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Magic and Science

As advertised, this month’s workshop is going to be on the elements. I’ve known about the elements as long as I can remember – growing up they were featured in the films I saw (Flight of Dragons), the cartoons I watched (Captain Planet) and the books I read (pretty much every other Point Fantasy I devoured). Needless to say the periodic table came as a bit of a shock to the system but since I more or less approached Chemistry as a potions class (in a pre-Harry Potter world mind you, and much to the amusement of my teacher) I did alright on that side of things. I never really wanted or needed to reconcile the two – school was school, and magic was magic.

Theory and Practice
Since then I’ve known plenty of scientists who were on spiritual paths incorporating magic (or the other way around, depending on how you look at it) with no deep-seated conflict between the two. The go-to argument for most in the magical community when challenged with ye olde “magic can’t be proved scientifically” line is ye equally olde faithful “maybe magic is just something science can’t explain yet“. Objectively this makes total sense – after all, the earth was once flat and the sun went around it and sickness was caused by ill humours (or possibly foul demons). And I’ve been spieling it off by rote myself for years. “Think of what we knew 100 years ago, and then think about what we might know 100 years from now”.

In the last couple of weeks though I finally got round to watching the adaptation of Genius, a biography of Albert Einstein – not my normal fare, but the cast was too delectable to resist. And I have to say that, aside from the comprehensively outstanding performances (Samantha Colley really stole it for me, exceptional) the thing that most struck me was the realisation of how much of the scientific fact I had been taught as a given was nothing but wild (and very unpopular) speculation not so long ago. That a lot of the truths we base our ongoing pursuit of (scientific) knowledge on were inferred, unproven and considered unprovable, glimpsed only fleetingly and intangibly through their effect on other more observable dynamics. Just enough to cause question, to inspire faith, to drive discovery. Eerily familiar, no?

The quest for knowledge comes in all shapes and forms, but I think has more in common than in difference. I would love to see a day, a world, where we can harmonise all our truths, but in the meantime I think accepting that all of our journeys are uniquely important and learning from our mutual discoveries can only be of benefit.

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Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Well, it’s been a funny ol’ week (and a bit), that’s for sure. Last Monday I had the unusual but undeniably enjoyable delight of making huge batches of play-doh (and a lot of mess) for Thursday’s Talismania workshop. As mentioned in previous blogs, practical crafty stuff has a tendency to not work out particularly well for me but fortunately this was largely fool-proof (or, at least I had the sense to wear a pinny and have a wet cloth to hand). The point is, we were all going to have a go at making a very basic talisman of some variety at the end and, since I’d be putting everyone on the spot a bit, I would need to have a clear idea of what I wanted to make, and how, and why, as an accessible example based on all the aspects we’d be discussing. This put me in a quandary – I’m very selective about my own practical magic, but at the same time I did want to do something ‘real’ and meaningful, not just a throwaway token gesture. What was I going to do? What did I want to fix? Make better? Attract? Repel? Normally of course this wouldn’t be a forced process, you would have the inspiration in order to want to make the talisman and not the other way around. But the more I started thinking about it (and something that was raised as a cautionary note in the workshop) I realised that I could pretty easily think of at least half a dozen things I could quite happily want or need a talisman for at any given time. It would be very easy to get carried away.

The day after the workshop, on Friday, my spidey-senses were tingling. It happens intermittently and, while I frequently don’t know the cause, I know enough to pay attention to it. It was fairly persistent and unsettling so I drew a tarot card to try to get to the bottom of it, again, something else I very rarely do as it can quickly become habit-forming.

…But Deliver Us From Ignorance

In this case, it gave me just enough to put my mind at rest a bit and let me get on with my day feeling a little more settled. It was a good thing. This time. Surrounded by all of this knowledge, all of these options, all of these practices and paths it would be very easy to want to ‘fix’ things with magic all the time – daily readings, weekly castings, monthly rituals ‘just because’ (something else I’ve touched on before). I was also particularly taken by Nimue Brown’s blog on the implications of the notion of magically fixing things. For myself, I worry that once magic stops becoming a tool (for want of a better term) and starts becoming a crutch it stops being effective (which is not the same as to say it necessarily stops working). I worry about reducing it to a series of actions only used to achieve narrow, specific objectives, rather than as a rich and diverse exploration of ideas and information and, yes, spirituality which will provide much greater overall benefit than any incantation or charm.

So while I’m always happy to help, and advise, and discuss, I will almost always advocate the path over the practice – finding your own way, which can sometimes just as much be about what you choose not to apply as what you do and learning as much as you can even where the relevance does not seem obvious – revelations can come from the strangest of places and it’s not always a case of better the devil you know!

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Bring on the Apocalypse

Last week I squeeeeee’d with delight (repeatedly, at length and at a pitch painful to human hearing) about the speculation and subsequent confirmation that the lead roles of Aziraphale and Crowley for the forthcoming adaptation of Good Omens had been filled by Michael Sheen and David Tennant respectively.

There’s always a degree of apprehension about adaptations – time and again we’ve seen that even with the ‘right’ team in place it can all go horribly wrong or, even if objectively brilliant, if it doesn’t quite meet your own internalised picture of ‘how it should be’; it can feel a bit off, a bit uncomfortable, not quite perfect.

I think one of the key things that Good Omens has going for it in this respect is that different parts are already different things to the same person, never mind different people. There’s the different styles contributed by the two authors of course, but beyond that there’s a substantial cast of characters careening across multiple scenarios that move between the sublime and the ridiculous (and many that manage to be both at the same time!) It’s part fantasy, part sci-fi, part comedy, satire, drama, philosophy – and a whole lot of insightful social observation and commentary.

Reading it, there may well be parts, or characters, or other elements that you don’t like as much as the others, but I’ve yet to come across anyone who didn’t have a lot they loved about it. Most people re-read it. And re-read it. And re-read it. I think studies have shown it’s just about the most “borrowed” and “redistributed” book ever (it’s certainly anecdotally true).

Now, I could at this point draw lots of analogies about how this aligns with my philosophy of magic – trying different combinations, incorporating different influences, keeping an open mind and learning new things. But instead I’m just going to say READ THE BOOK*. As soon as you can. Definitely before the adaptation. Or re-read it (to whatever exponential you’re currently up to). It’ll be worth it, trust me.

*And I currently don’t have any, probably precisely because I tell this to anyone who’ll listen (and, in fact, also those who won’t) but will be getting more soon, if you want one specifically ordered just drop me a line

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Hooked on a Feeling

I love the way the sunshine makes me feel. I particularly love it if it’s properly warm out and I can absorb all the tingly, deep-down cosiness of it (slathered in factor 50+ of course) but even just bright-golden-lit-goodness is enough to inspire the same feelings. More than that, it has a knock on effect – it makes me want to listen to particular songs, smell particular scents, wear particular clothes and, yes, revisit particular books. For a long time it was a fairly unconscious process, and one I was largely oblivious to, until I was introduced to the term for it (at the book festival, as a matter of fact, and subsequently through the Lush massage!): synaesthesia.

Making Connections
I think even a bit before this, I’d started to make conscious choices. I started making a point of listening to certain albums when I knew I was going to get the full benefit of a beautiful day – I thought of it as ‘charging up’ the effect so that, when I needed to feel that way again, I’d have as recent an association as possible to evoke (invoke? either way) the same feelings if I was ever a bit low and feeling in need. It’s not dissimilar to going to your favourite whatever when seeking comfort, but kind of the next step along; creating something that you know you can fall back on if you need it.

Magic Moments
In magical practice of course many do this consciously or unconsciously anyway; using a particular incense, set words or ceremony or ritual, music, drumming and so on to get ourselves into the ‘right’ headspace. It’s basically the same thing and it’s easy to elevate to some sort of ‘sacred’ or ‘special’ status, and to forget that it can also have a simpler, broader application that can benefit us more generally. A sunshine-y day is a particularly easy one to start with because the associations are fairly obvious, easy to assimilate, to build on and very likely to be much needed through the deep dark to come!

So pick a song, a smell, a book and use it to anchor an experience, a sensation so it’s there for you next time you’re in need of a boost!

(And on a related note, two amazing synaesthesia books that really evoke strong feelings are Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane [particularly if you were a bookish kid growing up in the UK] and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern [which is perfectly suited to the autumn months])

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The Art of Conversation

This week’s blog post is so late coming because I’ve been privileged to have lots of lovely, lovely visitors this morning and therefore lots of lovely, lovely chats, everything ranging from healing v. health services to obscure oracle systems to potential future (exciting!) event possibilities.

The Kindness of Strangers
While in general terms I’m perfectly content to be pottering around the shop in the next few weeks, one of the things I will miss due to my more-limited-than-usual exposure to the festival will be the random chats and bizarre encounters – exchanging reviews with unknowns, having to laugh off closer-than-comfortable-plastic-seating-proximity with strangers, odd banter in the wee hours at random locations you never before knew existed. Of course if this morning is anything to go by I’m not going to be wanting for stimulating chat (whether as an extension of the festival or otherwise) I would definitely encourage those foraying into the fray of it all to take advantage of the opportunity to engage with new people about wild and interesting things. Or even just the weather (which is certainly varied enough to give cause for comment). Learn new things from new people. Learn new things about new people.

Or if it all seems too much, pop in here for a blether. Either way, it’s good to talk.

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Festival Frenzy

Well, it’s Lammas already – not quite autumn (for me anyway) but a definite nudge to make the most of whatever summer that remains (or, in the case of our summer in Scotland so far, whatever we might actually still get…)

Make Bread While the Sun Shines
For anyone new to or unfamiliar with the festivals (and I would recommend Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun for anyone wanting to learn more about the history, evolution and development of various annual festivals in Britain) this is a type of harvest festival, where we give thanks for the bounty we are (hopefully) about to reap and reflect on the hard work that has gone into achieving it. This is / was symbolised by loaves baked from the first of the harvest; Loaf Mass -> Lammas.
I grew up in a small town surrounded by various farms so this time of year was very literally about bringing in the harvest but coincidentally (?) also marked the end of summer holidays and a return to school, so while the farmers were bringing in crops we were collecting school uniforms and gym kits and talking about digging the jumpers out from the backs of the cupboards. Each in their own way an acknowledgement of the slide towards winter, a need to start the preparations for the cold season to come.

A Little Party…
Of course in Edinburgh the beginning of August heralds quite another kind of festival, or festivals to be more accurate. The whole city will be crammed with shows, venues, performers, tourists (and as a result there will be a mass exodus of locals, but hey). I love Edinburgh during the festival, people from all over the world coming together to experience ideas, art, humour and humanity. In many respects it’s a world away from the quiet, reflective sentiment of Lammas but on the other hand it is the fruition of (at least) a year’s worth of effort for most, the culmination of their hard work all brought together in a massive celebration of diversity, possibility and engagement, providing us with the memories, the ideas, the stories and creativity to help us through the deep dark. And this would also have once been a large part of Lammas, with bards and music and dancing, a last chance for a big party since by the time the harvest was over the weather would often have turned too unreliable for such gatherings to be possible.

Let It Shine
All of the festivals lend themselves to a combination of both celebration and reflection and Lammas is no exception. The saying of course is ‘make hay while the sun shines’ – unfortunately while there can be no meteorological guarantees, this is a great time for really appreciating all your achievements so whatever rewards you are reaping take the time to make the most of them in whatever way suits you best!

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I’ve been talking about talking about this for a couple of weeks now, and am finally getting round to it.

There are lots of labels in the shop. Category labels, price labels, description labels. I like labels. They can be pretty AND practical at the same time. They help with organisation, and information, and accessibility (when they stay stuck, anyway). Also finding stuff.

