Why you should study the history of magic and where to begin

One of the many issues that face newcomers to the occult, paganism and witchcraft is that of authenticity.  It is the eternal bugbear of modern witchcraft, which has a rather messy relationship with its own history (or lack thereof). Looking back on my own journey, I can see how important authenticity once was to me. I spent years tunnelling further down the rabbit hole, looking for ‘real witchcraft’ – the further down I went, the more I began to doubt that such a thing existed. Thankfully, I now have a more relaxed relationship with the witch archetype but in the process of searching I became fascinated with the history of magic itself.

The quest for validity is often ignited by a disillusionment with the poor history of some occult and pagan authors. If what you’ve been fed is largely fiction masquerading as historical fact then the desire to know the ‘truth’ is completely natural. There are entire systems, like reconstructionist polytheism, born out of the desire to be historically authentic. In occultism, there has been a hunger for ‘ancient’ knowledge since at least the early modern Renaissance. Magicians placed great value on the writings of the sage Hermes Trismegistus, a supposedly pre-biblical figure who, among other things, invented astrology and predicted the birth of Christ. However, in 1614 Casaubon dated the hermetic corpus to no earlier than the 3rd or 4th century AD, damaging the image of Trismegistus as idol of prisca theologia. The occult and pagan communities would suffer similar ‘revelations’ in the 20th century, leading to disillusionment with the historical claims of their authors.

In the 1970s and 80s, a couple of English magicians decided to look at the problem from a different angle. They came up with a system that values results over tradition – chaos magic. Most magical systems are eclectic and syncretic, but chaos magic is openly so. Its practitioners may use the Greek Magical Papyri one day and the Simonomicon the next. Both are considered valid – as long as they work. In this instance, authenticity is provided by results and experience, not historical precedence. After all, what is the point of calling the Gods with ancient hymns if they don’t answer? Why write your curse in Latin if English will suffice?

I agree with the chaos magicians that results matter, but I’m also a historian by training and I recognise that chaos magic, like all occult systems, is a product of its time and takes on many elements of the late 20th century world view (while apparently rejecting others.) Historically sourced magic may not be more authentic purely because of its antiquity, yet there is a great deal of benefit to be gained from a thorough study of the subject.

The most obvious reason for taking up the study of the history of magic is that it will make you more discerning. You are less likely to buy into a system, idea or author on the basis of a false history if you can spot such claims the minute you open a book. This background knowledge will also allow you to pick apart syncretic systems like the Golden Dawn, Wicca, Thelema or ‘Traditional Witchcraft’ and discern their influences.

Crucially, an awareness of the history of magic will liberate you from the search for the ‘one true’ or valid path. There have been many effective systems of magic developed over the centuries and all have been eclectic and syncretic rather than pure streams of ancient magic. It highlights that modern magic, of any variety, is part of a non-linear tradition of adaptation and innovation, valuing the old but reworking it alongside new ideas and a changing world view.

The history of magic is also worth studying as a resource, a treasure trove of old charms, incantations, herb lore, spirit names and amulets. It’s juicy stuff and relevant to the needs and wants of modern practitioners. People in Hellenic Alexandria or 18th century France used magic for many of the same needs and desires we have today. Modern popular magic has retained some historical elements, but many methods have been forgotten and may be worthy of re-examination and incorporation into your practice. At the same time, the claims of historical magicians for the miraculous properties of certain stones or the abilities of certain spirits to influence the physical world might inspire healthy scepticism about the verity of all ancient magic.

However, the reason I am passionate about the history of magic, and the wider history of ideas, is that it allows us to try out different world views. If we want to understand how a Renaissance magus or a 19th century cunning woman practiced their magic, we need to come to terms with how they saw the world. Essentially, we are made to rearrange our mental furniture from the default set-up of our disenchanted culture to one in which magic is far more widely accepted as a part of reality. By studying the history of magic, you will encounter a diverse range of practices and a wide variety of ideas about how and why those practices work. The study of history requires as much imagination as it does fact checking, although this is an imaginative exercise inspired by evidence rather than in spite of it!

The difficulty, I openly acknowledge, is in knowing where to start. Unless you have studied history at a tertiary level, it can be daunting to the face the mass of scholarship available, even though the field we call the ‘History of Western Esotericism’ is comparatively small. At the end of this essay, I’ll list a few resources I’ve found invaluable, although none of them are definitive. However, there are some basic academic concepts that are good to familiarise yourself with before you begin. Perhaps the most important is the difference between primary and secondary sources:

  • Primary sources are documents or other objects created in the period of history being studied. A 15th century manuscript or a Roman lead curse tablet is a primary source.
  • Secondary sources are documents from a later period, attempting to interpret primary sources. A book by a modern scholar or a podcast on medieval magic is a secondary source. 

