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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.

Games of Love and Death

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culianu [Bookshop, Amazon] by Ted Anton at Games of Love and Death in the Caduceus archive.

Anton Eros Magic and the Murder of Professor Culianu

Joan Petru Culianu, whose meteoric career in academic circles came to an abrupt end via an assassin’s bullet in 1991, remains at once the most intriguing and the most enigmatic of modern scholars of the occult. His major works on the subject — Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, Out Of This World, and The Tree of Gnosis — and his many articles and essays show at once a deep familiarity with the sources and a rare willingness to take them seriously. Probably no one of his generation has had a greater effect on the way magical traditions are understood in current scholarship. Behind the publications and academic honors, though, lies a life that is in many ways more intriguing still.

Ted Anton’s Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culianu is a capable attempt at tracing the outlines of that life, from Culianu’s childhood and youth in Romania through his defection to the West, his academic posts in Italy, the Netherlands and the United States, his collaboration with the famed historian of religions Mircea Eliade, and his involvement with Romanian politics after the 1989 revolution — an involvement that apparently brought about his death. Through the entire course of his life, two sides of Culianu can be seen, sometimes cooperating, sometimes in conflict: one, highly ambitious and focused on climbing his way up the ladder of academic success; the other, deeply involved in the magical traditions of the Renaissance not merely as a scholar but as a practitioner.

It’s by portraying this second facet that this book is likely to make its greatest contribution to an understanding of Culianu’s thought, and of Culianu himself. The esoteric involvements of the academically respectable tend, even now, to be hushed up as though they were the dirtier kind of family secrets; the case of W.B. Yeats, whose Golden Dawn activities were systematically ignored by the critical community until Virginia Moore’s The Unicorn forced the issue, is only one of many examples. Those who might wish to think of Culianu as a detached, purely academic chronicler of magical traditions, though, will receive little help from Anton’s book. An early involvement with yoga — Romanian friends recalled him practicing up to five hours a day — led Culianu on to a wide range of involvements with practical occultism, from a habit of doing geomantic divination at parties on up to the systematic use of talismans and of Giordano Bruno’s magical Art of Memory. These arts, central to so much of his life, also had a part to play in his death; his passionate articles in the Romanian emigre press criticizing the post-Communist government of his homeland, the writings that apparently brought about his assassination, were structured according to the same magical principles of manipulation through emotionally charged imagery that he described in detail in Eros and Magic in the Renaissance.

Many practitioners of Western magic may disagree with substantial parts of Culianu’s interpretation of occultism, an interpretation which focused on manipulation and control and largely ignored the mystical, transpersonal aspects of the magical arts. Still, Culianu’s works are the product of practical experience, not merely armchair theorizing, and well worth studying for that reason alone — and Anton’s book provides a useful and intelligent introduction to the man and his ideas.

The Medicine of Metals

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews The Secrets of John Dee: A Commentary on his Alchemical, Astrological, Qabalistic, and Rosicrucian Arcana [Amazon, Abebooks, Publisher] edited by Gordon James at The Medicine of Metals in the Caduceus archive.

James The Secrets of John Dee

One of the minor alchemical treasures in the British Library is a manuscript (Harleian 6485) entitled “The Rosie Crucian Secrets, their Excellent Method of Making Medicines of Metals, also their Lawes and Mysteries:, and attributed to the great Elizabethan magus John Dee. This is one of a collection of Hermetic and magical documents copied out by one Peter Smart near the beginning of the eighteenth century. Like most of the manuscripts in this collection, the “Rosie Crucian Secrets” is something of a hodgepodge, containing materials on the making of metallic medicines, a letter (supposedly from John Frederick Helvetius to John Dee) describing a transmutation, a glossary of unusual words supposedly found in Dee’s writings, and a discussion of the laws of the Rosicrucian Fraternity.

Like most of the manuscripts in the collection, too, a certain whiff of fraud hangs over this one. The first third of it is nearly identical with Elharvereuna, a book on metallic medicines published by the Jacobean occult plagiarist John Heydon in 1655; the last part is an adapted translation of Michael Maier’s Themis Aurea, published in 1618; very few of the words in the glossary are in fact to be found anywhere in John Dee’s works; and the letter Helvetius (which, incidentally, is well attested elsewhere) was certainly not written to John Dee, given that Dee died in 1608 while Helvetius was not born until 1625!

