On the Shelf Review – Geosophia

After a few delays, Scarlet Imprint has released Geosophia, a re-examination of the grimoire tradition via the examination of ancient cultures.  This is the latest work by Jake Stratton-Kent, the author of the True Grimoire (here’s Parts 1, 2, and 3 of my review), forming an attempt to create new significances for the practitioners of ceremonial magic. A sample of the introduction is available on the publisher’s site.

This massive two-volume work begins with an examination of the beliefs and mysteries of ancient Greece, using the epic Argonautica as a template for exploration of various mythical figures and concepts.  Key to this exploration is the goes, ritual practitioners who made contact with and dealt with the dead.  The name of these ritualists became transformed into our word goetia, which has come to mean interaction with demons and evil spirits.  Stratton-Kent’s objective here is to explore the original context of these individuals, and to explain how they came down to the present.

What we get is a stunning amount of information about various aspects of Greek myth, with emphasis upon the earlier, chthonic beliefs, those that existed outside of the later state cults of the gods.  The same strands are examined in the Greek magical papyri, and then through the Picatrix.  This is interspersed with Stratton-Kent’s meditations on the implications this journey has for modern practice of grimoire magic.

I’m going to examine this book from the standpoint of history.  Some might say that this is looking at the work in the incorrect manner – indeed, the introduction suggests that the discussion within is a spiritual history, not a chronological one – but there’s enough discussion of origins and derivations within the book to make this viable.  From that perspective, Geosophia tells us a compelling story about the origins of Western magic, but equally valid stories are possible.

For example, in the emphasis upon Greece and the surrounding region, we see very little discussion of Mesopotamian belief or practice in the book.  Simon’s exaggerations aside, those civilizations brought us much of the basic ritual structure, the circle drawn on the ground, many of the specific demons present in later magic, libraries of magical texts, necromantic practices, and other legacies that have lasted to the present era.  In fact, Sara Iles Johnston, in her book Restless Dead, suggests that a Mesopotamian origin for the goes is quite possible.  If so, where does that leave this project?

I can highlight the magical papyri as another example of the same pattern.  First, we have yet to find much indication that the magical papyri are indicative of Greek practice, or a stepping stone to later varieties of magic.  More recent scholarship has tended toward de-emphasizing Greek spirits and concepts in the papyri, seeing them instead as works, partially written in demotic script, which Egyptian priests used in latter-day Egyptian temples and that are based in Egyptian processes and practices.  Further, though the parallels with magic from later periods are striking, there’s little indication that the papyri became significant outside of its home setting.  Stratton-Kent cites the use of Jewish names and characteres as signs that their influence lived on – but these can also be found elsewhere in magical traditions from the same period.

This is not to say that one cannot create a compelling argument for ritual practice from the material here, but it’s quite possible to create other such arguments, based on interpretation of the evidence at hand.

I should also note that we have some curious omissions from the text.  For example, for a book based on the quest for the Golden Fleece, the actual encounter with that object is scantly covered (though there could very well be mystical significance to this).  I was also surprised that the book’s section on Roman religion did not touch upon the necromantic ritual in the Aeneid or Lucan’s Civil War, though the literary nature of those sources likely explains it.

Arriving at the conclusion, I felt that the book had ended one chapter too soon.  Though the book touches on the links with the grimoire tradition – not that of the Picatrix, but that of the early modern grimoires with which most practitioners are familiar –  it never comes together at the end.  We do have parallels, as the author illustrates, but it seems the overall program remains quite different in character.  My own theory is that, in a sense, that we can’t.  We can talk about the possible correspondences between the goes and the modern ceremonial magician, but in truth their worlds and practices are very different.  What has been outlined here, despite the attempts to bring together these disparate practices, is not a re-envisioning of the grimoire tradition, but the establishment of something both old and new.  It would have been fascinating to see how that develops, and I hope to hear more about it someday.

Published in: on February 9, 2011 at 3:48 pm  Comments (9)  

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  1. First off, thanks for the review, Naturally I have some points to make in response. I hope both review and response are helpful to those considering reading the work.

    Firstly, you bring up what is the right/wrong way of reading the book. The shortcomings of looking at it purely as history are evident by consideration of the ‘forgery’ argument discrediting the grimoires with their ‘fictional’ Solomon. Clearly one has to relate to the ‘myth’ as well, which is a large part of how the book works. It is clearly no argument against ‘our’ Solomon that he could as easily have been Zoroaster. The way to read Geosophia can be inferred from the fact that a ‘travel story’ provides both its structure and skeleton, this is a very deliberate device. The traveller is a Greek, but most of his adventures involve distant lands, and both are important. So is the nature of stories and the way we engage with them.

    As for why Mesopotamia plays an apparently secondary role to Greece, there are several reasons, some of which might have been underlined further but are present:

    Mesopotamia gave us star lore, Greece made it Astrology. In the latter form – not the former – it became a component of *Western* magic. The same is true of other oriental aspects of Western Magic. Wherever they originated, the intellectual tradition by which we inherit them is Classical.

    Other stories could be told than that of the Greeks, certainly. Indeed they are told, the Greeks are the lens but to what extent are they what is being examined in Geosophia? Note that the book begins by leaving Greece for Asia Minor. At many points we are looking at things the Greeks saw, borrowed and wrote about. Nevertheless the book is rarely about the Greeks, though it may appear so to some readers.

    Different tales can and have been told, of mysterious orientals (whose precise culture and religion has changed with the winds of fashion and exploration). Many of those tales would never have reached us without our Classical inheritance, of which cosmopolitan whole they formed a part.

