Who doesn’t like alliteration?
At the beginning of 2019, if you were following me/us on social media, then you saw me post a photo of a stack of books and a long list of everything I had read over the course of 2018. A number of the items on that list are books that I’ve not really had the time to review or discuss on the site or the show, or that would be worth revisiting because they’re so good. So today I’m doing a brief(ish) roundup of some of the magical media I liked best in the past year, particularly the stuff that relates to folk magic, folklore, and witchcraft (although I’m sure I’ll stray a bit here and there from the beaten path, but I have a feeling if I’m interested in something at least a few of you are, too). The year 2018 was a good one for magic and enchantment in the public eye (and in the right nooks and crannies of our own little folksy corner of the internet), so there’s a lot to recommend. I hope this is useful to some of you!
When it comes to books, there were tons to choose from that made my folklorist/magical whiskers twitch. I’m going to divide this list into two categories: books about witchcraft and magic, and books about folklore that are probably of interest to people who read this site.
- The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to The Present, by Ronald L. Hutton – I reviewed this book professionally for the journal Western Folklore, and while I do have a few issues with it (Hutton sometimes pulls from anthropology in ways that don’t make sense or paints with some overly broad brushstrokes), for the most part I find this book gives a very comprehensive overview of the concept of “witchcraft” as it developed from Ancient Rome into contemporary times. The focus here is on Europe (and even more so on the British Isles), but it still offers insights into everything from shamanic practices to the cunning folk and the role that secularization played in fanning the flames of witch trials, so to speak. A solid, if sometimes dense, read.
- Folk Religion of the Pennsylvania Dutch, by Richard Orth – There seem to be more and more books looking seriously at the Pennsylvania German cultural region, and some of them are seeing that the practice of magic (even if it isn’t called that explicitly) forms a piece of the greater patchwork of that culture. Orth, the director of the American Folklife Instituted, has written a book that takes a scholarly-but-not-dismissive look at the witchcraft and magic of the PA-Dutch and covers areas of interest ranging from the physical objects of deitsch magic to key figures like Mountain Mary. If you like learning about powwow and braucherei, this is absolutely a read for you.
- Sigil Witchery, by Laura Tempest Zakroff – Zakroff has been on our show before and we’ve talked about her fresh and original take on both cauldrons and sigils, but I haven’t had time to do a full review on her book about sigil magic. My completely biased two cents? Buy it. Immediately. It was absolutely perfect for getting me thinking about magical symbols in new and creative ways, while still seeing them rooted to a variety of cultures that use them (without directly stealing anything from those cultures). Her latest release, Weave the Liminal, is also worth reading, although it’s a 2019 book so I will hope to do a full review later on.
- Six Ways, by Aidan Wachter – I did manage to review this one on our site when it came out, so I reiterate here that this is a book worth reading, worth writing in, worth dragging with you outside under a tree, worth stuffing into your backpack or briefcase, and worth giving to others when you’re done. It’s a remarkably unique and resourceful approach to practical witchcraft rooted in Wachter’s own experiences, but written in a way to make the work he’s doing accessible for anyone. It will likely get you doing magic in different ways and discovering enchantment in things you hadn’t noticed before, and that’s a mighty accomplishment.
- Besom, Stang, and Sword, by Chris Orapello and Tara-Love Maguire – More guests from our show doing great things! I made a point in my review of Besom, Stang, and Sword that it provides an eerie complementary text to Wachter’s Six Ways, because both are about a rooted practice building on an animistic understanding of the world. Orapello and Maguire open up their own traditional witchcraft practices here, and show the deep connections they have built up in their own spaces, while offering a reader so many (SO MANY!) good rituals and tools to do the same in their spaces. We’ll likely have them on to talk about this more, but it’s 100% worth reading.
- Witches, Sluts, and Feminists, by Kristen Sollee – This one is less directly about practical witchcraft and much more about the role of witches in society. I don’t love Sollee’s somewhat fast-and-loose recounting of witchcraft history, but she does try to keep the roots of her discussion grounded in fact rather than sensationalism. She also makes some truly excellent points about the deep connections between women’s bodies, sexual identity, and the use of the labels “witch” and “slut” over time to exercise control over them. Her point? That women can and do take power from those labels eventually, and that witchcraft can be something that helps women exercise their personal authority in ways that rational, hierarchical systems can’t. It’s a lot of social theory rather than witchcraft-proper, but if you are into that line of thought you might find value in this one.
