A Poem for Hallows

I wrote this poem a number of years ago, on the long plane ride home from Holland where I had attended a lovely and small academic conference, where I gave a paper on poetry in pagan ritual. It was inspired by a delightful evening spent with new friends. Goblin Fruit, the excellent poetry magazine (boy do I miss them, but their archives are still active), agreed to publish it. Then the wonderful Terri Windling featured it in her blog; what a great day that was! Her newer blog, Myth & Moor, is a constant source of delight, wisdom and inspiration.

I hope you enjoy.

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Transplendent We

It’s deceptive, this light at Hallows.
A mask of wind and water, spinning, sparkling,
like silver spokes, or falling leaves, or candy floss,
or false conviviality, too-fast friends.
As the river curves to meet us, we shamble along,
soaked with mist, parched for ale,
like troubadours, or troubled ghosts,
on our way to a midnight market,
there to choose cakes and berries from the goblin stalls,
in the shadow of forbidden castles and glowing maples,
the walkways bright as coins beneath our feet.

Here where the sloping banks converge,
the trees lean in, as if to kiss,
thorned and black on the right, airy and golden on the left,
Bacchus, Hecate, Apollo, Aphrodite,
nuzzling, glancing approval as we invent words
to mark this season of harvest.
No yellow moon, no sheaves of wheat, no bawdy lyric,
but ploughshares swinging,
hoofed beasts clocking over wet grey streets to sleep in tranquil barns.

The red blush creeping up your throat surprises us all,
like brazen hollyhocks that suddenly realize
they’ve reached the second floor.
Dizzy with drink and drunk on autumn’s ether,
we find the otherworld we’ve sought all evening.
Its hollow hills ring, empty as dessicated bulbs,
yet bright with color, flowing with nectar,
its great halls lit with rustic lanterns,
candles set in carved-out turnips, meant to keep spirits at bay,
and yet soon the very air is keening.
The sky is slowly tinted green.
Our tongues are slippery with juice.
The clock strikes three, three times,
and we are younger than we were.

I started to like you, your small hands like Proustian sweets.
I started to like you, you and your words like dark abundant rain,
poppyseeds poured out on cobblestones.
Simple folk we, laughing long songs like books of fruited verse.
There where the cats consider the canal,
the moon at last emerges, and we become
more and more unfashionable by the minute.
I conjure a forest from a single tree:
like ardent sloths, we hold fast to its mutant trunk,
hard, rough, pulsing with faint heat.
It multiplies into a fairy-tale wood, varied as Paradise,
thick with English bluebells and rhetorical mushrooms;
it smells of sex and stagnant water,
hashish, leafmold, bile and burnt sugar, rotting velvet,
and tobacco that ought to be Turkish.

We could be anywhere: a Holland of the Mind,
or drowned Ys, forgotten Brittany,
a temple of jewels in Morocco,
a chalk hillside hewn by pagan muralists,
a Danish bog stuffed with dead druids,
a green field in America,
Constantinople, Brigadoon,
or a fragrant churchyard that beckons in dreams,
like mementos from a love lost in war-time,
coal-dust in your hair, violets in your pocket.

The veil between the worlds is thin, they say, tonight.
And if we walk now to the marketplace
(we fancy it built of fog and fireflies)
the goblins will smile, cry hail and welcome!
They nod their heads, stroke our hair, grasp our fingers,
whisper, yes, the veil grows thin, grows thin.
They hand us three lengths of shimmering cloth,
dyed the colour of winter plums, smelling of old roses.
We give them all the gold we have.
We wrap ourselves in purple.
We wake, and seven days have passed, or seven years.
Our fingers are torn, stained red with fruit.
Our lips are bruised, and taste of truth.
I touch your mouth, and it is the sun.

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Sybil Leek, the original Media Witch

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A friend reminds me that yesterday was the anniversary of the death of English witch Sybil Leek. She was in many ways the original “Media Witch” as she was featured in many magazines, newspaper articles and on television and radio shows in the 1960s. BBC commentators dubbed her “Britain’s Most Famous Witch.” She had a pet jackdaw named Mr. Hotfoot Jackson, and was an eccentric but intelligent and wise spokeswoman for the craft. She loved to pose for photos, sometimes dressed as a typical English lady and sometimes in witchy black finery.

download-2.jpgShe was a noted and prolific author also; I own her books Diary of a Witch, The Complete Art of Witchcraft (both highly recommended for their insider view of the pagan/witchcraft movement of the time), Sybil Leek’s Astrological Guide to Successful Everyday Living, and a later book she wrote with her husband Stephen called A Ring of Magic Islands, that is a photographic, historical and folkloric tour of the smaller outer islands of Great Britain.

download-1.jpgShe moved to the United States in her later years, befriended many American witches throughout the country. I met an astrologer who knew her back in the day, when they were both living in Arizona, and he spoke highly of her kindness). She died in Melbourne, Florida in 1982.

