It’s Not All about the Drugs, People – But Sometimes It Is: Some Thoughts on Bennett’s Liber 420

Yes, I’m going to talk about drugs and occultism. Look out, everyone!

The immediate prompt for this is the release of Chris Bennett’s Liber 420: Cannabis, Magickal Herbs, and the Occult, which quotes a couple of my own works, namely Oberon and Experimentum. This book is nearly eight hundred pages, so I’m making these judgments on only a few segments of the book: the chapter on the Picatrix, the chapter on ritual magic, and part of the section on fairies.

From what I’ve seen, Bennett’s work must be approached with some care. He tends to toss in all sorts of material, regardless of origin. You’ll get one section consisting of quotes from outdated, sensationalistic potboiler authors, and another in which he extensively quotes David Attrell, one of the translators of the upcoming PSU Press scholarly edition of the Picatrix. He’s thorough enough that he catches a lot of good material, but that thoroughness sometimes compels him to use sources that he should really be tossing out. Is he seeking to impress readers with sheer volume? I don’t know, but if he cut out a good amount of material, he would have a much better book that would make a stronger case and that I’d have an easier time recommending to people.

With that caveat… once you wade through most of this stuff, Bennett makes points that are well-researched and documented, such as:

  • The Picatrix, on several occasions, recommends the use of psychotropic substances, and this book had considerable influence on Trithemius, Agrippa, and other early modern authors.
  • Psychotropic substances show up in the literature of ritual magic in the early modern period.
  • Many practitioners of magic in the 19th century occult revival made use of such substances in conjunction with catoptromancy, or mirror divination.

Bennett does a good job of documenting all of these. There are some odd errors – he refers to Hockley writing a book after the date of his death, and one of the quotes attributed to me comes from a book’s marketing material – but on the whole we have a compelling argument for all of these.

What I chiefly disagree with is the argument derived from the second point. Let’s take the main passage quoted in Liber 420 from Oberon:

Cannabis [hemp;]. Anoint thee with the juice of cannabis and the juice of archangel [“white nettle”] and before a mirror of steel call spirits, and thou shalt see them and have power to bind and to loose them.

Coriander. Coriander gathereth spirits together. A fume being made thereof with Apio167 nisquio [jusquianus, or “henbane”] and lazias168 cictuta [cicuta, or “water hemlock”] urgeth spirits and therefore, it is said, herba spirituum.

Both of these constitute only a few lines. Should we dismiss them because of their brevity? Certainly not. Yet Oberon runs over five hundred pages of text, with many operations for dealing with various spirits, and none of the others call for the use of cannabis. This is reflected in many of the other manuscripts I’ve seen.

(It would also be useful to have some pharmacological insight into some of these procedures. What strains of marijuana were available at the time, and do they reflect the dosages that modern ones contain? An educated opinion on the dosage of THC necessary for hallucinations if applied topically to the face (and, I assume, the mucus membranes) would have been welcome, for instance. It is possible for a substance with pharmaceutical properties to be used for a symbolic value without it being used in sufficient quantities or in an ineffectual manner, and Bennett’s argument would be stronger if he had addressed this point.)

The presence of these substances in some references, and their absence in the vast majority, are both necessary to understanding how these substances fit into ritual magic of the period. Emphasizing one or the other says more about our contemporary debates about psychotropic substances than anything else.

But what about the visions and scenes that accompanied scrying sessions?

Bennet quotes Giovanni Caputo’s “Archetypal-Imaging and Mirror-Gazing” (read here), and a few lines in particular stands out:

Recently, empirical research found that gazing at one’s own face in the mirror for a few minutes, at a low illumination level, produces the perception of bodily dysmorphic illusions of strange-faces. Healthy observers usually describe huge distortions of their own faces, monstrous beings, prototypical faces, faces of relatives and deceased, and faces of animals. (Bennett p. 381)

(Sidebar: In line with what I said about thoroughness, this particular chapter of Bennett also compiles a great deal of information about magical uses of mirrors, if you like that sort of thing.)

