Scandinavia. … whereas the charges before the 1670s usually concerned neighbourly maleficium, afterwards their focus was increasingly on the practice of benevolent magic to uncover thieves and to cure illnesses.

Even before the 1660s, the educated Finnish elite had expressed doubts about the demonological theories that underpinned the concept of the witches’ sabbath, but the problem of ‘superstition’ or vidskepelse, the religious error of benign magical beliefs and practices, remained something to be combated with vigour. ‘Good witches’ or cunning folk continued to be prosecuted by the local authorities, indeed, the attention of the Swedish and Finnish authorities, both secular and ecclesiastical, became increasingly centred on the suppression of vidskepelse rather than harmful witchcraft. Vidskepelse was thought to be as pernicious as witchcraft and, with its seemingly lucrative outcomes, it represented a greater threat to the authorities. In this respect it has been shown that charges initiated by the authorities rather than the public were more likely to lend to convictions, and the most such cases concerned benevolent magic rather than witchcraft. Furthermore, if the populace submitted information on maleficium, the authorities often converted the substance of the charges into vidskepelse. Trials about benevolent magic can thus be seen as an attempt by the authorities to educate the populace in the direction they wanted, for economic, political, religious and cultural reasons.” (9-10)

“Social conflicts have often been detected behind and presented as the prime cause of witchcraft accusations in research. As far as a local community and its social dynamics are concerned, social conflict and competition are obviously important. Yet settling for such an explanation runs the risk of belittling the belief in witchcraft and simplifying it as a scapegoat for something supposedly more rational.” (13)

Ref: (emphases in bold green mine; italics in original) Faisa Maria Toivo (2004) “Marking (dis)order: witchcraft and the symbolics of hierarchy in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Finaland” pp1-8 in Beyond the Witch Trials: Witchcraft and magic in Enlightenment Europe. Eds. Owen Davies and Willem de Blécourt. Manchester University Press: Manchester and New York

Rethinking the Enlightenment vis-a-vis witchcraft


The so called Enlightenment of the eighteenth century has often been portrayed as a period in which much of Europe cast off the belief in witchcraft and magic under the influence of new philosophies and advances in science and medicine. This received wisdom has often led to the academic dismissal of the continued relevance of the belief in witchcraft and magic, not only for the poor and illiterate in society but also for the educated. …

It is too crude and misunderstanding to portray the Enlightenment as a period of intellectual and social leaps. It should rather be seen as a period of subtler renegotiation between cultures, and a period when the relationship between private and public beliefs became more problematic and discrete, and therefore more difficult for the historian to detect. The study of witchcraft and magic provides us with an important means of exploring these broad changing patterns of social relations and mentalities, just as it has done much to help our understanding of social relations in sixteenth and seventeenth century society.” (1)

“… three broad themes emerge in the chronological and conceptual context of the ‘Enlightenment’ period.

The first concerns the shifting intellectual interpretation of folk magic from being a very real and implicitly satanic offense to being a merely fraudulent and morally reprehensible crime. Inextricably tied up with this process was the use and changing definition of ‘superstition’ – a subject that is scope for further research. The word has long been used in a derogatory sense to describe what were perceived to be unfounded, credulous or heretical beliefs.” (3-4) … “It was also a label applied to the cultures of the ‘lower orders’ as a means of clearly demarcating the world of the ‘ignorant’ from the educated, the ‘irrational’ from the rational. In this sense ‘superstition’ became the antithesis of modernity.” (4)

“… the second theme to emerge …, concerns the considerable continued intellectual interest regarding diabolic intervention in human affairs. Educated society may have become increasingly disengaged from the concept and problem of witchcraft during the early eighteenth century, but the question of possession and satanic pacts remained a major topic of earnest debate and authoritarian perplexity.” (5)

The third theme concerns the centrality of the written and printed word to the experience of witchcraft and magic. On one level, as Augusto Ferraiuolo demonstrates, the possession of literacy profoundly shaped the context and content of the criminal records used by historians. As his textual analysis of denunciations of popular magic brought before the Italian Inquisition shows, the act of transcribing the accounts of the illiterate into a written narrative reveals much about the relationship between individual and institution with regard to mentalities and social control. At another level, the eighteenth century saw an increasing popular access to and engagement with printed material. While the extent of the growth of literacy during the Enlightenment is a matter of considerable debate, there is no doubt that there was a publishing boom, and that it was partly inspired by a popular thirst for literary knowledge. The rise of such printed formats as periodicals and newspapers have been seen as instrumental in the spread of enlightened knowledge across society. Yet as the work by Sabine Doering Manteuffel and Stephan Bachter shows, the printing presses were equally instrumental in promoting and disseminating counter Enlightenment modes of thought. They outline the rise of a ‘magic media market’, characterised by the popularisation of once intellectual occult subject matter, and the publication in German of once scarce manuscript sources. These developments were to have an impact far beyond European shores.” (6)

Ref: (emphases in bold green mine) Owen Davies and Willem de Blécourt (2004) “Introduction: beyond the witch trials” pp1-8 in Beyond the Witch Trials: Witchcraft and magic in Enlightenment Europe. Eds. Owen Davies and Willem de Blécourt. Manchester University Press: Manchester and New York