Magic and Witchery in the Modern West, edited by Shai Feraro and Ethan Doyle White, is a fascinating sample from a growing pool of research in the new academic field of Pagan studies. This field, dealing with contemporary magical new religious movements in the West, is often dated from the publication of Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon (Oxford University Press, 1999), and this volume is a festschrift honoring the 20th anniversary of that book.
Since 1999 scholars across a range of academic disciplines and in many countries (in this volume Ireland, United States, United Kingdom, Israel, Sweden, Canada, and Netherlands are represented, from fields of religious studies, anthropology, medieval studies, history, and history of religions) have studied neo-pagan religions in the West. A corpus of quite valuable academic work is emerging, ranging broadly, as reflected in Magic and Witchery, around this central pivot.
Sabina Magliocco discusses the reinterpretation of fairy lore in contemporary Paganism, as literary and media treatments from children’s literature and film interact with fragments of older oral traditions. The current fairies are much less dangerous than the older little people were. Modern Paganism is a literate phenomenon, and typically neo-Pagans are urban and educated people who draw from scholarly work on folklore and popular culture more than oral tradition.
Helen Cornish examines parallel folk histories of cunning women and the academic histories post-Hutton as they play out in British Paganism, in particularly through the Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall. The past is negotiated, and history is created through the engagement of visitors with the museum, the landscape, and an imagined mystical Cornish tradition. Jenny Butler’s discussion of an Irish Paganism drawing from romanticized “Celtic” identity and developing its own flavor by reclaiming historical folklore, people, and ideas, shows a similar process acting there.
Hugh B. Urban’s chapter examines the details of influence from Indian Tantra into Wiccan sexual ritual from John Woodruff, Gerald Yorke, and the Ordo Templi Orientis ceremonial magic order in which the founder of Wicca, Gerald Gardner, was a member. He argues that Tantra was an influence, but not the only one, and that Gardner’s Wicca consciously reworked the Tantric elements to seem Western. The whole category of “Western esotericism” seems to be one pole of a binary opposition that no longer is useful.
Chas S. Clifton’s discussion of hallucinogenic flying ointments as secret knowledge in the construction of Traditional Witchcraft opens another discussion of invented tradition. As soon as Gardner’s Wicca emerged a primitivist reaction to it began—these “traditional” witches emphasized the craft of magic, folk magic practices, and rejected the ethical and religious elements in Wicca. A “goth” tone to the “traditional” crowd leads them to emphasize transgressive ideas and to reclaim ideas about the use of poisons and hallucinogens from the lore about witches. Ethan Doyle White’s brief biography of Andrew Chumbley and his Sabbatic (Luciferian) Craft, which is an increasingly prominent occultist current with the renewed interest in Traditional Witchcraft, fits with Clifton’s discussion.
There is valuable work here on the invention and reinterpretation of religious tradition in different factions of the larger Witchcraft and Pagan movements—work by Clifton, Cornish, Butler, and Magliocco. Included as well is valuable historical work on intersections between Pagans and social movements—the anti-militarist and feminist work of Pagans Against Nukes in the United Kingdom in the 1980s and 1990s, discussed by Shai Feraro, Sarah M. Pike’s examination of the ecological activism and Pagan romanticism of the Earth First! radical environmentalists in the United States, and the proto-feminist post-Thelemic Witchcraft of Jack Parsons in the 1950s and Kenneth Grant in the 1970s in Manon Hedenborg White’s chapter.
The scope of pieces ranges from the detailed biography of Ethan White’s piece to the theoretical broad scope of Leon A. van Gulik’s systems model of creativity and renewal in Wicca. Each of these short chapters introduces the reader to larger questions to be explored in depth elsewhere.
For example, Manon White’s discussion of feminist themes in Kenneth Grant and his influence on Peter Redgrove and Penelope Shuttle’s ground-breaking The Wise Wound (1978), which effectively sacralizes menstruation and menstrual blood, poses questions about embodied spirituality, Sarah Pike’s discussion of eco/anarcho-primitivism and “pre-pagan” ecological spirituality in activist communities begs for further investigation, and Sabina Magliocco provokes thinking of how other blends of literary and folk/oral traditions are reinterpreted in contemporary religion. (Not only fairies but also the demon Lilith has been substantially domesticated and incorporated into New Age spirituality in ways that dramatically contrast with traditional interpretations.)
There is no representation of the quantitative research of scholars like Gwendolyn Reece or Helen Berger, for one striking omission, or the theology of Carol Christ, but a single volume cannot represent all the research avenues coming together in the field of Pagan studies. This is a smorgasbord of splendid scholarship which demonstrates a vibrant and healthy new field of academic work.
Samuel Wagar is a doctor of ministry candidate at St. Stephen’s College and founding dean of Edmonton Wiccan Seminary.
Date Of Review:
February 8, 2021
Shai Ferarois Lecturer at the Oranim College of Education, Israel, and the Secretary of the Israeli Association for the Study of Religions. He has published on modern Paganism and Goddess Spirituality in relevant journals and anthologies, and is the co-editor of Contemporary Alternative Spiritualities in Israel(Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).