Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Witch As Mirror

Further reflections (ha!) on how the witch figure can function as a mirror to people and situations around her. I have commented before here on the folkloric nature of mirrors, but it is a subject which doesn't tend to go away.
The mirror as we know it today is a very recent inventions - only eighteenth century, I believe. These first glass mirrors were fantastically expensive and thus the preserve of the fantastically wealthy, who had the necessary means and also the relative leisure required to sit there looking at themselves. Even before that invention the efforts to polish stone and metals to make them reflective without distorting also involved great expense. Mirrors are therefore luxury items devoted to the beautification of the individual.
And yet...they don't show the objective truth, they reverse it. But that said, they will certainly show closer to the truth than the person looking into it might want to see. In today's world of heavily edited images, we can project the image we want to the outside world but when we look in the mirror first thing in the morning we still get the unvarnished truth.
And that sense of discomfort exactly relates to the witch figure in so many ways. I have been thinking about how the ambivalence and discomfort around the witch figure is related to the way the witch reveals the truth, faces people with what they are doing, and also has the power to change what is happening. No wonder people are never exactly comfortable around witches.
The person's response to what the witch shows her is an interesting part of this. We have all read folklore of entities who don't show up in mirrors, of how mirrors can steal people's souls, and I am reminded of how the narcissistic Narcissus was so enchanted by his own reflection he fell in love. THe ambivalence of response to our reflection is exactly mirrored by the ambivalent image of the witch.
The power to change what is being seen is another major element of this discomfort - just as many a person has wished their mirror would show something different, so what the witch reflects is frequently unwelcome, and one of the functions of the witch is to change what we have to show people. Well, I think more accurately, what we do is offer people an invitation to make their own changes. The encounter with the witch is merely the opportunity for the person to realise what they are doing and change their destiny. The witch is not the holder of the destiny, merely the displayer of it and the facilitator of change.
Nonetheless the mirror is such a powerful image that it has firmly found its place in the mythology of the modern witch cult. I particularly like the 1970s feminist ritual where you become a witch by sitting in front of a mirror and saying three times, 'I am a witch,' and THINK about it. Once again it is an invitation to turn the encounter with your own reflection into a turning point.
Reflections over for now - time for some cleaning. You would not believe the amount of glass cleaner I've got through since moving here because of the large mirrors in this flat!

Friday, July 7, 2017

80,000 Page Views Guest Post by Lady Addle

As usual a guest post to mark some significant number of page views of this blog. And this time I have prevailed upon someone who is, as Granny Weatherwax would put it, an old friend, and practically a witch. Here she is sharing some of her household hints from the war years, and if these may seem irrelevant to a witchcraft blog, well you only have to look at the domestic origin of most of the symbols of the witch: the cauldron and broomstick, and so on, to see that this is a subject very closely allied to witchcraft.
On Soup
'Game and chicken stock is wellnigh impossible. Beef and mutton stock often hard to come by. But is there not one species of game which the Government tells us to hunt, and hunt with a will? I refer to the rat.
'Rat stock (young and tender rats are best) is made on just the same principles as all other stocks. But be careful to skin your rat first. I omitted to do this the first few times, and I must confess that the soup did taste rather hairy in consequence. Now I flatter myself that I have brought my "Bisque d'Horreur," as I playfully call it - for who has not a horror of the live rat? - to a fine art. (Even Addle, the only time he ate it, complimented me on the title.) My evacuees take it with plenty of Worcester sauce, but that is of course a matter of taste.
'Sherry again is an impossibility to-day. But why be so conservative with your flavouring? Ginger-wine, lime-juice cordial, even a little coffee essence will make your soup distinctive and unforgettable.'
On Fish
'It has become a necessity during the war years, I know, tpo buy fish we would only have contemplated for our cats, even for the servants' hall of yore. Cod, hake, some upstart fish calling itself rock salmon, another one called husk, with a far from pleasant appearance. But the manner in which we cook them lies in our hands. The French, I have often thought, are so clever int he way they make the simplest fare appetizing, and perhaps I have inherited something of this flair from an ancestor in the eighteenth century who was, I believe, half French. At any rate I delight to experiment with such dishes as Dabs Dieppoise (with winkles and shrimps in a little custard, which looks very much like the original sauce, though it doesn't of course taste quite the same), Grade A Salmon meuniere, and Husk bonne femme.