Bennett never returns to discuss the implications of this passage, but its importance needs to be underscored. Although we tend to focus on altered states of consciousness caused by pharmaceutical means, scientists have found a wide range of other causes that might also induce these effects. Understanding the grimoires as a whole means recognizing all of these possibilities.

This is where Bennett runs into difficulties. For example he complains that Stephen Skinner “seems to disregard the role of psychoactive substances in magic altogether, even in regards to fumigation, which he suggests was really based on good and bad smells.” With the exceptions noted above, I would agree with Skinner’s assessment of suffumigation as a whole.

Where the book really goes off the rails, however, is in Aaron Leitch’s foreword. As we’ve discussed before, Aaron spent some time in his Secrets of the Magickal Grimoires unsuccessfully arguing for the role of psychotropics in magic. Now he admits that, “The only thing I couldn’t do – at the time I was writing – was point to a specific spell in the European texts that directly included the use of such hallucinogens.”

Yet he can’t let the point go – “Why wouldn’t the grimoire authors routinely mention [drugs]?”, he asks. To me, the answer is pretty clear, but Aaron wants to pursue it further. He does also mention that “listing belladonna as an ingredient in an incense won’t likely be the crime that gets you lynched in a text that tells you how to conjure demons to cure your enemies.” It’s questionable how often anyone would have been the victim of mob violence because someone read his or her book of magic – a quick search turns up one example from the fifth century – but this is otherwise correct.

Yet he’s not done. Aaron makes a supposition and leaps straight to a conclusion: it’s about cultural norms!

And this is the same reason why the hallucinogenic drugs are rarely mentioned in the grimoires, and never appear directly as ingredients in any summoning of divination ritual. Their absence is just more of the author’s insistence that his magick isn’t like those people’s – those vile worshipers of devils who take strange drugs and dance naked in the moonlight! Never! (p. ix.)

So, let’s summarize Aaron’s argument. For early modern practitioners, summoning demons or calling upon the devil to harm others, compel women into sex, and destroy property was perfectly fine, but they didn’t write about drugs because people might think poorly of them.

I’d like to suggest my own standard for evaluating such material. Explicit references to psychotropic substances should be recognized, especially when the method of administration is consistent with what we know about their effects. Otherwise, let’s not add them in. I think that Bennet has demonstrated how much material this still gives us for conversation.

Published in: on December 2, 2018 at 8:27 pm  Comments (1)  

Review: Skinner and Rankine’s A Cunning Man’s Grimoire

Golden Hoard has put out many books of great utility to all of us interested in early modern works of magic. This one represents a return of both Stephen Skinner and David Rankine as co-editors, the first such effort since The Grimoire of St. Cyprian in 2009. You can pick up cloth editions or leather-bound ones straight from the publisher.

What sets A Cunning Man’s Grimoire apart from previous releases is its excursion into the realm of the magical miscellany, texts which contain a wide variety of different operations and pieces of information, rather than a unified magical system. It’s an area that should be familiar with those who’ve read the Book of Oberon, but it’s a departure for Golden Hoard.

What’s even more interesting about the book is that Skinner and Rankine’s introduction indicates they’re not certain how the book will be received by their audience, both in terms of the organization and the large number of Christian prayers that constitute it. I’m not sure why that would be the case, but both of them are much more tuned into the magical community – and probably more patient – than I am. Suffice to say that anyone who raises issues about a seventeenth-century magical miscellany being disorganized and Christian needs to learn more about such works.

There’s some uncertainty about the origin of the book. There’s some discussion at the beginning about whether Thomas Allen (1540-1632), a tutor from Oxford’s Gloucester Hall. (He’s also a likely owner of the book I just finished for Llewellyn.) I think we might have some confusion here between two different Allens, as dates written in the manuscript are all decades after his death, but this might bear more investigation.

The bulk of the book is a wide-ranging collection of material, rendered in the original spelling. We have collections of experiments dedicated to summoning spirits, sections on astrological timing, tables of planetary angels, spells for fighting animals and theft, and workings for the mansions of the moon. All of this is illustrated with diagrams from the original text, and supplemented further with footnotes, a short index, and a lengthy bibliography.

