Response to Jake Stratton-Kent on Geosophia

Jake Stratton-Kent, the author of Geosophia, responded in the comments to my review.  I suggest you read his comments and come back here.

I would agree that this is the intended reading of Geosophia, and that it is mythic in its structure.  On the other hand, I have found that the lines between history and myth are often not so clear, especially when historical sources are used in the construction of the myth.  It has become increasingly apparent that people will pick up mythic works and read them as history, or discard their mythic aspects if they do not have the proper authenticity.  As such, my philosophy for the review was that I would write it toward the historical aspects, for those who would seek it out for them, while given those seeking a mystical interpretation enough information about the book that they could make up their minds for themselves regarding both it and the nature of the review.  I think that sometimes reading a text in ways that the author did not interpret can be helpful to readers, so I make no apologies for that.

Now, to the meat of the matter.

I appreciate Jake Stratton-Kent’s comments about Greece’s impact on occultism in stride, and I have to say he’s made a convincing case for his points.  Still, “occultism” is not the same as spirit magic, and the emphasis on the True Grimoire carries with it the expectation that we’ll end up there in our analysis.  Talking about the magical papyri and the Picatrix doesn’t quite get us there.  Discussing Agrippa and Crowley is closer, as both were more than familiar with the genre, but both of those gentlemen seem engaged in projects with a wider scope.  The question, to me, is how the Classical material relates to the grimoires, and I have a suspicion that the answer is “not much.”

Let’s take Jake’s statement about astrology and the significance of the Greeks in its origin and development.    He makes quite a convincing argument that it was an important factor.  Yet the next question is how much of an impact it had on spirit summoning – not on the Picatrix or Agrippa, but on the texts on the ground.   My quick examination of the Grimorium Verum (Peterson’s version – I don’t have Stratton-Kent’s at hand) turned up little about houses or constellations or aspects.  What we get instead are rites conducted according to the day and hours of the planets – which has nothing to do with the positions of the planets at all – along with the phases of the moon and the location of the sun.  The category of seven planetary bodies, along with the seven days of the week and likely the twenty-four hour period, are both Mesopotamian concepts, though admittedly it was not until the Hellenistic era that the three became synthesized.

Indeed, it seems to me that it is the grimoire tradition of spirit summoning which seems to have the least connection with the Classical heritage of the west.

As for the point that the book covers a great deal of non-Greek material, I’d have to say that Jake is correct – the Argonautica takes us well beyond that land  Nonetheless, I would emphasize that this is viewed nonetheless through the cultural lens of the Greeks and reflects their priorities, beliefs, and practices.

With regard to the magical papyri – it’s hard for me to discuss their influence, as I am not sure, for the most part, what evidence he is using for his assertions, save for the links to the Picatrix.  Indeed, William Brashear’s “The Greek Magical Papyri: An Introduction and Survey” has a hard time coming up with similarities once you get past mirror scrying with a young boy, focusing mainly on particular words and incantations.   I’ve yet to see much evidence that the magical papyri were influential on the defixiones, and less on whether the material in question emerged from once source or another.  I can say that, though some do bear the signs of coming from a formulary, the overall diversity of the tradition shows that many people were familiar with the forms and created their own versions thereof.

You’ll note my exception to the case of the mirror scrying with the young boy, which Jake Stratton-Kent cites in his “Art Armadel” chapter in the True Grimoire.  He does a good job outlining the parallels between the magical papyri and the later grimoire tradition – but without an examination of the other traditions of mirror divination at the time.  My library isn’t too strong in this department, but I’ve found at least one reference in the Mishnah from about the same period to the use of a child diviner.  From a spiritual myth-making perspective, this is not a difficulty, but I don’t think it gets us too far historically.

I want to add that I think that the magical papyri have many surprising parallels with the later work, and that a comprehensive study of their influence is long overdue.

I wanted to return to my point about the book not being so much about the grimoires, but about a new program, in effect.  For example, let’s take this passage from Geosophia:

One example is that Scirlin possesses property, in the form of gifts and offerings of a permanent nature.  He also has a special incense offering… The position of his image is at the centre of the spirit shrine, and is seated on a large marble pentacle, surrounded by various items belonging to the spirit.

