Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Serpent Songs curated by Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold

Scarlet Imprint 2013. 224 pages. Large octavo. Black-and-white photos and illustrations.

Available in three editions:

Bibliotheque Rouge digital edition: (available as an epub and mobi files).

Sylvan edition: Cloth-bound hardcover. Limited to 750 copies.

Serpentine edition: Full leather with slipcase. Limited to 64 copies. Sold out at publisher.

Serpent Songs is Scarlet Imprint's newest anthology of unique voices from the occult underground. I am continually amazed by how SC is able to locate practitioners of extremely obscure traditions. This alone is a notable feat, but to find practitioners who are both sane and proficient writers is a miraculous accomplishment. The anthology is curated by Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold (also a contributor). This book's theme is 'Traditional Witchcraft', however one happens to define the term.

The term 'Traditional Witchcraft' is regarded as a rather loaded term within certain circles. Argument often arises over what it really means, how accurate of a term it is, or if it is a useful descriptor at all. When this book was first announced I was afraid it would contain a series of ramblings and arguments over the definition of 'Trad Craft', or which group claims rightful ownership of the term. Thankfully neither was the case -- far from it. I should know by now to put more faith in SC's editorial acumen. Lesson learned.

Before I get into the full review, allow me to tell you an amusing story about my experience with some folks within "Trad Craft" and why it I was so apprehensive about the subject...  Some years ago, after reading inspiring works by Andrew Chumbley, Nigel Jackson, Daniel Schulke, Robert Cochrane, Michael Howard, Carlo Ginzburg, et al., I happened across a popular web forum dedicated to discussing 'Traditional Witchcraft'. However, unless one was a full-fledged member one had limited access. Without membership one could only read select threads and was unable to post or be part of discussions. I was curious to read what others' opinions were about so-called 'Traditional Witchcraft' and attempted to join the site. Only it wasn't that easy. I had to write an essay about what the term 'Traditional Witchcraft' meant to me. Fair enough. It figured it was their way to weed out teenagers and lunatics, and it might be a useful way to get some conversation going.

I actually enjoyed the exercise. What did 'Traditional Witchcraft' mean to me? After some deep consideration I wrote my thoughts out and submitted my summary. Unfortunately, (or not) my answer was not the 'correct' answer. My take on TW did not match theirs presumably. I was refused permission to join. This struck me as odd, as they specifically asked what 'Traditional Witchcraft' meant to me -- there should be no wrong answer to this. Maybe I didn't romanticize it enough. Maybe my avatar pic should have been spookier. Who knows. There's nothing wrong with having requirements, or even high standards, but one should always have room for new opinions to avoid the echo-chamber of 'group think'. In any case, it is the forum moderators' prerogative to decide who may join. I respect that. My interest in membership had withered. That single glimpse into their insular belief structure spoke volumes. I surmised I was dealing with yet another dogmatic group unwilling to have its beliefs questioned; a group with a high wall built to shelter fragile egos. 

So there you go. 

I should note that I have since encountered other groups that have far more acceptance of diverse ideas. For example, I recently requested permission to join a Facebook group about Traditional Witchcraft in the New World. I was allowed membership in less than a minute. Quite a contrast. Thanks again, Mr. Erwin.

Because of my past experiences I found the attitudes expressed in Serpent Songs to be a welcome breath of fresh air. The authors are lucid, erudite, sincere, and above all open-minded. The essays contain a rich diversity of regional European practices spanning from Norwegian Trolldom to Italian Stregoneria; from Basque folkways to Bogomilism in the Balkans. A few authors touch upon New World traditions such as Hoodoo and working with the spirits of indigenous animals.

  • Prelude: The Other Blood - Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold
  • The Witch's Cross - Gemma Gary
  • The Spirit of True Blood - Shani Oates
  • Lezekoak - Arkaitz Urbeltz
  • A Gathering of Light and Shadows - Stuart Inman and Jane Sparkes
  • The Fall and Rise of an English Cunning One - Tony MacLeod
  • Stregoneria, A Roman Furnace - Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold
  • But the House of my Father will stand - Xabier Bakaikoa Urbeltz
  • Bucca and the Cornish Cult of Pellar - Steve Patterson
  • Exorcists, Conjurors and Cunning Men in Post-Reformation England- Richard Parkinson
  • The Liturgy of Taboo - Francis Ashwood
  • Trolldom - Johannes Gardback
  • Bogomilian and Byzantine influences on Traditional Craft - Radomir Ristic
  • But to assist the Soul's Interior Revolution, the art of Andrew Chumbley and aspects of Sabbatic Craft - Anne Morris
  • Passersby: Potential, Crossroads & Wayfaring on the Serpent's Road- Jesse Hathaway Diaz
  • The Mysteries of Beast, Blood and Bone - Sarah Lawless

For the sake of brevity, I will not comment on every contribution, but I will share some thoughts and observations on a few:

 Gemma Gary's essay, The Witch's Cross, offers terrific insight into Cornish witchcraft. Her writing style is both elegant and informative. She is able to clearly convey the essence of her tradition, both from a practical and spiritual standpoint, without getting bogged down with minutiae or becoming too abstract. Her essay also includes one of her black and white illustrations.

Shani Oates' essay, The Spirit of True Blood, is stunning. The wisdom she presents to the reader is literary gold. Oates avoids the term 'Traditional Witchcraft' and prefers the simplified "Traditional Craft", believing it to have less baggage and negative associations. Early on, she and her clan felt that defining their practice as 'witchcraft' (and themselves as witches) would be self-limiting. She understands that no tradition exists within a vacuum and is keenly aware of significant influences within her tradition which can be traced back to other Western Mysteries; namely, Hermeticism and Gnosticism.

