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Feeding the Flame: A Devotional to Loki and His Family, edited by Galina Krasskova

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Categories: devotional, germanic, rökkr, Tags:

Feeding the Flame coverNot to be confused with a 1983 album by the appropriately-named English post-punk band Sad Lovers and Giants, this anthology edited by Galina Krasskova comes from over a decade ago during a rich period of publishing for Asphodel Press. As such, many of the contributions in this paean to Loki and his family draw from that then extant wealth of material, and have previously appeared variously in Raven Kaldera’s Jotunbok, Krasskova’s own Exploring the Northern Tradition, Elizabeth Vongvisith’s devotional Trickster, My Beloved, and others.

Following a brief introduction from Krasskova, and as is often the way with such titles, Feeding the Flame begins with an exhaustive introduction to its subject matter, this time in the form of Hot Stuff: Working with Loki from Mordant Carnival. The first part of this contribution provides a thorough survey of many of Loki’s attributes and associations, not necessarily heavy on the details, but touching a lot of bases through its journey; including his relationships with various other beings. Carnival writes fluidly and confidently in an arch and self-aware manner, with, as the essay’s title prophesises, the occasional descent into fittingly Lokian-humour and wry asides: a deprecating mention of Loki’s Dick Dastardy moustache in his appearance on the Snaptun bellows stone, say, or a description of Baldr as the brightest, the best and deadest of the gods.

Carnival then moves on to the essay’s second part with an exploration of working with Loki in the here and now, something that is introduced as being potentially problematic given that it is drawn from personal experience, which, they admit, could all simply be a figment of the imagination. Carnival provides a broad ritual method for working with Loki, with various avenues for further exploration via sacrifice or possession, noting that this structure is preferable to simply swapping Loki’s name into an existing Wiccan or similar format that is heavy on the abjuration and banishing.

Feeding the Flame spread

Other writers provide long-form considerations of Loki, with Sophie Oberlander’s Courting the Trickster and Sigrun Freyskona’s account of Loki as a childhood imaginary friend reminiscent of Rik Mayall’s Drop Dead Fred, but the remaining contributions are poetic ones. These works are by largely familiar names from within this circle of publishing, such as Silence Maestas, Elizabeth Vongvisith, Michaela Macha and Krasskova herself. Poetically, the most striking of these are a couple of pieces from Maestas who combines unfettered devotion for their subject with a deft poetic voice, particularly in an untitled work which opens memorably with the evocative line “I’d like to teach my fool tongue to dance.” The award for most thematically striking poem, though, goes to Vongvisith, whose Fulltrui is positively filthy with its depiction of Óðinn and Loki’s blood brotherhood as something profoundly carnal, describing them as two mating wildcats, with the latter impaled with the flesh of the former after a chase through the worlds.

Loki does not possess the wolf’s share of the content in Feeding the Flame and a significant portion of what follows in the discussion of his family centres on his Æsir wife, Sigyn. There are 70 pages devoted to Sigyn, substantially more than for Loki himself, and if, like this writer, you’ve never felt much of an affinity with her, that’s a lot to get through. As with other examples of Sigyn literature from Asphodel Press, this material is interesting considering that, in her, much has been made from so little in lore. Thus, some of the imagery presented here has slight if any direct correlation within the sagas, being seemingly built solely on mutually affirming UPG (Unverified Personal Gnosis). Krasskova introduces this surfeit of content with an essay presenting Sigyn as a child bride whose aegis is the healing of the inner child; a theme she later returns to in a received telling of Loki and Sigyn’s first meeting. Others consider Sigyn as a spirit of endurance and eventual victory, and there are several practical contributions, with Jason Freysson giving instructions for a ritual bath for use in Sigyn devotions and a recipe for her oil, while Krasskova and Fuensanta Arismendi both provide separate meditations for her.

Feeding the Flame spread

One of the unique aspects of Feeding the Flame is that its brief allows material to be presented for figures who would otherwise receive little attention, in particular Loki and Sigyn’s two sons, who are here, as per Snorri Sturluson, referred to as Narvi and Vali. There are several poetic and prose pieces dedicated to the brothers separately and as a duo, making this surely one of the few places to find such material.

Loki’s equine son, Sleipnir, also gets a poem dedicated to him and then the rest of the book is rounded off with material, both poem and prose, dedicated to Loki’s other wife, Angrboða, and their children Fenrir, Hela and the World Serpent. As one might expect, this author finds this section to be the most engaging, with a strong, imagery-rich collection of poetry for Angrboða, with Kaldera’s Mother of Monsters and Seawalker’s Hag of the Ironwood being particularly notable. The Hela selection is equally strong with Dagian Russell memorably addressing Her as Lady of the Cool Damp Places and Mistress of Eternal Autumn, amongst other wonderful titles, while another piece from Kaldera, Darkness Out of Fire, has Hela addresses Loki directly, daughter to father.

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The prose of Feeding the Flame is of a consistent quality, despite the variety of authors, and there are no pieces that grate or feel out of place. Poetry, as one would expect, is a different matter, with a variety of styles. There are the invocatory prayer-type pieces that one expects in a devotional such as this, more declamatory than an ode, whereas others, notably Maestas and Vongvisith. traffic in a far more considered poetic manner, their structures and choice of words feeling worked and finessed, informed by an awareness of the form.

The layout of Feeding the Flame follows the standard in-house style of Asphodel Press, with a consistent serif for body and a different serif for titles. It’s nothing flash but it is consistent and clean; though I do wish first paragraphs weren’t indented, tsk. The book is devoid of internal illustrations but does bear as its cover depiction of Angrboða, Loki and Sigyn by Grace Palmer; and image which also appears as The Lovers trump in the Kaldera-compiled Giant’s Tarot.

