Categotry Archives: esotericism


Aleister Crowley in England – Tobias Churton

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Categories: esotericism, thelema, Tags:

Aleister Crowley in England coverWith its blockbuster subtitle declaring The Return of the Great Beast, this sequel from Tobias Churton picks up where his previous work, Aleister Crowley: The Beast in Berlin, left off; a title that was in itself a sequel to his other books documenting Crowley’s time in America and India respectively. Given the chronology surveyed in the previous titles, we are safe in assuming that the ‘in England’ here does not refer to Crowley’s time spent in England for the majority of his life but rather his return there for his final fifteen years from 1932 to 1947. In doing so, Churton is able to conclude his multiple volume biography of Crowley and focus on a period that is relatively little explored, but which shows that the near penniless Great Beast still got a lot done, even if it was only cooking a lot of curries, and being on the perpetual scrounge in both the actual and the astral.

Churton has a brisk style of writing that combined with the type’s large point size, and the surfeit of images, propels the reader forward at quite a pace. Enabling this still further is that some of what is presented here are fleshed out diary entries, or details from letters, with little room for editorialising or much in the way of elaboration: Crowley had lunch with someone, he moved lodgings, he wrote a letter to such and such, he did a sex magic operation for money, and he carped about the Agape Lodge in California (despite them doing a damn sight more for Thelema than he was). This brevity isn’t necessarily a criticism, merely a comment on how the narrative contains much that is minutiae, with little padding added beyond what has been left by Crowley’s own hand. This ably conveys the intricacies, and frequent mundanities, of Crowley’s everyday life, even if said moments are not necessarily all that detailed, and with each entry moving us rapidly through the months.

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With that said, there are moments where the piecemeal nature of some of the sections may have gotten the better of either the narrative, such as it is, or the editor and layout designer, with abrupt sentences descending into a unintelligible mess of uncertain intent. Sometimes a sentence needs to be read several times before its intent is clear, not because of any complexity but rather due to its economy, with so little to be gleaned from a minor concatenation of words. There are other strange moments, such as a section from pages 28-30 describing the content of three letters, which begins abruptly with two non sequitur, single-sentence paragraphs, one from October 1993 and the other from the more recent “some years ago.” The more recent event is the sale by Weiser Antiquarian of the letters decades after they were written, but by leading with the description of the letters’ sale, rather than the context in which they were written, the reader becomes discombobulated by this jumping forward in time. In a similar manner, the narrative of Crowley’s day to day and current events is temporally upended on page 80 when a one-sentence paragraph noting that the Buchenwald concentration camp was opened in 1937 is followed by one that begins by describing how the LAShTAL Aleister Crowley Society website reported in 2011 of the sale of a letter written by Crowley on Piccadilly Hotel stationery, momentarily making it feel like the two events were relatively concurrent. It’s all very confusing, as if notes and scraps have been cut and pasted and never fully massaged into tense-correct shape.

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Whilst we’re being critical, there are other little quirks that tend to grate, most notably where it appears that having to constantly refer to Crowley by name got tiresome, and as a result, sometimes, out of nowhere, he can be variously referred to as 666, Therion, and most startling in its incongruity, Baphomet. While most readers will be aware of Crowley’s proclivity for pseudonyms and titles, it’s not clear why it stops there. Why not call him Perdurabo, Ankh-f-n-khonsu, Mahatma Guru Sri Paramahansa Shivaji  or a little sunshine as well?

Inevitably, comparisons must be made to other books that cover the same period of Crowley’s life, with the obvious one being Richard Kaczynski’s definitive Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley. Kaczynski has a greater narrative sense, an authorial overview that makes for easier reading, and as a result, there’s a lot less of the jarring little events and piecemeal nature seen here. What Churton’s work does have going for it is the sense of immediacy, with the diary-like quality creating a somewhat intimate insight into Crowley’s day to day life and allowing the reader to see what an unpleasant, arrogant, irascible and ultimately exhausting scoundrel he must have been to interact with personally. Also, it must be said that Crowley’s constant attempts to get the war-time British government to employ him as an adviser or expert come across as sad, especially with the way in which his consternation was palpable after each time a long-suffering bureaucrat declined his offer.

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Despite this emphasis of the smaller aspects of Crowley’s life, this period did include some significant magickal outputs, and Churton spends a great amount of time documenting the creation of the Thoth tarot deck in collaboration with Lady Frieda Harris. All events in the process, from Crowley’s first introduction to Harris up to the tarot’s completion and publication, are covered, taking the reader on a comparable journey to its creators. It’s moments like this that show the worth of Aleister Crowley in England, with its fairly well illustrated survey of the tarot and its evolution, indicative of one of the benefits of this title as something one can dip into for the details, without having to read a longer narrative.

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Aleister Crowley in England is presented as a hardback edition, bound in blue beneath a dustjacket with a rather fetching photographic montage design by Aaron Davis, with Union Jack and all, just so you know it takes place in England. Typesetting by Debbie Glogover uses Garamond for body copy with titles in Gotham Condensed, and other display text in a combination of the stoic sans serifs Gill Sans, and Legacy Sans. Photographs are used profusely throughout, though their presence can seem disproportionate and arbitrary, such as when someone who receives only a single passing mention is rewarded with a portrait, while more significant figures have none.

Published by Inner Traditions


The Antichrist: A New Biography – Philip C. Almond

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Categories: esotericism, middle ages, religion, Tags:

The Antichrist: A New Biography coverPhilip C. Almond is all about new biographies, having previously used that titular conceit for explorations of both God and the Devil. This latest biography acts as a companion to one of those, his 2014 work on the Devil, and like its predecessor, it is imminently readable with its body copy set in a larger-than-usual point size on smaller-than-usual digest-size pages (averaging ten words a line), all aided by Almond’s easy manner and authorial voice.

Any consideration of the Antichrist inevitably brings to mind Bernard McGinn’s masterful exploration of the topic, 1994’s Anti-Christ: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil. Almond acknowledges a debt to McGinn for that work and his other many titles, mentioning the quote from Denis the Carthusian with which McGinn closed his own study, “Have we not worn ourselves out with that accursed Antichrist.” With the completion of this biography, Almond wryly notes that he now includes himself amongst the company of Denis and McGinn as a sufferer of this Antichrist-fatigue.

