Reviewed in this Essay: Witches Of America, by Alex Mar
It is for us to build an alternative through our present actions, our explorations, our play: all done without any spectators. This is more powerful than uploading a picture of your engorged genitalia. Love one another. Resistance and knowledge begins in your body. Secrecy remains an essential power of the sphinx.
–Peter Grey, Beneath The Rose
In the early part of the last decade, just after the destruction of two buildings in New York City’s financial center, a witch-hunt began. Armed with the power of law and absurd injections of fear-appropriated money, many Capitalist governments began searching for an elusive group of people known as terrorists.
Of course, like many other state-sponsored pogroms, ‘terrorist’ was an empty category, easily filled with whichever group of people threatened some aspect of Authority. For most, terrorist meant a brown-skinned, bearded man who prayed five times a day towards a middle-eastern city, a resurrection of 20th century orientalist fears (and desires) of the swarthy, virile assassin come to steal wives and undermine imperialism.
But within the borders of these countries, spurred by the economic interests of petro-chemical extraction companies and large agribusiness, the Eco-Terrorist was re-born. Younger—usually light-skinned—activists, punks, and hippies who’d gone rogue for Mother Earth attracted intense surveillance attention from security services using the same tactics used against Black and leftist radicals in the 60’s and 70’s (MKUltra, for instance).
One particular tactic was quite effective, leading to multiple arrests for uncommitted crimes and the destruction of many large activist groups from fear and in-fighting. In multiple circles, sympathetic-appearing agents would befriend key members and leaders—often the one with the greatest charisma and the strongest trust—and become their confidants. Once close to this key member, they were able to gain the trust of others, borrowing respectability through association.
Many such infiltrations later led to arrests, often through entrapment scenarios where the infiltrator would urge the group towards stronger, more violent actions and then help provide the means to accomplish them. Other times, mere surveillance of the groups’ activities was enough to provide evidence for arrest. But perhaps the worst damage done was not to any particular group, but to leftist environmentalism and anti-capitalism as a whole. Stories of these arrests triggered re-evaluations of trust, suspicions, and accusations which destroyed the morale, cohesion, and relationships of activist groups, many of which were dedicated to complete non-violence.
The most insidious aspect of the infiltrator is that they prey upon the openness of their targets, their friendliness, even their desire and love. In this way they are not much different from the missionary, the spy, the opportunist, the colonialist, or even the spiritual tourist except in motive—the damage wrought by their duplicitous insertion into a culture or community to which they have no vulnerability (and towards which no obligation) can be as long-lasting as a carpet-bomb or an aerial drone-strike.
Opportunist or Tourist?
I want access to the level of witchcraft that only time and training and trust can earn.
–Alex Mar, Witches Of America
Such thoughts came to mind mid-way through reading Alex Mar’s first book, Witches of America. Much touted by the internet press—but met with muted reservation by most witches, her book offers a sordidly pornographic and self-aggrandising narrative disguised as an elucidating look into the way witchcraft is practised in the United States. Belonging alongside a 1980’s issue of National Geographic (we’ll get to the pendulous breasts in a bit), exploitative British-tourist narratives, and freak-documentary, Mar’s book tells the tale of her search for authentic witchcraft in the most ‘extreme’ of American Pagan experiences.
Though quite unlikely on the payroll of any government security service, the writer’s strategy is certainly the same. Befriending a likable, attractive, caring and well-connected witch (Morpheus Ravenna) and then borrowing that persons’ respect to infiltrate other groups, Alex Mar inserts herself into a world of witches and magicians to which few ever attain such quick access.
While maintaining a separate life in a downtown New York City apartment, Ms. Mar manages to gain the trust of Thelemites in New Orleans, a Feri coven in New England, a Morrigan priesthood in San Francisco, the leader of a Mystery School, the founder of the largest Pagan news-site, and then, even faster, writes a condescending tourist memoir which will likely cause great damage to the communities she exploited, engendering the same mutual distrust that led environmentalist groups to disintegrate since 2005.
Such has happened before, and opportunists are hardly unknown to American Paganism. The very tradition which Alex treats most severely in her book suffered a schism at least in part after such an infiltrator, and the meteoric rise of a former member of the Mickey Mouse Club—into the ranks of ADF leadership, a position as a columnist for The Wild Hunt, and even a feature on the cover of Witches & Pagans–before ‘returning’ to Christianity was written about in The New York Times.
