In Conversation With Lisa Sterle, Creator Of The Modern Witch Tarot

Lisa Sterle is the creator of the Modern Witch Tarot, a new inclusive tarot deck inspired by modern witches. Charlotte Richardson Andrews (The Culture Witch) had a chat with Lisa about her tarot journey and her new inclusive deck.


Cunning Folk Congratulations on creating such a beautiful deck. Is it safe to assume you identity as a modern witch? And if so, could you speak a bit about your practice?

Lisa Sterle Thank you, and yes I’d consider myself a modern witch. As far as my practice goes, I actually mainly only practise tarot at the moment. It was the first thing that got me into witchcraft.

CF How did you first discover the tarot?

LS I think I first ran across tarot in high school, and I’m thinking it was probably through some witchy movie or YA book that I discovered it. I didn’t get my own deck and start reading myself until college; I had a few friends that regularly practiced tarot and looking through their decks was instantly fascinating and inspiring. I totally felt it calling to me right away. My first deck was the Thoth deck.

CF You say in the instruction guide to the Modern Witch Deck (MWD) that you began making this deck during a time of professional and personal (creative) gloom. Could you elaborate?

LS Yes, it’s a bit strange of an origin story. I was working a dead-end graphic design job that was draining away my passion for art and my faith in humanity. I was 100% burnt out and felt totally unappreciated and uninspired; I felt like my art hadn’t really gone anywhere new for a while. I didn’t know what to do. So the Ten of Swords was really calling to me during this really bleak period of my life. And like sort of this divine spark, I had my idea for the first card of the deck. The fact that I was able to transform a really bleak and negative period of my life into something positive is one of the things I really love about this deck and it speaks to my general mission with art.

CF Would you say the MWD helped you to course correct?

LS For sure. This deck was one of the projects that allowed me to go full-time freelance and my art has taken on such a new life creatively ever since. I’m so grateful for it.


CF The instructions feature a foreword by (New York fiction writer) Vita Ayala. How did you cross paths?

LS I first worked with Vita on a creator-owned comic back in 2018 called Submerged. They are a supremely talented writer and we really bonded on a lot of shared interests and similar creative inspirations when working on that comic. I really admire Vita; they are driven, super smart and inspiring as a creator. When it came time to figuring out who would be writing the foreword, I knew they were the perfect choice and they did an absolutely beautiful job. I couldn't be happier.

CF Now to the deck itself: did other tarot artists inspire you? If so, who and why?

LS Pamela Coleman Smith’s art was a big influence. There’s something about her bold, graphic style that has always spoken to me, but it really wasn’t until this deck that I really tried to explore it.

CF Alternative tarot decks have been around a while now, but the first one that really spoke to me as a queer millennial was Cristy C. Road’s Next World Tarot. Are you familiar with this deck?

LS I am not, but I’ll definitely be checking it out. I love getting deck recommendations.

CF I’m guessing you drew on pre-existing scholarship when it came to researching tarot symbols and archetypes. What/who were your go-to tarot books and experts?

LS I had a big stack of different books that I’d reference for each card design as a refresher on the different ways to interpret each deck. The books I went to most often though were Seventy Eight Degrees of Wisdom by Rachel Pollack, and Modern Tarot by Michelle Tea.

CF In total, how long did the MWD take to craft?

LS I’d say about four months to design and illustrate all the cards I think.

CF Talk me through the creative process. Did you work in the way that you’d normally create art? Or did you add tarot-adjacent practices into the mix? For example, did you ever experiment with meditating, divination or fugue states in order to divine which directions to go in art-wise?

LS My process didn’t differ too much from my normal way of working. I’d usually focus on a card per day, and spend time with the card itself. Studying the art in the Rider-Waite-Smith and other decks; reading up different interpretations and getting as deep as I could into the symbols and context. The whole while I’d be jotting down ideas and really trying to get to the heart of what I felt was most true about the card. From there it was sketching and layout time, where I’d take what notes I’d jotted down and focused on filtering those meanings through a modern filter. Then came a fun part, where I’d do fashion and style research and figure out the characters and personalities I’d be crafting for the card. All in all, it was actually a super fun and relatively painless process.

CF What medium(s) did you use? Were the images created digitally, by hand, or a mixture of both?

LS This deck was all digital, though I do make an effort to add an organic, traditional looking feel to my digital artwork. I do my sketching in Procreate on an iPad Pro, then I finish the inking/colouring and everything else in Photoshop on my desktop.

CF One of the first things that drew me to the deck when I came across it on Instagram was the palette you’ve used. Can you talk a bit about the hues and tones you chose to work with, and the meaning behind them?

LS Figuring out the colour schemes was one of my favorite parts of working on this deck. I definitely wanted it to be bright and eye-catching, with a mix of pastels and bright, saturated colors. I think it also has a vaguely ‘90s feel. My goal was to make sure all the cards looked great next to each other in a spread, so I had to have some strict rules for the palette to make it feel cohesive. One odd rule is that I almost entirely omitted the ‘standard’ blue hue, and everything that would have been blue is now shifted to mint. All yellows are more golden. Green is mostly absent unless it’s a teal. I also wanted each suite to have it’s own color scheme that visually ties it to its element. So Cups has a lot of mint/blues and pinks for water, Wands has a lot of golds and reds for fire, etc.

CF The MWD has a very glossy finish, and, when stacked, is rather wide and heavy for my rather small, thin hands – much wider than my Morgan Greer and Rider-Waite-Smith decks. Was this an intentional design choice?

LS Yes, mostly. The publisher and I hoped to have cards that felt quality, so we didn’t want anything too thin or small. We decided to do a larger-sized deck so that the art can really shine, and that was the case with the glossy finish as well; colors print more vibrantly with a glossy finish. But as someone who also has small hands, I understand the difficulty! I have to cut the deck and shuffle in smaller piles, which works. But maybe we can do a smaller sized deck in the future as well.

CF There’s a very clear commitment to diversity in regards to the way figures and archetypes are both named and depicted in this deck – from people of colour and plus size figures, to queered, androgynous archetypes and same-sex couples. You’ve also flipped some of the gendered cards – for example, The Magician (I), usually a white guy, is a young woman of colour, the King of Cups looks like a cis woman and The Hanged Man (XII) has become The Hanged One. Why was making this deck inclusive important to you?

LS It’s an inclusive feminist deck. Most of the people I know that practice witchcraft are women, or nonbinary, or anything but the white men that adorn the majority of the cards in the traditonal Rider-Waite-Smith deck. We have an incredibly diverse world, so much more than we see represented in a lot of popular media; I wanted to create characters within this deck that reflected the readers and their friends, figures they could relate to or aspire to be. I wanted the figures within these cards to feel like they could be part of your coven today.

CF You’ve employed unmistakably modern imagery in the cards – for example, The Fool (0) is listening to an iPod-type device, while The Chariot (XII) is riding a motorcycle. Were you ever worried that modernizing the cards might date them, perhaps detracting from their traditionally timeless occult qualities?

LS I think attempting to create ‘timeless’ art is a sort of a fool’s errand. Sure, I’d love my work to persist through the decades, but that’s not really up to me as an artist. I can only try and create what feels true to me right now.

CF As well as updating the imagery of cards, I notice you’ve also updated some of its more traditional symbols around. The pomegranate print we usually see The Empress (III) wearing has transformed into a lemon print in your deck. What was the thinking behind this?

LS That was a nod to a particular musician that inspired that card in a big way.


CF You’ve also flipped other, traditional images; for example, The Lovers (VI) are usually pictured in daylight. In the MWD, we find them in a night garden. Were the changes you’ve made ever purely aesthetic, or was there a clear reasoning behind all of these updates?

LS Sometimes they were aesthetic, sometimes not, With The Lovers in particular, I think the night time setting adds a nice romantic element to their union.

CF Do you yourself appear anywhere in the deck? You’ve said the Ten of Swords was the first card you drew, but I wonder if we might also see you in a card like the Eight of Pentacles, hard at work at the drawing board?

LS Haha, yes! The Eight of Pentacles is indeed a self-portrait. I wasn’t originally planning on it, but when I got to that card, the meaning just felt too perfect for a bit of a self-insert.

CF Which card are you most proud of reinterpreting? Which card proved the most challenging?

LS It’s so hard to pick a favourite. The Ten of Swords will always stand out to me as the card that started the entire deck, and was actually the easiest for me to reimagine. I also love The Chariot and The Magician. As far as the most challenging, it tended to be the simpler cards that actually proved the hardest to reinterpret. For example, The Star was tough to figure out how to put my own spin on. Ditto the Aces. Mainly, because the imagery in the RWS is already so strong and iconic on it’s own, it was tougher to figure out how much or what to alter.


CF You say that you hope the deck will allow would-be diviners to “find a path to your best self.” Has making it allowed the MWD allowed you to find your own best self?

LS Definitely. Working on this deck was such a joy, and honestly one of the most creatively fulfilling projects I’ve worked on. It really helped me get closer to figuring out my own personal artistic style as well, which is something I’ve struggled with for a long time. I hope that these cards speak to readers, and that the love and care I’ve put into creating them shines through.

The Modern Witch Tarot by Lisa Sterle is published by Liminal 11 in November 2019. Pre-order now, £21.99 standard or £65 for the special limited edition. All images © Lisa Sterle and Liminal 11.

Other Worlds Within Our Own: Photographs By Nicolette Clara Iles

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London-based artist Nicolette Clara Iles’s painterly photographs depict a world—or worlds—quite different from our own. ‘My main inspirations is, strangely, life itself,’ says the artist. 'There is so much more to life than we see or realise on the surface … I like to make the everyday seem a little more unusual, even magical at times.’ Their work also draws inspiration from Francesca Woodman, Imogen Cunningham’s early photographic work and the surrealist paintings of Leonora Carrington.

Shown here are photographs from two of Iles’s series, Pitchfork and Cornish Folk. The former is based on a daydream the artist had about a group of people rising up to bury those who hurt them in previous lives. It’s a scene plucked straight from the unconscious mind and made tangible. For the latter, they stayed at a tiny farm in rural Cornwall with a woman who kept sheep. Cornwall, with its pastoral landscape, rugged coastlines, Neolithic history and local folklore, seems the perfect magical setting. ‘The lady who owned the farm had seen some awful things in her time, yet being there felt healing." Near her home were the Men-an-Tol standing stones, shown here. "Legend has it if you can put your body through the hole of one standing stone, it can heal.’

Iles views creativity as a magical practice and likens it to ‘stirring a cauldron of ideas.’ They reclaim the word ‘witch’ as an artist, but also as an act of defiance against the oppressive forces of the modern world. ‘Witch to me means having a strong connection with yourself, your ancestors if you can, and the world around you. It’s a soul-bearing declaration, but it’s powerful; with it, you can harness a hidden power within and put it to good use.’ 

‘There’s more magic in our world than we realise,’ they emphasise. These photographs remind us there are still things in our reality we cannot see. Iles invites us to look for them.

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All images © Nicolette Clara Iles

The Everlasting Season of Lana Del Rey

When you find a good cover song it’s not always similarity you’re getting attached to, it’s usually a marked specialness brought over the collaboration with another artist’s work. A certain sense that something is recognisable but just slightly off, just slightly mysterious. All things that Lana Del Rey, even when she’s not covering 60s classics, seems to inhabit all day, everyday.

But even when it’s the little differences that might be what entice us to cover songs, Donovan’s clicky, cloudy, “Season of the Witch” with Lana works because the fit is perfect. Who could be a more witchy, flowy contemporary singer than the gangster Nancy Sinatra who never seems fulfilled while never putting a foot wrong.

Elizabeth Grant, in her persona as Del Rey, encapsulates everything about the witchy world that is grabbing people’s attention more and more now. Not only is she an independent woman who holds a secret, individual power, there’s also always something missing. Something about Del Rey is, planned or not, inherently unknowable (read: near magical).

It’s a trick the best writers often talk about: that ability to use the negative space. While Del Rey pours out stories and emotions and angst in her songs, you get a tingle of a sense that there’s still things she’s not telling us. It’s all one big hint and she knows something and she’s going to let you figure it out on your own.