'The last was the cause of an amusing incident. Sole bonne femme is, of course, cooked with a white wine sauce and sliced mushrooms. I was anxious to try this for I had been to a very interesting lecture at Harrods on the subject of Fungi, at which I had taken copious notes. All promised well. I gathered my fungi, sliced and cooked them, made my sauce with a little ginger ale I had by me and proudly served it up. My evacuees pulled rather long faces, I thought, but of course they were not used to French cooking and we English are very insular about such things. But in the middle of the night first I, then one by one, my guests, were suddenly taken violently ill. Wondering what on earth had happened, I staggered to my note-book and looked at it again. I then realised that I had stupidly neglected to read the word "not" in "These must not be eaten." My poor evacuees took it all in good part - I told them it was right to suffer in the cause of science! - but I was very ashamed of my silly mistake, and insisted on treating them all to a day in Watford, which they assured me would put them right sooner than anything.'
On Paper for Salvage
'Paper is the Salvage need which I feel most acutely. Indeed, I think the word 'paper' will be found graven on my heart when I die as 'Calais' was on poor Mary's. (A distant cousin of my mother's family.) I frequently write long letters to my friends calling for replies, so to add the answering epistles to my paper sack. I am also trying very hard to make my dear Mipsie part with some of the trunk loads of letters which she has ahd during her life, letters from the highest in the land, expressing their admiration and devotion to my beautiful sister. But so far I have had no success. 'My love letters are my capital, Blanche,' she says, smiling her roguish smile. 'There is many a letter in that trunk that is better than a five-pound note. You never know when a poor man will come into a fortune and you can never be sure when an old letter will produce a dividend.' Dear Mipsie. Friendship has always meant much to her, and it is like her to think of her letters as so many treatures.'
On Rabbit
'Game is no longer unfortunately our daily fare (though Mipsie tells me she gets plenty - but of course she is a brilliant housekeeper) so hints on cooking it seem out of place. But rabbits are still occasionally obtainable, so I will tackle them.
'The best way to skin a rabbit is to get your gardener to do so. If you have none, ask one of the tradespeople, who I find are always obliging and kind. But how to cook them when skinned? (The rabbits, I mean.) They are rather tactless creatures and don't go very far with feeding a large number. I will tell you how I got round this the other day.
'First, I jointed my rabbit and rolled each piece in powdered ginger. Then wrapped them in strips of tripe and baked them. It was a highly successful dish both from the culinary and the economical angle. For my evacuees ate every scrap of tripe, leaving only the rabbit, which I mined and served up later in the week as savoury mock chicken croquettes. What was left of these (quite a lot, it happened, because my evacuees had had baked beans for tea, they told me, so they weren't hungry) I put as a stuffing in a ginger sponge which I bought in a packet. Again, every bit of the sponge was eaten, and I was delighted to have the rabbit for my all too meatless pig bucket.'
From Some Memories of Breakfast
'Talking of breakfast habits reminds me of a distant cousin of Addle's, Sir Henry Hirsute, who insisted on a pair of kippers every morning of his life. As he lived at Cannes this sometimes presented no little difficulty, and his devoted chef used to spend long hours salting and colouring soles and inserting little kipper bones in them. One day, it struck the butler, who always had to remove the bones before Sir Henry started eating, that chef's labour was unnecessary. All that was needed was a plateful of bones on the side table in case their master happened to look there. This deception continued for years, until suddenly it occurred to Sir Henry that the soles did not taste like kippers. Somehow the whole story came out; he dismissed both servants instantly, but in later years appeared to repent of his action, for in his will he left both men a beautiful kipper bone in a glass case, a gold plate affixed to the spine commemorating his employees' devotion.'
