Sunday 12 August 2018

Witchcraft: Making a Terry Pratchett-Style Shamble

I've always thought there was quite a bit of true magical insight in Terry Pratchett's portraying of witchcraft. Yesterday I made a shamble following  instructions at an exhibition at the Maidstone Museum - Paul Kidby: Discworld and Beyond.

Paul Kidby was the illustrator of Terry’s Discworld books. Much of the exhibition shows his illustrations for the novels - which are gorgeous and also heavily influenced by British folklore.

However, my favourite part was a shamble tree (pictured right) - and anyone who goes there can learn how to make one to add to the display.

Shambles first appear in The Wee Free Men, which I admit I haven't read yet. According to both mediawiki and the description at the Maidstone exhibition:
A shamble (also called a shambles) is a handmade device used by witches to detect or amplify magic. It can even be used for protection or to send a spell. The device itself is not magical. Shambles are like spectacles, they help you see, but don't see for you. A conversant witch can assemble a shamble in a matter of seconds using stuff like strings, twigs, leaves, feathers, beads, coloured paper, an egg or even a beetle. The whole thing looks like a "cat's cradle", or some sort of nest made of rubbish. The ingredients are not really important, although the centre should contain a live ingredient (e.g. an egg or a beetle.

The magic lies in its assembly and use, which is to catch the moment. "The way you tie the knots," said Miss Level, who was a Research Witch, "the way the string runs - the freshness of the egg, perhaps, and the moisture in the air - the tension of the twigs and the kind of things that you just happen to have in your pocket at that moment - even the way the wind is blowing. All these things make a kind of... of picture of the here-and-now when you move them right."
Now, that might be fictional magic, but it makes sense to me. When I create or enchant an object for spells or rituals - whether for candle magic, poppet-making or anything else - I often use whatever I have to hand rather than going out and buying things specially. I also believe most of the magic comes from the witch herself and the energy raised. Physical things are mainly just a focus.

The witch who trained me explained that all magic does is tweak the threads of the Web of Life. So, anything using string or wool is a perfect representation of that. The other objects you incorporate can have traditional symbolism - a four-leaf clover for luck, for example - or they can relate to the place, time and those who are with you.

At Paul Kidby: Discworld and Beyond, these were the instructions to make a shamble:
  • See what items or fluff you have in your handbag or pocket or use stuff from the box
  • Tie two sticks for your main frame
  • Use the string to tie all your bits to the twigs
  • Hang your shamble from the tree
I only found a hair elastic in my pocket, which I wrapped around my twigs and tied to the tree. You might be able to see it about two-thirds of the way up in the photo at the top right.

If you do make a shamble, please don't leave it tied to any living tree outdoors without permission of the tree and its human owner. Plastic and other artificial fibres don't rot away and can be a hazard to wildlife as well as eventually harming the tree itself.

Another interesting fact is that the young witch Tiffany Aching had a shepherd's crown hanging from her shamble. This was used in the title of Terry Pratchett's last book. Shepherd's crowns are fossils of sea-urchins. Real-life witch Doreen Valiente also prized them highly. She collected them on walks in Sussex and made them into a necklace, which she wore when practising magic.

Paul Kidby: Discworld and Beyond runs until Sunday 2 September at Maidstone Museum, St Faith's Street, Maidstone, Kent, ME14 1LH. Tickets are adults £4, children £2.

Links and previous related posts


Elli said...

I was doing some research and came across your blog. And to my surprise, I think you're the person who asked me at the museum whether they could take photos of the shambles for their blog! What a lovely coincidence if that's the case!

I like the run down on how shambles work, there's so much we can take on from Pratchett's works, regardless if they're fictional. There's so much heart in them. I assumed their purpose (and inspiration) is meant to be similar to that of the ladder, and use left to the witch's interpretation.

Badwitch said...

Yes, shambles do look a bit like some witches' ladders, don't they? I can see that they could serve the same function.

Thanks so much for leaving a comment - how lovely that you remembered me asking if I could take a photo!

I agree we can take a lot from Pratchett's writing. He definitely did his research - and, I believe, knew a few real life witches too.

Anne in Colorado said...

Hi -- These are actually in the second Tiffany Aching book -- A Hat Full of Sky -- rather than in Wee Free Men which is the first in the her story arc. I ended up on your blog because I'm trying to figure out whether this is something Sir Terry Knew about (like Tiffany being a name used in the Middle Ages) or something he made up to tell this story. They strike me as related to dream catchers (and not the commercial versions).

Badwitch said...

Hi Anne, thanks for the correction about which book they appear in. Terry did really know some people who were witches - he knew the HPS who ran the coven I was in. However, I'm not sure where he got the shambles concept from. It is great though, isn't it?