The Witch’s Hat: Where Did It Come From?

Abby Cox tracks the history of the black, conical, flat-brimmed hat with a deteour into eighteenth-century dressmaking and other things: “Swedish witches are defnitely cottagecore witches, and I’m here for that.” If you are in a hurry and wish to skip patriarchy, etc., start at the 11-minute mark.

Not discussed: handfuls of the “witchy aesthetic” derive from the movie The Wizard of Oz (1939). It’s amazing how many people think that its costuming and makeup (green skin, striped socks) represent some kind of Historical Truth.

The “eighteenth-century” part is because she spent years as a dressmaker and interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg. She is not a historian of witchcraft, but she does make an interesting argument from a fashion viewpoint, Written as an article, this video could have fit into the last issue of The Pomegranate, which was devoted to Pagan art and fashion.

She is not saying that Quakers (the Religious Society of Friends, founded as a radical religious group in the late 1600s ) were seriously mistaken for satanic witches.1)Some propaganda, however, showed Quakers as influenced by the Devil, so the boundary was blurry at times. She is saying that the Quakers’ “look,” one that emphasized out-of-date fashions for women in particular — “fifty years out of date” — might have influenced the way that witches were portrayed in 18th, 19th, and 20th century popular art. (She dates the first graphic appearance to 1720 — see 27:40 in the video.)

There is no particular dress style associated with the actual women (and men) who were persecuated as witches in the 1400s–1600s. They wore whatever people wore in their time and place.

Notes

↑ 1. Some propaganda, however, showed Quakers as influenced by the Devil, so the boundary was blurry at times.

I Am Interviewed about “My Magical Thing”

Julian Vayne, author of a number of books on articles on psychedelia, esoteric matters, and occulture, has a series on YouTube called “My Magical Thing,” These are short interviews with other occulture-types to discuss some object that has a special meaning to them, either of its own nature or the story of how they came to have it.

Julian interviewed me in June, and I wanted to be outside so that I could have a supporting cast of broad-tailed hummingbirds. They don’t show up too well though, and there was glare in a face. . . oh well.

Witchcraft: You’re Not Making It Strange Enough

Teresa Palmer as Diana Bishop, historian and witch, in A Discovery of Witches, Episode 1 (2018).

The final article in the “Paganism, art, and fashion” issue of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies argues that books and television series based on historical witchcraft make it too safe and fail to portray “the genuine strangeness of witches and magic users in all periods and cultures.”

It is written by literature professor Diane Purkiss and titled “Getting It Wrong: The Problems with Reinventing the Past” (currently a free download). Purkiss’ books include At the Bottom of the Garden: A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Nymphs, and Other Troublesome Things and The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations.

The works she discusses include Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches and the series developed from it, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon (both the novel and the TV series), and the Outlander series—not to mention such classics as Lord of the Rings.

The authors, she argues, focus too much on female empowerment and not enough on how “early modern witches are much stranger and much more disconcerting than anything likely to be found at Hogwarts or in Narnia or Rivendell.”

Thus the “getting it wrong” of her title not an attack on contemporary Pagan-themed literature — she admits its creative energy— but the suggestion that if you think you are doing something “transgressive” now, you ought to look at some primary sources. And since she teaches at Oxford, she has some snarky things to say about how her university is portrayed in Discovery of Witches on TV.1)Purkiss’ exclamation over the fictional Professor Bishop, ‘That’s not how this works!” might equally well have been applied to the long-running British Inspector Morse mystery series, set in Oxford town, which portrayed Oxford dons as bludgeoned on an almost-weekly basis. Apparently that is how positions are opened up for new hires. Perhaps Bishop arrived immediately after a murder.

M. Z. Bradley, she points out, was more influenced by Starhawk than by anything on ancient Pagan religion. “We tend to want goddesses with moral characteristics derived from Christianity and from the Enlightenment, and matriarchal societies with characteristics derived from Christian socialism and even Marxism. All this excludes the bitter truths embodied in Pagan myths and ideology.”

It’s not that we cannot enjoy Diana Bishop, heriditary witch and professor, but that, as Purkiss is anxious to point out, the real thing was even stranger than the “anondyne” modern re-creations.

