Baron’s Back

A while ago, in my discussion of various dictionairies of spirits, I used one particular entity – Baron – as one of my entities.  Due to him showing up at the trial of Gilles de Rais, in The Book of Oberon, and at a number of other sources outside the usual Waite-inspired list of grimoires, I thought he’d be a good example.

As it turns out, this was more fortuitous than I thought.  Baron has been showing up more in different sources that I’m consulting.  One of the most recent is the account of the interrogation of Pierre, a teacher of the Waldensian sect of heretics, conducted at Oulx, near Turin, in 1492.  Within his account of the synagogues, or the secret meetings, of the sect, he had the following to say:

Asked why the said synagogue is held, he replies that it derives from the fact that they as a custom were in the habit of adoring a certain idol called Bacchus and Baron and also the Sibyl and the fairies and that Baron and the fairies were accustomed to holding congregations during which there was no respect between daughter and father, nor with the godmother, as there is, however, outside the said synagogue.

Now, this bears some comments.  First, the last part regarding the congregations is a fairly common set of accusations against heretics.  Second, what is described does not seem to be a standard part of Waldensian belief, and the piece above it doesn’t seem to be noted anywhere else.  Third, it’s fairly safe to say that the Waldensians hanging out with the pagan Sibyl, a bunch of fairies, and an idol known either as Baron or Bacchus was not the sort of words that inquisitors would seek to put in the mouth of a captive.

Then, what is its significance?  There are a number of possible explanations.  I think it could attest to a certain collection of lore that might have been available orally,  speaking of spiritual entities that might be found in local beliefs but that avoided the official record.  There’s no means to be sure based simply upon one account, but it might be something worth seeking for future scholars.

Audisio, Gabriel. Preachers by Night : The Waldensian Barbes (15th-16th Centuries). 118. Leiden: Brill, 2007.
Tourn, Giorgio. Il barba : una figura valdese del Quattrocento. Torino: Claudiana, 2001.
Published in: on June 3, 2016 at 2:56 pm  Comments (1)  

Recent (Or Not So Much) Releases

I’m happy to announce that we’ve had a couple of important grimoire releases that – in what may come as a shock to Papers readers – I have not actually found the time to read.

First, there’s Joe Peterson’s edition of the Liber Iuratus, or the Sworn Book of Honorius , the high medieval book of magic which features as its centerpiece a mystical procedure to gain a vision of god.  For those who were wondering if it expands upon the version on Peterson’s website – yes, it certainly does, with much material going beyond what’s on the website.  For those who wonder if the Latin is translated, the work has parallel Latin and English texts, which is definitely more than I expected.  I’m making a slow go of it – long segments of voces magicae have that effect – but any review I write would be simply, “This is wonderful,” so I don’t really feel compelled to expand upon that.

Another item that’s been out for longer is Claire Fanger and Nicholas Watson’s critical edition of John of Morigny’s Liber florum celestis doctrine:  The Flowers of Heavenly Teaching.  This is the fourteenth-century monk’s reinterpretation of the Ars Notoria, which in turn is the most complex version of the “God, please get me through this test!” prayer ever  created.  Although the price tag and the Latin text might scare off potential purchasers, it is a comprehensive and scholarly work and another step on the path to make critical editions of many key magical texts available.

That also reminds me that Claire Fanger’s book-length commentary, Rewriting Magic:  An Exegesis of the Visionary Autobiography of a Fourteenth-Century French Monk, was released well before that last book.  It deals with her own encounters and explorations with the book, as well as with the figure of John of Morigny.  It also makes it clear that we have much to learn about the Liber florum – especially with regard to the diagrams omitted from all the known copies.  As with other PSU books, there’s a cheaper e-book option that curious but cost-conscious consumers could consider.

