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The Complete Golden Dawn Cipher Manuscript

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews The Complete Golden Dawn Cipher Manuscript edited by Darcy Küntz, introduced by R A Gilbert, in the archive of Caduceus: The Hermetic Quarterly.

Küntz Gilbert The Complete Golden Dawn Cipher Manuscript

Nearly a century after its rise and fall, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn remains at once the most famous and the most puzzling of the magical orders of the modern West. The outlines and many details of its brief career have been traced out in a number of works, most notably Ellic Howe’s waspish but capable The Magicians of the Golden Dawn (1972). Still, conundrums aplenty await both the scholar who wishes to explore the Order’s place in history and the practitioner who hopes to gain a better grasp of the Order’s teachings.

The murkiest of these, unquestionably, have to do with the origins of the Order and its system of magic, and it has not helped that the document at the root of the whole phenomenon – the mysterious “cipher manuscript” which, according to the Order’s own mythology, gave Golden Dawn founders William Wynn Westcott and Samuel Mathers the framework of the Order’s rituals and the address of the mysterious Fraulein Sprengel – had been published only in incomplete form. Fortunately, this has now been remedied.

The Complete Golden Dawn Cipher Manuscript is precisely that, a facsimile and translation of the core document of the Golden Dawn system, giving the grade rituals of the Order in skeleton form along with elements of the Order’s magical teachings. The whole is clear and readable, and has been ably annotated and provided with a useful bibliography of relevant works. An appendix includes a Golden Dawn knowledge lecture on the Tarot which was extracted from the manuscript.

In addition, this volume contains R. A. Gilbert’s fascinating essay “Provenance Unknown: A Tentative Solution to the Riddle of the Cipher Manuscript of the Golden Dawn.” Gilbert’s suggestion is that the original cipher manuscript came to Westcott from the papers of Kenneth Mackenzie, a major figure in Victorian esoteric masonic circles, and may well have been Mackenzie’s work. While the evidence involved is largely circumstantial, Gilbert makes a good case for his suggestion, and in the process helps to link the Golden Dawn more clearly with the murky realm of Victorian fringe Masonry from which it emerged.

This volume is presented as Volume 1 of a “Golden Dawn Studies” series, with at least eight other volumes forthcoming. If these reach the standards of this first book, the whole collection may well become required reading for scholars and practitioners of the Golden Dawn system alike.

The Cube of Space

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews The Cube of Space: Container of Creation by Kevin Townley in the archive of Caduceus: The Hermetic Quarterly.

Townley The Cube of Space

The predominance of the standard Tree of Life in the modern magical scene can make it easy to forget that this is only one of many models of the universe which are part of the rich traditional lore of the Qabalah. It takes very little digging among materials to come up with others: variations on the Tree, and also wholly different systems such as the Fifty Gates of Understanding or the intricate diagrams of Isaac Luria and his school. Most of these, however, have received little attention outside orthodox Jewish circle.

One such diagram which has seem some use in the modern Hermetic movement is the Cube of Space. This is derived from the Sepher Yetzirah, one of the foundation documents of the Qabalah. Like most Qabalistic patterns, the Cube of Space is based on the internal dynamics of the Hebrew alphabet, the letters forming a geometrical matrix of forces which can be explored in meditation and applied in practical work.

Keven Townley’s The Cube of Space is intended as a thorough introduction to this aspect of Qabalistic theory, and it succeeds quite well at this task. Beginning with the basic symbolism and structure of the Cube, it proceeds through a series of increasingly complex interactions relating to standard Qabalistic symbolism such as the Hebrew alphabet, astrological forces and the cards of the Tarot deck. The book concludes with a Tarot-based interpretation of the Chaldean system of decan correspondences which is highly reminiscent of some of Paul Foster Case’ better work.

This last comment, in a sense, also points out one of the few limitations to this useful book: its approach to the Qabalah derives almost completely from the one developed by Case and taught by the organization he founded, the Builders of the Adytum. (Creditably, Townley is quite open about his reliance on these sources.) Those who disagree with Case’s take on the Qabalah, or simply find it uncongenial, may have some trouble making use of Townley’s work. Still, The Cube of Space is a capable and original study of a neglected area of Qabalistic theory, and it both deserves and repays serious study by anyone interested in the magical Qabalah.

