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Pillars: The Scalding of Sapientia – Edited, compiled and curated by G. McCaughry

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Categories: esotericism, hermeticism, luciferian, magick, robert cochrane, witchcraft

The Scalding of Sapientia is something of special issue of Anathema Publishing’s Pillars journal, which at time of writing has had three soft-cover issues in its first volume; all of which have since been compiled into a single, hardbound Perichoresis Edition. The Scalding of Sapientia sits outside this issue structure and goes straight for the hardcover, with a standalone clothbound volume wrapped in a 3/4 dusk jacket. This special edition finds its purpose in its theme, Lucifer as an exemplar of magickal consuetude, making it, along with previously reviewed books from Three Hands Press and Black Moon Publishing, part of a vigorous renaissance for the light bringer. It is Lucifer’s role as this light bringer that The Scalding of Sapientia concerns itself, casting its net wider than just a consideration of him as a mythic figure, and also exploring various themes of Luciferian wisdom, sacrifice and praxis, as well as other personifications of wisdom such as the Gnostic goddess Sophia.

The contributors to The Scalding of Sapientia are a varied bunch and amongst the fourteen writers there are only a few names that immediately leap out as recognisable: Shani Oates, Craig Williams, Carl Abrahamson, Johannes Nefastos and Anathema owner Gabriel McCaughry. Things do start off slowly too, beginning with Kogishsaga, a long poem by Nukshean of the Alaskan black metal band Skaltros. Preceded by a preamble itself several pages long, the poem, which provides the lyrics to a Skaltros album of the same name, runs to eleven pages. It is presented as somewhat intimidating blocks of text, bisected only by the individual song titles, rather than more easily digestible verses. As such, it’s one of those things where you go “Well, this is nice enough and all, but I’ll come back and finish this later after I’ve read the rest of the book.” Once one realises that these are black metal lyrics, the phrasing and intonation makes more sense, and if you like, you can try and follow along while listening to the album and its corvid vocal stylings; this reviewer lost track pretty quickly.

The allure of America’s Pacific Northwest and its other mountainous and arboraceous regions is something that comes through clearly in Nukshean’s Kogishsaga and the same is true of the following contribution from Paul Waggener of Wolves of Vinland and Operation Werewolf. Both Nukshean’s piece and Waggener’s Sacrifice: Discipline & the Great Work emphasis the virtue of tribulation and time spent alone in the wilderness, with Waggener’s approach being largely an excoriation of those that don’t follow such an approach.

Johnny Decker Miller: Durtro

The first piece here that truly piques the interest is Johnny Decker Miller’s The Dreadful Banquet. Subtitled Sacrifice, Luciferian Gnosis & the Sorcery of the Bone Trumpet, it explores various examples of wind instruments made of bone, in particular the kangling, the human thigh trumpet used in Tibetan Buddhism. Heavily indebted to the work of Andrew Chumbley, Miller relates this instrument, its aesthetics and use to Sabbatic Craft and witchcraft in general, highlighting how an atavistic ritual such as the Tibetan Chöd can have an equivalent in more Western climes.

It is these kind of pieces, merging research with suggestions of contemporary praxis, that are ultimately the most satisfying amongst the content of The Scalding of Sapientia. They stand in contrast to more philosophical musings about the nature of the left hand path, metaphysical cosmologies, or the virtues of living alone in a cabin in the woods; none of which feel anywhere as revolutionary or revelatory as the authors probably hope they do. At this point in contemporary occultism, pretty much everything has been said in those avenues, and given that publications such as these are directed towards the choir, there seems little benefit in expatiating them once again.

There is a strong emphasis within The Scalding of Sapientia on the experiential, of exteriorising the interior, and representing one’s personal approach to the acquisition of wisdom. Sometimes specific examples are given, and other times the practical side may be a little veiled, cloaked in philosophical speak or biographical accounts bordering on the hagiographic. In addition to the personal recollections in the aforementioned contributions from Nukshean and Paul Waggener, Craig Williams provides a succinct introduction to his Cult of Golgotha, while Camelia Elias talks of her relationship with Lucifer and of being a prodigious two year old reciting Mihai Eminescu’s poem Luceafarul. Likewise, Graeme de Villiers intersperses a dual observance mass for Our Lady of the Two Trees with a biography both magical and mundane, and Anathema-stalwart, Shani Oates writes a somewhat peregrinating paean to the entities she works with, beginning her narrative as a child who was often thought to be a changeling left by the Fey.

Spread including artwork by Adrian Baxter

From an aesthetic perspective, The Scalding of Sapientia is a delight. Elsewhere we’ve lauded the look of releases from Anathema and this seems to have reached its apex with this release, making them the producer of some of the most beautiful books in occult publishing. McCaughry has a wonderful typographic eye, working with a suite of faces and techniques that says multiple things: occult, classic, yet paradoxically modern. Along with that, there’s an admirable use of white space and hierarchy that assists in creating that sense of rarefied environs.

Then there’s the artwork featured throughout, which feels very curated, such is the quality, with nary a dud amongst them. Consisting of predominantly black and white images, as well as some muted and murky colour ones and a few photographs, the highlights are those such as Johnny Decker Miller illustrating his own essay, Chris Undirheimer’s eitr-tinged inks (above) and Adrian Baxter’s ikon-like botanicals. All three artists specialise in what you would hope for in contemporary occult illustration: delicately rendered fine lines and beautifully defined forms that are redolent of engravings. And skulls, always skulls. Also worthy of note is Robert W. Cook, who traffics in blackened drips and eldritch rhizomes, hued in a gloaming effulgency.

The Scalding of Sapientia was made available in two editions, a standard edition of 600 copies, and an artisanal Cutis Novis edition of a mere twelve exemplars. The standard edition consists of 208 pages on Cougar Natural 160M archive-quality paper, hardbound in a gorgeous Bamberger Kaliko metallic cranberry red bookcloth, with gold foil stamp on the spine and cover, and the sigil for this volume blind debossed on the back. Inside are Neenah Dark Brown endpapers with a burnished leather and finish, and the entire book is wrapped in the aforementioned 3/4 dusk jacket featuring the artwork Hortus Aureus by Denis Forkas Kostromitin. I’m not totally convinced by this partial dust jacket as it looks a little messy, with Kostromitin’s artwork not integrating with the gold foiled image by Undirheimer on the cloth front, and only the title on the spine bringing the two elements together.

The Cutis Novis edition is bound in a mottled, highly textured calfskin leather, with the sigil for The Scalding of Sapientia blind debossed on the front. The spine features raised nerves and the title and Pillars sigil foiled in gold, while the interior includes additional handmade endpapers. Included with each of the deluxe editions was a pine wood seal with the McCaughry-designed Scalding of Sapientia sigil burnt at knife point by Undirheimer and consecrated with the blood of both artists.

Published by Anathema Publishing

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Traditional Witchcraft: A Cornish Book of Ways – Gemma Gary

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Categories: folk, witchcraft

Here at Scriptus Recensera there’s no shortage of reviews of Troy Books, erm, books. This comes largely down to matters practical: they are both affordable and desirable, with even the standard editions being presented in an attractive, cloth-bound format with embossed cover designs, and beautifully formatted and illustrated within. They’re also easy to review since they are eminently readable, consistently professional and usually devoid of the kind of errors so typical of occult publishing. As such, though, when it comes time to read and review Gemma Gary’s Traditional Witchcraft: A Cornish Book of Ways, one wonders how differently this will fare amongst not just other previously reviewed Troy Books books, but also amongst Gary’s other written works.

Traditional Witchcraft, with its somewhat generic title amongst a veritable sea of Traditional Witchcraft books, can at least make a claim to being one of the originals of the current crop, first published ten years ago in 2008, with this being the third edition from 2015, following a revised second edition in 2011. In the intervening years, Gary’s skills have grown as a writer, becoming someone who I find admirably effortless to read. This isn’t always the case here, with occasionally tortuous phrasing, peculiar usages of semicolons, and the odd run-on sentence which you can’t imagine encountering today.

Traditional Witchcraft provides something of a template to other books that have subsequently come from Gary and Troy Books. There’s an overwhelming emphasis on folklore, which is naturally for the most part specific to Cornwall. While there is a substantial bibliography at the back of the book, there is zero citing within the body, so all of this lore comes across, intentionally or not, as personal, experiential knowledge. That said, it is interesting to review the bibliography to get a sense of where things have presumably come from. It is divided into folklore and broader witchcraft sections, with the former featuring a surfeit of works from Kelvin Jones’ Oakmagic Publications, while the latter has a healthy nod to Capall Bann’s triumvirate of Jackson/Howard/Pearson.

This grounding in folklore, including a welcomed consideration of the Bucca, gives way to a thorough introduction to Gary’s Cornish system of witchcraft, which takes up the rest of book’s two thirds. For anyone familiar with traditional witchcraft, there won’t be anything here that’s entirely unfamiliar or revelatory, but it is consistently given that little Cornish flavour. Gary begins by introducing the tools of cunning, at the forefront of which is the staff, which she describes as being as important to traditional witchcraft as the athame is to Wicca. This assemblage of accoutrements also includes a knife, cup, bowl, cauldron, sweeping tools, various types of stones, necklaces, and noise makers such as drums and wind roarers. Gary provides a brief description of each of these and then information on empowering them with a technique called hooding.

Gary then explores the cosmological setting of Cornish magic in The Witches’ Compass, using that rubric to outline a system in which the quarters are imagined as four roads emanating from the axial circle. Each road is associated with a particular form of intent, and with it a range of correspondences including seasons, elements and familiar spirits. These roads are worked with a Compass Rite in which a compass round is drawn and then walked before the specific magical act begins. Gary then provides an outline of the Troyl Hood, a procedure that is used to close any rite or workings.

With the emphasis in Traditional Witchcraft of matters folkloric, there is a significant section on witchcraft as a trade, with an exploration of charms and practical magic. This begins with a brief preamble of the types of employment a witch might find before detailing various planetary virtues and their associated powders, oils and incenses. Then follows a wide selection of charms for all kinds of sympathetic magic, the kinds of things that will be familiar from any type of folklore collection, utilising familiar simultaneously mundane and exotic ingredients like horse shoes, dead toads and knots. Gary rounds things off with what any witchcraft book needs, a survey of the ritual year, but this isn’t so much your standard Imbolcs and Beltanes, and instead have a Cornish twist, with the quartenal Furry Nights of Allantide, Candlemas, May’s Eve and Guldize being joined by the summer zenith of Golowan and the midwinter solstice of Montol. These are each presented with an explanation and then an example of a corresponding ritual.Coming to the conclusion of Traditional Witchcraft, Gary ends with a beginning and provides a chapter on initiation, with a wide ranging discussion of its history and precedents, before providing a ritual for solo initiation into her Ros an Bucca hearth.

At over 200 pages, Traditional Witchcraft is a solid introduction to Gary’s oeuvre and Cornish witchcraft in particular, free of much in the way of artifice or pretension. The Bucca looms large within its pages (and on the cover of the paperback edition), while there are also tantalising mentions of Ankow, the Cornish personification of death who is here seen as a Hela-like hag of death and transformation. Interestingly, snakes also figure largely in the contents of Traditional Witchcraft, something that is perhaps not often found in similar contexts and something which adds a certain appeal for this reviewer. Gary repeatedly refers to the idea of igneus snakes as expressions of tellurian power that can be drawn up from the earth and into the body in a kundalini-like manner.

As is the Troy Books style, Traditional Witchcraft is illustrated throughout with Gary’s unmistakeable hand, though her trademark stippled stylings still seems somewhat inchoate here, and she explores a variety of other techniques; one even looking reminiscent of Daniel Schulke’s atavistic, two tone botanical considerations in Viridarium Umbris. Joining these full page and interstitial illustrations is a large collection of photographic plates by Jane Cox, either showcasing relics of note, or documenting practical acts of magic.

Traditional Witchcraft: A Cornish Book of Ways is available in two editions, a generic paperback version and a hardback edition. The hardback is presented in a claret red binding, with black end-papers, black and red head and tail bands and with silver foil blocking to the front and spine. In addition to these two available editions there were also a special limited edition (bound in green cloth with a unique image blocked in copper foil on the cover), a fine limited edition and a special fine edition. The fine edition, limited to 25 copies, was hand bound in scarlet hand finished goat leather with gold foil blocking to the front and spine, marbled end papers, red head and tail bands and marker ribbon, enclosed in a lined slipcase covered in red library Buckram cloth. Finally, the five exemplars of the special fine edition were hand bound in dark green fine hand polished and finished goat leather, with hand tooled raised labyrinth design on the front and gold foil blocking to the spine, with marbled end papers, capped spine ends, and gold marker ribbon, enclosed in a lined slipcase covered in green library Buckram cloth.

The title is also available as a four-CD audio book, created in conjunction with Circle of Spears Productions and read by actress and voice artiste Tracey Norman.

Published by Troy Books

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The Explicit Name of Lucifer – G. De Laval

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Categories: luciferian, satanism

If there’s one word to describe The Explicit Name of Lucifer from Aeon Sophia Press it’s ‘cute.’ This is a tiny volume, 112 pages in all, measuring 11 by 18cm, just a little bigger than one of the current generation of mobile phones. The Explicit Name of Lucifer is something of a diversion from Laval’s considerably more voluminous works also available from Aeon Sophia Press. It expands on gematria systems from their previous work, Black Magic Evocation of the Shem ha Mephorash, which funnily enough has since had a revised second edition that is, in turn, informed by this work. That’s the circle of life, I guess. It moves us all.

The intent of The Explicit Name of Lucifer is to provide a magickal script that is, to use the language of cryptography, a perfect cipher, by which Laval means a script that is a letter-for-letter mirror of the English alphabet. The value of such a script, Laval argues, is that it makes for a more empowered, internally consistent system that allows the English language to be used as a “direct channel of occult energy.” With that said, though, there’s still a reliance on Hebrew here, with each of the letters (or rather, the demon associated with each letter) given a name derived from an acrostic based on the Hebrew letters from three verses in Psalms 73. The gematrial value of each letter/demon is, in turn, taken from these Hebrew names.

This script, then, forms the explicit name of the book’s title through the combination of the 26 demon names; good luck pronouncing it. The use of the letters must be preceded by the creation of a reliquary, a ritual invocation and the creation of a conjuration seal of Lucifer. The reliquary features an ingredients list that will put off all but the most dedicated, or foolhardy. There are 26 ingredients in all, though just one of these is dirt from thirteen cemeteries no less, and another is dirt from eleven gates (not sure if you can count one of these as ingredient number twelve, dirt from a church, just for the sake of efficiency). These, along with other choice items like a small magnet, tallow and a stone from the top of a mountain, are mixed together, set on fire, turned into mud and placed in a vessel with the letters of the script inscribed on the outside.

The 26 spirits of the Luciferal Alphabet takes up the lion’s share of this book with each of them presented consistently, with a page for the respective glyph from the Luciferal Alphabet, followed by a one page description of the demon. That is with the exception of the demon Bour, who is given a full page illustration as well. And why not? He’s adorable. Look at what a dapper chap he is, with his little frock coat, and gentleman’s walking stick; not to mention his generous endowment. He’s like some character from a more demonically inclined Wind in the Willows or Redwall.

In the information for each demon, Laval provides a description, a list of attributes, suggested incenses and offerings, and propitious times for summoning. It isn’t explained from whence these attributes have been derived, especially in the case of some of these spirits where they are given a whole retinue of other named spirits: Lemelel, demon of the letter N, for example, is part of something called the Kaphim (presumably taken from a word used for ‘beam’ in the book of Habakkuk), of which there are eight other spirits, no less: Mekem, Miyn, Nalakyah, Namiy, Niym, Pheyiy, Yayeph and Yenam. Similarly, Memadiah, the demon of the letter R, is part of something enigmatically but unhelpfully referred to as “the four amethysts of Shakti, the Achlemoth,” alongside her ungoogleable friends Avochel, Chavaa and Medam.

There are a couple of other things that give one pause. The 26 spirits each have a numeric value assigned to them, but with no explanation this is referred to as a gematria value in the case of some spirits, and as an energy current in others; despite indeed all being just Mispar Hechrachi-derived gematria values. Meanwhile, in one endearing erratum, things are apparently so antinomian that verses from the Book of Psalms are referred to with the homophone ‘versus.’ There’s also another script included in this book without any explanation other than a legend showing its corresponding letters in English and the Luciferal Script/Alphabet of Lucifer, the latter of which is here confusingly called yet another name, the Ceremonial Altar Script. This third script is referred to as Demotic Common but it doesn’t resemble any historical version of Demotic in the upper case sense of the word, and has more of a Lovecraftian look, all spirally and curved with tentacle-like terminals. This Demotic Common is used to render the three page invocation that must be made before the Luciferal Script can be used, making for yet another level of effort and translatory flicking of pages back and forth.

With its small format and 112 pages, The Explicit Name of Lucifer is a brisk, one-sitting read, and so feels a little brief; obviously it takes longer if you go the applied route and factor in the dirt-collecting visits to thirteen cemeteries and a trip to a mountain summit. This does, of course, reflect its status as an adjunct to Laval’s longer works (his expanded edition of Black Magic Evocation of the Shem ha Mephorash is over 500 pages), but it feels like more could have been drawn out of this system as its presented here.

The Explicit Name of Lucifer is a black Italian cloth bound hardcover of 112 pages, with a gold foil print title on the cover, black end-papers and black head/tail bands.

Published by Aeon Sophia Press.

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Songs for the Witch Woman – John W. Parsons & Marjorie Cameron

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Categories: art, devotional, magick, thelema, witchcraft

If you didn’t already know, your humble reviewer is quite the fan of Marjorie Cameron, with the Apsinthion collaboration between Gydja and Emme Ya giving aural form to much of her work and magickal cosmology. Songs for the Witch Woman is a collection of poetry by Jack Parsons, dedicated to Cameron, and illustrated throughout with her evocative imagery. Previously, as far as I’m aware, only publically and partially available in the September 1974 issue of the English Thelemic journal Sothis: A Magazine of the New Aeon, the thought of a release like this was very much a fevered Babalonian dream.

This version of Songs for the Witch Woman represents a typically exhaustive edition by Fulgur, with the poems, drawings and diary entries published together for the first time, along with a complete facsimile of the original 1950s notebooks, and contextual commentaries from William Breeze, George Pendle and Margaret Haines.

Parsons and Cameron’s currency has risen a lot of late, no doubt partially due to the two biographies on Parsons and Spencer Kansa’s one on Cameron. No longer quite that heretical fool that Crowleyan orthodoxy consciously or unconsciously attempted to paint him as, the father of American rocketry has now even had his life recently immortalised in the golden age of on-demand video; you can rest assured we won’t be watching that, of course.

The poems that comprise Songs for the Witch Woman were written by Parsons between 1946 and his death in 1952, and act as both a paean to Cameron, and an explication of the magickal cosmology they developed, the Witchcraft. Babalonian and sabbatic imagery abounds, with goats, horned moons, and voluptuousness up the wazoo. Parsons writes with a clear, evocative poetic style, with little baroque ornamentation and a pace and structure that means many of these poems could act as effective ritual accompaniments.

Marjorie Cameron: Danse

Against some of the poems, are twenty pen and ink images by Cameron, exhibiting a staggering control over line and form. Her style is entirely her own, all evocative economy of line and space, though there are obvious touchstones including Aubrey Beardsley’s stately royal figures, Egon Schiele’s jagged bodies, and somewhat prochronistically, Peter Chung’s aberrantly sensuous elongated flesh. Austin Spare could also be mentioned as a de rigueur comparison, with both artists sharing an interest in magickal bodies, though there’s a more angular and visceral quality to Cameron’s hand, rather than Spare’s ephemeral phantasmagorical forms.

Cameron’s minimalist skill is particularly evident in the images accompanying Aradia and Aztec where the amount of strokes needed to construct them can be counted on two hands. In others, Cameron, plays with the space on the page, in Autumn placing an obvious simulacrum of herself in the lower half of the page, with her hair rising up like flames into the space above her head. Something similar occurs in Passion Flowers, where the hair of a supine figure flows down and across the page, cascading from upper right to lower left.

Amongst the elongated female forms, of which there is an abundance, are images of Parsons, rendered unmistakable with Cameron’s economy and her evident ability as a caricaturist, able to distill someone’s essence into a few lines. Handsome and heavy-browed, he appears regal in the finely and confidently crafted images accompanying The Fool and Merlin, while his shock of dark hair is rendered matted in ink spatter amongst leaves and spider web in the qliphothic Neurosis. He can also be glimpsed in the ithyphallic eponym that accompanies Pan, or as the Sorcerer whose body seems to disintegrate amongst the stars he wields.

Marjorie Cameron: Pan

The digitised pages of the notebook are reproduced at 90% of their original size and include full page illustrations against some of the entries. In the case of some poems, such as Pan, this provides an additional image to illustrate the text, while others are the companions to previously unaccompanied poems. The style of these is less refined than Cameron’s black ink images, replacing the stark contrast of line and space with thicker strokes and washes of colour against the ecru background of the paper.

Watercolour version of Pan

The images and words of Songs for the Witch Woman are bookended with excerpts from Cameron’s diary, presented as both transcribed text and as the original handbook scans. Written a few months after the death of Parsons, the words were received as part of magickal workings, so for those inclined to adherancy and devotion, they have the status of holy writ (guilty). This is especially so when the digitised originals allow one to see Cameron’s hand, her script becoming larger and more emotive as pages past.

Pages from Cameron's diary

Songs for the Witch Woman is an invaluable resource, whether it be as simply a documentation of the work of Cameron and Parsons, or as a record useful for further research. Both the songs themselves and the entries from Cameron’s diary are rich in information and imagery ready for analysis, extraction or elaboration. Fulgur are to be commended for the thoroughness of their approach, with the large format and extensive scans of the original pages doing the work immense justice.

Songs for the Witch Woman is available in a limited edition hardback with 176 30.5cm x 24cm pages on 135gsm Italian paper, bound in blue cloth bearing the image used for Danse on the cover in black and a debossed silver moon on the back. It is completed with a dust-jacket bearing the first image from the original release on the front, and a reproduction of the words to Witch Woman on the reverse. The edition is limited to a fitting run of 1560 copies, 1390 of which are the regular edition, 156 of which are bound in quarter morocco leather, and fourteen of which are bound in full morocco.

Published by Fulgur

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Helvete: A Journal of Black Metal Theory – Issue 1: Incipit – Edited by Amelia Ishmael, Zareen Price, Aspasia Stephanou and Ben Woodard

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Categories: art, satanism

We stray a little from the usual matters magickal with this review of the first issue of Punctum Book’s journal of black metal theory. Helvete is a collection that is, to my surprise, no means unique, with academic interest in black metal having previously found expression in several iterations of the Black Metal Theory Symposium, with those contributions anthologised in publications such as Hideous Gnosis and more recently Mors Mystica. Black metal must surely be unique amongst all of metal’s subgenres in attracting this kind of academic attention, and to some extent this is understandable with black metal’s caché of cool, or at the very least its memeability; were such a word real. No one, as far as I am aware, is out there writing academic theses on grindcore, or even comparable subgenres, in terms of longevity and quantity, like death or doom metal; which is a shame.

Given the wealth of material already, erm, symposiumed and published, one would assume that the entry level, what-is-black-metal type discussions in this field would have been published long ago, if at all, and that is indeed the case here, with contributors exploring rather specialised areas of black metal’s topography. With that said, the first contribution, Janet Silk’s Open a Vein, does contextualise her discussion of suicide and black metal by setting the scene with the suicide of Mayhem’s Per ‘Dead’ Ohlin, a moment she describes as the birth of black metal (an urbane albeit arguable and problematic claim). Silk prefaces much of her consideration of depressive suicidal black metal (which she atypically abbreviates as the less recognisable SBM) with a survey of suicide in philosophy, religion, and other cultures, touching on Mishima and the death-drive of early Christian martyrs and Islamic šuhada. She does this in a slightly unnervingly amoral way, with what can be read at the very least as an admirable detachment with no moral judgement cast, and perhaps at worst, as a tacit approval of, or admiration for, suicide’s destructive and nihilistic impulses. I, in turn, make no moral judgement on this editorial choice and just reiterate the disconcerting feeling that inescapably arises when reading content that seems to sensibly suggest suicide is a good option. When DSBM is then considered within this context, its themes and motivations are validated as part of this greater milieu and given gravitas and import, rather than dismissed as mere posturing or angst. Silk’s main touchstone here, other than Dead, is Sweden’s Shining, and Denmark’s cheerfully named Make a Change… Kill Yourself, so it is by no means a broad survey of the sub-subgenre that is DSBM. Even if it wasn’t intended as such, it feels like some areas have been missed: the suicide of Dissection’s Jon Nödtveidt and how the anticosmic philosophies of the Temple of the Black Light compare to the nihilism of the musicians that Silk does document; or the isolation that is inherent in so many DSBM acts being solo projects by secluded, socially-awkward multi-instrumentalists.

The esteemed Timothy Morton finds a good springboard for his talk of hyperobjects and dank ecology in Wolves in the Throne Room, whose status as arch conservationists provides the basis for much of his musings. Despite being the Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University, Morton’s paean to Wolves in the Throne Room feels more like a creative writing exercise, or the worst kind of music review in the world. You know the kind? The kind that describes the scenes that the music paints in the reviewer’s mind, rather than just saying what it sounds like. Do you know what is also annoying? All the questions. What’s the deal with that? Morton jumps around like he’s over-caffeinated, pre-empting all his conclusions with questions to the mute audience. When are we? Where are we? Why a pool of death? Why indeed. This works well when it is used initially for musings on the open-ended ambiguity of the band name (whose throne room, who are the wolves, are they welcomed, or invaders, or are they the original occupants?), but when page after page is peppered with not-rhetorical-but-sounding-rhetorical questions, it begins to grate. In the end, the questions, and indeed the wolves in this here room for a throne, tend to fade in favour of what comes across as talking points from Morten’s previous and voluminous discussions of a dark ecology without nature, barely tethered to the discussion of the band.Black ink on paper works by Allen Linder

The most enjoyable contribution here comes from David Prescott-Steed with Frostbite on My Feet: Representations of Walking in Black Metal Visual Culture. Perhaps this is because it is a meditation on something so simple, and yet so quintessentially, but not obviously, black metal. After all, who can imagine a black metal musician in a car? Inconceivable.¹ Prescott-Steed explores the theme of walking from multiple angles, including the personal, where he talks of the experience of ‘blackened walking,’ his term for walking around the modern metropolis that is an Australian city, but listening to a headphone soundtrack of frosty cuts from Burzum, Gorgoroth and Mayhem. He incorporates Rey Chow’s analysis of the cultural politics of portable music into this, exploring the themes of incongruity and of the act of disappearing that is inherent in removing an awareness of one’s environs by imposing a personal soundtrack; a theme that, though Prescott-Steed doesn’t dwell on it, feeds back into black metal’s tortured relationship between the over and underground, between fame and infamy, elitism and the recherché.

Daniel Lukes’ Black Metal Machine is a survey of the industrial strain of black metal; cleverly acronymed as IBM. He begins with an extensive grounding in methodology and context, namechecking Deleuze and providing several literary precedents (Ballard and Vonnegut) that emphasise the dystopian, post-apocalyptic vision of the future, rather than a shiny chrome utopia. This he relates to the misanthropy of black metal, where the science fiction-tinged desolation of the future is but a slight twist of a standard black metal narrative of destruction and contempt for the world. As examples, Lukes considers Red Harvest (who get several pages devoted to them), Dødheimsgard, Arcturus and Spektr, while also briefly touching on Marduk as well as Impaled Nazarene’s themes of a comic and perverse Armageddon.

Joel Cotterell concludes this volume with a brief consideration of the motif of the dawn in black metal, using tracks from Primordial, Satyricon, Inquisition and Nazxul as exemplars. Cotterell argues that the concept of dawn in black metal has a Luciferian component, denoting the rise of Lucifer as the morning star. Whether this interpretation of a less than rosy fingered dawn can be consistently applied to the over 400 songs that they found on metalarchives.com with dawn in the title  is not addressed.

