Life, The Book of Four Wizards, Fairy Magic, Traditional Witchcraft, Magic Bowls, and Gaming

Still in lockdown, even though the region has opened up slightly. I don’t have a lot of a faith in our ability to deal with the opening responsibly, especially over a holiday weekend.

I’m continuing work on The Book of Four Wizards. I’ve spent some time delving into the Eye of Abraham, the classic charm to detect theft by hammering a nail into a drawn eye while saying an incantation, in response to which the thief cries out or has their eye water. I’ve got at least seven different examples of various lengths and taken from different sources. I sometimes wonder whether this is an expression of antiquarian interest, or an attempt to acquire different versions to ensure efficacy through comparison.

I’ve recorded a talk on fairy magic for Treadwell’s lecture series, so keep an eye out for that.

In the comments, Michael Craft asked whether I might review a book dealing with traditional witchcraft. Speaking generally, I try to avoid literature that attempts to recreate traditional European folk practice. When I have tried to read a book, or listen to a podcast, or otherwise engage with this material, I often struggle, because I can see the seams between materials, the rhetorical flourishes covering up questions, the proposed ideas that solidify into certainties, the use of outdated sources, the anachronistic usage of later ideas, the lack of footnotes, etc. etc.

I’m not saying that people cannot get spiritual fulfillment out of these texts, or that others can’t admire a recombination of elements of the past and present done through a compelling narrative or inspiring poetry or resonating prose or magical exploration. Yet, at the same time, I prefer to focus on history in an attempt to understand it, not to evoke or interpret it, and much of that involves unlearning the fundamentals of what today’s occultism teaches and seeking works that provide a framework for doing so. That sort of process doesn’t really accommodate itself to writing reviews of modern works that are chiefly desirable to people who are seeking something else in their literature. We certainly have better reviewers for that.

(EDIT: Just to be clear, this isn’t aimed at particular authors or paths, among which there might be those engaged in careful, thoughtful examination of historical evidence and conscious and admitted reconstruction. Yet this isn’t the norm.)

For those who find it useful or interesting or spiritually compelling to read more historical material – or who just put up with all of the above – you might appreciate Dan Levene’s A Corpus of Magic Bowls, available cheaply through Lulu. My copy came slightly banged up, and I’m not sure whether the black and white photographs were plates in the original, but it’s certainly worth the price.

I’m wrapping up my long-term Rules Cyclopedia campaign in the next few months. Pendragon is going strong, and I’m running a potentially short-term weekly Dungeon Crawl Classics game for some colleagues and friends during the shutdown. I’ve been enjoying the latter, for what it’s worth. DCC publisher Goodman Games also published a good number of Cthulhu scenarios back in the day that I reviewed here over the years. I can see why them tapping their DCC authors to write them was never compelling to me, as the design goals of the two are diametrically opposed. This is more light yet deadly gonzo stuff, which is perfect for particular groups.

Stay safe and healthy, as always.


Published in: on May 24, 2020 at 9:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

Update: Tea Drunk, Grimoires Received, Writing Progress [?], Georgian Occult Book Collection Catalogues, Arthurian and Slavic Gaming, and Holiday Commercialism

I’m hiding out at Crazy Wisdom Bookstore in Ann Arbor, which has a great selection of books and a lovely tea room.

  • I’ve received an electronic copy of Jose Leitao’s Opuscula Cypriani, which will receive a quick semi-review soon. I just reviewed a 650-page book here, so I think making a thorough reading of a 900-page book would undo me. I’ll still report in on it.
  • Also arrived are the Black Letter Press edition of The Black Pullet, and the Golden Hoard edition of the Ars Notoria. I intend to get to both of them soon.
  • I’ve temporarily stopped correcting the text in Douce 116, in order to work on this presentation at the BSECS in January. I might base the whole piece on the title page of the book, which is surprisingly rich in content describing how Thomas Harrington, a late 18th century author, tried to legitimize a late 17th-century magical miscellany.
  • As for Harrington, I’ve paid for Harvard to digitize the catalog of the 1806 posthumous sale of his library of works on music, magic, ad witchcraft, among others. They’ve put it online, so you can see it as well.
  • I’m running Pendragon for a small group, including at least one Papers reader. Having reviewed my strengths as a game master, I think this is a very good system to my proclivity for enabling characters’ poor life choices. In Dungeons and Dragons, this generally leads to strife among characters and players; in Pendragon, it’s fun storytelling.
  • My Dungeons and Dragons game (Rules Cyclopedia) is coming to a close, with characters having ascended from first level to levels 8 and 9. We still have a couple of modules to tackle before we’re done.
  • I’m also working on and off on a pseudo-Slavic hexcrawl hack of 1981 Moldvay Basic/Expert D&D, with lots of which I’m not sure what to do with.
  • Here’s the obligatory link to a page of my books for sale. Also, the excellent Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West: From Antiquity to the Present is now available in paperback for $41.
Published in: on December 21, 2019 at 8:52 pm  Comments (5)  