Notes

↑ 1. Purkiss’ exclamation over the fictional Professor Bishop, ‘That’s not how this works!” might equally well have been applied to the long-running British Inspector Morse mystery series, set in Oxford town, which portrayed Oxford dons as bludgeoned on an almost-weekly basis. Apparently that is how positions are opened up for new hires. Perhaps Bishop arrived immediately after a murder.

Fimbul Winter and the Plague: The Horrible Mid-6th Century

The mid-6th century must have been a terrible time in the Mediterranean world, in Western Europe, and probably other places as well.

Raids on Britain following end of Roman ruleIf you look up “the plague of Justinian,” you will find that much has been written on a bubonic plague outbreak during the rule of the Eastern Roman emperor Justinian, peaking around 540–541 CE. Apparently that is part of a larger disaster that started around 536.

David Keys, author of Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of Modern Civilization, speculated that this plague, which spread from the Middle East to Britain (if not farther), might have contributed to the collapse of Romano-Celtic Britain in the face of Anglo-Saxon invasion, despite the best efforts of King Arthur (whoever he was). 1)Roman forces had been withdrawn from Britannia in the early 400s and that colony more or less written off, although Britain retained a lot of Roman culture for a time. That hypothesis is based on assuming that the Romanized Britons had more trade contact with the Mediterranean world, which exposed them to the plague, whereas the English were more isolated. But who can say for sure?

I was introduced to Catastrophe by my friend and mentor, the English witch Evan John Jones, who had bought it shortly before I visited him in Brighton, and I stayed up late a couple nights speed-reading it after he and Val, his wife, had long gone to bed.

All that concatenation of volcanic eruption-plague-and climate change was brought back to mind by this article, “The Long, Harsh Fimbul Winter is not a Myth,” subtitled, “Probably half of Norway and Sweden’s population died. Researchers now know more and more about the catastrophic year of 536.”

Reconstructed Bronze Age house in Norway, typical of houses built up until 536 CE (Wikimedia Commons).

In essence, massive short-term climate changes slammed Scandinavia, northern Germany, and the Baltic region in the 530s, leading to abandonment of farms and settlements and the projected deaths of up to half of the peoples there.

“First came the Fimbul winter that lasted three years. This was a warning of the coming of Ragnarok, when everything living on Earth came to an end.”

This is how the story of the long harsh winter, called the Fimbul winter in Norwegian, begins, both in Norse mythology and in the Finnish national work of epic poetry, the Kalevala.

But why are stories that warn of a frozen end-time found in Nordic mythologies?

* * *

[Swedish archaeologist Bo] Gräslund was first to suggest that the Fimbul winter was a real event, and that it took place in the years after 536. He also pointed out that the 13th century Icelandic historian Snorre in his book Edda was not only concerned that it was very cold and the winters were snowy — Snorre was also concerned because there were no summers for several years in a row.

Whereas David Keys looks toward a volcano in Indonesia as the culprit, the Scandinavians are suspecting an eruption in Central America or Mexico:

“This must have happened somewhere near the Equator. Maybe it was El Chichón volcano in southern Mexico,” [climate scientist Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist] said.

The tiny particles from the two volcanic eruptions remained in the atmosphere for several years, leading to strong cooling in the northern hemisphere. Ljungqvist points out that there are now a number of studies of annual rings in old trees that confirm this.

He points out that the cumulative effect of two huge volcanic eruptions in the years 536 and 540 was what made this cooling quite exceptional and very long lasting.

The archaeological evidence is chilling, no pun intended:

In Denmark, archaeologist Morten Axboe found that large quantities of gold and other precious metal jewellery were sacrificed right after the climate shock.

Axboe’s theory is that these sacrifices were actions of desperate people. They sought to mollify higher powers and asked them to bring the sun back into the sky.

* * *

In Rogaland and the surrounding areas, until the disaster 1500 years ago, there were many skilled goldsmiths.

Both they and their craft disappeared.

The same thing happened to the many talented potters who had lived in western Norway before the Merovingian Period, from Jæren in the south to Sogn in the north.