Feeding the Flame spread

While Feeding the Flame is still available in this Asphodel Press edition, Krasskova produced a reissue in 2014 retitled Consuming the Flames: A Devotional Anthology for Loki and His Family, with an Arthur Rackham cover, revised content, a reduced page count, and ironically, given the subtitle, a removal of all material dedicated to Angrboða, Hela, Fenrir and Jormungand. As such, the recommendation by necessity falls to the first edition, with the material for Loki’s most famous wife and children, though it is slight next to the voluminous and taxing devotions to Sigyn, being a particular selling point.

Published by Asphodel 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.”

The Witch's Garden spread

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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The Magian Tarok: The Origins of the Tarot in the Mithraic and Hermetic Traditions – Stephen E. Flowers

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Categories: hellenic, hermeticism, mesopotamian, tarot, Tags:

The Magian Tarok coverInner Traditions and Stephen Flowers seem to have a lucrative and fulfilling relationship, reissuing many of his works from over the years, usually in revised, expanded and more substantial versions than their humble first pressings on Flowers’ own Rûna Raven Press. This is one such title, originally released in a preliminary edition following its effective completion in 1992, then more widely by Rûna Raven Press in 2006 and finally again in 2015 by Lodestar Books. Suffice to say, with a cover design by Aaron Davis and layout by Debbie Glogover, this incarnation has all the effortless class one would expect from an Inner Traditions title.

The Magian Tarok follows a slightly atypical trajectory, placing, as its subtitle makes clear, the origins of the tarot in Mithraic and Hermetic traditions, rather than any of the more usual suspects, credible or not; an idea touched on briefly by Flowers in his book Hermetic Magic. In his introduction, Flowers details how the inspiration for this book long preceded its 1992 completion, having its inception in 1981 whilst he was researching in Germany. Here, the idea had an unlikely source, being found in the academic works of the Swedish poet and philologist, and promoter of the Uthark theory of the runes, Sigurd Agrell.

Flowers begins by talking tangentially, and in somewhat surprisingly glowing terms, about postmodern theory, but, of course, one as perpetually gruff and traditionalist as he isn’t referring to *that* postmodernism, oh no, heaven for fend. Instead, he is talking about, you know, the real one; the one that probably chops wood with an axe, smokes cigars, drinks whiskey, and has a moustache, rahhhh. Needless to say, Flowers can’t resist shaking his fist at those “Marxists and crypto-Marxists” on his lawn, hijacking postmodernism and storming poor, defenceless academia, saints preserve us. This is a peculiar little spittle of invective that once again highlights the incongruity of the relationship betwixt Flowers and Inner Traditions; a company one can’t imagine spends a lot of time railing against the modern world, not when there are books to be sold about vibrational nutrition, healing crystals and tuning the human biofield. This is particularly so as Inner Traditions are the kind of publisher that comes to mind in Flower’s preface when, in the very first paragraph, he laments that the modernisation and desacralisation of the tarot “has gone so far that one can even now buy “Teen Tarot” packages;” as if this apparently inconceivable proposition was one of the veritable signs of the apocalypse, right up there with human sacrifice and cats and dogs living together. Lawks, save us all from the twin evils of teenage girls and post-structuralist academics, they assail us from all sides.

The Magian Tarok spread

To ground the book’s central hypothesis, Flowers spends a considerable time, 52 pages in all, summarising Mithraism, along with its antecedents and contemporaries: Zoroastrianism, Magianism and briefly, Stoicism. This immediately provides a perfect encapsulation of some of the problems with the writing found in The Magian Tarok; something that comes as a surprise given Flowers’ experience and mileage as an author. Despite its 52 pages, this one chapter contains only five cited references, all from Franz Cumont’s seminal if not unassailable The Mysteries of Mithras, with all other secondary sources uncited, thereby leaving the reader to entirely trust Flowers’ description of these religious systems or to guess the source from amongst the three page bibliography at the back. Two of these citations relate awkwardly to a summary of Cumont’s highly speculative recreation of the story behind the tauroctony (the familiar if enigmatic slaying of the bull by the Roman form of Mithras), which, given the text’s block quote formatting makes it appear to be a direct quote from The Mysteries of Mithras, which it isn’t. This lack of sources other than Cumont is problematic given that so much of the writing is riddled with weasel words and false appeals to authority. There’s an abundant use of qualifiers like ‘maybe’ and ‘perhaps,’ but even more egregious are those appeals to false authority with phrases such as “it has been said,” “some say” and “some believe,” as well as references to some unspecified “most early scholars” and their descendants, the equally anonymous “some recent scholars.”

In addition to issues with referencing are some sloppy editing moments where whole sections of information are repeated redundantly, almost as if a few notes have been fleshed out one way and incorporated into the text, only for the author to rewrite the same information and insert it into the body a few pages later, appearing to forget doing it the first time. On page 15, for example, Flowers introduces Zarathustra and relates how this Iranian priest identified the embodiment of absolute divinity as Ahura Mazda (Lord-Wisdom), with all other gods and goddesses as abstract principles created by them. A brief five pages later, with the details still fresh in the memory of the reader, if not his own, Flowers disorientatingly introduces Zarathustra again and tells how he identified the embodiment of absolute divinity as Ahura Mazda (Lord-Wisdom) with all other gods and goddesses as abstract principles created by him. In other instances, concepts are discussed before they are defined, with, for example, Zurvanism being mentioned several times, albeit only by name, before a full explanation comes pages later, finally introducing Zurvan as if they hadn’t been mentioned in passing prior.

