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Slavic Witchcraft – Natasha Helvin

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Categories: folk, witchcraft, Tags:

Slavic Witchcraft coverWith its title and subtitle, Natasha Helvin’s Slavic Witchcraft: Old World Conjuring Spells & Folklore promises much in this 2019 release from Destiny Books. It’s debatable as to whether this promise is met by Helvin, a Soviet Union-born “professional rootworker and spiritual coach” who now lives in the Pacific Northwest and claims to be a fifth generation hereditary witch. That’s a lorra generations.

With her brief opening chapter, Helvin offers a general history of Russian pre-Christian belief, and its evolution with the coming of Christianity, pushing the idea of dual observance that incorporated the two. In a strange little section she also draws a somewhat unnecessary comparison with Voodoo, which she awkwardly describes as having, like Slavic paganism, aspects of the older African religions; that’s quite some cultural diffusionism.

In her second chapter, Slavic Magic, Power and Sorcery, Helvin begins with very little focus on said Slavic magic, instead presenting a primer on the mechanics of magic in general sans the book’s cultural context. This covers off many of the core principles that will be familiar to anyone who has spent time within 20th and 21st century magic, including expressing intent through actions and words, and the use of objects and amulets as repositories of this intent and power. It is only in the second half of the chapter that Helvin turns to specific Russian examples, abruptly moving away from the high magic theory to spend several pages discussing the folklore associated with Russian sorceresses. This abruptness, perhaps unintentionally, highlights a contrast in writing style that is found throughout Slavic Witchcraft but most noticeably in this chapter. For the most part, this book features the awkward, lumpen tone that one might expect from someone with English as their second language: sentences can be too short, the flow is halting and the phrasing can often be a little tortuous or naïve. The section of magical theory, however, has a more confident flow, and a contemporary nomenclature quite distinct from the rest of the book.

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The spells in Slavic Witchcraft are presented with nary a trace of source or reference and in her introduction, Helvin explains that they come predominantly from her family, with others collected whilst travelling abroad and on expeditions to rural Russia. This does rob the content of context, as there’s nothing denoting a spell’s origin, nothing to give value or credibility based on provenance or even popularity, nothing to suggest that they haven’t all just been made up by Helvin on the spot. This highlights a problem found throughout Slavic Witchcraft, in which there is no referencing, no primary sources, and also, most frustrating, very little in the way of specifics. W. F. Ryan’s 500 paged The Bathhouse at Midnight: An Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia this is not. Instead, this vision of Russia is an ungrounded, almost mythic, one, in which its 17.13 million kilometres contain very few named towns, cities or regions, ultimately implying a widespread homogeneity, given how so many of things are inconceivably attributed, like a comedy bit, to just “in Russia.” Apparently whether you’re in Kaliningrad or Vladivostock, it’s all the same. The same is true on matters of ethnicity and even worse, time, with the spells and the anecdotes existing in some ambiguous temporal space, unmoored from any particular time period. Context is everything and in this instance, context is completely absent. A spell may have been composed centuries ago, or it may have been made up yesterday, it’s impossible to tell.

This lack of context contributes to another problem with the spells in Slavic Witchcraft: there’s too many of them. A vast swathe of the book, fifty pages in all, is dedicated to love and relationship spells of the most psychologically suspect kind, all sharing similar goals and similar techniques to the point of redundancy. If Helvin documented where these spells came from, then there could at least be some validity to including all of them out of historical or anthropological interest. Instead, it’s just spell after spell of ways to get your husband back, how to hurt their mistress or new partner, how to forget your attachment to a married man that you’re having an affair with, how to get a reluctant partner to marry you, how to get your partner to forgive you after you’ve cheated on him and he doesn’t wanna, and how to make men who are indifferent to you instead fall for you, emotionally healthy catch that you are.

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Now, books of this stripe often attract reviews on Amazon from people who, being a little susceptible to superstition, find a particular title too heavy with the bad vibes, a cursed tome that brought bad luck until they wisely disposed of it. Slavic Witchcraft itself has one of these reviews and in some ways, they’re right. Not because the book is anything more than ink on paper, or because the content is grim and dark and will open the very gates of hell (if only), but because, well, some of said content is just gross and comes from a decidedly emotionally unhealthy place. Witness spell after spell that presupposes conflict and infidelity, and provides, as its solution, coercion and deceit. And some of the spells are ridiculous in their specificity, prefacing with misogynistic scenarios that says a lot about their authors: you trusted your beloved before you got married and had complete harmony and understanding between you, but the situation changed after the wedding. You began to control him, answer his calls and demand a full report on what he was doing. The solution? Basically say a charm reminding yourself of your proper place, as the led not the lead, as the neck not the head, which, after a week’s repetition, will change your “inner state,” your anxiety will go away, your irritability will be replaced by gratitude, and best of all, your husband will once again adore you. Score!

Suffice to say, it’s all very icky and all very tiring, and all a bit strange coming from a publisher like Destiny Books/Inner Traditions whose self-help titles on relationships probably don’t contain anything resembling these psychologically damaged inanities. It’s telling that this chapter begins with a bizarre little paragraph stating baldly that God created the first humans as androgynous, happy creatures that were later divided into male and female halves, and now those unhappy heteronormative halves look to reunite with each other and that, dear reader, is what love is. Naturally, this is presented simply as fact, and it is not explained whether this is Helvin’s personal belief, some scrap of folk belief “from Russia,” or just something cut and pasted from an inspirational meme on Facebook. Helvin goes on from here, effectively justifying the spells that follow, by saying that sometimes these relationships between the two halves are not always perfect, since, she seems to say with some inevitability, “either a rival turns out to be more grasping or beautiful and takes your love away or takes a loving husband and father from his family” or you know, the fire goes out and there’s no passion. Options, we’ve got options.

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The other spells collected here are grouped into sections on money and wealth, protection, and house and home. These cover many of the familiar concerns of folk medicine, with some methods that will be familiar from elsewhere. Indeed, reiterating that point, there’s often very little that distinguishes what is here from things that would be found elsewhere, with nothing obviously or uniquely Slavic about the spells. Perhaps the one selling point are the spoken charms which employ a darkly glamorous lexicon and which, par for the course, there doesn’t seem to be any prior trace of, be it in print or online, so you have no idea of their provenance, save for assuming it’s merely Helvin’s hand; or in a few cases,  onemagic.ru

The final section of spells focuses on cemetery traditions and unlike the previous groupings, these have a substantial preamble, outlining various Slavic funeral folk traditions. Again, this has the barest of details, nothing is geographically more specific than ‘Northern Russia’ and there’s little indication of the time we’re talking about, be it ancient, recent or contemporary.

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If Slavic Witchcraft documented its sources and presented itself with considerably more rigour, it would have much to recommend it, as there is a staggering amount of material here that cannot be found anywhere else. But, because of this failing, the reader, save if they be of a most trusting disposition, must surely assume that almost everything here has been crafted from whole cloth and these attested old world conjuring spells are considerably more new world.

Published by Destiny Books

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Hedge-Rider – Eric De Vries

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Categories: witchcraft

Hedge-Rider coverThe size of the ‘witchcraft’ tag in the column to the right is testament to the popularity of the genre and to the amount of so-themed titles that, through little conscious effort, have ended up crossing the Scriptus Recensera submissions desk and being reviewed. With so many witchcraft books read and reviewed, it is often hard to find a unique selling point, with even areas that were once fairly limited specialities, like Traditional and Luciferian witchcraft, now being represented by a veritable surfeit of titles. Needless to say, if this title from 2008 didn’t have something to offer, it wouldn’t have made its way with such ease to the crowded top of the library pile, and this said ‘something’ is effectively a more Germanic take on witchcraft.

Eric De Vries’ key premise can be summarised in one thought, the roots of witchcraft, and in particular the figure of the Witch Goddess, are in a shamanic take on Germanic myth and folklore, and that the oft-touted idea of Celtic origins or influence is overstated. Indeed, throughout this work, De Vries uses the details found in Norse mythology to flesh out the more vague descriptions of witch trials and faery lore. With this, and revealing this reviewer’s biases, comes a pleasant focus on things Helish and chthonic, with De Vries following in the vein of some incarnations of Traditional Witchcraft, particularly those inclined towards the approach of Robert Cochrane, that centre on the idea of a Pale Goddess of Death and the Underworld who combines elements of both Hela and Holda.

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De Vries writes in a largely informal and conversational style that is fairly loose, his editorial voice jumping around with equal parts enthusiasm and earnestness, and with both characteristics contributing to the occasional jibe at Wiccans and other people he disagrees with. Throughout Hedge-Rider, De Vries gives often somewhat contemporary interpretations and musing on metaphysical themes, rather than just presenting the symbolism as self-evident. This aligns with his informal tone, having, like Jan Fries, the tendency to try and demystify what he’s presenting, rather than layering on the obfuscation.

After an introduction to the concept of the hedgewitch, the first chapter proves to be indicative of De Vries’ approach here, detailing first the conception of the underworld and Hela found in Norse myth, and then relating both of these to continental tales of Holda and Holle, As the final step in this puzzle, De Vries then focuses on Holle’s association with witches and in particular the wild hunt, showing that she was both a goddess of life and death, of night and day.

