The story so far: Christine O’Donnell, far-right Tea Party/Republican candidate for Delaware in next month’s elections here, believer that masturbation is a sin, you can be cured of being gay, and abortion is murder, appeared on some talk shows in the 90s. And a clip has been unearthed of her admitting to ‘dabbling into witchcraft’.
She then issues a rebuttal advert where she claims, actually far more creepily, ‘I’m not a witch: I’m you.’ There is a brilliant Saturday Night live parody:
The media is loving it, but she seems to be doing a good job of burying the whole thing: last night in her TV debate it barely got a mention.
I taught a class on medieval representations of witchcraft last year (not of my own design, I hasten to add, lest I come across as more expert than I really am). So what interests me is less the scandal of O’Donnell as witch, and more how this story fits into the cultural history of what people believe about witches, who believes it and why, and how witchcraft gets used as a political accusation.
What you hear her say on the clip above is that she ‘never joined a coven’, but had a date on a ‘Satanic altar’, where ‘there was a little blood’, and that she had some kind of picnic there at ‘midnight’. I’ve been digging around on the internet but so far I haven’t found anyone interviewing her teenage friends and asking what they remember – if you have, I’d love you to leave me a link in the comments. It seems entirely possible that she made it up for some kind of rhetorical advantage mid-talk show.
As you’d expect, Wiccans, being hippy dippy environmentalist types for the most part and not natural Tea Party fans, have been quick to distance themselves from all this, saying they aren’t Satanists, this has nothing to do with their kinds of rituals, etc. etc. etc.
But it does have a lot to do with the terms in which people talked in early modern witchcraft trials across Europe and, eventually, New England. The anthology of primary texts that we used on the course I taught was the 2nd ed of Kors and Peters, eds, Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History, but you get what seems to me to be an accurate (if under-referenced) account of the relevant bits at the Wikipedia entry on the witches’ sabbath.
A tradition of the witches’ sabbath gradually developed in the visual arts (Kors and Peters is full of wonderfully lurid woodcuts and paintings like the one above), in handbooks for prosecuting witchcraft, like the Malleus Maleficarum, and, most importantly, in supposed witches’ confessions, which they would offer up in order to stop their torture. Probably this had little, if anything, to do with any actual ritual being performed anywhere, ever. But Satanic altars, drinking blood (usually children’s), and meeting at midnight in order to feast are all staples. As the party went on it generally progressed to an orgy with demons, and I can’t help feeling that that’s what the date connection is all about in O’Donnell’s sex-is-evil mind. And, of course, there has to be a coven – intrinsic to the way witchcraft was perceived in the early modern period was that they weren’t lone operators. No. There was a huge conspiracy of witches, growing daily, lurking in all the familiar towns and villages, against which draconian restrictions on fair trials and the use of torture were justified. Hmmm, this is reminding me of something…
Anyway, all these ideas carried on, remarkably stable, into the twentieth century. They get adapted by CS Lewis for his Aslan sacrifice scene in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, watched by my step-cousin Georgie Henley [clang] in the film version here:
She’s a witch who is clearly identified with Satan, directly opposed to the Christian God (Aslan) does weather magic, freezes fertility, has familiars… all the usual stuff, and that sacrifice scene is a standard Sabbath. CS Lewis’s brand of Christian misogyny has been much discussed, so I won’t labour too long why he might be interested in demonising powerful women. But his ideas about witchcraft aren’t all that different from those articulated by the fundamentalist let’s-ban-Harry-Potter brigade. (See Rebecca Wagner’s article here.)
And then it comes to O’Donnell, and the difficulty for her Democrat opponents of using witchcraft as a stick to beat her with. Liberals either don’t believe in witches, or think they’re a legit religious sect in the form of Wiccans. And, more to the point, they don’t want to cast themselves in the role of witch persecutors, because we’ve all seen The Crucible and those aren’t nice associations in the electorate’s impressionable minds.
Back in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries people weren’t so squeamish. Have a political opponent? Accuse them of witchcraft! My students last year read about the destruction of the wealthy order of Knights Templar by those means, the burning of Joan of Arc (I have to plug Robert Bresson’s amazing film, based on the trial records, here), the abortive trial of Alice Kyteler in Ireland, and various other papal and royal schemes and paranoias.
Presumably when Christine O’Donnell was doing what she’s calling ‘dabbling into witchcraft’ she was getting marginally involved in a teenage game. Just going one step further than the ouija board that is supposed to be such an indispensable part of the teen experience. (I never did it – but I wanted to.) And modern politicians must realise that there’s no winner in the battle of my-youthful-indiscretions-were-worse-than-yours.
But the terms in which she describe it still intrigue me. Really, Christine O’Donnell, was that the best teenage rebellion you could think of? Couldn’t you come up with some better details about your witchcraft experience than the imagery the Christian right has been using to describe it for centuries? It’s not big, and it’s certainly not clever.
Update: I’ve now amended the reference to what O’Donnell says about the coven, because I noticed I misquoted her. Sorry!