Blog Post 220 – Book Club Discussion #1

Hello witchy reader-folk!
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:
  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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 How do you deal with these sorts of outdated ideas when you encounter them in a book you like (especially an older one)?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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?
(Mendeleev, Polonium-bending Master. Comic by XKCD)
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!
Thanks for reading (along with us)!
-Cory

Blog Post 219 – New World Witchery Book Club 2020

My very weather-beaten copies of Earth Power and Earth, Air, Fire, & Water by Scott Cunningham, which will be our books for the 2020 NWW Book Club

Greetings and salutations!

 

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 Power and 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)
  • July: Earth Power – Ch. 9 (Stone Magic), Ch. 10 (Tree Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 10 (Stone Magic), Ch. 11 (Magnet Magic)
  • August: Earth Power – Ch. 11 (Image Magic), Ch. 12 (Knot Magic), Ch. 15 (Mirror Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 13 (Star Magic), Ch. 16 (Mirror Magic)
  • September: Earth Power – Ch. 13 (Candle Magic), Ch. 14 (Wax Magic); Earth, Air, Fire, & Water – Ch. 12 (Candle Magic)
  • 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?

  1. Support us on Patreon! If you’re already a Patreon supporter, great news, you get an automatic entry in the contest! 🙂
  2. 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)
  3. 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.

 

Thanks so much for reading (all the books!),

-Cory

 

 

Blog Post 218 – My Year on the Shelf

I like the books to feel cozy and relaxed when I read them
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.
Weirdo builds book fort. Film at 11.
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,
-Cory

Blog Post 216 – Graphic Witchery (Occult Graphic Novels)

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).

Thanks for reading!
-Cory

Video: Nashville Witchery 2019 (with AthenaBeth!)

 

I’m currently doing some traveling, but while staying in Nashville, TN where we visit with my in-laws each year I was fortunate enough to have a day where both Laine and our friend (and fellow YouTuber/witchy bon-vivant) AthenaBeth made the drive in to meet up with me. We did some witchy shop-hopping and visited four different stores, where I picked up a few fun items (and probably more books than I should have). I made a video of it so please check it out and feel free to comment and/or share it around!

Oh, and AthenaBeth ALSO made a video about it you can find here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGNnGERcnRM

And here are the shops we visited:

Thanks for watching!
-Cory

Blog Post 213 – A 2018 Magical Media Retrospective Roundup

I read. A lot.

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!

 

Books

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.

Witchy Books

  • 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!

-Cory

Blog Post 212 – Book Review: Besom, Stang, and Sword by Chris Orapello and Tara-Love Maguire

If you listen to Down at the Crossroads (and you should, in fact, listen to that show, as it taps into some great magical wisdom and practice), you will find yourself quickly saying, “I know that rite!” when you get to Chapter One of Besom, Stang, and Sword. That is, of course, no accident, as the hosts of the podcast and the authors of the book are one and the same. Chris Orapello (going by Christopher Orapello in the book’s byline) and Tara-Love Maguire are already well-known to the magical community, but they have been weaving spells over the years that many of us are only just now seeing as the book emerges to laud and praise. That praise is rightly bestowed, as this book does a phenomenal job of conveying a real sense of the couple’s locally-rooted magical tradition while also inviting any and all readers curious about where to start with traditional witchcraft in a modern world to join them for a cup of…well, best not question the proffered cuppa too much.

 

With Besom, Stang, and Sword, Chris and Tara open the doors to their own practices, laying out the materials of magic for all to see. The results drive home the central point that magic—specifically witchcraft—is available to anyone, but that it requires time, effort, patience, and thought along with a dose of fate and a sizable amount of risk. They build a hexagram of approachable practices that asks anyone picking up this work to root their magic in the land surrounding them and their own personal history, rather than taking secondhand sorcery from others. Chris and Tara reveal their Blacktree tradition without pretense or artifice, but instead with clarity, insight, and acid wit, which testifies to their talents as both seasoned occultists and engaging writers. This is a book that will reshape a reader’s encounters with magic and the landscape around them. They make the point that the landscape is “hidden,” but not in any sense inaccessible. No, the landscape is there, has always been there, waiting to teach you, they say. All you need to do is take a breath and pay attention to the “flutter in the gut coming up through your own roots…and you will automatically know if the land there welcomes you with a friendly warmth, or if it is repulsed and angry at your intrusion” (158). That immediate connection to your surroundings defines the Blacktree tradition and the approach Orapello and Maguire take to all magic–it must be rooted and connected, but it must also have the freedom to grown in its own way (indeed, one of their crucial variations upon the Witches’ Pyramid is the addition of the dictum, “to grow”).

