It’s strange, isn’t it, that at a time when so many of us are being asked to stay home that it feels like we have so little time to do things like read? At least, that is how it’s felt around our neck of the woods of late. But we have been managing to make headway in our ongoing Book Club, featuring the work of Scott Cunningham and focusing on the concept of folk magic in connection to nature and elemental associations.
In the past two regular episodes (on Safe Hex and Dreams) we covered the first few chapters of both Earth Power and Earth, Air, Fire, & Water. Those chapters began unpacking two of the major elements: Earth and Air, as well as sharing a group of spells that Cunningham associated with each of them. We talked about the use of things like sand and dirt in jars as a common folk magical trope for keeping evil at bay, and we still see that in some forms of charm work today with people leaving bottles or jars of rice, beans, pins, or more by their front doors or windows. Sprinkling salt has a similar effect when done at a threshold and that fits well with Cunningham’s ideas. We also chatted about Cunningham’s point that getting out into spaces without urbanization can be very good at connecting us to our landscapes and our planet, but that we should also be mindful that having that access is a privilege and we shouldn’t make others feel bad if they are doing the same work in a big city by going to a park or keeping potted plants.
On the Air side of things, we talked about how odd it was to see a warning in Earth Power specifically saying to be careful with air magic–why is that admonition so strong here, but not with something like earth magic? Does it have to do with the fast-changing nature of wind and storms? That also got us into the point that Cunningham makes about Air as a “twin of Fire,” which we’re still not strongly convinced about but makes for an interesting thought experiment. We noted that a lot of air-based spells have had their own evolution, with sailors likely using knot charms a lot less in an era of non-sailing ships and a recognition that spells involving tying things to trees need to be largely adapted so they don’t damage the tree (Laine and I both suggest the idea of using hair, which works well and biodegrades easily).
In ourPatreon Discord discussion, we also tackled a few more particular questions on these chapters and concepts:
What do you think of the differences in style between the books? For example, we talked about how Earth Power is obviously pulling from a lot of very practical folk magic (such as potato/apple wart curing charms) while EAFW seems to be more focused on rituals (including more incantations and rhymes). Which style works better for you, and why do you think that is?
What do you think the magical “theory” behind some of these spells would be? For example, why does throwing a handful of dirt after someone protect them (or in a similar folk magic tack, why would throwing a handful of salt after them keep them from coming back)? What about those counting spells? Why do witches/vampires/etc. have to do all that counting? (DON’T MAKE ME DO MATH!!!)
What do you think about including knot-magic in “Earth”? Does that make sense to you, or would you put it somewhere else?
Some of these are clearly very short-term spells, but a lot of earth spells are longer-term. Do you prefer to do spells with short, immediate bursts of activity and results, or longer and more sustained spellwork (or do you mix it up a lot)?
Is there a distinct difference between “air” and “wind” as a magical element or force to you? Why or why not, and how do you use air if you’re not also using wind?
Do we also see distinctions between “elements” and “transmission” or “medium” in other forms of magic? So for example I can see water as a medium with waves and tides as transmission methods. With earth, there are the seismic waves, but are there other forms of earth “transmission” that are fairly regular? I am sure mudslides, etc. would count but in terms of the way we can let a leaf go in air or water to carry a spell is burial the earth transmission method? Similarly with fire–is fire the medium and “burning” the method? Or are light and heat the transmission forms (so a spell using light is technically a fire spell then?).
And finally, why are birds so dang smug?
We would love to hear your thoughts on any or all of these points, so feel free to leave a comment below (or you can even shoot us an email if you’d prefer to share your ideas that way).
We’ll be tackling the powers of Fire and Water next, and then hopefully summoning Captain Planet to combat the avian smugness we will inevitably encounter. Or, at the very least, posting more questions and ideas to discuss.
For now, we hope you’re getting by okay, and we wish you happy reading and magic every day!
A look at the uses of folk magic and folklore in times of plague and epidemic.