D. J. Conway, Raven Grimassi, Edain McCoy, Ralph Metzner: What is Read and Remembered, Lives

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Image from Mondazzi Book, Bead & Crystal

Four prominent authors have passed in the past month: D. J. (Deanna) Conway, Raven Grimassi (aka Gary Charles Erbe), Edain McCoy and Ralph Metzner. We lost D. J. Conway in early February, and Raven Grimassi and Edain McCoy and Ralph Metzner in March. What links these four prolific authors is the fact that their books, focused on slightly different paths in modern paganism, were all well loved and popular during a time when the pagan community was passionately devoted to reading and supporting its authors.

There were some books about the nascent witchcraft movement in the 1960s and 1970s (like those by Hans Holzer, Colin Wilson, Marian Weinstein, Doreen Valiente, Leo Martello and Sybil Leek, among others), but American paganism didn’t really start to take off in a systemic way until the late 1970s. Prior to that, many seekers read books by British authors, or books on folklore or archeology. Two prominent books first drew many who were interested in the pagan worldview: 1979’s Drawing Down the Moon (journalist Margot Adler’s famous survey of pagan religious traditions and organizations), and 1979’s The Spiral Dance (Starhawk’s primer on goddess worship and basic pagan witchcraft rituals) catalyzed a rush of interest in goddess worship and feminist witchcraft. Then came books by Raymond Buckland and Scott Cunningham in the 1980s, and soon enough Llewellyn Publishing was putting out books in droves, feeding a hunger for information  on witchcraft, Wicca, paganism and its many related paths, like druidry, heathenism, and faery.

If you discovered Wicca or neo-paganism in the 1990s, as many people did, then you came to the path at a time when books were still the valorous monarchs of our learning. There were technopagans, but the internet was in its infancy, and the first pagan website to really gain a following was The Witches’ Voice founded in 1997. Before that, people wanting to learn more about pagan pathways turned to books. Indeed, the pagan internet offered an opportunity for people who were still not public about their beliefs (“in the broom closet” we used to call it) to explore and network with greater privacy; and they could order books too!

One branch of paganism that drew enormous amounts of interest was anything under the auspices of “Celtic” (including Irish, Scottish, Breton, Manx or Welsh ways), and D. J. Conway’s first book in 1990, Celtic Magic, became a huge best seller that seemed to be on every pagan’s bookshelf. She wrote many more books, of course, on Celtic topics, on mythology, on dream magic, goddesses, Wicca and more. Like most Llewellyn authors, Conway’s writings were not particularly scholarly; but her books, like many of those written by her compatriots and sold by this publisher, answered the need for books on many topics from a burgeoning community that sought knowledge.

Edwin McCoy also wrote about Celtic topics: Her Celtic Myth and Magic, published in 1993, found its way to my shelf helped by the colorful cover of a knight riding a white horse. Ah, those colorful covers: Llewellyn had that aspect of marketing down pat, and their books of that era all had a signature look and vibe. McCoy also wrote about faery folk, moon rituals, and folk magic, among other topics. It did seem that Llewellyn got its authors at the time to write on diverse topics, but most of a single author’s oeuvre included titles that seemed related.

Just as Conway and McCoy wrote about mostly Celtic topics, Raven Grimassi’s books also centered on a particular branch of modern paganism: Italian witchcraft, or strega/stregheria. As the pagan community became more diverse and people wanted to explore their own ancestral roots and magical traditions contained in them, Llewelyn and other publishers responded with books on more divergent aspects of the Craft. Grimassi’s Ways of the Strega was published in 1994, with Llewellyn reissuing it the following year and changing the title to Italian Witchcraft: The Old Religion of Southern Europe, ensuring, perhaps, that readers unfamiliar with the word “strega” might still find resonance in this witchcraft tradition. Grimassi wrote a number of books about Wicca as well, and about rituals, spell craft, and divination. In 2011 he began publishing books with Samuel Weiser, another popular publisher who have put forth many titles of interest to pagan readers.

Ralph Metzner was an author of a somewhat different topic area from these other three, being a researcher mainly interested in consciousness, shamanism and psychedelics. But his books were written alongside these other authors and found their way into the seeming cauldron of knowledge and wisdom during the pagan publishing boom of the 1990s. Perhaps his most well-known book during this period The Well of Remembrance: Rediscovering the Earth Wisdom Myths of Northern Europe, published in 1994 by Shambhala Press. I owned this book and loved it, for its contemporary blend of theories about shamanic practices and their relevance to modern seekers in the realms of magic and witchcraft. Metzner also wrote books about alchemy, ecology and new models of transformative practice.

What passes from the world when we lose authors whose work defines an era is not just their ability to ever write books again; but their ability to comment upon the changes that the world has gone through since their words became indelible. A book is not a stone circle, or a building; it’s made of paper, and necessarily ephemeral. And of course, in our digital age, books are not necessarily made from paper anymore. But our memories of having read them caressed their covers, nodded over them late at night, glimpsed them on our bookshelves alongside others, these memories define our own lives in ways that are difficult to express. They tell us who we are at the time we choose to read them: what we believe, what we question, what we hope to find out about the world, and about ourselves. Our personal history of books is a history of our own minds, our own seeking, our own experiences. They are the building blocks of our own legacy.