Mary Dunn: Lady Addle at Home. Black Swan, London, 1986. Pp. 11-12; 25-6; 33; 39-40; 84-

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Time Travel: Glimpses of Life in Old Square

As befits a studious witch I spent some of this afternoon in the library, and amongst other things glanced at a little book called Memorials of the Old Square (by Joseph Hill and Robert K. Dent. Birmingham: Printed for and published by Achilles Taylor [what a marvellous name], at Caxton House, in the Old Square. MDCCCXCVII). In true Victorian fashion it is subtitled 'Being some Notices of the Priory of St. Thomas in Birmingham, and the Lands appertaining thereto; also of The Square built upon the Priory Close, known in later times as The Old Square; with notes concerning the dwellers in the sixteen houses thereof. and of some notable persons associated therewith'. In this post I want to give a few snap shots of life in the Old Square before it turned into the, well, traffic island it is now. The book is actually in commemoration of The Old Square: at the time of its publication the square were in the process of being demolished to build Corporation Street.
'Of No.1, familiarly known as "Hector's House," the first occupier was John Pemberton, the Quaker, the purchaser of the Priory lands and the originator of the Square, whilst the next house, No. 2, was tenanted by John Pemberton, described in the early rate books as "Gentleman." The contemporaneous existence in the town of two John Pembertons, both landowners and opulent men, has long been a source of difficulty in treating of this very important Birmingham family. The difficulty was increased when it was found that they were living next door to each other in the Square, and that the name disappeared from No.2, at the period of the death of John Pemberton, of No. 1, whilst it continues on the rate books for No. 1, until after the death of John, of No. 2.' (p.21) Well, that's that cleared up then. Despite these two gentleman being very confusing, the land for the Square was bought by one of them in 1701. It had previously been part of the close of the Priory.
The Hector of the Hector's House was a great friend of Dr Johnson, who used to stay with him before and after he lived in the Square, when he visited Birmingham. It was here that Johnson met one of his great loves, Mrs Carless, and Hector provided Boswell with much material for his life of Johnson. Hector's House was so beloved of Birmingham people that when it was demolished, the woodwork from one of the rooms was set up as a Johnson room in Aston Hall. Johnson used to walk from Lichfield to Birmingham to see Dr Swynfen, his physician, the The Square.
'[John Bingham] was the owner of the houses Nos. 3 and 4; these he was allowed to retain [i.e. after being financially ruined], and converting them into a commercial and private hotel, known as "The Stork Tavern," he thus recommenced life as a hotel keeper. The venture was successful, and the Stork became a well-known private posting house. About 1812 the whole was stone-fronted, and became the "Stork Hotel."
'At an early period of its history, May, 1802, the stableyard was utilised for a circus, and the following announcement appeared in Aris's Gazette:
"The Ladies and Gentlemen of Birmingham are respectfully informed that a very commodious portable Amphitheatre is fitting up on the premises of the Stork Hotel, and will open on Monday, the 31st May, with the greatest variety of Equestrian Feats ever exhibited in Birmingham by the most select Horsemen from Astley's and Jones' Amphitheatres in London."
'Four years later a new Burletta, Feats of Horsemanship and new Comic Pantomime and other attractions were announced for every evening until further notice, at the Amphitheatre, Stork Tavern Yard. Lectures were also frequently announced at the Stork Tavern. In 1805 Dr Birkbeck gave there a course of lectures on Electricity, Galvanism, and Pneumatic Chenistry.' (p.42)
'The last house of the [East] angle was, from its earliest days, held by Richard Baddeley, Birmingham's first patentee. In a town which has produced far more inventors and patentees than any other in the kingdom, which was, in fact, the nursery of invention, and had almost a monopoly of patents, this fact entitles Baddeley to a prominent and distinguished local position.' (p.61) His patent was for a new invention for making iron binding for cart wheels.
Doctors, manufacturers, entertainers...while perhaps not all as solid as we would like them to be, the inhabitants of the Square were all prominent citizens. I see that Samuel Galton (as in Smethwick Galton Bridge station) was expelled by the Society of Friends, thereby breaking a tradition that many of the Square's prominent residents were Quakers. It was also associated with banking:
'In 1765, Sampson Lloyd (the third), in conjunction with John Taylor, opened the first regular banking house in the town. [...] A few years later, 1770, as the bank began to pay, Sampson Lloyd and Oswald Hanbury, in conjunction with John Taylor and William Bowman, started a bank in Lombard Street, London. [...] The London Bank having, in 1887, absorbed Bosanquet's and Salt's Banks, an amalgamation took place with the Birmingham house, and in 1889 the whole were comprised under the shortened title of "Lloyds Bank, Limited."