Folklore and Witchcraft-Adjacent Books
- Border Lore, by David Bowles – We had Bowles on the show this year, and there are actually lots of books he’s written that I could recommend. I start with this one because Border Lore hits the right notes of folklore, magic, witchcraft, and storytelling for me. It talks about La Llorona and lechuzas, spooky roadside encounters and dances with the devil, and it’s a helluva lot of fun to read.
- Every Tongue Got to Confess, by Zora Neale Hurston – This is a new-to-me collection that actually came out ten years ago, but it contains an immense amount of Hurston’s research and folklore work from her time in the Gulf States working for the WPA. She covers a lot of material, including plenty of stories about folk devils and witchcraft that would be worth reading for anyone who likes the things we do. As an added bonus, if you happen to be an Audible member, you can get this as an audiobook narrated by Ruby Dee and Ozzie Davis (which is an AMAZING combination).
- The Annotated African American Folktales, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Maria Tatar – If you know much about African American studies or folk and fairy tale studies, then the names of this book’s editors should have you rushing to buy it already. Gates, famous for his work on African American history (and his role hosting the PBS genealogy show Finding Your Roots) and Tatar, Harvard’s resident fairy tale expert, have compiled a tremendous collection of African American lore and added insightful notes on the stories. The magical lore isn’t extensive, but it’s there in the stories, and provides a strong sense of the cosmology that has been so influential on the American psyche for hundreds of years. An excellent addition to your library.
- The Old Gods Waken, by Manly Wade Wellman – This was a recommendation from a listener and I was very impressed by it. In it, an Appalachian bard and a Native American shaman have to save a folklorist and her love interest from a family of New World druids (why do folklorists always get into these kinds of scrapes?). There are lots of folk magical tidbits mixed in, and the story (it’s fiction, by the way) is generally fast-moving and compelling, with a real flavor of Appalachian language in the text.
- Who by Water, by Victoria Raschke – This is the first in a trilogy of books set in Slovenia and in it an expat named Jo Wiley suddenly discovers a dormant power to speak with the dead, including her mother and her murdered lover. This leads her on a quest through Slovenian myth and mystery as she evades people–and forces–that fear or want to use her power. It’s engaging and fun, and exposes you to an area of the world you might not know much about in a way that feels exciting. Definitely worth it!
Movies, TV, and Other Media
This section is a bit of a catch-all, in that the recommendations here are more connected to things I’ve watched and enjoyed, although there’s also at least one book in this category, too (and some of the TV shows have double-lives in print and screen, but that will make more sense in a moment). I don’t expect everyone to agree with me on some of these, but I do think all of these are worth watching and forming your own opinion about.
- Hilda (Netflix Original Series) – My family and I fell in love with this series and are hungry for more when it comes back later this year. It’s about an impetuous girl in Scandinavia who must move to the city of Trollberg with her mom after they lose their house in the distant countryside. Hilda (the girl) has always been good at relating to the strange creatures around her, including giants, trolls, woffs (flying dog-like puffballs), and elves (who love paperwork more than anything). There is so much magic in this series, and it’s beautiful. We also have devoured the graphic novels by Luke Pearson the series was based upon, and found that they often have even more wonderful lore in them. This is one of my highest recommendations.
- We Don’t Go Back: A Watcher’s Guide to Folk Horror, by Michael D. Ingham – Okay, this is also a book, so why is it here in media? Mostly because it is a book about film and television that any fan of the uncanny, bizarre, magical world that haunts us would like to watch. Ingham’s book is wonderful not just in the way it offers a reader a chance to discover so many unknown gems of cinema and TV that fit the “folk horror” category, but in the way the author makes no bones about the stuff that doesn’t work, is generally terrible, or exploits people in some way. At the same time, his recommendations are rooted in a deep appreciation of the genre and a love for the rural and urban weirdness that fascinates so many of us. What is folk horror, by the way? It’s a genre that deals with strange mysteries and hidden pagan pasts intruding on our modern (and often ill-equipped) world. If you like films like The Wicker Man or Pan’s Labyrinth, you will probably get some good new things to add to your watch list out of this book.