It has left me with a bit of a predicament on occasion though. For the most part, I have only one, maybe two copies of any given title at any given time. So presented with something like, say, Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, I have a dilemma. Does it go in Mythology? In with Northern Tradition? Or in Fiction alongside his other titles?

Big Metaphorical Labels
It may seem a bit frivolous in terms of physical labels on physical things, but I think there’s good reason that we apply the same principles and terminology when we talk about labelling people, which has come to be seen as A Bad Thing. And in broad terms I don’t really understand why (which admittedly could be mostly to do with my own mindset, but I don’t think I’m alone here). It’s natural to want to classify things, to find a way to understand, to relate, to remember. Any given characteristic, interest, experience or fact will, for me, automatically generate a label that, yes, I will apply to that person. It’s a reference point for me. Let’s me determine what might be suitable conversation, reminds me of things to ask about, let’s me see if we have any labels in common, or any I might want to find out more about. Ultimately, it’s just codified information.

But I think the mistake has been (or is, or was, or can be) to ignore the plurality. Like with the books, it’s ridiculous to assume that only one label can and should apply. It’s why I still get a slight tick at being referred to as ‘the witch shop’ – firstly, I feel it’s far too narrow and specific a definition, and secondly (and much more personally), I strongly suspect that if I was a) male, or b) a bit more distinguished in years I would have far less people asking if I was a witch, or simply assuming I am one. I’m not insulted, or offended, and I wouldn’t even go so far as to say they’re entirely wrong, but what I dislike is the idea that a decision has been made about me based on, well, nothing. There are easily half a dozen other paths I could be on, and an entire multitude of other aspects and attributes I can be very merrily labelled with, but I would rather it was based on something real. It should be a well-founded starting point, subject to change and reassessment, not a convenient means of sidelining, trivialising or dismissing something.

As an individual, I would rather have lots and lots of labels than none at all. I will always love labels, I will always find them useful and therefore will probably always use them but like any tool it’s how you use them that counts. Accept or disavow them as you please – or consider how many more you could be acquiring…

(And if you do find anything mis-classified either on the physical or digital shelves please do let me know, it’s not always easy to keep on top of by myself!)

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The Power of Books

So in the last post I talked a bit about how I settled upon Book Witch Blog as the name for the, er, blog, and I plan to go into the ‘witch’ presumption element another time as promised, but there was an astounding snippet from a conversation the other week which has stuck with me that I think is absurdly relevant and ridiculously important.

There are many people who wander in out of vague curiosity as much as anything else, looking for an overview or explanation of ‘what it’s all about’. I’m fine with that (and of course happy to point out books in that vein too!) But having done the quick intro with someone the other week (very charming spiritual seeker) his observation was “but you have to be special to get drawn into this stuff in the first place”. I was flummoxed, genuinely. I must have been at a loss for at least a whole ten seconds (which for those of you know me is something in itself). So I had to clarify – “what do you mean, ‘special’?” “Well, you have to have some sort of pre-existing talent, or have been brought up to it or something. Someone couldn’t just walk in off the street and learn all this stuff.”

I was astounded once again – for me, the whole point of books, and the bookshop, is so that you CAN just walk in and learn stuff. After all, that’s how I came to it all in the first place. My family certainly didn’t have any mystical or magical leanings, I’ve never felt myself to be particularly psychic or gifted in spiritual disciplines and I’ve never been part of any sort of formal or informal learning or practical group. Pretty much everything I learned, I learned from books (and then practised as much or as little as I needed). Now, admittedly I’m a bit of an academic type at heart, but my view is in most cases it just comes down to finding the ‘right’ book that suits your style, approach and current level.

No Such Thing as Can’t
What I don’t accept is the idea of ‘can’t’. There will be plenty of things that I don’t take to, or might never be particularly good at (don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of circumstances where natural ability helps!), or want to pursue very far but as long as there’s a book out there (and there almost always is) then it’s within my capabilities to have a go at, well, whatever I want to have a go at.  I don’t have to be ‘gifted’ or ‘hereditary’ or ‘special’ or ‘talented’.  I don’t need a mentor or a guru or a circle or a coven. I can select, design, create and inform my own education, my own path, my own practice by something as simple as deciding what I want to read next.

