How Not to Critique a Book

A few months ago, I read Ronald Hutton’s book The Witch. I thought it was a pretty good survey of witch beliefs across history and geography, with some chapters on aspects of early modern British witchcraft, including its linkage with fairies, Celtic cultures, and animals.  It never becomes a thick description of any one of these issues, which makes it less useful for the sort of research I’m doing right now, but it isn’t general enough to make it a casual read.  I also wonder why certain resources, such as ethnographies and fairy magic sources, didn’t get used to the extent they could have.

There is, however, a wrong way to critique a book. Let me give you an example from Peter Grey, Alkistis Dimech, and Gordon White, on a recent Runesoup podcast:

Now, it’s sometimes hard to be precise and accurate when talking off the top of one’s head, and Gordon admitted he hadn’t read the whole book. I really do like and appreciate the work that all of these people do. I understand if they don’t like all aspects of Hutton’s work or approach, and there may very well be a time when his perspective is overturned by future discoveries.

…except that the description sounds as if Hutton is using The Witch as an opportunity to denigrate twenty-something witches and advocating a happy watered-down polite neighborhood Neopaganism which believes in the threefold law, which has no relation to the substance of the book.  If you doubt that, you can search it in Google for any keywords you like. Thus, it’s really unclear as to how Hutton’s own spirituality might compromise the book..

It’s a dangerous road for publishers to go down. After all, if Peter Grey can tell you not to buy The Witch based on content not in it, others could say whatever they want about Scarlet Imprint’s Jinn Sorcery and make arguments against buying it.  And that would be a shame, because I think it sounds like a really great book that I’m looking forward to. There are enough mistakes and incorrect information floating around out there, without adding to them with carelessness.

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Published in: on November 18, 2017 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Update on the Newberry Book of Magical Charms

Do you recall the news that the Newberry Library in Chicago was transcribing a seventeenth-century British book of spells? I certainly do, because everyone in the world told me about it.

The Chicago Tribune brings us an update, with the usual fake scares and cheesiness, emphasizing just how successful this project was. The entire work has now been transcribed and translated, with a JSON file version available of the entire text.

We can hope that other libraries with similar books might see the success and good publicity from this project and provide us with similar opportunities very soon.

Published in: on November 3, 2017 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Happy All Saints Day!

I haven’t had a lot of updates lately, but not due to lack of interest in blogging topics. I’ve got two major projects coming down to the wire right now that require my attention.  Thus, a quick rundown:

  • Yesterday Cornell University opened a great new witchcraft exhibit, displaying the cream of their wonderful collection. The story doesn’t mention the reception, at which they served white chocolate mice with raspberry filling, little eyeballs made out of mozzarella, and miniature cauldrons of chocolate pudding.  If you’re passing through central New York, the exhibit will be open until August of next year.

 

 

  • I can’t recall too many recent releases not noted already that have really gotten me excited.  One good candidate has been José Leitão’s The Immaterial Book of St. Cyprian, a collection of treasure-hunting legends that have involved the works of the famous saint with parallel Portuguese-English text.  If you’re keen on learning more about the Iberian Cyprian beliefs, José has created a Patreon to help with his further Cyprianic researches.

 

  • Another work of interest that appeared recently and completely under the radar was Vedrai Mirabilia: Un Libro di Magia del Quattrocento. This is a fifteenth-century Italian book of magic, edited by Jean-Patrice Boudet, Laurence Moulinier-Brogi, and the late Florence Gal.  I probably won’t run a review of this, as I feel that would require an examination too detailed for me to conduct at the moment.  It does have long sections on astrological talismans and love magic, especially involving wax images, but it also has occasional spots of weirdness, such as naming Hercules as a king of the four directions.

 

  • Gaming update! My Basic D&D Rules Cyclopedia game is now over a year old.  The characters have looted the Caves of Chaos, overcome the Veiled Society, and staved off Night’s Black Terror. They now move to Expert-level play – and if you know the X series of modules and me, you know which one I chose.

 

  • My other group is running through a short campaign of Iron Heroes, the old D&D 3E variant with no magic and lots of – well, some – tokens.   I don’t feel the system does what it sets out to do, perhaps because cinematic action in 3E is often countered by the desire for balance.

That’s all for now.

 

 

Published in: on November 1, 2017 at 1:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

Review – Bellingrandt and Otto’s Magical Manuscripts in Early Modern Europe

In 1710, a huge collection of magical, cabalistic, and alchemical manuscripts, part of the collection of medical professional Samuel Schröer, came up for sale. In that climate of official censorship, pulling off such an exchange would seem remarkable – but the agent put out a small catalog, most likely circulated face to face, and a buyer was located for the bulk of the books.

