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The Moribund Portal – Richard Gavin

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Categories: folk, germanic, tantra, witchcraft, Tags:

The Moribund Portal coverBearing the impressively arcane subtitle “Spectral Resonance and the Numen of the Gallows,” Richard Gavin’s The Moribund Portal is a meditation on the symbolism of the gallows, and its place in folklore, spiritism and occult philosophy. From the opening paragraph, The Moribund Portal reads like what you would expect from a Three Hands Press title, and certainly moreso than another recent release. This involves, if we dare coin the phrase, a Schulkian type of sentence structure, gloriously beginning the proceedings with “Sites of archaic tragedy, iniquity, or turmoil can server the living as stations of unique spirit function.” Yes, indeed.

Running to just 90 or so pages and undivided by chapters, save for a clearly defined epilogue, or even subheadings, The Moribund Portal feels more like an extended essay than a true book. It is, indeed, what the title says, a portal that is formed by the image of the gallows, but which uses this morbid focus as a means of moribund egress to explore a variety of related themes. Untethered by the structure and clear signposts provided by subheadings, there’s a feeling of the thematic focus swinging, like a gibbet hanging from a gallows tree, as topics move from one to the other. Thus, the occupant of the gallows proves an apt leaping off point, if you’ll pardon the allusion, leading to discussions of the hand of glory, mandrake, dreams, while touching variously on Cain, Germanic mysticism, tantra, and perhaps most intriguingly, given its uniqueness, Canadian folklore. Gavin uses two examples from the latter as rather significant talking points: a tale of an enigmatic hanging from York (now Toronto) and the Québécois folk legend of la Corriveau.

Despite its length, The Moribund Portal is not necessarily a brisk read, due to Gavin’s style of writing. He writes with a considered, grandiloquent and formal delivery, but does so expertly, without falling into the traps that lesser authors do when ambition outstrips ability. Instead, Gavin’s presents a masterclass in how to write 21st century occult style, combining academic phrasing, sophisticated occult terminology (your ‘numens’ and ‘sodalities’ but alas, no ‘praxis’) and just the right sprinklings of archaism. Never overdoing any of these elements, and thereby disappearing into black holes of meaningless, it’s all tied together with perfect punctuation. Writing in such a deliberate way is often, I find, its own form of proofing, as the careful concatenation of words requires constant revision. For this reason, or not, there’s little to complain about here with spelling and punctuation, especially compared to other recently reviewed titles; with only one noticeable spelling mistake really jumping out. The result is a read that feels sophisticated and knowledgeable, rather than someone trying their damnedest to sound erudite or attempting to use a lexicon not naturally their own (you know, most occult authors).

The Moribund Portal spread

The Moribund Portal features a stunning image by Benjamin A. Vierling as the cover, while the typesetting is by Joseph Uccello, both Three Hands Press stalwarts. Like the portal of the title which is reflected in the framing design on the cover, The Moribund Portal is an atypical 9.5 x 6 x 1.5 inches, with its narrow dimensions making it fit easily in one hand when closed. This smaller width does make the binding a little tight, especially given its sub-100 page length, so it’s one of those volume where a little more effort than usual is needed to turn the pages and hold them open, leading to fatigue and the occasional shaking of hands to dissipate the ache.

Three Hands Press have released The Moribund Portal in three editions: as a softcover trade paperback limited to 1,700 copies; a limited hardcover bound in gilt tyrian purple, of 500 hand-numbered copies; and as a deluxe hardcover edition of 22 hand-numbered copies in full purple Nigerian goat with marbled endpapers and slipcase

Published by Three Hands Press.

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The Wicked Shall Decay – A. D. Mercer

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Categories: folk, witchcraft

The Wicked Shall Decay coverThis is the second book by A. D. Mercer to be reviewed here at Scriptus Recensera, and he marks himself as a bit of the old polymath with this title, bearing little relation to the Enochian milieu of the past review, or the as yet unread survey of Armanen runes. Bearing the subtitle “Charms, Spells & Witchcraft of Old Britain,” it also has the faux archaic and comma-addled sub-subtitle “A gathering of historical enchantments against Foul Spirits & Maledictions. Compil’d, & with an introduction by A. D. Mercer.”

In said introduction, Mercer mentions the black books of Scandinavia that contain folk magic cures and charms, and laments the lack of extant British equivalents; despite there being tantalising titles for such lost tomes like The Devil’s Plantation and The Red Book of Appin. The Wicked Shall Decay seeks to rectify this by bringing together the kind of spells, charms and incantations that might have been in such a book, drawing on a variety of publications on British folklore from the nineteenth and twentieth century.

The spells and charms are grouped together into broad categories such as the healing of wounds, protection and defence, and dealing variously with witches, the devil and ghosts. In addition to simple spoken charms and formulas of sympathetic magic, there are some examples of sigil and magic square work that draws from the grimoire tradition. Each entry is preceded by a title (with inconsistent capitalisation and punctuation) and each ends, by way of reference, with a bracketed three letter code indicating the source text, and a number pointing to, one hopes, the particular page on which it appears. There are some 36 publications in the bibliography, making for a wide pool of resources to draw from; though some feature more heavily than others. Mercer points out that he avoided Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft or direct trial records, finding the former too obvious, while in the latter, he argues, any spells or charms may have just been made up by prosecutors for the charge sheet.

When it comes to longer sections in his own words, the problems with Mercer’s writing, noted in the review of his Liber Coronzom, recur, and are cruelly abetted with insufficient proofing by Three Hands Press. He writes in a cumbersome, extended manner, producing sentences that run on, losing their tense in the breathless length. The writing is flabby and tautological, redundancies abound, and words are reused within sentences when a synonym would be tidier. Proofing is so careless that George Ewart Evans, for example, can be called Evans and Even in the same paragraph; with an improper use of a possessive apostrophe too for good measure.

Given this, the reader may be filled with a little dread when Mercer says in his introduction that while he has, for the most part, retained the spelling and grammar of entries for the sake of authenticity, in some he has modernised them to aid understanding. Perversely, this attempt at aiding understanding sometimes seems to replace the original writers’ proper placement of commas with Mercer’s misunderstanding of punctuation, in which he infuriatingly uses them to mark the beginning of interrupting words and expressions, but not the end. Due to the prevalence of persistently poor punctuation, the reader finds themselves on guard for other errors in the transcription, and these crop up more often than they should, with words missing from sentences, whole phrases introduced that weren’t in the original, and formatting errors like accidental paragraph returns or individual lines that are combined into one without adjusting the sentence case. Without a thorough review of all entries it would be disingenuous to say that this sort of thing is true of all the content, but the cross-referencing of just a few examples throws up problems. One finds oneself descending down rabbit holes of fact checking, when one little thing looks wrong, only to find that yes, this has been transcribed wrong, yes, that little bit of Latin didn’t ring true because they’ve lazily mistaken an ‘e’ for a ‘c,’ and yes, that author’s name was Oliver Madox Hueffer, not Olivier Maddox Hueffer.

