20 June 2018

GREEN SCREEN

Heather Greene, Bell, Book and Camera; A Critical History of Witches in American Film and Television. McFarland, 2018.

Whilst writing this review I was reminded of a dream I once had. It began with my mother’s face oddly changed by her new glasses, shaped as butterfly wings. She asked me if I liked them. Her blue and grey speckled frames appeared maleficent and witchlike. I couldn’t speak. Mother’s smiles grew bigger as I backed away. Things worsened on hearing a brushing sound accompanied by the image of a slowly opening door. I sensed a hunting witch capable of sweeping my body, and everything in its path, up and away! Then I awoke: anxious, shaken but relieved to be under no spell.

Heather Greene, author of Bell, Book and Candle is also the managing editor of The Wild Hunt, a news journal for the Pagan, Witchcraft, Heathen communities worldwide. Sadly I wasn’t spellbound by her book’s hunt for cinematic witches. It failed to convey a sense of the threat of a witch or delight in her powers. Film witches, over 100 years of film and TV, are analysed and catalogued but never described in a manner as cogent as my teenage dream. I learnt that a witch’s dual function is one of empowerment or oppression. And many, many examples of this are listed, leaving me disengaged though greatly admiring of Greene’s persevering research – for all manner and variety of crone and witch is tabulated here.

We have the first movie industry witches of 1896 – 1919, Wild Women, Vamps and Green Skin from 1919 – 1939, War and Weird Women (her best chapter title) 1939-1950, witches groping towards A New Hollywood (1951 -1967), their deepening encounter with Horror and the Fantastic 1968-1982, reactions to The Satanic Panic of 1983-1999 and finally A New Witch Order established during 2000-2016.

Its only at page 59 when Heather Greene arrives at her favourite witch film, the one where the old wicked crone only appears for 12 minutes, yes you’ve guessed it, The Wizard of Oz, that she begins to enthuse. But after three pages, Greene’s off on a gallop documenting even more witch-centred productions. Being constantly over-in love with her subject turns Greene’s book into a very comprehensive reference book but not the specific critical history she might have also intended.

Along with Oz, the other three iconic Hollywood films about witches are probably I Married a Witch, Bell, Book and Candle and Rosemary’s Baby which are given due, if insufficient attention. Greene describes Mia Farrow’s terrors, is perceptive on Kim Novak’s witch person and intriguing about Veronica Lake’s sexual power.


There are delightful facts uncovered about actors – especially Margaret Hamilton of The Wizard of Oz.

“Hamilton notes that she wasn’t aware at first why they had decided to use the green makeup, but later learned of the problem caused by the new Technicolor process. By covering her in green makeup, she could wear the black dress without her head and hands looking disembodied. As a result of that choice driven by technology, Halloween witches forevermore became associated with green skin.”

Bell, Book and Camera is only concerned to examine American film and TV. Which is a pity, for do I think a chapter linking European cinema’s witches and their influences could have proved rewarding. Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (with Barbara Steele’s potent witch portrait) - Sidney Hayer’s The Night of the Eagle and Dreyer’s Joan of Arc arguably make for much more serious impact on the viewer than many of the American witch films under discussion (I was surprised that Val Lewton’s haunting 1943 RKO witchcraft movie The Seventh Victim wasn’t included in Greene’s book).

To alter a proverb, it’s not cooks but too many witches that have spoiled the broth here. Still there are movie-witch facts galore. And I now have an encyclopaedia of them to mull over. – Alan Price

16 June 2018

MEETING WITH A REMARKABLE MAN

Tobias Churton. Deconstructing Gurdjieff; Biography of a Spiritual Magician. Inner Traditions USA. 2017.

Of all the spiritual teachers who have reached some measure of public prominence and fame there is none quite so enigmatic and fascinating as George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (?1877-1949). One of the key points of his teaching was that most humans are disunited three-brained beings in a state of hypnotic 'waking sleep', acting more or less like machines according to their programming and external stimuli. It's not looking much better at this time of writing in 2018.

To many 'seekers of truth' in the developed Western world, Gurdjieff appeared to be a man who, in his Eastern travels, had found the ultimate reality and the true knowledge of mankind's origins and purpose in creation. When he eventually came to the West his fame had spread far and wide, and many came to him seeking answers. The question was, in essence, coming from a fairly hopeless state in a confused and endlessly conflicted world, how could one possibly awaken to full consciousness and potential? Gurdjieff's method was 'The Work', a process of remorseless and objective self-observation and exercises that combined the methods of the fakir, monk and yogi. For that reason he referred to it as the 'Fourth Way'.

The first three ways of self-development are, respectively, working on the physical body, the emotions or heart-centre, and the mind or psyche. In Gurdjieff's system a person works on harmonising all three aspects of oneself, while also living in the world and participating in it. However, this would be a gross over-simplification of his method and the esoteric knowledge that he imparted both to his disciples and in his writings. In person he could be a harsh taskmaster to his disciples, because 'discipline' was what they actually needed, at least in his opinion.