It’s hard to be in crisis mode all the time. For many of us right now, just making it through the day can be overwhelming, and accomplishing our daily tasks is a daunting proposition. I’m not sure if it is cold comfort to say that we are not the first and likely not the last to experience such “interesting times” as these, but we are not alone in this. While the burgeoning COVID-19 viral pandemic makes its way through our world, a number of us are developing rituals to help us cope with the stresses of getting by, whether those are digital social circles with glasses of wine cyber-clinked through webcams or making sure we get outside (at six feet of distance from other people) to just be around physical, natural things.
Folklore responds to crisis. People come together and create, believe, act, think, do without any other impetus than their drive to connect and share with one another. They can also do some truly terrible things, too, and not all folklore and folk culture are positive things. There’s a great article that we often read in folklore studies called “Baseball Magic,” by George Gmelch, which talks about how the relationship between folk magic and belief has to do with risk and reward. Gmelch parallels baseball players with island fishermen, and points out that the higher risk a particular “job”–whether that is going out in a canoe on the open ocean or playing shortstop–the more likely one is to develop rituals and belief around those risks. High risk means magic, because magic is a way to mitigate or control risk.
Today I want to talk about times of great risk–plague times–and the magical responses they spark. Please note that absolutely NOTHING here should be taken as medical advice, and that you should continue to take any and all precautions recommended by physicians and epidemiologists to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and any other potential diseases.
Plague times are not new. We know of a number of ancient plagues, including the absolutely decimating Antonine Plague of Ancient Rome. Little wildfire-like plagues pop up throughout the historical records like this, devastating regions and nations. Then you get to the big grandaddy of pandemics, the Black Death, which wiped out something like a third of the European population when it hit in the mid-fourteenth century. (I will also note that this was hardly a “European” plague, as it had dramatic impacts on Asia as well). The bubonic bacteria that caused the plague continued to hound the world for centuries to come, including during the mid-1600s in London, where it wiped out a hundred thousand people. Well-known diarist Samuel Pepys described life during the London Plague thusly:
“This day, much against my Will, I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll tobacco to smell to and chaw – which took away the apprehension.”
The red cross on the door was a requirement made of all houses infected by plague to alert anyone nearby to maintain safe distance. Pepys mentions tobacco not just because he wants a nicotine fix to soothe his pandemic-jangled nerves (although I’m sure that’s part of it), but because the tobacco had value as a medicinal smoke that many believed helped fumigate or stymie the “bad air” of the plague.
The Black Death also inspired the folklore surrounding the formula known as “Four Thieves’ Vinegar,” which was thought to be a topical preparation that repelled the Plague. The story goes that a group of four thieves each contributed an ingredient–garlic, peppercorns, mustard seeds, and vinegar–to make a solution that kept them safe when they raided the houses of plague victims to steal from the corpses. When they were caught, they were offered the chance at clemency if they revealed their formula, which of course they did. The story is likely apocryphal (much like the folklore surrounding the rhyme about “Ring Around the Rosie,” which is not definitively about the plague but is often referenced as such).
Four Theives Vinegar makes another plague appearance during an outbreak of smallpox in Philadelphia during the 1790s, when a number of refugees fleeing the revolution in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) came through the city. It is possible these refugees brought in a similar recipe to Four Thieves’ Vinegar, or that European American residents of the city were already well-aware of the mixture, but it appears to have been deployed as a preventative measure against catching smallpox by some.
Other outbreaks of disease in North America prompted folk medical and magical responses, as well. Martha Ballard, a midwife in the region of Hallowell, Maine, kept a diary from 1785 to 1812 in which she recorded many of the daily activities of the era (making it an immensely valuable and fascinating read), but she also witnessed instances of contagion, too. One series of entries from August of 1787 describes what historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich believes to be an instance of scarlet fever, for which Ballard offered treatments including “cold water tincture” made from what was likely either purple aster root or marsh rosemary (also known as sea lavender) (p. 45). Ulrich also notes that in administering to her patients and going from sick bed to sick bed (all the while also delivering babies), Martha Ballard may have been a vector for transmitting the disease, although she also notes that the mortality rate for Hallowell was relatively low.
