Dan Reviews The Age of Secrecy: Jews, Christians, and the Economy of Secrets, 1400-1800

Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, found himself in a difficult situation. Swedish forces had captured and imprisoned his brother, the Archduke Maximilian. His freedom must be obtained at any cost. What he needed was an agent – a man of intelligence and skill, a master of secrets and covert action, perhaps even one who dabbled in the arts of magic. The emperor knew exactly the man for the job.

At this point, my readership is probably assuming that he sent for John Dee. In fact, it was Abraham Colorni, a Jewish polymath from Mantua whose biography forms a crucial part of Harvard lecturer Daniel Jütte’s work The Age of Secrecy: Jews, Christians, and the Economy of Secrets, 1400-1800.

As some of you may recall, Dee spent a great deal of effort trying to get an audience with the emperor, only to harangue him about his need to repent. As for Colorni, the emperor invited him to travel from Italy to Prague and set up a special meeting with him after a few weeks. Colorni spent three hours talking to the emperor about topics ranging from arquebuses to gambling, and never got around to mentioning the rescue of his brother.  The ambassador from Ferrara was appalled – and Colorni ended up with the emperor as his patron for the next nine years, as the archduke’s return was negotiated through diplomatic channels.

The overall focus of Jütte’s work is on the role of Jews in the “economy of secrets.” Today secrecy is usually viewed negatively, but at the time the possession and judicious revelation of secrets could bring an individual fame and fortune. Christian prejudice often endangered local Jewish populations and barred them from entry into particular professions, training, and status. Yet this prejudice came with a respect for the Jewish people as masters of secrets in many different realms, ranging from the economic to the technological to the magical. Particular Jews who were knowledgeable and savvy could combine this with training and talent to maneuver themselves into positions of authority and influence in the broader society – although a high profile brought danger due to both intrigue and anti-Semitism.

The Age of Secrecy does not dwell on any particular topic of Jewish expertise in depth, but instead it touches on their activity in a wide variety of fields – technology, espionage, alchemy, magic, etc. – that shows wide-ranging and impressive accomplishments in a world in which the dominant culture treated them with hate and mistrust. All of these are illustrated with enjoyable anecdotes gleaned from the work of other scholars and archival research.  My favorite was learning about Isaac Sanguineti, who repeatedly had run-ins with the Inquisition, as summoning Lilith was said to be his personal specialty.

Half of the book is about Abraham Colorni. If that names seems familiar, it’s due to his commission from the Duke of Mantua to translate the Clavicula Salomonis, or Key of Solomon, into Italian. We don’t get too many specifics on how this came about, but apparently Colorni was able to turn this to his advantage. By attaching himself to the reputation of Solomon, he was able to expand his own reputation and influence. For example, Jütte thinks it likely that the Key‘s magic to free prisoners might have directly led to the Emperor’s initial audience with Colorni. I’m pressed for time here, so I need to cut this off – which, for those who read the book, is a serious injustice to all of Colorni’s skills, ranging from engineering to prestidigitation to arms manufacturing.

The book ends with an emphasis on two key points. First, when considering the advances of human learning, we should look to the economy of secrets as well as to the universities and societies that emphasized openness of information while excluding key groups of individuals from their membership. Second, that the importance of research into Jewish intellectuals and inventors in Europe should not cause us to set aside their frequent explorations into magic, alchemy, and other topics still considered less reputable that they pursued alongside other areas of expertise.

In short, this is a great book, and you can probably find it for 75% off the cover price. If you’re interested in the history of magic in early modern Europe, or just want to learn more about how the Key of Solomon came down to us, this is a must.

 

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Published in: on February 12, 2019 at 6:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

Forthcoming from Three Hands Press

Three Hands Press has had a few hiccups with recent releases that they’re working through. Their most recent update included the following two releases, currently undated:

The Wisdom of the Ages and the Secrets of the Sages: A Medieval Arabic Grimoire, translated by Darius Klein. Perhaps one of the most disturbing volumes of medieval Islamic sorcery, Three Hands Press is pleased to announce the first English translation of this (in)famous work. At 350 pages, a great many magical operations are featured, spanning spirit-conjuration, djinn evocation, poisons and alchemical experiments. The book will be of interest to scholars of ceremonial magic, alchemy, herbalism, and the Islamic Golden Age, as well as those attenuated to the currents of antinomian sorcery.