At times we also see brief commentaries from the copyist on some rites, especially the spirit conjurations, including those of Birto, Askariel, and the three horsemen. He seems to be of two minds about it – keen on reproducing the rituals, but seeming concerned about whether they are appropriate for a holy individual.  This, to me, is the most interesting material, as it reveals the motivations of at least one author who wrote in the genre.

Thus, if you’re interested in magical miscellanies, or early modern astrological magic, or charms and similar topics, you’ll enjoy this book. Check it out.




Published in: on September 6, 2018 at 7:30 pm  Comments (1)  

Review – Joe Peterson’s Secrets of Solomon: A Witch’s Handbook from the Trial Records of the Venetian Inquisition

Secrets SolomonJoe Peterson’s new book, Secrets of Solomon, is now out and attracting some attention. If you’d like to purchase it, it’s available through Amazon in paperback and through Lulu in hardback. I ended up buying both – the hardback for my shelf, and the paperback for marking up and carrying around where it can get beat up. I don’t usually make that sort of purchase unless I want to make sure I’m engaging with the text as much as possible, which this work definitely deserves.

Secrets of Solomon is a composite work, in which Joe has painstakingly correlated and compiled several different manuscripts to make a central work. The most complete of these was a manuscript taken from two men tried by the Venetian Inquisition in 1636, but he also covers six other manuscripts, including one from the collection of Gerald Gardner (which seems to have arrived too late to impact his writings on Wicca).

The work itself can be broken down into four parts, which I would briefly describe as follows:

  1.  A precursor of the Grimorium Verum, providing interesting variants on the spirit lists and procedures therein. It begins with three chief spirits, who are aided by a panoply of lesser beings who may also be called upon. Fans of Jake Stratton-Kent’s work will be interested to hear that the book defines these as chthonic and possibly infernal spirit, as opposed to those of the air and fire. It also provides a series of short operations connected with the spirit list, to be performed after one has made an agreement with the spirits, which seems to have been replaced in GV with a miscellaney of experiments.
  2. The spirits of the celestial spheres and the elements are described here, who are served by entities known as the “Amalthai.” We have a long series of instructions for approaching the greater spirits through ritual, along with a set of talismans to be employed toward various ends after the initial content is made.
  3. A work describing operations to deal with the various spirits of the days of the week. This derives from the Heptameron, but delves much more into the powers of individual angels and spirits than that work.
  4. An explanation of creating a “stone,” or clay image, for success in magic, with further notes on various magical techniques taken from pseudo-Agrippa’s Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy.

I’ll comment on the implications of this list in my conclusion. The book also has a number of different items of interest: magical words that are actually just misunderstood English, separate instructions for a particular magical experiment based on the sex of the operator, a demon that kills Americans by slapping them with its nose, etc.

One item that deserves mention is the presence in the second section of spirits known as the “Amalthai.” Peterson proposes that this might be a reference to the mythological Greek goat or nymph Amalthea, who nursed Zeus after Rhea hid him away from Kronos. There does appear to be a linguistic similarity between the names, but there’s no other clear link between these spirits and the mythological figure. Perhaps a future manuscript discovery will clarify these issues.

As you can expect from Joe Peterson, all of this is tied together with a thorough introduction, copious footnotes, a list of manuscripts, a comprehensive bibliography, and multiple indices. The only potential omission would be notes for the first section that illustrated the ties to Verum more closely. If you’re interested in that connection, you’ll probably want to keep both books on hand for reference.

I would like to attach one caveat to the book: it’s not the end (or beginning) of the story. If you read my description of the four parts above, you might be wondering how these sections fit together. Simply put, they don’t; the original compiler put them in one work without trying to write connections. What this means is that these works – which date back to the mid-seventeenth century – were likely transmitted on their own for quite some time before being collected.  Thus, Joe’s book is wonderful, but I hope it serves as the springboard for future revelations that will continue to challenge our knowledge of early modern books of magic.

