--Hallowe’en is a suitable time to consider the survival of a tradition of hand-written codex books in the post-Gutenberg age: the Wiccan “Book Of Shadows.”
As a codex is a handwritten bound book, it is usually a product of the pre-Gutenberg or pre-printing-press era, when books had to be copied by hand to safeguard them as well as to disseminate their contents. Yet it may be that the tradition of hand-written hand-copied books has been continued privately for centuries to this day - by Wiccans for their collections of spells, chants, and other ritual texts. The “genre label” Book Of Shadows used today for this is not itself old, being evidently coined by Gerald Gardner in 1949, to supplant the mediaeval term grimoire. “Grimoire” sounds frightening (perhaps deliberately so) with its first syllable the same as an Anglo-Saxon term for fate or the Devil (as in landmarks like Grim’s Dyke). It may be a sinister adaptation of “grammar” in the old sense of a beginner’s textbook (what an American might call a primer) teaching the basic building blocks of language. Originally the Old French word grammaire meant just a Latin/French/English textbook, but a grimoire was an “occult grammar” of the secret language of magic spells and rites. Grimoire or “grammarye” (as TH White spells it in his The Once and Future King), seems related to glamour (via obsolete glomerie, after Latin glomeria) in the older (pre-Hollywood) sense of an enchantment or magic spell - fairy dust cast in your eyes. White refers to the now-vanished enchanted Britain of Merlin & co. as the Isle Of Grammarye.
- The old view of a by-the-book witch ceremony, equated with black magic and Satanism. (Still from the 1922 Danish docudrama Haxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages.)
That mediaeval grimoires have a dark reputation (at least since the witch-hunting hysteria of the 16-17Cs) is an understatement, as anyone will know who reads the stories of the “father of the English ghost story,” M.R James. His best-known story (thanks to the classic 1958 film version Night Of The Demon), “Casting The Runes,” has an Aleister Crowley type occultist in possession of an ancient book on witchcraft and demonology, which includes spells for conjuring up windstorms and fire demons. Nearly all of M.R James’s stories have a similar plot setup, and I’ve suggested earlier that the first of them may even have been inspired by his hearing, on a visit to the area in 1892, something of the same legend of Rennes-le-Chateau and its wealth-amassing priest (Sauniere) that would inspire so much literature from Holy Blood Holy Grail onward. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” is the message here: “do not dabble with what you do not understand.” By definition, the contents of a grimoire or Book Of Shadows are to be kept secret – I believe Wiccans say the material is “oathbound” i.e. initiates are bound by oath not to disclose it. Nevertheless, some of the material has appeared online. Apparently this is a tactical move to discourage others from simply inventing material and claiming it as genuine tradition. (Like the Christian church, modern Wicca is split among several rival factions.)
- Gerald Gardner's controversial Book Of Shadows, now on display in a witchcraft museum. (Wikipedia photo.)
The great question of course is: does this “genuine tradition” dating back into the mists of time really exist? Some modern books (such as Leo Ruckbie's Witchcraft Out Of The Shadows and Ronald Hutton's The Triumph of The Moon) claim the Wiccan Movement is a modern creation invented by the Freemason, nudist, folklore collector [etc] Gerald Gardner, his 1940s Book Of Shadows being his ad hoc textbook for the postwar movement he founded. Certainly the Gardnerian Book of Shadows [pictured above] considered as a text seems to have been a modern creation. By the time Gardner retired, his successor Doreen Valiente had realised that he had cobbled together parts of rituals from various sources, from Freemasonry to Aleister Crowley to a Kipling poem. (You can read chapter and verse on these textual sources in books by Philip Heselton and others as well as online, cf here.) Doreen Valiente as the new “High Priestess” of English Wicca then rewrote the Book Of Shadows in the mid-50s, rewording it some cases and adding her own original work in others. She also drew on Aradia, Or The Gospel Of The Witches published in 1899, which claimed to be based (the argument has never been settled) on a mediaeval Italian witch’s account. Valiente says in her Witchcraft For Tomorrow (1978) she did this reworking as she was fed up with self-appointed individuals proclaiming their own teachings, obliterating the older ways, and that the only way to stop this trend was to make authentic witchcraft information public. That of course begs the question: what was authentic?
