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White Magic

Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England

by T.M. Luhrmann
Harvard University Press, 382 pp., $25.00

The word “witch” still carries a tremendous charge, at least to those brought up on fairy tale and myth, who half-remember the stony gaze of Medusa; and the Graeae “by the shore of the freezing sea, nodding upon a white log of drift-wood, beneath the cold white winter moon”; and mothers who turn out to be stepmothers, grandmothers who are wolves in disguise, godmothers who bestow a curse when they are not invited to the party. These witches are always women (the magician figure is different altogether) and often they seem beautiful—the cannibal witch in Hansel and Gretel lives in a house made of delicious sweets—beautiful enough to entice you into their power. In my dreams of witches in childhood you were safe as long as you pretended to be fooled by them. The word “wicked” automatically goes with this witch; there are fairy godmothers, of course, and benign fairies, but in comparison they are rather wishy-washy figures. Whether the frisson is there for someone nourished only on TV and comics I don’t know; I suspect it is, even if faintly. Even before the organized persecution of the witch hunts, there has always been an image in the mind of a dangerously powerful woman, either a beautiful Belle Dame sans Merci or a hideous hag. When Papageno in The Magic Flute is tricked into uncovering the false Papagena, it is the witch-hag he finds.

It may be a psychoanalytic cliché that the image arises from the fact that we start our lives in the hands of a powerful woman who sometimes frustrates us, and that (for men) she tempts and frustrates again in adulthood; but I think it is true. In old, durable myths the powerful good/bad woman, instead of being split into wicked witch and fairy godmother, is more realistically worshiped as a giver of both pleasure and pain—as Kali in India, or the very temperamental Greek goddesses, or (as the modern witches studied by Dr. Luhrmann maintain) a fertility goddess behind all religions such as the German Holda, still extant when Grimm was researching. Holda brings fertility to women and farmers, but can turn into a hag with huge teeth when she is angry.

Though we are still wary of the witch, the traditional European trappings—pointed hat, cauldron, and so on—have become Disneyfied, Halloweenized, and have lost meaning. To Shakespeare’s audiences the witches of Macbeth were terrifying, but I have never seen a performance where there was not a suppressed giggle; and who can forget the hag stirring her cauldron in Trovatore while the Marx Brothers zip up and down the back-cloths, in A Night at the Opera? To be frightening the witch dresses up differently now—as Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction, perhaps.

The modern London witches studied by Dr. Luhrmann do not wear pointed hats with stars on, and strongly dissociate themselves from the wickedness stereotype. Though the dangerous and the holy, the curser and the blesser, are inevitably linked, white magic is at pains to distinguish itself from black. These occult groups align themselves with benign magic, unlike, for instance, the Church of Satan in San Francisco described by the sociologist Marcello Truzzi.

Sex and secrets and the breaking of taboos must be somewhere on the occult scene, though the youngsters you see on the London Underground draped with chains and their black leather jackets daubed over with swastikas and death’s heads are probably sweet kids really. Dr. Luhrmann does mention a type of anti-social occultism linked with pop music, but believes it to be mainly harmless (though she was called in to advise on a murder associated with it). The influence of horror videos on some of these teenagers must be considerable, though we know little about it. But Dr. Luhrmann (she is an American anthropologist, and a fellow at an English university) understandably wanted to carry out her research among a nicer class of people. The groups she mingled with, though they certainly believed they could raise psychic energy to influence the material world, claimed chiefly to see their work as spiritual.

In spite of their genuinely serious aims, this is somewhat at odds with the rationale of witchcraft as described by anthropologists and historians. From Evans-Pritchard’s study of the Azande onward, anthropologists have tended to see witchcraft beliefs as a way of apportioning blame for the bad things that happen, even if the witches themselves (unlike sorcerers) are unaware of causing harm. From the historian’s point of view, there have been two distinct kinds of magic: village maleficium like that described by anthropologists, and high ritual magic based on the early “sciences”—cabalism, astrology, alchemy, and neo-Platonic philosophy. Both, to the Church, became anathema, conflated with heresy and Satanism and all things evil. Shaw’s pious Saint Joan, for instance, is burned as a witch for a confusion of reasons—because she magically wins battles, because she wears men’s clothing, because she claims God and his angels speak directly to her. Magic would seem to involve both a sense of having power within and of being threatened by power without; but particularly the latter, as worldwide beliefs in the evil eye show.

