Jason A. Josephson-Storm. The Myth of Disenchantment - Magic, Modernity and the Birth of the Human Sciences. The University of Chicago Press, 2017.

The key thought behind this scholarly work is the meaning and significance of 'disenchantment' (German: Entzauberung) in social science and Western intellectual culture. Max Weber (1864 - 1920), an influential German philosopher and one of the founders of 'sociology' as a new academic discipline, coined the term to describe the character of the secularised modern world where the magic and myth pertaining to traditional values had, seemingly, all but disappeared and had been subsumed by pure rationalism and intellect. Josephson-Storm exhaustively traces the development of Western thought on this subject through history to the present time, and convincingly argues that the magic never really went away after all.

As a young Associate Professor of Philosophy, the author displays impressive erudition in tackling what is, by any standards, a massive undertaking. While the underlying theme is eminently simple and understandable, some of the philosophical arguments become immensely complex. This book is a serious academic work written by a scholar in the process of building a reputation, and it shows. Yet he reveals a capacity for lightness of touch in his Preface and Introduction to show some of his own personality and background.

We learn that the inspiration for this book came to him while he was in Japan on a writing research project in March 2011. He happened to be in a tattoo parlour in Kyoto, having some finishing touches done, when the news came over the television about the massive earthquake and tsunami that had hit the Tohoku region. As the disaster unfolded, the conversation that ensued between those present covered topics such as protective talismans, ghostly premonitions, and whether Japan was more 'spiritual' than the West. Realising that his research project might reinforce cliches about the 'mystical Orient', he decided to expand his project by studying in depth the linkage between modernisation and enchantment in Europe and America.

His Introduction opens promisingly with a graphic description of a seance in 1907 attended by one of the most famous scientists of the 20th century, Marie Curie (1867 - 1934). The spirit medium was Eusapia Palladino (1854 - 1918) who convinced many seekers with astonishing displays of phenomena but was eventually shown to be a fraud. Curie's presence was not her first attendance, as she and her husband Pierre (1859 - 1906) had been researching psychic phenomena for some time.

Tragically, Pierre was killed instantly in 1906 when he slipped on a pavement in the rain and fell under a cart which crushed his head. The Curies had both been researching invisible energies such as magnetism, electrical fields and, of course, radioactivity, for which they had been jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903. In a letter written shortly before his death, Pierre mentioned that he and Marie had attended several seances with Eusapia Palladino. He reported that "these phenomena really exist and it is no longer possible for me to deny them". It is no wonder that Marie might have hoped for a communication 'from the other side', but what is most interesting is that both of these leading scientists believed in spiritual energy as a higher form of the invisible physical energies they were researching.

Presenting himself as a disciple of critical theory, the author refers to a key text in Dialectic of Enlightenment, a monumental work by Horkheimer and Adorno of the Frankfurt School published in 1944: ''Enlightenment's program was the disenchantment of the world." In other words, the concept of a 'clockwork universe' arose with mathematical physics and other hard sciences. Josephson-Storm says: "From my perspective, this particular world picture is a myth insofar as it has taken on its own narrative force and bears little relationship to the status of physics in any given moment."

While finding Dialectic intensely useful, the author considers it "a late expression of an old myth" that rests on a set of basically mythical binaries (myth/enlightenment, nature/human) while asserting that myth and magic had been lost, on the assumption that reason had triumphed. "Yet this event never occurred. It too is a myth". Perhaps anxious that the reader might not get his gist, he goes further: "Let me put this differently. What I am saying is that not only is myth myth; not only is the opposition to myth myth; but the recognition of the opposition to myth as myth is itself myth." We might wish that he had put it differently. Does not reading, and re-reading, that sentence leave you feeling somewhat, well, miffed? A surfeit of myths, I would say. One must allow the odd tortuous sentence in a serious philosophical work such as this, and it may even be an attempt at humour.

Isaac Newton, a pivotal figure for this study, straddled the world of mathematical physics while yet being, more privately, an alchemist and mystic. Apart from his great knowledge he showed wisdom when he said: "Truth is ever to be found in the simplicity, and not in the multiplicity of things." That is indeed the ideal, but philosophical thought and argument always have a tendency to a prolix style of writing. Take this sentence from the book under review as an example: "According to the set of augmentation and periodization that loosely gets clustered under the name of 'postmodernism', perhaps postmodernism has meant the return of irrationality."

However, it has to be said this book rewards time and effort in reading the text carefully for many gems of knowledge and historical fact in the lives of great men who were pioneers of human intellectual and social evolution. All of the great thinkers are here, such as Paracelsus, physician and alchemist, Giordano Bruno, cosmological theorist, Francis Bacon, founder of the scientific method, Jakob Boehme, a mystic with a profound vision of God, and Rene Descartes "whose bifurcation of mind and matter relegated the physical world to mere extension".

The French philosophes receive a good deal of attention, in particular Denis Diderot (1713 - 1784) a prominent figure of the Enlightenment and co-founder of the Encyclopedie. Diderot dismissed those non-rational thinkers such as Paracelsus and Boehme as theosophes, although he did find some redeeming qualities in Paracelsus. It appears that anything that could not be comprehended by the rational mind was unacceptable to those purist philosophes. Diderot is most interesting because of his reputation as 'the first of the atheists', yet he still evinced a sense of wonder at natural phenomena displaying a kind of divine intelligence and order. Furthermore, he had studied in his youth with a known alchemist and had read magical texts with interest.

