Researcher examines relationship between the occult and religion

Hazleton, Pa. — Witchcraft, magic and contact with the supernatural are common, perhaps even essential, companions of organized religions because they allow the average person to participate in an otherworldly experience, according to a Penn State folklore researcher.

Recently, many fundamentalist Christians warned that the wizardry contained in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books corrupts impressionable young minds. Yet, the lure of the occult, especially for teenagers, is a centuries-old phenomenon and not likely to fade out, says Bill Ellis, associate professor of English and American studies at Penn State’s Hazleton campus and author of “Lucifer Ascending: The Occult in Folklore and Popular Culture” (The University of Kentucky Press, 2004).

In the new book, Ellis looks at modern practices that are universally defined as occult, such as carrying a rabbit’s foot for good luck or using a Ouija board to contact the dead as well as more esoteric traditions such as the use of “black bibles.” In another example, adolescents are fond of nocturnal trysts at graveyards and ritual visits to uncanny places. Some activities are a legitimate cause of concern for parents and community leaders, he notes. But, on the whole, these practices do not spring from an irrational belief in Lucifer or Satan. Witchcraft also is not a closet counter-religion hostile to Christianity, he adds.

The occult complements institutionalized religion by opening the realm of myth to the ordinary person and especially those with the least power and voice in society: children, women, and the poor and disenfranchised, adds the Penn State researcher.

“The occult challenges the conservative social standards and dictates of religion, thus forcing it to come to terms with the totality of human experience, at times checking or repressing it. At other times the occult finds ways to incorporate it into its own practices,” Ellis says. “Religion, in turn, provides a stable ground and safe destination for those wishing to experiment with alternative points of view, even alternative states of consciousness.”

The Penn State researcher notes, “It is no accident that the occult and religion perpetually attract each other, but without either ever absorbing or destroying the other. As a common bumper sticker notes, religion tries to become a magic device for turning unanswerable questions into unquestionable answers. Magic, we could say, makes the process reciprocal, questioning what religion tries to make unquestionable and proposing a wider range of answers to the unanswerable.”

An active member of the Lutheran Church, Ellis has served as president of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research and of the Folk Narrative Section and Children’s Folklore Section of the American Folklore Society.

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