The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic by Owen Davies

The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic
Edited by Owen Davies
Oxford University Press, 2017

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Review by Jason Mankey.

This is a challenging — and mostly academic — look at magical traditions over the last 3,000 years. I’m a huge fan of Davies’ contributions to magical history, especially Grimoires: A History of Magical Books and Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History, and this volume is a solid supplement to that work. But because it’s a collection featuring several different scholars, the tone throughout is uneven, and some essays feel far more relevant and enlightening than others.

While reading Witchcraft and Magic, I couldn’t stop wondering who the intended audience for this book is. It’s far too academic for casual readers, and probably not in-depth enough for academics. Topics I was intimately familiar with (such as the emergence of the Modern Craft) felt like they were given short shrift, while things I was less interested in seemed to take up more space. Often times I felt as I were reading a text-book designed for college students enrolled in Religious Studies 101.

Readers looking for a history of Modern Witchcraft along the lines of Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon will be mightily disappointed. Modern spiritual Witchcraft covers just eight or so pages, with no mention of Victor and Cora Anderson nor of the rise of “Traditional Witchcraft” over the last ten or so years.

I also found a chapter on “Witchcraft and Magic in Anthropology” somewhat uncomfortable. Perhaps it was fashionable to call the magic of the Azande people of Sudan “witchcraft” in the 1920’s, but I think we can do better today. I’m sure they have their own name for it, and translating native interpretations of magic to simply “witchcraft” feels limiting and reads as a desire to place everything in a Euro-centric box). We can and should do better.

Despite these criticisms, there are things about this book that I genuinely enjoyed. It’s an absolutely beautiful book: the images alone make this book worth flipping through, with many far outside the realm of “the usual” pictures one sees in books and articles about magical traditions.

The book is at its best when discussing the modern period, and the majority of the text covers the last 600 years or so. I once read that it takes about thirty years for new academic information to reach the masses, and anyone looking for up to date academic interpretations of Europe and North America’s Witch Trials will find them here. Davies’ own chapter on “The World of Popular Magic” is a welcome antidote to much of the unscholarly information currently floating around about cunning-craft and other forms of folk magic.

I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for an academic approach to society’s views on magic and witchcraft over the last several hundred years.

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John Dee and the Empire of Angels by Jason Louv

John Dee and the Empire of Angels: Enochian Magick and the Occult Roots of the Modern World
Jason Louv
Inner Traditions, 2018

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Review by Barbara Ardinger.

Let’s begin with a spoiler. Although many Neopagans are interested in occultism and the work of the 16th-century astrologer John Dee, it’s important to keep in mind that Dee was nothing close to pagan. He and Kelly spoke to and were visited by angels and demons (or hallucinations), not classical gods or goddesses. Enochian magick and visits by angels and demons are concepts based on Jewish, Christian, and Islamic holy books, both exoteric and esoteric. Dee’s angelic work influenced the Golden Dawn, which sort of counts as pagan because the late 19th-century group added some (mostly Egyptian) gods and goddesses to the elaborate angelic names and calls, watchtowers, tablets, sigilla, and altar “furniture” the angels and demons gave Dee. (There are some nifty color plates of these things in the book.)

Many Witches and Pagans are interested in history, ceremonial magic, the occult world (which author Jason Louv calls “the occulture”) and its practices. These practices include operative magic, which Louv defines as applying the “intellectual streams” of the Renaissance to “uncover a working methodology for interacting with and manipulating the universe” (pp. 61-62) — i.e., pretty much what we do every day. If you’re attracted to the occult, this excellent book should be in your hands. It’s well written, insightful, sometimes witty, and thoroughly researched, with 60 pages of endnotes, bibliography, and index, plus numerous footnotes.

Louv, a writer and teacher of magick and spirituality, opens the book in the Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man. Next, comes the “sublunary world,” which is apparently the fallen world we live in. The stage is now set for Book 1, “The Magus,” which contains a biography of the frustrated and usually poverty-stricken Elizabethan mathematician, intellectual, astrologer/astronomer, and scientist John Dee (1527-1609), who spent much of his life aspiring to be an adviser to a queen or a king but with little success, mostly because the royal advisers considered him a quack. Also explained in the first seven chapters are the Christian interpretations of the Book of Revelation. Louv also asserts that Dee’s work set both England and America on their paths to empire.

