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the column of lasting insignificance: January 3, 2015
by John Wilcock

Forty years ago the second of my three books about magic was published, A Guide to Occult Britain (Sidgwick & Jackson) covering a wide range of sites from Stonehenge to Loch Ness and King Arthur country to the witches of Pendle Hill. It is now available as an eBook on amazon.com. What follows is the original introduction.

EVERY HUMAN BEING has a quest but relatively few realize it, and even fewer discover what their personal quest is before it captivates them. It has its classical counterpart in the alchemist’s search for the Philosophers’ Stone, Jason’s pursuit of the Golden Fleece or the lifelong quest by so many medieval knights for the Holy Grail. All these things, as psychologists have pointed out, are nothing less than inner searches for oneself clothed in the semblance of outer, worldly activity.
    The quest in fact, conscious or otherwise, forms the central structure of our lives, and it is only when we detect its pattern that we are able to channel it effectively. When we vacillate, change course haphazardly or shoot off wildly in ten directions at once, it suggests that our internal compass is out of order. It is at those times that we are most vulnerable to somebody (or something) else’s pattern.
    Back in the seventies, I knew deep in my gut that my quest period was about to begin and scared that before I could discover what it was I’d be in full cry along- some wild-goose chase that would only bring me frustration and sadness. And then, like so many people before me, I found myself right in the middle of my quest before I even knew the journey had begun. For two or three years, in a lackluster sort of way, I’d been collaborating with an old friend, Betty Pepper, in producing an annual compendium of occult material called the Witches’ Almanac. Betty had been writing a column about witchcraft for my personal monthly magazine (Other Scenes) and not long before I left New York the almanac developed out of that. Betty had long been a knowledgeable occultist, so my role was pretty much that of providing editorial and technical assistance. And stories to be written from our research. I was, literally, a sorcerer’s apprentice, and so long as it was something I could fit in between my other activities, the role suited me well.