Published in: on May 19, 2016 at 1:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Pennsylvania Adventure, or How a Cursed Mountain Took My Pants

This weekend, I spent some pleasant time visiting Patrick Donmoyer of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center.  I had suggested that we visit the Hexenkopf, that infamous hill associated with tales of witches and powwowing.

We headed out early, hoping to beat the promised three to five inches of snow, and followed winding roads through hilly landscape, past old stone churches and barns with hex signs.  We eventually met with the land’s owner – I didn’t agree to give his name here – and we headed back toward the Hexenkopf.

A massive windstorm came through years ago, toppling many of the trees in the forest.  The area is overgrown with grave vines and thorns,  and we were hard pressed to find a path through the undergrowth.  We soon realized that the Hexenkopf is not a single rock, but three different ridges that follow each other in succession.  We took some pictures and decided to ascend the center one.

Patrick is much more of a climber than I am, so he went out in front as I trailed behind, stepping more gingerly between the rocks.  Still, one of them proved to be too much of a stretch, and I heard a ripping sound.   Apparently I had managed to tear out the crotch of my jeans.  I was wearing a long coat, fortunately, so the tear was not immediately visible.  I decided to continue.

We eventually found a way up, winding around the side of the hill, and stood on the top.  I can say that any stories about people driving wagons up or having huge revels of witches are unlikely, based upon the limited space available on top.  All we found was a small space, with three Yankee Candle Company “Strawberry” and “Mint” candles  that someone had left behind.  I would discourage people from doing that.

We came back down, and I prevailed upon the property owners to let me put on a spare set of pants.  We spent a few hours speaking with the owners about powwowing, charms, and other topics.  Afterward, we headed over to the Kutztown Area Historical Society, where I filled in more pieces in my knowledge of The Long-Lost Friend‘s publication history.

It was late, and Patrick and I went out for dinner with some of his friends, and afterward we stayed up late going through his massive collection of Pennsylvania German magical imprints.

In the morning, I found that the Hexenkopf’s curse continued.  The gap in my pants had admitted a bloodsucking guest onto my thigh.  I got some tweezers and removed the little guy.  (I’ve seen no lingering effects.)

We had a quick bagel sandwich and a discussion of “hex signs” in the morning, leading to the conclusion that the case for them being magical devices is even more tenuous than had been previously considered.  We finished up the next day with a trip to the Cultural Heritage Center to view more books and charms from the period.  Having done so, I said goodbye to Patrick and headed home, head filled with all manner of magical recipes and charms.




Published in: on May 3, 2016 at 2:01 pm  Comments (1)  

Book of Magic from Frances G. Irwin

A while ago, Caduceus Books advertised a new work with the title Book of Magic from the library of the magician and soldier Major Francis G. Irwin.  I ordered the book when the subscriptions were open, and as they’re now closed, it’s unlikely that anyone will be able to find a copy of it save on the second-hand market.  That’s a shame, because it is quite an interesting book that documents some of the aspects of 19th century magic in the time between Francis Barrett and MacGregor Mathers.

(Full disclosure: I’ve published one book through Caduceus, and we’re also working on some other projects.)

The book seems to have been in the library of Henry Irwin, the son of the Major, a promising student who died of a drug overdose in 1879.  His father added the book to his library and included a bookplate that commemorated his son’s passing.  It later passed through the library of Frederick L. Gardner.  The whereabouts of the manuscript are unknown, largely because I haven’t asked Ben about them.

There are some beautiful pictures of the book at the title link above, so all I can say is that it definitely lives up to them.  What I’d like to talk about is the significance of the work, for those who might not have access to it.

The Book of Magic is a document describing the rites and lore relating to the group called the “Fratres Lucis” or the (appropriate for the time) “Order of the Swastika.”  The group, which included such individuals as the Irwins, Kenneth Mackenzie, and Frederick Hockley as members, is discussed in depth in Ellic Howe’s classic article “Fringe Freemasonry in England 1870-85“.  It does appear that there are other documents relating to the FL at Freemason’s Hall, but none of them correspond to the details of this one.