It would take another thousand years before equally fine pottery was made in Norway.

You can’t blame people for thinking that this was The End, or at least a good preview of what The End would look like.

And one more item: The inscription on this 6th-century runestone from south-central Sweden appears to have been influenced by the horrible winters.

Notes

↑ 1. Roman forces had been withdrawn from Britannia in the early 400s and that colony more or less written off, although Britain retained a lot of Roman culture for a time.

‘The Goddess Doesn’t Want Any More Prophets’ and Other Observations by ‘Robert’


First of all, “Robert” is Frederic Lamond, one of Gerald Gardner’s early coveners—his mundane name is not exactly oathbound material these days, now that he has written books and has his own Wikipedia page.

But this screenshot is from the documentary Robert: Portrait of a Witch, made by Malcolmn Brenner in 1991 and now transferred from VHS to digital video and put on YouTube by Valdosta State University as part of their New Age Movements, Occultism, and Spiritualism Research Library.

Lamond joined the Craft when he was in his mid-twenties. He later went on to a career in finance — “in the City” as the British would say,  the equivalent to “on Wall Street” for an American.

He was also a key resource for the American scholar of Wiccan history Aidan Kelly in writing Inventing Witchcraft: A Case Study in the Creation of a New Religion.

Sit back: there is lots here on Gardnerian Wicca in the 1950s, Gardner’s own lack of charisma by religious-leader standards and his puckish sense of humor, why the North American Gardnerians went wrong in trying to enshrine one Book of Shadows, and Lamond’s own thoughts on how patriarchal monotheism came to dominate the world.

“Out of the Broom Closet” — American Wicca in the late 1980s

Valdosta State University in Georgia has digitized and posted two videos by Wiccan journalists Malcolm Brenner and Lezlie Kinyon. (That is Brenner’s voice-over narration.)

This one, Out of the Broom Closet, was released in 1991 from video shot in the preceding years.

This documentary begins with a protest of Z. Budapest speaking about witchcraft at the St. Theresa Public Library in San Jose, California on July 12, 1986. What follows are formal and informal interviews of Pagan leaders explaining what Wicca is, how the general public has a misconception of what witchcraft is, and why it is important for practitioners to come “Out of the Broom Closet” to educate the public.

It and much more are cataloged in VSU’s  New Age Movements, Occultism and Spiritualism Research Library (NAMOSRL), created by librarian Guy Frost.

Norse “Chess” Pieces Reveal an Ancient Whale Hunt

Researchers discovered hnefatafl game pieces made of whale bone in upper- and middle-class Vendel graves. (Rudolf Gustavsson in Smithsonian)

The ancient Norse loved the game of hnefatafl, in which a king’s faithful followers try to protect him against raiding forces, which pretty well describes so much of early medieval politics.

An article in Smithsonian, however, suggests that these game pieces “were the product of early industrial whaling. If so, the pieces would be evidence of the earliest-known cases of whaling in what is today Scandinavia, and a sign of the growing trade routes and coastal resource use that paved the way for future Viking expansion.”

Read the rest: “Viking Chess Pieces May Reveal Early Whale Hunts in Northern Europe.” The Sami are part of the story too.

Review: “The Final Pagan Generation”

A review from the most recent (20.1) issue of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies. While the publisher does charge for articles, book reviews are free downloads.

Edward J. Watts, The Final Pagan Generation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015) 344 pp., 29 B&W photographs, map. $34.95 (hardcover, ebook).

At the beginning of the fourth century CE, the Mediterranean world—the Roman empire—“was full of gods. Their temples, statues, and images filled its cities, downs, farms, and wildernesses… Traditional divinities also dominated the spiritual space of the empire as figures whose presences could not be sensed but whose actions many felt they might discern.” So writes Edward J. Watts at the beginning of The Final Pagan Generation. By the century’s end, he notes, “The cities of the empire remained nearly as full of the sights, sounds, and smells of the traditional gods in the 390s as they had been in the 310s.”