- The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Netflix Original Series) – Really, this is probably the most controversial inclusion here. If I’m honest, it took me about seven episodes to enjoy this series, and even then I’m not sure I really love it in the way some people do. It’s problematic and messy at times in the way that a number of teen dramas can be, and it really, really digs into the trope of the Satanic witch in ways that will put some people off. The cosmology behind it, however, makes sense if you think of this as a show that says “What if the Puritans were right and Satanic witches were around all along? How would their society have evolved alongside (or under) our own?” It’s not a perfect show, and frankly I got a lot more pleasure out of reading the comics upon which this new Sabrina reboot is based, but I don’t judge it as harshly because it is still baby-stepping its way forward and taking risks while it does so. After all, if I judged Buffy by its first season alone, I don’t think I’d ever have thought twice about it. I want to give this series more of a chance and hope it finds its feet, because there really is some good stuff in here, so I’m including it here with a tentative recommendation (and a huge grain of salt with which to take many of its more off-putting elements).
- Hereditary (Film, A24 Studios) – This one is likely to be a bit controversial as well. You will either love or hate this film, and either way I completely understand why. The story follows the strangely cursed lives of the Graham family, including artist mother Annie (Toni Collette) and doting-but-often-clueless father Steve (Gabriel Byrne). When their daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) begins to have eerie visits from Annie’s dead mother, things go from bad to worse, and the family soon finds itself in the clutches of a generational curse brought about by familial witchcraft associations. It can get really gruesome at times (and I mean stomach-turningly so), but the effect of impending dread and the way magic is presented here both worked for me. Things are seldom completely flashy, but rather almost grind forward in a relentless advance, and that makes the ending (as strangely mysterious and confusing as it can be) feel like a breath of relief. One that makes you almost feel guilty for taking it.
- Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil (Film, Kinoskopik) – Based on a folktale with iterations found around the world, this Basque film tells the story of a blacksmith whose deal with the devil (in actuality not the Devil, but a devil) leads to a twisted road of consequences, horror, and bloodshed. The folk roots of this story are done beautifully, and it’s gorgeous to watch. It is in the Basque language, but there are English subtitles as well. It’s available on Netflix and I definitely enjoyed watching it.
Whew! That’s seriously a LOT of magic to pack into one year, right? And I’ve actually only just scratched the surface! There are tons of things I’m missing here (including the Charmed reboot, which I’ve watched a bit of and mostly enjoyed so far, as well as the Hulu original show Light as a Feather, which I liked a bit less). I have a feeling that we’ll be seeing a lot of magical media coming out this year, too, and I’m hoping to keep on top of it and share recommendations as much as I can.
What about you? What enchantments did you brush up against or bump into (or run full tilt towards) in 2018? What are you looking forward to in 2019? Let us know by email, social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are our top public spots), or in the comments below!
Thanks for reading!
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!
*[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]
Aidan Wachter is well-known among a subset of the magical community for his gorgeous talismanic creations, forged from silver and bearing arcane markings of his own design or derived from richly sorcerous sources. This year, he has also embarked upon a career as an author of magical texts, building upon his years of experience and bringing the same level of creativity and depth to his writing that he has long done with his jewelry. With Six Ways: Approaches and Entries for Practical Magic, Wachter seeks to open up pathways into practice for those who, like him, are “dirt sorcerors,” practitioners who may have some cosmological interests but who are far more interested in applying magic to the world around them in inventive, operational ways. At the end of Chapter Eight of his self-published work, he says, “The first and most important enchantment is the enchantment of the world, which by its very nature is also the enchantment of us, its perceiver. A large amount of the work of magic and sorcery as I have come to know it has to do with this concept” (44). Wachter’s stated aim, reenchantment, has been on the minds of the magically-inclined since Keith Thomas’ summative text on the decline of magic in the modern world, and if many hands make light work then Six Ways shoulders a goodly portion of that burden.
