Welsh Witches and Wizards
by Michael Howard
Publisher: Three Hands Press Binding: Paperback
Reviewed by ND
Welsh Witches and Wizards is the first book to appear, in a series of four, focusing on the witchcraft of four regions of the British Isles. Well-researched and drawing mainly on documentary evidence, this initial treatise on the Welsh lore and practice of cunning-folk is carefully hewn into 8 concise chapters.
Howard begins with an analysis of one of the most well known of Welsh myths, Hanes Taliesin by contrasting and interpreting the myth of Ceridwen and Taliesin through the lens of pact and initiation among witches. Howard makes several arguments during the discourse primarily that the status of Ceridwen is not as a goddess, but a mortal woman, and also a separate hypothesis rejecting the idea that the traditional folk practices he cites here had any relation to modern witchcraft or wicca. These discussions certainly compel the reader on towards the meat of the book. Indeed, we are delving through well-organized accounts of documented experiences, a layering of weighty evidence of a solid lore of folk practice.
Druids, wizards and cunning men are each given significance with several chapters devoted to their role and practice, while the Lady of the Lake legend bears analogy to the healing practices, and to the faery lore of the Welsh, followed by a detailed recounting of many charms and spells.
In chronicling a wealth of well folklore evident in Welsh legend, Howard casts attention to the myth of St. David (patron saint of Wales), and then follows with a particularly fascinating appreciation of the Celtic head cult including ‘screaming skulls’. Of particular note the “ancient pagan practice at healing wells was to drink the water from a human skulls.” p.144.
The last chapter is devoted to Creatures of the Night and addresses the legends of Faery folk and their place in Welsh lore. With a final word on dragons, the reader is left with a desire for further knowledge as well as a satisfaction that an initial, solid foray into the mists of Welsh lore has been gained.
Throughout, one gets a strong sense of movement through history. Howard succeeds in a concise overview of Welsh folk practice and legend, whilst grounding the subject matter in the time period without confusing the reader within the portrayal of the work, whether the reader is stationed in the iron age, early medieval, or later periods where the noticeable veneer of Christian bias creeps insipidly into cunning-folk practice.
Overall, Howard’s lucid style prevents the reader from being mired within a clutter of information, while the fluent flow of facts and evidence allow the reader not to be drawn away from the subject at hand, despite the amount of information Howard must deliver. If Welsh Witches and Wizards is anything to go by, the follow up treatise on the West Country, Scotland and East Anglia are awaited with anticipation.