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Poets of Pandemonium series at MOMI

“Poets of Pandaemonium”: Jennings and Jarman

This program, running through February 17 at the Museum of the Moving Image , pairs up these two iconic British filmmakers whose work was made about four decades apart. Humphrey Jennings referred to the post-industrial world as ”pandaemonium” and Jarman interpreted contemporary Britain as a place where nostalgia for a lost rural past gave way to an indulgent embrace of pleasure and beauty. Most of the program includes a short film by Humphreys followed by a longer one by Jarman, suggesting a continuity and a legacy of inspiration that affected Jarman’s work. All of Humpreys’ work in this series will be projected in 35mm.

chromaBoth filmmakers died tragically young: Jennings as a result of a fall while working on a film at age 43, and Jarman of AIDS at 52. Jarman, knowing he was dying, mused upon his mortality in his writings and his films. His final film Blue opens the program on January 8 (shown with Jennings’ short film of wartime imagery, Listen to Britain) and is not shown very often unless as part of a Jarman retrospective. It is simply a screen of blue, with Jarman, Tilda Swinton (who appeared in a number of Jarman’s films) and John Quentin reading from the filmmaker’s essay about the color blue, collected in his book of essays on color, Chroma. The final line of the essay, “I place a delphinium, blue, upon  your grave” inspired the title of a short film made in 2009 about Jarman’s childhood, Delphinium.  Jarman’s The Last of England follows Jennings’ The Dim Little Island, both films that use upon England’s rich artistic past and its uncertain but vibrant future.

Jennings’ eight minute film Words for Battle precedes Jarman’s An Angelic Conversation, one of Jarman’s few films shot partially in black and white. A young Lawrence Olivier reads poems of Blake, Kiping and Milton in Humphreys’ film, surely inspiring Jarman to cast Olivier in his glorious War Requiem, featuring a story of stunning wartime imagery (including a young Tilda Swinton as a nurse who grieves the loss of her soldier lover) that plays out over Benjamin Britten’s short opera, based on poet Wilfred Owen’s writings (showing February 16th). In An Angelic Conversation, Jarman has Dame Judi Dench read Shakespeare, to accompany an expressionistic and personal story of love and desire.

UnknownJarman’s Sebastiane, a powerful vision of the life and death of Saint Sebastian, steeped in Jarman’s unmistakable expression of sensual homoeroticism, is paired with Jennings’ powerful docudrama The Silent Village. Longer than many of Jennings’ works in this program at 36 minutes, this elegant film relocates the Lidice massacre in Czechoslovakia, where hundreds were slaughtered under Hitler’s orders in 1942, to a mining village in Wales. Both films feature largely unprofessional casts of actors.

On Saturday February 16th,  the aforementioned War Requiem, projected in 35 mm (a rare opportunity for cinephiles), is preceded by Jennings’ fascinating docudrama exploration of a well-loved wartime song, The True Story of Lili Marlene (1944). These films represent perhaps the most emotional subject matter of both filmmakers’ respective oeuvres, offering lyrical yet heartbreaking backdrops for examining the impact of war and the redemptive power of music to soothe war’s ravages upon the human psyche.

JubileeOn February 17, a double feature soles the series, and begins with Jennings’ only feature film (63 minutes), Fires Were Started (1943), a docudrama about firefighters battling the blazes of World War 2. Jarman’s Jubilee (1978) is his rowdy, colorful portrait of angry, disaffected urban punks who enjoy physical and emotional mayhem.

 

2018: The Year of The Devil

Well, if we needed any further evidence that everything is going to hell these days, we need look no further than the local cinema or the latest streaming series on our TV. Usually my year end round up features examples of witchcraft and the occult in media, but 2018’s offerings contained more than the usual amount of demonic stories, and it makes me wonder if we’re seeing a trend that could be continuing. Thanks in large part to some very popular media texts, mainstream audiences were hit over the head with more Satan than usual. There’s plenty of occult narratives out there in the horror genre but usually it’s weirdos like me heading slightly off the beaten path to seek them out, to the local arthouse, or IFC Midnight, or some of the darker offerings on Shudder. But this year’s devilish trifecta was front and center in the big cineplexes, on FX, and Netflix.

(Warning: there may be plot spoilers ahead)

First came Hereditary, a bold film debut by Ari Aster, starring Toni Collette as Ellen, an artist whose family is torn apart by tragedy. After the death of her elderly mother, Ellen feels strangely calm and relieved, and moves on with her art. But a tragic accident leads her to seek comfort in support group meetings, where she meets an odd woman (Ann Dowd) who introduces Ellen to some occult practices. The film avoids spelling anything out in detail, so when strange things happen, viewers are left to wonder at their cause and meaning. But the occult context is clear: there are strange symbols on the walls of the family home, and terrifying figures who lurk in the shadows, grinning. Gruesome rituals reveal demonic conjuring and possession. It’s all very unsettling, particularly because this family seems so “normal.” But that trope has been with us since the late 1960s, when Rosemary’s Baby taught us that the eccentric old folks living next door just might be devil worshipping witches.

