The Esoteric Book Conference 2015 and NecronomiCon

I will, at long last, be attending the Esoteric Book Conference in Seattle.  This year, it will be held on September 26 and 27, 2015.  I’ll be signing and speaking about The Book of Oberon in particular, but if you want to dip into The Long-Lost Friend as well, that’s fine by me.  There’s also a lot of great writers and artists on the docket for it.

Also, to set to rest some conflicting information, I will not be at NecronomiCon due to a family commitment.  Mom says that she’ll cut me out of the will if I don’t go.  (She doesn’t mean it, but she thought saying it would convince people to stop bugging me about NecronomiCon.)   Mom’s great.  Anyway, NecronomiCon was great fun last time, and I highly recommend it to anyone who’s on the fence about going.

Published in: on May 23, 2015 at 2:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

Spirits in the Library: A Series

It was about a month ago that a librarian friend of mine mentioned pursuing a research question on a particular demon.  This brought to my attention that there are many, many books out there that are presented as being comprehensive lists of spirits.
I thought it might be fun to examine them.  Before examining any at great length, I came up with a list of half a dozen particular entities.  By covering their treatment in each of these books, we might get a good idea as to what books might be best for the cost-conscious bibliophile or librarian.  It’s an unscientific process, to be sure, but I wanted to keep it fun.
Our contenders are as follows:
Bane, Theresa. Encyclopedia of Demons in World Religions and Cultures. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2012.
Belanger, Michelle A. The Dictionary of Demons : Names of the Damned. Woodbury, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 2010.
Collin de Plancy, J.-A.-S. Dictionnaire Infernal.  Paris: BH. Plon, 1863.
Davidson, Gustav. A Dictionary of Angels, Including the Fallen Angels. New York: Free Press, 1967.
Gettings, Fred. Dictionary of Demons : A Guide to Demons and Demonologists in Occult Lore. North Pomfret, Vt.: Trafalgar Square Pub., 1988.
Guiley, Rosemary. The Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology. New York: Facts On File : Checkmark Books, 2009.
Lurker, Manfred. Dictionary of gods and goddesses, devils and demons. London; New York: Routledge and K. Paul, 1987.
Mack, Carol K., and Dinah. Mack. A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels, and Other Subversive Spirits. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1999.
Published in: on May 22, 2015 at 1:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

Review – Folklore, Horror Stories, and the Slender Man: The Development of an Internet Mythology

For a while now, I’ve been interested in the Slender Man mythology, for reasons I’m at a loss to explain.  For the rare reader who has not experienced this yet, the premise is that a mysterious monster known as the “Slender Man,” a faceless figure wearing a suit, stalks unsuspecting individuals, eventually leading to their corruption or doom.   This is a grassroots Internet phenomenon, with many manifestations based around creative use of Photoshop or drawn-out Youtube storylines using shaky cameras and repurposed mannequins.  Nonetheless, it’s been fascinating to see how much love and attention has been put into a new “artificial mythology” a la the Cthulhu Mythos, which is similar in its creation out of the work of many authors referring to each others’ works.  Such feelings are  nonetheless tinged with tragedy, as two girls in Waukesha, Wisconsin blamed the entity for their attempts to murder one of their classmates.

I initially approached Shira Chess and Eric Newsom’s Folklore, Horror Stories, and the Slender Man, from Palgrave with some skepticism.  The immediate impetus for the book seems to have been the crime in Waukesha, as it is mentioned quite early therein.  As such, the fact that it was in print hardly six months thereafter is quite troubling, as it raises questions as to how deep any potential analysis really could be.  That the work is a print-on-demand work instead of a regular release from the publisher was also a potential red flag.  Nonetheless, I wanted to let the book speak for itself.

What I ended up with was an intriguing work on an ongoing tradition of digital folklore or fakelore, depending upon your view, that has gained international attention.  Chess and Newsom begin with a discussion of the history of the Slender Man, beginning with the Something Awful forum thread where he was spawned and moving through its creative manifestations in online fiction and videos.  Subsequent chapters deal with the connections between the Slender Man and other folkloric entities, the creation of an open-source mythology, and the digital forums in which stories are told and transformed as the tellers and the audience interact.  A final chapter discusses parodies and the less accepted portions of the mythology.

I would not consider myself to be a Slender Man expert, by any means, but I have followed Marble Hornets and dipped into the other blog and Youtube materials on the topic.   I was hoping that the book would expand upon this knowledge and indulge in some deeper reading of the works dealing with the Slender Man.  I was to be disappointed in this regard; although I did not feel that there were any significant gaps in coverage, I was hoping for a greater engagement with the source material, and it troubles me that this did not occur.

This does not mean that the book does not include analyses, many of which are quite fascinating in the ties they draw to the literature of folklore and performance.  At times, this does fall short, however.  One example is the discussion of the reaction of the fan community, which is mostly male, to the non-horror works about the Slender Man written by female authors.  The writers claim that this neglect is due to the gender of the fan fiction authors, but given that this material extends outside the generally accepted bounds of the horror genre, the case needs to be made more strongly.  A more interesting and likely productive analysis would be directed at the implications of a genre in which the protagonists are often white males in their twenties, running from a monster whose appearance parallels those of his victims.

