Flavorwire Interview: ‘Witches of America’ Author Alex Mar on Witchcraft’s Feminist Appeal and the Impact of Ritual

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In Alex Mar’s 2010 documentary American Mystic , the New York City journalist observed the lives of three different subjects who identify with fringe religious beliefs, including a woman and witchcraft practitioner named Morpheus. The experience had a profound impact on Mar, who had been raised Catholic, but wasn’t religious. Still, she had an innate curiosity where her own spirituality was concerned. Mar entered the world of Wicca and Paganism to continue her journey in a recently published book called Witches of America — part travelogue, memoir, and sociological study of the occult.

The New York Times writes:

Throughout, Mar expresses a somewhat defensive, if completely logical, “What’s a Harvard girl doing in a trance/swamp/graveyard like this” sentiment, and she uses the word “embarrassed” often as a disclaimer and to reality-check her presence at, for example, a Gnostic mass — where she finds herself an actor in a “theater of the occult,” chanting and partaking of a host made of menstrual blood, semen and chicken livers. But that shrewdly articulated hesitation is precisely what makes her a compelling Virgil. She anticipates our skepticism because she herself is skeptical, though she directs that skepticism inward — “to each her own” is our unspoken handrail down a strange stairway. If anything connects the various communities and traditions Mar writes about, it’s this primacy of the individual soul and choice, which is, of course, the holy fabric of Americanness.

Flavorwire recently spoke to Mar about the appeal of witchcraft for women, creating sacred spaces in our lives, and the messiness of belief.

Flavorwire: I can think of many reasons why people are drawn to witchcraft. But are Americans also just overwhelmed by choices? Is Paganism attractive to some people, because it offers ritual perhaps otherwise lacking in their lives?

Alex Mar: I don’t think it’s so much about choices. People who aren’t in a devout community, like a Christian community, the rhythm of our lives are driven by practical concerns. Questions like, “How am I going to pay the rent?” We’re so overwhelmed by that. There is lack of ritual or being able to create sacred spaces in our lives. It has a real impact. The Pagan community is a growing community, and witchcraft is a growing movement. I’ve talked to a number of younger people who are curious about the book, women in particular, and that’s a big issue. It can be something as simple as creating a home altar, lighting candles, and observing certain rituals around the changing of the seasons. Part of it is also wanting to reconnect with our environment. Not to get all hippy-dippy, but I think that something as basic as that is a way for a lot of people to start to feel connected to something bigger than your own obsessions about your daily life, social life, or your job. But also, without the baggage that some people feel where it’s the religion of their parents or the question of whether or not there is a God. At the very least, in the mainstream, basic rituals connected to nature are a middle ground. In the book, I wanted to make sure I also described people who are incredibly dedicated, hardcore priestesses. What they do is really specific. It’s the kind of work you train for over years before seeking initiation. The book has plenty of that.

To Joe Average, Paganism and witchcraft are associated with women. I don’t think the average American realizes men practice witchcraft, too. But there is a special relationship between witchcraft and feminism that started decades ago. I feel like that aspect is almost a joke for some people. How has this has changed for the contemporary woman, if it all?

There definitely is this idea in pop culture that witches are always female. In the ‘70s with second-wave feminism, the idea of worshipping a goddess instead of a god was this perfect thing and a way to symbolically rebel against the patriarchy and reject the idea that God has to be masculine. I grapple with that a little bit in the book. I attended a gathering in rural Illinois of a few thousand Pagans. I describe this ritual of maybe a couple of hundred women, led by a priestess who had risen up in the ‘70s as part of this whole second-wave feminist witchcraft moment. I really loved and respected the idea that there was a way to have ceremony around what it’s like to be a woman and to try to acknowledge things about us and our bodies that make us different — to just somehow acknowledge the fact that there’s something different that women go through than men go through socially. But I express in the book that I immediately had a discomfort with the way that it played out, because it felt really dated. It felt really like something out of the ‘70s, and I just couldn’t picture my female friends hanging out in the woods doing the same stuff. Maybe there’s a way for our generation of feminists to have some kind of ceremony that’s positive, makes us feel stronger and focused, and seems worthwhile. But I don’t know what that would look like.

