Why Do Women Love Witches?

[Feminism] encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practise witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians. – Pat Robertson in an Iowa fundraising letter opposing a state equal-rights amendment, 1992

Witches or an equivalent figure can be found in folklore all over the world. To some, the witch is and has always been a benevolent figure: she is a healer, a wise or “cunning” woman with secret knowledge of tinctures and poultices. In many cultures, it is difficult to draw a distinction between witchcraft practices and natural medicine. To others, the witch is symbolic of Earth’s greatest evils. The witch serves the Devil; she turns from God and claims metaphysical power – both miracle-working and devastatingly destructive – on her own terms. Furthermore, to many people in contemporary society, the witch is symbolic simply of personal power, of a force outside the norm. The word “witch” has numerous connotations and, although the idea of witches is ancient and common to cultures worldwide, the term itself means something different to everyone. The image you visualise when someone says the word “witch” is informed by the media and the traditions you have been exposed to, whether this is with regard to literature, cinema, art, religion or folklore and folk traditions.

I think you can tell a lot about a culture from the way it perceives and depicts its witches – thematically, it’s often an extension of that culture’s views regarding women and power –  so I want to delve into the evolution of the witch in popular thought. Why are so many women, myself included, claiming the label? What does it mean to be a witch in the modern world?

First and foremost, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between the “witchy” aesthetic and the actual practice of witchcraft. Of course there are women who engage with both, but just because someone has crafted a particularly spooky Instagram feed, it doesn’t necessarily mean she practises witchcraft. However, I do feel that the two are linked and have their roots in the same central issue: the subversion of our expectations about women. Witches are associated with darkness and with the macabre but, on a more general level, with all the things that make us uncomfortable. Utilising witchcraft and the symbolism of the witch as part of an aesthetic or style grants a certain power. A witchy woman can be intimidating; even if she does not participate in witchcraft practices, she can cultivate an untouchable persona in a society which seeks to make her vulnerable, to convince her that she is flawed and to prey upon her self-doubt.

I wanted to address that stylistic aspect before digging into the juicy historical and spiritual stuff (which are the areas in which I’m most interested).

In an article for The Guardian this April, the author Madeline Miller explored the relationship between witchcraft and perceptions of women: “In the late 19th century, the suffragette Matilda Joslyn Gage asserted something revolutionary. The persecution of witches, she said, had nothing to do with fighting evil or resisting the devil. It was simply entrenched social misogyny, the goal of which was to repress the intellect of women. A witch, she said, wasn’t wicked. She didn’t fly on a broomstick naked in the dark, or consort with demons. She was, instead, likely to be a woman “of superior knowledge”. As a thought experiment, she suggested that for “witches” we should read instead “women”. Their histories, she intimated, run hand in hand.” According to Miller, Gage was onto something. She argues that words used to describe male practitioners of magic, such as “warlock”, “wizard” or “magus”, don’t carry the same negative connotations we associate with the term “witch”. The cultural context of witchcraft is inherently gendered.

The word “witch” is still used to describe women in the public sphere who are disliked; Miller gives the example of Hillary Clinton’s portrayal by her detractors during the 2016 presidential election, demonstrating that “witch” has often been a stick with which to beat women, especially vulnerable women and social outcasts. A witch is unnatural and dangerous, posing a threat to the most fundamental unit of our society: the family. Able to blight crops, cause friction in the family and burden a home with illness, the witch is a direct threat to the integrity of the household. I find this particularly interesting because, throughout much of feminist theory, the household is also the frontline of misogynist oppression. We measure a lot of feminist progress by how women live within their own homes: for example, how evenly housework is shared between couples, how much husbands and male partners contribute to childcare, how women are treated and whether their personal autonomy is respected. We have been (rightly) preoccupied with how accessible it is for women to leave the domestic sphere, if this is what they want. The implication of calling a powerful woman in politics – like Hillary Clinton –  a “witch” is that she represents an erasure of the values people want to impose upon their households, families and on society in general. During the US election of 2016, there was much emphasis on patriotism and a very prominent pushback against anything perceived to be “unAmerican” or “anti-American”, of which “traditional family values” forms a significant part.

tito mouraz

(c) Tito Mouraz (2016)

Witchcraft and magick have been perceived solely as the domain of women in many cultures. In Norse society in the Late Iron Age, a female shaman was known as a völva and these women practised a type of ritual magic called seiðr. Although men practised it too, it was considered “unmanly” for them to do so, bringing a specific dishonour called ergi (roughly translated as “effeminacy”). Ergi and its adjectival form argr are also associated with Viking taboos around homosexuality, about which you can read more here. With women’s history and the history of witchcraft so intimately bound together, it’s no wonder that women have sought to reclaim the word “witch”. Our fascination with the world of the witch is certainly a product of our collective feelings about powerful women and the way we talk about them. However, I think there’s something deeper, something in the subconscious, which draws women to witchcraft long before we’re able to comprehend this socio-historical link.

Anne Theriault, writing for The Establishment in 2016, described her childhood brushes with magic. Having spoken to other women who recall performing rituals at sleepovers – all in the spirit of fun, of course – she considers these attempts at witchcraft as almost “… like a girlhood rite of passage…” and I would agree with her. I had those experiences too. I was an odd child anyway – I saw a ghost when I was about six years old and, since then, have been invested in anything paranormal. When I was in primary school, I and one of my friends would say we had magical powers. We were only pretending, but we would sit together and “practise” our magic. This intensified as I got older. In secondary school, we played games like light as a feather, stiff as a board and talked for hours about the mysteries of the universe at sleepovers. I can remember one incident in particular when I was about 13. A group of us were at one girl’s house watching Eurovision (ha!) and went out into the garden while the boring voting bit was happening. We sat in a circle with a stick of incense poked into the ground and a friend suggested we “try something”. Each of us cupped our hands together and, one by one, she went round the circle, rubbed her hands together and held her hands above ours for a minute or two. Then we looked into our hands and could “see” a ball of coloured light. (Mine was blue, by the way.)

Having done more research into New Age and witchcraft practices, I realise now that my friend was probably inspired by the idea of auras, an energy field which surrounds a person and appears a certain colour, indicating something about the health or the traits of that person. The colours we saw were likely perceptual distortions; however, it was harmless fun at the time. This was by no means a sophisticated ritual, but it straddled the line between being scary and exciting.

coven

(c) unknown

I have a great love of witches in folklore and in fiction; for me, they symbolise something very profound and complex about the role of women in society.

Note: there are, of course, plenty of men who call themselves “witches” and there is certainly a good article to be written about them. I just don’t think I’m the one to write it; I happen to be most interested in witchcraft within the lives of women.

