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Entering the Desert – Craig Williams

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Categories: alchemy, hermeticism, magick, Tags:

Entering the Desert cover, standard hardback editionAnathema Publishing has released several works by Craig Williams, but this was the first, a relatively slight text based on the idea of the working with the theme of the desert and the solitude of monasticism. As with some other reviews of Anathema titles, this one requires a slight caveat as your humble reviewer has an editing credit here, though in my defence, time marches so inexorably forward that I often don’t immediately recall the text ‘pon reading it.

What becomes immediately apparent in reading Entering the Desert is a decisive placement of its contents in opposition, setting it, as the saying goes, against the modern world. Williams lets little time pass between moments of decrying something wrong with modernity, be it the world in general or occultism in particular. This degree of vituperative invective gets a little tiresome rather quickly, and its earnestness grates in its self-congratulatory repetition, getting in the way of good narrative as there’s almost an unspoken expectation that the reader will be hooting and hollering at each sick burn. It’s like when someone first discovers that Christianity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, or that popular culture isn’t as cool as Hot Topic culture, or when Krusty the Clown became a tell-it-like-it-is stand-up comedian, except here the shibboleth is that nasty nasty modernity, boo, hiss.

Spread with a painting by David S. Herrerias

It is, though, this opposition to the modern that acts as the primary motivation for what is presented here, with the entering of the desert being a chance to literally get away from it all. The desert is idealised as a place of isolation from the modern world, the journey to which is, as the book’s subtitle renders it, a pilgrimage into the hinterlands of the soul. Conversely, though, this is but one of what Williams identifies as two deserts, with the individual’s internal Desert of the Soul contrasting with an outer desert of the collective environment and dreaded modernity. Williams is at pains to point out that using this iconography is not an escapist fantasy or just a simple visualisation (which would, no doubt, be oh so modern), but rather a less tangible mode of being, more of a telling-it-like-it-is in which “one ruthlessly examines and accepts all the ‘aspects of life.’”

Spread with graphics by David S. Herrerias

There is a practical side to all this detached examination, and in chapter two, The Cell, Williams expounds on the use of another location within this eremophilous topography. This cell is treated less as a theoretical locus than the wilderness itself, and Williams provides a broad guide to what you’re going to get up to on your lonesome.

Inevitably, what emerges here is clearly indebted to the desert fathers and mothers of the early church, at least in an aesthetic and general approach, even if the overlay is an antinomian, anti-modern, hyper-individualist one. Like those hermetic forebears, the practitioner seeks isolation from the greater world, but Williams hastens to add that there is none of the asceticism of the latter, in which the body and flesh is abhorred and mortified. Despite the preponderance of the world ‘gnostic’ there’s also none of classic Gnosticism’s distain for matter, incarnation and existence. Instead, the cell acts as a space within which to alchemically sacralise the flesh, awakening daemonic voices from within both the mind and the body. To do this, the gnostic hermit enters a unique time stream within the cell, and performs simple exercises of breathing, mediation, reading and dreamless sleep. This awakened Sacramental Vision then allows the devotee to view the desert of the world as a source of nourishment and empowerment, a reflection of the inner landscape of the Soul, and not as an existential threat.

Image that appears blind debossed on the cover of the standard hardback edition

The broad outline of the preceding chapters gets more specific in a section called The Desert Grimoire, which provides exactly that, a grimoire of rituals and verse that is described as a transmission from the deeper regions of the wilderness of the soul. The first item of note is an introduction to a heretofore unmentioned aspect of Williams’ system, a group of primordial and supra-spacetime intelligences called the Priests of Night, whose egress within the cell can be initiated through the cultivation of its atmosphere. Other rituals follow, including a multi-day vigil, an invocation, and a lovely desert liturgy. The Desert Grimoire concludes with a section of verses, two to a page, each accompanied by a sigil and all wrapped within an ornate border. These provide a reification of what has been presented elsewhere in the book, but simplified into, or veiled by, poetic language.

Sigils and texts from the Desert Grimoire

The typography in Entering the Desert is expertly executed in typical Anathema style by Gabriel McCaughry: the body set in a relatively large, fully justified serif face, with headings and quotes in a copper tint for an understated touch of visual interest. David S. Herrerias provides extensive illustrations throughout, with both paintings and pen and ink illustrations, including one painted image of the desert that acts as both the front and rear endpapers, spreading across verso and recto. The internal paintings largely follow the style of this endpapers landscape, with a sedate tableaux of muted yellow and brown tones, including a Sparesian portrait of Williams himself. The pen and ink images follow the style seen previously from Herrerias, including his previously-reviewed Book of Q’Ab-Itz, with amalgams of Andrew Chumbley-like facetted plains and jagged geometry, and spindly things breaking into space. His desolate aesthetic makes for a fitting companion to Williams’ theme, conveying the sense of an eremitic and uncanny touching of the beyond.

In all, Entering the Desert is a pleasing little tome that brings its theme together rather well in terms of written and graphic elements. At its core, it contains some rather simple or fundamental concepts, as one would expect when the matter is one of sitting alone in the desert with nothing but wraiths and strays for company, But Williams presents these in a considered, perhaps too considered, manner that patiently reiterates each theme or technique in what becomes almost its own devotional or meditative act.

Spread with a painting by David S. Herrerias

Entering the Desert was released in four editions: a paperback, along with hardback editions of standard, collector and artisanal; all three of which are now sold out. The paperback runs to 176 pages of Rolland Opaque Natural 140M quality paper, bound in a scuff-free velvet matte with a selective spot varnish on the cover. The standard hardback edition of 400 copies featured 160 pages on Royal Sundance paper, hardbound in Sierra Tan bookcloth, with the title foiled in metallic black foil stamp on the spine and slightly hard to parse phantasmagorical figures blind-debossed to both the front and rear covers.

The collector’s edition of 150 copies binds the pages in a Fiscagomma Agenda dark brown faux leather, with a different symbol to the standard edition stamped in bronze foil on the cover, and metallic bronze foiling to the spine, It comes with a hand-numbered book plate signed by the author. Finally, the artisanal Midnight Sun edition of twelve copies was hand bound in genuine buffalo leather, dyed midnight blue, with a symbol blind debossed and gold foil stamped on the front cover. With custom-made artisanal endpapers and raised nerves and gold foiling on the spine, the Midnight Sun edition was presented in a slipcase bearing handmade custom-dyed marbled paper so that each box looked slightly different to the other.

Each hardcover edition of Entering the Desert also came with a download code for a copy of a musico-mystical contribution from ritual/dark ambient projects Shibalba, Alone in the Hollow Garden and Nam-Khar. These five tracks (or vibrational rituals, as they’re called here), three from Shibalba and two from the collaboration of Alone in the Hollow Garden and Nam-Khar, were channelled specifically as a meditative sound support for Entering the Desert and do have a certain eremophilous quality, casting detailed percussive sounds, throat singing and the occasionally languid Orientalist figure against linear landscapes.

Published by Anathema Publishing


The soundtrack for this release is naturally the pieces created by Shibalba, Alone in the Hollow Garden and Nam-Kar for Entering the Desert. The tracks by  Alone in the Hollow Garden and Nam-Kar can be heard on the Alone in the Garden Bandcamp page.

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The Order of the Solar Temple: The Temple of Death – Edited by James R. Lewis

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Categories: alchemy, esotericism, hermeticism

The Order of the Solar Temple: The Temple of Death coverPart of Routledge’s New Religions series, this James R. Lewis-edited anthology brings together a variety of academic writers in discussion of the Switzerland and Quebec-based Order of the Solar Temple; along with a selection of Solar Temple documents, and some previously published articles edited anew here. As with the similarly named Solar Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis, there’s always something intriguing about the idea of magickal orders gone wrong, and things certainly went wrong for members of the Order of the Solar Temple. Formed in 1984, the Order of the Solar Temple came to the attention of the world ten years later when many of its members in both Europe and North America committed suicide or were murdered, while various order properties were set on fire.

