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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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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.

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

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Categories: folk, witchcraft, Tags:

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.

Operative Witchcraft spread

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.

Operative Witchcraft spread

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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Silent as the Trees: Devonshire Witchcraft, Folklore & Magic – Gemma Gary

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Categories: folk, witchcraft, Tags:

Silent as the Trees coverThe written works of Gemma Gary have a significant presence here in the shelves of Scriptus Recensera, along with sundry other titles from her Troy Books imprint. It’s easy to see why, with Gary mining a very particular field in an equally particular manner, with a style that combines thoroughness with a clear experiential love for her subject matter. Although Gary is principally associated with the witchcraft of Cornwall (as typified by her book Traditional Witchcraft: A Cornish Book of Ways), in this volume she wanders a little further afield, heading east into the wilds of Devon.

Silent as the Trees begins almost like a travelogue, with the author detailing a visit to the south-eastern Dartmoor village of North Bovey, the site of an incident in 1917 which is described as having a profound influence on the modern world of witchcraft. Unfortunately, the travelogue device, one which I would normally abhor (no frequenter of the travel section of the library, me), doesn’t continue much beyond this introduction, and instead, the book follows a familiar pattern, ably compiling various accounts of witchcraft and folklore with practical elements included for good experiential measure.

The event at North Bovey was one from the childhood of Cecil Williamson, who as a child saw a woman attacked by a mob after being accused of being a witch. Just as that scene loomed large in Williamson’s life, setting him off on a journey into witchcraft, so Williamson’s impact is felt throughout the pages of this book, being perhaps the most famous of all modern witches native to Devon. It is, though, other witches from Devon that Gary turns to initially, with her first chapter giving brief biographies of famous and not so famous witches, most notably Mother Shipton and no less than Sir Frances Drake, along with some lesser-known but gloriously-named figures such as Charity the Toad Witch, Old Snow, White Witch Tucker and the effortlessly spooky, in name and lore, Vixiana. These tales appear to be drawn from a variety of sources, though only a few of them are named, most notably Michael Howard’s West Country Witches, along with the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould in his Devonshire Characters and Strange Events.

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Gary follows these biographies with a chapter devoted to the three witches of Bideford, Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles and Susannah Edwards, the last people to be executed in England on charges of witchcraft. This is a thorough account, though once again, it is not always clear what the sources are, as little is mentioned in text and it is up to the reader to do some back engineering and work them out from the titles in the bibliography. Another chapter is devoted entirely to Cecil Williamson, whilst other takes the compendium format of previous chapters and lists various examples of practical Devonshire witchcraft culled from a variety of not always cited sources.

From here, Silent as the Trees alternates between discussions of witchcraft and more general aspects of Devonshire folklore; some of which is only tangentially related to witchcraft, even if it occupies the same mystical topgraphgy. These include, in the witchcraft column, techniques of skin-turning and familiar spirits, while the broader folklore pathway takes in the phenomena of black dogs and the wild hunt, as well as a journey through various significant locations in Devon’s countryside.

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In addition to everything you would expect from a Troy Books title such as this, Silent as the Trees has a bonus in the form of a separate section, a book within the book, if you will. This Black Book of Devonshire Magic presents a variety of spells, charms typical of the kind handed down and preserved in black books by Devonshire witches. No claim is made as to any hoary provenance for what is presented here, and instead this modern black book compiles material from a variety of previously published collections of folklore. These are blessedly and thoroughly referenced, with many coming from the works of two authors in particular: Graham King in his The British Book of Charms and Spells and Sarah Hewett in both her Nummits & Crummits and The Peasant Speech of Devon. As one would expect, these spells and charms cover ground familiar to any explorers of folk magic, offering solutions to a variety of ailments that one would hope any modern practitioner forgoes in deference to a nice dose of ibuprofen. There’s apparent cures for snake bite, ringworm, thorn pricks, fever, inflammation, burning, itching, diarrhoea (it’s a dried and powdered hot cross bun that’ll fix you on that one), and all manner of things what ails yah. It’s not just curing, though, and there’s also an extensive section of prophylactic magic (offering protection using things such as hagstones and pricked hearts), as well as various examples of that problematic old standard, love spells.

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Troy Books titles usually have a sense of polish and fine tuning with both the writing and spelling immaculate, but for some reason, Silent as the Trees feels like it could have done with a few more passes of the proofer’s pen. The name ‘Barnes’ loses its ‘e’ between two paragraphs, redundancy remain from the rewording of sentences, and there are words that one would think would be flagged by spellcheck alone, such as a reference to the Frist World War. This isn’t something that is necessarily endemic to the book, meaning that those moments in which it does arise are all the more jarring for it.

