Reconstructed Review: Svartkonstbocker by Thomas Johnson

[Many thanks to reader Viv D. for sending me a saved version of this post.]

It’s been amazing seeing the fluorescence of publishing of historic works of magic Svartkonstbockerrecently. When I reviewed Dr. Thomas K. Johnson’s tremendous dissertation “Tidebast och Vandelrot” back in 2012, I thought it might be an interesting PDF file for some interested scholars and practitioners to seek out. It never occurred to me that someone would ever want to publish a revised edition of the work in its entirety, especially after Dr. Johnson’s untimely passing. Nonetheless, that’s exactly what Revelore Press has given us in their release of Svartkonstböcker: A Compendium of the Swedish Black Art Book Tradition .

It’s unusual to go back and review a book that I’ve already reviewed, but the purpose of the first review was more to call people’s attention to an important work. I’m going to go more in-depth on this review, although I’ll acknowledge there’s only so much I can do without turning this review into a major project. Let’s dive in and see how it goes.

For those who aren’t familiar with the work, this is a compilation of thirty-five texts dating from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. Originally created by “wise ones,” or Swedish cunning folk, these works contain nearly two thousand recipes, charms, incantations, and other items, some mundane, many magical. Most of these, whether as originals or transcriptions thereof, are still available in the possession of various libraries and archives in Sweden, and Johnson did his best to translate as many of these as possible.

Before we even arrive at the “Svartkönstbocker” themselves, Johnson gives us about two hundred pages – the length of many academic books – on the context for the “black art” books, the tradition of “wise ones” in Sweden, the social milieu in which their authors and copyists created these works, and how the depiction of these books in folklore – often as demonic works written in blood – reflects the physical reality of the surviving works. This is fascinating and insightful, and quotations are often provided in both the original Swedish and English.

At one point, Johnson provides a detailed system for detailing the different aspects of each individual piece of lore, including both its constituent parts (verbal charm, ingested substance, written charm, etc.) and its purpose. He later uses these to break down the contents of each book to discuss what the author’s criteria for choosing to preserve these rites might have been.

The system does have its uses, but the classifications for purpose feel as if they were maintained past the point when they should have been revised. The first category, for example, covers everything from healing ailments, household tips, protection from venomous creatures, extinguishing wildfires, and protection from spirits. Yet spells dealing with firearms are split into two categories, “healing” them and for success at the hunt. A bit more attention could have made this more useful in terms of analysis.

The introductory section rounds out with a summary of the contents of each text, noting its physical appearance, how the rituals within break down into the categories noted above, and the history of authorship, transmission, and scholarship that surrounds each one. The section concludes with several insights, such as how the folk tales and occasional trial records relating to a book’s purported or actual author often does not correspond with the contents of their particular works. Likewise, the distinctions between “white” and “black” practitioners seems insufficient, as we find beneficial and harmful rituals combined in the same works in almost every case.

Now we arrive at the meat of the work, the texts themselves. I use the word “texts” here, because not all of these are books in and of themselves. For instance, among these are a pact with the devil and a table of contents from what appears to be a nineteenth-century German magical compilation. It might have made more sense to move such material to the appendices, as notable but not exactly being the same character as the rest of the book.

Each work appears numbered after each other, with little introductory material. I wish the decision to break each text out from its contextual information had been rethought during the transition of this book from a dissertation. If a reader wants to find out the context for a particular work, or compare Johnson’s classificatory breakdown of particular charms, they often have to return hundreds of pages back to the introduction to learn more. This is exacerbated by the index – but I’ll get there.

The charms themselves are a fascinating selection, with nearly two thousand individual items being provided, with all manner of ritual practices and physical elements included. The only area that has little coverage is ritual spirit-summoning, but even this has some examples, largely via German materials incorporated into local practice. In a collection such as this, duplications are certain, but there’s so much material this should concern readers little. Swedish texts are not available, but that would have made the publication of the book in a single volume impossible.

There are some innovations which I think Dr. Johnson’s untimely passing made impossible for this book. For example, I would have liked to see more robust notes at certain points. An editorial discussion with the translator in a few places might have resulted in a more comprehensible text – although, to be fair, this is conjecture on my part. The book itself doesn’t include the Swedish text, although this may be too much of an ask for a book that’s already this size.

Those interested in this book might also be aware of Fredrik Eytzinger’s Salomonic Magical Arts  (review here), which raises the question of how they stack up. Eytzinger’s work only publishes two treatises in the early twentieth century, and Johnson only publishes one of the two. Thus, a person buying both will be getting original material. (The question of which material has been published is somewhat confused, as the book published in Eytzinger’s is noted as the “Red Book,” while the same volume published in Johnson is labeled “The Black Book” in a note not present in the original dissertation.)

The book is rounded out with a bibliography and an index, the latter of which I’m sad to say I found somewhat lacking. Those seeking to track down particular ritual substances will find it helpful, but it seems to have an Anglocentric emphasis. For example, John Dee and Nicholas Culpeper have entries, but the authors of the Black Books themselves are often missing. Some concepts, such as the “year walk” or årsgång, appear in the text but aren’t referenced elsewhere.

Despite my caveats, I think this is an impressive compilation of a magical tradition that has been previously ignored by English speakers. Some buyers may consider the price high, but in the area of folk belief and magical practice, there are few better buys for one’s money. If you don’t have the dissertation – or even if you do – this is definitely worth a purchase.

Published in: on December 5, 2019 at 11:34 am  Leave a Comment  

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