I do not know of a single person who has not suffered in some way during 2016, not only on account of one or more of their cultural or childhood heroes dying, but also because of the way they perceive the world around them being blighted by war, injustice or some other wretched form of suffering. This year would have been bad enough for me for these reasons alone, but as I’ve recorded elsewhere on this site, I encountered an additional slew of sorrows around the time of the Ides of March, while the last fortnight has brought me two more pieces of sad news that are proving very hard to bear.
Yesterday, there came a third when I belatedly became aware of the death of Richard Cavendish on October 21st, at the age of 86. This man was most famous for being the author of The Black Arts, I book I first learned about over forty years ago when I was working on an archaeological excavation in my hometown of Usk in south Wales, during the school holidays. I later came across a second-hand paperback copy in the market at Monmouth in 1976, when I was studying the Classics for A-level and when I had the joy of reading Book VI of Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid, which described the descent to the Underworld undertaken by the Trojan prince in the company of the Sybil of Cumae.
I had long had far more than a passing interest in hauntings and in other such exotic subject matter, so it was a wonderful surprise to encounter these otherworldly things during the course of my studies. Book VI of The Aeneid goes into enormous detail concerning the many monsters and apparitions encountered by Aeneas and the Sybil during the course of their journey together, while at the same time, I was studying Books XIV and X of Homer’s Odyssey as part of my ancient Greek studies.
These dealt with the fearsome Cyclops and with the Laestrygonians, as well as speaking of the terrible goddess Circe on her island domain of Aeaea, so I felt that my voracious mind had been treated to every unearthly delight imaginable. However, when I immersed myself in Richard Cavendish’s The Black Arts, I truly felt like “some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken” because I was introduced to literally bewitching worlds that I’d not encountered before. All the chapters on astrology, the Tarot, the Cabala, alchemy and others were absorbing enough, but there was something in the way that Richard Cavendish wrote about these magical things, giving the reader no clue as to whether or not he believed in them, that made The Black Arts so alluring for me.
I could write a long essay on this book and one day, I may well do so. For now, I cannot praise it highly enough, both on account of the mesmerising information it contains and because of the beautiful, simple and incredibly engaging way in which Richard Cavendish writes about ritual magic, devil worship and other such arcane matters. Many years later, when I came to write my own non-fiction book The Missing Years of Jesus, I tried to deal with the material in the same way that Richard Cavendish had done in his superb book.
I was amply rewarded in many ways for looking into the vexed question of whether or not Jesus as a young man had ever visited these shores, as suggested in the first verse of William Blake’s poem And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time? better known to us today as the patriotic song or hymn Jerusalem, but some of the most satisfying responses came from those many people who wrote to me after reading my book, eager to know if I was a Christian and if I believed the stories of Christ in Britain. If the answer to either of these questions had been evident in the way I presented the strange material I’d unearthed, I’d have considered that I’d failed badly in my exploration and presentation of this infuriating, obscure subject, so I feel I have the late Richard Cavendish to thank for the example he set us back in 1967 and for the success I enjoyed with my book.
It is difficult fighting against the temptation to write about this masterpiece and its genius author for hours yet, late into the night, but I will draw to a close with a quote or excerpt from The Black Arts that gripped me on the very first page and which has pretty much informed my thinking on these matters ever since, while I will also add that all the essays I’ve written on Stonehenge over the years that have appeared in books, scholarly journals, newspapers and other media the world over owe at least part of their success, in my view, to the example set to me all those years ago by the pages of The Black Arts:
“The great fascination of magic is in the type of thought on which it is based. Magical thinking is not random, it has its own laws and its own logic, but it is poetic rather than rational. It leaps to conclusions which are usually scientifically unwarranted, but which often seem poetically right. It is a type of thinking which has been prevalent all through the history of Europe, which lies behind huge areas of our religion, philosophy and literature, and which is a major guide-post to the regions of the spiritual and the supernatural, the regions of which science has nothing to say. There is no necessity to accept it, but it rings many a far-away, summoning bell in the depths of the mind.”