Judika Illes on Folklore, Witches, and Saints

Judika Illes on Folklore, Witches, and Saints March 6, 2018

Judika Illes fell in love with the magical arts as a child and has been studying them ever since. An independent scholar, her interests include tarot and other forms of divination, astrology, spell-casting, witchcraft, amulets, traditional healing and spirituality, Kabbalah, the Egyptian Mysteries, runes, magical oils and perfumes, mythology, folklore, and fairy tales. Judika is the author of The Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells, The Encyclopedia of Spirits, The Big Book of Practical Spells, Magic When You Need It, Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, The Weiser Field Guide to Witches and the Encyclopedia of Mystics, Saints, and Sages. She is also the author of The Weiser Field Guide to the Paranormal, published under the alias, Judith Joyce. Judika is the editor and curator of two anthologies of vintage esoteric fiction, The Weiser Book of the Fantastic and Forgotten and The Weiser Book of Occult Detectives: 13 Stories of Supernatural Sleuthing. She has been a professional card reader and spiritual counselor for over two decades. Find her at www.judikailles.com

Image Credit: The Vodou Store | Courtesy of Allan Spiers

If I remember right, you grew up with a lot of folklore as a child, right? How do you feel that impacted you? Why is studying folklore important for witches?

Oh, yeah. I grew up totally immersed in folklore, as well as fairytales and mythology. My mother was a great storyteller, who loved hearing and telling stories, so that was part of my life from day one of my existence. The impact of all that lore from such an early age is that the notion of spiritual realms and dimensions and the possibility of journeying between them was and is very normal to me. The concept of going to Baba Yaga’s house or having fairy encounters was as real to me as visiting a neighbor. It’s been a blessing. It made spiritual interaction and communications a very natural thing for me.

I was never told, at least at home, that these were “just stories.” I never heard the word ‘fairytale’ used as a pejorative and I was appalled when years later I did. To this day, I cringe when I hear the word ‘myth’ used as a synonym for ‘lie.’ I write about this in several of my books because it’s important. Myths are sacred stories. Myths, folklore, fairytales: I think they’re of tremendous benefit for everyone, for all humans. They nourish us magically on a very deep soul level.

But, specifically for witches? I think there are many ways to be a witch. We don’t all have the same needs. We don’t all do the same things or operate the same way. I don’t think there’s one witch curriculum that fits all. That said, the benefit of folklore is that it makes explicit that the world is greater and more complex than just what is tangible. Embedded in folklore are instructions and explanations for how to maneuver within our complex multi-dimensional world and how to co-exist with the various denizens. It also provides a direct link to your ancestors and to other people of the past, especially the marginalized, whose wisdom and knowledge may have otherwise been lost.

You’ve curated the anthologies The Weiser Book of Occult Detectives and The Weiser Book of the Fantastic and Forgotten with amazing stories by writers such as Dion Fortune, Helena Blavatsky, W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, and many others. It’s interesting that a lot of early occultists wrote fiction before writing about the occult, among these also Gerald Gardner. What do you think the connection between occultism and fiction is? Do you feel that they inspire one another?

It’s the magic power of the story. Storytelling is very much an unappreciated and unheralded magical art. My book Encyclopedia of Witchcraft features a large section devoted to fairytales and the hidden magical wisdom in folklore and why they’re so frequently dismissed and denigrated. (Short answer: it’s largely considered women’s wisdom. Think about the negative connotations of a phrase like ‘old wives’ tales.’)

But there are also legal aspects to this topic, especially with the early modern occultists like Gerald Gardner or Dion Fortune. Until the 1951 repeal of the Witchcraft Act of 1604 in the UK, it was illegal to publish books promoting witchcraft or that could even be interpreted as promoting witchcraft. In the US, the threat of prosecution for postal fraud also put a damper on publishing non-fiction advocating occultism or interpreted as such. The way authors got around these oppressive laws was to camouflage instructional material within fiction. And, of course, fiction must be well-written or else no one will read it. So, you have these wonderful magical novels and stories by Dion Fortune, Algernon Blackwood, and many other great occultists that can be read on multiple levels simultaneously. You can just enjoy them as fiction or, if you have the eyes to see, you can glean all sorts of occult lessons from them.

