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Rune Mysteries – Silver RavenWolf and Nigel Jackson

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Rune Mysteries coverIf the ancient maxim “By their inclusion of a blank rune shall ye know them” is true, then any misgivings that arise when encountering a book on the runes by Silver Ravenwolf, of all people, must surely be justified. But that’s not necessarily the case here, and instead what do arise are moments of deep introspection: Am I unfairly judging an author based on their teen Wicca oeuvre because I want to feel cool and occult leet? What does it mean if this book is not irredeemably awful? Am I part of the problem? Let’s find out.

By its very nature, and without even reading the preface, Rune Mysteries feels like a collaboration cooked up at a Llewellyn planning meeting as they looked to churn out another rune product because there hadn’t been one in a while (and we don’t want to have to ask that crotchety old Edred). They then threw together two unlikely and far-flung compatriots: Ravenwolf, who by then was probably a dab hand at writing in Llewellyn’s house style on any subject, and Nigel Jackson, creator of many an oracle set whose artwork is the foundation selling point here.

This book acts as the companion to a set of rune cards sold separately as the Witches Rune. ‘Witch’ is the operative word here, explaining the presence of both Jackson and RavenWolf, figures more associated with witchcraft in its respective traditional English and modern North American strains, rather than the runes. As a result, everything is shot through with a cursory focus that relates the book’s themes back to witchcraft; or at least to an almost entirely theoretical Germanic shamanism that can be cast as an analogue to what is frequently mentioned here, but only later defined, as Witan-Witchcraft.

Without the cards of the Witches Rune themselves, Rune Mysteries works as an approachable, mass-market standalone primer on the runes, providing a layperson’s interpretation of each rune that is not bogged down with, y’know, actual primary sources. Jackson’s designs are reproduced in black and white at a quarter the size of a page for each respective section; but included in colour for this review because, well, aesthetics and impact. As one would expect, things aren’t always entirely rigorous here and droplets of speculation or outright invention can be introduced as if ‘twere fact. The section on the rune Eoh, for example, claims that spiders are sacred to that particular rune, something that would appear to have no precedent elsewhere and even here is not then justified via etymology, analogue or anything. Also, yes, you’re trying to make a metaphysical point about cosmic balance but glibly saying that fire cannot exist without frost (and vice versa) might be, umm, you know, misunderstanding how fire works; or frost for that matter. “One sec, I’m just off to rub some frost together to start a nice fire.” “Oooh, it’s frosty this morning, must have been all that fire we had last night.” Oh, how we laughed.

Putting the mocking of physics-defying metaphysics to one side, there is a general failure within this book to ground the runes within any historical context beyond a casual mention of the entirely theoretical proposition of Bronze Age antecedents. There are zero references to the Elder, Younger or Anglo-Saxon futharks, and so the 24 runes of the Elder Futhark are simply and vaguely referred to as the “ancient Germanic runes.” Such temporally-untethered flowery phrasing is indicative of the language used throughout the book, something that is initiated in an introduction that features a description of a fanciful northern Europe that reads like a black metal checklist: snow-covered peaks, misty heaths, dark woods and storm-wracked seas; a scene lacking only in funeral moons and blazes in the northern sky.

For the record, the names used here for each of the runes are the Anglo-Saxon ones, sans diacritics, though once again, this is somewhat fraught, as the Anglo-Saxon name can be used for an Elder Futhark version of the rune, such as the Anglo-Saxon Cen, which is here rendered graphically as the Elder Futhark version instead of the Anglo-Saxon one. Meanwhile, the fourth rune, which is referred to here as Asa, of course takes the form of the Elder Futhark Ansuz (or the Anglo-Saxon Æsc) rather than the winged form of the Anglo-Saxon futhorc. The lack of references to the various futhark forms predicates that while the description of each rune is broadly based on established interpretations, there are no references to what are, other than etymology, the primary sources for this information: the Norwegian, Old Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon rune poems. This might also explain why some of the rune sections go off on unexpected interpretative tangents, such as Feoh, which begins with a paragraph on standard cattle and wealth symbolism before spending considerably more time on the idea of Feoh as fire, and not just any fire but the primeval fires of Surtr and Múspellsheimr. Needless to say, it’s hard to see quite how you could get to that from the Anglo-Saxon “Wealth is a comfort to all; yet must everyone bestow it freely if they wish to gain honour in the sight of the Lord.”

Isa rune card design

Not to spend the entire review fact-checking but it is worth mentioning the strange interstitial realm in which this book exists, in which statements are always made categorically and yet little evidence is ever provided, or things are interpreted in a way that would be nice if ‘twere so but are proffered as gospel when the jury is still often out on the matter. Gyfu runes were carved onto heathen “marriage cakes” (no indication of where, when or by whom), crossing one fingers is “actually” an invocation of the same Gyfu rune, and in a lift from Marvel comics, Loki is the brother of Baldr. These wide ranging claims are then often credited, without evidence and context, to comfortably vague sources such as “the Northern folk,” “people of the Northern Way,” and “Indo-European shamanism,” an apparently monolithically unified people mercifully unfettered by the pesky specifics of geography and time.

The general ahistorical wooliness of the content here, and its lack of recourse to primary sources, allows for quite a few howlers to make their way into the copy. There’s the description of Heimdallr guarding a Bifrost bridge that leads not to Midgard but all the way down to Hel, then there’s Fenrir being bound at Ragnarök by Tyr (quite a feat for a newly one-handed god), rather than all the gods, who are in turn credited here with creating the chain that binds the wolf, rather than being made by the dvergar as lore has it. Then there’s the idea that “the Germanic tribes” (presumably all of them, whoever they are) believed that anyone passing under mistletoe was enchanted and blessed by Freyja. The latter is a variation of a bit of perpetually unchecked scuttlebutt and a fanciful retelling of the death of Baldr that has been cut and pasted into a hundred online articles trying to give an ancient lineage to the popular Victorian custom of kissing under the mistletoe. And then there’s dodgy etymology, such as the categorical claim that the name Vanir comes from an Old Norse verb (which unsurprisingly isn’t given) meaning “to be contented, to enjoy.” In reality, the origins of the Vanir name remain inconclusive and the most repeated interpretation suggests that it might derive from the Proto-Germanic *wana-, with a Proto Indo-European root in *wen- (‘to desire, strive for’), a meaning that couldn’t be further from the idyllic, Vanir-as-hippies definition of ‘to be contented, to enjoy.’

Rune Mysteries spread

Jackson has a history in tarot design, with at least three decks to his credit, and so naturally, Rune Mysteries follows a tarot-like approach in how it presents the runes. After a listing of correspondences (tree, colours, totem, stones, deity), each rune receives an introductory blurb of up to two pages with information of sometimes questionable factual value, loaded with spiritual interpretation, rather than being an etymological or historical exegesis. This is then followed by a section on the rune’s oracular meaning and related keywords, as well as an additional interpretation of the rune when reversed tarot-like. But that’s not all, and each entry concludes with ways in which the reader can work with the respective rune beyond mere divination, providing both weal and woe types of workings, and ending with a brief mention of the various rune-wights and spirit powers that Jackson and RavenWolf have associated, somewhat arbitrarily, with each rune. The latter does feel like they went through a big-list-of-spirits-fairies-and-god-forms™ and just picked out whatever seems vaguely appropriate, such as the Tiwar who are described as “divine Sky-Spirits, humanoid columns of light who descend from the celestial realms robed in luminosity.” As luck would have it “these spirits equate to angels of justice and the armies of the God/dess,” In actuality, and leaving the angelic world and its beings of light behind, dear ones, tívar is just a word used in Old Norse poetry to mean ‘the gods,’ being the indefinite nominative plural form of the singular týr (‘(a) god’) and not all that luminescent, nor incandescent, nor, indeed, angelic.

This factually freewheeling style makes for a fairly thorough system, custom built for the less than discerning and historically-unversed Llewellyn customer, where every rune has a raft of associations, divinatory meanings, correspondences and even entities associated with it, giving the impression of a dense working system. In the latter half of the book there is even more complexity, with a whole practical section that includes page upon page detailing the most propitious days and hours, along with lunar conjunctions, sextiles and trines, for working with each rune. But while all of this feels comprehensive, it’s just not all that authentic, though it is thoroughly in keeping with what one would expect from a Llewellyn title such as this: polished with a marketer’s standards in mind, not those of an academic or pedant.

Beyond the entries for these twenty-four “ancient Germanic runes,” RavenWolf and Jackson provide guidelines for working with the cards, including card care and several tarot-style spreads, including practice draw and reading scenarios. With four spreads, each including a visual representation, scenario and in depth card-by-card reading, this fills a lot of pages and once again is pretty comprehensive and a boon for those that like that sort.

