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Music in Witchcraft and the Occult: An Anthology

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Categories: egyptian, hellenic, hermeticism, magick, music, shamanism, witchcraft, Tags:

Music in Witchcraft and the Occult: An Anthology coverPublished by Aeon Sophia Press, Music in Witchcraft and the Occult concerns itself with exactly what it says on the tin, but it approaches this theme from a practical and experiential perspective, with a variety of musician writing about the ways in which music and the occult interact within their work. But first, a little caveat, as this anthology includes an essay from this reviewer, discussing her creation of devotional music for Hela under the name Gydja. Suffice to say, we will be neither critiquing nor lauding that particular contribution, but even without that, there’s plenty more to explore.

We usually leave matters of aesthetics to the conclusion of reviews, but the appearance of Music in Witchcraft and the Occult impacts on reading to such an extent that it informs what follows. There is unfortunately a haphazard quality to the layout, with no consistent style and with each entry apparently retaining its contributor’s source formatting. As a result, the inherited styling of subtitles, footnotes, footnote numbering, indents, captions, page beaks, line spacing and paragraph returns are all inconsistent; though mercifully, the same serif face is used throughout for the main body. This inevitably makes the book feel rushed, lacking in cohesion and genuinely hard to read in some places; such as the first entry in which the text is interrupted by strange, abrupt digits as the footnote numbering has been formatted at full scale instead of superscript. Most jarring of all are the main titles which have been left however the author minimally formatted them in their submission, resulting in barely any typographic hierarchy. Similarly, if an author didn’t include their name at the start of their original submission document, then it hasn’t been added here for publication, meaning that without recourse to the contents page you can dive into some entries with little context, hoping that the author’s name is mentioned latter on.

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There are some interesting contributions in Music in Witchcraft and the Occult which makes it all the more frustrating that it doesn’t look better, especially when only a little tightening of the layout and the addition of hierarchy and consistency would have done wonders. After something of a broad introduction with a few personal specifics from Aaron Piccirillo of Synesect, the first entry comes from Kakophonix of self-described Black Ritual Chamber Musick project Hvile I Kaos. This is a comprehensive consideration of the music of Hvile I Kaos, with a guide to their performances as live rituals, an analysis of the theory behind some indicative pieces and albums, accompanied by notation of particular motifs, including a setting of the Agios O Baphomet sinister chant. It’s all rather interesting, though the lack of formatting makes it feel rather desultory, with huge half-page spaces left between sections and little in the way of typographic hierarchy.

Zemaemidjehuty, author of The Book of Flesh and Feather, published by Theion Publishing, lays his Kemetic cards on the table with his contribution, which focuses not on any music they themselves make, but on a ritual that takes the form of a conversation between Djehuty and Barbelo/Sophia. The dialogue is spread across an exhausting sixteen pages at a fairly large point size and with a lot of leading between the lines, with the words spoken by Sophia being differentiated with some hideous underlining as if we’re still living in a world of manual typewriters instead of one in which any variation of formatting could have been chosen.

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Moving swiftly along, another author, Jack Grayle, whose book on Hekate, The Hekatæon, was published by Ixaxaar, provides a dose of erudition with Gravesong. Once again, though, this piece feels a little divorced from the overall theme of this anthology, though it is tangential, with Grayle focusing on funeral songs, particularly in the intersection of Aeschylus’ trilogy of plays The Oresteia and the Greek Magical Papyri. Again, and through no fault of Grayle, the formatting here leaves a lot to be desired, with subtitles capitalised but otherwise unformatted (and in one instance, widowed at the bottom of a page), and with the endnotes kept in Microsoft Word’s deplorable default Calibri styling.

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Ilya Affectvs mirrors the entry from Hvile I Kaos with a thorough, fifteen page, multi-section overview of his ritual ambient project Corona Barathri. It begins with a general biography and statement of intent, followed by Oratio Sacra, a part-manifesto sermon that is exemplary of Corona Barathri’s diabolist themes and lyrics, finally ending with the lyrics of two songs, Hymn of Nahemoth from the album Womb Ov Sheol and the title track from Speculum Diaboli.

