Alex Mar likens the search for her one true sect to “spiritual shopping.” In her new book Witches of America she sets out to infiltrate groups of modern witches, the young men and women (women mostly), who recover the rituals of a grab bag of pagan traditions, and whose fringe culture is celebrated in mainstream media outlets. The past few months have given us witches for Bernie (who hex Donald Trump), women in magic who lean in, and “16 Signs You’re The Witch Of Your Friend Group.” Buzzfeed even has its own “Witches’ Counsel,” presided over by witches-cum-Buzzfeed-staff-writers who give advice on how to get hot summer bods and boyfriends. Last year, the Times reported on a “social and creative group” of twenty-something professionals in Brooklyn who’ve branded themselves “Witches of Bushwick” as an homage to Updike, and profess to engage in witchcraft “only superficially.”
Mar’s account begins in the early 1900s with occultists like the New Mexico-born poet Victor Anderson, who founded the pagan Feri tradition; Aleister Crowley, a prophet from Cambridge University who peddled his own brand of witchcraft, called Thelema, in the States; and another Brit, Gerald Gardner, responsible in large part for the spread of Wiccan paganism to America.
The book, however, focuses mostly on present-day practitioners of magic. Mar meets a Feri priestess of the Vanthi coven named Morpheus at her sanctuary in Northern California, Stone City. There, the two begin a quasi-journalistic friendship, a wellspring of intrigue and goodwill that Mar returns to repeatedly as she researches her book. Mar is introduced to others along the way: Jonathan the head-harvesting necromancer; a handful of sex-cult devotees; and Mar herself becomes a case study, once she decides to begin her own initiation as a witch. At this point Morpheus pairs Mar with a teacher, Karina—a fellow Feri priestess from the opposite coast, “full of juicy power.” Mar learns incantations, bathes in beer and salt, sticks a representation of her former lover in her freezer to prevent him from causing her future harm (a method known to witches as a “freezer spell”).
Though Witches is a richly researched and heartfelt book, it fundamentally misunderstands what it means to stand apart and what it means to be oppressed. Mar is more interested in the glamor of alternative lifestyles than in the long, intensely political history of outcast women. We are told at the outset of Mar’s book that the author has long studied rarified and occult associations. “I’ve always been drawn to the outer edges, the fringe,” she writes, “communities whose esoteric beliefs cut them off from the mainstream.” Raised by a Greek-Orthodox father and a Catholic (Cuban) mother, Mar has made an impressive career writing longform about nuns, New Age-y communes, and the American evangelist Billy Graham, for outlets like The Believer, Oxford American, and The New York Times Book Review. She also wrote and directed the 2010 documentary American Mystic about three members of minor spiritual or religious sects (including Morpheus). She once started writing a novel about the life of David Koresh.
But throughout her book, Mar—who by her own account is an attractive, liberal, privately-educated New Yorker born to nouveau-riche immigrant parents—goes further to claim that this affinity for covering marginalized people arose from her own self-identification as a perpetual outsider. The justifications she gives for this feeling are never fringe-worthy, often cringe-worthy. For instance, she offers up that in elementary school she was one of the few brunettes in a class full of blonde-haired children. Mar also asserts that, despite being very good-looking, she has always dated “creative” men, whatever that means. “At nearly every step I’ve chosen a complicated freedom,” Mar remarks of her life.
Though she vivisects her life experiences and psyche, Mar’s sociological explorations usually only go skin-deep. For instance, the Feri religion, into which Mar is trying to become inducted, was begun in the 1950s by a white man, Victor Anderson, who considered himself a Vodou priest. He had one of his first visions at the age of five, of the Egyptian goddess Isis wrapped in an American flag, Mar tells us. In a book mostly about religions started by white people and lifted in large part from black traditions, Mar never contends with those origins.
The marginalization of the Afro-Caribbean contribution to modern-day Paganism manifests itself several times. Mar writes, in a footnote on attending a Pagan conference called PantheaCon, “This is mainly a white crowd, maybe because of the scene’s British roots, maybe because it rose up in tandem with a very white wing of the sixties counterculture. But I soon learn that in some Pagan traditions, the influence of African diaspora religions (Vodou in particular) transcends race lines.” It is fairly bold to state that anything in America transcends race, much less the appropriation of black religious culture by white men and women.
At times Mar focuses on a certain white, liberal strain of American witch at the expense of communicating a wider, more radical history of the craft. For instance, Mar details the fascinating history of the first feminist coven, a group of Dianic Wiccans called the Susan B. Anthony Coven No. 1. The women after whom the other Dianic covens are named, reads like the list of people white feminists would like to see placed on the twenty-dollar bill: The Amelia Earhart Coven in New York; the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Coven in Orange County; and the Jane Addams coven in Chicago.
But even a couple years before the formation of the Dianics for instance, the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH), a radical feminist group based in New York, put a hex on the Wall Street stock exchange in 1968 during a public protest (the next day, the flaccid market fell by five points). The demonstration is particularly inspiring when one considers the men of centuries past who simultaneously formulated new economic theories and new ways of torturing women. The 16th-century philosopher Jean Bodin is a good example: credited with writing one of the first treatises on inflation, he also produced “proofs” that witches should be burned alive, rather than strangled before burning.
Unfortunately, Mar doesn’t try to connect modern witches with their violently harassed predecessors. In Europe, witch-hunts peaked in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, with the torture and murders of hundred of thousands of people, most of them women and girls, accused of sucking the blood of children, selling their bodies and souls to the devil, destroying crops, and inciting storms. These persecuted women weren’t just victims of superstitious beliefs but of capitalism. As Silvia Federici argues in her 2004 book Caliban And the Witch—a retelling of the transition from feudalism to capitalism in the West from a Marxist, feminist perspective—it would be a mistake to divorce the popular conception of witchcraft from the socio-economic forces afflicting women at the time. Federici’s book exposes the European witch-hunts as part of a political agenda to discipline the female body in the nascent capitalist society, and to implement “a new model of femininity [that was] passive, obedient, thrifty, of few words, always busy at work, and chaste.” The witch-hunt was designed to terrorize women, thereby tamping down insubordination so that white men could seize control over their labor as well as their role in reproduction.
Mar, perhaps because she does not grapple with the history of witchcraft under capitalism, indulges in some commodity fetishism of religious traditions. It begins with her envy of Morpheus’s conviction to practice witchcraft. “I feel compelled to step inside her belief,” writes Mar. She insists to the end that belief can be tailor-made, as if somehow she could squeeze into it, or it into her. She playfully refers to goddesses she’s considering worshipping as “dating profiles.” She’s like the Anthony Bourdain of covens: “I need to get at the heavier stuff, wherever a person goes to find it.”
Counterpoised to this consumerist bravado, a stifling self-doubt permeates the book. Mar is afraid. “Of money, of being judged, of loneliness, of growing old and used up. … Part of me wants desperately to snip the wires of my self-conscious brain loop, to stop caring about appearances.” Mar doubts her value. She worries that she is a fraud creatively, professionally and in her personal life. In these moments Mar is relatable, familiar, precisely because this is the solipsistic underbelly of American culture, which ensures we are initiated from birth into a wild belief in ourselves. Not in our abilities, necessarily, but in our isolating individuality. Mar’s mistake is to label this “the mundane world,” when really it’s a magical force with the power to possess and speak through us.