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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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Minóy – Edited by Joseph Nechvatal

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Categories: art, music, Tags:

Minóy cover (image by Maya Eidolon)Published in 2014 by the Punctum Books imprint Dead Letter Office (home to “work that either has gone “nowhere” or will likely go nowhere”), this is a suitably appropriate paean to prolific sound artist and noise musician Stanley Keith Bowsza, better known as Minóy. A significant figure in the mail art and noise scene of the 1980s, Minóy produced over a hundred works before abandoning music in the early 1990s. Following his death in 2010, the collection of Minóy master tapes was entrusted to musician, past collaborator and long-time fan PBK (Phillip B. Klingler) who now curates the reissuing of these releases via Bandcamp.

Being a Dead Letter Office release, Minóy is not a long work and is comprised of essays almost entirely by editor Joseph Nechvatal, with the exception of one by Amber Sabri. Sabri’s piece is a prelude, in turn, to the visual component of Minóy, featuring a selection of images she took of Bowsza in the 2000s. This creates an interesting contrast, as Nechvatal’s writing is frequently dense and academic, while Sabri’s memoir is, by its nature, more personal and informal, and her images provide the only visual evidence within of the book’s subject.

Nechvatal kicks things off with the gloriously verbose title that is The Saturated Superimposed Agency of Minóy, which provides a thorough biography of Minóy and his work, before descending into considerably more philosophical territory. He draws attention to the echoes of La Monte Young in Minóy’s use of length as a compositional technique, arguing that the extended length allows deep subjective perceptions of the present moment to come to consciousness, thereby offering “a sonically ontological vision of the world as superimposition, one that shows us in place inside of a saturated world.” This idea of noise in general and Minóy’s in particular as a queer-like force that acts in resistance to conformity and mundanity, is one that permeates Nechvatal’s writing here. He doesn’t employ the lexicon of queer theory, though, using instead his own language of hypernoise theory, often referring to the ability of Minóy’s music to create an interplay of the human and the nonhuman.

Nechvatal concludes The Saturated Superimposed Agency of Minóy with an addendum in which he provides reviews of a mere eight of Minóy’s works, culled from a variety of sources and writers, principally Sound Choice but also Lowlife and Option magazines. For those unfamiliar with Minóy’s output, these give a sense of the soundworlds he was creating, and more importantly, how they were perceived by his contemporaries.

Image from Minóy as Haint as King Lear by Maya Eidolon

In Whatever Happened to the Man Named Minóy? Sabri writes a memoir of the man she knew, not as Minóy but as My Life as A Haint. By becoming a haint, a term used in the vernacular of the southern United States to refer to a ghost, apparition or lost soul, Bowsza drew a line under the Minóy that had obsessively created music for a decade and instead, now largely bed-ridden with physical and mental illness, turned to digital art as a form of expression. There’s something in the use of the word haint that evokes Mishima’s description of slipping through life as a ghost, sitting on the outside and divorced from convention. This is evidenced in Bowsza’s work as both Minóy and as Haint, and his personal life, in which he was divorced from confines both societal and temporal, with persistent agoraphobia and a tendency to sleep little and work long (sometimes staying awake for days on end in manic marathons of creativity).

Sabri’s photo essay, credited to her glorious pseudonym Maya Eidolon and created in collaboration with Bowsza and his partner Stuart Hass, is tortuously called Minóy as Haint as King Lear and shows Minóy/Haint as Shakespeare’s titular character in 60 black and white images, presented two to a page. Framed horizontally and largely with only head and shoulders showing, the images convey a sense of psychotic ferocity, with Bowsza moving in and out of great washes of long-shutter speed blur, abstracting into clouds of movement until briefly emerging again, as if from water, with recognisable, anguished features. While the images convey in strict representational terms of sign and signifier what one would expect the whirl psychosis to look like given form, there are other questions here, concerned primarily with identity and its loss. Sabri’s title conveys this with its cast of three characters, and within these images the trinity of Minóy, Haint and Lear all appear to be asking Lear’s own question: “Does any here know me? This is not Lear. Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes? Either his notion weakens, or his discernings are lethargied – Sleeping or waking? Ha! Sure ’tis not so! Who is it that can tell me who I am?” Nechvatal’s response to Sabri’s images makes similar observations, arguing that rather than seeing Bowsza’s performance for the camera as “a descent into the thick eerie nonhuman,” it is instead an illustration of “a very specific way of living mad in the intensified flow of superimposed becoming” before tying the ferocity of the images back to the musical leitmotifs of Minóy: “we can almost hear in these images his Lear-like scream into an unbounded white noise.”

