Monday, October 11, 2010

"A Little Midnight Picnic"

Halloween is coming. The toddler has announced that he will sally forth as Cowboy Woody and Mother A. will be Cowgirl Jessie. Your correspondent is reliably informed that his choices are to dress as Buzz Lightyear or Stinky Pete the Prospector. Oh joy.

All of which makes us think of Christine O'Donnell.

As you surely know, Ms. O'Donnell is a gubernatorial candidate in Delaware. We are unsure of her qualifications. Although she has never held any government office, she has lost two previous Senate bids, which we suppose bespeaks at least some familiarity with the world of politics. Her chief public notoriety apparently comes from appearances on Bill Maher's show and something on MTV called Sex in the 90s. She has been teased a great deal in the press because of her objections to extramarital sex and, um, masturbation. And her fudged academic credentials. And her claims to have classified information detailing a Chinese plot to conquer America. (Oooh, big secret. They own our debt.)

Oh, and she used to be a witch. Or rather, she "dabbled in witchcraft." Or, really, she went on a few dates with people who dabbled, back in high school. In a droll clip from the Maher program (watch it here), a preposterously young O'Donnell describes her first date with a dabbler, "on a Satanic altar." Apparently, she was not put off by the traces of blood. After a movie, they went home to his house for "a little midnight picnic."

Well, imagine the howls of outrage. But if you weren't watching closely, you might miss one nuance: that many of the said howls came from witches. Practitioners of Wicca don't want to be associated in the public mind with Christine O'Donnell. Who could blame them?

What especially sets of Selene Fox (High Priestess of the Circle Sanctuary) and Diotima Manitineia (spokesperson for "The Witches Voice") is the conflation of witchcraft with Satanism. Fox says, "Any political candidate that is going to equate witchcraft with Satanism is ill informed and is not likely to get the support of people involved in nature religion," which we doubt is all that dire a threat. Mantineia says, even more forcefully, that
witchcraft and Satanism are two different things... witches or Wiccans do not believe in Satan. We don't even believe that Satan exists. Satan is a Christian deity of some kind. He is part of the Christian religion not ours. We worship nature; we work very closely with nature. We do not have blood on our altar and we have little to do with Satan. So I don't know what Ms. O'Donnell is talking about. I wonder if she knows what she was talking about.
Sure, it's a only a tempest in a cauldron. But for the sake of clarity, let's take a moment to unpack some of this.

We'll begin by saying that we do not for one moment doubt Ms. Fox or Ms. Mantineia when they describe their own religious communities. If they say that they worship nature or the moon or anything else, we believe them. What we want to pick out here are the varying definitions of "witchcraft" in play.

The modern "witchcraft" movement, of which Wicca is one part, is described by Margot Adler's classic Drawing Down the Moon. Practitioners do indeed present themselves as part of a nature-religion, often claiming continuity with the pagan religions of northern and western Europe. The problem, as we mentioned the other day with reference to neodruidism, is that precious little is known about about those religions. Any claims of continuity are dubious at best.

Sometimes, the modern witches also claim continuity with the victims of the Renaissance witch-craze, which swept through northern Europe during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. This claim rests principally on the identification of those victims -- largely women, often older and lacking in strong family connections -- as practitioners of an ancient European nature religion. This is, in essence, the thesis put forward i the 1920s by an anthropologist named Margaret Murray. The problem is that the Murray thesis has been discredited by most subsequent scholarship.

But let's be clear about what a "witch" means in the technical vocabulary of early modern Christianity, because this definition is also alive today. It does not refer to somebody skilled with herbs, for example -- monasteries often kept such a person around as their physician. Nor does it refer to an astrologer or soothsayer, as such. A witch, as understood by church documents, was a person who entered into a contract with the Devil, typically for the purpose of helping herself (or, more rarely, himself) at the expense of others. A witch was both a heretic and a criminal. And yes, in modern language, witches were Satanists. (So Christine O'Donnell is ... right. We guess.)