And that, to me, is the power of books, and of bookshops.

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What’s In a Name?

When I decided to crack on with a blog, I figured it had better have a name of some sort rather than just ‘the blog’ – seemed a bit lazy, if not downright unimaginative not to, especially when there are so many great examples of titles, nicknames and pseudonym’s out there.


I’d been through this before of course, when I was trying to pick a name for  the shop. Something that would at least attempt to reflect the breadth of what was covered – not too witchy, not too pagan, not too ceremonial, not too fiction-based. I was fortunate on that occasion, it sort of just came to me and I was instantly in love. I had a few concerns once I realised it coincided a bit with Kelly Armstrong’s Otherworld novels, but by then I was smitten and I’m not convinced even the most witty, inclusive, enlightening suggestion from anyone else would have persuaded me away from it.


Then came the job title. Every aspect of life seems to entail endless form filling and invariably I’m asked for my job title. It’s always been easy in the past, I’ve always been ascribed one (usually the kind that meant people couldn’t make head nor tail of what I actually did for a living, but there you go). The ‘normal’ options were thoroughly unappealing. Owner? Manager? Director? CEO? Bleuh. This was my chance to define myself, after a fashion. So far no joy though. I toyed with ‘Head Bibliomancer’, or ‘Chief Libromancer’, or ‘Guardian of the Tomes’, but since they all sound pretentious and, frankly, a bit daft I am as yet untitled (answers on the back of a postcard please!)


So now the blog! I’ve never even had a nickname, or a craft name, or anything other than what’s on my birth certificate and ‘Claire’s Blog’ just seems… lacking. Book Witch came to me quite early on but I resisted for quite a while, firstly because once again I wanted to avoid emphasising ‘witch’ above any other discipline, path or aspect (although it seems there’s no getting away from it, I think to some this will always come across as ‘the witch shop’ no matter what titles I put in the window!) and secondly a quick check showed at least one other book witch blog in  the world already (although not along similar lines, interestingly). Still… it stuck with me, and niggled at me, and just seemed to fit.

What’s For Ye…

I know there’s a lot of stigma about labels, rightly or wrongly (more on that another time), but I was watching the film Pride with my mum when she was here last week and there’s a point in it where, having been ‘shamed’ the response was “When somebody calls you a name … You take it and own it.” I may not have set out to be a Book Witch, or a Witch Shop (or that weird magic place, either) but I’m comfortable with it, and I think it suits me.

And thus the Book Witch Blog came to be!

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Summertime Blues

The featured books are up this month on the theme of ‘What I Did on My Holidays’, although it seems less fitting with the interminable downpour forecast to continue through the day! Hard to believe it’s July, let alone halfway through the year…

Last year, I’d picked a selection of ‘holiday reads’, easy-osey fiction with a magical theme because, when I’m on holiday myself, I generally want something interesting but not too demanding – my breaks (when I get them) are usually about relaxation and enjoyment. I’m not particularly well-travelled but when I do get somewhere I like to balance in a little bit of culture and exploration though (another should theme in there, I don’t like to feel I’m wasting opportunities). So I do generally do a bit of reading before and / or after I go somewhere about the sites, the history, tradition – preferably before so I know what to look out for when I’m there! Not during though – the whole point is to actually have the experience of course.

I haven’t ventured too far afield with the selection – there’s one on various sites in Lothians and the Borders that may have connections (or influences) with Arthurian legend; one that’s a beautiful selection of postcards showing ancient sites and accompanying stories; and one on Glastonbury and Avalon. Naturally there are others in the shop around world mythology particularly, more on various sites in Britain and even one on Mystical France, but I limited myself to the usual three!

So whether you’re looking to plan an adventure or (given the weather) just daydream about sunny explorations there’s a few choices. Escaping into fiction is still always a good option, and plenty of fodder in previous Featured Books segments for that too.