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 You’ll get one section consisting of quotes from outdated, sensationalistic potboiler authors, and another in which he extensively quotes David Attrell, one of the translators of the upcoming PSU Press scholarly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)  

Why You Should Ignore the Advertising Copy for The Clavis or Key to Unlock the Mysteries of Magic and Buy It

Skinner Clark ClavisJust announced via Llewellyn is the forthcoming Golden Hoard release edited by Daniel Clark and Stephen Skinner, The Clavis or Key to Unlock the Mysteries of Magic. Let me quote from the marketing –

No. I’m not going to quote from the marketing material. With all due respect to my colleagues at these presses, nothing that they’ve said distinguishes this book from the previous Keys of Solomon copied by Frederick Hockley and later published by Weiser and Caduceus, which have been in circulation for years. That’s a shame.

This book is one of the deluxe manuscripts that Hockley (and presumably others) turned out while working for the bookseller John Denley.  I don’t know which manuscript they used, but I have had the privilege of viewing one and publishing a small part as the basis for my book Experimentum. It’s a visually stunning work – if you squint when you look at the cover page in the link above, you can get an idea of the care and beauty found on almost every page of the manuscript that I viewed. Plus, there were additional talismans for each of the planets, as well as treatises not found in the hitherto published versions.

If I have a concern about this work, it would be as to the quality of images used. After preparing Experimentum, Ben Fernee of Caduceus viewed the original manuscript. He was struck by how much more vibrant it was than the printed version – the reproduction we made could not do justice for the sections with gold and silver ink, for instance. What I’ve seen of the illustrations so far is impressive, however.

Thus, even if you own a past edition of a Hockley Clavis, this is worth checking out. If you haven’t bought any of them and can only buy one… Let’s see. The Caduceus edition is out of your price range. If you want an art book, this is probably the one. If you want one for scholarly reference, it may come down to the quality of the annotations in Skinner and Clark against that of Joe Peterson’s in the Weiser edition. I’ll give it a look when it comes out and let you know.

Published in: on November 10, 2018 at 4:36 pm  Comments (1)  

Forthcoming – My Books on Bellhouse, Wax Images, and Witch Bottles

I’ve been waiting to announce this for years.

Caduceus Books is releasing a slipcased edition of short books written or edited by me, never seen before. Those who have listened to my folklore podcast know about my work with William Dawson Bellhouse, the 19th-century Liverpool cunning man and galvanist. Now, you can have a transcription of his book of magic, along with a facsimile of the original (most pages – we didn’t think you needed the Fourth Book  by pseudo-Agrippa again), and a small discussion of what we know about the man himself.

But wait! We’ve also got two short treatises on occult topics inspired by Bellhouse’s grimoire. One is on witch bottles, constituting the first book-length work on the topic. The other deals with wax images and their use in magic. Both are about fifty to sixty pages, with extensive endnotes and a bibliography.

But wait! We’ve also got reproductions of a multi-part exposé written for the Liverpool Mercury dealing with the city’s magical practitioners and occultists.

But wait! All of this appears in a handsome slipcase – which features a secret compartment. Inside this will be inserted (or not, depending on where you live – apparently Customs can get tricky about these things) magical diagrams, crystals similar to those used in Liverpool at the time, and other magical items, including a booklet so secret I don’t even know what’s in it.

Interested? Go to Caduceus Books and check it out. I’d suggest reading through the description, so you know precisely what you’re getting into.  It’s expensive – but after November 18, orders will be closed.

Published in: on November 6, 2018 at 10:15 pm  Comments (2)  

Work and Upcoming Appearance

I’m doing some work on the proofs for Of Angels, Demons, and Spirits, and I’m looking forward to its February release.

I’ll also be appearing at Imagicka in Binghamton on Friday for a book signing. I’ll have copies of The Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia, The Long-Lost Friend, The Book of Oberon, and a few others present.

Published in: on October 29, 2018 at 6:30 pm  Comments (1)  

Forthcoming: Picatrix (Latin to English Translation)

I hope you don’t mind my silence. It’s fine if I’m writing cool stuff for you to read later, right?

One of the Picatrix translations we previously discussed – this one Dan Attrell and David Porreca’s translation from the Latin – has been put up for pre-order by Penn State Press. Some information from the site:

A guide for constructing talismans, mixing magical compounds, summoning planetary spirits, and determining astrological conditions, Picatrix is a cornerstone of Western esotericism. It offers important insights not only into occult practices and beliefs, but also into the transmission of magical ideas from antiquity to the present. Dan Attrell and David Porreca’s indispensable English translation opens the world of this vital medieval treatise to modern-day scholars and lay readers.