German philosophy and culture of the 18th and 19th centuries clearly had a passion for mythology. One need look no further than the Brothers Grimm, Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche and later Martin Heidegger for evidence of the 'longing for myth'. This kind of mythology was romantic, nostalgic and based on past glories such as Ancient Greece, Rome and Teutonic history. Later German philosophers called for a new mythology, without defining exactly what it should be other than something arising from a future generation. As Josephson-Storm rightly points out, the word 'myth' usually implies "embellishment if not outright falsehood".

Friedrich Nietzsche
This is where the author seems to be claiming a new insight: "What later scholars have typically missed is that the real myth was not in their proposed solutions: it was not Orientalized reconstructions of Aryan mythology nor Teutonic revivals. Its core was the very idea that, as Schlegel stated, 'we have no mythology'". To elaborate what this actually means, Josephson-Storm gives us the following concise explanation: "In a nutshell, the myth born from this philosophical conjuncture was an anti-myth, a myth that described itself in terms of longing, absence and mythlessness. Its paradox is that only by being a myth that there was no myth could its status as myth go unnoticed and hence not be demystified. It was a myth in search of a myth. Insofar as this myth is still our myth - or at least an animating narrative across many sectors of modern society - their project worked."

The main point he is making in this section is that "the myth of disenchantment" was born and found expression in 19th century Germany, and then spread to other developed countries, especially Britain and France. Was it not Nietzsche who became famous for the quotation "God is dead"? It did not mean that there was a creator God who had died at some point. Christianity had lost its grip, and in The Will to Power Nietzsche gloomily predicted the advent of nihilism. So it proved as the whole of Europe was plunged into the Great War, followed by Communism, Nazism, and Nationalism.

At the same time, there was an occult revival, manifested in leading figures such as Helena Blavatsky who founded the Theosophical Society in 1875, and Eliphas Levi. A most important and influential book was published by James Frazer in 1890: The Golden Bough. Josephson-Storm devotes a whole chapter to this work, which reveals ancient origins of religions as fertility cults, human sacrifice, and a dying king or god. Aleister Crowley, the most outstanding occult figure of the period, drew a great deal of his ideas from Frazer's book. Crowley also rightly gets a whole chapter to himself and his work, reflecting the significance of the mission he had set himself: nothing less than to revive true 'Magick' and to be the messiah of the new age.

Crowley's definition of Magick was: 'The science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.' Finding one's true will, or one's place and purpose in the universe, was the key. He proposed that Magick was cutting-edge science and future-focused, based on the power of the mind over matter and energy. Quantum mechanics, with the 'observer effect', shows the scientific validity of magical philosophy, but one must never think it is all intellect. I like this quotation of Crowley: "The universe is a phenomenon of love under will, a mystic and poetic creation, and the intellect only stands to it as mere scansion does to poetry."

The Myth of Disenchantment is a most stimulating and informative book that covers much more than its title alone suggests. Professor Storm, as he likes to be addressed by polite students, is to be congratulated for his great work of collating and analysing so much material on a complex subject. He admits in his final words that he does not come down on either side in this debate. His point is that the extremes of both modes transform into their opposite. It is this duality of opposites and polarities that is most fascinating. Might this be exactly the reason why we humans have two hemispheres in our brains? -- Kevin Murphy

If you have any comments or questions about the book, leave them in the Comments below and Prof. Storm will reply. 



I first met Peter Rogerson in April 1970 when I was invited, at his suggestion, to speak at a meeting of the DIGAP UFO Group, which was based in Manchester. A few months before then he had written to the Merseyside UFO Bulletin (MUFOB) which John Harney and I were publishing from Liverpool. 

His letter was full of what were for more conventional ufologists of the era, wild and probably dangerous ideas, suggesting a link between UFOs and psychic phenomena. One of the stumbling blocks to this idea being developed rationally was, he claimed, the large proportion of ufologists who were believers in Spiritualism and occultism, a claim which was vigorously disputed by various ufological luminaries in subsequent issues of MUFOB.

His letter went on to list a whole range of anomalous phenomena and cases which he felt could have some relevance to the UFO phenomenon. Were hauntings, for instance, “highly localised flap areas”; what could folk-tales and legends tell us about the way in which people interpreted strange events; did 'Men in Black' stories fit into a wider conspiracy culture; why did strange events concentrate in particular places at particular times? Practically the whole of psychosocial ufology was there in embryo in that one letter.

At the DIGAP meeting I met Peter, then a nineteen year old student at Manchester Poly, studying librarianship, my own profession. I soon realised that he had arranged my invitation to shake up the DIGAP old timers, some of whom were certainly the Spiritualists and occultists he was referring to in his letter. My talk emphasised the subjective aspects of the UFO phenomenon, downplaying both the ETH and the more exotic occult theories. I was listened to, as I so often was, in polite silence.

During the talk I had touched briefly on the subject of Men in Black (MIB) suggesting that this was largely an American phenomenon, although one or two cases had been reported in Britain. One audience member was keen to tell me of a case quite near to home, where a UFO magazine editor had been threatened by the MIB and forced to close down his journal. Who, we were keen to learn, was this unfortunate ufologist? 

