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.

Self-Initiation into the Golden Dawn Tradition

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews Self-Initiation into the Golden Dawn Tradition: A Complete Curriculum of Study for Both the Solitary Magician and the Working Magical Group by Chic Cicero and Sandra Tabatha Cicero in the archive of Caduceus: The Hermetic Quarterly.

Cicero Self-Initiation into the Golden Dawn Tradition

For more than half a century, the system of magic presented in Israel Regardie’s epochal collection of Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn documents, The Golden Dawn, has been essentially the standard method of magical work in the English-speaking world. Most other books on magical subjects borrow from it liberally, to the extent that it’s possible to find works purporting to be about Norse neopaganism (to give only one of many possible examples) which use slightly rewritten versions of the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram, the Middle Pillar exercise, and similar Golden Dawn technical methods. Some of this borrowing is simple plagiarism, and more is a somewhat less discreditable effort to rework Golden Dawn technique to fit different symbolic, religious and political stances.

Some, on the other hand, derives from the extreme unwieldiness and the sometimes fragmentary nature of the Golden Dawn material as Regardie presented it. The Golden Dawn is more of an archive than a textbook; it’s possible to extract the meat of the Order’s system of training from the husk of knowledge lectures, ritual texts and often rambling documents in the collection, but there’s a good deal of work involved. As a result, there have been a number of attempts to produce an introduction to the Golden Dawn system designed specifically for the beginning student.

Self-Initiation into the Golden Dawn Tradition is the most substantial of these to appear so far. Intended as a complete curriculum of study for the Outer Order work of the Golden Dawn system, it contains solo versions of the grade rituals from Neophyte through Portal, greatly expanded versions of the Order’s knowledge lectures, and additional instruction on topics such as alchemy and astrology. The material for each grade also includes practical exercises and meditations, a reading list, and an examination on the grade teachings.

To describe this book as comprehensive may be an understatement. The Ciceros earned a reputation for thoroughness with their last book, Secrets of a Golden Dawn Temple, which explored the working tools and equipment of the Golden Dawn system in exhaustive detail, and this new release will do nothing to detract from it. Despite the sheer volume, however, the lessons are well paced and well organized, and should be well within the power of beginners to assimilate; the authors’ experience as chiefs of a working temple shows here.

It should be noted, however, that this book is indeed intended for beginners, and readers who have already worked their way through Regardie’s Golden Dawn and other works on the Order’s system are unlikely to find much new in it. A work of instruction rather than, say, history, it smooths over some of the discontinuities between the original Golden Dawn system and its current form; for example, although a great deal of basic astrological information is given, the fact that the Order had its own distinct system of astrology — a system differing sharply in some respects from the common form which the Ciceros give here — is nowhere mentioned.

Still, these are ultimately issues of genre, not of the work itself. Within the limits of what this book attempts to do, it succeeds well.

A Natural History of Hell

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Natural History of Hell: Stories by Jeffrey Ford.

Ford A Natural History of Hell

This book is an excellent collection of thirteen short stories by Jeffrey Ford. There is a lot of variety among the stories, with a few actually having to do with “hell” or “the devil.” A couple are science fiction. There are two in which Ford represents himself as a narrating character, so that they recount stories supposedly told to him. Most could be classed as supernatural horror, although none are exactly typical of the genre. All are memorable and worth reading.

Out of the thirteen, “The Angel Seems” was the one that most reminded me of Ford’s Well-Built City trilogy, and it almost seemed as if it could have been placed in that unusual fantasy world. “Blood Drive” is a story about high school, set in the near future when first published in 2013, and now looking disturbingly prescient. There is a tale of fairies (“The Fairy Enterprise”), a ghost story (“The Thyme Fiend”), and a piece of sword and sorcery (“Spirits of Salt”). The longest story in the collection features Emily Dickinson as its protagonist.

The cover of the paperback edition boasts a blurb from Joyce Carol Oates in which she praises Ford as “beautifully disorienting.” His fantasy constantly raises epistemological questions, but in the most matter-of-fact ways. Although I had read a number of his short stories before (including one of these), this was the first time I’ve read a full volume of them, and the experience was very satisfying.

The Last Days of Magic

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Doctor Strange: The Last Days of Magic by Jason Aaron, Chris Bachelo, & al.

Aaron Bachelo Doctor Strange The Last Days of Magic

This volume collects issues 6 through 10 of the recent Doctor Strange comic book, detailing the culmination of Strange’s battle against the Imperator and his Empirikul army, along with the standalone Doctor Strange: Last Days of Magic which belongs between issues 6 and 7. The latter in particular features a range of minor magic-powered superheroes. Jason Aaron’s writing plays up the pathos of the destruction of magic, but is sometimes quite funny. Chris Bachalo’s art is solid.

Zelda Stanton, the librarian whom Strange has taken on as an assistant, has several important roles to play in this plot arc. The flavor of the thing as a whole reminded me of the David Tennant Doctor Who episode “The Last of the Time Lords,” with Zelda in the Martha Jones role.

Finding the right expression is always a fight: The writer in him wages battle against the editor; one is bold, the other—doubtful. They struggle inside him for control of his pen; one—to write, the other—to cross out.

Uvi Poznansky and Zeev Kachel, Home

Hermetic quote Poznansky Zeev Home fight

Tarot Tales

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Tarot Tales edited by Rachel Pollack and Caitlin Matthews.

Pollack Matthews Tarot Tales

I was excited to discover this old mass-market paperback fantasy anthology in a secondhand bookshop, where it had been mistakenly (?) shelved with the occult books. It includes some of my very favorite English fantasy authors, including Michael Moorcock, M. John Harrison, and Robert Irwin. The third of these usually isn’t even classed as a genre fantasist, and an even more surprising author to see in the mix was Irwin’s fellow Orientalist scholar Peter Lamborn Wilson! Editors Caitlin Matthews and Rachel Pollack have solid credentials as Tarot savants and authors of fiction both, and each contributes a worthwhile story to the book.

