Monday, 22 May 2017

THE CRAFT OF CURSING: A review of a weekend conference in Boscastle, Cornwall UK in May 2017 by Carol Keith

Earlier this month I had the pleasure to attend an excellent two-day conference in Boscastle concerning the craft of cursing. Hosted by the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, it linked to the museum’s new exhibition curated by Dr Louise Fenton, University of Wolverhampton. Dr Fenton has been researching cursing and cursing poppets since 2010. The museum itself hosts a wealth of cursing paraphernalia that includes many poppets collected by its founder, Cecil Williamson. The exhibition itself will continue until the end of the 2017 season, and the museum is well worth a visit at any time!

Cursing poppet in the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. Boscastle, Cornwall.

The weekend saw a wide variety of speakers whose topics reached not only across time, but spanned the entire social spectrum and took us to places both near and far. Mogg Morgan was up first, speaking on Apophis and the Mother Of All Curses. He led us to Ancient Egypt where Apep the serpent of chaos dwells. Apparently Apep was a colossal demonic entity that inflicted all types of harm with its terrible ‘Biting Eye’.

Mogg Morgan at Boscastle, Cornwall. May 2017

It was enlightening to hear that the mechanics of Egyptian cursing magic remain with us today. They take the form of wax images, spitting, binding, enclosing, trampling, burning and sticking. Mogg asked the question: Could cursing magic have begun in Egypt? Specifically this might have been during the period in Egyptian history known as ‘The Bad Times’, a period of great despair occurring in the gap between the Old and Middle Kingdoms.

Ritual spitting when cursing Apep, the colossal serpent.

Of course we all realize that tales of an eternal struggle between man and harmful serpent occurred not only in Egypt as similar stories can be found in many regions and religions of the world, both past and present. England’s own Saint George is depicted fighting a great serpent (dragon), and it is interesting that the image we best associate with him curiously mirrors that of the Egyptian god Set overcoming the colossal serpent.

Set depicted fighting the colossal serpent, and St George fighting the dragon.

As medieval medicine has long been one of my ‘hobbies’ I was eager to hear Dr Alexander Cummins speak on Curse-craft and Humoural Theory in Early Modern England, and he did not disappoint. Humoural Theory is an ancient system of medicine thought to have its origins in either Egypt or Mesopotamia. It was used for diagnosis and prognosis in the Classical period and throughout the Middle Ages, and is still used today in Indian Ayurveda medicine. Dr Cummins explained how this same system was also employed in cursing magic. Known as Humours, four fluids are believed to affect the subtle workings of the body on a variety of levels for they control not only a person’s health, but the personality and temperament as well. In humoural theory they are known as Blood, Phlegm, Yellow Bile and Black Bile. The heart was thought to be the seat of the humours but it was believed that the (Christian) Devil was able to affect how the humours operated within the human body.

Dr. Alex Cummins. Boscastle, Cornwall. May 2017.

Although I had not previously considered this system of medicine for use in cursing, it was fascinating to hear about the manipulation of humours to negatively affect a victim’s emotional, psychological and physical health. For instance, if the magic worker’s intent for the victim is impending doom, anxiety or stupefaction, then the phlegmatic humour might be targeted. Utilizing, of course, the appropriate materia magica to attract, infuse and radiate the necessary influences.

Humoural Talismans. Image from Dr Cummins’ presentation.

During his talk on Cursing and Ill wishing: witchcraft, the illness of a King and the Death of a Prince, historian Jonathan Hughes suggested that certain humours contained within the land itself (hot/cold/dry/wet) might be disturbed when dug or ploughed into, thereby shift the natural balance of the area to affect such things as the wellbeing of those living nearby, atmosphere or even change in the political climate.

Jesse Hathaway Diaz’ talk on Cursing in Colonial Mexico definitely brought some spice to the session; as did Demetrius Lacroix speaking on The Art of Haitian Vodou Cursing.

Demetrius Lacroix. Boscastle, Cornwall. May 2017.

On Saturday Demetrius explained a system of magic where, as in ancient Egypt, the soul is believed to be made up of several different layers each of which can be targeted by a magical worker. Demetrius told us about Port au Prince, in Haiti, where thousands of curses can be seen nailed to trees. Not only that as everywhere can be found offerings of dolls, tobacco, liquor and chicken or goat meat. He went on to say the art of Ekspedisyon (to expedite) can cause zombification or death. The art of Dispatch (to send, dispatch) commands a spirit to help fulfil obligations or, for an annual fee, a spirit will help you with medicines and healing. On the other hand the soul of a dead person can be purchased to haunt your enemy’s dreams. Pelene (to trap) causes the victim to be stuck in some way, unable to advance or move forward in life. Crab shells are often used in this magic since crabs can only move sideways, not forwards. The kidneys, heads, lungs or stomachs of animals are often used in this kind of cursing magic to represent the victim. I will leave to your imagination the symbolism of binding such body parts with cords.

