Witches of America

21 01 2019

Alex Mar’s book on modern day witches didn’t inspire me to look further into a pagan revival in our contemporary context. If anything, it sort of reinforced my previous ideas of how we’re all living in one massive consumer survey, it’s just some people’s tastes are more “interesting” than others. Mar takes us on a journey through various contemporary schools of “witchcraft” such as “Faery,” Wicca, Celtic Neo-Paganism, and perhaps her most dramatic encounter, the Ordo Templi Orientis. In these spiritual quests, she stumbles upon various problems facing those seeking the sacred in a de-sacralized society: the issue of paying for initiations, the logistics of holding ceremonies in rented hotel spaces, and the intersection of magic and modern relationships. The “human story” was thus probably the most interesting element of the book, but that may not be saying much.

My real question throughout was “Does this stuff actually work?” I think the one thing that separates ancient societies where this magic originated and today is that modern people don’t need “magic” to survive. In other contexts, people absolutely did. There was no real division between magical ways of thinking and “science,” or addressing gods for your personal needs and recourse to an impersonal political bureaucracy. For me, that makes all the difference. If “magic” isn’t something you need to address basic human needs (food, shelter, safety, etc.) in reality it’s just a cute hobby, an add-on that makes your life less tedious and banal. That may be good for your psychological health, but here we are in the realm of pure subjectivity. Others could just as easily get by by getting a dog or taking up square dancing.

Mar’s involvement with the Ordo Templi Orientis was the most intense of all, resulting in her walkabout in a Southern swamp in the deep summer. One sort of wonders if she did that out of conviction, or if she was merely doing it because she was writing a book. Being a bit of a spiritual seeker myself, I guess I identify with her on one level. But overall, I didn’t find her to be particularly sincere, nor did her book intrigue me more to look into the systems she explored. Perhaps that was never the point, but I came away with a less-than-flattering view of modern witches. If you really want to re-create the past in the present, again perhaps one should look elsewhere.


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