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Between the Worlds: Contexts, Sources, and Analogues of Scandinavian Otherworld Journeys, edited by Matthias Egeler and Wilhelm Heizmann

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Categories: celtic, faery, germanic, paganism, underworld, Tags:

Between the Worlds coverMarking the 118th volume in De Gruyter’s Ergänzungsbände zum Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde series, Between the Worlds: Contexts, Sources, and Analogues of Scandinavian Otherworld Journeys is a comprehensive tome running to over 700 hundred pages. As its title makes clear, this is a consideration of how otherworld journeys in the literary corpus of the Scandinavian Middle Ages are fundamentally linked to the idea of spaces between worlds. These interstitial spaces are not just found within the narratives themselves but underlie their very construction, marking points of cultural intersection between different worldviews. There’s the treatment of pre-Christian mythology in texts from the Christian period treat; the appearance of apparently Christian motifs in what is thought to be pre-Christian material; the adaption by Scandinavian texts of literature from the Europe, Ireland, and the classical Mediterranean; and the incorporation of Scandinavian narrative patterns into Finnish ones.

Between the Worlds is comprised of seventeen contributions in all, divided into five categories of Die Altnordische und Altsächsisch-Altenglische Literarische Überlieferung, Archäologie, Mittellateinische und Keltische Überlieferungen, Die Antike Mittelmeerwelt und der Alte Orient, and Finno-Ugrische Perspektiven. The essays are written in either English or German and since this reviewer’s expertise in Deutsch is rudimentary at best, we will only be covering the English entries. For what it’s worth, the German contributions come from Matthias Teichert, Ji?í Starý, Richard North, Sigmund Oehrl, Horst Schneider, Andreas Hofeneder, Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, Christian Zgoll, Annette Zgoll, and Sabine Schmalzer. Of these, the most interesting are North’s search for traces of Loki in the depiction of the Garden of Eden from the West Saxon poem Genesis B, and Starý’s exploration of interstitial worlds in two High Middle Ages Scandinavian poems, Draumkvæði and Sólarljóð. That there are only seventeen essays here spread across the supra-700 pages is indicative of the kind of considered and exhaustive content here, with nothing coming in at under ten pages and many being considerable longer.

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Jens Peter Schjødt’s Journeys to Other Worlds in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Mythology is the only English entry in the first Die Altnordische und Altsächsisch-Altenglische Literarische Überlieferung grouping of essays and it provides something of a basic grounding in the themes of this entire anthology, acting as an introduction, even if it isn’t labelled as such. He argues for a certain kind of system in Scandinavian depictions of otherworld journeys, employing an axial schema in which journeys along the horizontal usually indicate a hostile encounter with the giants and are associated with Þórr, whilst travel along the vertical axis is the preserve of Óðinn and involves descent into the underworld for the acquisition of numinous power.

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Under the heading of Archaeology, the contributions of Flemming Kaul and Leszek Garde?a both address themes found in mortuary architecture, looking within them for clues to various eschatological cosmologies. Kaul’s The Possibilities for an Afterlife. Souls and Cosmology in the Nordic Bronze Age concerns itself with ideas of conveyance to the underworld, focusing heavily on the solar symbolism of bronze objects, such as the chariot of the sun found at Trundholm in Denmark, as well as the motif of solar ships, with theoretical journey of the sun to the underworld being mirrored by the souls of the departed. With The Slavic Way of Death. Archaeological Perspectives on Otherworld Journeys in Early Medieval Poland, Garde?a provides the longest entry here, presenting a comprehensive consideration of perceptions of the afterlife in Slavic culture. Garde?a acknowledges that, given the dearth of accounts of the underworld in pre-Christian Slavic belief, this is a difficult subject to consider, with the hints that can be gleamed from folklore being collected only relatively recently (within the preceding two centuries), and representing a patchwork of information whose sources are chronologically and geographically disparate. To head off this lack of definitive sources, Garde?a goes thorough instead, exhaustively considering practically everything that could be connected with death practices, both artefactually and textually.

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The only English contribution to the next section on Medieval Latin and Celtic Traditions is by Séamus Mac Mathúna who assesses various Irish analogues of motifs found in Old Norse voyage tales from both fornaldarsögur and Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum. This is a weighty study, effortlessly introducing categories of otherworld journeys from Irish literature, in both their echtrai and later immrama genres, before considering Old Norse parallels, particularly in the reverse-euhemerised retellings of Þórr’s encounters with the giant Geirröðr, where the thunder god’s role is played by the hero Þórstein (in fornaldarsögur) or Thorkillus (in the Gesta Danorum). Mathúna writes with a healthy dose of scepticism, never stating that a link betwixt Icelandic and Irish sources is categorical, simply presenting the examples with references to previous scholars, such as Rosemary Power, who have found the idea more convincing. Mathúna reasonably concludes that while Saxo and the various authors of the fornaldarsögur may have used story patterns akin to those in Hiberno-Latin and vernacular Irish visionary literature, there’s no smoking gun, nothing that can be seen as evidence of a direct influence. Whether one finds the idea appealing or not, there is much in this piece that will be of value for anyone with a broad interest in either Celtic or Icelandic otherworld encounters.

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Christopher Metcalf’s Calypso and the Underworld: The Limits of Comparison is one of two contributions here that focuses on the underworld analogues visited by Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey; with the other being Christian Zgoll’s preceding Märchenhexe oder göttliche Ritualexpertin? Kirke und Kult im Kontext der homerischen Nekyia, in which Circe and her island are discussed. Metcalf’s approach, as its circumspect title suggests, is the less fun of the two, being cautious about the comparison between the underworld and the island of the enchantress Calypso. Despite his scepticism, this is an idea that has been extant in scholarship for well over a hundred years, drawing on commonalities betwixt the island and depictions of the underworld in Greek myth, as well as employing comparative approaches from broader Indo-European mythology. Metcalf finds both those methods and the entire idea of Calypso as a veiled death goddess less convincing, and as a result, comes across as a bit of spoilsport and no fun.

Two of the longest contributions here come from Clive Tolley and Frog in the final section on Finno-Ugric perspectives, although Tolley’s “Hard it is to stir my tongue”: Raiding the Otherworld for Poetic Inspiration is not as focussed on matters Finno-Ugric as its placement within this grouping might suggest. Instead, Tolley presents an utterly thorough 94 page exploration of encounters with the underworld as part of the acquisition of the gift of poetry, spreading his net wide to consider the motif from sources Norse, Finnish, Siberian, Greek, Anglo-Saxon, and Celtic in strains Irish, Scottish and Welsh. This makes for a vital contribution, one that, by its very nature, embraces a variety of themes beyond just those of poetic inspiration and otherworld journeys. The 124 pages of Frog’s Practice-Bound Variation in Cosmology? A Case Study of Movement between Worlds in Finno-Karelian Traditions feels more at home in this final section with its evident focus on Finno-Karelian myth and practices. This is another piece that justifies the entry price, with Frog exploring not just otherworldly travel in the Kalevala, but also so much more. He extends the investigation into matters experiential, considering similarly motifs in the work of traditional tietäjä (magic workers) and Karelian lamenters.

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Even if only half the contributions are accessible for us monoglots, Between the Worlds is a valuable addition to the library of anyone with an interest in Scandinavian eschatology and otherworld journeys in general. There’s little here that feels well-trodden or overly familiar, with the authors each providing interesting avenues to explore. It is present to the usual high quality of De Gruyer, with the mass of pages bound in a sturdy red cloth hardback.

Published by De Gruyter

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Music in Witchcraft and the Occult: An Anthology

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Categories: egyptian, hellenic, hermeticism, magick, music, shamanism, witchcraft, Tags:

Music in Witchcraft and the Occult: An Anthology coverPublished by Aeon Sophia Press, Music in Witchcraft and the Occult concerns itself with exactly what it says on the tin, but it approaches this theme from a practical and experiential perspective, with a variety of musician writing about the ways in which music and the occult interact within their work. But first, a little caveat, as this anthology includes an essay from this reviewer, discussing her creation of devotional music for Hela under the name Gydja. Suffice to say, we will be neither critiquing nor lauding that particular contribution, but even without that, there’s plenty more to explore.

We usually leave matters of aesthetics to the conclusion of reviews, but the appearance of Music in Witchcraft and the Occult impacts on reading to such an extent that it informs what follows. There is unfortunately a haphazard quality to the layout, with no consistent style and with each entry apparently retaining its contributor’s source formatting. As a result, the inherited styling of subtitles, footnotes, footnote numbering, indents, captions, page beaks, line spacing and paragraph returns are all inconsistent; though mercifully, the same serif face is used throughout for the main body. This inevitably makes the book feel rushed, lacking in cohesion and genuinely hard to read in some places; such as the first entry in which the text is interrupted by strange, abrupt digits as the footnote numbering has been formatted at full scale instead of superscript. Most jarring of all are the main titles which have been left however the author minimally formatted them in their submission, resulting in barely any typographic hierarchy. Similarly, if an author didn’t include their name at the start of their original submission document, then it hasn’t been added here for publication, meaning that without recourse to the contents page you can dive into some entries with little context, hoping that the author’s name is mentioned latter on.

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There are some interesting contributions in Music in Witchcraft and the Occult which makes it all the more frustrating that it doesn’t look better, especially when only a little tightening of the layout and the addition of hierarchy and consistency would have done wonders. After something of a broad introduction with a few personal specifics from Aaron Piccirillo of Synesect, the first entry comes from Kakophonix of self-described Black Ritual Chamber Musick project Hvile I Kaos. This is a comprehensive consideration of the music of Hvile I Kaos, with a guide to their performances as live rituals, an analysis of the theory behind some indicative pieces and albums, accompanied by notation of particular motifs, including a setting of the Agios O Baphomet sinister chant. It’s all rather interesting, though the lack of formatting makes it feel rather desultory, with huge half-page spaces left between sections and little in the way of typographic hierarchy.

