A Comment on Witchcraft in Russia and Ukraine, 1000-1900: A Sourcebook

I won’t have time to read the whole book, but I did want to flag some material from Kivelson and Worobec’s Witchcraft in Russia and Ukraine 1000-1900: A Sourcebook for my readers.

(EDIT: I just realized I was remiss in flagging reader Steve for purchasing this for me. Thank you and apologies, Steve!)

Most of my research is on early modern British magic, but I do like to dip into collections of magic from other cultures, to see how their culture, cosmology, and magical philosophy impacts their practices. Given my own limited linguistic skills, most of these are confined to English or Latin-language texts, with others requiring much more effort to master. This, of course, assume that these texts are available at all through a good US interlibrary loan system, which seems to be an issue for a great number of Eastern European works. Thus, aside from some descriptions in Ryan’s The Bathhouse at Midnight, I haven’t seen much of anything in terms of Russian incantations.

That’s why this sourcebook, translating many documents regarding Russian witchcraft trials, has been so welcome. I don’t want to overemphasize the magical material in it – I think it’s often the case that magic, as a technological/cultural practice, and witchcraft as a social phenomena do not entirely overlap. Yet in this case, there’s enough material to make this work worth seeking out, especially given how little of it English speakers have seen.

Most of the items of interest to Papers readers can be located under the index’s “spells” heading. Here’s an example I picked out from a love spell that became cited in an eighteenth-century trial:

Lord God, heavenly Christ!

Hearken, Satan and Devil, I shall conjure on salt and shall cast charms. Not blessing myself, not crossing myself, I shall leave the hut not by the door, I shall leave the courtyard not by the gates, but I shall go into the open fields to the ocean-sea. On the ocean-sea stands an iron hut and in that hut stands a copper stove, in that stove burn ash branches, flame on flame, bright on bright. So let the white body and the fervent heart and the clear eyes of the slave Avdotia burn and seethe for the slave Stepan, by day and by midday, by night and by midnight, at the morning sunrise and at the evening sunset, and by the old moon and by the new moon… (p. 413)

If you’ve read a good deal of magical material, the latter compelling language should be largely familiar in purpose and nature, although the temporal and celestial imagery is striking.

The earlier part of the narrative is more interesting. Many of the spells follow a similar format, in which moving from a domestic setting to a supernatural place – this hut, the rock at the center of the world, or another mythical location – is a key aspect of the narrative. My impression is that Western European charm narratives that include motion usually describe a supernatural figure – Jesus, saints, the Virgin Mary, angels – undertaking the journey, instead of describing the magician doing so. Further, it’s not clear whether this might not be considered part of the process itself, with the magician traveling out from the homestead, if not to a mythical location, at least to a secluded place where the magic can be performed unimpeded.

Oh – and that’s just the first part of this spell. It’s got later calls to Satan and the Devil – yes, two separate entities – sitting on the stove, to Baba Yaga (in one of her first appearances), and some other demon to help out the magician. It’s pretty wild in the imagery, and it keeps circling back around between statements of narrative and purpose in quite an unusual way.

So that’s a taste of the book. I’m interested to hear what other people think of the book – or if they think I’m overlooking some Western European material which is a better parallel. Check it out!

(Also, Cyprian fans – there’s a reference to a Russian magical text attributed to him on page 437, so that should extend the range of his reputation even farther.)

Published in: on January 23, 2021 at 10:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

Politics, Upcoming Grimoire Releases, The Book of Four Wizards, My Laughable Review Schedule

It’s been some crazy weeks here. For those not entirely familiar with US geography, I’m far enough away from the Capitol not to be endangered by anything there, but we have had some terrifying times in this country. I wouldn’t say we’re out of the woods yet, but I’m hoping that matters will calm down and a peaceful transition of power to a new administration will occur. We’ll know by next week.

It is somewhat disconcerting to realize that fools and idiots wield a disproportionate effect over someone’s life. The willingness of some occultists to embrace these views is highly questionable; political movements based on ostracism of “degenerate” or “traitorous” elements are not kind to people with alternative belief systems, even those loudly proclaming their fidelity.

Now, on to the magical update!