Knowing who was responsible for an epidemic became a central concern for many communities, and some turned to magical or supernatural explanations. Yvonne Chireau describes an outbreak of smallpox in an African American community on St. Helena Island off the coast of Georgia and notes that for many people there, treating the illness was viewed as “going against God,” since the disease’s virulence seemed to be almost a biblical plague executing some form of divine justice or retribution (p. 99-100). A similar mindset is seen in one of my favorite passages in all of literature, from Toni Morrison’s Sula, in which the return of an accursed member of the community brings about a “plague” of dead robins:
“[E]vil must be avoided, they felt, and precautions must naturally be taken to protect themselves from it. But they let it run its course, fulfill itself, and never invented ways to either alter it, to annihilate it or to prevent its happening again. So also were they with people.
What was taken by outsiders to be a slackness, slovenliness or even generosity was in fact a full recognition of the legitimacy of forces other than good ones. They did not believe doctors could heal—for them, none ever had done so. They did not believe death was accidental—life might be, but death was deliberate. They did not believe Nature was ever askew—only inconvenient. Plague and drought were as ‘natural’ as springtime. If milk could curdle, God knows that robins could fall” (pp. 89-90).
Divine intervention was one thing, however. In some cases, a plague’s presence could be ascribed to a single individual. That person, unlike the wrath of God, could be dealt with. We see stories of such persecutions all the time among outbreaks of diseases like tuberculosis, which likely sparked the New England Vampire panic in the nineteenth century.
A similar outbreak of disease and subsequent blame targeted an individual woman–Moll Dyer–as its cause, with deadly results:
“Once settled outside Leonardtown [Maryland], she lived very much to herself in a remote cottage, and her reputation as a witch began to take hold when she was seen out gathering herbs and simples. Soon tales began to be told about the spells she was able to cast on animals and people alike, and it wasn’t long before any misfortune in the region was set on her head. Finally when an epidemic swept through the county, the residents had had enough. One winter night they gathered themselves some torches and set fire to Moll Dyer’s cottage hoping to catch her inside. But the poor woman learned beforehand of their intentions and fled into the woods. There she knelt on a stone and issued a curse upon the land and her persecutors. Several days later a child found Moll frozen to death on the rock, still in that supplicant position…to this day the rock where Moll reportedly knelt still shows the imprint of her knees.” (Carey 50-51)
The story continues that the curse left behind by Dyer left the land around her cabin completely barren, and several of the people who had set fire to her house later suffered their own conflagrations (with a few of them dying in their burning homes just as they had intended for Dyer). The spell she cast, then, was a sort of epidemic of its own, but one that targeted only the guilty rather than the indiscriminate plagues of smallpox or scarlet fever were wont to do. A similar case appears in the American Southwest, where a supposed witch named Zuni Nick was believed to be behind a double-whammy combo of smallpox and drought winds that threatened the food supply. He was convicted of witchcraft by the locals (who already were not fond of him, as he was the adopted son of a white trader who didn’t believe in the traditions of his community) and hung in the church by his thumbs from a rafter. He would have died there, but his agonized cries stirred pity in one man’s heart. He freed Zuni Nick, pistol in hand, and the two ran off to the local U.S. Army fort. (Simmons, p. 119-20). These accusations have an eerie similarity to some of the racially-motivated attacks that have targeted people of Asian descent and background in the current viral outbreak (the sorts of hate crimes for which curses like Dyer’s seem especially apt).
Combatting plague was also a role for the magician, one that they sometimes shared with the local medicos. Tony Kail outlines a yellow fever outbreak in the Memphis, Tennessee region in 1878 that killed over five thousand people and sent thousands more fleeing the city (NOTE: Do NOT flee to the countryside during an epidemic, as that will only spread the infection). Remarkably, both the local rootworkers and more “professional” medical doctors were called upon to cure the fever, and they did so using a shared local flora pharmacopoeia:
“Many of the remedies used by white doctors used many of the same herbs and roots used by African American rootworkers. One remedy used by a Dr. Alexander from Clinton, Mississippi, included herbs such as bayberry, catnip and African ginger. Mandrake root was used to help bowel movements in those suffering with the fever. Snakeroot, a common hoodoo root, was recommended to be used in a tea.” (p. 61).