Zemaemidjehuty, author of The Book of Flesh and Feather, published by Theion Publishing, lays his Kemetic cards on the table with his contribution, which focuses not on any music they themselves make, but on a ritual that takes the form of a conversation between Djehuty and Barbelo/Sophia. The dialogue is spread across an exhausting sixteen pages at a fairly large point size and with a lot of leading between the lines, with the words spoken by Sophia being differentiated with some hideous underlining as if we’re still living in a world of manual typewriters instead of one in which any variation of formatting could have been chosen.

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Moving swiftly along, another author, Jack Grayle, whose book on Hekate, The Hekatæon, was published by Ixaxaar, provides a dose of erudition with Gravesong. Once again, though, this piece feels a little divorced from the overall theme of this anthology, though it is tangential, with Grayle focusing on funeral songs, particularly in the intersection of Aeschylus’ trilogy of plays The Oresteia and the Greek Magical Papyri. Again, and through no fault of Grayle, the formatting here leaves a lot to be desired, with subtitles capitalised but otherwise unformatted (and in one instance, widowed at the bottom of a page), and with the endnotes kept in Microsoft Word’s deplorable default Calibri styling.

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Ilya Affectvs mirrors the entry from Hvile I Kaos with a thorough, fifteen page, multi-section overview of his ritual ambient project Corona Barathri. It begins with a general biography and statement of intent, followed by Oratio Sacra, a part-manifesto sermon that is exemplary of Corona Barathri’s diabolist themes and lyrics, finally ending with the lyrics of two songs, Hymn of Nahemoth from the album Womb Ov Sheol and the title track from Speculum Diaboli.

Music in Witchcraft and the Occult spread In Baron Samhedi, Edgar Kerval gives a broad outline of his project Emme Ya before turning to the baron of the title. Ostensibly this is done to illustrate how Kerval has worked profoundly with Baron Samhedi since 2009 and how the attendant methods of invocation include sonically-induced trance states. In practice, though, this is more of a six page general biography of Samhedi with a concluding ritual, and one that could have benefited from proofing and editing to corral Kerval’s otherwise enthusiastic prose.

A different style of writing is provided by Keeley Swete and Jessica Rose of Portland’s She Scotia with their Music as Ritual, which invites the reader to reject the commodification of music in favour of something with a more sacralised intent. This is a considered and eloquent piece with a voice that blends a New Age style of metaphysical speculation with a witchy underpinning, a little self-help, a little inspi- and aspi- rational. Jon Vermillion’s The Souls (sic) Expression Through the Universal Vibration of Sound follows and feels somewhat cut from the same cloth, with a focus on frequencies and sound waves, and visualising a violet sphere of light. There’s an obvious debt to Robert Monroe’s idea of altered conscious using audio techniques to achieve hemispherical synchronization, and quite a bit of the New Age with talk of Kryst Consciousness, meditation and etheric bodies. Sitting within the same pages as Emme Ya’s Baron Samhedi and Corona Barathri’s diabolism, this makes for some incongruent company.

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Iceland’s enigmatic NYIÞ offer one of the most interesting contributions here, situating their work within the folklore and magick of their homeland, beginning with a broad overview of such. They then pull back the curtain, explaining the symbolism behind various choices of instruments (the organ being linked to death, skin drums with shamanism, etc) and then showing how these elements can be combined with more conventional instruments and intent to create their intersection between music and magick.

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Finally, zenKOAL of the ritual noise duo Brujentropy wields the longest-titled entry here, offering Strange Spells Spontaneously Evolving into Art: Avant Punk, Spoken Wyrd, Ritual Noise and Deathdream Electronics Unveiled no less. It’s also a pretty long piece in general, with zenKOAL writing dense paragraphs in a lyrical and effusive manner that, given the abrupt and indecisive formatting elsewhere in this volume, is quite welcome and even comforting. Like a lot of the entries here, this feels like a manifesto, with zenKOAL describing her practice, both magical and musical, as one in which creative works are birthed as sentient entities that gradually form over time, and eventually perpetuating themselves independent of their creator.

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In all, Music in Witchcraft and the Occult has promise but is let down by the presentation and lack of attention to detail. It is presented in an edition of 200 hand-numbered exemplars, bound in cloth with a metallic foiling of the title and a stylised flame on both the cover and the spine. There are multiple images used throughout, both graphic and photographic, with some at full page or as spreads, while others are awkwardly marooned on their own and not integrated into the text, as if they’ve retained the practical formatting of their original submission document. Accompanying the book is a CD that compiles music pieces from the various contributors: Gydja, Khtunae, She Scotia, NYIÞ, Hvile I Kaos, Brujentropy, Corona Barathri, Emme Ya and Synesect.

Published by Aeon Sophia Press

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Making Magic in Elizabethan England: Two Early Modern Vernacular Books of Magic, edited by Frank Klaassen

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Categories: folk, grimoire, Tags:

Making Magic in Elizabethan England coverIn 2019’s Making Magic in Elizabethan England, Frank Klaassen uses two anonymous manuscripts of magic from Elizabethan England to consider the wider intellectual culture surrounding the practice of magic in the early modern period. He explores how this milieu, in drawing on currents from the Renaissance, the Reformation, and new developments in science, as well as the birth of printing, impacted on the practice of magic, creating an enduring influence on the formation of modern occultism. Though untitled when written, the works are now known as the Antiphoner Notebook and the Boxgrove Manual. The former is concerned with treasure hunting, healing, and protection, and blends medieval conjuring and charm literature with excerpts drawn from Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft. The Boxgrove Manual, meanwhile, is a consideration of ritual magic that synthesises material from and credited to Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and related medieval works concerning the conjuration of spirits.

Key to the importance attributed to the notebook and the manual is their interstitial status as post-Reformation works. As products of their time, they evince how occultists had to contend with a Catholic legacy in a newly-Protestant England. Up until then, magic had been inherently Catholic in form, employing the religion’s rituals and hagiographic mythologies, not to mention the fundamental idea that divine could be entreated using such systems and drawn into the world. Under Protestantism, these formulae and the very ideas behind them were forbidden, making the occult a doubly illicit practice, both theologically and politically: it was wrong for simply being magic as proscribed against in the bible, but also wrong for retaining elements of, and implying a sympathy for, Catholicism, and with that, a potential vulnerability to the machination of foreign Popish forces.

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Klaassen uses these two titles as a counter to the idea that post-Reformation Protestant theology and the emergence of secular science initiated a process of entzauberung or disenchantment within modernity, in which the previously omnipresence of the supernatural was removed from the world. Instead, Klaassen argues that the Reformation did not so much disenchant the old consensus about magic as to break it apart, allowing for it to be reassembled with new definitions that were increasingly divorced from the previous reliance on traditional religion. The Protestant author of the Boxgrove Manual had, for example, removed any explicitly Catholic content from his source material, but rather than creating a Protestant form of magic in its stead, the book represents not just a break with Catholicism, but a separation from religion itself.

In addition to this general overview with which he opens the book, Klaassen provides specific introductions to both texts, giving their history and an analysis of not only the content but its creators, assessing their intent and methods. The text themselves are presented in a thorough manner, with Klaassen using a preface before each one, explaining the physical characteristics of the manuscript in question, an explanation of the sources he cites, and a setting out of editorial principles. His translations are categorised as semi-diplomatic editions, producing an intermediate version of the manuscript text, largely faithful to how it was produced, but with some minor alterations for readability, with abbreviations expanded, and a few forms of punctuation standardised.

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The two works are extensively annotated by Klaassen, marking out amendments in the editing process but also providing valuable commentary both minor and extensive on matters that arise in the text. Due to the length of some of the digressions, these are understandably formatted as endnotes, rather than footnotes, which is still a shame, as their worth is such that it would aide reading to having them as an accessible adjunct on the same page as the body, visible at a glance, rather than necessitating the flicking between the here and now and the end of each chapter.

Despite their relatively shared provenance, these are two distinct works, in both style and subject matter, with the Antiphoner Notebook being arguably the less interesting of the two. Its focus is almost entirely on charms, perhaps the dullest and yet most popular form of occultism, with all the usual dubious cures for a variety of ailments, as well as dealing with that most perennial of problems, thieves. Many of these are common charms, many of which are drawn from Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft, and they do tend to dominate in the latter half, but there are also some interesting rituals and procedures, such as divination with a crystal, and a very long procedure for exorcising demons guarding a treasure. One instance tellingly shows how the grip of orthodox religion was loosening in magic, with the compiler including a guide for creating a wastcote of proofe, the process of which involves thread being spun in the name of the devil. The verbatim source for this was Discoverie of Witchcraft, but unlike its use there as part of Scot’s sceptical exposé of superstitious beliefs in witchcraft, in the Antiphoner Notebook it is included as something that could be readily employed like any of the other entries. Klaassen notes that this explicit use of the devil’s name, as well as other formulae in which both demons and angels are directly invoked, would have been beyond the pale of even later medieval necromancers who may have conjured demons but only did so in the name of Jesus.

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With its reliance on works by and attributed to Agrippa, and its focus on matters invocatory, the Boxgrove Manual makes for an immediately more interesting book than the Antiphoner Notebook. It opens with a Pentacle of the Apocalyptic Christ before continuing into a set of planetary seals and a guide to creating lamens for calling spirits, with both good and ill ones being listed. The manual is heavily indebted to Agrippa’s three volume De Occulta Philosophia as well as the apocryphal fourth book pseudonymously attributed to him as Liber Quartus De Occulta Philosophia. The compiler of the Boxgrove Manual clearly believed Agrippa to be the author of Liber Quartus, and draws from it throughout, but he also credits him with authorship of the Heptameron, which is usually credited, again pseudonymously, to Peter de Abano.

