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Women and Gender Issues in British Paganism, 1945–1990 – Shai Feraro

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Categories: goddesses, paganism, witchcraft, Tags:

Women and Gender Issues in British Paganism, 1945–1990 coverPart of the Palgrave Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic series, the appeal of a book like Shai Feraro’s Women and Gender Issues in British Paganism, 1945–1990 is its focus on a relatively recent period of history, something that for some of us is within living memory. It also mines themes of women and gender that, despite the centrality of goddess imagery in contemporary Wicca and witchcraft, has been little explored specifically, with Feraro considering in particular the reaction in Britain to both second-wave feminism and the emergence during the 1970s and 80s of goddess spirituality and feminist interpretations of witchcraft.

Feraro is an Adjunct Lecturer at Oranim College of Education, Israel, and has published with Palgrave in the past, editing the anthologies Contemporary Alternative Spiritualties in Israel in 2016, and, in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon, 2019’s Magic and Witchery in the Modern West. Feraro’s own contribution in the latter anthology, titled Playing The Pipes of Pan: Pagans Against Nukes and the Linking of Wiccan-derived Paganism with Ecofeminism in Britain, 1980-1990, considers many of the ideas that he expands upon here, and anyone who has read the latter will come across familiar beats, and yes, familiar phrasing, in this more comprehensive title.

Feraro writes in an immensely readable style that is accompanied by an easy and sympathetic familiarity with his subject matter, displaying none of the anthropological tourism one might expect from something such as this with its roots in academia; and which began as a dissertation completed at the University of Tel Aviv in September 2016. He includes extensive footnotes throughout, not just citing sources but providing additional information that makes them required reading alongside the main text.

Feraro begins at the beginning, providing, as an introduction, a condensed review of British Wicca and witchcraft, as well as the general Victorian occult milieu of Theosophy, Thelema and the Golden Dawn’s Hermeticism from which they emerged. This gets more specific in the second chapter when the focus turns entirely to Gerald Gardner and Alex Sanders, providing a survey of the former’s familiar biographical journey from a creator of witchcraft-tinged fiction to the creator of a fiction-tinged witchcraft. Feraro places Gardner within his time, noting that influences that left their mark in the creation of his nascent Wiccan liturgy, including Margaret Murray and Aleister Crowley, but not Dion Fortune, despite an intersection of themes and ideas. Prescient to the gender themes of this book, Gardner imagined witchcraft as the descendent of a matriarchal Stone Age in which men were hunters and women stayed at home “making medicine and magic,” and as Feraro documents he wouldn’t be the last person in witchcraft to detail a history based simply on what they imagined/hoped might have happened.

Despite his veneration of a goddess and the role given to the priestess in his witchcraft, Gardner’s feminism was something of a half-measure or token gesture. Both he, Sanders and many of their respective students believed that a priestess in witchcraft wielded great power, but that this power was only granted to them, oh so graciously, by the priest, who could always take it back should they desire; be it because the priestess was too old, how charming, or just, well, because. Like a good submissive, Gardner seems to have viewed power as something to be played with only in a particular space, as something consciously given over for kicks, but with the understanding that you ultimately remain in control, especially once the session is over, the dom is paid and the scourge is put away. Decades later, Asphodel Long succinctly noted this half measure feminism when detailing her dissatisfaction with Wicca, describing how the British witchcraft of Crowley, Gardner and Sanders “… although deemed to be based on traditions apparently inherited through our grandmothers, in fact sets up a male oriented craft, worshiping a male god, … allowing to women a ‘priestess’ role and confirming heterosexual stereotyping on a patriarchal pattern.” Such heterosexual and patriarchal patterning would prove to be a stumbling block for many traditional crafters upon encountering the spectre of Dianic, feminist, and even, let’s use hushed and scandalised tones, lesbian covens, in which the idea of arbitrary, binary-gendered membership didn’t seem quite so important. Indeed, the obsession with an often essentialist gender balance in covens, seemingly argued for the strongest by sclerotic men worried that any shift beyond a 50/50 binary might be a step too far, is amusingly quaint, as is the attendant emphasis on witchcraft as strictly a fertility religion, now practiced by urbanites that had never put plough to furrow. One shouldn’t oversimplify this response and Feraro dutifully shows that opinions across the entire subculture were by no means monolithic, and for every amateur sociologist like John Score, telling women to respect and encourage male dominance and aggression, matching it with loving feminine submissiveness, there was a Michael Howard engaging with and promoting Monica Sjöö and validating her individual choice of acknowledging only the female aspect of the divine.

