March 27, 2017
I want to talk about magic, how magic is portrayed in fantasy, how fantasy literature has in fact contributed to a very distinct image of magic, and perhaps most importantly how the Western world in general has come to accept a very precise and extremely suspect image of magic users.
I’d better say at the start that I don’t actually believe in magic any more than I believe in astrology, because I’m a Taurean and we don’t go in for all that weirdo occult stuff.
But a couple of years ago I wrote a book called The Colour of Magic. It had some boffo laughs. It was an attempt to do for the classical fantasy universe what Blazing Saddles did for Westerns. It was also my tribute to twenty-five years of fantasy reading, which started when I was thirteen and read Lord of the Rings in 25 hours. That damn book was a halfbrick in the path of the bicycle of my life. I started reading fantasy books at the kind of speed you can only manage in your early teens. I panted for the stuff.
I had a deprived childhood, you see. I had lots of other kids to play with and my parents bought me outdoor toys and refused to ill-treat me, so it never occurred to me to seek solitary consolation with a good book.
Then Tolkien changed all that. I went mad for fantasy. Comics, boring Norse sagas, even more boring Victorian fantasy … I’d better explain to younger listeners that in those days fantasy was not available in every toyshop and bookstall, it was really a bit like sex: you didn’t know where to get the really dirty books, so all you could do was paw hopefully through Amateur Photography magazines looking for artistic nudes.
When I couldn’t get it – heroic fantasy, I mean, not sex – I hung around the children’s section in the public libraries, trying to lure books about dragons and elves to come home with me. I even bought and read all the Narnia books in one go, which was bit like a surfeit of Communion wafers. I didn’t care anymore.
Eventually the authorities caught up with me and kept me in a dark room with small doses of science fiction until I broke the habit and now I can walk past a book with a dragon on the cover and my hands hardly sweat at all.
But a part of my mind remained plugged into what I might call the consensus fantasy universe. It does exist, and you all know it. It has been formed by folklore and Victorian romantics and Walt Disney, and E R Eddison and Jack Vance and Ursula Le Guin and Fritz Leiber – hasn’t it? In fact those writers and a handful of others have very closely defined it. There are now, to the delight of parasitical writers like me, what I might almost call “public domain” plot items. There are dragons, and magic users, and far horizons, and quests, and items of power, and weird cities. There’s the kind of scenery that we would have had on Earth if only God had had the money.
To see the consensus fantasy universe in detail you need only look at the classical Dungeons and Dragon role-playing games. They are mosaics of every fantasy story you’ve ever read.
Of course, the consensus fantasy universe is full of clichés, almost by definition. Elves are tall and fair and use bows, dwarves are small and dark and vote Labour. And magic works. That’s the difference between magic in the fantasy universe and magic here. In the fantasy universe a wizard points his fingers and all these sort of blue glittery lights come out and there’s a sort of explosion and some poor soul is turned into something horrible.
Anyway, if you are in the market for easy laughs you learn that two well-tried ways are either to trip up a cliché or take things absolutely literally. So in the sequel to The Colour of Magic, which is being rushed into print with all the speed of continental drift, you’ll learn what happens, for example, if someone like me gets hold of the idea that megalithic stone circles are really complex computers. What you get is, you get druids walking around talking a sort of computer jargon and referring to Stonehenge as the miracle of the silicon chunk.
While I was plundering the fantasy world for the next cliché to pull a few laughs from, I found one which was so deeply ingrained that you hardly notice it is there at all. In fact it struck me so vividly that I actually began to look at it seriously.
That’s the generally very clear division between magic done by women and magic done by men.
Let’s talk about wizards and witches. There is a tendency to talk of them in one breath, as though they were simply different sexual labels for the same job. It isn’t true. In the fantasy world there is no such thing as a male witch. Warlocks, I hear you cry, but it’s true. Oh, I’ll accept you can postulate them for a particular story, but I’m talking here about the general tendency. There certainly isn’t such a thing as a female wizard.
Sorceress? Just a better class of witch. Enchantress? Just a witch with good legs. The fantasy world. in fact, is overdue for a visit from the Equal Opportunities people because, in the fantasy world, magic done by women is usually of poor quality, third-rate, negative stuff, while the wizards are usually cerebral, clever, powerful, and wise.