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Klaassen concludes the section on the Boxgrove Manual with a brief but valuable appendix, providing the sources for each of the manual’s entries, thereby showing the debt owed to the Heptameron, and to Liber Quartus in particular. In all, Making Magic in Elizabethan England, is a valuable title, not only for the versions of the Antiphoner Notebook and the Boxgrove Manual but for the way in which Klaassen contextualises them within post-Reformation England. He writes with a deft, knowledgeable hand that makes for a joy to read.

Published by the Pennsylvania State University Press

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Volcanoes in Old Norse Mythology: Myth and Environment in Early Iceland – Mathias Nordvig

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Categories: folk, germanic, Tags:

Volcanoes in Old Norse Mythology coverThis book from Mathias Nordvig provides a full exploration of an idea he first presented in 2014 as a PhD dissertation called Of Fire and Water. The Old Norse Mythical Worldview in an Eco- Mythological Perspective, and which he has subsequently promoted in smaller essays, including one in the recently reviewed Handbook of Old Norse Memory Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches from de Gruyter. As the title suggests, the focus here is on volcanism, and in particular the intersection between its physical presence in the landscape of Iceland and the topography of Norse mythology. Nordvig’s argument is that volcanoes and their effects had an outsize influence of the imagery found in the eddas and skaldic poetry, with the latter being used by Scandinavian migrants to medieval Iceland in order to understand and negotiate the unfamiliar geological hazards of the island. With the post-conversion growth of writing, and all the editing that is intrinsic to it, this world-view became codified in myth. In this way, Nordvig argues that Norse mythology is an indigenous expression of life in Iceland which has been emplaced in a Latinate script-world.

Volcanoes in Old Norse Mythology is significantly shorter than its dissertation forerunner, being largely divested of the academic necessities of the latter, such as literature reviews and overly-long explanations of theoretical frameworks and methods, but it does not come across as simply a reworking of the latter for a wider audience. Instead, while the ideas are the same, they provide the only through-line between the two works, with a sense of this book being built from scratch, rather than a mere editing down of a thesis with some finessing for publication.

Following a brief introduction, Nordvig begins with Old Norse Mythology Between Environment and Literature, in which he argues that Old Norse mythology is social memory that has direct reference to the world surrounding the texts, drawing comparisons from other cultures around the world in which a people’s myths, legends, and folktales can be instructive for understanding the environment in which they live. A large part of this chapter does not relate directly to the volcano theory and instead is an engaging discussion of concepts of memory and place both in Old Norse society and elsewhere. Key to this approach is Elizabeth W. Barber and Paul T. Barber’s book When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth, which Nordvig references extensively as his ideas mirror their approach to interpreting environment as a mytho-linguistic practice. The Barbers define four principles in this practice: silence (things that everyone takes as read), analogy (if any entities or phenomena bear some resemblance, in any aspect, they must be related), compression (once a theme achieves sufficient mass, it attracts more stories to it), and restructuring (significant cultural change means that some patterns in the theme will be restructured or reinterpreted, leading eventually to obfuscation). This, then, is effectively, Nordvig’s summary of his methods, though he is not entirely beholden to the Barbers’ model, stating that unlike them, he does not intend to define environmental factors as etiological reasons for mythogenesis, critiquing them for painting with broad strokes and attaching geologic meaning to myth where it is not warranted, Nordvig promises to avoid similar post hoc fallacies, saying that he will not claim that all aspects of Old Norse mythology are associated with environmental conditions.

Nordvig then presents his indigenous theory of volcanism in Iceland, using the poem Hallmundarkviða from the story Bergbúa Þáttr as his central and foundational piece of evidence. It’s pretty convincing too, with the poem describing an event in a cave where the arrival of a giant appears to be an anthropomorphised depiction of a volcanic event in which stones fly, dark flames drive and spit, embers shoot, raging streams rush in heavy rubble, and strange new clay flows from the ground. Even without any exegesis from Nordvig, it’s clear to see how this igneous imagery fits his thesis, but he does expertly consolidate this conclusion, drawing upon the concept of geomythology to create parallels with indigenous theories of volcanism from Hawai’i, Aotearoa, Indonesia, North America, and the European and African continents. While Elizabeth and Paul Barber’s book was pivotal to the first chapter, it is Dorothy B. Vitaliano’s Legends of the Earth that naturally assumes that role here, with her coining the phrase geomythology and defining it as the geologic application of euhemerism. Vitaliano argues that etiological folklore has given rise to stories about geological phenomena and her considerable focus on volcanism provides mythological context to volcanic phenomena in Polynesian myth and elsewhere that finds comparisons in Old Norse mythology. Of particular interest are the shared motifs attached to volcanism, with themes of taboo, supernatural anger, and most intriguing of all, ghostly ships, occurring in myths from across the world. It is at this point that Nordvig turns to Hallmundarkviða, showing many of the same themes within that Icelandic poem.

In the third chapter, Nordvig gets to the titular application of his theory, looking for further depictions of volcanism in the broader vistas of Old Norse cosmogony. This pyroclastic evidence is often veiled with the poetic language of myth in which, following the Barbers’ approach,  analogies occur between lava, ash, glacial bursts, ice, water, poison, snow, and sand. Nordvig’s focus in this chapter is entirely on the Old Norse creation myth, arguing by way of the use of these poetic analogies that the streams of ice and eitr in the myth refer not to anything icy but to streams of lava and other results of volcanic activity. But what is presented here never seems to be quite as convincing as the anthropomorphism found in Hallmundarkviða.

In the fourth chapter, Nordvig explores his thesis in terms of what he defines as the social order of Old Norse mythology, applying it to significant mythological events, most notably the story of the mead of poetry, which is dissected exhaustively, as well as Þórr’s duel with the giant Hrungnir. In the concluding fifth chapter, Nordvig effectively provides a summation of what he has covered before, underscoring his idea of volcanoes as a cosmological principle in Old Norse mythology and in the societies in which it informed their world view.

The examples that Nordvig uses to validate his volcano theory vary in how convincing they are, often coming across as circumstantial and tenuous in their use of allegory. Nordvig attempts to pre-empt this criticism by defining his theory as specifically not a nature mythology, be it in the vein of the nineteenth century natural allegory model or its contemporary incarnation as geomythology. Instead, Nordvig argues that his analogical descriptions are valid because multiple factors occur simultaneously. What constitutes a convincing factor is open to interpretation, and fundamentally, everything that is presented still feels like nothing more than a reiteration of myth as natural allegory, with so thorough a descent into the theory that almost anything in myth can be related to volcanic imagery, even when there’s little to no hint of it. Thus, any description of dwarves groaning becomes the sound of subterranean rumblings, and anything that lives in a mountain or in the underworld must somehow be related to volcanic phenomenon. Some of the examples are more convincing than others because they draw on chthonic and alpen imagery, such as the mead of poetry myth in which Óðinn enters the mountain home of the giant Suttungr and his daughter Gunnloð. In this instance, the mead that Óðinn steals as he bursts forth from Hnitbjörg is imagined as a flow of lava, which is a pleasant enough conclusion, albeit one that still feels circumstantial.

At the same time, though, a significant amount of time is also spent here discussing Hrungnir, a rock giant without so much as a sulphurous whiff of a lava flow about him. The reaching to find any correlation becomes exasperating when surely the creators of the myth could have just imagined a cool looking rock giant, because giants and rocks are cool; and it’s handy to have an imagination that can create imagery ex nihilo when your job is being a storyteller. It’s not even about whether Hrungnir could symbolise a volcano, which could be the case if the imagery at least fitted, but rather the insistence that someone looked at a volcano and imagined it as a giant; and not only that, but looked at a volcano and imagined its attributes as the explanation for almost anything else in myth. Suffice to say, it’s a case of an interesting theory that works in some instances but is then enthusiastically and injudiciously applied in an overreaching scattergun effect, much like earlier nature allegories in which everything was theorised to be a sun god or a harvest myth. This reaching for connections can get to ridiculous levels, such as when it is argued that the admittedly puzzling interpretation of Gunnloð’s name as ‘invitation to battle’ fits with “the conceptualization of volcanic activities as violent,” when maybe battle just means battle, as it does every other time a battle is a battle. It seems unlikely anyone has ever looked at a volcanic eruption and gone “Cor, you see that, it looks just like a battle, what with all the flaming ejecta and lava, and a distinct lack of swords. Imagine being invited to that.”

The other problem with the idea of multiple factors occurring simultaneously in order to confirm the volcano theory is when multiple other environmental factors occur but which don’t seem to have had any effect on the myth. Thus, while its superficially appealing to imagine a ruddy flow of lava emerging from the earth as the mead of inspiration, that’s pretty much where the analogy ends. There’s nothing in myth about the mead searing someone’s throat when they recklessly swallowed it, or it hardening into igneous rock in someone’s stomach, or indeed being deadly and very burny for entire villages.

None of this is too say that there isn’t anything to recommend about Volcanoes in Old Norse Mythology: Myth and Environment in Early Iceland. Nordvig writes with an enjoyable and knowledgeable style and he by no means skimps on the evidence when making his arguments. Indeed, the thoroughness of it all is what contributes to the feeling of confirmation bias as it use of allegoric minutiae shores itself up in a way that prevents you from seeing, if you will pardon the inversion, the trees for the wood (or their volcanic equivalent). Even if one finds, as this reviewer obviously does, that the volcanic theory is applied to easily and too thickly, Nordvig’s analysis of the myths themselves is worth the price of entry, as he draws widely from Norse scholarship to present a comprehensive consideration of his sources, and in particular, the creation myth, the mead of poetry myth, and the Hallmundarkviða poem.

