Late one night in 1960, my mother (she would have been 15 then) woke in her single bed with the blanket kicked off, sweating in spite of it being deep wintertime in small-town Maine. She was far from her family home in Gibara, Cuba, at a Catholic convent boarding school populated entirely by girls from different Latin countries, girls who were learning English and still absorbing their new alien status. She was also far from her closest childhood friend, Mireya, and a disturbing dream about her had startled my mother awake. They were standing across from each other in the nighttime dark, somewhere outdoors, and my mother stepped closer to Mireya, to talk to her. Suddenly, a young man appeared, came between them — and buried a knife in Mireya’s chest. My mother felt as if the blade had split open her own skin.
Months later, after several letters to her friend had gone unanswered, she learned what had happened: Mireya had been killed by a boyfriend. The murder had taken place around the time of the dream.
As told to me by my mother when I was 9 or 10, this story became one of the minor legends of my childhood. Several times, I asked her to repeat it; it seemed to grow in power with each retelling and become more mythic. My mother intentionally raised me to be distinct from the good Catholic she’d been — she wanted me to see myself as a liberal, a feminist — and I grew into the kind of sophisticated skeptic that composes an entire demographic in my hometown of New York City. But I could never shake a natural attraction to the mystical, the inexplicable, the capital-m Mysteries. The root of it, I think, was all my time in church: the ritual, the repeated lighting of candles, the censers of incense, the elaborate robes, the stories of the martyrs etched into glass panels, the high mass of the sacrament. But it was that image, too — of a girl’s impossible trip through space to witness a killing — that suggested the universe might have a far more crooked logic than any we’ve been able to map. Looking back now, this was one of the reasons, ultimately, that I decided to study witchcraft.
Over the past decade, as a writer and a documentary filmmaker, I’ve indulged my fascination with the edges of belief, spending part of that time immersed in witchcraft and the occult through communities around the country. Along the way, I met Morpheus, a witch who was then living on a wild, hundred-acre parcel of land off the grid in Santa Clara County, California, where she and her partner, through Herculean effort, had erected their very own stone henge for group rituals. Through time spent with Morpheus and her inner circle, I came to understand what it means to be “Pagan,” a label used by most people who practice contemporary witchcraft — possibly as many as 1 million Americans today. I came to know Morpheus as a diehard, dedicated priestess, but also a woman with a wicked sense of humor, a too-loud laugh, an excellent preference for the word “badass,” and complete ease with any of my own doubts and questions. She made me want to know more about the Craft.
And so, more than 20 years after my mother first told me of that nighttime episode, I found myself surrounded by people who believe they can explain it.
It comes down to something called “astral travel,” one of the most far-out practices I’ve encountered in present-day American witchcraft. It’s a way of leaving your body and wandering through another, parallel level of reality known as “the astral,” or the astral plane. Many witches believe that we all travel this way while we sleep — but, once awake, our memory of the experience is so cluttered with dream imagery that we often can’t see the truth of it. With skill, focus, and intention, they say, your actions in this "otherworld" can take deliberate shape, answer specific questions, help change your personal destiny. On this plane, you can battle malevolent spirits, build sprawling temples using only your mind, merge with a stranger through staggering, transformative sex, walk side by side with celestial beings.
The concept of astral travel has been around for centuries, across several cultures, from ancient Hermeticism to Taoism and Hindu mysticism. And in medieval times, there were the benandanti, or “good walkers” — farmer-visionaries in northern Italy, in the 16th and 17th centuries, who believed they had the ability to travel outside of their bodies at night to fight off evil. Two of the major occult societies to rise up in Western Europe during the 18th century, the Golden Dawn (whose members included Yeats) and Ordo Templi Orientis (made famous by the incredibly controversial Aleister Crowley), claimed that some of their core magical work took place “on the astral.” And now this practice has its place in the modern American Pagan movement. Add to that the sprawling, affluent New Age set, and the number of Americans today who believe in astral travel may be in the several hundreds of thousands.
One American witchcraft tradition that requires astral work before initiation is Feri, a secretive, influential group whose following on the West Coast has been escalating over the past decade. Feri was founded in southern Oregon in the ’50s by the poet Victor Anderson, the son of a ranch worker, who combined indigenous American and African diaspora practices with the magic he learned from a local coven of Dust Bowl refugees. Victor was blinded in an accident when he was 2 years old — and yet he said he’d developed etheric sight, enabling him to experience the astral plane. He claimed he’d been trained in astral travel at a young age by a collection of witches, and he and his priestess-wife, Cora, believed they first met and became lovers in this otherworld. This explained why they got married only three days after saying hello.
According to members of the second, younger generation of Feri witches whom I’ve gotten to know, this is some of what’s possible on the other plane:
While wandering on the astral, a witch may come across a place to worship her gods — maybe an Old Irish roundhouse, or a Roman temple with Corinthian columns. And, on a given night, she might instruct her covenmates to leave their bodies and travel to meet her there for ritual.
