Aug 292010

The camera surveys the scene from above; a house has burned to the ground. Fire-fighters finish up in the background as investigators move in. A crow caws ominously. We learn that the source of the fire was a lit candle, and that a circle of some kind of fine powder has been spread around the house. A metal wardrobe has survived the flames. Pried open- it reveals (in shocking closeup) a woman’s skeleton, dressed in white. The Brainy Female investigator determines that the skeleton is real; the bones very old; that they were defleshed naturally, and re-articulated.

The cawing of carrion birds leads them to another body, on whom the burning house collapsed. A pair of feet poke out from the wreakage- feet clad in red shoes. The Brainy Female looks at her partner, the Hunky Guy. “Don’t say it.”

He does anyway- “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

A review of the most recent effort by the entertainment industry to fit Wicca into a story-line: Bones, “The Witch in the Wardrobe,” (Season 5, Episode 20, air-date: May 6, 2010), reveals an impressive pastiche of Witchcraft references, woven into a mystery of sorts; it definitely wins the blue ribbon for “most citation” of outside sources.

The title alone, with the mysterious element of a white-clad skeleton stored in a wardrobe, is clearly inspired by The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, as the puzzling circumstance of red shoes poking from beneath a collapsed house is borrowed from The Wizard of Oz- provoking a quip of Dorothy’s famous line.

In the Lab, overseeing the two bodies- well, one body, one skeleton- the Hunky Guy asks of the Brainy Lady, “What about the Wicked Witch of the East?”- meaning the body with the red shoes (she was dead before the fire started, the Brainy Lady reveals- dead of multiple stab wounds). The sealed wardrobe protected the skeleton from the fire; it was that of a woman, apparently dis-interred, her bones strung back together. A white wedding-dress was then put upon her.

The Hunky Guy is incredulous: “Someone robbed a grave to dress her in a wedding dress?”

Yup- seems to be what happened. Moreover- and here’s what’s really fascinating: the woman appears to have subjected to a “kind of torture used in the seventeenth century.” Her bones indicate that she was crushed to death; her “injuries are consistent with a form of punishment used during the Salem Witch trials.”

The Hunky Guy is impressed. “She was a Witch?” And with a tight close-up of the dead Witch’s skull- we cut to the opening credits.

Please notice that- as the lead-in to the show alone- That Bones Episode has managed to link together (kind of like a re-articulated skeleton): C.S. Lewis; The Wizard of Oz; and Salem.

After the first commercial break, the Brainy Lady and the Hunky Guy are meeting socially with a Brainy Guy of their acquaintance. He is suitably intrigued by their latest investigation. “A real Salem Witch!” He goes on to explain that his “first published work” was on the “collective sociopathology” behind the Salem Witch-trials.

This is actually interesting, in that it is an acknowledgement (albeit brief) of what we consider today to be the most compelling cause behind the Salem hysteria- a sort of “collective sociopathology” at work.

The Brainy Lady makes another useful point, as she replies that “Witchcraft is a completely acceptable subject of study. Most cultures believe in a supernatural force elicited through ritual”- pointing out, as an instance, that the Hunky Guy goes to church.

This is an intelligent observation. Anthropologists agree that most human societies believed in Witchcraft, with interesting similarities and dis-similarities in belief. Despite the fact that- for some centuries- Witchcraft was held to be an embarrassingly superstitious relic of the past, scholars such as Anne Llewellyn Barstow, Jeffrey Burton Russell, Norman Cohn, Christina Larner, Keith Thomas, and Carlo Ginzburg demonstrate that the study of Witchcraft is both a valid and a revelatory pursuit.

The Brainy Lady continues (and here is where we find our first reference to Wicca): “Although most Witches today align themselves with Wicca, Witchcraft is an extremely heterogeneous subject, including the Dark Arts and sacrifices.”

Here too is an important point, although one which a lot of Wiccans (I believe) would prefer to down-play. Witchcraft- a ancient concept found in the most primitive of peoples (and described as an Art and a Craft in the Middle Ages)- is a complex business. As the Brainy Bones Lady notes, most modern “Witches” self-identify with Wicca, stressing the need for “Good Karma Magick,” Positive Intention, and dedication to Healing ritual.

