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

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Categories: folk, witchcraft, Tags:

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

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

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

Silent as the Trees spread

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

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

Silent as the Trees spread

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

Silent as the Trees spread

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

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

Silent as the Trees spread with photo plates

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

Published by Troy Books

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Under the Bramble Arch – Corinne Boyer

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

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

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

Under the Bramble Arch spread

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

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

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

Under the Bramble Arch spread

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

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

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

Under the Bramble Arch photo plates

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

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

Published by Troy Books


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The Witch and the Hysteric: The Monstrous Medieval in Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan – Alexander Doty and Patricia Clare Ingham

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Published by Dead Letter Office, Punctum Books’ imprint for “work that either has gone “nowhere” or will likely go nowhere,” this is a brief work from Alexander Doty and Patricia Clare Ingham, published posthumously following Doty’s death in 2012. The two first collaborated on an essay that, like the ones compiled here, considered the intersection between an occult work of celluloid fiction and its real world, pre-modern textual history: Val Tournier’s Cat People. In the case of the work reviewed here, Doty introduced Ingham to Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 film Häxan at a class they team-taught in 2001, and she, in turn, told him to read Malleus Maleficarum. Life intervened until the two returned to the theme in 2008, finding the impetus to begin work on this book at last, before reconvening in 2012 with a short text that was submitted to Punctum Books. Unfortunately, Doty died in August of that year, two weeks before they received recommendations for revisions and approval to publish from Punctum.

Despite the enduring popularity of Häxan, with the film having several versions released over the years (including an edit with narration by William Burroughs) and multiple scores composed for it, little has been written critically about it. Its influence on other film-makers has been noted but less made of its uncanny style mixing documentary and fantasy, both in its content and structure, which combines fictional episodes, illustrated lectures, and dreamscapes, all divided into seven ‘chapters.’ With medieval scholarship’s love of the monstrous this is somewhat surprising but Doty and Ingham redress this imbalance, arguing for Christensen’s Malleus Maleficarum-inspired witch as a monster herself, whose placement within an ill-defined middle ages signals both a category crisis and a temporal paradox.

Häxan still

Doty and Ingham see the untimely temporality in Christensen’s depiction of the witch as a recapitulation of the two early modern visions of witchcraft, one being that of Heinrich Kramer in the aforementioned Malleus Maleficarum, whilst the other is that of Johann Weyer in De praestigitis daemonum. Both men’s take on witchcraft effectively centred around whether to believe women, with the Catholic Kramer arguing for the literal nature of what accused witches claimed to have experienced (bringing with it affirmation of a belief in the Christian supernatural world), whereas the Lutheran Weyer was quite willing to see the very same as the result of delusions, giving the reports the equivalent veracity of the confessions of melancholics and the mentally incompetent. Ironically, the rationalist views of Weyer (who is touted by Gregory Zillboorg as a father to modern psychiatry) is the more disempowering of the two for the women in question, rendering them victims of their delusions and phantasms (rather than complicit wielders of dark glamour), and linking them, by implicit association, with mental illness and depression.

But we digress, suffice to say that Doty and Ingham use the debt that Christensen’s witch owes to Kramer and Weyer to discuss both men’s approach to the matter in hand, with little immediate reference back to Häxan itself for now. This makes the second chapter an intriguing and engaging summary of the texts of both men and their attendant worldviews, analysing their motivations and resulting implications, as their respective opinions track the greater early modern theological debate on maleficia. In the third chapter, Doty and Ingham continue to consider this influence, noting its effect of psychiatry and in particular the work of Freud and his conception of the hysteric, and also on other matters of epistemology. They refer to Kathleen Biddick’s assessment that the Malleus Maleficarum played a key role in epistemological methods of eyewitness reports and ethnography, with the figure of the Devil creating for both Inquisitors and historians a lens through which the accused women could be viewed, making their diabolical practice visible and thus evidentiary.

Häxan still

These considerations converge with Christensen’s Häxan in the book’s fourth chapter, Witch, Past and Future: The Politics of Retroactive Diagnosis, where Doty and Ingham highlight examples of this dichotomy betwixt the religious and scientific views of the witch. In particular they mention the scene in which a depiction of female witches is contrasted with one in which superstition-driven accusations of witchcraft are made against two male medical students, whose righteously scientific but still felonious grave robbing is placed in opposition to the irrationality of religion. In a similar vein, Christensen transitions from the close-up image of a woman’s back being pricked by Inquisitors in order to find areas of insensitivity (a tell-tale sign of guilt), to one of the same procedure being performed in a contemporary doctor’s office, ultimately diagnosing the patient with hysteria. In an interstitial, Christensen addresses the woman in question, describing her as a “poor little hysterical witch” who in the Middle Ages was in conflict with the church while now it is with the law.

Doty and Ingham note that for all his interest in technological innovation in film, Christensen appears preoccupied with historical repetition, with his analogies between the female medieval witch and the modern hysteric denoting a continuity at the centre of which is the figure of the abnormal woman. While the world around her changes, for her, the journey from demonic possession to mental illness has affected her little, and she remains monstrous and abject, perpetually in need of rescue and rehabilitation.

Häxan still

As its title and length of a mere 60 or so pages indicates, there is not much else considered here than Christiansen’s core conflation of the medieval witch with the contemporary hysteric, along with its theological and psychiatric underpinnings. Doty and Ingham write with an inquisitor-like focus, narrowing their gaze on this particular area of witchcraft records and analysis, with an engaging manner that draws from both areas with equal ease and erudition.

Published by Dead Letter Office/Punctum Books

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The Black Books of Elverum – Edited and translated by Mary S. Rustad

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Categories: folk, germanic, witchcraft

The Black Books of Elverum coverNothing quite beats the occult trope of a mysterious tome being rediscovered after years hidden away and that is the appealing provenance that is used to frame what is presented here in The Black Books of Elverum. In a suitably dusty old attic in a farm in Elverum, central Norway, American-born Mary Rustad discovered two centuries-old notebooks, svartebøka or black books, both featuring hand-written spells and charms. This discovery is retold in an off-putting present tense by Rustad’s husband (whose ancestral home it was) as part of an extensive introduction, with his being but one of many voices, along with a foreword by Kathleen Stokker, a preface by Ronald Grambo, an editor’s note from Rustad herself, and an introduction to the black books by Ottar Evensen.

