“Wælcyrge or Witchcraft: Identifying Heathendom in late Anglo-Danish England”

Just one of many presentations from the just-finished online conference  Performing Magic in the pre-Modern North.

Here, Ross Downing deals with such issues as whether witchcraft and Heathenry were defined differently in the time of King Alfred the Great in the late 9th century, including details as the execution of condemned witches as well as animals accused of being witches’ familiars (although that was not the Anglo-Saxon term), including ethnic and gender issues in witchcraft accusations.

These all look fascinating, and I will have to watch three a week to finish by Candlemas. Read more about the conference, which focused on Scandinavian but here includes Anglo-Saxon and Danish-ruled England.

There is an enormous amount of material here, and it is all free at this time.

Interview with Helen Berger, Leading Scholar of Paganism

Prof. Helen Berger

At his blog, now called On New and Alternative Religions, Ethan Doyle While interviews Helen Berger, one of the leading American scholars of contemporary Paganism.

Since completing her PhD research on the early modern witch trials in the 1980s, Berger has devoted her career to the sociological analysis of modern-day communities whose practitioners call themselves witches. Her first book, A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States (University of South Carolina Press, 1999), was a landmark in the subject and was followed up with important studies such as Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States (with Evan A. Leach and Leigh Shaffer, University of South Carolina Press, 2003), Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for the Self (with Doug Ezzy, Rutgers University Press, 2007), and most recently Solitary Pagans: Contemporary Witches, Wiccans and Others Who Practice Alone (University of South Carolina Press, 2019). Currently a Professor Emeritus at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and an Affiliated Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, Berger is continuing to work on the modern Pagan milieu, exploring its relationships with far-right politics. She tells us about her career and her thoughts on the future of the academic study of modern Paganism.

She explains how her interest in today’s Witches and Pagans grew from earlier research on the Salem Witch Trials and similar events. In the mid-1980s, she gave a series of lectures at the Boston Public Library — and realized who was in the audience.

The audience for each of the lectures varied with some people who attended every week and others who came only for a particular lecture. One elderly woman with white hair always sat in the front row, listened intently, and asked interesting questions. I looked forward to seeing her there every week. At the final lecture, when I said what was then a surprising fact; Witches looked like everyone else. You could be living next door to, or working with, a Witch and not know it. She stopped me mid-lecture and asked, “are you saying there could be Witches in the room.” As the average age of the participants had dropped significantly for this lecture, I offered that I thought there probably were Witches in the room. She stood up, turned around with her hands on her hips, and asked, “are there any Witches here?” I think it is because she looked like the quintessential grandmother that a number of people raised their hands.

Read the whole thing. Helen Berger has also published a number of articles in The Pomegranate as well as being one our most valuable peer-reviewers in the sociology of Paganism. Her 2015 article “An Outsider Inside: Becoming a Scholar of Contemporary Paganism” reflected on some of the issues involved.

Z Budapest Is Still Creating

Z Budapest (Los Angeles Times)

Z Budapest, one the first public witches of the 1970s in the United States, is “largely retired from ritual work” but still creating, according to a profile pubished in the Los Angeles Times.

“I don’t agree with all her views, but in the history of the craft, she is an important person,” said Sabina Magliocco, professor of anthropology and religion at the University of British Columbia. “When you look at all of the witchcraft as feminist resistance that flowered in the Trump era, none of that would have existed if it hadn’t been for what Z and others like her did in the 1970s.”

Here she speaks in Malcolm Brenner’s 1991 documentary Out of the Broom Closet, which was digitized and placed on YouTube by the New Age Movements, Occultism, and Spiritualism Research Library. Archives and Special Collections. Valdosta State University. Valdosta, Georgia.

Free Download on Historians of Witchcraft

To be clear, The War on Witchcraft treats historical writing about the late medieval and early modern witchtrials, seen as an outbreak of “unreason.”