The biggest news right now is Frank Klaassen and Sharon Hubbs Wright’s new release from PSU Press – The Magic of Rogues: Necromancers in Early Tudor England. From the product description:

“In The Magic of Rogues, Frank Klaassen and Sharon Hubbs Wright present the legal documents about and open a window onto these fascinating investigations of magic practitioners in early Tudor England. Set side by side with sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts that describe the sorts of magic those practitioners performed, these documents are translated, contextualized, and presented in language accessible to nonspecialist readers. “

I’m not sure how much magical text will be in – but it’s available in paperback, which will make those who couldn’t purchase Making Magic in Elizabethan England happy.

Pre-orders for the hardcover edition of Necromancy in the Medici Library from Hadean are now open. Translator Brian Johnson has also published a brief essay on translating grimoires, which I think is quite close to the philosophy I employ myself.

Enodia Press, publishers of fine Faustian works, has announced it will have only one new title this year (thanks, Mike, for catching that one) – but they do intend to reprint many of the limited hardcovers that are currently out of print. If you missed these the first time and want to pick up more, sign up for their mailing list.

I’ve reached a section of Four Wizards copied from the Heptameron. I appreciate the break from less familiar material that I have to hunt down, or questionable Latin passages I need to puzzle over. It does mean some careful checking between the manuscript, the 1665 edition, and Peterson’s critical edition.

I think Newcomb’s edition of the Black Pullet is still my next review book, but I’m afraid that the ongoing pandemic / insurrection combination keeps pushing my mind to material I need to read for writing, or gaming stuff, or small short-term projects.

Stay safe and well, and I hope 2021 improves for all of us.

Published in: on January 16, 2021 at 12:07 pm  Comments (4)  

This Week’s Books, the Elucidarium Elucidated, Book of Four Wizards, Gaming Update

Books I’m Working With Lately

I hope you’ve had happy and restful holidays, and that the new year will be kinder to you than the last one.

The above books are among some with which I’m working at the moment. I’d like to highlight two. The first is the Belanger’s 10th Anniversary edition of the Dictionary of Demons (issued by one of my publishers). A few years ago I wrote a series looking at different articles from different demonic dictionaries. I thought I’d posted my closing recommendations, but apparently I never did. That makes it easier for me to say, “this one,” as it’s been expanded with material from many grimoires that have gained more recent prominence.

The one that has been taking much of my energy is Alexandra Walsham’s The Reformation of the Landscape, a study of views, attitudes, and practices connected with one’s surroundings across the British isles, stretching from the earliest recorded history to about 1750. I’m reading it for a paper I’m working on, but it also checks off a lot of different boxes for me – folklore, psychogeography, matters Cornish, Arthurian legends, and so much more.

Apparently there’s been quite a bit of work ongoing regarding the Elucidarium Necromantiae attributed to Pietro d’Abano, a precursor to the Heptameron. You can catch up on it in this Glitch Bottle podcast, and maybe follow the links within to join a group of people trying to learn more.

(Edited to add Book of Four Wizards content) Right now, I’m working on a spirit compulsion that mentoins Rhadamanthus, one of the Greek judges of the underworld. I had seen something similar before in Additional MS. 36,674, so I tracked it down and I’m transcribing it for comparative purposes, working back and forth from my photos (often more clear) and the PDF (shows more of the gutter between the pages).

I’m on a holiday break from RPGs, which gives me some time to catch up on my planning. I’m encountering some of the interesting unstated tensions that these games bring to the table that I don’t see in D&D. For example, Pendragon provides incentives for characters to become chivalric and idealistic, but it also has a set of procedures in Book of the Warlord for officers that encourage them to sell out for wealth. Dungeon Crawl Classics seems like mostly a straight D&D neo-clone on the surface, but the charts for wizards and clerics require or encourage them to build in their own particular goals which the group as a whole must choose to pursue, work in, or ignore, building in extrinsic motivations that GMs would need to build into the plot in other games. It’s been interesting to see how these have played out differently than how I’d thought they would have.

Take care out there, everyone.

Published in: on December 26, 2020 at 7:04 pm  Comments (2)  

Article Review – “What Is a ‘Witch Bottle’?”

