what about the witchcraft in Harry Potter

This is the basic dilemma Christians have with the series. Both classical mythology and the Bible provide plenty of reasons to be concerned. The great witch of classical mythology is Medea, and it would be hard to find a less desirable character in life or myth. She devotes her life to avenging herself on Jason for abandoning her for another woman, which he did partly because she didn’t fit his plans and partly because she was, well, she was a witch, and not only literally.

What makes Medea such a fearful character is first that she is willing to go to the dark forces of Greek mythology to gain power and that she uses her enormous powers for her own ends. The latter leads, of course, to the former. You can read her disturbing story in the various accounts of Jason and the Argonauts, of which I recommend Padraic Colum’s The Golden Fleece as a fine starting point. The link above is an E-text. You can also purchase it on Amazon.com or at Barnes and Noble.

The Bible is also rather explicit about witches. The LORD had no room for them in ancient Israel at all. When Saul went to the witch of Endor the reader knows that the King has crossed the boundary to the forbidden realm; that he has lost his mind.

The Christian classical tradition has always seen witches as dark forces. The Renaissance witch craze, in which both the fascination with and the fear of witchcraft slipped out of control, remains a permanent blight on European history. It was a double over-reaction.

Prior to the Renaissance and after it, witchcraft and its kin are used consistently to represent what we might now call the “dark side of the force.” Classical mythology had a category of powers they referred to as chthonic. These were the powers that the people worshipped before the arrival of the worshippers of the Olympian deities. They are the cloaked powers, the underground deities, the gods of trees and fountains and wells. On the brighter side, they are the “nature gods” as opposed to the Olympians, who came later and were worshipped as the supernatural gods.

After the arrival of the Olympian gods, the chthonic deities are thought to have gone even further underground. They are the gods of the mystery religions and the odd rituals that permeate even the Olympian mythology.

They are not regarded as uniformly evil, but the Greeks were cautious and fearful about their relationships with them. They appeased them, but so far as I can tell, they were not encouraged to call on them.

With the coming of Christianity, these chthonic deities seem to have come to be regarded as symbolic of evil, even of demons.

Christians and Olympian worshippers both felt that access to these powers was dangerous and Christians forbade it outright. Witches came to be seen as people who were willing to access these powers. Eventually, the powers and those who accessed them came to be regarded as inherently evil.

Western fairy tales then used witches as metaphors for the evil that permeates the world. There could not be a good witch, because the powers of witches came to be seen as derived necessarily from Satan and his demons. Witches were a warning to people that there were limits to the kinds of power we ought to seek.

With the Renaissance that warning came to be increasingly ignored until, in the Newtonian Olympian age (the Enlightenment) people refused to acknowledge any limitation on their knowledge or powers. They probed rationally into the recesses of nature and the human soul, and their fascination grew.

Inevitably, the metaphor that called us to limit our quest for power had itself to be overthrown.

So far as I can tell, it was The Wizard of Oz that first introduced the notion of a good witch into children’s literature. Of course, people now laugh at the notion that people were distraught about children reading this book when it first came out. Look at those book burners and banners, those censors who dare challenge the right of a child to read a charming children’s book. After all, what harm could a children’s fairy tale possibly cause?

Indeed.

The Wizard of Oz fails on a number of levels, one of which is its sheer lack of nobility and chivalry (see how the lion takes back the wood at the end for the “locus classicus” of this point). But what seems to have stirred up the most hostility, again, so far as I can tell, is the notion of a good witch.

In the Christian classical worldview, there can be no good witch. To allow children to experience a good witch in a fairy tale is parallel to allowing a child to read about a good demon. Of course people brought up on that tradition would react when a semi-educated insurance salesman who didn’t know what he was doing inverted one of the symbols that children had used to understand evil for hundreds of years.

In other words, the great problem with a good witch is that witches had been symbols of evil for a long time. I hope I explained why above.

