Review: Lucifer Ascending by Bill Ellis

June 14, 2013

lascI picked up this book written by an academic active in Lutheran ministries because the author and I share an uncommon belief: that the West has never been thoroughly Christianized and pagan “superstitions” continue to operate in plain view. Bill Ellis’ examples on this subject are much closer to orthodox ideas of the occult then mine would be, including things like formal ritual magic, Satanic “bibles,” ghost stories, and graveyard encounters with the supernatural. My examples would be more banal, including things like healing charms, housecleaning rituals, garden planting, and signs regarding true love. Yet even keeping his examination of magic to the narrow scope that meets Christian definitions of diabolical, Ellis finds no shortage of material.

The inspiration for this treatise appears to be the high level of concern in fundamentalist circles generated by the Harry Potter books, which Ellis believes is misplaced. He places the tenets of the Hogwarts School in historical context and argues, “witchcraft, magical ritual, and contact with the supernatural constitute stable and generally functional folk traditions in cultures in both Europe and North America, up to the present day.” Ellis explores folk magic and legend of the past 300 years with more emphasis on German and Pennsylvania Dutch practices than I have seen elsewhere, and he also gives a nod to the prevalence of hoodoo. For this reason many students of witchcraft will find it useful in providing historical background. Ellis provides interesting theories about the function of witchcraft beliefs in Christian society and the reasons for authoritative suppression of witchcraft. Some of these motivations for suppression, such as patriarchal monopoly of medicine or legal control of marginalized people, will be familiar to many. One which was new to me has to do with the fundamentalist view of Christianity as a force for good that is opposed to witchcraft as the force of evil. Some Christians need to view witches as malignant evil-doers because that belief conforms to their world view and affirms that their own monopoly on goodness. The supposition that “a good witch is worse than a bad witch,” expressed in the Roman Catholic theology which laid the groundwork for the witch hunts, is generally believed by Pagans to reflect the desire of the church to hold monopoly over magic and ritual and to wrest power from women and the lower classes. But this may not be the issue operating in present day clashes between witches and fundamentalists. If certain Christians are determined to view themselves as stalwart goodness in a world of evil, then the presence of malignant witches is reassuring and the presence of good witches is profoundly unsettling. With fundamentalists of this stripe, pagan anti-defamation campaigns to show the world that “we’re really good people” will not meet with success and will even precipitate greater opposition.

Ellis devotes considerable space to Satanic escapades of teenagers which range from possession of Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible to summoning witches or ghosts in order to curse them to vandalizing graveyards. He argues that these are expressions of rebellion arising from the disempowerment of youth, using the “demonic possessions” of the girls in Salem Village which precipitated that late seventeenth century American witch craze as an example. I would agree that obtaining a copy of a book entitled Satanic Bible is an act of rebellion, and the girls in Salem Village may have been acting out of their disempowerment, but many of these Satanic activities strike me as reinforcing of Christian beliefs. The cursing of witches and the vandalism of graveyards expresses disaffection and hostility in a socially conforming way. I would place these actions in a category with gay bashing or desecration of synagogues. If rebellion and defiance is the motive, why not vandalize a church? Churches are occasionally vandalized by teenagers, of course, but these churches tend to be African-American, which supports my take on the issue.

The role of women in the early beginnings of the Pentecostal movement, and how that movement co-opted elements of spiritualism and magic, I found fascinating. Ellis explains, “The revival expressed itself from the start as being in some palpable sense governed by supernatural forces.” He contends, “Revivalist movements likely do not produce cycles of supernatural or demonic phenomena, but they do provide ready opportunities in group meetings for people to describe their experiences and fit them into a shared mythology.” Within the context of a new religious movement women found opportunities for leadership that had been denied to them in more orthodox religious settings. One leader, Jesse Penn-Lewis, described the opposition to evangelical women’s ministries as “war by Satan upon the womanhood of the world.” It seems women have typically been at the forefront of new religious movements, from early Christianity to the Pentecostals, only to find themselves in subordinate positions again once these movements solidified.

Lucifer Ascending is more evenhanded and better researched than most books dealing with witches coming out of the academic presses, and I think it adds to the social discourse on witchcraft. Even real witches are not always aware of how pervasive witchcraft is.