“What’s that he holds?”“A scrying mirror.”
“A what? His what?”
“An occult tool. A means for telling the past, present, perhaps even the future. He must have utilised some diabolical method to conceal his presence in the field. That is why he was not visible.”
“You think he sees what an arsehole he looks, standing there like the King himself?”
— Ben Wheatley's A Field in England.
Last night, VVF and I sat down to watch Ben Wheatley's A Field in England which can be best described as “a psychedelic horror movie” in which three men and one accomplice become caught up in the intrigues of a dangerous wizard during the English civil war. It was not – at all – what I was expecting. But it was still marvelous.
One of the major driving elements of the movie is – besides amanita muscaria in potentially dangerous doses – a favorite subject of mine: treasure magic. The men are told that somewhere, buried in the field, is a hidden and buried treasure.
In the Discoverie of Witchcraft, Reginald Scot writes of:
“How many have been bewitched with dreams, and thereby made to consume themselves with digging and searching for money, & etc.: whereof they, or some other have dreamed? I myself could manifest as having, known how wise men have been that way abused by very simple persons, even where no dream hath beene met withall, but waking dreams. And this has been used heretofore, as one of the finest cousening feats: in so much as there is a very formal art thereof devised, with many excellent superstitions and ceremonies thereunto belonging, which I will set down as breefly as may be.”
(Discoverie of Witchcraft, “How men have beene bewitched, cousened or abused by dreames to dig and search for monie [money].”)
Scot goes on to recount some of the ceremonies of such magical endeavors, and they are fascinating: the use of hazel wands (known sometimes as “wishing wands” which are essentially identical to the hazel dowsing rods used in Early Modern German mining), prayers and evocations of spirits, divining to find ideal locations for such pursuits.
In the Early Modern period, treasure magic was everywhere. Once you know how to look for it, you can't stop seeing it: it appears in the Grimoires, in tales of the intrigues of cunning-folk, and even in the ribald stories of out-and-out charlatans. In the Memoirs of Cassanova, the womanizer and adventurer sets aside two chapters in which he recounts a startling tale. In his tale, he recounts how he convinced a well-to-do family that they had buried treasure on their property. It is all part of his conartistry, however, and Cassanova primarily intends to bed the family's daughters. He convinces them to sew for him magical robes, and eventually proceeds out to practice a magical ritual that he intends to have “fail” (so that he can finish his seduction routine and then presumably flee the area in his typical fashion). The ritual goes pearshaped when an enormous storm arrives towards the climax. Cassanova is overcome:
“Such a storm was a very natural occurrence, and I had no reason to be astonished at it, but somehow, fear was beginning to creep into me, and I wished myself in my room. My fright soon increased at the sight of the lightning, and on hearing the claps of thunder which succeeded each other with fearful rapidity and seemed to roar over my very head. I then realized what extraordinary effect fear can have on the mind, for I fancied that, if I was not annihilated by the fires of heaven which were flashing all around me, it was only because they could not enter my magic ring. Thus was I admiring my own deceitful work! That foolish reason prevented me from leaving the circle in spite of the fear which caused me to shudder. If it had not been for that belief, the result of a cowardly fright, I would not have remained one minute where I was, and my hurried flight would no doubt have opened the eyes of my two dupes, who could not have failed to see that, far from being a magician, I was only a poltroon. The violence of the wind, the claps of thunder, the piercing cold, and above all, fear, made me tremble all over like an aspen leaf. My system, which I thought proof against every accident, had vanished: I acknowledged an avenging God who had waited for this opportunity of punishing me at one blow for all my sins, and of annihilating me, in order to put an end to my want of faith. The complete immobility which paralyzed all my limbs seemed to me a proof of the uselessness of my repentance, and that conviction only increased my consternation.”
(The Memoirs of Cassanova, Chapter 22. Italix mine.)
Subsequently, at the culmination of the rite he retires and decides not to pursue the family's chaste daughers further, nor continue with his fraudulent and decietful activities... At least at that residence, anyway. There is some hilarity here: one of the more common intersections with treasure magic is that of Jupiterian magic. Jupiter is – rightly – the sphere of the storm God (the Greek Zeus or Roman Jupiter), but who has been praised since ancient times as the dispenser of wealth. The Orphic Hymn to the Daimon praises the deity:
“Thee, mighty-ruling, Dæmon dread, I call, mild Jove [Zeus], life-giving, and the source of all:
Great Jove [Zeus], much-wand'ring, terrible and strong, to whom revenge and tortures dire belong.
