Tuesday, January 13, 2009

To Die Before Death: Reviewing Robin Artisson's "The Witching Way of the Hollow Hill."

Review: The Witching Way of the Hollow Hill by Robin Artisson


This review is not an attempt to troll the author. Nor will his online commentaries, for good or ill, be discussed. Given the nature of the review I wouldn't be surprised of certain adherents to his system show up, but it is my hope that situation can be avoided as possible. Given the nature of the book, and the stance of the author, it is my hope that I can come across as non-biased as possible—especially since the contents of the book appeal to me at times. Like every book there are elements I felt were good and elements I personally disliked. Where necessary I will be making citations to other sources, including extant material which will help make my arguments and commentary a bit more understandable.


The Witching Way of the Hollow Hill (hereafter Witching Way) was one of Artisson's first books, dedicated to a discourse on what he refers to as Traditional Paganism, and the creation of what I assume is a beginner's Grimoire/Grammar of witchery. The first half of the book is focused on the elements of witchery, most purported to be established from the practices of the British Isles, and the world-view of his Traditional Paganism. The second half is a working Grammar based on his personal system.


There is a tendency amongst occultists and witches, particularly of those publishing today, to present the subject of witchcraft as something which existed in pagan times or at least was a survival of a purely pagan world-view; a tendency which in and of itself is demeaning and confusing towards what witchcraft actually seems to have been. It is with this same tendency that Artisson begins Witching Way. The book is one which seems to have a clear agenda: to strip the New Age out of witchery and promote a pagan world-view.

Is this, truly, a bad thing? Not necessarily. I do, in fact, find myself incredibly sympathetic to that line of thought. Where I wavered and disagreed, however, was with the premise itself and how it should have impacted the later sections of the book. For something designed to promote a pre-Christian world-view there seems to be more than a little post-Christian material in it.

And indeed witchcraft appears to be a post-Christian development. No matter how many pre-Christian elements came to be involved in it, it still would never have come to exist as it does today without the rise of Christianity and the changes to society that the organized religion impacted on continental Europe and the British Isles. It is easy to confuse the pre-Christian elements with the idea that witchcraft, and Cunning Folk traditions, are indeed pagan forms of religion. Witchery would never have become as syncretic as it did in the British Isles and in continental Europe had it not been for the march of Rome. With the Roman armies and occupation came interpretatio romana, which was a continuation of interpretatio graeca, or the tendency of the Greeks and Romans to equate foreign divinities with members of their own pantheon. While this is certainly a pre-Christian tendency, it had ramifications on the later practitioners of witchcraft which would not exist otherwise.

However it is not in and of itself a type of pure Paganism except for where the diverse tribes and cultures of Europe are concerned except in respect to Greco-Roman analysis of other religions. Without this important tendency, brought upon the Celtic and Germanic religions of diverse areas by foreign rule, witchcraft could never have come to exist. This is further complicated by the rise of Christianity within the Roman empire; a shift which did not take (as Artisson unsettlingly suggests) decades but centuries for the full strength of European and Indo-European spirituality to be nearly converted to a newly bred form of monotheism.

Christianity was nearly universally embraced as generational change took place but, as it brought itself up to bear against dying religions, those same religions did not entirely vanish. From the diaspora of several cultures something entirely new emerged – complete with Shamanic elements and syncretically composed ideations based on regional belief and superstitions – which we have come to refer to as witchcraft. While the names of deities themselves remained sacrosanct, their aspects and what they meant to those that continued to honor them became something entirely different. And it is only then, not before or after, that the Gods and Goddesses of the witches, often representing entirely new elements which were foreign to their original composition, begin to appear and flourish. Anterior to this development is the underground growth of magical beliefs, and their spread throughout the lower classes of a newly shaped type of society; practices which while widely existing in pagan cultures had previously been a form of Priest-craft. The destruction of tribal pagan cultures resulted in the creation of a lower class belief in which wise men and wise women, especially those isolated in rural areas, inherited power that in former cultures they might have been denied; something that had begun centuries before in Greco-Roman cultures as the organic religions of paganism diminished. (Betz, 1992.)

Indeed, if one wishes to look at the Greco-Roman central transition state as one which can be used to discuss the later analogous transition of Witchcraft from Celtic, Germanic, and Greco-Roman roots then what better place than the strange appearance of the lower class magicians of Rome proper?

