Hands of Apostasy: Essays on Traditional Witchcraft has been published by Three Hands Press, one of the two publishing arms of the Cultus Sabbati, an occultist “Traditional Witchcraft” group established in the early 1990s by the Essex occultist Andrew D. Chumbley (1967–2004). Chumbley claimed to have been initiated into a number of pre-existing British folk magical traditions, whose teachings formed the partial basis from which he formed the Cultus, before he went on to gain widespread attention within the Western esoteric milieu for authoring a number of particularly influential grimoires, most notably The Azoëtia, Qutub, and ONE: The Grimoire of the Golden Toad. In later life, he entered academia as a historian of religion, although tragically died while carrying out his PhD research. Both of the editors of this particular anthology had strong links to Chumbley; Michael Howard was a close personal friend of his, having previously established himself as a well-known figure in the British occult scene for editing and publishing The Cauldron, a popular practitioner-oriented journal devoted to witchcraft, folklore, and paganism, since 1976. The U.S.-based Daniel Schulke, meanwhile, was an initiate of Chumbley's Cultus who took on the mantle of the group's Magister (effectively its leader) after its founder's untimely passing, a position that he retains to this day.
Thus, rather than being
the product of a scholarly press, Hands of Apostasy is a tome
that has been both edited and published by an occult organisation. In keeping
with this, its chapters have been (primarily) written not by “outsider”
academics but by occultists themselves, “insider” voices who here discuss the
very traditions to which they owe their spiritual allegiance. While I am
therefore accustomed to reviewing academic books using the usual benchmarks and
standards of academia, here I must attempt to do something different; to review
a non-academic work of esotericism from my own perspective as an academic
non-esotericist. It would be simply unfair if I were to therefore challenge the
contents of this book for being insufficiently academic, because they were
never designed to be so in the first place; instead I shall seek to evaluate
the varying chapters on their own merits, with critical commentary from my own
(somewhat different) position.
In the anonymously authored introduction – which can most probably be attributed either to Mr. Howard or Mr. Schulke, if not both of them – the reader is offered such an insider view of the “Traditional Craft”, or “Old Craft” as it is also often known. Here, it is described as “a distinct body of archaic magical practices in present-day Britain and North America, which despite ties to past milieus of magic also thrive within modern spiritual climes” (9). Emphasising that it is not a singular, monolithic entity, the author(s) state that these groups emerge from “a variety of historical magico-religious streams” but that they typically “operate in secret, with strict means of initiatic succession, and practice sorcery characterized by a dual ethos of healing and harming” (9–10). Following this, we are given a brief introduction to a few of the figures whom they see as central to the public dissemination of knowledge on the Traditional Craft, before an outline is provided into the Luciferian world view which many contemporary Crafters – and in particular the members of the Cultus Sabbati – embrace.
A point that I found particularly interesting was that the author seeks in part to define Traditional Witchcraft by explaining what it is not. To their mind, it is “very different in form, ethos and nature” from the “neo-pagan witchcraft” (10) which was pioneered by the English occultist Gerald Gardner in the 1950s, and which in the Alexandrian milieu of the coming decade came to be emblazoned under the somewhat less incendiary name of “Wicca” (on the etymological development of the word see Doyle White 2010). While I would certainly concur that there are some groups flying the banner of the “Old Craft” whose beliefs and practices do indeed differ greatly from those of Gardnerian Wicca and its offspring – the Cultus Sabbati being perhaps the most prominent example – I do not share the belief that all so-called “Traditional Witches” differ so clearly from Gardner's creation. As I have argued elsewhere (Doyle White 2013), textual evidence for the original theology present in the 1960s coven of Robert Cochrane – a man often treated as the “Traditional Witch” par excellence – depicts a magico-religious tradition that is very much Neopagan in form and content, and that is before one takes into account the compelling evidence that Cochrane himself was also a Gardnerian initiate (see Doyle White 2011).
Furthermore, it is also evident that the terms “Old Craft” and “Traditional Witchcraft” have come to be embraced by practitioners in various parts of the world whose traditions are quite evidently variants of eclectic Wicca; I am reminded of a passage on page 385 of The Triumph of the Moon in which Professor Ronald Hutton recalls knowing of three covens which established themselves as “Wiccan” in the 1980s, only to switch to declaring themselves practitioners of the “Traditional Craft” in the 1990s. Clearly, for the author of this introduction – as for many Traditional Crafters – the boundaries between Wicca and the Old Craft are, despite a little interaction and mutual influence, comparatively crisp and clear. Etically speaking, I cannot share that view; I see the term “Traditional Craft” as more of a legitimation strategy, a way for certain magico-religious and esoteric groups to hark back to the pre-Gardnerian practices of an older Europe, to a historical “tradition” of witch bottles, cunning folk, and Horse Whisperers, as a means of conjuring up a sense of authenticity, pedigree, and heritage. Some of these groups perhaps do have such roots – Chumbley's Cultus and the Sabbatic Craft it espouses being the most prominent example – but others I suspect owe far more to Gardner's legacy than to those of his antecedents.
In the coming chapter we are treated to an article by Chumbley himself on the subject of “The Magic of History”, in which he offers a fascinating personal insight into how he saw himself as embodying “a bridging position” (21) between the world of the historian and that of the magician. In doing so, he discusses both the “history of magic” and “magical history”. While the former offers a fairly simple analysis of textual information placed within a chronological framework, the latter does something quite different, instead tapping into a “timeless” zone through which he believed he could communicate via “spirit-discourse” with the shades of long-deceased magicians (20). As he aptly notes however, “such truth-claims [attained from this zone] cannot be presented as historical evidence, however[...] such truth-claims must be respected by scholarship and treated impartially as the beliefs of a given individual or tradition” (20), thus championing methodological agnosticism among scholars of magic. In doing so, he offers us an intriguing theoretical approach to the analysis of living esoteric and magico-religious traditions that warrants greater attention from those of us who are active in this field.
A further aspect of this chapter which I found particularly interesting was Chumbley's suggestion that some of the cunning-folk of mid-to-late nineteenth-century Britain formed together in lodges or covens, and that the descendants of some of these groups have survived to this day, coming to be unified under the banner of “Traditional Witchcraft”. He further suggests that from at least the 1890s, a number of these groups began to actively incorporate elements from the Early Modern iconography of the Witches' Sabbath into their practices. As evidence for this, he comments on his own encounters and experiences with such groups; at the same time, he comments that their secrecy prevents them from opening themselves up to academic scrutiny and study, and that he himself was at times frustrated by this impasse. As he acknowledges, those of us in academia are thus left in a conundrum; (not implausible) claims are being made about nineteenth-century magical practices and their continued survival to this day, but the information that historians require to analyse such claims are being intentionally kept sub rosa. As an academic, I found this a particularly interesting chapter, and feel that it really serves to reiterate what a loss Chumbley was for scholarship in the field of magic.
Chumbley's chapter is followed by a short piece authored by the late American esotericist Douglas McIlwain, in which he lays out his claims to having been initiated into a magico-religious tradition by his great-uncle in 1967 which he himself termed the “Skull and Bones Family Tradition”. As a first-hand testimonial to forms of American folk magic it is truly fascinating but unfortunately – as with so many similar claims – its veracity can (and indeed, from a scholarly perspective, must) be questioned. Remaining in the United States, Corey Thomas Hutcheson then provides us with a comparison of traditional witchcraft lore in the mid-to-southern Appalachians with that of the Ozarks, highlighting how both have identifiable origins in the folk beliefs of Europe but each nevertheless diverged and developed in independent directions prior to being recorded by early twentieth-century folklorists.
David Rankine then returns us to the Old World to argue that the grimoire tradition of Medieval and Early Modern Europe was influenced in various ways by witchcraft. Although an intriguing subject worthy of further in-depth research, it was unfortunate that Rankine did not explicitly outline what he meant by the term “witchcraft”, seemingly including a wide variety of phenomena – including benevolent folk magical charms – under that category, something which most scholars would critique. A brief piece from the late Cecil Williamson, founder of the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft, is then included, in which he discusses aspects of what he terms “moon-raking rites” in British folk magic. Again, it's very interesting as a document of potential twentieth-century folk practices, but given Williamson's well known habit of bending the truth, such claims have to be taken with a pinch of salt. The anthology then continues with a lengthy chapter from Martin Duffy in which he offers an insider discussion of the esoteric, and often sexual, symbolism of the cauldron. In doing so, he references a wide array of disparate sources, from the iconography of Early Modern diabolical witchcraft to Iron Age archaeology and from the writings of modern Traditional Witches to Afro-Cuban magico-religious practices; this reflects a widespread belief among Traditional Crafters – as among many occultists and esotericists more widely – that there are common magical and occult meanings behind traditions that are otherwise scattered across very different historical and cultural contexts.
