September 28, 2010

Witchcraft: Tales, Beliefs and Superstitions by Clary Croft: Review

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I'm a big fan of local folklore books. When I was a kid I'd hang on every word of the old folks telling stories, 'cause they were true! Maybe not, but they were interesting and gave a glimpse of a life that was gone for good. I'll read books on ghosts, superstitions, anything like that from every part of the world but my favorite, of course, are the ones from the Maritimes.

When I saw the Clary Croft had written a book called Witchcraft: Tales, Beliefs and Superstitions from the Maritimes, I knew I had to get it. The people at Nimbus Publishing were kind enough to send me a copy for review. Croft's mentor was the Canadian folklorist Helen Creighton, she had collected a large number of songs and stories in the earlier part of the 20th century. One of her collections is a favorite of mine: Bluenose Ghosts. Witchcraft reminded me of that book as it is written very similarly. Croft uses the research of other folklorists as well as his own, including documentary evidence in newspapers and court documents. Most of the stories in the book are 'eyewitness accounts,' though I found the section on named witches and traditional European stories (like fairy tales) fascinating.

According to Croft, Maritime witchcraft lore is a meld of Mi'kmaq, Acadian (French), German, Celtic, African and Anglo beliefs. Put all those people in a bucket stir it up and this is what you get. Many of the stories in the book are variants on the same theme: cow dries up, counter spell, witch revealed. Lather, rinse, repeat. Some of the counter spells are really bizarre. I can't imagine doing them if I thought someone had bewitched my cow. But I suppose if I had to rely on the animal to provide for my family, I'd try anything. It's interesting how the accused witch tended to be a person with a better cow. Jealous much?

I wouldn't have wanted to be the poor harassed person accused of being a witch. Most are just shunned or gossiped about (annoying enough) but one young man shot his uncle because he believed the man had bewitched him. Now we would say the young man was mentally ill for believing such a thing. I did like how one woman handled such accusations; she sent her accuser a cease and desist order. A thoroughly modern idea!

Then there are people who revelled in the title of witch. Some liked being feared, others used their powers to help. There must have been a fortune in the counter spell industry especially since most of them only involved a jar, some pins and pee. Yes. I said pee! So many people were running around boiling urine on their stoves to punish witches. Not sanitary, people.

Obviously, Croft did a tremendous amount of research for the book. I would like to know why people believed the things that they did though. Again, why urine? And pins? Where did that come from? More than likely the tale tellers wouldn't know. Croft's focus is on the old folk tales (the kind you hear from Grandpa after a few beers) not modern practices. I wonder how many people are left who believe these things or has the label of witchcraft changed to something else. Twenty years ago, when I was a teenager, there was a short fad where people I knew would go to the local 'fortune teller.' What went on there I don't know, sitting in a dark room with a creepy stranger wasn't what I did for kicks, but apparently he was very accurate (according to people who paid $10 to see him). Those stories will no doubt be told around the kitchen table to the grandkids someday.

Witchcraft should be read on a crisp fall night with a cup of tea. I learned a lot from this quick read and I have a new list from his bibliography that I want to check out. Just what I need, more books.

Highly recommended.

Clary Croft has a website. And he sings!

Thanks Nimbus Publishing for the review copy.

10 comments :

  1. Seems like a really interesting book. I, too, like reading books like this. I heard somewhere that for what they mistook as witchcraft some of the time was just someone having a seizure disorder, etc.

    What a very superstitious and fundamentalist time in the world that was!

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  2. I think it'd be rather unlikely for me to find a book devoted to Witchcraft in the Dallas, TX area, so I'm actually pretty envious that you have such rich lore locally.

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  3. Heya, I'm new here but I thought i'd leave a comment.
    Apparently in a lot of old folklore pins are used because being sharp and pointy they'd deflect the evil spell of someone else, broken glass would also sometimes be used. As for modern witches you've got a huge wiccan community out there of people who've taken the term witch for their own and who beleive in and use magic.
    No evil cursing peoples cows spells though ;)
    I love folklore as well and as I live in blighty I have reams of stuff to keep me amused.

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  4. This sounds like the perfect RIP read. Very interesting about the pee though. I guess it was special because of its unique odor and it was readily available

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  5. Allison- There are not many explanations in the book for why they believed what they did. The people in the book truly believed in the power of witchcraft.

    Andi- lol! The author admits that there were people opposed to writing about it.

    Le- Thanks for that explanation!

    Jenners- HA! Definitely plentiful but ew!

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  6. This sounds rather good, actually. I like books like that. Not sure I want to read it, either.

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  7. I love books on folklore too and I'll read anything on witchcraft. Actually, there are lots of people who still believe in this stuff. The spells have more of a modern twist nowadays and use things that you can easily find rather than a frog's liver or something, but the idea is the same - to focus your energy on a particular goal. The stuff you use to help you focus, whether pins or a candle or whatever, is up to you and just an aide.

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  8. This sounds good. I like witchcraft books in October!

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  9. Love your review! I have a large pile of books on British folklore but this sounds really interesting - I'd never have guessed all the influences on Maritime beliefs. I'll check out the author's website in case there are further links, as I think that, for me, an interest in Canadian folklore would have to be pursued on the internet.

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  10. Sounds very interesting and perfect for this time of year :)

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