Edward Welch. Captain Cuttle's Mailbag: History, Folklore & Victorian Pedantry From the Pages of 'Notes and Queries'. Laboratory Books, 2017

Notes and Queries was a weekly journal first published on Saturday 3 November 1849 in London by William J. Thoms (1803-1885), a British writer and antiquary. In 1845 he was appointed Clerk, and subsequently Deputy Librarian, to the House of Lords. He is credited with originating the term 'folklore' in 1846, when he wrote a column under that title in the Athenaeum magazine and was then encouraged to establish his own publication reflecting his many varied interests. The primary intention was to provide a forum for readers to ask or answer any questions of interest. No subject was too odd or obscure. Its title has survived to this day as a quarterly journal published by the Oxford University Press, nowadays with a narrower focus mainly for serious scholars of English Language and Literature, lexicography, history and antiquarianism.

The title of this compilation comes from the motto that appeared on the masthead of the magazine from its inception: "When found, make a note of" - a saying of Captain Cuttle, a lovable hook-handed character in Charles Dickens' Dombey and Son. Cuttle invited his hearers to verify the accuracy of his half-remembered quotations, and then make a note so as not to forget.

Thoms intended the magazine to serve as "everybody's common-place book" in which "those who meet with facts worthy of preservation may record them". Those were the 'Notes', and the 'Queries' could be about almost anything that aroused the curiosity of the reader. In many ways it was a forerunner of the present day online forums, noticeboards, chatrooms, Twitter and Wikipedia, where information and experiences could be shared and expanded.

"When found, make a note of" - a saying of Captain Cuttle, a lovable hook-handed character in Charles Dickens' Dombey and Son.

In the Prospectus for his forthcoming publication in 1849, Thoms gave good reasons why there was a need for it, epitomised by this sentence: "How often is even the best informed writer stopped by an inability to solve some doubt or understand some obscure allusion which suddenly starts up before him!" This syndrome is well-known to Magonian book reviewers, such as myself, who find endless queries arising from the material under review, leading to prolonged diversions of research and tangents of enquiry that never seem to be fully satisfied. No wonder our reviews are often delayed, for there always may be something to add. This is, of course, the very nature of the human mind at any time. 

The Victorian era of the 1840s was a time of hunger for knowledge and progress, such as in the development of science, industry, and railways. The Uniform Penny Post had in fact been implemented in 1840, so that from and to anywhere in Great Britain or Ireland one might post a letter for only one penny, using a prepaid stamp, with a very speedy and reliable delivery. This is what facilitated the success of Notes and Queries. It must have seemed excitingly modern and advanced in 1849, the opening of a new frontier in communication. Although the magazine initially was comprised of sixteen pages of small type with no illustrations, and the first queries were supplied by members of Thoms' own inner circle, it caught the public mood. Soon it achieved a wide readership and letters with notes, queries and replies were flooding into the editorial offices in Fleet Street.

Welch's selections are all taken from the First Series of Notes and Queries (1849-55) and comprise a rich variety of topics. The general headings are: Anecdotes of History, Relics of Folklore, Language and Literature, and Scientific Investigations, presented in a format that lends itself to browsing. It is an ideal book for the bedside table, or perhaps the smallest room of the house for those who like to linger there. I found it to be a delightful book to take on public transport journeys and read in short instalments. There is a wealth of amusement to be had, and no shortage of obscure facts and anecdotes that impinge on the mind for future use in conversation. Things you would never have thought of are here, such as the use of mice as medicine, or the staggering voracity of a hedgehog's appetite.

I learned about some old English customs that would be utterly unthinkable in this present age. In ancient times when a sale of land was contracted there would be twelve adult witnesses to the deed, and twelve boys who would be beaten and have their ears pulled "so that the pain thus inflicted upon them should make an impression upon their memory and that they might if necessary be called on as witnesses." At the moment of a public execution boys might be similarly chastised for no other reason than to impress the spectacle in their memory as a deterrent against any tendency to criminal behaviour.

There are bizarre but true tales such as the case of a man known to be a glutton who died as a result of eating a poisoned sandwich left in his path by a neighbour who hated him. Or you can learn how to roast eggs in the ashes of a fire, or how country people and Gypsies loved to cook and eat common snails. Then there are amusing anecdotes, such as the one about the common belief of poor people in Sussex that you could not die while lying in a bed stuffed with feathers. One country yokel was berated by an urban sophisticate about the absurdity of such a belief. He countered with the case of a neighbour he knew who had suffered unbearably on his death bed without the relief of death - until a local wise man realised his bed was stuffed with feathers. So they took him out of the bed and put him on the floor, where he soon died.