Aesthetically, Silent as the Trees follows the pleasing formula established by Troy Books: type thoughtfully set in a fairly large serif face, with decorative elements in titles and sub titles. Gary’s illustrations are dotted throughout the book, though not to the extent of other books, with the green man motif that appears on the cover used throughout, at a lowered opacity, as a chapter ending and space filler. In addition to Gary’s trademark images are two sections of photographs by Jane Cox, documenting various relics and locations associated with Devonshire witchcraft.

Silent as the Trees spread with photo plates

As is typical of Troy Books, Silent as the Trees has been released in a variety of formats, five in all: paperback, standard hardback, black edition, special edition and fine edition. All are presented in Royal format at 224 pages, with two sections of glossy plates of photographs by Jane Cox and a smattering of illustrations throughout. The standard hardback edition is bound in a moss green cloth with copper foil blocking to the cover and spine, light brown endpapers, and black head and tail bands. The 350 hand-numbered exemplars of the special edition are bound in Russet and recycled leather, with copper foil blocking to the front and spine, and the same green endpapers and black head and tail bands. The black edition comes in 125 hand-numbered exemplars bound in black recycled leather fibres, with black foil blocking to the front and spine, red end papers and head and tail bands also in red. Finally, the 23 copy fine edition is bound in rich green goat leather with copper foil blocking to the front and spine and patterned end papers, all wrapped in a fully-lined green library buckram slip-case with blind embossing on the front.

Published by Troy Books

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Under the Bramble Arch – Corinne Boyer

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Categories: folk, witchcraft, Tags:

Under the Bramble Arch coverUnder the Bramble Arch is the second volume in Corinne Boyer’s ongoing witchcraft trilogy and picks up where its predecessor, Under the Witch Tree, left off: still in a witchy garden near said witching tree, but moving past those arboreal inhabitants to the garden’s herbs and flowers. Bearing the subtitle “A Folk Grimoire of Wayside Plant Lore and Practicum,” the work provides a guide to 24 plants and herbs, designated by Boyer as belonging to the wayside, a locus that combines wildness with a human element, sitting on the intersection between worlds, lining byways and lanes. As such, the plants here are ones that have been with humans for some time, although many of them have occupied this space almost incidentally, as their habit is invasive or parasitic, meaning that they and their relevance are often overlooked.

Being a review of a sequel that follows its predecessor closely in structure and theme, there will probably be a constant refrain here of “as with Under the Bramble Witching Tree,” so forewarned and forearmed, and with shot glasses at the ready, let’s begin. As with Under the Witch Tree, each of the plants is presented here as its own exhaustive entry, mini chapters as it were, containing a veritable bounty of information. As with its predecessor, each section begins with a paragraph describing the plant, using picturesque language to place its properties and persona within its own mythic landscape. Sometimes this can be a description of the plant anthropomorphised into a tangible spirit (blackberry as the lady of wild edges and shadows, bittersweet nightshade as younger sister to her more famous sibling), in others, this opening takes the form of a small paean addressed to the plant in question, whilst in others, inspiration doesn’t appear to have struck so keenly and the paragraph simply acts as a fact-based overview or introduction.

As with Under the Witch Tree, these introductions are each followed by several pages of folklore, before concluding with sections on the plant’s practical use. These practical sections begin with medical examples drawn from history, followed by Boyer’s own general application, and then usually conclude with instructions for specific tools or usages (for example, a love powder from ivy, a mugwort cauldron for scrying, or a broom from, well, broom).

Under the Bramble Arch spread

The initial sections for each plant are dense and heavy with information, running to as much as six or seven pages, but usually around three. As with Under the Witch Tree, this content is presented largely unreferenced, coming thick and fast as little bites of information that apparently don’t have time to be coherently massaged into place beside their companions, the niceties of paragraph structure giving way to a need for a cascade of staccato sentences of folklore. The review of Under the Witch Tree makes much hay from the lack of referencing and whilst not wishing to re-litigate that to the same extent here, it is worth restating the issues that arise from this. The primary one is that nothing can be trusted, as so many of the anecdotal facts are shorn of their context, particularly geographical or temporal, with a belief that may have been extant in only one area often becoming seemingly universal because its point of origin is not mentioned. Any time something doesn’t ring true, the reader can find themselves hurrying off in search of the unnamed original source or some other form of corroboration, not in an attempt at playing ‘got-cha’ but just to verify that it’s true, or to find either a broader context or actual specifics. In the end, this all comes across like herbalist notes that have been scribbled down over the years, perhaps with their original sources long forgotten, but then transposed to the final manuscript without much in the way of finessing, resulting in the frequent sentence fragments, awkward phrasing, and disorientating shifts in tense.

As with Under the Witch Tree, one can, with a bit of work, reverse engineer the content here, tracking down the source of information (for example, much of the content about blackberry comes directly from Maida Silverman’s A City Herbal; listed in the bibliography but not cited in-body). But this is often an equally fruitless (eh hem) task, as these sources can be as citation-deficient as the book drawing from them. This makes much of the information here all but useless, vulnerable to such a degree of cumulative error and generation loss that it can be no better than gossip or urban legend.