It is this late in the piece that RavenWolf and Jackson define what they mean by a Rune-Witan and Witan-Witchcraft, describing the “Rune-Witan” as a practicing runic magician whose title literally translates as ‘rune-wise-one,’ or ‘one wise in mysteries.’ They claim, without citing chapter and verse, that the term is “quite traditional” since it is found in Beowulf, which somewhat undoes their argument as the witan of Beowulf, sans ‘rune,’ is an Anglo-Saxon council, a plurality rather than a singularity, and linked with governance, rather than esotericism. At a pinch they could have gone with the singular ‘wita,’ but even then, the usage denotes the wisdom and council of politics, not some worker of magic. One could conject that the plural form was chosen because of its similitude with the singular ‘wiccan’ but suffice to say, the etymology here, tracing it back to an unattested Indo-European root of ‘wid,’ is as wild and woolly as some of the other claims about these people of the Northern Way.

Haegl rune card design

RavenWolf and Jackson are on firmer ground in acknowledging the Germanic roots of much of witchcraft’s imagery, aligning the image of the continental witch goddess Holda with Cochrane/Traditional Witchcraft’s idea of a veiled underworld goddess, and positing Woden as her horned equivalent. It is hampered, though, by this persistent need to present such themes as evidence of a continuous and historically unlikely tradition, which inevitably leads to supposition being used to fill in any logical or temporal gaps. We would be remiss if we didn’t mention that this section provides the most appealing aspect of the book, with the chthonic, Helish and witchy imagery striking a resonant note; though feeling thousands of miles away from the historical futhark that forms the book’s basis. This is particularly evident in the Rite of Runa in the final practical section of the book, which sends the practitioner down the Helvegr to “the Hidden land, Hel’s misty apple-wood.” Sure it’s syncretic and a grab bag of influences but the imagery is evocative.

Despite the airing of grievances flowing through this review, Rune Mysteries has something to commend it, perhaps just in its audacity. One wouldn’t want to take a single statement it makes as fact, and one’s salt supply might run dry with a surfeit of pinching, but it’s interesting to see what two people can make from what could have been a mere guide to a set of cards of the “ancient Germanic runes,” with the volume running to over 200 pages and featuring a wealth of practical application. There is an even stronger than usual vibe of everything being made up, particularly in the repeated insistence that this Witan-Witchcraft is an ancient, perpetual tradition, but given that made up stuff is par for the course in occultism, there’s obviously an audience for whom this doesn’t matter. To answer the questions with which this review opened, nope, any misgivings were justified, I’m not part of the problem.

Published by Llewellyn

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Tree of Salvation – G. Ronald Murphy, S.J.

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Tree of Salvation coverNearly twenty years in the making, G. Ronald Murphy’s Tree of Salvation is something of a labour of love, a meditation on the intersection between Germanic paganism and Christianity formed by the image of the World Tree Yggdrasil. It is this arboreal intersection that Murphy sees as the thematic building stone that facilitated the integration of Christian thought within the northern European worldview, thereby ensuring conversion. The delicateness of that language does betray Murphy’s approach here, and perhaps his status as a Jesuit priest, for he portrays this transition as largely idyllic, a meeting of the minds rather than a brutal theocratic conquest.

As is made clear by the subtitle Yggdrasil and the Cross of the North, Murphy argues for a happy syncretism of indigenous myth and the new myth of Christianity in which the World Tree was able to be seen as an analogue of the cross and for Woden to be recast as Christ. Murphy’s textual model for this is the recounting of the crucifixion found in The Heliand, in which the cross is described as a tree on a mountain, and Christ is both nailed to the tree and hanging from a rope. Assuming that this idea was something prevalent throughout northern Europe, Murphy turns to his idea of stave and round churches as a mythopoeic text, interpreting them as Christian buildings that were simultaneously representations of Yggdrasil, thereby welcoming in the faithful and reminding them of the World Tree’s sheltering role in myth. Murphy breaks down elements from the architecture that can be seen as analogues of Yggdrasil and its inhabitants: the serpentine gables on the Borgund stave church as the serpents found at the base of Yggdrasil, the tapered shape of the structure mirroring that of a tree, as well as its very materiality.

Tree of Salvation spread

A particularly rich area of imagery for Murphy are the portals and doors of churches, most notably the interwoven frame at Urnes church in Norway that is featured on the book’s cover, and the wrought iron decorations on the door of Roglösa church in Östergötland. The latter, which is usually assumed to show a hunting scene in its top panel and the Garden of Eden or the harrowing of Hell in its bottom, is instead appealingly interpreted as a depiction of Ragnarök, with Surtr appearing as a fiery figure with clawed feet, Þórr fighting the World Serpent, and Níðhöggr crawling towards a version of the World Tree.

There is something very appealing about this idea of pagan imagery being thoroughly suffused into Christian architecture, especially with the way in which Murphy presents it as being so complete and without question, rarely pausing to give caveats or alternative suggestions. His suppositions build one upon the other, sometimes feeling like evidence being made to fit a conclusion, rather than confirming a theory. This is particularly evident in the analysis of the Roglösa church door as a depiction of Ragnarök. While it’s an attractive proposition, Occam’s Razor would suggest that a Christian scene on a Christian door makes more sense, especially when the figure Murphy identifies as Þórr appears almost identical to depictions elsewhere of St. Michael battling the dragon, right down to the figure’s angelic wings. While acknowledging the similarity, Murphy shores up his interpretation by noting that the figure doesn’t carry a spear as St. Michael does in some depictions, seeing instead a small hammer; the tiny, questionable Mjölnir seemingly holding more weight than the wings and posture of an archangel.

Tree of Salvation spread

As something of a poetic approach to these themes, Murphy’s argument is an enthusiastic one, and one in which this passion may sometimes get the better of him, inserting intent where there may have been none. He presupposes, for example, that the idea of Yggdrasil and the interpretation he applies to it was universally held by all tiers of Germanic society, and that this degree of reverence made going to a Yggdrasil-shaped church a tick in the plus column for adopting Christianity. The apex of this is when he puts himself in twelfth century Danish round churches, imagining what a Christmas liturgy would have been like in Nykirke or how Mass would have been conducted in Østerlarskirke. These are fanciful recreations more akin to guided visualisations in which the architecture and the sermon intertwine, as does the imagery both pagan and Christian, with Murphy imagining Yggdrasil being at the forefront of everyone’s mind, acting as a portal that the faithful consciously pass through in order to receive the body and blood of Christ.

In the penultimate chapter Yggdrasil and the Sequence of the Runes in the Elder Fuhtark, Murphy changes direction somewhat and explores the idea that the runes themselves encode these Christo-Pagan themes of Yggdrasil, with the order of the futhark and the very names of the runes acting as an intentional cypher. To open, he discusses Walter W. Skeats unconvincing nineteenth century attempt to interpret the runes in such a manner, wherein he tried to squeeze the opening words of the Paternoster out of the runes fehu, uruz, thurisaz and ansuz (Father, ure, þhu in heofon). While acknowledging the limitations of Skeats’ approach (no equivalent of ‘h’ in the place it’s needed for heofon just for starters), Murphy has his own go at it, trying to do much the same in increasingly convoluted justifications that come across like the very worst of clutching-at-straws conspiracy literature or alternative archaeology cryptography. First he presents a problem where there isn’t necessarily one, asking why the futhark should follow a different order from the Greco-Roman alphabet. Having done so, he then attempts to answer it. In trying to establish a justification for the futhark’s order he turns to its first aett and manages to somehow get ‘and Christ are one,’ from the runes kaunaz, gyfu, wunjo, hagalaz and nauthiz. Where’s that Surprise Jesus™ in all this you ask? Well, gyfu and wunjo, which sit next to each other in the aett, kind of look like the chi ro symbol (that is, if you lay them one atop the other, move the wunjo up a bit and squint), and that’s obviously Christ, just sitting there clear as day, waving enthusiastically. However, the other runes in that aett aren’t also the separated components of any christogram, no, instead the hagalaz and nauthiz must combine to form the vowelless hn which could be, well of course, a Greek word, hen, the neuter form of eis meaning ‘one.’ Meanwhile, the solo ‘k’ of kaunaz “can only be,” as Murphy emphatically states it, an abbreviation for another Greek word, kai, meaning ‘and.’ Following on from these tortuous beginnings, Murphy somehow manages to convince himself that he can get ‘father’ too, though this isn’t by extrapolating abbreviations from a few individual runes or combining them into a monogram, no, the rules are once again different here, and now the first five runes of the futhark are run together to form fuþar, a word that doesn’t mean anything in any language but sure sounds kind of maybe like ‘father,’ if you squint. The whole segment now reads ‘The father and Christ are one.’ Neat, eh? Personally, I prefer to interpret the hn of hagalaz and nauthiz not as the Greek hen but as the Middle English hen (from the Old English henn, and then the Proto-Germanic *hanj?.), making the phrase now read ‘The father and Christ are chicken.

