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By Andrew Dalby, published by the British Museum Press at £9.99. 184pp. 8 colour and 48 B&W illustrations. ISBN: 0-7141-2771-x

It is strange to think that the lust for spices has been credited with being the main motivator for European imperialism in the late medieval period through to the 19th century. Pepper, a native of the Malabar coast of western India, was once known as “black gold”, although in our own day that epithet is generally given to oil, and was fought over by the British, the French and the Portuguese, while the Dutch made a beeline for what was then referred to as the Spice Islands but today is known as Indonesia, the source of cloves and ginger. Without spices, there may never have been a British Empire. A strange thought indeed today, when everything from star anise to cinnamon and from cardamom to nutmeg is simply picked up from the shelf in a supermarket.

But there is more to the history of spices than this. At various times, the term spice has included cocoa and sugar, ambergris and frankincense. Spices also drove much earlier trading empires than those of early modern Europe. The Pharoahs sought resins for mummification in Arabia and beyond and the cities of what are now Jordan and Syria, most notably Petra and Palmyra, owed much of their wealth and power to the spices carried westwards along the camel-routes from Asia. Wars were fought and civilisations and empires rose and fell to control these once precious and now commonplace commodities.

In incense and cooking, in perfumed oils and medicine, spices invade every part of our magickal lives. For magickians and witches more than most other people, spices are part of what we are and how we relate to the universe around us. And this is where this book comes in.

Dalby has produced a truly fascinating read. Focusing on some 50 spices from around the world, he tells a sweeping tale of exploration, of history and archaeology, conjuring up ancient civilisations and the growth of empires. Packed with information, including comprehensive suggestions for further reading and an extensive glossary, there's enough in this book to keep the reader quiet for hours on a winter's day and to act as a reference work thereafter.

For the magickian or witch with a real interest in the things they burn on their altars and offer to the Gods or simply add to their food, this is a valuable addition to the bookshelf and one to consider buying or begging at Yule.