It might explain the continuing interest and discussion of her in the insta-stargazer camp. When Del Rey tweeted her birth time at astrologer and writer Randon Rosenbohm, it prompted a whole VICE article: ‘Lana Del Rey Is a Cancer, Not a Gemini,’ the headline told us. ‘Lana Del Rey is actually a Cancer, so do with that what you will,’ the Fader yelled out. Cancer makes more sense, the Fader told us, as it’s “decidedly the most sensitive and emotional sign of the zodiac.”

But while Del Rey’s sensitivity comes across in her work it never comes across as weakness. There’s drama but it’s her drama. There’s hardship but it’s her hardship. She is always, somehow, in control - she’s hurt but she likes it; she’s bleeding but it’s stylish. The power is otherworldly, a word that is used fairly constantly in any articles about Del Rey.

There was a hint at this great withholding once, a few years back. In 2012, still high off the strength of Born to Die, Del Rey was named GQ’s Woman of the Year. In the accompanying interview, Del Rey, sitting on the floor in a Monte Carlo hotel suite, told us one of the secrets that writers keep from their readers. 

“A lot of the time when I write about the person that I love, I feel like I'm writing about New York. And when I write about the thing that I've lost I feel like I'm writing about alcohol because that was the first love of my life. Sure, there have been people, but it's really alcohol."

The interview itself was overshadowed at the time by a small furore over the accompanying photoshoot, depicting the men in suits and Del Rey naked. Despite Jezebel’s half-joking headline “GQ Ran Out of Clothes for Its Woman of the Year,” It didn’t dull her power. If anything, it’s just another example of it.

Del Rey knows that we want her and she’s fine with that - she’ll never want us in the same way. Maybe alcohol is in the way, maybe it’s her changing zodiac sign, maybe it’s the withheld mystique that just makes you want to keep listening over and over until you finally figure out what it is she’s keeping from you.

Del Rey’s upcoming album ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’ is out today and contains songs that have already captured us: “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have - but I have it”; “Mariners Apartment Complex”; her cover of Sublime’s “Doin’ Time” (covers; magical, unknowable covers). It truly is the Season of Lana Del Rey.

How To Make Your Own Spells

Cuneiform tablet: Gula incantation, ca. mid- to late 1st millennium B.C.  The Met .

Cuneiform tablet: Gula incantation, ca. mid- to late 1st millennium B.C. The Met.

During a drawn-out breakup from a long-term relationship, my best friend took on a new mantra: “Have courage and be kind.” These words were not her own—she first heard them in a Disney film. But repeating them daily made her feel more resilient and more connected with her sense of self. She probably didn’t define the repetition of this mantra as spellcraft, though that is essentially what it was. Through repeating a chain of words in a ritualistic manner, she had power over her limited field of action.

Spells have existed at least since the advent of writing. The earliest known written magical incantations were found on clay tablets in Ancient Mesopotamia, written in Cuneiform script. Spells appear cross-culturally, throughout documented history. Sometimes the words, written or transmitted orally, are sufficient. At other times, they are strengthened by objects or rituals. We cannot deny the cultural importance of spells. But do they really work?

“Words have power,” is a phrase often evoked in times of political unrest, when writers, poets and lyricists speak words that inspire change. It’s hard to ascribe the quote to one person, perhaps because it’s a belief that has existed in our consciousness since the early days of language. Knowing the right words, and uttering them in the right sequence and context, is empowering.

Historically, we have countless examples that show words have the potential to stir up distrust in an institution, to trigger social reform, or to transform individuals. Charles Dickens may be part responsible for the closure of the work houses, while the publication of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty led to the end of the cruel bearing rein used to force horses to arch their necks and raise their heads. When walking through Atlanta I heard Martin Luther King’s speech projected through the streets near his former home. His oratory skills and words were so powerful, it’s little wonder he inspired so many Black Americans to stand up for their rights, and moved human rights advocates from a position of complacency to agency.


Where can we find the right words? The obvious answer is in grimoires and spell books, but not all will resonate. While the prescribed words and rituals found in these books might evoke or conjure something powerful for the maker, they don't always stir up the same feelings for everyone else. For personal spell crafting, we need to find the words that work for us.

While browsing a bazaar in old Delhi fifteen years ago, I encountered a small, impermanent shrine dedicated to Harry Potter. Daniel Radcliffe’s photo sat in the centre of a picture frame on a makeshift alter, covered with colourful flowers. This non-standardisation of deities is possible in India, where there is a town that has deified a Bollywood star, and another that looks to Elvis Presley for inspiration. In Hinduism, deities, unlike gods in the modern, Western sense, are personifications of the different aspects of a natural life force, or energy, that runs through everything—the Atman. These deities, it is believed, help believers reach out to the Atman and understand it. People approach different deities for different needs or wants. Deities are sources of inspiration who help believers transcend and convene with something akin to the divine. They aren’t necessarily set in stone.

Just as we might identify with certain archetypes, deities or artists more than others, it’s to be expected we resonate more with certain stories and poems. We live in a culture that values standardisation, but inspiration is an unruly thing; not all words or images move us.

We can all look for the words that do inspire. At a stretch, whoever wields words—and with them generates wonder or empathy or a desire to change—casts spells. Sometimes that means priests, shamans or magicians; it also means writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers. We can collect those words that inspire us. The words can also be found in everyday encounters—perhaps from the advice or observations of a stranger. The words might also come to you, as creative ideas often do, in one of those bursts of something reminiscent of divine inspiration. It’s still worth looking back at the vast history of spellcraft to learn about the words or rituals worked for others; we are, after all, all human, and some writers, artists and spiritual practitioners have already expressed what we think or feel.

In many cultures, words have to be recited as part of a ritual. Rituals sometimes seem like the archaic remnant of something that once worked, detached from its original function. For many people, rituals might seem unavailing, if not ridiculous. If the latter, it’s probably not the right ritual for you. Contrary to what the rational mind tells us, research shows that rituals do work. When experiencing loss, it can be as simple as writing a letter and not sending it; listening to a song that stirs up memories and having a cathartic cry.

Paired with ritual, words can be more effective. Most cosmologies employ rituals to strengthen the intent behind prayers or rites. This can involve fasting or waiting for the full moon—or dawn on the longest day; it can mean working with magical aids like candles or burning herbs, or objects that resemble, or are associated with, the person or thing over which influence is sought. Humankind has perhaps believed in sympathetic magic since prehistory. The mandrake, in Medieval Europe, was considered so similar to man that it could be used in his place. In folk magic, spells are sometimes accompanied by objects, for example an effigy, or poppet, similar to the voodoo doll.

What are the consequences of casting a spell? Can magic be used up? Or is it like a credit card with an infinite interest-free overdraft? Which has power—the words or the accompanying intent? Do spells only work if uttered in secrecy? Are curses likely to come back to you by the power of three? If you’re cursed, is it inevitable? Or do spells work in a similar way to karma—if you are innocent or listen carefully to your conscience, can words really harm you? We know “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me,” to be false. Words can hurt. We dislike insults—or curses—they harm our self-esteem. But can they injure if uttered unjustly, if you are confident in your innocence? These are all questions different cultures have asked and answered in different ways.

Which rules, if any, should we adhere to? Spell-casting is an art, not a science, but it might be wise to follow the near universal moral guideline: “do no harm.” Spells also shouldn’t encourage complacency; they should encourage agency. A spell to gain success or clarity should be paired by tangible steps towards that goal.

Choosing the right words can be empowering. Where you draw them from and how you say them is ultimately up to you. If your ritual or words derive from another culture, read about the origin of this practice and its cultural context. Most culture is somehow derived from past cultural customs; we’re so far removed from their inception we forgot the original intent. Voodoo and Santeria exist within a culture of oppression, so we shouldn’t forget how such rituals and spells came to hold significance.

When you’ve found your words, you can fashion them into a sigil or build a ritual around them—light a candle if you feel like it—or prepare a bath. Sit outside under the full moon. Write a letter. Listen to a song. Walk through the forest. Whatever feels most significant. Spells can invite change. If nothing else, words and rituals can help us see more objectively and find connections between our lives and the natural world.

On Divine Inspiration


Where does inspiration come from?

“O Muse, recount to me the causes …" begins the Aeneid, a Latin epic poem written by Virgil between 29 and 19 BC. It was common for the poets of the ancient world to invoke the muse when seeking artistic inspiration; creativity was considered something external to themselves, a well that could be drawn from. Today, most people in the West believe inspiration comes from within.

Reading the journals of artists and writers, it seems the source of artistic inspiration is still difficult to pin down. Creativity is often portrayed as a deeply mysterious process. In pursuit of the elusive ingredients necessary to produce a masterpiece, some actively seek—or sought—external sources of inspiration through occult means. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes consulted a spirit guide, Pan, using a homemade ouija board. These strange conversations resulted in some of Plath’s finest works. Artistic inspiration came naturally to Picasso, who said: “I don't seek, I find.” Some hint at divine provenance without attempts to locate it; after Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2016, Leonard Cohen said this: “I think that Bob Dylan knows this more than all of us: you don’t write the songs anyhow.” Divine or not, finding the source seems the ultimate cure for creative block. Artists and writers have been in contact with this strange realm—or entity—at least since ancient times.

Jhumpa Lahiri, author of The Namesake, spoke about the mysterious nature of creativity in an interview with The New Yorker:

“All writing, all art is just a wild leap off a cliff because there’s nothing to support you. You’re creating something out of nothing, really. No one’s telling you to do it. It comes from within, and it’s a very mysterious process, at least for me. I still don’t understand how I write a story or a book. I don’t understand how it happens. I mean, I know it takes time, I know it takes effort, I know it takes lots and lots of drafts and hours, but I still really don’t understand the internal mechanism of how it really happens.”

Cormac McCarthy wrote about this internal mechanism in an essay titled “The Kekulé Problem” (Nautilus, 2017), using a more scientific lexicon: “to put it as pithily as possibly—and as accurately—the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal.” Put like this, it sounds like the author, best known for novels including The Road and Blood Meridian, adopts a machine reductionist stance. But McCarthy still seems to regard the unconscious mind—and the dreams and metaphors it produces—an enigma worthy of our attention: “we don’t know what the unconscious is or where it is or how it got there—wherever there might be.” He poses questions but provides few answers: “and is it really so good at solving problems or is it just that it keeps its own counsel about the failures? How does it have this understanding which we might well envy?”

In an interview with Oprah, McCarthy said: “you can’t plot things out. You just have to trust in wherever it comes from.” Oprah asked him if he believes in God. "It would depend on what day you ask me. Sometimes I think it’s good to pray. You don’t have to have a good idea of what or who god is to pray. You could even be quite doubtful about the whole business.” The author doesn’t understand the source, but this openness to experience means he can draw from it.

McCarthy is also a respected senior fellow at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI). To introduce McCarthy’s essay, David Krakauer, president of the Santa Fe Institute described him as a research colleague, thought of in complementary terms, an aficionado on topics including quantum mechanics, and the nature of the conscious and unconscious mind. “At SFI we have been searching for the expression of these scientific interests in his novels and we maintain a furtive tally of their covert manifestations and demonstrations in his prose.”

Evident here is the potential reciprocity of art and science when dealing with things we don’t yet understand. We still know little about the unconscious mind, the muse, the divine, or whatever name we want to use for that which defies being known. But one thing seems clear for artists in search of inspiration: we need to be receptive to the voices that come to us from the great unknown.

Image by Unsplash

Sylvia Plath And The Occult

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It’s legend that when Ted Hughes left her, Sylvia Plath took his left-behind notes and manuscripts, along with fingernail clippings and other debris she found on his desk, and burned them in a ritual fire. From the ashes, a scrap of paper with the name “Assia” written on it, landed on Sylvia’s foot. 

At various points in her writing Plath made references to tarot, Ouija, crystal balls, and astrology. It was Ted, in fact, who had introduced Sylvia to the occult. She found it to be “magnificent fun … more fun than a movie,” but Ted was more impressed with her seeming abilities, saying that “her gifts … were strong enough to make her frequently wish to be rid of them.” The two of them used a homemade ouija board to contact ‘Pan,’ their otherworldly muse, with a tipped over brandy glass as a planchette. Ted Hughes remarked of their spirit that “usually his communications were gloomy and macabre, though not without wit.” Sylvia wrote of Pan in her poem “Ouija”:  

It is a chilly god, a god of shades,

Rises to the glass from his black fathoms.