Published by Arc Humanities Press

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The Canticles of Lilith – Nicholaj & Katy de Mattos Frisvold

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Categories: goddesses, mesopotamian, nightside, qabalah, Tags:

The Canticles of Lilith coverWhile the output of Troy Books often has a somewhat rustic and grounded feel in their choice of subject matter, reflecting localised folk and witchcraft traditions from different areas of the British Isles, on this, their first release for Troy Books, Nicholaj and Katy de Mattos Frisvold offers something slightly more sinisterly glamorous. As its title makes clear, the focus here is on Lilith, and in particular how she relates to witchcraft, with considerations of her manifestations astrological, Luciferian, Satanic, and erotic, as well as explorations of her multifaceted roles as a vampiric spirit, a Satanic muse, the witch-mother, a spirit of illness, the word of creation, and even the holy spirit herself.

What strikes the reader immediately is the aesthetic quality of the presentation here, with Troy Books replacing their previous, relatively smooth binding with a far more textured one, a gorgeous, thick-thread red cloth that takes the metallic foiling of the cover and spine very well. The interior is equally pleasing with black end papers, a nice weighty paper stock throughout, and formatting that, while functional, is effortlessly professional with it. It is slightly jarring then to be met with the first sentence, suggesting that perhaps the same amount of care should have gone into the editing. This one sentence runs to eight lines of swirling tense, multiple verbs, and minimal punctuation, which we will repeat here in its entirety since nothing else can quite convey all its hallucinatory and exhausting glory. Public health warning: do not attempt to read out loud without a respirator at hand. “Lilith has been tied to the idea of “witchcraft” either as Queen, demoness, vampire, or a spirit of lustful vice and all of these ideas hold a part of her mystery, but for the cunning one she represents the witch-mother herself that with the fallen host and their offspring gave to the fair-daughters of Cain and Seth this special blood that generated the different seed in the world that gave rise to the cunning ones.”

Although thing don’t always approach this befuddling level of complexity, it is indicative of the type of language and structure used throughout this book. Sentences frequently feel as if they are verging on chaos, be it through a breathless running-on, a concatenation of verbs that disorientates with a surfeit of opposing actions, or in the repetition of particular words in a single sentence when a synonym would suffice. There’s also an inconsistent approach to punctuation, where sometimes it is critically absent, while in other instances, its presence is superfluous. What makes this particularly confusing is that the style of writing, and the coherence thereof, seems to shift, possibly due to the double author credit, or due to parts having been written at different times. This is furthered by the way in which there has been no attempt to align the styles, either during the base writing, or at the editing stage. Indeed, one imagines that the degree of editing needed here would have amounted to a complete rewrite of the manuscript, almost negating any author’s credit. However, even a cursory proof-read seems to have been skipped, as things like errant or entirely missing words, not to mention a general vibe of unreadability, have been left intact.

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In all, it is very distracting and it is impossible to escape, especially when some sentences have to be read several times to get the intent, or when the reader has to pause to get over unintended comedic moments engendered by the poor structure. Our favourite is the mental image of a caudal humanity when a discussion of huldre makes the statement: “These forest people were said to be creatures created before mankind with a tail.” Hang on, when was mankind created with a tail?

It really is a shame, particularly because Nicholaj and Katy de Mattos Frisvold clearly have an enthusiasm and passion for their subject, with their devotional fervour being quite palpable. There’s a feeling that this should be a poetic book, with florid turns of phrase adorning the language, like Peter Grey’s giddy Apocalyptic Witchcraft or his paean to Babalon in The Red Goddess, but yes, they’re not Grey, with none of his deft command of prose or his attention to detail when proofing and refining. Ultimately, a disservice is done to the book and to its very subject, especially since an unwillingness to write and edit in a credible manner makes one immediately mistrust the credibility of the very words themselves.

The Canticles of Lilith is divided into three parts, with the first two dealing with the theoretical and historical, and the third providing some practical elements. The first of these, The Lilithian Constellation, casts its net pretty wide, largely dealing not with Lilith herself, but with similar themes in adjacent cultures. By its very nature, in which Lilith is effectively treated as a vibe, this is a broad and uncritical survey in which anything slightly resembling Lilithian traits can be picked out, using confirmation bias to build a comprehensive, albeit circumstantial, picture of her as persistent and universal. As we are talking metaphysics here, there’s no need to track, or even claim, some historical path of thematic or cultural diffusion, but even with that allowance made, it can sometimes feel a bit tenuous. This is particularly noticeable when several pages are devoted to discussing Stregoneria with nary a mention of Lilith, save towards the end when there are attempts to fold her back into the discussion. It feels almost as if this was dropped in from somewhere else, which is exactly what happened, as this is Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold’s article Stregoneria: A Roman Furnace, which appeared in Scarlet Imprint’s 2013 anthology Serpent Songs. Amusingly, the 2013 version reads a lot better, as Scarlet Imprint’s copy editor Troy Chambers mush have done a fair bit of work on it, and as a result, that incarnation is deceptively readable; whereas the version copied into this new book is presumably closer to the unpolished original.

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The book’s focus makes a welcomed shift to Lilith specifically in the second section, The Atmosphere of Lilith, though once again there is a feeling of things being all over the place, both in the general narrative and in sentence construction, with the tortuous writing and awkward phrasing making it a chore to get through. A favourite line, giving some much needed comic relief, comes early on in an attempt to paint Lilith’s grand history, using a strange and clumsy Mesozoic simile: “She rose from being a spirit fated to die, like a dinosaur – but still her legacy and prominence spread across the worlds as history advanced.”  

The difficulty of following this addlepated text is aided and abetted by underused and inconsistent formatting, such as when references to sources texts blend into the body because they aren’t italicised, except when they suddenly are, with things getting to a ridiculous level in one reference to The Alphabet of Ben Sira in which only the second half of the title is in italics. Indeed, this whole section is rough, with sources texts from all over the place being introduced, often with zero context, giving the impression that they represent a cohesive body of lore, but with no regard to gulfs either cultural or temporal. There is the statement that Lilith is mentioned several times in “the Nag Hammadi or Dead Sea Scrolls” as if the two collections of texts are the same thing, but no actual examples are given. Instead, the paragraph refers, by comparison, to the strange woman ambiguously mentioned as a personification of temptation in Proverbs 2:16-19, with Friswold adding the bold claim that the biblical text describes her as having horns and wings (it doesn’t). One assumes that Friswold is referring to the Wicked Woman who appears in a short sapiential poem from the Dead Sea Scrolls, catalogued as 4Q184. She is an ambiguous figure who is frequently compared to the Strange Woman of Proverbs, but none of that is explored in any detail here, as if a secondary reference has been poorly transcribed, with no real investigation of the source texts. This also speaks to a flaw in the overall approach, in which a lack of rigour is combined with unwarranted certainty. There is much that could be made in investigating the Wicked Woman of 4Q184 as well as other unnamed scriptural figures as analogues of Lilith, getting into the weeds and assessing strengths and weaknesses to such arguments. But none of that occurs here, and the opportunity is wasted, replaced with categorical claims that these constitute specific references to Lilith, almost as if she is named as such within them.

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The historically amorphous overviews of this section eventually lead to a consideration of the sephira and corresponding qlipha of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, culminating with Lilith’s association with Malkuth. This is a thorough consideration though, and not limited to just Malkuth, with on average a full page of information about each of the other sephiroth/qliphoth being given. Matters then turn back to non-Mesopotamian folklore, with more exploration of figures that can be compared to Lilith, with a particular focus on her association with disease, pulling variously from Greek mythology, Romani folklore and even Norse mythology. One of the key approaches here is to take three figures from a mythos and draw a triangle between them as if the space within connotes some great importance in embodying a ‘lilithian force.’ It’s all a bit arbitrary, putting, for example, Óðinn, Þórr and Frigga/Freyja (because, sure, why not treat them like they’re the same goddess) at each point, as well as bizarrely associating Þórr with the sun, Óðinn with the moon and Frigga/Freyja with Venus. There are also some weird little moments in this barrage of frequently context-lacking folklore, such as the head-scratching claim that in some unspecified legends, Tubal-Cain is the son of Cain and Eve. And then there’s this section’s opening sentence, stating that in his Ars Poetica, Horace “translates Lilith to Lamia,” a claim which appears to have been cut and pasted from a long-since-revised version of the Lilith page on Wikipedia. There’s no explanation as to how the Roman poet was supposedly translating Lilith to Lamia, and no context for the reference to Lamia within his guide to poetics, not even a mention of who Horace was. This abrupt statement thus comes across as something glommed but unexplored from an old Wikipedia page, employed as a pointless opening to the discussion that follows concerning Lilith’s similarities with Lamia.

The Canticles of Lilith spreadThe excessive excoriation that has typified this review comes from a place of disappointment rather than malice, because The Canticles of Lilith is a book that promises much and could have been so much more if attention had be paid to the quality of writing, in both a mechanical sense, and in the very presentation of the information. There is much that is included here in a raw manner, but it is treated so clumsily and awkwardly, that it is just sad. Such is the degree of disappointment that it is difficult not to list every error that irritates as one progresses through the book, so, for our sanity, we shall draw a line in the sand and move on to the final section, The Rites of Lilith’s Basilica, where things take a more practical turn. These entries are largely invocatory in nature, with a liturgy of a noticeably purple persuasion, with rituals for Hekate and Ishara thrown in too because why not? Running to 55 pages, this is a decent collection of workings, and there’s enough variety in approaches and formulae that for those inclined, there’s much here that can be put to use.

