IN 1692, BARKING LIKE A DOG, pretending to fly, or erupting in a spasmodic fit was seemingly enough to get a teenage girl in Salem, Massachusetts, branded a witch and hanged, as depicted in Stacy Schiff’s new book, The Witches. Today there are an estimated one million practicing pagans — a term that includes self-identified witches as well as occultists of various stripes — and that number continues to grow. Two books — Alex Mar’s just-published Witches of America and Peter Bebergal’s Season of the Witch, now available in paperback — examine the mainstreaming of the Dark Arts through very different lenses. Mar, a journalist and filmmaker who met one of Witches of America’s main characters, the priestess Morpheus, while making her 2010 documentary American Mystic, becomes intimately involved with several covens and mystical orders in an effort to understand the human desire for transcendence and suspension of disbelief. Bebergal’s 2011 memoir, Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood, explored the way drugs can (and can’t) satisfy similar urges, while Season of the Witch looks at rock ’n’ roll as a vehicle for spiritual transmissions and magical awakenings. LARB sat down with Mar and Bebergal to talk about the modern occult movement, the acute sensitivity of the subject matter, and just what did or didn’t happen with Robert Johnson at the crossroads.
STEFFIE NELSON: Even in the year since Season of the Witch was originally published, it seems like esoteric and occult practices have become more mainstream, from media coverage to cultural influence to general accessibility. There’s even a term floating around, the New New Age.
PETER BEBERGAL: It’s really amazing. In the ’60s and ’70s, rock was a perfect vehicle for people wanting an immediate spiritual experience of some kind that they weren’t getting from their church or their temple. I think that this part of the human experience is something that we are continually seeking, but in some ways it is as concentrated as it’s been for some time.
Alex, did you sense this as you were working on Witches of America, or even as you were making the documentary American Mystic? How do you feel like things have evolved from then until now?
ALEX MAR: I definitely had a very unique vantage point from which to observe some of this, personally. I knew that I wanted one the three main subjects of American Mystic to be someone who identified as a witch. I didn’t totally know what that would mean; I knew a little about paganism, but just a little. When it would come up in conversation, whether it was in New York or California, people would kind of make a face — there was this reaction, like, what do you mean witchcraft? And then maybe two years ago, all of a sudden, people would ask me what I was working on and I would tell them about the book and they would say, “Oh, so are they all Wiccan? Or are they pagan?” All of a sudden it became much more grounded and specific and the average person seemed very comfortable with it. And certainly the numbers are growing, which is largely due to the internet making it easier for certain traditions to spread; you don’t have to rely on your local dusty occult store.
Peter, you talk about how bands like Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath were a vehicle for these ideas, and a way to gain access to the knowledge. You also talked about Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s The Morning Of The Magicians, which made huge waves and opened up whole worlds when it was first published in English in 1963. Now, all we have to do is Google something.
PB: It’s incredible, the access. I remember when I was interested in this stuff as a kid, and I had to either fill out a mail order form or hope that the library had something. Now there’s actually a website, sacred-texts.com, and anything that’s in the public domain is available. We don’t have the alt forums that we used to have, but places like Reddit have very active occult subgroups. There’s the Wiccan group, the OTO, and unlike other times — when you felt like you were the weirdest person in the world — now, with the click of a button there’s all these other weirdos that you can communicate with.
What sort of a long-term affect do you think that has had or is having on these practices, which have traditionally been secret?
PB: That was a big part of what created a lot of tension in the occult revival at the turn of the century. Israel Regardie, in particular, wrote a book about the Golden Dawn’s whole ritual structure and members were completely outraged that he would reveal it. But his whole thing was that this shouldn’t be something that we keep so precious. I think it’s good that it’s available to everybody who’s interested, but I do think there are, like, spiritual spoilers. There’s not an opportunity to work slowly through these ideas. Even if you want to be a Freemason, for example, all you have to do is Google exactly what the rituals are. This is supposed to be a secret society where you’re only initiated over time, so I guess it’s fine if you want a fast track, but it’s also too bad, because it limits the experience of having to dig in. And that searching is part of what makes it feel much more alive. It’s become too easy in some ways. But there are some groups, some Wiccan communities, who try to keep it on the down low so that the initiation process feels like it has some mystery to it.