At the window, those unborn, those undone

Assemble with the frail paleness of moths,


The glass mouth sucks blood-heat from my forefinger.

The old god dribbles, in return, his words.

Hughes often wrote of his meeting with Sylvia as being fateful: “That day the solar system married us / Whether we knew it or not,” he writes in Birthday Letters. In interviews he said that the two of them had a “telepathic union.” Their relationship was violent and passionate from the start, when Ted emerged from the party they had met at with his face bleeding; Sylvia had bitten his cheek in response to him stealing her earrings. They were unarguably drawn to each other. Hughes read their horoscopes, believed in things beyond them. Plath took some more convincing. Belief in the beyond didn’t come easily to her, but learning did. Though Ted was the more familiar, Sylvia quickly overtook him. She excelled -- as she did in everything. 

Sylvia’s diaries note her wish to learn and get better at reading tarot. Hughes had given her a deck as a birthday present in 1956, and she had visions of them as literary fortune-tellers -- Hughes divining by astrology, and Plath with her cards and crystal balls. Published in Ariel, Plath later wrote “The Hanging Man” about her experiences with Electro-Convulsive Therapy, a treatment which left her unable to read and speak for some time afterward, and of which she was terrified of having to ever undergo again. With the added layer of some tarot knowledge, though, it is the waiting which is really striking -- the idea that the ECT was a step before enlightenment.

Many of her Occult-infused writings appear like this, with layers of intricacy laid over her poems, offering another angle; a different depth. 

Hughes claimed that “Dialogue Over a Ouija Board” was almost a transcript of a conversation he and Plath had with their personal guide; that Sybil and Leroy were thinly veiled alter-personas of the two of them. “Dialogue” was also, according to her letters, the first poem Plath had written in six months. She never showed the poem, and it was unpublished until her Collected Poems. She wrote to her mother that it was “supposed to sound just like conversation … both dramatic and philosophical.” The conversation goes back and forth as the querents try to decipher whether Pan is a true god or not, the “chilly god” of Plath’s earlier poem, or a figment of their imagination. Unnerved, Sybil and Leroy agree to smash the glass into the fireplace, destroying their link to Pan, and ending the game. Sybil is haunted by the whole affair, not only their interactions, but also the act of smashing the glass. 

Those glass bits in the grate strike me chill: 

As if I’d half-believed in him, and he 

Being not you, not I, nor us at all, 

Must have been wholly someone else.

She cannot come back for what she has found to be true. At the end of the poem, the couple hope to find themselves “two real people … in a real room.”

Hughes writes, again in Birthday Letters, that it was “always bad news from the Ouija board.” He was aware, as both Plath’s letters and Hughes’ own notes recount, that she was also trying to contact her father through the Ouija board:

… “spirits” would regularly arrive with instructions for her from one Prince Otto, who was said to be a great power in the underworld. When she pressed for a more personal communication, she would be told the Price Otto could not speak to her directly because he was under orders from the Colossus. 

(from “Sylvia Plath and her Journals”)

In her journals, Plath ponders the Ouija board’s messages for her; how many of them are her own subconscious, and how many are genuine communications from her father. As time went on, she began to give more credence to the latter. The Colossus, then, becomes a central theme for Plath’s writing. Indeed, it is the title of the only collection of her poetry published before her death in 1963, though not without much deliberation. In its titular poem, she writes:

Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle,

Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other.

Thirty years now I have labored

To dredge the silt from your throat.

I am none the wiser.

“Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other” hearkens back to Pan, once again, and with the addition of Ted’s notes, Sylvia’s poetry comes together once again; a constant conversation with another world.

Ritual Of The Moon

Rituals creep into our lives in all sorts of different ways. I’ve been thinking about rituals a lot lately and what makes them different from routines or habits that we all have. It’s partly because I’m about to move in with my girlfriend, the first time I’ve lived with a serious partner and partly because for the last twenty-eight days I’ve been playing a game about just that, called Ritual of the Moon

I’m not even sure you would call it a game, it’s more like a meditation tool, or something akin to the wave of astrological apps taking over our phones. But Ritual of the Moon is different in that it has its own narrative to tell and unique way of experiencing it. It’s an examination of love, forgiveness, loneliness, and revenge. And of course, rituals. 

Here’s how it works: the narrative follows a witch who has been exiled to the moon by the Earth and is separated from her lover. You “play” once a day and the game takes 28 days in real-time to complete. You control the witch and each day are given a new snippet of the story, followed by a sort of memory game as you select objects in the order they have appeared (a crystal, a mushroom in a glass, a photograph — small totems of a spell) and then draw a shape in the sky connecting up the dots (these can be as straightforward or complex as you like). Doing so gives you a mantra for the day. After this, a comet appears and heads towards the Earth. As the witch, you have the power to control the comet, choosing to either sending it crashing to Earth (by doing nothing) or by changing its trajectory to fly off into the sky. The game records what you do each day, either saving the Earth of allowing it to be damaged, on an astrological wheel and there are several different endings depending on what outcome you choose. Having to play once a day means that it soon becomes a ritualistic act, imbued with meaning. 

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A ritual is defined not solely by the action one undertakes but by what meaning it holds and its purpose. Brushing my teeth twice a day is not a ritual, it’s a habit, a chore even, a necessary part of being alive. Checking Twitter the moment I wake up is not a ritual either but a habit, some might say bordering on an addiction. For me, a ritual is something which holds symbolic meaning and for which I have to be fully present to undertake. It is performative, but only for myself. Part of moving in with someone is learning each others rituals. This is my first serious relationship as an adult and as such, I am fascinated by the ways in which my girlfriend and I have merged our lives. Routines and rituals included. How is it that I went from casually messaging someone to texting my girlfriend good morning and goodnight whenever we are not together? When did that change happen? When did it become a seamless part of the rhythm of our shared life together? These rituals seem to have effortlessly emerged, a collage of different parts of our lives, made up of whatever we have around us. 

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I’ve started keeping bottles of water in the fridge because that what my girlfriend does. My girlfriend makes tea now the way that I make tea: honey in first, the teabag quickly whooshed around and then fished out. I watch my girlfriend get ready for the work in the morning and her skincare routine is a ritual in my eyes: the same order each day, the same gentle patting of cream onto her skin, the spritzing onto a cotton pad and dabbing, describing the same pattern across her face as she moistures and does other things that I don’t understand. (Needless to say, perhaps to my peril, I do not have a skincare routine). Saying “I love you” every day to each other has become another kind of ritual, a symbol of our feelings for one another. Love is strange and changeable and hard to express, saying it in words each day makes it feel more solid. To say what we feel, even if those words we are expressing are inadequate or overly simplistic, is nevertheless important. Despite my girlfriend’s uncanny ability to predict the start of my period down to the almost exact hour, she is not a mindreader. Unless we tell each other what we feel we’re both in the dark. I know it sounds mushy and obvious, but saying “I love you” every day (even on the days we argue; especially on the days we argue) has become an important ritual, a marker in our relationship, a moment to realise the now. 

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The creator of the game, Kara Stone, describes Ritual of the Moon as, “sparking self-reflection rather than escapism” asking the player to think about their relationship to personal technology and take a more active role in understanding their emotional state. Playing this game on my phone felt significant. Even where to place the app on my screen felt important. Looking at the layout of someone’s phone is a divination tool in itself, a reflection of personality. Mine (Virgo) is mostly on one screen and arranged into folders of specific categories, my girlfriend’s (Pisces) is for some unholy reason arranged by colour, meaning apps are found by memory, a combination of swipes and taps required to arrive at the intended destination. 

The app for Ritual of the Moon went on a special spot on the second page of my phone, unfiltered by a folder so I could find it easily. It felt like it deserved its own space. As intended, playing it became a ritual, even having to turn my phone sideways felt like its own tiny spell, signalling a need to slow down and put me in the right frame of mind for playing. I like how analogue the action was and the sense of something otherworldly coming from a device that I usually use for very worldly things (I’m mostly talking about Twitter). The artwork and sound design fit perfectly with this sense of the otherworldly, from the real and drawn objects painstakingly imported into the game, to the dramatic swell of music every time the comet appeared. I started to value using my phone as a tool to think about myself more deeply instead of a gateway to other people’s thoughts and opinions.  

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I’m not very good at living in the present. I am constantly impatient: on the tube, on Twitter, in conversation, always wanting to know what’s coming next. It’s a trait I dislike in myself. My girlfriend and I planned to move in May, then July, now it’s September. I am so impatient to move it’s consuming the days I have left in my flat. I hate waiting. Ritual to the Moon forces you to live in the present moment, if only for ten minutes, as you can’t skip ahead to the next part of the game. Instead, you have to wait for the clock to reset. Playing it forced me to slow down if only for a little while and concentrate on what was in front of me. For me this is also what writing does. Writing requires me to focus on the words in front of me, myself and my thoughts and what I want to construct with them. You can’t think about the future when you’re writing (or no further than the next sentence at least). Writing is my way of bringing myself back to myself and of processing my emotions. I have kept a journal for the last five years; a collection of sketches, notes to myself and quotes from others (basically  an IRL version of the notes app) and it has charted the course of my life in a way that I find invaluable.

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While playing this game I kept a diary every day, recording the mantras I received and my responses to them, as well as general thoughts on my mood. Reading over that diary at the end of the 28 days revealed just how blindsided I am by my own emotions. I can see how tired I am one day, how annoyed one day I am at my girlfriend (which is hindsight is no big deal) how one day I feel hopeless reading about forest fires in the Arctic and the next day I’m optimistic about moving and my work and where my life is heading. It’s tiring being alive, but taking the time to put into words how I felt each day was a quiet, privately, powerful act. In that way, the game acted like the perfect prompt, a way to force myself to make a ten-minute space in my schedule. Ritual of the Moon taught me that looking up to the stars for solutions doesn’t work for me (I am a practical, earthy Virgo after all) but that looking to language, and writing in particular is the key to understanding myself, my relationships to others and my place in the world. A ritual of writing daily is one I can get on board with.

5 Ethical Trades For Magical Aids


When spellcasting, creating the right atmosphere is important. It can create that suspended sense of disbelief necessary for believing in what you’re doing—and for setting your intent. Often practitioners do this by turning down the lights, burning herbs or incense and lighting candles. In the flicker of a candle, the world suddenly looks different. In all cultures, rituals involve repeating a series of gestures, words or actions in a particular sequence, in order to achieve a certain outcome. Research has shown that even simple rituals can be effective at influencing people’s behaviours, thoughts or feelings, even for those who claim that rituals don’t work. This can be helpful if preparing for an anxiety-inducing interview or public speech, coming to terms with grief, alleviating stress, trying to rid oneself of a habit or for gaining closure.

If you pick up a grimoire, it presents very specific things you must have in a ritual to make the spell work. In modern spellbooks, common magical aids include coloured candles, white sage, and palo santo. Often it’s recommended you cast a circle or draw a pentagram before initiating the ritual. It is important to remember that The Western occult tradition, like language and culture in general, is a mishmash of cultural traditions—some native, others borrowed from other cultures. Recently there’s been growing awareness about the issue of re-appropriation, which is also an issue in magic and the occult. Re-appropriation can be an issue if we take ideas or practices from oppressed communities without acknowledging or learning about the cultural source.

The magic-curious community is on the whole progressive, open to learning about the damaging effects of cultural re-appropriation, and moderating consumption in order to lessen our carbon footprint. In the wake of the climate crisis, it’s good to be cautious about where we source whatever we consume. “I know we need a system change rather than an individual change,” said Greta Thonberg at a conference in Stockholm earlier this year, “but you can’t have one without the other.”

There’s often the belief that exotic equates to more potent. This recurs in all areas of life. There’s a reason many health conscious consumers opt for Tibetan goji berries, Korean ginseng and Peruvian maca powder over nutritionally similar local alternatives. In the UK, we have a wealth of local herbs and practices inherited from cunning folk and other cultures that came before. Going local is an easy solution for avoiding re-appropriation and reducing our impact on the environment.