Any claim made by a historian in a secondary source should be backed up by evidence in a primary source. Sometimes, in entry level books or overviews of a subject, these claims will be backed up by other secondary sources – but these will be referenced. You should always be able to follow a statement back to the primary source(s), that is good history. Secondary sources are full of interpretations, theories and opinions about the primary sources. They’re helpful to our understanding, but don’t take them as verified fact.

The second concept to keep in mind is the difference between the history of magic and the history of witchcraft. If you attended an academic conference on witchcraft hoping to learn about historical magic, you might be a little disappointed. That’s because the study of the European witch trials is not primarily the study of people who were actually practicing magic, but of the strange cocktail of religious, social and political factors that led to the torture and death of ordinary women and men as ‘witches’. That’s not to say there is no overlap between the two, fairy beliefs and the medieval grimoire tradition certainly influenced the idea of witchcraft in the minds of persecutors. However, the focus of this field of study is very different and less concerned with the practice of magic than popular beliefs about witches. Likewise, the history of magic is not exclusively, or even predominately, a ‘pagan’ or polytheist history, it spans religions and cultures, transforming and adjusting to the dominant world view and religious structures of each place and time.

So, where does one start chronologically? The obvious answer would be the beginning. As far back in time as we have written or archaeological records. However, I would explicitly caution against doing this. The truth is that it’s much easier to start in a later period and work backwards as you build up a familiarity with concepts, authors and even the language needed to grasp primary sources. Our modern, western world view is perhaps more similar to that of the 19th century CE than the third, and thus more recent history may be more approachable. To that end, the reading list below has been arranged, roughly, from modern to ancient. Of course, if you have a particular interest in one period over another, by all means begin there.

You may notice that I’ve only included academic studies of magic, and not those produced by occult publishers. This century has seen a resurgence of evidence-based history in occult publishing, a trend we should applaud. However, there is also another sort of history – let’s call it ‘mythic history.’ All religions and many esoteric traditions have a mythic history alongside the history of their foundation and development as supported by the sources. Mythic history serves a vital purpose, inspiring practitioners through the power of story, filling in gaps with potent symbolism and linking the physical with the immaterial. I do not wish to dismiss mythic history, or those who write in this vein, but simply to differentiate the two.

A very short History of Magic reading list

This list is not meant to be exhaustive but hopefully provides a good starting point for the history of magic in Western Europe. If it is weighted towards the middle ages, this betrays my own research interests. I have chosen to include books I have actually read, rather than trying to cover periods I am less familiar with. I have opted for more general and approachable studies over edited collections and those that feature specific texts or individuals and, in doing so, have no doubt left out some classics of the field. Further reading may be found by perusing the bibliographies of these works or searching within the period of interest.

  • Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: a history of modern pagan witchcraft.
  • Alex Owen, The Place of Enchantment: British occultism and the culture of the modern
  • Owen Davies, Popular magic : cunning folk in English history and Grimoires : a history of magic books
  • Stephen Wilson, The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe
  • Frances Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age and Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition*
  • Anne Lawrence-Mathers and Carolina Escobar-Vargas, Magic and Medieval Society
  • Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages
  • Catherine Rider, Magic and Religion in Medieval England
  • Bill Griffiths, Aspects of Anglo Saxon Magic
  • Matthew Dickie, Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World

*Yates was a pioneer in this field and her books are engaging and well worth reading, however, some of her theories have since been discredited.

While some of these books are available as affordable paperbacks online, or from your favourite occult bookshop, others can be difficult or expensive to acquire. I suggest looking into your local university library and their access options. You may be able to take out a membership, or get a reading card to peruse their shelves without being an enrolled student.

Academic journals in this field include:

Additionally, there is an exceptionally good podcast, SHWEP (The Secret History of Western Esotericism Podcast) which aims to trace the evolution of esoteric ideas in the west. I cannot recommend it highly enough for those seeking an in-depth education in the history of magic.

I hope this will inspire practitioners not already immersed in the history of magic to begin to explore it. We’re living in an exciting time, where this field of study is expanding and becoming more accessible through exhibitions, popular and academic books, podcasts, video lectures and conferences. Whether you are searching for authenticity, ancient incantations and recipes or simply a better understanding of where modern systems of magic come from, you will find many rewards for your exploration of this fascinating subject. I must warn you however, that the history of magic is a thoroughly addictive pursuit.

