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September 2016

On a windy day in autumn

Writing in the woods

I'm feeling low in spirit today, while the wind rattles my cabin studio and moans through the oak and ash trees of the woodland right behind it. Here is what I'm thinking about as I walk the hills and trails with Tilly, or nest among the trees with notebook and pen:

"Fiction is a kind of compassion-generating machine that saves us from sloth," says George Saunders. "Is life kind or cruel? Yes, Literature answers. Are people good or bad? You bet, says Literature. But unlike other systems of knowing, Literature declines to eradicate one truth in favor of another; rather, it teaches us to abide with the fact that, in their own way, all things are true, and helps us, in the face of this terrifying knowledge, continually push ourselves in the direction of Open the Hell Up."


The English Magic Tarot

The English Magic Tarot

I'd like to wish Rex Van Ryn, Steve Dooley, and Andy Letcher a very happy Publication Day for The English Magic Tarot. As the publisher, Weiser Books, describes it:

"This captivating new tarot deck draws us into the vibrant but often hidden world of English magic, evoking a golden age of mysticism when John Dee was Queen Elizabeth’s Court Astrologer, antiquarian John Aubrey rediscovered ancient sacred sites, and the great physicist Isaac Newton studied alchemy. The English Magic Tarot places the cards in the colorful yet turbulent period of English history that stretches from the time of Henry VIII to the Restoration. During this time of upheaval archetypal forces were very much at play, making this a perfect setting for the cards."

The deck comes with a 160-page book, providing an in-depth guide to its use. It's beautifully produced, fascinating to peruse (and to use), and I highly recommend it. 

The English Magic Tarot

This is a project that I have been following closely not only because it's magical and unique -- blending an erudite approach to the history of Western magic with comics-inflected art and a sly, smart humor -- but also because it's a thoroughly Chagfordian enterprise, involving many of my village friends and neighbors:

The deck's roots (as long-time Myth & Moor readers know) go back to John Barleycorn Must Die, a graphic novel by Rex and my husband Howard. The main character of the novel, a mysterious English magician, used a tarot deck of this very sort, full of English magic and history; and the esoteric traditions behind it were further explored on their weekly Barleycorn blog. Rex was first inspired to turn Barleycorn's fictional tarot into reality (a number of those early designs can be found in the Barleycorn blog archives)...and then over time, the project evolved and broadened to become The English Magic Tarot. The deck's art was pencilled and inked by Rex, and painted by illustrator Steve Dooley. Andy Letcher joined the team to write the deck's accompanying book, drawing on his long history as a folklorist and scholar of Western magical traditions.

Creators of the English Magic Tarot

More Chagford folk can be found in the deck itself, including the mischievous characters below: Steve as the Ace of Coins, Andy as the Fool, jewelry designer Jason of England as the Devil, baker extraordinaire Ruth Olley as Strength, and Rima Staines of Hedgespoken as the gypsy of the Fortune card. (I've spotted other familiar faces in the Major Arcana, but I haven't yet found them all....)

Steve Dooley, Andy Letcher, Jason of England & Ruth Olley as Major Arcana

Rima Staines, with the Fortune card

The English Magic Tarot uses symbols derived from the heyday of the English magical tradition, a period that lies between the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Early Modern. As Andy explains in the book's introduction:

"English magic is a distinctive, local branch of natural magic. It has evolved through many iterations, from prehistoric times to the present day, and freely bends high and low magic. One constant is that it regards the cosmos as animate, and our place in the world as significant. It calls us to rediscover a magical connection with the land upon which we happen to live, whether that be England or elsewhere. It supposes that through practice or study (not least, of the tarot!) we can attain a greater understanding of the disparate parts of the self, and the magical connections that permeate the universe. Through English magic we can attain a state of gnosis  and true knowledge of the world....

Draft sketch for The Emperor"A trip to a good anthropological museum (like the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, which is absolutely stuffed full of magical objects, charms, and spells) shows that magic is universal. English magic is simply the English dialect of a language that's shared by all human cultures. It is our particular, regional way of doing it. It stands to reason that if magic is natural, then it will be shaped by the land it belongs to and the language and culture of the people living there.

"No one really knows why, but this small country named England has produced a great many magicans. The foundations of English magic go right back to the earliest days, to the architects who aligned Stonehenge to the midwinter sun, to the Druids with their ogham tree-lore, and to the early Anglo-Saxons with their runes. The traces of our ancestors' magical practices lie etched across and buried within the English landscape, and if you look carefully you'll see those traces in The English Magic Tarot cards too."

