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The Nature of Magic: An Anthropology of Consciousness by Susan Greenwood (Berg Publishers)

The Nature of Magic: An Anthropology of Consciousness by Susan Greenwood (Berg Publishers)

Friday, September 21st, 2007

The Nature of Magic: An Anthropology of Consciousness by Susan Greenwood (Berg Publishers) (Hardcover) examines how and why practitioners of nature religion–Western witches, druids, shamans–seek to relate spiritually with nature through “magical consciousness”. Greenwood develops a new theory of magical consciousness by arguing that magic ultimately has more to do with the workings of the human mind in terms of an expanded awareness than with socio-cultural explanations. She combines her own subjective insights gained from magical practice with practitioners’ in-depth accounts and sustained academic theory on the process of magic. She also tracks magical consciousness in philosophy, myth, folklore and story-telling, and the hi-tech discourse of postmodernity.

On one occasion at Beltane (1 May) on Old Winchester Hill, an Iron Age hill fort on the South Downs in Southern England, a gathering of ten New Age practitioners attuned to the natural energies of the earth. Using a combination of chanting, walking, singing, dowsing, and dancing around a maypole, the aim was to bring healing and balance to each person as well as to the environment by the alignment of inner energies with the ley lines and chakras’ of the earth. Up and down the country assorted groups of witches celebrated the coming of summer in various ways, some as the rebirth of the young King of the Greenwood and his union with the Goddess as the embodiment of nature; while other Pagans were encamped in a wood in Kent to prevent it being turned into a leisure centre. During the same period in the same county, a group of local school children, guided by shaman environmental educators, created an imaginative world of animals, plants and fairies in a bluebell wood for a May Fair. What motivates and connects these events is a spiritual revaluing of the natural world and the regaining of a sense of unity with nature. One well-known Pagan said to me: ‘For modern people the world has been intentionally deprived of significance, and so you have to reconnect.’ Connection with the natural world is thus the basis of nature spiritualities.

How is it that the human mind comes to ‘disconnect’, to ‘renounce its sensuous bearings isolating itself from the other animals and the animate earth’? Historian Catherine Albanese, in her study of nature religion in America, observes that historically religious reflection in Western cultures, which has been primarily conducted through the `Judeo-Christian tradition’, has been preoccupied with three symbolic centres: God, humanity, and nature. God has been paramount, and humans and nature, as creatures of God, have shone – but only in reflected light, leaving nature as a symbolic centre largely unnoticed. By contrast, what she terms ‘nature religion’ focuses on nature as source of the sacred (1991:7-9). Disconnection is largely due to the fact that in Western history there has been a progressive withdrawal of divinity from the natural world accompanied by a devaluation of human experience. This started in the period of Late Antiquity between the accession of Marcus Aurelius and the conversion of Constantine to Christianity. Aided by Copernicus’s transferral, in 1543, of many astronomical functions previously attributed to the earth to the sun, a fundamental change was made regarding human relationships to the universe and to God, creating the transition from a medieval to a modem Western view. The Copernican revolution facilitated the seventeenth — century mechanistic conception of nature developed by philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) who separated the thinking mind from the material world and thus laid the ground for an objective science; this contributed to the view that human relationships to the world were in opposition to nature.

It has been suggested that the notion of nature as a mechanical inanimate system may be comforting for some, giving the idea that human beings are in control of nature and confirming the belief that science has risen above primitive animistic beliefs. However, this view comes at a cost. A superior sphere of reason was constructed over a sphere of inferiority; the former was a privileged domain of the master, while the latter, which formed a category of nature, comprised a field of multiple exclusions created by racism, colonialism and sexism. Racial, ethnic and sexual difference were cast as closer to the animal and the body, a lesser form of humanity lacking full rationality or culture. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries discourses on the animality of negroes, American Indians, the Irish, infants, women, the poor, the ignorant, the irreligious and the mad prevailed.