This rather echoes other examples in which local, often indigenous, knowledge provides solutions to difficult problems, particularly when it comes to disease. One of the best examples is in the case of malaria, a disease carried by mosquitoes but which stymied and frustrated European medical doctors for years. In Peru, however, local natives had used a bark from the quina-quina tree (the “bark of barks,” now better known as the cinchona tree) to brew a tonic that seemed to help with the disease. Eventually, of course, this became the basis for the drug quinine, which was used to treat malaria more effectively than previous drugs (although better treatments are available now that we have a better understanding of the disease). Historian Elaine Breslaw points out that this pattern in the era of pre-modern medicine was essentially normal, and that for most of Colonial America, folk healers were actually less deadly than physicians, and that most folk healers were as effective and knowledgeable, but lacked formal education (p. 4).
None of which is to say that you shouldn’t be checking in with your doctor if you exhibit symptoms of illness. You should. Modern medicine does amazing things, and folklore and folk magic should not be thought to take its place.
So where does that leave us in light of the COVID-19 outbreak? Are there magical responses we can see, or other forms of epidemic folklore? There are, of course, and probably more than we can count, so I will just highlight two here and invite you to share any folk magical responses you have seen (especially ones that complementactual medical advice rather than replace it, as I think folklore can be a powerful tool to augment our experiences, but as I have said often, it does not replace actual doctors’ advice).
First, I have to say I have been utterly charmed by the response coming out of Japanese social media, which has seen a resurgence of the yokai (local spirit) known as “Amabie,” who resembles a beaked mermaid with a number of fins and who is associated with healing epidemics and plagues. The beak resembles a hospital mask and many people have taken to sharing their drawings and images of Amabie on social media as a way to help tamp down the coronavirus outbreak. You can find hundreds of these pictures on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
Second, I have very much appreciated the community bonding and support spurred on by this epidemic, even as bad news seems to pour in from all sides. I know that times are incredibly hard for so many of us, but we also seem to be pulling together to make it through these difficult days. In terms of magic, I see that embodied in the sigil artwork of people like Laura Tempest Zakroff, who has been sharing several of her works online much as the Amabie pictures are being shared. The hope is that by sharing and spreading sigils for Boosting Immunity, Meeting Individual/Collective Needs, Managing Panic, and Feeding Body and Soul. Sharing these images and building their collective steampower feels like a solid folk magical response that can help add to the practical steps of hand-washing, social distancing, and regular exercise.
These are truly strange and interesting times, awful and aweful in turn for many of us. Whatever spells you are casting or stories you are turning to in these times, I wish you health and safety.
Time to open the dusty and ancient tomes once more! We continue with our Book Club, featuring the work of Scott Cunningham.
We’ve had a busy couple of weeks so our apologies that we haven’t gotten this up sooner, but we thought it would be better late than never to get some of the questions we had in our book club discussion onto the website.
This time around we were talking about Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Preface and Part I (Ch. 1-5), which pretty much covers the background and introduction of the book. Cory brought up a few points, noting for example, the very strong distinction Cunningham makes between a purely internal, “personal power” type magic and something that is channeled through these outside elements/objects/actions. This sort of ties into the recent interview with Mat Auryn, who works largely with what he calls Psychic Witchcraft. In EAFW we see something different, something gritty and earthed and a good bit messier and lived in than trying to operate solely in that “inner space” of the psyche (not that there’s a problem with that–just not Cory’s style). We’d love to know if you see that distinction, or if we are maybe missing some of the ways that Cunningham blends these two sides of witchery?
Laine let a friend borrow her copy, and got a really interesting note on the role of the moon in witchcraft versus that of the sun. The note says “perhaps the night holds a power/feeling because the sun is not present and we aren’t saturated by its power. We at night can feel our own power because the embodiment of the sun is reduced.” What do you think? Is the moon carrying the sun’s power in a different way, or do you feel it as something totally separate?
We also threw some questions out to our Patreon supporters and have had some good discussions circulating there, too. We thought we’d put a few of those questions here for you to ponder (and respond to in the comments if you want), too!
