Erudition That’s Not Just Skin Deep

“Egypt is magic” is a cultural assumption that dates back millennia. In part, it was a narrative which the ancient Egyptians promoted about themselves; magicians were a part of their culture, and their civilisation was ancient enough that over time understanding of its earlier phases passed into legend and myth as much as official history. (More time passed between the Great Pyramid’s construction and the dawning of Christianity than have passed between now and the Crucifixion, after all.)

It was also a bit of PR which numerous other Mediterranean cultures bought into, and became a recurring assumption in European culture as a whole. The Greeks bought into it, the Romans bought into it, Jewish sources like Exodus and the Talmud bought into it, and so it’s no surprise that much of Christendom bought into it, Enlightenment-era Freemasons and other such esoteric societies bought into it – particularly after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt rekinded a general interest in Egyptology, the Golden Dawn bought into it to the extent that most of their rituals involved extensive riffs on Egyptian myth, and Crowley bought into it so hard that his Book of the Law was steeped in Egyptian imagery and received during a honeymoon in Cairo.

Many occult practitioners like to hype up the extent to which they are participating in a tradition which winds its way back through the ages to ancient Egypt. The extent to which is the case has always been doubtful. The myth that the tarot dates back to Egyptian times seems to have little to no basis in fact, and the Golden Dawn’s rituals reflect tentative Victorian reconstructions of Egyptian religion more than they do actual practices handed down through the years by a centuries-old tradition.

However, whilst there is little evidence for a tradition passed down on an institutional or personal level – no secret society or Sith-style chain of master and apprentice winding its way back through the years to connect modern occult groups to the practitioners of ancient Egypt, there is evidence for a literary or textual tradition being passed down – concepts in Egyptian writing on the subject of magic which ended up in some fashion influencing the medieval grimoires which Renaissance and Enlightenment-era magicians would then develop in their own directions and make their own additions to.

Perhaps the most extensive collection of material we have on Egyptian magical practices are what’s known as the Greek Magical Papyri, a collection of magical texts – including what seem to be the handbooks used by actual practicing magicians – that had been accumulated in private collections in the post-Napoleon burst of Egyptological research.

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The Necronomicon Wars

Even in his own lifetime, H.P. Lovecraft got the occasional bit of fan mail from occultists either asking if his mythology of the Great Old Ones was real – or insisting that it was real. Over time, it seemed like the Necronomicon became the particular focus of this sort of inquiry – perhaps because of Lovecraft’s technique of listing it and other invented Mythos tomes alongside real books when using it in his stories.

Lovecraft gently let down all such inquirers. He’d also disappoint fans who knew it was fictional but thought it’d be wicked awesome if he’d write an actual Necronomicon, by pointing out that he’d already established in his stories that the damn thing was hundreds of pages long – and whilst he might be tempted to cook up some scraps, he really didn’t want to spend that long cranking out a tome of that length. Nonetheless, an appetite for the book remained.

After Lovecraft died, pranksters would slip references to it into library catalogues and the like, but the efforts of Arkham House to exert control over Lovecraft’s intellectual property (despite August Derleth’s rather weak claim to be Lovecraft’s literary executor, a role it’s now generally agreed that R.H. Barlow had a better claim to) may have dampened any efforts to turn the artifact into reality. Derleth’s death in 1971, however, made such fakery significantly more tempting.

The early 1970s also saw Kenneth Grant put out The Magical Revival, the first volume in his epic Typhonian Trilogies – a sprawling account of his further development of Aleister Crowley’s occult system of Thelema. This included an astonishing claim – that Lovecraft’s fiction wasn’t fiction, but was on some level communicating psychic truths that were not only compatible with Thelema but were actually important components of it in their own right.

This created the impetus for a bizarre new feature of the occult scene – a spate of purported Necronomicons, at least one of which would inspire readers to actually try out the magic described therein, and a raging conflict in the wider scene over whether these books a) were what they purported to be and b) had any legitimacy as grimoires. In short, the stage was set for a conflict in which shots are still fired to this day – the controversy I like to call the Necronomicon Wars.

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Kindlefluff: The Last Degree by Dina Rae

A reminder, since it’s been a while since I’ve dipped into this: “Kindlefluff” is the term I use for my reviews of books which I absolutely would not have acquired were they not going for cheap or free on Kindle (not counting Kindle Unlimited pieces). Hang onto your hats folks, because this one is a doozy.

The Last Degree by Dina Rae was a book I picked up for free but, at the time I got it at least, had a list price of £1.92. At the time, I both had a fairly clear idea of what I was getting into and absolutely no idea of what direction the book would take. You see, it’s a conspiracy thriller about the Freemasons, and you never know which way one of those things is going to jump. By the end of the book, I was left in no doubt as to where Dina Rae’s priorities lay as an author, and ended up glad that I hadn’t given her any money..

The thing about Masonic conspiracy theories is that they’re like the Swiss Army knife of conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories almost always boil down to politics in the end, and specifically revolve around the alleged conspirators plotting to do something for reasons the theorist finds foul – you almost never have theorists saying “well, actually I kind of agree with the agenda of the big conspiracy, I just object to their methods”.

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Mini-Review: Book 4

So before I did my Foucault’s Pendulum review, I decided to take a look over some of the sources for the magical traditions that clash by the end of the novel, which is kind of why there’s been a trickle of occult content on the blog for a bit; having first read the novel knowing very little about the stuff it was riffing on, I wanted to see how it read to someone who actually knew the territory (it’s just as good).