“It was someone called John Harney”. As MUFOB/Magonia is still around after fifty years, I can only say: Worst. MIB. Ever!

From then on Peter became a regular contributor to MUFOB, largely through the post, but enlivened by occasional meetings of the team in Liverpool or Manchester. His first major article for the magazine looked at ufology as part of what he termed 'apocalyptophilia'. Here he first broached a topic which coloured much of his writing: the return of superstition and irrationality challenging the Enlightenment legacy which by the 1960s we thought was unchallengeable.

Writing of the progress of science as “the development of rational civilisation, offering protection against the dark” - here perhaps prefiguring Sagan's 'candle in the dark' analogy – he feared that perhaps the light was in danger: “the horrors long hidden in forgotten recesses of the mind surge out, obliterating reasonable critical facilities...” He concludes “society is almost ready for the reappearance of Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General”. A prophecy that came only too true a decade later when the Satanic Panic swept through society, and is still relevant today when the forces of unreason seem as strong as ever, and now even seem to be infiltrating the establishment and the academy.

This might make Peter out to be a pessimistic personality, but this is far from the case. For most of the time I knew Peter, our friendship was conducted through legendarily long phone calls, which although we often discussed serious matters, were always enlivened with humour and, to be honest, sometimes downright silliness!

Peter gradually took on the role of senior book reviewer for Magonia, reviewing new titles as he added them to his ever-growing library, and here we can see most clearly the range and depth of his interests. Anything from complex academic compilations of sociological essays, always with their statutory references to Derrida, to rollicking paperback accounts of crashed UFOs, alien abductions and haunted hotels, would receive an informed, fair, but sometimes acerbic review.

Peter was never a part of the UFO and Fortean conference circuit, although he did attend some, and spoke at a few. His work was done via the library and archive rather than by chasing anomalies in the wild with camera, geiger-counter and recorder. This led some people to describe him as an 'armchair ufologist' which was true, and is a title I am proud to own to as well. But once the field researchers come home, tired, wet and bedraggled, someone has to go over their data and see if it all fits together.

Peter's work as a local history librarian also led him into the study of folklore, particularly the lore and legends of his native Lancashire, and this of course fed directly into his study of the social and historical origins of many anomalous phenomena. He developed an understanding of the way in which human experiences, which remain constant over centuries, are interpreted differently for each new generation. One of his other interests was radical and working-class history, and even here the social, religious and political background to ordinary people's lives could express themselves in ways which now seem mysterious to us: the strange lights of the Welsh religious revival; the visions in the sky from the time of the Civil War; the invasion scares that produced phantom airships; the rapid urbanisation and industrialisation of society that allowed the legend of Spring Heeled Jack to come to life.

Peter will leave two legacies, apart from the memories he leaves to all who knew him. One is his massive collection of books and magazines. Perhaps, after Hilary Evans's library it was the largest collection of UFO and Fortean material in Britain in private hands. Peter had been working with Clas Svahn and the Archive for the Unexplained (AFU) in Norrköping, Sweden, to transfer his collection to their safekeeping where it will be available to serious researchers. This has been a massive undertaking, and for several years now Clas and his team have been carrying thousands of items across to Sweden on their annual visits to Britain. Elsewhere on this blog there is an amazing picture of dozens of boxes, full of Fortean treasure, lined up outside Peter's house, ready to be taken away to AFU.

The other is the legacy of his thought and writing, expressed on the pages and web-pages of MUFOB and Magonia. I will do what I can to ensure that these are preserved and promoted.

There is one other act for which I shall always be grateful to Peter. He introduced me to Roger Sandell, another great pillar of Magonia, whose writings, like Peter's, opened up the subjects that we study. Like Peter, he died far too young. For a tiny magazine, produced on a kitchen-table, which never had a print circulation of more than two hundred, Magonia has had a huge influence in the ufological and Fortean worlds, and it is in great measure due to the work of these two people, whom I am so glad to have known as colleagues and friends. -- John Rimmer

Peter Rogerson; librarian and archivist, ufologist, book-collector.
Born Urmston, Lancashire, 1 July 1951; died Manchester, 6 March 2018, aged 67.



I am very sorry to have to say that Peter Rogerson, one of the founding rocks of Magonia, and a very dear friend, has passed away. He died peacefully in his sleep early this morning (6th March) in hospital in Manchester, after being unsuccessfully treated for throat cancer.

His first contribution to what became Magonia was a Letter to the Editor in the May-June 1969 issue of Merseyside UFO Bulletin. From then on he became a regular contributor to the Bulletin and its successor incarnations, providing a series of thoughtful and thought-provoking articles. He was also for most of that period our main book reviewer, and in the course of that built up a massive collection of UFO and Fortean books, which will now become part of the AFU library in Sweden. He will be missed greatly, and his contribution to the subjects we study cannot be overestimated.

I will write a little more about Peter soon, but in the meantime, you might like to browse through a collection of his articles in the Magonia archives:




Susan Owens, The Ghost: A Cultural History, Tate Publishing, 2017.

