Practical Magic: Taking “Witches, Magic, and Demons” Seriously

By Steve Molvarec, SJ

Steve Molvarec reflects on teaching an undergraduate reading seminar on “Witches, Magic, and Demons” in Fall 2017. In the end of the year evaluation of the course, students called it “an amazing adventure,” “exactly what I expect from a capstone course in the history department,” and “enthralling and fascinating and eloquently presented.”

All last semester colleagues, other Jesuits, and even some students would ask me: “How’s that ‘Defense against the Dark Arts’ course going?”  One Jesuit I live with was “convinced” that I was beginning a coven.  Teaching a course on magic and witchcraft is sometimes hazardous—at least to one’s reputation.  I tried to prevent some of this: on the first day that “Witches, Magic, and Demons” (a history department seminar) met for class, I explained to my students: “This course is not a practicum in magic.  It is a consideration of neglected strands of the Western intellectual and religious tradition—things that have often been understudied or ignored by scholars.  The people we’ll be reading and reading about have different worldviews and sets of experiences than we do. We don’t have to believe what they did.  We don’t have to experience what they did.  We will, however, respect their worldviews and beliefs.”

This made for some interesting intellectual navigation throughout the course.  I had to find ways to encourage students to check their biases, to encounter the authors we were studying.  Historians always have to do this while teaching.  In this case, however, there were some challenges that stemmed largely from the scientific perspective inherent in our worldview, a post-Enlightenment emptying of the spiritual and supernatural from our cosmos.  Students would sometimes ask during class if some experience that they were reading about (for instance, ceremonies that are said to allow conversation with one’s guardian angel) was “real.”  And while I assured them that our authors believed so, I would dodge questions as to the reality of magical or supernatural phenomenon.  Still, I would often edit the texts I gave them, especially ones that had practical aspects.  This was to make them unusable.  Students would tease me and say: “Why are there these red bars across parts of this diagram or magic circle?”

And people at Marquette not in the course would write me or find me to ask questions about demons, exorcism, magic, spirits, occultism, etc.  All of this was actually fascinating—to observe the ways that this interested people.  It was also interesting to put what my students expected they would be learning about next to what they were actually learning about. I was very interested in the experiences our authors were having, students were having, and various inquirers were having.  I even told my students that some of the texts we were reading together were designed to alter consciousness and so they shouldn’t be surprised if they began having dreams or nightmares.  And sometimes they did.

In an attempt to understand the experience of practicing ritual magicians while I was preparing the course during the summer, I began visiting some private libraries, archives, and repositories.  I was especially interested in the various 19th century magical and occult brotherhoods and societies.  From my perspective, these were a kind of culmination: they borrowed, stole, found, invented, and misunderstood all kinds of occult and esoteric texts from Antiquity and the Middle Ages.  And when these groups imploded in the early twentieth century, their materials became the seeds for the New Age, modern Satanism, various occult movements—all aspects of our own age that often receive only peripheral attention.  All of this borrowing, inventing, “finding,” creating, imploding, and transmitting were the dynamics that would be featured in my course. Students were often surprised and fascinated by the persons who were involved in such things:  W.B. Yeats, Florence Farr, Alan Moore, Jimmy Page, Grant Morrison, Prince Charles.

So I began tracking down artifacts from some of these groups.  I found the expected manuscripts with diagrams and accounts of ceremonies.  I found manuscripts and documents discussing theories of magic.  And I began finding objects that practitioners had made for various purposes: wands, swords, medallions, disks, chalices, models of ritual chambers.  These were fascinating:  texts are important, but holding objects that some of the authors my students would be reading had made and used was something else.  This was, well, cool.  Or hype. Or whatever people say these days.  I was sometimes allowed to photograph them for use in my course.  I wanted to bring as much of the experience of our authors as I could into the course.  A few of my students ended up working with some of these, especially an unpublished manuscript of a play from the late 19th century by a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn.