The coven Dr. Luhrmann attended was more concerned with fostering power within, with the magus tradition of conjuring up force. Luhrmann’s own quest, in living with witches for over a year, was psychological and epistemological: she wanted to know what enables people—in this case, mostly educated middle-class city dwellers—to adopt beliefs and practices which run counter to those of their society. Whether the practices “work” or not, she says, is irrelevant (which is somewhat disingenuous, for if she had observed spells affecting the external world, there would be no great puzzle about why practitioners stuck to their beliefs). She calls her method psychological anthropology; and the fact that, unlike most anthropologists, she could really participate in the group and speak its language makes the book highly accessible to the ordinary reader, far removed from boring kinship diagrams of a tribe in some jungly spot we are never likely to visit. The center of her whole enterprise, she says, is the nature of rationality and irrationality: no small subject.

It is surprising that the people Dr. Luhrmann mixed with trusted her so completely, for secrecy is of the essence of magical practice. She did tell them about her project, she says, but they tended to forget. She joined fully in their activities and did no note taking on the spot, though there are a few interesting taped conversations. She scanned occult publications, went to festivals and conferences, attended workshops and various transitory groups, and was lucky enough to be accepted by an old-established and dedicated coven.

The British occult scene, she found, is itself jungly. A rough map would show it at one end joining the whole New Age or Aquarian territory that includes alternative medicine, vegetarianism and veganism, dreamy music, and groups of a generally mind-expanding nature; at the other end it links with old magical traditions, revived in the 1880s, via Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (to which Yeats belonged), and again in the 1940s and 1950s by Gerald Gardner. Gardner, who claimed to have been initiated by an older witch representing a long line, wrote rituals and organized covens led by high priestesses.

All kinds of rival subgroups now proliferate, alike in being woman-centered and worshiping the ancient Goddess figure—Diana, Hecate, Holda, Isis, Cerridwen. The writings of the eccentric historian Margaret Murray, postulating an old fertility religion hiding behind Christianity over the centuries, have been crucially influential, as has the spread of knowledge about folklore and shamanism and Renaissance magic.

In the United States the witchcraft jungle is even more tangled, and more a part of feminism; a good account of it is given in Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon (1979). (Being English, I find London witches much superior to American ones, who say things like, “This is what I consider my task to be, to bust my ass to achieve my Godhood,” and “I relate to the Goddess every day, in one way or another. I have a little chitchat with Mommy.”)

What do witches do? At the time of the spring equinox, Dr. Luhrmann went to a terraced house in a London suburb, with a black robe she had made to specification. After meditating, she was blindfolded and led into a specially prepared room, candlelit and smoky with incense, where there were twenty other hooded and gowned members:

The suspense and mystery, the months of solitary study on the course, the drama of the smoky blackness, had worked their effect: I was awed and elated.

The ritual, aimed in a general way at raising spirituality, dedicated the temple, then led the participants to the level of another “plane,” and took them on an imaginary journey to the Goddess, before returning them to north London. “Controlled visualization”—focusing intently on imaginary journeys, meetings, symbols—was the backbone of the procedure in this and the other groups. Dr. Luhrmann also attended outdoor gatherings where the rituals—these are created by participants from a medley of magical and mythical sources—were chanted around a bonfire. She attended dream interpretation sessions, read the books popular with magical groups (by Tolkien, Le Guin, C.S. Lewis), learned to divine with the tarot, did a study course on the cabala.

Although (like everybody else) her witches did not function on the basis of a scrupulously worked-out philosophy, she is able to give a rough sketch of their underlying world view. Matter and mind, to start with, are essentially one, and everything is indivisibly interconnected. “Individual objects are not fixed but fluctuating, constantly responding to their surroundings, bundles of relationships, rather than settled points.” Which sounds pretty reasonable, and (rash though it is for a nonscientist to say it) in agreement with the extraordinary world of quantum physics, in which each particle influences the others, probability supersedes conventional causality, and the observing scientist chooses whether to “create” either wave or particle, position or momentum. Magic goes on to propose that

if all the universe co-exists in delicate balance, minor variations should produce substantial change. Like a lever, a small magical spell can shift the world.

A spell is not an ordinary wish, but a wish fired off by a deliberately directed surge of psychological energy—the existence of such energy being a crucial assumption.

The magical thesis assumes also that the world is not random but a pattern of meaningful correspondences, the linchpin of which are symbols. Drawn from a whole range of sources in this eclectic magic, symbols radiate connections in all directions—one of them might represent an emotion, an astrological concept, a god or goddess, a physical element, a number—and carry some kind of energy of their own, as do the cross, the holy water, the saint’s relic for the Christian. Behind these patterns a purposeful force is envisaged, whether it is personalized or seen as the living, animate planet.

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