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]