Friday, January 27, 2017

Booknote: Witches of America

Alex Mar, Witches of America. New York: Sarah Crichton Books--Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015. ISBN: 9780374291372.

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: paganism, witchcraft, occultism, travel, spirituality, religion, memoir.
Format: hardcover book
Source: Berea branch  of the Madison County Public Library

Alex Mar embarks on a journey to explore the  practices and traditions of modern witches, pagans, and occultists in the United States. Her focus is on how they live and practice in modern society, some out in the open and others still in the broom closet. Mar takes a five-year journey into paganism and the occult in nineteen chapters. In addition to meeting people, talking to them, studying witchcraft, and even getting initiated into an occult path, she also traces the history and rise of modern witchcraft, paganism, and a bit of occultism.

The history starts in 1950s England and comes right over the pond to the United States in places like San Francisco, New Orleans, and rural Oregon. We meet witches, disciples of Aleister Crowley, a Celtic priesthood, radical feminist Wiccans, and more. And as Mar travels, she strives to ask and answer questions we may have: what do we believe in? why do we choose to believe it? Where do we find meaning?

The book's pace starts a bit slow, but the pace soon picks up. Mar weaves a good narrative that blends experience and memoir with history. Along with her experiences, she brings in the various histories of paganism and the occult, which I found interesting. In the  end, Mar delivers an interesting and at times moving story of paganism and some of its various forms and those who practice them. I do say some for, as the author reminds us, many parts of the pagan experience are not in the book. She hopes others will go out and do their own research and write further.

For me, the only thing missing was a good bibliography. She mentions three books in her acknowledgements as crucial, and there is a footnote here or there, but I would have appreciated a list of sources, mostly for me to keep reading and exploring. By the way, the three books mentioned are:

Overall, this  is an excellent book. Another benefit of this book may be for pagans and witches who may feel alone or isolated reassurance others like them are out there and thriving. The book is a solid selection for public libraries. I'd also recommend it for academic libraries, and I'll be ordering a copy for our library collection. This is one of the most interesting reads I  have done recently, and it is a book that has sparked my curiosity to learn more.

5 out of 5 stars.

* * * * * 

Additional reading notes:

Many Americans are  drawn to the occult and mysterious, way  more than they care to admit:

"So is this witchy stuff or mere coincidence? I'm not sure. The world is full of strange and inexplicable business. There are many Americans-- not just out-there Americans, but high-functioning people with mainstream jobs and houses with backyards-- who have stories like those of my family. Stories of mysticism, of communications from the other side, whether handed down, hearsay, or their own. All you need to do is press a little harder, and out they come: from supermarket cashiers, retired cops, psychologists, high school jocks-- it doesn't matter where they live or what they look like. The overriding culture trains us to dismiss these stories as New Age babble, signs of wayward fanaticism, rather than greet them with a healthy dose of curiosity-- but Americans are compelled by the mysterious more often than we feel permitted to admit" (10). 

Modern study and training into witchcraft can often be online and long distance given some branches and practitioners are separated by geography. The Internet has made some things easier. Mar describes a bit of her long distance training with one of her teachers:

"I am to e-mail her weekly, by Thursday night, to be supplemented by occasional phone calls; and I'll receive lessons as password-encoded online videos. Finally, in a few months, I'm to visit her home, at my own expense, for some actual face-to-face time" (106). 

That sounds almost like a modern online class, and by the way, like other classes, she did pay for her lessons.

An observation that many witches, and pagans, while often devoted to serving others, don't always have their own lives together. This also applies to artists, and I've seen it in artists I know. To an extent, I can relate as well:

"If people are talented at spell casting, it does not immediately follow that their focus is on perfecting their own lives. Many witches are dedicated to using magic to perform a service for others, leaving their personal lives a mess-- a scenario that I've seen play out in my own world, with every kind of artist. Morpheus had her own example: 'You can have a Harvard professor who's obviously a master  in their field, but  that doesn't mean that they have a perfect grasp on how to have relationships or whatever,' she told me. 'Just because you are advanced in a certain skill does not mean that you are somehow a perfectly rounded, perfectly developed person'" (152). 

Side note: Josh, Mar's Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) teacher, also works with Santa Muerte (not in the OTO pantheon though). Here is one prayer he uses:

"Santisima Muerte! Beloved of my heart!
Do not abandon me without your protection.
Defend me from my enemies and grant me
a peaceful death.
Oh Holy Mother, hear my prayer! Amen" (202). 

That reminded me a bit of the book on Santa Muerte I recently read. Also shows how pagans can and do often blend practices and traditions.

Update note (3/19/17): Turns out that a number of pagans dislike the book to varying degrees. I recently even talked to such a pagan, and she personally loathes the book. Opinions vary, but in the end it is still an interesting memoir of a segment of the pagan community, albeit a very small segment. Keep in mind also it is written for outsiders, and that does add some value to it given many of the readings pagans often recommend are written by and for insiders. Do I recommend it still? Yes, but I do as I often say to readers, read it and decide. The book does have some flaws that deserve critique, but she also gets a lot of things right and does provide an accurate picture of paganism in public. In order to provide some balance, here are some additional reviews. The one John Halsted (from Patheos) may be most of interest:

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