Although this book is published by the Tate Gallery itself and is the work of one of its most eminent and respected curators, don’t let that put you off. Not even if you’re an active ghosthunter or, conversely, a nuts-and-bolts-Dawkins-is-God kind of Skeptic/sceptic. With some reservations – see below - Ms Owens is good.

She writes like a dream and tackles her subject with a deft balance between an emotive perspective and, inevitably, a cultural one. Her turns of phrase satisfy, amuse and inform. For all its potentially off-putting cultural garb (should you be more a Most Haunted devotee than a Tate regular), this mostly excellent book succeeds where considerably less sophisticated works all too often fail, despite their pretensions to be uncomplicatedly readable. Owens’ book actually entertains. It is not a chore, not one to stick on the bedside pile that we ‘ought’ to get round to … one day… (And, as might be expected from such a refined publisher, its pages are beautiful. Plus, it even smells like a proper book.) This is a volume to get stuck into, heartily.

Ms Owens is a sort-of believer, or rather not a non-believer, in the reality of ghosts. However, that is not strictly relevant. This book, is – as it says on the cover – about the place of ghosts in British culture over the centuries. And it doesn’t have to be Culture with a capital ‘C’. As she notes, ‘Ghost stories are, and always have been, tales of the people, treasured, told and elaborated from one generation to the next’. Treasured by the medieval agricultural communities as almost the only form of entertainment in the long hours of winter dark, treasured through every layer of society right through to today, when if nothing else, ghosts help sell Brand Britain to foreign tourists. Owen quotes Noel Coward: ‘The Stately Homes of England/Though rather in the lurch/Provide a lot of chances/For Psychical Research’. That was in 1938, but little has changed. Even in the 21st century, a visit to Olde Englande wouldn’t be complete without a delicious shiver at the prospect of encountering at least one of Henry VIII’s unhappy queens, with or without their heads.

However, the perception of ghosts – or perhaps the theory behind their manifestation – has changed enormously from the medieval appearances of saints and demons, when they were almost always accompanied by dire underlying messages about the perils that confront the sinners’ souls in the afterlife (and sometimes in this life, too). Revenants, often almost indistinguishable from modern ideas of vampires or even zombies, molested and stalked the living. Usually a turn to piety was enough to drive them off to Hell, though sometimes their bodies had to be staked or burnt. Never, ever, die unrepentant. Not a great move. Be warned.

The Reformation got rid of inconvenient apparitions – or did it… When reformers excised the idea of Purgatory from the believers’ mindset, many thought ‘the gospel hath chased away walking spirits’. Or not. Soon ghosts became ‘the puppets used on both sides’ – by both old-school Catholics and the new Protestants. Ghosts were, too, associated with witchcraft, which rather complicated matters. ‘Both camps agreed that many apparitions were diabolic illusions designed to trick people. It was a compelling idea, and one that, to most people’s minds, added a fearful new dimension to a ghostly appearance. The involvement of Satan himself in what was already regarded as an uncanny encounter was a downright terrifying prospect.’

There were, even then, sceptics, and sort of proto-psychologists, who argued that it’s ‘melancholie’ – depression – that causes a tendency to see the mournful or menacing what-isn’t-there. Some, less sceptical, argued that conversely, it was seeing ghosts that made you depressed. Actually, things haven’t moved on much further today.

Perhaps, simply because it’s chronologically and figuratively nearer our own time and culture, the second half of this book is the more intriguing. We enter the world of the ghost stories of the very famous, such as Samuel Pepys and Dante Gabriel Rosetti. But of course the biggest name of recent times who popularised ghosts more successfully than anyone else was Charles Dickens, with his publishing phenomenon, A Christmas Carol (1843). Owen notes that this ‘turns the traditional ghost story inside out’, Scrooge, when we first encounter him, having more in common with traditional ghosts than the actual apparitions. ‘He is shunned and feared, and is considered such an anti-social figure that no one ever stops to ask him the way or the time.’

London – the everyday world of Dickens and his first readers – was teaming with invisible ghosts, ‘wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went’. But their angst has a subtle cause: in their disembodied state they can’t help the needy. This is their punishment for being so aloof and anti-humanitarian in life.

All through the humour and the celebrated vivacity of Christmas jollity, this world-famous book is based on the idea that it ‘was an apt time to re-shape the ghost as a moral teacher.’ ‘The hungry 40s’ saw masses living in exceptionally dire conditions, under the unyielding gaze of an oblivious or uncaring ruling class – a situation that drove the fire behind Dickens’ pen. Such was his genius that what was, in many ways, a dramatized moral and political tract, is actually loved by all levels of society and all ages, even in the 21st century. This is the perfect example of the useful ghost. Surely few have served a more useful purpose than Ebenezer Scrooge. (If nothing else, one more or less immediate result of this tale was that many employers gave their underlings a decent amount of time off at Christmas – and better heating, or indeed, any heating at all, in their places of work. The very worst insult that could be levelled at bosses was to be called ‘Scrooge’.)

Obviously a historical overview about apparitions like Owen’s book will take in the rise of the Spiritualist movement and the Society for Psychical Research on the one hand, and the chilling genius of master-story tellers like M.R. James on the other. These might be well-worn paths for authors on this subject to tread, but Owen handles them with both unusual insight and her usual panache.