    However, my confession to have neglected the East to highlight the Hellenistic synthesis is at least slightly overstated. To re-balance the excesses of prior fashion in Eastern wise men, I highlight Syria and Asia Minor over Egypt and the Kabbalah. Antioch and Ephesus have little to complain of in Geosophia’s treatment of them, it is elsewhere they have been overlooked.

    Regarding the Magical Papyri, simply put, for all their cross cultural elements they have also been called a primary source for ancient Greek folklore. We’re just not used to looking at the Greeks that way, so other things stand out.

    The synthesising presence of the Greeks brings *all* these into Western magic, which is my focus. To imagine the papyri had no influence outside Egypt, while not uncommon, is entirely mistaken. For example very numerous ‘defixiones’ based on their prescriptions have been found all over the Roman Empire. There is no doubt that the magic of the papyri also influenced Lucian and other Latin writers, in tandem with the ‘Greek folklore’ elements.

    Relation is made of the Golden Fleece to sacrificial ram hides in Mystery rites and the production of Virgin Parchment and Pacts. These elements play a significant part in my thesis from Volume One.

    This relation to the first volume is important to bear in mind. Your ‘missing chapter’ appears at the beginning rather than the end. It is a crucial – if elusive – chapter in my overall thesis. This is the ‘Art Almadel’ chapter in the True Grimoire. This concerns a ‘generic’ ritual, found at the core of both grimoires and Enochian, which is clearly exemplified – and of course preceded – by many processes in the papyri. One could ‘tell a story’ of how these are Egyptian, but they may equally be Persian. They would have been as at home in Greek manuscripts in Antioch or Ephesus. We may never know which nation produced them, only that they come to us ‘from the Greeks to the grimoires’, and that is the context Geosophia explores. Transmission to us and our modern (and Western) magical tradition.

    It is worth noting a relationship with Aaron’s excellent ‘Secrets of the Magical Grimoires’. There he raises the question of the shamanic elements in Western magic, but does not explore their origins. This too is an untold tale which Geosophia fully engages with, that of the Thracians and Scythians, and thence ‘from the Greeks to the Grimoires’.

    Hopefully this response clarifies a few things, though like the book it is rather long! Thanks again for your time and coverage of Geosophia. ALWays Jake

  2. Does the book discuss at all the Greek stem ϕαρμακ- (Latin vene-)?

  3. Great review,Dan, and great to finally be able to comment on your blog! It will be quite some time till i can afford one of Jake s works, maybe i ll swap one for illustration work.

    • All our new titles, including Geosophia are being made available as affordable paperbacks.
      The paperbacks are also printed in both the UK and the US which significantly reduces shipping costs.

      See http://www.scarletimprint.com/rouge.htm

  4. I’ve been trying to post this since yesterday but it hasn’t appeared so I assume the spam filter ate my post because of the multiple links? I’ve cut it down to one link so I hope it goes through.

    Anyway I just want to make a few points.

    The indices in the Geosophia books don’t have the words “astrology” or “horoscope” so I can’t find the pertinent part right now but actually, there were cuneiform horoscopes from Babylon during Persian rule. There were of course numerous things Hellenistic culture brought to it such as the use of lots, the discovery of the precession of the equinoxes which came along with the distinction between signs and houses but the fundamentals of natal astrology were already established circa 450BCE and the early Greek horoscopes differed little from the cuneiform ones, mainly just being lists of the planetary positions during one’s birth.

    (links http://www.folklore.ee/folklore/vol15/ancient.htm
    as well as Tamsyn Barton’s Ancient Astrology which has a full translation of the first known cuneiform natal horoscopes from 410BC)

    WRT to the PGM, I think what Dan is trying to say is (forgive me if I’m just representing my own views through you, Dan) that although the superstratum of Greek mythology, language and culture is evident, the Egyptian substratum remained dominant and the actual practices, not to mention the material aspects were largely Egyptian. They can give as a glimpse of how magic was practised in a huge province of the Roman Empire but direct influence on later Western European magic in the form of the grimoires from the Ars Notoria on is likely minimal. The Jewish influence In human evolutionary terms, the PGM are probably to the grimoires like Neanderthals to late Cro-Magnon homo sapiens. Neanderthals did have some contribution to the DNA of later homo sapiens but their way of life and the rest of their genes went extinct.

    Of course the metaphor is not entirely applicable since personally I believe it had a greater influence on magic in the Islamic period (ruhaniya) which would correspond to there being surviving hominids with a substantially larger percentage of Neanderthal DNA than modern humans with Eurasian ancestry but that’s another topic.

    You do indeed mention Asia Minor and Syria, but mostly in the context of references to them in the classical myths and not in terms of how magico-religious practices explicitly known to originate in those regions influenced later magic except the mention of the solar god cult, though it is possible that Neo-Platonism itself affected the development of the cult. Admittedly, there is a lack of data on precisely that.

  5. oh yes, i know, but if i but i decided to buy only deluxe volumes. I know, i m poor and picky, rare combination, but i might think about buying the rouge edition.

  6. […] is that the author will be seeking to integrate more Middle Eastern material, a concern I raised in my review of Geosophia a while ago.  (Further discussion can be found here.)   It’s not clear on whether there […]

  7. […] of Cyprian the Mage.  This work follows the True Grimoire (review here and here) and Geosophia (review and […]

  8. […] Review of Geosophia by Dan Harms as well as a Follow-up response […]

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