Bluenose Magic

March 2, 2009

Bluenose Magic: Popular Beliefs and Superstitions in Nova Scotia by Helen Creighton

The Ryerson Press, 1968

 

“Old Daddy Red Cap was supposed to have been a wizard. He put spells on people. One time he went to see a man and said he wanted to buy his cow. The man had no need to sell and said he wouldn’t part with her. Soon after, a snow-white bumblebee sat down on the cow and she didn’t give any more milk. [Allandale, English]”

— Creighton

 

I’ve always enjoyed reading folklore, and I’ve often wondered why I’ve met so many pagans and witches that avoided it like the plague. They might learn the lore of a country that they’ve never visited, or of a culture that they have no connection to, but would never consider researching local folk remedies or spells. It puzzles me. Perhaps they think that their area doesn’t have any ‘folklore.’

 

Luckily for me, my area has a long tradition of folklore and many dedicated folklorists who’ve traveled around gathering up songs, stories, and other useful bits of information. The lore of the many peoples who’ve settled here (Acadian, English, French, Scottish, Irish, German, African Loyalists, Dutch, etc.) mixed together with the legends of the Mi’kmaq people, and became something else entirely.

 

The late Helen Creighton is the Nova Scotian folklorist par excellence, and any of her books are worth reading. This particular title covers faery lore, witchcraft, folk charms, healing and remedies, meanings of dreams, divination, lore about animals, crops, and the weather, superstitions about good and bad luck, and stories of ghosts, forerunners, and the devil. Of particular interest is the concept of the “witch masters,” such as Sammy B., who filled a role very similar (identical?) to the cunning folk of Britain. They found and could control the malignant witches of a community, and could break their spells as well as cast their own.

 

This is a great book, and one of my favourites. The information in the book is linked up to a Motif Index, so you can find overarching concepts and similarities. I recommend it to anyone living in Maritime Canada, or even if you don’t. Of course, finding yourself a book of folklore local to your area might be even more interesting.

The Souls of Animals

May 14, 2008

The Souls of Animals by Gary Kowalski

New World Library, 2007 (Stillpoint Publishing, 1999, 1991)

 

“For ancient peoples, the soul was located in the breath or blood. For me, the soul resides at the point where our lives intersect with the timeless, in our love of goodness, our passion for beauty, our quest for meaning and truth.”

— Kowalski

 

I picked this book up on a whim; it really isn’t what I usually read. I read occult/religion or science. Mixing the two rarely results in anything worthwhile; occultists trying to explain how their practices can be applied to scientific concepts is usually a joke (and/or a plea for legitimacy), and when scientists write on the occult they just can’t hide their biases. (I also don’t see how science and religion aren’t compatible, but that’s a whole other topic.)

 

Once I got past my initial fears that this book would turn out to be some New Age crap and got around to reading it, I found it to be a sensible, sensitive inquiry on the possibility of a spiritual nature of animals. I think what prevents this book from falling into the above problems is that it stays light on the science, drawing on it where applicable, but not trying to force it to justify a spiritual concept. The author, a Unitarian Universalist minister (aka not a scientist) doesn’t try to use science to prove his points, but references the appropriate journal articles where he found his information as examples.

 

The result is a series of compelling (and often tear-jerking) stories of animal behaviour. They leave you wondering just how much of it could be passed off as instinct, especially with examples of animal altruism towards other species. Other topics include animal awareness of death, morality, and the supernatural, artwork done by animals, and whether animals are conscious of themselves.

 

It would be interesting to see a more scientific perspective on these topics, perhaps taking some of the stranger incidents as examples and trying to explain them. My favourite parts of biology classes are when my professors share some of the odder stories of animal behaviour, such as the chimp that watched a sunset every evening, and wonder what that means for science. The book isn’t by any means a tirade against eating meat or animal experimentation, but it does make one wonder how humans can justify so much cruelty towards beings that aren’t entirely unlike ourselves. All in all, it’s a worthwhile read for an animal lover, or for someone who enjoys philosophizing about souls and who, if anyone, has one.