Most of my article reading goes unremarked – blogging interferes with said reading – but I wanted to make an exception for Annie Thwaite’s article “‘What Is a Witch Bottle?’: Assembling the Textual Evidence from Early Modern England.” It is not available for free, but you can access it – and a whole raft of other scholarly articles on magic – cheaply through a full membership in the Societas Magica.

For those who might find it a new concept, a “witch bottle” is an object largely peculiar to Britain and its former colonies, in which three main components – a bottle, the urine of a patient, and sharp objects such as needles, pins, or thorns – are brought together, usually in order to cure or reverse a suspected case of illness and/or witchcraft. (This doesn’t necessarily cover every instance, as we’ll see, but it’s close enough to allow us a way to move forward.) Such bottles have created for centuries, and have become part of modern witchcraft practice as well.

As perhaps the only person to have written a book on witch bottles, the article grabbed my attention immediately. Dr. Thwaite’s article has enough excellent points for me to recommend it, and a few matters that I think deserve further discussion.

Dr. Thwaite does an excellent job of presenting the background and evidence the witch bottle phenomenon. It lays out both the archaeological and printed references from the seventeenth century quite thoroughly, sets it within the context of the medical marketplace of that time. It also emphasizes the relatively late coining of the “witch bottle” term, preferring the early term “urinary experiment” coined by Cotton Mather. I don’t think that will catch on, but I think it does help to reframe the conversation in a useful way, as will be displayed later.

One key point is Dr. Thwaite’s demonstration of how little evidence we have of the “protective” interpretation of those witch bottles found hidden in houses and other structures, which has gone largely unquestioned up until now. I think one argument against would be the presence of bottles incorporated into structures during their construction, although that would only be indicative at best.

Nonetheless, I have concerns about a few of the article’s main points. For instance, Dr. Thwaite asserts that “known evidence does not exist” for sixteenth-century witch bottles, and that the practice can be more firmly tied to the mid-seventeenth century. She further notes that the terminology used in its first literary appearances in the late seventeenth century tie its appearance to Paracelsian theories of sympathetic medicine, suggesting that the bottles arose from these practices.

It is certainly true that we have little or no convincing archaeological finds of witch bottles earlier than the late seventeenth century. Nonetheless, I think it’s problematic to allow the archaeological sources to define the scope of the literary sources. Most surviving examples of witch bottles from the period utilize bellarmines – see the photo above – as the vessels for the operation. Yet this is due to the prevalence of this type of stoneware at the time; later periods saw glass bottles become more common. Can we find similar examples in terms of ingredients and purpose that pre-date these, but that might not have left a clear archaeological record?

Not to give away the revision to my witch bottle work, but I’ve already published a late sixteenth-century example in The Book of Oberon that I think is illustrative:

“Take the urine of the party that in [sic] bewitched and sethe it in a pot close covered, then take a pigeon heart and stitch five needles in it, and sethe with the urine till the urine be consumed saying as is above written.”

We have many of the elements of the “witch bottle” here: urine and sharp objects, placed within a closed vessel and boiled for the purpose of reversing witchcraft. The elements most likely to survive in the archaeological record, the pot and the nails, either of which could have been utilized for other purposes and thus might not be identified as objects involved in a ritual or procedure.

Based on this and the other materials I’ve been reading, my sense is that procedures similar to “witch bottles” were circulating at least fifty years, and possibly a century, before they became the bellarmine-encapsulated creations we see from the later sources. I can’t say that I’ve looked at the medical literature too much for parallels. Nonetheless, based on the lack of Paracelsian doctrine in those sources I’ve examined so far, it might be that the “witch bottle” arose not from the application of “chymicall” theories, instead being adopted into medical practice at a later time due to being in line with them. It’s certainly worth looking into.

Nonetheless, I think this article makes some excellent points, and I hope it will lead to questions that lead us to learning more about these fascinating objects and practices.

Published in: on December 19, 2020 at 6:46 pm  Leave a Comment  

Books Near my Desk, Grimoire Scholarship Online, Medici Magic Forthcoming, The Book of Four Wizards

Books in Reach of My Computer Today

I thought it might be amusing to periodically post illustrations of the books within reach of my computer, so here’s the first. Questions welcome.