Book II, “The Angelic Conversations,” tells us how to rise up along the paths of the Qabalistic Tree and how to prepare a proper altar for the angelic work. Louv trudges through the magical Books (which all have Latin names), Watchtowers, and Aethyrs. We also meet angels and demons and the god that inflicts suffering on us to teach us how to behave ourselves. There’s also some alchemy, but very little gold in the monetary sense. It’s all metaphorical gold.

Book III, “The Antichrist,” is mostly devoted to the life and works of Aleister Crowley, Jack Parsons, and other occultists who followed them in working (magically and with the help of drugs and lots of sex) to become as evil as possible so that they can become as holy as possible. Chapter 15, “The Invisible College,” introduces us to learned men from the 16th to the 21st century and describes the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons and Masons, the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA), and the founding of the Golden Dawn. Chapter 16, “Crowned and Conquering,” is mostly about Crowley the 666 Beast and takes us in scrupulous — not to mention almost endless — detail through all thirty Aethyrs. These are visions and words of power. Chapter 17, “In the Shadow of the Cross,” introduces us to Crowley’s organization, the A..A.. and gives us more Golden Dawn, the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), and assorted people who wanted to meet Babalon, who is (to oversimplify) sexual Woman as the Supreme Evil.

Finally, Louv asserts that the work of John Dee initiated a line that reaches from the Reformation through 18th-century rationalism to the 20th century — hippies, the New Age, every strange and wonderful movement away from middle-class mores — and into the 21st century and the election of Donald Trump (really! See pp. 458-59). We’re in the middle of the modern Apocalypse now, and the last words in the book are “Christ is coming, and with him he shall bring an Empire of Angels.” (p. 462) The book, incidentally, was written in the City of Angels.

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Santa Muerte by Tracey Rollin

Santa Muerte: The History, Rituals, and Magic of Our Lady of the Holy Death
Tracey Rollin
Weiser, 2017

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Review by Holli Emore

A saint for criminals? A goddess who accepts everyone? A holdover from the blood cult of the Aztecs? It seems that everyone from the New York Times to Reza Aslan (Believer 2017 television series) to the Roman Catholic Church are either intrigued, enchanted or upset about Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, or Santa Muerte for short. Our Lady of Holy Death, the skeleton in a colorful dress, is rapidly acquiring new followers throughout Mexico and the southeastern United States. The Bony Lady, as some call her, is either a folk saint unauthorized by the church, or a goddess, depending on who you talk to. Either way, she is beloved and revered, particularly for her power to answer the prayers of her devoteés.

Tracey Rollin has written what might be the definitive Pagan book about Santa Muerte, skillfully weaving the bright colors of personal experience, history and lore, and suggested modern practice. Santa Muerte: The History, Rituals, and Magic of Our Lady of the Holy Death is beautifully-written. Rollin begins with an account of her Catholic childhood then goes on to provide fascinating details about the presumed origins of Santa Muerte, who is arguably based on the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl (also connected with the goddess Tonantein, who many believe to be the source of Our Lady of Guadalupe.) The church already had several patron saints of the dead, but Rollin notes that Santa Muerte is a haven of last resort for the marginalized such as prostitutes, addicts and, yes, drug cartel members.

This is the dark underside of Santa Muerte devotion which leads law enforcement to dread cartel followers who they feel act with more abandon and violence, thinking that they are under a special protection by the saint-goddess. It is even murmured that some will kill as an offering to Santa Muerte. Rollin does not apologize for this unfortunate connection, but relates it as being a natural outgrowth of Santa Muerte’s universal acceptance of all who come to her for protection and favors. In that aspect, she closely resembles many mother goddesses associated with death such as Kali, Hela, Oye or Sekhmet, or even the earth itself, which both gives and reclaims life with apparent disregard of status or even goodness. Neither death nor Santa Muerte discriminate; they come for each of us eventually.

If you are up to the challenge of looking into the compassionate but unyielding face of death, Santa Muerte (the book) may be your best introduction to a relationship with the saint-goddess. You will read about color aspects, using candles and novenas, rosary, incense, oil– even chocolate offerings. Rollin shares a number of prayers, blessings and other liturgical elements, even a banishing ritual à la the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram. While ending with a helpful glossary and a recommended reading list, a glaring omission from this otherwise excellent volume is the complete lack of references. Perhaps a future edition will add citations to satisfy those of us with inquiring minds.

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