In chapter three, Feraro moves away from witchcraft specifically to look at the emergence of the usually unaffiliated Matriarchy Study Groups, and the wider Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain. This also provides an opportunity to consider how the writings of radical and cultural feminists such as Kate Millett, Mary Daly, Adrienne Rich, Susan Griffin, Robin Morgan, and Susan Brownmiller provided the grounding for the development of feminist spirituality across the Atlantic in the United States, in turn leading to the development during the 1970 and 80s of the Dianic witchcraft of Zsuzsanna Budapest and Starhawk’s Reclaiming tradition. Starkhawk is a constant presence not just in this chapter but throughout the book, with an influence that seems still greater than the generous 213 mentions she has; but which contrasts strongly with Gardner’s 160 and the 98 of both of the Sanders, Alex and Maxine. Even so, it is impossible to overstate Starhawk’s impact on the British witchcraft scene, with her Spiral Dance being almost universally well reviewed and received, and her occasional visits to Britain creating great interest. Even those witches with a direct line of descent back to Gardner appear to have thought highly of this newcomer, with none of the bitterness or suspicion that one might expect, with good reason, the occult subculture to be so capable of. Budapest and Starhawk’s influence on both British witchcraft and non-witchy goddess spirituality was often subtle and unrealised, with Feraro referring to Ronald Hutton’s observation that material produced by the two women, in particular chants, entered into the ‘oral tradition’ of witchcraft and were quickly assumed by some witches to be of ancient pedigree, rather than something imported relatively recently from the United States of all places.

In chapter four, Feraro turns to Britain’s literal green and pleasant land, with a consideration of three sites and events: the new age hub of Glastonbury, the anti-nuclear Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp and the emergence of pagan festivals and conferences. In chapter five, he narrows his view to consider in greater detail a number of specific goddess women and Dianic witches, profiling Asphodel Long, Kathy Jones, Jean Freer, Janet McCrickard, Felicity Wombwell, Shan Jayran and Monica Sjöö. Of these women, Sjöö, as an active participant in British feminism and as part of goddess spirituality’s intersection with witchcraft, has an influence rivalling that of Starhawk within these pages, racking up 411 mentions. Her unapologetic and vociferously held views provided the perfect spectre for those in witchcraft that thought, horrors, this feminism and goddess worship might all be going too far. Chapter six follows a similar individual approach to its predecessor, but from a different perspective, this time seeing the response to feminist witchcraft and the women’s liberation movement from authors who represented effectively the Wiccan establishment: the Sanders, the Farrars, Patricia Crowther, Lois Bourne, Doreen Valiente, Vivianne Crowley, Marian Green and Rae Beth.

On the surface, Feraro’s seventh chapter promises to be the most interesting section of this book, discussing the variety of occult magazines, zines and newsletters from across the 1970s and 1980s. As he notes, magazines such as these gave voice to the grassroots opinions of everyday Wiccans and pagans, letting them sit alongside those of the subculture’s major figures who already had the option of having their voices heard in their own books. From a personal perspective, there is always a lure to zines and smaller journals, and an attendant nostalgia that recalls the promise of raw, experiential knowledge derived from the rock face of occult practice. As he does with the biographies in the previous chapters, Feraro introduces each magazine thoroughly discussing their approach and the history of the people behind them, before detailing their response, if any, to goddess spirituality and feminism. He covers familiar titles like Michael Howard’s The Cauldron, John Score’s The Wiccan, Hilary Llewellyn Williams and Tony Padfield’s Wood and Water, Phil Hine’s Pagan News, and the organ of Pagans Against Nukes, The Pipes of PAN; as well as lesser known publications like The Aquarian Arrow, Silver Wheel Coven’s house magazine, Dragon’s Brew, and others.

Women and Gender Issues in British Paganism has much to recommend about it and its true value is two-fold: first, with its focus on a subject little written about and second, in the thoroughness of these considerations. Exemplary of this are the profiles in chapters five and six, where a lesser title may have relegated biographies to one paragraph summaries, whereas Feraro honours everyone with a thorough background, allowing each person to appear as individuals, rather than briefly introduced faceless names.

Despite the frequent refrain of ‘thoroughness’, there is a degree of sloppiness in the proofing of Women and Gender Issues in British Paganism, with the occasional appearance of vagrant words that remain after sentences have been reworded, incorrect verb forms and the odd but amusing wrong-word error. See, for example, a single paragraph on page 92, in which Museum Street’s famed Atlantis Bookshop miraculously transforms in a mere five lines into the slightly less mystical Atlantic Bookshop. While these errors are not necessarily common, their appearance can be jarring in a title such as this that otherwise feels meticulously constructed; especially in those cases where several errors do appear in relative close proximity, only a few pages apart.

Published by Palgrave Macmillan

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Origins of the Witches’ Sabbath – Michael D. Bailey

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Origins of the Witches' Sabbath coverThe second entry in the Sourcebook series from Pennsylvania State University Press’s wider Magic in History collection, Origins of the Witches’ Sabbath brings together translations of the five earliest accounts of the witches’ sabbath, as well as the records of two witch trials from the same period. The works compiled here are Hans Fründ’s Report on Witchcraft in Valais, Claude Tholosan’s So That the Errors of Magicians and Witches Might Be Made Evident to Ignorant People, Johannes Nider’s Anthill, and two anonymous pieces, the Errors of the Gazarii and The Vauderie of Lyon. The trial records, meanwhile, are those of Jubertus of Bavaria (who was tried by Tholosan) and Aymonet Maugetaz of Epesses (whose evidence may have informed some of the unique content of the Basel version of the Errors of the Gazarii).