The mechanistic conception of the world was combined by some philosophers with a particular Protestant rationalized belief system that viewed God as an omnipotent clockmaker standing outside and apart from his creation. The element of design in mechanistic philosophy did not arise from ‘the “natures” of things but from the properties with which God endowed them’. A divine creator implies a dependence of the created on a creator, and also a differentiation between creator and created. Human beings had a special role to play due to being made in God’s image; this further emphasized their separation from the rest of creation. The development of capitalism promulgated the view that nature was a commodity or a resource to be used. Although mechanistic theories did not go unchallenged, particularly by Vitalism, a radical analysis by Paracelsus of the activity in nature whereby matter and spirit were unified into an single, active, vital substance, and also by the academic disciplines of botany and zoology, Descartes’ views have been influential. Historian Keith Thomas notes that Descartes’ explicit aim was to make men lords and possessors of nature; other species were inert and lacking any spiritual dimension and this created an absolute break between man and the rest of nature, a ‘transcendent God, outside his creation, symbolized the separation between spirit and nature’. Indeed, Thomas goes further by saying that ‘Man stood to animal as did heaven to earth, soul to body, culture to nature’. The result has been described as a spiritual alienation from the natural world. This work is not a history of this alienation, rather it seeks to examine nature religion as a spirituality that seeks to find a unity in Nature; it has emerged as a ‘backlash’ to the general historical and philosophical context that has separated mind from nature. As anthropologist Clifford Geertz has noted, our brains are in the world, ‘And as for the world, it is not in our brains, our bodies, or our minds: they are, along with gods, verbs, rocks, and politics, in it.’

Not surprisingly, the term ‘nature’ has a history. In early Greek philosophy, nature was the essence of a thing that made it behave the way it did. This oldest meaning of the term was dominant into the thirteenth century when it denoted an essential quality, an innate character. A century later it came to mean a vital or inherent force that directed the world of human beings. At the time of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, nature was viewed as a physical power causing phenomena of the material world. The changing meaning of nature reflected the changing structure of society, and in the seventeenth century nature was observed and studied as the work of God. By the eighteenth century, with the establishment of a scientific world-view, nature was seen to be governed by laws; nature became increasingly synonymous with the material world and science was involved in interpreting its universal laws. At this time, nature was a clear authority: the laws of nature were the laws of reason. Nature had become rationalized. Inevitably, there was a reaction to scientific rationalism and it took the form of the Romanticism movement with its view of nature as pastoral landscape and immanent mysticism. More recently, four contemporary discourses on nature have been outlined: the first is as a science where nature is seen in objective and abstract terms; the second is as an economic resource — nature is a source of productive wealth; the third views nature as a source of emotional identification, relationship and tradition; and the fourth is through nature mysticism whereby nature has spirit and is worthy of reverence and awe. Nature spiritualities draw on the last two discourses: nature is viewed as a source of emotional identification and spirituality; practitioners immerse themselves in nature.

Catherine Albanese calls the immersion in nature a ‘quantum dance of religious syncretism’ in which the different movements ‘move freely together, mixing and matching, bowing to new partners’. The centrality of nature, Albanese observes, provides a language to express cosmology and belief; it forms the basis of understanding and practising a way of life; supplies material for ritual symbolism, as well as drawing a community together. Nature religion does not exist as a definite and identifiable religious tradition such as Buddhism or Christianity, but, as Peter Beyer notes in his sociological analysis, the term refers to a range of religious and quasi-religious movements, groups and social networks in which practitioners consider nature to be the embodiment of divinity, sacredness, transcendence, or spiritual power. Beyer, who analyses nature religion in terms of globalization, points out that nature religion comprises a counter-cultural strategy – a religious critique of institutionalized social structures and normal consciousness. He is concerned to show how nature religion fits into a global context through the use of ‘nature’ as a powerful counter-structural symbol representing resistance to dominant instrumental systems. Using anthropologist Victor Turner’s analysis of the anti-structural components of religious ritual, Beyer argues that nature religion is counter-structural – stressing oppositional aspects – rather than being anti-structural. He notes certain critical features that characterize nature religion: a comparative resistance to institutionalization and legitimization in terms of identifiable socio-religious authorities and organization; a distrust of politically oriented power; a faith in charismatic and individual authority; a strong emphasis on individual path; a valorization of physical place; a this-worldly emphasis with a search for healing, personal vitality, and transformation of self; a strong experiential basis; a valuing of non-hierarchical community; a stress on holistic conceptions of reality; and a conditional optimism regarding human capacity and the future. This is certainly the case in radical Pagan protest against the destruction of nature for road development etc. However, magical consciousness is not necessarily counter-structural. Some movements within nature religion – such as the New Age – are alternatives to Christianity, incorporating many mystical elements of Christianity, and may be said to be supportive of mainstream social structure, particularly regarding capitalistic enterprise.