The Canticles of Lilith has been released in the traditional Troy Books range of editions: paper, standard hardback, and already sold-out special and fine editions. All have a page count of 264 on 90gsm cream paper stock, with the paper edition featuring a gloss laminate cover showcasing a painting by Katy de Mattos Frisvold. The standard hardback edition is bound in a dark red cloth with a spine title and a crest-like device on the cover blocked in silver foil, finished off with black end papers, and black head and tail bands. The 125 copy special edition replaces the cloth binding with a black faux leather, and silver foil blocking on the cover and spine, with red end papers, red head and tail bands. Finally, the fine edition was hand bound in a red leather with blocking in black foil to the spine and cover (with a different sigil design than the other editions), all housed in a fully-lined black library buckram blind embossed slip case.

Published by Troy Books

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Unfamiliar Selves in the Hebrew Bible – Reed Carlson

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Categories: mesopotamian, Tags:

Unfamiliar Selves in the Hebrew Bible cover Bearing the subtitle Possession and Other Spirit Phenomena, Reed Carlson’s Unfamiliar Selves in the Hebrew Bible is an exploration of how the Hebrew Bible treats the phenomenon of spirit possession; something more commonly associated with late Second Temple Jewish literature and Christianity’s New Testament. Carlson is an Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies and the Director of Anglican Studies at the United Lutheran Seminary and this book is based on his 2019 doctoral dissertation at Harvard Divinity School, Possession and Other Spirit Phenomena in Biblical Literature, which it hews to very closely. In both dissertation and book, the core thesis argues that hitherto little-explored themes of possession and other spirit interactions are present in the bible, though rarely conforming to those paradigms established by Christianity and Western intellectual history.

Despite this book’s obvious grounding in Hebrew texts, Carlson begins with a contemporary if somewhat incongruous scene from the 1980s, detailing a case, later used as the basis for one of the Conjuring movies, in which Arne Cheyenne Johnson was convicted of first-degree manslaughter for the killing of his landlord, having unsuccessfully pleaded not guilty by reason of demonic possession. This is used, not by way of comparison to what follows, but in contrast, as exemplary of the more dramatic and popular idea of spirit possession, but one that is not found in either the Hebrew Bible, or in many contemporary spirit practices.

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Given the dearth in considerations or even acknowledgements of this theme within the Hebrew bible, it is understandable that the examples here are rather limited, with Carlson beginning with, and making much hay from, King Saul’s encounter with the witch of Endor and her summoning of the shade of the prophet Samuel. As Carlson shows, this emphasis makes a lot of sense, not just because of the strength of the image of a dead prophet being summoned from his grave, but because Saul’s involvement with spirits predates that later sequence, with 1 Samuel providing a catalogue of incidences that confirm his standing as one of the most dynamically spirit-affected people in the bible. He is possessed by the spirit of the Lord whilst entering the city of Gibeah, temporarily becoming a prophet and being explicitly “turned into a different person” as the text has it. Later, though, after displeasing his fickle divine patron, Saul finds that not only does the spirit of the Lord depart from him (seizing, instead, his successor, David), but that the Lord doubles down on the punishment by sending an apparent replacement, a harmful spirit that torments the king. Carlson argues that these events, as well as the later séance scene, are indicative of how Saul, along with Samuel, David and the Endor witch herself, are presented as having porous spiritual borders. They are possessed of a metaphysical permeability that makes sense of actions that, by virtue of having their root in the spirit world, may otherwise seem erratic or irrational. Carlson uses this premise, in which spirit interaction is so integrated into society that specific technical details are deemed unnecessary and left unsaid by the narrator, to cast the Endor séance not as a visible summoning but as an act of possession, with the witch channelling Samuel’s spirit and acting as a vessel for the prophet to speak through.

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Carlson’s core methodology compares the sparse clues found in the biblical record with extant spirit practices in contemporary communities. He often leads with these anthropological and ethnographic examples, providing an experiential context from which the reader can themselves draw comparisons when the biblical text is discussed, and which he then affirms in commentary. In the case of Saul’s spirit sickness, the template is found in twentieth century Cuban Espiritismo, in particular the most popular form in Cuba, the Santería-adjacent Espiritismo Cruzado, in which each person is connected to their own collective of spirits, with whom Espiritistas (mediums) cultivate a relationship. Similarly, Brazil’s Yoruba-influenced religion of Umbanda is used as the analogy for the fifth chapter’s discussion of intersections between spirits and medicine, contrasting the use of spiritual triage in Umbanda with the preponderance of medical idioms that are used to describe spirit phenomena in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple literature.

Carlson employs these analogies with a masterful narrative touch, never drawing analytical attention to them immediately, but patiently calling back to them later in the chapter when they’ve been almost all but forgotten. In the interim, he presents engaging explorations of biblical sources and themes, crafted with an erudite and engaging voice that assumes a reasonable degree of knowledge and familiarity from the reader, but never asks too much.

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The spirit interactions of the Gullah people of the Lowcountry and Sea Islands of the United States preface the third chapter’s general discussion of rûah as both spirit and breath in Hebrew cosmology, with the analogy providing an emphasises on talking with the dead. Later in the same chapter, a Sakalava spirit-possession ritual from Madagascar is compared to the story of the prophet Micaiah from 1 Kings, with Carlson picking up on the motif of competing spirits, in which narrative and existing political alliances and hierarchies find their proxies in the supernatural realm. A similar motif can, it is suggested, be seen in the myth of the fallen angels, but the analogy seems generously stretched in order to make it.

This speaks to a common experience when reading Unfamiliar Selves in the Hebrew Bible and it can sometimes feel like Carlson is finding exactly what he wants to find in his biblical sources. Interpreting the Saul séance as an act of possession, though appealing, goes against most conventional readings of the scene, and uses the smallest of ambiguities to extract thesis-corroborating details. Similarly, one can sense a palpable preference in how the concept of ‘spirit’ is interpreted in texts, leaning towards the idea of actual entities, rather than a more pragmatic approach which would see the phrase as referring to metaphorical embodiments of abstract concepts, such as the spirit of jealousy mentioned in Numbers or the general idea of the spirit of the Lord. There’s also the risk when analogous models are used to unduly apply a wholesale interpretation from one situation to another, confusing minor correlation with total similitude. This is very much the case when Carlson draws on the sometimes irreverent approach to the gods and spirits in Haitian practices, applying it to Elijah’s competitive encounter with the 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. When Elijah mocks the rival prophets for their inability to entreat Baal, Carlson deploys the Haitian comparison and frames the event not as two separate rituals but as a joint ritual in which the two cults battle. The 450 prophets killed on Elijah’s orders in the waters of the Kishon river might not see it in quite so cooperative a light.

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With all that said, even if one finds Carlson’s conclusions not as convincing as one would hope, Unfamiliar Selves in the Hebrew Bible makes for an interesting and indeed valuable consideration of its themes. Its survey of rûah and of the distinction between abiding and migrating spirits, along with the in-depth considerations of the Saul séance and other key moments, makes this a work that has much to recommend it.

Published by De Gruyter

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The Bathhouse at Midnight: An Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia – W. F. Ryan

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Categories: folk, grimoire, witchcraft, Tags:

The Bathhouse at Midnight cover Yet another entry in Pennsylvania State University Press’s expansive Magic in History series, the peculiarly-titled The Bathhouse at Midnight is a rather weighty and encyclopaedic tome, running to over 500 pages, albeit with a significant slice of this page count being inflated by the large selection of endnotes with which each chapter concludes. William Francis Ryan explains in an introduction that the work builds upon material that they began collecting for their 1969 doctoral dissertation on Old Russian astrological and astronomical terminology, as well as a series of articles on the history of science and magic text in Russia. Suffice to say, it seems that Ryan collected quite a bit of material during this career-spanning hunt, now distilled into fifteen chapters covering off almost every field of magic conceivable.

These chapters broadly divide Russian magic and divination into various subcategories, beginning with popular magic, and followed by considerations of different wizards and witches, systems of divinations, omens, predictions from dreams and physiological phenomena, spells, talismans, materia magica, bibliomancy, numerology, geomancy, alchemy, and astrology. Ryan concludes with a chapter on the relationship between magic and the church, the law and the state, and includes a roster of witchcraft cases that the Synodal court dealt with in the eighteenth century.

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Ryan begins this trip to the bathhouse at midnight with an historical outline, a large part of which is effectively a literature review, albeit not of comparable scholarly dissertations, but of the source texts upon which much of Russian occultism was based. Ryan shows how a considerable body of material imported into Russia was influential on later occultism, with streams coming from an older Byzantine textual tradition, a corpus of translation from Hebrew that were originally made in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, as well as more obvious Western influences. In so doing, the Russian tradition is situated within a broad occult context, wherein the confluence of similarities between indigenous and exotic practices and influence makes it hard to determine what exactly constitutes something that may have originated in native practice.

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The next two chapters focus on practices and the practitioners of magic respectively, beginning with a comprehensive discussion of various types of popular magic, categorised into sections on the evil eye, malefic magic, entities such as ancient gods and evil spirits, prophylactic magic, festivals and other propitious times or dates, magical places and directions, and finally religious parody and inversions. This amounts to a covering off of all the usual areas that one might find in a contemporary practical magical text, but in this instances, there’s a lot more detail and provenance, with Ryan meticulously referencing all his sources. With the following chapter’s focus on the practitioners of this magic, Ryan provides a catalogue of these various types, dedicating usually at least two pages to discuss the Volkhv, the Koldun, the Ved’ma, the Znakhar’, and the Vorozhei. These are only the main designations, and Ryan follows with an additional section exhaustively documenting all the words used for both types of magic and their practitioners. As elsewhere, this is no perfunctory list, and Ryan lists sources, derivation and context.