Swedish Black Books and NecronomiCon Appearances

This announcement from Revelore Press appeared this morning:

Svartkonstböker: A Compendium of the Swedish Black Art Book Tradition

by Dr Tom K Johnson
Folk Necromancy in Transmission Volume 4

ISBN: 978-1-947544-22-2; Sept 2019; ~650pp.

Svartkonstböker is a fully revised edition of Dr Johnson’s 2010 PhD Thesis Tidebast och Vändelrot: Magical Representations in the Swedish Black Art Book Tradition, featuring a thorough, path-breaking study of the black arts book tradition in Sweden, as well as English translations of 35 Swedish black art books ranging from the 1690s to the 1940s, including over 1900 spells and a robust index.

The late Dr Johnson always wished that his work would see print publication in its entirety. Other publishers have offered to produce this work in two volumes, prioritizing the spells in the black art books over the scholarly apparatus that contextualizes them. Here Revelore presents the work in full, comprising over 650 pages of material. Minor errors from the PhD manuscript have been rectified, and archival images of the characters, sigils, and illustrations have been restored in high fidelity. This is the definitive source work for the Swedish magical corpus of black art books.

If this fulfills this mandate – and it should – it will be amazing. Both paperback and collector’s editions will be available. The paperback is priced at $50, but 650 pages makes it well worth it.

I will also be returning to NecronomiCon this year, and I’ll be on two panels. One is Delta Green based, Sunday at 9 AM. The other is a panel I’m moderating “On Gaming the Weird,” with Sandy Petersen, Kenneth Hite, Fiona Maeve Geist, Shane Ivey, and Badger McInnes. You can see the full schedule here.

Published in: on August 5, 2019 at 10:28 am  Leave a Comment  

Miscellany

Many things are afoot!

  • I’ve been working on the next manuscript for Llewellyn. I’ve done a first pass, save for a few pages I need to re-shoot, and now I’m running a double check on the original before I modernize the language.
  • We have an Indiegogo campaign for a new edition of the grimoire The Red Dragon. The Italian publisher, Black Letter Press, has fulfilled one previous crowdfunding effort, in case you’re interested.
  • Stephen Murtagh has released an Authentication of “The Secret Grimoire of Turiel.” Feel free to read it. I have two brief points. First, it’s probably not a great practice to reproduce most of the illustrations out of a recently-published book, even for purposes of scholarship, when a few would do. Second, proving that Turiel has a pedigree back to Hockley is not the same as proving that it was acquired from a priest in the Canary Islands in 1927.
  • The Glencairn Museum is putting on an exhibition by our friend Patrick Donmoyer on barn stars. Not making it to eastern PA any time soon? You can download the exhibit catalog for free here!
  • Apparently the PSU book for which I wrote an chapter on the Necronomicon, Magic in the Modern World, was released in paperback in December. Halving the price should make it accessible for more readers.
  • I bought The Witcher 3. Jury’s out as to whether this was a mistake. Also, I romanced Triss without meaning to.
  • I’ll in Europe, generally speaking, in July.
Published in: on May 25, 2019 at 6:38 pm  Comments (3)  

On Leaving Lamentations of the Flame Princess

I’ve got a book proposal to work on, a foreword to write, a stack of great books dealing with grimoires and folk magic to read. So, there’s nothing to be done than write a post about silly elf games, right?

I’ve been running an old-school D&D game for over three years now (for those interested, Rules Cyclopedia with Moldvay insertions). This is not perfect, so for some rules I’ve ported in rules and scenarios from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, a newer game that began as a weird fiction D&D clone supported with a great range of products. I’ve enjoyed many of their products from DriveThru, and a highlight from my occasional trips to NYC is to stop at the Compleat Strategist to pick up the latest print releases. In fact, my next session was going to start our adventurers through Frostbitten and Mutilated, an award-winning supplement written by Zak S., who has been a staple in the Old School Revival community for quite some time.

And then his ex-partner Mandy Morbid, along with others, came forward with some extremely troubling and disturbing allegations of sexual abuse and assault.

