Damned: An Illustrated History of the Devil by Robert Muchembled
Translated from the French by Noël Schiller
Éditions du Seuil, 2004 (Chronicle Books)

“Hell is other people.”
— Sartre

 I’m happy that I bought a used copy of this book rather than shelling out about $90 for a new one. It’s not that I don’t like it, on the contrary, 200 glossy pages of devilish artwork is exactly what I want on my coffee table. I just was hoping for something a bit more in-depth for the history side of things. 

Each chapter in the book begins with a few double columned pages relating the main themes of the following pictures. It’s beautifully illustrated with everything from early woodcuts to luscious watercolours and oil paintings to modern comic book art. Beginning around the twelfth century, the author traces the “thread of evil” that has been “interwoven in the evolution of Western culture” (6) up until present times. Mirroring LaVey’s statement that Satan is the Church’s best friend, having kept them in business all these years, Muchembled shows the devil acting as a “catalyst for saints and evangelizers to develop” (6).  

Starting with the ‘invention’ of the devil and his development through to the fifteenth century, Muchembled touches on the various traditions that gave rise to so many images of the devil. He mentions Satan’s rather undefined identity as a bad angel in the realm of monastery-dwelling monks and theologians before being formally attached to surviving folkloric traditions of pagan spirits. (Again, the author doesn’t go into any sort of detail. The information given is an overview, nothing more).  

Chapter two deals with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and contains a lot of nice pictures of the supposed Witches’ Sabbath. (Goya’s goat is sadly missing.) Each image has a couple paragraphs beside it that places it in context in view of its time period and place of origin. The pictures themselves do not follow the chronology of the chapters (the art is taken from a wide range of dates), though they relate to each chapter’s theme.    

Probably the most disturbing image is Félicien Rops’ Calvary, which depicts a nude Magdalene about to be strangled with her own hair. Dirck Bouts the Elder’s bat-like demons are a close second. Okay, and Max Ernst’s The Robing of the Bride. This book isn’t bedtime reading material (unless, of course, you enjoy Bosch-esque nightmares).  

After a brief interlude of Devilish Women, the author returns to his timeline with the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. Although one would expect that after the Enlightenment Satan would fade along with the religious institution to which he belonged, the devil was rescued by both literature and art as the ultimate rebel. Finally, the author ends with a chapter devoted to images of Satan in film, modern art, and comic books. 

As far as art books go, I’ve never seen anything like this one. The Satanic imagery is great, but what this book really shows us is our fear (or, in some cases, the historical Church’s fear): Fear of our supposedly ‘base’ instincts, fear of women, fear of homosexuality, fear of heresy and freedom of thought, fear of nature, fear of each other, and fear (however laughable) of an oppressive, unjust, omnipotent god. It shows us ourselves as we do not like to be seen, bringing a bit of edge to what is, at first glance, just a collection of macabre art.

North Star Road

February 19, 2008

North Star Road: Shamanism, Witchcraft & the Otherworld Journey by Kenneth Johnson
Llewellyn Publications, 1996 

“Everything is full of souls.”
— Belibaste, Cathar preacher

The problem with the contemporary backlash against Margaret Murray’s theory of one unified witch-cult is that the pendulum has swung too far into the camps of historians who believe that the witch hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were either A) A mass delusion, B) A culmination of increasing social tensions between neighbours, and/or C) An attempt on the part of the Church to obtain land and wealth from women by torturing them until they confessed to strange and bizarre things. 

Although I’m sure (well, as sure as you can be about history) that causes A, B, and C are all quite possible and may have had a large part to play in the witch trial era, I’m not so sure that we should be so hung up on the materialist theories that we ignore all the weird shit that people were doing during that time period. We end up thinking that because there was no organized witch cult as purported by Murray, and because most people who confessed to witchcraft were innocent Christians who’d been horribly tortured, nothing involving witchcraft, magic, or paganism occurred.  

North Star Road, although originally proposing to show that shamanism is at the heart of all religion, focuses on the pagan remnants and ecstatic cults that existed in Europe up until the seventeenth centuries. I’m not sure I believe everything the author has come up with, but it’s certainly interesting. It is also referenced with endnotes and a bibliography, but it is not an academic text. The standard rule for all books applies: Don’t just take the author’s word for it, do some research yourself. Also, North Star Road owes a lot to Carlo Ginzburg’s books, The Night Battles and Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, so if you’ve already read them, you’ll see where some of Johnson’s theories originated. 