Yet much had changed. After Julian’s attempt in the 360s to sustain Pagan temples and education with imperial favor and financing—as those had sustained them in the past—the pendulum swung back, and it swung hard. Emperors such as Gratian (r. 367–83) in the West and Theodosius I (r. 379–95) in the East sought to cut the financial aqueducts that sustained large temples and celebrations. In those times, subsidy was not merely a matter of line items in the imperial budget, but a cut could mean handing over agricultural estates whose profits had sustained a temple to new owners. With sacrifice already banned, Theodosius by the 390s was punishing judges who set foot in Pagan temples and also forbidding private household rites. That these edicts were not always enforced is not the issue; the point is that Nicene Christianity enjoyed imperial favor while traditional religion no longer did.

From the days of Edward Gibbon (1737–1794), who essentially blamed the “fall of Rome” (the Western Empire, at least) on its embrace of Christianity, the question has been asked: “What changed?” The question also obsesses some contemporary Pagans (and not just members of the Julian Society), who ask, “Why did our ancestors abandon the old gods? Were they bribed, coerced, or tricked?” In the case of the four upper-class men on whose lives Watt concentrates, we can only use Gibbon’s favorite adverb, insensibly. Gibbon writes, for instance, that “the active and successful zeal of the Christians had insensibly diffused them through every province and almost every city of the empire” (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 1, chapter 16). Likewise, these men are presented as insensible to the structural changes that occurred while they rose to the pinnacle of their careers.

Three of four were rhetors and philosophers who left extensive writings behind: Libanius (314–c.393), a high-profile teacher of rhetoric, something like a tenured professor today; Themistius (317–390), another rhetorician, statesman, philosopher, and counselor to sev- eral emperors; and Ausonius (310–395), poet, teacher of rhetoric in the imperial household of Valentinian I, later a consul and praetorian prefect variously of Gaul, Italy, and Africa, also the only Christian of the four, converting late in life. The fourth was Vettius Agorius Praetextatus (315–384), a wealthy aristocrat, holder of various Roman priesthoods, and praetorian prefect of Rome, a post that might be compared to a cabinet ministry. As prefect of Rome, he oversaw the reconstruction of major temples, sponsored public rituals, and reinforced the city’s Pagan identity as against that of Milan, seat of the now-Christian Western emperors of the late fourth century.

Watts describes these men’s careers against the changing political landscape of the century, including Julian’s short reign. The last Pagan emperor, he writes, had a different, more Christian upbringing than Watts’ four exemplars: “Unlike those older men, Julian understood that Constantius’ [who preceded him] initiatives pointed toward a world in which traditional religious practices were suppressed and temples replaced by churches”

Lacking Julian’s imperial authority, Libanius, for one, fought a long rear-guard action against the erasure of traditional religion, denouncing how “the black-robed tribe [of monks], who eat more than elephants … hasten to attack the temples with sticks and stones and bars of iron, and in some cases, disdaining these, with hands and feet.” His methods were speeches, letters (perhaps the equivalent of an op-ed in the New York Times today), and appeals to the current emperor’s vanity, arguing that letting extralegal Christian power structures develop would harm the emperor’s authority and prestige. These stratagems worked for a time, but as each of the “final Pagan generation” passed away from their worlds of senates, classrooms, and dinners with important people— becoming truly insensible —the imperial world, which might still have looked, sounded, and smelled much as it did in their childhoods, was irrevocably altered.

Chas S. Clifton Colorado State University-Pueblo
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2018

There Was More to “Pixie” than Tarot Cards

Pamela Coleman Smith, about 1912.

At Spiral Nature you can read a long review of a new book about Pamela Coleman Smith (Pixie to her friends), best known for designing probably the most popular Tarot deck of the twentieth century.

Corinne Pamela Colman Smith, who went by the nickname “Pixie,” defied so many social norms, it’s hard to keep count. The more you read about her, the more impressed you get.

Those who left written comments about their impressions of her confess how hard it was to place her within the gender, class, and racial categories of her time. W. B. Yeats, for instance, wrote that she looked “exactly like a Japanese. Nannie says this Japanese appearance comes from constantly drinking iced water.”

