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Hunting for the Real Witch in Film

Author: BellaDonna Saberhagen
Posted: March 10th. 2013
Times Viewed: 3,139

So, I have heard much complaining from the Witchy community regarding Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Most of this complaining seems to be in regard to Hollywood making the witches evil, all female, glorifying their slaughter and also not making it reflective of what Witches really believe and practice. So, I’m going to compare three movies about witches and discuss the amount of lore found within the films, their accuracy and their overall awesomeness.

We’ll start with the one everyone’s been complaining about: Hansel and Gretel.

First, did you really think that somehow witches were going to be portrayed well in a movie about Hansel and Gretel? That’s like complaining that Germans are the bad guys in Schindler’s List. Joking aside, though, there is some lore that can be explored in this movie that is older than the “Iron-punk” (what else can you name pre-Steampunk technology?) feel of the film.

Before I get to the lore exploring, though, I want to go over something that we as Pagans tend to forget or willfully ignore. In pop-culture, witches are all women; male magic users are called wizards and warlocks. Hell, admit it, if someone came up to you and told you that someone with a gender-neutral name was a Witch, even you would assume this was a woman until you actually met. In modern Witchcraft, female practitioners outnumber men. I think part of the problem is we don’t have gendered forms of our words, but some words still feel gendered. Witch as a word has a feminine feel (maybe because it rhymes with other words associated with culturally designated women’s work, such as stitch, or with a horrible name we call each other that means female dog) , so we should not blame non-Pagans for taking it as such.

As for slaughtering them? These really aren’t “Witches”; these are more like magical zombies. Were you angry when Darth Vader killed Emperor Palpatine, saying that its discrimination against old men? I’m willing to bet you weren’t. These were frightening fairytale witches, like the Baba Yaga; they never were human; they were born with magic and decided to use it for evil. If the bad guys had been vampires feeding off children, their deaths would have been applauded (and I doubt the vampire sub-culture would be as upset as many modern Witches seem to be) . And if you want to start complaining about violence in action movies, then the action genre isn’t for you (but, at the same time, you cannot deny that these movies rake in millions and in the spirit of free speech, will never go away) ; stick with drama and sappy romantic comedies. If you think people really believe every movie they see, then you have less faith in humanity than you would care to admit. Yes, there are some crazies who think movies are real, but those are an infinitesimal minority.

The first bit of lore to pop up is that a taint of the soul manifests as physical ugliness (the witches are ugly because they have let evil in to fester) . This belief is very old. Remember the film 300? The hunchback was thrown over the cliffs as an infant because of his deformities. That was an actual belief from pre-Christian Europe that survived well into Christian times. Really, it still does exist, whether we want to admit it or not. Hollywood is as guilty, if not guiltier, of projecting the idea of beauty equals goodness as our ancestors were. While it’s lore we would prefer to ignore, it is still real lore.

The second thing that caught my attention was the feel of the artwork; it felt like early-modern era woodcuts (where we get many older classic images of the witch) . Even the witches themselves sort of had that feel. One thing I liked was the use of branches for flight. The old woodcuts have more images of witches using branches, wooden pitchforks, and distaffs for flight than they typically do of the now classic broom. Branches, pitchforks (stangs) and distaffs are symbols of the World Tree and as such are used to travel between worlds (or for “flight” as it were) , so the witches in the film using branches in such a manner felt more in keeping with the older form of art.

The third thing is the magic of the good witch (yes, there was one and if you had taken the time to watch the movie before condemning it, you’d know that) . She seemed to know the woods well, and knew of the healing powers of the waters and of sex. She used her knowledge of nature magic to heal Hansel more than once. Most of the world did not differentiate between good and bad witches, and until meeting her (among other spoilers that I will not get into) Hansel and Gretel didn’t even presume good witches existed (they are not physically obvious as they are not tainted like bad witches are and presuming they can manage to not do magic or act too witchy in front of regular folk, would probably pass by unnoticed) . That witches live in the woods and know the ways of the plants is old lore. The forest was the untamed wild to the medieval mind. That which has never been tamed by the Christian God resides therein. Those that willingly went into the woods were highly suspect. There was a reason outlaws lived in the forests of England, they lived outside of society, outside of the law, and that included the Christian God’s law.