Throughout the book, Johnson compares the shamanic beliefs of many cultures. I’m not sure that I’d make as much of the similarities as he does, and sometimes I had trouble following the jumps from culture to culture and practice to practice. I just get it into my head that we’re discussing the Mayan cosmology and then suddenly it’s the Norse, and the Celts, and the Orphic Greeks! The book aims for breadth, not depth. 

Starting off with comparisons of shamanic worldviews and initiation rites, the book goes on to discuss what Johnson calls The Old Bone Goddess in all of her regional aspects. As a ‘hard polytheist,’ I don’t see all of these goddesses as just faces of a greater one, but rather just different beings having a similar function (that of shaman creation) within their own cultures. I guess I’m a lot more divisive than the author, but any way you look at them, Mother Hulda and Baba Yaga are fascinating.

Although Chapter Four is entitled Totem Animals, it’s actually a nice overview of helping spirits. Johnson also touches on shape shifting and werewolves, which leads into the next chapters: Traveling in the Spirit and Geography of the Otherworlds. He states that various cultures “maintain, and perhaps even create, their own mental geography of the world beyond” (137) and suggests that times of social upheaval and despair cause changes in the Otherworld. He continues this by inferring that the change in reports of Otherworld journeys from visiting a blissful Faeryland to visiting a demonic Sabbat is the result of the changing perceptions and beliefs about the world.

The pagan Horned God, or Master of the Witches, is discussed in his various guises, followed by a chapter on the Sabbat’s origins. Johnson lists the standard characteristics of the Devil at the Sabbat, and compares many underworld, Otherworld, and animal gods. He also offers his thoughts on the Sabbat (ie. Did it physically occur, or just in the Otherworld? Did folk festivals and feasts blur with out-of-body-experiences to create the Sabbat?).

I wasn’t as interested in the section on crisis cults, and the “shamanic exercises” at the back of the book are fairly new-agey. I’m still not convinced that material from such a diverse range of cultures was needed, as it sometimes caused confusion and implied a universality that didn’t exist. However, this is a fascinating book with a fair amount of good information. The copious illustrations are a nice touch. There are great ideas here, but they are occasionally pushed and stretched into the realm of nonsense. Keep your saltshaker in hand while reading. 

Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic by Emma Wilby
Sussex Academic Press, 2005

  “‘What are you crying for, my girl?’ it says; and after this and that she told it. ‘I’ll spin the skeins for you,’ it said, ‘and every day you shall have three guesses at my name, and if you don’t guess it by the end of the month, you’re mine forever.’”
— Briggs

 The familiar spirit is a concept that is irrevocably linked to our ideas about witches, one that modern witchcraft has tried to assimilate by encouraging its adherents to become crazy cat ladies. That’s all well and good, but are pets really familiars? Most people I’ve spoken with say yes, to which I reply (if I’m feeling brave, witty, or inebriated), do you send your canary off to curdle your neighbour’s milk? I mean, I would, if I had a canary. 

Forming intimate relationships with non-divine spirits (and sending them off to do your bidding) is one of those ideas that doesn’t sit easy in the predominately white, middle-class culture of modern day witches. For some people, it’s right up there with that whole green-skin pointy hat fiction. To others, particularly those interested in traditional witchcraft or ‘shamanic’ and folkloric-based traditions, the idea is a viable one. 

Emma Wilby uses historical cases to show that not only did cunning folk and witches have different sorts of familiar spirits, these spirits were also remarkably similar to the helping spirits of shamans in various aboriginal cultures. Her argument was that while cunning folk were not shamans in a classical sense of the word, they may have been using remnants of shamanistic folk traditions, particularly in their use of familiar spirits.  

As far as academic texts go, this one reads fairly easily. It does have a few dry bits, but the writing usually flows along quite smoothly. The first part reviews familiar lore amongst witches and cunning folk (divided as ‘bad’ and ‘good’ magic-users, respectively), showing the connections with the faery and devil familiars, and how these beliefs interacted in a Christian setting. The author seems to focus on just one case a lot of the time, perhaps because it was the best documented, but I think that a wider range of detailed sources would have helped her argument.  

