Review – Nordblom’s Historiola: The Power of Narrative Charms

One topic that the current magical revival has overlooked is the use of short verbal charms for healing, protection, or other purposes. This is not for lack of source material; my six edited works of magic contain considerable material along these lines, not to mention the vast corpus stretching back millennia in many different languages. Some of it has to do with the move away in modern occultism from the healing arts, the lack of need for charms for agricultural purposes, and the emphasis in New Age-influenced spiritual practice emphasizing incense, crystals, and herbs over verbal incantations. Thus Carl Nordblom’s book Historiola: The Power of Narrative Charms seeks to introduce these works to a modern audience.

(Full disclosure: This review is based upon a hardback copy sent to me by Hadean. Also, I’ve actually considered writing a popular book on this topic, and I might do so.)

Nordblom’s book is largely geared toward practitioners with a theoretical bent, perhaps those more familiar with spirit summoning and other techniques. He explores the underpinnings for how these charms work through their references to powerful figures, the appeal to mythic occurrences linked via narrative into a present situation, and other approaches. Curiously, there is no sort of listing of charms for various purposes which might appeal more to those of a pragmatic focus. (There is a thorough bibliography and index, to help with finding particular items.)

Let’s get to the charms themselves, and how they are covered. I think it’s fair to say that Historiola is both better than what’s presented before for a wider audience, but also has some gaps in its coverage. The charms cited here span thousands of years and much of Europe and the Middle East in their geography. Nordblom has read a great deal of literature on this topic, and his discussion and bibliography testify to the work he’s done. I appreciated seeing some charms, especially those from foreign languages, that are relatively unfamiliar or that I hadn’t seen before.

Nonetheless, Nordblom is not familiar with as much of either the charms or the scholarly literature as he could have been. For example, while the charms are presented faithfully, their historical transmission is rarely explored. (At least one work absent from Nordblom’s bibliography, Roper’s English Verbal Charms, would have been a key text here.) This omission becomes problematic when Nordblom insists that charms are best taught and implemented in the original language and not in translation. Although engaging with living folk traditions can be valuable and fruitful, the length of time these charms have been in circulations and the numerous translations and permutations they have experienced, this is a problematic requirement,

Nordblom’s key focus is on the charms of an “encounter” typology, in which a supernatural authority figure meets an illness or evil during travel and exerts power to stop it. His charting and analysis of this motif is excellent, although he tends to pass over the personification of the evil force in question. I think the latter symbolic transformation into a force in the social realm, subject to that realm’s rules, is key to how these charms “work,” at least on the psychological level. Also, Nordblom takes “motion” as an important element of charms, whereas some prominent charm types merely describe a location- e.g. three fountains or flowers in a wood.

The narratives in the charms, as Nordblom notes, often feature religious figures in events not recorded in more orthodox accounts. Nordblom sees these as elaborations of the conventional narratives, suggesting that meditation on such expansions may serve a practitioner well. He does not note the charms that run counter to the accepted accounts. Indeed, he includes one such charm on page 77, in which a time-traveling Saint Peter saves the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus from bandits. I would have liked to see what Nordblom could have done with an analysis of this topic.

One other area in which the book could have been expanded was the discussion of the ritual actions and conditions that sometimes accompany these charms. Nordblom does touch on them, but there are a good number more, even in the sources he cites (such as Hohman’s Long Hidden Friend).

Despite all that I’ve just said, this is probably the best book explaining the theories and characteristics of verbal charms available to a popular audience right now, in an affordable format. I look forward to where this author might go next.

Published in: on November 24, 2021 at 5:09 pm  Comments (2)  

Review – Thabit ibn Qurra On Talismans

Astrological image magic has been largely forgotten in the occult community, but for much of the Middle Ages in Europe, it was a key element of magical practice. An image or item of wax, metal, or other substances could be made at a particular astrological time to bring heavenly influences into a situation. According to the Speculum astronomiae and other religious works, this was fine, so long as it didn’t involve questionable prayers to the planets or spirits. Or burning incense. Or mysterious characters. Or incomprehensible words. And maybe images themselves might suggest idolatry…

Few magical works could navigate this gauntlet, but the survivors are some of the most common magical manuscripts to reach us from the medieval era. One such work was the De Imaginibus, or On Talismans, attributed to the ninth-century Harranian philosopher Thābit ibn Qurra. No Arabic manuscripts are known to survive, but it appears often in Latin manuscripts. As with many other medieval works, On Talismans has been mostly forgotten, with only a small press paperback translation (English only) appearing from Christopher Warnock (review here). Now SISMEL has released Thabit ibn Qurra «On Talismans» and Ps.-Ptolemy «On Images 1-9».Together with the «Liber prestigiorum Thebidis» of Adelard of Bath, a scholarly edition edited by Gideon Bohak and Charles Burnett.