From the witch goddess, De Vries turns to a male counterpart, the black god, whom he primarily identifies with Óðinn/Woden, before proceeding at a brisk pace into chapters on various practical tools and applications. This begins with a consideration of steads and stangs as vehicles for transvection and then evolves into various methods of invoking trance, including the use of wine and entheogens. De Vries seems to be an enthusiastic advocate of the latter, though he only vouches for mugwort, wormwood, sweet flag and passionflower (all with the necessary caveats about careful use), and balks at the use of any mushroom whatsoever, since, as he definitively states, “you’ll only end up hurt or in hospital.”

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The rest of Hedge-Rider continues downwards as it were, providing further tools and methods of travelling to the underworld, drawing on the idea of the fetch and fylgia, as well as ideas of werewolf transformation, each time returning to the themes of witchcraft and then informing them with details drawn from Norse mythology. This is a mixture of the practical and the historical, with De Vries providing techniques along the way but always including them broadly within the body of the text, never as a set of rigid instructions or recipes. The reader is thus introduced to a variety of themes and tools, but nothing that feels dogmatic; though this may not be too appealing for those who prefer instruction and structure.

In the penultimate chapter, the journey reaches its end in the underworld but this isn’t necessarily one in which Hela or any other queen of the underworld is directly encountered. Instead, De Vries turns to the model of the hieros gamos, using Svipdagr and Menglöð, and Freyr and Gerðr as examples of the hero who journeys into the underworld for the love of an otherworldly maiden. This he then brings back to witchcraft via the idea of the demon lover, such as the incubus or succubus, but it’s a brief chapter that feels like the ideas are not fully explored.

Finally, De Vries presents a few pages in summary, followed by musings on lessons learnt and how these can be applied in the everyday. And with that, Hedge-Rider concludes rather quickly, with its large point size meaning you can breeze through the 139 pages that make up its content proper. This is then padded out to 194 pages with an index, a collection of reproduction of many of the classic woodcuts of witchcraft, a book hoard, a reproduction of Grógaldr, and an extensive but not entirely necessary glossary of terms in which even witch apparently needed to be defined.

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Despite his heart being in the right places, there are many problems with the presentation of the material in Hedge-Rider. Too often, De Vries inexplicably begins sentences and even paragraphs with filler words, particularly minor crimes like ‘however’ and ‘also.’ But the strangest opener is ‘actually’ with which, apropos of nothing, he often begins whole paragraphs, seemingly responding to a prior clause that was never argued. This erratic authorial voice can make the copy feel like a first pass, an ebullient but unedited mind dump, and this impression is compounded by the sloppy editing, with a peppering of spelling mistakes, switched homonyms and the occasional malapropism; something that is on show in the book’s very first sentence when De Vries says “Often you here so called ‘Wiccans’ and ‘Pagans’ claim that they are witches.” Poor Baldr fares even worse though, and a lack of proofing renders him as Bladr several times, creating quite the visual image when his death during the gods’ deadly game is mentioned. One could make some allowances for all of this if, as one assumes, De Vries is not a native English speaker, in which case the fault lies more with the publishers, Pendraig, whose best practice should have included a cursory proof and a spell check of at least the first paragraph, if not more.

Along with the sloppy and inconsistent spelling, there are the occasional equally sloppy moments of fact checking. Nothing is ever directly cited, leading you down your own avenues of fact checking, and while there appears to be no malice, there are things that seem to have got muddled. An account from Herodotus is merged, uncredited, with one from Pliny to create a single composite that draws details from two sides of the continent. Similarly, as so often seems to happen, the cast in the events leading up to the death of Baldr are conflated, and while usually the casual retelling in error mistakes Freyja for Frigg, here they’ve gone one step further and it’s her brother Freyr who asks all creatures in the world not to harm Baldr.

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With all that said, Hedge-Rider is a worthy read that has much to recommend it, with caveats. Its overall argument and themes are solid, but it is by no means authoritative, with the lack of references and the brisk pace meaning that the reader may need to do their own work tracking down the sources and seeing how it all stacks up.

Published by Pendraig

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Mysteries of the Werewolf: Shapeshifting, Magic & Protection – Claude Lecouteux

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Categories: folk, Tags:

Mysteries of the Werewolf coverOriginally published in 2008 as Elle Courait le Garou: Lycanthropes, hommes-ours, hommes-tigres, Claude Lecouteux’s exploration of werewolves sees its first English translation with this 2021 edition from Inner Traditions; now featuring a title and subtitle more appealing to that publisher’s audience. Lecoutex is a familiar figure in the world of European folklore, with Inner Traditions having issued the English translation of his various works on dwarves, the spirits of the dead, the wild hunt and the almost alliterative triumvirate of witches, werewolves and fairies. Despite their mass market status as Inner Tradition titles, each of these volumes is a valuable resource, with Lecouteux displaying an easy erudition and familiarity with his subject.

Mysteries of the Werewolf differs from his other works both in its specificity and its approach. Whereas previous titles have broadly and discursively covered their subject matter, Mysteries of the Werewolf feels more like a reference work, being largely a source book or collection of case studies. An extensive introduction provides the only concentrated section of prose via an outline of werewolf history, touching on various appearances of the phenomena in myth, legend, and contemporary cinema, as well as general discussions of werewolf belief, trials and the explanations given for them.

Subsequent chapters take the case study approach, grouping the entries under Lecouteux’s broad headings of becoming a werewolf, diabolical pacts and spells, clothing and hides, being discovered as a werewolf, were-creatures and doubles, and finally, the freeing, healing or expulsion of werewolves. Each entry is preceded with a title (the majority of which are of Lecouteux’s own devising), and a subtitle giving location and date, but infuriatingly, there is no mention of the actual source. Instead, where available, the subtitle is endnoted and the corresponding source can be found by laboriously flicking through to the notes near the conclusion of the book. Incorporating the title and author, sans the publishing information, into the heading would have provided considerably more context for each nugget of knowledge, which are now rendered practically anonymous. Knowing at a glance, for example, that the first entry on Irish werewolves comes from Nennius, whilst a different one comes from Gerald of Wales, gives the reader a surprising amount of information, contextualising the information within its place and time and also pointing potentially to the author’s intent or credibility. Without it, and without the wearing out of fingers whilst trying to find the endnotes, one might assume that the references are nothing more than relatively recent summaries, rather than primary sources.

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This lack of background information renders some of the entries incomprehensible, or at the very least doesn’t help the reader understand what is happening in a particular narrative. This is most evident in an entry titled The Bastards, unhelpfully subtitled “France, twentieth century,” which is actually an excerpt from Henri Pourrat’s Légendes du pays vert. Now sheared of its context, the reader is given what appear to be three different summaries of werewolf activity confusingly interspersed with elements of dialogue that assumes the reader has better bearings within the narrative than they conceivably do. Considering that the value of a book such as this is as a reference, the relative anonymity of each entry makes its annoyingly unfit for purpose.

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While the recurring themes found in the groupings of each chapter should be self-evident, it is surprising that Lecouteux doesn’t provide anything in the way of summary or analysis in order to draw out connections or highlight differences. Instead, save for the odd footnote, these excerpts are presented unordered and as is, with no geographical or temporal groupings, thereby sending the reader careening through space and time. Not all accounts are from Europe and Scandinavia, and Lecouteux does occasionally travel further afield to China and Japan, adding to the disorientating feeling. These entries are somewhat incongruous giving that they mainly deal with transformation into tigers, rather than wolves, and while their inclusion under the previous edition’s subtitle of Lycanthropes, hommes-ours, hommes-tigres is appropriate, here they feel out of place in a discussion of the ‘mysteries of the werewolf.’ This is especially so given that, other than their transformation into an animal, the weretiger shares little of the folkloric elements associated with the European werewolf, and if said animal transformation is the only prerequisite, you could include all manner of things, even, why not, the Animorphs young adult fiction series from the 1990s? That’d be fun.

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Showing that he’s far from done with providing source material, Lecouteux concludes Mysteries of the Werewolf with an extensive appendix of testimonials from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries. These are, once again, listed without author or source, information that is only endnoted, and given that these are all intended as direct transcripts, this omission seem even more egregious here, shearing each piece of its context. This is exacerbated by the way in which some entries do open with minor background information from Lecouteux, but this is inconsistently applied and others were apparently not so deserving.

As stressed ad nauseum throughout this review, whilst promising, Mysteries of the Werewolf is hamstrung in its mission of being a thorough reference work due to its, well, lack of immediate references. This can hamper not only its usability but also its readability, as the infuriatingly anonymous appearance of the sources leave the reader contextually untethered, until eventually they’re unwilling to go on if every entry necessitates thumbing through the rear of the book for missing relevancy. If one isn’t as perturbed by this as your humble reviewer is, then Mysteries of the Werewolf can be viewed as a valuable reference book with a near complete, or at least highly representative, collection of European werewolf lore, with weretigers thrown in for fun.

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Mysteries of the Werewolf is available as an ebook while the only print version is as a hardcover edition with a pleasant blue-hued, claw-marked dustjacket over a blue binding; and the title foiled in silver on the spine. Text design and layout comes at the hand of Debbie Glogover, with body set in Garamond, with Cantoria and Fabello as internal display faces, and with the strong fang-like serif stylings of Bronzier for the title. Woodcuts of varying quality are sprinkled throughout the pages as the only form of illustration.