Michael D. Bailey is Professor of History at Iowa State University and the founding editor of the journal Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft. In his introduction, he describes these documents, all written during the 1430s and in locations clustered around the western Alps, as the evidence of a remarkable conceptual transformation. Prior to this burst of sabbatic creativity, while witches could be perceived as workers of maleficia, and thereby a danger to society, they were largely imagined as individuals, working in isolation. These five fifteenth century works changed that, creating the idea of a network of witches, a vast diabolical occult conspiracy that gathered together, engaged in infanticide and cannibalism, cast spells and brewed potions, and most strikingly, foreswore their Christian faith and fornicated at the behest of a very real demonic master. In so doing, the witch became a greater threat, effectively being a member of a shadowy, unruly, alternative society that ran alongside the conventional twin of the ordered Christian world. In this way, the actual spells and rituals of witches were of less concern to the authors of these texts, and instead it was the very act of removing oneself from society and joining an inverted counterpart that proved more unnerving, especially with the concern that the appeal of such an idea could spread like a contagion. In Report on Witchcraft in Valais, for example, Fründ says that the witches’ numbers were so great that they optimistically thought that in a year they would be able to raise up their own king and appoint their own courts. At the same time, allegations of witchcraft by the state also provided an opportunity and justification for their own political and judicial expansion, with the secular judge Peter of Bern seeking to extend his city’s judicial reach into the Alpine hinterland, or Tholosan working on behalf of the French crown in the independent Dauphiné.

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With the exception of Nider’s relatively well duplicated Anthill, the texts here survive in just a few copies, or are, so far, entirely unique. The true value of Origins of the Witches’ Sabbath is that despite their centrality in the forging of the image of the diabolical sabbath, these five texts have not previously received complete translations into English, appearing only in scattered form and often as brief excerpts. Bailey acknowledges a debt to Martine Ostorero, Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, Kathrin Utz Tremp, and Catherine Chène’s L’imaginaire du sabbat, which brought these five texts together in a modern French translation in 1999. It is from their work that he bases the bulk of his translation, though he does diverge from their template, replacing an excerpt from the fourth book of Martin le Franc’s poem Le Champion des Dames with The Vauderie of Lyon, and choosing to include only some of Tholosan’s So That the Errors of Magicians and Witches Might Be Made Evident to Ignorant People, limiting the translation to the first section and avoiding the “long slog” of dense legalese that is the rest.

Bailey does an admirable job of noting the similarities and differences across these five accounts in an introductory chapter that considers how each one deals with, elaborates or minimises various elements of the Sabbath narrative: demonic assemblies, night flights and revels, entering the Devil’s service, cannibalism and infanticide, as well as a dual discussion of sex and gender. He then builds upon this introduction with individual prefaces before each text, giving further background about their provenance, biographies of their author, when known, and other information of interest.

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On the whole there are remarkable through lines that permeate these texts, speaking to concerns that were obviously at the forefront of people’s mind at the time. The most striking of these is a profoundly corporeal focus, with the writers turning time and again to bodies (particularly those of children) and their destruction. The theme of infanticide and its attendant cannibalism is found in all of the accounts, proving more popular than ideas of night flights to the sabbat or even pacts with the devil, and it is rendered in a purple prurience that recalls the fantasies of 80s era Satanic Panic and more contemporary gibberish about diabolical paedophile pizza parlours. Nider reported that thirteen babies had been devoured by presumably very hungry witches in a relatively short time, while Errors of the Gazarii stated that all new witches had to pledge to the devil to kill as many children as they could and bring their corpses to the Sabbath to be roasted or boiled. Fründ repeated similar claims but added an extra element worthy of modern urban legend and moral panics, describing how witches would smear poisonous material on their hands and secretly touch children, causing them to wither away. Perhaps the most visceral account of corporeal anatomisation comes from Errors of the Gazarii but for once doesn’t involve children, and instead tells how witches would find a redheaded person, strip him naked and bind him to a bench to be bitten all over by venomous animals. Like a scene from a death metal album, once dead, the unfortunate redhead was hung from his feet so that impurities and poisons flowed from his mouth and other orifices and could be collected in a bowl to be turned into a deadly unguent. Fun times.