Further reading

Goddess Remembered: The Burning Times (1990) (documentary, National Film Board of Canada)

Lisa Bonos, Vulnerable women used to be suspected of witchcraft. Now witchiness is a sign of strength. (Washington Post)

Matilda Hill-Jenkins, Meet The Women In Modern Covens (The Debrief)

Stevie Martin, Are More 20 Something Women Turning To Witchcraft? We Asked An Expert (The Debrief)

Madeline Miller, From Circe to Clinton: why powerful women are cast as witches
(The Guardian)

Ania Rybak, How Did Witchcraft Empower Women In 2017? (Mookychick)

Anne Theriault, The Real Reason Women Love Witches (The Establishment)

 

 

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Leave Anubis Alone: Ancient Egypt and the Horror Genre

It occurred to me recently – as these things often do – that there aren’t many horror films which use the ancient world as a setting or plot device. Of those which do, the vast majority are based on the mythology of ancient Egypt (or, at least, our modern assumptions about ancient Egypt – we’ll chat more about that later). It struck me as interesting that, although I could name quite a number of Egyptian-themed horror films off the top of my head, I could count the horror films (that I knew of) inspired by ancient Rome and Greece on one hand. We seem comfortable with a good sword-and-sandals epic, but a horror film? By Jove, no.

In this post, I want to examine why ancient Egypt is such prime fodder for the horror genre. Where does the perception of Egypt as “spooky” come from? Why don’t we feel the same about any other culture from antiquity? And, finally, just what is our problem with Anubis?

the mummy 2

In order to find the root of the squeamish fascination we feel for ancient Egypt, we need to look back at Western culture’s first foray into the land of the pharaohs. Although explorers from Europe – along with those from the Middle East – were travelling to Egypt from as early as the 13th century, the birth of modern Egyptology came with the French invasion of Egypt at the turn of the 19th century. Over the course of the 19th century and well into the 20th, artefacts were uncovered and writings were translated, and it was easier than ever before for Europeans to engage with the mysteries of Egypt.

That said, Egypt was still a land of mystery and, in the popular imagination, of threat. In 1892, 30 years before Howard Carter discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun, Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale of terror Lot No. 249 was published. In it, an Oxford student reanimates a mummy he has bought at an auction and uses the undead fiend to attack his enemies. This marks the first example in literature of a malevolent, resurrected mummy and the story has had a significant influence both on later horror fiction and film. Doyle had previously employed a mummy as a plot device in the short story The Ring of Thoth (1890) in which a young Egyptologist meets an Egyptian man who discovered the secret to eternal life over 3000 years ago. The love of his life died before he could administer the elixir to her, and he has been searching for her sarcophagus and the ring of Thoth – which contains the antidote which will allow him to join her in the afterlife – ever since.

By the time Carter cracked open Tut’s tomb to reveal the treasures within, the public were all too ready to accept the possibility that a curse might strike those who dared enter the tomb. There were eleven deaths in the decade following the tomb’s opening which were popularly attributed to the so-called “curse of the pharaohs”; the most famous of these was undoubtedly that of Lord Carnarvon, who had financed the trip. The burial chamber was opened on 16th February 1923 and Carnarvon died of an infected mosquito bite, sustained while in Egypt, on 5th April. Despite the mania in the press over the curse, Howard Carter never believed in it.

The mummy had all the makings of a movie monster and, in 1932, Universal Studios’ The Mummy was a smash hit. The rest is movie history, enabling the success of the rebooted Mummy franchise in 1999 as well as spawning shelves upon shelves of low-budget offerings.

The curses, resurrected corpses and strange rituals are all part of a narrative which casts ancient Egypt as completely foreign. There’s certainly an element of racism there – we see Greece and Rome as “more like us” and Egypt as distinctly “other”. However, I think an important factor in the continued popularity of Egypt as a setting or plot device in the horror genre is the Egyptian attitude to death. I don’t believe the “hands-on” approach that the Egyptians took to caring for their dead is a concept we’ve ever quite got over and it has potentially become even more alien to us as we’ve dissociated ourselves from death and the handling of our dead. With our aversion to corpses and all that is associated with them, mummification is an invasive, morbid idea to us. Even an ordinary Egyptian person who couldn’t afford to be mummified upon their death would be wrapped in cloth and buried in the desert with food and useful everyday items by their relatives. We pay people to do that on our behalf.

the mummy

The Romans buried their dead outside the city walls and the Greeks seemed to define the separation between the living and the dead very clearly. The Greek tragedy Antigone by Sophocles, written circa 441BCE, concerns this separation. Polyneices, considered a traitor by his city, is refused burial – thereby disrupting the natural order and keeping the dead among the living (i.e. above ground). His sister Antigone defies the ruling and buries him herself, and she is sentenced to be buried alive. Again, this disrupts the natural order; a living girl is given the treatment of the dead. My point here is not to say that the people of ancient Greece and Rome were averse to seeing the dead or that they did not have their own set of complex funerary rites, but we seem to fixate less on these than we do on mummification and the beliefs the Egyptians held about what happened to the soul after death.

Speaking of ancient Greece and Rome, I did some digging of my own for horror films set in either. I had seen two flicks which fitted the bill: the first being Minotaur (2006) and the other, Cyclops (2008). Cyclops is the only Roman-themed horror film I could find. Set during the reign of the emperor Tiberius (14ACE to 37ACE), Cyclops is the story of the last surviving cyclops, which is captured and displayed at the Circus Maximus. It’s a TV movie and truly looks like one; the cyclops is possibly the biggest waste of CGI I’ve ever witnessed. Minotaur has been described as “highly forgettable”, which is unfair – I’m sure Tom Hardy, a far more talented actor than this film deserves, wishes he could erase it from his memory. It’s a film marred by racism – it’s very Xerxes in 300 – and none of it really makes any sense. Despite being set in Crete, nearly everybody has an ambiguously Celtic, or otherwise non-Cretan, name. It’s one of only two horror films set in ancient Greece that I was able to find, both of which deal with the myth of the Minotaur. The second is Land of the Minotaur (1976). Like the other two films mentioned, it’s not brilliant, but it does have Peter Cushing which is always an advantage.

I noted that, when it comes to horror films set in or inspired by ancient Greece or Rome, there’s a tendency for filmmakers to stick to what they know and make a straight-up creature feature. The Minotaur just happens to be the closest thing to a classic movie monster – in the vein of Frankenstein, Dracula or, indeed, the Mummy – that Greek mythology has to offer.

It could be argued that the mythological figures and deities of ancient Egypt simply lend themselves to the horror genre, although I believe it has more to do with our modern misinterpretations. Finally, ladies and gents, it’s time to talk about Anubis.