This is not to say that this book is without merit.  For those who wish for an overview of the Slender Man myth and its position in the study of folklore, it is a valuable work, if expensive.  It is to be hoped that future works deepen the examination of this fictional creation and the community that creates and re-creates its myth.

Published in: on May 16, 2015 at 10:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Review – Crowley and Tregeagle in Cornwall

In the folklore of Cornwall, two figures enjoy special infamy.  The first is a steward, spy, and magistrate from centuries ago, remade into a demon, a ghost, a giant, and a bird, among other identities.  The second is a man dubbed the “Wickedest Man in the World,” notable for both his virtues and vices.  I recently read a book on each of these individuals and their ties to Cornwall, and I wanted to share my thoughts on them.  Given that both are difficult to obtain, I hope this might send others to seek them out.

IMG_2271The first book, John Tregagle of Trevorder:  Man and Ghost by B. C. Spooner, was originally published in 1935.  An abbreviated form of it was later published as John Tregagle:  Alive or Dead.  Mr. Tregagle (c. 1606-1655) was a steward of the Lanhydrock estate, and later became an extensive landowner in his own right.  He sided with the Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War, providing intelligence on the movement of the Royalist forces.  A lawsuit regarding a mortgage dispute garnered him a notorious reputation, which continued well after his death.

Following his death, a mythology grew up around John.  Supposedly a court case became so heated that Tregagle was called up from the dead to testify.  After this, however, he could not be sent back to hell, so he spent his time moving about the countryside, with the devil’s hounds snapping at his heels.  Various parsons moonlighting as wizards – a common feature in Cornish lore – assigned him to various tasks, such as emptying Dozmary Pool with a seashell with a hole, or spinning sand into a rope.  He has escaped these time and time again, causing storms and howling in remote places.  And these are only the more conventional tales.

Mentions of Tregagle are common in folklore works, but no book covers the historical background of the man as well as Spooner.  As such, this is an essential work for anyone interested in exploring more than the first layer of Cornish folklore.

A more recent insertion into the folk beliefs of Cornwall is the magician Aleister Crowley.  A tale of him hinges upon a cottage in the hills around the village of Zennor in West Penwith.  According to the story, Crowley was staying at this location when he became involved in a test of magical wills with Ka Arnold-Forster.  This conflict led to a confrontation one dark night that ended with her death and her husband’s insanity.

IMG_2270Paul Newman’s The Tregerthen Horror, released by Mandrake Press in 2005, represents the author’s attempt to decipher the truth behind the myth.  To do so, he spends a great deal of time describing D. H. Lawrence and other writers and artists who made their home in West Penwith in the early twentieth century.  There are wonderful portraits of many of these individuals, and much allusion to fictional accounts and folklore of the reason.  What is lacking, however, is any indication that Aleister Crowley came to Cornwall any earlier than a well-documented two-week trip to the Penzance area in 1937.  If I read it correctly, there seems to be no reason why Crowley couldn’t have come to West Penwith, but there’s no positive evidence that he did.

Nonetheless, I found The Tregerthen Horror to be quite aesthetically pleasing, and it should be of interest to those who collect the folklore of Crowley or who are interested in the circles of famous artists that one time made their home in Cornwall.

Published in: on May 3, 2015 at 12:50 pm  Comments (1)  

Forthcoming – Rewriting Magic

Claire Fanger, Assistant Professor of Religion at Rice University, has been working on the medieval monk John of Morigny’s re-interpretation of the Ars Notoria for quite some time now.  We now have a book-length work on the topic from Penn State Press’ excellent History in Magic series that should be of great interest:

In Rewriting Magic, Claire Fanger explores a fourteenth-century text called The Flowers of Heavenly Teaching. Written by a Benedictine monk named John of Morigny, the work all but disappeared from the historical record, and it is only now coming to light again in multiple versions and copies. While John’s book largely comprises an extended set of prayers for gaining knowledge, The Flowers of Heavenly Teaching is unusual among prayer books of its time because it includes a visionary autobiography with intimate information about the book’s inspiration and composition. Through the window of this record, we witness how John reconstructs and reconsecrates a condemned liturgy for knowledge acquisition: the ars notoria of Solomon. John’s work was the subject of intense criticism and public scandal, and his book was burned as heretical in 1323. The trauma of these experiences left its imprint on the book, but in unexpected and sometimes baffling ways. Fanger decodes this imprint even as she relays the narrative of how she learned to understand it. In engaging prose, she explores the twin processes of knowledge acquisition in John’s visionary autobiography and her own work of discovery as she reconstructed the background to his extraordinary book. Fanger’s approach to her subject exemplifies innovative historical inquiry, research, and methodology. Part theology, part historical anthropology, part biblio-memoir, Rewriting Magic relates a story that will have deep implications for the study of medieval life, monasticism, prayer, magic, and religion.

My copy of this book has just arrived.  For those who want to know more about the topic, I’d suggest reading Fanger’s chapter on the differences between the Ars Notoria and the monk’s book in Conjuring Spirits, as well as  John of Morigny’s preface to his book.

 

Published in: on April 29, 2015 at 12:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

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  Comments (1)  
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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)  
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