Under the sub-heading of 'Old Titles of Books in Former Times' are some of the most hilarious yet ever so earnest: A Most Delectable Sweet Perfumed Nosegay for God's Saints to Smell At; Hooks and Eyes for Believers' Breeches; High-heeled Shoes for Dwarfs in Holiness; Crumbs of Comfort for the Chickens of the Covenant; A Sigh of Sorrow for the Sinners of Zion, breathed out of a Hole in the Wall of an Earthly Vessel, known among Men by the Name of Samuel Fish; The Spiritual Mustard-Pot, to make the Soul sneeze with Devotion; and A Shot aimed at the Devil's Headquarters through the Tube of the Cannon of the Covenant.

My favourite section was the final subheading, 'Advertisements'. The first entry is a bold claim to teach the art of drawing and copying, portraits, wood engravings, etc. in one lesson. For such a set of skills that otherwise might take years to acquire, you simply had to send twelve postage stamps. The text of the ad is followed by a much longer sarcastic complaint to the Editor from a disgruntled customer. All he had received was a filthy piece of tracing paper with the instruction to place it before the image to be reproduced. Quite reasonably, he questioned how he was supposed to place it before a landscape for tracing, or lay it over his wife's face to make a portrait without her nose making a hole in the middle of it. The editor's response is not recorded.

You can read genuine advertisements, written with the utmost deference and politeness, that promise you the physical remedy to deafness, baldness, grey hair (with any permanent colour dye you might wish and a section of your hair dyed for no charge with no obligation), pamphlets that would provide the remedy to depression, nervousness and anxiety (often giving the name and address of a Rev. to allay any further anxiety of trusting a stranger).... and so on.

Captain Cuttle's Mailbag is a very mixed bag indeed. And I loved going through it. I think you would too. -- Kevin Murphy



Andreas Önnerfors. Freemasonry: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press.

The challenge in writing a short introduction to any subject is in giving a complete overview without merely skimming the surface. With a subject is as complex and multi-faceted as Freemasonry that challenge is even harder. Add Freemasonry’s traditional secrecy and love of mythmaking – as well as that of its detractors - and it becomes like trying to get a firm grip on jelly.

In this new addition to OUP’s 'Very Short Introduction' series, Andreas Önnerfors, Associate Professor of the History of Sciences and Ideas at Gothenburg University, tries to get just a grip in an attempt, as he optimistically declares in his introduction, to bring some clarity to a much-misunderstood subject. Does he succeed? Well, yes and no. He certainly shows how hopeless such a task is: paradoxically, the clearest picture that can be painted of Freemasonry is a blurred one.

Önnerfors demonstrates the sheer variety of forms of Freemasonry, which he prefers to spell with a small ‘f’ precisely to make the point that there’s no one such thing, rather numerous different freemasonries, divided on ideological, organisational and national lines, a diversity which ‘make[s] it impossible to identify freemasonry as a unified or even unifying phenomenon’. He sums up that "freemasonry was never an international organisation with a single headquarters, an overruling governing body, and a truly consistent ideology".

The book brings out not just the diversity, but also the many contradictions and paradoxes in Masonry’s history: for example, 19th-century Freemasonry being both an instrument of colonialism and a vehicle for independence movements - a defender of the status quo and a hotbed of radicalism - depending on which Freemasonry (or freemasonry) you’re talking about. Then there’s the tension between its aim of furthering egalitarianism and democracy in society and its internal secrecy and hierarchy of authority.

Indeed, Önnerfors attributes Freemasonry’s very success to its fuzziness – the ability of lodges, especially in different countries, to diverge from the original function and structure established in England in the early 18th century, while (another paradox) retaining the traditional pattern of ritual and practice. Its variant forms are all the same, but different.

That said, Önnerfors does concentrate on the ‘mainstream’ form, that directly descended from Freemasonry’s official inception in London in 1717 – essentially that affiliated to and recognised by the United Grand Lodge of England. This highlights another problem with short introductions – and even more so with very short ones – as limitations of space inevitably lead authors to concentrate on the generally accepted version of events, brushing over controversial and contentious areas. Given its diversity and the many unresolved questions that surround it, Freemasonry doesn’t lend itself to neat encapsulation.

Önnerfors accepts, without any real discussion, Freemasonry’s origins in medieval stonemasons’ guilds, which "merged with the scientific and associational culture of the early Enlightenment, creating an eclectic mixture of intellectual and religious traditions." He’s dismissive of alternative origin theories, particularly of a connection with the Knights Templar. However, he doesn’t, in my view, give due weight to the crucial question of not just how, but why a medieval craft organisation should have transformed itself into a secretive philosophical network – from ‘operative’ to ‘speculative’ forms - a process that suggests that some other factor or factors were at play.

He also gives little attention to the Jacobean form that, shortly after Freemasonry’s first appearance in England, established itself in the exiled Stuart court in France (and from which many of the more controversial claims, such as its Templar origin, emerged), clearly regarding it an inauthentic copy of the original.

