Sunday, January 18, 2015

2014 Esoteric Book of the Year

*First, a note on how books are judged.

Books will be judged by the following criteria: binding, materials, design, talismanic intent & method of consecration (if applicable), artwork/layout, and editorial rigor. Books are chosen from those released and delivered (in full) within the year 2014 (even though they may have a 2013 publication date). This is because books tend to encounter publishing delays. It is especially common in esoteric publishing for a number or reasons (including some of high strangeness). For example, a 2013 book may not actually be available until 2014 in some cases. Books will not be judged by their topic, theme, or content (other than grammar). This may sound strange, but I feel it is unfair and pointless to compare or make value judgments between different magical paths or traditions (like comparing apples to oranges). While I do my best, I am not qualified to judge and assess every magical system the world has to offer; I very much doubt such a person exists. Therefore, books will be judged by their craftsmanship, editorial competence, creativity, and beauty only.

In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the publication of deluxe esoteric books. This is certainly good news to publishers, readers, and collectors; however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with such voluminous output. Frankly, there is not enough time for any individual to read and assess every deluxe esoteric book published in a given year. A few years ago it was possible, but no longer. This is a good "problem" to have, though some very important and noteworthy books may end up falling through the cracks as a consequence. Therefore I apologize in advance to publishers and authors of books I may have overlooked. To help remedy this, and give credit where credit is due, I invite my readers to post titles of deserving books (from 2014) that may have been overlooked in the comments section of this post.

And now, Balkan's Arcane Bindings pick for the English language 2014 Esoteric Book of the Year.

The Golden Talisman Award for 2014 Esoteric Book of the Year goes to....

Troy Books' Cecil Williamson's Book of Witchcraft: A Grimoire of the Museum of Witchcraft by Cecil Williamson and  Steve Patterson (Special Fine Edition). Octavo. 304 pages.


There is a wonderful story behind this book: About twenty years ago, while helping with refurbishments at the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Steve Patterson discovered a curious manuscript written by the museum's founder, Cecil Williamson. Its title read simply, "Witchcraft". The manuscript contained a number of charms, instructions, and philosophy the author believed were authentic examples of traditional witchcraft as practiced in the West Country by the wayside witches, or "Aunty Mays", as they are sometimes called. Lastly, the author discussed his interactions with notable figures Gerald Gardner and Aleister Crowley. 

Now, a couple decades later, Cecil Williamson's Witchcraft book is finally available to the public. The book includes an annotated transcript of Williamson's Witchcraft manuscript plus historical background on Cecil Williamson and the Museum of Witchcraft. This is a very important work that will help historians and practitioners decipher which, if any, early witchcraft practices survived unbroken into the 20th century, and if so, are they still present in so-called "modern" witchcraft?


Interestingly a recent discovery in Cornwall may finally prove the existence of an unbroken witchcraft tradition reaching from the 1640 to as recent as the 1970s. Read the article here.

Steve Patterson's contributions are considerable, approximately two thirds of the book's 304 pages. Mr. Patterson's passion for the subject is clearly evident by his thorough annotations, copious notes, inclusion of historic photos, comprehensive history of The Witchcraft Museum, exhaustive appendices (nearly 100 pages!), and index. A remarkable feat.

Watch Mr. Patterson discuss the manuscript here. I'd like to buy the man a pint.

Mr. Patterson was recently interviewed by Karagan Griffith at On the Black Chair. Listen here.


The Special Fine Edition of Cecil Williamson's Book of Witchcraft resides within a stout oak box handmade by the author, Steve Patterson. Only 10 were produced. The box's hinges and clasp are made of hammered copper. Copper nails are also used in the box's construction. One can perhaps assume that copper, associated with Venus, was chosen for its historical use in witchcraft and for its conductive properties. The wood does not appear new, so I have the impression that the wood used for the boxes is "reclaimed" lumber of some variety. If so, I makes me wonder what its previous use may have been. It is immediately obvious the box is handmade, most notably from its charming irregularities. For example, the bottom of box is constructed with beautifully mismatched wood planks. Its rustic construction and hand-carved ornamentation, a central charm claiming, "Who so bears this sign about him, let him fear no one, but fear God", lends the box a hoary and arcane air. The inside is lined in black felt and contains a ribbon book lift to assist in removing the book from its oaken abode.

The book is bound in full, hand finished, terracotta goat. The leather has an almost candy-like scent, like cherry taffy. The cover is gilt blocked with a prosperity charm. Title and author are gilt blocked on black leather labels adhered to the spine. The spine has six raised bands with the publisher's colophon gilt stamped at the book's tail. Accents include a gold ribbon place marker and marbled endpapers in russet, green, and cream.

Cecil Williamson's Book of Witchcraft is as talismanic as they come. It is a phenomenal mixed-media expression of Steven Patterson's understanding of witchcraft and his reverence for the tradition. Astounding.

As of this writing, Standard and Fine Editions are still available here.

*This year there is a tie for second place and the Silver Talisman Award. The books are so similar that I feel they deserve equal ranking. 

In second place the Silver Talisman Award goes too...

IXAXAAR's The Book of Sitra Achra by N.A-A.218 (Deluxe Edition). Octavo. 309 pages.


When I opened the mysterious gilt and leather solander box I gave an audible gasp. Lurking inside upon blood-red suede was a creature unlike any I had ever seen. Golden snakes intertwined upon a surface of pitch black scales. At the center shined an eleven-angled gilt seal. This was The Book of Sitra Achra...

