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Helvete: A Journal of Black Metal Theory – Issue 3: Bleeding Black Noise – Amelia Ishmael

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Categories: music, Tags:

Helvete 3 coverThe first two volumes of Punctum Books’ Helvete journal have been previously reviewed here at Scriptus Recensera and 2016’s third instalment, edited this time by Amelia Ishmael, continues this often tangential consideration of black metal with a focus on the idea of black noise (and black metal as this black noise), thereby moving away from obvious touchstones to more outré realms. Written contributions come from Kyle McGee, Simon Pröll, Nathan Snaza, and Bert Stabler, while there are visual pieces from Alessandro Keegan, Bagus Jalang, Faith Coloccia, Max Kuiper, Michaël Sellam, the duo of Gast Bouschet and Nadine Hilbert, and a combination of both written and visual by Susanne Pratt. As this line-up shows, there’s considerably more pictures than prose here, suggesting, perhaps, that there’s only so much theory one can write about black metal and that that limit may have been reached. But given this visual emphasis, let’s begin with the art side of things for once.

Inevitably, given the focus on things black, there’s a rather singular palette used across these works, each to varying degrees of success and not without a little fatigue and a creeping of sameness. The highlight comes, once again, from Gast Bouschet and Nadine Hilbert, whose work has featured in previous issues of Helvete and was, by this reviewer, well received. Titled 1558 – 2016, these four pieces follow a varied approach to black with midtones and scratched texture providing interest across images that are so abstracted that little is identifiable, other than a sense of intrigue and mystery. Not quite as stunning but still well composed are parts 3-5 of Bagus Jalang’s Distraction, where his acrylic painting on paper creates negative spaces, one part topographic map, one part spectral absence. Two further entries from Max Kuiper and Faith Coloccia show that there is perhaps a successful, almost obligatory, ‘black metal theory photographic aesthetic’ at play here, with grainy abstracted textures of water, ink and decay, and with depth of field blur and saturated blacks a bonus. Other pieces are less successful, like Alessandro Keegan’s exploration of candle soot and white gouache on paper, where aimless feathered motifs floating against soot clouds are explored in five variations that seem to have had said all they had to say by the time you turn from the first example to the second.

Work by Gast Bouschet and Nadine Hilbert from 1558 - 2016 series

Susanne Pratt’s Black-Noise combines the written and visual in a consideration of a similarly-named installation she created in 2013. Subtitled The Throb of the Anthropocene, her essays details how the work was created in response to Australian coal mining and its impact on both the environment and people, with the constant sound of industry creating a black noise of machinery and mining blasts. Pratt took recordings of these low frequency sounds and played them back in the gallery using speakers to influence trays of coal dust and water. Four prints are provided as photographic documentation of this work, the water and dust creating landscapes of black ripples, waves and tones. Pratt draws comparison with Carsten Nicolai’s infrasound artworks and links her considerations to black metal via just one band, Wolves in the Throne Room, whose concerns with ecology, and perhaps their more responsible image, also ensure a disproportionate presence throughout both this volume and the entire series, including an appearance in Timothy Morton’s first volume essay At the Edge of the Smoking Pool of Death: Wolves in the Throne Room; which Pratt references.

Simon Pröll’s Vocal Distortion turns to black metal’s use of the voice as a gateway into a wider discussion of how black metal obscures its delivery of information, whether it be through indecipherable vocals, unprinted or untranslated lyrics, or the obfuscation employed in some band logos. The exploration of the use of native language and topography as part of this insularity and exclusivity provides an interesting, albeit brief, diversion into black metal’s regionalism, highlighting how the genre contrasts strongly with pop culture in which English remains its lingua franca.

In Leaving the Self Behind, Nathan Snaza employs a disorientating and confounding experience of listening to Blut Aus Nord’s 2006 album MoRT as a device to explore ideas of dissolution in this volume’s longest contribution at seventeen pages. Snaza situates black metal’s idea of the annihilation of self in opposition to the Enlightenment, preferring instead a practice of Endarkenment; a term taken from a track title by another French black metal band, Obscurus Advocam. Endarkenment as described by Snaza is an inversion of Enlightenment and its goals, being an attunement to the dark which animates the world via strategies of interference. But it’s also effectively just a fancier name for the kind of fair-is-foul foul-is-fair rhetoric that can be found in any black metal album or interview.

Ash, charcoal, and salt painting by Faith Coloccia

Bert Stabler’s False Atonality, True Non-Totality mirrors his contribution to the previous volume of Helvete, being a little aimless, beginning with a several page discussion of noise theory via an interaction between Seth Kim-Cohen and Christoph Cox in the pages of Artforum, before going, well, all over the place. Stabler has a tendency to write in flowery, categorical statements that easily grate, especially when these utterances and metaphorical models seem off the mark despite their attempt at glib profundity. Black metal, for example, apparently hopes to evoke “leftover radiation from the Big Bang… or the ancient poisonous corpse-sludge of petroleum” but instead its “familiar roar is of the throng and its bloody flag flapping turgid in an icy gale, visible by the dim embers of an incinerated basilica” whatever that picturesque image is supposed to mean. Similarly, and quite categorically, black metal apparently “derives its potency from just the lack of interest in getting-anything-done,” and black metal “evokes the formlessness of physical and mental background buzz, at the same time as it attempts to be an anthem, a hymn, or a retort.” At four pages, this lack of interest in getting-anything-done it is mercifully short, huzzah.