Freemasonry’s relationship to the esoteric and occult is dealt with similarly. For Önnefors – whose specialism is the cultural history of the Enlightenment - Freemasonry is very much a product of that era. Although he notes the tension within the emergent Craft between Enlightenment reason and rationality - and its embracing of the new experimental approach to science - and its interest in esoteric subjects such as alchemy and Mesmerism, he seems to consider only the first as representing ‘real’ Freemasonry. Likewise, he gives little space to the explicitly occult Masonic systems that exist primarily in continental Europe, implying that they are later, fringe developments. However, he notes the ‘esoteric content’, especially from the Cabala, of the earliest known Masonic rituals, as well as possible references to Hermetic practices in the celebrated Schaw Statutes of 1598/99, which, surely, suggest that esoteric interests were present from the start.

The first three chapters look at Freemasonry’s history and cultural impact from its emergence in the 18th century. The focus is on Europe, as "the history of freemasonry in Africa and Asia is still under-researched." Presumably for the same reason, there’s only one brief mention of Prince Hall Freemasonry, the predominant form among African Americans. A chapter is then devoted to Masonic ritual and ceremony and the myths, such as that of Hiram Abiff and the building of the Temple of Solomon, on which they are based.

The one particularly enlightening chapter that does break with most histories of Freemasonry is ‘Brotherhood Challenged’, which gives more space than usual to the role of women, and disputes the usual assumption that Freemasonry began as an all-male institution into which women later attempted to break. I was fascinated to learn, for example, that women were active in the medieval stone-masons’ guilds - from which Önnerfors concludes that, when Freemasonry transformed itself into its speculative form, women were actively excluded – and that criticism of Freemasonry for not accepting women began almost immediately, with the first mixed or all-female lodges being established as early as the 1740s.

In his introduction, Önnerfors distinguishes between the two popular views of Freemasonry, ‘idealization and distrust’. The first – Freemasonry’s preferred image – sees it as an enlightened, cosmopolitan fraternity working for the betterment of society, the second - that of its opponents – as at best a vehicle for corruption, and at worst the undermining of the social order. Although he states that one of his aims is to strike a balance between these two views, his emphasis is very much on the first, more positive image, with the ‘distrust’ only being dealt with in the final chapter, which covers everything from suspicions of Freemasonry as politically subversive – and the attempts to suppress it by both the extreme left and right, for example by the Nazis - to the more extreme conspiracy theories. The section on the latter isn’t as comprehensive as it might have been, using as it does Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol and an episode of The Simpsons as representative of the popular perception of Freemasonry’s place in conspiracy culture.

Önnerfors is rather generous when it comes to the lower-level mistrust. Although he acknowledges scandals such as that of the Italian P-2 lodge, he suggests that investigations such as that of Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee in the late 1990s were the result of pressure based on popular suspicion rather than anything solid – an example of a decline in the standards of public debate so that ‘arguments of passion are now placed above those of rational deliberation’ (and, unnecessarily, equating such suspicions with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump). In reality, the Committee’s inquiry was the result of genuine concerns about – and examples of - the involvement of Freemasons in police and other corruption. (Önnerfors never says whether he or not he himself is a Mason, but he’s clearly well-disposed to the Craft.)

To sum up, then, while this Very Short Introduction provides a fairly decent overview of the subject, there’s a lot that’s left out or given only a cursory treatment. Readers looking for a clear and coherent picture of what Freemasonry is and what it’s about won’t find it here, but should learn that such a picture is an impossibility, given Freemasonry’s (or rather freemasonries’) confusing – and confused – nature. -- Clive Prince



Michael Howard. East Anglian Witches and Wizards. Three Hands Press, 2017.

East Anglia is a windswept, marshy land. Bordering on the North Sea, this flat, unprepossessing region, although on the edge of the populous and burgeoning London-Birmingham conurbation, has been the site of dramatic events that have helped shape the modern nation of Great Britain. 

The modern definition of East Anglia is quite different from the past, in that it contains the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. However, in the past, it also included the county of Essex, which is surprisingly rural considering that the south of the county is an almost continuously urban extension of London. It is Essex which has come to epitomise the brash new money and supposedly uncouth ways of the Estuary English speakers which surround London and dwell along both banks of the Thames.

Michael Howard, the author, has passed away. He was an intriguing figure who practised what is known as Luciferian Witchcraft. He was attracted to the paranormal through his reading. This covered most of the mainstream characters, including Aleister Crowley, Montague Summers, Robert Graves and Margaret Murray, to name a few. This was later consolidated by a near-death experience. He moved into what may be termed mainstream occultism after this. He joined several groups, such as the Co-Freemasons. He was the editor of the magazine The Cauldron until his death in 2015. This publication featured articles by Ronald Hutton, Geraldine Beskin and Caroline Tully, again to name a few.

East Anglian Wizards and Witches, therefore, is a book that covers four English counties that, although close to London in miles, still to this day represents a land that is bucolic yet liminal. Although the county of Essex is, at best, an optional part of East Anglia, it is where most of the focus of this book is. Arguably the most famous persecution of witches in Great Britain happened there in the form of the Chelmsford Witch Trials. The county also gave birth to Matthew Hopkins, notorious as the Witchfinder General. The 'cunning men', James Murrell and George Pickingill, were also residents of Essex and, probably by virtue of their relatively recent existence, feature strongly in this volume.