Music in Witchcraft and the Occult spread In Baron Samhedi, Edgar Kerval gives a broad outline of his project Emme Ya before turning to the baron of the title. Ostensibly this is done to illustrate how Kerval has worked profoundly with Baron Samhedi since 2009 and how the attendant methods of invocation include sonically-induced trance states. In practice, though, this is more of a six page general biography of Samhedi with a concluding ritual, and one that could have benefited from proofing and editing to corral Kerval’s otherwise enthusiastic prose.

A different style of writing is provided by Keeley Swete and Jessica Rose of Portland’s She Scotia with their Music as Ritual, which invites the reader to reject the commodification of music in favour of something with a more sacralised intent. This is a considered and eloquent piece with a voice that blends a New Age style of metaphysical speculation with a witchy underpinning, a little self-help, a little inspi- and aspi- rational. Jon Vermillion’s The Souls (sic) Expression Through the Universal Vibration of Sound follows and feels somewhat cut from the same cloth, with a focus on frequencies and sound waves, and visualising a violet sphere of light. There’s an obvious debt to Robert Monroe’s idea of altered conscious using audio techniques to achieve hemispherical synchronization, and quite a bit of the New Age with talk of Kryst Consciousness, meditation and etheric bodies. Sitting within the same pages as Emme Ya’s Baron Samhedi and Corona Barathri’s diabolism, this makes for some incongruent company.

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Iceland’s enigmatic NYIÞ offer one of the most interesting contributions here, situating their work within the folklore and magick of their homeland, beginning with a broad overview of such. They then pull back the curtain, explaining the symbolism behind various choices of instruments (the organ being linked to death, skin drums with shamanism, etc) and then showing how these elements can be combined with more conventional instruments and intent to create their intersection between music and magick.

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Finally, zenKOAL of the ritual noise duo Brujentropy wields the longest-titled entry here, offering Strange Spells Spontaneously Evolving into Art: Avant Punk, Spoken Wyrd, Ritual Noise and Deathdream Electronics Unveiled no less. It’s also a pretty long piece in general, with zenKOAL writing dense paragraphs in a lyrical and effusive manner that, given the abrupt and indecisive formatting elsewhere in this volume, is quite welcome and even comforting. Like a lot of the entries here, this feels like a manifesto, with zenKOAL describing her practice, both magical and musical, as one in which creative works are birthed as sentient entities that gradually form over time, and eventually perpetuating themselves independent of their creator.

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In all, Music in Witchcraft and the Occult has promise but is let down by the presentation and lack of attention to detail. It is presented in an edition of 200 hand-numbered exemplars, bound in cloth with a metallic foiling of the title and a stylised flame on both the cover and the spine. There are multiple images used throughout, both graphic and photographic, with some at full page or as spreads, while others are awkwardly marooned on their own and not integrated into the text, as if they’ve retained the practical formatting of their original submission document. Accompanying the book is a CD that compiles music pieces from the various contributors: Gydja, Khtunae, She Scotia, NYIÞ, Hvile I Kaos, Brujentropy, Corona Barathri, Emme Ya and Synesect.

Published by Aeon Sophia Press

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

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Categories: folk, grimoire, witchcraft, Tags:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published by the Pennsylvania State University Press

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The Strix-Witch – Daniel Ogden

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Categories: classical, witchcraft, Tags:

The Strix-Witch coverAnother entry in Cambridge University Press’ compact Elements in Magic series, Daniel Ogden’s The Strix-Witch seeks to provide the tricky answer to what is acknowledged as an ostensibly simple question: what was a strix? The simple answer is a winged and often predatory female figure of Greek and Latin folklore, travelling at night in either a birdlike physical form or as a projected soul. But as Ogden shows, the strix is a being of shifting classifications whose liminal status as a creature of simultaneous substance and ephemerality makes her difficult to grasp and define.