Also viewing nature religion in terms of globalization, anthropologist Piers Vitebsky, in a comparison of Sora shamanism in tribal India and ethnic revival shamanism in Arctic Siberia, claims that indigenous knowledge loses its holistic world-view when appropriated by New Age neo-shamanists; when transplanted it becomes global rather than local cosmological knowledge. An alternative approach is to see nature religion not as a counter-cultural movement, or as an expression of a form of global knowledge, but as an expanded form of consciousness that is common to all humans. I shall argue that if nature religion is studied in terms of magical consciousness then holism, a central defining feature of indigenous knowledge, is not lost but just expressed in a different cultural and physical context.

Magical Consciousness

So, a connection with nature concerns less a form of counter-cultural resistance – although this may be the case in more radical forms of Pagan protest – and more a development of magical consciousness. Using the term ‘magical consciousness’ creates a definition that is doubly ideologically loaded – both ‘magic’ and `consciousness’ are broad concepts that are notoriously difficult to define. Facing a similar dilemma over a definition of ‘globalization’, the historian A.G. Hopkins notes that holistic concepts may be a source of confusion as they invariably carry conflicting ideological messages, but abolishing them would not remove the difficulty. He recommends that when using general terms to describe broad issues, definitions should be explicitly stated and framed to match the purpose in hand. With this in mind I shall define magical consciousness as a specific perception of the world common to practitioners of nature religion. Before that, however, it will be necessary briefly to consider both consciousness and magic.

Although consciousness has been of modern philosophical concern since Descartes’ cogito ‘I think therefore I am’ shifted the focus from the cosmos to the individual human being, a single definition of consciousness is evasive. The study of consciousness is problematic, not only for neuroscience and psychology due to its subjective and constantly changing character, but also for anthropology, which has only belatedly come to find consciousness relevant, having taken it ‘largely for granted, neglecting – even, perhaps, denying – its significance and relevance’. As John and Jean Comaroff have pointed out, anthropologists usually study consciousness and its transformations by examining its effects or expressions; its social and symbolic manifestations as conscience collective. Rarely is the nature of consciousness in the making, or its historicity examined. Consciousness itself is seldom scrutinized:

Sometimes it is regarded as the mere reflection of a reality beyond human awareness, sometimes as the site of creativity and agency. But, almost invariably, ‘consciousness’ is treated as a substantive ‘mode of or ‘for’ the world, as so much narrative content without form.

