Not the Monthly Post

The Arts of the Cunning Folk

Two weeks ago we talked about the way that Bakongo spirituality made its way to the American colonies along with enslaved Africans from the Congo basin.  Once here, it adapted to the conditions of slavery and the radically different environment of temperate and subtropical North America to become the earliest form of hoodoo—one of the great traditions of American magic. That was part of a much broader cultural impact, of course; it’s not going too far to suggest that modern American society derives nearly as much of its cultural DNA from the Congo as it does from, say, England. (That these two make up only a  small part of the ebullient slumgullion of influences that went into the shaping of American culture is one of the points I hope to make in these posts.)

This week we’re going to turn that equation around and talk specifically about the magical traditions that came across the Atlantic with colonists from England.  By that I don’t primarily mean the learned traditions in the forms that Johannes Kelpius and Joseph Stafford studied, though we’ll have more to say about those – the history of alchemy in colonial America, in particular, is a fascinating chapter in our tale and will get its share of discussions. The aspect of American magic I want to talk about this week is the magic of the English common folk, the ordinary farmers and laborers who left their homes in England far behind to cross the Atlantic and settle on the shores of a mostly unknown continent.

In order to start making sense of that dimension of this nation’s magical heritage, it’s going to be necessary to head off one common misconception in advance. The village folk of England in the era of the American colonies practiced magic, treasured a great many customs that most people nowadays like to call “superstitions,” and went to local practitioners—“cunning men” and “cunning women”—to get their futures foretold, seek healing from natural and supernatural ills, and make contact in a galaxy of other ways with the realm of the unseen.  That much has been documented exhaustively by generations of scholars. The teachings and practices the cunning men and women used have also been well documented, and they all have one thing in common: they have nothing to do with modern Wicca or anything resembling it.

Wicca was invented by an English occultist named Gerald Gardner and publicized by him in a series of books starting in 1951, when Britain finally got around to repealing the last of its laws against witchcraft. Did he draw on older traditions?  Sure, and they’ve been well documented since his time: a medieval handbook of magic called The Key of Solomon, the teachings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and its erratic alumnus Aleister Crowley, a mostly forgotten back-to-nature movement called Woodcraft, and the writings of Robert Graves, Charles Godfrey Leland, Jules Michelet, and Margaret Murray, four writers who all postulated that medieval witchcraft was a survival of archaic Pagan religion. The first two of these authors insisted that medieval witches worshiped a goddess, the others insisted that they worshiped the Devil; Gardner split the difference and had his witches worship a goddess and a horned god.

Gardner’s invention was a roaring success, and part of why it was a roaring success is that he insisted that he hadn’t invented it at all—no, of course not, it had been passed down to him from antiquity by a coven in the New Forest. That was standard practice in those days. (One of the reasons that Aleister Crowley’s attempt to launch a new religion with himself as prophet flopped so completely in his own lifetime is that he didn’t cobble together a bogus pedigree for his system of Thelema.) Within a few years of the publication of Witchcraft Today, Gardner’s first book on the subject, other people accordingly started leaping on the bandwagon, claiming to have received some more or less parallel set of teachings from their own untraceable lineage of witches. It was quite a growth industry for a while, though the market for third degree grannies seems to have had a dip in demand recently.

It probably has to be said outright that this doesn’t devalue the validity of Wicca, or of any of the other varieties of modern quasi-Wiccan witchcraft. Every religion was invented by somebody, and the vast majority of faiths have backdated themselves to the dawn of time in exactly the same way that Gardner’s did.  The one problem with this very common habit is that it can obscure what was actually going on in those circles that have undergone retrospective recruitment into a newly minted faith.  That’s relevant here, because ever since Wicca came to America, there have been enthusiastic attempts to plant Wiccan covens (or covens of some other form of modern witchcraft that can be told apart from Wicca only by the cognoscenti) in colonial America—think of these as being Neopagan equivalents of all those fundamentalist Christian attempts to find Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat.

As already noted, there were unquestionably practitioners of folk magic in colonial America. Quite a few of them have been documented to one degree or another by industrious historians over the last century or so. They weren’t Wiccans, because Wicca hadn’t been invented yet, and they didn’t call themselves witches—that term wasn’t something you called yourself in those days. In England and the American colonies in the 17th century, a witch was a person so full of malevolent power that he or she could bring ill-luck on people, livestock, or crops simply by looking at them. (The southern European tradition of the “evil eye” is a closely related belief.)  Ministers and educated people believed that witches made pacts with the Devil, but the folk belief was far simpler: some people are just so nasty it spills off them, and we call them witches.

In the 17th century, most ordinary people in England practiced magic. They didn’t practice a lot of it, or do it very systematically, but the great majority of them cast simple spells now and then for luck and healing, and practiced simple divinations in the hope of foretelling the future. Literacy was fairly widespread among them, and you had to be fairly deep into poverty not to be able to buy cheap print media such as almanacs. Those same habits crossed the Atlantic with the first English colonists and became standard practice here as well.  In an attenuated form, they remain standard in rural and small town American culture, especially but not only east of the Mississippi; you can still find local almanacs in a great many places with many of the same features that guided simple magical practice in Colonial times.

The example most people know about is planting by the Moon.  That’s one of several forms of practical astrology that have been simplified for popular use. In Elizabethan gardening books—The Gardeners Labyrinth by Thomas Hyll is one on my bookshelves—the art of astrological timing played an important role in gardening, as it did in literally every other aspect of daily life. Hyll’s manual includes a chapter of detailed astrological instructions that rely on the positions of the Moon and Saturn relative to each other, the lunar nodes, and specific segments of the zodiac. In popular use, such intricacies were replaced by simpler instructions based solely on the Moon’s phases and her position in the signs of the zodiac.

You can find a basic guide to the resulting system in any old-fashioned almanac, and a thorough introduction to it in the pages of that durable classic of Americana, The Foxfire Book.  The very short version is that each sign of the zodiac is assigned to one of the four traditional elements, and each element is either hot or cool and either dry or moist.  Cool signs are fertile signs, so when the Moon is in one, that’s when you plant; hot signs are barren signs, so when the Moon is in one, that’s when you weed. There are some wrinkles in the system—Gemini is a hot and moist sign, for example, but the Moon in Gemini is the best time to plant beans; Virgo is cool and dry, but seeds planted when the Moon is in Virgo rot in the ground, and it’s a bad time to pickle, can, or preserve things, too—and you also have to track the waxing and waning of the Moon. All in all, though, it’s far simpler to practice and easier to learn than classic astrology; a local almanac and a little bit of oral instruction are all you need.

The same process of simplification shaped a great deal of the folk magic and divination that crossed the Atlantic with ordinary English farming and laboring people: find a tradition of folk occultism, and tolerably often you can trace it back to some considerably more detailed and demanding set of teachings and practices that thrived a few centuries further back.  The same thing, interestingly enough, is also true of the practices of those people who didn’t just dabble in magic and divination on an occasional basis:  the professional folk mages of the American colonies. There wasn’t a fixed term in colonial culture for these practitioners, but it’s become standard usage among scholars to borrow the most common label for their English equivalents and refer to them as cunning men, cunning women, or (generically) as cunning folk.

Even in those colonies where laws prohibited such practices, there were plenty of cunning folk around.  One survey from the surviving literature noted eighty professional mages and diviners in New England alone between 1644 and 1850, and there were doubtless many more who lived and died without leaving a trace of their occult activities in the written record.  The methods of magic and divination they practiced were so close to those practiced across the sea in England that several scholarly studies of that end of occult history treat them as a single phenomenon.

Jim Baker’s excellent The Cunning Man’s Handbook: The Practice of English Folk Magic 1550-1900 is among these.  It’s also the best single resource for students of the subject, because Baker reprints hundreds of pages of original texts detailing the practices used by cunning folk on both sides of the Atlantic. The curriculum for the ordinarily well-trained cunning man or woman, as Baker lays it out, includes:

  • Geomancy, a method of divination using randomly generated patterns of dots to produce a chart that foretold the future;
  • Folk astrology, including planting by the signs and a range of other methods that didn’t need the demanding mathematical skills classic astrology requires;
  • Chiromancy (palm reading), physiognomy (face reading), and other methods of divination using the body of the client;
  • A range of other, less easily classified divination methods such as divination by sieve and shears, and the use of number-based oracles such as the Wheel of Pythagoras;
  • Dream interpretation;
  • The compounding of herbal and other natural remedies for illness;
  • The making and consecration of talismans, amulets, and charms for health, protection, and luck;
  • The conjuration of spirits of various kinds, good or evil.

All these practices have very deep roots in occult history; all of them were practiced in more complex and literate forms by learned occultists during the Renaissance—and all of them were available to cunning folk in colonial America in readily available books.

There’s an interesting bit of history behind this. From the arrival of the first printing press in England until 1641, anyone who wanted to publish a book had to get permission from the government, and once Henry VIII took England out of the Catholic orbit, the bishops of the Church of England were given the power to censor anything they considered theologically suspect. In 1641, however, the English Civil War broke out and the censorship laws became impossible to enforce. English printers responded by flooding the market with a torrent of previously forbidden books—among them, books on magic, divination, astrology, and related subjects. Since the primary market for such books were the literate skilled craftspeople we discussed in an earlier post, who by and large knew English but not Latin, the vast majority of these magical works were written in or translated into English.

As the English settlement of the eastern American seaboard got under way, in other words, anyone who had even very modest amounts of money could buy books about divination and magic, and anyone with basic English literacy could read them. Important occult books such as Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy and William Lilly’s Christian Astrology became standard manuals and filtered well down the social ladder, while authors of derivative and simplified books on occult subjects found audiences even among the semiliterate. Such books, endlessly reprinted by presses in England and America, became standard texts for cunning folk on both sides of the Atlantic and helped large parts of traditional occult lore survive pressure from the privileged classes as those latter became increasingly hostile toward occultism.

Survey the folklore of American magic and it’s easy to see the results. In Appalachia, where colonial American occultism survived with surprisingly little change until quite recently, a book of spells was the sine qua non of the practicing folk magician. The mage didn’t have to use the book; he or she might not even have it.  Even the rumor that he or she possessed it was enough, but a book of spells had to be involved somehow. One common volume of this sort was The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, which was a German handbook of Christian magic first reprinted in this country by Pennsylvania Dutch presses—and yes, this was treasured by folk magicians even in the parts of the Appalachians that never had much German settlement.

Along the same lines, consider the advertisement printed in 1795 in a Charlestown, MA newspaper: “JOHN FRANCIS respectfully informs the public, that he would thank them kindly not to call on him after this public notice, for any explanations in Astronomy, Physiognomy, etc., commonly called Fortune Telling, as he has now engaged himself in a line of mercantile business, that will require his whole attention.” The art of physiognomy, or divination by face reading, was mentioned above; “astronomy” in this context, of course, means astrology—the two sciences were by no means entirely differentiated in 1795. Francis was thus getting out of a career in the more educated end of popular divination to set up a more ordinary business.

What makes this particularly interesting is that Francis was African-American, one of the sizeable population of free black people in the northern end of colonial America. What else he might have practiced as part of his occult career is anyone’s guess—the advertisement is the one scrap of surviving information about this solid citizen of Charlestown that links him with occultism—but he had certainly become sufficiently well known as a practitioner of two branches of classic European divination that he had to inform the public that he’d left the business.

Two trends we’ll be seeing over and over again in these posts can be tracked in this brief glimpse at a working occultist’s practice.  The first is that the varied traditions that provided the raw materials of American magic didn’t remain the exclusive property of the ethnic groups that brought them to this continent. We’ve already seen how the German Pietist occultism of Johannes Kelpius spread outside the Pennsylvanian German community by way of interested outsiders such as Christopher Witt, and we’ll see in future posts how hoodoo, created out of traditional Bakongo spirituality by enslaved Africans, spread throughout the African-American community and then became part of American occultism as a whole.

The career of John Francis marks another aspect of that same intermingling of occult traditions. His knowledge of physiognomy and astrology shows that he had access to the same books of popular occultism as his lighter-skinned neighbors, and if his “explanations in Astronomy” involved classic astrology with its intricate calculations, rather than the less demanding forms of folk astrology, he participated at least to some extent in the same currents of learned occultism that also shaped the career of Joseph Stafford, the astrologer of Narragansett Bay. Displayed here is an early stage in the emergence of a American magical culture that was shared by people of many different ethnic backgrounds.

The second trend highlighted by this vignette of 18th-century Massachusetts history is at least as important.  From colonial times right up to the present, occultism has been one of the standard ways by which gifted members of marginalized ethnic and economic groups in America could slip past the usual barriers to social advancement and make a name and a fortune for themselves. (Writing is one of the others—and it’s not accidental that many of the examples of this phenomenon we’ll be discussing were authors as well as occultists.)  John Francis apparently used his business as a fortuneteller to raise the funds that enabled him to enter a more respectable trade. Some of his successors did the same thing; others remained occultists.  The history of American occultism is full of such entrepreneurial figures—and some of them became significant figures in American cultural history.


In news unrelated to the history of American magic, I’m delighted to announce that the next of my novels set in the universe of The Weird of Hali is now available for purchase in print and ebook formats. Here’s the back cover blurb for A Voyage to Hyperborea:

Beneath Greenland’s Glaciers…

All Toby Gilman wants is a postdoc position where he can pursue his studies in ancient Arctic linguistics and keep the secret of his nonhuman ancestry safely hidden. The bitter academic politics in his field leaves him only one option: a Miskatonic University expedition to an isolated station on the eastern coast of Greenland needs a linguist who can decipher the language of the long-vanished Hyperborean civilization. Having no other choice, he sails with the advance party to the wilderness on Tornarssukalik Inlet.

But the expedition is more than it seems, and he is not the only nonhuman among its members. A lethal peril threatens the survival of Earth itself, and the Great Old Ones and their deadly enemies are both in motion—and they are not alone. When disaster strikes Tornarssukalik Station, Toby must make his escape across arctic wasteland, board a tall ship crewed by undead pirates and captained by the Terrible Old Man, and face all his deepest fears in a journey in which love, betrayal, and death are constant companions—a journey that will end in the caverns far below Mount Voormithadreth, where the nightmare being Abhoth guards secrets that could end the world…

Interested? Copies can be ordered here.


  1. Hello! I am in my second year of gardening, and I am wondering, does my ignorance of lunar planting and the like put me at a disadvantage. I do not know where the moon was when I sewed my seeds last, I do hope it was somewhere favorable.
    Along those lines, what resources do people use to find out the astrological arrangement of things in the sky above their homes? I know of plenty of sites that will pop out a chart of somebody’s birthday, but these days I’m more interested in the day-to-day placement of heavenly bodies where I am.

  2. Was Woodcraft the thing that was like a socialist version of the Scouts?

    I read a bit about the history of Scouting – it was a very successful concept that seemed to get everywhere. The British spread it all around the Empire, where it promptly became a centre for resistance to colonialism in Africa and India. The same idea was rebranded as both the communist Young Pioneers and the Hitler Youth.

    Do you know if there was occult training for young people in Woodcraft, or in any other Scout-like organisations? Even if it didn’t happen historically, would that be an appropriate way to introduce people to the occult, given what’s safe at different ages?

  3. You had me at “ebullient slumgullion”, which now replaces “lugubrious adumbrations” for my favorite two-word phrase.

    This is a new topic for me, am learning a lot. So not much more to say other than thank you.

  4. Just my luck–the market for 3rd degree Wiccan grannies dries up just when I can say I am one. Sigh.

  5. Thanks for the essay JMG!

    I know JMG didn’t watch it, but did anyone on here watch “Jamestown”? I was surprised how much magic of all sorts was in the show. They had early English magic, African magic, Native American (“Naturals”) magic, and just about every show has either superstitions, witches, and some sort of spiritual magic. The show wasn’t great, but I was very surprised to see so much of what has been written about here lately in the show. Seems you’re on the something!

  6. Thank you so much for this series, and for last week’s post as well. It’s refreshing to find a place where I can learn such a broad range of information and such a wide array of viewpoints, and it’s information that I certainly don’t encounter every day! This series is part of the hidden history of the US, and I think the hidden histories say a lot more than the official narratives.

    Jessi Thompson

  7. @Dylandrogynous: there is a section in John Jeavon’s book How to Grow More Vegetables which discusses planting by the moon, just a couple of pages but outlines the general idea.

  8. JMG – Just a follow-up on my “made in USA” casual men’s shoes: they arrived yesterday, and they’re every bit as fine as I had hoped. I now have a middle ground between my fleece-lined slippers and my over-the-ankle work-boots. My first reaction was that there was a little pressure on top of my feet, but then I pulled the laces snug, the sides of the shoes pulled in, the top compressed into an arch, and all is well.

  9. JMG – My rationalist take on “gardening by the moon” is that, if nothing else, it sets deadlines for getting specific tasks DONE. Since each day looks a lot like the previous, it’s easy for me to say “I want to grow beans, but the seed package says they can go in any time this month, so I’ll wait.” So, I do other things. And suddenly, I realize the month is gone. If the almanac said “watch the moon, and plant during the first quarter”, I would have a short time-span for action. It’s long enough to dodge a few days of rain, but then the time is NOW and I’d get it DONE, even if I had to push some other important task out of the way. “The almanac says NOW.” Whether it’s actually the best time or not, it effectively prevents jumping the gun by 2-3 weeks, nor letting the job slide.

    But, maybe I should have paid more attention to the almanac. I put tomato plants out last week, afraid that they were outgrowing their 2″ pots, and now (May 6th!) there’s a chance of snow in a day or two. In mid-Maryland! Day-time high temperatures are about 20F less than typical (40F below the records; the night-time low Friday may set a new record). I have some protective caps to put over them, and perhaps a blanket. Maybe there’s some heat coming up from the buried stable litter composting beneath them. We’ll see.

  10. “One common volume of this sort was The Fifth and Sixth Books of Moses, which
    was a German handbook of Christian magic first reprinted in this country by
    Pennsylvania Dutch presses”

    An internet search brings up the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses. Is the above
    a typo?

  11. Dylandrogynous, don’t think of it as a disadvantage. I know plenty of people who grow good gardens without planting by the Moon — but I also know people who were good gardeners, and then started planting by the Moon and got even better results. The guide you want is an almanac — your local grocery store probably carries at least one — or a daily astrological guide, which can be bought online from most stores that carry occult supplies. You can get one of those, check out a copy of The Foxfire Book from your local public library once it opens up again, and be good to go.