I think fiction and occultism do inspire each other in various ways. Fiction can be a gateway to true occultism. I’ve met so many people whose love of the Harry Potter novels or television shows like Charmed stimulated them to begin serious studies of witchcraft. Then there’s H.P. Lovecraft whose works of fiction have inspired genuine occult workings. To this day, Lovecraft scholars and fans argue passionately (viciously!) about whether his work is truly and entirely fictional. Lovecraft described himself as a rationalist, someone who only acknowledged what is tangible to the five conventional senses and many insist that his work is purely made-up. Meanwhile others are convinced that he channeled at least some of the material, although possibly not consciously. His night-gaunts, for example, apparently first emerged in his dreams.

It seems Weiser has been a huge part of your life, even before you wrote or worked with them, can you discuss that a bit?

Weiser has had a formative impact on my life. I was born in New York City, the child of recent Hungarian refugees. I’m the first person in my lineage to be born in the U.S. or even in the Western Hemisphere. When I was six and starting first grade, my sister was 18 and starting college in the East Village, where, at that time, the Samuel Weiser bookshop was located. (It had moved further uptown by the time I was old enough to shop there on my own.) She would come home with books from Weiser: astrology, numerology, palmistry, you name it. She also brought home a deck of Tarot cards (Builders of the Adytum, the ideal deck for an art student), which I just seized, and which quickly became mine. I consumed everything my sister brought home—records, too.
I was a precocious child, who was very much left to my own devices.

My mother taught herself English by teaching me to read when I was three. I grew up amongst book lovers and there was no censorship: I was never stopped from reading anything. I did not know Weiser as a publisher at that time: only as a store and a source for magical and mystical wisdom. The cards and books my sister brought home from Weiser— and the knowledge that magical marketplaces existed—are a crucial part of my personal magical journey, although not exclusively. My mother had already instilled in me a love of witches, magic, and folklore. As a family, we were inclined to read this material, or my sister wouldn’t have brought it home in the first place.

As Editor-At-Large for Weiser and as a witch very involved with this community for quite some time, I’m curious about how you feel about the direction that witchcraft is heading? Anything that makes you hopeful? Anything that you see as upsetting?

I find recent political events, especially the emboldening of the intolerant, to be very upsetting and concerning. The current occult and witchcraft renaissance has really only existed since the 1970s, at least in full bloom. I’m old enough to have been an eye witness. We need to be vigilant regarding our rights, so that this renaissance continues and is not just a glitch in the history of witchcraft, a tiny little respite in the midst of centuries of persecution.

What makes me hopeful is the modern mass production of occult books and their dissemination around the world. I’ve heard from readers in Estonia, Tanzania, Dubai, India, Singapore, Lebanon . . .Because these books, not just my own, but in general, are so widely dispersed, I’m sure that they can never all be destroyed, and the knowledge contained within them won’t be lost.

One of my favorite books of yours is your Encyclopedia of Mystics, Saints, and Sages so much so that it’s one of your books that I bring it to my workshops on working with spirits as a recommendation because I truly believe it’s a valuable resource for people to have. The book is filled with saints and mystics of monotheistic religions, which sometimes takes Pagans by surprise. Why would a polytheistic witch want to work with saints and why would Christian saints want to work with polytheistic witches?

Thank you, Mat. That means a lot to me. That book has had an interesting journey, as have I. If you had told me twenty years ago that I would write a book featuring saints and teach classes about them, I would have laughed at you. I wouldn’t have believed you. It’s a topic I’ve struggled with and I totally understand why people are sometimes taken aback. When I first became aware of how frequently saints were invoked in folk magic, it shocked me, and it was something I initially resisted.