The same is true of general accuracy in citation. In at least one case, the three letter reference code points to a publication that is not given that or any code in the bibliography (possibly because Mercer subsequently assigned separate codes to the book’s two volumes and didn’t update the body), while in another, the spell bears a code for a book that, despite having those three letters, doesn’t appear in the bibliography at all. Then there’s at least one instance in which the example doesn’t appear in the referenced publication, neither on the cited page or, it would seem, on any of its pages (and just for fun, ‘may’ is misspelt ‘many’ in this entry too), while in others, the reference is there, but on a different page; 87 instead of 67, for example. Finding some references in their sources can create even more consternation, such as several that are referenced from Oliver Madox Hueffer’s The Book of Witches. Here, Madox Hueffer is actually quoting Johann Weyer and in neither Madox Hueffer’s book, or in Weyer’s original is there any indication that what is being recorded is a charm from Britain; nor does Reginald Scot referencing Weyer in his The Discoverie of Witchcraft make them any more British.

The Wicked Shall Decay spread with poorly vectored witches

The 168 pages of The Wicked Shall Decay are printed in a two colour offset on heavy stock, with titles, subtitles, dropcaps and dividers in a lovely muted red and the body in black. It is illustrated throughout with what the promotional blurb generously describes as 31 woodcut illustrations. Some of the images may have begun life as woodcuts but most if not all have been automatically vectorised in a programme like Adobe Illustrator and the source material in many cases obviously wasn’t high enough quality to warrant it. Some are particularly bad and have no place being in print, such as a the above derivation of Two Witches Cooking up a Storm (the titlepage from Ulrich Molitor’s 1489 De Lamiis et Pythonicis Mulieribus) which is here rendered almost into abstract oblivion, the faces and bodies of the witches disintegrating into clumsy, laughable facets. And then there’s something which one assumes is a tree on page 92, or the brittle, piecemeal Rod of Asclepius on page 147, or two equally bad traces of an Abracadabra hexagram, which could have been effortlessly recreated from scratch by anyone worth their salt. As it is, there’s little case for using many of these images as their selection and placement is often arbitrary; and even in a case where it’s kind of apropos, why the Eye of Providence in a section on the Evil Eye? Also, the style, depending on the quality and provenance of the source image, varies widely, with weight and quality of trace inconsistent throughout.

The Wicked Shall Decay spread with appalling tree, or something

The Wicked Shall Decay is interesting as what is effectively a reference list. It provides a glimpse of a variety of spells and charms, but given the sloppy transcription and referencing you would never want to trust it without going back to the source. If nothing else, The Wicked Shall Decay gave this reviewer the opportunity to spend perhaps far too many hours looking through the very texts from which it draws.

The Wicked Shall Decay is available in three editions with a trade paperback, a standard hardcover in carmine cloth with two-colour embossed wraps, and a deluxe edition of 44 copies in full earthen full goatskin, with marbled endpapers and slipcase, bound by The Key Printing and Binding of Oakland.

Published by Three Hands Press.

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Veneficium: Magic, Witchcraft and the Poison Path – Daniel A. Schulke

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Categories: folk, sabbatic craft, witchcraft, Tags:

Veneficium coverOriginally published in 2012, this is a second and revised edition of Daniel Schulke’s book on botanically and venomously-focused witchcraft. As the promotional blurb goes, this second edition contextualises Veneficium within a new trilogy of forthcoming books entitled Triangulum Lamiarum (‘Triangle of the Witches’); no word yet on the other two titles.

Rather than being a single work, Veneficium is a collection of essays by Schulke, although it’s not clear what the provenance of all of them is. Two are from Michael Howard’s magazine The Cauldron, and one, between editions, was published in the Three Hands Press journal Clavis, while a previous version of another essay was submitted as an undergraduate paper. The rest, one assumes, are standalone pieces that were never intended to be published elsewhere. Despite this, there is a semblance of order, and, for example, the opening The Path Envenom’d (originally featured in The Cauldron #126) leads quite naturally into Purity, Contamination, & the Magical Virgin, with both sharing broad themes of venom and toxins, and the latter almost acting as the albedo to the melanosis of the former.

Veneficium succeeds best when it focuses not just on witchcraft in general but on some very particular and rather grimmer and grislier modalities. Thus, a piece like Leaves of Hekat, which broadly discusses the various noxious herbs used by Thessalian witches, is great and all, but it doesn’t compare to a trilogy which follows it, in which Schulke puts a microscope on three aspects of what one could call core witchcraft. Each of these essays addresses an element recorded in western European witchcraft trial accounts, revealing the rich symbolism and potential application behind what might otherwise be thought of as nothing but a scurrilous and salacious detail. In the first of these, The Spirit Meadow, Schulke considers the meadow, such as Basque field of Aquelarre, in which witches gathered for sabbats, identifying it as a locus rich in ecstatic power, capable of being visited via oneiric revelation and dream incubation. Beneath this idea of the meadow as a zone out of this world is a layer of agrarian symbolism that Schulke uses to identify it as a place of hidden poisons and monstrosity. The meadow of the witches, thus, provides a way of exploring various species of plants that could be found in its mundane counterpart, plants such as more noxious forms of wheat, and most famously, the wheat parasite ergot. A piece like this is effective because of the way in which the description of the field and its noxious constituents builds the image in question within the reader’s mind, just as would be necessary for anyone seeking to visit it in their mind’s eye.

Frontispiece to Witch as Poison

The Spirit Meadow with its botanical curiosities gives way to The Matter of Man, where the poisons are the very components of the body and the magic in question is the corpse kind. Here, Schulke focuses on the idea of mumia, which, in addition to referring to the black resinous exudate scraped from embalmed Egyptian mummies to be used as a cure-all, is also employed, in the case of Sabbatic Witchcraft, as a term for sacrificial offerings derived from one’s own corporeality. The protoplasmic themes of The Matter of Man bleed (how apropos) into the next essay, The Witches’ Supper, in which Schulke unpacks the ideas behind the symbolism of sabbatic cannibalism and consumption, and includes a rather delightful list of nine poisons derived largely from putrefaction (so many potential death metal band names and album titles).

Throughout Veneficium, Schulke writes with the surety of one with a tradition behind him, ornamenting his language with archaic flourishes and expertly phrasing sentences in an often more complicated manner than is necessary. After all, why say “drinking it” when you can say “the act of its imbibition.”

