Brewer Reconsiders Witches’ Wit Label

I stood in Cheers Liquor Mart, a supermarket of things alcoholic in Colorado Springs, last Wednesday wondering if I should try a bottle of Witches’ Wit beer.

The “controversial” Witches’ Wit beer, that is, with the witch-burning scene on the label. The brewery had defended the design, and even the artist commented on one blog, in essence, “How dare you insult my artistic vision?! If you could see the painting full size, you would understand.” (Can’t find the link—will add it if I do.)  But of course, it’s bottle-label size.

“We have been accused of inspiring violence against women, and we have been compared to the violence in Darfur,” said Sage Osterfeld, a spokesman for Port Brewing. “It has run the gamut from people saying politely, ‘This is offensive to pagans,’ to people saying we are responsible for all that is wrong in the world.”

Now this tempest in a beer glass has even reached The New York Times. Bowing to the pressure campaign started by Vicki Noble, the brewery will have a contest to choose a new label.

Is the design “hate imagery” against today’s Pagan Witches? Honestly, I don’t think so.  And if it is, it is nothing to do with the modern religion of Pagan Witchcraft in its various forms. (If you want to argue that it is anti-women, go ahead.)

When it comes to the word “witch,” we want it both ways—safe and edgy. As the Dutch scholar Léon van Gulik writes in a paper that will appear in the forthcoming issue of The Pomegranate,

The acquired taste of Paganism is rationalized by upholding a self-image that perpetuates a tension with the secular world without, and sometimes even the non-initiated world within. This tension can for instance be observed in the clinging to the term “witch” in Wiccan circles, the meaning of which clearly differs between insiders—and outsiders.

There in the aisle at Cheers, however, I decided not to reinforce the current label imagery of Witch’s Wit. Because right next to it was another beer with a folk-Catholic-themed label: Maudite (“the damned one”) Belgian-style ale from Quebec. I acquired a taste for Maudite when in Montréal about a year ago, but had not seen any in a Colorado store until now, so into the shopping cart it went.

UPDATE: No, apparently they are going to consider changing the label.

4 Comments

  1. Diana says:

    I also don’t think modern neopagans came to mind for this artist. That said, the image really is disturbing and outright misogynistic. Even if a woman created that, the misogyny would abide. Since it was mainly Christians burned at the stake as heretics, the image is also a mislead – “witches” were generally hanged.

    I wouldn’t buy this beer very much based on that image. And while I would call it art, my encouragement of the artist’s further creativity would come from a place of sublimating disturbing urges into art for public safety.

  2. [...] Peg Aloi thought the whole matter was a  “ludicrous campaign of whiny nonsense”, while Chas Clifton notes that “when it comes to the word “witch,” we want it both ways—safe and edgy.” As for [...]

  3. Rombald says:

    Complicated feelings about this on my part.

    I agree with Diana about the nastiness of the image, although I would place it more in the S&M-porn than the misogyny category.

    On the other hand, neither the artist nor the brewer are Christian, and the picture is open to interpretation as anti-Christian, especially if you read the blurb.

    I think Pagans get a bit too sensitive at times. Sometimes I think this is just relatively privileged people (first-world, white, educated, middle-class) presenting themselves as victims. A lot of feminism is a bit like that as well. I distance myself from organised paganism for this sort of reason.

    Incidentally, Diana, I’m not sure you’re right about witches being hanged. In England, witches were hanged, but England was fairly peripheral to the witch craze, killing less than 1,000. Scotland was much more witch-obsessed, and they were burned there, and I think they were also burned in much of the Continent. In England, people were not technically killed for being witches, but for crimes committed by witchcraft, whereas in many other areas witchcraft itself was a crime. I might be wrong about any of this, and I would stand correction.

    More widely, I think beer labels offer quite a scope for cultural studies. In the UK, where good beer is a more mainstream concern than in the USA, labels tend to focus on local interest to the town where they’re brewed. Some imagery is military – warships, knights, Napoleonic War, WW1, etc. Some is Christian, or perhaps mocking of Christianity – monks, bishops, cathedrals. Some is to do with traditional farming and industry. Quite a lot is vaguely pagan, though – green men, hobgoblins, antler-men, stone circles, etc.

  4. Peg says:

    Thanks for your take on this, Chas. I’d love to try that Maudite beer (that’s the title of a great album by Quebecois band Le Vent du Nord, BTW, Maudite Moisson).

    Cheers,
    Peg