Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Underground Magic

Recently read 'Grimoires' by Owen Davies on the history of supposedly magical books. I found one passage of particular interest which I quote below. Hope the publishers won't mind - I do heartily recommend it as an academic study of a fascinating subject. It concerns the study of the 'Black Arts and Magic' in underground locations, in this case beneath Toledo [see pages 27-28]:

“…Italian monk Francesco Maria Guazzo, writing in the seventeenth century, recounted the cautionary tale legend of the friar and physician Blessed Giles (d.1265) of Santarém, Portugal. This vice-ridden scion of a rich family, while on his way to study at Paris, fell in with a demon in human disguise who persuaded him to visit a vast cavern in Toledo. Here he met demons and their worshippers and signed a pact with the Devil. For the next seven years he ‘deeply studied the Black Arts and Magic’ before eventually seeing the error of his ways. The legend of a cave in Toledo where magic had been practised for centuries, and where a powerful grimoire lay hidden, seems to have developed in the medieval period. One of the stories written by Don Juan Manuel, a fourteenth-century Spanish nobleman from the province of Toledo, who unusually becomes a pupil of a great magician of Toledo called don Yllán who has an underground library and workshop. The deacon eventually becomes Pope and ungratefully threatens to imprison his old master for practising sorcery.

The Toledo legend was developed and given further legitimacy in the seventeenth century by the historian Christóbal Lozano. He wrote a fantastical account of how during the Roman period there existed under the city a vast subterranean palace of Hercules where magic was studied and practised. This occult underground world collapsed and for centuries lay buried until, according to Lozano’s take on history, in 1543 the Archbishop of Toledo organized an excavation and found an altar decorated with bronze statues. A loud noise was heard when they entered and some of the party died of fright. The archbishop ordered that the entrance be sealed once more to prevent its evil manifestations from spreading. One source of the legend is the archaeological remnants of a short subterranean passage flanked by two Roman columns, which was probably intended to act as nothing more magical than a sewer or drain. Similar stories circulated regarding the city of Salamanca, where the second oldest university in Spain was founded in 1218. The earliest reference to a cave-school of magic there is from a French chronicle from the mid-fifteenth century. It is clear that Salamanca, by now considered the major centre of learning, was mistakenly or deliberately associated with the old Toledo legend. It proved enduring. The Jesuit theologian Martín del Rio (1558-1608), who studied at the university wrote,

‘I have read that, as a result of the Moorish occupation of Spain, the magical arts were virtually the only subjects being taught in Toledo, Seville and Salamanca. When I was living in Salamanca, I was shown a secret vault which had been blocked off with rubble on the orders of Queen Isabella. It was a place where forbidden knowledge was taught.’”

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Back home

Returned from hols - missed the summer riots while sitting on a beach at Saundersfoot. On our way home we stopped off at Laugharne to visit Dylan Thomas's grave, boathouse and writing shed - lovely place that hosts a small but impressive literary festival.

On the way to Pembroke we stayed at Monmouth: a lot of Georgian buildings and a much better town than you probably think it's going to be. Also Malmesbury, which is branding itself The Town of Philosophy and has recently started hosting a 'philosophy festival' - I was supposed to be talking there about coffee houses in October, but nothing seems to have come of it. Beautiful place with a very pretty Abbey, also home to William of Malmesbury, flying monk Eilmer and King Athelstan.

I'm now working on two books - one hopefully to come out next year and one in 2013 to coincide with an important literary anniversary - hence the fewer posts here. The second will hopefully be a collaborative work with the possibility of some big names getting involved, but until they have committed I don't want to get too excited or reveal anything more.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The Museum of British Folklore

Through one of the other blogs I subscribe to I've just found out about the Museum of British Folklore, set up by Simon Costin, a designer and collaborator with the late Alexander McQueen, who apparently regularly takes part in Hastings Jack-in-the-Green festival. It sounds like a worthy venture. By the usual strange coincidences he is planning an exhibition on witchcraft in Britain in the 1950s called Dark Britannica. Here's the text from their Facebook page:

"In 2011 it will be 60 years since the 1735 Witchcraft Act was repealed in Britain. To coincide with this the Museum of British Folklore is to mount an exhibition in central London, which examines a very particular time in British history. In 1951, while London hosted the forward-looking Festival of Britain exhibition on the South Bank, the Witchcraft Act was repealed with the enactment of the Fraudulent Mediums Act.

Dark Britannica looks at the history of Witchcraft in the UK and at the host of colorful characters who were later to take centre stage in Britain's growing interest with Witchcraft and the Occult from the 50’s onwards. It was a time of 'Witch Wars', involving court cases, dramatic newspaper exposure and quite a lot of self-publicity for some people. Out of this grew an increase in public interest and a certain amount of misinformation as well as much learned and genuine exploration of the subject of Witchcraft.

Using film footage, press reports, artifacts and archival letters, Dark Britannica seeks to celebrate those who were to be the founders of the modern Neo Pagan movement and asks, is Witchcraft the only religion that Britain has given the world?"

Another excuse for a witchcraft pic.

I should also mention the recent release by the BFI of Here's a Health to the Barley Mow, a 2 dvd compilation of British custom and folklore films which sounds absolutely fascinating. There's also an insightful piece by Philip Hoare (who wrote an interesting Decadence-related book called Salome's Last Dance) in this month's Sight and Sound which can be read here.

Bexhill Beano

Been to Bexhill-on-Sea for a couple of events recently: Mogwai at the De La Warr Pavilion - satisfyingly noisy, especially the encore; and a wedding in the lovely church of St Peter's at the heart of the Old Town. Bexhill is not a particularly interesting or exciting place, but I was reminded, when walking around the Old Town, that Alex Sanders 'King of the Witches' lived in Chantry Cottage. The house came up for sale shortly after we moved down here - I have a feeling that the advert in the local paper even mentioned that he had lived there. I first encountered his name in the excellent long-defunct journal Rapid Eye; I also have a paperback by June Johns called King of the Witches. The dvd Legend of the Witches, Their Secret Rituals Revealed is also worth a watch, as I seem to recall that he features in it.