Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America
By Sabina Magliocco
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004
Witching Culture is the first ethnography that looks specifically at the roles of anthropology and folklore in Neo-Paganism and revival Witchcraft, from historical roots to modern ritual creation and cultural politics.
An established anthropologist, Magliocco first become interested in Neo-Paganism in the mid-1990s when she started studying the use of folklore and cultural appropriation in Neo-Pagan ritual. While participating in a Reclaiming ritual during the course of her research, she had an extraordinary experience, one that changed both herself and the course of her research. She eventually underwent initiation in a Gardnerian Coven, as well as undertaking training in the Reclaiming tradition of Witchcraft.
In Witching Culture, Magliocco asserts that “Neo-Paganism represents the most important folk revival movement since the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s” (Magliocco, p7), and proceeds to examine the Neo-Pagan movement in North America from the perspective of both a folklorist and anthropologist. She also examines the cultural mixing of spirituality and belief in American Neo-Paganism, as well as her own observation and theory that religious ecstasy is the key uniting experience of American Neo-Pagans.
To do so draws upon her own extensive participation in Neo-Pagan culture, primarily in the San Francisco Bay area, the narratives and experiences of others, as well as the works of other established scholars of the Neo-Pagan movement. She also makes wide use of non-Neo-Pagan-specific anthropological literature pertaining to religion, ritual, construction of identities, culture, and folklore.
Magliocco is careful to define her use of terms and labels throughout the book. In doing so, she introduces readers to the term ‘Witchen,’ an adjectival form of ‘Witch’ commonly used among San Francisco Bay-area Pagans to describe those practising traditions of Witchcraft as opposed to Druidism, Norse Paganism, etc.
Witching Culture is one of the best-written and most-comprehensible academic books on Neo-Paganism that I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a long time. Magliocco provides a wonderful mix of personal narratives and academic thought, often seamlessly weaving the two together without losing academic credibility. Her first chapter on the study of folklore and reclamation of Paganism should be, in my opinion, a must-read for any serious student of Neo-Paganism, as should be the second chapter on Pagan community.
© 2005 . This review originally appeared in the Imbolc 2005 issue of WynterGreene.