Despite this, the manuscript is well worth attention; whatever its origin, it provides a detailed and unusually clear look into the processes of metallic alchemy and spagyrics (alchemical medicine). Its value led E. J. Langford-Garstin, and important figure in Golden Dawn circles early in this century, to prepare a transcription, and this was finally published by Aquarian Press in 1985. Unfortunately, Langford-Garstin’s version seems to have been inaccurate in a number of places, with important pieces left out and some of his own material inserted; furthermore, this edition has been out of print for years, and so those with no access to the British Library and its collections have had a long wait for a new and better version.

Fortunately, this is now available. Gordon James’ edition omits the letter of Helvetius, the glossary and the translation of Maier’s Themis Aurea, concentrating on the core of the manuscript — the description of the “Excellent Method of Making Medicines of Metals.” James has modernized the spelling and grammar, a definite help to the Elizabethan-impaired, but otherwise presents the material as it appears in the manuscript. He also includes the symbolic Trees of the Planets, although the reader is unfortunately not given information on the relation of these to the text in the original manuscript.

James has also provided a detailed commentary, presenting his own interpretation of the text’s meaning, which is largely based on the spiritual-somatic approach pioneered by Paul Foster Case and popularized by Case’s books and study courses. His analysis of the text, accordingly, draws extensively on the use of gematria to divine the hidden meanings of various technical terms, on Case’s particular brand of mysticism, and on parallels taken from Hindu yogic sources. He makes it clear in his introduction that, as far as he is concerned, alchemy is to be understood as a purely internal yoga of the spirit, and he dismisses any attempt at laboratory alchemy as misguided folly.

This is likely to be greeted with cheers or boos, depending on the reader’s own take on alchemy, but the dogmatic certainty with which James makes his pronouncements is somewhat irritating at best. Another mild irritation is the fact that his commentary is interspersed throughout the text, divided from it only by brackets; some less obtrusive way of connecting commentary and text might have been more useful to those who take a different approach to the Great Work. Still, the inconvenient is a minor one, more than offset by the value of the text itself — seen from nearly any alchemical perspective.

Paths of Wisdom

J. S. Kupperman reviews Paths of Wisdom: Principles and Practices of the Magical Cabala in the Western Tradition by Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer in the archive of the Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition.

Greer Paths of Wisdom

At first John Michael Greer’s Paths of Wisdom appears to be just one of dozens of hermetic Cabalistic primers that are already available to the public. A deeper look shows, however, that Paths is much more akin to the Dion Fortune’s magnum opus The Mystical Qabalah. Indeed, additional study shows that Paths goes even farther than that seminal work.

Paths of Wisdom is divided into three sections; Principles of the Magical Cabala, Symbolism of the Magical Cabala and Practice of the Magical Cabala. Each section is effectively a separate primer for beginner, intermediate and advanced theories and practices involving the hermetic Cabala.

The introduction and the first six chapters which comprise part one of the book, discuss the history of the magical or hermetic Cabala, as well as the basic concepts surrounding the Tree of Life, the main glyph or symbol of the Cabala. First, the reader will learn about the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, whose practices for working on the Tree of Life Greer describes in the third section of the book, along with the order’s theories concerning the Tree of Life and the Cabala. Greer then describes the Tree itself, its Sefirot or ten basic manifestations of deity, and its Netivot, or the connecting paths between the Sefirot. Also discussed are the Macrocosm and Microcosm and the mystical paths Greer calls “the Way of Creation” and “the Way of Redemption”.

The second part of the book which comprises the bulk of Paths of Wisdom, contains an in-depth description of the ten Sefirot and the twenty-two Netivot of the Tree of Life. These descriptions include practical information such as the Name of God ascribed to each Sefirot or Path, their magical image and associated colors, all of which would be used in hermetic Cabalistic ritual. Going further though, each chapter discusses each of these listed associations, describing what they mean in relation to the Sefirot or Netivoth in question. Each aspect of symbolism is illustrated for the reader and connected to similar symbols existing in other areas of the Tree.

