Last week a student emailed me some questions for a school project she was putting together. One of the questions was: "Do you feel as if the media represents witchcraft as evil, and would you say this effects how people view you?"
My initial response was that the question wasn’t one that could be answered quickly. In fact, it could probably be a dissertation rather than something answered briefly for a school project, but I mulled it over and decided to blog about it.
The first point really is whether the schoolgirl was talking about historic witchcraft or modern pagan witchcraft, as they are two different things. Historically the word "witch" was generally used for someone who did malefic magic - curses and so on - but nowadays people use the term to mean followers of nature religions such as Wicca. Wiccans are very nice witches. We are followers of a nature religion that celebrates the seasons. We aren't evil and we believe that it is wrong to use magic for harm. I emailed the student asking which witch did she mean?
However, the problem with the question might well have been that the school pupil didn’t realise there was a difference. And, of course, that can be the problem with the way witchcraft is reported in the media. Journalists – and the general public – don’t necessarily know the difference either.
Wicca and similar forms of modern pagan witchcraft have only been in the eyes of the media since the mid 20th century – and certainly back in the early days newspapers produced a few horribly inaccurate reports that depicted Wiccans as evil, although even then most journalists tried to report the truth. The main culprit was the now-defunct News of the World. This is what Professor Ronald Hutton said about that in his book The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft:
The only outstanding exception was a Sunday paper especially notorious for scandalmongering, the News of the World, which on 1 September 1963 launched a short series on 'black magic', which it equated with pagan witchcraft and declared to be a 'terrible new menace to youth' in the style of the denunciations of the 1950s. ...Strong in rhetoric but weak in actual material, the articles instituted a tradition, maintained with a few lapses until the present , of hostility to pagan witches on the part of this particular newspaper. This attitude, it must be stressed again, was relatively rare among journalists of the time. ... [The] newspaper had treated witchcraft only in passing after its big attempt to scaremonger in 1963 - until 1967, when it printed [a few more balanced articles]. Then, two years later, the paper changed its policy [and did] denounce them [Wiccans] anew, as having links with Satanism... The intent was relentlessly destructive. The names and addresses of the witches chosen as targets were printed along with their photographs, and the purpose (next to that of increasing sales of the newspaper) was clearly to ruin their public reputations and so their lives.As Professor Ronald Hutton pointed out, even in the 1960s The News of the World was not typical of the media in its portrayal of modern pagan witchcraft.
Nowadays, journalists in the UK – and the public in general – have a much better understanding of what Wicca is about and don't depict it as evil. I would say most newspaper reports are reasonably factually accurate and report Wicca as a gentle nature religion. There are still a few exceptions – mainly the Daily Mail – but even Daily Mail journalists tend to poke fun at modern witches as being eccentric hippy types rather than saying they are wicked.
However, although news reports these days don’t tend to portray modern pagan witches as being evil, in movies and TV dramas the situation is annoyingly different. I guess when you are making a horror film, the stereotypical villain of the wicked witch is still popular. Of course this is fiction, but it does annoy me because it gives an unfair image of modern paganism.
Murder mystery dramas are another category of TV show that regularly represents witches and modern pagans in unpleasant and inaccurate ways. A couple of weeks ago I watched an episode of BBC TV series Father Browncalled The Standing Stones. It was filmed at the beautiful Rollright Stones and although I enjoyed the setting of the lovely stone circle, I didn’t think that much of the plot. Here is the description (*spoiler alert*):
Father Brown and [his housekeeper] Mrs McGuire visit the cottage hospital in the village of Standing where many of the children have been struck down by an outbreak of Polio. The desperate villagers, seeking a cure, sacrifice an innocent girl in a pagan blood ceremony at ancient stones.My comment would be that no Wiccans or similar modern pagan witches would kill anyone. We do not do blood sacrifices.
Another murder mystery series that has been less than flattering about pagans and witches in the past is ITV’s Midsomer Murders and I understand that the episode on Wednesday 4 February at 8pm, called Murder by Magic is also about pagans. Here is an excerpt from the press release about it (*spoiler alert*):
Landlady Hannah Altman is crushed to death by a giant Perspex box during a magic show by famous illusionist Gideon Latimer aimed at raising funds for St Cyprian’s Church. Kate finds that cables to the box were deliberately sabotaged – it’s murder...I hope the schoolgirl who emailed me her questions finds my answer useful for her school project. But what do you think about the way Wicca and modern pagan witchcraft are portrayed in the news and in movies?
Evangelising curate Andrew Maplin tells vicar Magnus Soane that the tragedy is God’s vengeance for the pagan traditions still held deep in Midsomer Oaks. Barnaby and Nelson fear Gideon was the real target, especially when Annabel reveals hate mail has been sent to Melmoth Hall, his newly-acquired country seat. That night a group of masked pagans hold a fire-lit ceremony....
Andrew tries to perform an exorcism at Melmoth. The family together with Gideon’s devoted mother Carole are angry. The next day Annabel finds Andrew stabbed to death by the pagan temple in Melmoth’s grounds. His face is covered with oak leaves – the pagan Green Man symbol. Nearby is the grave of Sir Hugo Melmoth, who according to legend threw himself on a fire in an act of self-sacrifice.
Andrew’s camcorder reveals footage of a pagan ceremony which ends abruptly when one of the pagans spots him and runs towards his camera... Sarah discovers Sir Hugo was no hero – he was killed by villagers seeking justice for years of tyranny... Barnaby and Nelson race to the pagan temple where Lorna is re-enacting the death of Sir Hugo. Gideon is put into a crate over a burning pyre. As firefighters douse the flames, another person is found in the crate...
I'd be really interested to read comments, so do have your say.
The photo at the top shows a scene from Midsomer Murders: Murder by Magic
Links to some previous posts about witchcraft in the news