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

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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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Wortcunning – Nigel G. Pearson

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Wortcunning coverAs Nigel Pearson explains in his introduction, this compact little volume from Troy Books documents a collection of herbal lore he was given access to in the early 1980s. The accumulated knowledge of a Sussex family group of witches, the information was assembled on a set of index-cards, housed within a box, with herbs and ailments spread across them in several, presumably multigenerational, hands. The information was recorded by Pearson, and the cards returned, but it was largely forgotten for the ensuing decades until his own interests coincided with the content of the herbal.

Befitting the index card format, there’s not a lot of information for each herb, with the entry usually consisting of the name, a month and/or planetary attribution, a subheading giving the ailment followed by very brief instructions on use. There’s also the use of what is described as a habitat code, a four by five grid system used to note a plant’s habitat and soil conditions. In addition to alphabetically listing the herbs, Wortcunning includes entries for various maladies, all of which provide a cross-reference to their treatment by listing the relevant plants.

Despite the sigil-festooned device on the cover, there’s little to no magical aspects involved in these cures and their application, with most being either imbibed or topically applied with nary a trace of ceremony or orison. Perhaps the most common practice here is infusion, with multiple recipes calling for the creation of tonics and teas, while poultices occur less. Similarly, there’s no poisonous path here, and while baneful plants such as henbane, datura and hemlock are listed, their only instruction is a stern one, telling the reader not to touch them.

Wortcunning spread with Sussex material

There is an ugliness, atypical of Troy Books, to how this information is presented, with the symptoms rendered with hideous outmoded underlines that brutally cut across the page, while the choice of italics for instructions and dosages comes across as bitsy and messes with the overall hierarchy. This messiness is compounded by some of the formulae using the at/@ symbol, which though it is applied in its traditional sense to mean “at the rate of,” feels incongruously modern and just ugly, like you’re looking at sentences of improperly formatted email addresses. Also, the use of the habitat code means that each entry ends with an untidy string of capital letters that need to be decoded by flicking back to the legend at the start, when that information could have been more simply written in full. Obviously, this code system is included (like the use of the @ symbol, one supposes) in deference to accurately reflecting the styling of the original cards, but there’s no denying it gets on the tits off this reviewer. Speaking of tits and the getting on thereof, may we draw attention to the infuriatingly consistent improper use of semicolons, where they are used where colons should be.

Wortcunning spread with herbal entries

Wortcunning has a lovely formatting conceit that allows it to be read either from the front or the back. While reading it one way presents the Sussex lore as recorded by Pearson, flipping it over gives the reader a slightly different book, with a thorough listing of the more traditional usages and attributes of the same herbs. This has the benefit of increasing the page count substantially, as the Sussex material only runs to a meagre 65 pages. It also, naturally, provides a lot more content, with the barebones and brevity of the first half contrasting markedly with its counterpart. Here, Pearson writes in considerable detail for each herb, adding in the magic and the history of each plant, and giving their symbolism and varieties of magical application. Although Pearson apologises in his introduction for the lack of encyclopaedic writing on each plant, the length of these entries (running from half a page to a more usual full page), suits the type of book it is and doesn’t skimp on the deets.

Unlike the barebones of the Sussex material, these entries are broken up with the occasional image of the respective plant, sometimes appearing at full or half page size but more often than not, as little thumbnails with text wrapping around them. These are clearly sourced from different locations, so there’s not a consistent style to them, with various stroke weights and degree of detail; though the overall style is, naturally, botanical illustration.

Wortcunning spread with herbal entries

The any-which-way formatting of Wortcunning is done very well, with the cover superficially duplicated at both ends, and the spine details formatted to be read either way, meaning that inevitably, and somewhat delightfully, you never know which ends you’ll be starting from when you pick it up with a casual glance. There’s always a lot of flipping involved (until you eventually notices that, oh, one cover says “A Folk Medicine Herbal” and the other “A Folk Magic Herbal”).

Wortcunning is presented in a 187 x 114mm pocket format on 193 90gsm cream paper pages, in a paperback edition, a standard hardback edition and a fine edition. The standard edition is bound in green cloth, with copper foil blocking to the cover and spine, with light black endpapers and black head and tail bands. The fine edition of 86 exemplars is hand bound in high quality, soft touch faux leather with copper foil blocking to the front and spine with marbled end papers. This is held in a fully-lined black library buckram slip-case, with copper foil blocking replicating the cover motif on front and reverse sides.

