Thursday, 7 August 2014

What is Folk Magic?

When I am asked "What is Witchcraft?" I always define it as the use of folk magic.  In all honesty, I always thought that covered it nicely.  It seems however, there is some confusion or differences of opinion as to what is folk magic.

Folk Magic is the magic that was performed by the common folk.  By the everyday folk, by Cunning folk, by the practical down to earth people.  It is not necessarily Hedgewitchery, nor purely rural farm-based or herbal magic although all of these are somewhat related and intertwined.

Folk magic is sometimes referred to as Low Magic or Dirt Magic.  This is as opposed to High Magic or Ceremonial Magic.  For the main differences between these two, we need to step back in time a couple of hundred years and more.

High or Ceremonial Magic

High Ceremonial Magic was generally performed by rich men.  How do we know they were rich men? 

  • There are many prohibitions in the Grimoires regarding women.  You cannot teach them magic, you cannot speak to a widow during ritual preparation, you cannot come into contact with a menstruating woman during ritual preparation.  There is so much misogyny (which was also just the standard way things were) throughout these ponderous tomes.
  • The tools, clothing, incenses and oils required were not cheap or easy to attain.  Having several knives or swords that were kept purely for magical purposes is an indicator of wealth and of nobility.  If you had the means to have such a wasteful thing as a knife that was deliberately blunt, then you were rich.
  • Having the available free time to devote yourself to days and weeks of ritual purification, cleansing, prayer and meditation means that you were not working from sun up to sun down.  It means you did not have to worry about where your next meal was coming from, taking care of your animals yourself or taking part in the production of your food.  The only people able to do this were wealthy or clergy.
  • The simple fact that they were literate and able to read the Grimoires, to study the heavens for Astrological transits and to draw the shapes, sigils and often Hebrew lettering required for a circle.  This indicates an education which was generally only available to the wealthy or clergy.

Yes there will be exceptions to all of this, there always is.  I'm speaking in general terms.

High or Ceremonial Magic is strictly structured, it requires that all instructions are followed to the letter.  That the right words, prayers, actions, symbols or sigils be used in the right order, in the right place at the right time.  There is a vast body of learning and theoretical knowledge required for this magic.

The focus and purpose of most magic of this type is to make contact with Angels, Demons and Celestial Intelligences.  To have those spirits do your bidding and bring you the results you require.  These results all lead to The Great Work, which is to raise the magician to a level of purity, holiness and power that they achieve unity with God. 

Yes this is greatly simplified for the purpose of this discussion.

Folk Magic

Folk Magic was what was performed by the not so rich.  It was the magic of the common people.  It was practical, using what is readily available and it was performed by anyone and everyone.  There were the Cunningfolk, Wise Ones or Herbwives that people could go to for special help.  But at the same time, there was much that the folk did for themselves.  Many of our superstitions, old wives tales and folklore still contain hints of the simple folk magic of a few hundred years ago. 

Until Gerald Gardner did his thing in the 1940s and 1950s to claim the word and redefine it, Folk Magic was not witchcraft.  Witchcraft was purely evil intentioned magic.  These days we seem to forget that simple fact.

Today, Folk Magic is still the practical magic.  It is tangible, common sensical (I will make that a real word one day) and anyone can do it with a bit of training and work.  Some combine psychic abilities with their Folk Magic and many don't. 

Folk Magic and Practicality

Being practical, something which is dear to my heart and an absolute virtue, Folk magic has no need for special or specific items.  Even the newer books on the subject contain huge appendices of substitutions.  You use what you can lay your hands on right now.  If you want to wait and perform your magic when you have that particular item, herb, gemstone or candle available, then by all means do it. But if you can't wait or you can't afford or source that item then whatever you do use is just as valid.

A former acquaintance used to wax lyrical over how your pantry herbs had no power.  Any Witch Worth Her Salt would know this and only buy certified organic herbs from a reputable witchcraft supplier - which was supposed to be her.  This attitude (all self-serving motivations aside) seems to be thankfully in the minority.   Many reputable Witches well worth their salt speak of grabbing pantry items to perform their magic.  Having a special cupboard where your magical versions of culinary herbs goes seems the opposite of practical to me.

