A Few Short Travels, Writing Project Update, Reviews, A New Jake Stratton-Kent Book, Bulgarian-Slavic and Arthurian Gaming

I’ve made a few small trips lately. Last month, I made an excursion to Michigan, where I spent some time with my family watching muskrats swim lazily across a pond. I was able to visit the Buckland Museum of Witchcraft and Magic for the first time in about two years on my way back.

Today I made a quick excursion to Kingston and Woodstock, where I prowled bookstores and metaphysical shops. It’s good to get out of the house and around people, especially when the fall is still a question mark. I do miss going to the UK, but the situation there would need to change considerably before I do. Maybe next year?

The witch bottle revisions are almost done, and I’m re-reading the whole book to try to smooth out how the prose flows. There are some sections of the Book of Four Wizards that need to be examined more closely, especially on some Latin where the author seems to have been copying without understanding what was written. If all goes according to plan, these will be off to the publishers on schedule – and you’ll see them soon.

In the review queue, I’ve just finished Trollrún, and I’ve begun work on Agostino Taumaturgo’s Medieval Rituals of Catholic Exorcism. I have many, many books in the queue right now, and I hope to have some time to get to them in the fall. Review copies usually jump to near the front.

Hadean has released another book by Jake Stratton-Kent, The Sworn and Secret Grimoire:

A ‘Guide to Grimoiring’ is well overdue, with unqualified persons claiming to fill the gap only to muddy the waters further. Simplifying the processes involved is unhelpful, what is required is to render them comprehensible and ‘user friendly’ in a time where they are regaining their deserved prestige as monuments of a tradition preceding the Christian era while nonetheless rooted in it. These processes are demanding and require both work and study in order to succeed. So too the ‘by rote’ attitude exhibited by some writers on the subject requires a counterblast. Forging and reforging grimoires has always been a part of their real nature; in a metallurgical as well as a literary sense. Ritual composition from scratch is a neglected but necessary skill, requiring a qualified and informed approach, which the current work addresses. So too this handbook departs from the homogenised ‘Solomonic’ form, drawing instead on the great iconoclast and revitaliser of tradition, Paracelsus. While avoiding Christophobia, the implications for a more pagan (or pagan friendly) approach to the grimoires, compatible with the Greek Magical Papyri and other predecessor forms, are greatly increased by this shift of emphasis.

My DCC game has wrapped up, and we’re moving to a biweekly game in a Bulgarian-Slavic setting of my own design, using Moldvay B/X as a chassis and a dash of Mörk Borg (which Phil has asked me to review). The goal is to be more gritty and grounded in folklore of a particular area. I’ve wanted to run it for a while, and the group is responding well to it so far – so well I need to do worldbuilding on the fly. (If you’re a player reading this, this is a lie.)

Pendragon… is continuing. I think some of the players are finding interesting ways to disrupt the world.

Take care of yourselves, everyone.

Published in: on July 25, 2021 at 7:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

Review – Buddhist Magic

My review schedule of historical texts of European magic is overfull – which means it’s time to review Buddhist Magic, by Sam Van Schaik of the British Library. This is a book I purchased myself, and it was certainly worth it.

I’m probably not the best person to review this work. I haven’t dipped too far into Buddhism of any variety, with most of my familiarity coming from the Tibetan side, including The Tibetan Book of the Dead and David-Neel’s Magic and Mystery in Tibet. Thus, someone better read in Buddhism might have a different series of critiques they can draw from the book.

Van Schaik’s overall argument is that Buddhism has been portrayed in the West as a rationalist practice in line with secular thinking and devoid of so-called “superstition.” This is not necessarily reflected in the textual tradition, in which ritual techniques aimed at practical everyday goals intermingle with techniques used purely for spiritual goals. Van Schaik sets out to reveal this other side of Buddhist practice.

