Relational Magic? Thoughts Prompted by Susan Greenwood’s Anthropology of Magic

In a previous post I expressed concern about an instrumental and anthropocentric approach to natural magic, and wondered whether alternative conceptions of magic, enchantment, and divination might feel more compatible with postmodern animism.

My unease with the term magic (however spelt), stems from a long felt ambivalence about neo-Pagan/contemporary Pagan* sub-cultures.  Most of the people I’ve shared or practiced Nature based spirituality with had long involvements (in the eighties or before) in community action, the voluntary sector, feminism, anti-sexist men’s groups, radical self-help therapy, or the peace/anti-nuclear movement, all of which had strong traditions of democratic practice.

Although I shared much common ground with Paganism, I (and no doubt many others) felt wary of (i) an apparent fondness for hierarchical structures (grades, initiations, priests, Chosen Chiefs, etc), (ii) an individualistic ethic, with, it seemed, little concern for social realities, (iii) a tendency towards naïve identification with warrior deities, (iv) an insufficiently critical attitude towards highly problematic sources such as Crowley, or Freemasonry, and (v) the widespread adoption of Jungian (essentialist, binary) assumptions about gender (i.e. that there is a universal set of ‘Masculine’ and ‘Feminine’ qualities).  I would now add the familiar animist complaint that Pagans (other than eco-pagans) revere nature in the abstract but often seem uninterested in the ecology of their local pagus, district, region, or place (c.f. French Pays) after which Paganism is named.  Along with my friends and peers, I was, in any case, much less oriented towards anthropomorphic deities than most Pagans.  We therefore kept our distance from organised ‘religious’ Paganism, and celebrated the seasonal festivals in an autonomous local non-hierarchical group.  I do remember being impressed, however, by Starhawk’s politically engaged Goddess centred spirituality.

Writing as an outsider in relation to capital-P Paganism, then, I was interested to read recently that many Pagans are now talking about animism in the context of questioning the need to follow a particular path.  Does this mean that my younger self’s concerns are being addressed, and that understandings of magic have been shifting in a broadly ‘new’ animist direction?  How do its practitioners relate to other human and non-human becomings?


‘Toadlet’ (Juvenile Common Toad, Bufo bufo) on a Human Road, July 2007.  

In the hope of finding out I turned to some of Susan Greenwood’s writings, and soon found some important areas of common ground.  Citing New Animism’s ancestral foe Edward Tylor, for whom magic was ‘the most pernicious delusion that ever vexed mankind’, Greenwood sets out to re-establish the legitimacy of a marginalised tradition.  Based on her research she contrasts the tradition of High Magic -with its emphasis on transcendence, and apolitical perspective, with Feminist Witchcraft, which is Goddess centred, nature based, and politically engaged.  In the former, magic is seen as a means of reaching human perfection in the search for Ultimate Being.  In the latter, shamanistic methods (such as dancing and drumming) are used primarily for therapeutic purposes or for changing society.  I was less comfortable, however, with her adoption of a fairly conventional psychological framework.  She talks in Freudian terms about ‘the creative use of imagination … to urge the unconscious into consciousness’.  Following Michel Foucault, and others, who have critiqued psychoanalysis, I would be much more circumspect about using its language and practices.  Where these are found useful, I prefer to follow those who talk, for instance, about ‘unconscious processes’ rather than ‘the unconscious’, and would question the Jungian sounding notion of a ‘true self’, even in the context of holistic spirituality.

In keeping with her feminist orientation, Susan Greenwood’s The Anthropology of Magic alternates between personal narrative and theoretical discussionThere’s a welcome sense that this is a collaborative exploratory project, and that plural understandings are possible.  The downside of such an approach, perhaps, is that it can be difficult to find a settled definition of magic in the book.  The author acknowledges the influence of her friend and informant, a British shaman called Jo Crow, who in turn appears to have been influenced by Michael Harner’s neo-shamanism.  Greenwood therefore talks about ‘journeying’ in an ‘altered state of consciousness’, about harmful and helping spirits, and soul loss.  This strand of experience has clearly shaped her understanding of what she calls ‘magical consciousness’, a ‘mythopoetic expanded aspect of awareness’ that anyone can potentially experience.  The term is used inclusively to cover a multiplicity of intuitive or associative mental processes and ways of knowing.