And what are those details?  This does not seem to be a systematic manual for the rituals, instead interspersing admonitions to the aspiring magician, notes on the theory of magic, and techniques of talismanic magic, mirror scrying, and mesmerism.  It includes references to the occultism from the period – a quick reference to the discovery of Uranus, the techniques of Mesmer becoming part of the magical repertoire, and Éliphas Lévi’s interpretation of the one-point-up versus two-point-up pentagram.  Some of the material, such as the forms of the spirits of the sun, is derived from the Fourth Book of Agrippa.  We also have references to a supposed late eighteenth-century French order, supposedly including Pasqually, St Germain, and Caglistro, who seemed intend in calling up the spirit of Templar head Jacques de Molay.  (It should be noted that the “ghost” explanation given for the charges of spitting on the cross and other blasphemies here is different from the one we now know to have occurred.)

If anyone has any other questions about the book, feel free to put them in the comments.

Published in: on April 12, 2016 at 12:57 pm  Comments (2)  

Festooned with Fairies

I’ve been accepted as a presenter at the Scientiae: Disciplines of Knowing in the Early Modern conference at Oxford in July.  My presentation will be an expansion of my talk at the Esoteric Book Conference, just with the scholarship being more overt, and covering more ground.

When I say “more ground,” I mean comprehensively surveying as many of the known manuscripts dealing with fairy magic as possible.  There are brief references in various scholarly works, so I’ve been striving to follow up on as many as possible.  Fortunately, acquiring digital copies of books is quite easy; the staff at the British Library and Oxford’s Bodleian have been most helpful, as has Joe Peterson.  In case you’re wondering, scans of the microfilm are usually under $100, although you still have to deal with Latin passages, early modern script, and messy handwriting.  After all this, I have retrieved over a dozen magical manuscripts to which I’ve found references.

So far, I can say the following:

First, my hypothesis stated at the Esoteric Book Conference – that magic that involves fairies, or similar spirits, has some traits different from the calls to demons or other spirits – seems to be borne out so far.  Crudely put, the magician’s approach seems to assume more equality, whether through words or ritual actions that mime those between humans, than the exorcist conjurations of demons via divine dominance, and more likely to incorporate aspects of the landscape as important elements.  I hope my language above indicates that this is more of a continuum than a division; many rites, especially those devoted to Oberion, are much closer to the exorcistic model, for instance.  I’m still transcribing, so I hope there’s more interesting material to come.

Second, by sheer luck the selection of The Book of Oberon for publication has made the largest discovered collection of early modern rituals aimed to invoke the Fair Folk available.  This does not mean that is comprehensive, as I’m finding many other examples, but it’s turned out to be a great source.

I’ve also been reading up on the scholarly literature on fairies.  I’m enjoying Diane Purkiss’ At the Bottom of the Garden (apparently out of print, but also available under the title Troublesome Things) and using it to track back other contemporary references to fairies.  There are a great deal of pamphlets in Early English Books Online that speak to the sixteenth and seventeenth-century interest in these creatures.  Nonetheless, there are huge gaps in what we know about them, simply because the elite and learned did not write much about them until later.  If it hadn’t been for Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth, I think a great deal of lore would have been lost – even if, I hasten to add, Kirk was writing from a particular perspective in a particular place and time.

On my own, I’m also chugging away on collecting material on a few different topics – the table ritual, witch bottles, and wax images in particular.  All of these already appear in published or soon-to-be-published places, but I want to have all the material in place so I can one day rewrite them to be even more impressive.  I can dream, right?

No RPG writing is going on right now.  This summer will pick up, I think, with some work on the Delta Green supplement Falling Towers.  Right now, I’m simply enjoying running a game or two (D&D Rules Cyclopedia) and playing in two (D&D 5th edition, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire).

And the snake seems more healthy, even if she does seem to be going through a mid-winter fast – if this long bout of high temperatures constitutes a winter in upstate New York.