There is no doubt that this book covers a lot of ground; no pun intended. Not only do the more notable people receive much attention, but also supernatural subjects not directly associated with witches and the like are covered. Because of this, it shows that one of the author’s main interests is folklore. One such is Black Shuck, the spectral, huge black hounds with red, luminous eyes. One of these is famously said to have paid a visit to Holy Trinity Church in the village of Blythburgh, Suffolk, the door of which allegedly bears the scars to this day. 

Four counties is a lot of ground to cover, especially where folklore is concerned, so the odd mistake is bound to crop up. Howard mentions the settlement of Leighs, in Essex. No such place exists. There are the villages of Great Leighs and Little Leighs, north of Chelmsford, and Leigh-on-Sea, the fishing village which is now a suburb of Southend-on-Sea in the south-east. This shows the value of visiting the sites one is writing about. Also covered is also the theory that Matthew Hopkins embarked on his witch hunting because he feared that a coven working near to him was plotting a magickal death for him. If he thought that this was so, then this provides an insight into his reaction to perceived witches.

Written by a man utterly steeped in the occult from an early age, this is a book that encompasses the supernatural life of four counties. It even includes a personal favourite, Old Mother Moore of the old fishing town of the aforementioned Leigh-on-Sea. Although a modern building, there is even a pub named after her in the town, the 'Sarah Moore'. The concentration on the role and lives of the 'cunning' people is fascinating, and a contrast to studying mages who operated at high levels, with governments, royalty and so forth. The book is certainly full of interesting detail, which is why the index lets it down and prevents it from being a useful reference tool. Something much more detailed would suit better. As it is, one has to have a decent memory or many, many bookmarks in order to find one’s way around. All in all, a flawed, yet fascinating, book. -- Trevor Pyne.



Corinne Boyer. Plants of the Devil. Images by Marzena Ablewska. Three Hands Press 2017.

This is basically a collection of extracts from books on plant folklore, of which there are more than you might think, specifically focusing on those that are linked to an entity known as the Old One, the Wild Adversary, the Man in Black, the Dark Prince, and the Old King of Witches. Boyer’s respect for this being is sufficient for her to dignify him with the upper case, and also some of the plants. Thus, she writes of belladonna: “The common names of the Devil’s Berry, Devil’s Cherry and Devil’s Herb are revealing, and this is a small sampling of Her many folk names. Belladonna was known to be a favourite plant of the Devil, one that He watched over.”

Diabolic monikers are surprisingly common: mushrooms are the Devil’s Droppings; puffballs, specifically, the Devil’s Snuffbox. One reason is that the taxonomic name Succisa pratensis is less memorable than the Devil’s Pincushion, the Devil’s Bit, or even Morsus diaboli. The stinging nettle Urtica dioica is also Devil’s Apron, Devil’s Leaf and Naughty Man’s Plaything. Blackberries, because they grow on thorny brambles, are the Devil’s Grapes, and is it said that when he was flung from heaven he landed in a blackberry patch and urinated on it.

Aconite, hemlock and mandrake or Devil’s Candle, with others, were associated with witches because those ladies had two quite different uses for them. In small doses they were used to make flying ointments that they rubbed into their bodies: “And so they think that they are borne through the air on a moonlit night to banquets, music, dances and the embrace of handsome young men of their choice.” In larger doses the same substances could be used to poison people.

Other non-toxic things are nevertheless sinister in popular lore: the walnut tree, under whose branches Italian witches were reputed to assemble; the elder, known as Devil’s Eye; and willow, whose bark is actually medicinal, the active ingredient, known for thousands of years, now being available as aspirin. In Sweden, though, willow switches may be employed in a death spell – they are used to whip a coat whilst repeating the name of the intended victim. Also, the willow “is one of the trees on which Judas hanged himself”. This peculiar statement indicates that, once any particular species of tree had acquired a reputation of being ill-omened, the explanation would be circulated that Judas had hanged himself from it. Thus, it came to appear that Judas hanged himself several times. Moreover, a tradition from Herefordshire states that the rowan is “the tree on which the devil hanged himself”.

Parsley seems quite innocuous, but again it said that the Devil rules over this plant: its seeds “go to Hell to make their obedience to their Master before they come up for you.” The reason for this belief seems to be the fact that the plant does indeed take a long time to germinate. Though this is not widely remembered nowadays, parsley is still put in food to be served at funerals in Greece.

Incidentally, unusual geographic features may be named for the Evil One who is assumed to have created them, for instance the Devil’s Jumps in Surrey. One might think that this was only a mediaeval superstition, but there are examples from the New World which must have been bestowed comparatively recently: Boyers mentions The Devil’s Churn, “a narrow inlet of the Pacific Ocean, located off the Oregon coast”.