The Magian Tarok spread

After this lengthy grounding, Flowers moves on to a consideration of stoiechia, by which is meant the letters of the Greek alphabet, thus providing the book’s first hint of a pathway between Mithraism and the tarot. Flowers presents an esoteric, Mithraic interpretation of each letter, seemingly based entirely on the work of Agrell as no other sources, ancient or modern, are mentioned. Thus, the bull symbolism of alpha (or at least its Phoenician antecedent aleph) relates to the tauroctony; beta, as the second letter, is the lesser god and second principle of life in Zoroastrianism, the malevolent Ahriman; whereas the third letter, gamma, refers to Mithras who in Greek texts, according to Flowers, was “often called” triplasios (‘three-times-as-much’) and which he takes to imply the idea of a Mithraic trinity. It is worth noting that the names of these many Greek texts are not cited and the primary, if not only, use in Greek of the triplasios term for Mithras is by the 5th-6th century Christian theologian Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, where he employs it in the sense of thrice-great, rather than a trinitarian threefold.

This is all very speculative and it often feels like an association is made using the barest of symbolic simulacra, which is fine when one is doing an esoteric investigation for oneself, but less so when these correspondences are ostensibly being presented as an ancient belief system with a lineage that also stretches forward at least two millennia into the modern age. As the Greek letters do not have the rich symbolic associations of Hebrew or the runes, a meaning often has to be drawn, with some effort, from their numeric value using a simple Mispar Hechrachi-style number-for-letter formula. As a result, things get reachier the further into the alphabet one goes, with one of the reachiest being the eleventh letter, lambda, which is said to be associated with growth and vegetative virility. To get to this, Agrell noted that an excerpt from the Zoroastrian scripture Bundahishn tells how from five parts of the slain cosmic bull sprung 55 types of grain and twelve kinds of healing herbs. Discounting the twelve herbs, Agrell introduced the number 11 and tortuously argued that since 5 times 11 equals 55, then 11 must be the number that signifies growth and vegetative virility; not the referenced 5, nor 55, and certainly not 12. Like we said, so reachy, and that’s not even taking into account that the Bundahishn excerpt in question has Ahriman and his evil forces as the killers of the bull, not Mithra, who in his Iranian form is never associated with that act.

Undaunted with the sketchiness of this assignment to the Greek alphabet of myriad Zoroastrian and prochronistic Roman Mithraist elements, the next chapter moves forward in time with an assumption that said esoteric attributes were transferred from the Greek letters to their Latin equivalent. Little time is spent on this evolution and instead Flowers takes it as read and moves swiftly on to Agrell’s interpretation of the tarot, admitting for the first time that it would be untenable to suggest that the tarot trumps existed at this period in their later card form, but rather that their symbolism was then extant and conveyed in the esoteric import given to symbols, such as the Greek and Roman letters. Only later, the theory goes, were these arbitrary (and seemingly reverse-engineered) associations given pictorial form in the cards of the tarot; assuming an uninterrupted lineage of centuries.

The Magian Tarok spread

Flowers goes through each of the trumps, giving Agrell’s interpretation and fleshing out the information with additional details. There’s a lot of wrangling of imagery drawn not just from Mithraism’s limited symbolism but also ancient Egypt, Greece and more broadly, Hermeticism, all of which has to then be inelegantly tied back to Mithraism in order to fit the brief; although sometimes the stretch was apparently too great to bother with. Thus, the wand-wielding Magician is linked to a was-sceptre-holding Set, but then Flowers has to make this relevant to Agrell’s hypothesis with a hand-waving claim that “it is also likely” that during the Persian rule of Egypt, their Mithra was identified with the native Set. Similarly, The High Priestess is just, well, any queen-like goddess figure, so yeah, let’s say Isis, and well, maybe Cybele, and then let’s see if we can tie this in to Mithras based merely on the proximity of their respective cults, Yeah, that’ll do. Next! What, another goddess figure for The Empress? Ahh, that must have been Diana for, um, reasons. These Mithraists weren’t exactly bothered about encoding many figures unique to their ill-defined cosmology into these cards, any old god will do, almost as if these magi had the benefit of four millennia of mythological hindsight at their disposal.

Throughout this analysis, any coincidence is looked upon as proof and any inconsistency is acknowledged as something that must have changed, albeit for unspecified, mysterious reasons. Thus, The Fool is an image of the tauroctony, but the bull has been turned, naturally, I guess, into the jester figure, with his cap and bells read, for the first time by anyone ever, as bull’s ears. Mithras himself is completely absent, but lo, a dog seen in the tauroctony is there in the trump; although let’s ignore the fact that the dog is parasitically licking the bull’s blood in the former, while trying to warn the Fool of imminent danger in the latter. Not to mention that the dog first appears in the Marseilles deck, and not in any of its 15th century predecessors.

Ultimately, none of the interpretations of the cards are very convincing and the entire premise fails to move beyond confusing correlation for causation. Rather than showing that there was some ancient template for the 15th century tarot deck, inconceivably carried through time for over 1500 years by a secret magian brotherhood straight out of Dan Brown’s tawdry fiction, the swish of Occam’s Razor would argue that the 15th century designs, like any other creative output, drew their imagery from a vast array of extant sources and influences, both esoteric and mundane. Once again, if it was simply a matter of retroactively applying a Greek, Hermetic and tiny sliver of Mithraism to the symbolism of the tarot, in a manner done, for example, by anyone designing a new tarot with a specific cultural variation, then that would be fine; even if the links are, as mentioned, often tenuous. The issue though is with the implausible central hypothesis that all this happened the other way round, all managed by magian adepts with a knowledge of Hermeticism, two versions of Mithras (both Persian and Roman), who were also cognisant of a future where mere playing cards could become a system of divination (and then desacralized by those damn teenagers). This sloppy scholarship is exacerbated by the attempts to give names to these non-existent Roman trumps, as if that’s what they would really have been called, claiming for example that the original Roman name for Strength “was probably Magnitudo,” that for The Hanged Man “the evocative interpretation was probably Noxa,” that the Roman name for Temperance “was likely Pluvia, “rain (water),”” and that The Devil “would have carried the name Quirinus.” Even with those weasel word caveats, these are pretty bold claims to pull out of the aether and I could just as easily say, with comparable certainty, that The Tower was originally almost certainly most definitely called Geminae Turris (and the other tower was removed from the card’s imagery at some point because, you know, reasons).