In addition to the written component, Helvete contains a section of black and white photographic plates curated by Amelia Ishmael and titled The night is no longer dead, it has a life of its own. The nine artists attempt to evoke black metal visually with an emphasis on obfuscation through texture, meaning that there’s nothing too obviously black metal here, with only two densely rendered black ink forms (care of Allen Linder, see above) and one foggy landscape. Some of these are more successful than others, with the gems being Gast Bouschet and Nadine Hilbert’s images of Grímsvötn in Iceland, darkened to the point of abstraction but animated with emanations of effusive light.

Gast Bouschet and Nadine Hilbert’s images of Grimsvötn

There are some persistent little quirks about this book that irritate and makes you wonder how, in the parlance of the genre, ‘true’™ it is. Norway looms large within the pages and it is referred to by multiple authors as the home of black metal; not second wave black metal but apparently black metal in general. In another case, black metal is referred to as being “for the most part, exclusively Western” with the gracious caveat that it has since inspired international contributions in the last twenty years (Colombia and Taiwan being presented as the examples of amazing outliers). This overlooks the non-Western bands, most notably from South America and Asia, that thirty and more years ago were contributing to and influencing black metal. That this point of Western-ness is made in attempt to prioritise Scandinavian aesthetics as the aesthetics of black metal seems indicative of the tendency to fetishize the Norwegian strain of black metal above all else; implicit in the journal title. And it is the specifically Norwegian variant, there’s even little acknowledgement of what emerged from Sweden and Finland at the same time, perhaps because it never produced those memeable moments like a Varg Vikerness smirk or Abbath’s gurning visage.

In all, the debut volume of Helvete makes for a brisk read with its 100 pages, but does whet the appetite for more of this here black metal theory.

Published by Punctum Books


¹ The image of Snorre Ruch and Vikerness driving from Bergen to Oslo on the night of 10 August 1993 has always seemed wildly incongruous to me.

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Hermes in the Academy: Ten Years’ Study of Western Esotericism at the University of Amsterdam – Edited by Wouter J. Hanegraaf and Joyce Pijnenburg

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Categories: esotericism, hermeticism

Published in 2009, this volume commemorates the establishment ten years prior of a chair and centre of expertise for the study of Western esotericism at the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Amsterdam. While the writing in this anthology touches upon the wide gamut of Western esotericism including alchemy, hermeticism, and kabbalah, the first section is more pragmatic and concerns itself with the creation of the chair for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents, as documented by Roelof van den Broek, while Wouter J. Hanegraaff considers the state of esoteric studies in the academia of the late 1990s. The same is also true of some of the book’s other sections, in which the writings about writings have been categorised into sections of Studying Western Esotericism in Amsterdam and Western Esotericism in International Perspective.

The second section, Glimpses of Research, provides just that, with a selection of representative research pieces spanning the neoplatonism of the Italian Renaissance to twentieth century Danish esotericism and a few bits in between. It begins with a pure glimpse of research with an essay on the Byzantine philosopher George Gemistos, AKA Plethon (1355/1360-1452), but then, almost inextricably, things drift back to writing about writing about magic. The two following pieces Kocku von Stuckrad’s Astrologia Hermetica: Astrology, Western Culture, and the Academy, and Marco Pasi’s The Modernity of Occultism: Reflections on Some Crucial Aspects, both effectively concern themselves with how their fields have been, perhaps unfairly, perceived in academia. Stuckrad’s Astrologia Hermetica briefly surveys how astrology has in the past been treated with almost embarrassment, where studying its historical uses always had to be qualified with a disavowal in any literal belief in the ‘wretched subject.’ Pasi’s The Modernity of Occultism, on the other hand, addresses the perception of occultism as fundamentally reactionary and authoritarian, an image made glibly real by the stereotype of the elitist magician seeking unlimited power. Pasi turns this assumption, made principally by academics in the first half of the last century, on its head, highlighting how the growth in esotericism in the twentieth century undid many of these claims. Focussing in particular on the Theosophical Society and the Golden Dawn, Pasi shows that in regard to matters relating to gender, body and sexuality, the self, colonialism and religion, those strands of Anglo-American occultism, at least, were progressive and, he argues, anticipating rather than just being representative of broader societal change.

Things turn more personal and reflective in the third section of Hermes in the Academy with Studying Western Esotericism in Amsterdam, in which five writers each briefly reflect on their time in Amsterdam academia. There’s not much to these, each being over in a flash, but they’re charming little pieces, showing how the university attracted would-be hermetic academics from around the world.

And then everything wraps up with part the fourth, Western Esotericism in International Perspective, in which discussion turns once more explicitly to the chair at the University of Amsterdam with paeans from further afield, contextualising it within the greater milieu of occult academia Thus, Antoine Faivre, holder of the chair of History of Estoteric and Mystical Currents in Modern and Contemporary Europe at the École pratique des hautes études in Paris, speaks of the history of that particular chair dating back to 1964, and of its subsequent collaborations with its Amsterdam equivalent. Meanwhile, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, holder of the chair of Western Esotericism at the University of Exeter, focuses less on the Amsterdam chair with a lens turned instead to the study of Western esotericism in the United Kingdom, framed first within his own journey of study, before expanding on the achievements of the Exeter programme. Dame Frances Yates naturally looms large in this section and elsewhere in the book, with Allison P. Coudert, who studied under her, noting her important role as a legitimising force in the academic place of Hermeticism.

In all, Hermes in the Academy doesn’t entirely feel like it knows what it wants to be. The representative research often feels incongruous, lacking context alongside the reflections on the history of the chair and studying at the University of Amsterdam, and not feeling all that representative. Indeed, the brief little pieces from students in the third section are some of the most engaging contributions, and their mention of their specialist subjects areas are more intriguing than what is included here. As such it is the ‘writing about writing’ that becomes the most enjoyable part of this volume, with the various discussions about esoteric academia being more satisfying than the esotericism itself.

Published by Amsterdam University Press

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The Devil’s Plantation: East Anglian Lore, Witchcraft & Folk-Magic – Nigel G. Pearson

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Categories: folk, witchcraft

The title of Nigel G. Pearson’s The Devil’s Plantation speaks to a concept also known as the Devil’s Holt, Halieman’s Ley, or Guidman’s Croft, in which a section of a field, often a triangular corner, was set aside, left unploughed and allowed to become infested with weeds. More pertinently, the title is also that of a manual of magic reputedly owned by a witch from 19th century Horseheath, Cambridgeshire. This now lost volume is believed to have been a collection of East Anglian lore and magic.

For those expecting the grimoire of its namesake, The Devil’s Plantation doesn’t attempt in any way to fulfil that expectation, and instead focuses at first on the East Anglian folklore, providing examples of various kinds of spirits, including the Good Folk, followed by a chapter on meremaidens, giants and spectral hounds. In this way, The Devil’s Plantation resembles Gemma Gary’s The Black Toad, also published by Troy Books, in that it’s something of an encyclopaedic collection of folklore, albeit largely lacking the kind of fastidious referencing one might expect of an encyclopaedia. The data is presented expertly, but there’s sometimes precious little information given as to its source, be it previously published works, first hand anecdotes collected by the author, or, and without evidence to the contrary one must inevitably allow for the uncharitable possibility, things entirely made up by the author. Some sources are explicitly mentioned, and so for example, several sequential quotes appear from Holinshed’s Chronicles, but this section is inconsistently preceded by a discussion in which there is a direct quote from some unspecified and unreferenced source. There is a brief bibliography and further reading section at the conclusion of the book, but there is often no direct citing of these as references within the body. One could argue that this isn’t intended to be an academic book, rigorously adhering to Chicago or APA style guides, but a little consistent contextual context would be nice when presenting facts, and especially quotes.

Things turn from matters folkloric to matters witchy in the next three chapters: Characters of Craft, Speak of the Devil…, and Witch Ways. The first of these surveys exactly that, presenting brief biographies of various witches drawn from trial records and folklore collections. This is a cast of colourful characters with evocative names such as Mother Lakeland, Old Winter, Jabez Few, and Daddy Witch (alleged owner of the original Devil’s Plantation). The chronology in these profiles gradually moves forward until the narrative becomes one that concerns itself with modern witchcraft, embracing figures from living memory (though still caught in the slip of myth) such as Monica English, Lois Bourne, and their intersection with Gardnerian craft. In some ways, this period is of more interest and intrigue than that of hundreds of years ago, with the modern era of witchcraft having a certain appeal in the way it functions as a myth in the making.

Speak of the Devil… is a less directly witchy diversion into the folkloric appearance of the Devil in East Anglia, full of the usual Devil as builder type stories familiar from folklore, but Pearson uses these to segue into a how these and similar tales relate to witchcraft and in particular the role of the Black Man. Finally, in Witch Ways, Pearson presents a survey of the admittedly limited examples of recorded techniques of East Anglian witchcraft. Despite this caveat, there are a variety of techniques presented here, incorporating things such as the now familiar toad rite (given in both Horseman’s Word and witch versions), ways of communing with the dead, and various forms of sympathetic magic. Again, there’s an inconsistency to how the provenance of these are presented, with some given chapter and verse, source and all, but others, even when there’s a block quote, not being referenced.

Things begin to wrap up with Green Ways, a brief little herbal documenting various popular East Anglian herbs and concoctions, before the longer Folk Ways explores several techniques of principally sympathetic and apotropaic magic which, as is acknowledged, are as witchy as they are folky. The final section, Three Crowns & Several Halos, is effectively a paean to East Anglia, with a consideration of local saints within that currently beloved intersection known as dual faith observance. Pearson states as undeniable that the lives and myths of these saints have intertwined with the energies and spirits of East Anglia, becoming part of its magical tapestry along with the other beings that preceded them. The biographies that follow of saints Felix, Fursey, Botolph, Ethelreda, Withburga, Edmund and Walstan don’t provide too many examples of their magical application, or anything unique beyond the usual stuff of Golden Legend, save for a final paragraph in each. That is left for a closing consideration on working with saints in general where Pearson gives a few brief pointers concerning building a devotional practice.

Pearson’s writing style throughout is competent and coherent, making for an easy, effortless read. As with similar books, the regional emphasis provides a much welcomed focus, though there is a certainly little that isn’t familiar, both witchcraft and folklore wise, from broader considerations; and for anyone with a passing knowledge of this subject, there won’t be too many surprises or revelations.

The Devil’s Plantation is presented in Royal octavo format, with 272 pages, plus 16 pages of photographic plates, and line drawings and figures by Gemma Gary throughout. Never one to skimp on the editions, Troy Books has four options: a paperback edition with a matt laminated cover and 80gsm white paper stock; the fancy-enough-for-this-reviewer standard hardback edition with a blue cloth binding, gold foil blocking to the front and spine, 80gsm white paper stock, starkly vibrant buttermilk coloured endpapers, and black head and tail bands. Then, in the sold out department, there’s the limited special edition of 300 hand-numbered examples, bound in dark brown recycled leather fibres, with gold foil blocking to the front and spine, light brown end papers, and black head and tail bands. And finally, the fine edition limited to fifteen hand-numbered exemplars, in a full black goat leather hand binding with inset dark blue goat leather shield panel with a blind embossed boarder and dark blue title panel on the spine, silver foil blocking to the front and spine and hand marbled end papers – plus a buckram slip-case with blind embossing to the front.

Published by Troy Books

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Time, Fate and Spider Magic – Orryelle Defenestrate-Bascule

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Categories: chaos, magick, nightside, witchcraft

Palindromically subtitled A Brief HIRStory of TimEmiT fo yrotSRTH feirB A, this book from Orryelle Defenestrate-Bascule is a 2014 expanded and revised edition of a work originally released in 2006 through hir own iNSPiRALink imprint.

Time, Fate and Spider Magic contains many traits that will be familiar to people who have encountered Orryelle’s work before: a mythologically eclectic frame of reference, word play that wouldn’t hold up in etymological court but is fine for the firing of magickal connexions, and idiosyncratic spellINK and 4Maating; see what I did there? …I’m particularly proud of the second one. The closest analogy would be Kenneth Grant, with Orryelle’s use of far flung comparisons and mythological broadness recalling that of Uncle Ken, but with a lot less wallowing in the sewage of the qliphothic realms; such fun.

Like Orryelle’s own practise, Time, Fate and Spider Magic is indeed eclectic and just a little bit manic. It jumps polymathically from one subject to another, from this mythologeme to that. This is not a failing by any means, as it would perhaps be in the hands of a lesser writer and practitioner, and instead perfectly encapsulates Orryelle’s approach to magick.

The book is one half travelogue, one half exegesis, and just to be difficult, one half grimoire. It begins in the exegetical mode with Gate One, outlying a discussion of fate and time at the heart of which is the story of Oedipus. This reads less like a magickal treatise and more a philosophical reflection on fate and questions about its immutability. Over its significant length, 95 pages in all, it branches from the Oedipal basis into a broader discussion of fate and time, encompassing Greek and Egyptian mythology, Mayan time keeping, and ultimately, Thelema. This is interspersed occasionally with images of apropos atu from Orryelle’s Book of KAOS tarot, accompanied by their original explanatory text.

The second gate of Time, Fate and Spider Magic takes an arguably more magickal approach with what is largely an exploration of the concept of an arachnid goddess of fate, one part Greek Moirae and Hekate, one part Kali, and a little bit the Egyptian scorpion goddess Serket. Orryelle envisions this composite goddess as a grand creature of space and time, bridging dimensions and being associated with the twenty ninth qliphothic tunnel of Qulielfi, the Nightside reflex of the dayside path of the Moon connecting Netzach and Malkuth. This is borne out by a received text, The Book of the Spider, not to be confused, Orryelle is at pains to point out, with a similarly named tome mentioned by Grant otherwise known as Liber Okbish or Liber 29. Orryelle’s Book of the Spider has the spider goddess describe herself as dwelling in the spaces in-between, in the tunnels behind, in a lair that is the very tome she speaks from, “spiralling Qulielfi copper mindfire.”

Orryelle shows how these themes of the spider goddess and fate and time travel were given physical application through hir use of ritual theatre. Most notable of these are the labyrinthine structures created at festivals in the latter half of the nineties by hir Metamorphic Ritual Theatre Company; the imagery of which will be familiar to anyone that has followed Orryelle’s work over the last three decades. These were large, immersive structures in which visitors mingled with performers in an intersection of performance and praxis.

While gates one and two of Time, Fate and Spider Magic provide hints of ways in which the themes of the book could be ritually applied, this is made explicit in the third gate, with Orryelle providing several techniques. The first of these uses a web structure to effectively time travel between incarnations, both past and future; a concept based around the idea of the Guardian Angel being one’s future self. Orryelle also briefly touches on a system of pathworkings called the 8 Gates (consisting of mineral, plant, fungal, animal, human, inbetween, the black void and the white light), as well as techniques for using tarot for conjuration, rather than just divination. These procedures aren’t necessarily presented in a ritual and recipes format, and Orryelle weaves instruction together with anecdote and elaboration, describing situations in hir own experience where they were used.

The third gate is the briefest section of Time, Fate and Spider Magic and the remaining 90 pages are devoted to appendices of supporting information, diaries and texts. There’s a valuable exposition on mantra and mudra used in the preceding sections; a reproduction of the multi-page, densely-illustrated programme for a Metamorphic Ritual Theatre Company performance of Arachne Ascendant; and a full transcript of Orryelle’s Liber Qoph vel Hekate, a daily Lunar prayer that compliments Crowley’s solar Liber Resh vel Helios. The largest of these appendices is a documentation, photographs and all, of the 2003 incarnation of the Global Chakra Workings led around the world by Orryelle’s HermAphroditic ChAOrder of the Silver Dusk since 1999. If this account makes one aware of anything it’s the passage of time, as my recall of reading about these events soon after they happened seems so recent, not over a decade old.

As with most Avalonia titles, Time, Fate and Spider Magic has been manufactured by print-on-demand service Lightning Source, although unlike many of Avalonia’s books, this one comes in both a paperback and a limited hardback version. The hardback edition is bound in blue cloth with a full colour dustjacket, and the internal pages are printed on a not entirely sympathetic stock that is fairly light and brittle. Orryelle’s formatting and writing quirks, with words double-spaced for numinous effect, idiosyncratic spelling and use of more fonts than is usual, can make it hard to tell when something has been edited with intent, or whether it’s a genuine error, in the case, for example, a line in a paragraph being indented halfway through it.  

In all, Time, Fate and Spider Magic is an enjoyable, significant work. There has always been an enthusiasm and honesty to Orryelle’s writing and perspective, devoid of any occult obfuscation, and this is true here, particularly in the way so much is presented in biographical form. The extent of this winning way may be determined by how easily one forgives the lack of rigorous referencing, and the occasional unverifiable statement is allowed to float by with nary a neuronic niggle.

Perhaps ironically, Time, Fate and Spider Magic does seem to be a victim of its very theme, enduring the ravages and vicissitudes of time. Inevitably, any printed work begins to date as soon as pen is put to paper, or pixel to screen, and with the sense of superiority that comes in living in times future relative to when this was originally written, it’s hard not to look down on the naïve optimism of ye olde 2006; something that any 2014 revisions have not assuaged. As the anti-Grant, Orryelle is the kind of optimist who sees good times a’coming, and human advancement on the horizon, with grand shifts in consciousness and magickal magickness. Here, in the miserable dystopian world of 2018, it’s hard not to feel that optimism may have been misplaced.

Included in the hardback version is a DVD that includes the Loom of Lila ritual dance theatre, the Chaos Clock film, the 8 Gates pathworking and an audio adaption of The Book of the Spider. How much these elements are viewed compared to how often the book is read remains to be seen, being largely rough and ready piece, typical of both the time, the technology and Orryelle’s aesthetics.

Published by Avalonia.

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Naga Magick: The Wisdom of the Serpent Lords – Denny Sargent

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Categories: magick, tantra

Naga Magick: The Wisdom of the Serpent Lords by Denny Sargent gets points right out of the gate for being a first as far as the theme goes. Rather than dealing with roads more travelled and their familiar pantheons, Sargent has focused on the nagas, the serpentine race of beings found in Hindu and Buddhist traditions. For contrarians and eternal rebels such as this reviewer, there’s a certain charm to this, highlighting, as it does, the cool and unknown, the adversarial and misunderstood, the allure of the darkly glamorous.

The naga are largely defined by Sargent in this manner. They are beings who seem to predate the more familiar pantheons of the Indian subcontinent, sitting in a twilight world between asuras and suras, comparable to the fey folk of Western Europe or the Orishas of Santeria. As serpent beings, the naga have associations with water and the underworld, with wisdom, healing and fertility, making them a perfect fit for those with ophidian predilections.

Naga Magick is divided into two sections: theory and praxis. In the first, and briefer, of the two Sargent gives an overview of what little is known about the naga. In a manner he himself describes as rambling, Sargent presents the naga as figures who are more familiar from folk tradition and legend, rather than grand myth. They are not necessarily the dark serpentine creatures one might expect to find within some of the more kvlt and grim areas of the occult milieu, having more of those folk characteristics that means they are to be warily respected and petitioned like the fickle fey folk of Europe.

Sargent uses the nagas to create a model of a magickal universe in which there are four Naga Dikpala, guardians of the four directions (Utarmansa Naga, Bindusara Naga, Madaka Naga, Elapatra Naga, Mahanaga), along with eight further naga lords (Anata Naga, Takshaka Naga, Vasuki Naga, Padmaka Naga, Kulika Naga, Karkotaka Naga, Sankapala Naga and Mahapadma Naga). In addition, this system’s grounding in tantra enables naga cosmology to be integrated with the concept of the Red Goddess, Shri Kundalini, and she provides the centre, the point where the eight lords converge in the naga’s underworld realm of Bhogavati. This is the union of Naga and Nagi, of Shakti and Shiva, and her veiled appearances ensures that the Red Goddess, Lalita, Tvarita Devi, Tripurasundhari, has a pivotal role in the system presented by Sargent.

When it comes to matters magickal, the central approach of the book is not a true reconstructionist one, as there doesn’t seem much to reconstruct. Sargent candidly acknowledges that there is not much that can be gleamed from historical sources in the way of naga traditions and rituals. Instead, his technique is to incorporate what little information there is into a framework that draws on established, often folk-based, traditions, with a modern Hermetic-Tantric flourish that is grounded in his experience with the Nath system of Shri Gurudev Mahendranath. Consequently, although this is by no means a Nath book, it feels as if that system inevitably informs much of what is presented here, with specific terminology, such as the euphonious ‘zonule,’ dropping in, sometimes a little incongruously here and there.

Due to this use of familiar techniques, there is a certain, well, familiarity to the magickal methods presented here. From a recognisably western perspective, the four guardian nagas each have images and seals associated with them, as well as corresponding invocations to be used in concert. A more easterly approach is found with the use of mudra, pranayama, yoga and other tools of the Naga Sadhana. All techniques converge to varying degrees in the assortment of workings and spells, culminating in a grand Naga puja. This major ritual is intended for use during the great naga festival, or for any other significant work, and is based on a Nepalese rite recorded in Jean Philippe Vogel’s 1926 Indian Serpent-lore Or The Nagas in Hindu Legend and Art (something of a fortuitous source for Sergent).  This is a length rite, taking 35 pages to effectively close the book in a procedure that invokes all twelve naga, Dikpala and lords, and ultimately Shri Kundalini, with some beautifully written liturgy.

