By Phoebe Trillo
When does our creativity become spiritual? In an enthralling anthology of creative writing, Spiritus Mundi aims to answer this question, revealing the connection between imagination and the divine.
Spiritus Mundi is a compendium of writings generated via occult means; whether the ideas were airborne, unconscious, or carried over from some other layer of reality is yours to decide. Each creative work from both emerging and acclaimed authors explores occult techniques such as invocation, cartomancy, and scrying.
Here, editor Elizabeth Kim provides a glimpse into her work at Cunning Folk Magazine, her path into the magic, folklore, mythology and the occult and how Spiritus Mundi came into being.
Where did your path into magic, folklore, mythology and the occult begin?
I grew up around a lot of people with occult, esoteric or non-conventional spiritual beliefs. At its best, being in such communities often comes with a movement away from self-focus and towards community and the health of the planet. On the other hand, I noticed when turned into a religion, qualities like intuition, critical thinking and personal identity could often be bulldozed by groupthink and unthinking prescriptivism from one or several corrupt or well- meaning figureheads who want money and/or power. A few years ago, I was going through several things that had me looking back at ideas I had encountered in early life. I spent a good year helping out at Treadwell’s, where I learnt a lot about different areas of the occult from various practitioners and scholars. I liked how holistic the scope was, and how many of the people who attended lectures were scientists or people who you wouldn’t normally associate with the occult or magic, as well as plenty of artists. I was always torn between humanities and science. It was a place for discussing ideas without being confined by discipline boundaries.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, and your work with Cunning Folk?
I had been writing freelance for magazines and newspapers for about 4 years when I thought about making an independent magazine. A lot of the major titles on newsstands are essentially giant advertising platforms. You leaf through them and find a few features, surrounded by advertorial. Something about that sometimes made me feel uncomfortable, particularly when I wasn’t advertising anything myself. Indies, on the other hand, are closer to books that platform several writers and makers; I realised these were the places where my own writing was the most creative and beautifully presented and edited. I also preferred reading them. These are often magazines that exist because their makers want them to exist. They come into existence through kickstarters and pre-orders and often out of pocket. Many of them are radical and revolutionary. They foster a sense of community, too, whether online, in-person or hybrid.
Cunning Folk is a magazine of ideas that potentially pose alternative solutions to the terrifying endpoint of capitalism, towards which we seem to be headed. It’s also an opportunity for writers and artists to be playful and explorative, unhindered by demands from the market. It derives its name from the historically attested folk magicians native to Britain, Ireland and Europe: cunning-folk. Cunning-folk often worked with herbs and familiar spirit animals to heal people of various ailments, to find lost items and break curses; their craft was eclectic and non- dogmatic. It drew from high magic traditions and imported ideas, but also perhaps contained vestiges of Palaeolithic-Shamanism. “Shamanism” isn’t an ideal term, given it comes from a specific tradition in Siberia, but it is understood widely to account for various practices wherein a person in any given community has one foot in the otherworld through altered states of consciousness. Perhaps in due time we’ll see such practices, instead, as the most innate way of organising the world for humans, when left to our own devices. Altered states of consciousness and unusual experiences are accessed by a wide number of people, initiated into a given tradition or not. I think it’s quite primal, this connectivity we have between the inner and the outer, between the human and the non-human. In an interview I did with Professor Ronald Hutton a few years ago, he noted that Cunning Craft could be rehabilitated, serving as an umbrella term for various modern alternative therapies and practices. I like that their magic is non-standardised. Whether you identify as a cunning person or not, it’s a term that gives a home to many different types of practitioners or artists who don’t belong to an organised religion. It also gently puts into question the reclamation of the term “witch”: many of us identify with the witch archetype. Remembering the history of the witch trials, it can show solidarity with the scapegoat, but there’s also, among many, the questionable belief in lineage, and the forgetting among many that “witch” was on the lips of the accuser, not the many people, mainly women, who were condemned to die.
Spiritus Mundi had an interesting start, could you tell us how the idea for the book came into being? And what you hoped to achieve with Spiritus Mundi?
On the one hand, the product of creativity can be artifice: superficial aestheticism. On the other hand, there is writing that feels true and brought into being rather than assembled. Many of the best writers and lyricists seem far removed from their work, in terms of ego. Cormac McCarthy has suggested that you can’t plot, that you have to trust the source, whatever that is. He also famously doesn’t give many interviews, his reason being: “I don’t think it’s good for your head.” “Leonard Cohen said of Bob Dylan: “I think that Bob Dylan knows this more than all of us: you don’t write the songs anyhow … So if you’re lucky, you can keep the vehicle healthy and responsive over the years. If you’re lucky, your own intentions have very little to do with this. You can keep the body as well-oiled and receptive as possible, but whether you’re actually going to be able to go for the long haul is really not your own choice.”
