Wednesday, May 30, 2007

East Anglian Folk Magic and Witchcraft by Michael Clarke

from the late from the 18th, to the early 20th century
The folk magic and witchcraft that I am about to describe may surprise some people. In East Anglia today as elsewhere there are to be found groups of Modern witches, some of whom call themselves Wiccans and some Traditional Witches They practise different forms of Pagan Witchcraft. Many practice it communally in a Coven or Order. Their principal objective of these covens apart from companionship is spiritual, intellectual or social development. Most people probably assume that most the witchcraft of the past in East Anglia was similarly Pagan and collective and developmental in character. However this is not the case.

Not long ago, within living memory, a different type of witchcraft was being practised in East Anglia. It was a folk or popular witchcraft. The Witch would initiate herself or himself and would tend to work alone. The magic was operative by nature. Its principal objective was attaining power over other humans particularly those of the opposite sex as well as domestic and wild animals.

The evidence for this folk witchcraft is scattered around in many written and spoken sources. These include general county and regional books and magazines, county folklore collections, folklore publications and oral history tapes, to name a few. Although this is evidence is fragmentary and difficult to find, taken collectively it speaks of goals and methods of achievement markedly different to the witchcraft of today. It is from a collection of such material made by me over several years that the substance of this talk is composed.

I have excluded from consideration, material prior to 1734. This was the year when capital execution for witchcraft ceased to be possible in England, although witchcraft remained a felony. The methods employed in extracting confessions from witches of earlier times were on the whole barbaric and would not be admissible as evidence in a court of law today. Nonetheless the resemblance of later material to that emanating from the era of the Witch Trials is striking. I leave readers to draw their own conclusions. I have also omitted material after 1950 and the beginning of the modern witchcraft revival.

How did East Anglian Folk Witches practice their craft? What follows is a brief description culled from my research notes.

The Power of a witch was gained by making a pact with an entity, which is given various names, some clearly euphemistic. He (for it seems mostly to be a he) was called Old Harry (West Norfolk), Old Scrat, Old Ragusan or Old Horny. He was rarely called the Devil. “Speak of the Devil and he will appear” went the old saying and caution was exercised in even mentioning the name.

The pact was made by a number of methods. It might be written down, but in this semi-literate society other non-verbal methods seem to have been preferred. Principal amongst these was the Toad Ritual. (See Appendix 1.)

It is worth emphasising that the entity honoured was not by and large the tempter of Judeo- Christian Tradition but rather he was the Folkloric Devil of popular belief, a being characterised by his lust for pleasure and the good things of life, his cunning in execution and his ruthlessness in achieving his ends.

In popular legend a number of signifiers would indicate that a pact had been made. They included mounting a black horse, entering a black coach or accepting an animal familiar. However in practice the most important and common signifier was preparing, accepting and using the Toad Bone. Use of the bone conferred “power over fellow creatures” human and animal. It was employed in a variety of ways. Powdered it was be mixed with oil and drugs to make a jading oil. It was held or worn about the person where its invisible influence could make that person “powerful” or it was nailed to a person’s door to show that they had been “overlooked” by a witch.

A witch called the Devil by making a circle on the ground and by saying some words or power. Saying the Lord’s Prayer backwards was one such verbalisation. Others were words of power such as “Calabar” or “Abracadabra” to name but two.

The circle tended to be a real physical circle made of powdered chalk or soot. In at least one case in the 1960’s at Castle Acre in Norfolk a soot circle was photographed before destruction. It was small, seemingly barely three feet in diameter, and was plainly made for a single individual.

If the witch stepped from the circle, the Old One was supposed to have the power to carry her away. Making a circle was used to cast maleficia. Thus the appearance of a circle outside a house could indicate that it has been bewitched. Catherine Parsons writing about the Witches of Horseheath in Cambridgeshire stresses that the appearance of a witches’ circle outside a house was both an indication that maleficia had been committed against its occupier and a consequent cause for alarm.