Tree of Salvation spread

Facetiousness aside, this is a remarkable exercise in intellectually dishonest apophenia, in which at least three different methods are used to try and wrangle a Greek phrase out of the letters of a Germanic script, where any method and its interpretation are accepted as long as it fits the pattern one is trying to establish. One tenuous connection is made, followed by another, cascading in a wave of cryptographic confirmation bias, all enthusiastically recounted by Murphy who details his giddy excitement following each ever more conclusive discovery. Small wonder that Murphy goes some way to redeeming Skeats at the end of this chapter, calling him “in a sense prescient.” Never once does Murphy countenance that it would be possible to take the letters of the futhark’s first aett and come up with a hundred different meanings if you could call upon any language, any collection of symbols and any non-existent homophones that kind of sound like the words you want them to sound like. Let’s see, ‘f’ and ‘u’ are used as an abbreviation of the profane directive “fuck you,” and þa sounds like ‘the,’ and well, ‘rk’ must be missing a vowel, shall we say ‘o,’ so that means fuþark actually means “Fuck you, the Rock.” Clearly the ancient runemaster was no fan of Dwayne Johnson.

As he does elsewhere, Murphy strays from methods scholarly and imagines what this specifically gendered creator of the order of the futhark might have intended to do with his tortuous ordering of the letters. Revealing the tangled web he has woven, Murphy makes his mythic futhark organiser someone with multiple motivations, being a pagan Swedish runemaster, a polyglot who was also handy with Greek, someone possessed of a favourable experience with and impression of Christianity who was trying to make the runes suitable to serve this new imported master instead of Woden. In so doing, he created a synthesis of the pagan god and Christ, making the latter the possessor of the runes with which his name was encoded. Yet, Murphy must find an excuse for the recherché and frankly indecipherable nature of this Christo-Pagan runemaster’s runic encoding, suggesting that he kept it secret for some reason, either for reasons magical, or as effectively an occult blind, or because perhaps not everyone, be they Christian or pagan, shared his views. Somehow, despite this caginess, this secret squirrel ordering of the futhark was still disseminated across Scandinavia, stretching credulity.

Tree of Salvation spread

Murphy’s final chapter explores the idea of the presence of Yggdrasil in the evergreen imagery of Christmas, trying to find a happy medium betwixt those who see the Christmas tree as a pagan symbol and those that see it as an entirely Christian invention. It’s not just the tree he deals with here, indeed there is considerably more time spent with other arboreal elements associated with Christmas, and he interprets the wreath, for example, as a solar wheel symbolling the cycle of the life that begins anew at Christmas. As elsewhere, what Murphy presents is often just speculation, poetically rendered so as the sound plausible, even convincing, but with little questioning of the mechanisms that would have allowed such themes to perpetuate down through the centuries. This is particularly evident when he addresses the comparatively late seventeenth century innovation of lights on the Christmas tree, interpreting them as stars and finding a tenuous precedent in Snorri’s thirteenth century description in Gylfaginning of the branches of Yggdrasil stretching far across the sky.

In sum, what Murphy presents here is an interesting series of intersecting ideas and themes, ones which if treated as unconscious simulacra add richness to interpretations of both Christian and pagan symbolism. Where it is less successful, though, is when it imagines intent and purpose, relying entirely on presuppositions and impressions in a tone that does come across more like a conspiracy theorist or alternative historian searching in Rosslyn Chapel for Templar traces or forgotten bloodlines.

Published by Oxford University Press

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Green Rûna – Edred Thorsson

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Green Rûna coverPublished in 1996 by Edred Thorsson’s own imprint Rûna Raven Press, Green Rûna is one of several variously-coloured titles that compile his previously published essays. This green incarnation, and the first in the series, draws from the 1970s to the early 1980 with material published in the Ásatrú Free Assembly’s The Runestone, the Odinic Rite’s Raven’s Banner, as well as the Rune-Gild’s own publication, Rûna, and its four volume successor, New Rûna.

In an introduction, James A. Chisholm explains that the book’s title indicates that the material presented here is a rather unripe yet still valuable fruit. Given that many of these articles have their origin in the formative days of contemporary runic mysticism, there’s a feeling of getting in at the ground floor, with Green Rûna acting as primer containing a fair bit of entry-level material. This is grouped together in the book’s first section, Runelore, and its feels, in total, like the kind of thing that could be, and probably was, filled out and expanded into a general book on runes. There’s a brief definition of the word rune itself, and then a very 101 discussion of the futhark (Elder, Younger, Anglo-Saxon and Armanen variations), followed by a further brief article about the relative merits of each futhark in esoteric application. There’s also an article from Rûna on Sigurd Agrell’s Uthark theory, showing an early interest for his work, with an interesting footnote mentioning that an exploration of Agrell’s theory of the Mithraic origins of the tarot was at that point forthcoming from Rûna Raven Press, at that point credited to the later abandoned nom de plume Arbaris.

Green Rûna spread

Articles on various holy signs and some brief interpretations of runestone inscriptions round out the Runelore section of Green Rûna, giving way to a section titled Germanic Studies. Considered here are more cultural and philosophical concepts, the idea of the sumble (in an article that Thorsson credits with introducing the rite to contemporary heathenism), of reincarnation in Germanic myth and legend, of definitions of the sacred, of the nature of the gods as ancestors and in a related article, the euhemerist interpretation of the gods. Two articles show Thorsson’s abiding interesting in the German runic revival with a concise survey from The Runestone of Germanic runic esotericism and from the previous issue of the same, an account of attending the reformed and refounded Armanenschaft’s Herbst Thing in 1981.

Despite the early pedigree of the material here, with Thorsson being in his sprightly twenties at the time, his editorial voice is well established and will be familiar to anyone who has read his works over the subsequent four decades. There’s that irascible, withering tone, spiced with a little hectoring outrage if something has been, he believes, misrepresented, and despite his traditionalist approach, there is also a tendency to project 20th century world views onto the past. This is particularly noticeable when the motivations of rune workers along with their belief in, and the mechanics of, the runes are attributed intent and a sophistication that almost approaches modern physics or philosophy. The runic system, for example, apparently provides a symbolic meta-language with which we can explore ourselves and the multiverse. In a similar vein is an idea that Thorsson has promoted over the years but which was already established by the time of these writings, as evidenced by an article from The Runestone called Ancient Foundations of the Rune-Cult in Europe; a title which gives a sense of what you’re in for. This describes an almost conspiratorial belief in a group of runic adepts, a rune gild that was, as he terms it, a “sacrificial Ásatrú association” which has persisted throughout centuries and continues into the modern era. Thorsson credits these runemasters with guiding the evolution of the Elder Futhark into its Younger incarnation and gives a significant amount of information about the structure of this rune gild ad perpetuum, despite there being no trace of such a frankly historically unfeasible group; effectively imagining what such a group would have been like if they had existed, but framing it like they explicitly did.

Green Rûna spread

Other than the individual articles, Green Rûna includes a handful of reviews written by Thorsson for Rûna and The Runestone, providing an interesting literary timestamp and an indication of what scant titles were available then. Naturally, none of these are really esoteric titles, no contemporaries to the books Thorrson would write in the following years, with the exception of the grandmother of them all, the previously reviewed Rune Games by Marijane Osborn and Stella Longland. Instead, Thorsson looks at a grab bag of titles related to the German runic renaissance, Indo-European studies and even the Nýall philosophy of Helgi Pjeturss.

In an appendix, Green Rûna concludes as it begins, with the words of Chisholm in what amounts to a hagiography of Thorsson. The nine pages of The Awakening of a Runemaster tells the story of Thorsson’s spiritual life in a narrative that will generates sparks of recognition for anyone that has read his History of the Rune-Gild: The Reawakening of the Gild 1980-2018, as Chisholm’s text provides the basis for the first chapter of that book, expanded and embellished, but retaining many of the original phrases. The other items in this appendices are a glossary and reproductions of two Rune Gild documents: introductory information about the Outer Hall of the Rune Gild and a guide to gaining entry to the gild as of Midsummer 1990 when membership was closed to unsponsored members; and to gain said sponsorship required following the guide to runic initiation published in Thorsson’s book The Nine Doors of Midgard.

Green Rûna spread

In the end, the reader can find themselves in concord with Chisholm’s assessment of the material here as unripe fruit, something that shows a clear direction of where Thorsson would go in the subsequent decades but in a nascent state. As such, it makes for an interesting historical collection, though by no means essential reading beyond this status as an archival curiosity.

Published by Rûna Raven Press

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The Long Lost Friend: A 19th Century American Grimoire – John George Hohman, edited by Daniel Harms

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The Long Lost Friend: A 19th Century American Grimoire coverThis publication holds a special if dubious honour within the salty halls of Scriptus Recensera, being the first book published by Llewellyn Worldwide (long-time purveyors of lightweight and easily mocked titles) to be reviewed here. While Llewellyn certainly have released some less than rigorous titles over the years, attracting now predictable derision as fluff and other barbs so beloved of serious business occultists, they have, in their time, occasionally published more serious titles, often of the reference variety. This is the case here, with an definitive edition of The Long Lost Friend, an anthology, as the subtitle betrays, of nineteenth century American folk magic.

