The British Book of Spells & Charms, by Graham King (Review)

Since we began seeing each other, Sfinga and I decided that one of our Valentine’s day traditions would be exchanging books. This last one, I got her a copy of Stephen Skinner and David Rankine’s A Cunning Man’s Grimoire, and she gifted me the special edition of Graham King’s The British Book of Spells and Charms. Today, I would like to briefly review this wonderful little book which, in addition to being a thoughtful gift I treasure, is genuinely an excellent addition to any folk magic library.

Sfinga’s picture of her paperback with True Black Magic.

Published by the always-impressive Troy Books, the special edition is really a feast for the eyes, bound in red cloth with bronze foil backing, the cover graced with a Mars talisman; my preferred planetary power of choice. The binding is tight and the paper quality superb. A quick flip-through reveals numerous illustrations and photographs from Cecil Williamson’s collection from the Museum of Witchcraft. Needless to say, I was in love with the little book as soon as I first laid eyes on it, and fortunately the material inside did not disappoint.

The text opens with the classic charm: “Rain rain, go away, come again another day”—which I can still to this day remember being taught in English Nursery school—flanking an upturned horseshoe. The introduction reflects on the fiercely syncretic and non-discriminatory nature of folk magic, which devours any source it finds and attunes them to the needs of the user. The analysis in this section was particularly thought provoking for me, especially when I began to mentally compare this fluidity within folk magic with the staunch conservatism of early modern ritual magic. As is the case for the entire book, the writing is littered with colourful illustrations and quality photographs from the Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall.

The book moves on after the introduction to a collection of typical protection and good-luck charms. The one that struck me the most was the example of the more recent “Fums Up” charms, which you can see in the image above. These were apparently common during the First World War, carried by soldiers who were often gifted them by their lovers for luck. Sea urchin fossils/Faery Loaves, thunder-stones, hag stones, witch bottles, and all sorts of other artifacts are included in the chapter. I think it is perhaps this section of the book that most British people, including those who do not practice magic, would be familiar with, as we encounter the horseshoes and rowan crosses so closely tied to British folk-ways.

We also see a considerable number of verbal and written charms throughout the book, which are, alongside the illustrations, one of its biggest selling points as a reference text. Many of them were already fairly well-known to me, such as Isobel Gowdie’s “The Muckle maister Deil tak what’s atween dis twa hands!” and the numerous variations on the classic “three ladies” or “three angels” anti-burn charm, such as:

“There were three angels flying over the West
One cried Fire, the other cried Frost
The other was the Holy Ghost
Out fire, in Frost, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”

Other charms however were rarer, including some I have never seen before. In particular, the charms from Cecil Williamson’s personal collection include a number of very interesting exemplars; most notable perhaps being anti-Hitler sorceries from the 1940s. One fairly humerous example is that of a Hitler-themed pin cushion, used to afflict the dictator with all manner of ills. This fascinating example of effigy magic deployed for political purposes is quite evocative of the survival of the practical, folk magic mindset well into the Second World War, despite their otherwise widespread erosion.

The rest of the text is divided into a number of different sections, with examples of love divinations and spells, curses and healing techniques, and even magical folk-songs and dances. Each of these sections is filled with a considerable number of different charms, which are thankfully meticulously sourced in the footnotes. The sheer number of examples, in addition to their thorough cataloging, makes this work invaluable as a reference text for British folk magic, allowing us track down any that particularly catch our fancy. Another example that stuck out to me is that of a mole’s foot in a red bag, hung over the mantle. When a member of the household comes to suffer from a toothache, the bag is retrieved and worn around the neck until the pain is healed. In the final section, a “Magical Medley” of miscellaneous spells, there is even a short technique to ensure that your child will be a talented singer: all that is needed is to bury their first nail-parings under an ash tree and they will be granted the gift of song.

This little text is truly quite dear to me, both as a gift and as a reference work on one of my favourite topics of study. It is a fine collection of folk magic practices and techniques, full of historical curiosities and practical inspiration for my craft. I can’t pretend I’m not currently looking around for my own little “Fums Up!” figure as well! You can pick up your own copy in the numerous editions available on the Troy books website.

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