Greetings all, and Happy New Year!
Lately I’ve been doing a good bit of cleaning and organization of my library and my altar spaces (all one in the same room) along with my annual New Year’s cleaning, and that has me in a reflective mood. I’m sure you’ve seen any number of “Best of 2019” lists or “Year/Decade in Review” sorts of posts, but I wanted to take a moment to look at what’s gone on in the past year or so for me in my study of witchcraft (as well as my broader witchy reading trends). I’ll also look a little bit forward to what’s coming this year for us at the end, so if you are sick of retrospectives, feel free to bounce to the last few paragraphs instead. Go on, I won’t mind, I promise!
If you are sticking around for the look back, I will say that many of the books I’ve read are not “new” in 2019, although some are. Some I also was lucky enough to read in advance of 2019, even though they came out this year officially (one of the perks of having lots of great, bookish occultists in my social circle is being asked to do advance readings sometimes). A few of these books I’ll want to review in more depth at some point, and several I’ve reviewed already (I’ll link to those reviews when I mention the books). So let’s pull some of those spines out and dog-ear some pages! (I know, I’m a monster).
In the category of practical witchy books, there were a few that really stuck with me this year. I got the opportunity to do advance readings for both Besom, Stang, & Sword, by Chris Orapello & Tara-Love Maguire, and Southern Cunning, by Aaron Oberon. We did shows and interviews with those authors this year, and I’ve got a full review of Besom as well (sorry, Aaron! I did mean to review your book, which is excellent, but just haven’t found the time–for those who haven’t read it, if you have any interest in Southern folk magic, it’s one to pick up posthaste!). Both of these books tackle personal systems of folk magic rooted in particular traditions, folklore, and practices. At the same time, the authors all write about these systems in ways that are flexible enough to offer insight into any practical system of witchery or magic a reader might be pursuing. I read several other books that do similar work this year, including Bri Saussy’s Making Magic, Lisa Marie Basile’s Light Magic for Dark Times, and Mallorie Vaudoise’s Honoring Your Ancestors. Saussy’s book takes the idea of magic as a daily practice and wraps that in an enchanted worldview, one informed by fairy tales, to transform personal and domestic spaces. The home becomes a locus of lived enchantment, with doorway altar spaces and connecting a magical kitchen with potential plant helpers and ingredients from the front and back yards. It’s very much written in a self-guided tutorial way, and governed by a retelling of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” at its heart, which is a charming lens through which to view the work in the book. Basile’s Light Magic was something of a revelation when I read it, pulling from a type of contemporary feminist witchcraft rooted more in the inner world of the practitioner than the old dirt-and-bones magic I usually write about. Yet, I was very much impressed by the way Basile made rituals and spells action-driven rather than purely reflective exercises. Her “Make your own Underworld Spell” is one that will stick with me for a long time to come, I think. Finally, Vaudoise’s Ancestors may well be one of the best books I’ve read on a lived spiritual practice. I was absolutely thrilled by the combination of research, narrative, and practical work found in her pages. Her framework of ancestral practice is not condescending, but serious and thoughtful. She isn’t afraid to ask the reader to get a little uncomfortable and she doesn’t coddle them, but she also refuses to browbeat anyone for not doing things exactly as she does. Ancestral work happens on the reader’s time (and on their ancestors’ time, presumably), rather than by running through a checklist or exercise worksheet.
In a more historical and research-heavy vein, I also did a good deal of reading as I researched my own book (more on that in a bit), but a few new (or new-to-me) sources are worth mentioning here. Firstly, I should start with the Oxford Illustrated History of Magic & Witchcraft, which is exactly what it purports to be. Edited by one of my scholarly favorites in the field of witchcraft writing, Owen Davies, the book covers (mostly European) witchcraft studies from Antiquity to the twentieth century (it goes just a little bit beyond those markers in both directions, too, but the bulk of the book covers about 2,500 years of history). The material is dense, but useful, and while I quibble with a few specific points here and there (which I will hopefully get into with a fuller review sometime soon), as a handy reference it’s quite good. The “illustrations” are photo reproductions of various engravings, artifacts, and other similar ephemera, and it isn’t particularly heavy on images, but again, there are some real nuggets of gold in there, too. I was also absolutely bowled over by the truly excellent Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky, by David Bowles (who we interviewed last year about borderlands lore). In this book, Bowles essentially weaves together the Mesoamerican mythology of the Olmecs, Aztecs, Mayans, and others to create a loosely unified story following two rival siblings as they pass from civilization to civilization in different forms. It reminds me a lot of Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology retelling, and while it’s not exactly a direct transcription of the Popol Vuh or any of the other surviving codices, it does a marvelous job of enlivening these often-overlooked myths. I also felt that way about sections of The Annotated African American Folktales, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Maria Tatar. This is a collection of several major groups of folklore found in African American sources (both oral and literary) with some excellent notes by African American historian Gates, Jr. and fairy tale scholar Tatar. The section on Boo Hags is absolutely marvelous, and much of the material on Zora Neale Hurston made my heart sing. My only complaint with this book is that I want more of it, and a wider variety of tales, but truly this is essential to African American folklore studies in so many ways.