Published by Troy Books

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Traditional Witchcraft: A Cornish Book of Ways – Gemma Gary

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Here at Scriptus Recensera there’s no shortage of reviews of Troy Books, erm, books. This comes largely down to matters practical: they are both affordable and desirable, with even the standard editions being presented in an attractive, cloth-bound format with embossed cover designs, and beautifully formatted and illustrated within. They’re also easy to review since they are eminently readable, consistently professional and usually devoid of the kind of errors so typical of occult publishing. As such, though, when it comes time to read and review Gemma Gary’s Traditional Witchcraft: A Cornish Book of Ways, one wonders how differently this will fare amongst not just other previously reviewed Troy Books books, but also amongst Gary’s other written works.

Traditional Witchcraft, with its somewhat generic title amongst a veritable sea of Traditional Witchcraft books, can at least make a claim to being one of the originals of the current crop, first published ten years ago in 2008, with this being the third edition from 2015, following a revised second edition in 2011. In the intervening years, Gary’s skills have grown as a writer, becoming someone who I find admirably effortless to read. This isn’t always the case here, with occasionally tortuous phrasing, peculiar usages of semicolons, and the odd run-on sentence which you can’t imagine encountering today.

Traditional Witchcraft provides something of a template to other books that have subsequently come from Gary and Troy Books. There’s an overwhelming emphasis on folklore, which is naturally for the most part specific to Cornwall. While there is a substantial bibliography at the back of the book, there is zero citing within the body, so all of this lore comes across, intentionally or not, as personal, experiential knowledge. That said, it is interesting to review the bibliography to get a sense of where things have presumably come from. It is divided into folklore and broader witchcraft sections, with the former featuring a surfeit of works from Kelvin Jones’ Oakmagic Publications, while the latter has a healthy nod to Capall Bann’s triumvirate of Jackson/Howard/Pearson.

This grounding in folklore, including a welcomed consideration of the Bucca, gives way to a thorough introduction to Gary’s Cornish system of witchcraft, which takes up the rest of book’s two thirds. For anyone familiar with traditional witchcraft, there won’t be anything here that’s entirely unfamiliar or revelatory, but it is consistently given that little Cornish flavour. Gary begins by introducing the tools of cunning, at the forefront of which is the staff, which she describes as being as important to traditional witchcraft as the athame is to Wicca. This assemblage of accoutrements also includes a knife, cup, bowl, cauldron, sweeping tools, various types of stones, necklaces, and noise makers such as drums and wind roarers. Gary provides a brief description of each of these and then information on empowering them with a technique called hooding.

Gary then explores the cosmological setting of Cornish magic in The Witches’ Compass, using that rubric to outline a system in which the quarters are imagined as four roads emanating from the axial circle. Each road is associated with a particular form of intent, and with it a range of correspondences including seasons, elements and familiar spirits. These roads are worked with a Compass Rite in which a compass round is drawn and then walked before the specific magical act begins. Gary then provides an outline of the Troyl Hood, a procedure that is used to close any rite or workings.

With the emphasis in Traditional Witchcraft of matters folkloric, there is a significant section on witchcraft as a trade, with an exploration of charms and practical magic. This begins with a brief preamble of the types of employment a witch might find before detailing various planetary virtues and their associated powders, oils and incenses. Then follows a wide selection of charms for all kinds of sympathetic magic, the kinds of things that will be familiar from any type of folklore collection, utilising familiar simultaneously mundane and exotic ingredients like horse shoes, dead toads and knots. Gary rounds things off with what any witchcraft book needs, a survey of the ritual year, but this isn’t so much your standard Imbolcs and Beltanes, and instead have a Cornish twist, with the quartenal Furry Nights of Allantide, Candlemas, May’s Eve and Guldize being joined by the summer zenith of Golowan and the midwinter solstice of Montol. These are each presented with an explanation and then an example of a corresponding ritual.Coming to the conclusion of Traditional Witchcraft, Gary ends with a beginning and provides a chapter on initiation, with a wide ranging discussion of its history and precedents, before providing a ritual for solo initiation into her Ros an Bucca hearth.

