What is this? Problems with that Asheville witchcraft story? Let's spell them out

It's anniversary time, folks -- time to look back a week on that folk religion known as witchcraft and its New Year celebration, Samhain.

Our "patriarchal religions" perverted that ritual for honoring the dead into Halloween, of course. Luckily, via a tip from a GR reader, we have an article out of the Citizen-Times in Asheville, N.C., to remind us of the "deeply spiritual" witches that observe it.

Nope, that's not a snark. Here's what a photojournalist at the Citizen-Times writes after sitting in on the vigil:

A dark room and candles were the only thing I expected when I arrived at the Ancestor Ritual held by Mother Grove Goddess Temple in the parish hall of All Soul's Church on Oct. 23.

But the celebration of Samhain was much more than a ceremony for the dead. It was a deeply spiritual event where people opened themselves to mourning and to learning from their deceased ancestors and loved ones.

Oh, and my use of "witch" is not a jab either. "The word 'witch' has been given a very bad name by the patriarchal religions in this country," Byron Ballard, the high priestess of the temple, is quoted as saying. "We need to take back 'witch.' "

This was written as a first-person news feature, not an op-ed or an essay. The story is partly a first-grade lesson on what witches say about themselves -- something that would have been cutting-edge coverage in say, the 1980s. Then it segues into subjective feelings, then ends with advocacy something like those midterm campaign ads we all endured. 

Much of the story is an odd blend of old info and meaningless detail. The piece tells us the ritual featured "no smoldering cauldron, no evil incantation, and no eye of newt or toe of frog waiting to be mixed into a potion," as if most adults hold that cartoonish image.  Then it tells of incense and the singing of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, without asking why they're included. It does say why "smudging" is included, but not why these witches absorbed a native American ritual.

As in other stories on witchcraft, this piece tosses out some questionable statements, apparently without a challenge from the reporter. One: "We have ancestry worship in the West -- it's just called genealogy." Didn't know Ancestry.com was into worship, did you?

Another odd remark is calling Mexico's Day of the Dead a "form of worship service." Honoring ancestors, yes. Laughing in the face of death before it has the final laugh, yes. Worship? Doubtful.

The vigil is "said to be much like a typical church service" -- but this doesn't sound like one:

The most powerful, and arguably most important, part of the ritual, however, was a repeated chant to open the space to those beyond the veil. The group created a chorus of vowels that reverberated and filled the room not only with sound but with a presence. A feeling of something larger than life flooded over the participants as they repeated the chorus with a slightly higher pitch each time.

The reporter later reports that a "lightheartedness flowed throughout the room," which I guess means people said they liked the meeting.  Mind you, this news feature was not marked as a work of opinion or commentary. But the writer saves the best -- or at least the most extreme -- for last:

As for me, I feel enlightened from participating. After attending the ritual, I told my grandmother about the experience, and she informed me our family comes from a long line of druids in Ireland and Scotland. So maybe I felt the presence of ancestors I didn't know about or maybe I was just overwhelmed by the sound of 70 chanting voices.

Whatever it was, I'm glad I attended and connected with a part of my heritage I never knew I had. For anyone interested in mourning and honoring the people who came before and, ultimately, shaped their present self, I would strongly encourage attending next year's Samhain celebration and Ancestor Ritual.

I have no idea how many years this journalist has been writing, so my bigger beef is with the newspaper's editors.

What is this? Is this a news feature? Why did they let stand a pitch that reads like, "Y'all come next year!" Would we see a similar piece for a rosary convention or a Pentecostal prayer meeting?

Honestly, I have no problem with colorful writing. Vivid narrative, telling details, controversial statements, personal experiences -- these are all valid, valuable parts of news features. But tell us what you saw and heard, not vagaries about a "presence" or "something larger than life" washing over the gathering.

Might be nice also to Google a little before turning a story in. You could find out, for instance, that smudging comes from native American culture, not witchcraft.

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