The first half of 2012 has been a great year for research on modern Western ritual magic. I have already mentioned the publication of my own book, Arguing with Angels, which deals with that obscure system of angel magic known as “Enochian”. I have also mentioned the forthcoming thesis workshop on magic, co-hosted by the ESSWE and the Chair for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents here in Amsterdam. There are however a couple of other publications that have appeared so far this year as well, which I have been meaning to mention for a while. Let’s get to it.
First, a thematic volume of Aries was published this winter, on the theme of “modern Western magic”. It was edited by Henrik Bogdan, who writes in his introduction that:
“the continued presence of magical belief and practice in the modern and late modern Western society challenges many of the widely-held preconceptions about contemporary religion and spirituality. Magic has often been dismissed as either primitive and irrational and therefore alien to modern society, as inherently opposed to the Judeo-Christian traditions of the West, or as incompatible with religion in general. These antipathetic sentiments are deeply imbedded in Western culture, and the term magic has typically been used to describe non-mainstream beliefs and practices – non-Christians, heretics, non-Westerners, indigenous, ancient or ‘primitive’ cultures – any that might be considered ‘Other’.”
Nevertheless, self-declared magicians are not hard to come by in the modern West, and they come, moreover, in many shades and shapes. The four articles that together make up this thematic volume, look at four different manifestations of “magic” in the modern West. Gregory Tillett (“Modern Western Magic and Theosophy”) brings an intriguing and quite important article about the relevance of the Theosophical Society for the development of Western magic. This is an underresearched field, as the Theosophical current has often been differentiated clearly from the “magical” stream of groups such as the Golden Dawn and its heirs. This has no doubt happened by following emic discourse; indeed, one of Theosophy’s clearest influences on magical discourse is precisely a “negative” one, through its constant polemics against magical practice. Yet, it was also this polemic which created a niche for organisations such as the Golden Dawn to explore from the late 1880s onwards.
I will be quick about the rest of the articles. Hans Thomas Hakl has a different national context and conglomeration as his focus, when he writes about the magical discourse of the Italian radical traditionalist and fascist Julius Evola, focusing particularly on his relation to the so-called “UR-group”. Hakl is a specialist of these subcurrents of modern Western magic, and his article becomes an automatic standard reference. The two final articles both deal with the “darker” sides of modern ritual magic: Jesper Aagaard Petersen explores the conceptions of magic in contemporary Satanism, while Kennet Granholm writes about the Dragon Rouge. The latter is a Swedish-originated “Left-Hand Path” magical group appearing in the early 1990s, which has been quite successful internationally (as far as Left-Hand Path magical groups go, anyway). Again, both Granholm and Petersen are leading experts on the topics they write about, and the articles make useful and good standard-reading material.
On a whole the volume is thus a valuable contribution to the study of modern Western magic, and provides useful references charting some of the landscape. One could however complain that the focus is somewhat lop-sided in the direction of the so-called “Left-Hand Path”, and one misses articles on the “Hermetic” tradition following Golden Dawn, or even the O.T.O., not to say the popular magical practices connected to Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca, and so forth. Of course, one cannot do everything in a small volume, but the selection appears a bit random.
(I happen to know that this is due to an incredibly complicated publication history, with the articles presented here originally meant for a large and comprehensive book project which in the end never happened. I would have had an article in it myself, on “Goetia and Modern Western Magic”. At any rate, the editor is not to blame, and has done an excellent job on this project, despite all circumstances that conspired against the project).
However, the hiatus becomes a good pretext and rationale for another short book published earlier this year: Maia Daw’s Franz Bardon and Dion Fortune: Man, Woman, and Mastery of the Universe in Modern Occultism. Maia is primarily an artist and performer, but this book is based on her MA-dissertation delivered here at the University of Amsterdam. It is a very welcome contribution which fills a gap in the research. First of all, the Czech occultist Franz Bardon is a curious figure in 20th century occultism, who has received astonishingly little scholarly attention (close to nothing, as far as I am aware, and no independent study). He is thus one of those characters who has been left for occultist followers to write about, while academics have kept at arm’s distance. This book, then, is actually the first attempt to place Bardon in a broader context of research on Western esotericism, and on Western magic in particular.
Two other innovative characteristics of Daw’s book must be mentioned: it focuses on the questions of gender and empowerment in the context of sexual magic , and it does this by adopting a comparative approach, comparing Bardon’s sexual system with that of Dion Fortune. While there have been a few studies of sexual magic – most notably Hugh Urban’s Magia Sexualis (2006) and Jeff Kripal & Wouter Hanegraaff’s edited volume, Hidden Intercourse (2008) – there is surprisingly little on the relation to gender roles. Franz Bardon and Dion Fortune thus adds to this literature, both through its approach and the choice of material. While some aspects of the book may be controversial, the overall result is a refreshing and suggestive little book that opens up new and intriguing vistas for research in this field.
In total 2012 has so far been a good year for research on modern ritual magic, with several publications and a forthcoming workshop. I could finally add that Henrik Bogdan, the editor of the recent Aries volume, will be a speaker at the Amsterdam workshop, and both Maia and I will be present for the sessions.
This blog post by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.