Book Club: Intro to Part One, and Ch. 1

As before, none of this is meant to be taken as an exact quotation, except for excerpts of the book itself. This is just to give those not present the gist of the discussion.

Cat: What did people think, in general?

L: Intro was easier to read than the preface. The endnotes are helpful.

Kate: Prefer footnotes but yeah, since it’s not in dialect.

J: Prefers endnotes, actually.

[Aleja & Kate extol the virtues of Chicago Style footnotes…]

Cat: It’s not too heavy?
[attendees generally agree]

Cat: It’s nice she’s approaching it with no disclaimers and disbelief when it comes to the experiences of the people she’s writing about.

Kate: Much better than some of the discussions of African spiritual beliefs I’ve read. Those texts are too judgmental.

Aleja’s Discussion Note, p. 5:

  • Carlo Ginzburg: Italian historian, proponent of microhistory.  Wilby cites his Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches Sabbath (trans 1991) and Night Battles (trans 1992).  Both works discuss witch trials and connect them to shamanic traditions in continental Europe, such as the benandanti. Wikipedia:
  • Gabór Klaniczay: Hungarian historian, specializing in medieval history.  Currently a professor at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary.  Wilby cites his “Hungary: the Accusations and the Universe of Popular Magic” in the edited volume Early Modern European Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries (1990), and The Uses of Supernatural Power: The Transformation of Popular Religion in Medieval and Early-Modern Europe (trans 1990).  Faculty profile:
  • Éva Pócs: Hungarian ethnographer and folklorist.  Wilby cites her Fairies and Witches at the Boundaries of South-Eastern and Central Europe (1989), and Between the Living and the Dead (trans 1999). Wikipedia:Éva_Pócs

Kate: I want to go look at those.  They’re talking about shamanic traditions in continental Europe, but not in Britain.

Aleja: Not all of it has been translated.

Kate: Even when it is, they’re still not reading continental sources.

Kate: Bottom of page 5: “the value of ‘cunning’ or ‘wise’ folk as policemen, detectives, and doctors”. Cunningfolk are useful.

Cat: They’re integral members of society

J: Integral, but still fringe

Cat: One foot in each of the worlds

J: From an anthropological perspective – they’re like the shaman, living on edge of society

Kate: Not ostracized, like in some places I’ve been in Africa

Aleja: At the edge of the hedge, the edge of the forest. Not beyond it

Kate: Does anybody know anything about high magic then?

J: Agrippa, natural philosophy, alchemy

[Summarized from J’s later notes, he expands and explains that the three big “legal” types of what we’d consider magic as practiced by the elites were 1) Natural Philosophy, which back then included things like astrology and the magical properties of stones and herbs and became the precursor to modern day natural sciences, 2) Ceremonial Magic, which was mostly about commanding demons in the name of God, and 3) Alchemy, which had spiritual elements but eventually became the precursor to modern chemistry. J also notes that the distinction between high/low magic dates from the 19th century, after our period of study, and that what we might term “low magic” at the time was variously called “fortune telling”, “necromancy”, “folk magic”, “superstition”, etc.]

[To that, I would also add “cunningcraft”, as “cunningfolk” is really one of the most common terms for the practitioners, hence Wilby’s use of the term.]

Kate: But who in the UK? [A short list of important persons follows:]

J: I’ve read some of the source material, how it later becomes the Golden Dawn, etc

Cat: We only know the stories and charms or folk magic when they’re passed down, or collected, like Brothers Grimm. Recommend a book: Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales, by Valerie Paradiz.

J: Wilby defining terms, (fairy, elf, imp) many are used interchangeably, and also fairies and the dead overlap

Aleja: Yeah, back to the preface discussion. [See sources in previous blog!]

Kate: It’s very grey.  Difficult for things to be black and white but textual based analysis doesn’t like that.  Wilby is explicit about working in grey space, and if you don’t like it, “Suck it up, buttercup”. [Direct Kate quote]

J: The common folk had a limited understanding of elphame, just like they had a limited understanding of Christianity

Aleja: there’s a tale from I forget where, with three roads: to heaven, hell, elphame

J: Thomas the Rhymer [link]

Aleja: Ah! Yes, thank you!

K: [arrived a bit late, was asked for general impression] It was easier to read than some of the books we did last year.  I finished the reading on time.

Cat: I like that this book is accessible, doesn’t require background.  And it’s not talking down to us

J: It’s a different kind of writing than normal academic texts – meant for public consumption.

Aleja: The roadmap on pgs 6-7 is pretty useful if you get lost in the text.

