Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America

By Ellis, Bill | Western Folklore, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America


Ellis, Bill, Western Folklore


Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America. By Sabina Magliocco. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Pp. 268, acknowledgments, introduction, notes, bibliography, index. $55.00 cloth, $19.95 paper)

This work documents how Neo-Pagan communities "use folklore, or traditional expressive culture, to establish identity and create a new religious culture." The author characterizes this new religious movement as a "folk revival" comparable in importance to the folk music revival of the 1960's. As such, it raises many of the same issues: Is revival Witchcraft an "authentic" religion or simply a cross-disciplinary commodification of traditions poached from marginalized cultures? How "genuine" is a religion whose eclectic and highly fictionalized framework is patent to most of its participants? Finally, how meaningful is the Neo-Pagan self-identity as a historically oppressed minority, when the majority of its participants are White, educated, and middle class?

Magliocco, a participant observer of the California Neo-Pagan community, uses post-modern anthropological and recent folkloristic theory to explore these issues. The result is a multi-textured work that succeeds in two important ways: it makes a compelling case for revival Witchcraft as a living folk religious tradition, and it demonstrates that modern folkloristic theory is the appropriate tool for analyzing it.

The work is divided into three sections. The first, "Roots and Branches," begins with a fine survey of "pagan" thinking, starting with the magical texts of historical antiquity and showing how successive waves of European reinterpretations of "paganism" influenced the emerging disciplines of anthropology and folkloristics. It then reviews how revival Witchcraft and Neo-Paganism are themselves grounded in the practice of ethnography, both amateur and professional.

A second, more innovative section, "Religions of Experience," addresses the contested concept of "magic." Drawing on accounts of ritually induced trance experiencesher own and those of her Neo-Pagan companionsMagliocco argues that revivalist magic is not simple make-believe but a "reclamation of traditional ways of knowing that privilege the imagination" (97). She presents ritual as a strategy intended to invoke, train, and share imaginative experiences. Further, she argues, it is "a kind of grammar"-one wishes Magliocco had noted this word's historical connection with "grimoire," or manual of instruction in magic-that allows participants both to reproduce successful rituals and to generate new ones (138). Becoming familiar with ritual allows Pagans to control extraordinary experiences and induce them in socially acceptable ways, she finds (154-55). Similarly, the aftermath of rituals allows participants to generate narratives about their visions, which also helps integrate their experiences into the belief system of the community (168-69). Nevertheless, she insists that while beliefs, narratives, and rituals help believers understand and use their experiences, experiences do not in themselves create such alternate states of consciousness. Rather, she argues, experience needs to be understood as the source of beliefs and practices, not their products. Following Hufford (1995), she argues that Neo-Pagan visions are real, somatic events, based on experiences attested in many other religious traditions. This bold, well-argued premise is well documented by Magliocco's field notes, but one wishes that she had brought in more frequent examples from parallel religious movements to clinch the argument.

For instance, her discussion of "aspecting," i.e., embodying a Pagan god or goddess, recalls Spiritualism, where, as Alex Owen (1990) showed, mediums ritually adopted a "spirit guide" personality to subvert Victorian norms.

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