Witchcraft and Individual Freedom

Distinctly Modern Magic

 

Sometimes we have a habit of thinking of magic as a throwback to an earlier time, a period when people didn’t exactly understand the way the world worked. Even a cursory study of the history of witchcraft, astrology, “high magic,” and related arts, however, should quickly disabuse us of this idea. Magical ways of thinking about and interacting with the world did not go away with the Enlightenment, but only changed to match the times. Certain practices became less common, others more. Some explanations for the way magic worked fell by the wayside, and others became more important.

Michael Bailey’s Magic and Superstition in Europe is merely an overview of the topic, with truly modern magic occupying only a chapter, or perhaps a chapter and a half if you draw the lines more loosely. But even in this short space, Bailey finds room to suggest ways in which much modern magic is not merely a holdover from a bygone era, but a uniquely modern creature. One way he does this is by drawing attention to the way some have attempted to remove the stigma of participating in magical practices. In the past, he says:

“The labels of magician, sorcerer, and especially witch were assigned to individuals, whether by powerful religious or secular authorities acting through legal courts, or by neighbors acting through equally effective systems of village gossip and community opinion. Many people, indeed most, engaged in actions that some others might well have considered magical, but few judged their own personal practices to be magic, at least not in the sense that magic was transgressive or illicit.”[1]

That is, in the past people may have engaged in a little hocus-pocus, but they would hardly have accepted the label “witch.”

We throw around words like “countercultural” pretty easily today, as if that meant very little, but in many societies being countercultural was a far costlier choice than in our own. We enshrine individual freedom as one of the central tenets of our society—people should be free to believe what they want, to do what they want, to be who they want, so long as it does not directly harm another individual. Both right and left have accepted this basic idea for some time, though of course they apply it very differently, with the right embracing more economic freedom, the left more social and cultural freedom, and libertarians trying to get the best of both worlds.

In societies where social, cultural, economic, and even religious freedom were simply not on the menu, where there were no popular elections with competing parties dividing people into contrasting ideologies, the idea that one would differ significantly from one’s neighbor by choice was a bit strange. Your livelihood was, to one degree or another, dependent on finding a way to belong. If you failed to do so, you generally lacked the mobility necessary to pick up and move on to another place where you had some hope of starting over.

Bailey connects the emergence of individual freedom with new trends in magic and superstition:

“In the modern West, however, with its stress on individual freedom (and, critically, freedom from legal punishment for performing previously illicit forms of magic), certain people began to prove very willing if not eager to take on the title of magician, and later also of witch, in no small part because these titles and practices associated with them have been considered to transgress limits imposed by the structures of modern society. Yet in the very act of transgressing and to some extent attempting to transform these limits, these individuals actually behave in a very modern, at times perhaps postmodern, fashion.”[2]

Consider what it takes to sustain a society where individual freedom is important. You have to not only create the political and religious structures that allow for individual freedom, you also have to pass that value on. You have to tell stories about the courageous individual, bravely standing up against the villainous society which seeks to restrain him. To keep a liberal society going, we have to tell stories of the marginalized confronting the powerful, and being in the right. The witch is by definition marginal, a ready-made hero of a society that values individual choice and self-definition.

 

Witch Trials and Liberal Storytelling

 

There are a number of ways modern magical practices and traditions, especially Wicca, embody a distinctly liberal ethos. I hope to examine several of them more fully when we reach that part of this study. For now, however, I want to draw attention to one of the more interesting ways in which witchcraft lends itself to the “brave individual vs. the world” narrative: the witch trials.

If there’s anything we know about witches, other than brooms, hats, and cauldrons, it’s that the Church loved to burn them. The middle ages was one long slog of random women tied to stakes and set on fire, maybe because their neighbors didn’t like them, and maybe because Judge Claude Frollo is repressed and doesn’t know how to deal with it. We all know that millions of women were killed this way. It was practically a holocaust. More specifically, it was a male-driven holocaust perpetrated mostly against women.