“There are texts reflecting perhaps a different type of magician, a type we know from the Greek religious mileau. This type of wandering craftsman seems keen to adopt and adapt every religious tradition that appeared useful to him, while the knowledge and understanding of what he adopted was characterized by superficiality. This type of magician no longer understood the old languages though he used remnants of them in transcription... In the hands of the magician of this type the gods from the various cults gradually merged, and their natures became blurred, they often changed into completely different deities. For these magicians, there was no longer any cultural difference between the Egyptian and the Greek gods, or between them and the Jewish god and the Jewish angels and even Jesus was occasionally assimilated into this truly “ecumenical” religious syncretism of the Hellenistic world-culture...

We should make it clear, however, that this syncretism is more than a hodge-podge of heterogeneous items. In effect, it is a new religion altogether, displaying unified religious attitudes and beliefs. As an example, one may mention the enormously important role of the gods and goddesses of the underworld... The underworld deities, the demons and spirits of the dead, are constantly and unscrupulously invoked and exploited as the most important means for achieving the goals of human life on earth: the acquisition of love, wealth, health, fame, knowledge of the future, control over other persons, and so forth...” (Betz, 1992. Italics are mine.)

Seen as a similar development, witchcraft itself shows similar signs. Indeed there is even a newer religious movement that itself shows some of the same signs and traits: that of the diaspora of Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American religious magic or voodoo and hoodoo. The unification of older pagan elements, folk beliefs, superstition, and new material which was rooted in Christian fears and beliefs, shaped what came to be known as witchery.

While I cannot call the witch and the late Greco-Roman magician of the papyri the same, I can point out their similarities and the similarities of the two beliefs. As such Artisson's biggest argument, that witchcraft is pre-Christian and from a pre-Christian world-view, is something that detracts from his book and seems to instead be a sign of modern beliefs: older is better.

There are many things I like about the first half of the book – the research it obviously took to write it, his discourse on the animist soul of the pagan contrasted with the Neoplatonic, not Christian as he unfortunately mistakes, soul – his primary thesis actually detracts from the power the book itself could hold.

Another element which is intriguing is his fatalism – not a desire for death (as people commonly mistake) – but his belief in fate or fatum. This was something that the pagan cultures themselves did have, but something which he attempts to weld together in a bit of an unwieldy manner. For example he compares the idea of wyrd with that of fatum (fate) but then tries to syncretically wed them in a way I find somewhat dishonest. Fate is a very linear concept, becoming in the west the term destiny, but originally being the single mystical thread that was held by the Three Fates and the only way around it was to become a god: something most people did not manage for obvious reasons. The end of the line was pretty straightforward, as it would be with wyrd, in that you would physically die. Special cases became immortal (which exists on a mythic train of thought – though it's fairly literal if you become a myth and no one forgets you after you kick the bucket).

Otherwise, we all die. I grok that.

Wyrd, to the best of my knowledge, is not linear but involves a stream of movement that is constantly being woven as the tapestry of one's life comes into being. In other words, you still have a conscious choice as to how life unfolds, unlike pure destiny, within the moment to moment time-frame from birth to death. So the two are very similar... Except that they aren't the same thing. It'd take a lot longer for me to discuss, but that's the best I can do without attempting to write a thesis paper. (And I will change this section if I'm simply wrong, thus I submit it to my peers to discuss here further.)

The basic point to make here is that fatum (fate) is linear, it begins and it ends and what's in between doesn't matter or often doesn't seem to be able to be changed a whole lot. If you're born fucked, then you're going to die fucked. And that's a top-down, predestination model which is pretty worthless to a witch. Who really wants or expects to die poor when you can convince the spirits to help you out or help out others in trade with your allies? Wyrd involves multiple strings; rather than one string (which would just be birth and death), you then jump strings as the pattern is woven into one's life. Conflating the two ideas is itself a bit pointless, because aside from dying they tend to oppose one another on the spectrum of being. This is why my girlfriend is currently reminding me that the Norns' names translates as states of being: “that which has become,” “that which is becoming,” and “that which should become.”

Existence, with the concept of wyrd, is a movement of becoming. We are constantly being created and creating our lives by the process of actions. Our death, in the face of that, is meaningless as it is the one thing which rarely defines us... Especially now, as warrior-culture, and the act of death being the central act of becoming, is diminishing. This does tie in with a type of witchery and the act of “death before death” (which is just a neat way of saying initiation – who knows why that takes so much harping for the first half of the book... Any witch must by necessity endure it to know what they are) it is still something which is simply a part of the process and did not, to my mind, deserve fifteen pages devoted to it.

