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.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Magic and Memetic Marketing: A Tale of Two Books

Dear readers,

This month's book review will be a little break from my usual structure. In this review I will explore two contemporary books on magic, not necessarily their content or their fine bindings, but rather how they are presented and marketed. A tale of two books. Typically I critique the craftsmanship of deluxe editions; however, in this entry I will instead look at two standard editions with emphasis on presentation, branding, and packaging.

Epoch: The Esotericon and Portals of Chaos by Peter J. Carroll &Matt Kaybryn
Arcanorium College. 2014. 216 pages. Landscape Quarto. Full color with many full color illustrations. Includes 54 over-sized, full color, "cartomagical" cards.

Available in a single edition.

Trade hardback: No limitation stated, however the first 100 copies are signed by the author and artist.

Anthology of Sorcery: Book 1 by various (no editor stated)
BecomeALviningGod. 2014. 353 pages. Octavo. Black & white illustrations.

Available in two editions.

Standard Cloth Edition: Limited to 400 copies. Sold out at publisher

Deluxe Edition: Full leather. Limited to 100 copies. Sold out at publisher.

I often wonder about future of esoteric publishing: Where it it going? What form it will take? What content will remain relevant in our fast-paced and digitized world? And... Is the future already here? I have discussed some of these themes a number of times before, including here. When I discuss new limited editions and other hard-to-find books the words of futurist and author William Gibson often come to mind, "The future is already here -- it's just not evenly distributed." -- The Economist, December 4, 2003  

Is the future of magic and esoterisicm one that will always be looking back to days of secret lodge meetings, hidden rites in darkened groves, or private alchemical discoveries lost amid crumbling archives? Is it safer to continually look backwards to re-imagined and historically questionable golden days of yore, or should we keep our eyes fixed on the horizon, eagerly ready to adapt to (and adopt) whatever memes and technologies the future has to offer? The future used to be a slow trickle of change, often small enough that entire generations could ignore it if they so chose. Today the future is coming at us in a torrent -- a tsunami of data and society-changing gadgets. Entire paradigms are created and destroyed overnight like castles in the sand. It can no longer be ignored. One has the choice to ride the wave or be drowned by it.
"The tribal community lived in the totality of circular time; the farmers of God's universe understood before and after; workers of the clockwork universe lived by the tick; and we creatures of the digital era must relate to the pulse." -- Douglas Rushkoff
This pulse, a staccato drumbeat compelling us to be on the cutting-edge of all the newest developments, gadgets, and their endless apps & functions is unavoidable today. For better or worse, this is the ever-increasing tempo of our society. There are good and bad aspects of this of course. There are a number of genuinely useful applications available, even some with potentially life-saving potential. But what about the others? Are they really "time-saving" devices?

When faced with continuous and rapid change many people do their best to stay on top of tech trends for fear of falling behind (socially and professionally) and thus potentially becoming out-of-touch with their peers. The downside, as I see it, is that it forces us to live continually in the now -- no time to look back and reassess, evaluate, or question; no time to plan a strategy or resistance. This is exactly where the media and business world would like us to be, that is, so overwhelmed and over-saturated that we simply accept whatever we are given. After all, each device promises to make our lives easier, right? Bread and circuses right in the palm of our hands. However, some of these adopted devices turn out to be akin to the folkloric changling child masquerading as something normal and wonderful until one realizes they've been nurturing something ghastly. The old bait-and-switch.

I am not immune to the aforementioned societal pressures.  Luddite as I am, I was the last of my peers get a cell phone, finding the idea of being at everyone's beckoning call disturbing. I like my silences. Though once phone booths started disappearing and went the way of the betamax I had little choice but to reluctantly adopt the cell phone. Now it appears I will be pushed into the world of Smart phones soon. It seems that calling and emails are far too time consuming for the post-modern technophile. Information must be compressed into a text or tweet resulting in communications of lower fidelity and higher levels of noise to signal ratio. We're communicating more, but we're certainly not communicating better. Somehow I doubt I will have the same experience reading a .pdf of Glanvill's Saducismus Triumphatus in the sterile blue-white glare of and iPad, punctuated by random cartoon-like blips and beeps, as I would reading from stiff and age-darkened pages by candlelight with a glass of Amontillado at hand. Perfectly aligned aesthetics are everything.