Three Books of Occult Philosophy by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa. A groundbreaking new English translation of this essential sourcebook on Western Occultism by author Eric Purdue will be announced this Spring. In addition to Eric’s meticulous scholarship on the new translation, the book will be a tour de force of design, offered in a number of different editions, from the affordable to the opulent.

Published in: on February 2, 2019 at 11:13 am  Comments (3)  

Forthcoming: The Key of Necromancy, Volume II

Enodia Press is taking pre-orders for the second volume of the Key of Necromancy. Here’s their blurb:

The second volume of the Key of Necromancy is a great example of the richness within the Faustian Tradition. Its magical experiments, mystifying pentacles and circles of conjuration continue to inspire and fill with awe those who come across them. This volume contains the final part of two important, previously untranslated, German books, the Nigromantisches Kunst-Buch and Der Schlüssel von dem Zwange der Hölle whose first part was published in the first tome.

Among its contents one can find the famous knife and conjuration of the spirit Waran, the Art Nerony, a discourse dealing with the subject of finding mines and protecting them against other miners as well as an interesting addition to the literature on the Olympic Spirits, among many other subjects.

This volume will also be of interest to those keen to the study of Reginald Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft for it contains three experiments related to it and might shed some light on their common sources.

I never got around, despite my best intentions, to reviewing Volume 1, so I’ll be writing a deluxe review when both appear.

Published in: on January 16, 2019 at 8:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

New Year’s 2019 Greetings

Happy new year, everyone!

I’ve been working on a few different projects lately.  Of Angels, Demons, and Spirits is through the page proofs process, so I’m looking forward to seeing that next month.

Caduceus is working on the Bellhouse books. I haven’t heard an ETA on their arrival yet, but I’ll let you know when I do.

I’m putting some serious work into transcribing another manuscript, Bodleian Douce 116. It’s a manuscript with at least three different scribes, writing in it in different eras. It’s the source of the short piece on early modern fairy beliefs that was published in Folklore, and I think the whole has a great deal of interesting information.

Some of you might have seen my post about alchemist-astrologer-balloonists George and Margaret Graham on Facebook. I’m working on formatting the book to be published on Amazon. It might be the best option, given its length and subject. We’ll see how it all goes.

Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff name-checked me in a recent episode. I’m flattered to think that I’m Ken Hite’s one phone call on Pennsylvania German folklore, but I’d suggest he contact Patrick Donmoyer, who is fluent in German and Pennsylvania German, lives in the region, runs a museum and library of Pennsylvania German buildings and artifacts, paints barn stars (a.k.a. hex signs), etc.

I’ve been reading some interesting stuff lately. The one immediately before me is the latest issue of The Enquiring Eye, which I recommend for those of you interested in short readable articles about folklore and magic.

I hope your new year brings you happiness and lots of great books.

Published in: on January 14, 2019 at 8:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

Review – Metaphysical Spiritual Philosophy: Discourses through the Magic Mirror

Teitan Press has just released its latest publication in its Hockley series, Metaphysical Spiritual Philosophy: Discourses through the Magic Mirror with Eltesmo and Emma Louisa Leigh, from the Manuscripts of Frederick Hockley.

As with other crystal-gazers from the annals of magic, Frederick Hockley made extensive use of scryers who would see spirits and report them. This collection reprints the work of two of these scryers. One was Emma Louisa Leigh, a young girl and family friend who made contact with a spirit known as the Crowned Angel, along with another known as Eltesmo. Emma died young, leaving Hockley to seek other seers. One of these was a Mrs. Lea, who allowed Hockley to reach out to Emma.

This book collects two spirit operations. The first is a lengthy spiritual treatise dictated by Emma from Eltesmo. The second are a series of conversations between Hockley and the now-spiritual Emma, in which they discuss the afterlife and Emma’s continued concerns about the material world. These are provided both as transcripts and as black and white facsimiles of the original texts.

Alan Thorogood provides his usual excellent introduction, in this case passing over the basics of Hockley’s life to delve into these particular scrying sessions and Hockley’s cosmology of the afterlife. The only omission that I noted was a discussion of the Hockley material at the Library of Congress, which includes a drawing of a talisman of Eltesmo that was sitting on my desk when I received the book.

If you’re familiar with the usual tropes and content of channeled and spiritually-received material, you have a good idea of what you’ll encounter here. Those seeking profound or revelatory material will be disappointed, but those who are interested in the history of either nineteenth-century magic or spiritual contact literature should seek out this work.

Published in: on December 27, 2018 at 9:40 am  Leave a Comment  

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 (2)  

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 (7)  

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 (7)  

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)