I began discussing fairy tales in the New World last week, and I thought that this week, I might continue that trend. Before diving too far into more stories, though, I’d like to make a quick case for the value of “fiction” in witchcraft. I’m mostly focusing on fairy tales, legends, nursery rhymes, and old songs/ballads here, but it’s possible to apply what I’m talking about to a broader range folk material.
Witchcraft, being largely a folk practice, is seldom found in codified form (well, at least it wasn’t found as such until the 20th Century). Many of the grimoires used by magicians from late antiquity until the Enlightenment (and beyond) contained magical incantations and spells, true, but access to these books was limited. While some books did make it onto the shelves of everyday magical practitioners—John George Hohman’s Powwow’s is a prime example of this—there were also plenty of witches who would have had no books at all, or perhaps only something like the Bible to plumb for magical material (there’s a lot of it in there, by the way, but I’ll get to that another day).
Instead, much of the lore of the witch was transmitted orally. By “lore of the witch,” I’m not talking specifically about magical spells and recipes alone, though certainly there are many precedents for such things being passed along orally—mostly through family lines and across genders. But there were also many stories about witches, or fairies, or conjure-folk, or saints performing rather un-Biblical “miracles,” and so on. These tales serve as repositories of a sort, holding little bits of information about what a magical worker could do, some of the ingredients he or she would use, and what kind of journeys a witch might be making “oot and aboot” at night. It is my personal belief that these fragments of magical knowledge are available to any witch “who has eyes to see,” as Robert Cochrane would have put it.
There are already many people who seem to feel the way I do about these old stories, and who recognize that magic is sometimes hidden in plain sight, as dainties for babes or campfire tall tales. Sarah Lawless, the Witch of Forest Grove, has a wonderful blog post on this topic, as well as an example of how fairy tales can come true—and not always in a nice way. Of witchcraft based on fairy-lore, she says:
“These are witches and pagans who incorporate the fairy-faith into their practices and belief systems by incorporating genuine fairy lore and traditions. This can involve anything from superstitions concerning the good folk to practicing a specific cultural fairy-faith such as that of Ireland, Brittany, Italy, or the Orkneys.” (Lawless, 09/15/09, par. 6)
She also lists a set of tremendous resources for those interested in learning more about folklore and its relationship to magic (by the way, if you’re not following her blog for some reason, I really can’t recommend it enough).
One of the authors she mentions is R. J. Stewart, who has also explored the relationship between old stories and magic in much of his work. One of his best known (and hardest to find in print) works on the subject is The Underworld Initiation. He has a stellar revisiting of that topic on his website, which not only explores the mythic landscape of the Faery realms, but also goes into great detail on how the poem/song (at one time there was little difference between these genres) “Thomas the Rhymer” outlines much of what a potential witch should know about the Underworld. I also have a copy of his book Magical Tales, which outlines the storytelling tradition as a part of witchcraft, necessary to ensure its survival. I very much incorporate his point of view into my own life—one of my greatest joys is being able to recite fairy tales by heart to my child as he falls asleep in my arms, and that’s not just because of the witchy bits embedded in the tales. Having a baby fall asleep on you is like getting caught in a rain shower made of candy. While wearing a raincoat made of kittens. It’s just that good.
Robert Cochrane, mentioned above, also saw the value in mining songs and legends for magic. In one of his letters to Joe Wilson, he says, “My religious beliefs are found in an ancient song, ‘Green Grow the Rushes O’, and I am an admirer, and a critic of Robert Graves.” (Bowers, 12/20/65). The song Cochrane (born Roy Bowers) mentions contains many references which Cochrane spun into his own particular brand of witchcraft. His work spawned several Traditional Witchcraft groups, including the Clan of Tubal Cain and the 1734 Tradition. Robert Graves, a poet who authored a mytho-poetic text on the Divine Muse entitled The White Goddess also used folklore of a sort to explain mystical traditions, though his work is less about witchcraft as a practice than the religious worship of a goddess (in my opinion).
That’s it for this introductory post. I think it’s always rewarding to learn a tale or two, if only to have something to share around a campfire someday. And for an astute witch, these sorts of tales often contain even more than just evening entertainments. For the rest of this week, I’ll be focusing on specific books, stories, or themes which relate to witchery. I hope that you’ll enjoy discussing them as much as I do. Please feel free to comment and suggest tales, poems, and songs which have a little witchcraft to offer, as well! It’s always good to find new sources of magic.
Thanks for reading!