Published in: on July 28, 2018 at 8:00 am  Comments (1)  

Review – Speculum Terrae: A Magical Earth-Mirror from the 17th Century

I’m sure most readers are familiar with the use of mirrors in magical operations to speak with spirits – but how common was such practice? We may never know the answer, but Frater Acher has given us a special opportunity to examine one of these items – albeit second-hand – through a new publication from Hadean Press, who were nice enough to send me a review copy.

The book is tiny in size but rich in content. While researching Cyprian, Frater Acher found an Erdspiegel (“Earth-Mirror”) in the archives of Michelstadt, Germany. These mirrors, used for treasure-hunting, consisted of a pane of glass, one or more sheets of paper with magical seals, a thin layer of dirt, and a container for the whole. Not only had the mirror survived for three hundred years, it had been the subject of an article in the Hessische Blätter für Volkskunde by Professor Richard Wünsch in 1904.

After the introduction, Frater Acher provides us with a translation of the good professor’s article, which not only discusses the particular mirror, but also the lore surrounding these devices dating back to Babylonian times. We then move to an examination of the object that has come down to present times, along with the four magical seals that populate it. Acher attempts to place the diagrams and words on these in the context of other magical works, a difficult task given the unique nature of some of the elements. He does manage to trace one of the designs back to a seventeenth-century Rosicrucian treatise, thus providing an example of how that mystical philosophy might have impacted magical praxis.

Acher ends the book with a brief treatise on the significance of earth in folklore, especially of the Germanic variety. A comprehensive bibliography follows. The book has no index, but it is short enough that this is no real detriment.

One question remains unanswered: the paper seal provided in the Wünsch article does not match up with the ones found in the surviving mirror in the archives. Acher hypothesizes that it might have been lost in the interim – yet the professor does not note the presence of the other four paper discs. Further, Wünsch’s article states the box that contains the paper and glass is leather, but the one in the archives is paper. Are we dealing with two separate objects?

This is a small but excellent work that will appeal to those who are interested in magic mirrors and magical treasure-hunting, or who seek a chthonic model of divination for their personal practice.

Published in: on July 11, 2018 at 11:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Review – Edward Poeton: The Winnowing of White Witchcraft

While at Treadwell’s on my UK trip, I picked up Cunning Folk: An Introductory Bibliography, which is out of date but still fascinating. One key work mentioned within was a work by the early seventeenth physician Edward Poeton, “The Winnowing of White Witchcraft,” which only existed in manuscript form in Sloane 1954. I was trying to figure out whether I should spend time at the British Library tracking it down, and I was happy to see that Poeton’s work had just been published by the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. The book doesn’t even seem to have made its way to Amazon, but fortunately one of my local libraries came through for me on a copy of this important primary source on early modern cunning folk, their practices, and the arguments for and against their practices.

First, a few caveats. Winnowing is a thin paperback, and the price point of $45 is more than I’d be willing to spend. Even though this work is of direct use in my research, I’m really on the fence about whether I should purchase it. Further, the bulk of the text replicates the spelling of the original. This is fine for two of the speakers, but the third…

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Poeton’s Winnowing is an unpublished treatise on the cunning folk.  As with many such works at the time, it is written in the form of a dialogue, in which a wise and knowledgeable teacher instructs a student in error who is nonetheless willing to ask questions and learn. In Winnowing, we have three parties: a clergyman with a doctorate in divinity, a physician, and the country squire who has been promoting cunning folk. The first two are intelligible, but Poeton has placed the squire’s words in a bizarrely spelled depiction of a local dialect which is quite difficult for modern readers.

The arguments that the doctor and the physician use are somewhat lacking, but what should interest today’s readers are the perspectives they take, illustrative of contemporary attitudes, and some of the details they give. We do get the names and/or locations of particular cunning folk active at the time, for instance. There are also one or two tidbits on interesting folk and magical practices I haven’t run into elsewhere, such as the carving of crosses into trees around a field to drive off fairies, or that spirits called up by a magician with a hazel wand should kiss that wand, extended beyond the circle (similar to the table ritual in Oberon which involves a fairy kissing a scepter).

