The Whisperings of Woden: A Devotional by Galina Krasskova
Self-published (?) in New York, 2004

 “I do not fear You,
not even when you burn beneath my skin,
when we share the cloak of flesh together.”
– Krasskova

 For much of my life I’ve been interested in the gods of the Northern pantheons, but not enough to really be religious. When I did finally delve deeper into the lore of (most of) my ancestors, I found a rich, complex, and fascinating worldview.

Having encountered other writings by Krasskova in Raven Kaldera’s Dark Moon Rising, I was eager to see her perspective on the god to whom she is devoted. Krasskova notes that although some people see Odin and Woden as separate entities, she views them as two names for the same divine being. She begins with a brief introduction to the lore of the god, though it is clear that this book is written for someone who knows what they are getting into. I think few people would perform devotions to a deity that they were not at least acquainted with.

The bulk of this small book consists of the nine devotionals, the rest being a few recipes for oils and incense and a list of herbs associated with Woden. Each devotional begins with a meditative, worshipful poem that beautifully expresses Krasskova’s love for her god. She takes her religion beyond its lore, though heathen sensibility grounds most of the ideas presented. Some of the devotionals (which include making runes, building altars, feasts, meditations, and more) could be adapted for other deities or changed into ‘secular’ meditations, but most are solely for Woden.

Krasskova notes that some of her ideas might be considered a bit ‘out there’ or fluffy by modern heathens, but gives good reasons for everything she includes in each devotional, even if it’s just that it worked well for her. What I liked most about this book is that it shows the author’s personal connection to and experience of divinity. She has offered herself to this god, and treats Woden with respect. It’s refreshing to see that there is nothing here about archetypes, or deities being merely aspects of human consciousness, or whatever other explanations pagans are using these days to assuage their ambivalent feelings about the intersection of belief and modern scientific culture. There’s just devotion. We need more books like it.  

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.