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(h)Auroræ – G. McCaughry

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Categories: alchemy, art, esotericism, hermeticism, luciferian

(h)Auroræ coverGabriel McCaughry’s (h)Auroræ could be considered an inadvisable tome to review here at Scriptus Recensera because attentive readers will note that your faithful reviewer has a proofing credit in the opening pages. In my defence, your honour, the proofing was for only a section of the work, and the finished book is so much more, appearing unfamiliar and unrecognisable from the raw and partial pure-text draught I worked with; unless that’s just due to a poor memory… I don’t remember.

(h)Auroræ has an air of being McCaughry’s magnum opus, the sum result, from an aesthetic perspective, of all that he has done previously with his Anathema Publishing imprint. It’s gorgeously presented, intricately designed, with a poetic quality that is enigmatic and just a little bit impenetrable. At 304 pages and 5.25 x 8.5 inches dimensions, it feels substantial and weighty, the right size, texture and weight to convey a sense of significance and substance, fitting in your hands like a treasured tome, without being cumbersome. This aligns with statements McCaughry has made elsewhere, where he has talked of the magick inherent in books, and the profundity inherent in writing, producing and reading them.

(h)Auroræ is divided into three main sections or books, the first of which reprises the (h)Auroræ title and is itself comprised of five codices; plus a long, circumlocutory introduction from Shani Oates. Each codex consists of short stanzas of poetry, formatted in a fairly large italic face and almost always accompanied with an illustration on the respective facing page. McCaughry’s style of verse is, one could charitably say, brisk, sometimes running to as little as four lines, with an economy of words that nevertheless draws from a clearly defined lexicon. He declaims, rather than rhymes, using archaic turns of phrase and employing a wide array of imagery that references a variety of mythological and magickal sources, including Luciferianism, tantra, alchemy, the Ruba’iyat and Mandaeism. This cornucopia of culture and its recherché language choices makes for a somewhat abstruse encounter, where you can get a sense of what is being said, but like alchemical texts of old, you’re never sure if you’re quite getting it all.

Illustration by José Gabriel Alegría Sabogal

Book two of (h)Auroræ is titled Neoteric Heterodoxy and, for the most part, eschews the poetry format of its predecessor for a more discursive approach. Here, divided into three sections, McCaughry discusses various aspects of magickal theory and growth, with considerations of Gnosticism, doubt and truth, as well as the various forces, constructs and entities in his conception of a magickal cosmology: Lucifer, the Temple of LUh-hUR, the UmbraPlasma, the Monolith, the Quartz of Return, the Omni-Cipher, the Demiurge and the PCR or Prism Concrete Reality.

The third and final book of (h)Auroræ is called Anaphoras, Advent & Theurgia, and feels very much the conclusion, incorporating as it does various miscellanea and appendices. The lion’s share of this section takes the form of McCaughry’s account of the workings that form the basis of what is presented here, effectively his magickal diary fleshed out into a substantial narrative. He does not provide much in the way of explicit, point-by-point instructions, instead advocating for the ability of an adept to find their own tools and techniques; and emphasising the status of (h)Auroræ as a book of mysticism, rather than magick, with all the ritual rigmarole that the latter might entail. With that said, McCaughry’s magickal record is detailed enough that should one wish to emulate it, there is much to draw from.

Page spread

(h)Auroræ is profusely illustrated by José Gabriel Alegría Sabogal who almost deserves a co-author credit, such is both the impact and extent of his work. When almost every page within just the five codices of the (h)Auroræ section features an accompanying and presumably bespoke image, the amount of work is staggering; as is the cost, unless Sabogal severely undercharges for his work. There is an indefinable something about Sabogal’s illustrations, something that conveys an inherent sense of mystery and gnosis, but also somehow manages, with an apt turn of phrase, to keep silent.

Sabogal employs fine ink lines in a timeless manner that apes the look of traditional engraving, something that is reflected in the subject matter, where classical sculptures and equally sculptured bodies abound. In some instances, the lines of fine black ink are highlighted with striking washes of red, filling in spaces in some examples, and splattering across the image as blood in others.

Illustration by José Gabriel Alegría Sabogal

Helpfully and fittingly, Sabogal speaks to his role in the book in The Birds That Speak At Dawn, his own chapter at the conclusion of (h)Auroræ. Here, he describes his and McCaughry’s shared creative journey, but also provides an explicit overview of the entire book, highlighting its journey of transmutation that begins with death and putrefaction and proceeds through four other alchemical stages symbolised by birds. Sabogal talks of dreams in which he discovers strange books filled with mysterious emblems, and thanks to his work here he may have created just such an oneiric tome.

In addition to Sabogal’s illustrations, (h)Auroræ succeeds in matters aesthetical with McCaughry’s typesetting and layout, which compliments the graphic content and showcases the written. For anyone that has seen McCaughry’s hand in the layout of other Anathema publications, there will be much here that’s recognisable, with the return of some familiar treatments and typeface choices. McCaughry has an antique typographic style, especially noticeable in the frontispieces that synthesise a variety of faces, styles and sizes, all perfectly balanced in their hierarchy and not cluttered or messy. With that said, there’s no slavish beholding to archaisms here, but rather a classic timelessness that joins rarefied presentation with readability.

Illustration by José Gabriel Alegría Sabogal

(h)Auroræ was made available in three editions: a standard edition of 500 individually hand-numbered copies, a collector’s edition of approximately 125 copies, and an eleven copy artisanal Spume of Luna edition. The standard hardcover edition of (h)Auroræ measures 5.25 x 8.5 inches, with 304 Cougar Natural 160M archive-quality paper pages bound in a lovely metal-flecked Italian Tele Legatoria Bronze bookbinding cloth. A design on the front is foiled in gold, as is the title and author on the spine. The collector’s edition is the same as the standard edition but bound in Eurobound Black Flanders (bonded leather), with gold foiling on the spine and a more complex design on the cover, incorporating blind-debossed elements. The eleven copy Spume of Luna edition, individually hand-numbered, signed and glyphed by the author, is three-quarter-bound in genuine Black Galuchat Ray rawhide, and white cow leather with gold foil blocking on the cover, and a blind-deboss on the back cover. The interior features handmade endpapers, in addition to those used within the standard hardcover edition.

Published by Anathema Publishing

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The Blazing Dew of Stars – David Chaim Smith

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Categories: alchemy, art, esotericism, hermeticism, qabalah

The Blazing Dew of Stars coverDavid Chaim Smith, as his bio runs, is an author and artist based on Long Island, New York. He gained a BFA in drawing from Rhode Island School of Design and graduated from Columbia University with a Masters in 1989. His principle medium is finely rendered and intensely detailed pencil, and that’s what you get here in this large-format book from Fulgur; his second with that press, following on from 2012’s The Sacrificial Universe.