This is, as I hope I have made clear, in many ways a deeply satisfying book on a vexed and often difficult subject. But, ah…

Although it’s impossible for one volume to include every ghost story and legend, and to some extent, what is included or omitted will always be a matter of authorial preference, there are still some glaring omissions. Yes, we get in some detail classic historical cases such as the Cock Lane Ghost, but where, for example, is the (in)famous Enfield Poltergeist of the 1970s?

The controversy and appeal of this poltergeist saga show no signs of diminishing, especially since the success of its dramatization on Sky Living as The Enfield Haunting (2015), starring Timothy Spall and Matthew Macfadyen as the original investigators, Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair.

But perhaps even more to the point, where is the considerably more controversial television mockumentary Ghostwatch, which was based on the earlier goings-on at Enfield? Shown at Halloween in 1992, and starring Mike Smith, Sarah Greene, Craig Charles and Michael Parkinson, it purported to be a live ghostwatch, with studio link-up. Things rapidly got out of hand, not only in the haunted house itself, but the terrifying poltergeist activity crossed over into the studio, causing mayhem around the cowering presenters. It caused widespread panic among viewers: over 30,000 calls were made to the BBC in a single hour, jamming the switchboard so that most of the traumatised callers never had a chance to hear the recorded statement that made it clear the event was totally fictitious. It was surely a landmark moment in the cultural history of ghosts, but there is no mention of it here.

There are, of course, limits to the basic principle of this book. Yes, undoubtedly, it’s fascinating to see the evolution of culture through the story of ghosts. But some ghosts simply don’t fit the neat chronology of art, poetry, religion, or even television. Some ghosts just are. Just as in life most people don’t easily fall into cultural categories, once in the realm of ghosts, why should that change? -- Lynn Picknett



David Huckvale. A Green and Pagan Land, Myth, Magic and Landscape in British Film and Television. McFarland 2018.

A Green and Pagan Land is an ambitious, highly readable and comprehensive book on how a British pagan consciousness, through time and place, secured a dwelling in cultural artefacts. I use the word artefacts as shorthand for constructs of the imagination. Art and its objects re-claimed pagan imagery for a counter culture to seduce those disillusioned by orthodox Christianity, and disturbed by the modernism and materialism following two World Wars, to reclaim an older ‘natural’ world as an aesthetic force for spiritual sustenance.

The journey through the wood or forest promised more Holy Grail goodness than the most radical and revolutionary political change. Whether this was a regressive or progressive aim depends on your spiritual compass – is it a dark prolonged reverie in the wood that you desire or the discovery of a clearing in the forest that brings you out to the sea and freedom? Of course I am talking metaphorically. Yet conjure up the name of Carl Jung (as Huckvale pertinently does) and you begin to supply a psychological language and foundation for ‘pagan thought’ and ‘pagan’ inspired artists.

Donald Huckvale, who lives in Rural Bedfordshire, occasionally intersperses his Celtic landscape argument with a personal account of walks in the countryside.

“Already as I walk through my British woodland landscape, I am aware of the power of its symbolism. There is no one else here at this hour, but it takes only one consciousness to politicize this place. Cultural connotations contaminate it, for what was merely a habitat for squirrels, becomes, with the presence of just one human mind, mythic and meaningful.”

Our human need not to see the real forest (Tudor, Arthurian or later) but an imaginary one, that alternatively heals and threatens, is to use a very 21st century term, the 'psychogeography' theme of this book: searching for a mental landscape where magic may or may not occur. A Green and Pagan Land is a book that mediates between a real apprehension of the environment and an imagined and mythologized place. Into this construct come its creators – the painters, poets, novelists, composers and film-makers, drawn by genuine mystical tendencies. Some artists went over the top but others mined a profound core of belief / disbelief. This book draws on the many people who undertook this artistic journey.

In Pagan Land’s 10 chapters (it’s a short book of 220 pages) we discover who attempts to “politicize this place”. Huckvale’s erudition is impressive without ever being intimidating. From chapter titles like 'The Return of Arthur' to 'Who is the Grail?' and 'The Green Man Cometh', etc many astute connections are made.

Wagner’s Ring cycle casting its shadow on Rutland Broughton’s forgotten opera King Arthur: filtered through Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, that latterly influenced such films as Monty Python and the Holy Grail or John Boorman’s Excalibur.

Or tracing the influence of the Green Man from the medieval poem through the stories of Algernon Blackwood, the novels of E.F.Benson and composer Arnold Bax having a direct or tangential influence on Lawrence’s Women in Love and The Day of the Triffids.

Whilst the notion of a Celtic twilight is explored through Yeat’s Isle of Innisfree poem, M.R.James and Arthur Machen’s stories to the psychogeography of Ian Sinclair, via Frazer’s The Golden Bough to arrive at the cult classic film The Wicker Man.

Without wanting to list all the contents of every chapter, you’ve probably realised that A Green and Pagan Land presents a very extensive canvas of cultural reference and inference. Huckvale’s sense of exploration both stimulated and, allowing for my only important caveat, sometimes frustrated me. The problem is that for a book that surveys “Myth, Magic and Landscape in British Film and Television” there isn’t enough discussion of the actual film and TV work. The percentage is more like 75% on the other arts compared to 25% devoted to the visual media. Eventually, in the last two chapters, Huckvale makes all his roads lead you to undoubtedly the most important films (Witchfinder General, Night of the Demon, The Wickerman and Penda’s Fen) but I would have preferred a bit less of the multi-artistic influences on them and a longer analysis of these films with the potent landscapes that they still reveal to us.