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Other than this exercise in body horror, perhaps the most intriguing element found in these accounts is the varying description of the devil. For Fründ, the devil appeared as various black animals such as a bear or a ram, but also in a terrible evil form, which Tholosan appears to echo when describing how the devil appears as a man but partially translucent. This numinous, almost wondrous and Luciferian incarnation of the devil had a body like glass that would not block the sun and would cast no shadow, suggesting a being whose ephemerality is the one thing that diverges from the fleshly, corporeal concerns of these sabbat accounts. It is The Vauderie of Lyon that takes the monstrosity of the devil to an excessive degree, describing a figure whose chimeric syncretism piles one horror upon the other, making him sound more like a sabbatic Gruffalo instead of a classic horned god. While Julia Donaldson’s creation may have “terrible tusks, and terrible claws, and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws… knobbly knees, and turned-out toes and a poisonous wart at the end of his nose. His eyes are orange, his tongue is black, he has purple prickles all over his back,” the devil of Lyon is a horned black figure covered with hair and bristles, with bulging and rolling eyes that emit flames, ears that are likewise fiery, a large crooked nose, a gaping mouth, an elongated neck, a chest and belly that are “inconceivably deformed,” hands and feet that end in terrible claws, and hooks and long spikes running up and down his hands and arms. It’s not clear if, like the Gruffalo, this devilish creature’s favourite food was owl ice cream or scrambled snake, though the author of The Vauderie of Lyon does not seem to recommend the dining options at his demonic table, with slimy meat and a black and heavy bread, all washed down with “a certain black, tasteless and horrible beverage.”

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The two witch trials records that conclude this volume act as germane examples of how the evidence presented could be incorporated into the published sabbatic narratives; or how the latter could have influenced the content of the former. They are by no means as detailed as the published texts, but familiar elements appear here and there, with suggestions of infanticide, miraculous transportation to the sabbat, and both ritualised and everyday repudiations of the cross and Christ.

Origins of the Witches’ Sabbath would be an invaluable resource if it simply brought together its English translations of these important texts, but Bailey’s editorial voice adds so much more, combining erudition and familiarity of the subject matter with a clear love of the field and even the occasional spark of humour. Recommended on both accounts.

Published by the Pennsylvania State University Press

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The Witch’s Garden – Harold A. Hansen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published by Destiny Books/Inner Traditions

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

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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.

Silent as the Trees spread

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.

Under the Bramble Arch spread

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 Witch and the Hysteric: The Monstrous Medieval in Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan – Alexander Doty and Patricia Clare Ingham

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Categories: witchcraft, Tags:

Published by Dead Letter Office, Punctum Books’ imprint for “work that either has gone “nowhere” or will likely go nowhere,” this is a brief work from Alexander Doty and Patricia Clare Ingham, published posthumously following Doty’s death in 2012. The two first collaborated on an essay that, like the ones compiled here, considered the intersection between an occult work of celluloid fiction and its real world, pre-modern textual history: Val Tournier’s Cat People. In the case of the work reviewed here, Doty introduced Ingham to Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 film Häxan at a class they team-taught in 2001, and she, in turn, told him to read Malleus Maleficarum. Life intervened until the two returned to the theme in 2008, finding the impetus to begin work on this book at last, before reconvening in 2012 with a short text that was submitted to Punctum Books. Unfortunately, Doty died in August of that year, two weeks before they received recommendations for revisions and approval to publish from Punctum.

Despite the enduring popularity of Häxan, with the film having several versions released over the years (including an edit with narration by William Burroughs) and multiple scores composed for it, little has been written critically about it. Its influence on other film-makers has been noted but less made of its uncanny style mixing documentary and fantasy, both in its content and structure, which combines fictional episodes, illustrated lectures, and dreamscapes, all divided into seven ‘chapters.’ With medieval scholarship’s love of the monstrous this is somewhat surprising but Doty and Ingham redress this imbalance, arguing for Christensen’s Malleus Maleficarum-inspired witch as a monster herself, whose placement within an ill-defined middle ages signals both a category crisis and a temporal paradox.

Häxan still

Doty and Ingham see the untimely temporality in Christensen’s depiction of the witch as a recapitulation of the two early modern visions of witchcraft, one being that of Heinrich Kramer in the aforementioned Malleus Maleficarum, whilst the other is that of Johann Weyer in De praestigitis daemonum. Both men’s take on witchcraft effectively centred around whether to believe women, with the Catholic Kramer arguing for the literal nature of what accused witches claimed to have experienced (bringing with it affirmation of a belief in the Christian supernatural world), whereas the Lutheran Weyer was quite willing to see the very same as the result of delusions, giving the reports the equivalent veracity of the confessions of melancholics and the mentally incompetent. Ironically, the rationalist views of Weyer (who is touted by Gregory Zillboorg as a father to modern psychiatry) is the more disempowering of the two for the women in question, rendering them victims of their delusions and phantasms (rather than complicit wielders of dark glamour), and linking them, by implicit association, with mental illness and depression.

But we digress, suffice to say that Doty and Ingham use the debt that Christensen’s witch owes to Kramer and Weyer to discuss both men’s approach to the matter in hand, with little immediate reference back to Häxan itself for now. This makes the second chapter an intriguing and engaging summary of the texts of both men and their attendant worldviews, analysing their motivations and resulting implications, as their respective opinions track the greater early modern theological debate on maleficia. In the third chapter, Doty and Ingham continue to consider this influence, noting its effect of psychiatry and in particular the work of Freud and his conception of the hysteric, and also on other matters of epistemology. They refer to Kathleen Biddick’s assessment that the Malleus Maleficarum played a key role in epistemological methods of eyewitness reports and ethnography, with the figure of the Devil creating for both Inquisitors and historians a lens through which the accused women could be viewed, making their diabolical practice visible and thus evidentiary.

