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Making Magic in Elizabethan England: Two Early Modern Vernacular Books of Magic, edited by Frank Klaassen

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Making Magic in Elizabethan England coverIn 2019’s Making Magic in Elizabethan England, Frank Klaassen uses two anonymous manuscripts of magic from Elizabethan England to consider the wider intellectual culture surrounding the practice of magic in the early modern period. He explores how this milieu, in drawing on currents from the Renaissance, the Reformation, and new developments in science, as well as the birth of printing, impacted on the practice of magic, creating an enduring influence on the formation of modern occultism. Though untitled when written, the works are now known as the Antiphoner Notebook and the Boxgrove Manual. The former is concerned with treasure hunting, healing, and protection, and blends medieval conjuring and charm literature with excerpts drawn from Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft. The Boxgrove Manual, meanwhile, is a consideration of ritual magic that synthesises material from and credited to Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and related medieval works concerning the conjuration of spirits.

Key to the importance attributed to the notebook and the manual is their interstitial status as post-Reformation works. As products of their time, they evince how occultists had to contend with a Catholic legacy in a newly-Protestant England. Up until then, magic had been inherently Catholic in form, employing the religion’s rituals and hagiographic mythologies, not to mention the fundamental idea that divine could be entreated using such systems and drawn into the world. Under Protestantism, these formulae and the very ideas behind them were forbidden, making the occult a doubly illicit practice, both theologically and politically: it was wrong for simply being magic as proscribed against in the bible, but also wrong for retaining elements of, and implying a sympathy for, Catholicism, and with that, a potential vulnerability to the machination of foreign Popish forces.

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Klaassen uses these two titles as a counter to the idea that post-Reformation Protestant theology and the emergence of secular science initiated a process of entzauberung or disenchantment within modernity, in which the previously omnipresence of the supernatural was removed from the world. Instead, Klaassen argues that the Reformation did not so much disenchant the old consensus about magic as to break it apart, allowing for it to be reassembled with new definitions that were increasingly divorced from the previous reliance on traditional religion. The Protestant author of the Boxgrove Manual had, for example, removed any explicitly Catholic content from his source material, but rather than creating a Protestant form of magic in its stead, the book represents not just a break with Catholicism, but a separation from religion itself.

In addition to this general overview with which he opens the book, Klaassen provides specific introductions to both texts, giving their history and an analysis of not only the content but its creators, assessing their intent and methods. The text themselves are presented in a thorough manner, with Klaassen using a preface before each one, explaining the physical characteristics of the manuscript in question, an explanation of the sources he cites, and a setting out of editorial principles. His translations are categorised as semi-diplomatic editions, producing an intermediate version of the manuscript text, largely faithful to how it was produced, but with some minor alterations for readability, with abbreviations expanded, and a few forms of punctuation standardised.

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The two works are extensively annotated by Klaassen, marking out amendments in the editing process but also providing valuable commentary both minor and extensive on matters that arise in the text. Due to the length of some of the digressions, these are understandably formatted as endnotes, rather than footnotes, which is still a shame, as their worth is such that it would aide reading to having them as an accessible adjunct on the same page as the body, visible at a glance, rather than necessitating the flicking between the here and now and the end of each chapter.

Despite their relatively shared provenance, these are two distinct works, in both style and subject matter, with the Antiphoner Notebook being arguably the less interesting of the two. Its focus is almost entirely on charms, perhaps the dullest and yet most popular form of occultism, with all the usual dubious cures for a variety of ailments, as well as dealing with that most perennial of problems, thieves. Many of these are common charms, many of which are drawn from Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft, and they do tend to dominate in the latter half, but there are also some interesting rituals and procedures, such as divination with a crystal, and a very long procedure for exorcising demons guarding a treasure. One instance tellingly shows how the grip of orthodox religion was loosening in magic, with the compiler including a guide for creating a wastcote of proofe, the process of which involves thread being spun in the name of the devil. The verbatim source for this was Discoverie of Witchcraft, but unlike its use there as part of Scot’s sceptical exposé of superstitious beliefs in witchcraft, in the Antiphoner Notebook it is included as something that could be readily employed like any of the other entries. Klaassen notes that this explicit use of the devil’s name, as well as other formulae in which both demons and angels are directly invoked, would have been beyond the pale of even later medieval necromancers who may have conjured demons but only did so in the name of Jesus.

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With its reliance on works by and attributed to Agrippa, and its focus on matters invocatory, the Boxgrove Manual makes for an immediately more interesting book than the Antiphoner Notebook. It opens with a Pentacle of the Apocalyptic Christ before continuing into a set of planetary seals and a guide to creating lamens for calling spirits, with both good and ill ones being listed. The manual is heavily indebted to Agrippa’s three volume De Occulta Philosophia as well as the apocryphal fourth book pseudonymously attributed to him as Liber Quartus De Occulta Philosophia. The compiler of the Boxgrove Manual clearly believed Agrippa to be the author of Liber Quartus, and draws from it throughout, but he also credits him with authorship of the Heptameron, which is usually credited, again pseudonymously, to Peter de Abano.

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Klaassen concludes the section on the Boxgrove Manual with a brief but valuable appendix, providing the sources for each of the manual’s entries, thereby showing the debt owed to the Heptameron, and to Liber Quartus in particular. In all, Making Magic in Elizabethan England, is a valuable title, not only for the versions of the Antiphoner Notebook and the Boxgrove Manual but for the way in which Klaassen contextualises them within post-Reformation England. He writes with a deft, knowledgeable hand that makes for a joy to read.

Published by the Pennsylvania State University Press

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Volcanoes in Old Norse Mythology: Myth and Environment in Early Iceland – Mathias Nordvig

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Volcanoes in Old Norse Mythology coverThis book from Mathias Nordvig provides a full exploration of an idea he first presented in 2014 as a PhD dissertation called Of Fire and Water. The Old Norse Mythical Worldview in an Eco- Mythological Perspective, and which he has subsequently promoted in smaller essays, including one in the recently reviewed Handbook of Old Norse Memory Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches from de Gruyter. As the title suggests, the focus here is on volcanism, and in particular the intersection between its physical presence in the landscape of Iceland and the topography of Norse mythology. Nordvig’s argument is that volcanoes and their effects had an outsize influence of the imagery found in the eddas and skaldic poetry, with the latter being used by Scandinavian migrants to medieval Iceland in order to understand and negotiate the unfamiliar geological hazards of the island. With the post-conversion growth of writing, and all the editing that is intrinsic to it, this world-view became codified in myth. In this way, Nordvig argues that Norse mythology is an indigenous expression of life in Iceland which has been emplaced in a Latinate script-world.