Aleja’s Discussion Notes P. 8, clarifying Wilby’s brief mentions

  • Break with Rome: 1529, Henry VIII, to divorce Catherine of Aragon (Wife #1)
  • Rise of Protestantism: 1535, creation of the Anglican Church
  • Execution of a King: 1649, Charles I, following his defeat by Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War (1642-46).
  • Establishment of the Commonwealth: 1649-60, with Cromwell as Lord Protector beginning in 1653.  Britain a Republic, with no Monarchy, until it was reestablished, following Cromwell’s death, in 1660 with Charles II.
  • Rationalism: 17th & 18th century philosophical movement towards free-thinking. Often anti-clerical.  See: René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Leibniz, and others.
  • Industrialization: The Industrial Revolution began in the UK in the mid 1700s.

Kate: subsistence agriculture… people don’t understand that.  Academics are elitist and overlook what kind of harsh lifestyles are made necessary in that sort of environment

[tangent about crops vs animals when it comes to land use, the agriculture of indigenous people in America, and recapping the argument from last time about peasants seeming unfeeling or cruel.]

J: Jumping ahead, pg 21. “on the one hand, fairy skill in physic was believed to be unparalleled, Oxford scholar Robert Burton accurately echoing popular belief when he claimed that fairies and other spirits ’cause and cure most diseases’.”  Natural philosophy, from our earlier discussion.  Attributing the healing to fairy’s knowledge of high magic.

Aleja: End notes 2 and 3 are important here. 2 because it discusses the flow of ideas between people of different social classes. 3 because Katherine Briggs is an amazingly important folklorist for the modern Fairy Faith.

J: Malleus Maleficarum a useful source because author contrasts church beliefs with common beliefs.
[Summarized from J’s later notes: MM was published in 1487, and it was a bestseller for 200 years. Also, King James I’s Daemonologie. He was obsessed with witches and hunting them after he ascended the English throne in 1603, til his death in 1625. ]

Aleja’s Discussion Question!
Wilby claims on pg. 8 it is difficult for modern westerners to imagine an enchanted environment. What do we think?

Kate: That’s how I was raised, with spirits everywhere

Aleja: I think most of us (witches, pagans) don’t have issues imagining magic and spirits.  How many of us are animists?  [most attendees nod]

Kate: I think it’s still very strong in western culture, just not among the elite. 

J: As the saying goes, there’s no atheist in a foxhole.  When things are shit, you look for something less scientific

K: Magic is a way fix the problems people are struggling with

J: High magic is a scientific approach to magic, more the tool of the elite

Cat: whereas witchcraft is the tool of the disenfranchised

[more discussion of high magic/low magic, or ceremonial vs folk magic]

Cat: Herbalism has a lot of science in it

Kate: But if I were using it to help someone, I wouldn’t explain the science, I’d just say it worked

Aleja: I think J meant scientific methodology, specifically

J: yeah probably, instead of scientific thinking

Kate: I don’t really care about the why

J: low magic is pragmatism

Cat: elites take folk magic and do it themselves, and add more expensive flair and tools and make it inaccessible

J: they’re dismissive of the “superstition of the masses”

K: Even today, too, the scientific establishment is dismissive. For example: Easter Island statues “walked” said the people, and science found out that they actually did waddle back and forth, with ropes. [Link!]

Aleja: Aboriginal people knew about fire starting raptors in Australia [Link!]

J: Europeans didn’t believe in orangutans. [Could not find a source. Possibly meant gorillas?]

Cat: shared hairdresser story [this woman!]

Kate: Academics don’t talk to craftspeople, and they really should

Aleja’s Discussion Question!
Based on pg 10 and endnote 4.

Do you distinguish between religion and magic in your practice? How do you define those? Where do you draw the line?

Aleja: I don’t really distinguish between them – I find it difficult to separate them out, based on how I practice

Kate: I don’t

Cat: I do both secular and religious magic

J: seems to be difficult to suss out

Kate: if someone asks me what my religion is, I say I’m a witch

S: I believe that all magic is science we don’t understand yet, so I put them under the same umbrella

J: useful in certain contexts but breaks down pretty quickly

Cat: I like supplicatory vs coercive

Aleja: Oh I like that one better

K: not a wiccan, hard to categorize my religion, witch is useful

J: in some contexts “religious” vs “spiritual” is very important.  But they’re still artificial groupings

Kate: constructs for definitional frameworks

L: religion for me now is belief in something. Came from a prayer background. Magic is more active, feels like you have more control

Cat: that’s why I like supplication vs coercion. 

J: coercion more high magic

Aleja: [my usual soapbox, semi-joking] I don’t know why you would summon someone into a circle. Rude

J: depends on your worldview, if you believe the spirits are dangerous

Aleja: Then find someone the fuck else to work with, or don’t!

S: I’m just trying not to be the first black man to die in a horror film.  But I live in a haunted as fuck apartment building accidentally.  One time I was taking my dog out at night, she freaked out (usually not scared of anything), I can’t see through small copse of trees that is usually pretty easy to see through.  We LEAVE.