Circulatum Sabbati

In all, as it was in its first edition, Veneficium makes for an interesting read, even if the nature of the anthological format means there’s sometimes a little bleed between essays, with repetition resulting when ideas or concepts from an earlier essay are introduced anew. The combination of fundamentally interesting topics, especially when things get all messy and corporeal, and Schulke’s authoritative voice creates a valuable addition to the library. It is all very theoretical though, and despite Schulke’s occasional experiential anecdote, there’s not much in the way of suggestions about what to do with all these poisons. This is especially true when much time is spent pointing out the unremitting virulence of some of them, and there doesn’t seem much practical application to gangrenous amputation or multiple organ failure.

Veneficium colour plates

The cover of this edition of Veneficium features a reprise of a stunning painting by Benjamin A. Vierling, Sacred Heart, which depicts various inhabitants of the poisonous garden growing from the ventricles of a ruddy heart. Vierling also contributes a skull-festooned title plate and ornamental elements, while layout is by Joseph Uccello, who expertly employs a clean, clear style with the body set in a compact serif face that borders on the slab variety; don’t know what’s going on with the reverse indents in the footnotes, though, or the way some of them abruptly extend across two pages when other lengthier ones don’t. And speaking of the footnotes, there’s some inconsistency with how references are treated in them, with some essays citing title, author and page number, and others, despite clearly referencing a particular passage in a text, only giving the author and title.

Veneficium has been produced in three editions: standard, hardcover and deluxe. The standard edition, limited to 2,200 copes, is a trade paperback of 192 pages with a four page colour insert, while the 750 copy hardcover edition includes a dust jacket. The 50 exemplar deluxe edition is quarter-bound in purple goatskin, with special endpapers and a gilt-stamped slipcase.

Published by Three Hands Press

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The Roebuck in the Thicket – Evan John Jones & Robert Cochrane

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Categories: robert cochrane, witchcraft, Tags:

The Roebuck in the Thicket coverSubtitled An Anthology of the Robert Cochrane Witchcraft Tradition, this book is, unsurprisingly, a collection of articles about Robert Cochrane’s witchcraft tradition, written by Cochrane himself and his successor, Evan John Jones. As one would expect, the majority of these are from Jones, with Cochrane posthumously justifying his name on the cover with four. The articles are largely drawn from occult magazines, with those by Cochrane coming from the pages of Pentagram and New Dimensions, while Michael Howard’s The Cauldron is the sources of those by Jones.

Howard opens the proceedings with a thorough introduction that acts as an overview of both Cochrane’s craft, and how the writings that are compiled in this volume came to be. This will be a familiar story for anyone with a passing knowledge of Cochrane and his brand of traditional witchcraft, hitting all the usual beats, in particular those key moments of public publication, where his use of small articles in possibly equally small occult journals still had remarkably far-reaching effects. This then expands into a broader consideration of the aftermath of Cochrane, including a brief history of The Regency and the influence of Jones’ Clan of Tubal Cain-infused books, Witchcraft: A Tradition and Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance. The familiarity of some of the history here makes sense when you realise that this chapter provided a test run for Howard’s comprehensive Children of Cain, with the narrative following a similar trajectory and some of the paragraphs here being almost the same, save for some judicious editing, ten years later.

As Howard’s introduction touches upon, the four articles from Cochrane are part of traditional witchcraft history. This collection, though, doesn’t include Cochrane’s first public writing on witchcraft, a 1963 article in the Spiritualist newspaper Psychic News, in which he proposed the idea, more popular now than it was then, that witchcraft was not paganism per se, but rather a mystical dual observance system that, nevertheless, “retained the memory of ancient faiths.” This sentiment, this out-of-the-gate contrariness, encapsulates Cochrane’s philosophy and his slightly smug antagonism towards conventional witchcraft/wicca. This sentiment does come through in the articles that are included here, particularly the excoriating and archly titled Witchcraft Today from the November 1964 issue of Pentagram, the newsletter of the Witchcraft Research Association.

You know that old cliché about witches being born and not made, of coming home to the belief system as if it was something you always knew but just didn’t have a name for it? Well, Cochrane feels a lot like that for me. Not, heaven forfend, his system of traditional witchcraft itself (though some of the aesthetics and cosmogony have a personal appeal), no, it’s the snark that feels like coming home, it’s the snark that feels like something I always intrinsically knew – though putting it into words and giving it a name was never a problem, naturally. Despite being written 55 years ago, the issues with conventional witchcraft that Cochrane mentions seem as prevalent now as they have been throughout this past half century. Like some hipster witch, Cochrane speaks from the smug position of someone who believes that amongst a sea of pretenders their tradition is the only right one, but at the same time, he critiques wicca-style witchcraft with a fairly pragmatic, and more reputable, approach. His concerns were with the patronising romanticism and escapism inherent in modern day witches seeking refuge from the 20th century in an all-beneficent spirit of nature who bore no relation to the multiplicious real world red in tooth and claw, or for that matter, any extant agrarian folk magic belief system: “civilised sophisticates running round behaving like simple peasants and simple peasants who have never heard of such things.”

It’s not all owning the normies though, and two of Cochrane’s pieces have a practical, rather than vituperative, aspect. In an article originally published in New Dimensions magazine, Cochrane gives an account of a spelunking esbat ritual, written in a travelogue style rich in anecdotes, dialogue and minutiae. The other is a response to a question in Pentagram about the use of knots and cords in witchcraft, which allows Cochrane to drop a few folklore gems along with examples of ritual use.

The Roebuck in the Thicket page spread

There endeth Cochrane’s lesson and, save for an astrological reading analysis as an appendix, the rest of the contents of The Roebuck in the Thicket, are provided by Evan John Jones. In the 1990s, Jones began publishing a series of articles in Howard’s magazine The Cauldron, covering aspects of Cochrane’s craft and also that of the Clan of Tubal Cain as then led by Jones. Attentive readers may be aware of my nostalgic affection for that period, having read those issues of The Cauldron when they were first published; with the copies still within reach to this day.

Spanning a decade, these contributions made Jones a regular figure in the pages of The Cauldron, and their inclusion here makes for a nice, concise little retrospective of this role. It begins with a discussion of the symbolism of the stang before various explorations of Clan of Tubal Clan cosmology and their ceremonial application, such as the rose within the grave and the ritual of the castle, and the rite of the two circles. Jones continues with explanations of other symbols used by the clan, including the titular roebuck in the thicket, the spiral, and the morning and evening stars.

It’s not all killer, and there is some filler, as one might expect of any body of work drawn from submissions to occult publications, where the need for contributions can so often outstrip the things of note to write about. A particular favourite that moves away from the theoretical or historical and into the anecdotal provides an interesting twin to Cochrane’s earlier account of the cave-bound esbat ritual. Here, Jones tells how his circle lost a ritual space but found a new and, at least initially, improved one, writing in a format that provides a guide and suggestions about general magical space, while appearing to simply tell their tale, sprinkled with a hint of folk horror and dread.

