Review – Cecil Williamson’s Book of Witchcraft

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.

Published in: on April 15, 2015 at 5:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Call of Cthulhu: Where We Went Wrong, Part 2

Given that the first post on this topic was well-received, I thought I might try another.  Despite putting this in as Part 2, it actually goes back to the original publication of the rules, and it represents my own interpretation of how they were supposed to work.

To begin, I’d like to quote from Sandy Petersen’s description of the evolution of Call of Cthulhu:

Now, Chaosium didn’t fully respect Lovecraft, and wasn’t interested in his work as horror fiction, but it really liked the idea of making a period piece RPG. Lovecraft was writing in the 1920s and 1930s, which for him was modern day, but the folks at Chaosium decided that the Twenties vibe was cool, and it kept Chaosium interested during the editing process. It also meant Chaosium could put out period supplements, which it really liked! Chaosium wanted to write about what was going on in the cities, the social structure, that was what Chaosium found interesting. The horror wasn’t as important!

Of course, I wasn’t there to witness any of this, but if this is the case, it signifies a fundamental break in how the game rules were structured.  Let’s take a look under the hood.

If we look at the character creation chapter of early editions of Call of Cthulhu, the occupation list looks something like this:

Author
Doctor
Historian / AntiquarianJournalist
Lawyer
Parapsychologist
Dilettante
Professor
Private Eye

Nonetheless, if we go to the “Sourcebook for the 1920s,” we find the following list.

Anarchist
Professional Athlete
Farmer
Gangster
Hobo
Policeman
Missionary
Politician
Soldier

Take another look at that initial list.  What they hold in common is that they are all characters who are investigating the mysterious events in Lovecraft’s stories.  They are typically highly-educated, often have academic specialties, and usually have Read/Write Other Language or a similar skill on their list.  With such a group composition, it makes sense to have a large number of academic skills, to base those skills on Education, and to give base amounts for non-academic skills that make it somewhat possible, if generally unlikely, to succeed.  (After all, why start with a Physics of 0% and a Jump of 25%?)

So this group goes out to investigate, and what do they find, aside from blasphemous horror?  Tomes, written in a number of different languages.  Sandy Petersen once noted on the Yog-Sothoth forums (I can’t track down the exact quote, sorry) that tomes were built in as the game’s reward structure.  Given the skills of the group, it is likely that someone will be able to read these, thereby accumulating Cthulhu Mythos skill.  And, as I pointed out in my previous post, Cthulhu Mythos was intended to be helpful to determine the scope of the threat against the investigators, and as such had a clear and definite purpose.  Given the low amounts gained through insanity, reading tomes was the most clear method to accumulate this necessary ability.

Now, scroll up to that second list of occupations.  Although some of these do appear in HPL’s stories, they are rarely the investigators themselves.  The intent here is not to model a literary genre, but a time period.  If you are doing that, then providing ways to make characters of a broad swath of occupations in order to model those that were available at the time.  This has become the usual trend throughout Cthulhu, and the scenarios have been written to accommodate it.

Still, this explanation does answer a good number of questions that have come up over the years from players and designers alike:  “Why are my lounge singer’s capabilities to entertain tied to her formal education?”  “Further, why would my lounge singer work with a gangster, a sailor, and a professor?  That sounds like a bad sitcom premise.” “Why do we have all these academic/medical skills that no one has points in?”  “Should we combine some of these skills?”  “What are we supposed to do with this tome?  Nobody speaks the language.” (followed by) “Should we just burn it?”  “What’s with all of these different categories for monsters?”   “Everyone’s Cthulhu Mythos is so low.  Why even bother rolling it, or including it in a scenario?”

In making the above points, I am not trying to say Call of Cthulhu is not a vastly entertaining game.  Instead, many of the questions we have been asking for years about it are the result of a decision made early on in the design process:  to repurpose a game that simulated Lovecraftian investigation to one that simulated Twenties society.  That legacy is still with us today.

Published in: on April 4, 2015 at 3:12 pm  Comments (4)  
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Call of Cthulhu: Where We Went Wrong, Part 1

I’ve been holding back a good Call of Cthulhu rant for some time now.  Let’s get into it.

One of the changes in the new 7th edition rules is the removal of categories for Mythos monsters.  In older editions, each creature was accompanied by a short descriptor to indicate where it fit into the Mythos – Lesser Independent, Greater Independent, Lesser Servitor, or Greater Servitor.  That they have done so is not unexpected, as writers and players alike have wondered for years what purpose they were supposed to serve.

Nonetheless, I would assert that they did serve a purpose, and that it was integral to the structure of the game.

Earlier versions of the game include the following example for the Cthulhu Mythos skill:

Harvey Walters has worked his Cthulhu Mythos up to 15% and sees a smeared spot on the road, heavy with goo and slime.  He makes his Mythos roll and is told that whatever made the smear was at least a major monster.  Harvey goes in the other direction.