The beauty of knowing the history of the Western occult is seeing it as a creative arena for change and storytelling. We can find and create new sacred objects, rituals, spells and stories that better reflect our convictions and it will still be in keeping with a tradition that is constantly evolving to suit the needs of the modern day.

We have compiled a list of ethical trades for common magical aids.

1. Paraffin candles


There’s little more relaxing than a bath surrounded by candles. But look at the ingredient list for most shop-bought candles, and they will likely contain paraffin. While paraffin-based candles look pretty and often smell great (due to added fragrances), you are essentially burning fossil fuel in your house. These candles release toxic compounds when lit, including known carcinogens benzene and toluene, meaning they harm both the environment and your health. They have been identified as a problem by the government’s Clean Air Strategy report.

Instead use: Soy candles.

Soy candles are natural and relatively clean, producing an estimated tenth of the soot created by a paraffin candle. They are also vegan and last for a long time. It’s little wonder they’re becoming more popular. Look for soy candles with cotton wicks to further reduce your impact. We love the scented candles at London Fields shop East of Earl, which also offers candle-making workshops. In case you’d rather make your own, here’s a super easy recipe. 

2. White sage and “smudging”

Palo Santo and White Sage (Image: Pixabay)

Palo Santo and White Sage (Image: Pixabay)

White sage, otherwise known as sacred sage, is a scrub native to the Southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. It is used by some Native American cultures in smudge sticks to cleanse sacred spaces. White sage and smudging is popular, though controversial as it entails re-appropriating Native American culture. Naturally, cultures do borrow from other cultures. But cultural re-appropriation is an issue because it involves re-appropriating cultural customs from an oppressed community; to communities that have been ignored, segregated and abused, it can seem offensive to see their oppressors flaunting their cultural traditions. White sage is not listed on the Endangered Species List, though conservationists are still concerned about its future. Since the boom in spiritual practices, unsustainable harvesting practices are depleting it from the wild. There are some farms which ethically harvest this herb.

Instead use: Local herbs

Wherever you live (unless you happen to live in the arctic or antarctic…), there are herbs which can be burnt in rituals. Rosemary has been used since ancient times. Sprigs of rosemary often feature in Greek art works featuring the goddess Aphrodite. Roman priests used rosemary as incense in religious ceremonies; in England, this herb was burnt in homes to protect the living from evil spirits and witches. Of rosemary, Roger Hacket said in 1607: “Speaking of the powers of rosemary, it overtoppeth all the flowers in the garden, boasting man’s rule. It helpers the brain, strengteneth the memorie, and is very medicinable for the head. Another property of rosemary is, it affect the heart.” The use of chamomile has also been documented as far back as the ancient Egyptians. Yarrow, which is common to Britain and Ireland, has a long history in many different cultures; it was even found in a Neanderthal burial ground. We could go on listing local herbs and their medicinal and folk uses.

3. Palo santo

Palo santo is a wild tree native to Central and South America. Like white sage, it is used for cleansing spaces, particularly of “mala energía,” bad energy. It is also used as folk medicine for stomach ache and rheumatism. The tree belongs to the same family as frankincense and myrhh. Anyone who has burned it will know it smells incredible. Many spiritual practitioners burn it as incense, or use the essential oil extracted from it. Palo santo is currently endangered in some of the regions where it is grown, particularly in Peru, though it can be sustainably sourced. Its usage, like that of white sage, often raises concerns about cultural re-appropriation.

Instead use: Local herbs, frankincense or myrrh

Francincense and myrrh have been used for thousands of years by different cultures to purefy spaces. We can also return to aforementioned herbs like rosemary and yarrow, both common and found locally in the UK.

4. Crystals


Crystals and precious stones are beautiful. As children, we are attracted to them. I remember picking up shiny pebbles I found on the beach and carrying them as good luck charms. In China, jade is thought to have purifying properties, and was as a consequence used to make dinner plates and utensils by Imperial courts. Crystals are often celebrated for their ability to re-connect us with the earth, but as Eve Wiseman pointed out in The Guardian recently, crystal mining might be harming the earth rather than re-connecting us to it.

Instead use: Ethically sourced crystals or local stones

You can still use crystals, but it pays to be mindful about their source, and to not go crazy with the crystal-hoarding. Look for fairtrade crystals from sustainable sources. Even better, did you find the crystal yourself while walking on a beach? (But don’t take too many; having grown up near the seaside, I know that if everyone were to take home a pebble there would be no beach.) Thankfully, a crystal, if looked after, can be with you for life—it will likely outlive you.

5. Entrails

To be honest, I don’t know anyone who uses entrails for ritual magic, but these are mentioned in a few spell books. They were used in haruspicy, a form of divination in Ancient Rome. If you’re vegan, this won’t appeal. Nor will it appeal if you’re reducing your meat content or simply don’t like the idea of working with entrails...

Instead use: Scrying, Tarot, or other forms of divination

Humankind has found many ways of divining the future, from Ancient Chinese oracle bones to tarot cards, reading tea leaves and scrying. If you’re determined to use entrails, Lucya Starza ran a cabbage entrail workshop recently for vegans. Cabbage sounds like a good substitute.

I think this list begs the question: do we really need magical aids? Does it always matter what we use?

Of course, some herbs have properties which lend themselves to medicine and thus might be useful in a specific ritual e.g. the ant-inflammatory properties of turmeric. Research has also found that the aroma of frankincense might help regulate emotions such as anxiety and depression. Beyond the empirical, it’s more a matter of what is meaningful or sacred for you. Burning herbs, lighting candles and carrying crystals can all create atmosphere and encourage that sense of wonder; they can make a sequence of words or gestures feel more like a meaningful ritual. But there comes a point when you realise you have all the tools you need in yourself and in nature. You don’t necessarily need to consume anything. Sometimes a walk alone by yourself through the meadows, woods or mountains or an early morning spent watching the sunrise can be quite magical.

Images: Unsplash (unless otherwise specified)

Maverick Women And The Moon At The Moon Festival


At the time of writing, the moon is almost full. It is in fact now waning. Mythology and folklore have long looked to the moon for inspiration, and to explain life on earth. We know it controls our ocean’s tides. But what does its cycle mean for we who live in its light?

A highlight at the inaugural Moon Festival in London is Maverick Women and the Moon, curated by Irenosen Okojie. Five speakers spoke (and sang) about the moon from multidisciplinary perspectives. Highlights of this highlight were for me the talks from Angela Chan and Margaret Atwood, and the operatic performance by Janet Fischer.

Today is 20th July—the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Though the moon landing was iconic, it was not without controversy at the time. Civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy called the moon mission “an inhuman priority” while poverty was rife in the US. Gil-Scott Heron also criticised Nasa’s space programme in his song “Whitey on the Moon.”

Angela Chan, curator of the online platform Worm, discussed the exploitation of minorities that still occurs with space missions, from the mining of fossil fuels to the misdirected use of resources. The moon, like other planetary bodies and space, cannot be owned by anyone, and thus belongs to everyone. May we remember this as we begin to colonise other planets.

Chan also considered the environmental impact of moon missions, peppering her discussion with the story of the Chinese moon goddess Chang’e, also the namesake of the Chinese lunar exploration programme. I had no idea that China has plans to build a second, artificial moon and hang it above the city of Chengdu. The intention is to complement the light of earth’s existing moon. There are concerns however about how this will impact upon animals, who are highly sensitive to the moon.

We know that the moon affects wildlife—how does it influence human behaviour? It’s often thought the menstrual cycle is governed by the moon cycle. “The jury’s out on that one,” said Margaret Atwood earlier this evening, in conversation with Irenosen Okojie. While many women, myself included, notice that the full moon coincides with our menses, there has been little controlled research to date. “Everyone’s energies are at a higher point [during the full moon],” she continued, careful to emphasise that it’s not only women’s behaviour that is likely influenced by the moon cycle.

Is lunacy a myth—or behind all myths is there a grain of truth? Studies have shown that the full moon coincides with increased crime rates (mercury is also in retrograde until the end of the month. Hold tight.) Researchers put this down to the moon’s illuminatory power that historically made crime easier when the streets were dark at night. Some research does indicate increased levels of aggression in schizophrenic patients around this time. The same study showed that other mental illnesses were not affected by the moon cycle. While more research is needed, folklore has long viewed the moon as a heavenly body or entity which holds sway over our behaviour. The werewolf is the most obvious manifestation, the man that becomes a beast only when the moon is full.

“O Fortuna, as inconsistent as the moon.” These are translated words from the 13th century Latin Goliardic poem, O Fortuna, which Margaret Atwood read to introduce the changing nature of the moon in mythology. Atwood set the scene by telling us about her childhood in rural Canada, where there was no electricity and people used the moon to predict the weather. She recalled the gatherings of the great northern diver birds on the lake and their calls during the full moon, and those of wolves and other animals. “That was the sound of my childhood.”

After a vivid recollection of her early years, the author spoke about the folklore and mythology revival, which she became fascinated with reading Robert Graves’s The White Goddess. Women’s divine powers were taken away from them from the bronze ages, diminishing even further with monotheistic Christianity, which pushed out the many deities worshipped in ancient Pagan pantheons. The one god in this new cosmology was male. Atwood recalled the triple goddess, the subject of Graves’s book. Viewed as a trinity of three separate aspects of the divine, each aspect of the trinity is paired with a different moon cycle and a different stage in the female life cycle: the maiden, the mother and the crone. “I’m now in the crone phase,” she said, smiling. The crone is wise, gathers herbs, and dispenses advice; the crone is also often neglected in modern narratives. The author went on to describe the moon card in the Marseille tarot deck, associated with dreams, intuition, the unconscious mind and illusion. Water, like the moon, is illusionary in that it reflects.

When drawing inspiration from the moon, which deities should writers turn to? Atwood recommends Apollo for order or structure, or Hermes if you’ve hit a roadblock and don’t know where to go next. She asked the interviewer if she writes to a moon calendar, and in an interesting digression spoke about her interest in the Neolithic structures that were made with the moon in mind rather than the sun. As one would expect from the author of at least seventeen books, Atwood’s knowledge is wide-ranging. So was her keynote lecture.

To round up the evening, Janet Fischer, with her powerful, expressive operatic voice, sang songs about the moon, including Dvořák’s “Song to the Moon.” In between songs, Fischer told folk tales from the Haida people in Alaska and the Appalachian realms of Tennessee. She also read a stanza from Sylvia Plath’s “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” a poem which so poignantly expresses the melancholic aspect of the moon:

“The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,

White as a Knuckle and terribly upset.

It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet

With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.”

Whether it provokes madness, romance, creativity or sadness, it’s clear that humanity has long been fascinated with this space rock which reflects the sun and illuminates the darkness. We see ourselves and our current mood mirrored in it. We still have much to learn about its influence on our lives, whether we’re changed by it or just guided by its light.

Joseph Campbell said in The Power of Myth that we need new myths and rituals in modern times, a sentiment echoed by Yuval Noah Harari in Homosapiens and Adam Curtis in an interview in the Economist. The moon, ever present and ever changing in our night skies, has been the centre of myths for thousands of years. It seems as good a time as any to create new stories and new traditions that centre around our natural satellite, which still has around it an aura of mystery and magic, which in its immensity reminds us there are still natural forces at work in the world bigger than ourselves. At the start of her keynote lecture, Atwood said “a venerable tradition might just have been established right here, before your very eyes.”

The inaugural Moon Festival runs 19-26 July 2019 in various London locations. Artists, scientists, and spiritual practitioners come together to talk about the moon across cultures and disciplines. Tickets are available on the official festival website.

Toil And Trouble


I was at secondary school before I’d ever set foot in a church. Having pacified my grandmother with a church wedding, my parents refused to christen myself or my sister, to more head-shaking than I imagine was really necessary. They wanted us to decide for ourselves what we believed in, and as a bookish, morbidly curious child, I don’t think there was much surprise when I sat my mother down and told her, aged 12, that I was going to be a witch. As far as I could see, witches were more interesting than any alternative; they always had the best lines (thank you Shakespeare) and the best hair (thank you Sandra Bullock).

