Tag Archives: review

Antichrist

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by Bernard McGinn.

McGinn Antichrist

This accessible, well-documented history of the development of the story of Antichrist was surprisingly unexciting. Although a work would have to be much larger to treat exhaustively of the topic, McGinn’s is nearly as comprehensive as its scale permits. He proceeds at a steady pace from pre-Christian antiquity through the late twentieth century, and by the end, he proposes that he and the reader should be tired of the topic. (280)

Theologian McGinn dismisses mythicists like me as a “lunatic fringe” for being skeptical of the evidence for a “historical Jesus.” (34) But his fractious consensus of “New Testament scholars” is even less persuasive than the because-we-say-so of traditional clergy. And, although he is himself evidently a Christian (of the non-Fundamentalist sort, he is quite clear), he seems not to have faith in any sort of antichrist himself, nor to think that an incarnation of the Lie could be a constructive idea for modern believers. 

Writing in the early 1990s, the author may have anticipated a market for Antichrist related to the approach of the year 2000, but he certainly couldn’t have foreseen the Obama Antichrist rumor and ‘net meme that would arise later. Reading his account of the traditional ingredients of Antichrist legend, it is possible to see, for example, deep synergy between the Antichrist allegations and the charge of crypto-Islam aimed at the 44th US President. Another bizarre potential correlation is for born-again Christian George W. Bush to be the “Last Emperor” who is supposed to precede the reign of Antichrist. (The early medieval trope of the Last Emperor is typically absent from the Dispensationalist neo-Millenialism common to today’s Christianist chiliasts, though.) 

One significant element missing from McGinn’s treatment–in its modern phase at least–is the appearance of professed antichrists, such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Jack Parsons. While it could be tempting to excuse such an oversight by disqualifying such figures as lying outside of the spectrum of Christian belief, the book does actually include treatments of Jewish and Muslim Antichrist parallels, as well as a discussion of Jung’s secular psychological theory of Antichrist. 

Overall, the book is useful for readers wanting to get a historical handle on the Antichrist concept and its evolution. McGinn claims that Antichrist belief has become marginal and unoriginal in modern times, but he admits that there’s no way to be sure of the extent to which it formerly penetrated popular consciousness. And I would add that not all our current elites are as erudite as Professor McGinn, so his admission that Fundamentalist Evangelicals are “a limited, if powerful, segment” of Christianity should give the socially-reflective reader pause regarding just how irrelevant the anticipation of Antichrist may be.

Ghost Circles

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Bone: Ghost Circles [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by Jeff Smith, book 7 of the Bone series.

Smith Bone: Ghost Circles

I suppose it is a sign of Jeff Smith’s skill at developing his fictional world and its characters that I have read each volume of Bone in fewer sittings than the last, even though their length and complexity remains consistent. 

The end of the previous volume Old Man’s Cave made it seem as if the heroes had had a major victory, but Ghost Circles begins with almost overwhelming setbacks, and of all the Bone collections so far this one is easily the darkest in mood. Even a few scenes with the usually comical Ted the Bug are quite grave.

Spurs

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles / Éperons: Les Styles de Nietzsche [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by Jacques Derrida, trans. Barbara Harlow.

Derrida Harlow Spurs Éperons

Spurs (Eperons in the original French) is Derrida’s treatment of Nietzsche’s styles, which is to say his stylus, which is rather his phallus, approached through its apparent complement, Nietzsche’s representation of “woman.” Nietzsche is justifiably famous for both the seeming lucidity of his prose and the archness of his wordplay; Derrida is justly notorious for the opacity of his prose and the profundity of his wordplay. (The hieratically arcane Pierre Klossowski also deserves some mention, in consequence of Derrida’s reliance on his translations of Nietzsche.) This combination cannot but awesomely challenge the stoutest of translators, and my hat is off to Barbara Harlow for even attempting the English contents of this volume. Still, as if in admission of the practical impossibility of a translator doing full justice to the text, the original French is reproduced here in parallel. 

