Category Archives: Hermetic Library Reading Room

The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition, Hermeticism in a broad sense, and Aleister Crowley’s Thelema. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.

From a Basement on the Hill

Hermetic Library fellow John Eberly reviews From a Basement on the Hill by Elliott Smith.

Elliott Smith From a Basement on the Hill

Perhaps the persistent image of the tortured artist is a romantic oversimplification. In the case of the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, the evolution of this idea as he envisioned it on his sixth [posthumous] album, From a Basement on the Hill is apparent in the last song’s title, “A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free.” On From a Basement on the Hill this distortion is in ample supply.

Similar to Kurt Cobain’s wish on In Utero to return Nirvana to it’s Bleach-era state of punk-rock purity, Elliott Smith approached what would be his last project with an all-consuming passion to recapture his d.i.y. Indie roots. An audiophile perfectionist who shared Cobain’s obsession with recorded detail—every mistake placed exactly where it is supposed to be—Smith recorded and re-recorded the songs on From a Basement on the Hill ad infinitum (who knows if he was truly finished tinkering with any of the recordings)? Reportedly disgusted with the slick production on his DreamWorks label releases X/O and Figure Eight, he systematically “degraded” From a Basement on the Hill tracks such as “Shooting Star” “Coast to Coast” “Don’t Go Down” and “Strung Out Again.” All of these at times sound jumbled up and muddy, but ultimately the mix works: everything tumbles beautifully into place on the brink of total collapse. These rockers are juxtaposed with some of the songwriter’s best trademark gorgeous, intimate acoustic guitar/vocal tracks like “Let’s Get Lost” “Twilight” “The Last Hour” “A Fond Farewell” and “Little One.”

But it is three songs in particular that otherwise defy description other than perfect, that put this cd over the top as Smith’s personal best. The first, “Pretty (Ugly Before)” is an affirmation of faith in the absolute notion that we can never truly love ourselves except in the abstract, that our utterly human acts are unconscionable, and the only forgiveness is found in the mirror of a soul we cannot be sure exists at all. “Is it destruction, that you’re required to feel? Or does someone want you, someone who’s more for real.”—He sings, reminding us of the last photos of Smith taken with bold self-inflicted ink calligraphy on his arms proclaiming KALI THE DESTROYER. The second, “King’s Crossing” begins with a schizophrenic’s head babble segueing into sustained feedback and an unearthly chorus of hell’s angelic choir, who transform into anguished blues Beach Boys… “…they tell me whisky works better than beer. The judge is on vinyl, decisions are final, and no one gets a reprieve…” The tension builds to a stomping drum break, crescendo, then back down, up again… “this is the place where time reverses, dead men talk to all the pretty nurses.” Truly spooky, epic, monumental, worthy of Carson McCullers stuff, with enough self-references to lead some to conclude its all one long suicide note. Now, you could just as easily say that was this guy’s life, so don’t dismiss it as a death trip without also flipping on the yin-yang…

The third, and most perfect among the three perfected songs is “A Passing Feeling” which easily explains what we all do naturally, and unnaturally for that matter: go ahead and live our lives while waiting for something to happen. The hook is “stuck here waiting for a passing feeling” delivered as if there is nothing else to do, nothing as important as grasping after those fleeting precious moments that never last long enough, that descend and depart like ghosts, leaving unrepeatable memories that we want to live over and over again anyway, often despite our resolve to do something else, maybe something considered more constructive or responsible. “took a long time to stand, took an hour to fall…”

Smith recorded much of the album at David McConnell’s Satellite Park studios; Satellite Park is located on a hill, hence the title From a Basement on the Hill. McConnell states that Smith wanted to use “Shooting Star” as the album’s opener, and considering that Smith’s remaining family oversaw the selection of the fifteen tracks used out of fifty total recordings, criticism that they “sanitized” what Smith conceived of as a double-album of 30 tracks, taking otherwise excellent songs with references to self-destruction like “Suicide Machine” out of the loop, may mean that their distorted reality is now a necessity to be free of guilt.

For some people, it is worth risking your life in order to create great art. Some seem to have no choice but to do so: go ask Vincent Van Gogh, he’s hanging out down at the bar with Elliot Smith. And the drinks are on the house. [via]

The Great Work of the Flesh

The Great Work of the Flesh: Sexual Magic East and West by Sarane Alexandian, from Destiny Books, has arrived at the Reading Room courtesy of the publisher.

Sarane Alexandrian The Great Work of the Flesh from Destiny Books

“Magic, almost in its entirety, is connected to sexuality. It is through the natural magic of love that sex magic operates, harnessing the forces that join lovers together. In this extensive study of sex magic in the Eastern and Western Mystery traditions, Sarane Alexandrian explains how there is a sex magic connected with every religion, spiritual belief system, and initiatory society.