Ogden begins with a brief consideration of the Latin term itself before providing a survey of the three most substantial accounts of the strix, as found in the works of the poet Ovid, the satirist Gaius Petronius, and from a Christian perspective, the seventh century Byzantine theologian John Damascene. Ogden then provides an analysis of the imbricated motifs within the three texts, isolating fourteen in all: the strix as an old witch, the strix at night, flying and avian transformation, flying and soul projection, screeching, snatching of whole bodies, snatching of individual body parts, the extraction of moisture, the imposition on a time-limit on the life of victims, fighting back against the strix, cannibalism and covens of striges, and the strix’s imperceptibility in relation to battles over both houses and bodies. This is a thorough section, the lion’s share of the book, and Ogden does not simply list the recurring and constituent motifs, highlighting whether they appear in all or only some of the texts. Instead, he provides parallel instances of such information, drawn from passing allusions in a substantial collection of additional sources, whether they concern themselves with striges in particular or with broader folk conceptions. In the consideration of the flying strix as an avian soul projection, for example, he incorporates various precedents from the Classical world, ranging from Homer and Virgil’s underworld ghosts that flock like birds, to a group of marvellous figures from Pythagorean tradition credited with the ability to fly, including Aristeas of Proconnesus (mentioned by Herodotus, Maximus of Tyre and Strabo), Hermotimus of Clazomenae (mentioned by Apollonius), and Abaris the Hyperborean (mentioned by Porphyry in his Life of Pythagoras). Similarly, Ogden draws polymathically from both Classical and medieval sources when discussing the snatching of bodies and body parts, referencing Gervase of Tilbury in the former and Plautus’ comedy Pseudolus in the latter. In so doing, Ogden provides a far broader picture of the strix than an assessment of just three texts would lead one to believe, drawing on information from both forwards and backwards in time to build up a comprehensive, culturally and temporally diverse image.

From this comparison of motifs, Ogden reconstructs the ideal narrative of a strix attack, what he defines as ‘the strix paradigm,’ and uses this to offer a more complete and final answer to the fundamental question of what a strix was. This paradigm defines the strix as a terrible woman that attacks babies, flying by night by transforming into a bird or bird-like creature and focussing her onslaught first on the exterior of the house in order to gain ingress via invisibility or permeability. Once successful in its intrusion, the strix may steal the entire body of the child, or rend its liver and other internal organs, or drain the victim of moisture.

In the third section, Ogden shows how the strix paradigm influenced the general representation of witches in the Latin literary tradition, something that becomes evident early on with the intersection of so many motifs, particularly in the prior discussion of striges gathering to feast on the bodies they had stolen, so reminiscent of the witches’ sabbat. Ogden suggests that the strix provides an explanation for the vastly different ways in which witches are represented in Greek and Latin literature, with the latter having greater emphasis on the morbid, predatory and gruesome. To this end, he analyses various Latin accounts of witches: Candida in Horace’s Epodes, Dipsas in Ovid’s Amores, Erictho in Lucan’s Pharsalia, the Thessalian witches in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, and the unnamed witch who is described killing the slave Iucundus on his epitaph from early 20s CE Rome. In addition, there are the later accounts of the witchy innkeepers from St. Augustine’s City of God and the belief in the night-working witches mentioned by Burchard of Worms in his 1012–20 CE Corrector sive Medicus. Ogden introduces each excerpt and then highlights the strix-like motifs in what are rather striking reiterations of core themes, in particular the ability to gain ingress via small gaps, and the interest in matters corporeal.

In his fourth and final section, Ogden considers the strix via the analogous figure of Gello whose existence constitutes a longue durée that stretches from the child-killing demons of ancient Mesopotamia and Greece, right down to survivals in modern Greek folklore. He begins with the child-stealing Lamashtu demon found in Akkadian texts of the first and second millennia BCE, tracing her descent into the Classical lamia, but he also considers another predatory Mesopotamian demon, Gallû. Although they are male in their initial appearance, Ogden documents the Gallû demon’s evolution into the female bay-stealing figure of Gello, mentioned in a grimly ironic fragment by Sappho in which she describes an unidentified subject as “loving children more than Gello.” Ogden also uses this section to consider briefly a few minor threads, like related terms such as the men-transformed into birds called styx in Antoninus Liberalis’ Metamorphoses, the striglos/ strigla defined in Hesychius of Alexandria’s lexicon as either the inside of a horn/wing or as a little owl or a long-eared owl, and ultimately the more recent folkloric night spirit known as stringlos.

