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Witchcraft & Secret Societies of Rural England – Nigel Pennick

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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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The Shamanic Way of the Bee – Simon Buxton

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Categories: shamanism, Tags:

The Shamanic Way of the Bee cover Simon Buxton’s 2004 book The Shamanic Way of the Bee doesn’t do itself many favours coming out of the blocks, bearing the faintly ridiculous subtitle of Ancient Wisdom and Healing Practices of the Bee Masters and having a back cover blurb that injudiciously states that “bee shamanism may well be the most ancient and enigmatic branch of shamanism.” Putting aside images of little bee-shaped ascended masters, buzzing amiably around in darling striped robes and cassocks, The Shamanic Way of the Bee describes a form of what could be called shamanism in which honey plays a pivotal role as a curative and spiritual tool; and something to which an even deeper meaning is hinted at in the cover blurb when it describes magico-sexual ‘nektars’ that promote longevity and ecstasy – ooh, matron.

At its heart, this is a spiritual memoir, rather than a practical workbook, and what Buxton presents here comes entirely in the form of a biography from which any application must be gleaned by the reader themselves. It begins when, as a nine year old living in Austria, young Buxton was cured of a near-fatal bout of encephalitis by a neighbour; a, would you believe, former university professor who had lectured for nearly half a century and travelled to the farthest corners of the worlds, lived with the simple ethnics and learnt their mysterious ways. To reuse a catchphrase from a previous review, thrilling Boy’s Own stuff. Despite this convenient pedigree, Herr Professor, as the young Buxton called him, features little here, as the family moved on soon after the miraculous curing of their son, and eventually said son returned to England. Over a decade later, Buxton met another wise, old and well-travelled man, a beekeeper by the name of Bridge who provided the introduction to what occurs in this book.

Buxton describes how, after encountering Bridge the Bee Master by chance, he entered into an apprenticeship with him, being given the name Twig and introduced to what is described as the conveniently alliterative Path of Pollen. While the apprenticeship began with simple lessons drawing from the lives of bees and the hive, honey and mead, things evolved in complexity until Buxton underwent an initiatory incubation brought on by the venom of bee stings, creating visions in which he became a drone within a hive. This then led to encounters in the real world with the Bee Mistress and her six bee priestesses called Melissae, and ultimately to a discussion of the ten nektars they produce – based wholesale on the idea of the ten kalas from tantra, as popularised within this circle of occultdom by Uncle Kenneth. Then Buxton had to kill a deer by suffocating it with pollen – as you do.

If this all seems too amazing to be true, it is. As documented in reviews on Amazon.com and Goodreads by Ross Heaven (another Destiny/Inner Traditions author with a plethora of his own books on themes shamanic, and who apparently ghost wrote this for Buxton), The Shamanic Way of the Bee contains significant sections plagiarised from works by P.L Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins. While it would have been endearing to see a magical nanny practically perfect in every way pop up in the book’s scenes, it’s a lesser known work by Travers that provided Buxton with some of his apian wisdom. A student of Gurdjieff and an associate of George Russell, Travers had a passion for mythology which she expressed in articles for Parabola magazine,  and which were then collected as the book What the Bee Knows – Reflections on Myth Symbol and Story. Where Travers mentions listening to a radio reporter who was describing the ceremonies of an African tribe at the end of their lunar or solar year, Buxton turns this into a story he heard as a child, though remarkably his recall is perfect, repeating phrases word for word from her account. And it’s not just Buxton who cribs from What the Bee Knows  because he has Bridge apparently dipping into his own copy on the sly before dropping some knowledge, often phrase for phrase. His first lecture has a lengthy section that wholesale copies and pastes, with only very minor edits, a section from Travers on bee etymology and of the act of be(e)-ing, presenting her words as his own, even describing how his eyes bore into Buxton as he totally ripped her off and in her words intoned: “It is a matter, merely, of listening.”

Spread with text plagiarised from P.L Travers' What the Bee Knows

What is staggering about this is just how shameless it is, with Buxton copying Travers right down to her phrasing and punctuation, not even giving the appearance of paraphrasing. Of course, even paraphrasing would be problematic, as these drops of honeyed wisdom are meant to be coming from a wise Bee Master, who one would hope is not sitting there sneaking peeks at his well-thumbed copy of What the Bee Knows. Amusingly, Buxton ruminates on how remarkable it was just how much he could recall from Bridge’s lectures, a technique the learned Bee Master also possessed and had taught himself. Yes, quite remarkable.

