Probably all my favourite bookshops on earth are very poorly managed. The best booksellers are aware that the best books; by definition; must function as something more than logistically-inefficient, industrial artefacts. A good bookshop is sort of like a zoo for endangered animals. They often run at a loss and are thus 'poorly managed' because otherwise the animals would be lost from the earth forever. This is an outcome the best booksellers refuse to see happen, to their personal economic detriment.
There is one such bookshop (pictured) on my high road that is one of these chaotic zoos. One time I asked for a VAT receipt because I thought I could possibly claim a purchase and the owner announced he had run out of them. This is a legal requirement in Britain, I should point out. (Eventually he found a blank sheet of paper, a stamp with his VAT number on it and wrote "Books £35". Done.) Anyway, so the place is wonderful. I have a first edition (1938) Herb-Lore for Housewives that I found in between secondhand cookbooks from TV chefs. Let me quote a few pieces for you.
In days gone by, when doctors were a rare luxury, and often had to travel long distances to reach a patient's bedside, every Lady of the Manor had her still-room. She prescribed not only for her own household, but for those of her poorer neighbours as well. She was acquainted with the properties and the lore connected with the herbs which grew in her garden; also of those which grew in the fields and hedges around, believing, indeed that these were designed by a benevolent Deity to cure common diseases.
To-day's approach to the study of herbs is more scientific. Nevertheless, much useful information is to be found in the note-books of our great-grandmothers.
Great-grandmothers? Jump backwards four generations from an author who published in 1938. If that is more than a writerly affectation -and I believe it is- then it is further evidence that not only has the magical community missed a collective trick, it has done so recently.
"Hey Gordon, twenty years ago called. They want their cutting edge back. Why would you bring up the universally-acknowledged modernity of Wicca now? Everyone knows it has precisely zero antecedent in the western tradition. Are you slow or are you a troll or are you a slow troll?" Well, I'm glad you asked, me. It was triggered by some coverage of last week's Witchfest. Now, I've never been and never will go to Witchfest due slightly to an incandescent lack of interest and mostly the fact that it's in Croydon.
It bills itself as 'the largest and most popular gathering of witches in the world'. That is a bold claim and it annoys me a little bit if I'm honest, especially after a brief gander at the line-up. Surely the La Paz Witches Market gets busy, for instance? There might even be more witches in the room where you are reading this post, even if you are alone.
So what we have is this disparity where an invented tradition spent fifty years telling the world it was nice and had nothing to do with the Devil and everything to do with made-up harvest festivals, yet still calling itself witchcraft even after Professor Hutton surfaced the temporal shallowness of its roots. In the mean time, we have had several decades of diligent scholarship indicating that, not only was witchcraft a real and continuous thing, it had a lot more to do with the Devil than it did Mabon!
Naturally, I don't want anyone to feel sheepish about their chosen spiritual path. In the nicest possible way, I don't care. But if you're going to call yourself the Princess of Canada or whatever, you should probably look to have some supporting evidence for your claim. And I think I have some. I think I have a solve for how you fold Wicca back into the western tradition. It is hugely offensive and overly dramatic, as is my way, but see if this dog will hunt for you.
Let's start with a definition.
'Witchcraft' is where the western grimoire tradition reacts with the local biosphere.
Those great-grandmotherly notebooks show more than a passing familiarity with Culpepper, for instance. Witches were invariably caught in possession of grimoires. Consider the case of London fortune teller, Ann Watts, as described in Philip Almond's England's First Demonologist: Reginald Scot & 'The Discoverie of Witchcraft':
[W]e can gain some insight into the use of Scot's book for divinatory or conjuring purposes from an account by the Essex Justice Sir William Holcroft of the prosecution in 1687 of Ann Watts, a fortune teller from London who had been sleeping rough in the woods of one of Holcroft's neighbours. In her possession were a number of books, no doubt the tools of her trade, among which there were said to be two works by the magician Cornelius Agrippa. One of these was probably the 1650 English translation by James Freake in 1531-3 of Agrippa's De occulta philisophia libri tres (Three Books of Occult Philosophy). The other was most likely the 1655 English translation by Robert Turner of the Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy, spuriously attributed to Agrippa and first published in Latin in 1567. This work contained selections from other magical texts, notably the Heptameron or Magical Elements (1496) spuriously attributed to Peter de Abano, and the anonymous Arbatel of Magick (1575). Ann Watts also possessed a copy of one of John Gadbury's almanacs and, most importantly a copy of Scot's The Discoverie of Witchcraft, probably the 1665 edition, which she no doubt used for spells, tricks and conjurations. Holcroft ordered all these works be burnt. It is ironic that Scot's book, reputedly burnt by King James I for its sceptical approach, was eventually burnt for its utility as a sourcebook for magic.