Jones is, as ever, a pleasure to read. He writes with confidence and clarity, but without the hubris and smugness that those speaking from within the comforts of a traditional can be susceptible to. His articles here provide a thorough, if compartmentalised, overview of Cochrane’s tradition, or at least what it may have evolved to under Jones, as not every piece is in thrall to the past magister and may represent the natural evolution of the system.

Images in The Roebuck in the Thicket are pretty much limited to a few poorly reproduced photographs of Cochrane and some of the key witchcraft figures mentioned therein: William Gray, Doreen Valiente, Ruth Wynn-Owen and Evan John Jones. This is disappointing, particularly when it comes to the contributions from Jones, as his articles in The Cauldron were often accompanied by illustrations from the always reliable Nigel Aldcroft Jackson. As a result, the book comes across as very much a no-frills archive, just in it for the words.

Speaking of words, as is typical of this series of books from Capall Bann, proofing is abysmal, with a surfeit of errors, usually repeated or extraneous words, rather than outright spelling mistakes. Comparing the book with some of the original articles, it’s clear that the errors have been introduced in the production of The Roebuck in the Thicket, with one of the most amusing being a reference to a sacrament of brad and wine. Lucky Brad, I guess.

Published by Capall Bann.

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Hekate Liminal Rites – Sorita d’Este & David Rankine

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Categories: classical, goddesses, paganism, underworld, witchcraft, Tags:

Hekate Liminal Rites coverThe goddess Hekate looms large over at Avalonia, and in addition to this colon-deficient title, the Glastonbury-based publishers have released The Temple of Hekate by Tara Sanchez, two anthologies both edited by Avalonia owner Sorita d’Este (the equally colon-wanting Hekate Her Sacred Fires and Hekate Key to the Crossroads), as well as d’Este’s own more recent work Circle for Hekate – Volume I: History & Mythology, yay, colons. If that wasn’t enough, d’Este also founded the Covenant of Hekate and runs the semi-regular Hekate Symposium. Suffice to say, if indeed faith without works is dead, d’Este should be pretty assured of some eschatological rewards from her matron when the time comes.

d’Este and collaborator David Rankine give a hint of their intent with the book’s verbose subtitle: A study of the rituals, magic and symbols of the torch-bearing Triple Goddess of the Crossroads. This is expanded upon in the introduction where they talk of coming across various items relating to Hekate whilst researching other projects, describing this book as part of a long term project that brings together such nuggets as they relate to ritual practices. As such, the book details information on historic charms, blessings, herb and root magic, dreams and divination, effectively providing a toolkit of authentic, referenced magickal items and procedures that can be incorporated into one’s own Hekate-themed modalities; and not just some handheld modern rituals to slavishly follow, as some disappointed reviewers on Amazon were obviously looking for.

Because of this, Hekate Liminal Rites can be a little dry. In places it sometimes feels like an info dump, where research notes have been entered into chapters, without much from d’Este and Rankine to glue them together. That contextual glue can also be absent between chapters, simply because a chapter’s focus on a particular area in which Hekate is documented can be brief and standalone, sharing little with the chapters that precede or proceed it. This is, obviously, inevitable given the style of the book, and as a criticism has little solution, but is mentioned to provide a sense of the content’s style and its resulting reading experience.

Hekate Liminal Rites page spread

One of the most interesting things that d’Este and Rankine draw attention to is the syncretic nature of Hekate, where her associations in the ancient world weren’t monolithically Greek, but instead often placed her in concert with deities from Egypt, Mesopotamia and later even Christianity. In spells for love and protection from the Greek Magical Papyri, Hekate appears alongside Ereshkigal, the Sumerian goddess of the underworld and an obvious cross-cultural equivalent. The same association is found in defixiones, simple binding spells made on lead tablets, with Hekate being joined by Ereshkigal and other names in a string of voces magicae. In other instances, Hekate appears in the company of angels, with a spell from the Greek Magical Papyri addressing her alongside the archangel Michael (as well as Hermes, Mene, Osiris and Persephone), while in others, angels are identified as the minions of Hekate, who is entreated to send them forth to aid the supplicant.

Given their theurgic emphasis, the Greek Magical Papyri plays a large role within Hekate Liminal Rites as a source, as do the Chaldean Oracles. But d’Este and Rankine also draw from the entire classical canon, beginning with Homer, the Greek dramatists, and up to Roman historians and the Early Church Fathers, as well as extending well beyond this to a smattering of occult sources like Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa. As such, there’s a wealth of material to draw from and Hekate’s ritual correspondences, types of ceremonies and procedures, are all covered off magnificently. This ritual framework also allows other areas of Hekate to be touched on, with spells from various sources providing opportunities to consider her animal forms, herbs and potions, associations with the underworld, and even her relevance to Solomonic magic. These are all presented in a brief, utilitarian manner, making for a brisk but pleasant read; with extensive and blessed citing of sources throughout.

Hekate Liminal Rites is available as a 193 page paperback, printed like most, if not all, Avalonia titles by print-on-demand company Lightning Source. There’s not much of the way of internal illustration, with only a handful of statue photographs and reproduced prints. With that said, the cover image of a triform Hekate from Joanna Barnum is pretty great and more of that on the inside would have been neat.

Published by Avalonia

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Welsh Witches – Richard Suggett

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Categories: folk, witchcraft, Tags:

Welsh Witches coverThis, the second book released by the fledgling Atramentous Press, is subtitled “Narratives of Witchcraft and Magic from 16th and 17th Century” and presents exactly that. While other titles from Atramentous have had a philosophical emphasis, this book is focussed on matters practical, providing a thorough documentation of its very particular subject matter.

Welsh Witches is a combination of disquisition and documentation, with one part of the book providing a survey of witchcraft in Wales, and the other presenting court records and pre-trial transcripts verbatim. Establishing the book’s credentials, everyone’s favourite pagan academic uncle, Ronald Hutton, introduces Welsh Witches with a foreword in which he highlights that the documents presented here allow us to hear the voices of those accused of witchcraft, and their accusers, albeit meditated by the method of recording as court proceedings, and as translations into English of Welsh oral examinations. Hutton notes that few witchcraft pre-trial proceedings from Britain have survived (in Essex, for example, where over 450 suspects were indicted, the documents were entirely discarded), and that the Welsh examples are therefore the earliest such records still extant.

Suggett works as a Senior Investigator of Historic Buildings at The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales in Aberystwyth, and is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, the Learned Society of Wales and the Society of Antiquaries of London. He is also the author of the 2005 work A History of Magic and Witchcraft in Wales, and so, as you would expect, there’s no problem with the quality of the writing or the analysis here. He begins with a summary of Welsh witchcraft, both broadly and in detail, providing many examples, all beautifully and mercifully annotated with citations. This is a richly drawn image, with multiple examples to draw from, and Suggett gently and expertly corrals the information with his insights. In some ways, it is a humble picture here, there are no grand sabbats or nights on the Welsh equivalent of Bald Mountain, and the accusations of witchcraft are embedded within a mundane setting, seemingly themselves part of that mundanity.