An introduction is furnished by Stefano Agosti, who insists that “If one is going to speak of Derrida’s ‘text’, one can, finally, but re-state it, only prolong it” (25). Accordingly, Agosti tries to extend and outdo Derrida’s verbal convolutions, to the point where the English translation (I cannot vouch for the French) becomes a nearly unreadable blow to the head. (The lexical touchstone of Agosti’s introduction is the coup.)

Despite the elegance of the design, with its tallish page dimensions and enigmatic drawings by Francois Loubrieu, I fault this edition severely for its typography. In the English text (the French seems better managed) there are routine substitutions of em dashes for hyphens, hyphens for en dashes, and so forth. Especially in the context of Derrida’s inventive vocabulary and his sometimes halting, digressive presentation, these confusions of punctuation are unkindnesses to the reader. Likewise, the use in both the French and the English translation of French double-angle quote marks, and only French double-angle quote marks, creates serious hazards of reading. Spurs often finds Derrida quoting Nietzsche quoting another — even if this last is merely scare quotes — and these nested quotes quickly become entangled, so that the compounded intertext sometimes requires a diligent reader to go back to the start of the paragraph and count the marks inward to the verbiage at stake. This last process is hardly assisted by the short lines, the lack of either indentations or line spacing at the paragraph breaks, and the absence of full justification. (The text is merely left-justified.) And parentheses are an instrument of abuse similar to the quotation marks.

But intellectual frustration is in many ways the goal of the book. Ultimately, Spurs is concerned with the undecidability of signification and the ways in which texts undergo their loss of contexts. These themes are implicitly demonstrated throughout, becoming gradually more overt, and fully explicit only in the penultimate section on “Abysses of truth” and a sort of coda: ” ‘I have forgotten my umbrella’.” At the last, Derrida insists that his own writing (like Nietzsche’s) is “indecipherable … cryptic and parodying” (137). The disingenuous denial of the anamnesis of the umbrella is a failure to forget the phallus, an exposure of the simultaneous ubiquity and absence of sexual difference. Read it if you must.

Litany of Dreams

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Litany of Dreams [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by Ari Marmell, cover by John Coulthart, book 4 of the Arkham Horror series.

Marmell Coulthart Litany of Dreams

Among the recent run of Arkham Horror novels, Ari Marmell’s Litany of Dreams is in some respects the most conventionally Lovecraftian. It features protagonists based out of Miskatonic University who encounter a preternatural horror that has taken over an insular community in the Massachusetts back country of the Hockomock Swamp. So far, so Cthulhu.

On the other hand, the principal protagonist is gay, the chief secondary protagonist is a formidable indigene of arctic Greenland (an “Inuit” according to the character’s insistence), and other secondary protagonists are women, so in that respect the story tracks better with the 21st-century diversity of hero-investigators in the Fantasy Flight Arkham Files games than it does with the old pulp Yog-Sothothery. I don’t think it quite passes the Bechdel Test, however.

The only Arkham Files game character who features in a significant way in this book is Daisy Walker, librarian at the Orne Library of Miskatonic University, and many aspects of the story are pleasantly bookish. The plot centers around the transliteration of an ancient inscription, and there are occasional references to the pleasure reading of various characters, noting such authors as Bram Stoker and Agatha Christie.

Unsurprisingly for a book written during the novel coronavirus pandemic, it features fears about a recurrence of epidemic influenza in 1923 Arkham. There is also more than a little “zombie apocalypse” flavor to the story. The references to the Silver Twilight Lodge in Arkham are minimal, and instead there is an even higher order of occult conspiracy invoked.

An elaborate epilogue introduced various possible sequel opportunities, making me wonder if Marmell, an author of several series, was deliberately angling in that direction.

The Hidden World

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Hidden World [Amazon, Publisher] by Paul Park, book 4 in the A Princess of Roumania series.

Park The Hidden World

The final volume of four in Paul Park’s Roumania series affords many outcomes and resolutions, but readers of the earlier books will not be surprised that it avoids a tidy ending. My Other Reader remarked my unusual facial expression while I was reading the antepenultimate chapter “The Exorcism,” and I guess I really did find it sort of horrifying. A lot of characters die in these books, but given the nature of the magic here, their deaths in no way remove them as agents from the continuing story. Where a traditional fantasy might have its protagonist’s aims clarified and streamlined over the course of its telling, this one just becomes more crowded with possible motivations and relationships.

