Witch Pop (and an Ankhie Ramble) – Jenny Calendar, Techno-Pagan

Long before Willow won over Tara at Wicca Group or flayed her first victim, witchcraft spelled its way into the Buffyverse via a self-professed Cyberpagan named Jenny Calendar. As Sunnydale’s Tech. Ed. teacher she seemed the perfect foil to Giles’s mannered librarian.  Outspoken and thoroughly modern, her introduction followed the lines of that classic trope – opposites attract. It was sweet to see the Hellmouth’s grownups getting some action, and together, Giles and Jenny had a lot to offer the Scoobies – heart, smarts and much magical know-how. They also each had their secrets (demon-conjuring, Gypsy revenge agenda) giving their story depth and texture.

Which is why Jenny’s death at the hands of a fully-vamped Angel was particularly disturbing – and the elaborate set up that led Giles to the discovery of her body was one of the more sadistic moments in the series – one that made Angel’s own (albeit temporary) demise both necessary and justified. This Ankh, for one, never forgave him.

She was, after all, a very cool human and pretty damned interesting to have around –  the embodiment of  the contemporary occultist. Her roots were Old World Romany witchcraft, as were the means of her magic, but her life online (and hanging out with the young folks) gave her a much broader perspective, expanding her understanding well beyond the limits of her traditional upbringing. It was, in fact,  the meeting of an ancient occult text and technology that first brought Jenny and Giles together – when scanning a particularly powerful grimoire resulted in a demonically possessed computer and an enthralled dark-witch-to-be Willow. It is important to note that there are no coincidences in the world of Whedon. Willow would become who she was – both the go-to gal for all things tech and the biggest baddest witch on earth – largely because of Jenny Calendar’s influence and ultimate end. Which brings Ankhie to today’s tangential ramble…

Technology has served pagans and occultists well. Virtual communities – composed of individuals who practice in isolation or are wary of exposure – allow for the free exchange of ideas and access to material that others (in previous generations) spent lifetimes acquiring. The internet is a place where those with unorthodox beliefs or alternative lifestyles can commune, banishing loneliness with the click of a keyboard. It does not, however, make us any less alone.  Nothing can replace true human interaction.

Ankhie took a stay-cation last week to spend time with a couple of cool teenagers. Both are smart, funny, and very plugged in. One has been raised since infancy as a practicing Wiccan, the other a barefoot agnostic.  Ankhie had all kinds of plans for these kids – picnics, boat trips, inspirational visits to museums and sites of historical  significance – but they were having none of it. They were happiest sitting back to back on the sofa chatting with friends on social media and with each other in-between rapid fire IMs. I was, frankly, appalled, and prepared to drag them out of the house by their power cords. Then I realized. They were actually fully and creatively engaged in their community – and Ankhie, of all people (she who spends 10+ hours a day online) -should realize that. Technology cannot replace the tangible. But there is a world of possibility that lies beyond our physical reach. There is a danger of too much access without enough engagement and too much information without the foundation of learning and experience needed to use  it well and properly (see Willow above). And  nothing replaces books (ahem! note the name of this blog!) or actual experience, but our lives are a lot more magical today because of technology rather than in spite of it. Had these two kids been online in separate rooms, or even separate chairs I might have made good on my threats to pull the plugs, but they were sitting together, actually touching, making eye contact, giggling, like girls passing notes in  school or whispering while everyone else at the sleepover watches scary movies and talks about boys.  Plus it was close to or over 100 degrees all last week! Cut Ankhie some slack! So while the ladies typed and tittered, yours truly cracked open the box set of BTVS.  Thus this post. There are no coincidences in the world of Ankhie either – or so I’d like to think.

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Witch Pop – Angelique, the Siren of Dark Shadows

Ankhie was far too young to watch Dark Shadows when it first aired, but watch it she did – scarring her for life in the best way possible. Aside from a compulsion to sleep with blankets securely tucked around her tender neck, what the show did to this wide-eyed Ankh was indoctrinate her into a life-long fascination with all things occult. Vampires are sexy (that intoxicating mix of terror and attraction) and although Barnabas Collins seems a bit ragged by contemporary blood-sucking standards, he had mucho carisma.  But nothing in cape or fang compared with the glamor that was Angelique Bouchard – Barnabas’s tempestuous lover, and a witch of awesome power. Wee Ankhie loved Angelique almost as much as she loved her tap dance teacher Miss Loretta (for whom she would knot her own shoelaces,  hoping for a moment’s special attention) – for Angelique was beautiful, bold, and bad bad bad! This may also have been Ankhie’s first exposure to the sexy=psycho equation, but let’s leave that for another day…

In all honesty, Ankhie remembers virtually nothing of the episodes themselves beyond one where someone gets bricked into a basement wall  (nightmares about that one) but does remember Barnabas and Angelique. Long before reading Bronte or Bram Stoker or Anne Rice, long before anyone imagined that the undead could sparkle – this creepy couple secured Ankhie’s understanding of how devastating and desirable, love could be. And that, my friends, is a knot that even Miss Loretta could not untie.

