A Pagan Tarot: Review of “The Game of Saturn” by Peter Mark Adams

The story told by The Game of Saturn, written by Peter Mark Adams and published by Scarlet Imprint, is more of a historical thriller – a demonic mystery – than anything else. In fact, placed into a narrative rather than purely historical structure it would make an amazing Hollywood movie. Renaissance espionage amongst rich and powerful northern Italian aristocrats, secret magical cults and surviving worship of dark forgotten pagan gods, human sacrifice and shocking sexual secrets; the story has it all. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interesting in the Tarot, occult history, or paganism. I also highly recommend the book, for reasons I will discuss at the end of this review, for anyone interested in the use of magic and the occult for revolutionary political and social purposes.

The Game of Saturn is the first full historical investigations of one of the earliest, and certainly the most enigmatic, Tarot decks. The Sola-Busca Tarot is, in fact, the oldest Tarot deck for which we have a complete set of cards. Beyond this there are several particularly interesting aspects of the deck that set it off from amongst its contemporary competitors. Most notable is the fact that it provides full illustrations for what would later come to be called the Minor Arcana while other decks of the time, and for some time thereafter, offered rather generic illustrations for the “pip” cards of the Minor Arcana. Consider the following examples of the “Seven of Disks (or Coins)” from what is commonly considered the oldest Tarot deck, the Visconti-Sforza deck, on the left and the Sola-Busca deck on the right.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect that sets the Sola-Busca apart from other decks, however, is the extremely enigmatic nature of the deck’s pictures. In order to expand upon this point I will lay out a bit of the likely history of Tarot.

Tarot’s History and Origins

Visconti-Sforza Tarot
One of the original Visconti-Sforza decks I visited in person when it was on display at the MET Cloisters in New York. Forgive the mediocre quality of the image.

(In discussing the history of the Tarot I will be drawing both on general common knowledge, material covered in The Game of Saturn, and the excellent book The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination by Robert M. Place.)

The mythological history of the Tarot largely derives from the 1781 work of the French author Antoine Court de Gebelin. His creative speculations then influenced the creation of what we might call the first modern Tarot deck by the French occultist Etteilla in 1789. The work of Court de Gebelin and Etteilla combined to form the standard story offered by the famous French occultist Eliphas Levi in the 1850s in which the Tarot originates from the ancient wisdom of Egypt, with its twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana corresponding to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew Alphabet, and the entire meaning of the cards deriving from Hermetic and Qabalistic teachings along with further elemental and astrological correspondences.

The British Order of the Golden Dawn extensively adopted the ideas of Levi, Etteilla, and Gebelin in its teachings in the late 19th and early 20th century which, in turn, led to the creation of the Smith-Waite Tarot of 1910 (both Smith and Waite having been members of the Golden Dawn). The Smith-Waite Tarot forms the basis of almost all decks constructed after it with most of the exceptions to this rule being decks derived, instead, directly from the Golden Dawn’s original designs and teachings (Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot deck and his text The Book of Thoth, for example, would be a major alternative influence on modern decks except that Crowley is largely presenting the Golden Dawn understanding of the Tarot – upon which Waite too draws – with a few key alterations that, within the Qabalistic framework, are very important but within the larger history of Tarot are rather minor).

As interesting, and useful, as the mythological history derived from 18th Century France and the meanings of the cards which derive from this history is, it is almost entirely false. Most scholars agree that the Tarot originates from sometime between 1410-1430 in Northern Italy with the first deck likely being that designed by the astrologer Marziano de Tortona for Duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan. This deck would later be the basis of the surviving fifteen fragmentary decks all formed in the 1450s that constitute what is called the Visconti-Sforza deck.

Playing cards long predate these and similar decks, and the main distinction that scholars make between any deck of cards and a deck of Tarot is the inclusion of a fifth suit over and beyond the four suits we commonly find in playing cards to this day. The four standard suits came to be called the Minor Arcana much later, and the added suit to be called the Major Arcana, but originally the added suit was made up of cards called “Triumphs” or “Trumps”. Indeed, the deck designed by Marziano de Tortona was first called carte da trionfi or “deck of cards with triumphs (i.e. trumps) added”.

When asking about the origin of Tarot, then, we can put aside the so-called Minor Arcana which derive from the standard complicated and fascinating history of playing cards come down to use from both Asian and Arabic origins. Instead, we must ask about the origin of the fifth suit, the Triumphs or Trumps of the so-called Major Arcana. There are useful proposals for the origins of the Trumps, for example there is likely some influence (though rather minor) from Alchemical diagrams (we see this a bit in the Sola-Busca in particular but it is largely missing from most other decks of the time) and perhaps some heritage derived from Church passion plays. But the clearest origin for the Trumps ties into their name. During the Renaissance there was a popular type of parade, called a Triumph, in which each character appearing in the parade triumphs, or beats, the next. These were largely organized in terms of a hierarchy of powers, from worldly power in the hands of the Emperor and Empress, religio-worldly power of the Papess and Pope, to Cosmic power found in such figures as Death, Fame, Fate, and Eternity. Such a parade is presented, for example, in the poem “I Trionfi” by Petrarch in the 14th Century. Sometimes the figures mentioned also include various virtues, or are organized according to the traditional two tier distinction within the seven virtues common in Catholic theology (the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, Charity and the four cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Courage).

Death Tarot
The “Death” card in the Visconti-Sforza deck, my own picture from the MET Cloisters.

To summarize the points I just made, the unique aspect that makes a deck a Tarot deck likely derives from Catholic cultural and literary influences meant to teach both various virtues and the basic social and metaphysical hierarchy of the Catholic worldview. There is nothing of Egypt here, and very little if anything of Hermeticism, Qabalah, Astrology, or even Alchemy. The Catholic poetry of Petrarch and Dante are better guides to these early decks than more esoteric works. Early decks also contained, at times, more or less than the twenty-two cards so important for the Qabalistic interpretation of the Major Arcana and the order of the Triumphs was very changeable from one deck to the next. Historically, then, we have neither a standard order or number, nor a standard collection of Triumphs or Trumps.

The Exception

9 of disks
“9 of Disks” Sola-Busca Tarot

The mythological history I have worked hard to deflate above is, interestingly, rather more useful when we consider the Sola-Busca deck. Indeed, what is true of most Tarot decks throughout history is not true of the Sola-Busca deck. There is no overt Christian or Catholic symbolism in the deck. There are, however, references to ancient religious and occult practices, as well as alchemy. There are no Trumps that share the names of what would later become the standard Trumps. Instead the names capture historical and literary references such as those to Alexander the Great and his family, the Roman Emperor Nero, and the famous Biblical Nebuchadnezzar. These references are not usually the of the noble nature one would expect. Ultimately, Adams’ points out, “in its depiction of the heroic past the Sola-Busca excels in assembling a cast containing some of the most despicable tyrants and traitors known to classical scholarship.” (p. 19)

Even in imagery we can likely, at best, only find two or three cards that resemble later standard Trumps. We have, perhaps, something like the Tower:

Sola_Busca
Sola-Busca Trump 20, “Nenbroto”

and, perhaps, something like the Hermit:

Ipeo_Sola_Busca
Sola-Busca Trump 17, “Ipeo”

and, finally, the Fool as Trump 0:

Sola-Busca 0
Sola-Busca Trump 0, “Mato”

Other than these cards, however, both the Minor Arcana and the Trumps are far more mysterious and identified with unlike historical and literary references. Take, for example, the King of Swords who is identified as “Alexandro M.” or Alexander the Great:

Alexandro-Sola-Busca
Sola-Busca King of Swords, “Alexandro M.”

Or Trump 4, “Mario”:

Mario-Sola-Busca
Sola-Busca Trump 4, “Mario”

Or the strange religious and, at times, disturbing imagery of Trumps 15, 8, and 21, “Metelo”, “Nerone”, and “Nabuchodenasor”:

Sola-Busca-3
Sola-Busca Trump 15, “Metelo”, and 8, “Nerone”

 

Sola-Busca 21
Sola-Busca Trump 21, “Nabuchodenasor”

The Story of the Sola-Busca

We should, at this point, have a sense of what the Sola-Busca Deck is, and a bit of what it is like. We don’t, however, have any clue as to what it means and why it takes the form it does. We don’t have the traditional meanings to appeal to, we don’t have the underlying structure of the Triumph parades, we are adrift in learning what stories these cards have to tell us. It is, for this reason, well past time to dwell more fully on Adams’ excellent investigation.

Without external props to support our interpretation of the cards themselves, such as those provided by what would become the Tarot tradition, we are left needing to draw upon the literary and historical references contained in the names of the cards, the details and symbolic clues of the images depicted, and a careful evaluation of the social and historical context out of which the cards appear. Who, for example, made this deck and for whom was it made? To what purpose was it made?

Adams’ proposed answer is that the deck was made by the ruling aristocratic d’Este family of the city of Ferrara for a secretly gay bibliophile, Marin Sanudo, in the city of Venice following a disastrous defeat of Ferrara at the hands of Venice. Sanudo was in a position to influence negotiations which the rulers of Ferrara hoped would help them re-establish their power following their defeat. The deck itself was likely commissioned by the rulers of Ferrara for both the use of the d’Este family themselves and for their secret ally, Sanudo. The man likely hired to do this work was the family’s court astrologer, archivist, and librarian Pellegrino Prisciani. All of these historical conclusions are powerfully and convincingly argued for by Adams’.

These historical details are interesting and important, but far more fascinating is the challenging question of the deck’s meaning and what this tells us about the aristocratic families of Italy in general and Ferrara specifically – to say nothing of the further aristocratic families to which the deck made its way in France and England.

