For Today’s Review – A Coptic Handbook of Ritual Power

I’ve been approached by two people today about a new book of magic that’s just been released – one link to a Livescience discussion of the book, and another link to the title at Brepols.  As I’ve had it sitting here for a while, I might as well get down to it.

The Coptic books of magic and amulets have been known for quite some time to scholars of that place and time.  These specialists have coined the term “ritual power” to avoid the associations that the term “magic” has with modern readers, and to nullify the conceptual divide between religion and magic.  (If you read the Livescience article above, you can see just how well this works.)  On the other hand, these texts haven’t gotten much attention from modern occultists, who are more interested on one end in the works edited by Mathers and Waite, and on the other in the Greek and demotic magical papyri, a largely pagan set of writings with fewer links to Judaism or Christianity.  As it turns out, the Coptic works might be considered successors to the magical papyri, as the religious specialists of pagan Egypt joined the Coptic clerical community and brought their practices with them.

That brings us to the present work, a short handbook from the seventh or eighth centuries at Macquarie University at Sydney edited by Malcolm Choat and Ian Gardner.  Most of the text of this work is a lengthy invocation or set of prayers to a number of spiritual beings, including the almighty and mysterious Baktiotha, Jesus, David, and other figures.  Among these are references to “Seth, the Risen Christ,” drawing parallels between the text and the Gnostic sect of Sethians thought to have died out centuries before.  All of this is written in florid language filled with nomina barbara (barbarous names), lists of angels, and vowel combinations reminiscent of those in the magical papyri.

At the end of this section is a brief handbook of magical remedies and prescriptions.  Some of these are strictly material, using one substance to treat a disease, but more call for phrases from the text above to be said or written.  For example, one spell for business calls for the names of the spirit Eremiel and his followers to be written on eight potsherds, to be placed in each corner of the shop’s door, inside and outside.  Possession may be cured by saying a magical phrase over pitch and linseed oil, with which the patient is anointed.

The rest of the book consists of an extensive introduction, two parallel texts with little magical content, the transcription of the Coptic, endnotes to the text, indices to the words of power, color reproductions of the manuscript, and a CD-ROM of the images thereof.  Now, generally I’m a big fan of this level of detail, and all of this apparatus is great for anyone who’s a specialist on these topics.  On the other hand, I think that more casual readers who pick this up will be disappointed – especially as the price is rapidly approaching $100.  When one realizes that the continuous English translation takes up only six pages of the book, and that the only sizable illustration is posted on the story above, it gives one pause to recommend it.

For those who do want to read more material like this – much more material – I’m going to recommend another book instead:  Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith’s Ancient Christian Magic:  Coptic Texts of Ritual Power.  (I’m betting it was the publisher who added “magic” to the title.)  Meyer and Smith’s book collects a wide range of Coptic texts like the one above, perhaps sans the Gnostic touches, which provide many more examples at almost half the cost, halved again if you buy it used.  That book is a solid collection which has gained little attention from casual readers, and I recommend it highly.  Then again, if you want to delve into Coptic writing, or investigate a document with intriguing late Gnostic elements, the Brepols release is the one for you.

Published in: on November 20, 2014 at 9:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Just Released: Rún

About a year and a half ago, I posted about a forthcoming publication from the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft, a transcription of an early 20th century book of magic titled Rún. Here’s the blurb from their site:

The tradition to copy manuscripts of old material lived among the general public in Iceland into the 20th century. The book of magic published here was copied by hand on a small farm in Iceland, Strandir district, in 1928 and gives an excellent example of the magic, which survived ever since such manuscripts were presented in 17th century courts.  A book full of magic, secret signs and alphabets.

The book is a photocopy of the manuscript with a  translation in English.

The book is now available from their website.  I’ve placed my order, and I’m looking forward to its arrival.