The classic work of psychologist William James indicates why consciousness has been seen to be so formless and so difficult to pin down. James’s notion of mind as a ‘theatre of simultaneous possibilities’ views consciousness as a process that compares, selects and suppresses data, much as a sculptor works on a block of stone, extricating one interpretation from the rest. He writes that my world is but one in a million alike embedded, alike real to those who may abstract them. How different must be the worlds in the consciousness of ant, cuttlefish, or crab!’. Consciousness, says James, is also like a stream or river; it is a continuous and always changing process. The work of neuroscientist Gerald Edelman, in Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, draws on and develops James’s ideas: consciousness depends on unique history and embodiment, it is constructed through social interaction, and meaning takes shape in terms of concepts that depend on categorizations. The picture that emerges from these views is that there is a multiplicity of consciousnesses, or aspects of consciousness, rather than a single state.  The notion of consciousness as a stream of possibilities both overcomes the Cartesian emphasis on mind and reflective reasoning aspects, and opens up possibilities for alternative views of consciousness as process that is inclusive of body, as well as being more expansive to include other beings in nature, and even perhaps being an intrinsic quality of a wider universe.

Notwithstanding, anthropologist Michael Hamer, who explored South American Indian shamanism and developed ‘Core Shamanism’ as a method that synthesized shamanic techniques for Westerners, differentiates between what he terms an ‘ordinary state of consciousness’ (OSC) and a `shamanic state of consciousness’ (SSC), referring to ‘ordinary’ and `nonordinary’ reality respectively. The shaman can move between states of consciousness at will. Harner’s distinction of OSC and SSC for Westerners belies the complexities of consciousness - such as aspects arising from imagination, emotion, cognition, and perception - and that people, whether shamans or not, are constantly shifting effortlessly from awareness to awareness or aspect to aspect; it is not always so easy to categorize consciousness in this manner.’ This is not to deny that a shaman is nonetheless a specialist in one part of this process as a mediator of different realities.

Turning to magic we will see that it means many different things to different people. Magic, as anthropologist Ariel Glucklich points out, can refer to a moon-swept landscape, love, music, the occult, the extraordinary that defies the laws of nature, and gross superstition among many other things. It is, he claims, a ‘decadent hodge podge of ideas from many sources’. We use the term so much, Glucklich argues, that it means too much and therefore hardly anything at all; we need a clear and definite understanding. Historically, magic had a negative association in Roman times being viewed as a system that utilized powerful forces to control nature. Seen to be outside the ordinary course of nature in the fifth century, it was rehabilitated in an exalted sense in the Hermetic tradition of the Renaissance when it was seen as a way to contact higher powers or God and was associated with neoplatonism. Magic, under this guise, was ‘natural magic’ or ’sympathetic magic’ and involved the secret virtues of plants, stones and talismans for drawing down the powers of stars. This was a form of esotericism based on the view that there were correspondences between the natural and celestial worlds, both seen and unseen. During the Reformation, demonic magic, which was seen to rely on supernatural intelligences, was sharply demarcated from ‘true’ religion and science. The aspect of control - using preternatural or supernatural means to gain control over nature - was opposed to the religious attitude of reverence: an inclination to trust and to be in awe of powers superior to humanity. Magic is also concerned with the ritual working ofunseen (occult) or subtle levels of reality in order to create change in the everyday world - such as casting a spell or raising energy to direct to a specific intention. Magic is, as Pagan Margot Adler observes in her influential study of Paganism (she calls it Neo-Paganism) in America, a convenient word for a whole collection of techniques that involve the mind, including the mobilization of the imagination and the ability to visualize; magic is a knowledge about how emotion and concentration can be used to change consciousness.

Greenwood’s use of the term ‘magic’ here concerns an aspect of consciousness that is primarily natural rather than supernatural or mystical, although it may be interpreted in those ways socially or culturally. A magical ’state of mind’ must be experienced; it has an intrinsically subjective and sensory quality that is embodied and intuitive rather than purely reflective and intellectual, although the reflective and intellectual may be engaged with the intuitive and the embodied as there is no radical opposition. She wants to make it clear that my use of the term `magical consciousness’ is not an attempt to reify an aspect of consciousness but rather to draw attention to a certain dimension of human experience. In my focus on magical consciousness she does not wish to suggest that magical consciousness should be opposed to rationality, neither does she want to create a dualism between science and magic (or religion) or between reason and imagination, but rather to highlight a part - or strand, or thread, or ‘expanded’ awareness - that is an important component of the whole process of consciousness central to how many practitioners of nature spiritualities experience the world. It is the development of this type of expansive awareness - one that actively develops the imagination in making connections between other beings both seen and unseen - that constitutes the basis of magical practice. Above all, magical consciousness concerns the awareness of the interrelatedness of all things in the world.