So in the spirit of looking forward and a rapidly changing world, I would like to look at two very contemporary magic books. Epoch: The Esotericon and Portals of Chaos is a Chaos Magic book (a post-modern current if there ever was one) while Anthology of Sorcery: Book 1 is exactly what it says, an anthology of sorcery. The various authors provide a distinctly contemporary approach to magic, including some notables, like the ever-humorous Lon Milo DuQuette.

Dystopian Corporate Logos. Image Credit:

One of the most obvious characteristics of goods and services in our age is aggressive product branding. Branding is used in a myriad of ways of course, from company logos to iconic styling. We are bombarded daily with subtle (and not so subtle) marketing techniques. Thus it was only a matter of time until someone in the esoteric book market decided to use the same branding techniques as, say, Crown Royal whiskey, or slogans reminiscent of Nike's "Just do it".

Remember the "occult scare" created by this logo?
 Image credit: Proctor & Gamble

When I received Anthology of Sorcery: Book 1 from BecomeALivingGod (<--- surprisingly no ™) I recognized immediately that I had received an unusual beast. In my hands was a black cardboard box that read, "BecomeALivingGod: Real Magick, Real Results." Each of the four sides contained a single word, "Omnipresence, Ascension, Omniscience, Omnipotence" respectively. One certainly cannot accuse BALG of setting the bar too low. Inside the box was a black velveteen bag, again sporting the BecomeALivingGod logo. I immediately thought of Crown Royal whiskey. For those unfamiliar with it, each bottle comes in a trademark royal purple draw-string bag, that is, if you're into that Canadian stuff. I have been told the bags make excellent tarot card bags.

Image credit:

Inside the bag was a black book. Not just black, all black. With its black boards, black endpapers, black ribbon marker, black head/tail bands, and blackened edges, Anthology of Sorcery: Book 1 is the literary equivalent of a "murdered out" assault vehicle, to use the vernacular of the young. The regular edition is bound in black satin. Taken as a total package, it struck me as a rather well-designed marketing strategy. It certainly stands out. It may sound excessive, but the cardboard box and the bag help protect the book in shipping (and after), so they do serve a practical purpose. Ixaxaar ships their books in a black cardboard box with the Ixaxaar logo as well. Sometimes it it the little things that matter. Anyone who has ordered from Scarlet Imprint surly appreciates how each book is carefully wrapped in black paper.

I realize there are lot of strong opinions out there regarding the BecomeALivingGod website and its owner E.A. Koetting. However, for the purpose of this blog I am going to stick to reviewing their book only. If my readers would like to read more, Frater Barrabbas has a very fair and informative review of BecomeALivingGod and Mr. Koetting on his phenomenal blog, Talking Ritual Magick, here.

Overall Anthology of Sorcery: Book 1 is a sleek and attractive book from a new publisher with a very 21st century flair. It's a great start, though there is still room for improvement. The boards seem a little too thin for the paper weight and have a tendency to bow slightly with the text block, or it could just be my copy. The paper has a satin finish, which really helps the images pop, but I find it a bit too glossy for my taste. It causes occasional glare on the page making reading difficult at times. I found myself re-positioning the book more than I should need to. More of a personal preference, really.

One can see the sheen of the paper in this photo.

In complete contrast to the Stygian Anthology of Sorcery: Book 1 (for better or worse) we have specimen #2, Epoch: The Esotericon and Portals of Chaos by Peter Carroll, the father of Chaos Magic (though one could argue it began with A.O. Spare). Forget the all-black thing (even if all-black is the standard uniform for most Chaotes) -- the cover looks like psilocybin ice-cream. For whatever reason -- call it a "genre archetype"-- Chaos Magic books have traditionally sported covers that are (perhaps not surprisingly) chaotic, fractal in nature, and colorfully frenetic. This book is no different. I cannot think of a single Chaos Magick book that has an artistically restrained cover; perhaps Joshua Wetzel's The Paradigmal Pirate,.. maybe. The rest are tie-dyed treatises on reality-hacking and viral sigils. Read enough of those and you will find yourself speaking in E-Prime and doubting your own shadow.

Epoch: The Esotericon and Portals of Chaos is an over-sized paradigm-shifting trip through world mythologies and literary cosmologies (Carroll clearly loves the Cthulhu Mythos). It even has its own website -- here. Carroll also includes his 21st century interpretation of the Qabalah, what he calls the Chaobala. No doubt some will see this as refreshing and forward-thinking while others will see it as heretical. I've found that the latter is always a good sign.