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Rafe Spall in THE RITUAL

The came The Ritual, a Netflix UK original film about a quartet of friends whose hiking excursion turns terrifying when they happen upon a demonic pagan cult in the woods of Norway. The four men are grieving over the loss of a fifth, who used to take this regular trip with them, and feelings of guilt and anger are also affecting their misadventures. There are subtle nods to films like The Wicker Man, The Blair Witch Project and Kill List. Atmospheric and psychologically-compelling, The Ritual is a contemporary masterpiece of folk horror. This newly-popular genre is getting plenty of attention in recent years, and a new book in 2018, We Don’t Go Back: A Watcher’s Guide to Folk Horror by Howard Ingham, is a great comprehensive guide.

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Cast of I AM NOT A WITCH

Film festival hit I Am Not a Witch is a satirical but also hard-hitting film from Zambia that tells the story of a young girl accused of witchcraft in a rural village, who goes from being ostracized to being a celebrity. Witchcraft accusations resulting in torture, imprisonment and murder are an enormous problem in parts of Africa, and this film explores the corruption and media manipulation behind some of these cases.

The reboot of Charmed (on the CW network) attracted much attention, partly due to the new show’s diverse casting of Latina actresses. There was also a bit of controversy from the get-go, as actress Holly-Marie Combs protested the idea of a reboot which did not simply cast the original actresses but instead wanted to create new, younger characters. In addressing issues of racial diversity, did the reboot inadvertently fail to consider ageism? Hmm. Like other witchy narratives we saw this year, contemporary gender issues and politics found their way into this show. About time, I say: witchcraft has long been a powerful framework for exploring the damaging legacy of the patriarchy. As Kramer and Sprenger (co-authors of the Malleus Maleficarum) once said: “All witchcraft stems from carnal knowledge, which is, in women, insatiable.”

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Nicole Muñoz in PYEWACKET

Then there was Pyewacket, a low budget indie fave from IFC Midnight about a teenage girl named Leah whose occult dabbing turns treacherous when she indulges in black magic to strike out in anger at her mother. The witchcraft content was fairly eclectic here: “Pyewacket” is of course one of several “familiar” names mentioned in the Witchfinder General’s account of witches in Essex in the 17th century, but here it seems to become a sort of demonic force. These teen dabblers have LOTS of occult books, fancy white-handled athames, and if you listen carefully, you hear Leah reciting some snippets from Doreen Valiente’s “Charge of the Goddess” mixed in with her ritual in the woods. I think the occult content could have been stronger; and possibly more plausible (Leah’s video chat with an occult author advising her on a ritual run amok seems far-fetched and ill-informed). But I liked this film’s overall subtlety, and the emphasis on belief, panic and illusion, rather than unexplained supernatural activity.

Not exactly a horror film, the coming of age drama Blame is a stunning debut by young filmmaker Quinn Shephard, who co-wrote, directed and starred. Using a high school production of The Crucible as a backdrop, Blame portrays the cruelty and pain of being an adolescent girl who knows she deserves to be treated better than she is. Another film that references the Salem Witch Trials in a contemporary context is the edgy thriller Assassination Nation, about a quartet of friends under siege by their entire town, accused of things they didn’t do. It’s clever, topical, erotic and very violent.

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Kathy Bates in AMERICAN HORROR STORY: APOCALYPSE

The newest season of the FX show American Horror Story, subtitled Apocalypse, was a bit of a mess: like many of the other seasons that came before it, the premise starts out promising. However, the usual way it goes with this show is that the plot and writing start to fall apart as the season progresses (thinking of how great AHS: Coven was when it started out); whereas Apocalypse starts out rather weakly and gets stronger once it seems to find its footing. The world is indeed ending, and a few select people are sheltering in underground bunkers. Then some of the witches of Coven make a re-appearance (some are even raised from the dead!) for a satanic show down with some gorgeous gay warlocks. Yes, the end of the world is a basically a (very well-dressed) battle of black magic and it’s pretty cool. Be prepared to hear the words “Hail, Satan!” uttered numerous times, mostly by the fabulous Kathy Bates. Stylish, sexy, shocking and often hilarious, this show is best enjoyed like a slice of decadent chocolate cake that’s maybe three inches wider than it ought to be. Too much? Maybe, but it sure is delicious.