Image from Minóy as Haint as King Lear by Maya Eidolon

As befits Minóy’s elongated musical forms, Nechvatal continues his own musing on Minóy with an addendum, The Obscurity of Minóy, which, it transpires, is but the first of several afterwords. Like the never-ending ending to the cinematic incarnation of Return of the King, this continues with the amusingly-acknowledged After After Words of The Aesthetics of an Obscure Monster Sacré and the After After After Words of Hyper Noise Aesthetics. Indeed, these after (after after) words from Nechvatal take up more space than his main contribution, allowing him to take flight with his philosophical notions of noise.

Now we must turn to the de rigueur justification for reviewing a book on a noise musician on a site ostensibly concerned with occult titles. While there is little in Minóy’s themes, both musical and titular, that suggest the magickal or the mystical, it is the response to this music that offers almost inevitably an interpretation arcane and anagogic. PBK’s documented enthusiasm for Minóy’s work after first hearing it has something of the religious and ecstatic about it, memorialised here with his description of it as “dream-like, nightmare-like, but also sometimes spiritual.” Similarly, Nechvatal’s use of philosophical and theoretical models inevitably leads to language that is redolent of the exploration of the unconscious and the internal, of intersections betwixt the mundane and the mystical. Like PBK’s description of Minóy’s music as both nightmarish and spiritual, Nechvatal frequently invokes the figure of the monstre sacré, using it a description of Minóy himself, and often of noise music in general.

Image from Minóy as Haint as King Lear by Maya Eidolon

If there is a voice that’s missed here it’s that of PBK, whose recently adopted role of Minóy archivist and legacy documenter has made him a significant player in the current revival of interest in his oeuvre. While PBK is heard here and there, variously quoted and paraphrased in Nechvatal’s pieces, there is nothing of whole cloth by him here, which seems a shame.

A similarly-titled album was released to coincide with the Minóy book, featuring nine compositions from between 1985 and 1993. Drawn from recently discovered archival material, the selection was made by Nechvatal, in collaboration with PBK, with the latter remastering the tracks. Given the long-form nature of much of Minóy’s work, PBK and Nechvatal had the difficult task of finding complete works that were varied enough and short enough to fits on a single CD and still be representative of his music. The CD version of Minóy is still available at time of writing but a fittingly limited edition cassette run is sold out.

Published by Dead Letter Office/Punctum Books

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The Hidden Adept & the Inward Vision – R.J. Stewart

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Categories: esotericism

The Hidden Adept & the Inward Vision coverThe title of this book by R.J. Stewart doesn’t give much away with regard to its contents, so we have to rely on the verbose subtitle to find that it tells the “story of Ronald Heaver, Polly Wood and the Sanctuary of Avalon.” Admittedly, that’s only slightly more informative unless you know who Ronald Heaver and Polly Wood were. What is presented here is intended to fill in that knowledge gap, providing a history of Heaver and Wood and also presenting a few bits from Heaver himself as an appendix half the book.

Before getting into the content of The Hidden Adept & the Inward Vision, one is struck by the formatting, which does not do the work any favours, being poorly presented and thereby creating issues in accessibility and comprehension. All text is typeset in fully-justified paragraphs of an incongruously generic and modern sans-serif that, as is characteristic of such a face, doesn’t aide readability. Subheadings are in a bolded variation of the same sans-serif and buttressed above and below not with considered spacing but by full paragraph returns, while titles are also presented in the same face and point size, but in uppercase (except for instances where they’ve been mistakenly left lowercase). The result, as one would expect, is an intimidating and impenetrable sameness, with zero hierarchy, and no anchors for the eye to latch on to. Indeed, one of the only instances of difference breaking up the homogeneity is when the line spacing of the body copy suddenly jumps or shrinks, sometimes within the same chapter.

Spread with larger leading

This dire formatting, along with the very humble and pink-hued cover, would appear to be the result of The Hidden Adept & the Inward Vision being effectively self-published by Stewart’s own imprint, with none of the checks and balances, or design flair, that one would expect from a dedicated publishing house. Unfortunately, this lack of editorial control in the formatting is paralleled in the content itself, which initially feels aimless and all over the place, lacking a clear narrative or structure. The start is notably hesitant and piecemeal, without any simple introduction that would give the reader any idea about who Heaver was and why he might be important. Even when Stewart gives a breakdown of the major stages of Heaver’s life, and a numbered listing of his inner themes, this hidden adept seems fittingly illusive, like you’ve joined a conversation halfway through. In addition, this use of numbered paragraphs, a device that Stewart employs several times, helps only make the book feel disjointed, when incorporating the information into coherent sentences and paragraphs would have assisted in flow and attendant comprehension.