In my own experience, most of my serious magic has been to deal with an emergency.  I've had a need to do something right here and right now, it will not wait until the planets are in the right alignment or my daffodils are blooming or anything else.  I may have some of the things I want previously collected, dried and stored, but equally, I may not.  It doesn't mean I need to spend time looking for a substitution or a spell that will only require what I have on hand.  It means I need to be practical and create my spell using what I do have.

When I talk about things previously collected and stored, that speaks of another level of practicality.  Be aware and conscious of what's around you.  Seeing that the hawthorne hedges are in fruit and collecting the berries. Picking up that unusual stone when you see it.  I carry spare bags in my car and if I see something I might need on the side of the road, I will stop (if I'm not on time constraints) and gather what I need.  Sometimes that's flowers or berries and sometimes that's road kill.   I gather the rainwater during thunderstorms, morning dew, the water from mists and fogs, hailstones and snow.  It's not just a herb thing.

Spoken Charms

Within some of the traditional Folk Magic lore is a wealth of spoken charms.  These are often small rhymes, phrases or prayers.  Psalms especially are abundant in quite a wide variety of folk magic applications.  Pow-Wow and Hoodoo, two reasonably well known forms of American Folk Magic both make extensive use of Psalms and prayers.  The Swedish Svartkonstboks (Black Arts Books or Magic books of their Cunning folk) contain many charms that end with saying "In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost" three times.  This is also a pattern in most European Folk Magic texts that are older than the last fifty years.

For many modern Witches, anything Christian is absolute anathema. They're horrified and offended that there can be such a thing as a genuinely Christian Witch.  The truth of the history was that many of our Folk Magicians were Christian.  Not as a safety pretend-to-be-so-you-won't-be-persecuted thing, but genuinely Christian.  Folk Magic is not religious.  Adding prayers and Psalms gave it an added boost, an extra layer of blessing.  Many people also included their faith into almost everything they did, including it in Folk Magic was just an extension of that.

I often cringe at some of the rhyming stuff that is bandied about.  I hear Charmed, I often hear overly flowery flaky ideas, really lousy poetry or poorly chosen words being used just to make it rhyme.  I often have an unfair aversion to any rhyming spell.  I say unfair, because some of the most successful work I have done has involved a rhyming chant that I wrote myself.  It's a simple two line chant that I repeat as I raise energy that I weave through my words and give them power.

Again, go back to some of the stuff that we do have from our ancestors.  Nursery Rhymes.

Rain rain, go away, come again another day,
Little children want to play, rain rain go away.

Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, 
I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.

Folk Magic and Positivity

In all of my research into Folk Magic, my many years of study and practice, I have yet to find anything (that isn't brand spanking new and New Age as well) to say that Folk Magicians were nice people.  There are no prohibitions against cursing or hexing, no dire warnings of rebounds, threefold law or cobbled Westernised (and bastardised) versions of Karma.

There are spells and folklore giving advice on how to curse, how to protect against curses and hexes and plenty of simple spells to coerce someone - from making a thief own up or return your property to making a shotgun shoot crookedly or laming a racehorse.  There are equally spells and folklore for healing, for stopping your cattle from straying, for divination into all things and for bringing good luck into a home.

Like most things in Witchcraft, the ethics and ways to use it are purely up to the Witch or Folk Magician.

Sources and further reading:

The Book of The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage
or this version

The Key of Solomon the King
or a revised edition here

The Long Lost Friend

The Works of Henry Cornelius Agrippa (most notably the Three Books of Occult Philosophy)

Egyptian Secrets of Albertus Magnus

 The Witch of Forest Grove - Sarah Anne Lawless

Grumpy Old Witchcraft - Cassandra Latham-Jones

Gemma Gary

Plus a variety of awesome groups and people on facebook!



Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Fantasy Magic and Works of Fiction

Artwork by Alexander Liptak -

In one of my groups, there seems to be a weekly rinse and repeat cycle of someone new asking about the Necronomicon.

