There's a new "witch" in town -- and at first glance, she seems fine. Cute, strong-willed and thoughtful, Lena, the lead witch character in the new movie "Beautiful Creatures," is someone I can imagine getting to know, maybe even inviting to visit my coven.
Compared to the Wicked Witch of the West and other witch stereotypes, Lena and her family act fairly normal at first encounter. In their southern mansion there are no green skins, pointy hats, or cackling laughs adapted from scary folk tales and medieval Christian fantasies. But, for the witches of this movie, spirituality consists of a fierce battle between good and evil -- referred to, in an all-too-familiar, racist-sounding Christian fashion, as "the Light" and "the Dark" -- that plays into long-held stereotypes about witches.
Unlike Lena and her family, I am a real-life witch who practices the Wiccan faith. For those unfamiliar with what is now the fifth-largest religion in the United States, we Wiccans believe in the holiness of nature, and our religious celebrations honor the changing seasons.
Believing that the physical world is sacred, witches are often interested in housekeeping, gardening, healing and cooking. They make good lovers, parents and friends. Unlike the supernatural, cruel witches of the movie, the members of my religion are fully human and live by the principle of harming no-one. Witches are some of the most wonderful people I know.
For centuries witches have been maligned and misrepresented. The witch-hunter's manual Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), which was in wide use for nearly three centuries until 1669, led to countless deaths of healers, widows and other innocent people with its charges that witches kill and roast male babies, cause priests' penises to disappear and copulate with the Devil. So it was disturbing for me to watch "Beautiful Creatures" and find the word "witch" still being abused nearly 350 years later.
Unlike the witches of Lena's clan, who consider "witch" a dirty word and prefer to be called "casters," actual witches don't shy away from the traditional term. Our religion's names -- "Wicca," "witchcraft" or "the Craft" -- are important to us, just as the names for your religion, if you have one, are important to you. We call ourselves witches to connect with our roots and to reclaim the dignity of the word, which likely derives from the Anglo-Saxon for "seer" or "wise one." And with the word "witch," we also honor and remember the hundreds of thousands around the world, like my ancestor Mary Osgood in Salem, who have been persecuted or killed as witches.
Why does all this matter so much to me? Why not just laugh and shrug "Beautiful Creatures" off as amusing entertainment, grateful that at least Lena doesn't have warts and green skin?
Well, for one thing, there's the small matter that this is my religion they're playing with -- the beautiful, precious, sacred system of beliefs that makes my life, and those of so many others around the world, worth living.
Oh, that. Right.
As a nation, we believe in freedom of speech, but we also believe in freedom of religion. Most of us would be offended by a movie that derived its entertainment value from outrageously false and unflattering depiction of Catholics or Mormons or Baptists or members of any other faith as supernatural creatures. Such a movie simply wouldn't get made. But witches, it appears, are fair game.
Wiccans are an open-minded group. Our religion is, by its very nature, inclusive, respectful and tolerant of differences. But we have our limits, and it stretches us thin when our own culture distorts our beliefs and practices beyond recognition and robs us of our very humanity for the sake of entertainment.
And there's something else -- even more important and even sadder. While witches don't believe in trying to make converts (we have too much respect for each individual's spiritual sovereignty for that), we also know how much our spiritual path has to offer. Witchcraft is a viable and valuable religion for our time, one that honors the earth and reveres the sacred feminine. It makes me sad to think how the distortions in this movie could keep people away from Wicca -- people who might find there the nurturing, joy and empowerment that I have found.
Wicca is a real, large and growing religion deserving of respect, not just a screen for projecting our culture's fears and fantasies. A 2009 ABC news story estimates that 342,000 Americans identified themselves as Wiccans in 2008, up from 134,000 in 2001 and 8,000 in 1990. The New York Times cites a 2001 City University of New York survey that found Wicca the nation's fastest-growing religion. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs added the Wiccan pentacle to a list of approved religious symbols for engraving on soldiers' headstones.
At least books and films such as "Harry Potter" and "Beautiful Creatures" have started to bring the popular image of the witch beyond the realm of the 16th-century pointed hat. But now it's time to move forward still further into the 21st century.
There's a new witch in town -- and she's real.