Paganism Sweeps Primetime
by Jacquie McCarthy

"A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down," sings the beguiling Mary Poppins after Jane and Michael's petition flies up the chimney and is spirited into her capable hands. Such is the magic of Disney, the definitive authority on children's entertainment according to parents who sent the company's profits into the stratosphere and keep them in steady geosynchronous orbit. No one, either in or out of the know, questions the wisdom of Mary's words– what's that old Celtic word for Wise One?

Ever since The Bible was translated from Latin and the printing press made it accessible, the wisdom of "mainstreaming" information has proven a double-edged athame. Remember that "The light shineth in the darkness" but that "the darkness comprehended it"– not. Education and information are effective only when complemented by a change in perception. The best and most recent example of this phenomenon is the Gay Pride movement, which has given many the support and courage to step into the light of day, not knowing if a lion or a lamb awaited them at the mouth of the cave. The assimilation process is a long, tedious one, fraught with complications and casualties.

Even as the omnipresent News girds up its loins to present covertly slanted facts, its fair sister Entertainment raises the curtain to reveal the archetypical counterpoint, in the long term proving the more effective educator. How else do you explain the proliferation of home improvement, as demonstrated by Tim Allen; the new-found joy of cooking, as established by Emiril Lagasse, or the alchemy of turning dollar bills into paper doilies and back again, as exemplified by Martha Stewart Inc.? A spoonful of sugar has helped both the big and small screens indoctrinate what copious Time Life Books could not.

Notwithstanding the mournful wails of The 700 Club and the sensationalism of The New York Post, both repeating a mantra against Pagan child custody and candle-caused house fires, people of the heather are not accustomed to hearing the idiot box extolling their virtues. But lo, one morn from the depths of the broom closet, squeezed between "Good Morning America" and David Letterman, I caught an undercurrent of positivity which has evolved into a buzz almost overnight. Yea, methinks a positive spin on Pagan practices is fairly sweeping primetime.

Of course, it has been there from the beginning, like the Goddess herself. "Bewitched," shot initially in black-and-white, was one of the first television programs to take a lighter look at the "black arts." Samantha Stevens was a truly palatable portrayal, a beautiful suburban housewife as opposed to the historical hairy-moled hag– a description better suited to neighborhood fishwife Gladys Kravitz. However, Samantha must not practice her witchcraft, else she morph into a facsimile of Darren's dreaded mother-in-law, Endora. And she must keep her "talent" a secret, or risk excommunication from the local country club. Cinematic wizardry keeps Samantha's exploits in the realm of the absurd– we'd all be much happier if we could wiggle our noses and make certain people disappear.

Secrecy was an important theme in the classic Disney film, "Bednobs and Broomsticks." Angela Lansbury played an apprentice witch, determined to earn her credentials and stop the Nazis. She and her three young charges set off in search of the spell which will complete her education, only to find it in a children's picture book. Right in front of your nose, you might say. Another breakthrough children's production, "The Secret Garden," features a boy whose desperation to reclaim the attention of his father inspires him to dance around a bonfire with his young compatriots, chanting and burning unmailed correspondence. I couldn't have done it better.

Bringing us round to the present, the same fantastical technique which blew away Mary Poppins' competition, conjured Samantha Stevens' home-cooked meals and charmed "Bednobs" is applied in ABC's "Sabrina." As many metaphysical allusions, such as rhyming spells, there are to be found in these chestnuts, one can hardly call them beneficial to the modern witch's dilemma of perception. Whereas they lay the groundwork for positive recognition, the "lighter" touch is swatted away like an annoying gnat and becomes a metaphor for "silly"– uncontested until now.

One would be hard pressed to find a more silly premise for a television show than the WB's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," valley girl/cheerleader turned demon hunter. Gag me with a stake, but don't bother me on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Like so many others I have invited this devil across my threshold. Initially resembling a hybrid of "90210" meets "Groovie Ghoulies," the title belies the content– this is not "Beach Blanket Bingo" with fangs. Astoundingly well-scripted, "Buffy" takes a piercing look at the reality of teen angst, revealing tortured souls struggling to believe in life after high school, without being maudlin or patronizing.