Häxan still

These considerations converge with Christensen’s Häxan in the book’s fourth chapter, Witch, Past and Future: The Politics of Retroactive Diagnosis, where Doty and Ingham highlight examples of this dichotomy betwixt the religious and scientific views of the witch. In particular they mention the scene in which a depiction of female witches is contrasted with one in which superstition-driven accusations of witchcraft are made against two male medical students, whose righteously scientific but still felonious grave robbing is placed in opposition to the irrationality of religion. In a similar vein, Christensen transitions from the close-up image of a woman’s back being pricked by Inquisitors in order to find areas of insensitivity (a tell-tale sign of guilt), to one of the same procedure being performed in a contemporary doctor’s office, ultimately diagnosing the patient with hysteria. In an interstitial, Christensen addresses the woman in question, describing her as a “poor little hysterical witch” who in the Middle Ages was in conflict with the church while now it is with the law.

Doty and Ingham note that for all his interest in technological innovation in film, Christensen appears preoccupied with historical repetition, with his analogies between the female medieval witch and the modern hysteric denoting a continuity at the centre of which is the figure of the abnormal woman. While the world around her changes, for her, the journey from demonic possession to mental illness has affected her little, and she remains monstrous and abject, perpetually in need of rescue and rehabilitation.

Häxan still

As its title and length of a mere 60 or so pages indicates, there is not much else considered here than Christiansen’s core conflation of the medieval witch with the contemporary hysteric, along with its theological and psychiatric underpinnings. Doty and Ingham write with an inquisitor-like focus, narrowing their gaze on this particular area of witchcraft records and analysis, with an engaging manner that draws from both areas with equal ease and erudition.

Published by Dead Letter Office/Punctum Books

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The Black Books of Elverum – Edited and translated by Mary S. Rustad

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Categories: folk, germanic, witchcraft

The Black Books of Elverum coverNothing quite beats the occult trope of a mysterious tome being rediscovered after years hidden away and that is the appealing provenance that is used to frame what is presented here in The Black Books of Elverum. In a suitably dusty old attic in a farm in Elverum, central Norway, American-born Mary Rustad discovered two centuries-old notebooks, svartebøka or black books, both featuring hand-written spells and charms. This discovery is retold in an off-putting present tense by Rustad’s husband (whose ancestral home it was) as part of an extensive introduction, with his being but one of many voices, along with a foreword by Kathleen Stokker, a preface by Ronald Grambo, an editor’s note from Rustad herself, and an introduction to the black books by Ottar Evensen.

Evensen’s essay provides more in the way of details to Rustad’s discovery, and of black books in general, beginning first with a history of the farm which was in the Rustad family since 1837, and owned before that by the Kilde family. One of the svartebøka uncovered at Elverum was a simple pamphlet-like writing book of the type used in school, while the second was a thick, bound book, apparently blank except for the well-thumbed pages towards the middle. There are 32 unnumbered spells in one book and 78 in the other, all presented in a delightful variations of a florid, Sütterlinschrift-style hand. Following their discovery, the books were transcribed by Per Sande (an assistant professor at the public archives in Hamar), translated into modern Norwegian by Professor Per Holck of the University of Oslo, and then into English by Rustad herself.

The Black Books of Elverum spread

The pages of The Black Books of Elverum are presented as a full facsimile with black and white photographs of each page on the verso side of the spread and an English translation on the recto. The text in what is identified as book one fills the page, running from margin to margin with its script hand relatively restrained and the leading between lines tight, creating dense blocks of typographic colour. Often several spells appear on a page, divided by ruled lines, each prefaced with the spell’s title, little separated from the body. In the smaller book, the hand (or hands, as there is some variance) is much looser and larger with a sense of freedom and a lot more blotting of ink and changes in weight and pressure. Titles appear larger and right aligned, and the restrained care of book one is replaced by a manic freestyle, as typified by the ragged hand-drawn lines separating each spell. Both books are almost entirely devoid of sigils, with the exception being a device used for catching a thief in book one and a device to be drawn on a table in book two for putting out the eye of a thief.

The Black Books of Elverum spread

There is a lot of concern with thieves within both books, along with, as one would expect from this genre, other sundry matters relevant to rural people, with various simple charms and recipes for dealing with illness, predatory animals and winning at love and law. Some are more ridiculous than others, of course, such as options for putting out a fire, not with boring old water, but rather, in one case, throwing three eggs laid on a Maundy Thursday (these never go off, apparently, so you’re expected to have a few around, I suppose) into the fire in the name of the Trinity, or if that doesn’t seem complicated enough, write the words ‘Anoeam, Emanean, Natan’ on a piece of lead you conveniently have to hand and throw that on the fire. Alternatively, the second book suggests writing a little faux Latin and a sigil (inaccurately recreated in the translation) on the door of the house that is burning, break it down, and then, problem solved. The extinguishing properties of water not so popular on Norwegian farms it would seem.