Her fifth chapter is 'To Keep the Dark Prince at Bay', for which one may use his own things: Asafoetida is the Devil’s Dung; garlic and onion (the former well known to viewers of Hammer films as a vampire repellent) sprang up from where the Devil planted his feet on the earth outside the Garden of Eden. The final chapter is the converse, 'To Summon the Old One for Aid'. This was not done only with the help of herbs: “Therefore, in addition to the small body of plant lore represented here, I have also included numerous folk rites for conjuring or calling upon the Devil’s aid from my research that do not include a plant element, for the sake of interest and prosperity.” – Gareth J. Medway



It's time for my regular listing of the Top Ten Most Read of the previous year's Magonia reviews. As usual, the reviews which have been on the site for the longest tend to clock up the most hits, but this is not invariable,  there are always some titles which race ahead of all the others, and this year is no exception. 

Now to open the golden envelope which lists the ten winners of The Pelly, our much-coveted mascot statuette.

At number 10 is Children of Roswell, Thomas J Carey and  Donald R Schmitt's account of the memories of members of the families of people who were involved, or allegedly involved, in the Roswell affair. Trevor Pyne found the book interesting but reminded us of the problems of faded memories which may have been influenced by the massive coverage that Roswell has received over the past three decades.

David Sivier's The Nature of the Catastrophe, number nine in our list, is not so much a book review as an essay, examining how one particular piece of SF literature, John Wyndham's short story 'Worlds to Barter' first published in 1931, prefigured, and may have influenced the subsequent development of the UFO narrative.

At number eight, Kevin Murphy's review of Lost Powers - Reclaiming our Inner Connection presents a summary of the limits of paranormal claims, and how they often seem to exist in a borderland between consensus reality and other realities, consciously or unconsciously created.

Kevin is also at number seven with his review of a guide to the Celtic deities of old Ireland. In reviewing this book he says “the more one reads about Irish mythology, the more confusing and complex it becomes” but concludes that “In Gods and Goddesses of Ireland Morgan Daimler provides a concise guide to the Irish deities that is approachable and accessible”

At number six Peter Rogerson's review of The Science of Near-Death Experiences, edited by John C.  Hagan and published by the University of Missouri Press, called into question the editor's objectivity, and sparked off a number of critical comments after publication, which can be read at the end of the review.

Number five, When Satan Went Pop is a review of the pop-cultural influences on Satanic rumours and beliefs, and in turn the result of such ideas on pop culture. My review concluded that “and will be of interest not only to those interested in the development of this particular [Satanic panic] episode, but to those with an interest in the broader social history of moral panics”. I was particularly impressed by the selection of illustrations in the book.

At number four, Alan Price's review of Haunted Landscapes: Super-Nature and the Environment, is perhaps best summarised in its final paragraph: “When the significance of ghostly presence, supernatural or other, does come through, I was fascinated by this uneven, yet rewarding and original book. Its cluster of ideas still managed to haunt me, even when their analysis of texts often stumbled through a lack of clarity."

Coming up to the final stretch now. At number three is my review of The Veiled Veil, a collection of anecdotes, folklore, forteana, urban legends and historical curiosities from the Vale of the White Horse, an area now incorporated into Oxfordshire but historically part of Berkshire. Even though this is an area I know little about I found the book to be a fascinating compendium and a model for other titles of local interest.

Second on the list, and published later in the year is Steve Holland and Roger Perry's The Men Behind The Flying Saucer Review. Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, this title is probably one of the shortest books we have reviewed in a long time, but nevertheless is packed with fascinating data about the rise and fall of Flying Saucer Review, the men (yes, invariably men, with one exception) behind it, and reveals one or two dirty little secrets about the magazine's origins.

So what's at number one? I think no-one will be surprised by the interest shown in Christopher Josiffe's telling of the remarkable story of Gef! The Strange Tale of an Extra-special Talking Mongoose. Winner of the Katherine Briggs Folklore Book of the Year award for 2017, this was certainly my highlight of the year. Published by the irrepressible Strange Attractor Press, I just repeat my conclusion that this is a Magonian must-read.

Well, the presentations have been made, the tearful acceptance speeches are at last concluded, and the limousines await to carry our star-studded audience home to their or somebody else's beds, and we look forward to another fun-packed literary voyage in the year ahead. – John Rimmer



Merlin Coverley. Occult London. Oldcastle Books, 2017 (2nd Ed.)
Justin Hopper. The Old Weird Albion. Penned in the Margins, 2017

These are two quite different books, but linked by one theme, the magic, legend and memory of place. Coverley’s book is ostensibly a straight-forward guide-book to London, pointing out locations associated with various figures and ideas associated with the history of occultism and magic, from John Dee’s Mortlake (and I’ll have something to say about that later) to Highgate and territories beyond Zone 6. Hopper’s book is more personal, searching for memories of a relative he never knew, amongst lost and liminal places along the South Downs.