For those who are familiar with the True Grimoire or grimoire magic in general, it is readily apparent that this fundamentally changes the underlying philosophy, largely based on Judeo-Christian theology and folklore, that underpins the process.  I think what we’re seeing here – and elsewhere in modern goetic magic – is a rejection of the framework and ideology that the grimoires bring, and more of an appropriation of spirits, ceremonies, and other elements to a new model.  I do not pass any judgment on the spiritual value of such a practice, but I think that bringing that out explicitly might be a useful move for both practitioners and observers.

Published in: on February 19, 2011 at 1:46 pm  Comments (15)  

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  1. Some very fair points, and I’d like to comment on two or three of them.

    There are still some problems with the purely historical reading, as this obscures the degree to which Geosophia wholly embraces your last point, rather than avoids it. It’s approach is not purely ‘retrospective’, but actively encourages the kind of present and future adaptation process you mention. The arena selected for this is more thorough going and purposeful than the merely eclectic ‘syntheses’ with which many of us are all too familiar. More on this shortly.

    To me a Mishnah variant on the Armadel doesn’t appear terribly productive argument wise. We already know the process has Eastern origins, but whether Persian, Egyptian or other is really unknown. Its place in the somewhat archetypal magical books burned at Ephesus is likely enough given the incident in Tralles. That the Egyptian form lasted from Demotic papyri to C19th Arab is certainly interesting in terms of potential to influence the grimoires. That it did so, and that it is ancient, is the main point here. One odd thing in regard to the Armadel is that the Lemegeton text of that name doesn’t reproduce the classic features of the genre (no skryer, boy or solo magician, is involved). There it is a loan term divorced from its real meaning. Verum on the other hand clearly reproduces a classic form of the method, probably derived from the ‘Grimoire of Armadel’. The latter is still awaiting a comprehensive edition (the relevant material is omitted from Mathers’ one MS text).

    The last point you make is the most interesting and important; even though “appropriation” is a term with unfortunate connotations. Rightly or otherwise, it appears to me that a purely historical reading misses Geosophia’s reasonably explicit intent in this regard.

    It is clear that magic continually evolved in the past and – no pinned butterfly even in our ‘Scientific Age’ – is evolving now. The grimoires are exemplars of that fact; clearly they had older precedents, but both dropped and added features over time. They are also now part of various contemporary cross-cultural melting pots (some – importantly – outside the Western revival, as detailed by Owen Davies, as also in True Grimoire’s ‘New World’ sections).

    Where many are content to play the role of passive observer or tinkerer, the real – and by no means hidden – agenda of Geosophia is to participate actively in such processes. This is clear when considering its focus on eschatology as both the ‘bottom line’ and potent, focussed meeting place for various traditions. This is – very explicitly – the unifying strand throughout Geosophia.

    • Jake,

      Thank you very much for your comments.

      I’m not sure how exactly a historical reading of the book obscures the point you’re making. In fact, I think there’s a deeper issue that’s unaddressed here.

      When I read the sections on integration into modern practice, I did not read those sections from a historical perspective, and I was willing to take them for what they were. What I did not see, however, was how these systems – which, I think we can agree, have several elements not in common with each other – would be integrated. For example, what is the value in making a statue of Scirlin, instead of one for the Lares, or Elegua? Why not simply reconstruct a modern version of Greek religion? If not that, and if there’s a proposal to leave some part of it behind, what parts should those be? How does the praxis of the Grimorium Verum work in context with it? How does that ritual look when these principles are applied? I suppose we could interpret the whole thing as a toolkit to be left to the individual, but I think there’s a broader program here with boundaries and ramifications that could have been explicitly teased out.

      Not to belabor the point, but I also found the quote I was looking for on the magical papryi, from the book Magical Practice in the Latin West, published last year:

      “The recent tendency is to regard [the papyri] as a regional case whose specific features cannot be generalised.”

      That was on the first page of the introduction, in fact. It seems there’s been quite a shift in how the papyri are treated…

  2. Actually Jake, I’d say the use of it in the “Grimoire of Armadel” and as applied to scrying is a loan term divorced from its original meaning.

    The Almandal is known in several German manuscripts and involves much the same things as the Lemegeton version (wax tablet, four candles and different choirs of angels); the Lemegeton version is notable in that it reduces the number of choirs to four from 12 (for each sign of the zodiac) and other simplifications in general. Some older Latin manuscripts use a metal plate instead of wax. The name itself is obviously a loan from Arabic, which itself is likely loaned from Sanskrit or some other Indian language (mandala). The bit in the French edition of Abramelin about using a silver plate with a child would seem to be a vestige of the actual Almandal ritual.