'It was immediately after the founding of the London bank, ten years after his marriage, when he had seven children, and whilst still engaged with his half brothers in the lucrative business in Edgbaston Street that Sampson Lloyd settled in the Square. Hitherto the new Bank in Dale End had made little or no profit, but it was just beginning to prosper, and the convenience of living so near is manifest.
'In 1776 (Friday, March 22nd), occurred the remarkable visit of the great Dr. Samuel Johnson, which gave this house a local fame. According to Boswell, the pair travelled from Henley very early, breakfasted about nine o'clock at their inn, High Street, and proceeded to the Square. Hector had gone into the country, and the maid servant was unimpressed by the importance of the Doctor's name, which, says, Boswell, he roared at her, and he departed in a Johnsonian rage, proceeding to Mr Sampson Lloyd's house. Mr. Lloyd was, of course, at the Bank, and Mrs. Lloyd invited them to dinner. This restored the Doctor to good temper, and they walked about the town.' (pp. 101-2)
I could just wish that any encounter with Lloyd's bank had that effect on me nowadays. I hope that these few snapshots of life in the Old Square have given a taste of the spirit of place. Certainly next time I sit in the square (contemporary view included) I will not merely commune with Tony Hancock, but with Dr Johnson as well. And if one of the John Pembertons should happen to wander past I will ask him which he is.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Closeness of Magicians

Regular readers will know by now that I have no involvement with the local pagan community. I would say that they annoy me intensely but I think it is because more broadly magical people annoy each other. As Sir Terry so perceptively put it, the fact that magical people tend to be chronic loners, about as ready to co-operate as mother bears, is nature's way of deflecting what we could actually do if we got it together to co-operate.
When we do co-operate, extraordinary things happen. If the object of magic is always in some way the magician, then joint magical workings will affect the relationship between you. Repeated working together creates a psychic bond which cannot be broken. Those who use 'coven' as a disparaging term may even be picking up on the (not necessarily sexual) intimacy and loyalty a magical relationship builds. These are bonds which make a mafia cabal look like amateurs and there is nothing else like it. No wonder the muggles get scared.
There is another aspect to these relationships: we all have blood families but (I mean this quite seriously) family is as nothing compared to the loyalty created by magical working together. In fact as we know, this kind of family persists through lifetimes, across continents, and the bond is so strong we find each other again repeatedly.
You cannot be a witch alone.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Sources for Witchcraft: Psalm 109

Regular readers of this blog will know that, in true INFJ fashion, I both claim to be a completely untaught witch, and also to have a degree of learning about my witchcraft. I don't really see a conflict here - I'm only unlearned because nobody else has said that my studies are acceptable to them. I have never done any formal courses, and certainly never been initiated by anyone else. On the other hand, the time I have spent in academic learning has made me unafraid of book learning, happy to apply it in reality, and also given me a nose which can smell bullshit a mile off. Of course the fact that a lot of it is bullshit is what gives much of the modern witchcraft movement's literature a bad reputation - it is ahistorical, fanciful, imaginery claptrap. That said, that is the name of the game in magic, so I suppose it is to be expected, and you will certainly read a lot of my own imaginings on here (all except for the one where Andrew Lincoln knocks on my door, but I'm still working on that one).
