Witchcraft: You’re Not Making It Strange Enough

Teresa Palmer as Diana Bishop, historian and witch, in A Discovery of Witches, Episode 1 (2018).

The final article in the “Paganism, art, and fashion” issue of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies argues that books and television series based on historical witchcraft make it too safe and fail to portray “the genuine strangeness of witches and magic users in all periods and cultures.”

It is written by literature professor Diane Purkiss and titled “Getting It Wrong: The Problems with Reinventing the Past” (currently a free download). Purkiss’ books include At the Bottom of the Garden: A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Nymphs, and Other Troublesome Things and The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations.

The works she discusses include Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches and the series developed from it, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon (both the novel and the TV series), and the Outlander series—not to mention such classics as Lord of the Rings.

The authors, she argues, focus too much on female empowerment and not enough on how “early modern witches are much stranger and much more disconcerting than anything likely to be found at Hogwarts or in Narnia or Rivendell.”

Thus the “getting it wrong” of her title not an attack on contemporary Pagan-themed literature — she admits its creative energy— but the suggestion that if you think you are doing something “transgressive” now, you ought to look at some primary sources. And since she teaches at Oxford, she has some snarky things to say about how her university is portrayed in Discovery of Witches on TV.1)Purkiss’ exclamation over the fictional Professor Bishop, ‘That’s not how this works!” might equally well have been applied to the long-running British Inspector Morse mystery series, set in Oxford town, which portrayed Oxford dons as bludgeoned on an almost-weekly basis. Apparently that is how positions are opened up for new hires. Perhaps Bishop arrived immediately after a murder.

M. Z. Bradley, she points out, was more influenced by Starhawk than by anything on ancient Pagan religion. “We tend to want goddesses with moral characteristics derived from Christianity and from the Enlightenment, and matriarchal societies with characteristics derived from Christian socialism and even Marxism. All this excludes the bitter truths embodied in Pagan myths and ideology.”

It’s not that we cannot enjoy Diana Bishop, heriditary witch and professor, but that, as Purkiss is anxious to point out, the real thing was even stranger than the “anondyne” modern re-creations.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Purkiss’ exclamation over the fictional Professor Bishop, ‘That’s not how this works!” might equally well have been applied to the long-running British Inspector Morse mystery series, set in Oxford town, which portrayed Oxford dons as bludgeoned on an almost-weekly basis. Apparently that is how positions are opened up for new hires. Perhaps Bishop arrived immediately after a murder.

1 thought on “Witchcraft: You’re Not Making It Strange Enough

  1. Today’s Paganism is certainly influenced by popular entertainment and by Christianity. Most, if not all of us, enter it and journey through it with these influences in our knapsacks. For myself, I’d say my entry into Paganism was more via pop culture and less via Christianity because I have never been a Christian. I recognize and acknowledge Christian influences through a sort of comparative religion endeavor.

    What’s more, Paganism was emerging just as I was, and some of the notions and forms now held to be characteristic were not then.

    My pop culture entry took place a while before either Bradley or Harkness. And Bewitched had nothing to do with me becoming a Witch.

    Graves was a much stronger influence, Murray a little, science fiction and fantasy pretty strong, Arthurian and Celtic and Norse pretty strong, and Hindu and Buddhist philosophies pretty strong. I don’t recall looking to fiction about witches as a useful historical source. Frankly,historical accounts of witchcraft, trials, hunting, and all did not appeal to me as a growing practitioner. I suppose that I was looking for a practice that suited the times I live in.

    That seems to fall into Paganism on the self-help side.

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