This is, of course, a gross exaggeration in almost every detail. To begin with, rather than millions of people killed, the European witch trials probably claimed less than 100,000 lives, spread across the entire continent, and over three centuries.[3] More likely, the number was actually between forty and fifty thousand.[4]  Moreover, the witch trials were not a medieval phenomenon, but an early modern one. The worst half century was from 1580 to 1630, well after both the Reformation had ended the monopoly of Roman Catholic religious power, and after the Scientific Revolution had already begun.[5] Also, while the trials were certainly directed more often at women, on average 25 percent of the accused were men, though in pockets like Normandy the number might actually be 75 percent, or over 90 percent in Iceland.[6] Furthermore, it was not the Roman Catholic Church or the Spanish Inquisition that drove these trials. Trials, conviction, and execution were all far more common in places where centralized church or state government had less influence, not where they had more.[7] In fact, Spain, home of the famous Inquisition, executed far fewer witches than almost any other country in Europe, with Italy not far behind. This number, for the curious, is a mere 300 in the century from 1560 to 1660, the height of European witch trials.[8]

Fifty thousand spread across three centuries, for the curious, is about 167 people a year. This was spread across the kingdoms of England, Scotland, France, Spain, and Portugal, as well as the patchwork quilt of Italian city-states and the realms of the Holy Roman Empire, as well as Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, Iceland, Poland, Switzerland, and other assorted European nations. Massive hunts were not the norm, but the exception. Rather than burnings in every village for the entire course of the middle ages, we ought to imagine sporadic and isolated events spread unevenly over a very large area.

This is not to say that the witch trials were not a serious miscarriage of justice, or to minimize the suffering inflicted many no doubt innocent people. There is, however, a rather large gap between our picture of what happened, and what actually did happen. This ought to make us curious. Where did our picture come from?

Weirdly enough, the first group to really embrace this notion of the European witch trials was the Nazi party:

“By the mid-twentieth century, the notion that medieval and early modern witches had actually been practitioners of a pre-Christian, pagan religion…had gained considerable credence. The Nazi leadership decided that witches would make useful symbols of northern European völkisch culture, in opposition to essentially Mediterranean Christianity, which was, moreover, rooted in Judaism.”[9]

As the Third Reich expanded, the SS’s “Special Witch Unit” went through records of witch trails in various regions, hoping to use them for propaganda purposes. [10] The Nazi brand of feminism—wherein Aryan women were decidedly superior to the men of other races—even adopted a line common to later feminist takes on witchcraft, proclaiming that it was an assault on Aryan womanhood by degenerate Christian men.[11] The Nazi’s conception of a witch-holocaust was expressed in the 1935 pamphlet Der christliche Hexenwahn, or “The Christian Witch-Craze.” A year before, another leader of the German pagan movement, Mathilde Ludendorff, printed Christliche Grausamkeit an Deutschen Frauen, “Christian Cruelty to German Women,” which claimed that approximately nine million women had been killed throughout the witch hunts.[12]

None of this is to suggest any sort of moral equivalence between Nazis and people who have a similar understanding of the witch hunts. To claim that because, say, Wiccans share certain beliefs about history with Nazis, that they must be similarly monstrous and wicked is patently ridiculous. Such smear tactics have no place in any sort of civil discussion, whether they are directed marginalized or at mainstream religious, ethnic, or political groups.

But there may be a reason liberal narratives of the witch hunts and the Nazi narratives are so similar. These two disparate movements had a common enemy—the Christian Church. A unified Christian Church, even in the loosest sense, can compete with the Aryan race for German loyalty, as it did in the case of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church. It can also present itself to individuals as an entity demanding moral and behavioral conformity. In either case, it is convenient to believe that the Christian Church perpetrated a massive slaughter of either fiercely independent women or of noble Aryan pagans when at the height of its power.

Every movement needs heroes, and a good hero will often breed a movement. Looking back to the exaggerated tale of nine million women slaughtered in a holocaust of superstition and prejudice, especially if one believes these women were carrying on an ancient pagan faith, it is easy to see what makes identifying with them attractive. They seemed to have a spirit of independence and courage, as well as a connection to something more ancient and apparently more good than the currently prevailing religion. If we, as a society, teach our children to value these things, is it any wonder a number of them will grow up to claim the label “witch?”