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Kiernan Shipka in CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA

Then there was perhaps one of the most-anticipated witchy TV series of the year, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a Netflix original spun off the CW’s Riverdale. Starring Mad Men‘s Kieran Shipka as Sabrina, a teenage girl who is “half witch/half mortal” (thereby setting up the construct that witches are, well, NOT HUMAN) about to undergo a “dark baptism” for her sweet sixteenth birthday, the show is, much like Riverdale, campy, sexy and rather dark. Sabrina’s aunt’s Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Miranda Otto) are like perfect foils for Sabrina’s light and dark tendencies. Lovers of British film and TV will recognize some favorites in this stellar cast. I like that the show is set in a sort of fifties-looking netherworld while it tackles contemporary social issues, like gender identity and institutional patriarchy. Satan is referred to as the Dark Lord, and Sabrina is reluctant to proclaim her loyalty to him, setting up a consistent tension between her mortal and witch identities. The first season was followed up with a Solstice special, and after the second season begins in spring of 2019, a prequel episode is also planned (probably delving into the story of Sabrina’s parents, and their untimely deaths).

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Witches! in SUSPIRIA

A major cinematic event, the remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic Suspiria was eagerly awaited this year. It tells the story of a young American dancer studying at a prestigious dance academy in Berlin, where rumors of witchcraft are connected to the sudden disappearance of several students. Directed by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name), the new version has a very different look and feel: where Argento’s film is all gaudy color and eerie music, the remake is more subtle and naturalistic. But the new Suspiria is plenty terrifying, not to mention violent, and there’s a wild bacchanalian ritual dance sequence that must be seen to be believed. The witches in this version are more numerous and, in a subtle way, much more menacing than the ones from 1977; they’ve been haunting my dreams. They don’t worship Satan; their allegiance is to an ancient trio of mothers whose names mean Darkness, Tears, and Sighs. Tilda Swinton plays three roles; see if you can figure out the two that are less obvious.

Those are my top witchy and occult picks for the year of media, my darlings. I hope you’ll be able to see them and would love hear what you think. Please also let me know if there were other notable films or TV shows this past year that had themes of witchcraft.

 

 

 

 

 

Witchy Media, Samhain 2018 edition!

Greetings witches, pagans, nymphs, sprites, druids, daimons, and denizens of the dark forest realms of magic etc etc. Happy October! It’s been a while, and your witchy media correspondent has had a very busy and crazy year. Good news though: there is so much witchy media out there it is hard to know where to begin, and I have no doubt I will be adding to this list soon, so watch this space. Witches are very much in the news lately, and witchcraft is very trendy on social media and pretty much everywhere, and I realize we may all have mixed feelings about that, but one sure sign ‘o the times is the number of witches we’re seeing at the movies and on television.

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Stevie and Misty, together again!

First off, if you’ve been watching American Horror Story: Apocalypse (on FX), you know it’s gone from being a rather silly and snarky (and not terribly interesting) end of the world scenario to a flat out war between the witches of AHS: Coven and a group of fabulously-dressed warlocks in an underground bunker somewhere in the desert. It’s not entirely clear where it’s all going, but they brought back Misty Day and Stevie Nicks sang to her and that certainly should have happened the first time around! Fiona Goode will be back this week. The witchery is delicious in this season, and I will keep watching. Working on a review and will be posting my weekly thoughts soon. The notion that the end of the world will be bought about by a feud between witches and warlocks is…interesting, no?

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The new Charmed reboot looks great! I see that huge grimoire is still a thing.

The new reboot of Charmed premieres TONIGHT on CW. There’s been much talk of this already (some of it asking, simply, do we really need this reboot?), but the casting is bold, and the shifting of the characters away from white to Latina promises to be interesting at the very least. Will you be tuning in? Share your comments! I’m looking forward to it, even as I was not such a huge fan of the original series; but obviously my opinion did not matter since it ran for almost a decade! There was some controversy when the reboot was announced, mainly from former actresses who felt their input was ignored (since they were all involved in storylines and production decisions during the original series).

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Suspiria (1977) starring Jessica Harper

The remake of Suspiria (Dario Argento’s cult classic about a secret witch cult at an exclusive dance academy premiered in 1977) is wowing audiences at film festivals around the world. It premieres in the US on October 26th, going nationwide on November 2. Directed by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name and I am Love), this is already drawing rave reviews for its lush visuals. It stars Tilda Swinton and is full of witchery and that’s enough for me; I’ll be seeing a premiere of it in New York the day before my birthday! Do see the original, too; it’s wonderful, and lead actress Jessica Harper also makes an appearance in the remake.

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Kiernan Shipka as Sabrina, an Archie Comics character updated for darker times…

The new Riverdale spinoff, hot on the heels of the show’s third season, which promises to have some dark, occult undertones (or is it overtones?), is the eagerly-awaited Chilling Adventures of Sabrina also premiering on October 26th, on Netflix. Starring Mad Men‘s Kieran Shipka as a sixteen year old who is forced to assert her witch identity even though she is half “mortal” (does this mean witches are immortal?), the series features a fabulous eclectic cast (including Mirada Otto from the Lord of the Rings trilogy), beautiful visuals and a heady mix of humor and horror. I’m only one episode in, but it’s very promising, and I am planning to have my review up this week!

