A Look At Neo-Paganism Through Ethnography

A Look At Neo-Paganism Through Ethnography

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An Ethnography of Modern Witches

The growing practice of Neo-Paganism in America has caused many to turn their heads. The misunderstanding of the religion has caused many to equate the practitioners with the popular conception of typical "witches," that perform black magic rituals, satanic sacrifices, and engage in devil-inspired orgies. After many years, the Neo-Pagan community has cleared up many misconceptions through the showing that many of them do not engage in activities, and are rather participating in a religion, just as those would that participate in a Christian community. It's unacceptance continues, perhaps due to its non-conformity to the ideal of worshipping a Christian God. Through the use of ethnography, anthropologists and sociologists are able to present the public with a much different view than what we are bombarded with in popular media.
Sabina Magliocco, in her book Witching Culture, takes her readers into the culture of the Neo-Pagan cults in America and focus upon what it reveals about identity and belief in 21st century America. Through her careful employment of ethnographic techniques, Magliocco allows both the Neo-Pagan cult to be represented accurately, and likewise, scientifically. I argue that Magliocco's ethnographic approach is the correct way to go about this type of research involving religions.
Magliocco defines "Neo-Paganism" as others have before her as "a movement of new religions that attempt to revive, revitalize, and experiment with aspects of pre-Christian polytheism" (Magliocco 4). She continues to tell us that the Neo-Pagan goal is to gain a "deeper connection with the sacred, with nature, and with community" (4). This definition does not include any acts performed in the religion that may turn off any scientific readers from the start. Instead it is a broad yet exact definition that describes the religion from a rational standpoint.
One of Magliocco's main arguments is that these Neo-Pagan cults all have roots in both anthropology and folklore in their early development. Magliocco offers a detailed historical analysis and examines influences found all the way back to classical traditions. She concludes this analysis by bringing her reader back to the contemporary and offers us insight into how both the fields of anthropology and folklore have helped shape Neo-Paganism into what it has become today. Magliocco tells us that without the folklorist's revival into the idea of witchcraft and with them clarifying ideas such as "the concept of witchcraft as a religion of peasant resistance" (46) and the idea "of witchcraft as an ancient pagan fertility cult" (47), Neo-Paganism would not have the depth it has today.

