Matthew Venus has been a practitioner, student, and teacher of the occult for over twenty five years. He is a folk magician, traditional witch, artist, photographer, magical apothecary, and writer who currently lives in Salem, MA. along with his partner, cat, serpents, toads, and a host of cantankerous spirits. Matthew Venus is one of the most fascinating occultists that I’ve ever met, a dear friend and someone whose magick, occultism, and art that I really admire. I decided to reach out to him to ask him some questions, and yes, that’s really his birth name.
I don’t think I ever asked you this, but I love hearing people’s stories. How did you discover witchcraft? How has your magick evolved since you began?
For as long as I remember, I’ve always been drawn to the magical. In addition to being drawn to folklore and mythology about witches, wizards, and magic as a child I also had an intense love and fascination with the wildwood and with nature. As a young boy I found such wonder in the natural world. I’d go on nature walks in the forest around my father’s house and disappear for hours examining plant life, looking for salamanders and serpents, and generally communing with the spirits of the land.
When I was around eleven I came across a book on the history of witchcraft and magic in my school library, and it changed my life. The book detailed all of the most foul and lurid tales of the witches’ sabbath, it told of the powers that witches had to hex and heal, and spent a good deal of time discussing familiars as well. It was an older historical survey with no mention of the modern pagan movement.
It was shocking. It was taboo. And I was exhilarated. Witches were real? Magic was real? It existed before. So it must still exist somehow. And I decided that I would pursue whatever it took to become a witch, to practice magic. Event if it meant signing the devil’s black book. Something which, still being quite young, terrified me quite honestly.
So imagine my adolescent relief when I came across the paganism section of the local bookstore and found book upon book telling me how to become a witch rather easily in comparison. No selling of souls required. I exaggerate a bit here, this was the early 90s and there were literally like maybe 20 books at any given bookstore at any given time. And they were always the same ones from one bookstore to the next.
So I got drawn into a somewhat eclectic pagan paradigm for quite a few years. Though much of my practice focused upon folk magic. I was a solitary practitioner until my early twenties. From there, while living in the Detroit area, I started reaching out to the greater pagan and occult community. I took a class on witchcraft to compare notes with others. As a result I met one of the most influential teachers of my life. And within two years I found myself teaching classes of my own, and acting as the High Priest of a healthy and functional coven. Things I’d never really anticipated for myself.
Several years later I relocated, stepped away from the coven, and became solitary again. Since then I continued teaching and expanding my experience and practice. Around that time I found the Trad/Folkloric Craft community and finally felt like I was getting an approach to the craft that spoke more to the natural inclinations which brought me into witchcraft in the first place.
So in that particular regard, I feel I’ve come somewhat full circle. Though, I’m not so afraid of that black book anymore.
Aside from witchcraft, you’re a very well known name in hoodoo, conjure and other folk magick circles. Do you feel these practices are in conflict with the practices of witchcraft? Do you combine your folk magician practice with your witchcraft practice or keep them separate?
I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say ‘very’ well known, but I appreciate the sentiment.
I’m not certain where a conflict might arise to be honest. I’m not the type to shy away from the saints and psalms because I view them as powerful magical forces that have been used quite effectively by people of many cultures and backgrounds for centuries.
I don’t feel such elements are in conflict with witchcraft. At least not my conception of the craft. Largely because my approach to witchcraft is of a nonreligious variety. I don’t worship pagan gods. I tend to view witchcraft as a magical practice. One which is centered around folk magic and spirit work. I am more inclined to combine elements of European folk magic with what I might call my witchcraft work, largely because, by its nature, a lot of my witchcraft revolves around European folk magic of the early modern period. So the lines are wondrously blurred there.
Now if we’re talking about Hoodoo and Rootwork, it’s a different mindset and modality I enter into when doing such work. So it tends to stay a bit separated. At least in that I don’t often try introducing elements into rootwork that I feel are inharmonious with its history and nature.
