Witches of America

Alex Mar

Alex Mar first met the witch Morpheus while making her documentary American Mystic, about three people on the fringes of organized religion. After finishing the film, she felt a personal curiosity about witchcraft and paganism and continued speaking with Morpheus; through her she connected with other witches to dig further into the occult world, and Witches in America is mostly the document of that process.

While it may sound broad and encompassing by its title, the scope is narrowed by her firsthand experiences and the specific paths her interests outlined. She covers a fair amount of historical background of how modern paganism was revived beginning in the 1970s, but the book uncomfortably straddles anthropology and memoir realms. It often feels like she should have picked one viewpoint — and many readers wouldn’t have preferred the personal one, judging from practicing pagans who have panned this book. Mar writes a lot about her conflicting interest in learning more while doubting whether she truly believes the rituals she takes part in. Her perspective often sounds kind of demeaning to the people around her who truly do believe.

In the midst of her personal struggles, late in the book she includes a chapter on necromancy, specifically people who practice it by stealing skulls from graveyards to practice magic on, where she falls back out of the personal realm since her qualms here are very clear. I suppose she wanted to provide some view on darker magic, but it doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the book. One of the few passages I marked are from this chapter, an interlude that questions to the heart of why people abide by any faith system:

Religion is ultimately about death: our fear of it, our poor attempts to organize it, to wrap our minds around the inevitable end. We argue over the pieces that constitute ourselves: Are we a body plus a soul? Do we have one soul, three souls, no soul at all? Are we animated matter, meat puppets that fall limp and rot once past their sell-by date? Is everything important about us contained inside our skulls — our entire reality? And when, eventually, we do die, what is left behind?