Following an introduction by Lewis, things open with an archival piece by Jean-François Mayer from 1993, detailing the history of the various organisational guises, such as the exoteric Lausanne Club, that were associated with the more esoteric order, thereby placing it within a conventional new age milieu of healthy eating, homeopathy and Age of Aquarius earth changes; rather than the more hermetic and Templar-inspired incarnation the inner temple would later become. Naturally, there’s not much in what Mayer presents that foreshadows what would later occur with the Order of the Solar Temple (save for an unwittingly prescient note that the order, then so unknown, might prove of interest to later researchers), though when he describes members of the Lausanne Club innocently lighting a bonfire and dancing around it for St. John’s Day, one can’t help but think of the deadly role that fire would later play.

Considering its varied cast of contributors, The Order of the Solar Temple reads rather coherently, with each piece flowing into the next, building upon its predecessors by adding further details, but with very little in the way of redundancy; at least at the start. Mayer’s pre-1994 consideration of the order and its satellite clubs and groups is followed by Massimo Introvigne’s Ordeal by Fire: The Tragedy of the Solar Temple, which brings the narrative up to the events of 1994 with the first full recapping of what occurred. But Introvigne also prefaces this with a thorough history of the various Templar-inspired groups that preceded the Order of the Solar Temple, placing this side of the organisation within a stream of neo-Templarism and Freemasonry. With that said, though, the Order of the Solar Temple’s beliefs that do emerge throughout the book feel less like those of Templar-obsessed groups, with the usual combination of hermeticism, alchemy and Rosicrucianism, and rather a much more modern beast. Ascended masters, reincarnation and most dramatically of all, the transit to Sirius with members leaving behind their human bodies to assume new astral ‘solar bodies,’ speaks more to the post-Theosophy milieu of late-twentieth century New Age; just dressed up in white capes with red crosses, aided and abetted by a lot of sword waving.

Susan J. Palmer provides another fleshing out of the order’s inner intrigues by way of her Purity and Danger in the Solar Temple, which offers insights into some of the motivations and internal psychology of group members, all viewed through a sociological lens provided by the theories of the British anthropologist Mary Douglas. Douglas, whose work is alluded to in Palmer’s title, argued that the human body mirrors the collective body of a society and that in small and persecuted groups, any actual or perceived threat tends to be dealt with in purity rituals that govern the exits and entrances of the human body, enhancing the collective’s social control over the individual. This is a model that works rather well when applied to the insular and increasingly paranoid order, where control over bodies can be seen in the process of ‘defamilialisation,’ in which members were periodically endowed with new spiritual identities, previous incarnations whose past relationships or antipathies could have an effect on existing partnerships. The order’s affinity for a Gnostic-like asceticism and detachment from the body found its ultimate expression in the events of 1994, when the bodies of members were sloughed off in the final response to perceived external threats, and this attempt at purifying the body of the organisation was then compounded by the repeated use of fire to burn, to varying degrees of success, the corpses and order’s buildings.

John R. Hall and Philip Schuyler add to the discussion of the machinations within the order in The Mystical Apocalypse of the Solar Temple, a reprint of the fifth chapter of Hall’s Apocalypse Observed: Religious Movements and Violence in North America, Europe and Japan from 2000. As in that book, Hall and Schuyler show how the destructive end of a group like the Order of the Solar Temple cannot be simply attributed to the cliché of cult leaders with ulterior motives brainwashing the vulnerable; nor entirely to something inherently violent or destructive in a group’s beliefs. Rather, how society at large responds to this smaller microcosmic society plays a significant role, with the anti-cult hysteria generated by both the media and government departments exacerbating or even initiating conflict. Besides this premise, Hall and Schuyler’s contribution provides perhaps the most thorough recounting yet of the events leading up to 1994, whilst still managing to feel that it doesn’t excessively regurgitate or labour over details covered in previous chapters.

Jean-François Mayer provides another piece, The Dangers of Enlightenment: Apocalyptic Hopes and Anxieties in the Order of the Solar Temple, picking up from where his earlier pre-1994 essay left off, and now, with the benefit of hindsight, offers just that, hindsight, looking at some of the apocalyptic beliefs of the group and asking what signs there were of what later occurred. There’s a certain inevitable overlap of themes in the following Crises of Charismatic Authority and Millenarian Violence: The Case of the Order of the Solar Temple by John Walliss, where unlike Hall and Schuyler, he downplays the validity of any sense of persecution the order may have felt (relatively slight as it was), suggesting instead that the decision to perform the lethal transits was the result of crises of charismatic authority which, after defections and other waverings of order confidence, leaders Luc Jouret and Joseph Di Mambro sought to restore with an act of performative violence. As such, the transits can be seen as a final spectacular ritualistic gesture to the world, through which the order’s leaders tried to “reassert their authority over their followers and create some kind of legend for the order.”

Order of the Solar Temple ritual chamber

Henrik Bogdan, perhaps the only familiar name here from esoteric academia, explores a suitably occult theme in Death as Initiation: The Order of the Solar Temple and Rituals of Initiation, where he turns specifically to the initiatory rituals of Freemasonry. Bogdan gives a relatively thorough account of Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism, including basic rituals of the former, before ultimately bringing the discussion back to what he’s here for: how death is perceived in an initiatory manner within these types of groups, with specific reference to the Masonic legend of the murder of the master mason Hiram. This, in turn, leads to a consideration of some of the masonic-style rituals of the Order of the Solar Temple, each documented meticulously, with particular note being made of one in which the initiate is ominously taught that death is an illusion, a part of life, and one must be able to die in the profane world to be born into the cosmic world. While such language is by no means uncommon amongst metaphysical groups, Bogdan notes that the Order of the Solar Temple took it beyond the metaphorical with the transit becoming the ultimate ritual of initiation as members transformed into disincarnated Masters, creating a link between the worlds of men and the divine.

There’s the same sense of delving into occult roots in Sources of Doctrine in the Solar Temple by George D. Chryssides, though for someone with his credentials there’s a lot of minor and sloppy errors. There’s a belittling reference to Hatshepsut as an ‘Egyptian princess’ rather than as one of Egypt’s most successful pharaohs. Similarly, there’s a misrepresentation of Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled as a book that combines ancient Egyptian ideas with eastern spirituality, when the Egyptian section is but one small part of a wider consideration of various strands of Western occult traditions, alongside a history and critique of Christianity; a rookie mistake, perhaps, given the title, but really? Then there’s a strange reference to the Templar’s suppressing Catharism as their last crusade, which seems unlikely, given that it runs counter to their whole raison d’être as bankers and protectors of pilgrims to the Holy Land; and considering that what one could consider as one of their final campaigns was an unsuccessful one fighting off a Mamluk invasion on the other side of the continent in Armenia; followed by further losses of bases in the eastern Mediterranean. The most head scratching statement of all comes when Chryssides, or his editor, so poorly summarises one conspiracy theory about the Order of the Solar Temple that it inelegantly depicts extra-terrestrials building unexplained subterranean chambers (giving the reader the impression that he’s talking about ritual chambers used by the order in Switzerland, not in Nevada as the original theory has it; sigh, it’s a long story better summarised elsewhere in the book), with Jimmy Carter seemingly described at the time of the transits as the “then president”, who, with the CIA at his command, was responsible for the deaths as part of a cover-up.

At this point, things feel like they’ve reached Maximum Templar Saturation (a killer band name if ever there was one) and there can’t be much more to say. This certainly turns out to be the case with the final two essays not contributing much that hasn’t already been said. Marc Labelle’s The Ordre du Temple Solaire and the Quest for the Absolute is a muddled read with tense shifting relentlessly in a space riddled with non sequiturs and anacoluthon, reading as if it was translated from another language and not thoroughly proofed. Meanwhile, Sects, Media and the End of the World by Roland J. Campiche has little to say other than ‘media bad,’ an original sentiment to be sure.

The Order of the Solar Temple concludes with its appendix of order documents, beginning with a letter sent to 60 journalists, scholars, and government officials the morning after the fires in 1994. One part esoteric exegesis, one part paranoid invective against the order’s enemies, there’s a certainty in the words, but also a baffled desperation at the tribulations inflicted upon them by various external ne’er-do-wells. The second document here is for the Ritual for the Donning of the Talar and the Cross, referenced extensively in Bogdan’s essay, which provides an interesting insight into the order’s approach to ritual, part masonic fancy dress, part Catholic pomp and liturgy.

