Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor – Ruth E. St. Leger-Gordon

Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor
Ruth E. St. Leger-Gordon
Bell Publishing Company, 1972
196 pages

I first picked up this book because it dedicates a couple of chapters to black dogs/whisht hounds, one of my favorite ghosts/cryptozoological entities. The author collected a variety of stories and tales of everything from hauntings to dancing stone circles to wart healing white witches and created this nice compendium of folklore specific to Dartmoor in the UK. Apparently Dartmoor has more than its fair share of etheral and paranormal activity, as evidenced by the rich abundance of examples the author was able to give.

The folklore chapters are much stronger than the witchcraft ones. St. Leger-Gordon collects a nice variety of local examples involving ancient stones and ruins, as well as tales of souls condemned to transformation and impossible feats before they can rest, as atonement for their wickedness. She manages to fit a lot of these stories in without shortening them too much–in fact, she does an excellent job of managing her space, tying the stories together without adding too much filler. And rather than only relying on older stories, she brings up a number of relatively recent (to her time, anyway) examples, showing that haunts and hunts and other such things do persist into modern day (though she worries for their continuation amid “progress”).

The witchcraft chapters, on the other hand, are heavily littered with a lot of Margaret Murray’s bunk. The author also takes Gerald Gardner’s claims of Wicca’s antiquity as truth, which damages the integrity of the book as a whole. However, the examples of both healing and cursing done by local witches (who use Bible verses in their wart charming, rather than dancing to Diana) show once again the local folklore in practice. St. Leger-Gorden would have been better off sticking to the traditional folklore rather than attempting to bring in modern, unverified sources that draw less on the traditions and more on 19th-century romanticized reconstructions.

Still, overall I really liked reading this book. Beyond the poor modern research it’s an excellent look at the tales and traditions of a particular part of the world shown in detail, written by a skilled author. Definitely a keeper!

Four pawprints out of five

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