Published by Inner Traditions

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Women and Gender Issues in British Paganism, 1945–1990 – Shai Feraro

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Categories: goddesses, paganism, witchcraft, Tags:

Women and Gender Issues in British Paganism, 1945–1990 coverPart of the Palgrave Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic series, the appeal of a book like Shai Feraro’s Women and Gender Issues in British Paganism, 1945–1990 is its focus on a relatively recent period of history, something that for some of us is within living memory. It also mines themes of women and gender that, despite the centrality of goddess imagery in contemporary Wicca and witchcraft, has been little explored specifically, with Feraro considering in particular the reaction in Britain to both second-wave feminism and the emergence during the 1970s and 80s of goddess spirituality and feminist interpretations of witchcraft.

Feraro is an Adjunct Lecturer at Oranim College of Education, Israel, and has published with Palgrave in the past, editing the anthologies Contemporary Alternative Spiritualties in Israel in 2016, and, in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon, 2019’s Magic and Witchery in the Modern West. Feraro’s own contribution in the latter anthology, titled Playing The Pipes of Pan: Pagans Against Nukes and the Linking of Wiccan-derived Paganism with Ecofeminism in Britain, 1980-1990, considers many of the ideas that he expands upon here, and anyone who has read the latter will come across familiar beats, and yes, familiar phrasing, in this more comprehensive title.

Feraro writes in an immensely readable style that is accompanied by an easy and sympathetic familiarity with his subject matter, displaying none of the anthropological tourism one might expect from something such as this with its roots in academia; and which began as a dissertation completed at the University of Tel Aviv in September 2016. He includes extensive footnotes throughout, not just citing sources but providing additional information that makes them required reading alongside the main text.

Feraro begins at the beginning, providing, as an introduction, a condensed review of British Wicca and witchcraft, as well as the general Victorian occult milieu of Theosophy, Thelema and the Golden Dawn’s Hermeticism from which they emerged. This gets more specific in the second chapter when the focus turns entirely to Gerald Gardner and Alex Sanders, providing a survey of the former’s familiar biographical journey from a creator of witchcraft-tinged fiction to the creator of a fiction-tinged witchcraft. Feraro places Gardner within his time, noting that influences that left their mark in the creation of his nascent Wiccan liturgy, including Margaret Murray and Aleister Crowley, but not Dion Fortune, despite an intersection of themes and ideas. Prescient to the gender themes of this book, Gardner imagined witchcraft as the descendent of a matriarchal Stone Age in which men were hunters and women stayed at home “making medicine and magic,” and as Feraro documents he wouldn’t be the last person in witchcraft to detail a history based simply on what they imagined/hoped might have happened.

Despite his veneration of a goddess and the role given to the priestess in his witchcraft, Gardner’s feminism was something of a half-measure or token gesture. Both he, Sanders and many of their respective students believed that a priestess in witchcraft wielded great power, but that this power was only granted to them, oh so graciously, by the priest, who could always take it back should they desire; be it because the priestess was too old, how charming, or just, well, because. Like a good submissive, Gardner seems to have viewed power as something to be played with only in a particular space, as something consciously given over for kicks, but with the understanding that you ultimately remain in control, especially once the session is over, the dom is paid and the scourge is put away. Decades later, Asphodel Long succinctly noted this half measure feminism when detailing her dissatisfaction with Wicca, describing how the British witchcraft of Crowley, Gardner and Sanders “… although deemed to be based on traditions apparently inherited through our grandmothers, in fact sets up a male oriented craft, worshiping a male god, … allowing to women a ‘priestess’ role and confirming heterosexual stereotyping on a patriarchal pattern.” Such heterosexual and patriarchal patterning would prove to be a stumbling block for many traditional crafters upon encountering the spectre of Dianic, feminist, and even, let’s use hushed and scandalised tones, lesbian covens, in which the idea of arbitrary, binary-gendered membership didn’t seem quite so important. Indeed, the obsession with an often essentialist gender balance in covens, seemingly argued for the strongest by sclerotic men worried that any shift beyond a 50/50 binary might be a step too far, is amusingly quaint, as is the attendant emphasis on witchcraft as strictly a fertility religion, now practiced by urbanites that had never put plough to furrow. One shouldn’t oversimplify this response and Feraro dutifully shows that opinions across the entire subculture were by no means monolithic, and for every amateur sociologist like John Score, telling women to respect and encourage male dominance and aggression, matching it with loving feminine submissiveness, there was a Michael Howard engaging with and promoting Monica Sjöö and validating her individual choice of acknowledging only the female aspect of the divine.

In chapter three, Feraro moves away from witchcraft specifically to look at the emergence of the usually unaffiliated Matriarchy Study Groups, and the wider Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain. This also provides an opportunity to consider how the writings of radical and cultural feminists such as Kate Millett, Mary Daly, Adrienne Rich, Susan Griffin, Robin Morgan, and Susan Brownmiller provided the grounding for the development of feminist spirituality across the Atlantic in the United States, in turn leading to the development during the 1970 and 80s of the Dianic witchcraft of Zsuzsanna Budapest and Starhawk’s Reclaiming tradition. Starkhawk is a constant presence not just in this chapter but throughout the book, with an influence that seems still greater than the generous 213 mentions she has; but which contrasts strongly with Gardner’s 160 and the 98 of both of the Sanders, Alex and Maxine. Even so, it is impossible to overstate Starhawk’s impact on the British witchcraft scene, with her Spiral Dance being almost universally well reviewed and received, and her occasional visits to Britain creating great interest. Even those witches with a direct line of descent back to Gardner appear to have thought highly of this newcomer, with none of the bitterness or suspicion that one might expect, with good reason, the occult subculture to be so capable of. Budapest and Starhawk’s influence on both British witchcraft and non-witchy goddess spirituality was often subtle and unrealised, with Feraro referring to Ronald Hutton’s observation that material produced by the two women, in particular chants, entered into the ‘oral tradition’ of witchcraft and were quickly assumed by some witches to be of ancient pedigree, rather than something imported relatively recently from the United States of all places.

In chapter four, Feraro turns to Britain’s literal green and pleasant land, with a consideration of three sites and events: the new age hub of Glastonbury, the anti-nuclear Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp and the emergence of pagan festivals and conferences. In chapter five, he narrows his view to consider in greater detail a number of specific goddess women and Dianic witches, profiling Asphodel Long, Kathy Jones, Jean Freer, Janet McCrickard, Felicity Wombwell, Shan Jayran and Monica Sjöö. Of these women, Sjöö, as an active participant in British feminism and as part of goddess spirituality’s intersection with witchcraft, has an influence rivalling that of Starhawk within these pages, racking up 411 mentions. Her unapologetic and vociferously held views provided the perfect spectre for those in witchcraft that thought, horrors, this feminism and goddess worship might all be going too far. Chapter six follows a similar individual approach to its predecessor, but from a different perspective, this time seeing the response to feminist witchcraft and the women’s liberation movement from authors who represented effectively the Wiccan establishment: the Sanders, the Farrars, Patricia Crowther, Lois Bourne, Doreen Valiente, Vivianne Crowley, Marian Green and Rae Beth.

On the surface, Feraro’s seventh chapter promises to be the most interesting section of this book, discussing the variety of occult magazines, zines and newsletters from across the 1970s and 1980s. As he notes, magazines such as these gave voice to the grassroots opinions of everyday Wiccans and pagans, letting them sit alongside those of the subculture’s major figures who already had the option of having their voices heard in their own books. From a personal perspective, there is always a lure to zines and smaller journals, and an attendant nostalgia that recalls the promise of raw, experiential knowledge derived from the rock face of occult practice. As he does with the biographies in the previous chapters, Feraro introduces each magazine thoroughly discussing their approach and the history of the people behind them, before detailing their response, if any, to goddess spirituality and feminism. He covers familiar titles like Michael Howard’s The Cauldron, John Score’s The Wiccan, Hilary Llewellyn Williams and Tony Padfield’s Wood and Water, Phil Hine’s Pagan News, and the organ of Pagans Against Nukes, The Pipes of PAN; as well as lesser known publications like The Aquarian Arrow, Silver Wheel Coven’s house magazine, Dragon’s Brew, and others.

Women and Gender Issues in British Paganism has much to recommend about it and its true value is two-fold: first, with its focus on a subject little written about and second, in the thoroughness of these considerations. Exemplary of this are the profiles in chapters five and six, where a lesser title may have relegated biographies to one paragraph summaries, whereas Feraro honours everyone with a thorough background, allowing each person to appear as individuals, rather than briefly introduced faceless names.

Despite the frequent refrain of ‘thoroughness’, there is a degree of sloppiness in the proofing of Women and Gender Issues in British Paganism, with the occasional appearance of vagrant words that remain after sentences have been reworded, incorrect verb forms and the odd but amusing wrong-word error. See, for example, a single paragraph on page 92, in which Museum Street’s famed Atlantis Bookshop miraculously transforms in a mere five lines into the slightly less mystical Atlantic Bookshop. While these errors are not necessarily common, their appearance can be jarring in a title such as this that otherwise feels meticulously constructed; especially in those cases where several errors do appear in relative close proximity, only a few pages apart.

Published by Palgrave Macmillan

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Helvete: A Journal of Black Metal Theory – Issue 3: Bleeding Black Noise – Amelia Ishmael

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Categories: music, Tags:

Helvete 3 coverThe first two volumes of Punctum Books’ Helvete journal have been previously reviewed here at Scriptus Recensera and 2016’s third instalment, edited this time by Amelia Ishmael, continues this often tangential consideration of black metal with a focus on the idea of black noise (and black metal as this black noise), thereby moving away from obvious touchstones to more outré realms. Written contributions come from Kyle McGee, Simon Pröll, Nathan Snaza, and Bert Stabler, while there are visual pieces from Alessandro Keegan, Bagus Jalang, Faith Coloccia, Max Kuiper, Michaël Sellam, the duo of Gast Bouschet and Nadine Hilbert, and a combination of both written and visual by Susanne Pratt. As this line-up shows, there’s considerably more pictures than prose here, suggesting, perhaps, that there’s only so much theory one can write about black metal and that that limit may have been reached. But given this visual emphasis, let’s begin with the art side of things for once.