This all works if you want the book to provide an overall vibe of these plants, where a witch could potentially pick any vaguely mentioned property or procedure and deem it fit for purpose based on general associations and history. Indeed, one could generously suggest that this is simply in line with the book’s precedents, with herbals and florilegia of old hardly being hotbeds of exhaustive referencing. However, if you incline towards the scientific method, documented provenance and things empirical, from either a botanical or anthropological perspective, then you are going to be severely disappointed. Hammering this home may seem unduly cruel, and one could argue that the book was never intended to be as rigorous as one might like, but the sentiment is borne simply from the experience of reading, where constant encounters with either the abrupt, note-taking nature of the writing, or the insufficiently detailed content of what could otherwise be interesting facts, can make for a frustrating experience. Then there are moments that are not just ambiguous in their origin but flat out wrong, such as a claim in the section on mistletoe that Baldur was the son of Freyja and that after he was restored to life, she placed the parasitic plant under her protection and it thenceforth only ever brought good fortune. With a bit of digging, this monumental howler seems to have come unchecked from a 2006 issue of Homeopathy Today Online, which tells you everything you need to know right there.

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In contrast to this torrent of not always accurate botanical information, the practical exercises that Boyer includes have the benefit of a far more immediate provenance, all coming from her. There are a variety of exercises presented here, with the various plants being used not just for medicinal products like tonics and ointments, but for charms and amulets, and for magical tools such as a witch’s rope, hag tapers, brooms and various aides to scrying. In some ways, this is where the book excels, with a diverse selection of exercises, well thought out and equally well presented.

As with Under the Witch Tree, Under the Bramble Arch concludes with a set of appendices with emphasis on the practical, as Boyer presents instructions for being a home apothecary, with guides to making poultices, tinctures, infusions and teas; all techniques that can be applied to different plants. As noted in the review for the previous volume, this is a good way to do it, rather than cluttering up each individual section with repetitive instructions.

As with Under the Witch Tree (*hic*), the entries for each plant are formatted to begin on the recto side of the page spread, and are usually preceded by the plant’s botanical illustration, printed at full size, on the verso page; save for a few times where the image is instead included text-wrapped in the main copy. As with Under the Witch Tree, these images come from a variety of, one assumes, public domain sources, and so they are not consistent in weight or style, with some appearing particularly heavy in line compared to others. But, unlike similar situations in lesser books, there’s a level of care that has gone into the presentation here and each image is of acceptable quality, with no pixilation or artefacts from compression or low resolution.

Under the Bramble Arch photo plates

In addition to these illustrations, Under the Bramble Arch includes a section of gloss photograph plates in the centre of the book. These feature images of Boyer herself (in her garden and with broom), along with both examples of some of the plants discussed and a variety of their uses. Richly black and white, these are beautifully shot and add a realism and hands-on quality to what is presented here, contrasting with the more idealised nature of the botanical illustrations.

Under the Bramble Arch is presented in Royal format with 258 pages and the 24 pages of the black and white photo plates. It was released in four editions: paperback, standard hardback, special edition and fine edition. The paperback edition comes with a gloss laminated cover while the standard hardback edition is bound in a blackberry cloth with gold foil blocking to the front and spine, green endpapers and green head and tail bands. The 250 copies of the hand-numbered special edition are bound in dark green cloth, with gold foil blocking to the front and spine, blackberry endpapers, and green head and tail bands. Finally, the sixteen copies of the fine edition are hand-bound in dark green goat leather with gold foil blocking to the front and spine, and the image of goat from the other editions replaced by the blackberry engraving used within. Housed in a fully lined black library buckram slip-case with blind embossing on the front, the fine edition also includes a hand-written protection charm by the author, using ink made from roses.

Published by Troy Books


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The Book of Merlin: Insights from the Merlin Conference – Edited by R.J. Stewart

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Categories: faery, folk, middle ages

First published in 1987 and then reprinted each year from 1989 to 1991, this book primarily compiles papers from the First Merlin Conference, held in London in 1986. It’s not clear, given the use of the ‘primarily’ qualifier, whether everything included here was presented as a paper, but if it is, the rather slight line-up is quite a remarkable one, with Geoffrey Ashe, Gareth Knight, John Matthews and Bob Stewart himself providing something of a Who’s Who of mid to late 80s esoteric Arthuriana. This is part of the charm of reviewing a title like this, harking back to a simpler time where re-encountering these authors is like slipping on some old familiar shoes. This nostalgia is compounded by the delicious, oh so occult 80s/90s cover art from Miranda Gray, whose delicately-stippled and hand-coloured image of a hooded Merlin is still stunning and evocative today despite being so of its time.