There are LOTS of places online to read about Angelique and the rest of the Dark Shadows cast. Here are a few:

Wikipedia for Angelique Bouchard-Collins and for Dark Shadows

Collinwood.net

Dark Shadows News (read here about who will play Angelique in the upcoming movie)

Dark Shadows Festival (Yeah, you read that right hipsters!)

Hulu (watch it here!)

Witch Pop – Minnie Castevet

If you’re like Ankhie, you’ve watched Rosemary’s Baby 30 or 40 times. The dream/rape sequence may be the single most terrifying moment in 1960’s cinema, not for its explicitness (it’s not, really) but for the terror it conveys when Mia Farrow shouts “This is no dream, this is really happening!” I get the shivers just typing it. It is a movie that exploits our darkest fears about the occult, the perceived medical cabal, and the vulnerability of women.  The child-like appearance of Farrow and the haunting, wordless melody that opens the film only add to the sense foreboding, emphasizing the fragility of innocence, both physical and spiritual. But what really makes this movie work is the levity brought to it by Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet.  She is a maternal busy-body, humorous and full of home-spun observation. She is also a very dangerous character. And one can’t help but love her a little, despite everything. The combination of funny and frightful – something many actors and directors have tried to pull of with disastrous result – works brilliantly here.

Judika Illes – pop culture maven and occult history scholar gives Mrs. Castevet her props in The Weiser Field Guide to Witches:

Minnie Castevet

Veteran actress Ruth Gordon portrayed Minnie Castevet, the elderly but vivacious Upper West Side New York City witch in director Roman Polanski’s 1968 film, Rosemary’s Baby. Her husband Roman Castevet, also a witch, is played by Sidney Blackmer.

Although the movie, a huge box office success, is famous now, those unfamiliar with the plot might not immediately realize that Minnie and Roman are witches. The plot hinges on how long it takes their victim, Rosemary, to recognize that the Castevets, her next-door neighbors, are more than just an eccentric older couple. They lack the stereotypical, tell-tale clues that would identify them as witches: no pointy hats, no black cats, no flying broomsticks. The closest thing to a “telltale sign of witchcraft” is Minnie’s knowledge of herbs and her production of homemade healing potions.

Minnie and the other witches in Rosemary’s Baby correspond to the deepest fears of medieval witch hunters—and apparently modern many movie-goers, too. They hide in plain sight, living right next door and blending in perfectly. Rosemary’s Baby is based on author Ira Levin’s 1967 bestselling novel of the same name. Ruth Gordon won the Oscar and Golden Globe awards for best supporting actress for this role, becoming the first person to win an Oscar for portraying a witch.

Witch Pop – Endora

She was, of course, the ultimate Mother-in-law: meddling, malicious, demeaning, disapproving, and (best of all) a real witch! She was also kinda hot, in that gauzy 1960’s matronly way.  And you can’t really blame her for all the son-in-law bashing. Darren One was a bit of a boob, always running around wide-eyed like a cat whose tail got stuck in a socket. He was a  guy who seemed to beg for abuse.  It’s wasn’t nice, but it was funny, and considering the things that Endora did to him, he was a pretty good sport about it.  Not so for Darren Two – the scowler. I kept waiting for Endora to hex him off the show entirely – he had no sense of humor and more than a glint of animosity. He was wholly unlikeable;  but Samantha loved him (there is no accounting for taste) and Endora, despite all her ball-busting bluster, wanted her daughter to be happy. Just goes to show you – witches might make for challenging in-laws, but they’re damn good moms!

Judika Illes, also a damn good mom, AND  a woman of vast occult and pop-culture knowledge,  gives the glam-witch Endora her due in The Weiser Field Guide to Witches:

Endora

As played by veteran actress Agnes Moorhead, Endora was initially intended as the villain of the ABC televisionseries Bewitched—not because she was a witch, but because she was a mother-in-law. Bewitched debuted in 1964, a time when evil mother-in-law jokes were stylish.