Author N.A-A.218 and IXAXAAR have succeeded in crafting one of the most fiendishly elegant books I have ever laid eyes upon. It exudes lethal doses of beauty and menace; an alluring cocktail of captivation and corruption.


The Deluxe Edition is bound in full black python. The scales are small and more pliant than one would expect. I often think of snakeskin as delicate, and sometimes rough or brittle when touched against the grain. However, the skin used for this binding has been softened to an almost rubber-like texture. It is an exquisite material yet tough enough to be used in ritual as intended. The cover is gilt stamped with braided snakes and a central open-ended pentagram representative of, "the breaking of the ten angles of the pentagram, bringing about the disruption of cosmic order and the intrusion of the powers of the Dragons of the Other Side." Page edges are gilt. The book's boards are surprisingly thick (nearly one quarter inch), giving the book a solid construction. Head and tail bands are black leather.

The book is just as beautiful on the inside: The reader is greeted with marbled endpapers that I liken to gilded cobwebs stretched across an abyss -- a symbolic representation for traversing a perilous path across the Abyss and through Daath. Pages are cream-colored, medium weight, and lightly textured with a vertical grain.

The Deluxe Edition also comes with an omitted chapter in booklet form, described as, "a ritual for the attainment of contact with the Guardian Angels of this Sacred Work of the Thoughtless God". It comes inside a large black envelope. Unfortunately it is too large to fit inside the solander box along side the book. It would have been convenient to store both works together.


The Book of Sitra Achra is essentially a compendium of Qliphotic forces, the "Dragons of the Other Side", listing their seal, attributes, number, Hebrew letter, zodiacal sign, tarot counterpart, and path on the nightside of the Tree where applicable. The book has eleven chapters:

  1. The Sitra Achra and the Serpents of the Thoughtless Light
  2. El Archer -- The Other God
  3. The Qliphoth of the Tree of Death
  4. The Eleven Heads of Azerate
  5. The 60 Emissaries of the Black Light
  6. The 22 Silencing Letters of the Other Side
  7. The 12 Princes of the Qliphotic Zodiac
  8. The Seven Hells and Seven Earths
  9. The Opening Ritual of the Seven Gates of Hell
  10. The Star of the Eleven -- The Qliphotic Magic of the Hendecagram
  11. Building Blocks of a Qliphothic Temple -- The Tools of Praxis

The book concludes (Chapter 11) with specific incense blends for each of the Qliphotic Rulers and recommendations of specific magical tools.

Each of the 61copies of the Deluxe Edition comes with a hand-sigilized python-skin bookmark talisman "dedicated to one of the 60 Emissaries of the Black Light, linking thus each book to one of those Standard-Bearers of the Qliphoth (with book 61 being the sole exception, bearing instead a separate Talisman and enlinkment)". What I find most interesting about these talismans is their stated purpose, "These talismans were added as additional gifts for those who know and understand to cherish them and as a concrete curse upon those who for more materialistic reasons have reached out for these Talismans of Sitra Achra". Could this perhaps be the author's way of fighting grimoire scalping? It appears so, a tactic for which I wholeheartedly approve. One may want to reconsider their actions before hastily placing their copy on Ebay at ridiculously inflated prices. For more on grimorie scalping see additional commentary here.

Primal Craft's The Altar of Sacrifice by Mark Alan Smith (Sacrificial Soul Edition). Illustrated in black and white by Lorein. Octavo. 400 pages.

There are a number of obvious similarities between The Altar of Sacrifice and The Book of Sitra Achra. Both are bound in full black snakeskin over heavy millboard covers, are gilt stamped, and include solander boxes for protection. In each case the solander box (also called a "clam-shell" box) was a wise decision. A slipcase would have likely caused wear or damage to the snakeskin scales through friction with the slipcase if the book was slid inside against the grain. That danger is avoided entirely by lifting out of the box -- no sliding necessary.

Deciding which book was better was like splitting hairs -- each has its own unique serpentine charms -- so, deserving it equally, I decided they should share second place.

The Altar of Sacrifice differs in a few significant ways. First, the snakeskin binding has much larger scales than The Book of Sitra Achra and has a high gloss (this may vary from copy to copy). Secondly, it is a much larger book -- nearly a third larger in thickness and significantly heavier. This is mainly due to the book's heavy weight paper (almost card stock). It also has nearly 100 more pages; 400 (including 10 pages for notes) compared to The Book of Sitra Achra's 309 pages.


The solander box is covered with fine black fabric. The spine is gilt stamped with the author's name, title, press, five bands, and a device described as the, "Seal of the Queen of Hell's Throne". Inside the books rests upon royal blue suede. The book's spine has five raised bands lined in gold and contains the same content as the spine of the box. It has a deadly beauty about it. The cover is gilt stamped in 24 carat gold with, "Sacred Seal of Flesh and Fur". The inside has solid bronze endpapers and includes a black ribbon place-marker. Page edges are gilt and off-white.

The book has six spectacular full-page illustrations by an artist known only as "Lorein". My favorite is titled, "The Formula for Soul Inversion" (found on page 51). It depicts a dragon-like demon holding a trident. He (Belial) is standing over a man that is shape-shifting into a wolf (or wolf into man). Other wolves watch from the forest's edge. The "Seal of the Queen of Hell's Throne" hangs in the night air. The level of detail is incredible -- a striking image of sorcery and lycanthropy. Lorein has also recreated all the interior designs found throughout the book: seals, sigils, gates, etc. from Mr. Smith's personal notes.

