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The Underworld Initiation – R.J. Stewart

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Categories: folk, underworld

The Underworld InitiationMore cohesive than his Living World of Faery book, this is something of a classic Stewart work, originally published in 1983 after several years of limited circulation amongst the murky magickal scene of the late seventies and early eighties. The book is divided into three sections, providing the reader with a complete Underworld Initiation, beginning with the theory, followed by instances from traditional verse, and ending with practical exercises. In many ways, it follows the standard Stewart approach, but is far more coherent; no doubt as a result of the constant re-editing it has undergone over the years. As with all of Stewart’s work, there’s a high level of pedantry, which begins in the opening pages where he feels it necessary to provide a disclaimer that the Underworld Initiation is “not connected to diabolism, spiritualism, and ‘black magic’.”  This attitude continues with a rather curmudgeonly beating of various straw men, such as every strain of western occultism that isn’t his own (and therefore isn’t the authentic western tradition), modern living, and psychology. His issues with psychology are valid, making the point that it is useless to over-think magickal imagery and interpret it using arbitrary psychological methodology, when it is better to accept entities and deities as simply being, rather than as symbols of, for example, how you feel about your mother. It is unfortunate, though, that his tone and his labouring of points tends to undercut the importance of the message.

The theory section of the book provides a good grounding in the ideas of the underworld, considering how one journeys into it, meeting with underworld guardians and guides, and the relationship between the underworld and ancestors. Unfortunately, because so much of this work tends to fall back on a traditional system, there is very little in the way of concrete references to anything other than tradition itself. For example, no real authoritative specifics are given of underworld myths, and there is no option other than to take Stewart’s word as fact. Perhaps this explains his apparent need to use such an authoritative tone. It’s not that what he presents doesn’t ring true on a spiritual level, it’s just that he doesn’t provide any grounding to his arguments, and so may end up sounding, to the uninitiated, as vapid and as fanciful as the new age occultists he delights in dismissing out of hand. This slightly flawed and contradictory aspect of Stewart comes through clearly when he considers the symbol of the World Tree, which he begins by giving a short history of the Qabbalistic Tree of Life. As ever, it is without any facts or references, and is used as a way to make disparaging remarks from on high about the foolishness of western magick, typified by the Golden Dawn, with its overemphasis on the Hebrew language. The point of it all seems to be to argue that the Qabbalistic tree may be all right for Jewish magick, but is unsuitable for authentic western systems. Fair enough you say, Qabbalah for Qabbalists, ok, fine, but then Stewart turns around and uses his own version of the Qabbalistic tree, which differs little from the original, because apparently the tree isn’t really Jewish after all. If you’re going to spend so much time deriding something as alien and unsuitable, then surely it’d be better to come up with something unique, rather than just a bastardised version of it. Truisms involving having cake and eating it too spring to mind.

This, though, is a minor quibble, and the whole section can be ignored as it adds nothing to the system that Stewart presents, and does nothing except to complicate it and tie it down. Using a magickal map, such as the Qabbalistic tree, seems at odds with the more free form approach that Stewart presents in much of his work, and in the second section here, where stories and songs act as a subtle framework to journeys to the underworld. Once again, the two works that Stewart focuses on are the tales of Tam Lin and Thomas Rhymer, providing an in-depth exploration of the symbolism of each work. It is here that Stewart is important as a writer, because these poems provide great insight into the underworld tradition, and actually, for once, give a solid reference to what is presented in these books. In addition to Tam Lin and Thomas Rhymer, a number of other ballads are investigated, including Lord Bateman, The Demon Lover, and the Corpus Christi Carol.

The final section of practical work is relatively slight compared to the rest of the material in the book, and consists mainly of a guided pathworking. In conclusion, this is an important Stewart book to have, specifically for the amount of ballads with underworld imagery it considers. From a magickal perspective, there is less here of specific use, and for that a better source would be the later works Earth Light and Power Within the Land.