The original text, Ghāyat al-akīm, compiled in Arabic from over two hundred sources in the latter half of the tenth century, was translated into Castilian Spanish in the mid-thirteenth century, and shortly thereafter into Latin. Based on David Pingree’s edition of the Latin text, this translation captures the spirit of Picatrix’s role in the European tradition. In the world of Picatrix, we see a seamless integration of practical magic, earnest piety, and traditional philosophy. The detailed introduction considers the text’s reception through multiple iterations and includes an enlightening statistical breakdown of the spells and ingredients described in the book.

If you’re wondering how this is different from the Warnock translation many readers will know about, I suggest the article, “Notes on the Picatrix: Non-Heteronormative Sex, and Forthcoming Translation,” from the Societas Magica newsletter.


Published in: on October 19, 2018 at 6:53 pm  Comments (2)  

An English Excursion, Part 6, Plus That Little Part in Wales I Didn’t Mention Before Now

Sunday was a special day, as I met up with the wonderful Ben Fernee of Caduceus Books for some exploration of Bristol and points north. On a previous trip to Glastonbury, my intent to reach Bristol had been thwarted due to engine trouble, and I was intent on making it there to view some scenes from the aptly-named book of stories by Raphael, Tales of the Horrible.

It nearly didn’t happen. My phone hadn’t decently charged in the car beforehand, and when Ben picked me up, we realized his GPS was also low on charge. We had nothing we could do – save that I had a backup battery for my phone. That would only last so long, and the phone kept shutting down due to excessive heat – but between that and some old-fashioned map-reading, we managed to get where we needed to go.

Back to Tales of the Horrible. Raphael mentions a tremendous cliff on top of the deep gorge that runs past Bristol, which was formerly the home of a holy hermit – or a giant, depending on what story you read. A few years after he wrote the book, an old mill on the site had an observatory and camera obscura built, and passages to the nigh-inaccessible cave were blasted through the rock. Now the whole place is a pleasant park where you can get ice cream.

View of Bristol Suspension Bridge

In the tale, a desperate nobleman goes to consult a wizard who dwells by himself in a cave opposite the cliff. Bristol is known for its many caves nearby, but the presence of a skylight mentioned in Raphael’s story narrowed my search considerably. The cave was accessible down an overgrown path between luxury apartments and the cliff. We soon found dire signs warning us to turn back, but we pressed on nonetheless, to the Necromancer’s Cave!

Necromancer's Cave

… which was surprisingly cozy. The necromancer was apparently out, so we left.

To follow Raphael’s story, the Necromancer and the desperate noblemen alighted upon a dangerous course, traveling to the churchyard of Abbot’s Leigh church, where they called up the spirit Birto, a dragon, and his hordes of zombies. There were few signs of the aftermath at the church.

Abbots Leigh Church

We had one other stop to make, and to do so, we traveled across the Severn to Wales, my first visit to that ancient land! Well, mainly we were lost and going the wrong direction, but we figured out where to go, and soon we were speeding upriver to the temple of Nodens. That’s right, Mythos fans who read this far, Nodens is an actual Romano-Celtic deity, and his temple is on the estate at Lydney, which is open on occasional days in warmer weather.

Lydney Estate

We walked up the hill and were able to view the temple of Nodens, where the ill slept in hopes of the god’s healing.

Temple of Nodens at Lydney

We attended the small museum below, which had many artifacts from the temple – including the famous Dog of Lydney and a curse tablet! – and then got cream tea in the house’s garden while gazing off at the Severn Valley. A lovely end to the day!

Museum at Lydney - The Dog of Nodens

I mean, if you discount the drive back to Bristol Parkway, realized that a train had been canceled due to the new GWR schedule starting that day, and I said hasty goodbyes to Ben before sprinting for the track.

I enjoyed my trip, and I hope I get to return soon.

Published in: on September 17, 2018 at 6:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

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)  

My English Excursion, Part 5

After my previous adventures (Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4), it was refreshing to spend some time on my own looking at manuscripts.

On some days, I walked over to the British Library early to get into the queue that, by 9:30, stretches across the plaza. I’d head up to the manuscripts room, sit down with my four manuscripts for the day, and work my way through the relevant sections. After I hit the four, I’d be cut off as if I was at a bar, and I’d wander down the road to the Wellcome Institute to peruse their collection.