I wanted to throw out some questions for this second round of the book club, too, before I post up anything on the website. I’d love to hear about any of the following from anyone interested in discussing (as well as any topics you might want to bring up, too):
1. How do you feel about the “Akasha” thing? Does that enter into your practice at all? Does the idea of “cosmicness” play into your magical work somehow?
2. Do objects (esp. natural ones) help you to do magic, or is most of your magic internally driven? Are you more attuned to what Cunningham describes as “Natural Magic(k)” or more to what Mat Auryn describes as “Psychic Witchcraft” or both or neither or some other alternative?
3. How do you feel about his admonitions about evil and doing negative workings? Do you think those are a product of the time? How do you handle the idea of curses/hexes or similar magic?
Would love to hear what you have to say! Join in and discuss below!
As I mentioned last week, we’ve embarked on a 2020 book club looking at two of the books that got Laine and I into witchcraft in the first place: Earth Power and Earth, Air, Fire, and Water by Scott Cunningham. If you haven’t checked that post, make sure to do so and see when we’re reading each segment. We have ongoing discussions and chats with our Patreon supporters who are reading the book through our Discord server, but we also want to open up the conversation more publicly, too. So each month we’ll be posting a brief rundown of some questions and ideas that came up either in the discussion between Laine and me on the show or through the Discord chat.
This month, we tackled: Earth Power – Preface, Introduction, and Part I (Ch. 1-4)
Some questions to ponder as you read or reflect:
Cunningham often refers to what he’s doing as “natural magic,” and Cory thought that he was just using a different phrase to describe folk magic, which makes up the majority of the book. What do you think? Are there distinctions or differences between folk magic and natural magic? Are those differences present in Cunningham’s introduction, or is he using that term interchangeably?
Cory and Laine both discussed the idea of different elemental systems beyond the four-parted (or sometimes five-parted if you are reading Aristotle) Greco-Roman system. For example, Chinese metaphysics recognize a different set of elements (Earth, Fire, Water, Wood, and Metal), and other systems get more into “hot/cold/wet/dry/moving/stable” divisions (one of our Patreon folks pointed out in their tradition they have twelve different elements, and there’s a funny XKCD comic about someone being a “Polonium bender” and thinking of elements by way of the periodic table). What exactly are the elements to you? Are they fundamental building blocks in a very material way, or simply symbolic and thus subject to change based on who’s using them and how? What elemental systems do you work with, if any?
Laine raised the point that a lot of what we see in the introduction has to be seen as a product of its time (not to excuse it, but just to give it context). One of the big points she brought up was the artificial way that elements sometimes get lumped with “masculine” or “feminine” descriptors. How do you deal with these sorts of outdated ideas when you encounter them in a book you like (especially an older one)? Do you simply dismiss the pieces that no longer work and move on, or do you process it another way? Are dichotomies (like gendered elements) even useful in an age where we understand better that gender is a spectrum rather than an either/or situation?
One great discussion that came up on our patron chat was the question of “What books were your starting point for witchcraft?” Laine and I both had several, and Cunningham’s were among our earliest, but does the book (or books) you begin with for witchcraft studies have a defining effect on how and what you study? Or is the other way around, and what you’re interested in will lead you to certain types of books (other, non-dichotomous options are welcome, too!). What was your first book of magic or witchcraft?
Finally, do we do too much idealizing of the past? Cunningham likes to paint rosy pictures at times of some sort of agrarian paradise in which nature and magic were all around the common folk (a bit like in the magic forest in Frozen II). Magic, however, always seems to be very adaptable to new situations and new eras. Some of it falls by the wayside when it’s not useful/appropriate (for example, there are some terribly racist folk charms involving stealing hair from an African American person but I don’t think anyone’s recommending those today….I hope). At the same time, while we can “yeet our woes unto the void” in a contemporary ritual, we also might still have uses for lucky horseshoes, even if we don’t ride horses regularly anymore). So what do you think? How much of the past informs your practice, and how ready are you to adapt your practice to contemporary needs?
We welcome (civil) discussions and deliberations on these points in the comments, and if you have a question raised by the episode or this post that you’d like to explore further, feel free to comment that as well!