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Witchcraft: A Tradition Renewed – Doreen Valiente and Evan Jones

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Categories: folk, magick, robert cochrane, witchcraft

Witchcraft - A Tradition RenewedThis is a deceptively bland title for a book that could be any collection of rituals and recipes published by Llewellyn. But it’s not, on either count. Instead of being one of those Wiccan books that seem to do nothing but regurgitate everything from the last Wiccan book, this is more a book about Witchcraft, and more specifically, the traditional witchcraft of Robert Cochrane; which Valiente immediately separates from the Wicca of Gardner and Sanders in her preface. At the time this review was first written, precious little has been published in book form about Cochrane’s system, with one slightly veiled exception being Jones’s ritual-n-recipe book Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance, in which Cochrane’s rituals were presented palatably for a Llewellyn audience. It was a form of witchcraft that did indeed differ from that of Gardner and Sanders (largely drawn from ceremonial magick), and instead had more of a rustic shamanic base, which was carried on through his group, The Clan of Tubal Cain. This book seeks to go some way in making up for the previous lack of published information, with both Doreen Valiente and Evan Jones having been members of Cochrane’s original coven.

Unfortunately, if you want specifics about Cochrane and the history of the Clan of Tubal Cain, this isn’t it, and instead the book presents the Clan’s magickal system through an in-depth exploration of the rituals and coven procedure. It’s not quite a ritual-n-recipe book, but the whole approach is more magickal than historical. As a result, it’s not exactly an easy read, because to find out the information, you have to read the rituals, and reading magickal instructions isn’t exactly thrilling or engaging. When you do get into it, you find a system that features many elements of folklore, specifically the type considered by James Frazer, with the seasonal death of the corn being a key image. In some respects, there are elements common to other forms of witchcraft, but there is also a darker, more visceral element that makes it distinctive. One of the central deities is the Nameless, Faceless One, called the Black Goddess, while another is Goda, mother of gods and mortals, lady of light and darkness. The specifics of names are largely absent from this book (though they are hardly secret outside of Clan confines), and so whilst the work seems intent on presenting Cochrane’s practices, they are done in more of a non-denominational, open way.

For the details of the rituals, this is an essential book, but for a wider view of Cochrane’s system, it is better read in combination with Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance and Michael Howard’s more recent Children of Cain.

Published by Phoenix Publishing Inc, Washington, USA. ISBN 0-919345-61-1

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The History of British Magick After Crowley – Dave Evans

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Categories: chaos, magick, thelema

magickaftercrowleyI was really looking forward to reading this book. If i recall correctly, it was one of those “spoil myself with one expensive item” items in an Amazon order of more modestly priced books and CDs. I mean, 435 pages of post-Crowley magickal history, what wonders it must explore, what depth it must go to in what must surely be the definitive work on modern occultism. Sadly, this turned out to be wishful thinking that led to my hopes being dashed more thoroughly than they perhaps should have been. Perhaps my biggest mistake was not paying close enough attention to the publishers, who i now see are the print-on-demand Lightning Source. I had assumed that the higher than average price was because it had been released via some academic publishing house, rather than being the result of the over-pricing that occurs in some POD; and must surely make a mockery of that supposedly frugal financial model. This lack of a real publisher now makes sense of some of the annoying elements in the content that surely any proof-reader would have pointed out; more about those in scurulous detail later.