In direct contrast to the Trad Witchcraft forum mentioned above, Oates states:

The Craft is the thread that thrives as an underground stream. Its fierce abnegation of dogma offers succor that generates a mystical path, of hermitage and evolution. Its source honours the pagan path, yet seeks the transcendent infusion that ignites those animisms. It presents to every seeker an objective goal that allows their subjective need for a devotional path to overwhelm and elevate them as journeymen upon a road shared by others of similar vision ... it denies no-one, yet accepts only those who grasp the thorn. It is in fact the magic of the soul, a spiritual alchemy masterfully borne in the crafting of matter.

I enjoyed Johannes Gardback's exploration of Trolldom tremendously. His dry humor had me laughing out loud. The essay guides the reader step-by-step though a ritual he performed on a couple to remove a hex. Gardback's straightforward and non-apologetic style was a welcome contrast to a couple other essays that struck me as rather turgid and needlessly ornamented with esoteric abstractions. Some people enjoy essays on magic that twist and contort into verbal witches' knots. As for me, I have to be in the right mood to appreciate heady linguistic entanglements. Needlessly abstruse phrasing is occasionally used to veil secrets, but more often than not it is just fancy wrapping paper covering an empty box.

But to assist the Soul's Interior Revolution, the art of Andrew Chumbley and aspects of Sabbatic Craft by Anne Morris was very enjoyable. It was perhaps one of Serpent Song's most scholarly inclusions. Mrs. Morris has an uncanny understanding of Chumbley's artistic vision, what she calls "a metaphor for the divine". This essay stood out, as it does not aim to describe a particular tradition or its history per se, but instead details the way in which a tradition became manifest through the dreams and artistic vision of one individual. It's a wonderful essay; however, it would have benefited greatly by the inclusion of one of Chumbley's drawings. His drawings are highly symbolic, abstract, and difficult to put into words -- some were even created via automatic drawing. Thus, a visual reference would have been useful for those unfamiliar with his work. But of course there is always Google 'image search'. Perhaps it was due to a copyright issue.

As a side note: I first encountered Chumbley's art back in '99 within the pages of ESOTERRA: The Journal of Extreme Culture, issue #8. Inside was a short story titled "The Nightmare Network" and an interview with the author titled, "Triangulating the Demon: An Interview with Thomas Ligotti", one of my favorite fiction authors. Please, do yourself a favor: read him. Five black-and-white drawings accompanied the Ligotti pieces which seemed extremely appropriate considering Ligotti's usual themes of otherworldliness, deformity, nightmarish landscapes. In fact, I assumed they had been commissioned specifically for the story and interview. When presented together, Ligotti and Chumbley have a way of amplifying their work's dark message, like a phantasmagoric duet, and becomes something greater than the sum of its parts.

But I digress...

Steven Patterson's essay, Bucca and the Cornish Cult of Pellar, will be of great interest to both the practitioner and folklorist. His research into Cornish myth and the etymology of the word/name 'Bucca' is incredibly fascinating. I am greatly anticipating Patterson's next work concerning the life and works of Cecil Williamson, founder of the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall, who Patterson describes as, "one of the great unsung heroes of the twilight world of folklore and witchcraft". It will be titled, Cecil Williamson's Book of Witchcraft: A Grimoire of the Museum of Witchcraft and published by Troy Books.

Now on to the book itself...

In this review I will be reviewing the deluxe 'Serpentine Edition'. Bound in full green leather (roughly the color of a Green Tree Python) with black and gold accents, the Serpentine Edition is bound to entrance its owners. It was probably tempting to give this book a snakeskin binding, considering the title and theme. Snakeskin has recently become a popular material in esoteric publishing, including a number of Trident Books titles, the deluxe edition of Veneficium by Daniel Schulke, Transmutation Press' reissue of Ophiolatreia, and the forthcoming deluxe editions of Altar of Sacrifice by Mark Alan Smith, and The Book of Sitra Achra by N.A-A.218. As luxurious as snakeskin is, I believe leather was a wise choice for this particular book considering the practices described therein are practical, humble, and rural. A snakeskin binding may have been a bit too grandiose in this instance. The publisher does not indicate what type of leather was used (calf? goat?), though it feels buttery soft and is more yielding to the touch than some of their other leather editions. The scent of the leather is subtle with a faint hint of grassy sweetness.

The cover is ornamented in a two-tone design blocked in black and gold. The central device is a stylized vesica with a coiled serpent-- or is it an eye?  Perhaps it is a germinating seed, or all of these. Corners sport decorative serpent patterns creating a design reminiscent of Art Nouveau. The spine is also blocked in black and gold with twin serpents and gilt title. Page edges are gilded. Included is a black ribbon bookmark with matching black head/tail bands.

The book opens to amazing custom marbled endpapers. The design gives the illusion of snakes weaving vertically up and down the page -- a really nice touch and a sign that the designer put a lot of thought into this edition's presentation. The paper is high quality, light cream, and heavy weight, a type that has become a Scarlet Imprint standard.  The text block has nice generous margins, but the font size is a tad small for my taste. I much prefer the size SC used in Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold's EXU. Having the type just a hair bigger seems to make a big difference. Like the cover, the text is printed in two colors, black & gold. Chapter headings are printed in gold, as are the decorative illuminated letters beginning each section. The Serpentine Edition comes with a slipcase covered in chartreuse cloth. It is lined with soft black felt to prevent wear to the cover design.

Serpent Songs is yet another powerful anthology by Scarlet Imprint that celebrates diversity in modern magic. SC's editors have developed and discerning eye for uncovering unique cultural and ethnic variances within specific subsets of larger traditions. Their anthologies are like magical photo albums documenting the hidden practices of our age. Each entry is a snapshot of a specific tradition, philosophy, or spiritual framework that gives us a sense of the past, a connection to the present, and a forecast of the future.