Witches of America by Alex Mar; Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Strauss and Giroux; 288 pages
Morpheus began singing to the moon when she was a teenager. As a red-haired worshipper of the ancient Celtic battle goddess known as the Morrigan, she later became an initiate in the Feri tradition of witchcraft, an ecstatic, sensual form of non-Wiccan mysticism that was started in the 1930s and ’40s by Victor and Cora Anderson. Later still, she built the Stone City Pagan Sanctuary in Northern California and eventually became the subject of a 2010 documentary directed by Alex Mar that explores alternative religions in the United States. Perhaps because of early brushes with Catholic mysticism in her family, Harvard-educated Mar was drawn to the charismatic Morpheus. After completing the documentary, Mar found herself preoccupied with Morpheus and the
magic and mystery she represented, so she decided to explore Wiccan, pagan, and occult traditions in the United States to find out how deep her interest went. The resulting book, Witches of America, is an evocative, if uneven, account that starts as observation but quickly gives way to Mar’s participation in rituals and priestess training, emulating people whose strong faith she longs for but can’t quite embody, though she certainly gives it the old college try.
Contrary to widely held belief, Wicca is not an ancient religion. Though occultists have always been around — including Aleister Crowley and the Andersons — the underground pagan practices that emerged publicly as Wicca in the late 1940s are attributed to a former British civil servant named Gerald Gardner, who revealed them after the last of his country’s anti-witchcraft laws were repealed. The religion was imported to the United States soon after, where it intermingled with ’60s counterculture, feminism, and hippies seeking new forms of spiritual connection, such as Buddhism and Sufism, aspects of which have been incorporated into Wicca and other witchcraft traditions. Many factions, covens, and splinter groups have since formed and continue to form; there is really nothing stopping any of us from becoming pagan priests and priestesses in our living rooms. Mar lays out the history of several witchcraft and magic traditions relatively well, though as the book veers further in the direction of her personal experiences, the facts take a backseat to what happens at the rituals and gatherings she attends. The most illuminating historical information in Witches of America is about Crowley, who has been popularly interpreted throughout the years as a Satan worshipper. Mars gives great nuance to Thelema, the religion he created in the early 1900s, the main tenet of which is “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will.”
Mar’s descriptions of people and events are the strongest parts of Witches of America. One event is Pantheacon, a conference for, according to the organization’s website, “Pagans, Heathens, Indigenous Non-European and many of diverse beliefs” that occurs every Presidents Day weekend at a Doubletree Hotel in San Jose, California. The internet has brought thousands of such people “out of the broom closet” and into like-minded communities locally and nationally. Some are as serious about their religion as fundamentalist Christians, and some see such gatherings as an opportunity to don a cape and a pair of sparkly devil horns. One can’t help but feel as though all of them are still living out a high-school goth cosplay fantasy that, at least in some circumstances, hinges on a social hierarchy of cool kids and poseurs. During the conference, Morpheus, whom Mar describes as positively resplendent, leads a high-energy ritual in a hotel room cleared of furniture.
There is very little about these American witches that could be considered scary, unless one is threatened by the mere idea of the occult. They mention magic frequently, and it becomes quite clear that magic is another word for prayer, not unlike Christian prayer, but with more ritual and homage to nature. They cast spells and take themselves very seriously; many seem invested in conveying an air of fearsome authority while manufacturing fear for participants in the name of ritual and initiation. The only chapter that might keep a reader up at night describes when Mar spends time with a necromancer in New Orleans — a man who digs up dead bodies from cemeteries and performs rituals to get their souls to do his bidding. He claims to have unearthed a dozen bodies; he also claims to have taught this magic to a man who ultimately moved to New Mexico, where he created his own band of necromancers.
By the book’s end, Morpheus has declared herself leader of the Army of the Battle Raven, which means she trains in swordplay and worships a dead raven in a box that supposedly contains the soul of the Morrigan. Mar takes part in a Thelemite ritual that keeps her in a Louisiana swamp for three nights, scared of the dark and being eaten alive by mosquitoes. After all that, it’s still unclear whether she has found what she is looking for, but she’s no longer embarrassed by her attempts. — J.L.