The book has four contributors: Elizabeth Foley O’Connor, currently at work on her own full biography of the artist; Stuart Kaplan’s (the Tarot publisher) section “is just the most incredible and comprehensive collection of Smith’s works to date, and maybe ever”; Melinda Boyd Parsons covers Smith’s experiences with the theatre and ceremonial magick worlds; and Mary K. Greer discusses her work in the context of Tarot history.

Read the whole thing.

Aye, My Hearties, the Six of Coins!

Pickering Wharf today. At left is the reconstructed Salem privateer schooner Fame. The original Fame  operated during the War of 1812 against British shipping, while the newer version offers summer day cruises in Salem Sound.

The history of Salem, Mass., is more about the sea than the witches — at least through the 18th and early 19th centuries, the peak of the Age of Sail.

Kids climb an old anchor at the National Park Service’s Salem Maritime National Historic Site.

In the beginning, all the coastal communities were fishing ports, but while some like Gloucester stayed that way, Salem went mercantile, first in the coastal and West Indies trade and then — for the big money — the Spice Trade. Pepper from Sumatra, cinnamon from India, tea from China, plus other Asian goods, were all in demand. Per capita, Salem was the richest town in Revolutionary War-era America, based on importing and re-shipping West Indian and East Asian goods.

A miniature portrait of Capt. Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1776–1808.

There was risk, of course. For example, Capt. Nathaniel Hawthorne (the author’s father), a sea captain on the verge of big success, died of yellow fever in South America at age 32.

Model of original Friendship. Note cannon on deck.

The ships themselves were typically three-masted “East Indiamen” — like the Friendship of Salem, a working reconstructed ship based on a 1797 original. It is currently undergoing repairs, so I was not able to visit it last month.

The ocean was not necessarily a friendly place. There were European pirates still, plus privateers in wartime (pirates with a government license), and in the Far East there were local pirates as well.1)Salem ship captains also turned privateer in the 1850s against the French and during the Revolution and War of 1812 against British merchant ships. So the merchant ships carried cannon and other weapons for self-defense and the crews were trained in their use.

But by the time that Nathaniel Hawthorne the writer was working at the federal custom house in Salem in the 1840s, the trade was falling off.2)Consequently, he had plenty of time to plot “The Scarlet Letter.” But I wonder if the declining shipping trade in Salem contributed to Hawthorne’s nostalgic outlook. One reason was competition with Boston and New York.

The other was environmental. Salem’s merchants built so many private wharves (Pickering Wharf, Turner Wharf, Derby Wharf, etc.) for their ships and goods that they affected water movement, leading to increased silting-up of the harbor. Consequently, the newer, larger clipper ships of the 1840s–1850s could not easily use it.3)Salem could still accept shipments of leather, coal, and other raw materials needed for its new era as a manufacturing town.

While I drank a beer at Jaho Coffee on Derby Street, M. revisited the Spice Trade, making some purchases at Salem Spice on Wharf Street. Somewhere, the old sea captains nodded in approval.

Wharf Street: nautical New England with psychic readings.

But today’s Pickering Wharf neighborhood looks more like Diagon Alley. Yes, there is a fishing-tackle shop and nautical-theme gifts on sale, but there are also multiple occult shops. (Gypsy Ravish’s Nu Aeon is the only that I have visited.)

It turns into another time-slip: After spending the morning ashore, the second mate of the privateer Annabelle returns to the ship.

Summoning the sailors on deck, he sits on a hatch cover.

“Feast your eyes on my new Tarot deck,” he says. “Let’s have a quick reading for the voyage ahead!

“Ah now, look at that!” he exclaims, tapping a card with tar-stained fingernail. “Aye, my hearties, the Six of Coins! We’ll be coming back rich men!”

Notes

↑ 1. Salem ship captains also turned privateer in the 1850s against the French and during the Revolution and War of 1812 against British merchant ships.
↑ 2. Consequently, he had plenty of time to plot “The Scarlet Letter.” But I wonder if the declining shipping trade in Salem contributed to Hawthorne’s nostalgic outlook.
↑ 3. Salem could still accept shipments of leather, coal, and other raw materials needed for its new era as a manufacturing town.