Here is the gist of a talk I gave at the Horniman Museum in London recently, for their ‘Magic Late’ evening. The museum was founded by the father of Annie Horniman, well-known in magical circles as a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Annie went to the Slade School of Art in London, was a friend of W.B.Yeats, and set up the Abbey Theatre Dublin. The museum has an extensive collection of charms and amulets, which will go on display next year.
The Magic Late event was a marvellous example of how museums can act as stimulating meeting places for art, history, science – and people (600 of us for this event). There was opera in one gallery, films being shown in the conservatory, dance and cocktails in one room, street food being served outside, me and other speakers in another gallery, the ghost of Annie Horniman in the grounds telling us about the extraordinary history of the museum, and showing us the site of the first Golden Dawn temple. We ended up in a circle – about 60 of us – in the pavilion overlooking the City of London, glittering in the distance. Dozens of lanterns marked out a pentagram. We learnt of Annie’s initiation into the Golden Dawn, and then chanted together words from that ceremony: ”…I come in the Mercy of Light, The Light hath healing in its wings. Child of Earth, long hast thou dwelt in darkness. Quit the night and seek the day.”
If you have a chance to visit the Horniman – do go. Its setting high on Forest Hill is stunning, and you can almost feel W.B.Yeats and Mathers walking in the grounds as they did a hundred or so years ago. Mathers and his wife lived there as curators for a while.
A recording of the talk, introduced by curator Tom Crowley:
The basic text of the talk:
Hello! I’m going to talk to you this evening about magic wands. You might think that they are just the stuff of fairy tales and fiction, but in fact magic wands have been used in the British Isles from the very earliest of times, and are still in use today.
Let’s go back thousands of years. If you are able to brave the Dragon’s Teeth – a valley of sharp stones that protects the Paviland cave on the Gower peninsula from the casual visitor, you will find yourself looking out onto the Irish sea from the mouth of a cave which was the last resting place for a man known as the Red Lady of Paviland. His remains – discovered in 1823 – are 34,000 years old: probably the earliest formal burial found in Western Europe. By his body were found what seem to be magic wands – made of mammoth ivory. They are all broken – perhaps ritually – to mark his death.
Fast forward 34,000 years to today – and you may have seen that wonderful exhibition at the British Museum earlier this year on The Celts. In a glass case stood a wand worthy of the most powerful magician at Hogwarts. It was huge and tipped with a crystal ball and is used today by Druids in the Welsh National Eisteddfod.
So you see, for thousands of years people have been using magic wands – and not just in Wales. Does anyone here have or use a wand? Let’s have a show of hands.
I use a wand. I have to, it’s required by my job description as a Chief Druid. I haven’t brought my usual one along, because it’s shy and only likes to be used for specifically magical purposes. But a relation who is more extraverted and flamboyant agreed to come along. Technically, this is a staff rather than a wand – but staffs can be used as wands, when needed. They can direct power, define a magic circle, ward off unwanted influences, call in higher powers.
We see the wand being used in disguise, as it were, in the conductor’s baton, a monarch’s sceptre, and in the military baton carried by Field Marshalls. In the Third Reich, seven styles of baton were created, for example, with Hermann Goering’s baton having 600 diamonds encrusted in it. The teacher wields a cane, Black Rod an ebony staff in the House of Lords.
These all point to the directive, authoritative, controlling, sometimes hostile or punitive, nature of the wand. Like a sword, it can be used to protect but also to attack. It directs power, whereas its counterpart, the chalice, receives and contains power.
So much for a wand’s uses and its symbolism. But what art and thinking goes into creating one?
Most wands are made primarily of wood – fitting for a Druid, which means literally ‘wood sage’. Different woods convey different qualities or powers: hazel is good for divination, birch and ash connect the three worlds, Yew connects us to the powers of rebirth and eternity. Oak connects us to tradition and authority, and so on. The day and time you choose to select the wood for your wand is significant, as is whether it is dead or alive – there are different schools of thought on which is best. Sometimes the right piece of wood will fall directly in your path as you walk by a tree.
The length of your wand is significant and must be calculated. Sleeping with it under your pillow or beside you is considered wise, and called incubation. Then you must fashion it – stripping it of bark, or not, carving it or not.
Then you must decide if it will be simple, or whether it will have all four potential components of a magician’s wand: a pommel, a handle, a shaft, and a point. The reservoir or pommel stores the magician’s power and may be formed of stone or crystal. The handle connects the wand to the magician making it in many ways an extension of the hand. The shaft conveys the power and may be carved. The point may be simply pointed, or may be carved with a knife-like blade. Or it may hold a crystal or stone to act as the point.
Do we need wands? Do we need fantasy, imagination, myth and magic in our world? Yes we do – now more than ever!
PS. If you’d like to study wandlore, I can think of no better book than the beautifully illustrated and very thorough Wandlore: The Art of Crafting the Ultimate Magical Tool by Alferian Gwydion MacLir, whose website can be found here.