**Update -- Thanks to Mr. Smith for giving me permission to use the work mentioned above, "The Formula for Soul Inversion", for this review.

"The Formula for Soul Inversion" by Lorein. Used with permission from


The Altar of Sacrifice's subject matter is certainly a controversial one. As the title implies, its primary theme is sacrifice, including animal sacrifice (One animal was clearly sacrificed for the book's elegant binding). Mr. Smith addresses the subject deftly and honestly. He also acknowledges is not the path for everyone, saying, "The way of the Bloodless Path is as valid and noble as the Way of Sacrifice when beheld by the Eyes of Gods." Mr. Smith's path of sacrifice is similar in some ways to Kosher methods of slaughter (Shechitah): ritualistic, respectful, and as painless as possible. Many readers are likely to object to this, though it would be a rather hypocritical stance if they are meat-eaters. Most Westerners prefer their meat to be a "product" that is as unrecognizable as possible from the animal of origin. Most could not look their food in the eye, nor wield the killing blade. Yet they order their Big Macs without a moment's pause -- out of sight, out of mind. Furthermore, large-scale factory slaughterhouses have very little respect for the animals they "process". That said, it is my personal belief that sacrificed animals should be consumed. I should be clear that I have strong feelings against killing or inflicting pain solely for the act of killing or torture. For more on this subject check out an earlier post here.

Like many of Mr. Smith's earlier works, The Altar of Sacrifice includes a large number of prayers and petitions. The book is divided up into three parts: The First Book of Sacrifice, The Book of the Temple of Four Pillars of Fire, and The Book of the Dragon God. The Sacrificial Soul Edition is signed and sigilized in ink mixed with the author's own blood.

In third place, the Bronze Talisman Award goes to...

The Society of Esoteric Endeavour's The Graveyard Wanderers: The Wise Ones and the Dead in Sweden by Dr. Tom Johnson. Wide Octavo. 106 pages.


This one was a delayed entry from last year. The book came out in 2013; however, the handmade copper slipcase did not arrive until 2014. Therefore the entire package will be counted as a 2014 entry.

There has been a small but significant resurgence in Scandinavian folk magic books recently. 2013 saw the printing of Fredrik Eytzinger's Salomonic Magical Arts. Shortly after, Dr. Tom Johnson translated 37 "Svartkonstbuchs" (black art books) and collected them together to create this wonderful book of Swedish necromancy titled, The Graveyard Wanderers: The Wise Ones and the Dead in Sweden. Later this year Johannes Gardback's Trolldom: Spells and Methods of the Norse Folk Magic Tradition will be also available.


The Graveyard Wanderers collects dozens of charms used primarily for controlling spirits of the dead, but also contains a number of near-universal folk charms for: winning at games of chance, becoming invisible, healing, detecting thieves, shape-shifting, bewitching firearms, and even for catching fish. The book concludes with a fascinating afterword, "The Wise & Their World", followed by a bibliography, and footnotes.

This is artisinal bookbinding at its most creative. The creator, Ben Fernee of The Society of Esoteric Endeavour, put a tremendous amount of thought and personal knowledge into this. The first thing that catches the reader's eye is the marvelous, hand-made, copper-clad, slipcase (offered optionally). The case has heavy, scalloped-cornered, and gray marbled boards on each side. Note the faint skeletal hands in the pattern. The book fits snugly  inside and is protected by a copper spine cap stamped with four skulls. When completely enclosed the book is thoroughly protected. Perhaps the copper case serves a secondary purpose by providing protective "shielding" around the book -- a bibliopegistical Faraday cage, if you will. The case and spine cap are lined with black felt.

The book is covered in leather cloth (85% leather). Presumably this was chosen over leather hide to pull off the book's extravagant and decorative inset with beveled board edges. Inside the open panel is a copper plate (front and back) with raised skeletal hands. When one holds the book one feels the cold metal of the skeletal hands as they partially intertwine with one's own fingers -- a chilling yet exhilarating effect. The book exudes the sharp metallic scent of copper. A few words from the binder about the use of metal,

"The Wise Ones would pay for the services of the Dead by leaving in place of the bone, a piece of metal in the form of a coin or a scraping from a church bell. Metal is an ideal vehicle for the transmission of deathliness ... the form of skeletal hands in the binding of this book, so the reader feels the shape of dead fingers interlaced with their own. Bones are the part of us that persist after decay, and here the copper that forms their shape has been patonised, whereby the natural oxidation process is accelerated and stabilised. The result are iridescent colours, an effect referred to as the "peacock's tail" in alchemy, where it is identified with the stage of decay in the Great Work. The patonised copper is then preserved with lacquer."
Fascinating. I am in awe, Mr. Fernee. Time will tell if the lacquer has completely halted the copper's oxidation process, or if over time the book will exhibit a slow and creeping green patina. One never knows: a leprous verdigris may enhance the book's aesthetic appeal.


The title is in white, a stark contrast against the black leather cloth, as are three skulls and the publisher's colophon on the spine. I must say the white skulls are a bit much, but it can be excused due to the fact that it is upholding a very old tradition. Again, Mr. Fernee,
"The black cloth is lettered in white as there is a tradition within the corpus that is how a black art book should look. ... The sense of this tradition is unclear, though an observation based on handling copies of this book is that white letters on a black background can be discerned more clearly in half-light, perhaps appropriate for night time rituals in churchyards."
There you have it; all for the benefit of nyctophiles such as we. The book's endpapers mirror the marbled skeletal hand panels of the slipcase. The paper is a real treat: "Printed on 180 gsm Fabriano Ingres, a real laid paper, whereby the textures are natural product of the pulp on wire mesh frames rather than being artificially embossed with a pretend texture." Text is printed in three colors: black, gray, and crimson. A must-have for any aspiring necromancer.