The book’s thirty-three chapters all come in digestible chunks of a few pages, but in most of those bite-size portions the flavor runs deep (except in his rejection of red onions, an opinion in which he is clearly wrong). He begins by introducing himself and his purpose: to add “approaches and entries” to the Field of magic (I capitalize that term here because Wachter does, explaining that the Field is the “totality of manifest and unmanifest reality. Sorcery is the art of effective inter-being with the Field”) (10). The emphasis here is in the practice, the application, the dirt-under-your-fingernails approach to getting things done in ways that most people can’t or won’t. By Chapter Two, Wachter is already handing out homework and pushing the reader to put the book down (a hard task at times) and go do the stuff. Exercises within the text are wide-ranging and pull from a variety of systems including some Ceremonial and chaos magic, hoodoo, and Traditional Witchcraft, although seldom in any way that feels disrespectful or disharmonious. In Chapter Nine, he leads the reader into silence as a way of understanding meditation, then segues into trance in Chapter Ten. He relates the practice of offerings (in a general animistic sense) to a more specific chapter on working with the Dead and follows the deeper relationship-building practices into a chapter on “the stacking of skulls” as a way of understanding altar construction. Of course, one of his standout sections comes in the form of chapters on sigil work and talisman creation, where his expertise is evident.
Wachter’s book is remarkable in that it feels very much like having tea with a friend—a friend who knows a great deal about practical, action-oriented, behavioral occultism. The conversational tone he strikes may actually deter some readers because he speaks from his own experience and the lessons he’s learned but does not do so in a prescriptive way beyond providing potential tasks for a developing magician to try. Put another way, the book is a bit like an afternoon break with a mad scientist in his workshop, where he allows you to tinker a bit with his Tesla coils and bottles of bubbling concoctions as you walk and talk. It is a strange book in some ways, and at times I found myself a bit astray from his path (I do not particularly follow some of his meditative methods), but he always drew me back in again. His arguments about making contracts with spirits responsibly, seeing animism in its most relationship-oriented form, and making magic a thing you do in the world, rather than something that happens to you all resonated with my own sense of folk magic as a continuum of praxis.
One of my favorite moments in the book is Wachter’s description of the feeling when magic works: “This is magic, and if done with intention, and devotion, it should feel a bit like falling in love…Magic is the art of falling in love with the Field and its inhabitants” (120). Those inhabitants include us, of course, and falling in love with ourselves, the world around us, and all the beautiful threads that weave us together is a bit of magic itself. It is a reenchantment of the world, and this book makes that task a little easier.
Thanks for reading!
*In the interest of full disclosure, I received a review copy of the book from the author.
Strange Experience: The Autobiography of a Hexenmeister—Personal Encounters with Hauntings, Magic and Mysticism (Prentice-Hall: New Jersey, 1971). 355pp. Illustrations.
Let me begin by saying I have wanted to review this book for a long time. Primarily, that is because I have wanted to read this book for a long time, at least in something beyond excerpted form, which is the best I’d been able to do. The book itself seems to be out-of-print, and runs upwards of seventy-five dollars on the second-hand market, and I have always just told myself that when I find a copy for less than fifty, I’ll grab it then. Thankfully, my friend Atticus Hob did a sort of book exchange with me, and let me borrow his copy, and so I have finally been able to dive fully inot Gandee’s text and join him on his meandering journey through his mystically charged coming-of-age tale of sexual awakening, spirit contact, and magic.
I knew of this book for a long time before I read it, largely because one of the people whom I consider a teacher and friend, Jack Montgomery, studied with Gandee during the seventies. Jack included stories of his experiences in his own work, American Shamans, which has already been mentioned before (and we interviewed Montgomery in an earlier episode, too). What I knew the most about was Gandee as an adult, living a hexenmeister’s life and dispensing his perspective for an eager grad student. Strange Experience lives up to its title, showing that Gandee’s youth and development—both magically and personally—were extremely unusual, yet not at all unfamiliar to anyone who has struggled with identity at some point in his or her life.
The book is broken into nineteen chapters and an introduction, with titles such as “A Dead Man’s Treasure” and “The Strangest Prayers are Painted.” Each chapter is introduced with a hex sign—a Pennsylvania German art design frequently seen on barns in Lancaster and Berks Counties. Some of the signs are essentially reproductions of old barn signs, but a number of them are Gandee originals, and all have short explanations about their significance and attributed powers (such as “perpetual watchful protection and guidance” or “man’s power to create through mental and spiritual action”) (pp. 27, 115). He begins with his childhood, which launched on a turbulent evening and never seems to have settled down much. He regularly saw his mother in his tender years, but was largely raised by other relatives, mostly his grandmother. The book explains that Lee’s childhood was full of demons, ghosts, hauntings, and apparitions, but that most people he knew simply accepted those as part of the world in which they lived.