Inevitably, given the focus on things black, there’s a rather singular palette used across these works, each to varying degrees of success and not without a little fatigue and a creeping of sameness. The highlight comes, once again, from Gast Bouschet and Nadine Hilbert, whose work has featured in previous issues of Helvete and was, by this reviewer, well received. Titled 1558 – 2016, these four pieces follow a varied approach to black with midtones and scratched texture providing interest across images that are so abstracted that little is identifiable, other than a sense of intrigue and mystery. Not quite as stunning but still well composed are parts 3-5 of Bagus Jalang’s Distraction, where his acrylic painting on paper creates negative spaces, one part topographic map, one part spectral absence. Two further entries from Max Kuiper and Faith Coloccia show that there is perhaps a successful, almost obligatory, ‘black metal theory photographic aesthetic’ at play here, with grainy abstracted textures of water, ink and decay, and with depth of field blur and saturated blacks a bonus. Other pieces are less successful, like Alessandro Keegan’s exploration of candle soot and white gouache on paper, where aimless feathered motifs floating against soot clouds are explored in five variations that seem to have had said all they had to say by the time you turn from the first example to the second.

Work by Gast Bouschet and Nadine Hilbert from 1558 - 2016 series

Susanne Pratt’s Black-Noise combines the written and visual in a consideration of a similarly-named installation she created in 2013. Subtitled The Throb of the Anthropocene, her essays details how the work was created in response to Australian coal mining and its impact on both the environment and people, with the constant sound of industry creating a black noise of machinery and mining blasts. Pratt took recordings of these low frequency sounds and played them back in the gallery using speakers to influence trays of coal dust and water. Four prints are provided as photographic documentation of this work, the water and dust creating landscapes of black ripples, waves and tones. Pratt draws comparison with Carsten Nicolai’s infrasound artworks and links her considerations to black metal via just one band, Wolves in the Throne Room, whose concerns with ecology, and perhaps their more responsible image, also ensure a disproportionate presence throughout both this volume and the entire series, including an appearance in Timothy Morton’s first volume essay At the Edge of the Smoking Pool of Death: Wolves in the Throne Room; which Pratt references.

Simon Pröll’s Vocal Distortion turns to black metal’s use of the voice as a gateway into a wider discussion of how black metal obscures its delivery of information, whether it be through indecipherable vocals, unprinted or untranslated lyrics, or the obfuscation employed in some band logos. The exploration of the use of native language and topography as part of this insularity and exclusivity provides an interesting, albeit brief, diversion into black metal’s regionalism, highlighting how the genre contrasts strongly with pop culture in which English remains its lingua franca.

In Leaving the Self Behind, Nathan Snaza employs a disorientating and confounding experience of listening to Blut Aus Nord’s 2006 album MoRT as a device to explore ideas of dissolution in this volume’s longest contribution at seventeen pages. Snaza situates black metal’s idea of the annihilation of self in opposition to the Enlightenment, preferring instead a practice of Endarkenment; a term taken from a track title by another French black metal band, Obscurus Advocam. Endarkenment as described by Snaza is an inversion of Enlightenment and its goals, being an attunement to the dark which animates the world via strategies of interference. But it’s also effectively just a fancier name for the kind of fair-is-foul foul-is-fair rhetoric that can be found in any black metal album or interview.

Ash, charcoal, and salt painting by Faith Coloccia

Bert Stabler’s False Atonality, True Non-Totality mirrors his contribution to the previous volume of Helvete, being a little aimless, beginning with a several page discussion of noise theory via an interaction between Seth Kim-Cohen and Christoph Cox in the pages of Artforum, before going, well, all over the place. Stabler has a tendency to write in flowery, categorical statements that easily grate, especially when these utterances and metaphorical models seem off the mark despite their attempt at glib profundity. Black metal, for example, apparently hopes to evoke “leftover radiation from the Big Bang… or the ancient poisonous corpse-sludge of petroleum” but instead its “familiar roar is of the throng and its bloody flag flapping turgid in an icy gale, visible by the dim embers of an incinerated basilica” whatever that picturesque image is supposed to mean. Similarly, and quite categorically, black metal apparently “derives its potency from just the lack of interest in getting-anything-done,” and black metal “evokes the formlessness of physical and mental background buzz, at the same time as it attempts to be an anthem, a hymn, or a retort.” At four pages, this lack of interest in getting-anything-done it is mercifully short, huzzah.

In this volume’s final piece, Kyle McGee devotes a substantial fifteen pages to Pennsylvania’s purveyors of industrial black noise T.O.M.B. in what amounts to a paean to their sound, gushing with torrents of picturesque praise that are appropriate given how much their music conveys ideas of bludgeoning cascades and violent sanguine flows. It is because of this relation to its subject matter that there is an appropriateness to McGee’s theoretically dense yet bloody and visceral language, as typified by the glorious subtitle Grotesque Indexicality, Black Sites, and the Cryptology of the Sonorous Irreflective in T.O.M.B; unlike Stabler’s bewildering landscape of flaccid flags and dim embers. McGee views T.O.M.B.’s music with a suitably corporeal analytical model that he calls an excarnation of place, a stripping away of flesh that stands in contrast to the Church’s investment in incarnation, in which there is a profanation and deterritorialisation of spaces, objects and bodies. Of course, this doesn’t preclude one from being pragmatic and saying that this elaborate paean could equally be an exercise in hyperbole and ornamentation, reading far more than necessary into what could equally be viewed as just some hideous racket.

Figure 3. by Adrian Warner, 2014

With its emphasis on stygian artwork and only five written contributions, this third volume of Helvete feels a little lacking. None of the written pieces really stand out in the way others have in previous volumes, and only Pröll’s Vocal Distortion and McGee’s grandiloquent consideration of T.O.M.B. manage to be both enjoyable and memorable. Otherwise, there’s an impression of diminishing returns, and given that there was never a fourth volume in this series, this murky well seems to have run dry.

Published by Punctum Books

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The Norse Goddess – Monica Sjöö

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Categories: germanic, goddesses

The Norse Goddess coverMonica Sjöö Sjöö was an artist and writer whose book The Great Cosmic Mother, co-written in its final form with Barbara Mor, was one of the pioneering titles in the canon of modern goddess spirituality. That book had its origins in a pamphlet that saw several iterations until expanding, under Mor’s hand, to 500 pages, and in some ways, The Norse Goddess feels like a return to those more focussed beginnings, running to a mere 64 pages. Published five years before her death in 2005, it also feels like a return for Sjöö in another way, narrowing her focus from the cosmic and universal to her native Sweden and Scandinavia, having lived in the British Isles for more than half of a lifetime.

Given this personal investment, it is perhaps unsurprising that The Norse Goddess has the sense of a biography or travelogue, something that Sjöö makes clear in the title of her introduction which identifies herself as a “Daughter of Mother Hel,” declaring “From the North am I.” This association with Hela is one of the appealing parts of this book, and it is interesting that Sjöö’s most famous painting, 1968’s God Giving Birth, shows a goddess figure whose face, like Hela’s, is dimidiated into dark and light halves. Fittingly, this painting provided the gateway into Sjöö’s Scandinavian reawakening, when it was purchased by the Museum Anna Nordlander in Skellefteå, who then also curated a touring exhibition of Sjöö’s work that travelled to three cities in the north of Sweden. During this tour, Sjöö was taken on a journey through southern Lapland and on Galtispuoda mountain in Norrbotten she broke down, overwhelmed with sadness and joy, crying for the beautiful land of her childhood that she had left long ago.

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Sjöö casts her Scandinavian net wide here, surveying distances both temporal and physical to create what she hopes is a complete picture focussed around goddess figures in the north. She begins with the Sámi, first with a general anthropological introduction and then with a deeper look at four Ahkka goddesses, Maderakka and her daughters Sarakka, Juksakka, and Uksakka; though there is, strangely, no mention of another but unrelated Akka, Jabme-Akka, goddess of death and the underworld. Sjöö then moves on to a more archaeological focus with two brief chapters dealing with sites of inhabitation in Mesolithic Scandinavia and on the Bronze Age hällristningar found at places like Nämforsen and Norrköping, with particular emphasis given to the image of the elk in these rock carvings. As the brevity of this description might belie, Sjöö’s chapters are equally brief, providing a conversational summary, rather than much in the way of details or references. This continues in later chapters where she briefly considers the Vanir, and then Nerthus, before jumping to the account of creation in Völuspá and then onto the Finnish creation mythology found in the Kalevala.