Byways of Esoteric History

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews The Theosophical Enlightenment and Arktos: The Polar Myth in Science, Symbolism and Nazi Survival by Hermetic Library Fellow Joscelyn Godwin in the archive of Caduceus: The Hermetic Quarterly.

Godwin The Theosophical Enlightenment

Godwin Arktos

The relationship between modern scholarship and the Hermetic tradition has always been a complicated one, bedeviled by a radical difference among basic assumptions which many writers recognize but few seem to be able to overcome. For every academic work which combines competent scholarship with the imaginative ability to enter into the worldview of the tradition – the writings of the late Dame Frances Yates come first to mind here – there are far too many which fall into the gap between paradigms and never manage to climb back out. The socioeconomic reductionism wielded by several generations of Marxist scholars, the psychological reductionism common to many of the current interpreters of Carl Jung, and other less popular but equally distorting interpretive schemes have stretched and sawed the Hermetic tradition to fit any number of Procrustean beds.

Given this context, the efforts of Joscelyn Godwin to light up some of the byways of recent esoteric history in the West come as a relief and a delight. Two of his most recent books, in particular, unite capable scholarship with a willingness to let his subject matter speak in its own voice.

The Theosophical Enlightenment is, broadly speaking, a history of English occultism from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries. That period saw the rise and fall of major esoteric movements such as Mesmerism, Spiritualism, the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and by way of these the origins of most of modern Western occult thought and practice. It also saw a great deal of influence by esoteric traditions on the wider culture of which they were an often unacknowledged part; the figures of William Blake at the beginning of the period, and William Butler Yeats at its end, are only the most visible of many carriers of that influence. An amazing pageant of scholars, scoundrels, mages, crackpots, visionaries and out-and-out lunatics filled the space between these two, and it is this pageant which gives The Theosophical Enlightenment most of its subject matter and much of its charm.

One of the central themes of this study is the extent to which the esoteric systems of that age had their roots as much in the scepticism and critical scholarship of the time as in the older and more credulous traditions of medieval occultism. The highly syncretistic approach which marked Theosophy, the Golden Dawn and similar movements would have been inconceivable without the rise of ideas of comparative religion and mythology during the prior century, ideas which removed Christianity from its privileged position and drew attention to the connections between it and other religious traditions.

Another theme, linked to this, is the complex and ambivalent relationship between Western occultism and Eastern traditions. Materials from Hindu sources in particular were borrowed eagerly by esotericists in the West from the Transcendentalists to Madame Blavatsky, but there was also a reaction against this trend. Both these forces showed themselves in the rise and decline of the Theosophical Society, which drew together most of the esoteric currents of the age into a temporary unity, only to founder when the differences proved too great to bridge.

In the process of tracing these themes and others, Godwin casts light on an entire chapter of the history of Western esotericism which has received too little illumination to date. The Theosophical Enlightenment is likely to become the standard starting point for future explorations in this area.

A second book of Godwin’s, Arktos, carries out the same task of illumination in a far stranger region of thought. The subject matter of this work, the symbolism of the poles in Western occult tradition, has long been a kind of lightning-rod for high strangeness in the cultures of the modern West: one of those subjects where the line between the esoteric and the simply crazed is rarely easy to draw.

It says much for Godwin’s abilities that he is able, for the most part, to present this material on its own terms as well. From polar paradises and pole-shift catastrophes through the hollow earth and similar tabloid fodder, up to the heights of Persian Sufi mysticism and down into the psychotic mythologies of race that lay behind the Nazi phenomenon, Arktos provides a glimpse at a world at least as unexplored as the Hyperborea of legend, and even less easy to map.

In some senses, Arktos is a less satisfying book, if a more intriguing one, than The Theosophical Enlightenment. It is very much a first survey of a broad and highly diverse subject, and a great deal of further work remains to be done to fill in the blank areas and trace out the connections between the different uses which esoteric tradition has made of the poles. (I was mildly disappointed, for instance, to see no mention of the Golden Dawn’s relation of the Earth’s axial tilt to Cabalistic symbolism in Godwin’s book.) Still, it forms an excellent starting place for future study, as well as an example of how material from the fringes of modern thought can be lucidly and intelligently explored.

Robert Fludd

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews Robert Fludd: Essential Readings selected and edited by William H Huffman in the archive of Caduceus: The Hermetic Quarterly.

