Monday, 3 May 2010

Words and Witchcraft

spent last week working as Poet in Residence at the the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall. It's a fascinating and friendly place, packed with poppets, stuffed with spells, and chock-full of charms. It also contains lots of information on social history and folklore.

During my residence, I wrote many poems and prose notes and chatted to some delightful visitors, including a vicar and his young daughter, and a group of children from a school in Devon who were proudly unafraid and thoroughly enjoying themselves.

Here's one of the poems:

Spirit Bottle

Here is a body,
a container
of the correct proportions,
a little long perhaps,
a little thin.
Here are sinews,
muscles, bones,
coils and strings
of red and white;
hard, turned sticks
and ivory dowels;
the threads of veins.
Here is a centre,
a lump of a heart
to jig, to flex,
for the rhythm
in the dancing.
Here are lungs
to squeeze,
to wheeze,
airbags, a throat
for the singing.
Here everything moves,
quivers, pulses,
trills, resounds.
Here's a home for a spirit,
fill it, fill it.

Throughout the week, I thought about the connection between writing and magic. A spell, a tale told and spelled out, becomes more powerful each time it is repeated. Rhymes and other repeated sounds have oneiric power. I thought of poems and of poetic prose, of the use of repetition in narrative, of shamanic-poetic traditions and of the repeated lines in Finno-Ugrian poems.

I thought of how writers aim to give life to writing. We talk of muscular writing, of a piece having guts, balls, blood, soul, a heart. Usually, we have to read aloud our written work, to chant it, to know whether or not it lives.

I thought of hand-written, closely-guarded Books of Shadows, with their midday full stops, sunset l's and eclipsoid crescents of c's and g's. I thought of the many times I have held my notebooks close, of the little rituals I perform when I finish one or start another.

I thought of words that exist between meaning: the phonetic power of nonsense words, new words and words in other languages, of unfamiliar alphabets. Words are scrying tools, dark mirrors. In working with words, we strive to shake off meaning, to by-pass intellect, so that they speak directly to the unconscious, to the body.

And now that I'm back in Sussex, among my own books with their familiar words, I have found a gorgeous Khanty poem, from The Great Bear:

Song of the Witch of Kasym

Verily I sing and verily I tell!
Down from the seventh heaven, the sixth heaven
with its ridge-pole, its smoke-hole, from my father
I, witch, am summoned here: on to the lake
round as a duck's, a capercaillie's crop
on to the hummock where the small loon's nest
the great loon's nest waves to and fro I, witch
have been let down, and in a double-fronted
a treble-fronted sledge I sit. At midnight
when all around is dark as a ghost's eye
I listen, sharp-eared as a wakeful pintail
by the dear waters of the southern Ob
the mighty-shouldered Swamp-beast's merry feast
is being prepared, and from my nest well-lined
with black beast hide, with red beast hide, I raise
my wise witch-head, its hair a hundred points.
Upon my five-toed feet, my six-toed feet
I put two good bull reindeer toe-skin shoes
and over my dear shoulders draw my cloak
lucky for black beasts, red beasts, and tie on
my lucky belt, and round my wise witch-head
its hair with a hundred points, and fasten on
my holy shawl bright as the moon and sun
and past the village, past the town I walk:
I have a hundred reindeer, bulls and cows
so I can spare two yearlings from one mother.
I take three strides fit for a Forest-girl
a little witch with plaited hair, four strides
fit for a Forest-girl. I am called by name
Little Black-Cat-Shaped, Little White-Cat-Shaped Witch -
that is how I am known, a Little Witch
Hissing like a Sable Bitch, a Sable Dog -
that is how I am known. And afterwards
I take three strides fit for a Forest-girl
and leave the seven towns, the six towns standing
by the deep trenches of the Ob that teems
with food, with fish, and now I have arrived
upon the narrow ridge inhabited
by the wide-wandering Goosefeather-man
where one bull reindeer runs. Around the house
built by the son of ancient men with seven
with six roof beams I saunter seven times
six times with the sun: with my five-fingered hand
I, witch, open the larchwood, sprucewood door
built by the son of ancient men, and step
into the house noisy with little boys
merry with little girls, and I am met
with tinder-fire and beaver-musk in hand:
'Houseful of women, O houseful of men!
Long live your little girls, your little boys
and now be well! When on the five-stringed wood
a lower string is plucked, may a lower spirit
sing out, and when a higher string is plucked
may a higher spirit sing! what can I leave you?
My dance for luck with fish, with game, I leave you.
When I have gone, no great and ruinous
holy disease befall you: may you be
protected by my fur coat's skirt and sleeves!'

I hope to return to the museum next year. Until then, my thanks to everyone there for their warmth and kindness throughout the week.


  1. Wow Sian, what a great job to have! And a great post and poem :)
    I think this painting of mine might go nicely with your words ... :)

    Spells and spelling... words are magic.
    I am always fascinated that the Finno-Ugric language group is not Indo-European and exists in a sort of island amongst all the others.
    Happy inspiring Wednesday to you x

  2. Ooh, Rima, what a beautiful (if squashed) little witch! You're right, they go very well together.

    Have you been to the museum? There are witch bottles of the kind you describe in your post and also some lovely jars and bottles containing intricate structures of bobbins, dowels and threads to keep spirits amused.

    Huzzah for word magic and for those Finno-Ugrian languages! Do you know Aado Lintrop's work?

    With love & bluebells (they call us the hyacinth girls),

    S x

  3. Hi,

    I'm Peter, the vicar you met with the little girl. I really enjoyed your poem. Loved the last two lines.

    It was good to meet you the other week. If you ever want to stop by my podcast (Horror Film Reviews with a Spiritual Slant) you can find it at


  4. Hi Peter,

    Great to hear from you! Thanks for the link to your entertaining podcast. The C.S. Lewis ref. intrigued me particularly, as I have an oddly similar poem about Medusa.

    Glad to see you have an episode on the Company of Wolves. I look forward to listening to it.

    Hope you enjoyed the rest of your holiday.

    S x

  5. Hi Sian,

    I just read your poem "Lupercalia". I loved it. Some of the images in it, like the wolves on their hind legs, were really creepy. But there's something calming about it too. Not sure how you managed to write a poem that simultaneously spooks and chills out, but I like it a lot!


  6. Thanks Peter. Glad you enjoyed it.

    S x