There immediately follows someone pointing out that it's fiction, someone disputing that and saying it's really ancient and inspired the fiction and someone claiming the Simon Necronomicon is the real one. Shoddy history, butthurt and fluffy OMG it's so evil reactions abound until it dies down, drops down the page and then starts again next week.

The useful part of the discussion that came this week though was about inspiration from fiction and works of fantasy.  This also extended into Sir Terry Pratchett's Pagan credentials and Harry Potter.

As you should know by now, I'm always pushing that you should write your own spells, that your magic should come from the heart and be an outward expression of you.  To me, these discussions highlighted that in many ways.

Where you find the inspiration for your magic doesn't necessarily have to be the Pagan books or the Spell books or all the experts you might find online.  It might come from a line in a fictional work, it might come from a Harry Potter spell or it might come from something seemingly small on your favourite sitcom.  The only thing that is required is that this inspiration works for you.

I have used something similar to the Ridikulous charm from Harry Potter.  Even before I'd read the series.  When my children had nightmares they'd tell me about the giant spiders chasing them or clowns or something.  I'd listen, hug them and then we'd make whatever had frightened them into something ridiculous and silly.  Their spiders would be wearing sequined top hats, fishnet stockings and tap dance around the kitchen sink, the clowns became cute little shelf ornaments and tigers were suddenly fat spoiled lap-cats with big shiny bows around their necks.  While it may not have been magic as such, it was still headology and Granny Weatherwax would approve.

I found myself inspired by the system of magic slowly revealed in Kate Elliot's Crown of Stars series, I spent months working on building my City of Memory but I could never quite manage to use it as a filing system the way Liath does.  I found the Mage's Ladder very similar to the system of Gates I've found in some witchcraft books.

I know I'm not the only person inspired by Terry Pratchett's liminal half-moons.  In one book (I don't recall which one) he goes into the way witches stand in the liminal places, the boundaries, doors and portals, the places that are between two states being both and neither and how the half moon is all the more special for being liminal although it's terribly overlooked.  A good friend makes an effort to have a special half moon ritual twice a month.  She sees them as points of balance where the positive and the negative have equal value.

Many years ago, I had a challenging staff member who was the master of the sidetrack when you were telling him off.  Before you knew it, he'd taken you down so many tangents you'd just walk away feeling confused and not quite sure what just happened.  To deal with him, I created my Seven of Nine glamour.  I'm sure the Trekkies will get it, but for the others, Seven of Nine was a character from Star Trek:Voyager, she was half human and half Borg - rescued from the Borg and she became a member of the crew.  As a half-Borg, she would be extremely emotionless and cut through any crap with clarity and precision.

Before I had to deal with this staff member, I'd take a moment to feel I was channeling Seven of Nine, I'd lay a glamour of her over me.  When he started off on his tangents I found I was able to simply say "That's irrelevant" and repeat my previous statement.  When I didn't get distracted by his rubbish, he tried to wind me up and make me angry instead.  Seven of Nine also helped there.

Any inspiration, anything that works is useful in magic.  You could be visualising your protection as prowling centaurs, the Wall from Game of Thrones or the Bog of Eternal Stench from Labyrinth, if it works for you then it's valid.  If you think it will draw ridicule, don't share it.  You do not owe anyone an explanation about your methodology. 

Now, while I am saying that your inspiration could come from fiction and be valid, I am not saying that it is valid to make that fantasy or fiction into your reality.  That is something altogether different.  You cannot summon the demons from Anne Rice's Mayfair Witches or from Charmed.  Whatever you get will not be what you may think it is and is unlikely to behave in the manner you expect.  I have yet to meet anyone who was genuinely a were-anything despite hearing many claims. I am not going to enable anyone's beliefs that "Everything is true (or could be) and has value" because I'm too old to play those games.  I have too much hard experience under my belt and I have spent too much time cleaning up other people's messes when they've tried to make this stuff work.

So, with that grump over with, go out and be inspired.  If something moves you or works as a way to picture something then use it.  Use it without embarrassment, use it consciously and make it yours.