Cat: everyone should have a dog.  Have you seen The Conjuring?

Aleja: Does anyone need context for the Catholic rituals mentioned?

Aleja: [gives Catholic mass spark notes. Lots of sitting, standing, kneeling, call and response, saying prayers in unison, singing songs, communion meal with wafer and wine]
Also, Latin on pg. 12 is the sign of the cross, “In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”. On page 13, “Paternosters” are recitations of the “Our Father” prayer, “Aves” are the “Hail Mary” prayer, and it’s referring to the Apostle’s Creed, a version of the Nicene Creed.

Aleja: Remember that not every village had a church

Cat: The novel Winter Witch by Paula Braxton goes into that

Kate: I don’t usually remember that

J: we’re thinking of early protestant America, where there were churches everywhere and everyone went

Cat: also Britain is very small

Kate: just early modern, too

Kate: being at mass conferred benefits (read quote: “conferred instant …blindness”, and “the old faith…earthly problems”).  When I was finally identifying as a witch, I found Catholics understand magic a bit better.

Aleja: most of the Christians who identify as witches that I’ve met, are Catholic

L: Pagan temples became sites of catholic churches, and they incorporated the imagery (Italy, France)

Cat: True in the UK, too: greenman

Kate: conflict between Protestantism vs Catholicism at this point, too

[The English Reformation: ]

Cat: my favorite part was sneaking the communion wafer out of church to use as a magical charm… but it’s Jesus?

Aleja: but did they really know and understand it was Jesus?  The priest said so in Latin!

Kate: They knew it was blessed by someone who has a connection to the divine, which made it clearly magical

J: In the ancient world, there was a certain pragmatism in who you pray to.  Re-purposing of charms.  Old charms say Odin, newer ones say Jesus.

Cat: charm with first and last lines added later pg 14

Aleja’s Discussion Notes!
Pg 14, clarifying Wilby’s list of holidays with pagan themes

  • Plough Monday – first Monday after 12th Night (epiphany, Jan 6). Return to work, but also guise dancing like Morris Dances and inversion celebrations/moral holidays
  • Rogation Week – last week of the 40 day Easter season (May-ish), before the Ascension. Procession of torches, relics, images of saints, and a Jesus lion, and a Pontius Pilate dragon that the lion “overcomes”.
  • St. John’s Eve & St Peter’s Eve – beginning and end of Midsummer (now the 24th June & 29th June). Bonfires. Cornwall: serpent dance.
  • Church Ales: fundraising drinking party, very popular.
  • May Games: Beltane. May Queen, maypole, morris dancing, singing, hawthorn.
  • Hocktide: two weeks after Easter; approximately the vernal equinox. Vacation for animal husbandry workers.  Quarter day: rents due. (Other British quarter days are Michaelmas approximately the autumn equinox, Christmas, and St John’s.)
  • Lord of Misrule: Christmastide, Feast of Fools
  • Summer Lords and Ladies: I’m not sure what these are

Kate: pg 15 “in many parts of England and Scotland churches were without a resident priest. Those parishes with incumbent priests all too frequently found their man of God guilty of immorality, greed or negligence and saw the disproportionate wealth of the Church failing to see its way to where it was needed.”

Aleja’s Discussion Question! Pgs 15-16.
Were you surprised at the level of Christian belief and knowledge?

Remember, this is not too long after the Reformation, and the first widely available English translation of the Bible.  (Great Bible of 1539, authorized by Henry 8, for the brand-new Anglican Church. Printed, printing press w/ moveable type developed mid 1400s) not too terribly different from other syncretic spirituality systems, like those in Latin America today.

Cat: I kinda was

J: I was.  There was less than I thought

L: The bit about humor used to cover up lack of knowledge surprised me. [End note #24]  I was definitely shocked

Kate: I wasn’t shocked at all.  I’ve read the Bible several times and know more about Christianity than a lot of Christians today

J: I feel dumb for not having realized it, because I knew the effects of it

Cat: if you could read the bible, you could be tried by the church instead

J: In the play, The Crucible, it comes up repeatedly.  One of the accused couldn’t remember the 10 commandments, and that seemed odd

Aleja: Also, the woman who only knew the Lord’s prayer in Latin (Catholic)

Kate: people said Catholics weren’t Christian

L: I was raised with that view too, in GA

Aleja: I got that reaction in elementary school in GA. [I was raised Catholic]

Me: Wilby discusses syncretism page 16, and I think it’s somewhat comparable to afro-carribbean syncretic religious traditions today. Catholicism seems to keep doing this

J: In the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina comic, their Black Mass is the inversion of Catholic ritual, not something actually pre-Christian

AND that’s where we ran out of time! We’ll pick up next time on page 17, and continue through Chapter Two!

1 thought on “Book Club: Intro to Part One, and Ch. 1”

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