Almond opens by describing the Antichrist as a fluid and unstable idea from its inception, and noting how from this flux emerged two primary characterisations: the tyrannical Antichrist who opposes and persecutes the Christian church, followed by the later concept of a hypocritical papal Antichrist who deceives from within the very church. The former idea, which dominated the first millennium of the Common Era, was consolidated in its last century by Adso, a Benedictine monk from Montier-en-Der in north-eastern France. For his first chapter, Almond summarises Adso’s highly detailed biography of the Antichrist as a Jew born of the tribe of Dan, into whose mother the Devil would enter at the moment of conception so that the child, though conceived by human parents, would be “totally wicked, totally evil, totally lost.” Born in Babylon and raised in the unrepentant Galilean cities of Beth-saida and Corozain, the Antichrist would travel to Jerusalem where he would circumcise himself, upon which the Jews would flock to him as the Messiah. He would then terrorise Christians, and kill the returning Old Testament figures of Enoch and Elijah (sent by God to convert the Jews to Christianity), until after a three and a half year period of tribulations he would be defeated by either Jesus or the archangel Michael. With this narrative established by Adso, Almond, in a rather pleasing device, then takes a historical step backwards and shows how a millennium’s worth of influences and eschatological speculation culminated in its creation.

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This analysis begins by exploring the considerably slight appearances of the Antichrist in the biblical record, the first of which is the plurality of lowercase antichrists that are mentioned in some of John’s epistles, where the term is used as a pejorative directed against fellow but estranged Christians who, contrary to orthodox interpretation, denied the divinity of Jesus. Almond then highlights less specific elements from both the Old and New testaments that would be incorporated into the vision of the singular Antichrist, beginning with the analogous false prophets and false messiahs which Jesus warns of in Mark’s gospel when discussing the end times. In the same gospel, Jesus also talks about the abomination of desolation or desolating sacrilege, an idea drawn from the Old Testament book of Daniel and the first book of the deuterocanonical Maccabees, where the term refers to the profanation of the temple in Jerusalem by a foreign tyrant (for Daniel, the second century BCE Greek king Antiochus IV). In later Antichrist traditions, the abomination of desolation became not an act (usually assumed to be Antiochus’ sacrifice to Zeus of a pig on the temple’s altar) but was personalised as the Antichrist, thereby aligning with Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians in which he talks of another Antichrist analogue referred to as ‘the man of sin, the son of perdition’ who not only takes his seat in the temple of God but declares himself to be God. Irenaeus in the second century of the Common Era was the first to consolidate these various strands, along with the little horn of the book of Daniel and the beast of Revelation, into a single figure identified as the Antichrist, and over the centuries, as Almond documents, more details would be added.

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It is this approach that marks a welcomed difference between this work and McGinn’s denser and more obviously chronological Anti-Christ: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil. By beginning with the end, and then effectively having Christendom ‘show its work’ to explain how its vision of the Antichrist was arrived at, Almond underscores how the picture of the Antichrist developed over the first millennia from the smallest of scriptural crumbs and how by the time Adso composed his definitive biography, the monk was able to confidently narrate a story with a considerable amount of details not explicitly found in scripture. Key to this was the way in which speculation over the tiniest scriptural phrase or allusion, not to mention gematria and theological and eschatological mathematics, led to an accretion of popular and unquestioned key points, such as the idea that the Antichrist would be from the tribe of Dan. This was something first expounded by Irenaeus based on a decidedly creative reading of a verse from Jeremiah 8.16 (in which the city of Dan is meant, not the tribe, and where it is a victim of an invasion, not the source of a tyrant), and because the author of Revelation did not include Dan amongst the twelve tribes of Israel whose members would make up the 144,000 souls marked for salvation by God; a list from which the tribe of Ephraim is also missing, so who knows what they did wrong.

Due to this speculative accretion, a fairly complete idea of the Antichrist was in place by the end of the century, with the work of Irenaeus being joined by contributions from other including Hippolytus of Rome, Tertulian, Commodian, and the anonymous author of the Sibylline Oracles, with each bringing their own, though not always complimentary, additions to the lore. One of these is the quite delightful idea that the Antichrist was Nero, but not the living Nero as he was during his reign as Roman emperor but rather a future incarnation, who had either escaped death to wait in hiding, or who had returned from the dead in a sublime perversion of the resurrection of Christ. Five hundred years later, Adso’s influential vision of the Antichrist was still current, and can be seen in Luca Signorelli’s fresco The Preaching of the Antichrist, which, with its cast of apocalyptic characters and events, shows, as Almond puts it, Adso’s life of the Antichrist in pictorial form.

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When it comes to the alternative idea of a papal Antichrist, Almond does not quite have the equivalent of Adso’s perfect summary, nothing that necessarily combined all the interpretation’s main elements. So rather than working backwards, Almond instead provides a further history of the conception of the Antichrist throughout the centuries, marking a trail of ideas, rather than explicit themes, which culminated in a then novel interpretation by the Cistercian monk Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135-1202). Almond shows how concerns about the Antichrist gradually evolved three hundred years into the Common Era and how, following the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 312CE, Christianity was no longer the sole province of a persecuted faithful minority but was instead the dominant religion. With it now being hard to imagine an external tyrant persecuting a powerful Christian empire, a once imminent Armageddon was, for many, put on hold. Other than the exception of military leaders briefly figured as the Antichrist, such as the Vandal king Gaiseric or later the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, accusative fingers were now often pointed inwards. However, in these initial stages, there was no single Antichrist identified within the church, and instead a plurality of lowercase antichrists, the faithless hidden amongst the faithful, were excoriated for their hypocrisy, disbelief or heretical thoughts by luminaries such as Augustine, Tyconius, and Pope Gregory the Great. This intramural suspicion of other members thus imagined the body of the Antichrist as something active, like a virus, within the very body Christ that was the church. In 1190, Joachim of Fiore brought such ideas to their logical, singular conclusion when he told King Richard I of England, that the Antichrist was not only alive but had been born in Rome and would be elevated to the Apostolic See. While King Richard’s response, as recorded by Roger de Hoveden in his annals, was surprise, this idea would grow in popularity, with Joachim’s vision of a papal Antichrist equalling in spread and influence the older Adsonian tradition, particularly amongst Franciscans.

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Almond continues his biography of the Antichrist down through the centuries, noting how both the Adsonian and Joachite traditions perpetuated and mutated, with expectations changing as events occurred and conditions for the arrival of the Antichrist evolved. One notable change was the addition of a multitude of other characters to the apocalyptic tableaux, including the heroic Last World Emperor, a restorative Angelic Pope, and sometimes even dual Antichrists: a mystical one and a martial one; while in the case of Ubertino of Casale, who seemingly couldn’t get enough of Antichrists, there would be two Mystical Antichrists (Boniface VIII and Benedict XI) as well as the final boss, the Great Antichrist.