Wicca Candle Magick

April 13, 2008

Wicca Candle Magick by Gerina Dunwich

Carol Publishing Group, 1997 (Citadel Press, 1989)

 

With little information on candle magic and even less on Wicca, I’m not sure how the title of this book came about. Surely entitling it Correspondences of Stones and Voudou Lwas or Ten Pages of Candle Colours and 150 Pages of Filler would have been at least a tad more accurate. This book is a mishmash of hoodoo, Judeo-Christian ceremonial magic, Voudou, and folk magic. Besides a few pages of ‘candle’ Sabbat rituals, there are about four sentences on Wicca.

 

My major issues with this book:

 

1) Inclusion of Voudou Lwas in a book proclaiming to be Wiccan in essence. How ‘bout that culture-theft? Not only considering that the deities called upon in Voudou are propitiated differently than those in Wicca, they also are accustomed to being ‘horsed’ (i.e. possessing their devotees) in a way that is rarely, if ever, done in Wicca. If a type of Voudou interests you, find a teacher or a half-decent book, get rid of the weird-coloured candles and break out the cigars.

 

2) Inclusion of Hindu deities in a list of ‘Wiccan deities’. White and brown candles for Parvati? How about puja instead? The underlying problem here is considering Hinduism to be the same as Neo-Paganism because they both can be polytheistic. This cultural appropriation frustrates me to no end.

 

3) The lack of explanation of… anything, really. Why give the Three-fold Law a page of its own if you’re only writing two sentences on it? Why include it at all if you’re going to assume that everyone already knows about it? A book for beginners would need more explanations; a book for more experienced practitioners would actually have something useful or thought provoking in it. This book lacks both.

 

4) The author doesn’t note where the information is coming from, but I guess that’s true of any book that gives correspondences. Still, why invoke Odin with red and purple candles? Why not navy blue, a colour that is at least associated with the god? Why not do some research, find offerings that suit the deity, build a relationship and stop treating your religion like a drive-thru?

 

5) I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the section on Healing Herb Candles, either. The author suggests adding Jimsonweed to a candle to heal poison ivy rash. Isn’t Jimsonweed actually Datura, a poisonous hallucinogen? (People usually burn candles in enclosed spaces. A warning about the plant would’ve been nice.) Gathering Jewelweed (a plant actually known to be effective against poison ivy rash and often found growing near it) and making a poultice from it would be more immediately useful.

 

I’m a tad wary of this author now. This book seems like one of those kill-a-tree-make-a-buck schemes. Although I’m happy that I now know what to do with a skull-shaped candle (if only I had one), there’s nothing here you can’t get off the internet for free. Not recommended.

The Dictionary of Sacred and Magical Plants by Christian Rätsch

Translated from the German by John Baker

ABC-CLIO Inc, Prism Press, 1992 (1988 )

 

“In herbs may be found the full power of the world. He who knows their secret abilities is omnipotent.”

— Indian Proverb

 

They wouldn’t let me take this book out of the library, so I had to read it in bits and pieces between classes. Despite my limited time, habit compelled me to read all of the introductions and forewords, a practice which has, for once, served me well. While I expect translating anything from one language to another and keeping its meaning intact is quite difficult, translating a book about psychotropic herbs used in shamanic and magical practices around the world must be even harder.

 

The translator’s introduction to this book is well worth reading, as Mr. (Dr?) Baker discusses the difficulties of rendering into English a complete understanding of the German word Rausch. It is usually translated as ‘intoxication,’ which, in the sense of this book, isn’t quite right. Mainstream North American culture no longer has systems to utilize psychedelic plants safely, nor knows how to interpret knowledge gained from them. We view information gained through non-rational, visionary experiences to be less valid than that obtained through rational, scientific methods, and this bias is reflected in our language. Christian Rätsch introduces us to cultures that have not lost their respect for the visionary experience.

 

The author’s introduction, besides providing a (very) brief discussion of magic and what constitutes a magical plant, also includes categories that can be used to find a plant that is used for a specific purpose. Having Plants of Prophecy, Elixirs of Immortality, Death Charms, Grave Goods, and Aphrodisiacs all sorted out for you is nice if you’re in a hurry. Rätsch also gives his method of placing psychotropic plants in ritual contexts (vision quests, oracles, sacrifices, hunting magic, etc) and sorting which plants were involved in which stages of certain rituals (preparation, implementation, and integration).