But how should we define magic? After a brief discussion of Frazer, Durkheim, and other theorists, Buddhist Magic delves into what is referred to as magic in other times and places, including the Atharvaveda, the library of Ashurbanipal, the magical papyri, the Cairo Geniza, and the grimoires. Van Schaik provides a few pages for each, and I felt the brief coverage was largely fine for each, albeit more focused on similiarities than contrasts among them. Based upon this, he identifies a few traits that point to magic: rituals that point to practical, this-worldly goals that should be accomplished quickly and assembled with other such brief rites in written works. One could debate the particulars, but I think it’s a good place to start.

The next sections cover the various ways in which this “magic” interacts with the moral and medical texts in Buddhist history. Some of this requires some background information on the histories of various Buddhist traditions, which I did not have available to me at the time. It does establish how magic, theology, and medicine all intertwined in texts, stories, and practice reaching far back into the religion’s history.

This leads up to a set of examples: a short treatise of Tibetan magic found near Dunhuang, on the Silk Road, and believed to date to the tenth century. It includes a series of scrying rituals involving a child and dedicated to Garuda, King of the Birds; rituals to control demons called requiring one hundred thousand repetitions of the mantra of the Tibetan queen Bhrikuti, and ceremonies to cure illness among people and animals. Then, there’s one in particular that caught my attention:

Defeather the head of a crow and fill it with seeds, then grow them in dark soil. Then standing in front of it, pour in the milk of a dun cow and rainwater. Once the fruits have opened, cut the flowers and fruits and tie them carefully. Mash them with the milk of a dun cow and anoint your eyes. You will become invisible.

Yes – there’s some interesting parallels to the skull-bean invisibility rite with which most modern grimoire readers will be most familiar from the Grimorium Verum. I’m not going to say that one inspired the other, but it might deserve further research.

If you’re interested in the history of Buddhism or books of magic beyond the European context, it’s definitely worth looking into. Those hoping for a collection of new spells may be disappointed to find that certain mantras and yantras are not given within, but there’s still a great deal to think about here.

Published in: on July 17, 2021 at 7:57 am  Leave a Comment  

Review – Precious Apothecary

More recent literature on the grimoires has often overlooked its connection to devotional and exorcistic literature. Over its history, European ritual magic has transformed from being the province of learned clergy and aspirants thereto, to a much broader audience in terms of geography, gender, language mastery, and faith. With that expansion came a growing lack of familiarity for many readers of the liturgical basis for many of the rituals they were encountering. Thus, a work that brings that connection to the fore is particularly welcome.

Today I’ll be looking at Precious Apothecary: A Catholic Grimoire, a compilation of material from the works of the eighteenth-century Brazilian missionary Ângelo de Sequeira Ribeiro do Prado assembled and edited by José Leitão and published by Avalonia. I will add that I’m a friend of Sorita D’Este, who runs Avalonia, and I have an ongoing publishing relationship with Avalonia. (UPDATE: See here for more details.)

Leitão’s introduction is wonderful at not only discussing Ângelo Sequeira and his work, but also dealing with the thorny issues surrounding liturgical traditionalism, the relevance of definitions of religion and magic, and the various categories of saints. I don’t know if I’ve given Leitão full props for his wonderful commentaries on his books, which are always well-informed and reflective, sharing his own thoughtful impressions of the text in such a way that invites dialogue.

The main text of Precious Apothecary is originally taken from Sequeira’s Botica Preciosa, with additional material from his other books and Erhassison’s Compendio de Devoções Utilissimas, on which Sequeira modeled his practice. Little indication is given within the text as to where the original text for each section might be found, or more than general comments on what was excised. I don’t think this is a major problem myself, but other readers who want to consult the original sources might find it problematic.

Most of the text is Portuguese translated into English, and untranslated passages of Latin. I will not comment on the translation from the Portuguese, as that text is not provided. My only comment on the Latin is that some of the material seems to include misspellings, but I’m cautious about where this comes from without viewing the original source.