The Magian Tarok spread

As an argument for a theory best left in the 1930s, the content of The Magian Tarok has little to recommend it, stretching symbolism, time, logic and the reader’s credulity. At best, one could say the book is merely a prima facie presentation of Agrell’s theory and is not intended as either critique or advocacy, But beyond the tarot theory itself, as a history of Mithraism it is also lacking, rife as it is with its lack of reference to both primary and secondary sources, and with its preponderance of weasel words, setting the discerning reader adrift in a sea of uncertain provenances and fruitless speculation. Given the relative obscurity of Mithraism, a clearer, more referenced consideration of the topic would be recommended, with less reliance solely on Cumont, as some of his once popular theories have attracted criticism over the years, beginning in 1971 with John Hinnells and R.L. Gordon at the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies.

The layout of The Magian Tarok comes, as ever, by way of the expert hand of the aforementioned Debbie Glogover, who sets the body in Garamond, with Brioso, Goudy Oldstyle and Gill Sans as display faces. Images are dotted throughout the book and the tarot trumps are represented four-fold in each example, with a row of three cards drawn variously from the Visconti-Sforza, Marseilles, Grigonneur, Rosenwald and Mantegna decks, topped each time by a larger featured image from the photographic tarot of Amber Rae Broderick.

Published by Inner Traditions

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

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Categories: folk, witchcraft, Tags:

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

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

Operative Witchcraft spread

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

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

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

Operative Witchcraft spread

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

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

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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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Hekate Her Sacred Fires – Compiled and edited by Sorita d’Este

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Categories: classical, devotional, goddesses, hekate, hellenic, Tags:

Hekate Her Sacred Fires coverApparently some unwritten goal here at Scriptus Recensera is to review all recently published titles related to Hekate, so much so that she’s the only deity here with her own subject tag. This might be a somewhat insurmountable task, given her popularity at Avalonia alone, with this being but one of two anthologies released by that press in honour of her; the other being the equally colon-deficient Hekate Key to the Crossroads from 2006. Published in 2010, this massive work takes a more global view than its predecessor and brings together contributions from more than fifty people, with some familiar names but considerably more who just appear to be practitioners who are not otherwise writers. This vast cast is somewhat intimated in the cover which has not a single image but many, featuring the work of Emily Carding, Brian Andrews, Shay Skepevski, Georgi Mishev, and in the centre, Magin Rose.

Hekate Her Sacred Fires is presented as a large format A4 book, which doesn’t make for the most pleasant reading experience. Reading on-the-go is pretty much out of the question, and reading not-on-the-go isn’t all that easy either, with the ungainly format requiring a solid reading surface lest hand fatigue and RSI kick in. In addition to the physical aspects, the large dimensions don’t allow for the most sympathetic of layouts. Text is formatted in a single, page-wide column, meaning that the enervation of hands and limbs is joined by a similar weariness of eyes and concentration, with the excessive line-length being detrimental to sustained comprehension. The formatting of the text doesn’t help in this manner either, providing little in the way of visual interest. Paragraphs are fully-justified, and separated with a line-space between, but they also have redundant and far-too-large first line idents, including the first paragraph and in one infuriating instance, subtitles; meaning that the body text can appear insubstantial and untethered. Titles and subtitles are presented as larger and bolded versions of the body typeface, set in the almost-a-slab-serif face that Avalonia have stuck with over the years. There are images preceding almost every contribution on the verso side of the page spreads but these, like the various other illustrations and photographs that fill spaces throughout the book, are of varying quality and are not treated that well by Lightning Source’s print-on-demand press.

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This all means that it can be hard to get into Hekate Her Sacred Fires, and it is a testament to this difficulty that this review has sat here half-written for some time. Once one does make it past the monstrously large pages and the walls of long-line-length text, a sense of the variety in contributions begins to emerge, though the majority are first-hand accounts of working with Hekate. But first off, in her own introductory section, is d’Este, who gives an overview of Hekate, providing a thorough historical grounding that allows for the more speculative or specialised considerations that come later. This is then followed by an exhaustive illustrated timeline that is spread across nineteen pages, and stretches from 6000 BCE, with the beginning of the Neolithic period, right up to 2000 CE where it concludes with the publication of d’Este’s book Hekate Key to the Crossroads.

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With over fifty contributors there is a demonstrable diversity in what is presented here, all of varying approaches, styles and quality, in both matters magical and literary. It is the personal that dominates throughout, beginning with Georgi Mishev who gives a personal biography and testimonial of his Bulgarian approach to goddess spirituality in general and Hekate in particular, as does compatriot Ekaterina Ilieva in the following piece. Similarly, Shani Oates provides a record of a ritual for Hekate from several years prior with results of great profundity; prefaced with an introduction of equally great and characteristic verbosity. Some of these contributions include a practical element with the personal, such as John Canard who talks about using meteor showers for spell work, or Amelia Ounsted who maps out the whole Wiccan year of festivities with ways in which they can be related back to Hekate.