On the whole, what Sargent has presented here is a convincing, self-contained magickal system. It has a cosmology that, while not as fully fleshed out as something with a grand mythology available to it, makes the most of what information is available, and interprets it into a logical magickal paradigm. Sargent writes in something of a conversational tone, often pre-empting imagined questions from the reader, and speaking in a personal, informal manner. This helps assuage any quibbles one might have about the less than thorough or historically rigorous information in the book, with the evident caveats provided by his methods and motivations laid bare.

While Sargent, one assumes, knows his stuff when it comes to matters naga and Hindu, there’s at least one moment where the information about other cultures is a little off. He refers to the World Serpent of Germanic mythology as Surtr, which, if one was to be charitable, could be a little known, but rather appealing, esoteric interpretation, but is more likely to be just a flub. This isn’t necessarily an errant naming not picked up in proofing, as the reference is made twice. As is always the unfortunate case in situations like these, it can somewhat undermine one’s overall confidence in the book.

Published by The Original Falcon Press

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Lost Envoy: The Tarot Deck of Austin Osman Spare – Edited by Jonathan Allen

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Categories: art, chaos, tarot

Lost Envoy coverThe prospect of a long lost tarot deck designed by Austin Osman Spare is a tantalising one, and for this reader at least, guaranteed a rush to the Strange Attractor Press preorder page. Once it was finally released and it turned up in the mail I had made it all the way to the “what the hel is this package” phase.

If the thought of a Spare-designed tarot deck makes you imagine classic Sparean images, all crisp phantasmagorical lines against a white background, then temper your expectations. The look of the cards is a denser one than that, with the style, while obviously in Spare’s hand, being more traditional, and made heavier with a thorough use of watercolour washes on both figures and backgrounds. The deck is also arguably more traditional than either Crowley’s Book of Thoth, or anything one might expect from the proto-Chaote that is Spare, with the Major Arcana images obviously drawing, for the most part, on the atu of the Tarot de Marseille and its antecedents. The Minor Arcana, on the other hands, reveals the cartomantic roots of Spare’s praxis, adopting the suits of traditional playing cards and adding four court cards of queen, king, knight and knave to each set. Perhaps the strongest diversion from convention, though, is the text heavy nature of the hands, with Spare scrawling interpretations and instructions at the foot and head of each card, reflecting the orientation of the reading.

But first, the provenance of this deck and why it was lost. To the latter question first, it wasn’t so much lost, and instead has been sitting quite contentedly for over 70 years in the collection of the Magic Circle, the famed London organisation for those magicians of the stage, and not the ritual chamber, variety. Editor Jonathan Allen, a curator at the Magic Circle museum, rediscovered the archived deck in 2013 and this volume reproducing the cards and featuring commentary from a number of essayists, provides the first broad exposure of Spare’s tarot.

The written contributions in Lost Envoy take two forms: archival documentation and analysis. The former includes Spare’s Mind to Mind and How, by a Sorcerer and Arthur Ivey’s Tarot Cards and a Pack in The Magic Circle Museum from the November 1969 issue of the Magic Circle’s in-house magazine The Magic Circular. Spare’s essay is an unpublished submission for the long running London Mystery Magazine, and provides a practical guide to cartomancy as well as giving a sense of the methods behind the creation of this deck. Ivey’s brief essay uses half of its two page length as a history of the tarot which prefaces an all too brief description of Spare’s tarot, creating a museum catalogue entry as it were.

Given that the two documents provide the only extant historical information about Spare’s tarot and his methods, they are referenced extensively in the accompanying essays, creating something of a sense of déjà vu. This is exacerbated by the ultimately limited amount of things that can be said about Spare’s tarot, meaning that many of the same points are familiarly made across multiple essays. Both Helen Farley and Gavin Semple’s contributions cover the provenance of the deck and Spare’s nascent involvement in the occult milieu of Victorian London, each then followed with a little analysis of some of the cards and their characteristics. A more focused consideration of the cards themselves is provided by Phil Baker’s His Own Arcana, with his points ably reinforced with the inclusion of full colour images of the trumps and full bleed plates of details.

The Deputation by Sally O’Reilly takes a different approach from its companions, with an imagined encounter between Spare and his friend, the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst. Spare and Pankhurst sit and engage in witty banter about his cards, with her queries allowing him to provide the explanatory exegesis. It’s a diversion whose mileage may vary depending on one’s patience for the conceit of words put into the mouths of historical figures; especially given that their tone and mores are inevitably predicated by the lens of today.

The final essay comes from Alan Moore who, with A Cartomantic Mirror, provides a pretty exhaustive tarot reading of the meaning and intention of Spare’s deck using, and it gets pretty damn meta here, Crowley and Harris’ Thoth deck. Again, no expense has been spared and the cards drawn from the Crowley/Harris deck are reproduced here in full colour, with some key atu each given a page to themselves.

The essays take up only half of this volume’s 336 pages and the remainder is comprised of reproductions of Spare’s cards. These are presented first as full pages reproductions of each of the major and minor arcana, and then followed by six examples of the various coloured card backs. For extra thoroughness, the cards are then presented again in a concordance that transcribes all of the textual data found on the cards, one page for each, along with a listing of marginal links that tie one card to another, and meticulous footnotes providing still further information. Between some of these individual pages are full colour folded inserts of some of the cards, showing the way in which Spare graphically linked the designs together across multiple spreads. This is one of those things that reveals the attention to detail that has gone into producing this volume, with an almost unnecessarily thorough presentation of the data.

Lost Envoy has been designed by Fraser Muggeridge studio, with a cover that appears a strange, jarring melange of geometric colour until one realises, as this late junction, that it shows a cascade of Spare’s multi-coloured card backs. The book is bound with, apparently, a period binding common to many of the volumes found in The Magic Circle library, with a gold deboss of Spare’s autographic bird’s head sigil (no, not the cool vulture one, the one that looks like Montgomery Burns). The text formatting inside the book is not entirely satisfying, with the body copy rendered in a far too modern sans serif typeface which isn’t conducive to reading and gives the impression, false though it may be, of text being dumped in from a Word document with Calibri set to default. With this are awfully snug header and footer margins, due to the page numbering being put on the outer edge, which again, and contrary to the intent, feels like the default settings in a Word doc, rather than something carefully designed. Otherwise, a lot of effort has gone into the production of this book, with the cover text debossed (and the aforementioned sigil debossed and foiled too), a beautifully raised emboss on the inside cover page bearing the Magic Circle logo, not to mention the preponderance of colour prints and the inserted replicas of cards.

With its repeated representation of the cards in Spare’s deck in both graphic and textural forms, it’s clear that the intent of this book is one of complete and thorough documentation, in which the cards are presented in the best possible light for posterity. Whether anyone is going to read the transcribed page for each card isn’t the point, and this reviewer certainly didn’t. Instead the point is that it’s there should one need it. In this way, the essay content is almost secondary, and it is the cards themselves that tell the story.

Lost Envoy was made available in two editions: a standard hardback edition still available with 336pp pages, fully illustrated in colour, with over 200 images. And a now sold out numbered and debossed edition of 300 copies, with fold-out sections.

Published by Strange Attractor Press

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