The witches were not always solitary. They met together from time to time to dance under the command of a Master Witch or Witch Master. At dawn on returning home they and their mounts might be dirty and sweaty, “hag ridden” in other words. The meetings seem to have been predominantly social in character, with an emphasis on companionship, dancing and drinking rather than religion or operative magic. The name applied to such meetings seems to have been convention, conventicle or convent.
At Horseheath in Cambridgeshire for instance the witches met danced the hornpipe. The chief witch was renowned for her dancing ability and men would come from miles around to dance with her. It is said that she could dance better than any woman in the neighbourhood could.

Witches were reputed to be able to cause illness, make persons lousy and cause them to have fits. They could also project their ill will on to animals. Nothing unusual here these are the power of the witch throughout the world in traditional societies.

Spellcraft was governed largely by the principles of sympathetic magic. To make her spell the witch needed something of yours preferably from your body. Some broken crockery or a sprig from your hedge was good. Any body part for instance hair or nail clippings was very good. Clippings from male and female pudenda were especially prized. The bones of the dead had a special virtue and were used by the all-male Ancient Order of Bonesmen for rituals of a chthonic type.

If a witch had these things you were in her power and were subject to her commands. If you were a more powerful witch than she was, then the tables could be turned and the power that you employed could be turned against you.

One way you could avert the maleficia of a witch was to make her a present. If she accepted your present not only did it make it less likely that she would attack you with magic but it was also considered to help avert bad luck generally. This belief proved a good source of income for poor or indigent witches. If however a witch gave you a present you needed to take care, for the present however well intentioned might be bewitched

Various things could serve to prevent the ingress of witches into you house. You could keep a witch out by spreading salt around the house or by putting a knife under the doorstep. The belief that witches cannot abide to step over steel was found throughout East Anglia. Witches were also repelled by witch bottles, old shoes, or old items of clothing. Such items are found even now when old houses are being demolished or altered. Marks on house beams or walls could repel witches. Plants could be employed for the same purpose. A hazel or rowan bush outside the door could act as a preventative.

A witch might be drawn by the method of preparing a witch bottle. In recent years considerable ingenuity has been employed in analysing the contents of old witch bottles Although the contents tended to vary, East Anglian Witch Bottles tended to be filled with a mixture of urine old pins and body hair. Other Regional variations such as bottles filled solely with hair or wool have been noted. The witch bottle would be placed on a fire until it exploded or vigorously shaken. In either case the witch was supposed to be subject to severe discomfort. This discomfort was supposed to be a mark of her guilt.

Simpler methods of protection from witchcraft include burning some of the thatch from a witch’s house, spitting in the direction of her house or drawing some of her blood by pricking or scratching her. There are a number cases in the nineteenth century throughout Britain of this objectionable practice and I am glad to report that magistrates usually cracked down hard on its perpetrators. Just as objectionable was the practice of setting fire to a witch’s familiar in order to injure her.

Cunning or Wise Men and Women were the professionals in the fight against witchcraft. It was they who might be asked for a fee to prepare witch bottles or other apotropaic devices. In East Anglia particular care needs to be taken not to confuse the two roles of witch and cunning person within the magical culture. The role of the Cunning Folk was preventative and healing. They were able to perform simple gynaecology and obstetrics. Cunning Murrell of Hadleigh possessed a number of books about these subjects at his death. They tended to be employed by the Christian Parish and were beholden to the guardians of the poor and the church vestry. They were used to assist in childbirth and in the laying-out or corpses and as well as their apotropaic functions they constituted the lowest level of the then very rudimentary social and medical services.

Naturally Cunning folk tended to place themselves firmly in the Christian culture of the time. They had every incentive to do so. For instance, on his deathbed Cunning Murrell the great cunning man of Hadleigh in Essex proclaimed “ I am the Devil’s Master” and declared himself to be a true Christian. And I for one do not doubt that he was.