The Treadwell’s Book of Plant Magic – Book Review

I have missed my regular trips to London, which have always included a visit to Treadwell’s, one of the city’s premier occult book shops. Treadwell’s is conveniently close to King’s Cross station and my regular haunts at the BL, BM and Wellcome Collection. It is quite a special place, beautifully designed and atmospheric. From the table of new releases, to the shelves with their curated mix of old and new, magic and history, folklore and art, I’ve picked up many a treasured volume there. They also host book launches, lectures and classes, acting as a community hub for magical London.

I was delighted to order Treadwell’s first in-house publication The Treadwell’s Book of Plant Magic, by shop owner and founder, Christina Oakley Harrington. The book is essentially a magical herbal, with an alphabetic listing (by common name) of trees, wild and propagated herbs commonly found in Britain. There are no particularly exotic plants and I was delighted by the inclusion of some very common weeds that are often overlooked, such as herb robert and ragwort. This localised selection makes it ideal for British readers, however the book will still be of interest to those from North America and continental Europe due to the wide geographic range of many of these plants.

Each listing includes the scientific name, sometimes additional common names, planetary attributions (taken from Culpeper and/or Lilly), a summary of associated folklore and, finally, a few suggested uses, recipes or spells from historical sources. This last element is, I feel, the most valuable, as the suggestions serve to sensitively interpret and update the folkloric material for modern readers – without taking overly creative liberties with the source material. Most of the references are from European folklore, ranging from the medieval to the modern with the occasional bit of classical mythology. The book focuses on the use of herbs in folk magic rather than an extensive exploration of the folklore of each plant. Fairy folklore and plant associations are particularly prominent.

Dr Oakley Harrington was previously a lecturer in medieval history and this is reflected in both a familiarity with medieval and early modern sources and, blessedly, the referencing of each piece of folklore via extensive end notes. This is one of the most valuable attributes of the book, for many collections of folk magic put out by occult publishers include little in the way of referencing. That said, it is not an academic book but a practical guide and features a useful index of common problems in the introductory pages. Thus, the reader can look up ‘gambling luck’ or ‘courage’ and find the related herbs very quickly. There is also a brief appendix of ‘days and dates for magic’ – including planetary days and calendar customs, and eighteen spells and formulas that require multiple herbs.

There is little to criticise in this book as it fulfils very nicely what it sets out to do. It may have benefited from the eye of a botanist as there are a few minor errors of that nature – most likely picked up from the source material rather than introduced by the author. For example, the identification of Hyssopus officinalis with the biblical hyssop may date to the middle ages, however the plant was likely Syrian oregano (Origanum syriacum). Additionally, I would like to have seen more information on toxicity. There aren’t many poison plants listed, and henbane does include a warning, but for some reason plants like yew, bryony and daffodil do not. While we can hope that readers do their research before consuming plants, it is important to know which herbs are toxic even if you are only handling them.

Overall, The Treadwell’s Book of Plant Magic is an excellent introductory guide for those interested in working with plants and folk magic. I would recommend it also as a general or quick reference, superior to Cunningham’s, for those who want to look up the folk magic associations of a herb with the reassurance of knowing the listings are based on historical sources and can be followed up via the end notes. I would really love to see a hardcover edition at some point (maybe with illustrations?) as the lovely, sage green paperback is not likely to last long in this herbalist’s hands! I look forward to seeing what Treadwell’s in house publishing produces next and hope it won’t be too long before I am able to visit the shop in person again.

The Treadwell’s Book of Plant Magic can be purchased from their online shop.

Our Failing Shadows – Book Review

The surest sign, to my mind, that we are experiencing a renaissance of Western esotericism is in the verdant flourishing of occult art. From the music of Hawthonn to the visual art of Glyn Smyth, to name just two among many brilliant artists, the quality of esoteric artistic output is surging. This is as vital to the movement as the grimoire revival and serious research into our magical heritage. The two are not disconnected. Indeed, independent occult publishers have supported this flourishing by commissioning illustrators and, in the past few years, releasing volumes of poetry and fiction alongside non-fiction texts.