During my formative years as a teenager in the Sixties, Gurdjieff became an influence on my developing thought about the purpose of life itself. Over the intervening decades I read much of Gurdjieff's writings and many of the books about him, but never felt that I had fully understood what he was really about. Was he the 'real deal', a true spiritual master, or a bit of a charlatan and impresario? The mystique that grew around his image and reputation was immensely difficult to penetrate, and none of the many biographies and memoirs available, while always fascinating, satisfactorily answered that question. There was a need for a definitive biography which would impartially collate and analyse the known facts of Gurdjieff's life and teachings while demystifying, or 'deconstructing', the man himself. And Tobias Churton has done just that. This is a masterful work by a writer and researcher at the peak of his powers, although I suspect that it will leave a few Gurdjieff adherents a bit disgruntled by this rigorous revision.

Churton is a leading British scholar of esoteric subjects, notably Gnosticism, Freemasonry, and Rosicrucianism, with an extensive list of publications to his name, including major biographical works on Aleister Crowley and William Blake. According to the Gurdjieff book's flyleaf, Churton has produced seventeen books to date, a prolific output by any standard, all of which must have been good practice for tackling the enigma of Gurdjieff. He has the gift of writing with clarity and wisdom on the most complex esoteric subjects.

Diving straight into the fundamental problem, Churton's Preface is entitled 'Caveat Lector' (Reader Beware). In only ten pages he gives the most concise yet most complete overview of Gurdjieff's life, work and significance that I have ever come across. He explains the difficulty facing any would-be writer of a Gurdjieff biography. In the first place, very little can be confirmed with certainty about his early life. And in the second place, even more importantly, Gurdjieff himself played with facts as though they were themselves fiction of a higher mind of which he was an agent.


Referring to Gurdjieff's best known and most approachable book, Meetings with Remarkable Men, Churton says emphatically that it "is in no wise an autobiography", although it certainly reads like one. With its stirring tales of adventures and journeys in search of lost knowledge, culminating in Gurdjieff's initiation into the mysterious 'Sarmoung Brotherhood', which may never have existed, it is more of an allegory of the search for ultimate truth. As Churton says, Meetings is more like a Hollywood treatment of Gurdjieff's life. In fact the book did provide the material for the impressive and rather dreamy 1979 film of the same name, directed by Peter Brook.

A key to understanding Gurdjieff's modus operandi is an observation made by his most influential disciple, P.D. Ouspensky, a Russian intellectual and philosopher. When they first met in Moscow in 1915, Ouspensky immediately perceived that Gurdjieff was "always acting", and Churton adds that Gurdjieff was "many men, and appeared in many disguises." One of the main influences on Gurdjieff as a boy was his Greek father, who taught him the value of hard work and self-reliance. His father was an ashokh or traditional bard, entertaining folk across Transcaucasia with songs and ancient legends. The aim was to captivate and enchant his audience, reaching into their hearts.

Gurdjieff's first book, written before Meetings with Remarkable Men, was Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson. Churton describes it as an "even more peculiar, often perhaps intentionally ludicrous and unnecessarily elongated work". I have to agree with that assessment. Having tried, many years ago, to read the book I found it utterly impenetrable, with the most bizarre neologisms of Gurdjieff's own making, such as 'The Law of Heptaparashinokh' or 'being-Partkdolg-duty'. There are some who take the book very seriously and spend years trying to decipher all of its meanings and references. I have come across some articles online that claim some of the obscure words are from Martian and Saturnian languages. Gurdjieff himself said that "All the keys are in Beelzebub, but they are not near their locks". But is it worth the effort to find them?

Churton poses the question:"What is to be believed?" and makes a perceptive point regarding truth generally: 'gospel' truth is actually a report by those who are already convinced. A factual journalist would have recorded the death of Jesus as a failure by a rebellious upstart. To his followers it was a triumph. But was it all a sideshow? One has to find the wisdom in any given story. The parable of the Good Samaritan has, as Churton observes, far more weight as an example of ideal behaviour to a stranger in distress (in answer to the question 'Who is my neighbour?') than a report of a mugging of a traveller on the road to Jericho. Gurdjieff was certainly influenced by religions such as Christianity and Sufism, so he had no trouble with spinning a yarn as a parable.

It is instructive to know what were the formative influences on the young Gurdjieff himself, before he began influencing others with his self-perceived mission to humanity. One of these that seems deeply significant is the occasion when Gurdjieff as a young boy was present at the moment his grandmother died, holding her hand. Just before dying she put her hand on his head and solemnly told him never to do as others do. In case he hadn't got the point, she repeated that he must do something that nobody else does. He certainly took this to heart immediately, going out and diving into a bin full of peelings for the pigs. Then at his grandmother's requiem service forty days later while everyone was mourning with stony faces, he broke away from the group and began skipping around the grave while singing some cheerful doggerel. Churton here cites the words of William Blake: "If a fool would persist in his folly he would become wise" and observes that "Gurdjieff cultivated energetic inventiveness as the principle mode of being. Be an individual at all costs."