To many people the streets of London seem hard and materialistic, a litany of banks and estate agents, faceless offices, security barriers, building sites and traffic fumes. Unlike the South Downs, a protected National Park, winding on a chalk spine from Winchester to the coast at Eastbourne. Here the magic is more overt, and Hopper describes his encounters, as he walks this path, where the skin of modernity is sometimes stretched thinly over an older land.

Hopper’s grandfather’s first wife, Doris, one day in 1932 walked over the cliff at Beachy Head, at the easternmost end of Hopper’s walk. As he progresses towards this spot he uncovers clues, from the landscape, from the people he meets and from family memories, that reveal, but never quite explain, her story. On his walk he meets musicians, magicians, crop-circle makers, archaeologists, wanderers and suicide vigilantes. He wanders through villages which have disappeared with virtually no trace – far more lost than Wiltshire’s lost village of Imber.

There are lost pasts, but he also encounters lost futures, the Utopian-seeming plan for the township of Peacehaven, planned as a beacon for the world that was to arrive after the War to End Wars, now a gently mouldering footnote to the English suburban dream, but still capable of holding at least one disturbing memory.

There are odd cameos here, the saxophonist vamping in a lonely country church, the ley hunter tracking a path through rain-soaked copPices and over crumbling walls, and morris dancers appearing through the morning mist at Chanctonbury, then disappearing with just the sound of their bells fading into the distance.

Hopper eventually comes to some sort of ‘closure’ to Doris’s story, which curiously ends in Essex rather than Beachy Head, a place synonymous with suicide in the English collective unconscious.

Occult London is a straightforward history and guidebook to London locations and the individuals from the history of magic and the occult associated with them, from the era of John Dee to modern occultism and psychogeography. And here I must point out yet again that the library of the great Doctor Dee was not ransacked by the ignorant residents of my adoptive town of Mortlake in some Simpsons-style orgy of pitchforks and burning torches. On the contrary, Mortlegians regarded him with a great deal of respect – although a little warily, that long white beard was a bit off-putting – asking him to adjudicate in local disputes. In reality his library was dispersed through the neglect and carelessness of his brother-in-law Nicolas Fromonde who freely ‘lent’ his books to all and sundry while the Doctor was travelling abroad.

That off my chest, I will say that they rest of the book is a neat summary of the occult life of London, with all the usual suspects noted, and linked to premises in the capital where they lived, died, outraged the neighbours and otherwise operated.

The second half of the book is a gazetteer of London districts particularly associated with particular individuals and movements. It reminds us that certain places contain their own genius loci, maintaining it over centuries - revolutionary Clerkenwell, radical Lambeth, louche Soho – as well as areas that change and morph into new identities.

I’m not sure whether ‘psychogeography’ has any real meaning, other than a ability to absorb the atmosphere of an area and an urge to understand not just its history but how that history influences its present and its people and its entire structure, and what still surrounds us as we walk its streets, lanes and fields, and both these books help us to see something of that atmosphere

And I need to know more about the Nuns’ World Snooker Championship held at Tyburn Convent in 1989 – or did I somehow wander into an un-broadcast episode of Father Ted? – John Rimmer



Gordon Napier. Maleficium: Witchcraft and Witch Hunting in the West. Amberley, 2017.

"There is a modern saying that the greatest trick the Devil pulled was convincing the world that he doesn’t exist. One might well wonder whether an equally great trick of his was to convince the authorities that a witch cult existed, causing churchmen and jurists to torture and kill fellow Christians whom they falsely suspected of satanic witchcraft." So says author Gordon Napier in his Preface, setting the tone nicely.

Here we have a book by an academic, though apparently not specifically for an academic audience, which approaches the whole vexed subject of historical western witchcraft with thought and, seemingly, a subdued but – in my view - largely healthy scepticism. But not entirely…

Perhaps Napier’s greatest triumph lies in his use of language – after all the most immediate link between author and reader. He is direct, concise and accessible. (There’s only one use of ‘trope’ in the entire book, which is otherwise mostly innocent of ‘memes’ and other irritating trendy terminology.)

We are taken, often meticulously, through the shocking history of witch-hunting (and duly disabused of the usual mistakes: the pinnacle of this reign of terror was not in medieval times, but much later, when the west was tipping over into the Enlightenment, for example).

And shocking it was, those in charge of the tortures and executions – basically, the Church – descending to levels of depravity that might even turn the stomachs of luminaries of the so-called Islamic State. Or more likely, would provide inspiration for yet more imaginative crimes against humanity.

Both alleged witches and heretics found themselves the target of the religious establishment – not the most hopeful situation. No one was safe, not even the most vulnerable members of the community. As Napier writes: "When conventional preaching failed to eradicate heresy, the Inquisition adopted a more aggressive way of doing things. If a frail old lady with hours to live was denounced for heresy, these Inquisitors apparently thought nothing of having her burned in public tied to the bed she was too weak to leave."