For me A Green and Pleasant Land lacks a strong summing up of Huckvale’s findings and marvellous research. It demands a postscript or epilogue placed after its final chapter, 'The Road to Penda’s Fen'. Was one written and then cut from the book? I felt it really needed to synthesise its ideas with a more satisfying conclusion.

But I won’t carp on what isn’t in the book but praise it for what is. This is a fine and stimulating exploration of the most influential and neglected artworks of a very British pagan culture. – Alan Price



Donald R. Prothero and Timothy D. Callahan. UFOs, Chemtrails and Aliens: What Science Says. Indiana University Press, 2017.

Despite the pretentious ‘What Science Says’ subtitle, which rather suggests that Prothero and Callahan have somehow been appointed official spokespersons for ‘Science’ - whatever that may be as a single entity – this book is actually a pretty fair review of the sceptical approach to the subjects listed in the title. The counter-augments to the mystery-proponents are presented with a great deal of evidence, and there is less of the de haut en bas sneering which distinguishes some sceptical writers’ arguments.

Prothero has taught geology and palaeontology and Callahan is an artist who has worked in the film industry, so they are equally as qualified to discuss UFOs and aliens as a Chartered Librarian, or someone who worked in the computer section of the Meteorological Office. But what is lacking is any indication that the writers have done any actual fieldwork, and they are working entirely from what we must now refer to as ‘texts’. The exception is their revealing accounts of visits to the US Government's 'top secret' bases like Area 51.

I have often thought that one of the most significant differences between American ‘skeptics’ and British sceptics – in the UFO field at least – is that the majority of British UFO sceptics have ‘worked their passage’ as UFO investigators and have come to their sceptical positions via the evidence, or lack of, that they uncovered in their investigations. This has also allowed them to maintain a tolerance of the ambiguity inherent in the subject, and thus avoid the ‘k’ in skeptic.

Many US skeptics seem, like Prothero and Callahan, to have emerged, fully formed, from academia. This seems to mean that they are less aware of the existing sceptical attitudes present throughout the fields they are discussing. In his Fortean Times review of this title, Ian Simmons pointed out the total lack of any recognition of British sceptical ufologists such as Jenny Randles or Dave Clarke. I would add to that the notable absence of sceptical American researchers working from inside the field, such as Allan Hendry, Dennis Stillings and even Jerome Clark.

It is only by ignoring such writers that the authors have needed to spend so much time debunking the claims of figures such as Adamski, von Daniken, Claude ‘Rael’ Verilhon, and Eduard Meier, who is subjected to a detailed but entirely unnecessary debunking of his bizarre claims. These people are almost totally ignored by today’s UFO researchers, even the eager-believers, and, it all seems a little bit passé. The amount of space devoted to claimed ‘alien skulls’ is totally disproportionate to their importance to serious UFO research.

What is scarcely touched upon is why and how various individuals come up with their claims, and just why such ridiculous claims have attracted so many believers, other than that people are ‘unscientific’ and need to be better educated, presumably by books like this.

Throughout the assumption is made that if you are able to show how ‘the science’ disproves a claim then it can be safely filed away as ‘explained’, and there is no need to search for the reason why that claim was made in the first place. Now I suppose it could be argued that looking for the ‘bigger picture’, especially the psychological or sociological background, was not the authors’ main remit, and to be fair they do present a comprehensive account of how popular culture, mass media and the UFO narrative have fed off each other over the past century. Much of this seems to be based on the work of Martin Kottmeyer, and at least result in Magonia getting a couple of mentions in the book’s references!

I would take issue with some of the propped explanations for UFO close encounters. The account of the Travis Walters case is very over-simplified and although conscious fraud remains a possibility – even probability – exactly who was perpetrating a fraud against whom is still very much open to debate. Similarly the Cash-Landrum case needs more careful treatment than is given here.

I wonder who exactly this book is aimed at. It might perhaps be a useful reference for a college course on critical thinking, although I can’t help thinking it is a case of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut (pun probably intended). Although there is nothing very much that I would disagree with in this book as a whole, I cannot help but think that there are other better – and shorter - sceptical analyses of the UFO phenomenon, written by people who have a more nuanced view of the whole UFO field. – John Rimmer.



R. William Weisberger. Speculative Freemasonry and the Enlightenment: A Study of the Craft in London, Paris, Prague, Vienna and Philadelphia, McFarland & Company, 2017.

The title and subtitle succinctly encapsulates this book’s subject matter and sets the tone for what is a solidly academic and strait-laced work. It’s the second edition of a book that began life as the author’s doctoral dissertation in 1980, R. William Weisberger now being a professor of history in Pennsylvania - and a proud Freemason.