Gandee quickly shifts gears into a bit of a sweet if emotionally confounded romance with a boy named Stud, whom Gandee clearly regards as the love of his life, although he goes to great lengths to account for this love as something other than homosexual. The struggle for sexual identity dominates the book, at least as much as any aspect of magic or regional culture, and Gandee eventually recounts a past life in which he was a sort of sacred prostitute named Zaida, and Stud was a sailor with whom she fell in love. The romance was doomed by jealousy in the past, and in their reincarnated state the two boys don’t fare much better.
Much of the book recounts the simply mind-boggling spiritual world of Gandee, which ranges from the native hexenmeister-craft he practices (including the aforementioned chapter on painting prayers through hex signs) to working with Christian Science methods and encountering ferocious ghosts in Mexico (in the chapter “Ni; Uari! Go!; Die!”). Gandee runs a group of spiritual mediums in college, helps find lost things, manifest desires for his friends and neighbors through art, and studies the powers of animal magnetism and hypnosis along the way. He generally tries to rationalize what he experiences in a blithe, worldly tone, although in many spots he is clearly as swept away by circumstances and wonder as any reader might be.
The information on hexerei and Pennsylvania Dutch magic is incredibly interesting, and shows a tremendously syncretic, vibrant faith-based practice. A student of the pow-wow/braucherei culture would gain a great deal from a close study of the many charms and stories shared by the author, and a student of folk magic generally might see some of the potential inner workings of well-known spells in the book, too. When reading Strange Experience, however, any reader would do well to remember that the experiences are only those of Gandee, and do not speak for a larger culture generally. Gandee was certainly a distinct individual, and the things he writes about are connected to very old practices and traditions, but he quite openly acknowledges the changes he has made over time as well.
Because of the paucity of good, first-hand accounts of this sort of folk magic, Gandee’s book stands out in its field. It hardly reads as a dissection of Pennsylvania German religious or magical culture, and Gandee himself is hard to pin down at times (which is largely the point of his text). I feel that the questions about magical ethics, regional distinction, and social dynamics for sorcerors and their communities all make for good intellectual fodder, even if Lee’s conclusions about such things seem, well, strange. I do hope that others will read this book as well and that Gandee’s place in the pantheon of American magicians might receive a restoration of sorts. What he manages to accomplish in this book is far different than any magical how-to manual, because Strange Experience highlights the humanity of a man with feet in two worlds, belonging to none.
Thanks for reading,
[Author’s disclaimer: I received this book as a review copy from Red Wheel/Weiser Books. They have neither paid nor coerced me in any way to write this review, and the opinions stated herein are my own, and do not reflect the position of the publisher.]
I am absolutely certain that a number of people will see the title of Denise Alvarado’s latest title from Red Wheel/Weiser Books and simply ignore its existence. That is a downright shame, because the book proves to be a personal and anthropological tour through an area of magic that can be very easy to misunderstand, work with dolls and effigies. Alvarado confronts the issue of the ‘Voodoo doll’ early in her text, laying its negative cultural cache at the feet of “Hollywood and the media” and noting that despite its origins as a “fusion of folk-lore with science fiction…the image of the pin-stuck doll is so embedded in the collective psyche of the general public that the thought of using a Voodoo doll any differently seems to defy all logic” (p. 2). Alvarado’s book is a repository of doll magic, some of it very interesting and useful, some merely edifying or even occasionally confusing, but it certainly deserves consideration beyond its titular associations.