The contents display how much Sequeira’s vision encompassed what we would typically think of as both religion and magic. The work includes lengthy sections dealing with Catholic doctrine and practices ranging from confession to the Stations of the Cross to extreme unction. In another part of the book, we are granted a large number of blessings for all manner of items – vestments, incense, roses, tools, and others, and elsewhere is a collection of exorcisms. The work also includes a lengthy alphabetical lists of prayers to various saints. Some of these are aimed at stirring the heart toward devotion or indulgences, but others are intended to ward off enemies or hostile animals, stopping storms, or exorcising spirits. It’s hard to express the sheer amount of such material that appears within this work.

Is this for you? I think it is require reading for anyone trying to grapple with the lines between religion and magic. I think that those practitioners using Catholic imagery will find a great deal of interest here, while those operating within other paradigms might find its mileage varies according to their personal focuses. It’s certainly worthy of consideration.

Published in: on June 23, 2021 at 8:18 am  Comments (1)  

Stealth NYC Trip, Fairies under the Elders, Online Manuscripts, Anti-Semitism in Magical Works

I made a quick trip to NYC to drop off a copy of the Bellhouse book at the NYPL. I didn’t schedule time to see others – just stopped at a couple of shops, grabbed some Middle Eastern food, and headed back upstate. I hope to visit again soon.

My article, “The Herb and the Lady under the Elder at Noon: Analysis of an Early Modern Magical Ritual,” has appeared in the fifth issue of The Enquiring Eye, the journal of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic.

I’ve found a few works of interest in the Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland. This short copy of a book purporting to be Faust’s Höllenzwang might be the sort of thing Papers readers should like.

Phil Legard notes that the Lecouteux book I showed in the last post has some problematic content. Having looked at it, I can confirm one of the passages chosen has one anti-Semitic account which I’m not sure adds much to the work. Admittedly, even my own books do include statements from our early modern authors blaming the Jewish people unfairly, as many authors of the time did. I’m going to be doing my best to note such passages and their significances as I go forward.

The Precious Apothecary review will appear next week.

Published in: on June 13, 2021 at 7:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

Review: Clavis Goetica

I’m going to leap in the review queue slightly to handle a book sent to me for review: Clavis Goêtica: Keys to Chthonic Sorcery, by Frater Acher and José Gabriel Alegría Sabogal and published by Hadean. This is a review of the hardback, which is currently unavailable but will be re-released this summer. The softcover is currently available.

Frater Acher begins with a discussion of the significance and history of the concept of goetia, or “goeteia,” dealing with its roots in the Greek practice of the itinerant magicians and the goetes. He follows this with a mythic narrative of the interactions between the Idaean Dactyls, spirits and magicians responsible for teaching the civilized arts, the profundity and uncontrolled immensity of the Earth Mother. He then relates this to the appropriation of this energy by ritual magic practitioners, with the goetes serving as a bridge between the boundary-setting magicians and the primordial forces.

I respect the desire to innovate in magical practice, yet it should be said that some historians, including some whom Frater Acher quotes, would disagree with some of his points, including his characterization of “goeteia” as something of a floating term which did not necessarily point to a particular practice. Likewise, one might accept that the core of the practice described here is in personal spiritual gnosis, not in books – but we should also note Plato’s report of itinerant practitioners dealing with souls of the dead utilizing books attributed to Orpheus and Musaeus. None of this stands in the way of a basis of practice, but I’d suggest reading the works Frater Acher cites in this section if you want to get a better handle of the history.

Frater Acher touches on his modern practice of spirit contact within a cave in the Alps – although the spirits have not granted permission to share more than one early operation. He then turns to a discussion of those seeking interactions with spirits in medieval history, including one account from Cesarius of Heisterbach circa 1200, another attributed to the sixteenth-century Christian mystic Johannes Beer, and the Norse tradition of “sitting out” to contact spirits.

The centerpiece of the book, at least from my perspective, is the translation of the brief “Ars Phythonica” text from the Leipzig magical library, which provides two . Frater Acher postulates convincingly that the title is a corruption of “Ars Pythonica,” linking the text back to earlier traditions of female mediumship. He then proceeds to discuss various traditions of the use of skulls for the purposes of divination, ranging from the PGM to the Hygromanteia.