If you read this blog, then it’s probably safe to assume you like to read in general (and even if you don’t, maybe books of magic are a different story). We’ve hinted a bit at something we’re trying out for 2020 in a few episodes, and with the release of our latest episode (Episode 157 – Evolving Witchery), we began what we’re calling the “New World Witchery Book Club” for 2020. The basic idea is that we’ll pick a book (or a small series of books–we know everyone already has piles of books by their bedside so we don’t want to overburden you) and then read it in sections each month. We’ll discuss the writing, the actual information, historical context, practical applications, folkloric roots, and just about anything we can come up with.
For this year, we’re going back to our own roots and looking at a pair of books that greatly influenced both Laine and I as we were starting out: Scott Cunningham’s Earth Powerand Earth, Air, Fire, & Water. These books are chock full of folk magic, albeit somewhat adapted through Cunningham’s eclectic Wiccan approach. We think we’re going to unpack some really good material here, especially as his focus on what he calls “natural magic” very much overlaps with the sorts of folk magic we find here in North America.
The basic breakdown for reading this book will be as follows:
Reading Plan for Earth Power and Earth, Air, Fire, & Water
January: Earth Power – Preface, Introduction, and Part I (Ch. 1-4)
February: Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Preface and Part I (Ch. 1-5)
March: Earth Power – Ch. 5 (Earth Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 6 (Earth Power)
April: Earth Power – Ch. 6 (Air Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 7 (Air Power)
May: Earth Power – Ch. 7 (Fire Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 8 (Fire Power)
June: Earth Power – Ch. 8 (Water Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 9 (Water Power)
October: Earth Power – Ch. 16 (Rain, fog, & storm Magic), Ch. 17 (Sea Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 17 (Wishing Well Magic), Ch. 18 (Sea Magic)
November: Earth, Air, Fire & Water – Ch. 15 (Ice Magic), Ch. 14 (Snow Magic)
December: Earth Power – Afterword; Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 19 (Creating Your Own Rituals), Afterword
We will also try to put out little reading-related blog posts to offer ways to expand upon whatever we discuss and keep the conversation going each month.
These books were staples on our shelves growing up, but we also know that not everyone has a copy yet, so we’ve got some good news on that front, too! Firstly, Llewellyn Publications has agreed to offer our listeners and readers a 20% discount on any orders of Earth Power or Earth, Air, Fire, & Water you make between now and June 1st, 2020. All you have to do is go to www.llewellyn.com and pick up those books, then use the code “SCOTT20” at checkout for the discount (you must be logged into your Llewellyn account to use the code, but it’s an easy and free signup). They frequently have free shipping and other discounts going on, too, so check them out and stock up on some magic books!
The other way we want to make these available to you is, of course, a contest! We’ve got two copies of each of the two books we’ll be giving away (thanks Llewellyn!), with each winner receiving a copy of both Earth Power and Earth, Air, Fire, & Water. How do you enter?
Support us on Patreon! If you’re already a Patreon supporter, great news, you get an automatic entry in the contest! 🙂
Share this post on your social media (Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram especially) and tag us (or come back and leave a comment with a link where we can see your post)
Share a picture/post showing and/or describing what “natural magic” looks like or means to you on Twitteror Instagram. Tag us if you can, and make sure to use the hashtag #newworldwitchery when you post so we can find what you’ve shared easily.
That’s up to three entries per person! All contest entries must be completed by midnight Eastern Standard Time on January 31st, 2020. We’ll pick two lucky winners on February 1st and send them their copies of the Cunningham books (as well as maybe a bonus item or two).
So that is the basic idea, and even a chance to win some books. Not a bad way to go into the new year!
We hope you’ll join us as we work our way through these books, and share your own thoughts and interpretations of the material as well.
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 bothBesom, Stang, & Sword, by Chris Orapello & Tara-Love Maguire, andSouthern Cunning, by Aaron Oberon. We did shows and interviews with those authors this year, and I’ve got a full review ofBesom 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’sLight 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’sAncestorsmay 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 Mythologyretelling, 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’sCurious 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’sWe 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 andEarth, 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!
