I remember the late Gerald Suster’s description of a youthful reading of Blavatsky’s monumental Isis Unveiled – whatever else it did, it shocked, awed, opened the mind to a new way of looking at the world and placed the reader on the edge of possibility. I felt a similar way when I read this wonderful new work by one of the true elders of the Craft, Michael Howard. I imagined a youthful reader, new to this sort of stuff and how this book would impact them – and I have to say I’d rather the youth of modern Britain read and spend time with the myth and magic in this book than ponce around with a ‘gap year’!
The books covers traditional Witchcraft, the ‘darker’, more Cthonic strains of the Craft that Gerald Gardner, founder of Wicca ‘turned his back on’ in order to promote his sanitized and publically acceptable version (p.7). Now the pedant in me immediately looks at statements like this with a raised eyebrow. However, this is not a book on the history of Old Craft, it is a gramarye – a traditional book of sorcery. It is book alive with myth and magic and its scope is broad and engaging. It took me away from the known and historical and into the twilight world of wonder and enchantment through the coverage of a huge range of topics:
Witches as ‘spiritual rebels’; elves, goblins and faeries; magic and paganism; the Queen of Elfhame; King Arthur as a solar god married to the Goddess of the Land; the Holy Grail, Cathars, Albigenses; secret Goddess worship, genii loci, wights; the Toadmen and the Horseman’s Word; wort-cunning, dream incubation; standing stones, spirit tracks and green roads.
And that’s just the first 10 pages!
Howard has a lot to say and does so briskly and tantalisingly. Rarely is there depth coverage of the many related topics he presents us with. But there is no need, as they are but simple stops on a holistic journey of Craft and magic. The writing, as always, is simple and direct – and we get the feeling very clearly there is a lot more to this than words. Howard’s enthusiasm for his craft strains at the bounds of his writing, showing us the unmistakable passion of one committed to his path, committed to sharing it and yet respecting its mysteries and depths.
The book follows the standard format for many introductory or overview Witchcraft books, covering an introduction to the Craft, the Tools, the ‘initiations’ and the Circle, followed by theoretical overview of the Sabbats before giving texts of the Circle Casting and the Sabbats. In all chapters we find many rich topics and deep imagery abounds in the rubrics for the rituals. There is much that is traditional here, and much which is Howard’s own creation. The two blend well, and Howard is very clear the rituals in the book have been written just for the book, as a means of showing and providing traditional material and approaches for the reader to build upon.
One of the wonderful ‘additions’ to many Craft books that describe various versions of the Sabbats is the inclusion of 12th Night, where many customs and craft ideas are presented. Howard’s far ranging includes descriptions of wassailing, plough ceremonies, and the Christmas Mothers or Good Ladies. These are all important aspects of a land based tradition in Britain, often overlooked in modern books. Another crucial aspect of the Craft often skipped is included here: the offering of gifts to the ‘faery folk and the genii loci, the wights or the land spirits’ which Howard correctly asserts needs to happen before the creation of every circle.
The book is wonderfully illustrated with lovely line-art by Gemma Gary. I would have liked to have seen more of it. It is well produced and laid-out with the care and quality one comes to expect from Skylight Press. Overall, an excellent overview and introductory work on the Old Craft, one that will inspire and excite newcomers and have old timers, going ‘really?’ on nearly every page. If you are interested in Witchcraft or the religious landscape of Britain, this book should be on your shelf.
Liber Nox: a traditional witch’s gramarye by Michael Howard.
Skylight Press, 2014.