Les Cabinets des Polythéistes

Les Cabinets des Polythéistes: An Anthology of Pagan Fairy Tales, Folktales, and Nursery Rhymes
Edited by Rebecca Buchanan
Bibliotheca Alexandria, 2016

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Review by Hugh Eckert.

Modern Polytheists and Pagans are heirs to a massive body of lore. Libraries all over the world are treasure troves, and anyone with an Internet connection has access to a wide selection of tales and myths from cultures all over the world, ranging from the modern day back to the inventions of writing. This bounty is not without its problems, though. Collections of fairy tales and folklore often are tainted with monotheistic judgments, pious morality, or outdated academic biases. Even the best are lensed through the worldview of their collectors and editors, and often discard meaning and magic for the sake of scholarly objectivity.

This book is a first step in addressing the above problem. The editor in her introduction makes it clear that she has a purpose and an agenda: the reenchantment of the world. Fairy tales are, in her view, the literature of this reenchantment, a literature that is at its core polytheistic. The stories in this volume have been selected to evoke a sacred sense of wonder, of awe, of horror and laughter.

The book is (amongst other things) an homage to the classic Le Cabinet des Fées, a massive collection of fairy tales and one of the first of the modern era. It has the feel of the sort of an eclectic collection one might run across in a dusty tome- the stories are arranged alphabetically by title and range from short poems to much longer prose pieces, hopping from the modern era to the distant past to the imagined “long ago and far away” of the storyteller’s art.

There are some real gems to be found in these pages. Darius Klein’s “The Princess and the Frogs” feels like it came from the mouth of a storyteller in Ancient Egypt; it’s a strong story with a moral that is entirely authentic and pre-Abrahamic. Szmeralda Shanel’s “Queenie the Beautiful and Her Magical Doll” takes inspiration from the tales of Baba Yaga and uses it to tell a powerful tale of the making of a conjure woman. Kiya Nicholl’s “Spine of the World” felt to me like the sort of story that a character in a story might tell; it concerns the value of modesty, pride and politeness and has a finely-woven mix of Egyptian and European elements. And Erin Lale’s “Woodencloak: A Tale Reimagined” is a delightful re-working of a Norwegian fairy tale, slyly interlaced with Norse myth.

I could go on and on. There’s something for everyone here: myth as beat poetry, Heathen bedtime stories, hymns that sparkle or haunt, ancient tales dressed in the trappings of urban fantasy or lushly growing in the soil of a different culture. There’s also a brief but useful “for further reading” list for those who want to delve further. There are a few clunkers here and there, as well- tales with morals that are about as subtle (and offputting) as a thrown brick, pieces that were too arch or distanced or awkward and earnest for me, some that were nice enough but had little to do with Polytheism or Paganism, some that were muddled or fragmentary, others that simply could have used a bit more proofreading. There were a couple of odd stylistic decisions- one of the stories was in a different font size, and there were a couple of paintings by Nina Kossman that looked like they might have been lovely if I could see them larger and in color.

As Polytheists and Pagans, we need these tales. We need stories we can tell our children to explain the world or to lull them to sleep. We need yarns to tell around the fire after the dancing and drumming have died down, or in front of the hearth in the dark half of the year. We need stories that reflect the multicolored, multifaceted world, full of magic, of Gods and spirits, which we believe in. This book is a great start, and I can only hope there will be more to come.

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The Witch by Ronald Hutton

The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present
Ronald Hutton
Yale University Press, 2017

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Review by John Kruse.

Ronald Hutton — for the rare reader who isn’t already aware of him — is a professor of history at Bristol University. Hutton is as well known for TV appearances as for his writings on folklore, pagan religions, druidry, shamanism and folk festivals. This book, his study of the history of witchcraft, was awaited with anticipation because of his reputation for academic rigor combined with a balanced approach to his esoteric subjects.

I must start with a word of warning for potential readers. Hutton spends as much time comparing and contrasting other academics’ ideas on his subject as he does examining the evidence himself. Be prepared for a very scholarly format, and a great deal of reference to previous books and journal articles. It can be a bit daunting and, if you don’t have access to the sort of library holding these materials, a bit frustrating as well.

That said, if you are looking for a comprehensive overview of the practices of witchcraft and popular views about witches over the centuries, this weighty book is a good starting point. Hutton surveys witchcraft across the globe and from the earliest times, taking in the ancient Near East, African and Native North American cultures. After the first few chapters, though, his focus narrows to (mainly Western) Europe and a lot of his evidence on witch trials and on fairy lore is specifically British.

Hutton suggest five characteristics that help define a “witch.” Four beliefs are customary: that witches exist; that they can cause harm to individuals by uncanny means; ; that witches work within an inherited tradition; and that they are evil, but can be resisted. Hutton also introduces the concept of “service magicians” or what one might call “good witches,” magical specialists who fought against malicious witchcraft. Hutton’s definition of the word “witch” is based in history and folklore, and is quite distinct from that espoused by modern, nature-based religions, which he describes as “thoroughly worthwhile.”

The Witch contains fascinating information about the evolution of witch beliefs during the middle ages in Italy, France, and Germany. This period provided the foundations for many images (broomsticks and sabbats, for example) associated with witchcraft to this day. Of particular interest was the section on the “hosts of the night” who would visit homes, blessing or cursing the inhabitants dependent upon whether or not food and drink were left out for them.Hutton suggests these beliefs as the origin of the British idea of fairies who visited homes and would reward or punish according to whether the house was tidy.

Hutton describes the fact that the medieval church was a good deal more tolerant than its successors. Hutton suggests that this reflects the dominance and power of Catholicism in the middle ages, and notes that the Great Witch Hunts occurred during the chaos and uncertainty of the Reformation period.

I especially enjoyed the chapter on witches and ceremonial magic: I’m interested in spells for conjuring fairies but these are clearly linked to the work of magi like John Dee and may be traced back to Egyptian magical practices.

Turning to chapter 8 on fairies — my main reason for reading the book — Hutton offers an overview of the evolution of English fairy belief from 1200-1600 and examines the association between fairies and witches. His sketch of the development of British ideas as to the nature of fairies draws on a wide range of literary as well as folkloric sources, but underplays the native roots of the belief and is inclined to ascribe too much to quite late continental imports.

As for the relationship with fairies claimed by some witches, I believe that Hutton gives undue prominence to accounts given under duress by defendants in witch trials. The claims of special healing powers from the fairies are fairly unusual and I wonder if there are better explanations. Hutton also speculates whether a belief in fairies made a society less susceptible to a belief in satanic witches. Ireland might be cited in favor of this proposal, but the evidence is very complex; leaving this as a subject deserving of further study.

All in all, Ronald Hutton’s The Witch is an erudite and demanding read, packed with information and resources for further study.

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