This example may reveal the fundamental intent behind both the monster categories:  to gauge the strength of the opposition.  Players could encounter signs of a Mythos creature, and, with a successful Cthulhu Mythos roll, get some idea of what they were in for.  They could then make a decision about whether they wanted to proceed, if backup was needed, or if they should simply give up and run away.  Further, this assessment could be done without giving away the mystery of exactly which creature they were encountering.

As it did so, it also confirmed the importance of the Cthulhu Mythos skill in the game.   Increasing it gave players an increased chance of avoiding danger, but it also decreased maximum Sanity, leading to a lesser chance of dealing with such encounters.  As such, the decision to read a tome brought with it difficult choices.

One of the key difficulties with this approach is that – to my memory – it rarely entered the scenarios themselves.  This led to two difficulties with the game.  The first was the confusion as to what exactly those categories were supposed to do, but this would prove minor.  The second was to unmoor the Cthulhu Mythos skill from any particular relevance in the setting.  Sure, it’s nice to know that Cthulhu or Glaaki is involved in a given situation, and that might contribute to the mood by giving a delicious frission to the players.  Nonetheless, little mechanical advantage exists for the skill, and the original rules indicate it was once otherwise.

 

Published in: on April 3, 2015 at 10:49 am  Comments (14)  

Review – The Conjuror’s Toolkit 1400-1800

Publications in the field of grimoires don’t come out too often, so when new ones appear, they are always worthy of note.  The most recent that has come to my attention is Travis Shores’ masters thesis, The Conjuror’s Toolkit 1400-1800: Ciphers, Images, and Magical Cultures of Power Within the Solomonic Grimoires, available on Academia.edu.

The concept behind this thesis is actually an excellent one:  an examination of the internal elements of various grimoires to establish correlations and possible origins of the tradition.  I think this is an element many people have been seeking, and one that is certainly worth pursuing.  To do so, Shores examines eight separate manuscripts or facsimiles, along with works by Dee, Mathers, Crowley, and Dehn and Joe Peterson’s site, to identify elements in common among them.  Overall, this is a good project in outline, although the manuscripts do seem to cluster specifically in the Clavicula Salomonis (“Key of Solomon”) sub-genre.

This perhaps illustrates the primary difficulty with The Conjuror’s Toolkit.  Working with a limited range of material is not necessarily wrong; in fact, if you’re just writing a masters’ thesis, keeping the scope confined is an excellent strategy.  I think it might have been better to keep the examination strictly to the Claviculae, but it’s not that bad.  The problem is that the evidence gathered does not justify the conclusions reached.

If this work can be said to have a central thesis, it is that Agrippa’s classic work De occulta philosophia liber tres (English translation at Peterson’s site), first published in 1533, is the key source for much of the grimoire tradition.  The key items cited here are both the Malachim script and the characters of the planets from Agrippa, which do appear in later grimoire materials.

It is safe to say that Agrippa’s influence runs through much of the material in the later grimoire tradition, whether by explicit mentions or citations of him, or references to his work.  It is far too much, however, to cite him as the fountainhead based on the two items above.  Further, although I have not examined the grimoires comprehensively, the later magical circles available to me do not often contain Malachim characters, which makes the link more tenuous.

Even on smaller matters, the overreach continues.  For example, at one point Shores claimed that scholars have not explored Agrippa’s sources for his Three Books much beyond the works of the abbot Trithemius.  This is certainly not the case; Lynn Thorndike made a case (probably unjust) for the derivative nature of Agrippa’s work in A History of Magic and Experimental Science.  In fact, the Brill edition of Agrippa’s work includes detailed annotations as to the sources for Agrippa, down to particular passages.  Neither the Malachim script nor the planetary seals have sources noted therein, so it does not diminish the piece’s central thesis.  Nonetheless, it is another unsupported assertion.

For the sake of those who might encounter this work, I thought I should let readers know to proceed with caution.  As for Mr. Shores himself, he nonetheless demonstrates a deep passion for, and the tools to engage with, this topic.  With some adjustments in his approach, I can see him producing works of great value to this field.

Published in: on March 20, 2015 at 2:40 pm  Comments (1)  
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A Review of The Cambridge Book of Magic, translated by Francis Young

As with The Long-Lost Friend and The Friend in Need, I once again have a situation in which two works of magic very similar in time and place are published in quick succession.  In this case, one of the volumes is our Book of Oberon, while the other is Francis Young’s translation of Cambridge University Library Additional MS 3544, entitled The Cambridge Book of Magic:  A Tudor Necromancer’s Manual.  Having taken the time to read it, my opinion is generally favorable, although I do have some caveats that I wish to express.  Nonetheless, let me say up front that I think that getting as many of these magical manuals into print is an important goal and a real boon to scholarship in the area.