Volcanoes in Old Norse Mythology is significantly shorter than its dissertation forerunner, being largely divested of the academic necessities of the latter, such as literature reviews and overly-long explanations of theoretical frameworks and methods, but it does not come across as simply a reworking of the latter for a wider audience. Instead, while the ideas are the same, they provide the only through-line between the two works, with a sense of this book being built from scratch, rather than a mere editing down of a thesis with some finessing for publication.

Following a brief introduction, Nordvig begins with Old Norse Mythology Between Environment and Literature, in which he argues that Old Norse mythology is social memory that has direct reference to the world surrounding the texts, drawing comparisons from other cultures around the world in which a people’s myths, legends, and folktales can be instructive for understanding the environment in which they live. A large part of this chapter does not relate directly to the volcano theory and instead is an engaging discussion of concepts of memory and place both in Old Norse society and elsewhere. Key to this approach is Elizabeth W. Barber and Paul T. Barber’s book When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth, which Nordvig references extensively as his ideas mirror their approach to interpreting environment as a mytho-linguistic practice. The Barbers define four principles in this practice: silence (things that everyone takes as read), analogy (if any entities or phenomena bear some resemblance, in any aspect, they must be related), compression (once a theme achieves sufficient mass, it attracts more stories to it), and restructuring (significant cultural change means that some patterns in the theme will be restructured or reinterpreted, leading eventually to obfuscation). This, then, is effectively, Nordvig’s summary of his methods, though he is not entirely beholden to the Barbers’ model, stating that unlike them, he does not intend to define environmental factors as etiological reasons for mythogenesis, critiquing them for painting with broad strokes and attaching geologic meaning to myth where it is not warranted, Nordvig promises to avoid similar post hoc fallacies, saying that he will not claim that all aspects of Old Norse mythology are associated with environmental conditions.

Nordvig then presents his indigenous theory of volcanism in Iceland, using the poem Hallmundarkviða from the story Bergbúa Þáttr as his central and foundational piece of evidence. It’s pretty convincing too, with the poem describing an event in a cave where the arrival of a giant appears to be an anthropomorphised depiction of a volcanic event in which stones fly, dark flames drive and spit, embers shoot, raging streams rush in heavy rubble, and strange new clay flows from the ground. Even without any exegesis from Nordvig, it’s clear to see how this igneous imagery fits his thesis, but he does expertly consolidate this conclusion, drawing upon the concept of geomythology to create parallels with indigenous theories of volcanism from Hawai’i, Aotearoa, Indonesia, North America, and the European and African continents. While Elizabeth and Paul Barber’s book was pivotal to the first chapter, it is Dorothy B. Vitaliano’s Legends of the Earth that naturally assumes that role here, with her coining the phrase geomythology and defining it as the geologic application of euhemerism. Vitaliano argues that etiological folklore has given rise to stories about geological phenomena and her considerable focus on volcanism provides mythological context to volcanic phenomena in Polynesian myth and elsewhere that finds comparisons in Old Norse mythology. Of particular interest are the shared motifs attached to volcanism, with themes of taboo, supernatural anger, and most intriguing of all, ghostly ships, occurring in myths from across the world. It is at this point that Nordvig turns to Hallmundarkviða, showing many of the same themes within that Icelandic poem.

In the third chapter, Nordvig gets to the titular application of his theory, looking for further depictions of volcanism in the broader vistas of Old Norse cosmogony. This pyroclastic evidence is often veiled with the poetic language of myth in which, following the Barbers’ approach,  analogies occur between lava, ash, glacial bursts, ice, water, poison, snow, and sand. Nordvig’s focus in this chapter is entirely on the Old Norse creation myth, arguing by way of the use of these poetic analogies that the streams of ice and eitr in the myth refer not to anything icy but to streams of lava and other results of volcanic activity. But what is presented here never seems to be quite as convincing as the anthropomorphism found in Hallmundarkviða.

In the fourth chapter, Nordvig explores his thesis in terms of what he defines as the social order of Old Norse mythology, applying it to significant mythological events, most notably the story of the mead of poetry, which is dissected exhaustively, as well as Þórr’s duel with the giant Hrungnir. In the concluding fifth chapter, Nordvig effectively provides a summation of what he has covered before, underscoring his idea of volcanoes as a cosmological principle in Old Norse mythology and in the societies in which it informed their world view.

The examples that Nordvig uses to validate his volcano theory vary in how convincing they are, often coming across as circumstantial and tenuous in their use of allegory. Nordvig attempts to pre-empt this criticism by defining his theory as specifically not a nature mythology, be it in the vein of the nineteenth century natural allegory model or its contemporary incarnation as geomythology. Instead, Nordvig argues that his analogical descriptions are valid because multiple factors occur simultaneously. What constitutes a convincing factor is open to interpretation, and fundamentally, everything that is presented still feels like nothing more than a reiteration of myth as natural allegory, with so thorough a descent into the theory that almost anything in myth can be related to volcanic imagery, even when there’s little to no hint of it. Thus, any description of dwarves groaning becomes the sound of subterranean rumblings, and anything that lives in a mountain or in the underworld must somehow be related to volcanic phenomenon. Some of the examples are more convincing than others because they draw on chthonic and alpen imagery, such as the mead of poetry myth in which Óðinn enters the mountain home of the giant Suttungr and his daughter Gunnloð. In this instance, the mead that Óðinn steals as he bursts forth from Hnitbjörg is imagined as a flow of lava, which is a pleasant enough conclusion, albeit one that still feels circumstantial.