Things begin with an uncredited introduction that provides a brief overview of Merlin where, perhaps betraying Stewart’s authorship, there’s some typically salty invective about misconceptions surrounding him. You better not entertain the idea that Merlin is a vapid New Age pseudo-master or some doddering wizard with a star-spangled hat, otherwise, golly gosh, Stewart will hunt you down and severely castigate you.

But never fear, any vapid and New Age illusions are quickly put to rest with Geoffrey Ashe’s contribution, one of the most exhaustive here, providing a survey of Merlin’s earliest appearances, beginning with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The Prophecies of Merlin and The History of the Kings of Britain and then working backwards to the primary sources he drew from. This is a strictly factual survey of the literature, expertly corralled by Ashe, but even he can’t help adding a little mystical resonance, almost attributing sentience to the coalescence of the various proto versions of Merlin into a singular figure, identifying an “indwelling godhead” re-emerging as a powerful tutelary entity that had been there all along. I can dig it.

The Book of Merlin page spread with artwork by Miranda Gray

The content within this book is divided into five parts and the second of these takes its name from its first contribution, Gareth Knight’s The Archetype of Merlin. After an introduction by Stewart, Knight takes a not entirely focussed journey, deriving greater meaning from some of the more admittedly superficial impressions of Merlin, before exploring Gandalf as an example of the continuation of the archetype. This is just as scattershot, with Knight careening all over the place in an unendearing manner, reaching its apex when a whole page is used to quote from an editorial in The Guardian about, would you believe, the Challenger space shuttle disaster. Knight concludes this section with two other contributions, one about the blue stones Merlin is said to have brought from afar when constructing Stonehenge, and the other about the mage’s relationship with Nimuë. These are both briefer and more focused than the piece that precedes them, ending almost too abruptly where the former lingers.

The book’s third section considers Merlin’s place in modern fiction, and other than an introduction from Stewart, this is entirely John Matthews’ time to shine, with two pieces: one that gives its name to this section, followed by a two-page poem called Merlin’s Song of the Stones. As someone who has read a fair bit of contemporary Arthurian fiction all her life, this is an interesting overview, touching on some familiar notable titles such as Marian Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone and Parke Godwin’s Firelord, as well as other less familiar ones. Matthews doesn’t spend too long on each, grouping them together into similar themes, such as Merlin being associated with Atlantis (a surprisingly popular motif), or his roles as variously prophet, trickster and teacher.

The Book of Merlin page spread

Stewart provides the final paper here, and the book’s longest, with a consideration of Merlin and the wheel of life, drawing primarily from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini in which he appears as a shamanic and prophetic wild man of the woods, passing through a seasonal round. As an adjunct to this discussion, and in an intersection with an abiding interest in the legends and mysticism surrounding Bath in south west England, Stewart also relates Merlin to a similar figure mentioned by Geoffrey in his The History of the Kings of Britain, King Bladud. Bladud is described as a worker of necromancy, a devotee of Minerva who built the therapeutic baths of Aquae Sulis, but other than appearing in Vita Merlini, there’s little connecting him with Merlin other than broad motifs, and Stewart’s attempt at a comparison seems strained if thorough.

The Book of Merlin concludes with an appendix of two primary sources, as well as a reprint of an essay from 1901 by Arthur Charles Lewis Brown concerning the figure of Barintus, the helmsman who steers Arthur to the Fortunate Isles. The first of the primary texts, introduced once again by Stewart, are extracts from Thomas Heywood’s, wait for it, The Life of Merlin, surnamed Ambrosius; his Prophecies and Predictions Interpreted, and their Truth Made Good by our English Annals: Being a Chronographical History of all the Kings and Memorable Passages of this Kingdom, from Brute to the reign of King Charles, phew. The excerpts show how Heywood can almost be described as a proto-novelist, taking the core provided by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and fleshing it out with his own take, with a particular emphasis on Merlin’s prophesies and their interpretation. The second text consists of extracts from The Birth of Merlin, a bawdy comedy probably written in whole or part by William Rowley but which in its first printing was attributed to Rowley and no less than William Shakespeare.

The Book of Merlin page spread with artwork by Miranda Gray

In all, The Book of Merlin makes an interesting if brief introduction to some ideas associated with Merlin. Given its status as documentation of a single conference, there are understandably not a lot of contributors here and the fruits that are range in appeal, with those by Ashe and Matthews being the highlights; and Stewart’s editorial voice permeating throughout. Formatting is understated but competent and in addition to her lovely cover image, Miranda Gray provides illustrations for many of the contributions, all in her trademark style of crisp, fine lines offset with a restrained use of stippled detail and shading. These are usually set against white space, with little background, all adding to their ephemeral and mystical quality.

Published by Blandford


Thank you to our supporters on Patreon especially Serifs tier patron Michael Craft.

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