First published in German in 1820 as Der Lange Verborgene Freund (‘The Long-Hidden Friend’) by author and publisher John George Hohman, this work was then released in two English translations, first in 1846 as The Long Secreted Friend or a True and Christian Information for Every Body (in a translation by Hohman himself) and then the second in 1856 as the exhaustively-titled The Long Lost Friend; a Collection of Mysterious and Invaluable Arts and Remedies for Man as well as Animals. Given the inevitably concise nature of a book such as this, running to just 190 often brief charms and spells, it may come as a surprise that this contemporary edition clocks in at almost 300 pages. And it is this length that proves the true value of this edition, with a veritable surfeit of supplementary information, including a series of appendices twice as long as the grimoire itself, as well as Daniel Harms’ extensive introduction and annotations. This point of difference is important because the text itself is in the public domain and is available online as well as in multiple print versions, including a lovely looking, multi-format edition from Troy Books, edited and illustrated by Gemma Gary.

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The description of The Long Lost Friend as a grimoire may be a bit of marketing glamour from Llewellyn, as there’s little here that compares it to the classics of the genre: no casting of circles, no summoning of demons, no barbarous names, and no cool-looking sigils. While it might be splitting semantic hairs, a better term might just be a charm book, one that, as Owen Davies notes in his definitive tome Grimoires: A History of Magic Books, ventured only occasionally into grimoire territory. Thus, there is an invocation to the angel Gabriel for assistance in finding iron, ore or water with a wand, and a charm against witchcraft that uses an INRI-based acrostic, but otherwise everything is pretty standard folk magic fare.

In his introduction, Harms provides as detailed a history as possible of the grimoire’s author, John George Hohman, detailing his arrival from Germany and ventures into publishing to alleviate a near persistent risk of poverty; suffice to say, there’s not a lot of spells for money making in this book. Hohman, in his own introduction seems at pains to stress two things about his book: that the book’s spells are not at odds with Christianity, and that their efficacy is well documented and beyond reproach. Despite an earnest, confident swagger, Hohman testifies to the existence of heaven and hell and claims that every wheal or mortification he has banished using the spells documented within the book has been done by the Lord. With a carney’s patter he then rattles off a list of anecdotal success stories, three pages worth, which proves at least one thing, that most of these spells take 24 hours to work. There’s Catherine Meck of Alsace township whose wheal in the eye was healed in little more than 24 hours, Michael Hartman Jr. also of Alsace, whose child was healed of a sore mouth in little more than 24 hours, plus Mr Silvis of Reading whose wheal in the eye was cured in a little more than 24 hours. Eye wheals seem to have been a major cause of concern in Pennsylvania, that and undiagnosed pain which, mercifully, could also be dealt with in little more than 24 hours. Suffice to say, Hohman’s somewhat specious success comes across less convincing to the reader than it apparently did to him.

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The spells in The Long Lost Friend are what one would expect of a collection of folk charms: simple, a little bit gross and usually pretty useless. Right out of the gate, the second spell is a disgusting favourite: as a remedy for hysterics or colds, in the evening, whenever you take off your socks, run your fingers between your toes and smell them. “This will certainly effect a cure.” Not sure about that but it will certainly effect something. I think I’ll stick with having a cold, thanks.

As evidenced by some disappointed reviews on Amazon, if you come here looking for traces of paganism (as all magic is often assumed, without merit, to be) or a practical book of simple commercial spells and love philtres, then you’re going to be disappointed. Obviously, that’s not the point here, and instead The Long Lost Friend is an exhaustive curiosity, valuable for its historical and reference purposes, particularly as an intersection between old and new world magic, but not, indeed, the most dependable of friends, lost or otherwise. That isn’t to say that everything here is entirely useless and like a wrong clock there are cures that hit on some efficacious quality, such as peaches being used to relieve kidney stones, or blue vitriol (copper sulphate) to alleviate toothache. Just don’t expect me to boil a rabbit’s brain and rub it on a child’s teeth when they’re teething, or to imbibe the powder from a burnt hog’s bladder in order to halt incontinence.

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Many of the spells and charms specifically situate the relevance of this work in its time, betraying the concerns of the region’s rural habitants beyond eye wheals and random aches. Barking dogs, for example, were a bit of a nuisance, in fact that may be underselling the annoyance somewhat as the methods of dealing with a mere bark seem complicated, not to mention unnecessarily cruel: there’s wearing a dog’s heart on your left side (presumably not from the one that’s barking but that would also be effective), or wearing halves of a barn owl heart under each of your armpits. Said heart and the poor barn owl’s right foot can also be placed on a sleeping person to make them answer anything you ask; perhaps “why do you have bits of an owl on you?” Let it not be said that Pennsylvania spell workers didn’t use the whole of the barn owl.

Not all of the charms here are brutal and scientifically deficient and things do occasionally take a practical turn with, for example, instructions on how to make molasses from pumpkin (so good they were attested to have been mistaken for the real thing by Hohman himself) or how to a make a ‘good beer.’ Then there’s also a recipe for buttermilk pop, a one sentence method of cleaning brass, instructions for making plaster for cracks, and a guide to making glue. All of this highlights the practical, everyday aspect of a book like this, with supernatural charms sitting alongside home tips, thereby coming across like a farmer’s almanac with a little more animal cruelty, rather than a grimoire full of sigils and barbarous names. “So, got any instructions for making toilet soap, Grimorium Verum? Know how to make an excellent liniment, Sworn Book of Honorius? What? No? I’ll stick with my Long Lost Friend then.”

From a religious perspective, the text of the charms and spells here often have a liturgical origin, drawing from the nomenclature and trappings of Catholicism, and giving them something of an exotic twist amongst a predominantly Lutheran and Reformed Church audience. It’s in these cases where the book is at its most magical, with the Virgin Mary and the Trinity being invoked, along with St. Peter and the other occasional saint, including none other than St. Cyprian.

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Harms is rigorous, almost relentless, in his annotation of the spells and charms here, sometimes loading up a simple, one sentence charm with as many as three endnotes, resulting in 46 pages of endnotes. Indeed rigour is a key word here, from the thorough introduction, to the endnotes’ attention to minutiae within each charm and spell. Necessitating that a second bookmark be kept towards the end of the book, Harms’ endnotes document the provenance, where known, of each entry, provides a definition for terms unfamiliar to a modern audience, and notes where changes exist between different editions of the book.

With the exception of these several pages of endnotes, for solely English speakers, the book’s use largely comes to an end at page 144, as the remaining half reproduces The Long Lost Friend in its original German, highlighting its value as a reference work.

Published by Llewellyn

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The Mark of Cain – Ruth Mellinkoff

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Categories: esotericism, mesopotamian, middle ages

The Mark of Cain coverRuth Mellinkoff’s body of work mines a particularly grotesque and atypical vein of Judaeo-Christian tradition, dealing with the appearance of monstrous and aberrant body parts, often incongruously placed, such as in her study of the horned Moses in medieval art and thought, or her meditation on Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. This interest in anatomy that is both sacred and profane is continued in The Mark of Cain, a slim volume for a concept whose source material is but a single verse in the book of Genesis.

It is testament to the evocative nature of the mark in question that just over a hundred pages can be dedicated to it here, and as the blurb on the inside cover notes, few biblical verses evoke the power of the imagination than the scant and ambiguous words “And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, that whosoever found him should not kill him.” Nevertheless, the back matter does qualify that this is by no means a definitive work, offering a demonstrative and suggestive approach as opposed to a comprehensive or conclusive one. This is something that is evident throughout the book, with Mellinkoff pulling various strands together, but inevitably and understandably drawing no conclusions, if they were hers to make, based on the meagre scriptural evidence.

Given the brevity of its biblical mention, the Mark of Cain acts as a gateway into wider discussions, and this is how Mellinkoff begins, by following in the footsteps of early church fathers and considering not the mark itself, but how it relates to the idea of Cain’s repentance and forgiveness. In these instances, dating back to early Jewish thought and into the early church exegetes, the ‘what’ of the mark was less important than whether it served as punishment or protection for Cain, with Cain himself thereby being the mark, the example, the lesson.

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In her third chapter, Mellinkoff turns to the more explicitly corporeal interpretations of the Mark of Cain, noting that the idea of it being on Cain’s forehead, despite this positioning not being mentioned in the book of Genesis, has become so popular that it makes its way unquestioned into not just common retellings but academic texts and encyclopaedia entries. This is the largest chapter within this title, and Mellinkoff covers off a variety of options from across three millennia of Judaeo-Christian thought, including various text marks (the tetragrammaton, the Greek omega or some unspecified Hebrew letter from the Torah), a cross (linking Cain with his close analogue, the Wandering Jew who is similarly marked), blemishes such as leprosy or horns, and even beardlessness. One interpretation that receives much attention here is not a mark on Cain’s body but a mark created by it, with the sign being popularly regarded as a trembling condition he possessed, thus aligning with an excerpt found only in the Septuagint version of Genesis in which God curses Cain with groaning and trembling; the curse becoming the mark itself.

