This is a powerful book and a great contribution toward understanding traditional witchcraft.

Author Ian Chambers’ stated purpose is to delineate the use of the compass and the directions as “a cosmological map and a means of magic and revelation.” He begins by comparing the compass to the magic circle, a key concept and symbol in Wicca and ceremonial magic, used to separate sacred space and contain and protect energy.  By contrast, Chamber writes, the compass and use of directions is “a ritual means to traverse the worlds.” His point is not to claim that using directional symbology is superior to using a magic circle. His point is to encourage what he identifies as a recent revival of traditional witchcraft.

Chambers writes that traditional witchcraft is “too much of a moving target” for him to completely explain what it is. What he does say is that the growth and popularization of Wicca has involved “attempts to sanitize certain aspects traditionally belonging to witchcraft.”  What has been sanitized? Chambers gives a list of features by which we might recognize traditional witchcraft, including, but not limited to: attendance at witches’ sabbats, spirit flight, shapeshifting, meeting with the folkloric Devil, necromancy, casting spells, bewitching, and maleficia (acts intended to harm.) These are provocative subjects, no doubt.

As for the history of the use of the compass and directions, Chambers gives a cogent summary of their use in mystery schools dating back thousands of years to when humans first started observing and making myths about the rising and setting of the sun. Later magical practitioners incorporated atmospheric features such as directional winds. People started using magnetic compasses for naval navigation by the Middle Ages, though the Chinese were using compasses in forms of feng shui as early as 4,000 BCE.

As a symbolic tool, the compass is used to orient oneself first with the cardinal directions for the purposes of envisioning and journeying to other worlds. That is, this is a shamanic practice. It’s not about guarding or protecting. Chambers quotes from occultist Robert Cochrane, whom he identifies as the first to mention the Witch Compass in the context of modern traditional witchcraft. Cochrane said that the difference between a pagan and a witch is that “the witch crosses the river that separates the quick and the dead.” Chambers writes that the most basic characteristic of traditional witchcraft is specifically this  pursuit of the “ability to switch between the worlds.”

Toward that end, Chambers calls his own book an “act of sorcery,” and he backs that intention up with a series of exercises which makes The Witch’s Compass really a set of lesson plans. After training oneself to record one’s sensations, ideas, and feelings while observing the skyline at sunrise, noon, dusk and --if physically safe to do so outside --at midnight, the trainings move to a practice of centering oneself while facing each of the four cardinal directions. One is to record and distill impressions down to a single word, sentence, image or idea for each of the four directions, in order to develop one’s unique methodology for summoning the winds, and to “know with absolute certainty that they will come and how you will recognize them.”

These are excellent practices for astronomically-informed astrologers as the four cardinal directions correlate to the four cardinal zodiacal signs, which are the turning points at each season and are linked to the angles of an astrological chart. Chambers notes that the use of the four cardinal directions is familiar to Wiccans as well as to ceremonial magicians.  

From the basics, Chambers moves on to detail a wealth of symbolism associated with the spirits of eight directions (adding northeast, southeast, southwest and northwest to the cardinal four). He calls the names of these spirits “raw, powerful, primeval energies that are experienced in many guises throughout cultures and times beneath the masks of local and familiar deities, spirits, and ancestors.”

It is the universality of what Chambers is describing that, I think, makes this book captivating and a valued addition for my spiritual library. It is specifically about the use of the compass in traditional witchcraft. Its teachings are also applicable for students of other mystical paths.

~review by: Sara R. Diamond

Author: Ian Chambers
Llewellyn Publications, 2022
253 pp., $17.99