Published by Routledge.

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The Well of Light: From Faery Healing to Earth Healing – R.J. Stewart

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Categories: faery, underworld, Tags:

The Well of Light coverSome of the first reviews featured on Scriptus Recensera predated the creation of this website and provided ready-made content when we first launched. Two of these were reviews of works by R.J. Stewart, reflecting a long-standing personal affection for his brand of earth, faery and underworld-focused mysticism. This title is another entry in what Stewart defines as his UnderWorld and Faery series, which also includes the two previously reviewed titles, The Underworld Initiation and The Living World of Faery, as well as the seminal works, Earth Light and its sequel Power Within the Land. While those titles all considered their themes in a broad manner, this one, as its title indicates, has what promises to be a particular focus on healing, presenting a variety of practical exercises for faery healing and the idea that in the modern era this can lead to a broader healing of the earth itself, mending the relationship between humanity and the planet.

Stewart further delineates this process into three steps, defining the faery healing of the first as a transformation through interaction with the faery as well as other orders of life, rather than conventional modern healing, be it, one assumes medicinal or metaphysical. The second stage marks a meditation, in alliance with these other orders of being, on the subtle forces of life and death, while the earth healing of the third and final stage is itself defined as three further stages: cleansing and healing ecological areas adversely affected by humanity; healing rifts and imbalances both metaphysical and literal in the underworld; and finally an iatrical interaction with the living consciousness of the earth itself, taking place at its very core, a locus of power from which what Stewart terms the Earth Light and the Shining Ones originate.

Out of the gate, the practical side of The Well of Light meets a snag, with Stewart explaining how to use the book, the first stage of which is to listen to the CD all the way through. OK, I’ll get right on it… oh, wait, what CD? As miffed reviews on Amazon attest, this CD of empowered visions accompanied by flute and 80 stringed psaltery did not come with the book and had to be purchased separately. Should you feel it necessary, both book and CD appear to still be available for purchase from Stewart’s own website some seventeen years later.

Spread from The Well of Light

Foregoing the requirements of the compacted disc variety, the reader can dive into a few introductory essays that offer an overview of the nomenclature and entities of Stewart’s tradition. Written over a period of time to answer questions that arose in Stewart-led workshop, they provide a broad outline of some of the themes and practices considered in more depth later and begin by discussing several orders of beings: elementals, nature spirits, faeries, and deepest still, titans or giants. The consideration of the giants is, perhaps obviously, the most personally interesting here, with Stewart comparing Germanic, Classical and Celtic variations of the motif to sympathetically define these beings as primordial powers embodying the land and other natural forces, manifesting as energies of creation, growth and ultimately destruction. He provides several suggestions of ways for connecting with these titanic powers: using an altered perspective, meditating on the weather, visiting mountains in body or in spirit, and through the intercession of faery cousin and allies.

As a collection of separately written essays, some of this initial content can feel a little unfocused or hesitant, but still carries Stewart’s distinctive voice. He writes in a largely informal, conversational manner, occasionally dropping analogies and also, a little too often, making curmudgeonly jibes at various things in modernity that annoy him; take that, Sony Walkmans, and for an only slightly more current reference “trying to get our computers to download so-called time-saving free music.” I do love the mental image of Bob Stewart shaking his fist at a yellowing Compaq Presario going “Damn you Napster, why won’t you work?”

Once The Well of Light gets going, going it gets, with an initial deeper introduction to the faery races and inner contacts, as viewed from the perspective of what Stewart calls the Faery and UnderWorld tradition. The idiosyncratic formatting of UnderWorld is chosen to differentiate it from any ideas of organised crime that might be evoked by the term; not something that really occurred to me, but obviously of some concern to Stewart. Indeed, this concern with definitions is one that arises frequently, and Stewart is at pains to point out when something from his lexicon should not be seen in the way it might normally be. Faeries are the most obvious one here, with repeated insistences that they should not be viewed as they are in popular culture (or in, as Stewart scathingly notes, the “many superficial books currently on the market”) as whimsical and diaphanous.

Spread from The Well of Light

With definitions out of the way, Stewart introduces the first experiential part of the books with the concept of the aptitudes, faery healing’s seven areas of expertise. These seven aptitudes are inherent abilities or potentials, albeit perhaps unrealised, that everyone has at least one or more of, allowing the person to heal by working with stones, water, plants, living creatures, faery allies, touch and signatures. Stewart provides ways of discovering one’s particular aptitude, as well as broad ways of working with them, usually offering general guidelines, rather than exercises to be performed by rote. More depth is provided in the following chapter, where Stewart gives specific techniques, but only for working with the stone and water aptitudes, the practices acting as general models, with the onus on the possessors of other aptitudes to apply in kind.

If one expects a book with a title such as this to have pages of information about dubious energy healing and laying on of hands, then disappointment ahoy. There’s very little of such specifics, and not much in the way of any explicit definition of what ‘healing’ might mean in this situation, be it physical, psychic or mental. Instead, the concept of healing seems almost secondary, a side effect of what is presented here, which more often than not is a primer of working with the faery in general. This is particularly evident in the sixth chapter, Forms and Visions of Faery Healing, which, despite the title, contains a series of guided visualisations for encounters with various locations and characters in faery land; rather than a visit to a faery doctor. Effectively, the idea seems to be one of diplomacy, where the ongoing interaction between the practitioner and the denizens of the underworld creates a healing of the wounds betwixt the two worlds and its races.

This book contains a second part called The Mystery of the Double Rose, which is somewhat confusingly and ambiguously referenced in the cover art, and seemingly distinct from the main Well of Light section, but obviously thematically related. Counterintuitively, this section contains a considerably more explicit explanation of what is meant by faery healing than is found in the first half of the book. Along with some repetition of some similar information from the book’s first half, this affirms the status of The Mystery of the Double Rose as separate content that could have been better integrated into a single book; much like the introductory essays.

Diagrams from the The Mystery of the Double Rose section

In all, then, The Well of Light feels like a welcome but by no means required addition to Stewart’s oeuvre of underworld and faery, with his other books in this canon providing more focus and a more essential explication of its tradition and imagery. As always, the curmudgeonly side of Stewart’s writing can begin to grate after a while, especially with the way he imbues his objections with such passion and indignation; yeah, I’m looking at you, those who sexually mutilate flowers by cutting them.

Formatting in The Well of Light by Jenny Stracke (who also provided copy editing) is unspectacular but supremely functional, set in a large serif face with subheading, section headings and chapter headings in bold and small cap variations of the same. This capable hand is less obvious on the cover with its mess of typefaces and gradient background against which cover art by Martin Bridge is unflatteringly placed. Bridge also provides the book’s few internal illustrations, with various heavy-lined vector diagrams in the Mystery of the Double Rose section.

Published by R.J. Stewart Books

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The Witch and the Hysteric: The Monstrous Medieval in Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan – Alexander Doty and Patricia Clare Ingham

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Categories: witchcraft, Tags:

Published by Dead Letter Office, Punctum Books’ imprint for “work that either has gone “nowhere” or will likely go nowhere,” this is a brief work from Alexander Doty and Patricia Clare Ingham, published posthumously following Doty’s death in 2012. The two first collaborated on an essay that, like the ones compiled here, considered the intersection between an occult work of celluloid fiction and its real world, pre-modern textual history: Val Tournier’s Cat People. In the case of the work reviewed here, Doty introduced Ingham to Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 film Häxan at a class they team-taught in 2001, and she, in turn, told him to read Malleus Maleficarum. Life intervened until the two returned to the theme in 2008, finding the impetus to begin work on this book at last, before reconvening in 2012 with a short text that was submitted to Punctum Books. Unfortunately, Doty died in August of that year, two weeks before they received recommendations for revisions and approval to publish from Punctum.

