by Phyllis Curott
Originally published in 2000 on Beliefnet
Can you imagine Cybill Shepherd, Roseanne Barr, Olympia Dukakis, Tori Amos, Stevie Nicks, Chrissie Hynde, Sarah McLachlan, Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra, Erica Jong, and Camille Paglia standing in a circle together beneath a gorgeous full moon? I can.
Why? Because they are among some of America’s most prominent celebrities, authors, and performers who have discovered the Goddess. Goddess spirituality is now the fastest growing spiritual practice in America and popular artists are openly and enthusiastically bringing this ancient wisdom to the attention of the media and the American public. And where they go, their audiences are sure to follow.
While Goddess spirituality takes many forms, the most popular is the contemporary revival of Witchcraft. America is discovering that behind the mask of the wicked Witch is the beautiful face of the Goddess. Witchcraft, also called Wicca, is actually the ancient, pre-Christian spirituality of the Goddess. The word “Witch” comes from the Anglo Saxon word wicce, meaning a wise one.
Unfortunately, the word also evokes the image of a green-faced hag riding a broomstick and brewing evil potions, a stereotype vividly brought to life by actress Margaret Hamilton in “The Wizard of Oz,” Bette Midler in “Hocus Pocus” and the recent “Blair Witch Project.” This gender-based stereotype points us in the direction of the hideous hag’s origins and her persistent presence in popular culture. We’ve all grown up with countless fairy tales about the wicked Witch with deadly powers. The hags of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” have convinced generations that Witches conjure our darkest natures with noxious eye of newt. Durer’s woodcuts show her to be ugly and mis-shapened. But where did this vision come from?
In the late 1400’s, worship of the Goddess was branded satanic by the Catholic Church. Though there is no devil in the Old Religion of the Goddess and Witches do not worship him, hundreds of thousands were tortured and killed. Almost 90 percent of these victims were women and those who survived lost nearly all legal rights, became chattel, were prohibited from owning or inheriting property, receiving an education, practicing medicine or the Goddess’s religion.
This prolonged period of persecution, known as the Witchcraze (now recognized as the women’s Holocaust) assured the domination of the stereotype of the wicked Witch. And over the centuries, the hag came to personify the culture’s shadow, the culture’s fear of women–their powers to give birth, their sexuality, and spirituality. Fairy tales, plays, pictures, and sermons perpetuated this vision.
Times are changing and the Goddess is returning. In the past forty years, pop culture provided at least one good Witch a decade: Glinda the Good Witch of the North, Veronica Lake in “I Married a Witch,” Kim Novak in “Bell, Book and Candle,” and Elizabeth Montgomery in “Bewitched.” Today, good Witches are everywhere, with Hollywood at the forefront of a radical shift in public perception. Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock portrayed sister Witches in “Practical Magic,” which captured the number one spot at the box office when it opened. When Sandra explains that “there is no devil in the Craft,” and “there’s more to magic than spells and potions,” millions heard important messages that hopefully will enable real Witches to practice their religion in peace and safety and with public acceptance.
On television, two new shows, “Sabrina” and “Charmed,” feature strong, independent young women who are Witches; a character on an afternoon soap opera regularly exclaimed “Oh my Goddess!” and conducted charming Goddess rituals as part of the plot; and the NBC sitcom, “Friends,” devoted an entire show to the female characters discovering their inner Goddesses. But while these shows and films portray positive characters, they rely on silly special effects that perpetuate the stereotype of Witches having supernatural powers (like freezing time or making objects move). The powers that Witches cultivate are not supernatural; they are completely natural, divine gifts latent in all of us. From spiritual practice, Witches know that magic is not about commanding and controlling, but about consciousness and communion; they have discovered that by living in harmony with nature, they live in harmony with the divine, and that real magic flows from our connection to that divinity.
In television shows, including “Picket Fences,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and “Judging Amy,” that present Witches as sympathetic, realistic characters who practice a bona fide religion, a different problem arises. These Witches tend to fall into a gender stereotype; that is, they are exclusively female. In fact, there have always been male Witches (not warlocks), and their numbers are rapidly increasing.
Witchcraft is also increasingly receiving serious attention from the “hard” media. During the last year, the release of “Book of Shadows” and the presence of Witches in the military prompted respectful stories about Witchcraft as a Goddess religion in every major daily newspaper, in major magazines, and on top television shows in the U.S. and abroad. Wiccan protests against “The Blair Witch Project’s” reinforcement of the negative stereotype were also given respectful coverage in the news media.
According to The New York Times, Wicca is also the fastest growing, most lucrative subject in the publishing field. Witchcraft, at this moment, is undergoing a major transformation–stories about Witches are increasingly become stories by Witches. No longer confined to the broom closet, Witches are increasingly public and confident in the exercise of their rights to express themselves and the truth about their religion. But more importantly, the Witch is once again retrieving her and his role as the culture’s shaman, the teller of myths that are our collective dreams. The Witch is again telling sacred stories that chronicle and inspire our encounter with divinity. As a Witch, the story I tell in “Book of Shadows” is a spiritual journey to discover the Goddess within. It is a story of challenge and transformation, a story of the spirit in the “material” world. It is the story of real magic.
Published with the author’s permission.
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