Anthropologist Bruce Kapferer, in his study of sorcery among Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka, argues that the magicality of human beings is in embodied, passionate relationships with others and in the way that realities are constructed: sorcery (as a psycho-social expression) accentuates vital dimensions of the ways that humans explicitly or implicitly construct their realities:

Human life is magical in the sense that human beings span the space that may otherwise individuate them or separate them from others. Their magical conjunction with other human beings in the world - imaginative, creative, and destructive - is at the heart of human existence.

Magical conjunction, Greenwood suggests, is magical consciousness; it is not a category of thing in itself but an aspect of a particular experience of consciousness and a way of ordering reality. Magical consciousness is a dimension of human thought and action; it is not primarily individual nor can it be divorced from the wider social or environmental context - it is a participatory and holistic way of thinking.

Psychologist, biologist and anthropologist Gregory Bateson was a holistic thinker seeking an understanding of the human part in the whole living world; he sought to overcome the Cartesian split between mind and body, and in Mind and Nature: a necessary unity he expressed a relational view of mind. Bateson thought that the mind should be seen as immanent in the whole system of organism–environment relations in which humans are enmeshed. The brain was in relation to the surrounding environment and the mind (as a processor of information) extended outwards into its environment along multiple sensory pathways; the perceiver was involved in his or her environment. Thus the mind was not just involved with the working of the human brain; it was viewed in much wider terms as a way of coming to understand the world by being in the world. Bateson tried to find a language of relationship to describe the living world as a dynamic reality. He thought that logic, a method for describing linear systems of cause and effect, was unsuitable for the description of biological patterns and that metaphor was the language of nature. Bateson attempted to find the underlying pattern in the structure of nature and the structure of mind in ‘an ecology of mind’. The mind is concerned with thoughts and ideas about the world; it classifies and maps things. Mental maps organize connections and differences between things in a familiar pattern; and patterns connect. Bateson called this ‘ideation’. By contrast, ‘abduction’ was the process of recognizing the patterns between different things through metaphor, dreams, allegories and poetry. Abductive systems link the body and the ecosystem: a meta pattern is shared.

Although Bateson did not discuss magic directly, his work on abductive systems employing dreams, poetry and metaphor links closely with conceptions of magic as relational thinking. He believed that knowledge always existed surrounded by an unknown that was penetrable to the ambitious investigator. Ideas could be drawn from many disciplines and he ‘respected the mystic’s approach to life as much as the scientist’s’ . Creating relationship – in physical or spirit form – is the basis of magical consciousness. A decentred part of the process of consciousness that is receptive to other beings both seen and unseen, magical consciousness is a perception that is able to move away from a primary focus on the individual; it is a consciousness that is aware of connections between phenomena and it is shaped by psycho-social experience and world-view. Magical consciousness may be explained in terms of mysticism, an experience of vastness, sometimes experienced as a union with an ultimate reality, cosmic consciousness, or God; it is also explained in more animistic terms. Ecologist and phenomenological philosopher David Abram says that the human mind is instilled and provoked by the ‘tensions and participations between the human body and the animate earth’. He asserts that by acknowledging an inner psychological world and the surrounding world, psychology is loosened from the strictly human sphere to meet with other minds in oak, fir, hawk, snake, stone, rain, and salmon; all aspects of a place make up a particular state of mind – a `place-specific intelligence’ shared by all beings that live in the area.