The newly founded Nemglan Press is dedicated to this very endeavour. Their focus is, refreshingly, on fictive prose and poetry as a means of engaging imaginatively with the occult. This is not to create a false distinction between works of occult fiction and non-fiction, but rather to highlight the power of storytelling and poetry in inspiring gnosis. Their first Black Chapbook, Our Failing Shadows by Alexander Menid, has just been released and may be freely read in its entirety here.

I was fortunate to receive an early printed copy of the chapbook, and can confirm that those who prefer ink on paper will have much to look forward to in Nemglan’s future print editions. A great deal of care and attention has gone into the design and presentation of this work, which is both minimalist and evocative. The text is accompanied by sigils, echoing the poems in layers of symbolism drawing on a variety of spiritual traditions. They are well worth studying alongside the poetry itself.

Our Failing Shadows is a twilight text, best read at dusk or dawn. Indeed, many of the poems call on themes of liminality, the unseen and the shadowy presence of the dead within the land. Few spirits are named, and those that are not draw power from their ambiguity. The poems vary in voice and style, some are invocatory, others bold statements of identity from the otherworld. The spirits are called and given a voice, and sometimes that voice whispers things uncomfortable to hear. The poet engages with concepts of sin, both religious and ecological. ‘Anticosmic’ and ‘A Curse (for Humankind)’ confront us with the fact that however much we other ourselves, we cannot escape our humanity.

My personal favourites in the collection were ‘A Folk-Song for Midsummer’ – which begs to be set to music, ‘The Spirit-Ways’ – which engages the sort of ancestral memory we sometimes experience when walking old roads, and ‘The Watcher’ – an antidote perhaps to the sins explored in other pages.

For those who do not reach for poetry automatically, rest assured that you will find this work both engaging and eerily familiar. It draws in form and style on ancient hymns, spells, psalms, charms and folk music. It is also a text that can be worked, including invocations to spirits and even a solitary rite, with full instructions. This is not a passive book about someone else’s spiritual experience, but one which the reader too may become involved in.

This is an exciting start for Nemglan Press and I eagerly anticipate the next in their Black chapbook series. The only challenge I perceive ahead for them is to match the quality of this first volume.

Botanical Drinks, Michael Isted – Book Review

I don’t usually buy coffee table books about herbs. Luscious, full page photo spreads are visually stimulating but generally accompanied by fairly basic introductions to the subject. They make nice gifts but take up a lot of space on the bookshelf. So when I stumbled upon Michael Isted’s book I was surprised and delighted to find something truly unique; a ‘cookbook’ style compilation that contains original formulae inspired by the history of herbal medicine and magic.

Isted has a slightly unusual background for a herbalist, working for luxury hotels, spas and restaurants to create concept drinks. His middle eastern clientele have required a non-alcoholic approach to cocktails and the influence of traditional Arabic ingredients and techniques can be found throughout the book. Isted is a qualified phytotherapist who understands the medicinal properties and benefits of the plants he works with and acknowledges the traditions of both Eastern and Western schools of herbal medicine. The introductory chapters feature a brief history, a short herbarium and instructions for several methods of processing and preparing herbs. This is delivered in a concise fashion that demonstrates the author is familiar with all the methods and plants he describes. It is approachable to newcomers to the subject, however, this is the only ‘beginners’ section of the book.

 

The recipes themselves are extraordinary. This is a book of potions. Drinks designed to heighten the senses, strengthen memory, induce love, astral projection, dreaming, to heal, clarify and sedate. Unlike the tinctures and teas that make up the apothecaries of most herbalists (present company included) they’re also intended to look and taste exquisite. Isted draws on ancient remedies like theriac and mithridatum for inspiration. There is a drinkable Kyphi, a love potion made with infusion of rose quartz and possibly my favourite – a cordial inspired by Dr Dee with black limes, charcoal and obsidian. Isted’s approach and world view is likewise magical, utilising semi-precious stones and recommending appropriate lunar and solar timings. He even includes a simple charm to be recited along with one of the philtres.

 

The preparations required for many of the potions are extensive. Most are formulated on a ‘base’ – a cordial, sherbet, infused honey, oxymel or glycerine tincture that is diluted with juices, infusions or other liquids to form the drink. This is an excellent idea, allowing for a concentrated and longer lasting ‘stock’ that makes the full effort of preparation unnecessary every time. And when I say effort – I mean it. I realised immediately that I could make very few of these drinks in a day from what I have on hand. Most require weeks or even months of maceration or infusion to extract the plant bases. Many require fairly exotic ingredients – and while some may consider this an unnecessary expense, I feel it heightens the challenge inherent in each recipe. Equal respect is given to foraged, seasonal herbs that can be found in temperate Europe and Isted encourages the use of organic and ethically harvested ingredients.