At the same time, though, a significant amount of time is also spent here discussing Hrungnir, a rock giant without so much as a sulphurous whiff of a lava flow about him. The reaching to find any correlation becomes exasperating when surely the creators of the myth could have just imagined a cool looking rock giant, because giants and rocks are cool; and it’s handy to have an imagination that can create imagery ex nihilo when your job is being a storyteller. It’s not even about whether Hrungnir could symbolise a volcano, which could be the case if the imagery at least fitted, but rather the insistence that someone looked at a volcano and imagined it as a giant; and not only that, but looked at a volcano and imagined its attributes as the explanation for almost anything else in myth. Suffice to say, it’s a case of an interesting theory that works in some instances but is then enthusiastically and injudiciously applied in an overreaching scattergun effect, much like earlier nature allegories in which everything was theorised to be a sun god or a harvest myth. This reaching for connections can get to ridiculous levels, such as when it is argued that the admittedly puzzling interpretation of Gunnloð’s name as ‘invitation to battle’ fits with “the conceptualization of volcanic activities as violent,” when maybe battle just means battle, as it does every other time a battle is a battle. It seems unlikely anyone has ever looked at a volcanic eruption and gone “Cor, you see that, it looks just like a battle, what with all the flaming ejecta and lava, and a distinct lack of swords. Imagine being invited to that.”

The other problem with the idea of multiple factors occurring simultaneously in order to confirm the volcano theory is when multiple other environmental factors occur but which don’t seem to have had any effect on the myth. Thus, while its superficially appealing to imagine a ruddy flow of lava emerging from the earth as the mead of inspiration, that’s pretty much where the analogy ends. There’s nothing in myth about the mead searing someone’s throat when they recklessly swallowed it, or it hardening into igneous rock in someone’s stomach, or indeed being deadly and very burny for entire villages.

None of this is too say that there isn’t anything to recommend about Volcanoes in Old Norse Mythology: Myth and Environment in Early Iceland. Nordvig writes with an enjoyable and knowledgeable style and he by no means skimps on the evidence when making his arguments. Indeed, the thoroughness of it all is what contributes to the feeling of confirmation bias as it use of allegoric minutiae shores itself up in a way that prevents you from seeing, if you will pardon the inversion, the trees for the wood (or their volcanic equivalent). Even if one finds, as this reviewer obviously does, that the volcanic theory is applied to easily and too thickly, Nordvig’s analysis of the myths themselves is worth the price of entry, as he draws widely from Norse scholarship to present a comprehensive consideration of his sources, and in particular, the creation myth, the mead of poetry myth, and the Hallmundarkviða poem.

Published by Arc Humanities Press

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The Bathhouse at Midnight: An Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia – W. F. Ryan

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The Bathhouse at Midnight cover Yet another entry in Pennsylvania State University Press’s expansive Magic in History series, the peculiarly-titled The Bathhouse at Midnight is a rather weighty and encyclopaedic tome, running to over 500 pages, albeit with a significant slice of this page count being inflated by the large selection of endnotes with which each chapter concludes. William Francis Ryan explains in an introduction that the work builds upon material that they began collecting for their 1969 doctoral dissertation on Old Russian astrological and astronomical terminology, as well as a series of articles on the history of science and magic text in Russia. Suffice to say, it seems that Ryan collected quite a bit of material during this career-spanning hunt, now distilled into fifteen chapters covering off almost every field of magic conceivable.

These chapters broadly divide Russian magic and divination into various subcategories, beginning with popular magic, and followed by considerations of different wizards and witches, systems of divinations, omens, predictions from dreams and physiological phenomena, spells, talismans, materia magica, bibliomancy, numerology, geomancy, alchemy, and astrology. Ryan concludes with a chapter on the relationship between magic and the church, the law and the state, and includes a roster of witchcraft cases that the Synodal court dealt with in the eighteenth century.

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Ryan begins this trip to the bathhouse at midnight with an historical outline, a large part of which is effectively a literature review, albeit not of comparable scholarly dissertations, but of the source texts upon which much of Russian occultism was based. Ryan shows how a considerable body of material imported into Russia was influential on later occultism, with streams coming from an older Byzantine textual tradition, a corpus of translation from Hebrew that were originally made in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, as well as more obvious Western influences. In so doing, the Russian tradition is situated within a broad occult context, wherein the confluence of similarities between indigenous and exotic practices and influence makes it hard to determine what exactly constitutes something that may have originated in native practice.

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The next two chapters focus on practices and the practitioners of magic respectively, beginning with a comprehensive discussion of various types of popular magic, categorised into sections on the evil eye, malefic magic, entities such as ancient gods and evil spirits, prophylactic magic, festivals and other propitious times or dates, magical places and directions, and finally religious parody and inversions. This amounts to a covering off of all the usual areas that one might find in a contemporary practical magical text, but in this instances, there’s a lot more detail and provenance, with Ryan meticulously referencing all his sources. With the following chapter’s focus on the practitioners of this magic, Ryan provides a catalogue of these various types, dedicating usually at least two pages to discuss the Volkhv, the Koldun, the Ved’ma, the Znakhar’, and the Vorozhei. These are only the main designations, and Ryan follows with an additional section exhaustively documenting all the words used for both types of magic and their practitioners. As elsewhere, this is no perfunctory list, and Ryan lists sources, derivation and context.

This is a formula that Ryan uses throughout, everything is so detailed and draws from a wide range of sources, all tied together with an expert voice and clear familiarity with his subject. Evidence of this is the consideration of materia magica, in which Ryan provides a lengthy and useful roster of plants, both real and fantastic, used for magic rites and in Russian folk medicine, where herbs dominated. There are nine pages here, with 49 plants described with varying levels of details, some with botanical names identified, and others with merely the places they are mentioned and their purpose.

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With his background as a president of the Folklore Society and an emeritus professor and honorary fellow at the Warburg Institute and the University of London, Ryan is well equipped to not only deal with the subject of this volume but to authoritatively draw comparisons with Western magic, as well as its classical roots. This makes for a comprehensive work, one that is thorough in its specificity but is aware of a broader context within the occult milieu. Because of Ryan’s readable manner, The Bathhouse at Midnight can be read sequentially from cover to cover, but is also clearly organised in such a way that allows for simply dipping in as a reference.

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The Bathhouse at Midnight is formatted in the academic style one would expect of a publisher like Penn State Press with a small but readable typeface throughout and an even smaller point size for the references and index, suggesting that with less frugal formatting it could have been a work significantly longer that its 504 pages. At first glance there is one exception to the quality of the layout with a distractingly small safety area on the top margins on each page, meaning that the page title and page numbering in the header sit a mere 3mm from the edge of the page. The digital preview version on Amazon features a more comfortable margin and a closer inspection shows that printing is provided by print-on-demand service Lightning Source, whose lackadaisical quality control has resulted in a tiny top and a big bottom. Therefore it is worth bearing in mind that this book may be printed on demand and so the results may vary, for the fault, dear Brutus, is not in the layout but in the printing.

