Reviewed by Mike Gleason
Witches: True Encounters with Wicca, Wizards, Covens, Cults, and Magick
by Hans Holzer
Published 2006 by Black Dog & Leventhal
Paperback 672 pages
More Information on this book at Amazon
Okay, I have to be totally honest here. I am NOT a fan of Hans Holzer. He has published w-a-y too many books with w-a-y too many errors over the years. He has also shown, in my opinion, a massively inflated sense of his own importance. He claims initiation into a number of Pagan and Craft traditions, but shows little regard for checking out what he is told.
In spite of decades of writings by active practitioners, and their definition of the words particular to their practices, Professor Holzer define "warlock" as "A magician, a sorcerer...", ignoring its accepted definition as "an oath-breaker; one who betrayed the coven to the Inquisition." He also states that witchcraft does not "include in its service any element even remotely similar to actual Christian practice or worship." As any Witch (or Wiccan) can tell you, there are strong similarities between "cakes and Wine" and the Eucharist.
I'm going out on a limb here, but I am going to assume that, as an accomplished author, an alleged parapsychologist, and (apparently) a photographer, Professor Holzer must have (at the very least) read the captions of his illustrations. How then could he have allowed the caption on page 20 to get into print? It says: "A valley in Tunisia is littered with urns like this, containing the ashes of sacrificed infants. The disparaging myth that witches sacrifice children derives from the 13th-century Roman practice of sacrificing children to Baal." Thirteenth-century Roman practice? Excuse me, but wasn't Christianity the dominant religion in Rome at that point in time? And, while I am no scholar, I seem to recall Baal as a deity worshipped in the Middle East prior to the establishment of the Jewish kingdoms. So how did that practice become common in Rome during the 13th century? If nothing else, this is evidence of sloppy editing, if not shoddy scholarship. Granted that Professor Holzer was in his 80s when this book was published, that is no excuse for sloppiness.
He leans on the evidence of Margaret Murray, whose work on the witch cult has been largely discredited by both the academic and the Wiccan community. Her assertions were based on testimony extracted during torture and have not been independently corroborated by other researchers.
One other thing really disturbs me about the contents of this book. Far too many of the late members of the occult community are referred to in the present tense4, even though they passed over to the Summerlands long before this book was published (Anton LaVey, Sybil Leek, etc.); while other practitioners are mis- identified (Morning Glory Zell is called "Mountain Glory" and Yvonne Frost is called "Alice" among other mistakes). I would hope that any serious author (Professor Holzer has authored over 100 books) would at least make sure of identities.
I very strongly suspect, although I can't prove it at this point (my older books are in storage and not easily accessible) that much of the information in this book has been recycled from earlier works.
In fact, I am sure that I have read large amounts of this book, word for word, in previous works by this author. While that isn't totally unexpected, it would seem more honest (to me) to let the readers know that these events are not current events.
Before I was 70 pages into this book (less than 10%), I knew for sure that much of it was recycled as he referred to a coven in Chicago, headed by two individuals, which I knew had disbanded over 25 years ago. There were also a few relatively recent updates (Ray Buckland in Ohio, Odun in New Orleans), but the vast majority of the material - more than 75% would be my guess - is rehashed from his earlier works. So, if you want to know about some of the personalities of the Craft and how they presented themselves "in the day," you will find this book interesting. If you are looking for up-to-date information this book won't be of much help, I am afraid.
Had the differentiation between the current material and the older items been made clear, it might have enabled this book to be used to give a historical understanding of the development of the Craft in the mid- to late-20th century. The gods know that it is large enough, and inspiring enough to look good on a library shelf. However the blurring and inconsistencies lead me to recommend that the average reader give this book a pass.
Professor Holzer's writing style is entertaining, if a trifle egocentric. There isn't mush chance of misunderstanding what he is saying, although his statements are sometimes in error when it comes to some verifiable details. The editing of this book leaves room for improvement, as I found a number of typographical errors, as well as questionable captioning on some of the illustrations.
Professor Holzer waxes indignant about "...Susan Roberts who... many years later used the same material without bothering to... update it in any way." (Page 211) Which is rather like the pot calling the kettle black, since that is what large chunks of this book accomplish. His accounts of the practitioners he interviewed could, at least, have contained notations indicating when they occurred (Tim Zell hasn't been known as Tim [or married to Julie, for that matter] for decades).
Professor Holzer does include nearly 50 pages of ritual and poetry, provided to him, by the founders of Ferferia, which was one of the more prominent Pagan groups in the '70s. I have always liked the imagery used by this group, so it was a pleasant surprise to find this trove of information offered.
The captioning of many of the photos is confusing. After stating, in the text, "They are not witches." (Page 389), two pages later, the caption reads "...a witch summons the spirit of Baal who... is often invoked by the O.T.A. to deliver prophecies." If the members of the Order of the Temple of Astarte are NOT witches, why are they identified as such in the caption?
Overall, the editing of this book is horrendous. There are numerous instances of dropped letters or even entire words, as well as apparently inserted (or repeated) words. Misspellings are frequent. Considering the number of books produced by this author, I was hoping for better.
To end this book he publishes "...my own Book of Shadows consisting of material I gathered during my visit and interactions with the late Alexander Sanders in England." I don't need to go out on a limb here. As an Alexandrian initiate myself, I had trouble recognizing some parts of this work. Oh, I know that the BoS is an ever-changing work, and I know that Alex made changes during his life-time, but there are massive chunks missing and somehow that pesky part of the oath comes back to haunt me - in Professor Holzer's own words "...I will ever keep secret and never reveal the secrets of the art except it be to a proper person properly prepared within a circle such as I am in now."
Oh, I know that the rituals have been published in dozens of books, but to put your own Book of Shadows into print just seems like oath-breaking to me. To quote a bit here and there, without saying "This is the entirety of it all," may be acceptable and/or justifiable, depending on your point of view. This just makes me uncomfortable on a lot of levels...
Professor Holzer includes segments on poltergeists and possessions which do not belong in a book subtitled True Encounters with Wicca, Wizards, Covens, Cults, and Magick. These add 100 or more pages to the book and could have, in my opinion, been omitted without adversely affecting the book.
Would I recommend this book for the casual reader? Only with extreme reservations. It does serve as a historical record of the Pagan movement during the last three or four decades of the last century, and for that reason it is useful. However, without putting it in its proper historical context it conveys a false impression of the current state of Paganism.
It also serves as an omnibus of Professor Holzer's works on Paganism and witchcraft, thus removing the need to haunt used book store in hope of finding these works, In fact, in my opinion, it would have served the casual reader to simply collect those earlier works and reprint them as a single edition, retaining all the contents, and thus making its historical basis more obvious. The slight amount of new material could then have been put in a single section.