It’s not all simple folk charms and non-aquatic fun with fire, though, and what strikes one immediately upon reading the first book is how diabolical it is, with the author placing themselves firmly against heaven with their first spell in which they release the angels from hell, renounce God and the Holy Spirit and pledge allegiance to Lucifer. This continues into some of the initial spells where, in something of an infernal overkill, all the demons of the world, heaven and hell are conjured to compel a thief to return what they have stolen. But then, the next spell marks a change of heart as the callous conjurer switches their allegiance and sends the dark forces packing. The use of the denizen of hell for spells specific to thieves occurs again in the second of the Elverum books, with Lucifer himself entreated to harass the thief until the items are returned, with the spell concluding “in the Devil’s dreaded name that lives in Hell’s abyss” along with the names of Hell’s ten princes for good measure. Similarly, if you wanted to put a thief’s eye out, go straight to the top and call on “Satan, Beelsebub, Bellial, Ashtarath and all the devils that are in Hell” while striking a nail into various parts of a sigil.

The Black Books of Elverum spread

It’s worth noting that the first of the two books, while affirming these darker hues and crediting its content to both ‘heathendom’ and ‘Catholic times,’ seems unsure of its own provenance. It describes itself on the title page as a summary of a Cyprianus written by Bishop Johannes Sell of Oxford in 1682, but then two pages later claims to have been written at the University of Wittenberg in 1529 and later found, glamorously so, in a white marble chest at Copenhagen Castle in 1591.

The Black Books of Elverum concludes with an account of the 1625 witchcraft trial of Ingeborg Økset, an ancestor of the Rustad family who lived on a neighbouring farm on the other side of the Gloma River. Written by Magne Stener, it provides, without much in specific reference to svartebøka, an idea of the context in which such books were written and used.

Lucifer by E. T. Rustad

In all The Black Books of Elverum is an interesting documentation of two examples of svartebøka, neither of which are particularly revelatory as their content does reflect typical Germanic folk magic, and offers nothing for those unreasonably expecting hints of Norse paganism simply by virtue of the books’ location. The images of pages are clear and well reproduced, type is set in a little too large serif face, and there are slightly incongruous pencil sketches of Jesus and Lucifer by E. T. Rustad prefacing books one and two respectively.

Published by Galde Press, Inc.

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Under the Witching Tree – Corinne Boyer

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Categories: folk, witchcraft, Tags:

Under the Witching Tree coverThe work of Corinne Boyer has been reviewed here before at Scriptus Recensera in the form of her Plants of the Devil, published in 2017 by Three Hands Press. This larger volume from the previous year follows the same arboreal and botanical avenues inherent within that later work and while Plants of the Devil was a relatively slight work with something of, as its title intimated, a diabolical focus, Under the Witching Tree is a far weightier tome, aiming for thoroughness and living up to its descriptive subtitle of being A Folk Grimoire of Tree Lore and Practicum. Under the Witching Tree is also the first volume in a three part trilogy from Boyer, with the second instalment focusing on herbs released in 2019.

In fulfilment of its brief as a tree grimoire, Under the Witching Tree is divided into unnumbered chapters focusing on each of the twenty trees: elder, hazel, rowan, apple, walnut, yew, pine, holly, spruce, western red cedar, birch, willow, alder, blackthorn, aspen, hawthorn, oak, ash, linden and maple. The trees are organised within a seasonal framework, providing something of a theme for each quarter: the black earth medicines of autumn, an altar of winter charms, a springtime forest rite, and the deer sorceress of midsummer.

As suggested by the book’s 288 page length, the considerations of each of these twenty trees are dense and thorough, beginning with a comprehensive outline and description of each tree and its folk associations, followed by examples of practical use, some drawn from Boyer’s specific personal practice, others from existing folk rituals and recipes. Each description begins picturesquely, with Boyer wonderfully setting the scene by placing the tree in its environs, the brittle boned elder tree in a forgotten meadow, dim shadows creeping during twilight hours beneath the branches of a walnut tree, and the birch as the White Lady of the forest, gleaming in the moonlight.