The Blazing Dew of Stars presents David Chaim Smith’s take on qabalah, otherwise seen in titles such as 2015’s The Kabbalistic Mirror of Genesis and 2016’s The Awakening Ground: A Guide to Contemplative Mysticism (both from Inner Traditions). Where those books differ from The Blazing Dew of Stars is the focus on Chaim Smith’s artwork, often appearing here as full page plates, with adjunct smaller illustrations in the margins of facing pages. That doesn’t mean this book is without writing, in fact, it is quite text heavy, with Chaim Smith’s images appearing as adjuncts to his dense, periphrastic text. It’s just such text that forms the first, and image-free, chapter, Reaching Beyond God, 24 pages of circumlocutory writing with phrases like “systems that cultivate compassion mitigate the primitive reflexes of animal power that produce the psycho-emotive toxins of the human realm” or “Conceptuality can slowly learn to be able to abide within it, such that subtle abstract impressions can slowly take over, subsuming the momentum of perceptual formation into visionary registers.” As your eyes glaze over after page after page of this, you find yourself skipping forward, hoping to hit the pretty pictures sometime soon; the ligatures on the serif typeface are nice, though, if a little showy.

David Chaim Smith: Secret Gestation of the Gnosime

Chaim Smith presents what he refers to as kabbalistic contemplative alchemy, a system he calls Iy’yun; a Hebrew word, sans the glottal stop, meaning ‘contemplation.’ Iy’yun is pursued, in this case in particular, through linguistic and graphic constructions, with its inner life creating resonating layers, revealed within the illustrations here, and it is this that distils the dew of the title; a gnostic realisation which accumulates with wonder, beauty and astonishment. Or so the blurb goes. This takes the form in a manner of ways: exegetical sections, more practical exercises in which Chaim Smith’s images are a meditative focus, and other exercises in which the illustrations are but representations of the concept in hand.

The dense and theoretical first chapter opening The Blazing Dew of Stars is followed by one that reprises the title of the book as its own and is subtitled A Kavanah Meditation in Three Parts. This three part meditation is based on three chambers, each focussed on a divine name: AHYH, ALP LMD HY YVD MM, and YHVH/MTzPTz. Chaim Smith provides a thorough exegesis on the metaphysics behind the procedure, in which the dew of contemplation is brought forth, the blaze is set alight, and the practitioner becomes a primordial mirror, a “liquid display of transelemental morphosis,” no less. This is then followed by the exercise itself, in which the various letters are visualised doing their thing, and which is, in turn, depicted graphically in Chaim Smith’s accompanying pencil illustration.

David Chaim Smith: The Blazing Dew

The third chapter, Unfurling the Dream Fire, is the book’s largest and most visually impressive section, in which Chaim Smith conveys ideas through four different methods: two textual and two graphical. Each spread begins with a usually brief verse, set in a large italic face, and this is then expanded upon below it in the smaller text of technical notes, featuring definitions, correspondences, and numerological values. The ideas contained within the initial quote are distilled into small, relatively simple, seals that sit in the right margin of the right hand page of a spread, while the left page is taken up entirely by considerably more elaborate elucidations of the ideas as full page illustrations. The idea, says Chaim Smith, is that the contemplator is able to overlap and interpenetrate meaning using a variety of mental tools.

The full page formatting of the images in Unfurling the Dream Fire allows them to be seen in all their glory, and execution. They are densely rendered almost entirely in just pencil; something that you don’t necessarily notice until you are viewing them at this size, where the smudged layers of graphite used for shading or as background can look murky and less impressive than at first glance. With his images featuring an abundance of alembics and other glass vessels, as well as the roots, trunks and branches of mystical trees, the most obvious comparison of Chaim Smith’s work are alchemical illustrations; notably those that accompany the work of fifteenth century alchemist George Ripley, such as the scroll that bears his name. There’s a persistent sense of growth and fluidity, of amrita dripping from receptacles and homunculi growing in cucurbits. All of the elements are contained within often circular borders, as well as boundaries created by text, often repeating the lines of the initial verse, or evoking key words. The same four-fold format is also followed in a later section, The Enthroning of the Blaze.

David Chaim Smith: Unfurling the Dreamfire

Several other sections follow Unfurling the Dream Fire, largely text based but accompanied with the occasional full-page image, including some instances where the illustrations are inverted, giving the impression of scratchboard or chalk on a black board. One of these, Dead Dreams Awaken the Sleeping Bride, is effectively a guided visualisation, heavy on exegesis within the journey text, accompanied by a single full-page illustration. Meanwhile, The Intoxicating Nectar of Vision, a received text of ten numbered verses that runs parallel to the creation narrative of the opening of Genesis, and which, naturally, follows the style and nomenclature of the rest of The Blazing Dew of Stars. This is an argot full of words such as transcendence, perceptual matrices, resonances and magical continuums; all lexemes that in their disorientating concatenation are often teetering on the edge of a word salad abyss.

David Chaim Smith: The Metacartograph

The regular edition of The Blazing Dew of Stars consists of 913 copies, measuring 27cm square with 138 pages in total, and 14 full page drawings, 29 seals and vignettes and a two-page folding plate of The Metacartograph, a large format, colour inverted illustration that acts as an “overview map of creativity in the manifestation of phenomena,” if you will. This edition is bound in black cloth, with a matte finish black dustjacket. The deluxe edition of 88 author-signed copies was bound by hand in full black morocco with special tooling in silver gilt, blind pressed and silver filled front panel embellishment. It included the dust jacket of the standard edition but was housed in a special lined slipcase of premium black cloth.

Published by Fulgur

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Trickster, My Beloved: Poems for Laufey’s Son – Elizabeth Vongvisith

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Categories: devotional, germanic, rökkr

Trickster, My Beloved coverAs its matronymic subtitle suggests, Trickster, My Beloved is a collection of devotional poems for Loki, written by Elizabeth Vongvisith and published by Asphodel Press. In her introduction, Vongvisith describes the book as the fulfilment of an oath, identifying works of heart, mind and hands as some of the best offerings that can be made to the gods. It is a physically slim offering at only 60 pages, but a profound one nonetheless.

Published in 2006, a lot has since changed for the public view of Loki, with his profile rising dramatically, as any Marvel-tainted search results on Google, Tumblr or DeviantArt will testify. More pertinently, the Troth this month rescinded their ban on the hailing of Loki at Troth-sponsored events, suggesting a certain degree of rehabilitation for the troublesome god. The Loki in these pages doesn’t necessarily seek the kind of respectability offered by the Troth, or the fame, fanfiction and silly helmet that comes courtesy of Tom Hiddleston (had to Google to check the correct name, naturally), being instead more mercurial and capricious.

As a godwife of Loki, there’s a certain degree of intimacy in Vongvisith’s writing, which helps that air of devotional fervour. Loki is presented as a lover and constant companion, a presence whose spirit can sometimes seem almost all consuming, creating words that are redolent of the fervid depths evident in some Hindu religious devotional material. Vongvisith doesn’t shy away from Loki’s other wives, though, and has poems for both Angrboda and Sigyn. In Victory, she addresses Sigyn as her Lady of Endurance, an underappreciated figure with hidden strength and significance. Meanwhile, in Angrboda’s Lament, Vongvisith has Angrboda relate key moments of her and Loki’s interactions with the Æsir, ending each verse with a plaintive folksong-like refrain of They will take away my love, and bury him, until it concludes with the bittersweet variation They have taken my love, and buried me with him.

