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Operative Witchcraft: Spellwork & Herbcraft in the British Isles – Nigel Pennick

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Categories: folk, witchcraft, Tags:

Operative Witchcraft coverOriginally published in 2012 by Lear Books with the seemingly more fitting subtitle of The Nature of Historic Witchcraft in Great Britain, Operative Witchcraft is a relatively broad consideration of British witchcraft, distinguishing it from other titles in Pennick’s oeuvre which often have a more regional focus. As detailed by the back-cover blurb, this is a journey through operative witchcraft in the British Isles, beginning in the Middle Ages, continuing into the Elizabethan era and up to the modern period with its decriminalisation in the 1950s and through to the present.

Originally published in 2012 by Lear Books with the seemingly more fitting subtitle of The Nature of Historic Witchcraft in Great Britain, Operative Witchcraft is a relatively broad consideration of British witchcraft, distinguishing it from other titles in Pennick’s oeuvre which often have a more regional focus. As detailed by the back-cover blurb, this is a presented as a journey through operative witchcraft in the British Isles, beginning in the Middle Ages, continuing into the Elizabethan era and up to the modern period with its decriminalisation in the 1950s and through to the present.

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Despite the clarity of this brief, Operative Witchcraft seems to take a while to figure out the kind of book it wants to be, and to determine the direction it wants to take. The first couple of brief chapters consider, in a somewhat abrupt manner, various aspects of witchcraft, with particular emphasis on folklore and the power and perception of the witch within communities. While Pennick’s editorial voice is clear from the start, having that world-weary assuredness of someone who has been writing and rewriting about this stuff for decades, it gets lost in some of the early chapters when it is swamped in data dumps that are awkwardly tied together; a complaint I have made recently about other witchcraft books but never before had to make with Pennick. Information often feels like notes, anecdotes and points of interest that haven’t properly been integrated into the greater narrative, often being introduced as disorientating non sequiturs with no preamble to provide context. And then there are short sentences and weird asides that perhaps an editor could have excised for conciseness, like when mid-paragraph in a discussion of toad folklore and magic, Pennick says that it is interesting that in Cockney rhyming slang ‘frog and toad’ means ‘road,’ but no, it really is not. It’s not interesting at all, in any relevant sense of the word.

The fourth chapter takes a different but equally discombobulatory approach from its predecessors and devotes its entire length, save for a two page preamble, to reprinting an excerpt from Ben Johnson’s 1609 The Masque of Queens. While this is an intriguing example of fiction infused with then extant knowledge of witchcraft practice, the excerpt is presented and then just left, with the chapter ending with no analysis, no comment, save for one note about the crane fly mentioned in the text. Yes, any reader with some familiarity with the themes of occultism can make their own assessment and unpacking of Johnson’s picturesque and symbolically rich text, but that doesn’t make it any less jarring to find it presented like an incongruous novelty, page filler or a misplaced appendix, devoid of editorial insight.

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The tone shifts again with the following chapter’s consideration of witchcraft and the legal system, which, as interesting as it is, still seems a pivot in its well-referenced deep dive into legal rulings and parliamentary acts. This is especially so when the next chapter surprisingly turns almost practical in a discussion of root work and plant magic, providing the reader with an exhaustive herbal of 26 witchcraft-associated plants. Each entry gives a brief outline of the plant’s history and its folkloric usage, accompanied by public domain or Creative Commons images, all well reproduced and to a casual glance, relatively consistent in style.

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Pennick’s remaining chapters consider a few specialist areas of witchcraft folklore and practice, though by no means all of them, and in so doing, there’s a feeling of things being treated somewhat disproportionately. For example, ten pages are devoted to the rather well-travelled theme of frog and toad magic, and another on places of power, while a whole slew of other things are bundled under the rubric of ‘witchcraft paraphernalia,’ and then, other than brief chapters on Obeah and the emergence of Wicca, there’s not much else.

This all contributes to the unfocussed and piecemeal feeling of Operative Witchcraft, where one could imagine that the book is made up of separate, previously published articles, all stitched together, rather than created from whole cloth; hence that prevailing sensation of casting about trying to find a direction for the whole book. It’s not that Operative Witchcraft needs to be a definitive account of British witchcraft, goddess knows there are enough of those out there covering the same well-worn ground, it’s just that sometimes it seems to want to be that, and then at other times, it doesn’t.

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Pennick cites his material thoroughly throughout, using in-body citations that link to a 24 page reference section at the rear, so there’s certainly a cornucopia of information contained within these pages, it’s just not presented in the most sympathetic manner. The layout of Operative Witchcraft is by the ever-reliable Debbie Glogover, with the body set in Garamond and chapter headings in the slightly slab-seriffy Rockeby Semiserif, with subheadings in Rotis Semi Serif and Gill Sans. Illustrations and photographs dot the pages, providing consistent visual interest, all high quality and well produced, as one would hope.

Published by Destiny Books/Inner Traditions

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Hekate Her Sacred Fires – Compiled and edited by Sorita d’Este

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Categories: classical, devotional, goddesses, hekate, hellenic, Tags:

Hekate Her Sacred Fires coverApparently some unwritten goal here at Scriptus Recensera is to review all recently published titles related to Hekate, so much so that she’s the only deity here with her own subject tag. This might be a somewhat insurmountable task, given her popularity at Avalonia alone, with this being but one of two anthologies released by that press in honour of her; the other being the equally colon-deficient Hekate Key to the Crossroads from 2006. Published in 2010, this massive work takes a more global view than its predecessor and brings together contributions from more than fifty people, with some familiar names but considerably more who just appear to be practitioners who are not otherwise writers. This vast cast is somewhat intimated in the cover which has not a single image but many, featuring the work of Emily Carding, Brian Andrews, Shay Skepevski, Georgi Mishev, and in the centre, Magin Rose.

Hekate Her Sacred Fires is presented as a large format A4 book, which doesn’t make for the most pleasant reading experience. Reading on-the-go is pretty much out of the question, and reading not-on-the-go isn’t all that easy either, with the ungainly format requiring a solid reading surface lest hand fatigue and RSI kick in. In addition to the physical aspects, the large dimensions don’t allow for the most sympathetic of layouts. Text is formatted in a single, page-wide column, meaning that the enervation of hands and limbs is joined by a similar weariness of eyes and concentration, with the excessive line-length being detrimental to sustained comprehension. The formatting of the text doesn’t help in this manner either, providing little in the way of visual interest. Paragraphs are fully-justified, and separated with a line-space between, but they also have redundant and far-too-large first line idents, including the first paragraph and in one infuriating instance, subtitles; meaning that the body text can appear insubstantial and untethered. Titles and subtitles are presented as larger and bolded versions of the body typeface, set in the almost-a-slab-serif face that Avalonia have stuck with over the years. There are images preceding almost every contribution on the verso side of the page spreads but these, like the various other illustrations and photographs that fill spaces throughout the book, are of varying quality and are not treated that well by Lightning Source’s print-on-demand press.

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This all means that it can be hard to get into Hekate Her Sacred Fires, and it is a testament to this difficulty that this review has sat here half-written for some time. Once one does make it past the monstrously large pages and the walls of long-line-length text, a sense of the variety in contributions begins to emerge, though the majority are first-hand accounts of working with Hekate. But first off, in her own introductory section, is d’Este, who gives an overview of Hekate, providing a thorough historical grounding that allows for the more speculative or specialised considerations that come later. This is then followed by an exhaustive illustrated timeline that is spread across nineteen pages, and stretches from 6000 BCE, with the beginning of the Neolithic period, right up to 2000 CE where it concludes with the publication of d’Este’s book Hekate Key to the Crossroads.