It is interesting to note the overlaps between the faeries and the dead, where the familiar from the main case was a man who, upon death, went to join the faeries (not all of whom were deceased humans). The author covers the basic services that a cunning person would provide to their community, how such practitioners often met their familiar spirits, and the future relationships between human and spirit. She also discusses various bargains and pacts that were made with the spirit in exchange for favours or magical assistance.   

The second (and rather short) part of the book covers classical shamanism in aboriginal cultures, with information gathered by anthropologists in the eighteenth century. It could be considered a stretch to use Siberian and North and South American data for an argument about British witchcraft, but the similarities are there, particularly in the spirit relationships.

Part three focuses on the experiences of the witches and the cunning folk in their time period and location, looking for explanations that could have caused people to experience such visions, and raising questions as to what is the true nature of mysticism. The lines between a spiritual experience and madness, in their time as in ours, are difficult to draw.

I think the main difficulty with this book is its accessibility. It’s too scholarly for most pagans to bother reading and strays a bit too far from the accepted ‘history of witchcraft’ for most historians to tangle with. As it’s published by a university press, the price itself puts the book out of the range of most impulsive book buyers (except me, who would rather read than eat). This is unfortunate, as the book provides fascinating insight into the lives of cunning folk and witches, and gives a great deal of information (not to mention excerpts from primary sources) on a topic that today has become associated with bringing Fluffy to circle.  

How Do Witches Fly?

February 11, 2008

How Do Witches Fly? A Practical Approach to Nocturnal Flights by Alexander Kuklin
AceN Press, 1999

  “Oyntment for flying here I have,
Of children’s fat stol’n from the grave,
The juice of smallage and nightshade,

Of poplar-leaves and aconite made…”

— Shadwell
 

I really wanted to love this book, if only to get my money’s worth from it. It’s not very often you find a book on flying ointments written by a biochemist and containing such gloriously disturbing photographed artwork. The author discusses the alleged magical ointment that enabled witches to fly, the idea of metamorphosis in folklore and religion, and how plant toxins affect the body on a molecular level. He also investigates various possible plant and animal ingredients in the ointment, and the toxic effects of each. Tips on ointment preparation and herb harvesting are also given.  

The main issues I have with this book are not due to its dangerous contents. It’s definitely not for children, and warnings are given throughout. Ingesting or topical application of many of the substances described could very easily lead to a horrible, convulsing death. However, that’s a risk an informed adult has a right to take if they so choose. None o’ my business.  

My main complaint is the lack of editing. The text (and it’s not a very long one) is littered with spelling and punctuation mistakes. It’s irritating, and makes me question the validity of the information in the book. The possibility of a typo in a chemical equation or dosage calculation is the possibility of death. (I must note that of the chemistry-related info that I double-checked with other books, all turned up correct. I’d check it again though, just to be sure.) 

My second complaint is the sources. Although at first the author mentions historical documents in which possible ingredients were listed, he seems to be using Shakespeare and Middleton for his main ingredient lists. There were some overlaps, I’m sure, but given a choice between documentation and literature I would’ve picked the documentation first. In the Ointment Preparation section, he gives recipes from Erica Jong’s book Witches, one of which looks like a concoction of instant death. However, I suppose they are the same recipes which turn up everywhere else (hopefully never to be used) so including them here doesn’t hurt the book too much. 

This book is probably best enjoyed for its folkloric and historical information on the plants. It also has a moderately extensive bibliography for further research. Its biochemical information should be used as a springboard to find keywords in other books, (and all such information should be triple-checked anyway, no matter the original source, if it’s to be used in a practical sense). The photographs of Barbara Broughel’s artwork (inspired by New England witch trial documents) are awesome and add a delightful (if creepy) accent to the text.  

I think a lot of my initial disappointment with this book is that I expected so much from it. There is a lot of information collected in it that is unusual to find all in one space. I tend to forget how much we don’t know about plants and how they affect our minds and bodies. There is a lot of research left to be done on these topics, but this book is a good start towards gathering up what we do know.

 

Nocturnicon: Calling Dark Forces and Powers by Konstantinos
Llewellyn Publications, 2006

  “Ia, Ia, Cthulhu Fhtagen.”
— Konstantinos? 