 

The book is broken into twelve official chapters (with an Introduction serving as the thirteenth member of their verbal coven). Each chapter lays out some fundamental aspect of their practice, complete with spells and rituals, incantations, tools, and techniques that they have tried and tested in their own lives. Within the first few chapters, you are creating a ritual cord, crafting a witches’ broom (the titular “besom”), acquiring a (genius loci-approved) Token of the Land, and raising an ancestral altar. Chapters conclude with a highly selective and generally very thoughtful “further reading” list to guide you deeper into topics that spark your interest the strongest, thus creating a practice rooted in history and the experiences shared by others but never restricting your own exploration and creation of magic. Techniques build upon one another–you access the Hidden Landscape of Chapter Seven by using the above-mentioned Token tool created in Chapter Two, for example. At the same time, once you read the first chapter of the book, the rest is generally readable in any order, and your own interests can guide you to the methods and tools they use in a winding, crooked path through traditional witchcraft (and the reference to Peter Paddon there is very much intentional, as his spirit lingers in many of the pages of this book). They draw influences from Robert Cochrane, Michael Howard, and Nigel Aldcroft Jackson, while also incorporating research from academics like Éva Pócs, Carlo Ginzburg, and Emma Wilby, giving it intellectual roots that run deep and hold tight.

 

In some ways, the book smirks a bit at tradition, too, by revising or reinventing it. One prime example is the way Orapello and Maguire reconfigure runes, pentagrams, and the oft-spun “wheel of the year” found in so many books on modern magical religion. There are frequent repetitions of sixes within the work: six points on their version of the World Tree (the Black Tree); six key ideas within the Witches’ Hexagram (to know, to will, to dare, to be silent, to go, to grow); six key holiday points in the annual cycle (leaving off the equinoxes in their version). Besom, Stang, and Sword bears some resemblance to Aidan Wachter’s  recent book Six Ways in that respect, but the two books approach the topic of witch-work differently. Wachter’s book looks inward to the author’s personal experiences and years of practice immersed in a sort of background radiation of magic (the “Field” as he describes it) and draws out a series of universalized principles, weaving them into the acts of breathing and the sound of poetry. Orapello and Maguire turn their own experiences into tools through which a magical practitioner connects their personal experience of enchantment to the very real and immediate landscape around them. That’s not to say either book is “right” or “wrong,” but rather that they have an almost eerie synchronicity in their approaches. They complement each other beautifully. Both demand real, dirt-under-the-nails work. Both honor tradition while also practicing the art of reverent improvisation based on particular circumstances. Tradition is not discarded here, but re-imagined in a way that takes it out of the past and situates it in a living, thriving continuum of practice.

 

Besom, Stang, and Sword combs through the materials of modern life and shows the reader how and where to poke to raise the dragons of sorcery wisely and well. One particularly memorable moment in the book guides the reader through the orgiastic sabbatic rites of the modern dance club and ties them to Dionysian revels while not attempting to diminish the ecstatic frenzy of either the rituals of Ancient Greece or the Saturday night sweat-and-sex of the discotheque (they thankfully do not use the word discotheque, by the way). As they build their own calendar of lunar magic with a Crow Moon in March or a Cricket Moon in August, they also make a subtle note that in a world continually being shaped by human influence on climate change, those moons may change as well. There are echoes of Peter Grey’s Apocalyptic Witchcraft here, but they do not dwell on witches as midwives of death and rebirth on a planetary scale. Instead, they show you how to root the adaptations you make to your own experience of the moon in your immediate landscape, even as that landscape shifts around you.

From the east, I go to west.

About to north.

And then to south.

Crossing roads as I go about.

Laying the ground for a witch’s work.

Down at the crossroads is where I vow,

To meet with she and he and they and thou

 

You’ve been greeted with those words for years in Chris Orapello’s lovely baritone if you’re a listener to the show he and Maguire have worked so hard on. The spell they weave is real, and as they lay each of their tools–a broom, a staff, and a blade–down across one another, they create six points, a star, a tree, a crooked path, a serpent, a year… They make a crossroads for you in this book, and then show you how to build your own. They meet you in the pages, and you get a very real sense of who they are and what they do, but then they send you off on your own way to make some witchcraft and lay some ground for others. They uncover a hidden landscape and in doing so, call up more mysteries than you could ever solve (but you’ll have great fun trying). They give you magic that works in a moonlit forest, a city full of humming concrete, a farmstead a century ago, or the flooded coastal plains of tomorrow. Besom, Stang, and Sword also creates a rune with roots running deep and branches that reach for the sky. Let it work its spell on you, and you will see traditional witchcraft in new ways every day.

 

I hope you enjoy reading the book as much as I did, and thank you for stopping by and reading this review!

-Cory

 

*[Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review and as a potential endorser, and part of this review has been used in the opening endorsements of the book. I will also note that the authors are personal friends of mine. Chris and Tara did not pressure me for an endorsement, and I am proud to recommend their work, but in the interest of being completely transparent I wish to include this note]