Anubis – or Anpu, Anubis is the Greek rendering of the name – was associated with mummification and embalming. He acted as a psychopomp, guiding souls into the afterlife, and presided over a ceremony called the Weighing of the Heart in which the heart of the deceased would be weighed against Ma’at (the physical representation of truth, symbolised by an ostrich feather). If the heart was lighter, the dead person could continue on their journey into the afterlife. If heavier, the heart would be eaten by the demon Ammut.

BD_Hunefer_cropped_1

The Weighing of the Heart, Book of the Dead of Hunefer (c) Jon Bodsworth.

Anubis wasn’t an evil or malevolent figure in the mythology, so there’s no real basis for his portrayal in many films as a monstrous entity – I think it’s the jackal head thing that freaks modern moviegoers out a bit. Yes, he took part in the judgement of the dead and might seem unsympathetic to us, but he was an important deity. A post on WritingRaider described him thus: “[In Hollywood films, Anubis] has been the main antagonist, killing and sending curses to the heroes… manipulating battles like some evil Bond villain… In truth, the Egyptians didn’t think so.  He was a protector and a caretaker… It is easy to interpret Anubis as evil in today’s culture because of his connection to the dead in Egyptian religion.  But we must keep in mind, that today’s view of the dead is very different from the ancient Egyptian view.  The Egyptians believed in a happy afterlife and there were trials to get to paradise, but once you had proved yourself worthy… there was nothing but peace and happiness.”

My concerns are twofold. As somebody who studied Classics and is a massive horror fan, it makes me rather sad that nobody seems to have thought to tap into the sheer wealth of weird in Greek and Roman mythology. We seem to live in a time of sequels and reboots, and this is just something different I’d love to see. My other issue likewise stems from my appreciation for the rich history and mythology of ancient Egypt, which has fascinated me since I was a little girl. As much as I love The Mummy (1999), I can’t help but feel put off by the portrayal of Egypt as a strange and scary society.

Further Reading

Miscellaneous

Richard Cavendish (editor) (1992) Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Principal Myths and Religions of the World. Little, Brown and Company. (An excellent guide to the basics. Useful for comparing key myths and traditions from various religions.)

Egyptian Religion

dollingch (2014) Egyptian Culture – Anubis In Egyptian Religion. WritingRaider.

Lucia Gahlin (2001) Egypt: Gods, Myths and Religion. Anness Publishing. (A book I read and re-read like a child possessed. It’s a brilliant, comprehensive look at religion in Egypt, from the mythology to the priesthood to worship by ordinary people.)

Peter Piccione (1997) What Life Was Like On The Banks Of The Nile. Time Life UK. (Another one I read obsessively as a child.)

Ancient Egypt in Popular Culture

Christian-Georges Schwentzel (2017) Why we love (and fear) mummies. The Conversation.

Films mentioned

The Mummy (1932)

Land of the Minotaur (1976)

The Mummy (1999)

The Mummy Returns (2001)

Minotaur (2006)

300 (2006)

Cyclops (2008)

Creative Writing: “Wings”

This is the second of the two pieces I’ve saved from my now-deleted WritersCafe account; it’s also the closest to “horror” of the two. I hesitate to call it “horror” because I think it takes a lot of skill to write horror and I’m not sure I have (or ever had) quite the ability. I wrote this in November 2014.

WINGS

The battlefield is silent now.

A pale and eerie mist has descended, encompassing the expanse of grass and dirt like a funerary shroud. Second Lieutenant James Lerwick lies under it, sharing it with his comrades, the damp of the ground beneath him soaking through his uniform.

The quiet is so unnatural that he wonders if he is dead yet.

Tentatively, James spreads the fingers of his left hand. They are numb but functioning, as are those on his right hand, so he tries to struggle into a sitting position. Fiery, sharp pain sears through both his legs and he whimpers. The explosion flung him like a child’s ragdoll. He wouldn’t be surprised to discover that the bones of his legs have shattered; they certainly feel like it. He is stuck.

His eyes are burning with tears. He prays – not an infrequent gesture this year – that someone will find him. Some luckier soul will be blundering through the mist over the battlefield, searching for other survivors, and see him here in the mud. Maybe his prayers are futile, but he has survived so far on faith alone and he isn’t willing to give up now.

“Help!” he shouts into the gloom, “Help me!”

Then he listens, for the splash of boots in the mud or even – though he doesn’t quite dare to hope – a response.

But nothing happens.

His lower lip is trembling and he has to fight the urge to break down and cry. If he is going to die, he might as well go with dignity, the way his mother would have wanted. It is hard not to weep when he thinks of her anticipating his next letter in vain. James clears his throat and calls out again. His heart is pounding, like the rumble of war drums.

The skies overhead are darkening as he waits. James is losing sight of the bodies around him and panic sets in. How will anyone find him now?  He glances at his watch and squints at its grimy face to find that it is nearing 8 o’clock in the evening. He has no idea how long he has been slumped here. He watches the seconds tick by until 8 o’clock passes. His mind is drifting and perfectly blank.

The silence is broken by the harsh croak of a raven. It startles James. He can see the murky shadow of the bird circling overhead, its wings outstretched. The raven swoops down and lands elegantly a few feet away. James has never seen one up close; they are truly massive birds. From its beak to the tips of its tail-feathers, it must measure at least the length of his forearm, if not more. Its feathers are smooth and dark, but its eyes are darker. He has never seen a creature with less emotion in its eyes. It is almost human in its apathy. It looks up into the sky and James follows its gaze.

Two more ravens are approaching. One lands beside the first, but the last raven hurtles to the ground and collides with its fellow birds. The second raven squawks. They squabble noisily, comical in their fury. If he were not in his present situation, James might have laughed.

“Alastor, ‘ave you lost your mind?!” James is elated at the sound of a voice. Finally, someone has found him! He surveys the surrounding area, seeking out the silhouette of his saviour.

He sees no-one. There is no-one emerging from the fog, no-one stumbling over the uneven ground.

Then he realises.

The voice came from the ravens.

He is convinced that he is hallucinating. That is the only possible explanation. In his pain and desperation, he has imagined a voice. It could even be the shock.

“I was distracted!” This voice sounds younger than the first, more uneasy. It reminds him of his own voice when they first handed him his gun. It sounds so real and close that he doubts himself.

Dread in his heart, he turns back to the ravens. They are hopping about, plucking at the uniforms of the dead. He remembers hearing that ravens are scavengers. He has never witnessed them feasting though. The sight of them plunging their beaks into flesh and tearing it away, spraying blood in all directions, makes bile rise in his throat.

One of the ravens lands on his chest. He can feel its talons digging in, even through layers of clothing. He tries to knock it away, tries to scare it off with a yell, but he can’t move. He is paralysed by some unseen and unknown force. The smell of decay, of sickness, rolls off the raven in pungent waves.

