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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I Have a Problem

So, with the new year, it’s time to admit I have a problem.

I might be addicted to Cornish folklore.

Part of my mother’s side of the family comes from Cornwall, and I’ve made two trips there over the years tooling about West Penwith and seeing the sights.  Over the past month, though, I’ve been compelled to look into it further, starting with the standard works on the area’s folklore and moving on to more obscure journal articles and local publications.

At this point, I’ve got a growing library of small-press publications, and a map with over four hundred separate locations with detailed notes on the legends connected with each.  So I have to figure out what to do with it.

The idea is not to publish scholarly articles, or even Mythos fiction or gaming material.  I do feel myself in need of a creative outlet, alongside the factual publications on magic.  Most likely it would fall into the present market for folk horror (see the original Wicker Man for the most obvious model, but I’d add such movies as Kill List, Wake Wood, and Curse of the Blair Witch, as well as some of the psychogeographic work of Phil Legard and others).  I’m not quite sure as to the format or the venues yet, but I’ll see if I can’t figure out something to do with it.

I suppose the other option is that I’ll get tired of it and never mention it again.  We’ll see.  Suggestions are welcome.

Published in: on January 1, 2015 at 8:29 pm  Comments (4)  
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2014 in Review

This year has been somewhat quiet on the blog front, but that doesn’t mean I’ve been idle, by any means.  James, Joe, and I have been wrapping up our notes on the proofs of The Book of Oberon.  It can be a slog at times, but then I think about how our readers will react when they see the immense work for themselves, and it makes it worth it.

Ben Fernee is hard at work on his latest release, so I’ve been making a few minor tweaks to my articles on witch bottles and wax images that should accompany the Bellhouse book.  I have to say, in a marketplace that has so many derivative books churned out, it’s great to be working on material that’s ground-breaking and has a good potential to stand the test of time.

I tooled around for a while seeking my next big project, and I think I’ve found one.  One aspect (and one of many, I should add) is digging back into the Mesopotamian corpus and dealing with aspects of its beliefs and ritual practices not touched upon much in my previous works.  That’s a long-term project, however, so I might not discuss it here for a while.

I’ve got a couple of publications to announce.  First, my chapter on the Book of Dzyan maybe read in the new anthology The Starry Wisdom Library, along with pieces by Ramsey Campbell, F. Paul Wilson, Don Webb, Wilum Pugmire, Donald Tyson, and many, many others.  Second, the third issue of the Arkham Gazette has been successfully Kickstarted, which will bring my brief folkloric article on Goody Fowler into print.

If anyone was anticipating meeting me at NecronomiCon this coming year, another obligation has taken precedence.  Nonetheless, I hope everyone has a great time, and I hope to see all of you at future conventions.

That’s all for now.  Yiggie and I (or rather, I) wish all of you happy holidays and a great new year!

Published in: on December 30, 2014 at 7:29 pm  Comments (1)  

The Maqlu Text: An Update on its Publication

For some time, I’ve been waiting for a new published English translation of the Maqlu Text, the first millennium BCE exorcistic rite in Akkadian that gets so much attention in the Simon Necronomicon.  I have greatly appreciated Marie-Hélène Hoffmann and Ross Caldwell’s online translation of the book, but what I have been waiting for is the edition by Tzvi Abusch, the foremost scholar on the incantation series.  So, I feel quite odd relating this announcement from Dr. Abusch, from the American Schools for Oriental Research blog:

During my stay at the AIAR, I completed and submitted: 1) A volume for the SBL Writings from the Ancient World series: The Witchcraft Series Maqlû: Transcription and Translation. This volume contains a transcription of the full text of Maqlû with notes, a translation, and detailed introduction. 2) A volume for students in the State Archives of Assyria, Cuneiform Texts series, Maqlû: A Student Edition and Selected Commentary containing an edition of the Maqlû standard text in transliteration together with the cuneiform text. This volume will also provide both historical/critical and exegetical commentaries on selected incantations. These commentaries will draw upon and synthesize the many individual studies that I previously published.

I continued to work on The Magical Ceremony Maqlû: A Critical Edition (Ancient Magic and Divination; Leiden: Brill), which will contain the main edition of Maqlû. I reviewed and made some last minute corrections to the synoptic edition (“score”), revised the bibliography of sources, and drafted the preface.I hope that this volume will be submitted to the publisher by the end of June, 2014.

Really?  I’ve waited so long for this book, and now we’ll be seeing three different versions?

I’m eagerly awaiting more information, so I can figure out which one I want.

Published in: on December 20, 2014 at 2:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Review – Rún: A Facsimile of a Grimoire

What were you doing when you were fourteen?  Homework?  Video games?  Worrying about who liked you?  Or were you painstakingly copying manuscripts that tell you how to use parts of a corpse to make a reins and bridle allowing you to ride a person to the sabbat?  If it’s the latter, I am as afraid of you as I am of Borghildur Steingrímsdottir, the Icelandic girl whose recopying of a manuscript grimoire brought us Rún, the latest grimoire to be released by the Museum of Icelandic Witchcraft and Sorcery.  The following is a review of a purchased copy.