The third and final section of Paths covers everything from the basic theories of ceremonial magic, such as the Watcher on the Threshold and the Tools of the Magician’s Trade; to basic practices including the protective ritual known as the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram. In later chapters the reader is introduced to more advanced practices such as pathworking or skyring on the Tree of Life and magical prayer. Finally there is a discussion on bringing the Magical Cabala into one’s everyday life.

Paths of Wisdom: Principles and Practice of the Magical Cabala in the Western Tradition is an excellent introduction to the Magical Cabala. Its language is clear and easy to understand and its descriptions of both ritual practice and the various parts of the Tree of Life are detailed and insightful. While containing very basic information, the book is none-the-less useful for the intermediate and advanced reader on the subject. Its constructive references and diagrams make it a valuable addition to the library of any hermetic Cabalist.

Astrology and the Seventeenth Century Mind

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews Astrology and the Seventeenth Century Mind: William Lilly and the Language of the Stars by Ann Geneva in the archive of Caduceus: The Hermetic Quarterly.

Geneva Astrology and the Seventeenth Century Mind

The importance of astrology in the culture of the Renaissance has been recognized for some time now, but there is still plenty to be learned about its manifold roles in the interwoven realms of learning, politics and society in the years before the scientific revolution chased it into the back closets of our culture. This is particularly true when it is allowed to speak in its own terms, rather than being forced into the Procrustean bed of some modern intellectual category. Ann Geneva’s recent study of the English astrologer William Lilly does precisely this, and as a result casts an remarkably clear light not only on the work of the most brilliant astrologer of his time but also on a host of other aspects of late Renaissance cultural history.

William Lilly (1602–1691) rose from humble origins to become the most famous astrologer in England during the years of the English Civil War and the Commonwealth which followed it. An important factor in his rise was his unswerving devotion to the Parliamentary cause, a devotion which took the form of anti-Royalist predictions in his extremely popular annual almanacs and many of his other publications. At the same time, he was also an astrologer of genius, and his Christian Astrology — the first comprehensive manual of astrological practice to be published in English rather than Latin — is widely held to have ignited the English astrological renaissance of the seventeenth century, and to have played a critical part in handing down the astrological traditions of the past to future students of the art.

His astrological predictions of doom for the King and success for the Parliamentary cause, however, are the major focus of Geneva’s book. After efficiently clearing away much of the nonsense surrounding the historical study of astrology in a first chapter, she develops two themes through the rest of the book: first, the way that natural phenomena were understood as a language of portents and signs predicting events in the political world; and second, the way that discourse about these portents and signs could be used, and was used, as a tool of political communication and action. In the process, she gives a thorough and eye-opening look at the use of codes, anagrams and encryption in seventeenth-century England, and provides a valuable discussion of the ways in which certain astronomical and meteorological events — notably eclipses, comets, conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn, and those remarkable refracted images of the Sun called parhelia or “sundogs” — were read as portents of coming woe in earlier traditions of astrology.

All of these were grist for Lilly’s mill, as he turned out almanacs and pamphlets predicting victory for Parliament and death for King Charles I. Geneva explores these latter prophecies of regicide in detail, showing how Lilly wove them into the fabric of his discourse, sometimes openly, sometimes under a protective screen of astrological jargon, at times making use of the king’s own natal horoscope to predict his fate and at other times drawing on broader traditions of the interpretation of omens as political signs. These prophecies played a significant role in Parliamentarian propaganda, just as the predictions of the Royalist astrologer George Wharton were used to good effect by the King’s adherents. At the same time, Geneva argues, Lilly’s carefully orchestrated predictions of Charles’ death may well have helped create a climate of thought in which the once-unthinkable idea of ending the monarchy with a headsman’s axe came to be seen as written in the stars.