“I think we have a live one, boys.” It has a soft, insidious voice, like the silk of a murderess’ gown over floorboards, and James decides this must be the first raven, the imperious one, the one who seemed to know exactly what it was doing.

Oh Christ, he thinks. Whatever you are, please don’t hurt me.

“Been ages since we’ve ‘ad summat fresh,” The second raven mutters. It joins the first, settling on the other side of his ribcage. Its beak is smeared with blood from its meal. The third raven stands behind them both, an eyeball on a string of crimson sinew dangling from its beak. The iris is brown, the pupil still dilated with fear. It tilts its head back and starts to swallow the eye in revolting gulps. If he could move, James would vomit.

“Surely you mean someone fresh?” The first raven says slyly, and the three cackle in unison.

James knows for certain in that moment, with the trio of ravens laughing raucously on his chest, that he is going to die tonight. Not at the hands of the enemy, but under the claws of these birds from Hell.

 

Creative Writing: “Samhain Night”

I recently closed my account on WritersCafe.org, having been inactive there for quite some time, but I did salvage a couple of pieces of short spooky fiction which I’d written.

This was written for a Halloween competition at my school library in October 2014. Of the two I’ve chosen to keep, this is less like true “horror” fiction – I hope it’s still a fun read and as creepy as 15-year-old me thought it was when I wrote it.

SAMHAIN NIGHT

This is the night that, in ancient times, we called Samhain. It was the time when we led the cattle back from their pastures and gathered in the harvest. We lit our bonfires to banish the cold. Even now, the leaves fall like hanged men, carpeting the ground in crisp brown layers. The days become shorter, the nights longer. It marks the descent into the dark half of the year. Relief will come in bright February, on the day we once called Imbolc, but we must always wait.

This is the night when our world and the Otherworld are no longer separate. The line between them is blurred; the veil is lifted. This is the night when spirits pass between them, unencumbered, walking amongst the living but leaving no footprints. They are the spirits of those who came before us. They are wise now, for they have seen into the mist of the beyond, into the other side. On this night, souls can return to their earthly homes for the evening. Those who do are the lucky ones.  They can see the ones they used to love, be within the walls of a house once more. They can silently soothe grief, easing heartache with their numbing touch.

But there are spirits who return with a purpose.

No longer mortal and imbued with the knowledge of the Otherworld, some visit not to comfort but to foreshadow. They know who is destined to join them. The banshee comes as a messenger, her pallid flesh as white as her tattered gown. She wails and keens on Samhain night, her screech so piercing that it shatters glass. She howls the names of those about to die. Some say she weeps for them in sorrow, as a mother would. Some say hers is a siren’s song, luring them to the Otherworld.  In a beautiful maiden’s guise, she beckons them with her bony fingers and they follow willingly. There are tales of spirits who sit at the riverside, washing the blood-stained armour of damned warriors. They sing, like washerwomen at work, as they soak the clothes that each brave knight is doomed to die wearing.

These spirits cannot harm, nor can they change what is predestined to be; they can only forewarn and accompany mortals into the Otherworld.

Some spirits are not so kind. The banshee’s counterpart, the bavanshee, leaves the Otherworld only to hunt. For one night, she pursues human prey. Although her green garb of the finest silk and her ethereal beauty are notorious, more infamous still is the unearthly origin of such splendour. She lurks at the edge of abandoned paths through the woods. She is a patient predator. Should a lonely young traveller lose their way, she sidles out from the shadows. Her smile is beautiful but careful, and it hides her teeth.  What teeth they are – fangs like sacrificial blades. As the trusting traveller approaches, her grin widens and she pounces, feasting on blood until the light of dawn graces the earth.

From the west come the eternally restless slua. Rejected by the earth itself, unwelcome in the Otherworld, they are condemned to wander as penance for their sins. They leave naught but destruction in their wake. Crops fail as they pass; livestock perish in their grazing-fields. If they find a window unlocked on Samhain night, they creep in. They cast scarcely a shadow. They hunger for pure souls, to wear as they would a cloak, so that they might be accepted into the Otherworld. Lingering in a cursed crowd, they appear to some as thick fog or a murder of crows at a crossroads.

The presence of spirits is to be feared on Samhain.  But worse still is the emergence of the ancient one, the darkest deity of the old religion. They call him the crooked god, the king of the burial mound, the death of summer. The Otherworld is his domain, and he rules with an iron fist. His powers are tenfold that of the wandering spirits. On Samhain night, our world is his domain.

His name is Crom Cruach. On Samhain night, he is free.

 

Why “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) Is Powerful

Warning: this article contains mild spoilers regarding The Silence of the Lambs. I’ve done my best to talk about the film in general and avoid discussing specific plot points, but some may have slipped through the net.

I don’t say this lightly, but I think The Silence of the Lambs is the greatest film ever made. It won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture (it’s the only Best Picture winner, as of 2018, considered a horror film). It’s also one of the most iconic films of Western culture, quoted and parodied so often that many people recognise its dialogue instantly without having watched it themselves.

Loving it as I do, I can’t help but question: just why did it resonate so strongly with me? Why has it endured? And has it really aged as well as we might like to believe?

clarice 2

I believe Silence is still as chilling today as it was 27 years ago. Much of this is owed to the cinematography: it is, above all else, a highly intelligent piece of film-making. More than that, it’s a very empathetic film which is a difficult thing to achieve with a crime thriller. There’s the potential for lurid fetishisation of femicide and, while I’m not suggesting Silence doesn’t occasionally fall into that trap, it’s a much more sensitive film than you might expect. If you’ve seen Silence before, I challenge you to watch it again and take note of every close-up on Clarice’s face throughout the film. You might be surprised by how often it occurs if you keep a tally. If you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend watching it and trying the same exercise. Really look at her expression and think about how it makes you feel. Something else to watch out for is the focus on how male characters treat Clarice. Another active-watching exercise to try is to make a note of every time a male character flirts with, harasses, dismisses or ogles Clarice. The film makes it clear that the manner in which “ordinary” “good” men talk about and treat women directly enables acts of violence against women, linking them thematically. All the men in the film – even the “good” men like Jack Crawford – reinforce sexist stereotypes in some way and they have ulterior (often sexual) motives. One of the things I love about this film is that we are encouraged, if not forced, to engage with misogyny and the objectification of women. You’re never allowed to see the murdered women as simply bodies; you’re never allowed to see Clarice or any other women as eye-candy. Every time you slip, Silence reminds you. This is what you’re enabling. This is the progression of your attitudes about women. I think it’s ingenious that the film-makers managed to weave this analysis of the male gaze – first posited by Laura Mulvey in the 1970s – into the narrative and makes us aware of the voyeurism inherent across cinema.

