Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction by Malcolm Gaskill is the fourth book in the series that I’ve read and the 228th published in the series overall. The series is massive, so I feel like there’s a never-ending stream of interesting books flowing my way. Witchcraft is a particular favorite, and I liked it even more than my most recent read, Slang. The older illustrations that were selected are especially entertaining because they show the way that witches were imagined in the 16th and 17th centuries. Oddly one illustration, Hendy Fuseli’s The Nightmare, is captioned as having a “wild-eyed horse,” but the horse is clearly a ghost. At least to me, but I’m not seeing a second interpretation possible there. Along with illustrations and paintings are photographs, too, including one of a witches’ bottle from 2004 and a really funny one of a medium from 1930 ‘channeling’ a spirit into what looks to be a trash bag with a face drawn on it by a child.
The ‘witch-bottle’ that’s discussed is particularly interesting to me because it was buried upside-down and included nails, pins, hair, fingernail clippings, urine, and a pierced leather heart. The author continues “whether it was intended as protection against witchcraft or the means to reverse a spell, we’ll never know” (34). Why would they never know? Maybe ask a modern witch, you know, one that’s alive. I don’t mean to alarm any muggles out there, but witch bottles are still super common. That it was buried upside down may or may not have been intentional. Pins and nails are common protection items that would be universal to tons of witch bottles in existence today, not just historically, specifically ones to protect a home or person. Further, the nails, hair, and urine obviously belong to a person; it’s likely to belong to one person, and equally likely to belong to the person who created the bottle. Finally, the leather heart is pierced by presumably a pin or nail (why Gaskill doesn’t specify I don’t know, and I wish he had) seems to indicate heartbreak or pain. I posit that the witch bottle discovered was made to protect the creator from the pain of heartbreak, or to break the influence of heartbreak on that person. I suppose it could be to inflict heartbreak on someone else, or give them a heart attack, but they would need to DNA test the bottle. Whose DNA is on it, and is it all the same person? Because that’s actually really important. I don’t know a non-awkward way to explain this so I’ll just say it: I know all this stuff because I’m a witch. A practicing modern witch who picks up rusty nails when she sees them to make, you guessed it, witch bottles.
Slang: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathon Green was the third book I’ve read from the AVS series. It was my ‘purse book’ for the better part of three months, which I read piece meal in waiting rooms and the like. This book, like the whole VSI series, is very academic in style, and is written for academics. Having left grad school around a year and a half ago, it took me a few chapters to warm up, but then it was fine. However, it definitely will not make for good reading if you aren’t used to that style.
The book traces slang throughout time, complete with ye olde illustrations, but at points it feels a little dry (considering the subject matter). Some parts are extremely interesting, however, and I enjoyed reading it on the whole. The author is basically forced to deal with Urban Dictionary, but refuses to acknowledge its validity (at least in part, since it is ‘peer reviewed’ with the up/down voting). Even though the author won’t say it’s valid, he also won’t leave it out of the book, so it felt awkward. Near the end he makes points about regional and family slang that are very interesting, and it got me thinking about slang that’s used inside my family unit. It’s something that I’d never really thought about before. The chapters and sections are not broken up in a way that it can be used easily in a college classroom (in my opinion, anyway, and that way my original reason for picking it up), but it’s a good read nonetheless.
Part of the surprisingly illuminating “A Very Short Introduction” series, Helen Morales’ Classical Mythology might not be what one would expect. Rather than a run down of myth (which would be impossible in 144 mini pages) she discusses the often-invisible impact of “classical” (a term which she questions) myth on modern-day western society.
I should start by saying that I’m no stranger to classical mythology; I’ve read a ton of it, from Homer to Ovid to Aeschylus and from Edith Hamilton to Helene Cixous – when it comes to myth I’m no slouch. Regardless of this, Morales “introduction” helped me look at myth with a broader perspective. She points out ways in which myth continues to surface and the attitudes towards it (which are continually changing). Discussing everything from Freudian psychoanalytic theory (which I felt was the most fascinating part of the book) to astrology and modern-day goddess worship, Morales really covers a wide variety of topics. She also touches on the problematic role of women in mythology (addressing homoeroticism and the muse, among others) as well as the divided feminist response to those roles.
Classical myth has become something in western society that is so rarely examined critically, it’s just there, and no one asks why or how or where the influence goes to or comes from. It’s because of this lack of awareness of the myths which permeate our society that Morales’ little book was really wonderful to read, it reminds you that myth is not a static entity that “always was,” nor has myth been relegated to the realm of children’s literature, but that it remains an influential (though often covert) part of our shared semiology.