One of Bohak’s many discoveries from the Cairo Genizah was a Judeo-Arabic text of De Imaginibus. This is the first text the book provides, with copious footnotes as to readings, going so far as to show photographs of difficult-to-read letters. (I wish this was affordable for some of my projects.) Based upon that text, an Arabic text has been reconstructed, with passages appearing online the two main versions of the Latin text and an English translation indicating from where each segment derives. This is excellent, although I would have liked to see each Arabic-Latin-English block placed on a separate page for ease of comprehension.

We also have editions of two other texts here. The first is a work by Pseudo-Ptolemy that often follows ibn Qurra’s text, describing its own set of magical talismans. The text is similar to the presentation of De Imaginibus. The second, the Liber prestigiorum Thebedis, is a text derived from the original that adds prayers to the planets and other forbidden processes. Given that this is only known from the Latin, this is provided with Latin and English texts on facing pages.

The amount of surrounding documentation is amazing. There’s an introduction to the text and its history, a thorough guide to its appearances in manuscripts, an appendix with parallels between De Imaginibus and the Picatrix, a set of glossaries, a bibliography, and multiple indices.

Is this a book worth pursuing? The only disappointment for potential readers may be how relatively short the magical text itself. Those interested in the history of medieval magic, and those with interests in traditional astrology and astrological magic, will find it worthwhile, if expensive. Those more interested in the spirit summoning grimoires may want to seek out other works.

Published in: on November 6, 2021 at 3:26 pm  Comments (2)  

Review: The Green Book of the Élus Coëns

A few months ago, Lewis Masonic released The Green Book of the Élus Coëns, the translation of eighteenth-century French manuscripts describing the rituals of the Christian masonic-mystical order Ordre des Chevaliers Maçons Élus Coëns de l’Univers. My understanding is that this is a revised and corrected version of a book originally published by Hell Fire Publishing; given my policy on purchasing Hell Fire books, I can’t tell you how the two versions compare.

I am neither a Mason nor a Masonic historian, so what follows will be overly simplistic. Symbolic Masonry, from the time of its origin or fluorescence in the early eighteenth century, created an organizational structure based upon three degrees of initiation utilizing the symbolism of Solomon’s temple and at least lip service to ideas of universal brotherhood. Different Masonic organizations have utilized this structure in a variety of different ways, including networking, political action, and occult exploration. The latter often occurred within a structure of higher degrees of initiation, within lodges with illustrious and questionable pedigrees that were often officially condemned or simply ignored.

One such lodge was the Élus Coëns, which everyone can agree was founded at some point between the creation of the world and 1766. Martinez de Pasqually, the Mason who either founded or revealed the order, saw its purpose as the reintegration of fallen humans into divine grace via purification, as well as connection with greater and lower spirits through theurgic invocation.

This English edition of the Green Book consists of key manuscripts of the order found at the Bibliothèque nationale de France and Bibliothèque municipale de Grenoble. The first, the so-called “Algiers manuscript” which passed through the archives of that city, contains a mixture of different materials: reflections on the nature of reality, quarterly ceremonies of the Coëns, and a lengthy set of purifications, circles, and invocations dedicated to the summoning of spirits and other purposes. This is followed by a lengthy chart of 2,400 spiritual names and characters, followed with a series of illustrations of magical circles and mystical diagrams. The book ends with the catechisms of mystical teachings of the grades of the Coëns.

The presentation of the material differs between the sections. The “Algiers Manuscript” is only presented here in translation from the French. (I have not examined the original French for this review, and I am not proficient with that language anyway.) The occasional Latin passages are (mostly) translated in footnotes as well, although the transcription includes a few errors. On the other hand, the spiritual names and diagrams are reproduced in black and white facsimiles, with the names further being transcribed in the section following.

What intrigues me the most about the work is the invocations of spirits presented within. The overall structure is quite similar to that which most readers will be familiar with from the works of ritual magic; indeed, one of the dismissals could practically be taken word for word from many incantations I’ve published.

Yet there are certainly differences, including the more frequent appearance of verbs to break up the incantations, and the substitution of mystical numerology for lists of names of God and Biblical events. The purpose of some of the rituals seems to be invocation of demons – but, instead of calling them up for knowledge or material success, the Coën summons them as experienced temptations to be brought under control and vanished. I can imagine my readers reacting in vastly different ways to that statement.