Being an academic work, and one from 1981, there’s no consideration given here to contemporary interpretations of the Mark of Cain from various Qayin-focussed occult traditions; such as in the 218 current where a threefold Mark of Qayin and Qalmana was bestowed on the couple by Satan and Lilith, or in the work of the Cultus Sabbati, whose Psalter of Cain features a total of eight Marks of Cain, each denoting an area of expertise or a moment in his story. With that said, there are moments included here that provide interest for those that way inclined, such as a discussion of Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Taking of Ireland), in which the Cultus Sabbati’s eight marks have a near analogue in seven wens that afflict crooked Cain, as it pointedly calls him, marking his forehead, his cheeks, his hands and his feet like diabolical stigmata. Similarly significant is the Cornish mystery play Gwreans an Bys (The Creation of the World), in which Cain appears alongside his sister Calmana and doubts the apotropaic properties of the horn with which God has marked him, echoing Byron’s later Luciferian Cain by saying: “Trust him I will not, for fear of being deceived.” The image of the Mark of Cain as horns is a darkly resonant one that is remarkably widespread despite being unattested canonically, appearing in early Armenian texts, an early tenth century Irish Adambook, twelfth century French sculpture, and thirteenth and fourteenth century English illuminated manuscripts. One particular thirteenth century English psalter illustrates this profoundly, with an image of God marking and cursing Cain (one of the rare depictions of this scene across Western art), showing a scythe-wielding Cain adorned with two distinctive black horns ‘pon his head.

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In her penultimate chapter, Mellinkoff turns to those examples in which, as she defines it, the authors consciously and intentionally distorted the idea of the Mark of Cain. Chief amongst these is Hermann Hesse’s treatment of the mark in his 1919 novel Demian, in which the eponymous hero defines the otherwise invisible mark as a feeling of elite otherness, worn by possessors of a secret knowledge who recognise it, like for like, on those who also wear it: “But whereas we, who were marked, believed that we represented the will of Nature to something new, to the individualism of the future, the others sought to perpetuate the status quo.” Suffice to say, Mellinkoff is not a fan, and having never met a swaggering misanthropic, nihilistic 21st century nightside occultist, she finds the appeal of the concept inconceivable, describing it as puerile, with it being impossible, even with all our modern abstraction, to treat Cain’s act of fratricide so superficially that we elevate him as an anti-hero.

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Mellinkoff concludes with a brief chapter on how Cain and his mark have been given a racial interpretation. This follows on from an earlier discussion on how Mormon founder Joseph Smith established blackness as the mark of Cain, thereby supporting slavery, forbidding intermarriage and disqualifying black members of the church from the priesthood; a status that as of the first publication of this book in 1981 had only been overridden for just four years. The racism of this chapter concerns itself not with skin colour but with the Jews, with Saint Augustine being the first to influentially identify Cain as an allegory of the Jews: cursed, faithless murderers both, set to wander the earth, yet eternally preserved as an abject lesson to the faithful. As for the Mark of Cain in this allegory, Augustine obliquely hinted at a sign of Jewish law that had always marked them as separate, with later commentators such as Isidore of Seville and Bruno of Asti being less delicate and explicitly identifying it as the mark of circumcision. Mellinkoff traces the history of this idea of Jews not just being faithless outsiders but identifiably so, to medieval badges that Jews were prescribed to wear and which reach a modern apex in Nazi Germany.

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Despite its brevity, there is a thoroughness to The Mark of Cain, with Mellinkoff writing in a clear, authoritative style, though not without personality, such as in her unabashed love for the Syriac Life of Abel, a fifth or sixth century work she considers to be without parallel until Byron’s Cain. The Mark of Cain includes an exhaustive reference and end notes sections, and concludes with a 22 image gallery of various depictions of Cain and his mark.

Published by Wipf and Stock Publishers

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Traditional Board Games of Northern Europe – Nigel Pennick

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Categories: folk, germanic

Traditional Board Games of Northern Europe coverThis slight work was published in 1988 by Nigel Pennick’s own imprint Valknut Productions,   a name that must surely be shared with some small black metal or Viking metal record label. As befits the time (and the analogy with 90s metal underground culture), Traditional Board Games of Northern Europe is photocopied on A4 folded and stapled to A5, with the cover similarly printed on a yellow card. This situates this work within a verdant period of esoteric mailorder self-publishing from authors who would go on to be published in more substantial formats, with Caerdroia emerging from Essex, Paul Devereux publishing The Ley Hunter, and with the busy Pennick founding the Journal of Geomancy (later rebranded as the more generic and less fun Ancient Mysteries) as well as running yet another similarly-themed imprint called Nideck from Bar Hill, Cambridge, from which the seemingly aligned Fenris-Wolf Publications also operated (not to be confused with the similarly-named journals from either the Order of the Nine Angles or Carl Abrahamsson).

The typesetting of Traditional Board Games of Northern Europe also betrays the time in which it was published, with the body text set fully justified in a blocky word processor serif, devoid of any finessing with paragraph breaks or indents, but with at least the mixed blessing of a faux italic. The type on the cover, rear and inner is treated in an equally time-stamped display face, a san serif 8-bit type that matches the similarly pixelated border frame. It’s all rather charming, if a little hard to read with the dense typographic colour of the spacing-averse body text eschewing the conventions of readability and making a 24 page booklet harder to briskly read than one would expect.

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Traditional Board Games of Northern Europe is perhaps Pennick’s first published consideration of its subject matter, something he would then return to as part of his larger works, notably in the Weiser-published Games of the Gods the following year, and also, if memory serves, as part of his 1992 book Rune Magic. It discusses four types of games variations of which have been found across Northern Europe, Scandinavia and the British Isles: merels (and its variants), tafl, fox and geese, and gala.

Pennick dives right into things with only a little in the way of historic preamble, explaining the method and rules of merels-based board games such as Nine Men’s Morris, Mill, and in a simpler form, the humble noughts and crosses. These merels-based games receive the most attention here, understandable given their prevalence, variation and persistence, followed by tafl and then briefly fox and geese and gala. There is no real sense of how a particular game might have evolved and made its way from one place to the other (perhaps this has never been documented) and instead, references to various forms of the game simply situate them in their location and give them their name and any distinguishing characteristics.

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Pennick writes with an assured confidence and familiarity with his subject, though it is inevitably a little unpolished compared to his later writing. With the unsympathetic formatting, and often large run-on paragraphs, these pages can feel like something of an info-dump, with Pennick presenting everything in an encyclopaedic manner without much room to breathe either visually or intellectually. Unlike an encyclopaedia, though, there’s nary a trace of references, with no citations in the body and not even a bibliography in the back. Considering the amount of information in here this is a little disappointing, as it provides an intriguing but dead end in terms of research.

The considerations in Traditional Board Games of Northern Europe betray many of Pennick’s other interests, in particular geomancy with merrels and in particular tafl acting as analogues of the earth or its mechanisms. Pennick draws attention to a version of a tafl board found in a bog near Moate in Ireland’s county Westmeath which incorporates a handle carved in the shape of a human head, the board becoming anthropomorphised as a Ymir-like cosmic body upon whose surface the game is played as they move around the giant’s navel. Merrels, meanwhile, with its references to mill terminology creates an obvious analogue with the cosmological idea of a World Mill. He likewise notes that the layout of Gala reproduces the Holy City Plan that provided the sacral blueprint for the design of many ancient European towns.

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Pennick concludes Traditional Board Games of Northern Europe with a recapitulation of the rules for playing all five games, providing a handy reference for those who want to give it a go without wading through the body text.

While presumably nigh on impossible to find now, Traditional Board Games of Northern Europe is a valuable 24 pages, especially considering how unlike so many other areas from this field of study, so little has been written about these games in the ensuing years; and with the games providing a fertile, though unexplored, opportunity for magical application.

Published by Valknut Productions

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Feeding the Flame: A Devotional to Loki and His Family, edited by Galina Krasskova

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Categories: devotional, germanic, rökkr, Tags:

Feeding the Flame coverNot to be confused with a 1983 album by the appropriately-named English post-punk band Sad Lovers and Giants, this anthology edited by Galina Krasskova comes from over a decade ago during a rich period of publishing for Asphodel Press. As such, many of the contributions in this paean to Loki and his family draw from that then extant wealth of material, and have previously appeared variously in Raven Kaldera’s Jotunbok, Krasskova’s own Exploring the Northern Tradition, Elizabeth Vongvisith’s devotional Trickster, My Beloved, and others.

Following a brief introduction from Krasskova, and as is often the way with such titles, Feeding the Flame begins with an exhaustive introduction to its subject matter, this time in the form of Hot Stuff: Working with Loki from Mordant Carnival. The first part of this contribution provides a thorough survey of many of Loki’s attributes and associations, not necessarily heavy on the details, but touching a lot of bases through its journey; including his relationships with various other beings. Carnival writes fluidly and confidently in an arch and self-aware manner, with, as the essay’s title prophesises, the occasional descent into fittingly Lokian-humour and wry asides: a deprecating mention of Loki’s Dick Dastardy moustache in his appearance on the Snaptun bellows stone, say, or a description of Baldr as the brightest, the best and deadest of the gods.

