Review Of Persuasions Of The Witch Craft Ritual Magick In Contemporary England

Review Of Persuasions Of The Witch Craft Ritual Magick In Contemporary England Cover
Reviewed by Robert E. McGrath

This book is an ethnography of a sub-culture of contemporary England -- magicians. Following the traditional anthropological method of participant observation, the author joined several groups practicing "real" ritual magic in England in the 1980s. The observations collected over some fourteen months led to a doctoral dissertation for the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, and to this book. The result is a thoughtful, questioning, skeptical, and unusually well-informed examination of one contemporary group of believers in the "irrational".

The main theme is "Why do people find magic persuasive?" (p. 8) Luhrmann does not "believe" in magic, and argues that most of the magicians studied did not "believe" in magic at first. But through time the magicians became convinced of the effectiveness and validity of magic. This is all the more remarkable because:

Magicians are ordinary, well-educated, usually middle-class people. They are not psychotically deluded, and they are not driven to practise by socioeconomic desperation. By some process, when they get involved with magic -- whatever the reasons that sparked their
interest -- they learn to find it eminently sensible. (p. 7)

What are these ordinary folks doing, and how did they come to believe in it?

The magical beliefs in question are themselves difficult to rationally define. The groups studied can be characterized as following various flavors of "neo-paganism" or "witchcraft". The common thread among the disparate individuals and groups is the actual
practice and belief in ritual magic. For this reason, Luhrmann refers to them collectively as "magicians" (specifically not meaning "conjurers" like James Randi and Uri Geller).

The magicians practice a wide variety of rituals using an extremely eclectic set of ideas and symbols. However, all share the core concepts: that mind affects matter, and that in special circumstances, like ritual, the trained imagination can alter the physical world. (p. 7) Besides ritual, the magicians also share a core technology: meditation, training in visualization, the development and skilled manipulation of complex symbol systems. Magicians also seem to share similar experiences with and feelings toward the practice of ritual magic.

One of Luhrmann's important findings is the actual effectiveness of the magical technology. As part of the investigation, the author studied the correspondence courses and participated in other forms of training commonly given to recruits for these groups. Luhrmann
describes the exercises in meditation, guided visualization, "path working" (a structured exercise in visualization, often done in groups), training in various occult symbologies and in how to "perceive" relations between symbols and between events and symbols.

Through the use of the magician-s training practices the author was not only able to learn a lot of jargon and theory, but was actually able to experience some very real psychological effects. Luhrmann describes experiencing some rather unusual subjective states, such as very real visual hallucinations. The author also developed a facility in vivid, controlled visual imagery, for seeing "connections" between events, and an increase in highly symbol laden dreams. These kinds of subjective experiences are widely reported and are often considered mystical or spiritual experiences by the person. Naturally, when these subjective experiences occur, magicians tend to take them as evidence of the "reality" and power of magic. It is interesting to read, though, of the deliberate use of these apparently effective techniques for increasing the frequency and intensity of such experiences.

A second key finding is that, for these magicians, belief follows action rather than producing action. Magicians begin to study and participate in magic for many reasons, usually not because they believe it "works". As they become more involved, they begin to develop facility with the jargon and symbol sets, and the practice becomes important to them. Eventually, many become convinced that magic is "real" and "really works". Luhrmann calls this "interpretive drift," and relates it to the process by which people become a specialist in any field:

Modern magicians are interesting because they are a flamboyant example of a very common process: that when people get involved in an activity they develop ways of interpreting which make that activity meaningful even though it may seem foolish to the uninvolved. (p. 7)

It is, Luhrmann says, "what happens as an undergraduate turns into a lawyer." (p. 7)

The reasons for this shift to belief are not clear. The experience of one or more unusual, subjective, "mystical," events can be very convincing. The practice of ritual magic may also have some very real therapeutic or psychological value to some participants. And one should not forget the sheer fascination of manipulating complex symbol systems, and the feeling of control which that may give. That, after all, is one of the fun things about becoming a scientist! For whatever reasons, as the practice of ritual becomes important to the magician, the "belief" grows.

When questioned by a skeptical outsider, the convinced magician may deploy many arguments in defense of the belief. In the section entitled "Justifying to the sceptics", Luhrmann describes these arguments:

There seem to be four primary rationalizations of magical claims themselves, four different ways of intellectualizing the idea that rituals produce results. I call these approaches realist, two worlds, relativist, and metaphorical. The realist position says
that the magician-s claims are of the same status as those of Tscience-; the two worlds position says that they are true, but cannot be evaluated by rational means; the relativist position says that it is impossible even to ask questions about their Tobjective-
status; and the metaphorical position asserts that the claims themselves are objectively false but valid as myth. (pp. 283-284)

These arguments are probably familiar to readers of Skeptical Inquirer, but Luhrmann's careful dissection of them might be useful reading for skeptics.

An important point to note, however, is that these arguments are more in the nature of rationalizations than real reasons for the activity. Luhrmann says that, although magicians practice magic for many and varied reasons, they believe in magic because they practice it. This idea is put in perspective in a scholarly discussion of the nature of belief, commitment, and irrationality. Some of the argument here is probably accessible only to a professional social theorist, which I am not.

Besides the admittedly academic content, this book contains a wealth of detail about contemporary magical practice in England. Among other information, Luhrmann gives the reader descriptions of rituals and their "meaning", a "Who's who" of magicians in the London area, a description of some aspects of the social organization of magicians and a bibliography of "what witches read". Most importantly, I think, this book provides a shining example of rational inquiry: a well-informed, skeptical, and yet gently sympathetic examination of a very human behavior. Despite the unrelenting critical evaluation, you will not find a harsh word about the magicians in this entire book.

Skeptics might note the reality and power of the technology used by magicians. There appear to be real and powerful psychological forces at play that are little understood and little studied. If, as Luhrmann suggests, the frequency and intensity of these interesting (and compelling) subjective experiences can be increased by training, this claim deserves serious psychological investigation.

If Luhrmann is correct in the description of "interpretive drift", and that belief follows practice, then it is clear that rational argument is not likely to sway the believer in this type of irrationality. If the real rationale for magical practice is the practice itself, no amount of argument, no demolition of the rationalizations offered will change the practitioner's personal commitment to magic. This, perhaps, explains some of the frustration a skeptic may feel when attempting to debunk some kinds of deeply held, but not clearly justified, beliefs.

If, indeed, belief follows practice there is a lesson for teachers of scientific and critical thinking: get people to do it, and to enjoy doing it, and they will come to value and believe in it. Watching science on television or reading about it in a magazine will never convince as well as actually doing science and having fun doing it. Critical thinking cannot be a spectator sport, everyone has to play it themselves. Make skepticism fun and cool, and it will flourish.

Also read this ebooks:

Justin Winsor - The Literature Of Witchcraft In New England
John Ferguson - Bibliographical Notes On The Witchcraft Literature Of Scotland
Douglas Ezzy - Practising The Witchs Craft Real Magic Under A Southern Sky

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