Mankind from thee, in plenteous wealth abound, when in their dwellings joyful thou art found;
Or pass thro' life afflicted and distress'd, the needful means of bliss by thee supprest.'Tis thine alone endu'd with boundless might, to keep the keys of sorrow and delight.
O holy, blessed father, hear my pray'r, disperse the seeds of life-consuming care;
With fav'ring mind the sacred rites attend, and grant my days a glorious, blessed end.”
(Hymn to the Daimon, Thomas Taylor translation. Italix mine.)
Similarly, the Key of Solomon describes a Jupiterian spirit, Parasiel, which is “the lord and master of treasures, and teacheth how to become possessor of places wherein they are” when discussing the First Pentacle of Solomon, and we shall return to the Pentacles of Solomon later.
This is fitting – both to the narrative that Cassanova provides and to Ben Wheatley's amazing film – in that wealth, revenge, and tortures dire all belong to the terrifying power of Jupiter.
And of course, the annals of treasure magic and those who practiced it have no shortage of rogues even more dangerous and conniving than Cassanova. When Owen Davies discusses the act in Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History, he writes:
“Treasure-seeking was one of those trades that led people to the doors of cunning-folk, people who in other circumstances would never have consulted them. In particular, cupidity brought together cunning-folk and the clergy, two groups who were otherwise in direct competition.” (P. 94)
We should also pause here to contemplate that not all engaged in the act were fraudulent practitioners. Many, however, certainly were:
“Treasure seeking was a dangerous enterprise for cunning-folk to get involved in. With the exception of those who dug into Bronze Age barrows, the chances of finding buried treasure were exceedingly poor. As a result, many cunning-folk refrained from getting involved. […] Those, like Kingsbury, who took up the challenge were presumably either sincere in their quests and had faith in their magic, or were merely itinerant rogues who could disappear from the scene when the inevitable happened and nothing was found.” (P. 96)
Ben Wheatley's film does a fantastic job of capturing the atmosphere of what it might have been like to fall prey to such itinerant rogues! But one might ask the question of how they all came to exist in the first place, and the answer is rather surprising: these practices have a wide distribution outside popular magic. They exist in folk stories, such as this one:
“A Welshman is guided by an English cunning man/wizard to a hidden enchanted cavern leading deep underground. In this passage hangs a bell which must not be touched for, if it is, the inhabitants of the subterranean chamber will awake and ask 'Is it day?' If this happens the answer must be given 'No, sleep thou on', as the inhabitants of this cavern are the still-living Arthur and thousands of his men, asleep in a circle, waiting until the bell is tolled for them to rise and lead the Cymry to victory. Within the circle lay a heap of gold and a heap of silver and the Welshman is told by the magician that he can take from only one pile – this he does, but on his way out he accidentally strikes the bell, having to give the required answer in order to escape with his treasure. He is warned that he must not squander what he has stolen from the magical dwelling of Arthur, but when it is all spent he pays a second visit to the cavern. This time however he forgets to give the correct formula when he accidentally rings the bell and several knights awake, beat him, and send him forth a cripple. For the rest of his days he is poor and could never again find the entrance.”
(Taken from Caitlin R. Green's But Arthur's Grave is Nowhere Seen.)
They can also be found in magical manuscripts from the British Isles, such as Sloane MS 3824 and 3825 (which can be viewed in the edition that was edited and published by David Rankine as The Book of Treasure Spirits), Folger VB 26, the Grimoire of Arthur Gauntlet, and several other texts besides. Additionally one can find rites pertaining to treasure magic – or at least spirits which can tell one where treasure is hid – in more than a few of the grimoires. A number of these rituals coincide with working with fairies, who are also one of the types of spirits that were thought to guard buried treasure. The other types of spirit, of course, are ghosts and demons.
With such a wide dispersion of practices, it is rather startling that the subject isn't discussed half as often as one might expect. It is also surprising that, to the best of my knowledge, Wheatley's horror movie is the first of his kind: one can easily shape horror narratives involving ghosts, demons, and fairies and tie them together with the practice of treasure magic! But perhaps I shouldn't request more of such movies: being an American, if there is one thing I can count on Hollywood to do it is certainly to make terrible films from any subject matter along those lines.
