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Persuasions of the Witch's Craft

Witches are motifs suitable for Halloween.  They are historically, unfortunate women burnt at the stake in less enlightened ages, where people saw the Devil’s handiwork in any number of unexplainable phenomenon.  These images, while accurate in one sense, are not the prevailing reality when it comes to modern individuals who call themselves witches and practice magic as a form of religion. T.M. Luhrmann’s Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England explores the modern phenomenon of witchcraft and magic in England, where “several thousand people…practice magic as a serious activity, and as members of an organized group. Their magic involves a ritual practice based upon ideas about strange forces and the powers of the mind”.

Persuasions of the Witch's Craft

This anthropological study explores a group of people that appear to be paradoxical.  They are articulate and educated people from a culture that prizes science (which looks down upon magic), but first saw magic as an alternative science.  “They soon got involved with a range of spiritual and emotional experience to which the ideas [of reality] were largely irrelevant, and they came to treat their practice like a religion…and to value it more for its spiritual, symbolic experiences than for the truth of its magical theory”.

The first part of the book is ethnographic, where Luhrmann describes the types of people she encountered.  Luhrmann begins with an idea for the group she wants to study.  She also knows that witch groups can be contacted from the index cards they leave in occult bookstores; yet she is wary of simply calling up someone and explaining her project.  It is almost a surprise when she finally does make contact with a modern witch.  “Beth was sane, balanced, and warm.  She was also deeply involved with many different varieties of magical practice”.

The portrait of these people that emerges is “middle class urbanites”.  It is a largely urban phenomenon for several reasons.  First, and obviously, there are greater concentrations of people in cities, with a larger sympathetic audience, and opportunities to create new groups.  Second, there is usually an occult supplier.  Most of these groups trace their origins to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a Victorian society formed in 1887 by three dissident freemasons.  This group “appealed to romanticism, to the interest of comparative religion, and to those who demanded a scientific framework for their spirituality”.  Groups are called “covens,” and celebrate the seasonal rituals: Beltane, Lammas, Halloween, and Candlemas.

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