Almond concludes in the modern era in which the decline of prophetic history from the middle of the nineteenth century lead to the idea of the Antichrist as a floating signifier, less associated with the apocalyptic and more a general critique of perceived evil in the world. Thus anyone, or anything, could be accused of being the Antichrist, be it a royal, a politician, or even entire religions or progressive social movements. Here Almond also turns his focus on literary and cinematic representations of the Antichrist, briefly summarising Rosemary’s Baby, the Omen trilogy, the Left Behind series, and in considerably greater detail, Vladimir Solovyov’s A Short Story of the Antichrist; but sadly, no Good Omens.

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In all, this is an enjoyable read in which Almond’s pleasant narrative style belies a depth and thoroughness, acting as a testament to his familiarity with his subject. The Antichrist: A New Biography is presented as a hardcover edition bound in orange cloth, with title and author debossed in black on the spine, all wrapped up in a full colour dustjacket featuring William Blake’s rather fetching watercolour The Number of the Beast is 666 from 1805; continuing a Blakean pattern seen in Almond’s previous biographies. More colour is found in a section of colour plates towards the book’s centre, thirty images in all drawn from a variety of sources ranging from mid-eleventh century France to modern cinema. While each image has a caption describing it, there’s no specific title, credit, source or date included with it and the reader has to thumb back to an index of plates in the preamble for rather minimal information that could just as easily have annotated each image.

Published by Cambridge University Press


Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Ritual Magic – Edited by Claire Fanger

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Categories: esotericism, goetia, grimoire, magick, middle ages, Tags:

Conjuring Spirits coverPart of the expansive Magic in History series from Pennsylvania State University Press, Conjuring Spirits is an academic work that calls to mind Scarlet Imprint’s more experientially-orientated compendiums Howlings and Diabolical, in that it brings together essays on various magical texts and manuscripts, albeit from an entirely scholarly perspective. The contributions in Conjuring Spirits are divided into two sections, Context, Genres, Images and Angelic Knowledge, with the latter focussing on just two texts, the Sworn Book of Honorius, and John the Monk’s Book of Visions. Presenting both general surveys and more specific analyses are Michael Camille on two examples of the Ars Notoria, Robert Mathiesen on the Sworn Book of Honorius (also discussed alongside the Liber Visionum by Richard Kieckhefer in a separate entry), John B. Friedman on the Secretum Philosophorum, Elizabeth Wade on Lullian divination, while Nicholas Watson and editor Claire Fanger each separately discuss John the Monk’s Book of Visions of the Blessed and Undefiled Virgin Mary, Mother of God. Finally, this book also includes Juris Lidaka’s edition of the Osbern Bokenham-attributed Liber de Angelis, and an overview by Frank Klaassen of late medieval English ritual manuscripts.

It is Klaassen’s survey of late medieval English manuscripts with which the proceedings open, being an appropriately broad grounding in the genre, even if not all of the works discussed in this book come under that category. Lidaka’s translation of Liber de Angelis follows, being introduced with a brief essay in which he gives a history of this manuscript, establishing early on that the attribution to the Augustinian friar and poet Osbern Bokenham is incorrect, and that the Bokenhan to whom authorship is credited may actually have been one William Bokenham. Liber de Angelis is not a single liber and instead consists of extracts from at least three texts, as evidenced by the demarcation into sections on making rings for each of the planets (ordered from Sun to Saturn), followed by Liber de ymaginibus planetarum, in which instructions are given for creating images of the planets but with the spheres in a different order to the rings, and ending with Secreta  astronomie de sigillis planetarum & eorum figuris in which the planets are ordered differently once again in a guide to creating planetary magic square. Given some of the errors in the original text of Liber de Angelis, such as the numbers in some of the magic squares not calculating correctly and the names of planetary angels differing from other sources, Lidaka argues that the texts were transcribed by an enthusiastic amateur, someone with a general interest in magic though less concerned with slavishly getting everything right.

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John B. Friedman’s consideration of the Secretum Philosophorum is a rather dry and technical history of the text, feeling a little out of place given its focus not on ritual magic but on tricks and experiments demonstrating various aspects of the seven liberal arts. Friedman does argue that the text is an example of ‘safe magic,’ using the appearance of sorcery, with its diagrams and occasional acknowledgement of hermetic authority, to give a theoretical matrix to technology and convey ideas of power and learning. Elizabeth Wade also makes a diversion away from grimoires to discuss a fifteenth century German divination device found in a large paper codex catalogued as Cod. Guelf. 75. 10 Aug. 2°. Said fragmentary device is not necessarily the entire focus here and Wade uses it as a starting point for a broader primer on Lullian and pseudo-Lullian forms of mechanical divination, as well as their medieval analogues.

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Robert Mathiesen’s essay on the Sworn Book of Honorius focuses not on its use as a Solomonic grimoire for ceremonial magic, and instead on one of only two magical operations to survive in its six known, and presumably partial, manuscripts. While the second (and according to Mathiesen, less interesting), of the operations is for the summoning to appearance of an angel, spirit or demon, the first is a byzantine ritual for attaining the beatific vision, effectively creating a shortcut to the eschatological goal of Christianity. Mathiesen begins with a preamble giving the history of the sworn book, and then a summary of the rite itself, which still runs to several pages despite not being presented in its entirety. There’s little analysis of individual components of the rite and Mathiesen concludes with a discussion on the efficacy of such complicated ritual formulae (he seems pretty assured that it would get some kind of result), and thereby suggests that the rite’s potential to undercut the religious foundation of the medieval world would account for William of Auvergne’s description of the Sworn Book of Honorius as the very worst book of magic in circulation.

Two essays from Nicholas Watson and editor Claire Fanger are unique in that a hitherto unknown manuscript version of their subject, John the Monk’s Liber Visionum, had, at the time of writing in 1998, been recently discovered at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada; while several other full and partial manuscripts have since been found in various European archives. It is worth mentioning that Flanger has subsequently shown that, as per John the Monk himself, the work should be more accurately called Liber florum celestis doctrine, with only its first, autobiographical section being called the Liber visionum, but for the sake of consistency and the convention established by this volume, we’ll keep the archaic naming in this review. With the McMaster version of the Liber visionum being uncovered by Watson and then translated and thoroughly documented by Fanger, there’s a personal feel to the considerations here. Watson discusses the relationship between the McMaster manuscript and another one discovered in Munich, as well as contextualising the work in terms of the broader devotional and mystical tradition upon which it draws. Watson is exhaustive in his analysis, resulting in the longest entry in Conjuring Spirits, running to 52 pages, aided and abetted by extensive endnotes and several appendices: structural analyses of the McMaster and Munich manuscript, as well as individual summaries of both versions. After that, Fanger shows that there’s still more to be said about John the Monk’s text with her own essay in which she considers its relations to the Ars Notoria on which it is modelled. For her own appendix, Fanger provides a synopsis of a prologue from a version of the Liber visionum from the University of Graz library.

