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.
A bit of shameless self-promotion: A pre-production description has recently been released by State University of New York Press, announcing the publication of my first book, Arguing with Angels: Enochian Magic and Modern Occulture. It is due in May 2012. As SUNY’s summary states, the book is an exploration of the Elizabethan philosopher John Dee’s system of angel magic, but in particular its reception history and various reinterpretations in modern times. It follows the creation of what is usually known as “Enochian magic”. Since 19th century occultism, and continuing in 20th century and contemporary occulture, this system has been understood in a variety of ways as it has become embedded in a number of different occult currents and practices.
The book pays special attention to the discussions and quarrels among occultist groups and practitioners over the “right” interpretation, and discusses the various claims that are made to legitimise such positions – vis-a-vis competing occultist interpretations on the one hand, and a generally perceived “disenchanted” modern society on the other. Among the main protagonists we find the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley, Israel Regardie, Paul Foster Case, Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan, Michael Aquino and the Temple of Set, the obscure Order of the Cubic Stone, the Aurum Solis, and scores of cyber-age ritual magicians, debating the nature of angels and magical ritual online.
The book will appear in the SUNY series on Western Esoteric Traditions, which has previously published such classics in the field as Antoine Faivre’s Access to Western Esotericism, Joscelyn Godwin’s Theosophical Enlightenment, and Wouter Hanegraaff’s New Age Religion and Western Culture. There is no cover art up yet (this should be in place soon, my editors say), but below is the full publisher’s description:
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.
Following up the last post, here comes a report on the esotericism panels at the IAHR in Toronto, organized by Marco Pasi. As you can read about below, they go straight into a central debate in the field of esotericism studies at the moment.