The book is broken up into twenty-one chapters, generally grouping spells by expected outcome, not much different than other spellbooks in the genre, really. There are chapters on “Money Spells,” “Spells for Good Luck, Success, & Gambling,” and of course, “Spells for Love & Romance.” Alvarado really sets herself apart with the amount of space she devotes to the less savory workings of doll magic, with chapters like “Bend-Over Spells,” “Binding Spells,” “Break Up Spells,” and most especially an extensive chapter on “Curses, Hexes & Spells for Revenge.” Her work draws upon myriad traditions, not solely Vodoun, hoodoo, or Southern Conjure—the fields she clearly connects with best, at least personally. She also brings in chapters on doll magic from the Ancient world, such as dream dolls drawn from Greco-Egyptian magical papyri. One of the truly standout chapters is a section called “Japanese Voodoo Spells,” which actually looks at two types of effigy magic found in Japanese practice, even connecting them to the popular youth culture there: “Aggressive marketing campaigns advertising Ushi no Koku Mairi [Japanese cursing dolls] kits that contain a straw doll, a hammer, a couple of candles, and fifteen-centimeter-long nails are targeted to the young Japanese demographic” and she notes an increasing presence of these dolls in “anime episodes, online games, and videos that promote cyber cursing” on sites like YouTube (p. 172). Alvarado brings in Goetic spells involving dolls, and influences from Christian magical practice via Catholic and Psalm workings. She even includes a doll spell to prevent pets from getting lost.
Sources for The Voodoo Doll Spellbook range from the scholarly to the questionable (ghost hunting websites and a book on Mexican magic which tenuously reframes Hispanic folk ceremonies in a Wiccan context, for example), but generally speaking, Alvarado speaks authoritatively and presents her material well. Several spells are guest-contributed by conjure worker Carolina Dean, which prove to be some of the high points in the text. In some cases, the reason for lumping some spells into separate chapters is unclear, as in the “Binding Spells” section, of which a reprint of Psalm 94 takes up a full twenty percent of the pages. Still, when she is on-target, as with her two Mississippi cursing dolls (pp. 36-38), the quality of the work is apparent, and the spells make a useful compendium of doll magic.
The relatively few other doll-baby work books available (Starr Casas’ slim-but-potent one comes to mind, which seems to be out of print, sadly) mean that Alvarado’s book fills a major niche in practical magical writing. In many ways, what she accomplishes with The Voodoo Doll Spellbook is quite similar to work done by Judika Illes in her books—this is the notebook of a collector of spells. What plagues the text the most is its title, which seems to relegate it to a very specific subcategory of magical work, and which undermines its authority in the minds of educated readers. The material contained within is useful, if occasionally uneven (I’m currently working with one of her money doll spells, for example—I’ll let you know how that goes). While I could consider this book neither a definitive text nor a weak entry in the field, I can certainly point to its utility and some of its unusual offerings as a recommendation to read it and be satisfied.
If you’ve read this book, or have others to recommend on the topic of doll magic, I’d love to hear them!
Thanks for reading!
This seems to be a great time to work with American folk magic. Not only have a number of people begun working with the systems that have evolved here (like hoodoo, pow-wow, and all the other flavors of North American magic you probably come to this site to investigate), but the vast amount of information on the various branches has become legion. Thanks very much to author-teachers like Cat Yronwode, Conjureman Ali, and Denise Alvarado, the opportunity to learn folk magic has expanded beyond a few internet sites and hard-to-find instructors to entire shelves of books and even folk magic festivals where students can gather together and learn from a bevy of the brightest minds in practical magic today.
Keeping up with the tremendous reading list available to someone interested in folk magic is no easy task. My current pace is roughly a book a week to a book every two weeks, and that includes the books I review for the Journal of American Folklore, texts on folk magic, books on literature and criticism, science writing, etc. Occasionally I manage to squeeze one in for fun, too!
That’s not to say that my ‘required’ reading list can’t be fun, too, of course. Two recent entries into the pile of texts on folk magic that have been absolute pleasures to read are The Black Folder, compiled by Cat Yronwode and The Conjure Workbook, v. 1: Working the Root, by Starr Casas.