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John the Monk makes another appearance in Michael Camille’s consideration of examples of ars notoria imagery from various manuscripts, which opens with a vituperative quote from the Grandes Chroniques de France in which the monk of Morigny is pilloried for his wish, through his curiosity and pride, to renew the heretical and sorcerous notary art under another name. John the Monk’s own Marian 0figures are not the focus here, though, and Camille considers the notae from the thirteenth century Turin manuscript (MS E. V.13) and the fourteenth century Paris BN lat. 9336. The images are recipients of detailed discussion, with Camille bringing to them an art historian’s focus by tracing provenance and making comparisons with other examples of medieval pictorial and diagrammatic content. Photographic examples of the notae, as well as their analogues, are included, many at full size, though the quality of reproduction is not the greatest, with a blurry murk and a lack of contrast.

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Conjuring Spirits concludes with Richard Kieckhefer’s The Devil’s Contemplatives, in which he considers the two titles already exhaustively discussed within this volume: the Liber Iuratus Honorii (aka the Sworn Book of Honorius) and once again, John the Monk’s Liber Visionum. Kieckhefer’s point of difference, though, is analysing how both texts are evidence of the Christian appropriation of various elements from Jewish occultism. He emphasises the way in which both the Liber Iuratus and the Liber Visionum focus less on the typical goetic summoning of demons and rather on a form of devotional mysticism; an approach, he argues, that has little precedent in Western occultism and is instead drawn from Kabbalah, particularly the vision-rich Merkabah tradition. The previously-discussed ritual for attaining the beatific vision from the Liber Iuratus is an obvious example of this, as is John the Monks devotional reverence towards the Virgin Mary. While the attitude of these Western and Kabbalistic systems is circumstantially similar, Kieckhefer has no smoking gun, with the closest being a version of the Liber Iuratus that includes the Shem HaMephorash, Kabbalah’s secret name of God, in the design of a seal used for acquiring a dream vision.

Despite this book’s title, there’s relatively little that concerns itself with the conjuring of spirits here, with far greater focus on the devotional and reflective elements seen in works such as the Sworn Book of Honorius and Liber Visionum, and even in considerations of the mental self-improvement and memory aides showcased in the Ars Nortoria and the Secretum Philosophorum. With John the Monk looming over many of the contributions here, Conjuring Spirits is a valuable resource on the Liber Visionum, being the largest consideration of the text at the time of publication; though now rivalled by Fanger’s 2015 book, Rewriting Magic: An Exegesis of the Visionary Autobiography of a Fourteenth-Century French Monk, also published by Pennsylvania State University Press.

Conjuring Spirits, like other titles in the Magic in History series, appears to be available in two editions. One of them features the classic, sombre and refined Penn State Press Magic in History cover template, whilst the other, reviewed here, has a cover design that is slightly more in keeping with an Inner Traditions or Weiser mass market title, all green gradient, low opacity goetic sigil and large drop-shadowed type. In at least this copy, apparently printed-on-demand by Ingram, there is a printing error, where the cover has skewed a couple of degrees off base, meaning that the spine print is noticeably misaligned, with a crooked sliver of the cover’s green gradient creeping into the spine, and a corresponding slice of black spine sneaking round onto the back matter. This same on-demand printing may account for the poor quality reproduction of images.

Published by the Pennsylvania State University Press


Occult Roots of Religious Studies – Edited by Yves Mühlematter and Helmut Zander

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Categories: esotericism, tantra, Tags:

Occult Roots of Religious Studies coverGrandly subtitled On the Influence of Non-Hegemonic Currents on Academia Around 1900, this anthology focuses on the interconnections between religious studies and occultism, advancing the thesis that the academic discipline of religious studies has hitherto unexplored, and literally and purposefully occulted, roots in esoteric traditions and the occult. As such, occultism and esotericism provided a fertile ground for the development of academic interests in comparative religion, with several scholars of the occult being directly and indirectly involved in the emerging field. The exploration of this scholarly evolution takes the form of case studies of figures such as Paul Masson-Oursel, John Woodroffe, Nees von Esenbeck, Walter Y. Evans-Wentz, Walter Andrae and others. In addition, this volume concludes with what are described as ‘short biographies’ of various contributors to religious studies whose interest in both occultism and science have been little explored, revealing how esotericism, despite its othered status, can be an intrinsic part of the hegemonic culture to which it otherwise appears to be a contrary counterpart.

The case studies in Occult Roots of Religious Studies compile papers presented at the 2018 conference The Birth of the Science of Religion: Out of the Spirit of Occultism, hosted by the Université de Fribourg, and featuring Marco Frenschkowski, Daniel Cyranka, Boaz Huss, Julian Strube, Jens Schlieter, Léo Bernard, Sabine Böhme, and Dilek Sarmis. Editors Yves Mühlematter and Helmut Zander open the proceedings here with a joint introduction that presents the central thesis. Zander follows this with a contribution of his own, less of a case study and rather a setting out of terms in answer to the titular trinity of questions: what is esotericism? Does it exist? How can it be understood? As an academic setting of terms and definitions, this is all fine and de rigueur, but one finds oneself itching to skip the grounding and get to the case studies. Also offering something of an overview is Marco Frenschkowski’s The Science of Religion, Folklore Studies, and the Occult Field in Great Britain (1870–1914), in which he documents how the emerging field of religious studies in late 19th century Britain both influenced and competed with occult and esoteric groups who were pursuing similar but one might say, more invested, avenues of investigations. Despite being an abridged version of a longer study, Frenschkowski’s contribution feels relatively exhaustive, providing a context that extends beyond the geographical boundaries of the Great Britain of the title.

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The first case study of an individual is Daniel Cyranka’s Magnetism, Spiritualism, and the Academy in which he considers perhaps the oldest figure to be profiled here: the German botanist Christian Gottfried Daniel Nees von Esenbeck, president of the famed German Academy of the Natural Sciences Leopoldina from 1818 to 1858. As the title suggests, Cyranka is not concerned here with just Nees’ involvement in matters of the academy but with his interest in the then emergent trends of magnetism/vitalism and spiritualism, two fringe belief systems that, to varying degrees, embraced a scientific veneer. Cyranka’s archly disagrees with Johanna Bohley’s 2003 biography of Nees, in which she interprets his involvement with spiritualism as ’senile mysticism,’ painting him as someone for whom ‘infirmity’ and decrepitude made him descend into the comforting murk of pseudo-science. Cyranka contradicts this image, showing how there was a continuum between his academic works and later interests, and that his attempts to align the otherworldly with the scientific were hardly unique, being indicative of similar conversations occurring at the time.