Simon Davies, the editor, does a fine job in providing the background for the book and some initial notes on cunning folk practice at the time. He also provides numerous footnotes for the text itself, a list of Biblical references, an index, and a bibliography to supplement it.

I did like this book, but I think the price point, language, and focus – not to mention the present distribution method – will keep it out of the reach of many readers, which is a shame. Nonetheless, if you’re researching seventeenth-century magic or the historical nature of cunning folk, this is worth tracking down.

Published in: on June 14, 2018 at 10:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Review of Medicine, Magic, and Art in Early Modern Norway: Conceptualizing Knowledge

I just finished a book that I know most of you will not want to read. But if you’re interested in grimoire manuscripts, you definitely should give Ohrvik’s Medicine, Magic and Art in Early Modern Norway: Conceptualizing Knowledge a look through your local library. (This was a purchased copy, and I’ve got a chapter appearing in an upcoming release from the same publisher.)

Note that I didn’t actually say you should purchase this book. This is for two reasons. First, it’s $100 retail, which is quite expensive.

Second, there’s the binding. As you may have noticed, although I do appreciate a beautifully bound work, I don’t go into raptures about such things. My appreciation of a book as an art object is mitigated by my desire to read it, stack it up, carry it around in my laptop bag for weeks, etc., all of which is made more difficult if it’s nice. But I draw the line when a publisher is asking $100 for a book in which you can hear the glue cracking as you read it. (I’m talking to them about it right now.)

The irony of this is that Ohrvik’s work is dedicated to various aspects of the black books of Norway. Given the censorship prevalent in the Norwegian and Danish press, magic typically traveled through oral transmission or handwritten works. Ohrvik examines many different exemplars of the latter, emphasizing their physical appearance, titles, attributions, and textual organization.  These are aspects of grimoires often overlooked when contemporary occult scholars study such works, so her perspectives on these issues are quite valuable.

Let’s take the size. From the opprobrium directed against these books, one might expect that the compilers would seek to keep them in the smallest size possible. If the surviving books are any indication, however, the most common sizes were the larger quarto and octavo formats. This, along with the wear placed upon them, suggests that the black books of Norway were kept secreted away in households for use, rather than carried on the person to be consulted in other settings.

Another section is devoted to those responsible for such books – whether we define them as authors, copyists, compilers, or the figures to which they are attributed. This brings us to St. Cyprian, and there is considerable discussion of this figure as relates to the attribution of these works and his purported areas of expertise.  There’s only so far that manuscript titles and introductions can take us when assembling a picture of Cyprian, and Ohrvik supplements it through discussing similar traditions in the rest of Europe – although she misses the Iberian examples, for some reason.

Yet it’s not perfect, as setting content analysis aside doesn’t always provide the entire picture. For example, Early Modern Norway has an excellent discussion of claims many black books make to originate in Wittenberg – yet it is silent on the question of how much of the content of these works might actually have their origins from that city, or other German sources. Likewise, Ohrvik elsewhere hypothesizes that the authors’ inclusion of elements more common in prestigious printed books shows a recognition that private works might eventually become more public. If we consider the content of the manuscript, however, as an expression of and adjunct to the magical efficacy of its owner, we might see that imitating a prestigious format of publication may be a strategy of legitimizing both the contents and one’s own magical practice.

This is not to say that this work is not valuable, but that future collaborations between those examining the physical aspects of the books and their contents might yield even more fruit.

I would have appreciated it if Orhvik had included a lengthy catalogue of the manuscripts covered in the book. This is only a minor concern, however, as most of them are fully digitised online by the University of Oslo.

Thus, if you’re interested in learning about what we know about books of magic beyond the charms and incantations therein, this one may be for you, although you should note my concerns about price point and quality above. If you prefer the magical formulae itself, please feel free to give it a pass.




Published in: on May 5, 2018 at 9:39 am  Comments (3)  

Edward Hunter’s Key of Rabbi Solomon and Mormonism

Recently, commenter Adonia Zanoni asked me to write a review of the nineteenth-century Key of Rabbi Solomon, as issued by Hell Fire Club.  This is probably late for most potential buyers, as only the 11-copy super deluxe edition remains for sale, but I’ll handle this as best I’m able.