A Guide to Occult Britain

    So here it was that most of my currents flowed together into a new project: research about the world’s magical sites, a travel guide that explored these ancient places of power with a (relatively) skeptical reporter’s eye. I would read everything I could, about the supposed magical content of these spots, and then go and look at them and write down what was known about them today. It would be a snap, I thought, and when I’d done it I would pass on to something else. How naive! I was already trapped. It is impossible, I quickly discovered, to dabble in magic without becoming captivated by its spell. The very word is a potent one, and, if you doubt this, try introducing it into your casual conversation at any time among almost any group of people.
    But what is magic? Is it even possible to define it? The Encyclopaedia Britannica devotes five or six thousand words to the task, and after you’ve finished reading it you are dizzy. It begins: ‘The general term for practice and power of wonder-working as dependent on the employment of supposed super-natural agencies. . . . There is no general agreement as to the proper definition of “magic” which depends on the view taken of religion…’
    It seems that wherever you try to get hold of this subject there are slippery edges. Just as my friends all through the sixties endlessly debated that age-old question, What is Art?, surely they’ll argue incessantly through the seventies, What is Magic? Because there is no doubt that however hard we may find it to define magic (and maybe its very indefinability is, as with art, the source of its power) there is an absolutely unprecedented interest in the subject. ‘Something is happening,’ concluded a writer for New Society in 1973, ‘a ballooning of interest in “arts” that have been ridiculed and outlawed for 300 years.’ The magazine, in an article mostly about astrology, talked of the rapid growth of ‘astral literacy’, quoting a recent National Opinion Poll noting that 87 per cent of those asked knew their sign of the zodiac.
    Now astrology, in my view, is the thin end of the wedge. You start by studying the zodiac and sooner or later you’re going to be a pushover for E.S.P., telepathy, telekinesis, spiritual messengers, mystic visions, witchcraft, psychometry and any of the hundreds and thousands of other magical themes. So astrology (or any of the other subjects I’ve mentioned) is an introduction, if you want to look at it that way, to a whole new vision of life.
    What I have tried to do in this book is to present you with information pretty much as it came to me. While I don’t claim to be an expert on anything (the sorcerer’s apprentice, remember?) I have brought to my quest the attitude and experience of a skeptical but, nevertheless, sympathetic reporter; I have tried to uncover not magic but evidence of magic, a documentation of as much of that pagan lore as I was able to find beneath the debris of 2,000 years of Christianization.
    I am no archaeologist, but I have perforce had to learn something of archaeology. And history. And comparative religions. And contemporary occult thought. I have tried to pay my respects to the experts in these fields and many others, and present as wide a cross-section of their views as possible. At times I may have done them less than justice, but it has never been my intention to reject any of their theories out of hand. The plain fact is that none of us knows the truth about the past; we can only guess, and sometimes the wildest maverick hypotheses of one generation are the stone-cold ‘truths’ of another.
    On a personal level I kept wondering what it was that had transformed me from a newspaperman with an intense pre- occupation about tomorrow into an antiquarian researcher who delighted in nothing more than burying himself in an era hundreds and sometimes thousands of years in the past. All of a sudden my interests were not only history and archaeology, but Celtic customs, ancient pagan gods, folklore, legends and inanimate weathered stones, half forgotten on lonely moors.
    It was only at the point when I began to notice how often the sun came into my research—the sun as the source of heat, light, life, the sun as the all-powerful god of the pre-Christian pagans -that I realized where the link-up came.
    Thousands of years ago in Britain, as in other countries, there lived a people who knew more about nature (magic?) than we do today. They regarded the sun as a god, the natural elements as uncontrollable, occasionally predictable and almost always useful (in the same way, for example, that a surf rider will use a wave’s power and energy to take him where he wants to go, abandoning it when their paths diverge).
    Those ancient, peoples, those ‘ignorant savages’, as some dismiss them as, apparently knew a thing or two. They knew, at least, where power came from, as we today are beginning to realize, with all the study now being devoted to solar energy and what can be done with it: distillation of fresh water from the sea, the heating of homes, the storing of the sun’s rays in dry batteries for powering radios and, conceivably, heavier machinery, Is it too much to claim that one day soon, when our oil supplies run out, we’ll once again regard the sun as an all-important ‘god’?
    And can we state categorically that the ancients didn’t know anything about solar energy? Energy, in fact, might be the key to the whole subject. What are ley lines but invisible tracks on which some power might once have flowed? And maybe could again if we could recapture the secrets of charging them up and channelling the flow.
    After I had built up fairly extensive files, I set off with a companion, Martha, to visit as many of the ancient sites as we could, places where it was possible that ‘magic’ had been known, if not actually practiced. Again and again we were confronted with the inexactness of any definition of magic. Wandering around ancient burial mounds (and they are more plentiful in Britain than anywhere) we felt the inadequacy of our education concerning sociology, geology, science, classical languages and mythology, folklore and agriculture, not to mention the knowledge of herbs, trees and other assorted flora and fauna, in the event that they might have long-documented mystical connotations.

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12/29/12

[ This column originally appeared
two years ago this week ]


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A Guide to Occult Britain

Forty years ago the second of my three books about magic was published, A Guide to Occult Britain (Sidgwick & Jackson) covering a wide range of sites from Stonehenge to Loch Ness and King Arthur country to the witches of Pendle Hill. It is now available as an eBook on amazon.com.

Manhattan MemoriesManhattan Memories
An Autobiography
by John Wilcock

"A GOOD WAY to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a major role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school aged 16 to work on various newspapers in England, and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City. There in 1955 he became one of the five founders of the Village Voice in which he and co-founder Norman Mailer wrote weekly columns. Wilcock called his column “The Village Square”, an intended pun. He and young Mailer were not quite friends, although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego."

-From the preface of Manhattan Memories, by Martin Gardner