This assembly of structures has been the single-minded project of the last few years, the excavation with tractor and borrowed earthmover , then erection with bare hands and pulleys and the occasional blowtorch of a peculiar architecture. All this for Morpheus, priestess. Stone City is her place to practice witchcraft safely, and to gather people together for ritual and to build fires and drink and sing and when the spirit strikes have sex somewhere in the wilderness, where the bones of wild pigs are scattered.
I may not know it now, but my relationship with Morpheus will go beyond the making of a film, deepen and grow more complicated she'll prove a lot more formidable than the blithe, skinny redhead who served me dinner. And through our relationship I will realize that this hidden dimension of myself, this curiosity about the outer edges of belief, is not something from which I can recover.
Because I envy them, the believers. They have guidance; they have clarity; their days have structure and meaning. And, quietly, for a long time, I've coveted these things — after all, they're what most of us want badly, regardless of whether we consider ourselves lapsed Catholics or born-agains or strident atheists. Morpheus has perfect conviction in a world that I do not understand, and I feel compelled to step inside her belief. When I put my work aside, I have to admit that I am searching — hopefully, and with great reservation — for proof of something larger, whatever its name.
I have a closer connection to the occult than I'd first recognized. Before my immersion, my ideas about witchcraft had come from obvious sources. Halloween brought witches flying on broomsticks. The Wizard of Oz taught me that there are "good" witches pretty blondes and "bad" witches green-skinned brunettes. History class, and a school production of The Crucible, sparked a macabre fascination with the seventeenth-century witch trials. But as I began visiting with priestesses and covens around the country, memories rose to the surface, and I learned that my impressions are also rooted in my family.
Like many Americans, I'm of a mess of backgrounds. When he was ten years old, my father emigrated from Crete, the ancient seat of some of the very gods that Christianity sought to snuff out — from the Mycenaeans' Zeus and Hephaestus to the bare-breasted, snake-wielding Minoan goddess. For me, as an American-born child, the church of my father's parents, even after centuries of Greek Orthodox Christianity, was still evocative of another world: the long black overcassock, the wizard's beard, and the imposing kamilavka of the priests; the palpably foreign, musky scent of the clouds of incense the altar boys would shake from censers as they trailed down the aisle; the Byzantine angles of the saints' heads, not in round, fleshy tones but flat, gold, abstract.
As for my mother, her family had moved from northern Spain to Cuba generations ago, and her Latin brand of Catholicism took on a fantastic quality. We lit candles in memory of family members, trying to lure their presence into the house through photographs, votives, trinkets they used to own. I imagined the incredible quiet of cathedrals we'd visit, and the shadowy chapels contained within, to be full of hidden information. The symbolism in paintings of the saints remained bizarre and enigmatic, often with more than a hint of violence — the martyred St. Ursula bleeding from the neck, gripping the arrow that shot her dead; St.
Agatha carrying her dismembered breasts on a plate — and my younger self was a little terrified that communion involved the chance to eat the body and drink the blood of Christ. Beyond that, the women in my mother's family were not immune to the notion of communications from the other side — true for quite a few Latin Catholic women. So my religious upbringing, though two flavors of Christian, was defined less by discipline and self-denial than by proximity to mystery. My mother would tell me of how, in her town of Gibara, on the far eastern end of Cuba, a neighbor who'd given a dirty look to a brujo on the street awoke to find a dead rooster on her doorstep.
She sighed, and in a practical, good-humored tone told me, "Look, you can do what you want, Alexa, but here's what you should do: you should stop playing with that stuff, go to a Catholic church, and get some holy water. You bless yourself and sprinkle it on those drawings. And then you throw them out. My mother wasn't condemning all of Vodou practice; she was simply unimpressed with my amateur-hour dabbling in potentially serious spiritual business.
So what did I do, a young woman getting a degree at Harvard in a department rife with the very "cultural relativists" my mother had sneered at? I did what I was told: I got hold of some holy water at the nearest church and followed her instructions. Better to be safe than risk awakening something unfriendly. This idea — that spirits, good and bad, linger nearby, ready to intervene — has been handed down by the women on my mother's side.
Two stories, told and retold quietly over the years, illustrate this best. I was about nine years old when my mother first shared with me the story of her best friend's murder. They'd grown up together in Cuba, she and Mireya, but separated when my mother was sent far north, to a Catholic boarding school in Maine. The pair stayed in touch by writing letters every few weeks, my mother sharing the shock of her first snow and the travesty of American foods like peanut butter and sweet New England beans.
After about a year, the letters stopped, as happens with long-distance friendships. Then, one night, my mother had a dream: Mireya was walking toward her, slowly, as if to give her a message. Suddenly a young man appeared and stepped between them — and, just as suddenly, he plunged a knife into Mireya's chest my mother felt as if she had been stabbed. Several months later, my mother returned home for a visit and saw an old friend at a party. Hadn't she heard? Mireya had been killed by a boyfriend. My mother did the math: the murder had taken place just days before her dream.
The dream had served, in a way, as Mireya's final letter. Fast-forward a generation, to right after I'd left home for college.
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My mother's aunt Norma, perhaps the most no-nonsense woman in the family line, rang her up. There's something wrong in your house. But there was nothing wrong. My parents, recently retired, were preparing for a long vacation, an entire month in the South of France, leaving in a week's time. Since she had a checkup scheduled, my mother went in for her doctor's appointment and, that image of my grandmother fresh in her mind, asked for her annual mammogram early.
The US witch population has seen an astronomical rise
She was quickly diagnosed with cancer that, had it been detected two or three weeks later, could have turned deadly. It seemed possible that maybe, just maybe, a spirit had reached across on her behalf. None of us would claim that there are hard, verifiable facts in these stories — I can't emphasize enough how little patience my mother has for what she calls the "hippie-dippie.
So is this witchy stuff or mere coincidence? Like her writing, Mar aches and stretches and yearns: she wants witchcraft to work for her—the way we all, at various points in our lives, want something seemingly fantastic to be true—and in reading her book, I wanted it for her, too. Ultimately, though, Witches of America is about the search for meaning, not its findings.
Witchcraft in America – Legends of America
Fortunately, Mar's is a deeply compelling one. Provide[s] illuminating answers about what witchcraft in America means" — Huffington Post. But not the silly pointy hat witches—the actual, practicing Pagans. Mar spent five years researching the practice of this very real religion, which has over one million practitioners today. This is an account of the history of Paganism, its rituals, and practitioners, told without condescension or historical bias and rumor.
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Mar provides a sensitive, probing, and nuanced look at those who identify as pagan. As you read Witches of America. Witches, priests and priestesses, and even a necromancer receive a sympathetic, humanizing treatment as Mar encourages empathy for the "outer edges" of society. Mar writes with clarity and candor, provides ample background information, and is neither preachy nor cheesy. She presents all her subjects as interesting individuals. Whatever one's spiritual inclinations, Mar's search for "something transcendent" is bewitching. An enchanting and addictive report shedding much-needed light on a spiritualistic community obfuscated by historical misinterpretation and pop-culture derision.
I would never have described myself as someone 'interested in witchcraft'—Alex Mar's book left me feeling the fault had been mine. With the depth and scope of her curiosity, Alex Mar compelled me to follow her driving questions—about meaning, faith, and longing for community and wonder—on a breathless, deepening, and constantly surprising quest.
But what Alex Mar has actually achieved is something altogether more haunting.