Evensen’s essay provides more in the way of details to Rustad’s discovery, and of black books in general, beginning first with a history of the farm which was in the Rustad family since 1837, and owned before that by the Kilde family. One of the svartebøka uncovered at Elverum was a simple pamphlet-like writing book of the type used in school, while the second was a thick, bound book, apparently blank except for the well-thumbed pages towards the middle. There are 32 unnumbered spells in one book and 78 in the other, all presented in a delightful variations of a florid, Sütterlinschrift-style hand. Following their discovery, the books were transcribed by Per Sande (an assistant professor at the public archives in Hamar), translated into modern Norwegian by Professor Per Holck of the University of Oslo, and then into English by Rustad herself.

The Black Books of Elverum spread

The pages of The Black Books of Elverum are presented as a full facsimile with black and white photographs of each page on the verso side of the spread and an English translation on the recto. The text in what is identified as book one fills the page, running from margin to margin with its script hand relatively restrained and the leading between lines tight, creating dense blocks of typographic colour. Often several spells appear on a page, divided by ruled lines, each prefaced with the spell’s title, little separated from the body. In the smaller book, the hand (or hands, as there is some variance) is much looser and larger with a sense of freedom and a lot more blotting of ink and changes in weight and pressure. Titles appear larger and right aligned, and the restrained care of book one is replaced by a manic freestyle, as typified by the ragged hand-drawn lines separating each spell. Both books are almost entirely devoid of sigils, with the exception being a device used for catching a thief in book one and a device to be drawn on a table in book two for putting out the eye of a thief.

The Black Books of Elverum spread

There is a lot of concern with thieves within both books, along with, as one would expect from this genre, other sundry matters relevant to rural people, with various simple charms and recipes for dealing with illness, predatory animals and winning at love and law. Some are more ridiculous than others, of course, such as options for putting out a fire, not with boring old water, but rather, in one case, throwing three eggs laid on a Maundy Thursday (these never go off, apparently, so you’re expected to have a few around, I suppose) into the fire in the name of the Trinity, or if that doesn’t seem complicated enough, write the words ‘Anoeam, Emanean, Natan’ on a piece of lead you conveniently have to hand and throw that on the fire. Alternatively, the second book suggests writing a little faux Latin and a sigil (inaccurately recreated in the translation) on the door of the house that is burning, break it down, and then, problem solved. The extinguishing properties of water not so popular on Norwegian farms it would seem.

It’s not all simple folk charms and non-aquatic fun with fire, though, and what strikes one immediately upon reading the first book is how diabolical it is, with the author placing themselves firmly against heaven with their first spell in which they release the angels from hell, renounce God and the Holy Spirit and pledge allegiance to Lucifer. This continues into some of the initial spells where, in something of an infernal overkill, all the demons of the world, heaven and hell are conjured to compel a thief to return what they have stolen. But then, the next spell marks a change of heart as the callous conjurer switches their allegiance and sends the dark forces packing. The use of the denizen of hell for spells specific to thieves occurs again in the second of the Elverum books, with Lucifer himself entreated to harass the thief until the items are returned, with the spell concluding “in the Devil’s dreaded name that lives in Hell’s abyss” along with the names of Hell’s ten princes for good measure. Similarly, if you wanted to put a thief’s eye out, go straight to the top and call on “Satan, Beelsebub, Bellial, Ashtarath and all the devils that are in Hell” while striking a nail into various parts of a sigil.

The Black Books of Elverum spread

It’s worth noting that the first of the two books, while affirming these darker hues and crediting its content to both ‘heathendom’ and ‘Catholic times,’ seems unsure of its own provenance. It describes itself on the title page as a summary of a Cyprianus written by Bishop Johannes Sell of Oxford in 1682, but then two pages later claims to have been written at the University of Wittenberg in 1529 and later found, glamorously so, in a white marble chest at Copenhagen Castle in 1591.

The Black Books of Elverum concludes with an account of the 1625 witchcraft trial of Ingeborg Økset, an ancestor of the Rustad family who lived on a neighbouring farm on the other side of the Gloma River. Written by Magne Stener, it provides, without much in specific reference to svartebøka, an idea of the context in which such books were written and used.

Lucifer by E. T. Rustad

In all The Black Books of Elverum is an interesting documentation of two examples of svartebøka, neither of which are particularly revelatory as their content does reflect typical Germanic folk magic, and offers nothing for those unreasonably expecting hints of Norse paganism simply by virtue of the books’ location. The images of pages are clear and well reproduced, type is set in a little too large serif face, and there are slightly incongruous pencil sketches of Jesus and Lucifer by E. T. Rustad prefacing books one and two respectively.

Published by Galde Press, Inc.

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Under the Witching Tree – Corinne Boyer

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Categories: folk, witchcraft, Tags:

Under the Witching Tree coverThe work of Corinne Boyer has been reviewed here before at Scriptus Recensera in the form of her Plants of the Devil, published in 2017 by Three Hands Press. This larger volume from the previous year follows the same arboreal and botanical avenues inherent within that later work and while Plants of the Devil was a relatively slight work with something of, as its title intimated, a diabolical focus, Under the Witching Tree is a far weightier tome, aiming for thoroughness and living up to its descriptive subtitle of being A Folk Grimoire of Tree Lore and Practicum. Under the Witching Tree is also the first volume in a three part trilogy from Boyer, with the second instalment focusing on herbs released in 2019.

In fulfilment of its brief as a tree grimoire, Under the Witching Tree is divided into unnumbered chapters focusing on each of the twenty trees: elder, hazel, rowan, apple, walnut, yew, pine, holly, spruce, western red cedar, birch, willow, alder, blackthorn, aspen, hawthorn, oak, ash, linden and maple. The trees are organised within a seasonal framework, providing something of a theme for each quarter: the black earth medicines of autumn, an altar of winter charms, a springtime forest rite, and the deer sorceress of midsummer.

As suggested by the book’s 288 page length, the considerations of each of these twenty trees are dense and thorough, beginning with a comprehensive outline and description of each tree and its folk associations, followed by examples of practical use, some drawn from Boyer’s specific personal practice, others from existing folk rituals and recipes. Each description begins picturesquely, with Boyer wonderfully setting the scene by placing the tree in its environs, the brittle boned elder tree in a forgotten meadow, dim shadows creeping during twilight hours beneath the branches of a walnut tree, and the birch as the White Lady of the forest, gleaming in the moonlight.

