This past weekend I was both delighted and honoured to speak at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic’s conference on the theme of cursing. Accompanying the exhibition Poppets, Pins and Power: The Craft of Cursing (which opened at the start of April) this conference brought together papers on a wide range of approaches to cursing. I was especially struck by the range of geographies and cultures being discussed: from ancient Egypt to modern Haiti, from Germanic fairy tales to local Cornish family legends, from colonial/colonised Mexico to William Burroughs’ cut-up and drop-in techniques; along of course with detailed studies of the landscape, magic and craft of Cornwall, the Midlands, and the East of England.
And so, still pondering the great deal of information and analysis presented, here is but a list of personal highlights:
Steve Patterson offered an excellent micro-study of a relatively modern Cornish curse-tablet, championing the value of the still-nascent turn to material history for the study of magic. Judith Noble span a personal account of a spell she learned from the Museum’s founder Cecil Williamson, offering a wonderful perspective on a figure still somewhat overlooked as a practitioner as well as a cautionary tale from Judith’s own magical practice. Mireille Fauchon’s nuanced and sensitive presentation of her work in Lowestoft – the most easterly point of the British Isles – combined narrative illustration with psychogeography and a reflexivity of terroir and inspiration, as well as speaking of the curse history, witch-hunts, and folkways of the area.
Being myself a Midlands lad as well as an early modernist, I was obviously especially eager to hear Paula McBride talk about cursing in the early modern Midlands. Her presentation offered four case-studies of witch-trials in the area, including a personal favourite: the Flowers’ women cursing of their former employers by stroking their demonic familiar, Ruttikin the cat. James Riley’s exploration of the infamous case of William Burroughs’ cursing of the Moka Bar on Frith Street unfolded into an edifying assessment of ontology and technology. If there were any remaining objection claiming Old Bill’s work as a magician should be separated from his art, this talk could certainly be taken as a chaote nail hammered into that particular coffin. Jon Kaneko-James brought a lively and engaging discussion of medieval and early modern curse beliefs and practices from a variety of legal and theological perspectives, as well as a stirring rendition of an excommunication! Jonathan Hughes’ detailed study of Humfrey duke of Gloucester presented the political landscape of cursing in medieval England in light of kingly madness, Renaissance philosophy, courtly intrigue, and alchemy. His discussion of the vaporous humours of the disturbed earth in medieval alchemical theory and praxis was especially fascinating.
I was, it must be said, especially proud of my godbrother Demetrius Lacroix for presenting a candidly knowledgeable account of cursing in Haitian Vodou in his talk Ekspedisyon, Dispatch, ak pelene: The Art of Haitian Vodou Cursing. A topic perhaps unfamiliar to many scholars and practitioners of British magic, Demetrius undermined the potential for sensationalising this field, while presenting his professional opinions on the reality and context of such practices with aplomb. Likewise, my dear friend, colleague, and Golgothan co-host Jesse Hathaway Diaz delivered a masterful introduction to cursing in colonial Mexico: presenting not only a veritable “stolen host” of fascinating folk catholic malefic operations and techniques, but the crucial context and cosmology of how these workings were (and still are) thought to, well, work.
Interspersing all these talks was an account of a curse-breaking worked by dear old creepy Uncle Cecil, stringing the presented material like beads along a thread of narrative which beautifully tied together these diverse approaches and topics. It also revealed fascinating details of Williamson’s own client-work practice. Our gracious host Judith Hewitt unfolded the ingredients and operations of this working as part of her compère duties, while Peter Hewitt provided expert technical support as well as presenting a fascinating paper of his own on cursed Cornish fields, Bronze Age cist burials, hag-myths and protector-goddesses of land and lineages.
Writing my paper for this conference – which I entitled The Devil’s Bath: Curse-craft and Humoural Theory – was very useful for clarifying my own thoughts and approaches to this topic: from the “resting choleric face” of magical gaze and venting impassioned virtues, to sanguine bodily fluids, melancholic spirits, and the contagious affectivity of the imagination. This is definitely a field I would like to expand upon, and will continue tinkering away at research into this kind of elemental and humoural sorcery, following the intertwining branches of healing and harming wrought through the study and practice of magical medicine and maleficia.
Speaking at an event put on by the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic at Boscastle has been a personal goal of mine for some time, and so it was also a paper that was a pleasure to deliver. And being able additionally to catch up with my dear friends Peter and Alkistis of Scarlet Imprint over the weekend was a crown of May-flowering cherries on the top!
I thank Simon, Judith, Peter and Joyce for making this event happen, and I wish them every success with the many events they have coming up. Long live this shrine to the Muses of Craft!