Book Review – Witchcraft and Secret Societies of Rural England: The Magic of Toadmen, Plough Witches, Mummers, and Bonesmen by Nigel Pennick

May, 2019

Book Review
Witchcraft and Secret Societies of Rural England
The Magic of Toadmen, Plough Witches, Mummers, and Bonesmen
by Nigel Pennick

Bright Blessings, Readers!

If you are like me, you nab every book you can that explores magic on a historic level, as opposed to just flipping through modern spellbooks.

Pennick doesn’t disappoint in this 216 page book that was first published in 2011, and was sent to us to review, having been printed again this year.

A bit about the author- Pennick has published extensively on topics ranging from history of the occult, folk traditions, biology, and art. A UK native, he has been teaching, writing, and lecturing for decades. He drew knowledge from research, and involvement with groups, being a Mummer, himself, when he compiled material for this book.

The chapters delve into topics from Ritual Disguise and Resistance, Tools of the Craft, and Markets and Fairs. I will share from one particular chapter, Magic, Farming, and the Land.

He begins on page 163, “Straw, the by-product of grain farming, has many uses. Straw roping, or netting was used all along the western seaboard of Europe to tie down roof thatch.” Writing of more mundane use, he continues to the sacred, “ Straw is an important material symbolically. The Cambridgeshire courting custom uses a ‘true lover’s knot’ plaited from straw. The suitor gives his potential wife a straw plait, and if she wears it later pinned to her dress on the right side, it is a sign of rejection. If to the left, by the heart, with the ears of corn pointing right, it is a sign of acceptance.” He further lists a Norfolk harvest tradition dating from at least as far back as the 1800’s where the last sheath of the harvest is taken in, decorated, and venerated. He then goes into detail about various uses of corn dollies, shows photos, lists dates and accounts he drew from, and further writes about what he calls “Men of Straw”. This practice goes back to at least the 1500’s, as evidenced by a painting The Battle of Carnival and Lent by Breughel. Some straw men were made to be burned, and some were costumes men wore for celebrations.

I love learning about what folk traditions influenced modern neo Paganism. This book reminds us that one need look no further than modern day secular cultural celebrations that survived because they are so sacred, they transcend religion. Pennick lists example after example of these traditions, where they came from, and shows some modern folk who continue those traditions today.

It is a reminder that magic and witchcraft need not be fraternal, hidden, or done in circle, although it certainly can be. It does not necessarily entail candles, incense, or even religion at all. Sometimes, it’s just the living communing with the dead by doing what they did, and remembering events past, as the Wheel of the Year turns. It’s not necessarily mysterious at all, and can be as simple as what celebrates earth, people, and nature. It can be just for fun, and fellowship, as there are times when bonding with community and family, celebrating who we are, where we have come from, and teaching the children, is the most magical practice of them all.

Pennick has written not only this fascinating masterpiece, but various others (Nigel Pennick ) you can use to learn of the true Old Ways, and how modern people keep them alive. Highly recommended reading!

Happy Reading, and Blessed Be!

Witchcraft and Secret Societies of Rural England: The Magic of Toadmen, Plough Witches, Mummers, and Bonesmen on Amazon


About the Author:

Saoirse is a recovered Catholic.  I was called to the Old Ways at age 11, but I thought I was just fascinated with folklore. At age 19, I was called again, but I thought I was just a history buff, and could not explain the soul yearnings I got when I saw images of the Standing Stones in the Motherland. At age 29, I crossed over into New Age studies, and finally Wicca a couple years later. My name is Saoirse, pronounced like (Sare) and (Shah) Gaelic for freedom. The gods I serve are Odin and Nerthus. I speak with Freyja , Norder, and Thunor as well. The Bawon has been with me since I was a small child, and Rangda has been with me since the days I was still Catholic. I received my 0 and 1 Degree in an Eclectic Wiccan tradition, and my Elder is Lord Shadow. We practice in Columbus, Ohio. I am currently focusing more on my personal growth, and working towards a Second and Third Degree with Shadow. I received a writing degree from Otterbein University back in 2000. I have written arts columns for the s Council in Westerville. I give private tarot readings and can be reached through my Facebook page Tarot with Saoirse. You can, also, join me on my Youtube Channel.

Hypnobirthing: Letting Go of Fear

November, 2017


I’m 37 weeks pregnant as I write this, and there’s a very real possibility I may need to go into hospital to have my labour induced as early as next week. I am suffering from some wildly fluctuating blood pressure, which appears (thankfully) to have no clear pathological source, other than the pain I am in from SPD. SPD is symphysis pubis dysfunction; a condition whereby the ligaments supporting the pelvis and pubic bones soften too early and too much, so that these bones are able to grind together, causing agonising pain. I don’t really sleep properly anymore, and of course, can’t take anything but the mildest painkillers.

