In the category of “Pagan Scholars to Watch For,” please add the name of Robert Mathiesen. A medieval philologist teaching at Brown University, with a great interest in the history of Magickal practices, Prof. Mathiesen uncovered (from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania) Charles Leland’s remarkable Book of Shadows (recently published); earlier, he collaborated with Theitic (an Initiate into the Tradition founded by Gwen Thompson in the early 1970s, and now an Elder in this Tradition, as well as its archivist) on The Rede of the Wiccae: Adriana Porter, Gwen Thompson, and the Birth of a Tradition of Witchcraft (Olympian Press, 2005), wherein they examined the “Rede of the Wiccae,“ published in the Ostara issue of Green Egg Magazine in 1975. Attributed to her grandmother, Adriana Porter, this was a series of rhyming couplets, intended to preserve a bit of wisdom or folk-knowledge in an easy-to-remember rhyming style. The last couplet- “Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill- an it harm none, do what ye will”- is probably the best known.
Because of Ms. Thompson’s attribution of this “Rede,” or series of rhyming folk-couplets, to her grandmother, the story of early-on-the-American-Witchcraft-Scene High Priestess Gwen Thompson and her grandmother Adriana Porter has come to be recognized as one of those “Grandmother Stories,” whereby someone claimed Extreme Authenticity for their Practice of Ye Olde Crafte by citing some elderly relative (often one’s grandmother) as an Initiating Instructor. (Wicca Spoilers): Mathiesen and Theitic, in reviewing the Rede, find that most of the couplets appear to represent genuine examples of folk-culture “Lore-Text”: or the transmission of useful folk-knowledge through an easily memorized couplet-form. These, however (the majority of the couplets that comprise the Rede), do not really reflect any specific Wiccan or Witchcraft sensibility.
Upon examination of the smaller number that seem specifically Wiccan-oriented (such as the one cited above), Mathiesen and Theitic determine that someone else (probably Gwen Thompson), acting upon the inspiration of her grandmother’s folk-collection, created certain couplets intended to reflect a Wiccan viewpoint.
Lore-Text, and the types of rhyme-meters generally employed in such (as according to Mathiesen and Theitic) is a very interesting subject (to which I wish to return): however, what is intriguing at this point, is the research presented in this book that suggests that the first migrations of European settlers into the New World brought with them the Magickal customs of the Old: exactly as one would imagine they might, considering the degree to which Magick remained ingrained in Europe through at least the 1600s.
Mathiesen and Theitic begin Part 3 (p.33) by quoting John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1865 poem Snowbound, wherein he recalls the Oral Culture tradition of story-telling around a fire on a winter’s night. Things take an oddly Classical tone when Whittier brings up a “gray wizard’s conjuring-book,” seen by his mother as a child, as well as an uncle, “rich in lore of fields and brooks, of Nature’s unhoused lyceum, in moons and tides and weather wise, he read the clouds as prophecies, and foul or fair could well divine, by many an occult hint and sign, holding the cunning-warded keys to all the woodcraft mysteries”; “Wherein the scenes of Greece and Rome had all the commonplace of home, and little seemed at best the odds, ‘twixt Yankee peddlers and old gods.”
Trusting that their reader will have seized upon the mention of a “gray wizard’s conjuring-book,” encountered in rural New Hampshire in what must have been the late 1700s, the two authors describe (p.35) how Whittier explained in his foreword to the poem that the book belonged to one “Bantam the sorcerer,” a member of the “strange people who lived on the Pisquataqua and Cocheco,” and the book, a copy of the 1651 English edition of Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy. In another work, The Supernaturalism of New England (1847), Whittier elaborates upon this individual, describing him as a Quaker who was considered a “conjurer and skillful adept in the art of magic,” who acted as a neighborhood Cunning-Man “without price”; his book (in 1847) was “still in possession of the conjurer’s family.” The 1790 United States census lists this man as Ambrose Bantam, the head of a small family living in Somersworth, New Hampshire. (p. 36) Remarkably, Mathiesen and Theitic find that, in old New England, “such people were not particularly rare.”