Under the Witching Tree photograph spread

These are then followed by the listings of various folk beliefs associated with each plant, but in contrast with the introductory word paintings, these are unfortunately presented in a rather less pleasing manner. Instead, the entries have something of the quality of the info dump about them, with long paragraphs that are comprised of short sentences that jump abruptly from one fact to the other, usually without any transitional phrases to tie them together, often creating fragments and non sequiturs that make the reading a slog. As such, the content resembles the encyclopaedic nature of studies of folk practices by Grimm or Frazer, where loquaciousness loses out to the pure documenting of fact and anecdote; though the difference between those works and this is the lack of referencing. With the amount of info being dumped here, it would admittedly have made for a messy layout to have everything cited with footnotes within the main body, but other than guessing or some judicious Googling, there’s no way to know where exactly each fact comes from; despite there being a bibliography at the end. There is the occasional aberrant and inconsistently treated in-body citing of a source, whether it’s mentioning the title of a work, or in one case, listing it as a full in-text citation with title/author/date, but this simply draws attention to the considerably more numerous moments in which sources remain uncredited. Why those ones, but not these ones? This becomes particularly important when obscure little gems of knowledge are mentioned and you’d love to know more; or conversely, when you wonder where boldly-stated but potentially spurious facts have come from – I’m looking at you, Odin’s sacred hazel wand, decorated with reddened runes.

The reason for this lack of referencing appears to be that large sections of information are sometimes taken uncritically from equally citation-deficient sources, with many of the entries on hazel, as one example, coming from Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants by Claudia Müller-Ebeling, Christian Rätsch and Wolf-Dieter Storl (including that claim about Odin’s hazel wand). Like Under the Witching here, Storl’s section of Witchcraft Medicine has the same sense of unreferenced and unedited notes, cast ‘pon the page, devoid of any of the conventions of narrative or structure.

Under the Witching Tree photograph spread

Inevitably, given the simplification that occurs when paraphrasing someone else’s citation-free information, errors or lack of clarity are introduced as the material moves further and further away from the source with each translation. An ambiguous Wikipedia summary of scholarly speculation by Turville-Petre (in his Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia) that Thor’s wife Sif may have once been conceived of as a rowan tree (given the keening of the rowan as ‘the salvation of Thor’) is transformed into a definitive statement of belief for Germanic people (with the usage of ‘conceived’ misread), in which Sif now “was thought to be conceived in the form of the rowan tree.” In another case, a contemporary alchemist who is quoted by name in the Müller-Ebeling/Rätsch/Storl book becomes simply an anonymous “German alchemist,” making both he and his statement devoid of any authority and set adrift in the unspecified byways of history and time.

This isn’t to say that the information presented here is riddled with errors, just that it’s impossible to tell either way, as so many of the facts are shorn of their context, whether it be their original source, or their actual provenance in time and space. As such, the cavalcade of historical anecdotes can be read as giving a broad impression of the associations a particular tree might have, but you would want to dig a little further before taking anything presented here as botanical or anthropological gospel.

Under the Witching Tree photograph spread

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 page size, on the verso side; save for rarer cases where no space on the verso means they are instead placed as smaller, in-body images on the recto side, with the text wrapping around them. These images come from a variety of, one assumes, public domain sources, and so are not consistent in weight or style, with some appearing particularly heavy in line compared to others. But, unlike similar situations in lesser books, each image is of acceptable quality, with no pixilation or compression artefacts. A few appear to have been vector-traced, but otherwise most are sharp and clear in their original raster lines. Where needed, these images are reused as space fillers at the end of each plant’s entry, where they are scaled down, somewhat inexplicably flipped horizontally, and printed at a lowered opacity, looking less a valid stylistic choice and more like the printer ran out of ink.

Given the amount of information crammed into these entries as brief sentences, the consideration of each plant can run quite long, with the basic introduction for each coming in at an average of five pages, followed by several more pages for sections on their use in folk medicine, several paragraphs on how they can be employed in general personal practice, and a handful of more specific recipes. The recipes run the gamut from drinks and ointments to charms, incense and talismans.

Under the Witching Tree photograph plates

Under the Witching Tree concludes with a set of appendices as thorough as the main content, seven in all, covering some of the more technical aspects of the practical applications offered throughout the book: storing plant material, creating ointments, drinks and elixirs, rendering fat as a base. This is a good way to do it, rather than cluttering up each individual section with repetitive instructions.

Under the Witching Tree runs to 280 234 x 156mm pages with twenty black and white photo plates, in four editions: a paperback with a gloss laminated cover, a standard hardback, a special edition, and a fine edition. As is common with Troy Books titles, the standard hardback edition feels as good as a special edition with its ruby-red case binding, gold foil blocking of title and rowan sigil to the front and title on the spine, green endpapers and green head and tail bands. The special edition of 300 hand-numbered exemplars, swaps out the red of the cloth for a dark green one, with the foil now blocked in red, and red head and tail bands. The now sold-out fine edition, housed in a fully lined black library buckram slip-case, blind embossed to the front, was limited to 21 hand bound exemplars bound in dark green goat leather with gold foil blocking to the spine and a unique verdant image on the front. Each copy of the fine edition came with a cream envelope containing a dried leaf from a Flying Rowan tree, ritualistically harvested by the author in her garden.