The erratic quality of the formatting and editing perhaps betrays the very desultory nature of the book’s content, with Stewart drawing on but a few personal encounters with Heaver and general summary of the facts for the first 52 pages and otherwise relying on documents written by Heaver for much of the remaining pages. These are drawn from a variety of sources including the archives of the Findhorn Foundation and rather than be summarised within the body or presented at the rear as appendices, they form entire chapters, uniformly formatted like Stewart’s own content, so it can be hard to tell at a glance where one starts and the other finishes; save for the clue that Heaver’s writing often has paragraphs unnecessarily bulleted with dashes. In all, this adds to a disjointed experience where the reader struggles to make sense of what is presented, adrift in a miasma of spasmodic content and minimal formatting.

Spread with smaller leading

When you do wrestle some sense from the combination of Stewart’s narrative and Heaver’s own writing, what emerges is the image of a man just a tinsy bit caught in a slip of ever-so-slightly self-aggrandising myth: a pilot in the Great War (taking his first solo flight after just over three hours of instruction, naturally. Woof!), later shot down in a dogfight with Manfred von Richtofen’s flying circus (though mercifully, there’s no claim that it was by the baron himself), and then, as an older gentlemen, someone with the ear of the highest echelons of government both military and diplomatic. He was suddenly paralysed a decade after the Great War, just as a newspaper described the General Strike as a paralysis that swept over the country. There’s no mention of how the headlines when the strike ended correlated with Heaver’s then physical condition, perhaps because ‘Strike ends but country inexplicably still paralysed and feeling a bit cranky but would love a cuppa and bacon sarnie, thanks Polly’ wouldn’t have made much sense. This idea of a grand mission permeates Heaver’s story, with the divinely-ordained fate of England intertwined with his as if he were some wounded Fisher King awaiting his inevitable healing (since despite being told by Sir Edward Farquhar Buzzard, future Physician-in-Ordinary to King George V, that he would never walk again, well, he sure showed ‘em. Doctors eh? What do they know?).

As the invocation of the Fisher King suggests, there are streams of Arthurian and Arimathean imagery that run through the Heaver story, including its very own grail-like quest with trips to Palestine and much deeds of derring-do. The object in question, the Thaumaturgal, was a jewel apparently handed down in a line of descent that included Melchizedek, John the Baptist, Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, and ultimately, Heaver, who travelled to Jerusalem and buried it in the Garden Tomb, a site favoured by some Protestants as the burial place of Jesus; only to have it make its way back to England, irony of ironies, after being discovered by the tomb’s caretaker whilst doing some cleaning. Heaver attached great significance to his placing of the Thaumaturgal at the Garden Tomb, and its subsequent perambulations, seeing it as an event foretold in Apocalyptic literature as the binding of Apollyon. All very exciting if suppositious stuff that with a little more coherent narrative could have turned into the kind of dashing occult memoir, dancing on the intersection between fact and fiction, worthy of psychic-detective era Andrew Collins or Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh.

Sidereal birth chart of Ronald Heaver

Other than these adventures, and aside from a brief mention (for bonus fortean points) of Heaver’s loose connection with the free energy device of Karl Schappeller, The Hidden Adept & the Inward Vision largely concerns itself with various figures connected with Heaver and the general mythos surrounding Glastonbury as a spiritual locus. The latter concerns itself principally with the Arimathean aspect of the site, with Heaver’s mystically inclined Protestantism and British Israelitism finding simpatico with the claims of Glastonbury as the home to a pre-Rome incarnation of Christianity. As part of this, there’s a relaying of the minutiae of a feud between Heaver and Wellesley Tudor Pole (another Glastonbury spiritualist and grail-seeker), with the two cast as Protestant and Catholic sides in a millennium-old struggle over the location. This consideration of the Glastonbury ‘scene’ is also shored up with a full chapter biography of yet another figure, Dr. John Arthur Goodchild, someone whose at best minimal association with Heaver makes this section feel like a standalone essay.

The final section of note fulfils a promise made on the cover with an exploration of the Glastonbury Zodiac popularised by Katherine Maltwood, and Heaver’s connection to it, or opinion about it. This takes the form of a lengthy essay by Stewart originally published in 2008 and here revised and expanded to create its own distinct part of The Hidden Adept & the Inward Vision. The connection with Heaver rests on a small leaflet that he wrote on the subject, which Stewart quotes and dissects, paragraph by paragraph, stretching the material as far as it can go. Stewart uses this opportunity for a fairly comprehensive survey of the idea of the Glastonbury Zodiac, emphasising the mystic over the material, and making it something that must ultimately be experienced on the ground and within the place, rather than from a distance or, in the case of studying aerial photos, from above. The pamphlet by Heaver is by no means a substantial or profound piece of writing but Stewart tries to make it so by claiming that it was written using the ‘Language of the Initiates,’ where everything, no matter how mundane, is conveniently laden with import. Even antiquated and admittedly false ideas, like Somerset being given its name by Sumerian astronomer-architects five thousand years ago, are juggled to fit into some vague ancient truth that doesn’t need to be historically true because some other old weirdos held vaguely similar ideas at some point.