As you may have guessed, I’m something of a bibliophile. On a recent shopping trip, I picked up no less than six books at multiple witchy shops. Even a trip to the science museum with my kids found me grabbing a pair of small field guides to plant identification.
This is not a phenomenon limited to print books of academic density or in the “non-fiction” category. I love my e-books, fictional stories, and graphic novels immensely. Which is what brings me around to this post today. One of the “texts” that I’ve really enjoyed in the past decade or so was the web graphic known as the “Psychonaut Field Manual: A Cartoon Guide to Chaos Magick,” by Bluefluke. I’m not a Chaos magician myself, but I appreciate some of the methods involved, and the way the graphic work condenses down and streamlines some of the concepts found in more extensive works by Peter Caroll, Austin Osman Spare, or Robert Anton Wilson (and in latter days by the droll and delightful Gordon White of Rune Soup). That’s not to say it’s the definitive last word on the topic, but it provides a wonderful portal of entry for newcomers or a good thumbnail index of the field for the more experienced.
I love graphic materials because they can sometimes hit us in ways that the written word alone cannot (it’s also why I think that hearing lessons or seeing a teacher can sometimes be much more valuable than just reading something from a book, no matter how much I love books). I thought that today I’d offer my thoughts on a selection of graphical representations of witchcraft and folk magic. The prolific reader/reviewer Mat Auryn has already compiled a great list of graphic novels with witchy themes over at his blog, culled from a number of esoteric and occult authors and featuring titles like the Psychonaut Field Manual listed above, as well as works by Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy series, the Hellblazer series featuring chaotic mage John Constantine by Garth Ennis, and Grant Morrison (and a tip of the pointy hat to Chas Bogan and Natalie Zaman, who mention slightly outside-the-field authors like Edward Gorey and Nick Bantock (Griffin & Sabine) as well as a graphic novelization of historical witch hunts). I will largely be avoiding those titles in favor of ones that I don’t see mentioned as often elsewhere, and which seem to be rooted in branches or streams of North American or folkloric magic and witchcraft instead. So, on to the list!
1. Witchbody, by Sabrina Scott. This is an excellent graphic novelization of Scott’s personal reflections on witchcraft, particularly as connected to the female body (or any physical body). It embraces the sheer mortality of our corporeal forms and asks that those who walk with magic in their fingers recognize the bones and earth they will become. This is not a morbid fascination, but a beautiful feminist philosophical meditation that puts power in the act of natural communion. Cooking, walking among trees, padding along a city sidewalk–all of these activities invite connection, or as Scott puts it, “Witchcraft is the act of saying hello, speaking back to ones who speak with us.” Breathing is a long funerary rite with immense potential, and decentering our human perspective allows us an access to shapeshifting as we learn to listen to how the living and dying world observes us. It’s gorgeous, a rich memoir of magical physicality.
2. Belladonna Magic, by Christine Sloan Stoddard. Similarly to Witchbody, Stoddard is using her personal experiences and art to enhance the words and create a sense of enchantment. She turns each poem into both a memorial to her own life’s path and manages to wedge in potential spells among the words and images. In this case, the images are not a “graphic novel” format, per se, but artistic photographic compositions paired to the poems. These are not easy or simple poems. “Mary in Wyoming” asks questions about the lingering effects of pain and violation, such as “I wonder if my rapist flips his pillow/ to the cool side in the middle of the night,” which feels almost like a curse, but blends in with words that attempt to provide some kind of peace as well. Some poems are rituals, as when she says “I am naked in the window/ when I wish on a star./ But as a wilderness-dweller,/ I have no neighbors.” The themes and images here are not always as precise and clear as in the more cohesive Witchbody, but should still resonate with those seeking a contemporary feminist version of witchcraft that fuses art and words.
