More on Goetic Magic: Three 20th century developments

In a previous post, now a couple of months ago, I wrote about the distinction between goetia and theurgy in ceremonial magic. I tried to trace the development of the distinction, in very broad strokes, from neo-platonic discussions in late antiquity through the renaissance rehabilitation of magic, through to 19th century occultism. This was part of developing my thoughts for an article on «Goetia in Modern Western Magic», the deadline for which has now (as it usually goes with academic anthologies) been postponed. This gives me opportunity to try out some more ideas here.

The last post focused largely on how moral distinctions concerning «black» and «white» magic have been developed and negotiated through the centuries. The article I was commissioned to write is, however, supposed to deal mostly with the place of goetia among  modern and contemporary practitioners of magic. I believe nevertheless that it is valuable to keep a diachronic perspective to this issue, hence the relevance of drawing up broader historic lines with attention to specific issues. By doing this we may start analysing questions of novelty, rupture, and continuity, and start theorising about any such findings.

Following up this point, I have tried to isolate a few features which I think point to important developments in the recent history of ceremonial magic. As it looks now, I have them distinguished in three neat little categories. Modern ritual magic generally, and the perception of goetia specifically, is charaterised by:

1) Explanatory reorientations;

2) Religious reorientations;

3) A strain between invention/creativity and textualism/authenticity.

I’ll explain briefly what I mean by these three features.

Point one and two both have their roots in the declining relevance of Christian narratives within the milieus practicing magic. As I mentioned in the last post, a Christian sensitivity remained at the basis of interpretations of goetia and theurgy even in 19th century occultism. We see this in Eliphas Levi, S. L. Mathers, and even more obviously in A. E. Waite. It was only with Aleister Crowley, it seems, that this really started to change.

When viewed through the lenses of a Christian narrative, goetic magic gets its efficacy through actual communication and commerce with demons. This is, most basically, the explanatory orientation which was provided by Christian theology. The first feature I identify with 20th century ritual magic, then, is a move away from this «demonic realism» towards other, often «seularised» or even «disenchanted» explanatory models.

Crowley provided an early attempt when he claimed, in 1904, that talk of demons in the Goetia really referred to «portions of the brain». Evoking a demon was really nothing else than stimulating certain parts of the human brain, which would, for example, heighten the natural faculty of learning languages, logic, or liberal sciences, as some «demons» would claim to help with.  In a sense, Crowley in this phase attempted to naturalise ceremonial magic – making demonic magic into a new kind of natural magic, via the help of 19th century naturalistic theories of the mind and the brain (literally: he referred to people like Henry Maudsley, Herbert Spencer and T. H. Huxley – which again connects to the connections between naturalism and spiritualism I discussed earlier). Interestingly, varieties on the theme of rescuing what’s suspect of”spiritual” or “demonic” magic by claiming it’s  “natural magic” are found throughout the history of magic in the West.

This particular perspective has perhaps not been the most influential one (neither would it remain Crowley’s only perspective throughout life, as mentioned before). Other attepts to find alternatives to the «demon hypothesis» of magical efficacy are however abundant in modern magical discourse. Among the more popular ones are various psychologizing perspectives, often trading on Jungian (or even Reichian psychology, as in Regardie), or transpersonal psychology.

The second feature we observe from the 20th century especially, is a religious reorientation. The decline of Christian perspectives did not simply leave a vacuum. In stead, a number of new religious movements have formed around occultism in the 20th century, which also provide new religious orientations for the practice of ritual magic. Again Crowley is a central figure, since he as prophet of the new religion Thelema also became a prophet of a religion which focused centrally on a concept of magic. Thelema made magic generally into a way of life, and its rituals an important part of religious observance. It also provided new ways to look at old distinctions between black and white magic, essentially replacing the old distinction between theurgy and goetia. Similar developments are found in other new religious movements, of which Wicca, modern religious Satanism, various religious perspectives on the «left-hand path», and varieties of Neo-paganism stand out.