 

Thus far, I’ve only made one recipe from the collection, the Cognitive Theriac, which includes ginger, fresh ginkgo and rosemary. It is an infused honey, and so I’ll have to wait a few weeks to test it properly, but having licked the spoon I used to press the herbs beneath the honey, I can vouch that it is already delicious.

 

This is not a book I would give to someone starting out in herbalism, or to a student of purely medical phytotherapy. However, if you have experience with basic herbal preparations and are looking for something challenging, inspiring and magically inclined – Botanical Drinks will suit you. There are dozens of spell books out there and a few good texts of occult herbalism, but precious few formularies. While this is far more playful, light hearted and exoteric than something like Ars Philtron, it fulfills a similar desire to heighten the potion makers art.

 

Michael Isted can be found at The Herball http://www.theherball.com/

 

Thirteen Pathways of Occult Herbalism – Book Review

13Paths

While eagerly anticipating the release of Daniel A. Schulke’s The Green Mysteries, I have been fortunate enough to receive a copy of Thirteen Pathways of Occult Herbalism, a companion volume of essays on topics related to plant magic. As a long-time admirer of Schulke’s landmark Viridarium Umbris, one of the first modern works to treat esoteric herbalism in depth, I harbour high expectations of these new titles.

Thirteen Pathways is a slim volume (138 pages) containing four essays, a short preface and bibliography. I have the trade paperback edition, which is nicely bound and printed and features beautiful illustrations by Benjamin Vierling. I found the preface particularly refreshing, written in a simple style in the first person, it clearly outlines the objective of the work:

The purpose of Thirteen Pathways is therefore to examine routes by which we can learn the occult nature of plants, and in doing so, incorporate their powers in our own mystical pursuits, and beyond.

Those familiar with Schulke’s writing will be aware of his characteristic style, which tends towards the poetic, archaic and sometimes obfuscatory. Although Thirteen Pathways retains certain poetic flourishes it is, on the whole, an approachable text, clearly and lucidly written. It is my hope that a similar style has been adopted for the forthcoming Green Mysteries.

The first, titular essay was by far the most inspiring in my reading. Schulke briefly outlines the history of Occult Herbalism, and some common misconceptions relating to the subject. This is followed by the thirteen ‘pathways’, or ‘philosophical routes’ and thirteen ‘gardens’. The pathways are given Greek titles and consist of physical, intellectual and magical approaches to gaining herb knowledge and experience. The gardens are described as visions of symbolic landscapes centered around particular ethnobotanical relationships, such as healing or funerary plants.

Unfortunately, the scope of this essay allows only for a brief summary of each pathway and garden, but it is enough to stimulate and inspire the reader into further exploration. The pathways listed do not prescribe working methods but allow the practitioner to examine their own. Thus it is not a working manual so much as an enquiry into the ideas behind varying approaches. I have long felt that there is an over-emphasis in modern ‘traditional’ witchcraft on entheogens and poisonous plants, to the exclusion of other forms of plant magic. In the ‘gardens’, Schulke helps to redress this balance by placing equal value on diverse varieties of human-plant relationships including perfumery, cosmetics and cloth making. Familiar with the idea of planetary ‘gardens’, I enjoyed the originality of Schulke’s ethnobotanical approach. I believe ‘Thirteen Pathways’ to be a stimulating read for any esoteric herbalist, although not one aimed at the beginner.

Admittedly, I was less excited by the other essays included in the book. I had already read ‘Transmission of Esoteric Occult Knowledge in the Twenty-First Century’ in volume 2. of Verdant Gnosis. The final two essays are very short and approach the topic from a more academic perspective, looking at the history and anthropology behind occult herbalism and drawing upon diverse global traditions for examples. I found both of these pieces to be broad overviews of loosely related concepts, rather than deep investigations of particular practices. There was little I had not encountered previously. For example, the content of ‘The Green Intercessor’ on fallen angels will be familiar to readers of Schulke’s past work and books like The Pillars of Tubal-Cain (Jackson & Howard, 2000.)

For those who have enjoyed Schulke’s previous publications, I consider Thirteen Pathways a worthwhile acquisition. I am curious to see how the ideas expressed in the titular essay are addressed and expanded in The Green Mysteries, and have high hopes for the forthcoming volume.

Thirteen Pathways of Occult Herbalism can be purchased from Three Hands Press.