Strangely enough, that’s also the case in this world. You don’t have to believe in magic to notice that.
Wizards get to do a better class of magic, while witches give you warts.
The archetypal wizard is of course Merlin, advisor of kings, maker of the Round Table, and the only man who knew how to work the electromagnet that released the Sword from the Stone. He is not in fact a folklore hero, because much of what we know about him is based firmly on Geoffrey de Monmouth’s Life of Merlin, written in the Twelfth Century. Old Geoffrey was one of the world’s great writers of fantasy, nearly as good as Fritz Leiber but without that thing about cats.
Had a lot of trouble with women, did Merlin. Morgan Le Fay – a witch – was his main enemy but he was finally trapped in his crystal cave or his enchanted forest, pick your own variation, by a female pupil. The message is clear, boys: that’s what happens to you if you let the real powerful magic get into the hands of women.
In fact Merlin is almost being replaced as the number one wizard by Gandalf, whose magic is more suggested than apparent. I’d also like to bring in at this point a third wizard, of whom most of you must have heard – Ged, the wizard of Earthsea. I do this because Ursula Le Guin’s books give us a very well thought-out, and typical, magic world. I’d suggest that they worked because they plugged so neatly into our group image of how magic is ordered. They serve to point up some of the similarities in our wizards.
They’re all bachelors, and sexually continent. In this fantasy is in agreement with some of the standard works on magic, which make it clear that a good wizard doesn’t get his end away. (Funny, because there’s no such prohibition on witches; they can be at it like knives the whole time and it doesn’t affect their magic at all.) Wizards tend to exist in Orders, or hierarchies, and certainly the Island of Gont reminds me of nothing so much as a medieval European university, or maybe a monastery. There don’t seem to be many women around the University, although I suppose someone cleans the lavatories. There are indeed some female practitioners of magic around Earthsea, but if they are not actually evil then they are either misguided or treated by Ged in the same way that a Harley Street obstetrician treats a local midwife.
Can you imagine a girl trying to get a place at the University of Gont? Or I can put it another way – can you imagine a female Gandalf?
Of course I hardly need mention the true fairytale witches, as malevolent a bunch of crones as you could imagine. It was probably living in those gingerbread cottages. No wonder witches were always portrayed as toothless – it was living in a 90,000 calorie house that did it. You’d hear a noise in the night and it’d be the local kids, eating the doorknob. According to my eight-year-old daughter’s book onWizards, a nicely-illustrated little paperback available at any good bookshop, “wizards undid the harm caused by evil witches”. There it is again, the recurrent message: female magic is cheap and nasty.
But why is all this? Is there anything in the real world that is reflected in fantasy?
The curious thing is that the Western world at least has no very great magical tradition. You can look in vain for any genuine wizards, or for witches for that matter. I know a large number of people who think of themselves as witches, pagans or magicians, and the more realistic of them will admit that while they like to think that they are following a tradition laid down in the well-known Dawn of Time they really picked it all up from books and, yes, fantasy stories. I have come to believe that fantasy fiction in all its forms has no basis in anything in the real world. I believe that witches and witches get their ideas from their reading matter or, before that, from folklore. Fiction invents reality.
In Western Europe, certainly, wizards are few and far between. I have been able to turn up a dozen or so, who with the 20-20 hindsight of history look like either conmen or conjurers. Druids almost fit the bill, but Druids were a few lines by Julius Caesar until they were reinvented a couple of hundred years ago. All this business with the white robes and the sickles and the oneness with nature is wishful thinking. It’s significant, though. Caesar portrayed them as vicious priests of a religion based on human sacrifice, and gory to the elbows. But the PR of history has nevertheless turned them into mystical shamans, unless I mean shaman; men of peace, brewers of magic potions.