As a work of intellectual history, then, Astrology and the Seventeenth Century Mind has a great deal to offer, not only to those specifically interested in the late English Renaissance but also to anyone seeking a clearer grasp of the complexities of the magical world view. In addition, some of the byways it opens up offer unexpected access to the more enigmatic parts of the Western magical tradition. The fusion of occult tradition with politics and concealed communication is an old one, and Lilly was far from the first person to work both sides of their interaction at the same time; one thinks of the Steganographia of Trithemius, at once a manual of ciphers and a textbook of angel-summoning, and of John Dee’s Enochian material, created by methods closely linked to the encryption techniques known and practiced at the time. For students of Hermetic magic, the insight provided by this book’s glimpse into one part of that shadowy underworld of hidden discourse may be its most useful feature.

Byzantine Magic

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews Byzantine Magic by Henry Maguire, & al., in the archive of Caduceus: The Hermetic Quarterly.

Maguire Byzantine Magic

While Rudyard Kipling was certainly off base in claiming that “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet” — the two have been meeting since the dawn of history, usually with the impact of a pair of freight trains colliding — his poem does a good job of expressing a certain habit of thinking all too common in Western countries. Very often, the history of ideas and ways of thought in the countries of Western Europe is treated in splendid isolation from that of the rest of the world. Histories of philosophy, for instance, are still routinely written as though serious philosophical inquiry anywhere east of Venice stopped sometime around the fall of Rome. In the academic study of magic, similarly, it’s far easier to find detailed information about the history, theory and practice of magic in England or France than it is to locate the most basic facts about occultism in the countries of eastern Europe or the traditional cultures of Asia.

Given this context, the appearance of a collection of papers on magic in the Byzantine Empire ranks as a significant gain. During the thousand-year span that separated the collapse of the Western Roman Empire from the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, Byzantium drew on its own classical roots and the contributions of neighboring peoples to create a rich culture little known in the West, but ancestral to many of the modern cultures of Eastern Europe and Russia.

Inevitably, that culture included magic, and the essays in Byzantine Magic explore some facets of the Eastern Empire’s traditions of occult theory and practice. Papers included in this volume cover topics such as the relation of magical practices and beliefs to Orthodox Christianity, the occurrence of magical artifacts in archeological sites, the reactions of Byzantine scholars and jurists to issues surrounding magical practices, and the use of Christian imagery in Byzantine magic. One fascinating essay explores the often nebulous boundaries between holy miracle and diabolical magic in Byzantine thought, while another traces the spread of Byzantine magic into the Slavic cultures of eastern Europe.

Like most scholarly anthologies, Byzantine Magic has a somewhat scattershot flavor; most of its essays focus on specific topics or details within a very broad field, while the field itself is left largely without illumination. Most of the essays also assume a solid familiarity with the general outlines of Byzantine history and culture, something of a rare attainment among most non-specialist readers; those who have never heard of the Iconoclast controversy, or who aren’t sure of the difference between the Paleologan period and the Paleozoic Era, may find it useful to learn a little about the Byzantine Empire before attempting this book. Still, despite these limitations, Byzantine Magic represents a significant contribution, not only to the specialist literature of its own field, but to the broader field of the study of magic as a whole.

Music and the Occult

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews Music and the Occult: French Musical Philosophies, 1750-1950 by Hermetic Library Fellow Joscelyn Godwin in the archive of Caduceus: The Hermetic Quarterly.

Godwin Music and the Occult

Joscelyn Godwin’s sourcebooks and studies of the esoteric aspects in music, capably researched, clearly written and more than usually incisive, have won him a reputation as the foremost scholar active in this somewhat rarefied field today. The Theosophical Enlightenment, his useful and entertaining survey of the eighteenth and ninteenth-century English occult scene (reviewed in the Winter 1995-6 issue of Caduceus), and a few of his other works dealing with Western esotericism, have shown the same virtues in a broader context, one of importance to nearly any student of Hermeticism. This new work of Godwin’s — originally published in French in 1991, and translated and revised by Godwin for this new edition — may appear to be centered on his more specialized interests. Those who pass it by for this reason, though, are missing a treat — not to mention a valuable look at parts of the Western esoteric tradition not often glimpsed by readers in English-speaking countries.

The unity of knowledge is a constant theme in Western esoteric thought and practice; esotericists throughout the modern period have striven to find links between what more orthodox ways of looking at the world see as separate realms of existence or fields of learning. Nowhere, perhaps, has this drive for a whole understanding of the universe been so consistent a part of the cultural underground than in France, and it is thus hardly surprising that music — which has rarely been integrated into the esoteric systems of other modern Western cultures — has often played a central role in various French schools of occult thought.