The last thing is that there were bad witches. In folklore and myth, bad witches exist and have existed since long before Christian times. The stories of Medea and Circe were not meant to be about female empowerment, they were supposed to scare good little Greek girls into behaving as society would have them behave. Witch burnings started in pre-Christian Rome because the witches acted outside the standard religion and without the sanction of the government. Ancient pagans feared witches almost as much as seventeenth century Christians did. Magic was something viewed with suspicion when it was not granted through appropriate means (meaning go to a temple, give offerings, pray to whichever god appropriate and get the help of the clergy therein) . Witches were not the priesthood of the average ancient pagan. Witches were the people who lived outside of society you went to in desperation or because you could not travel to the necessary temple or afford to make the required pricey offerings. There are bad witches. Hell, if you compare me to a Wiccan who refuses to even bend the Rede, I’m a “bad” witch. Pretending that all witches are good (and by extension, all witches that ever were, were good but misunderstood and misrepresented) is as much a folly as the belief that all witches are evil.

Over all, the movie was awesome. The action was great; the plot was good, the acting was better than in most action/horror films. The movie neither tried to take itself too seriously, nor did it resort to being a spoof. There are amusing details infused throughout that prevent it from really feeling like a serious period piece. I give it two thumbs up for watch-ability, and one thumb for lore involved.

The next one I’m going to look at is an old favorite of many modern Witches: Practical Magic. In this movie, witches do good things like kill men and then resurrect them in an attempt to hide the evidence. Wait, what?

Really people, how can you love this movie as empowering and blast Hansel and Gretel? Don’t get me wrong, I love this film. However, I’m also not going to hold it up as a paragon of what real witches do. But, but…they celebrate the solstice and the moon is important! Yeah…let’s look at that for a second…

First, again, all witches are female (if you want to complain about this in other movies, you need to look at the ones you like) . In fact, in the book, the Owens women never have male children; only females are born (and have stubbornly elected to never take married names for centuries) .

When Sally gets the call from Jillian that she needs help, the aunts offer to watch the girls for her. However, they have to go to the Solstice celebration while Sally is away. When the aunts get back after the debacle of killing/resurrecting/re-killing Jimmy, they notice Jillian has a bruise by her eye. When the aunts sense the sisters are not telling them the truth about all that occurred and leave, Jillian still has this bruise. She still has it when Gary shows up looking for Jimmy, he says that it’s early for roses (this should be a flag, along with the fact that Sally is wearing only a tank-top on a New England morning when it’s “kinda early for roses”) . Later, when Sally goes to get interviewed by Gary (which is probably less than a week and most likely not more than a fortnight later) , he says that it is early March. What Solstice were the aunts going to celebrate just three weeks before? Mid-February is too late for the Winter Solstice and it’s way too early to be celebrating the Summer Solstice.

The closest things we get to actual lore in this movie are their awesome book, the use of herbs, and the idea of spiritual possession. None of the rituals used have any real spiritual significance (unless you’re somehow a devotee of Hektate) , the magic is completely fantastical (making herbs fly from a bowl, blowing candles “on”, magically stirring your cup of coffee, making magical margaritas by turning on the blender with your mind) . All of this makes for a very watchable and entertaining film, but it is not even remotely close to the practices of actual Witches.

So, why do we love this film and champion it? Well, the witches are the good guys, even if they do make some mistakes. There are no bad witches in the film at all. There is no Satan worship mentioned. This film, like the one above gets two thumbs up for watch-ability and one thumb up for lore involved (really more like half a thumb, but I’m not going to start hacking digits for this system) . Practical Magic was good PR for witchcraft, but if you want good PR and accuracy, you need to watch yet another film.

That film is called Drawing Down the Moon. Now, I admit I just watched this movie, having heard about it a while ago on the podcast Witch’s Brewhaha (or maybe it was the combined podcast Inciting a Brewhaha) , either way, Velma Nightshade mentioned it as the most accurate portrayal of modern Witchcraft in movies. She also said it was terrible and boring. I had to have it, and found it to purchase online on VHS. I had it for quite a while before getting around to it, but the hullaballoo over Hansel and Gretel instigated my watching it.

I wish I’d watched it earlier, as I actually live in the town in which it was filmed. At varying points, you actually see the building I work in and the building I park beside at my home. Needless to say, this fact probably made the film much more amusing for me than it would be for people who live anywhere else.

I would say there were three main characters, Faith Shields, a homeless cancer patient who narrates the film, Joe Merchant, played by Star Trek’s Walter Koenig and Gwynyth McBride, our heroine and Witch.

If you want a movie that actually goes into what Witches (or at least, Wiccans, as while I’m familiar with the techniques she used as a former Wiccan, they aren’t really that close to what I currently practice as Witchcraft) actually do, this is it. The only thing I questioned about the film was the attempt to dowse with a pendulum over a map in a moving bus that occurs at the very start of the film. I’m not picking on pendulum use, but it’s not really practical to attempt to do it in a moving vehicle. How can you tell if it’s the pendulum working or just the movements caused by bouncing around on a bus?