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Some of the more interesting contributions here move beyond the respectable and reputable classical world of Hekate, as necessary and worthy as that grounding may be, and into the more darkly glamorous realms of sabbatic and Luciferian witchcraft. This comes most notably from the pen of Mark Alan Smith whose appearance amongst these other authors seems a little incongruous, but it is a theme also discussed first by Trystn M. Branwynn in the gloriously-titled The Hekatine Strain. Here, Branwynn discusses Hekate as but one of the names of the pale Queen of the Castle of Roses in Cochrane-style Traditional Witchcraft, drawing together a tapestry of threads from myth and folklore to unpack the symbols of Hekate, in particular the crossroads, and linking it ultimately back to this particular vision of witchcraft. Smith, in turn, writes, as one would expect, from the perspective of his Primal Craft tradition, telling of how Hekate introduced him to Lucifer who appears here as her consort. This is a thorough ritual account, documenting the long, distressing after effects of The Rite of the Phoenix, culminating in a crossing of the Abyss and a journey through the City of Pyramids.

The type of personal turmoil mentioned by Smith is not something unique to his contribution here, with several authors describing trauma and dark nights of the soul that either came through interacting with Hekate or were eventually soothed by her cathartic arrival. As always, there’s a variety of feelings and impressions that can be stirred up when reading such accounts, especially when it concerns mystical goings on and messages from the divine world; incredulity being one of them. But that is the nature of the brief here, so the reader needs to buckle in and enjoy the ride on this train of personal testimonies or get off at the next dour stop. For devotees of Hekate, though, one can imagine that a collection of so many allied voices would be well received and a valuable addition to one’s library.

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In the end, it’s hard to get past the large formatting of Hekate Her Sacred Fires and it can be genuinely exhausting just to read a page, with your head and eyes having to travel right across each A4 width just to get one sentence in. It is obvious why this has been done, as with an existing page count of over 300, a volume with more conventional dimensions would have doubled the amount of pages to make for one hefty tome. One option might have been to reduce the number of submissions or to have at least pared down some of them in the edit, but there would probably have been some reluctance to do this, given that in her introduction, d’Este talks of how necessary it was to preserve the voice of so many writers; meaning that editing for proofing alone has been minimal, limited to what are designated essential changes.

Published by Avalonia

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

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Categories: folk, witchcraft, Tags:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silent as the Trees spread with photo plates

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

Published by Troy Books

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The Secret King: The Myth and Reality of Nazi Occultism – Stephen E. Flowers and Michael Moynihan

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Categories: esotericism, germanic, runes, Tags:

The Secret King coverInitially released jointly by Dominion and Runa-Raven presses in 2001 as The Secret King: Karl Maria Wiligut, Himmler’s Lord of the Runes, this 2007 Feral House incarnation of the book sees the original text revised and expanded. While Stephen Flowers and Michael Moynihan share author credits on the cover, the latter explains in his introduction that the two writers played to their strengths, with much of the translation by Flowers, whilst the editing was by Moynihan.

The Secret King brings together various translated works by Karl Willigut, the self-styled king of Germany of the title, prefaced by an essay on the fiction and reality of Nazi occultism, from which the new subtitle is taken. Said subtitle sits rather awkwardly with the majority of the content of the book, feeling disproportionate in its prominence and incongruous to the main title; with the original and Wiligut-specific subtitle being a more accurate option.

The opening discussion on the idea of Nazi occultism is written with a slightly terse and withering tone that does, however, tire easily. It rightly dismisses so much of the baseless speculation that has accrued over the years to the point of almost becoming, at least on a subconscious level, fact; see how easily the image of an Occult Reich seeps into pop culture, whether it be the first Indiana Jones movie, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy or the Wolfenstein video games. The authors place much of the initial blame for the idea of Nazi occultism on war-time propaganda, perhaps not as an all-pervasive theme but one which still had an impact in casting Nazi Germany as evil, godless Satanists; such as in Lewis Spence’s none-too-subtle 1940 screed The Occult Causes of the Present War, which sounds like a lot of fun. Such views, Flowers and Moynihan argue, were retooled to give the Allies the higher moral ground in their “crusade against evil,” when in reality, the authors again argue, this crusade was actually against the economic idea of National Socialism, due to its financial isolationism and opposition to usury; though presumably aggressive German expansionism and the invasion of Poland may have had something to do with it too, I guess not.

After detailing the misconceptions and embellishments concerning the role of the occult in Nazi Germany, and the perpetuation of some of these themes in the works of later sympathetic writers like Savitri Devi and Miguel Serrano, Flowers and Moynihan turn to the reality. In this telling, these are slim occult pickings and so it’s no The Morning of the Magicians, and you won’t find much in the way of speculation about Thule-Gesellschaft, the Vril Society, or even the slightly more pragmatic Ahnenerbe. Instead, the focus here is solely on Austrian occultist and SS-Brigadeführer, Karl Maria Wiligut. This is a relatively brief introduction to Wiligut, running to 26 heavily illustrated pages, but it does provide a fairly thorough introduction to his life, with some obvious gaps, such is the slip of myth he himself wove, along with a passing overview of the mythos and system he created. Said mythos and system were obviously indebted to the German ariosophists and runologists who preceded him, notably Guiodo von List and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, as well as Siegfried Kummer and Peryt Shou.