"The Hellmouth" is a description anyone could apply to their formative years, and is an appropriate geographical location for vampire-infested Sunnydale High. Rising from the ashes of freshman agony is Willow Rosenberg– a name most likely conceived at Woodstock without any thought to the magical energy of trees. Willow is nerdy, bookish and shy, and her clothes reflect the softer side of Sears. Fans have watched her evolve from Hellmouth research assistant to fair maiden exploring mysticism and sexuality, into the ‘W’ word– and not in the tradition of Sabrina and Samantha. Willow wins you over with her sweet honesty, and the viewing public has swallowed a generous helping of this metaphysical concoction.

But it's too soon to ring the dinner bell. While Willow openly and painstakingly walks the rocky Path, using technically proper incantations, herbs and circle casting, the prevailing purpose is exorcism and there is little evidence of Goddess worship. Deities are mentioned– "Hercules" and "Xena" have apparently mainstreamed enough mythology to give censors only brief pause– but Willow speaks too often of working with her "power," a metaphor for gaining control of her life. Sometimes her spells don't work, but they seldom backfire and there are few karmic repercussions. When her efforts are successful, viewers are treated to some interesting special effects.

Still, this girl has done her homework. Tools called by their proper names and assigned proper uses, supplemented by field trips to the friendly neighborhood occult book store are enough to earn a passing grade. Willow takes her education seriously– after attending a campus Wicca group meeting, she says, "Any girl with a spice rack and a henna tattoo thinks she's a sister of the dark ones." No matter how you slice it, "Buffy" packs more than its share of metaphysical mojo.

The Slayer's high score has spawned another mystic vehicle, geared toward an audience looking for lite fare. If your taste in hocus-pocus leans more toward "90210" meets "Touched by an Angel," the WB's "Charmed" is about your speed. Recognizing the power of witchcraft, the network has channeled energy into yet another recipe for success, essentially transforming the ancient craft into a new buzzword.

Three charming sisters played by Shannon Doherty, Alyssa Milano and Holly Marie Combs are informed by hotty guardian angel Leo that they have inherited not only Grandma's old spellbook but also the power and responsibility that accompanies the legacy of witchcraft. But soft, from yonder boob tube breaks the first faint stirrings of The Witch's Creed– "An it harm none, do what thou wilt"– although rephrased in modern vernacular it translates to protecting the innocent, punishing the guilty and a moratorium on using witchcraft for personal gain. Close, but no corn dollie. Their "powers" are more psychic than magical– time-stopping, prophecy and telekinesis. The sisters are heavily dependent upon the spells of their elders, which include such golden oldies as binding and glamouring. As with dark sister "Buffy," applause is due for accurate use of tools and terminology. The spell book is "The Book of Shadows" and one of the girls works at Buckland's– interesting.

One "Charmed" episode this season broached the issue of karma, or the law of three. After using telekinesis to make an unpopular politician step in doggie doo, he becomes a powerful witchhunter and the sisters must right the wrong or die. The question of persecution and of karma is not a casual one for Pagans, old or new. ABC's "Sabrina" also addresses karma. In almost every episode Sabrina indulges in one of the seven deadly sins. Attempts to rectify the situation with witchcraft throws the local populace into an uproar, until she has repented her wickedness.

"Charmed" and "Sabrina" exhibit nothing really worthy of protest except the continued emphasis on secrecy and the implication of heredity, the latter doubtless derived from other religions' propensity for endowing offspring with dogmatic obligations at birth. Ancestral arts are a pivotal device in the piece de resistance of the Pagan media invasion– none other than the 1999 episode of "Scooby-Doo: The Witch's Ghost." Yes, friends, Romans, countrymen, witchcraft has journeyed from "MacBeth" to classic 20th century cartoon animation.

Those meddling kids, always debunking supernatural phenomena, prove to be a most credible resource when they encounter the real deal. World-famous horror author Ben Ravencroft, voiced by Tim Curry, tracks down the gang at their most recent museum-haunting. An admirer of their work, Ravencroft invites them to his hometown of Oakhaven, Massachusettes to take in the "fall color." Upon arrival, the sleepy little town is filled with tourists for "Autumnfest." Oakhaven has gone commercial, with a replica of a Puritan village atop a recently excavated graveyard, and the ghost of Ben's ancestor Sarah Ravencroft is quite disturbed.

