Monday, January 01, 2007

Interview: Nathaniel Harris

Mandrake: Nathaniel, can you begin by telling us a little about your book, and why you wrote it?

Nathaniel: Witcha, A Book of Cunning was actually several years in its making. Primarily it was written as a 'thank you' to my family for introducing me to the path of witchcraft and magick. Hence the front cover painting of Green Jack, which is the work of my mother, the Lady of the House of the Old Ways. The photographs are by my stepfather, the Magister or Devil of the same coven. The original edition was hand bound in red and black leather according to medieval style, with reference to the binding of the Key of Solomon currently in the library of Cambridge University.

I only expected to sell a very few copies, primarily to friends of the family and those who turn up for the 'Annual Witchcraft Seminars'. Since I was going to all this effort, I decided to post an advert or two on the internet to see if anyone else wanted one. Much to my surprise the book proved to be a lot more popular than I expected, selling 100 copies in no time at all. I could and would have sold more, but the amount of money and time it took to create each copy meant that I was not only running at a near loss much of the time, but I was also working very hard just to keep up with the orders. Thankfully, you people came along and made the current edition available to a wider market.

Mandrake: Can you tell us a little more concerning 'The House of the Old Ways'?

Nathaniel: The House of the Old Ways is my 'parent coven', quite literally and not at all metaphorically! It was formed by my mother and stepfather, and if it needs justification to its lineage, I guess this comes through the hereditary witchcraft on her side of the family. Although both are also initiates of other streams of witchcraft, the House of the Old ways exists independently of any other organisation or lineage.
Judging from what I see written, and the claims I have heard people make, we are a lot more humble than many other covens or groups out there these days. We meet to support each other in our rituals, which are both spiritual/meditational, and results orientated. Most of us are very quiet individuals with no desires for fame, power, or any of that nonsense. We do not claim to be the guardians of any great and lost Mysteries, although we do have direct contact with spiritual entities and occasionally it must be said that some of them do make such claims! Most psychics have met entities like that. Personally, we listen them out, and banish them is they start talking rubbish. Nor does the House of the Old Ways make any of those silly claims about being 'guardians of the Land' or of sacred sites.
I know others have made claims to hereditary lineage, and used it to con there way into positions of supposed power, or spokespersons for Traditional Witchcraft, and so on. We make no such claims, nor do we recognise any such claims made by others as valid. Witches are strong minded individualists, it is one of the things that makes us what we are. We do not need 'leaders', or followers for that matter. If we wanted them, we would have them. If one wishes to become as a thousand, one merely has to attract a whole load of zeros.
Mandrake: You said that Witchcraft does not have leaders. But there are leaders and elders in the Craft. Among them those who have published very influential works, as well as raising the profile of the Craft to a wider public. Also, covens tend to have hierarchies led by High Priestesses and High Priests. So please, could you clarify your point?
Nathaniel: In one of Terry Pratchet's very funny 'Discworld' novels, he says that "Witches do not have leaders, and Granny Weatherwax is one of the best leaders that they do not have." No-one can deny that there are influential people in the Craft who could be said to lead by example. Yet any good Magister or Priestess will tell you that they are not really a leader in the sense that a church or a government has leaders. This is why we meet in circles, after all, as a sign that we are all equal, or are supposed to be.
Mandrake: In your book it says that you are the 'Fool' or 'Dubh Sidh' of the House of the Old Ways. Can you tell us a little more about what this means?
Nathaniel: In the House of the Old Ways, the position of 'Fool' is one of sanctioned rebellion. My job is to make sure nobody takes themselves too seriously, or disappears up their own backside. In a sense this position may be likened to the role of the Lord of Misrule, called also in European tradition as the Anti-Pope, the embodiment of the formulae of inversion as seen in the traditional 'Invisible Days', the Black Mass, or even in the reversal of the runic alphabet. Hence, too, the office is associated with the forces of darkness. Dubh Sidh is Gaelic, meaning 'Dark Phaerie'. So, whilst my position may involve poking fun here and there, it is in another sense a serious responsibility.
Mandrake: You call your work Witcha, A Book of Cunning. The meaning of this is explained in the introduction. Could you please say a little more?
Nathaniel: Witcha is an Old English word, properly spelt as wicca, which has been misappropriated and commonly mispronounced in the modern day. It means the use of witchcraft, implying specifically a male practitioner. The female equivalent is wicche.