I find the image of Ann Watts very compelling. Sleeping rough in the woods with a load of old books like a mad thing. She is a woman after my own heart. I note she didn't get caught with 'a wand and chalice' or a crown of Beltane leaves. (though there was presumably a lot of woodland in her hair!) A bit beforehand, you have the famous case of the Pendle Witches, who freely copped to being witches and doing witch things with black cats and poisons and baby teeth.
Talking to Peter Grey in Glastonbury last month, he made this astute and accurate comment: "The witches' Bible is the Bible." And it is. And the Old Religion is Catholicism. Catholicism with its lonely souls and sibyls and suspicious Continental antiquity and mysterious dragons and subversive loyalties.
What that means is there is a continuity of custom and practice but that it relates to the arcology of the crypto-Catholic world. That is demons; spirits; self-administered, localised herbalism; and a medieval Catholic conception of the Devil. On that last note, you can find a quite eloquent description of the role of the Devil in the introduction to Jim Baker's The Cunning Man's Handbook. Throw in some local fairy folklore and there you have it. Actual witchcraft and the witch-hunters who loved it.
This should not appear strange to anyone with a passing interest in history. Do you know who the Spanish Inquisition went after first? Jews. Not Christian heretics or witches. Crypto-Jews. We need to interpret all those confessions of dealing with the Devil in their proper Crypto-Catholic framework. These witches weren't going out in the woods to 'worship' but to parlay with the folkloric being responsible for Pacts, etc. This is a continuation of grimoire tradition localised to specific biospheres like Lancashire or Brittany or whatever.
To Gardner, then.
Yes, we all know the antecedents of his Book of Shadows with regards to Crowley and Fortune and whatever. Put a pin in that because we need to address his initiation first. I actually think Gardner's initiatory lineage was legitimate in the sense that it came from a 'Lady of the Manor' line described in my Herb-Lore for Housewives. I think he was in some way inducted into an indigenous Devonian/Hampshire cunning tradition, the limits of whose influence could probably be spied from the top of Dorothy's driveway.
His Book of Shadows is cribbed from the magical texts floating around at the time as well as his own personal proclivity for nudism and knives, which he then subsequently pretended he didn't make up. This could not be more grimoire! That's where the last thousand years of grimoires come from, even -especially- down to the lying about it! Here's what I think, then.
Wicca is the Mormonism of witchcraft.
Think about it. You have an individual, weirdo offshoot of an inconsistent, nebulous, existing tradition. You have spurious claims of authenticity, themselves part of that tradition. You have a religion ossify around this weirdo offshoot that is now so many standard deviations away from the tradition's mean that it is barely recognisable. But behaviourally, it is still there. Cobbling together worthwhile texts and having a bash at magic. That sounds like the families living on Pendle Hill. (Sidebar: I was going to say Wicca is the Mormonism of the grimoire tradition but technically Mormonism is the Mormonism of the grimoire tradition.)
Perhaps it is just my OCD but it surprises me that, still to this day, most people have mistaken the Mormonism of witchcraft for actual witchcraft. I don't understand why we settle for a dysfunctional history when we could have a fully functioning one.
Let me tell you something I get asked reasonably often: "why would a chaos magician be so interested in history?" as if we were all still e-popping party boys recovering from last night. (I did my time swinging from the chandeliers in the 90s and early noughties.) I will tell you. Chaos magic is urban cunning magic. That doesn't mean I'm off wandering Regent's Canal looking for wild fuckweed or whatever. It means it is a specifically urban, specifically post-industrial continuity of the behaviour of accruing what works magically and what doesn't in a given space and time. Yes, it is new. Done right it is also as old as the bones of the earth.
So what should I look back in history for? Should I look for seventeenth century documents containing Spare-style sigils and chaospheres? So-called 'witches' went looking for the same thing until Professor Hutton set them aright: goddesses and seasonal festivals and love and light are not to be found anywhere, but the Black Man of the Sabbat abounds. Like Wicca, chaos magic is not as old as the cello. It is either as old as music or as old as two cellos playing Welcome to the Jungle.
There is so much to be gained from getting our history right. It makes the whole world taste better. That's my answer to why a chaos magician is so passionate about it. The ancient, the old and the modern. Get the ratios right and you have the true potion of witchcraft.
Get it wrong and you're drinking the Kool-Aid.