Like other entries in the Elements in Magic series, Ogden’s The Strix-Witch is a satisfying deep dive into a specialised topic with much to satisfy for those seeking information both on the predatory female figures such as the strix specifically, but also for those interested in the roots of the image of the malevolent witch.

Published by Cambridge University Press

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The War on Witchcraft – Jan Machielsen

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The War on Witchcraft coverJan Machielsen’s The War on Witchcraft is part of Cambridge University Press’ compact Elements in Magic series, which aims to restore the study of magic to a central place within culture. A brief work, it has an ambiguous title with a far more informative subtitle of Andrew Dickson White, George Lincoln Burr, and the Origins of Witchcraft Historiography. The two American historians of the title, Machielsen argues, have had a little acknowledged but lasting influence on the field of modern witch hunt studies, one that is comparable, if in opposition, to the more familiar, and slightly later, Margaret Murray and Montague Summers. Machielsen’s work has its origins in 2010 when, as a graduate student, he received a scholarship to Cornell University, giving him the opportunity to study its large witchcraft collection (begun by one of Cornell’s founders, the aforementioned Andrew Dickson White), thereby sparking an interest in the library’s origins. The text itself began life in 2016 as a lengthy article, before enduring, as Machielsen wryly reflects, three years of rejections from a trio of academic journals, until he was encouraged by Alex Wright and Elements in Magic series editor Marion Gibson to expand it into its final form during a research stay in Germany, funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Machielsen begins with a brief but comprehensive review of eighteenth century scholarship’s rational approach to witchcraft which sought to dismiss allegations against witches as an embarrassing and superstitious delusion, now safely and mercifully consigned, in the clear light of modernity’s day, to the past. It is this academic, historiographical onslaught, continued by White and Burr, which is the war of the book’s title and a play on White’s voluminous A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. As Machielsen notes, such eighteenth century scholarly attitudes were fundamentally paternalistic and condescending, comparable to that of the very demonologists and church authorities that scholars now sought to denigrate, men whose appeals to a greater sapient authority, framed within the certainty provided by an absolute dichotomy of true and false, was later mirrored by scholarship’s belief in an axiomatic rationality set against equally self-evident irrationality. Just as demonologists used the language of superstition, dressed up in religious nomenclature, so academia defined both belief in witchcraft and the witch hunts that followed as thoroughly superstitious, as inherently irrational and therefore belonging to the past. In the early 1900s, Murray and Summers, who could both be, and were, dismissed as enthusiastic amateurs, took a different approach, with Murray positing that early modern Europe’s witches had been members of a secret pagan fertility cult, while the Catholic convert Summers argued for a literal and perennial worship of demons with the witch as a “minister to vice and inconceivable corruption” and “a member of a powerful secret organisation inimical to Church and State.”

The work of Andrew Dickson White and his student George Lincoln Burr is positioned here in opposition to the literalism later embraced by Murray and Summers, being a continuation of the veneration of the rational that sought to consign witchcraft to history. In some ways, this was merely an adjunct of White core and overstated thesis, as explored in A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, in which dogmatic theology and science were, and had forever been, inimical to each other, locked in perpetual and fundamental conflict. White drew attention, for example, to the way in which his rational heroes, be they scientists, witchcraft sceptics, or even printers, were pilloried with allegations of sorcery by an irrational world, such as the thirteenth-century physician Arnold de Villanova (charged with sorcery and dealings with the devil) or England’s first printer, William Caxton (who did not escape the charge of sorcery). The war on witchcraft and the warfare of science were, thus, effectively extensions of each other, with the witch-hunt being emblematic of the consequences of dangerous theological and sectarian ideas. That isn’t to say that White’s embracing of unassailable rationality extending to dismissing Christian belief itself and it was his opposition to inhibitive theology, rather than Christianity itself, that allowed him to see himself as, in the words of Machielsen, “the latest (if not the last) in a long line of virtuous Christian men fighting for scientific and religious Truth.”