One clear obsession of the work is “la Chose,” or spiritual signs that might manifest themselves during the work with displays of light or sound. Whereas some of today’s magicians set visual appearance of spirits as the proof of their abilities, the Coëns preferred these less impressive signs of their path of reintegration.

One partial ritual deserves note: an initiation intended for women working in a degree system within the order. Lest someone interpret this as a sign of enlightenment, most of the fragments involve denigrating the candidate as the embodiment of Eve’s temptation and seduction. It’s so over the top that, if it were written today, I’d suspect it was some expression of the author’s kinks. It should be noted that the order did include women in later years, so let’s hope they didn’t have to go through this.

Both the ritual magic of the medieval and early modern periods from the lodge-based magic of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries recognized the importance of a spiritually elevated person. Whereas the older ritual magic required the magician to possess these qualities, if only for a sort period, the later version saw this remolding of the person as its central mission. The Green Book provides an example of older material being refashioned into an Enlightenment-era project for remaking its initiates and the world.

The manuscript texts are preceded with a translator’s note, preface, and introduction. All of this is welcome, but it does little to contextualize the material that follows or to help define how it might be structured, which I find is often useful when dealing with unsystematic manuscripts. It does have a good number of footnotes, but the book’s lack of an index is a serious problem.

It’s that historical focus which I think will appeal to most of its readers, especially those interested in Freemasonry and lodge magic. The Élus Coëns rituals seem to have had little impact on the occult world, or at least with the Anglo-American occult world with which I am most familiar, and the ceremonies and the goals thereof are somewhat out of step with much of both grimoire and contemporary occult magic. I’m glad I purchased it, as it illuminates the practices of a group on which little English language material exists.

Published in: on October 30, 2021 at 4:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

Review: Ars Notoria, The Method – Version B, Medieval Angel Magic

Although the second volume of Dr. Stephen Skinner’s Ars Notoria was delayed slightly, it’s now come into my possession, and I’m prepared to talk about it.

(I will not be diving into the Ars Notoria’s history and purpose. If you want to learn more, read my post here. You can also read my review of Volume 1.)

First, I want to address how I’m approaching this book. Skinner explicitly states in the introduction that this work is intended for practitioners, and not as a scholarly work. I think this is a perfectly fine approach, and my intent here is not to hold it to those standards. Nonetheless, those people who want to practice a months-long medieval ritual will probably be interested in the sort of details I’m covering, so I feel it’s useful to analyze in that light.

The second volume has gone through some interesting changes as Skinner worked on it. In his scholarly edition of the Ars Notoria, Julien Véronèse separates the major textual traditions into two categories, Recension A and Recension B. Skinner’s first volume is mainly oriented around Recension A. This new volume was first intended to be a translation of Recension B of the Ars Notoria, as portrayed in Bibliothèque Nationale de France MS. Latin 9336 (not currently available in digitization). (UPDATE: Girordano Paradros encouraged me to check again; you can find it digitized here.)

According to Skinner’s account of what happened next, he examined Véronèse’s transcription of the manuscript. He found it to be highly disorganized, and what content was added compared to Recension A was lengthy glosses that added little to the text’s practice. (You can find an example in his appendices.) With this in mind, he revised his concept of the book to make it a guide to those wishing to practice the Ars Notoria. I do wonder if another manuscript would have been chosen if that were the plan when starting the book.

With that caveat, Skinner accomplishes what he set out to do. The description of how exactly to perform this work – which usually takes four lunar months – is clear and methodical. Skinner provides us the different objectives that the magician may pursue, then walks through every step of the process, even providing a table of the proper timing for pursing various goals. Some of the material, such as the schedule for the various prayers and orations.

The text itself is a reorganized version of the Latin text. It begins with the general bringing together all the sections that cover a particular topic – grammar, rhetoric, geometry, theology, or even virtues such as chastity and taciturnity. For each one, Skinner gives us the nota, or illustration to be examined in the fourth month; the orations, or lists of magical names, to be said; and the prayers, more orthodox Christian devotions.

The sourcing of the three categories is somewhat odd. The notae are reproductions of the pages from the French manuscript. The orations are taken from the same manuscript transcribed in Véronèse, and the prayers are presented as English translations taken from Robert Turner’s 1656 edition, without the Latin.

There’s not necessarily anything wrong with this approach, mind you. I’m also incorporating seventeenth-century English translations in the Book of Four Wizards, for passages with corrupted Latin taken from other works, e.g. Agrippa and the Arbatel, with the Latin in footnotes. Interested parties can find less corrupted Latin texts online and better modern translations of these works in English (Purdue and Peterson, respectively). I think it can be a respectable choice when publishing a text. Yet it would be nice to see some more explanation as to why the prayers weren’t transcribed or translated from the French manuscript. Skinner states that he found the method can be practiced without them, so perhaps this accounts for it.