Despite the claim that nine million people were executed for witchcraft in Europe in the three centuries from 1400 – this turns up a lot in books of popular occultism and I can only say it is probably as reliable as everything else they contain – it is hard to find genuine evidence of a widespread witchcraft cult. I know a number of people who call themselves witches. No, they are witches – why should I disbelieve them? Their religion strikes me as woolly but well-meaning and at the very least harmless. Modern witchcraft is the Friends of the Earth at prayer. If it has any root at all they lie in the works of a former Colonial civil servant and pioneer naturist called Gerald Gardiner, but I suggest that its is really based in a mishmash of herbalism, Sixties undirected occultism, and The Lord of the Rings.
But I must accept that people called witches have existed. In a sense they have been created by folklore, by what I call the Flying Saucer process – you know, someone sees something they can’t or won’t explain in the sky, is aware that there is a popular history of sightings of flying saucers, so decides that what he has seen is a flying saucer, and pretty soon that “sighting” adds another few flakes to the great snowball of saucerology. In the same way, the peasant knows that witches are ugly old women who live by themselves because the folklore says so, so the local crone must be a witch. Soon everyone locally KNOWS that there is a witch in the next valley, various tricks of fate are laid at her door, and so the great myth chugs on.
One may look in vain for similar widespread evidence of wizards. In addition to the double handful of doubtful practitioners mentioned above, half of whom are more readily identifiable as alchemists or windbags, all I could come up with was some vaguely Masonic cults, like the Horseman’s Word in East Anglia. Not much for Gandalf in there.
Now you can take the view that of course this is the case, because if there is a dirty end of the stick then women will get it. Anything done by women is automatically downgraded. This is the view widely held – well, widely held by my wife every since she started going to consciousness-raising group meetings – who tells me it’s ridiculous to speculate on the topic because the answer is so obvious. Magic, according to this theory, is something that only men can be really good at, and therefore any attempt by women to trespass on the sacred turf must be rigorously stamped out. Women are regarded by men as the second sex, and their magic is therefore automatically inferior. There’s also a lot of stuff about man’s natural fear of a woman with power; witches were poor women seeking one of the few routes to power open to them, and men fought back with torture, fire and ridicule.
I’d like to know that this is all it really is. But the fact is that the consensus fantasy universe has picked up the idea and maintains it. I incline to a different view, if only to keep the argument going, that the whole thing is a lot more metaphorical than that. The sex of the magic practitioner doesn’t really enter into it. The classical wizard, I suggest, represents the ideal of magic – everything that we hope we would be, if we had the power. The classical witch, on the other hand, with her often malevolent interest in the small beer of human affairs, is everything we fear only too well that we would in fact become.
Oh well, it won’t win me a PhD. I suspect that via the insidious medium of picture books for children the wizards will continue to practice their high magic and the witches will perform their evil, bad-tempered spells. It’s going to be a long time before there’s room for equal rites.
Speech at Novacon 15, 1985
September 21, 2016
It took him ten minutes to choke the life out of the old crone. It would have been quicker if she hadn’t put up such a superhuman struggle; but then, he’d expected that of her. Witches don’t die without a fight.
When he placed his thumbs over her windpipe she immediately began to lash out, kicking at his shins until they were bruised black and bleeding, scratching at his neck and face with her long, scarlet fingernails, leaving a set of four deep gouges in each cheek, her legacy of hate tattooed indelibly on his skin. She’d have taken his eyes if he hadn’t bitten off both her thumbs in the fight.
Micawber, her cat, appeared at one point during the struggle, and for a moment Henry thought it would come to her aid. But it only hissed at him and vanished from sight.
In the end she was left with just her voice, but he knew from past experience that this was her most powerful weapon. She let out a stream of black curses, promising him vengeance from beyond the grave. But as her eyes rolled up into her head, and her face turned deathly white, he felt oddly calm. There was nothing she could threaten him with that would be worse than the lifetime of wretchedness she had already subjected him to. She had kept him under her malign spell for forty years and now it was going to be over. As she breathed her last, his eyes filled with tears – tears of physical and mental relief.
Then she went still.
He checked her pulse.
The witch was dead.
The Witch is Dead
September 20, 2016
September 4, 2016
There is no such thing as White Magick or Black Magick. If you are participating in magick, you are interfering with the natural order of how life would have developed without your hand in it. You are manipulating reality to suit your own personal needs. Regardless of whether you perceive it as “positive” or “white light”, you are manipulating life. If you are afraid of this responsibly or are intimidated by this statement, I encourage you to reexamine your belief structure. Witchcraft requires confidence and courage.