Then people went to horrible extremes until, during the infamous Salem witch trials (which was insignificant numerically compared to the European witch hunts, but which was deplorable under the circumstances because the European witch craze had ended a generation earlier), people used witchcraft as a way to destroy people they didn’t like and the superstitious minds of the age had no defense against it.

That excess produced a guilt and a shame in the western consciousness that may has driven us to carelessness.

In a modern fairy tale a witch is interchangeable with a fairy godmother. In real life, people engage in wicca and others sit on the sideline bemused.

The world has changed.

I am no expert on wicca and I certainly do not believe that everybody involved in wicca is evil, any more than I believe that Christians are generally good. Wicca, so far as I can tell, is regarded by its practioners as a return to ancient pagan practices. If so, it seems to me that it is a return to the chthonic forms of that ancient practice.

Olympian paganism has become an amusing and profoundly insightful set of stories. Chthonic paganism draws its practioners into a world of mystery that we ought not to play with. I can easily understand why people would want to enter that world. I would simply urge you not to. There is a deeper magic from before the dawn of time and it meets a deeper need in your soul.

But, what about Harry Potter?

I’m out of time so I’ll have to pick this up later. But I’ll say this much: while I think Rowling erred using witchcraft as she does, I don’t think it has the same signficance it did when Baum did it some 75 years ago. The road in is also the road out. The historical circumstances in which she wrote influence the propriety of what she wrote.

More on teaching great books

We’ll be sending out a CiRCE Paper (our E-magazine) tomorrow with an article about how to teach The Iliad when you haven’t read it. As with any hopefully useful article, not everything I wrote made it. So here are some deletions (by the way, if you don’t receive The CiRCE Papers and would like to, click here and you can sign up for free and you’ll receive our free E-book too):

When you read a great book, you are standing beside the ocean. You could learn a lot by getting a bucket, filling it with water, and studying the drops in that bucket for the rest of your life. But you’d learn more about the ocean itself if you stood there and just looked, just taking in all you can see and feel and smell for a little while (and by the way, nobody has ever seen the whole thing). Maybe then you could swim in it, get in a boat and sail, even go fishing. You should experience it during different times and seasons as well.

 

So it with Homer. Don’t focus all your energy on studying the drops of water you can get in your bucket just because they’re more easily measurable. Focus on the big ideas. Every great book expresses one or two great ideas. In the Iliad, it could be justice. In the Odyssey, wisdom.

 

Ask your students, in language they can relate to, is Agamemnon fair? Is Achilles? Do Neptune and Kalypso treat Odyesseus justly? Is Odysseus wise? Were the Phaeacians wise to host Odysseus? Was Agamemnon a wise leader?

 

These are questions that can be asked about almost any book worth reading. And they can lead to incredibly profitable discussions!

Make these commitments:

Commitment 1: I will listen to the book

Instead of letting a curriculum guide you, let Homer guide you

Commitment 2: I will teach my students how to read and think

Instead of introducing them to yet another book, teach them the skills of active reading

Read by asking questions

Read purposefully

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Too often the questions we ask are rooted, not in our interest in the text, but in our distrust of the students. We ask them if they know so and so because if they don’t they didn’t read carefully.
In my opinion, that is not a fair assumption and it leads to a hunted feeling among students.

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Here’s something to be careful about: when you are teaching, an outline can be very helpful. So can a few notes on key ideas developed in the text.
However, they will be a lot more helpful for you than they will be for the student. We teachers can easily fall into what I call the analytic fallacy. That’s the idea that because you and I want to understand the text in an adult way, therefore our students do too.
It ain’t so.
First, just let them read the story. Don’t insist they like it. Then raise some very basic questions. That’s the key right there. If the students are asking questions, these tools that you have found helpful can be helpful for them too.

But don’t give them outlines until they help answer a question. And don’t give a lecture about a key idea until it will help your students answer a question.

By the way, that should be a question they are actively asking. If the discussion is driven by questions, you’ll be amazed how much you can teach your students about reading and thinking just by reading and thinking about what they are reading.

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The great benefit of teaching through a great question is that it causes you to focus on the right things.
Instead of focusing on details, focus on the big ideas.