    Yorkshire, one version of Woodcraft, called the Woodcraft Folk, was taken over by socialists in Britain and used as their youth group for many years; iirc it’s still around. Woodcraft was around well before then, though. It was created by Canadian naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton just before the turn of the last century, and there were various forms of it — in Britain, the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry and the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift were two very active branches. Gerald Gardner was involved in both of these. In its American and Canadian forms, it had an adult branch, the Red Lodge, which had significant esoteric content. (BTW, if you read Wikipedia you’ll find a lot of ranting about “misunderstandings of Native American customs” et al.; Seton had a lot of Native American friends — he was one of the first white people on this continent to campaign for Native American rights — and he went to them for advice about how to organize Woodcraft. Just one more bit of wikidishonesty…)

    If you read old Woodcraft books, though, you’ll find out very quickly where Gardner got the habit of casting a circle and calling the quarters, as well as quite a few other details that went into the New Religion.

    Mark, just one of the services I offer. 😉

    Rita, now, now, I didn’t say it had dried up, just that there’s been a dip in demand. Since you actually exist, unlike most of the third degree grannies that were once marketed so enthusiastically, you have an advantage!

    Tude, fascinating. I’m surprised they let that slip in.

    Jessie, yes, the hidden histories say much more than the official narratives. The whole point of the official narratives is to erase every alternative to the status quo except the faux-alternatives that lead you right back around to where we are.

    Lathechuck, delighted to hear it! I’ll have to consider that brand for my next shoe purchase.

  12. Lathechuck, it’s surprisingly difficult to tell whether divination works because of gimmicks like that, or whether there’s more to it. According to game theory a strategy that includes a random element will be more successful than one that doesn’t, and divination is certainly one effective way to insert such an element; the fact that if you work by the Moon you cycle neatly through all the tasks a farmer needs to do may also be something like that. On the other hand, there may be more to it.

    Jeanne, yes, it’s a typo. Thank you — I’ve corrected it.

  13. I’ve had little to no interest in magic and have read you posts on the subject simply because I’m in the habit of reading your blog. But, reading about the history of it is starting to pique my interest.

  14. Congrats on the new book JMG! I’m looking forward to reading it.Greenland has been on my mind of late, what with the ice shelf’s falling into the ocean, and new mining operations opening up there.

    And just as a reminder, there is another new book out from Founders House Publishing now as well, the anthology Love in the Ruins, available here:

    A number of folks from the commentariat have made it into the book. Here is the table of contents:

    Working Together by Daniel Cowan
    Neighborhood Watch by Marcus Tremain
    The Winged Promise by Catherine Trouth
    Shacked Up by Justin Patrick Moore
    Courting Songs by Tam Hobbs
    At the End of the Gravel Road by Ben Johnson
    The Doctor and the Priestess by Violet Cabra
    A Nuclear Tale by Ron Mucklestone
    Come Home Ere Falls The Night by Troy Jones III
    Forest Princess by Al Sevcik
    Letters from the Ruins by C.J. Hobbs
    The Legend of Josette by KL Cooke
    That Which Cannot Be by David England

    JMG writes of this anthology, “Many stories have been written already about the approaching end of industrial civilization: about the great tragedies and the small triumphs, about struggles spread out across landscapes and struggles just as bitter within individual hearts, about the people who survive and the ones who don’t. One theme that’s been unfairly neglected in deindustrial fiction is love. As iconic SF author Theodore Sturgeon noted, the little things go on—and among those little things are human relationships, blossoming in the most unlikely settings. This anthology includes ten stories and three poems about love in the deindustrial future, by turns ethereal and earthy, traumatic and tender—but all of them ending with a promise of happily ever after…”

    Shaun Kilgore, the publisher, notes on his website “Due to the current world circumstances, we are experiencing some shipping delays for print book orders, especially international orders. Please be patient as we work though this. Thank you for your interest in our books.”

    If you can’t wait for the print book, go ahead and get the ebook too while you wait for the physical copy to manifest through the mail.

    The time is always now to catch up on your reading!

  15. Dulandrygyonous, I recommend The Old Farmer’s Almanac, the original (been in print for about 200 years).

  16. “The first is that the varied traditions that provided the raw materials of American magic didn’t remain the exclusive property of the ethnic groups that brought them to this continent.”

    I wonder which of those traditions influenced Paschal Beverly Randolph’s unique blend of teachings (other than the Eastern sources that he claimed to receive).

  17. Regarding the practice of backdating one’s new religion to the dawn of time: do you think it is possible to accomplish this in the present time? Does the widespread availability of information prevent the strategy from being used?

    My guess is it can still be done on a smaller scale, but not easily expand as far as Wicca and similar things have (e.g. Tom Brown and Carlos Castenada seem to have been doing something similar—but long ago enough that their teachers can conveniently dissappear and it is hard to show whether they existed or not). In a time with less information availability, even those with research skills had no way to fact-check these claims, but now I suspect it would be easier and that would hinder the widespread acceptance of such inventions.

    Thanks for these fascinating essays!

  18. Hi JMG & all, I don’t know if I told this story already, about the “Onion People”. Our friend Larry and his family hail from Snowball Arkansas, and he claims that a family there was referred to as the Onion family, because they used the odiferous allium to keep away sickness. Larry said that they all smelled like onions, but they were never ill. Dion Fortune says that onions, hung in windows, doorways, and set in vases on mantles keep away negative people and influences. Maybe English folk magic made it as far west as the Ozarks.

  19. Christopher, glad to hear it. It’s not something everyone needs to practice, of course, but as with most things, it’s good to know at least a little about the basics of its history and theory!

    Justin, thanks for the reminder.

    Minervaphilos, we’ll be getting to Randolph in due time. He’s one of the great figures of the history of American magic and no discussion of our theme would be complete without him — and yes, we’ll talk about his sources, some of which are known.

    Bewilderness, it’s a lot harder now, and it’s also less mandatory. When I became Grand Archdruid of AODA in 2003, I went to the other members of the Grand Grove (the governing body of the order) and suggested to them that it was high time that we stop pretending that modern Druidry is descended from the ancient Druids. They were horrified — they were all old-fashioned occultists, and were convinced that nobody would join if there wasn’t the lure of a faux-ancient pedigree — but I managed to talk them into it. As it turned out, that was the right thing to do; we got flooded with new applicants, many of whom said some variant of “Thank you for being honest about the history of your order, and not waving around fake ancestors!”

    Danaone, it certainly did. The first white settlers in the Ozarks came from the southern Appalachians in the very early 19th century, and they brought a great deal of Appalachian culture with them.

  20. Interesting essay. The history of occultism is a fascinating subject; I had no idea about 99% of it.

    Also of note, this past week I happened to be reading Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life (the first of his three autobiographies), which contains a rather astonishing TSW moment involving root magic. Equally astonishing was a footnote Douglass appended to the story which dismissed root magic as a “superstition … very common among the more ignorant slaves.”

    This book is available to read for free at Project Gutenberg, of course. The “root” story is in Chapter X.

  21. Related to the book. When, in the series of novels, does this book take place?

  22. Hi JMG & commentariat,

    Your essay got me thinking about cunning folk and geomancy -and also the practice of dowsing. Sometimes dowsing is used in studies of earth mysteries, but is there a formal connection to geomancy or something else in the lore?

    Thanks for your work and for hosting this comment space.

  23. Troy, that passage in Douglass’ Narrative is famous among hoodoo historians, partly because it documents a classic hoodoo working quite early on, and partly because of the very telling ambivalence in Douglass’ reaction. That kind of reaction is fairly common among people who are coming from a background rich in magic but trying to claim respectable status in the modern mainstream West…

    AV, it takes place between Dreamlands and Providence, and thus also between The Shoggoth Concerto and The Nyogtha Variations. In the 20-year chronology of the entire series, it’s in year 8.

    Justin, not that I know of. Dowsing’s an art all its own, though various forms of it have played a role in some American occult traditions.

  24. Regarding Woodcraft, would Seton’s book “The Birchbark Rolls of the Woodcraft Indians” be the best place to start? I’ve seen it referenced very briefly in discussions of Seton’s roll in the early Scouting movement. Do any commentators have other specific recommendations for Woodcraft books or histories?

    As a tangentially related issue, it struck me the other days that in some ways Scouting is quite Faustian, with the emphasis on achieving heights of personal improvement many peers never do and mastery of the natural world. And yet, it seems to me an unusually direct way of seeding young people with useful skills and potentially nurturing a biophilic outlook, personal responsibility, and perhaps even modeling fraternal organizations that nurture healthy and informed political engagement in adulthood. The current US parent organizations (BSA and GSUSA) are in a poor state and ultimately doomed in their current form, but it strikes me Scouting in general is something worth saving from being lost to the end of the Fautian period. My instinct as a loyal Girl Scout and recent Cub Scout parent is to serve as a Trojan element within the existing programs, as least locally, fostering the sort of outdoor/life skills/critical thinking heavy Scouting I want for children who might otherwise only get the bland stuff I find is now being served. But it seems necessary to ask if that the best course or are there any groups already doing that work? I’d be interested in Campfire, but it seems to have shriveled away in my part of the country. All of the other alternatives I’m aware of add and center an explicitly sectarian creed, either Evangelical or Liberal/Progressive, which isn’t of interest to me.

  25. I didn’t know physiognomy was a actual system of divination. Any good texts on the subject?

  26. With the rise of collapse and the coming dark age, one thing will bloom in particular. Magic! Why? Because it gives great benefit to those who practice it! While all they need is that they have a hand with people and their needs and in the simplest form someone you can learn it by watching.

    So many things we do not perceive. Definitely we all will go down to more essential necessities while collapse progresses. That what we humans always needed since we sprang into existence. Magic being one basic tool for a strong impact on our emotional well-being. Also a reason, why it is still widely practiced.

    JMG, I enjoy you so informatively describing some of its historical roots.

  27. Dear Mr. Greer – Here’s a blast from the past. Remember Sybil Leek? I suppose one of those 3d degree grannies, from the New Forest. I remember her hitting the talk show circuit, when I was a wee small lad. Entertaining, at least.

    I get the “Old Farmer’s Almanac Gardener’s Calendar,” every year. I discovered that the last page has some pretty easily navigated charts on planting by the moon. And, they take into account the regions in the US.

    I agree with Lathechuck. If nothing else, they keep me on schedule (more or less) for getting stuff in the ground. Lew

  28. Why was witchhunting in Russia so different to Europe and America? There it was far less intense and the majority of victims were men. I’ve heard it said that the witch craze missing them is part of the reason why Russian women are…the way they are. 🙂

  29. I had never considered that practicing occultism might have been one of the traditional ways of jumping class (upwardly, that is, not the Crowley collapse.) Given Nostradamus’ and Cayce’s meteoric rises, it makes perfect sense. How many well-to-do gentlemen grew enamored of the palm-reading, crystal-ball-gazing psychic they surreptitiously visited, and how many eventually married that dark beauty? Also, how many children born with a gift were moved from the slave quarters to the big house? Interesting.

    I have met quite a few charlatans posing as swamis and psychics to bilk their gullible dupes of any disposable income. But their impersonation rather proves the value of real swamis and psychics. Why would a con artist impersonate an occultist if some increase in status and wealth were not presumed to convey with that mimicry?

    As for writers slipping past barriers to social advancement, that potential perk pertains to all the creative arts. Artistic ability has always been coveted by those over-endowed with wealth and status but lacking in creative talent. Instead, they settle for trading artists back and forth amongst themselves like baseball cards, hoping to collect a whole set to house in their posh stables. I’ll trade you an Edith Piaf for a Kurt Cobain, a Bill Robinson for a Josephine Baker, a Princess Grace for an Oprah Winfrey, and a Keith Haring for a Banksy. Sometimes they grow so enamored they even wed one of the wild, creative beasts over the marked protests of their panicked relations.

    What is the common thread between proficiency in occult practices and artistic creativity that they both manage to open the well-guarded passages between the classes? Is writing particularly suited to advancing an occultist or are music making and sculpting equally advantageous? And, behind all the questions your last paragraph brought up for me, is creative inspiration always an occult practice at some level?

  30. @Lathechuck
    Well, I would not discount the fact that the moon has influence on the life on this planet.
    Check this one out:
    Mr. Thoma from Austria found out and tested, that it matters when in the cycle of the moon you need to harvest trees in order to get durable wood. Done correctly, it does not rot so fast.
    He learnt it from his grandpa and tried it out:
    Wood which was harvested at the wrong time started to rot, while the trees harvested at the correct time did not attract any insects. Both piles of wood were laying side by side in the same weather condition.
    Cool story!

  31. JMG – The thing I like about a rationalist explanation for agriculture by the almanac (or any other magic, really) is that the it gets results, whether there’s something more to it or not. If someone were to say “Well, I can’t do THAT. That’s not really MAGIC; that just works”, it would take a careful effort to untangle such perverse thinking. Perhaps rational acceptance is the gateway to deeper knowledge and practice.

  32. Re: your response to Dylandrogynous and this week’s post more generally.

    As a citizen of Lower Appalachia, I can tell you that “planting by the signs” is very much a living phenomenon today. Even in town almost all of my neighbors do it, though among the God-fearing – which is nearly everyone here – it’s couched in terms of the body rather than the heavens.

    “The signs are in the chest” is Christian code for “Moon in Cancer,” and so forth. For my part, as a practicing ritual and natural magician, I see no reason to mince words, but when speaking with others I immediately switch languages.

    I’ve been planting by the signs for three years now, and I’ve gone from being a good gardener to being considered a “green thumb.” My garden is easily the best one in any direction for at least a couple blocks. Though I know it has more to with green magic than the color of my thumbs…

    Combined with some of my other…activities, I’m well on my way to becoming a cunning man.

    Enjoyed this post!

  33. “Cunning”, aka, “Kenning”, “Knowing.” That is to say the “Wise Woman”, man, etc.

    So when we need to know something or wish to learn it, we go to wise people of knowing? Sounds super-mystical. So think of this in Colonial times straight back through time past the Bronze age. I want to know which of two perfectly plausible paths to take: who would I ask? A wise person of knowledge. Just like today. And honestly, the “logical” “scientific” answers today’s wise guys give aren’t much better and often far worse. Certainly Economists, war planners, and the WHO have proven they just make things up out of pure feelings and desires with no interest in facts. In that way, astrology and ‘magic’ are far better than just picking whatever facts to sell your ego’s pre-determined conclusion. They are the new priests of a corrupt, inferior religion. Paid science. PAC think-tanks. Who will you worship? Who do you think wise?

    Note this all ruins the “mud-moving peasant” trope from “The Holy Grail.” These people were generally literate and had money enough to buy books when they wished. Like today. The priests of the science and logic religion are lying. John Francis was a free black man, respected, literate, popular business owner to all in 1795 America. That racist, terrible country where every man was a slave. The priests of science and history are lying. He was openly practicing magic in that oppressive, Puritanical, Christian, intolerant, all-English America. The priests of science and history are lying. Lying about the competition? To puff up themselves and create phony legitimacy for their pass-poor history, science, and ruinous, self-serving advice? What are the odds?

    If they say “Russia!” “Communism!” “Capitalism!” “Science says!” do their spells then work?

    If Root Magic never works, because it isn’t real, how come every culture on earth has one and almost everybody has always done it? Are we saying 100% of people can’t tell their own eyes and don’t know true from false? That’s seems evolutionary unlikely.

  34. One of the things which makes Jaspers comment relevant is the Corona crisis, where governments, experts and the mass media have wrought such a confusion of mutually incompatible data that this crisis may be the last nail in the coffin of the credibility of mass media.

    And @JMG, I’m not sure how much power can a single spell, spoken out once, have? Or were the magical practices, to which the spells in the almanacs belonged, more complex?

  35. More information on Seton. His autobiography “Ernest Thompson Seton: Trail of an Artist Naturalist” published by Wind Rush in 2015 with a forward by his granddaughter Julie Seton. Contains photos and illustrations. Don’t judge by current standards–before flash photography killing birds and animals in order to draw them (also for scientific study) was common and accepted. He had quite an adventurous and rough life. When he turned 21 his father produced a detailed account of all the costs of his upbringing and demanded to be repaid!! He did too. Took him several years.

    Seton’s book “The Gospel of the Redman” was published in 1936. It has been reissued by World Wisdom Press in 2005 as part of their Spiritual Classics series., with a forward and cover illustration by Native American artist and author Paul Goble

    Seton wrote dozens of nature books and the back pages of “The Gospel—” lists many. I noted many woodcraft titles such as “how to Play Indian” “How to Make a Real Indian Teepee” ” How Boys Can Form a Band of Indians” The Birch Bark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians, “A Handbook of Woodcraft, Scouting, and Life-Craft, Including General Sir Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys” “Woodcraft Manual for GIrls” “The Laws and Honors of the Little Lodge of Woodcraft” and “The Brownie Wigwam: The Rules of the Brownies.” Most of these date to the era 1900-1920. If anyone wants to hunt them down I would suggest asking your local Boy Scout Council whether they have a library or history museum.

    I read the autobiography and the way Seton got interested in teaching woodcraft skills to boys was that some local kids were vandalizing his property. Rather than turn them in to the authorities he told them to show up for a meeting to learn about camping skills and to his surprise the original boys came and brought many friends. The introduction to this edition of “Gospel–” by Seton’s adopted daughter, Dee Seton Barber, describes Seton’s involvement in the development of the various youth organizations.

    On the subject of magic in America I mentioned this over on the dreamwidth blog, but will repeat it here. America Bewtiched: Witchcraft after Salem by Owen Davies discusses the witchcraft beliefs brought to the US by immigrants and found here among the Native Americans, and the ways in which people persecuted those that they believed were causing them harm when the courts would no longer do so. This is the same Owen Davies who has written on the cunning man and grimoire traditions in England.