Magical consciousness requires a shift in perception from a so-called normal perception; this is akin to what the anthropologist Stanley Tambiah, drawing on philosopher Levy-Bruhl, has termed `participation’. An ancient construct in Western philosophy and theology, the term ‘participation’ accounts for the togetherness of diverse elements – how one thing participates in one or several others. Tambiah says that participation can be represented as occurring when ‘persons, groups, animals, places, and natural phenomena are in a relation of contiguity, and translate that relation into one of existential immediacy and contact and shared affinities’. Participation, according to Tambiah, uses the language of solidarity, unity, holism and continuity in space and time; it also engenders a sense of encompassing cosmic oneness. Participation is contrary to causality, defined by Tambiah as quintessentially represented by the categories, rules and methods of positivistic science and discursive mathematicological reasoning. Analytically separate, participation and causality intertwine in many combinations and Tambiah is careful to emphasize that they do not form a dualism; he points out various contexts and discourses where one or the other mode predominates, the different modes becoming increasingly difficult to separate in the scientific theory-making branch of modern physics . In fact, if consciousness is viewed as a process the problems of dualistic thinking are avoided. My experience on the Snowdonian hillside, already mentioned, is but one example of the participation required in developing magical consciousness. Experiences such as these are said to bring about a transformation of perception; changes may occur through the meeting of other practitioners for rituals, meditation, as well as specific practices of healing or environmental protest, for example. In the chapters that follow more examples will be given.

Part of the process of developing a magical consciousness is learning to see the natural world as vital and alive – seeing it in animistic terms. Edward Tylor used the term ‘animism’ to refer to the ‘anima’ or soul as the essence of a being or the ‘animating principle’. For Tylor, animism was the earliest form of religion, coexisting with magic in ‘primitive’ societies. More recent anthropologists, such as Tim Ingold, take a phenomenological approach to animism, seeing it as a world-view envisaged from within a ‘total field of relations whose unfolding is tantamount to the process of life itself. Taking his cue from Bateson and drawing on ethnographic work on the hunter-gatherer Cree people of northeast Canada who say that the entire world, not just the human world, is saturated with powers of agency and intentionality. Ingold asserts, like Bateson, that mind should be seen as immanent in the whole system of the organism–environment relations; the whole organism-in-its-environment is the point of departure of an indivisible totality. There is no separation between mind and nature; mind is not added onto life but is immanent in intentional engagement of living beings within their environments. David Abram takes this further when he argues that ‘perception, in its depths, is truly participatory’. He defines magic in its most primordial sense as participating in a world of multiple intelligences with:
the intuition that every form one perceives — from swallow swooping overhead to fly on a blade of grass, and indeed the blade of grass itself — is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations, albeit sensations that are very different from our own.

Abram draws on Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and makes four points to illustrate this magical animistic world-view: firstly, perception is inherently interactive and participatory – there is a reciprocity between perceiver and perceived; secondly, spontaneous pre-conceptual experience is not dualistic in or out of animate/inanimate but forms relative distinctions between diverse forms of animateness; thirdly, perceptual reciprocity between sensing bodies and animate expressive landscape engenders and supports linguistic reciprocity – language - is rooted in non-verbal exchange; fourthly, human languages are informed b structures of human body, human community and more-than-human terrain. Language is not specifically human: ‘Experientially considered, language is no more the special property of the human organism than it is an expression of the animate earth that enfolds us’.

In views such as this magic is essentially a natural phenomenon, not mystical or metaphysical; it expresses a conceptual and perceptual world-view that creates meaningful connections between phenomena. To an extent, this is what Carl Jung meant when he said that, ‘No man lives within his own psychic sphere like a snail in its shell, separated from everybody else, but is connected with his fellow-minds - by his unconscious humanity.’ Jung saw this as a collective unconscious, a living reality; the pre-conscious aspect of things and a reservoir from which to draw – was nature not something mystical. Here Jung draws on the Greek definition – psyche which, according to Aristotle, meant the ‘principle of life’ that anima a living thing. Psyche was a wider concept than mind or consciousness and was equivalent to soul, the ‘first principle of living things’ and the functional state of living creature. For Jung, the psyche occurs in living bodies and in matter, but the original feeling of unity with the unconscious psyche has been lost due to the conscious mind becoming more and more the victim of Jung saw as its own discriminating activity.