Under the Witching Tree photograph spread

These are then followed by the listings of various folk beliefs associated with each plant, but in contrast with the introductory word paintings, these are unfortunately presented in a rather less pleasing manner. Instead, the entries have something of the quality of the info dump about them, with long paragraphs that are comprised of short sentences that jump abruptly from one fact to the other, usually without any transitional phrases to tie them together, often creating fragments and non sequiturs that make the reading a slog. As such, the content resembles the encyclopaedic nature of studies of folk practices by Grimm or Frazer, where loquaciousness loses out to the pure documenting of fact and anecdote; though the difference between those works and this is the lack of referencing. With the amount of info being dumped here, it would admittedly have made for a messy layout to have everything cited with footnotes within the main body, but other than guessing or some judicious Googling, there’s no way to know where exactly each fact comes from; despite there being a bibliography at the end. There is the occasional aberrant and inconsistently treated in-body citing of a source, whether it’s mentioning the title of a work, or in one case, listing it as a full in-text citation with title/author/date, but this simply draws attention to the considerably more numerous moments in which sources remain uncredited. Why those ones, but not these ones? This becomes particularly important when obscure little gems of knowledge are mentioned and you’d love to know more; or conversely, when you wonder where boldly-stated but potentially spurious facts have come from – I’m looking at you, Odin’s sacred hazel wand, decorated with reddened runes.

The reason for this lack of referencing appears to be that large sections of information are sometimes taken uncritically from equally citation-deficient sources, with many of the entries on hazel, as one example, coming from Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants by Claudia Müller-Ebeling, Christian Rätsch and Wolf-Dieter Storl (including that claim about Odin’s hazel wand). Like Under the Witching here, Storl’s section of Witchcraft Medicine has the same sense of unreferenced and unedited notes, cast ‘pon the page, devoid of any of the conventions of narrative or structure.

Under the Witching Tree photograph spread

Inevitably, given the simplification that occurs when paraphrasing someone else’s citation-free information, errors or lack of clarity are introduced as the material moves further and further away from the source with each translation. An ambiguous Wikipedia summary of scholarly speculation by Turville-Petre (in his Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia) that Thor’s wife Sif may have once been conceived of as a rowan tree (given the keening of the rowan as ‘the salvation of Thor’) is transformed into a definitive statement of belief for Germanic people (with the usage of ‘conceived’ misread), in which Sif now “was thought to be conceived in the form of the rowan tree.” In another case, a contemporary alchemist who is quoted by name in the Müller-Ebeling/Rätsch/Storl book becomes simply an anonymous “German alchemist,” making both he and his statement devoid of any authority and set adrift in the unspecified byways of history and time.

This isn’t to say that the information presented here is riddled with errors, just that it’s impossible to tell either way, as so many of the facts are shorn of their context, whether it be their original source, or their actual provenance in time and space. As such, the cavalcade of historical anecdotes can be read as giving a broad impression of the associations a particular tree might have, but you would want to dig a little further before taking anything presented here as botanical or anthropological gospel.

Under the Witching Tree photograph spread

The entries for each plant are formatted to begin on the recto side of the page spread, and are usually preceded by the plant’s botanical illustration, printed at full page size, on the verso side; save for rarer cases where no space on the verso means they are instead placed as smaller, in-body images on the recto side, with the text wrapping around them. These images come from a variety of, one assumes, public domain sources, and so are not consistent in weight or style, with some appearing particularly heavy in line compared to others. But, unlike similar situations in lesser books, each image is of acceptable quality, with no pixilation or compression artefacts. A few appear to have been vector-traced, but otherwise most are sharp and clear in their original raster lines. Where needed, these images are reused as space fillers at the end of each plant’s entry, where they are scaled down, somewhat inexplicably flipped horizontally, and printed at a lowered opacity, looking less a valid stylistic choice and more like the printer ran out of ink.

Given the amount of information crammed into these entries as brief sentences, the consideration of each plant can run quite long, with the basic introduction for each coming in at an average of five pages, followed by several more pages for sections on their use in folk medicine, several paragraphs on how they can be employed in general personal practice, and a handful of more specific recipes. The recipes run the gamut from drinks and ointments to charms, incense and talismans.

Under the Witching Tree photograph plates

Under the Witching Tree concludes with a set of appendices as thorough as the main content, seven in all, covering some of the more technical aspects of the practical applications offered throughout the book: storing plant material, creating ointments, drinks and elixirs, rendering fat as a base. This is a good way to do it, rather than cluttering up each individual section with repetitive instructions.

Under the Witching Tree runs to 280 234 x 156mm pages with twenty black and white photo plates, in four editions: a paperback with a gloss laminated cover, a standard hardback, a special edition, and a fine edition. As is common with Troy Books titles, the standard hardback edition feels as good as a special edition with its ruby-red case binding, gold foil blocking of title and rowan sigil to the front and title on the spine, green endpapers and green head and tail bands. The special edition of 300 hand-numbered exemplars, swaps out the red of the cloth for a dark green one, with the foil now blocked in red, and red head and tail bands. The now sold-out fine edition, housed in a fully lined black library buckram slip-case, blind embossed to the front, was limited to 21 hand bound exemplars bound in dark green goat leather with gold foil blocking to the spine and a unique verdant image on the front. Each copy of the fine edition came with a cream envelope containing a dried leaf from a Flying Rowan tree, ritualistically harvested by the author in her garden.

Published by Troy Books

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Witchcraft & Secret Societies of Rural England – Nigel Pennick

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Categories: folk, witchcraft, Tags:

Witchcraft & Secret Societies of Rural England coverSubtitled The Magic of Toadmen, Plough Witches, Mummers, and Bonesmen, this recent volume by Nigel Pennick is a new edition of a work previously released in 2011 with the lovely, but considerably more circumspect, title of In Field and Fen. Always the documenter of esoterically-tinged folk practices, Pennick is well-equipped to explore an area that has seen increased interest in recent years as occult practitioners search for evidence of archaic antecedents with just the right sulphurous whiff of dark glamour. The toadmen and bonesmen of the subtitle fit this brief particularly well, but to think there is a corresponding overemphasis on them within these pages does the book a disservice. Instead, as often with Pennick’s work (such as the recently reviewed Runic Lore and Legend: Wyrdstaves of Old Northumbria), there is an emphasis here on place and its spirit, and despite the broadness of the title’s reference to “Rural England,” the genii locorum are ones largely from a specific area of East England: Cambridgeshire.