  36. Hello JMG) and commentariat) I have been thinking about 2 things in this week’s post.
    The first is the reference to the Foxfire series of books, and how it relates a bit to the discussion of education last week. I read the Foxfire books back when I was a beginning teacher, and what amazed me the most about them is that the books started as a class project. An English teacher at a school with a mix of local kids, and boarding kids, taught his students the basics of anthropological interviews and sent them out to interview folks. The had, iirc, reel to reel tape recorders and DSLR cameras, and they recorded history, at the age of 16 and 17. Over the years, I have attempted to create assignments that would inspire the way Foxfire had. It is easier said than done- it isn’t just having the recording equipment.
    The second thing I have been thinking about is the “superstition” in Tom Sawyer. At (I think) Violet’s recommendation, I picked up a copy. Actually, scratch that, the week after VIolet wrote about Tom Sawyer being an American archetype, a copy of the book was sitting on the shelf at the thrift store I frequent. I also bought a translation of Plato’s republic, and a copy of the Upanishads. TSW.
    In rereading Tom Sawyer, I focused on how liminal he is- he is parentless, although he does have an aunt to take care of him, he is smart, but not as smart as he thinks he is, he is on the verge of puberty. Huck is completely outside society, Joe is completely inside, and Tom is in the doorway. He is convinced that there must be magic spells going on, and is consistently disappointed when they don’t work. It strikes me that the character believes what the adult Mark Twain doesn’t, but I wonder if when he was a kid, he had…
    All this to say- thank you Violet for getting me back into Tom Sawyer- there is more there than meets the eye.
    Christophe- interesting thoughts about artist trading cards- I’ll have to meditate on that one…

  37. Thanks for this blog post. It seems to be the magic that calls my name more than root work. I have a fair amount of very basic astrology – enough to go by the data in my We’Moon daybook. Today: Sun in Taurus, of course, full moon in Scorpio, square Mars, opposing Mercury, etc. Not much herb knowledge, and a fair amount of basic Golden Dawn ceremonial magic. But British Traditional does call my name.

  38. @ Christophe,

    There has been scientific study of psychics and they cosistently yield pretty interesting results. People tend to have a closer psychic sense of eachother if they know eachother better, with twins being the most able to sense each other. Also, creative people tend to have stronger psychic abilities with musicians being the most psychic of the creative types.

    Of course, rational scientists have debunked all these studies, so they must not be meaningful in any way 😉


    Jessi Thompson

  39. Buzzy, yes, that’s a very good way to start. You might also see if you can find either or both of his children’s novels, Two Little Savages and Rolf in the Woods, which were also (in fictionalized form) about Woodcraft. I’m hoping that someday, somebody dusts off the Woodcraft system in America and puts it back into operation, with the modest changes that would be needed to update it to the present natural and legal environment; it’s no less needed now than it was in Seton’s time.

    Lincoln, nothing that I know of for about the last century, but if you visit this website you can find quite a bit on that and other trad occult topics.

    Hubertus, exactly. That’s the reason that rationalism, appealing though it is to intellectuals, always ends up collapsing of its own weight: people practice magic because magic works

    Lew, good heavens, yes. She did very well for herself when Gardner’s invention hit the big time.

    Yorkshire, it’s a different culture, so of course the concepts of witchcraft will be different!

    Christophe, I’m not sure why it is that so many occultists have also been writers, but it’s pretty consistently writing rather than music, painting, or what have you. As for the arts and occultism, there are certainly connections, but rather than saying that all the arts are forms of occultism, I’d say that occultism is one of the creative arts!

    Lathechuck, it can be, but rational explanations also very often lead to people pruning down their magic to fit within the narrow bounds of rationalism, after which the magic very often stops working. So it’s not necessarily the best approach in all cases.

    Grover, that’s a good point. That little drawing of the human body connected to the signs is found in just about every old-fashioned almanac, and it doesn’t surprise me that it’s used to avoid talking about astrology!

  40. Jasper, exactly. Exactly.

    Booklover, it depends very much on context. What kind of spell, where and when do you speak it, and how much power is available to flow into the spell?

    Rita, many thanks for all of this.

    Katsmama, quite a number of people in other parts of the country tried to copy the Foxfire formula, and some good material came out of it, but nothing on the same scale. It’s a fascinating case study.

    Patricia M, a lot of trad American folk magic ended up slipping into the British occult scene in various ways, so that doesn’t surprise me at all.

  41. Speaking of Seton and “How boys can form a band if Indians,” I have never forgotten what Albuquerque’s Musical Theater Southwest did with Tiger Lily and her Indians in their production of Peter Pan. The young actors were dressed in costume-shop Indian Girl costumes and were played as the exact equivalent of the Lost Boys – very Anglo-looking Lost Girls forming their own made-up tribe in Never-never land. Inspired! Because the novel Peter Pan was, of course, very, very boy-centered, though Wendy was a stout young heroine all the same. And logically, of course, there would be Lost Girls!

    Anyway, Seton sounds interesting, and worth looking up, and wish I;d heard of Woodcraft forty years ago. Girls Scouts was somewhat blah, and seemed totally centered on cookie sales. These days, now they have great big badges handed out by tourist attractions sewn on their vests for – visiting said attractions!

  42. Darlest Yorkshire asks:

    “Why was witchhunting in Russia so different to Europe and America? There it was far less intense and the majority of victims were men.”

    This is because the Russian Orthodox Church is a very, very different sort of Christianity than any Western European form of that religion.

    To begin with, Russian Orthodox parish priests must all be married men. If a parish priest’s wife dies, he must give up his parish forthwith. (He may not remarry, but as a rule will enter a monastery.) So women are not such mysterious, alien and fearsome creatures to Russian Orthodox priests as they are to many clerics in the West.

    Also, the Russian Orthodox eucharistic liturgy is a communal action: in theory, other people must be present as a congregation–however vestigial–for the priest to be able to celebrate the Eucharist (that is, what Catholics call the Mass) at all. He is not supposed to celebrate it entirely alone, in his room or his church by himself.

    So laity and clergy do not constitute anything like different “nations” inhabiting the same territory. (In the West you can actually find texts saying that clergy are a distinct nation, quite apart from the common nations: the common nations have their own proper (vernacular) languages, while the separate nation of clerics has its own proper language, too, namely Latin.)

    Moreover, there was nothing in the history of Russia al all like the schism in the West between Catholic and Protestant forms of Christianity. There was hardly any witch-hunting in the West before the tensions between those two visions of Christianity became sharp, and then absolutely divisive. The rise of witch-hunts had a lot to do with finding easy scapegoats to relieve intolerable anxieties about doom and destruction which seemsd to hang heavily over everyone’s head in the West at that time. This is true even of the witch-hunts in the North American British colonies in the later 1600s–anxieties about war with Native Americans and/or with British authorities trying to increase their control over colonies that had become increasingly independent of the Crown in fact, if not in law.

    And in Europe the world seemed much more perilous than it did in Russia. In Europe the 1500s and most of the 1600s were an age of bloody total warfare, usually over matters of religion, but also over hidden competition for sources of wealth and power. It was an awful time for the small-fry, caught between whole avalanches of rocks and all the hard places on which those rocks fell. The political situation in Russia was quite different in those same centuries, and the future looked far more promising to ordinary Russians than it did to common folk in the West. So there was less need to seek and find scape-goats.

  43. I had a really weird dream. An important-looking female personage in a fantastically beautiful kimono informed me that my vocation, aside from motherhood, is as one of the “Keepers of the Seasons,” with a vocation to teach young girls and women the wheel of the year—not so much the big seasonal holidays, most people know the trappings of those, but the little things people these days, especially city folk, often don’t know how to perceive.

    Now, I wouldn’t mind doing this. It sounds like great fun. (Few things are more delightful than the look on the face on the child peering through a magnifying glass for the fitst time.). But I’ve never heard of these Keepers of the Seasons. Are they real? I figured if anyone would know, someone here would.

  44. Katsmama (and JMG) – Re: the Foxfire books. The project founder, Eliot Wigginton, plead guilty to one count of child molestation in 1992, 26 years after starting the project (according to Wikipedia). There’s no mention of adult family life, so I assume that he was unmarried. I’d like to think that he was simply able to pour a lot of energy into the project, without the distractions and obligations of married life, but it’s possible that he used the project as a vehicle to get access to the kids. Either way, he seems to have been a character uniquely suited to running a project like Foxfire, and there may have been more to his formula for success than meets the eye, more than one would really want to duplicate.

  45. Patricia, hmm! That’s a very nice spin on Peter Pan. As for the Girl Scouts, that’s sad — definitely somebody needs to get the Woodcraft League up and running again.

    Your Kittenship, it’s quite common for something to take shape in the realm of dreams and imagination before it becomes real on the material plane. Maybe it’s part of your work to make it real.

    Lathechuck, alternatively, the project and its success may have been unrelated to whatever was behind the charges and the guilty plea…

  46. I remember all of my middle school history classes starting with the question, “Why is it important to learn history?” It was clear to me at the time that the teacher was desperate to provoke some kind, any kind of interest in history, which my classmates had already written off as worthless and boring.

    The only answer that consistently came up was, “So we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.” The answer never sat right with me, and certainly didn’t touch on why I liked history.

    Decades later, I’m even less satisfied with that answer. It’s clearly untrue – we have access to an immense amount of historical material, and yet we’re making so many of the same mistakes. More, it’s the so-called educated, managerial classes who are currently making the mistakes. Donald Trump, who I earnestly doubt has read a book in the past decade, seems far less shackled by history and far less prone to mistakes than Obama, who read a book a week while in the White House.

    I like the answer, “You need to know history to understand the present, and to understand the future.” JMG’s answer, “Learn history to expand the choices available to you,” is one I’ve never seen outside of his writing.

    But more than that, going back to the act of educating kids in history, appreciating history requires a leap of the imagination. It takes a leap to understand that the Romans and the Scythians and the Aztecs all truly saw the world in different ways than we do, and to understand the scale and intensity of so many events in history.

    And I think this idea lies squarely in one of the weak spots of our educational system and our culture. Looking from the outside, we try to crush the imagination out of kids, and we try to portray history as a sort of uniform, monotone assembly line leading to the inevitable and perfect result of 21st Century American capitalism.

    (I apologize if this comment gets submitted twice, something went haywire in the comment box.)

  47. @Buzzy,

    My opinion on the teleology of the scouting movement (and scouting is something I did as a boy, Eagle at age 15) is that it is a creature of the industrial age. Basically, as people like Lord Baden Powell, living
    in the early days of the petroleum age, saw the youth of the nation becoming more and more estranged from the natural world, they founded institutions designed to do something about it. People flocked to their movement because they wanted a way to preserve the old skills and attitudes pastimes among an increasingly urban population.

    But before that time, there wasn’t any need for a formal organization in which children would venture out of the city every so often to learn woodcraft, catch fish, and tell stories around a campfire. It was just a seamless part of life that didn’t much thinking about.

    If the deindustrial age plays out the way that this blog’s audience generally think it will, the idea of a boy scout camp will eventually pass into history as one of the more surprising consequences of a forgotten way of life.

  48. Dear John Michael Greer,

    In one of your comments above you write:

    “Lincoln, nothing that I know of for about the last century, but if you visit this website you can find quite a bit on that and other trad occult topics.” The link to “this website” being

    HOLY MEGA-MOLY! That is the International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals (IAPSOP). I visited the website, and found it to be a major archive of immense importance for anyone interested in researching the history of metaphysical religion. And as the author of such a history (Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual) I well know how challenging it can be to track down relevant books and magazines from the early 20th century and late 19th. That is to say, I know how valuable such an archive can be to scholars, and, alas, how little interest most institutional libraries would have in such collections. Bravo to the IAPSOP! And thank you for mentioning this.

  49. JMG — It seems that my current obligatory stay-at-home lifestyle does not have as much reading time as I had hoped! However, I’m almost done reading “Arkham,” so I should probably order the new book now. 😉 Your narritive structure reminds me somewhat of George MacDonald. (I just pulled “Lilith”, “Phantastes”, and “The Light Princess” off my shelf to make sure I was spelling his name correctly)

    Lady Cutiekitten, there are so many ways that dream could turn into something inspirational and educational! At its most internet-dependent, an instagram feed with pictures of nature things and a little bit of explanation. I’ve been told by a teenager that the tags #cottagecore and #farmcore are full pics of pretty nature and such. Surely that is ripe for a little bit of subversion? There are plenty of other more physical options, I’d read the four-volume cycle of books!

  50. Hi John Michael,

    Hear! Hear! Anyone that can slip the word ‘slumgullion’ into a sentence and in context is all right by me! 😉

    You’re in my natural world here!

    This essay is rather timely for me as I’m paid to do this stuff and of late it has taken a chunk out of my personal energy. Years ago I thought my profession was about numbers, but it really is about people. I have to walk into a room and cold read the room and then decide whether to inform, entertain, admonish or perhaps some combination of those skills. It’s not for everyone, but I enjoy living by my wits and whatever forms in my mind I generally go with and don’t fight or ignore.

    Of course influences have been derived from all over the shop, but the school of hard knocks has really honed skills. And occasionally I’m surprised and caught flat-footed. The recent events that dare not be named have really cast a bizarre light on things. Really, really strange, but also quite informative. Oh well.

    Interestingly I regularly come across plenty of personalities that are very strong, and sometimes I act the paige, other times I’m the adversary, and other times again I pull out the wizard card. It is really complicated and challenging, but I also love it.

    Plain old fashioned good advice rarely goes out of fashion.

    And yes, reading peoples faces and interpreting the tone of their voice is a useful skill when considering their deeper internal state. 😉



  51. Robert Mathiessen, if you have read Evgeni Vodolazkin’s “Laurus”, what do you think of it? It takes place mostly in Russia from 1440-1520, at the beginning of the period you are discussing. Most clerics in this book happen to be monks, not parish priests, but the priest’s wife does make an appearance. Peoples’ outlook on life seems to be rather grim because of the plague, which I didn’t know was still that dangerous 150 years after the great Black Death. There is something akin to a witch hunt in the book, but it is more of an attempted lynch mobbing by peasants during a famine.

    By the way, I am always a bit surprised by the number of commenters here who have either a personal connection to, or knowledge of, the Russian Orthodox church!

  52. A couple of points:

    1) Mr. Greer, I found this site recently which you will definitely find interesting;

    2) I’m not very well-versed with occultism and other paranormal things, but my late grandfather (who identified as a person who didn’t believe in any deity, but he believed in the power of Mother Nature) had once met a traditional yogi near the Himalayan town of Rishikesh, who rattled off all the scientific names (of different plant species) which my grandfather had written down on a piece of paper and then put it in his pocket, all the while maintaining a good distance from the yogi. This yogi was a person who had absolutely no grasp of English, let alone botany (he probably never even went to school).

    Thanks for this blog, Mr. Greer. I’ve learned a lot here.

  53. “In England and the American colonies in the 17th century, a witch was a person so full of malevolent power that he or she could bring ill-luck on people, livestock, or crops simply by looking at them. (The southern European tradition of the “evil eye” is a closely related belief.)  Ministers and educated people believed that witches made pacts with the Devil, but the folk belief was far simpler: some people are just so nasty it spills off them, and we call them witches.”

    Interesting how the perception of what a witch is has changed. Lots of Wiccans like to present the witches of old as “wise women” who were persecuted because they threatened male power. Now while some of them could be far from harmless, isn’t it true that many accused of being witches were just hapless victims of jealousy or were considered easy prey as they were unmarried or widows?

    Is there any good book on witch hunts that gives the facts and not the nonsense put about by the likes of Starhawk that millions of “wise women” were burned at the stake? Were the cunning folk ever victimized?

  54. Hello John Michael, definitely some synchronicity with this post.

    Just last weekend, my father and I went over to my aunt’s* house to help her with some minor mechanical stuff, and they got talking about old times. It turns out that when my aunt’s sister was quite young**, she had some sort of illness, which was interpreted by her grandmother (my great-grandmother) as the evil eye. What my aunt called an exorcism, but I suspect would be more properly called a banishing ritual then transpired and my other aunt recovered shortly thereafter (and to this day).

    It was believed that the evil eye was spread by blue-eyed folk, though neither my aunt or father were clear whether it was intentional. It seems that my great-grandmother would also do divination with coffee grounds from the small cups of hair-growingly strong Greek coffee. Evidently these things were pretty standard practices in rural Greece in the early 20th century, and they were brought here to the US at that time***. Alas, I don’t know how much of it has survived. I asked some questions, but neither really knew any more than what I’ve recounted here.

    Also, they both said they considered such practices to be contrary to Christianity as they understood it. I kept my mouth shut on that one.

    Thanks for teaching us a bit about magical history.


    * Technically she’s my father’s cousin, but as she’s 20 years older than me, I’ve always addressed her as “aunt”.

    ** This would have been the early 1950’s.

    *** They came over shortly after the Balkan War, so 1914-16-ish.

  55. @Buzzy: Since the lockdown here in the states I’ve been taking my grandson out on weekly “Field Trip Fridays” that usually involve some skateboarding on the one hand & a hike on the other, along with visits to places of local historical interest. I just got him a subscription to Boys Life magazine too, as I’m trying to nurture that aspect of him. I thought about getting involved in the Scout’s with him, but haven’t been totally sure. I reached Star scout level, before I got sidetracked by the fairer sex and the skateboarding & punk movement I became immersed in, among other things. But I always enjoyed my time as a scout and really think it did well for me. I was planning on developing some of my own activities -and I do have at least one book by Seton to start with (Woodland Tales). Also the Keepers of the Animals books by Joseph Bruhac & co may be a good place too. There are plenty of resources to draw from…He will be 10 in October.

    …and as far as this may relate to last weeks discussion on education, perhaps getting the idea of #fieldtripfridays out to folks would be good. Even when I go back to work at the library I still plan on keeping this up in some form with him. (We went last night on Thursday though because it was raining today. I took him to a 19th century springhouse that has been kept in tact in the neighborhood grew up, then we skated for an hour+, and then I took him back and forth across the Ohio river on the only commercial ferry in Cincinnati… then up to another park with a great views of the river & city)

    @JMG: I think the resuscitation of Woodcraft sounds like a good idea. Not that that is something I am going to do myself, but I will be looking to collect more books by Seton.For adults Brett McKay started something I myself have been interested in doing… it’s one of those courses / activities that is on the list:

    @Wesley: Who says cities are going anywhere? The (post)-industrial nature of the city may change, but the cities, at least some of them, will stay. (Here is an article on the 12 oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world: ) So I think something like Woodcraft & Scouting in some form will still be useful, especially in the decades ahead. A couple hundred years ago you could still find people who were more urban than rural in their skillset. Something like Woodcraft or scouting would be a useful system youth & their parents & elders. In the interim stages of decline it would especially serve as a tool for reskilling and awakening the wonders of nature among city children. In my own experience it seems like kids have a lot less freedom to roam anymore than they did when I was my grandsons age (9 1/2).

    –The Strenous Life–

    As always there is ever much to do, so many projects. Perhaps something like the Strenous Life could be retooled for kids. I wouldn’t be surprised if something like that arouse out of the Strenous Life graduates.