The Secret King spread

Like those predecessors, particularly Kummer and Shou, Wiligut straddled that strange divided between heathenism and Christianity, seeking to merge the two in an attempt, as had been done for centuries before, to forge a particularly Germanic version of Judaeo-Christianity. This leads to a notably pagan-free system, with Wotan effectively dismissed as at best a circumlocution of this more nebulous yet omniscient and all-embracing concept of Got; and with Wotanism as a later ouster of this ur-religion of Got. Indeed, there’s very little that feels obviously heathen in this monotheistic figure of Got, who acts more like a Hermetic or Qabbalistic pantokrator or demiurge, a triad of energy, spirit and matter, with Wiligut aligning them with a belief system, extant amongst the Germanic people since time immemorial, akin to perennial wisdom. Contrary to any evidence, Wiligut categorically states that this “noble knowledge of Gotos” was the treasure of the Germanics, and that they never had ‘Gods’ as they did in Rome.

Betraying the seemingly unavoidable influence of Theosophy, Wiligut’s oeuvre also embraces the idea of Atlantis and vast primordial epochs of human history, with a cosmology and account of creation that follows some of those familiar beats, but with a Germanic twist that incorporates names from mythology as well as the kind of semi-scientific speculation of Hanns Hörbiger or Viktor Schauberger. As one might expect, there’s no references to Blatvatsky and instead, credit for this metaphysical history of the world is attributed to a secret 10,000 year Wiligut family tradition. This Irminsaga, as Wiligut called it, was recorded in script and images on seven wooden tablets of oak, which, not surprisingly, and somewhat conveniently, are now lost, having perished in a fire in 1848. As a result, the junior Wiligut received the family tradition entirely orally from his similarly-named uncle, whose own statute of limitations had fortuitously ran well out as well, as he had died in 1883.

The Secret King spread

The various examples of Wiligut’s writings are drawn principally from Hag All All Hag/Hagal, the journal of the Edda Society, to which he contributed under the pseudonym Jarl Widar. In a style familiar for the time and in later occult speculation, these often provide short outlines of metaphysical concepts, aided by runes and other symbols that are meant to illustrate these principles. There’s much talk of energy and matter, consciousness and becoming, and naturally a lot of talk about Got, wisdom and the Germanic folk. These are for the most part presented without much in the way of commentary and analysis, standing alone as a verbatim recording of Wiligut’s work.

Wiligut’s more poetic contributions are translated by Moynihan in what is acknowledged as a literal rather than lyrical manner, meaning that, sheared of the rhyming couplets of the original German, there’s little sense of the poetic here and the words come across as often abrupt stentorian declarations. These are presented in a small Fraktur-style typeface for a bit of atmosphere and in keeping with how they originally appeared in print.

The Secret King spread

Perhaps the most familiar of Wiligut’s writing is his Gotos-Kalanda cycle of poems celebrating the twelve months of the year. Originally privately published in 1937 as a small booklet by Wiligut and distributed to friends, Gotos-Kalanda has only appeared once before in English, translated by Moynihan, Markus Wolff and Gerhard Petak and published by the latter’s Aorta imprint in 1992. Petak would also use Gotos-Kalanda in 1995 as the basis for the similarly-titled second album of his ritual-industrial project Allerseelen, with each of its twelve tracks named after one of the months and using the poems as inspiration. As its name suggests, and despite the use of pagan names for some of the months, Wiligut’s Gotos-Kalanda is a celebration of his cosmology of Got, with the poems marking out the year as a calendrical round, a waxing and waning of Got in his various seasonal aspects and areas of influence. As such, it provides a rather concise synopsis of Wiligut’s conception of Got and a comprehensive liturgy from which anyone so inclined could draw.

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The Secret King concludes with a series of appendices, five in all. The longest of these is a substantial interview by Manfred Lenz of the industrial project Turbund Sturmwerk with Wiligut’s former secretary, Gabriele Dechend. Dechend is also the source of another of the appendices, a Wiligut-style description of the cosmos from a 1935 issue of Hagal, all energy-matter-spirit speculation with de rigueur metaphysical symbols and diagrams.

As with the works of earlier members of Germany’s runic revival, there’s an interesting quality to the work presented here, but one which feels unmoored from reality and relevance. There’s little that anyone with pagan inclinations can draw from it, though for those who are prepared to take the leap, there’s a feeling of a complete system and cosmology lurking here, glamorously shored up with Wiligut’s assertions of an ancient family tradition.

Published by Feral House


The soundtrack for this review is Gotos=Kalanda by Allerseelen.

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Rune Games – Marijane Osborn and Stella Longland

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Categories: germanic, runes

Rune Games coverRune Games by Marijane Osborn and Stella Longland occupies a strange place in the recent history of esoteric runology. First published in 1982, it predates some of the considerably more prominent works from the likes of Stephen Flowers, Freya Aswynn, Nigel Pennick and Michael Howard, with Flowers’ Futhark: A Handbook of Rune Magic arriving two years later, while Aswynn’s Leaves of Yggdrasil would be first self-published in 1988. Only Ralph Blum and his mass market  Book of Runes (with little rune tiles in a cloth pouch) can claim to be a contemporary, released in the same year as Rune Games, but let’s not tar the latter with the shameful brush of the former. This pedigree means that despite a metaphysical focus, there’s little in the way of references to Germanic magical groups here, and the slight bibliography naturally contains no related titles (as they didn’t exist yet, of course), with the only works directly relating to runes being academic ones: Dickins’ Runic and Heroic Poems, Elliott’s Runes: An Introduction, and Page’s An Introduction to English Runes.