Triskelion design by Carolyn Hamilton-Giles

In the second section, the trial of Gwen ferch Ellis, a woman from Betws-yn-Rhose convicted and hung for witchcraft in 1594, is singled out and presented in detail as a revealing illustration of sixteenth century popular magic. It also, Suggett notes, provides example of connections with some Elizabethan writers on demonology. Suggett presents Gwen’s tale with a compelling, readable manner, and notes that her life would have been one of historical obscurity were it not for the details provided by court records. He draws attention to a charm which, upon request, Gwen recited to the bishop examining her, and highlights the way it combined nominally Christian elements, such as addressing the trinity, and appealing for Christ’s intercession, with features that would have been alien to both Protestant and Catholic ears. There is an atypical appeal to the three Marys, and to three consecrated (and unexplained) altars, as well as a multidirectional call to guard against predation from above and below the wind and the ground, at the centre of the world or anywhere in the world, from the ‘wolf of a man’ and from Satan, the ‘evil thing of hell.’

The rest of the book, two thirds of its total length, is then made up of transcripts of pre-trial and trial documents. These begin with the earliest legal reference in Wales with the 1502-1503 case against Thomas Wyrriot, who, aiming high, had hired a witch from Bristol, Margaret Hackett, to destroy the Bishop of St David’s, Pembrokeshire. There are sixteen cases in all, including various crimes such as consorting with faeries, image magic, and that old favourite, detecting a thief with charmed cheese (that’s using charmed cheese for the detecting, not for detecting a thief in possession of a charmed cheese). It ends in 1699 with the case against Dorcas Heddin, the last prosecution for witchcraft heard at the Court of Great Sessions, in a case with elements otherwise missing from Welsh tradition: a long-standing relationship with the devil as the man in black and demons exchanges of drops of blood. For each record, Suggett provides a helpful summary of the case, giving context and unwrapping some of the narrative obscured by archaic language, before thoroughly documenting every, erm, document.

Welsh Witches endears itself with its seriousness. It is not a book for practitioners, set in a slip of myth, with all the risks to accuracy that that entails, but is instead a serious work of history, no matter how quotidian. The verbatim trial and pre-trial records provide a valuable resource for reference, even if they are not the most obvious thing to read purely for pleasure in their entirety, given their archaic spelling and phrasing which has been retained.

Verso and recto pages in spread, typesetting by Joseph Uccello

Aesthetically, Welsh Witches is gorgeous, even in its standard edition. Bound in a blue cloth, it features what has already become the standard Atramentous style, with a verdant ornamental design from Carolyn Hamilton-Giles on the cover, spine and rear. This is debossed and foiled in black, with the title, author and a central leporidaen triskelion foiled in silver. A similar approach is found on the back, with the Atramentous logo foiled in silver amongst the black-foiled filigree, while title, author and an ornamental device on the spine are all in gold. Hamilton-Giles’ illustrative work regrettably does not feature inside the book, but the typesetting by Joseph Uccello is worth noting. Uccello displays a deft hand, with a clean, serif style used throughout for both body and display, although running titles are rendered in a heavy, somewhat incongruous blackletter face that I’m not sure about. Section title pages are nicely designed with a combination of Roman and Italic styles and an ornamental element, but these defy convention by occurring on verso rather than recto pages in the spread, making them less effective as titles and somewhat jarring in their positioning. Annoyingly, since this happens on the first title, all it would have taken is to recto that one page, and all the subsequent title pages would have bumped along onto the opposite side of the spread.

Due to its very nature, Welsh Witches is textually dense with nothing in the way of in-body illustrations. Instead, two of the sections end with several pages of relevant images. Printed on the same stock as the rest of the book, rather than as glossy plates, these are facsimiles of court documents (such as the arraignment for Gwen ferch Ellis below), excerpts from other documents, or current photographs of pertinent locations.

Welsh Witches spread with images

Welsh Witches is available in a standard edition and a now sold out deluxe edition. The standard edition of 777 copies consist of 250 pages, hardbound in buckram cloth with two colour foiling, natural wibalin endpapers and a bookmark ribbon. The deluxe edition of 13 copies was bound in full navy blue goat skin, two colour foil block to front and rear, gold foil to spine, charcoal grey Strathmore Grandee endpapers, and a book ribbon. It was housed in a navy suedal slipcase covered in black cloth.

Published by Atramentous Press

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Masks of Misrule – Nigel Jackson

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Categories: folk, luciferian, qayin, robert cochrane, sabbatic craft, witchcraft, Tags:

Masks of Misrule coverEarlier this year we reviewed Nigel Jackson’s Call of the Horned Piper, and let’s just say we’ve got the Jackson bug as we return to another of his books released by the nice, but aesthetically questionable, folks at Capall Bann. In Masks of Misrule, Jackson turns his focus to the horned god of witchcraft, a figure he identifies as having roots at far back as the Palaeolithic era. The horned god, as detailed by Jackson and by Michael Howard in his foreword, is at his core a simple hunter deity, but beyond that he is more, being a multiplicious cosmic god of life and death, of boundaries and their crossings, of the night and the furious wild.

The chapters of Masks of Misrule delineate how this horned god can be viewed, drawing threads from across both time and distance. As the White Stag of Anwynn he is a Celto-Arthurian god of the forests, seen in figures as diverse as Cernunnos, the Breton St. Cornely, and the one-eyed guardian of the wood in The Mabinogion. He is leader of the Wild Hunt, the verdant Green Man, and the Saturnalian, goat-horned Christmas fool. And finally, he is the man in black, the lord of the sabbat and the hidden father.

Jackson also uses the horned god as a gateway that facilitates broader discussions of the themes of traditional witchcraft. Identifying the skull and crossbones as a persistent craft symbol of the horned god as Lord of the Red Skull, for example, allows Jackson to divert into a wide-ranging discussion of skull and skeletal symbology, bringing together examples from across the world, before returning to witchcraft in particular with toadsmen rituals and intimations of the Rose Beyond the Grave. Similarly, the discussion of the horned god as the man in black and master of the sabbat allows for a broader discussion of the sabbat and its symbolism, along with ritual accoutrements such as the obviously relevant stang.  The Rose Beyond the Grace

It is in the consideration of the horned god as master of the sabbat that we first see what separates a work like Masks of Misrule from the more typical witchcraft books, be they practical or historical. This is especially noticeable given conventional attempts to create distance from anything with the sulphuric whiff of diabolism; something that has been part and parcel of the history of modern witchcraft since the beginning, and remain largely unabated today. Still, it’s something that, despite the preponderance of horns on the cover of this book and others by Jackson and his colleagues, may go under the radar until you dive deeper into the pages. In the case of Masks of Misrule, this diving and discovery happens to its fullest extent late in the piece, when things get very specific and the book concludes with discussions of Lucifer, Qayin and Azazel.

