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The Underworld Initiation – R.J. Stewart

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Categories: folk, underworld

The Underworld InitiationMore cohesive than his Living World of Faery book, this is something of a classic Stewart work, originally published in 1983 after several years of limited circulation amongst the murky magickal scene of the late seventies and early eighties. The book is divided into three sections, providing the reader with a complete Underworld Initiation, beginning with the theory, followed by instances from traditional verse, and ending with practical exercises. In many ways, it follows the standard Stewart approach, but is far more coherent; no doubt as a result of the constant re-editing it has undergone over the years. As with all of Stewart’s work, there’s a high level of pedantry, which begins in the opening pages where he feels it necessary to provide a disclaimer that the Underworld Initiation is “not connected to diabolism, spiritualism, and ‘black magic’.”  This attitude continues with a rather curmudgeonly beating of various straw men, such as every strain of western occultism that isn’t his own (and therefore isn’t the authentic western tradition), modern living, and psychology. His issues with psychology are valid, making the point that it is useless to over-think magickal imagery and interpret it using arbitrary psychological methodology, when it is better to accept entities and deities as simply being, rather than as symbols of, for example, how you feel about your mother. It is unfortunate, though, that his tone and his labouring of points tends to undercut the importance of the message.

The theory section of the book provides a good grounding in the ideas of the underworld, considering how one journeys into it, meeting with underworld guardians and guides, and the relationship between the underworld and ancestors. Unfortunately, because so much of this work tends to fall back on a traditional system, there is very little in the way of concrete references to anything other than tradition itself. For example, no real authoritative specifics are given of underworld myths, and there is no option other than to take Stewart’s word as fact. Perhaps this explains his apparent need to use such an authoritative tone. It’s not that what he presents doesn’t ring true on a spiritual level, it’s just that he doesn’t provide any grounding to his arguments, and so may end up sounding, to the uninitiated, as vapid and as fanciful as the new age occultists he delights in dismissing out of hand. This slightly flawed and contradictory aspect of Stewart comes through clearly when he considers the symbol of the World Tree, which he begins by giving a short history of the Qabbalistic Tree of Life. As ever, it is without any facts or references, and is used as a way to make disparaging remarks from on high about the foolishness of western magick, typified by the Golden Dawn, with its overemphasis on the Hebrew language. The point of it all seems to be to argue that the Qabbalistic tree may be all right for Jewish magick, but is unsuitable for authentic western systems. Fair enough you say, Qabbalah for Qabbalists, ok, fine, but then Stewart turns around and uses his own version of the Qabbalistic tree, which differs little from the original, because apparently the tree isn’t really Jewish after all. If you’re going to spend so much time deriding something as alien and unsuitable, then surely it’d be better to come up with something unique, rather than just a bastardised version of it. Truisms involving having cake and eating it too spring to mind.

This, though, is a minor quibble, and the whole section can be ignored as it adds nothing to the system that Stewart presents, and does nothing except to complicate it and tie it down. Using a magickal map, such as the Qabbalistic tree, seems at odds with the more free form approach that Stewart presents in much of his work, and in the second section here, where stories and songs act as a subtle framework to journeys to the underworld. Once again, the two works that Stewart focuses on are the tales of Tam Lin and Thomas Rhymer, providing an in-depth exploration of the symbolism of each work. It is here that Stewart is important as a writer, because these poems provide great insight into the underworld tradition, and actually, for once, give a solid reference to what is presented in these books. In addition to Tam Lin and Thomas Rhymer, a number of other ballads are investigated, including Lord Bateman, The Demon Lover, and the Corpus Christi Carol.

The final section of practical work is relatively slight compared to the rest of the material in the book, and consists mainly of a guided pathworking. In conclusion, this is an important Stewart book to have, specifically for the amount of ballads with underworld imagery it considers. From a magickal perspective, there is less here of specific use, and for that a better source would be the later works Earth Light and Power Within the Land.

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Witchcraft: A Tradition Renewed – Doreen Valiente and Evan Jones

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Categories: folk, magick, robert cochrane, witchcraft

Witchcraft - A Tradition RenewedThis is a deceptively bland title for a book that could be any collection of rituals and recipes published by Llewellyn. But it’s not, on either count. Instead of being one of those Wiccan books that seem to do nothing but regurgitate everything from the last Wiccan book, this is more a book about Witchcraft, and more specifically, the traditional witchcraft of Robert Cochrane; which Valiente immediately separates from the Wicca of Gardner and Sanders in her preface. At the time this review was first written, precious little has been published in book form about Cochrane’s system, with one slightly veiled exception being Jones’s ritual-n-recipe book Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance, in which Cochrane’s rituals were presented palatably for a Llewellyn audience. It was a form of witchcraft that did indeed differ from that of Gardner and Sanders (largely drawn from ceremonial magick), and instead had more of a rustic shamanic base, which was carried on through his group, The Clan of Tubal Cain. This book seeks to go some way in making up for the previous lack of published information, with both Doreen Valiente and Evan Jones having been members of Cochrane’s original coven.

Unfortunately, if you want specifics about Cochrane and the history of the Clan of Tubal Cain, this isn’t it, and instead the book presents the Clan’s magickal system through an in-depth exploration of the rituals and coven procedure. It’s not quite a ritual-n-recipe book, but the whole approach is more magickal than historical. As a result, it’s not exactly an easy read, because to find out the information, you have to read the rituals, and reading magickal instructions isn’t exactly thrilling or engaging. When you do get into it, you find a system that features many elements of folklore, specifically the type considered by James Frazer, with the seasonal death of the corn being a key image. In some respects, there are elements common to other forms of witchcraft, but there is also a darker, more visceral element that makes it distinctive. One of the central deities is the Nameless, Faceless One, called the Black Goddess, while another is Goda, mother of gods and mortals, lady of light and darkness. The specifics of names are largely absent from this book (though they are hardly secret outside of Clan confines), and so whilst the work seems intent on presenting Cochrane’s practices, they are done in more of a non-denominational, open way.

For the details of the rituals, this is an essential book, but for a wider view of Cochrane’s system, it is better read in combination with Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance and Michael Howard’s more recent Children of Cain.

Published by Phoenix Publishing Inc, Washington, USA. ISBN 0-919345-61-1

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