Pennick defines this approach from the beginning, initiating it with an introduction in which he describes the 1968 demolition of a weather-board barn on a Cambridge street, removed to make way for the inexorable creep of urbanisation and disregard for anything not associated with Cambridge as a university town; despite the barn being several hundreds of years old and dating from a period when every aspect of the building was handcrafted by artisans. This ennui, this sense of loss and affection for the past, is something that permeates Witchcraft & Secret Societies of Rural England, not in an overwhelming, pedantic or self-righteous way, but as a guiding principle and modus operandi.

Witchcraft & Secret Societies of Rural England spread

The emphasis on the spirit of place and the rural world of yesteryear means that what occurs within these pages is a lot less magical and considerably less to do with specific witchcraft than the title would suggest. The first major section, for example, is a lengthy discussion of drovers and the fairs to which they would drive cattle, with Pennick giving a thorough history from a rather mundane, purely historical perspective. It is only at the end of this exhaustive section that this grounding comes into line with the promise of the book’s title and Pennick discusses the use of fraternal initiation and various ritual symbols amongst such groups of people. This is an admirable way to do it, providing complete context, rather than just jumping to the juicy occult bits.

Witchcraft & Secret Societies of Rural England spread

Though not as detailed as his information on drovers, Pennick does likewise with various other groups of tradespeople who developed their own esoterically-tinged secret societies: horsemen, gardeners, millers and shoemakers. Each of these shared certain similarities, including the idea of a word or words that provided the initiate with power and expertise in their field, with the Horsemen’s Word being the most famous. Another element often found amongst these societies is the esoteric use of a special bone, usually from a toad, which empowered the user (giving horsemen, for example, their control over horses) and the procurement of which facilitated their initiation into their trade’s secret society.

Pennick shows how the complex of symbols and associations built up around each of these trades spread beyond the rites and formulas practised secretly by these societies and into society as a whole. He documents events such as Plough Monday where ploughmen would participate in public activities of begging and disruption, dragging a plough in a riotous procession whilst dressed in costumes, faces painted piebald or red with ochre, led by a cross-dressed plough witch. In some situations, young men who had never participated in Plough Monday processions were designated as ‘colts,’ and would pull the plough as if they were horses, with a man with a whip driving these ponyboys on. This inversion of the world through performance and signifiers of alterity was extended into social activism, where the same techniques (guises, face painting, unruly processions and cross-dressing) were used to protest against harsh working conditions, insufficient wages and other injustices. The Rebecca Riots in 19th century Wales, for example, were in protest against exorbitant toll charges and saw tollgates attacked at night by gangs, often crossed-dressed as women, each led by a captain who was designated Rebecca, with the rioters considered her daughters.

Witchcraft & Secret Societies of Rural England spread with chapter title

In the later sections of Witchcraft & Secret Societies of Rural England things move on to areas of specific witchery as Pennick turns to the Nameless Arte, a term used to apply to East Anglian magic as practiced by the trade secret societies and by cunning men, witches, wise women and quacks. Here, Pennick documents some familiar witchy figures, such as Daddy Witch, Old Mother Redcap, Jabez Few, Cunning Murrell and, of course, the classic George Pickingill.

Save for brief diversions into the theme of the devil in various folk practices and an outline of magical tools, Witchcraft & Secret Societies of Rural England ends by once again returning to the concept of place. First, Pennick discusses geomancy and spirits within the land, before exploring the intersections in the land between magic, spirit and farming, where the harvest and its resulting straw was loaded with significance.

Witchcraft & Secret Societies of Rural England spread

Throughout, Pennick writes with the level of aptitude and confidence you would expect of someone who has been doing this as long as he has. Primary sources such as local histories and almanacs are often quoted and listed in body, though some of the more esoteric aspects, like ritual formulae and procedures, appear without citation and seem to be less in the public record. Despite his clear passion for his topic, Pennick presents his information is a largely dispassionate way, with the work coming across as one of history, rather than an exemplar of a personally-invested occult system seeking validation in folk traditions.

Text design and layout have been handled to the usual high Inner Traditions standard by Debbie Glogover and Priscilla Baker respectively, with the body rendered in the perpetually popular Garamond and twinned, as ever, with subheadings in Gill Sans. Titles, including that on the cover, are in Nathan Williams’ Heirloom Artcraft face, which has some lovely though unspecific hint of archaisms about it, with none of the typical distressing to suggest age, but with some delightful inverted horns on the serifs.

Published by Destiny Books

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Queen of Hell – Mark Alan Smith

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Categories: classical, goetia, grimoire, nightside, witchcraft, Tags:

Queen of Hell coverOriginally published in 2010 by Ixaxaar, Mark Alan Smith’s Queen of Hell is here released as a Nightside edition via his own Primal Craft imprint, acting as the first instalment in a reissue of his Trident of Witchcraft trilogy. On the most immediate level, Queen of Hell looks like everything you want in an occult publication: bound in a luxurious green velvet cloth, sigils on the front and reverse covers foiled in gold, blackletter title on the spine (also in gold, naturally), and said spine with a substantial, tome-worthy width of three centimetres. Plus, a matching green cloth bookmark, huzzah!

The queen of hell of the title is Hekate (henceforth Hecate, in deference to Smith’s spelling) but the Hecate within these pages bears only a passing resemblance to the goddess of classical Greek and Roman sources, and appears, instead, as the figure of the book’s title, a diabolical queen of hell and witchcraft of the most glamorously demonic kind. Largely unmoored from her classical origins, Hecate here instead exists within a more qliphothic cosmology and goetic pantheon; something that is made clear from the first page of the first chapter where her throne is said to be beyond Kether and its corresponding qliphah Thaumiel, and with her envisioned as a primordial first goddess, the highest tip of the initiating power or trident of witchcraft, and the queen not only of hell but of heaven and earth. While this has little parallel with the traditional image of Hecate, it must be said that divorced from the specific nomenclature of the qliphoth, it does recall her appearance in the Chaldean Oracles in which she is a grand cosmic force, the lightning-receiving womb and formless fire of the aneidon pur, visible throughout the cosmos.

Queen of Hell spread with sigils of Lucifer

Despite the qliphothic decoration, it is fundamentally a form of witchcraft that is presented here, made none more clearer than in the next chapter and its listing of some familiar ritual implements: athame, wand, chalice, pentacle, sword, salt, etc. Smith gives his own dark veneer of interpretation to these, though, with the wand as the staff of the Dark Lord, the chalice as the grail that is the emerald of Lucifer fallen from on high, and multiple references to Atlantis, which in Smith’s cosmology acts as an ur-culture for his pantheon and its tradition.