In general, we don’t have room in this culture right now for a female-centric spirituality that isn’t laughable somehow. That has nothing to do with whether or not that thing has value, it has to do with something weird about the culture we live in – the idea that a bunch of women gathering together expressing spirituality means they must be like hippy-dippy California flakes or something. Somehow, when a man is in the room calling himself a priest, as in the case of the Catholic Church, there’s something more serious about that. I’m being really broad, but something about what I’m saying is fair. I think part of it, too, is there’s something about the passage of time giving something legitimacy. The fact that the Pagan movement is a bit younger is part of why people are uncomfortable with it — just like the way people dismiss the Mormon Church. “Joseph Smith was alive not that long ago, why should I take this seriously?” It’s bizarre for a religious movement. Six years ago, I would talk to people about part of the book being about a witch out in California, and no one knew how to take that word. Then, about halfway through writing the book two years ago, I would have conversations with people in New York and explain the project to them. They’d say, “Oh, do you mean Pagans or Wiccans? Does that mean they worship the Earth?” People had a reference point. Since word of the book got out, I’ve been meeting people who are women who I have plenty in common with, like in New York or LA. They’ve been dabbling with witchcraft or they’re curious about it. I’m not sure what’s going on with this cultural moment that there seems to be this rising awareness or attraction, but it’s got to be connected in some way to the fact that women are becoming more independent, have their own jobs, and are living on their own, really shaping their own lives. Maybe this is sort of an extension of, “I want to find an independent way towards a spirituality that I’m in control of, on my own terms, that connects me to other women who are independent and not afraid to identify as outsiders in some way.”

How does the movement toward Paganism today differ from the movement that happened in the 1970s, the “Me” decade, which saw a rise in things like self-help, an interest in foreign cultures and spirituality, and occult/Pagan practices? This fascination seems to come in waves. Have we come a long way since then, or do we have further to go before people take Paganism seriously?

The ‘70s brought this whole counterculture burst. I think it’s true that at various moments when there’s a cultural shift, people tend to become more interested in the occult. I think there’s a larger thing going on in relation to the Pagan movement, which is that it’s been growing pretty steadily. It’s on this steady trajectory. People are becoming just a little more comfortable with the idea that there’s room for new religious movements in this country, and not everyone is going to fall apart and burst into flames.

Presently, I feel like there’s a real fascination with the occult, but not necessarily witchcraft. The occult feels like a place people want to dive deep and put together what works for them. Is something like witchcraft still too organized for people who eschew traditional belief systems?

The Pagan movement does include a lot of ceremonies and magicians. In the book, I talk about my experience with O.T.O., Ordo Templi Orientis, a magical society started in the 1800s made really famous by Aleister Crowley, probably the most notoriously controversial magician in history. I ended up becoming involved during the time I was living in New Orleans. That kind of approach to magic has a very strong relationship to the Pagan community. Also, there’s different kinds of witchcraft. It’s complex, and I wouldn’t necessarily separate the two out [speaking of the terms “occult” and “witchcraft”]. Some Pagans are Eclectic Wiccans, people who have a more independent approach to basically a Wiccan view of the world, but people in other traditions may have to be trained very specifically or with specific teachers for years before being initiated, and there are secret and specific methods of magic. It really depends on where you end up on the spectrum. Feri, for instance, is known as a smaller, but intense and ecstatic witchcraft tradition that started to be taught in the ‘50s in Oregon. It’s an American-born witchcraft tradition that’s really intense, and the practices are very specialized.