However, Witchcraft has historically comprised hexes, curses, death-magicks, vengeance-spells; moreover- and here’s the thing that we keep finding as we look at Witchcraft in folklore and entertainment- Dark Arts Practicing Witches, cackling with wicked fury over the calamities which they will unleash upon their foes and enemies, are kind of more dramatic and interesting than Good Witches who only deal in “White Light” energies.

It’s kind of a dictum that Those Who Fall to the Dark Side are more compelling than those who adhere to the Just (however more noble that may be)- Vader kind of steals Star Wars, and if Witches and Wizards didn’t Go Bad periodically, we wouldn’t have The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Snow White, or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

By stressing the “heterogeneous” nature of Witchcraft, the Brainy Lady (1) makes a reasonable observation, and (2) justifies the use of Bad Witch characters in entertainment- if some Witches don’t go Bad, it is very difficult to have a dramatic Witch story-line.

At the same time- please note that she is very careful to say: “Most Witches today align themselves with Wicca.”

Its use in this sentence almost guarantees that “Wicca” means “Ethical Practice” Witchcraft. The two will engage in more dialogue about “Good” versus “Bad” Witches; the Brainy Lady will continually assert that Wiccans are “Good”: “Wiccan ceremonies worship Nature and the sanctity of Life above all else”; “Wiccans stand for goodness.”

Further investigation reveals that the woman in the red shoes (who died of multiple stab wounds) owned the house; her brother is interviewed by the investigators.

“My sister got into some weird stuff- [his throat chokes for a moment] Witchcraft.” She began to call herself “Zaphira,” and was angry that the world misunderstood what Witchcraft was. “I wished her mind would go back to normal if she saw more people.”

A developer who had approached Zaphira about buying the house swore he would never mess with her again. “She had spooky stuff inside- candles, some spooky symbol on the chimney- an evil Witch mad at me, I don’t need- she cursed me!”

The investigators decide it is time to “talk to the local coven,” and here is where Wiccans enter the picture.

The local coven turns out to be the Circle of Moon-Wick, and that very night is their “Waning Moon Ceremony”; the Brainy Guy has discovered this by logging on to their web-site, using “Lilith82″ as a screen-name. The Hunky Guy is amazed: “Witches have web-sites?”

I think this is a little “dig” at modern Wicca, as being a very Internet-oriented religion. The Zeitgeist seems to perceive Wiccans as being rather tech-savvy, with much web-organizing and communicating. In The Simpsons episode where Lisa discovers Wicca, she looks up “Wicca-pedia, the Wiccan Home-Page”: both a joke on “Wikipedia,” and a gag (I think) on the idea that there would be just one, official Wiccan Home-Page. In Three Moons Over Milford, the teen Wiccans consult “” in designing their Magick Circle.

All of these instances appear to imagine Wiccans as maintaining a powerful Internet presence, presumably possessed of a number of computer skills. As computer fluency is highly esteemed, perhaps Wiccans should play up this perception.   

The Brainy Lady and the Hunky Guy decide to check out the Waning Moon Ceremony of the Circle of Moon-Wick. “Witch-hunt tonight? I’ll bring the candles and broomsticks.” (Kind of could have done without the flippant joke about Witch-Hunting.)

There is- in Witch shows- a near universal desire to watch Witches perform Witchcraft. This was so well-understood during the Elizabethan Age that Shakespeare carefully structures Macbeth around the Witchcraft Scenes, as Jonson does in The Sad Shepherd, realizing that what will really grab the audience is on-stage Witchcraft. In like manner, we are treated to this scene in Bones, where the two investigators sneak through high grass, to peep upon the Craft of Witches (kind of like- it reminds me- Robin Hood’s men steal into the woods in The Sad Shepherd, to spy upon the Witch Maudlin as she performs her Art). The Brainy Lady seems almost to treat this as an Anthropology experiment: “Fascinating!”

What do we see? A group of robed women, in a circle. They have torches set up at various points along their circle-space. They sway and dance. One woman holds up a mini-effigy, a charm made of tied twigs. The Hunky Guy stage-whispers to the Brainy Lady, “What’s with the Blair Witch thing?”