As always, it is a mistake to assume that facts automatically lead to beliefs. Often the version of history we select is driven more by which stories express our values than which has the most evidence behind it. If Christians want to win hearts, we should aim to shape hearts, not just convey information. And we should also learn to pay attention to myths and storytelling tropes, at least as much as we do to actual history.

 

 

Update: I recently began another nonfiction project offline, with an eye towards publication. While I will continue the History of Witchery project, the other has priority, and new posts will likely be more spaced out than they were in June.


[1] Bailey, pg. 216.

[2] Bailey, 216.

[3] Bailey, 176.

[4] Bailey, 175.

[5] Bailey, 143.

[6] Bailey, 149.

[7] Bailey, 161-170, but especially 162.

[8] Bailey, 165.

[9] Bailey, 236.

[10] Bailey, 236.

[11] Bailey, 237.

[12] Bailey, 238.

X-Men and the Master Race

We have spent some time with H. P. Lovecraft, his dark view of the cosmos, and his undermining of a man-centered view of the world. While this is one way of telling stories inspired by an evolutionary naturalist cosmology, it’s far from the only one. Bryan Singer’s X-Men has a much more positive take on such a world, and decidedly more human-friendly.

Before we get started, however, we should take a moment to note the vast difference between what Lovecraft was doing and what Singer, screenwriter David Hayter, and earlier X-Men creators were doing. For Lovecraft, the issues of naturalism and the eons-long march of evolution were central. His horror was cosmic in scope, and cosmic in emphasis. X-Men, on the other hand, is first and foremost a superhero story. Mutation and evolution serve more as an origin story and a clever device for exploring other themes than central ideas in themselves. Therefore, we should be careful not to make more of its presence in the story than the occasion warrants.

That said, let’s dive in.

 Mutation: it is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow, and normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.

This quote, appearing before even the title sequence, brings us directly into deep waters. It is a generally acknowledged fact that the fossil record has less “transitional species” than many Darwinists might like, with supposedly distant evolutionary ancestors occurring in layers just below their descendants. While the situation is not so difficult as to make most scientists reconsider the theory of evolution itself, it has caused some to ask what might explain the apparent lack of evidence for the gradual transformation of species. Two of these proposed solutions are “punctuated equilibrium” and “saltationism.” It is the latter that concerns us.

Saltationism is the fairly straightforward belief that while species usually changes only subtly from one generation to the next, on occasion massive changes between a single parent and its child, creating an entirely new species in a single great leap. The details of this theory or its history in the scientific community are not important. What is important is the opportunity this provides for a storyteller.

Superheroes are a fun sort of character to play with. Their immense power when compared to the average human, and responsibility that comes with it, provide material for plenty of storylines and grand battles. Their strange powers, however, usually require an explanation. Here in salatationism, the writer of a superhero story has a ready-made explanation, complete with its own complex themes worth exploring. The X-Men are not merely freaks, they are the next stage in the history of the human race and life on the planet.

And “next stage” is right. Right off the bat, we are given a picture of humanity evolving “from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet.” Not only is this picture man-centered, it also a picture of human progress. Evolution is a ladder, climbing up from inferior slime to superior man. When the mutants of the X-Men world appear, they are not just different. Their appearance is a “leap forward.” We are going somewhere, a better somewhere, and evolution is taking us there.

This is wildly different than Lovecraft’s picture, or, as we will see later, that of H. G. Wells. Many who adopt a naturalist and evolutionary view of the cosmos hold nothing like this idea that evolution means progress, that it is somehow a forward movement or an upward climb. Evolution is merely the survival of those creatures which are best adapted to their environment, and that may have nothing to do with what any civilized man may recognize as “good.” But for the X-Men, that is not the case. In this world, evolution means progress.