Published in: on March 15, 2016 at 8:20 pm  Comments (8)  

On Hatsis’ The Witches’ Ointment and Abramelin

I just finished reading Thomas Hatsis’ new work, The Witches’ Ointment, which is the first book-length treatise on the legend and practice (such as it is) of the “flying ointment” said to be made out of a variety of dangerous or questionable substances.

I consider the book to have aspects that are beyond my capacity to judge, including pharmaceutical and historical, so I’ll pass over them here.  I do want to address one aspect of the book on which I’ve written previously.

One of the authorities Hatsis is particularly intent on taking seriously is Abraham of Worms, the purported author of the Book of Abramelin the Mage.  In his first book, Abraham speaks of meeting a young woman near Lintz (likely Linz, in Austria) who shared with him an ointment that caused him to believe that he went on a magical flying journey.  Upon putting her to the test, however, he later dismissed the experience as a delusion.  I’ve talked about it before, and you can read Mathers’ version of the tale here.

Now, our earliest manuscript of Abramelin dates to 1608.  This raises some questions as to whether it was written close to that date, or closer to the date of 1458 given in the manuscript.  I think Georg Dehn opts for the work being written by an actual historical figure at the time.  I forebear judgment for the time being, given that it would be easy to simply take a legendary figure and write a book that is supposedly his work.   I don’t insist that it dates to 1608, but I don’t have enough evidence to bring its authorship back further.  After all, historical accuracy was not necessary a primary (or even a tertiary) concern of people writing magical books.

Hatsis’ trouble is that he is dead set on Abraham of Worms being a figure who definitely did write the Book of Abramelin, and thus had the experience in Linz that is mentioned therein.  He tells us that “[b]ecause the account is so damaging to the skeptic’s argument it has been either dismissed or ignored or explained as a later forgery.”

It’s not clear where these skeptical rebuttals regarding Abramelin and witch’s ointment have appeared, but we’ll pass over that for now.  Hatsis pushes his argument further:

…it would have been dangerous – nay, downright foolish – if, at the height of the witch trials (the time that modern skeptics say the story originated), Abraham, a Jewish mystic, would essentially admit to engaging in witchcraft.  So it makes more sense historically to date Abraham’s account to the time when such practices weren’t considered diabolical witchcraft at all…

According to Hatsis, Abraham’s account pertains to an earlier time, before the 1420s, in which the use of such substances was seen as perhaps improper, but not in and of itself demonic.

The problem here is context.

If you read to the end of the passage to which I link above in Mathers’ edition, you’ll know that the sorceress admits at the end that she got the ointment from the Devil.  What makes this difficult is that Dehn’s translation – which is generally more accurate – states that it is the “Greek art,” described in the story after that of the witch of Linz, that is a demonic mixture.  The version of Peter Hammer’s German work that I have available suggests that this pertains to the witch’s story.

I believe that, before Abramelin can be used as a source here, this particular reading of the original manuscripts needs to be teased out.   If this is part of the story, Abramelin is not only discussing a flying ointment, but also endorsing a view that it has a diabolic origin – which means that Hatsis’ argument that it was written before that view collapses.

Speaking of diabolical involvement,  what else might you avoid putting in a document if you wanted to avoid getting in trouble with authorities obsessed with demonic conspiracies?  How about a procedure for summoning Lucifer, Leviathan, Satan, and Belial, and all their subsidiaries, such as the one Abraham provides?   It’s safe to say that whomever wrote Abramelin did not consider being hauled in front of the magistrate to be a major concern.

A more plausible narrative emerges if we consider Abramelin to have been written much closer to 1608.  By that time, a number of supposed eyewitness accounts had circulated of people under the effects of the ointment, on which our author could have drawn.  Also, by this time the practice would have been considered wholly demonic, which fits with the narrative of that section.