One belief that recurs in stories about witches is the belief that if something bewitched is destroyed then the person who bewitched it may also be destroyed. So a cow, horse or pig ailing under a witch’s curse might be put down in order to harm the witch who bewitched it.

But beware injuring a witch. For if you did so the means by which you injured her may be the means of your own destruction- If you struck a witch with a fist it was likely that you too would meet your end by a blow from a fist.

Witches in East Anglia tended were held to make use of familiars, called Imps. Familiars could be passed on by another witch or given to the witch by Old Harry himself. Imps were small and often looked like mice or moles. The names of man of these imps survive for instance, Bonnie, Blue Cap, Red Cap, Jupiter and Venus. Imps were kept hidden in the bosom or under an armpit. They used to stalk their victim waiting for an opportunity to do him harm. If chased they always outran a pursuer. They would also perform domestic tasks like cleaning and washing. In one case they are recorded as cutting a field of corn for a male witch or warlock. Larger familiars like cats could be used as a method of transportation. Witches were also supposed to be able to transform other human beings into horses and to use them as transport. A Human too could be “hag ridden.”

Imps could be fed on communion bread. Some subsisted solely on this blasphemous but nutritious fare. For drink imps were suckled on a witch mark. This was often a wart, mole, pimple or supplementary nipple, all of which occur naturally as bodily blemishes. In practice the familiar could be fed on the witch’s own blood, milk or other bodily secretions

The imps of a witch had to be given away before her death or she could not die. Indeed a dying witch might often resort to subterfuge in order to pass over her imps, giving them away as pets or domestic animals. If they were unclaimed, imps would go away and try to find a new owner. The first place they visited was the house of the next blood kin of a witch and so on through the rest of the blood family. If unclaimed the imps would nest in a hedgerow where they would wait to attract the attention of a passing witch.

Witchcraft was only one aspect of an extensive folk magical culture. Traditional witches often had access to almanacs. Much of what they did had reference to the planetary hours and the phase of the moon details of which were shown in traditional almanacs. Those who worked with the moon were said to be “Followers of the moon”. There is a whole as yet imperfectly explored nineteenth century subculture of divination. Mr Rix of Shipdham in Norfolk was a well-known planet reader; in other words what we would call an astrologer. Some of this folk astrology was quite advanced, based upon calculation of astrological charts in proper classical fashion, some consisted of little more than randomly selected phrases culled from imperfectly understood manuals such as those of Raphael, Ebenezer Sibley and Sephariel.

This brings me neatly to the question of whether any of this activity was recognisably Pagan. We have seen that collective meetings seem to have been rare. Do we see covens of Skyclad witches dancing up the sun on May mornings chanting hymns to Aradia and Cernunnos? Is there any evidence for the Great Goddess whether she is called Diana or Hekate? Alas the answer to these questions seems to be “No”. Old Horny? Yes but an Old Horny firmly linked to ideas of mayhem, civil disobedience lack of good citizenship and devil may care.

However all is not quite lost for Paganism in these times. There was the astrological tradition mentioned above. The names of the planets were as they always have been classical and pagan.

There was also a tradition of working with spirit entities who were borderline Pagan. There was throughout East Anglia, a traditional belief in fairy folk. The most common names given to them were “Ferishers” or “Pharisees”. Contact with fairies seems to have been individual and personally initiated. Fairies seem to have been no friends of Witches. I have not been able to find any example of co-operation between East Anglian Witches and fairies, although other magical practitioners used them.

Fairies were, contrary to some reports, well known in the folk culture in the nineteenth century. The town of Stowmarket was particularly well known for them. There is also some good evidence from Essex and North Norfolk. There was also a thriving popular national interest in fairies with book, paintings, etchings, statuettes etc. being produced to cater for a considerable public demand. But even sticking to the local evidence it is evident that fairies played a thriving part in local mental culture.