The very next scene sets up another interesting backdrop. It is 1944, in a concentration camp in Poland. A crowd of prisoners is being herded into the camp, among them a young boy. He sees that the people working across the fence from him have already been branded like cattle, numbers tattooed into their arms. As they reach the gates, he is separated from his parents. Crying out, he tries to follow them. He is held back by soldiers, but he extends his hand, and the metal gates begin to bend. The soldiers can’t fight the power he is wielding, and begin sliding in the mud. As he begins to crush the gate, another soldier hits him hard in the head, knocking him out.

The fact that the first mutant we see appears in a concentration camp is no accident. Here is a place where people who are different are rounded up, registered, enslaved, and eventually killed. Here are the monsters of the twentieth century, those who experiment on fellow human beings, who exploit scientific methods to eradicate masses of people. This is important for mutants as type of the persecuted minority, but fascism at work here also represents what the Brotherhood of Mutants is reacting against—and what they become.

Not long after, we are standing before the Senate, hearing a debate over the Mutant Registration Act. Americans are afraid of mutants, afraid that their powers will allow them to exploit the relative weakness of their ordinary neighbors. They want every mutant registered, so the government can keep tabs on them. Later we learn that if it were up to Senator Kelly, the chief proponent of the act, then all mutants would be locked up in prison.

Looking on are the two leaders of the mutants, two friends with two very different responses. We have a choice between their perspectives, and it is clear which we are supposed to choose. On the one hand is Charles Xavier, who takes in outcast mutant children and raises them as if they were his own. He advocates tolerance for the foibles on the human race, patience as they come to grips with the existence of mutants. On the other hand, we have Erik Lehnsherr, also known as Magneto. This was the boy from the concentration camp, his arm still bearing the marks from the last time a fearful populace decided to “register” him. His reaction to this threat is far from tolerant.

Outside, Professor X confronts Magneto, telling him not to give up on mankind. They have evolved since the forties. That’s a bold statement, again equating evolutionary change with moral and civilizational progress. Magneto replies that it’s true, mankind has evolved. Into mutants.

“We are the future, Charles, not them! They no longer matter!”

In this statement, we see where life has taken Erik Lehnsherr. When he was young, he saw the Germans, afraid of the Jews, round them up and register them. Registration was only the prelude to something far worse. Seeing that possibility looming on the horizon again, he will not let it happen. He will stand and fight. Of course, despite the fact that the mutants are numerically fewer, they are much stronger. It is now Erik who is afraid, and it now Erik who reacts in violence, dismissing an entire race as a relic of the past.

That issue of race adds an additional layer of depth to the story. While The X-Men undoubtedly wants you to notice the responding-to-fear-with-violence theme as it plays out in the Nazis, Senator Kelly, and Magneto, it doesn’t dwell on the themes of racial superiority.

It is important to remember that the Nazis were racist in a distinctly evolutionary context. They believed that they were more highly evolved, a superior kind of human. The Jews, on the other hand, and many others, were inferior. They held back the human race, weakening it, and diluting pure Aryan blood. Nazism was involved in genocide and eugenics not merely out of fear, but out of a desire to progress along the evolutionary ladder. Germany was expanding and eliminating “inferior” races to make Lebensraum for itself—room for the master race to grow. Breeding programs were started in an attempt to produce more and better Aryans. Evolutionary progress was a very important idea to the Third Reich.

Taking that into account, the entire movie takes on an uneasy atmosphere. In the world of The X-Men, there is no doubt that the mutants are the next step in evolutionary progress, that they are, in some sense, superior. Ordinary humanity is genuinely backwards, and does pose a genuine threat to the progress of the human race. The mere facts of the situation line up exactly with Nazi ideology. They are not what is in dispute in this film, only what the proper course of action is, given such a world.

This weird fascist undercurrent expresses itself in other ways, and not just among the bad guys. Granted incalculable power over others, Professor X is perfectly willing to use it. He pries into Wolverine’s deepest secrets and readily speaks of them without the slightest hint of reluctance, without thinking to even ask permission. Of course, such violations of a man’s personal life are acceptable when they come from a more highly advanced creature, a person higher up both the evolutionary and moral ladder than those around him. With great power comes a lack of accountability.