Under the Inquisition, the accused had no right to appeal. Huge numbers were summoned to be tried, almost all imprisoned and "put under pressure to name fellow heretics". We see in the later case of Johannes Junius, the mayor of Bamberg, Germany, how the terrible pressure caused by torture can very swiftly rob a human being of their normal morals. Put to the thumbscrews and other devices of terror and agony repeatedly, this normally honourable man invented all sorts of highly-embroidered stories of cavortings with demons that involved his neighbours. As he managed to write to his daughter, "… whoever comes into the witch prison must become a witch or be tortured until he invents something out of his head and – God pity him – bethinks him of something." Then, heartrendingly, Junius wrote: "Dear child, six have confessed against me at once [he names them] – all false, through compulsion, as they have all told me, and begged my forgiveness in God’s name before they were executed… They know nothing but good of me. They were forced to say it, just as I myself was…"

The author insists Junius was executed with a sword – a great mercy as he was a man of some social standing, being the mayor – but most sources have him being publicly burnt. His wife had already died in the flames. No one knows whether his daughter ever received his letters, though it seems unlikely as they were found with his trial records, implying they had been intercepted. One can only hope she managed to escape.

At the height of the witch hysteria, even the dead were exhumed and their bones publicly burnt. (They, of course, were the lucky ones.) Even this caused great suffering to the living, because their surviving families could be imprisoned – or worse – and in any case most were given hefty fines. Perhaps it goes without saying that anyone accused of witchcraft or heresy in these courts had all their money and property confiscated. Witch-hunting, apart from all other considerations, was big business.

It was also the near-perfect excuse to rid yourself of your enemies. Just breathe their names to the Inquisition or the local court and their terrible suffering was nearly as good as done – and all, horribly, terminally within the law. There was, however, a potential problem. As we saw with the case of poor Herr Junius, reporting people to be in league with the devil almost always had a domino effect, especially when torture was applied. All too often, the accusers became the accused. What went around, came around. And usually this involved appalling agony.

The euphemisms made it worse. Napier notes that, "… there was general support for 'relaxing' the accused to the 'secular arm', the Inquisition’s euphemism for handing condemned prisoners to secular authorities, usually for execution by burning at the stake." The author adds drily, "(One struggles to think of a less relaxing experience.)" Being relaxed by the Inquisition sounds rather akin to being massaged by the Gestapo.

The author does a good job of alerting us to the facts, as opposed to the assumptions, though sometimes he seems to miss the point. For example, while it is true to say that the accused were not all toothless hags from the bottom of the social pile – Herr Junius was a comfortably-off pillar of his community, after all – even the most cursory glance at Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of the Witches, the notorious witch-hunting manual by Kramer and Sprenger) reveals a hatred and fear of women that drove much of the witch-hunting mentality. That can’t simply be ignored or sidelined, but doesn’t figure much here.

In fact, given the title of this book, surely we could have had more from the Malleus: Kramer and Sprenger’s sick and twisted minds are there in every word. Little explanation would have been necessary.

Still, we are carried – often rather too quickly – through all the classic cases, including Salem and the Pendle witches, through the anti-witch fixation of King James and the depredations of the Witchfinder General. We learn that, while Germany killed the most ‘witches’ – around 20,000, decimating whole swathes of the population - Ireland was virtually free of such persecutions.

Well-written and engaging though most of this book undoubtedly is, it has some very irritating traits. For example, topics and people are mentioned briefly but only properly introduced – described in context – later, sometimes much later, such as Agrippa and the nuns of Loudun. By the time you get to any detail, you’ve forgotten what was said about them earlier, in passing.

Sometimes you never get any serious information, even about key people. Though Aleister Crowley gets a name check occasionally in the sections about modern Satanism, you search in vain for a single other mention. If you were unacquainted with him, you’d simply be baffled – or buy someone else’s book, of course.

(And it’s a bit poor that the usual dismissal of Crowley’s apparently ragingly hedonistic axiom: ‘Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law’ is given without the quintessential riders: ‘Love under Law. Love under Will.’ This changes the implications somewhat radically.)

Also, somewhat mystifyingly, Alex and Maxine Saunders – ‘King and Queen of the Witches’ of the 60s and 70s – get precisely one line, alerting us to the fact they existed. And that’s it. Maxine Saunders is still around, so if Napier had been desperate for information, he could have interviewed her.

On the other hand, sensationalist author Dennis Wheatley gets a whole page, though he, too, is missing from the index.

Something that does feature in it, however, appears at the very end of a chapter, and reads in its entirety: "… leaving aside recent interest in blood-splashed 'Spirit Cooking' events…" Indeed, the subject is duly left aside. I would have liked to know more – or anything, really. (Somehow I doubt ‘spirit cooking’ is a recipe book for paraffin burners.) Clearly, though, this book isn’t going to enlighten me.