This demonic side comes to the fore fairly on when Smith provides an overview of his core pantheon, headed, naturally, by Hecate and followed by the two other points of this Trident of Witchcraft: Lucifer and Belial (subjects of their own books in this trilogy as the titular Red King and Crown Prince of the Sabbat respectively). Somewhat reminiscent of the legend of Diana and Aradia as recorded by Charles Leland, Lucifer is defined as the son and brother of Hecate, a dark solar form of the horned god of witchcraft. Belial, meanwhile, is conflated with Beelzebub and identified as the ruler of the qliphah Ghagiel and as a darker twin of Lucifer, thereby being described by Hecate as “the spawn of my spawn.” Rather than create new sigils for Lucifer and Belial in an already crowded sigil market, Smith relies on the classics and draws from grimoires. And instead of picking just one sigil, he presents the various variations from the Grand Grimoire, the Grimorium Verum, and the Lemegeton. Each is said to be a separate junction belonging to its spirit, though some are given more significance than others, such as, for example, the familiar and more aesthetically-pleasing Grimoirium Verum sigil for Lucifer, which, as its form suggests, is said to be the gateway to the City of Pyramids.

Queen of Hell spread

Beyond this primary trinity of powers, Smith list a range of lesser spirits, once again mixing demonology with the occasional nod to Greek mythology. Thus, sitting quite happily alongside goetic spirits like Surgat and Lucifuge Rofocal are the fate-spinning trio of the Moirai, the Hadean daimon Eurynomos, and the hound Cerberus. Like Hecate (their sister in this telling), the three Moirai, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, are contextualised within a qliphothic framework, and given an abode in the qliphah of Sathariel from which they also access Gamaliel for works of dark moon magick. Similarly, Eurynomos dwells in Belial’s qliphah of Ghagiel, while Cerberus is associated with Daath and the initiatory great Abyss.

As the cast of characters and their areas of influence attest, there is, unsurprisingly, a distinctively dark hue to the content of Queen of Hell, with everything cast within a grimly glamorous aesthetic of moons and serpents, horns and blood, stars and fire. The language of the rites and evocations echoes this, employing a rich, descriptive lexicon in service of a suitably gothic liturgy. It’s not entirely tenebrous, though, and Smith embraces Hecate’s role as queen of heaven as much of hell by having one invocation of a force from the Empyrean realm, with the Archangel Michael called upon as an initiatory force, ultimately merging with Lucifer within the practitioner, the two acting effectively as classic shoulder angels and devils.

Smith writes with a style that is no-nonsense with little room for handholding, deferring to no authority other than that of his own tradition. In some cases, it seems to be assumed that you have gleamed all that needs to be gleamed in the discussion of a particular technique, often presented in its core theory rather than step-by-step instructions, and then you’re on your own if you weren’t paying attention. There’s nothing wrong with such an approach, as it ensures focus and emphasises the experiential, with each incremental step building one ‘pon t’other.

Queen of Hell spread with Evocation of the Witch Gods

Summoning in a broadly goetic style plays a large part in the magical arsenal here (with some major tweaks, as one would expect, with less of the cajoling and threatening), with all of the previously mentioned cast, as well as a broad range of other beings, having invocations. But there are also little things that bring this primal craft back to its witchy underpinnings. There’s a discussion of core techniques of malefica, the use of familiars, a brief diversion into the now almost de rigueur toad rite, as well as the employment of totemic witch bottles (here called spirit pots) to house egregores, and in a continuation of the theme but on a larger scale, the use of cauldrons as a gateway between worlds.

Queen of Hell concludes with a second part, defined as its own self-contained Book of the Inner Sanctum (though the first part of the book is not given a comparable heading), in which the focus moves away from the practical sorcery of the first half and into the astral. The Inner Sanctum of the title encompasses the highest powers and gnosis in the Primal Craft system, and these are accessed with a series of considerably and increasingly more complex and involved rituals, incorporating a variation of the aforementioned toad bone rite, as well as a series of other workings that have less of a familiar witchy pedigree. It is this section which underpins the general impression generated by Queen of Hell, in that what is presented here is a complex, thorough system that, should it and its aesthetics appeal to you, has a lot to work with.

Queen of Hell is illustrated in a style similar to all Primal Craft titles, with sigils rendered as chunky, somewhat-angular, heavy-weighted vector forms, while illustrations are full page glossy plates that have some hand-drawn elements but are also heavy on post-processing, with blurred Photoshop-rendered flames, smoke and clouds. The most striking of these is a portrait of Hecate in which she eerily resembles Carice van Houten as the Lady Melisandre from Game of Thrones, with the ruins of some building ablaze in the background.

Queen of Hell spread with full page image of Hecate

Typesetting in Queen of Hell is rather utilitarian, with the body in a slightly too large serif face, with subtitles in a bold variation of the same, and chapter titles all-caps in another serif face, Garamond. This is set as fully-justified paragraphs, within conservative left, right and top margins, creating a somewhat cramped feeling. Paper stock is heavier than usual, sitting between 130 and 140 gsm, and having an almost card-like quality, which may account for a few places where the binding seems to have suffered.

This Nightside edition of Queen of Hell was released in a now sold-out edition of 500, featuring double thickness endpapers, and handbound in an emerald Lynel Fur that retains the green of the Ixaxaar edition, but with a new sigil foiled in gold on the cover. Sigils within and other artwork have been recreated and enhanced, the promotional blurb tells us, by the D’via Roja Group (though both context and even the powers of Google make it hard to tell who or what this group are).

Published by Primal Craft

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Treading the Mill: Workings in Traditional Witchcraft – Nigel G. Pearson

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Categories: folk, witchcraft, Tags:

Treading the Mill coverThis volume from the lovely people at Troy Books is a 2016 expanded reissue of Nigel G. Pearson’s Treading the Mill – Practical Craft Working in Modern Traditional Witchcraft, a book that was originally released in 2007 by Capall Bann. With its rough-looking cover (disembodied, low opacity heads floating over a murky woodland), that particular incarnation has never moved beyond the ‘Inspired by your views’ list on Amazon, simply because yes, you really should judge a book by its cover. So, if nothing else, this Troy Books edition wins for having a lovely new cover to judge, care of the inimitable Gemma Gary.