I think much of the material here is intriguing, and it might be worth pursing an expansion on both the seeking out of chthonic spirits and the use of skulls in magic. For example, Scurlock’s Magical Means of Dealing with Ghosts in Ancient Mesopotamia provides rituals for pitting the spirit of a skull against another for protective purposes. Another source not mentioned here is the Picatrix, which includes procedures similar to the folktale of the Maharil he describes.

Frater Acher concludes his analysis by highlighting one particular aspect of the Ars Phythonica:

…the first version further breaks down traditional magical patterns by actively calling upon the help of both celestial and chthonic hierarchies in a single conjuration… Such a deeply pragmatic approach – transcending the traditional polarity between theurgy and goêteia – highlights the essentially shamanic nature of this ritual… Such striking boldness and independence of spirit was just as rare during late medieval times as unfortunately remains today. (p. 125)

So, I was able to come up with three examples of mingled “celestial-chthonic” incantations from The Book of Oberon alone within ten minutes. It’s not necessarily common in rituals, but it’s not unheard of, and I don’t think Oberon is outstanding in this regard.

Overall, I’d be cautious about Frater Acher’s statements about what is “traditional” – traditional for whom? – or what is “shamanic,” or why we should necessarily put those two things in opposition. These labels say a great deal more about how contemporary authors and practitioners view medieval and early modern ritual magic, not to mention other spiritual tradtions, than its source material, which is weird and wonderful stuff filled with patterns that can be broken in exciting ways. Although I wouldn’t rule out that there are norms that some texts might transgress, I think that a broader look at the corpus would be necessary to make any sort of definitive statement along those lines. 

The book ends with an afterward from Sabogal, whose art graces much of this book. Sabogal discusses the magical significance of the head throughout history and in the context of his own art and experience, which ties the work together nicely. The book ends with a bibliiography but no index.

Overall, my reaction to the book is positive. I always welcome an edition of a hitherto-unpublished magical text, and the historical material is intriguing and worthy of further exploration. My concerns arise from the work’s engagement with mythmaking in ways that may be important for creation of magical mindsets but present debatable interpretations of the evidence. Even if that last sentence bothers you, however, I think it’s a worth seeking out and reading.

Published in: on June 5, 2021 at 10:50 am  Comments (2)  

Book Shopping at Long Last, Upcoming Reviews, Open Access Books on Magic, Slavic Folklore, Cultural Appropriation


Lecouteux, Travels to the Otherworld; Reed, Recared’s Unclean Pamphlet; Pennick, Ancestral Power of Amulets, Talismans, and Mascots

I went out of town this weekend to see my family for the first time since December 2019. Along the way I got to re-visit some of my favorite bookshops, as you can see above. Please feel free to ask me about any of these items.

I finished Precious Apothecary on the plane, but I need to write it up and get a couple things in order before I do. I also received a reviewer’s copy of Acher and Sabogal’s Clavis Goêtica, which will probably be the next item on my list.

If you’re interested in scholarly books on magic, Owen Davies has been posting links to some excellent open access works, including Beyond the Witch Trials, Witchcraft Continued, and The Materiality of Magic.

A small group of friends was hoping to learn something about Slavic folklore, so I invited Katarina Pejovic, author of Balkan Folk Magic: Zmaj, to speak to them. It was wonderful – it takes talent and a considerable depth of knowledge to talk about Serbian dragon lore for an hour and a half, while making it clear that a dozen other topics could be addressed with equal depth and fervor. I recommend her highly to anyone seeking a speaker on this topic.