The book’s introduction lays out what we know about the manuscript, including its provenance before arriving at Cambridge (murky), the physical aspects of the manuscript, and the contents thereof.  Most of this is quite admirable, and it highlights some areas that I wish I’d covered more thoroughly in our introduction to Oberon (too late now, Dan).  Nonetheless, there are some caveats.  For example, Young claims that the book contains no fairy experiments, although the work contains “an experiment of Sybilla,” whose nature is not described but who is listed in such works as Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft as being a fairy.

Probably my chief beef with the introduction is Young’s insistence that, despite paleographic evidence that the book dates to about 1560, that it must date to the 1530s instead.  The reason he gives is that this was the time in which the monasteries were being dissolved, and as such the references to Catholic liturgy, relics, and other aspects of that denomination date it to that period.  Having dealt with a magical manuscript dating circa 1580, I can assure you that the use of such topics did not abate, even in a period in which Catholic priests were being martyred.

The text of the manuscript itself includes much of interest, mainly of a ritual magic nature, but also extending at times into herbalism and natural magic.  We have not only the invocation of Sybilla into a candle, similar to that in the Folger MS., but also a conjuration of the spirit Mosacus, which appears to differ in several regards from the one in our book.  I also noted other interesting rituals, including some rites to consecrate wax images for love, a rite to acquire a magical bone from an unsuspecting mole (which the author notes as being similar to the toad-bone ritual), and a ceremony in which the magician is ceremonially wedded to a valerian plant to acquire its virtues.   Young employs a two-column format, one with the Latin and the original spelling, and the other with the translated and modernized text.  He also notes interesting passages through footnotes.

For the most part, this section is well-handled.  There are points where I think one rite needs to be split into two, but a reader knowledgeable about the ceremonies can pick these out easily.  More problematic are the illustrations.  Young states that the focus here is the text, and he employs computer renderings of many of the seals for the casual reader’s benefit while insisting that the original be consulted for more information.  Having just finished such a project, I know that they can quickly become a time-consuming part of the project, but that does not mean I do not want to see those in the MS. reproduced in a larger size.  Also, three pages of magical seals are omitted entirely, which is much to be regretted.

Overall, however, I do believe that those interested in Renaissance and early modern magic should seek out this book, as it does have much to offer.

Published in: on March 7, 2015 at 4:42 pm  Comments (3)  

On the Antiquity of Oberon

There’s been some talk lately about Oberon with regard to his origins.  As you might be aware, the first mentions of Oberon appear in the 13th century epic Huon of Bordeaux, in which he is the supernatural protector of the somewhat-dim knight Huon on his adventures.  The question has been raised as to whether working magic to call such a spirit is dealing with a fictional creature, perhaps such as those in the Cthulhu Mythos.

I don’t think we can say definitively whether Oberon originates in literature or in folklore.  I did find an interesting article yesterday by Ronald Hutton entitled “The Making of the Early Modern British Fairy Tradition.”  Hutton examines the historical reports of fairies in England and Scotland, eschewing regional differences and attempting to see how the patterns change over time.

What Hutton discovers is that the concept of the “fairy” was not a coherent one until relatively late in history.  Instead, high medieval culture recognized a wide range of phenomena that were later classified under that heading.  There were beliefs in the Anglo-Saxon “elves” who could bless or curse; tales of mysterious supernatural women who could be captured and wed, but only with great danger; contemporary accounts of human-like beings who lived alongside us in hiding; the myth of the changeling; and epics detailing how brave knights are helped by creatures, both human and human-like, in possession of strange powers.  None of these were considered to be different accounts of the same class of supernatural being, however.

As time went on, these supernatural beings began to be assembled under the heading of “faierie,” a word derived from the French that was originally used to describe bizarre occurrences.  By the time of the mid-sixteenth century, fairies had become an important part of the cultural landscape, with aspects in folklore, cunning practice, learned lore, ritual magic, and popular fiction and drama.  What is especially interesting about fairies was the deep connections between all of these phenomena, with elements appearing in one rapidly turning up in the others.  Oddly enough, fairies became immensely popular just before the Enlightenment took away the foundation in their belief.

So, where does Oberon fit into this?  I think he clearly occupies a position among the literary assistants to brave heroes that populate the epics.  On the other hand, Hutton also stresses how little we know about popular fairy beliefs of the high Middle Ages, with the written traditions seeming to be only small portions of a much more vast set of oral narratives.  If so, it might be that Oberon’s origin lies here.  Without more data, it’s impossible to be sure.

Published in: on February 26, 2015 at 9:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Now Available – Folger MS. V.b.26 (aka Book of Oberon) Transcript Online

As part of our work on The Book of Oberon, the team prepared a transcript of the original Elizabethan handwriting of Folger MS. V.b.26.  Later on, we went through and modernized the spelling, added illustrations, and inserted footnotes, chapter headers and other critical apparati to make the published book.

