Today I thought I’d share some of the various books and other texts I’ve been reading over the summer, both for school and for pleasure. Most everything I’ve read has had something I could take from it and apply to magical or folkloric study, though in many cases the connection might be a bit tenuous. What I hope to illustrate is that reading across broad categories (and, by extension, having broad experiences), can provide you with a lot of good material and insight. At the very least, I hope to wow you with my lexical engrossment. Women dig guys with big libraries, right?
All kidding aside, I hope you find this useful or interesting, and that I am able to show the relevance to New World Witchery. So here we go!
African American Literature
Knowing the culture from which a tradition or practice develops is important, and a large portion of my summer involved becoming deeply familiar with African-American literary culture, which in turn helped me better understand things like hoodoo.
Slave narratives: I read a number of these for my African American Literature course, and then even found myself reading additional titles in this genre as well. Nearly every one I read mentioned at least some magical practice, varying from the presence of a fortune-teller in William Wells Brown’s story to Frederick Douglass’ use of a magical root to keep from being beaten (according to Douglass, who was dubious of its powers, it did seem to work). The attitude in these texts varies pretty widely when it comes to magical practice. Some condone it, some treat it with ambivalence, and some are hostile towards it. Some of the works I read included:
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass.
- Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs
- The Interesting Narrative and the Life of Olaudah Equiano, by Olaudah Equiano
- Narrative of William Wells Brown, A Fugitive Slave, by William Wells Brown
Folklore: We read several authors renowned for their folkloric contributions, and several writers deeply influenced by folk tales. In nearly every case, some element of conjure or rootwork is present, though often only incidentally or tangentially (as in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon). Through studying these works I found new sources of magical lore which function as old fairy tales often do—preserving the folklife information in fictional form. A selection of suggested texts:
- Mules and Men; Tell My Horse; Dust Tracks on a Road; and “Hoodoo in America,” all by Zora Neale Hurston
- The Conjure Woman and The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, by Charles W. Chesnutt
- Sula and Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
- “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” and “Everyday Use,” by Alice Walker
- Mumbo Jumbo, by Ishmael Reed
I’m sure there were dozens of references to conjure culture I missed in these as well as the other works I read for this class, but in each of them I found something of value related to my magical, spiritual, ancestral, or simply scholarly practice.
I’m planning on exploring the magical connections in the Bible elsewhere (it actually wound up being a major component of my final paper for the class, a 20-page monster that essentially argued “no magic=no Bible”). But I thought it might be good to list a few of the major sources I used on that paper, as they revealed a tremendous amount about historical magical practices related to this keystone cultural text.
- The Bible (obviously) – We worked with several different translations, including the King James Version, the New Jerusalem Bible, and translations of individual books by scholars like Robert Alter
- Now You See It, Now You Don’t : Biblical Perspectives on the Relationship Between Magic and Religion, by Shawna Dolansky
- Magic in the Biblical World : from the Rod of Aaron to the Ring of Solomon, edited by Todd E. Klutz
- Magic in the Ancient World, by Fritz Graf
- Ancient Jewish Magic : a History, by Gideon Bohak
- Jewish Magic & Superstition, by Joshua Trachtenberg
- Magic, Divination, & Demonology Among the Hebrews and their Neighbors, by T. Witten Davies
There were plenty of scholarly articles on the topic, too, and a number of entries in reference books like The Cambridge Companion to the Bible and the Anchor Bible Dictionary. Trying to list all of those, however, would probably be tedious, so I’ll leave them be for the moment.
While I’m not one to say all North American folk magic is biblically based (in fact much of it is completely unrelated to the Bible), the Bible has had an impact on multiple magical systems here, and so I find learning more about it useful. I especially find learning more about it in a magical context useful!
This was supposed to be my “fun” course, a writing class in a workshop-style setting. It was actually fairly reading-intensive, too, though. I wound up writing a piece on a somewhat famous conjure personality as part of the course, and got an excellent response to it. I can only think of one book, though, that falls into the New World Witchery camp of texts: Salvation on Sand Mountain, by Dennis Covington. This book is about snake handling churches in southern Appalachia, and the portions of it we read for class were eerily magical at times. The author of the book starts off as a non-believer, and even engages in the handling as a non-believer, but finds that a mystical power overtakes him when he’s ‘in the moment,’ so to speak. I definitely recommend it based just on the limited amount we read.
In addition to my school work, I was also spending time reading a number of books for fun, which I’ll hopefully get around to reviewing soon. I’ve already put up a review of Charles De Lint’s Promises to Keep over at the Pagan Bookworm site, and I’m working on reviews for about 3-4 other titles as well. I’m also planning to restart Moby Dick when the fall weather hits, and possibly re-read some Hawthorne, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
At any rate, I hope you’ve been having a fun and useful summer, too! What’s been on your reading list the past few months?
All the best, and thanks for reading,