Perhaps highlighting the hoary antiquity of this book, Rune Games is formatted in a monotype face that may have been come from a then-state-of-the-art word processor, but which carries with it a hint of a far older typewriter. There don’t appear to have been any special characters on this word processor, so the thorn and eth letters are both transliterated to ‘th’, with ‘eth’ differentiated in its appearances with a line above the ‘th.’ It’s almost cute but disorientating for those with the luxury of always reading the text with special characters baked in. As one would expect, there were also no runic characters on this ancient device, so when needed, these have been charmingly hand-drawn into the body copy. Double cute.

Rune Games spread

One of the most appealing aspects of Rune Games is an aesthetic one, with the peppering throughout of ink illustrations by Steven Longland. In contradistinction to the conventions of runic and Viking art that has come to dominate this field (as featured in the incessant sponsored posts on my Instagram feed), Longland has a calligrapher’s hand, drawing on the illuminated manuscript style of the Book of Kells to create something that looks more Celtic than obviously Germanic. Indeed, the Book of Kells plays a surprising and disproportionate role in this work, but more about that later.

Rune Games spread with image by Steven Longland

While later titles from the milieu of esoteric runology would tend to focus on the 24 runes of the Elder Futhark, Osborn and Longland explore the larger Ango-Saxon version; a natural choice since the accompanying Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem provides the most complete information on the meaning of each rune, cryptic though some of them be; with the poem’s Icelandic and Norwegian counterparts detailing only the sixteen runes of the shorter Younger Futhark. After a brief introduction to the runes in general, Osborn and Longland follow the familiar pattern of books such as these by detailing the meaning of each rune, beginning with a translation of the appropriate verse from the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem before providing an investigation of symbolism that usually runs up to a page and a half for longer entries, and as little as half a page for others. The authors draw fairly purely and pragmatically from etymology and the information found in the rune poems, with little in the way of outlandish or metaphysical speculation.

There is a concerted effort to show patterns within the runes, creating a thematic image that emphasises, as the rune poem naturally does, Anglo-Saxon ideas of home, hall and hearth. This reaches its zenith in an additional section where Osborn and Longland return to some of the runes by grouping them via their shapes as well as their association with animals, trees and plants, and the stars. The latter provides one of the notable innovative thoughts within the book, not seen anywhere else that I recall, with an interpretation of the Tir rune (described in the poem as a special astral sign, ever on course at night) as an arrow-shaped constellation comprised of the stars Sirius, Aldebaran, Betelgeuse and Rigel. On paper, as illustrated by Steven Longland here, it certainly looks convincing.

Rune Games spread with Tir image by Steven Longland

Osborn and Longland place particular emphasis on the Ing rune, seeing it as a master rune of sorts, representing imagination and the ability to transform the universe, and identifying it as a symbol of the blind eye of Odin, as the World Tree Yggdrasil, and as a pattern for the stages of life. They highlight its symmetry by halving, quartering and vertical splitting, attaching metaphysical significance to each stage. By far the longest part of this consideration, though, is spent on detailing appearances of the shape of the rune in the images of the Book of Kells, where it can be discerned in not just the overall decorative geometry of illustrations but in objects held by some of the figures. After spending an inordinate amount of time dissecting these images, in particular one from the Gospel of St John, and attaching various runic interpretations to it, Osborn and Longland do abruptly make the belated caveat that it would be a mistake to think the appearance of the Ing shape is a deliberate reference to the rune by the book’s creators; something that should be pretty obvious considering divides temporal, geographical, not to mention cultural and most importantly, religious. While one could say that the appearance of the shape and its themes might be, as Osborn and Longland call it, a meaningful coincidence, this caution is sometimes thrown to the wind and far more categorical statements are made, such as within the very paragraph where they opine that it seems likely an apparent blind eye in a depiction of St. Matthew was intended to be a veiled reference to Odin – quite the allegation to make against Columban monks.

Yggdrasil image by Steven Longland

The unique selling point of Runes Games is said games, eight in all, though Osborn and Longland take their time getting to them, providing a firm grounding in the runes and the metaphysics of divination first, so that it isn’t until half way through the book that they are introduced. Beginning with the simplest, a casting of rune staves (with three of them being selected for a tri-part query), these games are various systems of divination that ramp up in complexity as they progress. Classic children’s’ games play an inspirational role here, with one game being based on a knucklebones while another is comparable to hopscotch, with runes arranged on various grid patterns and the hopping done in the player’s mind. Other games draw from mythology for their framework, with one based on the nine nights spent hanging from the World Tree by Odin, and another that incorporates the charms mentioned in the Ljóðatal section of Hávamál. Another of the games returns to the image of the World Tree but aligns it with the Qabbalistic Tree of Life, assigning various runes to the sephira and then creating five different divinatory trees, with characteristics specific to an assigned rune; for example, the Tree of Man for one’s current personality, the Tree of Aurochs for the will and the Tree of Ing for possible futures.

Rune Games spread with image by Steven Longland

As the Yggdrasil game shows, there are often incredible layers of complexity associated with some of these systems, with Osborn and Longland piling interpretations and correspondences one upon the other in a lattice of interlocking potentialities of interpretation. It can be, one must admit, a little intimidating and suited to only a particular mind-set, with the cascade of variables recalling the arcane rules of a tabletop game encountered for the first time by a mere civilian unversed in the ways of geekdom. As such, some of these games feel less like, well, a game, and more like a test of wills, challenging you to see how long you can last until your eyes glaze over as you try to understand the method. With that said, the idea is that obviously, given enough training and experience in these tools and methods, the process of divination should become a lot more fluid and instinctual, without a need to constantly consult the manual.

Published by Routledge & Kegan Paul.