At over 200 pages, Traditional Witchcraft is a solid introduction to Gary’s oeuvre and Cornish witchcraft in particular, free of much in the way of artifice or pretension. The Bucca looms large within its pages (and on the cover of the paperback edition), while there are also tantalising mentions of Ankow, the Cornish personification of death who is here seen as a Hela-like hag of death and transformation. Interestingly, snakes also figure largely in the contents of Traditional Witchcraft, something that is perhaps not often found in similar contexts and something which adds a certain appeal for this reviewer. Gary repeatedly refers to the idea of igneus snakes as expressions of tellurian power that can be drawn up from the earth and into the body in a kundalini-like manner.

As is the Troy Books style, Traditional Witchcraft is illustrated throughout with Gary’s unmistakeable hand, though her trademark stippled stylings still seems somewhat inchoate here, and she explores a variety of other techniques; one even looking reminiscent of Daniel Schulke’s atavistic, two tone botanical considerations in Viridarium Umbris. Joining these full page and interstitial illustrations is a large collection of photographic plates by Jane Cox, either showcasing relics of note, or documenting practical acts of magic.

Traditional Witchcraft: A Cornish Book of Ways is available in two editions, a generic paperback version and a hardback edition. The hardback is presented in a claret red binding, with black end-papers, black and red head and tail bands and with silver foil blocking to the front and spine. In addition to these two available editions there were also a special limited edition (bound in green cloth with a unique image blocked in copper foil on the cover), a fine limited edition and a special fine edition. The fine edition, limited to 25 copies, was hand bound in scarlet hand finished goat leather with gold foil blocking to the front and spine, marbled end papers, red head and tail bands and marker ribbon, enclosed in a lined slipcase covered in red library Buckram cloth. Finally, the five exemplars of the special fine edition were hand bound in dark green fine hand polished and finished goat leather, with hand tooled raised labyrinth design on the front and gold foil blocking to the spine, with marbled end papers, capped spine ends, and gold marker ribbon, enclosed in a lined slipcase covered in green library Buckram cloth.

The title is also available as a four-CD audio book, created in conjunction with Circle of Spears Productions and read by actress and voice artiste Tracey Norman.

Published by Troy Books

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The Devil’s Plantation: East Anglian Lore, Witchcraft & Folk-Magic – Nigel G. Pearson

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The title of Nigel G. Pearson’s The Devil’s Plantation speaks to a concept also known as the Devil’s Holt, Halieman’s Ley, or Guidman’s Croft, in which a section of a field, often a triangular corner, was set aside, left unploughed and allowed to become infested with weeds. More pertinently, the title is also that of a manual of magic reputedly owned by a witch from 19th century Horseheath, Cambridgeshire. This now lost volume is believed to have been a collection of East Anglian lore and magic.

For those expecting the grimoire of its namesake, The Devil’s Plantation doesn’t attempt in any way to fulfil that expectation, and instead focuses at first on the East Anglian folklore, providing examples of various kinds of spirits, including the Good Folk, followed by a chapter on meremaidens, giants and spectral hounds. In this way, The Devil’s Plantation resembles Gemma Gary’s The Black Toad, also published by Troy Books, in that it’s something of an encyclopaedic collection of folklore, albeit largely lacking the kind of fastidious referencing one might expect of an encyclopaedia. The data is presented expertly, but there’s sometimes precious little information given as to its source, be it previously published works, first hand anecdotes collected by the author, or, and without evidence to the contrary one must inevitably allow for the uncharitable possibility, things entirely made up by the author. Some sources are explicitly mentioned, and so for example, several sequential quotes appear from Holinshed’s Chronicles, but this section is inconsistently preceded by a discussion in which there is a direct quote from some unspecified and unreferenced source. There is a brief bibliography and further reading section at the conclusion of the book, but there is often no direct citing of these as references within the body. One could argue that this isn’t intended to be an academic book, rigorously adhering to Chicago or APA style guides, but a little consistent contextual context would be nice when presenting facts, and especially quotes.

