Re-Connecting With The Natural World: A Reading List

Nature has long been something to fear; in ancient literature, our distant ancestors personified it as monsters and fought it, from Scylla to Beowulf. Nudity and bodily fluids such as menstruation are still taboo in most cultures. Paradoxically, nature is also something we love and regard as sacred; we can’t afford to lose it, so we fence off green spaces and cultivate gardens. If we image a future post the climate crisis, it looks bleak and dystopian.

Historically, nature has been a place individuals go to seek creativity and wisdom. A period of reclusion in the mountains or woods was considered vital for artists, writers and spiritual practitioners of the past. Solitude is still a catalyst for innovation. We often talk about re-connecting with nature, as if it were something separate to us. But we are nature. In literature, leaving civilisation and stepping out into the wilderness presents an opportunity for the hero to re-connect with themselves and their true nature—or something akin to the divine. Many cosmologies have myths that emphasise humans are part of the natural world, not its masters, and this is reflected in their consumption habits as moderation. Today in Western culture, we are in need of new stories to repair this relationship. We are taking too much and as a consequence endangering organisms that enrich our lives, or the resources on which we depend for our own survival. In other words, in harming nature, we are harming ourselves.

Here are some reading suggestions for learning more about our place in the natural world.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Often considered the world’s oldest surviving great work of literature, this epic poem from Ancient Mesopotamia tells the story of Gilgamesh, a young king who fights against monsters sent by the gods, and goes on a quest to seek immortality. He eventually must come to terms with nature and the inevitability of death—and in turn becomes a good king. We encounter along the way a parallel to the Hebrew Bible’s Garden of Eden, in the Garden of the Gods. Enkidu and Shamhat are made by a god and live in harmony with plants and animals. Endiku, like Adam, is introduced to a woman (always the scapegoat) who tempts him, Shamhat, like Eve. In both stories, a man accepts food from a woman, becomes ashamed of his nakedness and covers it, and must leave the garden, unable to return. On leaving the Garden of Eden, or the Garden of the Gods, harmony was lost. Nature became something terrifying to be fought. This story is the first to play with this dichotomy, the wilds versus civilisation, and shows that the Utopian dream of living harmoniously with nature existed pre-Abrahamic religions, and was not a reality for Ancient Pagans.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

The idea that Native Americans lived in harmony with a pristine natural world as simple hunter-gatherers is an enticing one, but it is not altogether true, according to Mann. The issue with resorting to the “Nobel Savage” trope is that some communities were environmental stewards, others weren’t—and for the most part, the situation was more complex than that. “The Maya collapsed because they overshot the carrying capacity of their environment,” he writes. “They exhausted their resource base, began to die of starvation and thirst, and fled their cities en masse, leaving them as silent warnings of the perils of ecological hubris.” Before the European colonisation of the Americas, Native Americans actively moulded the land around them, though their methods were more sustainable than that of the colonisers, who swiftly wiped out species that had been around for thousands of years. There is evidence that 70-80 percent of the Amazon forest was grown by humans. The complexity of societies Pre-Columbus was comparable to Eurasian counterparts. “In 1491 the Inka ruled the greatest empire on earth. Bigger than Ming Dynasty China, bigger than Ivan the Great’s expanding Russia, bigger than Songhay in the Sahel or powerful Great Zimbabwe in the West Africa tablelands, bigger than the cresting Ottoman Empire, bigger than the Triple Alliance (as the Aztec empire is more precisely known), bigger by far than any European state, the Inka dominion extended over a staggering thirty-two degrees of latitude—as if a single power held sway from St. Petersburg to Cairo.” 


Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer 

Drawing on her experiences as a mother, scientist, and writer of Native American heritage, Robin Wall Kimmerer invites us to look closer at something we normally don’t see: the mosses that carpet our temperate forest floors. Part memoir, part scientific treatise, Kimmerer shows us that we have much to learn from these inconspicuous organisms, and in turn the natural world as an interconnected web of which we are part. “I think that it is this that draws me to the pond on a night in April, bearing witness to puhpowee,” writes Kimmerer. “Tadpoles and spores, egg and sperm, mine and yours, mosses and peepers—we are all connected by our common understanding of the calls filling the night at the start of spring. It is the wordless voice of longing that resonates within us, the longing to continue, to participate in the sacred life of the world.”

 

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

It’s often said that we know the moon better than we know our oceans. An odd thought, considering they constitute 99 per cent of the living space on this planet. Our understanding of the inhabitants of our deep oceans is shallow. One known but often misunderstood creature is the octopus, an eight-limbed predator. It has inspired alien creatures in science fiction, but it is also remarkably intelligent, and strangely familiar if we get closer to it. The author, Montgomery, befriends octopuses across the globe, showing another side to this mollusc.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate - Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben

Our world is full of magical places—one such place is the forest. When we walk through a forest, most of us are unaware that the trees can communicate—that they, like us, have families with whom they share nutrients. Drawing on groundbreaking new discoveries, Wohlleben presents the science behind the social lives of trees and forest etiquette, and puts up a persuasive argument for protecting this living, breathing community, for the benefit of the trees, the planet, and our own mental and physical wellbeing.

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary by Caspar Henderson

Bestiaries were popular illustrated manuscripts in the Middle Ages and typically contained detailed descriptions of exotic species and those native to Western Europe, alongside imaginary animals such as dragons and unicorns. The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is another book on this list to expose our ignorance of the organisms with which we share this world; it captures the beauty and weirdness of many living forms we thought we knew but didn’t really, from the Axolotl to the Zebrafish. Writes Henderson: “Life on Earth is basically a giant microbial vat and eukaryotic organisms are merely the bubbles on its surface? Are we—the froth—deluded in valuing ourselves so highly?” 