The book also comes with an over-sized (dare I say super-sized?) deck of "cartomagical tools of the 21st century" created by the author and artist, Matt Kaybryn. The cards are laminated and fairly durable. The first thing one will likely notice is the artwork. Each "Altar Icon" card in the deck depicts a god, goddess, element, planet, or entity. Mr. Kaybryn has given many of the gods/goddesses a modern update. Horus is portrayed as a young punk which is particularly apt. Thoth is particularly striking. Unlike traditional tarot card art through the ages Mr. Kaybryn's art is digitally created. Another sign of the times, perhaps. I have mixed feelings about digital art. When used wisely, and in many cases sparingly, it is a wonderful medium. I occasionally create digital art myself. However, the Achilles heel of digital art is the human face, for now. Many of the figures look lifeless, like colorful manikins. Shuffling though the deck is like a journey through a wax museum. The eyes in particular look empty and strange. The cards containing elements, creatures, and cosmic forces are far better. I like these quite a bit. Digital art is much more forgiving when it comes to amorphous horrors.

Bucking the trend, the publisher, Arcanorium College, decided to resist the tremendous urge to sell on Amazon and instead chose to sell exclusively through Weiser-Antiquarian Books. Yes, the book can be found on Amazon; but if you notice, Weiser-Antiquarian is the actual seller. Good choice. I've found Weiser-Antiquarian to be very reliable and always have fair prices.

As one can see we have two very contemporary books here. Each is very different from traditional esoteric books in their own way. They are essentially products of our times: assertive branding & marketing, distinctly contemporary packaging and art design, and a conscious (conscience?) choice to set up distribution through independent booksellers.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

READERS' POLL: What is the most important esoteric/magic book of the 20th century?

Image credit: Idea Venue

Dear readers,

Now that we are a decade or so removed from the 20th century, I began to wonder, what is the most important esoteric/magic book of the 20th century? For example: What book has had the most lasting impact? What book has been the most influential? What book has preserved an entire tradition? What book has the greatest potential? Perhaps more importantly, What book has changed the world? I thought I would let my readers decide.

How one defines "important" is up to the reader. As one can see below, the choices span a wide range of traditions. They also cover the entire century, from works written at the dawn of the 20th century, to books written at the century's close. One may also notice that the authors range from practicing magicians to folklorists. For the purpose of this poll I have included individual books and book series, as many series constitute a large single system of practices. Additionally, some books have been published as multiple volumes and later as single volumes. In other cases single books contain multiple books, as Crowley's Book Four also contains Liber AL vel Legis (The Book of the Law).

I have also included the choice of "Other", as there are assuredly many very important books not included in this list. Those choices can be written in the comments section below this post and will be included in the poll. You can find the poll in the column to the right. The poll will run for roughly 2 months, at the end of which a winner will be decided.

The choices are:
  • Magick: Liber ABA (Book Four) -- Aleister Crowley
  • The Secret Teachings of All Ages -- Manly P. Hall
  • Liber Null & Psychonaut -- Peter Carroll
  • The Book of Pleasure -- Austin Osman Spare
  • Drawing Down the Moon -- Margot Adler
  • The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic -- Israel Regardie
  • The Typhonian Trilogies -- Kenneth Grant
  • The Kybalion -- The Three Initiates (William Walker Atkinson)
  • Azoetia -- Andrew Chumbley
  • Hoodoo - Conjuration - Witchcraft - Rootwork by H. M. Hyatt
  • Other?

*** Edit  10/4/2014

The results of the poll have been finalized. 

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.

 So, What is the most important esoteric book (or series) of the 20th Century? 

According to my readers it is Crowley's Magick: Liber ABA (Book Four).

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

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Obeah: A Sorcerous Ossuary by Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold

"I came down on a lightning bolt
Nine months in my mama's belly
When I was born, the midwife scream and shout
I had fire and brimstone coming out of my mouth
I'm Exuma, I'm the Obeah man"
-- Exuma "Exuma the Obeah Man"

The white witch of Rose Hall,
A beauty above all.
The slaves out in the fields
Had brothers who were killed.
This Obeah woman made the spirits rise,
Destroying the unwanted with her eyes.