This large collection, mostly intact, now rests at the Leipzig University Library – if you’d like to see it yourself, Mihai Vartejaru has provided a list of the digitized copies with convenient links. What the new book Magical Manuscripts in Early Modern Europe, by Daniel Bellingradt and Bernd-Christian Otto, provides is not the text of these works, but a history and description of the collection.  The work is released as part of the Palgrave Pivot series, dedicated to releasing shorter pieces of scholarship than what might usually appear in book format.

The main portion of the book provides a brief discussion of manuscripts of ritual magic, the details of the collection’s sale, and its significance within the book trade, the intellectual climate, and the legal system of the time.  All of this is interesting – save for the background on magical books which is available through other sources – but it is also very brief.  By my count, it covers about thirty-five pages, not including references – the length of a long-form journal article.  I hesitate to mention this, but given the book’s price, I think it deserves to be mentioned.

The real meat of the book, however, is in the first appendix: a detailed list of the 140 books in the collection, most of which still survive and are available. For each one in which the information is known, we are told the title(s), ascribed authors, size and pagination, languages, and contents.  The latter are quite diverse.  We have treatises on astronomy, Kabbala, and numerology, along with a few different versions of the Key of Solomon. We also have manuscripts attributed to Abramelin and Faust that are printed elsewhere, and a wide variety of works dedicated to all manner of talismans, consecrations, and other procedures.  Collections have been dedicated to love, hate, military matters, treasure hunting, invisibility, and other purposes.  A number of brief operations of note are also present. Two will conjure the infamous Baron, while another calls for bringing a pizza to the crossroads. No doubt everyone in the occult hipster community will be talking about the magical crossroads pizza in a few years…

Anyway, the authors give us seventy pages of this material, which will be the major draw of the book for most of you. The work is rounded out with a reprint of the original 1710 catalog and a brief index.

What would have really driven this book over the top would have been a discussion beyond the context of the collection, diving into its contents. What do the contents tell us about its owners? What were their areas of particular interest? Were they practitioners or collections? (At least one owner seems to have been using these works, a notice buried in the endnotes tells us.) Is it missing any notable period works? Given the sheer amount of material, any analysis would have to be lengthy and detailed, but with the length of the main text, I think there could certainly have been room.

In brief, the discussion of the collection’s milieu is interesting but brief, the modern catalog of the manuscripts is amazing and thought-provoking, and all of this deals with a collection of manuscripts of which we will be hearing a great deal in the future. No, I don’t know of anyone else working on them, but there definitely will be soon.  I should note that it contains no actual transcripts of particular rites, lest anyone seek them out.  Nonetheless, the book is a preview of the next stage in grimoire scholarship and publishing, and you should definitely get it if that interests you.

UPDATE, 11/11: That lengthy appendix detailing the contents of all the books has been posted on Academia.edu.

Published in: on October 8, 2017 at 12:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Price of Occult Books, Part 6 – Possible Solutions

So, having gone through the roles of publishing (1 and 2), libraries, collecting , and authors, when it comes to the price of occult books.  What are the solutions, then?

Let’s begin with the proposition that the availability of the content of occult books is something that is a common good.  This should be balanced against the desire of creators and publishers to make money off of their work, and to create beautiful and artistic objects as they see fit.  This is mitigated by the fact that, once a limited edition book goes out of print, neither authors nor publishers are likely to see meaningful returns upon them.

So, what can be done?  I’m going to suggest some options.  Perhaps some of them have been tried before, and others may only work in particular situations, but I think all of them deserve some thought. I’d like to give examples of publishers and authors who are already using some of these strategies.

  • Making less expensive editions available:  The premier publisher for this right now is Scarlet Imprint, which publishes its works in both premium editions and its Bibliothèque Rouge imprint of paperbacks.  We also have some items in the Penn State Magic in History series, which have cheap e-books available of their higher price print books. (If you’ve bought books from their series through Amazon, check the prices there; I bought the print edition of Forbidden Rites from them nineteen years ago, and I was able to pick up the e-book a few weeks ago for $2.) The releases could be simultaneous, or the cheaper edition might appear some months or years down the line.
  • Make the text freely available. I might include here how we published a transcription of Folger V.b.26 online.   Here’s another example. Owen Davies just co-authored a book, Executing Magic in the Modern Era, which deals with all manner of folklore and beliefs about the power of executioners and the trappings of executions.  It’s a bit pricey for the content, I have to admit – save that it’s a Creative Comments document.  Clicking on that link above will get you an authorized PDF.
  • Working with libraries:  Both the United States and the UK have depository programs, in which every copy of a book published in the country is to be sent to a library.  This is rarely enforced, but it provides an incentive for a publisher to make a copy available to someone able to travel there.

It might also be possible to make a donation of a book to an appropriate library.  I would suggest finding a library with appropriate collections and speaking with an appropriate person on the staff, so the library doesn’t accidentally put the work in the local book sale.