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence (2018) Michael Pollan

When LSD was first discovered, it was compared to the atom bomb. It was believed that both would shake up society in a significant way. Research into LSD and psilocybin mushrooms was conducted in the past, though the funds dried up, in part a consequence of the recreational use of the drugs during the hippie years. In the last decade, new research is underway, and scientists are again examining how psychedelic drugs might be helpful in psychiatric treatment, and for helping us better understand the nature of consciousness. Pollan explores how psychedelics have been used effectively in different cultures’ rituals, and in turn shaped culture. In taking psychedelic drugs himself and observing others who took them in lab studies, he changed his mind: “The usual antonym for the word “spiritual” is “material.” That at least is what I believed when I began this inquiry—that the whole issue with spirituality turned on a question of metaphysics. Now I’m inclined to think a much better and certainly more useful antonym for “spiritual” might be “egotistical.” Self and Spirit define the opposite ends of a spectrum, but that spectrum needn’t reach clear to the heavens to have meaning for us. It can stay right here on earth. When the ego dissolves, so does a bounded conception not only of our self but of our self-interest. What emerges in its place is invariably a broader, more openhearted and altruistic—that is, more spiritual—idea of what matters in life. One in which a new sense of connection, or love, however defined, seems to figure prominently.” Elsewhere he writes: “You go deep enough or far out enough in consciousness and you will bump into the sacred. It’s not something we generate; it’s something out there waiting to be discovered. And this reliably happens to nonbelievers as well as believers.”

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

In the second chapter of Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer tells readers to eat dogs. Among his reasons: many cultures around the world eat dog. Millions of dogs are euthanised yearly in the US and it is costly to dispose of them—their meat is rendered into food for cows. Most people will feel nauseated at the prospect of eating dogs directly—our beloved companions—but regularly eat cows. The author reminds us that life is sacred in all cultures, but the place where we drawn the moral line between what we can kill or can’t is cultural. “If nothing matters, there's nothing to save,” he writes. This so closely follows The Hidden Life of Trees, where we read that perhaps plants have complex lives too. “Save a carrot, eat a vegetarian,” might be a tempting retort in jest, but it would be inaccurate, and is one of the many myths surrounding vegetarianism that Safran Foer debunks. Vegans harm fewer plants, because eating plants directly, rather than feeding them to animals you go on to eat, requires far fewer plants—and involves less deforestation. If research one day proves that plants are sentient beings which feel pain, which isn’t clear at present, veganism would still be the path of minimal harm. “If we are not given the option to live without violence, we are given the choice to centre our meals around harvest or slaughter, husbandry or war. We have chosen slaughter. We have chosen war. That's the truest version of our story of eating animals.” “Can we tell a new story?”

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wolf 

“Humboldt ‘read’ plants as others did books–and to him they revealed a global force behind nature, the movements of civilisations as well as of landmass. No one had ever approached botany in this way.” This is the biography of the Prussian naturalist Alexandra von Humboldt, but also a journey through Western thought. Humboldt, whom many parks, streets and species in South America are named after, was insatiably curious about the natural world and our place in it. He learnt directly from nature, from other scientists, but also from artists including his friend Goethe. “Humboldt wrote that nature had to be experienced through feelings,” writes Andrea Wulf. Reading The Invention of Nature, we witness the division of the natural sciences into the separate scientific disciplines recognised today. But Humboldt, Wulf emphasises, saw nature as an interconnected web of cause and effect. Disrupt the balance and you harm the entire ecosystem; inevitably, that also means causing harm to ourselves. In that respect, he was one of the earliest environmentalists, and there may still be something to learn from this earlier, more holistic perspective. “The effects of the human species’ intervention were already ‘incalculable’, Humboldt insisted, and could become catastrophic if they continued to disturb the world so ‘brutally’. Humboldt would see again and again how humankind unsettled the balance of nature.”

Q&A with Sophie van Llewyn

Sophie van Llewyn is the author of Bottled Goods (Fairlight Books), a novella-in-flash longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019. Her prose has also appeared in The Guardian, Ambit, Litro and the New Delta Review, among others. She grew up in Tulcea, in south-east Romania, close to the Danube Delta.

Set in the 1970s in communist Romania, Bottled Goods tells the story of Alina, who is regarded with suspicion by the secret services after her brother-in-law defects to the west. Alina turns to her aunt Theresa for assistance, a secret practitioner of old folk magic. Writing with a fairytale cadence, the author shows that there is hope beyond the difficult circumstances we find ourselves in. Sophie van Llewyn kindly responded to some questions I sent her via email.

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ESK I’m curious. When not writing, you work as an anaesthesiologist. Has this in any way influenced your outlook? I can imagine you’ve had interesting conversations as people fall out of consciousness before surgery.

SvL Being an anaesthesiologist has influenced my outlook, but not as you think. I generally prefer to keep my conversations before surgery light and funny (people tend to be terrified before a surgery, so humour helps them relax a bit). What has influenced the way I see the world were the (patients') brushes with death that I witnessed. This is a fight doctors lose sometimes, no matter if they do everything right. It really puts things into perspective.

ESK Bottled Goods is based on your godparents’ story. Can you sum up the true inspiration for your novella-in-flash?

SvL In the communist era, controls at the border were very thorough, especially for people who intended to go to the West, even on vacation. The regime wanted to prevent its citizens from defecting, and sometimes Border Security took their cars apart in search for hidden cash or foreign currency. Upon leaving the territory of Romania, only a certain amount of cash was allowed per person. What started ‘Bottled Goods’ was this image of a hungry woman who had been detained for a day at the border. She had hidden something in a perfume bottle—something very precious that she was trying to smuggle across.

