Sunday, 17 December 2017

Review: Embracing the Darkness by Dr John Callow

At the longest nights of the year, when even the moon is absent from the nocturnal sky, embrace the darkness... Pick up a copy of John Callow's new book and read about tales of witchcraft and persecution, pour over pictures of sorceries past and venture into the wild woods where myths and legends grow.

Embracing the Darkness by John Callow is about witchcraft beliefs as shown in popular culture from Classical times to the 20th century. It is the most interesting book on witchcraft I have read this year. That's is high praise because I also read Ronald Hutton's latest book on witchcraft this year, and that was brilliant.

As the subtitle says, it is a cultural history of witchcraft. It is about the stories, art, poetry, films and other forms of popular media that have influenced and been influenced by beliefs about witchcraft.

I heard John callow speak about Isobel Gowdie at the London Fortean Society's conference on the Haunted Landscape last month. It was a fascinating talk based on one of the chapters from his book, about how a Scottish woman's four confessions to magistrates in 1662 led to various novels, songs and books on folklore. Many of these embellished or changed the scant facts we can find out from historical research and have gone on to influence modern pagan witchcraft practices.

John is giving a lecture based on another chapter at Treadwell's in London in January. The talk is called Urbain Grandier the Witch: History, Literature and Film. It looks at the horrific 1634 witch trial of  Loudon's Urbain Grandier, the events surrounding which included multiple public exorcisms of supposedly demon-ridden nuns. The dramatic events attracted generations of  writers and film makers including Alexander Dumas, Aldous Huxley, Ken Russell and Derek Jarman.

The last chapter in Embracing the Darkness looks at the myths, legend, folklore, fiction and film surrounding Herne the Hunter, including the 1980s TV series Robin of Sherwood - much loved by many modern pagans of that era.

Publisher IB Tauris says on its website:
From the Salem witch trials to the macabre novels of Dennis Wheatley; from the sadistic persecution of eccentric village women to the seductive sorceresses of TV's Charmed; and from Derek Jarman's punk film Jubilee to Ken Russell's The Devils, John Callow brings the twilight world of the witch, mage and necromancer to vivid and fascinating life. He takes us into a shadowy landscape where, in an age before modern drugs, the onset of sudden illness was readily explained by malevolent spellcasting. And where dark, winding country lanes could terrify by night, as the hoot of an owl or shriek of a fox became the desolate cries of unseen spirits.Witchcraft has profoundly shaped the western imagination, and endures in the forms of modern-day Wicca and paganism. Embracing the Darkness is an enthralling account of this fascinating aspect of the western cultural experience.
What I particularly liked about the book is that it is beautifully written as well as painstakingly researched. John's evocative writing style brings to life each episode from the history of witchcraft as well as giving you the facts. He is also very sympathetic towards modern pagans, showing that fiction really is just as important as fact when dealing with the power of myth, magic and the imagination.

You can view Embracing the Darkness: A Cultural History of Witchcraft on Amazon and also order buy copies at Treadwell's bookshop.

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