Things conclude with a description by Stewart of how he continues working in the spirit of Heaver and Wood, as well as an appendix of astrological charts for Heaver (himself a sidereal astrologer) and a selection of various images, some lower-res than others, related to Heaver directly and not-so-directly.

Image appendix with a drawing sketched by Fredrick Bligh Bond

The Hidden Adept & the Inward Vision has the beginnings of what could have been an interesting book had more attention been paid to it. Those instances in which Stewart strays from the meagre information about Heaver into broader discussions of the various mystics of Glastonbury hints at a book that, if it focused on that, could have been more cohesive, less directionless, and less hamstrung by the need to apotheosise his mentor. And it is allusions to Heaver as Stewart’s mentor that suggest another missed opportunity, such as when he tantalisingly mentions how direct statements from Heaver influenced not only his spiritual development but his significant trilogy of tellurian-faery books: The Underworld Initiation, Earth Light and Power Within the Land. There’s no explanation about what these statements were and how they impacted the material, resulting in perhaps what could be uncharitably read as an inordinate claim to spiritual descent. Despite enjoying Stewart’s other books for several decades, The Hidden Adept & the Inward Vision is disappointing and unsatisfying, arguably because it lacks the very clarity of his other works.

Published by R.J. Stewart Books

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Minerva Britanna – Henry Peacham

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Categories: alchemy, art, esotericism

Minerva Britanna coverIf you’re wondering what Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britanna is all about, a clue may, or may not, be found in the subtitle which describes it as “A Garden of Heroical Devices, Furnished and Adorned with Emblems and Impressas of Sundry Natures.” Minerva Britanna belongs to a category known as the emblem book in which allegorical illustrations (pictura) sit alongside a motto, usually in Latin (superscriptio), and an explanatory text ranging from a few lines of verse to pages of prose (subscriptio), creating complex patterns of often didactic signi?cation. The first emblem book, the sixteenth century Emblemata, first of its name, by Andrea Alciato, created a popular template and was followed by a raft of similar works over the following century, with Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens being perhaps the most well-known of them. Peacham’s emblem book, published in 1612, 81 years after Alciato’s Emblemata, is reproduced in its entirety here, with little comment other than a several page introduction by Josephine McCarthy.

Peacham, in addition to being a draughtsman, player of tennis and falconer, could be described using the Artistotelian term graphice. Defined by Peacham himself in his Gentleman’s Exercise as someone who specialised in the “use of the pen in writing faire, drawing, painting, and the like,” it marked him as someone admirably able to execute both the written and illustrated aspects of Minerva Britanna. Consisting of 204 emblems, Minerva Britanna was an expansion on two earlier attempts at creating emblem books, one for King James and one for his son, both based on the king’s 1603 treatise on government Basilicon Doron. Though neither book was finished, 68 of the Basilicon Doron emblems found new life in the pages of Minerva Britanna.

Minerva Britanna emblems

McCarthy argues that whilst Minerva Britanna contains some elements of a Neoplatonist-type ascent, in which the soul aspires towards union with the ineffable, it is principally a text of faery magic, mixed with Elizabethan codes, Hermetic wisdom and kingly advice. For McCarthy, it is a book concerned with sacred kingship and its responsibilities, of the land and the sacred female power within it, something made clear with the title’s invocation of the goddesses Minerva and Britannia, matrons of wisdom and the land respectively. It is McCarthy’s contention that nineteenth century occultists, who have had an enduring influence on contemporary occultism, removed magic from the land, enclosing it in vaults and temples, and that the material in Minerva Britanna reflects a vision of magic truer to what was once common practice, one considerably more connected to the worlds of faery and the underworld. By using Minerva Britanna, practitioners are able to connect with this archaic strain of magic again, becoming reacquainted with the wildness, playfulness, puzzles and the shadow of the Faery Queene. Unfortunately, McCarthy doesn’t give any specific examples of emblems that may reflect this stream of faery magic or support her contention that Peacham was an initiate or at least a follower of its mysteries.

