History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

Want to know about real magic from history? This is the place. Here we explore primary texts and historical accounts from the past.

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Kate Laity

Kate Laity

K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.

Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Virgin Scrying?

Did you know that it was once thought advantageous to use virgins for scrying? While crystal balls are probably the most common form of scrying known now, and maybe second to that mirrors (you probably know John Dee's famous mirror). But other reflective surfaces have been used, including onychomancy (divination by a polished fingernail).

Claire Fanger makes a good argument for the late medieval link between scrying and summoning spirits. While summoning angels and binding demons might appear on the surface to be completely different skill sets or activities, clearly the two are easily linked because of the cosmological outlook both share:

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Precious Nature

While I usually spend my time in more distant history, I have found myself lately digging into early twentieth century pagan writings like Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willows (which I wrote about here: Nettles & Mugwort) and just recently Mary Webb's classic Precious Bane. While often connected to Thomas Hardy due to both the time period and geography they share, Webb has a much more inspiring view of nature and a generous view toward her fellow humans.

Telling the story of Prue Sarn, Webb explores many of the traditions the writer knew well from her childhood, practices that included everything from sin eating to mummers at Christmas. And she offers one of the most beautiful pieces of transcendent writing about the power of nature in Prue's moment of enlightenment. She has hid herself in the attic of their old farm house, not long after the death of her father, because her brother made her realise that her 'bane' was a terrible thing. She was born with a cleft palate, known then as a 'harelip' because it was believed, a hare spooked by the devil had crossed her pregnant mother's path, cursing her.

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Witches Do Not Bend*

Allow me a moment's irritation that this persistent misinformation continues to get shared. The 'witch' of witch hazel or witch elm is *not* that witch. This is the Proto-IndoEuropean root *weik

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Picatrix

I'm delighted that a long-anticipated book is out at last! The Picatrix: A Medieval Treatise on Astral Magic has been long in production for the Penn State Magic in History line. As a member of Societas Magica I have seen bits of the work in progress which tantalised. From the blurb:

A manual for constructing talismans, mixing magical compounds, summoning planetary spirits, and determining astrological conditions, Picatrix is a cornerstone of Western esotericism. It offers important insights not only into occult practices and beliefs but also into the transmission of magical ideas from antiquity to the present. Dan Attrell and David Porreca’s English translation opens the world of this vital medieval treatise to modern-day scholars and lay readers.

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham says #
    What other titles are in tis series?
  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity says #
    Click the link to the publisher to see them all.

Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Plough Monday Play

The liturgical calendar was essential in the medieval age but a lot of the older agricultural time markers found their place within it: Plough Monday was the Monday following the Epiphany (AKA The Twelfth Day of Christmas). One of the tradition associated with the day was another type of folk play. The existing plays are all from the northeast of England, but the tradition may have been more widely practised. Chambers tells us that the performers called themselves, 'Plough Jacks, Plough Jags...Plough Witchers and Morris Dancers' and woe betide the churl who turned them from his door, for they would plough up the ground before his door.

Like Mumming for the New Year, there was usually a mock battle and a healing, but there was an additional elements: sometimes the recruiting sergeant but most often, the Fool's Wooing. It was the last chance for a party as Plough Monday meant a return to work after the yuletide holidays. The Fool's Wooing gave an opportunity for fun and his wedding an excuse to ask for food and drink.

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Mumming for the New Year

Mumming was long a popular entertainment for the dark time of the year. The Christmas and New Years or Hogmanay plays offered adventures, dragons and Saint George and other wild characters -- Turkish Knights or Kings became popular after the Crusades. They offered an opportunity for hijinks, costumes and ritual of course. But they had another important theme, too.

At heart the plays were about healing.

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Nature of the Four Elements

When you say 'medieval drama' people generally think of mystery and morality plays. Mystery plays, after all, are how many people in the later Middle Ages knew their bible stories. In addition to the colourful paintings on church walls, they were probably the most vivid information they had about what Christianity was meant to be all about. The comic approaches may surprise you if you've not encountered them before. Noah's wife has to be dragged onto the arc because she didn't want to leave her friends. Then there's the thief who tried to disguise a hidden lamb as a newborn babe; the suspicious shepherds think it's an ugly baby but they don't catch on at first that it's the lost sheep they're looking for. The morality plays are more generalised but have characters that embody good and bad qualities like Mercy. Mischief and Mankind. 

But between the Middle Ages and Shakespeare's time there are many other kinds of plays, from adventurous episodes in Robin Hood's life (all probably more entertaining than the new film) to seasonal mummings to more philosophical works. One of these is John Rastell's Nature of the Four Elements which may well appeal to folks here. The play is dated to about 1517-18. The one surviving copy is imperfect, but it gives an interesting insight into how people conceived of the four elements and their effects on the natural world.

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