Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth
In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.
"Lord of the Beasts": An Interview with the Witch of Forest Green
In Which Our Intrepid Blogger Speaks with Artist, Herbalist, and Witch-at-Large
Sarah Anne Lawless Concerning Her Ground-Breaking Print, Lord of the Beasts,
and Sundry Other Matters
Sarah, who is the Horned to you?
The Horned Ones to me are the great spirits of the wild lands and forests. They are not male or female, but both and neither. In the lore of animistic cultures around the world and through time there always seems to be a male or female spirit, or one of each, that is the guardian or protector of a particular forest or land mass and who is Lord or Lady of all the flora and fauna that dwell within it. Their horns are a weapon as much as they are a crown, and symbol of power and otherworldly knowledge.
The gender given to the spirit seems to depend completely upon the folklore and storytelling of the local peoples. Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, they are mostly known simply as Old Man and Old Woman, but are not a couple. They are believed to be ancient people who walked into the other world instead of dying and became the first shamans. Over time perhaps they became indistinguishable from the land spirit, and then later associated with the spirit itself, becoming its human form and voice. Perhaps the spirit ate them and absorbed them on purpose to become intermediaries between the nature spirits and humans.
These guardians seem to be master shape-shifters who can take on any form and size. They are frightening, they are eaters of humans and eaters of souls, and they are not full of love and hugs. They are wild, they are wise and powerful, and they are empathetic to nature and not to human kind.
Those who are lucky or foolish enough to strike up communion with them can learn much from them and gain great knowledge and power. But they can also drive you mad or eat you up on a whim if displeased. They can be the panic in Pan, the hunter-killing hags of Scotland, the man-eating Slavic Rusalki, the deadly trickster, and the darkest side of nature’s wrath.
Do you have a favorite Old Hornie story?
I have noticed over the years at large group rituals that whenever someone sees Pan or a Pan-like spirit, ecstatic ritual lasting hours and hours will soon follow. I saw him ride a young man at a Midsummer ritual by the ocean during an outstanding recitation of Crowley’s Hymn to Pan. He danced, light-footed, around and around the circle of people, wearing nothing but a kilt, full of mischief and glee and taunts until everyone was dancing and drumming. It turned into an epic eight-hour drum circle lasting well after sunset and is still a legend in town.
Friends spotted the horned creature in the woods at the local Pagan festival one year and that night my best friend and I instigated an ecstatic witches’ sabbat completely by accident which led to six hours of drumming, dancing, singing the Horned God-invoking har hou chant, drinking mead, and applying flying ointments until the participants were all going into trance and having visions.
Sounds like the real thing, all right. So, what was the genesis of Lord of the Beasts?
I had long desired to do illustrations of my own vision of the Horned Ones, a male version and a female version. I was only ever able to complete the Lord. So one day, I simply sat down with my supplies and drew him with pencil, black ink, and my favourite water colour pencils. Lord of the Beasts was drawn quickly and finished in one afternoon.
One of the striking things about the image is its expansion of traditional Lord of the Beasts imagery: specifically, the identification with the Tree, the tattoos, and the presence of non-traditional animals. I'm particularly struck by your decision to depict His three major Faces as Owl, Boar, and Wolf rather than the more standard horned animals. Clearly this depicts the Horned as Master of Animals generally, not just prey animals. Could you elaborate?
The imagery is pulled from folklore, folk tales, and mythology from around the world. There seems to always be a god that is a tree, a god with an animal’s head, and a god with three faces. The faces are those of the devil in European lore during the witch trials and are highly inspired by R. Lowe Thompson’s classic 1929 work The History of the Devil: The Horned God of the West.
I can't believe there's a book about the Devil that I not only haven't read, but have never even heard of before: thanks! So, while deeply traditional in many ways, the image departs in some details from the tradition as well. Why bull's horns rather than ram's on the serpents? Why does he grasp the serpents by the tails rather than the necks?
The antlers are for the oldest version of the god when we were herders of deer and the bull horns are for more recent times when we became herders of cows instead. If I ever did a future version I think I would add goat horns as well. My altar is a full rack of deer antlers layered with bull horns, goat horns, and ram horns.
The imagery of the horned serpent is also found worldwide. I tried to make their horns not look like any creature in particular, but demonic instead. He isn’t grasping them by the necks as I didn’t want the piece to be a carbon copy of one culture’s image. In some lore, he is the horned serpent, and so there is no need to show him dominating them. I wanted their heads to be pointing down towards the underworld.