In the company of this new cover is a new chapter, as well as a new introduction (and the original one too), along with revised text throughout the whole book, photographic plates from Pearson, and a smattering of internal images by Gary (largely as chapter headers). In his new introduction, Pearson notes that, in a sad loss for those oenologically-inclined, he has removed a chapter on the mysteries of the cup (with accompanying guide to winemaking), which is replaced in this edition with one on the creation and use of magical incenses.

The first chapter, as one would expect, concerns the creation of space and takes that very act, hallowing the compass, as its title. It’s a broader discussion than just that one rite though, and the rubric allows for a wider consideration of the basic toolkit of Traditional Witchcraft: covering of tools, the opening and dismissing of the compass, the calling and honouring of the directions, and a closing statement and thanksgiving. As this list suggests, this hallowing of the compass incorporates many ritual elements and tools that will be familiar to anyone that has encountered entries from this milieu before, but it also includes slightly atypical elements, in particular a guided pathworking for determining individual directional correspondences.

Treading the Mill page spread

Pearson writes effortlessly with a straightforward style that is without artifice, but which, as evidenced by the book’s 260 page length, is notably more detailed and elongated than one might expect for a title such as this. There isn’t necessarily any flab or undue verbosity to the writing, it just runs long, with Pearson taking his time to ease out points, often informally addressing the reader with hypophora; where a more concise writer might simply bullet, note it, ship it. For example, he provides two lengthy examples of procedures for compass hallowing, each filled with little asides and a conversational tone for what could easily be the driest of instructions. It’s impossible and unnecessary to attach a value judgement to this, as it is not bad writing or wrong writing, but simply the style and something for which time must be allowed when reading.

Treading the Mill, proceeds as one would expect of a title like this, covering many bases familiar, including wand creation (with a brief attendant consideration of the magical properties of various native British trees), spellcrafting (incorporating a variety of techniques under the rubric of natural magic, including herbs, potion and lotions), and the aforementioned section on incense and olfactory magic. Each of these receives a full and thorough chapter, with Pearson each time providing a little introductory theory and history, followed by broad advice, and then more specific recipes or listing of properties. It’s important to note that for all the thoroughness, Pearson doesn’t give much in the way of rituals, formulae or recipes that must be followed by rote, instead offering a general framework and enough information for the practitioner to work out their own specific approach. The reason for this may be gleaned in the prelude to the section on spellcrafting where Pearson states that the efficacy of a spell lies within the person performing it, rather than the spell itself.

Image by Gemma Gary

The acknowledged so-called low magic of the preceding chapters then gives way to a different emphasis with Entering the Twilyte, in which the focus is not on sympathetic magic but more on transvection and others examples of travelling in spirit. Pearson makes a distinction between the spirit travelling of the Craft and the full-on possessive states of voudon, or the heightened sensations of ecstatic religions, presenting instead something with a more sedate aura, where awareness and control is maintained. Like the compass hallowing at the start, this involves a fair bit of guided pathworking and visualisation, which Pearson acknowledges is looked down upon by some traditional witches but which is, he says, just “good old-fashioned Witch magic” that has been part of his own training, and used by other traditional crafters, past and present. And for those who think they are unable to visualise anything, he’s got one word for you: “piffle.”

The final two chapters of Treading the Mill turn to the beings encountered, first with what are defined as spirits, and then with the powers or gods. Spirits is a broad definition that runs from environmental genii locorum such as land wights and sea spirits, to familiars and fetches, all the way to the Almighty Dead and the Elven and Faerie Folk. Pearson provides a veritable bestiary of these various creatures, and for some, includes ways of working with them: a rite for communing with your fetch, or a guided pathworking to visit the ancestors, for example.

Treading the Mill page spread with photograph plate

For the gods, Pearson makes the point straight out of the gate that traditional witchcraft is not a nature-based fertility religion like its ignominious sibling Wicca, and so the gods of this system, while having associations with nature and the land, are seen as more cosmic forces that, to render it poetically, “have their being in the realms of the stars and the dark space beyond and between them.” These deities are not given names in this system (though Pearson acknowledges that they have analogues in some mythologies and that those names are used by some practitioners), but instead have broad titles that describe their roles. For the male there are the King of the Wildwood, the Lord of the Mound, and the Master of Light, while the female is the Witch Goddess who is both the Great Queen and the Black Goddess. For each of these, Pearson provides a thorough description, along with little rites and workings for connecting with them.  

While inevitably there’s not a lot of revelations in Treading the Mill, with it covering territory that multiple authors have explored (and will continue to do so), Pearson presents it all as a cohesive, internally consistent system. His thoroughness, while making it longer than other such tomes, works to its advantage, giving the reader a carefully considered and complete window into this version of traditional craft.

Treading the Mill page spread with chapter heading

There’s a comforting weight to Treading the Mill, with its 260 pages on a nice 90gsm stock, bound with solid coverboards. The formatting within adds to that feeling of stability, with its deft and confident layout, providing nothing sensational but rather a clear and clean look with just the right amount of witchy archaisms. It is this, and the content itself, that makes Treading the Mill sit effortlessly on the shelf in the company of other Troy Book titles from the likes of Gemma Gary and Corinne Boyer, with its scrappy Capall Bann beginnings all but forgotten.

As with many titles from Troy Books, Treading the Mill is available in a multitude of formats, from, at one end of the economic scale, a paperback edition with a gloss laminate, to, at the other, a fine edition of 15 hand bound examples in red goat leather with gold foil blocking to the front and spine, housed in a fully lined black library buckram slip-case, blind embossed to the front. In the middle range of affordability and availability is the standard hardback edition with red endpapers, bound in black with gold foil blocking on the spine, and wrapped in a buttermilk 120gsm matt dust jacket. A now sold out special edition of 250 hand-numbered copies was bound in black recycled leather fibres, with gold foil blocking to the front and spine, and red endpapers and head and tail bands. Finally, there’s the patented Troy Books Black Edition version: a limited hand-numbered edition of 250 in Royal format, 234 x 156mm, bound in black recycled leather fibres, with black foil blocking to the front and spine.