I’ll also note that I read Sabine Baring-Gould’s Curious Myths of the Middle Ages this year–a very old book dating back to the late nineteenth century and containing a wide variety of myths about everything from dowsing detectives to wandering Jews and hidden crusaders and kings. It was a bit out of my wheelhouse in some ways, and Baring-Gould is delightfully opinionated (one might even say salty) about some of the sources and stories he shares. It’s a fun read, however, and will reveal to a discerning mind just how long certain stories have been in circulation.
Somewhere between the researched witch study and the personal memoir falls Pam Grossman’s Waking the Witch. I’m sure a lot of people know Grossman for her podcast The Witch Wave, and she’s done a lot of good bringing contemporary feminist witchcraft to the forefront along with writers and social media personalities like Kristen Sollee and Bri Luna. Waking is an exploration of the witch as an icon more than any sort of deep historical dive or spellbook, although I definitely liked the way Grossman pulled from historical sources and connected them to literature and popular culture (and folklore at times). I’ll be doing more of a full review of this one at some point, but I can definitely say this book will have some impact and likely be cited and referenced a lot in future conversations on witchcraft.
Bridging to the world of fiction, I had the joy of reading several great pieces this year with an abundance of witchy ambiance. I already mentioned The Hidden Witch, by Molly Ostertag, when I wrote about graphic novels and witchcraft a few months ago, but if you want a brilliant illustrated story to connect folk magic, witchcraft, inclusion, diversity, and empathy (as well as something you can share with kids in your life), I’d highly recommend it. One of the best books I’ve read this year (and I know I’m late to the game here) is Children of Blood & Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi. It’s a fantasy novel, primarily geared at young adults but really for anyone, and it focuses on the quest of a magically gifted young woman named Zelie as she tries to restore magic to the land of Orisha. It’s heavily influenced by African religious, spiritual, and magical traditions, and both the telling and the world are completely engrossing (spells in Yoruban feel incredibly natural the way Adeyemi writes them). The sequel just came out, so I’m excited to continue in this series this year. I also cannot recommend The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste highly enough. Another work aimed at a younger audience but really ready for anyone to read, Baptiste’s book uses the Haitian tale of “The Magic Orange Tree” as its source, but manages to expand upon that story and make a marvelous story of a girl named Corrine who must defend her island from the local spirit beings known as “jumbies.” In the process, she learns a great deal about just how complicated spirit relationships (and human ones) can be. It’s rife with Caribbean folklore and a thrilling, sometimes even scary, read.
I also wandered into the pages of history with my fictional reading this year, too, and finally dug into Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Jackson is probably best-known for writing “The Lottery,” about a small New England town with a hellish secret, but Castle is astounding. I don’t want to open up too much of the story here, because it is so twisted and subtle and strange, but I will say that if you are a fan of folk magic, this book is stuffed with it. The rituals and spells used by the narrator are hauntingly real. This book may well be one of my absolute favorites now.
So that’s the year that was, but what about the year yet to be? Well, we’ve got a lot of good things in store. Most of you probably know that I’ve been writing a book, which is due out from Llewellyn sometime later this year (probably sometime in Fall). I posted a photo of me with my enormous stack of research books on social media (see above), so you can probably guess this one is jam-packed with footnotes, and will be looking at North American folk magic from a folkloric, historical, and practical perspective. If you like the blog and the show, you’ll probably enjoy the book. With that coming, it’s likely I will also be showing up on a few other podcasts as the year wears on, so I’ll try to keep everyone up to date as that happens. We’ve also got a few authors on the docket for interviews in the coming months, ones with newly released books or books that will be released in the near future (and some of them are VERY exciting). I’ve also got a stack of books on my shelf that I plan to plow through in the next couple of months, and at that point I may start seeing if any of the authors are interested in coming on to talk about their work (I’ll put a little hopeful energy and a hint of who I might be asking in a photo of my “to read” stack below).
Finally, Laine and I have decided to add a fun segment to our show this year (it’s our ten-year anniversary of podcasting, so we’ve got a few fun things planned, so stay tuned for more in the coming months). We will be discussing Scott Cunningham’s books of folk magic–Earth Power and Earth, Air, Fire, & Water–and reading through different sections of those books each month. We’ll post up a reading plan in the next week or two so you can join us if you like (and we’ll have a chance to win a copy of both books, plus a discount for ordering them, so definitely keep an eye out for that post). We chose Cunningham because he in many ways represents where Laine and I started, and we each grew in distinctly different but complementary ways from his roots, so looking more closely at his work feels like both a homecoming and a new frontier for us. You’ll hear all about that in our next podcast episode.
That’s a lot of words about things that are already full of words, so I’ll pause for now. We hope you’ve had some great witchy reads over the past year, and if you have any recommendations (or have read some of the ones I mention here), please leave us a comment below and let us know!
Thanks for reading,