While this edition of Minerva Britanna is not presented as practical and complete workbook, McCarthy briefly offers several ways in which people can utilise Peacham’s emblems in magic. She suggests that the images can be used as a divination deck, divided into three main magical themes that facilitate connections with the sacred land, the faery realm and underworld prophecy. Following the book’s motto of Mente Videbor (‘by the mind I shall be seen’), McCarthy also describes using the emblems as persistent visual aids that then impinge on the subconscious in dreams or unexpected moments, sparking cathartic moments of recognition and realisation.

Minerva Britanna Mente Videbor

Although there are 204 emblems in Minerva Britanna they are by no means the sole creation of Peacham, denoting the derivative nature of the English strand of the emblem tradition as a whole. Eighty-four of the images draw from the works of such authors as Alciati himself, Theodore de Bèze, Joachim Camerarius, Camillo Camilli, Luca Contile, Paulo Giovio, Claude Paradin, Guillaume de La Perrière, Nikolaus Reusner, Cesare Ripa, Girolamo Ruscelli, Jacobus Typotius and Geoffrey Whitney, with fifteen based on Gerard de Jode’s engravings in Laurens van Haecht Goidtsenhoven’s  Mikrokosmos = Parvvs mvndvs from 1579. Unlike de Jode’s fine engravings, Pencham’s emblems were rendered as woodcuts (following composition cues from Camerarius, Camilli, Ruscelli and Typotius), substantially removing the subtlety found in the images of Mikrokosmos, but adding a simplicity and immediacy.

Minerva Britanna emblems

Lest this seem like an accusation of plagiarism as we understand it today, Peacham acknowledges his debt to his antecedents in his introduction, telling the reader that he has “imitated the best approved Authors in this kind: as Alciat, Sambucus, Iunius, Reusneru, and others…”. Just as translation was seen as potentially creating a new work (and Peacham free translated Goidtsenhoven’s text for the emblems that draw from Mikrokosmos), Peacham was adhering to Renaissance ideals of imitation which were divided, in ascending order of worth, into sequi (‘following’), imitari (‘imitating’) and aemulari (‘emulating’). While sequi more closely mirrors our definition of plagiarism, the aemulari of Peacham aims to not only follow the original but to transform and surpass it. For an in-depth discussion of this theme, see Mason Tung’s From Theory to Practice: A Study of the Theoretical Bases of Peacham’s Emblematic Art (1997).

Minerva Britanna emblems

The imagery in Peacham’s emblems is as diverse as his inspirations, ornately framed and usually staged within the same seemingly eternal landscape found in similar alchemical and hermetic illustrations. The occupants of these archetypal vistas are often animals or human figures, though in others, heraldic elements come to the fore and weapons, armour, scrolls, crests and disembodied limbs float without context in the air. As one would expect, the book’s cast of characters is largely drawn from classical mythology and history, with Peacham acknowledging as his sources the Greek Anthology, the works of Horace, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pliny’s Natural History and Aesop’s Fables. There are also nods to figures contemporary with Peacham and a few moments that can be interpreted as being indebted to Edmund Spenser’s conception of fairyland in The Faerie Queene; such as the Shadie Wood of Una replicated in the Nulli penetrabilis emblem, with its “uncouth pathes, and hidden waies unknown… by banks of Acheron.” Spenser’s work has much of the emblem about it with its layers of allegory and rhetoric, as well as the poet’s ability to succinctly describe scenes and characters in a comparable manner. Despite this minor intersection between Peacham and Spenser, and other than the Arcadian gloss that is sometimes given to visions of the fae, there is little amongst the imagery of Minerva Britanna that seems obviously faery.

The subscriptio that follow each picture, consistently presented as two verses ending in a couplet, creates a verbal interplay with the preceding iconic elements. Whether the interplay is integrative or diversive, the two elements are intended to work as one, strengthening each other, with the ‘moral’ then being drawn in the final couplet or lines, like a punchline or the last line of a proto-meme.

Minerva Britanna dedication

It is worth noting that Minerva Britanna is in the public domain and several complete, high resolution scans are available on archive.org. While McCarthy’s introduction makes for interesting reading, its brevity does not make it indispensable, and so the real value of this edition is for those who want printed versions of the work, rather than a PDF. The emblems here have been digitally restored for reprinting by Michael Sheppard who performs an admirable job, removing the background texture of the original manuscript but leaving the lines clear and sharp, and unmarred by too much contrast. This edition of Minerva Britanna mirrors the original’s dedication to King James’ son Henry, the Prince of Wales, with a dedication to the current holder of that title who is described as “HRH Charles, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, King in Waiting, and beloved of the Faery Queene.”

Published by Quareia Publishing

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