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The myth & mystery of Popular Witchcraft

Enduring questions amidst a bungled history lesson

Ah, Halloween. The time of year when candy manufacturers and dentists make big bucks, goths get to do all their home d├ęcor shopping for the year, Wiccans and other occultists suddenly have to fend off the media with big sticks and books like Popular Witchcraft get reviewed.

Originally published in 1972, Jack Fritscher’s Popular Witchcraft was one of the earliest American books on modern witchcraft, and is still one of the few with an explicitly queer perspective, though its acid-soaked stream of consciousness writing style may put off modern readers. The author and publisher apparently considered it historically important enough to issue a revised and updated edition in 2004. There’s no doubt that it was an important book when first published — but how well has it stood the test of time?

Unfortunately, not well. Its view of history, while common among queer, feminist and pagan writers, has been thoroughly debunked by historians. You know the one: originally the world was one big happy feminist, queer-positive, sex-positive, environmentally friendly paradise until those evil Christians (or Indo-European patriarchal invaders, depending on the version) came along and messed everything up. The “Old Religion” struck an uneasy balance with the new until the church declared war on all things magical, female and/or queer via the Inquisition. The good guys went underground and secretly preserved their traditions until the repeal of the antiwitchcraft laws in the 1950s, when the witches were able to come out of the broom closet and restore the old ways to their former glory.

It’s a seductive tale, offering a sense of historical affirmation to various alternative spiritualities and sexualities, a vision of an ideal society that could be rebuilt today and a tale of persecution that allows white folks to feel just as nobly oppressed as people of colour.

The problem is, it isn’t true. Ancient pagan societies were wildly varied in their social structures and gender roles. They were not feminist nor queer utopias; many were intensely patriarchal and militaristic. The witch-hunts of the late Middle Ages were not predominantly church-led, but mostly secular prosecutions based on neighbours accusing each other; there’s little evidence they targeted practitioners of surviving pagan religions. And none of the modern neopagan religions have established any convincing claim to a pedigree that goes back further than the Romantic era, and that’s being generous.

But if the 30 years since Popular Witchcraft’s first publication have given Fritscher any cause to question this story, it’s not evident here. He claims that “witchcraft predates all known religions,” repeats the fanciful historical claims made in early Wiccan books with no apparent sense of irony and uncritically swallows the self-promoting claims of secret ancient family traditions made by many of the witches he profiles.

Fritscher’s accuracy with regard to modern occultism isn’t much better. He frequently refers to “black” and “white” magic, a Hollywood-esque division most occultists have long since rejected. Even more confusingly, he lumps all kinds of unrelated traditions including astrology, classical Roman paganism and mediaeval Christian heresies into the category of “witchcraft” and then generalizes wildly about them with claims drawn from Wicca one minute and Satanism the next. He refers to ceremonial magician Dion Fortune as a “Sapphic witch” who followed “the Wicca of Gerald Gardner,” when even the most cursory look at Fortune’s work shows that she was straight, married, a social conservative and died before Gardner’s work was published. That’s not an isolated example — it’s typical of his accuracy level.

His encyclopedic knowledge of American popular culture, the focus of most of his other published work, is impressive. But even here, he goes overboard, finding supposed references to witchcraft and paganism throughout pop music, theatre and film, frequently veering headlong into tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory. Would you believe Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” as a Wiccan hymn?

Similarly, he’s determined to find gay and SM references everywhere, viewing virtually any depiction of violence or pain as SM erotica and insisting that rituals such as the Lakota Sun Dance “have been kept most alive in white culture, in the underground of homosexual S&M,” a claim I’m sure would come as a surprise to the Lakota. He even describes homosexuality itself as “an ancient religion,” which “predates the Druids.”

Despite all this, the book questions the heterosexual imagery present in many magical traditions, questions that remain valid after 30 years. “Are there fecundities other than heterosexual female planted with male seed? What of male-male conjuring and female-female rituals?… Are the yin-yang polarities thought necessary for conjuring magic found only in the man-woman combination, or… present in each person?”

If Popular Witchcraft had focussed on more questions like these, and less on gossipy pop culture analysis and wishful thinking presented as history, it would be a lot easier to recommend. As it stands, those in search of a history of modern witchcraft would be far better off reading Ronald Hutton’s Triumph Of The Moon, and those in search of an incisive analysis of queer perspectives on witchcraft and magic will have to keep looking.