Fascinating as it will be in a moment to discover why such people were not particularly rare in old New England: let us stop and dwell upon this “conjurer’s book” (a mid-seventeenth century edition of Agrippa), possessed by a Cunning-Man in the late 1700s, in the northernmost New England states. So far, at the Juggler, we have seen (1) a Colonial Era grimoire, known as the “Joshua Gordon Witchcraft Book,” held at the University of South Carolina, and (2) a German-language “Cure-Book”, carried into Appalachia by a German immigrant in 1790. And here we have a copy of Agrippa being put to operative use by a Cunning-Man or local Wizard, in rural New Hampshire, also in the late 1700s. It does indeed begin to look as if Magick-Use played some part in the early settlement of America (maybe not a huge part, as obviously Magick-Using America has to square with the America of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams: still, the Revolution is “only” eighty years after they literally tried Witches at Salem).
In “Magic and the Occult Sciences in Old New England” in The Rede of the Wiccae (p. 36), we learn of Cunning-Women and Men, Fortune-tellers and Palmists, Scryers or “Glass-Lookers,” Dowsers or “Rods-Men,” “venders of charms and other small magics,” and even the occasional astrologer, alchemist, or perhaps even a conjurer of Spirits. As the authors observe, such folks will not be found among “the urban elite of New England,” preferring instead the privacy and low profile of relatively isolated rural areas- and seaports, as sailors have always been an especially superstitious lot, eager to improve their chances on the hazardous seas with charms and spells. They point to George Lyman Kittredge, who (in 1928, in his fantastic book- and one of my personal favorites- Witchcraft in Old and New England) “recognized a great continuity” between England and early America in such Magickal practices- “as was only to be expected.” Since England is so heavily dominated by Magickal thought during the 1500s and 1600s- both Queen Elizabeth, in the late 1500s, and King James, in the early 1600s, believed in the Powers of Witchcraft and Magicke, as did innumerable of their subjects- “by chance alone,” a proportion of Magickal-Practicing folks will make the migration into the New World.
The reason that this is not more generally known, is that scholars have only recently become aware of these facts. Mathiesen and Theitic observe that it has been only in the last 15 years or so that research has been undertaken into such subjects; they refer to Richard Godbeer (The Devil’s Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England, Cambridge University Press, 1992), who has reviewed much of the evidence of 17th century New England Magick-Use, finding it to resemble 17th century English Magickal practice (as one would expect). They refer also to the work of Peter Benes, who identifies 90 such individuals in New England between 1644 and 1850, suspecting that he has only scratched the surface.
Other fascinating research is alluded to, involving early Mormonism and follow-up on “old hints” that the Smith family (of the Mormon founder Joseph Smith, Jr.) had been “deeply involved with a subculture of magic that had flourished in New England and upstate New York during the 1700s and the early 1800s.” A “persistence of occult and hermetic teachings as well as alchemy and ceremonial magic” was found throughout “the same regions during the same centuries,” with specific evidence “far more numerous and varied than anyone had ever suspected”- including general stores that advertised books on the occult sciences for sale, both current and antiquarian, as well as traveling Spirit-Conjurers who maintained sideline interests in alchemy and perhaps even counterfeiting. Mathiesen and Theitic even point out a photograph published by D. Michael Quinn, of a curious, black-handled, double-bladed, hand-forged knife possessed by Joseph Smith, Sr., engraved with sigils (as were several other artifacts owned by the Smiths) copied from Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy and Reginald Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft (both of which were re-printed in England during the mid-1600s).
Add to this the 1950s documentation of one of Edgar Allen Poe’s West Point military instructors, who wrote “extensively” on alchemy and who owned a manuscript copy of the medieval grimoire the Lemegeton, said to date from 1512- and, as the authors of The Rede of the Wiccae conclude (in this kind of digression from their main topic, which is Gwen Thompson’s Rede): “The myth of a Puritan New England, where occultism and magic were rare, and quickly stamped out whenever they appeared, is no more than a myth. The reality was very different indeed.”