Dave Evans is apparently a practising magician as well as a “professional academic researcher,” whose supervisor at Bristol University is Ronald Hutton. I can’t imagine that Hutton supervised much of the final work, though, at least not with a red pen in hand, ready to make suggestions. This is Evans’ PhD thesis turned into a book, and it suffers many of the problems associated with publishing an academic paper as a book; though Hutton has shown that you can write about magick academically without it being tiresome or losing any of the thrill of the subject. The biggest of the academic problems this book has is its attempts at providing wider context and marking out process. In his Triumph of the Moon, Hutton does this in the early chapters, extensively setting the birth of Wicca in the colonial and post-colonial milieu in which ideas central to Wicca, such as Pan as a catch-all god of a personified spirit of Nature, had their origins. But where Hutton is effective in authoritatively setting the context upon which his later chapters will be based, Evans seems to have cribbed stuff he may have written for other papers and inserted it to give the appearance of ponderous academic digression or scene setting. There’s a particularly tedious and lengthy section on blasphemy and morality which really has very little relevance to the subject of modern magick of any stripe; with even Satanism, one of the paths mentioned in the book, tending to stray away from it once the thrill of a Black Mass has worn off. I mean, what’s the point of this extensive survey of blasphemy when Evans himself mentions that despite his litigious nature, it was never a charge of blasphemy that saw Crowley in court. Genesis P-Orridge is also mentioned in this section, but is ridiculously prefaced with the self-defeating caveat “Although not prosecuted for actual blasphemy,” before going on to talk about the bottom-feeding Channel 4 documentary that saw hir exiled from the UK. So, no modern magickian has been charged with blasphemy, probably because one, prosecutors don’t really care what some loonies get up to own their own (unless it’s safe, sane and consensual sex, amirite?) and two, because blasphemy plays such a minuscule role in magickal practise.

Along with this useless digression about blasphemy and morality, there’s 50 pages of scene-setting twaddle that concludes with some equally pointless blather about the meaning of “the left hand path.” I mean, who really cares anymore? Does anyone really define themselves like that still, other than self-publishing demonalatry etc authors on Amazon.com? There’s an extensive survey of magickal practitioner’s definition of the left hand path, but the only thing that the thoroughness of it does is highlight the failing this book has in wasting time on useless information. But you ain’t seen nothing yet, folks, no siree.

Although the previous 200 pages have occassionally mentioned aspects of post-Crowley magick, they are but a preamble to what occurs now which is a concentrated study of particular magickal practitioners and movements. Who could be the first choice? What shining dark light from modern occultism could be going under the microscope? Yes, you guessed it, come on down Armado fucking Crowley. Yes, the man who claims to be Uncle Al’s biological son and sole magickal heir (sorry Caliphate, and apparently he wasn’t actually all that into Thelema anyway), but who no one takes seriously. You just have to read one of Armado’s books to know it’s all a rather pointless charade and that the Crowley in them bears little relationship to all other records of him (including his own). And it’s not as if Evans doesn’t know this. In fact, he spends page after page showing how Armado has lied about this, or falsified that. Again, it’s pointless. While it’s somewhat fun to see each of Armado’s falsehoods scandalously documented, why bother? We know he’s a liar, so should we really be surprised to find that, omg, he’s not a novelist or playright anymore than he’s a magician! Evans seems to have spent far too much time playing detective, trying to track Armado down from various leads about his legal name, before finally scoring the jackpot himself from the Properties window of a Microsoft Word doc that Armado himself had sent. Score! But a score of 0, because nobody cares. Armado gets 50 pages and then as he has done before, Evans shoots himself in his irony-oblivious foot by quoting Armado himself as a final jab: “there is not the least value in trying to use writers of ‘fiction’ as witnesses.” Well, 50 pages worth of value say differently, Mr Evans.