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With over fifty contributors there is a demonstrable diversity in what is presented here, all of varying approaches, styles and quality, in both matters magical and literary. It is the personal that dominates throughout, beginning with Georgi Mishev who gives a personal biography and testimonial of his Bulgarian approach to goddess spirituality in general and Hekate in particular, as does compatriot Ekaterina Ilieva in the following piece. Similarly, Shani Oates provides a record of a ritual for Hekate from several years prior with results of great profundity; prefaced with an introduction of equally great and characteristic verbosity. Some of these contributions include a practical element with the personal, such as John Canard who talks about using meteor showers for spell work, or Amelia Ounsted who maps out the whole Wiccan year of festivities with ways in which they can be related back to Hekate.

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Some of the more interesting contributions here move beyond the respectable and reputable classical world of Hekate, as necessary and worthy as that grounding may be, and into the more darkly glamorous realms of sabbatic and Luciferian witchcraft. This comes most notably from the pen of Mark Alan Smith whose appearance amongst these other authors seems a little incongruous, but it is a theme also discussed first by Trystn M. Branwynn in the gloriously-titled The Hekatine Strain. Here, Branwynn discusses Hekate as but one of the names of the pale Queen of the Castle of Roses in Cochrane-style Traditional Witchcraft, drawing together a tapestry of threads from myth and folklore to unpack the symbols of Hekate, in particular the crossroads, and linking it ultimately back to this particular vision of witchcraft. Smith, in turn, writes, as one would expect, from the perspective of his Primal Craft tradition, telling of how Hekate introduced him to Lucifer who appears here as her consort. This is a thorough ritual account, documenting the long, distressing after effects of The Rite of the Phoenix, culminating in a crossing of the Abyss and a journey through the City of Pyramids.

The type of personal turmoil mentioned by Smith is not something unique to his contribution here, with several authors describing trauma and dark nights of the soul that either came through interacting with Hekate or were eventually soothed by her cathartic arrival. As always, there’s a variety of feelings and impressions that can be stirred up when reading such accounts, especially when it concerns mystical goings on and messages from the divine world; incredulity being one of them. But that is the nature of the brief here, so the reader needs to buckle in and enjoy the ride on this train of personal testimonies or get off at the next dour stop. For devotes of Hekate, though, one can imagine that a collection of so many allied voices would be well received and a valuable addition to one’s library.

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In the end, it’s hard to get past the large formatting of Hekate Her Sacred Fires and it can be genuinely exhausting just to read a page, with your head and eyes having to travel right across each A4 width just to get one sentence in. It is obvious why this has been done, as with an existing page count of over 300, a volume with more conventional dimensions would have doubled the amount of pages to make for one hefty tome. One option might have been to reduce the number of submissions or to have at least pared down some of them in the edit, but there would probably have been some reluctance to do this, given that in her introduction, d’Este talks of how necessary it was to preserve the voice of so many writers; meaning that editing for proofing alone has been minimal, limited to what are designated essential changes.

Published by Avalonia

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Silent as the Trees: Devonshire Witchcraft, Folklore & Magic – Gemma Gary

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Categories: folk, witchcraft, Tags:

Silent as the Trees coverThe written works of Gemma Gary have a significant presence here in the shelves of Scriptus Recensera, along with sundry other titles from her Troy Books imprint. It’s easy to see why, with Gary mining a very particular field in an equally particular manner, with a style that combines thoroughness with a clear experiential love for her subject matter. Although Gary is principally associated with the witchcraft of Cornwall (as typified by her book Traditional Witchcraft: A Cornish Book of Ways), in this volume she wanders a little further afield, heading east into the wilds of Devon.

Silent as the Trees begins almost like a travelogue, with the author detailing a visit to the south-eastern Dartmoor village of North Bovey, the site of an incident in 1917 which is described as having a profound influence on the modern world of witchcraft. Unfortunately, the travelogue device, one which I would normally abhor (no frequenter of the travel section of the library, me), doesn’t continue much beyond this introduction, and instead, the book follows a familiar pattern, ably compiling various accounts of witchcraft and folklore with practical elements included for good experiential measure.

The event at North Bovey was one from the childhood of Cecil Williamson, who as a child saw a woman attacked by a mob after being accused of being a witch. Just as that scene loomed large in Williamson’s life, setting him off on a journey into witchcraft, so Williamson’s impact is felt throughout the pages of this book, being perhaps the most famous of all modern witches native to Devon. It is, though, other witches from Devon that Gary turns to initially, with her first chapter giving brief biographies of famous and not so famous witches, most notably Mother Shipton and no less than Sir Frances Drake, along with some lesser-known but gloriously-named figures such as Charity the Toad Witch, Old Snow, White Witch Tucker and the effortlessly spooky, in name and lore, Vixiana. These tales appear to be drawn from a variety of sources, though only a few of them are named, most notably Michael Howard’s West Country Witches, along with the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould in his Devonshire Characters and Strange Events.

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Gary follows these biographies with a chapter devoted to the three witches of Bideford, Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles and Susannah Edwards, the last people to be executed in England on charges of witchcraft. This is a thorough account, though once again, it is not always clear what the sources are, as little is mentioned in text and it is up to the reader to do some back engineering and work them out from the titles in the bibliography. Another chapter is devoted entirely to Cecil Williamson, whilst other takes the compendium format of previous chapters and lists various examples of practical Devonshire witchcraft culled from a variety of not always cited sources.

From here, Silent as the Trees alternates between discussions of witchcraft and more general aspects of Devonshire folklore; some of which is only tangentially related to witchcraft, even if it occupies the same mystical topgraphgy. These include, in the witchcraft column, techniques of skin-turning and familiar spirits, while the broader folklore pathway takes in the phenomena of black dogs and the wild hunt, as well as a journey through various significant locations in Devon’s countryside.

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In addition to everything you would expect from a Troy Books title such as this, Silent as the Trees has a bonus in the form of a separate section, a book within the book, if you will. This Black Book of Devonshire Magic presents a variety of spells, charms typical of the kind handed down and preserved in black books by Devonshire witches. No claim is made as to any hoary provenance for what is presented here, and instead this modern black book compiles material from a variety of previously published collections of folklore. These are blessedly and thoroughly referenced, with many coming from the works of two authors in particular: Graham King in his The British Book of Charms and Spells and Sarah Hewett in both her Nummits & Crummits and The Peasant Speech of Devon. As one would expect, these spells and charms cover ground familiar to any explorers of folk magic, offering solutions to a variety of ailments that one would hope any modern practitioner forgoes in deference to a nice dose of ibuprofen. There’s apparent cures for snake bite, ringworm, thorn pricks, fever, inflammation, burning, itching, diarrhoea (it’s a dried and powdered hot cross bun that’ll fix you on that one), and all manner of things what ails yah. It’s not just curing, though, and there’s also an extensive section of prophylactic magic (offering protection using things such as hagstones and pricked hearts), as well as various examples of that problematic old standard, love spells.

