“Witches of America” is a seeker’s memoir told through a quilted veil: a collection of strong, journalistic profiles of several fascinating American practitioners of the occult. Through these witches, priests and necromancers, Alex Mar surveys the history and modern practice of various forms of witchcraft in America, while investigating her own longing “to be disturbed, shaken into believing.” “Are you a witch, or are you just … doing research?” a priestess of the Feri tradition asks Mar — and it’s a challenge that gets to the core of her quest to discover whether she can or should participate in the mysticism she documents.
The American-born daughter of immigrants from Crete and Cuba, Mar was exposed to the mysticism of Latin Catholicism and Greek Orthodox Christianity as a child. She explains that “my religious upbringing, though two flavors of Christian, was defined less by discipline and self-denial than by proximity to mystery.” She is the perfect guide to myriad fringe worlds that mainstream religions would most likely condemn (or have, in fact, condemned) as blasphemous and that the less religious would regard as mere cults. She acknowledges how difficult witchcraft is to describe, let alone defend. What is it, after all? A faith? A fraud? A kind of therapy? A variety of insanity? She spent five years getting to the heart of these questions while making a documentary about American mysticism.
In her travels, Mar encounters the Feri branch of paganism, known to practice a particularly intense strain of magic. It was established by a mostly blind Oregon man named Victor Anderson, who met an old woman in the woods when he was 9 years old, in 1926. She “initiated the boy, sexually and magically,” Mar writes, and he had a vision of a feminine, horned man wearing a crown of blue flames. Anderson understood himself to be of “the Fairy race” and dedicated his life to teaching a magical tradition he cultivated himself, a mélange of Santeria, Voodoo and traditional Hawaiian magical practices. Anderson’s “Feris” have nearly nothing in common with a Tinkerbellish notion of fairies, nor are they the malevolent kind portrayed in Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.”
Mar meets Feris like Karina, a smart, tough single mother of two who lives in Northampton, Mass., makes enchiladas for dinner and instructs novices in the craft over the Internet. She is two generations removed from Victor Anderson himself: Her teacher was Anderson’s pupil. This short lineage, Mar notes, could be reason enough for some to dismiss Feri magic; it hasn’t the weight of a long history. But then, the rituals, symbology, credos and institutions of any religion, ancient or modern, were all new at some point and codified over decades, centuries, millenniums, often through schisms and controversies. One finds reasonable the idea that there is some rickety phase normal to the early history of any belief system, when its youth makes it seem suspect. There’s no substitute for the authority added by the passage of time. (Mar repeatedly notes the anachronisms inherent in a modern practice of any occult art: Witches communicate by email and Skype, wear sunscreen when going “skyclad” — walking around nude — and make plans to gather “way up on the hillside behind the local Walmart.”)
Mar also attends PantheaCon, an annual gathering of pagans in San Jose, Calif.; she participates in ecstatic dances, vow-takings and exorcism; and finally she is initiated as a novice in a secret society. She does not seek true religion but true certainty. She envies believers: “They have guidance; they have clarity; their days have structure and meaning.” Yet she repeatedly, inevitably encounters the tautology that is the defining heart of any faith: As one witch explains, “Magic works primarily through nonphysical means that we can only observe in subjective ways,” what pagans call “unverified personal gnosis.” In considering this tension so fundamental to a spiritual practice, Mar writes eloquently about the search for meaning, our pursuit of the sublime within the mundane and the invention of self.
The book is wisely structured to progress from lightest magic to darkest — the early chapters tell quaint stories of earth-loving nudist Wiccans, while the chapters about the Church of Satan and necromancy are not ventured until the end (and it certainly seems a sort of magic that Mar is able to write so compassionately about a grave robber who decapitates corpses).
The documentary Mar makes, the gentle, respectful “American Mystic” (2010), profiles three young American seekers: a Feri witch, a Lakota Sioux and a Spiritualist. Mar developed a close relationship with the witch, a California woman named Morpheus, that is further explored in this book. Morpheus is what some witches call a B.N.P., or Big Name Pagan, every high school nerd’s dream of a pagan princess, with super-long, super-red hair and an uncanny resemblance to Melisandre, the dark priestess on “Game of Thrones.” But Morpheus’s life, though no less centered in and shaped around magic than Melisandre’s, is not dedicated to installing herself or anyone else in a position of power. It is, Mar sympathetically observes, about fighting for the power to create one’s own self, to manifest an outward life that matches the inward. Morpheus’s devotion to a goddess of war leads her through her struggles for self-sovereignty, her filing for divorce and her relocation.
In the most personal chapter, “The Binding,” Mar requests from Morpheus a spell to cast on a romantic rival. (It is a unique and vital quality of Mar’s approach that in her taking her subjects so seriously, we take her seriously in turn.) The recipe calls for installing something representing the spell’s target, like a photograph, inside a sliced-open beef tongue; pinning it shut with a recommended nine pins and dressing it with a mixture of things like alum, cloves, mustard and pepper; and then wrapping it in foil and putting it in the freezer. Mar doesn’t go through with the spell, which turns out to be not unusual, according to Morpheus, who says most people “either get too nervous or they start to see the situation differently.”
“Witches of America” is a pastiche of history and biography, cultural anthropology and comparative theology. It’s also a nice compendium of obscure arcana: “No serious witch would circle” — participate in a ritual gathering — “while wasted”; “Nearly a third of American presidents have been Freemasons.”
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.