Exploring sexual practices in folk magic, high magic, alchemy, and religion, the author begins with a complete overview of love magic in the Middle Ages, including accounts of the use of potions, powders, spells, and enchantments, and he reveals how these techniques related to the religious practices of the time. He introduces the Taoist sexual alchemy practices of Mantak Chia, the secret tantric practices of the Tibetan bons, sexual shiatsu, and a Vietnamese practice called “mouth moxa.”

Examining the sacred sexuality that arose in Western initiatory orders in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Alexandrian details the development of P. B. Randolph’s white sexual magic and the black sexual magic of Aleister Crowley, as well as explaining the practices of Austin Osman Spare, Julius Evola and the Ur Group, and Maria de Naglowska. He reveals the scientific principles underlying sex magic and how successful results are guaranteed by the influences of the heavenly bodies and the radiant powers of color, number, scents, and physical movements, which intensify the activity of the human bioelectric field. Alexandrian also details the tantra practices of Margot Anand, the sexual rituals of Wicca, and magical “sex aids,” including talismans and jewels.

Providing complete practical information, the author explains how, through sex magic, a couple can extract from each other what they are missing by way of virility and femininity, multiplying their energies tenfold and merging the carnal and spiritual worlds to experience transcendent adventures in the deepest depths of reality.” — back cover

He Shall Thunder in the Sky

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews He Shall Thunder in the Sky: An Amelia Peabody Novel of Suspense by Elizabeth Peters.

Elizabeth Peters He Shall Thunder in the Sky

This volume of the Amelia Peabody mysteries is set in Egypt during World War I, and follows on the events of A Falcon at the Portal, resolving many of the plot tensions created in that earlier book, as well as a few of even longer standing. Rather than mere pecuniary criminality, this novel’s intrigue centers on military espionage.

For a book with what is basically a very happy ending, He Shall Thunder in the Sky also involves the greatest amount of physical injury to the Emerson family members of any of the books thus far.

This was a bedtime reading selection that I shared with my Other Reader. With some starting and stopping (made workable in part by how well the characters had been established by previous volumes), it took us close to a year to read. But we accelerated toward the end, as the narrative pace built and various revelations were made. [via]


Hermetic Library fellow John Eberly reviews Reality by Peter Kingsley.

Peter Kingsley Reality

In less than a decade, Peter Kingsley has produced three books, Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition (Oxford, 1995); In The Dark Places of Wisdom (Golden Sufi Center, 1999); and Reality (Golden Sufi Center, 2003). If that weren’t impressive enough, considering the extraordinary research, insight, and raw talent required for such an undertaking, we must also consider this: the author has managed to literally revision how we view and understand the ancient world that has been the basis for our entire Western Civilization. He has thoroughly traced the transmission of a living Pythagorean tradition through Egypt into mystical aspects of Islam, and beyond, bringing this sacred knowledge into present-day reality.

Reality is a summation work incorporating and extending core concepts and research culled from the first two books while also introducing entirely new areas of inquiry and multiple dimensions of original insight.

The author takes as his starting points the fragmented remains of works by Parmenides and Empedocles, 5th century B.C. fathers of philosophy, science, reason and logic, rhetoric, medicine, chemistry, biology, astronomy, cosmology, psychology, religion, and modern education. With passion verging on obsession, Kingsley meticulously explicates, corrects, and debunks prior translations and commentaries stretching back over 2,500 years. As he deconstructs Plato and Aristotle, and unearths Plotinus’ misunderstandings, he also reveals how a master such as Gorgias was able to preserve the tradition by seeming to destroy it. For Dr. Peter Kingsley, who graduated with honors from the University of Lancaster, England, went on to receive the degree of Master of Letters from King’s College Cambridge, and earned a PhD from the University of London, is also a seasoned mystic. Through his open-hearted approach to the source material—the very basis and whole substance of his research—he has learned how to utilize the same seemingly paradoxical mystical methodology as his subjects: something the ancients understood and called metis. These fathers, Parmenides and Empedocles, were not what we seem to think they were, they were healers and sorcerers of a concealed magical tradition who used their metis to trick us into accepting life-sustaining gifts.