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Troy Books titles usually have a sense of polish and fine tuning with both the writing and spelling immaculate, but for some reason, Silent as the Trees feels like it could have done with a few more passes of the proofer’s pen. The name ‘Barnes’ loses its ‘e’ between two paragraphs, redundancy remain from the rewording of sentences, and there are words that one would think would be flagged by spellcheck alone, such as a reference to the Frist World War. This isn’t something that is necessarily endemic to the book, meaning that those moments in which it does arise are all the more jarring for it.

Aesthetically, Silent as the Trees follows the pleasing formula established by Troy Books: type thoughtfully set in a fairly large serif face, with decorative elements in titles and sub titles. Gary’s illustrations are dotted throughout the book, though not to the extent of other books, with the green man motif that appears on the cover used throughout, at a lowered opacity, as a chapter ending and space filler. In addition to Gary’s trademark images are two sections of photographs by Jane Cox, documenting various relics and locations associated with Devonshire witchcraft.

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As is typical of Troy Books, Silent as the Trees has been released in a variety of formats, five in all: paperback, standard hardback, black edition, special edition and fine edition. All are presented in Royal format at 224 pages, with two sections of glossy plates of photographs by Jane Cox and a smattering of illustrations throughout. The standard hardback edition is bound in a moss green cloth with copper foil blocking to the cover and spine, light brown endpapers, and black head and tail bands. The 350 hand-numbered exemplars of the special edition are bound in Russet and recycled leather, with copper foil blocking to the front and spine, and the same green endpapers and black head and tail bands. The black edition comes in 125 hand-numbered exemplars bound in black recycled leather fibres, with black foil blocking to the front and spine, red end papers and head and tail bands also in red. Finally, the 23 copy fine edition is bound in rich green goat leather with copper foil blocking to the front and spine and patterned end papers, all wrapped in a fully-lined green library buckram slip-case with blind embossing on the front.

Published by Troy Books

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The Secret King: The Myth and Reality of Nazi Occultism – Stephen E. Flowers and Michael Moynihan

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Categories: esotericism, germanic, runes

The Secret King coverInitially released jointly by Dominion and Runa-Raven presses in 2001 as The Secret King: Karl Maria Wiligut, Himmler’s Lord of the Runes, this 2007 Feral House incarnation of the book sees the original text revised and expanded. While Stephen Flowers and Michael Moynihan share author credits on the cover, the latter explains in his introduction that the two writers played to their strengths, with much of the translation by Flowers, whilst the editing was by Moynihan.

The Secret King brings together various translated works by Karl Willigut, the self-styled king of Germany of the title, prefaced by an essay on the fiction and reality of Nazi occultism, from which the new subtitle is taken. Said subtitle sits rather awkwardly with the majority of the content of the book, feeling disproportionate in its prominence and incongruous to the main title; with the original and Wiligut-specific subtitle being a more accurate option.

The opening discussion on the idea of Nazi occultism is written with a slightly terse and withering tone that does, however, tire easily. It rightly dismisses so much of the baseless speculation that has accrued over the years to the point of almost becoming, at least on a subconscious level, fact; see how easily the image of an Occult Reich seeps into pop culture, whether it be the first Indiana Jones movie, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy or the Wolfenstein video games. The authors place much of the initial blame for the idea of Nazi occultism on war-time propaganda, perhaps not as an all-pervasive theme but one which still had an impact in casting Nazi Germany as evil, godless Satanists; such as in Lewis Spence’s none-too-subtle 1940 screed The Occult Causes of the Present War, which sounds like a lot of fun. Such views, Flowers and Moynihan argue, were retooled to give the Allies the higher moral ground in their “crusade against evil,” when in reality, the authors again argue, this crusade was actually against the economic idea of National Socialism, due to its financial isolationism and opposition to usury; though presumably aggressive German expansionism and the invasion of Poland may have had something to do with it too, I guess not.

After detailing the misconceptions and embellishments concerning the role of the occult in Nazi Germany, and the perpetuation of some of these themes in the works of later sympathetic writers like Savitri Devi and Miguel Serrano, Flowers and Moynihan turn to the reality. In this telling, these are slim occult pickings and so it’s no The Morning of the Magicians, and you won’t find much in the way of speculation about Thule-Gesellschaft, the Vril Society, or even the slightly more pragmatic Ahnenerbe. Instead, the focus here is solely on Austrian occultist and SS-Brigadeführer, Karl Maria Wiligut. This is a relatively brief introduction to Wiligut, running to 26 heavily illustrated pages, but it does provide a fairly thorough introduction to his life, with some obvious gaps, such is the slip of myth he himself wove, along with a passing overview of the mythos and system he created. Said mythos and system were obviously indebted to the German ariosophists and runologists who preceded him, notably Guiodo von List and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, as well as Siegfried Kummer and Peryt Shou.

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Like those predecessors, particularly Kummer and Shou, Wiligut straddled that strange divided between heathenism and Christianity, seeking to merge the two in an attempt, as had been done for centuries before, to forge a particularly Germanic version of Judaeo-Christianity. This leads to a notably pagan-free system, with Wotan effectively dismissed as at best a circumlocution of this more nebulous yet omniscient and all-embracing concept of Got; and with Wotanism as a later ouster of this ur-religion of Got. Indeed, there’s very little that feels obviously heathen in this monotheistic figure of Got, who acts more like a Hermetic or Qabbalistic pantokrator or demiurge, a triad of energy, spirit and matter, with Wiligut aligning them with a belief system, extant amongst the Germanic people since time immemorial, akin to perennial wisdom. Contrary to any evidence, Wiligut categorically states that this “noble knowledge of Gotos” was the treasure of the Germanics, and that they never had ‘Gods’ as they did in Rome.

Betraying the seemingly unavoidable influence of Theosophy, Wiligut’s oeuvre also embraces the idea of Atlantis and vast primordial epochs of human history, with a cosmology and account of creation that follows some of those familiar beats, but with a Germanic twist that incorporates names from mythology as well as the kind of semi-scientific speculation of Hanns Hörbiger or Viktor Schauberger. As one might expect, there’s no references to Blatvatsky and instead, credit for this metaphysical history of the world is attributed to a secret 10,000 year Wiligut family tradition. This Irminsaga, as Wiligut called it, was recorded in script and images on seven wooden tablets of oak, which, not surprisingly, and somewhat conveniently, are now lost, having perished in a fire in 1848. As a result, the junior Wiligut received the family tradition entirely orally from his similarly-named uncle, whose own statute of limitations had fortuitously ran well out as well, as he had died in 1883.

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The various examples of Wiligut’s writings are drawn principally from Hag All All Hag/Hagal, the journal of the Edda Society, to which he contributed under the pseudonym Jarl Widar. In a style familiar for the time and in later occult speculation, these often provide short outlines of metaphysical concepts, aided by runes and other symbols that are meant to illustrate these principles. There’s much talk of energy and matter, consciousness and becoming, and naturally a lot of talk about Got, wisdom and the Germanic folk. These are for the most part presented without much in the way of commentary and analysis, standing alone as a verbatim recording of Wiligut’s work.

Wiligut’s more poetic contributions are translated by Moynihan in what is acknowledged as a literal rather than lyrical manner, meaning that, sheared of the rhyming couplets of the original German, there’s little sense of the poetic here and the words come across as often abrupt stentorian declarations. These are presented in a small Fraktur-style typeface for a bit of atmosphere and in keeping with how they originally appeared in print.