Despite my repeated assertion that the witch's hedge ill teach her all things, I am also a firm believer that the resource the witch needs at the time will appear from whatever source, and this post is largely inspired by a visit in my hedge which then led on to a more academic study. Last weekend I went round the Birmingham Back to Backs for the first time - and in historically accurate fashion they had set up the older houses as Jewish households, since the area around Hurst Street was the Jewish quarter before anyone else got hold of it. Pondering the connection I picked up the only bible in the house, which happens to be a Jewish bible - the Jewish Study Bible (Oxford University Press, New York, 2004), and turned to a psalm very familiar to me for its use in magic - Psalm 109, one of the scarier ones. In fact it's used in several different forms of magic -
This one is powerful enough that merely chanting it while focusing on an enemy should cause him or her some distress.  However, before simply writing this particular Psalm off as evil, I should point out that it also gets interpreted in more positive ways.  Ray T. Marlbrough says it is used “To protect from an enemy, persisting in bothering you” (Magic Power of the Saints).  In this light, it is not so much of a curse as a barrier against harm.  Braucher Chris Bilardi recognizes its power to be used “against a tenacious enemy,” but also says it is useful “for acquiring friends” (The Red Church).  So even the “cursing Psalm” has its upside. Source
One of the things I like about the Jewish Study Bible is that it turns the kind of scholarship on its head that I have known from a degree in theology from a Christian perspective. In fact reading this bible for a post-Christian is about as illuminating as it can be, because it shows how the Christian reading of the Hebrew bible is far divorced from the Jewish one. As it happens, the commentary illuminated something about this psalm, which begins with an invocation of God (the translation is the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation):
'O God of my praise,
do not keep aloof.'
I can't believe how I had never noticed the divisions within this psalm (which believe me, when you're reciting it as a monk at 5am in the morning just comes across as a protracted moan), but it then goes on to narrate what the psalmist's enemies have said against him:
'for the wicked and the deceitful
open their mouth against me;
they speak to me with lying tongue.
They encircle me with words of hate;
they attack me without cause.
They answer my love with accusation
and I must stand judgment.
They repay me with evil for good, with hatred for my love.'
Magically the most important part of this psalm is the next section - and what made me realise this is the commentary here 'The psalm, particularly this section, resembles the Mesopotamian "namburbi," lit. "untying," a type of prayer intended to undo a magic spell'. The magic spell is of course the attack outlined in the section above, and this is its untying:
'Appoint a wicked man over him;
may an accuser stand at his right side;
may he be tried and convicted;
may he be judged and found guilty.
May his days be few;
may another take over his position.
May his children be orphans,
his wife a widow.
May his children wander from their hovels,
begging in search of [bread].
May his creditor seize all his possessions;
may strangers plunder his wealth.
May no one show him mercy;
may none pity his orphans;
may his posterity be cut off;
may their names be blotted out in the next generation.
May God be ever mindful of his father's iniquity,
and may the sin of his mother not be blotted out.
May the Lord be aware of them always
and cause their names to be cut off from the earth,
because he was not minded to act kindly,
and hounded to death the poor and needy man,
one crushed in spirit.
He loved to curse - may a curse come upon him!
He would not bless - may blessing be far from him!
May he be clothed in a curse like a garment,
may it enter his body like water,
his bones like oil.
Let it be like the cloak he wraps around him,
like the belt he always wears.
May the Lord thus repay my accusers,
all those who speak evil against me.'
I was of course familiar with the magical practice of undoing as a way of averting other people's ill will. There is a spell excactly like this in my book where you begin by tying nine knots in string to represent the evil done to you, undo them one at a time and burn the string at the end. I knew that this felt old, but didn't realise that it went back to the ancient culture of Sumer (modern day Iraq), the first urban civilisation, which means that this magical method dates back to around 4000 BCE. It looks very much as if the Hebrew bible has picked up a local magical  text, because up until I read the commentary on that psalm I had no idea it followed exactly the form of these spells. They were called namburbi because that means '[ritual for] undoing it', i.e. undoing what had already been done, exactly as in the psalm. What I find particularly interesting is also that the form of the ritual has so many commonalities with pretty much every other magical reitual ever invented, but also has the exact same end of all magic - being free of something. Here is the ritual:
Colophons of namburbi tablets and letters from writers and astrologers of the Assyrian kings Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal show that it was the role of the ašipu, “exorcist,” to plan and implement the apotropaic rituals. If a sign had been recognized as foreboding, the gods Ea and his son Asalluḫi, Šamaš, the sun god and god of justice (mīšaru), and often the deity, in whose sphere of influence the prognostication had occurred, were invoked, and offered a meal of bread, meat, dates, incense, water and beer to appease the source of the portent and effect a change in outcome. Clay figurines were fashioned and a Šuilla, or “show of hands prayer,” was delivered to implore divine mercy.[4]
During the preliminary purification stage, the subject and conjuror conducting the ritual abstained from eating watercress, onions, leeks or fish. Water was consecrated under the stars and with all manner of cleansing substances. Small altars were erected by the riverside in a “place difficult of access.” The person infected with the evil (lumnu) was led to a spot strewn with garden herbs (šammū kirî) behind one of the altars and a clay figurine representing the harbinger of the omen was laid before them. The conjuror then performed the incantation, often climaxing by shattering a clay pot, and the subject was washed with the consecrated water, which was afterward poured over the figurine, to return the impurity to its source. A variety of symbolic actions could follow, including cutting the subjects hair, fingernails, stripping off his coat, peeling an onion or unwinding a thread to represent the dissolution of the fate. The figurine was then cast into the river, "down to the apsû." Measures were taken to avoid reinfection, with the subject perhaps wearing an amulet and returning home via a different route from that taken prior to the ritual.
