The Labyrinth of the Heart
Witchcraft and the Otherworld: an anthropology.
2000. Pb ISBN 1 85973 450 2.
For double the vision my eyes do
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.
Water 73, Winter 2000
© Daniel Cohen
The Labyrinth of the Heart