2014 Honorable Mentions:
  • Arbor de Magistro: An Advanced Study on Aethyric Evocation by Nikolai Saunders (Magister Edition), published by Fall of Man. Magister Edition comes with a handcrafted and sigilized oak box. For the advanced student.
  • Flamel's Heiroglyphical Key by Nicholas Flamel and translated by: Eirenaeus Orandus (Brazen Serpent Edition), expertly bound in Cambridge style binding by Michael Atha of Restoration Books, published by Ouroboros Press. A stunning little book.
  • Obeah: A Sorcerous Ossuary by Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold (Limited Edition), published by Hadean Press. Limited Edition comes with a custom mojo bag.
  • The Dragon Book of Essex by Andrew D. Chumbley (Deluxe Edition), published by Xoanon Ltd. Easily the largest esoteric book of 2014. This is not a book for dabblers.
  • The Blazing Dew of Stars by David Chaim Smith (Deluxe Edition), published by Fulgur Ltd. What more can be said about David Chaim Smith's brilliance? This is one of 2014's must-haves.
  • The Testament of Cyprian the Mage by Jake Stratton Kent (Infernal Pact Edition, 2 volumes), published by Scarlet Imprint. Mr. Stratton-Kent's Encyclopaedia Goetica (5 volumes in all) is a resource of incalculable value to the Grimoire Tradition. Nothing short of astounding.
  • 36 Faces: The History, Astrology and Magic of the Decans (Special Edition) by Austin Coppock, published by Three Hands Press. Each copy of the Special Edition comes with a unique talisman depicting one of the geniuses for each of the 36 decans. An illuminating treatise by a talented young author.

Looking towards 2015

There is a much to look forward into 2015. A number of highly anticipated books have already been announced. Here are a few:
  • The long-awaited Ontological Graffiti by Michael Bertiaux, to be published by Fulgur Ltd. looks to be another fascinating exploration of the Voudon Gnostic current. This book has been in the works for a long time, but it appears its release is immanent. 
  • ├×URSAKYNGI - Volume I - The Essence of Thursian Sorcery by EKORTU will arrive in the first half of 2015. It looks to be a fascinating new take on pre-Christian Norse magical practices. Yet another exciting release from IXAXAAR
  • The next publication from The Society of Esoteric Endeavour, Book of Magic by Herbert Erwin. This will be a wonderfully talismanic text. Each copy will come with an embedded black scrying mirror and a set of 8 velum talismans. All 196 copies of Book of Magic have already sold out. 
  • The second book in Mark Alan Smith's The Way of Sacrifice trilogy, The Witchblood Grail, is slated for an early 2015 release. This is the fifth volume in Mr. Smith's Grimoire Trilogies series.
  • Will 2015 be the year we see the first volume (eleven volumes planned) in Marcus Katz' The Magister series?
  • And of course we mustn't forget the 2015 Esoteric Book Conference scheduled for next September. I was just in Seattle last November, but I am already yearning to return. Perhaps I will make it back next Fall. 

2014 Observations

Wooden Boxes

There has been a number of esoteric books released this year that are housed inside wooden boxes (stylish to rustic). It is an interesting development. Besides the Special Fine Edition of Cecil Williamson's Book of Witchcraft (reviewed above) there have been other examples including Aeon Sophia Press' Devotee Edition of Black Magic Evocation of the Shem Ha Mephorash by G. De Laval (Deluxe Edition reviewed here) and Fall of Man's Magister Edition of Arbor de Magistro: An Advanced Study on Aethyric Evocation by Nikolai Saunders.

In certain cases, like Troy Books' amazing example mentioned above, decorative wooden boxes can compliment a book's subject matter nicely without overshadowing the book contained therein or its content. However, in other cases they can be a needless accoutrement, or at worst, a bulky gimmick. They also present some storage issues, as they typically take up twice the space of a non-boxed book. It also begs the question, how many wood boxes does one want on their shelf? Will the wooden box trend continue? Do we want it to?

Balkan's Requests for the Future

Image credit:

  • Books with gauffered edges.
  • Wider use of exotic yet non-endangered skins/hides (Scarlet Imprint recently published the Fine Edition of Reasonances using Salmon skin. Bravo, SI!). How about a book bound in stingray (shagreen) or ostrich?
  •  More practical magic books and fewer that read like someone's dream diary.
  • Cross-traditional collaborations between strange bedfellows. Imagine a collaboration between Stephen Skinner and Orryelle Defenestrate-Bascule. Now that would be interesting. Lets move outside our comfort zones.

Have a wonderful year, dear readers.

B. Balkan

Read about past years' winners:

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Tales, rails, and ales.

The Cascade Mountains as seen from the train.

I apologize for the delay in reviews, dear readers. I have just returned from a delightful two-week excursion to the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia via train. Trains are the perfect means of travel if one enjoys reading while traveling.