    “The Strenuous Life is a platform for those who wish to revolt against our age of ease, comfort, and existential weightlessness. It is a base of operations for those who are dissatisfied with the status quo and want to connect with the real world through the acquisition of skills that increase their sense of autonomy and mastery. It’s for those who desire more challenge. Who want to stretch themselves and do hard things. Who want to experience life firsthand rather than secondhand.

    The Strenuous Life pushes members to take action on these desires to live more strenuously, and holds members accountable in their goal of becoming better men. It facilitates the training of mind, body, and soul, motivating members to leave the strata of mediocrity and attain to greater excellence and service in the world.”


  56. RE: Scouting, Woodcraft, Strenous Life, etc.

    …also another possible model for a Woodcraft / Scouting like movement would be something based on the school for boy warriors mentioned in some of the tales of the Ulster Cycle.

  57. Cliff, that’s an excellent point — or rather an excellent series of points. To my mind, the purpose of learning history is that it gives a much more expansive sense of what it means to be human, and a much wider range of options for living, than any one culture or era can provide. Modern industrial society in particularly is a suffocatingly narrow mental monoculture — and that monoculture is enforced by exactly that effort to crush the historical imagination that you’ve described. Effective subversion against the existing order thus begins in a sense of the “otherness” of past eras and cultures — and thus a recognition that we don’t have to live the way we live now.

    Lew, that depends. Do you mean scrying in a crystal or mirror, or scrying in the imagination?

    C.M., excellent. If you do some poking around on that site you’ll find an archive of old occult correspondence courses, too…

    Sylvia, good heavens. That’s very high praise. Thank you.

    Chris, fascinating. That makes sense, though it’s not something I would have thought of.

    Rajat, Low Tech Magazine is great stuff. As for your grandfather’s story, that doesn’t surprise me at all. The mind has capacities that current scientific models don’t account for.

    Bridge, I haven’t looked into the literature on the witch hunts for a while, but in the 1990s there were starting to be good historical studies on the subject. The reinvention of the term “witch” was one of Gerald Gardner’s really clever moves, since a lot of middle class people in the Anglophone world wanted a way to feel transgressive and shocking without actually doing anything that might threaten their class status, and saying “I am a witch!” was tailor made for that market. It also fed into the Oppression Olympics, the constant struggle to claim to be the most oppressed group of all; the Wiccans who claimed that nine million women were burnt at the stake were trying to stake a claim in that struggle, with the number very carefully chosen to exceed a certain other very famous mass killing. (The actual number of witches who were put to death for witchcraft in Europe, according to the most recent estimates I’ve seen, was around 50,000.)

    Steve, how fascinating! Not surprising at all — the evil eye and traditions relating to it were very deeply rooted all over the Mediterrean basin — but fascinating. Thank you.

    Justin, many thanks for the heads up on — that’s something very, very badly needed right now. I hope it catches on in a big way.

  58. Thanks, Sylvia! That’s a good idea and a person could commit to it without doing anything big.

  59. Regarding Strenuouslife, if it’s not off-topic; Those badges sound really interesting, and preferable by far to the “fight club” sort of approach to a somewhat similar aim. (Maybe SCA is another such attempt.) I was in Boy Scouts many years ago. What caused me to lose interest and drop out was an inordinate amount of time spent during our weekly meetings with the scoutmaster apparently trying to turn our troop into some sort of drill team. It must have been laziness or a lack of imagination on his part…. My older brother, older by five years, had been an “explorer scout” and he still talks about a memorable canoe trip he and his friends took to the boundary waters area in northern Minnesota. I’d have liked that.

  60. One thing that keeps standing out to me in this series of posts is the way that magical practices have regularly crossed borders and cultural groups. It sounds like magicians throughout the ages have not been shy about appropriating magical practices from any source that was not nailed down, and for the ones that were nailed down, they simply got out their pry bars.

    I have been faced with the issue of cultural appropriation with some of the arts that I have studied; West African drumming and dance probably my main example. Despite my interest and appreciation, I was often conflicted about whether I had any right to be practicing and earning money from those arts. Why should I as a white person and a foreigner profit from something that was clearly so entrenched in a culture and society that was not in any way mine? I had an old (white) drumming friend who wound up becoming a professor of African Percussion at a prominent university, and it never sat quite right with me. I also felt that practicing those arts out of context was in some ways disrespectful of the society that had initially created them, as they had a highly spiritual dimension which was generally left out here in North America.

    So where is the line between drawing influences from another cultural group, which has always happened, and outright appropriation? Is cultural appropriation only an issue when someone from a privileged group appropriates from a disadvantaged group? In some ways, it sounds like the people and groups who claim their particular form of magic goes back seventeen generations of witchy grandmothers are somehow trying to justify that it is okay for them to be practicing that particular form, while inadvertently advertising an admission of guilt that perhaps they really are just engaging in cultural appropriation. Is appropriation even a legitimate issue or just a normal part of how culture evolves and changes? It sounds like magic has often been used for personal benefit – oftentimes to help make ends meet in a difficult life – which makes it hard to make an accusation of appropriation. Then there’s the use of magic for personal transformation, which I do see as something which is potentially available to everyone, if they choose to embark on the path. Is magic something that could be considered as universal to all humans? Does everyone have equal right to practice it, to borrow practices from everyone and everywhere? Do mages who have started to gain some inner wisdom perceive humanity as all existing in a shared universe, and thus have not had any issues with taking practices from other cultures and groups?

    It seems your post has raised more questions than answers for me at the moment!

  61. @JPM, Buzzy re Scouting,

    Perhaps I wasn’t clear in my earlier comment – I certainly don’t mean to imply that nothing at all resembling scouting or woodcraft will exist in the future.

    On the other hand, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those movements appeared at the beginning of the 20th century, during an era of rapid and unprecedented urbanization and industrialization, and where, at the same time, mass popular movements of all sorts were flourishing.

    So there are always going to be cities, and there are always going to be city boys who meet together in bands to go out in the wilderness and chase adventure. What I don’t think we are going to see a repeat of is the sheer scale and the degree of formal, nationwide organization that movements like Baden Powell’s involved. (I know almost nothing about Seton’s movement, but from what I do know it seems to have been more decentralized and thus a better model for the ecotechnic future).

    In the meantime, of course we should strive to preserve everything good that could be found in the scouting movement. I was a boy scout myself and if at all possible, I want my sons to have a like experience.

    @JMG, I really, really appreciate that idea that we should study history because the past is full of good things. The “learn history or repeat it” line is such a dreary and shallow view.

    The big question to ask when we look at our country’s past (or any nation’s past, for that matter) isn’t “are we making the same mistakes that those people made?” (The answer is usually no, because we’re making different mistakes). If you look at the past and see bad things which no longer exist (which you will: slavery, Naziism, etc.) then the goal should be to learn from the people who solved those problems, and then say: “Well, they were willing to do hard things THEN; what hard things am I willing to do NOW?”

    For a lot of people here, that seems to be some variant of unplugging yourself from an unsustainable system and learning to live in a more energy-restricted world. And that’s how you learn the lessons of history – not by pulling down a Confederate statue to show how much you hate an ideology that no longer wields any power.

  62. Hey jmg

    You mentioned the “Wheel of Pythagoras” in this weeks essay.

    I have an old book on divination called “The complete book of fortune” which not only describes a method similar to the wheel which uses a modified wheel of the zodiac, but also an Arabic divination involving magic squares which you spin like a top then stab with a stick with your eyes closed to pick a number.

    Are you aware of this divination technique? it is called zairja or zairgeh by the way.

  63. Phutatorius, one of the pervasive problems with Scouting is that it’s run by the adults, with very little feedback from the kids. Woodcraft was set up to be largely run by the kids, under adult supervision. That makes all the difference in the world — and among other things, it keeps Scoutmasters with dumb ideas from ruining a group.

    Stefania, to my mind it depends on the attitude of the people whose traditions we’re discussing. I spent ten years studying a traditionai tai chi style; my teachers were white Americans, but their teachers were Chinese, and the Chinese martial arts community where I lived was enthusiastically in favor of teaching what they knew to anybody who was interested in learning it. It’s not cultural appropriation if the culture in question thinks it’s appropriate! On the other hand, I’ve avoided doing anything with Native American spiritual traditions because the great majority of Native American people I know are not okay with having these shared with whites; that’s their call, and they get to make it as they wish.

    So my question to you is this: what is the attitude of West African teachers of drumming and dance to white people studying what they have to teach? If they’re good with it, it’s hardly your place to tell them that they’re wrong, you know.

    That same principle applies to magic. We have plenty of well-documented cases of people in one ethnic magical tradition teaching what they know to people of other ethnic backgrounds. When Johannes Kelpius taught his magic to Christopher Witt, that crossed a line — the line between German and English — which is still a significant ethnic division in some parts of Pennsylvania. Similarly, the black hoodoo practitioners who gave Cat Yronwode her considerable knowledge of hoodoo were crossing a line that means more to a lot of people these days — and she crossed another boundary in passing it on to me, since she’s Jewish and I’m not. I didn’t worry about it; I focused on doing what was required of me as a student. I’d encourage you to consider whether that approach might work for you.

    J.L.Mc12, no, I haven’t encountered that specific method, but I’ve seen many others that are more or less like it.

  64. @Wesley: re-scouting, etc. I probably got a little overzealous in my response. I get your main point & understand what you mean. Congrats on being an Eagle Scout, btw. You are in good company, with those who achieved it. It’s an achievement I really respect.

    I do think it will be interesting to see -especially in America, maybe, where we have vast wild places close to many cities- and cities with extensive park systems, how much deindustrialization will return people to things such as you mentioned -fishing for example, could become again just a matter of course, even in a city, if its streams and ponds, etc. are better cared for. & also as you said the scale of these movements may be smaller, or at least if they are national, they may be decentralized. I’m no Freemason expert, but from what I understand each lodge was originally autonomous until the first Grand Lodge came into being. From what friends who are masons told me I think that each lodge is still autonomous in terms of their own finances, etc. and they report to a Grand State Lodge…
    …either way, a scouting type organization could be modeled on something like Freemason, in that it could be modular, scaling up to coordinate with larger bodies, but decentralized and fiercely local at that local level.

  65. “Bridge, I haven’t looked into the literature on the witch hunts for a while, but in the 1990s there were starting to be good historical studies on the subject. The reinvention of the term “witch” was one of Gerald Gardner’s really clever moves, since a lot of middle class people in the Anglophone world wanted a way to feel transgressive and shocking without actually doing anything that might threaten their class status, and saying “I am a witch!” was tailor made for that market. It also fed into the Oppression Olympics, the constant struggle to claim to be the most oppressed group of all; the Wiccans who claimed that nine million women were burnt at the stake were trying to stake a claim in that struggle, with the number very carefully chosen to exceed a certain other very famous mass killing. (The actual number of witches who were put to death for witchcraft in Europe, according to the most recent estimates I’ve seen, was around 50,000.) ”

    I remember the documentary ‘The Burning Times’ that made more or less this claim. Though my knowledge of the witch burnings is a little flimsy I definitely remember reading in one source that a there were a sizeable minority of men also executed for witchcraft (though yes most of them were women). Correct me if I’m wrong here. Do you know much more about this?

  66. I believe I mentioned in an earlier post how the concept of “cultural appropriation” began with Native Americans as expressed through the American Indian Movement in the late 1960s and 1970s and was condemned in various international declarations of indigenous rights by the 1990s (See here

    I later found out that the issue of “cultural appropriation” or “appropriation of voice” split Canadian feminist writers as far back as the late 1980s. There was actually a TV program on it as far back as 1990 (

    Michael Lind has an interesting article on the subject here (

  67. Bridge (and JMG if you’re interested)

    “Interesting how the perception of what a witch is has changed. Lots of Wiccans like to present the witches of old as “wise women” who were persecuted because they threatened male power. Now while some of them could be far from harmless, isn’t it true that many accused of being witches were just hapless victims of jealousy or were considered easy prey as they were unmarried or widows?”

    I find it rather interesting to read about how the witch burning coincided roughly with the large scale enclosure of common land and the uprooting of the english peasantry from their traditional country way of life. It also coincides, as Oswald Spengler observed with the rise of puritanism, and turning the battle against evil into one of hatred, one of evil having a precise physical location.

    Basically frail old women were a symbol and a practical reality of the old indigenous ways, and were thus targeted in witch hunts (stereotypically the magic power of old women is the strongest, since men are physically masculine but spiritual feminine, and women are spiritually masculine but physically feminine). What should also be noted here the era of witch hunts also coincides roughly with the ritual execution of the wild man (as Robert Bly would have put it). Women are taught to shame themselves, men are taught to be cold unfeeling soldiers of empire and industrial workers. (I’m making vast generalisations here I know, I’m just trying to articulate some half formed thoughts)

  68. @BB

    Even in Europe, it’s not entirely consistent. In Iceland, far more men were executed as witches than women.

  69. BB: That “documentary” showed the worst scholarship I have ever seen in a PBS documentary. First, they cherry-picked the incidents from the very beginning of the Middle Ages, when many tribes and nations were Christianized at sword’s point, and smushed them together with the witch crazes of the 15th and 16th centuries as if there had been nothing in between. Imagine running the landing at Jamestown together with the Trump Administration with notching in between! Which is a favorite comic-relief trope of s/f writers dealing with a far-future lecture’s tendency to do exactly the same thing.

    I was taking Medieval History when that mockumentary came out and made my opinion known. It didn’t make me vary popular with my circlemates who were watching it with me!

  70. @Matthias Gralle

    No, I haven’t read “Laurus.” (I’m a medievalist; post-Petrine Russian literature and culture don’t attract me very much.) The author’s right about the late 1400s and early 1500s, though. Things were still fairly grim then.

  71. Re: Importance of history

    I have long felt that history, sociology, political sciences, ethnology, archaeology and some other disciplines are all part of one single field: they all investigate how human beings can live together. And since human beings cannot live their entire life alone, this means they investigate how human beings can live, full stop.

    The delimitations of the disciplines are because of their methods: archival studies for historians, field trips by ethnologists, interviews by sociologists etc.

    And that question, how human beings can live together, seems to me to one of the most important of all. I have always loved history, but I think ethnology sometimes is even more of an eye-opener as to how much of our own culture is arbitrary and contingent and not at all necessary for living a human life.

  72. Thank you for your considered response. As far as my drum and dance teachers’ attitudes towards people of other cultures learning what they had to teach goes, I would say it has been a very mixed bag. My two main drum teachers from Guinea seemed to be fine with it, although from a very pessimistic point of view, one could say they were earning money through teaching, so why wouldn’t they be? My actual opinion is that they were genuinely happy to be able to share something good, that they loved, with anyone who was truly interested. One Nigerian dance teacher out west was more than happy to teach anyone and everyone who showed up to her class, but when it came time to form a performance group, she made it quite clear that only people of African Heritage need apply. On the other hand, I have performed with other West African dance teachers in mixed groups, with seemingly no similar issues. I had one man in Senegal go significantly out of his way to tell me I was personally offending him by being there and taking part in what he saw as ‘his’ culture. When I was performing in downtown Toronto as the only white person in a group of Afro-Caribbean musicians, I had a black cab driver pull over and start yelling out his window, berating the group that they should be performing that music with a black woman and not a white woman. Yet many other Africans have been happy that I was interested in their music and culture enough to learn and practice it. I have lots of other similar stories which don’t lead me to a clear answer to your question. And just as a general traveler, I had a number of conflicting experiences as well: on a bus outside of Dakar a very clumsy thief tried to pick my pocket in full view of quite a few people; when I caught him and started giving him a hard time in Wolof (one of the Senegalese tribal languages), he looked sheepish and got off the bus right away. When I gave the stink eye to all the people just watching and not doing anything, their looks of indifference seemed to say, ‘well, you’re clearly a rich white person – you deserve to be robbed.’ On another occasion in a cab in Conakry, a man got on and for some reason greeted me in Wolof, which was somewhat unusual for Guinea, but I was able to answer him back with the appropriate reply and have a bit of a conversation with him, and he seemed very pleased that I had taken the time to learn some of his language – to him, it was a sign of respect.

    All that to say, I’m not really sure.

    It seems some people have the attitude that they are happy to be able to share something good with others – everyone will benefit, God is good and generous, and the world is an abundant place with enough to go around. Others have a more protectionist attitude – they’re in competition with everyone else for limited resources and your gain is their loss – a zero-sum game. I suspect the truth of the situation, if there is one, lies in the middle ground, which as you pointed out, may be to just focus on what I need to do without worrying too much about what other people think.

    The point I didn’t quite make in my comment was that I don’t find the same inner conflict with respect to my personal practice of magic. It just somehow seems okay for me to be doing it; end of story, and I was trying to contemplate why it is like that with magic and not music!

  73. Bridge–on history of witchcraft. _Witches and Neighbors_ by Robin Briggs examines evidence from trials in rural France which illustrate the way that neighborly quarrels could simmer for years before erupting into accusations of malignant magic. _The Witch: a History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present_ by Ronald Hutton looks at the WC beliefs of several parts of Europe, pointing out that nearly every society believes that some people have supernatural abilities, either innate or learned that enable them to harm their neighbors’ crops, livestock and health. Interestingly he notes that the relative absence of witch trials in Ireland was can be attributed to the fact that the Irish blamed the fairies for this type of misfortune. _American Bewitched: Witchcraft After Salem_ and _Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History_ are both by Owen Davies. The former covers the beliefs about malignant magic in American, both those of the Native Americans and those imported by immigrants and slaves. .The latter is about those sometimes termed ‘white witches’ or wise men, etc.

    JMG–The 9 million figure of witch executions actually dates to 1893, well ahead of the Holocaust. It was published by Matilda Joslyn Gage, an American feminist, in _Woman, Church and State_. I have read somewhere that she got the figure from an earlier writer who had taken the known trials from a given area and extrapolated for the entire term of the major persecutions and for all of Western Europe. But I don’t have that information handy. Most Wiccans who care about history are aware by now that 9 million is a gross overestimate.

    IMO, one of the big problems with the Boy Scouts is that the troops relied heavily on sponsorships by churches The more liberal churches ceased to do so because of the anti-gay and anti-atheist decisions. The Church of Latter Day Saints and the Roman Catholic Church, among others remained as sponsors and it became a downward spiral with liberal parents avoided the organization. Girl Scouts USA don’t have the same problem. Girls are free to earn religion badges of their choice but there is no discrimination against gay members and girls may substitute a suitable word of their choice for “God” in the oath (by suitable I mean than Spiderman wouldn’t pass muster, but my Higher Self or the Greatest Power or something probably would.)


