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.
Luhrmann goes on to describe the kind of people who choose to take up magic. Sociologists, she says, have assumed that they must be marginalized or deprived; she did not find this to be so. In one group she describes there were teachers, secretaries, actors and actresses, librarians, a nurse, an electrician, a lawyer. The mentally unstable did seem to be attracted to the groups, but tended to drop out or be edged out (and even within London the status and standards of groups varied). If there is a typical magician personality, she sees it as someone imaginative, self-absorbed, emotionally intense, and concerned with issues of power and control. Some participants had had religious upbringings and had subsequently tried out a number of fringe cults. A rather high proportion worked specifically with computers. Luhrmann suggests that those drawn to the “symbol-rich rule-governed” computer world might be ripe for magic; also that they have learned to live in a rather isolated, jargon-ridden group. One would imagine too that the symbols of the computer world are arid, and the lack of human response in the work depressing: many members of the magical groups openly enjoyed magic as a return to childhood, and felt that they had rediscovered something that had once been very important to them.
Magic, as Luhrmann says, “re-enchants the world.” She herself felt this. “I never have and do not now ‘believe’ in magic,” she emphasizes; but as a child,
I lived in the world my books carved out for me…. By the time I was ten I had developed a secret fictional character, a child with a silver circlet, and before I slept each night I told myself stories in which he was the central actor and in which novels and television became the basis for his scripts. The nightly stories became almost sacred inner worlds…. These witches were recreating a childhood world, enchanting adulthood, and their involvement offered me a means to come to intellectual terms with my past.
Joining a coven changes people in ways that sound rather enjoyable. (If any members were damaged or even just disappointed, Luhrmann does not mention them.) Imagination expands, dreams become more intense and filled with high imagery. Luhrmann had these experiences herself.
Magicians are not simply learning a language with which to communicate with each other; they are learning (or possibly relearning) ways of experiencing. These experiences become important in persuading magicians of the validity of their theory and its practice.
Away from the group, a magician complained, “everything gets so dull and uninspired.” Joining an emotionally close group is itself therapeutic; and women, in particular, obviously find the Goddess-centered practice a source of confidence.
Besides making sense of the world, magical imagery can be a way of managing irrational feelings, Luhrmann says, particularly where participants are taught to immerse in, and survive, the “dark side” of the Goddess. “Therapy seems to work when someone externalizes, or labels, some internal feeling and then is able to transform it, though how and why that happens seems quite unclear”; and many of the people she talked to claimed they practiced magic chiefly for personal enrichment. In this therapy, she says, the promised reward is not only a meaningful world, but implicit power to influence it where it seems uncontrollable. Death and darkness and threat and fear are dramatized, and a bargain struck with them.
Obviously the price to be paid is the giving up of “consensus rationality,” and Luhrmann devotes much of the book to analyzing how people involved in magic become able to see it as valid. They remember “successful” spells and forget others. Spells, anyway, are vaguely defined—a ritual to do with water might produce either floods of tears or burst pipes, a fertility spell for Mary might home in on Joan standing next to her. The symbols of astrology and the tarot are complex enough to be interpreted in many ways, as oracles always are. Coincidence is ruled out in favor of connection of some kind; as a W.C. Fields character said when asked whether he was playing a game of chance, “Not, the way I play it.” As among the Azande, therefore, while a particular practitioner or ritual may be said to fail, the system itself is not discredited.
The very view of reality that prevailed among the people Luhrmann talked to takes her into deep epistemological waters. To the practitioners of magic subjective and objective are not sharply distinguished, and an inner event like a vision or fantasy will be described in literal terms. As Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty in Dreams, Illusions and Other Realities says, describing the traditional Indian view of reality:
For Rudra to think of something is for him both to make it exist and to find that it has always existed as part of him. These two kinds of creation—making and finding—are the same, for in both cases the mind—or the Godhead—imposes its idea on the spirit/matter dough of reality, cutting it up as with a cookie-cutter, now into stars, now into hearts, now into elephants, now into swans.
The word “plane” was found useful by the magicians; things could happen on a different plane, which was not clearly distinguishable from other planes. The people Luhrmann met felt no need to commit themselves to “an ordinary truth-status assertion” about magic; they were happy to play with fact and fantasy simultaneously. Everything, they argued, was in some sense relative anyway; different explanations, different philosophies could coexist.
