necromancy: why, how, and why not to do it

Coincidentally, it’s just when the veil between the living and dead is at its thinnest that I passed the point in my book where the Papal Nuncio accuses Dee and Kelley of necromancy. Mind, they probably didn’t do it (or Dee didn’t–too goody goody for that), but why would anyone want to raise the dead, and how would they do it anyway?

Black adn white engraving of two men in a nighttime churchyard standing in a magic circle, a skeletal ghost before them.
Fanciful nineteenth century portrayal of “Edw[ar]d Kelly, a Magician. in the Act of invoking the Spirit of a Deceased Person” from Astrology, A New and Complete Illustration of the Occult Sciences by Ebenezer Sibly, M.D. F.R.H.S., Embellished with Curious Copper-Plates, London, 1806, courtesy Wikipedia

Technically early modern Christian necromancers weren’t trying to raise the dead–that was seen as something only God could do. No, they just conjured demons who looked like spirits, and used them for a variety of things including finding lost objects, telling the future, controlling other people, or creating illusions.

Kind of mundane, considering the spiritual sketchiness of necromancy and the sheer inconvenience of performing it. You had to consider magic circles, moon phases, and offerings before you even got to the incantations. Check out this bit from Reginald Scot’s 1584 best-seller “The Discoverie of Witchcraft”. Though Scot rejected the reality of witchcraft bits of it read like a how-to, with a surprisingly pious bent:

…I conjure thee spirit by the living God, the true God, and by
the holie God, and by their vertues and powers which have created
both thee and me, and all the world. I conjure thee by these
holie names of God, Tetragrmnmaton Adonay Algraniay
Saday Sabaoth Planaboth Craton Neupinaton…

…etc. What happened if you forgot or mispronounced a name isn’t recorded.

But why did Kelley perform necromancy, if he did it at all?

The story goes that long before he met Dee he was arrested in Walton on Dale for conjuring a spirit, but a local squire named Langton managed to get him released. Given that so much of Kelley’s history is legend I’m unsure how seriously to take this, and even the legend doesn’t have much about Kelley’s’ reasoning.

So I’m just making something up. It’s historical fiction, remember?

biweekly links 10-11-2017

Sylvia Plath and the Occult: Interview with Julia Gordon-Bramer: I leave it to the experts to determine how serious Plath was about tarot cards but to my inexpert mind Gordon-Bramer may be onto something.

New documentary is a magic portal into a weird and wonderful library: this 90 minute doc on the Ritman Library explains what they mean by “western esotericism” with abundant gorgeous shots of historic tomes from their collection. Available free through Amazon Prime (at least last week) if you love magical history and/or illustrated manuscripts, check it out. Should I ever get to Amsterdam this library is on my list of must-sees.

Borley Rectory animated documentary: the trailer evokes early horror films and steampunk but I’m willing to see if it winds up being more substance than style. As this “most haunted house in England” burnt down in the 1930s, I wonder what the most haunted is now?

writing on wall:
Ghostly(?) writing from the wall of Borley Rectory. I always found this image deliciously eerie. Courtesy Tumblr.

You Can Now Visit a Witch Museum in Cleveland: the Buckland Gallery of Witchcraft and Medicine has bounced around the states for years and is currently (permanently?) attached to a record store. Advertising is minimal (they’re concerned about how they’ll be received) but open during some regular hours and by appointment.

biweekly links 9-27-2017

Bess of Hardwick in spotlight of new play: about time! Perhaps best known as the woman who kept Mary Queen of Scots under house arrest, she became the second richest woman in Elizabethan England through both strategic marriages and shrewd business dealings. Definitely worthy of her own play. Her stately Hardwick Hall still stands.

How Renaissance Painting Smoldered with a Little Known Hallucinogen: Not THAT unknown. Short version: some artists were heavily influenced by ergot poisoning, either by their own experiences or from observing others in the throes of “St. Anthony’s Fire”. I’m unsure what to make of this – on the one hand artists must get their inspiration from somewhere, on the other it suggests lack of creativity if  they were just depicting their hallucinations to the last detail. Full disclosure: I love Bosch’s work and prefer to think he was just that inventive. Thoughts?

