The Short Version: While working on a documentary, Alex Mar finds herself drawn to the reality of witchcraft in American today and begins an exploration into its history and its present that becomes personal and profound.
The Review: Here’s a book that, not unlike the journey it details, consistently upended my expectations and drew me in (sometimes despite itself) in ways that I didn’t see coming. Part of this is because of expectations I had going in, many of them both personal and cultural: I expected that a book about witchcraft in America would include Salem/a longer look at historical witchcraft in this country – and I certainly wasn’t prepared for such a personal narrative to emerge in the book. I expected little more than academic, if colloquial, research and while that’s certainly here, Mar “goes native” (a term several people in the book use) and that makes the book all the more affecting and all the more interesting.
Mar started down this road while working on her first documentary, American Mystic (on Netflix now), when she followed the Feri priestess Morpheus as well as two other members of “fringe religions”. I haven’t watched the doc yet and it’s only given a bit of time here, but I don’t think viewing the piece is necessary to understand the book. It might give you a leg up on knowing some of the players here and I’m looking forward to watching it now – but I didn’t feel like I was missing out on something, just in case you were worried.
Anyway, Mar became intrigued by aspects of witchcraft and continued to correspond with Morpheus – leading her into this deeper exploration of what it means to be a “witch” today. There’s some history in the first half of the book, both on a micro and macro level: a crash course in the life & impact of Aleister Crowley is in here, along with some history on PantheaCon and the various covens/groups that Mar spends time with – some of which are born literally during the writing of this book. But where the book surprised me was Mar’s actual investment in exploring witchcraft. And I think it made the book hit me all the harder for my having not expected to go there with her.
I have a complicated relationship with the reality of magic in the world. I want to believe and, as you’ll notice this month, am generally all about Halloween and the supernatural. But something stops me – or has stopped me, up to this point – from actually being open to it (‘it’ being magic, the supernatural, witchcraft, old gods, et al) as a legitimate form of religion. Perhaps it’s because of my deep-seated disdain for organized religion in any form (I’m a long-standing atheistic existentialist, which probably surprises no one). And I struggle to wrap my head around the idea of (to use an example from the book) the Morrigan as my singular goddess – because I wonder about the availability then of other gods and deities and things. I worry about putting anything – a single entity, a pantheon, anything at all – above myself because I’m not inclined to believe in a “power” greater than me and my brain (again w/ the atheistic existentialism).
But I’ve seen ghosts. I’ve lit a banishing candle and tried a few small tricks here and there for various reasons. And I want the “strange stuff” around that star to be evidence of an advanced alien civilization. I believe in a bigger universe and the possibility of magic, however you want to define it (interesting, by the way, those who call their magic technology – harkening, I would presume, to the “sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic” theory) – but I’m not sure that I can get onboard with the organization and community, at least in my life.
To a large extent, I feel like Alex Mar and I were kindred spirits – or at least the Alex Mar who starts this book was kindred to the me reading it. Watching her “go native” and explore several branches of Pagan religion was inspiring on a fundamental level: she doubts, both the experience and her own self, but keeps searching. Not out of a desire to disprove (or prove) anything – but because, at the end of it all, her curiosity remains strong. There’s something very real about never being able to know the truth about the supernatural but that shouldn’t stop you from believing/exploring. And while I’m not sure I believe in the Morrigan, I believe that she’s far more likely to exist than an Abrahamic god – and boy, wouldn’t it be fun if the old gods were real. I’m not talking The Wicked + the Divine, but still… the thought makes me happy, every time I read a story or see a film or have a daydream that features magic in this world.
I feel like I ought to be doing more to properly review this, but it’s difficult to pull the subjective personal experience of this book apart from the objective critical one. I started the book a little wary, as Mar’s writing is a bit scattered at times – the book doesn’t seem to know what it is, perhaps by design. I retroactively see how Mar didn’t quite know what she was looking for in those early days, so it makes sense that the book reflects that. But as Mar develops a bond with Morpheus and later Karina and the OTO temple in New Orleans, as she gives herself to her research and allows herself to become part (but not the whole) of the story, the book loosens up a bit. There are still clear journalistic impulses, like two clearly defined chapters on “Satan” and necromancy near the end of the book (the latter of which features some of the strongest writing and most intriguing subject matter – a fact that says something particular about my interest in magic as well as my basic beliefs), whereas other parts of the book flow between chapters almost without noticing a break.
Mar’s other main journalistic strong-point is that she goes to great lengths to help rehabilitate the image of Paganism – a broad-reaching term for magic-based religions that even I am guilty of casting aspersions on. I grew up in a pretty quiet, pretty white, pretty middle-class suburb on the East Coast – anybody who wasn’t (broadly speaking) a WASP was exotic. Hell, I was exotic because I grew up without religion and my mom was a pretty spiritual person, big into the zodiac and all that. She still is and she instilled in me those many of those same interests and passions – and I think, really, that my mom is a witch who never got the chance to find a coven. Not because there were no covens to find, but because we as a society have always viewed Paganism as a refuge for the fringe, for the wackos, for the Bay Area loons.
I mean, I remember teasing a girl who declared herself Wiccan in middle school (because everyone in middle school is terrible, although that’s no excuse – the better, although still terrible, excuse is that I played my love of fantasy and all that is magical closer to my chest because I wanted to survive and so I shifted attention away to someone else more overtly weird) – and while I don’t know that she was (let alone still is) actually a believer, it was the tail end of the Satanic Panic in this country. The concept was something to be feared. Witchcraft, unless it was sanitized or fictionalized, was so abhorrent that you would be shunned.
Which is a ridiculous thing, right?
So why do I, not unlike Mar in the early and middle stages of her exploration, find myself troubled by or uncertain about the feeling in my gut that maybe I should actually do a little more research, that this might be something that I could be a part of? Is it because I never needed or wanted religion (as defined as a communal attempt to be closer to something greater than ourselves)? I don’t particularly want to become a part of a coven or temple or community in any way… so is it because I’m still wary of the way the world looks at witchcraft? After all, it’s not so long ago that we were burning or stoning women for being witches. Hell, we (being humanity at large) are still doing that in some places around the world.
But I want to believe. And while I don’t seek community, I don’t seek comfort in the knowledge of something larger than myself… is it so wrong to seek a little more magic for the world? I had no idea I’d be so inspired.
Rating: 5 out of 5. I applaud Mar for allowing herself into her narrative – and a narrative it most certainly is. There’s, of course, something interesting about the idea of a book that looks dispassionately at witches in America today… but this story is far more interesting because there is a story. It’s a story of belief and self-discovery, one that the author maybe didn’t even know she was writing when she started – and that makes it all the better. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of facts and research here… but I was so wonderfully surprised (and deeply affected) by the final product. Magic indeed.