There are several keys granting access to the meaning of the deck. First is understanding the role of a Neo-pagan and Platonic revival that was occurring in both Italy and Constantinople at the time. Central to this revival was Gemistus Plethon, a Byzantine philosopher whose mission was the use of Platonic philosophy to restructure political and social organization and, more dramatically, to instantiate a return to paganism within the aristocratic classes. Plethon himself, though unnamed, is clearly depicted within the deck in the Ten of Cups.

Benozzo_Gozzoli,_Pletone,_Cappella_dei_Magi
Plethon, depicted on the wall of the Chapel of the Magi in Florence.

Plethon’s thinking largely offers Neoplatonic gnosticism, and fits neatly into pre-existing traditions of gnosticism and Platonic Theurgy that Adams’ covers well. But while this will provide the general context for the creation of the deck, the actual religious and occult insights captured in the deck represent a striking inversion of the Platonic Theurgical theology.

The inversion Adams’ uncovers represents a rejection of the gnostic dream of escape from a “fallen” material realm and ascension to a higher level of truth and divinity. Where various forms of gnosticism and theurgy aim at rising to the level of the true highest non-worldly divinity while rejecting the world around us and the deceptive lesser divine demiurge that masquerades as its god, Adams shows that the Sola-Busca deck instead identifies itself with the demiurge and represents something of a pact with this lower divinity in rebellion against the transcendental highest god.

The demiurge – variously identified with Baal-Hammon (the patron god of Carthage which was Rome’s ancient enemy), Kronos-Saturn, and the Serpent-Dragon –  is the source of worldly riches and power in contrast to the higher goal of transcendence beyond worldly concerns. Conjoined with the Neo-Platonic belief in reincarnation, the pact with the Demiurge the d’Este family maintained seeks continued reincarnation in ever stronger and richer social positions from generation to generation. Rather than escape the world of matter so despised by most gnosticism, the pact with Saturn aims instead at continued existence and power within the world. It is a choice for power rather than transcendent salvation.

This counter-theology and hidden cult of Saturn is well attested to in the symbols, forms, and figures within the deck. Consider, for example, the strange image of the “hermit” in the Ipeo card presented earlier. There we have a praying figure in monkish robes but with bat or dragon-like wings wearing a crown of worldly power. We need not even mention the strangely sinister angel-like head to which the monk prays.

Other details include references to the “toys of Dionysus”, the human sacrifice practiced in worship of Baal-Hammon in Carthage, “Hekate’s Top,” and other ritual technologies and procedures. Ultimately, Adams’ convincingly reveals that the deck is a grimoire for a secret cult of Saturn – a grimoire for the achievement and maintenance of worldly power through an alliance with the gods of the world rather than those of spiritual escape:

“The heavily encrypted cosmology, theurgical and ritual practices that constitute the Sola-Busca tarocchi form a veritable grimoire of elite magical praxis. At the core of the deck’s heretical cosmology stands the demiurge in his most archaic and violent form, that of the hypercosmic Ammon-Saturn, the lord of time and the cycles of creation and destruction… The inevitable consequence of this chain of logic was that ‘true religion’ involved the worship of the hypercosmic demiurge in his most archaic – and thus purest – guise: as the sun behind the sun, the hypercosmic Saturn – whether known as Mithras Helios, Sol Invictus, Phanes, Lucifer, or Ammon.” (p. 250)

Why review this book?

Sola-Busca ace
Sola-Busca Ace of Swords

In some quarters I was met with surprise when expressing an interest in reviewing this book for Gods and Radicals. The surprise is not, in fact, at all surprising. The story of the Sola-Busca Tarot is of a wealthy, elite, privileged, politically powerful and ruthless family using pagan worship and magical operations to maintain their own social, economic, and political dominance. While this understanding of the deck is historically accurate, it fails to fully appreciate the promise of the deck and the decks’ cosmology and anti-theurgical practice.

Allow me to re-present, in an undoubtedly selective manner, the nature of the deck and the magical practice it contains. At a time when the Roman Catholic Church dominated with repressive force and opposition to any pagan survivals we find a Tarot deck identifying with the anti-Roman power of pagan Carthage, the pagan Greek empire of Alexander the Great, and the most heretical of Rome’s own emperors. This deck includes homosexual implications and was intended for a gay man whose own path to power was largely blocked by religio-political opposition to his sexuality. Essentially, even if its aristocratic audience failed to appreciate it, the deck embodies a revolutionary force opposed to key figures of political tyranny and repression.

There is a deeper level at which the Sola-Busca is a useful and promisingly revolutionary force, one contained in its refreshingly worldly and anti-transcendental theology. I must confess to having worked rather a lot with the Greek Kronos and related forms of Saturn. One reason I am drawn to these divinities is because they represent an existing force that naturally opposes currently established physical and metaphysical hierarchies. Zeus, the cosmic king of the Greeks, achieved his throne by overthrowing Kronos, his father. As ancient occult practices attest, worldly change was often provoked through magicians threatening to form, or actually forming, alliances with Kronos against Zeus and the worldly kings and political structures Zeus blessed and maintained.

More than this, however, Platonism and Theurgy tend to embrace both a singular source for all political and metaphysical power (i.e. cosmic tyrannies underlying worldly ones) and rejections of the world that were to inform the Christian rejection of the body and the earth in general. The seemingly diabolical pact with the demiurge, when taken seriously rather than just as an inversion of a pre-existing Platonism, instead represents a rejection of the world-denying body-hating transcendence that has plagued Western culture for millennia. If we reject the existence of the transcendental god, we arrive at a pluralism of demiurges – a truly pagan and polytheist perspective that actually pre-exists Platonism – that this deck can be united with. Given the choice, I will side with an embrace of this world and an attempt to achieve change here and now over the rejection of the world in favor of some transcendental world-hating “gnosis” every time. Ultimately, I would argue, the Sola-Busca deck holds the potential to undermine the very elitism and class from which it arose.

Whether or not you are convinced by my gestures towards a revolutionary theological and political interpretation of the Sola-Busca Tarot deck, the historical work performed by Peter Mark Adams in The Game of Saturn is fascinating, enjoyable, and remains important for pagans. This is not least of all because the Sola-Busca is a sincerely pagan Tarot deck – undoubtedly the first such and still possibly the best such deck. The clarity with which Adams allows us to see this, and the depth with which we can appreciate it following reading his amazing and beautiful book, reveals an importantly pagan foundation for the tradition of Tarot generally.

To clarify this point, consider that though the official interpretation and theories that underly the Smith-Waite Tarot deck derive from Waite’s Golden Dawn understanding of Tarot, nonetheless Pamela Smith closely studied the Sola-Busca deck in order to inform her illustrations of the previously simple Minor Arcana pip cards. The Minor Arcana of the Smith-Waite Tarot, and the countless decks that have since derived from it, is fully “infected” by the Sola-Busca to its great benefit.

Please consider checking out The Game of Saturn at Scarlet Imprint. Scarlet Imprint is also planning to release their own edition of the Sola-Busca Tarot Deck which I anxiously await and cannot wait to have.


Kadmus

Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/ or look him up on Facebook or twitter at @starandsystem.


30 June is the last day for the pre-sale of Dr. Bones’ new book. Get it here.

A Review of “Star.Ships: A Prehistory of the Spirits”

Gordon White’s impressive book Star.Ships: A Prehistory of the Spirits has garnered extensive well-deserved attention. There have been numerous excellent reviews (for a brief selection see here, here, and here) and Gordon has not been shy about giving fascinating interviews concerning the book and all related topics (see herehere, here, herehere, and here). Gordon is also well know for his very popular high-quality blog and podcast. This leaves me facing a very odd dilemma. What can I add to this already very rich conversation? It is my belief that the best compliment one can give to a book, especially one offering as much to the reader as Star.Ships, is to engage in the territory it opens up in a serious manner that attempts to extend the conversation. This is what I will seek to offer here after offering a summary of several key points of the book I found particularly fascinating. I do not, however, propose to give an exhaustive overview of Gordon’s rich text. 

Temporal Disorientation 

GobeklitepeHeykel
Closeup of stone work at Gobekli Tepe

Star.Ships offers a new cultural history of the earliest periods of human existence with a particular focus on what we can surmise our relationships to spirits and gods looked like through an investigation of myth, religion, and architectural remains. Its scope includes our origins in Africa, the migrations that brought us to every corner of the globe including our confrontation with dramatic climate change at the ending of ice ages, until finally concluding at the cultures which many histories take as their start such as Egypt and Sumeria. In other words, the book stretches from sometime around 150,000 years ago to something like 3,000 years ago (with a nod to the Greek Magical Papyri primarily compiled during the later Hellenistic and Roman periods).

In the course of crafting this history the book proposes something of an original homeland drowned by the sea, a la Atlantis, in the location of Sundaland which once unified Borneo, Java, Sumatra, and the Malay Peninsula as one land mass. This drowning of Sundaland happened at the end of the last major Ice Age and is the book’s proposed origin for much of the world’s myths concerning the great flood. It proposes as well a history of the world’s myths in line with the book The Origins of the World’s Mythologies by E. J. Michael Witzel with phases corresponding to our time in Africa, our time in Sundaland, and then the myths developed during the diaspora following the “great flood” at the end of the Ice Age. I’ll discuss this engagement with myth a bit later.

The book takes its impetus, and indeed its organization, from the many bits and pieces of early history that don’t fit. We have evidence of tool use in Non-African parts of the world, for example, at a time before the primary migration from Africa was supposed to occur. Later we have cultural overlaps, for example in mythological content, in cultures that are not thought to have had any contact (at least for several thousand years). We have the pyramids, supposedly built over a shocking period of time by a massive workforce the evidence of which is entirely lacking. It is this collection of broken pieces of history, the enigmas and discontinuities, that lead to proposals like the “ancient aliens” explanation which Gordon is particularly interested in deflating. He does so by bringing together the best work in disparate academic areas of study in order to put forth several bold proposals that alleviate the enigmas, and thus the need, for explanation by means of Extraterrestrial Technology.