Published in: on November 17, 2014 at 2:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

RIP Thomas K. Johnson

With his last update, Ben Fernee also passed on the sad news of the passing of Thomas K. Johnson, author of Graveyard Wanderers and the dissertation “Tidebast och Vandelrot.”  His obituary, listing the accomplishments of an impressive life, may be found here.

If anything, this makes me glad that I had the opportunity to discuss his work on this blog.  Graveyard Wanderers is well out of print, but anyone who wants an excellent book on Scandinavian folk magic and grimoires should go to a large research library and search for his Tidebast in the ProQuest Dissertations databases.  Tom left us an amazing collection of translated spells, incantations, and charms that will provide a wonderful opportunity for readers and researchers for years to come.

Published in: on November 13, 2014 at 11:52 am  Comments (1)  
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Now Available – An Anonymous Book of Magic, by Caduceus Books

Over the weekend, I received a notice that Caduceus Books was soliciting orders for the latest work in the Society of Esoteric Endeavour line.  What we will find is an anonymous work transcribed by Herbert Irwin, son of 19th century occultist F. G. Irwin, purporting to be a manuscript of the magic of the mysterious order of the Fratres Lucis.  It also includes sections on scrying, the creation of talismans, the virtues of herbs, the invocation of planetary spirits, and the like.

Caduceus has produced a lavish edition of the text.  Not only do you receive a transcript with notes, but also a full-color reproduction, with a custom black magic mirror bound into the back, and a folder of gold-blocked talismans on vellum.   If you’d like to get a look, I’d suggest checking here.

The book is only available to be ordered by midnight, November 9 GMT, so you don’t have much time to make up your mind.  Given that I hope to be working with Caduceus on future books, so it’s in my best interest to promote them, not to mention that I’d do it anyway due to the excellence of the text.

Published in: on November 3, 2014 at 3:14 pm  Comments (1)  
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Review: Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic

One of the most astounding and significant collections of material for understanding the written tradition of magic is the Greek and Demotic magical papyri.  Written a few centuries before and after Christ, these present a syncretic mix of Egyptian and Greek magical techniques and procedures studded with Hebrew names.  The majority of these, collected from a tomb in Thebes, seem to have been the property of a nearby temple aimed at assisting the priests’ clients.   Most of the corpus has been compiled and printed, first by Karl Preisendanz (the first edition available here and here) and later in English translation, edited by Hans Dieter Betz.

Since their publication, the papyri have been surrounded with a burgeoning literature on these works’ history and significance.  None of these publications is particularly wieldy for the non-specialist reader, however, and the Betz edition lacks even an index, making casual reading difficult.  This has led to a number of more popular works intended to bridge the gap, including Stephen Flowers’ Hermetic Magic, Tony Mierzwicki’s Graeco-Egyptian Magic, and Michael Cecchetelli’s The Book of Abrasax (the latter of which I have not seen).   The latest and most comprehensive addition to this library is Stephen Skinner’s Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic, of which I received a review copy.  As the latter is an expanded version of a portion of his Ph.D. dissertation on magical texts, this makes it of particular interest.

Those seeking a book of spells and incantations they can pick up and use will be disappointed here.  This was not the author’s intent, and a copy of Betz is necessary for those who wish to pursue the original text.  What we have here instead is a comprehensive and up-to-date discussion of the papyri in the context of their times, with extensive notes as to their organization and context.

Skinner begins with a definition of magic specific to the papyri, followed with a summary covering their history and origins.   Next comes an in-depth discussion of the different techniques used in magic, including purification, magical circles, equipment, and spoken words and names, including their relation to similar processes used in other places and times.  This work forms part of Skinner’s larger work in demonstrating the connections between the magical techniques of the ancient world and the procedures of ritual magic laid out in the grimoire tradition.

