New Age thought and the de-vilification of witchcraft in America


Traditionally in the Christian West, witchcraft, paganism, vampires, and the occult were all thought to be unholy extensions of the Devil himself. In Europe, people accused of witchcraft were often burned at the stake. In colonial America, an incident in Salem Massachusetts in September of 1662 led to “nineteen men and women convicted of witchcraft” to be “carted to Gallows Hill” and hung for their crimes (umkc.edu). And yet, by the early 1980s this non-Christian approach to gaining inner power had transformed into the mind-expanding spiritual science called the New Age movement. The New Age movement de-vilified the occult in the later 20th century by incorporating other ideas into it such as Eastern mysticism, female based nature worship, Native American shamanism, and psychic phenomenon; developing the New Age movement into a doctrine of self-help practices that were both psychological as well as being rich with cultus, and symbolic behavior, paving the way for “Wicca,” the New Age word for witchcraft, to suddenly appear in the common marketplace of faiths (Albanese, 362).

The earliest roots of the New Age movement and its relation to witchcraft run deep into the ancient pre-Christian practices of nature worship, divination such as Tarot Cards, Druidism, and numerous secret mystical cults like that of the Rosicrucians and Masons, all of which used ritual and non-Christian symbols to transcend the mundane world in order to attain power, knowledge, and enlightenment (ROGD.org). This process was suddenly accelerated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when less secretive experimentation in non-Christian religious practices grew. As people like Krishnamurti and the Theosophists gained popularity among liberals, intellectuals and artists, the mystical foundations of the Transcendentalists gave legitimacy to these later non-traditional movements (Albanese, 355/ & KFA.org).

A growing belief in the 19th century in astrology, mesmerism, and “magico-religious practices” mixed at the turn of the century with the scientific revelations of quantum physics to help “erode the boundary between natural and supernatural phenomenon (Albanese, 353). According to Albanese, in 19th century America, a growing number of mediums, astrologers, and “spiritualists” were being employed for the purposes of contacting the spirits of the dead, “trance talking” and “automatic writing” which was becoming not only acceptable in society but also popular (Albanese, 357). A few decades later in England, occult figures like Alistair Crowley and McGregor Mathers rose to prominence among the openly growing group of magical practitioners, publishing books like “777”, “Magick in Theory and Practice”, and the “Equinox,” not only gaining a following but also attaining international reputations as renowned “ceremonial magicians” (Hermitic.com/Crowley/AC-Homepage). Secret societies like The Golden Dawn and The Order of Thelema helped sow the seeds for a future harvest of ultra-fantastic and other-worldly mystical organizations and fringe religious sects that would by the late 20th century become far more common place among the general population (ROGD.org/Hermitic.com).

In 1947 the first official American sighting of a UFO was recorded, which led to a barrage of alien sightings in the 1950s, including the famous Area 51 incident and numerous claims of alien abduction and experimentation, all of which led to a “climate of enthusiasm for science,” especially in those people who were seeking answers beyond those found in the Bible (Albanese, 357). Carl Jung’s theories of dream symbolism and archetypes took hold among the seekers who were especially interested in the “humanistic psychology of self-actualization”, and soon afterwards the Esalen Institute in Big Sur was opened, promoting the “human potential movement,” which focused on comparative religion, mysticism, meditation, and therapeutic language to induce “consciousness expansion” (Albanese 357). Consciousness expansion was further explored in the 1960s when Timothy Leary and Baba Ram Das began using psychedelic drugs to heighten their spiritual reality. A new interest arose in peyote, traditionally used by Native Americans for the purposes of spirit quests (Kurze). Native American spiritual teachers gained public attention like the Chippewa shaman, Sun Bear and the Cherokee spiritual leader, Rolling Thunder who was best known for his “Medicine Wheel” gatherings (Albanese 359) The Native American connection gave added legitimacy to both shamanism and the psychedelic movement as was expressed in the 1972 cult film “Billy Jack” (imdb.com). LSD and Guru Philosophy hit a new high during the later 1960s with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Guru to the Beatles. Swami Prabhupada Bhaktivedanta of the Krishna Consciousness movement also came to America, often times inducting former drug users and showing them a continuing path to non-Christian spirituality through vegetarianism, communal living, meditation, ritual activity, and chanting, without the use of psychedelics (Krishna.com).