There’s more to come, believe me! Still planning to review Apostle, Killing Eve, and some other new TV shows, and I’ll post some Hallowe’en week movie suggestions as usual, but is that enough to get you excited and in the mood? I hope so. Let me know what you’re watching and please share your suggestions.

 

 

 

 

The Young Ones: Witchcraft’s Glamorous New Practitioners

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Nancy (Fairuza Balk), teen witch in The Craft

Remember after The Craft came out in the late 1990s? It seemed like half the teenage girls you met wanted to be witches. It was a bit silly but also kind of cool. Witches who’d started practicing in the 1980s, after writers and publishers started answering to the growing interest with books that aided the movements development of a common lingo (like Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance, and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, a sociological survey, a goddess-worshipping primer, and a feminist Arthurian novel, respectively, all published with one three year stretch), mostly welcomed the new generation of witches, though there was a bit of concern that there was less focus on reading and more on imitating Hollywood imagery. Witch fashion was never the same after The Craft, then came Xena: Warrior Princess (perhaps one of the most influential costume aesthetics ever, now shamelessly imitated in movies and TV), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Practical Magic and the witchy media darlings just keep coming.

At the time of The Craft‘s premiere, in 1996, witchcraft and paganism were also just beginning to have a wider presence on the internet, thanks in large part to The Witches’ Voice, a news and networking site founded by Fritz Jung, Wren Walker and, to a lesser extent, little old me. Originally formed in response to cases of discrimination against pagans and witches, the Witchvox site, which saw millions of hits a month and was profiled in major news magazines like Wired, is no longer the hub of activity it once once, as social media has largely taken over the interactive functions it once had (though the networking information is still there and the entire archive of articles is still there). Witchvox also started a Facebook page where news stories are posted, and the outreach is still huge, even if the comments section, on a good day,  can make you feel like reaching for some chamomile tea and a big chunk of hematite.

In recent years, witchcraft as a trend in fashion, TV or other areas of culture has come and gone, but in 2018, twenty years and one generation after that Craft-borne tsunami, witchcraft is again a huge phenomenon. At some point when we weren’t looking, witchcraft became all trendy again…and quite shallow, apparently. It used to be about devouring books on mythology, folklore, magic, nature and comparative religion. Now, as this recent article in Allure demonstrates, it’s all about self-care and crystals and Instagram. The article offers some interesting links for more info, and some good dispelling of misconceptions. But I found myself intrigued by the fact that the kinds of “myths” that apparently need dispelling today are very different from the ones we needed to dispel in the 1990s.

For example, one myth the author (Sophie Saint Thomas) explores is that “your witchcraft should be Instagram-ready.” Reading this, I appreciated the caveat that witchcraft was not necessarily for public consumption, nor did it have to be a picture-perfect layout fit for a magazine. But this concern about how one’s spiritual practice looks on social media is a far cry from busting the myth that “witches worship the devil” which was the number one thing we were having  to debunk twenty years ago. Being a witch is now mainly an expression of self or persona to be consumed by others, instead of a practice for self-transformation or method of engaging more deeply with nature. Some “Wiccans” might be appalled to see very little emphasis on, or even mention of, gods and goddesses in the media mentions of the witchcraft trend.

There is also not much mention of the “pagan community,” because witchcraft these days is now more of a solitary activity shared with others via digital photos (echoing the days in the 1990s when people who felt isolated from other like-minded practitioners and afraid to be too public about their witch identities welcomed the opportunity to network online with other witches in their areas so they could meet up in person; imagine!) Gotta say though: given the infiltration of racists and other jerks into the online pagan community these days, I’m feeling like the Instagram witches are smart to keep things more individualized, even if much of the visual representation of today’s witchcraft feels fairly homogenized. The aesthetic is Goth-meets-Goop-meets-Magnolia Pearl.

How are us “old timers” and Gen X witches feeling about this burgeoning social media witchcraft trend (nicely outlined in this article from 2016)? The positivity is good. The visibility is helping normalize what many still see as a fringe religion or strange hobby. But is the lack of awareness of, or interest in, the pagan movement’s history a problem?

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‘The Magic Circle’ by John William Waterhouse

I recall wanting to learn everything I could about the beginnings of the witchcraft movement, starting with Wicca, and Gardner, and eventually exploring the roots of what he cobbled together to create what we now know as modern pagan witchcraft. Historians and academics like Ronald Hutton, Diane Purkiss, Tanya Luhrmann and others have lent an air of legitimacy to the movement’s rich and complex underpinnings. Bu that was back when people were reading books. A lot. As the cyber landscape changed, pagans engaged: in newsgroups (remember those?), on MySpace, on Livejournal, in blogs, on podcasts (which died out for a bit but now are back with a vengeance).

And now, many witches and pagans get their information from social media memes on Facebook and threads on Twitter, ideas on Pinterest, influencers on Instagram, poems and art on Tumblr, and other electronic platforms I’m probably too old and out of touch to know about. (I’m only half kidding; your media witch is relatively tech-savvy, but I miss the days when journaling and reading books and writing out spells in calligraphy were my main interactions with the words of witchcraft).

