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Witchcraft and magic; film and academia

In which we ponder why both serious historians and the entertainment industry were dealing with the same subject at the same time

There’s a lot of pressure on the Symbolic Towers bookshelves at the moment, stacked several deep with books falling off the ends. The pile of books-to-be-read is growing, too, with books arriving on it faster than I can read them. Frankly, the cause is obvious – apart from me not spending enough time reading, I mean. The cause is: shopping trips to Whiteladies Road and Cotham Hill, and to the charity shops thereon. Several are specialist charity bookshops, and all seem to have a better quality of book stock than charity shops elsewhere in Bristol, presumably because of the university being close by. Recent selections have included God’s Architect, a biography of Pugin by Rosemary Hill; 25 Jahre Deutsche Einheitslokomotive;* and a classic historical work from 40 years ago: Religion and the Decline of Magic by Sir Keith Thomas. I’ve just started making my way into the latter, and it has started a few thoughts going round in my head. Not because of the book itself, interesting though it is, but because of other things that have coincidentally come together alongside it.

Last Friday, by contrast, we went along to The Cube for the monthly Hellfire Video Club horror night. This month’s theme was Folk Horror, with a British cinema double bill: Cry of the Banshee (1970) and Blood on Satan’s Claw (also 1970).** The latter has rather higher production values; the former, although a British-made film, was part of American International Pictures’ series of Edgar Allan Poe films. It’s one of the later, lesser-known entries in the sequence: directed by Gordon Hessler rather than Roger Corman, but still with Vincent Price as the top-billed star.

What struck me straight away was the similarity of content: which, obviously, was why they were put together on the same bill. Cry of the Banshee is set around the start of the 17th century; Blood on Satan’s Claw is set around its end. Both deal with witchcraft, beliefs about witchcraft, and intra-community conflict; in very different styles, and with different levels of seriousness, but still at heart the same subject. It was not, moreover, a particularly unusual subject for British film at the time: a couple of years earlier Vincent Price had starred in Witchfinder General, covering similar subject matter and with slightly more claim to historicity. Not coincidentally, it was a co-production between American International and the producers of Blood on Satan’s Claw, Tigon. Recently, in his BBC series A History of Horror, Mark Gatiss put forward a claim for this group of films to be considered as a “folk horror” subgenre,*** together with The Wicker Man (1973): another look at essentially the same themes, updated to a modern-day setting.**** In that film the side of witchcraft is represented by a modern pagan revival; Cry of the Banshee shows the mythical pagan witchcraft of Charles Leland and Margaret Murray, and Blood on Satan’s Claw shows the Satanic witchcraft which the real-life witchfinders of the 17th century believed they were hunting down.

The point of this post, though, came when I realised that the subject of these films – the period ones, at least – is in effect the same subject as their contemporary Religion and the Decline of Magic. That book covers the same period: roughly, 1500 to 1700. It covers the intersection between religion and folk magic, and how folk belief in magic and witchcraft changed due to the political-religious upheavals which occurred in the period under study – following the anthropological distinction between magic and witchcraft.

Being an academic history, it is slightly easier to see how Sir Keith came to write the book when he did. His interest in the period came from studying under Christopher Hill, the great Marxist historian of 17th century England; and at the time he was writing magic and witchcraft were being seen in a new light as a subject of historical enquiry. Thomas received input from Alan Macfarlane, whose research on witchcraft prosecutions in East Anglia is another work that is very much still on the historical and anthropological syllabus. The significance of Dr Macfarlane is that, as a historical anthropologist, he married anthropological frameworks and theories to historical primary sources. This level of academic interest in historical witchcraft beliefs is also what led to the complete discrediting of the previously-accepted idea that early modern witchcraft was a fully-fledged ancient and pagan religion, in works such as Norman Cohn’s Europe’s Inner Demons, published in 1975. In general, it is fair to say that Religion and the Decline of Magic is a major work within a subject that was getting a great deal of interest in academia at the time, and for the first time was getting serious interest paid to it which involved deep analysis of primary source material.

What intrigues me about all this, however, is the confluence here between academia and entertainment. What was going on, what underlying forces were at work, which led to the production of both horror films and weighty academic histories on the same topics at the same times? It is worth saying that Blood on Satan’s Claw, at least, does appear to present an underlying thesis which is not unrelated to that of Keith Thomas. Thomas points out that the Reformation led to the Church in England abandoning a large number of practices which can be described as magical; or which, at least, are barely distinguishably from magic both in an anthropological analysis and in the minds of the ordinary population expected to take part. In Blood on Satan’s Claw the village priest, apparently a Low Anglican, is ineffectual against the forces of witchcraft, and knows it; the heroes are the scientifically-minded local physician and the Jacobite judge, presumably still secretly following the old religion just as he secretly follows the Old Pretender. To defeat Satan, only a Catholic will do; but nowhere is this spelled out explicitly for the audience, and you will only realise it if you have some awareness of the film’s historical setting.