Aha! Another Witch reference! And we’re only at the half-hour mark.

What do we hear? The women chant- but in some strange tongue that I do not recognize. Here’s the thing- they don’t chant “We all come from the Goddess” or “She changes everything She touches.” We could understand that, and relate to it.

Instead, it is some odd, non-understandable chanting- which has a distancing effect between the viewer and the Witches, and leaves the Witches seeming mysteriously (and suspiciously) foreign somehow.

Then the Witches (in one choreographed move) throw off their cloaks- and commence ecstatic, sky-clad dance in their circle (their bodies artfully turned from the camera).

The Hunky Guy winces and asks his partner in an aside, “Why is it always the people we DON’T want to see naked?” This is a remark that is (1) not supported by what we see on the screen: all of the Witches are Hollywood gym-toned, and none of them are out of shape. (2) I guess the Hunky Guy does not realize that jokes about people’s body-types are super no, no, no in the modern Craft. From here on, the Hunky Guy will exhibit a belittling and contemptuous tone towards Wicca.

Then, as the Witches perform what we recognize as the Energy-Raising portion of their ritual: just before the fade-out, in a cool special effects moment- the flames of the Witches’ torches are CGI-ed together, so that we see that they form a Pentagram of Mystical Fire.

We cut to a commercial for Dove Hair Care products.

When we return, we meet two of the Wiccans. They have re-robed themselves, and wear necklaces designed after that “Full Moon with Crescent Moons on either Side” style. Their Wiccan names are Rowan and Ember; Rowan (who appears to be the High Priestess) informs the investigators starchily: “We will give you the names that Society has assigned us- but NOT in the sacred Grove!”

The Hunky Guy gets sarcastic: “Oh! Dancing naked is OK, but Christian names are forbidden?”

Rowan (who seems ready to get into it with him), points out that, “We were not doing anything wrong; why do you disrupt our religious service?”

Well, the point about the disrupted religious service goes to Rowan, and the Hunky Guy appears a little confrontational and judgemental about the naked dancing. At the same time, Rowan starts to come off as a little strident about her Wicca- “We will NOT give you the names that Society has assigned us in the sacred Grove!” I don’t believe that I have ever met a Witch who’s Social identity was so severely separated from her Wiccan one. For the record, I don’t believe that- if crime investigators show up, whether in the sacred Grove or not, asking about a recent murder victim- it’s shafting Wicca to be forthcoming with the “name that Society has assigned you,” along with the ID that Society has assigned you; it’s being a good citizen and co-operating with law enforcement.

Asked by the Brainy Lady if the “Blair Witch” totem she carried represented Zaphira, Ember replies that they were “marking the end of Zaphira’s corporeal life; we were celebrating the reunification of her spirit with the elements.” Rowan (in her starchy manner) informs that Zaphira was NOT a member of their coven; “She used to perform Magick for PROFIT!”

Asked by the Brainy Lady if- oh, say- the skeleton of a Salem Witch would be useful in Magick, Rowan allows that such a thing would be an “immensely powerful relic.”

Some more research is performed upon Zaphira’s background. As one investigator tells the other, “Zaphira was a Dark Witch- maybe a Satanist! The coven was afraid of her.” A man is located who hired Zaphira (“She performed Magick for PROFIT!”) to curse his “bitch of an ex-wife” on his behalf. To this end- wait for it, wait- he gave Zaphira: his wife’s white wedding dress, to use as a hexing agent.

He explained that he was supposed to pay $3000 if the curse “took”; $2000 if it didn’t. He pauses, crestfallen. “It didn’t take.”

But wait- there’s more. Further autopsy has revealed that- not only did Zaphira die of multiple stab wounds, to have a fiery house fall on top of her- she also had bat-bones shoved down her throat.

Yup, that’s right. Bat-bones, down her throat.

But wait- remember how there were two bodies recovered from the crime-site (well, one body and one skeleton, dressed in a white wedding dress)? This skeleton, as the Brainy Lady tells the Hunky Guy excitedly, was “subjected to a form of torture called ‘pressing,’ which was last used in the Salem Witch-trials!” Remember how before, she referred to a “kind of torture used in the seventeenth century,” the skeleton’s injuries being “consistent with a type of punishment used during the Salem Witch-trials”?