A witch who wants to join in a ceremony thousands of miles away from where she lives in the Bay Area — say, at the home of other initiates, in the Northeast — might travel outside her body to get there, following a signpost the group has laid out for her in the ritual circle. And afterward, she can return to her physical body where it’s been lying all along, on the floor of her bedroom, on the opposite coast.
A witch may be enlisted by his otherworld “guardians” to spend his nights on the astral, doing battle against wicked spirits for hours on end. And this might go on for weeks, until he is so exhausted from lack of sleep that he strikes a deal, promising to keep up the fight as long as his guardians give him time each night for rest.
A priestess, while traveling on the astral, may find herself rerouted, as if her GPS coordinates had been recalculated by a force larger than her. And this place might be a strange, cavernous building hung with hundreds of swords, and there might be a river of blood flowing through it. And there her goddess might appear, blood-covered, and give her instructions to follow once back in her mundane life.
Or a witch might have an other-dimensional sexual encounter. Victor (who died in 2001) wrote about one such episode that took place when the Grand Master of Feri was already 59 years old. He awoke just before 4 in the morning, aware that he had left his body, and began traveling up through a series of ceilings and floors to a higher room, where he met a group of people — mostly young women and androgynous men. And they asked him to remove his shoes (but not his socks); and eventually, he was left alone with a woman he calls “Karen,” who told him “Now, move with me as if we were dancing.” And soon they were dancing; and he could sense that, in this other reality, they were both equally male and female at the same time. And suddenly, he wrote, “we were swept together, like two magnetic fields, our astral bodies blending together” — because on the astral, as Karen put it, “flesh doesn’t stand in the way.” His description of the climax is ecstatic, seven sentences long.
These are just a few of the otherworldly experiences claimed by American witches in college-town Massachusetts, in the woods of Oregon, and in so many corners of the Bay Area. These are the parallel-universe adventures of the sons of ranchers, government employees, massage therapists, publicists, and schoolteachers. When you learn of a belief like this, belief in a human ability so exotic and enormous, you must decide how to react: You can reject the notion outright; you can subscribe to it wholesale as the superpower you’ve always longed for, now available through careful training; or you can do as I did and take a kind of middle road. I chose to roll with the possibility that there might be things in the universe I just didn’t know about yet.
But if this is pure fantasy (go ahead and call bullshit if you need to; it’s understandable), what desire does this astral-plane business tap into? To me, it seems clear: It’s a desire to take action, to be effective — if not in this world, then on another, parallel plane. To have a purpose; to be useful. As if so many thousands of witches are asking, Could there be another world in which my actions matter more? Could there be a way to live a life larger than the one inhabited by my heavy, physical self? For many Pagans, their mundane lives are elevated by time spent on this other plane. As Victor wrote of the aftermath of that night of astral sex, “[I] returned to my body and found that the presence of my wife with her arm about me was most exquisite. She was enhanced. My feelings toward her were greatly enhanced.”
If you believe, then you believe you have found access to a talent as close to a supernatural power as a person can imagine having, a tool through which to realize your most superhuman self. And if you do not believe, and you read these stories here, or listen as they are told to you by witches, there is this: The idea of astral travel — as a skeptic, you’d call it a “delusion” — is still linked to the better part of ourselves. Because what could ever be wrong with wanting to be useful, to be strong, even if you have to invent an entire separate plane of reality on which to make that possible?
It is hard to be around practices like this one and not grow curious. And as my curiosity deepened, my relationship with a particular priestess — with Morpheus — gave me the guts to push further. And soon I found myself studying, practicing, a part of me wondering if I might someday access that place my mother traveled to on that late night at a Catholic boarding school.
I know I am not alone in this curiosity, even outside of the Pagan community. There are many more who, unexpectedly, will recognize some piece of their secret experiences or family legends in stories of this kind of “travel.” Over years of trying, as a writer, to explain my more esoteric interests to friends or half-strangers, in a bar or in some work meeting in New York or L.A., I’ve been met with confessions — from people who count themselves as grounded, level-headed professionals, non-flakes, mortgage-payers, solid parents, takers of no bullshit, the whole gamut. Again and again, I’ve fielded asides, in lowered voices — descriptions of that one experience that defied logic. “I never talk about this, but once...” I simply took that haunted feeling, that personal mystery, a few steps further.
I still cannot completely accept any explanation of my mother’s encounter. But, in deciding to train in witchcraft, I eventually had my own inexplicable experience — on a long, late night in New England, in a castle, surrounded by the coven with which I’d been studying. Exhausted, dancing, chanting, I felt I left the body I was tethered to and found myself in another landscape; I felt the warm air there and smelled the sea and the cypress trees. It lasted for a few moments — and then it was gone.
Alex Mar is a writer based in her hometown of New York City. Her work has recently appeared in The Believer, The New York Times Book Review, Elle, The Oxford American, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2015. She is also the director of the feature-length documentary American Mystic, currently streaming on Amazon. Witches of America is her first book.
To learn more about Witches of America, click here.