The Witch in History (Review) -- Chapter II

To: all
From: Jenny
Date: 19 Apr 1998
Time: 11:58:51


The second chapter of Diane Purkiss' _The Witch in History_ addresses Neo-Pagan views of Witchcraft. Unlike chapter one (feminist views of witchcraft), this section is flawed. Purkiss is a feminist. She understands and empathises with feminist historians, she is very familiar with feminist community and literature. She is not a Witch. She has little sympathy or understanding of our views, and, despite extensive research, there are still gaping holes in her understanding of Neo-Paganism.

Purkiss is best when she sticks to what she knows: history. The chapter starts out nicely, with a incisive discussion of the flaws in Neo-Pagan history. Purkiss points out that it's basically a series of "Good Guy vs Bad Guy" vignettes, where the Good Guys always lose. She highlights the tone of nostalgia underlying Pagan history, the longing for the romantic Good Old Days that never existed. She demonstrates the anti-modern tones our history: that it idealizes a static, unchanging, eternal past, immune from the hustle and bustle of modern life. A time when things were done the way they always had been done, and we didn't have to worry about changing sex-role expectations, down-sizing, and becoming technologically obsolete in our jobs.

So far, so good. Purkiss then presents a brief but excellent criticism of sex-role stereotyping in Neo-Paganism. Like many feminists, Purkiss is disturbed by the way that some Neo-Pagans conceptualize the Goddess (and women, by extension). She argues that the Goddess of Neo-Paganism is a male fantasy, an inert, all-giving mother figure who makes no demands. The God is the active force, the Goddess the passive focus of His interests. Purkiss also briefly mentions how the Neo-Pagan Goddess archetype (Maiden, Mother, Crone) mirrors traditional sex-role expectations for women, and how there is a distressing amount of biological determinism in Neo-Paganism.

At this point I was still a happy camper. Purkiss' comments stung, but it was a good sting -- the sting of a well-made point. While I love my religion I think we're due for a bit of vigorous self-examination and feminist Tough Love. Criticisms like this make us stronger, not weaker.

Then, alas, the chapter went south in a big way. Purkiss' last two topics left me wondering if she knew anything about us at all.

First, Purkiss argued that Witchcraft wasted and dissipated women's energy. To "prove" this, she said that most Witches were politically apathetic (except for a handful of feminist Witches). Now, Purkiss cites Starhawk continually, so my first thought was, "Uh, _Truth or Dare_ is apolitical?!? Well, maybe Starhawk is the "feminist Witch" exception." Purkiss (who's British) showed little knowledge of the American Pagan movement. She made no mention of Green Egg, or of religious freedom groups such as WARD, WADL, or the Lady Liberty League. Nor was she aware of groups like the Thomas Morton Alliance, which supports Native land claims. But reading the chapter more closely, I found that Purkiss admitted that Witches were very active in the peace and environmental movements.

So, I wondered, how can you be a very active environmentalist and pacifist, and yet be politically apathetic? After reading the section several times, I came to the disturbing conclusion that what Purkiss meant by "politically apathetic" is "doesn't do enough for feminism". That bothered me, because one of feminism's long-standing challenges has been respecting the priorities of minority women. Women of color who concentrate on helping their communities, lesbians who focus on gay rights, Third World women who place civil rights before women's rights -- all have been criticized by feminists who feel that they "should" be putting feminism first.

To me, this seemed to be a new twist on an old theme: Purkiss, as a non-minority feminist, is upset that feminist Witches spend much of their energy on "other" concerns, like the environment or protecting religious freedom. And, of course, it also side-steps the fact that Witchcraft is not the same as feminist spirituality. There are non-feminist Witches, just as there are non-feminist Jews.

The final issue is even worse. Purkiss argues that Witchcraft reinforces sex-role stereotyping because the only "acceptible" spells are traditionally feminine. They focus on the home, on defense and protection. They "talk to" spirits, rather than force them to obey. "Un-feminine" spells -- curses, spells to compel someone's love, spells to win the lottery -- are discouraged.

This section flabbergasted me. At first, I couldn't comprehend how anyone could argue that in order to be "truly" feminist, you had to be a magickal murderer/rapist/whatever. How could *anyone* believe that hexing was a feminist behavior? That's sort of like saying you're not a feminist unless you've got a record of assault and battery! How could she suggest that we completely and utterly ignore ethics?

The answer is disbelief: Purkiss doesn't believe magick works. There's no point worrying about the ethics of a spell's effects, because spells don't have any effect. All they are are empty rituals through which we release/act out our psychological tensions. Therefore the fact that we don't curse people means that we're denying our negative emotions, not that we're choosing to channel them into non-destructive avenues.

I was deeply insulted by this section of the chapter. Purkiss demonstrates *no* understanding of the magickal world-view, or what it would be like to believe that magick actually worked. Like anthropologists in the Bad Old Days, she's completely sure of her own ideology and shows no respect or understanding of the beliefs of the people she's studying.

And that's a shame. Because many of Purkiss' points are extremely important and on target. Yet she's so badly off-base in this one area that it tends to obscure all the good parts of her chapter. I've talked to probably twelve different Pagans who've read this book. *All* of them -- even the academics -- have immediately focused on this passage, saying some variation of, "Well, the historical parts were good. But MAN she knows NOTHING about Neo-Paganism!! Did you read that section on cursing?!?" I have to admit, that was *my* first thought. It wasn't until I re-read the chapter a couple of times that I noticed no, 80% of it is good stuff. But that last 20% is so ludicrous your mind hits the "Reset" button and flushes out everything that came before.

So, in summary, I think this is a very good book, though the sections on Neo-Paganism are deeply flawed. If you do read it, stop when you finish page 48. Don't venture on to pages 49-53 until you've spent a few minutes pondering Purkiss' criticisms and insights. Maybe then the positive aspects of the book will survive the ferocious mental flushing that those next four pages will evoke.