Full disclosure: I might be working with Hell Fire on a project in the future, so keep that in mind when reading this review.

The Key consists of two booklets, one consisting of a facsimile of the original manuscript of the Key (currently in private hands), and the other a brief introduction to and transcript of the manuscript. All of this is attractively presented and printed, although you’ll certainly see differences based upon the edition acquired (I went for the cheap kidskin).

As for the manuscript itself, I’ve compared it with the Sibley Clavis edited by Joseph Peterson. Most of it corresponds in organization and chapters to that manuscript, although the text is different enough to suggest a different translator – up to a point.  That is, the book breaks off in the middle of the chapter of the talismans of Mercury, corresponding to Wednesday. Thus, if you were expecting a full Key, you will be disappointed.

Yet, sad to say, I’ve had to back burner a more in-depth examination of the book, in order to deal with one particular aspect of the book. Let’s look at the title page:

The Keys
Rabbi Solomon

Translated accurately from the
Hebrew into English
Edward Hunter

According to the book’s introduction included in the transcript, this Edward Hunter is identical to the man of the same name (1793-1883) who served as the presiding bishop of the Church of Latter-Day Saints for over three decades. Here are some illustrative quotes from the introduction:

It is now little surprise to that we find yet another top Mormon leader who has transcribed what can be determined as highly ritualized, magical, Solomonic arts.

This manuscript is hand written by the Mormon Bishop, Edward Hunter himself.

This manuscript is indeed that “smoking gun”, finally putting to rest the question surrounding Mormon Hermeticism, Kabbalism, and the practice of Solomonic ritual magic.

So – is it the “smoking gun”? Connections between the early Mormons, especially Joseph Smith, and ceremonial magic have been hotly debated back and forth for years. If I might dip into a highly complex and controversial question, I can say that what little literature I’ve read on the topic on both sides shows little knowledge of the literature and practice of ritual magic.

Let’s focus in on this manuscript now, with a discussion examination of the title page above. I think most readers will already be aware that King Solomon did not write any of the “keys” associated with him. Further, the Key of Solomon‘s origins lie in the Greek Hygromanteia, with no proof of Hebrew origins; indeed, what Hebrew copies we have, such as the Gollancz edition, are copies of much later editions translated into Hebrew. The introduction to the transcript claims that Hunter “transcribed” the book, but that is incorrect with regard to the statement on the title page, on which Hunter claims to have translated the book from Hebrew. I can expect a certain degree of deception on the title page of a grimoire, but this certainly raises questions as to how much we can believe any one part of it.

Next, is the Edward Hunter to whom this manuscript is ascribed the same person as the Mormon Bishop? As I’ve learned through researching figures such as “William Bellhouse” and “George Graham,” making sure that one has the right person out of many with a similar name is crucial when it comes to history. Can we connect these two Edward Hunters?

The book provides little helpful material. In the original listing, Hell Fire noted that the watermark of “Whatmans 1827” appeared on the paper. (This piece of information seems to have been lost in a website move that occurred in the last week, but you can still read it here.) Thus, it’s quite plausible that the date of composition occurred during Bishop Hunter’s life.

Beyond that, however, the old Hell Fire website description only tells us that the manuscript “is believed by specialists to have been [created] sometime around 1830 by the Bristol based merchant Edward Hunter,” who “later had links to the Mormon groups in the United States.” This was certainly not Bishop Hunter, who was born and raised in Pennsylvania. Thus, we have a gap between the promotional material and the introduction.

As you might recalled, we were assured that the the book is “hand written by the Mormon Bishop, Edward Hunter himself.” In that case, we might compare it to other writings attributed to him, including this letter from Edward Hunter to Joseph Smith from October 27, 1841. This is treacherous ground, as I cannot say definitively that one or the other of these documents was not written for Hunter by a clerk or employee, although the number of errors in both suggests a professional scribe was not involved in either one.