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Perhaps the most familiar of Wiligut’s writing is his Gotos-Kalanda cycle of poems celebrating the twelve months of the year. Originally privately published in 1937 as a small booklet by Wiligut and distributed to friends, Gotos-Kalanda has only appeared once before in English, translated by Moynihan, Markus Wolff and Gerhard Petak and published by the latter’s Aorta imprint in 1992. Petak would also use Gotos-Kalanda in 1995 as the basis for the similarly-titled second album of his ritual-industrial project Allerseelen, with each of its twelve tracks named after one of the months and using the poems as inspiration. As its name suggests, and despite the use of pagan names for some of the months, Wiligut’s Gotos-Kalanda is a celebration of his cosmology of Got, with the poems marking out the year as a calendrical round, a waxing and waning of Got in his various seasonal aspects and areas of influence. As such, it provides a rather concise synopsis of Wiligut’s conception of Got and a comprehensive liturgy from which anyone so inclined could draw.

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The Secret King concludes with a series of appendices, five in all. The longest of these is a substantial interview by Manfred Lenz of the industrial project Turbund Sturmwerk with Wiligut’s former secretary, Gabriele Dechend. Dechend is also the source of another of the appendices, a Wiligut-style description of the cosmos from a 1935 issue of Hagal, all energy-matter-spirit speculation with de rigueur metaphysical symbols and diagrams.

As with the works of earlier members of Germany’s runic revival, there’s an interesting quality to the work presented here, but one which feels unmoored from reality and relevance. There’s little that anyone with pagan inclinations can draw from it, though for those who are prepared to take the leap, there’s a feeling of a complete system and cosmology lurking here, glamorously shored up with Wiligut’s assertions of an ancient family tradition.

Published by Feral House


The soundtrack for this review is Gotos=Kalanda by Allerseelen.

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Rune Games – Marijane Osborn and Stella Longland

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Categories: germanic, runes

Rune Games coverRune Games by Marijane Osborn and Stella Longland occupies a strange place in the recent history of esoteric runology. First published in 1982, it predates some of the considerably more prominent works from the likes of Stephen Flowers, Freya Aswynn, Nigel Pennick and Michael Howard, with Flowers’ Futhark: A Handbook of Rune Magic arriving two years later, while Aswynn’s Leaves of Yggdrasil would be first self-published in 1988. Only Ralph Blum and his mass market  Book of Runes (with little rune tiles in a cloth pouch) can claim to be a contemporary, released in the same year as Rune Games, but let’s not tar the latter with the shameful brush of the former. This pedigree means that despite a metaphysical focus, there’s little in the way of references to Germanic magical groups here, and the slight bibliography naturally contains no related titles (as they didn’t exist yet, of course), with the only works directly relating to runes being academic ones: Dickins’ Runic and Heroic Poems, Elliott’s Runes: An Introduction, and Page’s An Introduction to English Runes.

Perhaps highlighting the hoary antiquity of this book, Rune Games is formatted in a monotype face that may have been come from a then-state-of-the-art word processor, but which carries with it a hint of a far older typewriter. There don’t appear to have been any special characters on this word processor, so the thorn and eth letters are both transliterated to ‘th’, with ‘eth’ differentiated in its appearances with a line above the ‘th.’ It’s almost cute but disorientating for those with the luxury of always reading the text with special characters baked in. As one would expect, there were also no runic characters on this ancient device, so when needed, these have been charmingly hand-drawn into the body copy. Double cute.

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One of the most appealing aspects of Rune Games is an aesthetic one, with the peppering throughout of ink illustrations by Steven Longland. In contradistinction to the conventions of runic and Viking art that has come to dominate this field (as featured in the incessant sponsored posts on my Instagram feed), Longland has a calligrapher’s hand, drawing on the illuminated manuscript style of the Book of Kells to create something that looks more Celtic than obviously Germanic. Indeed, the Book of Kells plays a surprising and disproportionate role in this work, but more about that later.

Rune Games spread with image by Steven Longland

While later titles from the milieu of esoteric runology would tend to focus on the 24 runes of the Elder Futhark, Osborn and Longland explore the larger Ango-Saxon version; a natural choice since the accompanying Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem provides the most complete information on the meaning of each rune, cryptic though some of them be; with the poem’s Icelandic and Norwegian counterparts detailing only the sixteen runes of the shorter Younger Futhark. After a brief introduction to the runes in general, Osborn and Longland follow the familiar pattern of books such as these by detailing the meaning of each rune, beginning with a translation of the appropriate verse from the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem before providing an investigation of symbolism that usually runs up to a page and a half for longer entries, and as little as half a page for others. The authors draw fairly purely and pragmatically from etymology and the information found in the rune poems, with little in the way of outlandish or metaphysical speculation.

There is a concerted effort to show patterns within the runes, creating a thematic image that emphasises, as the rune poem naturally does, Anglo-Saxon ideas of home, hall and hearth. This reaches its zenith in an additional section where Osborn and Longland return to some of the runes by grouping them via their shapes as well as their association with animals, trees and plants, and the stars. The latter provides one of the notable innovative thoughts within the book, not seen anywhere else that I recall, with an interpretation of the Tir rune (described in the poem as a special astral sign, ever on course at night) as an arrow-shaped constellation comprised of the stars Sirius, Aldebaran, Betelgeuse and Rigel. On paper, as illustrated by Steven Longland here, it certainly looks convincing.

Rune Games spread with Tir image by Steven Longland

Osborn and Longland place particular emphasis on the Ing rune, seeing it as a master rune of sorts, representing imagination and the ability to transform the universe, and identifying it as a symbol of the blind eye of Odin, as the World Tree Yggdrasil, and as a pattern for the stages of life. They highlight its symmetry by halving, quartering and vertical splitting, attaching metaphysical significance to each stage. By far the longest part of this consideration, though, is spent on detailing appearances of the shape of the rune in the images of the Book of Kells, where it can be discerned in not just the overall decorative geometry of illustrations but in objects held by some of the figures. After spending an inordinate amount of time dissecting these images, in particular one from the Gospel of St John, and attaching various runic interpretations to it, Osborn and Longland do abruptly make the belated caveat that it would be a mistake to think the appearance of the Ing shape is a deliberate reference to the rune by the book’s creators; something that should be pretty obvious considering divides temporal, geographical, not to mention cultural and most importantly, religious. While one could say that the appearance of the shape and its themes might be, as Osborn and Longland call it, a meaningful coincidence, this caution is sometimes thrown to the wind and far more categorical statements are made, such as within the very paragraph where they opine that it seems likely an apparent blind eye in a depiction of St. Matthew was intended to be a veiled reference to Odin – quite the allegation to make against Columban monks.

Yggdrasil image by Steven Longland

The unique selling point of Runes Games is said games, eight in all, though Osborn and Longland take their time getting to them, providing a firm grounding in the runes and the metaphysics of divination first, so that it isn’t until half way through the book that they are introduced. Beginning with the simplest, a casting of rune staves (with three of them being selected for a tri-part query), these games are various systems of divination that ramp up in complexity as they progress. Classic children’s’ games play an inspirational role here, with one game being based on a knucklebones while another is comparable to hopscotch, with runes arranged on various grid patterns and the hopping done in the player’s mind. Other games draw from mythology for their framework, with one based on the nine nights spent hanging from the World Tree by Odin, and another that incorporates the charms mentioned in the Ljóðatal section of Hávamál. Another of the games returns to the image of the World Tree but aligns it with the Qabbalistic Tree of Life, assigning various runes to the sephira and then creating five different divinatory trees, with characteristics specific to an assigned rune; for example, the Tree of Man for one’s current personality, the Tree of Aurochs for the will and the Tree of Ing for possible futures.

