On the Three Ladies at the Table

Many readers will be familiar with the famous ritual in the Grimorium Verum (Peterson or Stratton-Kent editions) to call three spiritual ladies or gentlemen to a table to gain their favor.   A similar ritual appears in the Book of Oberon, as well as in Sloane MS. 3853, and we have several other rituals among the literature of ritual magic that are along the same lines.  Those who are interested in other such examples might check out my article in The Faerie Queens anthology from Avalonia.

Enough links to books!  I’ve made a discovery, via Katherine Briggs’ Anatomy of Puck, of another piece with a similar procedure that predates most ritual magic by centuries.  In the mid-thirteen century, Adam de la Halle, a playwright of Arras, composed a comedy entitled Le jeu de la Feuillee.  It consists of a number of short vignettes surrounding life in the French city – including a visit by three supernatural ladies.

We have very little setup for their appearance, but it would appear that Adam – a character in the play as well as the playwright – and his friend Rikeche have put a table out for the fairies.  Although they are not present, others watch from the sidelines as three women – Morgan, Arsile, and Maglore – appear and take up their seats at the table.  All of them are enchanted by the preparations, save for Maglore, who notices that her knife at the table is missing.  The other two fairies engage her in some playful jesting, but Maglore will have none of it.  The sisters next talk of how the two should be rewarded.  Morgan and Arsile grant Rikeche success at business and riches, and give Adam happiness, fame in love, and a reputation as a poet.  Maglore, still put out, grants Rikeche baldness and condemns Adam to spend his time with his wife instead of running away to Paris.  The whole matter rapidly descends into farce from here.

What is particularly interesting here is one detail from earlier in the poem:  a description of the back of Adam’s wife, “Ke manche d’ivoire entailles / A ches coutiaus a demoisele,” which the editor translates as “Sculpted like the ivory handle / Of those knives for noble maidens.”  He then draws a parallel between this phrase and the knives on the table of Morgan and the others.  It bears noting that some manuscripts, including Sloane 3853 and e.Mus 173, specify that white-handled knives should appear on the table to which the three mysterious women are called.  Admittedly, it could be a coincidence, but the sheer number of correspondences are enough to make one wonder.

(You can find an English translation of Le jeu in The Broken Pot Restored, edited by Gordon D. McGregor.  I should note that the translation has been modernized and might not be accurate at all points.)

Published in: on November 6, 2015 at 5:37 pm  Comments (6)  
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A New Book of Oberon Discovery

I’ve got a few different posts I’d like to put up, but I’m at a conference and I think people are ordering takeout.  So, allow me to present a new discovery by my friend Clay.

From Flave Végèce René, Du fait de guerre, 1536:

vegece1 vegece2

From Folger MS. V.b.26:

orobas Annabath

I’ll be looking into this more later, but I wanted to make sure credit was received where it was due.

Published in: on June 3, 2015 at 8:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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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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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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  Comments (1)  
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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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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 (8)  
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