3. Witch Boy and The Hidden Witch, by Molly Ostertag. These are–ostensibly–children’s graphic novels telling the story of a thirteen-year-old boy named Aster who belongs to a family of magical folk. However, the rules of the family state that all the girls can learn witchcraft, and the boys must learn shapeshifting. Aster, it turns out, has no desire to shapeshift but has a natural knack for witchery. The book unfolds as Aster develops his skills, and Ostertag uses these books to explore issues of gender and identity, friendship (especially in the second book, The Hidden Witch, when jealousy becomes a powerful egragore for a young witch who can’t control her power), and prejudice. At the same time, a tremendous amount of North American folklore appears here, including Native American shapeshifting lore, discussions of tulpas and egragores, and healing spells and herbs. The concept of using sigils to “speak” to the plants is marvelous, and the sweet stories in each book are tender, occasionally funny, and frequently a little heartbreaking. If you have children (tween and up, most likely) who have even a slight interest in folklore or magic, these are good books to use to introduce them to witchery (and some of the issues they will face growing up). My own ten-year-old loves them, and I highly recommend these.
4. The Lost Words: A Spell Book, by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. As the digital age progresses, dictionary makers frequently find themselves facing a problem: they need to add new words that are crucial to living in modern society (such as “blog” or “voicemail”), but they must also take into account page totals. Thus, some words get dropped. When the Oxford Junior Dictionary had to cut around forty words, including “willow” and “heron” among many others, author Robert Macfarlane and illustrator Jackie Morris came together to save those words, almost all of which had to do with the natural world. What they put together was a “spell book,” a play on the idea of a spelling primer and a book of magic. This book is both of those and something more. Poems and letters dance across pages with gorgeously painted images that conjure to life these lost words. In some ways, they act as spells of resurrection for language and nature. This is an eerily synchronous book taken with Ostertag’s Witch Boy series and Scott’s Witchbody, because all of these texts seem to be about the conversation with the natural world that is born from our bodies, our breath, our tongues (at least in part). The book is absolutely stunning, and huge, and unwieldy, and all the more wonderful for it. Keep watching our sites (especially YouTube) as I got an extra copy of this one that I will likely be giving away sometime in the future.
5. Finally, I’m offering a few graphic novels in a more “adult” vein of storytelling: Wytches, by Scott Snyder/Jock; Harrow County, by Cullen Bunn/Tyler Crook; The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, by Robert Aguirre Sacasa; and Locke & Key, by Joe Hill/Gabriel Rodriguez. Each of these has a lot to offer in terms of storytelling and the occult, but also take a very scary bent when looking at those topics. Wytches is a fiercely gritty tale about a young family moving to rural New Hampshire after a tragedy, only to discover they are haunted by a dark and occult past and hunted by a tribe of forest beings–the titular “wytches.” Harrow County is situated in a rural community (which bears some hallmarks of both Appalachia and places like the Upland South), and tells the story of Emmy Crawford, a young woman who finds she has occult powers blooming in her as the reincarnation of a…well, you’ll have to read to find out. The story features a variety of North American lore, including the “haints” who roam the area around Emmy’s home, such as her (sort-of familiar) the Skinless Boy. This one is a potent, gut-gripping series with a lot of good suspense and plot twists. Almost everyone has heard of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina the Netflix show, but I love the comic series that birthed it even more. Set in the “Archie Afterlife” universe (and more integrated with Riverdale and its inhabitants than the TV show), Sabrina slowly uncovers her family’s twisted and witchy history as well as its involvement in the Satanic Church of Night. It’s set in the 1960s and has a much darker tone than the long-running and glib Archie series upon which it is based, and the differences between the show and the comic are pronounced but not distracting. Author Aguirre-Sacasa also helms the show, so if you like one you may very well like the other. Finally, Locke & Key is by American horror master Joe Hill and tells the story of a family tormented by an unseen evil force who is slowly unpacking all sorts of occult mysteries for them, providing the family children both tools of resistance and traps into which they often fall. It’s Lovecraftian by nature (they even live in the town of Lovecraft), and there are some truly brutal moments in the story, but if you’re a fan of folk horror you will likely enjoy this.
That’s more than enough from me for now, but if you’ve got good suggestions of graphic works that show folklore and the occult playing well together, I’d love to hear them in the comments below (or feel free to drop us an email or voicemail as well…or send us a heron if you are displeased about the whole “voicemail” thing I mentioned above in Lost Words).