I was lured to this book by its cover artwork depicting the Danse Macabre, and bought it despite my fear that it would be just another 101 book with a gothic colour scheme. My first pleasant surprise was to see Llewellyn publish a book that’s based in chaos magic. My second was discovering information within that I’d never seen anywhere else; firstly because I hadn’t known it existed, and secondly because some of it didn’t exist outside of this book.  

I must say that Konstantinos does overdo it a bit when it comes to being Oh So Dark, and that although practicing magic is not exactly a safe activity, the disclaimers that Llewellyn comes up with for his books are a little ridiculous. It’s a bit much for my taste, but that may be part of their selling technique.  

The book begins with a chapter of nocturnal mental exercises designed to increase your psychic awareness and/or scare you senseless. The author theorizes a bit about dark matter and quantum mechanics and gods, perhaps bringing in a bit of physics to soothe the skeptics. (I’m not sure how this would help, as theoretical physics is just as weird if not weirder than most occult concepts. They just do a lot of math to back up their opinions.) 

Konstantinos discusses the Austin Osman Spare method of sigil creation, offering a clear and concise overview. He follows this with a few ideas for spicing up their use, which may or may not harm your retinas, and then adds his advice on getting out of your head, which mostly involves sex and drugs. (You know, you almost can’t see the little crescent moon on this book’s spine…) His wry sense of humour complements the book’s technical information and the subjects are interesting. There’s no slogging through ponderous amounts of dry material to pick out what you need. The chapters are a nice mix of theory and practical applications. It’s a quick read, and it’s meant to be immediately useful.  

The material involving Hades was a surprise, and completely new to me. I’m not sure if I could find a use for all of the rites in my own practice, but the info on using various areas (hallways, staircases) of buildings in ritual has definitely got my imagination going. I wasn’t as interested in the material on Daemons and Lucifer, but that was mostly due to conceptual differences. 

I’d never heard of GOTOS, the connection with Nosferatu, and the Brotherhood of Saturn before reading this book, and the Nocturnicon also gave me my first taste of the Cthulhu Mythos. I’m happy to have finally gotten in on this tentacled strangeness, if only to be able to avoid it in the future. 

Having read several other books by Konstantinos (Nocturnal Witchcraft, Gothic Grimoire, and Vampires: The Occult Truth) I must say that I enjoyed this one the most. It’s always nice to pick up something that’s a tad different from your usual read and actually learn some new tricks to play with.  

Generation Hex

February 11, 2008

Generation Hex edited by Jason Louv
The Disinformation Company Ltd., 2006  

This is the business we have chosen.”
— Godfather II
 

Before reading this book, I’d often find myself running in the opposite direction when I saw anything labeled Pop Culture/Occult, and I’d been wary of disinformation guides since the time they let Fiona Horne edit a book on witchcraft. I figured this book would be aimed at bored urban youth wanting to freak their parents out with something that involved less effort than Wicca. And I was absolutely wrong.  

The theme of this book is summed up in Jason Louv’s essay “Spooky Tricks” as “Create positive change on this planet or shut your mouth.” All too often occultism becomes a stagnant cycle of ego-gratification, with practitioners oblivious to their surroundings and their fellow human beings. These essays encourage engagement with the world (even if that means destroying every belief you’ve ever held about it), and using magic to make it a better place. (And as love-n-light as that sounds, these essays will convince you that it’s possible, and you won’t even have to gag down any fluff.)

My favourite essay in this book is Christian Sedman’s tale of young magicians (himself and friends?) attempting to create a meaningful existence, “They Only Want You When You’re Seventeen, When You’re Twenty-One, You’re No Fun.” It actually moved me to tears. It is a wake-up call, a ragged voice screaming from the top of a building, ‘What are we doing? Where are we going? Pay attention or you’re as good as dead already!’ Sadly, this was Sedman’s only contribution to the book. I haven’t been able to find anything else by him.  

Stephen Grasso gave three excellent essays: “Beneath the Pavement, The Beast,” “Learning to Open the Haunted Kaleidoscope,” and “Dreams of a Midwich Planet.” The first details the concept of drifting (an extended ramble in an altered state) and is one of the few essay topics that I’ve managed to use in my own practice. The second discusses the practicality of magic, and the last is a short (moral?!) tale about bringing magicians back into the service of their communities, rather than just working for their own gain.