Indeed, metis permeates Reality like a strong perfume: an attar, an essence. “The real axis around which Empedocles’ teaching revolves…It’s metis – the single principle running through the universe that we either learn to use or reconcile ourselves to becoming victims of.” (Reality, p 455)

Fixed in reality mixed up so fast with illusion, possessing metis means that we must acquire “razor sharp awareness” in order to act appropriately within the moment, the waqt, the kairos of Gorgias. Metis “…embodies all the qualities of subtlety and cunning and alertness that are essential if we want to avoid being caught in a world of endless deceptions.” (Reality, p 455)


Reality is a journey of re-discovery. It is a “roots” document, an over-long meditation on poems Peter Kingsley’s invisible mentors would have never thought necessary for initiates of a secret Pythagorean tradition in which “…the emphasis was placed less and less on being given teachings and more and more on finding the inner resources to discover your own answers inside yourself.” (In The Dark Places of Wisdom, p 189).

But Peter Kingsley acknowledges his own shortcomings as well as those of his contemporary audience. Until he painstakingly uncovered it, this tradition was lost to most if not all of the people in the world for centuries. It takes every ounce of his unusual gifts and resources as disciplined academic scholar and intuitive mystic endowed with strong metis to unveil the miracle of Parmenides and Empedocles teachings. And that miracle is nothing less than the revelation of the secret knowledge of who we are, what we are doing in this apparent universe, and how it all came into being. As onlookers, if not as initiates, we are enormously indebted to Peter Kingsley for sharing his life’s work. It has been an experiential as well as an intellectual struggle for him, one that has clearly changed him.

The whole of Reality contains the feeling of deep self-discovery. If you approach this book openly and honestly, it will change you as well. Its wisdom will enter you like a zikr, a remembrance of things so familiar it will make you wince with recognition and cry out with longing. It will convince you that you are not who you think you are.

Right in the middle of everything, in the midst of the illusion of time and movement, is where Reality is found. All you’ve ever done all of your life is try to escape it. And this book proves it. You have moved farther and farther away—in your beliefs, your hopes, and especially in your dreams. The illusion is so thick, so pervasive, that it is also the Real, indeed, there is no separation, no illusion, no reality. And yet there it is. And it is you. [via]


Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Cthulhurotica edited by Carrie Cuinn, from Dagan Books.

Carrie Cuinn Cthulhurotica

This collection of Yog-Sothothery has some stories with the sort of explicit sex the title might suggest, but in others, the authors simply offer stories of the “Mythos” where sex is not thoroughly ignored (in contrast to Lovecraft’s originals)! The vein most represented here is the Deep Ones lore of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (in stories such as “The C-Word,” “Transfigured Night,” “The Fishwives of Sean Brolly,” and “The Assistant from Innsmouth”), although of course stories inspired by “The Dunwich Horror” are not in short supply either, and there is a considerable variety overall. The one jauniste tale (“Flash Frame”) was unsurprisingly one of my favorites, but there were a lot of good stories throughout

Short fiction is not the entirety of the contents, though. There are black-and-white drawings illustrating many of the stories, mostly by artist Galen Dara, who shows some real versatility as well. There also three pieces of criticism at the end of the book, each of which has its merits. The first of them addresses the proliferation of Yog-Sothothery generally, the second anatomizes the erotic potentials of the Lovecraftian weird, and the third applies scholarly tools of genre and trope criticism to the actual fiction in the book. Also there are a couple of poems: Lovecraft’s “Astrophobos” is excerpted at the start and finish of the story collection, and the anonymous “Victim of Victims” is a filking of “Fiddler on the Roof” which really isn’t worthy of the rest of the volume. [via]

W B Yeats Twentieth-Century Magus

The librarian John Griogair Bell reviews W.B. Yeats Twentieth Century Magus: An In-Depth Study of Yeat’s Esoteric Practices and Beliefs, Including Excerpts from His Magical Diaries by Susan Johnston Graf, from Red Wheel / Weiser.

Susan Johnston Graf W B Yeats Twentieth-Century Magus

The author mainly focuses on Per Amica Silentia Lunae, and a couple other works, and there’s a surprising amount of repetition in the writing; but, the sustained analysis of themes and metaphors in Yeats’ work related to his occult studies and practices is quite interesting, such as rose, tower, vortex and others used for periods of time related to his specific personal working. Going back to the sources, and checking out the posthumously published Vision Papers is something about which I’m energized. Also, I clearly need not only revisit these works but also make sure I provide a number of these specifically esoteric works at the library. [via]

The Demon’s Librarian

The librarian John Griogair Bell reviews The Demon’s Librarian by Lilith Saintcrow.

Lilith Saintcrow The Demon's Librarian

Here’s me reading this book:

“Okay, here we go! Huh. Interesting take on the Order of the Dragon and vampires. Yep, definitely chicklit. Oh. That was interesting. Hey! Secret magical library! That’s great, and I sure wish I had one. Wait, I do have one. Man, my life is awesome. Back to the story … ooo, this would make great anime! Yeah, take that bad guys and good guys; don’t piss off the librarian!” [via]