So, I picked up the number one 1602: Witchunter Angela book last week, and it instantaneously made it on to my subscription list. The art is spectacular – I’ve always been a fan of that style of imagery and storytelling, and have an affinity for high fantasy translated into the pages of mainstream comics. Though I love the story, and I love the art, and I love the mythology that the artists and writers create and use, reading the book gave me a momentary pause and made me reflect on my upbringing. It made me realize that in the year 2015, when it comes to paganism, humanity still has the same opinion it had in, well, 1602. It made me feel… Emotions, and stuff.
A little background: I was raised pagan and my late mother was a witch. I am NOT pagan and do not believe in the power of religion or spirituality. That isn’t to say that I have any real negative emotions toward paganism, I’m just a skeptic, and proud of it. I liken my youth as a pagan and burning our Solstice tree on Mayday as pretty much the same experience as a “casual Catholic” youth would have sitting in a pew during Easter Service; ho-hum, I want to go play with my Pokemans on Gameboy Color. The most negative emotions I have about paganism as a kid would definitely be the stalwart lack of acceptance from my Christian (mostly Lutheran) peers.
It doesn’t take very long for you to realize, if you concentrate for more than twenty seconds, that witch hunting and the death of a witch is still a popular trope in both classic and modern fantasy tales. While some storytellers will insist on a more accurate portrayal of the reality of witches, most of them are relegated to the sidelines and the “Wicked Witch” style of witchcraft and paganism prevails. From the very name of Angela Witchunter, to films like Season of The Witch and Hansel and Gretel, to almost any fantasy video game (even my beloved Skyrim), the most popular portrayal of witchcraft and paganism is that of anti-Christian evildoers.
Despite my atheistic (almost antitheistic) belief structure, I’ve always had a fascination with divinity and mythology, especially in my geekdom. My favorite part of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn was the Heaven Vs. Hell mythology that he created. While vocally critical of religion, especially Christianity, I utilize Christian myth and legend in my own work; simply because it has the potential for great storytelling. When I put fingers to keyboard and write, though, and take liberties with someone’s faith, I run the risk of pissing them right off… And I often do, more often than not in fact. They will tell you to fuck right off as well, which is fine – everyone’s a critic, and that’s their perogative, but what pisses me off is the typically Christian two-facedness. The Christian majority, especially the evangelical nutbags that seem to procreate with impunity in this country, can talk about witch burning or destruction of pagan faiths with impunity, but criticize 2014’s Noah, and prepare to receive some serious hate mail (before you ask, Noah was, hands down, the best high fantasy film of 2014… The source material is bullshit, though). These groups are not known for having a thick skin.
To complicate the issue, on a greater scale, fear of paganism and witchcraft has become a fundamentally feminist issue. A very, very, old one. While it’s fact that the word “witch” is essentially gender neutral (in English), let’s face facts: connotations being what they are, if you think of a witch, you imagine a woman. Now, quiz time: When you imagine that woman, in your mind’s eye, what does she look like? Does she look like a normal woman (whatever that means to you)? Or is she a crone? Is she beautiful, but sinister? Or does she look plain, and comforting? Does she look regular, as in not fucking evil? I can take a stab and tell you that it probably isn’t a particularly flattering portrait of femininity.
Now, quiz time: When you imagine that woman, in your mind’s eye, what does she look like? Does she look like a normal woman (whatever that means to you)? Or is she a crone? Is she beautiful, but sinister? Or does she look plain, and comforting? Does she look regular, as in not fucking evil? I can take a stab and tell you that it probably isn’t a particularly flattering portrait of femininity.
That’s the reach of misconception. Witches, not as they are presented now, but as they were, were women of power in pre-Christian Europe. A quick and dirty synopsis of how they went from powerful community leaders, to monsters of myth and legend is a fairly common one. The Church, during its expansion, was faced with a choice. Either they assimilate these women into the fabric of Christian society, or they eliminate them and destroy their legacies inside of their own communities. Considering that equal rights for women would pretty much unravel everything that early European Christians knew about gender roles, and these women (if I know women of intellect) were likely hard-pressed to give up a life of tradition and honor for a pack of hooey sold to them by a bunch of weirdos with a crucifix. The Church decided to take the (bloodiest) path of least resistance.