I was already worried about the labour, as the labour with my first child was quite traumatic and painful, and even though I know, I know I absolutely can do it, creeping anxieties have hooked their way into my mind like poison ivy, sending shoots of doubt to shatter my confidence in my own body’s abilities.

With this in mind, my community midwife referred me to a mental health midwife; a fantastic woman who visits me periodically to make sure I’ve not gone around the twist, and to offer what help and support she can. It was this midwife who first told me about hypnobirthing, something I had not come across before.

In the UK, we have the National Health Service, which means that most of our healthcare needs are paid for by taxes and national insurance payments, meaning healthcare is free at the point of use. Hypnobirthing is not widely available on the NHS, although it is available through some private healthcare providers. It turns out I am lucky enough to be in one of the areas in the UK that is trying to change that; to make this mindful approach to pregnancy and labour available for free on the NHS to those who might benefit. The scheme I became a member of is a pilot scheme, intended to try out the techniques and show the benefits they have, ahead of any potential rollout of the scheme for the wider public.

So what are the techniques? Basically, hypnobirthing sessions are a form of guided meditation, similar to pathworking. A fully qualified midwife leads the sessions, and a small group of us gets as comfy as we can with our huge bumps, and the lights are dimmed and relaxing music is played. Our midwife talks us gently down into a meditative state, talking us through focusing on our own breath, our own bodies, and reinforcing the connection to the baby (or babies) growing inside us. We envisage the air we breathe in as healing, golden light, filling us up and relaxing us completely. She counts down and repeat the word ‘relax’ at intervals, encouraging us to relax our muscles as much as possible each time we hear the trigger word. The idea is that, with repetition, we can learn to relax ourselves and enter this meditative state at will, for example, during labour and the increasing intensity of contractions.

My first session is a little late in the programme, due to an administrative error in the first instance, and the fact that I had to repeatedly visit hospital for blood pressure checks when my other sessions were booked! So frustratingly, I’ve only been left with two sessions I can attend before the arrival of our wee one. However, the midwife leading the course has also provided us (via Dropbox, very modern) with MP3s so we can practice the relaxation techniques at home.

I spoke to one of the other women who has been doing the course since it started. She suffers from lupus and had many anxieties about pregnancy and labour. This is her first baby, yet she now seems more confident to carry her baby than I am with my second! She calmly explains to me how she does the relaxation exercises every night, and has even found similar exercises for her birth partner, to help them be relaxed and supportive during the delivery of the baby. We talk about setting the mood with soft lamplight, and the midwife reminds us we can take a lamp or fairy-lights into the hospital with us to help recreate the mood of our relaxation space. This was news to me, as my delivery room with Nathan had been a sterile, blank walled affair that I had no idea I could try and make my own. This is definitely something I am keeping in mind for my trip to hospital!



This early on in my own experience of hypnobirthing, all I can say for certain is that I am enjoying the meditations and visualisations, which include taking off a heavy rucksack and pulling out the items, which symbolise fears or anxieties, and dumping them into a hot air balloon which flies far away with them. A sickle represented my fear of the pain. A black rock covered in shards of glass represented my needle phobia (a very real problem when you might have to have a cannula during labour!) and finally, a damp, torn bit of tissue represented my own lack of confidence in my body’s ability to do what it has been designed (in part; not solely) to do.

Waking up’ from the hypnobirthing sessions is like coming out of a deep sleep, but one where you can remember all the details of every dream you had, and one where you retain the benefits of every positive feeling and affirmation you experienced. I can’t say at this stage whether I will be able to focus on the relaxation techniques once the stress of actual labour kicks in, but I do feel more confident, and even being able to relax now, at this stage, with more hospital and ante-natal appointments looming, is a great benefit indeed.

One of the major benefits I have felt so far is the ability to use the ‘3, 2, 1… relax’ technique to lower anxiety about moving in bed, which had become a bit of a nightmare thanks to the SPD, due to my pelvis displacing during the night. The ability to relax and not be so tense prior to the inevitable ‘clunk’ of my pelvis moving back into its intended position has helped wonders, particularly in getting back to sleep after those middle of the night toilet trips!

Next month I’ll be able to write you the natural follow up piece; did it work? With one more midwife led session to go, I will know a bit more about the techniques involved, and will very soon be able to put them into real practice. In another city, where the scheme was rolled out some time back, the number of natural births has increased, and the number of births requiring little or no pain relief has also increased, and the average time for a baby to be delivered has dropped dramatically, which is very encouraging. Less medical intervention means less stress for mothers and therefore less stress for baby, which can only ever be a good thing. I’ll let you know how it works out for me.


*Hot Air Balloon, Copyright Kirsten Savage 2017, reproduction not permitted. Photo copyright Mabh Savage 2016.




About the Author:


Mabh Savage is a Pagan author, poet and musician, as well as a freelance journalist.

She is the author of A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors and Pagan Portals: Celtic Witchcraft.

Follow Mabh on TwitterFacebook and her blog.