From the publisher :

Historians of the early modern witch-hunt often begin histories of their field with the theories propounded by Margaret Murray and Montague Summers in the 1920s. They overlook the lasting impact of nineteenth-century scholarship, in particular the contributions by two American historians, Andrew Dickson White (1832–1918) and George Lincoln Burr (1857–1938). Study of their work and scholarly personae contributes to our understanding of the deeply embedded popular understanding of the witch-hunt as representing an irrational past in opposition to an enlightened present. Yet the men’s relationship with each other, and with witchcraft sceptics – the heroes of their studies – also demonstrates how their writings were part of a larger war against ‘unreason’. This Element thus lays bare the ways scholarly masculinity helped shape witchcraft historiography, a field of study often seen as dominated by feminist scholarship. Such meditation on past practice may foster reflection on contemporary models of history writing.

Free PDF download here.

The 1970s, When Witchcraft Sold Skin Mags

From The Reprobate, “Your daily slice of art, culture and social commentary,” a photographic review of such long-gone late 1960s–1970s publications as Witchcraft, Bitchcraft, and Satan, all dedicated to the notion that “the occult” was sexy and could sell magazines.

Much of the same content exists today, if you care to look for it, on Tumbler.com and elsewhere. But I don’t know who makes money off it.

Author David Flint notes,

Today, there are several witchcraft magazines in print, but all seem to take themselves and their craft very seriously, and I very much doubt that most of the Witches of Instagram would be very amused by the cheerfully exploitative nature of these ancient publications. But I might be wrong – perhaps there is a gap in the market waiting to be filled. If so, then we are happy to step up and revive this gloriously tacky, cheesy and outrageous world of sex, sin and Satanism.

More than “several,” I think.

“Childish and Credulous Fantasy”: How the BBC Viewed Witchcraft in 1962

Cecil Williamson, left, and BBC interviewer Alan Whicker (BBC).

Pop over to the BBC archive to watch presenter llan Whicker pontificate about witchcraft in a short television segment from Hallowee 1962.

Among other non-information, Whicker trots out the bogus “nine million witches executed” figure from the Renaissance and Early Modern witch trials.

He also interviews Cecil Williamson, Gerald Gardner’s original business partner in the Isle of Man witchcraft museum, whose opening, I suspect, had much to do with the formal creation of Wicca.

William, meanwhile, announces his official “witch ratio”: 1 witch to 53,000 population. Now you know.

The Witch’s Hat: Where Did It Come From?

Abby Cox tracks the history of the black, conical, flat-brimmed hat with a deteour into eighteenth-century dressmaking and other things: “Swedish witches are defnitely cottagecore witches, and I’m here for that.” If you are in a hurry and wish to skip patriarchy, etc., start at the 11-minute mark.

Not discussed: handfuls of the “witchy aesthetic” derive from the movie The Wizard of Oz (1939). It’s amazing how many people think that its costuming and makeup (green skin, striped socks) represent some kind of Historical Truth.

The “eighteenth-century” part is because she spent years as a dressmaker and interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg. She is not a historian of witchcraft, but she does make an interesting argument from a fashion viewpoint, Written as an article, this video could have fit into the last issue of The Pomegranate, which was devoted to Pagan art and fashion.

She is not saying that Quakers (the Religious Society of Friends, founded as a radical religious group in the late 1600s ) were seriously mistaken for satanic witches.[1]Some propaganda, however, showed Quakers as influenced by the Devil, so the boundary was blurry at times. She is saying that the Quakers’ “look,” one that emphasized out-of-date fashions for women in particular — “fifty years out of date” — might have influenced the way that witches were portrayed in 18th, 19th, and 20th century popular art. (She dates the first graphic appearance to 1720 — see 27:40 in the video.)

There is no particular dress style associated with the actual women (and men) who were persecuated as witches in the 1400s–1600s. They wore whatever people wore in their time and place.

Notes

Notes
1 Some propaganda, however, showed Quakers as influenced by the Devil, so the boundary was blurry at times.

Salem Museum Gives In, Exhibits 1692 Witch-Trial Materials

Samuel Sewall, a witch trial judge, painted by John Smibert (Peabody Essex Museum).

In 2017, Donna Seger, a history professor at Salem State University (Massachusetts) wrote an open letter to the leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum, a big, rich institution in downtown Salem that along with being a major art museum, controls (and usually hides) the town’s historical archives.

Her letter stated,

Please reconsider your decision to remove Salem’s historical archives from Salem.