Pagans are, of course, a trusting lot, and it’s rather tragic to see their trust abused yet again by an admittedly upper-middle-class Harvard graduate who presented herself as an authentic seeker. No doubt she used her arts-connections as lure for access to make herself, her publisher, her agent, and her marketers quite a bit of money.
But let’s be even more charitable here, and assume Ms. Mar was, at least in her own mind, an authentic seeker who also sought to write a book about her experiences. If so, she did certainly find herself amongst the authenticity she sought, though she never actually finds it.
In fact, read as a search for authenticity, Witches Of America becomes not a work of propaganda but a comedy of errors with Ms. Mar the protagonist, as group after group risks helping a hopeless bourgeois Harvard-grad break free of her wealthy upbringing and find the self-knowledge she sought.
It was a risk, though, that we shall all now share.
Pendulous Breasts and Goddess-Issues
Witches of America begins with Morpheus Ravenna, who becomes the author’s access to many of the other people she encounters. Mar met Morpheus while filming a popular documentary, ‘American Mystic,’ and mentions in the opening chapter that her experience with the priestess whet her appetite for deeper magic.
Alex Mar’s respect for Morpheus borders on fanatic adoration, a fascination evinced heavily in her lavish descriptions of Morpheus’ body, clothing, and presentation. In fact, Morpheus is the only person in the narrative who receives exclusively positive description, and such effusion contrasts starkly with later descriptions of older and and overweight women.
Readers familiar with the photos of African indigenous women, bare-chested, with low-hanging breasts displayed as commodity for a Western white male audience in National Geographic will no doubt find resonance in two of Mar’s descriptions:
[Regarding a woman in a Feri ritual at Pantheacon in which ‘shame’ was invoked:] “One very obese woman has chosen to go topless: her breasts are so pendulous they hang nearly to her navel, flattened into thick slabs. It is clear she is dancing a word that means something to her. She’s dancing it off, waving her arms , her skin rippling, and her long, frizzed-out hair askew. A large-bodied misfit.” (p. 52)
[And from an encounter with the founder of Circle Santuary at Pagan Spirit Gathering:] “Leading the ceremony is Selena Fox, in a gauzy sheath that shows her figure–her pendulous breasts give her the look of a stone fertility goddess (the Venus of Willendorf?)…” (p.70)
The bodies of women become a constant obsession for Mar, but not so much in the manner of arousal but in a dichotomy of goddess/disgusting. Only one other female in the book gets positive description of her form–Sophia, part of a Thelemic Temple, who Mar imagines several times embodying, wondering in the book whether she might one day find herself laying down on the altar as Sophia does.
Despite comprising a higher portion of the population within Paganism than the rest of society, Mar makes no mention of the bodies of trans or queer people (suggesting a very narrow experience of witch ‘community’), and remarkably little mention of men’s bodies. The author’s search for authenticity, then, becomes her struggle with the female body (including an obsession with white, thin, female bodies) and with ‘the goddess,’ a fact she admits several times in the book:
“I’m surprised by how hard I have to fight not to dismiss the idea of a Goddess at the helm of the universe, rather than a handsome, full-bearded Jesus type. Why does that continue to sound like crunchy hippie bullshit? I should want to pray to something female—I’m her demographic. I am a little bit shocked to realize that I may be sexist in my view of the gods.” (p. 126)
[and in her description of revulsion to Dianic Witchcraft:] “I want this communion—but I can’t relate. I feel embarrassed: this is precisely the kind of dated, pro-women gathering that most of my female friends would balk at, and I don’t know how to embrace it.” (p 77)
In Morpheus Ravenna, Alex Mar finds the sort of woman-ness she’s looking for and can accept, but despite her own admissions to internalized sexism, she presents Morpheus as a foil for all other sorts of women, the old, the overweight, and particularly the poor. Women she likes and women she does not like become equally objectified, reduced to symbols of their existence, rather than their embodied being.
Destroy Everything You Touch
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society… All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…
The Communist Manifesto
Poverty, actually, is another common representation in Witches of America. No doubt it was a bit odd for a writer who admittedly grew up wealthy, in a wealthy neighborhood, in a private school, in New York City to see how witches actually live. Her disgust is palpable. In fact, this is where Witches of America becomes not a narrative about alternative magic traditions in the United States, but the confrontation of the Bourgeoisie with their own Disenchantment.