Published by the Pennsylvania State University Press

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Journeys with Plant Spirits – Emma Farrell

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Journeys with Plant Spirits coverSubtitled Plant Consciousness Healing & Natural Magic Practices, Emma Farrell’s Journeys with Plant Spirits is a book that is light on the plants and heavy on the ‘consciousness,’ in the most excoriable form of the term. The book shares its name with an online course that Farrell runs for a mere £260; a price that generously includes a free copy of this book, score! As one would expect, the course mirrors the contents of this book with much talk of energy fields, consciousness and personal psychopspiritual (sic) healing.

Farrell is described as a plant spirit healer, a geomancer, a shamanic teacher, an apothecary of plant spirit medicine, the runner of a school of warrior healers (a handy class in a MMORPG, to be sure), a cofounder of the self-described “ground-breaking” Plant Consciousness event in London, the recipient of a mere two-year master’s degree, and someone who has been initiated into ancient magical practices of both the British Isles and the Ecuadorian Amazon. That’s a lot of things. Farrell also describes herself as a lineage holder of the White Serpent teachings, the system of one David Leesley, a mortician based on the Isle of Man who also claims to be a Vanuatuan High Chief whose arrival on the island of Tanna was long foretold by its so-called cargo cults (a bid for colonial prophetic glory that, surprisingly, is not unique for a certain class of bearded white men, as documented in Jon Tonk’s recent book The Men Who Would Be King).

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Farrell divides this work into two sections, the theoretical Entering the World of Plant Spirit Healing and the slightly more practical Thirteen Plants and Tree Spirits. The first section shows one of the problems with Journeys with Plant Spirits, the fluff, with a constant churn of metaphysical speculation in which so much is written but little is said. This is particularly true of the preponderance of unverifiable and glib statements that are de rigueur in new age writing and apparently don’t require any proof, other than an unctuous tone. All of which frankly feel a little dated in their fear-inculcating paranoia: television is the real hallucinogen used by “the authorities” to brainwash you, man; the symptoms of any disease come not from the disease itself but as the result of our experiences in life; toxicity surrounds us on ever side like predacious demons to the medieval mind; education is a meanie, and water has memory. Indeed, fairly generic water woo plays a significant role here, and leads to several descents into pseudo-scientific quackery, such as the bizarre statement, uttered with all the unwarranted certainty but lack of referencing that one would expect, that the molecules in tap water and bottled water are ‘shattered,’ whatever that means, and that this unstructured water is hard for the body to absorb. Quite why or how this has happened isn’t explained (why would you need to anyway, given that it’s apparently self-evident that modern-life=bad), but then bizarrely, Farrell says that the water in our bodies is the same water that is in the sea and clouds, which would surely mean that all water everywhere is broken, whether it comes out of a tap, bottle, urinary tract or refreshing mountain stream. Oh noes, we is doomed.

In concert with this wooliness is how Farrell’s grab-bag of credentials comes through within the pages of this book, with the text presenting information as a myriad of little bits without any depth or breadth. Various concepts are referenced but often with only a superficial glancing blow, lest anything be said in detail that could be easily queried or found contrary to the general narrative that is being promoted. Thus, there is talk of medicine wheels but any association with Native American expertise is fleeting and instead only the nomenclature is used with talk of a “Celtic medicine wheel” and the “tradition of medicine wheels” in the British Isle. There’s a bit of Tibetan Buddhism here, a little Chinese medicine there, and a mention of a Kichwa shaman that Farrell knows who calls earth a ‘prison planet.’ There are appeals to authority by quoting the pseudoscience of the Hearthmath Institute and, of course, there’s the de rigueur New Age references to misunderstood quantum physics as something that is ‘breaking down the barriers between science and spirituality.’ Naturally, the latter comes on the heels of a moan about how the scientific method is all about rules, man, and how all that analysis and measuring and verifiable results is such a bummer, dude.       

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It takes 128 pages of new age speculation and metaphysical truisms to get to the actual plant spirits of the title. Farrell has chosen thirteen spirits, a combination of herbs, weeds, shrubs and trees, featuring mugwort, oak, hawthorn, nettle, dandelion, alder, lady’s mantle, rosemary, fireweed, wormwood, angelica, elder and yew. Each plant receives its own chapter, prefaced with little hand drawn illustrations by UK-based artist Edward Foster, and featuring a multi-page exploration of both plant and spirit, followed by examples of practical application such as mediations and less frequently, guided meditations. As is to be expected, given the precedent set in the first half of this book, things get pretty fast and loose with facts, along with the insertion of a raft of new age terms like energy fields, harmonic resonances and psychic hygiene, all shot through with paranoid ideas about toxic entities that might sneak in through negative emotions. By now, the latter is par for the course, and so what really grates is the lack of rigour in what little historical or quantifiable information there is about each plant. Mugwort is “known as the queen of herbs or the witches’ first herb,” but no, it’s not, it just isn’t. Then there’s the claim that “in the mythology of the British Isles, fire is Freyja, the goddess of the three worlds who carries the impetus for the Great Web to manifest,” which, whatever the hel that is all meant to mean, is a yeah, um, no to that one too. And then there’s the idea that the lung disease and addiction associated with the smoking of tobacco only exists because of the Western commercialisation of the plant, and not because, you know, smoke is carcinogenic and nicotine is a highly addictive alkaloid.

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Thus, there’s not actually much that’s tangible in the discussion of each of these plants, with the metaphysical and theoretical dominating the discussion, empiricism be damned. As one would expect, then, there’s very little in the way of specifically plant-related referencing, with the most, which really isn’t much, coming from Dale Pendell and Scott Cunningham, who are cited less than the likes of Rudolf Steiner and Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. One could argue that this isn’t much of a problem as there’s relatively little practical application given for working with the actual physical plants, with the focus being on the spiritual rather than the botanical. So there’s more time being spent with the spirit of the plant; or at least the spirit as defined by Farrell, because the way in which some of these spirits concern themselves with particularly New Age visions of healthcare would make them unfamiliar to anyone from previous centuries. Even the idea of plant essences which can be taken orally, and which one would imagine involve distilling a plant’s chemical properties into a solution, turn out to contain only the ‘bioresonance’ of the plant spirit, meaning that it “holds the conscious intelligence of the plant or tree within the crystalline structure of water, fixed with alcohol,” which just sounds horrific. So yes, without the nasty chemical compounds of the plant, these essences have done the impossible which is to be even less effective than the watered down remedies of homeopathy.