In this volume’s final piece, Kyle McGee devotes a substantial fifteen pages to Pennsylvania’s purveyors of industrial black noise T.O.M.B. in what amounts to a paean to their sound, gushing with torrents of picturesque praise that are appropriate given how much their music conveys ideas of bludgeoning cascades and violent sanguine flows. It is because of this relation to its subject matter that there is an appropriateness to McGee’s theoretically dense yet bloody and visceral language, as typified by the glorious subtitle Grotesque Indexicality, Black Sites, and the Cryptology of the Sonorous Irreflective in T.O.M.B; unlike Stabler’s bewildering landscape of flaccid flags and dim embers. McGee views T.O.M.B.’s music with a suitably corporeal analytical model that he calls an excarnation of place, a stripping away of flesh that stands in contrast to the Church’s investment in incarnation, in which there is a profanation and deterritorialisation of spaces, objects and bodies. Of course, this doesn’t preclude one from being pragmatic and saying that this elaborate paean could equally be an exercise in hyperbole and ornamentation, reading far more than necessary into what could equally be viewed as just some hideous racket.

Figure 3. by Adrian Warner, 2014

With its emphasis on stygian artwork and only five written contributions, this third volume of Helvete feels a little lacking. None of the written pieces really stand out in the way others have in previous volumes, and only Pröll’s Vocal Distortion and McGee’s grandiloquent consideration of T.O.M.B. manage to be both enjoyable and memorable. Otherwise, there’s an impression of diminishing returns, and given that there was never a fourth volume in this series, this murky well seems to have run dry.

Published by Punctum Books

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The Norse Goddess – Monica Sjöö

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Categories: germanic, goddesses

The Norse Goddess coverMonica Sjöö Sjöö was an artist and writer whose book The Great Cosmic Mother, co-written in its final form with Barbara Mor, was one of the pioneering titles in the canon of modern goddess spirituality. That book had its origins in a pamphlet that saw several iterations until expanding, under Mor’s hand, to 500 pages, and in some ways, The Norse Goddess feels like a return to those more focussed beginnings, running to a mere 64 pages. Published five years before her death in 2005, it also feels like a return for Sjöö in another way, narrowing her focus from the cosmic and universal to her native Sweden and Scandinavia, having lived in the British Isles for more than half of a lifetime.

Given this personal investment, it is perhaps unsurprising that The Norse Goddess has the sense of a biography or travelogue, something that Sjöö makes clear in the title of her introduction which identifies herself as a “Daughter of Mother Hel,” declaring “From the North am I.” This association with Hela is one of the appealing parts of this book, and it is interesting that Sjöö’s most famous painting, 1968’s God Giving Birth, shows a goddess figure whose face, like Hela’s, is dimidiated into dark and light halves. Fittingly, this painting provided the gateway into Sjöö’s Scandinavian reawakening, when it was purchased by the Museum Anna Nordlander in Skellefteå, who then also curated a touring exhibition of Sjöö’s work that travelled to three cities in the north of Sweden. During this tour, Sjöö was taken on a journey through southern Lapland and on Galtispuoda mountain in Norrbotten she broke down, overwhelmed with sadness and joy, crying for the beautiful land of her childhood that she had left long ago.

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Sjöö casts her Scandinavian net wide here, surveying distances both temporal and physical to create what she hopes is a complete picture focussed around goddess figures in the north. She begins with the Sámi, first with a general anthropological introduction and then with a deeper look at four Ahkka goddesses, Maderakka and her daughters Sarakka, Juksakka, and Uksakka; though there is, strangely, no mention of another but unrelated Akka, Jabme-Akka, goddess of death and the underworld. Sjöö then moves on to a more archaeological focus with two brief chapters dealing with sites of inhabitation in Mesolithic Scandinavia and on the Bronze Age hällristningar found at places like Nämforsen and Norrköping, with particular emphasis given to the image of the elk in these rock carvings. As the brevity of this description might belie, Sjöö’s chapters are equally brief, providing a conversational summary, rather than much in the way of details or references. This continues in later chapters where she briefly considers the Vanir, and then Nerthus, before jumping to the account of creation in Völuspá and then onto the Finnish creation mythology found in the Kalevala.

