October is the month when we see more fictional witches on TV and more real witches in the news. The news pieces tend to be well-meaning but weak, as with the article from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation I wrote about earlier this month. I long for the day when a Pagan celebrating Samhain will be no more – and no less – newsworthy than a Christian celebrating Easter.
But we’re a long way from that day. And while I generally agree that any publicity is good publicity, most of these “meet the Pagans” articles leave me disappointed.
Last week I saw two articles in major U.S. newspapers that were anything but disappointing. And they came at a time when it feels like everything is going in the wrong direction, that the people who want to move the country and the world back to 1950 are winning and can’t be stopped.
These articles tell a very different story. And that gives me hope.
Inside the life of a teenage witch
If there’s a current trend in the world of Paganism and witchcraft (especially witchcraft) it’s the young women who have gathered huge followings on social media talking about their practices. Some older folks don’t much like this, but I follow a few of the young witches and occultists on Twitter and have found them to be very good entry points for people looking to get started.
Last week one of them was featured in a big way.
The Washington Post, the fourth largest newspaper in the United States (and a paper with a national distribution) had this article From spellcasting to podcasting: Inside the life of a teenage witch by Michelle Boorstein, with photos by Ilana Panich-Linsman. I encourage to you read it: it’s respectful, descriptive, and informative – and unlike many WaPo articles, it’s not behind a paywall.
It features Viv Bennett (Continuousd3ath on Twitter), an 18-year-old witch from Austin. I’ve followed Viv on Twitter for some time – we’ve had a few exchanges. I knew they were young – I had no idea they were that young. I was a mature 18-year-old, but there’s no way I could have done then what Viv is doing now.
Whatever you think of witchcraft and magic (and I think quite a bit about it) Viv’s closing comment is clearly true.
For young people, the boom in witchcraft allows you to change your circumstance, versus that feeling of being helpless. Where you’re relying on some outside source. Look at the political unrest, prices rising, covid — magic helps you get through it. It gives you a sense of stability, to ground yourself, and to take control of your situation.
This article is excellent in and of itself. But the fact that it appears in one of the nation’s premiere newspapers says that the mainstream is starting to take witchcraft and Paganism seriously, even if they don’t see magic in the same way most of us do.
And that’s a very good thing.
We’re in the middle of a witch moment
USA Today (the nation’s 3rd largest newspaper) has a more typical piece on Samhain titled ‘We’re in the middle of a witch moment’: Hip witchcraft is on the rise in the US by Deena Yellin. It has a bit of history, a bit of contemporary practice, and comments from several notable witches, including Manny Tejeda-Moreno of The Wild Hunt and fellow Patheos Pagan blogger Jason Mankey. One of Jason’s quotes turned into the title:
Right now, we’re in the middle of a witch moment … Witchcraft is popular now and the number of witches in America is growing fast.
The article quotes Helen Berger, a resident scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center, who says the number of Americans who identify as witches or Pagans is now almost 2 million.
It quotes a 2017 Pew Research Center Survey that says “62% of Americans hold New Age beliefs, including a belief in astrology, psychics and the presence of spiritual energy in inanimate objects.”
This article also closes with a powerful quote, this one from New Jersey witch Charlene Dzielak. In talking about how things have changed in recent years, she said that whenever she wears her pentagram necklace she draws positive attention. “People see it and tell me they are Wiccan too.”
How mainstream do we want to be?
The USA Today article touched on the question of how mainstream we want witchcraft and Paganism to be. It quoted New Jersey witch Melanie Wilbur, who “worries that witchcraft has become too faddish.”
That’s a legitimate concern. If witchcraft and Paganism become too mainstream, there’s a serious risk that we’ll adopt the values of the mainstream and lose what it is that makes us distinctive. In the words of Peter Grey “in our desire to harm none we have become harmless.” We must never allow our desire for acceptance to lead us away from the roots and the power of witchcraft and Paganism.