Carnival then moves on to the essay’s second part with an exploration of working with Loki in the here and now, something that is introduced as being potentially problematic given that it is drawn from personal experience, which, they admit, could all simply be a figment of the imagination. Carnival provides a broad ritual method for working with Loki, with various avenues for further exploration via sacrifice or possession, noting that this structure is preferable to simply swapping Loki’s name into an existing Wiccan or similar format that is heavy on the abjuration and banishing.

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Other writers provide long-form considerations of Loki, with Sophie Oberlander’s Courting the Trickster and Sigrun Freyskona’s account of Loki as a childhood imaginary friend reminiscent of Rik Mayall’s Drop Dead Fred, but the remaining contributions are poetic ones. These works are by largely familiar names from within this circle of publishing, such as Silence Maestas, Elizabeth Vongvisith, Michaela Macha and Krasskova herself. Poetically, the most striking of these are a couple of pieces from Maestas who combines unfettered devotion for their subject with a deft poetic voice, particularly in an untitled work which opens memorably with the evocative line “I’d like to teach my fool tongue to dance.” The award for most thematically striking poem, though, goes to Vongvisith, whose Fulltrui is positively filthy with its depiction of Óðinn and Loki’s blood brotherhood as something profoundly carnal, describing them as two mating wildcats, with the latter impaled with the flesh of the former after a chase through the worlds.

Loki does not possess the wolf’s share of the content in Feeding the Flame and a significant portion of what follows in the discussion of his family centres on his Æsir wife, Sigyn. There are 70 pages devoted to Sigyn, substantially more than for Loki himself, and if, like this writer, you’ve never felt much of an affinity with her, that’s a lot to get through. As with other examples of Sigyn literature from Asphodel Press, this material is interesting considering that, in her, much has been made from so little in lore. Thus, some of the imagery presented here has slight if any direct correlation within the sagas, being seemingly built solely on mutually affirming UPG (Unverified Personal Gnosis). Krasskova introduces this surfeit of content with an essay presenting Sigyn as a child bride whose aegis is the healing of the inner child; a theme she later returns to in a received telling of Loki and Sigyn’s first meeting. Others consider Sigyn as a spirit of endurance and eventual victory, and there are several practical contributions, with Jason Freysson giving instructions for a ritual bath for use in Sigyn devotions and a recipe for her oil, while Krasskova and Fuensanta Arismendi both provide separate meditations for her.

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One of the unique aspects of Feeding the Flame is that its brief allows material to be presented for figures who would otherwise receive little attention, in particular Loki and Sigyn’s two sons, who are here, as per Snorri Sturluson, referred to as Narvi and Vali. There are several poetic and prose pieces dedicated to the brothers separately and as a duo, making this surely one of the few places to find such material.

Loki’s equine son, Sleipnir, also gets a poem dedicated to him and then the rest of the book is rounded off with material, both poem and prose, dedicated to Loki’s other wife, Angrboða, and their children Fenrir, Hela and the World Serpent. As one might expect, this author finds this section to be the most engaging, with a strong, imagery-rich collection of poetry for Angrboða, with Kaldera’s Mother of Monsters and Seawalker’s Hag of the Ironwood being particularly notable. The Hela selection is equally strong with Dagian Russell memorably addressing Her as Lady of the Cool Damp Places and Mistress of Eternal Autumn, amongst other wonderful titles, while another piece from Kaldera, Darkness Out of Fire, has Hela addresses Loki directly, daughter to father.

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The prose of Feeding the Flame is of a consistent quality, despite the variety of authors, and there are no pieces that grate or feel out of place. Poetry, as one would expect, is a different matter, with a variety of styles. There are the invocatory prayer-type pieces that one expects in a devotional such as this, more declamatory than an ode, whereas others, notably Maestas and Vongvisith. traffic in a far more considered poetic manner, their structures and choice of words feeling worked and finessed, informed by an awareness of the form.

The layout of Feeding the Flame follows the standard in-house style of Asphodel Press, with a consistent serif for body and a different serif for titles. It’s nothing flash but it is consistent and clean; though I do wish first paragraphs weren’t indented, tsk. The book is devoid of internal illustrations but does bear as its cover depiction of Angrboða, Loki and Sigyn by Grace Palmer; and image which also appears as The Lovers trump in the Kaldera-compiled Giant’s Tarot.

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While Feeding the Flame is still available in this Asphodel Press edition, Krasskova produced a reissue in 2014 retitled Consuming the Flames: A Devotional Anthology for Loki and His Family, with an Arthur Rackham cover, revised content, a reduced page count, and ironically, given the subtitle, a removal of all material dedicated to Angrboða, Hela, Fenrir and Jormungand. As such, the recommendation by necessity falls to the first edition, with the material for Loki’s most famous wife and children, though it is slight next to the voluminous and taxing devotions to Sigyn, being a particular selling point.

Published by Asphodel Press

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The Witch’s Garden – Harold A. Hansen

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Categories: folk, middle ages, witchcraft, Tags:

The Witch's Garden coverFirst published in Denmark in 1976 as Heksens Urtegard and then in English in 1978 by Unity Press, The Witch’s Garden is something of an urtext when it comes to matters witchy and herbal. Proof of this is found in the bibliography which consists almost entirely of primary sources and scholarly tomes, with there being no then-extant herbalist occultism books to draw from. This Weiser-published edition from 1983 is translated by Muriel Crofts and features an introduction by Richard Schultes, who, as the father of modern ethnobotany, highlights another key feature of this book: the use of the plants in the witch’s garden for hallucinogenic and entheogenic purposes.

The Witch’s Garden is a slim volume, considering just six plants but these six are indeed the prime suspects for a witch’s herbal line-up: mandrake, henbane, belladonna, datura, hemlock and monkshood. Each plant has from six to ten pages devoted to it and Hansen pulls in information from a variety of primary sources and secondary sources, with Pliny, Dioscorides and Diogenes being the representatives of primary antiquity, and Carl Linnaeus being a more recent touchstone as a secondary source. These are all, for the most part, exhaustively cited, though that doesn’t mean that every scintilla of information is sourced, with Hansen also using a lot of what might be called common knowledge and folklore that have no specific origin in print. With that said, there remains a level of authority and trust in Hansen’s writing, with less of that recently critiqued tendency for books to feel like poorly assembled notes cobbled together from a mass of undocumented and now forgotten internet sources.

The Witch's Garden spreadHowever, there are moments that give one pause, such as when Hansen says, without any citation, that “many scholars” identify Kali with the Greek goddess Io, a clear instance where it would have been good to say who these many scholars are because that’s a pretty brave leap and one that doesn’t seem to have left any notable traces. To compound this, Hansen makes his own millennia-spanning leap, saying that as Io was the mother of Dionysus (although to be picky, that’s a lesser myth compared to the one in which his mother was Semele), you can, thus, trace a direct link between the bacchanalian cult of Dionysus and the Indian Thugee bandits; which isn’t even taking into account that the image of the Thugee appears to be largely the result of orientalism and Victorian England’s fascination with things monstrous.

The Witch's Garden spread with an illustration of hemlock from the Rariorum plantarum historia of Carolus Clusius

Hansen’s entry for each plant includes a full page engraved illustration, the sources of which are all blessedly cited at the end of the book. Several are drawn from the 1601 Rariorum plantarum historia of Carolus Clusius, others from John Gerard’s 1597 The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, as well as a few other sources. These are well reproduced and printed, separating the them from the lo-res internet-sourcing that sometimes happens today, though the ones from Clusius’ book do appear a little brittle and scratchy due to the fine line work, especially when compared to the bold weight of the gorgeous images from Gerard’s herbal.

The Witch's Garden spread with an illustration of hound-tongue from John Gerard's herbal

One of the most interesting elements of this work is that it was originally intended for a Danish audience and so Hansen will often mention a plant’s particular history or use in Denmark, giving a nice local emphasis that might be missing in English titles. Also cute is the tendency of Hansen to betray his times with references to then current events, drawing a comparison with a witch’s use of their skills to make money and anarchist terrorist groups funding themselves by engaging in crime, Arab terrorists earning millions from hijackings and the “witch-like” Manson girls living off sugar daddies. Ahh, the Seventies, such fun.

Hansen writes in a largely informal matter, sometimes with little asides thrown in, but with an undercurrent of erudition that allows him to pull his various historical threads together. He does seem quite partial to Margaret Murray’s witch-cult hypothesis, acknowledging its critiques and referring to her somewhat “lively imagination,” but nevertheless saying that “without fear of contradiction,” witches “carried on pagan and Crypto-Christian traditions and were heirs to ancient knowledge of nature’s secret powers.”