In Academic Study of Kabbalah and Occultist Kabbalah, Boaz Huss profiles several 19th and 20th century scholars of Kabbalah including Gershom Scholem, Adolphe Franck, Moses Gaster, Joshua Abelson, and Ernst Müller. Although such scholars of Kabbalah, and Scholem in particular, were dismissive of occult Kabbalah because of its practitioners’ lack of academic expertise, and its independence from a specifically Jewish framework, Huss argues that the relationship betwixt the two fields was more nuanced than one might expect. He notes that Kabbalah scholarship and experiential Kabbalah have common genealogies, with significant connections, shared ideas, and nomenclature, and with the scholarly side of the aisle going so far as to identify Kabbalah as a form of theosophy (with the lowercase ‘t’). Scholem was even appreciative of Arthur E. Waite and Joseph Franz Molitor (both Christian kabbalists rather than occult ones) and the insights they provided, commending Waite for his appreciation of kabbalah’s sexual symbolism.

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This volume’s sole illustrated essay is Sabine Böhme’s The Ancient Processional Street of Babylon at the Pergamonmuseum Berlin, with its focus on the Anthroposophical background to Walter Andrae’s reconstruction in Berlin’s Pergamon Musuem of the Ishtar Gate and other archaeological objects from the same region, creating what is known as the museum’s Processional Way of Babylon exhibition. Böhme emphasises Andrae’s membership of Die Christengemeinschaft (The Christian Community), an esoteric denomination influenced by the works of Rudolf Steiner, though not directly affiliated with him, arguing that the community provided Andrae with an understanding of Steiner’s system of Anthroposophy and that this influenced the design of his museal concept. Assigning ancient intent to an apparently theoretical master architect called Zaratos or Nazarthos, Andrae conceived of the processional way as a device to purify those who walked down it as they headed into the Holy City of Bab-ilu, with the various stelae of lions, bulls and the chimerical mushhushshu dragons that lined the way creating a metaphysical experience for them. In such animal figures, and in the sphinxes he imagined standing guard at the beginning of the journey (going so far as to include two sphinxes from a different area and time period at the start of the museum’s processional way, one a restoration and the other a replica of it), Andrae saw a depiction of Steiner’s idea of humans being comprised of four parts: a physical body, a life body or etheric body, an astral body bearing sentience or consciousness, and the ego. Böhme’s illustration of how Anthroposophical ideas informed Andrae’s thinking is convincing, drawing principally from his own writings, while said thinking is rather less so, coming across as supremely speculative and prejudicial, with preconceptions colouring the archaeological interpretations.

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Three of the entries here concern themselves with the intersection of the West with Indian and Buddhist ideas, beginning with Julian Strube’s Tantra as Experimental Science in the Works of John Woodroffe. This provides a welcomed profile on the English author, perhaps better known by his pseudonym Arthur Avalon, whose comprehensive works on Tantra and Yoga first introduced those ideas to many in the West. Strube shows how Woodroffe’s advocacy for Tantra as an empirical, rational and ultimately scientific form of mysticism had an enduring and substantial influence on figures such as Mircea Eliade and Carl Gustav Jung, amongst others, with the system being considered analogous to the emerging Western fields of spiritualism and occultism.

A broadly similar vein is mined in Jen Schlieter’s A Common Core of Theosophy in Celtic Myth, Yoga, and Tibetan Buddhism, but with the focus on the American Theosophist Walter Y. Evans-Wentz, who, like Woodroffe with whom he communicated, was a Westerner who directly engaged with indigenous experts and intellectuals; including the Indo-Tibetan scholar and translator, Lama Kazi-Dawa Samdup with whom he collaborated on three titles, the most famous of which is the first English translation of the Bardo Thodol. Schlieter does not solely focus on Evans-Wentz’s relationship with Tibetan Buddhism, rather contextualising it within a Theosophy-inspired embrace of all religions and spiritualties that saw him study Celtic mythology, search for Egyptian wisdom, and only later explore Yoga and Tibetan Buddhism. Highlighting the book’s concern with comparative religion, Evans-Wentz saw themes of animism and reincarnation in all of these religions, as well as in the beliefs of certain Alexandrian Christians and Gnostic sects, arguing that they were fundamental principles of a perennial spirituality.

As the final part of this similarly-themed trio, Léo Bernard’s profile of the orientalist and philosopher, Paul Masson-Oursel, subtitled Inside and Outside the Academy, charts his oscillation between hegemonic and non-hegemonic poles, as exemplified by René Guénon’s scathing assessment of him as exhibiting a tendency towards appeasing everyone, “a result, no doubt, of his quite indecisive character.” Understandably, Bernard is nowhere near as a vituperative in his consideration of Masson-Oursel, highlighting his role in developing an academic approach to comparative religion in which the idea of philosophia perrenis played a central role, as well as showing his links to the growth of Neo-Vedanta/Neo-Hinduism in which Hindu thinkers and reformers such as Vivek?nanda and G?ndh? redefined Hindu dharma as an essentially universal, ethical religion.

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The short biographies with which this volume concludes makes for a significant contribution of twenty-seven pages despite their individual brevity. Each on average runs to a page and a third with usually a biographical paragraph as a contextual grounding, followed by one or two on their scholastic endeavours as they pertain to this title’s central thesis. Profiled here are Mehmet Ali Ayni, Hermann Beckh, Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, Baron Omar Rolf von Ehrenfels, Antoine Faivre, Charles Johnston, Anna Kamensky, George Robert Stow Mead, Georges Méautis, Erwin Rousselle, Friedrich Otto Schrader, Karl Bernhard Seidenstücker, Daisetsu Teitar? Suzuki, and Mari Albert Johan van Manen.

Occult Roots of Religious Studies runs to 283 pages of main content, bound as a sturdy hardback. The text in is presented in the De Gruyter house style, with the body set in a mild slab serif that almost scans as a sans serif, giving a distinctly modern look that, as has been mentioned in other reviews, is ever-so-slightly unconducive to reading. Images in Böhme’s consideration of Walter Andrae are reproduced at a small size and with their captions are somewhat awkwardly formatted.

