An Introduction to the Folklore of Magic Workshop review
The Museum hosted a workshop on Saturday March 25th, led by Steve Patterson, folklorist, Friend of the Museum and author of “Cecil Williamson’s Book of Witchcraft: A Grimoire of the Museum of Witchcraft” and “Spells and Charms from the Wise Woman’s Cottage.” The event was a sell out and here we have a write up of the day by Steve Simmonds (workshop attendee, Boscastle resident, Museum volunteer, Friend of the Museum and all round lovely person!)
Photographs/images show resources (handouts and booklets Steve Patterson created for the day).
The Folklore of Magic: A Workshop led by Steve Patterson
The setting was magical. We were sitting together in the library of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic on a gloriously sunny day overlooking Boscastle Harbour. A group gathered from across the UK and Ireland with a shared interest in folklore, magic and the wonders of the world around us. From the library, we went to spend some time in the Museum, considering anything that appealed to us, its labelling and context.
Steve Patterson opened the workshop by giving us a brief outline of his background. He is a writer, Folklorist, Woodcarver and agricultural labourer. His books include Cecil Williamson’s Book of Witchcraft, A Grimoire of the Museum of Witchcraft and Spells and Charms from the Wise Woman’s Cottage, and an Introduction to the West Country Cunning Tradition. He has been a student of folklore and the occult for as long as he can remember and since the 1990s has been an active supporter of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic.
Today we will be exploring the interaction between ideas of folklore and magic, an enormous subject where even their definitions are open to huge debate in themselves. The definitions have shifted over time with ‘arts’ such as arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, weights and measures becoming ‘sciences’ and ‘sciences’, such as herbalism, astrology and the power of prayer shifting to arts/folklore. ‘Folklore’ can be broadly defined as the beliefs and activities of ‘the people’, such as folk stories, Calendar Customs, Household Customs, Guising, Wassailing, Morris Dancing, the Padstow ‘obby ‘oss etc.. Magic may well be ‘changing things through intent’, or maybe it is much broader.
Steve cautioned about applying the scientific method to test the ‘validity of folklore and magic’. This can make the essence disappear. We make sense of the world as best we can according to our knowledge and perceptions and if nothing else the study of folklore and magic shows us that there is not just one way of looking at the world. If we open up our eyes and other senses there is much more than we normally ‘see’.
For instance, charms, signs, markings are all around us, scratched in ‘liminal spaces’ in churches, barns, under floors, behind panels, public spaces. As an example, Steve showed us a roof slate dislodged form a barn in West Cornwall in a gale in 2008. Etched onto this is the message: “May he who steals my round stones make early dry bones. Repent and return and live forever”. Underlying all such markings, a wider belief system is suggested, a context from which they derive their meaning and power. In the British medieval, early modern and indeed modern magical systems there is a tradition of use of liminal spaces as a kind of ‘psychic postbox’ from which to send our desires off to the magical realm. Crossroads, graveyards, the branches of a holy tree, walls, floors, hearthstones and chimneys are well-documented repository for such charms.
Steve said that magic and folklore had long had an uneasy relationship, sometimes coinciding, sometimes going their separate ways. But in the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic they have always been inextricably entwined. The Museum was founded by Cecil Hugh Williamson (1909-1999), who had a deep interest in witchcraft from childhood. In the 1930’s MI6 asked him to go to Germany to find out about the activities of Nazi occultists. To support his ‘back story’ of carrying out research for a museum, MI6 funded the establishment of the museum! The museum eventually arrived in Boscastle in the 1960’s. Ownership of the Museum passed from Cecil Williamson to folksinger and business man Graham King in 1996 and in 2013 to the current Director, Simon Costin.
From a magical point of view, from the mid twentieth century onwards, Wicca was the prevailing paradigm. Wicca is a religion founded by Gerald Gardner which he claimed was a modern incarnation of an ancient pagan witch cult surviving from prehistoric times. The story of Wicca and the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic is a tangled one. Cecil Williamson first met Gerald Gardner shortly in the 1940s. Williamson gave Gardner a job in the Museum (then in the Isle of Man) as ‘The Resident Witch’. Gardner began to develop his ideas of the Wicca religion. He bought a house on the Island. After a number of years the men fell out, with Williamson taking the Museum to a number of locations in England before settling in Boscastle.
What should we look for when attempting to observe the world of magic? Firstly there is magical belief. Magic does not occur in isolation; it is either practised or its influences are observed in the context of belief. Second there is magical practice, spells, rituals etc. for instance as collected in the Grimoires. Third there is the ‘material culture’ of magic: the ‘tools of the trade’. Folkloric and magical belief is the foundation stone of the entire Museum of Witchcraft and Magic Collection, and without an understanding of these two ideas, the artefacts can only be partially seen.
Thanks to Steve Patterson for running the workshop and to Steve Simmonds for writing it up for this blog.
Steve Patterson’s books (and CD) can be purchased from the Museum’s online shop.