Seasons of the Witch

Francisco Goya-El_Aquelarre Witches Sabbath)1798
Francisco Goya-El_Aquelarre (Witches Sabbath) 1798

The figure of the witch has haunted many an artists work, from the strange and disturbing phantasmagorias of Albrecht Durer and Hans Baldung Grien at the time when the Early Modern witch trials were sweeping across large swathes of Europe to the feminist re-envisionings of Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini and Alison Blickle.

The archetypal image of the witch created in the Early Modern period is of a women, alternatively a hideous crone or a beautiful temptress, engaging in nocturnal flights upon enchanted broomsticks or diabolical animals to attend Sabbaths presided over by the Devil in animal form, where they participate in sexual orgies and blood rites. This delirious but potent fantasy contributed to the hysteria that resulted in around 50,000 executions between 1424 to 1785. Even after the witch craze abated she lingered in art as a femme fatale in the 19th Century, only to be reborn and recast in spectacular fashion in the 20th and 21st Centuries as an unlikely heroine and High Priestess of a new religion.

Below is a brief tour of pictorial representations across the centuries from the 16th to the 21st that highlights the spell that the witch and her craft has cast across cultures and periods.

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The Pleasure Dome

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was one of the leading figures of the first generation of English Romantics writers, along with Wordsworth and William Blake. An influential critic he was first to advance the idea of ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’ as a necessary component for the aesthetic enjoyment of certain types of art and literature. He was also injected the heady idealism of German Romanticism to British literature. However his best remembered for two extraordinary poems, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the fragmentary Kubla Khan.

Subtitled A Vision in a DreamKubla Khan is perhaps as well known for the manner of its composition as the actual poem. Coleridge relates in the introductory preface that after falling into an opium induced sleep while reading a book about Kubla Khan he experienced a astonishingly vivid dream that formed into a entire poem of about two or three hundred lines. Upon awaking the poem he retained the lines and set about writing them down exactly as is. After he completed 54 lines he was interrupted ‘by a person from Porlock’ (a nearby village in Somerset) who wished to discuss some unspecified business. Upon his return to his desk Coleridge discovered that the vision and the poem had disappeared, never to be recaptured.

Given the manner of composition, it is  hard not to see Kubla Khan with its lushly sensual and opiated imagery  as a proto-surrealist work. It certainly seems to prestige the darker strains of romanticism that would dominate as the 19th Century progressed.

Kenneth Anger’s cult movie Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (full movie with the original score below) is obviously inspired by Coleridge, and one version that was screened on German TV in fact included a recitation of the poem at the start of the movie. This baroque psychedelic (and very camp) movie is a re-creation of Crowleyite ceremony that involves Anger, The Scarlet Woman herself Marjorie Cameron, Curtis Harrington and other members of the LA occult scene getting off their tits whilst on acid. Oh and for some inexplicable reason Anais Nin sports a birdcage as headgear.

Kubla Khan

Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

S.T Coleridge 1816

Scarlet Woman

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Marjorie Cameron-Aleister Crowley’s Guardian Angel

In 1946 Marjorie Cameron had re-located to Pasadena, California after serving with the US Navy during WWII. While waiting in line at the unemployment office she met an old acquaintance who suggested that she had to  visit ‘The Parsonage’, the huge house of a ‘mad scientist’,  Jack Parsons.

She took her friend up on the offer and went to ‘The Parsonage’. What she didn’t know was that ‘The Parsonage’ was the headquarters of the Agape Lodge, a branch of Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis, and its leader, the ‘mad scientist’ and rocket propulsion engineer Jack Parsons had been engaged in the Babalon Working with science fiction writer (and later founder of Scientology) L.Ron Hubbard for the previous weeks. The Babalon Working was based on the sex magic theories of Crowley and was an attempt to conjure up an incarnation of the archetypal feminine principle named Babalon or The Scarlet Woman.

Cameron was a flame haired beauty and they immediately fell in love, holing up in Parsons bedroom for two weeks. Parsons declared that the working had been a success, and proceeded onto the next stage, which was to conceive a Moonchild with the Scarlet Woman, while L.Ron Hubbard stayed on to record the effects the sex magic was having on the astral plane.

Although they never had a Moonchild, they married in 1946 and Parsons introduced her to Thelema, Crowley’s ‘New Religion’. At Parsons urging she went to England in 1947 to visit Crowley but he had already died in a Hastings boarding house with less than a pound to his name before she arrived. Parsons would die in a laboratory accident in 1952.

Cameron was very much at the centre of the L.A occult and avant-garde scenes for the rest of her life. She appeared in Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration Of the Pleasure Dome, as the The Scarlet Woman (unsurprisingly) and Kali, and Curtis Harrington’s The Wormwood Star. She was also a talented artist, as the above and below illustrations demonstrate.

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Bewitched

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Ellen Rogers-Valerie 2015
The work of English analogue photographer Ellen Rogers evokes many different epochs and styles: nineteenth century fin-de-siecle Symbolism, the Golden Age of Hollywood and the Swinging Sixties. Rogers skillfully combines these disparate periods in her hand coloured photographs to create a unique and evocatively timeless realm overlaid with a ritualised erotic charge and an mysterious occult significance. The avant-garde films of occultist and author of Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger would appear to be a touchstone, especially Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome that starred the Scarlet Woman herself, Marjorie Cameron.

 

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