Books, Witchcraft

The Black Toad: West Country Witchcraft and Magic

It’s been a bit since I’ve sat down to read an entire book from start to finish. To be honest, I just haven’t had the time or attention to spare. I do want to get back into providing reviews and recommendations for books, since I see so many posts on social media asking for resources.

This week, I’ll be looking at Gemma Gary’s The Black Toad. At only 133 pages (not counting the bibliography and index), it’s a slim volume. Though diminutive, it’s definitely not hurting for content!

I’ll be honest, a lot of modern books and websites about witchcraft kind of make my eyes glaze over. Now, in a time where everything just gets boiled down to vibrations, intention, and personal gnosis, all of the advice and explanations sound very samey after a while. (They’re also not terribly helpful, and then people wonder why their craft doesn’t work!)

I really enjoy books on witchcraft that have a more historic bent. When I write about herbs or minerals, I end up looking into folklore, not modern lists of associations or uses. It gets closer to the heart of the matter and keeps me from having to reinvent the wheel through personal gnosis, as it were.

All of this is to say that I really, really like The Black Toad. It covers protection, luck, plant charms, weather witchery, and cursing, broken up into the domains of Old Mother Red-Cap, Green-Cap, and Black-Cap. All of this is presented without apology — for the one with the power to heal and protect must necessarily also have the power to destroy.

A rowan branch laden with red berries.

The spells and charms aren’t written like lists of instructions. Instead, they’re detailed descriptions of historical ways that witches and wise people had for protecting themselves and their animals, improving their luck, healing, and handling their enemies. It’s more than possible to use it as a spell book, but it’s primary value, to me, is as a depiction and explanation of traditional practices.

The only downside is that scientific names aren’t (or possibly can’t be) provided for some of the plants mentioned. Take sage, for example. The mention of sage states that it was drunk for health and longevity. However, there’s a sage native to the area that isn’t a sage at all — wood sage (Teucrium scorodonia). The actual sages, the Salvia species, are native to the Mediterranean. So is this sage an imported garden sage, or native woodland germander? Unfortunately, historic resources often don’t leave us much to go on.

A stack of books, magical seals, and dried herbs. Smoke rises from a bowl of burning herbs.

Some other reviewers pointed to the use of Biblical passages in some of the formulas as a problem. However, this is ahistoric and there are plenty of traditional resources that use passages from the Bible. There’s no reason to believe that witches and wise people, historically, would have reason to look down on doing so. The attitudes of modern people toward organized religion have no bearing on what people were likely to use in the past.

I’d recommend The Black Toad to anyone with an interest in traditional western European witchcraft. It gives a useful picture of the role and domain of wise people, as well as several spells that are still useful today.