Witches are a different species in the Bewitched universe, possessing superpowers and only physically resembling mortals, as humans are called. The premise of the show is that Endora’s daughter, Samantha, who has fallen in love with and married a mortal, is attempting to live as a mortal, avoiding the use of her magic powers. Endora, who takes tremendous pride in being a witch, is appalled—although she consistently helps Samantha whenever needed. She may disapprove of her son-in-law, but she clearly loves her daughter. Endora is glamorous, tough-talking, and sharp-witted, and is the consistent source of Bewitched’s cleverest jokes and lines. She has emerged as a heroine for many 21st-century witches. The name “Endora” references the Bible’s Woman of Endor.

A little You-Tube love for Endora!

Women and the Occult – Sybil Leek

We continue our celebration of ladies on the dark side with a look at one of the first modern occult practitioners to unfurl her cape in public – Sybil Leek.

A hereditary witch who hailed from a small village in Staffordshire England,  Sybil settled in the U.S. after her American publisher pushed her for a book tour (ah, those were the days!) and her U.K. landlord kicked her out for drawing crowds. The relocation worked out rather well for Sybil, as you will see in this excerpt from The Weiser Field Guide to Witches, by Judika Illes:

Among the first to emerge from the broom closet, publicly revealing her identity as a witch, Sybil Leek was an accomplished astrologer, fortune-teller, author, lecturer, ghost hunter, and a popular television and radio personality.

Born in what she described as a “witch-ridden” part of Staffordshire, England, near the crossroads of three rivers, Leek’s birthday was February 22, but some controversy exists as to her age. Leek claimed 1922 as her natal year, but printed cards given to mourners at her 1982 memorial service gave the year 1917 instead.

Sybil was a hereditary witch from a family steeped in magic and metaphysics. On her paternal side, she claimed descent from Russian occultists affiliated with Russia’s royal court. Her mother and aunt were both psychics. Her grandmother, a hedge witch and astrologer, prepared charts for such friends and house guests as Lawrence of Arabia and author Thomas Hardy.

Sybil grew up in England’s New Forest region, an area with historic associations with witchcraft. Mainly home-schooled until age eleven, she never had more than a few years of conventional education, but beginning in childhood, Sybil studied witchcraft, occultism, astrology, Kabbalah, and the Bible, as well as Eastern religions, philosophies, and mystical traditions.

Aleister Crowley was a Leek family friend and predicted great things for Sybil. Another family friend, H. G. Wells, author of War of the Worlds, took little Sybil to see her first eclipse. Her grandmother taught Sybil astrology by baking cookies, decorating them with astrological sigils, and asking little Sybil to put them in order or explain their significance before being permitted to eat them. Sybil herself would eventually establish what is described as the world’s first astrological management consulting service.

During World War II, Sybil was a military nurse, serving for a while at the military hospital in Anzio Beach. After the war, she began to ply her trade as an astrologer. Among the clients described in her writings were the future King Hussein of Jordan, Egypt’s King Farouk, and the man who deposed him, Gamal Abdel Nasser. In the 1950s, following the repeal of England’s last law against witchcraft, Sybil began living openly and publicly as a witch. She published a series of articles and was interviewed by the BBC, resulting in much media attention.

For years, Sybil ran an antique store in Burley, Hampshire. As she began to attract notoriety, she was pursued by reporters and the village besieged by tourists. When her landlord declined to renew her lease, she took this as a sign to leave England and travel to the United States. Her original intent was merely to promote a book, but she fell in love with America and elected to stay permanently, emerging as perhaps the first witch celebrity. She gave many interviews, and appeared on the Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin television talk shows. The author of over sixty books, her autobiography, Diary of a Witch, was published in 1969. By the time she died on October 26, 1982 in Melbourne, Florida, Sybil Leek was a millionaire.

For further information on the inspirational Sybil Leek:

Wikipedia

Lovestarz

Witchcraft: a guide to the misunderstood and maligned

BBC: Inside Out

Controverscial.com

Witch Pop – Samantha Stevens

It was a point of  pride for me as an awkward young Ankh that I shared a birthday with Elizabeth Montgomery.  She was someone who I saw every day after school, ageless in syndication,  lovely,  magical, always in trouble (what child doesn’t relate to that?) yet always able to “charm” herself out of sticky situations and back into dorky Darren’s arms.  My nose would never be pert and I possessed no powers,  but I saw Samantha Stevens as the maybe-someday-me… because underneath the perfect housewife/good-girl veneer she was fundamentally different, and that difference was both her pride and shame.   I was different too, but maybe… maybe that was alright. Maybe being different made me special, instead of wrong.

