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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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Revival of the Runes – Stephen Edred Flowers

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Categories: germanic, runes, Tags:

Revival of the Runes coverOf late, Inner Traditions have released several books by Stephen Flowers in which older titles, previously published in small runs by his Rûna Raven Press, have been reworked into more complete versions. It comes as a mild surprise, then, to find that with the exception of pages 52-83 (published by Rûna Raven in 1998 as Johannes Bureus and Aldalruna), this book is an almost entirely new work. That is not to say that it necessarily covers ground unfamiliar to anyone that has followed Flowers’ oeuvre over the years, as the reader will encounter faces familiar, especially if you have read any of his books on the German runic renaissance or Nazi occultism. Like his 2017 work, The Northern Dawn, this book constitutes a part of a trilogy, though just to be difficult, it’s a different trilogy to that one, with Revival of the Runes being part two in an unnamed series focusing on the history of the Rune Gild. The first volume remains to be published, but confusingly, the series has already concluded with its final volume, the previously reviewed History of the Rune-Gild, which was written, just to be difficult again, by Flowers under his pen name of Edred Thorsson, and published not by Inner Traditions but by the Gilded Books imprint of Arcana Europa Media.

Subtitled The Modern Rediscovery and Reinvention of the Germanic Runes, Revival of the Runes traces said revival from the Swedish scholars of the 1500s and 1600s, into the Enlightenment, flowing into the Romanticism of the 1800s and then into the Germany explorations of runic mysticism both before and during the Third Reich. Flowers assumes little of his readers, and any prior knowledge they might have, and begins not with this modern rediscovery, but with a fairly thorough historical primer on the runes, covering off both elder and younger futharks as well as the Anglo-Frisian, with a particular focus on examples of inscriptions and their esoteric implications.

Revival of the Runes spreadThus, it is 43 pages in before we get to the first modern period of this history, what Flowers defines as the revival phase spanning from the Renaissance to the Baroque over the two centuries from 1500 to 1700. Flowers begins with the brothers Magnus, Johannes and Olaus, continues into another set of Swedish brothers, Laurentius and Olaus Petri, before considering Johannes Bure, Olof Rudbeck and the one exception in this almost-all-Swedish line-up, the Danish Olaus Wormius. As with many of the figures discussed in this book, each person receives a fairly brief biography, running to a couple of pages at most, and as little as two thirds of a page. The one disproportionate exception is Johannes Bure, since Flowers’ aforementioned Johannes Bureus and Aldalruna from 1998 has done all the work, and so, instead of a couple of paragraphs, Bure gets a hefty 32 pages on both his life and his adulrunor system. Of course, this emphasis is fitting, given the importance of Bure in the emergence of both runic esotericism and its exoteric grounding, with adulrunor embodying a complex cosmology and interpretation of the runes that recalls the types of idiosyncratic and often Judaeo-Christian-tinged systems that German runologists like Guido von List, Karl Maria Wiligut and Siegfried Kummer would develop centuries later. Flowers’ consideration of Bure is aided in addendums by the work of Thomas Karlsson, whose The Adulruna and the Gothic Cabbala (published separately in only Swedish, German and Italian, and then as part of Nightside of the Runes) is acknowledged here as the most extensive English work to date on Bure.

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The three chapters that follow share the brevity of some of the previous biographies, with Flowers speeding through three centuries of the Enlightenment, Romanticism and nineteenth century Neo-Romanticism in a mere nineteen pages. This rather fallow time, from which only Johan Göransson warrants a separate biography, leads to the considerably more active periods of the new Germanic rebirth during the first three decades of the twentieth century, and then inevitably, runology’s evolution under and within the Third Reich. Again, things proceed at a fairly brisk pace, and this is an introduction and overview for many of these figures and movements, rather than a detailed study, for which the reader is encouraged to consult some of Flowers’ more specialised titles; a suggestion that he himself makes throughout the text. Sigurd Agrell is the only runologist to get more than a passing reference before the narrative moves on to a larger consideration of von List and his Armanen system, as well as later figures such as Kummer and Friedrich Marby. As in his other titles, Flowers’ approach to the runes in National Socialist Germany is a restrained and pragmatic one. There’s no Nazi occultists summoning unspeakable horrors from beyond the moon here, and other than a section on the SS-aligned historical think-tank known as the Ahnenerbe, the overriding message is about the Nazi use of the runes as marketing, with the esoteric aspect of a rune being more in its power as an evocatively and specifically Germanic brand, rather than something inherently magical.Revival of the Runes spread

