Originally published at Modern Mythology
The sub-genres of -punk have not always had a great history of living up to their names. The aesthetics get hijacked and commercialized, the narratives sanitized and made sheepish. The struggles between the marginalized and their environment — which itself is the end result of human activity — is excluded in place of cheesy romance sub-plots and flashy but otherwise banal fight scenes. The novelty of high-culture and high-tech is re-purposed for those not reigning supreme on top of the cultural pyramid, replaced with recycled tropes. All art invariably vanishes screaming into the valley of derivative money grabs.
It’s a fairly well known fact to fans of “cyberpunk” that it was not a term coined by William Gibson, the man who nevertheless laid the groundwork for the genre. The term has its origins in Bruce Bethke’s short story “Cyberpunk”, which was published in the a November 1983 issue of Amazing Science Fiction Stories. As is often the case, a sub-genre begins first prototypical, lacking easy distinction from other vaguely similar works, yet not quite blending into anything that exists.
As Gibson wrote in Burning Chrome “…the street finds its own uses for things”. So why limit this to technology? What about tech of a different kind? Not the steel and plastic technology of the everyday, but the techniques and methodologies of preternatural and mystical practices? Of high mysteries and esoteric knowledge?
This was the thought that occurred to me one day, during a blizzard that had buried my driveway under feet of snow. For my personal research at the time I was reading an English translation of the Malleus Maleficarum, which was released by German Inquisitor Heinrich Kramer and Dominican Friar Jacob Sprenger in 1487. If you aren’t already familiar with the text, it is a ‘comprehensive’ guide to witch-hunting. I was curious to see how people of the time viewed witches, and found myself enveloped by the book. I had a physical copy of it, and mine started with the introduction found in the 1928 version, written by Montague Summers.
Summers was an English author and clergyman who studied such topics as witches, vampires and werewolves. He professed to believe in the existence of such. In his introduction to the 1928 version of the Malleus Maleficarum, Summers wrote a bit about witches in a way that caught my eye. He wrote,
“… just below the trappings, a little way beneath the surface, their motives, their methods, their intentions, the goal to which they pressed, were all the same. Their objects may be summed up as the abolition of monarchy, the abolition of private property and of inheritance, the abolition of marriage, the abolition of order, the total abolition of all religion. […] Historians may point out diversities and dissimilarities between the teaching of the Waldenses, the Albigenses, the Henricans, the Poor Men of Lyons, the Cathari, the Vaudois, the Bogomiles, and the Manichees, but they were in reality branches and variants of the same dark fraternity, just as the Third International, the Anarchists, the Nihilists, and the Bolsheviks are in every sense, save the mere label, entirely identical.”
“ In fact heresy was one huge revolutionary body, exploiting its forces through a hundred different channels and having as its object chaos and corruption. The question may be asked — What was their ultimate aim in wishing to destroy civilization? What did they hope to gain by it?”
Suffice to say, these passages hit me pretty hard. I had been involved in variously iconoclastic occult groups for many years at this point. I knew all about Operation Mindfuck and the Linking Sigil. When I had been a transient drifter, sleeping outside and hitch-hiking, I thought myself quite the disciple of novelty and creative chaos. But when I read the 1928 introduction to the Malleus Maleficarum, the words struck me both as the paranoid ramblings of a clergyman who seemed to believe in every bogeyman and myth, as well as a precise honing into the anxieties society feels towards marginalized, ‘exotic’, and Othered groups.
The witch-hysteria of Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries is one of many encapsulations of our fear of those deemed alien. Summer’s rants merely eloquently frame this mode of thought. After reading the introduction a sudden creative inspiration filled me, and I began to work on the backstory and world-building of what would eventually become my serial fiction podcast, “The Witch-Doctor”. I couldn’t help but refer to it as ‘witchpunk’ internally, and the label stuck.
So how does this tie into what I’m talking about? What is witchpunk? Well, I have the same questions. It’s an embryonic concept, but it is ripening in our current cultural climate. The way cyberpunk is often summed up is “High tech. Low life”, which is credited to science fiction author Bruce Sterling. If that is the easy summation of cyberpunk, then I suppose witchpunk would be best defined as “High magick. Low life.”
Or perhaps “Esotericism for the Masses”, “High mysteries for the precariat”, “High as fuck, low-magic too”. You get the gist. Just as the streets have their own uses for retrofit technologies, they have use for hexes, meditation, religious ecstasy, oneironautics, divination, theurgy and more.