A survey of the role of music in French esotericism, then, quickly becomes an introduction to much of the history of French occultism. This is precisely what happens as Godwin’s study unfolds. Many of the dominant figures of French esotericism — Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, Antoine Fabre d’Olivet, and J. A. Saint-Yves d’Alveydre among them – are equally central figures in Godwin’s account, and magicians and mystics from Goethe to Moina Mathers of Golden Dawn fame put in cameo appearances along the way. There is a chapter on the musical aspects of the thought of that bizarre crackpot-genius Charles Fourier, who invented socialism and inspired a highly influential utopian movement while proclaiming a millennium in which Earth’s oceans would turn to lemonade. Another discusses the all-but-forgotten mystical philosopher J. M. H. Wronski, and another examines the Theosophically inspired artistic and esoteric circle which formed around Edmond Bailly’s famous “L’Art independant” bookstore.

Music and the Occult requires no particular background in musical theory or history, although musicians will find scores to three esoteric musical works in an appendix. Despite the rather steep price — inevitable, apparently, for hardbacks from academic presses at present — this is a book which deserves the attention of those with a general interest in the history of the Hermetic tradition, as well as the more specialized student of esoteric musical thought.


Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews Tetragrammaton: The Secret to Evoking Angelic Powers and the Key to the Apocalypse by Donald Tyson in the archive of Caduceus: The Hermetic Quarterly.

Tyson Tetragrammaton

Most modern Hermeticists are familiar with Donald Tyson by way of his erudite and highly useful annotated edition of Henry Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy (Llewellyn, 1993). This new book of Tyson’s has many of the strengths of that earlier work, and it fills a space in the literature of the Western magical tradition which, until now, has been largely vacant. At the same time, though, it suffers from several perplexing failings, which should be kept in mind by those who study or practice the material it covers.

The strengths of the work are substantial enough that they deserve to be considered first. The Tetragrammaton – the four-lettered Hebrew Name of God which, in Latin letters, is spelled YHVH – is a continuing presence throughout the history of esoteric spirituality and magic in the West. Tyson traces this history ably, touching on many of the correspondences and applications of the Name in Jewish, Christian, Hermetic, Gnostic and magical sources, including such rarely-considered matters as the Christian Hermeticist doctrine of the Pentagrammaton and the inner geometries of John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica. The twelve Banners of the Name, permutations of the Tetragrammaton’s letters which are assigned to the twelve signs of the Zodiac and the twelve tribes of Israel, receive a great deal of discussion; he presents a set of correspondences and interpretations for the Banners which, although they differ from the traditional ones, are certainly useable in practical terms.

From the symbolism of the Banners and a passage from the Book of Revelations, in turn, Tyson derives what is certainly the most valuable part of the book: the discussion of the Wings of the Winds, an order of twenty-four angelic spirits which can be evoked and commanded through a series of ritual workings he gives in detail. The symbolic generation of the Wings and the ceremonies used to summon them show Tyson at his best, making skillful and creative use of a great deal of abstruse magical lore, and they deserve to be studied as solid examples of the way modern and traditional perspectives can be effectively combined in magical practice.

A less productive aspect of Tyson’s book is his insistence that his particular system of correspondences is the only true one, and other (and usually older) versions are either deliberate “blinds” or simply wrong. If the diversity of the world’s magical systems teaches anything, it is that correspondences are symbolic languages, and thus useful rather than true; to say that one particular set of correspondences is “correct” is like saying that French is true and all other languages are false. Similarly, it’s not usually a useful idea to insist, as Tyson too often does, that any pattern of symbolism that doesn’t make obvious rational sense must be garbled or wrong. It’s often precisely those elements of symbolism that evade easy comprehension that have the most to teach.

