As readers of this journal may know from past reviews, my jaunts to the bookstore usually include a glance through the children’s books. Some excellent sources of magical inspiration can be found among titles intended for young readers, and not all of them begin with the words Harry Potter.
Witches and Magic-Makers is number 70 in a series of DK Eyewitness Books that includes over 100 volumes on a wide variety of subjects: pirates, castles, spies, insects, electricity, space exploration, dinosaurs, pyramids, and so on. As implied by the name of the series, the books take the form of visual tours, with spare but well-written text accompanied by a wealth of photographs and illustrations. Eyewitness books are feasts for the eye and imagination, and if this series had been around when I was a growing up, I’m sure I would have studied many of these books over and over — especially book 70.
The fun begins almost the moment the book is opened. On the title page and its verso, we find depicted in glorious color: a happiness amulet from Palestine, a Tibetan ritual dagger, a painted spirit bone, a lucky horseshoe, a couple of “witch stones” with holes through the center, an iron cauldron, a Guatemalan worry doll, a sprig of magical rosebuds, and a “witch bottle filled with colored essence.” (If this is the author’s way of euphemistically hinting that many such bottles contained urine, I applaud his poetic skill.) In the center of the page is the familiar iconic image of the pointy-hatted, gnarled-fingered crone. The photo is labeled: “Stereotypical witch.”
Which brings me to a quality I truly appreciate about this book. Stereotypes are called stereotypes. Fictional depictions are addressed as fictional depictions. The magical beliefs of other cultures are not belittled as the prattling of backward and uncivilized peoples. Magic is presented as human behavior, neither completely good nor unremittingly evil, neither verifiably real nor deliberately fake. And the book doesn’t soft-pedal the history of persecution suffered by magical practitioners—and those who were simply accused of practicing magic—at the hands of people motivated by fear and ignorance.
In other words, the author of Witches and Magic-Makers doesn’t talk down to his audience. The information hasn’t been “dumbed down” or “Disneyized.” It’s not all puppies and rainbows. Some of it is a bit weird and maybe even a little scary. Have I mentioned that I would have loved this book when I was a kid?
The tour includes famous magical figures from history (Pythagoras, Paracelsus, Mother Shipton) and from fiction (Circe, Faustus, Medea); ceremonial practices from the past (Ancient Egyptian, Aztec, Mesopotamian) and from the present (Native American, African, Australian); objects familiar (Tarot cards and magic wands) and foreign (lion-claw amulets and “ordeal beans”). We are also introduced to persons falsely accused of witchcraft, many of whom were deprived of their freedom and their lives, and to the deadly methods of witch-hunters.
As I mentioned earlier, the text is not intended to provide an in-depth analysis. But the scope of the book is impressive. Many cultures and belief systems are represented, and all are dealt with in a respectful and intelligent way. There is even a section on modern Wicca and New Age practices that is remarkable in its evenhandedness.
So why am I recommending this book to magicians? Because I think this material is at the foundation of our art. The concepts touched on in this book — luck, destiny, healing, control, power, protection, interconnectedness — are what all of our stagecraft is meant to represent. It’s a book that ably demonstrates that big ideas can be reflected in small objects and carefully chosen gestures, and I’d venture to say that anyone who peruses its pages with eyes and mind open is sure to find some spark for his or her creative imagination.
And while we’re on the subject of creative ideas, here’s a suggestion: Consider picking up a copy of Witches and Magic-Makers, along with a well-made magic set (a company called Melissa & Doug makes some lovely wooden magic kits), and presenting them as a gift to a young person. Someone between, say, the ages of seven and thirteen. Perhaps a young girl. And see what happens.
Oh, and one more thing: Buy a copy of the book for yourself. If you open it, you may be tempted to keep it.