October reads: Witches of America by Alex Mar

witches of americaI just finished Witches of America by Alex Mar (out 10/20/15), and it gave me all kinds of nostalgic feelings for my pagany days. In the future I might write about those, but for now it’s enough to know that I used to be one of ‘Witches of America’ (or, more accurately, ‘Druids of America’).

Witches of America is not an exhaustive study of paganism today. If you want that, you might want to check out Ronald Hutton or similar. Mar’s book mostly deals with the Feri tradition and OTO (Ordo Templi Orientis) ceremonial magic practitioners, but it is not just an anthropological study either. It’s also a memoir and an exploration of Mar’s personal spirituality, which I found particularly interesting and also very familiar. Her doubts about the religious side of the Craft, her interest in a mystery tradition, both seemed to be precisely on my wavelength.

Mar’s approach to belief is similar to mine in that she is ‘compelled by the mysterious’ and ‘drawn to the outer edges, the fringe — communities whose esoteric beliefs cut them off from the mainstream but also bind them closer together.’ At one point I labeled myself a perpetual seeker because I could not settle. I kept chasing something that would give me meaning, almost initiate me into my own mind, if you will. I also always viewed magic as a path to self-transformation. When Mar finally starts training in the Feri tradition, she talks about seemingly enrolling in therapy through witchcraft. I was also looking for something that would help me make my own narrative, a story of myself. I now realize that a lot of my search was closely tied to my uneasiness with the gender I was assigned at birth and an attempt to find a place that would make me comfortable with my body, but my approach to religious belief remains much the same.

Mar’s view on large pagan gatherings and their ecumenicism is also spot-on. It is virtually impossible to make up a ritual that will not seem diluted and bland, if you are trying to make it for vastly diverse groups of people. The largest rituals I attended were always the least meaningful for me, even if the amount of power raised was through the roof. Mar says: ”Maybe this is my problem, evidence of damage to my own psyche, that i’m looking for something deeper, darker, more layered, harder to live with.’

If anything, Witches of America allowed me to take a look at paganism from a certain remove but not as a stranger. It also made me realize that my engagement with paganism was from a perspective of a completely different person. Mar’s chapter on Dianic (largely women-only) Wicca now raises in my mind an important question of inclusion/exclusion of transwomen (Mar mentions this concern very briefly in a footnote, but it is mentioned). People going skyclad and a very binary power structure of most rituals now make me wonder if I would feel comfortable in such a cis-oriented setting. That said, I like to think that if any religion would be okay with gender fluidity and bodies that do not conform to a standard, it’s paganism. I haven’t really participated in anything pagany in many years and certainly not since my transition, but now I have this urge to dip back in and see how it would feel now.

Plus, it inspired me to clean my house and find all my Tarot decks and a bunch of cloak clasps (though the latter are mostly for the Ren Faire outing next weekend).

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