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Under the Bramble Arch – Corinne Boyer

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Categories: folk, witchcraft, Tags:

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

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

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

Under the Bramble Arch spread

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

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

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

Under the Bramble Arch spread

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

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

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

Under the Bramble Arch photo plates

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

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

Published by Troy Books


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Gender, Violence, and the Past in Edda and Saga – David Clark

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Gender, Violence, and the Past in Edda and Saga coverDavid Clark is a lecturer in Old English at the University of Leicester and this book considers the intersection between gender and violence in both the Poetic Edda and heroic sagas. Gender, Violence, and the Past in Edda and Saga is not a book made from whole cloth, and brings together writings that have previously appeared, in earlier versions, as articles in a variety of publications familiar to the field, including the Viking Society for Northern Research’s Saga-Book, the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Leeds Studies in English, Scandinavian Studies, and Viking and Medieval Scandinavia. That isn’t to say that the work as a whole feels piece meal, and each piece does build upon the other, beginning first with considerations of revenge in the stories of Guðrún and Helgi Hundingsbani. Clark prefaces these explorations in his introduction with a broad summary of Eddaic literature in general, and the areas to be discussed in particular, providing something of a necessary primer for the uninitiated.

Clark uses several theoretical models throughout his book, calling upon Pamela Robertson in the first chapter’s discussion of violence in the Guðrún poems Atlakviða, Atlamál, Guðrúnarhvöt and Hamðismál. Robertson’s consideration of camp, drag and gender parody, as it particularly applies to women who performatively portray other women, is applied to the depiction of Guðrún as someone who is atypically female in her actions. This has led to questions as to whether Guðrún is viewed sympathetically and heroically, or as an anti-feminist scapegoat, but Clark’s use of Robertson’s model allows her to be autonomous, possessed of her own destiny as someone who plays with perceptions of her sex in a female act of female impersonation.

Gender, Violence, and the Past in Edda and Saga spread

Clark employs a different theoretical model in the second chapter, invoking Eve Sedgwick’s concept of homosocial desire in its consideration of flyting in the Helgi poems: the first and second lays of Helgi Hundingsbani as well as the second lay of the other Helgi, Mr Hjörvarðsson. Sedgwick’s model of homosocial desire, in which a society is structured around male relationships that must then be normalised by intense homophobic discourse acting as a form of validation, finds an easy parallel in the Helgi poems. Most notable of these is the flyting exchanges between Guðmundr and Sinfj?tli in Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, with each man belittling the other with ribald accusations of ergi behaviour, though notably casting themselves as the dominant partner in these zoomorphosised sexual interactions with each other: Sinfj?tli says that he and Guðmundr were the parents of wolves, though he alone was the father, while Guðmundr says that he had ridden Sinfj?tli hard for many miles, whilst the latter was a gold-bitted mare. The one element of Sedgwick’s theory missing in its purest application here is the triangular model, in which this homosocial desire occurs in situations involving two men and a woman, the two usually fighting over the latter. As Clark notes, this model requires some adjustment to fit the cases outlined here, in which the desire for the sexual object is not always the primary motivation, such as Dagr in Helgakviða Hundingsbana II whose concern is revenge and the reappropriation of his sister Sigrún. Similarly, the conflict between Guðmundr and Sinfj?tli expands the geometry of the model here, thereby changing the dynamic, with their flyting being in service of their respective brothers, Höðbrodd and Helgi.

The fourth chapter moves away from direct theoretical models with a consideration of the way in which the themes of many of the heroic poems and in particular Hamðismál mirrors descriptions of Ragnarök, with the works providing a near constant invocation of the end of the world and its portents. Clark draws attention to the way in which kin-slaying and revenge is depicted in Völuspá, not just as one of the qualities of the end times but as something seen in the prelude to Ragnarök, where Loki causes the death of Baldr at the hands of his brother Höðr, whose own death at the hands of his newly-born brother, Vali, continues this cycle of fratricidal violence. Literary allusions to the themes of Ragnarök within the heroic poems, thus, convey a similar sense of an all-pervading and inevitable doom, creating a simulacrum of the divine end of the world that the mortal heroes then inhabit.

Gender, Violence, and the Past in Edda and Saga spread The themes of nid and ergi found in earlier chapters recur in a consideration of sexual themes and conceptions of the heroic past in Gisla saga, which asks once again a constant question found throughout this book with regard to the intent and judgement of the various authors in their depiction of revenge: is it admirable, or something barbaric, perhaps embarrassing, belonging to the past? Arguably the starkest positioning of this question is found in the fifth chapter’s discussion of the uneasy balance between, shall we say, the inherent tendency towards vengeance and bloodshed of pre-conversion Scandinavia and the slightly less heavy on the old revenge message of Christ. Clark documents several instances of the bind priests were in when trying to advocate for the latter over the former, noting that as celibate men adverse to pugnacity and proffering peace, they were vulnerable to charges of ergi, so contrary were they to Germanic ideas of masculinity.

The book concludes with a discussion of the role of women in revenge scenarios in the sagas, specifically as inciters of vengeance and offerors of cold council, as Njals saga terms it. This is principally a rebuttal of Jenny Jochen’s Old Norse Images of Women, in which it is argued that the literary stereotype of the vengeful women reflected a historical reality. Clark suggests otherwise, preferring ambiguity where others might be categorical, noting several contrary examples from the historical sagas, such as Sturlu saga, in which women also appear as anti-inciters.

Gender, Violence, and the Past in Edda and Saga runs to about 180 pages and is bound in a glossy black cloth, titled foiled in gold on the spine, and wrapped in a full colour dust jacket, featuring a detail from Arthur Rackham’s The Rhinegold & the Valkyrie. With its page count and octavo size, this feels deceptively like a slight volume, but Clark’s writing is dense and thorough, providing an intense and welcomed look at his subject matter.

Published by Oxford University Press


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