The profound psychological effect of the release ritual cannot be underestimated. For the private individual it would have had a deep impression, akin to absolution, but to a monarch it may have altered his behavior. By ridding the impending evil inherent in a bad omen, a namburbi “bolstered the king’s self-confidence, strengthened his resolution, and steeled his will to fight.” An entire staff of conjurors organized like a ministry poured over omen collections and prepared rituals to counter any portent that was diagnosed.[7] A namburbi was a central part of the substitute king ritual. Source
That said, I'm not necessarily going to go to so much trouble myself. I was inspired by a cow's tongue on the Bull Ring this afternoon. When the witch is ready the resources *always* appear.
Oh buggrit - better put in some music to entertain hoi polloi.

Sunday, May 28, 2017


This is one of those blog posts which has given me an untold amount of trouble in the writing, and in fact this is something like its third or fourth incarnation.
It started off as my regular anti-Pride post, and I was going to say that if you have your hair done for Pride or otherwise dress up in a way that wouldn't be possible in your everyday life, you are still asking for permission to express yorself and thus the power is always in the hands of someone else. And this, of course, is my criticism of the whole Pride thing - that it gives queers permission to be outrageous so that the heteros can be entertained and a large amount of money can be made by big business. And so the queers remain disempowered and in fact continue to seek permission from those who do so.
The post then became one in honour of May as Masturbation Month - in fact I believe today is the actual Wankers' Day and I was going to exhort my readers to do something to mark this day. I was also going to comment on some of the weirder shit you can read on the internet if you google the word masturbation. Much of the weird shit is about how various divinities arbitrarily ban masturbation for their followers for various reasons. Now I'm a witch, and not only do I not see myself conceding to deities' arbitrary pleasure-denying ordinances anytime soon, but I will tell them so. I don't feel the need to get these deities' permission (the theme now appears between these apparently random subjects) to do something which is plainly not harmful.
Of course masturbation is a classic example of an activity where people feel they don't have persmission to do it and end up thoroughly screwed up over it. One of the most hilarious and yet saddest bizarre statements about masturbation I read on the internet while preparing for this post's predecessor was this question by a - presumably - young gentleman but I'm afraid I haven't saved the source of it:
'Is it possible to be raped by yourself? I know that if you masturbate you will go to hell, but I woke up and it was happening - but it was my hand and not me. So I think it was a kind of rape. I do not want to go to hell because I was raped! What should I do?'
He is of course a) thinking he needs permission to have a wank b) allowing the religious nonsense he has imbibed to mess with his head and c) not taking any ownership of this at all. Ths simple fact is he masturbated and can't deal with it. There really is a lot wrong with our world.
And of course that is the trouble with needing permission: it stops you having to take responsibility for your actions. I get that this can be a normal human reaction - there are a lot of followers in this world - but I think the first step towards living a sovereign life is to stop needing other people's permission to do things. Yes it has a cost, but it is the essential first step. 'Who am I asking for permission is a useful question for a witch to ask to determine where the power lies in any situation.
In addition to asking that question there is a spiritual exercise I can suggest at this point. It is an exercise in giving yourself pleasure without having to ask permission. I even have a song about it: