Sunday 29 November 2015

Some Thoughts on the ASSAP conference, "Seriously Bewitched"

Yesterday I attended (and spoke at) a one-day public conference titled “Seriously Bewitched”, organised by the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomenon (ASSAP) and held on the premises of Goldsmiths, University of London, an academic institution based in southeast London’s New Cross. As its title suggested, the conference was devoted to the subject of witchcraft, both in its historical and contemporary manifestations. Given ASSAP’s remit, the conference was not strictly academic (although there were many academics present), and instead it aimed to reach a much wider audience including quite a number of people who were personally involved in forms of modern religious Witchcraft. This broad church approach undoubtedly had its benefits in bringing together divergent opinions and perspectives in a spirit of dialogue, although at times it also resulted in some vocal disagreement, particularly from attendees who weren’t particularly familiar with the nature of academic scholarship or the realities of what historically constituted “witchcraft”.

The event kicked off with some opening remarks from Professor Chris French, a psychologist based at Goldsmiths who has a particular interest in the critical study of paranormal phenomenon; for me, it was particularly intriguing to finally meet Professor French in the flesh as I remember him being a talking head on television shows about the paranormal when I was a child. He was followed by Deborah Hyde, his successor as editor of The Skeptic magazine, who used her talk to delve into the Roman Catholic Church’s response to Medieval heresy, discussing how that phenomenon impacted on the later witch trials of the Early Modern period. Sticking with those trials, we then had Christian Jensen Romer, a self-professed evangelical Christian, offer a discussion of the witch trials that took place both in Eastern England at the urging of Matthew Hopkins and those that took place in Salem, Massachusetts. Seeking to turn commonly held notions upon their head, he pointed out that many of those most active in carrying out these persecutions were highly educated men working on a rationalist basis – he even compared them, perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek, to ASSAP members – while also noting that it was Puritan preachers who were among the most vocal critics of the trials.

It was my turn after lunch, as I focused on “The New Witches of the West”, looking at the development of Wicca – in both its British Traditional and later Dianic variants – as well as modern Satanism, before exploring quite why many modern day people choose to identify as “witches” when that term is so loaded with historical baggage. Given that I was feeling a little under-the-weather, I chose to read from a script rather than speak without one, however I got a fair bit of positive feedback nevertheless (although I was somewhat lost for words when one audience member started insisting that a secret cabal of Satanists rule the world…). I was followed by Dr. Helen Cornish of Goldsmiths, who discussed the fascinating case of Joan Wytte, “the Fighting Fairy Woman of Bodmin”, whose alleged physical remains had been displayed at Cecil Williamson’s Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall for many years. Returning to the subject of modern Pagan Witchcraft, PhD candidate Charmaine Sonnex then discussed some of her ongoing work on how modern British Pagans (into which she includes British Traditional Wiccans, eclectic solitary Wiccans, and Druids) conduct magic spells and how they believe that such spells work.

Moving into the evening session, the Wiccan High Priestess Bekie Bird provided a biographical overview of her own life, discussing key events in her childhood and adolescence that led her onto the Pagan path, and talking about her beliefs pertaining to magic and spirituality. Finally, independent folklorist Mark Norman ended the day with a talk on what he termed “Traditional Witchcraft” – meaning both historical folk magic and those contemporary esotericists who self-designate as “Traditional Witches” – focusing in particular on how “Traditional Witchcraft” has been presented by Gemma Gary of the Cornish-based coven Ros an Bucca. All in all, it was an interesting day that brought together many interesting people and interesting talks, and my thanks must be extended to its organisers. For those interested, the next themed ASSAP conference, “Seriously Enchanted”, will be devoted to fairy lore and will take place at The Academy, Holiday Inn, in Bristol on 12 March 2016.

Thursday 26 November 2015

An Interview with Dr. Ceri Houlbrook

Today here at Albion Calling we have the archaeologist and folklorist Dr. Ceri Houlbrook with us (if you're not familiar with her work, check out her account here). Having completed her PhD on the subject of coin trees at the University of Manchester back in 2014, she is currently involved in a post-doctoral project examining concealed apotropaic devices in the British Isles and the ways in which they have been dealt with by those who have discovered them. We talk about her research, her new co-edited book, and her views on the intersections between folkloristics and archaeology.

Dr Houlbrook at a love-lock bridge in Prague, Czech Republic

[EDW]: Under the supervision of the archaeologist Professor Tim Insoll (who was interviewed here back in August 2014), you completed your PhD at the University of Manchester in 2014 on the topic of “Coining the Coin-Tree: Contextualising a Contemporary British custom”. Subsequently, you have published a number of research articles on the coin tree phenomenon in such peer-reviewed journals as Folklore, Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, and Post-Medieval Archaeology. What was it that led you to coin trees as an object of enquiry? Could you possibly also provide this blog’s readers with a summary of your research on this subject?

[CH]: Since doing my MA in ‘Constructions of the Sacred, the Holy and the Supernatural’ at Manchester, I’ve been interested in British folk customs – particularly how they survive, and sometimes flourish, in contemporary society. The coin-tree is just one such example of this. Although the custom of inserting coins into trees stretches back to the 1800s (maybe even the 1700s), where it was originally associated with healing rituals, it’s really only been over the last two decades that the practice has spread across the British Isles, with coin-trees popping up in all corners of the country. I was interested in asking why the 1990s and 2000s had seen such a rapid increase in the custom, and in finding out what it means to its modern-day participants. My conclusion: it means whatever its participants want it to mean, and I use coin-trees to demonstrate the malleability of folklore and the mutability of meaning. These allow customs, legends, and lore to survive their transitions into different times and places, by enabling them to adapt.

[EDW]: You are currently a Postdoctoral Research Assistant working as part of a Leverhulme-funded project titled “Inner Lives: Emotions, Identity, and the Supernatural, 1300–1900”, which is based at both the University of East Anglia and the University of Hertfordshire. Could you tell us a little bit more about this exciting new project and what your role entails?

[CH]: As you might have guessed from its title, this project, run by Prof. Malcolm Gaskill, Prof. Owen Davies, and Dr Sophie Page, is broad – both chronologically and thematically. To summarise briefly, we’re interested in examining how people historically have dealt with the cross-overs of emotions (fear, hatred, love), selfhood, and aspects of the supernatural. My strand of the project is entitled ‘The Concealed Revealed’, and I’m looking at the sorts of devices and customs people used to protect their homes from preternatural threats, from concealed shoes and mummified cats to timber markings. As well as cataloguing examples of this from across the British Isles, I’m also interested in considering what happens to them after they’re found; once the concealed has been revealed, so to speak. Are they disposed of, re-concealed, or displayed? And what does that tell us about people today and their own relationships with emotions, identity, and the supernatural?

Coin-tree in Ingleton, Yorkshire.
Image copyright Dr. Houlbrook
[EDW]: Like myself, you’ve been in attendance at the Folklore Society’s Newer Researchers conferences over the past two years and have conducted research that has crossed into the two respective fields of archaeology and folkloristics. Where do you tend to view yourself in relation to these two disciplines, and how well do you think that they work together?

[CH]: Although I’m not a huge fan of labels and pigeonholing myself, if people ask I tend to call myself a ‘folklore archaeologist’. This basically means that I use methodologies from both folklore and archaeology to gain insights into ritual practices and popular beliefs, both historical and contemporary. Take concealed shoes for example. We have no (surviving) written evidence describing the practice and therefore no explanation for why people in the 18th and 19th centuries concealed shoes within the walls, roof spaces, and fireplaces of their homes. Cue folklore archaeology: by considering oral lore surrounding shoes and the materiality of the shoes themselves, together with their liminal locations, we can at least come up with some working theories on this enigmatic practice.

[EDW]: Oxbow Books have recently brought out The Materiality of Magic: An Artifactual Investigation into Ritual Practices and Popular Beliefs, an edited volume that you co-produced with Natalie Armitage. In this volume, you also have a chapter titled “The Wishing-Tree of Isle Maree: The Evolution of a Scottish Folkloric Practice”. Could you elaborate for us on how this particular book came about?

