7 Questions with Ethan Doyle White

Welcome to 7 Questions, our series where we highlight exciting scholars in the field of religion and get to know the person behind the book. For this article, we interviewed Ethan Doyle White, whose book, The New Witches of the West, was recently published with Cambridge University Press.

Get to Know Ethan

Dr Ethan Doyle White is a historian and scholar of religion with a PhD in medieval history and archaeology from University College London (UCL). Among his varied research interests are modern religious witchcraft and related forms of esotericism and modern Paganism. He is the author of Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Sussex Academic Press, 2016), Pagans: The Visual Culture of Pagan Myths, Legends and Rituals (Thames and Hudson, 2023) and The New Witches of the West: Tradition, Liberation, and Power (Cambridge University Press, 2024) while, with Shai Feraro, he is co-editor of Magic and Witchery in the Modern West (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). His work also appears in a wide range of peer-reviewed journals, edited volumes, and in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. As well as being the Lead Director of Interviews at the World Religions and Spirituality Project, he teaches courses on topics like witchcraft and Paganism at City Lit, London.

Ethan Answers Our 7 Questions

Question 1: What sparked the idea to write this book?

Put simply, I was asked! Rebecca Moore, who had been co-editing Cambridge University Press’ Elements in New Religious Movements series alongside the late Jim Lewis, dropped me an email seeing if I was interested in contributing. She is the book review editor for Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, for which I regularly write reviews, so she was already familiar with the sort of work that I do. 

To give a bit of background, I’ve been researching and publishing on modern religious witchcraft, as well as related topics, since the early 2010s. That has mostly taken the form of articles in peer-reviewed journals, but I also wrote a monograph, Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Sussex Academic Press, 2016), which was the first (and so far only) academic introduction to that particular form of modern religious witchcraft. With Shai Feraro I also co-edited a volume titled Magic and Witchery in the Modern West (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), in which I included a chapter on Andrew Chumbley, the English founder of a modern witchcraft group called the Cultus Sabbati.

While I’ve long been really interested in Wicca, I’m also fascinated by other groups that claim the identity of the witch in the modern world. That includes not only so-called ‘traditional witches’ like those in the Cultus Sabbati, but also various modern Satanists and practitioners of certain African diasporic traditions. So when Rebecca asked me to write a book for her series, I naturally thought that a study exploring these various different forms of modern religious witchcraft in tandem would be a good idea, because that hasn’t really been done before – you’ve had scholars writing on Wicca, on Satanism, or on Hoodoo, but they’ve kept those things quite separate and not looked at the commonalities. However, it was actually Rebecca who suggested that I approach the topic from a thematic manner, which is what I ended up doing.

Question 2: What role does the sacred play in relation to your work broadly? Where do you see the sacred or sacred things in this book specifically?

What is the sacred? As I see it, ‘sacredness’ arises when we humans perceive something, anything, as being particularly important. These sacred things – a place, an image, a person, a book, or even an idea – are then set aside from other facets of life and culture and treated with a special level of respect or reverence. Obviously there are things which are sacred to particular religious traditions (Catholic saints’ relics, Hindu murtis, the Quran, etc), but I think sacredness is just as apparent in non-religious or secular environments too, and can be seen in the way that a patriotic person regards their nation’s flag, for instance, or in how a cult film fan perceives original props from their favourite movie. Of course, what one person deems sacred won’t be sacred for someone else (and that’s the point of iconoclasm, of course – destroying something that someone else regards as sacred). This is a bit of a long-winded way of saying that I don’t believe that anything is intrinsically sacred; sacredness is always in the eye of the beholder. 

Although it is difficult to generalise here, on the whole I would suggest that modern religious witches don’t place great focus on the idea of sacredness. Even though many (perhaps most) modern religious witches would perceive a distinction between a spiritual realm and a material world, for example, they would not typically say that the former is sacred and the latter profane. That’s not how they look at things. In fact, they often react against these dualistic ideas about the sacred/profane, which they often regard (rightly or wrongly) as being typically Christian. Instead they take quite a counter-cultural stance by using the term ‘sacred’ to describe things that Western society in general more commonly perceives as ‘profane’. Some modern religious witches talk about the sacredness of sexuality, for example, or the sacredness of the Earth. In doing so they are effectively saying that these are things which are important and worthy of greater respect than they are often accorded, at least in Western societies where Christianity is (or historically has been) dominant. The rhetoric or ‘sacredness’ in modern religious witchcraft is somewhat ideological in this way.

At the same time, there are certain locales that are considered of particular importance in forms of modern religious witchcraft. We might consider these spaces as being sacred for practitioners, whether or not they would actually apply the term ‘sacred’ to them. When Wiccans perform rituals, for instance, it is typically within a circle that will be considered ‘sacred space’ for the duration of that rite. When the ritual ends and the circle is dismantled, the space ceases to be anything special – it goes back to being a living room, or someone’s backyard, or whatever it may be. Thus, the Wiccan ritual circle is only a temporary zone of sacredness. 

