Witches of AmericaBook - 2015
"Witches are gathering."
When most people hear the word "witches," they think of horror films and Halloween, but to the nearly one million Americans who practice Paganism today, witchcraft is a nature-worshipping, polytheistic, and very real religion. So Alex Mar discovers when she sets out to film a documentary and finds herself drawn deep into the world of present-day magic.
Witches of America follows Mar on her immersive five-year trip into the occult, charting modern Paganism from its roots in 1950s England to its current American mecca in the San Francisco Bay Area; from a gathering of more than a thousand witches in the Illinois woods to the New Orleans branch of one of the world's most influential magical societies. Along the way she takes part in dozens of rituals and becomes involved with a wild array of characters: a government employee who founds a California priesthood dedicated to a Celtic goddess of war; American disciples of Aleister Crowley, whose elaborate ceremonies turn the Catholic mass on its head; second-wave feminist Wiccans who practice a radical separatist witchcraft; a growing "mystery cult" whose initiates trace their rites back to a blind shaman in rural Oregon. This sprawling magical community compels Mar to confront what she believes is possible-or hopes might be.
With keen intelligence and wit, Mar illuminates the world of witchcraft while grappling in fresh and unexpected ways with the question underlying every faith: Why do we choose to believe in anything at all? Whether evangelical Christian, Pagan priestess, or atheist, each of us craves a system of meaning to give structure to our lives. Sometimes we just find it in unexpected places.
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This is the classic launching point of ancient myths and movie plotlines alike: the would-be apprentice petitions the master for training, and, once accepted, she is launched down the path to initiation and a new identity. So how to approach this teacher, who isn’t a kung fu master (or whatever)? How does a person approach a witch for training? Do I make a pilgrimage to her door and camp out in a tent until she lets me inside? Do I impress her by memorizing Aramaic texts and reciting them backward as I crawl over broken glass? Do I shave my head, fast for ten days, and then tap out a Bat Signal to her in Morse code on my straw mat?
In reality, the answer is obvious: I e-mail her.
Then there’s that word for what comes next, not around the corner but someday: crone. I find that single-syllable word a little terrifying because of what it stands for – the final stage, the time of life that this culture looks at as post-sex, post-options. But in this place it’s a term of respect – shorthand for “lady who’s lived longer than you and likely seen more than you, so shut your mouth while she’s talking.”
I want to understand the strange confidence necessary to climb onto the roof and sing to the moon, or to write out commands in your own blood; to train in a secret tradition and be initiated; to move out to the middle of nowhere and drag heavy stones to stand upright in your very own henge; to say, I have a trajectory in life. I want to grasp the moment when that confidence becomes conviction; to know what it’s like to believe, without doubt, that you hold the key to the Mysteries, that you are capable of magic. I decide to press deeper, to try to discover just what that faith is built on.
Because I envy them, the believers. They have guidance; they have clarity; their days have structure and meaning. And, quietly, for a long time, I’ve coveted these things – after all, they’re what most of us want badly, regardless of whether we consider ourselves lapsed Catholics or born-agains or strident atheists...When I put my work aside, I have to admit that I am searching – hopefully, and with great reservation – for proof of something larger, whatever its name.
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