    For more info, there is an excellent chapter in “The Metamorphosis of Magic from Late Antiquity to the Early Modern Period” about the Almandal.

    The zodiac attributions, the names and other stuff are innovations somewhere along the line of transmission since there are no analogous uses of mandalas in Hindu or Buddhist Tantra AFAIK. The use of angels on the other hand I find interesting since meditation and rituals based on mandalas are a means to commune with deities in tantra.

    A lot more work really remains to be done in establishing the roots of grimoire magic; while Graeco-Roman magic does play a part, I think there’s probably a lot more relevant material in Arabic and Persian sources (not to mention the sources of these sources if they can be found) which isn’t available in English yet.

    A critical edition of the Almandal in Latin is due to be edited by Jean-Patrice Boudet and published sometime this year under Micrologus Library. The Florence manuscript (Plut 89, supp 38) BTW is available for viewing on the Biblioteca Laurentiana’s site; that same manuscript also contains a list of offices of spirits “De officibus spirituum”.

  3. Ah my comment actually got through! I had some points I wanted to make about Geosophia on the other post which kept failing to appear. I forgot most of the points now but there’s one thing I do remember:

    I can’t find any references to “horoscopes” or “natal chart” in the indices of Geosophia but I think I read somewhere in it that you wrote the Greeks first invented them? Well, that’s not quite true, the first horoscope appeared in Akkadian cuneiform during the Persian rule about 460BCE IIRC. There’s a translation of it and some other early horoscopes in Tamsyn Barton’s Ancient Astrology.

    It was just a list of planetary positions during the native’s birth but the earlier Greek horoscopes were about the same. The calculation of lots, differentiation of houses and signs and possibly the aspects on the other hand were likely a Hellenistic invention.

  4. This discussion has sold me. I just bought the two volume paperback version from Scarlet Imprint.

  5. much of the response by ‘reviewers’ so far has avoided the key concepts. As if the work is solely about ‘Greek’ influence on spells and rituals of the grimoires, rather than something rather deeper and more extensive. There has been no mention whatsoever so far of Eschatological issues, or the transposing of the Afterlife to the heavens and its relevance to the ‘astrological’ demons/angels etc. etc.

    As for ‘why Scirlin’ rather than Eleggua or the Lares. This is not a book about re-enactment or cultural appropriation, but applying lessons from comparison of our own cultural heritage with inherent resemblances to the ATRs as useful for the extension and deepening of the Western revival as it currently exists. The role of the grimoires therein is as a tangible survival of an ancient tradition with many roots and branches, which are nevertheless central to the form it possesses now in the West!

    It was never conceived as the final word on these subjects, but in many ways is the first. That these issues are overlooked by all responses of the nature of a review is deeply surprising to me.

    • Personally speaking, none of my above statements were meant to be “reviews” strictly; they were more attempts to engage you in discussion about certain points in the books.

      I did find your presentation of how the eschatology shifted among the Orphics and thence spread to the Neo-Platonists and other schools convincing but I think the implications of this on practice are ultimately personal. You can accept it at face value and seek to emphasize the links to necromancy and disentagle whatever associations were a result of the shift in eschatological views or while accepting the change in views, hold fast to your even more recent Judaeo-Christian version. You can also do anything else from acknowledging the change but not having it influence your practice to trying to reconstruct what may have been the actual practice before this shift.

      I think if you do practise spirit-magic, it ultimately depends on your experiences with the spirits including direct testimony from the spirits you work with as to their natures. Attempts at a universal explanation for the nature of all spirits never account fully for those originating in a different cultural milieu IMO, regardless of the age of said attempt or its authorship. In the case of the surviving evidence of Western magico-religious practices, there were still distinctions between various classes of spirits before the eschatological change took place that the later cosmology shouldn’t be applied to. (That is, unless you take the view that the change was fundamentally true and therefore retroactive.)