Painting of man in throes of agony, covered in pustules.
LSD may be derived from ergot fungi but St. Anthony’s Fire looks like a bad trip to me. Painting by Matthias Grünewald of a patient suffering from advanced ergotism from approximately 1512–16 [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Books Discovered Once Again is a Czech-Norwegian project dedicated to identifying, cataloguing, and returning to original owners/libraries non-Bohemican volumes found in the Czech public libraries. Related: According to the historians on this project, the “Himmler’s occult book stash found in Prague” story I linked to last year isn’t true. Thus far they’ve found “common philosophic literature, yearbooks of lodges, some Masonic poems collection and so on” but nothing explicitly occult. Old news offered belatedly and borrowed (thanks Astonishing Legends) but I don’t want y’all running around with the wrong info.

biweekly links 7-26-2017

Notorious look at 16th century: check this out! An amateur (!) builder spent 10 years (!) researching and building a replica of a Portuguese caravel. This is the kind of insanely dedicated experiential archaeology I lurve. To my eternal regret I can’t find a website or blog chronicling the building process, but the ship’s Wikipedia page has some information. To find out where it docks next check out its Twitter and Facebook page.

Photo of ship Susan Constant at sunset
Reproduction of the “Susan Constant” at the Jamestown Settlement, no less impressive though it wasn’t made by a single man in his backyard. Author’s own.

A $70 ‘Worry Stone’ and Other Bizarre Spiritual Products You Can Buy Online: I used to have a worry stone – can’t imagine where it got off to but it’s nice to know I can replace it from the comfort of my keyboard. For serious high rollers you can get an “orgon [sic] accumulator” starting at $2000.

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Dunkirk: One of many articles about the movie, but I think covers history vs. fiction the best. As a former stickler for historical accuracy at all costs, writing The Book has humbled me to the real difficulties of hammering historical events into a compelling narrative. Nolan’s aim was to “put you on that beach” and I think he did so admirably, while sticking astonishingly close to the facts. Not included: why Germany stopped their attack or the fate of those left behind.

Will: 5 ways ‘The Two Gentlemen’ twists history: from painstaking historical accuracy we go to flamboyant liberty with the facts, or at least the image. I’ve not seen “Will” (yet?) but I can’t hammer it’s “punk rock Elizabethan” aesthetic too hard – I love artful anachronisms – but opinions differ.

biweekly links 7-12-2017

Hitler Used Werewolves, Vampires, and Astrology to Brainwash Germany: despite the tabloid-esque title, this is a sobering article about a forthcoming Yale U Press book on Nazi exploitation of pre-existing supernatural beliefs to further their ideology. To quote the article, “…in times of crisis, supernatural and faith-based thinking masquerading as “scientific” solutions to real problems helps facilitate the worst kind of political and social outcomes.” Indeed.

The Occult Roots of Modernism: Nineteenth century French artist-author-guru Joséphin Péladan is the subject of a new exhibition on the “mystical symbolism” of the artists of his Salon de Rose + Croix. Péladan was part of a wider occult milieu in Belle Epoque Paris that embraced everything from Theosophy to Rosicrucianism to neo-Catharism. If you’re in New York City between now and October 4, you might want to check it out.

Witchcraft and dueling are now legal in Canada: I’m sure they don’t mean together, because combining these could be dangerous…or awesome:

Dueling scene between Snape and Lockhart from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
CanAms will look very different next year. Courtesy Tumblr

biweekly links 6-7-2017

Witchcraft with a dash of art, and some things which may or may not be:

The hocus pocus of witchcraft: this post from the UK National Archives blog covers the basics but links over to their publication Accused: British Witches Throughout History, a nonfiction book about exactly what it says. Do check out their “We think you may also like” section if you’re into this sort of thing.

A radical new look at the greatest of Elizabethan artists: Two paintings have been newly confirmed as Elizabethan miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard‘s, based on the wood on which they were painted. They’re part of the Power and Portraiture: painting at the court of Elizabeth I exhibit that just opened at Waddesdon Manor. Looks like a good one to check out should you be in Buckinghamshire between now and October 29.

Portrait of Elizabethan man with beard and mustache, wearing a cap and ruff
Hilliard’s portrait of Elizabeth I’s alleged squeeze Robert Dudley, 1576. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
The spy who hoodwinked the Nazis with sorcery: file under “interesting if true”. As opposed to “Operation” Cone of Power in which British witches actually tried to repel the Nazis, Operation Mistletoe was just propaganda. Allegedly orchestrated by spy and occultist Cecil Williams, this article suggests it’s uncertain whether this fake ritual happened at all. (Tangentially, a whip ’round Google for “Napoleonic magical ritual” nets nothing about the alleged witchcraft used to repel Napoleon mentioned in the article. Still, possible inspiration for Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell?)

biweekly links 5-3-2017

Steve Bannon and the occult: The right wing’s long, strange love affair with New Age mysticism: old news, but it seems everyone pulled from this article. Lest you think “New Age alternative spirituality is solely the domain of lefty hippies” indeed. See also: Peter Levenda’s “Sinister Forces” Trilogy (too many links to choose from; you know how to Google).

scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Nazis are incinerated by the Ark of the Covenant. The movie's been out over 25 years, this is not a spoiler.
Mind, the last time alt-righties seriously got into weird stuff it didn’t go well for them. Via FerdyOnFilms.com

Weird Norfolk: The Witch’s Heart of Kings Lynn: a modern reminder of an old crime.

