Up for review: Discernment of Spirits, Soviet New Age, and Magic

I’ve received three books for review over the last few weeks, making for a hectic book review phase (I’m not gonna mention the ones I’m already late with). They are three fascinating collections, dealing with very diverse material. Here’s a quick preview.

Angels of Light? (Brill, 2012)

Angels of Light? (2012)

Clare Copeland and Jan Machielsen’s Angels of Light? (Brill, 2012) is a collection of essays dealing with that delicious problem of Christian theology and practice: how to discern real sanctity from demonic trickery? If an angel appears in all its splendour – whether in a dream, a vision, or in front of  your bare eyes – how do you know that it is not the devil masquerading to lure the devout to the dark side? This, in a nutshell, is the problem of discernment. It has had consequences not only on the abstract level of theological philosophizing, but also on the social level. Above all during the tumultuous reformation era, when new reformers led to the emergence of new sects with new creeds, new leaders, and new lines of authority. The devout had to fear not only false angels, but false prophets as well. From the blurb:

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A fresh take on “magic” on the Societas Magica blog

merleau-ponty

Bodies, brains, magic, culture.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s new uses.

Some time ago I mentioned that Societas Magica were going to launch a blog. Well, that happened soon after, and I did not pay attention. So, quite overdue, here is the link to this new and valuable addition to the esoteric-et-cetera blog community.

So far there is only one post, but it is also a very good one that sets a high standard: “Ritual Magic and Conjured Bodies: A Philosophy and Methodology” by Damon Lycourinos. I was impressed with Damon’s paper at ESSWE4, on the use of Merleau-Ponty and embodiment theory in the analysis of contemporary ritual magical practice. In his first blog post at Societas Magica, Damon continues this exploration and offers, I think, some very valuable and stimulating reflections on how to theorise magical practice.

In particular, I couldn’t agree more with his complaint that talk about the body and embodiment in “postmodern” theorising has in fact not taken the body seriously at all – and that this could be remedied by returning to the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty:

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The (all too) secret history of Vril

Julian Strube's first book, Vril, becomes a standard reference for knowledge about this peculiar concept and its even more peculiar history.

Julian Strube’s first book, Vril, becomes a standard reference for knowledge about this peculiar concept and its even more peculiar history.

It is astonishing how much of modern occultism is dependent on works of fiction. The machinations of secret societies, the malicious rituals of satanic cults, and the magicians’ adventures on the astral plane have all been portrayed in great detail in works of fiction, which have in turn directly influenced the creation of real organisations and inspired new ritual practices among self-styled occultists. The entire current of Rosicrucian initiatory societies even had its main impetus in a text considered by its authors to be a playful ludibrium – although no doubt one that expressed deep convictions. This dynamic of fiction turning to fact is itself perhaps nowhere better explored than in Umberto Eco’s work of fiction, Foucault’s Pendulum. In recent years there has been quite some interest in such dynamics among contemporary scholars of religion as well – focusing on what they call “invented”, “hyperreal”, or “fiction-based” religions. While these scholars tend to focus on relatively recent cases – Jediism, Tolkien-spirituality and the sort – we have every reason to believe that this is a much older process. Particularly, it would seem, in the Western esoteric context.

A case in point is the concept of “vril” – an occult fluid or force that can be manipulated, controlled and directed by spiritually advanced initiates. It was invented by the the author and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) in his novel, The Coming Race (1871).

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The Problem of Disenchantment – invitation to a PhD defence

Problem of DIsenchantment cover

Last autumn I completed my PhD dissertation, and now it’s time to defend it. The defence is public, and will take place on February 5, 2013, at 12:00 in the Agnietenkapel of the University of Amsterdam. The event is open to anyone (with a max. capacity of 90 people), and I will give a short public lecture on the topic of my research prior to defending it in front of the committee.

While I have given hints about my research in a number of posts here at Heterodoxology, I am now happy to present an official abstract of the final product – the dissertation itself:

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W. J. Hanegraaff on Arguing with Angels

Wouter Hanegraaff has typed up a nice little review of my book, Arguing with Angels, over at his Creative Reading blog. He has many kind words, but I am first of all pleased that there are some very good observations about what I attempted to achieve in it: first to expel some common myths in the historiography of Dee reception, and secondly to highlight the “authenticity problem” struggled with in modern and contemporary ritual magic in general, and Enochian magic in particular. Wouter’s observations even point out wider connections that I did not explore explicitly in the book – namely that the authenticity dilemma finds similar responses in Western religious history more broadly, as prototypically expressed in the camps variously emphasising  scripture, tradition, or personal experience during and following the Christian Reformation. (Incidentally, I recently explored these themes in an article on (neo)shamanism that is still to appear in a Norwegian journal – that one, in turn, influenced by Wouter’s own work. The non-vicious, beneficent spirals  of academia.)

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Arguing with Angels in paperback

Arguing with Angels book cover

Arguing with Angels – now in paperback

My first book, Arguing with Angels: Enochian Magic and Modern Occulture, is about to be released in paperback. This means that one can finally get it at a more reasonable price: $24,95.  The paperback is officially released by the publisher on January 1, so just a little too late for a Christmas present, but it can already be pre-ordered from the SUNY website.

For more information about the book, with links to  reviews and discussions online, go here.

Contemporary Esotericism conference drawing close – full programme ready

The 1st International Conference on Contemporary Esotericism is drawing close. Kennet and I have been working hard the past two weeks on putting together a program schedule, editing the book of abstracts and collating other  useful information. Those who are already registered for the conference will already have received the schedule by email. Now it is also available online at the conference website. Better yet, the complete book of abstracts can be found as a pdf here. I add a copy of the schedule below as well. If you want to find more about a particular paper, you can go to the book of abstract. And of course: If this looks tempting, you are still welcome to join the conference! Registration is open continuously online.