 

ESK What was the communist position on local folk magic and folklore in Romania at the time?

SvL This is a very interesting question. While communism persecuted the practice of religion, folklore was promoted and used in the interest of propaganda. In Romania, religion and folklore were hard to separate, so some bits of folklore were ‘written out’ altogether—like Christmas carols. On the other hand, folk tales went on to be printed in manuals and magazines. It had come to the point that folklore was even counterfeited to serve propagandistic purposes.

Think about this paradox: while in communism large gatherings in villages to dance the ‘hora’ ( a dance involving many people spinning in a circle) were forbidden, the communist age also meant the birth of the professional folk dancer.

 

 ESK Bottled Goods has a fairytale-like quality and you employ magical realism. This contrasts with the bleak, oppressive political regime: ‘Alina writes to Father Frost, ’Please make me a child again. A teenager. A student. A girl who hasn’t lost her father yet or her romantic views concerning the world, poverty, kindness, a parent’s love.’’ In many ways this seems to be about a return to that sense of wonder lost in the regime?

SvL I think it has much more to do with Alina’s despair at finding herself in a situation where she sees no way out. It’s a fundamentally human feature to be able to hope, even in the most desperate moments. Alina has to turn to the magical: the last resort. But in a world so densely populated by folk beliefs like Romania, trusting magic to deliver a solution doesn’t take much of a leap of faith.

ESK What is your connection to Romanian folklore and folk magic? What research did you do?

SvL I hardly had to do any research, really! Folklore and folk beliefs are still such an important part of the contemporary Romanian’s life. Perhaps not in the sense that Romanians would necessarily believe in the existence of Saint Friday, let’s say (who is a character out of the folk tales), but they do believe in the evil eye, for instance.

A person/child touched by the evil eye would feel very tired and have strong headaches. The evil eye (‘deochiul’) could be inflicted on someone (children are especially vulnerable) by making too much fuss about a positive quality—like repeating that a child is beautiful, or good, or smart. Children were guarded by red strings tied around their wrists, or by wearing a red item of clothing. I remember my grandmother also suspected a few times that I had been touched by the evil eye, and she recited a counter-evil eye. I have to specify that my grandmother was an educated woman, who had worked as a clerk, and lived in the city her entire life! Superstitions are just something Romanians heed and fear much more than the people in Western Europe.

 

ESK Can you speak a little about the folkloric elements in Bottled Goods? For example, Saint Friday, ‘shrinking people’, and Father Frost.

SvL ‘Father Frost’ (Moș Gerilă) is actually Father Christmas, but communists couldn’t acknowledge the existence of Christmas, a religious holiday, so they had to ‘rebaptise’ him. He brought gifts to the children on 30th December — the day when the last King of Romania, King Michael, abdicated, and Romania became a republic.

Saint Wednesday, Saint Friday and Saint Sunday were characters from Romanian folk tales. They usually helped heroes by granting them magic objects that help them in their quests. But sometimes, Saint Friday (and only Saint Friday) would come around women’s houses and try to prevent them from doing housework.

 

ESK Aunt Theresa and Alina use magic as a form of self-empowerment; magic is the pursuit for freedom—both personal and political. Is that what magic is for you in Bottled Goods?

SvL Magic is there to say that there are other forces at work in our world than the political. Think about it: even the most powerful states are powerless when confronted to natural catastrophes like floods, hurricanes or earthquakes.

As terrible as it was, the communist regime wasn’t for all eternity. And it was escapable, just as Alina’s story proves.

 

ESK Where can we read/learn more about Romanian folklore and folk magic?

SvL Petre Ispirescu’s Folk Tales from Romania have been translated into English, and they’re the most emblematic. They would be the folk tales every Romanian child grows up with — his and Ion Creangă’s.

In Conversation with Pam Grossman

Pam Grossman is a Brooklyn-based author and witch. She is also the co-founder of the Occult Humanities Conference at NYU and host of The Witch Wave Podcast. Her new book Waking the Witch traces the history of the shapeshifting witch archetype, from scapegoat to the feminist reclamation, across politics, literature, art and popular culture. Pam shows us that the witch can belong to all of us, whether we identify with her literally or symbolically. It’s the book I’ve been waiting for, so I was thrilled when Pam so graciously agreed to a Skype interview ahead of her book launch.

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Elizabeth Sulis Kim Your book is named after a Kate Bush song. Can you explain that?

Pam Grossman It’s definitely winking at the Kate Bush song. I love her. I love her music. I love that song. But she and I are also referencing a pretty horrific means of torture that was used during the time of the European witch hunts, which was sleep deprivation. In order to get a so-called witch to confess, you would not allow her to sleep. You’d wake her up in the middle of the night and try to get her to confess when she was more vulnerable, when her defences were down. So there is that kind of dark background to it as well. I love that idea of re-appropriating this terrible practice and transforming it into a kind of call to arms and celebration. I loved even the phrase being re-appropriated into this positive phrase, a phrase that will hopefully galvanise people and allow them to feel inspired by this archetype in the way I am.

ESK Why were you drawn to witchcraft as a child?

PG Oh my goodness. I often say “baby I was born this way.” I just loved books and television shows and film and artwork that centred on magical females. Sometimes those were witches. One of my favourite novels growing up was Wise Child by Monica Furlong, which I mentioned in the intro to this book, and that was a very powerful, very witchy book. But honestly I loved mermaids, I loved fairies, I loved anything that had to do with the magical feminine. I was just a very imaginative kid. My love of creativity in all forms, whether that was drawing or doing spells in my backyard or writing stories, all kind of developed at the same time. I really see my creativity and my magic as two sides of the same coin.

