Erudition That’s Not Just Skin Deep

“Egypt is magic” is a cultural assumption that dates back millennia. In part, it was a narrative which the ancient Egyptians promoted about themselves; magicians were a part of their culture, and their civilisation was ancient enough that over time understanding of its earlier phases passed into legend and myth as much as official history. (More time passed between the Great Pyramid’s construction and the dawning of Christianity than have passed between now and the Crucifixion, after all.)

It was also a bit of PR which numerous other Mediterranean cultures bought into, and became a recurring assumption in European culture as a whole. The Greeks bought into it, the Romans bought into it, Jewish sources like Exodus and the Talmud bought into it, and so it’s no surprise that much of Christendom bought into it, Enlightenment-era Freemasons and other such esoteric societies bought into it – particularly after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt rekinded a general interest in Egyptology, the Golden Dawn bought into it to the extent that most of their rituals involved extensive riffs on Egyptian myth, and Crowley bought into it so hard that his Book of the Law was steeped in Egyptian imagery and received during a honeymoon in Cairo.

Many occult practitioners like to hype up the extent to which they are participating in a tradition which winds its way back through the ages to ancient Egypt. The extent to which is the case has always been doubtful. The myth that the tarot dates back to Egyptian times seems to have little to no basis in fact, and the Golden Dawn’s rituals reflect tentative Victorian reconstructions of Egyptian religion more than they do actual practices handed down through the years by a centuries-old tradition.

However, whilst there is little evidence for a tradition passed down on an institutional or personal level – no secret society or Sith-style chain of master and apprentice winding its way back through the years to connect modern occult groups to the practitioners of ancient Egypt, there is evidence for a literary or textual tradition being passed down – concepts in Egyptian writing on the subject of magic which ended up in some fashion influencing the medieval grimoires which Renaissance and Enlightenment-era magicians would then develop in their own directions and make their own additions to.

Perhaps the most extensive collection of material we have on Egyptian magical practices are what’s known as the Greek Magical Papyri, a collection of magical texts – including what seem to be the handbooks used by actual practicing magicians – that had been accumulated in private collections in the post-Napoleon burst of Egyptological research.

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Spring’s Crop of Folk Horror Thrills

I’d previously been quite impressed with issue 1 of Hellebore, an attempt to do a graphically appealing folk horror periodical in print, and I’m glad to see that it’s survived to produce a second issue, even in the midst of this strange springtime. Issue 2 is the Wild Gods issue, and as the title implies it concerns itself in various ways with the concept of deities living in or presiding over untamed nature.

Katy Soar offers an overview of the latter-day British fascination with Pan, from 18th Century libertines of the Hellfire Club ilk adopting him as a patron of hedonism to Crowley and Victor Neuburg’s occult experiments to the Findhorn collective and all sorts of other revivals besides. She seems to miss Pan’s strange, incongruous appearance in The Wind In the Willows in the chapter The Piper At the Gates of Dawn, which Pink Floyd would later take as the title of their debut album (which, due to Syd Barrett being the band’s leader at the time, is arguably the most Dionysian and Pan-aligned of their releases).

I’d also be interested in Soar’s thoughts on Pan’s emergence in Hellier as a major figure, though this goes beyond the British shores she’d initially restricted her survey to; the way the team there end up resorting to Pan worship puts me in mind of how Soar argues that, precisely because Pan was a loose, easy-going mythological figure who tended not to have much of an intricate dogma associated with him, he’s more available for revivalists to try and experiment with than deities associated with more involved and difficult forms of worship to replicate.

Similarly informative articles come from Melissa Edmundson and Anna Milon. Edmundson gives an overview of womens’ writing about Pan and Pan-like figures from the late 19th and early 20th Century, identifying as she does so a small-scale movement to recontextualise Pan away from being just some rude dude who terrorises and rapes women and into a figure who represents a more nuanced engagement with the world, nature, and sexuality. Milon provides a fascinating anecdote about how a prehistoric cave painting which may or may not have antlers – depends on the photo you’re looking at – might have influenced Margaret Murray’s Witch-Cult In Western Europe theories.