The sense of personal loss in Angrboda’s Lament and Victory is something of a trademark of the poems included in Trickster, My Beloved, and occurs again, in its most striking and effective manner, in The Price. Here, Vongvisith addresses Loki, describing as a seer how his children were taken from him and how the intestines of his own son were used to bind him, all drawn in heart wrenching detail that disintegrates into paroxysms of apoplectic rage.

Trickster, My Beloved spread

The ties familial that are hinted at in the poems for Angrboda and Sigyn are also found elsewhere, with Vongvisith addressing other members of Loki’s family. In For the Lady of the Leafy Isle, she speaks to Loki’s mother Laufey as any daughter-in-law might, testifying to her strength and thanking her for the welcome into her house and family. Similarly, For Surt is a paean to the fire giant who here, and in other books from Asphodel Press, is identified as the foster-father of Loki. And finally, In the Dark, one of the longest poems here, describes an underworld encounter with Loki’s daughter, Hela, in language so vivid that it practically acts as a guided visualisation.

Although they are not necessarily intended as such, the clear imagery of In the Dark, or the invocatory tone of For Surt and some of the poems addressed directly to Loki, all reveal a potential for ritual or liturgical use. Words written in devotion, rather than supplication or as a wand-wielding threat, seem so much more numinous and valuable to personal practice.

Trickster, My Beloved is presented purely as text with not a single accompanying illustration, which is a slight shame, as the evocative imagery could easily have sparked a few images from any talented illustrator. One such illustrator, Milwaukee-based Grace D. Palmer, does provide the cover image, a painted image of a naked Loki, single lit match in hand, presumably about to be, in the words of the song, burning down the house. The layout follows Asphodel’s familiar style, with nothing exceptional but a still solid and functional look.

Published by Asphodel Press

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Hekate Liminal Rites – Sorita d’Este & David Rankine

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Categories: classical, goddesses, paganism, underworld, witchcraft

Hekate Liminal Rites coverThe goddess Hekate looms large over at Avalonia, and in addition to this colon-deficient title, the Glastonbury-based publishers have released The Temple of Hekate by Tara Sanchez, two anthologies both edited by Avalonia owner Sorita d’Este (the equally colon-wanting Hekate Her Sacred Fires and Hekate Key to the Crossroads), as well as d’Este’s own more recent work Circle for Hekate – Volume I: History & Mythology, yay, colons. If that wasn’t enough, d’Este also founded the Covenant of Hekate and runs the semi-regular Hekate Symposium. Suffice to say, if indeed faith without works is dead, d’Este should be pretty assured of some eschatological rewards from her matron when the time comes.

d’Este and collaborator David Rankine give a hint of their intent with the book’s verbose subtitle: A study of the rituals, magic and symbols of the torch-bearing Triple Goddess of the Crossroads. This is expanded upon in the introduction where they talk of coming across various items relating to Hekate whilst researching other projects, describing this book as part of a long term project that brings together such nuggets as they relate to ritual practices. As such, the book details information on historic charms, blessings, herb and root magic, dreams and divination, effectively providing a toolkit of authentic, referenced magickal items and procedures that can be incorporated into one’s own Hekate-themed modalities; and not just some handheld modern rituals to slavishly follow, as some disappointed reviewers on Amazon were obviously looking for.

Because of this, Hekate Liminal Rites can be a little dry. In places it sometimes feels like an info dump, where research notes have been entered into chapters, without much from d’Este and Rankine to glue them together. That contextual glue can also be absent between chapters, simply because a chapter’s focus on a particular area in which Hekate is documented can be brief and standalone, sharing little with the chapters that precede or proceed it. This is, obviously, inevitable given the style of the book, and as a criticism has little solution, but is mentioned to provide a sense of the content’s style and its resulting reading experience.

Hekate Liminal Rites page spread

One of the most interesting things that d’Este and Rankine draw attention to is the syncretic nature of Hekate, where her associations in the ancient world weren’t monolithically Greek, but instead often placed her in concert with deities from Egypt, Mesopotamia and later even Christianity. In spells for love and protection from the Greek Magical Papyri, Hekate appears alongside Ereshkigal, the Sumerian goddess of the underworld and an obvious cross-cultural equivalent. The same association is found in defixiones, simple binding spells made on lead tablets, with Hekate being joined by Ereshkigal and other names in a string of voces magicae. In other instances, Hekate appears in the company of angels, with a spell from the Greek Magical Papyri addressing her alongside the archangel Michael (as well as Hermes, Mene, Osiris and Persephone), while in others, angels are identified as the minions of Hekate, who is entreated to send them forth to aid the supplicant.

Given their theurgic emphasis, the Greek Magical Papyri plays a large role within Hekate Liminal Rites as a source, as do the Chaldean Oracles. But d’Este and Rankine also draw from the entire classical canon, beginning with Homer, the Greek dramatists, and up to Roman historians and the Early Church Fathers, as well as extending well beyond this to a smattering of occult sources like Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa. As such, there’s a wealth of material to draw from and Hekate’s ritual correspondences, types of ceremonies and procedures, are all covered off magnificently. This ritual framework also allows other areas of Hekate to be touched on, with spells from various sources providing opportunities to consider her animal forms, herbs and potions, associations with the underworld, and even her relevance to Solomonic magic. These are all presented in a brief, utilitarian manner, making for a brisk but pleasant read; with extensive and blessed citing of sources throughout.

Hekate Liminal Rites is available as a 193 page paperback, printed like most, if not all, Avalonia titles by print-on-demand company Lightning Source. There’s not much of the way of internal illustration, with only a handful of statue photographs and reproduced prints. With that said, the cover image of a triform Hekate from Joanna Barnum is pretty great and more of that on the inside would have been neat.

Published by Avalonia

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Set: The Outsider – Compiled by Judith Page & Don Webb

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Categories: egyptian, satanism, typhonian

Set: The Outsider coverSet and the contemporary temple that bears his name have always had a certain… something. From the outside, the Temple of Set seems to offer a considerably more interesting take on Satanism than the church from which it descended, returning enchantment to the sphere drained of glamour by LaVey’s materialism, carny aesthetics and entry-level libertinism. With that said, though, despite its birth in 1975, there has been disproportionately little publically produced in writing about the temple or their object of devotion in particular, with a few slim volumes from Don Webb being the only relevant contributions on the Scriptus Recensera shelves. Set: The Outsider may change that, with Webb describing it in the introduction as his religious text, standing in contrast to his previous books of straightforward self-empowerment.

Set: The Outsider is divided into sections, rather than chapters (if one considers chapters to be segments in an ongoing, sequential narrative), and most of these are credited to either Judith Page, Don Webb, or both of them. There are also one-off contributions from Magister Xeperi.Tsh.Tsh, from former Temple of Set High Priestess Patricia Hardy, and returning from the grave with his 36 page lecture The Devil of Darkness in the Light of Evolution, that old, slightly disreputable, proto-antivaxer and favourite of Kenneth Grant, Gerald Massey. These sections are grouped into three broader parts that allow one to consider Set through archaeological, philosophical and practical lenses; though not necessarily everything fits into these unofficial categories.

What becomes clear early on is that the contributions here are often self-contained little pockets, feeling in some cases as if they are articles that have been written for other publications and just recompiled for this publication. There’s nothing in the book that directly suggests this, but it explains the lack of an overall sequential narrative, why subjects seem to leap from one to the other, and why others seem piecemeal, unresolved or inconsistent in quality. This is particularly noticeable in the first section where, between various discussions of Set in terms of iconography and archaeology, attention suddenly turns to the 13th Dynasty pharaoh Hor Awibre, with a multiple page profile in which Set is not mentioned at all. Confusingly, this section is subtitled Setian Kings of the Second Intermediate Period, but only Hor is considered, rather than more obviously Set-affiliated pharaohs from that period such as Apepi, Seti I and Setnakht. While an anthology of previously printed work has some value from an archival perspective, when it’s not presented as such, a book like this can feel unsatisfying, when a little editing and more careful ordering of information could have made it more cohesive, and in so doing, more definitive.

Judith Page: Aeon of Set

The contributions in the first part of Set: The Outsider discuss him in terms of parallels, such as the often synonymous god of oases Ash; his relationship with other gods like Horus; and through the iconography associated with him, including scorpions, griffins and of the course the ambiguous sha or Set-animal. Later, Magister Xeperi.Tsh.Tsh returns to this idea of Set as a griffin in far greater depth in an essay that was written as part of their initiation into the Temple of Set’s Order of Setne Khamuast. At thirty pages, Conversation with a Griffin stands in sharp contrast to some of the more fleeting contributions in this book, having all the things many of them lack: context, details, examples, structure and most importantly, references.

Disappointingly, there’s not a lot of consistent citing of references within Set: The Outsider, with a general bibliography included in the back, but no specific listing of references, and very little in-text citations. This is particularly evident in the initial sections of the book where things are presented as indisputable fact and I’m just not sure that’s always the case. For example, in Set: Star~Child of Nut, Page talks of Set being identified with the star Sirius, an idea that seems to be solely the creation of Kenneth Grant (and not even one that has some hazy source in Massey’s otherwise well-thumbed works). This idea flies in the face of the established Egyptian identity of Sirius as the goddess Sopdet (perhaps more familiar by her Hellenised name of Sothis), and finding any evidence to the contrary is quite difficult. Given that this section is clearly drawn from Grant’s Cults of the Shadows, right down to some of the same points being made (including the glib but spurious idea that ‘in the olden days,’ the male role in reproduction wasn’t understood), a caveat saying “Grant claimed…” would have been a face-saving proviso that still allowed one to repeat the obviously appealing theory. While Grant is mentioned at the start of this section, there’s nothing to indicate that what follows is largely his highly unconventional take on Egyptology, rather than common and accepted knowledge.

The other side of Set: The Outsider is a philosophical or theoretical one, and such contributions come predominantly from Webb, who writes very much in the voice of his Uncle Setnakh guise, all very informal, with jokey asides as one would expect given the avuncular designation. There’s a consideration of the word Xeper, while both Webb and Page provide personal histories, outlining how they came to Set, who he is, and lessons learned from working with him.

Set page spread

The third and final part of Set: The Outsider is clearest in its intent, with a solid 140 pages focusing on the practical application of what has gone before it. This takes the form of instructions on Setian magical work from Webb, and some basic ritual techniques, while Page presents several guided pathworkings in which the traveller visits various temples for Nuit, Set and Ptah. Page then concludes this part, and effectively the book, with a series of invocations and their instructions, addressed to Nuit, Set and Ptah, as well as Horus and Set together.

Page provides both the cover design and layout for Set: The Outsider in a confident and competent style that is not without some issues. Body copy is set in Book Antiqua at 11.5 point, but could easily have dropped down a point, let alone that extra .5. As a result, the words fair jump off the page, almost in a shouting manner, and text rivers easily form any time a paragraph shrinks in width when text wraps around images. It’s also why the book reads a lot faster than one would expect of something with a page count of over 300, and a lot of trees could have been saved with a more sensible point size. Another issue with type are the headers, which are set within a black strip with a single uniform height, but here, in order to allow for any long chapter titles, the text has been artificially condensed, stretched vertically rather than using a true condensed face. The result is something that looks like a relic from the wild frontier of desktop publishing, when affordable PCs and ubiquitous software gave everyone the tools, if not the rules, of publishing. But, on the other hand, nowhere in the book is the typeface Papyrus used, nor does a background employ the writing material from which it takes its name, so that immediately gets Page some bonus points.

In the end, Set: The Outsider has promise and it’s easy to see how a better book could have emerged with a little more editing and structure. All the content is there and it could so easily have been massaged into a more conventional structure, removing redundancies and better incorporating some of the more wide-ranging threads, to create an anthropologically and mythologically sound first half (overflowing with cited references, naturally), followed by a thorough practical second half.

Published by Æon of Set Publishing


Review Soundtrack: Tapio Kotkavuori – Terra Hyperborea  (Kotkavuori was a long time member of the Temple of Set, though there isn’t much obviously Setian in theme on this album.

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The Fraternitas Saturni – Stephen E. Flowers

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Categories: germanic, luciferian, magick, runes, thelema

Fraternitas Saturni coverVerbosely subtitled History, Doctrine, and Rituals of the Magical Order of the Brotherhood of Saturn, Stephen E. Flowers’ The Fraternitas Saturni is the fourth edition of a work originally released by Llewellyn in 1990 as Fire and Ice, with the equally prolix subtitle of The History, Structure, and Rituals of Germany’s Most Influential Modern Magical Order – The Brotherhood of Saturn. Since that initial version, the work has been published again by Llewellyn in 1994, and then in a revised edition by Runa Raven Press in 2006. This 2018 incarnation is both revised and expanded, as evidenced by the already lengthy appendices lettered from ‘a’ to ‘i’ now extending to ‘l.’

At its release, as Flowers notes in his introduction, Fire and Ice was the first book to discuss the Fraternitas Saturni at length, and it would be hard to think of any title that has done much more since. In the English speaking world, it is Flowers who still seems to have the monopoly on this particular field of German occultism, with all the risks that having a single interlocutor entails. As Flower also acknowledges, the material contained in The Fraternitas Saturni dates from before 1969, so doesn’t necessarily reflect the beliefs and practices of the order after that date, or today.

One of the first additions to this new edition is found in the initial consideration of the occult milieu from which the Fraternitas Saturni emerged. Here, in addition to his previous discussion of quasi-Masonic lodges such as the Freemasonic Order of the Golden Centurium (FOGC) and obviously the Ordo Templi Orientis, Flowers now discusses the neglected but influential role of Adonism. He devotes several illustrated pages to this school of magical thought and its foremost proponents, Franz Sättler’s Adonistische Gesellschaft, as well as giving still further information as an appendix.