ESK How did your parents take you becoming a witch?

PG I started publicly calling myself a witch as an adult, over 10 years ago. But privately thinking of myself as a witch—or some kind of magical girl— since I was very small. And my parents were honestly very encouraging. They’re Jewish and I was raised Jewish. But both of my parents are artists. My dad is a musician and my mother is a painter. They’ve had many different day jobs but art was a big part of my upbringing. My mum is very into the divine feminine and goddesses and my dad is very into meditating and Buddhism. So I was very fortunate to be raised in this eclectic and open-minded and creative household. My parents just wanted me to be myself.

ESK In Waking the Witch, your perspective seems consistent with Ronald Hutton’s view of witchcraft being a very creative, non-dogmatic path, set of beliefs or a new religion. You talk a lot in your book about how witchcraft is not a set of dogmas but something personal. You also write about your initial discomfort at participating in group work and joining covens. When people come together in a group, how do you avoid groupthink and how do you avoid creating dogmas?

PG I think one of the great things about witchcraft is there is no one leader. That can also be challenging at times, but because there is no one leader, because there is no one book, one set of dogma, no pope or one high priestess or authority figure the way there is in some other religions, that really allows for free thinking and evolution. That also means there is debate and there are some different perspectives and interpretations when it comes to what magic is and what a witch is and how a coven should operate. I can only speak to my own experience, but generally speaking, it has been hugely positive for me to find groups of kindred spirits who are fortifying each other and supporting each other and connecting with each other. While the image of the solitary witch is certainly part of the archetype, and I was a solitary witch for most of my life, we need each other as human beings. We can’t change the world by ourselves. So I think for whatever shortcomings groups may have, they are ultimately the way forward as they are a way of pulling our resources and sustaining each other, and we need that if we are going to make the changes that need to be made in the world. That doesn’t mean everyone needs to join a coven. For some people, their solitary work is hopefully fortifying them enough so they can go do whatever work they need to during their everyday lives. But I do think that unity and interconnection while still respecting each others’ individual perspectives is the way that we’re going to fix the broken parts of this world.

ESK People are increasingly interested in magic and witchcraft, feel in many ways an existential need for it, but often struggle to actually get on board with the belief in magic, deities and the rituals. How can you reconcile the two?

PG This is really one of the thesis statements of the book. The term ‘witch’ means so many different things depending on the context. We’re taking a word that has traditionally been used as a negative epithet against people, particularly women, for many hundreds if not thousands of years, obviously in different languages too. To me, I think the most useful way of thinking about the witch is as a symbol or an archetype, and so nobody owns that word. I know some Wiccans or some modern Pagans or some people have what they identify as a witchcraft practice in their own family lineage, may feel ownership of that word, and I can see why. But at the same time, it is a word that has been fairly recently re-appropriated as a positive thing to be, because it was such a negative word that has been used to brutalise people. For me, if someone calls themselves a witch, it is an act of reclamation. That can be for spiritual purposes for sure. But it can also be for political or cultural purposes, so if someone calls themselves a witch because they are a feminist or an environmentalist or they see themselves as someone who is subverting white cis straight heteronormative forces, I’m all for it. If that’s a word that gives them a sense of empowerment and allows them to tap into their own purpose and meaning-making and change making, then I think that’s a wonderful thing.

ESK So there’s been a boom in witchcraft in the past few years. You wrote about how the witch archetype is often something people who are somehow marginalised or feel like an outsider identify with. You also wrote about the re-appropriation of the term witch hunt, often by middle-class white men in power. Do you think the witch can ever be re-appropriated by people aren’t somehow deemed ‘other’ by society?

PM I really grapple with this question a lot. To be honest, I don’t have a clear answer to it. But I think we’re talking about a few different things at the same time and I think it’s important we tease this out a little bit. With my own biases and and my own opinions about what the word means to me, I do think it has come to symbolise someone who carries a spirit of rebelliousness and transformation and defending the most vulnerable, someone who is a feminist, someone who believes in the powers of imagination and intuition to make literal, material change in their lives and in the world, so it has that very specific meaning to me and many other people. But I can’t stop anyone from identifying with that word. And it is a really curious, shapeshifting word that has so much nuance and so many facets, so people are going to continue interpreting it and giving it many new meanings for many years to come. Ultimately it’s a word which no one has ownership over, and ultimately there’s no gatekeeper for that word, including me.

The question: can white people who call themselves Wiccan or witches—but are doing so by appropriating certain cultures that are not white—is that a problem? Absolutely it’s a problem, and I talk about that towards the end of Waking the Witch. There’s a question in society in general about appropriation and being respectful to cultures other than one's own—people’s backgrounds other than one’s own, acknowledging your behaviour and being responsible. Essentially I think that is its own issue. So when it comes to magical practice, certainly there are certain practices that originate from the African diaspora, from indigenous cultures, certainly in America but also all over the world. That can be very problematic and offensive and exploitative. A really good example is the popularity of so-called “smudging”, which certainly in the US has an offensive association with Native American people. To them, even that word is a word that belongs to their culture, a ritual that belongs to their culture. It doesn’t mean you can’t burn herbs to protect yourself—but to use the word without getting permission to use it or knowing what that word means—or what those rituals are— is very offensive. Can anyone just call themselves a witch? Can a chick who’s just really into crystals who has just got into them a month ago call herself a witch, compared to someone who might have been studying witchcraft for most of their lives, or who have gone through certain initiations, or who has done tonnes of research about it? I think it’s that kind of conversation that I think is honestly a bit of a waste of time. People are attracted to explore the archetype of the witch at many different times of their lives. Who am I to judge someone who is just very enthusiastic and new to this community or this word—who might not have the same experience I do. Also our idea of who is oppressed: who am I to judge? Obviously, you need to know your privilege, I think especially here in the states, people of colour, women, non-binary people and trans people definitely do not have the same rights as cis white men. So I think that’s why the archetype of the witch is so attractive to people of colour and gender non-binary people and trans people and queer people, because the witch is so often an outsider.