Here’s a leftover from that research project. Crowley’s attempt to produce an all-encompassing manual of magic – published previously in several separate parts including Magick In Theory and Practice and The Equinox of the Gods – boldly proclaims that it intends to be a guide to magic which is accessible to everyone, and then spends most of its page count mired in technicalities, presenting various arguments trying to insist on the authenticity of The Book of the Law, and giving a somewhat confusing rundown of ceremonial magical procedure, with brief sections at the beginning giving a somewhat more coherent rundown of the basic practices of meditation and an idealised version of magical practice which seems to be entirely logistically unattainable for most practitioners.

The magical information in here is largely the Golden Dawn material, plus Crowley’s fixation on The Book of the Law and some other concepts added by Crowley, and it is perhaps more interesting as a worked example of how an actual practitioner might use and further develop the Golden Dawn system than a system in its own right.

It’s not Crowley’s fault that the book is a bit of a mess, since it had a long and frequently disrupted writing process and several aspects of it were dictated to Crowley by, he thought, spirits talking through his personal mediums, right down to the questionable decision to call a book for beginners “Book 4”. (There are numerological reasons for doing so, but it’s still confusing.)

Current editions have a biographical essay from the current head of the OTO, William Breeze, discussing how Crowley produced the book. It is notable how Breeze shines a light on Crowley’s use of a succession of “Scarlet Women” as mediums, a rather exploitative-sounding process which led to a trail of human wreckage in Crowley’s wake. If trampling down others in this fashion was the price of producing this book, I am not altogether sure it was worth it.

Swinging Between the Extremes

From the early 1970s onwards Italian politics became marred by increasing political violence on both sides of the political spectrum, with neo-fascist forces on the right and the Red Brigades on the left turning to increasingly brutal methods as both the Western and Eastern Bloc used Italy as a front in the Cold War. It was a paranoid time in which the groups acting on the street were fronts either directly controlled or indirectly manipulated by larger forces.

Fascist groups – as well as agents provocateur on the left – were backed by Operation Gladio, a NATO-backed “stay behind” paramilitary force intended to resist a Soviet Bloc takeover of Italy which had, depending on who you talk to, either slipped its leash and run riot or did exactly what it was supposed to do. The Red Brigades were supplied by the likes of the PLO and the Czechoslovakian intelligence service. In 1981 the bizarre Propaganda Due scandal revealed that Italian Freemasonry had become suborned into a network of political corruption and influence-brokering. Conspiracy seemed to be everywhere.

This is the political backdrop of Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco’s second novel. Set in the then-modern Italy of the 1970s and 1980s, it is narrated by one Casaubon, an intellectual sort whose heart is mostly with the hard left but who is alarmed enough by the propagation of ill-tempered violent rhetoric (which, remember, it would eventually turn out was partially driven by agitators set up by Gladio), and who seeks his refuge in his studies. A tendency to be a bit of an academic magpie, grabbing whatever seems shiny to him, Casaubon sets himself up as a researcher-for-hire after completing his studies, including a thesis on the trial of the Knights Templar.

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Three Books of Warehoused Notions

Just as Israel Regardie’s The Golden Dawn is, though it has its shortcomings, a widely-recommended source of raw information concerning late Victorian British occultism, Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy is widely considered the encyclopedia of occultism as it was studied in Renaissance Europe. Indeed, it and the Golden Dawn’s system are not unconnected; Francis Barrett catalysed a resurgence of occult interest in Britain in 1801 with his The Magus, or the Celestial Intelligencer, which largely just plagiarised substantial chunks of the Three Books and perhaps a pinch of a different source in order to deliver its information, and then later when the Golden Dawn was formed great chunks of their inner practices were adopted either from that or, less likely, Agrippa directly.

The reason that it’s more likely that the Golden Dawn leadership got their details from Barrett rather than Agrippa is that for a good long time a full English translation of Agrippa wasn’t available, aside from a 17th Century translation riddled with errors. Donald Tyson’s presentation of the Three Books is the product of a laborious process of reconstruction, bringing the full text back into print in English for the first time in ages, repairing errors, and extensively annotating everything (and when I say “extensively” I mean “in many chapters there’s a greater word count in Tyson’s footnotes than in Agrippa’s actual text”).

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Regarding the Dawn

Odds are that any modern text you look at which purports to unpack “ceremonial magic” or the “Western esoteric tradition” will, on some level, owe a certain debt to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and whilst there might be a few people these days ploughing that furrow who don’t owe a certain debt to Israel Regardie’s original The Golden Dawn, they’re certainly making their lives harder if they are ignoring this particular source text.

As the most famous organisation of Victorian occultists out there, the Golden Dawn have had their material riffed on for over a century now. Founded by William Westcott, MacGregor Mathers, and William Woodman, working on the basis of some cipher manuscripts of dubious provenance and charter purported to be obtained from “Anna Sprengel”, a German noblewoman who almost certainly didn’t exist, the Golden Dawn purported to be a branch of the worldwide Rosicrucian order, the selfsame secret society which had inspired imitators ever since the Rosicrucian manifestos of the early 17th Centuries slipped out and purported to a history much older than that.

Riffing on ideas from the then-popular Theosophical movement, the Golden Dawn founders claimed that the true leaders of the Rosicrucian Order – the so-called Secret Chiefs – were immortal entities who might not exist on the Earthly plane at all, but who Anna Sprengel (and, later, Mathers himself) was in direct contact with, and who had prompted Anna to help Mathers, Westcott, and Woodman establish this new magical order.

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