Despite the enduring popularity of Häxan, with the film having several versions released over the years (including an edit with narration by William Burroughs) and multiple scores composed for it, little has been written critically about it. Its influence on other film-makers has been noted but less made of its uncanny style mixing documentary and fantasy, both in its content and structure, which combines fictional episodes, illustrated lectures, and dreamscapes, all divided into seven ‘chapters.’ With medieval scholarship’s love of the monstrous this is somewhat surprising but Doty and Ingham redress this imbalance, arguing for Christensen’s Malleus Maleficarum-inspired witch as a monster herself, whose placement within an ill-defined middle ages signals both a category crisis and a temporal paradox.

Häxan still

Doty and Ingham see the untimely temporality in Christensen’s depiction of the witch as a recapitulation of the two early modern visions of witchcraft, one being that of Heinrich Kramer in the aforementioned Malleus Maleficarum, whilst the other is that of Johann Weyer in De praestigitis daemonum. Both men’s take on witchcraft effectively centred around whether to believe women, with the Catholic Kramer arguing for the literal nature of what accused witches claimed to have experienced (bringing with it affirmation of a belief in the Christian supernatural world), whereas the Lutheran Weyer was quite willing to see the very same as the result of delusions, giving the reports the equivalent veracity of the confessions of melancholics and the mentally incompetent. Ironically, the rationalist views of Weyer (who is touted by Gregory Zillboorg as a father to modern psychiatry) is the more disempowering of the two for the women in question, rendering them victims of their delusions and phantasms (rather than complicit wielders of dark glamour), and linking them, by implicit association, with mental illness and depression.

But we digress, suffice to say that Doty and Ingham use the debt that Christensen’s witch owes to Kramer and Weyer to discuss both men’s approach to the matter in hand, with little immediate reference back to Häxan itself for now. This makes the second chapter an intriguing and engaging summary of the texts of both men and their attendant worldviews, analysing their motivations and resulting implications, as their respective opinions track the greater early modern theological debate on maleficia. In the third chapter, Doty and Ingham continue to consider this influence, noting its effect of psychiatry and in particular the work of Freud and his conception of the hysteric, and also on other matters of epistemology. They refer to Kathleen Biddick’s assessment that the Malleus Maleficarum played a key role in epistemological methods of eyewitness reports and ethnography, with the figure of the Devil creating for both Inquisitors and historians a lens through which the accused women could be viewed, making their diabolical practice visible and thus evidentiary.

Häxan still

These considerations converge with Christensen’s Häxan in the book’s fourth chapter, Witch, Past and Future: The Politics of Retroactive Diagnosis, where Doty and Ingham highlight examples of this dichotomy betwixt the religious and scientific views of the witch. In particular they mention the scene in which a depiction of female witches is contrasted with one in which superstition-driven accusations of witchcraft are made against two male medical students, whose righteously scientific but still felonious grave robbing is placed in opposition to the irrationality of religion. In a similar vein, Christensen transitions from the close-up image of a woman’s back being pricked by Inquisitors in order to find areas of insensitivity (a tell-tale sign of guilt), to one of the same procedure being performed in a contemporary doctor’s office, ultimately diagnosing the patient with hysteria. In an interstitial, Christensen addresses the woman in question, describing her as a “poor little hysterical witch” who in the Middle Ages was in conflict with the church while now it is with the law.

Doty and Ingham note that for all his interest in technological innovation in film, Christensen appears preoccupied with historical repetition, with his analogies between the female medieval witch and the modern hysteric denoting a continuity at the centre of which is the figure of the abnormal woman. While the world around her changes, for her, the journey from demonic possession to mental illness has affected her little, and she remains monstrous and abject, perpetually in need of rescue and rehabilitation.

Häxan still

As its title and length of a mere 60 or so pages indicates, there is not much else considered here than Christiansen’s core conflation of the medieval witch with the contemporary hysteric, along with its theological and psychiatric underpinnings. Doty and Ingham write with an inquisitor-like focus, narrowing their gaze on this particular area of witchcraft records and analysis, with an engaging manner that draws from both areas with equal ease and erudition.

Published by Dead Letter Office/Punctum Books

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The Black Books of Elverum – Edited and translated by Mary S. Rustad

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Categories: folk, germanic, witchcraft

The Black Books of Elverum coverNothing quite beats the occult trope of a mysterious tome being rediscovered after years hidden away and that is the appealing provenance that is used to frame what is presented here in The Black Books of Elverum. In a suitably dusty old attic in a farm in Elverum, central Norway, American-born Mary Rustad discovered two centuries-old notebooks, svartebøka or black books, both featuring hand-written spells and charms. This discovery is retold in an off-putting present tense by Rustad’s husband (whose ancestral home it was) as part of an extensive introduction, with his being but one of many voices, along with a foreword by Kathleen Stokker, a preface by Ronald Grambo, an editor’s note from Rustad herself, and an introduction to the black books by Ottar Evensen.

Evensen’s essay provides more in the way of details to Rustad’s discovery, and of black books in general, beginning first with a history of the farm which was in the Rustad family since 1837, and owned before that by the Kilde family. One of the svartebøka uncovered at Elverum was a simple pamphlet-like writing book of the type used in school, while the second was a thick, bound book, apparently blank except for the well-thumbed pages towards the middle. There are 32 unnumbered spells in one book and 78 in the other, all presented in a delightful variations of a florid, Sütterlinschrift-style hand. Following their discovery, the books were transcribed by Per Sande (an assistant professor at the public archives in Hamar), translated into modern Norwegian by Professor Per Holck of the University of Oslo, and then into English by Rustad herself.

The Black Books of Elverum spread

The pages of The Black Books of Elverum are presented as a full facsimile with black and white photographs of each page on the verso side of the spread and an English translation on the recto. The text in what is identified as book one fills the page, running from margin to margin with its script hand relatively restrained and the leading between lines tight, creating dense blocks of typographic colour. Often several spells appear on a page, divided by ruled lines, each prefaced with the spell’s title, little separated from the body. In the smaller book, the hand (or hands, as there is some variance) is much looser and larger with a sense of freedom and a lot more blotting of ink and changes in weight and pressure. Titles appear larger and right aligned, and the restrained care of book one is replaced by a manic freestyle, as typified by the ragged hand-drawn lines separating each spell. Both books are almost entirely devoid of sigils, with the exception being a device used for catching a thief in book one and a device to be drawn on a table in book two for putting out the eye of a thief.

The Black Books of Elverum spread

There is a lot of concern with thieves within both books, along with, as one would expect from this genre, other sundry matters relevant to rural people, with various simple charms and recipes for dealing with illness, predatory animals and winning at love and law. Some are more ridiculous than others, of course, such as options for putting out a fire, not with boring old water, but rather, in one case, throwing three eggs laid on a Maundy Thursday (these never go off, apparently, so you’re expected to have a few around, I suppose) into the fire in the name of the Trinity, or if that doesn’t seem complicated enough, write the words ‘Anoeam, Emanean, Natan’ on a piece of lead you conveniently have to hand and throw that on the fire. Alternatively, the second book suggests writing a little faux Latin and a sigil (inaccurately recreated in the translation) on the door of the house that is burning, break it down, and then, problem solved. The extinguishing properties of water not so popular on Norwegian farms it would seem.

It’s not all simple folk charms and non-aquatic fun with fire, though, and what strikes one immediately upon reading the first book is how diabolical it is, with the author placing themselves firmly against heaven with their first spell in which they release the angels from hell, renounce God and the Holy Spirit and pledge allegiance to Lucifer. This continues into some of the initial spells where, in something of an infernal overkill, all the demons of the world, heaven and hell are conjured to compel a thief to return what they have stolen. But then, the next spell marks a change of heart as the callous conjurer switches their allegiance and sends the dark forces packing. The use of the denizen of hell for spells specific to thieves occurs again in the second of the Elverum books, with Lucifer himself entreated to harass the thief until the items are returned, with the spell concluding “in the Devil’s dreaded name that lives in Hell’s abyss” along with the names of Hell’s ten princes for good measure. Similarly, if you wanted to put a thief’s eye out, go straight to the top and call on “Satan, Beelsebub, Bellial, Ashtarath and all the devils that are in Hell” while striking a nail into various parts of a sigil.