Now, this position reversed the traditional teaching of the Church, which was that "witchcraft" was a delusion, and that the real heresy was not its practice, but the belief that it could be practiced -- the belief, in other words, that God permitted the Devil to create such pacts or award supernatural powers to human beings:
Whoever therefore believes that anything can be made, or that any creature can be changed to better or worse, or transformed into another species or likeness, except by God Himself who made everything and through whom all things were made, is beyond a doubt an infidel.
This is the position of the famous Canon Episcopi, the governing authority from the 10th century until about 1486. So why did that change? Blame the Dominicans. They had been created to preach against the Albigensian heresy, which certainly did exist, and over time their portfolio had expanded to the extirpation of all heresy, not necessarily by homiletical means. They were often put in charge of the Inquisition, for example. And it was a pair of Dominican friars from Germany who offered to the Church the dubious gift of the Malleus Maleficarum, which -- after some sharp criticism in the beginning -- eventually came to serve as a treasured reference book or people who did believe that women could in fact have sex with the Devil, turn their husbands' penes to glass, and concoct an ointment that would let them fly.

The underlying reality, we should say clearly, is almost certainly that "witchcraft" as the Church defined it after 1486 didn't exist, except in the imaginations of some very strange people. (This despite the credulity of, say, Montague Summers. We adore Summers for his batshit-crazy books and crazier prose, but come on). On the other hand, while it wouldn't shock us to find some remnants of folk-religion in the German backwoods, it seems pretty evident that this was (with rare exceptions) not what was actually prosecuted. Two different things.

So what was really going on here? These days, the witch-craze is generally explained by a combination of factors. Europe during the Renaissance and Reformation was in the midst of a destabilizing cultural shift. Humanism, nationalism, Protestantism and capitalism were all taking off, and every one of them was a threat to somebody's sense of order. The Crusades having spent their force, a new enemy was needed, emotionally at least, to rally the troops and stave off anarchy. In Germany, at least if memory serves, the average age of first marriage was on the rise, and the unmarried adult woman -- the "spinster" or, in sociological language, "surplus female," was an easy target. And so, flying in the face of an ancient (and comparatively reasonable) doctrine, the practice of hunting and executing "witches" was begun.

Those unacquainted with the details sometimes assume that the witch-hunts were a medieval and Papist aberration. Sadly, this is not the case; they were largely a Renaissance phenomenon, in which Roman Catholics and Protestants both displayed homicidal paranoiac zealotry. We could go on in tedious detail about the demographics -- some countries killed many "witches," others killed almost none. But back to Ms. O'Donnell.

Since Trevor-Roper drew an analogy between the witch-craze and the Red Scare of the 1950s, the "witch hunt" has become jargon for the way a fearful society worries about the Enemy Within, the invisible Fifth Column in its midst, seeking to undermine its institutions and destroy it. These days, the real "witches" in American society are, depending upon the week, Mexican immigrants (presumed to be illegal) or Muslims (presumed to be terrorists). Or, of course, the political party one does not favor.

So when Christine O'Donnell says that she dabbled in witchcraft, the issue isn't whether she was in her youth (a) a Devil-worshiper or (b) a typical middle-class kid from Jersey looking for nookie with a pretentious bad boy. The issue is whether she, or any other candidate, can manage to stop inventing threats ("China!" "Taxes!" "Spanish!") in order to stir the base emotions of the voters, and then sit down to make the intelligent compromises among people with different ideologies and interests that actually constitute good government.


Anonymous said...

Seems like once again, here in the States, the Witch of the Week is once again homosexual...(sigh)

Father Anonymous said...

Yeah. I'm reeling from the New York torture case in the news this week. I mean, nobody thinks of drug gangs as upstanding citizens, but ... wow.

I will say that where O'Donnell is concerned, and despite her many impolitic remarks on the subject of sex, she does seem less afflicted by homophobia per se than some of her teammates. Apparently she has a lesbian sister who actually campaigns with her. I guess it's the Dick Cheney school of Republicanism.