Naturally, if you’re going to put the words of others into the mouth of your mysterious white shaman beekeeper, why stop at Travers, and indeed, secret bee shaman information apparently collected by Bridge on his great white professor expeditions to darkest Australia and South America can be found in standard ethnographic literature. In one case, Buxton mentions that Bridge worked with the Kayapo of the Amazon, appearing to quote the old beekeeper when he talks of Bep-kororoti, a powerful shaman “who was taken into the sky in a flash of lightning.” A little researching shows that this first-hand information is just extracted from Keeping of Stingless Bees by the Kayapo’ Indians of Brazil, a paper by Darrell A. Posey in a 1982 volume of the Journal of Ethnobiology, and the quote marks should be around the words of Posey, not the fictitious Bridge.

Spread with more text plagiarised from P.L Travers' What the Bee Knows

It’s quite fun to grab an excerpt from The Shamanic Way of the Bee, especially if it’s something apparently said directly by Bridge, and see where it came from. When Bridge sometime in the late 1980s told Buxton that “The history of Mead is as long, rich, and captivating as the beverage itself” he apparently had a time-travelling web browser open and was reading verbatim from a website in the year 2000. This is a website that, strangely enough, also has the words to a verse that according to Buxton, Bridge had just spontaneously spoken in celebration of mead while doing a lively jig; a verse which the website naturally credits to its author (Howell, Clerk to the Privy Council, in 1640), while Bridge and Buxton, of course, do not. For the record, this website, since changed but preserved in its 2000 state by archive.org’s WaybackMachine, is that of Sky River Brewing, whose history of mead proved popular and, in addition to having several paragraphs swiped by Buxton and his mead-toasting beekeeper, has been replicated in various states across the internet, usually by other meaderies who, unlike Buxton, often credit their source. Once again, the shamelessness and audacity here is staggering. While you can imagine Buxton feeling safe cribbing from a little-read book by Travers, it takes a certain level of brazen temerity, not to mention recklessness, to grab several paragraphs of some well-travelled web content, leave it largely unaltered and claim it as your own.

It’s all a little embarrassing for Inner Traditions who still market this book as a genuine account, with nary a nod to the plagiarism. Not to mention poor Professor Stuart Harrop of the University of Kent who provides a foreword, Ashé Journal who apparently awarded the title the 2005 Ashé Journal Book Award, and Tori Amos who sits atop the cover of the book testifying that after reading it, she felt she “had been initiated into the ancient feminine mystery of sacred sexuality.”

Even without this plagiarism, there’s much that sets off the ole bovine excrement detector within the pages of The Shamanic Way of the Bee; or outside too, if you count Buxton doing his Robson Green impression in the author photo on the back cover. Bridge and the eerily similar Herr Professor before him are both bog-standard wise old men tropes: enigmatic, venerable and well-travelled with a twinkle in their eye and a subtle hint of power, equal parts Dumbledore-Gandalf-Kenobi-Merlin-Miyagi and, of course, Don Juan Matus. Buxton, meanwhile, plays the part of the standard earnest but gormless initiate to a T, soaking up knowledge while gazing in wide-eyed, Castenada-style admiration. Even Buxton’s diminutive title of Twig recalls the youthful Arthur being called Wart as he is trained by Merlyn in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. Similarly, the Mellisae are the kind of thing you would expect from pellucid male wish-fulfilment fantasy, all remembered in exquisite, clinical, autopsy-like detail: there’s the raven-haired, dark-skinned Vivienne who is comically and without a trace of self-awareness (or self-preservation) referred to as “a true daughter of Egypt;” then there’s Devorah of the perfect proportions and full hips which are “emphasized by their strong, easy swing when she moved around the table.”

The Shamanic Way of the Bee somewhat trails off after a few more gruelling trials, bacchic rituals and cavorting with the Melissae, ending with the death of Bridge. Ultimately it doesn’t provide much insight into what this most ancient and enigmatic branch of shamanism features, other than bees are cool and there’s sexy bee priestesses out there happy to help young guys become, I don’t know, better beekeepers.

Spread with chapter title

The Shamanic Way of the Bee features a cover design by frequent Inner Traditions hand Cynthia Ryan Coad, with the title and a bee motif drop-shadowed in a banderole above a honeycomb pattern. The interior was typeset by Rachel J. Goldenberg with everything, both body and titles, in a single-weight Weiss serif face, giving the copy an ever-so-slightly more ornate feeling than would come from your usual choice of serif. The first page of each chapter reprises the honeycomb pattern seen on the cover as a slightly overwhelming background image, shot through with a feathered gradient behind some of the text for a smidgen more readability.

Published by Destiny Books

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Runic Lore & Legend: Wyrdstaves of Old Northumbria – Nigel Pennick

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Categories: germanic, runes, Tags:

Runic Lore & Legend: Wyrdstaves of Old Northumbria coverOriginally released in 2010 as the broadly titled Wyrdstaves of the North, this book from Nigel Pennick has now been rereleased in 2019 by the Inner Traditions imprint Destiny Books, with a new title that is even broader, but with a subtitle that is more specific. As this subtitle indicates, the focus here is on a version of the 29 runes Anglo-Saxon Futhark (itself an expansion of the 24 runes of the Elder Futhark) that around 800CE had four more runes added to it, thereby completing a fourth aett/airt with Calc, Cweorth and Stan, and one standalone final rune, Gar.

