Thursday, January 28, 2016

2015 Esoteric Book of the Year

*First, a note on how books are judged.

Books are 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 2015 (even though they may have a 2014 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 2014 book may not actually be available until 2015 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, talismanic nature, 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 evaluate 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.

Furthermore, with the sheer number of titles released annually I have to be more selective by choosing only topics I find personally interesting such as (but not limited to): witchcraft, folk-magic, Hermeticism, demonology, and reprints of historic grimoires. I am less interested in contemporary magical diaries, occult manifestos, and New Age cookbooks. 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 2015) that may have been overlooked in the comments section of this post.


And now, Balkan's Arcane Bindings' pick for the English language 2015 Esoteric Book of the Year.


The Golden Talisman Award for 2015 Esoteric Book of the Year goes to....

The Society of Esoteric Endeavour's Book of Magic by Anon (Herbert Irwin). Three item set: Facsimile of Manuscript (octavo, 416 pages), Transcript (octavo, 408 pages), and Talisman Folder (octavo, inset with eight vellum talismans).



There are plenty of books o the market about magic, but very few are magical; that is, not just about magic, they are magic. The latter may result from a number of methods: consecration, binding materials with symbolic meaning or magical correspondences, intense personal connection, spirit binding (the book becomes a home to a spirit), making the book actually do something -- essentially turning it into magical device, or through a most repugnant method: sacrifice (destroying the book) *shudder*. 

Readers may scoff at the "personal connection" method, as everyone has a favorite book, or twenty, correct? What I mean by personal connection is a book that has an extremely deep connection. The kind of book one would run into a burning building to rescue; one that has made a profound impact on one's life and possibly even influenced the chapters of one's own life. I'll give you an example: This may not come as a surprise, but the first purchase I ever made as a child with my own money was a book. I was 6 years old. I had saved up pennies for quite some time doing odd chores for my parents (as much as a boy that age can do). The book I wanted was a children's book about monsters. Eventually I had saved enough to buy it. I have vivid memories of different monsters leaping off the page and (at least in the mind's eye of a small boy) becoming very real. That book was my Lesser Key of Solomon, a six-year-old's Goetia. I still have it. It is still one of my most magical books, and I still work with the monsters of the book. We've become old friends and have served each other well.

Book of Magic falls into to the "magical device" category. The original manuscript (from 1874) is an instruction manual about how to make a magical book, hence the title Book of Magic and not Book About Magic. Now, after over 140 years, the book has finally migrated from the astral and has physically manifest. The book is essentially a tool for doing magic, not just reading about it.

The set contains a number of magical devices. First, inside the cover is a diagram of an eye within concentric circles illustrating "The Harmony of the Universe". This can be used as a meditative tool to focus one's mind before an operation. It gets better: the eye is formed from a small piece of the original manuscript. This creates a magical link to the original text following the principles of Sympathetic Magic; specifically, the Law of Contact or Contagion which states that things that were once in contact continue to be connected after the connection is severed. Today scientists call this phenomena Quantum Non-locality, what Albert Einstein called “spooky actions at a distance”. Second, the hardback folder contains a set of 8 vellum talismans blocked in gold, created exactly as outlined in the text. These have a variety of uses. Third, (and this is perhaps the most astonishing feature) inset into the back cover of the book is a black convex scrying glass used for divination or spirit communication. Ben Fernee, the mastermind behind The Society for Esoteric Endeavour, elaborates by stating: 
Furthermore, with the eye in the motif set in the front cover being on paper from the original manuscript, it provides a magical link that is the basis for the magic mirror set in the rear board to act as the window by which the practitioner may access the same mind spaces that Herbert viewed to create the original manuscript.
The eye is set into the front cover directly opposite the rear mirror. So when the book is closed the eye is continuously gazing through the text block and into the darkness of the rear mirror, creating a magical circuit, if you will. So not only does the mirror provide an aperture to different states of mind, but also a window through time and into the head-space of the book's creator. Depending on the reader's beliefs, the eye -- ever watchful -- may also serve as a ward to make sure the mirror does not become an unintentional gateway when not in use, the Watcher at the Threshold.