*****

I spent a lot of time in Salem Massachusetts this October – some of it business, all of it pleasure. Salem is like nowhere else. Every autumn the city remembers its brutal history, then atones by embracing the people it once persecuted. Magic in all its forms is celebrated, with parades, balls, ceremonies, and freedom of expression that belies the Puritan feel of the brick and cobblestone streets. There are probably more occult dedicated shops, museums  and venues (open year-round, I might add) here than anywhere else in the world. There is some serious magic afoot, and a great deal of campy fun. Case in point: across the street from HEX – a hard-core old-world witchcraft store, sits a bronze statue of  Elizabeth Montgomery seated on a broomstick and flying through a crescent moon.  The contrast is surprisingly charming and true to the nature of this historic city.

One of the pleasures I had on a recent visit to Salem was lunch with author Judika Illes.  She is as delightful, erudite, and funny in person as she is on the page. Part of the charm of her Weiser Field Guide to Witches is that, like the city of Salem, it is a serious investigation into witchcraft through history that doesn’t ignore the witch’s role in popular culture. There’s real affection for the many dark mistresses of film, books and television, and that is as it should be. How many of us found resonance and inspiration in the characters and story lines of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Bewitched? Most, I’d wager.

And so, with Judika’s enthusiastic consent, I took this picture after lunch.

Here’s a brief history of Samantha Stevens from The Weiser Field Guide to Witches:

As portrayed by Elizabeth Montgomery, Samantha is the star of the hit television series Bewitched. Samantha is a beautiful, blonde hereditary witch in possession of superpowers – she can accomplish virtually anything merely by wiggling her nose.

Bewitched was a revolutionary program. For the first time, a witch was totally and unambiguously a heroine. She is an extremely sympathetic character – intelligent, kind,  sensible, and sensitive. Samantha attempts to juggle the conflicting demands of her beloved husband, Darren, who would like his wife to behave like a regular mortal, and her own family, especially her mother Endora, who find Darren’s desires insulting.

Bewitched aired on ABC from September 17th, 1964 until July 1, 1972, and then continued to air in syndication. The show was phenomenally popular, holding the record for highest-rated half-hour weekly series ever to air from its debut until 1977. For many viewers,  Bewitched was the first program to introduce the concept that a witch might be sympathetic. A bronze statue of Samantha was erected in downtown Salem in 2005.

Because sometimes, different is special, not wrong.

Witch Pop – Willow Rosenberg

Sweet, goofy Willow – everybody’s best friend – the shoulder to cry on – the voice of reason – the smartest person in the room and always, always second best to beautiful, bad-ass Buffy. It’s a situation that many (if not most) of us are painfully familiar with.  It’s tough being a sidekick – half-lit by reflected light – moon versus sun, watching the world turn away.  Perhaps that’s why, when Willow loses control there’s something delicious about it (“You taste like strawberries” quoth the Rack) and something terribly exciting.

Buffy is born a Slayer – her strength is supernatural, but not of her own choosing. Willow has a small gift that she is smart enough to recognize and then labors to develop. She creates herself – her confidence and power accelerating with each success. Magic is something that must be earned, and controlled. But when out of grief and loneliness she takes shortcuts to power, when it becomes an escape rather than a path,  she loses it.  Little Willow becomes an addict. Terrible things happen to her and she does terrible things in turn, and when it is all over she is altered. But magic isn’t like other drugs. Willow can never recover sobriety. She must learn instead to control the high. In the final season of BTVS, after losing the love of her life and very nearly losing her soul, Willow becomes, surprisingly, more powerful and more deadly. One of the beauties of her story line is that she is allowed to remain dangerous, and although remorseful, unredeemed. Giles teaches her what he can about harnessing and directing her abilities, but in the end Willow is beyond education. She is on her own, and must (as always) figure it out for herself. Her punishment is the knowledge of her own potential for destruction. Her reward (if one could call it that) is the freedom to evolve beyond it.

Red, Black, White – Willow is the full spectrum of magical intent.  It is rare in any sort of fiction that we are allowed to see a character develop past known definitions. But Willow does just that. She ventures into the extremes of love and loyalty, darkness and rage, and comes out, not intact, but true – truth being always, always much more than it seems.