I took up doing Rootwork because in my early twenties I met some folks, and some excellent teachers, who made me realize that it was essentially what I’d already been doing for years. But it lacked a true understanding of the history and spirit behind it. The modern paganism movement wholesale stole a good deal of its magical spell work, oil recipes, candle magic, herbalism, and much much more from the folk magic of black folks from the Southern U.S. And this is something that was never honestly presented, acknowledged, or honored in paganism.
It wasn’t until I met actual hoodoo practitioners that I realized just how deep such thievery went and just how horribly black folks contributions to the history of magic had been unapologetically lifted, rebranded, and whitewashed. Much of what I did was work of this nature, oil making, candle magic, crafting of bags and packets. So I made it a point to educate myself, learn from folks whose formulas, folklore, and traditions these were, and present what I do honestly in an effort to give honor to, and educate others on where a good deal of their magic comes from. It’s given my work so much more depth and vibrancy, and for that I am eternally grateful to those who have shared with me.
Your art always blows me away. I was gifted with one of your Crow Spirit Fetishes from our mutual friend Danielle a few years back. There’s definitely an artistic aesthetic to the items you create for magickal purposes. What are your thoughts on the intersection between the arts and the magickal arts?
My art is a massive part of my magic. It is a rarity that I craft something simply for aesthetic. I think for most folks who are both artistically and magically inclined there exists very little distinction between artistic and magical practice. You are often forced to confront yourself when creating art. To overcome your demons and court the aid of the muse. It can be transformative.
A desire, need, or inspiration comes. You use your knowledge, skill, and creativity to craft. And something new is born which didn’t exist before. Which am I speaking of? Art or Magic? There is not division. They are one and the same for those who honor their Grand Genius.
There are few products I will buy from other witches, since I can make them myself usually, but I’m always blown away by the quality and magickal potency of yours and try to never miss an opportunity to get my hands on your curio. Spiritus Arcanum is the name that you’ve used for many years now for your amazing products, photos and writings. How did you come up with this name?
Spiritus speaks in some ways to spirit, but also to the breath. Breathwork and breathing are a way in which I imbue a lot of my work with life. It is the songs we sing, the words we speak or whisper, which inspirit much of our work in magic. The witches breath. So it captivated me. Arcanum can mean a secret, something occult, a mystery. It is the hidden lore which fuels our magic.
So Spiritus Arcanum for me represents many of those elements. The secret words, the breath of inspiration, the hidden mystery of magical work. It evokes much of the nature of my practice and was something I’d never heard before in popular use. I chose it because it represents many things to me and stands as something unique with which to brand the work I do.
The name has since been carelessly co-opted by other magical merchants in an unfortunate turn. This is something I chose as a unique identifier. A banner under which my art and apothecary would live. Something I worked to establish in relation to my efforts, and which I thought stood apart from anything I’d seen previously used by other artists and apothecaries. And yet it has been thoughtlessly taken up by others in an effort to brand their products and business without much care or concern.
Its upsetting to say the least.
All I can say to those who wish to support my work is to look for my logo the Serpent, Stang, and Arrow when buying from any online shops to ensure who you are buying from. Or just be sure to buy directly from my Etsy shop or SpiritusArcanum.com when it launches in the autumn.
I think your photos are probably the most “stolen” online in the occult community. A picture of you in a Baphomet mask holding up a sign among the annual Christian Protestors last October in Salem went a bit viral on the internet last year. I remember seeing you that day in the mask, but wasn’t present for that moment. What was your motivation behind the sign and mask? Did you engage or have any interactions with the protestors, and how was that?
I had bought the mask for a Samhain event I was planning to attend at Star and Snake. Unfortunately I came down with a rather nasty cold and wasn’t able to attend. But when I heard from my partner that the religious zealots were down the street and spouting their vitriol. Given the current political climate I decided if I were going to do anything this Samhain, it was make a statement.
So I quickly crafted a sign “Know Thyself” in homage to one of the teachers I mentioned earlier, threw on some clothes and walked up the block to stand in defiance against their message. As opposed to being some black metal “Hail Satan” trope, to me Baphomet is an icon representative of the magician’s ideal. Balance between the bestial and illuminated, the supernal and infernal, self mastery, gnosis. So I stood there as an alternative to those who use religion as an anti-human weapon to oppress and embolden their bigotry.