This is where the whole Wiccan movement ran into difficulty, both internally and otherwise. In the 70s, various feminist writers created a construct of a peaceful pan-European Great Goddess cult going back to the Neolithic, suppressed by the advent of a patriarchal war-oriented society which invented Christianity and burnt millions of goddess worshippers as witches in the so-called Burning Times. This was an elaboration of the ‘pagan survival’ thesis anthropologist Margaret Murray had put forward from the 1920s on, in books like The Witch Cult In Western Europe. Without getting into the controversy over the slender historical evidence for this scenario (which resurfaced when The Da Vinci Code cited it), this meant Wiccans had to tread a fine line of argument. On the one hand, their cult was ruthlessly suppressed since the Neolithic; on the other hand, its rituals survived intact - which might seem a bit of a stretch to many. Valiente’s own writings indicate she wanted to create material along lines she thought were less indebted to male-dominated groups like the Freemasons and the Ordo Templi Orientis. (There was a suspicion the women-hating Aleister Crowley had helped Gardner write his Book Of Shadows, based on OTO rites when the dying Crowley appointed Gardner his OTO successor in 1946, and students of this field have said Gardner’s original Book draws on Crowley’s writings.)
The argument could have been made that an older Book Of Shadows could have survived from the grimoire era, but nothing seems to have turned up since Aradia in 1899. (“Traditionally a Witch's book of shadows is burned upon the person's death” is one reason cited.) Valiente’s own candour however seems to have precluded this claim being made. She said Gardner’s defence when she challenged him over the issue was that the coven he was initiated into, in the New Forest in 1939, had only fragments of rites surviving. After his death, a leather-bound codex was discovered among his effects, with the cod-mediaeval title Ye Bok of Ye Art Magical, which apparently contained the first draft of the rites he would publish in the 1950s, and these have since been dismissed as largely taken from Crowley’s OTO material. Valiente also spotted where Gardner got the term Book Of Shadows: an article in an occult magazine where the ad appeared for his 1949 novel High Magic’s Aid (whose depictions of English witchcraft, written in 1946, don’t accord with his 1950s writings). This was to do with an ancient Sanskrit grimoire telling “how to foretell things based upon the length of a person's shadow.”
- A conventional image: the 3 witches in 'Macbeth', from Lamb's Tales From Shakespeare. The conical hats and all-black garb are actually genuine enough, worn by widowed older women in Wales right up into the 20th century as traditional dress.
There is no reason in theory why it could not have been argued an authentic Book Of Shadows codex was a transcription of an oral tradition that had survived the centuries of oppression. Wiccans claim “the Craft” did survive among country folk, where certain families had a hereditary witch tradition. The oral-tradition argument however runs into two difficulties. First is that where such ‘witch’ families have been identified, they have been not very literate and unable to articulate any historical theology, but simply operate at a practical level. Evidently, there are no rival claims among traditional witches that they kept a Book of Shadows. Secondly, in the case of the one high-profile exception to the above, the deity reported is not a goddess but a male god.