ESK Thank you for such a thorough answer. Quite timely, you wrote about the threats to bodily autonomy in the US in your book—and obviously, things have got worse since. Generally, do you think people turn to magic when they feel politically disenfranchised?

PG I think that’s absolutely part of it. One issue I have with that though is that magic never goes away. There are always people who are practising it, studying it, attracted to it, using it in their own creative expression, but in terms of why it seems to get more popular, or at least the media seems to focus on it more, it is certainly a means of tapping into one’s power, particularly when our governments, our businesses, our religious organisations are oppressive and harmful, which we’re seeing all over the place. So I do believe that magic is a really great alternative system for world-building. If you look at the four waves of feminism, at each crest of those waves you see a renewed interest in the witch, and you see the witch being taken up as this symbol of feminine, rebellious power. Autonomy over bodies that are not up to the “standard” of whoever is in power and whoever is making the rules. In terms of a pattern, absolutely, but I always want to be careful because I don’t think it’s as simple as witches being a trend. I actually see it as more a growth in interest in this archetype that’s gaining momentum over time and has been since the 19th century when women and people of colour were starting to demand rights and to tap into their own sense of worthiness, particularly here in America.

ESK Speaking of “tapping into one’s power,” you’ve said that for you magic is synonymous with art. Can you just expand on that? I mean, what is magic for you personally? I think that’s something I’ve struggled with myself.

PG I think the word magic is like the word witch in that it means so many things, and it depends on the context and it depends on who is using it. When I’m talking about magic, I’m talking about an invisible force that is catalysed by the imagination and ritual to make consciousness shifting change, which can often result in material change in the real world. I know in my own experience that my own focus and attention and intention are all important tools in my own magic-making and that my spells and my creative work are all more effective when I’m focusing my imagination, attention and intention on the work. In other words, every time somebody draws a picture— is that magic? I’m not entirely sure. I think there’s a relationship there and when it is infused with intention then it can be a magical act.

ESK Why do you think people are still scared of magic?

PG Because there have been thousands of years of propaganda against it. I think people fear the unknown— they always have. Certainly, we saw in the middle ages and early modern period, a very targeted campaign not just against witches, but against magic and the occult in general by the Church. There started to be an influx of translations of occult books from other cultures that the Church deemed very threatening. As I write in the book, the devil wasn’t even that big a concern to the Church. The devil is barely mentioned in the bible, and really it was when these books started getting translated in the middle ages. So really it was in the middle ages that the Church started feeling very threatened by all these occult books that started being translated and these outside forces, and that’s when the devil as a character played a much bigger role in Christian rhetoric. Shortly after that the witch quite literally became his bedfellow in stories and in writings about diabolism, which was seen as a very real threat to people but certainly to the Church overall.

ESK And what about with the conflict between science and magic. I think science in a way has the same goals as the occult—to explore the unknown and to discover new things. Do you think that the same sort of discourse that’s anti-witchcraft and anti-magic continues in the so-called “rational” age?

PG I certainly think so, particularly in academia there’s still a lot of disdain for magic. It’s seen as the opposite of so-called rationality and objectivism and empiricism. So some people think that, but what’s interesting is if you think about someone like Isaac Newton, he was very into alchemy and mysticism, and now with studies of Quantum Physics and all these amazing things that are showing that in fact, our thoughts can affect the material world in literal ways, I think those lines between science and magic are starting to blur once again the way they did pre-enlightenment, because magic and science were kind of considered part of the same spectrum. So I think we are starting to circle back. There are so many people now who are starting to get interested in things like spirituality and psychedelics and meditation, all of this stuff that was often seen in the more mystical realm, and people are starting to realise that there is some kind of science to it, that there is an actual physical effect to these different practices. So I think we’re starting to circle back to a time when spirituality and science are seen as having this very deep relationship that is real and that one doesn’t necessarily have to discount the other.

ESK Definitely. We’ve come to think in very categorical terms, particularly in Western society. Many of the artists, musicians, writers and some scientists I know were in some way influenced by the occult. So do you think history is cyclical?

PG I don’t know. In a lot of witchcraft conversations we have, we tend to use the image of the spiral - particularly one that spirals upwards, picture yourself climbing a mountain or up a spiral staircase. It’s this notion that things are improving and we are elevating our consciousness together, but when you do that you keep having to loop backwards. It sometimes feels like you’re having to retrace your steps, and it sometimes feels like you’re not learning from history, but in fact, you have to revisit some of the dark shadowy things in order to move forwards and upwards. So that’s the image that resonates the most for me, and it’s one I really hang onto, especially in tough times. I know you’re going through difficult times with your government, here in the US it really does feel like we’re going backwards. I just have to hang onto the notion that we’re doing that in order to really look at our shadows and our monsters and hopefully figure out ways to move through them so they don’t have to keep coming back to us, and that we’re getting to be more sensitive, kinder and more compassionate people. People who care about the earth. People who care about the most vulnerable. People who care about each other.

ESK That’s a really hopeful perspective.

PG Yes, for me the witch is hopeful in that way. You can’t talk about the witch without talking about a history of horrors against women and against outsiders, and the fact that the witch has been re-signified as this beacon of hope, and that we have shape-shifted her and re-made her, and she shape-shifted and re-made us in turn, is something I see as extremely hopeful. That’s one of the biggest takeaways I hope people get from my book. Even though there’s a lot of pain and suffering and oppression, that is inherently part of this archetype, it is ultimately a liberating force that I think can shine some light and illuminate our path forward.