Things turn from matters folkloric to matters witchy in the next three chapters: Characters of Craft, Speak of the Devil…, and Witch Ways. The first of these surveys exactly that, presenting brief biographies of various witches drawn from trial records and folklore collections. This is a cast of colourful characters with evocative names such as Mother Lakeland, Old Winter, Jabez Few, and Daddy Witch (alleged owner of the original Devil’s Plantation). The chronology in these profiles gradually moves forward until the narrative becomes one that concerns itself with modern witchcraft, embracing figures from living memory (though still caught in the slip of myth) such as Monica English, Lois Bourne, and their intersection with Gardnerian craft. In some ways, this period is of more interest and intrigue than that of hundreds of years ago, with the modern era of witchcraft having a certain appeal in the way it functions as a myth in the making.

Speak of the Devil… is a less directly witchy diversion into the folkloric appearance of the Devil in East Anglia, full of the usual Devil as builder type stories familiar from folklore, but Pearson uses these to segue into a how these and similar tales relate to witchcraft and in particular the role of the Black Man. Finally, in Witch Ways, Pearson presents a survey of the admittedly limited examples of recorded techniques of East Anglian witchcraft. Despite this caveat, there are a variety of techniques presented here, incorporating things such as the now familiar toad rite (given in both Horseman’s Word and witch versions), ways of communing with the dead, and various forms of sympathetic magic. Again, there’s an inconsistency to how the provenance of these are presented, with some given chapter and verse, source and all, but others, even when there’s a block quote, not being referenced.

Things begin to wrap up with Green Ways, a brief little herbal documenting various popular East Anglian herbs and concoctions, before the longer Folk Ways explores several techniques of principally sympathetic and apotropaic magic which, as is acknowledged, are as witchy as they are folky. The final section, Three Crowns & Several Halos, is effectively a paean to East Anglia, with a consideration of local saints within that currently beloved intersection known as dual faith observance. Pearson states as undeniable that the lives and myths of these saints have intertwined with the energies and spirits of East Anglia, becoming part of its magical tapestry along with the other beings that preceded them. The biographies that follow of saints Felix, Fursey, Botolph, Ethelreda, Withburga, Edmund and Walstan don’t provide too many examples of their magical application, or anything unique beyond the usual stuff of Golden Legend, save for a final paragraph in each. That is left for a closing consideration on working with saints in general where Pearson gives a few brief pointers concerning building a devotional practice.

Pearson’s writing style throughout is competent and coherent, making for an easy, effortless read. As with similar books, the regional emphasis provides a much welcomed focus, though there is a certainly little that isn’t familiar, both witchcraft and folklore wise, from broader considerations; and for anyone with a passing knowledge of this subject, there won’t be too many surprises or revelations.

The Devil’s Plantation is presented in Royal octavo format, with 272 pages, plus 16 pages of photographic plates, and line drawings and figures by Gemma Gary throughout. Never one to skimp on the editions, Troy Books has four options: a paperback edition with a matt laminated cover and 80gsm white paper stock; the fancy-enough-for-this-reviewer standard hardback edition with a blue cloth binding, gold foil blocking to the front and spine, 80gsm white paper stock, starkly vibrant buttermilk coloured endpapers, and black head and tail bands. Then, in the sold out department, there’s the limited special edition of 300 hand-numbered examples, bound in dark brown recycled leather fibres, with gold foil blocking to the front and spine, light brown end papers, and black head and tail bands. And finally, the fine edition limited to fifteen hand-numbered exemplars, in a full black goat leather hand binding with inset dark blue goat leather shield panel with a blind embossed boarder and dark blue title panel on the spine, silver foil blocking to the front and spine and hand marbled end papers – plus a buckram slip-case with blind embossing to the front.

Published by Troy Books

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The Black Toad – Gemma Gary

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Contrary to what one might expect from the title and the talismanic cover of this book, this volume is not an exploration of the toad rite, or all that much to do with toads at all. Instead, the title marks this out as something of an annotated grimoire, a West Country Black Pullet as it were, collecting magic and charms from that area of England. While much of Gemma Gary’s work presents a system of witchcraft that speaks to a living, breathing, tradition, this is work is more of a documentary, free of much comment or integration into a broader system.

