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Discussion: The Problems with Witchcraft in Historical Fiction

This post is not meant to be a comprehensive history lesson, nor an appropriate reference. If you are a reader or writer of historical fiction and you want to know more about this topic, it’s imperative to do some research of your own. Look up Gerald Gardner and his creation of Wicca. Here is the “further reading” part of the Wicca Wikipedia article for sources and publications. Tumblr also has a thriving neo-pagan community with various blogs dedicated to collecting sources and disproving a lot of the issues I’ll discuss in this post.

To set the record straight, many books written in say the last twenty years that are historical fiction and fantasy based that focus on a “legacy” of witchcraft take their inspiration directly from Wicca. There are plenty of reasons–and good ones–for this. Wicca is a modern religion founded in the early twentieth century and there are a lot of branches of it that are practiced today. There are several prolific writers such as Scott Cunningham who publish widely on the rites and beliefs of Wiccans, including plenty of guides for beginner witches and Wiccans. These books are found at retail sellers and on Amazon with great ease, and are generally no more expensive than any other book. With the popularization of crystals, tarot, and other witchy items on Instagram and social media for the aesthetic, it’s pretty damn easy for a contemporary writer to piece together a convincing portrayal of Wicca or neo-pagan witchcraft.

The problems arise where historical fiction, or contemporary fiction that refers to a “historic legacy,” conflates Wicca with historical pagan practices. Once again, I must emphasize that Wicca was founded no earlier than 1921 and is largely considered to have officially been founded in 1954 with Gardner’s publication of his book on Wicca. Wicca and other neo-pagan offshoots do take inspiration from mythologies and historic pagan religions, however, a key part of Wicca is the discredited theory that there were ancient legacies of witchcraft based religions existing in Europe into the middle ages, and that many witch hunts were genuine attempts to stamp out pre-Christian pagan traditions. This belief in and of itself is problematic as it ignores the very real discriminatory and historically recorded motivations of various witch hunts and inquisitions. Many practicing Wiccans and neo-pagans today acknowledge this belief is based on a discredited theory and do not hold that belief, instead acknowledging and giving respect to the various groups–such as the Jewish people and Romani peoples–that were persecuted in these historic events.

What’s more, if an author only does research into Wicca and neo-paganism on the surface, borrowing rituals word for word from certain popular texts and dancing around the vague mythology of “the mother goddess,” the author might accidentally dip into another pitfall: cultural appropriation. Wicca and neo-pagan traditions regularly borrow from or follow other traditions, of which there are generally two kinds. There are open traditions, ones that regularly welcome newcomers and have resources for the basics. Open traditions thrive on a diverse neo-pagan community and encourage their practitioners to experiment and make their practice their own. A lot of solitary practitioners largely work with open traditions, as they can be learned about from books and online sources. Closed traditions are entirely different. A closed tradition is one that is initiation based, generally a cultural religion, and includes many still-practiced religions. Closed traditions may have invitation experiences, such as public events where anyone is welcome to attend but not participate, or have educational materials meant to spread awareness but not serve as an initiation. Unfortunately, due to the nature of solitary practice of Wicca and neo-paganism, there are a lot of practitioners who interpret the existence of these educational materials as invitations. They engage in cultural appropriation, using what they find as the basis for their own rites and rituals, and often spreading misinformation about their practice.

As someone who has been part of witchcraft and neo-pagan communities for over a decade now, I can pretty easily spot when an author has done what probably felt like a lot of research into Wicca and paganism, but has also been led astray. There are a lot of books on Wicca and neo-pagan traditions that are circular and refer to one another as sources despite being based on a lot of inaccuracies. Llewelyn is guilty of this, and are known for publishing a fair amount of white authors discussing cultural practices they have no business publishing on. What’s frustrating is the sheer amount of fiction books that perpetuate the exact same interpretation of witchcraft, making it harder to point out the discredited theory Wicca is based on, as well as the cultural appropriation going on with their interpretation.

If as an author you want to tell a story about witches, whatever witches look like in your world, being persecuted it’s best to be creative and come up with your own interpretation of their practices, why they are persecuted, and what that persecution looks like. Examples of this done well usually focus on the “fear of the unknown” trope, presenting witchcraft as something murky and difficult to understand from the outside. But authors who borrow from Wicca–some of them even calling the religion Wicca in their text–and create a dichotomy of Wiccans with “real” magic and just religious followers, fully immersing the reader in a world where Wicca has existed for centuries in one way or another… They’re contributing to a problem. I have known two types of people with an “interest” in Wicca: those who are learn about Wicca from fiction, and those that explore spirituality in neo-paganism texts first. As I said above, there are a lot of published books on Wicca and neo-paganism that are bad, engage in cultural appropriation, give dangerous advice (a lot of books on herbs don’t do proper research about bad combinations), or are generally misinformed due to many reference texts referencing one another in a game of misinformation telephone. So while it is possible to get the wrong idea of Wicca or neo-paganism from reading nonfiction, it’s also very common for new practitioners and explorers to have a false image of Wicca due to the fiction they’ve read.

It’s also important to avoid engaging in cultural appropriation, drawing from closed traditions and indigenous sources, just because others do it. A book on Wicca referencing Native American practices such as smudging does not permit any author to have their non-Native characters do the same. As readers, it’s also important to call out these instances when they’re seen. For myself, I tend to avoid historical fiction that features a Wicca-like witchcraft legacy because I often find a lot of instances of misinformation and cultural appropriation. But in avoiding these, I also need to be making note of them so other readers are aware. Not only so impressionable readers don’t get the wrong idea of what Wicca and neo-paganism are, but also so any cultural appropriation is properly warned about and called out.

As I’ve ventured into more books about witches recommended by fellow book bloggers I’ve encountered more examples of this issue. I’m sure many of the authors I’ve read have felt that they’ve done quite a lot of research into witchcraft and created a convincing and respectful portrayal, but have included a discredited author in their sources or accidentally borrowed from a source known for appropriation. I don’t see these things discussed nearly as much in book blogger spheres than I do in neo-pagan communities, so I suppose I’ll be trying to hit out on that topic more often.

By Catherine

I'm a lover of books, coffee, wine, and bees. Happy to join the ranks of book bloggers everywhere!

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