I acknowledge that any of these will nonetheless leave certain barriers in place, as the ability to travel, access the Internet, or obtain credit cards or other means of online purchase may limit those able to access them.  Nonetheless, it might be a good start.

Are these plausible?  Could we try other methods?  I’d be interested to hearing what you have to say.

 

 

 

Published in: on September 20, 2017 at 6:31 pm  Comments (2)  

The Price of Occult Books, Part 5 – The Author’s Perspective

Now that we’ve gone over occult publishing from the perspective of publishing (1 and 2), libraries, and collecting – what about the role of creators and editors?  Fortunately, I can give some perspective on this as well.

I write a lot of different pieces, although these days they all come back to the topic of ritual magic. (For anything who thinks there’s big money in the field, the Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia is still my best seller.)  That includes both academic works (journal articles, book chapters, and the like), and editions of texts geared toward a more popular audience, whether longer works with fewer illustrations (Book of Oberon, The Long-Lost Friend) or shorter ones which have the full text reproduced (Experimentum Potens Magna).

My writing and editing can take different tactics for different reasons.  Some projects are being part of the academic conversation, which are among the expectations of me in a college setting.  This means publishing in academic forums, which sometimes have a particular price tag attached due to the nature of that field.

We also have the shorter manuscripts that have elements that will be of interest to readers, whether graphics, handwriting, or other aspects thereof.  A facsimile edition of such a work is useful and notable – and comes with an appropriate price tag.

A longer edited work of a mainly textual nature, such as The Long-Lost Friend and Oberon, is the area in which it is possible to create affordable editions suitable for a larger audience.  (I acknowledge that “affordable” for a $60 retail book may be considered relative by some readers.)

This does lead to situations in which some of my creations are not available to many readers, and it’s one I’d like to address.  I’m going to start examining my options for making these more broadly available, without violating my relationships with the publishers, artists, and other individuals who made the original creations possible.  I can already tell it might be difficult, on top of everything else I’ve got going on, so please feel free to ask where I am on it.

Next time, I conclude with some thoughts on what authors like me and publishers can do to help to make their work more accessible.

 

 

 

Published in: on August 30, 2017 at 2:01 pm  Comments (1)  

Review – Kurlander’s Hitler’s Monsters

We’ve seen a great number of books written about the influence of the occult upon the Third Reich.  Of particular interest are such works as Goodwin-Clarke’s The Occult Roots of Nazism and Staudenmeier’s Between Occultism and Nazism, which deal with the roles Ariosophy and Anthroposophy, respectively, played in Nazi Germany.  The latest offering, Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich, is written by Eric Kurlander of Stetson University and published by Yale University Press.

The word “supernatural” is key to understanding Kurlander’s objective.  Althoughprevious authors have attempted to deal with different aspects of Nazi occultism, Kurlander seeks to survey the influence of the “supernatural” on the Third Reich, with that term remaining largely undefined save to map it in some respects to the German idea of “border science,” which in itself seems rather vague.  This allows him to cover racial pseudo-science, astrology, dowsing, folklore, mythology, runes, werewolves, vampires, the Grail, the Tibet Expedition, Wewelsburg Castle, World Ice Theory, anti-gravity, and all sorts of other topics about which you, having read this far, probably want to learn more.  On the other hand, the specificity of his definition makes his insistence that Nazi Germany was considerably different from other countries at the time, with regard to similar beliefs, difficult to prove.

Nonetheless, this book is a fascinating work.  Kurlander is rarely able to delve into any topic at length, but what he provides is a useful survey of the scholarship on many different matters coupled with illuminating archival research.  Previous works have often emphasized the eccentric and sometimes horrible intellects who proposed many of the unusual beliefs that became part of Weimar German culture.  Kurlander does acknowledge them, but he sets out to describe specifically what Hitler, Himmler, Hess, and other prominent members of the Nazi party believed and were willing to support with the Reich’s resources.  The goal here is to establish what was of import to the leadership and what has been romanticized, although the latter is usually dealt with by omission than discussion.

Considerable debate has surrounded the Nazi leadership’s interest in the occult.  Was it the heart of their dark designs? Or were German occultists victims of an ideology that eventually turned their countrymen against them, especially after Rudolf Hess fled for Great Britain?  This is not a simple answer, Kurlander tells us.  Some beliefs were largely outside the Nazis’ ingenuity to assimilate into their system; little is said of ritual magic in this book, for instance.  Nonetheless, proponents of many of these beliefs who followed party orthodoxy – or gained the sponsorship of high-ranking members – survived and even throve in Nazi Germany, even if some elements of the government were keen on silencing them.