Published by Troy Books

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Witchcraft & Secret Societies of Rural England – Nigel Pennick

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Witchcraft & Secret Societies of Rural England coverSubtitled The Magic of Toadmen, Plough Witches, Mummers, and Bonesmen, this recent volume by Nigel Pennick is a new edition of a work previously released in 2011 with the lovely, but considerably more circumspect, title of In Field and Fen. Always the documenter of esoterically-tinged folk practices, Pennick is well-equipped to explore an area that has seen increased interest in recent years as occult practitioners search for evidence of archaic antecedents with just the right sulphurous whiff of dark glamour. The toadmen and bonesmen of the subtitle fit this brief particularly well, but to think there is a corresponding overemphasis on them within these pages does the book a disservice. Instead, as often with Pennick’s work (such as the recently reviewed Runic Lore and Legend: Wyrdstaves of Old Northumbria), there is an emphasis here on place and its spirit, and despite the broadness of the title’s reference to “Rural England,” the genii locorum are ones largely from a specific area of East England: Cambridgeshire.

Pennick defines this approach from the beginning, initiating it with an introduction in which he describes the 1968 demolition of a weather-board barn on a Cambridge street, removed to make way for the inexorable creep of urbanisation and disregard for anything not associated with Cambridge as a university town; despite the barn being several hundreds of years old and dating from a period when every aspect of the building was handcrafted by artisans. This ennui, this sense of loss and affection for the past, is something that permeates Witchcraft & Secret Societies of Rural England, not in an overwhelming, pedantic or self-righteous way, but as a guiding principle and modus operandi.

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The emphasis on the spirit of place and the rural world of yesteryear means that what occurs within these pages is a lot less magical and considerably less to do with specific witchcraft than the title would suggest. The first major section, for example, is a lengthy discussion of drovers and the fairs to which they would drive cattle, with Pennick giving a thorough history from a rather mundane, purely historical perspective. It is only at the end of this exhaustive section that this grounding comes into line with the promise of the book’s title and Pennick discusses the use of fraternal initiation and various ritual symbols amongst such groups of people. This is an admirable way to do it, providing complete context, rather than just jumping to the juicy occult bits.

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Though not as detailed as his information on drovers, Pennick does likewise with various other groups of tradespeople who developed their own esoterically-tinged secret societies: horsemen, gardeners, millers and shoemakers. Each of these shared certain similarities, including the idea of a word or words that provided the initiate with power and expertise in their field, with the Horsemen’s Word being the most famous. Another element often found amongst these societies is the esoteric use of a special bone, usually from a toad, which empowered the user (giving horsemen, for example, their control over horses) and the procurement of which facilitated their initiation into their trade’s secret society.

Pennick shows how the complex of symbols and associations built up around each of these trades spread beyond the rites and formulas practised secretly by these societies and into society as a whole. He documents events such as Plough Monday where ploughmen would participate in public activities of begging and disruption, dragging a plough in a riotous procession whilst dressed in costumes, faces painted piebald or red with ochre, led by a cross-dressed plough witch. In some situations, young men who had never participated in Plough Monday processions were designated as ‘colts,’ and would pull the plough as if they were horses, with a man with a whip driving these ponyboys on. This inversion of the world through performance and signifiers of alterity was extended into social activism, where the same techniques (guises, face painting, unruly processions and cross-dressing) were used to protest against harsh working conditions, insufficient wages and other injustices. The Rebecca Riots in 19th century Wales, for example, were in protest against exorbitant toll charges and saw tollgates attacked at night by gangs, often crossed-dressed as women, each led by a captain who was designated Rebecca, with the rioters considered her daughters.

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In the later sections of Witchcraft & Secret Societies of Rural England things move on to areas of specific witchery as Pennick turns to the Nameless Arte, a term used to apply to East Anglian magic as practiced by the trade secret societies and by cunning men, witches, wise women and quacks. Here, Pennick documents some familiar witchy figures, such as Daddy Witch, Old Mother Redcap, Jabez Few, Cunning Murrell and, of course, the classic George Pickingill.

Save for brief diversions into the theme of the devil in various folk practices and an outline of magical tools, Witchcraft & Secret Societies of Rural England ends by once again returning to the concept of place. First, Pennick discusses geomancy and spirits within the land, before exploring the intersections in the land between magic, spirit and farming, where the harvest and its resulting straw was loaded with significance.

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Throughout, Pennick writes with the level of aptitude and confidence you would expect of someone who has been doing this as long as he has. Primary sources such as local histories and almanacs are often quoted and listed in body, though some of the more esoteric aspects, like ritual formulae and procedures, appear without citation and seem to be less in the public record. Despite his clear passion for his topic, Pennick presents his information is a largely dispassionate way, with the work coming across as one of history, rather than an exemplar of a personally-invested occult system seeking validation in folk traditions.

Text design and layout have been handled to the usual high Inner Traditions standard by Debbie Glogover and Priscilla Baker respectively, with the body rendered in the perpetually popular Garamond and twinned, as ever, with subheadings in Gill Sans. Titles, including that on the cover, are in Nathan Williams’ Heirloom Artcraft face, which has some lovely though unspecific hint of archaisms about it, with none of the typical distressing to suggest age, but with some delightful inverted horns on the serifs.

Published by Destiny Books

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