Although Lecter is superficially the star of the show – and I don’t wish to take away from Anthony Hopkins’ performance here, because it is stellar on every level – it’s Clarice who is the more interesting character. For all that Lecter is hyped up, a creature of monstrous intellect and appetites, he has the same base sexual motivations as every other man in the film. Writing for BBC Culture in 2017, Nicholas Barber argued that “… Lecter is so electrifying, in fact, that it’s easy to overlook what a preening, immature bore he soon reveals himself to be. He is, of course, a snob who wants everyone to know about his taste in fine wines and expensive shoes, but he also has the grubby one-track mind of an adolescent schoolboy… He may not have seen a women in his eight years of incarceration, but that’s no excuse for his behaving like a tabloid gossip columnist.” The film doesn’t present Lecter’s harassment of Agent Starling as titillating; she’s evidently disgusted but she doesn’t let it faze her. Silence manages to trick the audience effectively. It’s not just a crime thriller revolving around the mind of a genius psychopath and using women as sexy, lifeless props. It deals with what it’s like to be the sexy, lifeless prop. It’s a reflection on what it’s like to be stared at, every day of your life, from the moment you start maturing into a woman.

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Despite being a triumphant work of cinema in terms of its representation of women, the film was not without its detractors upon release. Much of the controversy hinges on the film’s portrayal of its antagonist, Jame Gumb, a serial killer known by the moniker Buffalo Bill. Some have argued that Buffalo Bill is a homophobic caricature, although I don’t think this was deliberate and, as with anything, gay men will have their personal opinion on whether it’s offensive or not. It’s worth noting, though, that Jonathan Demme went on to direct Philadelphia (1993) which deals with the AIDS crisis and homophobia. He took the criticism of the film by organisations like ACT-UP and Queer Nation personally and very seriously: “At first, Demme was defiant of the protests. In 1991, he told Film Comment, “We knew it was tremendously important to not have Gumb misinterpreted by the audience as being homosexual. That would be a complete betrayal of the themes of the movie. And a disservice to gay people.” He described the killer as “someone who is so completely, completely horrified by who he is that his desperation to become someone completely other is manifested in his ill-guided attempts at transvestism[…]” To be fair, Demme is correct—in the movie, Hannibal Lecter posits that Gumb apes qu**r and trans people because they’re the most outré, far-off identities he can imagine—the ultimate escape.” (Bloomer, Slate: 2017) One could argue the film makes use of homophobic stereotypes and tropes, but only insofar that Bill is making use of those cliches in order to cultivate this “other” identity. Dennis Stone wrote an interesting article for New Millenial Gay Experience and I thought this was a particularly incisive quote: “I did not see a gay character. Rather, I saw a psychopath, someone whose entire being was warped by his past, someone who was so outside the realm of decency and “humanity” that every action and attribute were beyond conventional interpretation. Even in 1991 I was aware of fluidity and context in relation to sexuality. Bill may have had one or more male lovers, but for me that did not make him gay in any meaningful sense.

Many modern analyses of the film criticise its “dated” perspective on trans issues, something I’ve always found a bit baffling. It is established during a conversation between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter that Bill is not a “transsexual” (this was the 90s, remember) but only believes he is. Instead, he has been pathologised to hate himself and is uncomfortable with his own identity, whatever that may truly be. I’ve always interpreted the idea of Buffalo Bill being trans as something of a red herring when, in fact, the issue at hand is male violence and male entitlement to the use of women’s bodies. I see Bill’s skinning of women as an extension of other men’s sexist attitudes in the film, taken right to the extreme – not just using women’s bodies for sex or for visual pleasure but physically making use of their body parts. Bill doesn’t see women as fully human – he’s not cutting up men in order to try on their skins and be someone different – and nor do men in general. If anything, I think it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the film as a whole if you consider Buffalo Bill to be a comment on or a reflection of gay men or the trans community. I find the accusations of transphobia especially bizarre when it’s explicitly stated that Gumb isn’t transgender. Stone went on to argue in his review that we are only concerned about how gay and trans people are represented in the film because we have not progressed into full acceptance of LGBT people: We are still too sensitive and too insecure and too reactive for what I would consider a “correct” understanding of the movie.I don’t think we should let our own knee-jerk reactions to a film made almost 30 years ago get in the way of its important message about sex-based oppression.

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Despite the emphasis on the impact of misogyny on women, Clarice Starling has so much agency in Silence and that’s what makes it brilliant. She’s no rebel, sticking to the protocol she’s been taught, but she speaks up and she fights back in every way she can. In “The Silence of the Lambs” and the Intuitive Feminism of Jonathan Demme, Willow McClay states: “The Silence of the Lambs is essentially about one woman trying to save another woman and the lengths she will go to push herself along the way to be the best FBI agent she can possibly be even with society at large pressing down on her at all times due to her gender.” (McClay, The Film Stage: 2017) Clarice is a feminist heroine, an ordinary working-class woman who battles her way into a man’s world and yet never loses her compassion. In an environment in which she’s treated like shit for being female, Clarice’s existence as a woman is her greatest strength. And that’s what thrilled me most about The Silence of the Lambs.

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Further reading

Controversial Opinions: Round 1 of ???

Oh, you already know this is gonna be a good one. Get ready to nod your head or throw your laptop/mobile phone/iPad/other technological device pushed on you by capitalist brainwashing out of the window. You’re either going to love me or hate me by the end of this.

Unsolved Mysteries

  1. A number of conspiracy theories – especially those to do with the Illuminati and the New World Order – are just an excuse for racism and especially for anti-Semitism. Think a powerful global force is conspiring to enslave you? According to an unfortunately large proportion of conspiracy theorists, it’s probably the Jews.

This is, of course, utter nonsense, but the Jewish diaspora have been a convenient scapegoat for hundreds of years. Jewish communities have been marginalised and segregated, they have been exiled and persecuted, and now purported “truth-seekers” are wheeling out the same old tired stereotypes to justify their ill-founded theories. The stereotype that Jewish people are money-grabbing Shylocks is sadly still prevalent. There is a historical basis for the association between Jewish communities and finance: “Jews have long been well-represented in the fields of finance and business. This is commonly attributed to the fact that for centuries, Jews were excluded from professional guilds and denied the right to own land, forcing them to work as merchants and financiers. However some academics contend that the historical evidence does not support this thesis and that Jewish financial success is instead due to the community’s high literacy rates.” (My Jewish Learning) However, it is the idea of some modern corporate entity which we can handily label “The Jews” (capital letters intentional) controlling the planet’s economy that is so bigoted and unpleasant. The Jewish population is not manipulating your bank account, dumbo, and they aren’t conspiring to take over the world.