John Reppion makes two contributions. His first is an interview with Alan Moore in which Moore seems to buck against the very notion of folk horror – opining that the Wild Gods might instead walk in urban areas, because only urbanised people regard the rustic and rural as being frightening or special. It’s a fun read, but mostly for how Moore steers the conversation towards his particular areas of interest and refuses to engage with Reppion’s thoughts. Reppion has a bit more success with an article about the Wild Hunt and the history of that particular folkloric idea. Reppion’s other article is a piece on the Wild Hunt, a decent overview of the different forms this legend has taken that takes an unfortunate turn into overt neopagan proselytising which is about as gratingly unwelcome as any other form of proselytising.

Other less successful articles include Kate Laity’s musings on the fairy folk which doesn’t seem to construct much of an argument or have much of a point to it, and Ruth Heholt’s examination of Hammer’s Cornish duology, which is hamstrung by arguing that it’s one of the few zombie movies which follow the Haitian folkloric concept of the zombie being raised and directed at the will of a sorcerer rather than just getting up and chowing down on people in an uncontrolled manner.

This is either a clumsy misrepresentation of the history of the genre or exposes a gap in Heholt’s knowledge: before George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the pop culture concept of the zombie was “mind-controlled undead slave directed by wizard”, and zombie movies tended to depict them as such going back at least as far as White Zombie from 1932. It might just be a misstatement on Heholt’s part, but if so it’s a pretty serious one since it puts no caveats suggesting she really means “zombie movies from 1966 onwards” or whatever. As it stands, the text of the article reads like Heholt doesn’t understand the history of the subgenre she’s talking about, which is a problem when she is making sweeping statements about where Plague of the Zombies stands in the world of zombie movies as a whole.

On the whole, this issue was thicker than issue one by about 20 pages or so, tended towards more substantive articles, and generally improved on the weak points of the previous issue and maintained its strengths. Hopefully we’ll see an issue 3 this coming autumn…

A 900 Year Old Backlash

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain was the 12th Century’s big bestselling British fantasy novel, a precursor to the likes of The Lord of the Rings in the 20th Century or Harry Potter for the 21st. This is evidenced not least from the sheer number of contemporary manuscripts of the book that survive to this day, which must after all be the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of manuscripts actually produced. Monks and nuns laboured away in scriptoria to churn out these copies of the history, and the King Arthur legend as popularised in it immediately became one of the central subjects of the up and coming troubadour art form.

Almost as soon as it came into existence, other historians adapted its material, inserting their own opinions and spin on the subject matter – and for that matter, Geoffrey hardly seems to have had a neutral agenda itself. A particularly interesting study of this phenomenon from a feminist perspective is Fiona Tolhurst’s Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Transmission of Female Kingship.

Over the course of an exhaustive analysis of Monmouth’s magnum opus (concentrating on the non-Arthurian portions, which have been rather neglected over the years), Tolhurst produces a credible argument that Geoffrey’s history was a feminist work – not, perhaps, by the the standards of what we recognise as feminism today, but certainly by the standards of the period in which he was writing.

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Occult Orders, Fraternal Fun, and Masonic Malarkey

Ritual America – or, to give the book its full title, Ritual America: Secret Brotherhoods and Their Influence On American Society – A Visual Guide – is a big, chunky, coffee table affair. Compiled by Adam Parfrey and Craig Heimbichner, it offers exactly what the title implies: an extensive visual treasurehouse showcasing the influence of Freemasonry and various other fraternal orders (the vast majority of which are rip-offs of Freemasonry) in American society and culture.