Understandably, Sjöö embraces the Helfolk hypothesis presented by Gunnel and Göran Liljenroth in their 1994 book Hel – Den Gömda Gudinnan I Nordisk Mytologi, in which Hela was the preeminent goddess of ancient Scandinavia, receiving worship from an indigenous group of people whose beliefs and culture predated the arrival of both the Æsir and Vanir religions by millennia. These people lived on the west coast of Norway during the Ice Age, cut off from the rest of ice-bound Europe where they were protected by both the warmth of the Atlantic Ocean’s Gulf Stream current and by Hela Herself. She was seen, the Liljenroths argue, as the personification of the mountains that protected their fertile strip of coastal land and of the caves that gave them shelter. These ideas permeate Sjöö’s own consideration of Hela, emphasising her connection with caves, mountains and the underworld as a shamanic goddess of death and rebirth. Perhaps the most interesting reference to Hela is a personal one, in which Sjöö recounts a series of nightly dream encounters she had with Her during Samhain in 1984. These coalesced into a drawing in which Hela is depicted as she appeared in Sjöö mind’s eye, dressed in animal furs like a shaman, with a burning candle sitting betwixt a pair of horns upon Her head, and Her face starkly white in the surrounding darkness.

The Norse Goddess spread with image of Hela by Monica Sjöö

Sjöö’s style is a little unfocussed and not exactly rigorous, creating an appealing narrative but one which you would want to double check before embracing wholly. There is a wooliness here, where, for example, the extent of her referencing can be to casually state that material for one section was found in “German sources,” which could mean anything; although that’s positively academic compared to the citation that rapidly follows in which she says no more than “I have also read…” In addition, it often feels like Sjöö transparently embraces a little-known theory over another more accepted or updated one simply because she wants to kick against the pricks of patriarchy, distrusting anything a male or establishment archaeologist might have said, unless it happens to be something she conveniently agrees with.

The layout of The Norse Goddess is irredeemably awful and amateurish, with body text in Times New Roman and the titles set in the ghastly and incongruent Algerian; at a point size that is only slightly larger than the body, thereby making the typeface’s faux shadow smudge into uselessness. Paragraphs run densely across the page with the tiniest of left and right margins, creating a feeling of claustrophobia, and featuring both first line indents and redundant paragraph breaks. This cramped sensation is continued in the treatment of Sjöö’s images, with many of them being reproductions of her large-scale paintings, but shrunk down to a quarter the size of the page. Detailed, portrait-orientated works such as The Earth is Our Mother, Archaic Mother, and Spirits of Sky, Earth and Underworld would have been better served by being given some rarefied space and formatted at full page size, instead of being crammed next to blocks of text. Indeed, the whole book could have looked like so much more if the page count has been increased to give everything more room to breathe and if care had been taken with the typography, and with the proofing. Capitalisation is inconsistent and mistyping abounds (hello “Sacandinavian Bronze Age,” hello “Ashodel Long,” and hello there “Kalevala” that becomes “Kalavala” within the same paragraph), creating the impression that there was little proofing at any stage of production.

The Norse Goddess spread

The binding of The Norse Goddess mirrors the problems with layout, with an overall amateurish quality. The pages are made of an incongruous and slightly heavy glossy stock, and the binding is far too tight, wedging the pages together. Like a cheaply-printed Capall Bann title, the conservative size of the gutters (with no allowance given for creep) means that these glossy pages never open as fully as one would like; and holding a spread open long enough to read both pages can lead to digital fatigue.

In all, The Norse Goddess is an interesting book whose premise is both intriguing and appealing, but it is nonetheless let down by its lack of rigour, meaning that its arguments never feel watertight and indeed are often rendered highly speculative. The layout reflects this, making one imagine what could have been in a book that is more convincing in both its literary and aesthetic properties.

Published by Dor Dama Press (an imprint of Meyn Mamvro Publications)

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Magic in the Landscape – Nigel Pennick

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Categories: esotericism, folk, Tags:

Magic in the Landscape coverLike other recent reviewed titles from Nigel Pennick, his Magic in the Landscape is a book previously published in the first half of the 2010s by Lear Books, but which is now seeing a wider release with this new Destiny Books edition. Here subtitled Earth Mysteries & Geomancy, one might imagine that it would follow in the footsteps of people like John Michell and Paul Devereux, exploring fairly well worn paths across a magical and energetic landscape. This isn’t necessarily so, though, and instead Pennick takes a more philosophical approach, couching the discussion of real world examples with considerably more musings on the methodology behind this geological magic and a healthy dose of pragmatism.

Pennick begins, a little unexpectedly, with an introduction that acts as a rambling meditation on a range of ideas under the title A Vanishing World in Need of Rescue. This concerns itself not, as the title might suggest, with matters of imperilled environment or encroachments on the ruins of heritage, but rather with temporality, of the pitfalls of nationalist interpretations of the past, and of the permeability and often contrived or manufactured nature of tradition; a pragmatism that, given his career-long focus on various folk and magical traditions, is both interesting and surprising to hear. A similar voice leads into the book’s first chapter, where Pennick gives a brief history of Britain’s rural landscape, mapping out a process of alienation from the land and progressive urbanisation that began with the removal of common land by Parliament at the behest of the wealthy (a process that between 1604 and 1914 saw over 5,200 such Inclosure Acts, affecting 6.8 million acres of land). These acts literally imprisoned and reshaped the land, with new owners maximising its agricultural use by destroying ancient walkways, trees and standing stones, while the peasantry were no longer able to freely work the land as they once had. Pennick notes how the Inclosure Acts later assisted the construction of railways which added still more barriers across the landscape, and incentivised entrepreneurs to build factories and mills in close proximity for ease of transformation, hastening an increasing industrialisation of the land. One might expect this narrative to read like the very worst of Luddism, flailing ineffectively against the modern world,™ but somehow it doesn’t, with Pennick being largely dispassionate, despite his obvious allegiances, and not as, how you say, frothy as others might be.

Magic in the Landscape spread

With this thorough grounding in the mistreatment of the land, it is only in the third chapter that Pennick begins to talk about treating it right and turns specifically to geomancy, opening with a discussion of the quaternary division of the land. This begins with the Etruscan’s method of laying out towns and temples centred around an omphalos, following a cosmological principle that Pennick also sees present in the designs of traditional British towns such as Oxford, Dunstable and Chichester.

Pennick quickly moves on to other elements within this magical landscape, shifting abruptly upwards into the heavens with a consideration of the seven stars of the plough Ursa Major, another on direction, and another on the eight winds. This marks something of an abrupt change of style, with the more philosophical and pleasant meander of the first chapters giving way to one in which info dumps are more common. This is particularly so in the chapter on the seven stars, where sentences of abrupt information concatenate together with no elucidatory sinew connecting them. Here, the staccato delivery of single sentence blocks of information create an aberration that contrasts with the more considered and massaged chapters of the book; almost as if someone forgot to turn the cliff notes into a proper chapter. This, mercifully, is a rare case and otherwise Pennick writes with a well-composed tone, displaying a clear editorial voice and calling upon a range of interesting and wide-ranging polymathic gems.

Magic in the Landscape spread

Including a glossary, a bibliography and an index of several pages, Magic in the Landscape runs to a somewhat slight 169 pages, making it feel like a brief read. This is compounded by type that is set in a generous point size, with equally munificent leading betwixt lines, and chapters that are often brief and comprehensively illustrated. Pennick uses these brief chapters to create a brisk pace, moving with each from one subject to another, providing a range of examples in each that are frequently, though not rigorously, cited in text. The primary themes here are ones of boundaries, centres and spaces, with Pennick eschewing much of the more mystical modern interpretations and instead letting the examples and the explicit beliefs attached to them speak for themselves. This is particularly evident in a discussion of the quintessentially ‘earth mysteries’ idea of leys as unseen straight lines that run across the ancient landscape. Building on his 1989 book Lines on the Landscape, co-authored with Paul Devereux, Pennick takes an unyieldingly rational approach, lightly seasoned with a sprinkle of scathing tone, noting that Alfred Watkin’s ill-conceived but appealing 1920s idea of these straight lines connecting archaeological sites was later given a mystical interpretation, one that Watkins himself had never made, when interest in the theory was reinvigorated by 1960s counterculture. John Michell led this charge, particularly in his seminal book The View Over Atlantis, combining Watkin’s premise with ideas inspired by Chinese Feng shui in which paths of energy pass unseen within the land. Suffice to say, Pennick has no time for such shenanigans.

Given the centrality of ley lines in the Earth Mysteries movement and the whole attendant idea of unspecified but mysterious energies flowing beneath the ground, the presence of the ‘earth mysteries’ phrase in this book’s new subtitle seems a little incongruous. With that said, it is interesting that the word ‘ley’ is significantly more appropriate to Pennick’s considerations of space and genii locorum, rather than the idea of ancient energy lines, given that it is an Anglo-Saxon word denoting not a line but a cleared space (from l?ah/l?a?e ‘a clearing in the woods’, and as seen in l?ge meaning ‘fallow’), and Watkin’s problematic choice of the word came solely from its presence as a suffix in the names of several sites along his old straight track.

Magic in the Landscape spread

The rejection of energetic ley lines does not mean that there is no spirituality or mysticism here because there is, one that is, if you’ll pardon the phrase, more grounded; and yet also more intangible. Rather than literal but scientifically debunkable energies pulsing through the land, this magic in the landscape is more concerned with alignments and intent, with a simpatico betwixt people and space, where occupancy cultivates a spirit of place. It is this that provides the merit to this book, not chasing saints and dragons across imagined lines of power but rather meditating on the land and how orientating oneself within it provides a way of connecting with the great universe.

Magic in the Landscape is illustrated throughout with photographs of various locations, objects and texts. Text design and layout is by Priscilla Baker, using Garamond for the body and Kiona, Gill Sans and Snell Roundhand as display faces.