  74. Matilda Josdelyn Gage , a major American feminist leader in the mid to late nineteenth century, co-authoried books with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and wrote her own book called Women, Church, and State. I haven’t read it, but I’ve been told by several people that the Nine Million Witches figure is from that book.

    I believe Gerald Gardner got the figure from her.

    Almost once a generation, the history of European witchcraft and witch hunting undergoes a major shift in outlook, as researchers take a closer look at neglected sources of information, or reinterpret the familiar sources by asking new questions. There were a couple of these developments in the 1990s. One was that a primary source for medieval witch trials was discovered to be a fraud. The other was that scholars started combing through the details of surviving trial records and subjected them to various kinds of statistical analysis. (Previous generations of historians had looked at such things as the wording of secular and church law, and anti-witch literature).

    A lot of writing from any era about European witches has some ax to grind, and uses evidence selectively to prove that fear of witches was: a Catholic superstition, or a Christian delusion, or an elite plot to distract the masses from their class enemies, or a covert form of resistance by the masses against their rulers, or a grift, or a masculine conspiracy to put women in their place, a way that doctors eliminated competition from midwives, a way that midwives eliminated competition from other midwives, was caused by ergot poisoning from eating moldy rye bread, by breakdowns in governmental authority, by attempts to reassert governmental authority . . .

    There are theories I’m not mentioning that I think are complete bunkum, but the ones I listed all have a grain of truth in them, they just don’t succeed as general explanations of a complicated phenomenon. If you want a better understanding, be prepared to read a bunch of books, and then read a bunch more books that will show you that the picture you got from the first books was wrong.

    If I wanted to write clearly about the connections between Wiccans and people in earlier times who were thought to be witches or claimed to be witches, I would need to have my own blog to post some essays on.

    I took a break from reading about historical witchcraft and witch persecutions. The last book I read that I liked was Witches and Neighbors by Robin Briggs. it is not an overview. it is a detailed look at why French and English villagers in the late Middle Ages were suspicious that some of their neighbors were malevolent witches, and what they tried to do about it. If you have ever lived in a close-knit community where people have to interact regularly with the same bunch of people for thirty years, like them or not, you will recognize some similar patterns.

  75. Darkest Yorkshire: CRUs seem like something America badly needs for our own veterans. The current strategy seems to be flying them home, drop kicking them out the back hatch of the plane, and then acting surprised when they commit suicide or wind up homeless. (Or, going by the results of World War II, become intense lifelong alcoholics.) It’s a hideous shame.

    A ritual element would be a good idea too, except I would not trust the Pentagon to concoct such a thing.

  76. Dear Mr. Greer – Re: Scrying. There’s a choice? This is as bad as trying to pick out a brand of toothpaste! (Just kidding.) I guess, crystals and mirrors. But what’s the other? The imagination? Lew

  77. Aidan, that doesn’t surprise me at all; thanks for this.

    BB, yes, those are factors that were involved. The witch burnings also began in the wake of the Black Death — the first serious witch burnings were about a quarter century after the ghastly first wave of that pandemic, when something like a quarter of the population of Europe died — and reflected the collapse of faith in the worldview of medieval culture; put people in that kind of cognitive dissonance and they go looking for scapegoats…

    Matthias, no argument there. Ethology is a massive eye-opener.

    Stefania, that’s fascinating. Oddly enough, I tend to be rather picky that way about magic — I shy away from the rites of other cultures and societies unless I’ve been introduced to them in some formal way. Your mileage may vary!

    Rita, fair enough — I wasn’t aware that Gage came up with that figure, though of course I knew about her involvement with First Wave neo-witchcraft. (She’s a significant figure in the biography of L. Frank Baum of Wizard of Oz fame, his mother in las in fact, so I spent some time looking into that influence on his work. I never was able to figure out whether she was the Good Witch or the Wicked Witch…)

    Deborah, thanks for this also. As for the origins of witchcraft, I’m sure that most of those things played some role in it — and there’s also the awkward fact that the concept of the evil eye, and of the folkloric witch, is not without a real foundation. Concentrated malice, even without magical amplification, can have nasty effects.

    Lew, yes, there’s a choice. Scrying in crystals and mirrors — that’s something I’m no good at (it takes a specific talent I don’t have); there are plenty of books on the subject but I can’t really offer informed guidance on which of them are good. Anybody else? Scrying in the imagination or, as it’s also called, in the spirit vision is another matter. It’s basically a controlled and tightly focused daydream into which you allow imagery to arise spontaneously; that’s the method the Golden Dawn used, and it’s the one I’ve always relied on.

  78. Hi Lew,

    The Magic Mirror always tells me to use Aquafresh. 😄

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist!

  79. Out of curiosity, jmg, do divination systems like the wheel of Pythagoras and other methods of “Parlor” fortune telling work as well as more serious methods like geomancy?

    Or would I be correct in thinking that if a system is treated frivolously by too many people for too long, then whatever intelligencer spirits that are connected to it eventually stop doing their jobs perfectly because they aren’t treated seriously?

  80. Hi Stefania,

    The three truisms of life: 1). Death. 2) Taxes. 3). Wherever you go, the jerks outnumber people like the nice Wolof man.

    Everybody: What do you think the chances are of Coronavirus putting us Americans back to a real economy such as the U.S. had in the ‘50’s?

    I don’t know if this is an economic indicator, but Charmin is back in our local stores now. It has been my habit for years, ever since a winter that was one ice storm after another, to hit those giant toilet paper sales Target has about every 6 weeks. Now I’m going to hit those sales TWICE during each one. Our pipes are fussy, and when we were forced to use Cottonelle for a week or so, there were a couple of heartstopping instances of loud gurgling. There were happy endings, fortunately (thank you, Cottonelle Inc.)

    If you ever see the headline “Elderly woman kills home invaders with samurai sword when they try to steal her toilet paper,” that’s probably me. 😳😊

  81. Robert Mathiessen:

    Evgeni Vodolazkin has a PhD in Old Russian literature and works at the Russian Academy of Sciences, so I thought you might be interested in his book! “Laurus” is full of Church Slavonic fragments (from what I understood from the translation; I only studied two years of Russian in school).

    As a postmodern novel, it does include a fair amount of ironic reflection by the omniscient narrator on “medieval” Russia and Russians. That label seems to make no sense to me – what “antiquum aevum” did Russia have, to be followed by a “medium aevum”? I wonder if the Russian original contains the exact equivalent of “medieval” or some other more appropriate expression. Actually, I thought the term “medieval” would die out in professional use even for Western European contexts, but it still seems to be alive.

  82. I’m really enjoying this series of posts, though it’s pointing out to me how superficial my understanding of the early history of the country is. And I’ve always liked history, particularly close descriptions of how people actually lived, in ways that were both similar to and different from my own. I dislike the trope in history books for children that points out that people in times past were “just like you”- well, yes and no… I think kids, and people in general, are often looking for ideas about how life could be/ has been *different*, just as JMG described in his comment to Cliff providing his rationale for studying history.

    I’ve found a podcast I’m enjoying, called “Ben Franklin’s World”, to begin filling in some of the holes in my historical knowledge of my own country. The host, herself a (an? That always seems so awkward…) historian, interviews another historian each episode on his or her area of specialty in early American history. It’s giving my picture of early America some much-needed detail at the same time it’s making the more tedious household chores go by more painlessly. Perhaps other readers would like to check it out.

    –Heather in CA

  83. With a genuine malevolent evil eyed witch in a small community doing great harm, is there a natural end to the troubles she causes without her causing so much hate and pain that someone more primal in the community takes it upon themselves to “solve” the problem? Will she burn herself out against good defence or something with a more tasteful resolution?

  84. @Lathechuck

    As something of a rationalist myself, I tend to agree with Lathechuck about gardening by the Moon. In a way, it doesn’t matter if that’s all there is to it; except that it can matter, and for a very practical reason. If the whole point is to just set a schedule that you have to stick to, then a fairly crude version of divination will work just as well as a highly sophisticated one. But if you believe that a highly sophisticated version will give you much better results, then it’s easy to waste an enormous amount of time and energy (and money) on “improving” your divination techniques, when in fact, those techniques are no better than the crude ones that you had before. Didn’t the Chinese do something like this a couple of millennia ago? (I read something like that. I wish I could track down the article.) For a contemporary version of the same thing, why, take a look at how much money economists earn, for no sensible reason that I can think of.

    @Robert Mathiesen

    Thank you so much for the information about the Russian Orthodox clergy! (I knew that Orthodox priests were required to marry before they could get a parish, but I had no idea they weren’t allowed to remarry, or to keep the parish as widowers. Huh. That’s pretty tough on the poor priests, though I certainly will grant you that it gives a man a strong incentive not to abuse or overburden his wife!)

    Wouldn’t you say, though, that the prosecution of the Old Believers was somewhat akin to the schism between Catholicism and Protestantism?

    BTW, Vodolazkin, the author of _Laurus_, is actually a medievalist himself. I very much enjoyed the book, though I’m not even remotely qualified to judge how historically accurate it is.

  85. @Stefania

    Thanks for sharing! The mixed bag response that you got isn’t particularly surprising. The problem is that, as long as the culture you’re talking about isn’t tiny and rather homogeneous, you’re going to get a wide variety of opinions. Some people will want to share everything they know, and others will want you out of their culture. It’s not at all obvious how one should navigate that territory. As for “well, you’re clearly a rich white person – you deserve to be robbed,” hehe, that’s what huge inequality will give you. If you’re twice as rich as the person you’re dealing with, you’ll still be treated as a person deserving of respect. But if you’re 20 (or 200) times richer, or are at least perceived as such, don’t be surprised if you get treated like a perfectly legitimate target for robbery. You think they have no right to rob you, and they think you have no right to be that much richer.


    Is there such a thing as a statute of limitations on cultural appropriation? I have no trouble believing that Chinese tai chi masters enthusiastically shared what they knew with non-Chinese learners. But suppose a new batch of Chinese masters (or more likely, Chinese-American, influenced by the recent ideological developments in the English-speaking world) showed up and decided that, actually, if you’re not Chinese, you have no business practicing Chinese martial arts, and if you’ve been doing so, then you need to stop immediately. Then what? My inclination would be to say “sorry, too late,” but perhaps people would disagree with me!


  86. @ Robert Mathiesen: In Iceland, which kept the old Germanic traditions a long time, magic was women’s business. There is a movie based on Gisli’s Saga put out by the Icelandic Historical whatever, called, in English, The Outlaw. In one sequence a bad guy is calling on a sorcerer, and we’re treated to the sight of a big burly man dressed up as a woman, rolling around in trance. (IIRC, the women in the business didn’t roll around; they were seated in a tall chair. But they did go into trance and channel their visions.) Men who took up magic were considered to be doing it for evil purposes because decent men would not do that. Women were considered witches only if they did do magic for evil purposes.

    Side note: Decent Icelandic women did not put on men’s clothes and took up the sword either. One we know of in literature (Hervor) started her career as a highway robber and graduated into piracy. The tradition of warrior maidens seen in, frex, the Volsungassaga poetry was from continental Scandinavia and early-period Germany.

  87. Rita, (and anyone else interested) the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has discontinued its involvement with Boy Scouts and says it is coming up with its own similar program for boys, but at this time, I haven’t heard anything about the new program.

    Here in the Salt Lake area, there were two types of Boy Scout troops and Cub Packs, Community (for non LDS boys) and LDS. They all seemed to rub along in the larger council pretty well and cooperated together for community projects, but now LDS boys who want to finish the Scout experience will have to join a “community” troop that is usually associated with a different church. I have no input on how that is going at the moment, nor have I heard about the new program.

  88. JMG and Commentariat

    Concerning the term and concept of cultural appropriation I wonder if there is room in North America for an addendum to the definition. People who have encountered cultural influences in their lives within the eclectic populace and absorbed them as part of their identity often want to express themselves . Permission itself is the tough part though and what constitutes it. If an individual is taught Yoga by a person of Indian descent do they have permission by that culture then to teach it as well or write about Indian culture and its affects on North America? If an individual spent significant time as a child in the household of New Canadians coming from the Carribean what are the permissions in terms of reproducing or commenting on cooking, spirituality, and cultural practices and who grants them? The Family? The Government? A cultural center? A general feeling you get from the local people of that ethnicity? Indeginous populations in Canada have their own recognized communities and even their own justice systems so it is easier to get an answer to this question in this regard. However the rest is murky I think.

    This is another avenue of research I think that I need to focus on more. Before I continue researching Obeah and diffusions that occured in the process of Carribean demographics coming to Canada, I may need more formal..or casual.. permissions to continue and gather information. There are certainly unanswered questions and missing information I have come across just in a basic overview of the public research available. Notably no whites were ever tried in court for the practise of Obeah, or for using a practitioner’s services in the Carribean, however there is a British Creole demographic noted and I have personally met people of this background. Also there are other points I have found in my study that suggest intersections here in Canada and in the Carribean regardless of the heavy prejudices and authoritarianism of imperial British Colonial rulers.

  89. Hi John,
    I’ve been reading your blog on and off for a good many years. I found this one particularly interesting because I’m just now re-reading (for the second time) a novel by David Drake titled Old Nathan. Nathan is a “cunning man” living in the 1830s, practicing the sort of cunning arts that you describe in this blog post. I think you might enjoy the book, if you haven’t already discovered it.

  90. @Robert etc. re: Orthodox priests:

    I am not sure what the specific custom is in Russia, but in Orthodoxy today more generally, it is greatly preferred that parish priests be married, but it is not a strict rule. There are parish priests who are widowers, or even divorced (!). This is not ideal, obviously, but we don’t automatically send them off to the monastery. It is true that priests are not permitted to remarry: actually, the rule is, priests are not allowed to get married at all. If you want to be married, and you want to be a priest (or even a deacon!), you have to get married *before* you are ordained. Thus, it is a running joke in orthodox parishes that if a girl is having a hard time finding a husband, she should move to the neighborhood of a seminary, where there are loads of desperate 3rd-year seminarians looking for wives!

    Those who are ordained without getting married *do* generally go to the monasteries, and the bishops are pulled from the monastic ranks. But there are still exceptions. Our beloved St. John Maximovitch of Shanghai and San Francisco was an unmarried monastic priest… who served a parish for many years. It’s possible this was an irregular situation specific to his refugee community.

  91. Good golly, Miss Molly: Little Richard has died at the age of 87.

    May he spend eternity rockin’ and rollin’ at the house of delight.

  92. J.L.Mc12, try them and see!

    Your Kittenship, I don’t think the outbreak will do that by itself, but some of the social changes that it seems to be setting in motion do seem to be pointing that way.

    Heather, delighted to hear it. One of my core goals in this series is to remind people that history can be a lot of fun as well as a learning experience.

    Rose, there are nonlethal ways to deal with that kind of malice, though most of them end up turning the malicious energy back on the witch.

    Irena, of course there is. Once a tradition has been passed on to another culture in a proper and respectful fashion, it’s part of the new culture too. T’ai chi, for example, started out as a Chinese art and its roots will always be in China, but there are now entire lineages of fully accepted and qualified teachers in the US and much of Europe, and those won’t go away because somebody changes their mind. The cat is out of the bag; you can see people practicing t’ai chi in American parks, for example, the same way you can see them in Chinese parks; so — like so many other things, from catsup and whiskey to opera and printing presses — it’s American now.

    Patricia, thanks for this! Yes, reality is starting to seep in through the cracks…

    Ian, my rule of thumb is that you can practice something if you’ve been taught it by someone who has the right to teach it, within the cultural context of the tradition. You have the right to teach something if you have had that right conferred on you in a traditional manner. That’s true within a culture as well as across cultural lines, for that matter; I’m a Freemason, for example, because I received the traditional initiations in a chartered lodge; I don’t have the right to confer that status on anyone else, because only the officers of a lodge meeting in due form (or a Grand Master acting on his own) can do that. Does that leave a lot of gray areas? Sure, but it’s a place to start.

    Doug, thank you for this! No, I haven’t encountered it yet; when the libraries open again I’ll see if I can find a copy.

    Your Kittenship, thanks for the heads up. That’s sad — though he must have been quite old.

    Aidan, Jacob Levy has my answer. The notion that there’s a “wrong side of history” is a faith-based notion rooted in the religion of progress, and with any luck that notion will hit history’s dumpster over the next half century.

  93. Thanks for this great discussion of folk magic in America. As for the Strenuous Life movement, as sexist as this may come off sounding, I’d love to see a feminine version that encourages women to learn traditional life skills such as cooking, baking, knitting & crocheting, plant propagation, herbal medicine preparation, and first aid/nursing. Of course there could be badges for more traditionally masculine-associated skills such as target shooting, carpentry, or wilderness survival.

  94. Dear Steve, Rose and JMG,

    There is a certain type of amulet that is popular in Turkey and some other Mediterranean countries for “evil eye” problem, which we call “nazar boncuğu” in Turkish (roughly translated as “evil eye bead”). It is made of glass and it imitates the appearance of a blue eye (sympathetic magic?). I haven’t heard of any specific ritual for charging it; maybe its efficacy is dependent on its color, shape and material. I don’t know if it absorbs the malicious energy or bounces it back to the sender. Does anyone here know its occult technicalities?

  95. @Matthias Gralle, Irena, Methylethyl:

    Thanks very much for the updates on the situation in the present-day Orthodox Churches. I’m a Medieval philologist, so I put more effort into learning about the past of Orthodoxy than about its present. Also, I wasn’t raised Christian (or in any of the “Abrahamic” faiths), so what knowledge I have of any of these faiths was gained from others and in my adult years. I respect these faiths enormously, but they are most definitely not for me.

  96. JMG – This is off-topic, but important. (How many times have you heard that? But bear with me…) This is a set of COVID-19 treatment guidelines from Eastern Virginia Medical School, from doctors for doctors, updated May 5, and covering pre-infection, at-home care, and varying degrees of hospital care. Pre-infection guidance is “cheap, safe, and widely available” (primarily nutrition based).

    Residents of this house feel fine today, but if anyone does need medical attention, this document is going with them to make sure that the doctor is up-to-date.

    I’m taking that “widely available” comment with a bit of skepticism. Toilet paper was unquestionably “widely available” six months ago!

  97. I’ve been driving an amish neighbor’s family around a bit, and getting a very interesting peek into their whole culture. There are a lot of things that may be revelent to speak of in future posts, but I was surprised that the patriarch of the family (he’s 58 and has 32 grandkids already…) talked to me about planting by the moon signs! So obviously, they have had much cultural exchange with “the English” as they call everyone who’s not amish/mennonite. (And these are conservative old order folks.)