Rune Games spread with image by Steven Longland

As the Yggdrasil game shows, there are often incredible layers of complexity associated with some of these systems, with Osborn and Longland piling interpretations and correspondences one upon the other in a lattice of interlocking potentialities of interpretation. It can be, one must admit, a little intimidating and suited to only a particular mind-set, with the cascade of variables recalling the arcane rules of a tabletop game encountered for the first time by a mere civilian unversed in the ways of geekdom. As such, some of these games feel less like, well, a game, and more like a test of wills, challenging you to see how long you can last until your eyes glaze over as you try to understand the method. With that said, the idea is that obviously, given enough training and experience in these tools and methods, the process of divination should become a lot more fluid and instinctual, without a need to constantly consult the manual.

Published by Routledge & Kegan Paul.


Thank you to our supporters on Patreon especially Serifs tier patron Michael Craft.

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Under the Bramble Arch – Corinne Boyer

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Categories: folk, witchcraft, Tags:

Under the Bramble Arch coverUnder the Bramble Arch is the second volume in Corinne Boyer’s ongoing witchcraft trilogy and picks up where its predecessor, Under the Witch Tree, left off: still in a witchy garden near said witching tree, but moving past those arboreal inhabitants to the garden’s herbs and flowers. Bearing the subtitle “A Folk Grimoire of Wayside Plant Lore and Practicum,” the work provides a guide to 24 plants and herbs, designated by Boyer as belonging to the wayside, a locus that combines wildness with a human element, sitting on the intersection between worlds, lining byways and lanes. As such, the plants here are ones that have been with humans for some time, although many of them have occupied this space almost incidentally, as their habit is invasive or parasitic, meaning that they and their relevance are often overlooked.

Being a review of a sequel that follows its predecessor closely in structure and theme, there will probably be a constant refrain here of “as with Under the Bramble Witching Tree,” so forewarned and forearmed, and with shot glasses at the ready, let’s begin. As with Under the Witch Tree, each of the plants is presented here as its own exhaustive entry, mini chapters as it were, containing a veritable bounty of information. As with its predecessor, each section begins with a paragraph describing the plant, using picturesque language to place its properties and persona within its own mythic landscape. Sometimes this can be a description of the plant anthropomorphised into a tangible spirit (blackberry as the lady of wild edges and shadows, bittersweet nightshade as younger sister to her more famous sibling), in others, this opening takes the form of a small paean addressed to the plant in question, whilst in others, inspiration doesn’t appear to have struck so keenly and the paragraph simply acts as a fact-based overview or introduction.

As with Under the Witch Tree, these introductions are each followed by several pages of folklore, before concluding with sections on the plant’s practical use. These practical sections begin with medical examples drawn from history, followed by Boyer’s own general application, and then usually conclude with instructions for specific tools or usages (for example, a love powder from ivy, a mugwort cauldron for scrying, or a broom from, well, broom).

Under the Bramble Arch spread

The initial sections for each plant are dense and heavy with information, running to as much as six or seven pages, but usually around three. As with Under the Witch Tree, this content is presented largely unreferenced, coming thick and fast as little bites of information that apparently don’t have time to be coherently massaged into place beside their companions, the niceties of paragraph structure giving way to a need for a cascade of staccato sentences of folklore. The review of Under the Witch Tree makes much hay from the lack of referencing and whilst not wishing to re-litigate that to the same extent here, it is worth restating the issues that arise from this. The primary one is that nothing can be trusted, as so many of the anecdotal facts are shorn of their context, particularly geographical or temporal, with a belief that may have been extant in only one area often becoming seemingly universal because its point of origin is not mentioned. Any time something doesn’t ring true, the reader can find themselves hurrying off in search of the unnamed original source or some other form of corroboration, not in an attempt at playing ‘got-cha’ but just to verify that it’s true, or to find either a broader context or actual specifics. In the end, this all comes across like herbalist notes that have been scribbled down over the years, perhaps with their original sources long forgotten, but then transposed to the final manuscript without much in the way of finessing, resulting in the frequent sentence fragments, awkward phrasing, and disorientating shifts in tense.

As with Under the Witch Tree, one can, with a bit of work, reverse engineer the content here, tracking down the source of information (for example, much of the content about blackberry comes directly from Maida Silverman’s A City Herbal; listed in the bibliography but not cited in-body). But this is often an equally fruitless (eh hem) task, as these sources can be as citation-deficient as the book drawing from them. This makes much of the information here all but useless, vulnerable to such a degree of cumulative error and generation loss that it can be no better than gossip or urban legend.

This all works if you want the book to provide an overall vibe of these plants, where a witch could potentially pick any vaguely mentioned property or procedure and deem it fit for purpose based on general associations and history. Indeed, one could generously suggest that this is simply in line with the book’s precedents, with herbals and florilegia of old hardly being hotbeds of exhaustive referencing. However, if you incline towards the scientific method, documented provenance and things empirical, from either a botanical or anthropological perspective, then you are going to be severely disappointed. Hammering this home may seem unduly cruel, and one could argue that the book was never intended to be as rigorous as one might like, but the sentiment is borne simply from the experience of reading, where constant encounters with either the abrupt, note-taking nature of the writing, or the insufficiently detailed content of what could otherwise be interesting facts, can make for a frustrating experience. Then there are moments that are not just ambiguous in their origin but flat out wrong, such as a claim in the section on mistletoe that Baldur was the son of Freyja and that after he was restored to life, she placed the parasitic plant under her protection and it thenceforth only ever brought good fortune. With a bit of digging, this monumental howler seems to have come unchecked from a 2006 issue of Homeopathy Today Online, which tells you everything you need to know right there.

Under the Bramble Arch spread

In contrast to this torrent of not always accurate botanical information, the practical exercises that Boyer includes have the benefit of a far more immediate provenance, all coming from her. There are a variety of exercises presented here, with the various plants being used not just for medicinal products like tonics and ointments, but for charms and amulets, and for magical tools such as a witch’s rope, hag tapers, brooms and various aides to scrying. In some ways, this is where the book excels, with a diverse selection of exercises, well thought out and equally well presented.

As with Under the Witch Tree, Under the Bramble Arch concludes with a set of appendices with emphasis on the practical, as Boyer presents instructions for being a home apothecary, with guides to making poultices, tinctures, infusions and teas; all techniques that can be applied to different plants. As noted in the review for the previous volume, this is a good way to do it, rather than cluttering up each individual section with repetitive instructions.

As with Under the Witch Tree (*hic*), the entries for each plant are formatted to begin on the recto side of the page spread, and are usually preceded by the plant’s botanical illustration, printed at full size, on the verso page; save for a few times where the image is instead included text-wrapped in the main copy. As with Under the Witch Tree, these images come from a variety of, one assumes, public domain sources, and so they are not consistent in weight or style, with some appearing particularly heavy in line compared to others. But, unlike similar situations in lesser books, there’s a level of care that has gone into the presentation here and each image is of acceptable quality, with no pixilation or artefacts from compression or low resolution.