For this trip I chose to delve into dark fiction. Going with the train theme, I felt Stefan Grabinski's book, The Motion Demon (trans. Miroslaw Lipinski), was an appropriate choice. The Motion Demon is a collection of weird tales with one common theme: trains. Stefan Grabinski (1887-1936) is considered the "Edgar Allan Poe" of Poland. His tales are highly atmospheric and filled with dread. This book truly enhanced my travel experience.

Grabinski on trains:
"Now the world was plunged in dense darkness. Stains of light fell from the car windows, whose yellow eyes skimmed the embankment slopes. In front of him, at a distance of five cars, the engine sowed blood-red cascades of sparks, the chimney breathed out white-rose smoke. The black twenty-joined serpent glittered along its scaly sides, belched fire through its mouth, lit up the road with encompassing eyes. In the distance, the glow of a station was already visible."  
"The Sloven" -- Stefan Grabinski

First stop: Seattle, WA

Seattle is a wonderful and lively city. It has a distinct identity that makes it stand out among other American cities. It had been about 13 years since I had last visited Seattle, and I was surprised to see the amount of cranes in the air, and not of the feathered variety. There is an incredible amount of construction going on to meet the demands of a quickly growing city.

While in the city I met up with an old friend. She said Seattle is the fastest growing city in the United States. Later she and her husband gave me their "grand tour" of the city's more off-beat and unusual sites the city had to offer, like the Troll Under the Bridge and Gasworks Park. I would have liked to have spent more time in Seattle, but I needed to be on my way to my next destination.

The enormous "Troll Under the Bridge".

Second stop: Vancouver, BC

Downtown Vancouver is very unique. It is remarkably clean for a city of its size and very walkable. What impressed me the most was how quiet it is. Typically cities of this size (a bit over half a million people) produce a cacophony of noise: cab horns, loud stereos, and the low hum of industry. Vancouver had virtually none of these annoyances. Additionally, city has done a great job preserving its past. The best example of this is Gastown. Gastown is the oldest part of the city and is now a historic district of Vancouver. Walking around Gastown is like a trip back to the late 19th century, especially when done by night. One of district's most unique features is a large steam clock. Unfortunately the steam clock was undergoing repair while I was there. The district is filled with unique shops, restaurants, and art galleries.

Steam clock in Gastown. Image credit

The Lamplighter Pub. Corner of Abbott and Water Sts. Gastown.

While in the area I had to stop by MacLeod's Books at 455 W. Pender St.. MacLeod's is a marvelous used bookstore and the best Vancouver has to offer. The first impression one gets when entering MacLeod's Books is that it looks like the cramped warren of a book hoarder (and I know more than a few). Stacks of books are piled high everywhere. This is no neat and organized Barnes & Noble. No, it is an organized chaos and a delight for book lovers who enjoy rummaging around for hidden treasures, and those who enjoy hunting for books just as much as reading them. MacLeod's is absolute nirvana for bibliophiles.

MacLeod's books. Image credit

After a few hours of scanning shelves I asked one of the gentlemen behind the counter if he could direct me to where they housed their stock of rare and unusual books. He asked what subject matter I was looking to which I replied, "Folklore, Demonolgy, Witchcraft -- that sort of thing." "Hold on one moment", he replied. He returned with another gentleman who had been informed of my query. He gave me a knowing wink and said, "Follow me". 

I had expected to be escorted to a back room, or perhaps basement storage area. Instead, I followed the man outside and across the street. We walked about a block or so and stopped at a nondescript door with no signage whatsoever. He unlocked the door, turned on the lights, and motioned for me to come in, locking the door behind me. Much like the main store location, this room was filled with stacks and piles of books, some stacked over 6 feet high. I followed him to where he had stopped at one side of the room. He pointed to the shelves and said, "I think you'll find some interesting texts in here. Take whatever time you need." Then he disappeared into the rear of the building. 

He was absolutely correct. There were a number of interesting texts. Fortunately, their occult collection was filed neatly inside a few bookcases rather than haphazardly piled around. It was an impressive collection: 18th century alchemical texts, older editions of Crowley, and quite a number late 19th century books on Spiritualism. Moreover, there were a few very interesting titles by Harry Price dating back to the early days of psychical research. They also had a copy of a particular book I've been seeking out for quite some time dating to the 1850s. Alas, their copy was in rather poor condition, so I had to let that one pass.

Piles of books and narrow walkways at MacLeod's

Third stop: Victoria, BC

Next I took the ferry over to Victoria, a truly beautiful city by the sea. My time there was a bit rushed and so, regrettably, I was unable to explore Victoria's three top bookstores: Russell Books, Bolan Books, and the stately Munro's Books. I found it surprising that palm trees can grow in Victoria, even at a latitude as far north as 48.4 degrees.

Victoria's Romanesque Revival Parliament Building

I was fortunate enough to catch the last day of the Viking exhibit at the Royal BC Museum. They had an astonishing number of relics on display (on loan from Sweden), including one of the very rare Ulfberht (+VLFBERHT+) Viking swords.

I made sure I had time to explore Craigdarroch Castle while in Victoria. Carved into the wooden fireplace mantle in the castle's library are the words, "Reading Maketh a Full Man". I couldn't agree more.

Craigdarroch Castle

Later that afternoon I visited the Empress Hotel for high tea. The Empress Hotel, built in 1908, is a stunning example of Victorian extravagance.  Ornate woodwork, stained glass, and marble abound throughout the hotel.

The Empress Hotel. Victoria, BC.