One of the criticisms leveled at Harner is that his method reduces shamanism to the dis-located individualism of a New Age psychotherapy; that it is orientated towards self-discovery and empowerment at the expense of ecological relationship, community development, or political activism.  Susan Greenwood’s project -to reclaim magic from reductive anthropological explanations in terms of its social or psychological functions (which she helpfully reviews)- seems to have taken her to a place where social realities are by-passed altogether.  I hope I’m wrong about this, since, in my view, there’s a pressing need to link healing work with an understanding of social forces and power relations that cause harm.  Although Greenwood explicitly asks whether magic can lead to an ‘ecological worldview’, cites Rachel Carson on the importance of childlike wonder in reply to those who dismiss animism as childish delusion, and defines magic as relational, her emphasis still seems to be on inner journeys rather external realities.

So much so that she describes Richard Mabey’s encounter with a Nightingale -when he experienced the bird as ‘a shaman’, whose ‘song seemed to become solid, to be doing odd things to the light’, and who  momentarily entered his head, so that he became the singing bird- as ‘the sort of experience that anyone can have through empathising with another creature in the imagination‘. (my italics).  She then compares this with something similar that happened to her at a shamanic workshop, during an inner journey to find a spirit guide.  The dreamlike visionary experience she recounts involved passing through frighteningly tight labyrinthine tunnels, and seeing imagery of dismemberment in which a large Crow picked over her bones before turning into a ‘white snow owl’.  An obvious point of similarity with Mabey’s experience was that she too briefly had a sense of becoming the flying Owl.  It would be inappropriate to speculate about the subjective importance of these two events, but they were, surely -monist understandings of a conscious universe, and the reality of ‘spirits’ notwithstanding- fundamentally different in one key respect.  Richard Mabey was not empathising ‘in his imagination’, he was relatingas one of our most experienced, sensitive, and articulate naturalists- to a materially embodied and co-present member of a species he had long felt a passionate connection with.  Susan Greenwood was ‘journeying’ in inner space, through imaginal worlds, where she met what others would call a spirit helper, and what she prefers simply to call a friend.

If Mabey was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to find words to categorise his own experience, that’s fine by me.  Susan Greenwood, however, claims it as example of ‘magical consciousness’.  (I would have been happier had she said what I call magical consciousness).  Aside from the issue of categorizing another person’s experiences, I’m not sure whether such a broad term gets us very far.  Frustratingly, we are told very little about the author’s subsequent relationship with Owls as ‘friends’, or how this relates to the lives of flesh-and-blood Owl-people.

Returning to the question of magical agency, the extent to which magic is about turning or shaping events, or consciousness, by acts of will, Susan Greenwood introduces the concept of participation, as developed by Lucien Lévy Bruhl in relation to mystical thought, and contrasts this with causality.  She associates participation with altered states, holistic language, a metaphorical mode that makes emotional, sensory, and psychic connections; with mythology, story-telling, and engagement with an ‘enspirited world’.  I very much welcome the suggestion of dialogue here, but once again, Greenwood’s actual practice (as reflected in what I’ve been able to read) appears to be individualistic and psychologically oriented.  Commenting (in ‘Of Worms …) on her auto-ethnographic research, she writes ‘I’ve found that magic involves looking deeply into the self and facing the subconscious and unconscious’.  Although accounts of shamanic healing give a sense of ‘magical consciousness’ in practice, I would like to have seen more discussion of the quite complex ethical and practical questions that inevitably arise about therapeutic uses of ‘magic’ in the context of a world in which many people people experience extreme states of distress or madness.  Susan Greenwood’s observation that, paradoxically, we need to be strong within ourselves in order to ‘ride the dragon’ -to open ourselves up to, and make creative spiritual use of, magical consciousness, might make a good starting point.  She also touches upon some of the pitfalls, such as ‘magical charisma’.

A concluding discussion in The Anthropology of Magic reframes the issue of the reality of spirits in the context of a monist universe in which consciousness is wider than individual minds.  During the experience of magic, spirits -beings that have a different order of existence, but are nonetheless real- ‘may share a degree of corporeal materiality, and possess mind’.  Imagination is proposed as an important doorway to expanded awareness, including potentially very powerful experiences, but we must bracket disbelief and act ‘as if’, in order to enter into participatory relationship with an enspirited world.

Bluebells, An Indicator of Ancient Woodland.

Bluebells, An Indicator of Ancient Woodland.

One of the risks with insider research is that identification with (or advocacy for) the subjects of the research can blunt our critical faculties.  I wondered whether this had happened when the author took part in a ‘Wild Hunt Challenge’ in a Norfolk wood, at night, at Samhain (Halloween).  During this mythos based event participants were invited to ‘confront death’ in the form of spectral beings, in a timed challenge emphasising ‘competition, sport, and mastery'(!?!).  In the process one participant reportedly may have seen a black dog, whilst another claims to have seen a medieval knight on a horse.  We are told that the Wild Hunt ‘restores reciprocity between humans and nature’.  How, I wondered, did the flesh and blood other-than-human residents of that wood feel about this?

