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 Primalcraft.com.


                                   

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: malwarwickbooks.com

  • 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:





3 comments:

  1. A well balanced dissection as always Boris! Thanks for tying up another year.

    Books forthcoming 2015 that may be of interest:
    - Azoetia reprint
    - New Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold title
    - Distillatio by Orryelle
    - New material by David Beth
    - Possibly Gammaes II by Daniel Schulke
    - Chumbley's Opuscula Magica III
    - Beyond the Mauve Zone reprint

    Yet, even that list is a small survey of what's to come, and points to your comment about the volume of fine editions being released. Indeed it is hard to keep track! As such I have tended to narrow it down by buying to my primary interests, which the above titles more or less fall in to.

    And on a final note, I am all in favor of this Orryelle & Skinner collaboration. Bound in crocodile, of course!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Don't mainstream occult publishers have the whole "practical magic books" thing pretty well covered? What kind of material do you think the small press could bring to the table?

    ReplyDelete
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