Now, Joe Peterson has gone through the hard work of posting the document on the Esoteric Archives website.  If you want to get a taste of the language or a preview of what’s to come in the published version, I highly encourage you to check it out.  If nothing else, it should give you an idea of the colossal scope of the project and its significance to the study of Renaissance magic.

Published in: on February 17, 2015 at 4:52 pm  Comments (1)  
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Just Released; The Cambridge Book of Magic

Paul Foreman has just released, via Lulu, a book of Tudor magic.  It’s a translation of Cambridge Additional MS. 3544, of which I had heard nothing before now.  Here’s some more information:

The Cambridge Book of Magic is an edition of a hitherto unpublished sixteenth-century manuscript of necromancy (ritual magic), now in Cambridge University Library. Written in England between 1532 and 1558, the manuscript consists of 91 ‘experiments’, most of them involving the conjuration of angels and demons, for purposes as diverse as knowing the future, inflicting bodily harm, and recovering stolen property. However, the author’s interests went beyond spirit conjuration to include a variety of forms of natural magic. The treatise drew on astrological image magic and magico-medical texts, and the author had a particular fascination with the properties of plants and herbs. The Cambridge Book of Magic gives an insight into the practice and thought of one sixteenth-century magician, who may have been acting on behalf of clients as well as working for his own benefit.

If you’d like to check out the table of contents for yourself, you can do so on the book’s Lulu page.  I can already see a couple chapters of interest, such as the ceremonies to raise Sibyllia and Mosacus, which overlap with The Book of Oberon.  I’ll be ordering a copy for my own use.

Published in: on February 15, 2015 at 7:06 pm  Comments (1)  
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Some Excursions into Cornish Folklore

I’m sure some of you might have doubted my Cornish folklore addiction, but I can assure you it is both a rare and serious condition.  Now that Oberon is off to the printer and my next project still awaiting additional information, I’m indulging deeply in its depths.  Here’s a quick summary of what I’ve been reading.

If you’re going to start with 19th century Cornish folklore, there’s no better place than Robert Hunt‘s Popular Romances of the West of England.  Hunt covers all of the major topics – giants, fairies, saints, megaliths, witches, King Arthur, etc. – at exhaustive length and with an eye to all manner of folkloric oddities.  Plus, just about everyone else who writes about Cornish folklore is going to be referring back to Hunt frequently, so why not just read the original?

But what about Hunt’s sources?  His chief one was William Bottrell, a former teacher turned world traveler turned folklorist, who later took it upon himself to write three more books, being two volumes of Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall (volume 1 and volume 2) and Stories and Folk-lore of West Cornwall (which I have yet to read).  Bottrell is much more steeped in the Cornish “droll” tradition, which means that his stories give you a better taste of the interests of his audience.  This is sometimes very interesting, but other times quite tedious, given the Cornish penchant for the young lovers who are separated, with the woman pining as the man goes off to sea, is captured by pirates, takes over the pirate ship, etc., or detailed descriptions of the manor grounds of Trewoofe.

For a more up-to-date take, including many legends up to modern times, Folklore of Cornwall by Tony Deane and Tony Shaw is a pretty good book, covering many of the same stories as above with more references to recent additions, such as the Beast of Bodmin Moor and the Owlman.  The book is more of a summary than an in-depth look at any of these, and its lack of footnotes on particular entries can be frustrating if you want to find out more.  (Where am I going to find references to that Victorian killer octopus on the northern coast?)  Still, for most of these, a Google search or a reference to one of the above books can turn up quite a bit of information.

These books are more for broad overviews.  Later on, I think I’ll discuss my new Cornish folklore book-buying habit.

Published in: on February 5, 2015 at 10:30 pm  Comments (1)  
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Charm Wands and Charm Sticks, An Addendum

As an addendum to my three part series on charm wands, here’s a passage from Ithell Colquhoun’s The Living Stones: Cornwall (1962), in her chapter describing her visit to William Paynter:

In the West Country the ‘witch’s stick,’ a rod with a crook-end made of glass from Nailsea near Bristol, is the equivalent of the magician’s ‘wand of power.’  Sometimes these rods were twisted, sometimes hollow and if so were filled with coloured threads or the tiny sweets called ‘hundreds and  thousands.’  The stick was suspended above the chimney-piece so that if an ill-disposed member of the craft entered the house he or she would be obsessively compelled to count the contents of the glass tube, and so dissipate the energy intended for magicking.  These sticks are called ‘medicine-rods’ since disease ‘settled’ upon them; but if carefully wiped each day they could be used as a cure-all.

Published in: on January 21, 2015 at 5:59 pm  Comments (1)  
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