For the most part, the content of Book of Magic is a collection of ceremonial magic techniques and Hermetic arts used later in the Golden Dawn tradition. There are also a few folk-magic inclusions like the magical use of a dozen drugs and herbs and how to make a dowsing rod. Interestingly, there is also a section on non-Euclidean geometry -- shades of H. P. Lovecraft's "impossible angles". It was the author's valiant attempt to graphically describe higher dimensions, with limited success. Occult architect Claude Bragdon did a much better job (visually) 56 years later in his book Four Dimensional Vistas (1930) and The Frozen Fountain (1932) through illustrations of hypercubes or tesseracts.



As previously stated, the set comes in 3 parts: book, transcript, and talisman folder. All are contained within a slipcase. The book is handsomely bound in full brown calf with gilt title and border. Edges are hand-gilded. Interior boards are inset with black silk doublure with scalloped corners. Endpapers are decorated with a black and red fylfot cross tessellation (the fylfot is also discussed in the text).

The text block is an exact full-color facsimile of the original manuscript (obviously penned by hand) which may present a challenge for modern readers. A second volume, a typed transcript, is provided for clarity. It is cloth-bound in a matching brown hue. The third item is the talisman folder, also bound in cloth. Inside are eight vellum talismans blocked in gold.



This book was offered for pre-order for one week. At the end of the week the number sold would be the total number produced for this edition. The final number was 196 copies. This is my preferred method of selling. It allows interested parties a reasonable chance to obtain a copy and avoids the mad dash and inevitable disappointment for those who are unable to get a copy due to slow emails, distant time zones, or because they couldn't immediately get financing in order.

Book of Magic is yet another stunning release from The Society of Esoteric Endeavour. It is a talismanic book par excellence.



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

Primal Craft's The Witchblood Grail by Mark Alan Smith (Devil's Crown Edition). Illustrated in black and white by Lorein. Octavo. 394 pages.


The second volume in the Way of Sacrifice Trilogy (preceded by The Altar of Sacrifice), the Witchblood Grail is, in a word, magnificent.  The book is revealed in four parts:
  • Book One -- The First Inner Book of the Flesh: The Book of the Initiated Blood
  • Book Two -- The Book of Forbidden Flesh
  • Book Three -- The Book of Malefic Blood
  • Book Four -- The Book of the Devil's Throne
One of the more interesting parts is found in Book One, a chapter tilted, "Toadstone Familiars", detailing the creation and consecration of the toadstone. It is a peculiar adjunct to toadbone ritual.

Like Mr. Smith's previous works, The Witchblood Grail contains full-page black and white illustrations (six of them) by an artist known only as "Lorien" along with countless sigils, seals, and other symbols used in magical operations.



The book continues a familiar pattern of Mr. Smith's other works with heavy focus on poetic incantations and affirmations. His works are devotionals rather than straight forward instruction manuals, which may not be everyone's cup of tea. But do not worry -- there is no groveling or mindless supplication involved; the chants and orations are meant to empower the practitioner. Sometimes verbalizing one's intent aloud can be just the key one needs to unlock doors. Our screen-filled world has become so visually dominated that it is easy to overlook or forget the auditory components of magical practice.

Like its preceding volume, The Witchblood Grail is fully bound python skin with five raised bands on the spine. This time it is black and white python instead of solid black. It has a mesmerizing quality about it and is a pleasure to hold. One could say the natural zig-zag pattern of the python skin reflects the "crooked path" taken by many practitioners, a path winding hither and thither like the snakes of the caduceus wand.

The cover is embossed with "The Devil's Crown and The Eye of The Dragon" in 24 carat gold. The symbol doesn't "pop" as much as the cover of the previous volume due to varied coloration of the snakeskin binding, but it does stand out sufficiently enough when light catches it, giving the impression of almost floating above the snakeskin. Black endpapers are embossed as well. To protect the book the publisher includes a black solander box lined with emerald green suede. The front of the box is embossed with "The Seal of The Dragon God".


The Devil's Crown Edition is signed and sigilized in ink mixed with the author's own blood and limited to 36 copies. It is also available in a high-quality standard edition (Dragon Flame Edition) is limited to 999 copies and is still available here. The Standard Edition is bound in a Red Lynnel Thermo Ibis, a luxurious suede-like material. Primal Craft's Standard Edition is what most publishers would consider "deluxe" (see image below).

One wonders if they will continue the snake-skin theme with the next volume in the series, and if so, what form that will take. Perhaps a series progression from dark to light culminating with solid white python and symbolic of the purification process? Primal Craft's fine editions are truly extraordinary objects of sinister beauty.




