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Magic, Witchcraft and the Otherworld: an anthropology.
Susan Greenwood.
Berg 2000. Pb ISBN 1 85973 450 2.

                                For double the vision my eyes do see,
                                And a double vision is always with me.
                                … … May God me keep
                                From single vision and Newton’s sleep. (William Blake)

Anthropologists usually study cultures from the outside, claiming that this gives them a distance essential for scientific work. Against this it can be argued that one cannot understand cultural meanings if one is not fully participating. Tanya Luhrmann, in Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft, followed the traditional approach in her study of magic and the occult in Great Britain. Susan Greenwood takes the braver course of maintaining a creative tension between studying from the outside and participating from the inside. Her account includes reports of her own experiences and feelings as a student of high magic and of Wicca and feminist witchcraft, and also her later reflections on these, as well as accounts of her discussion with other practitioners.

The book has its origins in a PhD thesis, and in parts is hard reading when it is addressed to anthropologists and uses their technical language. Even here, it is fascinating to observe her challenge to the profession with her claim that “[T]his deliberately participatory approach is essential to an understanding of contemporary Western magicians’ otherworlds, and as such is a valuable tool of research and should not be contrasted with ‘scientific truth’ or seen to threaten the anthropologist’s objectivity.” She uses the word ‘magician’ to denote any practitioner of magic; this usage is deliberately chosen, but will jar with many pagans. However, most of the book is of value to pagans, with its outsider-insider’s account of the otherworld.

She describes the otherworld as both inner and outer, as associated with spiritual beings, as involving a shift of consciousness, and as a time and space distinct from, but also very closely connected to, everyday reality. She gives detailed descriptive accounts, both from her own training and that of others.

Her outsider status enables her to criticise magicians in useful ways; some of her criticism would apply to mainstream religions, but we may think we have solved these problems. For instance, she remarks that witchcraft’s emphasis on Nature owes more to eighteenth century Romantic interpretations of Nature than to an engagement with the natural world. She argues that relying on the otherworld as a source of morality and ethics can, on the one hand, lead to a group consensus that is unspoken and so cannot be challenged by members, and on the other hand can bypass all connections with the wider society. She remarks that “Women are venerated in most magical practices (especially witchcraft), but it does not necessarily follow that high evaluation in the otherworld translates into equal status for women in the ordinary world. The religious aspect of worship does not equate with the changing the social world; indeed it frequently reinforces it, giving gender stereotypes romantic or even divine legitimation.”

All in all, a valuable but inexpensive book which is highly recommended.

Wood and Water 73, Winter 2000
© Daniel Cohen

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