But surely the most perplexing example of this infuriating delayed-explanation syndrome concerns the Malleus Maleficarum, which after all gives the book its title. It is mentioned in passing on page 46 but only properly discussed a full 25 pages later, presumably because the author assumes his readers will already be familiar with it. (In which case, do they need to consult this book at all?) And it is only when that witch-hunting manual is introduced that we discover what the maleficarum of the title means (‘concerning witches’). It might have been more useful in the otherwise interesting enough Preface.

Please note I’m not getting drawn into an argument about the Templars, though I seriously challenge Napier’s line about their involvement with heresy. Basically, he quotes the fashionable line that there was none. In fact, not so. (A couple of clues: Johannitism, learned from the Mandaeans in the Middle East, but practised only by the Templar inner circle, not the rank and file.)

Napier clearly doesn’t believe in the paranormal, so any ‘real’ witches – as opposed to those just picked on out of malice or more or less randomly – must, he suggests, have suffered from psychosis. They probably did, but one does wonder sometimes if, in a world where even agnosticism wasn’t even considered to be an option, but where Christ’s Church did such terrible things to the innocent, might some people think genuinely siding with Satan was the only sane alternative? If the followers of the ‘Good’ behaved like devils, perhaps, no doubt they thought, it made sense to align oneself with the other lot. (This is pretty much the rationale of many modern Satanists, though their insistence on ignoring or even seeking to destroy ‘useless’ members of society, such as the vulnerable, might remove any vague sympathy one might feel for their basic ethos.)

Napier writes from a very twenty-first century perspective, which disallows any consideration of what the people of the day suffered spiritually. If you were an innocent and devoted Christian, but were dragged into the mire of the witch hunters, not only would you suffer in this life but, you were repeatedly informed, your soul would also be damned in the next. Not only would you suffer the pains of Hell for all eternity, you would also be removed from the love of the Christ you genuinely worshipped. This was real to them. Not only were these thousands upon thousands of good Christians hideously tormented by physical torture and the worst possible death at the stake, but they were removed from the possibility of all hope for the life to come. In this way, they were tortured psychologically, even spiritually, beyond imagining. That whole side of the witch-hunts is almost entirely missing from this book, a sad failure to truly engage with the real people behind the stories. – Lynn Picknett



Tracey Rollin. Santa Muerte. The History, Rituals and Magic of Our Lady of Holy Death. Weiser Books,  2017.

How-to-do-it books on magic, almost unobtainable a generation ago, are a growth industry. Those in English, at least, are rooted in the practices of the Golden Dawn and Wicca, even when some quite different slant is ostensibly given to them, such as ‘Practical Egyptian Magic’.

The present volume is a fusion of this modern British magic with Latin American practice. The popularity of saints in Catholic countries is partly due to their accessibility: during a Catholic upbringing, for instance, one may see “their statues, their prayer cards, and their sacred medals every day”, whereas God has no image, or only one of “an old man wearing a snowy white robe”. Now, it is a curious fact that though the Catholic Church recognises a huge number of saints, there are numerous others, known as ‘folk saints’ whom they do not condone. Some of these are nevertheless very popular. Santa Muerte, “Holy Death”, typically depicted as “a female skeleton wearing an elaborate black silk wedding dress”, is actually condemned by them.

This mistrust is not only due to the fact that she is a reminder of mortality, and the suspicion that she may be a crypto-survival of the Aztec Goddess Mictecuahuatl, but because she is a popular object of veneration among drug traffickers on the US-Mexican border. While raiding a cartel compound in New Mexico, “agents found an entire room turned into a temple dedicated to the worship of Santa Muerte”. The FBI terms her a “narco-saint”, and “blames her cults for shocking acts of violence and ritual slayings”.

Rollin, you may be relieved to learn, does not advocate such things. She gives detailed instructions on how to prepare an altar to Santa Muerte and make offerings to her – the saint particularly likes Florida Water, which is not a brand name, but a scent formula first produced in 1808 – and the application of traditional Catholic items of worship, such as candles and rosaries, combined with Golden Dawn practices such as the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram.

Santa Muerte is one of those saints whom you can petition for almost anything. She has seven aspects related to colours, Nina Blanca, ‘White Girl’, Nina Violeta, ‘Purple Girl’, and those of Blue, Golden, Red, Green, and Black. Though Rollin does not mention it, these are also the seven tinctures of heraldry, and are astrologically associated with the planets, in that same order. Thus, Nina Roja, the Red Girl, who is thereby linked to Mars, is “fiery and passionate”. Interestingly, “A common folk spell to ensure that a husband remains faithful is to soak a white cord in the couple’s combined sexual fluids and then to wrap it around the base of a red Santa Muerte statue.” Nina Verde, Green Girl, governs legal matters, and is accordingly called upon by criminals and police officers alike. Nina Negra, the Black Girl, who would correspond to Saturn, and is called ‘The Mother of Tears’, unlike the others has the aspects you would expect of a Death figure.

The only problem for anyone wishing to join the ranks of her worshippers is that images of her, readily available in grocery stores in New Mexico, may be hard to come by in Britain, or elsewhere. – Gareth J. Medway.