Jesse Hathaway Diaz. Boscastle, Cornwall. May 2017.

On Sunday Jesse spoke to us of how the religion of invading Conquistadores had merged with the ethnic magic and practices of Colonial Mexico. It produced an indigenous belief system ‘dressed’ in Catholic clothes. The Christian cross itself was incorporated as a magical symbol of power and the properties of Catholic saints were used for all kinds of magic, both good and ill. Fascinating to me was the idea of seizing the right-handed (good) power of a saint and funnelling it toward left-handed (bane) practices. Stolen communion bread – concealed in the mouth until well away from the church – could be used to curse an enemy. While wax figures of body parts - a hand, a foot or heart, etc. – that were typically placed at shrines for help in healing, could be stolen away by the magical practitioner and used for sending harm to an enemy instead.

Examples of Christian magic in the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. Boscastle, Cornwall.

Wax votive heart in the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. Boscastle, Cornwall.

Traditionally, prayers were offered to statues of saints for help in healing and daily life. St Anthony is the saint to turn in order to find love and marriage. Gifts, candles and petitions are offered to a ‘’right-handed saints’’ to have them work their benefic magic on the petitioner’s behalf. However using them as ‘’left-handed saints’’ is an entirely different thing. To entrap or force a person into love or sex the statue of St Anthony might be turned upside down and its head replaced with a lemon, only to be returned if the saint complied with the petitioner’s demands. But the most surprising information for me about this tradition was to hear that, once a year at Eastertime, there is literally no god between 3pm on Good Friday and sunrise on Easter morning. It makes sense, of course!

Saints can be used as ‘’right-handed’’ or ‘’left-handed’’ depending on purpose.

As you might guess, it has been difficult for me to write about only a handful of the fifteen excellent speakers that were present at this conference. Each one of them offered something very special and thought provoking to the whole. I find myself wishing it had been recorded so that I could listen to them all speak again! The museum staff put on some fine conferences. Rumour has it that the subject for next year will be Ritual Magic. In the meantime, should you wish to see the full line up of speakers and their topics for this particular weekend, you may find that information here , while the museum’s blog account of the conference may be found here. See you in Boscastle!

Text ©Carol Keith 2017.
Photography ©Chattering Magpie 2008 and ©Carol Keith 2017

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Sūrat al-Kāfirūn the 109th Surah of the Qur'an

Say: “Oh, you who disbelieve! I do not worship that which you worship, nor do you worship that which I worship. Nor will I worship that which you have been worshipping, neither will you worship that which I worship. To you your religion and to me mine.”

Sūrat al-Kāfirūn (The Unbelievers) the 109th Surah of the Qur'an

Sunday, 23 April 2017

A quotation from Hamlet in honour of William Shakespeare

What a piece of work is a man!
How noble in reason!
How infinite in faculty!
In form and moving;
How express and admirable!

In action how like an angel!
In apprehension how like a God!
The beauty of the world!
The paragon of animals!

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

O Fortuna from the Carmina Burana

O Fortune, like the moon you are changeable, ever waxing and waning; hateful life first oppresses and then soothes as fancy takes it; poverty and power it melts them like ice.

Fate, monstrous and empty, you whirling wheel, you are malevolent, well-being is vain and always fades to nothing, shadowed and veiled you plague me too; now through the game I bring my bare back to your villainy.

Fate is against me in health and virtue, driven on and weighted down, always enslaved. So at this hour without delay pluck the vibrating strings; since Fate strikes down the strong man, everyone weep with me!


Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
With rings on her fingers,
And bells on her toes,
She shall have music wherever she goes.

Sunday, 9 April 2017


This blog is written retrospectively, a brief look back at a trip to that most beautiful and interesting English city, our second capital. I write to celebrate the wonderful city of York, a city steeped in history, art and culture.

I travelled soon after Christmas with my friend Corinna in 2015, a journey not everyone approved of but not because of the company, the distance or the location. Many of my family and my friends voiced concern with regards the weather. England was at that time experiencing exceptionally heavy rain and this was causing flooding in many parts of the country. Parts of the North of England were particularly badly hit and York itself was under threat. The Ouse had broken its banks nearby and our ability to travel safely was therefore questioned.