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Enoch/Dee debate (round-up)

Dan Harms’ review of my book led to a nice and I think quite enlightening discussion on the place of Enoch in Dee’s angel conversations, and some related questions. I was particularly pleased that Jim Davila, Professor of ancient Judaism at St. Andrew’s joined in with some details about Dee’s knowledge of Biblical sources on his PaleoJudaica blog.

I will not add anything new to the discussions at this point, but thought it could be handy for readers to have a chronologically ordered round-up of the posts and responses, which now in the end span four different blogs. So here goes:

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On Enoch reception and Dee reception

There has been some debate about aspects of my book the last couple of days, following Dan Harms’ review, and my own response. Sarah Veale joined in with a post over at Invocatio, and today Dan responded once more on his blog. The debate has revolved around the Enoch figure, and the role of this figure in understanding Dee’s angel conversations. I argued that too much importance has typically been attributed to the patriarch in accounts of the angel diaries, and that the term “Enochian magic” may itself be somewhat misleading in this regard. I still stand by this claim, but I must also guard against a misunderstanding that seems to creep up.

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On Enoch, metal, and lonely girls: a response to Dan Harms’ review of Arguing with Angels

Arguing with Angels book cover

A first review of Arguing with Angels

Dan Harms, a well-known scholar of Western magical traditions, has recently published a brief review of my book, Arguing with Angels. Harms will perhaps be best known as a connoisseur of Lovecraftiana, having co-written  The Necronomicon Files with John Wisdom Gonce III, and published the Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia a few years ago.

You can read the review for yourself on Harms’ blog. It is generally positive:

 “the book is well-written and comprehensively [and] covers the area in question in ways that are helpful for both scholars and more casual readers. … It does an admirable job of covering the complexities of Enochian magic, both in regard to the system itself and the textual transmission thereof.”

Despite being generally positive, Harms also finds that the book had a larger potential which it did not fulfill, and he points to a few  omissions that he would have liked to see addressed. I will allow myself a brief response, as I find that Harms’ questions are important and likely to be addressed by other attentive readers with some background knowledge of the topic.

Arguing with Angels is, to begin with, a book that covers a pretty long time span, and deals with a number of different historical contexts, so it shouldn’t be surprising that some readers will be left wanting for more in certain cases. Harms mentions two cases in particular, one, so to speak, in each end of the historical narrative.

To begin with the earliest example, Harms would have liked to see a proper discussion on the Enoch figure, which could “have helped the reader with regard to the Biblical roots of Dee’s project”. The Biblical figure of Enoch, the patriarch in the seventh generation after Adam, who according to Genesis was taken to heaven and “walked with God”, and according to the apochryphal Book of Enoch acted as a mediator between God and the fallen angels, and, who according to certain Jewish mystical traditions was apotheosised by transforming into the archangel Metatron, does indeed constitute a context for Enochian magic. Besides that, he is a fascinating mythological figure in his own right. However, the most fascinating material about Enoch was simply not available to Dee: the Book of Enoch did not survive in the West, and only became available to European scholars in 1773, when Scottish adventurer James Bruce returned with three copies translated into Ethiopian that he had presumably plundered  from a monastery in Abyssinia.

Not adding a longer discussion of Enoch was, however, a conscious choice. Why? Because the relation between Enoch and Dee & Kelley’s angel conversations has typically been made into something that it was not – a trap which I wanted to avoid. In fact, the argument could be made that the term “Enochian” is a bit of a misnomer for the magical systems, language, and metaphysical speculations they “received”. While discussions of Enoch appear in the angel diaries, he is only one exotic reference among many others. Enoch was rumoured to have been the previous person to have known the secrets that were revealed to Dee and Kelly, for example, but their ultimate source was divine. The language, furthermore, had also been known to Enoch’s great-great-great-great grandfather: Adam. At any rate, in the first chapter on Dee and Kelley’s conversasions, it is more pertinent to focus on the actual immediate historical contexts, and what is known about Dee’s intensions, agendas, and use of sources. In that context, a preoccupation with Enoch is not all that important, except as a mythological example of someone who had achieved an unusual communication with God and the angels. Enoch was, however, far from alone in that achievement: other Biblical examples include Jacob, Esdras, Daniel, and Tobit. Ultimately, the contexts of natural philosophy and “low-culture” catoptromantic practices are much more important for understanding where Dee’s angel conversations come from.

The second omission Harms points to concerns contemporary references to Enochian in popular occulture. There are, for example, a number of bands in genres spanning metal, goth, and electronica that have used the Enochian language or other references to the system in their music and lyrics. Some might also remember the mystery youtube phenomenon “Lonelygir15”, who was seen cramming the Enochian alphabet in preparation for a mysterious and sinister ceremony.  The popcultural significance is indeed important and interesting, and again, it was seriously considered for inclusion (the extremely careful reader will even find me excusing myself on this very point in footnote 11 to the introduction). In the end I decided not to write about this as it diverged too much from the general argument and drift of the book as a whole. It should be remembered that Arguing with Angels is, above all, a contribution to the slowly emerging academic literature on the reinterpretation and legitimacy of ritual magic in the modern world, with the history of Enochian as a convenient case. Of course, interplay with popular culture is immensely important also for this type of research, and much remains to be done. In the present work, however, emphasis was put on internal debates and conflicts among those who truly practice magic, and less with the broader pop-occultural landscape which has been forming approximately since the 1970s.

 

For other readers who may have missed the same things as Harms did, I hope this response helps to fill the picture slightly.

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