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In the end, despite the patina of positivity and good vibes only, Journeys with Plant Spirits comes across as a profoundly negative book, promoting a paranoid and fear-based world view in which unspecified toxins and parasites, both psychic and material, assail us at every turn. A lapsarian world in which everything is broken by an insidious, oppressive and even predatory modernity. Indeed, it’s all rather reactionary, like a New Age Evola setting itself against the modern world™, while the world that is preferable is comparable to a medieval Christian one in which superstition is rife and science, medicine and education is suspect. A world in which delusional parasitosis is rampant and there’s an assumption that these ‘toxins’ will perpetually infect you. That like medieval demons, these anthropomorphised predators can be responsible for anything and everything. Keeping things current, this attitude also bleeds into discussions of the COVID19 pandemic, which unsurprisingly features some paranoid hot takes, with Farrell talking ominously of uncovering truth and of vampiric energies, the dark forces behind vaccine mandates that want to take our freedoms and human rights. Ermahgerd!

Journeys with Plant Spirits runs to 270 pages but, with its metaphysical churn and constant barrage of entirely speculative ideas, feels longer. Text design and layout is by Victoria Bowman, with the body set in Garamond and Hermann as a display face.

Published by Bear & Company

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Tales of Witchcraft and Wonder – Claude & Corinne Lecouteux

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Tales of Witchcraft and Wonder coverLike Claude Lecouteux’s recently reviewed Mysteries of the Werewolf, Tales of Witchcraft and Wonder, this work was originally published in French and here receives its first English edition, with Inner Traditions giving it the hardcover treatment, wrapped up nicely in a green dustjacket. Like the previously reviewed title, this is an anthology of source material, but this time Lecouteux is joined by his wife, Corinne, a translator specialising in tales and legends.

Interestingly, comparing the new title with that of the 2013 original, Contes, Diableries et Autres Merveilles du Moyen Age, only the ‘wonder’ now remains, with the diableries being replaced by the slightly more palatable witchcraft. As one might expect, then, this new title is somewhat of a misnomer as the witchcraft content within these pages is so slight as to be effectively negligible. Even a section on devils and magic concerns itself with general legends of diabolism with not a single witch amongst its cast of characters. Instead, these tales of wonder run the gamut of folklore, divided into fairly self-explanatory chapters that cover off animal tales, oddities and wonders, deviltry and spells, the supernatural spouse, both licit and illicit love, wisdom and stupidity, and heroic legends. Indeed from the pleasant alliteration of the title it is ‘wonder’ that is the operative word here, with the entries often being examples of medieval miracula and mirabilia, popular narratives of the fantastic that, as Les Lecouteux note, were often mined by romance writers of the Middle Ages to form their own tales. Applying Caroline Bynum’s seminal definition of the terms, these tales are examples of mirabilia, in that the detail “natural effects we fail to understand,” and miracula, that is, “’unusual and difficult’ events… produced by God’s power alone on things that have a natural tendency to the opposite effect.” Also puzzling is the book’s subtitle, The Venomous Maiden and Other Stories of the Supernatural, given that said tale, concerning a maiden fed poison her entire life in order to become a vehicle for revenge, is hardly the most representative entry here.

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In their introduction, Les Lecouteux provide an overview of the types of tales within, categorising them into five types: legends of the dead, demonic legends, historical legends, Christian legends and etiological legends. In an important caveat, they mention that to present these tales verbatim would be only of interest to specialists, so all of them have been rewritten into a consistent manner, free of redundancies and tedious appeals to God’s mercy and omnipotence, as was the style of the times. This creates a readable narrative with Jon E. Graham’s translation also flowing freely and complimenting the text nicely.

The first section with its examples of animal tales is the shortest at a mere six entries, though stories in which animals appear as the spirit forms of people do bleed into the following chapter on various oddities and wonders. One of the longest sections concerns the idea of the supernatural spouse, but there are few entries, with each of the tales being exhaustive retellings of medieval legends of courtly love, including those of Seyfried von Ardemont, Frederick of Swabia, and two swan knights, Aeneas and Helias. A similar thing occurs in the heroic legends chapter where many of the pages are devoted to single entries variously retelling the stories of Velent (Völundr) from Þidrekssaga af Bern, the anonymous 14th century romance Valentine and Nameless, and the hagiographic legend of Saint Oswald.

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A source of frustration mentioned ad nauseam in the review of Claude Lecouteux’s Mysteries of the Werewolf was that title’s lack of contextual information and referencing, with all the entries largely adrift in terms of time, space and authorship. Mercifully, that is not the case here, and indeed Les Lecouteux appear, intentionally or not, to have made up for the omissions in the previous work with a veritable surfeit of supplementary information. Every entry has a listing of the source, one that more often than not is also footnoted to point to the particular edition in the bibliography. Not only that, but almost all of these tales conclude with an italicised explanation by Les Lecouteux, citing provenance, influence or elucidating themes and motifs. The thoroughness does not end with these though, and Les Lecouteux provide an extensive appendix of various folk tale type classifications, including Antii Aarne’s numbered system from The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and a Bibliography, the moral themes of F. C. Tubach’s Index Exemplorum: A Handbook of Medieval Religious Tales, and the extensive index of motifs from Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk Literature. Keys to these indices appear at the end of many, though by no means all, of the entries. The inclusion of such classifications is a valuable tool and while the cross-referencing of these indexes may be limited to folkloric specialists in its usefulness, its inclusion is unobtrusive and can be ignored if simply reading for pleasure or general research.

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All in all, Tales of Witchcraft and Wonder has much to recommend it as a compilation of well referenced medieval legends. The text design and layout by Debbie Glogover presents the work in a pleasant fashion, with the body text set in Garamond, minor headers in Gill Sans and Myriad, the antique NixRift for the header of each entry, and Shango, based on F.H. Schneidler’s elegant classical serif Schneidler Mediaeval, for the main and chapter titles. A feathered woodcut image sits behind each chapter heading, a various smaller images, of varying reproduction quality, are spread throughout the body of the text to keep things interesting.