One of my favorite parts of the Empress hotel is the exotic Bengal Lounge. The Bengal Lounge is laid out in 19th century safari decor -- one of those places where one would imagine encountering a gentleman with a monocle and waxed mustache reminiscing on about how dreadfully hot it was in Sri Lanka in-between puffs of aromatic Black Cavendish smoke drawn from a meerschaum pipe.

Bengal Lounge. Image credit Victoriaspirits,com

Fourth stop: Port Townsend, WA and the Olympic Peninsula

Yet another ferry. This time to Washington state's Olympic Peninsula. The Olympic Peninsula is a very special place. I was able to explore its temperate rain forests, trek some of its mountains, discover secluded beaches, and marvel at its vast pine forests.

View of the Pacific coastline at dusk.

Light creeping into the Olympic Peninsula's temperate rain forest.
View from atop Mt. Angeles.

I decided to spend a day and night in Port Townsend on the peninsula's northeast coast. Port Townsend's Historic District is a time capsule capturing what life was like for this maritime community a century ago. Today it is full of quaint shops, restaurants; and fortunately for me, bookstores. The best one was William James Bookseller. It had an impressive selection for a store of modest size, including display cases full of first editions and a large selection catered to local interests and Northwest history books. Another was a New Age bookstore called Phoenix Rising. Aside from Tibetan singing bowls, crystals, and incense they had a respectable amount of new and in-print esoteric books.

One of my favorite places in Port Townsend is a local taproom called The Pourhouse, a favorite watering hole for locals apparently. Initially I had a difficult time finding it. It's very well hidden. I walked right past its door twice before I figured out where it was. It has an incredible number of craft-beers available both on tap or by the bottle. The Pourhouse's seating area opens up right to the beach, an extremely picturesque spot. It's also very dog friendly. I counted at least six large dog lounging around the establishment. One of my favorite beers was a sour red ale (served in a brandy snifter) called Flanders Red from Destihl Brewing (6.1% ABV). It has a heady and fruity aroma and packs a sour punch -- a real delight. Also on tap was a rhubarb cider that was equally amazing. It was a good thing I did not drive there.

The Pourhouse taproom.

Fifth stop: Portland, OR

My stay in Portland was very brief yet very enjoyable. I had one main destination: Powell's Bookstore. Powell's is the largest bookstore in the world. It takes up an entire city block in downtown Portland. The bookstore occupies several floors and has 1.6 acres of retail space. Unbelievable. It truly has to be seen to be believed. It is open every day from 9 a.m. - 11 p.m. The place is so big that the staff at Powell's hand customers maps of the store upon entering.

I killed a whole afternoon at Powell's. One of the more interesting sections of the store is their Rare Books room. The rare books are kept in a separate climate-controlled room. They had a moderately impressive selection, but not as impressive as MacLeod's rare books. I suspect their stock turns over fairly quickly. I picked up a number of books, nothing too exotic. One of the more unusual of these was a peculiar book on scarecrow lore, The Scarecrow: Fact and Fable by Peter Haining.

It deserves mention that while I was there Chuck Palahniuk of Fight Club fame was there for a book signing.

For anyone traveling to Portland, Powell's Books is a must-see.

Powell's City of Books. Image credit: JParadisi.

Sixth stop: Back to Seattle

After brief forays around Olympia, WA and Tacoma, WA it was time to head back to Seattle to catch the long (but relaxing) train ride home. I must add that the people I met throughout my journey were extremely polite and pleasant (far more polite than my home city's inhabitants). People in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia are very charming, laid back, and welcoming people. I already look forward to a return trip.

B. Balkan

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Arcanum Bestiarum by Robert Fitzgerald

Three Hands Press. 2012. 245 pages. Octavo. Printed in red and black with black and white woodcuts.

Available in two editions:

Standard Edition: Cloth hardcover with full color dust jacket. Limited to 1400 copies.

Deluxe Edition: Full brown skiver. Limited to 49 copies. Sold out at publisher.

Arcanum Bestiarum: Of the Subtil and Occult Virtues of Divers Beasts is a remarkable oddity paying homage to medieval bestiaries of yore. The book's covers are the gates to an exotic menagerie where each animal has a unique story to tell. It is in such tales that we may glean meaningful symbolism relevant to our lives, or we may gain uncommon wisdom by seeing the world from an avian, reptilian, mammalian, or insectile perspective.

Mr. Fitzgerald makes an important comment about the book in the Preface, stating,
"This work concerns the occult or hidden virtues, attributes, and origins of specific animals presently abiding in the Zoosphere, along with explorations into their etymological and mythological roots. Its structure and design is based on bestiaries of the past, yet differs from them in that it does not seek to solely examine or transpose the virtues of animals in relation to any resonant principles in Man, except those relations deriving from an Ancestral or Atavistic source. Instead it seeks to discover them as they exist primarily in their unique and essential natures."
Arcanum Bestiarum (meaning: the Secret Menagerie of Animals) explores the virtues and correspondences of 46 animals. Ten of these are mythological creatures: Centaur, Basilisk, Dragon, and Monoceros (Unicorn), etc. The rest are mostly animals native to the northern hemisphere's temperate zone and familiar to those living in Europe and North America. Sorry, no Giraffes, Orangutans, or Kangaroos. It should also be noted that there is no marine life included.

