Editorial: Web of Wyrd number 10

Julia Phillips

During the Middle Ages, a great many men and women were put to death on charges of heresy. Nearly all of them were innocent of any crime; nearly all of them were guilty of no more than being a scapegoat for someone else's accusations and projected fears.

Fortunately, today we have grown beyond such barbaric inhumanity - or have we? As a race, have we truly evolved, or is humanity still groping around in a mire of discontent, seeking for victims on which to project its fears and failures? If we consider the way in which the medieval witch was hunted, accused and held up to public condemnation, and then compare this process with the way in which modern society deals with its victims, then I would say that the human race has not evolved in the slightest.

Consider: often for no reason other than he or she offended someone, a man or woman living in medieval Europe could be taken as a heretic, and with evidence (sic) being no more than hearsay, tried and found guilty of charges of which they were mostly entirely innocent. Their accusers were not interested in truth, but in judgment; and justice certainly had no role in their scenario. To absolve themselves of any blame in this autocratic process, the accusers made sure that public opinion was swayed against the victim. How? By publishing details of the "crime"(sic), which were then distributed to as wide an audience as possible.

Students of English Literature will know of the enormous influence which the humble pamphlet cast on the population - which, despite high illiteracy, had sufficient numbers able to read aloud to a gathering in a town square. We all know how quickly rumor and innuendo spreads - any grapevine in any social group is proof positive of just how quickly information can passed along; and sadly, we all know that there need be no shred of truth in that information for it to be spoken about, considered, and accepted as fact.

The medium of the pamphlet proved to be so efficient and effective that it developed, and in time became the newspaper, newsletter, and ultimately, the magazine. In all cases, the emphasis is upon the distribution of information to as large a number of people as possible. In all cases, those reading (or hearing) the information have a predilection to believe what they read to be the truth. Modern print is often no more truthful than that of a 16th century pamphlet, which might describe how a witch succumbed to the charms of the Devil, flew to the Sabbat riding on a goat, where she devoured un-baptised infants, and took part in many lewd and disgusting practices. Unfortunately though, having "read about it in the paper/magazine/leaflet..." most people assume that they are reading the truth, and are often willing to believe the worst.

There are numerous examples of this process at work in modern society: in some countries, information is manipulated deliberately by politicians and journalists. In other countries - and I would include all of western civilization in this - the manipulation is as pervasive, but less obvious. As the saying goes: "you can believe nothing you read in the papers but the date, and they sometimes get that wrong".

Unfortunately though, people do believe what they read in the papers, see on television, and hear on radio, just as our ancestors believed that the woman led screaming to her death was a concubine of the Devil, a devourer of babies, and that she copulated regularly with her cat, or other animals. We are quick to condemn the Christian Fundamentalist for spreading lies and propaganda, but what about the lies and propaganda spread by Pagans and occultists? It offends my intellect to read of claims by self-professed witches of traditions handed down since time immemorial, or of secret arcane traditions known only to an elect few, but it offends my sensibility that these people, claiming to be following a spiritual path, have such contempt for Truth.

We are no less human or fallible than our non-Pagan neighbor, but we are engaged in a continual search for Truth: both within and without. We are not perfect, but we do seek for our highest ideal, and we do strive ever towards it, no matter what our particular path. Therefore to me it seems a particularly unpleasant kind of action for a writer knowingly to misrepresent his or her background and/or experience, simply to acquire some spurious prestige.

The editor of a Pagan/occult newsletter or magazine has an even greater responsibility, for rarely is the publication subject to professional editorial control, and yet it is generally fairly widely distributed, and its readers tend to believe what they see. As an example, we can look at the sad death of Scott Cunningham; within hours of his death being announced, the rumors that he died of AIDS were widespread. The fact that his family and his closest friends have stated any number of times that he died of meningitis is neither here nor there: to a great many people around the world, Scott Cunningham will have died of AIDS. Why? Because it was reported in Pagan magazines, and they can't be wrong - can they?

Not only can they be downright wrong, they can also be inaccurate or misleading - sometimes deliberately so. I have seen newsletters recently where a matter best dealt with quietly, between those concerned, has been fought in the public arena using very much the same means as the medieval inquisitor. Defamatory and highly emotional printed leaflets, with scant attention to the truth, have been published and circulated throughout the Pagan/occult communities in the USA, Britain and Australia during the last year. Highly respected writers in Britain have recently been subjected to threats, with accusations and counter- accusations filling countless pages in pamphlets, newsletters, and magazines.

What, you might wonder, has this to do with a personal quest for Truth? Very little, in my opinion, hence my remarks above that the human race appears to have made no progress at all in its essential characteristics in hundreds of years. The only difference is that today, we have far more efficient means of spreading the information to greater numbers of people.

I have seen too many attempts at character assassination over the last year or so to believe that it is an isolated incidence, perpetrated only by one or two people. It has happened in Britain; in Australia; in the USA. The modus operandi has been identical in every case: an untruthful statement has been made about one or more individuals, sometimes supported by evidence (sic) of a spurious nature; the accusations have been published in print, or electronic media, and distributed to a wide audience. Even where the statement is so absurd, that no-one knowing the accused would believe it for a moment, those who do not know the accused are left wondering. This kind of trial by media is sick, and those who perpetuate it - usually self-professed "Pagans" - are, quite frankly, despicable.

If we, as a community, are to come of age, then we must rid ourselves of these contemptible troublemakers. We can't stop them publishing their pamphlets, or typing out their lies, but we can ignore them, and stop giving credence to their venomous pens. As with the victims of the Middle Ages, the victims within our own community are being used as scapegoats for someone else's fears and guilt; the only way to fight this particular plague is to ignore it. Deprived of an attentive audience, the pamphlet bandits will soon give up and go away.

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