I’m not, of course, trying to posit a direct connection between the two things: for one thing, both of the films shown at Hellfire Video Club were released the year before the book was. Rather, there seems to have been an undercurrent of some sort, forty years ago, which made this sort of subject a popular one in several ages. I have a feeling it was important in music, too. Also on the squeezed bookshelves is a work which for once I didn’t get second-hand: Electric Eden by Rob Young. It is a history of the folk themas which pervaded English music in the 20th century – which makes it sound also very academic. It isn’t, and its writer is a very approachable sort of chap, but it doesn’t exactly answer the question I’m posing, because it tends to follow a linear path of musical trends, parallel to the rest of culture.

There is possibly an answer in the growth of modern paganism. Modern Wicca emerged in the 1950s; by the time we are talking about, it was well known in mainstream culture and in the popular press. Moreover, as historian Ronald Hutton has shown, not only can the view of spirituality expressed in Wicca can be shown to have strong antecedents in British culture from the Romantic poets onwards; but even though the view of pagan witchcraft expounded by Margaret Murray can be shown to be false, modern witchcraft can nevertheless be seen to be descended from the types of magical beliefs and activities described by scholars such as Thomas.***** In other words, as a religion, it is a concrete expression of a number of strands of British philosophical thought and folk belief which have been rooted at some level in the national psyche since the medieval period.

However, that argument would seem to be the tail wagging the dog. Rather, modern Wicca became known in the mainstream for the same reasons that academics were studying the history of magical belief, and for the same reasons that popular entertainment was portraying the same themes. What these reasons were is presumably something deeper, and I am not enough of a cultural historian to tell you what they were and are. I do think it is somehow significant, though. At the start of the 1970s, something important was happening, culturally, that made the same themes arise right across the cultural spectrum: in academia, in film, in music and in religion. I feel as if, noticing the parallel dates between books and films, I’m trying to grip the edge of an iceberg.

* published in 1950 by Miba, in case you were wondering.

** you can see the event’s poster on Flickr.

*** Of course, other people might have said it before him, but I’m not well-versed enough in film history to know.

**** Incidentally, both The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw have fantastic soundtracks, although each very different in form.

***** Also incidentally, given that I bought my copy of Religion and the Decline of Magic on Cotham Hill, and that most of it has been marked up by a studious reader, the chances are it used to belong to someone studying on one of Professor Hutton’s courses.

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In which we know where the bodies aren’t buried

Archaeology news story of the week: British pagans have decided that archaeologist should hand prehistoric skeletons over to them for reburial. Which is, of course, a silly idea, and one that a lot of archaeologists have a problem with.

Archaeologists naturally tend towards conservation. It’s something that’s drummed into them all through their training: you can only dig something up the once, so once you have it in your hands you have to look after it. You store it away carefully, because you never know when you’ve managed to extract all possible information from it. That’s why throwing something away – and that’s what reburial amounts to in many ways – is anathema to an archaeologist. To most practical archaeologists, artefacts like skeletons are a bit of a nuisance. If you’re in the field, they lead to lots and lots of paperwork.* If you’re back at the lab, you have to look after them – artefact aftercare ends up costing about ten times as much as your average dig does, at the least.** But you still have to look after them, because otherwise you’re not really an archaeologist.

A pagan quoted in that article says:

Any story that is reconstructed from [prehistoric skeletons] will be an imagined past, which usually turns out to be a blueprint of the present imposed upon the past

Which is, indeed, true. But it’s also true of modern pagan religions, to be fair. Modern paganism is an entirely modern religion. It draws influences from prehistoric religions, but so do other modern-day religions such as Mormonism. There’s very little direct link between any religion today and any European religion of three thousand years ago, so any claim of continuity is rather suspect. For one thing, there’s a huge variety of religious practise in British prehistory, which suggests that religions changed in nature over time then just as they do now. At some times people were buried in graves as they are now; at some times they were buried, or exposed, and then their skeletons were taken apart and stacked up somewhere.*** At some times, they were cremated. Sometimes they were buried in a “partially articulated” state – which means the body was still meaty enough for some of the major joints to hold together, but rotten enough for some big bits to have dropped off. In East Yorkshire, rich people were buried in chariots; which just goes to show that people from East Yorkshire have always been slightly strange.****

Which of those different types of burial represents different religions? It’s hard to say, because religion doesn’t always determine burial type. Which of them represents any of the various strands of modern paganism? None of the above. There’s no reason why remains shouldn’t be treated with respect; but equally there’s no reason why any modern religion should claim to have responsibility over them.

* especially for skeletons, because there’s all sorts of legal paperwork to fill in to prove you didn’t just bury the body the other week.

** and digs are bloody expensive

*** this, with burial, is more or less what happened from medieval times through to the 18th century; it was only after that that people started to see the grave as “eternal rest”.