Evans then turns to Kenneth Grant (finally) and uses him to also talk about Austin Spare and the use of Lovecraft’s mythos in contemporary magick. There’s not much in the way of revelations about Grant here, and nothing that familiarity with Typhonian documents online won’t have already introduced someone to. But it’s good to have it all in one place and Evans seems quite proud of having the most pages in print about Grant; though he’s probably equally proud of the Armado word count too. From there, it’s a brief discussion about Chaos magick which made me realise just how old hat and ridiculously last century it now seems. Somehow i had imagined that the history of British Magick after Crowley was a much richer field than what Evans covers. Obviously he’s looking at magick in a ceremonial-Crowleyesque vein, so there’s little in the way of Druidism or Wicca/Witchcraft here, and equally obviously, Ronald Hutton has covered that area so well already. But even so, what about rune/Norse based magick, such as the Rune Gild UK, with both Freya Aswynn and Ian Read (as well as the whole neo/apocalyptic folk scene) having elements of Crowleyan influence in addition to the runic stuff. For that matter, why not look at Current 93, or a proper, rather than cursory, look at Gen and TOPY, or a consideration of Coil that goes deeper than referring to them as, i kid you not, a “magically-inspired rock band.” Yeah, i totally remember that time Jhonn Balance like totally shredded this mind-blowing guitar solo. Dude. I would think the fact that Caliphate OTO head William Breeze/Hymenaeus Beta has worked and performed with both Coil and Current 93 would suggest they deserve more than passing mentions as rock bands. Also totally absent is Shri Gurudev Mahendranath’s International Nath Order, which is a bit ridiculous considering Mahendranath (or Lawrence Miles, as his parents knew him) met Crowley, and the Nath system could be said to be informed by elements of Thelema. And despite having a brief section on Satanism, in which he’s far too kind on Anton La Vey, Evans doesn’t look at specifically British Satanism at all. No mention of Magda Graham, or the presence that the Temple of Set had in the UK. There’s one mention of the Order of Nine Angles, but only in a caveat stating that they and the TOS are “worthy of an entire PhD thesis rather than this tiny overview”. Well, maybe if there wasn’t 50 pages of Armado fucking Crowley and the same amount about blasphemy, then he could have done some proper research for at least a page or two instead of that cop out. In total, there’s a feeling of Evans not being quite as involved in British occulture as he tries to appear, with the focus strictly on the Typhonian OTO, Chaos, and out of left left left field, Armado Crowley.  

But in all fairness, it’s not the content (or lack thereof) that bothers me the most about this book. It’s the writing. The lack of a proofreader is really obvious, and we’re not talking spelling or gramatical mistakes, but more the kind of things where another set of eyes would have said “maybe you don’t want to keep on doing that on every fucking page, you knob.” The real kicker is a Dan Brown-like(1)  need to introduce everyone as if they were appearing in an obituary: “Acclaimed wank artist, Freddy McFingers,” “Annoyingly pseudonym-happy bullshit merchant, Ramsey Dukes” (not real quotes, but the last one is the opinion the reader will eventually develop thanks to Evans’ constant references to him). But it’s not the sentence phrasing itself that’s all that annoying, it’s that Evans seems to think his readers have poor short term memories and reintroduces the same people again and again. Phil Hine seems to suffer worst of all and i began to dread references to him, as they would each time be prefaced by “Magician and author Phil Hine” or variations thereupon. I mean, i think the reader should be quite capable of remembering who Phil Hine is, and not needing a little job description in case they think Evans actually means international film star and surrealist painter Phil Hine, or the 35th president of the United States Phil Hine. I don’t know why magician and author Phil Hine seems to suffer this repeated prefacing more than anyone else, but it’s so bad that in one instance it actually happens on the same page to magician and author Phil Hine. Mercifully Crowley and Kenneth Grant are, apparently, big enough fish in this book that the reader doesn’t need to be reminded who they are. Poor Andrew Chumbley, though. Despite being mentioned several times already, by page 222, Evans feels we’ve forgotten who he might be, so he is introduced anew as “The late academic, author and modern magical practitioner of the ‘Sabbatic Craft’ Andrew Chumbley (1967-2004).” Thank goodness he didn’t collect stamps or own a cat or we’d be here all night.

And then there’s Lionel Snell, aka Ramsey Dukes and a bunch of other tedious pseudonyms, who is apparently Evans’ magickal guru. These are guru feet that Evans must spend a particularly long time sitting at because Snell is quoted extensively throughout the book to the point of annoyance. Even when it’s not something that really needed to be quoted to prove a self-evident principle, there he is; and often with the usual job description variations, sprinkled with various adjectives of praise.

So yes, not the successful exploration of post-Crowley magick that i had hoped for. Maybe Ronald Hutton will read his student’s work and realise he needs to do the subject justice.

 
* * *    

1. I have never read a Dan Brown “novel” but gained this understanding of his inimical style from some lovely entries on Language Log, where his hamfisted writing is deliciously dissected. 
The Dan Brown code and
Renowned author Dan Brown staggered through his formulaic opening sentence

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