In any event, the end of the film is jarring in comparison with the way it begins. At about the midpoint, psychedelic madness invades and permeates all the material to come afterward and intensity builds and builds on itself. This leads to – without wishing to spoil too much – one of the most fascinating “wizard battles” I have ever seen filmed in my life. One of the primary characters embraces his destiny as a magical practitioner, and is seen contemplating the spirit of the place – the dread guardian of the treasure that has been sought by his dangerous alter-ego – and proclaims that:
“Look. An angel, mounting guard over the field's treasure!”
This brings us back to magical materials involving such practices. Two items appear in the Key of Solomon, both fitting with the narrative of this blog entry:
“The seventh and last pentacle of Jupiter. – It hath great power against poverty, if thou considerest it with devotion, repeating the versicle. It serveth furthermore to drive away those spirits who guard treasures, and to discover the same.”
“The fifth pentacle of Saturn. – This pentacle defendeth those who invoke the spirits of Saturn during the night; and chaseth away the spirits which guard treasures.”
The biggest concern of those who actually and ardently sought to conjure spirits to seek treasure, or simply sought treasure itself, was the spirits that guard it. These were ferocious chthonic spirits (or, as in the earlier legend, ancient knights that you don't want to piss off). They were dangerous enough that rituals to conjure and subsequently disarm them (presumably either through ordering them by divine names, or by displaying pentacles such as the above) involve requests one more frequently sees made to demons in the Grimoires:
“[...] & we do again yet further by those present, & the efficacy, power & force thereof, Conjure, Command, Compel & constrain you all ye Spirits by name (as aforesaid) Sulphur, Chalcos, Anaboth, Sonenel, Barbaros, Gorson, (or Gorzon) Everges, Mureril, Vassago, Agares, Baramper, Barbasan, or some one, or any, or more of you, jointly & severally, to appear visibly, meekly & peaceably, in decent forms before us [….]”
(Sloane 3824, An Operation for Obtaining the Treasure Trove: The Invocation. From Rankine's The Book of Treasure Spirits, P. 30 – 47.)
This request to “appear visibly, meekly, and peacably” is frequently found in the grimoires where demons are conjured (and several of those abound in the above invocation!). The obvious reason is that such spirits can – and if they are angered certainly will – appear in hostile forms, fumigating the area with hostile smells. One might again point to the event in Cassanova's fraudulent treasure rite: a storm which scares you shitless would not be an inapt occurance. Nor for that matter would hallucinating that the spirit has appeared in a hybrid form of man and beast and begun making threatening advances towards the circle.
Jake Stratton-Kent's first volume of The Geosophia has an account of a ritual – this time involving necromancy rather than treasure-seeking (although he certainly discusses that in the same book!) – in which spirits do just that:
“On the other hand the lad who was beneath the pentacle, in greatest terror said, there were a million of the fiercest men swarming round and threatening us. He said besides that four enormous giants had appeared, who were striving to force their way into the circle. All the while the necromancer, trembling with fright, endeavoured with mild and gentle persuasions to dismiss them. Vencenzio Romoli, who was trembling like a reed in the wind, looked after the perfumes. I, who was as much in fear as the rest, endeavoured to show less, and to inspire them all with the most marvellous courage; but the truth is that I thought myself a dead man on seeing the terror of the necromancer himself. The lad had placed his head between his knees, saying: we are all dead men. Again I said to the lad: These creatures are inferior to us, and what you see is but smoke and shadow, therefore raise your eyes. When he had raised them, he cried out again: The whole coliseum is in flames, and the fire is coming down upon us: and covering his face with his hands, he said again that he was dead, and that he could not endure the sight any longer...” (P. 6) (For a blog entry in which I discuss this event a bit more, see Daimonic Agencies. For more on treasure magic, see The Treasures of the Earth... Although, really, I need to finish those entries.)
All things told, Ben Wheatley's film certainly hits “the right spot.” It may be sadly lacking in manifesting spirits, but the terror and moments where magical realism and the events of the narrative overlap is practically perfect.
I could probably babble on and on about the subject of treasure magic, and the movie, but it seems to me best to stop here. Make sure to see it. And if you ever plan to pick up a hazel rod and wander about seeking treasure in earnest: feel free to drop me a line. Even if I can't join you in the adventure, I'd love to chat about it.
Be seeing you,