Published by Inner Traditions

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Slavic Witchcraft – Natasha Helvin

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Categories: folk, witchcraft, Tags:

Slavic Witchcraft coverWith its title and subtitle, Natasha Helvin’s Slavic Witchcraft: Old World Conjuring Spells & Folklore promises much in this 2019 release from Destiny Books. It’s debatable as to whether this promise is met by Helvin, a Soviet Union-born “professional rootworker and spiritual coach” who now lives in the Pacific Northwest and claims to be a fifth generation hereditary witch. That’s a lorra generations.

With her brief opening chapter, Helvin offers a general history of Russian pre-Christian belief, and its evolution with the coming of Christianity, pushing the idea of dual observance that incorporated the two. In a strange little section she also draws a somewhat unnecessary comparison with Voodoo, which she awkwardly describes as having, like Slavic paganism, aspects of the older African religions; that’s quite some cultural diffusionism.

In her second chapter, Slavic Magic, Power and Sorcery, Helvin begins with very little focus on said Slavic magic, instead presenting a primer on the mechanics of magic in general sans the book’s cultural context. This covers off many of the core principles that will be familiar to anyone who has spent time within 20th and 21st century magic, including expressing intent through actions and words, and the use of objects and amulets as repositories of this intent and power. It is only in the second half of the chapter that Helvin turns to specific Russian examples, abruptly moving away from the high magic theory to spend several pages discussing the folklore associated with Russian sorceresses. This abruptness, perhaps unintentionally, highlights a contrast in writing style that is found throughout Slavic Witchcraft but most noticeably in this chapter. For the most part, this book features the awkward, lumpen tone that one might expect from someone with English as their second language: sentences can be too short, the flow is halting and the phrasing can often be a little tortuous or naïve. The section of magical theory, however, has a more confident flow, and a contemporary nomenclature quite distinct from the rest of the book.

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The spells in Slavic Witchcraft are presented with nary a trace of source or reference and in her introduction, Helvin explains that they come predominantly from her family, with others collected whilst travelling abroad and on expeditions to rural Russia. This does rob the content of context, as there’s nothing denoting a spell’s origin, nothing to give value or credibility based on provenance or even popularity, nothing to suggest that they haven’t all just been made up by Helvin on the spot. This highlights a problem found throughout Slavic Witchcraft, in which there is no referencing, no primary sources, and also, most frustrating, very little in the way of specifics. W. F. Ryan’s 500 paged The Bathhouse at Midnight: An Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia this is not. Instead, this vision of Russia is an ungrounded, almost mythic, one, in which its 17.13 million kilometres contain very few named towns, cities or regions, ultimately implying a widespread homogeneity, given how so many of things are inconceivably attributed, like a comedy bit, to just “in Russia.” Apparently whether you’re in Kaliningrad or Vladivostock, it’s all the same. The same is true on matters of ethnicity and even worse, time, with the spells and the anecdotes existing in some ambiguous temporal space, unmoored from any particular time period. Context is everything and in this instance, context is completely absent. A spell may have been composed centuries ago, or it may have been made up yesterday, it’s impossible to tell.

This lack of context contributes to another problem with the spells in Slavic Witchcraft: there’s too many of them. A vast swathe of the book, fifty pages in all, is dedicated to love and relationship spells of the most psychologically suspect kind, all sharing similar goals and similar techniques to the point of redundancy. If Helvin documented where these spells came from, then there could at least be some validity to including all of them out of historical or anthropological interest. Instead, it’s just spell after spell of ways to get your husband back, how to hurt their mistress or new partner, how to forget your attachment to a married man that you’re having an affair with, how to get a reluctant partner to marry you, how to get your partner to forgive you after you’ve cheated on him and he doesn’t wanna, and how to make men who are indifferent to you instead fall for you, emotionally healthy catch that you are.

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Now, books of this stripe often attract reviews on Amazon from people who, being a little susceptible to superstition, find a particular title too heavy with the bad vibes, a cursed tome that brought bad luck until they wisely disposed of it. Slavic Witchcraft itself has one of these reviews and in some ways, they’re right. Not because the book is anything more than ink on paper, or because the content is grim and dark and will open the very gates of hell (if only), but because, well, some of said content is just gross and comes from a decidedly emotionally unhealthy place. Witness spell after spell that presupposes conflict and infidelity, and provides, as its solution, coercion and deceit. And some of the spells are ridiculous in their specificity, prefacing with misogynistic scenarios that says a lot about their authors: you trusted your beloved before you got married and had complete harmony and understanding between you, but the situation changed after the wedding. You began to control him, answer his calls and demand a full report on what he was doing. The solution? Basically say a charm reminding yourself of your proper place, as the led not the lead, as the neck not the head, which, after a week’s repetition, will change your “inner state,” your anxiety will go away, your irritability will be replaced by gratitude, and best of all, your husband will once again adore you. Score!

Suffice to say, it’s all very icky and all very tiring, and all a bit strange coming from a publisher like Destiny Books/Inner Traditions whose self-help titles on relationships probably don’t contain anything resembling these psychologically damaged inanities. It’s telling that this chapter begins with a bizarre little paragraph stating baldly that God created the first humans as androgynous, happy creatures that were later divided into male and female halves, and now those unhappy heteronormative halves look to reunite with each other and that, dear reader, is what love is. Naturally, this is presented simply as fact, and it is not explained whether this is Helvin’s personal belief, some scrap of folk belief “from Russia,” or just something cut and pasted from an inspirational meme on Facebook. Helvin goes on from here, effectively justifying the spells that follow, by saying that sometimes these relationships between the two halves are not always perfect, since, she seems to say with some inevitability, “either a rival turns out to be more grasping or beautiful and takes your love away or takes a loving husband and father from his family” or you know, the fire goes out and there’s no passion. Options, we’ve got options.