Fairies can be small and large. They tend to wear green clothes. They love to dance in the fields at twilight. where their glistening forms may be seen faraway in the gloaming. Give them gift say a saucer of milk and they will reward you in return with wealth and good fortune. Keep your house clean and they will reward you for that. But they do not like to be spied upon. A midwife who had gone to fairyland to deliver one of their babies was given second sight and could see fairies as she went about her business. However she met one of them at the market and upon attempting to speak to him was struck blind in the eye that could see the fairies, never recovering the use of it again.

The Spirits of the dead were evoked by the construction of images made of a mixture of wax and corpse dust. These witches “poppets” were pricked to cause another hurt A swallow’s heart and liver could be attached to the poppet with pins to charge it. A heart pierced with thorns was used as late as the nineteen sixties for unknown reasons at several locations in the Kings Lynn Area.

Modern pagan witchcraft has very little to do with ghost lore. However ghost were a very important element in the mindscape of traditional society .In older accounts especially those from the eighteenth century, observations on ghosts will appear side by side with observations on witchcraft. The lore of ghosts is very extensive and can form an article in itself. However to complete the picture I have been sketching I will say a little about ghosts in the East Anglian Tradition.

Ghosts did not appear so to speak at random. In general a ghost would walk and appear in spirit on earth if something, which they sought and desired, was denied to them in death. So they might appear in the case of a will which had not been executed fairly, when the surviving partner of a marriage remarried in excessive haste. They would appear if death had been violent as in the several ghost that return after their judicial execution. They would appear if the deceased had been rumoured to practice the Black Arts as in the case of the wicked lord of Waxham and Worstead Sir Barnabas Brograve, who even today is rumoured to haunt the remote marshes around Horsey Mere.

Sometimes ghosts appeared in the semblance of their form on earth and were mistaken for real people by those not in the know. At other times they would appear as if fresh from the grave covered in grave dirt, or in the form of a skeleton, or headless or without arms or legs. Sometimes they would arrive transported in a black carriage, or on a black horse breathing fire. Some are even associated with modern means of transport, such as those miasmic forms that appear on the Great Yarmouth to Norwich railway line as it crosses the marshes at the site of the terrible Trowse Train accident of 1874. Ghost returns might be spasmodic and occasional or they might like the ghost of Anne Boleyn reappear each New Years Eve.

Ghosts were well incorporated into the magical culture. Those with the power of second sight, those born at midnight or the seventh son of a seventh son could see ghosts and might be employed to conjure them up. Such conjured ghosts could be interrogated to ask them what was troubling them. The answers they gave could be used to take remedial action in the present. Moreover even when spirits themselves were not required to manifest divination might be made with reflections in a pail of water or a flickering flame. When spiritualism arrived in Norfolk, and spread rapidly its popularity might well be put down to a pre existing culture of spirit manifestation.

There are in the East Anglian tradition a number of spectral animals. The most prominent of these is Black Shuck the demon dog of East Anglia. Old Shuck plainly has diabolical antecedence. The name Shuck may well be descended from the Old English Scucca or demon. The idea of black shuck may well go even further back and reflect the wolves of Odin or some other dim memory of the distant pagan past. It was an East Anglian tradition that dogs were more acutely aware of the presence of death than humans. The howling of a dog was traditionally ominous of a forthcoming death. Whilst evidence of ritual use of these canines is lacking smaller animals like rats, mice and cats were regularly used as familiars.

One should not forget the great variety of spectral and numinous places in the East Anglian landscape. A number of holy wells were and are used for acts of low level magic as were and are rivers. East Anglia has few high places apart from the artificial ones created by church towers. Nor is it suited to the formation of caves. Nor does it have the more obvious evidence of the prehistoric past embodied in stone circles and houses. But it does have many miles of lonely and deserted beaches and coastal heaths as well as a large area of swamp in the Broads. Both the Broads and the seashore have legendary associations with witchcraft and magic especially in the area around Horsey Mere. To judge from their use in present day Paganism one would have thought that these places might have been extensively in the past.

However the prime locus of power in the old magic is the ruined church, the graveyard attached to, and the road to it. East Anglia has many ruined churches. Strange goings on in the graveyard at midnight are symptomatic both of East Anglian magic and of the folk magical systems of America, the Appalachians and the Ozark Plateau in particular. I shall not pursue that avenue at present except to say that settlers from East Anglia allows may have given these areas aspects of the East Anglian System which may have been preserved in aspic in America whilst being forgotten in East Anglian itself. Historical opinion says that many churches are placed on the sites of pagan shrines. However I differ from those who say that this is the reason operative magic was performed in graveyards. I think that it was the particular numen or spiritual of the power of death that attracted witches to graveyards as it does the world over.

I am aware that I have said little in this talk about areas, which straddle the border between magical craft, and craft pure and simple, what might be called Everyday Magic. Maybe that is what you came to hear about. If so my apologies. However I would have the following observation to make. This very low level magic, the magic or cures for minor ailments, of herbalism, of the embodiment of folk belief in craft products of needlework and so on does tend to far better known and hence more national in scope than other practices. Because it was thought by all to be “mere superstition” there was much publishing at all times of details of low-level folk magical practices.

Folklore itself came into being as a science and a suitable pastime for young and old precisely because these practices could be verified and checked from many variant examples. Because it could easily be classified as old fashioned, innocuous and charming folklore gained a popularity and prestige amongst middle England that it could not otherwise have gained. This is not to imply that there is no value in studying such low level magic but it does mean to say that it is difficult to speak about such phenomena as purely local purely East Anglian, because in most cases it is not.

Is low-level operative magic all that there was of magic in East Anglia? The answer is probably not. However High Magic is even more difficult to trace at this period than its Low cousin is. In conditions of discretion and secrecy even quite elaborate movements can flourish and die without record.

There is good evidence that near London in particular a tradition of near High Magic was prevalent particularly amongst Cunning Men and Women. The papers of Cunning Murrell of Hadleigh examined by Arthur Morrison indicate that he was using materials from a Solomonic Grimoire in pursuit of his cunning craft. But Murrell who appears to have been a highly educated autodidact may have been exceptional. None of the other Cunning Folk of East Anglia are as well documented and he may have been an exception rather than the rule.

Another cunning man who has drawn a good deal of interest Old Pickingill of Canewdon appears to have been merely a crafty and malicious agricultural labourer. The case of Pickingill still excites controversy. His supporters claim that he founded a “Pickingill Craft” which was in communication with the High magicians of the Capital. Moreover he was credited with leading a group of covens scattered around southern England. My own view is that his magic was local and operative, being designed for the most part to extract money from credulous local farmers and others willing to come under his influence.

There was in the Nineteenth Century a coven, if it can be so called, who practised witchcraft at Cambridge University: the so-called “Cambridge Coven.” This organisation supposedly initiated Aleister Crowley when he was a student there. It is claimed that this organisation still exists in a group known to me still operative and active in East Anglia.

Whatever was going on at a popular level, the elite continued to be as they had been from the time of the Renaissance Classically minded, classically inspired and in conditions of utmost discretion not above practising some high magic. For this they took their inspiration from one of the many Grimoires or some classically inspired revelry of the Hell Fire Club type. Later more open organisations like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Theosophy, Co-masonry, Rosicrucianism and others came into existence.

The High form of magic that was centred on London is really outside the subject of this discussion. It relied on London book dealers, freemasonry, fringe masonry and the lines of communication that only a great Metropolis could then supply. It was cosmopolitan in emphasis and internationalist in spirit. It relied heavily on the ability to learn foreign languages and on having the spare time to memorise elaborate and heavily verbal rituals. Its proper place was in the middle class and aristocratic drawing room. Although there is no hard and fast line between it and folk magic it is probably true to say that high magic permeated down and that little or no low magic permeated up, except perhaps amongst the servants.

The folk witchcraft and magic of East Anglia arose from an intellectual climate of limited horizons and widely believed superstitions. Although the folk culture from which it arose has now almost gone, it continues to attract interest amongst those seeking an alternative to the public-spirited nature religion that is Modern Paganism. Different teachers and scholars have begun to reconstruct often from very different bases this strange and different form of the craft. A few are listed below.

Further reading:

Enid Porter: The Folklore of East Anglia
Enid Porter: The Folklore of Cambridgeshire
Nigel Pennick: Secrets of East Anglian Magic
Andrew Chumbley: The Azoetia
One: The Grimoire of the Golden Toad

Note: I am grateful to Ruth Kenyon for providing me with a video copy of “Moonstallion” to enable me to view and comment on it.

Appendix 1: The Toad Bone Ritual in Rural East Anglia

In Nineteenth Century East Anglia a magical ritual was carried out which has subsequently become a thing of almost obsessive interest amongst modern occultists and witches. In its origins it was a ritual by which rural agricultural workers empowered themselves by means of a diabolic pact. The pact, which was usually carried out between a solitary individual and a spirit, usually euphemistically described, which was in fact the Devil.

The ritual was felt to give its adherents a singular power, that of mastery over their fellow creatures, man and animal. In this regard, performance of the ritual was a functional direct affair. The ritual can usefully be called the “Toad Bone Ritual,” as such I will refer to it here. In its original milieu, like so much rural magic, it was referred to by means of euphemism. One of them was “Going to the River”, so closely was its practice aligned to the key event of its performance: a floating of prepared de-fleshed toad bones on the surface of a river at midnight.

The following is a presentation and discussion of key features of the ritual. I have resisted the temptation to trace the antecedents of the ritual and its many cognates in the magical praxis of Europe and the Americas. That lies beyond the scope of this brief article and has in any case been better done elsewhere. Suffice it to say that whether or not it was performed in a collective context elsewhere as in the rites of the Horseman’s Word, in East Anglia the emphasis is in individual not collective performance.

Capturing the toad:

There are in the available literature several examples of the use of a frog instead of a toad. The reasons for this are complex. They lie both in the past of the ritual in antiquity and in the practical problem of obtaining toads of the correct type in certain areas. Suffice it to say that a toad was generally preferred and used in three-quarters of the examples.

If toads were used the preferred species was a Natterjack Toad known locally as the Walking Toad. This toad which is now very rare and highly protected requires a very special environment in which to thrive. They need sandy heaths in which to capture their prey, grubs insects and some of the smaller amphibia. In order to breed shallow pools of the correct pH level need to be available within about a mile of the toads’ feeding grounds.

There were a number of preferred places for capture of the toad. In Norfolk Fritton Common is mentioned in one account as being suitable. Natterjack toads could also be found in coastal dunes and marram grass plains such as those at Winterton Ness.

Two factors have contrived to severely reduce the number of suitable habitats in recent years. The first is the growth of mass tourism. This has contrived to make places like Winterton, formerly remote and unvisited, an ideal place for such activites as dog exercising, sun bathing and recreational walking, all of which combined have severely impacted on the solitary and reclusive toad.

The second and greater threat has been posed by another seemingly equally benign activity, the plantation of former coastal heaths with Scots and other pines. In its classic habitat Fritton Common the Natterjack toad was completely eliminated and became extinct because of the plantation of the heath for forestry.

Preparation of the bones

The Toad ritual was never a thing of good taste and propriety. It was an act demonstrative of rebellion and dissent. Hence some of the methods of preparing the toad and its bones for the ritual can now seem cruel and distasteful.

In some cases the toad was placed in a box pierced with holes. The toad when dead was eaten by the ants and its de-fleshed bones were then used for the ritual itself. In other cases, the toad was sadistically killed, by being put in a box pierced with pins. In other cases a toad was placed directly in the ant heap. In some accounts the toad was crucified upon a thorn bush.

In two examples from oral history testimony I have found instances where dead toads have been used. So it is not as is sometimes said necessary for the toads to be alive and killed. The toad ritual is not a form of sacrifice.

Having said that, it is as well to remind us that the toadman (or toad woman) saw himself as being a singular person as a result of performing the toad ritual. He was a man set apart not only by being willing to make a pack with the Devil but also by his tolerance of any means at his disposal to effect his ends. The killing of the toad and the often cruel means of doing so were in a way exemplary of his ruthlessness and separation from the ethics of kindness and responsibility.

Going to the river

All of those who speak about the toad ritual agree that the all-important event without which one could not become a toadman is the ritual flotation of the bones on the river at night. Without this ritual the bones were mere bones without virtue. Without the ritual the toadman was a mere mortal subject to the vagaries of life and eventual divine judgement.

The toad ritual is the pact making of a semi illiterate class, the rural agricultural worker. Here there are no long and elaborate written pacts specifying in detail the terms by which for a certain measured period of years the pact maker might serve His Satanic Majesty. Rather what is made is a pact implicit in certain ritual actions recognised throughout the culture, “the going to the river” of popular parlance. If a man won a ploughing match by drawing plough lines of almost preternatural straightness his companions and fellow competitors might josh him that he had “gone to the river.” If strangers came to such a match, typically migrant Scots, then they to might have their skills ascribed to “going to the river.”

Certain nights of the year were preferred. Saint John’s Night typically. On those nights the aspirant Toadsman would take up his bones in a wrap of cloth and go out to the river at midnight. He would place the bones into a river or stream. Typically the watercourses of East Anglia are slow flowing and meandering. At times of low flow the surface hardly seems to move.

Then in certain accounts the bones will scream. Nature itself seems to protest against the monstrous act about to be perpetrated. The screaming bones should be ignored or the whole ceremony is made null and void. Other noises like the rattling of chains may be heard.

Now comes the most crucial part of the ritual. Here correct performance is essential. The slightest mistake or loss of concentration will not only mar the ritual but it will invalidate the performance as a whole. The floating bones must be looked at for as long as the ritual takes. No interruption can be tolerated. The sounds of the night must be ignored.

Eventually one bone will separate itself from the rest and will float back up the stream. It is this bone in which the magical virtue resides. The bone must be taken from the water and dried henceforth it will be the Toadman’s bone his amulet. In some stronger versions of the mythos the devil himself will appear and demand a pact of a traditional kind but more often than not pact making is reserved for a further rite as described below.

Sometimes the bone is the hook bone in the toad’s pelvis. The bones may now be powdered and mixed with oil to form jading oil by which to calm horses and other animals.

Further rituals

The toadman may believe a further step to be necessary in order to complete the pact making. If this is so the toadman will sleep in the barn with the bones. On the fifth night the Devil will come and demand a pact. If a pact is refused he will ask to feed on blood. This may safely be given in return for services rendered. At all times during this process the aspirant toadman must remain in command: the Devil’s master. If the Devil fails to obey the toadman may strike out at him or his sign with the Horseman’s gad (a whip). This whip is in effect a kind of wand. Made from wood about which honeysuckle or other creeper had wound itself the gad is the visible mark of attainment for a rural magician

The secret formula of the Horseman’s Word is “(Both) as one.” The horse and the horseman become one. Man and beast become something psychically conjoined, a thing with infinite intelligence and infinite power, a beast-man or a man-beast.

Another mystery is that of “drawing” and “jading”. In order to increase the efficacy of the bone it may be treated with oil using a special mixture of the horseman’s own formulation. Various recipes are extant fort this oil. It is said that many horses had their own private formulae. As well as a whole host of herbal and chemical preparations the best operative ingredient was thought to be the horseman’s own sweat. The Toadman carried the bone with him as an amulet. The bone should never be shown to another human for it will loose its power. The bone may be touched against a horse to cause it to move or stand still.

The Powers conferred and the price exacted

There is what we now call a “downside” to the mystery of the toad ritual. The Toadman may expect to experience various infirmities of a mental kind. These include hallucinations and delusions (a horse in his bed, a horse climbing the stairs), paranoia, delusions of being followed and so on. The bone was rumoured to lose power as it aged and in certain cases it was necessary to prepare a new bone and discard the old.