Much depended on a particular use of language. It was not only that by the use of a specific terminology the user of magic, like the psychoanalyst or priest or literary critic, comes to fit the world into a new scheme (“becoming a specialist often makes an activity seem sensible,” as Luhrmann says). Words themselves, within magic, have a status beyond that of a mere signifier; that is the essence of a spell. There are many examples in anthropological literature of the power that resides in a name. There is also what Malinowski called the “co-efficient of weirdness,” the use of vague language to arouse awe—something with which we are familiar in most professional fields.
In general, those who learned to practice magic were confirmed in their theory chiefly by what they felt and experienced. Then their way of perceiving things altered. The witch or magician
acquired new ways of identifying events as significant, of drawing connections between events, with new, complex knowledge in which events could be put into context. At the same time his involvement embraced rich phenomenological experience which he found deeply important, experience labelled and understood within the practice but not outside. Hard to abstract, hard to verbalize, these dynamic experiences became part of the business of engaging in magic, and they made the magic real for its participants, because they gave content to its ideas.
In sum, as Luhrmann says, “imaginative language significantly increases the capacity to learn about and accept new and unusual ways of interpreting the world.” What she ignores here is that the magical way of thinking is not new, but very much the way we first thought as children. Also, in spite of her sternness with the rationalizations used to justify magic, she rather too often identifies it with imagination, ignoring, for instance, the person who finds a Beckett play more imaginative—more imaginative for this particular time—than an astrological reading. Conventional science also draws on another version of imagination.
The choice of magic as a way of life rather than, for instance, the accepted mythology of Christianity or Judaism, does not seem to be fully explained by this preference for the imaginative over mass culture. The issue of power is one that Luhrmann says only a little about. In their talk about life-enhancement her informants, too, seem to have played it down. It is something that most people at some level have conflicting feelings about; Piaget’s early studies of young children show clearly how they grope with feelings of magical power and shattering disappointment. When things go wrong even older children fear that it is somehow their fault. The psychoanalyst and parapsychologist Jules Eisenbud has suggested that the paucity of experimental findings within parapsychology is due to unconscious reluctance to dabble in this childhood sense of omnipotence, which is both fascinating and frightening.
Luhrmann’s witches had evidently come to some terms with the wish for, and fear of, a magical power; but perhaps preferred not to talk about it. Luhrmann says she felt they were slightly horrified, yet secretly pleased, by the popular conception of wicked witches. Religion would have told them—which is why it has been hostile to witchcraft—to subordinate their own power to God’s.
Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, would have no hesitation in classifying their beliefs solely as a regression to the childhood sense of omnipotence. Such a dismissal is complicated by the evidence that paranormal phenomena can happen; rarely, and generally in a climate of sympathetic belief, but indicating, in William James’s words, “the presence, in the midst of all the humbug, of really supernormal knowledge.” The florid phenomena of the séance rooms of his time, however, like the hysterias that Freud and Charcot saw, have more or less died out in our time, as we have absorbed the concept of projection, of relocating “spirits” in dissociated parts of our own minds. Anthropologists themselves keep to a strict objectivity about the magic claims of the societies they study, though, as Hallpike says in Foundations of Primitive Thought, it may be simplistic to assume that they can all be explained by “pre-operational” thinking (and a surprising number of anthropologists are Catholics, as if to go armed with their own magical system). Meanwhile respectable medicine extends the concept of mind over matter, from attributing nausea or a headache to stress to proposing a possible psychological factor in almost every serious illness.
The fact is that we live in an epistemological hotchpotch, a transitional time in which we have the wearisome responsibility for tacking together our own individual belief systems. Witches and old-fashioned rationalists have the easy time. Other people have to go through their own process of sorting: prayer in, spells out; psychosomatic backache in, hexing out; dream interpretation in, astrology out; meditation in, acupuncture out. In a pinch, Hamlet’s “more things” comes into service. Theologians—Luhrmann quotes a number of views—are engaged in the same struggle. Some argue that dogma is literally true, some that it is a working hypothesis, some that emotional rather than literal truth is the only criterion, some of that religious language is in a category of its own. Luhrmann’s inquiry into the nature of rationality and irrationality lands us in the center of the hotchpotch.