I became obsessed with bringing this idea to fruition and have tried (despite life and time constraints) to bring witchpunk to reality in my work on “The Witch-Doctor”. It’s a work in progress. I’m still learning about every day in terms of recording equipment, script writing and audio editing software. It’s not perfect, but I felt compelled to try, and feel compelled to continue trying.
“But what of mythpunk?” the genre-savvy might ask. A cursory comparison might seem to indicate that ‘witchpunk’ is not novel, that mythpunk has the bases covered.
If you’re not familiar with mythpunk — Neil Gaiman fans will already have an idea — it’s a term coined by author Catherynne M. Valente, and denotes “a brand of speculative fiction which starts in folklore and myth and adds elements of postmodern fantastic techniques: urban fantasy, confessional poetry, non-linear storytelling, linguistic calisthenics, worldbuilding, and academic fantasy.”
The differentiation between the prototypical witchpunk and semi-established mythpunk is that witchpunk deals directly in Othering, persecution, scape-goating, mass-hysteria, heresy and censorship. The antagonists of witchpunk are the gatekeepers of “acceptable belief”, of orthodoxy. While myths and folklore may very well play a large part in witchpunk (I know it does in The Witch-Doctor), it’s ancillary to the relationship and co-habitation of powerful orthodoxy and rag-tag heretics making use of what spiritual and magical technologies they can get a hold of to make ends meet.
The street-level antagonists of cyberpunk are rarely of much import in their worlds, the movers-and-shakers are often monolithic, algorithmic and inhuman business conglomerates. In the world of witchpunk, the corporations and corrupt governments may play a part but there is special attention placed on those establishments that seek to engender themselves as the purveyors of cosmological, spiritual, and ethical narratives; the archetypal grand church of established orthodoxy. Mythpunk stories like the Fallen Cycleon the other hand don’t focus so much on inquisition.
Monarchy might get a bad rap in the Western world, but people often conveniently leave out the part the church had to play in reinforcing the validity of the crown. While the King of some country, and his vassals, might wield their powers unjustly, the church (and later, churches, plural) were the organizations that fed a story to the masses in which they were God-ordained to be lower and lesser than their monarchical counterparts. Between the influence of the Church and its peddling of world-stories, and the Crown and its armies, the common people were effectively crushed between two stones.
In America, Christian Dominionists strive to pass legislation in accordance to “Biblical law,” (as they interpret it, of course). Their credo is that of Genesis 1:28, “And God blessed [Adam and Eve], and God said unto them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.’”
Evangelicals willfully pit themselves against the Other at every turn. The culture war is in large part a war between philosophies and religious institutions.
Witchpunk asks “What if they got their way?” and “What would occultists/pagans/alt-spirituality folks do in such a circumstance?”.
In short, what would all of us occultist lowlifes do in a world dominated by Christian Sharia? That’s the question. The reason for the need of a creative space to play around with the idea in.
Also, don’t get me wrong. I’m not, strictly speaking, anti-Christian. The way a person goes about practicing their religion is determined more so by their character than the actual contents of their religious books. Reformations occur. Rehabilitation happens. There is no man-made system of thought that cannot change and grow. But there are many who would prefer that it did the opposite, who would prefer a step back into the times of Inquisitions and witch-hunts, and these forces have monetary backing and wide circles of influence. This isn’t a diatribe against the religion, but rather a speculation about the kind of world people would foist upon us, people who just so happen to also be evangelical Dominionists. But just as possible would be a witchpunk tale of the esotericist set against a backdrop of materialisticpositivism run amok, or any number of authoritarian theocratic states.
The point is not the foe, but the relegation of arcane methodologies to those who know they are breaking not just taboos but laws, risking not just shame but their lives. The marginalized people who turn to teachings and concepts deemed heretical, for the tale of the witch is perpetually the tale of projected heresy. Censorship, monoculturalism, inquisition and xenophobia all blend together in the fabric of the great witchpunk antagonist, while the techniques are equally appropriated by enemies of a more deprived, precarious, and feral kind.
This article is in part a call to those of you who can imagine such a world. Create. Write about it. Tell the story. I will keep plugging away at “The Witch-Doctor” serial fiction podcast as long as I’ve got the creative drive to do so. It started out as fun, and a way to practice writing, but it revealed a hunger in me for a genre that did not exist yet as far as I could tell; or at was not as prevalent as might be needed to make a cultural impact.
Part of avoiding the reality of a witchpunk world is letting people peek into the speculative fiction of such a reality in which it has successfully taken control. Let us also give people the hope that there are resources available to combat it, the inspiration to look toward heresy and dusty old books.