**** no, really, the Iron Age archaeology of East Yorkshire really is rather distinct, and different to anywhere else in the whole of Britain.

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The truth

In which we are worried about the New Puritans

I’ve spoken several times before about the proposed Extreme Pornography Bill. Which will, it’s planned, criminalise possession of pornographic pictures which appear to show people at risk of serious harm.

There are a few keywords in the proposals which suggest that some of its drafters do care, at least, about trying to make sure the bill only applies to very extreme stuff. Any videos with certificates, for example, would be exempt, because the bill is only intended to apply to things which would be too extreme to pass the censors to start with. The wording is still very vague, though, and leaves convictions down to the whims of judge and jury. Nevertheless, there is plenty of reason to be worried. The bill’s drafters are not those who will use it. Whether people get convicted under it may well end up depending entirely on where they live.

A short digression: Edinburgh has two big seasonal tourist attractions you’ve probably heard of: the Festival season, and the Hogmanay celebrations. You might not have heard, though, of its third big seasonal event: Beltane. Revellers climb Calton Hill to watch a grand fire-juggling performance. Some do treat it as a religious festival, but most are just there to have a good time;* and, like the other two events, people come to watch from all over the world.

You’d think Edinburgh City Council would support Beltane, it being one of the main tourist-attracting events outside the main season. They’re generally not very supportive at all, though – their support has always been lukewarm, if visible at all. And the reason for this, it is rumoured,** is the strong evangelical Christian faction on the city council. They see the Beltane celebration as Satanic and Evil, and definitely not something to be encouraged. They may be completely wrong, but they have positions of power.

BDSM isn’t evil, but there are certainly people who think that it is. If a high-ranking police officer was of that opinion, he could easily try to use this bill to push forward his own personal opinion on it. He may think that pornography itself is evil – certainly, there are people out there who say they want to ban “all pornography”*** There’s a high chance that such a hypothetical policeman would waste an awful lot of time and money aiming this bill at harmless Sensible Pervs, just because he doesn’t like what they do in the bedroom.

A lot of people on the BDSM scene are worried that this bill isn’t just a move against pornography, it’s a move against them personally; a move by a puritan government towards directly attacking people who don’t fit their own straitlaced morality. Maybe some of the bill’s supporters do indeed think that. You might not care about that, yourself, either because you’ve never had a kinky thought in your head, or you’ve never admitted that you do. The Sensible Pervs, though, are ordinary people just like you and me, ordinary people whose acceptance of their own psychological makeup has led some of them into wonderfully deep and supportive relationships. The bus driver who drives you to work, the signalman signalling your train, the IT guy fixing your computer or the shopkeeper of your neighbourhood shop – they could all, for all you know, have sex lives far kinkier than anything you can imagine. But, moreover, at the same time they’re all ordinary people just like you. And an attack on any of the ordinary people in our communities, is an attack on everybody.

(this post was inspired by Blogging For Backlash)

* like all the men who hang around Calton Hill on all the other nights of the year, it being Edinburgh’s closest equivalent to Hampstead Heath

** but it’s likely to be pretty close to the truth, because I heard it from a senior Beltane Fire Society official a few years ago

*** and they tend to think that the definition of pornography, too, is self-evident.

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In which we wonder where religions come from

The big problem with three-day weekends* is that you start wishing they were four-day ones.

I didn’t do much for the May Day weekend. Lazed around in the house, then on Monday popped out to York for the day. As it was May 1st, I automatically thought of Edinburgh, and the raucous, fire-whirling Beltane celebrations on Calton Hill.

The Beltane celebrations are very popular in Edinburgh, largely with students and tourists who leap at the chance to do something Celtic, Spiritual and Traditional. Which, of course, is rubbish; Edinburgh Beltane is an entirely modern event, with no connection to some ancient mystical past. That doesn’t mean it isn’t religious and spiritual, of course – we all make our own religions. Although most of the performers are interested primarily in giving a performance, there are a few pagans among the Beltane organisers who see it, personally, as a religious ritual. They are the ones who, if the Christian Fundamentalist wing of Edinburgh Council succeed in getting it blocked,** will sneak away for a private ceremony in a quiet field somewhere, without the fire jugglers and drunken students.

As I said, we all make our own religions. Back home on Monday, I said a quiet and submissive prayer to the Goddess. Not because I believe she exists, but because I believe she might; and you never know what other gods were listening at the time. It’s always nice to think you’re receiving a bit of spiritual guidance, whether it comes from the supernatural world or not.

* apart from them being largely bunched together, as Diamond Geezer has described.

** No, really – there is a small-but-significant Christian Fundamentalist faction in Edinburgh Labour Party, who constantly do their best to block what they see as a Satanist festival. I used to know someone who was closely connected with the Beltane Fire Society, which is how I know all this – although it might be a few years out of date now.

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