ESK Yes, I got that from reading your book. I saw you also started the Occult Humanities Conference at New York University, despite the aforementioned general academic disdain towards the occult. How did that come about and how have other scholars taken it?

PG Interestingly we are seeing more and more classes and academic degrees that are including studies of esotericism and witchcraft and the occult. It’s happening in the states and some areas throughout Europe, including England. I would say it’s been in the past 10-15 years and it now seems to be gaining steam and validity. Remember, just because you have a conference doesn’t mean you have to believe in it. You and I know a lot of the people who are attracted to this material also have some kind of spiritual practice. But there are those who don’t and it’s still important that we study the history of these concepts and practices. So I’m really excited by the fact academia is starting to embrace these different paths of scholarship. And obviously, they should because the occult has been hugely influential on so many people throughout history who have shaped our culture. If you look at art history alone, the whole advent of the modern art movement has spiritual roots, and roots in theosophy and spiritualism and ceremonial magic and all of these things. Just because it might make some scholars uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s not a very key part of the lineage of thought in our culture.


It gives me a lot of hope because there are so many indigenous cultures that have shamanism and ritual and consciousness-altering plants as part of their healing practices, and I think for a long time there has been the notion that these cultures were “primitive” and now scientists are starting to realise that those people got it right all along, that they weren’t just making things up because they were ignorant, but actually they were tapping into some deep wisdom. It will only benefit us if we honour those practices in respectful ways and learn from them. We’re seeing it in the environmental movement, certainly in the medical sphere. I was just listening to a podcast this morning with Michael Pollan, the writer who famously has written about food and agriculture for many years, his most recent book How to Change your Mind, is about psychedelics, how they can heal depression and anxiety and PTSD. This is using the plants of the natural world that many shamans have been using for many thousands of years. I’m excited by the notion of science and magic and spirituality all learning from each other.

Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power by Pam Grossman to be published by Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Available 11th June in the US, 11th July 2019 in the UK. You can read an excerpt from the book in Time magazine.

Tarot For Modern Times: Q&A With Litwitchure

Since last summer, Litwitchure — otherwise known as Fiona Lensvelt and Jennifer Cownie — have been delighting crowds at festivals and literary events with their fabulous tarot cabaret, interviewing authors, hosting workshops, and offering tarot consultancy services. Our associate editor, Terri-Jane Dow, caught up with Fiona to talk tarot.

Photo by Gavin Day

Photo by Gavin Day

Firstly, can you explain who and what Litwitchure is?

We are Fiona Lensvelt and Jennifer Cownie, 32 both.

We're London's first and so far only literary tarot cabaret and consultancy, which is a rather opaque way of saying: Jen and I interview authors using occult methods. Rather than asking the questions in the usual way, we read their tarot cards. Jen's background is in book publishing and marketing; mine in journalism and editing. We've both spent a lot of time, professionally and personally, around books and authors. Litwitchure is our way of injecting a little mischief into our work.

How did you both get involved in tarot reading? Was it something you'd always done?

We've long been dabblers but as anyone who has dabbled in tarot probably knows: you need to do a lot of work to learn the cards. So a few years ago, we decided to take a course at Treadwell's in London, which helped us to cement that knowledge and began us on our journey to become certified card slingers.

Why do you think there's been such a tarot resurgence recently?

I guess one reason might be that we're living in turbulent times: there was a resurgence of interest at the start of the 20th century, when times were tough. Today, many people feel that the systems that are meant to govern us and protect us are broken. The future feels uncertain and people are turning to alternative methods — however unlikely — to seek reassurance or understanding.

Another thing worth noting is that this new wave of tarot is much less focused on fortune-telling than it has been in the past. Many people, including us, are using tarot not as a way of predicting the future but of reexamining the present. For many, the tarot has more in common with mindfulness than mediumship. For us, it's also a cracking conversation device — when you place tarot cards in front of your querent (the term that is used to describe a person you're reading for — it means "one who seeks"), it doesn't matter if they're well versed in the tarot or not. Everyone responds to the images and symbols that are laid out before them. Think: Rorschach blots with more mystery to them.

What are your favourite tarot decks?

I have to say, I love the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, illustrated by Pamela Colman-Smith, which was published 110 years ago this year. The RWS is the best-selling tarot deck in the world but Pamela died with barely a penny to her name and in obscurity. It's only now that Pamela's legacy is being reappraised and rightly so. The artwork may look a little outdated to some but her imagery is so rich — the more you get into the history of the cards and the tarot, the more it bears fruit.

I love and regularly use the Spolia deck by Jessa Crispin, formerly of Bookslut, and illustrator Jen May. It's based on the RWS but the images, which are collages, are more modern and free of the "woo-woo" occultness that occasionally puts off those who are new to the cards. People respond very well to this deck when I use it and tarot readers can gain a lot from reading Jessa's interpretations of the cards. Her interpretation of the Lovers is spicy! And her Ten of Cups is fabulous, too.

What advice would you give to budding tarot readers?

Learn from someone who has been using the cards for much longer than you! And be creative with how you could use and adapt tarot for your own purposes.

What's been the best thing about Litwitch-ing, so far?

Travelling the country with my best friend Jen, combining our favourite things: books and tarot (and, often, wine)

8 Poetry Collections That Double As Grimoires

Poetry has always been intrinsically linked to spellcasting; from creating rhyming rituals to Shakespeare’s wyrd sisters. The rhythm of the language in both poems and incantations makes them almost interchangeable. It’s difficult to demonstrate where a poem ends and a spell begins, or vice versa.