In one of the drawers of the big wooden cabinet in the dining room of my childhood home was a small drawstring bag containing my mother’s tarot cards, which we weren’t allowed to touch. I used to open the drawer and look at the black velvet bag, intrigued but not rebellious enough for breaking any rules, let alone ones that might have Serious Occult Consequences. I collected crystals and made my own runes, painstakingly copying the meanings out of library books. I read about glamour spells, tried them out, got frustrated with the inability to test if they’d worked. At fifteen, a friend and I had a Beltane sleepover, complete with rituals and offerings and a rainbow of different coloured candles. Our knowledge was cobbled together from corners of the internet, and from books we pored over in corners of bookshops and never actually bought.

I tested out other things: eighteen solid months of Hillsong attendance, visits to Bhaktivedanta, too much reading for one person’s brain. The witching won out. 

Much as I understand that following any religion or rite depends on the person, and it’s a personal choice how involved to be, or how much of your life to invest, I think that there’s a certain type of seeking that comes with a belief in the occult. I’ve always been drawn to the work that comes with witchery. Tarot cards can’t tell you something you don’t, on some level, already know. Amulets can’t have power you don’t give them. There’s no devil to get you if you disobey, just your own choices (and perhaps that’s a more threatening prospect…). There’s constant learning, unlearning, and relearning (for instance, recent re-educating around the use of white sage). Witchcraft is feminist as fuck. It centres women. It’s POC and non-binary and trans and LGBTQI+ inclusive. It is not interested in old straight white men, unless it’s about binding them.

On first meeting my boyfriend, he asked if I believed in my horoscope. I replied “more than I should,” a phrase he jokingly reminds me of if I suggest something that’s a bit too woo for him. I read tarot, I wear an evil eye and a big chunk of onyx every day (I’m a big believer in jewellery as armour; I never take any of mine off, and I don’t wear anything that doesn’t have some Big Significance). A lot of the little things I believe in are superstitions which have been passed down from my mother and become embedded in how my worldview fits together. You should salute a single magpie, not because it’s bad luck not to, but because it’s rude. Never stop a black cat from crossing the road, because he might have somewhere important to be. Spin an engagement ring three times around the finger of its new wearer for luck, and never carry a purse without a penny in it. I love the creativity of everyday witchcraft, and how magic plays into my projects in a myriad of ways. I love the main tenet that your purpose is to not cause harm. It seems logical to me to try to leave things better than you found them. But, also… Midnight Margaritas, right?

Animating The Inanimate

Art director Rachael Olga Lloyd animates inanimate objects for a living. We weren’t surprised to learn she believes there is more to these objects than that which meets the eye.

Image by Rachael Olga Lloyd

Image by Rachael Olga Lloyd

I grew up in a “fairytale gingerbread house,” as some of my childhood friends used to call it. My parents still live there today. It’s an old stone house built in an Elizabethan style, over 150 years ago. My parents loved old things so the house was decked out in Victorian style with tattered old chesterfields, oil paintings and antique carved oak furniture—things they picked up cheap from shops that sold bric-à-brac, back in the 70s when everyone else thought: “out with the old, in with the new.” My dad would never buy anything new, instead insisting on getting everything second or third hand from charity shops or the auction house.

This was great, except when it came to functional things like doors and electronics. I was used to the door falling off when opening that cupboard and that doorknob in the upstairs bathroom that always came off when I turned it; we had to use three different remote controllers to work the ancient TV. Only now I’m older do I fully appreciate what a magical place it was to grow up in. There is such a sense of magic in that house for me. I was fortunate to spend my whole childhood there and I can still return to visit.

Like my parents, I have a love of “old things.” When it comes to functional things and electronics, I try to buy new, with the reassurance of years of warranty. But there is something very special for me about something that has belonged to someone else previously. It had a past owner and a different life, even lives; it has its own history. I think there is also something similar in things that are handmade. When something has a history or imprint from the person who made it—a barakah if you will—it feels kind of magical.

I have an old chair that belonged to my grandparents. I didn’t know my grandparents very well but I have this chair that they probably would have used a lot. My dad must have sat in it growing up, and other family members. For me, the real value of objects is not how expensive or flashy they are but in the sentimental—the memories they recall as well as the memories the item itself has. I’m not a religious person, in some ways I’m quite the skeptic, but I feel there is something inherent to these items.

There’s something magical about an old tattered teddy bear that has been loved by different children over many years. It has protected and comforted many children through dark nights and endured many hugs and loose stitches. Yet bears you see sold new in shops today don’t incite the same feeling in me. It’s not just that they haven’t been owned before; I know that partly it’s their clean modern design and industrially manufactureness that kills any feeling for me. So am I just romanticising the past and feeling nostalgic? Or is it the old design and materials and that the old bear was made by hand long ago, and the fact this new one is made from plastic and was probably made in a factory in China.

I look at the £15 chair I got from Ikea and I know that it won’t outlive me, it definitely won’t be a hand-me-down, or be viewed by those who come after us in a museum. This kind of makes me sad; few people will have the magical childhood I was fortunate to have. Obviously part of this is me romanticising the past. I can’t however deny that old things hold sway with us.

The things we make well and use and love outlive us and are there years later in a family attic or behind glass in a museum. After we’re gone, the objects we use hold a part of us in a time capsule. We can picture people or old family members using them and wondering who once sat in this chair or wore that ring.

*As an editorial team we decided to write a series of blog posts that reflect on our personal experience of magic—perhaps our daily rituals. We’re also keen to hear about your own experience of magic. We don’t expect a long memoir or a comprehensive compendium of your beliefs or rituals—this is the opportunity to hone in on something that’s important to you and explore it. It could be something that has somehow shaped you, grounds you in the present, connects you with nature or gives you a reason to drive on. This is an informal conversation with yourself as much as it is a conversation with others.*

The Brief Lives Of Animals

Fairy and Fluffy, Glen Clova, Scotland

Fairy and Fluffy, Glen Clova, Scotland

Written on 3rd June, 2019.

Last night I lost a dear friend, Misty. We had to euthanise her to relieve her of the pain associated with advanced kidney failure. This was supposed to be a personal obituary, a way of remembering, but it ended up a little differently. In the process of remembering, I recalled the moments when I’ve been most aware of magic in my life, even if it’s still a difficult thing to define.

I grew up in the rural West Country, on the border between Devon and Dorset. We enjoyed green summers and our house was surrounded by yellow rape fields and tall deciduous trees. On a clear day you could see the ocean emerge beyond the woods. As a child, I spent most of my time among those trees and in the fields. I built dens in the woods, collected fallen leaves, traced the same old paths through the undercliff and found new ones. I found the ruins of old settlements. I made up stories.

Sometimes I encountered magic. I’d pick up fallen baby crows and try feebly to nurse them back to health; I prised voles and field mice from the mouths of our cats, Fluffy and Fairy (mother and daughter). Once I went to the sea and saved a beached fish. Seconds after returning it to the shallows, I saw it leap from the sun-dappled water further out. I perceived it as a thank you, a final goodbye. Closer to home, I’d climb trees with Fairy and Fluffy, who watched me with caution, meowing with the intonation of an anxious parent as I reached new heights. Fluffy would gently tug on the cuff of my jeans as I approached the goat in the neighbouring field, who she thought suspect, or the pond, which she thought was deep enough to drown in. Fluffy liked music. For some reason she particularly enjoyed Holst’s Jupiter, which I sang to her while she nuzzled close.

One night in autumn, the weather turned. It was one of those nights when tragedy seemed inevitable. The wind howled through our chimney and chilled the living room, I shivered upon hearing the rain filtering through the trees whose branches rustled against our windows. Fluffy never came home. After a day of searching, we found her on the country road near our house. Rigor mortis had already set in.

A year after Fluffy died, my mum arrived home with a new friend I would come to know as Misty. She was a tiny inexhaustible fluff ball, a Norwegian forest kitten. To begin with, she slept in my bedroom, though really she never slept and I’d wake up with scratches on my ankles, which she wrestled with as I tossed and turned beneath the sheets. I can’t believe this was sixteen years ago already.

I never forgot Fluffy, who was with me through the first third of my life so far. For many years, her daughter Fairy lived on, her legacy. Fairy had been the runt of a litter, small, neurotic, needy. I empathised with her, because don’t so many of us feel inadequate from time to time too, but go on to lead big lives?

Initially Fairy, who was slowing down, didn’t take to Misty. When they moved to the Cairngorms, in the Scottish Highlands, I think they became closer. They kept each other warm at night. They ran through the pine forests and across the highlands, uninhibited by walls, only by their own self-enforced territories. Misty was in her prime, (unfortunately) ravaging the Scottish wildlife, killing mice, baby rabbits, the occasional baby stoat for sport. During my weekend visits from university, the pair of them slept on my bed. Misty was a shoulder cat. Fairy needed to be held more delicately. Once, Misty caught her paw on a thorn. While it didn’t inflict much harm, it revealed the extent of her wanderings when she knew no one was looking; no kitchen surface was left untouched. On snowy days, Misty would sometimes sit on the windowsill staring out. It would be anthropodenial to say she didn’t feel something looking at the new world appearing in front of her eyes, that would melt away after a few days. I wish they could have stayed together forever there, the pair of them, but sometimes life gets in the way and it’s time to move on. That’s where I picture them though, adults in play, in the midst of a world so vast and wild. Together, they moved to Anglesey in North Wales, to live with my mother.

I didn’t see Fairy on her last day on earth. I’d left home, I was in London trying to make something of my life. She died hunched over her feeding bowl. Aged 20, she lived a long, I hope happy life, but I was sad all the same to have not said goodbye.

Misty lived for four more years. Though my trips to my mother’s house were infrequent, it was in these last years I got to know her best. It’s in old age that cats slow down, become lap cats and start revealing their accrued wisdom. Their lives are shorter but perhaps they learn faster. She stopped hunting (I can’t remember her last kill—I wonder if she could), and followed the sun around the garden. She slept on my bed, lay on my lap as I read and worked. She had these deep eyes that looked intensely into mine. It was an all-knowing look. Knowing what, I’m not sure, but I felt contented in that connection; I felt understood on some deeper non-verbal level. When not with her, I often dreamed about her. I loved her with an intensity that’s hard to describe. My husband and I planned to retire her to a leafy London suburb like Forest Hill. She would live out the rest of her days sleeping on our bed and sitting on the windowsill that looked out over the urban forest, or so we hoped.

Unfortunately, this plan never came into fruition. Due to a series of difficult circumstances, including my own ill health, we never found the right place in time. I got a call from my mum one day in late May to say Misty’s health had severely declined, that she could no longer walk and wasn’t eating, that I ought to come quickly.

We came immediately and spent three days hopelessly watching her deteriorate. On the second day, she managed a fish breakfast. She seemed to perk up, she looked at me voicing her soft trill and I thought that maybe she might pull through. But that was her last meal.

The following day, I witnessed her rapid deterioration. She lay miserably for the most part, limbs ineffective. Bruxism signposted she was quietly in pain, though she became louder as the day wore on. I took her outside to see the sun, where she looked for a moment at peace. I realised how thin her body had become compared to her voluptuous former self. The foxgloves, hollyhocks and meadow grass framed the path where she lay. The trees swayed behind, teeming with life. I became sadder and sadder, conscious that our world is much like Jeff VanderMeer’s dream world in Annihilation; there’s so much life, but there’s also so much death and dying. Cue existential crisis: why live such a vivid life only to die?

We put her down that night. On the long drive to the out-of-hours vet, she looked at me, failing to vocalise a soft meow or trill; I’ll never know what she meant to say. Her eyes looked deep into mine. The choice presented to us was, attempt to prolong her life by putting her through three nights on an IV drip in hospital, or euthanasia. The prognosis for good life quality was poor, however, as her bloods were off the scale, indicating kidney failure and all the rest. She was 16, geriatric in cat years, so the odds were against her. I imagined her being alone in hospital, anxious, scared, only perhaps to gain days or weeks of life while her appetite and legs still failed her. I realised there was only one choice really. After an agonising half-hour, I made the heartbreaking decision to give her a quick and peaceful way out. In her shoes, I would probably have had enough. I wish though she had more of a voice through which she could communicate her own desires and needs. Birth and death are made of something similar; a reminder of the unknown from which we emerge and to which we go. Both can feel vertiginous, though the latter in its finality is crushing.