For a fairly significant period of time, Europe, and even the fledgling colonies that would eventually become the United States, perpetrated acts of torture, abuse, and marginalization against perceived pagans, and especially perceived pagan women, heinous enough to make Dr. Mengele say “You might wanna bring it down a notch.” This went on for centuries, from before the 1300’s to, uh, now. The victims of this persecution were many, and only 20 to 25% of them were male… So, if the low end of estimated deaths is correct, and there were deaths within the middle to high tens of thousands, or the high end is correct and the number is in the baffling hundreds, upon hundreds of thousands, It would easily qualify as a fucking gendercide.
Hitler and his Reich slaughtered helpless millions in their concentration camps; Stalin crushed even more of his own people, but you do need to ask yourself, “What was the population like in the 14th to 17th century (where the bulk of these witch killings took place)?” I would point out that it is much reduced in comparison to now, meaning that a number like ten thousand or one hundred thousand carries a substantially different gravity. I’m not trying to compare the evils of Hitler, Stalin, and the Roman Catholic Church… Wait, you know what? I take that back. We are going to compare the Roman Catholic Church to Hitler and Stalin.
I’m not trying to compare the evils of Hitler, Stalin, and the Roman Catholic Church… Wait, you know what? I take that back. We are going to compare the Roman Catholic Church to Hitler and Stalin.
After reading one thousand words of my incessant ramblings, you may be wondering, “Great, dude, so what the fuck does that have to do with geek culture?” A great deal.
First, we have to acknowledge the fact that promoting the paganism=evil/witchcraft=evil narrative is harmful and that paganism and witchcraft don’t simply exist conceptually, it also exists practically. It is absolutely not the same faith as the paganism and witchcraft that was practiced before Christ, I’d hazard a guess and say that it’s pretty hard to practice the exact tenets of a faith that was not recorded in books, and was passed down through traditions and oral history that have been damaged, subverted, destroyed, or forgotten. But, so was Hebrew, [one of] the languages of the Jewish people. They took it upon themselves to resurrect it in the modern era, and successfully breathed life into a language that was unused and basically relegated to religious texts for a couple thousand years. Is it the same language that was utilized millennia ago? Absolutely not, but that doesn’t detract from its legitimacy.
Geeks and nerds, as a group, are targeted for fantastical stories of witchcraft and paganism. We must push for a more accurate portrayal of what paganism and witchcraft actually is, as opposed to what the hegemonic religious elite have convinced us it is for centuries. Fundamentally, paganism and witchcraft is best described as a powerful sense of spirituality, and most importantly: venerating the feminine. That, to me, is something we could use a hell of a lot more of in popular geek culture. I understand that many alternative fantasy authors do this quite frequently, but their genre is niche to an extreme. I would prefer to see the changing storylines on the forefront; not just in literature, but in film, gaming, and comic books, where geek intelligistas and pundits will chow down at the feeding trough of nerd entertainment, ingesting a steady stream of historical truths turned into modern fiction, instead of being force fed thousand-year-old religious hate speech.
Perhaps I’m being overly sentimental, remembering my late mother, who managed to teach me the power of woman… of their imagery, art, and words. Or perhaps I’m being too obtuse by squeezing a couple thousand words of extrapolation out of a 22 page comic book about a transdimensional alien who hunts witches. Really, all I’m hoping for is that some creator of comics or books reads this and says “Hey, maybe I’ll write about a witch who practices herbalism to aid her community and pays homage to the Earth for its bounty, instead of creating a hag who eats kids.” I can never believe a word of it, as religion, but that doesn’t mean I want to continue seeing history, my mother’s own history, transformed into hostility.
I can never believe a word of it, as religion, but that doesn’t mean I want to continue seeing history, my mother’s own history, transformed into hostility.
I imagine the world we can create, for our witches, brujas, and medicine women, where even at its most boring, it’s truthful: A perfect suburban landscape, much like any other in America. Some anonymous father fusses with his manicured lawn, his small daughter tearing up to him from around the corner. She jumps into his arms and half speaks, half shouts, as children are wont to do, “Daddy! George from across the street called me a witch!” Her father smiles broadly at her, saying quietly “That’s my girl!”