Each animal includes a list of correspondences. Allow me to use the cunning Fox as an example:


Atavistic Power: Concealment

Magical Virtue: Cunning

Constellation: Vulpecula

Herb: Braken

Divine Patron: Inari

Mineral: Amber, Vulpinite

Estate of the Soul: Exile

Tarot Key: Fool

Chemical Element: Copper

Warfare Tactic: Stealth

Alchemical Process: Purgation

Body Part: Tail

Error: Passive Aggressive

Planet: Mercury

Emblems: Hedge

Saint: Cain

I was pleased to see that my own personal "Spirit Animal" was included in the book. The only clue I shall offer is that it has "wings". The author's comments mirrored my own personal experiences, and corroborated unique items of wisdom I've gained through close spiritual affiliation with this animal over many years.

There are a number of ways to make connections with animal spirits, whether they be spirit guides, totem animals, or familiars. The methods can vary greatly and depend on one's background, tradition, and personal belief system. Some, like the method I used, are remarkably simple. Sometimes all you need to do is ask. Years ago when I was told what my spirit animal was I was very surprised; not regarding what animal it was, rather, I was surprised I hadn't guessed it before. The clues were all around me; they had been my whole life. I highly recommend making contact. In a simplified/reductionist way one could look at it as a zoomorphic Myers-Briggs test.

Whenever possible, animals (like the viper and wolf) include relevant magic squares (mainly from The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage). There is an impressive amount of superstition and folklore written about each animal, including augurial signs and their meaning.

An old friend of mine, Mr. Kit Trodahl, a practitioner of Totemic Shamanism, also owns a copy of this book. I asked him if he would like to share his thoughts on it. He agreed. Considering this is his area of expertise (not mine), I felt he was likely to have unique insight on this subject matter.

Balkan: Did you find the book useful in your practice?
Trodahl: I did, but perhaps not in the manner in which you might assume. Let me preface this by saying the book was excellent with its presentation; the history and descriptions of the beastiarum were exemplary; and the woodcuts gorgeous. Mr. Fitzgerald obviously took great pains to research and document the animals he showcased, and he drew compelling links to alchemy, therianthropy, sorcery and even human/animal morphic fields. To further enhance this, each beast entry is also backed up by a superb listing of “Correspondences” that list a myriad of properties each animal possesses, ranging from sympathetic rocks and chemicals, to Tarot keys, avatars, and even combat tactics! The sheer amount of information covers almost all the bases of one’s potential options in terms of magick or pathworking, and the book is equally compatible (and comfortable) with both High and Low Magick pursuits.
However, where I feel this book is particularly useful is in its ability to present itself as a legitimate and elevated resource of information. Compared to the more mainstream and dominant disciplines, the information for totemic shamanism, therianism, shape-shifting via guising, or any other zoomorphic field is fairly small and limited. Aside from dedicated anthropological texts, the smattering of useful information has been few and far between, and as a consequence, most mainstream “information” is found on amateur message boards or in New Age books filled with erroneous facts, revisionist history, or generic pre-packaged anecdotes. With no disrespect intended to other authors in the field like Ted Andrews, Lupa Greenwolf, Rosalyn Greene, or Yasmine Galenorm, nothing they have can offer the same cogent power, authenticity, or scale of Mr. Fitzgerald’s work. He offers the credibility of an articulate and experienced practitioner, coupled with the collegiate oversight of a master of the information he presents. The Arcanum Beastiarum is not a token intro book for the enthusiastic dabbler; it’s an established system which will enhance the pathworking of those already versed in the subject matter who are looking for more ways to explore it.

Balkan: Was your spirit animal, familiar, or totem animal addressed in this book?

Trodahl: To an extent yes, but that is a rather complicated question to answer. In my pathworking, I use an exclusively feline current. However, in addition to that, I also narrow my pursuits down to specific totemic or theriomorphic aspects that only specific individual felines can provide. So while the book does feature the lion and cat---which I use, it doesn't have the leopard, lynx, or cougar. But to be fair, this book also has dozens of other animals to deal with.

Balkan: Any other comments you care to share, my friend?
Trodahl: There are two things I found noteworthy. The first is Mr. Fitzgerald’s reference to French author and folklorist, Claude Lecouteux. For those who are not familiar with Mr. Lecouteux’s works, his book Witches, Werewolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages inadvertently created an essentially new post-modern form of Therianism. In the book, we are given details on Germanic and Scandinavian myths and legends that propose a theory and practice in which a person has the ability to detach an astral double (the hamr)---a somewhat antonymous copy of the person, but one that is also bound to the “command self”. Among other things, the astral double can become an animal or werecreature. When I first read the book back in 2004, I had wondered if anyone else had picked up on the potential that this offered a new magickal system of exploration, so it was rewarding to see it was not lost on Mr. Fitzgerald.
The second thing I found interesting, was the use of mythological creatures in Arcanum Beastiarum. This was actually a bold decision. When creating a book based on beasts and their occult traits, one has to weigh fact and fiction. Existing animals and their explanations have certain expectations to be credible, but at least they have a leg up over mythological creatures. An owl or stag are existing animals you can tap into to form a usable pre-existing current. What is also important is --- since they are real animals --- is that when they live and eventually die, they release energy, and those molecules that are diffused into the environment coalesce and later form the building blocks of new life. That is a real biological aspect that can be verified. But mythological beasts don’t have that luxury. When we tap into creatures of fiction, the belief in the dragon, basilisk, or phoenix is based on the same concept of blind faith in religion: You can believe, but you can’t prove. Where are the bones, ambered remains, or DNA that links us to a primal ancestor? How can we possibly use a mythological creature successfully? At least you can prove a cat or a dog is real by pointing to nature. You can’t prove that with fictional monsters. Plus there’s a big difference between harnessing a usable current from a mammal still waking the planet, and trying to tap into something that was only created in a story.