The bulk of the work is taken up with a breakdown of the various rituals by type, each with a summary of the techniques for each and a comprehensive table providing the spirit names called upon, the numbering of the rite in the PGM series (making it much easier to locate similar rituals), and a brief description of that ritual.   We could break down the rites in different ways, but what makes Skinner’s handling of this compelling is his use of the Greek and Demotic index terms in the original papyri, giving us the categories as the original practitioners might have considered them.  All of this is followed with a number of other useful tools, including a list of nomina barbara (barbarous words), a comprehensive bibliography covering the papyri in depth and also touching upon key works in the fields of Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and European grimoires.
All of this is a welcome and significant addition to the literature on this topic.   My only disagreement is with the material in the first chapter, on the definition of magic to be used.  Defining magic is always a tricky task, however, and the use of more up-to-date sources on the topic might have made for a better section.  Then again, this is only a brief section and hardly necessary for the rest of the book, which is really top-notch.
Make no mistake – this is not a beginner’s book.  A basic knowledge of the topic, along with a copy of Betz ( which most grimoire collectors should have anyway), are necessary to enter into this work with any degree of success.  For readers with those prerequisites, however, this is a feast of material illuminating a corpus of material with great significance in the field of Western esotericism.

Published in: on October 12, 2014 at 1:19 pm  Comments (2)  
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Books Forthcoming and Just Arrived

I’ve been working slowly on my review of Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic by Stephen Skinner, a book dealing in some detail with the Greek and Demotic magical papyri.  I’m over half done, and I’m quite positively impressed with it, and I should have a review up soon.

Hippocampus Press is advertising The Variorum Lovecraft, a three-volume set of Lovecraft’s stories with all of the variant texts noted therein.  I’m on the fence about purchasing it myself; after all, I own all of Lovecraft’s fiction at least three times over scattered about my shelves.  Nonetheless, others might be interested therein, or in commenter Bobby Derie’s Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Also, I just saw that Rankine and Barron’s edition of The Complete Grimoire of Pope Honorius is now available on Kindle for the price of a Simon Necronomicon.  (Yes, I’m linking to Amazon.  I’m trying not to link to them when I don’t have to, but they’re far too convenient for many readers, not to mention me.)

Avalonia, which was responsible for that book, has placed the following announcement on their “forthcoming” page:

THE BOOK OF SPIRITS (Le Livre des Esperitz) by David Rankine & Paul Harry Barron. This 16th century French work introduces many demons for the first known time and is seen to be an earlier root to the spirits of the Goetia. More information soon

If you’d like to read the original medieval French text, it’s appended to the end of this article discussing the list.  Nonetheless, this work should have additional commentary on the topic which will make it a welcome addition.

Published in: on October 5, 2014 at 7:17 pm  Comments (1)  
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On the Book of Oberon and Bellhouse

I’ve spent a great deal of time over the past months working on getting two books off to publishers.

The first was The Book of Oberon, which was a slog on the part of Joe Peterson and I.  We read through the entire manuscript again – I cannot count the number of times this has occurred – looking for more errors, footnotes that needed to be corrected, and bibliographic entries that needed to be added.  I think those who are interested in grimoires will be very happy with this project.  In fact, they’d better be, lest they risk the wrath of “Hekate, goddess of charmery and invocance.”

One teaser for fans of Jake Stratton-Kent’s works:  the book does contain more operations that call upon the four spirit kings associated with the directions.  They’re not along the lines of the material covered in Jake’s books, but they’re in the incantations multiple times nonetheless.

After handing in our changes to Llewellyn, I turned to looking over the bound page proofs for Liverpool cunning man and galvanist William Dawson Bellhouse’s book of magic.  They look something like this (Atlantis Bookshop bookmark not included):


For Caduceus, the best way to indicate changes is to mark up the proofs with red ink and send it back.  Readers will be happy to know that my short articles on witch bottles and wax images, to be included, have undergone a metamorphosis into what might be the most comprehensive and thorough works on those topics.  I’m hoping this will attract a much wider scale of readers to the project.