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Our associate editor Terri-Jane Dow has collated some occult poetry collections to get you started.

WITCH, by Rebecca Tamás

Rebecca Tamás’ first full-length collection is full of spells (quite literally; it includes “spell for reality,” “spell for agency,” and “spell for online porn,” among others) and hexes. It’s also full of feminism and fire, history, and the need for change. It’s a phenomenal collection. You can read a sample from Penned In The Margins.

The Collected Poems, by Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes both dabbled in the occult to help them write. Using a tipped over glass and a homemade ouija board, they invoked a spirit they called Pan, and at various points, both mused on Pan’s influence on their writing. Plath’s poem, Ouija, found in The Collected Poems, being one of the more notably inspired by the occult.

Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry, ed. Rebecca Tamás & Sarah Shin

Opening with the reminder “spells are poems : poetry is spelling,” this collection of thirty-six poems brings together the best modern poetry on the occult. It includes poems from Amy Key, AK Blakemore, Emily Berry, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Kaveh Akbar, among others.


Animal, by Dorothea Lasky

Spells contributor and half of @poetastrologers, Dorothea Lasky’s latest full-length collection, Animal, comes out in October, giving you just enough time to read up on her other writings. We’d start with Snakes, or her previous collection, Milk.


While Standing In Line For Death, by CAConrad

Written following the murder of CAConrad’s boyfriend, Earth, While Standing in Line for Death won the 2018 Lamda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. Veering through grief and anger to clarity, it’s a journey through the poet’s depression, containing 18 rituals and the poems that follow them. You can read more about CAConrad’s (Soma)tic Rituals for poetry writing, and learn how to make your own poetry rituals, here.

Unicorn, by Angela Carter

Better known as a novelist, Angela Carter was also a poet. This posthumous collection contains poems written between 1963 and 1971, and shows Carter’s early explorations of myth reworkings and magic. These poems begin to pick up the darker sides of the folklore stories we know, and which Carter expanded on in her later writings, such as The Bloody Chamber. You can read her poem Two Wives and a Widow here in The London Magazine, where it was first published in 1966.

Selected Poems, by Aleister Crowley

This wouldn’t be much of an occult reading list without including Aleister Crowley, would it? A prolific writer of works on the occult, Selected Poems gives a broad look at Crowley’s poetry, including his famous poem Hymn to Pan.  

The Collected Poems, W. B. Yeats

And finally, we cannot mention Aleister Crowley without mentioning his poetic rival, W. B. Yeats. Yeats was also part of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and was one of the members who ousted Crowley from the Order in 1900. Crowley, of course, went on to create his own society, but apparently never overcame his envy of Yeats’ writing talent. Yeats’ own interests in the occult were far-reaching; he claimed that “the mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.” Read The Second Coming here.

Where To Begin? 14 Books To Re-Enchant Your Worldview

Stepping into an esoteric bookshop can feel like clambering through a dark forest. With this list, we hope you will find one of the many crisscrossing paths through those wild woods. The recommendations here are mainly from Western esotericism, but much of what we think of as Western has at some point come from the East. Many of the books below are available to purchase from our friends at Treadwell’s Books in London.

Illustration by Rachael Olga Lloyd

Illustration by Rachael Olga Lloyd

The Book of English Magic by Richard Heygate and Philip Carr-Gomm

England has a long, albeit quiet history of magic. This book takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of our enchanted past through to our magical present. Along the way, the author explores how magic has both fascinated and scared us. We are introduced to scholars who practised alchemy, authors of fantasy and their magical inspirations, some of the places that were sacred to our ancestors or had a significant role in myths and legends, and the Neopagan beliefs alive today.

That Sense of Wonder: How to Capture the Miracles of Everyday Life by Francesco Dimitri

As children, wonder comes naturally to us. I remember lying on my childhood bedroom floor, at 8, surrounded by beautiful books, open atlases and encyclopaedias. The world was vast and exciting then, and I wanted to explore it. Francesco Dimitri argues this simple impulse, wonder, is the driving force behind many works of scientific enquiry and creative endeavours, from the monuments that grace our skylines to the stories and art that move us. Wonder encourages us to light candles in the dark and set forth into unchartered territory in search of something new. This book explores how life sometimes gets in the way of that. Caught up in a society that values certainty over mysteries, distracted by the burden of mortgage repayments and endless bureaucracy, we can lose that sense of wonder; Dimitri reveals how to reclaim it.

Three Books of Occult Philosophy by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa

Arguably one of the best starting points for understanding western occultism, practitioners of ritual magic and literary authors still draw inspiration from Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy today. The books were published in 1531 in Paris, Cologne and Antwerp, and are noted for being more scholarly and intellectual in content than many of the other grimoires around at the time. The three books concern themselves with Elemental, Celestial and Intellectual Magic, and include extracts from obscure work by the thinkers such as Pythagoras and Plato. The topics covered include the classical four elements, Kaballah, astrology, the virtues, scrying, alchemy, ritual magic and geomancy. A tome at 1,024 pages, this doesn’t make for light reading.

The Lesser Key of Solomon - anon

An anonymous grimoire from the mid-17th century, The Lesser Key of Solomon is another occult classic—and a good illustrated introduction to demology. It provides detailed descriptions of its 72 daemons, and instructions for successfully evoking and manipulating them. Amazon reviews warn: “not for beginners.” Most readers will read this out of curiosity, rather than a desire to summon spirits. This text is often referenced in films and novels that involve demons.