I feel that this review has come across as more negative than I desired.  I had hoped for a more comprehensive perspective on these issues – but if nothing else, it has convinced me that a work would have to be colossal to accomplish that task.  Hitler’s Monsters is a necessity for anyone who wishes to know the role of the supernatural in the Third Reich, and who wishes to put aside much of the dross that has accumulated on that subject.

 

 

Published in: on August 6, 2017 at 7:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

Forthcoming – Touch Me Not!

Fulgur Books is taking pre-orders for Touch Me Not!, a book of ritual magic held at the Wellcome Institute with some stunning illustrations.  You can view the manuscript here in all its glory.

Touch Me Not! is an Austrian manuscript compendium of the black magical arts, completed c.1795. Unique and otherworldly, it evokes a realm of visceral dark magic. As the co-editor Hereward Tilton notes, the manuscript ‘appears at first sight to be a ‘grimoire’ or magician’s manual intended for noviciates of black magic. Psychedelic drug use, animal sacrifice, sigillary body art, masturbation fantasy and the necromantic manipulation of gallows-corpses count among the transgressive procedures it depicts…

Hidden for decades within the Wellcome Library collection, Touch Me Not is published here as a full colour facsimile for the first time. We have commissioned a translation of the German and Latin texts from Hereward Tilton and Merlin Cox, scholars who have explored the sources for the various elements and provided copious references. There is also an introduction from Hereward that lays out the context for this extraordinary survival.

Some of the promised material sounds intriguing, although I do wonder how much of the colorful language is reflected in the manuscript.  They offer a limited edition hardback and a paperback edition, which currently has a pre-order price.  The latter offsets the price of overseas shipping slightly – but that’s unavoidable these days, right?

 

 

Published in: on June 22, 2017 at 6:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Price of Occult Books, Part 4 – The Collector’s Perspective

In our past three segments, we’ve dealt with causes of high book prices, some examples of particularly high prices, and the impact of the library market.  At this point, I’d like to turn to the impact of these prices on collectors – including myself.  This part will be more free-form, as I’m still working through my thoughts on the matter.

I purchase a good number of books in this field, as anyone who reads this blog is aware.  These are from a wide variety of different publishers – small and large presses, popular and academic ones, creators of artisanal works and mass-market paperbacks, and even reproductions of manuscripts from various libraries. I also make good use of the libraries at my workplace and those in the area, as well as the growing collection of digitized works in Google Books, the Internet Archive, and Gallica.

The focus of my collection is primary source texts of ritual magic, in various formats, along with historical works putting them into their context in one way or another. The number of such texts have certainly increased in recent years.  Previously, I could expand my purchases into other areas, but I’ve cut down on these considerably – especially for roleplaying games. Yet even now, there are more great books to read, and as we discussed last time, many of them are not making it into libraries.

Further, this is a market in which you can often see unexpected and quick price increases.  It’s true that some of these are due to vendors and bots who inflate prices unduly, but there are often spectacular rises in the amounts for particular books once they go out of print.  Since many of these come from small presses with limited print runs, this means that it’s hard to delay purchases for later.

This is, of course, compounded by the issues regarding libraries that we already identified.  It is likely that any particular academic work will be picked up, perhaps after a few months, by some library in the country from which it might be obtained. The same cannot be said for many of the small – or even medium – press books. For example, The Book of Oberon has done well in terms of sales, but only seventeen WorldCat libraries in the US hold it. That often means that the only way to access a book is to purchase it.

The effect of all this has been to create a market in which books, expensive or not, must often be purchased quickly and through specialized channels if one wishes to obtain them. When there is not an opportunity to do so, the desired book might not be available anywhere in an affordable format.

A fair question is how much any of this literature is necessary for a particular reader.  Given the large amount of material that is available online, it is hard to say that there is a great “need” for materials on the topic in general.  Depending upon one’s particular area of research or spiritual practice, though, certain works may not be available.  I think it is fair to say that the advancement of knowledge makes it important that such works be available to people within reason.  I’m not sure what should be considered “reasonable,” and it’s likely readers will differ greatly on this front, but I think it’s a good principle.

Of course, I’m not just a purchaser of books.  I also write and edit them – and my next entry will deal with that.

 

 

 

 

Published in: on June 10, 2017 at 8:41 am  Comments (2)  

The Newberry Library’s Book of Magical Charms: A Transcription Opportunity

Could you decipher the text of an early modern magical manuscript?  You have your chance at the website of Chicago’s Newberry Library, which has posted a seventeenth-century work with various sorts of spells and remedies.  Each page has a window at the bottom where you can attempt a transcription or translation, as part of an effort at a crowdsourced translation.  I’m not sure what the result will be, but I’ve already contributed one page, and I hope to add more.

Published in: on May 26, 2017 at 2:03 pm  Comments (1)