-- Coven "The White Witch of Rose Hall"

Hadean Press. 2013. 107 pages. Duodecimo (Twelvemo). Full color illustration + black & white illustrations.

Available in three editions:

Digital e-book

Trade Hardback: No limitation stated.

Limited Edition: Limited to 21 copies bound in full sheepskin.

The name Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold should be a familiar one to anyone interested in Caribbean and South American magical traditions. He has written a number of fascinating books on Quimbanda and Palo Mayombe. In one of his most recent works, Obeah: A Sorcerous Ossuary, he focuses on a somewhat obscure and often poorly understood tradition: Obeah, a form of "Afro-Shamanic Witchcraft". Obeah is believed to have roots linking back to the Igbo people in present day Nigeria. It is perhaps one of the most syncretic practices in the Caribbean. Most Afro-Caribbean traditions are a melange of African and European religions and folk traditions. Obeah has all these elements, but it also has influences from India and the Middle East, as Trinidad has sizable Hindu and Muslim populations. The result is a unique fusion of international beliefs, yet it remains rooted closely to the land in which it has developed, roughly from Trinadad & Tobago to Jamaica.

Interestingly, Obeah has been illegal in Jamaica since 1760. While other Caribbean nations have rewritten their laws to decriminalize it, in Jamaica it is still illegal under the Obeah Act of 1898, though it hasn't been enforced since the 1960s. For more on this subject I recommend Enacting Power: The Criminalization of Obeah in the Anglophone Caribbean, 1760–2011 by  Jerome S. Handler and Kenneth M. Bilby.

What makes Obeah unique is that, unlike Haitian Vodou or Santeria, it is not a religion, nor is it a magical system per se. If it is neither of these then what exactly is it? This is where it gets complicated. Even the author admits it is a bit hard to pin down exactly what Obeah is. The author states,
"Obeah does not refer to a given system, but a sorcerous trade ...  a 'tower of power' -- a storehouse or occult engine of supernatural power owned by Papa Bones and gifted to his votaries."

He describes it best when he says it is a spiritual "technology". Therefore Obeah is not a system or a specific set of practices (though there are some common practices among Obeahmen); rather, it is a power that is received through direct transmission from Obeahmen in succession that acts as a magical catalyst igniting powers within the Obeahman. One could say it is a magical inheritance when referring to passing down of the "obi" or "obiya", a transformative magical essence similar to what many in Traditional Witchcraft call "witch-blood". Through the succession of obiya power Obeah could be also be considered a "thaumaturgical cult" of the initiated.

The raised seal of Anansi in copper.

Other common names for Obeahmen/women are: bush-doctor, balm-man, four-eyed man, buzu, and shadow-catcher. The latter comes from the practice of "duppy-catching" and "shadow-nailing". Duppies (or jumbies) are vampiric ghosts or elementals that are caught and controlled. Shadows (or sasa) are also caught and nailed to cotton trees to facilitate healing and grant other powers.

In some ways Obeah is like contemporary Chaos Magic, as the Obeahman often uses intuitive methods and a very pragmatic and practical "whatever works" approach. Considering they are not restricted by a defined system of practices or religious framework they are free to use whatever is at their disposal to work their magic. The author states,
"Obiya is about your soul set aflame in spiritual congruence and in this way the Obeahman is reminiscent of the modern day Chaos magician but instead of sensitivity with social paradigms he or she holds sensitivity with the shifting arches of creation."

The author continues by finding links and commonalities between Obeah and shamanism too. In fact the author states that shamanism is the "prime technique" used by Obeahmen, as Obeah is about direct spirit contact and working with unseen forces. Like shamans of all cultures, from the secretive kanaima of the Amazon to the soul-traveling Sámi noaide in far northern Scandinavia, Obeahmen are often regarded as outsiders and live a lonely and reclusive life. They also utilize possession and trance to enable traffic with spirits. Obeahman have a "sasa", the invisible spiritual power of an individual that causes a spell to work. It is the sasa that "gives the Obeahman the power to awaken the spirit of plants and bones." Obeahmen also have the power of night-stalking and skin-leaping. These powers are somewhat analogous to the Navajo skinwalker, a malicious sorcerer with the ability to shape-shift into animals. Regarding this subject, I highly recommend Clyde Kluckhohn's book, Navajo Witchcraft.