This is a formula that Ryan uses throughout, everything is so detailed and draws from a wide range of sources, all tied together with an expert voice and clear familiarity with his subject. Evidence of this is the consideration of materia magica, in which Ryan provides a lengthy and useful roster of plants, both real and fantastic, used for magic rites and in Russian folk medicine, where herbs dominated. There are nine pages here, with 49 plants described with varying levels of details, some with botanical names identified, and others with merely the places they are mentioned and their purpose.

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With his background as a president of the Folklore Society and an emeritus professor and honorary fellow at the Warburg Institute and the University of London, Ryan is well equipped to not only deal with the subject of this volume but to authoritatively draw comparisons with Western magic, as well as its classical roots. This makes for a comprehensive work, one that is thorough in its specificity but is aware of a broader context within the occult milieu. Because of Ryan’s readable manner, The Bathhouse at Midnight can be read sequentially from cover to cover, but is also clearly organised in such a way that allows for simply dipping in as a reference.

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The Bathhouse at Midnight is formatted in the academic style one would expect of a publisher like Penn State Press with a small but readable typeface throughout and an even smaller point size for the references and index, suggesting that with less frugal formatting it could have been a work significantly longer that its 504 pages. At first glance there is one exception to the quality of the layout with a distractingly small safety area on the top margins on each page, meaning that the page title and page numbering in the header sit a mere 3mm from the edge of the page. The digital preview version on Amazon features a more comfortable margin and a closer inspection shows that printing is provided by print-on-demand service Lightning Source, whose lackadaisical quality control has resulted in a tiny top and a big bottom. Therefore it is worth bearing in mind that this book may be printed on demand and so the results may vary, for the fault, dear Brutus, is not in the layout but in the printing.

Published by the Pennsylvania State University Press

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Echoes of Valhalla – Jon Karl Helgason

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Categories: art, germanic

Echoes of Valhalla coverSubtitled The Afterlife of the Eddas and Sagas, Jon Karl Helgason’s Echoes of Valhalla has the dubious distinction of being the first book to be reviewed at Scriptus Recensera in which the opening paragraph references the dire and perpetually unfunny 1990s sitcom Friends. Helgason uses the show’s passing reference to a peripheral character who is nicknamed Gandalf as an example of how something with roots 1000 years ago could so suffuse popular culture that it now exists independently of its origins. In this instance, the name Gandalf can be traced back to the list of dwarf names found in the Old Norse poem Völuspá, where it sits alongside the names of twelve of the thirteen dwarves that join Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins on their adventure in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Whether it is from reading Tolkien’s works, seeing the film adaptions of Ralph Bakshi or Peter Jackson, or even encountering the characters in the Lego video game versions of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, most people, even those versed in skaldic poetry and the Eddas, will inevitably think of some incarnation of Gandalf the wizard when encountering that name, rather than one of several primordial dwarves. This is exemplary of what Helgason finds fascinating, that texts written centuries ago in the isolated rural areas of his native Iceland have become part of “our (almost) universal cultural memory” and have seen reproduction in comics, plays, travelogues, music and film.

Given this evident fascination, what is presented here is not a pedantic discussion of how pop culture interpretations of Norse mythology differ from the source material. Instead, Helgason views these modern retellings as a continuation of a metafictional tendency in the treatment of Norse myth that dates back to at least Snorra Edda in which Snorri Sturluson’s retelling of the story of Óðinn’s theft of the mead of poetry allows us to read fiction about the origin of fiction, and its constant ingestion. Just as Óðinn ingests the mead of poetry, so, Helgason argues, Snorri and other post-conversion poets used an inventive ‘digestion’ of earlier texts to create mnemonic devices to better understand both the past and the art of poetry itself.

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The first focus of this digestion is Þórr who finds his most obvious, though by no means only, comic representation in Marvel’s Mighty Thor, “the most exciting superhero of all time” as the cover of his debut in Journey into Mystery #83 injudiciously proclaims with two exclamation marks. Helgason shows how from the outset, this Thor had little reliance on his mythic predecessor, with a far great influence being found in similar figures in previous comics, all of which follow a familiar pattern. Indeed, the ur-text for Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby were not the Eddas or skaldic poetry, but rather the very comics in which they were immersed, with a number of precedents for the idea of the Norse thunder god transplanted into the modern world, including some in which a human awakens, or becomes the embodiment of Þórr. Kirby had a hand in several of these, including a story in #75 of DC’s Adventure Comics (in which the villain Fairy Tales Fenton masquerades as a magical hammer-wielding Þórr to rob banks), and an issue of Tales of the Unexpected from 1957 in which a gold-digger discovers Þórr’s hammer and considers robbing banks with it, before its owner turns up and claims it back.

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In the second chapter, Helgason takes a significant chronological leap backwards and returns to Snorri’s own treatment of this topos, considering in-depth the ambiguity surrounding his role as author. Helgason mentions how Snorri is rarely physically credited as the author on many of the works he came to be associated with, and highlights his role as a compiler, and therefore as someone who is but one link, albeit a significant one, in a chain that extends from the uncredited skalds to modern comic book writers (a class also historically subjected to working anonymous and receiving insufficient credit).

Focus then turns to the stage, beginning with a consideration of Henrik Ibsen’s 1857 play Hærmændene paa Helgeland, set during the post-conversion time of Erik Blood-axe, with Helgason noting the through-line between its heroine Hjørdis and another of Ibsen’s characters, the titular Hedda Gabler, whom he would immortalise decades later in 1890. In slightly less detail, Helgason also looks at the relevant works of Gordon Bottomley (The Riding to Lithend) and Thit Jensen (Nial den Vise), before moving on to the fourth chapter with its discussion of travel writers, in which their explorations of Iceland more often than not went hand in hand with a fascination with the sagas, their characters and locations.

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With the fifth chapter and its consideration of music, Helgason begins with references to Led Zeppelin, attempting to position them as a link between two diverse musical examples of the afterlife of the eddas: Norse-inspired classical music as typified by Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and contemporary Viking metal. Helgason centres this discussion on the motif of Valhalla, showing how the perhaps overstated idea of a glorious death and equally glorious afterlife has held a particular and enduring attraction for musicians, often becoming shorthand for conceptions of Norse mythology in its entirety. Unfortunately, just as such an idea limits the complexity of myth, so applying that model to analysing an art form simplifies its assessment and as a result, this is a relatively brief survey of Viking metal. There’s no real noting of the history, no mention of offshoots like the Norse ritual music of Wardruna and their imitators, and only a few bands are mentioned by name, with one of these being a little known power metal band from Mexico, Mighty Thor, whose outsize presence is cemented by them being the only band represented here in photos, twice (one a frankly ridiculous promo photo and the other a tiny, practically pointless album sleeve). While a comprehensive history of the genre isn’t to be expected, the level of detail seems slight when compared to how the previous chapters have addressed their respective subject matter, and there is much more than could have been worth discussing in a deeper dive.

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Finally, Helgason turns to cinema, once again beginning with a quirky reference, in this instance to the Monty Python-aligned film Erik the Viking, before taking a deep dive into Viking-themed films, the most notable of which went with the stunningly imaginative title The Vikings. There’s Roy William Neill’s so-named silent film from 1928, and Richard Fleischer’s sword-n-sandals-era The Vikings from 1958. Although the latter could be said to paint an implausible image of Norse Vikings, Helgason returns to his central premise, wryly noting that the same could be equally true of the sagas and eddas themselves.

In all, this is an enjoyable read, with Helgason having an amiable style and clear narrative voice. Not all sections will necessarily appeal to everyone, with, for exampl, drama and travelogues being somewhat obviously of little interest to this reviewer with her scant summary thereof. Echoes of Valhalla runs to 240 pages and is bound in red with grey endpapers, all wrapped in a nice glossy dust jacket.

Published by Reaktion Books

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Handbook of Pre-Modern Nordic Memory Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches Volume 1 and 2 – Edited by Jürg Glauser, Pernille Hermann, Stephen A. Mitchell

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Categories: germanic, Tags:

Handbook of Pre-Modern Nordic Memory Studies coverDivided into two volumes of a combined page count of well over 1000 pages, Handbook of Pre-Modern Nordic Memory Studies is a significant work, with the weighty tome of the first volume running to a cumbersome and intimidating 940 pages, while the second volume closes out this slightly misnamed ‘handbook’ with a considerably more manageable 214 pages. With entries documenting the work-to-date in the application of Memory Studies to what is rather broadly defined as the pre-modern Nordic world, this somewhat humbly titled handbook features approximately eighty contributors, some of whom have multiple entries, with many familiar names including Stephen A, Mitchell, John Lindow, Carolyne Larrington, Gísli Sigurðsson, Rudolf Simek, Terry Gunnell, Else Mundal, Terje Gansum, Thomas A. Dubois, Margaret Clunies Ross and Anne-Sofie Gräslund. While the focus is specifically on the Viking Age and the Middle Ages, as well both earlier and later periods, the net is also cast wider into neighbouring areas, such as in Sarah Künzler’s Celtic Studies and Antonina Harbus’ Anglo-Saxon Studies. There is also a significant section considering reflections on the Nordic past from different national perspectives beyond Scandinavia including North America (Birgitta Wallace, Stephen A. Mitchell and Henrik Williams), Britain and the Northern Isles (Joseph Falaky Nagy, Richard Cole and Mitchell again), as well as perspectives French (Pierre-Brice Stahl), German (Roland Scheel), Polish (Jakub Morawiec) and Russian (Ulrich Schmid and Barbora Davidková).