Rún is a slim paperback printing of a grimoire dating to 1928, copied for a farmer in the Icelandic village of Hólar, near Hólmavík, by his daughter.  Despite the late date, it is clear that much of the material comes from much earlier times, with some pieces including the names of pagan gods.  Most of the book can be divided into two major topics.  First, we have extensive lists of magical alphabets and their corresponding letters, for the enterprising reader who wants a good cipher.  (Despite the book’s title, I found only one actual list of runes therein.)  Second, we have a large collection of magical staves, usually to be carved and anointed with blood, for a wide variety of purposes.  We also have some other unusual rituals included, such as the witch-riding one above, and another ceremony to capture a “sea mouse” that adds another entry to our list of black pullets, mandrakes, hairy flies, green butterflies, and other animals who bring riches to the magician.  There’s also a selection of Icelandic riddles that, our translator assures us, aren’t worth translating because they don’t make much sense in English.

Speaking of translations, the main body of this book is a facsimile of the original Icelandic manuscript, followed by both an Icelandic transcription and an English translation, both with a brief introduction.  All told, the English text is a little over twenty pages, but the main attraction of this work is the graphic elements, reproduced here in all their glory.

Including shipping, this book ran me about $35, and it actually arrived here more quickly than a FedEx package from the UK.  Ever since Stephen Flowers’ Galdrabok went out of print and saw its price jump astronomically, the Museum has been the only source for Icelandic grimoires.  For those more interested in textual charms, I might steer you toward Two Icelandic Books of Magic (review), which is available from them at the same price, with Rún of greater interest to those interested in diagrams, ciphers, and the like – but neither of those recommendations precludes the other.  Both would be fine additions to your library.

Published in: on December 18, 2014 at 4:03 pm  Comments (6)  
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For Today’s Review – A Coptic Handbook of Ritual Power

I’ve been approached by two people today about a new book of magic that’s just been released – one link to a Livescience discussion of the book, and another link to the title at Brepols.  As I’ve had it sitting here for a while, I might as well get down to it.

The Coptic books of magic and amulets have been known for quite some time to scholars of that place and time.  These specialists have coined the term “ritual power” to avoid the associations that the term “magic” has with modern readers, and to nullify the conceptual divide between religion and magic.  (If you read the Livescience article above, you can see just how well this works.)  On the other hand, these texts haven’t gotten much attention from modern occultists, who are more interested on one end in the works edited by Mathers and Waite, and on the other in the Greek and demotic magical papyri, a largely pagan set of writings with fewer links to Judaism or Christianity.  As it turns out, the Coptic works might be considered successors to the magical papyri, as the religious specialists of pagan Egypt joined the Coptic clerical community and brought their practices with them.

That brings us to the present work, a short handbook from the seventh or eighth centuries at Macquarie University at Sydney edited by Malcolm Choat and Ian Gardner.  Most of the text of this work is a lengthy invocation or set of prayers to a number of spiritual beings, including the almighty and mysterious Baktiotha, Jesus, David, and other figures.  Among these are references to “Seth, the Risen Christ,” drawing parallels between the text and the Gnostic sect of Sethians thought to have died out centuries before.  All of this is written in florid language filled with nomina barbara (barbarous names), lists of angels, and vowel combinations reminiscent of those in the magical papyri.

At the end of this section is a brief handbook of magical remedies and prescriptions.  Some of these are strictly material, using one substance to treat a disease, but more call for phrases from the text above to be said or written.  For example, one spell for business calls for the names of the spirit Eremiel and his followers to be written on eight potsherds, to be placed in each corner of the shop’s door, inside and outside.  Possession may be cured by saying a magical phrase over pitch and linseed oil, with which the patient is anointed.

The rest of the book consists of an extensive introduction, two parallel texts with little magical content, the transcription of the Coptic, endnotes to the text, indices to the words of power, color reproductions of the manuscript, and a CD-ROM of the images thereof.  Now, generally I’m a big fan of this level of detail, and all of this apparatus is great for anyone who’s a specialist on these topics.  On the other hand, I think that more casual readers who pick this up will be disappointed – especially as the price is rapidly approaching $100.  When one realizes that the continuous English translation takes up only six pages of the book, and that the only sizable illustration is posted on the story above, it gives one pause to recommend it.

For those who do want to read more material like this – much more material – I’m going to recommend another book instead:  Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith’s Ancient Christian Magic:  Coptic Texts of Ritual Power.  (I’m betting it was the publisher who added “magic” to the title.)  Meyer and Smith’s book collects a wide range of Coptic texts like the one above, perhaps sans the Gnostic touches, which provide many more examples at almost half the cost, halved again if you buy it used.  That book is a solid collection which has gained little attention from casual readers, and I recommend it highly.  Then again, if you want to delve into Coptic writing, or investigate a document with intriguing late Gnostic elements, the Brepols release is the one for you.

Published in: on November 20, 2014 at 9:20 pm  Comments (1)  
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