Though the book hails from Feral House, which has published its fair share of conspiracy theory on the subject of Masonry and similar secret societies (they’re the big bads in James Shelby Downard’s Carnivals of Life and Death, for instance, and regular features of Secret and Suppressed), it isn’t the wall-to-wall orgy of conspiracy theory it might be – it discusses the occasional outbreaks of anti-Masonic sentiment and some of the major scandals like the death of William Morgan and the Leo Taxil affair, but it doesn’t wallow in conspiratorialism. Nor does it obsess on the esoteric aspects of Masonry and its more occult-themed offshoots like the OTO or the various Rosicrucian-themed spinoffs from it.

Instead, the book takes a refreshingly broad approach to the subject, appropriate to the fact that Freemasonry is an awkward broad church of an institution and always has been – ever since a bunch of esotericists, toffs, and middle class intellectuals gatecrashed and hijacked some old, near-moribund stonemason’s guilds, appropriated and/or radically reworked some of their ceremonies and procedures, and made it into this weird mashup of eating-and-feasting-club, charitable association, mutual aid society, and occult talking shop.

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The Hotel Hoax and the Wholly Fooled

Infamously ripped off wholesale by Dan Brown for The Da Vinci CodeThe Holy Blood and the Holy Grail is a comfortingly silly work of conspiracy theory. The book has its roots in the work of actor and Doctor Who screenwriter Henry Lincoln, who on holiday in France in 1969 came across Le Trésor Maudit de Rennes-le-Château, a book by Gérard de Sède discussing an enigma surrounding a small town in the Languedoc region of southern France.

Fascinated, Lincoln would go on to produce three documentary films for the BBC’s Chronicle strand discussing the mystery – The Lost Treasure of Jerusalem? in 1972, The Painter, the Priest and the Devil in 1974, and The Shadow of the Templars in 1979 – with these films being the first time the English-speaking world was exposed to the mystery. Each time, Lincoln would revise and deepen his proposed answer to the enigma, as he perceived yet further hidden depths to the story. Joined by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, his investigations would eventually see the release of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail in 1982.

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Same Title, Different Spirit

What’s in a name? Sure, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet – but if you called roses “roses” and called turds “roses” you’d have an enormous amount of confusion on your hands. A little while back on a folk-horror themed Facebook discussion I was in, there was a bit of confusion about the existence of two books bearing the utterly badass title of The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology – one a credible academic text, one a silly coffee table book from the 1970s which I and others had fond memories of seeing in our local libraries as late as the early 1990s. As it turns out, both books have merits – one is good, one is so bad it’s good – so I thought as a public service I’d offer a bit of disambiguation here as well as reviewing them.

The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (Robbins Version)

Originally published in 1959, Rossell Hope Robbins’ Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology is a rigorously researched and sourced text, offering a massive resource for anyone researching the specific flavour of witchcraft under the microscope here.

See, when Robbins refers to “witchcraft” here, he’s really talking to a very specific cultural phenomenon. He doesn’t mean the practice of magic or occult arts, or the concepts in cultures beyond Europe and the European colonies in North America which could be translated as “witchcraft” if you wanted to. He refers, instead, to the very specific belief, prevalent in Europe and North America from the late 1400s to the 1700s, that there was a type of person out there called a “witch” who would make a pact with the Devil to deliberate cause hardship and misery within the community, and who, precisely because they derived their powers from a pact with the Devil, should be treated as a heretic rather than their crimes being handled by the secular courts.

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Digging Up Spooky Roots

“Folk horror” as a subgenre has gained increasing recognition of late, in part because of the efforts of Facebook groups like Folk Horror Revival. The major players in that community operate, among various other projects, Wyrd Harvest Press, a self-publishing umbrella for various folk horror-relevant materials; Wyrd Harvest’s repertoire includes the Folk Horror Revival journal series, of which Field Studies represents the first entry.

Now in its second edition and edited by a cross-section of members of the Facebook group, Field Studies offers a range of essays, interviews, and other snippets on the general subject of the folk horror subgenre, coming across much like a genre-specific take on Strange Attractor.

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