It may surprise some people to know that I have been enjoying CW’s new series “Reign.” It’s a historical (I use that term lightly) drama about the life of Mary Queen of Scots. Although false history is usually a pet peeve of mine, it was obvious from the get-go that this was not going to be a scrupulously accurate re-telling of history. So, I took it with a grain of salt and just enjoyed the drama, the foofy dresses, and looked forward to it as nothing more than light-hearted (and not very well-written) entertainment. A guilty pleasure, if you will.
But, then they started messing with Pagans. And now Aelfie is a little peeved. (Yes, sometimes Aelfwynne likes to speak in the third person.)
*edit* Shouldn’t have to pander to crusty old fuddy duddy haters. But I will clarify, as if that wasn’t clear enough, that the reason the lack of historical accuracy wasn’t bugging me is because the show is so OBVIOUSLY not even TRYING. If it was playing itself off as a true representation, then the inaccuracies would be insulting. But, it isn’t. It’s not pretending to be something that it’s not. Therefore, I look at it as a form of mindless entertainment to “zone out to” after a long day. We all have them. End of disclaimer. *
Any series needs conflict, and therefore a nemesis. This series started by using the English as the “bad guys.” Ok, that makes sense considering the period and history of Queen Mary of Scots. Then there was court intrigue, double agents, hidden agendas, the usual thing you imagine in a late Medieval court. But, apparently when that got old, the writers decided to fall back on the old “demonize the pagans” trick.
That the series’ writers would have no interest in historical accuracy was demonstrated from the first episode. They certainly make no effort what so ever to get their costumes remotely period accurate! So, I wasn’t really surprised to see Pagans depicted inaccurately. But, what did surprise me as the viciousness with which Pagans are attacked in their representation.
Reign writers would have us believe that the 16th century saw rogue bands of pagans committing “Heathen” human sacrifice in the woods, using their own symbol rendered as a pewter stag’s head pendant left as a “calling card” to identify their next victim, the pendant is “dipped in poisonous oil” in order to burn an imprint of the stag on the skin of the targeted victim, and then terrorizing said victim by hanging a still bleeding head of an actual stag above the bed of said victim Godfather style. Apparently Early Modern Pagans were masters of “the Sicilian message!”
And, it’s not just the way the Pagans are depicted in the show that is so outrageous. It’s the way they are discussed. The word “Heathen” is spewed forth with disgust. They are discussed by the shows protagonists as if they are the most morally reprobate people on the face of the Earth and referred to as “savages.”
Did “Heathens” perform human sacrifice? Yes. But, did they during this period? Unlikely. Most of Europe, and certainly Western, Central, and Northern Europe was long converted by this time (barring the Saami in the remote far North). Many modern neo-Pagans like to fantasize about witch trials being a purging of Paganism. But, the truth is the surviving remnants of paganism in the 16th century were usually folk beliefs. In fact, “folk religion” is a term used to describe the fusion of old beliefs with new. Usually, practitioners are completely unaware that their traditions are, in fact, pagan. They usually view themselves purely through a Christian lens. (This obviously didn’t save them from the flames of the stake, but that’s another story). So, the witch trials were a purging of Paganism, but not in the way that they’re thinking of it. There may have been pockets of agrarian “witch cults” surviving in secret. But the evidence is not yet overwhelming.
Secondly, we know that the practice of human sacrifice often involved the killing of prisoners of war and criminals. In other words, people who typically would be executed anyway. They just happened to prescribe a religious meaning to their executions. There are some very unpleasant accounts of Celtic human sacrifice by flame. But, this was during late Antiquity, and we can’t be certain how much of the account was exaggerated for the sake of propaganda. (Although it has been pointed out there are separate accounts which corroborate each other).
However, let us not forget to point out that the Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern worlds were violent times! Abhorrent violence and killing was also committed under the Christian banner, even by groups who seem quite mild mannered today such as the Lutherans.
Now, I’m not the type of person to falsify history to make our religion more palatable to a modern audience. But, the fact of the matter is that Paganism is not well understood by the general public today. There is still much discrimination against Pagans, especially in areas like the “Bible Belt.” There is still a mistaken belief that Pagans are Satan worshiping practitioners of black magic. And, there is also the annoying assumption that Paganism means Wicca, and that all Pagans identify as “witches.” Sadly, many uninformed neo-Pagans who have no knowledge of the numerous reconstructionist forms of Pagan revival even think that!
So, in a time when we are fighting for equality, fighting for acceptance, and suffer prejudice based on misunderstanding and confusion, it is highly IRRESPONSIBLE of CW and the writers of Reign to be so ridiculously biased in their interpretation of a living modern religion.
If anyone out there knows of a petition floating around demanding that CW apologize for their portrayal of Pagans, please link it in the comments below, and we will share it around on the FB page. I would link you to their “Contact Us” form, but that part of their website appears to be down. If anyone would volunteer to create such a petition, it would be much appreciated 🙂
~ Aelfwynne ~