The most-cited case of the main ‘traditional’ or village witch, Old George Pickingill (1816-1909), is the subject of one book (The Pickingill Papers, 1994) and mentioned in other modern works as the best-documented case of a tradition surviving. Pickingill was an active proselytizer, apparently due to his hatred of the Church. He supposedly used his Romany-gypsy background to travel around England to horse fairs, setting up other covens. How this would have worked is unclear, but Crowley claimed he himself learned authentic rites from joining one of these covens (details not known) and later passed on details to Gardner. Gardner also supposedly learned details from a Pickingill ‘descendant’ coven. Pickingill, according to his source (EW ‘Bill’ Liddell, a descendant), did leave some papers when he died. He said witches worshipped not a goddess but Gwyddion and his sons, who were represented by stone heads. “Gwydd” is a Welsh word with various meanings – presence, wild, trees, etc, and can be used to refer to a male witch type of figure. There is some support for this in the authentic collection of mediaeval Welsh folktales known as The Mabinogion, which was first translated into English in the 19th Century by Lady Charlotte Guest with the help of a pair of Welsh scholars. The Mabinogion has both male and female wizard-style king and queens, including a warrior-prince called Gwydion with some magical abilities, the male figures being the more dominant in the stories. Pickingill implied there was a national school of witchcraft based in Wales, operating in secret, with any informants being killed using a peashooter-style paper-screed device to blow a herbal toxin into their face.
The Welsh links here would indicate this was a Britonnic Celtic cult, and the carving of stone heads is also an attested Celtic practice. The Gwidonad, Gwyddonaid etc are usually described in Welsh lore as a Bardic group; a late and possibly contaminated Welsh source, the Barddas of Iolo Morganwg, reproduces mnemonic texts saying the name derives from the order’s practice of meeting in woods to maintain their studies as “men of science.” There seems to be a fine distinction between the 3 well-known Celtic classes of learned men – bards, ovates, and druids – attested in Roman sources, and it is possible this secret surviving woodland order were not so much bardic as druidic, the former being a cover for the latter adopted in the Christian era. (It is not unusual for religious groups to adopt a secular guise.) Caesar and others referred to the druids studying and teaching scientific subjects, with Britain as the centre of this collegiate system which met in woodland groves.
Yet this explanation still leaves little room for the modern feminist Wiccan tradition, for there is scarce mention historically of female druids, and the relatively modern Druidic ceremonial orders which still exist seem as male dominated as their Bardic counterparts. Crowley notoriously disliked the idea of any group run by a woman, and it’s possible Gardner only did away with all-male groups to indulge his own fetishes. In his setup, he would be the one man being in charge of a group of women who would strip to order and allow themselves to be tied up and scourged. The nudity and S&M aspects introduced by Gardnerian ritual gave the movement a sexual frisson or prurient aspect that got plenty of Hammer-horror-film style depictions in the media of its so-called “Satanic” rites during the so-called Sexual Revolution of the 60s and 70s, as well as a supply of new members thereafter.
Anyway, due to Gardner & co., the 1950s in Britain saw what we might call the coming out of the witches, following the repeal in 1951 of the repressive act which criminalised witchcraft as a form of blackmail. Some might insinuate this postwar official turnaround of attitude is due to the role Wiccans played in wartime. This is the one aspect where they seems to be evidence of a longstanding belief about witches, at least one which they themselves might support or encourage.
In Britain, at times of national crisis such as threatened invasion, there is an apocryphal tale that this was thwarted by a “Witches’ Wind,” created by a secret magical ceremony to raise the “cone of power”. This scenario was applied to the storm-wrecked Spanish Armada in 1588, circulated evidently early enough to alarm the future James I. When his ship was likewise delayed by adverse winds the following year, 1589, he put it down to the work of witches, and wrote a codex in 1597 about the danger they represented, called Daemonologie, then set about suppressing them with a personal zeal, leading to the witchcraft persecutions of Shakespeare’s time - the dark view of the time being presented in his Macbeth.
Come 1940, when invasion again loomed, the story is that a group of Gardnerian Wiccans met in the New Forest and performed a rite to raise the “cone of power.” How this quite worked is unclear, for there was no storm (or invasion fleet), but it became the founding myth of modern Wicca. The explanation given is that the cone of power transmitted a telepathic signal saying “You cannot cross the sea, you are unable to come,” which caused Hitler to abandon his invasion plan (rather than the normal explanation that the RAF denied Germany the air supremacy necessary to invasion).
- Witches' magic causes a deadly storm in an old woodcut - which shows the belief in this power is not a modern invention per se. (I've coloured the image as the original was too dark and grey to make out details.)