Nonetheless, I have gone through a few pages of both documents, extracted images of identical words, and present them below, based upon the principle of fair use:

Word Hunter Letter Hunter Clavis
That  Hunter Letter That  Hunter Clavis That
All  Hunter Letter All  Hunter Clavis Illustrations All
The Hunter Letter The Hunter Clavis Illustrations The
Expences  Hunter Letter Expences  Hunter Clavis Illustrations Expences
Being Hunter Letter Being Hunter Clavis Illustrations Being
And Hunter Letter And Hunter Clavis Illustrations And
Proper Hunter Letter Proper Hunter Clavis Illustrations Proper

The above items speak for themselves – but in case it remains unclear, I should point out in particular the crossbars in the “t”s in “that,” the lower part of the “g” in “being,” and the curve on the “d” in “and.”

At this point, the evidence points away from the Mormon bishop as the transcriber or translator of the book. I should add that, after having contacted the publisher, the editor, and a researcher involved in the Hunter Clavis, I have yet to see any countervailing evidence that might convince me otherwise. Perhaps it will be forthcoming in the following weeks, and I will update this post if it is.

Want to know more about the book? Do you have a perspective on the evidence? In either case, just leave it in the comments below.

Published in: on April 24, 2018 at 6:33 pm  Comments (4)  

Revelore Press on the Magi and Scandinavian Magic, with a Note on Hutton

Some quick updates:

  • Revelore Press is a new publisher that has taken up the mantle – and some of the back catalog – of Rubedo Press, especially their Cyprian-related publications.
  • Revelore also just released the enjoyable new book by the wonderful Al Cummins, A Book of the Magi, dealing with their appearances in folklore, festival, and magic. The only downside to this is that reading it prompted me to start finding  Magi references in all sorts of magical works, which I send to Al, which means he’s probably going to get stuck with writing a sequel. If you’re interested in Christian-themed folk magic or popular religious practices, it’s worth looking at.
  • Revelore has also announced an upcoming book called Svartkönstbocker, a compilation of extracts from the black books of Sweden taken from the work of the late Thomas K. Johnson. The publisher has the rights to his thesis, which is this tremendous translation of many black books that I’ve reviewed previously. I’ll keep an eye on this one, to see how much of those thirty-five grimoires covering five hundred pages they’re going to reprint.
  • Speaking of Swedish magic and folklore… someone here was asking for information on the year walk, or årsgång. I found this article on the topic, for those interested.
  • I’m still working on the Hunter Clavis review, which is delayed due to time constraints. I’m comparing its contents to Sibley – those who want to compare it to Mathers or Skinner and Rankine can do so themselves, because otherwise I won’t have time to work on anything else.
  • Due to an unexpected work-related book review assignment, I have now read all of Hutton’s book The Witch twice, which means that I now have more extensive opinions on it.  I’d stand by my assessment as “pretty good,” but I can see some more of the seams. For example, the subtitle, “A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present,” is bound to throw people off, as the period of the witch trials and afterward is given only a short chapter, along with examinations of particular issues during the trials that relate largely to the British Isles. The chapters on elves and familiars are both must-reads if you’re interested in those topics – but finding them in a book on witches isn’t exactly where one might expect to encounter them. There’s certainly nothing more than a brief allusion to modern witchcraft, and certainly no mention of particular figures or critique of doctrines.
Published in: on April 12, 2018 at 6:52 pm  Comments (3)  

Review – Dr. Faust’s Mightiest Sea-Spirit

The German occult scene has seen many books of ritual magic attributed to the infamous Doctor Faust appear over the years. Most of these have remained untranslated into other languages, but recently they have begun to appear in English, most notably through the Mexican publisher Enodia. Following their releases of the Magia Naturalis et Innaturalis and the Compendium of Unnatural Black Magic, they now present one of the books that I’ve been most keen to read ever since I read about it in Butler’s Ritual Magic: Grosser und Gewaltiger Meergeist. Now Nicolás Álvarez’ latest translation, Doctor Johannes Faust’s Mightiest Sea-Spirit, finally scratches that itch.