Sarah was unjustly persecuted as a witch in 1657, Ben explains, as she was a medicine woman who practiced natural healing. "Just like the Salem Witch Trials," Velma intones. "Many men and women who were a bit different or didn't conform to the codes of the colony suffered the same fate." Encouraged, Ben admits Sarah was a Wiccan. Surprising on a few different levels is Daphne's admission that she's "read about them. Wiccans were in tune with the forces of nature and used them for healing purposes." Velma adds, "Wiccans have been misunderstood, accused of sorcery. In fact, the word 'witch' comes from Wicca." Ben vows to find Sarah's "journal," to prove "that she was a Wiccan, not an evil witch." Hmmmm.

Meanwhile, Shag and Scoob encounter some scary Goth chicks in a dark alley. Turns out they are The Hex Girls, headliners for the Autumnfest concert. They've got a good beat– the gang can dance to it. "I'm gonna cast a spell on you. You're gonna do what I want you to. Mix it up here in my little bowl, say a few words and you'll lose control..." Fred's pretty mesmerized, which pisses off Daphne. Turns out Thorn, Dusk and Luna think Ben's "one of us. You understand what we're into." They are self-proclaimed "Eco-Goths," a catchy but essentially meaningless designation, "kinda like Wiccans." It seems Thorn is a "real" Wiccan, again due to ancestry. Spooked, Fred and Daphne have misgivings when they overhear Thorn speak of power and ritual before quaffing some herbal tea at her candle-lit altar.

This episode takes the gang's escapades a step beyond the usual format. Of course, they discover the local merchants haunting the town to attract tourists. Velma finds Sarah's journal under an oak tree, whereupon Ben reveals he was using the kids to do his dirty work. "You see, Sarah wasn't a Wiccan– she was indeed a witch. No mere mortal can understand the power in this book. But I am descended from a superior breed." He releases Sarah's evil ghost, who opens a can of Whoop Ass on the mock Puritan village with lots of groovy parlor tricks, until "a virtuous soul," Thorn and her "Wiccan blood" performs the spell to imprison her again. Shaggy has learned that water won't melt a "real" witch, and the rest of the gang is now Pagan-friendly, grooving to The Hex Girls' "Earth, Wind, Fire and Air, we may look bad but we don't care. We ride the wind, we feel the fire, to love the earth is our one desire."

While bowing to the indisputable genius of Special Story Consultant Glenn Leopold for using The Mystery Machine as a vehicle for Pagan education, "The Witch's Ghost" should raise a few eyebrows in the community. The saccharin aftertaste lingers as we judge the inferences as boon or bane. If the term "witch" comes from Wicca, why is a moral distinction made? Will children believe that all herbalists are evil? Should any reference to "breed," whether "superior" or not, be associated with the craft? In a few generations the heredity factor may prove true, although it negates the option of choice, the only media example of a converted Pagan being "Buffy's" Willow. "Scooby-Doo" warns us to watch out for phonies, users and evil-doers. In spite of inconsistencies "The Witch's Ghost" casts a flattering light upon Wicca. I must admit I am still basking in the afterglow of being considered "a virtuous soul."

It is as important to observe copies of "Teen Witch" on the shelves of the recently expanded metaphysical section at Barnes & Noble as it is to note that "Charmed" follows "Popular" on Wednesday nights. The age range of those receptive to the message is expanding as well. Children are fertile ground upon which to plant the seed of knowledge, but if that knowledge is too subjective what will come of the harvest? If in fact media portrayal of positive Pagan role models is finally penetrating the collective psyche, accuracy becomes an imperative. One cannot laugh off "Buffy" as easily as "Bewitched." The latter, loosely based on the classic play/film "Bell, Book and Candle," played fast and loose with the term "warlock," which has found its way into the mainstream and into "The Witch's Ghost." In my book this term applies to ceremonial magicians, and I'm not ready to start fielding that question. "The Witch's Ghost" asserts that Wicca is good and witchcraft is bad, which begs the question– as only Wicca is being addressed, will this generosity of spirit trickle down to overlooked members of the Pagan community?

The responsibility falls to all Pagans to right what wrongs they can in their circles of influence. Not all have a calling to the entertainment industry, but as fellow media victims we belong to a universal audience. We have an opportunity to make Goddess worship as accessible as home improvement and paper doilies. The irony of the "What Would Jesus Do?" campaign should not escape us. Pay attention to the omens, on television and elsewhere. We'll be watching. Witch's Honor.