This particular incident is startling next to the earlier discussion of the Mutant Registration Act. Senator Kelly asks what mutants have to hide, which entirely misses the point in the eyes of the X-Men. But not long after, Professor X seems to operate off the same principle. What does Wolverine have to hide? The professor is the protector of mutants; doesn’t he have the right to know what’s going on in this man’s head? It’s for the greater good.

Nevertheless, Charles Xavier is decidedly opposed to Magneto’s course of action. He sends his people to interfere in his enemy’s plans, hoping to forestall what both Erik and Wolverine assure will be a war between mankind and mutants. He still has hope.

Meanwhile, Magneto has captured Senator Kelly. Up until this point, everything we know about him has made us hate him more and more. When Mystique slaps him around with her feet, the scene is written to make us cheer. This guy really deserves what’s coming to him. And what is coming to him? He will be experimented on, transformed via radiation into a mutant. This scene is intercut with the horrified reactions of Xavier’s people as they learn that Wolverine was once experimented on. Both these events echo Nazi experimentation on Jews during the holocaust. With that in mind, it is more than little off-putting to see Senator Kelly’s transformation played out as an almost-justified comeuppance.

It turns out that Magneto’s plan is to use this same radiation on a gathering of UN delegates at Ellis Island. This is incredibly significant on multiple levels.

First, we are reminded again of minorities coming to America, of our country as a melting pot that welcomes the downtrodden. In a world where mutants struggle for equality against overwhelming racism, this theme points once more to the progressive narrative of the minds behind the project.

Second, the UN gathering plays into the same theme. It has loomed behind the whole movie, and along the way we were given the chance to see Senator Kelly snidely dismiss it, telling us that America will do whatever it pleases and the outside world can fend for itself. With this coming from the bad guy, and keeping in mind the whole tenor of the movie, and the fact that the action takes place on Ellis Island, it’s not a leap to infer that the UN is viewed here in a positive light. This is the voice of human progress and unity.

Finally, this plan is significant because it reveals something about Magneto. He wants to transform all of these powerful people into mutants, believing that if they saw with mutant eyes, they would sympathize and work to protect them instead of treating them like a threat. He just wants people to sympathize, and he’s willing to use force to get them to do so. Of course, we know that his plan will not work. The radiation that turns them into mutants will also kill them in a few days’ time. Instead of creating new allies, he’s committing a mass assassination that will backfire on him and his plans for mutant acceptance.

Of course, our heroes save the day, and Magneto is incarcerated in a plastic prison where Xavier can come to visit him and play chess. He hopes that Erik’s heart will change, that he will come to accept humanity, to be patient with them. But if not, he assures his old friend, the X-Men will be there to stop any future maniacal plans.

The movie is a fun watch. The close friends battling things out, the strange new world, the whole atmosphere grabs you and holds your attention. The friendship between Wolverine and Rogue in particular is fantastic, and worthy of attention in its own right. But underlying the whole thing is that strange fascist echo. The X-Men are the future. They are the next step in evolution, in human progress. Not only are they superior in their abilities, the majority of them appear to be presented as morally superior.

Both sides use their powers on other people without a second thought, and humanity is asked to accept this as normal, and not to seek to control them. And yet, this is decidedly a melting-pot world, one that asks humans of all backgrounds to unite. The powerful must tolerate the weak, and the weak the powerful. It’s a strangely contradictory world, one of values held in tension.

In Lovecraft, that tension did not exist. The universe was amoral, and man’s petty feelings about the behavior of other entities meant nothing. There might be the strong and the weak, but neither had any obligation to the other, and any desire to see the improvement of the species was mere self-interest writ large. But here, in a world of evolutionary progress, in an anthropocentric, humanistic world that accepts that view of the cosmos, there is that tension. In that world, the Nazis are not far wrong on the facts, but we must, of course, reject their methods.

Strangely—or perhaps not so strangely—I’m more at ease with Lovecraft’s take on the cosmos.