Before going forward, I should add that I’m in talks with another publisher to work on an edition of Meergeist. Please read the following in light of this potential conflict of interest. Plus, this is a book I purchased, rather than a review copy.

We begin with an introduction from Álvarez , providing insight into the background and cultural significance of the book and its contents. It particularly notes the more imaginative aspects of the ritual, and Álvarez also provides us with insights on the early modern attitudes toward the imagination and its usage in magic. The only small addition I wanted were a few notes, especially for the mythological and folkloric significance of underwater beings. The book also includes a bibliography, but lacks an index.

The bulk of the book consists of four treatises on magic, beginning with the Sea-Spirit itself. In this experiment, a magician creates a massive metal circle, using chains from a gallows and nails from a breaking wheel.  He places it by a body of water, and then brings three companions and a black hen. We then see a curious interlude in which Lucifer and his subservient spirits appear before the magician and discuss the great riches that they hold. Then Lucifer and Amaymon take on the form of Persian merchants and greet the magician, asking him whether they have the seven souls necessary to complete the operation. The magician cites himself, his three companions, the two demons, and a black hen, and demands the treasure.

Álvarez provides us with three additional rites, two of which are connected with the water. The first, taken from Darmstadt MS 831, is a waterside rite to call up the spirit Quirumndai, who can bring treasure and teach the magician secrets in the guise of an old, grey-cloaked man. The second, the Veritable Jesuit Coercion of Hell, is not actually linked to the Jesuits, as you’ve probably guessed, but a magical operation to call the spirit Tarafael to bring up treasure from the depths. The third, Arcanum Experientia Praetiosum, is geared toward a dream incubation rite, such as those for the spirit Balancus in Oberon. A key part of this is creating a spirit sigil which is placed under the window and then beaten with a rod while calling upon the archangel Michael until the spirit performs one’s bidding. All four total about seventy pages of text.

I haven’t had time to check the translation at any length, but if you want to compare, Álvarez places the German text in an appendix.  Overall, the book is attractive and thorough in presentation, although the text might have benefited from another once-over – and my copy could have used a little more packing material.

I don’t want to leave this on a negative note, however. You’ve got four texts here that have never been translated into English before, one of which has not been published before now, to my knowledge. This constitutes a great new resource for anyone who collects grimoires, especially those who are fascinated in Faustian magic in particular. If either of those describes you, you should definitely send some money to Mexico for this one.

Published in: on March 15, 2018 at 7:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

Followup on Lecouteux’s Traditional Magic Spells

I had a nice discussion in the comments with Frater A. P. regarding my review of Lecouteux’s Traditional Magic Spells.  He’s been looking over Lecouteux’s translations in the book taken from Dr. Heinrich von Wlislocki’s Volksglaube und Volksbrauch der Siebenbürger Sachsen. What he’s found – and I’ve checked on some of his conclusions – is that there are some problems with the translations given in the book.  The seriousness of these discrepancies varies, but sometimes it extends to leaving out instructions – or even charm passages – from what’s presented in the book.  You can read his analysis here.

To be clear, my sympathies in cases of error are often on the side of the author. Mistakes creep into books quite easily.  After extensive work on Oberon, and level upon level of transcription, corrections, and proofing by multiple people, I once witnessed someone bring me their new copy, ask for a signature, open the book, and immediately catch an error. It happens.

That being said, I can share my impressions of the error. For me, it would be the sort of thing that would occur the first time copying a text.  Even if you’re confident that you’ve got it all, it’s still possible to make some major omissions from time to time when you miss a line or section.  I’m wondering if it’s what happened here, and it falls over the line of what I consider an acceptable error.

None of this is to diminish what Frater A. P. has discovered, which is an important and useful reminder that it’s important to vet sources, to double-check what we’re writing, and call out errors when we find them.  I’d suggest that anyone who wants to use Traditional Magic Spells to do their best to check the original sources if it matters for whatever work they are doing.

I’m interested on hearing others weigh in about what they think is appropriate.

Published in: on February 20, 2018 at 7:39 pm  Comments (7)