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Persuasions of the Witch's Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England

by T. M. Luhrmann

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Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England
T. M. Luhrmann
Harvard UP, Cambridge MA, 1989
382p, index, bibliog.

It has been almost twenty five years since Dr. Luhrmann did the research on which her dissertation and this published version of it were based. It seems time to examine how well the work has held up; is it still worth reading or is it merely a historical curiosity?

The first thing to note is that the title is inaccurate and was probably chosen by the publisher to attract more readers. Although Luhrmann meets and interacts with Witches (note: as a Witch, I choose to capitalize the term when it refers to the religion, though Luhrmann does not), the majority of her time appears to have been spent with a variety of organizations within the Western Mystery tradition. She examines groups of four types: Witchcraft, ad hoc ritual magic, Western Mysteries and non-initiated paganism. The research she did in the London area was the subject of her doctoral dissertation in anthropology. Her research focus was on the question of how “ordinary, well-educated, usually middle-class people . . . not psychotically deluded, and . . . not driven to practice by socio-economic desperation” can come to believe in the importance and efficacy of magic, given that the surrounding culture rejects such beliefs. Luhrmann’s answer is that magicians learn to interpret their experiences in ways that confirm the expectations that they have been taught in books, classes and meetings. Further, she believes that as the activities of magic become more important to an individual they are moved to rationalize their involvement with a number of mutually reinforcing ideas about the importance of magic as a metaphor, a symbolic system, a method of psychological self-help and as true within a relativist world view that challenges concepts of one objective truth. A study similar to Luhrmann’s could be done on a variety of belief systems that make truth claims. For instance, I imagined as I reread the book that thought processes similar to those she described could be attributed to a new student of Freudian analysis, a new police trainee, or a person encountering radical politics. In fact, Luhrmann has subsequently done research within the communities of psychiatry and of evangelical Christianity.

Another factor in evaluations of this work is that the chapters which contain her conclusions and theoretical framework are not particularly accessible to a non-academic audience. She cites a number of anthropological works that are unlikely to be familiar to a lay audience and uses a professional vocabulary that verges, at points, on jargon. Philosophical discussion of the nature of belief may be pertinent to Luhrmann’s thesis, but it is conducted in vocabulary unfamiliar to the average reader.

Luhrmann makes clear that she believes that the question of whether magical claims are objectively true is irrelevant to her study. Nevertheless, I am struck by how few truth claims she actually cites. It is hard to believe that she spent over a year embedded in the magic using community without encountering a magical cure, a job obtained against odds, a clearly predictive dream, or the like. The entry “magic, experience of” in the index points to one woman’s experience of seeing a landscape as if the air were filled with golden specks. It seems disingenuous for the author to imply that a growing belief in magic is nourished only by subjective experiences; psychological states; a growing acceptance of the beauty of myth and ritual; and interpretive drift. This too may account in part for the Pagan community’s reception of the book. If the people she worked with did tell her of magic that worked they may be understandably upset that she writes as though she has established that their beliefs and practices are merely mental exercises. “Humph, doesn’t she remember that G’s cancer never came back, isn’t that evidence?” they may be thinking.

Serious students of magic will probably want to read this work, if only to be able to respond intelligently to the type of claims it makes. It is not, however, a guide to practice, or a history of the movement. Much has changed in the community since it was written, most notably the growth of the internet, which has materially altered the ways in which people enter and become part of the magical community. In addition, it is doubtful that any community in the United States or other nations provides quite the breadth of opportunity in terms of numbers, kinds and endurance of groups as did London at the time of Luhrmann’s study. I might also add that a new community of practicing magicians that I have observed in the blogosphere seem much less reticent about claiming practical and verifiable results for their magical work. I’m not sure how Luhrmann would respond to a magician who asserts that the insurance check after his house burned was in the exact amount he had requested from a Geodic demon that had been serving him by producing smaller sums when ordered in appropriate rituals. ( )
  ritaer | Jul 29, 2012 |
The author's PhD thesis - and very interesting on a number of levels.
First of all, there is the content - magic users in England at the time.
Secondly, there are the ethical issues involved - they are touched on in the work, but I'd be interested to read the full thesis.
Thirdly, there is what I have heard referred to as the "Lurhman effect" still floating around in this country. See Hutton, King Arthur, in which he discusses this....
  tole_lege | Dec 23, 2005 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0674663241, Paperback)

To find out why reasonable people are drawn to the seemingly bizarre practices of magic and witchcraft, Luhrmann immersed herself in the arcane world of Londoners who call themselves magicians. Her report is as fascinating as the esoteric world itself.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:36:35 -0400)

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