I started a submissions vertical on the Cunning Folk website, borrowing the title Spiritus Mundi from WB Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”. Yeats conceived of this world-spirit as the place from which all creative ideas derive. How you conceive that is personal, whether you think of it as a literal otherworld or parallel universe, the unconscious, a sense of eternal return, the mythical or archetypal. The occult prompts were intended to quieten the inner critic and produce less self-conscious and more accessible writing, the type I selfishly most like to read— but think most readers like best, too. I occasionally publish stuff there but it’s more to invite a different way of thinking about writing. Soon after starting SM, I spoke with you guys at Liminal 11, as we noticed we had in common an emphasis on illustration, accessibility, a middle ground between light and dark, and eco-consciousness. Spiritus Mundi didn’t exist for long as an online platform before it became a book! It was agreed it would be a book on and of occult writing, aiming to convince that these arcane ideas are of cultural value. It’s really collaborative, both with the other writers and with the readers. I was pleased to work with Liminal 11 as it enabled me to collaborate with Kaitlynn Copithorne again. Kaitlynn does the art direction for the print magazine and her work is consistently strong. I love the cover she did for this and the dream-like imagery within. Somehow, a lot of the symbolism spoke to my own dream language, even if I had revealed nothing of it.
Why did you choose to focus on occult prompts specifically?
The occult is a loaded term, one people associate with the macabre, with death, curses and demonology. It can be these things, and I think for many who are new to exploring the shadow side of the world, this is the main appeal. I think because we don’t often contend with the unknown, we tend to think of it as something unerringly dark. But I hope the book convinces that within occultism there are beautiful things, too, inexplicable things that connect the inner world with the outer. The occult is composed, like all things, of both light and dark; it is holistic. We can have good dreams or nightmares. Where once there existed curses, there were also blessings. Occult just means hidden. What’s more, whether people are interested in the occult or not, it has inspired generations of artists and writers, including Shirley Jackson, Hilma af Klint and David Bowie. Like writing, the occult entails navigating the unknown with curiosity and playfulness.
Spiritus Mundi has a huge range of very talented authors who have contributed. How did you get them to contribute? And how did you select each work?
Most people I contacted were really receptive to the idea. I was quite surprised and grateful to have such talented writers agree to be involved with this weird little book. I didn’t select works, I asked writers to write based on given prompts. I trusted these authors but I couldn’t know for certain whether I would like everything that came out of it—I don’t like every work even by my favourite writers—but I genuinely enjoyed reading the responses. Every piece felt true, like it really exists or happened or speaks to some subliminal level of existence.
What does occult writing mean for you? What is considered occult writing and what is not?
I think a lot of writing could be classed as occult if the word were perceived differently. Lots of writers speak of the mysterious nature of creating something from nothing, of being surprised by their own creations and thinking, “did that really come from my head?”
I don’t think aestheticism or self-conscious writing, could be classed as occult writing, the type that seems laboured, contrived and forced—which is actually what is often being marketed as artistic and literary right now. It’s not surprising because we live under capitalism, where people like shiny things. I find it strange though, because literature and art always used to contend with deep questions about existence; this is quite unfashionable, but still connects with readers as 19th-century works by the likes of Tolstoy, Flaubert and Dostoyevsky did. For example, a few critics dismissed Sally Rooney’s “simple” prose, but millions of readers resonated with characters such as Marianne existing in the midst of late stage capitalism: “Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening somewhere very far away, happening without her, and she didn’t know if she would ever find out where it was or become part of it.”
Recently I read in an interview with the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson who well articulated the problem I have with a lot of self-conscious writing. He was talking about photography but we can apply this to other mediums. He criticised the way many modern photographs are posed, staged, and inherit much from advertising, representing “the outcome and the confusion of a certain Americanised world, a world that is headed towards nothingness.” This, he said, didn’t revolutionise anything. As a solution, he says: “It is necessary to copy; we are all copycats, but it is nature we have to copy—and when you press the shutter, you also paint yourself. For me, to be yourself is to be outside yourself. It’s like why [Eugen] Herrigel describes: we reach ourselves by aiming at the target—the outside world. These people aim only at their own insides. They don’t even talk anymore about rhythm, Matila Gyka’s Golden Ratio, about Pythagoras. Who wrote in the Renaissance: ‘Only geometricians can enter’?” Occult writing invites us to look out to look in, and to find within the world these hidden patterns. Occult writing is found rather than assembled. For that reason I think it has more longevity.
As a writer, do you use any of the techniques in Spiritus Mundi yourself for your professional work or personal life?
Most things I write begin as automatic writing. I pay attention to my dreams. I have been to a tarot reader for a story problem, and I have pulled cards for myself. This might not help sell Spiritus Mundi but actually I don’t think we need tools or specific techniques, even if they are fun to use, and helpful first for forging connections. Rituals can help imbue our lives and work with more meaning. But there’s no need to become dogmatic about it; what’s the difference, really, between scrying into a flame and reading tarot? Both are asking for answers in the external world about the nature of the internal world. We don’t need to pluck a flower for it to have worth. I think the world can become a portal to ideas, if we let it. In turn we might veer away from incessant self-focus and find a realm of interconnected things worthy of protecting.