The Black Folder is the assembly of a number of workshop handouts from a variety of events and educational opportunities presented by Yronwode’s Lucky Mojo Curio Company and Missionary Independent Spiritual Church over the past decade or so. Many of the entries, particularly the early ones, are by Yronwode herself. Her section on working hoodoo based on items you can pick up at the grocery store or pull from your pantry is first-rate, and doesn’t simply focus on the spice rack but includes work with onions and other produce as well. Other top-notch contributors include Conjureman Ali, Sindy Todo, Robin York, Dr. E, Starr Casas, and many others. Topics range from the oft-covered bottle spells and honey jars to very detailed and unique pieces on foot-washing, the use of skulls in magic, and even some Swedish troll-magic courtesy of Dr. Johannes Gardback. The design of the book really looks like a collection of newsletters that have been bound up in a black cover (it is, however, a trade paperback version of the original Black Folder, which Yronwode used to keep up with all the informational pamphlets used by teachers in Lucky Mojo’s courses). Reading through this book provides a bit of a biography of Lucky Mojo as well, as the evolution of the company and its teaching role can be seen in the more-or-less chronological progression of the pamphlets. The work provided varies in quality according to the author, with some authors giving standout spells and methods, and some which focus more on theory than technique. I found a few entries that seemed more conjectural and less based on inherited practices or research, but for the most part the book is an absolute treasure-trove of information. While it does not replace the opportunity to learn from these folks in person, it certainly does a phenomenal job of feeling like field notes from working magicians. It is published by Lucky Mojo, so you can buy it directly from them or through Amazon and other booksellers. Because of the difficult layout work that must be required to piece together all those pamphlets, it seems like the kind of text that will not likely ever appear in eBook format, so a physical copy is the only way to go, but highly worth the purchase price.
In The Conjure Workbook, Casas—who contributed to The Black Folder as well, noted above—also does a tremendous amount of assembly, piecing together essentially an entire lifetime of conjure knowledge in a little under 300 pages. Casas has been teaching and writing for several years, and has formerly produced texts on doll baby work, money magic, basic Southern conjure, and Blackhawk independently. For this endeavor, however, she has joined up with Pendraig Publishing (Peter Paddon’s company). At the very outset, I will say the biggest problem with the book has nothing to do with the work presented, but rather the frequent typos, spelling errors, and odd edits that plague the text. Hopefully future volumes and editions will corret those issues, though, because this book is highly valuable and informative. Starr’s workbook reads like a master class with a highly skilled and practiced conjure worker. She makes no bones about the type of work she does, which she labels as specifically Southern conjure and ties to working with the Bible (please note, she does not say one must be a Christian to do this work, but that one must be comfortable with the Bible as a source of spellwork and power—this point frequently gets misunderstood in her writing). She has been practicing within a Catholic strain of the work for many years, so the Saints make a strong entry into this book. She doesn’t shy away from the darker side of saints like St. Lucy and St. Ramon, and includes work with Mary and several of the prophets, too—which are spirits that receive relatively little attention in other works on Biblically-framed folk magic despite their powerful natures. Casas puts the work first in this book, and if you’re looking for actual spells to do, this is certainly the kind of text to keep handy. She also does not regurgitate anyone else’s spellwork (at least as far as I can see) and gives the reader a piece of her own history and philosophy in between the spells. More than anything, this book reads like a conversation with her, and provides loads of new conjure projects to an aspiring worker, including doll babies made with shrunken apple heads, medicine bottle spells, and even a good reason to invest in getting a box of chalk from the dollar store to keep handy. Starr has put together a book that, despite its proofreading issues, manages to be absolutely invaluable to anyone who likes to get their hands a little dirty in folk magic.
Both of these books are born from years of practical experience, and they both have more of a classroom feel than most titles on folk magic do, which may make them more accessible than other texts on similar subjects. It is highly likely both books will be the initial entries into multi-volume series as well, which hopefully means that classes will continue, so to speak, for a long time to come.
Yronwode and Lucky Mojo have also begun producing a number of smaller books, like The Art of Hoodoo Candle Magic in Rootwork (by Ms. Cat) and Hoodoo Honey & Sugar Spells (by Deacon Millet), but I’ve yet to read most of those. Casas also has released a small book on reading “conjure cards,” and she’s put out a deck and a special deluxe set that includes the cards, book, and blessing oil through Pendraig. They look absolutely stellar, though I’ve not laid hands on a set yet, only seen the online previews. I mention these because both Pendraig and Lucky Mojo seem to be strong contenders in terms of putting out useful texts on folk magic now, and I’m very happy to see them expanding their offerings. Hopefully that means an ever-growing source of knowledge and spellwork for all of us.