What I can’t go into detail about here is the stability Misty, Fairy and Fluffy offered me, the unconditional love. I learnt so much from them all. I learnt to be kind, resilient, to be myself in spite of a societal drive for homogeneity. I learnt to respect nature. They helped me through grief and instability and major upheaval. They anchored me to who I once was, and set the seeds for who I would become. They are among the most important persons I’ve been fortunate enough to know. We understood each other without understanding each other. (I realise these might seem like the ramblings of a crazy cat lady—so be it.)

Other animals, and plants for that matter, may not have a means of communication that is easy to interpret, but we need to start trying to listen. We need to read the signs, to stop dismissing connections with animals as anthropomorphism when anthropodenial is likely more harmful. If we recognise ourselves in the world, perhaps we won’t destroy it. Perhaps if we recognise ourselves in each other, and extend our definition of ‘each other’, we might be able to live more harmoniously. It’s a long way off and at times a pipe dream, but I hope we can get there someday.

I don’t want the memories of the animals I’ve loved to fall into oblivion. That’s the expected goal for relationships between humans and other animals. Move on, find another companion animal to love briefly. Their lives are idle, but then so are ours, despite our illusions of grandeur. We are so productive, but often that productivity seems unconducive to the kind of world we want to inhabit. We are animals too, and our own lives are also fleeting, especially if we compare our average life span to that of the Greenland shark or the oak tree, both of which can live for hundreds of years. Mary Oliver said this in “The Summer Day”?: “Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?” I’ve been thinking about that poem in the past couple of days. Life is made of shadow but also light. Just as we see the light of burnt out distant suns lightyears after their demise, I hope that Misty’s light will never go out. I endeavour to hold onto the wisdom I have learnt from my time with her and pass it on.

This afternoon we went to my mum’s friend’s garden. Their garden is actually their home—they live in a caravan set in several acres of land they’ve fenced off to create a nature reserve, living as self-sustainably as possible with a compost toilet, renewable energy, and homegrown food. Their days are spent growing the forest. We buried Misty beside Fairy, whose grave has already been overtaken by nature.

For me, this is re-enchantment: re-connecting with the others with whom we share this world. Seeing the sameness beyond the outward differences. Looking into the eye of another and recognising each other as kin. Being compassionate to those who are alive today while honouring those who came before us by learning from their lived experience. Realising, or hoping, that there is more to the world than this tiresome cycle of living and dying. There is love and there are dreams and there is accrued wisdom; there are languages we are yet to understand and there are still things we have not illuminated in the darkness. I close with the words of Leo Tolstoy, for I can’t say it better: “Here, indeed, outwardly, are we met but inwardly we are bound to every living creature. Already are we conscious of many of the motions of the spiritual world, but others have not yet been borne in upon us. Nevertheless they come, even as the earth presently comes to see the light of the stars, which to our eyes at this moment is invisible.”

*As an editorial team we decided to write a series of blog posts that reflect on our personal experience of magic—perhaps our daily rituals. We’re also keen to hear about your own experience of magic. We don’t expect a long memoir or a comprehensive compendium of your beliefs or rituals—this is the opportunity to hone in on something that’s important to you and explore it. It could be something that has somehow shaped you, grounds you in the present, connects you with nature or gives you a reason to drive on. This is an informal conversation with yourself as much as it is a conversation with others.*

Tea Blends From Our In-House Herbalist

Tea is a universal language. Offer someone who comes to your home a cup of tea, and they will feel welcomed. Treat yourself to a warm cup of your favourite blend and instantly feel it nourish your soul. Have a chilled herbal infusion on a hot day and find yourself refreshed— and these are only some of its powers.

Illustration by Rachael Lloyd

Illustration by Rachael Lloyd

All tea, even the standard black and green teas, are made from herbs. The tea we are most accustomed to is made from the leaf tips of Camellia sinensis, more commonly known as the tea flower. Numerous other herbs can be used to brew up an infusion and can promote different states depending on the therapeutic effects of the plants. Just as black and green teas are known to be energising due to their caffeine content, chamomile is widely used for its relaxing and mild sedative properties. It is also an anti-inflammatory so is often used to treat headaches and colds.

Teas and infusions are also one of the most basic ways to use herbs for spell-crafting. Gathering, blending, and drinking these herbal preparations not only creates a relationship between the user and the plant, but also elegantly transfers the magic that these wonderous little beauties contain. Whether it be to create peace of mind, stimulate focus, or even to cast a love spell, herbs have the power to act as conduit of these intentions.

The possibilities for herbal tea blends are limitless. Once you acquaint yourself with your personal intentions, needs, and preferences, you can customise the blends to suit the moment. Until then, these three recipes can be a guide for casting your intention and promoting the desired effects.

Eye of the Storm: a blend of Chamomile, Lemon Balm, and Passionflower

A tea for creating a moment of calm. When a storm is brewing around you, create a sense of peace by brewing this tea and taking a moment to yourself to enjoy it. Chamomile is known for its ability to soothe and relax the nervous system and create tranquillity. Lemon Balm is a mild sedative used to combat stress. Passionflower creates a sense of restfulness and can help promote a good night’s sleep. It is also anti-anxiety and a mild antidepressant.

How to prepare

Add 1 teaspoon of each herb dried or fresh to a cup of freshly boiled water and let steep for 3-5 minutes. Strain and drink either hot or cold.


Love Spell: a blend of Rose Petals, Hibiscus, and Cardamom

A tea for warming the heart and opening it to the possibility of love. Rose petals are a heart tonic, meaning they support healthy heart function. They are calming and balancing to the mind and nervous system, removing any distractions from love’s eager advances and are considered an aphrodisiac. Hibiscus helps to moderate blood pressure and provides a vibrant red hue and bright flavour. Cardamom adds a kick of spice, is warming to the body and stimulates blood flow. It is also considered an aphrodisiac.

How to prepare

Combine 2 teaspoons dried rose petals, ½ teaspoon dried hibiscus and roughly 4 cardamom seed pods, gently crushed. Steep for 3-5 minutes in freshly boiled water before removing the herbs.


Cunning: a blend of Mugwort, Rosemary, and Citrus

A tea for enhancing psychic powers. Mugwort creates lucid mental states, as well as vivid dreams, Rosemary enhances memory and general cognitive function, and Citrus has a stimulating effect on the mind.

How to prepare

Mugwort can be quite strong, and also bitter, so using half a teaspoon initially is recommended until you have a sense of your own relationship to this plant. Use 1 teaspoon of rosemary and a squeeze of fresh citrus : orange, lemon, or lime will all work, according to personal preference. Steep for 3-5 minutes in freshly boiled water before removing the herbs.


Maggie Eliana is our in-house herbalist and author of Follow her on Instagram @fromrootstopetals

Why Magic Matters

In modern times, it can seem hard to reconcile science and magic. But we can benefit from both, says Cunning Folk’s contributing editor Jonathan Woolley.


We live in an age of miracles. We can speak to our friends and loved ones from thousands of miles away. Our fields are fruitful, even in winter. Humans today live for literally generations longer than our ancestors. With a couple of clicks, all the collated knowledge of humanity can be at your fingertips. Diseases that have killed millions are now easily cured. We can fly. And all these feats are made possible through science. 

And we have all been given a history, for this time of scientific wonderment. We are told that, long ago, before science began, mankind lived in darkness—in an age guided by trickery and superstition. They—wrongly— imagined the world was controlled by gods and stories, rather than natural laws and mathematics. People looked to practices based upon such mistaken beliefs—ritual and magic—to solve their problems. These techniques rarely worked, but blind faith, and a lack of any viable alternatives, kept them in place. Then, during what is now called the Age of Enlightenment, there was an intellectual revolution. People began to realise the world worked like an enormous machine; and started to work out which levers to pull to make the machine behave in ways they wished for. Technologies based on this very effective mechanistic science started to become commonplace. In this way, the scientific worldview began to permeate our lives, so we left spells and mythology behind. 

This entire history rests on two basic assumptions; the first is that magic is basically an alternative to science, albeit a flawed one. Because they were less effective in creating change in the world, magical theories and practices were abandoned in favour of scientific ones. The second assumption is that magical practices— like spells and rituals—rest on specific magical beliefs about how the universe works. If you hold to these fanciful theories to be true, then it’s only natural that you’ll act in ritualistic ways.

These assumptions were popular amongst 19th century anthropologists—like Edward Tylor and James George Frazer. Frazer in particular—in his famous masterpiece, The Golden Bough—argued that all magical rituals relied on two basic theories: the Principle of Contagion—that two objects that were once in contact with each other, retain a connection even once they are separated—and the Principle of Sympathy—in which symbolic resemblances have causal effects in the real world. A voodoo doll or poppet captures both these principles. A poppet being made from the hair or clothes of a person relates to the first principle. The practice of damaging the poppet in order to harm the person reflects the second. Frazer and his contemporaries argued that all magicians held theories like this to be true, and practiced magic as a result. This state of error was gradually dispelled because of technological progress, they said, and magical thinking evolved into more scientific worldviews.

This “evolutionist" school of thought in anthropology was enormously influential, and helped shape how many modern people think about magic today. In fiction, magic almost always works in the same way that science does—mechanistically, with spells always yielding predictable outcomes, so long as the correct procedure is followed—something that reinforces the idea that magic and science are simply two sides of the same coin. Indeed, this is such a prevailing trope that author Arthur C. Clarke described this as a law.

Convinced that magic is simply erroneous science, many people today regard magical practices—like astrology, making offerings to spirits, casting spells, or treating the natural world as enchanted—with scepticism, even disdain. Such practices are seen as foolish, and unnecessary. Our society might be riddled with exceptions to this attitude, but such exceptions often map onto existing tensions between the powerful and the powerless. People of colour, for example, are often expected to have “irrational” customs, even by those who see the folly of such customs as obvious. This betrays the deep-seated racism of 19th century evolutionism; in which only those wrongly deemed to be “less evolved”—such as children or people of colour —were thought to be likely to practice magic.

But in reality, magic is far more than the primitive cousin of science. Magical systems are vast and elaborate, with other effects that are often far more important than their practical outcomes. When the Evolutionists were writing, it was widely assumed that magic and religion as a whole would disappear within a few short decades. However, 100 years later in the 1980s, anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann turned her attention to the fact that it had not. In her study of British witches and ceremonial magicians, Luhrmann demonstrated that the practitioners she studied were perfectly normal, rational people—who often worked in scientific or technical professions. Why, then, did they continue to cast spells and attend sabbats under the full moon? 

As an answer, Luhrmann characterises magic as a kind of “serious play”; an enjoyable and deeply meaningful activity in its own right. Luhrmann found that it was largely pursued at first for its own sake. The experiences people who had during ritual could result in practitioners adopting “magical” beliefs, that deviated from scientific orthodoxy, but also provided practitioners with an enhanced sense of wellbeing, purpose, and connection in their lives. The beliefs magicians did express were often adopted strategically and provisionally —with no particular commitment being expressed to any one set of magical ideas. Unscientific beliefs about magic, when they do emerge, are speculative rationalisations about personal experience; not an organised set of teachings opposed to science. Magical rituals preceded theories of magic—not the other way around.

Magic is a kind of playing. This is no bad thing—play is, after all, the dominant mode of learning used by human beings. The time spent in unstructured, imaginative play helps children develop a sense of who they are, and of what the world is like, facilitating creativity, social awareness, and motor skills. It also comes with a wealth of positive effects upon their emotional state, too. Luhrmann’s research helps us to realise that magical acts—aside from any causal role they might or might not play—are an opportunity for adults to play; gaining access to all the psychological benefits that play provides. 