The process of the discussion however leads to my next big conflict:

The conflation between the terms “fetch” and “fetch-beast” with the idea of the Greek daemon. With the exception of when the term fetch is used to described an animal form that the witch used to explore the underworld, or astral projected as, the term does – as its conflated brother term daemon – describe a spirit... But there is little evidence that prior to recent years the term ever described a spirit that would elevate the individual to a special status. In fact that's a recent conflation that occurred thanks to our good friend Stephen Flowers... If the name isn't ringing a bell, he's also published himself under the name Edred Thorsson. Flowers is an intelligent occultist, and certainly a go-to for some of his views on Germanic and heathen beliefs, but he also has a tendency to over-emphasis conflations... Such as when he charmingly asserted that Set and Odin were the same God and thereby alienated by Setians and some of the modern Asatru practitioners. (He's also a former high ranking member of the Temple of Set if that assertion needs to be rendered into sense.)

In this case the idea of the clan mothers or elevated female spirits called the fylgjukona who were clan spirits that guided members of the Germanic tribes, the Greco-Roman magical concept of the daemon that elevated the magician who acquired one to the status of a “son of [a] god,” and the spirit that was conjured for a purpose called a fetch have all taken on a similar likeness and been wedded together. But once again... This is not a pre-Christian occurrence so the fact that it occupies the center of Artisson's system remains a mystery to me. I can only at best postulate that the spirit is supposed to connect one to the mythical contents of the earlier pre-Christian mythos and world-view... But if it didn't exist within specific cultures within those time frames as is we still cannot follow his assertion that Traditional Paganism is pre-Christian. Rather it's a newly occurring system that has pre-Christian elements as I've stressed before.

This may seem like I'm beating the point in, and I admit that I am and that I'm biased, but I fail to see how anything but a bona fide Reconstructionist religion (such as Celtic, Greek, or Germanic Heathenry) could be a “traditional Pagan” construct. And even then – witchery as it is does not fit evenly or at all within those frames.

I must admit, however, that aside from his attempt to link Apollo (who he claims has an occulted underworld aspect – something I'm unaware of) with the post-Christian name of Azael, I enjoyed his discourse on the names of the Gods and Goddesses that appear in witchery and their links to the underworld. Indeed: my only beef is with Apollo in that context. The closest I'm aware of in that context is the possible cultus of Apollon Lykeios and its links to a chthonic, wolf-form... Which does not fit with a light-bringer messenger of the crossroads. To my mind he should have stuck with Dionysos, or drawn off the figure of Lucifer as depicted by St. Jerome. But that would be a type of folklore that is, unfortunately once again, post-Christian. Just like the name Azael... Who's “el” suffix references Elohim and El Shaddai, two aspects found within the twin poles Judaism and Christianity. That it was retrofitted to suit the needs of witches unfortunately is one more reason I feel my commentary fits.

However that is my only holdout on that section. His comments about the underworld, the fairy-world, and even the figure of the fairy and the familiar are all very, very good. In fact the scholar and historian Carlo Ginzburg notes that in 1662 a woman being put on trial stated that she visited the land of the fairies, or 'good folk', and met the Queen who was flanked by the King of the fairies. He further notes that the judge interrupted her; he wanted to hear about witches, and the devil, not about “fairy fantasies.” (Ginzburg, 1991.) He also provides the 1597 example of one Andrew Man who not only met the Queen of the Fairies, but the devil in the form of a stag as well. (Ibid.) Ginzburg goes on to postulate that: “Evidence originating from one end of Europe to the other, in the course of one thousand years, has led us to identify the features of a primarily female ecstatic religion, dominated by a nocturnal goddess of many names...” And that sometimes, especially in cases where the names of Pagan goddesses of the wild and hunt appear to have died out or fallen into disuse in that region, that Goddess took the form of the Queen of the Fairies or Queen of the Elves. In this, it seems, Artisson has hit the nail on the head; and I congratulate him on focusing on an area of witchery that is so often glossed over or ignored.

This brings us, ultimately, to his Grammar of Witchery itself. The Grammar opens itself with three central techniques that allow the rites inside it to function.

The first is the technique of what he calls the “Witch Sight”. This technique is a combination of a philosophical or slightly tranced out form of center-pointedness, or narrowing of the spectrum of thought and vision to that of the elements of the strains of causality (wyrd and fatum combined, it seems) and the center-pointedness often found referred to in many occult texts. My complaint is that his introduction to the technique carries on a bit more than one might care for. My feeling is that he should present the technique and then offer the essays – especially in the case of the Witch Sight – and commentaries which precede them. I also felt he proselytized more than a bit too much on the nature of fate. It amounts to ten to fifteen pages before you even got to the first technique in the Grammar... Something that irritated me more than I expected. I can understand the warning about doing each technique in its order, and thoughts about each for a bit before hand... But that felt like a bit much. We'd already trucked through the lengthy first half of a hundred-and-twenty-five or so pages just to get to the techniques and rites. For a beginner, who wishes to begin trying to connect with the sources of witchcraft, that's just agonizing.

