Who doesn’t like alliteration?
At the beginning of 2019, if you were following me/us on social media, then you saw me post a photo of a stack of books and a long list of everything I had read over the course of 2018. A number of the items on that list are books that I’ve not really had the time to review or discuss on the site or the show, or that would be worth revisiting because they’re so good. So today I’m doing a brief(ish) roundup of some of the magical media I liked best in the past year, particularly the stuff that relates to folk magic, folklore, and witchcraft (although I’m sure I’ll stray a bit here and there from the beaten path, but I have a feeling if I’m interested in something at least a few of you are, too). The year 2018 was a good one for magic and enchantment in the public eye (and in the right nooks and crannies of our own little folksy corner of the internet), so there’s a lot to recommend. I hope this is useful to some of you!
When it comes to books, there were tons to choose from that made my folklorist/magical whiskers twitch. I’m going to divide this list into two categories: books about witchcraft and magic, and books about folklore that are probably of interest to people who read this site.
- The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to The Present, by Ronald L. Hutton – I reviewed this book professionally for the journal Western Folklore, and while I do have a few issues with it (Hutton sometimes pulls from anthropology in ways that don’t make sense or paints with some overly broad brushstrokes), for the most part I find this book gives a very comprehensive overview of the concept of “witchcraft” as it developed from Ancient Rome into contemporary times. The focus here is on Europe (and even more so on the British Isles), but it still offers insights into everything from shamanic practices to the cunning folk and the role that secularization played in fanning the flames of witch trials, so to speak. A solid, if sometimes dense, read.
- Folk Religion of the Pennsylvania Dutch, by Richard Orth – There seem to be more and more books looking seriously at the Pennsylvania German cultural region, and some of them are seeing that the practice of magic (even if it isn’t called that explicitly) forms a piece of the greater patchwork of that culture. Orth, the director of the American Folklife Instituted, has written a book that takes a scholarly-but-not-dismissive look at the witchcraft and magic of the PA-Dutch and covers areas of interest ranging from the physical objects of deitsch magic to key figures like Mountain Mary. If you like learning about powwow and braucherei, this is absolutely a read for you.
- Sigil Witchery, by Laura Tempest Zakroff – Zakroff has been on our show before and we’ve talked about her fresh and original take on both cauldrons and sigils, but I haven’t had time to do a full review on her book about sigil magic. My completely biased two cents? Buy it. Immediately. It was absolutely perfect for getting me thinking about magical symbols in new and creative ways, while still seeing them rooted to a variety of cultures that use them (without directly stealing anything from those cultures). Her latest release, Weave the Liminal, is also worth reading, although it’s a 2019 book so I will hope to do a full review later on.
- Six Ways, by Aidan Wachter – I did manage to review this one on our site when it came out, so I reiterate here that this is a book worth reading, worth writing in, worth dragging with you outside under a tree, worth stuffing into your backpack or briefcase, and worth giving to others when you’re done. It’s a remarkably unique and resourceful approach to practical witchcraft rooted in Wachter’s own experiences, but written in a way to make the work he’s doing accessible for anyone. It will likely get you doing magic in different ways and discovering enchantment in things you hadn’t noticed before, and that’s a mighty accomplishment.
- Besom, Stang, and Sword, by Chris Orapello and Tara-Love Maguire – More guests from our show doing great things! I made a point in my review of Besom, Stang, and Sword that it provides an eerie complementary text to Wachter’s Six Ways, because both are about a rooted practice building on an animistic understanding of the world. Orapello and Maguire open up their own traditional witchcraft practices here, and show the deep connections they have built up in their own spaces, while offering a reader so many (SO MANY!) good rituals and tools to do the same in their spaces. We’ll likely have them on to talk about this more, but it’s 100% worth reading.
- Witches, Sluts, and Feminists, by Kristen Sollee – This one is less directly about practical witchcraft and much more about the role of witches in society. I don’t love Sollee’s somewhat fast-and-loose recounting of witchcraft history, but she does try to keep the roots of her discussion grounded in fact rather than sensationalism. She also makes some truly excellent points about the deep connections between women’s bodies, sexual identity, and the use of the labels “witch” and “slut” over time to exercise control over them. Her point? That women can and do take power from those labels eventually, and that witchcraft can be something that helps women exercise their personal authority in ways that rational, hierarchical systems can’t. It’s a lot of social theory rather than witchcraft-proper, but if you are into that line of thought you might find value in this one.
Folklore and Witchcraft-Adjacent Books
- Border Lore, by David Bowles – We had Bowles on the show this year, and there are actually lots of books he’s written that I could recommend. I start with this one because Border Lore hits the right notes of folklore, magic, witchcraft, and storytelling for me. It talks about La Llorona and lechuzas, spooky roadside encounters and dances with the devil, and it’s a helluva lot of fun to read.
- Every Tongue Got to Confess, by Zora Neale Hurston – This is a new-to-me collection that actually came out ten years ago, but it contains an immense amount of Hurston’s research and folklore work from her time in the Gulf States working for the WPA. She covers a lot of material, including plenty of stories about folk devils and witchcraft that would be worth reading for anyone who likes the things we do. As an added bonus, if you happen to be an Audible member, you can get this as an audiobook narrated by Ruby Dee and Ozzie Davis (which is an AMAZING combination).
- The Annotated African American Folktales, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Maria Tatar – If you know much about African American studies or folk and fairy tale studies, then the names of this book’s editors should have you rushing to buy it already. Gates, famous for his work on African American history (and his role hosting the PBS genealogy show Finding Your Roots) and Tatar, Harvard’s resident fairy tale expert, have compiled a tremendous collection of African American lore and added insightful notes on the stories. The magical lore isn’t extensive, but it’s there in the stories, and provides a strong sense of the cosmology that has been so influential on the American psyche for hundreds of years. An excellent addition to your library.
