Phenomenal Cosmic Powers: Wicca and Paganism in SFF

Imagine you’re reading an urban fantasy novel and your protagonist encounters Christianity for the first time. They think to themselves, “Wow, this really speaks to me! I think I’m going to be a Christian from now on.” And that decision is when it all changes for them. They have literal conversations with God about how the world should work according to the Divine Plan. They can suddenly perform miracles, astounding and converting their friends with their newfound abilities to walk on water or turn a bottle of Dasani into a bottle of Merlot. They do battle with demons, working their eventual way up to battling Satan.

And I’m fairly sure that the majority of your reactions fall into one of two categories: 1) “This sounds like the worst Christian propaganda series ever;” or 2) “This is amazingly insulting to Christians and Christianity.”

Welcome to how paganism and Wicca are treated in the vast majority of fictional works in which they appear.

In the vast majority of fiction in which Wiccans appear (sometimes more generic pagans, but more often than not it’s Wiccans, because Wicca is a named religion with established tenets and is easier to define), being Wiccan grants you all the coolness of magic and spells, and sure there’ll be some missteps along the way as you figure out how not to be selfish, but pffft, what’s a little selflessness when compared to the ability to influence the minds of people around you, or summon spirits to do your bidding?

All of this utterly misses that Wicca is an actual religion, Practiced by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. And sure, that’s a piddly number when put in perspective of a world population of over 7 billion, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to misrepresent it so often.

This is a particular bone of contention with me because I am pagan. I hesitate to call myself Wiccan even though most of my beliefs line up with that religion, and I prefer the more umbrella term of “pagan” for now, until such time as I discover a label that makes sense for me. I celebrate solstices and equinoxes. I believe in both male and female deities. I do spells, and spells in real-world context are literally nothing more than prayers with a little ritual and symbolism attached. So it bothers me when my faith gets represented as something that’s either evil or that grants you amazing powers to fling fireballs around.

I don’t think I’ve ever actually encountered a novel in which there’s a Wiccan character who is portrayed as just a typical person who adheres to personal religious beliefs.

For instance, if I’m going to do spellwork to try and bring luck to my life, it would probably involve a candle, maybe some different-coloured threads or ribbons I want to get fancy, and either a suitable rhyme (because rhyming stuff is easier to remember) or just a general, “Please let some good fortune come into my life,” prayer. Said as the moon waxes, to signify something increasing rather than decreasing. And then keeping an eye out for opportunities or trying to not focus on bad things. That’s about it. Really, no different than a Christian praying to God that they get some luck in their life.

But if you believe pop culture SFF representations of Wicca and Witchcraft, casting that spell would mean that suddenly I can do no wrong and everything happens in coincidental ways to line up just the way I want them.

Which would be awesome, but entirely unrealistic.

It would be one thing if I just kept encountering urban fantasy novels in which some characters were witches and had access to typical fantasy magic. Despite Wiccans typically refering to themselves as Witches and the practice of their religion as Witchcraft, I am perfectly capable of distinguishing the two things, and I don’t assume that every UF witch is also supposed to be Wiccan.

But I have encountered a sad number of novels, often targeted to young adult audiences, in which Wicca itself is something that grants fantasy magic to true believers.

Not just novels, either. As much as I adore Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’m less than fond of its portrayal of Wicca there, which falls into the same tropes and traps. Willow learns magic, which is fine and fits with the presentation of the supernatural established by the show, but then frequently conflates her magic with Wicca. In her first year of university, she goes to a Wiccan meeting and is disappointed that the other women there are talking about awareness and female empowerment and bake sale fundraisers as opposed to conjuration and elemental manipulation. She refers to them as “wanna-Blessed-Bes,” which is a funny line but it serves to more firmly establish in pop culture that real witches can float things and summon spirits from the afterlife. Anyone who can’t is just someone who’s all talk.

Arguments can absolutely be made for why this is done. Wicca is, admittedly, a pretty small and misunderstood religion, and positive portrayals, even inaccurate ones, can do wonders to help dispel the idea that Wiccans are just man-hating woman out to cause the destruction of the Western world. When it’s a choice between one or the other, I’ll take the one that presents us incorrectly but at least says we can be good people.

But like anything else in representation, this should be a stepping stone, not an end goal. And sometimes it seems like people have forgotten that. The positive portrayal boost seems to have stalled since the early 2000s. We’re not really a fad anymore.

But we’re still real people. And honestly, I think we deserve to be portrayed realistically.

I have not once encountered a book or movie or TV show in which a Wiccan character (or a character coded as Wiccan, by which I mean someone who typically calls themselves a witch, engages in goddess-worship, and does spellwork) is just a typical person going about their life. They’re written as phenomenal, either in-your-face with their religious expression, or else in possession of fantasy magic that is utterly unlike what happens in reality.

One year, in high school, I decided to dress up as a modern witch for Halloween. By which I mean that I came to school wearing my normal clothes. The only concession I made to appearance was bringing in a stick that I’d drawn some runes on and then covered in clear glittery nailpolish. Because sparkles equal magic. And nobody can cast magic without a wand anyway. (Har har.)

And even then, I knew that nobody would get it. I thought, in my teenage way, that I was being wonderfully clever, all tongue-in-cheek, but I look back on that now and think that it’s a little bit sad that even when I told people what I was, even saying I was a modern witch, they only got it once they saw the stick. If then. I’m not saying it was a fantastic costume or anything, but my whole point was that this is what modern witches look like. And nobody really understood.