Some of my FB friends have been circulating links to a Patheos article “Cancelled for Renovations: More Thoughts on Closed Practices” by Thumper Marjorie Forge, dealing with the usage of spiritual practices from other cultures. I think the author is moving in a good direction, yet there are points with which I disagree intensely. I’ll summarize briefly:

  • Cultural appropriation is not itself bad; instead, it is a neutral concept that become problematic when people from historically advantaged backgrounds appropriate practices from people who are historically disadvantaged. In those circumstances, the people, the history, and the practices appropriated may yield different answers for different people.
  • If one is practicing using elements of the cultures of historically disadvantaged groups, consideration of those groups should not be absent from practice or life. Forge offers an example of five individuals working with “Sokovian” culture. I do think that seeking out transactions with indigenous artisans is a good step, but none of these hypothetical practitioners discuss, learn about, or find ways to address the conditions that led to or maintain the Sokovians’ marginalized status, such as a robot army destroying their capital. This could include talking to people from the culture in an open-minded way, seeking out local media, supporting relevant legislation, or any number of other practices.
  • Many of the approaches I see here and elsewhere adopt a “checklist” mentality to cultural appropriation. All someone needs to do is avoid X, Y, and Z, and they will be Good People Not Doing Anything Wrong. I think it is more useful to periodically engage in self-reflection: Has my understanding of this practice changed? Do I know more about those who historically practiced this spirituality? How does that affect my life and my approach? The answers will be different based on the person, the culture, and the practice, of course.

Take care of yourselves, and I’ll talk to you more later.

Published in: on May 26, 2021 at 12:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

Vaccinated, Kickstarter Non-Starter, Paper Given, Medieval Exorcism, Book Received, Dungeon Crawl Classic Thoughts, More

Above illustration from Paul Huson’s Liber Spirituum, now available here.

I’m now fully vaccinated, having spent two days after the second Moderna shot squirreled away watching a Rocky marathon. It did turn out to be more inspirational and interesting than I had thought it would be.

A little while ago, we had an interesting Kickstarter for a “Hastur Tarot Deck.” The project was fully-funded and featured full colour art for a Tarot deck based on the one that John Tynes and I wrote up for Delta Green: Countdown two decades ago. Trouble was, the publisher hadn’t checked with John or I or Arc Dream, who own the rights. Shortly after someone contacted the Kickstarter to point this out, the whole affair was shut down due to “personal issues.” I believe an official release will be Kickstarted later this year, so Mythos fans should have something to which to look forward.

I’ve been holed up at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, where I gave a talk on saints being conjured – mostly Saint Helen and Saint George, with a side note on the St. Christopher prayer. My thanks to the organizers, and I hope to present again in subsequent years.

In preparation for the paper, the introduction to Florence Chave-Mahir and Julien Véronèse’s Ritual d’exorcisme ou manuel de magie?, a publication of one of the first known exorcistic manuals, dating to the early fifteenth century, that includes sections that are very much in the model of what most readers would typically call “incantations.”

Volume 2 of Golden Hoard’s Ars Notoria seems to be in shipping limbo of some sort, with Amazon asking me to approve the order. I’ve heard that this is only temporary, so there’s no need to worry.

I’ve also received John R. King IV’s new book The Faculty of Abrac, which I believe is a review copy that I will not have time to review. If I were to tell the author something helpful, it would be that an index or more detailed table of contents would probably inspire people, including me, to find the text more accessible.

My quarantine Dungeon Crawl Classics campaign is moving toward its conclusion. It is a fun game, although I feel that around level 5 (which might map roughly to 9-10 in other editions) the whole thing starts to break down, as the truly insane combat-ending spell results become commonplace. I’d suggest that anyone running it also insert a “save on a natural 20” roll, to balance out magicians rolling save difficulties that no one can ever beat.

Our Pendragon game continues well into the Anarchy era. Apparently there are plans afoot for an expanded three-volume version of the Great Pendragon Campaign, but that might be some time away.

Published in: on May 13, 2021 at 1:03 pm  Comments (1)  

Four Wizards Jump to the Fore, Upcoming Magical Events

Today’s image, poor as it is, represents two pages from the Éditions du Monolithe Liber Thozgraeci, another lineage of the Key of Solomon, displaying the seals of of the seventy-two names of God.

Projects have called me away from writing here. I’ve had to prioritize jumping back into the research on eighteenth and nineteenth-century astrology and alchemy, as well as the complex and contentious saga of Olivia Serres. Next, witch bottles, and then back into the text written by the Four Wizards themselves for final / lengthy tightening up.