This draws a very clear distinction between magic, as practiced today, and science. Although they were once closely intertwined—the alchemy of the Renaissance being a notable example—what has taken place since that time is not a conversion of magical beliefs into scientific theories, but rather a separation of what was once a single practice into two, distinct spheres. Given its creative, emotional, and performative aspects, it might be helpful to consider magic as an artform, rather than a science. This shows that dismissing magic because it isn’t scientific is totally nonsensical; just as one wouldn’t evaluate a Picasso based on its physiological accuracy, you wouldn’t judge a spell based on how well it performs under double-blind control trials. Denying ourselves access to this entire sphere of creativity, then, is as foolish and short-sighted as to ban or dismiss dance or film. Magic is the aesthetics of the soul, an artistic mode where the human heart is its medium; with playfulness as its central discipline. 

After all, they don’t call it the “Dark Arts” for nothing.

What The Labyrinth Taught Me About Reality

“What was I doing?”

“Why don’t you look where you’re going young woman?”

“I was looking.”

“And where were you going.”

“I don’t remember.”

As a child, the rubbish scene in the film Labyrinth unsettled me. It also really spoke to me. It still does today. Like all good fiction, it’s in some ways truer than the truths we’re told in real life, albeit stranger on first inspection. In the words of Albert Camus, “fiction it is a lie through which we tell the truth.”

For those unfamiliar with the film (do you even exist?), the protagonist, Sarah, is on a quest to rescue her brother Toby from Jareth—the goblin king (David Bowie)—who lives in the centre of the Labyrinth. “He’s the dark fairy in folklore—[who is] meant to be tempting,” said grown up Toby Froud, who played his baby namesake in the film. Jareth tries to distract Sarah from her purpose. He is a master of disguise and mind control—he can create illusions and dreams which make Sarah forget.

In the scene in question, Sarah is under Jareth’s spell after biting into an apple. She temporarily forgets her quest and appears in the midst of a rubbish dump. Lost and confused, she is lured into her bedroom—re-created in said rubbish dump—by a goblin. The goblin attempts to keep Sarah distracted, comforting her with things that are familiar but inanimate. But Sarah is conscious there is something she is forgetting. She just can’t find the words. All the while, the goblin intensifies her mission to distract Sarah, to maintain her ignorance. The goblin does so by piling on top of her toys from her childhood—things she once associated with security.

“There was something I was looking for.”

“Don’t talk nonsense. It’s all here. Everything you’ve ever cared about in the world is right here.”

Sarah remembers the words of a story she read at the beginning of her journey, and begins to recite it like a spell:

“Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I fought my way here to the castle, beyond the goblin city, to take back the child that you have stolen.”

“What’s the matter my dear. Don’t you like your toys?”

“It’s all junk!”

She throws the carousel music box across the room. It breaks down the walls of this hypernormal reality and reveals it for what it really is: a fiction reminiscent of a Hollywood studio. Useless rubbish, attractive but overall hollow and unsatisfying, much like the things we hoard to remind ourselves we exist in a capitalist society. “I have to save Toby” she remembers, re-connecting with her true will.

This scene is the perfect allegory of the way we've built up a world full of material distractions—and social constructs—that keep us from the things that really matter—and from truly connecting with our will. We’re born into this reality and have little opportunity to carve our way out of it.

But which reality are we living in? Our reality is what we have built around us, physically, socially and culturally. We're conditioned to think that normality or reality is the cultural context in which we find ourselves, but that reality can seem quite absurd if you take a step back and dismantle it. Men in suits shaking hands and saying “how do you do?”, filing your tax return, board meetings, convoluted mating rituals dressed as something else, bullshit jobs. It’s the kind of absurd realism the writer Richard Yates depicted so well in novels like Revolutionary Road.

I think it's this baseline state of mind (thinking that reality is absurd) that makes me unfazed by things others might think weirder, and thus open to imagining different realities. Is anything weirder than what is deemed normal, though?

When I see people convinced we all share a static, absolute reality, the opening lines of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House come to mind: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.” Then I imagine going into the houses of those who do attempt to survive under conditions of absolute reality and seeing framed inspirational posters that say things like: "live, laugh, love.”

@doththedoth articulated it nicely on Twitter:

“If you know someone who has ‘live, laugh, love’ quoted anywhere in their house, that’s a demon. You’re in the home of a demon.”

Adam Curtis expressed it well too, in his BBC documentary HyperNormalisation. Focusing on the political, he considers how we have come to live in a strange, constructed “fake world”; this fake world, he asserts, is a simpler version of the real world—it sustains itself because people find simplicity reassuring. “This retreat into a dream world allowed dark and destructive forces to fester outside,” he says, mentioning some of the issues with which we’re confronted in modern times, including the waves of refugees, Brexit, and Donald Trump.

Losing ourselves in a simulation—aka the simulation hypothesis—is a recurring motif in cinema and literature, The Matrix and The Truman Show being two of the more recent portrayals of this fear. But it is nothing new. One of numerous ancient examples can be found in Ancient Chinese literature, in the "Butterfly dream” of Zhuangzi. Zhuangzi dreams he was a butterfly, wakes up and cannot be certain whether he is a butterfly dreaming of being a man, or a man who dreamed of being a butterfly. We fear mistaking dreams for reality or reality for dreams, perhaps because we want to be assured we are investing in the right reality. This fear has become more prominent again in science fiction as developments in technology and artificial intelligence allow us to immerse ourselves in more convincing simulations—but through immersion could we lose ourselves?

Needless to say, humankind has never been wholly convinced of the stability of reality or our place in it; as a consequence there’s reassurance in the trickery inherent in hypernormality. It’s why the Dursleys in Harry Potter, who so passionately rallied against magic and clung to hypernormality, were such convincing characters. Most of us know people like that. But awareness of the social constructs that restrain us also means we can dismantle the mythos that sustains them. It also leaves a lot of space for creative world-building, where we can imagine and build new and better worlds. Speaking with Pam Grossman recently, she said something that really struck a chord: “I do believe that magic is a really great alternative for world-building.”

Those who practise magic, a spiritual path or occultism, are often dismissed as “people who have taken fandom too far.” But tell me, which reality would you live in if you had a choice? A world you’ve read about or dreamed about that inspires you, or the hypernormal world we’ve created and collectively reside in currently? And what of your reality are you really certain of beyond the language and customs and virtues we have inherited, beyond arbitrary borders and the walls that contain us?

In the climatic final scene in Labyrinth, it’s the words of a story—and the suspended sense of disbelief it provokes—that allow Sarah to ultimately imagine and manifest a new reality of her own making, at the same time shattering the oppressive one in which she is entrapped:

“Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City to take back the child you have stolen. For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as great. You have no power over me.”

Make Your Own Lavender Deodorant

In her Buenos Aires home, Deb Kim makes plant-based soap, bath bombs, balms and creams that she tests on herself and her family, not animals. Deodorant needn’t cost the earth, but so often shop-bought deodorant comes in unnecessary plastic containers and contains questionable ingredients. It can be hard to find a natural deodorant that works, so Deb makes her own.

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This deodorant is easy and inexpensive to make, and you can re-fill the same glass container every time you run out. Key to Deb’s recipe are lavender essential oil and tea tree oil. Says Maggie Eliana, our in-house herbalist: “Lavender essential oil helps calm the mind and relax the nervous system. It also has soothing effects on the skin as well as the mind. Tea tree oil is antibacterial, antiseptic, and anti-fungal. It will keep your armpits fresh and will help to balance the PH, aiding in the reduction of sweat production.”

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What you need

3 tbsp organic coconut oil

2 tbsp bicarbonate of soda

2 tbsp shea butter

2 tbsp arrowroot powder

Lavender essential oil

Tea tree essential oil


A double broiler (or improvise a bain marie)

How to make

Melt the coconut oil and shea butter in a double boiler over medium heat until almost melted.

Remove the melted oil from the heat and add the bicarbonate of soda and the arrowroot.

Add the tea tree oil and lavender oil (three drops of each) and pour into a glass jar. You can use a clean jam jar or ramekin with a lid.

Store the deodorant in the fridge, at least initially for an even consistency. It can be taken out once solidified, though in summer it may melt.

Apply a pea-sized amount where and when needed, rubbing gently until smooth. Enjoy!

Follow Deb Kim on IG: @ladebkim

The Invisible Forest exhibition at Gallery 46

The Invisible Forest at Gallery 46 brings together work from Peruvian-Amazonian artists, including Brus Rubio Churay, Santiago Yahuarcani, Lastenia Canayo, and Elena Valera. Curator Patsy Craig hopes viewers learn by example the importance of environmental stewardship.

Encuentro con los aliados, 2018. Brus Rubio.

Encuentro con los aliados, 2018. Brus Rubio.

The Amazon rainforest, often described as ‘the lungs of our planet’, is thought to generate around 20% of the world’s oxygen. Through the forest runs the mighty Amazon River, the life blood whose tributaries feed the region’s incredible flora and fauna and the remote communities who call it home. It’s little wonder that nature plays such a vital role in these cultures’ cosmologies.

“The forest is currently invisible,” says artist Brus Rubio Churay, “but we need to make it visible.” Brus is currently the artist-in-residence at Gallery 46, Whitechapel. His paintings are being exhibited there alongside work from fellow Peruvian-Amazonian artists, in the aptly named group show, The Invisible Forest.

Evident in many of the works on display is the importance of environmental stewardship to these communities, and their connection to nature. Plants are a vital part of their daily lives, which they rely on for nourishment, medicine and knowledge. The Murui use coca powder, a pure form of the plant, while the Shibipo are known for taking ayahuasca to gain greater clarity and vision.

Untitled. Santiago Yahuarcani.

Untitled. Santiago Yahuarcani.

Brus is from Pucaurquillo, a community in the basin of the Ampiyacu River in Loreto, Peru. Growing up near the river, he remembers the stories his family told him while fishing and at home under the starry Amazonian sky. These stories helped him foster a sensitivity towards nature, and reflect on the mysteries of life. “The Invisible Forest represents that respect towards the force of nature, that we hope to make visible through artistic expression.”

Three of Brus’ paintings are on display in this group exhibition. They depict a man’s transfiguration to jaguar. “This story is part of the learnings imparted to me by my uncle Alfonso, who was the kuraka (chief) of our community. This work is also about expressing respect for our ancestors.”

In 2002, the anthropologist Jürg Gasché visited Brus’s community to do fieldwork and learn about ancestor veneration. In turn, Brus learnt about Western anthropological thinking and the importance of conversing with different cultures. In the process, he discovered his passion for painting as a means for bridging those cultural divisions.

“Latin American art is usually closer to Andean art or pre-Hispanic iconography, but my art instead is from the perspective of my people, the Murui-Bora.” The artist is self-taught. He grew up in a remote part of the Amazon, and learnt about European art history from encyclopaedias and other books that started arriving when he was a child. “This made it easier to communicate more directly with a non-Indigenous audience.

The cosmology of Brus’s community is not well-documented, though often classed as animistic by anthropologists. “We believe in a great respect towards nature, towards animals—we are conscious of what nature provides us. That’s what we believe—in the force of nature itself. What I want to do is reach out to the West—the “rational” world which tries to understand much more about our intuition than we can actually say—and re-introduce this force of nature.”

Another objective of the group show is to tell the history of colonial bloodshed from their own perspective. “I’m from two ethnic groups —my father is Murui and my mother is Bora. The Murui and Bora peoples are known internationally for having been victims of the massacre taking place around the Amazon Rubber Boom (1879 to 1912), during which the London-based Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company massacred the Indigenous Amazonian peoples. This part of Amazonian history has not been told by Indigenous people, by us, but rather by people like British diplomat Roger Casement. It has not been given much attention by politicians or the Peruvian press. I aim to give these stories an Amazonian voice.”

La Astucia, 2017. Brus Rubio.

La Astucia, 2017. Brus Rubio.

Curator Patsy Craig spent years living with Brus in his small Amazonian community. She became an advocate for Indigenous people’s rights after standing in alliance with Native American people over the water protection movement at Standing Rock, North Dakota, in 2016. “I thought I had to listen to what Indigenous people have to say. My mother was Peruvian and my father American. I have Native-American heritage on my father’s side and Indigenous blood from my mother’s side, so these issues are really close to me. The experience inspired me to learn more about Indigenous culture and provide more platforms to amplify Indigenous worldviews and knowledge.”