The Black Books of Elverum spread

It’s worth noting that the first of the two books, while affirming these darker hues and crediting its content to both ‘heathendom’ and ‘Catholic times,’ seems unsure of its own provenance. It describes itself on the title page as a summary of a Cyprianus written by Bishop Johannes Sell of Oxford in 1682, but then two pages later claims to have been written at the University of Wittenberg in 1529 and later found, glamorously so, in a white marble chest at Copenhagen Castle in 1591.

The Black Books of Elverum concludes with an account of the 1625 witchcraft trial of Ingeborg Økset, an ancestor of the Rustad family who lived on a neighbouring farm on the other side of the Gloma River. Written by Magne Stener, it provides, without much in specific reference to svartebøka, an idea of the context in which such books were written and used.

Lucifer by E. T. Rustad

In all The Black Books of Elverum is an interesting documentation of two examples of svartebøka, neither of which are particularly revelatory as their content does reflect typical Germanic folk magic, and offers nothing for those unreasonably expecting hints of Norse paganism simply by virtue of the books’ location. The images of pages are clear and well reproduced, type is set in a little too large serif face, and there are slightly incongruous pencil sketches of Jesus and Lucifer by E. T. Rustad prefacing books one and two respectively.

Published by Galde Press, Inc.

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Helvete: A Journal of Black Metal Theory – Issue 2: With Head Downwards: Inversions in Black Metal, edited by Steven Shakespeare and Niall Scott

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Categories: music, satanism, Tags:

Helvete Issue 2 coverThe first issue of the Helvete journal was previously reviewed here on Scriptus Recensera and was described as an interesting if flawed look at black metal through an academic lens. This second issue continues that approach and features contributions from Elodie Lesourd, Reuben Dendinger, Brenda S. Gardenour Walter, Louis Hartnoll, Erik van Ooijen, Bert Stabler, and editors Niall Scott and Steve Shakespeare. In their introduction, Scott and Shakespeare identify the inverted cross as emblematic of the themes of this issue, providing an overview of the contributions within and arguing that the power of inversion is not simply one of parodic reversal, instead opening new ways of thought through the collapsing of light into darkness, pointing beyond a narrative of salvation (in which one master is replaced with another, darker hued), and instead “towards an identification with the earth in its reality, in its corruption.”

Obviously, one of the appeals of black metal, to fans and academics alike, is aesthetics, and indeed the discussions here focus more often on things visual than things aural. The appeal of the imagery of black metal gives some of these contributors license to wallow in its dark glamour, employing its eldritch visual lexicon for equally florid prose. Brenda S. Gardenour Walter, for example, opens her piece Through the Looking Glass Darkly drawing a scene set in “sempiternal night, ice-laden autumn winds twist through gnarled and blackened woodlands as shadows grow long beneath a freezing moon.” Here, inverted crosses, inverted pentagrams and the severed heads of sheep “flicker in the firelight cast from the conflagration of Christian stave churches in the distance.” Walter presents black metal as a multi-layered darkened mirror that contains multiple inversions upon inversions which thereby conceals several potential identities for its devotees. She identifies within the first layer of the mirror the ability for black metal to act as a path to liberation and self-empowerment, with the embracing of what mainstream society and religion abhors creating an assured identity in opposition; albeit one whose principle of reactionary abjection binds it to its object of hatred through a co-dependent jouissance.

Taking black metal’s elitism and contrariness to its ultimate extreme, Walter argues that there is another identity that can be found within the darkened mirror of black metal, one that moves beyond the validation by opposition seen in the Satanism-Christianity antinomy. Rather than being a subscriber to some of black metal’s more pervasive orthodox tendency (the true bands, the right clothes… no sneakers or tracksuits, please), this figure in the mirror, acknowledged here as illusive and distant, is more a Luciferian and intellectual ideal, refusing to submit to anyone’s will, be it God, Satan or the black metal group mind. Here, Walter again returns to her kvlt, grim but picturesque language, describing this Byronic figure as a “single blackened self, standing alone in a barren waste, much like a gnarled and blackened tree against a northern winter sky.” Embracing the language of anti-cosmic Satanism, this nihilistic and blackened self experiences a moment of dark illumination as it sees its inverted reflection reverberating into a formless void, a void in which they achieve true liberation through destruction. “At the still point, in a moment of ecstatic union with the darkness, the self is annihilated in blackness and absorbed into the Oneness of Nothing, unfettered at last.”

Sandrine Pelletier - Aeg Yesoodth Ryobi Ele_emDrill!, 2011

Equally heavy on the lovely language is Reuben Dendinger who discusses black metal as folk magic in The Way of the Sword, with said sword being, in his eyes, totemic of metal itself and synonymous with the inverted cross. Dendinger presents the history of metal music as a modern yet ancient myth with its practitioners euhemerised into wielders and workers of steel, building motorbikes in the 1970s, and then going underground in the 1980s where they forged great blades and freed the witches, pagan heroes and the exiled pagan gods that would come to embody the genre from their imprisonment in Hell. Heady stuff; though unfortunately it doesn’t give a mythic explanation for hair metal, or Stryper for that matter.

Things stray away from black metal when Erik van Ooijen turns to the death metal/deathgrind of Cattle Decapitation in Giving Life Harmoniously. This continues the issue’s theme of inversion but this is not a case of religious antithesis, though it is a moral one, with Ooijen considering the way in which Cattle Decapitation inverts the traditional hierarchy of human and animal. With its vegetarian stance that turns factory farming and industrialised slaughter against its humans perpetuators, the band’s imagery, Ooijen argues, challenges and inverts the familiar violent themes, misogynies and hierarchies found within the grindcore and death metal genres as a whole, thereby enacting a queering of the carnophallogocentric (to use a term from Derrida) form. This is something hiding in plain sight in the band’s name, able to be read as the conventional decapitation of cattle, or the inverted and righteous revenge of decapitation by cattle. This conceit, and in particular its representation in the band’s cover art, has a precedent in the reversal of power relationships seen in the 14-18th century topos of mundus inversus, the world turned upside down, typified here in a series of Dutch woodcuts that includes scenes of an ox flaying a suspended butcher, or a goose and rabbit roasting a cook on a spit.

Dutch mundus inversus woodcuts

Another musical tangent is seen in Bert Stabler’s A Sterile Hole and a Mask Of Feces which takes as its launching pad An Epiphanic Vomiting of Blood, the title of the third full-length studio album by Gnaw Their Tongues, an act perhaps more associated with metal-accented dark ambient and noise. There’s not a lot of Gnaw Their Tongues here, though, and after an initial mention, Stabler swiftly moves away from them, grounding his discussion in the works of Hegel as interpreted by Slavoj Žižek, presenting a textually and theoretically dense consideration of themes of ecstatic disintegration and the embracing of the abjected in sublation/aufheben. This narrative wanders somewhat aimlessly and erratically, with Stabler swinging various theoretical models around recklessly and dropping examples and diversions out of nowhere, with those drawn from black metal often feeling tacked on to an existing whole.

Gast Bouschet & Nadine Hilbert - Incantation of the Gates, London, 2011

Like the first volume of Helvete, there is a visual component here, with Elodie Lesourd and Amelia Ishmael curating Eccentricities and Disorientations: Experiencing Geometricies in Black Metal, featuring artwork by Dimitris Foutris, Gast Bouschet and Nadine Hilbert, Andrew McLeod, Sandrine Pelletier, and Stephen Wilson. As one would expect, given the title, this collection explores themes of space and geometry, with the vaults, beams and buttresses of churches being a constant reference. Bouschet and Hilbert reprise their blackened aesthetic from Helvete 1 with a regrettably brief contribution, but the most striking pieces here are stark, detailed shots of Sandrine Pelletier’s sculpture Aeg Yesoodth Ryobi Ele_emDrill!, a linear three-dimensional pentagram whose blackened beams recall the remains of a scorched cathedral as much as they do some impossible, Lovecraftian non-Euclidean geometry. Lesourd and Ishmael accompany this selection of work with text that occasionally breaks from standard formatting into more idiosyncratic, not-entirely successful layouts indicative of the theme, pushing the text into geometric shapes or inconsistent column widths.