Nigel Jackson: Horned God

As the Masks of Misrule title suggests, there’s much here that discusses the horned god as a figure of disruption, disorder, and naturally, panic and pandemonium. Jackson highlights the role of the horned god as overseer of times when liminality reigns, when the formula becomes one of ritual reversal, reflecting a greater cosmic rescission, a literal annulment when the world and the cosmos threatens to return to its primordial state, the sacred void of Ur-Khaos. In this regard, Jackson also incorporates Loki, highlighting his role as both mischief maker and the destructive Dark Fire-Lord of Misrule; while also mentioning that tantalising hint, as per Bill Liddell, about Loki being venerated by some East Anglian covens.

Nigel Jackson: Misrule

Throughout Masks of Misrule, Jackson writes clearly and competently, dropping bite-size chunks of information, almost always, as is the style, free of the specific citing of references. In additional to the encyclopaedic content of Masks of Misrule, Jackson does occasionally provide his own asides, bringing the threads together through an expositional voice that is authoritative and invested. There’s a sense that this isn’t theoretical for him, nor something that he has regurgitated from elsewhere, despite various touchstones, such as Robert Cochrane Clan of Tubal Cain and Andrew Chumbley’s Sabbatic Craft, being obvious.

It is the allure of the dark and diabolic that makes Masks of Misrule appealing, and ensures that it feels exceptional, with the diabolic interpretation feeling a lot more tangible than the usual nameless and bland presentation of the male principle. While darkening it up is something that has become increasingly popular when discussing witchcraft (as the surfeit of goat-faced traditional witchcraft books testifies), Masks of Misrule, feels like one of the originators, backed up with a wealth of knowledge that imitators may be lacking.

Masks of Misrule is once again illustrated throughout with Jackson’s own images, presented in a combination of heavy woodcut styled designs and finer, more illustrative works. These are, as ever, one of the highlights of the book, with a sense of mystery and numinosity, and just the right amount of sigils and, to use the vernacular of King Missile, mystical shit.

But as is also often the case with Capall Bann titles, the external appearance of Masks of Misrule does the work a huge disservice, so much so that judging this book by its cover would surely mean most people pass it by. One of Jackson’s beautiful hand drawn images is cut out and coloured in Photoshop and then placed unsympathetically over Photoshop-generated clouds and an ambiguous landscape that appears to have been generated with the Photoshop liquefy tool, but which gives the impression of Bryce 3D generated water (just needs some random geometric forms floating in the air). Meanwhile, the incongruous typeface of the book title has been attacked with text effects, featuring bevel and emboss, gradients and textures; as well as a little errant vertical line down the right hand side. And finally, as in other Capall Bann books, proofing could be better and Jackson conflates ‘it’s’ with ‘its’ – but he does it with such consistency that it almost becomes endearing.

Published by Capall Bann

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The Witching-Other: Explorations & Meditations on the Existential Witch – Peter Hamilton-Giles

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Categories: esotericism, sabbatic craft, witchcraft, Tags:

The Witching-Other coverPeter Hamilton-Giles may be best known for his previous books published by Three Hands Press, The Afflicted Mirror and The Baron Citadel. He is also the instigator and co-founder, so the bio goes, of the Dragon’s Column, the body of initiates whose material is featured, albeit in edited form, in Andrew Chumbleys’ Dragon Book of Essex. With The Witching-Other: Explorations & Meditations on the Existential Witch, Hamilton-Giles and his wife Carolyn, who, fun fact, also comprise the doom metal duo Pombagira, have inaugurated their own imprint, Atramentous Press, marking this birth with a statement of intent in both writing style and aesthetics. In matters aesthetical, Atramentous come out of the gates with a very clear look, presenting this book, its sequel, and another title about Welsh witches, in a distinct, ornamented style, all filigree and not so much shadow.

Meanwhile, in matters of writing, as the title suggests, The Witching-Other: Explorations & Meditations on the Existential Witch has lofty ambitions and attempts to address the figure of the witch from a theory-heavy, methodology-driven academic perspective. What that means is that various aspects of the witch, and as an embodiment of alterity in particular, are considered in dense, somewhat tortuous language that is as vermicular as the book’s ornamented cover design.

Hamilton-Giles appears to write with a thesaurus in hand, never using a simple word or phrasing when a more cumbersome one can be found. One almost begins to think it’s intended as a parody of academic writing, a social experiment to see if anyone is willing to risk looking stupid by saying they can’t follow the incomprehensible; a wager worth making in the image-conscious world of occultism where no one wants to look either uninitiated or unintelligent. It’s not just that there is an abundance of words from the academic lexicon, it’s that their meaning is sometimes lost through their very concatenation, where the in-between-words stringing them together can be overwhelmed by their grandiloquent companions. Structure can be awkward as words large and small jostle to get meaning across, while sentences can be so elongated and circumlocutory that the initial tense is changed or the preposition altered by the time you get to the end of it. Then there are words that don’t seem to mean what they’re thought to mean. Can anything (although in this case we’re talking about “the meeting of the physical and the metaphysical”) imbibe “the perceptual horizon with the continuity concept.”? How does one imbibe a perceptual horizon, let alone with the continuity concept?

The Witching Other dustjacket

Interestingly enough, given Hamilton-Giles’ background in grindcore (he was a member of early Earache Records band Unseen Terror), if the phrasing reminds of anything it’s the medical textbook song titles and lyrics of the band Carcass, in which obscure and technical words were admirably combined, but not always in the most natural way: descanting the insalubrious, or lavaging expectorate of lysergide composition, for example.

The Witching-Other is not perpetually impenetrable, and one finds oneself stumbling into areas where lucidity momentarily reigns, in which the words are still big, but the narrative is clearer and more consistent. This is particularly noticeable where the dizzying first chapter, which shares its title with the book as a whole, gives way to the second, the relatively more digestible Esoteric Hermeneutics and the Witching-Other. The difference between the two chapters is marked, with the periphrastic quality dropping right away, and yet, perversely, the previously applied rules of thumb for punctuation changing to a less rigorous application. Similarly, the tone palpably shifts from the disquisitional voice of the first chapter to a more conversational one in which Hamilton-Giles suddenly starts engaging the reader with hypophoras, asking them theoretical questions.