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The other spells collected here are grouped into sections on money and wealth, protection, and house and home. These cover many of the familiar concerns of folk medicine, with some methods that will be familiar from elsewhere. Indeed, reiterating that point, there’s often very little that distinguishes what is here from things that would be found elsewhere, with nothing obviously or uniquely Slavic about the spells. Perhaps the one selling point are the spoken charms which employ a darkly glamorous lexicon and which, par for the course, there doesn’t seem to be any prior trace of, be it in print or online, so you have no idea of their provenance, save for assuming it’s merely Helvin’s hand; or in a few cases,  onemagic.ru

The final section of spells focuses on cemetery traditions and unlike the previous groupings, these have a substantial preamble, outlining various Slavic funeral folk traditions. Again, this has the barest of details, nothing is geographically more specific than ‘Northern Russia’ and there’s little indication of the time we’re talking about, be it ancient, recent or contemporary.

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If Slavic Witchcraft documented its sources and presented itself with considerably more rigour, it would have much to recommend it, as there is a staggering amount of material here that cannot be found anywhere else. But, because of this failing, the reader, save if they be of a most trusting disposition, must surely assume that almost everything here has been crafted from whole cloth and these attested old world conjuring spells are considerably more new world.

Published by Destiny Books

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Mysteries of the Werewolf: Shapeshifting, Magic & Protection – Claude Lecouteux

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Categories: folk, Tags:

Mysteries of the Werewolf coverOriginally published in 2008 as Elle Courait le Garou: Lycanthropes, hommes-ours, hommes-tigres, Claude Lecouteux’s exploration of werewolves sees its first English translation with this 2021 edition from Inner Traditions; now featuring a title and subtitle more appealing to that publisher’s audience. Lecoutex is a familiar figure in the world of European folklore, with Inner Traditions having issued the English translation of his various works on dwarves, the spirits of the dead, the wild hunt and the almost alliterative triumvirate of witches, werewolves and fairies. Despite their mass market status as Inner Tradition titles, each of these volumes is a valuable resource, with Lecouteux displaying an easy erudition and familiarity with his subject.

Mysteries of the Werewolf differs from his other works both in its specificity and its approach. Whereas previous titles have broadly and discursively covered their subject matter, Mysteries of the Werewolf feels more like a reference work, being largely a source book or collection of case studies. An extensive introduction provides the only concentrated section of prose via an outline of werewolf history, touching on various appearances of the phenomena in myth, legend, and contemporary cinema, as well as general discussions of werewolf belief, trials and the explanations given for them.

Subsequent chapters take the case study approach, grouping the entries under Lecouteux’s broad headings of becoming a werewolf, diabolical pacts and spells, clothing and hides, being discovered as a werewolf, were-creatures and doubles, and finally, the freeing, healing or expulsion of werewolves. Each entry is preceded with a title (the majority of which are of Lecouteux’s own devising), and a subtitle giving location and date, but infuriatingly, there is no mention of the actual source. Instead, where available, the subtitle is endnoted and the corresponding source can be found by laboriously flicking through to the notes near the conclusion of the book. Incorporating the title and author, sans the publishing information, into the heading would have provided considerably more context for each nugget of knowledge, which are now rendered practically anonymous. Knowing at a glance, for example, that the first entry on Irish werewolves comes from Nennius, whilst a different one comes from Gerald of Wales, gives the reader a surprising amount of information, contextualising the information within its place and time and also pointing potentially to the author’s intent or credibility. Without it, and without the wearing out of fingers whilst trying to find the endnotes, one might assume that the references are nothing more than relatively recent summaries, rather than primary sources.

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This lack of background information renders some of the entries incomprehensible, or at the very least doesn’t help the reader understand what is happening in a particular narrative. This is most evident in an entry titled The Bastards, unhelpfully subtitled “France, twentieth century,” which is actually an excerpt from Henri Pourrat’s Légendes du pays vert. Now sheared of its context, the reader is given what appear to be three different summaries of werewolf activity confusingly interspersed with elements of dialogue that assumes the reader has better bearings within the narrative than they conceivably do. Considering that the value of a book such as this is as a reference, the relative anonymity of each entry makes its annoyingly unfit for purpose.

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While the recurring themes found in the groupings of each chapter should be self-evident, it is surprising that Lecouteux doesn’t provide anything in the way of summary or analysis in order to draw out connections or highlight differences. Instead, save for the odd footnote, these excerpts are presented unordered and as is, with no geographical or temporal groupings, thereby sending the reader careening through space and time. Not all accounts are from Europe and Scandinavia, and Lecouteux does occasionally travel further afield to China and Japan, adding to the disorientating feeling. These entries are somewhat incongruous giving that they mainly deal with transformation into tigers, rather than wolves, and while their inclusion under the previous edition’s subtitle of Lycanthropes, hommes-ours, hommes-tigres is appropriate, here they feel out of place in a discussion of the ‘mysteries of the werewolf.’ This is especially so given that, other than their transformation into an animal, the weretiger shares little of the folkloric elements associated with the European werewolf, and if said animal transformation is the only prerequisite, you could include all manner of things, even, why not, the Animorphs young adult fiction series from the 1990s? That’d be fun.

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Showing that he’s far from done with providing source material, Lecouteux concludes Mysteries of the Werewolf with an extensive appendix of testimonials from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries. These are, once again, listed without author or source, information that is only endnoted, and given that these are all intended as direct transcripts, this omission seem even more egregious here, shearing each piece of its context. This is exacerbated by the way in which some entries do open with minor background information from Lecouteux, but this is inconsistently applied and others were apparently not so deserving.

As stressed ad nauseum throughout this review, whilst promising, Mysteries of the Werewolf is hamstrung in its mission of being a thorough reference work due to its, well, lack of immediate references. This can hamper not only its usability but also its readability, as the infuriatingly anonymous appearance of the sources leave the reader contextually untethered, until eventually they’re unwilling to go on if every entry necessitates thumbing through the rear of the book for missing relevancy. If one isn’t as perturbed by this as your humble reviewer is, then Mysteries of the Werewolf can be viewed as a valuable reference book with a near complete, or at least highly representative, collection of European werewolf lore, with weretigers thrown in for fun.

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Mysteries of the Werewolf is available as an ebook while the only print version is as a hardcover edition with a pleasant blue-hued, claw-marked dustjacket over a blue binding; and the title foiled in silver on the spine. Text design and layout comes at the hand of Debbie Glogover, with body set in Garamond, with Cantoria and Fabello as internal display faces, and with the strong fang-like serif stylings of Bronzier for the title. Woodcuts of varying quality are sprinkled throughout the pages as the only form of illustration.