It’s impossible to overstate Pennick’s role and influence in contemporary runic magic, being something of the English counterpart to the American Stephen Flowers, with books by both authors sitting alongside each other in the shelves of Scriptus Recensera and surely many other occult libraries. While Pennick has dealt broadly with all manner of runes and other elements of paganism and folk traditions over the last forty years, the Anglo-Saxon Futhark and its Northumbrian variant is not something he has shied away from, and many of his books include its additional runes as a matter of course. With Runic Lore & Legend, this inclusion becomes a focus and Pennick contextualises the futhark within its Northumbrian locus, a site where various cultures and traditions intermingled.

Illuminated runes by Nigel Pennick

This context is substantial and consists of several preparatory chapters, rather than diving headfirst into the runes themselves. After a brief but comprehensive survey of Northumbria’s history of invasions and colonisations, Pennick turns to a considerable meditation on the place and space, discussing what he titles the spirit landscape of Northumbria. Here, he discusses various features of the land and how they would have been perceived and used as part of a metaphysical framework, and how this use evolved over time with the successive waves of colonisers. It’s an effective way to preface what follows, building a solid and palpable sense of place. This purlieu is contextualised still further in a spatial and horological sense with a chapter on Northumbrian geomancy, in which Pennick talks of the division of the landscape and the year into quarters and then eights. This isn’t something necessarily unique to Northumbria, or to Pennick’s writing for that matter, and reflects practices found throughout Germanic Europe, from which he draws examples by way of comparison.

The sections on the runes themselves, divided into chapters for each airt, uses a familiar pattern, with each rune (along with its name and core meaning) acting as a heading, followed by usually up to a page of explanation. These explanations give a synopsis drawing from rune poems, usually The Old English Rune Poem, naturally, along with examples from a concept’s mundane equivalent, suggestions of magical usage, and closing with tree and herb correspondents.

Runic Lore & Legend spread

Pennick concludes Runic Lore & Legend with several chapters investigating examples of the runes and their import in Northumbria and its legends. This effectively allows for a greater exploration of themes associated with a select few runes, as not all are covered. Up for a greater focus are Haegl and the symbolism of the number nine, along with the magical use of knots and knotwork patterns; Ing and various ideas associated with kingship, including divine kings and the Christian perpetuation of this concept of apotheosis with canonisation of saints; and Yr and a raft of associations with archery. The most significant one, in size as well as relevance to this reviewer, is a deep dive into serpent legends as a manifestation of the Ior rune and Iormungand.

Given the amount that Pennick has written on these subjects over the years, anyone familiar with his work will find certain areas that are, well, familiar. The explanation of each rune is particularly notable for this, with the symbolism consistent, as one would expect, and while the entries are not simply cut and pasted from Pennick’s previous publications, it’s clear that they provided the template for what is here, albeit with significant editing and rewriting that moves it beyond lazy regurgitation. The same is true with images, where there’s a return of some illustrations used in other Pennick books, such as his illuminated runes (which someone needs to digitise and turn into a font) and a rune circle with bird in flight, as seen on the cover of the classic Runic Astrology from 1990.

Runes and airts by Nigel Pennick

Runic Lore & Legend is laid out to the usual high standard of Inner Traditions/Destiny Books, with text design by Virginia Scott Bowman and layout by Debbie Glogover. The body is set in Garamond, all classic and eminently readable, contrasting nicely with the sans serif Avenir used for subheadings. Chapter headings use Mehmet Reha Tugcu’s dynamic Njord face, which also features prominently on the cover, providing a perfect modern type choice that suggests the angular nature of the runes without in any way feeling obvious. The chapter headings sit atop a gradient-feathered photograph of a contemporary runic bracteate, which if we were to be picky (what, moi?), features the 24 runes of the Elder Futhark and not the full and more appropriate Northumbrian compliment of 33. It should also be meanly mentioned that the designers don’t seem to have had access to a runic typeface with all of these 33 characters, as the rune faces used to head up each rune’s section are inconsistent, some crisp and angular, some distressed and some looking bespoke and hand drawn, all with a distractingly obvious variety of weights.

Photographs feature throughout as illustrations, often acting to document Northumbrian features of notes, such as runes in situ, and in one intriguing instance, a lupine doorknocker at a church in York, which Pennick suggests is a representation of Fenrir swallowing Odin. Twinned with these photographs are a selection of reproduced drawings and etching, drawn from a variety of sources and predominantly used to illustrate apropos scenes from folklore and legend.

Published by Destiny Books.

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