Also, by popular demand, a snake picture:

021Yiggie is over four years old and three feet long.  Having spent a great deal of time learning about her through both books and personal experience, I have realized that this snake is largely dependent upon me and could not survive in the wild.  I had her  on my shoulders just a few minutes ago, and she nearly fell off onto the floor due to poor planning.  I think she is under the mistaken impression that she still has venom, and legs, and other attributes not granted to her by nature.

Confession:  I also tried her on live food a few months ago, due to a change in eating patterns.  I found that the situation led to deep dissatisfaction, as its mildest expression, from participants of three different species.  The outside party has been given to a good home, and we shall close a curtain on the sordid affair.

That’s all for tonight.


Published in: on September 18, 2014 at 10:27 pm  Comments (2)  
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A New England Sojourn

I spent part of last week in New England, with Donovan K. Loucks, keeper of the H. P. Lovecraft Website, and his lovely wife Pam.  I arrived on Tuesday, driving up to Providence after work and ending up quite exhausted.

I wasn’t too exhausted, however, to head into Cambridge to visit the Harvard University Archives, trying to obtain some background that might be useful for future projects dealing with the Widener Library.  My carefully-copied archive number turned out to be illusory, but the staff were very helpful in figuring out what documents might be most relevant for my search – although they’d have to be called the next day.  That was fine with me, and I filled out the rest of the afternoon visiting the Boston Public Library to consult old directories to fill out my knowledge of the place in the Twenties.  After that, I returned to Providence to attend Donovan’s birthday party for H. P. Lovecraft, complete with a one-man retelling of “The Call of Cthulhu” by dramatist David Neilsen and Donovan’s own walking-while-sitting tour through Lovecraft’s Providence.  Also, there was cake.

Lovecraft Birthday Cake

The next day, I was back at the Archives, which I finished rather early.  Having learned the previous day of the outrageous parking rates in Cambridge, I realized it was in my best interest to hang out some more, visiting various bookstores and the Peabody Museum.  On my way out of town, I stopped out of curiosity at the Seven Stars bookstore, only to find perhaps the best store for books on the Western mystery traditions in this country.  I walked out with a few items to fill out my collection, including Kenneth Grant’s Outside the Circles of Time, which will give readers some idea of the place’s comprehensiveness.  I then returned to Providence, and my memory fails me as to what occurred that night.

Friday, we all headed out for the North Shore, in order to investigate the places that might have inspired Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth.”  We headed north and then worked our way south, beginning with a lengthy stopover in Newburyport, and then heading south through Ipswich, Rowley, Essex, Rockport, and Gloucester, with a lengthy detour at the latter to visit the rock formation, Mother Ann, which served as the inspiration for “The Strange High House in the Mist,” despite the lack of mist and the fact that it was neither high nor house-bearing:


We made our way back, stopping in Manchester for groceries and a bookstore, and in Salem for Italian food and a nighttime ramble through the Charter Street Burial Ground and past the house that inspired “The Unnameable.”

Saturday, we had had enough of jetting about, so we played games for most of the day.  We couldn’t sort out A Study in Emerald in time, but we did play Elder Signs and quite a bit of Rock Band.  That evening, we headed downtown to visit the Providence Public Library’s Lovecraft Readathon, after which we headed over for Indian food at Waterfire, which was spectacular as always.

WaterFire Providence

After that, we came back to receive a crushing defeat in the game Witch of Salem, in which you must fight back the forces of darkness while assisting Bob, the Witch of Salem.  The game is much like Arkham Horror in that you’re trying to close gates, save that you are unable to communicate to the other players whether a gate exists at a location.  I speculated that the Witch of Salem was a drama queen who enforced our silence to enhance his own self-importance.

The next day, we played some Rock Band and I drove home.  It’s always great to see the Louckses, and this trip raised my number of “stories inspired by sites in Providence” by two, so it was all for the best.