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Similarly, the study of ritual and the anthropological study of survivalism have also contributed to the religions of Neo-Paganism. Survivalism tells of the emphasis placed on "all rites as an expression of fertility and regeneration" (41).
Although this is the main idea behind her work, Magliocco also gives the readers highlights of her own ethnography into Neo-Pagan cults throughout America. Since Neo-Paganism isn't an isolated community, Magliocco's field work brought her to many different cults across America. One particular cult she focuses on, however, is a coven in Berkeley, California.
The coven in Berkeley illustrates how easy it was for Magliocco to make the transition into Neo-Pagan cults. Although she doesn't particularly state her exact method of access, one can ascertain that the mixture of the coven's members allowed the ease of entry. She says there is a mixture of "transnational, bicultural academics, and educated professionals" (12). Magliocco, who herself is a professor of anthropology, would seem to fit right in with these particular members. Also to her advantage was her extensive knowledge of folklore and mythological background, two of the main subjects that have contributed to the formation of modern Neo-Paganism.
Another method of Magliocco that one would find particularly useful in the type of extensive ethnography she undertook was that the field project not only became an academic project for her, but "a spiritual quest" (12). It's important for an ethnographer to have a connection with their subjects. If the subjects perceive the researcher as merely someone with their own academic agenda, they may become reluctant to open up to them. In particular, she decided to contrast her worldview with that of the Neo-Pagans, and was open to "experimenting with new ways of looking at things," a key to successful ethnography (12).
From this approach, Magliocco was able to take an experiential view of her subject's extraordinary experiences (i.e. altered states of consciousness and dream states). Although usually a scientifically-oriented ethnographer would stray from presenting these types of experiences, Magliocco's own way of viewing them and recording them gives them credence in their own right. In short, it allows Magliocco to take her subject's views seriously, a vital component of this type of ethnography. If the subjects see her as a threat, and a non-believer, there will be no knowledge gained through the research experience.
The way that Magliocco looks at the community (i.e. emically or etically) is also addressed
by her. She answers the question carefully and argues that she is "neither and both" an outsider and an insider (15). Her analysis contains both anthropological and Pagan perspectives at the same time. That is how she can get away with making the above statement. It is what every researcher strives for in their field studies. By taking a particular perspective, one is limiting their objectivity. Biases are then introduced, and the research becomes flawed. Although it is apparent that there is some bias to Magliocco's work with the mere nature of her profession, she does her best to eliminate it, a challenge that confronts all ethnographers. She even discusses her own bias, and makes it known.
Magliocco also doesn't rely on her own ideas and theories, but rather borrows and supports with many other ethnographer's works. In this case it's a particular strength to her ethnography because she is giving more weight and credibility to her own research. One of the most frustrating things an ethnographer would have to go through is trying to establish the credibility of their research. They need to make it known that they are merely not doing this for their own benefit, but for both the scientific community and the particular subjects they are studying. By adding in other points of reference, Magliocco gains a "backbone," if you will, to her research. Without a solid foundation, the outcomes of the research would be little or of no help to all to the target audience.
Magliocco uses a method in her field study known as the "method of compassion." In this she simply takes the belief seriously. That is, she engages rather than participates. She allows the belief to take the ritual at hand seriously. She allows the belief to allow her to be emotionally moved. In order for her to make a distinction between these types of analyses and her normal, scientific, interpretive ones she sets them apart in the book with a different font. Again Magliocco knows the limitations of this method, and how it may not be accepted by others in the scientific community, however, includes them to make her ethnogrpahy complete. After all, what would an ethnography be without experience. It's experience that makes the particular ethnography contain substance.
If I had one criticism of her ethnography it would be that sometimes the experiences that she, herself receives are distracting and take away from the ritual and experience of the other Neo-Pagans. While the compassion method she adopts bases itself upon the observer's experience in some matter, it does not mean that it should overshadow the subject's perspective and experiences. For example, in one part of her ethnography she discusses mainly her role in the a particular ritual. She talks of her dancing and uses the other participants in the ritual in a way that seemingly adds to her own experience. Perhaps this is a way to show the importance of the ritual to the individual, but it distracts the reader from the Neo-Pagan community at large and rather focuses upon the individual, in this case Magliocco herself. This is a particular ethnographic faux pas that one should try to avoid at all costs.
Another slight turn off to the readers that may need addressing is Magliocco's emphasis on Neo-Paganism as a opposing force to the dominant religions. This may be a valid point, but situating Neo-Paganism in this context gives it a rebellious type of nature that I don't believe the religion is looking for. It's natural to look for its role among power structures in ethnographic work, but placing this kind of emphasis on it when defining the goal of the movement as a "deeper connection with the sacred, nature, and community," seems slightly off base. There is though a reason for this, too. It all stems back to Magliocco's idea that Neo-Paganism emerged from both anthropological and folkloric roots. If one remembers the particular aspect stemming from folklore that "witchcraft was a religion of peasant resistance," one can see how the emphasis she places upon the opposing nature of the religion lays more credence to her overall theory. It's subtle, but effective, and requires the readers to move past the external reason for including it in her work.
If I had been doing the research myself, I would have made one change. Magliocco tells us in her introduction that in order to gain rapport and trust from her subjects, she had become initiated into a particular cult and performed a ritual designed to bring her in to the religion. It shows the particular dedication of Magliocco to actively participate, but I myself would have remained an observer. One can become too easily led into the conflicting role of researcher/friend of your subjects, and may result in misrepresenting data in the end. This also seems like a commitment
that one makes for their life. It doesn't seem to be one of those particular religions you can just walk in and out of. While I see the necessity of the action in Magliocco's case, I myself would think twice before immersing myself that deeply into the Neo-Pagan religion. It also distracts from the objectivity of the researcher, by presenting the data now from a totally emic perspective.
Overall, Magliocco's work is exemplary and contains many of the ideal methods any ethnographer would choose to employ. Her theory is backed by her fieldwork and by her levels of analyses. The result of her hard work is a comprehensive look at Neo-Paganism in America today, and tracing it from its classical roots all the way to its more modern folkloric and anthropological influences. It remains one of the most in-depth ethnographies one has performed of this particular sector of society.

Bibliography
Magliocco, Sabina. Witching Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
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