Published by Destiny Books

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Origins of the Witches’ Sabbath – Michael D. Bailey

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Categories: witchcraft, Tags:

Origins of the Witches' Sabbath coverThe second entry in the Sourcebook series from Pennsylvania State University Press’s wider Magic in History collection, Origins of the Witches’ Sabbath brings together translations of the five earliest accounts of the witches’ sabbath, as well as the records of two witch trials from the same period. The works compiled here are Hans Fründ’s Report on Witchcraft in Valais, Claude Tholosan’s So That the Errors of Magicians and Witches Might Be Made Evident to Ignorant People, Johannes Nider’s Anthill, and two anonymous pieces, the Errors of the Gazarii and The Vauderie of Lyon. The trial records, meanwhile, are those of Jubertus of Bavaria (who was tried by Tholosan) and Aymonet Maugetaz of Epesses (whose evidence may have informed some of the unique content of the Basel version of the Errors of the Gazarii).

Michael D. Bailey is Professor of History at Iowa State University and the founding editor of the journal Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft. In his introduction, he describes these documents, all written during the 1430s and in locations clustered around the western Alps, as the evidence of a remarkable conceptual transformation. Prior to this burst of sabbatic creativity, while witches could be perceived as workers of maleficia, and thereby a danger to society, they were largely imagined as individuals, working in isolation. These five fifteenth century works changed that, creating the idea of a network of witches, a vast diabolical occult conspiracy that gathered together, engaged in infanticide and cannibalism, cast spells and brewed potions, and most strikingly, foreswore their Christian faith and fornicated at the behest of a very real demonic master. In so doing, the witch became a greater threat, effectively being a member of a shadowy, unruly, alternative society that ran alongside the conventional twin of the ordered Christian world. In this way, the actual spells and rituals of witches were of less concern to the authors of these texts, and instead it was the very act of removing oneself from society and joining an inverted counterpart that proved more unnerving, especially with the concern that the appeal of such an idea could spread like a contagion. In Report on Witchcraft in Valais, for example, Fründ says that the witches’ numbers were so great that they optimistically thought that in a year they would be able to raise up their own king and appoint their own courts. At the same time, allegations of witchcraft by the state also provided an opportunity and justification for their own political and judicial expansion, with the secular judge Peter of Bern seeking to extend his city’s judicial reach into the Alpine hinterland, or Tholosan working on behalf of the French crown in the independent Dauphiné.

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With the exception of Nider’s relatively well duplicated Anthill, the texts here survive in just a few copies, or are, so far, entirely unique. The true value of Origins of the Witches’ Sabbath is that despite their centrality in the forging of the image of the diabolical sabbath, these five texts have not previously received complete translations into English, appearing only in scattered form and often as brief excerpts. Bailey acknowledges a debt to Martine Ostorero, Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, Kathrin Utz Tremp, and Catherine Chène’s L’imaginaire du sabbat, which brought these five texts together in a modern French translation in 1999. It is from their work that he bases the bulk of his translation, though he does diverge from their template, replacing an excerpt from the fourth book of Martin le Franc’s poem Le Champion des Dames with The Vauderie of Lyon, and choosing to include only some of Tholosan’s So That the Errors of Magicians and Witches Might Be Made Evident to Ignorant People, limiting the translation to the first section and avoiding the “long slog” of dense legalese that is the rest.

Bailey does an admirable job of noting the similarities and differences across these five accounts in an introductory chapter that considers how each one deals with, elaborates or minimises various elements of the Sabbath narrative: demonic assemblies, night flights and revels, entering the Devil’s service, cannibalism and infanticide, as well as a dual discussion of sex and gender. He then builds upon this introduction with individual prefaces before each text, giving further background about their provenance, biographies of their author, when known, and other information of interest.

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On the whole there are remarkable through lines that permeate these texts, speaking to concerns that were obviously at the forefront of people’s mind at the time. The most striking of these is a profoundly corporeal focus, with the writers turning time and again to bodies (particularly those of children) and their destruction. The theme of infanticide and its attendant cannibalism is found in all of the accounts, proving more popular than ideas of night flights to the sabbat or even pacts with the devil, and it is rendered in a purple prurience that recalls the fantasies of 80s era Satanic Panic and more contemporary gibberish about diabolical paedophile pizza parlours. Nider reported that thirteen babies had been devoured by presumably very hungry witches in a relatively short time, while Errors of the Gazarii stated that all new witches had to pledge to the devil to kill as many children as they could and bring their corpses to the Sabbath to be roasted or boiled. Fründ repeated similar claims but added an extra element worthy of modern urban legend and moral panics, describing how witches would smear poisonous material on their hands and secretly touch children, causing them to wither away. Perhaps the most visceral account of corporeal anatomisation comes from Errors of the Gazarii but for once doesn’t involve children, and instead tells how witches would find a redheaded person, strip him naked and bind him to a bench to be bitten all over by venomous animals. Like a scene from a death metal album, once dead, the unfortunate redhead was hung from his feet so that impurities and poisons flowed from his mouth and other orifices and could be collected in a bowl to be turned into a deadly unguent. Fun times.

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Other than this exercise in body horror, perhaps the most intriguing element found in these accounts is the varying description of the devil. For Fründ, the devil appeared as various black animals such as a bear or a ram, but also in a terrible evil form, which Tholosan appears to echo when describing how the devil appears as a man but partially translucent. This numinous, almost wondrous and Luciferian incarnation of the devil had a body like glass that would not block the sun and would cast no shadow, suggesting a being whose ephemerality is the one thing that diverges from the fleshly, corporeal concerns of these sabbat accounts. It is The Vauderie of Lyon that takes the monstrosity of the devil to an excessive degree, describing a figure whose chimeric syncretism piles one horror upon the other, making him sound more like a sabbatic Gruffalo instead of a classic horned god. While Julia Donaldson’s creation may have “terrible tusks, and terrible claws, and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws… knobbly knees, and turned-out toes and a poisonous wart at the end of his nose. His eyes are orange, his tongue is black, he has purple prickles all over his back,” the devil of Lyon is a horned black figure covered with hair and bristles, with bulging and rolling eyes that emit flames, ears that are likewise fiery, a large crooked nose, a gaping mouth, an elongated neck, a chest and belly that are “inconceivably deformed,” hands and feet that end in terrible claws, and hooks and long spikes running up and down his hands and arms. It’s not clear if, like the Gruffalo, this devilish creature’s favourite food was owl ice cream or scrambled snake, though the author of The Vauderie of Lyon does not seem to recommend the dining options at his demonic table, with slimy meat and a black and heavy bread, all washed down with “a certain black, tasteless and horrible beverage.”

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The two witch trials records that conclude this volume act as germane examples of how the evidence presented could be incorporated into the published sabbatic narratives; or how the latter could have influenced the content of the former. They are by no means as detailed as the published texts, but familiar elements appear here and there, with suggestions of infanticide, miraculous transportation to the sabbat, and both ritualised and everyday repudiations of the cross and Christ.

Origins of the Witches’ Sabbath would be an invaluable resource if it simply brought together its English translations of these important texts, but Bailey’s editorial voice adds so much more, combining erudition and familiarity of the subject matter with a clear love of the field and even the occasional spark of humour. Recommended on both accounts.

Published by the Pennsylvania State University Press

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Rune Mysteries – Silver RavenWolf and Nigel Jackson

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Categories: germanic, runes, Tags:

Rune Mysteries coverIf the ancient maxim “By their inclusion of a blank rune shall ye know them” is true, then any misgivings that arise when encountering a book on the runes by Silver Ravenwolf, of all people, must surely be justified. But that’s not necessarily the case here, and instead what do arise are moments of deep introspection: Am I unfairly judging an author based on their teen Wicca oeuvre because I want to feel cool and occult leet? What does it mean if this book is not irredeemably awful? Am I part of the problem? Let’s find out.

By its very nature, and without even reading the preface, Rune Mysteries feels like a collaboration cooked up at a Llewellyn planning meeting as they looked to churn out another rune product because there hadn’t been one in a while (and we don’t want to have to ask that crotchety old Edred). They then threw together two unlikely and far-flung compatriots: Ravenwolf, who by then was probably a dab hand at writing in Llewellyn’s house style on any subject, and Nigel Jackson, creator of many an oracle set whose artwork is the foundation selling point here.

This book acts as the companion to a set of rune cards sold separately as the Witches Rune. ‘Witch’ is the operative word here, explaining the presence of both Jackson and RavenWolf, figures more associated with witchcraft in its respective traditional English and modern North American strains, rather than the runes. As a result, everything is shot through with a cursory focus that relates the book’s themes back to witchcraft; or at least to an almost entirely theoretical Germanic shamanism that can be cast as an analogue to what is frequently mentioned here, but only later defined, as Witan-Witchcraft.

Without the cards of the Witches Rune themselves, Rune Mysteries works as an approachable, mass-market standalone primer on the runes, providing a layperson’s interpretation of each rune that is not bogged down with, y’know, actual primary sources. Jackson’s designs are reproduced in black and white at a quarter the size of a page for each respective section; but included in colour for this review because, well, aesthetics and impact. As one would expect, things aren’t always entirely rigorous here and droplets of speculation or outright invention can be introduced as if ‘twere fact. The section on the rune Eoh, for example, claims that spiders are sacred to that particular rune, something that would appear to have no precedent elsewhere and even here is not then justified via etymology, analogue or anything. Also, yes, you’re trying to make a metaphysical point about cosmic balance but glibly saying that fire cannot exist without frost (and vice versa) might be, umm, you know, misunderstanding how fire works; or frost for that matter. “One sec, I’m just off to rub some frost together to start a nice fire.” “Oooh, it’s frosty this morning, must have been all that fire we had last night.” Oh, how we laughed.