  98. JMG, the history here is fascinating. I’ve nothing really to add to the main theme but I’m loving this series.

    re: Cultural appropriation,
    I can’t speak to dance, but with visual arts it’s a bloody mine-field.

    I was involved in a charitable project a few years ago where we needed (to be inclusive, but if you ask me mostly to get government money) Indigenous Art. Of course, there would be no question it would have to come from an Indigenous Artist. So off we go, find ourselves a card-carrying “status Indian” as they’re called here in Canada do paint the walls at a quasi-reasonable price (naturally more than we’d ever pay a white guy, but that’s supply and demand for you), and we think, great! Now we wait for the kudos to roll in.

    Er. Nope. Apparently, you see, that was the wrong kind of indigenous person. Too pale-skinned. If you’re born and grow up in a culture, it apparently just doesn’t count if you look too white. We (and the artist, working in their own cultural milieu) still got the “cultural appropriation” BS slung at us.

    After that brew-ha-ha, I decided I wouldn’t touch any project involving indigenous culture with a 10-foot pole. Let’s be honest, though: most indigenous people would rather it that way! (So much for reaching out and inclusiveness.)

    That really curtailed my charitable work, because the whole salary class around here are card carrying members of the Wan-a-be tribe. (And all have “It’s not cultural appropriation when I do it” as a mantra.) I’ve begun to realize that that annoys a lot of indigenous people at least at much as it does me.

    Problem is, taking any interest in traditional European cultures is seen as the first step towards committing a hate crime…

  99. Thanks BB and Rita. There is definitely some good books now on the subject.

  100. For organic gardening, I recommend Pam Dawling and Eliot Coleman; include these two in your reading. Coleman dedicates one of his books to his mentors, Helen and Scott Nearing, 2 American wise-doms who left New York City during the 1930s Great Depression and moved to their own land, and succeeded in farming, gardening, maple sugaring, lecturing, and writing.

  101. On Eugene Vodolazkin’s “Laurus”: After glowing recommendations for this book in these blogs, I read it just a couple weeks ago. I rank it among the books I’ve read which I most highly esteem. Its immersion in the very different world of 15th century Russia, and its affection for the people of Laurus’s world, and portrayal of a world where God was very close and obviously grounded all reality, and of whom they were devotedly fond, was an enormous treat and revelation.
    –William Allen

  102. JMG, I just got done explaining to Sonkitten that there’d be no Bruce Springsteen without Little Richard and his contemporaries. At least he knew who Little Richard was. (I tried to raise him right.)

    And now, as Ms. Brecken Kendall plays “ Tutti Frutti “ on the piano, will the mourners please rise for a moment of… wild, uninhibited 🎸 rock and roll. Rattle those rafters, folks. Richard would have wanted it that way. Ready? All together, now.


    Goodbye, Little Richard. You’ll be missed.

  103. re: ‘cultural appropriation’ – I have the impression that SOMETIMES the charges come from social justice warrior types who really have no clue, and way too much time on their hands. Accusing someone of ‘cultural appropriation’ seems to be a easy way to gain status within their group as a defender of the weak and helpless ‘other’. The term ‘cultural appropriation’ when misused in this way (or exaggerated or taken out of context) becomes meaningless.

  104. Kimberly, it doesn’t sound sexist at all. You’re not suggesting that women ought to be restricted to that list of things, just that women might want to encourage one another in practicing things that have for millennia been part of women’s culture in the Western world. I think it’s a fine idea, and wonder out loud if you’ve considered doing it. I suspect if you dropped a line to the Strenuous Life people and asked them for some pointers, they’d be delighted to help.

    Minervaphilos, I don’t know the Turkish version specifically, but blue beads of that kind have been used in a variety of Mediterranean cultures against the evil eye. IIRC it’s supposed to bounce the negative energy back at the sender.

    Lathechuck, thanks for this.

    Isaac, what a marvelous opportunity — I hope you’re learning as much from it as you can.

    Dusk Shine, one of the unmentionable realities of the social justice hatefest is that it’s a way for third-rate artists, writers, etc. who belong to the right ethnic/gender/etc. categories to try to advance their careers at the expense of others. There’s been a lot of that in science fiction, which is where I’ve mostly seen it in action; by and large it’s not the first-rate minority authors (of whom there are many) who are out there shrieking for the blood of their rivals, it’s the also-rans. I suspect you got caught up in some version of the same thing.

    Your Kittenship, thanks for this! Yes, I’m pretty sure Brecken could pound out “Tutti Frutti” with the best of them.

    PatriciaT, yes, that’s also an important factor. “I can get offended more easily than you can!” is a common form of social justice one-upspersonship.

  105. @Kimberley Steele–It just crossed my mind that the Marine Corps and the Girl Scouts have something in common: there is no such thing as a former Marine or a former Girl Scout. (Only exaggerating a little here.) The two outfits probably have a few other things in common. Existing in the shade of a larger, more famous organization would be one of them.

    If you were to check the merit badges currently offered by the GSA, you probably will find most of the skills on your list. I’m not dead sure of this, because new badges are continually being added and I would expect that older badges that are less popular or are perceived as less “relevant” get dropped to make room. If you can’t find the information, I know someone I can ask.

    Here is a research topic for anyone with a current or aspirational career in social history–look up all the lists of Girl Scout merit badges offered throughout the organization’s 100+ year history. Check the requirements for earning the badge, how much adult supervision was required, whether requirements for earning a particular badge changed over time. Then correlate with current events and the economic, social, political and technological changes in society. Look for themes. If it hasn’t been done before, or done to modern standards of scholarship, you might get a master’s thesis out of it.

  106. Dear Mr. Greer. Thank you! That clarifies things.

    My Finn grandfather used to “foretell” the coming year by “reading” the shapes of molten lead, poured in water. I asked him once if he actually “saw” things in the lead, or if it just helped focus impressions from somewhere else. (Does that make sense?) He said the lead helped him focus on some current, from somewhere else. Another plane?

    My grandfather (passed, many years ago) and I shared a lot of genetic traits, not shared by his children or other grandchildren. Some things that have happened to me, indicate, that I might have some small talent. But I’d rather not muck about with molten lead 🙂 . Lew

  107. Dusk shine (and JMG if your interested)

    “Problem is, taking any interest in traditional European cultures is seen as the first step towards committing a hate crime…”

    Tell me about it! I’ve been thinking more and more recently that those of us who are ethnically European (or European descended), should try looking more closely at our own indigenous cultural roots, rather than fetishising and obsessing over other cultures. Not that there’s anything wrong with taking inspiration from other cultures, just that the way western liberals in particular seem to want to obsess over other cultures (while trashing their own cultural heritage) strikes me as more than a little patronising. Ironically in saying we shouldn’t fetishise other cultures I’m being more PC than the hyper liberals lol!

    The trouble is, the mere suggestion of this will send some people into a tirade about white supremacy, colonialism etc… (as if western civ is the only civ to have been racist, imperialistic etc…)

  108. Wesley,

    I can offer a supporting anecdote for your theory about the declining need for Scouts in the deindustrial future.

    When we (my wife and I, and two very young children) moved to the N. Georgia mountains in Spring ’12, we were determined to own whatever property we lived on, no matter what that required of us. What it required was a 16×20 wall tent tucked into our 2.3 acres of forest. For two long years. I chopped a lot of wood, and carried a lot of water…

    Nowadays, when people ask us if we’d like to go camping, we usually say something like “No, thanks, we already did that.”


  109. The other way, once common in the Latin/Mediterranean world, to ward off the Evil Eye is to grasp your testicles and make a horn-sign with your fingers.

    I suppose for those who don’t like jewellery.

    Traditionally much used around Catholic priests…….

  110. @ Kimberly Steele: I agree about the home-based skills, except that I don’t count wilderness survival as masculine, any more than swimming is. Survival skills are survival skills, and there are times our homemaker might need them. Being driven from home by war, frex – or escaping from captors, ditto. That’s just out of, say, the 30-years-war in Germany.

    @Minervaphilos, I gave an Eye Charm bracelet to a friend plagued with a supervisor who fit the village definition of a witch, along with suggesting she burn a candle to St. Michael the Archangel and bring fresh rosemary in a bud vase to put on her desk. Oh, and be sweet to everybody else on the floor, even the grouchy receptionist. Shortly afterwords, Boss Nasty got pregnant and did a total 180 – so I’d say This Stuff Works.

  111. Hi John Michael,

    Like everything it takes a lot of practice, trial and error and honing before a person gets any good at it. You might get a laugh out of this, but many years ago after a particularly and spectacularly epic fail of my own making, I asked for a bit of assistance with cold reading. And now it is hard to turn off the insights. Still benefits and costs and all that and no free lunches etc…

    As to claims as to third degree ancient grandmothers, well, did not George Bernard Shaw state that: ‘The liar’s punishment is, not in the least that he is not believed, but that he cannot believe anyone else.’ The Ancient Greeks knew something of this story too. Lying is a tool of the weak seeking advantage where it was not necessary to act so.



  112. Kimberly, what a splendid idea! It would introduce to its members a huge variety of skills and knowledge that many have forgotten even existed.

    One thing I want to note, though, just like the Strenuous Life does not exclude women, I would want to allow men to join this group as well, because these are skills every human would benefit from knowing. Historically anything labelled feminine ended up being devalued. For that reason, rather than presenting it as a feminine set of skills (which would have men avoiding it like the plague) if you present it as just a great skill set which traditionally has been practiced by women, more people could benefit? Maybe have a basic set of badges and a more advanced set? That way, knowing how to embroider words, symbols or patterns on clothing or bags, for example (a useful thing for anyone), can earn you a badge but a badge for Fine Hardanger embroidery may be left to those who really love this stuff (male or female, of course).

    I find this idea so exciting I hope you pursue this. If you want help, please ask!

  113. Regarding returning veterans from war and how they are treated etc, especially in America – I highly recommend Sebastian Junger’s short book Tribe (you can read it in a couple hours). He wrote a long article in Vanity Fair that was expanded into the book, and you can google the article freely, but it’s worth reading the whole book.

    Some fascinating insights into the need for belonging in a “tribe”, particularly for men, and how older societies understood this, understood how to formally initiate teenage boys into being men (lack of which leads to malaise re gangs etc in today’s America), how they were good at reintegrating war veterans back into society etc and how today’s America fails badly at those things, leading to all the problems veterans have now.

    In particular it’s interesting that the rate of mental illness and psych problems reported by American soldiers in the last 80 years has increased by orders of magnitude in each conflict, despite the fact that the conflicts have become less and less deadly – in terms of risk to American soldiers, in terms of death rates etc. WW2 and Korean War soldiers had *far* fewer psych problems and much better mental health than those in the first Gulf War, who in turn had fewer problems than the modern wars in Iraq and Afghanistan etc (it is also really interesting that even in the modern wars, the rear echelon soldiers and support troops have far greater problems – the men doing the most intense fighting in the most dangerous conditions – the Special Forces etc – have *much* less – due to their intense bonding, camaraderie, sense of purpose etc.

    Anyway, the whole thing is well worth reading.

  114. Dear Dusk Shine, and BB,

    If I may:

    I think the sort of situation of people freaking out about this or that culture may fairly be summed up with the words: “you can’t win.”

    Indeed, what I’ve found is that the folks who freak out about culture freak out about _every_ sort of culture. That is, every culture outside of television and the top 40 radio. Basically these people enforce conformity to the depressing mass-culture of our time and seek to punish everyone who shows an interest in anything outside of the narrow confines of the prevailing lowest common dominator.

    Are funny cat videos racist? how about the dreck on the radio, is that racist? What about whatever’s on tv? It appears to me, then, that one can always hedge safely with these people simply by avoiding speaking of any culture or tradition whatsoever besides that of the mass-consumer culture, if you talk only about hamster pictures and boundless inanities these people smile and relax and start fiddling with their phones, trying to outdo each other with youtube videos, crude memes, and baby animal pictures, not even looking at each other, almost desperately fiddling with their phones.

    Perhaps I get more leeway walking the world as an olive skinned androgyne. Perhaps I just get a buzz from a sense of danger. Perhaps reading Plato’s a bad influence. When I encounter these people I tend to try to debate them and find the logical holes in their arguments in the spirit of friendly inquiry and reasoning together, and this leads me to conclude that these folks simply hate culture; they hate the depths of tradition; I would even go as far to say as they appear to me to play out the part of Pentheus in The Bacchae. When they encounter the swirling depths whence meaning arises they grow pale and try to place some sort of ban or dam on it. I believe that the words “racist!” or “problematic!” are just cover for a much deeper and more edged fear.

    To my mind, then, this frenzied attempt to censor and censure cultures proves more profound than mere political maneuvering. I truly believe that it’s a way that many people rebel against the mere possibilities that humans might have within great depths, plumbed through the ages here and brought to the surface through the great gifts of the Muses. In all honesty, I find this attitude incomprehensible and alien in the extreme, but the way people behave indicates that the reason one can’t win taking an interest in a foreign culture, and one can’t win taking an interest in an ancestral culture both stem from this bizarre terror of culture, in general.

  115. It sure is, I have become quite fascinated. I’m soaking it up, but also not being too pushy or inquisitive, they are our neighbors and I hope to develop a lasting relationship with their family and community.

  116. Regarding BB’s comment:

    This anti-traditionalist sensibility took over Western high culture in the period from 1880 to 1930. It was in this period when the Greek statues and landscape paintings were increasingly replaced by the likes of Duchamp’s urinal. It was a sensibility intellectual Daniel Bell termed “modernism”, which he described as the rejection of all cultural authority. Bell also described it as an adversary culture.

    Anti-racist philosophies as embodied in the likes of critical theory, postmodernism, and post-colonialism merely provided additional bulwarks for this sensibility in the 1960s and 1970s.

    The Gospel According to Edward Said, that the study of Western literature and history has been no more than a self-glorifying project of Western imperialism tainted by notions of Western European (read:white) superiority has subsequently become the dominant view in many humanities departments since the late 1980s or so.

    Yet, ironically the iconic figures of the above-mentioned fields are themselves openly influenced by Dead White Males.

    An example I love to provide is that of Frantz Fanon. He was a black psychiatrist and philosopher in (then French) Martinique. His books like Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and the Wretched of the Earth (1961) key texts in his vehemently anti-Western, anti-colonial philosophy. He was a pioneer of the idea that colonialism was not just a political and economic process but a psychological one. He held particular animus for those who collaborated with the Western colonialists as having “internalized” oppression. He died in 1962, just as his vision was coming true. Yet, his words became revered for everyone from Algerian Freedom Fighters to Black Power radicals in the US. Today, his works are canonical in critical race theory, and post-colonial theory departments.

    YET, not only does Fanon take inspiration from dead white males but one in particular who is regarded as particularly problematic by the contemporary cultural left. I speak of course of Frederick Nietzsche! Nietzsche tends to be disdained by the cultural left as an elitist, a racist, and an inspiration for Nazism, who distained “slave morality”. Yet, it is Nietzsche who is cited REGULARILY by Fanon throughout his books as a inspiration. Fanon directly challenged the “Hegal-ian” worldview that Westerners deserved their power because they were more rational than “primitive, superstitious natives” Instead, he embraces Nietzsche ( a “master of suspicion” along with Freud and Marx) as his notion of the Will to Power as the guiding force of history. He further more concluded that the same Will to Power could and should be used for anti-colonial purposes. For the “Wretched of the Earth” a Nietzsche-an Will to Power was a noble and healthy thing! And for Fanon, deplorables like Nietzsche were worth preserving for inspiration!

    For that matter, Michel Foucault described himself as “basically a Nietzsche-an” in one of his last interviews.

  117. Lady Cutekitten,

    I’m afraid you just might be right…


    Don’t get me wrong – I am a rich white person! The simple fact that I was in their country proved I had both the means and the freedom to be there, neither of which they had. It’s just that being robbed in broad daylight was a little too much of an infringement on my personal boundaries for my liking. But if the situation were to be reversed, I’m not at all sure that I wouldn’t have tried the same thing. Senegal is a very poor country, with Guinea a couple of orders of magnitude poorer, and most people seemed lucky to get one or two very thin meals a day. Starving and suffering in general can do away with notions of morality, ethics, and spiritual development pretty quickly, and I’m not in favor of passing judgment on people in such a difficult situation.

    It was in part the inequality between me and the Africans whose tradition I was studying that made it so difficult for me to earn money from it. I wouldn’t exactly say I have white guilt or anything, but just a keen awareness of the inequality of the situation. It did feel like I had an unfair and undeserved advantage and that my gain would be someone else’s loss – someone who needed it much more than I did. Maybe that’s not an accurate perception, but it seemed that way to me at the time. Definitely some murky territory!


    I think the difference between my musical and magical practices comes down to the fact that I’m not trying to earn a living from magic, as you are! So far, my magical practice has been a very private affair that doesn’t really concern anyone else. I imagine I would come up against some similar issues if I decided to hang out my shingle (which at this point, carries very long odds…), although the playing field at least seems more level than what I experienced with African music. Your rule of thumb wrt practicing and teaching a tradition seems to make quite a bit of sense.

  118. Just a few personal data points re. scouting: My daughter has been a Girl Scout since about third grade; she is now in high school and working towards her Gold Award (which is touted as being equivalent to Eagle rank in Boy Scouts). My son, age 12, went through Cub Scouts and is now in Boy Scouts, intending to achieve Eagle rank. (He’s about halfway there.)

    Daughter has found Girl Scouts to be essentially a social club. While the national organization may offer some genuine opportunities for useful and fun skills to be learned as part of the program, local leaders have enormous latitude in choosing activities and goals for their troop (though nominally these are “girl led”.) My daughter’s good friend’s mother is the troop leader, and is not at all interested in the outdoors or any traditional skills. Their activities over the years have mainly consisted of “friendship” type events and cookie sales. The activities required for higher ranks have a strong bias towards social activism, as opposed to any type of hands-on achievement. And the focus on cookie-selling (Entrepreneurship!) is completely nauseating to me. Over the years I have served as a guest instructor to help the girls work on badges like gardening and woodworking, and I pulled hard to get their last accomplishment in “environmental justice” to include a hands-on roadside cleanup at an illegal rural dump site. I nearly had to walk over the troop leader to get this done. We would have switched troops long ago, to try to find a more active one, or started our own, but Daughter was reluctant to leave her friends (five girls have stuck it out together since elementary school) and seem to criticize her long-term troop leader. When Boy Scouts USA recently opened itself to having girl troops [the national organization is now called Scouts BSA], I talked seriously to Daughter about joining or forming one, but she felt like she has committed so much time and energy to the Girl Scout program that she wanted to go ahead and finish her Gold Award (one more major project, about a year’s time if coronavirus gets out of the way).