Given that this revival of the runes effectively extends up into the present or at least the relatively recent, things turn somewhat autobiographical in the tenth chapter, grandly titled The Rise of Contemporary Scientific Runology and the Re-Emergence of the Rune-Gild, when Flowers documents his own part in this rebirth. For readers of his previously reviewed History of the Rune-Gild: The Reawakening of the Gild 1980-2018, or of the biography of Flowers by James Chisholm printed in Green Rûna (upon which the former is based), this will be a familiar tale. Flowers acknowledges the awkwardness of this situation, this insinuation into the narrative as he calls it, testifying that in writing this book he has attempted to remain as objective as possible, but effectively, needs now must. The retelling of his role, though, is not excessive, and is in keeping with the sparsity shown in other areas of this book, with Flowers giving a brisk history of rune publications and organisations from 1975 onwards, often shot through a biographical lens noting how he sat in relation to each of them. Despite the vaunted objectivity, there’s still a very personal angle here, with, for example, an annoyance still tangible in the travesty that Ralph Blum’s seminal (though terrible) The Book of Runes was published in 1982, beating Flowers’ Futhark to the shelves by two years. As Flowers laments, despite a version of Futhark being completed by 1979, it was then subjected to nine years of publishing purgatory from both Llewellyn and Weiser, until Weiser finally pressed print on it four years after acquiring the manuscript. Blum is not the only one to get it in the neck here, and there is the traditional Edredian airing of grievances when it comes to briefly surveying the less than stellar runic literature that emerged in the following decades. Donald Tyson (who was previously birched in Thorsson’s History of the Rune-Gild) gets it once again, while the poor, dearly departed Michael Howard receives quite the lathering and is tarred as “one of the worst offenders.”

As in the above examples, there’s always something of a distinctive Flowers tone when it comes to his books, a snarky irascible quality that makes his allegiances crystal clear, and his annoyances palpable. If he wore a bonnet, you can be sure a bee would get in there. Such is the case throughout Revival of the Runes, and it can distract to the point of tedium. Of course there’s the de rigueur moaning about ‘Marxism’ and ‘political activism’ in academia (there has to be at least one mention per title it would seem, and this one has several, with the reader looking wearily to the horizon as every now and then a little gripe about the state of the academy inevitably heaves into view). But beyond that almost expected angry-uncle-at-Thanksgiving invective, there are other strange little get-off-my-lawn moments, like when, as an abrupt contemporary analogy, he categorically states that “IT guys” (his air quotes) apparently “keep things complex and ever-changing” solely to ensure future employment. Oh, so that’s how technology and expertise works, the inexorable march of progress is just there to keep the plebs one step behind. Those sneaky IT guys, what will they think of next? 6G? A flying car just when I’ve got the hang of these wheel things? Methinks at some point there must have been a particularly gruelling morning with technical support on call trying to get the dialup working at the hof. One’s mileage will vary as to how much this tone detracts, or adds, to the overarching narrative. If nothing else, it makes Flowers’ writing style distinctive and idiosyncratic; much like the equally arch tone of this reviewer, oh snap.

Revival of the Runes spreadRevival of the Runes concludes with Flowers’ vision of an ‘integral runology for the future,’ a largely Edredian philosophical musing, followed by two appendices. The first is a chronology of the runic revival, beginning in 1554 with the posthumous publication of Historia de Omnibus Gothorum Sueonumque regibus by Johannes Magnus, and ending in 2010 with the creation of the Futhark: International Journal of Runic Studies. The second appendix is a reprint of a brief article from 1986 on the claimed runic origins of the peace symbol in which the Elhaz rune is imagined to have been inverted and placed in a circle; an idea that carries as much weight as the satanic panic idea that it was an inverted and broken cross. This is a strange inclusion not just because of how inexplicably incongruous the article’s placement is, but also because this speculation has been long debunked, given that the creation of the nuclear disarmament symbol by designer Gerald Holtom is well attested, as is its incorporation of the semaphore representation of the letters N and D.

Revival of the Runes is very much a trade paperback, rather than a thesis, an overview with subjects covered briefly (save for the blessed Johannes Bure), and in which, despite a ten page bibliography, the only actually works cited within the text are almost entirely those of Flowers himself. It has been formatted with text and layout design by Virginia Scott Bowman, using Garamond for body, along with Gill Sans and Futura as contrasting san serif headers and sub headers. The rather fetching Highstories is used for chapter headings and as the cover face, where it sits next to a low-opacity version of the Ahnenerbe’s emblem, which is an, um, interesting choice of symbols to lead with there, Inner Traditions, but you do you. Less problematic is the choice of a lovely hero image, with the cover using one of the image panels from the Golden Horns of Gallehus; although considering the book’s modern subject, the fifth-century date of the Gallehus horns peculiarly makes the Ahnenerbe emblem the more relevant of the two images.