Published by De Gruyter


Magic in the Landscape – Nigel Pennick

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Categories: esotericism, folk, Tags:

Magic in the Landscape coverLike other recent reviewed titles from Nigel Pennick, his Magic in the Landscape is a book previously published in the first half of the 2010s by Lear Books, but which is now seeing a wider release with this new Destiny Books edition. Here subtitled Earth Mysteries & Geomancy, one might imagine that it would follow in the footsteps of people like John Michell and Paul Devereux, exploring fairly well worn paths across a magical and energetic landscape. This isn’t necessarily so, though, and instead Pennick takes a more philosophical approach, couching the discussion of real world examples with considerably more musings on the methodology behind this geological magic and a healthy dose of pragmatism.

Pennick begins, a little unexpectedly, with an introduction that acts as a rambling meditation on a range of ideas under the title A Vanishing World in Need of Rescue. This concerns itself not, as the title might suggest, with matters of imperilled environment or encroachments on the ruins of heritage, but rather with temporality, of the pitfalls of nationalist interpretations of the past, and of the permeability and often contrived or manufactured nature of tradition; a pragmatism that, given his career-long focus on various folk and magical traditions, is both interesting and surprising to hear. A similar voice leads into the book’s first chapter, where Pennick gives a brief history of Britain’s rural landscape, mapping out a process of alienation from the land and progressive urbanisation that began with the removal of common land by Parliament at the behest of the wealthy (a process that between 1604 and 1914 saw over 5,200 such Inclosure Acts, affecting 6.8 million acres of land). These acts literally imprisoned and reshaped the land, with new owners maximising its agricultural use by destroying ancient walkways, trees and standing stones, while the peasantry were no longer able to freely work the land as they once had. Pennick notes how the Inclosure Acts later assisted the construction of railways which added still more barriers across the landscape, and incentivised entrepreneurs to build factories and mills in close proximity for ease of transformation, hastening an increasing industrialisation of the land. One might expect this narrative to read like the very worst of Luddism, flailing ineffectively against the modern world,™ but somehow it doesn’t, with Pennick being largely dispassionate, despite his obvious allegiances, and not as, how you say, frothy as others might be.

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With this thorough grounding in the mistreatment of the land, it is only in the third chapter that Pennick begins to talk about treating it right and turns specifically to geomancy, opening with a discussion of the quaternary division of the land. This begins with the Etruscan’s method of laying out towns and temples centred around an omphalos, following a cosmological principle that Pennick also sees present in the designs of traditional British towns such as Oxford, Dunstable and Chichester.

Pennick quickly moves on to other elements within this magical landscape, shifting abruptly upwards into the heavens with a consideration of the seven stars of the plough Ursa Major, another on direction, and another on the eight winds. This marks something of an abrupt change of style, with the more philosophical and pleasant meander of the first chapters giving way to one in which info dumps are more common. This is particularly so in the chapter on the seven stars, where sentences of abrupt information concatenate together with no elucidatory sinew connecting them. Here, the staccato delivery of single sentence blocks of information create an aberration that contrasts with the more considered and massaged chapters of the book; almost as if someone forgot to turn the cliff notes into a proper chapter. This, mercifully, is a rare case and otherwise Pennick writes with a well-composed tone, displaying a clear editorial voice and calling upon a range of interesting and wide-ranging polymathic gems.

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Including a glossary, a bibliography and an index of several pages, Magic in the Landscape runs to a somewhat slight 169 pages, making it feel like a brief read. This is compounded by type that is set in a generous point size, with equally munificent leading betwixt lines, and chapters that are often brief and comprehensively illustrated. Pennick uses these brief chapters to create a brisk pace, moving with each from one subject to another, providing a range of examples in each that are frequently, though not rigorously, cited in text. The primary themes here are ones of boundaries, centres and spaces, with Pennick eschewing much of the more mystical modern interpretations and instead letting the examples and the explicit beliefs attached to them speak for themselves. This is particularly evident in a discussion of the quintessentially ‘earth mysteries’ idea of leys as unseen straight lines that run across the ancient landscape. Building on his 1989 book Lines on the Landscape, co-authored with Paul Devereux, Pennick takes an unyieldingly rational approach, lightly seasoned with a sprinkle of scathing tone, noting that Alfred Watkin’s ill-conceived but appealing 1920s idea of these straight lines connecting archaeological sites was later given a mystical interpretation, one that Watkins himself had never made, when interest in the theory was reinvigorated by 1960s counterculture. John Michell led this charge, particularly in his seminal book The View Over Atlantis, combining Watkin’s premise with ideas inspired by Chinese Feng shui in which paths of energy pass unseen within the land. Suffice to say, Pennick has no time for such shenanigans.

Given the centrality of ley lines in the Earth Mysteries movement and the whole attendant idea of unspecified but mysterious energies flowing beneath the ground, the presence of the ‘earth mysteries’ phrase in this book’s new subtitle seems a little incongruous. With that said, it is interesting that the word ‘ley’ is significantly more appropriate to Pennick’s considerations of space and genii locorum, rather than the idea of ancient energy lines, given that it is an Anglo-Saxon word denoting not a line but a cleared space (from l?ah/l?a?e ‘a clearing in the woods’, and as seen in l?ge meaning ‘fallow’), and Watkin’s problematic choice of the word came solely from its presence as a suffix in the names of several sites along his old straight track.

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The rejection of energetic ley lines does not mean that there is no spirituality or mysticism here because there is, one that is, if you’ll pardon the phrase, more grounded; and yet also more intangible. Rather than literal but scientifically debunkable energies pulsing through the land, this magic in the landscape is more concerned with alignments and intent, with a simpatico betwixt people and space, where occupancy cultivates a spirit of place. It is this that provides the merit to this book, not chasing saints and dragons across imagined lines of power but rather meditating on the land and how orientating oneself within it provides a way of connecting with the great universe.

Magic in the Landscape is illustrated throughout with photographs of various locations, objects and texts. Text design and layout is by Priscilla Baker, using Garamond for the body and Kiona, Gill Sans and Snell Roundhand as display faces.

Published by Destiny Books


The Mark of Cain – Ruth Mellinkoff

Categories: esotericism, mesopotamian, middle ages

The Mark of Cain coverRuth Mellinkoff’s body of work mines a particularly grotesque and atypical vein of Judaeo-Christian tradition, dealing with the appearance of monstrous and aberrant body parts, often incongruously placed, such as in her study of the horned Moses in medieval art and thought, or her meditation on Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. This interest in anatomy that is both sacred and profane is continued in The Mark of Cain, a slim volume for a concept whose source material is but a single verse in the book of Genesis.

