Thou Dost Protest Too Much; or, Neopagan Backlash Again Time Magazine

On October 28, 2014, Time magazine published Jennifer Latson’s “Why Witches on TV Spell Trouble in Real Life,” a look at why the witch has become so commonplace in pop culture, as well as the long-standing morality lesson taught by studies of the historical witch-trials, which gave us the phrase “witch-hunt” to mean a search for and persecution of a perceived enemy with little regard to guilt or innocence.

Neopagans, particularly modern witches, come out in force protesting how the article degraded them, particularly the following passage:

“Witches, like terrorists, “threaten to wipe out everything you believe in. If they could, they would overthrow your government, overturn your faith, and destroy your society.”” – Jennifer Latson, Time magazine

It is absolutely true that neopagans have faced persecution, some at hysterical levels.  They’ve been accused of cavorting with Satan, luring children into immoral practices, sacrificing animals and people, and working malevolent witchcraft against others, among other ludicrous claims.

So, comparing them to terrorists sounds like same-old same-old.

…Except the passage has absolutely nothing to do with modern witches, and the context makes that clear.  The passage immediately prior to the offensive passage reads:

So what’s behind today’s renewed obsession with witches? Baker, a history professor at Salem State University, argues that it could have its roots in the post-9/11 panic over terrorism and what could be seen as a Salem-like erosion of civil rights in the name of security — or, more recently, in the revelations that the National Security Agency seems to be spying on ordinary citizens as stealthily as neighbors spied on neighbors in colonial Salem.

The comparison is between the fear of witches in the 17th century and the lengths we go to find terrorism in the modern world, no more, no less.  In fact, there’s not a single reference to modern witches in the article.  Despite that fact, I have been told by the offended that, at the very least, Time should have put in a disclaimer the statement has nothing to do with modern witches, because the passage was otherwise confusing.

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No, it’s not.  There is absolutely no reason why someone reading an article that says nothing about modern witches sound suddenly interpret a passage as being about modern witches.  It would be like me clarifying when I talk about a bow and arrow, I am not talking about the bow of a ship nor a bow tie nor the gesture we call a bow.

The second offensive passage concerns the statement that witches are not real.  But we are real! shout objectors:

“Given the rising number of Witches (and Pagans) in the United States I’m surprised to continually see us so forgotten about. There are two million Muslims in the United States are they too “not real?”” – Jason Mankey, “Dear Time Magazine, Witches Are Real!” Pantheos

The comparison is absurd.  The witches hunted at Salem in the 17th century were not real.  It’s universally academically accepted that the 20 people who died at Salem were innocent victims of a hysteria.  And it was these “witches” at Salem that are being decried here as figments of the imagination, not neopagans today.

Stop creating issues that don’t exist.  It’s not always about you.

The History of Modern Witchcraft

The modern witchcraft movement has more than a bit of a sordid past.  In the 1920s, a woman by the name of Margaret Murray concluded that the “witches” hunted in 17th century England were actually members of a secret pagan cult that the Church maligned with invented stories to turn people against them.  She got to write the Encyclopedia Britannica’s definition of witchcraft in 1929 and continued to publish it until 1970.

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The problem was Murray wasn’t a historian; she was an Egyptian anthropologist.  She didn’t understand the limited material she attempted to use, and she creatively edited it to boot.  There’s zero evidence of her “witch-cult,” for which academics spent decades looking.

By the time it was debunked however, the neopagan movement was in high gear, and that movement included modern witches who saw their practices as descending from this witch-cult.  Those practices have continued into the present day, as witches find them spiritually and practically useful, regardless of historical background.

Some have dropped the term witch, finding other terms to describe their practices.  Others, however, have not, which is certainly their right.  The problem comes when they refuse to acknowledge the word does, in fact, have a variety of well-accepted meanings.   Which means every time someone talks about historical witches being fictional (which they are) they take it personally.

2 comments

  • sportsinhd

    I really thought my comments were pretty reasonable, and not hysterical. I like how you’ve quoted my blog, but obviously have never really read it. At “Raise the Horns” I’m well aware that the word “witch” has many different definitions and that they are extremely variable. Also most Modern Witches no longer buy into the Murray Thesis and have a pretty solid grasp on our modern origins.

    To write an article and “say witches aren’t real” is bad journalism. Obviously there are thousands (perhaps upwards of a million) Americans who self-identify as Witches. To be completely overlooked is lazy journalism and worthy of criticism.

    • I understand most modern witches don’t follow Murray’s theory any more. I am providing it as information on how we got to the problem in the first place.

      The witches he was talking about are not real. We’re just going to have to agree to disagree on whether a journalist has to include modern witches in every discussion of other concepts of witches. You’ve said your piece. I’ve said mine.

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