Other developments during the 1960s and that would lead to the New Age movement were a surge in popularity for health food stores, holistic medicine, chiropractors, and a belief in the power of healing through positive thought and physical message (Albanese, 358). Essential to the pagan nature of the New Age Movement was women’s liberation. Prior to the acceptance of a single male sky-god, as in Judeo-Christian and Moslem beliefs, the pagan world was based on an all-powerful feminine deity, the Earth Mother: a fertility and creation goddess that can be seen as an echo in such figures as the Virgin Mary (Paglia, pg 9). The woman’s empowerment movement blended with the holistic healing and the organic “nature” movement to usher in a renewed respect for “Mother Earth,” a highly pagan concept. The cry went up among many women’s-libbers that God might very well be a Woman and that feminine power was the power that gave life and nurtured living things (Pagila). Subsequently, numerous small press spell books became available in a growing number of occult bookstores in the late 1970s, many of them portraying the contemporary witch as regular woman rather than the traditional old crone. Other trends that aided in the rise of the New Age Movement was the surge in popularity for magical fantasy novels like “The Lord of the Rings”, and the growing interest during the 1970s in role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, and the growing number of themed fantasy Renaissance Faires across the country. This helped set the stage by the early 1980s for all of the elements of New Age movement to come together in a positive, mystical, and fantastic light.

As the New Age Movement took shape in the 1980s, what began as postings on the bulletin boards of health food stores and holistic clinics soon turned into seminars, bookstores and, learning centers devoted to New Age interests (Albanese, 360). The expansive selection of interests in the New Age bookstores and learning centers suited the nature of the movement, because New Agers “appropriated what New Age beliefs they preferred from the pool… rather than believing completely in all New Age beliefs” (Albanese, 360). According to Albanese there were two types of New Age approaches; the Philosophical approach which dealt less with the spiritual aspect and more with psychological processes being explored and developed; and the Phenomenal approach, which emphasized Cultus and symbolic behavior (Albanese, 362).

The sections of interest in a typical New Age bookstore could be witnessed only a few years ago at The Bodhi Tree in West Hollywood. There were sections on most major religions with no special emphasis given to any one of them. There were also sections on after-death experiences, ghosts, ESP, the zodiac, the Egyptian pantheon of gods as well as The Book of the Dead, UFOs, Alistair Crowley and the Golden Dawn, the Tarot, isolation tanks, Native American Shamanism, Kabala, ancient magical texts like The Sacred book of Abra Melin the Mage, as well as books on hard core sorcery, voodoo, spell casting, rune stones, and of course, the book series that blends occult magic and Native American shamanism with psychedelic drugs so well, presented as an autobiographical how-to series on shamanism: “The Teachings of Don Juan” and other works by Carlos Castaneda. Castaneda epitomizes the New Age sorcerer, presenting his work as a scholar writing his dissertation on anthropology. The book describes secret rituals and powerful occult practices which the New Age Movement adopted with the ease of any practical candle magic book. Even Crowley, who claimed to have summoned demons, had his honored place on the shelves of the New Age movement’s libraries right next to swimming with dolphins.

The New Age Movement has settled into a far less prominent position among American spiritual movements, almost being completely absorbed into our present culture. Yet its liberal minded effect on certain archetypes in popular culture is clear. The art of witchcraft and black magic has been all but completely de-vilified leaving the archetypal witches of today to attend their magic classes at Hogworts and have names like Harry Potter. Likewise, Vampires have also recently been de-vilified in popular culture through books like the Twilight Series. The New Age movement has helped to make this a far different world than it was before.

CITATIONS

Albanese, Catherine L; America: Religions and Religion; 3rd Edition; Wadsworth Publishing Company; Belmont, CA; © 1999; Text

Billy Jack; http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066832/

Crowley, Alistair; Alistair Crowley’s Homepage; 5/26/12; http://www.aleistercrowley.org/

Hermitic.com; Libri of Alistair Crowley; 5/27/2012; http://hermetic.com/crowley/

KFA: Krishnamurti Foundation of America; A Brief History of Krishnamurt; kfa.org; Ojai, CA; 5/27/12; http://www.kfa.org/history-of-krishnamurti.php

Krishna.com; Prabhupada Bhaktivedanta ; 5/27/12; http://prabhupada.krishna.com/

Lambert, Frank; Religion in American Politics; Princeton University Press; Princeton/Oxford; © 2008; Text

Paglia, Camille; Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickenson; Vantage Books 1991; Yale University 1990;

Rosicrucian Order of the Golden Dawn; ROGD.org; .http://www.rogd.org/

UMKC: Famous American Trials: Salem Witchcraft Trials; University of Missouri Kansas City; umkc.edu; Sept 2009; 5/27/12; http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/salem.htm

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