Another significant experience was when he witnessed a Yezidi boy trapped inside a circle drawn on the ground, absolutely terrified yet causing much amusement to a group of children making fun of him. He could not escape until Gurdjieff rubbed away some of the circle, whereupon the boy dashed out and ran away in a distraught state. This had a profound effect on the young Gurdjieff and stimulated his interest in hypnosis. He became a master hypnotist, although at some point in his adult life he said that he had renounced the gift so as not to interfere with other's free will. He saw and experienced many other phenomena that convinced him of the power of concentrated thought and the possibilities of magic.

I was reminded of the dictum 'when you can walk on water, take a boat' by the many references to Gurdjieff's practical skills and hard work to support his family and followers in times of war and poverty. "He could turn his hand to many trades: embroider a cushion, fix a lock, build a stove, mend a watch. He could shape metal and stone." In his later life he told some Americans that as he had come from a poor family with no material security he became "an expert, cunning old blade." I like the story of when he successfully wheedled the secret formula out of a local Greek street trader for making plaster of Paris busts for home decoration. Gurdjieff "pretended to be a blockhead" and played on his patriotism by speaking Greek. It all came from the objective need to survive, and Gurdjieff always knew how to make money in any situation.

I believe that Gurdjieff genuinely wished for the liberation of mankind, as shown in his chosen name 'Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man' for his project at the Priory in Avon near Fontainebleau. He can be compared in some ways to Aleister Crowley, although the two men were totally different in character. By the way, Churton convincingly debunks the old story that Gurdjieff kicked Crowley out of the Priory one evening after dinner. It is one of those apocryphal stories that gathered weight with re-telling.

After Gurdjieff's death in 1949, the celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright announced the passing of "the greatest man in the world". While that sounds like hyperbole, there can be no doubt that he was a great man, with flaws like everyone else, and there is a lot to learn from him and his life. Taking the role of a 'guru' can put an intolerable strain on a human not equipped for the role, as Ouspensky found during his time in America. I am grateful to Tobias Churton for this book, because for me it lays to rest some of the doubts and questions I have long retained about George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. Along the spiritual journey one often has teachers, gurus and religions for guidance, and all of this experience is useful for wisdom. But at the end of the day, with maturity, we have to stand on our own two feet and find our own ultimate truth. – Kevin Murphy.


12 June 2018

FROM CANNES TO CAMDEN TOWN: THE STORY OF THE ALIEN AUTOPSY

‘Nova Stellar’ is a monthly lecture forum held in a room above The Castle public house in Farringdon, central London. They are generally of a high quality, despite the fact that the organisers cannot spell. At the beginning of this year they had a talk by Spyros Melaris, the man behind the camera of the infamous ‘Alien Autopsy’ film. A modest man, I had known him slightly for a few years without being aware of his role in the world of global conspiratoriana. Since 1995 his production has been shown on television stations in more than thirty countries, and seen by 1.2 billion people.

At the time of the 1995 Cannes film festival Spyros, a film-maker and magician, sent faxes to Warner Bros. and EMI offering his services. He also sent one to Ray Santilli, who happened to be a neighbour of his. The two men met at Cannes, and after a couple of bottles of wine Santilli boasted that he had an ‘alien autopsy’ film. He showed it, and Spyros declared that it was the worst thing he had ever seen. Filmed in Milton Keynes, it featured an alien with a papier-mâché head, and was shot on low-band video, which did not exist in 1947.

Back in London, he discussed the matter with his friend John Humphreys, a sculptor and special effects man, whose best known creation was ‘Max Headroom’ TV character. They agreed that they could do a better hoax than the one Santilli had shown. Due to the secrecy required, they involved as few people as possible. Spyros’s then girlfriend, ‘Geraldine’, did research into how an autopsy might have been conducted in Roswell in 1947. Her thoroughness led her to discover that there were no pathologists in the military stationed there, so that any autopsy would have been conducted by the base surgeon, who would have gone about it quite differently to a pathologist.

Humphrey’s ten-year-old son acted as a template for a mould, around which a latex alien was formed. The head was sculpted separately to make it bulbous, and the hands and feet to give her six toes and fingers on each. She was a toothless female because teeth and male genitals proved too difficult to make. The brains were actually sheep’s brains bought in a butcher’s.

SPYROS MELARIS
Spyros did everything to make the set realistic. Geraldine discovered that at that time, British pathologists would have used tools with wooden handles, but in America they would have been all stainless steel. She had some good luck at a government library in Marylebone. Discussing the matter with a librarian, he said that his late father had collected antique medical instruments, and he himself had kept them in his cellar. She said that she wanted to photograph some for an unspecified project, and he lent her an authentic set.