I found Chapter III, "The Kabalistic Banquette of Lemegeton", particularly interesting. In this chapter the author discusses various books used by Obeahmen. These include: Waite's The Book of Black Magic, The Lemegeton, Grimoire of Pope Honorius, Grimorium Verum, and de Laurence's The Great Book of Magical Art. As you can see, the Obeah tradition is heavily influenced by the Western Grimoire tradition. One of the rites includes a banquette where Goetic and animal spirits are invited to possess participants. A Master of Ceremonies is assigned to maintain order and control of the spirits. If spirits get out of hand he is in charge of destroying magic seals and in some cases even whip the possessed to chase out unruly spirits. Sounds like a party.

Sasabonsam - Image credit: The Museum of Witchcraft

The book describes a number of spiritual figures that Obeahmen revere. Foremost of these are: Sasabonsam (The Lord of the Woods -- a diabolical version of the "Green Man"), Papa Bones (Lord of Darkness), his wife Asase (The Woman in the Lake of Pitch), and her daughter Anima Sola. The Lake of Pitch refers to an actual place, the La Brea Pitch Lake, a large tar-pit found in Trinidad's southwest peninsula -- a suitable home for fearsome spirits. Animal spirits are also called upon and worked with such as: Sarato (the serpent), Morocoi (the turtle), Anansi (the spider), Opete (the vulture), and Adyaini (the jaguar). Many of these spirits are worked with by building an altar with colored candles (typically yellow, red, black, and white), pipe or cigar smoke, and also an offering of apricot brandy (but no alcohol when working with Anima Sola).

The Limited Edition contains an additional chapter titled, "The Temporal Obiya" not found in the trade edition.

Now for the physical book...

For this review I shall review the Limited Edition of Obeah: A Sorcerous Ossuary. Only 19 of the 21 copies were offered for sale. Each book was bound by hand by Erzebet of Hadean Press who states, "My work is, at its core, an act of devotion...". This sentiment can be easily seen and felt when holding this book. The book is bound in full black sheepskin. It is very supple and has a beautiful grain. The book has a faint scent of galbanum, which is found within the attached mojo bag (more on that in a moment). The cover contains a hammered copper plate with the seal of the spider spirit Anansi in high relief. It's really quite striking. The spine has seven raised bands with no title. Black head and tail bands. The book's small size (pocket size) makes it easily portable when taking it to a graveyard or a sacred forest glen.

This book has something very unique and special that makes the Limited Edition of Obeah: A Sorcerous Ossuary a truly talismanic work. Attached to the black silk ribbon is a red silk bag. The red silk has a wonderfully rich color. Each bag contains the physical components for an Obeah charm: a piece of snakeskin, a hawk feather, Manacá (from a douen tree), a silk cotton thorn and silk cotton, and galbanum.

While on the subject of galbanum... some of you may have noticed that the price of galbanum has gone up precipitously and become a bit scarce. There's a reason for this. The largest exporter of galbanum is Syria. As one may expect, the political upheaval and brutal war in Syria has adversely affected all parts of the nation's economy including production and exports. Hopefully the outcome of this tragic war will be one that reflects the hopes and desires of Syria's displaced people and not the demands of a cruel dictator or fanatical religious groups. But I digress...

"Lord of the Forest -- Lord of the Dead" by Kyle Fyte

The book opens to black endpapers marbled with thin strands of gold. Upon opening the book the reader will quickly encounters the artwork of Kyle Fyte, a full-color piece titled "Lord of the Forest - Lord of the Dead" (also found on the cover of the trade edition). Mr. Fyte's jaggedly colorful Expressionistic work is a perfect compliment to this book. His work has a frenetic passion about it that grabs the viewer and won't let go, dragging the viewer to the feet of primal and elemental forces -- an aesthetic abduction. The text is printed on solid 120gsm cream paper. Each book also comes with a little card held within a red envelope. The card lists the ingredients of the charm and also states the book's limitation number. Oddly there is no mention of what the charm is for or what it is meant to do. It likely serves as an offering to Obeah spirits linked to the book.

Obeah: A Sorcerous Ossuary is a wonderful glimpse into a culturally complex tradition. The book offers examples of rituals, prayers, conjurations, and a few seals for specific spirits. The only downside is the book's brevity (107 pages). Mr. Frisvold left me wanting more. Being a small book, it's just enough to whet the reader's appetite and send them looking for more. I hope he writes another in-depth book on this subject. In the meantime, here's a good place to start to learn more: Obeah and Other Powers: The Politics of Caribbean Religion and Healing from Duke University Press.