This is a little bit tricky, as this is kind of/sort of correct- but incorrect enough to give us a skewed idea of the Salem Witch-business. As the Brainy Lady mentions in a throw-away aside (“in addition to an eighty-year-old man”), she is basically talking about Giles Corey, an eighty-year-old farmer in Salem, who famously was crushed to death by having heavy stones piled upon his chest until his bones broke.

The way Bones presents the case, it sounds as if (1) torture was routinely used upon accused Witches at Salem, and (2) “pressing” was a routine custom in general. Both impressions are incorrect; a nuance that is missing is that Corey (accused of Witchcraft, and arrested) was “pressed” because he would not enter a plea at his trial. He was not tortured either (1) to force a confession of Witchcraft out of him, or (2) as a punishment for Witchcraft; he was pressed in order to compel him to plead either “guilty” or “not guilty.” Moreover, “pressing” in general was not a routine thing for the Puritans; they recognized it as an ancient and extreme measure.

The venerable Mr. Corey, of course, has acquired a special place of his own in the Salem History for his defiance; although considerably advanced in years (dramatically so by their standards), Corey was enough of a hearty New England farmer to withstand pressing for two days, periodically gasping out, “More weight!” When he finally succumbed, in a grotesque after-note- one very callous Puritan standing nearby poked Corey’s protruding, purple tongue back into his mouth with the end of his walking-stick. 

So- technically- yes, “pressing” was a “form of torture used during the Salem Witch-trials.” But- it was used only once, in exceptional circumstances, and was not really applied because of Witchcraft one way or another.

It is important to remember that- unlike Continental Europe- England (and therefore the English colony of Salem; all of these people still consider themselves English, you know) did not torture in order to force confessions of Witchcraft. The English made a point to follow routine jurisprudence in their judging of Witchcraft, meaning, among other things, that the accused Witches were able to defend themselves and face their accusers in an open court. It is an interesting peculiarity of the Salem Business that (with the Puritan emphasis on bringing sinful souls back into Redemption) villagers who confessed to Witchcraft were spared execution. It was those who denied Witchery who hanged as Unrepentant Sinners.

As Bones gives us the impression of a Salem run-amok with accused Witches being pressed to death every which way- it invents a wholly fictitious woman named “Ellen Quimby,” the “only woman” to so die at Salem.

Want to guess whose skeleton was hanging in Zaphira’s locker, dressed in a white wedding dress? Indefagitable investigation has revealed that Ellen Quimby’s grave in Salem was robbed six months previously. Elucidation dawns on the Hunky Guy: “The Witch dug up the Old Witch’s bones to increase her own power!”

But wait- there’s more. A quick genealogical survey of the past three hundred years indicates that a direct descendant of Ellen Quimby’s is- wait for it- Ember, of the Circle of Moon-Wick!

Time to call in Ember for some more questioning.

In the interview room, Ember wishes to be called by her Witch-name; this earns her the Hunky Guy’s brusque impatience: “It’s time to step out of the magical forest! Zaphira dug up your ancestor’s bones to use in what you call ‘Dark Rites!’ You stabbed your victim and you shoved bat-bones down her throat!”

Ember is horrified: “Bat-bones are an intregal part of my religion! But I swear upon the Goddess, I am incapable of such violence!”

OK- I’m psyched to come across a TV Witch who (“upon the Goddess”) foreswears violence. For the record- I have yet to come across a single Wiccan for whom bat-bones are an integral part of their Practice. I’m trying to imagine suggesting to my coven that we try a “Bat-Bone Ritual,” and I’m thinking of the weird looks and “eews” that I’d probably get.

The Brainy Lady thinks that she has the solution. Noting that Zaphira’s injuries follow the pattern of a Pentagram (“an ancient Wiccan symbol that stands for solidarity, some say, Sisterhood”), she thinks back to how the Wiccans used their “ceremonial objects” during their Circle. Then recalling the ring of fine powder that had been made around Zaphira’s house (“a person inside the Circle is safe from the Dark Forces”), the answer is made known to the Brainy Lady.