There are plenty of other texts I’d love to explore (including one that I’ll try to get to with a bit of fanfare soon, called Fifty-Four Devils, by Cory Thomas Hutcheson, who seems a rather promising fellow, if a bit silly at times), but for now I hope you’ll check out The Black Folder and Working the Root and let me know what you think.
Wishing you all the best, and happy reading!
Today we’re rounding up another group of links that readers of this blog might find interesting or enjoyable and sending them out into the world. I’ve not had as much time to write for the blog or record for the show as I’m knee-deep in the process of thesis-writing and researching places for PhD research, but I do continually find myself reading new posts, articles, and information that pertain to the various branches of folk lore, folk magic, and folk belief. Here’s a brief list that will hopefully give you some things to peruse while you’re waiting upon tenterhooks for the next riveting New World Witchery post or show.
I’ll start today in the realm of Pennsylvania-Dutch magic. There’s a brand new edition of the pow-wow classic The Long Lost Friend available from Llewellyn, edited and annotated by Daniel Harms. Hohman’s text is presented here in several formats, including the original 1820 edition (with the German language version) and in an expanded 1856 English translation. Many of the spells are pulled from a third edition, the 1837 “Skippacksville” version. It’s a surprisingly stuffed text with a tremendous amount of folkloric value, and if you have any interest in American folk magic at all I highly recommend getting it.
In the same vein, if you enjoy braucherei, hexerei, and pow-wow, but want to explore it in a Pagan/Heathen context, I cannot recommend enough that you hurry over to Urglaawe. This is Rob Schreiwer & Co.’s site which helps collect—in English and PA-German—the vast stores of Germanic magic which exist on both sides of the Atlantic (with a heavy emphasis on the beliefs and practices of the Pennsylvania-Dutch in America). Schreiwer will be part of an upcoming episode of the show, and he’s a brilliant mind with a tremendous amount of information in his head, so please take a look at the work he’s doing. If you’re a schuler of things Deitsch, you won’t regret it.
In a final nod to the Germanic cultures of America, I was recently introduced by SilverShadow and Dr. Hob to the fascinating phenomenon of courting candles. These little spiral-shaped candle holders would be lit and adjusted to provide light for suitors to visit their sweethearts. When the candle burned out, the beau had to leave. If a father liked a suitor, he’d adjust the candle to provide more time in the light; if not, he’d move the little key to make the candle burn out more quickly. I’m always fascinated by things like this, as I can see plenty of ways they can be used magically in addition to their more mundane applications.
Speaking of Dr. Hob, he’s been very active on his own website lately, Pennies for the Boneyard, with phenomenal posts on topics ranging from his relationship with Christianity and conjure work to a review of ConjureMan Ali’s Santisma Muerte book to a rather flattering and kindly review of our own cartomancy guide. If you’ve not come across his blog before, give it a visit and tell him we sent you.
You should also check out the fun and informative show he and SilverShadow are doing together, called Lamplighter Blues.
I’m reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil for the first time as part of a book club, and if you haven’t read it, it’s worth the time. The story gives you a wonderful portrait of the strange, beautiful, and eerie city of Savannah, Georgia, as well as a specific murder trial that occurred there in the 1980s. A major portion of the story takes place in cemeteries, and a conjure woman whom the author names “Minerva” becomes somewhat crucial in the narrative. This is essentially a non-fiction book, though, and Minerva is actually Valerie Fennel Boles, widow to one of the Dr. Buzzards of Beaufort, South Carolina. Boles carried on Buzzard’s conjure work until her death in 2009, and the portrayals of her practice in the book—despite the appellate of “voodoo” which author John Berendt uses to describe what she does—are incredibly vivid and authentic. You can read more about Dr. Buzzard in Jack Montgomery’s American Shamans, too, which we’ve mentioned here before.
If you haven’t seen it yet, Sarah Lawless’ latest venture has gone live. Go take a peek at the Poisoner’s Apothecary, and check out some of the projects she’s working on. I’m particularly excited about the range of pipes she’s carving for smoking rituals.
I think that will just about do it for today. If you enjoy these links, let them know who sent you and let us know what you like best in the comments section. And feel free to share what you’re reading/writing/learning these days, too!
Thanks for reading!