A far more serious weakness in this book, and a much more puzzling one, is the way Tyson interprets the Enochian system of magic created or received by the Elizabethan mage John Dee and his scryer Edward Kelly. Tyson’s contention, developed at length in the book’s final chapter and a lengthy appendix, is that this system is nothing less than “a complex ritual working whose sole purpose is to open the four sealed gates of the Watchtowers, allowing the entry of the great Dragon, Coronzon or Satan, who will bring about the final destruction of the manifest universe.” (p. 186). He takes this claim very seriously, suggesting that the proper use of the Enochian keys will result in a quite literal apocalypse in which “Coronzon will transform the universe into a suitable dwelling place for himself and his ministers, in the process destroying the human race…his sovereignty over our blasted universe will be of brief duration, but this will yield scant consolation to those billions who are slaughtered by war, famine, plagues, and natural disasters” (p. 237).

This section of the book raises a whole host of questions, few of which are satisfactorily answered. Tyson offers little in the way of evidence for his interpretation; he simply presents it as fact, and develops a reading of the Enochian Keys based on the assumption that he is correct. He correctly points out that imagery from the Book of Revelation appears throughout the Enochian material and Dee’s diaries, but gives no reasons for believing that these images should be taken literally – or more seriously than, say, the prophecies of Mother Shipton. He suggests that errors in the system are the only reason Coronzon has not yet put in an appearance, and then proposes various corrections – surely an odd thing to do, if these same errors are our best hope of staving off Armageddon!

A good deal of the material in this section seems to derive from the same kind of overly literal reading of the Book of Revelation that shows up in so much fundamentalist writing on the subject. Like so many other modern readers, Tyson may not have kept in mind the intensely symbolic nature of apocalyptic literature, or paid enough attention to the many uses of apocalyptic imagery in the social, religious and political world in which Dee and Kelly lived and performed their magic. Still, it seems at least possible that there’s one other influence at work, consciously or not, in Tyson’s interpretation. With its images of cosmic doom and its allegations that Dee and Kelley were unwitting pawns in a diabolical plot on the part of malign supernatural powers, this entire section of the book reads remarkably like passages in the fantasy fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. The similarities in theme and tone are striking enough that one almost expects to see references to Yog-Sothoth and the Voorish Sign.

Perhaps Tyson will devote the whole of a future book to his interpretation of the Enochian material, and provide more in the way of justification for his claim. In the meantime, his work on the Tetragrammaton remains a useful contribution, but one which needs to be read carefully, so that the wheat can be separated from the millenarian chaff.

Music in Renaissance Magic

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews Music in Renaissance Magic: Toward a Historiography of Others by Gary Tomlinson in the archive of Caduceus: The Hermetic Quarterly.

Tomlinson Music in Renaissance Magic

The place of music in the magical traditions of the Renaissance is a fascinating one, and has been far too little explored in either academic or esoteric circles. The musical aspects of Marsilio Ficino’s astrological magic, the role of Pythagorean harmonic theory in the broader context of Renaissance Hermetic thought, and a few other topics have been touched on by a handful of scholars; still, more work needs to be done on all of these areas, and the broader interface between magic and music in Renaissance culture as a whole remains all but undefined. In such a context, almost any scholarly contribution – however peripheral or flawed – cannot help but make some contribution to our knowledge of the subject.

It is thus frustrating to find, in Gary Tomlinson’s Music in Renaissance Magic, an exception that proves the rule. Despite Tomlinson’s obvious erudition and effort, readers who turn to this work hoping for insight or even information on the theory and practice of magical music in the Renaissance will go away disappointed.

The failure of this book has several roots, but the most obvious is the author’s inability to get past questions of current academic theory and actually deal with the material he proposes to study. Perhaps the simplest measure of this is the fact that his book quite literally devotes more space to the paradigms, categories and methodology he intends to use, and to the related viewpoints of figures such as Michel Foucault and his disciples, than it spares for its supposed subject. The same distortion of focus goes on at a deeper level as well, though, for Tomlinson consistently interprets passages from Renaissance-era works in terms derived wholly from modern academic movements such as semiotics and post-structuralist historiography. The inevitable result is that his texts are wrenched out of their contexts and often distorted in meaning as well.