As in what has come before, the characters here are highly imperfect, alluring, and surprising. Fascist strongman Victor Bocu steps into the limelight as a villain, and Chloe Adira with her household complicates Peter’s story. The setting remains original and provocative. Its manifold European war draws on more advanced African technologies. The alchemical legacies of the conjurors Newton and Kepler guide the coven attempting to engineer national and international destinies.

The arc of the four books seems to be something like this: In A Princess of Roumania the three apparent teenagers are displaced from somewhere like our Massachusetts into the “real” world where Roumania is. In The Tourmaline, their “real” adult personalities are ascendant, and they become embroiled in the political and sorcerous intrigues of Roumania itself. In The White Tyger they acquire more confidence and begin to integrate their Massachusetts memories with their resumed life histories in Roumania, and that integration reaches its fruition in The Hidden World. The completion of the arc is very remote from a happily-ever-after, and the aims of these books clearly differ from most of what dresses as fantasy literature.

Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration

Alex Sumner reviews Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration: An Investigation into the Source of Gardnarian Witchcraft [Amazon, Abebooks] by Philip Heselton at Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration in the Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition archive.

Heselton Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration

Gerald Brosseau Gardner (1884 – 1964) was probably the most influential figure in the Wicca movement in the twentieth century. When, after the decrepit Witchcraft Act 1735 was finally repealed in England and Wales in 1951, Gardner was the first major figure in the Craft to “come out” and declare that he was himself a Witch. He publicly worked to disseminate information about the Craft, both as an author, and as the Curator of a museum to Magic and Witchcraft. Moreover, as a practising Witch he initiated leading lights of the Wicca movement (e.g. Doreen Valiente), and is credited as being the source of many of Wicca’s rituals, texts and beliefs.

Gardner claimed that he was publicising for the first time many things that hitherto had been kept secret. He did this guardedly, for he claimed he was being careful to protect the privacy of pre-existing Witches, from whom he had received the material that he was now making public. This mixture of secrecy and openness has had a curious effect on commentators on the Craft: it has generated something of a romance about what they purport to be the true origins of Wicca.

I have heard a number of stories bandied about concerning Gardner, from different sources, which all seek to make Gardner appear to be a sort of con-man. These include:

  • Gardner invented Wicca himself;
  • Gardner paid Aleister Crowley to write the “Book of Shadows” [2];
  • Crowley invented Wicca after discussions with Gardner;
  • Gardner was initiated by a woman named Dorothy Clutterbuck – however, she was actually a figment of Gardner’s imagination;
  • There was no pre-existing Witch-cult before Gardner wrote Witchcraft Today;
  • Gardner was deliberately misleading in the way he wrote Witchcraft Today.

It is the assertion of Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration that all of the above claims are, in fact, false.

Why should we take notice of a new biography of Gardner now, when so much has been written about him in the past? One compelling reason has arisen: the passing in recent years of Gardner’s protégée, Doreen Valiente, has meant that her personal collection of material relating to Wicca has now been made available to researchers. Indeed, this, amongst other places, is from where Philip Heselton, the author of the book under consideration, has derived his sources.

Heselton has also gone to some trouble in researching the geography of the places involved. Thus, we have it that the author willingly searches out old maps and tramps through the New Forest to deduce the sites of the various Wiccan activities which Gardner described. Heselton, himself a practitioner of Wicca, is even able to use his insider connections to gain access to Gardner memorabilia, which is today in the safekeeping of various covens.

Thus for example, in refuting the idea of Gardner inventing Wicca all by himself, Heselton is able to unearth evidence which suggests that it certainly existed by the mid-1920s – over ten years before Gardner came to live in England. Following a lead in a note in one of Valiente’s books, Heselton suggests that the original creator – or alternatively, the rediscoverer – of the Wicca movement into which Gardner was initiated, was in fact an Adept of the Stella Matutina, one of the successors of the Golden Dawn.