Nigel Pennick whose book on East Anglian Magic has made many aware of the Toad Ritual writes that the profession of Toadsman is an extremely dangerous one,“ for many in the past have been driven to insanity by exercise of these powers.” But the temptation of the reward available to the profession of Toadsman has seduced many by its promise of absolute worldly control.

To see in the dark; to be without fear at any place or any time; to have control of not only animals but human beings as well, few are those with the mental stamina to take the toad bone and use it wisely. The belief in its virtue would seem to encourage the opening of mental chasms and the ingress of chaos beyond the ability of the folk magician to control.

Few who write on the ritual can refrain from warning of its potentially baleful consequences. “A violent death” writes Nigel Pennick “is to be expected”. When asked what needed to be done to attain his powers, an old toadman answered “ Don’t, for if you do you will never rest ”. These should be sobering thoughts for any aspirant toadman or toadwoman.


The toad ritual, however lurid its performance, needs to be seen as a part of the East Anglian folk magical culture. It arises from that culture and where it occurs is sustained by that culture. As a kind of “Nec plus ultra” of that culture it is a means by which the really determined folk magician can separate him or herself from those who have heard of the ritual but have not performed it.

Strangely the shock element in the ritual whilst remaining has itself changed. In its original context the shock of the ritual arose from its implicit blasphemy. It was by implication a method of pact making with the powers of darkness (which is bad enough in itself). However its elements also echoed in a blasphemous way the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Christ, the sacrificial basis on which the whole Christian religion is founded. In a society which was on the whole still Christian this was a direct assault on the whole founding ethos of that society.

Christ who is himself is divine sacrifices himself on the cross to redeem fallen humanity. The toadman sacrifices what is to him the most loathsome of creatures for his own sole benefit. Christ is reverently entombed prior to his resurrection and conquest of death. The dead and putrefying toad is eaten by ants. Christ arises from the dead, is transfigured and is raised to heaven by angels. The remains of the toad apart from a single bone are carried away by the stream to oblivion. The bone remains, a token of dark power counterbalancing the light power of communion bread and wine.

Examining the ritual today we think first of issues of animal cruelty and human predation on a threatened species. We are appalled by the thought that our rational secular society should still contain such superstitious and unwholesome practices. Yet it is a fact that the toad ritual remains not only in its place of origin but also in the wider world.


The toad ritual lives on in a world context. The English Traditional Witch and Magus Andrew Chumbley gave new life to his own recension of the Toad Ritual in his book “One: The Grimoire of the Golden Toad”. Chumbley himself performed the ritual, and in personal communication with the author acknowledged that he was troubled by the book, the ritual and consequences that followed on from its performance. He died not long afterwards from an acute and unexpected asthmatic attack

The OTO a worldwide occult organisation are rumoured to use the toad ritual in their praxis. Their former chief Aleister Crowley himself achieved elevation to the rank of Magus through a version of the Toad Ritual. The American Order of Phosphorus also promotes a version of the Ritual with a diabolic colouring.

In East Anglia, the role of the Horseman’s Word in the ritual economy of the region has been subsumed by a ritual order, composed of blacksmiths, farriers and agricultural operatives who themselves continue to use toad bones in their rituals, (or so the author was led to understand by a visitor to one of his talks.)

However, by an ironical twist of fate, in the popular mind the toad ritual lives on, promoted by the very medium where one would least expect to find it, children’s television.

In the Nineteen Seventies a British children’s' television serial, “Moonstallion” included a rapid though accurate depiction of the Toad Ritual as part of its complex plot. This depiction was highly influential and well remembered by those of that generation who saw it, as I have often found when speaking about East Anglian Magic. In this strange but apt way a whole generation of eager watching children were exposed to an authentic folk magic ritual of a singularly malefic kind. The principal initiatory method of East Anglian Magic was passed on to unfamiliar but receptive ears and eyes.

© Michael Clarke
March 2007


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