JENNY CALENDAR: TV’S FIRST TECHNOPAGAN
By: Meg Elison
Jenny Calendar wasn’t the first technopagan, but she was the first one on TV. The computer science teacher at Sunnydale High on the forever-enshrined series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Miss Calendar was a tragically short-lived character and love interest to tweed daddy Rupert Giles. She outed herself to him at the advent of their unconsummated affair, explaining to the stuffy Oxfordian watcher that digital circles of cyberwitches were the hip new thing in the occult world.
You think the realm of the mystical is limited to ancient texts and relics? That bad old science made the magic go away? The divine exists in cyberspace same as out here.
Calendar was a technopagan in the wild and woolly days of 1998, when the web wasn’t exactly worldwide. Google had just launched its first search engine, boasting that it could index over 25 million pages in total. That’s roughly the number of results you’d get today searching for “witchcraft online.” But even then, she was right. Due to the nature of secrecy incumbent upon most witches and pagans and the relative obscurity of the religion, most pagans in the ’90s were technopagans by necessity. Many still are.
The early days of technopaganism were painfully earnest. All across the witchy world, teens and adults furtively researched what there was of community and ordered books by the parents of modern witchcraft (Gardner, Starhawk, Cunningham, et al.) on the trifling books-only version of Amazon that existed back then. Technopagans used the web’s early random number generators as a form of augury; they published their rituals to banish loneliness and played tarot deck solitaire.
As soon as e-commerce was a reality, anyone could shop via the web for a ’90s witch starter kit: an athame and a pentacle big enough to get some attention. Commerce and cheap imports aren’t the divine, but they help people make the switch in their consciousness to reach a more magical frame of mind.
That, after all, is the working definition of magic to which most pagans subscribe: It is the art of changing consciousness in accordance with will. It happens in parts. First, we put on the magic clothes, ring the magic bell, raise the magic knife. These are the little things that trick the part of the mind that is wowed by symbols, awed quieted like a child under fireworks. Second, we change the mind that is quieted, and the change (if we are good, if we are powerful) radiates outward.
This is not much different from what we do online; even back in 1998, it was the same. We put on our invisibility cloaks and magical names, use our secret passwords to gain access to etheric realms. We gain the information that changes our consciousness and we post our screeds to Facebook and Medium, hoping to change others in turn. The connection was easy to make and often belabored by the technopagans of Jenny Calendar’s decade. We were all astrally projecting via 56.6k modems, meeting on a another plane and garnering wisdom from far-away elders who we had to seek on paths unknown to us.
In 2016, the broomstick game has changed. Witchcraft has become a badge of post-riot-grrl female solidarity and a subtext in Beyonce videos. Jenny Calendar might not recognize the witches on American Horror Story: Coven, but the show’s powerhouse wiccan Willow Rosenberg certainly would. Modern technopagans and Tumblr witches are far less earnest than the web-weaving whitelighters of 1998. The world and the web are both messier now, and the aesthetic can be gleefully dark. Calendar and ’90s witches stressed nature and balance—and most lived by the adage ‘do no harm.’ Every GeoCities site belonging to a witch contained a disclaimer: Either she did not worship the devil or he outright denied the existence of any such deity. Witchy kids of indeterminate gender today are comfortable co-opting the classical attributes of the Satanic witch, rounding out the credo to read ‘do no harm, but take no shit.’
Jenny Calendar is the technopagan paragon of the early web, just as she is the witch that the early altruistic seasons of Buffy needed. She worked her well-meaning magic in an environment that called up the specter of persecution to make fledgling practitioners feel the heat of Salem without ever falling prey to the fire. But in the final seasons, early in this millennium, the show’s writers gave us Willow the dark witch, with the power to burn down the world. She tortured misogynists (sometimes to death), she plunged deep into the darkness, and derived glory from her own unstoppable power.
A decade later, witches and technopagans who would make a face at that neologism are sharing information on how to hex their enemies on Snapchat. They’re creating sigils that defend trans kids who just need a bathroom, and tacking these visual spells to telephone poles in Seattle.
Jenny Calendar was killed by a vampire and buried under an assumed name on a television show that went off the air thirteen years ago. But she was right about the divine, and she is godmother to every witch casting spells in the black mirror of an iPhone.