Joe Peterson has posted a new full-color manuscript facsimile, Vad. Slg. MS. 334 from the collection of the Kantonsbibliothek St. Gallen, on his website. Mihai Vârtejaru has made two posts giving an overview of the work and an analysis of the angelic sigils within.

Brian Johnson just posted the cover of his next Hadean release on social media. I’ve blurbed it and enjoyed it considerably.

Cover of Brian Johnson’s Necromancy in the Medici Library

If you didn’t catch my talk at the Rural Gothic: Samhain Surprise conference, you can purchase a recording at the Folklore Shop, along with many other great offerings from The Folklore Podcast.

I’m currently working through a lengthy Latin confession in the Book of Four Wizards, once again including numerous errors. Fortunately I found two different versions of the text, one dating back to the eleventh century, so I’ve been able to sort through most of it. Other than that, my re-reading and footnoting of the text has reached 70% of the total text.

I seem to have roped myself into running another Dungeon Crawl Classics game, this one on a monthly basis. The weekly game continues, with the group stranded on a mysterious purple planet where they travel inside the belly of an illusionary sandworm. My Pendragon group finally slew their nemesis, Black Annis, but must prepare for an imminent Saxon invasion.

Published in: on December 12, 2020 at 12:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

Palgrave Sale, Treadwell’s Lecture, Faustian Grimoire in Paperback, A Discussion on Magic in French, and the Obligatory Author Holiday Sales Pitch

We’re coming up on the end of 2020, and it can’t come soon enough (though let’s not forget the potential impact of Brexit in January). Still, it hasn’t been a horrible year for grimoire collectors – I was surprised when I looked at the output – and I hope that these publishers and booksellers are surviving and thriving in the uncertain time we face.

Palgrave Macmillan has put its paperbacks and e-books on sale, in a less impressive version of the sale last year, until December 1. Here’s my list of the best selections from last year – it does appear that more of their works have been published in paperback in the interim.

Treadwell’s has posted a fourth talk of mine – on Pennsylvania folk magic – in its subscriber lectures. Obtain a subscription, and you can view those and much more.

Enodia’s Faustian work A Compendium of Unnatural Black Magic (review here) is now available in paperback on Amazon.

Medieval magic scholar Jean-Patrice Boudet has a talk with Agostino Bagliani about their latest book from SISMEL here, for those lucky enough to speak French.

If you’d like to help me out or a publisher, think about buying one of my books for someone you care about. I’d particularly point to Of Angels, Demons, and Spirits as one that someone who enjoyed The Book of Oberon might also appreciate.

Published in: on November 29, 2020 at 4:08 pm  Comments (1)  

Review – The Book of the Wisdom of Apollonius of Tyana

If you’re like me, you probably heard the titles of magical books – the Key of Solomon, the Long-Lost Friend, the Book of St. Cyprian – well before you ever saw the texts themselves. We tend to define magical literature through the lens of their titles. This can be problematic, as it tends to lead us to the familiar and away from works that might be informative, fulfilling, and challenging to our preconceptions.

Thus, I can say that the worst part of The Book of Wisdom of Apollonius of Tyana, the latest work from Ioannis Marathakis, editor and translator of the Hygromanteia (my review here), is its lack of a subtitle. A potential buyer seeing the title on their Amazon feed is left to wonder if this is simply a book of vague philosophical pronouncements, possibly ancient, possibly modern. What the Book is, in fact, is a compilation of wonderful information on the significance of timing on rituals and a work on talismans attributed to one of the most famous magicians of antiquity.

Apollonius, the book’s putative author, was a first-century magician and philosopher who inspired many comparisons to Jesus over the years. Centuries after his life, he was credited with the creation of talismans to protect various municipalities from all manner of dangers. Centuries later – Marathakis lays out the considerable disputes over the dating of this work – the Book , providing the methods for enchanting similar talismans, appeared for aspiring magicians wishing to imitate his feats.

The differing Books of Wisdom that came down to us – Marathakis provides translations of both shorter and longer editions – deal mainly with timing based upon the hour and the season. Certain hours of the day and night are better suited to particular rituals, and the four winds, sun, earth, and moon have different names in the various seasons that should be employed. Those familiar with similar traditions in the Heptameron will find many parallels here.

