Last weekend I was sick with a cold, and because I was sick I turned on the tv and thereby caught this program about books, WellREAD, on OPB (Oregon Public Broadcasting). I’m always excited to find a show about books, and it was doubly exciting to come in on a show discussing books on witches with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff. She was talking about her latest, The Witches: Salem, 1692, which is another exploration of the witch trials.
Schiff clearly has a real passion for her subject. I also liked that she said she can’t seem to write a book in less than four or five years when authors now are pressured to crank out a book every few months to keep up momentum (although this likely applies solely to fiction. I can’t see any sort of respectably researched historical book being done well in less than a couple of years). As much as I’ve read over the years on the witch trials I will consider adding Ms. Schiff’s book to my TBR pile. The reviews on Amazon are split pretty evenly between those who loved it and those who thought it was a ‘tedious slog’ so my expectations are tempered.
Be that as it may, the show itself was going great until about the last five minutes when Mary Ann Gwinn, who gives further reading suggestions, excitedly talked about Alex Mar’s “Witches of America.” Mar’s book has been roundly criticized by the pagan/witchcraft community, and you can read one take on that here. It’s obvious Gwinn knows absolutely nothing about modern witchcraft, or was even aware of its existence. I got the impression neither of the show’s hosts has ever met anyone who didn’t believe exactly what they do; they both seemed amazed that there are people today who call themselves witches. Gwinn went on to mockingly describe modern witches saying, “In one way you want to make fun of these subjects: the weird tattoos, the costumes, blue hair, the free-form sex, the witches’ convention at a Doubletree Inn. Really?” Nice. She openly wants to make fun of them. Ok, I admit the Doubletree Inn is a little weird seeing as how my coven always meets in Lucifer’s penthouse. But what the hell.
Maybe she thinks we should all look as bland and asexual as she does. Finally, the show’s host Terry Tazioli gives a shudder and says “I’m done with witches.” Good for you, buddy. Very disappointing to see such a derisive dismissal of alternative spirituality in this day and age. Their way or the highway, it would seem. They might be interested to know witchcraft practitioners and practices are as varied as any segment of the population, and many hold advanced degrees, including PhDs, and careers in the sciences and academia. I, for one, look more like a Sunday school teacher. My hair is not blue (although I really like the look) because I need to fit in in Corporate America. But not everyone does, and this is not the 1950s. You can watch the show here.
I shudder to think of the judgment the two of them sit in towards other marginalized population groups.
And for your edification and enlightenment, here are some reading suggestions if you really want to learn about paganism and/or Witchcraft in the modern world:
Margot Adler, “Drawing Down the Moon”
Scott Cunningham, “The Truth About Witchcraft Today”
Scott Cunningham, “Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner”
Pauline Campanelli, “The Wheel of the Year”
Starhawk, “The Spiral Dance”
For real basics, The Witches’ Voice website has “Witchcraft 101: So You Wanna Be a Witch?”
If nothing else, Mar’s book introduced people at The New York Times to the idea that there are practicing witches today. We may not fly on brooms (the old joke is we ride Hoovers now) but we have been known to dance under a full moon.