It is very much to Skinner’s credit that he provides enough notes and commentary that he is transparent about where each piece of the book originates, while clarifying some of the language and order of the text. The appendices provide lists of the various notae, the order and usage of the prayers and orations, the calculation of ecclesiastical and planetary hours, and the origin of the divine names in the manuscript. The index is brief and covers the table of contents and the author’s book list, so I’m not sure how much I’d rely upon it.

A potential practitioner might be able to make it with just Volume 2. Still, the notae given in Volume 2 are smaller than the full-page ones given in Volume 1, and I think being able to view the larger ones would be more satisfying. I could see a practitioner with both books open, viewing the nota in the first while saying the prayers relating to it in the second. If you want the Latin, you might have to check out Véronèse’s book.

Advising potential purchasers on this book is going to be complicated. If you just want the full text of the manuscript involved, without a desire for practice, I’d definitely go for Volume 1 and Véronèse’s edition. Practitioners will find a system that is accessible and easy to follow, given the inherent complexity of the Ars Notoria. Yet I wonder how many of the people who would practice the Ars Notoria will also want to read the prayers in the original Latin, or to dive into the marginal glosses. (Really – I don’t know how much of the audience who buys the book would want such things.) I feel as if this book could have included at least some of that material, to open up some alternatives for those who wished to practice in that manner.

Published in: on October 5, 2021 at 11:16 pm  Comments (2)  

Review – The Sworn and Secret Grimoire by the Master Arbatel

The next step on working my way through my massive grimoire backlog is a hardback review copy The Sworn and Secret Grimoire, the first volume in the Night School series, as brought to us by “Count Abaka.” Given that the author is identified as Jake Stratton-Kent on the book blurb on the publisher’s website, this pseudonym likely qualifies as one of the worst-kept secrets in modern occultism. Yet the choice seems to be deliberate, displaying how this and other grimoires are given lengthy questionable pedigrees while simultaneously undercutting any pretensions that we should take those pedigrees too seriously. I like that.

This book is a re-working of The Secret Grimoire of Turiel, which is a grimoire first appearing in the twentieth century, in turn derived from Hockley’s compiled Complete Book of Magic Science from the nineteenth century (see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of my review of the latter). Stratton-Kent states in the introduction at the start that he wishes to publish a new edition of Turiel, but found it to be inadequate for his needs, leading to a revised edition. In the spirit of ritual magic traditions, he utilizes the Arbatel, the Grand Albert, the Heptameron, and other sources to compose a relatively straightforward method of invoking planetary spirits assembled from traditional materials.

The procedure is very much a creature of its source materials – Christian elements and prayers, a little Latin lengthy preparations and consecrations of lamens, swords, and other tools -but Stratton-Kent emphasizes the Olympic spirits of the Arbatel and downplays the hierarchical aspects of other ritual magic procedures. The sections and the illustrations of lamens, tools, and circle by my Four Wizards partner S. Aldarnay and Dis Albion fuse together the disparate traditions in a pleasing manner.

Our second section of the book is a discussion of the history and usage of planetary hours, in which each day and night is divided into twelve sections, each assigned to one of the seven traditional planets. Next we have some procedures, sigils, and prayers for planetary magic drawn from the Picatrix, the PGM, and other sources, in order to provide a wider range of tools for this particular topic.

The first appendix describes two different schools of approach to the parts of ritual evocation, one a more traditional one articulated by Stephen Skinner and the other more modern, as presented by Crowley. I think I’m obligated here to say that this does appear in some sources, but the miscellanies sometimes depart widely from this, at least on the page. We then get a discussion of various types of “wandering bishops” and other unorthodox ecclesiastical authorities, with suggestions on how such credentials might be valuable to a ritual magician who – unlike many in the past – has not received holy orders. I’m curious how this relates philosophically to the passage Stratton-Kent repeats earlier from the Arbatel suggesting that magicians are born and not made.

Deciding for whom this book is intended is tricky. Despite Stratton-Kent’s desire to create a simplified procedure, his book presumes the reader is already conversant with the techniques of ritual magic and seeks to pursue planetary magic or refine their own ritual knowledge on the other matters discussed. It won’t please those who want to adhere strictly to an ancient text, but it also may not reflect some modern styles of evocation. I feel that a reader who falls into that box, or who enjoys Jake Stratton-Kent’s writing, should definitely pick it up. I also look forward to further releases in the “Night School” series.

Published in: on August 23, 2021 at 4:46 pm  Comments (1)  

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)  

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)