I started out like most people. My encounters with the Pagan community involved taking part in rituals that were very public, sometimes large rituals. It was a fun celebration, like walking around the maypole, taking part in rituals where no one had to be an initiate of a specific coven or tradition. And then I realized I wanted to know more, and I wanted to go deeper. I was impressed by people who had a long-term relationship with their own coven, and the magic they were performing was super specific. I wanted to get a sense of what would change the deeper you go. I decided to train with a particular coven in Massachusetts, and I also became involved with O.T.O. Certainly O.T.O. is very rigorous. They’re very into specific wands, staffs, and these amazing ritual set-ups. Honestly, I had flashbacks to the Catholic Church — very melodramatic, high theater. It’s great stuff and super evocative, and I think that there’s something about all of that being an important trigger for people. You feel like you’re in a different space. You’re no longer in your regular life. That’s part of the desire. It’s deliberate. There’s a part of this that magical folks consider to be psychological. You create a space in which people will just start to feel different, and maybe you have the potential for something to happen.

Alex Mar, ©Beowulf Sheehan

How did the experience of writing the book and making the documentary differ? Did your subjects react differently? Did you? And how did you approach people and say, “I want to film or write about this very intimate part of your life?” Was that process easy for you?

The whole process of casting the doc took about six months of traveling on and off, and trying to find the right community and individual to focus on. It’s the same with my long-form journalism. You’re approaching people and talking to them about the project and seeing if they’re willing to share their story, but also figuring out if they’re good at communicating about their life. Filming someone adds that extra challenge — is someone comfortable enough on camera that the viewer is going to be accepting and open to whatever it is they’re sharing. The documentary is very lyrical, kind of minimalist, and told through the voices of the subjects. After the doc was done, several months later I realized more about my incredible experience, meeting all of these people, particularly in the Pagan community, and it created a lot of questions for me. There were a lot of things I wanted to explore for myself. There’s also just the humor of these encounters — this awkwardness of people meeting and trying to explain to each other what they believe in. But you also have normal life stuff going on. So it’s kind of like the contrast and tension between, “Well, I have to get up at 6AM, make scrambled eggs, get my pickup truck, and get to work. When I’m done, I’m going to go to Trader Joe’s. When I get back, we can talk about filming this weekend’s ritual.” People have other concerns going on. I tried to capture some of that in the film, but the book allowed for a lot more complexity. It also allowed for me to insert myself in a different way.

When I talked to my publisher about the book initially, the idea was that it would be a portrait of a slice of the Pagan community right now. I’ve never seen a book like that for a mainstream audience. I’ll use myself very gently as a framing device. Really fast, I realized that it was going to be a lot messier than that. I had to be honest about my own level of curiosity about witchcraft. The book became this hybrid where it’s also very much a memoir of my own exploration and these relationships along the way. Part of that was also being strategic about using myself as a bridge between the world of witchcraft and the occult, and whoever the mainstream reader is. I think it’s really effective when someone forces you to look at a subject in a real human context. Perhaps people have these practices that seem really exotic or even alienating at first, but you get to know the person — and then it’s, “Let’s be receptive and see where this goes.” That’s the ideal reading experience, in my mind.

Will you continue exploring witchcraft or Paganism in your writing?

Religion and belief systems are a very large topic. You could mine it forever. I’m really attracted to communities — smaller communities that rally around a belief system that sets them apart from the mainstream. What do they get from that? How does that connect to something more universal? I return again and again to that theme. I think I’m going to take a little break from writing about the occult, or explicitly about religion, and maybe have it be more of a personal fascination for a little while.

Have you found what you’re looking for?

The book isn’t a classic, all-American spiritual transformation memoir. It’s messier than that. I think my own relationship to my spirituality is really messy. But I do think that the book ends with a kind of revelation. It’s just not a clean one. Where I am now is pretty clearly articulated at the ending of the book. I would say that I’m going to be searching for a long time. Maybe that’s part of who I am. I think that’s a very honest thing to say. I have that in common with a lot of people. It’s just not something you see incorporated into the way people write about religion very often.