The “Serpent in the Land” technique seems oddly familiar and works nicely as a trance technique. Its similar to most guided meditations many eclectic Neo-Pagans use, and can be substituted with any one of them. Still – it has a nice appeal.

The Hissing of the Serpent” technique is one of the ones I don't much care for. It just seems silly to me, and perhaps that's a bit of bias. But it's a nicely occulted form of pranayama (circular breathing), or at least very, very similar to it. It also seems to oddly replace the desire for Voces Mageia. I'm not sure if his Cunning Craft sources actually have or had VM or not, but I'll be discussing this later.

The next technique Artisson calls the “Left-Way Road” or “Widdershins Walk”. If there's one reason I think people should buy this book; one single reason to take a serious look at it, then the Widdershins Walk is exactly that reason. Not only does it work, and work well, but it's something I almost never see mentioned. While Artisson claims the person that taught him said it was simply “old,” I cannot claim to know whether or not it is. However it has an analogous technique in what the Situationalist Guy Debord called Dérive. Dérive translates as drift, and the sacred drift – both in the way Artisson describes and in utility – is an excellent beginner's tool. For someone that wishes to contact the immediate power of spirits which surround them in cases of psychogeography (which the drift state was meant to show) the only thing that comes close is taking a few tabs of acid and then taking a walk. In fact, as an aside to those who might want to try it, make sure you do it where no one you know will notice you. You'll likely be actively hallucinating, and anyone that sees you will think you've gone completely insane and begun manifesting schizophrenic tendencies... As well as the fact you probably won't recognize anyone you know, either. I cannot praise this technique enough. It's a small tour-de-force to stick in the Grammar section and one of the things that help guarantee his rites work.

Following his discussion on the Widdershins Walk, Artisson returns to a discussion on the “Fetch-Beast” or “Puckril”. Its has a kindred semblance in what Fr. U.D. refers to as the “base atavism,” and is very similar to the animistic trance of ativistic resurgence spoken of by the witch Austin Spare. It also serves as the witches' foci in Artisson's system, replacing the Golden Dawn and Abramelin Holy Guardian Angel fairly nicely. I cannot extrapolate much further on this one since my own familiar spirit does not serve the same function even remotely, and my daemon is not necessarily atavistic in any sense of the word... At least that I'm aware of. Short of comparing it to the base atavism of an individual I'm not sure what more to say except that later on in the book he seems to believe it defines the true witch: “The true 'initiation' into being a fully fledged witch-man or woman is quite simply the realization and demonstration of the ability to interact reasonable at will, with Otherworldly contacts, in such a way that personal transformations (or other transformations) can be produced.” I agree whole-heartedly. Even if I don't have a “fetch-beast”. (I still find the term oddly humorous; but to each their own.) Still, it seems to make an excellent focus for having a spirit guide that functions along the lines multiple occult and witchery derived traditions suggest exists.

The next section deals with folk ballads and exploring their role in witchery. This is definitely worth a glance. Included appear to be a few mytho-poetic explorations for use with witchery regarding sacred quests and their occulted nature within witchcraft.

His Five-Fold Path is oddly reminiscent of Chumbley, but I still prefer Chumbley's works to his explanations; the section seems a bit short in discussion regarding something that I found oddly important to include. I won't extrapolate further but leave it to fellow readers that want to take a gander through his works to decide. I do, however, like his commentaries on 'groups' and how self-initiation is not only possible, but occasionally preferred. On the other hand, I did consider his personal entries about personal transformations somewhat hokey. I don't think they're disingenuous but... I don't know. They didn't strike me as being as compelling as one might expect them to be. Perhaps it was just my own bias.

Now we come to Artisson's rites... I will say that they are working rites. But that I was somewhat disappointed. There was a lack of poetic appeal: even when aesthetic appeal remained. Combined with his previously mentioned techniques they all work... But only if you follow his process. None of them are stand alone rituals and that detracts from them heavily to my mind. I would have been far more impressed with the Grammar if each rite, without the assumed techniques, still worked as a stand alone generator of trance... However, as I see it, they do not. For an example I'm going to be a bit cruel and compare his “Going Forth” with Andrew Chumbley's “Going Forth” found in the Azoetia. Only the last section from the later, including VM, will be found beneath. (Should complaints be leveled, I will remove this section.)

