A quick look at Netflix reveals a large variety of documentaries of interest to Witches and Pagans. They range from scientific features on the solar system to “historical” explorations of famous myths and legends. Cut to accommodate commercials and still fit into a one-hour time slot, these features tend to blaze over large territories of history and make connections among events that strict academics would blush at. But we should still pay attention to them because they represent how the outside world sees us and, more importantly, how popular media represents us to the mainstream, which in turn affects how non-Pagans treat us. We have a stake in how others see us. For this reason, I’d like to explore the various documentaries of interest to modern Pagans to find how they define us, how they depict us, and how they explain us.
The first one I came across was A&E’s Ancient Mysteries: Witches. This short documentary takes on a daunting task that even experienced Witches would have trouble with: explaining the development of Witchcraft from the Stone Age, through the Burning Times, and into its modern expression, all the while appeasing historians and modern Pagans, avoiding offending Christians, and entertaining mainstream viewers. This is a really narrow road to follow, one that does not allow for too many large claims to be made, but, if you take these obstacles into account, it’s a pretty good introduction to Witchcraft.
Not surprisingly, the documentary begins with the ancient goddess-worshipping cultures. While it tends to conflate the practices of early female “priests” with the modern ceremonial aspects of Wicca, the tone is sympathetic and reasonable. We are told of how the tribal people of the time lived dependent upon the cycles of nature, and how the magic workers of the time took care of their people. This nicely sets up the later accusation of midwives and herbalists during the inquisition as well as the modern return to a reverence for nature’s patterns.
The coming of warrior tribes with masculine battle gods who gradually demote the goddesses to inferior positions is then covered. This is a somewhat simplistic storyline that is well known to many of us, but from the outsider’s perspective, it helps explain the coming of monotheism and the transformation of the powerful woman into the hideous baby-eating witch. Conjectures about the origins of many of the stereotypes of the witch, from flying on broomsticks to midnight orgies with Satan, are discussed during this section. Again, the strict historian may have bones to pick with some of the material, but the nature of the discussion makes the topic approachable to the mainstream viewer.
This section naturally leads into the inquisition and the Burning Times, focusing, of course, on the infamous Malleus Maleficarum. It links the Bubonic Plague with the epidemic of seeking, torturing, and murdering “witches,” explaining that the people of the time had only supernatural explanations for the death that surrounded them in its ever-tightening grip. The particular role of the Malleus, according to A&E, was to single out women as the source of all of these supernatural attacks, as Kramer and Sprenger definitely seemed to have had a severely twisted hatred of all things feminine.
While a large amount of time is spent on the Burning Times and the Salem trials, the estimates of the number of victims is conservative. The range tops out at 600,000. The documentary moves on to explain that the mechanistic view of science put a stop to the inquisition.
To me, it’s the explanation of the modern revival that brings up the most questions. Margaret Murray is prominently featured, and the narrative jumps directly from the academic discrediting of her work to the “thousands of people” who practice Wicca despite Murray’s flaws. The tone is not cynical. Wiccans are equated more with ancient followers of nature’s cycles than with Murray’s universal goddess witch cult, but there are nuances of steps between the two that are not given due consideration.
Prominent figures in the development of Wicca are not even mentioned. Gerald Gardner’s name is never spoken. This is extremely odd given one of the documentary’s other flaws: Wicca is the only modern expression of Witchcraft that is mentioned. If today’s Witchcraft is exclusively Wicca, as A&E would have viewers believe, then shouldn’t Wicca’s creator, his companions, and his influences be at least mentioned? How can you discuss the 20th century revival of the Craft without paying at least a little attention to Gardner, Crowley, Valiente, or Sanders? Janet Farrar and other modern practitioners are interviewed, which redeems the storyline a little bit, but it is in this section which presents the most incomplete picture of the development of Witchcraft. The documentary and its mainstream viewers would have benefited from a little less detail on the tortures of the Burning Times and a little more on how Wicca and Witchcraft came to be a part of the modern religious landscape.
Still, given its limitations, Ancient Mysteries: Witches is an even-handed introduction to a topic that is usually met with cynicism, disbelief, and mockery. It has to walk a very thin line, and for the most part it succeeds. A new Pagan, seeking some basic information, could get a good foundation out of this brief narrative. It also has a lot to offer to the parent or friend of someone who has recently come out of the broom closet. Since the central story is the vilification of Witches over the century and a positive spin on modern practice, this little discussion could put to ease a lot of the common fears held by the loved ones seeking to understand what Paganism and Witchcraft are all about. Witches are explained to the casual viewer, not mocked or sensationalized, and perhaps that single fact makes this documentary a valuable part of the modern discourse on Witchcraft.