Recent years have made us much more aware of the treacherous world women have to move through, and the importance that we hear and support those who have experienced traumatic events. At the same time, we sometimes hear voices raising concerns about false accusations, even though these are a minuscule fraction of the accounts that we’re hearing. In this particular case, Zak’s “defense” contained a confession that he non-consensually strangled one of the women in question, so if anyone wanted to start that debate, it’s over.

(No, I’m not linking to him.)

We’ve had statements from Wizards of the Coast, GenCon, Contessa, DriveThruRPG, and Kenneth Hite, all disassociating themselves from him.

That brings us to Lamentations and its publisher, James Raggi IV, who published his response on Facebook. The fact that he didn’t link to it elsewhere on social media or fora is indicative of how problematic it is. I’ve made comments there, and I want to supplement them here.

In terms of business matters, I’m sympathetic to James’ position. Small presses often operate in a precarious world. The illness or death of a family member, the departure of a partner, a delay at the printer, a book that doesn’t meet expectations – all of these can create situations that can doom or seriously damage a business. Certainly, having your top four selling books (at least on DriveThru) associated with a confessed assailant is going to be a serious problem.

It’s also worth remembering that publishers have many constraints on them – contractual obligations to creators and distributors, customers to satisfy, inventory to move, bills to pay. All of these might prevent a business from making a clean break with a problematic creator.

Thus, I understood the business portion of James’ piece. The personal one is a dumpster fire. It ignores the seriousness and credibility of the accusations to focus solely on the impact on James and Zak, and the fact that Internet trolls might be happy about this (but are they ever, really?). It also provides language that some will read as providing support and cover for this sort of behavior, although James has tried to walk back some of that.

Given that all these people have made their choices, what is mine? Here’s where I am, and I’m certainly open to responses.

  • I have dipped into Zak S.’s writing from time to time for my games, as much of it is good. At this point, it goes to a dark corner of the shelves.
  • It occurs to me that I’m actually in a book with Zak – the anthology Petty Gods from some years ago. I didn’t even know he was in there, to be honest. I’ll commit to not working on projects with him in the future – but I wasn’t planning to, so there’s that.
  • Zak also edited Veins of the Earth by Patrick Stuart. Zak’s financial stake in the book has ended, and Patrick has had his own history of problems with Zak, so I have no qualms about using it. Plus, it’s brilliant.
  • I’m keeping the rest of my Lamentations collection, and I’ll make a decision about using or not using it as I go forward.
  • I have some small elements of Lamentations in my game – the specialist, skill system, rules on financial investments, and a few spells. They’ll probably stay for the time being, and be re-evaluated as time goes on.
  • I will not buy further Lamentations products, regardless of author.  I will reconsider this if and when the publisher commits to anti-harassment policies and standards. Yes, it’s a small press that deals mainly with freelancers and that makes games that are run without their supervision, so there are limits to what they can do. But what can be done, should.
  • I’ve offered to run Lamentations at previous conventions. I will not do so in the future. This may be a moot point, because I think many cons already were reluctant to do so, and many more probably will be now. In fact, let’s face it – these last two bullets might be moot in a few months, for all I know.

These are not necessarily the right decisions, and certainly not the right decisions for everyone, and they are certainly up for discussion. Let me know what you think.

 

 

 

Published in: on March 19, 2019 at 9:49 pm  Comments (7)  

More Lecouteux Followups, Gaming in Averoigne and the Borderlands, and an Unwise Experiment

It’s a snow day here, so it’s an opportunity to catch up on some miscellaneous news.

…I’ve noticed a pattern in his books on Lapidaries and Talismans that aren’t quiet right, he doesn’t seem to understand how to construct these things nor attempted to ever do so, just translates random snippets and unfortunately some of his works get hyped as “complete”…

This is NOT to say that the works of Claude LeCouteux are worthless, but I find myself telling people over and over that his books on grimoires, talismans and amulets, and lapidaries should only be used as supplements for the fully translated materials that are already available, neo-grimoires, academic books & publications, as well as the occasional online lecture or course, and NEVER as newbie how-to books.

My only comment is that I hope RGF will take this knowledge and give it to us in some way. The world needs more quality works on magic.

