Musings on Witches of America by Alex Mar

Cover of Witches of America by Alex Mar

I’ve been going down a long rabbit hole of magic and witchcraft related content these past two months as I get back into the swing of being religious and actually practicing said religion. As I was scrolling through the sparse offerings of my library, I stumbled on this book by Alex Mar. Witches of America is an in-depth, anthropological and biographical look at witchcraft and mystery religions in America. Mar travels across America to see what she can learn from different segments of paganism and witchcraft, searching for her own brand of spirituality. She winds up getting involved with a lot of really interesting religions that make a point of only revealing the inner-working of their craft to initiates. Which got me thinking: how have mystery religions — those religions that require initiation before secrets are revealed — adapted to the modern world of social media and the general public nature of social interaction now?

It’s an interesting concept to think about. Back when these traditions were just getting their foothold in America, back in the 40s and 70s, the internet didn’t exist and it was much easier to maintain a semblance of secrecy and mysticism when initiates actually had to learn from their teachers face-to-face. But as the years progressed, publications and publishers came together to bring some of the teachings of these religions to a wider audience of America and beyond. With books, forums, message boards, online classes, and social media, I’m wondering how mystery religions now-a-days hold onto their sense of mystery.

Alex Mar makes an effort to involve herself in very secretive religions and practices like the OTO and Feri Wicca, both require initiation before the inner secrets of the religions are revealed. Mar doesn’t reveal these specific secrets like sacred names and the like, but she does talk extensively of their practices and the training she goes through to reach the inner folds of some of these religions. It was really interesting to learn about many of these different pagan practices, some of which I either haven’t heard of or had only the vaguest understanding of. But I still wonder how much is too much to reveal.

Back in the beginning days of Wicca, it’s my understanding that there was a significant amount of backlash within the pagan community when authors started publishing comprehensive books about the religion. There was a very clear way of learning back then: prospective practitioners would seek out a teacher and learn directly from them and then be initiated into a coven or group. Some of these groups had distinct degrees you’d progress that involved much more study and secrecy, but eventually with enough time that person could become a priest or priestess themselves and go off and start their own coven.

It could have been the start of the idea of solitary practitioners that started this kind of openness to talking about the inner workings of pagan religions. Scott Cunningham certainly started a movement when he published his guide for the solitary practitioner, something that had never before been published. It opened up a whole new world for paganism and Wicca, drawing more people into the religion as information became more readily available and easier to access and practice. The barrier to entry was pretty much dropped and you didn’t have to be initiated into a coven or group anymore to practice. Overtime the idea of the “buffet style” religious movement took hold where New Age religions would pick and choose from a variety of beliefs and mold it into a new kind of religion or movement. (Though you could argue that that was also how Wicca was formed). 

The advent of the internet created an even more open environment for pagans to come together and meet other people like themselves, share ideas, spells, and beliefs. Was it around this time when practitioners began opening up more about their religions? Did people just start throwing their hands up in the air in defeat after book after book of pagan religions began to be published with detailed rituals and witchcraft? I’m not sure but I definitely see it as a double-edged sword in a way.

The openness to talk about and reveal a part of pagan religions has allowed them to become more and more understood, to begin distancing themselves from the “devil worship” connotation. Paganism and New Age practices are becoming more and more accepted in the modern era in part because of this openness to talking about them. “Coming out of the Broom Closet” so to speak has helped neo-pagan beliefs quite a bit. Though many people may think they’re still strange, I doubt they connect them to sacrificing babies anymore.

But when we’re so open to others over the internet and in real life about these religions, do they still get to be called mystery religions? I may just be splitting hairs right now, but It’s an interesting thing to think about: what kind of line do we have to tread when it comes to revealing information about our religions and the inner workings of our practices? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

~~Thanks for Reading!~~

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