Ritual Magic at the Museum of Witchcraft

selling the wind.jpg

I returned from the UK at the end of last week after attending the annual Museum of Witchcraft and Magic conference in Boscastle, Cornwall. The conference, which I also attended last year, continues to grow from strength to strength. This year's theme was Ritual Magic, and the range of talks delivered really showcased how a great title like this allows speakers to bring a refreshing variety of approaches to such a topic.  This also linked the conference to the current exhibition “Dew of Heaven: Objects of Ritual Magic” running until October 31st 2018.

As always, there is so much to be said, and so I am just going to summarise some of my favourite papers. I apologise to any speakers who feel I have grossly misinterpreted their key points. Any errors or over-emphases are mine and mine alone!

Dan Harms' talk, A Liverpool Cunning Man and his Magical Manual, took us into the eccentric consultation room of William Dawson Bellhouse, a nineteenth-century "surgeon, professor, and astrologer" whose cunning craft was melded with Bellhouse's interest in Galvanism and the potentially therapeutic effects of (hopefully mild!) electric shock treatments. Charting those bizarre overlaps of medicine and entertainment, Bellhouse's magical practice seems a fascinating admixture of the techniques and services of traditional English cunning folk and the instrumentations of the new sciences. Of particular interest to me was the rundown of the library of one technically unnamed cunning man operating in the area whom Harms seems sure refers to Bellhouse himself. The books used by this nineteenth-century practitioner should be very familiar to the early modernist and those interested in this kind of British folk magic: Agrippa's Three Books, the Fourth Book, Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft, Hiebner's Mysterium Sigillorum and a whole host of charms only thus far found in manuscripts. Dan ended by sharing an incredibly detailed list of ingredients and instructions for constructing a witch-bottle which - beyond the usual urine and pins - included dragon's blood, "devil's dung" (i.e. asafoetida), and other choice materia magica. You can listen to the whole talk right here.

My other highlight of the first day was undoubtedly Peter Grey's poetic reflection The Shining Land: Ritual Magic in Cornwall. Not content to simply be a report on what makes some kind of "authentic Cornish magic", Grey's narrative exposed the very modern folly of such an attempt at constructing such an authenticity at the expense of the actual storied, cross-sectioned, and re-storied history of that land. More than a summary of all the magical things of Cornwall - and there are undoubtedly many! - it was a profoundly moving and potent meditation on the importance of place and the land in any magical practice. Those familiar with Grey's Apocalyptic Witchcraft should hardly be surprised by this, but the manners in which engagements with terroir were modeled in this piece were especially inspiring. I was personally delighted to discover Paracelsus' work in Cornish mining communities directly fed into his Book on Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies, and Salamanders, and to hear Peter's rendition of the Prayer of the Gnomes - a prayer I use heavily in my geomantic consultations - was a particular treat.

The evening's entertainment came in the form of my dear friend and Golgothan co-host Jesse Hathaway Diaz of Wolf & Goat giving an extended and interactive presentation on Quimbanda. As precisely no-one familiar with Jesse and his work was surprised to discover he effortlessly introduced this Afro-Brazilian witch-cult, grounded it in its historical and social contexts, before going onto explore the influence and contribution of European grimoires to this particular melting-cauldron of a necromantic tradition. There was singing, a lot of laughter, some shocked gasps, and plenty of excited chatter about it all in the bar afterwards. As is only proper.

It is said on this night that candlelight filled the afterhours Museum and the sound of rum-fueled carousing might have been caught on the wind. But who can say...

My two favourite papers delivered the following and already-upon-us final day of the conference were undoubtedly those of Tim Landry and Peter Mark Adams. Anthropologist Tim Landry gave an absolute tour-de-force in his presentation Willful Things: Sorcery and Encountering Ritual Magic in West Africa and Beyond. The task ahead of him - of introducing and contextualising the key epistemological and ontological differences between a European approach to magic and a West African approach to those activities and engagements sometimes characterised as equivalent - was not straightforward. Yet Tim demonstrated both great depth and clarity of analysis in presenting how West African modalities of sorcery impact on everything from basic social provisions to efforts to protect endangered species. Ending his talk on a definite high, Dr Landry posited that to examine this material and these practices responsibly we should move away from considering ritual magic as the manipulation of some emanated symbols in a (Neo)Platonic idealist universe, and towards a recognition of sorcerous potency in that which could be biologically dead but still ontologically alive. That, moreover, we benefit from considering ritual magic less as dealing in symbols, and more in terms of entering into relationships with non-human persons. I could not have applauded harder and more vehemently.

 Peter Mark Adams, giving great slide. 

Peter Mark Adams, giving great slide. 

My final favourite was Peter Mark Adams' wonderful presentation on the Sola Busca tarocchi deck. While I have a copy of his excellent Game of Saturn, I must admit I have not worked my way through its entirety: this paper definitely highlighted the broader, deeper, and more practical utilities of his voluminous research into this elite Renaissance Italian Saturnine cult. Adams' work indicating and assessing the history and utility of ritual gesture alone was worth the price of admission, and his case-studies of but a few of the beautiful cards of this deck were so captivating there was an audible room-wide sigh of disappointment that the ride was over when he announced his last slide. Peter's conception of different levels of analysis - the historical, the alegorical and the magical - "trapdooring" down into further levels of each other has certainly given me plenty of methodology to muse on in my own work.

And speaking of my own work, I was very pleased to be able to present my paper on Ritual Magic of Early Modern Geomancy. This essay combined specific and general attitudes. In the case of the former, I sought to make assessment of geomancy's specific sorcery, considering especially the talismanic and semiotic consequences and utilities of Agrippa's assessment that geomantic figures and their sigils fell "betwixt images and characters". In service of the other, more generalist goal of this paper, I attempted to ruminate more broadly on ritual magical interrelations of all forms of divination and operative sorcery: how categories of divination become tools of enchantment, and how the lots of fate can be not simply read but re-written.

Threading these various presentations together once more like pearls on a tightly woven cord was Judith Hewitt of the Museum staff, framing these talks within an ongoing and unfolding revelation of the relationship between the Museum's founder Cecil Williamson and the work and disciples of Aleister Crowley. Owing to a last minute cancellation, Judith stepped in to fill the dead air and actually got to present and develop some of her own notions and questions of how Williamson considered and used the Museum, and this kind of critical reflexivity upon the Museum's own alchemical and thoroughly magical existence and operation was a perfect conclusion to a wonderful and expertly run conference.

I will continue to recommend the conference to anyone who can get a ticket quick enough! Long may it continue to pull practitioners, scholars, and seekers together under its sign to share their thoughts, their secrets and their rum! Long may it continue selling the wind!