As I worked in such libraries, my attention was constantly called to how much was still hidden, how much was secret, what people had not written down, how many artifacts and documents had been lost or destroyed.  The history of magic is truly a history of silence and secrecy, a history of hiding.  Sometimes this was because of persecution (the practice of some forms of magic, after all, has been illegal in various times and places) or fear of what one’s neighbors might think. Sometimes there was secrecy because, as I concluded, being in the know can be a sort of drug for some people.  Occult groups flourished in the 19th century perhaps because of this.

13599_atlantis1Secrecy and hiding, however, make it difficult to look at the experience of groups of people.  I found that each time I was looking at documents or artifacts, a librarian or a curator would say to me: “Have you been to X library?” Or “Do you know Ms. Y?” Eventually, I found myself at Atlantis Books in London. Atlantis is a quiet, unassuming bookshop a few blocks from the British Museum. Despite its unassuming appearance (I had difficulty finding it the first time), it is perhaps one of the most important occult sites in London.  The bookshop has been on that site and in business since the early twentieth century and visitors to it read like a “Who’s Who” of twentieth century occultism.  I walked in out of curiosity.  And discovered that there was IMG_3006a collection of magical wands, swords, paintings, etc. on the back wall created by people I had been reading about.  So I asked the proprietor whether I could photograph them.  She said I could.  And I then struck up a conversation with Geraldine and explained why I had dropped in.  And we chatted for a few hours on a couple of occasions about all kinds of things.  It turned out that her family had been involved in various groups in the city of London and that her father had known Gerald Gardner, the father of modern IMG_6298 2Wicca.  She herself was active in such circles.  I asked if she would consider skyping into one of my class meetings when my students were reading about Wicca.  She agreed.

My students had been reading portions of Gardner’s High Magic’s Aid (1949).  And some scholarly articles on modern Wicca and its practices.  Sometimes they thought the texts were dull, but they came to class excited the day that Geraldine was skyping in.  In so many ways, often the course was not what they expected and that class session was no exception.  Geraldine is a woman in her 50s with purple hair.  She’s grandmotherly and English with a witty sense of humor.  Direct and open.  She was not at all what my students expected of a woman involved with Wicca and the esoteric.  And some of what they learned from her—about her experience as a practitioner and the historic figures that she and her father had known—was unexpected, too.  One student asked her about her first experiences of magic.  She replied, “My first experiences of magic were going to the movies as a child. I found that I was transported to another world.  Or taking penicillin to get well from an infection.”  As you might imagine, this was entirely unexpected–even by me, despite my various conversations with Geraldine and our correspondence.  Students were fascinated too by her matter-of-factness and the way that she considered her practices to be simply part of the fabric of her life, a “lifestyle” she said.  They asked her for an example. “I have rice every Monday,” she said, “because it’s white and Monday is the day of the moon.”  They asked her about various occult figures who had been in her shop or who figured prominently in certain groups and oral traditions.  She told them what she thought of Aleister Crowley—a prominent dark magician in the first half of the twentieth century, whose influence is still found in bands like Tool and the Beatles, groups like Scientology, and various artists and intellectuals, like Timothy Leary.

IMG_4396I had my students write briefly what they had learned after our chat with Geraldine, how it helped them understand the themes of the course and our discussions.  Here’s what one of them wrote: “… One being her opinion on secrecy, which I found to be very interesting. Many of our questions and struggles in class revolve around the fact that we do not know everything about these orders. Or about their practices and most importantly their experiences they often do not even write down. Instead of secrecy, Geraldine said discrete rather than secretive, which has a completely different meaning. One is much humbler less elitist in nature, where they don’t push people away or seek to be left alone but rather simply don’t want to push their thoughts on others or disturb people.”  In many ways, learning about Geraldine’s family history, as well as her own, helped my students to look more deeply at the experience of work with magic and secret orders.  The stories she told them are ones that give voice to lived experiences, ones like those of the dead authors they had been reading all semester.

Dr. Steve Molvarec, SJ, received his PhD in medieval history from the University of Notre Dame.  He is completing the second of a three-year Regency at Marquette, which is part of his training in the Society of Jesus.

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