 

Each dictionary entry gives the folklore and historical uses of the plant, listed either by genus or individual species if certain pieces of lore are applicable to a specific variety alone. The plant’s uses in folk medicine, spells, and religious ritual (mostly pagan) are also listed. Each entry ends with the pharmacological properties of the plant and a list of sources for further reading.

 

I found the Ayahuasca entry especially interesting. A table, entitled Native Classification of Ayahuasca, listed the many types of Ayahuasca that this tribe (whose name I’ve forgotten) knows how to make. The nifty part is that each type of Ayahuasca brew produces visions of different things; one type might induce visions of hunting, another of famine, another of the land of the dead, and another still of underwater travel.

 

The entry on witches’ ointments (which is one of the reasons I was so happy to find this book, the other being that I’m an ethnobotany geek), although it could have been longer, contained this nice tidbit from Leuner: “The witches’ ointments may be psychopharmacologically interesting because we apparently have here the only toxic technique of ecstasy in the world in which the specific components of the experience are achieved by the way the psychopharmacological agents are added together.” This differs from the various types of Ayahuasca, apparently, because of the physical sensations accompanying the trip. Either that or Leuner is out of date, I’m not sure. Further rambling is beyond the scope of this review.   

 

Rätsch gathers lore from all over the world, both contemporary and historical. He shows us the valuable interactions between plants and people that our society would do well to regain. Also, we should all take St. Anthony as our personal saint. You should read the book to find out why.

The Horn of Evenwood

March 23, 2008

The Horn of Evenwood by Robin Artisson
Pendraig Publishing, 2007

  The moment you’ve pinned him down, you find yourself staring at the bare ground, the empty sky, a dim forest, or just handfuls of dust. What you thought was a fleshy body is just bare white bone, and when you grasp for the bones, they turn out to be slivers of light on the ground.”
— Artisson

 Having dithered over the introduction to this review off and on for several days now, I’ve decided just to state that although at times I have found Artisson’s writing to be long-winded, I have never been disappointed by it. His most recent effort is a tidy grimoire and sourcebook for those interested in pursuing a more traditional witchcraft path. It engages the spirit of the writings of Nigel Jackson and Robert Cochrane and is a fascinating elaboration on the themes of their work. 

Artisson describes his book as a tool kit, rather than a recipe book. He gives techniques designed to help you forge relationships with the spirit world, and although his “exemplary sorcerous workings” can be used as written, they are meant to show one possible method of doing things. This is a teaching grimoire, and to make the most of it, you have to apply what has been written to your own practice, rather than just following along.  

The book begins with Artisson’s absolutely chilling invocations. Simply reading the poetry gave me shivers. These are given without explanation; Artisson states that as you read on in the book, you can figure out what to do with them and how to create your own. The reader’s engagement with the text is required; this is not a 101 book where everything is laid out in front of you. You have to think about it, and sometimes, to not think about it.    

Next is a section called the Ten Pillars, which consists of some basic points to ground your practice of witchcraft. These include brief instructions on preparing materials for talismans, old-school (seven planets) astrology, the power of spoken words, familiar spirits, and a few other concepts that should be taken into consideration. The section ends with a few practical notes about tools and what Artisson calls the “Power that Binds,” meaning the weaving that holds the worlds together. He asks the reader to really think about how our words and actions affect ourselves and everything else.  

I think this is one of the reasons why I keep returning to Artisson’s writing. There is a deeper level to it, an underlying philosophy that holds true throughout his works. All of his further ideas for rites or spells are built up from this foundation of relationships with the spirits, the quest for true knowledge, and the recognition of Old Fate Herself.  

Continuing on in the book, Artisson offers a method of casting a Witch-Ring and several sigils for invoking the Huntsman, the Witch-Queen, and the Master. I wasn’t as impressed with Artisson’s chapter on the Mandrake plant, mostly because I didn’t see anything new, although there is a lot of good information gathered there for someone unfamiliar with the plant. I especially liked that he gave a way of using the Mandrake that encourages people to grow it, rather than going to a New Age shop and buying root chips in a plastic bag. 