One example out of far too many is his discussion of the idea of rational meaning in non-vocal music, a topic which takes up much of Chapter Four of his work. He’s quite correct in arguing that Ficino, like others of his time, saw music as a carrier of meaning in and of itself, apart from any verbal text connected with it. In making his argument, though, he uses a labored and roundabout approach derived largely from modern semiotics, and misses the obvious and defining point: that from a Renaissance standpoint, music is rationally meaningful because it derives, necessarily, from number and proportion. A little attention to the literature of Renaissance Pythagoreanism, or even to the meanings of the Latin word ratio, could have saved him (and the reader) a great deal of trouble.

What gives this pattern a remarkable irony is that Tomlinson, like other “postmodern” writers, argues at length that other (and especially earlier) attempts to interpret different cultures and times are “monologues” imposing the writer’s culturally defined reality on a passive text: a kind of intellectual imperialism, in fact, which makes the act of interpretation itself “hegemonic” in nature. In place of this, he insists, we need to treat interpretation as a “dialogue with the other” in which the differences between culturally defined realities are respected. This is a praiseworthy goal, to be sure, but one fails to see how it justifies a methodology in which snippets of a given work are taken out of context and redefined in terms completely foreign to their author and time. Ficino and his contemporaries, it should not have to be pointed out, did not write or think about the world in the ways that are currently fashionable in academic circles. Offering an interpretation of their works on the basis of, say, modern semiotic theory, while failing to explore or even mention the fact that these works defined basic issues of knowledge and existence in a wholly different way, is a suppression of their actual context and meaning that verges on intellectual dishonesty.

There is, however, a third level to these distortions of focus. Tomlinson’s discussion returns at a number of points to a remarkable and rather baffling insistence that the realm of magic is quite literally incomprehensible to modern minds. In the last chapter of his book, for example, Tomlinson speculates that the conceptual world of the Renaissance needs to be understood as one in which magic was an effective force. But: “…there emerges, as a function of our knowledge, an irreducible difference – an unresolvable alienation separating us from, for instance, Renaissance magic. We may move, fitfully, into the space between people like Ficino and us – this is what I have tried to do – but we cannot cross over to his side” (p. 247; emphasis in original). In his first chapter, similarly, he takes the time to castigate occultists, and in particular Joscelyn Godwin, the one major figure in modern musicology who has consistently defended traditional, esoteric views of music. His language here is equally curious: he speaks of “the abandonment of ourselves to occult thought” and accuses occultists of “attempt(ing) a radical dissociation of themselves from the implications – if not, usually, from the applications – of the postscientific, technological world in which they live” (p. 14).

The opposition between magic and the implications of modernity which Tomlinson invokes here is hard to defend, given the fact that our own culture – be it ever so “postscientific and technological” – is one in which magic is and always has been practiced. The tens of thousands of practicing magicians in the Western world today may be surprised to learn that an “unresolvable alienation” lies between them and the magical disciplines which are an everyday part of their lives. While the magical traditions of the present day are not identical to those known to Ficino and his contemporaries, to be sure, deep historical and genealogical links connect modern magic with its Renaissance antecedents. It’s quite reasonable, given this, to use the experience of modern magical practice as one source of insight into the world of Renaissance magic, and it’s naive (to say the least) to define magic as something which the scientific revolution somehow rendered unthinkable, given the reality of living Western magical traditions profoundly rooted in the same Renaissance background Tomlinson studies.

In this context, Tomlinson’s attempt to define the magi of the Renaissance as an incomprehensible “other” appear in a different light, if one far too familiar to modern practitioners of magic. The rhetoric about “dialogues with the other” which plays so large a role in postmodernist historiography contrasts with a continuing refusal, on the part of too many scholars, to open the real dialogue of academic discussion to truly divergent views. The “dialogue” of interpretation posited by the postmodernists is, after all, fictitious; Ficino and the other Renaissance magi, being dead, cannot speak for themselves, or object to the often cavalier treatment accorded to their writings and their views. The possibility of real dialogue with a living “other” – the “other” of living Western magical traditions, for example – is quite another matter. Such a dialogue might involve questioning some of the presuppositions of current academic thought – its a priori insistence that every aspect of human experience must be culturally created, its tendency to rely on political rhetoric in place of critical thinking, its too-frequent evasion of moral questions, and the like. It may not be surprising, then, that this particular “dialogue with the other” is one which Tomlinson seems quite eager to avoid.