Elijah’s essays hurt my brain with jargon overload. I think copious amounts of drugs taken beforehand would’ve eased the reading process, provided I could still focus my eyes. Despite this, I am quite fond of his Grendel’s Had an Accident script, and have already destroyed it beyond all recognition.

The rest of the essays ran from Rachel Haywire’s somewhat pointless though highly entertaining ego-boosting ramble “Eris is My Biatch” and Chris Arkenberg’s mind numbing “LoveWar with Fox News” to better ones by the editor Jason Louv about a shamanic yoga-type training experience and “Spooky Tricks,” about the indescribable essence of magic. There were essays on group magical consciousness, and plenty of ideas and tips to help a novice magician on the way or inspire jaded fools to resume their foolishness.

Two issues: One) Of fourteen contributors and nineteen essays, only two are from women. (This makes it better than Rebels and Devils by Christopher S. Hyatt, in which there was one article by a woman out of a seeming gazillion by men.) Maybe this has something to do with the Chaos community in general? Or perhaps I’m just used to being in the female-dominated witchcraft community.  

Two) I’m okay with the subtle (haha) anti-pagan digs, (hey, I make fun of the pagan community myself) but there were a few which were funny in the sense that the writers were really making comments on behaviour that also applied to themselves, and didn’t realize it. It doesn’t look good for your supposed enlightenment when you miss something like that. I mean, I’ve met just as many sad fucks dancing at raves as I have dancing in the woods.  

That said, being a neopagan is not an excuse to shy away from this book. Even if you have no interest whatsoever in Chaos magic, the essays included transcend beyond our labels of occult practices. It will encourage you to think, if nothing else, and that’s worth far more than the cover price. 

The Devil’s Apocrypha

February 10, 2008

The Devil’s Apocrypha by John A. De Vito

Writers Club Press (iUniverse, Inc.) 2002

 

And what should I be? All but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater?”
— Milton

 

Although originally intended as a work of religious satire, I’m not surprised that this book spawned (however temporarily) groups of devoted followers using it as a religious text. Despite the rather overused ‘secrets revealed in hidden manuscript that is now lost/destroyed’ ploy at the start, The Devil’s Apocrypha then kicks it into high-gear with a retelling of the stories of the Bible, and goes far beyond the God=Evil Satan=Good dichotomy that could easily occur when someone proposes to tell the Other Side of the Story.

 

I’m not up to date on all of the various alien/god/seeding conspiracy theories, but this one’s a doozy. The basic premise is that various highly evolved spirits escaped their dying universe by jumping to this one, and then realized that in order to survive here, they needed to feed off the “power of sentient faith.” These spirits, called Angelica and led by the Trinity (read: God), manipulated the evolution of humans so that they would fear and worship them as gods. The catch being that in doing so, humans developed souls, which gave them the potential to one day evolve into Angelica themselves. And if they’re Angelica, they’re not worshipful and subservient humans. No problem, says the Trinity, we’ll just make sure that they can’t evolve beyond their bodies and keep them enslaved forever. And that’s when Lucifer stands up and says, that would be a really shitty thing to do. For defending the free will of all humanity, Lucifer becomes the reviled Satan, forever trapped with his loyal legions in the darkness beneath the earth.

 

Besides making me even more wary of organized religions, this novel forced me to ask myself some big questions, not only what I thought about the origin and fate of the universe, but also who is in control of my life, and am I thinking for myself? Who is impinging upon my free will and am I letting them? The chapter entitled The Book of Philosophies offers better advice on living than anything else I’ve read.

 

That said, I do have a few contentions. Okay, just one: I despise the pseudo-archaic language and find it distracting. Thee and thou do nothing for me.

 

After a grand revision of the Biblical-era tales, the book offers its own Revelations. It is a call to arms against blind faith and ignorance. It makes you confront your beliefs, and skewer them, if need be. I lent this book to a friend and he lost his faith. It made me reassess what I thought about these spirits themselves, and their place in our myths. If there are gods, do they need our worship to survive? Does faith have a place, so long as it is tempered by reason? Of all the concepts in this book, the fact that Satan isn’t as bad as we’ve been told was probably the easiest for me to accept. I guess I’m just predisposed that way. And although I’m not sure if gods exist, or where they might be if they do, I’ll light a candle for the Adversary, just in case he needs it.