This is not the only problematic aspect of Abramelin’s use, On the following page, Hatsis states that by the 1420s “the ointments contained plant-based psychoactive medical drugs as noted by Alonso Tostado and Abraham of Worms.”

As it turns out, however, Abraham mentions the ointment, but not anything regarding its contents.  As a bonus, Alonso Tostado also fails to mention any such ingredients, instead simply speaking of a mixture that made a woman believe that she was joining a company for food and sex, which made her insensible to pain while in effect.

One could make the hypothesis that the most likely content of such ointments was indeed plant-based psychoactive medical drugs, but neither passage says this.  This could be a simple misunderstanding, as Hatsis’ accounts of both authors earlier in the book does not say this, but I think an unwary reader could be led astray by this passage.

In short, although this book was quite informative, I feel that the link to Abramelin is presented more conclusively than it should be without a closer examination of the evidence.  In addition, a person who reads it to find out about Abramelin and its links to psychotropic substances may wish to consult that book more closely.


Published in: on January 4, 2016 at 9:28 pm  Comments (3)  

Review: Hutton’s Blood and Mistletoe

I’ve just had the pleasure of finishing Blood and Mistletoe:  The History of the Druids in Britain by Ronald Hutton.  It’s been out for quite a while, but I was asked to give some thoughts on the book.  This could be difficult, as I’ve read this book over the course of about half a year, but I’ll give it a shot.

51MtquLPwLL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_First, I should say that I consider Ronald Hutton to be a gift to readers everywhere.  He has taken so many topics that have been considered fringe or questionable and shown that they can be discussed in their historical and cultural contexts, while finding a stance from which even the most unusual characters can be regarded with respect.  This is not to say that I agree with everything he has written, but most of it is worth reading.  Blood and Mistletoe certainly is – if you’re looking for a particular sort of information.

If what you’re looking for is information about the historical Druids, I would recommend this book – especially the first fifty pages.  Hutton performs a comprehensive roundup of the many different sources that we can access on the Druids:  Greek and Roman authors, archaeological sources, and Irish and Welsh sources written well after the fact.   All of these possess various levels of reliability and bias, none of which are conclusive sources.  What makes them even more problematic is the wide variation of information within them.  We are thus left with a collection of dubious information, much of which contradicts the other sections.

The bulk of the book is devoted to the use of the Druids in the intellectual life of Britain, as poets, antiquarians, politicians, novelists, and others over the centuries appropriate them to serve in various purposes.  They have been used to call up nationalistic sentiments – at various periods, in Scotland, England, and Wales – to critique paganism and Christian sects, and to create idyllic or horrific portraits of the past, depending upon what sources you want to dip into.  Even if you want to know about the historic Druids, this book covers such topics as why we think Druids wear white robes, or how ovates and bards entered the picture of our understanding of these individuals, or the differing ideas of the relation of Druids to Stonehenge.

Hutton also covers the reappearance of Druidic orders, which at first appeared as voluntary associations rather than pagan faiths.  Of particular note are the Ancient Order of Druids, the first of these,and the Universal Bond, the Druid order that conducted rituals at Stonehenge for many years.  If Hutton’s emphasis is any indication – and I can’t say it is – the reconstruction of Druidic ritual, as undertaken by groups such as Ár nDraíocht Féin, has had little role in the British scene, with much of the doctrine of these groups taken from many other religions, chiefly Christianity.  Those who want to know more about “Druids and Neopaganism” (yes, we can quibble about those terms, but even those who might will understand what I’m aiming for) should try for other sources.

Blood and Mistletoe does take a certain amount of interest and commitment from someone who wants to read the whole piece, as some of the exploration of various Druidic motifs in literature and art may only be of interest to specialists.  Still, the book is an indispensable reference for anyone interested in the Druids.  I’d suggest checking out Ronald Hutton’s other books as well, if you’re looking for a Christmas/solstice gift for someone with esoteric interests.