The room in a Roswell military base in 1947 was actually assembled in an upstairs room of a derelict house in Camden, north London. Personally, I would expect that if such an autopsy had really been filmed, it would have been with a fixed camera at one side of the room. Instead, it was done with a hand held camera obviously held close up to the surgeons as they worked, apparently oblivious to it. Again, one might expect it to be continuous, but the result had gaps which were to allow the actors a tea break.

Subsequent viewers do not seem to have queried those things, but Geraldine said that the film, as first shot, could not be used, because it was the way that pathologists would have done it, which was quite different to those of a surgeon. So they filmed it again the next day. This time, the new latex alien developed a bubble before setting, which left a hole in her right leg. A doctor who later saw the result declared that it was a bullet exit wound, showing that a soldier had shot her from behind.

Now, there are some pictures and videos that one suspects to be fakes, but cannot see how they might have been forged. An interesting example is the ‘Photo 19’ of Ed Walters, said to have been taken on 12 January 1988. Now, he took several UFO pictures which might well have been a small model saucer suspended from a piece of invisible thread. But this particular one shows it hovering over a road, with a light underneath creating a pool of light on the tarmac. This must be at least fifty yards away from the car (it was evidently photographed through a windscreen, as some minor reflections can be seen on it). He says that, shortly after taking it, “Five beings were then deposited on the road.” The fact that he did not manage to photograph those is highly suspicious, but I have never been able to work out how he might have got the pool of light to appear on the road.

In the same way, though I never had any belief the Alien Autopsy film, I could not understand how come it was examined by experts from Kodak and elsewhere who confirmed that it was nearly fifty years old. The film edge markings, a square and a triangle, show that it was made in 1947. That in itself does not prove when it was shot or processed, but it was pointed out that it was Super XX-Panchromatic 16mm Safety Film, which was unstable and had a lifetime of no more than two years. This eliminated the possibility that someone in the 1990s had got hold of an unexposed reel of film from the 1940s.

The explanation turns out to be quite simple: Spyros had acquired an actual film from 1947, which showed a baseball match, but it was not obvious from the opening sequence what it was about. He cut this at a point before the original subject became apparent, onto which he spliced his own footage. The experts had only examined the first few frames.

Spyros made it on a budget of £35,000, which is not much compared to the $33 million it has made, though unfortunately this money has not come to him. Experts have since devised explanations for apparent inconsistencies. She had no navel because they reproduce by cloning, for example. Numerous people have adopted the name: one can buy ‘Alien Autopsy soap’ and there is an Alien Autopsy pop band.

A book by Spyros Melaris is due to come out in October. He has not yet decided on a title, because so many people have appropriated ‘Alien Autopsy’. -- Gareth J. Medway

8 June 2018

SIZING UP SLENDERMAN

Nick Redfern. The Slenderman Mysteries: An Internet Urban Legend Comes to Life. New Page Books, 2018.

By now, most followers of forteana will have heard of the Slenderman. This creation, if that is what it is, started out ‘life’ on the website Something Awful, which is a comedy site. The creature itself loosely resembles a man in a black suit and wearing a black tie. All likeness to a human being stops there, as the face is blank, it is far too tall and thin and, on occasion, it has tentacles. It is a denizen of the half-light, usually depicted as standing in the shadows at the back of a picture, sometimes even hardly noticeable, yet representing a brooding threat, especially to children, who normally frolic in the foreground, unaware of what is yet to befall them. The book that this review is about is the second reviewed in the past year, so this entity is setting something of a trend.

Nick Redfern is a veteran journalist specialising in paranormal writing, with a leaning towards UFOs and cryptozoology. He has been writing about such subjects for over twenty years. He has made many and various television appearances, most notably on the History Channel, covering the aforementioned material. He has written many books and articles specialising in forteana, having had work published in the most recognisable magazine in the field, Fortean Times, and is one of the field’s most prolific and well-known authors.

The Slender Man or, as it is more commonly known, Slenderman, first appeared on the Something Awful website in 2009. Because it is ostensibly an artificial creation, the time and date may be discovered simply by searching on the internet as if there is no mystery at all and it is just what it appears to be; a creature derived from a fertile brain. It then faded in and out of focus on the web for roughly five years, until 2014, when a 12-year-old girl was nearly stabbed to death by two of her schoolmates as a form of sacrifice to the Slender Man. It seemed that, amongst some schoolchildren in the United States at least, Slenderman was a real bogeyman.




One adult married couple, the husband dressed as Slenderman, shot and killed three people before being shot and killed themselves. A writer declared the Slender Man as a contemporary manifestation of an ancient evil for the personal screens used by almost all. The book looks at the crossover between fictional creations of people’s minds and reality. It examines the concept of our mental brainchildren crossing the divide between thought and independent existence as well as the idea that, far from being a human creation, the Slender Man was around before it was ‘created’.