Not all such sacred spaces are temporary, however. In Britain and in various other parts of Europe, many modern religious witches, like other modern Pagans and esotericists, have shown considerable interest in prehistoric ceremonial sites (stone circles, chambered tombs, etc). These are treated as permanent zones of sacredness; indeed, many practitioners openly call them ‘sacred sites’, which I believe is a term borrowed largely from indigenous rights discourse. For these modern practitioners, the fact that rituals have taken place at these sites over millennia adds to their sacredness; these are spaces that offer connection to distant ancestors, to spirits of the place, and sometimes to earth energies. This modern Pagan use of prehistoric archaeological sites is a topic I have explored in a number of articles over the years, as have various other scholars.

Question 3: If you were to describe the book to someone who is unfamiliar with religious and/or academic jargon, how would you summarize it?

In The New Witches of the West, I pose the question why anyone living in modern Western countries would choose to call themselves a ‘witch’ given the controversial and often bloody history of that term. Drawing from a wide selection of different examples, including Wiccans, LaVeyan Satanists, and ‘traditional witches’, I then offer three answers to that question. 

The first is that modern religious witches value the notion of tradition, that is they appreciate how the imagery of witchcraft offers them a connection to centuries past. The second answer revolves around the idea of liberation, with witchcraft often presented as a counter-cultural identity appropriate for women and minorities who have been historically marginalised in Western societies. The third and final answer is power, that the witch is traditionally seen as a spell-caster, a figure who can do things that the vast majority of people simply cannot.

Question 4: Who were models or inspirations for you as you wrote this book?

I’ve long been in awe of Professor Ronald Hutton, a historian at the University of Bristol. The aforementioned book I co-edited with Shai Feraro was actually intended to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Hutton’s groundbreaking 1999 book, The Triumph of the Moon, a history of Wicca’s development in mid-twentieth-century Britain. I’m not sure that I would have gone into the academic study of culturally alternative religions, let alone written The New Witches of the West, if it wasn’t for the work that Hutton had done.

At the same time, there have been many other influences on my scholarship over the years. That’s particularly the case as I have a strong tendency towards interdisciplinarity; my PhD thesis for example was half history, half archaeology, yet focused on the theme of religion and ritual. When it comes to my more recent work on modern religious witchcraft, I’ve been quite influenced by theoretical and terminological considerations in the study of religion, including in the study of esotericism. To that end, the work of scholars like Jonathan Z. Smith, Wouter Hanegraaff and Bernd-Christian Otto has influenced me in becoming a lot more skeptical of the scholarly utility of a term like “magic” than many other British historians are. That’s something that I think is quite evident in The New Witches of the West.

Question 5: What was the most difficult thing about writing the book? Did you encounter any unexpected problems or challenges?

The problems were less to do with the content of the book than with the practicalities of just sitting down and producing it. Writing a book takes time. That’s especially the case with academic writing, where one has to access and read hundreds of sources, fill out references, double check cited page numbers, all that sort of thing. Every day spent working on that book is a day I’m not earning money or spending quality time with family and friends. 

As well as being a considerable investment in time and energy, producing a book like this also eats up finances as one has to buy books or travel to the appropriate libraries. Sometimes non-academics assume that, because of the horribly expensive prices sometimes charged for scholarly texts, those who write them must earn a tidy sum for doing so. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. When it comes to The New Witches of the West, I was paid a one-off sum (no royalties) and I spent more money conducting the research than I actually received in payment. I knew that when I signed up, of course – no one writes academic books to get rich. Like many scholars, I am driven principally by a fascination for the subject, a love of learning, and a firm belief in the importance of offering up research to the broader public.

Question 6: What has surprised you the most about the book, either in its writing or reception?

The book has only been out a few weeks, and even then only in electronic form (I’ve yet to see a printed copy), so I can’t really speak much to its reception at present. It’s too early for any reviews to appear in academic journals. However, I did receive one very nice email from a scholar of religion who works on totally unrelated topics, so I hope the book is reaching audiences who wouldn’t normally read up on modern religious witchcraft, modern Paganism, or esotericism.

Question 7: With this book done, what’s up next for you?

Well, I have a lifetime’s worth of projects in mind! However, there are several things that are coming out in the next year or so. Last year, Thames and Hudson brought out my lavishly illustrated general audience book Pagans: The Visual Culture of Pagan Myths, Legends and Rituals, and just this morning I received a copy of the new Latvian translation. There are also Spanish, French, and Korean translations available, with a Japanese translation in the works too.  

In a more scholarly vein, a book on modern religious Druidry that I co-edited with Jonathan Woolley should be coming out with Palgrave Macmillan in the next year. Modern religious Druidry is a really fascinating yet somewhat overlooked subject, and I hope that our work encourages more scholars to set about researching it. Other book-length studies of mine that should be seeing the light of day in the next couple of years include a study of witchcraft in British television and film and a historical analysis of the Green Man.

You can order a copy of  The New Witches of the West here.