Practitioners of nature religion may look back to a time of unity with nature, and psychologist Brian Bates’s historically-based novel The Way of Wyrd has been influential in this respect. This work is an introduction to a shamanistic inspirited nature as told through a story of the initiation of Wat Brand, a Christian scribe, by Wulf, an Anglo-Saxon sorcerer. Wulf tells Wat that the soul is the essence of wyrd and is present in everything– even rocks have soul (psyche), the principle of life. Wat questions Wulf:
‘Rocks do not breathe, Wulf. Surely then, they cannot have soul?’ Wulf watched me steadily, through narrowed eyes.

`Rocks breathe,’ he said evenly. ‘But each breath lasts longer than the life and death for a man. Hills and mountains breathe, but each breath lasts a thousand human lifetimes.’

Bates writes that the original Anglo-Saxon form of the word ‘weird’ meant `destiny’, ‘power’ and ‘magic’ or ‘prophetic knowledge’. He points out that in Anglo-Saxon times all aspects of the world were seen to be in constant flux and motion, and a dynamic and pervasive world of spirits coexisted with the material world. The spirits were manifestations of the forces of wyrd and were invisible to most humans. Life force, or vital energy, permeated everything in this worldview; it was manipulated by the sorcerer, as the mediator of the spirit world and the human world, who ‘connected individual human functioning with the pulse of earth rhythm’.

Bates sees wyrd as a path to knowledge – of psychological and spiritual liberation; it is a way of being that challenges dominant notions of body, mind and spirit. All aspects of the world are seen to be in relationship in this view, and the totality is conceived of as a web. The web of wyrd is a view of the world conceived as a relationship of patterns and it offers a metaphor for connection – a European model for a cyclical process more visible in non-Western contexts. Bates himself likens it to the Chinese notion of Yin and Yang, but it also has parallels with much African thought in the sense that the material world is not seen as inert but vital. Bates employs a psychological approach to shamanism that is very popular amongst practitioners but problematic for some academics…

The chapters give an overview of the numerous spiritualities that make up nature religion; it also points to some of the underlying historical influences o esotericism, romanticism and environmentalism that have currency in everyday contemporary practice. This is followed by a more detailed look at how some practitioners identify with and create relationships and connections with nature. Catching a glimpse through a New Age talk on Deep Ecology at `Alternatives’, a forum for talks on mind, body and spirit held in St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London; the experiences and thoughts of a Pagan priestess, and Druid; a workshop on the spirit of place held at Atlantis, the well-known occult book shop in London; the work of a New Age healer in Norfolk, East, Anglia; radical Pagan protest against environmental destruction; and finally, a shamanic drumming group ritual to contact ancestors, this chapter aims to present’ an intimate portrayal of some ideas and attitudes to nature; it is inevitably selective – a vignette through some of the multiplicity of approaches.

Next we look at ways in which practitioners locate themselves through the themes of place, ancestors and tradition. It compares the work of two shamans: the first, a Romany gypsy chovihano, acts as a medium for gypsy ancestors and other spiritual beings. Like other mediums – such as the Victorian Spiritualists and the Sora shamans of south-east India – he is a channel for the world of spirits. A relationship with the spirits of nature and the land is said to be an integral part of life for many Romany gypsies: in Romany lore kam, the sun is father, shop, the moon is mother, puvus, the earth grandmother, while ravnos, the sky, grandfather. The second shaman, a Pagan environmental educator, claims Celtic ancestry but chooses to work with what he sees as a variety of traditions of the land to link people with place. In this Chapter she also uses the example of a late Bronze Age timber circle popularly known as Seahenge’, which emerged from the sea on the north Norfolk coast whilst she was conducting fieldwork in the region, to look at some different attitudes towards what was seen by many to be a sacred monument on a par with Stonehenge. Greenwood examines the dissension between local residents, archaeologists, and practitioners of nature spiritualities caused by its appearance.