The word 'cunning' has its roots in the runic tradition. Indeed a rune of our own Old English Alphabet bares the name 'cunning'. It implies the knowledge of sorcery, also mastery of language, poetry, and generally being clever. The term was later employed in relation to cunning folk, who were what in East Anglia later became called 'white witches', being those witches who were useful to their community. Modern academic texts, such as the excellent and highly recommended works of Professor Owen Davies, tend to over emphasise the idea that there was one path called the 'cunning', and another called the 'witch', and that these two were in conflict. Often, however, there was very little between the two. For example, Scott's Discovery of Witchcraft (1584) makes various references to the 'cunning witch'.
<Mandrake: In Witcha, you state that your craft has come to your primarily through the hereditary stream of your family, and has its roots in East Anglia. Is there anything you would like to add to what you have already told us?
Nathaniel: There is not a lot to tell, really, compared to the outlandish mystical claims made by many others asserting hereditary lineages. The witchcraft in my family stretches back several generations. My mother, and my grandmother, both display unusual psychic talent and have run 'circles' of one kind or another during their lifetime. My Great Aunt, being my grandmother's sister, was the one who first informed my mother that she is of the witches, and taught her the first spells she employed. These were of the usual binding of poppets, and so on, formulae that one commonly associates with witchcraft and are well known today. The most influential member of our family, as far as witchcraft is concerned, is probably my Great Great Aunt Daisy Chapman, who was a witch and midwife operating in the Suffolk area. Unfortunately I never had the pleasure of meeting her in the flesh. She was the one who used to quietly encourage my mother by sending her letters and little packages with interesting things in. She, as well as other family members who have returned from whence they came, is honoured by name in our ancestral observances.
It must also be said, however, that ours is not a static and unchanging tradition with sacred rites passed through our lineage being unchanged for generations. Rather, we are each of us unique individuals. We do not always agree about everything, and this includes witchcraft!
Mandrake: In Witcha, you speak about the belief in fairies, or 'phaeries' as you give it, being a part of your tradition. What's all that about?
Nathaniel: To say that we believe in phaeries or 'pharisee' might be a little misleading, as most people think of this as a twee tradition kept amongst ignorant peasants. Yet it is the knowledge of these sometimes very frightening forces that might be considered the absolute crux of our witchcraft. Yet, too, it should be said that we are not really Pagans, as the word is commonly used today.
Mandrake: Here your viewpoint seems to differ greatly from others involved in the 'witchcraft revival'. You say you are not Pagan, yet believe in the Old Ones. Some might find this more than a little confusing. In Witcha, you describe yourself as Catholic. Can you explain this, please?
Nathaniel: That comment is only half a joke. I have never been baptised, nor do my family attend regular church services or support any organised religion. However, it may be more correct to call us 'nominally Catholic' rather than Pagan, as many of our formulae draw upon the powers written of in the classical 'goetic' grimoires of our tradition, and similar. Yet I think what must be stressed is that witchcraft itself is not a religion. We do not gather to 'worship' anything or anyone, even though we have regular first hand experience of the spiritual dimensions.
Mandrake:But you said that Witchcraft is not a religion?
Nathaniel: This is a difficult one as I most certainly do not wish to invalidate those out there who do practice their witchcraft as a part of a religion. Yet at the same time I think it is necessary to point out that world-wide, and even in the various approaches I encountered growing up amongst the witchcraft of East Anglia, there is no universal faith that unites us as witches. What we have in common is rather better described in my view as an arcarnum of practices and esoteric 'truths' that may only ever be realised on an individual level. For example a voodoo witch in New Orleans, a Malaysian witch of the mountains, a medieval cunning witch of East Anglia, a modern Pagan witch of England, a Taoist witch, a pre-Christian witch of Persia, or a sworn-in of the House of the Old Ways, all work according to essentially very different faiths. Yet at the same time we all work our witchcraft according to quintessentially similar formulae.
Historically witches have often been of a subversive and anarchic spirituality. Many would say that witchcraft is in fact the very antithesis not just of organised religion, but of fixed belief of any kind. Austin Osman Spare is probably the best known exponent of this approach to witchcraft in the modern day. Others of recent history, less known but probably no less responsible regarding shaping the current as it comes to us, have included the likes of Major General C. Fuller of the Golden Dawn, upon whose work Crowley based his Enochian translation of the Goetia. I think the Setanic witch priest Charles Pace was another, and his friend Cecil Williams who originally founded the Museum of Witchcraft. Hence the purpose of the 'sinister' rites of the Black Sabbat, which were quite akin to what more modern cultists might call deconditioning.
Mandrake: So do you believe in Gods, God, or Goddesses?