The Invisible Forest is part of the curator’s Flourishing Diversity Series, conceived in collaboration with the Centre for the Anthropology of Sustainability at the University College London, and the UK-registered conservation charity Synchronicity Earth. Their goal is to provide Indigenous people with a platform to speak about their relationship with the environment. “The dominant culture - the Western world - is destroying the environment,” continues Patsy. “How do we recover that relationship with nature, if there ever was one in our culture? One thing is really clear for me: Indigenous people are part of the solution to the climate crisis. Respect for nature is intrinsic to their worldview, and it has been for thousands of years. We need to start listening.”

The Invisible Forest is at Gallery 46 in Whitechapel, London, from Friday 1 June to Saturday 29 June 2019. Entry is free.

Hombre Garza. Rember Yahuarcani.

Hombre Garza. Rember Yahuarcani.

Q&A with Illustrator Alexandra Dvornikova

Alexandra Dvornikova is an illustrator based in Saint Petersburg. At Cunning Folk we’re huge fans of Alexandra’s work and delighted to be able to share it. Her dreamlike illustrations of flora and fauna mirror her everyday life, much of which is spent immersed in nature, foraging for mushrooms and feeding birds. Her Instagram feed is an enticing invitation to step into the woods we have for so long avoided. We spoke with the artist about the deeper meaning behind her work and her thoughts on magic.


Follow Alexandra Dvornikova on Instagram @allyouneediswall

CF Why do you draw?

AD It’s obvious, but I really love drawing. Since early childhood, it was my favorite thing to do. I loved it even more than playing with toys because it was possible to imagine absolutely everything I wanted without any limitations. I think what I still appreciate most is this ability to create a whole new world from nothing just from imagination.

CF Who are your main influencers?

AD I think my main influencer is Carl Jung. His books are something that I'm coming back to again and again. In visual art: Ivan Bilibin and Yevgeny Charushin, among others. I grew up on the books they illustrated and that’s imprinted in my mind on a very deep, almost subconscious, level. Dark and beautiful tales with mystic powerful landscapes illustrated by Ivan Bilibin with palpable love to nature in each brush stroke, attention to tiniest details,  touching and simple animals with individuality by Yevgeny Charushin. I absorbed their perception when I was a child and I think it affected all my future life. It changed the way I see the world. In terms of music, it could be John Frusciante. I was 14 when I first listened to his album Niandra. He was nearly dying when he recorded it. It’s dark, very sincere and the music is beautiful. His openness taught me a lot.


CF Which stories from folklore, in particular, inspire you?

AD Honestly, I don't feel inspired by particular stories. I think it’s a special sense of archaic story - or myth - that inspires me. It's hard to explain. The numinous sense - the sense of Mystic, these special places between the other world and our world. Usually, I feel something that could be such a tale, it comes from the inside, but I can't write and I always see some fragments of it, so I don't know the whole story. It feels like a momentary flash of some old forgotten memory. I love to think that maybe it's something that I inherited from my ancestors from centuries past and I just somehow recall it. It definitely has its own power which doesn't depend on me, I'm more like a transmitter. I noticed, for example, that the brighter this flash is - the more people will resonate with the work. I just try to depict it as it feels to me and to share my awe and enchantment. Maybe some particular parts in the structure of a folktale draw more of my attention. When the hero is lost (usually in woods) and it's uncertain what happens next - these moments always fascinate me.

CF What place do you think magic and folklore has in the world today?

AD It’s hard to say for sure. I think nowadays it stands in opposition to the pragmatic reality, being instead a good way of escapism and enriching life of the soul. Not so long ago, maybe even 50 or 100 years ago, there was a different situation entirely. For many people magic and folklore were a part of everyday reality or at least important mental representations highly intertwined with life.

I can see five types of relationships between people today and magic (and archaic knowledge). I made a very rough classification:

1. Sincere belief, when the scientific understanding of the world becomes mythological by its nature. The person actually lives in the mystery world and can easily explain everything by energies or even witchcraft - electricity, physical illness, work or relationships difficulties. Something that fits the term ‘magical thinking’.

2. Nostalgic: "I want to believe" which is a little bit like a game that has an important role for an individual who lives "in two worlds at the same time". Metaphorically speaking, they already ate the forbidden fruit so will not get the magician to heal their injuries. But magic and folk (symbolic) representations still play an important role in their inner reality. Outer reality may be not affected at all or affected on the symbolic level.

3. Researchers who study these topics for many different reasons including aesthetic interest. Due to the nature of their interest, they stand at a distance from actual beliefs in magic and watch them from an outsider’s perspective, not letting it mix with their view of the world.

4. Neutral individuals. They are very indifferent to magic and folklore, occasionally they may read a folktale or watch the magical movie, but they have no interest in looking deeper because they have other unrelated interests.

5. Magicophobes and those who fight against magic. People who feel some discomfort regarding the existence practices/beliefs in their rational picture of reality. People who can often deny even the cultural importance of folklore and magic. I have an assumption that on some level they are afraid of some irrational power of these phenomena. Their protection is to laugh and deny. Their world is very rational, well-explained and materialistic.

Of course, this is very approximate and some groups can mix. For example, I personally fall in between 2 and 3 and can sometimes switch (even if these feel like very different approaches).


CF Why do you think so many people are returning to these stories?

AD I think those who return are seeking something more than just a "mechanical" material life with endless consumerism, rationalism and career competitions and it's one of the possible ways to return the meaning to life.

We always had magic (I mean the broad term, including religion) in our lives since the beginning of humanity. It's something rooted very deeply in ourselves and it is something natural for us as a species. There’s even the opinion that animals have something resembling magical beliefs like the well-known experiment by Burrhus Frederic Skinner, ‘Superstition’ in the pigeon’.

Magic was disturbed and nearly destroyed not so long ago. It seems to me that humankind reacted by suffering increasingly from mental health-related problems. On the one hand, it's just a natural development for humans to gradually abandon superstitions and try to find the objective truth, at least the trend is that society becomes more and more humane and accepting (again, I talk very broadly about people in general excluding some cruel political games). But on the other hand, we seem to have nothing in to fill some kind of emptiness inside which appeared when the large network of meanings which was connecting us to the universe disappeared. Many people need something to believe in, otherwise life is not as meaningful as it could be.


CF You seem close to nature. How important is this closeness to you as an artist?

AD Extremely important. I can't do anything without recharging in nature. It's part of a cycle - I take something (mostly through my eyes) and I return it as drawings. And actually, I do not exclude myself from nature. I think I'm a part of nature and it’s some power in nature that forces me to draw, so somehow it is possible to say that nature reflects itself through me. My brain and my hands and my eyes are made by nature. Maybe I don't have good enough hands and skills and patience, but it still works this way.

I have a very special relationship with nature, I see it as a teacher and a partner. If I ask, it always answers. It shows me a lot (I just know how to ask it to show me), I think nature trusts me with some of the secrets it prefers to hide from many people. I think nature "knows" that I can speak a bit from its perspective, expressing something that it wants to say. But it doesn't mean that I'm good at it or anything like that. It's just my relationships with nature.


CF You’ve spoken before about the unexpected nature of drawing - how you often don’t understand your finished works. Is the beauty of drawing - the mystery of delving into the unknown?

AD Yes, for me it's like that.


All images © Alexandra Dvornikova

Q&A with Art Director Rachael Olga Lloyd

Rachael Olga Lloyd is a stop motion animation director, model maker and a Royal College of Art graduate. She is also the art director of Cunning Folk. She has made several short films, including How to Count Sheep which won Best Animation and Best Production Design at Screentest, Iktsuarpok which was an official selection at Aesthetica Short Film Festival in 2016 and won the title of Best Student Animation at Roselle Park Loves Shorts International Film Festival, 2016. Her work is inspired by folklore and magic.

Watch her films here:

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Photograph by Megan Kellythorn

CF Why stop motion animation?

ROL I was quite late to the game. I was never really inspired by stop motion I saw on TV as a kid, things like Wallace and Gromit and The Wombles. I was however always in love with art in general. I can't remember ever wanting to do anything else. Two years out of school, I was quite depressed and unsure about where to focus. I dabbled in fine art and later fashion for a bit. I loved drawing and making things from fabric. But fashion didn't quite click for me.  

On a whim, I applied to a couple of animation courses and got into a course in London through clearing. That's where I first encountered experimental stop motion animation. I remember seeing the Grizzly Bear music video “Ready Able” by Allison Schulnik. Even though it was plasticine, not a material I like to work with, I had never seen any non-commercial stop motion before. It had never really occurred to me the medium could be used this way. After that, I knew I'd found what I was looking for.

CF What excited you about the medium? 

ROL I was a bit greedy with what I wanted from my practice. I wanted to draw, I wanted to sculpt, use fabrics, design shapes, clothes and characters, write stories, experiment with photography, and I also wanted something else - I wasn't sure what. Stop motion has all this, it fulfilled every artist craving I had aswell revealing my love for problem-solving and a technical side I didn't quite realise I craved. Stop motion is so exciting for me it has no limits, it's so broad and requires so many skills I can never get bored of it. 

CF Animation is a male-dominated industry. Why do you think that is and is it changing?

ROL It's odd as I spent five years studying animation and on my MA there were definitely more girls than guys. But as soon as I hit the working world female animation directors were harder to find. There are many women, but they're often only in the art department, while men still end up falling into more technical or heavy-handed roles like rigging, lighting and carpentry for sets. I have met men and women who are amazing at both types of jobs yet these gendered roles still seem to happen. 

There are more women directors in my generation, but it's still quite male-dominated. I think one of these reasons is women can be much harder on themselves, are willing to take fewer risks and aim too much for perfection. Initially, I turned down loads of jobs because I was worried about doing it "perfectly". I had the experience and capacity but I didn't want to do it unless I was 100 per cent sure I could do the best job. I know other female directors who have the same thought process. I ended up banishing these thoughts from my mind and just saying yes to everything and these first few jobs were some of the most stressful and scary things I have ever done, but also the most gratifying and the best learning experiences.

CF What does a typical day look like for you? 

ROL When I’m directing I work from my home studio. I’m not a morning person so I usually get up quite late - at 9 or 10. I then need an hour to wake up so I make myself a cup of green tea and a bowl of cereal and watch something.

I then put on some music in my studio and get to work emailing, making, filming. if I'm busy with a deadline I usually work until about 6 pm, have a little break then maybe keep working till 11 pm. I break up every other day with a gym class or a trip to Lewisham farmer's market, just so I get out of the flat and get some exercise.

CF Tell us more about your workspace.

ROL London is so expensive and when filming I need my own room. I currently live in a two-bedroom flat with my boyfriend. We use the bigger bedroom as a shared studio space - I kick him out for a few weeks when I’m filming!

The wall on my side of the office is covered in things that inspire me - mainly illustrations. I keep all my puppets from my films and have them in a line on my window sill.  I have a "clean" desk for using my laptop and drawing. I then have a bigger "dirty" desk for making things. Beside me are draws filled with things like drills, plyers, brushes, tape and wood. I have a lovely shelf for all my wools and yarns a bigger storage box for bigger things like foam, polystyrene and stuff for sets.

CF How easy is it to have a sideline and when should you do it?

ROL It depends on the sideline, a lot of it comes down to organising your time. I'm naturally very disorganised but with a lot of practice and lists, I just about manage. I like having a sideline. I sometimes find doing your hobby for a living can be odd as it can kill a lot of the enjoyment and motivation. I find having a sideline gives me a chance to engage back into my other arty hobbies. I used to love doing illustration, crochet, cross-stitch, flower pressing and ceramics and with a sideline I feel motivated to get back into these. But it is important not to take too much on and learn how fast you work so you can calculate if you have the time.

CF Why were you drawn to the Cunning Folk project?

ROL I have always been obsessed with folklore, fantasy and the idea of magic while still being sceptical. Cunning Folk looks at our modern day connection to folklore and magic and this is something I try to do with my own work. I’m hugely inspired by the Slavic folklore aesthetic. Technology in many ways disconnects us from other people and the physicality of the real world; I’m more drawn to handmade things and techniques and using them in my work.