Melusine Draco of the Coven of the Scales follows with a discussion of her group's animistic worldview, in which Britain's rural landscape is understood as being populated by an array of genii loci, or spirits of the place, whom she believes can be contacted through Old Craft practices. Asserting that these traditions therefore represent the survival of pre-Christian British shamanism, her claims regarding ley-lines being marked by late prehistoric megaliths seemingly owe more to the mid-twentieth century Earth Mysteries movement than older folk traditions, something that certainly raised the eyebrow of this particular archaeologist. Howard then offers us a historical overview of necromancy – the act of contacting the spirits of the dead – throughout European history, ranging from archaeological interpretations regarding ancestor cults in Neolithic Europe through to Roman, Medieval, and Early Modern textual accounts and on to the necromantic rites of Traditional Witches. In the ensuing chapter, Peter Hamilton-Giles offers an intriguing discussion of the “witching hour”; in a manner echoing the aforementioned Chumbley chapter, he stresses the difference between the historian's perception of time and the magical practitioner's perception of time with its ties to the idea of personal spiritual truth. Gemma Gary of the Cornish Ros An Bucca group follows with her discussion of “The Man in Black”, or Devil, in European witchcraft, in doing so making extensive reference to the accounts of the Early Modern witch trials and subsequent Modern textual and folkloric accounts of magico-religious groups such as the Toad Witches.
We are then presented with a second offering from Chumbley himself, this time on the origins and rationales of modern Witch-cults. Aptly highlighting that there were magico-religious groups operating prior to the emergence of Wicca which termed themselves “Witches” – most notably the Toad Witches and the Zos Kia Cultus of Austin Osman Spare – he proceeds to discuss the origins of Gardnerian Wicca, seemingly accepting the possibility that Gardner had indeed been initiated into a pre-existing New Forest coven, which represented an older tradition of magic, but that the "Father of Wicca" had then gone on to radically alter this tradition according to the witch-cult hypothesis of Margaret Murray. From there, Levannah Morgan provides a beautifully written personal account of her own experiences with the use of a mirror as a magical tool, rooted in the folk magical traditions which she encountered growing up in rural Wales during the 1960s. Heading into the Irish Sea, we then arrive at the Isle of Man, where a collaborative group known only as Manxwytch discusses some examples of accounts of alleged witchcraft and folk magical customs on the island, before suggesting that these exerted some influence on Gardner, who lived on the island in later life. From Europe's north-west to its south-east, we are then offered a chapter on Serbian “traditional witchcraft” from Radomir Ristic which looks in particular at a rite known as “Unchain the Devil”. Although an interesting account of a folk magical practice that apparently still continues in Serbia, I was a little sceptical as to the unproven assertion that it had its origins in “pre-Christian paganism and Gnosticism” (247), something which appears to represent an approach rooted in the discredited doctrine of folkloric survivalism.
From my own perspective, more satisfying is the following chapter, authored by Jimmy Elwing – co-editor of Correspondences: An Online Journal for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism – on the basis of the work conducted for his recent master's thesis at the University of Amsterdam. Devoted to an analysis of Chumbley's work, it discusses how he constructed and legitimised his Sabbatic Craft, before examining the Magister's ideas pertaining to dream-like states of consciousness as a gateway to gnosis. Although other essays have seen publication discussing Chumbley and his work (for instance Morris 2013), Elwing's work here represents one of the very first scholarly examples to do so, and thus will no doubt be of great help for future researchers venturing into this area.
Italian-American Witch Raven Grimassi follows with a discussion of the traditional associations between witches and botanical knowledge, looking in particular at the case of the mandrake root and the connection between witchery and the forest. Switching focus to the Welsh Marshes, Gary St. Michael Nottingham provides a fascinating discussion of surviving examples of local folk magical charms, which are – as he notes – without exception rooted in Christian sources. The penultimate chapter is provided by Schulke himself, and examines conceptions of darkness within Traditional Witchcraft. He notes that in the Sabbatic Craft, darkness is understood as the preserve of ancient spirits, before embarking on a discussion of the role of the nocturnal darkness in many historical conceptions of witchcraft beliefs as well as in other magical traditions such as Thelema. Finally, Lee Morgan offers a really fascinating chapter on the likely influence exerted by nineteenth-century Romanticism on the Traditional Witchcraft movement; as he points out, the Romanticist ethos of viewing Lucifer as a sympathetic figure, adopting a radical stance against conservative society, and embracing an interest in occult practices could certainly have exerted an influence on the British magical milieu of the period. For me, as someone who is really not well acquainted with the lives of figures such as Byron and Shelley, this was something of an eye-opener, and it is hoped that this will prove to be of great use to future scholars embarking on an analysis of the historical development of contemporary Traditional Witchcraft and its nineteenth-century antecedents.