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A Beltane fertility circle in The Wicker Man (1973)

For the witches of the zeitgeist are young. They’ve seen The Craft, but not Rosemary’s Baby or The Wicker Man. They’re more likely to be seen at a “burn” than a Renaissance faire. They’re not reading books by Starhawk or Scott Cunningham, but they are reading Witches, Sluts, Feminists and other tomes about witchcraft as activism (which is good). They may not be environmental activists, but they’re quite possibly vegan. And the spokespeople of this new movement seem to be part of that generation known as “millennials” (a word I don’t really like to use, as it feels vague and dismissive).

There’s nothing wrong with passing the torch to a new generation (it’s happened several times since Wicca first made its way over to the US in the 1950s;), but in my experience the pagan community’s tendency to value the contributions of every generation seems to be less of a thing now. The emphasis is on youthful energy and glamour. Even the stunning magazine out of the UK, Sabat, in its “Crone” issue, featured photos of women who were all obviously under the age of 30, and essays penned mostly by women younger than 40. I recall being relatively uninterested in the crone archetype before I turned 50 (which wasn’t very long ago, my lovelies), but also maybe afraid of it, and to give Sabat its due, the “Crone” issue does a fair job of meditating and speculating on what is to come in the autumn years of the witch, making up for what it lacks in more authentic narratives or images. The excitement surrounding this beautifully-produced magazine extends to other artistic permutations of the current witchcraft craze, like online magazines LunaLuna  and Faerie, or podcasts like The Witch Wave and Down at the Crossroads.

So where is this going? Where should it go? What pagan and witch voices and people do you follow? What would you like to see more of?

 

Rachel True from THE CRAFT is a tarot reader!

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Neve Campbell, Fairuza Balk and Rachel True from THE CRAFT

Wow, file this under things I didn’t know until today. Pam Grossman‘s new podcast “The Witch Wave” has had some terrific guests in its brief incarnation so far, and this week her show features an interview with Rachel True, who played Rochelle in that infamous 1996 film about teenage witches, THE CRAFT.

Rochelle’s character was iconic for being one of the rare portrayals of a person of color practicing Wicca-style witchcraft in contemporary cinema. Turns out that, like actress Fairuza Balk, who opened an occult shop in Los Angeles called Pan Pipes (I went there once and bought a tee  shirt!) not long after the film was released, Rachel also has maintained and nurtured her interest in things magical. I love when life imitates art, especially when witches are involved!

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Rachel True, then and now

Pam posted a teaser of this recent episode on Instagram:

I’m so excited about the NEW EPISODE of The Witch Wave! It features the delightful and insightful Rachel True of True Heart Tarot and the iconic 1996 witch movie, THE CRAFT. Rachel discusses the transformative power of tarot, acting as magic, her love of voodoo queen Marie Laveau, and what is was like starring in a cult witchcraft film as its sole character of color. I also discuss good ways to deal with Mercury Retrograde (something we could all use right now!) Have a listen on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, RSS, or on witchwavepodcast.com.

Check out the episode and the previous ones archived; this podcast is full of wonderful surprises on a regular basis. And also be sure to check out Pam’s long-running website of occult arts and fascination, Phantasmapile.

The Five Elements: Berta Daniels, Photographer

(The Five Elements is a series of short interviews with pagan artists and creators. I am proud to introduce my long time friend Berta Daniels, photographer, writer, and all-around creatrix of things beautiful, delicious and magical, in the first installment of this series.)

On wearing our ancestors’ colors, cookie cutter beauty, Star Wars and being a dragon…

berta2017Berta is a fine art photographer whose work often focuses on people and nature. She began shooting a series of outdoor nudes with friends and acquaintances a number of years ago and that exploration recently culminated in her fine art photography book Crossroads. It contains dozens of color and black and white photographs, beautifully curated and with a written introduction detailing her journey through this work and its connection to how crossroads are defined in a pagan context. I was one of many models who took part in the process, and am pleased and honored to have had an image of me chosen for it, along with many friends and community members. It’s a stunning book. I spoke with Berta about it in November while visiting rural western Massachusetts during the annual Franklin County Cider Days.

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Cover of CROSSROADS; photo by Berta A. Daniels

Every Five Elements interview is based on this simple five-part question: How do you see the five elements as they relate your work as an artist? Air, fire, water, earth and spirit?

Air:

I see the elements of air in my work and in my life as being about concepts, ideas and spoken words. And how words have power, so that when you speak them aloud they take on a life of their own, which is the beginning of manifestation. And with photography, it’s all about vision, which is conceptual. It’s about how people see the world and how I view the world. Photography is a window into the way I view people and beauty, that whole left brain kind of thing.