It was White’s student, Burr, who ran specifically with these themes of witchcraft, sharing a  philosophy with his mentor that any form of false belief existed only to be refuted as the absence or corruption of something good. Burr’s language spoke to this with earnest zeal, seeing witchcraft as a ‘nightmare of Christian thought,’ a pale and perverse shadow of the real thing that was to be exposed in the light of rational day by heroic and devout men. While ideas of witchcraft as female, irrational and hysterical underlie their work, the paternalistic misogyny and hyper masculinity of White and Burr meant that the female role in the witch craze was simultaneously promoted and minimised, with, as Machielsen notes, both men seeing the witch-hunt as a battle between two types of male elites. Its cast of rival masculinities featured those who believed in the phenomenon, while their critics were perceived, by them, to be motivated solely by a desire to undermine their position of power; the female victims and their condition being completely superfluous to this patristic battle for supremacy. Such an essentialist viewpoint simultaneously made the prospect of a male witch a problematic anomaly, given that such a person lacked agency of the heroic male variety. Thus, in Burr’s work, Johannes Junius (mayor of Bamberg executed for witchcraft in 1628) and Dietrich Flade (university rector and electoral judge executed for sorcery in the Trier witch trials) are positioned solely as heroic witchcraft sceptics and righteous opponents of the hunt, with any prospect that the accusations could have had some foundation being completely ignored.

Machielsen suggests that such a view point had a lasting legacy on witchcraft historiography and contributed to the minimising, by both sceptical scholars and feminist revivalists, of the role of male witches within the historical record. In his conclusion, Machielsen also notes how witch-hunt studies in the vein of White and Burr shore up the perennial appeal of the warfare thesis in which it is comforting to glibly see history as a heroic and inexorable march of progress that defines itself in opposition to the theological missteps that it hopes to have relegated to the past, but which still threatens to burst through the blurred temporal boundaries.

The War on Witchcraft is basic in its formatting, the body set in a standard serif, exhaustive footnotes tidily footnoted, with the occasional image sprinkled throughout. Everything is purely functional, right down to the lack of new chapter pages, with each chapter flowing through on the page, separated only by a title in an aberrant blue typeface. As a concise history of the thoughts of two men, The War on Witchcraft is a joy to read, providing an insight little available elsewhere.

Published by Cambridge University Press

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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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Hedge-Rider – Eric De Vries

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Categories: witchcraft

Hedge-Rider coverThe size of the ‘witchcraft’ tag in the column to the right is testament to the popularity of the genre and to the amount of so-themed titles that, through little conscious effort, have ended up crossing the Scriptus Recensera submissions desk and being reviewed. With so many witchcraft books read and reviewed, it is often hard to find a unique selling point, with even areas that were once fairly limited specialities, like Traditional and Luciferian witchcraft, now being represented by a veritable surfeit of titles. Needless to say, if this title from 2008 didn’t have something to offer, it wouldn’t have made its way with such ease to the crowded top of the library pile, and this said ‘something’ is effectively a more Germanic take on witchcraft.

Eric De Vries’ key premise can be summarised in one thought, the roots of witchcraft, and in particular the figure of the Witch Goddess, are in a shamanic take on Germanic myth and folklore, and that the oft-touted idea of Celtic origins or influence is overstated. Indeed, throughout this work, De Vries uses the details found in Norse mythology to flesh out the more vague descriptions of witch trials and faery lore. With this, and revealing this reviewer’s biases, comes a pleasant focus on things Helish and chthonic, with De Vries following in the vein of some incarnations of Traditional Witchcraft, particularly those inclined towards the approach of Robert Cochrane, that centre on the idea of a Pale Goddess of Death and the Underworld who combines elements of both Hela and Holda.

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De Vries writes in a largely informal and conversational style that is fairly loose, his editorial voice jumping around with equal parts enthusiasm and earnestness, and with both characteristics contributing to the occasional jibe at Wiccans and other people he disagrees with. Throughout Hedge-Rider, De Vries gives often somewhat contemporary interpretations and musing on metaphysical themes, rather than just presenting the symbolism as self-evident. This aligns with his informal tone, having, like Jan Fries, the tendency to try and demystify what he’s presenting, rather than layering on the obfuscation.

After an introduction to the concept of the hedgewitch, the first chapter proves to be indicative of De Vries’ approach here, detailing first the conception of the underworld and Hela found in Norse myth, and then relating both of these to continental tales of Holda and Holle, As the final step in this puzzle, De Vries then focuses on Holle’s association with witches and in particular the wild hunt, showing that she was both a goddess of life and death, of night and day.