The major change from the first, 1993, edition is the addition, as appendices, of two previously-published papers examining Benjamin Franklin’s Masonic activities in Paris and Freemasonry’s role in the campaign for Jewish civic rights in Habsburg Austria and the fledgling USA. It is, in Weisberger’s words, "a comparative analysis of the Craft or Freemasonry in four European urban centers and one American city during the eighteenth century," which aims to establish the contribution made to the Enlightenment by Speculative Freemasonry - the funny handshakes and apron-wearing kind as opposed to the ‘operative’ form of actual stonemasons, i.e. what most of us think of as ‘Freemasonry’ pure and simple.

The cities are London, where it all began, Paris, the two Habsburg cultural centres of Prague and Vienna, and Philadelphia – although the last isn’t given as full a treatment as the others, only being discussed in an appendix in relation to one of that city’s lodge’s part in the campaign for Jewish citizenship. There are chapters detailing the organisation, activities, membership and social composition of Masonic lodges in the four European cities, followed by an analysis of their common features and how they differed as a result the varying social and political environments.

It’s a book written by a historian for historians, assuming a fairly detailed knowledge of the period, the reader being expected to be familiar with the work of scholars whose last names are dropped in casually, and with terms such as ‘Whigs, in the Harringtonian sense’, ‘Anglican Latitudinarians’ and ‘Thèse Nobilaire’.

For Weisberger, Speculative Freemasonry isn’t something that just happened to emerge at the time but was deliberately created in the 1720s as ‘a vehicle for the promotion of Newtonian ideas and other tenets associated with the Enlightenment’, being a repurposing of the operative guilds that were much in evidence in post-Great Fire London. The two prime movers – the ‘high priests of Speculative Freemasonry’ - were Newton’s former assistant Jean Desaguliers [left] and John Anderson, both Protestant clergymen, who according to Weisberger devised the rituals and symbols of the three basic Masonic degrees as ‘suitable teaching instruments’ and ‘to explain salient Enlightenment ideas’.

I’m not sure it’s quite as straightforward as that, as there’s evidence (not dealt with by Weisberger) that Freemasonry in its speculative form was around at least 70 years earlier; because of the lack of available records, distinguishing what went before from what was an innovation of the 1720s can only remain a matter for speculation (no pun intended, probably).

Be that as it may, for Weisberger Freemasonry was all about the Enlightenment, being invented to spread key Enlightenment ideals and values that were based on the application of reason to all areas of knowledge – scientific, religious, social and political: "The rites, legends, symbols and teachings of the order offered vivid explanations of salient doctrines of the Enlightenment… Its rites, also, contained explications of the tenets of classicism, deism, religious toleration, and humanitarianism," as well as concepts of constitutional government and civil liberties. Weisberger frequently speaks of Freemasonry as an attempt to create a ‘civil religion’.

However, beyond showing that Freemasonry swam in the intellectual and social current of a vibrant era of change that we now label the Enlightenment – how could it not? - it’s unclear exactly what Weisberger is claiming for it. He doesn’t establish that it was the driving force of the age or that the Enlightenment couldn’t have happened without it. While he shows that some lodges were set up or used to nurture and disseminate Enlightenment ideals, many lodges weren’t, and those ideals were being spread by individuals and organisations outside the lodges; it was, after all, the spirit of the age.

As Weisberger notes, there were many other societies – learned, literary, cultural – and meeting-places for networking and the discussion of ideas – coffee houses, taverns, clubs – that performed the same function as Masonic lodges. While it’s true that Freemasons made major contributions to the Enlightenment, that’s not necessarily to say that they did so because they were Masons – and there were non-Masons who made contributions that were just as important. In short, although Weisberger demonstrates that the Enlightenment influenced Freemasonry, he doesn’t, despite his best efforts, show that Freemasonry had a special influence on the Enlightenment.

I frequently got the impression that Weisberger’s enthusiasm for Freemasonry and pride in its heritage has lead him to overstate his case. For example, he notes that some Masons in London who belonged to learned societies were also members of academies in other European cities, and from this concludes that through these individuals ‘Masonry served as an important channel through which the Enlightenment could develop in other places’. It’s odd logic and claims rather too much for Freemasonry: wasn’t it rather the learned societies and academies that were the channels?

Similarly, there’s an element of self-fulfilment in Weisberger’s concentrating on Masonic lodges that were explicitly set up to champion Enlightenment ideals, even though they were the exception rather than the rule. For example, in the chapter on Paris he focuses on the Lodge of the Nine Sisters, founded in 1776 by the astronomer Jerome Lalande explicitly to discuss and promote the new Enlightenment ideas, and whose membership included Voltaire, Dr Guillotin, Benjamin Franklin and the Montgolfier brothers. However, he notes that it was looked at askance by Paris’s Masonic authorities – who eventually closed it down in 1792 - precisely because its functions and activities were so different from those of other lodges.

The same applies to his singling out of the True Harmony Lodge of Vienna, which – because that city didn’t have the learned societies that flourished in London and Paris – was established in 1781 by the ex-Jesuit geologist Ignatz von Born explicitly as such a society, for example sponsoring literary and scientific journals. Weisberger makes much of the fact that many of its members were active supporters of political and religious reform. However, this was a famous period of reforms of the state and legal system – including its relationship with the Church and moves to grant greater rights to Jews - that were initiated by Emperor Joseph II (who wasn’t a Mason).