Nathaniel: I can only answer this personally, rather than speak for my family or 'tradition'. Previous generations of witches in my family were actually Christian. As I said, witchcraft is not a religion. They would have been Christian even if their craft had been something else entirely, such as tailors or carpenters. My mother and stepfather were drawn towards Pagan Witchcraft of one kind or another through their careers, but even they consider this approach to be a lot more modern than it pretends. Any tradition that has genuinely survived through the medieval period would have had to change and adapt with the times in order to survive. Thus, on the whole, many genuine old witchcraft traditions embraced what might be called 'nominally Catholic' formulae, which some might identify as older pagan traditions which have taken on new masques. Most modern covens, since they are also involved with the Pagan revival, have adopted Pagan formulae. We, however, are not reconstructionists. Rather, we are taking an ever evolving tradition into the modern, largely post-Christian, day.
As far as the existence or non-existence of gods is concerned, my opinion is that it is impossible to discuss such things in reasonable or logical terms. Perhaps they are a little like the 'non-existent' numbers that are used to solve certain otherwise impossible equations.
Mandrake: Some people may find your claims to hereditary lineage frustrating. After all, you cannot train to become hereditary, either you are or you are not. The only way to become such is to be either born into a witchcraft family, or marry into one. What point, then, is there in openly admitting your hereditary lineage?
Nathaniel: Firstly, to state my background is not a claim to personal power or knowledge. Rather, it explains my motivation for involving myself in witchcraft and magick in the first place. I did not begin my studies in order to become something that I was not already. I am a witch by birth, with natural talent, which has been nurtured over the years with training and study. This has included my becoming involved, in my youth, with other magical organisations. It is well known that I am a past Magister Templi of the Illuminates of Thanateros, and became involved in Chaos magic, for example. In the end, however, I outgrew these groups and 'returned to the fold', so to speak.
I appreciate that some may find my hereditary status frustrating. I have been accused of being elitist in the past. However, nobody is claiming that our way is better, purer, or in any other way more traditional or important than anybody else's witchcraft. To state that I am hereditary is simply fact, and is not said for any other reason.
I think the confusion here is caused because over the years many have raised their heads and claimed to be hereditary purely in order to claim some kind of power over other people. Usually these claims prove to be false over the years, or at least are never proven to be true.
Also, there are those who mistake my claim as saying that you absolutely have to be born a witch to be 'real'. I have never said this, nor would I. You do not have to be born into a witch family in order to be a witch, any more than being born into a family of accountants automatically makes you an accountant. However, if you are born into a family of accountants, and do want to be an accountant yourself, you are in for a head start. Yet you will still have to train and study just as hard as anybody else if you are going to be any good. In this case you might have someone who will show you the books, or grimoires in the case of witchcraft, and let you in to one or two secrets of the trade.
Finally, as I have said, most people will assume you are lying if you tell them you are a hereditary witch, anyway, and usually not without good reason.
Mandrake: Well, we've met your family, so we know you are not lying! Which perhaps brings us to your appearance on the National Geographic's documentary on witchcraft for the 'Taboo' series, which was made just as the first edition of Witcha came out. How was it that this programme came to be made?
Nathaniel: The researchers for the National Geographic contacted Graham of the Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle, to make contact with genuine witches willing to be on international television. As you can imagine there were plenty who stepped forward but who could not stand up to the intense scrutiny these researchers needed to put any claims made through. No doubt there were other genuine witches who just did not need the grief of being scrutinised. In the end, they chose me, and also featured a family coven meeting held on the Eve of May. The programme, 'Taboo: Witchcraft' still repeats on the National Geographic channel once in a while. I received a letter from one of the researchers to say it was one of their highest rating documentaries. Nobody got an EMI for it, though. Perhaps they should have done!
Mandrake: Both on this documentary, and in Witcha, you speak of the Bible as a grimoire of witchcraft. No doubt this is something many people will have difficulty with, both amongst witches and Christians alike!
Nathaniel: Well, you know me, I never like to make things easy for people by telling them what they would rather hear. The Bible has a long tradition of employment within the witchcraft and cunning of Britain, and was often referred to in much the same way as it is in contemporary magical 'Christianity', such as the path of Santeria which actually bares many striking resemblances to our own traditions. Such comparisons were made in the documentary you mention.