From the witch goddess, De Vries turns to a male counterpart, the black god, whom he primarily identifies with Óðinn/Woden, before proceeding at a brisk pace into chapters on various practical tools and applications. This begins with a consideration of steads and stangs as vehicles for transvection and then evolves into various methods of invoking trance, including the use of wine and entheogens. De Vries seems to be an enthusiastic advocate of the latter, though he only vouches for mugwort, wormwood, sweet flag and passionflower (all with the necessary caveats about careful use), and balks at the use of any mushroom whatsoever, since, as he definitively states, “you’ll only end up hurt or in hospital.”

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The rest of Hedge-Rider continues downwards as it were, providing further tools and methods of travelling to the underworld, drawing on the idea of the fetch and fylgia, as well as ideas of werewolf transformation, each time returning to the themes of witchcraft and then informing them with details drawn from Norse mythology. This is a mixture of the practical and the historical, with De Vries providing techniques along the way but always including them broadly within the body of the text, never as a set of rigid instructions or recipes. The reader is thus introduced to a variety of themes and tools, but nothing that feels dogmatic; though this may not be too appealing for those who prefer instruction and structure.

In the penultimate chapter, the journey reaches its end in the underworld but this isn’t necessarily one in which Hela or any other queen of the underworld is directly encountered. Instead, De Vries turns to the model of the hieros gamos, using Svipdagr and Menglöð, and Freyr and Gerðr as examples of the hero who journeys into the underworld for the love of an otherworldly maiden. This he then brings back to witchcraft via the idea of the demon lover, such as the incubus or succubus, but it’s a brief chapter that feels like the ideas are not fully explored.

Finally, De Vries presents a few pages in summary, followed by musings on lessons learnt and how these can be applied in the everyday. And with that, Hedge-Rider concludes rather quickly, with its large point size meaning you can breeze through the 139 pages that make up its content proper. This is then padded out to 194 pages with an index, a collection of reproduction of many of the classic woodcuts of witchcraft, a book hoard, a reproduction of Grógaldr, and an extensive but not entirely necessary glossary of terms in which even witch apparently needed to be defined.

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Despite his heart being in the right places, there are many problems with the presentation of the material in Hedge-Rider. Too often, De Vries inexplicably begins sentences and even paragraphs with filler words, particularly minor crimes like ‘however’ and ‘also.’ But the strangest opener is ‘actually’ with which, apropos of nothing, he often begins whole paragraphs, seemingly responding to a prior clause that was never argued. This erratic authorial voice can make the copy feel like a first pass, an ebullient but unedited mind dump, and this impression is compounded by the sloppy editing, with a peppering of spelling mistakes, switched homonyms and the occasional malapropism; something that is on show in the book’s very first sentence when De Vries says “Often you here so called ‘Wiccans’ and ‘Pagans’ claim that they are witches.” Poor Baldr fares even worse though, and a lack of proofing renders him as Bladr several times, creating quite the visual image when his death during the gods’ deadly game is mentioned. One could make some allowances for all of this if, as one assumes, De Vries is not a native English speaker, in which case the fault lies more with the publishers, Pendraig, whose best practice should have included a cursory proof and a spell check of at least the first paragraph, if not more.

Along with the sloppy and inconsistent spelling, there are the occasional equally sloppy moments of fact checking. Nothing is ever directly cited, leading you down your own avenues of fact checking, and while there appears to be no malice, there are things that seem to have got muddled. An account from Herodotus is merged, uncredited, with one from Pliny to create a single composite that draws details from two sides of the continent. Similarly, as so often seems to happen, the cast in the events leading up to the death of Baldr are conflated, and while usually the casual retelling in error mistakes Freyja for Frigg, here they’ve gone one step further and it’s her brother Freyr who asks all creatures in the world not to harm Baldr.

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With all that said, Hedge-Rider is a worthy read that has much to recommend it, with caveats. Its overall argument and themes are solid, but it is by no means authoritative, with the lack of references and the brisk pace meaning that the reader may need to do their own work tracking down the sources and seeing how it all stacks up.

Published by Pendraig

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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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Categories: witchcraft, Tags:

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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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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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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