All of the individual stories were commissioned for this volume, and I have not seen any of them published elsewhere. The editors’ stipulation was that Tarot should be used in the process of composing each tale. Despite the odd “Chapter One, “Chapter Two” in the story headings (but not the table of contents), there is no continuity of narrative, no shared characters, and no significantly overlapping settings among any of the stories. A few are science fiction, several are overt extensions or reinterpretations of ancient myth, and one or two are firmly in the horror genre. Moorcock’s contribution “Hanging the Fool” is a 20th-century installment of his Von Bek metatext with no supernatural elements at all, and with a nod to H. Rider Haggard. Two of the stories, “Rembrandts of Things Past” by Sheila Finch and “The Devil’s Picturebook” by R.J. Stewart, operate in a theological (as opposed to mythic) register, and I found them weaker for it.

On the whole, the tales in this volume are sophisticated and engaging. More than a few of the stories have Tarot diviners or experimenters as characters, and a handful have subsections named after trumps or other Tarot cards. In her introduction, Pollack cites Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies as precedent for the sort of work included here, but the presence of Tarot in these stories is more varied and often more subtle than in Calvino’s book. The collection was first published in England in 1989, and my copy is the subsequent US release. I don’t think it’s seen a printing in the 21st century, but it’s a solid collection that I will easily recommend to those who share my tastes in fiction.

Staying with the Trouble

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene by Donna J Haraway.

Haraway Staying with the Trouble

Donna Haraway makes a peculiar choice in coining “Chthulucene” for use in this book. The difference in spelling from H.P. Lovecraft’s notorious dreaming god is deliberate, and she insists that the etymology is from khthon-; but then why not “Chthonocene?” The fact is that she is deliberately evoking Cthulhu, who “shall soon rule where man rules now,” as the Necronomicon admonishes. But her sympathies, unlike those of (the conscious) Lovecraft are not with the “rulers” coded out as Anthropos or Capital or Plantation Owner, or any future value of that function. Her principal slogan for advancing a Chthulucene agenda is “Make kin, not babies,” and she proposes a “tentacular” program of what an Anthropocentric thinker might regard as species treason–not to mention its profound antagonism to Capital.

Haraway’s program of “staying with the trouble” is an imagining of futures that resists utopianism and dismal forecasting. It reminds me more than a little of the anti-capitalist bolo’bolo (by P.M., 1983–whatever happened to my paperback copy?), which was much more sanguine. The chief difference in gravity probably stems from Haraway’s attention to the damage already done to human and non-human biomes. The final chapter of the book is an SF narrative implementing these visions over the period 2025-2425. Throughout the various essays, Haraway construes SF multivalently as “speculative feminism,” “string figures,” “speculative fabulation,” “science fantasy,” and the more customary “science fiction,” and asserts it as part of her resources and method. Previous SF works that receive her special attention include Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (and others), Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

The species that participate in her Cthulhucene imaginings notably include pigeons, squid, orchids, coral, horses, and butterflies. And SF reflections even recruit the Ood from Doctor Who (the subverted Cthulhu again). Some of these are models to overcome the paradigm of organisms, in favor of holobionts. Others illustrate extant and/or possible relationships among “critters” (Haraway’s preferred term, embracing and exceeding all biotic kingdoms) including humans.

Staying with the Trouble is a chewy read, full of accounts of activist art and the results of late-breaking scientific inquiry (not capital-S “Science” Haraway hastens to add). The body text is about half of the total book, and many of the sixty pages of small-type end notes are worth investigating for their further discussion of sources and inspiration. There are black-and-white illustrations throughout. I made slow progress through it, but it was worth my effort, and although I read a borrowed copy, I would be willing to make space for it on my own shelves.

King was never anti-American; he was always anti-injustice in America and anywhere else. Love of truth and love of country could go hand-in-hand.

Cornell West in Martin Luther King Jr, The Radical King

Hermetic quote West King Radical hand-in-hand

Blood in the Aether

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Doctor Strange: Blood in the Aether by Jason Aaron, &al.

Aaron Bachalo Fabela Doctor Strange Blood in the Aether

This collection of the contemporary Doctor Strange comic book covers issues 11-16, immediately following Strange’s costly defeat of the trans-dimensional anti-magic army of the Empirikul. His powers are at a complete ebb, and his accustomed sorceries are mostly inoperable. So this plot arc has a “greatest hits” of his old foes competing for the privilege of snuffing him while he’s down. Jason Aaron’s story makes Strange into a more dedicated pugilist that he has been in the past. There’s some amusing banter between Wong and Zelma. And the arc ends with a tease regarding difficulties to come.

I like that Strange now carries a sword, which is not for fighting, it seems. It is part of an occult magician’s kit, after all. Most of the compositions/pencils in this book are by Chris Bachalo, whose work is commendable, showing influence from the relatively recent work of Emma Rios, and making good as a successor to Dikto, Brunner, and Colan for bringing a coherent and engaging visual style to Marvel’s flagship occult superhero title. His re-imaginings of Nightmare and Dormammu are top notch. Issue 11 had art from Kevin Nowlan, and I was not so impressed there.

The most amusing issue of the arc is perhaps number 14: “A Gut Full of Hell,” in which Satana attempts to conscript Strange into her infernal enterprise. I was relieved to find out that Strange was still capable of astral projection, surprised that that his astral form was nekkid, and dismayed that someone felt the need to eclipse his butt with a black rectangle of modesty.