Dealing with the process of transformation of cognition through magical consciousness draws on the philosophical and theological notion of participation, the term coined by philosopher Lucien Levy-Bruhl and developed by anthropologist Stanley Tambiah to examine consciousness. The main purpose underlying many of the varying practices of nature religion is the transformation of consciousness – this might be to see the world as vital, conscious and interactive – and various examples of this process are given, including relating to spirits in a New Age centre, shamanic journeying using Michael Hamer’s Core Shamanism technique, and a Romany gypsy healing ritual. Healing involves restoring, or creating, a participatory perception, one that links the person within a wider animated cosmos; it orders and realigns the universe, essentially creating spiritual balance and harmony in the world. According to Richard Katz, with reference to the Kalahari !Kung of South Africa, healing involves a process of transition toward meaning, balance, wholeness and connectedness between individuals and their environments. Healing is more than curing, it seeks to establish health on the physical, psychological, social and spiritual levels, and it integrates the individual, the group, the environment and the cosmos. !Kung ritual shares many affinities with Romany gypsy ritual as portrayed here.

Specific case studies illustrating how magical consciousness is developed through myth is the focus. The old European myth of the Wild Hunt is associated with ’soul-ravening’ chases, and its origins lie in the belief held by many in the ninth to the fourteenth centuries that during their sleep their spirits were snatched away to ride in a ghostly cavalcade. The power of this myth is connected with the urban/rural divide probably created with the rise of the ancient city-state when humans became separated from the natural world, as nature came to represent ‘the wild’, the chaotic antithesis of ordered society. The mythology of the Wild Hunt draws on notions of a primordial ancient and ‘untainted’ power as a framework for experiencing magical consciousness.

Utilizing a common folk theme of a god or goddess hunting for souls, this myth illustrates the rhythm of life and death and a certain form of transformation; how practitioners interpret it is the focus of this chapter.

Then we continue the theme of participation through an examination of the role of fairy stories and nature spirits in creating a sense of being indigenous – of being related to place. David Abram says that language for oral peoples is not a human invention but a ‘gift of the land itself’. Language arose not only as a means of attunement between people but also between humans and an animated landscape. Does nature religion encourage ‘thinking with nature’, knowing the land though its stories? Three case studies – of Romany gypsy shamanic workshops, Reclaiming Witch Camp, and the work of a shaman environmental educator – will be discussed in relation to the problematic notions of tradition, authenticity and being indigenous.

As indicated earlier, there is a paradox within nature religion involving a contradiction between a discourse of connectedness and a discourse of esotericism – both are semi-permanent currents within the general ‘nature religion’ stream – and Chapter 8 raises the thorny question of whether nature spiritualities are ecological. Mostly originating within the Western Hermetic tradition rather than any indigenous practices, nature religion has strong neoplatonic tendencies and these influence contemporary attitudes and practice. There is an implicit monotheism – principally seen in a veneration of the Goddess – and an anthropocentrism, a human-centred focus on the individual in relation to the cosmos. Neither attitude is ecological; this chapter discusses some of the resulting complexities and paradoxes and also raises problematic issues for the academic study of magical consciousness.

The final chapter seeks to locate nature religion within a wider perspective, largely in terms of what it means to those who live in the city. Nature religion is most often practised by city dwellers. Reflecting on nature religion in terms of globalization and postmodernism, this chapter suggests that the holistic world-view of magical consciousness is not necessarily solely a reaction to social fragmentation; it can also be seen as an innate expression of human consciousness that is manifested differently in varying socio-cultural contexts. The persistent underlying theme of this book is that magical consciousness is primarily natural rather than supernatural.


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