Stephen Skinner and Daniel Clark are preparing to release Volume 2 of their Ars Notoria. Note that the product description on Amazon seems to be that of Volume 1; I believe the new work will be on more of the operative end of matters.

During my hiatus, I’ve missed a great deal of events that I wished to tell you about. There’s an event with PSU Press this Friday with four authors of recent books in their History of Magic series, which should be worth seeking out. The Warburg Institute has also had some interesting magical talks, such as this one.

Friend of the blog Al Cummins had a talk on necromancy given in recognition of the latest Magic: The Gathering Release. Watch it here.

The Arkham Gazette 3, including my article on Goody Fowler, is now available in print on demand here.

I’ll try to keep up.

Published in: on April 27, 2021 at 9:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

General Update

I haven’t had much to say lately, having a pile of work to do and a pile of gaming to amuse myself afterward. I’m in the vaccination cycle right now, so I’m hoping to be out and about more soon, especially if enough people can also get the same benefit. I might not be heading overseas this year, so I’ll be missing some of you a little longer.

My next review will be Precious Apothecary, although it might take me a while to get to it. I’m doing some deep diving on magical incantations involving the saints, especially directed at St. George and St. Helen, along with pulling together two books at once.

Among books received is Aaman Lamba’s new work Great French Occult Romances (see above), which he was kind enough to send. It includes the Red Dragon novel that I mentioned in my review of his previous work, plus other fictional texts from the same period.

I’m taking a break from the main text in order to continue to work on the illustrations, and to work on some of the background of Olivia Serres and Robert Cross Smith, a.k.a. Raphael. I’m also trying to wrestle with some ideas about when the “occult,” in the way we conceptualize it as a category including magic, alchemy, and astrology, came about. I’m open to reading suggestions on all of this, of course.

Has anyone considered writing a history of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game? It would be great if someone were accumulating all the institutional wisdom of the people involved in its creation, evolution, and distribution.

Take care, everyone.

Published in: on April 13, 2021 at 12:01 pm  Comments (3)  

Review – Black Letter Press Petit Albert

Today I’ll be reviewing the Petit Albert as issued by Black Letter Press and translated by Paul Summers Young. For a caveat on Young, see this post. The two other editions above are the Ouroboros Press edition (purchase link, review), and the Spellbook of Marie Laveau from Hadean (now OOP, review here).

I’m not going to spend too much time on the significance of the Petit Albert – you can check out my writeup at the last link. Also, what follows is not a systematic read of each recipe in each book. Rather, I covered the magical sections of the Black Letter Press edition – I assume you didn’t want the soap recipes – and also dipped into the material from the Hadean and Ouroboros editions, the French edition dated 1752, and some entries from the Trésor de la langue française informatisé from time to time as I went. Much of what I have to say would be superseded by a fluent bilingual reviewer.

The book itself- visible at the upper left above – is quite an attractive book, with its bright blue binding, gold foil pentacle, and cloth bookmark. I’m not sure if I’m fond of the black on dark blue color scheme myself, especially with regard to the spine. Perhaps making more use of brighter cloth colors or gold or silver lettering might be considered for future releases?

Young’s translation covers essentially the same material as in the other two translations. I did notice more problems with the omission of certain passages, and I wanted to quickly address what I think is going on here. It doesn’t happen often, so I don’t see it as a deliberate effort to cut material for space. Rather, it seems that Mr. Young’s translation technique occasionally overlooks a passage and doesn’t catch it later on. I think it would be an easy fix.

I left my last review of the Ouroboros / Hadean editions without any strong feelings one way or another – and I’m in the same place right now. I think the Hadean’s footnotes on the word choices put it slightly ahead, and the Black Letter edition’s occasional omissions slightly behind, but neither are major factors. There’s still an opportunity here for an English translation that takes quality up another notch, and I look forward to it appearing someday.

Published in: on March 30, 2021 at 7:39 pm  Leave a Comment