The theory goes that the person who first depicted it had, in some fashion, tuned into a phenomenon that had a form of existence earlier than had been realised. The tulpa is examined as a precedent for bringing a being created in the mind into independent life. The act of creation itself is analysed in order to better comprehend how such a being is capable of leaping from gadgets and computers to adversely affect people‘s thoughts. This can vary from writing to various forms of ceremonial magick, from Thelema to Chaos. The Slender Man is also compared to those most paranormal of beings, the Men In Black, who occasionally share a similar sense of ill fortune.

Nick Redfern is an old hand at bringing some of the lesser-known corners of the Fortean world to the notice of the wider general public. He achieves this by writing accessible books where jargon is kept to a minimum and concepts that may possibly stump the new reader are explained. Therefore the more esoteric areas that are brought into the light are taken on board quickly and easily. There are no footnotes and there is no index. However, there is a bibliography.

This book is much more than a general introduction to the Slender Man. It posits possible explanations as to why this undesirable essence affects people in the unfortunate and negative way that it does. Having said that, it does so in a relatively simple and straightforward fashion that means that even someone fresh to Forteana may be able to take on board ideas that may baffle the newcomer otherwise. As is stated above, it also brings many theories to bear, thereby being up to the task of maintaining the interest of the reader who is well versed in strange phenomena. -- Trevor Pyne


3 June 2018

BEFORE YOUR VERY EYES

Derek Tait. The Great Illusionists. Pen and Sword Books, 2018.

I found this a thoroughly enjoyable book full of interesting facts and amazing characters. It might better be called “A Magical Mystery Tour Of The Great Illusionists”. There are escapologists, mediums, memory acts, Indian rope trick performers, mind readers and animal acts, to name but a few. The author gives details on all of the acts' background history and performances, and provides images of rare posters and correspondences between the artists. There may be a bit too much information for the casual reader but it is a mine of information for the enthusiast.  

He details how some of the artists met their maker, and indeed most met very interesting job-related deaths - I wouldn’t want to catch a bullet fired from a rifle with my teeth!

The public during this period treated these performers like today's rock stars and the audiences were mesmerised by them, resulting in many newspapers challenging them to admit fraud. This is well shown in the book with many extracts and cuttings from these press releases which are amusing to read as they employ old fashioned semantics. 

One of the performers, Ching Ling Foo, had his act stolen by another performer who changed his name to Chung Ling Soo. They had a challenge for a forfeit of £1,000 if Ching Ling Foo succeeded in doing any of Chung Ling Soo’s twenty tricks. He failed to turn up, causing damage to his reputation. Many illusionists checked out each other's performances to add to their own repertoire as the stakes were high to gain more kudos and greater audience capacity.

The author relates that characters known as Lions Comiques [right] were as popular in Victorian times as boy bands are today, smartly dressed young men known as 'Swells' who sang songs about the good life while sipping champagne. Speciality acts were many and included one-legged dancers, ventriloquists, trick cyclists, jugglers and sword swallowers.

Houdini was the highest earner of the time and had to accept many challenges from the public and newspapers, such as the Daily Illustrated Mirror which had a unique pair of handcuffs made to give Houdini the ultimate escapology challenge. The handcuffs took five years to make and allegedly no mortal person could pick the lock mechanism. Houdini eventually succeeded in this endeavour after great publicity surrounding the challenge. 4,000 people and 100 journalists turned up to witness the feat. It was later said that when his wife came on stage to kiss him she secretly passed a key to his mouth that enabled him to release the handcuffs. This was denied strongly by Houdini and he later went on to make movies of himself performing spectacular escapes and feats.

This book takes you back to a time of music halls and variety theatres, long before television, radio and cinema, when people really believed in their magic and were enthralled by these performers. Their promise was to allow you to escape your hum-drum life and enter the world of the Great Illusionists! – Gerrard Russell


28 May 2018

TOP DECK

Shaheen Miro. The Lunar Nomad Oracle. Weiser Books. 2018.

Cartomancy – divination through playing cards – probably originated in the eighteenth century, and practitioners originally used the normal 52 playing-card deck, or the smaller 32 card deck used in France and elsewhere for the game of piquet. Later the tarot deck became particularly associated with the practice, but this was originally the standard deck used for tarot card games that were played across the Continent, but which never reached Britain.

There were variations of the tarot deck used in different regions and for different versions of the game. The one first used for divination was the Tarot de Marseilles, which was for centuries the standard French pattern, promotedd largely through the writings of Jean-Baptiste Alliette (1738-1791) who under the name Etteilla – his surname reversed – popularised the mystical use of tarot cards.

Later writers, particularly Antoine Court, (1719 -1784) writing under the name Antoine Court de Gébelin, created a mystic, but totally fictional, history of the tarot, tracing it back to ancient Egypt. From the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth, a huge number of tarot patterns were devised, of greater or lesser artistic quality. Two of the best know are the Rider-Waite deck, and Aleister Crowley’s Thoth tarot, illustrated to his instructions by Lady Frieda Harris. These were all largely framed by the original designs of the Marselle Tarot.