Some of the most interesting pieces of information in the book are Artisson’s thoughts on the Horned Master of witches. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it in the Luciferian current, the ideas are certainly leaning that way. Several meditations on the subject are included, and they (along with the section on arcane flight) are worth the price of the book by themselves. (Also, the appendices of various sorcerous currents, such as Lunar or Mercurial, are more useful than any correspondence table could ever be.)

In Part Six, Artisson takes a charm from the Long Lost Friend, deconstructs it, and puts it back together again in various usable forms. He throws enough ideas at the reader for them to re-write the charm a thousand different ways for hundreds of purposes and still not be done with it.  

To end the book, the author explores the pagan themes in the folktale, The Nixie of the Millpond, and also gives several rather dark rituals for springtime: “I feel real fear now. I am a blasphemous creature of winter evenings long dead, stalking about in fields of gold and white…” The writing is, as always, evocative of the Unseen landscapes. A fascinating book; it’s definitely recommended reading.  

Grimoire for the Green Witch: A Complete Book of Shadows by Ann Moura
Llewellyn Publications, 2006 (2003)

Be careful what you do.
Be careful who you trust.”
– Aoumiel

Despite having read several other books in the Green Witch collection (namely, Green Witchcraft and Green Witchcraft II: Balancing Light and Shadow), I’m not sure how this book is a grimoire for a green witch as opposed to a Book of Shadows for an eclectic Wiccan. Although the author distinguishes three types of green craft (dare I say Catholic folk magic, pseudo-monotheistic non-religious folk magic, and Wiccan folk magic?), she then proceeds to offer a mostly Wiccan viewpoint. That’s fine; I just don’t why this series is the one recommended to people looking for non-Wiccan material. Comparing the information within to that of many Wicca 101 books, there isn’t much difference, except that this book is better.  

This is a massive workbook, tastefully laid out, which collects all of the practical information of the Green Witch series. There aren’t many explanations or reasons given for anything, the author assumes for the most part that you will know how to use the information presented. At times, the brief explanations or personal notes serve only to raise other questions, such as when Moura gives her family deities as Bendidia (Mediterranean) and Shiva (Hindu).

The book is divided into two parts: rituals and spells. Included in the rituals section is a brief introduction to green craft, and an elaboration on the various ways and contexts in which it can be practiced (see my confusion in the first paragraph). Some of the most interesting information in the book is the lore handed down from Moura’s Catholic mother and grandmother, though there isn’t much of this. 

The author gives rituals for all the Wiccan Sabbats, six versions of the circle casting, and four different Esbats (full, new, dark, and sidhe). She includes the usual recitations that are easily found in almost any other book, or on the internet (Charge of the Goddess et al.). The chants and songs, however, are mostly original. After these, the author adds more rituals (which might have been better placed nearer to the Sabbats), including rites for Wiccanings, funerals, dedications, initiations, consecrations, namings, and handfastings.  

Other useful info includes a calendar of observances, a short note on grounding and centering, an extensive glossary, common symbols used in green craft, notes on the tools, basic materials needed in formal ritual, altar arrangements, general magical tips, and magical alphabets (runic, ogham, and Theban). Space is given at the end of each section to add a few of your own notes. 

The second part of the book is devoted to spells and spellcraft. There are more correspondences here than anyone would know what to do with, and they are organized in a myriad of different ways, depending on whether you’re looking for a certain herb, planetary hour, rune, stone, or element. Sigils and seals of planetary spirits and geomantic characters are given with a very brief explanation, and a few demonic names with no explanation at all. (It’s probably the only material in the book that a Wiccan would look askance at.)

The herbal associations are quite extensive, and in the standard Wiccan format (meaning a mix of folklore and 777 and nonsense, which you have to sort through). The book ends with spells, oil mixes, and extensive information on making and using various divinatory tools. There is a lot in this book, but you have to know what you’re looking for, and what to do with it when you do find it.  

In my case, this book sits on my shelf and looks pretty. I think the only time I’ve actually used it was to look up a few symbolic meanings of feathers. I’m sure it would be a great reference for a Wiccan who has read a few 101 books and is looking to put together their own Book of Shadows. While I wouldn’t use any of the rituals myself, they make great (if long and complicated) examples both of format and the range of activities for which they can be adapted. The herbal tea recipes aren’t bad either.

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.