From yob to nabob: the astonishing rise of the Tudor merchant adventurer: Stephen Alford tackles international trade in Tudor London. Alford’s “The Watchers” on Elizabethan espionage was a key and enjoyable research resource for The Book so I have faith he can make this seemingly dry topic just as riveting.

biweekly links 2-22-2017

Photo of gunmetal gray statue of an empty hooded cloak
Anna Chromý’s “Il Commendatore” sculpture, Prague. Legend has it that if you toss a coin in the empty hood your enemies can never find you. Author’s own.

Icelandic Magic, Witchcraft, and Sorcery and the Tragic Case of Jón Rögnvaldsson: For some reason the Icelandic Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft is all over my Google alerts this week. This article addresses the unusually masculine world of Icelandic sorcery, with references at the end.

Want to Unlock the Secrets of the Occult? Art History Holds Answer regards the newly published The Occult, Witchcraft and Magic: An Illustrated History, though the book’s Amazon UK entry has more illustrations than the article.

The duties of an Elizabethan Lady-in-Waiting: useful to me as Jane Dee served Elizabeth I’s lady-in-waiting Lady Howard of Effingham (yes, servants had servants, and so on down the line) before she married John Dee.

Will This App Turn More Readers On to Serialized Fiction?: yes, there’s an app for this too! Radish‘s most popular author writes historical romance. Will be very curious to see how this develops.

Biweekly links 2-8-2017

Here’s what Google Alerts netted for me over the past fortnight:

Queer occult vs. “alt-right” occult: a very different take on the current political turmoil in the U.S. Disclaimer: I am not a practitioner but I find the idea that memes are a kind of magic provocative, to say the least. Thoughts?

Magick as strategy in World War Two: that the Nazis embraced their own twisted form of occultism isn’t news, but the possibility of the English fighting fire with fire in the form of Aleister Crowley is a new one on me. Fantasy, of course, but the facts it’s based on are arguably weirder.

16th-century English Tudor rose pendant unearthed near Moscow Kremlin: before we go all “how did it get there?!” keep in mind that England had a presence in Russia from the time of Ivan the Terrible (a prospective employer of John Dee – but that’s another story). Interestingly I first learned of Englishmen in Ivan’s Russia through Ann Swinfen’s historical fiction as she set one of her Christoval Alvarez books in Muscovy.

Photos: Secret ‘Hole’ to Hide Priests Revealed in Tudor Mansion: Archaeology, hidden passages, and spycraft, my favorites! Researchers used a 3D laser scanner to plot the priest hole’s location in Coughton Court, a “false hole” concealing the real one. Historians believe Nicholas Owens, English Catholic spy and escape artist, created it. Later several of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators used Coughton Court as a hideout.

rectangular alcove in a stone wall
Another priest hole, at Oxborough Hall, UK. By Alasdair Massie on Flickr, some rights reserved.

blogs of note

A few of my recurring online reads:

We Are The Mutants: cold war pop culture with an occult bent. Articles of note: 1970s EVP equipment (warms the cockles of my In Search Of-loving heart), French New Wave cinema’s influence on Hollywood sci-fi, Dungeons and Dragons as occult gateway drug – in a good way. Quality writing on subjects that only seem unrelated.

David Halperin: religious studies prof and former UFO investigator, Halperin balances critical thinking and compassion. His series on the 1966 UFO incident in Westhall, Australia illustrates the unreliability of eyewitness accounts without ridiculing the witnesses, and his two-parter on “The Supernatural” presents a spin on Whitley Strieber’s famous “abduction” experiences that’s neither credulous nor dismissive.

Startling photo-realistic painting of grey alien with huge, slanted, ink black eyes and a Mona Lisa smile
The famous “Communion” cover, from the book’s Goodreads page. Included because 30 years on it still startles the crap out of me and I wanted to share the joy.

Halperin’s post on “The Supernatural” led me to Strieber’s co-author Jeffrey J. Kripal, another scholar of philosophy and religion. He emphasizes “robust and even conversation between the sciences and the humanities”, which I am ALL about. His book Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna seems to have enraged and enlightened in equal measure, so surely he’s doing something right. $DEITY knows when I’ll have time to read his books, but this two-part interview on the Where Did The Road Go?  podcast serves as a useful primer on Kripal’s work and perspective.