  • You might notice that Lecouteux’s book A Lapidary of Sacred Stones, which is mentioned above, hasn’t rated a mention here. I got it in December and found it frustrating. It’s arranged alphabetically by the original, non-English names of the stones (and as we don’t know the translation, that’s fine) – and it lacks an index. Thus, no recommendation.
  • The D&D group has spent two sessions journeying through Clark Ashton Smith’s  Averoigne. I decided not to add too much new content, aside from a few random encounters, such as the one with the inquisitor who was told that a winged party member was the “spirit made flesh.” Now that they’ve achieved all of their goals, they’ve decided that they need to take out Bishop Azedarac. This should go well.
  • I also ran a group at a staff retreat through the Keep in the Borderlands. I had many newbies and a few players of Pathfinder and later editions. Somehow they managed to pick the Shrine of Evil Chaos as their random destination, killed all the evil priests, and outran a horde of undead with only two or three deaths in the group. Nicely done!
  • A journal has accepted one of my articles. Upon signing the agreement for publication, I realized that they retain the copyright – but I have the right to put up the final pre-publication edited version online after publication. I think it will be an interesting and accessible piece.
  •  I’ve been baffled by a reference in e Mus. 173 to a horrible substance called “assacasinus.” Based upon the name, I was wondering if this might be cassia fistula, a plant known in medieval times as “cassia” and used today to cleanse sinuses and as an insecticide.

So, I ordered some the supplement online, and I put a small amount – about an eighth of a teaspoon – on a piece of charcoal. After vacating the room, I can say with confidence that it would be an appropriate substance for an early modern magician to put on a fire to torment a spirit – and, as is usual with such suffumigation, anyone else who is unfortunate enough to be nearby. I’m not sure that this is anywhere near rigorous enough to be definitive. I’m still open to other suggestions.

That’s all for now.  I’ve got some reviews coming up of the latest Enodia Press release, some samples of dojinshi, and the Hunter Clavis, so you can look forward to those.

 

Published in: on March 7, 2018 at 8:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

Brief Notes for January

A few things to enjoy and/or look forward to:

  • I’ve uploaded my article from the Journal for the Academic Study of Magic, “The Role of Grimoires in the Conjure Tradition,” to my Academia.edu account. It’s almost ten years old, but it might be of interest.
  • Scarlet Imprint has opened pre-orders for its latest book, Jinn Sorcery by Rain al-Alim, which includes translations of rituals to summon these creatures from a private collection.
  • I’ll be taping Roejen Razorwire’s Project Archivist podcast on Sunday.  Topics will be grimoires, including the Simon Necronomicon.
  • The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Cornwall is hosting a conference on ritual magic in May.  If you can get there, it might be worth checking out.
  • My classic D&D group has just arrived in Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne, one of the settings in a classic module not to be named here.  It’s funny to go to D&D forums and hear people lament the fact that they can’t get the articles on Averoigne that Richard Becker and I wrote for Worlds of Cthulhu.
  • Finishing up our Iron Heroes campaign. I like what the system was aiming to do, but I’m not fond of the execution.
  • My other group has been playing Shadow of the Demon Lord, which I’d describe as an apocalyptic fantasy game like a simplified 5th D&D, but adding complexity by assigning each character three roles as they progress through their careers. Some elements of it seem rough around the edges, but we’re already planning another campaign.
  • The snake is handling the snow and ice well, by simply avoiding them.

 

Published in: on January 19, 2018 at 7:45 pm  Comments (1)  

Festooned with Fairies

I’ve been accepted as a presenter at the Scientiae: Disciplines of Knowing in the Early Modern conference at Oxford in July.  My presentation will be an expansion of my talk at the Esoteric Book Conference, just with the scholarship being more overt, and covering more ground.

When I say “more ground,” I mean comprehensively surveying as many of the known manuscripts dealing with fairy magic as possible.  There are brief references in various scholarly works, so I’ve been striving to follow up on as many as possible.  Fortunately, acquiring digital copies of books is quite easy; the staff at the British Library and Oxford’s Bodleian have been most helpful, as has Joe Peterson.  In case you’re wondering, scans of the microfilm are usually under $100, although you still have to deal with Latin passages, early modern script, and messy handwriting.  After all this, I have retrieved over a dozen magical manuscripts to which I’ve found references.

So far, I can say the following:

First, my hypothesis stated at the Esoteric Book Conference – that magic that involves fairies, or similar spirits, has some traits different from the calls to demons or other spirits – seems to be borne out so far.  Crudely put, the magician’s approach seems to assume more equality, whether through words or ritual actions that mime those between humans, than the exorcist conjurations of demons via divine dominance, and more likely to incorporate aspects of the landscape as important elements.  I hope my language above indicates that this is more of a continuum than a division; many rites, especially those devoted to Oberion, are much closer to the exorcistic model, for instance.  I’m still transcribing, so I hope there’s more interesting material to come.

Second, by sheer luck the selection of The Book of Oberon for publication has made the largest discovered collection of early modern rituals aimed to invoke the Fair Folk available.  This does not mean that is comprehensive, as I’m finding many other examples, but it’s turned out to be a great source.