Mandrake: Our books have often generated controversy and we couldn't help but notice that Witcha was attracting some very positive as well as very negative vibes - how do you feel about that?
Nathaniel: Well yes, as you know - whenever you put your head above the parapet there's always someone who wants to shoot you down. Goes with the territory I guess. Not sure why that is - human nature maybe. Like Gore Vidal said, 'Nothing is more pleasing than to see your friend's latest book on the remainder pile' - wicked thoughts. Maybe you know you've arrived when this happens. I'd expected some criticism of the book but not all this ad hominem stuff and attempts at character assassination, even attacks on my close family. These have included some 'old crafters' who seem to think I was treading on their toes, and one or two that have been a bit cross at my speaking so frankly about certain more sinister aspects. On the whole, though, much of this polava has come from those who hope to raise their own profile by attacking mine and the family's. At first I was a bit stung by it all but as the sales of the book rise and the positive comments more than outweigh the odd nutcase, I'm learning to let it wash over me. Anyway, how can anything be considered bad publicity if you've already openly admitted to practices of Black Witchcraft anyway? I'm not really as evil as some people would have it, yet at the same time it is often fun to play up to the 'Bad Boy of Witchcraft' image.
Mandrake: Didn't you appear on the 'Kilroy' show about 'Witchcraft Friend or Foe?' openly admitting to having cursed people in your previous career?
Nathaniel: Hell yes. They had heard of me because of the N.G. documentary and begged me to be on that show. I must say that when I got there I did feel like I had been particularly singled out for some bad press. Despite my protests that it had been a long time since I had been particularly keen to curse anyone, but that yes I did think it was sometimes justifiable, he insisted on calling me a Black Witch and I did not really complain about that. On the one hand he was saying that he did not believe in all this Mumbo Jumbo, and on the other he was saying that I should be arrested for my magical actions. The studio was like a lion's den, with me and a few other witches of other paths already keen to dissociate themselves from me due to whatever had been said previously, and some quite rabid Christians and 'sceptics' all around us. Incidentally, it was the last episode of his series recorded, and I was the last person on the show to receive his well rehearsed wannabe politician's handshake. After that his T.V. career ended and he became an object of public ridicule. Make of that what you will.
Mandrake: You are also a tattoo artist, and have done some fine work on Jasmine Deville. Could you tell us what attracted you to this art form?
Nathaniel: There is something very primordial and magical about tattooing. There are many people one meets who have had glyphs and signs tattooed upon them as a part of some magical act or self transformation. Although the tattooist themselves might not be a practitioner of witchcraft or magic, the very act of having these things prominently emblazoned in one's flesh seems to successfully connect us somehow to the powers behind the signs. Thus, I suppose, many so called primitive initiatory cults involve the marking of the flesh during the candidate's progression. The word 'tattoo' is actually Polynesian, and only added to our English vocabulary fairly recently. Our own word before then was 'stigma', and in the witchcraft cults this tattoo has been known as the 'Stigma Diaboli' or Mark of the Devil. These may have been hidden on the body, and may have been what the witchfinders were actually supposed to hav! e been looking for. Persecution records make record of marks made by the 'Devil' of the cult pricking the finger of the new initiate to make a permanent mark, as with two Northampton witches condemned in 1705, and the Scottish witches also. Robert Graves makes mention of this somewhere in the White Goddess. Also, the signs may identify us to one another, as with the Maori tribal markings that show your gods, family status, and history. With what has been called the 'Modern Primitive' movement within body art, we can see that many of our own culture have been actively seeking to regain some sense of the sacred or magical tattoo for ourselves. It thus only made sense that I should employ my artistic skills in this world, and the majority of my customers are those who are consciously connecting tattooing to their magical practices. I am largely self taught, as the methods I employ are manual rather than using the conventional tattoo gun. Nevertheless, I have a! lways hung around tattooists of one kind or another since about six years old. When I started tattooing, about ten years ago, I was fortunate in that I lived in London and knew many successful tattoo artists. I also had two rare chance meetings with tattoo artists whom I would personally describe as magicians of one kind or another- one who tattooed traditionally for the Yakuzza in Japan, and another who was a genuine Maori tattooist and who allowed me to sit in on a session with a customer. These events proved to me that I was on the right path.
Mandrake: well that's more than enough - thanks for being so frank - if folk want more there's the current book and another coming soon - watch this space.
But if you like interviews there's one with Mandrake's Mogg Morgan on the Avalonia website (http://www.avalonia.co.uk/)

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