From the early nineteenth-century a number of other cartomancers began producing cards unrelated to the tarot pattern, and specifically designed for divination according to their own systems. One such was Marianne Lenormand (1772-1843) who produced a deck following the 36 card format of traditional French games, but with entirely new designs which did not conform to the tarot pattern of four suites and trumps (or, is you prefer, minor and major arcana).

None of this tells us whether or not the tarot has any actual supernatural properties, or if it really ‘works’. Of course, that rather depends on what you mean by ‘works’. Does it actually tell your fortune, can a random spread of cards do that? As a fully paid-up Pelicanist Sceptic, I am obliged to say no it can’t, but as a Fortean Magonian I am obliged to add a bit of wriggle room.

Some of my best friends are sceptics, and a few of them have rather more time for the tarot than you might suspect. Not because the cards themselves have a ‘magical’ quality, but because a contemplation of the imagery – random as it is – seems to stimulate mental links that would not come to mind otherwise. The potential value of the tarot lies inside the sympathetic and receptive practitioner and her – it’s mostly a her – relationship to the subject of the divination.

It might follow then that the effectiveness of a tarot, or other cartomantic deck, depends on the richness of the design and the opportunities it gives for the brain to make those subjective leaps and links when conferring with the person sitting on the opposite side of the table. If that is the case, the Lunar Nomad Oracle seems likely to be a very effective deck. But as I am not a practitioner, this must be a matter of speculation.

The Luna Nomad Oracle consists of a deck of 43 cards and a small-format paperback of 142 pages, neatly boxed. Although the book claims the deck is based on the Lenormande deck, the designs are far removed from the early nineteenth century originals, and seven extra cards seem to have crept in somehow.

But the new designs are superb. Based on old illustrations, photographs and prints they are rich, surreal collages of imagery, beautifully coloured, and imbued with a mystical quality. The book which accompanies the deck gives a description of each card and an interpretation, advising the reader of ways in which the imagery can be read. Whether or not this is helpful I cannot say, but the descriptions do seem more nuanced than some tarot ‘interpretations’ I have seen.

I would say that this is one of – if not the – most beautiful divinatory card decks I have come across, and is well worth collecting as an artwork in its own right. I don’t know how easy someone working with the deck would find it to use, as the cards are very large, (155mm x 115mm) but it is difficult to see how the detail and richness of the designs could be adequately depicted in a smaller format. A superb addition to any card collection. – John Rimmer


22 May 2018

CHRISTIANIZING EGYPT

David Frankfurter, Christianizing Egypt: Syncretism and Local Worlds in Late Antiquity, Princeton University Press, 2018.

Most accounts of the spread of Christianity in its early centuries tell the story through the actions of emperors and bishops and the structuring of the Church into an institution with authority and a clearly-defined message. In contrast, in what he calls a ‘remodelling’ of the subject, David Frankfurter, professor of religion at Boston University, takes a ‘bottom up’ approach, exploring what it actually meant for the ordinary folk – who were less concerned with Christian ideology and theology than with how it helped them deal with the problems and uncertainties they encountered in their everyday struggles - to become Christian; in short, Christianity as a ‘lived and local religion’.

Frankfurter’s focus is Egypt in late antiquity, that is between the fourth and seventh centuries – from Constantine’s legalising of Christianity in 323 CE, and more significantly Theodosius’ decree of 381 making it the only religion of the Roman Empire, to the Islamic hegemony – although his conclusions, he maintains, can be applied across the Late Roman world. He bases his study on the latest archaeological discoveries and textual scholarship, also drawing on parallels from the Christianisation of other places and periods (sometimes much more recent, as with colonial-era Latin America), as well as anthropological and ethnographic research into religion at the folk level in general.

After setting out his stall in the opening chapter, Frankfurter devotes chapters to specific aspects of the Christianisation of Egypt: the domestic sphere, with such concerns as family, fertility and the protection of the home against malign forces; the holy man - the ‘indigenous charismatic leaders who spearheaded the process of Christianizing villages and regions’ and who were remembered as saints; the shrines that grew up to those saints, supplanting the old temples as places of popular devotion and divination; the workshops and artisans that produced the votive objects for the shrines and home; the writings of monastic scribes; and finally the landscape and topography of Egypt itself – the way that temples and numinous sites were either supplanted by or incorporated into Christianity.

Frankfurter’s core argument is that Christianisation was less a process of conversion – persuading or forcing the people to switch from their old beliefs to the new approved faith – than a synthesis of traditional beliefs and practices with the new religion, a syncretism that was for the most part carried out at the popular level in ‘a locally negotiated process of selection and recombination’, not set by the ecclesiastical authorities. Indeed, those authorities had to struggle to keep control of the process in the face of popular creativity, as evidenced by their denunciations of various practices of the common folk, and even monks, as pagan, heathen or demonic. Frankfurter frequently quotes from the sermons of the late fourth/early fifth century Abbot Shenoute of Atripe, who condemned such practices as monks dispensing charms made of crocodile teeth, snakes’ heads and fox claws to which they had given a Christian blessing.

