Tag Archives: General History of Religion

Apocalypse of the Alien God

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Dylan M. Burns, part of the Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion series.

Burns Apocalypse of the Alien God

The “apocalypse” in the title of this book refers to both a genre of religious writings and to the more fundamental unveiling or revelation of the “alien God,” who is the Great Invisible Spirit of Sethian Gnosticism. Not only was this godhead metaphysically alien to the created world of matter, it was culturally alien to the Hellenistic society of intellectuals gathered around the Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus in third-century Rome. The latter framing is the point of departure for this study of a specific school of ancient Gnosticism in its social context.

Author Dylan Burns perpetrates careful scholarship, and the early chapters offer a fairly slow start with orientation to the cultural factors involved in the historical scenario that he uses the final chapters to set forth. He avoids anachronistic conceptions of Christianity and Judaism. For example, he doesn’t see the unorthodox or even negligible jesuschristology (my ad hoc coinage) of the Sethians as a reason to distance them unnecessarily from the phenomena of early Christianity.

The theme of alienation is present in a sort of holographic manner in this study. Burns points out the religious trope of valorizing exile under the figures of the sojourn and the stranger as a peculiar attribute of Sethian Gnosticism that it held in common with many Christianities, some Judaisms, and virtually no Hellenism. Among the several sections of the book concerned to elucidate Sethian doctrines on the basis of the surviving writings, the one treating this theme was the most interesting to me not only for its socio-cultural implications, but for the disputable value of the actual religious ideas concerning the sojourn.

The study concludes that the floruit of Plotinus ultimately represented a “closure” of dialogue between Hellenic Platonism and the Gnosticisms rooted in Semitic scriptural traditions. This event is the second sense of the “Exile” in Burns’ subtitle, as the Sethians were exiled from the Roman Platonist milieu. Platonist dialectic withdrew from engaging Gnostic apocalyptic and vice versa. Still, he suggests that some forms of sympathy persisted, with the theurgy of Iamblichus as a notable possible instance.

Some attention to the possible practices at stake in Gnostic texts leads to helpful discussions of baptism, “angelification,” and the rite of the Five Seals (but not the Bridal Chamber, which seems not to have figured in Sethianism). I was interested in the implications of the designation of “Perfect Individuals” in the Protophanes Aeon of Sethian eschatology. “Perfect” is a conventional translation of a Greek term that can also mean “initiated,” and I inferred that the mode of transmitting knowledge through secret initiatory ceremony might have been another barrier between the Sethians and their Platonist peers.

On the whole, this book makes real demands on the attention of a serious reader, and it is not addressed to the idly curious. But it demonstrates that work in this field can advance beyond the wrangling over definitions and categories that has been a preoccupation of recent decades, and illuminate more of the historical realities regarding these ancient religious phenomena.

Forbidden Rites

“Aaron Jason” Leitch reviews Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the Fifteenth Century [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Richard Kieckhefer, part of the Magic in History series, in the Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition archive.

Kieckhefer Forbidden Rites

Without a doubt, Penn State Press’ Magic in History series is the finest line of books on medieval occult literature produced to date. I have enjoyed reading each book in the series – not the least of which is Professor Kieckhefer’s Forbidden Rites. Whether you are a scholar examining the esotericism of medieval Europe, or a practitioner following a similar modern tradition, you will benefit immensely from a study of this book.

Professor Kieckhefer’s book is unique in that it does not attempt to gather and cross-compare a large number of medieval grimoires, which is the more common method – as we see in texts like Waite’s Book of Ceremonial Magic or my own work on the Solomonic cycle. Instead, the Professor dedicated Forbidden Rites to a single, and very obscure, German manuscript. Because the first couple of pages are missing, the name of the grimoire, as well as its author, is lost to history. Kieckhefer simply refers to it by its catalogue designation: Codex Latinus Monacensis 849 (CLM 849), or the more romantic title The Munich Handbook of Necromancy.

I find the scope of this book reaches far beyond one simple manuscript. As the Professor leads us through the spells of the Munich Handbook, we get to learn something about the life and shifting interests of a working medieval mage. In every chapter, Kieckhefer draws from an array of related medieval records – most of them anecdotes about magick, and even Inquisitorial court records – to illustrate the culture within which our anonymous German mage worked.

Professor Kieckhefer begins Forbidden Rites with an essay on the magick-book in medieval occultism. I found this information absolutely fascinating, as it is a neglected subject in nearly all modern studies of Solomonic mysticism. Of course, there are plenty of books about the contents of the grimoires, but there is precious little that explains the books themselves as living magickal beings. Meanwhile, Kieckhefer shares medieval anecdotes about grimoires that scream when burned, or spirits who accost the unwary who merely open such a book. He explains how a grimoire must be consecrated and kept as a magickal tool in its own right – as something of a familiar to its author.

