Pergamum Unfurled: Cunning Words (Review)

Pergamum Unfurled: Cunning Words (Review) March 4, 2024

I’ve read a lot of books about pagan and magical topics over the last 35 years, and none of them are comparable to Cunning Words: a Grimoire of Tales and Magic. Marshall, the Witch of Southern Light, builds this book about magic around a cycle of tales. There are many, many books in which very wise people patiently explain how the power of the human mind is based in stories, but there are limits to how much we can use our logic rocks to explain this creative force. Myth and parable have been a tool for teachers of many different spiritual and esoteric traditions, and it works very well for witchcraft.

The tales in these pages each give insight into this magical tradition, to which the author sometimes adds additional context in the form of notes or recipes. I’m probably not the only reader who will find some of the magical content familiar; the way a folk tradition spreads and changes through space and time is part of the magic itself. It’s relatively easy to pick the spells out from these stories, but there is a deeper layer that might be missed in such a scraping. Not every lesson can be conveyed by words alone. This truth is why there’s just not much in the way of really advanced books. Through story, Marshall WSL connects with the reader differently, possibly circumventing that limitation.

Not everything in Cunning Words is a tale, however. The stories, while restricted to the first of three parts, are the framework on which the entire book hangs. It’s the stories that illustrate the purpose of the various “spells in verse” in the second part. Those cover a variety of different charms and workings, giving a clear sense of how this particular witchcraft comes together. There are elixirs, charms, and sigils for a variety of specific goals.

I expected the third part—the “Cunning Compendium”—to hold the least of my interest, but I was wrong. There’s a section on dirt that is more detailed than anything I’ve seen. I didn’t know how much I needed to know about dirt until I read these pages. It’s on the same level as the variety of waters that Byron Ballard writes about in Staubs and Ditchwater. It’s no coincidence that these are both practitioners of southern folk magic traditions, I’m sure. Anyway, I now find myself looking at dirt very differently than I did before reading this book, and anything that can make new neural connections in this ossified brain has something powerful going for it.

Public domain image by Jing via Pixabay.

Quirks: “You’ll also find a full space between paragraphs because I personally struggle with keeping attention when I’m overwhelmed with walls of text. It is my sincerest hope that this will help other neurodivergent readers who experience this and aid in more smooth and comfortable reading comprehension.” This thoughtful note is just one of the many signs I’ve seen of late that point toward my own neurodivergence.

Quibbles: There are times when I wished this author had used more commas. There are other times when I wished to be half the storyteller that Marshall proves to be. I do not know if these two observations are related.

Transparency: I told the author I would read this book and publish a review on Patheos, because there’s been some nonsense circulating that books which are published by the author are automatically lesser. I did not ask for a review copy; I bought this one myself. While I did flag some proofreading errors (the fact that I can’t stop doing this is another one of the signs I’ve gotten about how my own brain is wired), I have read worse copy that made it through a professional editorial process.


Title: Cunning Words: a Grimoire of Tales and Magic
Author: Marshall WSL
Publisher: Marshall, the Witch of Southern Light
ISBN: 979-8-218-17837-6

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About Terence P Ward
Terence P Ward is a moneyworker, journalist, Hellenic polytheist and Quaker who lives in the bucolic Hudson Valley with his wife and five cats. He is a hiereus (temple priest) of Poseidon with Temenos Oikidios, based in Rhode Island. You can read more about the author here.
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