Bare rationality as envisaged by philosophers and anthropologists actually plays a rather small role in life; we use it for buying groceries and mending a faucet and to some extent in our jobs, as the Azande use it for agriculture and building huts; if we have been extensively educated we have it as a tool that we can also bring out when reading poetry or having a love affair to see if it fits the case. Irrationality, going directly counter to it, or confusing one kind of truth with another, is also not as widespread as is assumed; what we need is a concept of a-rationality, as Luhrmann’s discussion implicitly suggests.
She introduces the concept of “knowing of,” as opposed to “knowing that” or “knowing how”—surely as common as the two latter, and only downgraded because less easily expressed. “Belief,” too, covers a variety of states of mind. The philosopher H.H. Price has written cautiously of “half-belief,” which he distinguishes from mild belief and suspension of disbelief; but there is also double and triple belief, when several are held simultaneously. Probably only a few of those who read newspaper horoscopes would swear they “believed” them, but a favorable one might brighten a whole day. Multiple beliefs in particular cluster about traumatic events. Of a number of people I interviewed recently on the subject of death, over half proved to have referred in some way to a-rationality; indeed, everyone who has undergone bereavement or disaster knows the state of mind in which belief that it has happened and belief that it has not simply coexist. And of course there are the states of mind in which plays and films and novels are “believed.”
All this is very obvious, but as Luhrmann says it has not been much explored by anthropologists, even where they rather reluctantly report that an informant states one day that the dead turn into butterflies and the next day that they haunt the village to steal pumpkins. The London witches’ adoption of beliefs that are rejected in theory by the rest of us raises this question of how, in a society of mass communications, we map out the contours of our belief, invest our stock of faith now here and now there.
It also raises the question of a need, not only for imaginative experience as Luhrmann suggests, but for a specifically symbolic way of expression. We dream and write poetry in symbols, they feel resonant and satisfying, and they are our primary way of thinking. As Susanne Langer says,
Whatever purpose magical practice may serve, its direct motivation is the desire to symbolize great conceptions. It is the overt action in which a rich and savage imagination automatically ends…. Its central aim is to to symbolize a Presence, to aid in the formulation of a religious universe…. It is part and parcel of that greater phenomenon, ritual.
We are deprived of ritual, though it springs up in primitive forms like the structure of office coffee breaks. There are Catholics who will surmount serious obstacles to attend their Tridentine mass. Freud, as he wrote magic and religion out of psychology, had a secret love affair with his collection of archaic statues, and brought back scriptural symbolism in another shape.
Western witchcraft, whose traditional goals have been somewhat preempted by telephones and fertilizers and antibiotics, seems for its practitioners to work as an unusually dramatic way of putting back symbol and meaning and color into the confused post-Christian world. Like Einstein, we find it hard to believe that God plays dice, and as Luhrmann says,
People strive for order. They find it difficult really to accept the existence of coincidence, if only because there is a creative pleasure in drawing connections between events, in making interpretations.
Whether it is heroic, or just foolhardy, or actually inaccurate, to see life as utterly random, few people consistently do it.
Luhrmann’s account of life among the witches may for most readers be chiefly intriguing for its descriptions of this “enclave of the Azande on the Hornsey Rise” and of Luhrmann’s own reactions (including the hallucination of five druids coming through her bedroom window). But her own underlying aim is to question the way anthropologists and other scholars approach the beliefs of societies and individuals—though we nonanthropologists may feel that we do not need to be told that people are “fuzzy” rather than logical, that irony and contradiction and ambiguity and paradox are not the prerogative of magicians justifying their ways. As the powerful rationalist Niels Bohr said about the horseshoe over his door: no, he didn’t believe it brought luck, but he understood it worked even for people who didn’t believe.
Anthropology, Luhrmann says, is at bottom psychological, concerned with why people choose to do this or that, in particular why they practice the “irrational” arts of ritual and magic and religion. It is an ethological psychology, people observed in their natural habitat rather than in the experimental laboratory. So what we need is
ethnographies that describe the cognitive impact of cultural experience in its natural setting, rich, detailed accounts that are sensitive to psychological theories and philosophical problems but which are neither experimentally based nor speculatively abstract.
Scholarly debates about the goals of magic in nondeveloped societies have been too narrow; in London or in Africa, feeling and belief constantly influence each other, and a sensitive, serious anthropology, she argues, needs to study the complexities and contradictions of how this happens. Her own book raises questions about the way we think, believe, imagine, know, in a most fascinating way.
October 12, 1989