(Here I must point out a technical fault in Heselton’s work: he makes the mistake of saying that this lady in question, “Mother Sabine”, was a member of Waite’s group, when the evidence clearly points otherwise. She joined the Morganrothe, which was the anti-Mathers faction of the Golden Dawn at the time of the 1900 split. This later split into the Stella Matutina, a magical order, and Waite’s Holy Order of the Golden Dawn, from which Waite extracted the magic and replaced it with Christianised mysticism.)

As a magician of the Golden Dawn tradition myself, I find the idea that Wicca was founded by a fellow GD-er fascinating. Indeed, the GD was a strong influence if indirect influence in Gardner’s life in other ways as well. Gardner freely admitted to using extracts of Mathers’ Key of Solomon in his novel High Magic’s Aid: he did this, he said, because he was not allowed to give away the operative secrets of the Craft. Moreover, Heselton has found the sword which Gardner lent to the Druids to use in the Summer Solstice ceremony at Stonehenge: it corresponds exactly to the description of the Magic Sword in the Key of Solomon.

Heselton wields another sharp object – Occam’s Razor – when he comes to the claims regarding Crowley’s involvement in the Craft. We must remember that in the first half of the twentieth century, Crowley was the Occult “Celebrity” – the leading figure, in Britain as well as other parts of the world. Everyone who was anyone in the field of the occult at the time was likely either to have met Crowley, or written to him, or know someone who knew him, etc. Thus we have some authors who go about implying that because everyone in the occult movement was indirectly connected with Crowley, one way or another, Crowley was directly responsible for almost every major event in occultism during that era.

Regarding Wicca, the facts are these. Gardner did meet Crowley, towards the end of the latter’s life. Crowley apparently made Gardner a IV° in the OTO, although it seems that what really happened was that Gardner drew up the charter himself and thrust it under Crowley’s nose, to sign. The Charter which Gardner displayed at the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft was almost certainly his own design: it is in his style of calligraphy, and shows a marked ignorance of the finer points of Thelema and the OTO. However, Gardner never used this charter, and probably wasn’t really interested in the philosophy of the OTO: he certainly never understood its grading structure! Gardner admitted to Valiente that he had incorporated some of Crowley’s poetry in the Book of Shadows. Gardner also wrote that when he first saw the Wicca materials, he believed Crowley may have had a hand in it.

It was this last admission that has caused some conspiracy theorists to believe that Gardner was deliberately being misleading – that Gardner had paid Crowley to write the material. However, it is Heselton’s contention that what really happened was that a third party had lifted some material from Crowley’s published works – hence Gardner may just have been telling the truth.

The real story of the origin of Wicca, according to Heselton, would appear to be something like this. Gardner, on his retirement, returned to England in 1936, and made contact with a number of colourful characters, who though unconnected were all involved with “alternative lifestyles”. These included a group of people in a Hampshire village amongst whom were a former GD Adept, as noted above, and an authoress of children’s books who incorporated Pagan themes into her stories. They had formed a Wicca group by at least 1925: this was the so-called “New Forest Coven”.

Gardner was also a Naturist, and met people interested in alternative or Pagan spirituality through Naturist clubs to which he belonged. Crucially, one of his many friends was the pioneering founder of what was possibly the first open air museum in Britain. This heavily influenced Gardner, and was what probably inspired him to help set-up, and eventually take-over, the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft on the Isle of Man.

There really was a “Dorothy Clutterbuck” – actually, a lady named Dorothy St. Quintin Fordham (née Clutterbuck), who was a prominent member of the community in the Hampshire village where the members of the New Forest coven lived. Gardner was initiated into Wicca at her house in 1939, although not by her – the Witch whom Gardner looked upon as his initiatrix was another lady entirely.