The Golden Dawn by Israel Regardie

For those who have read Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, the content here will be familiar. Borrowing ideas from Kabbalah, Tarot, Theosophy, Freemasonry, Paganism, Astrology and many more, The Golden Dawn puts forward a viable system of magic. When Israeel Regardie published the teaching of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn after the order’s dissolution, Crowley said the publication of this material was “pure theft,” despite having incorporated ritual magic gained from the order in his own magical system. Regardie wanted to ensure the Golden Dawn ritual system wasn’t lost—and wanted to make these ideas accessible to more people.

The Book of the Law by Aleister Crowley

This short but dense book feels like it was written during a drug-induced high, though Crowley sustained he was merely transcribing the words of a mysterious messenger, Aiwass, who he encountered in the Egyptian desert. The book has however, like the infamous author himself, been hugely influential in the occult. It remains the central text for Thelemites. The central premise, "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” is often misunderstood as “descend into anarchy and do whatever the hell you want.” The true meaning is closer to “find your true path.”

The Golden Bough by James Frazer

Published in 1890, The Golden Bough is a wide-ranging study of comparative religion and myth. Authored by the Scottish anthropologist and folklorist James George Frazer, this books documents the similarities and universal motifs among magical and religious beliefs around the world. The mythologist Joseph Campbell drew heavily from it when writing The Hero with a Thousand Faces, describing The Golden Bough as “monumental.”

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell gained international recognition when George Lucas credited this work as influencing the Star Wars Saga. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949, chronicles the hero’s journey in its many iterations. It’s a classic still used by screenwriters and authors today. Based on an introduction to myth class he taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Campbell dissects myths, exposing the universal themes disguised beneath the clothing of a specific cultural context. He also considers the relevance of myths to our lives today.

The Triumph of the Moon by Ronald Hutton

Perhaps the definitive academic history of Neopaganism, and in particular of Wicca, one of the fastest growing homegrown new religions. Hutton examines the history of ritual magic, deity worship, cunning folk, 18th century revivalist movements and secret societies through to strands of modern day witchcraft. Many practitioners of magic today claim an unbroken connection with a Pagan past, which Hutton contests. Hutton maintains an unbiased and rigorously academic objectivity, though is never dismissive. Instead, he argues persuasively that the origins of Wicca go beyond Gardner, and sees Neopaganism as an arena for creativity.

Animism: Respecting the Living World by Graham Harvey

Animism is the belief that all objects, places and creatures possess a soul or spirit. But what relevance does animism have in our modern world? Through a series of case studies, Professor Graham Harvey explores current and past animistic beliefs and practices of Native Americans, Maori, Aboriginal Australians, and eco-pagans. Emphasised is the maltreatment of animism, often patronised by social scientists of the past. As we face global warming, one big takeaway is the ecological implications of animism. Maoris, we’re told, see themselves as “an integral part of nature.” They feel the have “the responsibility to take care of the whenua (land) and, tangata (people).”

The Earth, The Gods, and the Soul by Brendan Myers

Europe's first philosophers were Pagan and The Gods, the Earth, and the Soul restores the spiritual coherence of that intellectual legacy for the modern reader. Arguing the work of ancient sages across Europe sets out Humanism, Pantheism, and Platonism are core tenets, Myers' provides an accessible introduction to each in turn. An inspiring and rigorous review of the moral and conceptual lessons that Pagan ways have to teach.

Witches, Sluts and Feminists by Kristen J. Sollee

“Witch,” like “slut” and “feminist,” has often been used pejoratively. Sollee has noted these terms also pertain to a lineage of resistance. The book presents a compelling argument for reclaiming these terms—and archetypes. The witch, says Solleee, is “someone who can shift perceptions and create change.” We are shown, among other things, how Hillary Clinton was often cast as a witch during her campaign, the reconsideration of the term ‘witch’ during the suffrage movement, and the fear among men of women’s bodily autonomy. The author also reminds us of the continuing persecution of witches in some parts of the world.

What is a Witch? by Pam Grossman

What does the word ‘witch’ evoke for you? Written by Pam Grossman and illustrated by Tin Can Forest, this graphic novel-come-poetry collection-come-grimoire-come-illustrated manuscript is a deep and beautiful reflection on the witch archetype—that ultimate icon of feminine power. “Daughters, mothers, queens, virgins, wives, et al. derive meaning from their relation to another person,” said Grossman in 2013. “Witches, on the other hand, have power on their own terms.”

A Treasury of British Folklore by Dee Dee Chainey

A concise yet entertaining collection of folk stories, legends, and superstitions from Britain. Many of us know about Maypoles, fairies and kelpies, but do we know the beliefs behind them? It becomes apparent while reading that many of our regional stories and rituals derive from a universal need to converse with nature.







Cunning Folk Book Club - July

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The Mere Wife

by Maria Dahvana Headley

For our first Cunning Folk book club in July, we’ll be reading Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife.

In this modern reworking of Beowulf, the Old English epic is transplanted to America, where we find ourselves told the story of a woman and her son living in the mountains above a gated community, and its most affluent residence, Herot Hall. In an abandoned train station, using concealment as a form of safety, Dana gives birth alone to a child with teeth. She names him Gren, and worries for his future: “His eyes are black gold. He’s all bones and angles. He’s almost as tall as I am and he’s only seven. To me, he looks like my son. To everyone else? I don’t know. A wonder? A danger? A boy with brown skin?”

Headley’s novel plays with the original text, with reflections and refractions following Dana and Gren, their Herot Hall counterparts Roger and Willa Herot and their son Dylan, and police officer Ben Woolf.

We’re very excited for you to join us for a discussion of this feminist retelling.

Join us at Brill Exmouth Market on Monday 29th July, 7pm. Tickets are on sale here.