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.

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