Analysis discovers that the fine powder was rye-flour- but (wait)- rye-flour that had become infected with ergot (a mold that will grow on damp rye-grain)! The deal with ergot is that ingesting it will produce bizarre hallucinatory effects, akin to taking LSD. According to the Brainy Lady, ergot was used “for ceremonial purposes centuries ago in Salem; the same substance is thought responsible for the Salem hysteria in the first place.”

Again, Bones places us on kinda-sorta ground here. It is true that ergot-ingestion will produce sensations very like those complained of at Salem as “Bewitchment,” and it is a theory that the Salem Witch-Craze was started by mis-diagnosis of ergot-infection as Witchcraft. I have no idea what the Brainy Lady means when she says that ergot was used “for ceremonial purposes centuries ago in Salem.” She seems as if she wants to give the impression that there were active Witches in Salem in the late 1600s, using ergot in ceremonial rituals- but given the strict Puritanism of Massachusetts at the time, I think that is impossible.

Therefore- after having made a Magick Circle of rye-flour (contaminated with ergot-mold), in order to “prevent Zaphira’s evil from spreading beyond the Circle,” the Wiccans fell under the hallucinatory influence of ergot, and “thought that the demons that they were slaying were real!”

As the Hunky Guy sums up, “Those Wiccans- those White Witches who stand for Goodness- were stoned out of their mind!” “Those naked ladies were tripping!”

Ember is desperate to explain: “We were just trying to help! We wanted Zaphira to live in harmony; we just wanted to restore balance. She kept cursing and casting evil spells!”

Even the Hunky Guy sees the virtue of Wiccans by the end. “These good people who butchered another human being were carried away- not in their right minds. They thought that they were being attacked.”

As the show’s conclusion, the Hunky Guy gives the Brainy Lady an image “given to me by the Witches.” Its purpose is to make a wish come true. He looks at the Brainy Lady meaningfully. “I wish you find happiness.”

Close to credits.

As I say, an impressive collation of Witchcraft references, leaving out only Goya and HR Pufnstuf.

Stuff that I liked about the show: is a slender category indeed. I appreciated some of the more intelligent thoughts expressed- most cultures believe in a supernatural force that can be elicited through ritual; Witchcraft is a complex and heterogeneous subject, encompassing both Dark and Light Magick. Hearing the appropriate pieties about Wicca was nice- Wiccans align themselves with the Good; Witches worship Nature and the sanctity of Life. This is an example of the degree to which Wicca has emerged as a Minority Religion, I feel, that it is necessary to pepper a Witch-show with pro-Wiccan sentiments; this actually is useful for Wiccans, one considers, if Witch-shows increasingly broadcast the idea, “Wiccans are Good! Wiccans are Good!” Kind of like free Public Service Announcements for Wicca.

Stuff that I didn’t like: the attitude of the Hunky Guy investigator offended me, as he seemed to feel entitled to dismiss Wicca as a La-La-Land kind of Dippy Practice (“It’s time to step out of the Magic Forest!”) This contemptuous attitude is especially unfortunate in a law enforcement professional; I notice that at the end, the character appears to make a very superficial turn-around, concluding the show apparently having decided that Witches are OK after all.

While I don’t believe that a fictional TV show has to reflect scrupulously accurate history, the picture of Salem that Bones puts forth is pretty fanciful.

More than anything, I didn’t care for the Wiccans in the show. Rowan seemed like the sort of power-controlling, uptight, strident High Priestess I would warn people away from, and Ember comes across looking like her ego-battered acolyte. Wicca manages to look awfully weird and cultish in this show (“We will NOT give you the names Society assigned us in the sacred Grove!”) It fails a test of mine: I ask myself, would I want to meet the Wiccans on a certain show or not? Would I want to practice with them?

Rowan I think I would want to run the other way from.

Considering that the Wiccans appear to have home-invaded Zaphira, tripping over ergot-tainted rye-flour, in the course of restraining her “evil,” and stabbing her to death while trapped in a Reefer Madness-like delusion- I can’t say that these people strike me as admirable role-models.

