Neo-Pagan Sacred Art and Altars by Sabina Magliocco

by Celia S. McClinton


If there are no ghosts, there should be . . .

Double, double, toil and trouble. Because they reject the mainstream religious paradigm and have a supposed proclivity for causing nothing but trouble, our reaction to witches has been to burn them alive or drown them –- and that for want of more excruciating and original forms of torture. Romantics, however, re-evaluated witchcraft along with noble savages and surly peasants, and now neo-pagans, as witches and wizards are increasingly called, are at least marginally reputable. Neo-paganism has become a cute type of nonconformity and not just in California either. The woods of western North Carolina have more witches than squirrels.

Since they are a distinctive, moderately well organized group, neo-pagans have attracted the scholarly attention of anthropologists and other social scientists who insist on making a scientific problem of our private lives. Magliocco, in this book elucidating neo-pagan material culture, brings to the topic the perspective of the folklorist. Her credentials are superlative.

cover art

Neo-pagan Sacred Art and Altars

Sabina MaglioccoUniversity Press of Mississippi

(by Sabina MaglioccoUniversity Press of Mississippi)

Her little book, and it really is little, consists of two extended essays. One is concerned with the altar and the tools of worship. The other examines the costumes associated with neo-pagan worship and daily life.

Magliocco presents the altar as the place where the physical world meets something more abstract to negotiate a form of accommodation. She distinguishes between the ‘working altar’, the product of private imagination sequestered somewhere in a residence, and ‘the communal altar’. Both house the tools of worship, but the working altar, of course, allows great individual expression. If the witch identifies with frogs, the working altar might reflect this and be jammed with frog images. The communal altar reflects the coven’s interests, peculiarities, and its collective creativity. In considering costumes, Magliocco reviews the symbolism and purpose of a variety of regalia: jewelry, ritual dress, masks and body modification, which means mostly tattoos. This last is most interesting, since the influence of neo-pagans on the current fad for tattoos, particularly among college co-eds, is obvious if inadequately documented.

Magliocco supplements her text with numerous black and white photographs and drawings and 25 beautiful color plates. The notes are infrequent but helpful, and a solidly academic bibliography will guide the reader into deeper study and understanding without necessarily proselytizing. My only complaint about the book is that the text is based on very few observations and these mostly from California. One wonders if neo-pagan material in North Carolina, for example, is approximately the same or radically different from that presented by Magliocco. We may have to keep wondering for awhile. One can’t imagine that there are a lot of big grants available for the comparative regional studies of neo-pagan practices and material culture. Magliocco had to start somewhere, and California is where Magliocco is.

Magliocco introduces both chapters with theoretical generalizations that make this book more than just a museum catalog. For those new to the study of neo-paganism, Magliocco provides a wonderful introductory chapter that briefly summarizes the history and theology (or thealogy as they prefer it) of neo-paganism.

Briefly, neo-paganism, which places emphasis on the feminine, attempts to heal the chasm arising from science and rampant consumerism that now divides humankind and nature and the genders from each other. It seeks a cure for the most serious of modern ailments, alienation. In doing so, it rejects much of the positivist paradigm and provides a rollicking insult to most conventional religion. At the heart of the matter is the individual’s quest for a symbiotic accommodation with nature and, through that, some ability to influence the events in the immediate environment if only by learning to live with them. Call that magic, if you will. These ideas are more than incidentally interesting and attractive. In a world where sterile objectivity has become the ideal, most of us long for a little magic, or at least the right to think and act like there might be a little magic. There are no ghosts, but, by golly, there should be.

Scholars explain the origins of neo-paganism as residing in the romantic’s re-evaluation of reality, an observation that itself belittles and demeans neo-pagans. With or without the approval of romanticism, the neo-pagan’s witchcraft and magic either exists or it doesn’t. Though I am not one, at least that I know of, I much prefer a world with some room for witches and magic, a world that at least considers the possibility of accommodation with mysterious forces of nature that science can never reveal. That said, Magliocco and other students of western neo-paganism would do well to remind themselves that much of the world still lives with forms of witchcraft that are deadly serious. Far from being the gentle worldview presented in the West, witchcraft in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, embraces a hierarchy of practices from simple herbalism to the hideously demonic. White magic is state- regulated while the darker side is not to be fiddled with. Those who cross the line still do a lot of actual damage, and they incur official or informal wrath of the most horrid sort.

Finally, this book is probably not suitable for the run-of-the-mill reader looking for an alternative to Ed McBain’s most recent crime-stopper. It is, after all, a scholarly book intended for a serious audience with interest ranging from neo-paganisms through the various branches of the social science and humanities concerned with pop culture.

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