Published in: on August 24, 2014 at 10:59 pm  Comments (2)  

Book of Oberon Available for Pre-Orders, and a Contradiction, and an Unanticipated Amazon Rant

Amazon has The Book of Oberon available for pre-order for $58.50, with the book being scheduled for April of next year.

Also, I’d appreciate suggestions as to companies other than Amazon to whom I can link for books.  The whole affair with Hachette has left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

For the most part, I’ve been appreciative of Amazon over the years.  Having a single distributor that can consistently stock small and mid-level press titles is a great boon for publishers and authors on specialized topics.   There’s certainly negotiation that goes on behind the scenes on the price of particular points, as there is with any other distributor.  Nonetheless, if that distributor decides to make some books harder to obtain than others, all other factors being considered, then that distributor has really failed.  If your job is to sell people books, and you decide to make it harder to do that, then you’re not doing what you’re supposed to.

There’s a lot from Amazon about how much this benefits authors.  Don’t believe them.  If Amazon wants to sell books for well below retail, that’s making less money for the authors.  Hell, when I wanted an e-book copy of my edition of The Long-Lost Friend to read on Kindle, I had to buy it myself.   I’d say that, taking into account the book trade’s standard contracts, the cuts from distributors, the culture of making scanned copies of books free on the Internet, and the various content aggregators that re-market people’s work for their own profit, this may be the period where authors and other content creators are respected less than any other.

Then again, no one’s planning to burn me at the stake, which means I’m ahead of the game.

So, anyone who wants to send me some independent booksellers with excellent shipping to whom I can link when new books come out, I’d appreciate it.  Otherwise, I’ll be sending people to publishers’ websites more.

ADDENDUM:  I’ve had some objections relating to my Amazon position that I’d like to address.  The most common one is that this is simply a negotiation between a distributor and a publisher.  This is true.  Nonetheless, such negotiations can occur without the largest distributor in the world simply deciding to make vast swaths of information mostly unavailable to the public.  That certainly does not serve its customers, and those customers are free to make their decision to shop elsewhere.

Published in: on August 9, 2014 at 9:57 pm  Comments (9)  

Review – The Book of Saint Cyprian: The Sorcerer’s Treasure

We’ve recently seen two new books attributed to the third century bishop Cyprian.  The first was The Testament of Cyprian the Mage, which included a mostly complete translation of a Spanish work of ceremonial magic.  The second, from Hadean Press, is The Book of St. Cyprian, a translation of a Portuguese work of folk magic from José Leitão.

If one looks at the article on Cyprian editions written by Félix Francisco Castro, the text should correspond with item 6, the Livraria Económica edition from the National Library in Lisbon, along with some additional material and changes in organization of its heterogeneous contents.  We have chapters on divination using cards, palm-reading, and phrenology, and multiple lists of the major hidden treasures of Iberia.  Those interested in folk magic should not fear – there are numerous rites for a magician to compel obedience, find those abovementioned treasures, or bring about love (or lust) between two people.   My personal favorites are the rites aimed at creating a miniature devil or homunculus to serve the caster.  Scattered among these are various and sometimes conflicting narratives regarding Cyprian and how he made use of one rite or another for his success.

What Leitão provides in addition are an extensive introduction and notes, some of the latter of which practically constitute minor essays in and of themselves.  It’s not quite as systematic and well-documented as some might like, but nonetheless, these are very interesting, especially for readers of English who might have little understanding of the folklore and beliefs of Portugal.  The only omission I noticed was a reprint of the Portuguese text, for those who want to delve into the original.

In terms of the many grimoires out there, I’d say this rises slightly over many of the others, largely because of its unfamiliar content that might be more difficult for Anglophone readers to find.  The main obstacle for US purchasers will be the exorbitant shipping rates from the UK (not Hadean’s fault, I hasten to add).  I’d suggest looking around on their website to see if there’s anything else you might want, so that you can take maximum advantage of any order.



Published in: on August 4, 2014 at 8:32 pm  Comments (3)  

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