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After considering the six plants individually, Hansen devotes a separate chapter to their combination within the ointment used by witches in order to effect transvection to the sabbat. While drawing on the original trial records to begin with, this has a much more modern focus, with Hansen detailing various contemporary experiments to replicate the ointment and its results. Whilst compact, this is an intense consideration of the matter and an area that Hansen clearly takes delight in.

Hansen concludes The Witch’s Garden somewhat abruptly with a tiny last chapter in which he briefly discusses the recipe used by the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, drawing attention to how some of the apparently faunal ingredients may actually be flora. Tongue of dog and adder’s fork, are both plants, for example, with the former being hound’s tongue (Cynoglossum officinale) and the latter being the Ophioglossum genus of ferns. At only four pages, this consideration is all too brief and much hay could have been made from it, with it providing instead, a strange, conclusion-less ending.

Published by Samuel Weiser. Inc.

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The Magian Tarok: The Origins of the Tarot in the Mithraic and Hermetic Traditions – Stephen E. Flowers

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Categories: hellenic, hermeticism, mesopotamian, tarot, Tags:

The Magian Tarok coverInner Traditions and Stephen Flowers seem to have a lucrative and fulfilling relationship, reissuing many of his works from over the years, usually in revised, expanded and more substantial versions than their humble first pressings on Flowers’ own Rûna Raven Press. This is one such title, originally released in a preliminary edition following its effective completion in 1992, then more widely by Rûna Raven Press in 2006 and finally again in 2015 by Lodestar Books. Suffice to say, with a cover design by Aaron Davis and layout by Debbie Glogover, this incarnation has all the effortless class one would expect from an Inner Traditions title.

The Magian Tarok follows a slightly atypical trajectory, placing, as its subtitle makes clear, the origins of the tarot in Mithraic and Hermetic traditions, rather than any of the more usual suspects, credible or not; an idea touched on briefly by Flowers in his book Hermetic Magic. In his introduction, Flowers details how the inspiration for this book long preceded its 1992 completion, having its inception in 1981 whilst he was researching in Germany. Here, the idea had an unlikely source, being found in the academic works of the Swedish poet and philologist, and promoter of the Uthark theory of the runes, Sigurd Agrell.

Flowers begins by talking tangentially, and in somewhat surprisingly glowing terms, about postmodern theory, but, of course, one as perpetually gruff and traditionalist as he isn’t referring to *that* postmodernism, oh no, heaven for fend. Instead, he is talking about, you know, the real one; the one that probably chops wood with an axe, smokes cigars, drinks whiskey, and has a moustache, rahhhh. Needless to say, Flowers can’t resist shaking his fist at those “Marxists and crypto-Marxists” on his lawn, hijacking postmodernism and storming poor, defenceless academia, saints preserve us. This is a peculiar little spittle of invective that once again highlights the incongruity of the relationship betwixt Flowers and Inner Traditions; a company one can’t imagine spends a lot of time railing against the modern world, not when there are books to be sold about vibrational nutrition, healing crystals and tuning the human biofield. This is particularly so as Inner Traditions are the kind of publisher that comes to mind in Flower’s preface when, in the very first paragraph, he laments that the modernisation and desacralisation of the tarot “has gone so far that one can even now buy “Teen Tarot” packages;” as if this apparently inconceivable proposition was one of the veritable signs of the apocalypse, right up there with human sacrifice and cats and dogs living together. Lawks, save us all from the twin evils of teenage girls and post-structuralist academics, they assail us from all sides.

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To ground the book’s central hypothesis, Flowers spends a considerable time, 52 pages in all, summarising Mithraism, along with its antecedents and contemporaries: Zoroastrianism, Magianism and briefly, Stoicism. This immediately provides a perfect encapsulation of some of the problems with the writing found in The Magian Tarok; something that comes as a surprise given Flowers’ experience and mileage as an author. Despite its 52 pages, this one chapter contains only five cited references, all from Franz Cumont’s seminal if not unassailable The Mysteries of Mithras, with all other secondary sources uncited, thereby leaving the reader to entirely trust Flowers’ description of these religious systems or to guess the source from amongst the three page bibliography at the back. Two of these citations relate awkwardly to a summary of Cumont’s highly speculative recreation of the story behind the tauroctony (the familiar if enigmatic slaying of the bull by the Roman form of Mithras), which, given the text’s block quote formatting makes it appear to be a direct quote from The Mysteries of Mithras, which it isn’t. This lack of sources other than Cumont is problematic given that so much of the writing is riddled with weasel words and false appeals to authority. There’s an abundant use of qualifiers like ‘maybe’ and ‘perhaps,’ but even more egregious are those appeals to false authority with phrases such as “it has been said,” “some say” and “some believe,” as well as references to some unspecified “most early scholars” and their descendants, the equally anonymous “some recent scholars.”

In addition to issues with referencing are some sloppy editing moments where whole sections of information are repeated redundantly, almost as if a few notes have been fleshed out one way and incorporated into the text, only for the author to rewrite the same information and insert it into the body a few pages later, appearing to forget doing it the first time. On page 15, for example, Flowers introduces Zarathustra and relates how this Iranian priest identified the embodiment of absolute divinity as Ahura Mazda (Lord-Wisdom), with all other gods and goddesses as abstract principles created by them. A brief five pages later, with the details still fresh in the memory of the reader, if not his own, Flowers disorientatingly introduces Zarathustra again and tells how he identified the embodiment of absolute divinity as Ahura Mazda (Lord-Wisdom) with all other gods and goddesses as abstract principles created by him. In other instances, concepts are discussed before they are defined, with, for example, Zurvanism being mentioned several times, albeit only by name, before a full explanation comes pages later, finally introducing Zurvan as if they hadn’t been mentioned in passing prior.

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After this lengthy grounding, Flowers moves on to a consideration of stoiechia, by which is meant the letters of the Greek alphabet, thus providing the book’s first hint of a pathway between Mithraism and the tarot. Flowers presents an esoteric, Mithraic interpretation of each letter, seemingly based entirely on the work of Agrell as no other sources, ancient or modern, are mentioned. Thus, the bull symbolism of alpha (or at least its Phoenician antecedent aleph) relates to the tauroctony; beta, as the second letter, is the lesser god and second principle of life in Zoroastrianism, the malevolent Ahriman; whereas the third letter, gamma, refers to Mithras who in Greek texts, according to Flowers, was “often called” triplasios (‘three-times-as-much’) and which he takes to imply the idea of a Mithraic trinity. It is worth noting that the names of these many Greek texts are not cited and the primary, if not only, use in Greek of the triplasios term for Mithras is by the 5th-6th century Christian theologian Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, where he employs it in the sense of thrice-great, rather than a trinitarian threefold.

This is all very speculative and it often feels like an association is made using the barest of symbolic simulacra, which is fine when one is doing an esoteric investigation for oneself, but less so when these correspondences are ostensibly being presented as an ancient belief system with a lineage that also stretches forward at least two millennia into the modern age. As the Greek letters do not have the rich symbolic associations of Hebrew or the runes, a meaning often has to be drawn, with some effort, from their numeric value using a simple Mispar Hechrachi-style number-for-letter formula. As a result, things get reachier the further into the alphabet one goes, with one of the reachiest being the eleventh letter, lambda, which is said to be associated with growth and vegetative virility. To get to this, Agrell noted that an excerpt from the Zoroastrian scripture Bundahishn tells how from five parts of the slain cosmic bull sprung 55 types of grain and twelve kinds of healing herbs. Discounting the twelve herbs, Agrell introduced the number 11 and tortuously argued that since 5 times 11 equals 55, then 11 must be the number that signifies growth and vegetative virility; not the referenced 5, nor 55, and certainly not 12. Like we said, so reachy, and that’s not even taking into account that the Bundahishn excerpt in question has Ahriman and his evil forces as the killers of the bull, not Mithra, who in his Iranian form is never associated with that act.

Undaunted with the sketchiness of this assignment to the Greek alphabet of myriad Zoroastrian and prochronistic Roman Mithraist elements, the next chapter moves forward in time with an assumption that said esoteric attributes were transferred from the Greek letters to their Latin equivalent. Little time is spent on this evolution and instead Flowers takes it as read and moves swiftly on to Agrell’s interpretation of the tarot, admitting for the first time that it would be untenable to suggest that the tarot trumps existed at this period in their later card form, but rather that their symbolism was then extant and conveyed in the esoteric import given to symbols, such as the Greek and Roman letters. Only later, the theory goes, were these arbitrary (and seemingly reverse-engineered) associations given pictorial form in the cards of the tarot; assuming an uninterrupted lineage of centuries.