Whether this is simple wishful thinking or clever Wiccan PR or something else entirely, it is part of a larger scenario whereby British occultists did their bit for the war effort in a campaign known as The Magical Battle Of Britain. This was inspired by the Nazis’ own interest in the occult, which soon led some to see them as not just a political entity but as a personification of evil, a perversion of genuine paganism cultivated to pursue power over others at any cost and by any means. There was a cover feature on this campaign in a recent Fortean Times magazine [pictured], now online, here. Needless to say, many mysteries remain, which we cannot deal with here.
As this blog-post was occasioned by the approach of Hallowe’en, one of the significant dates on the old pagan calendar, we can end by considering these, as they may hint at some authentic survivals of pagan, pre-Christian belief and practice. Hallowe’en is a relic and commercial displacement of an old pagan date, known as a cross-quarter day, in this case midway between the autumn equinox and winter solstice, but moved to the evening of the start of the next calendar month. (Our months represent a clumsy Roman attempt at defining lunar cycles within the overall framework of solar alignments.) Celtic ‘festival’ dates were celebrated starting the evening before the marker day. In this case, the eve of Nov. 1st is supposedly when the dead come out, and witches fly, called in Celtic Samhain. In church ritual, Nov. 1st is All Hallows Day or All Saints Day and the next day is All Souls Day, known also as The Day Of The Dead, commemorated by elaborate pageants involving ghoulish mask-wearing figures representing the dead in purgatory whom relatives were praying for. The true equinox-solstice midpoint would be around November 5th, which is supposedly a historical-anniversary date in the British calendar, when bonfires are lit across the nation. These are supposedly to commemorate the 1605 "Catholic" plot (the whole affair may have been rigged by gov't) by Guy Fawkes to blow up the witch-hating James I and his circle with gunpowder. But it may have been a take-over of an older sacred “bone-fire” festival, when livestock was slaughtered and cooked; the straw-man "guy" who is thrown on post-1605 bonfires may be a relic of the Celtic-era "wicker man" sacrifices mentioned by Roman writers. That is, Bonfire Night may be a secularization of an ancient relgious feast, which the government adapted to encourage hatred of Catholics.
When the shortest day of the year is reached, the Christian holiday of Xmas now replaces the older one of Yule. The wheel of the year passes another solstice-equinox midpoint marker in the 1st week of February, when Celtic tradition celebrated, as Imbolc, the time when sheep’s udders again filled up with milk, the Christianised Anglo-Saxon feast of Candlemas today, now displaced by a very commercialized [St] Valentine’s Day mid-month. The two remaining “cross-quarter” days are May Day Eve, the Celtic Beltane, and the 1st week of August, called in Celtic Lughnasah and in Anglo-Saxon, Lammastide, when the harvest month begins. On this latter date in 1100, a famous political assassination, that of the hated Norman king [see our previous post], William Rufus, took place in the New Forest. Pagan advocates like Margaret Murray claimed this date suggests it was a ritual sacrificial slaying, one of a long series. In 1940, the official site of this slaying (the Rufus Stone) was chosen as the place where the coven’s anti-invasion ritual was to be held on the eve of 1st August, i.e Lammas Eve; the rite was performed in the nude, and supposedly several older members of the coven died from the cold and exertion.
The war in Europe itself ended 5 years later, after Hitler committed suicide in his bunker on the day of May Eve – an appropriate date for an event that marked the downfall of Nazis’ neo-pagan religion, akin to the myths of the Götterdämmerung or Twilight of the [pagan] Gods which Hitler’s favourite composer Wagner set to music. May Eve was a significant day in Germanic lore: as interpreted by Christian sources who saw witches as Satanic, this was supposedly when they had their last chance to fly before the powers of light became ascendant on May Day. Witches and warlocks traditionally assembled on an eastern German mountain called The Brocken, where those who ascended above the misty valley might see the Brocken Spectre – their figures casting a long shadow on the fog below, which slowly disappeared as the sun set in the west.