The Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall has been a world-renowned destination for pagans, witches, and those with a casual interest in magic for decades. One of my chief regrets on my last trip to England was a mix-up in car rentals that kept me from driving there. A new offering from Troy Books, Cecil Wiliamson’s Book of Witchcraft: A Grimoire of The Museum of Witchcraft, is a tribute to the most prominent individual in the museum’s history.
Williamson is an individual with many different facets. Although Gerald Gardner certainly had a role in the museum’s history, it was Williamson who put in the hard work on building, presenting, and maintaining the collection. He displayed great bravery and the willingness to move himself and the collection repeatedly to keep the collection available to visitors in the face of all manner of opposition. He also seems to have collected a great deal of folkloric material from many West Country practitioners of magic, although the lack of sourcing in his notes makes his material difficult to use. Also, some of the parts of his autobiography and collection – notably some statements about his time in MI-6, and his theory of a Phoenician moon-cult in recent memory in the area – strain the bounds of credibility. Steven Patterson, the editor of this volume, does not seek to resolve these contradictions, or to justify them. Nonetheless, the book does largely tell Williamson’s history based upon his own words, from his writings, interviews, and display captions, which does tend to tilt the coverage in his favor.
The book consists of two major sections. The first of these is a transcription of Williamson’s handwritten notebook of magic, including an excellent selection of charms and chapters on divination, amulets, and image magic. The charm collection is of greatest interest, as it presents charms of a definite West Country character which nonetheless vary from previous versions collected by folklorists. (Sadly, this is a place where some notes as to where these were collected would be helpful.) The other chapters have some interesting material, but they tend to be more idiosyncratic than comprehensive in their coverage of different topics. They are much more interesting as studies of Williamson’s interests and tastes. Each does have a short section of notes detailing what Patterson has been able to discover about their sources.
The second section turns to Williamson himself, providing details on his life, his folklore collection, and his personal philosophy of magic, as best as those can be assembled from the documents on hand. These sections do bear the caveats I mentioned above, but they are nonetheless interesting portraits of the man himself.
I’ve struggled with this review, as describing the individual sections of the book might give an idea that each is much more defined and complete than they turn out to be. At the same time, this is not the responsibility of Patterson, but it relates to the incomplete and occasionally questionable nature of the material from which the book must be assembled. Once this is taken into account, this is an excellent work that should be part of any collection of source material on the history of modern witchcraft.