Review: Witches in a Crumbling Empire by Rhyd Wildermuth

EMPIRE+promoWitches in a Crumbling Empire is a book of Pagan political theory by Rhyd Wildermuth, and it’s more than that. Its words of mystical prose are a vision and a spell to win back our relationship with the land and the magic at the heart of Paganism, which we lost between ‘the factory floor and the witch’s stake’.

Rhyd speaks of those who go into the Abyss. Those who go ‘to find out if there is meaning… some go mad. And some never return. And some… come back wielding light against the darkness… a fire that can reforge the world.’ Those who are branded heretics, made outcasts. Rhyd is one of those people.

Against the horrors of the crumbling Empire and a resistance made impotent by divisions between Left and Right and social identity Rhyd carries a torch that illuminates, unveils, and shines as a beacon to unite Pagans against ‘the one thing’ that is the source of environmental and political injustice: Capitalism.

For Capitalism ‘has the power to affect every single person, destroy every life and make every person suffer. White and Black, First Nations and Asian, European and African, male and female, trans and cis, able and disabled – each suffers under this thing.’

Rhyd, of course, calls for revolt. He notes that witchcraft (and this applies more widely to Paganism) can be political or anti-political, but never apolitical, as we’re all political subjects in countries dominated by political structures – private property, workplaces, shops; governments and police to maintain law and order. When these ‘reproduce themselves within you… You become Empire.’

Against our becoming of Empire, against our internalisation of its ‘thou cannots’, he opposes ‘thou wilt’. ‘When we are told we cannot grow our own food, we must grow our own food. When we are told we cannot survive without money, we must survive without money. When we are told we cannot be safe without the police, we must become safe without the police.’

No mean feat, but for inspiration we can turn to the revolutionary ancestors: to the Luddites, the Rebeccas, the Molly Maguires. To the gods: to ‘the Raven King, Brighid, or Dionysus’ and of course that ‘spirit’, ‘king’, ‘or general’, the eponymous Ludd himself (who may be a modern appearance of the ancient god Lludd/Nudd/Nodens) as the leader of ‘a new Luddite Revolution’.

Such a revolt aims to win back the land from Capitalism and the magic at the heart of witchcraft and every Pagan path. Not the magic of on-line courses, of vending tables at conferences, oils and candles from Etsy, but the magic ‘which has always been you, you and the world around you… the breathing forests, the scream of the owl and raven as you wander alone through darkness.’

This magic also lies beyond the limitations of the the world as we know it in what Rhyd refers to as ‘the World Without Forms’. The fathomlessness of the Abyss into which we must walk and return with new myths to win back our mythic power and territory from Fascism.

This book will probably not be an easy read whatever your Pagan or political persuasion. Rhyd is critical of all and of himself too. Yet the fire that burns also lights and brings hope. In the unveiling of uncomfortable truths, in the facing of the death of Empire and the resistance going down with it, it shows how we might learn to love and dance in the flames of new worlds being forged and live anew.

Witches in a Crumbling Empire can be purchased HERE.

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Gatherer of Souls by Lorna Smithers

Gatherer of Souls has had its first review from Greg Hill at the Way of the Awenydd.

‘Lorna’s quest, then, is not simply one of discovery but also one of actively bringing Gwyn back into focus and out of the shadows to be recognised as the gatherer of the souls of the dead and Lord of the Otherworld.’

THE WAY OF THE AWENYDD

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Available HERE

This is the third collection of poems and prose by Lorna Smithers chronicling her dedication to the Brythonic god Gwyn ap Nudd and it takes her quest to interpret and re-present his mythology to deeper levels of significance. It also defines her path as an awenydd, engaging in visionary explorations and written evocations of her discoveries. The book is divided into a brief introductory section followed by six longer sections, each taking the reader through a different historical period. A major source for any study of Brythonic lore is the medieval Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen. This tale is often drawn upon here, in particular the episode in the tale where Arthur kills Orddu “the Very Black Witch, daughter of the Very White Witch from Pennant Gofid”. The episode provides an imaginative frame for the chronology of Gatherer of Souls, spanning an immensity of time…

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Notes from a Precarious Landscape

The ‘Notes from a Precarious Landscape’ art exhibition took place from Thursday 17th May – Saturday 19th May in Plot 188 on the Story Homes Waterside Development, Cottam Way, on the outskirts of Preston. It was organised by artists Ian Nesbitt and Ruth Levene, supported by In Certain Places.

Plot 188

The location was chosen because the exhibition focused on ‘how the land around the city is changing, or has changed in the past’ and explored ‘the relationships between people and place, city and surrounding landscape, through the lens of the people who live and work in Preston.’

These changes are the result of the Preston and Lancashire City Deal. £434m has been invested in building 17,420 new homes, creating 20,000 jobs, and improving the transport infrastructure at ‘an unprecedented rate’, with the aim of boosting the local economy by ‘£1 billion over the next ten years’.

This is leading to the destruction of green spaces and an increase in urbanised areas, roads, and traffic, and will ultimately result in the individual towns and villages included into the deal becoming a single urban conglomerate with only parks and street names recalling the rural lands beneath.

The exhibition explored these issues. My display, ‘Lost Wells and Watercourses of Priest Town’, documented in photographs with historical information the sites of local wells and watercourses that dried up or were culverted during the industrial period as a consequence of the desacredisation of the landscape.

Lost Wells and Watercourses of Priest Town

A piece close to my heart was a danger-red print with poetry depicting countryside in Higher Penwortham that is threatened by the plans for Penwortham By-Pass. This was by Caitlin Akers and Phil Howard. I opposed the plans at a Penwortham Town Council meeting and found out the council objected to them too. However, their objections were over-ruled by Lancashire County Council.

Higher Penwortham - PoemHigher Penwortham - Print

Another favourite was Caroline Finnegan’s sketches and notes on leaves and berries gathered from local trees to use for medicinal and protective purposes. Each was adorned by a piece of Longridge wool ‘cleaned, dyed, spun on a tradition wheel and crocheted’. She noted Network Rail had been cutting back trees and bushes from the railway edges and this would affect what she picks in autumn.

Leaf notes with Longridge wool

Peter Harley’s poem ‘I remember when all this were fields’ was based on a saying of his father who ran a ‘one-man milk delivery service’ from their home in Deepdale. The poem provided a journey from the days his father ‘planted a pint of bovine kindness / On a donkey-stoned doorstep / For the bluetits to peck’ through to the reaper departing with the ‘rural soul’.

In ‘Future Landscapes: Lea Viaduct’ Lesley Sutkins used a ‘Humphrey Repton style overlay technique’ to give an impression of how the viaduct will appear when it has been built. Joseph Gudgeon photographed tree saplings on the ‘new multi-million pound Broughton by-pass’, describing them as ‘reminiscent of headstones, each one potentially sounding the death knell for a variety of bird and mammal species.’

Other pieces included Pete Hartley’s story ‘The Curator, an interview with anti-fracking campaigner Nick Danby, a map of Preston’s expansion between 1850 and 2018 and the Central Lancashire New Town plan (the foundation for the City Deal) provided by Charles Quick, Ruth and Ian’s video of their walk around the boundary of Preston, and paintings by John Weld from the Harris.

The most novel aspect of the exhibition was its location in one of the brand new houses on newly developed land. On entering we had to either take our shoes off or put bright blue plastic shower caps over them. The displays were set out in the living rooms and bedrooms (I was slightly disappointed to see the opportunity to put something in the toilet or hide a surprise in a cupboard was overlooked). I had a distinct sense of the old and the new rubbing up against each other and an uneasy awareness that the exhibition was made possible by the developments the artists were critiquing.

Plot 188 landing

The oddest of interactions was an installation in the garden. A speaker playing 92 bird songs recorded by John Weld, ‘an antiquary, naturalist and amateur watercolour artist’ who was a Preston resident and lived from 1813-1888, was placed on a bird table. Recordings of starlings, a greenfinch, a nightingale, sang over fenced lawns stripped of trees and bushes as habitat for birds, mingled with the cooing of a (real) woodpigeon. Next door’s washing fluttered alongside a trampoline and paddling pool.

Plot 188 garden

Walking back along the canal, one of the developments that played a role in the destruction of Preston’s sacred landscape, I saw a mother duck with nine ducklings, a nesting swan, and a weeping willow.

Willow tree Lancaster canal

Review: A Dance with Hermes by Lindsay Clarke

A Dance with HermesA Dance with Hermes is the first full poetry collection by the British novelist Lindsay Clarke. Serving as a messenger for Hermes, the winged-footed messenger god of ancient Greece, Clarke brings his myths to life in the twenty-first century in this series of masterfully crafted verses.

In his introduction, ‘A Note at the Threshold’, Clarke writes about his creative process. As a poet and polytheist I found this fascinating. The book began life as a ‘hermaion’: a ‘windfall’ or ‘god-send’ beginning with a single poem called ‘Koinos Hermes’ based on the presiding presence of Hermes in the life of his friend, John Moat. I was fascinated by this sense of gifting.