It would be impossible to discuss every entry lest this review run to the page-count of even the relatively humble second volume, but highlights are worth mentioning and the sections into which the books have been divided show the depth and breadth of what is considered here. Contributions are grouped into three parts, Part I: Disciplines, Traditions and Perspectives and Part II: Case Studies, with subcategories beneath each of these, while the standalone second volume consists of Part III: Text and Images.

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In Part I, the discussions of disciplinary approaches to memory studies all follow a similar structure, intended to make the book unified and as pleasant to read as possible, beginning with a definition of the discipline and its intersection with memory studies, a survey of the current scholarship, a short exemplary study that demonstrates how memory studies can be applied to the field, a discussion of future directions more memory studies in that field, and finally a bibliography. These thirty entry are grouped into more precise categories beginning with Culture and Communication and flowing into sections on material culture, philology, aesthetics and communication, constructing the past, neighbouring disciplines and in-dialogue. Within this framework are a variety of considerations with notable examples being rhetoric and literary studies (Jürg Glauser), mythology (Pernille Hermann), the archaeology of mortuary architecture (Anders Andrén), performance (Terry Gunnell), folklore and orality (Stephen A. Mitchell), law (Stefan Brink), history (Bjørn Bandlien), popular culture (Jon Karl Helgason), and Kate Heslop’s Media Studies, in which she discusses the various media for communication of memory: stone, the body, wax and codex.

By their nature, these chapters are brief, not providing much to sink one’s teeth into, and instead the focus is a technical one, largely concerned with the study of studying, the teaching of teaching. That isn’t to say that the case studies included here are perfunctory, and of no wider interest, just that due to the format, they do have their limits. It is in the book’s second part that more in-depth considerations are presented as standalone investigations of these themes, though once again they aren’t as long as they might be in a different title.

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Part II consists entirely of these case studies and they are intended to compliment and expand on the disciplinary-organised entries presented in the first section. There are seventy chapters in all, considering various memory-related texts, objects, practices, sites and other aspects of Viking and Medieval traditions, each presented as a self-contained two-part examination in which the specific theme is introduced, and then explored in a source-focused case study.

These studies are grouped under the broad categories of Media, Space, Action, and Power, with each having further subcategories for more specificity. The section of essays grouped under the heading of Media follow the approach established in Part I by Kate Heslop, and explore various medium that are further categorised under the subheadings of mediality, visual modes and narrating the past. Of these, some of the most interesting are Sarah Künzler’s discussion of skin, Karoline Kjesrud’s survey of Marian sculptures (whose ritual and devotional function placed them in a continuously dialogic relation with the past), Anne-Sofie Gräslund’s exploration of ornamentation in Scandinavian art, and Stephen A. Mitchell’s essay on perhaps the most obvious Nordic symbol of memory, Óðinn’s twin ravens Huginn and Muninn.

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Pierre Nora’s concept of lieux de mémoire makes an obvious appearance amongst some of the contributions, though not as prominently as one might expect, particularly under the rubric of Space, which is delineated into two sub categories of nature and landscape. Lisa Bennett, for example, focuses on the depiction of burial mounds in Íslendingasögur, considering their mnemonic role in the landscape as both memorialising and commemorative, as well as the later cultural attitudes towards them as seen in their representations by the authors of the saga. Similar themes of mnemonic space are covered in contributions from Anni-Mari Hållans Stenholm in Landscapes and Mounds and Pernille Hermann in Memorial Landscapes, with the former discussing the role of the burial mound as the ultimate monument of memory, while the latter has a more specific focus in the Glavendrup rune stone. Another consideration of land as memory is from Mathias Nordvig who is very much in his wheelhouse when arguing, as he has done elsewhere, that a wide range of Nordic mythic imagery, particularly of the apocalyptic variety, is a memory of volcanic activity. As ever, though, Nordvig’s use of the natural allegory model is rather unrestrained in its application, with the result being that practically anything can be said to allude to volcanism.

Handbook of Pre-Modern Nordic Memory Studies spreadThe essays grouped under the heading of Action have a focus on the crafting of memory, of performance and ritualised behaviour, and are further categorised by the subheadings of Using Specialist Knowledge and Performing Commemoration. The consideration of specialist knowledge begins with poetry, first in Russell Poole’s discussion of skalds as holders of cultural memory, highlighting their use of verse-forms such as dróttkvætt as a potential aid to their prodigious memory skills. Bergsveinn Birgisson also mentions the mnemonic properties of dróttkvætt but turns his focus to another area of Norse poetry, kennings, which, with their often bizarre visual imagery and use of contrast-tension, could have had a comparable function to the classical techniques of ars memoriae. Mnemonic devices are also of concern to Pernille Hermann in another entry here, while Gísli Sigurðsson looks at landscape as a memory tool in the form of mental maps, and Stephen Mitchell considers the role of memory in the use and transmission of charms in folk medicine. When the focus of Action turns to the theme of performative commemoration, these find form in discussions of ritual (Terry Gunnell), memorial poems and eulogies (Joseph Harris), memorial toasts (Lars Lönnroth), Faroese chain dancing (Tóta Árnadóttir), while Agnes S. Arnórsdóttir has two contributions, one on the role of women in remembrance practices, and another on post-conversion donation culture. The one outlier here is another piece by Mathias Nordvig but with a modern focus, discussing the use of the figure of the Viking as a racial patriarch in the contemporary identitarian Asatru of two groups, the Asatru Folk Assembly and the Wolves of Vinland.

The final grouping of essays considers memory through power under the three further classifications of Designing Beginnings, National Memories, and Envisioning the Northern Past, providing insight, as the headings suggest, into how memory has a foundational capability that can be used to define imagined communities and societies. Of these, highlights are those discussing national perspectives on the Nordic past, with various authors showing how that mythic strata was used in crafting the identity of different Scandinavian nations. Both Pernille Hermann and Sophie Bønding look at things from a Danish perspective, Malan Marnersdóttir discusses the impact of Færeyinga Saga on Faroese identity, while Norway is covered separately by Terje Gansum and Jon Gunnar Jørgensen, and Sweden by both Stephen Mitchell and Anna Wallette, with the latter focusing on the role of Olaus Rudbeck and his unashamedly suecophilic book Atlantica.

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The separate second volume of Handbook of Pre-Modern Nordic Memory Studies takes a different approach to the consideration of memory with Part III: Text and Images beginning not with essays but with source texts, and thereby giving the reader, be they experienced or lay, the opportunity to see for themselves how concerns of memory are dealt with in this corpus of pre-Modern Nordic material. With content both mystical and prosaic, stretching from Völuspá to a lost land deed from 1420-1474’s Stockholm Land Registry, as well as the inscriptions of runestones, each entry is presented with an often slight introductory comment, data on the text’s name, source and translation, and then the excerpt itself in its original language followed by an English translation. As the introduction from editors Glauser, Hermann and Mitchell presents it, these excerpts give the reader a direct experience with the Old Norse concepts of minni, free of any editorialising. The latter half of Volume 2 reflects the visual component alluded to in the Text and Images title, with a collection of colour plates, twenty-six in all, featuring images referenced in Volume 1’s previous first and second parts. It’s a valuable and ultimately logical adjunct, given the page count of the first volume but something of a pain if you’re reading the essays and need to keep this second book on hand too in order to check any visual references.

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Despite its intimidating length, Handbook of Pre-Modern Nordic Memory Studies can feel like an easy read, with most contributions never going beyond ten pages, and usually coming in at far less, meaning that if something doesn’t grab your attention, it doesn’t take long to breeze through it and move on to the next one. With the cast of recognisable names from Nordic academic, there’s a quality and expertise to the writing, making both volumes a worthy, if heavy, addition to one’s library.

Published by De Gruyter

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The Magic of the Runes: Their Origins and Occult Power – Michael Howard

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Categories: germanic, runes

The Magic of the Runes coverAfter it was savaged by Stephen Flowers in his recently-reviewed Revival of the Runes, your humble editor inevitably had to see whether it deserved such ire and retrieved this small book from some of the mustier shelves of the Scriptus Recensera. Published in 1980, The Magic of the Runes was one of Howard’s earliest books, emerging in the wake of his debut, Candle Burning: Its Occult Significance which he had written five years prior for Thorsons (that’s the publisher later bought by HarperCollins, not the pen name of Stephen Flowers). In 1980, Thorsons, via their imprint Aquarian Press, reissued Candle Burning and also published The Magic of the Runes, with both books sharing a similar design in which an identically formatted serif title sits atop lovely painted images. Both cover images, sadly uncredited, feel like major selling points for these titles, with a bright colour palette and surreal styling that evokes 1970s progressive rock album art, in particular the luminous gradients and impossible landscapes of Roger Dean who created the iconic cover art for the band Yes. In the case of The Magic of the Runes, an eagle, its wings spread, sits atop a runestone that with its dramatic shadows seems almost monolithic in scale, like a cosmic mountain, while at its base a serpent rises amongst leaves upon which lie gorgeously rendered drops of dew. The runestone faithfully bears the runes that are discussed within these pages, and therein lies the problem, and the source of Flowers’ ire.

In 1980, knowledge of the runes within the esoteric milieu was in a nascent state, with both Ralph Blum’s The Book of Runes and Marijane Osborn and Stella Longland’s previously-reviewed Rune Games still two years away from being published, while Flower’s Futhark would not be released by Weiser until a further two years after them. Runic scholarship, such as it was, was still limited to the academy, and as a result, Howard did not have a lot to work with when he came to consider the subject in terms of references. It is not clear whether he consulted Ralph Elliott’s 1959 Runes: An Introduction, or R. I. Page’s An Introduction to English Runes from 1973. They’re certainly not referenced here, but then again, barely anything is.