- The Old Gods Waken, by Manly Wade Wellman – This was a recommendation from a listener and I was very impressed by it. In it, an Appalachian bard and a Native American shaman have to save a folklorist and her love interest from a family of New World druids (why do folklorists always get into these kinds of scrapes?). There are lots of folk magical tidbits mixed in, and the story (it’s fiction, by the way) is generally fast-moving and compelling, with a real flavor of Appalachian language in the text.
- Who by Water, by Victoria Raschke – This is the first in a trilogy of books set in Slovenia and in it an expat named Jo Wiley suddenly discovers a dormant power to speak with the dead, including her mother and her murdered lover. This leads her on a quest through Slovenian myth and mystery as she evades people–and forces–that fear or want to use her power. It’s engaging and fun, and exposes you to an area of the world you might not know much about in a way that feels exciting. Definitely worth it!
Movies, TV, and Other Media
This section is a bit of a catch-all, in that the recommendations here are more connected to things I’ve watched and enjoyed, although there’s also at least one book in this category, too (and some of the TV shows have double-lives in print and screen, but that will make more sense in a moment). I don’t expect everyone to agree with me on some of these, but I do think all of these are worth watching and forming your own opinion about.
- Hilda (Netflix Original Series) – My family and I fell in love with this series and are hungry for more when it comes back later this year. It’s about an impetuous girl in Scandinavia who must move to the city of Trollberg with her mom after they lose their house in the distant countryside. Hilda (the girl) has always been good at relating to the strange creatures around her, including giants, trolls, woffs (flying dog-like puffballs), and elves (who love paperwork more than anything). There is so much magic in this series, and it’s beautiful. We also have devoured the graphic novels by Luke Pearson the series was based upon, and found that they often have even more wonderful lore in them. This is one of my highest recommendations.
- We Don’t Go Back: A Watcher’s Guide to Folk Horror, by Michael D. Ingham – Okay, this is also a book, so why is it here in media? Mostly because it is a book about film and television that any fan of the uncanny, bizarre, magical world that haunts us would like to watch. Ingham’s book is wonderful not just in the way it offers a reader a chance to discover so many unknown gems of cinema and TV that fit the “folk horror” category, but in the way the author makes no bones about the stuff that doesn’t work, is generally terrible, or exploits people in some way. At the same time, his recommendations are rooted in a deep appreciation of the genre and a love for the rural and urban weirdness that fascinates so many of us. What is folk horror, by the way? It’s a genre that deals with strange mysteries and hidden pagan pasts intruding on our modern (and often ill-equipped) world. If you like films like The Wicker Man or Pan’s Labyrinth, you will probably get some good new things to add to your watch list out of this book.
- The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Netflix Original Series) – Really, this is probably the most controversial inclusion here. If I’m honest, it took me about seven episodes to enjoy this series, and even then I’m not sure I really love it in the way some people do. It’s problematic and messy at times in the way that a number of teen dramas can be, and it really, really digs into the trope of the Satanic witch in ways that will put some people off. The cosmology behind it, however, makes sense if you think of this as a show that says “What if the Puritans were right and Satanic witches were around all along? How would their society have evolved alongside (or under) our own?” It’s not a perfect show, and frankly I got a lot more pleasure out of reading the comics upon which this new Sabrina reboot is based, but I don’t judge it as harshly because it is still baby-stepping its way forward and taking risks while it does so. After all, if I judged Buffy by its first season alone, I don’t think I’d ever have thought twice about it. I want to give this series more of a chance and hope it finds its feet, because there really is some good stuff in here, so I’m including it here with a tentative recommendation (and a huge grain of salt with which to take many of its more off-putting elements).
- Hereditary (Film, A24 Studios) – This one is likely to be a bit controversial as well. You will either love or hate this film, and either way I completely understand why. The story follows the strangely cursed lives of the Graham family, including artist mother Annie (Toni Collette) and doting-but-often-clueless father Steve (Gabriel Byrne). When their daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) begins to have eerie visits from Annie’s dead mother, things go from bad to worse, and the family soon finds itself in the clutches of a generational curse brought about by familial witchcraft associations. It can get really gruesome at times (and I mean stomach-turningly so), but the effect of impending dread and the way magic is presented here both worked for me. Things are seldom completely flashy, but rather almost grind forward in a relentless advance, and that makes the ending (as strangely mysterious and confusing as it can be) feel like a breath of relief. One that makes you almost feel guilty for taking it.
- Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil (Film, Kinoskopik) – Based on a folktale with iterations found around the world, this Basque film tells the story of a blacksmith whose deal with the devil (in actuality not the Devil, but a devil) leads to a twisted road of consequences, horror, and bloodshed. The folk roots of this story are done beautifully, and it’s gorgeous to watch. It is in the Basque language, but there are English subtitles as well. It’s available on Netflix and I definitely enjoyed watching it.
Whew! That’s seriously a LOT of magic to pack into one year, right? And I’ve actually only just scratched the surface! There are tons of things I’m missing here (including the Charmed reboot, which I’ve watched a bit of and mostly enjoyed so far, as well as the Hulu original show Light as a Feather, which I liked a bit less). I have a feeling that we’ll be seeing a lot of magical media coming out this year, too, and I’m hoping to keep on top of it and share recommendations as much as I can.
What about you? What enchantments did you brush up against or bump into (or run full tilt towards) in 2018? What are you looking forward to in 2019? Let us know by email, social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are our top public spots), or in the comments below!
Thanks for reading!