2. 9/11 wasn’t an inside job. I know, I know – it’s a cardinal sin not to parrot that timeless adage: “Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams!” But I’ve never felt the need to assert that the 2001 tragedy was a controlled demolition, a warmongering tactic by the American government or actually done by the Israelis (it was not). Is the US government corrupt and withholding information from the public? Yes in all likelihood, as are most other governments on the face of the planet, including my own. 9/11 is a terrifying piece of collective trauma as it is.

Dick Cheney definitely made money off the Iraq War, though. (NY Times, 2004)

3. The cryptozoology community on Tumblr isn’t an inherently negative thing. Yes, Tumblr is full of cringey, pretentious teenagers with made-up genders and bad haircuts, but I was one of those teenagers once upon a time. Believe it or not, if you wade through the shitposting, there are some wonderful young cryptozoologists active on there who I admire very much, like cryptid-wendigo and cryptozoologygirls. They work hard and they seem like lovely people.

And even the shitposting serves a purpose. I’m part of a whole new generation of people invested in the field of cryptozoology and fascinated by what could be out there. Isn’t that beautiful?

4. I’ll call out racism in this community till the day I die (see this article), but I don’t think the ancient astronaut/ancient alien theory is racist. I’ve seen a fair bit of criticism recently – although it’s been going on for years – arguing that ancient astronaut theorists are racist for positing that our ancestors might have made contact and received help from extra-terrestrials. Whether you wholeheartedly believe in the AA theory or think it’s a crock of shit, I think it’s ludicrous to imply it is inherently prejudiced. AA theorists don’t believe that extra-terrestrials might have built the Giza pyramid complex because Egyptians weren’t white, but because the pyramids were built nearly 5,000 years ago and yet they align with the stars perfectly. Another oft-cited example is the prehistoric structure of Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. It is clearly a matter of age and technology, not race and technology.

Horror

  1. I don’t like torture porn or excessive gore in horror films. It’s why I never “got” the Saw franchise or The Human Centipede sequence. I know people bang on and on about how “crazy” and “revolutionary” they are, but films of that type are rarely saying anything intelligent, in my humble opinion. That’s not to say I’m opposed to violence in the horror genre; I just think it needs to serve a purpose.

It’s why I object less to Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) than I do to A Serbian Film (2010). Salò is transgressive and never loses sight of its message. It is a pessimistic reaction to the sexual revolution, depicted through its setting in fascist Italy: “[Pasolini] was especially contemptuous of the sexual liberation movement undertaken by late-60s international youth, viewing that aspiration as a bourgeois indulgence already compromised by capitalism…” (Sharrett, 2013) It is cruel and you should feel uncomfortable watching it, but it is a well-made, thoughtful piece of cinema. A Serbian Film is just nasty, with a bit of political commentary about post-Milošević Serbia tacked on the end for good measure.

I’d love to say nothing is off-limits in horror – I wish I was one of those people, but I simply am not. I have to draw a line.

2. The horror genre has a massive sexism problem. I’m going to get shit for saying this, because horror fans are some of the most zealous in the world and we can’t cope with criticism. Women’s bodies are still used like sexy props in horror films. We see women die in the most brutal of ways – as do men – but men’s deaths are rarely, if ever, sexualised to the same extent as women’s.

This is not to say female characters should never die on-screen. However, I would like to see some acknowledgement that women are murdered in their thousands in real life. Around 66,000 women are killed every year globally (Small Arms Survey on Femicide, 2017) and four women die every single day in the US, simply for being female. The lurid portrayal of femicide in horror films trivialises and fetishises this.

Truly great horror films have strong messages and speak to our deepest fears, and I think a talented horror filmmaker should be able to do this without commodifying women’s bodies. There have been some fantastic films over the course of the genre’s history which have utilised aspects of the female experience to create horror and have done so in a sensitive, smart way. We need more of that.

 

So there we go! I’m going to go and hide in the bunker until everything blows over. Feel free to boo and hiss in the comments.

 

The Bitten Files #1: Sava Savanović

This is the first installment of The Bitten Files, a series of blog posts exploring vampire legends.

In the small village of Zarožje, Serbia, an old watermill once stood in the valley of the Rogačica river. According to legend, the villagers risked their lives whenever they went to mill their grain, for inside the gloomy structure resided a terrifying creature: the vampire, Sava Savanović.

Sava Savanović is part of a long tradition of vampire folklore in Eastern Europe: “In the Balkans, where a vampire cult flourished in the late Middle Ages, a vampire was suspected of infesting a graveyard when people reported seeing apparitions of the dead that pestered them and bit them, or sat on their chests and suffocated them at night… Vampires also were blamed for plagues, invisible terrors that bothered people at night and wasting diseases that brought death.” (Guiley, 1992: 344) There were efforts to preserve the watermill as a tourist attraction, although, as one of the mill’s owners was quick to assert in an interview with ABC News, no-one was ever permitted to sleep there overnight. Renovations to make the mill a proper (read: safe) site for tourists began in early 2010,  but this was not to come to fruition. At the time of its collapse in 2012, the mill – owned by the Jagodić family – hadn’t been in operation since the 1950s, but the vampire who was said to have made his home there remained a significant figure in the collective consciousness of the surrounding villages. The village council even issued a warning to the public upon the mill’s collapse. Sava was now homeless, they declared, and would be on the lookout for somewhere new to rest in peace (or not, as it goes).

How seriously the villagers took the warning varies depending on which news outlet you’re looking at. However, Sava’s legacy is serious business indeed. The people of Zarožje made an official complaint to the local police that the city of Valjevo, on the other side of the valley, had stolen Savanović from them when the city made him their mascot in 2010. He was also the subject of an 1880 novella, Posle devedeset godina (After Ninety Years), by Milovan Glišić and the 1973 horror film Leptirica which was inspired by the story. It’s interesting to note that Leptirica is widely considered to have been the first Serbian horror film. Whether it’s any good is another matter entirely…

 

Although widespread belief in vampires has died out across most of Europe, Serbia’s best-known vampire remains an important aspect of the country’s cultural history and its cinematic and literary canon. His peasant-purging days might be over, but – like a true creature of the night – Sava Savanović lives on.

Further reading

Dragona Jovanovic (2012) Vampire Threat Terrorizes Serbian Village (ABC News)

Sasha Ingber (2012) The Bloody Truth About Serbia’s Vampire (National Geographic)

Tyler Tichelaar (2017) After Ninety Years: A Newly Translated 1880 Serbian Vampire Novella (Gothic Wanderer, WordPress)

Rosemary Guiley (1992) The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits (pp 344)

Note: there are a number of Serbian sources, two of which are available here and here. I can’t read or speak Serbian (although I’m taking a module of Serbian-Croatian next year at uni) but you’re welcome to comment if you do and you find something in the Serbian articles which you think ought to be included here.

 

All Hail Jilliah: Is “The New Harry Potter” A Scam?