Most of the poems consist of four quatrains steering between ‘half-rhymes to suggest the elusive nature of the god’ and ‘full rhymes echoing on his sudden presence.’ Cleverly they shift between ABAB and ABBA rhymes echoing the dancing beat of Hermes’ winged feet. I admired the way Clarke allowed Hermes to lead the dance rather than attempting to force his message into a predetermined structure. Fittingly the verses accumulated like ‘hermae’ (cairns).

Clarke’s dance with Hermes begins with his conception by ‘Zeus Almighty, randy top Olympian… making secret love / to shy-eyed Maia in her mountain cave’ and leads us through his stories. I particularly enjoyed the poems evoking Hermes’ presence in the modern world.

‘Tortoise Song’ retells Hermes’ invention of the lyre. With ‘No iPods yet, no Spotify’, Hermes picks up a ‘tortoise nibbling at the grass’, ‘scoops the creature out’, makes his ‘Stratocaster’ and ‘strikes / a chord, sets generations dancing at the trick’.

In ‘He Honours the Hospitable’, which is based on ‘Baukis and Philemon’, Hermes is described as ‘a god of wayfarers’ knowing the need for ‘shelter, food and drink, a bed – / a common act of charitable B&B.’

Clarke explores the multiple roles of Hermes documented in his praise-names. I loved the sibilance of the lines ‘Psitthyristis. He’s the whisperer. / Psst!’ In ‘He Giveth Tongue’ Hermes is hailed as the inventor of the ‘polyglottal possibilities’ of language, ‘he’s the SIM card in your phone / your satnav’s voice, your texts and Twitter, webcam’.

He’s ‘The Night Visitor’ opening ‘the hidden regions where our dreams reside’, a friendly psychopomp stealing ‘fear and grief’ and Mercurius Duplex ‘the agent of transformation’ in an alchemical journey through Nigredo, Albedo, Coniunctio, and Rubedo.

Whilst Hermes shifts through many guises I was struck by the way he is consistently portrayed as a trickster god with an abiding sense of justice. When he steals Apollo’s cattle he says, ‘All property / is theft: these might as well be mine.’ In ‘He’s Rated Triple A’ ‘Access All Areas’ he is a ‘god of boundaries’ and ‘guide to legal or illegal immigrants,’ who feels ‘profound contempt / for human meanness, and our silent shame’ when children drown fleeing war. This stuck with me as a part of Hermes’ personality he wanted Clarke to portray.

The most powerful part of the book, for me, was when Clarke shifted from poetry about Hermes to a more personal prayer addressing him directly as a psychopomp at the end of the envoi:

And so, Lord of the Threshold, deathless friend
who guides us into the Otherworld . . . O keep
me loyal to the soul that wakes in sleep,
and lead me gently homewards at my end.

In this subtle dance between the ancient and modern Clarke succeeds in his aim to show us that Hermes does not only reside in archaic myths, but is ‘dancing about us everywhere these days’.

*A Dance with Hermes can be purchased from Awen Publications HERE.

Review: When We Are Vanished by Nimue Brown

42497_original_9dfb889b-31ef-4c08-803a-a044d1cf1a21_largeNimue Brown is a Druid author based in Stroud. I’ve enjoyed a number of her publications on Paganism and Druidry and her Bardic poetry books. When We Are Vanished is the first of her works of fiction I have got my hands on. It is a speculative mystery novel set in a not-so-distant future where hackers have shut down the global computer network to bring an end to ‘war, finance and government’. When the book opens, the system is in its death throes. Job centres, the police force and scientific laboratories are just about hanging on, relying on new ‘cellulose tech’, which has a mind of its own and a wicked sense of humour. And people are vanishing, suddenly, inexplicably, from the outskirts of civilisation one by one…

At the core of the story is a family: a father who has vanished; three sisters at various stages of vanishing named Kim, Epona and Maria; and their mother, Amanda, who is struggling to deal with it all. The character who I connected with most was the intelligent, erratic Epona. On several occasions her connections with her namesake, the Gallo-Roman horse goddess and psychopomp, are subtly referenced. For example, a computer screen run on the tricksy cellulose tech reads, ‘Eponine Matthews will tell you she is made of chalk’ (referencing the White Horse of Uffington). ‘Tell her to go home and not show her long face again.’ More deeply, Epona is the user of a technical device which allows her to plug into other realities, relating to the horse goddess’s movement between worlds. As I followed the plot, I was intrigued by how this would play out. It did not turn out how I expected!