Perhaps most significantly for readers of this site, this way of looking at Christianisation leads Frankfurter to challenge the conventional wisdom that elements of pre-Christian religions that appear in a Christian context represent ‘pagan survivals’ – a term, and concept, that he rejects as giving a false impression of what really lay behind such continuities. It wasn’t, he argues, as simple as a clash between a new, officially sanctioned, religion and locals stubbornly, sometimes clandestinely, clinging to the old ways. Rather, traditional forms of religious expression were adapted to the new religion; for example, traditional amulets and charms were still used, but now invoked the aid of a saint (as with the charms Shenoute denounced). In his own words, Frankfurter’s aim is ‘to shift the focus from collections of isolated “pagan survivals” to the ways that people in Christianized cultures maintain religious forms as components of tradition and social interaction, often in the service of expressing Christianity.’



One of his examples of such adaptation is the ‘ticket oracle’ [above], a traditional Egyptian method of divination carried out at temples since the New Kingdom, in which two alternative courses of action were written on separate pieces of papyrus, one of which was selected by the god (or their priestly representative). The practice continued in Christian Egypt, but now at the shrines of saints, recasting a traditional way of accessing oracular power in a way that acknowledged the special status of Christian saints, as well as the authority of the Church.

Another example, to which Frankfurter frequently returns, are the terracotta female figurines, in various forms and poses – nude or clothed, sometimes pregnant or suckling infants – found in great numbers at saints’ shrines, and which were clearly an important part of popular devotion at them. Frankfurter disputes historians’ association of these figurines with similar, earlier images of goddesses such as Hathor and Isis, arguing rather that the similarity comes from workshops and craftsmen continuing to use traditional, standard forms for the same purposes, such as ensuring fertility. He applies the same argument to those figurines depicting a woman suckling a child that are frequently linked to classical images of Isis – as well as to later icons of the Virgin Mary – seeing all these images as variations of a ‘maternal fecundity figurine’ that had been common throughout the Mediterranean world since the Bronze Age: ‘breastfeeding scenes are well-represented variants and in no way require a particular mythological context or goddess figure as a template.’

Such examples, and Frankfurter’s general questioning of the notion of pagan survivals, do, of course, hold implications not just for mainstream history but also the ‘alternative’ and esoteric versions.

Frankfurter certainly presents a new and stimulating perspective on the early history of Christianity, and makes a lot of perceptive points. I did, however, sometimes find myself wondering if his enthusiasm for his remodelling hasn’t introduce a degree of circularity into some parts of his argument.


The perennial problem in trying to reconstruct the mindset of the ordinary people is that their own voices have left little trace in history – surviving writings are about, not by, them, and so reflect the perception of those higher up the social scale. Frankfurter therefore has to read between, or rather behind, the lines of, for example, the complaints of Abbot Shenoute and the later accounts of the lives of saints – which recast folk practices in stark Christian terms as the work of demons – and to interpret the archaeological evidence, for example to work out what those mute female figurines actually meant to those who placed them in a shrine. As a consequence, there’s a lot of ‘probably’ and ‘most likely’ in his reconstruction of the motivations that lay behind such practices – probable and likely, that is, according to the model on which Frankfurter bases that reconstruction, which then uses as support for the model.

I was particularly unsure of his explanation of the appearance of the names of the old gods (Amun, Horus, Thoth) in Coptic charms, written by Christian scribes and applied in a Christian context – the book opens with one to ‘Jesus Horus’ and his mother Isis – which, Frankfurter argues, doesn’t imply a reaction against Christianity or even a specific veneration or memory of the deities in question, but simply represents the perpetuation of ‘efficacious speech forms’ (folk charms and songs) in the new times.

Christianizing Egypt is written in a solidly academic but readable style, with plenty of black and white illustrations and colour plates. It assumes a fair amount of background knowledge of the subjects explored, but presents a wealth of fascinating material for those with an interest not only in early Christianity and the traditional Egyptian religions, but also subjects such as magic in the ancient world and demonology. -- Clive Prince


17 May 2018

MAGIC, TREASON AND PLOT SHOULD NEVER BE FORGOT

Francis Young. Magic as a Political Crime in Medieval and Early Modern England: A History of Sorcery and Treason. I.B.Tauris, 2018.

The main purpose of this book is to establish magical thinking, and in particular magical treason, as an essential part of the history of the medieval and early modern periods and worthy of detailed study. The author argues that the use of magical processes for political ends has been ignored by historians who have seen magic largely through the lens of social history, and regarded it as a form of ‘superstition’ and witchcraft. Historically witchcraft had been associated with ‘low-status’ individuals, and magic was therefore not seen generally as a significant influence on broader political and national history.