Putting the mocking of physics-defying metaphysics to one side, there is a general failure within this book to ground the runes within any historical context beyond a casual mention of the entirely theoretical proposition of Bronze Age antecedents. There are zero references to the Elder, Younger or Anglo-Saxon futharks, and so the 24 runes of the Elder Futhark are simply and vaguely referred to as the “ancient Germanic runes.” Such temporally-untethered flowery phrasing is indicative of the language used throughout the book, something that is initiated in an introduction that features a description of a fanciful northern Europe that reads like a black metal checklist: snow-covered peaks, misty heaths, dark woods and storm-wracked seas; a scene lacking only in funeral moons and blazes in the northern sky.

For the record, the names used here for each of the runes are the Anglo-Saxon ones, sans diacritics, though once again, this is somewhat fraught, as the Anglo-Saxon name can be used for an Elder Futhark version of the rune, such as the Anglo-Saxon Cen, which is here rendered graphically as the Elder Futhark version instead of the Anglo-Saxon one. Meanwhile, the fourth rune, which is referred to here as Asa, of course takes the form of the Elder Futhark Ansuz (or the Anglo-Saxon Æsc) rather than the winged form of the Anglo-Saxon futhorc. The lack of references to the various futhark forms predicates that while the description of each rune is broadly based on established interpretations, there are no references to what are, other than etymology, the primary sources for this information: the Norwegian, Old Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon rune poems. This might also explain why some of the rune sections go off on unexpected interpretative tangents, such as Feoh, which begins with a paragraph on standard cattle and wealth symbolism before spending considerably more time on the idea of Feoh as fire, and not just any fire but the primeval fires of Surtr and Múspellsheimr. Needless to say, it’s hard to see quite how you could get to that from the Anglo-Saxon “Wealth is a comfort to all; yet must everyone bestow it freely if they wish to gain honour in the sight of the Lord.”

Isa rune card design

Not to spend the entire review fact-checking but it is worth mentioning the strange interstitial realm in which this book exists, in which statements are always made categorically and yet little evidence is ever provided, or things are interpreted in a way that would be nice if ‘twere so but are proffered as gospel when the jury is still often out on the matter. Gyfu runes were carved onto heathen “marriage cakes” (no indication of where, when or by whom), crossing one fingers is “actually” an invocation of the same Gyfu rune, and in a lift from Marvel comics, Loki is the brother of Baldr. These wide ranging claims are then often credited, without evidence and context, to comfortably vague sources such as “the Northern folk,” “people of the Northern Way,” and “Indo-European shamanism,” an apparently monolithically unified people mercifully unfettered by the pesky specifics of geography and time.

The general ahistorical wooliness of the content here, and its lack of recourse to primary sources, allows for quite a few howlers to make their way into the copy. There’s the description of Heimdallr guarding a Bifrost bridge that leads not to Midgard but all the way down to Hel, then there’s Fenrir being bound at Ragnarök by Tyr (quite a feat for a newly one-handed god), rather than all the gods, who are in turn credited here with creating the chain that binds the wolf, rather than being made by the dvergar as lore has it. Then there’s the idea that “the Germanic tribes” (presumably all of them, whoever they are) believed that anyone passing under mistletoe was enchanted and blessed by Freyja. The latter is a variation of a bit of perpetually unchecked scuttlebutt and a fanciful retelling of the death of Baldr that has been cut and pasted into a hundred online articles trying to give an ancient lineage to the popular Victorian custom of kissing under the mistletoe. And then there’s dodgy etymology, such as the categorical claim that the name Vanir comes from an Old Norse verb (which unsurprisingly isn’t given) meaning “to be contented, to enjoy.” In reality, the origins of the Vanir name remain inconclusive and the most repeated interpretation suggests that it might derive from the Proto-Germanic *wana-, with a Proto Indo-European root in *wen- (‘to desire, strive for’), a meaning that couldn’t be further from the idyllic, Vanir-as-hippies definition of ‘to be contented, to enjoy.’

Rune Mysteries spread

Jackson has a history in tarot design, with at least three decks to his credit, and so naturally, Rune Mysteries follows a tarot-like approach in how it presents the runes. After a listing of correspondences (tree, colours, totem, stones, deity), each rune receives an introductory blurb of up to two pages with information of sometimes questionable factual value, loaded with spiritual interpretation, rather than being an etymological or historical exegesis. This is then followed by a section on the rune’s oracular meaning and related keywords, as well as an additional interpretation of the rune when reversed tarot-like. But that’s not all, and each entry concludes with ways in which the reader can work with the respective rune beyond mere divination, providing both weal and woe types of workings, and ending with a brief mention of the various rune-wights and spirit powers that Jackson and RavenWolf have associated, somewhat arbitrarily, with each rune. The latter does feel like they went through a big-list-of-spirits-fairies-and-god-forms™ and just picked out whatever seems vaguely appropriate, such as the Tiwar who are described as “divine Sky-Spirits, humanoid columns of light who descend from the celestial realms robed in luminosity.” As luck would have it “these spirits equate to angels of justice and the armies of the God/dess,” In actuality, and leaving the angelic world and its beings of light behind, dear ones, tívar is just a word used in Old Norse poetry to mean ‘the gods,’ being the indefinite nominative plural form of the singular týr (‘(a) god’) and not all that luminescent, nor incandescent, nor, indeed, angelic.

This factually freewheeling style makes for a fairly thorough system, custom built for the less than discerning and historically-unversed Llewellyn customer, where every rune has a raft of associations, divinatory meanings, correspondences and even entities associated with it, giving the impression of a dense working system. In the latter half of the book there is even more complexity, with a whole practical section that includes page upon page detailing the most propitious days and hours, along with lunar conjunctions, sextiles and trines, for working with each rune. But while all of this feels comprehensive, it’s just not all that authentic, though it is thoroughly in keeping with what one would expect from a Llewellyn title such as this: polished with a marketer’s standards in mind, not those of an academic or pedant.

Beyond the entries for these twenty-four “ancient Germanic runes,” RavenWolf and Jackson provide guidelines for working with the cards, including card care and several tarot-style spreads, including practice draw and reading scenarios. With four spreads, each including a visual representation, scenario and in depth card-by-card reading, this fills a lot of pages and once again is pretty comprehensive and a boon for those that like that sort.

It is this late in the piece that RavenWolf and Jackson define what they mean by a Rune-Witan and Witan-Witchcraft, describing the “Rune-Witan” as a practicing runic magician whose title literally translates as ‘rune-wise-one,’ or ‘one wise in mysteries.’ They claim, without citing chapter and verse, that the term is “quite traditional” since it is found in Beowulf, which somewhat undoes their argument as the witan of Beowulf, sans ‘rune,’ is an Anglo-Saxon council, a plurality rather than a singularity, and linked with governance, rather than esotericism. At a pinch they could have gone with the singular ‘wita,’ but even then, the usage denotes the wisdom and council of politics, not some worker of magic. One could conject that the plural form was chosen because of its similitude with the singular ‘wiccan’ but suffice to say, the etymology here, tracing it back to an unattested Indo-European root of ‘wid,’ is as wild and woolly as some of the other claims about these people of the Northern Way.

Haegl rune card design

RavenWolf and Jackson are on firmer ground in acknowledging the Germanic roots of much of witchcraft’s imagery, aligning the image of the continental witch goddess Holda with Cochrane/Traditional Witchcraft’s idea of a veiled underworld goddess, and positing Woden as her horned equivalent. It is hampered, though, by this persistent need to present such themes as evidence of a continuous and historically unlikely tradition, which inevitably leads to supposition being used to fill in any logical or temporal gaps. We would be remiss if we didn’t mention that this section provides the most appealing aspect of the book, with the chthonic, Helish and witchy imagery striking a resonant note; though feeling thousands of miles away from the historical futhark that forms the book’s basis. This is particularly evident in the Rite of Runa in the final practical section of the book, which sends the practitioner down the Helvegr to “the Hidden land, Hel’s misty apple-wood.” Sure it’s syncretic and a grab bag of influences but the imagery is evocative.

Despite the airing of grievances flowing through this review, Rune Mysteries has something to commend it, perhaps just in its audacity. One wouldn’t want to take a single statement it makes as fact, and one’s salt supply might run dry with a surfeit of pinching, but it’s interesting to see what two people can make from what could have been a mere guide to a set of cards of the “ancient Germanic runes,” with the volume running to over 200 pages and featuring a wealth of practical application. There is an even stronger than usual vibe of everything being made up, particularly in the repeated insistence that this Witan-Witchcraft is an ancient, perpetual tradition, but given that made up stuff is par for the course in occultism, there’s obviously an audience for whom this doesn’t matter. To answer the questions with which this review opened, nope, any misgivings were justified, I’m not part of the problem.

Published by Llewellyn

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Tree of Salvation – G. Ronald Murphy, S.J.

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Tree of Salvation coverNearly twenty years in the making, G. Ronald Murphy’s Tree of Salvation is something of a labour of love, a meditation on the intersection between Germanic paganism and Christianity formed by the image of the World Tree Yggdrasil. It is this arboreal intersection that Murphy sees as the thematic building stone that facilitated the integration of Christian thought within the northern European worldview, thereby ensuring conversion. The delicateness of that language does betray Murphy’s approach here, and perhaps his status as a Jesuit priest, for he portrays this transition as largely idyllic, a meeting of the minds rather than a brutal theocratic conquest.

