Society of Esoteric Endeavour, 2013 Hardback 25cm x 20cm, numbered limited edition of 180 copies, 106pp
The author translated 37 manuscripts books known as “Svartkonstbuchs” (i.e., black art book) which Scandanavian practitioners of folk magic were expected to possess. This work collects together all those charms and rituals dealing with spirits of the dead and human bones, with the addition of some other relevant material. What emerges is a remarkably coherent and straightforward system that can be simply described:-
- Practitioners were solitary, they could be self initiated into dealings with the dead by means of performance on one of a number of rituals given here. The Dead were then entreated or conjoured, usually with payment, to serve the practitioner. They were particularly suited to certain kinds of workings:-
- Being now beyond pain, the Dead were called upon relieve the living of their suffering.
- Seeing beyond the physical, they could be asked to detect thieves and torment them into confession, or else set the stillness of the upon them, transfixing the miscreant. Curiously, the practitioner would not be able to punish or even berate the criminal thus held. All that can be done is to order the thief’s release, unmasking being the only permitted sanction.
- The Dead could be required to communicate the stillness of death to people, or animals, the latter to assist hunting.
- They might be used for hexing, communicating death, illness or insanity to the victim.
- They can be instructed to protect the practitioner, their client or property.
- The Dead, being beyond time, can be called upon to predict the future for the purpose of gambling. And they can influence the roll of dice etc.
- They can also assist with hunting by conferring lethality to ammunition and assisting with aim.
- The spirits of the Dead, being invisible, can share this power with the practitioner
- A spirit of the Dead can be held in a box or bottle, or exchanged for a rune stone, so as to be handy to assist the practitioner.
- By passing through Death in the form of a belt made of a corpse’s skin or sinew, the practitioner may transform into animal form
- The practitioner must always return the bone, and therefore the spirit, to the churchyard.
The author provides an Afterword, describing the practitioners (generally called “Wise Ones” or specifically “Graveyard Wanderers” when performing bone magic). They were not pagan, they called upon the Holy Trinity to control spirits of Christians buried in churchyards. But their path was deeply amoral. People expected them to be able to heal and hex. Black art books were expected to have charms to kill and to cure. Some of the charms are extreme and very shocking. Some are poetic, an elegant marriage of word and deed powered by their transgressive nature -- reminiscent of extreme performance art. Some practitioners were respected members of the community; others lived on the margins of society - squatting in huts in the forest and living by poaching. Like much African Diaspora folk magic (and the material is strikingly akin to hoodoo), some Swedish Wise Ones operated magic of resistance, whereby those denied conventional power utilised magic and its glamours to carve out a reasonable life. As is to be expected, such occult practice tends towards savagery, and the text gives accounts of damage done to farmers who dared to inform upon a poacher, or cheat an itinerant horseman. There is some overlap with the folk magic preserved in French and Italian grimoires. However, the fact that they were never published in Scandinavia, suggests that we are seeing different tips of the same sunken iceberg of pan-European folk magic culture, more clearly preserved in Sweden because of higher rates of literacy and the vibrancy of the Black Art Book tradition. Also, as the Twentieth century progressed, and their communities’ belief waned, some Wise Ones sensed their time was passing, and’ lest knowledge be lost, passed their black books and gave accounts to Sweden’s folklorists, though they felt and wrote that by doing so, they would lose their magic powers.
The existence of a folk magic tradition that is clandestine, coherent and transgressive, and that was active well into the Twentieth century in a western European country is startling given the usual results of academic research into the mythic history of modern witches and pagans. That their practice should be recorded by themselves, in writing, all the more so. It also means we can really grasp what they were about. The Graveyard Wanderers were what they were. And that does not fit easily under modern labels. They utilised the Holy Trinity, though in a manner that would officially be regarded as delinquent. There are no deities of the dead, as might be imagined. This was not a Fraternity, like the British Bonesmen; their initiation was solitary and a woman - just as much as a man - could become a Wise One and a Graveyard Wanderer. Indeed, some of the most memorable were women – no wonder as one had the habit of stuffing fur into her eyes so that it protruded from between the lids and eye-balls; to give her gaze eerie effect. Whilst their initiation and practice was solitary, the Wise Ones were keenly aware of each other as potentially, either useful sources of further magical teachings or rivals, even magical foes.
The Physical Manifestation of the Book
Printed on 180 gsm Fabriano Ingres, a real laid paper, whereby the textures are natural product of the pulp on wire mesh frames rather than being artificially embossed with a pretend texture. The covers are bound in leather cloth, a binding material that is 85% real leather and a sheet of copper, formed into skeletal hands. The Wise Ones would pay for the services of the Dead by leaving in place of the bone, a piece of metal in the form of a coin or a scraping from a church bell. Metal is an ideal vehicle for the transmission of deathliness, Coffin nails were recovered, sometimes to be entwined with horseshoe nails by a smith evoking infernal beings, and put to magical use. Needles employed to sew a corpse into its shroud were likewise sought after. Some of the charms in this book derive from the black art book of a smith, nestling amongst mundane recipes for the working of metals. But then metal is the zenith of man’s art. It’s mutability to will and permanence makes it ideal for coin, offerings to the dead, and for holding the form of skeletal hands in the binding of this book, so the reader feels the shape of dead fingers interlaced with their own. Bones are the part of us that persist after decay, and here the copper that forms their shape has been patonised, whereby the natural oxidation process is accelerated and stabilised. The result are iridescent colours, an effect referred to as the “peacock’s tail” in alchemy, where it is identified with the stage of decay in the Great Work. The patonised copper is then preserved with lacquer.
Looking at the fingers, the reader’s eye may glimpse an optical illusion. Look awry and the bony fingers appear as valleys instead of standing proud, a visual ambiguity fit for the liminal space between the worlds of the living and the Dead, a recurring aspect of the rituals. It is also resonant with the amoral path of the Wise Ones.
Whether skeletal bones or living flesh every hand is unique. The gloriously unpredictable nature of the process, the form of creases in the copper sheet and the hand contouring to the background makes ever hand, likewise, unique. This variation has been embraced, with great variation in colours and some copies having uncontoured backgrounds. Each created together, so, broadly, the appearance of each pair of hands on a book do match. The handmade nature of each copy has been reinforced by deliberately assembling the components by eye, rather than measurement. The resultant, mostly imperceptibly, variations giving each copy an organic, handmade feel.
The black cloth is lettered in white as there is a tradition within the corpus that is how a black art book should look. Curiously, the same tradition occurs regarding some talismans is found in the folk magic preserved in the French grimoires. The sense of this tradition is unclear, though an observation based on handling copies of this book is that white letters on a black background can be discerned more clearly in half-light, perhaps appropriate for night time rituals in churchyards.
The endpapers are specially commissioned, handmade decorated pastepaper. Decorated pastepaper endpapers predated and continued to be used alongside marbled paper into Victorian times, but are rarely employed now. Here the process produces amorphous, chaotic swirls which have skeletal fingers clawing through them.
Each copy is hand numbered by a calligrapher.