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


The Devil's Dozen: Thirteen Craft Rites of the Old one by Gemma Gary (Fine Edition), published by Troy Books. Illustrated in black & white by the author; photos by Jane Cox. Duodecimo (Twelvemo). 160 pages.




The Devil's Dozen is an fascinating attempt to create a modern "black book". The book is clearly modeled after 18th and 19th century folk-magic grimoires and includes thirteen original rites inspired by traditional (British) witchcraft rituals. Though the rites are contemporary they still have a wild and primal character in the spirit of early folk traditions. The author states,
"They are my own creations all; given in hope that they may provide usefulness or inspiration, and each a personal offering of devotion unto the starlit and smoking altar of the Old One."
One of my favorite examples is a rite titled, "A Rite of Turning" designed to summon hell hounds and send them after someone who harbors ill-will towards the practitioner, or perhaps just for sport -- this is a black book after all. Additionally, the rites generally require simple materials that are not too exotic or costly. One suggestion is using a simple large flat stone for an altar.

The book contains a handful of full-page, glossy, black & white photos (taken by Jane Cox) of practitioners performing rites described in the book. It also contains a number of spectacular full page black & white illustrations (untitled) by the author. Inclusion of a title page for the illustrations would have been a nice addition. One of my favorites is one found before the chapter, "The Light Betwixt" depicting a sabbatic goat standing in a thicket with a lit candle between its horns.

Rarely have I encountered a more delightfully diabolical-looking book than the Fine Edition of The Devil's Dozen (limited to 13 copies) The binder rides the fine line between tastefully dramatic and garishly over-the-top... and wins, creating something stylish, unique, and a thing of nightmares (in a good way). The book bound in full black goat with a gilt boarder (the leather has a faint scent of peat). The spine has 4 raised bands and is gilt-stamped with the title, author, and a golden stang. Heavy beveled boards give the book a little heft. At only 5 x 8 inches it is a nice portable size for carrying down to the crossroads. But it is the cover that is most memorable. The cover is blind embossed with a pentacle resting on a bed of thickets. Peering out from within the pentacle is a glass goat's eye cabochon. It is an unsettling addition that makes the book truly unique. I swear that if one stares at it long enough it will blink. A trick of the mind surely, but an interesting effect nonetheless.





The book is protected by a full goat leather solander box lined with black silk. The cover is embossed with a stylized Goat of Mendes with horns ending in twelve lit candles, a blazing six-rayed star between the horns, and the alchemical symbol for phosphorus upon its forehead. The box's spine repeats the six-rayed star pattern.

This is one of the most delightfully unusual books I have seen in a long time. The Fine Edition sold out long ago, but the paperback and an attractive standard hardcover are still available here.


*Note -- Some readers may notice the absence of the Special Edition of The Triangular Book of St. Germain, a spectacular recent release from Ouroboros Press. My copy was received during the second week of 2016. Therefore it will be a likely contender for the 2016 Esoteric Book of the year. As much as I'd like to include it in this year's review, I have to draw the cut-off point somewhere. It will be something to look forward to in the coming year.


2015 Honorable Mentions
  • Lucifer: Princeps by Peter Grey (Dawn Breaker Edition), published by Scarlet Imprint. The layout and design of this book is absolutely incredible. Scarlet Imprint continues to amaze with their consistently elegant designs. The Dawn Breaker Edition effectively uses simple ornament and color that is symbolically appropriate for the topic. This was a very close contender for third place and the Bronze Talisman Award -- a tough decision. A truly luminous work.
  • Witchcraft and Sorcery of the Balkans by Radomir Ristic (Special Edition), published by Three Hands Press. Bound in embossed boar skin. A great resource for anyone looking to study a witchcraft tradition outside the British Isles. Slim but filled with solid information. 
  • The Green Book by Heliophilus (Fine Edition), published by Scarlet Imprint. A fascinating book on plant alchemy (spagyrics). It is worth buying for the incredible full-color photography alone.
  • ├×URSAKYNGI - Volume I - The Essence of Thursian Sorcery by EKORTU (Leather-bound Talisman Edition), published by IXAXAAR. Bound directly to goat leather creating a unique protective envelope with tied leather closures. Includes a horn talisman hand-carved by the author.

Have a wonderful year, dear readers.

B. Balkan


Read about past years' winners: