Revenge of the Witches

Ehrenreich and von Hoffman

Revenge of the Witches

Ehrenreich and von Hoffman

Revenge of the Witches
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Oct. 30 1998 8:09 PM

Ehrenreich and von Hoffman

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Dear Nick,

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Thank you for reminding me of the need to bring Henry Kissinger, as well as his local operative, A. Pinochet, to trial for the mass murders in Chile. I learned this week that it was a call from HK that turned CNN against its own Tailwind story last spring, with the suave old fiend telling the CNN brass that no way could Americans use nerve gas, least of all against other Americans. A follow-up call from the Pentagon, hinting that CNN would have no more access to the next prime-time war than Slate or the East Bay Journal of Marxist Theory, sealed the deal: CNN and Time disavowed their own reporters, Jack Smith and April Oliver, who wander around today, jobless and vagrant, talking to whoever will listen.

Personally, I have no desire to torture, flog or even perform back surgery on the perps in any of these head-of-state mass murder cases. The hope is that they get brought to trial, should an appropriate venue exist, and that the trial serves some somber pedagogical purpose.

Apropos of Halloween, the LA Times reports that there are 60,000 practicing witches, or followers of WICCA, in the United States at this moment, so I thought a few words on the holiday theme might be welcome here. Sadly, the only written accounts of the doings of European witches in the late medieval and early modern period, when witches abounded, are left to us by their persecutors, and must be viewed with the greatest of skepticism. One charge frequently brought by church authorities, for example, was that witches delighted in severing the members of the male religious, and collecting these in large wicker baskets, to what ends we are not told. But until archeologists uncover mounds of tiny, shriveled members, we must reject this fascinating, and not entirely unappealing, charge as almost certainly slanderous. In the 1960s, the reigning idea was that "witches," like our modern Wiccans, were simply devotees of the old pre-Christian deities, and given to midnight partying in the woods for the purposes of fornication and the ingestion of psychotropic substances. Then came the all-too-hygienic revisionist view (which I myself contributed to) in the '70s, that the unfortunate ladies who were pricked with pins, tortured, and burned as witches, were in fact simply lay health workers--the barefoot doctors and feminist therapists of their time--going about their professional business. But quite recently an Italian scholar named, I think, Maffiesoli, has made a strong case for the orgiastic interpretation, and portrays the witch-gals as heirs to a tradition of ecstatic pagan worship possibly stretching back to Siberian shamanism and those awesome ancient Greek Dionysian raves.

The reason I mention all this is that the observance of Halloween in our own time increasingly expresses what I take to be a widespread grassroots hunger for orgies. A mere four centuries ago, in the European carnival tradition, people routinely donned masks and costumes, drank to excess, danced in the streets, and engaged in outdoor, recreational, sex. Then came the crackdown, also known as the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, and the rest of it--leaving us with nothing to do on Halloween but fend off the children who use the occasion as an excuse for their door-to-door extortion rackets. Thus the recent take-over of the holiday by adults, and the associated rise in unseemly Halloween-related behavior by the same, can only be seen as a proud assertion of "traditional values." So put on your Monica masks, dear readers, and party down!

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As for you, dear Nick: Breakfast will be seriously deficient in protein and grit without your gonzo company. Rave on!

Barbara Ehrenreich is contributing editor at theProgressiveand author of several books, including Blood Rites. Nicholas von Hoffman is a columnist at theNew York Observer. His books include We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us Against.