Although I found Susan Greenwood’s writings thought provoking, and quite like the notion of magical consciousness, I’m not, at present, convinced by her widening of the definition of magic to cover many phenomena that most people would describe in other ways.

In another post I hope to ruminate on Barry Patterson’s take on participatory magic, and Patrick Curry’s animist perspective on divination.


*As the U.K 2011 census findings remind us, terms such as neo-Pagan, (contemporary or postmodern) Pagan,  Post-pagan, or of course, Heathen, Druid, etc. are preferred by different groups of people.  I have no strong feelings about this.  One objection to neo-Pagan is that “no-one refers to neo-Christian”.  Perhaps they should?  Post-Christian might be more appropriate though as a description of some expressions of  feminist/’earthen’ Christianity.  Since neo-Pagan simply means ‘new’ Pagan some see it (like postmodern Pagan) as usefully distancing us from the less attractive aspects of pre-modern patriarchal chiefdoms.


Starhawk, Towards an Activist Spirituality, in Ly de Angeles, et al, Pagan Visions for a Sustainable Future, Llewellyn, 2005.

Susan Greenwood, “Of Worms, Snakes, and Dragons”; Can Magic Lead to an Ecological World View, in Ly de Angeles, Ibid.

Susan Greenwood, Feminist Witchcraft; A Transformative Politics, in Nickie Charles and Felicia Hughes-Freeland, Practicing Feminism; Identity, Difference, Power, Routledge, 1996.

Susan Greenwood, The Anthropology of Magic, Berg, 2009.

Robert Wallis, Shamans/Neo-Shamans; Ecstasy, alternative archaeologies and contemporary Pagans, Routledge, 2003.


2 thoughts on “Relational Magic? Thoughts Prompted by Susan Greenwood’s Anthropology of Magic

  1. This is a very discussion that draws clear distinctions between the experience of relating directly to another person (the synaesthetic experience Richard had through connecting with nightingale song) and Susan’s ‘imaginal’ experience of entrapment and dismemberment by a crow-becoming-an-owl. As someone relatively new to shamanism these are areas of experience I’m only just beginning to explore.

    Personally I’ve never found the distinctions as clear cut. My ‘totem’ is Horse. I’ve been involved with horses since I was six and worked with them on and off before and after university. They haunt my dreams. They drew me back to work at the saddlery where I’m currently employed. I journey with or as a white mare who is sometimes flesh and blood, or made of mist or moonshine, horned or winged. We’ve been to places that seem to be Otherworld dimensions of places in my local area, some which seem to co-present, others versions of places past. We’ve been to places identifiable in myths. And some unidentifiable by map, history book or story. I also journey with Cat (another life long companion) and occasionally Dog. I tend to see my spiritual experiences as linked to existing flesh and blood relationships and find them reciprocal.

    I have similar experiences with plants and trees. Those existing abundantly within my area such as ivy, which drapes everything due to the damp climate and the huge oaks which gave Amounderness it’s name (the oak covered swamp) speak loudly. Ivy binds the land and provides food and shelter for the birds. She survives by doing what she must in a hostile climate. And she’s also a guide into Faery.

    I tend to see Nature and Imagination as instrinsically linked, perhaps one and the same as in one of my favourite quotes: ‘To the eyes of the man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself.’ – William Blake. Aren’t ‘imaginal’ worlds part of nature too?

    Whilst the Wild Hunt has for a long time been a huge interest of mine (it’s my feeling this phenomenon is bound up with deep and transformative processes of the soul, with both physical and spiritual death) I’d agree that play acting in the woods at the expense of the local wildlife is pretty rude.

  2. Like you, Susan Greenwood has a close relationship with horses. She says that a foal taught her about the emotional involvement that underlies magical consciousness. As a child she was fascinated by worms, and kept grass snakes. I was particularly struck by those bird experiences, though, because the two writers seemed to be approaching a quite similar experience of momentarily ‘becoming’ a bird, from such different perspectives. Personally I’m most inspired by those moments when materially co-present, flesh-and-blood ‘people’ affirm inner -dream or other imaginal- experience. I was, incidentally, called ( I can’t think of a better word ), many years ago, to the place where I now live by a memorable experience involving a local rock formation associated with Wild Hunt lore. Although the material ‘real’ and the imaginal may sometimes beautifully overlap and intertwine, I think its important to hold on to a sense of the fundamental difference between them, and not to overemphasise the latter at the expense of the former ( which is what I thought S.G. might be doing ).

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