Artisson's “The 'Going Forth' Declaration”:

“I come hither, west of the bridge to Hell, a holy stone, a holy tree, a holy well, where the good folk dwell, north of the hedges and comforting bells, I come hither, from the world I leave behind. In the name of the Devil and his Dame I come, bearing the wand that is a flying steed. In my left hand I bear it, and a mark. As a tree I ride, as a dead man I ride, I take the witch road into the far deep Lands where the pale people hie.”

Andrew Chumbley's (last sections) of “Going Forth”:

“I go forth upon the Point and upon the Paths of the Twenty-First Holy Letter:-

By the Reorganization of Will, Desire and Belief through their own rarefaction within the medium of the Azoth, I prepare the Quintessence at the Doors of the Earth. Makest I an Open Way for the Faithful Gods into the Circle of Witchblood.

I go forth upon the Point and upon the Paths of the Twenty-Second Holy Letter:-

Becomest I the Flesh of the Spell that I pronounce. Becomest I Magick Entire.

I go forth upon and betwixt the Twenty-Two Points and the Four Hundred and Eighty-Four Pathways of the One Sigil. Becomest I the Ancient One of Spirit.


Now while I can't say that Artisson's rites lack VM, or Godnames to focus power; a few do lack just that. That means you're forced to reused his techniques each time and that none of the rites themselves will drop you into trance as you do them. This is, to my mind, a drawback and one which Chumbley doesn't have. Is it cruel to compare the two? Yeah. Chumbley's works are extremely polished and he was clearly one of a kind insofar as modern witches go. Artisson's rituals, on the other hand, just need a little poetic work and a bit of feverish prose to increase the potency and appeal of his rituals. But at current it's something that detracts from the overall power they could, and probably should, provide to the beginner.


Artisson's book isn't bad. There were times I really enjoyed myself despite my expectations against it. It has at least one superb technique in it that makes it stand out to my mind. Its drawbacks are part of what Artisson's draw is, however, and that's worthy of note. A lot of the fanatical zeal to his system and his outlook is what will make this book appeal to some. For example: If you want to see him assault monotheism and rationalism then you will enjoy the book. For those of us that don't much car,e and have heard those arguments time and again, there are pages of tiresome proselytizing to contend with. Its obvious, on the other hand, that he has a bias and an agenda. And I can respect that despite what I may have shown otherwise.

My biggest disappointment came from the Rites of the Grammar. I am of the opinion that they simply need more work and time devoted to them before he releases a book to press. They just don't... feel right. There's something missing; perhaps that same fervor that he devotes to assaulting his favorite enemies (scientific rationalism and monotheism)? I think that very well might be the case.

I think with a bit of editing, a small make-over, this would be a book that I'd be happy to have on my shelf as far as the topic of witchcraft goes. But as it currently stands: it needs polish. Which is really fine. I also think he detracts from the subject of witchery by focusing on the need for a pre-Christian world-view; I can see how it might help with the system, and the need for Wisdom to govern progress – but I'm not sure the two actually go hand-in-hand... Especially given the development of witchcraft as it is seen by scholars today.

In short: it isn't bad. But I won't call it good. Its still better than ninety percent of what Llewellyn has released, however, and it didn't beat the reader senseless with comments about bullshit Three-Fold Laws and how we're all beautiful and unique snowflakes... A fact which I appreciate more than I have words for. His focus on fate is also fairly novel and helps spice things up, too, even if I do or don't agree with it.


Betz, Hans Dieter. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Ginzburg, Carlo. Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath. University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Wilby, Emma. The Witch's Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland. 2000.

Lee, Matt. Memories of a Sorcerer: notes on Gilles Deleuze-Felix Guattari, Austin Osman Spare and Anomalous Sorceries. 2002.

Bailey, Michael. From Sorcery to Witchcraft. Speculum, Vol. 76, No. 4, (Oct., 2001).

Fr. UD. Secrets of Western Sex Magick.Llewellyn International Publications. 2001.

Chumbley, Andrew. The Azoetia: Sethos Edition. Xoanon Press. 1992.


Riley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jack Faust said...

I can make my own if you want (I'm sure I can make one without any problems). And I'll find ya when I'm done with all my upcoming writing projects. Maybe this weekend or early next week?

Riley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason Miller, said...

Well done.

Not sure if I agree that he needs VM but I actually haven't read the book. I have read through the training material he was circulating privately about 7 years ago.

What is interesting to me about the insistance on pre-Xtian approach is that I was taught that one of the hallmarks of genuine traditional craft is the inclusion of Christian elements such as Psalmody and Catholic names for the Sabbats.