Old World Witchcraft: Pathway To Effective Magick
August 28, 2016
Confront death, not by pretending that you have cut a deal with the Elder Vampire Gods invented for you by some internet Dark Witch fantasist in their over-priced books. Confront death, not by pretending that a beautiful Beltane ritual and a blue sky means everything will stay the same. Confront death, not by practicing the magic of ploughmen and wortcunners in your urban apartment believing that it makes you more authentic than any given Wiccan. We need to stop making those closest to us our sworn enemies. The game has changed. I have no interest in telling people how to practice their witchcraft, a term which covers a multitude of sins, but what I can offer is the principles that will make it work in these difficult circumstances. Readers of my Apocalyptic Witchcraft will recognise these ideas: Orientation, Presence, Imperative. We are not simply losing it all, it is being stripped from us as surely as those accused of being witches were by their inquisitors in the torture cell. Our enemies are not our sisters and brothers in the craft, they are the named individuals and corporations and their governments who are tearing out our living flesh. Witchcraft has never been about turning the other cheek to this. The witch has been created by the land to speak and act for it.
From a talk given at the Pagan Federation South Central conference on Saturday 7th June, 2014
August 26, 2016
We may therefore admit quite cheerfully that Magick is as mysterious as mathematics, as empirical as poetry, as uncertain as golf, and as dependent on the personal equation as Love.
That is no reason why we should not study, practice and enjoy it; for it is a Science in exactly the same sense as biology; it is no less an Art that Sculpture; and it is a Sport as much as Mountaineering…
…Magick takes every thought and act for its apparatus; it has the Universe for its Library and its Laboratory; all Nature is its Subject; and its Game, free from close seasons and protective restrictions, always abounds in infinite variety, being all that exists.
Magick in Theory and Practice.
February 4, 2016
Almighty Asmodeus, existant of Chaos,
ominous be Thy name;
Thy kingdom come on earth.
Lend me into all temptations of my flesh
so I may trespass greatly into Thy ways by my desires:
For Thou art all sex-seeking unity,
Thou mighty genetalia of creation
that knoweth no satiation –
grant Thou my wish,
for Thou art power, ecstasy and actuality!
Austin Osman Spare
The Zoëtic Grimoire of Zos
January 29, 2016
January 17, 2016
To me, being a witch is more than worshiping the Goddess under a glowing sky or celebrating Beltane with one hundred of my closest friends (some of whom I just met). It is how I make choices, mark the important moments of my life, and bring reverence and mirth to all that I do.
Being a witch is not just the road to who I am, it is the journey itself. And how I travel on that journey makes all the difference.
The Goddess is in the details: wisdom for the everyday witch
December 21, 2015
The Lady of Delight is known by many names among witches, some of them classical in inspiration like Diana or Hecate, or Celtic like Rhiannon; she is also known as Habondia, Hulda, and Herodias, and sometimes by other versions of the last name, Aradia, Ariadne, or Arianne. She is Mistress of the Moon as well as the realm of Venus.
In all your operations of romantic love it is her presence you must invoke, by any of the aforesaid names you may find significant—again a little mythological research will help you here. You should strive to contact the goddess before your spells of romantic love, by visualizing her clad in silvery garments, mantled in darkness wherein the stars dimly gleam, and with long streaming hair. She is crowned with a wreath of flowers and corn, while above her brow shines the lunar disk on either side of which rise two rearing serpents. On her right hand perches her symbolic bird, the white dove.
All flowers and blossoms, particularly those with a perfume, are sacred to the Lady, and before beginning the more complex operations of love it is as well to strew your altar with them. Apart from the associative symbolism of flowers, they also give off a subtle magnetism which is peculiarly in accord with works of this nature. No magical circle is necessary for these operations either, for the force invoked is benevolent rather than a hostile one, and as such need neither the sharp magical focusing nor the quality of incisive delineation provided by the Athame’s traced boundary line No demonic entities or unfriendly departed shades are summoned in this type of witchcraft. All that is required is the purification of the place of working, and the spell itself.