There is much exciting work going on in the area of esotericism and the religions of antiquity at the moment. One of the people who have been instrumental in lifting the focus on antiquity within the study of esotericism (and bringing esotericism to a sometimes unwilling crowd of Gnosticism and ancient Christianities specialists – kudos for that!) is Dylan Burns, currently of the University of Leipzig. I’ve written about Dylan’s work previously, and of course, there’s been mention of the ESSWE Network for the Study of Esotericism in Antiquity (NSEA) which he co-founded with Sarah Veale.
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.
Who was Fräulein Sprengel? New evidence on the origin of the Golden Dawn, or: “Vale Soror! Ave Frater!”
In the history of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, one of the supremely most influential esoteric and magical orders in modern occultism, the question of origins has been a matter of much dispute. This is, of course, a common story for esoteric orders, or even for religious movements more broadly. If there is one thing you can count on, it’s that their founders and their followers will tend to invent mythologies, lineages, and exotic provenances to bolster their group’s sense of importance.
In the case of the Golden Dawn, founded in 1887 by a group of London based high degree Freemasons and occultists, the emic historiography has centred upon a claim to Rosicrucian lineage. The direct link was a mysterious Fräulein Sprengel of Stuttgart, also known under her magical motto Sapiens Dominabitur Astris (“the wise will rule the stars”). The evidence for this lineage was a letter communication between Sprengel and the G.D. co-founder, coroner William Wynn Westcott, which ostensibly ensued after Westcott found her address on a sheet of paper tucked together with the mysterious “cipher manuscript” on which the G.D. rituals would later be based (for the uninitiated: there’s a brief overview of the controversy around them on Wikipedia). The notorious “Sprengel letters” that ensued, and the possible background of the order have been discussed for decades by scholars such as Elic Howe and Robert A. Gilbert – the general consensus being that the letters were forged and Sprengel a fiction. In the latest issue of Aries, Christopher McIntosh publishes brand new evidence in this mystery, evidence which has been there all along but curiously overlooked by all previous investigators.
The discovery is surprising, and makes an already confusing story even more so.
The autumn edition of Aries has just been released. This issue’s research articles deal with topics as diverse as “New Age Christianity” in Italy (Francesco Baroni), 19th century physics as context for occultism (yours truly), a report on a 15th century Christian text on magic (Damaris Gehr), and an article on Max Théon, Sri Aurobindo and “the Mother” (Peter Heehs). Perhaps the most interesting to many readers of Heterodoxology will be Christopher McIntosh’s short article, which announces a surprising discovery concerning the enigmatic “Fräulein Sprengel” and the origins of the Golden Dawn.
In 1901 physicist Ernest Rutherford and chemist Frederick Soddy, tucked away in a laboratory at McGill University, Montreal, Canada, were struck with amazement as they watched the element thorium transform into an inert gas. Soddy, exclaiming that they had witnessed nothing less than transmutation, was warned by his more temperate colleague: “For Mike’s sake, Soddy, don’t call it transmutation. They’ll have our heads off as alchemists”.
Alchemy would, however, be invoked frequently during the decades to come; not with reference to obscure occultists in the secret vaults of hermetic societies, but in connection to new discoveries concerning radioactive decay. Indeed, in its the early decades, what would become nuclear physics was commonly labelled “modern alchemy”. The crucible and athanor had been replaced by cloud chambers, spectroscopes, and ionization chambers, but there was a nagging feeling that the ancient and modern alchemists ultimately shared the same goal: the transmutation of elements.
Although Aleister Crowley has become the icon of modern ritual magic and occultism, magic did not end with his death in 1947. While approximately a dozen books have been devoted to Crowley, surprisingly little has been written about his legacy in contemporary occultism. His impact on later currents such as contemporary witchcraft, Satanism, and various pagan groups has often been mentioned, but vast areas still remain uncharted, from Chaos Magic and cyber paganism to the recent history of the Ordo Templi Orientis, the Golden Dawn, and Crowley’s A\A\. The result is that a relatively broad range of contemporary western esotericism remains essentially unstudied. Below follows my review of Dave Evans’ contribution to this field of study, recently published in Aries 10.2. Hyperlinked for the occasion.
Summer time has been upon me and Heterodoxology has been dead silent for a while. Unfortunately, when I look at the pile of things to do these coming months I fear it may stay that way. This is nevertheless an honest attempt at getting things rolling again. I’ll just kick off with some whimsically chosen (perhaps relevant) news:
A couple of weeks ago I promised to take a closer look at one of the articles from the present issue of Aries. Now I finally found an occasion to look at James Justin Sledge’s contribution, “Between Loagaeth and Cosening: Towards an Etiology of John Dee’s Spirit Diaries”. As the title suggests, it’s about the Elizabethan philosopher, mathematician and magus John Dee’s famous conversations with angels, and his favourite skryer, Edward Kelly.
The latest issue (10.1) of Aries: The Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism has recently been published. It contains four research articles, on John Dee’s angel conversations (J. J. Sledge), a little-known text by Martinès de Pasqually ( Dominique Clairembault), the curious link between engineering and spiritualism in the case of John Murray Spear (Joseph Laycock), and some aspect of Aleister Crowley’s sexual magic and the connection with some yogic traditions (Gordan Djurdjevic). Also seven book reviews. See below for bibliographic details and short reviews of the articles.