Sarah Pike on Witchcraft and American Religion

Religious studies professor Sarah Pike, author of Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community and New Age and Neopagan Religions in America discusses her work at the Religion and American History blog.

In a chapter I wrote recently on “Wicca in the News” about changing representations of Witches in American news media since the 1960s (Oxford Handbook of Religion and the American News Media, 2012), I argue that reporters today rarely depict Witches as evil or satanic, even though stereotypes from the 1960s and 1970s of sexy young female Witches or cuddly cookie-baking elderly Witches-next-door still remain. In the past 25 years since I entered my first occult shop and started asking questions, the boundaries between categories like religion and magic and the differences between “folk,” “popular,” and “institutional” religion are treated with more nuance. And scholars of American religions are more likely to take traditions like Wicca seriously than they did when I was a graduate student, because Neopaganism has become firmly established across North America and formally recognized in government branches and institutions such as the military and prisons.

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One thought on “Sarah Pike on Witchcraft and American Religion

  1. I think it would be hard for the news and public media to produce an accurate image of a witch and witchcraft since witches are secretive and witches worship in secret. Even though Wicca now appears more on the national scene, when it appears, no one knows what it is but for its name. Witches want both to exist and to not exist. Witches, themselves, would be hard-pressed to craft a public image since there is no real agreement on anything. Who would be responsible for the sound bite? Folklore still provides captivating images of the witch, like “The Beautiful Witch” in Leland’s Songs of the Sea, or other good witches in Legends of Florence. But these images have been dismissed in a way—which leaves a void for charlatans and other on-lookers to fill.

    With regard to the recurring stereotype of witches as cuddly old women who bake cookies, those same women are still multi-dimensional and spiritual beings (the Oracle in the Matrix baked cookies), and so the verity of this image of the witch is really in the eye of the beholder. Stereotypes evoke strong visceral negative responses—they cast an entire group of people as having poor hygiene, smelling badly, having low moral standards, being shiftless, lazy, and stupid by birthright. So the cookie-baking witch is not really a stereotype.

    As far as a truthful image, witches are (and always have been) just normal, everyday, not particularly special people and cookie bakers, who just happen to be free-thinkers. People can think freely, feel, and bake cookies all at the same time.

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