Published in: on December 5, 2015 at 1:21 pm  Comments (1)  

Forthcoming – Peterson’s Sworn Book of Honorius

I don’t have much time to post, but this is important:

As the title testifies, students were sworn to secrecy before being given access to this magic text, and only a few manuscripts survive. Nevertheless, it is considered one of the most influential magic texts. Bits of its teachings are alluded to in other texts, like the use of the magic whistle for summoning spirits. Another key element of its ritual, the elaborate “Seal of God,” has been found in texts and amulets throughout Europe.

Interest in the Sworn Book of Honorius has grown in recent years, being discussed at length in several recent books, yet no modern translations have been attempted. A critical edition of the Latin text by Gösta Hedegård (2002), has already become somewhat dated by new research.

Purporting to preserve the magic of Solomon in the face of intense persecution by religious authorities, this text includes one of the oldest, most detailed, and complete magic rituals. It is aggressively pro-magic, countering that the persecution and anti-magic hysteria were themselves inspired by demons seeking to suppress the divine art.

It’s an immensely influential book of ritual magic, with links to Dee and much of the later grimoire tradition.  Out in May.

Published in: on December 2, 2015 at 6:21 pm  Comments (2)  

Spirits in the Library – Lilith

queen of the nightFor the next contestant in our series, let’s look at Lilith.

Lilith first comes to our attention in Sumerian times, where she appears as a hostile spirit known as “Lilu.”  Biblical texts are often ambiguous about her, but the oral tradition of Judaism establishes her as the first wife of Adam and develops her character as a night-spirit who kills infants due to her own lack of children.  Lilith shows up rarely in grimoire, but she has since been largely rehabilitated in contemporary literature.

(Note: I’ve included a picture here of the “Queen of the Night” stela at the British Library, even though there’s little scholarly support today for the figure depicted being Lilith herself.)

Bane – A two-part entry, dividing a two page entry for “Lilith” from a short one of “Lilith the Lesser.”  It deals with the Mesopotamian and Judaic lore in some length, as well as an impressive list of alternative names for her.  Bibliography includes a number of good sources on the topic.

Belanger – Oh, this is nice.  A column and a half on Sumerian and Babylonian mythology, a little less on the Jewish folklore than I’d expected, and a bonus mention of the Munich Handbook.

de Plancy – Now, this is weird.  Just a short paragraph, covering her mythology as an attacker of infants, and her presence in Wierus and other works.  There’s a great deal more that could have been said here, even given that some of the Mesopotamian material was not available to them.

Gettings – Rather surprising here, this entry includes not only the material and other sources, but also “Gnostic and Rosicrucian medieval traditions,” which sounds a bit dubious, as well as fictional appearances.  It also has a depiction of Lilith as a demon from a Hebrew amulet.

Guiley – This is quite the good entry – over two whole columns, dealing with various religious and magical sources.  She could have probably pushed back to Sumerian mythology a little harder, and one set of statements about Lilith appearing in other belief systems – including Mexican and Native American – is highly suspect.

Lurker – A brief paragraph covering her appearances in the Old Testament, the Talmud, and Babylonian belief.

Mack – A four-page section, which deals with a broad range of folklore from Pagan, Jewish, and Christian sources, including a strange tale about Solomon using a mirror to unmask her.

That should do it.  Next time, my summary and recommendations.


Published in: on September 2, 2015 at 9:22 pm  Comments (1)  

Coming On-Line Radio Appearance

Lots of writing going on, just not here.

I’ll be appearing from 3-5 AM EDT (have fun, West Coast people!) this Saturday morning on Richard C. Hoagland’s “The Other Side of Midnight” program, on the Dark Matter Digital Network.  I could talk about Lovecraft, or grimoires, or something else entirely.  I don’t know if there’ll be call ins, but it should be fun.

Published in: on August 31, 2015 at 4:56 pm  Comments (2)  
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