It's an accessible history, guidebook, and how-to compendium. In a friendly, yet cautious, manner, the writers encourage readers to learn more about the traditions of England, as well as forms invented and revamped by hundreds of thousands of pagans, believers, and "Armchair Magicians" today.
(N.B. I am not a magician, but a medievalist, so my interest in this was more scholarly than as a grimoire. I am aware of the infighting that may rage here as among pagans about nomenclature, inclusion, and exclusion. But my review is for a general reader looking inside a realm that most of us on the outside know little about...)
Twelve fast-paced, illustrated and annotated chapters reveal this vast storehouse of lore. Ancient roots, starting with prehistoric cave-dwellers, dig down into pre-Celtic and Celtic foundations. Saxon sorcerers displace and follow Druids. Their descendants become medieval Catholics, grail searchers with their own complicated relationship to their magical peers.
Alchemy intrigued "puffers" close to Elizabethan courtiers. Witches met persecution, if in England far fewer being hanged than some have supposed. Astrologers, cunning-men (akin to fortune-tellers or psychics today), wizards, Rosicrucians, scryers, Freemasons, Theosophists, Spiritualists, and mediums populate the chronicles of the past five hundred years. Even if most who feared or welcomed magic lived in isolation, one city grew in its allure. Enduring in its attraction for England's spiritual and scientific explorers, London, the authors remind us, is better than Cairo or Calcutta, Paris or Prague, for anybody curious about the Craft. They detail its lore and its three occult bookstores lovingly.
Essays by adepts enrich this volume. Brian Bates, a psychologist and shamanistic researcher, laments the superficiality of how magic is treated. "People nowadays will happily read Harry Potter, but are wary of the real stuff." The reclamation of what popular culture distorts, while protecting the secrecy of lore and rituals entrusted to true initiates, characterizes many who guard their mystery traditions.
Some still remain anonymous here. One, a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn that once attracted W.B. Yeats as well as a man whom he detested, Aleister Crowley, explains his search "for the mystery of being." He reasons that magic is both objective and subjective. It is created by the imagination and then takes on its own life; it is real and separate from human beings at the same time.
Few contributors claim, as earlier witches did a few decades ago, to inherit magical skills. Instead, they seek out the few who control them, who create them, and who teach them. Carr-Gomm and Heygate warn of the easy lure of spell-casting; the love charm they include should be used to bring love into one's life, but not a particular lover. For, he or she once enticed may turn out to be the bane of one's existence.
Websites, reading lists of novels and manuals, experts, locations, and schools append each chapter. While some oversight may be inevitable (I missed James Blish's erudite novel on medieval alchemist Roger Bacon, "Doctor Mirabilis" [see my review], and the fiction of J.C. Powys and Iain Sinclair), the authors succeed in navigating between the skeptical and the credulous among those whom they address and whom they include. For those wishing to find out about such lore, such guidance remains necessary. Nigel Pennick, a prolific scholar-practitioner, laments how people "no longer do things because their ancestors did them; it is no longer part of our culture to pass things on to the next generation."
The repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951, Swinging Sixties appeal, and the ecological threats that increased awareness of earth-based religious practices in the 1980s contribute to the shift in perception among many English people that welcomed pagan or alternative forms of ritual and belief.
This sense of adventure, for perhaps more wary seekers, accounts for the rise in public perceptions of esoteric, and formerly shunned or banned, practices. Music's touched on within a summation of Chaos Magic, but the impact of film and television portrayals of magic, oddly, is absent from this survey. Compared to Margot Adler's magisterial account of American New Age and neo-pagan movements, "Drawing Down the Moon" (see my review), this counterpart appears more grounded in the living history which connects the English varieties directly to their dolmens and fields, their hideaways and chambers. This, after all, is the strength inherent in their magical legacy.
This book closes movingly, acknowledging the eclectic, syncretic nature of the corpus of a resuscitated English magical tradition. Deep down, the authors advise, one knows if one or more of the paths sketched in this book may direct one to fulfillment. This magical quest draws on a depth of awareness that contemplation and study may reveal.
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About the reviewer
John L. Murphy (Fionnchu)
Medievalist turned humanities professor; unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica. … more
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