Nimue has worked extensively with dreams and this shows throughout the book. Its twists and turns and much of the language evoke the non-logic of the dreamworld; metaphorical, absurdly funny, frightening, exquisitely beautiful. As Kim vanishes, ‘Meanings floated away from her. Fish, fish, fish. Sounds like wish… Set the wish fish swimming into the skies. Wish fish, wish fish and if you stare at the clouds for long enough, they would vanish too… She feels threadbare, a word too often repeated. A cloud stared out of the sky.’ Kim’s reflections on time also touch on the mystical. A recurring scene that haunted me was the one pictured on the front cover, ‘yellow dresses and ancestral women made of twigs, turning in a tight circle dance.’

When We Are Vanished succeeds in combining the numinous with an implicit critique of the flaws of our current civilisation: our over-reliance on technology and an inhuman system, our misplaced faith in irritating and badly written self-help books, the impossibility of shutting out wild nature and our wild selves, and the illusion that this world is the only reality. I would recommend it to readers who enjoy a plot rich in references to mythology, folklore and fairytales with surprising twists and to those who are fascinated by the possibilities of future worlds and other realities. As the illusion of liberal democracy slowly melts away from the Western world and alternatives awaken, the situation evoked does not feel far off…

You can purchase When We Are Vanished HERE.

Words of Re-Enchantment by Anthony Nanson reviewed on Gods & Radicals

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I have recently reviewed Anthony Nanson’s Words of Re-Enchantment: Writings on Stotytelling, Myth, and Ecological Desire ‘a valuable repository of wisdom on storytelling written by a passionate and knowledgeable guide with a deep love of the natural world and a keen understanding of contemporary environmental and political concerns’ on the Gods & Radicals website HERE.

Review: ‘Brigantia: Goddess of the North’ by Sheena McGrath

BrigantiaBrigantia: Goddess of the North is a short e-book (81 pages long) by Sheena McGrath. As far as I am aware it is the first book to focus on Brigantia as an individual northern British goddess; there are many books about Brigit which cover her relationship with Brigantia but none, until now, focusing on Brigantia alone.

Our information about Brigantia is limited to seven Romano-British inscriptions, one (or maybe two) statues and the writings of the Roman historian, Tacitus, who records the tribal name of the Brigantes ‘High Ones’ of whom Brigantia is believed to be the tutelary goddess. I live in Lancashire and have experienced Brigantia’s presence on the West Pennine Moors. I’ve researched her background but never investigated the context of her dedications. This is where Sheena’s work excels and provides an original contribution to scholarship on Brigantia.

One of the most fascinating things Sheena reveals is that several of the inscriptions and the famous statue from Birrens date to around the time the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus lived in Britain (208 – 211CE). His base was at Eboracum (York). The Severans played a central role in shaping the Roman cult of Brigantia.

This is evidenced not only by the dates but by Brigantia’s identification with Caelisti and pairing with Jupiter Dolichenus in one of the inscriptions. Septimus was of African origin. He and his wife brought their deities to Britain. One of them was Tanit, an African goddess who was venerated by the Romans as Dea Caelistis. Another was the Romano-Syrian Jupiter Dolichenus. This inscription results from Brigantia’s assimilation into the Imperial cult. The statue borrows attributes from Caelisti and Juno (Jupiter’s consort) as well as Minerva, Victory and Fortuna. Sheena also examines the political motivations behind the inscriptions pairing Brigantia with Victory.

In the later part of the book, Sheena discusses what can be conjectured about Brigantia’s role as the goddess of the Brigantes tribes. She focuses in particular on Tacitus’ account of the Roman invasion of Britain and the conflict between Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes, and her husband, Venutius. One idea (unfamiliar to me) is that Cartimandua was an exile from south. This explains why she favoured peace with the Romans whereas her husband was hostile toward them. Another consideration is the possibility of a ‘special relationship’ between Cartimandua as Queen of the Brigantes and Brigantia as their sovereign goddess,

Brigantia provides a detailed and enticing examination of the context of Brigantia’s worship in ancient British and Romano-British culture. I’ve been learning about Brigantia for over five years and there were many facts I was unaware of and points I will be researching further. Sheena also provides an extensive bibliography. I would recommend this book as an excellent starting point for all polytheists wanting to learn about Brigantia from a scholarly perspective and to students of Celtic and Roman history and religion.

You can purchase a copy of Brigantia HERE.

*I reviewed this book as a PDF so cannot comment on how it looks or reads on an e-book reader.