I did not engage with the protestors. I stood there silently. Some of them tried to challenge me and get in my face. But I wasn’t there to engage in debate. There is no debate to be had. I was there as a symbol. And that’s one image that I’m happy to see spread about.
I wanted that photo. I wanted this to have some greater reach as an image. How each individual chooses to interpret such an image is their choice.
But in this case it was never about me, and never meant to be mine.
A lot of your photos seem to have a script that I’ve never seen before. Is this a script that you’ve created or something else?
It is a sigillic alphabet that was transcribed in partnership with a class of spirits with whom I work called the Azresh. That is an entirely distinct practice and magical system that I’ve been developing alongside the Azresh, and one which is the core of my practice.
But if we delve too deeply into that realm I’m afraid this interview might go on into oblivion and bore your readers to tears. Besides, it’s all rather experimental and personal work. So best to leave it at that for now.
I remember when I ran into you last October you were really into Elizabethan magick and were reading the Book of Oberon. The times I’ve seen you since then I haven’t asked what you are reading at the moment. I always trust your judgement of books. What are some good books that you’ve read recently?
Most recently I’ve been enjoying Daniel Shulke’s Thirteen Pathways of Occult Herbalism from Three Hands Press, and The Book of St. Cyprian as compiled by Humberto Maggi from Nephilim Press. I’m also reading Apocalyptic Witchcraft by Peter Grey from Scarlet Imprint because I’m a brat and when everyone is telling me I “need” to read something (and rightfully so) I stubbornly put it off until I’m well behind the trend.
I know you recently got some new tattoos and one of them looks like it was a full on ritual. Can you talk about that a bit?Tattoo and magick have very old ties, so much so that even the old testament forbids tattoos or marking oneself permanently on the flesh. What do you believe is the occult aspect of tattooing?
I received the tattoos during an artist’s retreat I did at Star and Snake. I had the honor of being tattooed in tandem by two very good friends (Natan Alexander and K Siner) who organized the residency. It took place within a magic circle I created during the residency and as a part of a ritual dedicated to the Azresh. The other residents took part as well, with one performing music during the rite, and the other archiving and holding space for it. It was a truly powerful and emotional experience to receive a permanent mark and dedicate my flesh to the spirits in such a way.
Tattoos delve into the realm of art, but also initiation, trial, and revelation when approached with a ritual and magical mindset. I was really honored to be in the hands of two individuals who sincerely live in the concept of tattoo as a transformative and magical process.
You had a Spiritus Arcanum Lenormand deck for a while which was super cool but I didn’t get a chance to grab it on its first release. Are you ever thinking of re-releasing it? How does lenormand differ from other cartomancy practices such as the tarot?
Funny you should ask. I’m finally doing a second, and possibly final, run of the cards. I’m taking preorders for it now and it’s planned to start shipping at the end of September.
Lenormand tends to be a bit more straightforward from my perspective. The deck is smaller than the Tarot, and the cards are often read almost like a story. Where the cards of the Tarot can have layer upon layer of esoteric meaning which allows a single card to convey a lot of information, the Lenormand tends to rely much more on reading cards in relation to each other. So in more cases than not, I tend to feel you need to draw at least three or more cards to really get an answer to a question. But once you understand the basic meanings of each card and some of the common pairings, it tends to really provide really accurate, if not sometimes blunt, results.
What is in store for you and Spiritus Arcanum? Any new projects or plans?
This year will see a lot really. I’m returning to doing more business online and will be launching the official website this Autumn. Before then I will be vending at Templefest in August, and listing a few items on Etsy here and there. I’m also in talks with a couple of shops about wholesaling my products both within Salem and further out.
I’m really excited about relaunching the online side of things. Along with some of the staple products I’ve done in the past, I plan on doing some more unique and limited runs of both artwork and apothecary as well as several other surprises which I hope will speak to my audience and allow my work to go into directions I’ve been wanting to explore for a while. But that’s all I can really say for now. Got to keep those particular secrets locked up tight for the time being.