Superficially the show demonstrated Wiccan ritual (of a sort)- but I’m pretty sure that the main objective was to show some naked women in a boundaries-pushing TV show, while plugging a sensationalized “WITCHCRAFT” story-line.

On the whole, I don’t feel that the Community was well-served by this program. 

As far as I can figure, too- it was never explained why Zaphira had red Dorothy-shoes on her feet; I guess she just hung out at home like that.

 Posted by at 9:08 pm  Tagged with:

  11 Responses to “(Wicca in Television): That Bones Episode”

  1. I got a good laugh early in the series when Brennan and Booth were arguing about religion, and Brennan said to him, “People don’t worship Odin or Zeus anymore.” The heathen in me thought it was absolutely hilarious.

    To be fair, most religious belief and practice on the show is treated in an interesting manner. Booth is a good Catholic boy, but Brennan certainly isn’t religious, and that’s seen as being okay. Although Zack’s purely rational behavior was…very different.

  2. I do think we tend to take these individual episodes out of the context of the series when we talk about them, though. I am not a fan of the show BONES myself but I do know the character of Booth (Hunky) is usually cynical and snarky so his attitude toward Wicca is no different than his attitude to other things they encounter.

  3. As to ergot mold, I don’t believe that anybody during that ear knew what it was at all, so it’s doubtful that it was intentionally used by anybody in ritual. Leastwise, I’ve never heard or read about anybody using it.

    However, ergot mold has been connected with a number of European werewolf crazes which resulted in numerous executions until each infected community had run its course.

  4. Ananta makes an important point- In his book Ecstasies, Carlo Ginzburg notes so many connections in vernacular language between ergot (“mad-wheat” or “mad-rye”) and werewolf-ism as to make credible a connection between the two- hooray for noticing!

  5. There were many things in this particular episode of “Bones” that irked me, not the least of which was the fluffy-bunny Wicca being practiced by the Busby Berkeley trained upper-middle class desperate housewives. The first was that it was written by Kathy Reichs herself. I expected a better treatment, not the cheap shots. Is there a pagan out there who doesn’t know the history of Salem better than Dr. Lance? Just insulting. And the whole ergot thing. Herbalism may not be everyone’s interest in the Craft, but we all know enough to be aware of the dangers our ‘spell components’ might present. And the bit with the name. Really. Here’s Hunky Guy smarming about a name change when, as a good Catholic boy, he himself took a new name at confirmation. Excellent represention of hypocrisy, though.

    “Wiccans” are good; “witches” are evil. Practicing the Craft “disengages your brain”. What nonsense. I say to them what my grandmother would have said: “Feh!”

  6. The awkward and artificial stilted speech-pattern of the episode’s “wiccans” didn’t endear them to me, either.

  7. Nice detailed review of the show. I don’t watch Bones but I’m familiar with the characters and format. I am big proponent of Wiccan’s using mainstream culture to propel the religion into acceptance. Anything that mentions the religion is a step forward – it gets dialogue started and gives us the opportunity the teach. Yes, some of the dramatization and presentation sounds destructive to our PR – but 30 years ago, it wouldn’t have even been on TV at all. You have to start somewhere!


  8. [...] woman.  In doing so, they experience the Wiccan world complete with a sky-clad ritual.    The Juggler has a comprehensive commentary on this [...]

  9. [...] to consideration prior movies such as The Craft and TV shows like That Bones Episode, and it seems like Paganism exists in the same cultural space that Gay people did in the ’70s [...]

  10. Im just seeing this episode now (on netflix) and I was really looking forward to this episode (especially after the voodoo episode) but after currently watching it and the many religious inaccuracies its really depressing.

    The depiction of the good witches wasnt even correct but I suppose I was expecting too much from this episode. I actually expected an accurate representation but once again it seems like thats too much to ask for :/

  11. Welcome, Candace. Yeah, accurate representation is rare. Hollywood is, in the end, a business. (I used to live around there and that’s what we called it: the Industry. I had friends who worked in the legal side of the Industry). And so accuracy does not matter at all as long as it sells ad-space (in that paradigm). That’s why all groups outside of the dominant paradigm (including we Pagans) have to continually push for representation, and space for our view-points to be presented fairly and accurately.

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