Neo-Paganism in America

Sabina Magliocco, Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

This is perhaps a less broad study than the title suggests, being derived from the author’s own observer/participant researches, chiefly in the San Francisco Bay area. Nevertheless it contains a fair amount of background material and critical history which should be of interest to any one interested in Wiccan and similar movements.

Magliocco sees the beliefs of these groups as being founded on, at least in part, the extraordinary experiences of the members, both within the group and before joining. Several of these appear, as is often the case, to be produced by forms of guided imagery. Of perhaps more interest are the references to the idea of “autonomous imagination”, a stream of imagery which operates outside conscious control and ordinary consciousness and which can merge in the form of dreams, waking, visions and trance experiences, and with which individuals can gain some kind of control through special training and techniques.

Often this will join up with the personal imagination to produce hybrid experiences. She also refers to David Hufford’s view that extraordinary experiences are based on real 'somatic experiences', rather than cultural beliefs. However, it is not apparent that any kind of clear separation between experience and culture is possible, and it would probably be better to think of a feedback system in which culture and experience are continually modifying and being modified by each other.

The movements shown here have generally mutated into fairly cuddly ecofriendly, feminist, politically concerned and politically correct groups whose actions are not of the nature to cause much offence, though there is still a tradition of oppositional culture. Some of this, particularly in its anti-Catholicism and harping on about the myth of the nine million has resonances with wider American traditions of the new land, set apart from the Europe of Popes and Kings.

A somewhat less edifying face is shown in the last chapter, which deals with the various forms of cultural property wars in which one group accuses others of stealing 'their' culture, or portions thereof. This is particularly the case with various 'Native American' groups who dislike the appropriation of shamanic techniques and sweat lodges by Europeans. However the politically incorrect might suspect that these 'Native American beliefs' are every bit as modern recreations as any 'Celtic' neopaganism or even today’s social worker Christianity. Of course that doesn’t mean that these religions are any less authentic than any other. -- Peter Rogerson.

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