The final point I noted is a strain between two different tendencies: a religious creativity which constantly tries to reform and reinterpret the practice of magic, and an increasingly popular strategy to legitimize one’s interpretations by reference to «authenticity» and being close to original sources. Especially since the late 1970s, occultist publishers have focused increasingly on bringing out source texts, edited by practitioners and presented largely to a magical rather than scholarly audience. This has given fuel to criticisms, internal to occultism, against certain grand syntheses, such as that of the Golden Dawn. By showing discrepancies between what’s in the sources (for example various grimoires, or even more controversially – the diaries of John Dee) and the Golden Dawn school, certain late-modern occultists have been able to strike out a seemingly more «scholarly» and «authentic» position.

My perspective, however, is that these claims to scholarship and authenticity are really part of the same kind of dynamic: they are strategical claims employed for legitimizing certain positions. More bluntly: the emphasis on authenticity does, in practice, replace one kind of myth-making with new ones. Occultists of a «purist» bent like this do in reality engage in what may be called emic historiography, rather than etic historiography. This becomes particularly clear when we notice what professional historians would identify as various historiographical fallacies. For example, it is not uncommon to find authors and editors of this type preferring various exotic hypotheses of provenance for certain texts when more mundane and straight forward ones are available – such as when the grimoires attributed to one «Dr. Rudd» (who there is frustratingly little evidence to suggest even existed, except from the claims of his later «copier», the known forgerer Peter Smart working at the turn of the 17th/18th centuries) are taken as evidence of a secret group of magicians carrying on the tradition of John Dee through the English civil war and restoration eras. This seems to be a typical strategy in much esoteric historywriting, whether it attempts to cloth itself in the fabric of historical scholarship or not.


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This work by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Excellent post!

    A term that Crowley used when writing to Smith applies here: drifting occultist. They jump from one system to the next, while trying to rationalize their involvements as being one that validates them in the eyes of a secular society. It’s the smorgasbord approach which cherry picks material according to an individual’s prejudices. Crowley often had people wanting to learn secrets from him when it involved magic and they would reject Thelema because it was a religion. We see this in the occult community when members of it are opposed to any form of orthodoxy and not orthopraxy.

    • Thanks for the remark. To the point about Crowley, I realise I should’ve mentioned in the post how Crowley’s own approach to the “reality” issue changed in significant ways later in his career.

  2. … Updated.

  3. I just discovered your blog, via Thony C and the Giant’s Shoulders. Very interesting stuff!
    A couple points:
    1. We’ll be in the Netherlands 1-8 July, divided between Breda and Utrecht. Are there any good talks in this period?
    2. Have you ever looked at certain branches of Born Again Protestantism (certainly US but likely also everywhere not Europe) as forms of theurgy? I knew a reborn Christian girl who used to “armor herself” and drive demons out of friends and acquaintances. This was suburban Maryland in 1990.

    • Glad you like the blog, and sorry for taking so long to reply.
      1: Nothing in particular springs to mind, immediately..
      2: I haven’t, but I think it may be wise to keep a distinction between exorcism practices (which also have very ancient roots) and theurgy in the sense discussed in my posts. Perhaps it’s easier to find overlaps with goetic magic, as those rituals have been influenced by ecclesiastical exorcism rituals.

      • Ah, there you go, I was thinking of exorcism as theurgy because it calls on God, but I see where is has more in common with goetic magic, since it concerns demons. Thank you very much for answering my naive comment.

  4. It wasn’t naive, and no problem!

  5. […] from Mesmerism to 19th century scientism to eugenics in Norway to lectures on alchemy to Goetic ritual magic – is keeping a track on what’s being read, and from where. In the beginning I […]

  6. […] idea of magical efficacy (I have actually written quite a bit about it myself, including in this blog post). This is an important moment in what I personally see as the “naturalization of […]


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