As is made clear by the subtitle Yggdrasil and the Cross of the North, Murphy argues for a happy syncretism of indigenous myth and the new myth of Christianity in which the World Tree was able to be seen as an analogue of the cross and for Woden to be recast as Christ. Murphy’s textual model for this is the recounting of the crucifixion found in The Heliand, in which the cross is described as a tree on a mountain, and Christ is both nailed to the tree and hanging from a rope. Assuming that this idea was something prevalent throughout northern Europe, Murphy turns to his idea of stave and round churches as a mythopoeic text, interpreting them as Christian buildings that were simultaneously representations of Yggdrasil, thereby welcoming in the faithful and reminding them of the World Tree’s sheltering role in myth. Murphy breaks down elements from the architecture that can be seen as analogues of Yggdrasil and its inhabitants: the serpentine gables on the Borgund stave church as the serpents found at the base of Yggdrasil, the tapered shape of the structure mirroring that of a tree, as well as its very materiality.

Tree of Salvation spread

A particularly rich area of imagery for Murphy are the portals and doors of churches, most notably the interwoven frame at Urnes church in Norway that is featured on the book’s cover, and the wrought iron decorations on the door of Roglösa church in Östergötland. The latter, which is usually assumed to show a hunting scene in its top panel and the Garden of Eden or the harrowing of Hell in its bottom, is instead appealingly interpreted as a depiction of Ragnarök, with Surtr appearing as a fiery figure with clawed feet, Þórr fighting the World Serpent, and Níðhöggr crawling towards a version of the World Tree.

There is something very appealing about this idea of pagan imagery being thoroughly suffused into Christian architecture, especially with the way in which Murphy presents it as being so complete and without question, rarely pausing to give caveats or alternative suggestions. His suppositions build one upon the other, sometimes feeling like evidence being made to fit a conclusion, rather than confirming a theory. This is particularly evident in the analysis of the Roglösa church door as a depiction of Ragnarök. While it’s an attractive proposition, Occam’s Razor would suggest that a Christian scene on a Christian door makes more sense, especially when the figure Murphy identifies as Þórr appears almost identical to depictions elsewhere of St. Michael battling the dragon, right down to the figure’s angelic wings. While acknowledging the similarity, Murphy shores up his interpretation by noting that the figure doesn’t carry a spear as St. Michael does in some depictions, seeing instead a small hammer; the tiny, questionable Mjölnir seemingly holding more weight than the wings and posture of an archangel.

Tree of Salvation spread

As something of a poetic approach to these themes, Murphy’s argument is an enthusiastic one, and one in which this passion may sometimes get the better of him, inserting intent where there may have been none. He presupposes, for example, that the idea of Yggdrasil and the interpretation he applies to it was universally held by all tiers of Germanic society, and that this degree of reverence made going to a Yggdrasil-shaped church a tick in the plus column for adopting Christianity. The apex of this is when he puts himself in twelfth century Danish round churches, imagining what a Christmas liturgy would have been like in Nykirke or how Mass would have been conducted in Østerlarskirke. These are fanciful recreations more akin to guided visualisations in which the architecture and the sermon intertwine, as does the imagery both pagan and Christian, with Murphy imagining Yggdrasil being at the forefront of everyone’s mind, acting as a portal that the faithful consciously pass through in order to receive the body and blood of Christ.

In the penultimate chapter Yggdrasil and the Sequence of the Runes in the Elder Fuhtark, Murphy changes direction somewhat and explores the idea that the runes themselves encode these Christo-Pagan themes of Yggdrasil, with the order of the futhark and the very names of the runes acting as an intentional cypher. To open, he discusses Walter W. Skeats unconvincing nineteenth century attempt to interpret the runes in such a manner, wherein he tried to squeeze the opening words of the Paternoster out of the runes fehu, uruz, thurisaz and ansuz (Father, ure, þhu in heofon). While acknowledging the limitations of Skeats’ approach (no equivalent of ‘h’ in the place it’s needed for heofon just for starters), Murphy has his own go at it, trying to do much the same in increasingly convoluted justifications that come across like the very worst of clutching-at-straws conspiracy literature or alternative archaeology cryptography. First he presents a problem where there isn’t necessarily one, asking why the futhark should follow a different order from the Greco-Roman alphabet. Having done so, he then attempts to answer it. In trying to establish a justification for the futhark’s order he turns to its first aett and manages to somehow get ‘and Christ are one,’ from the runes kaunaz, gyfu, wunjo, hagalaz and nauthiz. Where’s that Surprise Jesus™ in all this you ask? Well, gyfu and wunjo, which sit next to each other in the aett, kind of look like the chi ro symbol (that is, if you lay them one atop the other, move the wunjo up a bit and squint), and that’s obviously Christ, just sitting there clear as day, waving enthusiastically. However, the other runes in that aett aren’t also the separated components of any christogram, no, instead the hagalaz and nauthiz must combine to form the vowelless hn which could be, well of course, a Greek word, hen, the neuter form of eis meaning ‘one.’ Meanwhile, the solo ‘k’ of kaunaz “can only be,” as Murphy emphatically states it, an abbreviation for another Greek word, kai, meaning ‘and.’ Following on from these tortuous beginnings, Murphy somehow manages to convince himself that he can get ‘father’ too, though this isn’t by extrapolating abbreviations from a few individual runes or combining them into a monogram, no, the rules are once again different here, and now the first five runes of the futhark are run together to form fuþar, a word that doesn’t mean anything in any language but sure sounds kind of maybe like ‘father,’ if you squint. The whole segment now reads ‘The father and Christ are one.’ Neat, eh? Personally, I prefer to interpret the hn of hagalaz and nauthiz not as the Greek hen but as the Middle English hen (from the Old English henn, and then the Proto-Germanic *hanj?.), making the phrase now read ‘The father and Christ are chicken.

Tree of Salvation spread

Facetiousness aside, this is a remarkable exercise in intellectually dishonest apophenia, in which at least three different methods are used to try and wrangle a Greek phrase out of the letters of a Germanic script, where any method and its interpretation are accepted as long as it fits the pattern one is trying to establish. One tenuous connection is made, followed by another, cascading in a wave of cryptographic confirmation bias, all enthusiastically recounted by Murphy who details his giddy excitement following each ever more conclusive discovery. Small wonder that Murphy goes some way to redeeming Skeats at the end of this chapter, calling him “in a sense prescient.” Never once does Murphy countenance that it would be possible to take the letters of the futhark’s first aett and come up with a hundred different meanings if you could call upon any language, any collection of symbols and any non-existent homophones that kind of sound like the words you want them to sound like. Let’s see, ‘f’ and ‘u’ are used as an abbreviation of the profane directive “fuck you,” and þa sounds like ‘the,’ and well, ‘rk’ must be missing a vowel, shall we say ‘o,’ so that means fuþark actually means “Fuck you, the Rock.” Clearly the ancient runemaster was no fan of Dwayne Johnson.

As he does elsewhere, Murphy strays from methods scholarly and imagines what this specifically gendered creator of the order of the futhark might have intended to do with his tortuous ordering of the letters. Revealing the tangled web he has woven, Murphy makes his mythic futhark organiser someone with multiple motivations, being a pagan Swedish runemaster, a polyglot who was also handy with Greek, someone possessed of a favourable experience with and impression of Christianity who was trying to make the runes suitable to serve this new imported master instead of Woden. In so doing, he created a synthesis of the pagan god and Christ, making the latter the possessor of the runes with which his name was encoded. Yet, Murphy must find an excuse for the recherché and frankly indecipherable nature of this Christo-Pagan runemaster’s runic encoding, suggesting that he kept it secret for some reason, either for reasons magical, or as effectively an occult blind, or because perhaps not everyone, be they Christian or pagan, shared his views. Somehow, despite this caginess, this secret squirrel ordering of the futhark was still disseminated across Scandinavia, stretching credulity.

Tree of Salvation spread

Murphy’s final chapter explores the idea of the presence of Yggdrasil in the evergreen imagery of Christmas, trying to find a happy medium betwixt those who see the Christmas tree as a pagan symbol and those that see it as an entirely Christian invention. It’s not just the tree he deals with here, indeed there is considerably more time spent with other arboreal elements associated with Christmas, and he interprets the wreath, for example, as a solar wheel symbolling the cycle of the life that begins anew at Christmas. As elsewhere, what Murphy presents is often just speculation, poetically rendered so as the sound plausible, even convincing, but with little questioning of the mechanisms that would have allowed such themes to perpetuate down through the centuries. This is particularly evident when he addresses the comparatively late seventeenth century innovation of lights on the Christmas tree, interpreting them as stars and finding a tenuous precedent in Snorri’s thirteenth century description in Gylfaginning of the branches of Yggdrasil stretching far across the sky.

In sum, what Murphy presents here is an interesting series of intersecting ideas and themes, ones which if treated as unconscious simulacra add richness to interpretations of both Christian and pagan symbolism. Where it is less successful, though, is when it imagines intent and purpose, relying entirely on presuppositions and impressions in a tone that does come across more like a conspiracy theorist or alternative historian searching in Rosslyn Chapel for Templar traces or forgotten bloodlines.

Published by Oxford University Press

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