Anything that Gwynyth uses that isn’t specifically Wiccan has been folded into American-style Wicca from the New Age movement (aura cleansing and the like) , and so belongs in the film as much as her bare feet and hippy skirts.

The details in this movie’s magic are very specific. There is reference to the Horned God and the Moon Goddess. The casting of circles, the calling of the elements, the daily healing rituals for Faith’s cancer, the cleansing rituals used, all of it could be written down verbatim and sold as a ritual book for solitary Wiccans (I’m specifying solitary because there is no real coven-work within the film) . Even little things that would be overlooked, such as cutting a hole after the circle has been cast to exit the circle (something which reads a little silly to me as the popular image of the “magic circle” is actually a half-sphere and unless you make it several times larger than the ritual space itself, you’re poking out of the top of it if you go around the edge at all, which tends to happen a lot in Wiccan ritual) are used repeatedly.

The only thing missing is the Rede, and while Gwynyth explains most of her beliefs in dialogue, how she deals with the antagonists of the film shows this. She never hurts anyone, even when they use guns, beat her or threaten children; she only uses her staff and her training in Aikido to disarm them, get them off-guard and run away.

The film has no special effects beyond blank bullets, fake blood and make-up effects for bruises. It’s very low budget (Walter Koenig leaves the living room of his house only once in the entire film, which they justify by making him an alcoholic who is obsessed with mathematical Chaos Theory and how it can be used to help neuroscience) . Gwynyth’s magic has no flash bangs and it’s up to Faith’s narration to tell us what she was feeling during the rituals to make it seem more like magic and less like playing pretend. There was no miracle that had Faith cured by Gwynyth’s magic, even after Gwynyth leaves, Faith indicates that chemotherapy cures her later. In fact, we have no real indication that Gwynyth’s magic was real for anyone but her and maybe Faith. The more magic Gwynyth does, the more the homeless shelter and the people she is trying to help seem to be harassed by Mr. Merchant’s thugs (and no, I will not go into why an alcoholic mathematician has thugs…it’s one of the poor plot points of a movie that has many…really, it seems the plot of the thugs was added to actually get some action into a film that otherwise would have had picketers as the most threatening element) .

The one instance that we think maybe real magic occurred was when Gwynyth draws down the moon (hence the name of the movie) and Mr. Merchant’s equation falls into place at the same moment. I guess we’re supposed to link the two occurrences. By the end of the film, all the bad guys have either come to their senses and now want to help Gwynyth or have either accidently or purposely killed each other. Maybe that was Gwynyth’s magic, or maybe it was just her way of protecting people without causing harm to others that changed the will of the bad guys. We’re left with the question, as we often are when we practice our own magic, did it work, or was it just coincidence?

Over all, if I had not been amused as hell by all the backgrounds, this movie would have gotten two thumbs down for poor plot contrivances, poorly written and even more poorly delivered dialogue (a thug who gets a tattoo saying “Satin Rules” -misspelling included-would not use mathematical terminology in his threats of violence even if his boss is a mathematician) . As it is, it gets one thumb up for this. I know this area (and apparently the writer/director still lives in town) and if all of the actors other than Walter Koenig were also locals, it’s probably about as good as it could possibly get with the budget that it obviously had. I would probably be less forgiving if I didn’t know this town and know that when this film was made, it was even worse off than it currently is. This film gives this town hope, I suppose, but only if you live here. One might argue that perhaps the magic Gwynyth cast didn’t work in the movie, but on the town itself.

For lore, belief and realism of Witchcraft, this movie gets two thumbs up. I know of no other movie that even comes close to the real practices of Wicca. All other witch movies are given the Hollywood treatment of either bad witches, good versus bad witches and magic that is just not physically possible. Also, all Hollywood attempts either barely mention a spiritual element to Witchcraft or make up a new spiritual foundation for it altogether (barring making Witches kiss Satan’s butt, of course, but that’s another film we won’t go into here) .

As an introduction to the practices of Wicca, this movie is awesome; as an actual movie…well…it could be better, but then it probably wouldn’t be as realistic from a magical perspective. So, which Witch would you prefer to watch? A badass Hollywood version, or one that is actually accurate? And no, I really don’t think it’s possible to have both.

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

Irish Witchcraft and Demonology by St. John D. Seymour

The Witches’ Book of the Dead by Christian Day

Hedge-Rider by Eric de Vries

Witchcraft Medicine by Claudia Mueller-Eberling, Christian Raetsch, and Wolf-Dieter Storl

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters released by Paramount and MGM

Practical Magic released by Warner Brothers

Drawing Down the Moon released by Chaos Entertainment


BellaDonna Saberhagen

Location: Sunbury, Pennsylvania


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