Wicca was the abiding passion of Gardner’s life – which was a quite something, as being a mercurial character he often dropped things if he lost interest in them. Given Gardner’s fascination with it, it is not surprising that he felt the urge to write about witchcraft. However, in the first half of the 20th century, this was technically impossible, as there was still on the statute books an obsolete piece of legislation known as The Witchcraft Act 1735, which still outlawed the Craft in England and Wales. Therefore, what Gardner did was to write about the Craft in the form of a fictional novel – High Magic’s Aid (1947). Written as an adventure set in mediaeval times, Gardner put a lot of Wiccan belief into the mouth of the heroine – a young Witch called Morven. Heselton quotes Patricia Crowther, who told him what Gardner said when he presented a signed copy of High Magic’s Aid in 1960: “Darling, take notice of Morven’s words, they will teach you much.” [3]

But this novel did not satiate Gardner’s urge to write. In 1953, he wrote the seminal Witchcraft Today – this time a non-fiction book. The Witchcraft Act 1735 had been repealed, and replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 – which technically meant that being a Witch was no longer a crime. In this light, Gardner was able to publicly profess that he was a Witch, and that he was well acquainted with other Witches – hence he could describe their practices from personal experience. His first steps in this direction were at the opening of the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft on the Isle of Man. Just a month after the Act had been repealed, he marked the opening of the museum by publicly performing a spell for good fortune. But what he really wanted to do was to express himself in print. Hence when in 1952 the book Witchcraft by Pennethorne Hughes came out, he was galvanised to refute what he saw as distorted descriptions of the Craft, and slanders against himself and his Wicca friends. Hence the appearance of Witchcraft Today in 1953.

Now here we come to a curious fact! When Gardner wrote High Magic’s Aid in 1946, he consulted his initiatrix in the Craft, whose witch-name was “Dafo”, as to what he could and could not include. The rituals which she proscribed, Gardner replaced in the book with portions from The Key of Solomon. In 1952, Gardner again sought “Dafo’s” permission, before writing Witchcraft Today – which she gave, because she herself did not like Hughes’ book. “Dafo” stipulated that Gardner should at least respect the privacy of the Witches, which he did. Therefore, Gerald Gardner remains probably the first and possibly only founder of a modern Occult movement, who instead of defying his initiators, remained loyal to them!

Being a Gardnerian Witch himself, it is clear from the text that Heselton intends his book to be a suitable monument to Wicca generally, and Gardner in particular. Gardner as a man, did have his faults: for example, despite the fact that he enjoyed a successful career, he was still ashamed of his lack of any formal education. This led Gardner to deceive others into believing that he held non-existent academic qualifications, such as a Ph.D. He may also have deceived Crowley into thinking he held more Masonic degrees than he actually did! On the other hand there is speculation that Gardner may have had an extra-marital affair with another Witch.

Yet it is clear from Heselton’s writing that he regards Gardner’s personal shortcomings as relatively trivial: especially when compared to his main achievement, of publicly establishing the Craft in modern Britain. And in a sense, Heselton is right, for so long as we accept that Gardner was not the inventor of Wicca, but the medium for its publication, then ultimately the Craft transcends Gardner. Although Gerald Gardner certainly deserves full credit for bringing it to a modern audience.

I would therefore recommend this book. It is refreshing to read a book on Wicca by an author who writes as a Historian first, and a Wiccan second. For in doing so Philip Heselton has managed to collate a fascinating array of data which uncovers the previously unknown history of the Craft.

Bibliography

Gardner, G B: High Magic’s Aid, 1949, Michael Houghton

Gardner, G B: Witchcraft Today, 1954, Rider.

Heselton, Philip: Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration, 2003, Capall Bann.

Hughes, Pennethorne: Witchcraft, 1952

King, Francis: Ritual Magic In England, 1970, Spearman.

Mathers, S L Macgregor (ed): The Key of Solomon. https://hermetic.com/norton/classics

Notes

[1] [cover] Image courtesy of http://www.capallbann.co.uk/

[2] King, Ritual Magic In England (1970). This appears to be the original source of the claim: I shall not bother with later sources who repeat the assertion without any new evidence.

[3] Heselton, p223.

Wiccan Genius or Pagan Savant?

Samuel Scarborough reviews What’s Your Wicca IQ? [Amazon, Abebooks] by Laura Wildman at Wiccan Genius or Pagan Savant? in the Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition archive.

Wildman What's Your Wicca IQ?

How well do you know your Wiccan or pagan material? Are you just starting on the path or have you been practicing for years? Have you ever wondered just how you could test your knowledge of the material that you should know as a practicing witch or pagan? Well, here is a book that will be able to help you out. The last twenty years have seen the growth of interest in Wicca, witchcraft, and Neo-Paganism. Wicca has been acknowledged one of the fastest growing religions in North America, and there are innumerable websites and books on the subject.