Published by Troy Books

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Pagan Anarchism – Christopher Scott Thompson

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Categories: paganism, witchcraft

Pagan Anarchism coverPublished by Gods and Radicals, this brief 100 page, nine chapter volume from Christopher Scott Thompson does what it says on the can: talks about paganism and anarchism. There has been of late a certain, if not wealth, then at least a healthy crop of titles addressing occultism, paganism and witchcraft in particular as expressions of political resistance and rebellion. There is, as Thompson acknowledges, Peter Grey’s Apocalyptic Witchcraft from 2013, and only a couple of months ago, David Salisbury’s Weiser-published Witchcraft Activism; not to mention elements of paganism and occultism touched on in Stockholm University Press’s Anarchism and Religion series. Thompson’s unique selling point here is its concern with, shall we say, classic anarchism, and with that, pretty classic witchcraft too. Indeed, despite the paganism in the title, and references to some broadly pagan society, it is more witchcraft that is considered here; which as dual faith observers are so wont to mention, may be pagan or not.

For Thompson, the one thing that brings paganism and anarchism together is another ‘ism,’ animism, arguing that it is this that provides the fundamental contradiction between pagan and capitalist world views. With that said, I’m sure some contrarian could argue that you can define oneself as a pagan without necessarily being an animist. One can, to use Thompson’s example, object to dumping poison in a river because you believe, as a pagan, that it is a sacred river, without necessarily believing that that sacrosanctity is a result of, or is imbued by, the river having agency and consciousness.

By way of introduction to this synthesis, Thompson provides succinct histories of both paganism and anarchism. For paganism, he begins with definitions per Ronald Hutton, touches on the feudal systems and power relationships of mediaeval Europe, before finally summarising the modern pagan revival with a fairly standard trajectory: Romanticism, Leland, Murray, Gardner, et al. On the anarchism side of things, Thompson again returns to Romanticism as a significant cultural alembic, noting an intersection between that most pagan of poets and author of The Masque of Anarchy, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the politically progressive family of his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Clearly familiar with his subject, Thompson then proceeds through the history of largely secular anarchism (Godwin, Proudhon, Stirnin, Bakunin, etc), but is also able to find those occasional instances of a pagan presence, such as founder of the Ancient Druid Order, militant labour organiser and anarchist communist George Watson MacGregor-Reid.

Pagan Anarchism spread

The way in which MacGregor-Reid was “ill at ease with the values and the limitations of contemporary civilization” (as historian Adam Stout put it), sums up the considerations here, and the precarious dance that Thompson must perform in advocating for what is essentially a future of the past, a step backwards to go forwards. He addresses such concerns, summarising various contemporary expressions of these theories and noting the problematic nature of the most extreme and anti-civilisation versions of environmental anarchism such as Deep Green Resistance; who, it must be said, end up sounding similar to the most fervent adherents of anti-cosmic ideas.

In one of the concluding chapters, Thompson presents his own theoretical, high idealised, vision of a future anarchist city, potentially hundreds of years following the fall of capitalisation. Everything is very nice, people presumably sing Kumbaya (Pagan Version) a lot, and there’s apparently no room for misanthropes, curmudgeons, loners, the social inept, or snarky reviewers of occult books, because “people aren’t alienated from each other, they live and work together in close proximity.” Sounds hideous.

Thompson uses the Rojava autonomous region in northeastern Syria as the closest extant analogy to this shining anarchist city on the hill, with the zone’s pluralistic democratic federalism, environmental sustainability and decentralisation sounding like the most progressive brand of anarchism.

The chapters of Pagan Anarchism are interspersed with single-page poems and prayers. These are part of a sliver of practical application that Thompson inserts within all the theory. There’s a little guide to bringing the magic back, as it’s described, with incense lighting, walking with intent, etc, while the appendix includes a basic pagan ritual, venerating the gods and the ancestors, and intended to be repeated at least once a month.

Pagan Anarchism spread

Printed by print-on-demand company Lightning Source, Pagan Anarchism runs to just under 100 pages and is perfect bound in a soft matte cover. It bears a striking collage by Ex Voto Fecit on the cover depicting Our Lady of Anarchy, and this is laid out by Li Pallas who has worked on other Gods and Radical titles. It is not clear who did the interior layout here, though, and it differs from that of other Gods and Radicals publications, which have a clear, functional look that doesn’t wow but is perfectly acceptable. Pagan Anarchism, though, seems a bit clunky.

Rather than the elegant Didot serif of the cover, the interior is all sans serif all the time. Copy is rendered in a larger-than-it-should-be serif more suited for display than body (high stroke contrast, a slanted bar in the ‘e’), with smaller-than-it-should-be leading that makes everything feel cramped and shouty; as are the pull quotes which are even bigger and even shoutier. Everything is indented, including, atypically, first paragraphs, while the first paragraphs of each chapter add drop words to this indent, each rendered in a large, all-caps, distressed stencil typeface, because, y’know, anarchy. This same Crass-esque face is used for chapter titles, sub headings and somewhat inexplicably and incongruously, for a full page excerpt from Charles Leland’s Aradia. In all, everything feels very crammed, and not even anarchic, despite the on-the-nose stencil face, while the tightly-spaced sans serif face of the body is only seditious and iconoclastic by not being conducive to reading.

Published by Gods and Radicals Press

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Crafting the Arte of Tradition – Shani Oates

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Categories: folk, robert cochrane, witchcraft, Tags:

Crafting the Arte of Tradition coverAfter their first forays into occult publishing with the Pillars journal, Anathema Publishing presented their first stand-alone title with Crafting the Arte of Tradition by Shani Oates. Since then, at the time of writing, they have followed this up with two books by Craig Williams, one by Anathema owner Gabriel McCaughry, and two further titles from Oates. With an expanded paperback edition of Crafting the Arte of Tradition now available from Anathema, let’s get a review of the classic hardback original from 2016. Full disclosure time, I have had pieces published by Anathema Publishing in the past, and have worked for them as a copy editor. Will this have an effect on this review? Let’s find out.

Normally the reviews here at Scriptus Recensera leave the discussion of the book’s appearance to the end, but let’s switch that up and start off by judging this book by its cover. It’s beautiful. Brown where many occult publishers go black, Crafting the Arte of Tradition has a confident appearance, with a sigil blind debossed into the cloth cover, and the title and author in gilt on the spine creating a contrast with the russet tone. Inside the cover, the beauty continues, as McCaughry displays a deft and sophisticated hand when it comes to typography, with chapter titles simply but effectively rendered in a combination of different styles and cases; though I’m not sure what I think about the use of the attractive and meaningless pilcrow (¶) in subtitles. That said, the margins are a little snug, and with the full justification of type, this creates somewhat intimidating blocks of typographic colour that fill the pages; something that appears to have been rectified in the new paperback edition.

Images throughout Crafting the Arte of Tradition are used sparingly and effectively, with Luciana Lupe Vasconcelos providing starkly beautiful line drawings as both full page illustrations and as fillers and end pieces. These are unashamedly indebted to Aubrey Beardsley, but Vasconcelos makes the style her own, adding innovation rather than relying on slavish imitation. Her forms have a regal, Marjorie Cameron-style elegance, arrayed in fantastical costumes and robes, sprinkled with just the right touch of distance and distain.

Work by Luciana Lupe Vasconcelos

As for the written content, Crafting the Arte of Tradition is very much Oates to a T. She obviously loves to write, though sometimes without consideration for the reader: brevity is sacrificed on the altar of verbosity, and paragraphs run long, stretching to as much as half a page in some cases. Oates seems to have studied at the same writing school attended by Andrew Chumbley and Daniel Schulke, or at least taken a postgraduate paper there, as her writing, which has been straight forward enough in the past, is unnecessarily ornamented and tortuous.

Crafting the Arte of Tradition is arguably part of a recent trend towards a more, how you say, philosophical or analytical approach to witchcraft, instead of the tired rituals-n-recipes formula that has dominated that branch of occult publishing for over fifty years. Peter Grey’s Apocalyptic Witchcraft provided a precedent for this (though his approach is more poetic than academic), while The Witching-Other: Explorations & Meditations on the Existential Witch by Peter Hamilton-Giles is a more recent example. What that means in reality, though, can be that simple concepts are given an unnecessary veneer of complexity due to the use of repetition, and the employing of language that obfuscates, rather than reveals.

Insignia of the Clan of Tubal Cain

Despite being ostensibly an explication of the craft as viewed by Robert Cochrane’s Clan of Tubal Cain, it’s sometimes easy to forget this as for the first couple of chapters, one finds oneself lost in an Oatesian swirl, within which it can be hard to understand or determine a particular focus. This is not just because of Oates’ obtuse language, but the structure, wherein there is often no flow, and paragraphs can begin abruptly as non sequiturs, as if you dozed off a little and have been rudely jolted awake. It is not that the words are obscure or archaic, which they aren’t, but that the phrasing that ties them together is clumsy and circuitous, with tenses changing, and flow halting, overwhelmed by the attempt to sound grander, more authoritative or more arcane than is needed. Improper use of commas plays a large part here, with that little flick being often poorly and inexplicably placed, making for an even more difficult read, and for one in which the immersion for the reader is constantly being broken as you go “What? That’s not how commas work.” The most generous assessment would be to call this writing a stream of consciousness, with all its abrupt leaps and sentence fragments, but even then, a little wrangling of words would have done wonders to instil some sense of, well, sense.

Crafting the Arte of Tradition spread

This lack of comprehensibility is compounded by sloppy proofing and referencing where stray or repeated words litter sentences, and where in some cases, sources have been cut and pasted and then not edited for accuracy. In one particularly egregious example, what is clearly an OCRed source text is quoted, but has been so inattentively dealt with that two errors introduced in the text recognition process occur in its single sentence length: ‘the’ has been scanned and left as ‘I lie,’ while a salt pit called the Old Biat is instead referred to ‘Old Bin I.’ As it is, this quote is incorrectly attributed and cited. It is not, as is unhelpfully and vaguely claimed, from “an historian by the name of Nash” but from The History of the County Palatine of Chester by J. H. Hanshall. The reference to Nash comes from the secondary source used by Oates (A Glossary: Or, Collection of Words, Phrases, Names, and Allusions to Customs, Proverbs, &c., which Have Been Thought to Require Illustration, in the Works of English Authors, Particularly Shakespeare, and His Contemporaries by Robert Nares) which quotes both Nash (that would be Dr Treadway Russell Nash, 1724 – 1811, for those keeping score at home) and Hanshall in the same section, but in relation to clearly different facts. The title of Hanshall’s work, but not Hanshall himself, is then cited by Oates as the source, despite having just claimed that this statement is by “an historian by the name of Nash… famous for his summation of the festival,” with the source and page numbering clearly just being lifted from Nares’ referencing of Hanshall. The same citing of a secondary source as if ‘twere a first occurs in the following paragraph where Oates again uses the entry from Nares’ book in quoting from “another historian named Lysons” (that would be the Reverend Daniel Lysons in his Magna Britannia: Being a Concise Topographical Account of the Several Counties of Great Britain. Containing Cambridgeshire, and the County Palatine of Chester, Volume 2 from 1810). This source is duly cited by cutting and pasting the truncated, authorless-citation format employed by Hanshall, rather than going looking for the original publication by the Reverend Lysons.

The above is highlighted in excruciating detail not to score points or to shame, but out of disappointment. When a lot of effort has gone into a book like this, as the glowing first half of this review is testament to, it is a shame when poor scholarship comes through like that in such a pellucid manner; especially when the resources are available to so easily get it right (all three books are available on Google Books and are fully searchable). When one is presenting a tradition and using historical documents to back up its themes, surely accuracy matters, especially when weak work in one area can make the reader wary of the rest. And speaking of references, for whatever reason Cochrane is referred to throughout this book with his birth name of Roy Bowers, which means that when his articles are referenced, they’re now nonsensically cited as the work of one Mr Bowers, when that isn’t the name under which they were published.

Work by Luciana Lupe Vasconcelos

It is only in later chapters of Crafting the Arte of Tradition that clear points, albeit laboured, rather than well made, can be discerned, and that’s possibly only because it’s broken up by clear subtitles that indicate the subject area. Here, Oates discusses various tools of the craft, locations of power and various other symbols from folklore, myth and legend, but there’s still an unavoidable sense of aimlessness, with no clear direction and with the various thematic locales wandered into as if by accident.

So in summary, come for the prettiness, wade through the wooliness. Crafting the Arte of Tradition is presented as a 200 page hardcover octavo with gilt lettered bonded leather spine, matching blind stamped cloth boards, metallic endpapers, colour and black and white illustrations, and appendices. It is limited to 300 copies of which 280 are bound as the standard edition; the remaining twenty comprise the Fjölkunnig special edition and are bound in full leather, instead of cloth boards. In the hand, Crafting the Arte of Tradition feels very solid with its leather binding, brown cloth and the slightly heavier than usual weight of the pages within.

Published by Anathema Publishing

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