August 16, 2016

Seductive New England Witches, Part One: Mrs. Paterson

Austin Osman Spare was born in London in December of 1886. From a young age he showed an aptitude for the arts, and by age thirteen he was working in a stained glass factory and taking art classes by night. He went on to study at the Royal College of Art and his father, a London policeman, secretly submitted one of young Austin's drawings to the prestigious Royal Academy. It was accepted and exhibited. Spare was on the road to art world greatness.

But things didn't work out exactly as expected. Spare briefly had a successful art career, but he's more famous for his work as an occultist and practitioner of witchcraft. Spare claimed that a witch named Mrs. Paterson set him on this unusual path.

As a child Spare had been raised Anglican, but in his early adolescence met an elderly fortune teller named Mrs. Paterson. Spare described her as a "colonial woman," and Paterson claimed she was from a venerable line of New England witches who had escaped the Puritan prosecution in the 1600s. Although quite old and not traditionally attractive Spare found himself drawn to her. Paterson seduced him, and for the rest of his life Spare was attracted to older women.

Austin Spare and Witch, 1947, by Austin Osman Spare

Although Paterson was poorly educated and had a limited vocabulary she had a powerful grasp of abstract metaphysical concepts. More impressively, she had strong occult powers. In addition to being an accurate fortune teller she was able to materialize her thoughts into physical manifestation, and often created visions of the future for her clients using this power. Spare claimed she taught him this talent but he could never use it as skillfully she could.

Mrs. Paterson possessed several other unusual talents. Using her ability to externalize her thoughts, she was able to easily transform herself from an elderly woman into a beautiful young one. Spare painted portraits of her in both forms.

Paterson could also travel to the Witches' Sabbat, and took Spare with her several times. Spare claimed the Sabbat occurred in "spaces outside of space" that were indescribable and could not be physically represented. Paterson gave Spare the witch name "Zos" after initiating him into the cult. In return, Spare called her his Witch Mother.

Drawing by Austin Osman Spare

Spare eventually turned his back on the mainstream art world to devote himself to his occult and magical studies, briefly associating with Aleister Crowley before striking out on his own. (An interesting note: Adolf Hitler asked Spare to paint his portrait, but Spare turned him down, rightly thinking he was evil.) He lived in squalid conditions in London's slums where he wrote books with titles like The Book of Pleasure, The Focus of Life, and The Anathema of Zos, and sketched and painted his poverty-stricken neighbors and spirits that he summoned. He died in relative obscurity in 1956, but his work on magical sigils (a way of encoding desires in visual form) was rediscovered by occultists in the 1980s. Today his art work is quite expensive; the largest collection of his work is held by Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page.

And what of Mrs. Paterson, the New England witch who set him on this path? It's unclear what happened to her, if she really existed at all. Perhaps she is now residing in a space beyond space, but some writers think Spare simply made her up. People who start magical cults or new religions often claim they were taught by divine beings like angels, secret Ascended Masters, or extraterrestrials. After all, the magic has to come from somewhere. Mrs. Paterson fits into this pattern. Then again, if Spare really did have the ability to manifest his desires in the material world, perhaps the elderly witch emerged from his subconscious mind to teach him.

Witches, undated, by Austin Osman Spare
Whatever she really was, I find it interesting that Paterson allegedly came from New England. Britain has plenty of witches in its own history, so why would Spare need one of ours? There is a trend in the occult world to think that more 'primitive' people have the most powerful magic. Although 'primitive' is an ethnocentric and meaningless word when applied to cultures, occultists and New Agers have often thought that groups like American Indian medicine men, swamp-dwelling Voodoo practitioners, or rural Appalachian conjure folk have the secrets to the universe. Primitive people are allegedly closer to nature, and therefore closer to the source of magic. An elderly, uneducated fortune-teller from that wilderness called New England would probably have seemed primitive - and therefore powerful - to a Londoner like Austin Osman Spare.

Mrs. Paterson doesn't fit the mold of most traditional New England witches, who were not usually seductive. Accounts of the Witches' Sabbat from early New England witch trials were quite chaste and lack the descriptions of orgies that are found in European trial documents. There is some underlying sexual tension in tales of New England witchcraft - particularly those where the witch 'rides' her male victim all night long like a horse - but it is usually not explicit. If anything, Mrs. Paterson reminds me of the shape-shifting fairies and enchantresses from Medieval romances like Gawain and the Loathly Lady, where one of King Arthur's knights marries a hideous crone who later transforms into a lovely maiden.

"Dreams in the Witch House" from the Masters of Horror TV series, 2005
Paterson also reminds me of Keziah Mason, the ancient witch in H.P. Lovecraft's short story "Dreams in the Witch House." Like Paterson, Keziah Mason takes that story's male protagonist to the Witches' Sabbat, which lies beyond the boundaries of normal space. Unlike the highly libidinous Spare, Lovecraft was much more repressed, and Keziah Mason is not seductive in his story. (However, Keziah is both seductive and able to transform into an attractive young lady in the 2005 TV version directed by Stuart Gordon.)

Lovecraft and Spare were contemporaries, but I don't think they were aware of each other's work. Perhaps Mrs. Paterson was working behind the scenes? Lovecraft did once receive a letter from a female fan who claimed to be descended from the Salem witches. She offered to share her magical knowledge with him, but he declined her offer. Who knows what might have happened if he had taken her up on it.

3 comments:

Sue Bursztynski said...

Fascinating post! If you're going to invent a witch, wouldn't you give her a more interesting name than "Mrs Patterson"? Maybe she was his next door neighbour or lived in the same building and he invented the details? :-)

As for the Lovecraft fan, I'm betting she was like those women(mostly American - sorry!) who insist they're descended from Anne Boleyn and won't allow the facts - only one child, Queen Elizabeth, who died without children - to get in the way of a good story. In her case, that the people accused of witchcraft were mostly not remotely witchy, just victims of neighbours' feuds and possibly their accusers' ergot poisoning...?

captain mission said...

that was a interesting read, i enjoyed all the information but i would speculate why not 'mrs patterson.'

it may just as well be an authentic person because its sort of lost in history. we don't know for certain what his source was but there's no real reason not to believe him. who knows until you encounter it yourself.
having said that i really enjoyed reading it and will keep reading, so cheers.

Gloria Devendorf said...

This was absolutely fascinating - I find that folk magic is a way of life where I belong...was in NOLA last year and met some conjure women...was very impressed...I am learning slowly but gratefully.....there is always some truth to the story that has been around so long. Thank You!