Sandrine Pelletier - Aeg Yesoodth Ryobi Ele_emDrill!, 2011

This second volume of Helvete makes for some interesting, diverting reading, with, for what it’s worth, the non-black metal contribution from Ooijen being the most engaging and well written; albeit long. He ably combines theoretical models with an integrated consideration of Cattle Decapitation, weaving in related factoids or anecdotes where relevant. As with the first issue of Helvete, there are some issues here, with questions inevitably arising over whether black metal is written about simply from the perspective of a dilettantish embracing of something exotic and transgressive. Similarly, Norwegian black metal continues to loom large, almost to the point of eclipsing all others; something that literally happens in Contempt, Atavism, Eschatology, where Louis Hartnoll mistakenly but consistently refers to the nineties Norwegian scene as the first wave of black metal, rather than the second, giving it primacy over all that went before and thereby casting Øystein Aarseth as some sort of black metal prime progenitor.

Published by Punctum Books.

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Under the Witching Tree – Corinne Boyer

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Categories: folk, witchcraft, Tags:

Under the Witching Tree coverThe work of Corinne Boyer has been reviewed here before at Scriptus Recensera in the form of her Plants of the Devil, published in 2017 by Three Hands Press. This larger volume from the previous year follows the same arboreal and botanical avenues inherent within that later work and while Plants of the Devil was a relatively slight work with something of, as its title intimated, a diabolical focus, Under the Witching Tree is a far weightier tome, aiming for thoroughness and living up to its descriptive subtitle of being A Folk Grimoire of Tree Lore and Practicum. Under the Witching Tree is also the first volume in a three part trilogy from Boyer, with the second instalment focusing on herbs released in 2019.

In fulfilment of its brief as a tree grimoire, Under the Witching Tree is divided into unnumbered chapters focusing on each of the twenty trees: elder, hazel, rowan, apple, walnut, yew, pine, holly, spruce, western red cedar, birch, willow, alder, blackthorn, aspen, hawthorn, oak, ash, linden and maple. The trees are organised within a seasonal framework, providing something of a theme for each quarter: the black earth medicines of autumn, an altar of winter charms, a springtime forest rite, and the deer sorceress of midsummer.

As suggested by the book’s 288 page length, the considerations of each of these twenty trees are dense and thorough, beginning with a comprehensive outline and description of each tree and its folk associations, followed by examples of practical use, some drawn from Boyer’s specific personal practice, others from existing folk rituals and recipes. Each description begins picturesquely, with Boyer wonderfully setting the scene by placing the tree in its environs, the brittle boned elder tree in a forgotten meadow, dim shadows creeping during twilight hours beneath the branches of a walnut tree, and the birch as the White Lady of the forest, gleaming in the moonlight.

Under the Witching Tree photograph spread

These are then followed by the listings of various folk beliefs associated with each plant, but in contrast with the introductory word paintings, these are unfortunately presented in a rather less pleasing manner. Instead, the entries have something of the quality of the info dump about them, with long paragraphs that are comprised of short sentences that jump abruptly from one fact to the other, usually without any transitional phrases to tie them together, often creating fragments and non sequiturs that make the reading a slog. As such, the content resembles the encyclopaedic nature of studies of folk practices by Grimm or Frazer, where loquaciousness loses out to the pure documenting of fact and anecdote; though the difference between those works and this is the lack of referencing. With the amount of info being dumped here, it would admittedly have made for a messy layout to have everything cited with footnotes within the main body, but other than guessing or some judicious Googling, there’s no way to know where exactly each fact comes from; despite there being a bibliography at the end. There is the occasional aberrant and inconsistently treated in-body citing of a source, whether it’s mentioning the title of a work, or in one case, listing it as a full in-text citation with title/author/date, but this simply draws attention to the considerably more numerous moments in which sources remain uncredited. Why those ones, but not these ones? This becomes particularly important when obscure little gems of knowledge are mentioned and you’d love to know more; or conversely, when you wonder where boldly-stated but potentially spurious facts have come from – I’m looking at you, Odin’s sacred hazel wand, decorated with reddened runes.

The reason for this lack of referencing appears to be that large sections of information are sometimes taken uncritically from equally citation-deficient sources, with many of the entries on hazel, as one example, coming from Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants by Claudia Müller-Ebeling, Christian Rätsch and Wolf-Dieter Storl (including that claim about Odin’s hazel wand). Like Under the Witching here, Storl’s section of Witchcraft Medicine has the same sense of unreferenced and unedited notes, cast ‘pon the page, devoid of any of the conventions of narrative or structure.

Under the Witching Tree photograph spread

Inevitably, given the simplification that occurs when paraphrasing someone else’s citation-free information, errors or lack of clarity are introduced as the material moves further and further away from the source with each translation. An ambiguous Wikipedia summary of scholarly speculation by Turville-Petre (in his Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia) that Thor’s wife Sif may have once been conceived of as a rowan tree (given the keening of the rowan as ‘the salvation of Thor’) is transformed into a definitive statement of belief for Germanic people (with the usage of ‘conceived’ misread), in which Sif now “was thought to be conceived in the form of the rowan tree.” In another case, a contemporary alchemist who is quoted by name in the Müller-Ebeling/Rätsch/Storl book becomes simply an anonymous “German alchemist,” making both he and his statement devoid of any authority and set adrift in the unspecified byways of history and time.

This isn’t to say that the information presented here is riddled with errors, just that it’s impossible to tell either way, as so many of the facts are shorn of their context, whether it be their original source, or their actual provenance in time and space. As such, the cavalcade of historical anecdotes can be read as giving a broad impression of the associations a particular tree might have, but you would want to dig a little further before taking anything presented here as botanical or anthropological gospel.

Under the Witching Tree photograph spread

The entries for each plant are formatted to begin on the recto side of the page spread, and are usually preceded by the plant’s botanical illustration, printed at full page size, on the verso side; save for rarer cases where no space on the verso means they are instead placed as smaller, in-body images on the recto side, with the text wrapping around them. These images come from a variety of, one assumes, public domain sources, and so are not consistent in weight or style, with some appearing particularly heavy in line compared to others. But, unlike similar situations in lesser books, each image is of acceptable quality, with no pixilation or compression artefacts. A few appear to have been vector-traced, but otherwise most are sharp and clear in their original raster lines. Where needed, these images are reused as space fillers at the end of each plant’s entry, where they are scaled down, somewhat inexplicably flipped horizontally, and printed at a lowered opacity, looking less a valid stylistic choice and more like the printer ran out of ink.

Given the amount of information crammed into these entries as brief sentences, the consideration of each plant can run quite long, with the basic introduction for each coming in at an average of five pages, followed by several more pages for sections on their use in folk medicine, several paragraphs on how they can be employed in general personal practice, and a handful of more specific recipes. The recipes run the gamut from drinks and ointments to charms, incense and talismans.

Under the Witching Tree photograph plates

Under the Witching Tree concludes with a set of appendices as thorough as the main content, seven in all, covering some of the more technical aspects of the practical applications offered throughout the book: storing plant material, creating ointments, drinks and elixirs, rendering fat as a base. This is a good way to do it, rather than cluttering up each individual section with repetitive instructions.

Under the Witching Tree runs to 280 234 x 156mm pages with twenty black and white photo plates, in four editions: a paperback with a gloss laminated cover, a standard hardback, a special edition, and a fine edition. As is common with Troy Books titles, the standard hardback edition feels as good as a special edition with its ruby-red case binding, gold foil blocking of title and rowan sigil to the front and title on the spine, green endpapers and green head and tail bands. The special edition of 300 hand-numbered exemplars, swaps out the red of the cloth for a dark green one, with the foil now blocked in red, and red head and tail bands. The now sold-out fine edition, housed in a fully lined black library buckram slip-case, blind embossed to the front, was limited to 21 hand bound exemplars bound in dark green goat leather with gold foil blocking to the spine and a unique verdant image on the front. Each copy of the fine edition came with a cream envelope containing a dried leaf from a Flying Rowan tree, ritualistically harvested by the author in her garden.