One of the specific focuses of this book is what is referred to as dual faith observance, the way in which the practices of witchcraft and magic were not always, or at all, pagan, and instead were contextualised within the prevailing Judaeo-Christian paradigm of the time. Michael Howard makes mention of this in his introduction, and Gary does likewise in hers. What this means on a practical level is that many of the longer charms included in this work incorporate biblical psalms which might sit somewhat incongruously for people more familiar, and comfortable, with the idea of witchcraft as entirely a continuation or revival of ancient pagan religion.

The Black Toad is divided into three main sections, each dedicated to a different Old Mother: Red-Cap, Green-Cap and Black Cap. The first of these, Old Mother Red-Cap, is a compendium of charms and spells. These spells address relatively common concerns of folk magic, protection and the healing of physical ailments, with a preponderance of methods for dealing with warts, perhaps not quite the scourge now that it evidently once used to be. The charms in the second half of this section incorporate magic squares into their formulae, including familiar ones such as MILON and NASI, suggesting some passing knowledge of The Book of Abramelin or similar texts, while the words of the famous SATOR square are expanded into a longer invocation used to attain anything you desire. All of these charms and spells are presented without comment, and without any referencing or specific provenance, so it is unclear as to whether they come from a single written source, what time they date from, or how widely they were used.

Old Mother Green-Cap, as its name suggests, focuses on matters botanical, beginning with a brief survey of various plants and their magical and medicinal properties; though principally the latter. These are followed by sections on various ways in which specific plants can be used: as infusions of virtue, as protective plant charms, as plant charms for love, for animals, and in a general curative capacity. Here, naturally, if Old Mother Red-Cap’s methods of dealing with those troublesome and persistent warts proved less than efficacious, there are plant-based options available to you using Groundsel or Gooseberry.

In the final mother, she of the Black-Cap, the focus turns to maleficia, with Gary prefacing the section by referring to the Double Ways practitioners of Cornish and West Country witchcraft, in which one’s status as black or white is entirely dependent on what the client expects of you. This section is, thus, comprised of various spells and formula of opposition and attack. There are spells with a focus on sympathetic magic, using footprints as the focus of attack and control, and the intriguing method called the Ill-Wishing Bag. Old Mother Black-Cap also provides an opportunity to turn to the more darkly-dyed side of the Double Ways, with a discussion of the role in West Country witchcraft of the Old One of Many Names: the Bucca Dhu, Old Nick, the Black God, the Devil. With this is also a brief consideration of the black toad of the book’s title, which is described as having the most inextricable and symbiotic relationship with West Country witchcraft of all the theriomorphous entities of witchlore. Gary makes a distinction between the West Country toad witch and the perhaps more familiar toad doctors, who would cruelly use batrachian body parts in their charms, as well as the equally-lethal initiatory use of the toad in East Anglian practices. Instead the relationship, which appears to act as an overall philosophy for West Country witchcraft, is a symbiotic one, better represented in the image of witch and beloved familiar.

As a whole, The Black Toad is devoid of much in the way of an editorial voice, indeed it lacks much of a distinctive voice at all, seeming to shift tone, manner and vocabulary at times, as if some of the spells have been taken verbatim from their source. Information is presented in a brief, matter of fact manner, and it is only in the final Black-Cap section that a more expansive tone makes a welcomed appearance, allowing for elaboration and analysis. It is here, in the discussion of the Old One with its accompanying paean to toads, that one gets a sense of Gary’s true voice, with the emergence of her writing style that is always a joy to read.

As with all of Gary’s books, The Black Toad is copiously illustrated in her trademark style of line and stipple. These range from beautifully rendered little page fillers, with a surfeit of skulls and other magical accoutrements, to full page, chapter-prefacing illustrations. As ever, these are beautifully rendered and make the perfect visual accompaniment to Gary’s subject matter: suggesting elements both archaic and hands-on, but with an unmistakeably modern touch. In addition to these, there are several pages of photographic plates by Jane Cox, documenting, for the most part, various magical objects, predominantly from the author’s personal collection or the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft.