Published by Inner Traditions

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Aleister Crowley in England – Tobias Churton

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Categories: esotericism, thelema, Tags:

Aleister Crowley in England coverWith its blockbuster subtitle declaring The Return of the Great Beast, this sequel from Tobias Churton picks up where his previous work, Aleister Crowley: The Beast in Berlin, left off; a title that was in itself a sequel to his other books documenting Crowley’s time in America and India respectively. Given the chronology surveyed in the previous titles, we are safe in assuming that the ‘in England’ here does not refer to Crowley’s time spent in England for the majority of his life but rather his return there for his final fifteen years from 1932 to 1947. In doing so, Churton is able to conclude his multiple volume biography of Crowley and focus on a period that is relatively little explored, but which shows that the near penniless Great Beast still got a lot done, even if it was only cooking a lot of curries, and being on the perpetual scrounge in both the actual and the astral.

Churton has a brisk style of writing that combined with the type’s large point size, and the surfeit of images, propels the reader forward at quite a pace. Enabling this still further is that some of what is presented here are fleshed out diary entries, or details from letters, with little room for editorialising or much in the way of elaboration: Crowley had lunch with someone, he moved lodgings, he wrote a letter to such and such, he did a sex magic operation for money, and he carped about the Agape Lodge in California (despite them doing a damn sight more for Thelema than he was). This brevity isn’t necessarily a criticism, merely a comment on how the narrative contains much that is minutiae, with little padding added beyond what has been left by Crowley’s own hand. This ably conveys the intricacies, and frequent mundanities, of Crowley’s everyday life, even if said moments are not necessarily all that detailed, and with each entry moving us rapidly through the months.

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With that said, there are moments where the piecemeal nature of some of the sections may have gotten the better of either the narrative, such as it is, or the editor and layout designer, with abrupt sentences descending into a unintelligible mess of uncertain intent. Sometimes a sentence needs to be read several times before its intent is clear, not because of any complexity but rather due to its economy, with so little to be gleaned from a minor concatenation of words. There are other strange moments, such as a section from pages 28-30 describing the content of three letters, which begins abruptly with two non sequitur, single-sentence paragraphs, one from October 1993 and the other from the more recent “some years ago.” The more recent event is the sale by Weiser Antiquarian of the letters decades after they were written, but by leading with the description of the letters’ sale, rather than the context in which they were written, the reader becomes discombobulated by this jumping forward in time. In a similar manner, the narrative of Crowley’s day to day and current events is temporally upended on page 80 when a one-sentence paragraph noting that the Buchenwald concentration camp was opened in 1937 is followed by one that begins by describing how the LAShTAL Aleister Crowley Society website reported in 2011 of the sale of a letter written by Crowley on Piccadilly Hotel stationery, momentarily making it feel like the two events were relatively concurrent. It’s all very confusing, as if notes and scraps have been cut and pasted and never fully massaged into tense-correct shape.

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Whilst we’re being critical, there are other little quirks that tend to grate, most notably where it appears that having to constantly refer to Crowley by name got tiresome, and as a result, sometimes, out of nowhere, he can be variously referred to as 666, Therion, and most startling in its incongruity, Baphomet. While most readers will be aware of Crowley’s proclivity for pseudonyms and titles, it’s not clear why it stops there. Why not call him Perdurabo, Ankh-f-n-khonsu, Mahatma Guru Sri Paramahansa Shivaji  or a little sunshine as well?

Inevitably, comparisons must be made to other books that cover the same period of Crowley’s life, with the obvious one being Richard Kaczynski’s definitive Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley. Kaczynski has a greater narrative sense, an authorial overview that makes for easier reading, and as a result, there’s a lot less of the jarring little events and piecemeal nature seen here. What Churton’s work does have going for it is the sense of immediacy, with the diary-like quality creating a somewhat intimate insight into Crowley’s day to day life and allowing the reader to see what an unpleasant, arrogant, irascible and ultimately exhausting scoundrel he must have been to interact with personally. Also, it must be said that Crowley’s constant attempts to get the war-time British government to employ him as an adviser or expert come across as sad, especially with the way in which his consternation was palpable after each time a long-suffering bureaucrat declined his offer.

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Despite this emphasis of the smaller aspects of Crowley’s life, this period did include some significant magickal outputs, and Churton spends a great amount of time documenting the creation of the Thoth tarot deck in collaboration with Lady Frieda Harris. All events in the process, from Crowley’s first introduction to Harris up to the tarot’s completion and publication, are covered, taking the reader on a comparable journey to its creators. It’s moments like this that show the worth of Aleister Crowley in England, with its fairly well illustrated survey of the tarot and its evolution, indicative of one of the benefits of this title as something one can dip into for the details, without having to read a longer narrative.

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Aleister Crowley in England is presented as a hardback edition, bound in blue beneath a dustjacket with a rather fetching photographic montage design by Aaron Davis, with Union Jack and all, just so you know it takes place in England. Typesetting by Debbie Glogover uses Garamond for body copy with titles in Gotham Condensed, and other display text in a combination of the stoic sans serifs Gill Sans, and Legacy Sans. Photographs are used profusely throughout, though their presence can seem disproportionate and arbitrary, such as when someone who receives only a single passing mention is rewarded with a portrait, while more significant figures have none.

Published by Inner Traditions

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