It is testament to the evocative nature of the mark in question that just over a hundred pages can be dedicated to it here, and as the blurb on the inside cover notes, few biblical verses evoke the power of the imagination than the scant and ambiguous words “And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, that whosoever found him should not kill him.” Nevertheless, the back matter does qualify that this is by no means a definitive work, offering a demonstrative and suggestive approach as opposed to a comprehensive or conclusive one. This is something that is evident throughout the book, with Mellinkoff pulling various strands together, but inevitably and understandably drawing no conclusions, if they were hers to make, based on the meagre scriptural evidence.

Given the brevity of its biblical mention, the Mark of Cain acts as a gateway into wider discussions, and this is how Mellinkoff begins, by following in the footsteps of early church fathers and considering not the mark itself, but how it relates to the idea of Cain’s repentance and forgiveness. In these instances, dating back to early Jewish thought and into the early church exegetes, the ‘what’ of the mark was less important than whether it served as punishment or protection for Cain, with Cain himself thereby being the mark, the example, the lesson.

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In her third chapter, Mellinkoff turns to the more explicitly corporeal interpretations of the Mark of Cain, noting that the idea of it being on Cain’s forehead, despite this positioning not being mentioned in the book of Genesis, has become so popular that it makes its way unquestioned into not just common retellings but academic texts and encyclopaedia entries. This is the largest chapter within this title, and Mellinkoff covers off a variety of options from across three millennia of Judaeo-Christian thought, including various text marks (the tetragrammaton, the Greek omega or some unspecified Hebrew letter from the Torah), a cross (linking Cain with his close analogue, the Wandering Jew who is similarly marked), blemishes such as leprosy or horns, and even beardlessness. One interpretation that receives much attention here is not a mark on Cain’s body but a mark created by it, with the sign being popularly regarded as a trembling condition he possessed, thus aligning with an excerpt found only in the Septuagint version of Genesis in which God curses Cain with groaning and trembling; the curse becoming the mark itself.

Being an academic work, and one from 1981, there’s no consideration given here to contemporary interpretations of the Mark of Cain from various Qayin-focussed occult traditions; such as in the 218 current where a threefold Mark of Qayin and Qalmana was bestowed on the couple by Satan and Lilith, or in the work of the Cultus Sabbati, whose Psalter of Cain features a total of eight Marks of Cain, each denoting an area of expertise or a moment in his story. With that said, there are moments included here that provide interest for those that way inclined, such as a discussion of Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Taking of Ireland), in which the Cultus Sabbati’s eight marks have a near analogue in seven wens that afflict crooked Cain, as it pointedly calls him, marking his forehead, his cheeks, his hands and his feet like diabolical stigmata. Similarly significant is the Cornish mystery play Gwreans an Bys (The Creation of the World), in which Cain appears alongside his sister Calmana and doubts the apotropaic properties of the horn with which God has marked him, echoing Byron’s later Luciferian Cain by saying: “Trust him I will not, for fear of being deceived.” The image of the Mark of Cain as horns is a darkly resonant one that is remarkably widespread despite being unattested canonically, appearing in early Armenian texts, an early tenth century Irish Adambook, twelfth century French sculpture, and thirteenth and fourteenth century English illuminated manuscripts. One particular thirteenth century English psalter illustrates this profoundly, with an image of God marking and cursing Cain (one of the rare depictions of this scene across Western art), showing a scythe-wielding Cain adorned with two distinctive black horns ‘pon his head.

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In her penultimate chapter, Mellinkoff turns to those examples in which, as she defines it, the authors consciously and intentionally distorted the idea of the Mark of Cain. Chief amongst these is Hermann Hesse’s treatment of the mark in his 1919 novel Demian, in which the eponymous hero defines the otherwise invisible mark as a feeling of elite otherness, worn by possessors of a secret knowledge who recognise it, like for like, on those who also wear it: “But whereas we, who were marked, believed that we represented the will of Nature to something new, to the individualism of the future, the others sought to perpetuate the status quo.” Suffice to say, Mellinkoff is not a fan, and having never met a swaggering misanthropic, nihilistic 21st century nightside occultist, she finds the appeal of the concept inconceivable, describing it as puerile, with it being impossible, even with all our modern abstraction, to treat Cain’s act of fratricide so superficially that we elevate him as an anti-hero.

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Mellinkoff concludes with a brief chapter on how Cain and his mark have been given a racial interpretation. This follows on from an earlier discussion on how Mormon founder Joseph Smith established blackness as the mark of Cain, thereby supporting slavery, forbidding intermarriage and disqualifying black members of the church from the priesthood; a status that as of the first publication of this book in 1981 had only been overridden for just four years. The racism of this chapter concerns itself not with skin colour but with the Jews, with Saint Augustine being the first to influentially identify Cain as an allegory of the Jews: cursed, faithless murderers both, set to wander the earth, yet eternally preserved as an abject lesson to the faithful. As for the Mark of Cain in this allegory, Augustine obliquely hinted at a sign of Jewish law that had always marked them as separate, with later commentators such as Isidore of Seville and Bruno of Asti being less delicate and explicitly identifying it as the mark of circumcision. Mellinkoff traces the history of this idea of Jews not just being faithless outsiders but identifiably so, to medieval badges that Jews were prescribed to wear and which reach a modern apex in Nazi Germany.

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Despite its brevity, there is a thoroughness to The Mark of Cain, with Mellinkoff writing in a clear, authoritative style, though not without personality, such as in her unabashed love for the Syriac Life of Abel, a fifth or sixth century work she considers to be without parallel until Byron’s Cain. The Mark of Cain includes an exhaustive reference and end notes sections, and concludes with a 22 image gallery of various depictions of Cain and his mark.

Published by Wipf and Stock Publishers


The Secret King: The Myth and Reality of Nazi Occultism – Stephen E. Flowers and Michael Moynihan

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Categories: esotericism, germanic, runes, Tags:

The Secret King coverInitially released jointly by Dominion and Runa-Raven presses in 2001 as The Secret King: Karl Maria Wiligut, Himmler’s Lord of the Runes, this 2007 Feral House incarnation of the book sees the original text revised and expanded. While Stephen Flowers and Michael Moynihan share author credits on the cover, the latter explains in his introduction that the two writers played to their strengths, with much of the translation by Flowers, whilst the editing was by Moynihan.

The Secret King brings together various translated works by Karl Willigut, the self-styled king of Germany of the title, prefaced by an essay on the fiction and reality of Nazi occultism, from which the new subtitle is taken. Said subtitle sits rather awkwardly with the majority of the content of the book, feeling disproportionate in its prominence and incongruous to the main title; with the original and Wiligut-specific subtitle being a more accurate option.

