Paganism: as seen on (admittedly schlocky) TV

I’ve been watching Reign on and off for a few months now on Netflix. I only just finished season 1, so my opinion could yet change, but overall I’d gloss it as a ridiculously inaccurate and anachronistic historical drama, centered on Mary, Queen of Scots, during her time at the court of Henri II of France. The costumes are bizarre, the music choices ridiculously modern, there’s a cast of uniformly attractive young people, and all in all it’s good fun. (Think A Knight’s Tale, but centered more on court ladies.) Oh, and there’s a seriously wackadoo pagan subplot that’s pretty hilarious.

As I was watching the Season 1 finale, though, I got to thinking. Part of the reason I find the subplot so funny is that it’s so thoroughly preposterous. The eeeeevil pagans are giving blood offerings in the woods! Spoooooky evil pagans with their creepiness! It’s almost camp in its over-the-topness. But then it occurred to me (and really, as a critical viewer it should have occurred to me sooner, but in my defense this is just trashy fun TV for me): the plotline is very sketchily painted, with little explanation or depth. And the only way that works, from a storytelling standpoint, is if the narrative is already freely available to the viewing public. Put more bluntly, you don’t need to fill in the gaps, because the audience already ‘knows’ all about evil, human-sacrificing pagans.

And, my gods — that’s horrifying. I’m fairly used to dealing with some of the other pagan stereotypes, especially the one I call the Hot Topic Witch: they’re really jazzed about rebelling against their parents, super-excited to buy some crystals and black clothes, and down to light a candle and pray to the Goddess. Eventually they’ll either get bored and move on or they’ll grow into a deeper spiritual practice, and either way there’s no harm, other than a general cultural idea of paganism as simple and discardable. (As a Protestant Christian colleague said to me, apropos of something I posted on social media, “Thanks for sharing. It’s rare that I get to hear from a neopagan who isn’t (a) a rebellious teen, or (b) a cheeky postmodernist.”)

And sure, there are always the voices from the lunatic fringe of the far right, yammering about Satan and devil worshipers and generally doing a bang-up job of conflating all non-Christians into a big, formless and frightening Other, seasoned liberally with half-remembered nonsense from the heyday of the Satanic Panic. But watching the French nobles of Reign talking with fear about the ‘evil pagans’ in the ‘bloodwood’, with a shadowy figure demanding blood to propitiate the gods and forestall the creeping Black Death… oy. I could only imagine plenty of otherwise well-meaning people (including many with whom I share social and family ties) nodding blithely and thinking “yep, that sounds about right.”

As often happens, I find it helpful to connect this back to queers and queerness. As a non-visible identity that’s had a large amount of success in fighting broad social stigma, queerness (and the ongoing fight for queer rights and liberation) is a useful comparison case. And in this specific case, I find myself thinking of Harvey Milk, the San Francisco Supervisor and gay rights leader who was assassinated in 1978. He was a loud proponent of the idea of visibility as a tool for change; in a speech on Gay Freedom Day (June 25, 1978), he summed it up: “Gay brothers and sisters, […] You must come out. […] Once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake.” Or, as actress Amanda Bearse later put it pithily, “it is easier to hate us and to fear us if you can’t see us.”

This is why I so strongly value the work of Ar nDraíocht Féin and other public pagan organizations: we exist in the community as visible, knowable groups who welcome believers, seekers, and the merely curious to our rites. It’s also why I’ve made a conscious effort in the past few years not to hide my religious activities from friends, family, and colleagues. Not to proselytize, but merely to be there as a counterweight to bizarre pop culture images: for every evil bloodwood pagan (Reign), let there be a druid officemate. For every unhinged, power-mad Nancy (The Craft), let there be a santera neighbor. For every ruthless Supreme (American Horror Story: Coven), let there be a witchy cousin. Then maybe I can get back to laughing at campy overwrought pagans, instead of cringing and wondering what my friends and family think I do out in the woods.

And, sidebar to my friends and family who might read this: please, just ask. You won’t offend me, and the worst thing that’s likely to happen is that I’ll get excited and talk your ear off.  As Annelle promises Ouiser in Steel Magnolias, I won’t make you eat a live chicken; not on your first visit!

Header image: “Bash battles The Darkness!”, Reign season 1, ep. 22, “Slaughter of Innocence.” Source: BuddyTV, “‘Reign’: 22 Moments of Mary’s Rise, Francis’ Regret and a Darkness Reveal from the Season 1 Finale.”

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