Rewriting history with the "witches you couldn't burn," Rachel Dolezal, and some strange stories from TikTok.
thought digest, 7.27.22
Another thought digest, another location. Today, I write to you from beautiful, swampy, and, as we learned after an unfortunate run-in with a stingray yesterday afternoon, occasionally dangerous South Carolina.
Many of you have asked me why I’m always traveling. One friend even described me as a “smear across the globe.” The answer to this question is pretty boring. I have a big family and, save for the week at The Zephyr Institute, I’ve been visiting them all summer.
As you might have already gathered, I’m one of these people whose parents (and grandparents) say things like, “You never come and see us,” and then I end up spending so much time with them that I can legally claim their residence as my own on my tax returns. That said, better this way than on the other end of the spectrum, I guess.
Anyway, here’s what’s been on my mind:
A reinvigorated skepticism movement. In a recent column, Freddie DeBoer brought up a point that I hadn’t considered: the occultism renaissance is, in part, a reaction to the religious skepticism of the 2000s. I think he’s right.
It does feel like there’s been an overcorrection here. Even though people will still behave like we’re fighting Bush-era culture war battles when it comes to Christianity, you risk charges as serious as racism if you express any skepticism about the new esotericism.
What’s always struck me as bizarre about the esotericism revival is how bound up in alternative histories it is. Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca, fabricated the Old Religion. There are no Italian magical folk traditions, at least not ones that would be recognizable to a contemporary neo-pagan. And if such traditions had existed, they wouldn’t be found under the name ‘stregheria.’ Tarot cards do not come from Egypt. Pan-Celticism is all but completely invented. Even claims about an Irish (or more broadly Celtic) “fairy faith” have been vastly overblown—we can thank W.B. Yeats and Evans-Wentz for that.
Brujeria and Vodou have been butchered not only by experimental white neo-pagans looking to make an easy dime with Llewellyn but also by opportunistic writers from Central America and the Caribbean. Many of the Eastern magical traditions of the turn of the century and earlier are an invention of Orientalists, little more than a misunderstanding and re-contextualization of Sufism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism.
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The unglamorous truth is that many of those “witches you couldn’t burn” were good Christians who pissed off their neighbors. And, I’m sorry, your Sicilian grandmother—your Nonna— probably wasn’t secretly a witch. She may have had a preternaturally good read on people, as all Italian women do, but she didn’t practice stregheria (the legacy of which was a co-invention by Italian-American New Ager Raven Grimassi and old-timey occultist Charles Leland).
This is why many of these magic-with-a-k books that you’ll find in the ‘metaphysical’ section of your favorite New Age bookstore are BS. Maybe some of the writers are lazy and want to make money, sure, but there also isn’t much history to actually pull from. So much of this stuff is recent as of the 1800s. And the things that aren’t? Well, you’d have to go down the winding paths of Hermeticism, Gnosticism, and Qabbalah.
It’s not that esoteric traditions don’t exist, it’s that they don’t exist like most people think they do. For the most part, they’re bound up in Abrahamic religions. A great resource on this is the scholar Dr. Justin Sledge—notice how his videos are primarily about mystics from Islam, Judaism, and Christianity? Or otherwise mention topics like theosophy and spiritualism?
Reborn dolls get preemie-um formula. I found out this week that some people in the ‘reborn doll’ (hyperrealistic baby dolls) community have been buying and "feeding” their dolls formula… even during a formula shortage. I can’t get it out of my head. I don’t know what you’re supposed to do with this information, but it’s been haunting me.
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Things I’ve published since we last digested my thoughts…
For Tablet’s The Scroll:
And for RETURN:
The Fat of the Land: Could environmental contaminants be behind America’s obesity epidemic, or is it a question of diet and exercise? I sat down with Slime Mold Time Mold to hear their unorthodox take on what’s driving weights in people and animals.
Doll Parts: I attempted to write a short history of nymphets/doelettes/coquettes. Here’s where I landed.
This week behind the paywall, I talk more about historical revisionism, what the hell is going on with children and TikTok, and make a special announcement…