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. 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...
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