Reflections on the Ethnographic Study of Contemporary Ritual Magic

Damon Zacharias Lycourinos

This article identifies and engages with the complexities of conducting ethnographic research on a hard-to-access field of Western esotericism, referred to here as “modern ritual magic”. Rather than simply studying magic in terms of how it is understood in the abstract and reacted to by outsiders, I argue that the analytical focus should shift to how it is enacted and becomes meaningful for practitioners. To achieve this, the primary research question focuses on how practitioners use distinctive modes of performance to produce, represent, and experience magic as a participatory process transitioning from an “ordinary” to a “magical” worldview of meaning and effect. Participant observation is employed to gain access to such participatory accounts. Theory from both anthropology and Western esotericism is engaged with to emphasise the problems of entering and portraying this “hidden population”, as well as the role of social media as an additional ethnographic site. I also refer to my own theoretical reflections as an “observing participant” with slight “insider” experience in various ethnographic case studies of modern magical ritual. Finally, to capture the experiential events that define modern magical ritual in terms of shaping one’s perception and cognition as a modern Western magician, I discuss the possibility for studying Western esoteric performances through what Shaun Gallagher refers to as “enactive phenomenology”. This, I suggest, is a promising method for capturing data on how the subjectivity of the “magician” is moulded, experienced, and self-portrayed.

Magic; ethnography; embodied cognition; Western esotericism; reflexivity movement