Laura Wildman is a Third Degree Gardnerian Witch trained in the Protean tradition. She has taught and lectured on Wicca for more than fifteen years and is a legally recognized Wiccan clergy in Massachusetts. Mrs. Wildman is also a faculty member and chair of the Interfaith Development and Community Rites of Passage Department at Cherry Hill Seminary, a Pagan seminary in Vermont.

The book is broken down into six distinct chapters that each deal with a specific topic, and a seventh chapter to grade yourself as to where you fall in the Wiccan IQ scale, but if you are expecting just another run of the mill recipe book on paganism or Wicca and witchcraft, then you will be disappointed. Each chapter has several sections of questions with multiple-choice answers and a few matching questions that relate to a more narrowed focus within the broad categories of the chapter. There is no other information on the topic of the chapter, other than the very brief introduction. The answers to each section of questions are at the end of the chapter. The object is to test your knowledge of the topic at hand. The chapters are as follows:

  • Chapter 1 – You Believe What?! Witches, Wiccans, Pagans, and Their Beliefs
  • Chapter 2 – Tools of the Trade. Within, Without, and All About the Circle
  • Chapter 3 – Which Witch is Which? The History of the Witch
  • Chapter 4- Burn Two Candles and Call Me in the Morning – Spellcraft
  • Chapter 5 – Unraveling Entrails – The Art of Divination
  • Chapter 6 – Cerebellum Ceremonium – Ceremonial Magic
  • Chapter 7 – Putting It Together – What is Your Wicca I. Q.?

Unlike many books that have questions and answers in them, Mrs. Wildman actually explains the answers in some detail in the answer section of each chapter. This is not simply a question 1. A; format, there is a brief explanation of the answer and in many cases a cite as to where the information can be found, i.e. what book, etc. Also, in many cases there is a listing of a book or books that may be of help on a particular subject listed under the question. Her reason for this format on the answers to show the subject taking the test where their strengths lie and what they need to work on, not just to parrot back a series of answers to the questions. Finally, in each chapter is method to calculate your score in that chapter, along with a maximum test score possible in that chapter.

Chapter seven of this book is where it is all comes together. This is where you tally your scores from the previous chapters and then tabulate the score. This score can range from 0-1234. The scores are further broken down into four categories.

  • 0-307: Dedicant
  • 308-676: First Degree
  • 677-1046: Second Degree, Priest or Priestess of the Craft
  • 1049-1243: Third Degree, High Priest of Priestess of the Old Religion

These sections are further explained as to having the general knowledge that would go along with having that particular degree within a Tradition or bestowed upon you by the gods. Having answered the questions to the level of 677-1046 does not make you a Priest or Priestess within the Craft; it just means that you understand the material to that level.

Also, in chapter seven, there is a section for evaluating each chapter on a similar scale of Dedicant through Third Degree. This is like the rest of the book used to see what sections you may need to strengthen so that you can better use the knowledge of your chosen path.

Here is a book that will help you with your knowledge of paganism and Wicca and witchcraft that any person on that path can use regardless of learning or time practicing. Do not expect an easy time in taking the tests. The material covered in these questions is very thorough and will take some thought on the part of the person answering the questions.

Overall, this book should be in any personal library of any practicing magician regardless of Tradition. From Neo-Pagan to Ceremonial magician, this book has something to offer any practicing magician.

The Sentinel

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Sentinel [Amazon, Bookshop] by Arthur C Clarke.

Clarke The Sentinel

The Sentinel collects nine pieces of Arthur C. Clarke’s short fiction, with an author’s introduction. These represent earlier work, since the 1972 story “A Meeting with Medusa” was Clarke’s last, after which his fiction consisted entirely of novels (237). Each individual story is also supplied with a brief introduction by Clarke circa 1983.

Several of these stories are notable as having eventually contributed to novels by Clarke. The eponymous “The Sentinel” was the germ of 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Guardian Angel” was the basis of the first part of Childhood’s End. “A Meeting with Medusa” contributed premises to 2010: Odyssey Two.