Whereas Wicca as a tradition is largely textually defined, Old Craft seems to be majorly defined, in the absence of a Book of Shadows, by its visual aesthetic instead. To mention only some, the work of Nigel Jackson, Andrew Chumbley, Daniel Schulke, and Gemma Gary are characterized by a certain Old Craft 'look' shared by your own work, so that art becomes one of the major vectors by which Old Craft culture is transmitted. Jackson, whose books Call of the Horned Piper and Masks of Misrule are two of the major expositions of contemporary Old Craft, has gone down on record as saying that the books' pictures are actually more important than their text. This seems to me very tribal, very right. Any thoughts?
Here is where I confess that I do not read any of those authors and am not inspired by them. I like the black and white occult aspects of Schulke and Gary’s artwork that I have seen, but have never read Nigel Jackson’s books or seen his artwork. I think this confession perhaps proves your point that the imagery may be coming from the depths of the tribal mind. When we connect to something ancient it makes sense to me that it would take form in imagery and symbolism; the oldest form of communication.
The tattoos! They're so right. At our last Midwest Grand Sabbat, painter Paul Rucker based his design for the god's body-paint on the arm- and leg-rings in Lord of the Beasts. How did they become part of the piece?
The tattoos are inspired by the ones found on the Pazyryk mummies and ancient pottery; simple animal forms and geometric patterns. I had the moon tattoos done on my wrists because of this image. To me the animal tattoos represent clan animals and/or familiar spirits and the eye and geometric tattoos are mainly apotropaic.
Content aside, what gives something a 'witchy' look?
Aesthetics definitely change over time, but right now I would say skulls and bones, anthropomorphic imagery, alchemical imagery, the usual “creepy” animals and insects associated with witches (i.e. snakes, toads, spiders, crows, and owls), and any traditional occult and talismanic symbols such as eyes, sigils, runes, etc.
I like to include poisonous plants and plants associated with witchcraft and magic in my illustrations. My current passion/obsession is drawing dead things and poisonous plants, but I would also like to one day have time to do some pieces with local plants as well.
Lord of the Beasts is no longer available as a print. Any chance of a reprint? A successor? A series?
I don’t currently offer my older colour prints in the shop. It’s a neurotic artist thing. I know they are not my best work and that I can do better so I’d rather offer my newer illustrations instead. I really didn’t like the hands of Lord of the Beasts and think some of the elements could’ve have been more detailed since it was a rushed job.
I would love to redo him in black and white and think it would make a pretty badass t-shirt. It would also be great to finally get to illustrate the female version of the Horned One. I have a fantastic book called Lady of the Beasts: The Goddess and Her Sacred Animals by Buffie Johnson which is full of imagery from cultures throughout the ages and it’s incredibly inspiring.
Sign me up for the t-shirt, definitely. So, you're (congratulations!) a new mother. Sleep deprivation aside, how do you see this impacting the Craft as you practice it?
Thank you! The sleep deprivation actually leads to some pretty crazy and magical dreams and is a constant, if very strange, altered state that can be handy for divination. It’s not so pleasant though (to put it mildly). The biggest impact on a new mom’s magical life is the lack of time for the witchy goodness. I have less or no time to do as much ceremony and magic at home and none to go out to rituals or travel to events. Crafting ritual tools and talismans was also a big part of my work and I am not able to do so right now as the wee one and my occult shop take up all my time. I know this will change as he gets older, so it’s a matter of patience right now.
In hindsight, it would’ve been smarter to find a place for my altar elsewhere not in my bedroom where the baby sleeps too, so I can use it at night when he is asleep. Right now it’s more of a spirit shrine that gets offerings of water, food, and flowers than it is the working altar it once was. If I were smart, I would create a temporary altar I could roll up in one my hides to pull out and set up when he’s asleep. Now that I’ve said it, I will have to do it!
Tricky things, words. Any final thoughts?
I think if we witches are going to call ourselves spirit workers we should be working with some local spirits instead/on top of ones across an ocean. I wish I had the quote from Robert Kirk, but in his treatise on the unseen folk he states his belief that a seer's magic comes from the land and its spirits, the fey and the ancestors, and that this is why it takes immigrants to the New World generations to regain their ancestors' magical powers. It has always made much sense to me.
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