Unless they were already pagan themselves.

Despite there being portrayals of “modern witches” on TV at the time, such as with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Charmed. Who dressed like stylish women with access to a great wardrobe department.

Witchcraft and Wicca was firmly in the realm of the fantastical, incompatible with reality.

I don’t think much has really changed since then.

I can understand where the problem lies. It’s all about the magic. And the witches. And people who can’t separate the realism from the fantastic. But where we have no problems with accepting that a monotheistic religion in a fantasy novel isn’t Christianity or some analogue for it, we do seem to have problems accepting that fantasy magic can be different from real magic. When people hear “magic,” their minds automatically go to elemental stuff, flinging fireballs and calling down lightning. Hell, my mind does that too. But at least I have the excuse of reading dozens of SFF novels every year. Chances are, the context in which people around me talk about magic is going to be fantasy magic.

And as I said before, I have no problem with that. I have a problem with characters being written as Wiccan, with the assumption that being Wiccan means access to fantasy magic.

Writing about real modern Witches would be boring. Slice-of-life stuff. You’d read stories about us going to work, grumbling about our bosses, coming home, cooking dinner, and then going to bed. Maybe with some special stories where we grumble about how we can’t decide what to bring for a Samhain potluck, or how irritating it is that the Dollar Store is out of green candles again. That’s when we get really Witchy, after all!

But that’s just it. We are normal people.

And we aren’t represented as such.

We’re represented as extraordinary and unreal.

It’s hard to be taken seriously when people don’t think your religion is as grounded in reality as anyone else’s.

A friend once asked me, “Do you still think you’re a witch?”

“I am,” I replied.

She looked doubtful.

Because so many others see our religion connected with something that can’t possibly be real, they assume that we, as believers, are delusional. That we can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what isn’t. The constant portrayals of Wiccans as those who Phenomenal Cosmic Powers don’t help. While it’s undoubtedly worlds better than having us all portrayed as evil, it’s not like being seen as delusional is a good thing.

Characters with magic are cool. Especially modern-day characters, because magic adds a new dynamic to a story. What’s life like when you can command your cat to spy on your neighbours? How do you cope when mumbling the wrong set of syllables under your breath causes the sprinklers in the office to go off? This is the stuff stories are made of. This is what can get us watching or reading about a character and wanting to know more about them and the lives they live. I understand entirely why storytellers would want to explore something like that.

But the real Wiccans of the world are done a huge disservice every time our faith is portrayed that way. It’s another inch on the wall between us and being taken seriously. It’s one more hurdle we have to overcome to convince others that no, we don’t believe we can do those things, any more than your average Christian believes they can walk on water just because they believe in God.

I’ve seen it argued, time and again, that when people write witches in urban fantasy, they’re not really writing Wiccans. Even when your witch character believes in a goddess and celebrates on Beltane and writes their own Book of Shadows, they’re not really Wiccan. Not even coded Wiccan. Not really.

I suppose the writer isn’t cherry-picking aspects of my religion in order to add elements to their story, then. Not really.

This sort of stuff really gets under my skin. I’m tired of being treated alternately as delusional or nonexistent. I’m tired of the constant portrayals of people who are nothing like me even as they claim to be there on my behalf. You want your Phenomenal Cosmic Powers, fine, but can you please, please, start separating those powers from a legitimate and recognized religion that many people hold dear? Because you’re not winning any points with us. And you’re making it harder for us to be taken seriously.

We don’t have those powers. We can’t influence the minds and hearts of others by our vast spiritual reserves, suddenly convincing people that we’re valid people and as wise or foolish as any other person with a religion. We can’t conjure fire out of thin air to convince you that our paths are valid paths to walk on. All we have is our word versus the word of pop culture, real stories versus flashy stories.

I want a pagan character who saves the world through their wits and cunning and tae kwon do skills, not because they’ve been granted lightning spells by their Great Goddess. I want a Wiccan who got their powers when they still called themselves Jewish, and only through other circumstances did they realise that Judaism wasn’t right for them anymore. I want a witch who isn’t a teenage cisgender girl, who finds her school overrun by monsters and she has to team up with a Muslim, a Sikh, and a Buddhist in order to figure out how to escape.

I want stories that portray us as real people, as more than the powers that literally none of us actually have. I want to have someone ask my religion and then not instantly do a mental jump to some supernatural-based TV show as their only touchpoint. I want to be honest about that aspect of myself and not worry that people wrongly think that I wrongly think I’m practically one of the X-Men.

It’s 2017. We’re past the 1990s and early 2000s. This should be an issue anymore. But like so many other issues that shouldn’t be, it still is. And I’m tired of it. And all it would take to change it is enough people taking us seriously enough to give a damn about portraying us decently, and caring enough to not fall into the flashy pitfalls dug by storytellers that came before.

Take us seriously.

Ask us question.

Write us properly.

3 comments on “Phenomenal Cosmic Powers: Wicca and Paganism in SFF

  1. Sheena Cundy, The Magic and The Madness – novel about a menopausal witch. A Dangerous Place, Robin Herne – short story collection. Anna Mckerrow’s witch series are a bit on the fantastical side, but closer than not, Celia Rees Witch Child is good. Carol Lovekin’s Ghostbird has regular Pagans in it. But, some of these are pretty obscure, and in term of main stream representation I entirely agree with you.

  2. Pingback: January 2017 in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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