For further information, visit the English Magic Tarot blog and Twitter page, or read an interview with the deck's three creators. You can see more of Rex's art on his Facebook page, more of Steve's art on his painting & illustration site; and read more of Andy's deeply folkloric writing on his Wyrdlore blog.

English Magic Tarot

I also recommend Howard & Rex's original Barleycorn blog, where it all began: in particular, their discussion of magic with Andy Letcher, and tarot with Amal El-Mohtar,  plus conversations around our kitchen table with Iain McCaig, Alan Lee, Brian & Wendy Froud, Rima Staines, David Wyatt, Didier Graffet, Yoann Lossel, and other good folks.

Rex Van Ryn, Howard Gayton, Steve Dooley

Draft sketch for the Fool


Remembering who we are

Woodland gate

From Beauty by the late Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue, whose books I return to again and again:

"The earth is our origin and destination. The ancient rhythms of the earth have insinuated themselves into the rhythms of the human heart. The earth is not outside us; it is within: the clay from where the tree of the body grows. When we emerge from our offices, rooms and houses, we enter our natural element. We are children of the earth: people to whom the outdoors is home. Nothing can separate us from the vigour and vibrancy of this inheritance. In contrast to our frenetic, saturated lives, the earth offers a calming stillness. Movement and growth in nature takes time. The patience of nature enjoys the ease of trust and hope. There is something in our clay nature that needs to continually experience this ancient, outer ease of the world. It helps us remember who we are and why we are here."

Woodland edge

"Our times are driven by the inestimable energies of the mechanical mind; its achievements derive from its singular focus, linear direction and force. When it dominates, the habit of gentleness dies out. We become blind: nature is rifled, politics eschews vision and becomes the obsessive servant of economics, and religion opts for the mathematics of system and forgets its mystical flame."

Hawthorne berries

"Yet constant struggle leaves us tired and empty. Our struggle for reform needs to be tempered and balanced with a capacity for celebration. When we lose sight of beauty our struggle becomes tired and functional. When we expect and engage the Beautiful, a new fluency is set free within us and between us. The heart becomes rekindled and our lives brighten with unexpected courage."

Animal GuideThe passages above are from Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by John O'Donohue (HarperCollins, 2004). The quotes in the picture captions are from "The Practice of Beauty" by James Hillman (The Sphinx, 4, 1992); The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (Penguin, 1990); On Beauty & Being Just by Elaine Scarry (Princeton University Press, 1999); and Rumi: The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy & Longing, translated by Coleman Barks (arperCollins, 2003). All rights reserved by the authors.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Sheep with lamb by Henry Moore

This week, while there's so much talk of walls, borders, and other means of dividing us from each other, physically and metaphorically, I've chosen five songs from the border-crossing Gaelic music tradition here in the British Isles.

Above:  "Arrane Sooree," a Manx Gaelic song performed by Ruth Keggin, a young musician whose aim is to bring Manx music, language, and culture to a wider audience. The song is from her second album Turrys (2016). The video was shot on the Isle of Man.

Below: "Buachaillín Deas Óg Mé," an Irish Gaelic song performed Skipper's Alley, from Dublin. The band released their spirited debut album, Skipper's Alley, in 2014.

Above: "A Ghaoil, Leig Dhachaigh Gum Mhathair Mi," a Scots Gaelic song performed by the extraordinary Julie Fowlis, who grew up in a Gaelic-speaking community on a small island in the Outer Hebrides. She's released numerous solo and collaborative albums; her most recent of the former is Gach Sgeul (2014).

Below: "Gura Mise Tha Fo Mhulad," a Scots Gaelic song performed Rachel Newton, from Glasgow. Newton must be one of the hardest working musicians in the folk music genre, playing with The Furrow Collective, The Emily Portman Trio, The Shee and Boreas as well as with her own band, the Rachel Newton Trio. The song is from her lovely new solo album, Here's My Heart Come Take It.

Henry Moore

And last, below: "Samhradh Samhradh," an Irish Gaelic song beautifully performed by The Gloaming. The group consists of folk music stalwarts Iarla Ó Lionáird (vocals), Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett. Their gorgeous second album, 2, came out earlier this year.

For more border-crossing, try Mary Jane Lamond's "Seinn o," a song that crossed the Atlantic with Scottish immigrants during the Highland Clearances and is now part of the Gaelic music tradition of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.

Sheep by Henry Moore

Sheep drawings by Henry Moore (1898 - 1986)