Patterns of Magicity: A review of Defining Magic: A Reader (eds. Otto & Stausberg; Equinox, 2013) – part 1

Defining Magic cover Stausberg Otto[This blog post is a little milestone: it is the first official review of a book sent to me by the publisher for being reviewed directly at Heterodoxology. (Yes, publishers, I am open to suggestions like that!) Since the book was of great interest to me, and touches on issues that occupy me at the moment – and since the blog format allows me to say whatever I want and as much of it as I’d like – it has ended up more like a review article than a book review. Hence I will publish it here in three parts. The full pdf version (only slightly modified) is available from my Academia page. For convenience and ease of sharing. So on we go!]

Review: Bernd-Christian Otto and Michael Stausberg (eds.) Defining Magic: A Reader. Sheffield: Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2013. 281 pages.

[Part 1 of 3]


A webinar on John Dee and video tour of the BPH

As readers of Heterodoxology will know, the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam hosts a webinar series on aspects of Western esotericism in collaboration with lecturers at the UvA. The latest lecture was published last week: This time Peter Forshaw talks about our old favourite John Dee, focusing on his Monas Hieroglyphica. Check it out below!


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.)


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:


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.


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.

Arguing with Angels – first chapter available for free

Arguing with Angels book cover

Arguing with Angels about to be released

My first book, Arguing with Angels: Enochian Magic and Modern Occulture, is due to be released by SUNY Press next month (May 2012). The publisher has now released the first chapter of the book in electronic form on their website, so that you can read it there for free. This chapter is entitled “The Magus and the Seer”, and deals with John Dee’s angel conversations, the cultural and intellectual context, the role of the skryer, Edward Kelley, and some interpretations and explanations of what happened. When I wrote this chapter, already several years ago, it was intended as a “state of research” on Dee’s  angelic diaries, and serve as an important reference for the rest of the book.

The book itself is not primarily about Dee and Kelley (or his other skryers), but is concerned rather with the reception history of the angel conversations in Western ritual magic. In particular, it makes a contribution to the ongoing discussion about the relation between ritual magic and modernity, about the struggle for legitimacy, about reinterpretations of magic in the face of a “disenchanted” world, and so on. It is also the first academic work to give full attention to what has come to be “Enochian” angel magic as a proper subset of occultist ritual magic, putting it properly on the map of academic scholarship.

As the publisher writes:


Arguing with Angels – another book you should get next year

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:


Breaking the silence – and some news

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:


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.