The idea of Witchcraft spellbinds the world. From the infamous Salem Witch Trials to beloved media like “Harry Potter,” magic is an enduring fascination. Dr. Helen Berger, a distinguished sociologist of contemporary Pagan and Witchcraft studies and Affiliated Scholar at Brandeis’ Women’s Studies Research Center, has been pursuing this topic for many years. Her publications include “Solitary Pagans: Contemporary Witches, Wiccans, and Others Who Practice Alone” and “Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for the Self,” among other notable texts.
In a Zoom interview with The Brandeis Hoot, Berger explained how she began researching the subject. In the 1980s, she gave a series of lectures on the Salem Witch Trials for the Boston Public Library. She wanted to explore modern Witchcraft for her last lecture but struggled to find critical evaluations on the topic. The absence inspired Berger to research the subject herself: “I just started reading like crazy,” she expressed, and retraining her methodology from historical research to “contemporary sociology.” Berger further stated that “[she] really loved this research. And it was more me than historical research was, I could make a more important contribution.”
Wicca, the umbrella term for Witch-related religion, greatly influenced America in the 1960s. The counterculture movement, in particular, was attracted to “the lack of hierarchy,” compared to traditional western religions and the “environmental aspect of…worshiping nature,” Berger explained. The femininity of Witchcraft also bolstered its success and popularity: “there is an image of motherhood…of empowered womanhood…most Witches and Pagans would say they’re feminists.” It boosted its success by around 90 percent, according to her surveys. The 1990s internet boom increased its spread: “many…[witches] are getting trained on the internet” and regularly interact with “blogs” and “chat groups.” When asked whether “Harry Potter” caused an increase in individuals who self-identify as Witches, Berger noted she does not “have any data on that … but I’m willing to bet that it did.”
Yet, while modern Wicca emerged in the 1960s, Berger highlights that, “there’s … never … [been] a disappearance of … spirituality.” The 19th-century Spiritualist movement is a clear predecessor with its engagement with social movements of the day like Abolitionism and Suffragism. Even with stereotypically dour religions such as Puritanism, she explained that there is evidence of mystical, spell-like practices.
When asked how magic functions: “you have to start from their mindset, that … magic is real,” she stated, in a forthright tone. But, “magic … [is] a complicated thing … you’re putting out energy into the universe, to direct … something to happen,” but the spirit world may not always accept your wish.
She used an example of a research participant to clarify how magic operates: “When I first started studying this, I met a man who was getting his Ph.D. in math at MIT … I asked him about his belief in the goddess or the God or the divine. He said, Oh, no, I don’t believe in it. But, I’ve experienced it” through ritual and meditation. For him, “this didn’t have to do with … rational proof … one doesn’t have to believe in magic. One performs it and sees it.”
When asked what she hopes readers take away from her books and research, she expressed that “Witchcraft is a serious religion.” While it is a “decentered” religion without one “organization or hierarchy,” its practitioners “take it seriously.”
Soon after interviewing Berger, the New Yorker published an article on photographer Frances F. Denny. Denny’s recent project, “Major Arcana: Witches in America,” is a collection of moving portraits of women who identify as witches. These portraits of women, young, old, serious, solemn, joyous, and bright, and from a variety of backgrounds and geographic locales all shared an aura of self-assured, powerful, clairvoyance. Maybe, witches enchant the world because of the mystery in their power and the power in their mystery.