Published by Troy Books

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The Devil’s Dozen: Thirteen Craft Rites of The Old One – Gemma Gary

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Devil's Dozen coverThis beautifully presented and compact little book brings together, as the title suggests, thirteen rites for the Old One. And, as also indicated by this title, the cover image and the abundance of horns throughout the book, this Old One is most unashamedly the Devil of folklore, viewed through the lens of Traditional Witchcraft. Distinct from the church’s concept of Satan, this Devil still presides over evil, but these are the perceived evils of personal freedom, indulgence and ecstasy. He is, as Gemma Gary explains in her introduction, the bearer of forbidden gifts, the opener of the Way Betwixt, and the old spirit of the land.

Gary is at pains to point out that these rituals make no claim to any great antiquity or hereditary descent, but rather draw on extant themes that are well documented in the folk record. There is, naturally, a focus on matters Cornish, with several dealing with the Bucca, and these rites act as a concise adjunct to much of the material found in Gary’s more explicative Traditional Witchcraft: A Cornish Book of Ways. This book is not without its own explications, though, and each ritual is preceded by a brief explanation providing its context and attendant folklore. Gary defines these thirteen as rites of vision, dedication, initiation, consecration, empowerment, protection, illumination, union, transformation, devotion and sacred compact.

It is a sacred compact to the Devil as the Man in Black or Dark Man that acts as the first rite in this collection, establishing a relationship and setting the scene for that which is to come later. This is a simple procedure, effectively an elaborated statement of intent that is preceded by a little ritual structure (thrice utterance of the Lord’s Prayer backwards in a remote location), and followed by a period of reflection during which the Man in Black may manifest in some manner. This compact is indicative of Gary’s ritual style: fairly succinct with some nicely written liturgy. There’s not much in the way of obscure ingredients, elaborate correspondences, complicated formula or extended periods of time, with the rites having more of a feel of hedgewitch pragmatism. The only temporal imperatives are fairly standard things like midnight and during a full moon, while the ingredients and tools list tends to speak to things that anyone embracing the aesthetics of Traditional Witchcraft will end up acquiring (if only too look cool in their altar photos on Facebook): iron nails, an iron knife, a scourge, horned skulls, dragon’s blood incense and a stang. Circles abound in these rituals, as does the use of mill treading as a way to generate power and there is a general feeling of getting out amongst it, with hands dirty from soil and the soot of flaming torches.

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It is the written word in which Gary excels, with her incantations having an archaic quality that doesn’t wrap itself up in arcane complexity (or misapplication), and instead flows with a degree of authenticity. This is aided by the occasional use of rhymed couplets and alternate rhymes, which gives some of the words a folky familiarity, as if they’ve been overheard in playgrounds for centuries; obviously those would be rather spooky playgrounds.

At 187 x 114mm, The Devil’s Dozen is a small volume that has a diary-like quality to it, fitting comfortably in a single hand or handbag for easy transportation to ritual locales. Its slight width does lead to rather snug gutters that do require the book to be splayed wide in order to catch everything and having the, one supposes unintentional, side effect of a sense of bibliographic intimacy as one spreads and peers in.

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As with most if not all of Gary’s books, The Devil’s Dozen is illustrated by the author herself in her trademark stippled style of pen and ink. These are usually found as full-page preludes to the various rites, while a veritable study of horned skulls is dotted throughout the work as fillers. In addition to these in-body illustrations, there is a selection of black and white plates by Jane Cox, providing a photographic record of some of the procedures contained herein, along with various apposite images of witchcraft-related accoutrements.

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The Devil’s Dozen is published in four editions, each consisting of 160 pages, along with eight black and white photo plates. In addition to a regular paperback version, there is a hardback incarnation which attains a pretty nice level of quality for what is the affordable standard edition with its 80gsm cream paper stock, black case binding, copper foil blocking on the front image and the spine, hunter green endpapers, and green and black head and tail bands. There are two special editions, the 300 hand-numbered Special Edition bound in dark, grained green recycled leather fibres, with the cover and spine elements in blocked in gold foil, green end papers and green and black head and tail bands. The even more luxurious Special Fine Edition is suitably limited to 13 sold out hand-numbered copies in full black goat leather binding with a gold border and a blind embossed thicket of branches on the bevelled front board, inset with a high quality glass goat’s eye cabochon. This is further housed in a full goat leather solander box, blocked in gold and lined.

Published by Troy Books.

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