Understandably, Sjöö embraces the Helfolk hypothesis presented by Gunnel and Göran Liljenroth in their 1994 book Hel – Den Gömda Gudinnan I Nordisk Mytologi, in which Hela was the preeminent goddess of ancient Scandinavia, receiving worship from an indigenous group of people whose beliefs and culture predated the arrival of both the Æsir and Vanir religions by millennia. These people lived on the west coast of Norway during the Ice Age, cut off from the rest of ice-bound Europe where they were protected by both the warmth of the Atlantic Ocean’s Gulf Stream current and by Hela Herself. She was seen, the Liljenroths argue, as the personification of the mountains that protected their fertile strip of coastal land and of the caves that gave them shelter. These ideas permeate Sjöö’s own consideration of Hela, emphasising her connection with caves, mountains and the underworld as a shamanic goddess of death and rebirth. Perhaps the most interesting reference to Hela is a personal one, in which Sjöö recounts a series of nightly dream encounters she had with Her during Samhain in 1984. These coalesced into a drawing in which Hela is depicted as she appeared in Sjöö mind’s eye, dressed in animal furs like a shaman, with a burning candle sitting betwixt a pair of horns upon Her head, and Her face starkly white in the surrounding darkness.

The Norse Goddess spread with image of Hela by Monica Sjöö

Sjöö’s style is a little unfocussed and not exactly rigorous, creating an appealing narrative but one which you would want to double check before embracing wholly. There is a wooliness here, where, for example, the extent of her referencing can be to casually state that material for one section was found in “German sources,” which could mean anything; although that’s positively academic compared to the citation that rapidly follows in which she says no more than “I have also read…” In addition, it often feels like Sjöö transparently embraces a little-known theory over another more accepted or updated one simply because she wants to kick against the pricks of patriarchy, distrusting anything a male or establishment archaeologist might have said, unless it happens to be something she conveniently agrees with.

The layout of The Norse Goddess is irredeemably awful and amateurish, with body text in Times New Roman and the titles set in the ghastly and incongruent Algerian; at a point size that is only slightly larger than the body, thereby making the typeface’s faux shadow smudge into uselessness. Paragraphs run densely across the page with the tiniest of left and right margins, creating a feeling of claustrophobia, and featuring both first line indents and redundant paragraph breaks. This cramped sensation is continued in the treatment of Sjöö’s images, with many of them being reproductions of her large-scale paintings, but shrunk down to a quarter the size of the page. Detailed, portrait-orientated works such as The Earth is Our Mother, Archaic Mother, and Spirits of Sky, Earth and Underworld would have been better served by being given some rarefied space and formatted at full page size, instead of being crammed next to blocks of text. Indeed, the whole book could have looked like so much more if the page count has been increased to give everything more room to breathe and if care had been taken with the typography, and with the proofing. Capitalisation is inconsistent and mistyping abounds (hello “Sacandinavian Bronze Age,” hello “Ashodel Long,” and hello there “Kalevala” that becomes “Kalavala” within the same paragraph), creating the impression that there was little proofing at any stage of production.

The Norse Goddess spread

The binding of The Norse Goddess mirrors the problems with layout, with an overall amateurish quality. The pages are made of an incongruous and slightly heavy glossy stock, and the binding is far too tight, wedging the pages together. Like a cheaply-printed Capall Bann title, the conservative size of the gutters (with no allowance given for creep) means that these glossy pages never open as fully as one would like; and holding a spread open long enough to read both pages can lead to digital fatigue.

In all, The Norse Goddess is an interesting book whose premise is both intriguing and appealing, but it is nonetheless let down by its lack of rigour, meaning that its arguments never feel watertight and indeed are often rendered highly speculative. The layout reflects this, making one imagine what could have been in a book that is more convincing in both its literary and aesthetic properties.

Published by Dor Dama Press (an imprint of Meyn Mamvro Publications)

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Magic in the Landscape – Nigel Pennick

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Categories: esotericism, folk, Tags:

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

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

Magic in the Landscape spread

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

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

Magic in the Landscape spread

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

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

Magic in the Landscape spread

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

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

Published by Destiny Books

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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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Rune Mysteries – Silver RavenWolf and Nigel Jackson

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Categories: germanic, runes, Tags:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isa rune card design

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

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

Rune Mysteries spread

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

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

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

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

Haegl rune card design

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

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

Published by Llewellyn

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

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Categories: germanic, runes, Tags:

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

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

Tree of Salvation spread

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

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

Tree of Salvation spread

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

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

Tree of Salvation spread

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

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

Tree of Salvation spread

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

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

Published by Oxford University Press

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Green Rûna – Edred Thorsson

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Categories: germanic, runes, Tags:

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

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

Green Rûna spread

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

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

Green Rûna spread

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

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

Green Rûna spread

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

Published by Rûna Raven Press

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

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Categories: folk, grimoire, Tags:

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

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

The Long Lost Friend spread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published by Llewellyn

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The Mark of Cain – Ruth Mellinkoff

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Categories: esotericism, mesopotamian, middle ages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published by Wipf and Stock Publishers

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Traditional Board Games of Northern Europe – Nigel Pennick

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Categories: folk, germanic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published by Valknut Productions

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