So those reforms were already happening anyway, and it’s not surprising that members of the Viennese intelligentsia and literati who were attracted to True Harmony should espouse them. In any case, the lodge was only active for four years, being closed down by Joseph in 1785 in the wake of the Illuminati scare. (Confusingly, Weisberger gives as one of the reasons for Joseph’s change in attitude to Freemasonry ‘the strident criticisms of other members of the True Harmony Lodge against the emperor’s reform program’.)

This selectivity – highlighting only examples the fit the thesis and ignoring what doesn’t - is largely a consequence of Weisberger’s adherence to the traditional view of the Enlightenment as a period in which reason triumphed over the irrational forces of religion and superstition, a view that is increasingly being challenged by historians of the period, for example John V. Fleming and Paul Kléber Monod, who see it as an example of later historians rewriting the past to make it what they think it should have been: the ‘Enlightenment’ label was, after all, given to that era in hindsight in the late nineteenth century. Scholars such as Fleming and Monod argue that ‘irrational’ thinking, especially that of the occult philosophies, made just as important a contribution to the Enlightenment, and that there wasn’t the clear distinction - or even clash – between science and the esoteric that later generations of historians assumed.

Weisberger, on the other hand, treats the Enlightenment not only as if it was about scientific and rational thinking but also as if it was a specific ideology, a movement or campaign to which thinkers of the time signed up and to which they tried to convert others; he refers to the Enlightenment as a ‘cause’, and the individuals he discusses ‘enlighteners’ as if they had consciously taken on the task of spreading this new creed.

Weisberger’s maintaining of this old-school perception of the Enlightenment also produces a selective depiction of Freemasonry itself. In emphasising the influence of the scientific and rational he makes it seem that that was all Freemasonry was about. He ignores its esoteric aspect, and the ‘occult’ pursuits – alchemy, Mesmerism, and so on - of many Masons, including those of some of his ‘enlighteners’. Even Weisberger’s putative inventor of Speculative Freemasonry, Desaguliers himself, wasn’t solely the ‘gospeler of mechanism’ that Weisberger dubs him, rather one of what Monod calls the ‘Newtonian magi’ who followed Newton’s blend of experimental science and occult philosophy.

While the big picture might be flawed, when it comes to the detail there’s a lot of fascinating information, as much in the context-setting of the scientific, cultural and political environments of the cities discussed as about the early history of Speculative Freemasonry. -- Clive Prince



Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook. Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies 500 AD to the Present. Gibson Square, 2018.

This is a thought-provoking collection of data. Most people have heard of fairies, but few realise quite how much they have infiltrated our folklore; and even more surprisingly, how many modern sighting reports are still being recorded. This series of essays by people who have special knowledge of different aspects of fairy lore in Britain aims to cover the past 1,500 years, but even this tightly packed offering can barely scratch the surface. So it acts as a taster for the vast treasure trove of fairy lore.

The contents cannot easily be summarised, but there are chapters on Sussex, Worcestershire, Devon, Yorkshire (especially the Cottingley fairies), Dorset and Cumbria in the first section on English fairies; Celtic and Norse fairies in Ireland, Scotland, Orkney and Shetland, Wales, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and Cornwall feature in the second section; and there is a final section covering New England, Atlantic Canada, and Irish America, demonstrating how British fairy lore has spread overseas with emigrants.

The authors are all respected folklorists and so they write with authority, yet there is no aura of academic superiority, and the book is very readable. Elsewhere numerous attempts have been made to explain what fairy lore actually signifies, but I am not sure that anyone has truly managed to unravel all the strands that have combined under the heading of fairy lore. The fact that the nature of the lore varies from area to area demonstrates that there are many origins, with ‘fairies’ perhaps being a catch-all explanation for many different phenomena. It’s also clear that we cannot simply accept these very strange stories as representing any normal kind of reality (if there is such a thing anyway).

The first step in interpreting the ‘evidence’ must be to separate handed-down fairy lore from first-hand accounts of fairies being seen in recent times – as I myself tried to do in my own book published twenty years ago. Because of my own interest in contemporary encounters with fairies, the most exciting recent news has been the compilation of the Fairy Census of 21st century fairy sightings, most never before published, with many being included in this collection.

The first-hand sightings are perhaps the strangest of all, and they may tell us more about the human psyche than about an imagined race of ‘little people’ living secretly among us. Any serious researcher has to give the witness the benefit of the doubt, but I can’t help thinking, when I read of a fairy sighting, what would I have seen if I had been there? There is no certainty that multiple witnesses would all see the same thing, or even anything at all, and so a sighting report is nothing more than an individual’s interpretation of something that may or may not have had a physical reality, an interpretation that will inevitably be affected by their own belief system.

As, I hope, an unbiased researcher, I confess to being as puzzled today by reports of fairies as I ever was; no amount of reading and thinking has been able to bring me to a satisfactory conclusion as to what the stories and reports actually mean. This book may not help in finding answers, but it will certainly set the reader thinking!

Because this book is a serious attempt to demonstrate the wide-ranging nature of fairy lore, without any intention to ‘sex it up’, the cover illustration of a heavily made-up young woman seems to me to be inappropriate as it appears to have no connection to the book’s content, since this is not what fairies look like. But I suppose a ‘tiny man in brown’ or ‘small green figures’ would not be quite as eye-catching! – Janet Bord