Witches Of America Won’t Make You A Believer In Magic, But It Will Help You Consider Its Possibilities

Alex Mar begins her journey into the heart of American witchcraft the way that most of us normally would when dealing with topics of a “magical” nature: by acknowledging that she’s a skeptic, and approaching her journey into the witchy darkness as a respectful observer. After a five-year immersive exploration for her book Witches in America, Mar comes out the other side, not necessarily a full-on believer, but someone a little more willing to shed her cringing doubt and open her mind to possibilities in what cannot be known with certainty.

To fully document the landscape of American witchcraft would take much more than one book. Mar structures her narrative by moving from light to dark. The earlier chapters deal with softer forms of magic — Dianic Wicca, Gardnerian Wicca, Paganism — and progresses through the Feri tradition all the way to necromancy, in the darkest of chapters near the end. While Mar is exploring each sect, she considers her participation. The book isn’t just a journey through the dark halls of American witchcraft, it’s also a personal journey, a memoir dressed up as journalistic investigation. Unlike other examples of this kind of immersive journalism, Mar’s approach works because she genuinely cares about figuring out what brand of sorcery works for her.

A daughter of Cuban and Greek parents, Mar’s early life is marked by the rituals and mysticism of Latin Catholicism. An early story in the book reveals that the women on her mother’s side of the family are more attuned to the spirits, good or bad, that linger, waiting to intervene. As a self-described skeptic — a point that she will drive home in almost every chapter — she checks herself at each ritual she partakes in. Skepticism as a philosophical perspective can be as deeply engrained in a person as religious faith, making it hard to shake the knee-jerk embarrassment that bubbles up upon watching a naked woman standing at an altar possessed by the spirit of a Celtic battle goddess named Morrigan.

Mar makes all of the requisite stops. She visits Panthea-Con, a gathering of witches far and wide held in a DoubleTree Suites in San Jose, California, where she encounters Morpheus, a practicing Feri priestess with flaming red hair and translucent skin. She briefly stops by a Dianic coven and finds that their practices of praying to the Goddess and chanting “Justice for our sisters!” in a circle while tossing bowls of mugwort into a fire isn’t quite for her. What interests Mar, and what drives her journey forward, is “access to the level of witchcraft that only time and training and trust can earn.” This leads her down a path that feels darker than her earlier dabblings. For her, witchcraft is at its most powerful and its most potent when you have to fully dedicate part of yourself to the practice, to shrug off your own notions of respectability and acceptability and submit in full to the cleansing and empowering properties of your chosen craft.

The craft that Mar selects is Feri, a particularly potent and intense strain of magic founded by Victor Anderson, a blind Oregon man who, in 1926, met an old woman in the woods. The woman initiated him “sexually and magically,” and Anderson had a vision of a “slim, feminine man,” “naked … towering and horned, cock, erect, blue flames wrapping his head like a crown.” After both vision and sexual-magic awakening were over, the old woman told Anderson that he was of “the Fairy race,” and that he’d meet others like him. This is the origin myth of the Feri Craft, which is a blend of Santeria, Vodou and ancient Hawaiian magic. Like all magic discussed in the book, Feri is performative, to a degree that’s embarrassing for most people who don’t consider themselves spiritual by any nature. Part of Mar’s journey is finding out for herself if she can fully surrender.

Her time at Panthea-Con and her encounter with Morpheus, the Feri priestess who channels Morrigan, a Celtic battle goddess, pique her interest. She studies with Karina, a Feri teacher who lives in New England and smokes hand-rolled American Spirits on her back deck while her kids are inside. The Feri training is arduous, conducted at first over email, then video, and finally in person, at Karina’s home. Mar commits fully to the rituals and ceremonies, but there’s always a nagging uncertainty in the back of her mind, a self-consciousness that she can’t quite shake.

It’s only in the chapter “The Binding” where her conviction seems to crystallize. She requests a binding spell from Morpheus, but her will peters out when she considers the actual steps she’d have to take: writing the name of her current lover’s ex-girlfriend on a slip of paper; sewing that paper into the thick folds of a cows tongue; sealing it shut with pins. It’s in this chapter that you clearly see that witchcraft and magic are an effective balm against complacency. At the end, her reluctance wins out: by mulling over her motivations behind performing the spell, she realizes that if her results had been what she wanted, it would’ve been forced. Where’s the satisfaction in a result that you single-handedly manipulated?

A larger theme that runs throughout is the association between witchcraft and trauma. Like any other religion, people turn to witchcraft in times of distress or depression. If you strip away the ceremonial daggers, the ecstatic dances and the chanting, witchcraft, like any religion, is a highly specialized form of self-help. People turn to witchcraft in part to deal with larger obstacles that feel wildly out of their control. To possess the ability to bend the forces of nature to your will is tempting; being able to actually affect change on what was previously seen as immovable is addicting. We turn to religion or to crystals or to storefront psychics to try and make sense out of the mess of our daily lives. We love control and are afraid of the unknown. Witchcraft purports to eradicate that fear and in doing so, give the power back to the living.

Witches Of America by Alex Mar is in bookstores now.