I’m posting something a little different today. This isn’t spooky, not really, but it’s certainly a weird bit of Internet phenomena.

I was on YouTube earlier today and an advertisement played before a video I was planning to watch. Normally, I’d skip ads, but this one caught my eye because of the bizarre way in which it had been filmed. In the video, a young woman is sitting outside talking about her “favourite book of all time”, entitled The Jilliahsmen Trinity.

The channel is called “Summer Froxpen”, which I’m assuming is the name of the woman in the video. This video was uploaded on 14th May 2018 and the channel has no other content. She sounds like a Londoner to me, but I would appreciate it if anyone else could narrow it down.

There’s a thriving community of book reviewers on YouTube, many of whom are girls and young women, so I believe this video is an attempt to cash in on or emulate that. This clip has nothing in common with those. The camera work is shaky; however, the sound is professional and you can hear her well, despite what sounds like a busy park in the background. She also never clearly shows the book – something even the most amateurish of YouTube book reviewers would remember to do – which suggests to me that it isn’t a copy of a real book.

It’s really quite surreal. Weirder still is what she actually says in the clip. She states that the book “just changed her life” which is fair enough: many people would argue that a book changed their life. She goes on to say that she connected with the book on “a spiritual level” and that she understands the universe and the people around her better as a result of reading the book. She alleges that there’s a community of people who have read the book and that they have “evolved” and are at “the next level”. Between 1:58 and 2:20, she reads a passage from page 46. Even factoring in the lack of context, it’s absolutely nonsensical. It’s like one of those random word generators online.

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It doesn’t even look like a real book.

The story doesn’t end with “Summer”. I did a quick Google search and found the book’s website. There is a poorly-written synopsis, an order form (although there is no clarification of what you’d be ordering for the hefty price-tag of £100) and a short press release claiming that there are seven books which have already been adapted into screenplays “… to hit cinemas worldwide consecutively from late 2018 to 2023 from a top five major world distributor.” On the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), there is a page for the film which slates it for release in 2019, yet the Norwegian model Frida Aasen is the only cast member listed. The website makes the bold claim that the Jilliahsmen Trinity franchise will be as successful as the Harry Potter, Hunger Games and Twilight series. Their “marketing department” (ha!) seem really keen on the Harry Potter comparisons: YouTube personality (I hate that term) Tal Fishman, also known as ReactionTime, even uploaded a video on 21st April 2018, promoting the book as being “like Harry Potter”.

There are a number of social media links on the website, but the Twitter account only boasts a single tweet (published yesterday) and the Facebook page appears not to exist. Only the Instagram account is particularly active, with three posts and nearly 30,000 followers. The latest post is simply some blurry footage of a copy of the book and a lit candle being placed on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, London. Furthermore, there are 60 Instagram posts tagged #jilliahsmentrinity. Earlier posts – from mid-April – are mostly young people complaining about the price of the book or reporting that the link to purchase it on the website doesn’t work, but more recent posts are promotional and don’t read like anything a normal teenager would post on their Instagram. Although there are a lot of users commenting that it’s a scam, there seems to be no response from the account owners. Any ordinary teenager would viciously defend their favourite book, implying that the account owner, in most cases, probably doesn’t exist or is being paid to promote it. Most of the accounts have no other posts aside from the clip or photo featuring the book.

I also found another odd video made by a “fan”. This might be even stranger – it’s just a girl dancing to a pop song and then stating that she’ll be following the book series “like a shadow”. WARNING: this video contains flashing images.

As is wont to happen when the Internet freaks out over some weird scam or fake news, a Reddit community was established last month and its subscribers have been busy digging into the layers of unconvincing PR surrounding the book. Reddit user MalmoWalker found that the website’s domain expires in December 2018 and was created using a free website builder. The website TV Watercooler warned freelancers in February not to accept any offers from companies alleging to be involved in the production of the JT films, as they believed it to be a money-laundering scheme. There have also been several press releases, all with poor grammar and blatantly not written by a journalist (or, at least, any journalist worth their salt). One article claims Jennifer Lawrence is being considered to play a main character in the film adaptation. The key issue is that this was published on the site for the Chicago Evening Post… which hasn’t existed since 1932, when it was absorbed into the Chicago Daily News. The website was created on 9th September 2017, according to Wikipedia, and there are no profile pictures associated with any of the reporters listed. I also stumbled across a website called Ireland Breaking News – which doesn’t appear to have published anything prior to 17th February 2016 and doesn’t have any articles remotely related to Ireland in its Local News section – and a press release quoting the laughable statistic that 5.8 million copies of the book have been sold.

Crossroads Today published an article, written largely in gibberish, last month asserting that the British branch of the Rothschild family are suing the book’s author for defamation. I’m new to this Internet sleuthing malarkey, but I’m going out on a limb to say that the website seems fake. One of the main characters is a fictional socialite named Gabriella or Gabrielle Rothschild – the name changes depending on which pretend article you’re reading. I’m no expert, but I can guarantee that we would have heard something in our national news if the Rothschilds were suing anyone. After that fun bit of anti-Semitism – the Rothschilds are Jewish, OF COURSE they’re controlling the destiny of the universe! – the article claims that the book also includes as characters “every major bloodline synonymous with high finance capitalism and illuminati [sic] theology”, such as the Windsors and the Rockefellers. Hilariously, the article spells their surname “Rockerfella”. “Illuminati theology” might be the funniest thing I’ve ever read; it’s fairly common knowledge that the Bavarian Illuminati were established in order to advocate for the separation of church and state. I think the word these con artists were looking for is “ideology”.

Looking through the information, it seems obvious to me that The Jilliahsmen Trinity is a scam.  There’s no author to be found, the plot synopsis makes no sense, the characters have inconsistent names, there’s no buzzing fan community and the promo work is like nothing I’ve ever seen (and, as a bookworm, I’ve been involved in the pre-order hype of a lot of books). However, I can’t deny that it has been unsettling to delve into its weird marketing. Although I know the way “Summer Froxpen” talked in her promotional video was a performance and the zealous obsessive Instagram posts are fake, so much of the PR has a strange spiritual element. There are a couple of posts using the hashtag #NewWorldBible or talking about how the book is “scripture” or “heavenly”. It’s borderline creepy, watching teenagers promote a fake book in this cultish way. According to the subreddit, the police are now involved.

“Summer Froxpen” ends her video by declaring: “The answers are all in this book. It’s mad.” I hope they are, because I have a lot of questions.

I’m A Feminist And I’m Scared Of Dying

Hooked you in with that title, didn’t I?