But that’s not the point of these articles, and it’s not the point of this blog post.
The mainstream is more liberal and accepting than it may seem
The point is that two of the top newspapers in the country wrote about witchcraft and presented it as a deep, serious, and meaningful path, even if they don’t believe the same things about magic and the Gods as we do.
Ultra conservatives and bigots will complain “this just shows how out of touch the mainstream media is.” In that complaint, they make the classic error of looking in the mirror and thinking they see the average American. They forget that while the mainstream media may be on the leading edge of society, ultimately it reflects the values of the center.
The media has become heavily Balkanized over the last 30 years or so, with many different outlets for many different viewpoints – and many of them with little regard for facts. That’s a far cry from my youth when there were three TV networks, all devoted to news before opinion. No outlet has the reach or the influence that Walter Cronkite had in the 1960s and 1970s. But The Washington Post and USA Today represent the center of America about as well as anything.
And the facts back that up.
- From the USA Today article: 62% of Americans believe in astrology, psychics, and spiritual energy.
- From Springtide Research Institute: 39% of young people identify as “none of the above” when it comes to religion.
- From Pew Research Center: far more support than oppose separation of church and state.
- From Gallup: 70% of American support same sex marriage.
- From Pew: even on that most contentious of issues, 59% say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
The mainstream may not be as liberal and accepting as many of us would like, but it’s far more liberal and accepting than the Fox News crowd likes to pretend it is.
Minority rule is a short term thing
To say that I’m concerned about the direction of the world, this country, and the state of Texas would be a tremendous understatement. Voter suppression, attacks on reproductive rights, attacks on trans kids, and the way many Republicans continue to support Donald Trump’s Big Lie make for a stressful environment.
The courts – which, to their credit did a fantastic job after the election – have shown little willingness to be a check and balance against the abuses of state legislatures. And even with the Presidency and both houses of Congress (albeit by a narrow margin), the national Democrats have been unable to pass anything of significance.
The structure of United States politics is inherently conservative, in the small-c “keep things the way they’ve always been” sense. Big-c Conservatives have been working my whole life to eliminate the social safety net, make the rich richer, and stop the cultural shift toward diversity and inclusion. They’ve largely succeeded on the first two and mostly failed on the third. Now they’re trying to use their political power to force people into the social order they couldn’t sell through peaceful persuasion.
They may succeed – for a while, anyway. They’re outnumbered, but they’ve gamed the system in their favor, and they always turn out to vote. Meanwhile, we’ve counted on the courts to keep them under control. That’s not going to work anymore. We have to vote in every election – especially in the primaries.
The turnout in the 2020 election says we’re starting to understand that. Hopefully that will carry over to the 2022 midterm elections.
The point is this: the culture has changed. Politics and the law will follow, eventually if not as soon as we’d like… assuming people of good will remain engaged.
Until then – and afterward – we have witchcraft
Wisdom does not require age. When Viv said that magic “gives you a sense of stability, to ground yourself, and to take control of your situation” they were absolutely right.
If we cannot fix society’s problems, we can improve our ability to deal with them. We can protect ourselves as we work to protect others. We can work magic to make our goals more likely.
And if we find ourselves in exceptionally difficult situations, we have skills that others do not.
This is the season of the witch – and the occultist, and the Druid, and the magician of every description. The mainstream is gaining an appreciation of what we do, even if they don’t always understand it. Some of them are joining us. Others prefer to watch from a safe distance… or what they think is a safe distance.
This path isn’t for everyone – we will never be the majority. There will always be people who fear witches and other magic users, as we tragically see in many parts of the world.
But the mainstream is far more accepting than they were even 20 years ago. They outnumber the intolerant, in some cases by considerable numbers. And that trend is getting better with each generation, and with each year.
Meanwhile, we keep doing what we do: honor our Gods and ancestors, love and respect Nature, and work our magic. Work to build a better world. We will be alright, because we will make it alright.
One way or another.