The Witching-Other is a book you want to like. Who, to use my very own hypophora, doesn’t like a bit of heavy theory with their witchcraft? Not me, that’s who. At the same time, though, who has time for wilfully obtuse writing if there is a point to be made? Especially if that obtuseness runs the risk of descending into incomprehensibility if the unwieldy words get crazy and go into people’s houses at night and wreck up the place. Perhaps, the intent was to follow Gilles Deleuze’s advice in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia and “Bring something incomprehensible into the world!” It’s an interesting indication of what reading The Witching-Other is like that the thought of then turning to some Deleuze, Judith Butler or Jacques Derrida promises to be a soothing, effortlessly light read.

Image by Carolyn Hamilton-Giles

As the first book published by Atramentous Press there are a few layout wrinkles that seem to have been ironed out in a subsequent book, but not in the sequel to this volume where the styling has been reprised. The most obvious and jarring is the, how you say, reverse indents, where whole paragraphs are indented, except for the first line. This creates a disconcerting sensation and does negatively affect readability, with one’s eyes wandering across the page devoid of the anchors provided by the conventions of layout. On top of that, paragraphs are fully justified and so hyphenation is naturally turned on to avoid text rivers. But the settings applied here are rather conservative and words are hyphenated at as little as two letters, resulting in ladders of hyphens throughout paragraphs, engendering a stuttering, segmented experience for the reader. Both choices are particularly problematic given the sesquipedalian nature of Hamilton-Giles’ writing, where formatting should be assisting comprehension, not compounding any amphibolousness. All of these design choices are strange as there is otherwise a nice, sophisticated feel to the rest of the typography from Joseph Uccello. If the goal was, though, to disorientate through typography as much as through language, then mission accomplished, consider me discombobulated.

Spread of pages

The Witching-Other was released in a standard edition of 891 copies and a deluxe limited edition of 15. The standard edition features 160 100 gram Munken Print Cream pages with Napura endpapers, a ribbon, and is bound in a dark green cloth with the Atramentous logo debossed on the cover. It is wrapped in an evergreen colourset dust jacket, with designs in red and gold foil, though some of the gold is already flaking or was never completely applied on the rear of this copy. The sold out deluxe edition was hand bound with burgundy calf, with the designs from the standard edition’s dust jacket blocked in gold on the front, back and spine. With marble edging on the pagers and marbled endpapers, it is contained within a solander box with the Atramentous logo blocked in gold foil on the front. In addition, the deluxe edition came with a limited print of Carolyn Hamilton-Giles’ illustration, signed by the artist and printed on good quality card.

Published by Atramentous Press.

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Call of the Horned Piper – Nigel Aldcroft Jackson

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Categories: folk, luciferian, sabbatic craft, witchcraft, Tags:

Call of the Horned Piper coverIt is sometimes hard to keep track of the various Nigel Jackson, Michael Howard and Evan John Jones titles released on Capall Bann. There’s not a lot of them necessarily, but the titles are somewhat interchangeable, and the covers are similar, if not in style then at least in theme (you’d better believe there’ll be horns on there). That’s not a criticism per se, simply a recognition that Jackson and his colleagues mine a very particular seam

After struggling through a fair amount of poor occult writing, where authors either can’t write or overreach whilst trying to sound more esoteric or more academic, reading Jackson here is something of a relief. Sure, he habitually types ‘it’s’ when he means ‘its’ but besides that most unforgivable of sins, he can actually write, creating a flowing narrative that is easy to read and at the same time, sophisticated and erudite. In some instances, he shows a particularly refined ability for the picturesque, with the first chapter beginning with a theoretical scenario of a witch preparing for transvection, written in a beautifully descriptive way.

In other instances though, as is the style of the book, Jackson just presents information in something of a fact-dump manner; albeit still well written. This kind of data (instances of witch accounts or folklore examples for the most part), will be largely familiar to anyone from these circles of traditional craft, which may be why there’s such a dearth of citing of sources. While the common knowledge nature of these facts makes this lacking of references slightly forgivable, one does find little gems that makes one wish for a place to go for more information – like the brief remark that Swedish witches preferred to use magpie forms when shapeshifting…. oooh, tell me more.Charivari image by Nigel Jackson

Call of the Horned Piper is divided into short, unnumbered chapters addressing various witchcraft themes, and these are grouped in the contents section into broad, unnamed segments that the reader won’t necessarily notice when reading the book from start to finish. In the first, Jackson considers what one could define as the sabbat and the wild hunt, emphasising the goddess lead versions of the Heljagd under Holda, Hela and Herodias, before moving on to her male counterpart, the Horned Master. This acts as a fulfilment of a statement of intent that Jackson makes at the start of the book, placing the witch’s ride at the centre of the image of the witch, with the broomstick being the preeminent symbol of this topology. By drawing together myriad threads provided by sabbat transvection and various other supernatural journeys, taken by either practitioners or deities, Jackson highlights the way in which this shamanic mystery with thousands of years of provenance lies at the core of Traditional Craft.

Later, Jackson incorporates other far flung strands of folklore, such as even werewolves and vampirism, showing how, in the footsteps of Carlo Ginzburg and Éva Pócs, these seemingly less esoteric aspects of legend play into the image of supernatural, shamanic-style journeys. Indeed, one could say that Jackson provides an entry level version of theories by Ginzburg, Pócs and the later Emma Wilby, heavy on examples but light on detail, and from a more hands-on, personally involved and less academic perspective.

Hela by Nigel Jackson

Jackson concludes Call of the Horned Piper with a practical section, providing information on tools and hallowing the witches compass, as well as a guided visualisation, Mysterium Sabbati: Riding on the Witch Way. There’s not a lot here but as a core toolkit it suffices and the theory and lore that precedes it contains enough information for practitioners to fill in the gaps and develop their own rituals in a Traditional Craft mould.

In all, Call of the Horned Piper has much to recommend it. It contains a wealth of information that can lead to more indepth investigation when you track down the uncited sources, and it comes from a specifically endemic place, with Jackson clearly providing the bones to existing modalities. Of specific personal appeal is the way in which Hela appears throughout the book, particularly in Her guises as a witch goddess of the underworld, with Jackson making several references to her.

Image by Nigel Jackson

Call of the Horned Piper is illustrated throughout by Jackson himself, which, as Gemma Gary does in her books, adds an additional layer of interest, omneity and authenticity. Jackson employs a variety of styles, largely differentiated by the weight of stroke. There’s woodcut (or woodcut-styled, it’s hard to tell) images, high in contrast as is the nature of the medium, and then there’s detailed, fine-line ink drawings. While there’s a certain rustic charm to the woodcuts (and I’m particularly fond of the image of Hela), it is their more intricate siblings that really appeal. These recall some of the work of Andrew Chumbley or Daniel Schulke, with icons that are beautifully archaic, festooned with hand written text and more mystical sigils than you can shake a stick at. Unfortunately, their effectiveness is lessened by repeated use, with some of the images reappearing throughout the book at various sizes as unnecessary fillers. Jackson’s fine line pictures also include more illustrative images, such as his stunning Fraw Holt, which I recall on the cover of an issue of The Cauldron so many years ago. In these, Jackson renders fey figures with an imperial distance and acerose features, in a timeless, evocative style that seems weighted with meaning.