*As an aside. I'm sure many of my readers are currently enjoying the international drama of the World Cup. I certainly am (part of the reason for this review's delay). If you are one of those soccer (futbol) fans you may want to pick up this book: Football Voodoo: Magic, Superstition, and Religion in the Beautiful Game by Chris Roberts. Are winning goals due to skill, or is it magic?

Photo credit: F and M Publications

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Daemonologie of King James

Ouroboros Press 2014. 120 pages. Duodecimo (Twelvemo). Black and white illustrations.

Available in three editions:

Standard Edition: Cloth and letterpress dust jacket. Limited to 600 copies.

Goat-Skin Edition: Full black goatskin. Limited to 45 copies.

Hellmouth Edition: Quarterbound in snakeskin and cloth with folding plate depicting the Hellmouth. Limited to 25 copies.

First published in 1597, Daemonologie of King James is a fascinating treatise on late 16th century attitudes regarding witchcraft, magic, sorcery, folkloric creatures, ghosts, and demons. The book is written in the form of a dialog between two gentlemen, Epistemon (Greek for sciences) and Philomathes (Greek for lover of knowledge). Epistemon presents a series of arguments (20 in all) on the nature of witchcraft, necromancy, magic, and sorcery. Philomathes plays the role of the doubter, or Devil's advocate, by questioning the validity of Epistemon's claims. Their dialog offers a curious glimpse into late 16th century rationality and logic. For example, Epistemon is portrayed as somewhat unsophisticated and naive, as he is ignorant of the powers of witches and sorcerers, even doubting their existence. Philomathes plays the part of a worldly scholar well-versed in witchlore and occult powers.

The irony is that while Philomanthes is supposed to be the uninformed common man (the "Joe Public" of today), he actually comes off as the more reasonable of the two. His skepticism, no doubt intended to be dangerously foolhardy and ignorant in his day, seems completely rational and levelheaded to the modern ear. In a reversal of roles, it is Epistemon who strikes the modern reader as sounding irrational, like a smug fundamentalist. Thus a work that was used as paranoia-inducing anti-witch propaganda in its day sounds rather quaint and jejune today.

The book is dived into three parts, each with a central argument followed a series of minor arguments and elaborations.

  • First Booke: The exord of the whole. The description of Magie in speciall.

  • Second Booke: The description of Sorcerie and Witchcraft in speciall.

  • Third Booke: The description of all these kindes of Spirites that troubles men or women. The conclusion of the whole Dialogue.

As you can see, the book is written in Elizabethan English. Those unfamiliar with it may find it challenging.

One observation that I found particularly interesting: the high value placed on information. It seems that no matter what the time period, knowledge is power. We like to say we live in an "Information Age" where information is everything. In reality it has always been everything; we just have more of it now. When describing the diabolic powers the Devil (or Deuill in Elizabethan English) grants his followers there is particular emphasis on the ability to know things beyond one's natural ability, such as the outcome of future battles, or whether a sick person will recover or die. For example:
"Sathan ... will oblish himselfe to teach them artes and sciences, which he may easelie doe, being so learned a knaue as he is: To carrie them newes from anie parte of the worlde, which the agilitie of a Spirite may easilie performe: to reueale to them secrets  of anie persons, so being they bee once spoken for the thought none knowes but GOD; ... Ye he will make his schollers to creepe in credite with Princes, by fore-telling them manie greate thinges; parte true, part false:"
As you can see, not only was information incredibly important and powerful, but also the speed at which it could be obtained -- something we take for grated today with Google at our fingertips. Those who had foreknowledge of what was to come, or advanced knowledge of something that has already occurred, had a significant strategic advantage over others. Speedy information was so powerful it was worth selling one's soul to get.

In one of Epistemon's arguments there is a passage that reminded me how little things have changed in 400 years.  Epistemon describes the sinful path of magicians and how simple curiosity can lead to far greater heresies.
"...they are so allured thereby, that finding their practize to prooue true in sundry things, they studie to know the cause thereof: and so mounting from degree to degree, vpon the slipperie and vncertaine scale of curiositie; they are at last entised, that where lawfull artes or sciences failes, to satisfie their restless minds, even to seeke to that black and vnlawfull science of Magie."
I seems that even back in 1597 people tried to use the "slippery slope" fallacy to win an argument. If Epistemon were around today he would probably be a pundit on FOX News.