Alex Mar admits her class-difference from those from whom she seeks authentic witchcraft, but her confession itself reveals her failure to understand her privilege:
“I have always lived as an insider’s outsider: raised in a high-end part of Manhattan, but to immigrant, so-called New Money parents; educated as a private school for girls, but one of the few who were not ethnic blondes who rode horses on the weekends; certified by an Ivy League university, but as a ‘creative type’ determined not to take advantage of its business-government matrix; an attractive woman, but with a challenging, overly rarefied taste in ‘creative’ men.” (p. 110)
Though I, too, have an “overly rarefied taste in creative men,” it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a charitable disposition towards an author who speaks casually of traveling every weekend to the west coast in pursuit of magic or her film-maker boyfriend and then, later, balks at the request of a Feri teacher for $100 compensation to help pay rent.
In fact, it’s in the parts of the book where Alex Mar pursues Feri training where both her classism and her disgust for non-perfect women’s bodies becomes most apparent–and awful.
Using access from one witch to gain the confidance of another, the author pursues a relationship with Karina, a teacher of the Feri tradition of witchcraft who lives in Western Massachusetts. Readers may already be familiar with the Sundering of Feri, a split of the tradition caused in part by the aforementioned infiltrator, as well as the decision of some initiates to teach for monetary compensation (Mar spends extensive time discussing this).
This question of payment for teaching affects more than Feri, but Mar’s casual treatment of the issue, her reprinting of emails and rituals (herself for profit, at that!), and her relentlessly negative descriptions of the single-mother’s home and appearance reveal Ms. Mar to be precisely what she later asks Santa Muerte to help her become: ruthless.
The scene in which Karina confronts Alex Mar with her suspicions that she’s only doing all this to write a book is quite tragic, leaving the reader with the hope that someone may finally stop her. But Mar only half-answers, manipulating her teacher, yet also reveals her ruthless motive (and disgust of the embodied experience of the witch) for the rest of us to read:
“My desire to get in on secrets, to earn them, is very separate from this idea of witchcraft as my life’s work. as a newly claimed identity. A belief system, a spiritual calling, seems like a life in the arts: if you’re questioning yourself, questioning the work, the struggle loses its value, and you’ve simply exiled yourself to the outskirts of any mainstream life without benefit….[emphasis mine]
I say to Karina, knowing full well that my answer will have a serious bearing on our relationship. ‘It’s up to me to prove to myself whether or not I’m a witch.'” (p 157)
It is precisely here that Witches of America unfolds not as a search for magic or witches, but the story of bourgeois obsession with the exotic. Rejecting her own spirituality even as she reports clear visions of rituals on Crete and childhood stories of matriarchs seeing the dead, Mar repeats the precise traumatic cycle of the Western colonist.
Severed from ancestral ties through the unholy bargain of Capital, the capitalist subject then seeks to regain a sense of authenticity by pillaging others. Those others, be they the subaltern colonial subject or the poor witch raising two children, offer access to their wisdom and traditions out of sympathy, unaware that the seeker has no intention of ever giving up her position of wealth and privilege.
Just as the worst spiritual tourists later go on to sell the wisdom freely given them by the colonized in expensive New Age retreats, Alex Mar has done the very same thing, ruthlessly—gleefully—selling on the Capitalist market the stories of the witches who offered her their knowledge, friendship, and trust.
The Witch as Body, The Body as Witch
Our struggle then must begin with the re-appropriation of our body, the revaluation and rediscovery of its capacity for resistance, and expansion and celebration of its powers, individual and collective.
Silvia Federici, In Praise of The Dancing Body
Here, too, we can now understand the mystery she fought so hard for, always within her reach yet never grasped. Perhaps more than any other formal initiatory tradition, Feri teaches a fierce truth of the witch-as-body, and with such disgust of the bodies of so many women—as well as the material experiences of the poor—Alex Mar ran headlong into the mystery of the body… and fled.
What starts out as a hope to obtain the wisdom exuded from Morpheus Ravenna and others who inspire her (T. Thorn Coyle gets some mention, as well as Anaar Niino) becomes an obsession with the body-of-the-witch similar to that which burned, tortured, dissected and pathologised the witch’s body.