Under the Bramble Arch photo plates

In addition to these illustrations, Under the Bramble Arch includes a section of gloss photograph plates in the centre of the book. These feature images of Boyer herself (in her garden and with broom), along with both examples of some of the plants discussed and a variety of their uses. Richly black and white, these are beautifully shot and add a realism and hands-on quality to what is presented here, contrasting with the more idealised nature of the botanical illustrations.

Under the Bramble Arch is presented in Royal format with 258 pages and the 24 pages of the black and white photo plates. It was released in four editions: paperback, standard hardback, special edition and fine edition. The paperback edition comes with a gloss laminated cover while the standard hardback edition is bound in a blackberry cloth with gold foil blocking to the front and spine, green endpapers and green head and tail bands. The 250 copies of the hand-numbered special edition are bound in dark green cloth, with gold foil blocking to the front and spine, blackberry endpapers, and green head and tail bands. Finally, the sixteen copies of the fine edition are hand-bound in dark green goat leather with gold foil blocking to the front and spine, and the image of goat from the other editions replaced by the blackberry engraving used within. Housed in a fully lined black library buckram slip-case with blind embossing on the front, the fine edition also includes a hand-written protection charm by the author, using ink made from roses.

Published by Troy Books


Thank you to our supporters on Patreon especially Serifs tier patron Michael Craft.

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Gender, Violence, and the Past in Edda and Saga – David Clark

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Categories: germanic

Gender, Violence, and the Past in Edda and Saga coverDavid Clark is a lecturer in Old English at the University of Leicester and this book considers the intersection between gender and violence in both the Poetic Edda and heroic sagas. Gender, Violence, and the Past in Edda and Saga is not a book made from whole cloth, and brings together writings that have previously appeared, in earlier versions, as articles in a variety of publications familiar to the field, including the Viking Society for Northern Research’s Saga-Book, the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Leeds Studies in English, Scandinavian Studies, and Viking and Medieval Scandinavia. That isn’t to say that the work as a whole feels piece meal, and each piece does build upon the other, beginning first with considerations of revenge in the stories of Guðrún and Helgi Hundingsbani. Clark prefaces these explorations in his introduction with a broad summary of Eddaic literature in general, and the areas to be discussed in particular, providing something of a necessary primer for the uninitiated.

Clark uses several theoretical models throughout his book, calling upon Pamela Robertson in the first chapter’s discussion of violence in the Guðrún poems Atlakviða, Atlamál, Guðrúnarhvöt and Hamðismál. Robertson’s consideration of camp, drag and gender parody, as it particularly applies to women who performatively portray other women, is applied to the depiction of Guðrún as someone who is atypically female in her actions. This has led to questions as to whether Guðrún is viewed sympathetically and heroically, or as an anti-feminist scapegoat, but Clark’s use of Robertson’s model allows her to be autonomous, possessed of her own destiny as someone who plays with perceptions of her sex in a female act of female impersonation.

Gender, Violence, and the Past in Edda and Saga spread

Clark employs a different theoretical model in the second chapter, invoking Eve Sedgwick’s concept of homosocial desire in its consideration of flyting in the Helgi poems: the first and second lays of Helgi Hundingsbani as well as the second lay of the other Helgi, Mr Hjörvarðsson. Sedgwick’s model of homosocial desire, in which a society is structured around male relationships that must then be normalised by intense homophobic discourse acting as a form of validation, finds an easy parallel in the Helgi poems. Most notable of these is the flyting exchanges between Guðmundr and Sinfj?tli in Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, with each man belittling the other with ribald accusations of ergi behaviour, though notably casting themselves as the dominant partner in these zoomorphosised sexual interactions with each other: Sinfj?tli says that he and Guðmundr were the parents of wolves, though he alone was the father, while Guðmundr says that he had ridden Sinfj?tli hard for many miles, whilst the latter was a gold-bitted mare. The one element of Sedgwick’s theory missing in its purest application here is the triangular model, in which this homosocial desire occurs in situations involving two men and a woman, the two usually fighting over the latter. As Clark notes, this model requires some adjustment to fit the cases outlined here, in which the desire for the sexual object is not always the primary motivation, such as Dagr in Helgakviða Hundingsbana II whose concern is revenge and the reappropriation of his sister Sigrún. Similarly, the conflict between Guðmundr and Sinfj?tli expands the geometry of the model here, thereby changing the dynamic, with their flyting being in service of their respective brothers, Höðbrodd and Helgi.

The fourth chapter moves away from direct theoretical models with a consideration of the way in which the themes of many of the heroic poems and in particular Hamðismál mirrors descriptions of Ragnarök, with the works providing a near constant invocation of the end of the world and its portents. Clark draws attention to the way in which kin-slaying and revenge is depicted in Völuspá, not just as one of the qualities of the end times but as something seen in the prelude to Ragnarök, where Loki causes the death of Baldr at the hands of his brother Höðr, whose own death at the hands of his newly-born brother, Vali, continues this cycle of fratricidal violence. Literary allusions to the themes of Ragnarök within the heroic poems, thus, convey a similar sense of an all-pervading and inevitable doom, creating a simulacrum of the divine end of the world that the mortal heroes then inhabit.

Gender, Violence, and the Past in Edda and Saga spread The themes of nid and ergi found in earlier chapters recur in a consideration of sexual themes and conceptions of the heroic past in Gisla saga, which asks once again a constant question found throughout this book with regard to the intent and judgement of the various authors in their depiction of revenge: is it admirable, or something barbaric, perhaps embarrassing, belonging to the past? Arguably the starkest positioning of this question is found in the fifth chapter’s discussion of the uneasy balance between, shall we say, the inherent tendency towards vengeance and bloodshed of pre-conversion Scandinavia and the slightly less heavy on the old revenge message of Christ. Clark documents several instances of the bind priests were in when trying to advocate for the latter over the former, noting that as celibate men adverse to pugnacity and proffering peace, they were vulnerable to charges of ergi, so contrary were they to Germanic ideas of masculinity.

The book concludes with a discussion of the role of women in revenge scenarios in the sagas, specifically as inciters of vengeance and offerors of cold council, as Njals saga terms it. This is principally a rebuttal of Jenny Jochen’s Old Norse Images of Women, in which it is argued that the literary stereotype of the vengeful women reflected a historical reality. Clark suggests otherwise, preferring ambiguity where others might be categorical, noting several contrary examples from the historical sagas, such as Sturlu saga, in which women also appear as anti-inciters.

Gender, Violence, and the Past in Edda and Saga runs to about 180 pages and is bound in a glossy black cloth, titled foiled in gold on the spine, and wrapped in a full colour dust jacket, featuring a detail from Arthur Rackham’s The Rhinegold & the Valkyrie. With its page count and octavo size, this feels deceptively like a slight volume, but Clark’s writing is dense and thorough, providing an intense and welcomed look at his subject matter.

Published by Oxford University Press


Thank you to our supporters on Patreon especially Serifs tier patron Michael Craft.