Epistemon describes the differences between practitioners of the black arts. He lumps them into two groups, magician/necromancers and witches/sorcerers. The main difference between the two groups, according to Epistemon, is that magicians and necromancers generally mean no harm; they unknowingly fall into the trap of prideful lust for knowledge, including forbidden knowledge. In contrast, witches and sorcerers are out to do harm to others and lust for wealth. Magicians and Necromancers have high, yet sinful, aspirations while sorcerers and witches have lowly and base desires. Interestingly, later in the book Epistemon says that the sins of magicians and necromancers are actually far greater than those of witches and sorcerers because their sins come within closer proximity to God, that is, god-like understanding. My goodness, the arrogance...  Again, knowledge is power. If people learn too much they become a greater threat. This is why it was a burnable offense, according to those in power, unless the magician or necromancer worked for them of course.

In the latter part of the book Epistemon and Philomathes discuss the nature and existence of folkloric creatures. This amounts to a compendium of monsters and their respective natures and habits. Epistemon pontificates on the nature of lycanthropy and the existence of ghosts, dividing the latter into various subgroups: specters, wraiths, etc.. Additionally, fairies, brownies, incubi, succubi, and demonic possession are also addressed.  

Now on to the part you've been waiting for, the book itself:

For this review I will be reviewing the "Hellmouth Edition" of Demonologie of King James. Credit to Mr. William Kiesel of Ouroboros books for coming up with such a colorful edition title. I cannot say it without cracking a smile. I say, who wouldn't want a Hellmouth edition? The Hellmouth Edition is half-bound in white snakeskin and black cloth. I have no idea if the skin comes from an albino snake or if it has been bleached, though the former would be more appropriate. The magical properties of albinism is well known in witchcraft traditions throughout the world. (Unfortunately it has recently lead to savage butchery of albino people in Africa with the belief that albino limbs possess magical power.) The contrast between the white snakeskin and black cloth is striking and also appropriately symbolic. It represents how magic with good intentions can actually be something black underneath.

The snakeskin feels very smooth, has a remarkable shine, and begs to be touched. The black cloth is sturdy with a tight weave and is stamped front and back in gold with Ouroboros Press' colophon, the ouroboros circumscribing a Maltese cross. The spine has seven raised bands, each edged with gilding. Matching snakesking head/tail bands. The title, Daemonologie 1597 is stamped in gold on a black leather spine label. The book comes with a black ribbon bookmark. Opening the book reveals black and white hand-marbled endpapers. Paper is of medium-light weight and pale cream in color. The folding "Hellmouth" plate is lightly marbled parchment in color. The book begins with an spectacular period illustration of the Devil (see pic) and has several other equally attractive decorative ornaments and illustrations. This is a very elegant little book and one of the most unique to come from Ouroboros press. It marks a slight departure from their usual three-tiered business model (vellum, goatskin, and cloth). To further break with tradition, one of their newest releases, the Brazen Serpent Edition of Nicholas Flamel's Hieroglyphical Keywill feature a full Cambridge binding hand bound by Michael Atha of Restoration Books. The early pictures look incredible.

With Daemonologie of King James Ouroboros Press continues its wonderful service of providing high-quality editions of important long out-of-print works. They cater to a specific strata of the esoteric community that values source-works and is not put off or intimidated by archaic language. Like the Malleus Maleficarum, Glanvil's Saducismus Triumphatus and other anti-witchcraft treatises of the 16th-17th centuries, Daemonologie of King James provides a wealth of information about the practices and activities of magicians and witches, that is, if one is to believe testimonies given under torture. Many of the alleged diabolic acts are likely less a reality than they are a reflection of societal insecurities, namely, the rising power of the merchant class and its threat to the aristocracy, schisms within the church, and of course the ever-present fear of intelligent women with power. Fascinating and historically insightful as these books are, they were, sadly, used as tools -- even guidebooks -- for the persecution of countless people. As I alluded to earlier, books like these are valuable in that they can teach us something about the past, but they can also become an uncomfortable mirror reflecting society's age-old failings and highlighting fears that remain to this day.