Published by Troy Books

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Day Star and Whirling Wheel – Edited by Galina Krasskova

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Categories: devotional, germanic, Tags:

Day Star and Whirling Wheel coverSubtitled A Devotional to Sunna, Goddess of the Sun, and Mani, God of the Moon, this book does what it says on the tin. In her introduction, editor Galina Krasskova addresses straight out of the blocks the inevitable celestial-body-sized object in the room: how do you create a devotional for two deities for whom there is but a few lines concerning them in lore, these beings who are little more than names, albeit momentous ones? Krasskova takes this more as a blessing than a curse, seeing it as opening up a world of devotional practice, unhindered by preconceptions. As expected, then, this is a book that is, for the most part, low on essays and analysis and heavy, instead, on the poetry and prayers, with a few rituals and recipes for good measure.

Now ten years since it was published, Day Star and Whirling Wheel emerged during Asphodel Press’ boom period, a time which saw a surge of various devotionals in the wake of Raven Kaldera’s Jotunbok and subsequent titles in the Northern Shamanism series. As such, this book mirrors others from that time, bringing together the fruits of a call for submissions that saw contributions coming from around the world, featuring some familiar names, some less familiar ones, and some anonymous ones. As is de rigueur in situations like this, I should also mention as a caveat some personal involvement in this volume, having a designer credit for the oh so striking cover image; though no involvement in any of the internal matter. Can I resist the alluring appeal of nepotism? Let’s find out.

Day Star and Whirling Wheel spread

Fittingly, given the way in which the Germanic world viewed the day as beginning at twilight rather than dawn (nox ducere diem videtur, as Tacitus noted), Day Star and Whirling Wheel opens with its devotions to Máni, the moon. Contributions in this section come from Sophie Oberländer, Fuensanta Arismendi, Andrew Gyll, Moonsinger, Heather Fortuna, Ayla Wolffe, Mordant Carnival, Rebecca Buchanan, Snaw Lafor, Seawalker Larisa Pole, Jessica Orlando, Will Oliver, Elizabeth Vongvisith, Jon Norman and several from Krasskova herself. The highlight is provided by Andrew Gyll, whose poetry collection Shadow Gods and Black Fire has been favourably reviewed before. Here, Gyll presents, as its title helpfully informs us, nine songs for Máni, combining his ability to create evocative scenes with his skill in crafting engaging and convincing dialogue as a narrative device. Within these verses, cast in crepuscular landscapes of black pools, jagged cliffs and a velvety gloom, Loki acts as interlocutor and guide, responding in a recognisably characteristic tone to the narrator’s questions regarding Mani and the passage of time: The Moon is even madder than I; I don’t think the wolf will ever catch him. Gyll follows his suite of verses with a brief essay explaining in more straight forward terms his encounters with and understanding of Máni.

Day Star and Whirling Wheel spread

Despite the diversity of contributors here, something of a consistent image of Mani emerges within the various verses. He appears as a gentle figure, as one would perhaps expect of someone associated with the moon and its commonly assigned characteristics, but he is also frequently addressed in amorous terms, being cast as a lover to the various narrators. Interestingly, this is in keeping with imagery used in Hákonardrápa by the 10th century skald Guthormr sindri which shows Máni as being capable of love or desire with the poet referring to a giantess with the kenning “desired woman of Máni.”

Day Star and Whirling Wheel spread

Before continuing on to the moon’s sister, Day Star and Whirling Wheel makes a slight diversion into other matters cosmological and astronomical with Open to the Sky. This section brings together considerations of various figures affiliated with the sun and the moon, most notably Sunna’s little known sister Sinthgunt. Although she is only mentioned in a singular verse in the Merseburg Charm, Sophie Oberländer makes much hay of this appearance, first with a prayer to Sinthgunt and then an extensive ritual for her, incorporating elements from the Merseburg Charm as well as an original liturgy. Joining Sinthgunt amongst this diversionary company are considerations of her and Sunna and Máni’s father, Mundilfœri, along with the night goddess Nott, the god of the dawn Daeg, and even an anonymous ode to the wolves who pursue the sun and moon, Hati and Skoll.

The Sunna section of Day Star and Whirling Wheel feels a little lighter than that of its nocturnal twin, but many of the same contributor names feature here too. The stellar (yes, what I did there, I saw it) piece that is every bit the equal to Gyll’s Nine Songs for Máni comes care of Michaela Macha and her Sunna-Rise. How can you resist something in which “mound-wights rise to roam among hillocks” after the shadows of night have long languidly laid, as Macha depicts Sunna’s inexorable rise above a waking world?

Day Star and Whirling Wheel spread

Day Star and Whirling Wheel is expertly formatted in the typical functional style of Asphodel Press, with a basic sense of hierarchy: serif face for body, contributor names in italics, and titles in an ever so slightly ornamented display serif. There are no standalone illustrations and instead every space is filled with a variety of presumably public domain solar and lunar images of varying quality, style and relevance; resulting in a slightly cluttered appearance where the white space could have been left well enough alone. The writing is diverse, providing a little bit of something for everyone and plenty of options for ritual work, whether it be in the complete procedures included here or just the trove of poetry’s potential as liturgy.

Published by Asphodel Press

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Underworld – The Sepulcher Society

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Categories: classical, hellenic, magick, mesopotamian, underworld, Tags:

Underworld coverAdorned with a gold-foiled version of a symbol representing Mictlantecutli, the Aztec god of death, Underworld resembles in length and dimensions another recently reviewed title from Theion Publishing,  The Cult of the Black Cube. And, just as that book was credited to the pseudonymous Dr Arthur Moros, this volume is presented somewhat anonymously as the work of the infuriatingly-spelt Sepulcher Society, an organisation for which precious little information can be found; and, after fruitless Googling, I’m almost certain they’re not the Sepulchre Society of Sussex in M.J. Trow’s novel Maxwell’s Grave… or are they? Dun dun dunnn.

Where The Cult of the Black Cube dealt with various incarnations of the Saturnine deity, Underworld, as its title suggests, considers the subterranean world of the dead, following a similar approach to Moros’ book by exploring examples of the theme from a variety of cultures, consolidating the wisdom so gleaned, and then throwing in a few bits of practical work. Like Moros, the pseudonymous author (who uses a singular first person ‘I’ despite the credit to the presumably multiple-membered society) provides something of a personal touch, opening with a brief biography that stretches back to their childhood and encounters there with death and general spookiness.

Underworld spread with Lamashtu images

Underworld is divided into just three chapters, but these would be more fittingly described as parts, each being lengthy and consisting of smaller chapter-like sections, rather than a straight forward narrative, all divided up with the appropriate formatting. In the first, the author, as we must pseudonymously call them lest we henceforth laboriously refer to them as the Sepulcher Society, gives a survey of various examples of the underworld, with summaries running to up to five or six pages of the Babylonian, Greek and Roman, Celtic, Germanic, Aztec, and Hindu conceptions of the underworld. These are all as thorough as one can be with the amount of space afforded, although, as with the rest of the book, there’s very little in the way of referencing, be it in-body citations or footnoted sources. Given the specialised nature of the discussion here, in particular Aztec and Babylonian conceptions of the underworld, it is frustrating having no sense of the source of the information, and no indication as to whether it’s from primary texts or secondary academic discussions or synopsises. There are occasionally footnoted references to suggested further reading on particular areas of consideration, as well as a bibliography at the rear of the book, but there is never any indication that these titles are necessarily the source, and there’s certainly no direct referencing to specific pages within them.

Underworld spread

Having described the mythological precedents of the underworld, the author concludes the first chapter with a synthesis of common chthonian elements, highlighting those geographical features found in many accounts, irrespective of distances in space or time: a twilight realm between the living and the dead, a barrier of dark water be it river or sea, the black gates that guard the underworld, and finally, the underworld itself, its city and its inhabitants, ruled by a dark queen and a black king.