People aren’t permitted to take pictures in the Reading Room, and if you want to see a reproduction of a manuscript page, you have to fill out this form. I did find a quintessentially British sign in the commissary:

Hot Water Sign

I’ll cut the difference and publish this photo of the cover of Sloane MS. 3826, to give you a taste of what the experience is like:

Sloane 3826 Cover

On other days, I hopped on a train or bus to Oxford, where I visited the Bodleian Library to see their collection. These were long days, but I did get occasional opportunities to see a street fair, or to visit Worcester College, former site of Gloucester Hall, to find the home of Thomas Allen (who I’ve mentioned earlier), with no success.

Worcester College

It’s hard to talk about a typical day, though, because there were so many atypical ones. For example, one day I went to the Society of Antiquaries of London, which you can see here:


There was also the day I was trying to get cream tea, to try to redeem my ridiculous cream-team related failure in Cornwall that will never been known, and I ended up getting high tea at King’s Cross instead:

High Tea at King's Cross

Apparently some people have wine with high tea. So, wine with tea. No, I don’t get it.

There was the night at Treadwell’s in which I gave everyone a preview of my upcoming Folklore article, with some additional commentary. It was wonderful, as are all my trips to Cornwall.

Yet… there was one trip left to take…

Published in: on August 17, 2018 at 6:41 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)  

My English Excursion, Part 4

(Parts 1, 2, and 3)

The next day was our final day with the car, so we made that our day of visiting various sites in West Penwith. We began with visiting the Merry Maidens stone circle, a pleasant little circle just off the main road, before braving the back roads to the Iron Age village Carn Euny. It’s a site of one of Cornwall’s famous underground tunnels called fogous, and one can’t say a trip to Cornwall is complete without a fogou.

I’d never been to Carn Euny before, and we eventually involved ourselves in a complicated turn-around of the car on a muddy turnout to a field – after which we walked down the road, rounded a bend, and came upon the parking area for Carn Euny. A quick walk through the fields brought us to the fogou:

Carn Euny with Mysterious Individual


I happened down a nearby trail to Saint Euny’s well, a famous site nearby known for its healing properties, now cordoned off behind a gate:

Gate to St. Euny's Well

We made an attempt for another famous healing well at Madron, but we couldn’t find the road to it. Fortunately, West Penwith is quite small in proportion to its large number of interesting sites, so it took little time to return to Penzance, have lunch, re-orient, and return to find the famous well. This is the sole one in Cornwall in which the practice of leaving clooties in the nearby branches can be proven to have ancient antecedents.

Madron Holy Well

Next, we went to the famous and mysterious holed stone of Mên-an-Tol. While there, I attempted to find a nearby fairy well. I believe I did – or, at least, I became overly familiar with the boggy, bramble-laden area in which it lies. I nearly lost a boot there, and C—– watched me thrash around with a mixture of amusement and concern.

Men an Tol

We had one final stop for the day: St. Ives, at which I desired to climb the hill that leads up to the chapel of St. Nicholas. I had seen it one stormy day during a bus stop at St. Ives, and I had resolved that I would ascend on my next trip. I did not entirely realize that this would mean driving slowly through streets crowded with holiday goers. Nonetheless, once we reached the car park at the hill’s base, it was easy enough to make it to the top and finally attain the chapel.

St Nicholas Chapel, St. Ives

We returned to Penzance, and my parents and I left C—— to visit his favorite local watering hole as we had dinner on Quay Road, looking out at the ocean. On our way back, I noticed how close we were to the neighboring town of Newlyn. Newlyn was known in Cornish folklore for its fishermen’s former belief in the Bucca Dhu, a dangerous spirit who lived at the Tolcarne, a rocky outcrop above the town. It was not so far away – so why not make the attempt? I left my parents behind and walked down the shore to Newlyn, where I soon found myself in the right place.

Tolcarne Terrace, Newlyn

If creepy street names were any indication, I was in the right place.

Creeping Lane, Newlyn

Where might I find the outcrop? Was it further up the hill? Or was it down this curious and well-kept path leading to the cliff?

Path to Tolcarne, Newlyn

Indeed, the latter was the case.

Tolcarne, Newlyn

We shall not speak of what happened at that perilous site, but I was able to escape the wrath of the Bucca Dhu largely unscathed.

That was definitely enough for three days, so it was with some relief that we arose the next morning and took our trains back. My companions headed back to the States, and I… well, it was time to trade the physically grueling part of the trip for the intellectual challenges ahead.

Published in: on July 21, 2018 at 8:16 pm  Comments (1)