4 December 2019

THE POETRY OF WITCHCRAFT

Nigel Pennick. Operative Witchcraft, Spellwork and Herbcraft in the British Isles. Destiny Books. 2019.

I’m not an expert on the sociology of witchcraft or folklore: still less a scholar qualified to examine how comprehensively this short book has traced the history of operative (hands-on) witchcraft in Great Britain from the late sixteenth century to the early twenty first century. I don’t practise witchcraft. Nor do I know anyone who does. However this work is probably not a technical manual for current practices but a history of when, how, why and where witchcraft appeared, disappeared and returned to be re-energised in our culture.
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My credentials are literary critic, film critic and poet. I could possibly be given the loose title of cultural critic who was willing to read and review Operative Witchcraft by Nigel Pennick. I’m pleased I took it on for I found it a fascinating read. Being a poet one of the first things that attracted me to this book was the beguiling poetic language of the many spells and herbs used for good or ill in the community.

In the chapter titled “The Gamut of Witchcraft” I learnt of the 1609 masque by Ben Jonson called The Masque of Queens. This features a convention of witches whose behaviour was drawn from Jonson’s research into antique and contemporary witchcraft and demonology. Twelve witches or hags declare their preparations and then ceremoniously dance. Here is Hag no 2.

I have been gathering wolves’ hairs,
The mad dog’s foam and the adder’s ears:
The spurging of a dead-man’s eyes,
And all since evening star did rise.

After hearing all the hags, The Dame (or chief) says.

Yes, I have brought, to help our vows,
Horned poppy, cypress boughs,
The fig-tree that grows on tombs,
And juice that from the larch-tree comes,
The basilisk’s blood, and the viper’s skin:
And now our orgies let us begin.

Yet the potential malevolence of the witches is quashed, in the part of the masque, where good, in the form of twelve Masquers, the principal being Heroic Virtue, materialise causing the evil ones to disappear (Whilst writing this review I discovered an interesting video of The Masque of Queens staged two years ago in Oxford. It can be found on Youtube or the Kings College London, Shakespeare 400 Kings Blog website)

The texts of the spells, written down in witches’ handbooks, are not merely technical instructions but verse in their own right. Like this one written by the poet Robert Herrick and published in 1648)

If so a Toad be laid
In a sheep-skin newly flaid,
And that ty’d to a man ’twil sever
Him and is affections forever.

One of the strange pleasures of Operative Witchcraft are its illustrations of the Devil and photographs of witch iconography and paraphernalia - magical places, sundials, a mummified toad, peacock patterning to ward off the evil eye on pargettting at Dunmow, Essex, a toad bone in a locket, a witch ball and a mummified cat found in a barn at Newport, Essex, used as an apotropaic charm against fire.

I especially enjoyed the chapter about weird plants associated with witchcraft. Deadly Nightshade, Aconite / Monkshood, Angel’s Trumpet, White Byrony, Black Byrony, Hemlock and Mandrake are accompanied by lovely drawings. Greater Periwinkle caught my attention as it was used to ward off all kinds of sickness such as bleeding and cramps, whilst also being an aphrodisiac. However once belief in superstition and magic declined in the twentieth century and modern medicine developed then there were consequences.

“Ritual taking of herbs with cutting divining rods, which are now ignored by dowsers, official medicine dispensed with the rituals when the chemical-pharmaceutical worldview overtook the old magical one.”

It is always salutary to be reminded of the law in relation to witchcraft. That the 1735 Witchcraft Act remained on the United Kingdom statutes until 1951, when the Fraudulent Mediums Act repealed it. And the last recorded accusation of bewitchment was in England at East Dareham in 1947. Afterwards the continuation of witchcraft is now more focused on Wicca (A new religious form of pagan worship set up by Gerald Gardner.) The Witchcraft Research Association was wound up in 1967 because of schisms and arguments over Wicca. Whilst today there’s a great proliferation of Wicca sects.

Generally on the historical facts of Operative Witchcraft I can only vouch for its accuracy in relation to one of the few books I’ve read on the subject and that’s The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, an engrossing study written by Ronald Hutton. It appears to me that Hutton and Nigel Pennick are scholars of great authority. And it’s the research, style and tone of Operative Witchcraft that will appeal to the general reader. Before being offered the Pennick book to review I’d watched again that remarkable (1967) British film, Witchfinder General (You’ll even find one reference to Mathew Hopkins in Operative Witchcraft.)

Michael Reeve’s film may play loose with the real facts of Hopkins life but what it and Pennick’s book have in common is they are a popular and highly intelligent contribution to our understanding of witchcraft. And that’s the cultural critic inside me, summing up. -- Alan Price.

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