The actual talismans to be crafted are in short supply in the Book, with only four examples and a procedure for crafting a magic mirror being provided. Readers will not be disappointed, as Marathakis provides us with a lengthy seventeenth-century treatise on talismans, also attributed to Apollonius and bearing some parallels to the earlier work. He also provides other works, ranging from the Testament of Adam to a medieval Latin book on magical hours, and concluding with Éliphas Lévi’s “Nuctameron,” his own translation of the Book of Wisdom with some dubious additions.

Marathakis provides the connective tissue for all of this through an extensive, carefully-reasoned, and well-footnoted introduction dealing with questions of origin, dating, and context. The book has a bibliography, but lacks an index – although the table of contents and organization is good enough that one can usually find a desired passage with little trouble.

I would ordinarily declare this one of my top books of the year – but upon examination of the record, 2020 has been a good year for those interested in historic magic, if not for much else. It’s definitely worth seeking out for anyone interested in talismans, Heptameron-style magic, or the history of Western magic.

Published in: on November 15, 2020 at 1:34 pm  Comments (4)  

Samhain Greetings, Redundant Spirit Rituals, Book Reviews, Treadwell’s, Acquisitions

A happy Halloween / Samhain to all of my readers! All is quiet here.

At this point, most of my project energy is pushing me away from the blog and toward the Book of Four Wizards. I’m currently working on an incantation of Bealphares, which is close to the version in Scot, but in (bad) Latin so it’s not likely a copy. Bealphares seems to be another of those spirits who inspired multiple traditions of magical rites devoted to him, yet without any particular emphasis on why summoning him (it?) is so desirable.

I haven’t made much progress on Newcomb’s Black Pullet, not due to any merit or deficiency of the text, but because it feels exhausting reading another version of the same book so close to my other review. I think I have another work in mind that should make readers happy, so I’ll move to that.

My latest Treadwell’s lecture is on the Necronomicon and all the weird things that happened after I co-wrote a book about it. It’s quite bizarre – and come to think of it, I even left out a great deal of blog drama that long-time readers will be familiar. It was a lot of fun to give.

I’ve had a paper accepted at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, to be held virtually next May.

Recent acquisitions here include Iafrate’s The Long Life of Magical Objects: A Study in the Solomonic Tradition, and Ellic Howe’s short book on Raphael, purchased because I keep referring back to it on various projects.

Stay safe, everyone.

Published in: on November 2, 2020 at 9:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

On the Dragon Rouge and Teitan Press Books

I found an interesting tidbit about some of the books published by Teitan Press, especially their edition of Le Dragon Rouge (review here). The item has probably gone under the radar of most Western occultists, who are unlikely to track down a $130 book on The Archangel Michael in Africa: History, Cult, and Persona. It has an interesting afterword by David Tibet, detailing his spiritual journey, which is worth quoting here:

At the same time, I continued to look into the works of John Dee and Francis Barrett and to research grimoires, including contributing to the translation, from the French, of the infamous – and doubtless unworkable – grimoire known as Le Dragon Rouge (2011).

He then goes into one of the footnotes on that text, noting that Joshua A. Wentworth is described as its “nineteenth-century editor.”

So it appears that David Tibet may have been one of the translators of the Teitan book – and given his lack of credit therein, it also raises the question as to whether he is the “Silens Manus” responsible for this book and others. I’ll let you know if I learn anything else.

Published in: on October 24, 2020 at 12:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

Quick Self-Promotion

My blogging has dropped off lately, due to me attempting to work on a number of projects at once. It’s not too bad of a position in which to be, as I hope it will yield interesting pieces for all of you to consume later.

One such project is a virtual appearance at the “Rural Gothic: Samhain Surprise” event put on by the Folklore Podcast on October 31. I’ll be talking about the Book of Four Wizards, including its ties to fairies, ghosts, and the like. That, and six other wonderful talks, can be yours for only about $10 American – although it’s a British event and I’m not sure when it will start yet for those of us west of the Atlantic.

I’ll see if I can’t come up with a couple posts in the next week for my long-suffering readers.

Published in: on October 4, 2020 at 9:48 pm  Leave a Comment