Despite some later incorporation into larger works, these stories do not generally presume a shared narrative continuity or “future history.” Clarke was distinctive for his emphasis on scientifically plausible “hard” science fiction, to the point where composing a story could require “twenty or thirty pages of orbital calculations” (153). As a result, his relatively near-future stories of space exploration written over four decades had to change in order to align with the real-world developments of astronautical knowledge.

Clarke tended to err on the optimistic side. It was a little sad to read him writing in 1951 about a manned lunar surface exploration in 1996 which most certainly did not come to pass (139). Generally he avoids specific dates in these stories, though.

The story that was most interesting to me was “Breaking Strain,” something of a psychological sketch regarding two men on a spaceship reduced to life support resources for one. It had a passing literary reference–somewhat anomalous among these pieces–to Cabell’s Jurgen. Another story where there was a curious real-world reference was “Refugee,” which painted a rather flattering picture of the British monarchy.

My copy of the book is a Barnes & Noble reprint of the Byron Preiss Visual Publications collection. It includes attractive and apt illustrations by Lebbeus Woods in black and white–roughly one full-page drawing per story (and in one case a two-page spread).

The Mystery of the Letters and The Tree of Life

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Mystery of the Letters and The Tree of Life: Interrelationships Among Symbols in the Aeon of the Child [Amazon, J D Holmes, Publisher] by Robert C Stein.

Stein The Mystery of the Letters and the Tree of Life

This book by Robert C. Stein is a recent development of the Hermetic Qabala in a Thelemic context, comprehending the study of several specific “Class A” documents of Aleister Crowley’s canon, i.e. scriptures “of which may be changed not so much as the style of a letter.” It is valuable but difficult. It will be bewilderingly useless to anyone who does not already have a qabalistic practice and orientation to magick, because it is narrowly focused on “interrelationships among symbols” with very little information about any empirical phenomena to which those symbols might refer.

A helpful comparandum in this case is the later work of Charles Stansfeld Jones (e.g. The Egyptian Revival), in which he posited and elaborated a “Reformed Order” of the paths on the Tree of Life, completely rearranging the traditional attributions. This effort met with justified derision from Aleister Crowley. Stein does not scrap the old correspondences; in fact he preserves them more rigorously than Crowley did when proposing the “heh-tzaddi switch” in The Book of Thoth. He does, however, advance the relevance of a “Quantum Tree” that complements and expands the received model, based on novel readings of the “Class A” literature. Like Jones, Stein works with the symbols themselves as reified, objective entities, seeking to define their correct arrangement in light of symbolic contexts only.

The first full chapter of the book consists primarily of an edition history of Liber AL vel Legis, and this chapter is perhaps the one which I could most easily recommend to a general, non-technical readership. The three most substantial chapters are each oriented around exegesis of a different Class A text: Liber Trigrammaton, Liber Legis, and Liber CCXXXI. I found the Liber Trigrammaton study very stimulating, and it is foundational for Stein’s concept of the Quantum Tree. Thelemites should be intrigued to know that his treatment of Liber Legis promises elucidation of the cryptographic elements in each of the three chapters: the “glyph” of I:57, the “riddle” of II:75-6, and the “key” of III:47. The chapter on Liber CCXXXI devotes some welcome attention to the actual verses of the book, along with larger and clearer reproductions of the sigils and discussions of their possible meaning. I was not always persuaded by the philological analyses of the names of the spirits, however.

Some appendices supply references and treat isolated problems in the context established by the book. One of these vividly illustrates Stein’s general method: a discussion of the first word of the third chapter of Liber Legis. Noting a manuscript irregularity, Stein suggests that “Abrahadabra” is inaccurate in this case, and that “Ahaahadabra” is a “closer transliteration” (although the ambiguous r/a character is clearly filled in a way that other letters a in the manuscript are not). From this observation he goes on to perform gematria and analysis towards a meaning for “Ahaahadabra” distinct from “Abrahadabra.”

In the end, The Mystery of the Letters does not give explanations that will make these documents and symbols important to anyone who does not already value them. But for those who do, it outlines some original and provocative readings and methods of analysis.