Corinna and I decide to brave the conditions and approached York from the south west in the hope of avoiding the more severely and therefore, more dangerous areas affected. Even this route however, was not without its excitement. We were able to see first-hand the severity of the flooding, although we travelled on roads predominantly clear of the surface waters, we passed flooded fields, a village with water halfway up the ground floor windows and even a playing field, that had its goal posts halfway underwater. It was not a sight I will easily forget.

Driving into York looking for a parking space we passed roads that were closed off and more houses with flooded gardens, driveways and access roads. The thought did occur to us that even if we got into the centre of York, we may not get out. We eventually found a safe and suitably dry side street, parked and made our way towards the city centre on foot.

The walk was pleasant, the air was not too cold and the sun was bright. We were able to appreciate the older architectural features of the route, ruins, walls and buildings. We paused on the outskirts of the old city before the Bootham Bar and turning towards our primary destination, the Art Gallery. Here I viewed that old Medieval Gate with the Minster behind. My pause here was deliberate, as I considered the historical wonder of this great city.

Here on walls of this city the head of Richard Plantagenet Duke of York, was mounted after the battle of Wakefield. He was the father of the future Edward IV and Richard III, grandfather of Elizabeth of York and therefore, ancestor of all English kings since. Shakespeare makes great play of this great Duke’s death in his play Henry VI Part 2 and has the head of John Clifford the 9th Baron de Clifford, latter mounted on the same walls. This last action is unlikely to be historically accurate but it serves to illustrate the place of York within the British consciousness.

The Art Gallery is not an old building but sits conveniently nestled between far older ones, set back on an attractive plaza with a pool out front. Examples from the exhibitions inside are displayed as posters on hoardings on the nearby wall and the building has a welcoming, airy entrance. Inside there is the necessary ticket booth, a convenient café, other conveniences and a ground floor gallery for the temporary exhibitions.

In this first hall we were able to view a delightful exhibition of Florentine art, with exhibits representative of the late Medieval and early Renaissance periods. The pieces were examples of religious iconography, ornate creations of oil and rich gilt upon wooden boarding. Much was typical of the Italian ‘school’ but equally, much was reminiscent of the ‘icons’ of the Russian Orthodox Church, in particular the obvious altar works and triptychs.

Several works by the esteemed Laurence Stephen Lowry were on display in the second gallery. Never had I seen so many in one place, so this provided us with the very unusual opportunity of comparing his works as a group and not in isolation. Previously I have not been an admirer of Lowry, being familiar with his works through the medium of photography, I have been unable to adequately appreciate his ability. Here in the direct physical experience, without the use of a second medium and viewing his works collectively; I was able to perceive his genius, his depth and his range. Lowry is so much more than ‘matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs.’ Lowry captures life in the North of England, real people with real hopes and experiences. There is meaning to his work that is not at first apparent.

The picture collection in York is impressive and surprisingly extensive, covering a range of styles across time and subject. There is a pleasing inclusion of local, perhaps less well known artists, amongst those of a broader appeal. Not all is as traditional as the Florentine works or as typically representative of Britain as Lowry, other works are of an abstract, modernist nature.

The upper galleries were no less extensive or broad in the presentation, as the collections included many curious exhibits of quality. The ceramic collection was so enormous, that it was difficult to fully assimilate. There were so many charming and unusual items, truly a feast of size and colour, with many very unusual and disturbing items, that the display was quite overwhelming.

In the centre of the large hall was housed a display of white ceramics on shelving stretching to the roof. The bowls and vases although of a uniform colour, were not of a uniform shape and were displayed in manner that invited the viewer to visually explore them. Here I stopped to appreciate an unexpected and pleasing phenomenon, the sunlight coming through the skylights creating a pleasing display of light and shadow across the ceiling supports.

The further galleries successfully maintained our mood of pleasurable curiosity with a puzzling mixture of exhibits, which although not necessarily relating to a particular or related theme, somehow complimented the general atmosphere and experience. Across one wall a display of aquatic taxidermy was placed in deliberate juxtaposition to a display of avian taxidermy. Further displays of pottery that included some very fine equine studies, led us to a magnificent display of rocking horses and cavalry jackets. This display by a most tenuous but amusing association, brought us to a fascinating and theatrical toy collection.

The upper floors of the gallery are home to a range of delightful curiosities. There are treasures that surprise the visitor in almost every display case and corner. York Art Gallery itself is a venue of outstanding quality, with exhibits of importance and interest, the visitor cannot help but be impressed by the presentation and composition of the collections.

Leaving the wonders of the gallery behind, we headed towards the old city in search of lunch, before heading on to the Shambles. The Shambles itself is officially only one street called Shambles, narrow and pedestrianised, it is derived from the old name for a butcher’s market. Famous for its age and overhanging buildings, it has a certain quaint atmosphere and remains a well-known tourist attraction. More generally however, the term ‘the Shambles’ refers to the street and other connecting ones, including the five connecting Snickleways, that collectively form the famous medieval shopping heart of old York.