It was not my original intent to write a book about saints. It just evolved that way. Originally, I had intended to include saints in my previous book Encyclopedia of Spirits, alongside all the other spiritual entities and sacred beings. I wanted to place Saint Brigid side by side with the goddess Brigid and her Vodou avatar Maman Brigitte. I wanted to be able to cross-reference Saint Patrick and Damballah. I wanted the djinn-master saints to be considered alongside the djinn they command. But it didn’t work out that way and in the long run, it was for the best. The original manuscript became too large and the easiest way to cut it in a coherent way was to delete the saints and some other categories of spirits. So, I had out-takes that eventually found their way into their own book. And because the saints now had their own book, I was able to include more than initially intended and from an even greater number of traditions.

I would like to emphasize that not all saints are Christian. The concept of saints predates Christianity but has since been hijacked by the Vatican. Although not all spiritual traditions and religions have saints, most do. I could discuss this for hours (and sometimes do; it’s one of my favorite classes to teach) but if people are interested, this is described in detail in the book.

Saints are the powerful, benevolent, and generous dead who linger to help the living. There is a long history of saints from one religion being venerated by devotees of other religions who claim to receive results. For example, Christians and Muslims venerate some of the same saints in Egypt, while Muslims and Jews often venerate the same saints in North Africa. And there are folk saints who are not attached to any religion, but who provide miracles nonetheless.

The reason people like working with saints is that it is direct one-to-one interaction with the sacred and because saints were once human, they tend to be sympathetic to human needs in ways that other sacred beings who lack human incarnations may not be. I would advocate that no one work with any spiritual entity of any kind that they are not comfortable with, but saints are incredibly responsive.

I know this is probably a tough question, but who are some of your favorite saints to work with, or which ones do you work with regularly?

No, that’s actually the easiest question yet, Mat. I’m happy to pay tribute to them. The first saint I ever worked with was Saint Rita. My dear friend Carole Murray encouraged me to petition her when I was in need, but I was resistant. I’m not Catholic. I’m not any kind of a Christian and I didn’t think Rita would help me. It seemed pointless. But Carole was persistent, and I had nothing to lose by trying, which is frequently the starting point for spell work and spiritual petitions. So, I put out a petition and Rita responded! It was literally miraculous. You can see my little tribute to Carole and Saint Rita in the acknowledgements section of Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells.

The next saint to come to me and with whom I work on a regular basis is Saint Anthony, the finding saint, another consistent miracle worker. I work very actively with Saint Expedite, who has had a transformative influence on me. Expedite and Anthony are the two I work with most often, along with Saint Martha. I adore Joan of Arc and have since childhood. I feel very connected to Mychal Judge, who is an unofficial saint, an uncanonized saint. I consider him the saint of New York City, my birthplace and so someone I can call on as a patron.

I also work with Michael Archangel on a daily basis. I know many consider him to be a saint, but for me his archangel status supersedes all. I knew, loved, and felt protected by Michael long before I worked with saints.

Is there a history of witches working with saints or is this a more modern trend?

Both. But to address this you have to analyze who is a ‘witch.’ There are a lot of assumptions about witches—how we vote, what we believe, what is our religion. But the more you acquaint yourself with the greater international witchcraft community, the more in awe of our diversity you will become. I know atheist witches. I know people who self-identify as Christian witches. There are tons of non-Wiccan witches. Witches of all creeds and faiths and backgrounds. And, again, I cannot emphasize enough that saints derive from many religious traditions and none, not only Christianity. If you are asking me specifically about Wiccan witches, I have not yet met anyone who equates the Lord or Lady with a saint. But that day may be coming: several saints are goddess-like (Mary Magdalene or Margaret of Antioch, for example) and in some cases, Pagan deities may linger behind the assumed masks of saints, so it’s not even that far-fetched.