Other changes are largely subtle, with the one thing of obvious note being the amount of new images added to the text; something very much in evidence in the Adonism section. The pictorial elements in the original Fire and Ice were limited to a few diagrams, already well-worn photographs of Gregorius and the bust of GOTOS, and two hand drawn illustrations by James Allen Chisholm. All of these recur here, but in better quality (save for Chisholm’s pictures which look a little 8bit), and they’re joined by a swathe of supporting images, including examples of publications and portraits of key figures.

Fraternitas Saturni sigil

The Fraternitas Saturni begins with the aforementioned discussion of the occult subculture that birthed the order, with Flowers providing a thorough overview of German occultism of the period, noting in particular the way in which Thelema infused some of the major variants. While the OTO absorbed Thelema to become Crowley’s principle magickal order, the Fraternitas Saturni embraced the philosophy, but neither its cosmology, nor Uncle Al’s suzerainty. Instead, as Flowers details, the order promulgated a mythos that merged Gnosticism with Luciferianism, in which Saturnus is a demiurgic figure associated, not just with the typical saturnian characteristics of melancholic introspection and initiation, but with Lucifer (as the sphere’s highest octave) and Satan (as its lowest). For those with aphotic inclinations, there’s a certain appeal to this cosmology, with its combination of metaphysical speculation, plutonian-hued deity forms, and the handy appeal to authority that arises from its use by an order now almost a century old.

The other particularly striking aspect of the order’s belief system, and one which is fairly unique in its application, is the use of the egregor GOTOS, whose name was an acronym based on the name of the order’s 33° grade, Gradus Ordinis Templi Orientis Templi. Considered an embodiment of the order, but also as a pre-existing entity attached to Saturn, the GOTOS egregore took the place of the ascended masters and secret chiefs so typical of other occult organisations of the time, guiding initiates through their journey. The difference being that GOTOS was understood to be a thought-form manifested by the order’s members, rather than some dubious dudes in robes kicking it on a mountain somewhere in far off lands.

Subsequent chapters in The Fraternitas Saturni explore more of the order’s beliefs (but more from a philosophical rather than cosmological perspective), and the structure of the order (including a detailed listing of grades). An outline of their actual magical work and rituals follows and these, as one would expect, have a strong focus on masonic-style lodge work, but there is also a sacerdotal element, with an extensive list of liturgy-rich sacraments that includes the use of various type of elemental eucharist. Two other areas of ritual in which the Fraternitas Saturni are known are electrical magic (which Flowers touches on all-too briefly) and sexual magic (for which two rites are outlined).

Including index and bibliography, The Fraternitas Saturni runs to 207 pages, but just over half of that comprises the book proper, with the rest consisting of extensive appendices. These include several long Fraternitas Saturni rituals (three masses and the Gradus Pentalphae), various letters between Crowley and order founder Gregor A. Gregorius, and instead of his pragmatic suggestions regarding sex magic from 1990, Flowers includes an initiation rite from the Freemasonic Order of the Golden Centurium. The other appendices new to this edition include more details about Rosicrucianism and the Bavarian Illuminati, and the welcomed consideration of Adonism. There are also some lessons for neophytes from order member Master Pacitius (artist, architect and the producer and production designer for F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, Albin Grau), which are provided as one of the rare example of his written occult work.

The cover of the original Fire and Ice in 1990 featured an evocative painting by N. Taylor Blanchard, a darkly hued view of the sigil of Saturn suspended against a range of mountains, all lit from behind by an effulgent light. It was a mysterious image that, other than the Saturn sigil, didn’t seem to reflect too much that was specific to the Fraternitas Saturni, and was very much of its time; with many of the books by Flowers (as well as other Llewellyn authors) employing painted cover art, some better than others. The cover of this 2018 version is also of its time, with the oils of the 1980s and 1990s giving way to a strong graphic look that sets the title and sigils (highlighted with a subtle spot varnish) over a low opacity image of the bust of the GOTOS egregore. It’s nice, a simple but classy treatment, as is true of the covers of many books from Inner Traditions.

The Fraternitis Saturni spread

Inside, the copy is treated with an equally adept hand by the good folks at Inner Tradition. Whereas the original Fire and Ice had Llewellyn’s typical-for-the-time solid and functional layout with a slightly too large, almost slab serif face, and not a lot of space around it, The Fraternitas Saturni uses a classic serif at a respectable size for the body, with subtitles in a san serif, housed in roomy, but not too roomy, margins. The hierarchy makes it eminently more readable than its predecessor, and the reduced page count and larger page size, makes it more pleasant to hold.

This new edition of The Fraternitas Saturni makes for a worthwhile acquisition, whether you don’t have its previous incarnations, or simply want an excuse to reread it, now some 28 years after you may have read it the first time. As testified, the redesign from Inner Traditions will assist in this, making it feel not just eminently more readable, but just a little bit fresh and new. Throughout the book, Flowers writes with an unadorned, thoroughly competent style, with everything presented in a somewhat matter of fact manner.

Published by Inner Traditions


Review Soundtrack: Various Artists – Saturn Gnosis

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Qliphoth Esoteric Publication Opus 1: The Awakening (Atavistic Path) – Edited by Edgar Kerval

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Categories: nightside, qabalah, typhonian

Qliphoth coverReleased in 2012, Qliphoth Esoteric Publication Opus 1 is arguably one of the first journals in the current glut of darkly-hued occult publishing. Edited by Edgar Kerval and here published by Aeon Sophia Press, Qliphoth would have something of an itinerant life, moving betwixt publishing houses. A second volume would be released in a more conventional occult-book format by Aeon Sophia Press, before Nephilim Press took up the mantle for a time, with still later volumes being released by Kerval’s own publishing imprint.

There is a wide range of both contributors and topics in this first volume, embracing themes of the nightside, voudon, hoodoo, general sorcery and even a little bit of syncretisation of Loki with Azatoth (by which is meant HP Lovecraft’s Azathoth, not the similarly h-deficient Swedish black/death metal band from Uddevalla, or, for that matter, the death metal band from Stockholm – Satan bless you, Encyclopaedia Metallum). From the contributors, there’s a few new names as well as some familiar ones, such as Sean Woodward, Kyle Fite, Aion 131 (whose poem Tua-Set is an excerpt from his Liber Phoenix), Orryelle Defenestrate Bascule (with their nightside notes, some of which also appeared in Anathema’s Pillars journal), and Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold (in a lengthy piece on antinomian sorcery).

Amongst many of the contributions there’s a palpable sense of a giddy delight in darkness and shadow, of a youthful enthusiasm for what the authors hope is transgressive and original, but which old timers might find either sweet or irritating. This is particularly exacerbated by the perhaps unwise inclusion of author photos in some pieces. Formatted into their respective essay as if they’re an integral illustration, fingers contorted into significant gestures, their fresh faces glare out at the reader as if to say “Occultism, it’z serious bidness.” Bless.

The earnestness may account for the roughness in some of the writing, all pleonastic phrasing and reckless disregard for proofing. The consistently spellcheck-averse Daemon Barzai opens a piece on Gamaliel (presumably the qlipha and not the first century leader of the Sanhedrin, but he doesn’t say) by referring to it as the dark side of the moon and redundantly describing it as having an intimate relationship with, wait for it, “the dark side of the moon,” – that is very intimate, onanistically so. What follows are a series of guided meditations in which naked beautiful ladies are only outnumbered by the comedic triumphs of muddled and cruelly unedited English: “Opposite you appeared Lilith. Her body is naked but it is difficult to see her face. Her hairs are red as fire.” So, how many hairs? I’m thinking just two or three for pure comedy gold. “Come a dark mist and go out three black dogs that to be with a woman that wearing a black dress, she has a crown with jewels. His presence commands respect.” Yes, I imagine it does.

There’s other questionable writing, such as The Science of Magic by S. Ben Qayin, although saying that it’s written by him is a bit of stretch. Incapable of paraphrasing, he quotes extensively from a few sources, with some of the quotes running to as much as half a page. As these are not formatted any differently from the main body, the reader will assume that Qayin has written a lengthy, erudite piece, but his own writing only occurs as smatterings between these verbatim quotes, poorly tying completely unrelated themes together with logical fallacies. This approach reaches its surreally ridiculous zenith when he quotes himself in order to promote his Volubilis ex Chaosium book; one wonders how many pages of quotes that must contain.

But these failures are not necessarily the rule and there are a few diamonds amongst the rough, mainly coming from the more grizzled of the contributors. Sean Woodward uses a, one assumes, fictional narrative in a meditation on the Hoo Queen,  with the narrator exploring the coastal town of Blackmouth in search of this Shadow Queen of Sirius. Though it lacks much in the way of cosmic horror (though there is a sense of the cosmos), there’s an unavoidable sense of Lovecraft here, with the lone narrator, a stranger in a strange town, visiting a place whose name alone is redolent of Lovecraft’s Innsmouth. There’s a similar focus of hoodoo  from a name as familiar as that of Sean Woodward, Kyle Fite, who in the past has pursued the fictional narrative as occult lesson, but here has a more straight forward essay. Like Woodward’s contribution, Becoming Hoodoo is very much in the shadow of Michael Bertiaux, discussing the first section of The Voudon Gnostic Workbook, and its guide to becoming a hoodoo, which Fite argues is not the exemplar of low magic that it seems, but is instead a guide to a profound and deep theosis.

Kyle Fite - Gran Bois

Given the title of the journal, the qliphoth does loom rather large throughout this first volume. In addition to Barzai’s error-ridden piece on Gamaliel and Orryelle’s nightside notes (in which they briefly detail their exploration of the tunnels of Set, accompanied by darkly-reproduced paintings of the same), there’s a working with the tunnel of Malkunofat from Andi Moon and Sarah Price.

Of personal interest to me is Ljossal Lodursson’s Loki and Azatoth – Lords of Fire and Chaos, in which he compares Loki’s disruptive, maddening and ultimately transformative quality with Lovecraft’s madness-inducing Outer God. He calls this composite figure Azaloke (presumably a play on references to Loki as Asa-Loki), and defines him in fairly anticosmic terms as an alchemical-chaotic symbiote that destroys the kingdom of all creation. The potentially alchemical etymology of Azathoth’s name, with its echoes of the universal solvent Azoth, provides Lodursson with a way of categorising Loki, via his progeny and his relationship with Gulveig, into red, black, purple and green azoths. Lodursson describes his long experiences working with Loki and presents a series of runes received from him: a bindrune called Lokekvisa, and then a set of eleven Hjärta Rúnar, divided into three aetts of creation, destruction and chaos; though those of a mathematical bent will quickly note that these aetts don’t have the traditional eight characters each, and instead group the runes into sets of five, four and three. These Hjärta Rúnar each have a name and properties assigned to them, and resemble traditional runes in some cases, but not all, so there’s a certain inconsistency to their style.

Azaloke

As one of the first, if not the first, publications from Aeon Sophia Press, the design and formatting of Qliphoth leaves a lot to be desired and is nowhere near the consistently high standards that the publishing house now has. The book has an oversized magazine size, which despite its light weight and soft cover makes for a cumbersome read. Text is formatted into dual columns for the most part, but in some cases, this inexplicably becomes a single, full-page column in the middle of an essay, which, given the width of the page, makes the line length intolerable for reading. In an inescapable feeling of layout-by-Microsoft-Word, the body copy is rendered in a point size too large, and the same face and size is used for captions, biographies, references and even adverts, all of which bleed into one. Distorted images abound, whether they be vertically stretched, as seems to happen more often than not with photographs, or pixelated or soft in several instances of graphic elements. This is particularly egregious when it comes to some striking images by Hagen von Tulien, where the impact of his crisp, presumably vector lines, is rendered null due to pixelated reproduction. The image quality encapsulates the problems with this first issue of Qliphoth, indicative of a lack of refinement and attention to detail that is mirrored in the minimal layout, the non-existent proofing and a certain dearth of quality control when it comes to contributors. All of which tends to overshadow the elements that are good.

Hagen von Tulien: Elemental Emergence (looking significantly less pixelated than it does in print)

As is Kerval’s style, this issue of Qliphoth was accompanied by a CD of ritual music, mainly consisting of tracks by his musical guise Emma Ya, but with also a piece from Sean Woodward as his project Gothick, and the track Orpheus’ Lament from the combined talents of Orryelle, Kestral Knox and Amordios Gobblyn-Smyth. My second-hand version of the journal didn’t include the CD, but you can imagine what it sounds like, and many of the Emme Ya tracks are available online, scattered across a variety of other releases.

Published by Aeon Sophia Press


Review Soundtrack: Emme Ya – Erotognosis (Voices From The Void)

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Howlings – Edited by Alkistis Dimech

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Categories: esotericism, goetia, grimoire, magick

Howlings coverBack when Scriptus Recensera launched, the Word document that forms the master copy of the reviews here (and which now runs to 110 pages) had a provisional list of headings, with the names of books to review. It still works like that, new review-worthy titles are added when they arrive and quickly, or eventually, the space beneath them is filled in as they are rapidly, or slowly, read. One title that has been there resolutely from the beginning, seeing its companions reviewed and sent down the pages of the file, is Scarlet Imprint’s Howlings, so let’s for lots of reasons I’m sure, and not just to finally put it to rest, review it exactly ten years after its release.

Howlings was Scarlet Imprint’s first anthology concerning grimoire-related writings, and it was later followed by the previously reviewed Diabolical. It bears the perfect name for such a title, seemingly ambiguous and modern (like some noise-rock duo… *pause for searching* well, what do you know, it’s a witch house producer from California), but referring appropriately to a seemingly contentious translation of goetia as ‘howling.’ The Goetia is just one of the grimoires explored by the multiplicious howling voices in the fourteen essays that make up the singular Howlings, along with The Picatrix, Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Michael Bertiaux’s The Voudon Gnostic Workbook, Aleister Crowley’s Liber 231, and Andrew Chumbley’s Qutub.

Fittingly, it is The Goetia that receives the most attention in Howlings, with a total of six essays addressing various aspects of the 17th century grimoire, featuring contributions from Paul Hughes-Barlow, Aleq Grai, David Rankine (who also later contributes a piece on Agrippa and magical squares), Peter Grey, and two from Thea Faye. In the first of her two pieces, Sex in the Circle, Faye considers aspects of gender in invocation, while in the second, and continuing with her largely practical approach, she addresses the trustworthiness of the various goetic spirits. Considering that in The Goetia there are 72 spirits available to practitioners, it’s interesting that one of them, Andromalius, finder of thieves and treasure, receives somewhat disproportionate attention here, being the focus of Hughes-Barlow’s piece, and also featuring heavily in Aleq Grai’s Tools of the Goetia, which includes a transcript of a ritual conversation with them.

Chimeric image from the internal title page

For those with more caliginous inclinations, Crowley’s qliphothic text Liber 231 receives attention from Krzysztof Azarewicz, Stafford Stone and Donald Tyson. Azarewicz broadly considers the text itself, while Tyson’s 49 page The Gates of Daath, the longest contribution in this anthology, is a wide-ranging consideration of sephiroth, qliphoth and their tarot attributions, particularly in regard, as one would expect, to the nullsphere of Daath. As he would later do in Diabolical, Stafford Stone’s contribution to things nightside are a selection of cards from his Nightside Tarot (Baratchial, Gargophias, Uriens and Niantiel), accompanied by brief battlefield notes, as he calls them, describing each of the featured atu and their perpetually symmetrical spirits.

Spread with plates for Stafford Stone's Gargophias, Uriens cards

One of the things that appeals about Howlings, and it is summed up in the subtitle to David Beth’s Bertiaux-themed Into the Meon essay, Approaching the Voudon Gnostic Workbook, is that feeling of a supremely personal interaction with the writer’s grimoire of choice. Where Howlings succeeds most is in those instances where the idea is one of encountering, exploring and experiencing a tome; something that appeals to the bibliophile in me. While writing should be rigorous without doubt, those qualities are enhanced here by the enthusiasm of the contributors, where the interaction with the grimoire is experiential, visceral and profound. At the same time, though, this approach doesn’t always work, and some of the essays reflecting on the author’s personal journey wither in comparison to those with more of an academic skill set. The latter succeeds is in those instances where the personal is combined with a clear, authoritative voice, and with stellar writing skills; something not always the case with so many contributors.

Scarlet Imprint’s Peter Grey fulfils the promise that a volume such as this offers with his perfectly titled The Stifling Air. Combining the personal with historical antecedents, Grey writes in a beautifully poetic manner that engages with its tone but doesn’t get too purple in its prose. His is a picturesque tribute to the ritual virtues of smoke and incense, beginning with a panegyric overview before considering various incenses individually and extensively. That sense of personal interaction is also evident in Jack Macbeth’s Getting to the Point, which acts as both paean and practicum for Chumbley’s poetic text Qutub. Macbeth writes affectionately of Chumbley’s relatively brief work, describing it as hypnotic, whirling and a “many layered exposition on the sorcerous arte.”

The formatting in Howlings is as lovely as one would expect from Scarlet Imprint, with type set at a small but readable serif face, framed by large margins and a generous footer. Given the multitude of contributors, there’s understandably variance in how images are presented, with sigils rendered differently in weight and style, but otherwise the quality is fine. The one exception is in the reproduction of two engravings by Albrecht Dürer, with Melancholia not as a sharp as it could be, while The Angle with the Key to the Bottomless Pit is unforgivably and surprisingly soft, murky and blurry.

Howlings page spread

Howlings was released in several editions, with the first being a limited and hand-numbered edition of 333 copies. The second edition consists of 666 copies but is confusingly numbered sequentially from 334 to 999, of which this reviewer’s copy (for those keeping score at home) is number 782. It has black endpapers, black and white illustrations, colour plates and is bound in turquoise cloth, with gilt titling to spine and an geometric Islamic design foiled over the entire front. Although, as with other Scarlet Imprint titles, this foiling has, with the passage of time, flaked and faded in places, despite the impeccable archival standards at Scriptus Recensera. Contact with the cover through the mere act of reading means that by the time you finish the book, the cover will have changed, appearing worn in those places  where your hands have rested. Feature or a bug, you decide.

Published by Scarlet Imprint

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The Serpent Tongue: Liber 187 – Jake Stratton-Kent

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Categories: esotericism, qabalah

The Serpent Tongue coverAs its subtitle A Workbook of English Qaballa suggests, this compact tome from Jake Stratton-Kent is a work detailing a system of English qabalah, both as a type of gematria and as a hands-on system of magic. By English Qaballa we mean a variation of conventional qabalah but one in which the English letters of the alphabet, rather than Hebrew, are assigned numeric values. Though he is enigmatically low on details, Stratton-Kent describes this system as having been discovered by a here-unnamed magical group in November 1976. The group had previously ritualised their intention to do so and details of theirs discovery were published in five issues of The New Equinox / British Journal of Magick. It provided a fulfilment to the promise made in Liber AL vel legis, verse 2:55: “Thou shalt obtain the order & value of the English Alphabet, thou shalt find new symbols to attribute them unto.”

In this English Qaballa (an idiosyncratic spelling variant chosen at the time because it was otherwise not in use), the gematria doesn’t make use of a direct monoalphabetic substitution cipher, as occurs with the Mispar Hechrachi system in Hebrew. Stratton-Kent notes that this entry-level attempt proved unsatisfactory, and it, along with other dead-ends, were ritually immolated. The successful solution instead used the number 11 as a key, counting on along the alphabet at intervals of eleven and assigning the monoalphabetic substitution to this new order of letters. Thus the value 1 was associated with the letter A, 2 with L, 3 with W and then, cycling through the alphabet again, 4 with H, and so forth until all 24 values were assigned to a unique letter.

For those familiar with Stratton-Kent’s social media presence, it may be of interest to know that he writes with the same, recognisable voice. It is a voice whose tone and manner is somewhat arch and acerbic, not suffering fools gladly, and throwing in words like ‘absurd’ multiple times to refer to opinions he does not share. Conversely, though, there is a certain informality to Stratton-Kent’s tone, a pragmatism that allows him to be upfront about the vagaries and vicissitude of qabalah in particular and occultism in general.

The air of a polemic bordering on the vituperative suffuses the first section of The Serpent Tongue, a lengthy introduction in which Stratton-Kent argues against the pre-eminence given in contemporary occultism to Hebrew, especially as it pertains to qabalah. He contends that qabalah as a system is indebted to the cosmopolitan milieu that preceded its development, in particular the strain of Jewish Gnosticism seen in Merkabah mysticism, within which Greek Neoplatonism was the wielder of the greatest influence. This invective is used to argue against the primacy given to Hebrew in the Western Tradition, and to make the case that, in the words of Umberto Eco, the idea of Hebrew as the primal language from which all others descended is a ‘crusty old myth;’ – a quote that Stratton-Kent appears so enamoured with that he repeats it later.

With the introductory case made for the validity of an English qabalah, part one follows with chapters on various qabalistic qualities of Liber AL, most notably the famous cipher found at II.76: 4 6 3 8 ABK 2 4 ALGMOR 3 Y X 24 89 RPSTOVAL. This underlines Stratton-Kent’s approach here, which is very much grounded in Thelema, with the gematria often being used to proffer evidence of the veracity of Crowley’s transmission, or to at least provide greater insight into its cosmology and symbolism.  Crowley’s oeuvre returns the favour in kind, being used to add the mythos and liturgy from which the English Qaballa can draw its proofs.

A page spread from The Serpent Tongue

Stratton-Kent provides plenty of ways to work with English Qaballa, not just for gematrial investigations of esoteric themes and motifs, but in practical ritual and sorcery. There’s a consideration of magick squares, but perhaps of the most interest are the various systems he presents for creating barbarous names, magickally encoded language devised with increasing degrees of complexity.

Qabalah and gematria often feel like coding and programming: if you don’t have a particular aptitude for it, it’s all a bit impenetrable, or at the very least intimidating. There’s nothing too byzantine here, but the various permutations of numbers and equations can make your eyes glaze over after a while. Ever the skeptic, I’m never sure what to think of gematria and there’s always that suggestion of confirmation bias. I mean, sure the value of the five vowels in English Qaballa is 73, which is the value of MANTRA, POWER, RUNES, GIANT, all great stuff to be sure, especially the rune power of giants, am I right? But, then, it’s presumably also the value of NURSE and RATMAN and a variety of other less numinous words… so all hail Nurse Ratman, lord of the vowels, I guess?

Despite its small size, and in saying that, it does run to over 200 pages, The Serpent Tongue is a dense work with a rigorous internal consistency and a lot for readers to employ in their practice. Stratton-Kent’s writing is to be commended, keeping it erudite but still frequently informal and irreverent, with occasional splash of snark.

Published by Hadean Press

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The Troll Inside You: Paranormal Activity in the Medieval North – Ármann Jakobsson

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Categories: folk, germanic

The Troll Inside You coverÁrmann Jakobsson is Professor of Medieval Icelandic Literature at Háskóli Íslands/the University of Iceland and has been, as an oft-repeated bio tells it, a postman, a high school teacher, a journalist and critic, a reality TV star and a political activist. Trolls loom large in Ármann’s work, with the 2015/2016 writing of this book coming as the result of eight years working with the subject. It is the product of a research project, Encounters with the Paranormal, which included collaborations with Ásdís Egilsdóttir, Torfi H. Tulinius, Terry Gunnell and Stephen Mitchell, as well as eight doctoral students, and three masters students who wrote their theses within the parametres of the project.

Ármann makes it clear from the start that the understanding of the troll, like the troll itself, is a shifting and intangible one – something intrinsic to the troll as a figure of ambiguity and otherness, whose only definable and immutable characteristic is that, due to their eldritch nature, they are to be feared. This resistance to definition, an opposition to any particularly constricting taxonomy, comes from the fact that trolls appear across the centuries in a multiplicity of forms: as ghosts or spirits, as supernatural but corporeal creatures (a categorisation that in itself can be broken down into still further categories), and as nominally human practitioners of sorcery. It is as if, as Ármann pithily notes, the more difficult it becomes to name or classify a monster, the greater the power it wields.

Whilst Ármann draws on Örvar-Odds saga and other sagas of the Icelanders for his initial discussion of trollish ambiguity, for his first thorough literature review he turns to the little known Bergbúa þáttr, whose singular tale tells of an encounter in a cave, sometime after the kristnitaka, between two men and the barely defined, forever ambiguous, bergbúa of the title. Although low on the usage of the specific word ‘troll,’ this story provides a showcase of all the themes Ármann has already identified: liminality, the unheimlich and of boundaries and intersections between worlds, be they human and the paranormal, a Christian present and a heathen past, and at its most obvious and symbolic level, the cave’s interior and exterior.

This idea of troll space is explored further in subsequent chapters, as is the idea of trollspeak, with Ármann citing one example in which the mundanity of the speaking of trolls (not the expected grunts or howls) exacerbates their otherness, upending expectations, and with it, the world itself. Speech and language does figure largely throughout this book, and Ármann builds on his original discussion of the vagaries of the word ‘troll’ with a return to matters epistemological and a meditation of the vocabulary of the paranormal and its intersection with the occult. This is an area fraught with difficulty, and therefore ripe for analysis, because as Ármann notes, the essential nature of the occult is to remain hidden (a quality implicit in the very name), and therefore ambiguous and subject to doubt and uncertainty.

These explorations of language, and of the ambiguity of the figures it tries to define and make sense of, highlights that The Troll Inside You isn’t a study of trolls and their studiously cited source texts; for that there’s John Lindow’s concise Trolls: An Unnatural History, as well as previous writing by Ármann. Instead, the troll is effectively used as a liminal gatekeeper, with its uncanny characteristics and resistance to definition providing a lens through which broader musings on perception and otherness in the Medieval North can be discussed.

As always, Ármann writes in an engaging and enjoyable style, completely immersed in the language of academia’s modalities, but without overuse of that particular lexicon. While there’s a place for the convoluted styles of a Morton or Butler, it’s not here, and it doesn’t seem to be part of Ármann’s personality. Instead, he’s more interested in connecting with the reader with a clear, informed voice that is authoritative but by no means fustian. He also shows an arch sense of humour, such as an abrupt fourth-wall-breaking coda which he subtitles archaically as “Coda: In Which the Audience is Unexpectedly Addressed,” producing a truly laugh-out-loud moment.

The Troll Inside You spread

The structure of The Troll Inside You assists its readability with often brisk (though annoyingly unnumbered) chapters that act as perfectly digestible little chunks of trollish goodness. Similarly, from a technical perspective, the type is set matter-of-factly and competently in an atypical slab serif that ensures readability but has a modern touch.

The end to The Troll Inside You sneaks up quickly on you, as the pure content finishes abruptly and early at the 163rd of its total 240 pages, with the rest of the book consisting of endnotes and an index. As the page count evinces, these endnotes are extensive and feature considerable elaboration, rather than simple citations or qualifications. Some run to half a page, with a small point size at that, so for those who interest is piqued, there’s a lot of adjunct material to dive into, and a lot of flicking to the end section as you read.

In their short seven years, Punctum Books have amassed an amazing collection of cover art, some full of whimsy, some with great contemporary design, and some that are just straight-up beautiful (yes, I’m looking at you, Visceral: Essays on Illness Not as Metaphor). I’m not sure where the cover of The Troll Inside You sits in relation to those. With the subtitle rendered like a stamp, there was obviously an attempt to play on a more contemporary idea of paranormal investigations (if we can called the X-Files and its aesthetic antecedents contemporary), rather than something distinctly medieval Scandinavian or academic. This, in turn, sits rather incongruously with the main title which is rendered in a geometric face with the counters filled in; a questionable typographic trend whose peak was some ten years hence. It’s all very aberrant, and dissociative, which, mayhaps, allows one to go “Aha, that’s what we were going for all along.”

Published by Punctum Books.

Published by Punctum Books.

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