To their credit, it seems apparent that the editors have sought to embrace a fairly diverse spectrum of different approaches on the subject of "Traditional Witchcraft" within this volume; some authors have sought to provide scholarly analyses of the movement and its historical development, while others have instead endeavoured to accumulate information from a wide range of sources which can inspire the practices of contemporary practitioners. Others still have attempted to embrace a highly insider interpretation of particular forms of symbolism, while a few have instead offered very personal descriptions of their own practices and world-views. Alongside such differences in approach, there are also (to my mind) differences in many other ways; some articles are written very clearly, others in a wonderfully poetic manner. Some are evidently a great deal more intellectually sophisticated than those situated around them. Some I deem to be very good, others less so; as an academic whose great interest is in the historical development of these traditions, clearly certain entries are going to appeal more strongly to me, while other readers with very different interests might have views that are very different to my own.
One point that I feel that I should raise, perhaps a little pedantically, is that there is a great disparity in referencing throughout the volume; when citing a work many of the contributors make reference merely to the author and book's title, whereas those who were academically trained have provided fuller, more satisfying references including places of publication and page numbers. In my opinion, a standardisation of such referencing in the latter manner would have helped the book attain a more unitary feel and would have made further reading a little easier.
As has come to be expected from Three Hands Press, the quality of the published tome is praiseworthy; a beautifully designed hardback, it contains an array of wonderfully evocative illustrations by Timo Ketola, which fit within the distinctly “dark” artistic aesthetic which has become common within the Traditional Craft milieu. At $58.50 for a standard hardcover and $380 for a special edition, it isn't going to be affordable for everyone (and those are direct-from-publisher prices), but perhaps a cheaper edition might be made available in time; certainly, I can envision there being a fairly wide sector of the esoteric market who would be interested in this volume, making a paperback release potentially financially viable. The tome will be of great interest to anyone who describes themselves as a "Traditional Witch" or who is sympathetic to that particular current of esoteric practice. Many Wiccans might find it an interesting introduction to forms of modern-day religious Witchcraft which differ from their own. Similarly, many academics specialising in both the history of European magical beliefs and/or in the study of Western esotericism will no doubt find it a fascinating read and could use it as source material for further research. I certainly wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to either scholar or practitioner, or indeed (as is increasingly common) to scholar-practitioners.
What to me this book makes abundantly clear is that there is not one singular “Traditional Witchcraft”, but many different traditions which situate themselves under this encompassing rubric. In the pages of Hands of Apostasy, there are various different world-views on display; Draco's depiction of the Old Craft as a survival of pre-Christian shamanism is clearly quite distinct from Chumbley's description of it as a survival of nineteenth-century cunning lodges. I thought it a positive sign that the editors and publishers allowed this to be the case; they could quite easily have chosen to push a Sabbatic Craft-dominated image of the Traditional Craft that eclipsed any and all alternatives. (The only publicly-prominent tradition of the Old Craft that was not represented was the Clan of Tubal Cain, which is the name used by the various groups which trace a pedigree back to Cochrane.) Traditional Witchcraft is a burgeoning and growing movement within the broad current of Western esotericism, one which will likely go from strength to strength over coming years, aided by the publication of volumes such as this one. That being the case, it is hoped that further academics will join the likes of myself and Elwing in examining this phenomenon, studying its beliefs and practices, and in particular its early development, so that hopefully we can develop an accurate and nuanced understanding of how today's Traditional Witchcraft emerged from the folk magical traditions of yesteryear.
Doyle White, Ethan. 2010. “The Meaning of 'Wicca': A Study in Etymology, History and Pagan Politics.” The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 185–207.
Doyle White, Ethan. 2011. “Robert Cochrane and the Gardnerian Craft: Feuds, Secrets and Mysteries in Contemporary British Witchcraft.” The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 33–52.
Doyle White, Ethan. 2013. “An Elusive Roebuck: Luciferianism and Paganism in Robert Cochrane's Witchcraft.” Correspondences: An Online Journal for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 75–101.
Hutton, Ronald. 1999. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Morris, Anne. 2013. “But to Assist the Soul's Interior Revolution: The Art of Andrew Chumbley, the Cult of the Divine Artist, and Aspects of the Sabbatic Craft”, in Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold, ed. Serpent Songs: An Anthology of Traditional Craft. pp. 173–187. Location not specified: Scarlet Imprint.