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.

The Dark Rites of Cthulhu

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphlius reviews The Dark Rites of Cthulhu: Horrific Tales of Magic and Madness from 16 Modern Masters of Terror! [Bookshop, Amazon] edited by Brian M Sammons, illustrated by Neil Baker, with Glynn Owen Barrass, Edward M Erdelac, John Goodrich, Scott T Goudsward, T E Grau, C J Henderson, Tom Lynch, William Meikle, Christine Morgan, Robert M Price, Pete Rawlik, Josh Reynolds, Brian M Sammons, Sam Stone, Jeffrey Thomas, and Don Webb.

Sammons The Dark Rites of Cthulhu

A fairly slender volume containing sixteen stories of liturgical Yog-Sothothery, The Dark Rites of Cthulhu featured only four authors previously familiar to me, so I was grateful for the appended “About the Authors” info. The stories are reasonably solid throughout. Some do sort of stretch the category of ritual magic, such as one oriented around martial arts (“Of Circles and Rings” by Tom Lynch). A few are detective stories oriented around ritual murders. There is considerable variety of flavor within the “magic” field, encompassing voodoo, online cult recruitment, and stage magic, among others.

Most of these tales don’t bother with Arkham and Lovecraft country, though some do, and a few even go so far as to include or reference specific characters from Grandpa Cthulhu’s “ritual literature” (so-called by Michel Houellebecq). The Lovecraft stories that most conspicuously served as references in this assortment were “The Dunwich Horror” (of course) and “From Beyond.”

“The Dark Horse” by John Goodrich is set in a stars-were-right post-apocalyptic regime of human dispossession. Edward Erdelac’s story “Black Tallow” lost points from me initially by misspelling the name Aleister Crowley, but ultimately redeemed itself with a credible representation of pathological contemporary ceremonial magic, along with lovely Club Dumas bibliophile fan service.

I read this book slowly over several months, since there is no continuity from story to story. It’s a decent collection of new weird fiction built around specialized themes that are of particular to interest to me, and I was satisfied by it.

I had no real idea what the people in HR actually did, apart from lose your confidential information, and practically want to know your blood group and who you are currently shagging when you fill in a form, just so they can all discuss you amongst themselves.

Parker Gordon, Parallel Lives [Amazon]

Hermetic quote Gordon Parallel Lives no real idea want to know discuss you amongst themselves

An Embarrassment of Secrets

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews Secret Texts: The Literature of Secret Societies [Amazon, Abebooks] edited by Marie Mulvey Roberts and Hugh Ormsby-Lennon at An Embarrassment of Secrets in the Caduceus archive.

Roberts Ormsby-Lennon Secret Texts

There is often a certain degree of discomfort in the air when current scholarship faces the topic of the various secret traditions and organizations which have played a part in the history of the modem world. To a great extent, of course, this is understandable, and even reasonable. The claim of secrecy has been used time and again as a cloak under which unbridled speculation, special pleading and out-and-out fantasy have been carried into historical debate and used to prop up an infinity of crackpot theories. If there’s no evidence for a claim, after all, that simply shows how well the secrecy has been maintained. Doesn’t it?

This kind of reasoning, endlessly repeated by conspiracy theorists and fringe thinkers of many other kinds, has made the study of secret phenomena something of an untouchable topic in the present academic world. Still, the issues raised by secrecy as a political, cultural, and even spiritual style have to be dealt with, unless a far from minor side of the Western world’s history is to be ignored. Even though so many past and present conspiracy theories are exercises in paranoia rather than history, there have been real conspiracies down through the years; it’s worth remembering that even the Bavarian Illuminati did actually exist at one point, and attempted (however clumsily) a program of political subversion in late eighteenth-century Germany. Distasteful as it may be to modern scholarship, the material is there, and needs to be dealt with.

Secret Texts: The Literature of Secret Societies is an attempt to do so, and in many respects it is a praiseworthy one. An anthology of papers first conceived at an MLA special session on “The Masonic Enlightenment” in 1986, it broadened its focus to include a range of topics related (sometimes distantly) to secret societies and the literature written by, for, about and against them in the modern period. The resulting collection is a highly uneven but sometimes illuminating set of journeys through this particular, and peculiar, terra incognita.

Some of the gems in the anthology include a thorough and insightful examination of images of the “Book of Nature” in English religious, political and esoteric thought by Hugh Ormsby-Lennon; a useful biographical study of Josephin Peladan, the self-proclaimed Rosicrucian and organizer of the epochal Symbolist art exhibitions of the 1890s, the Salons de la Rose-Croix; a capable study of the role of A. E. Waite’s thought in the writings of poet, novelist and Inkling Charles Williams; and a survey of the Golden Dawn’s appearances in popular fiction by R. A. Gilbert. Less interesting, although probably unavoidable, are several pieces of standard literary criticism claiming — sometimes with flimsy logic — secret societies and their ideologies as interpretive keys to various works of literature.

Deserving a discussion of its own is a remarkable article by Marsha Keith Schuchard on the interface between esoteric traditions, Masonry, and political conspiracies in eighteenth-century Europe. Schuchard’s doctoral dissertation, a study of the continuity of occult traditions in English literature that focuses on William Blake and his circle, has become something of a cult classic in scholarly circles interested in the history of occultism, and this article is very much in the same vein. Focusing on the career of the Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg, it opens up a Pandora’s box of troublesome questions – not merely about Swedenborg himself, who is linked here both to fringe Cabalistic movements and to intrigues linking the Swedish crown to the Jacobite rising of 1745, but about potential con-tacts between occultism and politics on a large scale, in a period – the period of the Enlightenment – when the esoteric traditions of the West are often thought of as moribund. While Schuchard’s evidence is more than occasionally circumstantial, the points she raises deserve a very thorough examination.

Also worth a discussion of its own, but for different reasons, is the introduction to the volume. Here the discomfort mentioned above appears in an almost comical form. The editors here are far less concerned with introducing their subject than with distancing themselves from it, and from the “burgeoning para-scholarship” with which – in the eyes of Academe, certainly – it is infested.

“That the lunatic fringe has failed, so signally, to make any landfall in the present volume,” the editors propose, “will, it is hoped, further contribute to the rehabilitation of secret societies as a legitimate subject for scholarly research.” Perhaps so. Still, this sort of kid-glove nervousness – however inevitable it may be in the context of the current politics of scholarship – suggests that the time is still some ways off when the academic community can face the esoteric traditions of the West on their own terms, as significant elements of modern Western culture and history.

New Light on Old Magic

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews Talismans and Trojan Horses: Guardian Statues in Ancient Greek Myth and Ritual [Amazon, Abebooks] by Christopher A Faraone and Astral Magic in Babylonia [Bookshop, Amazon, Internet Archive] by Erica Reiner at New Light on Old Magic in the Caduceus archive.

Farone Talismans and Trojan Horses

Reiner Astral Magic in Babylonia

The problems and inadequacies of current scholarly approaches to the study of magic have been a frequent theme in these pages — an unavoidable one, really, if the recent surge of academic publications on esotericism is to be used as a resource by practicing esotericists, and not merely left to gather dust and puzzle future generations of graduate students. However, it’s also important to keep in mind that there are academic works on these subjects that avoid the usual pitfalls, that treat their subjects as worthy of serious interest, and that have something substantial to offer scholars and magicians alike.

One good example of this growing body of work is Christopher Faraone’s Talismans and Trojan Horses, a study of the role of statues in classical Greek magic. Many modem magicians have read the famous “god-making” passage in the Her-metic tractate Asclepius, where the magical animation of statues is discussed, but very little attention has been paid to the much wider context in which this practice took place — a context in which the lines between the statue and the indwelling deity became highly blurred, and in which mages and priests carried out complex ritual operations on consecrated statues in order to affect the actions of the gods and goddesses themselves.

Faraone provides a solid general look at this context, and then examines four different ways in which statues were put to work for magical purposes: as animal or half-animal figures used to guard doors and city gates; as images used to drive away hostile spirits and evil omens; as figures of bow-bearing plague deities used to banish disease and threaten foreign invaders; and as effigies of evil powers bound and buried to restrict the actions of destructive forces. He then goes on to show how this same context of statue-magic forms a subtext, unnoticed in modem times, to such familiar mythic incidents as the tale of the Trojan Horse and the legend of Pandora. The whole is solidly footnoted throughout, with plenty of references to primary sources and a substantial bibliography.

Erica Reiner’s Astral Magic in Babylonia belongs to a different genre of scholarly work; where Faraone’s study focuses on a specific class of magic and its contexts in one ancient culture, hers provides a general survey of the entire range of Mesopotamian magical and ritual practices related to the stars and their effects. Still, it holds to the same standards of quality and usefulness, and it also opens up an area of historical magic that has received far too little notice in the modern occult revival.

The ancient civilizations of the Mesopotamian plain Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, and others — faced the heavens with a rapt attention and an intensity that few other human cultures have equaled. Western astrology, which has its roots solidly fixed in Mesopotamian soil, is one legacy of this focus, but the occult systems of these cultures included many more aspects, some of which are quite poorly known outside of the specialist literature.

Drawing extensively from the very large clay-tablet literature on omens and magic, Reiner describes the role of stars and stellar magic in herbalism, medicine, divination, the banishing of evil influences, the lore of precious stones, and the methods of practical magic. As with Faraone’s work, Astral Magic in Babylonia is thoroughly footnoted to primary sources, and provides not merely an overview but a solid starting point for further research.

From the standpoint of a practicing esotericist, though, perhaps the strongest impression that comes from these books is a clear sense that — for all the activity and innovation that has characterized the occult revival of the last few decades — the magic practiced by earlier societies often worked at levels of subtlety and comprehensiveness that today’s mages have scarcely imagined, much less equaled. The statue magic of the ancient Greeks and the star magic of old Babylonia both offer examples of how magic can be put to use in unexpected and potentially valuable ways. Both these studies can serve to inspire new or revived practices along similar lines; both, too, can remind modern magicians that our present traditions still have a great deal of catching up ahead of them.