Hidden in the centre of the Shambles, between gifts, antique and book shops, is a substantial chapel. This is the shrine of Margaret Clitherow, a Catholic martyr and saint, one of many tragic victims of the religious troubles of the sixteenth century. The shrine is allegedly the site of her husband’s butchers shop but due to a renumbering of the street in the century after her death, the actual shop is now believed to be the building opposite. It is a charming and peaceful shrine, which provides a place of quietness, away from the hustle and bustle of the shops.
Further along the street we became aware of the most beautiful and irresistible aroma of fudge. We had stumbled upon Roly’s Fudge Pantry, so naturally we perused their wares and chatted to the staff.

The Shambles that day although busy, was not as crowded as usual. The actual and threat of the floods had kept many away. Indeed many shops were closed, staff either could not get in or had concerns that once in York, they would not get out. This we learnt talking to the staff at Roly’s who were themselves, considering closing early.

Leaving the Shambles we debated our own course of action, to head for home and safety, to stay longer? The sensible option was to leave whilst still light but other options presented themselves. York Minster was lit beautifully in the late afternoon sun and invited us to make it our third port of call.

My friend Corinna is a Roman Catholic, I am a Pagan of rather traditional tastes. It cannot be denied that as two friends we are a decidedly odd couple, yet we share many a common interest, in art, history, spirituality and music.

We paused outside the main entrance to admire the ornamentation, including some quite stunning scenes depicting the creation of the world, the temptation of Eve and the expulsion from Eden. On the opposite side of the door arch, there was work of equal quality that depicted scenes from the lives of Noah and Abraham.

We were surprised to discover that entrance that day was free, this was in recognition of the flooding. Fewer people had journeyed to York, attendance was down and there was to be a special service for the victims of the flooding. We took great pleasure in exploring this magnificent church building, admiring both the famous Rose window and the Heart window from the inside, illuminated beautifully by the setting sun.

Our exploration included the Chapter House, famous for the ornate ceiling and the nearby tombs, both are areas of the church decorated by remarkable carvings. The roof bosses of York are of obvious interest, many are old but many are modern replacements. These were placed during the 1980’s restoration following the fire and some were designed by viewers of the BBC children’s television programme Blue Peter.

Being so soon after Christmas the various decorations were still in place, including trees, a very impressive Nativity Scene and the largest Advent Crown I have ever seen. The nearby Astronomical Clock is a large wooden built monument standing in the north transept. It is actually a war memorial commemorating some 18,000 Royal Air Force personal who based in Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland, gave their lives during the Second World War.

We decided to join a sizable group for the service in the choir stalls and we were delighted to discover that a coral group from Europe, was to provide the musical interludes. Now it may indeed appear somewhat odd that a Catholic and Pagan should wish to attend such a service. Yet although it may be impossible for either of us to fully participate in such, our attendance is a recognition of the place of the church within our society and is a cultural as well as spiritual experience.

This is not the first time that Corinna and I have attended a church service together. Corinna once took me to a Catholic Mass. That was primarily for her benefit but it is well known that besides the cultural experience, I very much enjoy church music. I do not believe that my friend seeks to convert me, anymore than I seek to bring her to the Pagan faith. Although we do occasionally joke about our trips and the associated services.

Leaving the Minster we found York to be in darkness, the birth place of Guido Fawkes (better known as Guy and a member of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators) to be lit up and busy. Once a family home, the building is now a public house called the Guy Fawkes Inn. The sign is a design based upon the mask from the film V for Vendetta, well done but not to my traditional taste.

We returned to the car, still safely parked and not yet washed away, to begin our journey home. We could reflect on a very full and enjoyable day, on a homebound journey far less exciting than the journey in. Whether the flooding had abated or whether due to the darkness, we travelled in blissful oblivion and unaware of the flooding either side of the road is hard to say.

There is so much we did not explore, there is so much that York has to offer. The Viking history of the city is well known, as is the tragedy of Clifford’s Tower. Attractions associated with these we did not have time to explore and some we could not, the Jorvic Viking Centre was flooded.

York is a city of glory and it basks in this glory. Whether it is the glory of the Christian Faith, in a history both bloody and significant, that stretches from Roman times through Viking and Medieval to the modern period. The glory of York is found in this history, in the architecture and in art; all this and more serve to make this our northern capital, a cultural treasure.

Useful websites

Drakes Fish and Chip Restaurant

Saint Margaret Clitherow of York

Roly’s Fudge Pantry York

York Art Gallery

York Minster