Alex, you participate in and report on initiation rituals in both the Feri witchcraft tradition and the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), the magical order led for decades by Aleister Crowley, and some members of the pagan community have taken issue with your book. Were some practitioners eager to share or market themselves? How did you prove your integrity or establish a moral compass for what you chose to reveal?
AM: That’s a big question and I think that’s part of the touchiness the book has provoked. Some people in the community really like the idea of having more representation in the mainstream and I think others really don’t, at the end of the day. Feri is a particularly secretive tradition, so that’s quite sensitive material. At the same time some of the ideas and practices within Feri have been spreading online for years now, so there’s sort of the growing pains of that, which I allude to. I think it’s an incredibly sensitive topic, writing about any religious community, even one that people associate with being very open minded and liberal. But I mean, I fact-checked this book in the same way that I would fact-check anything. There’s no trick to it. I think that part of the reaction is based on the fact that it’s not a book written by a devoted longtime pagan for the pagan community. I wanted to create some sort of a bridge, so that there would be a way to have more of a conversation. I’m trying to translate complicated belief systems to a mainstream audience. I’m never gonna get an A+ from people of that tradition.
I even get the sense that the belief systems and myths are fluid. I was totally surprised to learn that Wicca wasn’t actually founded until the 1950s!
AM: Some people want to claim that it’s older than that, but that’s the deal. Gerald Gardner quote unquote discovered Wicca in the woods. He was initiated into this coven in the New Forest [in England] and that was his story and that was kind of the birth of the modern witchcraft movement. That’s what was so fascinating about writing the historical parts of the book because there’s this tangible recent history and yet it’s the beginning of a religious movement. And of course it’s different, but there was almost this feeling of, is this like being alive when Jesus’s disciples were preaching on the streets?
As you tell it, Peter, rock ’n’ roll’s origin myth, the story of Robert Johnson meeting the devil at the crossroads, has a similar improvised quality.
PB: What you have is Christian missionaries going to places like Haiti and talking about this character called the devil or Satan. And it was very easy to associate that character or that deity with this trickster character, the god of the crossroads, Papa Legba or Eshu. So as this all gets imported into the United States, particularly around Louisiana where you would go to church and worship Jesus but then the next day you might go to the Voodoo shaman to ask for a love spell, these characters, these entities, become easily mingled. And it’s all a syncretic thing, it would be impossible to parse which is which. So the story of somebody learning how to play the guitar by meeting the devil at the crossroads could very well have been an earlier story of meeting Eshu. And it wasn’t even Robert Johnson, supposedly, that the myth was about. It was another Johnson, and when people were trying to elevate Robert Johnson in the mythology of rock ’n’ roll, they just gleaned that story. It’s pretty amazing.
Many modern witches call their craft a religion. What distinguishes a religion from an occult practice?
PB: I think they both ultimately stem from the same human DNA of wanting to have a connection to the divine. Organized religion mediates that experience and occultism says you don’t need a mediator, you can go directly to the source. And it means you can have the ecstatic experience rather than just reading about the mystics of your tradition who had the experience. Religions that have stuck are very good at creating ritual structures, moments where we can be within the context of that ritual moment and be transported by it, whether it’s the noise of the Pentecostals or the incense of Catholicism, or the chanting in a temple. Whatever it is, it’s part of the religious imagination, but some anthropologists would even argue that at its very beginnings religion was actually much more connected to magical practices. Probably the first forms of religious practice were about divination or trying to be somehow possessed by the deity and then you would give that information back to the tribe or whatever it was.
AM: One thing I immediately liked about the pagan community or the witchcraft movement is the sense that there doesn’t have to be a go-between. Everybody has the potential to be a mystic of some kind and you can be — and maybe you should be — a priest yourself. Your relationship with a god or goddess is direct and it’s your own and you can shape it and create your own liturgy and personal rituals. There are traditions that are very specific and you have to train a certain way for a certain period of time in order to be initiated, but there is this sense that you’re the vessel, you’re the conduit, you’re in charge of that relationship.