The, how you say, roughness of Capall Bann productions has been noted before here at Scriptus Recensera, and Call of the Horned Piper is no exception. The book title on the spine is so large that it seeps onto the front and back covers, as does the Capall Bann logo, while the title on the cover is off-centre. The typeface choice and treatment on the cover leaves something to be desired, as does the orange gradient, which makes the book look prematurely sun faded. The image on the front, a striking woodcut by Jackson, is treated unsympathetically, askew within an unattractive white frame, with a dotted magenta trim line visible around the edge for some reason.

Published by Capall Bann

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Angurgapi: The Witch-hunts in Iceland – Magnús Rafnsson

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Categories: folk, germanic, grimoire, runes, witchcraft

Angurgapi coverIn 2002, Strandagaldur, also known as the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft in Hólmavík, Iceland, hosted the Exhibition of Sorcery and Witchcraft, which one assumes evolved into or contributed to the museum’s permanent exhibition. Shortly after the opening it became evident that there was a need for a short book on Icelandic sorcery and witchcraft, one that reflected the questions asked of museum staff by visitors Icelandic and foreign; especially given the dearth of texts on the subject outside of academia. Angurgapi: The Witch-hunts in Iceland is exactly that. It is by no means a survey of the museum’s collection, for which there is now a catalogue, and instead gives a pithy and concise survey of Icelandic witchcraft, using the framing device of witch-hunts to delve a little deeper in places.

It is, though, the witch-hunts in Iceland that the book devotes much of its space to, beginning with a summary of several notable early cases. What immediately becomes clear is that contrary to the continental stereotype, it was men who received the most convictions for sorcery in Iceland, and not just any men but men of the cloth. In many cases, accusations of witchcraft seems to have gone hand in hand with clerical infidelity, with Rafnsson presenting several examples of priests who were accused of witchcraft as well as fathering children or engaging in adultery or sexual assault. Even Gottskálk Nikulásson, the last Catholic Bishop of Hólar from 1496 to 1520 (who had multiple mistresses and sired at least three children), was thought to be a sorcerer, and the author of an infamous grimoire called Rauðskinna.

One exception to this template, indeed its polar opposite, was Jón Guðmundsson the Learned, who, as his name suggests, was something of a 16th-century Icelandic Renaissance man, being a writer, artist, sculptor, and an observer and documenter of nature. He ran afoul of the authorities when he criticised the murder of a group of Basque whalers in the Westfjords, and this ultimately led to accusations of witchcraft when a book he had written was used as evidence of diabolism. Jón admitted to writing the now lost volume and defended it as a book of healing without any evil purpose. While the image of Jón as a polymath with inclinations towards natural philosophy would seemingly make authorship of a grimoire unlikely, a listing of the book’s sections preserved in court documents reveals not herbal cures, but spells of the type found in other black books: charms against elves, madness and fire, or spells for providing victory in war or against storms at sea, amongst others.

Spread including pages from Lbs. 1235, 8vo written by Jón Guðmundsson the Learned

It is these types of grimoires and their attendant spells and charms that figure largely in the Icelandic accounts of witchcraft, rather than the transvection, sabbats and other diabolical congregations of their continental colleagues. As Rafnsson notes, almost a third of the Icelandic witchcraft trials centre on the possession of grimoires and other examples of rendered magical staves, charms or sigils. While many of these have been destroyed (with court records documenting two instances of a punishment in which the guilty party was made to inhale the smoke of the burning pages), what has survived presents various interesting themes: a juxtaposition in references to pagan and Christian deities, the combination of continental influences with entirely indigenous elements such as magical staves, and the role played by copying in transmitting this information down through the years.

Spread with image of the codex Lbs. 143 8vo

What comes through clearly in the various accounts of witch trials is the sense of paranoia and fear prevalent at the time, where accusations of witchcraft often appear to be acts of self-preservation, where the accuser, even sheriffs and priests, could themselves easily become the accused. There is also a sense of disproportionate punishment, where admission of knowing and using a simple non-malicious charm could lead to exile or death. With some relief for the reader, Rafnsson does document the change in beliefs and values as society progressed, past cases were reassessed and found wanting (though small comfort to those who had been executed), and, as happened elsewhere, those who made accusations of witchcraft were increasingly more likely to be convicted for wasting the court’s time, rather than seeing their neighbours pilloried.

After a heart felt memoriam noting the loss of life and humiliation experienced by those accused of witchcraft, Angurgapi concludes with a little travelogue of the Icelandic witch-hunts, devoting four pages to various notable locations, each presented with a photo and a brief explanation. These help provide context to some of the accounts that have preceded it.

Rafnsson writes throughout Angurgapi in a clear, no-nonsense manner that is an effortless joy to read. Without much adornment, the facts are presented in a matter of fact but sympathetic manner that is surprisingly engaging. As such, Angurgapi achieves what it set out to do, providing a brief but by no means superficial survey of a topic for which there is still little thorough documentation of.

Spread including an image of AM 434d, 12mo, a grimoire measuring only 8x8.5cm

Angurgapi runs to a mere 85 pages but feels weightier due to the hardcover binding and wrap-around glossy cover (went a little overboard on the old Photoshop Texture filter there, folks). Inside, the pages are also glossy and colour images abound. These include beautiful scans of original manuscripts, principally spreads from grimoires, sourced from the National Library in Reykjavík. Text is formatted cleanly and confidently, albeit in nothing but humble Times, and there are little nice touches, like the overly large page numbers rendered in an uncial face. There is one reservation with the layout though, with the text alternating between three styling choices: body, block text and image captions. The block text, usually an addendum to something in the main text, are set in a grey box and styled at the same point size as the body, but with less, rather than more, of an indent. In some cases running to several pages long, they often awkwardly interrupt the main body and aren’t successfully identified as secondary in hierarchy. The same is true of image captions, which are rendered in an italicised face only a few point sizes smaller than the body, meaning that despite being centred and placed in relation to their respective image, the eye often reads them as if they are a continuation of the main text.

Since the release of Angurgapi in 2002, Strandagaldur have expanded their publishing, releasing the aforementioned catalogue, as well as various archival publications of grimoires: Tvær galdraskræður, a bilingual bringing together of two manuscripts, Lbs 2413 8vo and Lbs 764 8vo (aka Leyniletursskræðan); Lbs. 143,8vo (aka Galdrakver) as a two book boxset featuring a facsimile in one and translation in multiple languages in the other; and a complete facsimile edition of the galdrabók Rún with translation. All thoroughly recommended.

Published by Strandagaldur

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