Published by Inner Traditions

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Magic in the Landscape – Nigel Pennick

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Categories: esotericism, folk, Tags:

Magic in the Landscape coverLike other recent reviewed titles from Nigel Pennick, his Magic in the Landscape is a book previously published in the first half of the 2010s by Lear Books, but which is now seeing a wider release with this new Destiny Books edition. Here subtitled Earth Mysteries & Geomancy, one might imagine that it would follow in the footsteps of people like John Michell and Paul Devereux, exploring fairly well worn paths across a magical and energetic landscape. This isn’t necessarily so, though, and instead Pennick takes a more philosophical approach, couching the discussion of real world examples with considerably more musings on the methodology behind this geological magic and a healthy dose of pragmatism.

Pennick begins, a little unexpectedly, with an introduction that acts as a rambling meditation on a range of ideas under the title A Vanishing World in Need of Rescue. This concerns itself not, as the title might suggest, with matters of imperilled environment or encroachments on the ruins of heritage, but rather with temporality, of the pitfalls of nationalist interpretations of the past, and of the permeability and often contrived or manufactured nature of tradition; a pragmatism that, given his career-long focus on various folk and magical traditions, is both interesting and surprising to hear. A similar voice leads into the book’s first chapter, where Pennick gives a brief history of Britain’s rural landscape, mapping out a process of alienation from the land and progressive urbanisation that began with the removal of common land by Parliament at the behest of the wealthy (a process that between 1604 and 1914 saw over 5,200 such Inclosure Acts, affecting 6.8 million acres of land). These acts literally imprisoned and reshaped the land, with new owners maximising its agricultural use by destroying ancient walkways, trees and standing stones, while the peasantry were no longer able to freely work the land as they once had. Pennick notes how the Inclosure Acts later assisted the construction of railways which added still more barriers across the landscape, and incentivised entrepreneurs to build factories and mills in close proximity for ease of transformation, hastening an increasing industrialisation of the land. One might expect this narrative to read like the very worst of Luddism, flailing ineffectively against the modern world,™ but somehow it doesn’t, with Pennick being largely dispassionate, despite his obvious allegiances, and not as, how you say, frothy as others might be.

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With this thorough grounding in the mistreatment of the land, it is only in the third chapter that Pennick begins to talk about treating it right and turns specifically to geomancy, opening with a discussion of the quaternary division of the land. This begins with the Etruscan’s method of laying out towns and temples centred around an omphalos, following a cosmological principle that Pennick also sees present in the designs of traditional British towns such as Oxford, Dunstable and Chichester.

Pennick quickly moves on to other elements within this magical landscape, shifting abruptly upwards into the heavens with a consideration of the seven stars of the plough Ursa Major, another on direction, and another on the eight winds. This marks something of an abrupt change of style, with the more philosophical and pleasant meander of the first chapters giving way to one in which info dumps are more common. This is particularly so in the chapter on the seven stars, where sentences of abrupt information concatenate together with no elucidatory sinew connecting them. Here, the staccato delivery of single sentence blocks of information create an aberration that contrasts with the more considered and massaged chapters of the book; almost as if someone forgot to turn the cliff notes into a proper chapter. This, mercifully, is a rare case and otherwise Pennick writes with a well-composed tone, displaying a clear editorial voice and calling upon a range of interesting and wide-ranging polymathic gems.

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Including a glossary, a bibliography and an index of several pages, Magic in the Landscape runs to a somewhat slight 169 pages, making it feel like a brief read. This is compounded by type that is set in a generous point size, with equally munificent leading betwixt lines, and chapters that are often brief and comprehensively illustrated. Pennick uses these brief chapters to create a brisk pace, moving with each from one subject to another, providing a range of examples in each that are frequently, though not rigorously, cited in text. The primary themes here are ones of boundaries, centres and spaces, with Pennick eschewing much of the more mystical modern interpretations and instead letting the examples and the explicit beliefs attached to them speak for themselves. This is particularly evident in a discussion of the quintessentially ‘earth mysteries’ idea of leys as unseen straight lines that run across the ancient landscape. Building on his 1989 book Lines on the Landscape, co-authored with Paul Devereux, Pennick takes an unyieldingly rational approach, lightly seasoned with a sprinkle of scathing tone, noting that Alfred Watkin’s ill-conceived but appealing 1920s idea of these straight lines connecting archaeological sites was later given a mystical interpretation, one that Watkins himself had never made, when interest in the theory was reinvigorated by 1960s counterculture. John Michell led this charge, particularly in his seminal book The View Over Atlantis, combining Watkin’s premise with ideas inspired by Chinese Feng shui in which paths of energy pass unseen within the land. Suffice to say, Pennick has no time for such shenanigans.

Given the centrality of ley lines in the Earth Mysteries movement and the whole attendant idea of unspecified but mysterious energies flowing beneath the ground, the presence of the ‘earth mysteries’ phrase in this book’s new subtitle seems a little incongruous. With that said, it is interesting that the word ‘ley’ is significantly more appropriate to Pennick’s considerations of space and genii locorum, rather than the idea of ancient energy lines, given that it is an Anglo-Saxon word denoting not a line but a cleared space (from l?ah/l?a?e ‘a clearing in the woods’, and as seen in l?ge meaning ‘fallow’), and Watkin’s problematic choice of the word came solely from its presence as a suffix in the names of several sites along his old straight track.

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The rejection of energetic ley lines does not mean that there is no spirituality or mysticism here because there is, one that is, if you’ll pardon the phrase, more grounded; and yet also more intangible. Rather than literal but scientifically debunkable energies pulsing through the land, this magic in the landscape is more concerned with alignments and intent, with a simpatico betwixt people and space, where occupancy cultivates a spirit of place. It is this that provides the merit to this book, not chasing saints and dragons across imagined lines of power but rather meditating on the land and how orientating oneself within it provides a way of connecting with the great universe.

Magic in the Landscape is illustrated throughout with photographs of various locations, objects and texts. Text design and layout is by Priscilla Baker, using Garamond for the body and Kiona, Gill Sans and Snell Roundhand as display faces.

Published by Destiny Books

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

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Categories: folk, grimoire, Tags:

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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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.

Traditional Board Games of Northern Europe spread

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.

Traditional Board Games of Northern Europe spread

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.

Traditional Board Games of Northern Europe spread

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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