However Young argues that attempted magical acts, and accusations of such acts, played an important role in political, religious and dynastic conflicts up to the seventeenth century. He makes it clear that these involved ‘elite’ individuals, councillors, courtiers, politicians and even monarchs, were of national concern, and were quite unrelated to witchcraft claims, which seldom reached beyond a local context.

He criticises modern historians for a “moralising and rationalist approach” to what they consider a “false and discarded belief system”, concentrating more on why people believed things than what they actually did as a result of that belief: “Passing moral or rational judgements on the private beliefs of long-dead people is a futile exercise that makes for bad history”.

Prior to the fourteenth century magical practices were almost entirely a matter for the church courts, whose penalty for those found guilty were largely limited to excommunication. However as the power of the centralising state expanded into more and more aspects of life, the secular authorities began to see magical acts as being aimed against the court and the monarch, and could now be considered as treason, with the consequential death penalty. One of the results of this was that from being a respectable field of study, astrology began to be considered as a possible threat to the monarch, through its presumed ability to predict the date of the monarch’s death.




There were a number of magical plots against kings and courtiers through the period of the Wars of the Roses, but it was during the English Reformation that magical plots became a major source of concern to the state. This led to a number of Acts of Parliament prohibiting various practices, which have in Young’s view been misrepresented by later historians as Witchcraft Acts, but which in reality had little to do with populist, non-elite witchcraft practices.

Most of these acts of treasonable magic were laid at the feet of Roman Catholics, whose religious practices were already considered dangerously magical by the Protestant establishment, although by the end of the reign of Elizabeth I the actions of extreme Puritan elements also became a matter of concern. Young describes Elizabeth as “perhaps the most magically attacked monarch – at least while on the throne of England – in English History”.

One incident which is described in some detail is the affair of a group of three wax images which were found hidden in a farm in Islington in 1578 – than a small village a couple of miles from London. According to one account a female image bore the name ‘Elizabeth’ scratched into it, and the other two were dressed to resemble courtiers. They had been pierced with quills. They were passed on to the Lord Mayor of London and thence to the Privy Council. There was of course only one man able to counter the evil influence of this ‘effigy-magic’, Magonia’s Honorary Patron, John Dee!

The exact process by which he performed this act of counter-magic is not recorded other than briefly in Dee’s diary where he states “I did satisfy her Majesty’s desire, and the Lords of the honourable Privy Council, within a few hours, in godly and artificial [i.e. skilful] manner”. Young speculates on what this manner might be, based on the books known to be in Dee’s library in Mortlake at the time.

It sees however that Dee’s magical skills were wasted, as it emerged later that the effigies (or effigy, Dee only records one) were part of an attempt at ‘love magic’ by a young Islingtonian who had approached a local magician “to procure unto him the love of any three women whom he would name, and of whom he should make choice at his pleasure”. Fortunately for his indiscretions the youth suffered no more than a short period shame, and the loss of a significant sum of money to the fraudulent ‘magician’.

The accession of James I/VI brought some respite in attempts at magical treason, as he was less concerned about being the victim of magical attacks than previous monarchs; not because he did not believe in such things, but because his belief in the Divine Right of Kings meant that his position as an anointed king put him directly under God’s protection. Of course the main treasonable act of James's reign was the Gunpowder Plot, which served to further identification of Catholics with the ‘Enemy Within’.

The period of the Civil Wars, with the execution of the king and the overthrow of the established order dissipated much of the fear of magical treason, and curiously most of the worries about such plots seemed to be on the Parliamentary side, suspecting that Royalist sympathisers were involved in plots against them. Young suggests that the breakdown in law and order on a national scale during the Interregnum led to a stronger desire to punish wrongdoers locally, and may have been a factor in the East Anglia witch-hunts of 1644 – 1647.

Despite this, by the time of the Restoration in 1660, claims of treasonable magic began to disappear from English public life. Young gives as an example the 1678 ‘Popish Plot’ of Titus Oates, with its allegations of a Catholic conspiracy to poison Charles II, involving a number of individuals whom Oates seems to have chosen at random. Less than a century earlier such a plot would certainly have involved stories of magical treason, but no such claims were made by Oates and his followers. Young contrasts this with the contemporaneous ‘Affair of the Poisons’ in France, which involved allegations of magical plots against Louis XIV, although he notes that this also involved a number of English players.

The final years of the Stuart era saw the almost complete collapse of magical treason as a concept in England, and the establishment view, perhaps helped by Charles II’s involvement with the growing scientific ideas of the period and his setting up of the Royal Society. By the dawn of the eighteenth-century allegations of magical treason were limited largely to satirical insults from one faction to another, something which echoes to this day with politicians being described as having ‘something of the night about them’, or being the ‘Prince of Darkness’, a epithet which the individual concerned seemed only too eager to accept!

This is a fascinating book, not least because of the extensive selection of translated original texts which the author uses to illustrate his arguments; while managing the rare feat of being both scholarly and extremely accessible for the general reader with a reasonable knowledge of English history. – John Rimmer