Historically, there have been magical practitioners who incorporated saints into their practice, as for example, in Italian folk magic. However, these practitioners frequently resist being called witches, for all sorts of reasons, not least safety. But working with saints is also increasing and becoming more accepted and public. Magical practitioners have long worked with folk saints like Santa Muerte, but now it’s being done openly. Saint veneration has become quite common in 21st century Hoodoo, but until recently that didn’t really exist. Whether practitioners would identify as witches depends on the individual practitioner: I’ve heard both sides of that argument. Hoodoo is an African-diaspora-based magical tradition that first emerged in Protestant regions of the southern United States, where saints were not recognized or venerated, so that’s a new and growing practice. And there are saints who were quite familiar with magic while they were alive. I’m thinking specifically of Saint Cyprian, who was a renowned mage or sorcerer. His veneration by Pagan occult practitioners has really increased in recent years. Marie Laveau, the architect of modern New Orleans Voodoo has emerged as a full-fledged folk saint, and there’s La Madama who derives from the Puerto Rican spiritual tradition Espiritismo and who is the matron saint of witches, card readers, and herbalists.

You are the probably the biggest spell collector that I’ve seen. With books like Encyclopedia of 5000 SpellsThe Big Book of Practical Spells, and Magic When You Need It, you’ve probably covered every single type of spell anyone could ever need. How did you begin collecting these spells? Are they all found spells or are some of them your creation?

The spells come from all over. Some are my own. Some were taught to me by relatives or given to me by friends or acquaintances and some are from books. I give credit in the acknowledgements and describe origins in the text of the books themselves and I always include extensive bibliographies.

I have an unpublished manuscript devoted to traditional methods of healing infertility that includes magic spells. I spent years researching that book (and still do). Initially, I was very focused, only collecting information pertaining to my topic, but I kept running into all this other interesting stuff. In the beginning, I ignored it, but eventually I began recording anything and everything I found that was interesting, whether or not I needed it personally. I have boxes and boxes of notes. I just allowed myself to fall down all the rabbit holes.

One of the things that strikes me about Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells is that its formatted in a way that reminds me of a cookbook, like the Joy of Cooking. As a child, that’s something I always wanted in a Spell Book. What do you feel the best way to use this book? Should the spells be used exactly as shown? Should one modify the spells? Should it inspire the reader to create their own?

It is absolutely formatted like the Joy of Cooking. I worked with an editor who wanted to create a Joy of Cooking for spells and, in fact, the initial working title for the book was the Joy of Spells. The publisher renamed it as an encyclopedia just before publication. The first thing I always do when starting a book is create an outline for it. I spent an afternoon analyzing the structure of the Joy of Cooking and used that to help me organize Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells.

There is no one best way to use that book. People should use it as it benefits them personally. Spells are intended to improve your life and the book should be used in similar fashion. I rarely cast a spell exactly the same way twice. In the book’s introduction, I encourage people to tweak spells to suit their own situations. But some people tell me that’s stressful.

There’s no right or wrong, only what works for you. I know some people who use the book solely as a source of inspiration, because they prefer to create their own spells and that’s wonderful. I also know people who feel secure following the directions given in the book and that’s wonderful, too. You know, I don’t always give very strict instructions (and I discuss why in the book). People are sometimes annoyed with me for not giving super-precise measurements, but that’s because I find spellcasting works best as a sensuous, intuitive process.

But, you know, Mat, not everyone who reads Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells intends to put it into practice. Some people read it as entertainment or as history or sociology or as source material for their own novels. I receive nice emails from all kinds of researchers. And there’s apparently a huge contingent of D&D players who find the book useful.

My primary goal when I wrote that book was to preserve material. I’m very aware of how much magical knowledge has been lost or destroyed. I wanted to combat that, and I wanted to write about spells and magical practice with respect and love. Hearing from readers and having them tell me all the different ways they use or enjoy Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells is incredibly gratifying.

Lastly, anything we can look forward to from you in the near future? Any new projects, tours, events?

I’m always working, always writing. I have a new book in the works, but it’s still gestating and it’s too soon to discuss in detail. I think people will like it. I have some events scheduled for 2018, but not too many, as I’m reserving time to write. I’ve got various bookstore events scheduled for this spring, mainly in New York and throughout New England, but also at Soul Journey in Butler, NJ. I’ll be at The Holy Rose in Raleigh for an entire weekend in May. There’s a page on my website listing my events and I also post on my social media.

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