Victoria’s Magic and A Book in the Ether

Vancouver Island photographed from Powel River on the mainland

When I came here for the second time in 1986, this time to stay, I knew that the magically creative forces afoot in Victoria could manifest great things. Vital life force pulsed through the elements — land, sea, and sky — like a hidden fire and light. The beauty of the place was staggering. I was sailing over from Tsawwassen in the late afternoon, with the sun just starting to set. I’d come from NYC via Alaska, travelling the Alaska Highway from Skagway on the back of a motorcycle, which afforded many amazing sights, but none as pacific and welcome as the view of Vancouver Island from the deck of that early evening ferry.

The first time I’d come here was in 1976, a decade earlier, coming over on the Coho from Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula. On that occasion, a pod of Orcas played chicken with the prow of the fast-moving ferry, leaping and diving in front of the onrushing boat with breathtaking derring-do. On that occasion, driving around the Inner Harbour and (at that time) very quaint downtown, with its authentic Victoria-era buildings and storefronts along Government, I thought to myself that this was someplace on the North American continent, besides San Francisco, NYC and Boston, where I could actually live. I might even have had some inkling of how fruitful my stay here would be, and how books and other publications, art pieces, teaching and creative collaborations would follow.

My most recent book encapsulates around 25 years of scholarship on a subject that galvanized my intense interest for its egregious misogyny as early as 1980, in the National Gallery while visiting my brother Ian in Washington D.C.. I’d launched the cross-country hejira from San Francisco, where I lived at the time, slotting in visits to East Coast galleries and museums as far north as Boston. That was when I first saw Hans Baldung Grien’s amazingly offensive Northern Renaissance graphic images of women as witches, all about the Aristotelian precept of ‘Feminine Defect’ being founded in the ‘pollution’ of menstruation, rationalizing constructions of feminine ‘evil’ and the construction of witchcraft as a feminine heresy and insurrection.

Specifically, it was this one:

Hans Baldung Grien. Witches’ Sabbath, c. 1514. Louvre, Paris. Pen and ink w/highlights

So, really, the amassing of the higher degrees from world-renowned universities, with enormous unremitting effort and expense, was purely so as to equip my writing of works that would be adequately credentialed, carry weight, be read, seen, and cited as to the ways in which women are constructed as physiologically lesser and even toxic–morally, spiritually, and physically — in Western medicine, arts, letters, humanism, science and religion — to this day. This publication marks the anniversary of my staying subliminally on task (even if on a way back burner) for forty years.

I don’t often write about this aspect of my life, though it has been dominating it for so long, as I figure it’s boring to anyone not right in it–which is pretty much everyone but Joseph Leo Koerner, our Ariel O’Sullivan and Fran Willis, and my ex partner and friend, Andrew Caner — all of whom have read pretty much every draft I’ve written over the past 15 years or so. (I’m sure they’re ‘in it’ more than they ever expected they would be, not that any of them has ever complained, bless them.) Then there were those in the community who helped me keep body and soul together throughout the creative ordeal, over many years, which included the entire 13th House Mystery School, as a whole, giving me a grant, as one of its Founders, to at one point travel to England for study.

The choice of image for the cover of my book was mine, as was the front cover design. It’s pretty unheard of for a top publisher to let the author decide such things, but they ceded to me in pretty much all things, including final editing. Bloomsbury is literally the top publisher of the humanities in the world, so I felt honoured. The publisher’s art department usually has sole control over the look of the book. My hope is that it will be picked up by university faculties and departments as an academic textbook. It will be translated into multiple languages to facilitate this outcome.

Happily, the publisher is in charge of marketing and distribution and all the costs incurred thereby, though I’ve rendered my suggestions and ideas as to specific target audiences. We’re hoping for a robust crossover academic/scholarly/general readership audience. It’s been so long coming to fruition it’s created quite a buzz in some sectors, primarily among European art history conferences, scholars and institutions. Over the years, while the original publisher, I.B. Tauris of London, was swallowed up by Bloomsbury in a very fortunate turn of events, and my book passed through seven different editors between London and New York offices and back again, I’ve published several outtakes from the manuscript as journal articles and scholarly anthology book chapters, so quite a bit of seeding has been accomplished, one way or the other.

So, that’s the book’s full resume and brief.

Victoria and environs, perched on this southernmost tip of our magical, motile island, which, having originated in the South Pacific in prehistoric times, is still migrating North at the rate that our fingernails grow, has been a nurturing cradle for creativity. Neatly tucked into the shelter of this energetic straight for the past several hundred millennia or so, the ancient Songhees lands, unceded and basically occupied by Europeans such as myself, have nevertheless, and so generously, offered creative sanctuary and spiritual repose.

This has held true for both the book (which is its own separate living being) and myself. As an abidingly important part of our shared credo in our community proclaims, “The 13th House Mystery School Tradition of Witchcraft and Shamanism is dedicated to the facilitation of self- realization and self-expression through creative acts,” which — in any world, in any age — is big magic.

[This piece is an excerpt of my article previously published in ‘The Web,’ the newsletter of the 13th House Mystery School, on October 31st, 2020.]

Author Bio

Yvonne Owens is a past Research Fellow at the University College of London, and Professor of Art History and Critical Studies at the Victoria College of Art, Victoria, BC. She was awarded a Marie Curie Ph.D. Fellowship in 2005 for her interdisciplinary dissertation on Renaissance portrayals of women in art and sixteenth-century Witch Hunt discourses. She holds an Honours B.A. with Distinctions in History of Art from the University of Victoria, British Columbia, an M.A. in Medieval Studies with Distinction from The Centre For Medieval Studies at the University of York, U.K., and an M.Phil. and Ph.D. in History of Art from University College of London. Her publications to date have mainly focused on representations of women and the gendering of evil “defect” in classical humanist discourses, cross-referencing these figures to historical art, natural philosophy, medicine, theology, science and literature. Her essay, “The Saturnine History of Jews and Witches,” appeared in Preternature (Vol. 3, №1) in 2014, her book chapter, “Pollution and Desire in Hans Baldung Grien: The Abject, Erotic Spell of the Witch and Dragon” appeared in Angeliki Pollali and Berthold Hub, Eds., Images of Sex and Desire in Renaissance Art and Modern Historiography, her essay “The Hags, Harridans, Viragos and Crones of Hans Baldung Grien” was published as part of the Hans Baldung Grien: New perspectives on his work, International Conference Proceedings (October 18–20, 2018), Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe in 2019, and her book, Abject Eroticism in Northern Renaissance Art: the Witches and Femme Fatales of Hans Baldung Grien, Bloomsbury London, in 2020. She also writes art and cultural criticism, exploring contemporary post-humanist discourses in art, literature and new media. She is Editor for an anthology of essays titled Trans-Disciplinary Migrations: Science, the Sacred, and the Arts, forthcoming from Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

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Yvonne Owens, PhD

I'm a writer/researcher/arts educator on Vancouver Island and all round global citizen who loves humans even though we're such a phenomenal pain-in-the-ass.