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Flowers goes through each of the trumps, giving Agrell’s interpretation and fleshing out the information with additional details. There’s a lot of wrangling of imagery drawn not just from Mithraism’s limited symbolism but also ancient Egypt, Greece and more broadly, Hermeticism, all of which has to then be inelegantly tied back to Mithraism in order to fit the brief; although sometimes the stretch was apparently too great to bother with. Thus, the wand-wielding Magician is linked to a was-sceptre-holding Set, but then Flowers has to make this relevant to Agrell’s hypothesis with a hand-waving claim that “it is also likely” that during the Persian rule of Egypt, their Mithra was identified with the native Set. Similarly, The High Priestess is just, well, any queen-like goddess figure, so yeah, let’s say Isis, and well, maybe Cybele, and then let’s see if we can tie this in to Mithras based merely on the proximity of their respective cults, Yeah, that’ll do. Next! What, another goddess figure for The Empress? Ahh, that must have been Diana for, um, reasons. These Mithraists weren’t exactly bothered about encoding many figures unique to their ill-defined cosmology into these cards, any old god will do, almost as if these magi had the benefit of four millennia of mythological hindsight at their disposal.

Throughout this analysis, any coincidence is looked upon as proof and any inconsistency is acknowledged as something that must have changed, albeit for unspecified, mysterious reasons. Thus, The Fool is an image of the tauroctony, but the bull has been turned, naturally, I guess, into the jester figure, with his cap and bells read, for the first time by anyone ever, as bull’s ears. Mithras himself is completely absent, but lo, a dog seen in the tauroctony is there in the trump; although let’s ignore the fact that the dog is parasitically licking the bull’s blood in the former, while trying to warn the Fool of imminent danger in the latter. Not to mention that the dog first appears in the Marseilles deck, and not in any of its 15th century predecessors.

Ultimately, none of the interpretations of the cards are very convincing and the entire premise fails to move beyond confusing correlation for causation. Rather than showing that there was some ancient template for the 15th century tarot deck, inconceivably carried through time for over 1500 years by a secret magian brotherhood straight out of Dan Brown’s tawdry fiction, the swish of Occam’s Razor would argue that the 15th century designs, like any other creative output, drew their imagery from a vast array of extant sources and influences, both esoteric and mundane. Once again, if it was simply a matter of retroactively applying a Greek, Hermetic and tiny sliver of Mithraism to the symbolism of the tarot, in a manner done, for example, by anyone designing a new tarot with a specific cultural variation, then that would be fine; even if the links are, as mentioned, often tenuous. The issue though is with the implausible central hypothesis that all this happened the other way round, all managed by magian adepts with a knowledge of Hermeticism, two versions of Mithras (both Persian and Roman), who were also cognisant of a future where mere playing cards could become a system of divination (and then desacralized by those damn teenagers). This sloppy scholarship is exacerbated by the attempts to give names to these non-existent Roman trumps, as if that’s what they would really have been called, claiming for example that the original Roman name for Strength “was probably Magnitudo,” that for The Hanged Man “the evocative interpretation was probably Noxa,” that the Roman name for Temperance “was likely Pluvia, “rain (water),”” and that The Devil “would have carried the name Quirinus.” Even with those weasel word caveats, these are pretty bold claims to pull out of the aether and I could just as easily say, with comparable certainty, that The Tower was originally almost certainly most definitely called Geminae Turris (and the other tower was removed from the card’s imagery at some point because, you know, reasons).

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As an argument for a theory best left in the 1930s, the content of The Magian Tarok has little to recommend it, stretching symbolism, time, logic and the reader’s credulity. At best, one could say the book is merely a prima facie presentation of Agrell’s theory and is not intended as either critique or advocacy, But beyond the tarot theory itself, as a history of Mithraism it is also lacking, rife as it is with its lack of reference to both primary and secondary sources, and with its preponderance of weasel words, setting the discerning reader adrift in a sea of uncertain provenances and fruitless speculation. Given the relative obscurity of Mithraism, a clearer, more referenced consideration of the topic would be recommended, with less reliance solely on Cumont, as some of his once popular theories have attracted criticism over the years, beginning in 1971 with John Hinnells and R.L. Gordon at the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies.

The layout of The Magian Tarok comes, as ever, by way of the expert hand of the aforementioned Debbie Glogover, who sets the body in Garamond, with Brioso, Goudy Oldstyle and Gill Sans as display faces. Images are dotted throughout the book and the tarot trumps are represented four-fold in each example, with a row of three cards drawn variously from the Visconti-Sforza, Marseilles, Grigonneur, Rosenwald and Mantegna decks, topped each time by a larger featured image from the photographic tarot of Amber Rae Broderick.

Published by Inner Traditions

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Operative Witchcraft: Spellwork & Herbcraft in the British Isles – Nigel Pennick

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Operative Witchcraft coverOriginally published in 2012 by Lear Books with the seemingly more fitting subtitle of The Nature of Historic Witchcraft in Great Britain, Operative Witchcraft is a relatively broad consideration of British witchcraft, distinguishing it from other titles in Pennick’s oeuvre which often have a more regional focus. As detailed by the back-cover blurb, this is a journey through operative witchcraft in the British Isles, beginning in the Middle Ages, continuing into the Elizabethan era and up to the modern period with its decriminalisation in the 1950s and through to the present.

Originally published in 2012 by Lear Books with the seemingly more fitting subtitle of The Nature of Historic Witchcraft in Great Britain, Operative Witchcraft is a relatively broad consideration of British witchcraft, distinguishing it from other titles in Pennick’s oeuvre which often have a more regional focus. As detailed by the back-cover blurb, this is a presented as a journey through operative witchcraft in the British Isles, beginning in the Middle Ages, continuing into the Elizabethan era and up to the modern period with its decriminalisation in the 1950s and through to the present.

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Despite the clarity of this brief, Operative Witchcraft seems to take a while to figure out the kind of book it wants to be, and to determine the direction it wants to take. The first couple of brief chapters consider, in a somewhat abrupt manner, various aspects of witchcraft, with particular emphasis on folklore and the power and perception of the witch within communities. While Pennick’s editorial voice is clear from the start, having that world-weary assuredness of someone who has been writing and rewriting about this stuff for decades, it gets lost in some of the early chapters when it is swamped in data dumps that are awkwardly tied together; a complaint I have made recently about other witchcraft books but never before had to make with Pennick. Information often feels like notes, anecdotes and points of interest that haven’t properly been integrated into the greater narrative, often being introduced as disorientating non sequiturs with no preamble to provide context. And then there are short sentences and weird asides that perhaps an editor could have excised for conciseness, like when mid-paragraph in a discussion of toad folklore and magic, Pennick says that it is interesting that in Cockney rhyming slang ‘frog and toad’ means ‘road,’ but no, it really is not. It’s not interesting at all, in any relevant sense of the word.

The fourth chapter takes a different but equally discombobulatory approach from its predecessors and devotes its entire length, save for a two page preamble, to reprinting an excerpt from Ben Johnson’s 1609 The Masque of Queens. While this is an intriguing example of fiction infused with then extant knowledge of witchcraft practice, the excerpt is presented and then just left, with the chapter ending with no analysis, no comment, save for one note about the crane fly mentioned in the text. Yes, any reader with some familiarity with the themes of occultism can make their own assessment and unpacking of Johnson’s picturesque and symbolically rich text, but that doesn’t make it any less jarring to find it presented like an incongruous novelty, page filler or a misplaced appendix, devoid of editorial insight.

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The tone shifts again with the following chapter’s consideration of witchcraft and the legal system, which, as interesting as it is, still seems a pivot in its well-referenced deep dive into legal rulings and parliamentary acts. This is especially so when the next chapter surprisingly turns almost practical in a discussion of root work and plant magic, providing the reader with an exhaustive herbal of 26 witchcraft-associated plants. Each entry gives a brief outline of the plant’s history and its folkloric usage, accompanied by public domain or Creative Commons images, all well reproduced and to a casual glance, relatively consistent in style.

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Pennick’s remaining chapters consider a few specialist areas of witchcraft folklore and practice, though by no means all of them, and in so doing, there’s a feeling of things being treated somewhat disproportionately. For example, ten pages are devoted to the rather well-travelled theme of frog and toad magic, and another on places of power, while a whole slew of other things are bundled under the rubric of ‘witchcraft paraphernalia,’ and then, other than brief chapters on Obeah and the emergence of Wicca, there’s not much else.

This all contributes to the unfocussed and piecemeal feeling of Operative Witchcraft, where one could imagine that the book is made up of separate, previously published articles, all stitched together, rather than created from whole cloth; hence that prevailing sensation of casting about trying to find a direction for the whole book. It’s not that Operative Witchcraft needs to be a definitive account of British witchcraft, goddess knows there are enough of those out there covering the same well-worn ground, it’s just that sometimes it seems to want to be that, and then at other times, it doesn’t.

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Pennick cites his material thoroughly throughout, using in-body citations that link to a 24 page reference section at the rear, so there’s certainly a cornucopia of information contained within these pages, it’s just not presented in the most sympathetic manner. The layout of Operative Witchcraft is by the ever-reliable Debbie Glogover, with the body set in Garamond and chapter headings in the slightly slab-seriffy Rockeby Semiserif, with subheadings in Rotis Semi Serif and Gill Sans. Illustrations and photographs dot the pages, providing consistent visual interest, all high quality and well produced, as one would hope.

Published by Destiny Books/Inner Traditions

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