    My son, by contrast, loves Boy Scouts, if not everything about it. Troop meetings can be noisy, chaotic, boring, or seemingly ineffective – because they are (at least nominally) boy-led. There is a clear leadership structure within the troop; the troop is broken into patrols of about eight boys, each patrol has an elected leader, and these leaders meet once a month in a Patrol Leader’s Council (with the adult Scoutmaster and other adult leaders) to plan the upcoming activities. There is also an elected Senior Patrol Leader who leads the troop meetings, and various other officers have their own duties. This works exactly as well as you would expect a bunch of 11-to-17-year old boys to do- brilliantly at times, crash-and-burn badly at others, mostly somewhere in the solidly mediocre zone. The point is that when things do go badly, the Scoutmaster or other adults meet with the boys who were supposed to have planned and led the meeting or event and do a post-mortem for learning opportunities. Scouts do learn real leadership skills. Then they have to turn their offices over (terms are about 4 months), and away we go to start all over, training a new crop of green officers. Everyone must repeatedly serve in leadership positions to earn the higher ranks, and the Eagle Scout project is a very significant endeavor which requires planning, fundraising, delegating, and managing a team. But these are just the meetings, my son’s least favorite part. The camping, the hiking, the biking, the merit badges for cool activities… these are what he lives for, and what have contributed amazingly to his maturity and capability and toughness over the past few years. These are what his sister envies him, although she feels too committed to her other activities to switch horses in mid-stream.

    Organizationally, the Boy Scouts has a bit of trouble; the national organization declared bankruptcy earlier this year, as a result of large settlements against it for past sexual abuse within the organization. As each troop is separately chartered by a local organization (something like 65% by churches, the rest by organizations like Lion’s Clubs or Masons or Boys and Girls Clubs, or even fire departments!), this bankruptcy supposedly won’t affect the day-to-day activities of the troops. (There is definitely a lot of fat at the top of the organization that could use cutting.) The program has put a ton of stringent safeguards in place to try to prevent future abuse, resulting in lots of sideways glancing among adult leaders, which I suppose is the point. The LDS church’s split from the organization, as other commenters have mentioned, will put a kink in things both for local troops that don’t immediately find another sponsoring organization, and I imagine in the finances upstream, but again, our local troop seems mostly insulated from these disruptions.

    I serve as an Assistant Scoutmaster for my son’s troop (stand around watching meetings for long enough, and you get asked to do something, and then told, oh by the way, you’ll need to get some training to be official- they’re sneaky that way!), but I purposely seek only support roles (as opposed to leadership) because the strongly male atmosphere is one reason we sought out Scouting for my son. It seems to be a good balance to many of his other activities, which are often female-led (school classes, 4-H, music lessons), and in mixed groups girls can dominate discussions. (Not just personal observation there; lots of research backs that up.) Although Scouts BSA has chosen to admit girls to the program, they meet in their own all-girls troops with (I think all-) female leadership. Large activities often combine female and male troops – think Jamborees- but everyone camps separately and operates in their own (single-gender) small patrols within the activities anyway.

    I have the impression that the Boy Scout and Girl Scout programs vary widely from local troop to troop, largely based on how the organizing adults interpret and implement the structures from the larger organization. If folks are thinking about joining, I would encourage them to take their kid and visit the meetings of several different local troops or packs. You don’t have to join the one closest to your house, school, church, or whatever. Look for leaders who seem to have their acts together, and scouts who are busy and engaged; ask about their activities and see if they appeal to you and your kiddo. And if you don’t find one that seems congenial, you can always put in the work to get trained and start your own. Every single troop out there started out that way.

    Hope this is helpful.
    –Heather in CA

  119. And, of course, both Boy and Girl Scouts, and 4-H, and homeschooling associations, are always looking for volunteers, both just for “stable, kind, friendly adult” and/or someone with specific skills to share. You might have to do a background check and get fingerprinted, depending on the organization and the amount and duration of contact, since that’s the world we live in, but that’s really not that huge of a hassle (you usually make an appointment, go down to the local police department, and fill out a form, takes 15 minutes, tops.). Literally anything you know how to do, from welding to web design, first aid to scrapbooking, writing a story to making lip balm, can potentially find an eager audience, and the organization itself will certainly help provide crowd control, so you won’t be left alone in charge of a group of kids. If this current crisis has you thinking about what’s really important to pass on to the next generation, I hope you’ll consider helping out in this way. Our villages for raising kids have been shot to shale, and it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation now.
    –Heather in CA

  120. @Lew

    Like our host, usually I can’t manage to see anything in a crystal ball or dark mirror myself (There was one stunning exception in my ‘teen years.) But I have worked to very good effect with a few people who do have the ability.

    For my money the best books on it are old classics: Theodore Besterman’s “Crystal Gazing” (1924, just out of copyright this year) and William Walker Atkinson’s “Practical Psychomancy and Crystal Gazing” (1908).

    The Victorian psychical researcher “Miss X” (Ada Goodrich-Freer) was a gifted scryer herself, and she has written about it with great clarity and insight in two of the chapters of her “Essays in Psychical Research” (1899). Earlier she published an excellent article, “Recent Experiments in Crystal Vision,” in volume 5 (1888-1889) of the “Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research.”

    There is also Northcote W. Thomas’s “Crystal gazing” (1905), which has an excellent long introduction by Andrew Lang (he of the many vari-colored “Fairy Books”).

    Paschal Beverly Randolph’s “Seership” (1870) is an even older classic, but Randolph’s prose is all over the map, and it’s not a book for your average beginner.

    Of recent books, I prefer Donald Tyson’s “How to Make and Use a Magic Mirror” and “Scrying for Beginners”; they are, however, Llewellyn publications.

    And then there is the Caroll “Poke” Runyon, founder of the Ordo Templi Astartes, who produced a video on the subject back around 1999, “Dark Mirror of Magic.” It may still be helpful, though his methods are not for everyone.

    Hope this is helpful. All the books except Tyson’s are out of copuyright and can be found on the web here and there.

  121. Thank you everyone for the advice on planting by the moon! After spending the week looking into the leads, here are some things I’ve found, for others interested:
    1) it seems to me, based on the experiences accounted here and other articles I’ve found, that planting by the moon and the signs is a skill worth prioritizing, especially as the practice starts mostly with following some charts.
    2) the iPhone app “Charts”, whose primary feature is the astrological chart for the exact moment where you are. There are additional features which might be useful to those more versed in astrology, but go over my head.
    3) the Old Farmers Almanac was recommended several times, and I see why. Their website was scarce on specifics, but have tables of which moon signs are suitable for which garden activities. With these tables and “Charts”, I believe I have enough to get started.

  122. @ SteveInNC, your mention of divination from coffee grounds reminds me that in my mother’s circle were one or two women who could read tea leaves. I believe the method was they would make tea with loose tea in a teapot and pour a cup. Some leaves would end up in the cup as well. The client then flipped the cup to throw the tea out, leaving the leaves behind. The reader would then study the pattern the leaves made and be able to advise her client on whatever the problem was.

    I guess the invention of the teabag put an end to that tradition.

    My mother incidentally could dowse using a Y-shaped willow twig. She pointed out a spot on our neighbour’s property where he sunk a borehole and found good water. She was reluctant to talk about her ability. I think it scared her.

  123. @Patricia,

    Hahaha, that sounds like a pleasant retribution for both sides. I have no doubt that TSW, but I’m always baffled by HOW it works. In my own practices, most of the time a magical work triggers a chain of events that I thought would be unlikely before, and gets the intended result in a very unexpected way.

  124. Re: Cultural Appropriation

    In college, I learned of an academic framework called Critical Race Theory, which states as its underlying assumptions the following;

    -Institutionalized racism, specifically White Supremacy, exist and underlie Western (and indeed Global) society. Institutionalized racism exists even in the absence of individual Racists.

    -“Color-blindness”, meritocracy, and claims of racial neutrality are camouflaging terms used by both sides of the political isle (though primarily by the ‘left’ as an act of virtue signaling) to hide the aforementioned institutionalized racism that directly benefits them

    -Race affects every aspect of every person’s life, no matter the race of that person. Our whiteness affects how we move through the world, as someone’s blackness (latinxness, etc) affects them.

    Now, I look at things through the CRT lens, especially in areas around cultural appropriation. CRT makes certain dismissals of racial issues… more difficult. It is not so easy to say someone is “just being offended” by some racial slight when the existence of institutionalized racism has already been fully assumed.

    CRT holds history up to the same criticisms as the now; in regard to BB’s comment on the existence of racism before white supremacy, I would posit this is more evidence that the race a person is affects their lives deeply, even historically. Plus, the existence of historical/non-white-racial supremacy hardly excuses the willful ignorance of the racial injustice that affects us all today.

    All this is to say that acknowledging the difference in experience of other races and learning from those other cultures and races of people is very important, and understanding the different ground we are coming from greatly helps that information spread.

  125. Lew, that’s a grand old method! You can do the same thing with candle wax, you know — that’s another very ancient method of divination. Robert M.’s given a first-rate list of sources for crystal and mirror scrying, so that’ll give you many other options to consider.

    BB, bingo. That’s part of the standard rhetoric of class in America — the comfortable classes here from colonial times on have liked to pretend that they’re not really Americans, and fetishize some conveniently distant culture as a source of status symbols; in recent years that same attitude has spread through the comfortable classes of western Europe, too, so it’s become fashionable to decry all European cultures as, ahem, deplorable. That’s another of the reasons I’m talking about American magic just now…

    Xabier, the Romans used to use statues with erect penises for the same purpose, for whatever that’s worth.

    Chris, true enough!

    Isaac, delighted to hear it.

    Stefania, fair enough; your mileage may vary and all that.

  126. Regarding your response to BB, Mr. Greer, one should recall Spengler’s prophecy that by the early 21st Century, cosmopolitanism and anti-provincialism would assume the social superiority previously assigned to “the noble class”.

    Regarding anti-racism, one should note Musa Al-Gharbi’s brilliant essay on how this adversarialism is used to excuse the abuses of the dominant (disproportionately white) minority in global cities regarding the external proletariat (disproportionately minorites and immigrants).

    One could see such hypocracies with regard to, say, law enforcement for example. In the American context, a good way to virtue signal to bien pensants is to decry the “Southern Strategy” as the source of all racial injustice. Yet a map of police shootings shows that it is not the hillbilly/redneck states that have the highest numbers of police shootings; it is in the West, including Yuppie/SWPL/Bobo California (home of Silicon Valley and Hollywood) and the Hippie Pacific Northwest that are among the highest!

  127. @Dylandrogynous:

    One of the really interesting, and perhaps too much neglected, aspects of modern racial theory is how different cultures cut up humanity into races in very different ways: the modern Western division isn’t (and wasn’t) universal.

    When we moved to Providence from the San Francisco Bay area in the later 1960s, the contrast between the two places in this respect was quite striking. We had an apartment in a heavily Portuguese neighborhood, which was also heavily Catholic. But these Portuguese had at least two different ways of categorizing race.

    Older Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands, where there had been centuries of heavy intermarriage between Cape Verdeans of European ancestry and Cape Verdeans of African ancestry, might be of any actual skin color (even between siblings), but to a man or woman, they all considered themselves obviously “White,” since they were all Portuguese. Younger Cape Verdean Portuguese, however, were beginning to adopt the mainstream US categories of race, which was made attractive to them by the current Black Power movement. And, Oh Boy! was there ever generational conflict within single families over this change in how one defined the different races, and how one determined one’s own race.

    Portuguese Catholics of European ancestry, on the other hand, considered themselves a distinct race from French or Italian Catholics of European ancestry, and mixed marriages across any of those three lines were, to them, every bit as shocking a mixed marriages across mainstream racial boundaries were elsewhere in the US, back in the day. They felt closer to Cape Verdean Portuguese, or so it seemed to us, no matter what each individual’s actual skin color might be.

    (And for whatever it may be worth, there were very very few local “White” Protestants of any stripe anywhere in Providence–just a number of remaining old-Yankee families and people who had come to Brown University “from away.” There were far more Armenians–who are neither Catholics nor Protestants–than White Protestants of local origin in Providence when we arrived. — Black Protestants of local origin were far more numerous.)

    In the part of California where I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, the major racial line of division was between Asians (“Orientals”) and everyone else. Among the “everyone else,” the division into Black and White was a relatively minor concern. And “Jewish” versus “non-Jewish” ancestry, for instance, was barely on the radar of most of us in our ‘teen years. It wasn’t until I had lived in the East, where Jewish vs. non-Jewish seems to matter a lot, for more than a decade that it dawned on me one day that a high-school friend of mine named Dennis Cohen had in all probability been of Jewish ancestry.

    It always surprised me how hard it seemed to be for my friends and colleagues in the East to recognize instantly who was Chinese, who Japanese, and who Korean; these seemed as obvious as day and night to me. I, on the other hand, took years to learn how to tell Italians from Irish from French (usually of French Canadian extraction) here in Providence, where this is obvious to everyone born and raised here. I can tell them apart now, usually, only by their surnames; but the locals have countless other clues they use that I am still blind to, after living here more than a half century.

  128. Violet-

    That’s a very good point! I’m remembering a quote from an old classmate of mine: “I hate talking about culture aye? Its sooo broad!”

    That’s roughly what I thought as well. If Oswald Spengler is correct then western culture exhausted is cultural possibilities about 1900. When there’s no more creative ground to cover, the only remaining possibly is to fetishise other cultures or deconstruct their own culture down to its bare bones to create an empty faustian utopia. And of course, the more postmodernists obsess about being anti imperialist etc the more they contemplate racism and imperialism, the more the end up acting out racism, imperialism, classism etc in practice. they denounce evil old white men, while secretly being influenced by a lot of ‘old white men’, and the more the end up becoming like the very puritanical ‘old white men’ they so viciously denounce…

  129. Heather in CA – thanks for the insight into Girl and Boy Scouting! It occurred to me that the flavor of your daughter’s Girl Scout Troop can be reduced to that good old Regency term “Unexceptionable.” Meaning, “nothing that anyone could possibly take exception to.” As in “See? The leadership is safely in adult hands. No, they don’t do anything in the least out of the ordinary, so they won’t get into any trouble, and nobody could possibly fault them for the very acceptable things they do.” As for the boy scouts, well, “oh, well, they’re BOYS! That’s DIFFERENT!”

    Does that sound about right to you?

  130. Dear Katsmama,

    You’re most welcome! That book really and truly rocks and I’m delighted you found it worthwhile.

  131. Re: Strenuous skills, survival skills, home-based skills, etc. – I visit with an extended family (or several related families) in a somewhat isolated place not far from Albuquerque. While in some ways their views of the roles of men and women were traditional and religious based (Morman?), the skills the parents (especially the mothers) taught both boys and girls cooking, cleaning, sewing, knitting etc., household management, healing arts, home repair (basic carpentry, plumbing, etc.), animal care, in addition to homeschooling (reading, math, etc.).

    Also, whenever I hear about traditional men’s and women’s skills and occupations, a book by Roosevelt Grier, ‘Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men’ comes to mind. Mr. Grier played professional football in the 1950s-60s.

  132. @ Robert Mathiesen – Thank you for all the wonderful resources! I’ll check my library, first. They sometimes surprise. Then E-Bay, and lastly, The River. Lew

  133. Dear Mr. Greer – My grandfather also had a Laplandic (Saumi) branch in his background. I saw a National Geographic documentary, several years ago, that related that Tolkien had spent quit a bit of time in northern Finland, communing with the shaman. and that some of the inspiration for “Lord of the Rings” came from Finn and Laplandic myth. Among the many languages Tolkien spoke, I believe he was fluent in some of the Scandinavian dialects.

    Decades ago, I used to read cards. I never cared for the Tarot decks, as they seemed … obscure to me. I had better luck with a regular deck of 52. Back in my drinkin’ days, I used to do readings at my “home away from home.” Not for money, but for drinks. Two things I found out. 1.) When I was hot, I was hot. Some evenings, I could just nail one reading after another. Other nights … zip. 2.) I could not do readings, for myself. Total washout.

    Was it Shakespeare? McBeth? that stated, “All Finn women are witches.” 🙂 . And a few men, too. Lew

  134. Here’s another book for you, Lew:

    K. M. Koppana, “Snakefat and Knotted Threads: A Short Introduction to Traditional Finnish Magic.” Helsinki: Mandragora Dimensions, 1990.

    All the older books I mentioned in my earlier post can be downloaded gratis as PDFs from and similar sites; you can read them on your computer with any free program such as Preview.

  135. Hi PatriciaT,

    During Tudor times, knitting was mostly a pursuit of men.

  136. Lady Cutekitten, you ask:

    “What do you think the chances are of Coronavirus putting us Americans back to a real economy such as the U.S. had in the ’50’s?”

    FWIW, I’m not optimistic. I fear the coronavirus shutdown is the kickoff to the second Great Depression, far worse than the first. A crucial factor for the first depression involved an accumulation of a mountain of debt, about 300% of GDP. Prior to this current pandemic, the US public had accumulated a similar level of debt, and it was clearly unpayable even before the shutdown. This debt includes student loans, medical debt, credit cards, car loans and other consumer debt, mortgage debt, second mortgage debt, and let’s not forget all the small business (proprietorships, chapter S corps and LLCs) with their business loans and all the commercial real estate loans out there, such as to all the small-time residential and commercial landlords. What makes the housing and commercial real estate loans especially bad is that real estate is so overpriced compared to the earning power underlying it. With the shutdown, there has been a historic tsunami of unemployment. Already, the unemployment rate is worse than at any point of the Great Depression. A huge swath of borrowers having stopped making payments (e.g. 1/3 of May home mortgage payments were not made, June will be worse). There is some forbearance of mortgage and rent payments, but they are not being annulled, just kicked down the road a bit, and THEN it will be due. When the economy re-opens, the unemployed public will have little cash to spend, and those who do have cash will be hanging on to it for dear life. Who ever has money must prioritize paying down any arrears, lest they get foreclosed or evicted, and hold reserves for a possible second shutdown from an anticipated second wave of the virus. So I expect severe deflation, as whatever money is used to pay down debt/arrears simply vanishes from the economy. That debt, when it was new, was simply created ex nihilo with a few strokes on the bank’s keyboard, and when paid back, the money will disappear the same way. With the economy so bad, no one will be able to borrow, as banks will have no safe prospects to lend to, so deflation. As for relief, over 80% of the funds for coronavirus relief is for banks and large corporations, with virtually none of it finding its way to the public’s pockets. The 20% allocated to us will not touch our collective shortfall.