I consider the Peabody Essex Museum to be an extraordinary asset to our city, fostering engagement, awareness, and edification. Furthermore, I understand that in order for it to flourish, it had to become greater than the sum of its two parts: the former Peabody Museum and Essex Institute. Yet those two institutions, the products of the fruits and labors of generations of Salem residents, created a foundation on which the PEM was built: a strong foundation that is acknowledged in the museum’s mission statement, which asserts its 1799 foundation and status as “America’s oldest continuously operating museum”. There are no explicit references to history in this statement, but it is implicit everywhere, especially in the aim to transform people’s lives by broadening their perspectives, attitudes, and knowledge of themselves and the wider world. A key path towards self-knowledge and knowledge in general is historical understanding, which is grounded in historical archives full of people as well as papers.

Shortly before that, the travel writer J. W. Ocker[1]Say it with a long O, like “oak-er” wrote in his highly entertaining book A Season with the Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, Massachusettsthat the Peabody Essex, “the oldest continually operating museum in America,” was well, sort of embarassed by its local-history collection, including the surviving documents from the 1692 witch trials.

“We don’t talk about Salem, we talk about the world,” the PEM’s chief marketing officer told Ocker. “The October [witchy] crowd, they don’t go to art museums.[2]I think that M. and I proved him wrong, although admittedly we did not visit in October. . . . . We are a museum of art and culture, not a museum of social history.”[3]J. W. Ocker, i Season with the Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts (New York: The Countryman Press, 2016), 78–79.

Somoone must have suffered a change of mind though, because the Peabody Essex is offering a new exhibit through April 4: “The Salem Witch Trials, 1692.

Follow the links there and you will find more, such as a podcast on the trials’ legacy.

Join [Dinah Cardin] and Chip Van Dyke, your hosts of the PEMcast, as we go beyond the often-told story of the Salem witch trials to give you a deeper understanding of what happened. We’ll explore what life was truly like in a 17th-century home, go to key sites around the city and even find ourselves on a hilltop in Maine. A selection of the largest collection of Salem witch trial documents goes on view at PEM on September 26, with the opening of The Salem Witch Trials 1692. Visitors can also see, from PEM’s collection, possessions related to the judges, and the 25 innocent people tragically died.

Watch it if you can’t visit the exhibit, and be glad that perhaps peace has been made between the high art-focused museum leadership and the events three hundred twenty-eight years ago that remain spirituall potent today.

Notes

Notes
1 Say it with a long O, like “oak-er”
2 I think that M. and I proved him wrong, although admittedly we did not visit in October.
3 J. W. Ocker, i Season with the Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts (New York: The Countryman Press, 2016), 78–79.

“The Woman Who Inspired Wicca”

This popped up on Twitter recently:

There is no conference that I know of, which may say something about how small a set of academics are interested in Wiccan history. Maybe we Pagan-studies types do not have anything new to say right now, because this issue has been covered pretty well. The debunking of Murray’s claims was underway in the 1960s by such historians as Elliot Rose  (A Razor for a Goat: A Discussion of Certain Problems in the History of Witchcraft and Diabolism) and Norman Cohn (Europe’s Inner Demons).

In my own experience, I would say that by about 1980, Wiccan elders were quietly beginning to abandon the Murray-ite thesis of unbroken ancient Pagan religion lasting to the 17th century or later.

Leave it to First Things, a Catholic-leaning magazine on religious issues, to weigh in on the upcoming centenary, which deserves to be noted.

While Margaret Murray was by no means a founder or adherent of Wicca, the religion to which her writings gave birth, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe inspired the now global phenomenon of neopaganism. There can be no doubt that Murray had a brilliant scholarly imagination—too brilliant, perhaps, for the serious flaws in her reasoning to be seen by many. While few Wiccans and neopagans now believe literally that their religion has existed since prehistory, Murray’s legacy persists in the strange idea that witchcraft was a religion, an idea long since debunked by historians of witchcraft. It is ironic that this idea, devised by a feminist historian, often eclipses the reality that the accusation of witchcraft was a misogynistic construct weaponized against innocent women. Murray’s unsubstantiated claim that these women practiced a secret pagan religion was, ultimately, a calumny against the victims of a dark era of misogynistic violence.

Read the whole thing here: “The Woman Who Inspired Wicca” by Francis Young.