The OTO is heavy on ritual, guided by Crowley’s maxim “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” Can you talk about your connection to this community?
AM: The specific group that I encountered in New Orleans, Alombrados, is really young and dynamic. There’s a kind of intensity to being in New Orleans and I think it really affects how people approach ritual. The aesthetic of ceremonial magic can be really intoxicating. The rituals are really precise and there are very specific kinds of robes and incense and color patterns and everything is meant to come together in this ecstatic experience. There are moments that just hit that nerve, the part of me that still remembers rituals from being young in the Catholic Church — all the ceremony of high mass. It triggers something in me that I found in OTO more than in other places. [laughs] That was my advertisement for OTO just now, I guess.
It sounds not unlike a transcendent rock concert experience. Peter, you present David Bowie as the ultimate rock ’n’ roll magus, a pure channel for the occult imagination.
PB: Bowie lives in both those worlds perfectly. He was somebody who was very interested in the occult, particularly in his early years, and probably read a lot. It’s hard to know what he believed and didn’t believe. What he was able to do was take the elements of magic that are most powerful when they’re done artfully, like the ceremonial ritual, and I think transform himself alchemically into these personas. So he didn’t come onstage and sing about the occult but he came onstage as somebody who was transformed. If you look at the characters, from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke, they tend to be these slightly decadent, a little bit destroyed, wannabe messiahs who can’t quite get their act together. I think using all those elements of costume, of ritual, of color, that he transformed the state of the music and the industry in ways that were incredibly profound.
How do you think occult practices and ideas are transforming culture today, and vice versa?
AM: That’s an interesting question: as the mainstream starts to become more and more aware of the pagan movement, how does it change the movement and what shape does it take as certain parts of it spread into the mainstream? I can only assume that this is going to specifically change spirituality for some young women in this country because it’s gotta get a little bit tiresome to not be treated as an equal in your religious community. That’s the assumption in this community: as a woman you are a powerful person, potentially. There’s also the fact that it’s a religious community that’s open to different kinds of sexuality, which is incredibly current. There are plenty of people who are queer who are really tired of hiding that part of their life.
You went into the process of writing this book wondering if you could become a believer instead of a “spiritual dilettante” or a “professional seeker,” as you put it at one point. Where are you now on that spectrum? Are you still practicing?
AM: I’m still open-minded and I still consider myself actively seeking. There are still practices from within the witchcraft community that I value, but I wouldn’t call myself a witch at this point. It’s funny because there’s the whole American literary form of the transformative spiritual memoir — here I am with issues in my personal life and I go on this transformative spiritual journey and at the end of it I have a clear message for the reader. But I always knew that that wasn’t going to be this book, because for me faith is a very messy thing. There are plenty of times when you doubt things or maybe you don’t believe in anything at all or something happens in your life and that changes. I feel like there’s this evolving, messy, shifting relationship to whether or not you believe there’s something out there in the universe. It’s sort of like being in the arts. Seriously. I’ve thought a lot about the role my work plays in my life as a result of writing this book and it’s just as irrational, quote unquote, and it requires the same level of dedication. To be an artist is also outside of the realm of logical thinking.
Peter, you’ve said that you believe there is something beyond the phenomenal world, but the only way to access it is through art, literature, and music. Did you find that more extreme religious or ritualistic practices don’t resonate with you, or have you just found what you need through rock ’n’ roll?
PB: I think I certainly have had experiences that I would say are religious experiences. I still consider myself mostly a skeptic but I’m definitely not an atheist. I have found that, in all the different ways that I’ve sought those experiences, nothing has brought me to my spiritual knees in the same way as listening to [John Coltrane’s] A Love Supreme. And maybe the times that I have been most moved by a religious service it’s been because of the music; then it becomes universal. I’m not a Christian but I can be so moved by gospel that it feels like it’s going directly to that part of me. So whether or not you believe in the occult you can still have a moment where you give yourself over to it. And that’s pretty powerful.