Fire:

Fire is the passion that drives my work. It’s what lights you up inside and makes you do shit! (Laughter) Life is the passion in your life, it’s what helps us to get rid of the unnecessary and heats us up and connects us with the life force energy. (nonchalantly) And well, I’m a dragon, so you know that’s all about fire. [Peg: So you wanna expound on that “I’m a dragon” statement? Berta: (evil laughter) No.]

Water:

First of all, our physical bodies are made mostly of water, and so we’re ruled by the moon and the tides, even people who are landlocked. And I also see water as reflecting our emotional state and how we relate to beauty in the world. And I feel like a lot of my work is kind of busting the myth of beauty in our culture, because there is a very cookie-cutter aesthetic that commercial society wants us all to have, about being thin and looking a certain way and not being too ethnic, and I think that’s bullshit! (laughs) People should celebrate who they are instead of trying to fit into some norm.

Earth:

Earth is of course the physical body. It’s about being in nature, how we relate to our planet. and how being in nature helps to heal us as people, being in our natural state. But it’s also where the ancestors live (and it’s that time of year) and how we reflect our ancestors in the way we look, literally, as I sometimes say when I invoke them, we wear their colors, literally, as our skin and our hair, we speak with their voice through us sometimes. And part of celebrating our physical bodies is also celebrating the ancestors, because they have become us, in a way.

Spirit:

Spirit is our connection to what I call the life force energy that runs through us all and everything , which I know is very Star Wars, but oh well, they kind of got it right. But they think it only belongs to some people, but actually it belongs to all of us. The life force energy is sex and creation and spirit, it’s what lives on beyond us, beyond the physical body. And it’s actually what makes people beautiful. Sex and sexuality isn’t just what our society thinks of, being all down and dirty with somebody. Procreation is what makes the world go around, it’s plants and animals and seeds and all of life.

Tuesday Muse, News & Reviews! (Imbolc 2018 edition)

Imbolc is nearly here. Whether you call it Imbolc, Imbolg, Lady Day or Candlemas, it’s a winter pagan festival that’s sort of like a bookmark, reminding us we’re still in the middle of the story that is winter, but that spring is coming soon. Of course the Groundhog Day folklore is the familiar context for most folks; I wrote about that for The Witches’ Voice, some years ago. After a nice January thaw, it’s grown cold here again in upstate NY, and light snow is falling. Perfect time to contemplate how to spend the rest of the winter and prepare for spring. Maybe I’ll spend some time poring over my seed and plant catalogs tomorrow! Good preparation for ritual, gathering imagery…

This week there’s been some interesting news in the world of witchy media. First up, there is going to be a reboot of the TV series Charmed. I know, it seems like the show only ended fcraftairly recently (2006) after a very impressive eight seasons. But it’d be stupid for the CW network to fail to capitalize on the witchcraft craze permeating millennial culture in social media these days. Supposedly this reboot will have a “feminist” tone; and interestingly, two of the original actresses (Holly Marie Combs and Shannen Doherty) have already made some negative comments in news media about the planned revival. Personally, I’d like to see a reboot remain a bit more true to the original inspiration for Charmed, the film The Craft (1997), which is also getting a reboot (okay, a sequel). Both these projects will be set in the present day, so if you were hoping for some cool 1990s era gothwear, you may be disappointed. But for your weekly viewing parties, you can wear whatever you want!

 

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Nancy (Fairuza Balk) before her transformation into Goth Princess from Hell…

 

In related news, the popular CW series Riverdale, based (rather loosely, I gotta say) on the original “Archie” comics, will be spinning off a series about “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” recently revived in comic book form for contemporary readers. However, the new series proposed for Netflix will be based on “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” from the Archie comics horror imprint (right??!? who knew?), and will have a very dark and subversive approach, maybe even a Satanic vibe (some stories name-drops Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist as inspirations for the show’s stylings).  Given how beautifully Riverdale has reinvented the “Archie” franchise for the current era (more diverse, more sexually charged, and with a somewhat creepy Twin Peaks-esque quality), I am looking forward to seeing how the Sabrina series turns out.

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Sabrina Light?

 

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Sabrina Dark?

There are two new films due out soon that are making my media witch heart (I do have one, you know) go pitter pat. First, The Ritual, a new film coming to Netflix (February 9th). It’s a sort of modern folk horror tale (based on a novel that is apparently very scary) that seems to nod to The Blair Witch Project and maybe winks a bit to The Witch, too (as well as Haxan, since it is set in the Swedish countryside). This preview piece from Refinery29 asks some interesting questions about the film’s gender dynamics and basis in witchy folklore.

The second one is new from the no-longer-fledgling studio, A24, that has been turning out all sorts of great films (most recently Ladybird and The Florida Project). They brought us The Witch, too (thank you!) and do seem to focus ever so slightly on indie horror and thrillers. In June they’re releasing Hereditary, a spooky looking family drama starring Toni Collette, already drawing comparisons to The Exorcist. The trailer is deliciously creepy and the film features elaborate dollhouse miniatures, which I am very excited about also.

Until the next round up of news on a Tuesday, darlings…be good and don’t forget to Bind Trump!