Perhaps the most fascinating of these temporal dislocations and stutters in history is the ruin of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey. This ruin shows us that, as Gordon puts it, “before we knew how to farm, before we lived in villages, before we even know how to make pots, we built a star temple on a hill.” The oldest evidence of occupation and construction at Gobekli Tepe as of now, with the real possibility of increased age as investigation continues, puts the ruin’s origin at older than twelve thousand years ago. We have dating of some of the oldest architectural structures in the ruin to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period of around eleven thousand years ago. If you just contemplate that sentence for a moment you can get a sense of what is striking about Gobekli Tepe. Before we were supposedly able to, or interested in, making pots we were making stone temples. During the period when a museum would generally depict humanity as unsophisticated hunter gathers, closer to animals than to modern society, we were crafting a complex temple. The temple, in short, predates the house or the city. It also likely involves, Gordon demonstrates, complex star-lore. 

This fairly simple fact, the significance of which is so easy to miss, offers a rather striking blow to many standard theories of the development of religion. The general materialist understanding of the rise of religion is that it is the outgrowth of the surplus time and resources that go along with the development of agriculture and the rise of the city. Before this there may have been some basic sort of religious sentiment, perhaps dealt with via a nomadic group’s spiritual representative of some sort, but it would have been a minimal affair. Gobekli Tepe, on the other hand, required many people to work for extensive periods of time in a place that doesn’t seem to have ever been permanently occupied (in other words, the people who built Gobekli Tepe didn’t live there). How do you get nomadic people to do something like that? What could the motivation be to build a permanent temple complex for a people without permanent homes to begin with? These are serious mysteries and not all of them have been fully answered, whether by Gordon’s book or others, but they lend themselves to one of Gordon’s fundamental proposals – humans have had contact with “spirits” throughout most if not all of our history and this spirit contact has gone hand in hand with key developments and changes to our culture and technology. Indeed, Gordon replaces an “alien” model with a “spirit” one. This is not at all surprising as he suggest that human history has been done a disservice by historians and scientists studying things in which they don’t believe, for example when researchers into the history of religion actively dismiss the possibility out of hand that ancient religions had anything to do with actual contact with spirits and gods. Spirits didn’t build Gobekli Tepe, or the pyramids, but they played a formative role in inspiring these works and motivating the people who did build them. And, just maybe, they also provided a bit of technical know-how along the way.

The proposal here is fascinating and brilliant. Gordon White is suggesting that we can’t understand history, not consistently or adequately, without understanding the role played by non-human communication. History has discontinuities because of intrusions from, as it were, “outside”. This is not to say that every role played by “ancient aliens” is now played by spirit communication. Gordon does as much work dismissing seeming discontinuities as he does explain them through spiritual communication. The pyramids are misdated, and were built over a longer period of time than presumed. This claim is one major example of an explanation of discontinuity which relates to Gordon’s overall work. There is resistance to this explanation because the pyramids are assumed to be royal tombs and it makes no sense for a tomb for a king to be built over several generations. However, if we are dealing instead with temples oriented to gods and spirits associated with the stars, as Gordon argues Gobekli Tepe is, then many mysterious aspects of the pyramids as well as the timeline of their construction make more sense. Indeed understanding the basic aspects of humanity’s ur-religion and ur-myths along with their connection to lore about the stars serves to clarify many ancient religious sites. 

Non-Human Logic            

Göbekli_Tepe,_Urfa
Gobekli Tepe

A common theme in the myths of many cultures is the character of a trickster god who helps found human civilization. This character of “trickster” goes well with the overall nature of non-human communication. These communications Gordon describes as “capricious, sporadic spirit contact”. If these communications are to be understood as contact with some sort of teachers they are “crack-addicted relief teachers who only show up to steal the lightbulbs in the teachers lounge.” In other words, the spirits communicate with us according to a “non-human logic” often discernible in contemporary experiences of synchronicity.

Synchronicity, or meaningful coincidence, often has the characteristic of appearing meaningful without the message being at all clear. It is equally as likely that such experiences contain the utterly ridiculous, pushing against any attempt to read them in an entirely serious manner. I recently contacted a certain spirit and, following the ritual, was filled with the need to reread Treasure Island. A day after that a friend who lived over a thousand miles away contacted me to inform me she thought I might be interested in the T.V. show “Black Sails” which is a prequel to Treasure Island. She just “felt like I might be in a Treasure Island mood”. Then I found a tattered children’s pirate flag on the streets of New York. The spirit I had contacted, incidentally, has no obvious connection with the sea or pirates, and the reason for contact had nothing to do with either. It is hard to deny the element of the absurd, the ridiculous, here. Non-human logic indeed. At other times we find deep revelations and powerful life-altering events corresponding with spirit contact. I have found that sometimes it doesn’t pay to attempt to fit all the pieces together too eagerly – here be monsters, or madness.

Ur-Myths and Ancient Thought   

Gobekli_Tepe_2
Closeup of stonework at Gobekli Tepe

Michael Witzel proposes three main periods of mythology which Gordon also uses. These are the Pan-Gaean Mythology of between 150,000 and 65,000 years ago, the Gondwana Mythology of 65,000 years ago, and the Laurasian Mythology of 40,000 years ago. Pan-Gaean mythology was developed in Africa before we left to settle other parts of the globe. Gondwana mythology consists of what we took with us from Africa to other parts of the world. In Gordon’s story this means Gondwana mythology dominates the migration to Sundaland and much of our time spent there. Then Laurasian mythology develops and is spread throughout much of the world, partially through the diaspora following the loss of Sundaland to the sea. The Laurasian period overlaps with the development of Gobekli Tepe.

Gordon provides us with an excellent summary of the content of the myths for each of these periods along with a breakdown of what type of star lore and religious “technology” was likely evident in the societies of the time. Ultimately the myths serve to clarify ambiguous archeological findings even as archeological findings are used to help fill out details about the societies that would have held to these myths. This careful reconstructive work is one of the richest and most useful of the entire book in my opinion.

One of Gordon’s continual arguments throughout the book is that the people of this “pre-historical” period were more advanced than we give them credit for, a point supported by Gordon’s well crafted demonstration that they had extensive star lore which was used for everything from guiding hunting to navigation at sea. Indeed here the dramatic flooding due to the ending of the ice age from 12,000 B.C.E. to 6,000 B.C.E. plays a major role. Geological study reveals that some of the flooding would have been very sudden and catastrophic, it also shows that there were periods when the sea receded for generations before flowing back in again. The bottom line is that any coastal civilization, which indeed most civilizations have been for most of history, before 6,000 B.C.E. would be lost to us. Not surprisingly, Gordon points out, after 6,000 B.C.E. we suddenly have the appearance of civilization in the areas we are used to reading about it in history while there seems to be almost nothing before this period except for mysterious spots like Gobekli Tepe.

It is in the engagement with pre-historic myth and religion that I would like to make my humble potential contribution. Despite our tendency to underestimate these very ancient cultures, a point on which I strongly agree with Gordon, there is something they lacked that has a profound effect on the cognitive activity of a human culture. They lacked a full writing system. Gordon stresses through his book that the brain structure of our earliest ancestors was very similar to our own, if not more developed in certain ways. He also works to show that there are extensive overlaps in the human response to various drug experiences likely connected to early religious experiences as well as more standard mystical experiences connected with spirit communication. Indeed one of Gordon’s main pushes is against what he understands as the postmodern tendency to insist that cultures are radically distinct such that we couldn’t develop an understanding to something like an Ur-Mythology or collective origin. Repeatedly Gordon stresses overlap, connection, and commonality. I would like to focus on orality as another thing that united the cultures Gordon is interested in, but it is a commonality they shared that we do not which I fear can be more meaningful than neurological overlap. I would suggest that while, of course, neurological makeup is rather important the tools we use to think through and with are just as determinative of how and what we think. The most influential such tool-for-thinking has been language and the most important distinction within languages is that between the purely oral and the written. 

The classicists G. S. Kirk and Eric Havelock have both done extensive work, following the lead of Milman Parry, in analyzing the influence of a culture’s orality upon its cognitive and philosophical capabilities. One of the best sources for this type of analysis is Havelock’s Preface to Plato which seeks to trace the birth of abstract philosophical thinking in the transition from the oral period of Greek history to the development of a literate society. An oral society, Havelock powerfully argues, is incapable of saying or thinking any verb as a timeless copula. There is no cognitive grasp of “being” or universality, which means as well that there is no idea of timeless natural structures or laws. The discourse of oral societies “consists of a vast plurality of acts and events, not integrated into chained groups of cause and effect, but rather linked associatively in endless series.” Knowledge, for an oral society, “constitutes a ‘many’: it cannot submit to that abstract organization which groups ‘manys’ into ‘one’.” (Preface to Plato p. 183) A key reason for this is the pressure exerted by the need to preserve cultural knowledge via memory through the concrete and formulaic tools of poetic performance. This distinction between the cognitive behavior of oral and written cultures is as fundamental as it is hard for a literate society to grasp. The most basic default orientation of our thinking, namely assumption of the universal and unchanging as the basis for the changing and particular, was entirely foreign to fully oral cultures. 

I believe this has rather extensive implications for the characterization and understanding of the three phases of Ur-Myth. Witzel calls the Gondwana myths a “forest of stories” while the Laurasian offer us the “first novel”. The stories found in the Gondwana forest are timeless, and each story stands generally apart from the others with no clear sense of a beginning or end to the universe or its structure. The Laurasian first novel unifies these stories into a whole with a sense of historical structure and both a beginning and end to the series in the creation and destruction of the world or cosmos. The lessons of a study of orality suggests that this contrast is likely overstated. Consider, for example, that despite appearances the much later works attributed to Homer, which were original oral, don’t form anything like a “novel” despite appearances. Ancient Epics start en media res because this is a foundational aspect of oral cognitive process. Reality is grasped as a web of events, a series of series, without ultimate beginning or end. All events, indeed, are seen in this way precisely as the epic sees the Trojan war. So, the stories of beginnings and ends supposedly found in the Laurasian first novel are in need of, at the very least, a more complicated reading along with the very idea of a “first novel” as a unification. A similar point can be made about several aspects of the Pan-Gaean myth, the supposedly original myth cycle, which seems to contain abstract concepts highly unlike to be formulated in an oral culture such as that of an ultimate “creator god”.

Conclusion 

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Vulture getting ready to strike by Demitri Markine

Gordon White’s book is a massive achievement and should be of great use to anyone wishing to understand human religion, magic, or culture against a larger background than has been available previously. I regret that I have not had the time to touch upon anywhere nears as many of the book’s fascinating aspects, for example the extensive discussion of the Yezidis and their relation to some of the world’s oldest myths, as I would have liked. I highly encourage you to pick it up for yourself, not only is it excellently researched, supported, and argued it is also written in a manner that makes reading it a continual pleasure.

I should end, I feel, with a brief reflection on the book’s purpose. Gordon insists that the purpose of book is the “restoration of context” as, indeed, is the purpose of what is often understood as the “occult revival” occurring largely in connection with Scarlet Imprint Publishing (though of course not exclusively through them). The goal is to understand better what we are doing and why, to see how our current practices and beliefs fit into the historical story and through this to better understand our own spiritual lives and practices. In pursuit of this goal Scarlet Imprint has offered a strikingly coherent series of titles each pursuing a different fragment of our lost history. Stratton-Kent’s Encyclopedia Goetica brought us from elements of our contemporary occult culture back to the ancient world of the Mediterranean, Peter Grey’s Lucifer Princeps brought us into the prehistory of one of the most important figures in Middle Eastern religious thought and back behind Biblical tradition, and Gordon White daringly starts at the limit of his colleagues’ investigations in order to add a paltry hundred thousand years or so to the record. Gordon’s work is daring, a little bit mad, and very successful. 


Kadmus

Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/ or look him up on twitter at @starandsystem .


 

      

Behind the Revolutionary, the Revolt

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A Review of Lucifer: Princeps, by Peter Grey (Scarlet Imprint, 2015)

The most insidious aspects of the authoritarian regime depicted in George Orwell’s book, 1984, is not the shifting of language, nor the omnipresent surveillance, nor the visceral torture by rat-cage, nor even the permanent state of ahistoricity foisted upon the people of Oceania. Rather, the most terrifying—and most prescient for our current Late-Stage Capitalist empires– is the troublesome matter of the clandestine revolutionary, Emmanuel Goldstein.

In that novel, the protagonists attempt to escape the hegemonic oppression of Oceania by searching for the leader of the liberation movement hated so severely by Big Brother.  But in the end, they learn that the scapegoat upon whom all the failures of the regime are placed, may not have existed at all.

The matter is left ambiguous—it is the Authority itself which claims to have created the Luciferian figure (which Orwell himself crafted from his own distaste for anarchist Emma Goldman), but how can such an Authority be trusted?

Emmanuel Goldstein, then, if the rulers of Oceania are to be believed, is what Lacanian psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek understood as a generated opposition. In his readings of St. Paul’s letter, the atheist Marxist expounds upon Paul’s attempts to describe the existence of sin through the founding of law.

What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. (Romans 7:7, KJV)

What Paul appears to argue is that the very existence of a Law (such as ‘thou shalt not covet’) defines the boundary between what is sin and what is not, and without such a law, sin can be unknown. What Zizek later extracts, important more for an understanding of modern Capitalism than for the Bible, is that a stricture generates its opposite specifically because there is now a law against the thing.

Consider so-called ‘radical Islam,’ which stands in opposition to the continued incursions of European and Anglo-American Capitalism in the Middle East. Radical Islam does not exist as a thing at all; there are those who follow Wahhabi teachings, or argue for strict understandings of Islamic Sharia law, or wish to establish new political orders modeled after the Moorish and Turkish Caliphates, or the particularly terrifying Daesh being resisted by the Anarcho-Marxist PKK.  But “Radical Islam,” is a Liberal Capitalist short-hand for any Muslim-identified group which uses violence to resist or oppose the West.

That is, the West generated its own opposition by naming all opposition to it in the Middle East as ‘Radical Islam,’ and also has variously funded warlords and ideologues in proxy-struggles who then, when they turn upon their backers in the United States, become part of the circumscribed opposition.

But this does not mean Liberal Capitalist nations are faking their opposition, only that they’ve channeled the narratives of their enemies into an easily-identified (yet eternally irrespressible) foe of their own naming. Like the ambiguous existence of Emmanuel Goldstein’s ‘Brotherhood,’ Radical Islam both does and does not exist.

Such opposition to Authoritarian order will always exist the moment Authority is established—like Paul’s understanding of sin and law, it is the very thou shalt not which creates the “I shall anyway.” But as in Orwell, the most affective Hegemonic Authorities then name and define the rebels who seek to de-throne them, a dualistic trap seen in George W. Bush’s ‘either with us or with the terrorists.’

Behind the Revolutionary, the Revolt

With that understanding and a familiarity with Critical Studies and Historiography, Peter Grey’s Lucifer: Princeps is an incredibly rewarding book. It is not an easy text, but no mystery is ever easy.

Those looking for the ‘historical’ Lucifer in these pages will be as disappointed at those thumbing through the hundreds of books purporting to unveil the ‘true Jesus.’For such things, one might as well also ask a historian for a true account of the life and times of Ceridwen, or archeological evidence for Ariadne’s birth and death.

Yet those looking for Lucifer will certainly find him, in a manner similar to Winston Smith finding Emmanuel Goldstein or soldiers of the United States finding the terrorists they were sent to kill– a truth both raw and incomprehensible until the very thing you are looking for is forgotten, replaced by the brutal reality of insurgency obliterating the body, overthrowing the Authority, and torching the cities.

Likewise, a reader hoping for an easy path to unraveling the mystery of Lucifer outside the Biblical texts or discourses on the political climate of early Mesopotamia will be precisely missing the real magic of Grey’s work.  Like the fraught, climatic unveilings in 1984, Grey meticulously–and slowly–unravels the historical and religious processes which obscured ancient magical and spiritual forms, appearing each time to lead down a false path to a dead end.  And yet each apparent non-answer gathers to form the question we didn’t know to ask.

The story repeats throughout the pages of this work, a story we already know because we live it.  Ancient cults crushed by state-priests in distant Mesopotamian cities is nothing unfamiliar, for it is the everyday life of the urban poor, the displaced indigene, the low-waged worker, or the would-be re-wilder: always our attempts to become the meaning of the world are stolen and re-written into a narrative of The Enemy.

In searching for Lucifer, we learn just as much about those who re-made him as we do about the fallen kings and the demonized gods.  Reading Bibical (and apocryphal) texts as a political history unveils the processes by which Authority crafts the Heretic from the screams and flesh of heretics, the Whore from the menstrual blood and dangling bangles of whores.  From these pages could just as easily be crafted a grimoire of Authority as a narrative of the witch, but those seeking easily-grasped Power-Over will be as frustrated as those hoping to summon the Lucifer we were told opposed the True God.

The creation of Yahweh as Hegemonic god and state founding-myth becomes as interesting as the composite figure of Lucifer, and integral to finding the path out of the relentless false-stops.  Particularly the opening to Grey’s dissection of Deuteronomy is worth quoting:

Deuteronomy is delivered in the form of the purported sermons of Moses.  Though ostensibly a book of law, at heart it is an attempt to explain away the consistent and crushing failures of Yahweh….

…Deuteronomy appeals to the state origin myth of Moses and the promise of a land to be ruled by their god, recounting the bloody conquest of an already occupied territory of Canaan.  Here is a god who brooks no rivals.  This rousing account of entitlement and slaughter, or inflexible law and order, would have been sustenance for the exiles who returned, radicalised, to build the state of Israel.

…The combined texts were designed to provide the only explanation for failure, that is was not Yahweh who had broken his covenant, but the people who had not submitted to the justice of his yoke.” (p. 57)

Similar to Zizek’s notion of the generated opposition, we begin to find, also, that just as the state priests further craft political myths to defend Yahweh from the rebel, the rebel begins to become an inextricable shadow of Yahweh.  As the authoritarian state in 1984 relied on the ‘2 Minutes Hate’ and their crafting of Emmanual Goldstein to keep the populace subservient, Lucifer becomes, for Yahweh, an enemy whose power increases from that reliance.

And here then, at the end of the chapter aptly named The Key, is revealed the deep magic of Lucifer: Princeps.  Grey deftly weaves not only biblical narratives but confluent narratives such as Atrahasis into a revelatory tapestry displaying precisely who it was the priests were so afraid of:

After the deluge, the gods regulate the population by means of sterility, stillbirth, infant mortality and the office of the chaste priestess.  Whilst this appears to give credence to the over-population thesis, we cannot cleave this from the blood song of rebellion.  Silvia Federici’s reading of the early modern witch hunts shows that social and sexual control are intrinsically linked.  I suggest there is a similar authoritarian dynamic at work here.  Like Genesis, Atrahasais is a discourse on the limits of human powers and the establishment of a covenant.  Yet for oath breakers, it provides a vista of our divine inheritance, should we wish to opposed the tyranny of kings.  It falls upon some generations to renew the war, and thus the pact. (p. 105)

Lest the occultist suspect Peter Grey’s work is merely political, there’s significant enough reference and threads of ritual (the second volume, Lucifer: Praxis, is slated to “transform into ritual actions” the knowledge of the first) to whet such appetites.  But the book is hardly only for them, and those seeking feasts of the sort of power Authority wields will likely finish more ravenous than they began.

Although an esoteric work, Lucifer:Princeps is possibly even more brilliant as an initiatory guide to an uprising, assuming the reader, upon hearing Authority’s claim to be the creators of the Revolutionary, has the courage to become the revolt they’re seeking.

The True Western Occult Tradition? A Review of Jake Stratton-Kent’s “Encyclopedia Goetica”

Jake Stratton-Kent’s Encyclopedia Goetica is a monumental achievement, but more than that it is of vital importance for practicing occultists, pagans, and all those who fall into both categories. A work spanning three official volumes stretched across five actual books, it is an invaluable addition to occult history, theory, and practice. I intend to offer, in this review, an extensive and careful consideration of the full sweep of the project but if you are waiting for the bottom line allow me to say at the beginning that anyone interested in western occultism and paganism must read these books. They are probably the most impressive occult works to be written in my lifetime.

Covers of the “Geosophia” from Scarlet Imprint

The Grimoire Revival and Bibliotheque Rouge

First allow me to provide you with some context. One cannot fully appreciate the Encyclopedia without first understanding its place in the grimoire revival and one can’t consider this revival without considering the vital role played by the publishing company Scarlet Imprint and its subdivision Bibliotheque Rouge.

The grimoire revival is a movement made up of numerous practical occultists and occult scholars who are offering a renewed interest and investigation into the grimoire tradition in Europe and the Afro-Caribbean context. The revival is a diverse business but at its heart is the attempt to take seriously the full scope of mainly Renaissance and later popular occult works commonly referred to as grimoires and frequently claiming medieval or ancient origins. When discussing grimoire magic amidst most practicing occultists the immediate references are likely to be three well known texts: The Greater Key of Solomon, The Lesser Key of Solomon (frequently called The Goetia), and The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage. The grimoire revival, on the other hand, seeks to expand its view to take seriously texts frequently underutilized or dismissed by the British and French members of the late 19th and early 20th century Occult Revival (for example Eliphas Levi, the members of the Golden Dawn such as Macgregor Mathers and, of course, Aleister Crowley). These texts include the incredibly important Arabic Picatrix, the Sworn Book of Honorius, the Black Pullet, the Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy, the Eighth Book of Moses, the Grand Grimoire, and the works which are Stratton-Kent’s focus: the True Grimoire or Griumoirium Verum, the Great Book of Saint Cyprian, the Heptameron or Magical Elements and the Testament of Solomon.

The basic argument of the grimoire revival is two-fold. First that the popularity of the three most well known grimoires has obscured some of their inadequacies and thus offered an incomplete understanding of the practices the grimoires are trying to teach and, second, that the neglect of other grimoires has kept us from actually understanding the historical importance and nature of the grimoires themselves. Stratton-Kent’s work, as in my opinion the central edifice thus far of the revival, offers a corrected historical understanding of the nature and role of the magic contained in the grimoires, a far more complete picture of the practical methods to be employed, and frequent corrections to the names and symbols of the spirits employed. It also offers an edition of its own of The True Grimoire (completed through integration with the Grand Grimoire), Great Book of Saint Cyprian, The Confession of Saint Cyprian and the Testament of Solomon as well as numerous selections from the Heptameron or Magical Elements, the Picatrix and The Greek Magical Papyri amongst other texts.

The grimoire tradition, as pointed out by Stratton-Kent, primarily shows up in print in two main forms. These are aristocratic texts of primarily angelic magic of Qabalistic/Christian occult theory and the popularly printed texts of the Bibliotheque Bleue genre that were cheap publications for the general public from early modern France (between 1600 and the mid-1800s) with similar types of texts found in Italy, Spain and Portugal. Bibliotheque Bleue and similar publishing businesses offered for the first time texts affordable for, and aimed at, the general public amongst which were many of the “pulp” or “low” grimoires seemingly dealing with treasure hunting, the summoning forth of demons, and the like. As an outgrowth of the printing press, the appearance of these mass-produced texts was a highly important historical event with which the publishing company Scarlet Imprint has aligned itself with its Bibliotheque Rouge. While Scarlet Imprint prints high-quality (and expensive) occult works as beautiful as they are important Bibliotheque Rouge offers affordable copies of the same texts for the general use of the public much as Bibliotheque Bleue did. If Bibliotheque Blue gave rise to the grimoire tradition in modern Europe as we know it, Bibliotheque Rouge seeks to give rise to its rebirth. The occult world is greatly indebted to Alkistis Dimech and Peter Grey, the founders of Scarlet Imprint and Bibliotheque Rouge.

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The General Argument

Stratton-Kent’s general argument is the following: The grimoires represent a survival of primarily ancient pagan occult and religious practices over which a thin veneer of Qabalah and Christianity has been added. This veneer, including its talk of demons and angels, can be stripped away to uncover the true pagan occult tradition beneath the surface of the texts. This reveals that the grimoire revival, at least as far as it appears in Stratton-Kent, is at the same time a great pagan revival which recognizes pagan religious practices at the very heart of all of Europe’s occult tradition and history. Magic, to put it too simply and bluntly while perhaps overstating the point, is really pagan and was dressed up in monotheist clothing for many reasons including practical political concerns such as avoiding the stake.

The full scope of this argument will involve tracing the grimoires back to The Greek Magical Papyri, restoring the central role of necromantic dealings with spirits of the dead to occult practice, and exploring the promising connection between the use the grimoires have been put to in an Afro-Caribbean context preserving the native paganism of the Americas and Africa beneath a Christian cover and the actual origins of the grimoires themselves in a similar process. Ultimately we find the grimoire practices to consist of a surviving ancient shamanism like that practiced by ancient goetes (a Greek term from which goetia derives, frequently applied to non-aristocratic wandering magicians practicing a pre-classical form of ancient paganism).

The books of the Encyclopedia Goetica

Outline of the Encyclopedia

The Encyclopedia Goetica consists of three volumes: The True Grimoire; Geosophia: The Argo of Magic, From the Greeks to the Grimoires; and The Testament of Cyprian the Mage. The first consists of one book and the second two volumes consist of two books a piece. The first and last volume (The True Grimoire and The Testament of Cyprian the Mage) are the most practically minded and focus primarily on exploring actual grimoires and their underlying meaning. Ultimately The True Grimoire is the text most easily applied to occult practice and I have used aspects of it over the last few months with rather striking results. The Geosophia, on the other hand, is the most theoretical and historical of the volumes and lays out in excellent and careful detail the nature of the ancient shamanic tradition of the Goetes that Stratton-Kent is uncovering in the grimoires. The True Grimoire and Testament will teach you how to do things while the Geosophia teaches what exactly you are historically doing and why.

TrueGrimoireThe True Grimoire

Stratton-Kent starts his Encyclopedia with an investigation of the The True Grimoire for several reasons. First, as he convincingly argues, it is the most complete version of the original lost text or collection of sources/traditions on which The Lesser Key of Solomon, a.k.a. the Goetia, and the Grand Grimoire are both based. In fact, The Lesser Key is likely derived from The True Grimoire. (It is worth noting, however, that Stratton-Kent rejects the ultimate claim that there is one originating text that is the true Key of Solomon which has been lost, instead he presents the idea that the title Key of Solomon marks more of a genre with interconnecting sources.) By combining The True Grimoire and the Grand Grimoire Stratton-Kent is able to complete the full spiritual hierarchy of the original manuscript with a total of 79 spirits and the full meaning of their differences in rank and relationships of authority, ruler to subordinate. This clearly deflates the common attempts (in which I have participated myself) to correlate the 72 spirits of The Lesser Key of Solomon with the 72 angels and names of God derived from the Qabalistic Shemhamphorasch. This, similarly, removes one common piece of support for a monotheistic understanding of the grimoire tradition while deflating the focus on The Lesser Key of Solomon.

Second, The True Grimoire includes practical methodological details lacking in the other versions of the text. The two key aspects here are the presence of an intermediary spirit used to get in touch with all the other spirits of the text and the use of the “Armadel” method about which I will say more in a moment. The intermediary spirit is known as Scirlin who acts as the door-keeper and messenger of the other spirits. Stratton-Kent is quick to point out the overlap here of the intermediary role played by figures such as Legba and Exu in Afro-Caribbean traditions; Janus, Hecate and Anubis in ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian traditions; and, of course, the Holy Guardian Angel in The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage. There is also an overlap with the role played by Uriel in another part of The True Grimoire entitled “Divination by the Word of Uriel” in which the angel is used to contact any spirit (though likely primarily the spirits of the dead, considering Uriel’s frequent role as Angel of Death) the magician wishes. This use of an intermediary is, Stratton-Kent argues, an ancient pagan methodology whose neglect both obscures the ancient pagan pedigree of the grimoires and impoverishes the coherence of the ritual procedures of texts lacking it.

The Armadel method is largely what we have come to understand as skrying: the use of a bowl of water, ink, crystal or mirror for the attainment of visions. In The True Grimoire this method is used by calling spirits into the skrying surface, a practice which plays such a large role for example in the Enochian work of John Dee and Edward Kelley. This presence of skrying in The True Grimoire is important for several reasons. First, it allows the text to offer two methods for contacting spirits: the standard evocation using a traditional circle etc. and the use of skrying. Second, it shows up in The True Grimoire as one of the first and oldest presentations extant of the method in the grimoires thus stressing the important of this particular grimoire for occult history in general. Third, and finally, it offers yet another tie to the ancient pagan world.

The discussion of skrying brings us to one of the central pieces of Stratton-Kent’s overall argument, namely that the grimoires represent the survival of occult methods found in the ancient Greek Magical Papyri that themselves, Stratton-Kent later argues, represent preservations of even older pagan religious practices. I will say more about this second part of the argument in my discussion of the Geosophia but, for now, let me discuss The Greek Magical Papyri and the presence of skrying within it along with Stratton-Kent’s fascinating speculation as to the intermediary role skrying plays within the history of the development (or decline) of pagan religion.

The so-called Greek Magical Papyri are a collection of magical texts dating approximately from the seven hundred year time period stretching between the second century B.C.E. to the fifth century C.E. The papyri are the product of several different periods of cosmopolitan cultural interaction and blending throughout the Mediterranean region deriving largely from the cultural unification provided by the conquests of Alexander the Great which lead to the exceptionally culturally diverse Hellenistic period of Ancient history and, of course, the complex cultural mixing of the Roman Empire. As the product of these cosmopolitan eras the papyri are not exclusively, or even individually, Greek despite their common name. They are written primarily in the Greek, Demotic and Coptic languages making them just as much Egyptian Magical Papyri as Greek ones and there are signs of both translation from Egyptian languages into the Greek and from Greek into Egyptian languages. But even this dualism is inaccurate as the texts are almost entirely syncretic, i.e. they openly contain and unify elements of almost every culture and religion involved in the cosmopolitan eras from the obvious Greek and Egyptian to Hebrew, Christian, Roman, Zoroastrian and many other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures besides. It is not at all unusual to find in them, in fact it is rather the standard procedure, Hebrew and Christian names of God and angels blended with invocations of Apollo and Horus.

It is Stratton-Kent’s argument, and a pretty conclusive one at that, that the Grimoire Tradition is a survival and development of the eclectic blending of traditions represented in The Greek Magical Papyri. In the Geosophia he will go further back in history to investigate the nature and origin of the Papyri practices themselves, but for now this should be a sufficient discussion of the subject. To establish the link between the early modern grimoires, especially The True Grimoire, and the Magicial Papyri Stratton-Kent focuses on the topic of skrying, i.e. the Armadel method. This method shows up extensively within the Magical Papyri and in a form closely resembling that of The True Grimoire. Most simply the method is as follows: the magician or the magician and a seer that has been selected for the job sit with a skrying surface (water, ink, mirror, crystal, etc.) and an intermediary spirit is called into the surface (Scirlin, Uriel, Anubis, etc.). This intermediary then brings forth at the magicians request the other spirits whose presence is desired. The unification of the intermediary spirit and the Armadel method are, as Stratton-Kent explains, a central structure of The True Grimoire and likely also a missing or unstated key aspect of many of the other grimoires. In the Magical Papyri there is usually a bit more involved in this ritual. The intermediary spirit, once it appears, is first asked to set up a ritual scene. Often the request is for the spirit to set up a banquet with a set amount of chairs and so on. Then the spirit invites in a company of the gods, or spirits, to feast and celebrate after which the desired spirit can be spoken to for whatever purposes the magician has in mind. This method can similar be applied to the spirits of the dead as well. What makes this aspect so fascinating is, as Stratton-Kent points out, the extent to which it provides the performance of a full sacrifice and pagan ritual without the use of an actual temple, offering and so on. In other words, it places the role of pagan priest into the hands of the magician and allows a full large-scale religious ceremony to be performed in one’s own study. One can see the value of this, for example, for pagans living far from city centers with their own temple precincts and staff of priests or for those living in a context (political and social) which no longer facilitates or allows for the full practice of old collective pagan ceremonies. The common occult method of skrying, then, arises from a development, or decline, of standard pagan ceremony once the open practice of the various cults of the gods became for many reasons no longer as accessible.

These elements of The True Grimoire allow Stratton-Kent both to make a powerful argument that the entire grimoire tradition must be understand from the foundation of the Magical Papyri and that the practices from those Papyri are necessary to complete the missing elements of the grimoires. It also makes clear the pagan, or at least wildly syncretic, nature of the grimoire tradition though the argument will push beyond this in the Geosophia.

On top of this complex and powerful argument, Stratton-Kent’s The True Grimoire is useful because it provides us with a completed version of the text and system along with extensive discussions of the origin of various important spirits. This unpacking of the origin and nature of the grimoire spirits continues throughout the Encyclopedia Goetica with, for example, an extensive investigation of the spirit Astaroth and her (yes, her) derivation from the Semetic goddess Astarte, her relationship to the Sumerian goddess Inanna and the Greek Hecate and Artemis, and so on while the first book of The Testament of Cyprian the Mage contains similar extensive investigations into the history, derivation and nature of spirits such as Asmodeus and Oriens.

Finally The True Grimoire concludes with a discussion of the connection between the grimoires and Afro-Caribbean traditions in the Americas including a brief presentation of the influence and overlap of spirits from the grimoire with the Exus of the Brazilian cult of Quimbanda which derived several of its symbols for the Exus from the symbols for the spirits in The True Grimoire.

Jason being regurgitated by the snake who keeps the Golden Fleece. Red-figured cup by Douris, c. 480-470 BC. From Cerveteri (Etruria)

Geosophia

The two volumes of the Geosophia are exceptionally rich. In fact, I can’t help but understate the impressive achievement these books represent. Were the rest of the Encylcopedia nonexistent the Geosophia would stand as an invaluable work on pagan and occult history in its own right. I have studied ancient culture and philosophy extensively at both the college and graduate levels, I have presented and published on ancient philosophy in an academic context, and still there was much in the Geosophia that was surprising, innovative and exciting. If I were to criticize the work it could only be for containing too much – it is a work that requires repeated and careful study – and so I cannot hope to offer anything near a complete presentation of its content. It will have to suffice to present those key aspects I found most interesting and valuable while presenting those necessary elements for carrying Stratton-Kent’s argument forward. Before I do so, however, let me point out that those of my readers who are most interested in pagan religion, practices and history rather than the contemporary use of grimoires will be best served by the Geosophia rather than the other works. You are bound to find some rather striking insights about the history and nature of Ancient Mediterranean paganism.

The overall purpose of the Geosophia is to offer in investigation into the history of goetia and its origins understood as a distinct occult and religious tradition. The books themselves are organized via an investigation of the journey taken by Jason and the Argonauts as presented in the Hellenistic epic the Argonautica written by Apollonius of Rhodes who was a librarian at the great library of Alexandria. The mythic journey of the Argonauts provides a basic structure to the book as it provides a narrative line allowing Stratton-Kent to investigate the history and traditions related to the various heroes involved, locations visited and events undergone in the text.

The broad strokes of Stratton-Kent’s investigation is the uncovering of the nature of the goetes, or ancient shamanic magicians from which the term Goetia derives, through the presentation of an extensive conflict in the ancient world between Chthonic and Olympian religion. The main argument is that the older religion, from which much of the mystery cults derive as well, was primarily focused on the earth, underworld and spirits of the dead. It was also largely a localized religion with distinct variations based upon the history, heroes and gods of given populations. These ancient chthonic religious variations were also, if I might say so, largely the religion “of the people”. With the rise of the city-state, however, new political forces attempted to achieve cultural unity and power via a transformation of the more diffuse local cults into the official Olympian city centered religion of the Classical era.

The move from Chthonic to Olympian religion transformed the character and meaning of many gods, and some of the most important older gods were also derided and given lower rank in the new pantheons. I’ll offer two of Stratton-Kent’s main examples though he offers numerous careful and important aspects of this process. Apollo, now known as a sun god of the Olympian pantheon, doesn’t really seem to fit this role. Stratton-Kent points out, for example, that Apollo is primarily depicted with a silver bow that is a rather odd accouterment for a sun god. It seems to more easily fit a chthonic or lunar correspondence. Furthermore, within the oldest depictions of Apollo, for example that of Homer, no mention is made of Apollo’s solar nature but instead he seems to be depicted primarily as a warrior god of disease. In Homer the only sun god discussed is Helios, which of course provokes the question why another sun god is necessary. As a darker more Chthonic warrior god of disease we see Apollo’s older meaning before it was transformed into that of a solar god.

The god Hephaestus undergoes transformation as well, and this transformation is central to Stratton-Kent’s argument. Hephaestus is a rather laughable character in the Olympian pantheon. He is crippled, the gods are often literally depicted laughing at him, his wife cheats on him with other gods, and so on. This official role, however, belies his massive importance and widespread popularity as a very important god in local cults. In fact Stratton-Kent argues that Hephaestus is one of the most important gods of the older Chthonic religion and ties this into an argument that the older religion and its wandering goetes practitioners derive from the religio-magical cults of metal working tribes throughout the Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern world. This is, similarly, the origin of the classes of prophetic and metal working heroes-become-gods known as the Dactyls which feature prominently in Stratton-Kent’s argument. Phrygia plays a central role in this regard.

As Stratton-Kent presents it, the practice of the goetes predates and extends well beyond Greece and Rome while, nonetheless, providing the basis of both civilizations’ original religion. It is for this reason that I keep using awkward phrases like “Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern religion” rather than talking about, for example, Ancient Greece exclusively. Stratton-Kent’s history and vision refreshingly extends well beyond these stifling and artificial boundaries. We see this, for example, in his connecting the origin of Apollo to the same origin of the angel Michael, namely the Canaanite warrior and plague deity Reshef.

Stratton-Kent’s argument expands beyond gender boundaries as well as regional ones. He focuses extensively on a discussion of each of the numerous female prophet-sorceresses known as the Sibyls. Here we see the goetes as female and male regional and traveling shamans.

In his Introduction to The Greek Magical Papyri Hans Dieter Betz describes the content of the Hellenic and Roman period papyri in the following manner:

“In effect, it is a new religion altogether, displaying unified religious attitudes and beliefs. As an example, one may mention the enormously important role of the gods and goddesses of the underworld… it is characteristic of the Hellenistic syncretism of the Greek magical papyri that the netherworld and its deities had become one of its most important concerns. The goddess Hekate, identical with Persephone, Selene, Artemis, and the old Babylonian goddess Ereschigal, is one of the deities most often invoked in the papyri… Hermes, Aphrodite, and even the Jewish god Iao, have in many respects become underworld deities. In fact, human life seems to consist of nothing but negotiations in the antechamber of death and the world of the dead. The underworld deities, the demons and the spirits of the dead, are constantly and unscrupulously invoked and exploited as the most important means of achieving the goals of human life on earth…” (The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation p. xlvi)

One way to understand Stratton-Kent’s argument is to see that while Betz’s description of the character of the culture of the papyri is correct he is incorrect in the suggestion that this represents a new religion. Instead, Stratton-Kent demonstrates, the papyri represent something of a survival and renewal of the old Chthonic religion which predates the official religions of the various cities and nations of the Classical era. Of course the syncretism of Hellenism and Rome add new names and dimensions to the practices, but it is important to recognize the extensive syncretic nature of the earliest aspects of the old Chthonic religion as well.

To return to the grimoire tradition, then, we can say that if the grimoires represent a survival of the tradition of the Magical Papyri and these papyri similarly represent a survival of the pre-Classical religions then the grimoire tradition of goetia is the continuation of the Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern’s oldest, even, primordial religious practices. The oldest religion, then, is goetic magic and it is deeply necromantic, focusing extensively on dealing with the dead. In this regard we can state that the spirits of the early modern grimoires such as The True Grimoire are each one of three things. They are elementals, spirits of the dead especially past heroes, and pagan gods and goddesses, keeping in mind of course that frequently these categories overlap with gods having elemental aspects or being derived from the deified dead.

Amidst the process of presenting this larger historical narrative Stratton-Kent offers us innumerable valuable insights and details about magical and pagan traditions and practices. Amongst these are, for example, the argument that the role played by two recurrent types of magical operations in the grimoires are not at all what they might seem. The grimoires frequently include types of magic to find buried treasure and achieve invisibility. Stratton-Kent presents the interpretation that these are, in fact, the remains of old rituals of shamanic import designed to achieve access to the underworld. The underworld, traditionally populated with various guardians and dangers, could be accessed through spells to find “buried” (i.e. underworld) treasures and the protective role of invisibility which would allow one to sneak past, as it were, the underworld guardians. A similar fascinating discussion revolves around the history and role of volcanoes as doorways to the underworld and the unique genre of volcano magic that shows up in the grimoire tradition. Stratton-Kent provides interesting examples of this volcano magic.

Finally, as an additional step in the movement from the magical papyri to the early modern grimoires Stratton-Kent discusses the role of the 10th or 11th Century Arabic grimoire the Picatrix and its presentation of astrological occult lore including, for example, the lunar mansions and planetary hours of the day and night. Towards this end Stratton-Kent inserts into his text useful selections from the Picatrix itself.

Saint Cyprian engaged in exorcism.

The Testament of Cyprian the Mage

Where The True Grimoire represents the French and Italian segments of the grimoire tradition the move to a discussion of the several grimoires related to Saint Cyprian serve the role of shifting to the Spanish and Portuguese aspects of the tradition that have played a massive role in influencing the occult traditions of the Afro-Caribbean and South America. Stratton-Kent’s investigation of the history of Saint Cyprian, the several grimoires connected with his name, and the question of what would have influenced the thought of and populated the book shelves of the mythical Saint Cyprian and the compilers of his history provides Stratton-Kent with the opportunity to discuss the history stretching from the writing of the Magical Papyri to the Renaissance beginnings of the grimoire tradition proper.

The goetic tradition derives its negative connotation from an extensive history of rather literal demonization. The spirits and gods are turned into demons and the practice itself is set off from “respectable” occult practices. The start of this division is the war between the Chthonic and Olympian religions in the ancient world but its Hellenized and early Christian version arises in the conflict between goetia and its generally neoplatonic opposite, theurgy. Theurgy is generally understood to be the art of uniting with gods or God, climbing as it were the ladder to the heavens, while goetia is commonly understood as the art of working with demons and is grouped along with necromancy, or working with the dead. We get here a clear contrast between the higher and lower, the divine and demonic.

The contrast between theurgy and goetia is, however, the history of a deception as Stratton-Kent’s work in Geosophia has well prepared us to see. If the origin of the “demons” of goetia is gods and the deified dead then goetia is frequently about contact and/or union with the divine. Another distinction between theurgy and goetia is based on the “lowly” or worldly nature of goetic goals. But, as Stratton-Kent demonstrates, theurgy often enough aimed at various worldly goals as well while, on the other hand, goetia can be understood to itself have higher religious and eschatological goals (and, of course, most of the lowly worldly goals of goetia are hardly what they seem). We can see this particularly clearly when we consider that theurgy largely develops from the mystery cults of the ancient world while these cults themselves developed from the earlier practices of the goetes.

Allow me to offer an illustration of some of the eschatological/religious goals of goetia that have to do with the nature of the dead and the underworld. In Homer’s depiction of Odysseus’ journey to the underworld we get to see the fate of most of the spirits of the dead. In general the dead find themselves in a rather sad state, they become speechless and personality-less shades. But this is not the fate of all of them. The prophet Tiresias, for example, is able to maintain his wisdom and identity in Hades along with many humans who become unworld judges and other honored figures. This becomes a main goal of the ancient mystery cults and goetia, the ability to maintain one’s full existence into the afterlife. The path to this goal was often laid through a process of “dying” in life through initiation and shamanic visionary experience. When one visits Hades while alive one prepares to remain, in some sense, alive when one goes there in the afterlife. This is the sense in which not all souls are immortal but one can become immortal through proper magical training and experience. It is worth noting there is a strikingly similar argument in favor of the benefits of philosophy that Plato’s depiction of Socrates offers in dialogues such as The Republic and the Phaedo.

We see methods for achieving this after-life immortality in goetia, mystery cult and theurgy alike. In regards to this Stratton-Kent offers a rather interesting discussion of the Pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles and his claim that his philosophy could make people immortal. Rather than responding in the common way that many philosophers do and take this as an absurd exaggeration on the part of the philosopher, Stratton-Kent takes it seriously as addressing the otherworldly immortality that goetic practice can provide.

The other aspect of this goetic necromantic working with the dead involves the “higher calling” of helping those who have died without the benefit of proper preparation. In other words, one of the key works of the goetes is the “laying of ghosts”, i.e. bringing about the “salvation” of the unhappy, violent or listless dead – these most often include those who have died from violence, without appropriate burial rites, or prematurely before their roles in life had been fulfilled. As the goes can prepare the way for herself and others in finding advancement in death, so too can the goes do this work for those who are already dead although the process is likely much more difficult. This provides goetia with a truly noble role in the negotiation of the relationship between living and dead.

The connection between goetia and the salvation of the soul can be uncovered as underlying the most demonized of all if its aspects in the Christian context, the role of the infamous “pact with demons”. Stratton-Kent makes clear that this pact in the grimoires is best understood along the lines of the concept of “conjunction” with divinity. This can be considered from several angles. First, magic throughout its history from the ancient world through to the 19th and 20th century occult revival has always been understood to involve the identification with gods and heroes. We become one with the gods through their invocation, literally by “calling them in” to us, and magic is largely achieved through the power that union with the gods and spirits brings about. This goes hand in hand, of course, with our own spiritual improvement as well. When we form a pact with a spirit we join with it and are improved through this conjunction. Far from the dark contract through which one sells one’s soul to achieve worldly benefit, the pact involves a loving joining with a frequently more advanced spiritual entity. We see this process perhaps most clearly in the Afro-Caribbean traditions in which rather striking unity with gods and spirits is the fundamental aspect of the tradition’s methodology.

The discussion of the grimoires and texts associated with Saint Cyprian locates itself soundly within the war between Christianity, Theurgy and Goetia because several of these texts are written with the goal of rejecting and demonizing Goetia. Despite this, Stratton-Kent is able to draw extensive insights into the practice of goetia from these texts.

There are a few other practical aspects to the content of The Testament of Cyprian the Mage that I would like to mention. First let me mention one that I found particularly provocative, namely the inclusion of a discussion of twenty-fours fairies, their characteristics, and their identification with stars and constellations. I found this to be an exciting and unexpected bit of grimoire lore which is, at the same time, very useful. Stratton-Kent also includes an extensive discussion of the 36 astrological decans and their connection to the spirits of the grimoires. There is also a continuation of the effort to clarify and complete the understanding of the spiritual hierarchy begun in The True Grimoire through a careful analysis of the Kings or Chiefs and the almost entirely lost Queens of the grimoire tradition. This involves the rather interesting and complex problem of there seemingly being three different orders of these: a triple rulership of an alchemical or astrological nature along the lines of the alchemical sulfur, mercury, salt; and two quadruplicities overlapping with directions or elements. Finally, the second book of The Testament of Cyprian the Mage ends with the inclusion of the complete fascinating text of the The Testament of Solomon dating from sometime between the 1st and 5th Century C.E.

Solomon commanding the demons.

The Meaning and Purpose of Grimoire Hagiography

In the course of the full argument of the Encyclopedia Goetica Stratton-Kent points to an interesting and important answer to a rather basic question. There is no chance that Solomon or anyone from his supposed time period wrote the texts on which his name appears (in fact, current archeology suggests Solomon likely never existed at all) nor is it likely that St. Cyprian wrote any of the goetic texts that carry his name. Why, then, do these grimoires carry the names they do? The obvious and common answer is that connection with these names provide an air of tradition and authority to the texts. But there is a deeper answer. A key aspect of goetia as presented by Stratton-Kent is, as discussed, the conjunction with the spirits of past heroes and for a magician past heroes include especially past magicians. For the ancients this might mean identification with Tiresias or one of the Sibyls, but for the later European traditions it meant identification with the named patrons of the grimoires. The various keys of Solomon or works of Saint Cyprian or Abramelin the Mage might be less about authorship and more about the spirit through and with whom the work of the grimoire can be accomplished. Taking the next step in this, we can draw from Stratton-Kent’s books the idea that even the names Solomon and Cyprian are themselves place holders for older goetic magicians and their spiritual patronage.

Image of Astaroth from the 1818 "Dictionnaire Infernal"

Concluding Questions on the Nature of the Reality of a Spirit

I hope that I have adequately expressed my immense respect for this work and my appreciation of its exceptional importance for both practical occultism and paganism. Despite the extent of this discussion I must stress that I haven’t even scratched the surface of the rich treasures the Encyclopedia Goetica offers the reader. I would like to conclude, however, by raising a question that is equally theological and practical concerning the message and application of Stratton-Kent’s work. This is not a criticism of his work, as he hasn’t directly addressed the point I will raise, but rather seeks to take the next step in considering the import of his work.

My question is a simple one, what is the full import of Stratton-Kent’s genealogy of the various demons, spirits, and gods? This question can’t really be answered without asking the metaphysical and theological question concerning the nature of the reality of spirits and gods. If we are dealing with individual existing personalities with natures and names of their own independent of any human conception then those who have addressed Astaroth as a male demon duke in a monotheist context (as in the image above) have simply been wrong and likely have insulted the powerful entity with which they have been trying to deal. We might not get the sense that a whole lot hangs on this point, but imagine the implication of Michael and Apollo’s identification with the warrior god of plague Reshef. Have the many many people who have addressed Michael as an angel and Apollo as a sun god simply been misaddressing and/or insulting the entity Reshef? Shall we do away with Apollo and Michael both in preference for Reshef?

Those who hold to the idea that the gods and spirits are archetypes and/or mental constructs taking on independent power through the investment of the energy of the believer can address this issue easily enough. Archetypes can be understood to “nestle” and undergo evolution and transformation such that the solar Apollo and Michael, the chthonic Apollo and Michael, and Reshef can all co-exist and be worked with individually. Stratton-Kent seems much more to favor a traditional understanding of the spirits as real existing entities independent of human determination, though on this point I may indeed be wrong.

From the standpoint of the independent self-determined reality of the spirits we can offer, I feel, three main possible understandings of the message of Stratton-Kent’s work. The first I would call the reductivist response that would indeed say that when dealing with, say, the solar Apollo people have actually always been trying to deal with a chthonic god instead and that this misidentification accounts for any amount of failures on the part of the practitioners. The message, then, is that if one wants success (and, indeed, safety from insulting a powerful and dangerous entity) one had better toe the line and treat Apollo properly.

The second understanding might see the different names and natures of the spirits and gods as different roles just as I fill the role of writer, teacher, researcher, practicing magician, husband, friend and so on. In addressing Reshef, the solar Apollo, the chthonic Apollo and so on I am addressing an entity as unknowable as my own one ultimate identity (if such a thing exists) via its various names, titles, roles and so on. This solution, however, seems to cut against the grain of Stratton-Kent’s general tone that many people have gotten the nature of the spirits wrong in various ways. Of course, you could misidentify some of my roles and names but we might wonder how we could know that we had done so on the part of a spirit or god? Perhaps only through experimentation and observation of what gets results.

The third answer is, I feel, the most interesting and would be based on the suggestion that the spirits in question have themselves had a role in their own naming and conceptualization. The gods/spirits reveal themselves, and so Apollo has offered us different aspects of his own nature and perhaps even changed on his own part over time. This more seriously raises the question of whether we can be wrong about the gods, or must we take all concepts as derived from them originally? I suppose this conception still leaves open the chance of judging the concept from its practical outcome.

This question ultimately raises the issue of the relation of different approaches to the spirits to each other. In other words, how does the historian of the occult and paganism relate to the worshiper/practitioner? Say I have performed rituals to the solar Apollo and had deep and meaningful experiences of Apollo’s solar nature. How am I to take Stratton-Kent’s suggestion that Apollo was originally of a very different nature? Stratton-Kent, of course, occupies both the role of practitioner and historian but let us put that aside of the moment. How is historical knowledge to relate to spiritual revelation? This is, in fact, a conversation I had with a fellow occultist while reading the Encyclopedia Goetica and excitedly explaining Stratton-Kent’s argument about Apollo, Michael and Reshef. My friend responded, rather directly, that it just didn’t match his occult experience and, so to speak, “history be damned”. Once again, it may be that results are to be the arbiter here but they must be personal results since the reports of others are hardly going to be persuasive for me when so hard to verify independently.

Personally I will say that despite the short time I have had the Encyclopedia Goetica I have used several of its methods and suggestions with striking and impressive results and I have found the insights it provided invigorating. Practically I have absolutely no criticism. Historically, I have found the argument persuasive and am more convinced than ever that the true Western occult tradition is fundamentally a pagan one in which the grimoires play an essential part.

Author

Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/ or look him up on twitter at @starandsystem .

Review of Mandragora: Further Explorations in Esoteric Poesis

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Mandragora: Further Explorations in Esoteric Poesis

Edited by Ruby Sara

When Gods & Radicals first asked for volunteers to review this book, I offered to do so with some reservations. I tend to be cranky about poetry. I like it so much that I don’t like most of it, but I do love the idea of “esoteric poesis.” Having read the book, and before I get into any specific comments, I’ll say this right at the start: if you find the idea of esoteric poesis at all intriguing, you won’t regret taking the time to read this book. Most of the poets and authors here seem to be more interested in the occult tradition than in pagan religion, but obviously there is no sharp dividing line between the two, and there is much here that a pagan or polytheist would find intriguing.

I can’t say I liked all the poetry in it equally. Still, you could easily hate the pieces I loved and love the pieces I didn’t love, so there’s not much point in talking about what didn’t work for me. Instead I want to talk about what did, because the sum total of what worked for me is certainly enough for me to recommend the book.

The concept of esoteric poesis is obviously going to mean different things to different people, but a number of the writers and poets in Mandragora seem to think of poetry itself as a magical practice.

For instance, Michael Routery’s essay “The Head of Orpheus” expresses the unorthodox view that the poet’s professional task is not to comment on the minutiae of daily life through finely-chiseled turns of phrase but to bring back the gnosis of the otherworld from the land of the dead.

I’ll take a wild guess and say that very few of those who get published in Poetry magazine every year would agree with this assertion, but their poetry would probably be more interesting to me if they did (and Routery’s own “Lava Flowers” on page 52 bears that out).

Erynn Rowan Laurie’s “Burying the Poet” is an essay about the Cauldron of Poesy text, the bard Amergin and the practice of Incubation among the Irish bards. Incubation is the activity of sequestering yourself in darkness and silence to induce a dream oracle from the gods or the otherworld. I’m the author of a book on these exact same topics, which is partly a response to Laurie’s own previous work on the same text. That makes it a bit odd for me to review the essay, but no matter.

The Incubation of visionary poetry in total darkness bears an obvious resemblance to Routery’s ideas about Orpheus and the otherworld. In both cases, the poet descends into darkness, learns something by occult means and brings it back to our world. The magic can be described in terms of Greek tradition or Irish tradition, but the method isn’t restricted to Greek or Irish themes. Laurie’s Lost Text” on page 50 is a poem on Egyptian rather than Celtic mythology, but it could still be seen as an illustration of the method in action. The poem reads like ancient liturgy, almost as if it was channeled from the distant past.

In contrast, T. Thorn Coyle’s poem “After Amergin” on page 20 is inspired by the same mythic bard Laurie discusses in “Burying the Poet,” but Coyle takes Amergin’s “Song of Power” and updates it to the 21st century. Instead of “I am a wind on the sea, I am a wave on the ocean,” we have “I am the shine of neon on black leather./ I am the life that courses under concrete.” Coyle’s poem is an invocation of the magic inherent in our world rather than a trance journey to the underworld.

The Poet As God-Seducer” by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus examines the role of the poet as a seer and mediator with the otherworld in different European traditions. PSVL suggests that the ecstatic furor of poetic trance has an erotic element, and presents quotes from the Greek Magical Papyri and other sources to support the assertion. The idea of writing erotically-charged poetry to deities is likely to seem strange to many people, including many pagans. However, the bhakti poets of India have been writing this sort of poetry to Vishnu and Shiva for a number of centuries now. The poem “Hadrianus Exclusus” by the same author (page 84) reminds me strongly of bhakti poetry. It’s not an imitation of the bhakti style, but it has a similar sense of immediacy, presence and highly personal yearning. That’s exactly what makes bhakti poetry so fresh and intense. No matter how long some poets have been doing it, sexuality remains a revolutionary way to approach the divine.

A brief word on the poems that worked less well for me. I feel there’s been a tendency in recent poetry to create long trains of images disconnected from any narrative known to anyone other than the poet. This approach seems to produce poems that leave no impression on the reader, and some of the poems in Mandragora have this flaw.

However, I wrote down the page numbers of the poems that interested me the most as I was reading the book, and it turned out to be far too many to mention more than a few of them here. So much for my crankiness. In any case, many of the poems that moved me in some way were written as magical workings rather than poems about magic, carrying on with the theme of the essays.

For example, “The Knot and the Bottle” by Craig Fraser is actually a knot charm. “To Take On Bestial Form” by Peter Dubé is a charm to take on bestial form. These poems have both powerful imagery and focused purpose.

There are more gods than radicals in Mandragora, but Peter Grey argues in “A Spell to Awaken England” that writing poetry-as-magic is a revolutionary act:

Our culture is hostile to the numinous, disenchanting nature that it might be destroyed, splitting man and woman into consumer slaves selling us the grave goods of industry. It is time that we make our spells potent in song and deed, make terror our ally.

That’s what many of the writers here at Gods & Radicals have been trying to do. Perhaps it’s an idea whose time has come!