      In the relevant chapters in Geosophia though, I’m somewhat surprised you didn’t mention Euhumerus in connection with this. Later (Christian or atheist) adopters of his view generally supposed that because the gods were originally men they were not to be worshipped of course, but AFAIK, he took the opposite view and was proposing that since the Olympians, among others, used to be men, the dead Hellenistic kings had at least as much right to be elevated to godhood — going beyond the ordinary hero cults. He was probably influenced to some degree by the Orphics or at least the same sources they were influenced by, if not himself influencing subsequent views on eschatology.

      I think this site isn’t particularly geared towards practitioners and the eschatological stuff might not be particularly relevant to non-practitiones who are not academics in the field of ancient religion. Academic specialists would probably be more or less aware of this although work might remain to be done on the impact of this eschatology. Dan himself doesn’t specialize in this period at any rate.

    • I bought the two-volume set and read it from a different angle, since I am no scholar of magic nor Greek traditions. I personally am working with my own system based on local spirits and places (mythic geography, p. 47, was excellent!), as well as my Native American background, in which circles are vital (so the discussion beginning on p. 43, v. 1 provided comparative insight), and some of the things hoodoo (I took the yronwode course) touches upon (p. 119-121). I read Jake’s two books in this light, as inspirational source on how one might directly evolve one’s magic within a historical context. You see, I have the burden of my still orthodox Catholicity as far as conjuring involving such personages as Asmodeus or Belial, yet I am entirely fine with genii loci and nature spirits. My Native American worldview allows for work with spirits in a relationship sense. In addition, I am trying to develop something of use to future generations in my locality, given I subscribe to Greer’s POV that we are in economic collapse, and so I am working with local plants, etc. rather than exotic imported incenses and other goods that will not be readily available in the future. I can’t remember where I heard it, but I agree with the basic idea that one should be able to do some magic stripped down and confined to a jail cell. I am nowhere even near that. And finally as Basho said, I do not wish to follow in the footsteps of the masters, but instead, seek what they sought 🙂 And I am with Odysseus on living the life of an ordinary man!

  6. I think the important thing to keep in mind when reading this book is that it’s primary subject is the art of Goetia. Goetia being a Greek word, it makes sense that Jake goes off looking for hints of it’s influence and lost origins in Greek history and literature. ANd hints are all we really do find. With the rather fragmentary information and history available on this ancient art, hints are all we have which makes any form of reconstruction nearly impossible. Not that a reconstruction is even a desirable goal, a modern restoration perhaps, but not a reconstruction.
    Why work with Scirlin? Because Scirlin is the intermediary spirit to the most modern and workable western system of Goetia that we have available. In working with this system, one need not appropriate the systems of another culture (which I feel rather inappropriate in doing) nor attempt to reconstruct an ancient system of which knowledge is rather limited.
    In the few years since I’ve read Agrippa’s 3 books, I have been seeking the means by which I could incorporate those aspects of Goetia which Agrippa and his peers so frowned upon into my own practice intelligibly. Jake’s work has been an invaluable resource in allowing me to do just that.

  7. The crux of your writing whilst appearing reasonable at first, did not really work perfectly with me personally after some time. Somewhere throughout the paragraphs you actually were able to make me a believer unfortunately just for a while. I however have got a problem with your leaps in logic and one would do nicely to fill in all those breaks. When you actually can accomplish that, I would certainly be impressed.

  8. […] 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 will be a translation on one of the Cyprian books […]

  9. […] Recently I’ve been reading through the final offering in Jake Stratton-Kent’s “Encyclopedia Goetica” series, The Testament of Cyprian the Mage.  This work follows the True Grimoire (review here and here) and Geosophia (review and response). […]

  10. RE: “Still, “occultism” is not the same as spirit magic, and the emphasis on the True Grimoire carries with it the expectation that we’ll end up there in our analysis.”

    I have a hard time taking anyone who would say such a things seriously in their opinions. What exactly is “occultism” if it isn’t spirit magic? What form of occultism, in the West, or anywhere else focuses on anything other than “spirit”?

    • Joshua,

      I have a hard time taking myself seriously, so I understand your problem.

      This is an older post, but I believe that “spirit magic” might be considered to cover procedure by which spirit entities are commanded to appear to the magician for a given purpose. (That purpose could be simply for them to appear, mind you.) Not all of occultism deals with magic, and not all magic deals with spirits (those dealing with the virtues of natural objects and astrological conjunctions come to mind, for instance). Does that help?

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

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