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The Magic of the Runes was, surprisingly, not Howard’s first foray into runes, having published the equally slight 95-page volume The Runes: And Other Magical Alphabets via both Thorsons and Weiser in 1978. Although Howard makes reference to that book here as a previous, standalone work, there are elements that make The Magic of the Runes feel like it may have been an updating of parts of its predecessor, with the two books sharing some identical chapter headings (The Origins of the Runes and The Runemasters) as well as the text hitting many of the same beats. There’s also the inclusion of at least one of the ‘other magical alphabets’ alluded to in the earlier title, with The Magic of the Runes concluding with a brief and somewhat superfluous chapter on Ogham.

Howard begins with a chapter whose title claims to be about the origin of the runes, but there’s very little philology here and instead this is more focused on the idea of Óðinn as the discoverer of the runes. From this basis comes a broader consideration of the cult of Óðinn and its potential analogies with shamanism, all painted with rather large strokes and infused with ideas heavily drawn from Manly Palmer Hall’s vision of a somewhat, if not entirely, theoretical Odinic Mysteries.

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It is in the second chapter that Howard turns to the runes themselves and this is where things get weird. Here, Howard talks about how in his previous The Runes: And Other Magical Alphabets he had ‘rationalised’ the characters from various runic scripts into a single variant of the Germanic futhark, and that in order to avoid confusing the reader, that’s the version he sets out to use here. The care for the reader is a little misplaced, though, because the futhark he presents is, well, yes, confusing.

The runes are introduced in a double line block, with their Latin equivalent below each row, but for anyone with even just a passing familiarity with the runes, this must look a little off. While some of the characters are in the shape of conventional runes, others appear to have been taken from various Etruscan alphabets and other Old Italic scripts. Similarly, the attribution of Latin counterparts to these runes is all over the place, such as when a triple cross bar Hagalaz is transliterated to ‘n’, while something resembling Fehu is meant to be ‘w.’ It’s the runes themselves that suffer the worst, though, with the actual Fehu looking like a conventional capital Latin ‘F,’ or the equivalent of Uruz that seems to be a wonky capital ‘A,’ or the Raidho that looks nothing like an ‘R’ and instead is a triangular ‘D’. It’s unclear where some of these choices come from, whether it was simply poor research or an inattentive graphic designer who didn’t think the shape of these squiggles really mattered. Other character errors can be given a source, although it’s still baffling as to how they occurred, such as the rune given for ‘M’ which looks like a Latin ‘M’ but with one elongated stem. This glyph can be traced to the letter’s equivalent in various Etruscan scripts including Venetic, Camunic, Lepontic, all of which were derived from the Euboean version of the Greek alphabet, in which the same glyph occurs, as it does in many other archaic regional variations of the Greek alphabet, as well as in their ultimate root, Phoenician, where it is the letter mem. Something similar is true of the triangular D that is intended to be the equivalent of ‘R’ as this same attribution also occurs in Camunic, while the glyph is seen in Phoenician too, though there, just to be difficult, it’s the letter daleth, the equivalent of the Latin ‘D.’ Perhaps the most confusing of these misplaced letters is the equivalent of Þ which just looks like someone got carried away whilst drawing a ‘B’ and added too many bowls, if you’ll forgive the typographic nomenclature.

The result flies in the face of Howard’s description of this set as a rationalised Germanic futhark, having as much in common with Greek and Phoenician as it does with anything Germanic, and being, for that matter, not all that rational. What makes this rationalised futhark all the more puzzling is that Howard immediately follows its introduction with what is now a very standard format for rune books in which the glyph of a rune is shown, its name is given, and then a little paragraph or so of meaning and context is provided. But the runes here are different from the rationalised ones in the image immediately above, and instead mirror the Elder Futhark, well, kind of. The names given for each rune are largely the Anglo-Saxon ones, but out of the gate things go awry when Feoh with its associations with cattle and wealth is not the familiar F-like glyph but is instead an inverted arrow or Tir rune. Still, it fares better than Ur, which is completely forgotten and replaced by a premature Beorc, which at least has the right glyph. Then Þ starts off badly with its Anglo-Saxon name rendered not as Ðorn but as Porn, ooh matron, but it gets worse, if such a thing is possible, when the glyph is not the entire thorn shape but just the triangular D that was attributed to ‘R’ in the previous rationalised futhark. The futhark gets back on track order-wise for Os, Rad, Ken, although almost expectedly, Os uses the shape of the Elder Futhark Ansuz (or the Anglo-Saxon Æsc), rather than the winged Os of the Anglo-Saxon futhorc. Further along, Eoh looks more like a broken tick symbol, barely related to the familiar Eihwaz double hook, while Peorð is charmingly referred to as Pear and its glyph is once again not quite right. In all, there are twenty-one runes listed here, with Ur, Is and Eh being omitted for some reason, while the additional four runes that are unique to the Anglo-Saxon futhorc are also absent.

In all, this makes for a very confusing experience, where it’s not clear why some of the runes are rendered as they are, or why some are missing, or, of course, why there is the disconnect between the rationalised futhark Howard presents at the start and the runes that are described in the pages that immediately follow it. It doesn’t end there, though, and later on things get further muddled when Howard gives some practical uses for the runes. First, in a piece on writing runes as charms he acknowledges that because the rationalised futhark he is presenting doesn’t have the letters for ‘Y’ and ‘E’ (which, yes, is what’s going to happen if you arbitrarily remove runes from a script) then the practitioner should replace those letters in a formulae with a sigil for the Sun. There’s no explanation as to why the astrological symbol for the Sun should be an appropriate substitute, but it certainly creates a very un-runic looking sequence, what with all these perfect circles amongst angular runes. The example he gives then goes to town with sun circles, using it in place of not just ‘e’ but also the ‘H’ and ‘T’ he’s left out of his rationalised futhark, as well as using two of these circles for ‘TH’ when he could have used his multi-bowl equivalent of Þ. Such is the ambiguity that in another example, in which upright and inverted interpretations of the runes are listed for divination, it’s not clear whether he’s using his rationalised futhark or the truncated Anglo-Saxon futhorc, because the runes come from both, whilst leaving out some, such as the rationalised multi-bowl Þ or an equivalent for ‘Z’ which is entirely his own but looks like Óss, the Younger Futhark version of Ansuz.

These errors or quirks are documented so thoroughly here because of just how fascinating and inexplicable it all is. It’s impossible to really work out what led to these choices, whether there was some source material that was already garbled, or whether things got messy during the process of either writing or formatting the book. Not to mention whether editors at The Aquarian Press thought anything of it, or whether they just pressed print as their eyes glazed over. These are particularly germane concerns given that Howard specifically mentions the idea of writing the runes correctly, as exemplified in the story of the runemaster Egill Skalla-Grímsson, who would probably be apoplectic were he to come across this book. Skalat maðr rúnar rísta,nema ráða vel kunni indeed.

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In both his definition of each rune and the general discussions elsewhere in this book, Howard has a style that belies the lack of sources he must have accessed to at the time. Things are painted pretty broadly with only rare recourse to actual sources, and when such writers are cited, much hay is made from them, with P. V. Glob, Margaret Murray, James Frazer, Lewis Spence, Manly Palmer Hall, and Robert Macoy (via Palmer) all being put to thorough use. Some of Howard’s descriptions and statements seem a little off or reflective of the now-outdated preconceptions held by his non-specialist sources: such as the prominence given to the idea of the sun being associated with gods and the moon with goddesses, when the reverse was true in Germanic cosmology, or the idea of Loki as a god of fire, or Baldur as a solar one. Indeed, Howard’s approach is a precursor to the type of writing he would use in later decades, having a broad approach and encyclopaedic knowledge that allows him to refer to multiple examples, though often without direct referencing, with a teasing out similarities betwixt different areas and eras to imply a coherence that is pleasing but which may, with a greater scrutiny, not really be there.

Despite the quibbles over the non-specialised tone, there’s nothing too egregious within these pages, and in many ways, Howard’s style predicts the content of books to come, where the Norse world is often described in a largely imaginary and idealised way, with imagery writ large, ambiguity shaved off, and with little recourse to academic sources for anything more than a cursory understanding. Indeed, on a wider level, The Magic of the Runes appears as a template for many of the rune books that would follow in its wake. There’s the step by step explanation of each rune, along with a list of some of the gods and their simplified traits or specialities, a couple of examples of practical applications for the runes, a little bit about other related symbols or sigils, a list of auspicious dates or festivals, an invocation or two, and a reprint of source texts, such as the Ljóðatal section of Hávamál, for a little taste of authenticity.

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The Magic of the Runes marks a significant point in the modern development and awareness of the runes and makes for an interesting historical document in and of itself, even if the actual historicity it depicts in highly questionable. Its slight 96 pages of yellowing newsprint are presented at foolscap octavo size which fits easily in one hand, with perfunctory formatting, as one would expect for the time. Howard would once again return to the runes in 1985 with The Wisdom of the Runes, a considerably longer work that had slightly more rigour to it. It clearly builds on The Magic of the Runes, using entire sections from its predecessor and rewriting them, but it mercifully reverts to a standard Elder Futhark with no errant Etruscan or Greek letters, and no sun symbol subbing for excised runes. It does add the dreaded blank rune to its discussion, three years after it was notoriously introduced to the wider public by Blum in The Book of Runes (which is not cited here), with Howard referring to it as the Wyrd Rune, perhaps the first use of that name for it.

Published by The Aquarian Press.

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