I’ve also been reading up on the scholarly literature on fairies.  I’m enjoying Diane Purkiss’ At the Bottom of the Garden (apparently out of print, but also available under the title Troublesome Things) and using it to track back other contemporary references to fairies.  There are a great deal of pamphlets in Early English Books Online that speak to the sixteenth and seventeenth-century interest in these creatures.  Nonetheless, there are huge gaps in what we know about them, simply because the elite and learned did not write much about them until later.  If it hadn’t been for Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth, I think a great deal of lore would have been lost – even if, I hasten to add, Kirk was writing from a particular perspective in a particular place and time.

On my own, I’m also chugging away on collecting material on a few different topics – the table ritual, witch bottles, and wax images in particular.  All of these already appear in published or soon-to-be-published places, but I want to have all the material in place so I can one day rewrite them to be even more impressive.  I can dream, right?

No RPG writing is going on right now.  This summer will pick up, I think, with some work on the Delta Green supplement Falling Towers.  Right now, I’m simply enjoying running a game or two (D&D Rules Cyclopedia) and playing in two (D&D 5th edition, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire).

And the snake seems more healthy, even if she does seem to be going through a mid-winter fast – if this long bout of high temperatures constitutes a winter in upstate New York.

Published in: on March 15, 2016 at 8:20 pm  Comments (8)  

Delta Green Kickstarter Final Days

We’re coming to the end of the Delta Green Kickstarter, with only 38 hours remaining.  For those who are wondering what they get, here’s a breakdown:

  • For $1, you get the free PDFs that come to all backers, including pieces on the King in Yellow, Atlach-Nacha’s minions, and body disposal, plus the CONTROL GROUP introductory campaign.
  • For a $20 pledge, you can get the Agent’s Handbook (player’s guide) in PDF, along with a bunch of PDFs, including at least one complete book of scenarios.
  • For a $150 pledge, you get the player’s guide in print, along with PDFs of the GM’s guide, the GM’s screen, Kenneth Hite’s Trail of Cthulhu campaign set in Vietnam, a King in Yellow campaign (with my writing), the CONTROL GROUP campaign, a Majestic-12 sourcebook, and (we’re about $400 away) a sourcebook on the British paranormal organization PISCES, plus a whole bunch of backer PDFs.
  • For $300, you can get all of the above in print, save the backer PDFs (still PDFs).  That’s 7 books and a GM screen, which is not bad for a bunch of gaming books these days, with a lot of bonus scenarios and other material.

Yet… if we could get another $40K, this would unlock:

A while back Dennis Detwiller, the creator of the Fate, told Scott and me that he figured that at some point after 9/11, Stephen Alzis vanished. There was no fanfare, no coup, no maneuvering. He just stopped showing up. And naturally all his followers started taking each other down, each of them wanting to be top boss.

So, Scott and I at Gen Con were talking about that. We started laughing at the thought of Delta Green agents in New York realizing what had happened, and how rabid they would be to jump in the middle of all that and take another shot at the Fate.

The more we imagined it, the more it sounded like a pretty bad-ass campaign to play.

That’s Delta Green: Falling Towers. 

If this runaway project hits $340K, we’ll publish it.

Falling Towers will be two things. First, a series of scenarios where Delta Green agents in the 2000s turn every available resource toward rooting out the fractious Network and destroying it. Second, a sourcebook for the mysteries and threats Delta Green faces in New York today. You can run a Fate-hunting campaign in the 2000s and use that as a launch point for an ongoing New York campaign today. The primary writers will be me, Daniel Harms, and Dennis Detwiller. Dennis will illustrate it.

So, if you’re on the fence , that might appeal to you.

Published in: on October 27, 2015 at 8:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

Delta Green Announcements

A couple of items just came up relating to Delta Green, the setting of espionage and covert battles against the Mythos.

First, I’ve just had my short story “Dark” published in the anthology Delta Green:  Extraordinary Renditions.  For the low price of $9.99, you can get a book with that story and a number of others by Kenneth Hite, John Tynes, Adam Scott, Glancy, James Lowder, Cody Goodfellow, and others.

Delta Green itself is getting its own tabletop game, and the Kickstarter has already funded to the tune of $130K.  US folks can get a print copy of the new corebook, with a PDF and a bunch of other free PDF releases, for $70.  When the Kickstarter reaches $180K, I’ll be helping out on Dennis Detwiller’s Impossible Landscapes, an entire campaign based upon the King in Yellow and Carcosa.  If you’re interested, please head over to the Kickstarter page and help out.

Published in: on October 5, 2015 at 7:28 pm  Leave a Comment