Fludd Huffman Robert Fludd Essential Readings

The work of Robert Fludd (1574-1637), the Paracelsian physician and Hermetic encyclopedist who provided the last major statement of the esoteric traditions of the Renaissance, has been best known in modern times by way of the extraordinary engravings created for his vast Technical, Physical and Metaphysical History of the Macrocosm and Microcosm (1617-1626). These are perhaps the most common visual images of Renaissance esotericism at the present time; ironically, though, Fludd’s own writings have all but vanished into their shadow. Most remain available only in their original editions, mostly in Latin, and the few reprintings and translations that have appeared are scattered through the academic literature.

This book of selections from Fludd’s writings is thus a welcome step in uncovering one of the more neglected figures in the Western esoteric tradition. Huffman, whose Robert Fludd and the End of the Renaissance (Routledge: New York, 1988) is a solid general study of Fludd and his place in Renaissance thought, has assembled writings from most of the periods of Fludd’s literary output – the Apologia Compendiaria, an early defense of the Rosicrucians; a selection from the first volume of the Technical, Physical and Metaphysical History; his Brief Declaration to James I of England, defending himself against charges of heresy; A Philosophical Key, an alchemical work describing experiments on wheat; Truth’s Golden Harrow, a defense of the physical reality of alchemy; Dr. Fludd’s Answer unto M. Foster, in which Fludd supported the Paracelsian position in the weapon-salve controversy; and a portion of Mosaicall Philosophy, Fludd’s last work. Also included in the volume is Wolfgang Pauli’s essay “The Influence of Archetypal Ideas on the Scientific Theories of Kepler,” which chronicles the dispute between Fludd and Kepler over the respective places of mathematics and mysticism in an understanding of the world, as well as a mostly biographical introduction and a useful bibliography.

There are a few weaknesses to this otherwise solid work. The sheer volume of Fludd’s prose has forced Huffman to prune his selections extensively, and in some places – particularly in the portion of the History reprinted here – the resulting passages are disjointed and difficult to put in their proper context. The selection of writings is also problematical in one sense: the pieces given deal largely with Fludd the theoretician and philosopher; Fludd’s more practical interests in medicine, technology and the arts, interests which fill the greater part of his works, receive far less attention. Amid the sometimes abstract speculations of his esoteric philosophy, it can be too easy to lose sight of the Robert Fludd who introduced new methods of steel manufacture to England and devised one of the earliest barometers.

Despite these quibbles, though, Huffman’s collection is a solid introduction to Fludd’s thought, and a valuable resource for any student of esoteric traditions in the Renaissance.

The Manual of Harmonics of Nicomachus the Pythagorean

Hermetic Library Fellow John Michael Greer reviews The Manual of Harmonics of Nicomachus the Pythagorean by Nicomachus of Gerasa, translation and commentary by Flora R Levin in the archive of Caduceus: The Hermetic Quarterly.

Nicomachus Levin The Manual of Harmonics

The Manual of Harmonics, an introduction to musical theory by the Pythagorean philosopher Nicomachus of Gerasa, forms part of Phanes Press’ continuing project of publishing important texts in the Pythagorean and Neoplatonic traditions. Music held a central place in Pythagorean thought, as a bridge between the apparent abstractions of mathematics and proportion, on the one hand, and the realm of sensory experience on the other, and an ancient handbook of musical theory from one of the major figures in the Pythagorean tradition is thus a useful contribution.

Nicomachus’ manual itself is a fairly brief document, a summary of basic concepts in ancient musical theory. Lewin’s extensive and able commentary on each chapter, however, goes considerably beyond this, relating the manual to its contexts in musical theory and science, in Pythagorean thought, and in the life and culture of the ancient world. Manual and commentary together form what is quite probably the best introduction available to this subject. The book as a whole is scholarly but accessible to the nonspecialist, and deserves the attention of anyone interested in the Pythagorean tradition or the philosophical and esoteric aspects of music.

Self-Initiation into the Golden Dawn Tradition

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

Cicero Self-Initiation into the Golden Dawn Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Natural History of Hell

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

Ford A Natural History of Hell

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

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

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

The Last Days of Magic

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

Aaron Bachelo Doctor Strange The Last Days of Magic

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

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

Tarot Tales

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

Pollack Matthews Tarot Tales

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

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

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

Staying with the Trouble

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

Haraway Staying with the Trouble

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

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

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

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