Where Mr. Fitzgerald shines, is, he offers an opt-out that does make mythological creatures legitimate and “provable”, in so far as we can “prove” anything esoteric or ethereal. Practitioners who use real animals can be a bit sloppier in their core beliefs because they obviously have the luxury of having a real animal to fall back on. Those who work with the mythological must work a little harder, and that’s done by each individual or group creating a usable meme to access. Much like using supernatural forces for sorcery or even tapping into other systems that call upon angelic or daemonic beings, if one creates the mental/spiritual/psychic infrastructure; and taps into the shared history of it in primitive cultures as a demonstration of mental proof instead of physical proof, one can then build upon that as a real framework to bring about a new current they can tap into. And what is that? You guessed it: magick.
So what does that all mean? It means that if someone walked up to me and said they were a real “otherkin” dragon; I’d probably roll my eyes and walk away thinking they were an imbecile. However, if a person walked up to me and said they were tapping into a draconic current, and if they articulated the ancient history and folklore of dragons in most every culture on Earth; reinforced the shared belief of dragon imagery---especially in Europe and Asia as being beacons of mythological awareness in the mass consciousness; and if they used that collective timeline of thousands of years of cryptid history to reinforce it as an theriomorphic phenotype, I could accept that as a real current because even if the practitioner lacked physical evidence, they didn’t lack the spiritual or mental evidence. And that’s exactly the foundation Mr. Fitzgerald offers with his mythological creatures.

Balkan: Thank you, Mr. Trodahl.

Trodahl: My pleasure.

Now for the book itself...

For this review I shall be commenting on the Deluxe Edition of Arcanum Bestiarum bound in full brown antique skiver. For those unfamiliar with skiver, it is a very thin and soft leather made of the grain side of split sheepskin. It was a popular leather for bookbinding in the 19th century, and is very soft and smooth. The downside is that skiver tends to scuff and will dent easily. The leather has an interesting and pleasant aroma. Call me crazy, but it has a scent of what I can only describe as paste and toast.  

The cover has a blind stamped emblem of a goose's foot. The three-toed shape resembles the Elder Futhark rune "Algiz" (also "Elhaz"), meaning "Elk", and is considered a defensive ward of protection.

"Algiz" (also "Elhaz") rune

The book has endpapers marbled in an array of tan, copper, gold, russet, and black. The pattern reminds me of the plumage of a Pheasant. 

Pheasant plumage. Image credit


The spine has three raised bands. The title is stamped in copper in a calligraphic font. Black head/tail bands and black ribbon place marker. Pages are cream and of very heavy weight. This is presumably to prevent the heavy, dark, and high-contrast illustrations from bleeding through and creating "ghosting" on the reverse pages. It also lends the book a very sturdy heft and feel.

Keeping with the Medieval theme, there are 55 spectacular woodcuts throughout the book by Liv Rainey-Smith. Her artwork is very clever and highly symbolic. She is able to expertly dance the fine line between grim and whimsical that few can pull off, putting her alongside great illustrators like Edward Gorey, Lee Brown Coye, and Stephan Gammell. One of my favorites is her portrait of the owl. A closer look will reveal a grinning skull hidden within the owl's feathers -- an ingenious illusion (see below). This is symbolic of the screech owl's reputation as an ill portent. Furthermore, common folk belief states the owl's psychopompic screech is an omen of death. 


Other pieces contain alchemical symbolism and processes. Her Pelican illustration symbolizes the pelican flask, a circulatory distillation device used in alchemy. It is also an important Rosicrucian symbol. The pelican pecking its own breast, bleeding to feed its young, symbolizes self-sacrifice and philanthropy. Many Christians feel the pelican symbolizes Christ, giving his life for the sake of others.
"He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him." -- John 6:56 (KJV)

A Rosicrucian frieze.

The Deluxe edition of Arcanum Bestiarum comes with a limited edition (49), hand-numbered, woodblock print titled, "Animalia". The print is protected by hand-made tissue-like paper infused with dried herbs or bits of a dried plant.  I would be curious to know what plant it is and if there is a magical intent behind it.

Arcanum Bestiarum is an incredibly useful work for those looking to work with animal spirits either directly or on a purely symbolic level. Those looking for a beastly counterpart to Robert Simmons and Naisha Ahsian's amazingly comprehensive mineral book, The Book of Stones, may want to look elsewhere; there is nothing slick or modern about this book. With its antiqued skiver binding (or the parchment-like dust jacket of the standard edition) Arcanum Bestiarum is a lovely tribute to earlier times. This is a useful compendium of correspondences that every magician should have on their shelf. Liv Rainey-Smith's beguiling woodcuts nearly dance off the page. These, combined with Gail Coppock's expert calligraphy, make the reader feel as though they've discovered an antique "Book of Wonders". This is a book to be cherished, and is likely destined to become a classic on the subject.

Thanks again to my good friend, Kit Trodahl, for sharing his experiences with the book.

*A note on the reader's poll: What is the most important esoteric book (or series) of the 20th Century? 

Over 160 readers voted on this (very unscientific) poll. It was very close. Andrew Chumbley's Azoetia received 20% of the votes. However, Crowley's Magick: Liber ABA (Book Four) received 21%, making it the narrow winner.

Congrats to The Beast 666, and congrats to the late Mr. Chumbley for a very close second.