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.

Naturalists, Animists, and Spirituality.

In Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold spoke of a ‘need to re-integrate the full range of human faculties into the study of nature’.  Isn’t this what animist ‘spirituality’ is all about?  Some of our finest naturalists write about moments of intimate contact with other-than-human beings.  Their love for their subject matter is obvious, and perhaps best left understated.  Many more naturalists experience such moments, but don’t write about it.  Public discourse about nature leaves human subjectivity, let alone spirituality, at the margins.  There may be some valid reasons for this.  Discussing spirituality could, paradoxically, be divisive, when ecological priorities demand broad involvement.  Many published accounts, however, suggest a continuum of experience, from the kind of silent attunement my father showed me when we watched birds together, through a range of more intense and exceptional phenomena, some of which are plainly inconsistent with Western scientific rationality.

In Whistling in the Dark, Richard Mabey recalls developing ‘a slight gift for intuiting and predicting’ where unusual birds might be seen.  He found he could ‘conjure up a Woodpecker’.  In Landlocked, he talks about the ‘serendipity’ involved in an encounter with a Dartford Warbler; ‘they are usually the shyest of birds, but true to the spirit of that day, this one sported about in the open for a full quarter of an hour’.  The outside world begins to penetrate his ‘fragile membrane’.  In Common Ground the first pair of Bee Eaters to breed in Britain are described as a benediction.  Yet Mabey resists the implication that his sensitivity has anything to do with ethereal spirituality.

Neo-Paganism is often described as a nature religion.  Apart from a few notable exceptions, however, writings in this tradition seem more concerned with philosphical abstraction, deities, technologies of magic, historical research, or human healing – important as these may be – than with the natural world.  Where other-than-human beings feature there often appears to be more interest in otherworldly ‘power’ or ‘totem’ animals or familiars, an animal’s place in lore, or their purported symbolic or elemental attributes, than in their flesh and blood lives or the fine detail of ecology.  This can become problematical, but again there may be valid reasons.  Animism is not all about ecology.  Reaching for my slightly frayed hat as a reasonably feet-on-the-ground social scientist and worker with human people, my own carefully recorded experience, and that of friends, suggests that other-than-human persons may turn up as helpers or witnesses at times when a human is dealing with a crisis, or a death, and in no state to be thinking about ecological concerns.  I appreciate that the subtlety of such a process may tax the scientific mind.

Questioned repeatedly about spirituality, Richard Mabey describes himself as a materialist or matterist, and stresses the importance of the real.  He does however admit to ‘something close to a moment of communion’, in which his own ‘sort of familiar’, the Nightingale, became a shaman – ‘experienced, rhetorical, insistent’ – and he, the bird’s ‘willing initiate.’   As Mabey’s peripheral vision closed down, the bird’s song appeared to solidify and create synaesthetic effects with the light.

Whether or not we describe such experiences as ‘spiritual’ depends on what we mean by the term, of course.  If the presence of love is a hallmark of spirituality, there certainly seems to have been love involved.  We need to come to our own conclusions about this, and leave others to theirs.  Although I’m not entirely comfortable with ‘spirituality’, because of its associaton with earth devaluing traditions, I want to retain it, for the time being at least, as a way of talking about otherworldly experience.  My mentor in these matters was a spiritual healer, and too many of my experiences seem best described in post-materialist terms.

I’m also concerned that some new animist writing seems intent on turning away from other dimensional experience.  David Abram may have had a point when he recast shamans as ecological experts, and argued that in indigenous cultures the over-worked term ‘spirits’ refers primarily to non-human intelligences such as ants or birds.  His redefinition of magic ‘in its most primordial sense’, as the ‘the intuition that every natural form one percieves … is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations’, may not be very far from Richard Mabey’s animist sounding materialism.  Not all animists go along with Abram’s perception of sentience in grass blades or rocks, after all.  I’m not convinced, however, that this is the whole truth about indigenous traditions.

Some elements of the world view of the Ojibwe people of mid-twentieth century Manitoba, as retold by Irving Hallowell in a paper that has become a key reference point for new animism, would not surprise Western spiritualists.  Hallowell’s informants say that souls can leave the body during dreams, and appear in animal form to a distant observer.  They say that all ‘persons’ have an enduring inner aspect; that the human self survives death and continues its existence in another place.  Entities encountered in dreams may be powerful other-than-human persons who bestow revelations, power, and blessings.  Although such accounts are susceptible to interpretation as metaphorical statements about intrapsychic or ecological processes, there are striking cross-cultural parallels with phenomena and experiences that I would describe in terms of earth-centred spirituality.

Richard Mabey reminds us of the value of reflexivity.  He constantly questions himself, and is scathing, for example, about some of his own early writing that reduced a local Barn Owl to a symbol, ‘an emotional puppet’.  As animists we need to be alert to this all too human tendency to appropriate the lives of our other than human neighbours.

But if we want to deploy the full range of human faculties in the study of nature, we arguably need to engage with the subjective realm, and in particular with the kinds of ‘otherworldly’ sensibility that emerge in dreams, meditation, and visionary states.  Not, in my view, because these states and the worlds they reveal matter more than ‘the real’, but because they’re integral to an appreciation of the layered complexity of this world, and our place in it.  Such a project, I believe, entails careful symbolic thought, and writing as cautious, committed, yet poetic as any good naturalist’s.  I’m only a plodding -ologist, but I’ll do my best.

B.T. 29/11/12.


Aldo Leopold  A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There, Oxford, 1947/1987.

Richard Mabey, Whistling in the Dark, In Pursuit of the Nightingale, Sinclair Stevenson, 1993, and The Barley Bird, Notes on a Suffolk Nightingale, Full Circle Editions, 2010.

Richard Mabey, Landlocked, Sinclair Stevenson, 1994.

Richard Mabey, The Common Ground, a Place for Nature in Britain’s Future, Hutchinson, 1980.

David Abram, The Ecology of Magic, Orion, 10, 3 Summer 1991, quoted in Bron Taylor, Dark Green Religion: Nature, Spirituality, and the Planetary Future, University of California Press, 2010, p89.

Graham Harvey,  Animism, Respecting the Living World, Hurst 2005.

Irving Hallowell, Ojibwe Ontology, Behaviour, and World View, reproduced in Graham Harvey, ed. Readings in Indigenous Religions, Continuum, 2002.

Richard Mabey, God and Me, Granta 93, Spring 2006;  Bioluxuriance, Resurgence, 238;  Definitely Mabey, Interview with Richard Mabey, BBC Wildlife, March 2010.

The drawning by Peter Goode first appeared in a book of poems by Rod Hartle called The Iron Tree, Lantern Press, 1993.