[CH]: In 2012, Natalie Armitage and I organised a panel at the Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) conference entitled ‘The Materiality of Magic’. We were eager to get both the subject and word of ‘magic’ – seen as something of an academic taboo – back onto the archaeological agenda, and to illustrate how research into ritual practices and popular beliefs benefit from a material culture perspective. We were also eager to demonstrate how prevalent such practices and beliefs are across time and place, and so we invited speakers with a wide range of interest areas, ranging from Bronze Age Europe to modern-day Africa. The session was a great success and in saying that I’m not blowing my own trumpet, but that of the speakers. The fact that the session attracted such a large audience that we needed to move to a larger room is no doubt due to the fantastic papers presented and the interesting debates they sparked. Publishing the session was the logical next step; the themes we discuss and the methodologies we employ are important, so we naturally wanted to reach as large an audience as possible.

[EDW]: Are there any other projects in the pipeline that we should be keeping our eyes out for?

[CH]: My personal interest at the moment is the archaeology and heritage of love-locks. For anyone who doesn’t know what love-locks are, they’re exactly what their names suggest: padlocks employed globally in declarations of love, usually inscribed with a couple’s names and attached to a bridge. I find them fascinating for a number of reasons. Firstly, for what they reveal about the malleability of folk customs; love-rituals boast a very long history but they have to adapt in order to survive, and love-locks are the most recent – and arguably the most widespread – manifestation. Secondly, they’re incredibly useful from an archaeological perspective: studying a contemporary custom can inform how we interpret past practices. And thirdly, they reveal a lot about notions (and the subjectivity) of heritage; some cities (e.g. Paris) see love-locks as a nuisance to be discouraged and disposed of, while others (e.g. Cardiff) embrace them as part of their heritage. I’m currently applying for funding to conduct both broader and more in-depth research into this custom, but for now I’m keeping a blog ( and asking anyone with information on, pictures of, and opinions about love-locks to contact me on

[EDW]: Thank you very much Ceri, I wish you all the best with the rest of your Concealed Revealed project!

Saturday 14 November 2015

Thoughts on the Petrie Museum's "Margaret Murray: Witchcraft Theory and the 'Lunatic' Fringe?

Last night, the UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology hosted an event titled “Margaret Murray: Witchcraft Theory and the ‘Lunatic’ Fringe”, which – as its name suggests – was devoted to the famous Egyptologist and folklorist who was herself well connected to the Petrie Museum and the man after whom it was named, the archaeologist Flinders Petrie. Although well-respected among scholars of Ancient Egypt, today Murray is perhaps better known as the foremost proponent of the discredited witch-cult theory which proved to be such a significant influence on the burgeoning Pagan religion of Wicca, and it was to this aspect of her life that this event was devoted. Scheduled to take place two weeks after Halloween – and thus within the season of all things witchy – it also fell upon 13th November, thereby marking the 52nd anniversary of Murray’s death.

Accompanied by a specially selected playlist and a palm reader operating amid the cases of Egyptological artefacts, the event was structured around two talks by established London academics. The first talk was provided by Titus Hjelm, a sociologist who teaches at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Having a particular interest in the sociology of religion, he has previously published both a Finnish-language book on Wicca and an English-language paper on Paganism in Finland within the pages of the Journal of Contemporary Religion (I cite the latter in my new book, Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft, now available for purchase in Europe). Hjelm provided the audience with a basic outline of Murray’s witch-cult theory and the impact that it had on the burgeoning Wiccan faith; it was the basic stuff for those of us who are already involved in the study of early Wicca, but enlightening for others nonetheless.

Hjelm was followed by Roger Luckhurst, a scholar of English literature at Birkbeck, University of London. Rather than talk about Murray per se, Luckhurst delved into the work of William Seabrook, an American surrealist and author whose prime claim to fame was through introducing the word “zombie” into the English language. Luckhurst dealt in particular with Seabrook’s 1942 book, Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today, and while it wasn’t made completely clear that Murray exerted a strong influence over Seabrook’s understanding of witchcraft – which was more diabolist than pre-Christian – it nevertheless helped to set Murray’s ideas within their wider cultural setting.
The event was incredibly busy – many of us had to sit on the floor in order to hear the speakers – and I overheard a number of Petrie regulars commenting on how they had never seen the museum so crowded. Surely, this stands as a testament to how Murray continues to fascinate people and how she has continuing relevance for many of us today. Not a huge number of her contemporaries could say the same.