The Witch is her body, though, and his, and theirs. That body is not just the physical form, its appearance, the ‘white flat stomach’ or the naked form of dancer or the temple priestess. It is also the body of the overweight woman dancing with ‘pendulous breasts’ in ecstatic release; it is also the body of the crones who disgust her. And it is never just one body, but all the bodies which comprise the witch–that is, relationship, community, and love.
By failing to see the actual bodies comprising the witches she meets (equally objectifying the ‘pretty’ and the ‘ugly’), and the bodies extending beyond the visual, Alex Mar misses the entire point of witchcraft, harming those she admires as much as she harms those who disgust her.
The witch-as-body is also the body-as-witch, the raw experience of the poor, the Necromancer cradling a skull and crying, the tired single-mother sipping coffee in mis-matched pajamas. Herein is the secret that cannot be learned, cannot be understood, cannot be comprehended or dissected.
It cannot be known. You can only become this truth, and it teaches you to become it. It grows within you, it becomes you.
It is the secret that cannot be bought, a wisdom that cannot be sold.
And it’s what makes all witches dangerous.
The Coming Storm
We are those who have always existed, initiates of a revolutionary current, citizens of an Other world we know is possible because we’re from there.
from the introduction to
I opened this review with a description of the Green-scare for a reason. There are relentless overlaps between so-called ‘mainstream’ Paganism and the revolutionary current of witchcraft, and Witches of America touches uncomfortably close to who we are and what we’re doing. Though the author misses the point laughably throughout the book, the attention drawn to certain aspects of our experiences promises to cause strife, regardless our vigilance.
Terrorist during the Green Scare became an imaginal container into which the body of any state enemy could forced; like witch in the period of Capitalist expansion, any threatening behavior, belief, or dissent was enough to call for a hunt. And despite her laughable effort to warn against the pogroms of the Satanic Panic, Alex Mar has given Authority more than enough sensationalised detail to trigger something even worse.
She may eventually even find she has blood on her hands; then again, this is what she admits in the book she wanted, what she asked Santa Muerte for:
In the spirit of things, I ask for an injection of ruthlessness, just enough to lose my fears and hesitation and to feel less beholden to people: an antidote to the caution that prevents success. (p. 205)
One can easily imagine the potential fallout from Alex Mar’s opportunistic and exploitative work, but what’s coming is unpredictable. At best, a rich Manhattan woman will make some money off her stolen stories and go in search of yet another exotic culture to exploit. At best, most won’t read this book, or will question the author’s depictions of those she chooses to denigrate. And, at best, this won’t happen again.
But we’ve said that before. “Never again the burning times” may need to be updated to “Never again the search for fame” or “Never again the exploitation of our stories.” There are many lessons to be learned from Witches Of America, not least that we should question our own inclination to become spiritual tourists and infiltrators into communities towards which we refuse obligation.
Worse may come, of course. Work with the dead will now be quite suspect. Evidence of possible and reported illegal activities may be investigated, smears and allegations of cult-like manipulation may ruin some people. Some people will profit greatly from the strife this will cause, some witch wars may come.
And worse still? A new witch scare. Traditions will (and probably should) go on lockdown. Certain figures may find they’ve lost trust from other Pagans, particularly those she effusively thanks in her acknowledgments—Alex Mar doesn’t let her ruthlessness end at the last chapter. But we should not fall into the trap of blaming the people she praises and thanks, nor of blaming the people she uses. To do so would be to miss the real exploitation here, much like blaming the single mother for her poverty.
And either way, we’ll also see more seekers, hoping to find the wisdom we embody. Many of them may be authentic, honest. Many of them will be tourists—some opportunists, some infiltrators. All of them will be starving for magic, suffering from the damage of Capital and disenchantment, inadvertently spreading their pain like a disease. May we be ready with the cure, and gods help us all.
[disclaimer: while I have had working relationships with many of the people represented by Ms. Mar, the opinions expressed here are my own, not done at their request.]
Rhyd often lives in a city by the Salish Sea in occupied Duwamish territory. He’s a bard, theorist, anarchist, and writer, the editor of A Beautiful Resistance and co-founder of Gods&Radicals, author of Your Face Is a Forest and a columnist for The Wild Hunt. He growls when he’s thinking, laughs when he’s happy, cries when he’s sad, and does all those things when he’s in love.
He worships Welsh gods, drinks a lot of tea, and dreams of forests, revolution, and men.
His words can be found at Paganarch.com and can be supported on Patreon.com/Paganarch