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Root, Stone and Bone – Edited by Fuensanta Arismendi and Galina Krasskova

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Categories: devotional, germanic, Tags:

Root, Stone, and Bone coverPart of the glut of devotionals released by Asphodel Press in the latter half of the 2010s, this slim volume turns a specialised focus towards Andvari, one of the dvergar or dwarves of Germanic cosmology. He’s not the most immediately obvious recipient for devotion, being diminutive in not only size but presence, figuring more in heroic poetry than high myth, albeit with a crucial role in the Volsunga saga, as it was he who owned the ring whose curse resonated throughout that epic. It is Andvari’s association with wealth and its generation that features largely within these pages, as revealed by the subtitle Honoring Andvari and the Vaettir of Money, and editor Galina Krasskova outlines this in her introduction, linking him with frugality, integrity, mindful consumption and exchange.

This book feels very much like co-editor Fuensanta Arismendi’s wheelhouse, and it is her affiliation with Andvari that guides the content here; just as, as mentioned within these pages, she provided Krasskova with her introduction to the dvergr. Arismendi details a very personal history with Andvari, a familial link traced back to her great-grandfather who, she claims, appears to have been possessed by Andvari some point, providing her with what amounts to a dvergar bloodline. Whether she inherited a diminutive stature and a love for gold is not explicitly mentioned; sorry, that was low, even small of me.

Root, Stone and Bone spread

Without a lot of lore or primary sources to explore and dissect, there isn’t much in the way of anthropological deep dives here. Instead, Arismendi and Krasskova write a variety of brief essays, trying to extract as much meaning from Andvari as possible. Given this title’s emphasis on money, most of these have a pecuniary focus, which doesn’t make for the most thrilling of reads, conveying more of a sense of a financial self-help book, something so peculiarly American rather than anything overtly numinous or spiritual. There is an attempt to pre-empt the distaste some might have for a discussion of money, an argument for rehabilitating it as something, in Andvari’s own words, that is as sacred as dignity and self-worth, but one that has been desecrated. Money is, Arismendi argues, a sentient being with a will of its own, the equivalent of a landvaett or land spirit, with different vaettir inhabiting different denominations and currencies. Your mileage may vary, but this frugal and pragmatic reviewer, if she may give her two cents (ba-dum ching), thinks money might just, you know, be money.

Each piece of writing here tends towards the brief side of things, often taking the form of meditations or advice on concepts such as greed, gifting, frugality and mindfulness. In one instance, the Gebo rune is used as the means through which this discussion is made, though here it provides but an initial entry into a discussion of luck. In all, nothing here feels particularly revelatory, and it’s all sensible and nice ways to live your life that hopefully one is already doing without needing inspiration from the careful one. Embodying all these concepts, this Andvari, then, comes across as a stern but ultimately kindly figure, tough but fair as it were, and certainly a million miles from his evolution into the grasping antagonist that is Wagner’s Alberich in Das Rheingold, stealing gold and renouncing love.

Root, Stone and Bone spread

In addition to the essay content of Root, Stone and Bone, there is not a lot of the kind of practical ritual exercises that are usually sprinkled around devotionals such as these. There’s a general purpose prayer to Andvari from Arismendi and a guide to using money conscious prayer beads, but that’s it.

While Arismendi and Krasskova provide most of the content here, there are also a few contributions from ‘Other Voices,’ as their section is called. These are names fairly familiar, such as Raven Kaldera, Elizabeth Vongvisith and Wintersong Tashlin. Vongvisith’s contribution is a reprint of her saucy Andvari’s Bride from The Jotunbok, a short, slightly farcical story told to her by Loki (said bride), and which Krasskova references elsewhere in the book as a lesson on exchanging what is truly yours. Kaldera provides his own tale of interacting with Andvari, though this is a personal one, and tells of the lessons learnt in an encounter at the dvergr’s altar at Cauldron Farm. Tashlin has a piece about buying a gun, while two poems round out this section: one from Ayla Wolff with a delightful retelling of the story of Andvari’s encounter with Loki and the Æsir, and the other, a brief prayer addressed to Andvari from MM, an anonymous six year old.

Root, Stone and Bone runs to just over sixty pages. It is formatted in Asphodel’s standard and imminently readable house style, but is completely devoid of interior illustrations. Cover art, meanwhile, is by your humble reviewer.

Published by Asphodel Press


Thank you to our supporters on Patreon especially Serifs tier patron Michael Craft.

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Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World – Philip A. Shaw

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Categories: germanic, goddesses

Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World coverSubtitled Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of the Matrons, Philip Shaw’s book is an entry in Bristol Classical Press’ Studies in Early Medieval History, a collection of concise books on current areas of debate in antique and early medieval studies. Concise is indeed the word here, and this volume runs to just 100 pages, with a few more for references and index. This economy is fitting as the evidence for each of these goddesses is slight and anything more than this centurial content would arise suspicions about speculation and flights of the fanciful kind.

As it is, Shaw initially spends a fair amount of these hundred pages laying out his context and methodology, providing first a thorough presentation of his linguistic models, followed by an overview of the Romano-Germanic religious landscape of the Early Middle Ages. Given Shaw’s status as a Lecturer of English Language and Old English, it is the linguistic considerations that take the lion’s share here, with a section that he welcomes anyone with an understanding of the basics of word foundation, phonology and comparative reconstruction to skip; though you can’t help thinking that others without such expertise might take up that offer. If you’re not intimidated by the nomenclature, this chapter does act as an effective primer, presenting core phonological strategies, although without much reference to examples specific to the book’s concerns.

Things stay relatively broad in the next chapter’s discussion of the Romano-Germanic religious landscape of the Early Middle Ages, although Shaw uses it principally to outline the cult of the matronae, giving them the largest consideration here, alongside passing mentions of names for some of these Romano-German goddesses, often assumed to be associated with battle, such as Baudihillie and Friagabi. Shaw emphasises the local nature of the matronae cults, declining to attribute their presence and characteristic as part of any consistent and widespread Pan-Germanic belief system that would be comparable to the Scandinavian idea of the disir.

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The two named goddesses discussed in this book have a common origin, appearing in the works of the Venerable Bede, whose De Temporum Ratione makes passing references to both goddesses in a discussion of Anglo-Saxon feast days and the names of the months. Hredmonath (March), he says, took its name from the goddess Hretha, to whom they sacrificed at this time of the year, while Eosturmonath (April), was named after a goddess called Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated that month. These enigmatic references are unique to Bede, with the names unattested elsewhere, though over the centuries, much cloth has been woven from these tiny strands.

The first of the named goddesses to receive attention here is Eostre, whose scant evidence hasn’t prevented an impressive accretion of ideas, as a multitude of glib, well-meaning, but ultimately erroneous Facebook posts about the true origins of Easter are testament. Shaw begins with an overview of Eostre as she has been perceived through the last two centuries of Germanic anthropology and philology, with Grimm being the most obvious figure, leading up to the present where caution has won out over speculation and a consensus has largely formed in which Bede’s linking of the festival’s name to this pre-Christian goddess is assumed to be discredited. Shaw appears unconvinced, and seeks to explore more, asking, as the chapter’s title does, whether Eostre is a Pan-Germanic goddess or simply an etymological fantasy. He has one trump in this study, compared to his historic counterparts, as their conclusions whether affirmative or negative were formed prior to the discovery in Germany’s Cologne region of votive images dedicated to what are referred to as the matronae Austriahenae. The presence of such figures incorporating a comparable German version of the Eostre name suggests that the venerable one was not simply making stuff up.