    Clearly the banks are being back-stopped, bailed out and kept whole, but not the borrowing public. The banks will never be compelled to realize losses from loan defaults, or real estate price declines. They eventually can, and doubtless will, foreclose on the loans that tanked because of the shutdown, with any notional losses reimbursed by the Federal Reserve. The banking system is clearly set up to reap a colossal windfall from this calamity that will enable them to dispossess the public outright. I don’t think it has to be this way. I think at minimum, loan interest during the shutdown/recovery should be annulled with, say, 4-6 months slippage in payment schedules. But what is truly needed is a debt jubilee, with the banking system itself socialized as a public utility. The US Constitution even stipulates such. I’m not holding my breath on either of these remedies actually coming to pass.

    If anyone has a happier, more plausible scenario, I’d sure like to hear it.

  137. @Cliff – you said ‘JMG’s answer, “Learn history to expand the choices available to you,” is one I’ve never seen outside of his writing.’

    That sparked a thought, which is that “expanding the choices available to you” is exactly the rationale behind David Graeber’s view on learning anthropology.

    And I duly read both with exactly that thought in mind. There have to be other ways than these ways…

  138. Scotlyn, I found the third way to be science fiction, which (sometimes) applies the findings of history and anthropology to work out the social effects of future technology extrapolated from science.

    The fourth is travel and immersion in other cultures.

    The fifth is the collection of methods that the human race has developed to change how the mind processes information and directs its attention: philosophy, mathematics, prayer, meditation, art, close observation of nature, entheogens, dancing, fasting and other ascetic practices, sex, etc.

  139. I have a question for the readership here about ‘cultural appropriation’.

    We rightly laugh and point at the stupidities of the SJWs and the wanna-be stalinists in US (both left and right, like there is a difference).
    Why do you accept this particular trope? I personally don’t believe that ‘cultural appropriation’ exists at all.

    First of all the concept is ludicrous – Americans should invent their own alphabet (instead of using Latin), language (no English) and so on. Of course like with a lot of SJW crap, it’s okay to “steal” from the Europeans, just not from groups that they specifically anoint as “special”.

    Just curious why this particular concept is considered acceptable here?
    Ideas are just that and somehow allowing only specific groups to use specific ideas is the worst possible idea I saw.
    One other note – from what I have seen nobody else in the world worries about ‘cultural appropriation’ so I think this is just another absurdity sprouting in an empire in decline.


  140. LunarApprentice – I can’t argue much with your analysis. I agree that we’re on the way to an unprecedented economic situation. The only thing I have to add is that “one man’s debt is another man’s asset”. An action that cancels the debts of some also vaporizes the assets of others. I’m not worried about the paper wealth of the rich, but at some point they can convert paper wealth into actual assets. E.g., sell stocks/bonds to buy land.

    A few decades ago, I was idly browsing real-estate ads while visiting northern England. One high-end property caught my eye. The details are fading, but a country property was described as including X hectares of pasture, Y hectares of wooded land, a small village with several shops, a pub, and Z units of housing. The price was some millions of pounds, but I was shocked to think that one “landlord” could actually own every square meter of property in sight: agricultural, commercial, and residential. Everybody owed rent to the same guy. I assume that no one had the option of buying his property. (What landlord would want to break up the estate?) No, you’ll pay rent to him for the rest of your life, your heirs will pay rent to his heirs, and so on (unless they just get tired of the game). I wouldn’t fault the serfs for giving their master the evil eye.

  141. @Scotlyn: I had to look David Graeber up. I’ve heard of his Debt: The First 5000 Years but never bothered to read it. Looking at the rest of his bibliography, I may have to dig in. It looks like he’s on to some interesting stuff.

  142. Dylandrogonous: you wrote: “All this is to say that acknowledging the difference in experience of other races and learning from those other cultures and races of people is very important, and understanding the different ground we are coming from greatly helps that information spread.”

    You say that as if knowing about, and adhering to “Critical Race Theory” was a necessary component of doing this, or as if doing this would lead you to necessarily endorse CRT. And it if was true, furthermore, by its own rules, wouldn’t CRT be just an appropriated expression of the racial worldviews of the people who espouse/invent/articulate it? Or are you just saying, hey it helped me, maybe it can help you? But that’s not how it’s presented in the academy, the talk shows, or in politics. The only reason it’s not mandatory is that its proponents have such a low view of everyone else’s IQ and ethical capacity (and they benefit professionally) that it’s reserved for the intellectual elite, although its conclusions are spooned out to the rest of us. I mean, it even calls itself a “Theory”. That’s ironic.

  143. @Violet:
    “When they encounter the swirling depths whence meaning arises they grow pale and try to place some sort of ban or dam on it. I believe that the words “racist!” or “problematic!” are just cover for a much deeper and more edged fear.”

    Wow! Your idea about some people hating and fearing culture itself as a source of meaning has really grabbed me. If pop culture *is* your culture, and you know it’s meaningless, and someone else shows signs of engaging with a real culture, which does seem to encode or transmit meaning, and you’re now acutely aware on some level that there is meaning that you are not privy to… They know something you don’t know. And if you fancy yourself someone who knows all the things worth knowing, and suddenly you suspect that might not be the case after all… This makes so much sense out of so many otherwise inexplicable interactions I’ve seen, I feel like I have a big cartoon exclamation point over my head. Thanks for the new thinking tool.

    –Heather in CA

  144. @Patricia Mathews-
    Well, unfortunately, actually the Girl Scout leader considers herself a rather sassy feminist. (However, it seems to me that enduring a messy divorce has simply left her bitter towards men rather than actually empowering to young women.) I don’t think she I working to keep the girls “unexceptionable”; she has just not put a lot of effort into helping them do anything interesting, either. I do feel badly criticizing her, especially since she does something I’m simply not willing to do, which is put up with all the “training” and meetings and politics necessary to be sanctioned as a troop leader. (At this point in my life, I am only interested in working with the girls themselves.) She has continued to provide the structure for a dwindling group of girls to keep meeting as a troop for many years, so I do need to credit her for that. As for the messaging from the national organization, it’s very much Be Your Unique Self! Make a Difference in the World! But very short on anything besides talk, talk, talk. So in that respect, the larger organization may be sanctioning a particular image of girls as highly verbal, but not necessarily active.

    The Boy Scout troop we are with is much larger (somewhere around 50 active Scouts, with a dozen or so adult helpers). There is simply much more energy available to channel into doing interesting things, and a strong group cultural expectation that Interesting Things Will Be Done. And I suspect that the adults quite enjoy the interesting things too, though personally I do not ever need to crawl on my belly through a lava tube cave again. I don’t see the programming as being different because they are boys, but simply because that’s what this group does.

    As a case in point, my daughter’s troop has *never* gone camping (as opposed to going to an official, organized camp program ). To be allowed to do so, at least two of us leaders (there are only three of us) would have to do a weekend training, including camping with other trainees (without the girls) to learn the requisite skills, to be certified as camping leaders. And the troop leader, you know, doesn’t like camping anyways, so that’s just not something the troop does. By contrast, my son’s troop goes camping at least one weekend a month, year round, with similar requirements for two trained adults, but a much larger pool of adult volunteers, and the expectation that it’s an integral part of the program. There is a defined progression of skills spelled out for Boy Scouts, from learning how to pick out a campsite to handling a pocket knife and cooking camp meals, and everybody learns them, without exception.

    This contrast is why, though I value single gender groups and spaces, I am glad that some girls are getting access to the Scouts BSA (Boy Scouts) programming in their own troops. While it’s far from perfect, it’s got a lot going for it, not least some serious group momentum.

    –Heather in CA

  145. John – thanks ever so much for the pointer to
    And this great history lesson.

    BXN – re veterans and (apparently) increasing mental heath issues:

    In _The Body Keeps the Score_ by Bessel van der Kolk, around pg 189-190 paperback,
    he talks of how culture shapes the expression of traumatic stress. He talks of his time working at the VA,
    and being puzzled by the young vets seeking psychiatry services while the medical departments patients were all older men. When he administered PTSD questionnaires to both groups, they scored about the same.
    But the old guys expressed their distress by complaining about stomach pains, chest pains, etc., while the young guys would talk about nightmares and rage (though the older guys had those too – they just didn’t talk about it or seek treatment for them – so the un(verbally)expressed trauma came out in their bodies).

    So it’s unclear how much of the apparently increasing mental health issues among vets are truly increases in trauma/social disconnection/…, and how much is that younger generations of men are more willing to talk about trauma and seek mental health services.

  146. @LunarApprentice: The cunning answer is that we are being guided to confront the bad decisions we made concerning debt, and decide whether we will make them again. That’s free will, for you. And that’s Saturn’s influence too, and it’s just gone retrograde.

  147. Late comment to note that I really enjoyed this and the discussion, and to add a data point from here in rural Western PA.

    I was talking to Dad lately about our well, and the possibility of a new one, and he said that the guy who dug the original told him that it was the only water we’d get up on this hill and, to quote my largely-very-materialist father, “He uses dowsing, but I trust his judgment.”

    Also on survival skills, agreed with both the need for them and the need for people of all genders to learn them. Lady Cutekitten mentioned the male knitters of Tudor times (and apparently male shepherds did most of the knitting in Celtic cultures, as it was a thing to do while you watched your flocks*), and both my father and my brother-in-law are the cooks in their respective households.

    On Girl Scouts: I like the cookies themselves, hate the cookie sales being so much of the program. I’m frankly not thrilled with any sales model that involves proactively bothering strangers, and I don’t love training kids to do that.

    * And I will now always imagine the shepherds of Christian lore showing up at the manger with half-done socks and similar, although I know that’s a different culture.

  148. @JMG- This is extremely OT: – feel free not to publish it, but I had to answer one of your nonmagical comments on MM.

    If you truly believe this flu is a nothingburger, then I can see why you think that those who take it seriously have all gone mad. But believe me, where I am, the people running this center are taking it very seriously, at considerable cost and inconvenience to themselves. Nurses and other healthcare people on the front lines seem to be taking it very seriously, as are those whose jobs are personal care of all sorts. And if it is as nasty as reports from hospitals etc have indicated, and as easy to spread, on top of being a virgin field epidemic, then the stakes in disbelief are, to speak as precisely as I can, life and death, exactly as they were in 1918. The hospitals where my sons-in-law and daughter work are taking it with exactly that level of seriousness.

    I hope to all the gods that you and Sara remain well, and untouched by it; and that Providence, and Rhode Island itself, may be free of it. And for what it’s worth, both the Lakota and the Navajo Nations – and the Navajo are being ravaged by it – have closed the gates to their lands, as have many Alaskan villages, whose elders had vivid memories of the death toll in 1918 and will not let it happen again.

    I beseech you, in the bowels of Cthulhu, think it possible you may be mistaken.

    Pat in Florida (Purple Raving Lunatic)

  149. Aidan, many thanks for all of these. Yes, I’ve been thinking about Spengler’s comments fairly often of late!

    Lew, Tolkien had a fluent knowledge of all the Germanic languages, ancient and modern — the guy could pray extempore in Gothic — and so could handle Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian with ease. He also learned Finnish in his teen years because he’d found an English translation of the Kalevala and just had to read it in the original. He was a language geek’s language geek! He modeled Quenya, one of his two elvish languages, on Finnish — the other, Sindarin, is modeled on Welsh, and he notes in one of his essays that he did that because he thought they were the two most beautiful languages he’d ever encountered. (Ever the Brit, he insisted that French was the ugliest…)

    NomadicBeer, I don’t normally worry about the concept of cultural appropriation. When it comes to spiritual traditions, though, there are lines it’s not good to cross.

    Patricia, it startles me that even someone as clear-headed as you can miss the point that I tried to make. To say that the current coronavirus outbreak is about as serious as a bad flu season is not to dismiss it as a nothingburger. A bad flu season can kill a million people worldwide. When I worked in nursing homes, we took every possible precaution to keep flu from getting into the facilities, because if it did there would be a dozen deaths in a week or two. My point is not that it’s not a problem — my point is that it’s nothing like as severe as some fearmongering claims have made it out to be. There is rather some middle ground between “no problem at all” and “we’re all gonna die!”

  150. Ah. All right, then; we have grounds for agreement. No, I don’t think “everybody’s going to die,” for sure. Though my daughter’s mother-in-law is high risk, and my daughter thinks I am, and just in the course of nature and attrition this facility is losing a resident or two a week. But I do think it’s nasty and I do own a mask and several bandannas. Oh, and for pure euphemism, one of the pundits on the online money news (Bloomsberg?) predicted “An L-shaped recession.”

    Again OT: on the Greek Mythology thing, I had another insight while doing the laundry today. Or else Someone spoke to me. The background chorus was “You’re overthinking it again and going off on one of your well-known tangents. Get back to basics.” Basics is that I’m Wiccan. Our primary deities are (as I address them after lighting the candle) The Lord and The Lady. The Great Mother and the Horned God. Lady of all that is living; Lord of all that is wild.” I worship them *as* Gaia and Pan whether or not that’s how the Greeks understood them. But I do start by invoking them in Greek.

    Pat, looking forward to pre-ordering the Black Goat’s Oracle if and when you find an artist that can do it justice. My 52-card deck (courtesy of LeNormand) includes a railroad, among other things, and the ship isn’t under sail. Pity.

  151. FYI – and do make allowances for Charlie Stross’ political orientation – scroll down to the post below his latest “Down in the dumps with the dumpster on fire” post and read “It’ll all be over by Christmas.” He actually has the variables – and the “heads you lose, tails you lose” aspect of opening or not opening up pretty well nailed down. [He’s anti-Brexit partly because he doesn’t want to see Scotland cut loose from the EU and left twisting in the wind. A loose alliance with the other northern nations doesn’t seem to have occurred to him.]

  152. Dear Heather,

    You’re most welcome! When people act in ways that apparently don’t make sense I tend to think that the actions will make sense if I totally disregard the words that folks say in justification and, rather than looking at or considering the words at all, I interpret the results of the actions themselves as the actual meat and meaning of what’s going on. Basically I take it when words and actions come into conflict the words come out the weaker of the two, and can be safely regarded as cant. Actions though, to my mind at least, eloquently speak for themselves.

  153. NomadicBeer,

    I roll my eyes whenever cultural appropriation is mentioned, however, there are at least two reasons why it does matter for spiritual issues. The first is that certain gods care about ethnicity (the Jewish God, for example), and while it is possible to get their interest, unless you are willing to put a great deal of effort into it, it’s probably not worth it. Also it is possible to offend gods, and I tend to be wary about approaching deities which don’t first approach me, or which have a reputation for being approachable. Thus if someone says “These are our gods, they’re not interested in you”, unless I hear otherwise from the gods, I’ll accept it. Annoying gods is dangerous enough that I won’t risk it if I can avoid it.

    The other reason is that any spiritual practice worth doing carries risks. I don’t want to do it unless I know for sure the person teaching me knows what they’re doing, and so if a tradition limits itself to one group, well, I won’t worry about it. If I need to learn those traditions, then I’ll have a life where I can, but it’s not this one.

  154. JMG / Patricia M – The idea that “coronavirus is like the flu” is ambiguously dependent on what your image or experience of the flu is. Many people casually dismiss a 48-hour stomach bug as “just the flu”. Of course, they’re wrong. Read “The Great Influenza” (John Barry) to get a handle on what “the flu” can be. As in the movie “Jaws”, people with financial interests (Mardi Gras, Lunar New Year celebrations) initially minimized the risk. (The WHO accepted Chinese assurances that it wasn’t spreading person-to-person, but merely animal-to-person, like MERS does.) When the danger turned out to be much greater than claimed, we don’t know who to trust. (I trust Chris Martenson, by the way.) I think we can agree that COVID-19 has been, and will be, as bad as an influenza virus for which we have neither vaccine or native immunity, but it won’t be the Black Death. (So, those of us who learned about the Black Death have a different perspective from those who’ve not even read about the 1918 flu.)

    The paradox is that if we suppose that we end up with a 1% death toll, that’s about 3.5 million dead in this country (a horrible, unlikely, result!), yet if a young adult has a social circle of 25 young adult friends, they’re not likely to “know anybody like themself” who dies, and might still wonder what all the fuss was about. Those of us on the far side of 60 are both more aware (there’s that “history” topic again), and at greater risk.

    The government decisions on which businesses had to close, and which could stay open, are seeming more and more arbitrary by the day, as are the compensating payment schemes. Open everything back up tomorrow, and let people make their own decisions? As long as we have masks, gloves, and such in place, sure… but I’m not sitting down in a restaurant, bus, train, or plane for a long, long time.

  155. Lathechuck and all:

    You may find this article as interesting as I did to help you navigate risks as things begin to open up:

    The author begins with a discussion of Karl Flügge, the 19th century researcher who performed the earliest scientific experiments into how far droplets spread when a person coughs, and then goes on to examine and plot all of the verified corona virus ‘super-spreader events’ (SSE’s) to discern how the virus was spread in each of them. He comes up with very interesting data that could allay some of your fears and help you exercise special caution in the situations that warrant it.

  156. @Arkansas
    I was introduced to CRT through an academic institution, and as such, it was introduced in the form of an academic framework; a way that academics share a set of assumptions to expedite the writing and peer review of papers.
    I am many years removed from that setting, and as such the tenets of CRT have left the context of academia and moved into the realm of my closely held beliefs.

    I believe that institutionalized racism exists and effects everyone, I believe that “color blindness” and “meritocracy” talk can be dismissed as camouflage terms for ignored racist problems. My beliefs about race are non falsifiable, like my beliefs about Druidism and the interconnectedness of nature.

    I love this blog, and I believe that this commitariat is one of the most intelligent on the web, but there has always been a blindness to race issues in the discussion. We are a majority white group (I don’t have to see anybody’s face to know that) that tends to dismiss how racism and cultural appropriation affects others.

    I ask you, @Arkansas, and others, to engage with the proposal that your race effects your lifestyle intimately, that institutionalized racism exists and affects everybody (consider that, if you don’t feel the day-to-day negative consequences of racism, then that points to the high likelihood that you are experiencing the day-to-day benefit of racism). If you believe yourself to be “color blind” as I once did, challenge your motivations for believing that is so. I was once scared of the differences between myself and other races, so I used the color blindness excuse to avoid dealing with those differences. I was scared for a reason, and the consequences shook my worldview, but that fear is gone, and with it the illusion of a post-racial society.

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