Something interesting often comes up in conversations about my hobbies and passions. The fact that I’m a feminist and a leftist is generally accepted with little more than sought-after reassurance that I’m “not one of the preachy ones” (spoiler: I am). People are equally comfortable with my other passions – ghost hunting, tarot and horror films – and are usually quite enthusiastic (or at least happily indifferent) about them. A small minority of the people I’ve met have been ghost hunting and still fewer have ever attempted to learn tarot, so I get to be the “expert” in the room despite being no such thing.

The interesting point that arises is often expressed like this: “For someone so political, it’s odd that you’d be into such illogical things.”

It’s a fair statement to make. I’m very serious about my politics, but conversely I’ve participated in an activity – namely ghost hunting – which is not widely considered to be a “serious” endeavour. Despite this contrast, I find myself feeling self-conscious about both of these passions. I portray them as something they are not when I talk about them, something frivolous and silly. Ghost hunting is my “weird little hobby”; feminism is “just me being a hairy bra-burner, haha”. Neither of those things really represent how I feel, because I take them both very seriously indeed. There’s also plenty of crossover between the two, because the personal is political for me. I think about feminism in the context of my life every day – for example, my love of horror films has led me to analyse them more deeply and ask myself: how are women depicted in these films and why? How do horror films handle feminist themes? I can combine my “serious” interest with my “silly” interest, and that works for me.

But if we properly psychoanalyse me, if we strip my flag-waving, marching politics and my love of anything spooky back to the barest bones, what do we find?

Someone who has a really weird relationship with the concept of death.

I am not consciously scared of dying. I joke about what I want done at my funeral, I love crypts and cemeteries, and I especially love mummies. I don’t find myself squeamish at corpses in particularly nasty crime documentaries.  I’m relatively comfortable at the top end of exposure – at least as much exposure as an average person who doesn’t have to deal with dead bodies in person can possibly have (perhaps I would change my mind in the presence of an actual cadaver).

It is not physical death that scares me. Like anyone else, I would like to go painlessly one day and, on a more personal level, I like the idea that I could greet Death warmly as a friend like a folk hero might. I think it is the death of my drive, if you like, that unsettles me. The idea that I might pop off one day and leave the cause forever. As someone who wants to make a difference, I am deeply afraid of being cut off and leaving nothing behind. What if all the writing and arguing and campaigning just never pay off? What if I can change nothing about the inequality rampant in our society? You might instead describe that as a fear of impotence or inferiority (and, damn, have I got a lot going on where inferiority complexes are concerned) but that’s what is truly frightening for me.

The relationship between ghost hunting and death is more obvious – who doesn’t want to know if our consciousness can remain on this mortal plane? – although I think politics has a lot to do with death as well. Where you stand on politics has a lot to do with what you consider to be “surviving” and what you consider to be “living”. Feminism and socialism are both movements devoted to improving people’s quality of life. Socialists object to a world in which you (and your labour) are exploited until you die. Feminists object to a world in which women are treated as willing bodies rather than human beings. Women and girls are murdered on our TV screens, over the pages of our crime thrillers and all over the world in real life, and I find that far more upsetting and scary than any amount of standing around in dark tunnels and damp caves, calling out to spirits.

As strange as you might find it, I can comfortably sit in the grey area between “serious” politics and “silly” paranormal pursuits.

Magic and Misunderstandings: Why Tarot Isn’t What You Think

Tarot.

An ancient tradition shrouded in mystery, passed down through time from the court of the pharaoh to the occultists of the Victorian era. The darkest of arts, a sinister outlet for communing with malevolent spirits…

Hold up. Nope.

Firstly, the earliest recorded tarot cards were produced in Italy in the 15th century. It was originally a style of playing cards, developing into a type of divination in the 18th century. Secondly, modern tarot is not the same as fortune-telling or predicting the future. Instead, it is a way of helping the querent (the person asking questions) – although sometimes a tarot reader may read for themselves – think more deeply about their life and their choices.

The image of the “average” tarot reader that you have in your mind is likely influenced by the (largely sensationalised) books and films which deal with this practice. In the popular imagination, tarot readings are carried out by wizened crones in velvet tents, travelling up and down the country to have their palm crossed with silver. Alternatively, maybe you’re picturing a New Age woman with dreadlocks down to her hips and a tie-dye tunic. Or you’re picturing Miss Cleo. One of those three.

In fact, tarot readers come in all shapes and sizes. Some tarot readers are young students (like me); some have 30 years or more of tarot reading expertise under their belt. Tarot does not belong to any particular faith either: some readers are Neopagan or Wiccan, some are Christian and some are atheist. I know people who casually read for their friends, people who read professionally and people who read from an academic, analytical viewpoint. There really is no “stereotypical” tarot reader. We’re all doing it for different reasons.

I think this is due to tarot’s wide appeal. You don’t need special qualifications and you can quite comfortably teach yourself. Of course there are people drawn to it purely because of its (somewhat sinister) reputation, but those aren’t the people who end up fully committing to it. Learning the tarot is not something you can accomplish in an evening. Some readers are intuitive – rather than learning the individual meanings of the cards from the traditional tarot system, they glean the message from the images on the cards. But even for intuitive readers, their craft takes a long time to perfect.

So why was I drawn to tarot?

You’ve probably gathered from this blog that I like spooky stuff, I surround myself with spooky stuff, I wallow in spooky stuff. Initially, tarot was something I was fascinated by – for the wrong reasons. I didn’t think it would ever be something I could do myself because it was so mysterious and so mystical. But, over the last couple of years, I’ve become interested in the reconstruction of ancient witchcraft practices, as well as in modern Neopaganism and in Wicca. As I started reading and watching material from Pagan creators – many of whom used tarot as part of their spiritual practice – I began to understand that it wasn’t sinister or strange. It could be a really important part of someone’s faith, or it could even be a kind of self-help tool. I’ve come across plenty of YouTube pagans and witches who focus on tarot card images during meditation or place specific tarot cards on their altars to draw in a certain vibe, especially if they’re involved in shadow work and want to hone in on a particular problem in their life.

As far as I’m concerned, tarot is a crucial aspect of my spiritual practice and my feminism. It’s incredible how many powerful women are creating content about tarot – it’s beautiful to see that and profound to learn from them.

Let’s close with a classic from Miss Cleo:

Recommended reading

Kelly-Ann Maddox (YouTube, website) – my favourite witchy creator. Kelly-Ann just exudes warmth and I’m so glad I discovered her YouTube channel.

Jack of Wands (WordPress blog)

Harmony Nice (YouTube) – only problem I have with Harmony’s video on tarot is that she implies that you can only connect with one tarot deck. Most tarot readers and enthusiasts I know will have more than one deck and may use multiple decks in one reading. Obviously that’s Harmony’s personal opinion and she’s entitled to it, but I just thought I’d clarify that for any potential tarot readers who might be confused.

Biddy Tarot (website)

New Age Hipster (YouTube, website)

Veronica Varlow (Instagram, website)