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Without the benefit of archaeological adjuncts like the matronae Austriahenae, Shaw’s consideration of Bede’s other goddess, Hreda, is almost entirely etymological; and as such, feels a lot more unresolved. He explores various uses of similar words in Anglo-Saxon (hreod, hreda, hreðe, hreðan, hreð), seeing if any provide anything in the way of characteristics or function for Hreda as a goddess. But, other than associations with the concept of quickness (hræð), Shaw appears to find none that are particularly satisfying. Of more relevance for Shaw is the use of hreð as a personal name element, with variants appearing in the name lists of several libri vitae, and also in the word Hreðgotan, which is used as a name for the Goths in two Old English poems, all indicating a certain connection with specific unspecified places or peoples.

Shaw concludes with a chapter called Roles of the Northern Goddess? which casts as much shade as its enquiring title would suggest, referencing Hilda Ellis Davidson’s book of the same name and standing in contradistinction to her implicit idea of a single northern goddess whose facets are distributed amongst so many other goddesses. For those who find comfort in the idea of a consistent set of beliefs spread across pagan Europe and Scandinavia, with all the respect and surety that such a grand mythology offers, then the appeal here to the local, familial and even personal will be a disappointment. Shaw’s pragmatism is not soulless though, and rather than despairing at the lack of evidence for these goddesses, or our inevitably meagre understanding of what Anglo-Saxon paganism in general actually involved, he sees Eostre and Hreda as part of an intriguing, vast and diverse mythic landscape, one that is possibly more than half-submerged but still offers areas of further exploration.

Published by Bristol Classical Press.


Thank you to our supporters on Patreon especially Serifs tier patron Michael Craft.

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The Book of Merlin: Insights from the Merlin Conference – Edited by R.J. Stewart

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Categories: faery, folk, middle ages

First published in 1987 and then reprinted each year from 1989 to 1991, this book primarily compiles papers from the First Merlin Conference, held in London in 1986. It’s not clear, given the use of the ‘primarily’ qualifier, whether everything included here was presented as a paper, but if it is, the rather slight line-up is quite a remarkable one, with Geoffrey Ashe, Gareth Knight, John Matthews and Bob Stewart himself providing something of a Who’s Who of mid to late 80s esoteric Arthuriana. This is part of the charm of reviewing a title like this, harking back to a simpler time where re-encountering these authors is like slipping on some old familiar shoes. This nostalgia is compounded by the delicious, oh so occult 80s/90s cover art from Miranda Gray, whose delicately-stippled and hand-coloured image of a hooded Merlin is still stunning and evocative today despite being so of its time.

Things begin with an uncredited introduction that provides a brief overview of Merlin where, perhaps betraying Stewart’s authorship, there’s some typically salty invective about misconceptions surrounding him. You better not entertain the idea that Merlin is a vapid New Age pseudo-master or some doddering wizard with a star-spangled hat, otherwise, golly gosh, Stewart will hunt you down and severely castigate you.

But never fear, any vapid and New Age illusions are quickly put to rest with Geoffrey Ashe’s contribution, one of the most exhaustive here, providing a survey of Merlin’s earliest appearances, beginning with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The Prophecies of Merlin and The History of the Kings of Britain and then working backwards to the primary sources he drew from. This is a strictly factual survey of the literature, expertly corralled by Ashe, but even he can’t help adding a little mystical resonance, almost attributing sentience to the coalescence of the various proto versions of Merlin into a singular figure, identifying an “indwelling godhead” re-emerging as a powerful tutelary entity that had been there all along. I can dig it.

The Book of Merlin page spread with artwork by Miranda Gray

The content within this book is divided into five parts and the second of these takes its name from its first contribution, Gareth Knight’s The Archetype of Merlin. After an introduction by Stewart, Knight takes a not entirely focussed journey, deriving greater meaning from some of the more admittedly superficial impressions of Merlin, before exploring Gandalf as an example of the continuation of the archetype. This is just as scattershot, with Knight careening all over the place in an unendearing manner, reaching its apex when a whole page is used to quote from an editorial in The Guardian about, would you believe, the Challenger space shuttle disaster. Knight concludes this section with two other contributions, one about the blue stones Merlin is said to have brought from afar when constructing Stonehenge, and the other about the mage’s relationship with Nimuë. These are both briefer and more focused than the piece that precedes them, ending almost too abruptly where the former lingers.

The book’s third section considers Merlin’s place in modern fiction, and other than an introduction from Stewart, this is entirely John Matthews’ time to shine, with two pieces: one that gives its name to this section, followed by a two-page poem called Merlin’s Song of the Stones. As someone who has read a fair bit of contemporary Arthurian fiction all her life, this is an interesting overview, touching on some familiar notable titles such as Marian Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone and Parke Godwin’s Firelord, as well as other less familiar ones. Matthews doesn’t spend too long on each, grouping them together into similar themes, such as Merlin being associated with Atlantis (a surprisingly popular motif), or his roles as variously prophet, trickster and teacher.

The Book of Merlin page spread

Stewart provides the final paper here, and the book’s longest, with a consideration of Merlin and the wheel of life, drawing primarily from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini in which he appears as a shamanic and prophetic wild man of the woods, passing through a seasonal round. As an adjunct to this discussion, and in an intersection with an abiding interest in the legends and mysticism surrounding Bath in south west England, Stewart also relates Merlin to a similar figure mentioned by Geoffrey in his The History of the Kings of Britain, King Bladud. Bladud is described as a worker of necromancy, a devotee of Minerva who built the therapeutic baths of Aquae Sulis, but other than appearing in Vita Merlini, there’s little connecting him with Merlin other than broad motifs, and Stewart’s attempt at a comparison seems strained if thorough.

The Book of Merlin concludes with an appendix of two primary sources, as well as a reprint of an essay from 1901 by Arthur Charles Lewis Brown concerning the figure of Barintus, the helmsman who steers Arthur to the Fortunate Isles. The first of the primary texts, introduced once again by Stewart, are extracts from Thomas Heywood’s, wait for it, The Life of Merlin, surnamed Ambrosius; his Prophecies and Predictions Interpreted, and their Truth Made Good by our English Annals: Being a Chronographical History of all the Kings and Memorable Passages of this Kingdom, from Brute to the reign of King Charles, phew. The excerpts show how Heywood can almost be described as a proto-novelist, taking the core provided by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and fleshing it out with his own take, with a particular emphasis on Merlin’s prophesies and their interpretation. The second text consists of extracts from The Birth of Merlin, a bawdy comedy probably written in whole or part by William Rowley but which in its first printing was attributed to Rowley and no less than William Shakespeare.

The Book of Merlin page spread with artwork by Miranda Gray

In all, The Book of Merlin makes an interesting if brief introduction to some ideas associated with Merlin. Given its status as documentation of a single conference, there are understandably not a lot of contributors here and the fruits that are range in appeal, with those by Ashe and Matthews being the highlights; and Stewart’s editorial voice permeating throughout. Formatting is understated but competent and in addition to her lovely cover image, Miranda Gray provides illustrations for many of the contributions, all in her trademark style of crisp, fine lines offset with a restrained use of stippled detail and shading. These are usually set against white space, with little background, all adding to their ephemeral and mystical quality.

Published by Blandford


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