The introductory chapter finishes with some discussion of the art of necromancy in medieval Munich. Here Professor Kieckhefer makes a distinction between the conjuration of the dead and of infernal spirits. Both are called “necromancy”, though Forbidden Rites focuses primarily upon the evocation of demons. This brief introduction to classical necromancy – which is continued in a later chapter – is vital to understanding any text of spirit conjuration.

In the next chapter, the Professor introduces and outlines the Munich Handbook itself. Herein, he proposes a distinction, though by no means a hard one, between “integrally composed” books, usually dedicated to occult theory, like Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, and “miscellanies,” collections of practical magick without much theory, usually compiled by one person over a period of time. Most of the grimoires we know today are of the miscellany type, including the Key of Solomon the King, Lemegeton, etc. Finally, Kieckhefer uses the contents of the Munich Handbook to conjecture about the author of the text – thereby creating a wonderful illustration of the life and times of a “typical medieval wizard.”

In chapters three through five, the Professor explores different aspects of the Munich Handbook, separating its spells into the three main headings of “Illusionist”, “Psychological”, and “Divinatory.” Illusionist experiments, or “experiences” as the Handbook sometimes refers to them, are intended to “trick” their target – such as producing illusory castles, banquets, armies, etc. Psychological experiments are intended to gain control over or influence the mind of their target – such as gaining favor at court, causing people to fall in or out of love, etc. This chapter also includes much on sympathetic image magick – such as the medieval wax image or “voodoo doll.” Finally, Divinatory experiments are intended to reveal secret information, or to gain knowledge of the past or future. Overall, these three categories cover the largest bulk of spells in all grimoires.

As I previously stated, the author examines each aspect of the Handbook alongside of anecdotal medieval records – throwing some light onto the motivations behind such magick, and placing them into their proper historical context. Unfortunately, space does not permit me to outline the contents of these chapters in depth. Suffice it to say that there is much practical magick found in these chapters, and the anecdotes are thrilling. (Indeed, I find myself wishing there were more collections of medieval stories about wizards at work, such as those found in Elizabeth Butler’s Ritual Magic.)

Having examined the intent and nature of the spells of the Munich Handbook, Kieckhefer then turns his attention in chapter six to the conjurations and exorcisms used throughout the grimoire. This is another incredible piece of historical scholarship, as the Professor explains the broader practice of exorcism in medieval Europe and compares it to grimoiric conjurations. He illustrates that exorcising malignant spirits from the sick is essentially the same art as spirit evocation. The techniques are identical, while only the intent is slightly different in each case. Perhaps best of all, he breaks down classical exorcisms right alongside of spirit conjurations, showing us exactly how they are composed to bring about their effects. I cannot overstress the importance of this chapter to anyone wishing to comprehend books like the Goetia, Heptameron, Magus, etc.

In chapter eight, Professor Kieckhefer explores the magickal seals found throughout the Munich Handbook. Most of these figures are for magickal circles drawn upon the ground, or drawn with blood on parchment to command the spirits. The author examines their forms, the words written within them, the images drawn upon them and their proper uses. Hands down, this is the best explanation of the magick circle I have ever read. For instance, no modern source has suggested such a circle could be held in the hand as a talisman – yet the practice does appear in various grimoires. It is also rare to learn that magickal circles were primarily an aspect of exorcism – where modern traditions tend to use them for every kind of magickal work.

Finally, Kieckhefer outlines an elaborate method of circle-creation found in the Munich Handbook. See the tables on pages 181-183, where the divine names and other considerations for the circle are given for each day of the week and hour of the day or night. Also see page 296ff for the material in its original Latin. He claims that this material draws much from the Picatrix, an Arabic book of astrological magick, but he does not mention that the whole of this section is also found in the Heptameron or The Magus. As it happens, this is my favored method of circle-creation, so I was excited to see it presented here from yet a third source. This also helps to illustrate the large influence the Picatrix has had on the medieval esoteric tradition.

To complete his book, Professor Kieckhefer includes the entire Latin text of the Munich Handbook of Necromancy. Unfortunately, he does not provide an English translation, except for the portions he translated for earlier chapters of his book, which fortunately are considerable. However, he has organized the manuscript very neatly, placing all recitations in italics, breaking the conjurations down into their component parts. That makes this book potentially very useful to someone who knows Latin and might wish to translate the text for the rest of us.

Though it may be redundant, I will say once more how highly, very highly, I recommend Professor Kieckhefer’s book Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the Fifteenth Century. It makes no difference if you are a practitioner or an academic (or both), you will immensely enjoy this wonderful exploration of medieval magick, and you will find it foundational to your understanding of the magickal grimoires.