The second chapter turns to the gods of the underworld themselves and begins with the author establishing several working hypotheses, principally that the gods are real beings with agency of their own, not simply aspects of one’s unconscious, or even archetypes or thought-forms made manifest by the collective members of a society. The author does provide something of a syncretistic angle, though, suggesting that one’s cultural context may create the lens through which the same deity may be viewed differently, adopting a name, characteristics and appearances that draw from the prevailing cosmology. This belief in the very literal existence of the gods, indeed all gods, does go down some rather specious rabbit holes, such as suggesting that Jews, Muslims and Christians must all worship different deities since clearly tension betwixt the three religions is the result of three different deities battling each other for control. An intriguing proposal, but an alternate hypothesis might be: people are dicks. Similarly, the author suggests that the growth and subsequent power of a religion is indicative of the respective deity’s standing in ye olde god stakes, but once again, let’s proffer the more circumspect suggestion that, yes, as previously mentioned, people are dicks, and the growth of a religion is often demonstrably due to said people being said dicks and making that happen because it is in their best dickish interests to do so.

Underworld spread with Santa Muerte plate

With the theory out of the way, the author returns with a greater focus to the gods whose realms were discussed in the first chapter. Referring to these gods as chthonians, the author begins in Mexico, initially exploring the godforms of Mictecacihuatl and her partner Mictlantecutli, the Aztec goddess and god of death and the underworld. This gives way to two figures that, it could be argued, are their contemporary embodiments or descendants, the Mexican saint of death Santa Muerte, and her male equivalent from further south in the Americas, San La Muerte. Given the well-documented nature of Santa Muerte’s cult and praxis, the author is well equipped to provide an extensive, multi-paged section on practical devotion towards her, both summarising her place in Mexican folk magic, and ending with a few ritual suggestions and a little liturgy. The same cannot be said for San La Muerte whose relative obscurity in comparison to his popular Mexican sister is reflected in the paucity of information presented here.

The other mythological systems covered here don’t provide the same luxury in terms of contemporary usage as Santa Muerte, but the author does try their damnedest to fill those gaps. They turn to Babylon next, discussing Erishkigal and then Nergal, with descriptions of each godform and suggestions for contemporary ritual or devotional techniques, before a similar exploration of the natal demoness Lamashtu. The same then follows for cultures Germanic (Hela), Greco-Roman (Nyx, Pluto, Persephone), Celtic (the Morrighan), and Indian (Yama, Varahi). Each deity is given a brief description or background, a summary of how they are or can be worshipped now, followed by descriptions of shrines, offerings and images, and an example of a ritual. These are not techniques cut and pasted with the respective gods swapped out, but there are certain recurrent themes of practice here, principally the development of devotional altar space or effigies, a pretty fail-safe approach to dealing with deities.

Underworld spread

Underworld concludes with its third chapter, Necromancy, where the author puts the dead to work, defining necromancy not just as the raising of the dead for mantic purposes, but any magic that deals with death and the underworld’s entities and energies. This builds on the syncretism and basic ritualism touched on in earlier pages, incorporating from a practical perspective the use of ritual and devotional space, and then providing techniques for travelling in trance and dream, and communicating with the dead. These are presented as broad guidelines that can be built upon by the practitioner, and while they don’t cover much in the way of new occult ground (what does?), the instructions are clear and consistent.

Underworld comes in two editions, a standard cloth hardcover, and the Auric Edition. The standard edition of 720 copies is bound in black fine cloth, with a design debossed and foiled in gold on the cover, with the same for lettering on spine. The sold out Auric Edition of 52 copies is fully hand-bound in chthonic dark-brown fine leather, with raised bands, embossing on spine, and a ribbon. The cover of each Auric copy carries an embedded specially manufactured brass obol coin as used by members of the Sepulcher Society to traffic with Hades. Each Auric copy also includes an exclusive additional page of fine paper, containing a ritual to awaken the Shadow Self for necromantic contact.

Published by Theion Publishing

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The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages – Robert Bartlett

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Categories: middle ages

The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages coverThis book compiles a series of Wiles Lectures presented in 2006 at Queen’s University of Belfast by historian and medievalist Robert Bartlett. The lecture series was founded in 1953 by Janet Boyd of Craigavad, County Down, in memory of her father, Thomas S. Wiles, and are sponsored by the university and published (often in extended and modified form) by Cambridge University Press. Despite running to 170 pages, The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages feels concise, which is perhaps to be expected given its lecture transcript format, and also because the last 22 pages consist of the bibliography and index. With just four chapters, Bartlett presents the information here as clearly defined considerations of medieval embodiments of the supernatural, each lecture building, for the most part, upon the last.

The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages is very much about definitions and Bartlett provides a thorough consideration of this in the first section, The Boundaries of the Supernatural. Here, he discusses how what could be defined as supernatural occupied a minute space in medieval thought, mediated, as it was, through the idea of nature and by extension, what was considered natural, being of god. If god made all things, the thinking went, then very few things, whether they be angels, demons, or showers of fish, could be considered supernatural, that is, beyond or outside his remit. Indeed, the distinction was not necessarily between the natural of god and the supernatural that was not of god, but, as defined by the 12th century theologian Peter Lombard, between those things that were comprehendible, in that they occurred naturally (naturaliter), following their seminal cause that had been established by god, and those things that were beyond nature (praeter naturam). Things defined as beyond nature were only so because their cause was unknown to humanity, though it was assumed that this still derived from god, who alone understood their cause and purpose. Bartlett tracks these lines of thought from Lombard to Thomas Aquinas and later into the writings of figures like William of Auvergne, where the discussion turns to the use of miracles and magic. Here, in a remarkably pragmatic interpretation, magic was not miraculous or supernatural, and instead, natural magic was simply a branch of natural science, in which natural processes, ordained by god, were just sped up.

The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle spread with triple-headed trinity

This focus on definitions can make The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages very methodical and clinical, and one could even say, given the subject matter, dull; though mileage may vary as to whether it’s so dull that you might wish, as one reader on goodbooks.com suggests, to have your eyes gouged out with a teaspoon rather than having to pick it up again. This does mean that the focus on specific supernatural, monstrous or aberrant elements from the Middle Ages is rather limited, but there are far better books from the hoard of medieval scholarship that provide exactly what this title lacks. With that said, for what it is, a non-specific overview of the miraculous in the Middle Ages, the book makes an interesting if detached read, well-written by Bartlett, who presents his information in a perfunctory manner, divorced from more obvious theoretical models.

The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle spread

The more specific examples of the supernatural are considered in the second and third chapters, taking the form of eclipses and the dog-headed cynocephali. The discussion of eclipses and their view in medieval superstition and science, though, comes as part of a broader consideration of the belief in a mechanical universe that predates Newton’s popularisation of the idea. In The Machine of this World, Bartlett isn’t seeking to prove that an idea of anything approaching Newtonian physics existed in the Middle Ages, but simply that there were some mechanistic principles that were seen as playing a role in the medieval world view. Overwhelming examples are pretty thin on the ground, other than the predictive nature of eclipses, and Bartlett spends more of this chapter enunciating various understandings of the world and their theological implications, such as the globe’s division into the northern hemisphere and its unreachable southern counterpart.

The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle spread with page from The Treatise of the Spheres by John of Sacrobosco

For fans of medieval monstrosity, Dogs and Dog-Heads turns to the cynocephali, one of several races that, based on the unblinking acceptance of the authority of classical figures such as Pliny and Herodotus, were believed to exist somewhere else in the world. The existence of these races and the lack thereof proved so fundamental to changing views of the world, with the 14th century explorer Giovanni de’ Marignolli enquiring fruitlessly after them in India, only to pithily remark that it was he who was in turn asked as to whether he knew of such creature. The Other always being where one is not.

Bartlett’s concluding chapter seems the furthest from expectations of supernatural medieval marvels with a lecture dedicated entirely to the work of the 13th century philosopher Roger Bacon. While there are supernatural elements within this discussion, most notably the incongruous but inevitable intersection visible in a man of empirical science who still believed in and speculated on the imminent arrival of the Antichrist, this chapter feels like a standalone biography of Bacon somewhat shoe-horned into the series.

The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle spread with page from Aberdeen University Library Ms. 24

The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages is illustrated throughout with various images drawn from medieval manuscripts. In all, it makes for a brief, sober and pragmatic read that works best when seen as a presentation of a broad picture, rather than a consideration of specifics.

Published by Cambridge University Press

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