The opening discussion on the idea of Nazi occultism is written with a slightly terse and withering tone that does, however, tire easily. It rightly dismisses so much of the baseless speculation that has accrued over the years to the point of almost becoming, at least on a subconscious level, fact; see how easily the image of an Occult Reich seeps into pop culture, whether it be the first Indiana Jones movie, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy or the Wolfenstein video games. The authors place much of the initial blame for the idea of Nazi occultism on war-time propaganda, perhaps not as an all-pervasive theme but one which still had an impact in casting Nazi Germany as evil, godless Satanists; such as in Lewis Spence’s none-too-subtle 1940 screed The Occult Causes of the Present War, which sounds like a lot of fun. Such views, Flowers and Moynihan argue, were retooled to give the Allies the higher moral ground in their “crusade against evil,” when in reality, the authors again argue, this crusade was actually against the economic idea of National Socialism, due to its financial isolationism and opposition to usury; though presumably aggressive German expansionism and the invasion of Poland may have had something to do with it too, I guess not.

After detailing the misconceptions and embellishments concerning the role of the occult in Nazi Germany, and the perpetuation of some of these themes in the works of later sympathetic writers like Savitri Devi and Miguel Serrano, Flowers and Moynihan turn to the reality. In this telling, these are slim occult pickings and so it’s no The Morning of the Magicians, and you won’t find much in the way of speculation about Thule-Gesellschaft, the Vril Society, or even the slightly more pragmatic Ahnenerbe. Instead, the focus here is solely on Austrian occultist and SS-Brigadeführer, Karl Maria Wiligut. This is a relatively brief introduction to Wiligut, running to 26 heavily illustrated pages, but it does provide a fairly thorough introduction to his life, with some obvious gaps, such is the slip of myth he himself wove, along with a passing overview of the mythos and system he created. Said mythos and system were obviously indebted to the German ariosophists and runologists who preceded him, notably Guiodo von List and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, as well as Siegfried Kummer and Peryt Shou.

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Like those predecessors, particularly Kummer and Shou, Wiligut straddled that strange divided between heathenism and Christianity, seeking to merge the two in an attempt, as had been done for centuries before, to forge a particularly Germanic version of Judaeo-Christianity. This leads to a notably pagan-free system, with Wotan effectively dismissed as at best a circumlocution of this more nebulous yet omniscient and all-embracing concept of Got; and with Wotanism as a later ouster of this ur-religion of Got. Indeed, there’s very little that feels obviously heathen in this monotheistic figure of Got, who acts more like a Hermetic or Qabbalistic pantokrator or demiurge, a triad of energy, spirit and matter, with Wiligut aligning them with a belief system, extant amongst the Germanic people since time immemorial, akin to perennial wisdom. Contrary to any evidence, Wiligut categorically states that this “noble knowledge of Gotos” was the treasure of the Germanics, and that they never had ‘Gods’ as they did in Rome.

Betraying the seemingly unavoidable influence of Theosophy, Wiligut’s oeuvre also embraces the idea of Atlantis and vast primordial epochs of human history, with a cosmology and account of creation that follows some of those familiar beats, but with a Germanic twist that incorporates names from mythology as well as the kind of semi-scientific speculation of Hanns Hörbiger or Viktor Schauberger. As one might expect, there’s no references to Blatvatsky and instead, credit for this metaphysical history of the world is attributed to a secret 10,000 year Wiligut family tradition. This Irminsaga, as Wiligut called it, was recorded in script and images on seven wooden tablets of oak, which, not surprisingly, and somewhat conveniently, are now lost, having perished in a fire in 1848. As a result, the junior Wiligut received the family tradition entirely orally from his similarly-named uncle, whose own statute of limitations had fortuitously ran well out as well, as he had died in 1883.

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The various examples of Wiligut’s writings are drawn principally from Hag All All Hag/Hagal, the journal of the Edda Society, to which he contributed under the pseudonym Jarl Widar. In a style familiar for the time and in later occult speculation, these often provide short outlines of metaphysical concepts, aided by runes and other symbols that are meant to illustrate these principles. There’s much talk of energy and matter, consciousness and becoming, and naturally a lot of talk about Got, wisdom and the Germanic folk. These are for the most part presented without much in the way of commentary and analysis, standing alone as a verbatim recording of Wiligut’s work.

Wiligut’s more poetic contributions are translated by Moynihan in what is acknowledged as a literal rather than lyrical manner, meaning that, sheared of the rhyming couplets of the original German, there’s little sense of the poetic here and the words come across as often abrupt stentorian declarations. These are presented in a small Fraktur-style typeface for a bit of atmosphere and in keeping with how they originally appeared in print.

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Perhaps the most familiar of Wiligut’s writing is his Gotos-Kalanda cycle of poems celebrating the twelve months of the year. Originally privately published in 1937 as a small booklet by Wiligut and distributed to friends, Gotos-Kalanda has only appeared once before in English, translated by Moynihan, Markus Wolff and Gerhard Petak and published by the latter’s Aorta imprint in 1992. Petak would also use Gotos-Kalanda in 1995 as the basis for the similarly-titled second album of his ritual-industrial project Allerseelen, with each of its twelve tracks named after one of the months and using the poems as inspiration. As its name suggests, and despite the use of pagan names for some of the months, Wiligut’s Gotos-Kalanda is a celebration of his cosmology of Got, with the poems marking out the year as a calendrical round, a waxing and waning of Got in his various seasonal aspects and areas of influence. As such, it provides a rather concise synopsis of Wiligut’s conception of Got and a comprehensive liturgy from which anyone so inclined could draw.

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The Secret King concludes with a series of appendices, five in all. The longest of these is a substantial interview by Manfred Lenz of the industrial project Turbund Sturmwerk with Wiligut’s former secretary, Gabriele Dechend. Dechend is also the source of another of the appendices, a Wiligut-style description of the cosmos from a 1935 issue of Hagal, all energy-matter-spirit speculation with de rigueur metaphysical symbols and diagrams.

As with the works of earlier members of Germany’s runic revival, there’s an interesting quality to the work presented here, but one which feels unmoored from reality and relevance. There’s little that anyone with pagan inclinations can draw from it, though for those who are prepared to take the leap, there’s a feeling of a complete system and cosmology lurking here, glamorously shored up with Wiligut’s assertions of an ancient family tradition.

Published by Feral House

The soundtrack for this review is Gotos=Kalanda by Allerseelen.


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

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Categories: alchemy, esotericism, hermeticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Order of the Solar Temple ritual chamber

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

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

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

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

Published by Routledge.


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


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


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 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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