Witches of Amer­ica by Alex Mar; Sarah Crich­ton Books/ Far­rar, Strauss and Giroux; 288 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - Amer­i­can Mys­tic,

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.

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