Saturday, October 30, 2010

Philip Carr-Gomm & Richard Heygate's "The Book of English Magic": Review

Magician means “wise man.” The search for knowledge by which we can control the natural realm and learn scientific mysteries has lured people over millennia. All this time, England stirs such pursuits.  Philip Carr-Gomm, a leader in The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, joins Sir Richard Heygate, a documentarian and author who studies “alternative worlds,” to offer this accessible history, guidebook, and how-to compendium. In a friendly, yet cautious, manner, the writers encourage readers to learn more about the traditions of England, as well as forms invented and revamped by hundreds of thousands of pagans, believers, and “Armchair Magicians” today.

(N.B. I am not a magician, but a medievalist, so my interest in this was more scholarly than as a grimoire. I am aware of the infighting that may rage here as among pagans about nomenclature, inclusion, and exclusion. But my review is for a general reader looking inside a realm that most of us on the outside know little about...)

Twelve fast-paced, illustrated and annotated chapters reveal this vast, handsomely produced, storehouse of lore. Ancient roots, starting with prehistoric cave-dwellers, dig down into pre-Celtic and Celtic foundations.  Saxon sorcerers displace and follow Druids. Their descendants become medieval Catholics with their own complicated relationship to their magical peers. The search for the Grail which they inspired may remind audiences of Indiana Jones, but John Matthews’ enthusiasm for what the Nazis might have handed over to their American interrogators does remind us of how much remains unknown to the average citizen about what a few adventurers report back from the borders.

Banished to the fringes as Protestants extirpated any trace of superstition,  witches were persecuted, but far fewer were condemned than some contemporary feminists have claimed. Between 800-2,500 in Scotland were burnt at the stake; 400-500 in England were hanged. Half of the latter death toll can be blamed on Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, a “Puritan fanatic” who held trials in Essex.

Two generations earlier, alchemy intrigued John Dee, Mary Sidney, Robert Fludd and “puffers” close to Elizabethan courtiers. Astrologers, cunning-men (akin to fortune-tellers or psychics today), wizards, Rosicrucians, scryers, Freemasons, Theosophists, Spiritualists, and mediums populate the chronicles of the past five hundred years. Emma Wilby elucidates why our ancestors might have been far more susceptible to charms, spells, potions, and rituals. Undernourishment due to famine, overwork, and fasting weakened the will. Suffering proved the norm when half of children died in infancy. Grief and bereavement altered the consciousness by their intensity. Darkness ruled outdoors and inside people dwelled within timid imaginations. Strong beer instead of tainted water shifted the body into a state where visions, trances, and stupors might haunt the desperate patient or maddened petitioner.

Even if most who feared or welcomed magic lived in isolation, one city grew in its allure. Enduring in its attraction for England’s spiritual and scientific explorers, London, the authors remind us, is better than Cairo or Calcutta, Paris or Prague, for anybody curious about the Craft. Treadwell’s, Atlantis, and Watkins booksellers have long enticed students and practitioners. Occult sites, mapped here in the City and throughout the kingdom, demonstrate how compelling the evidence can be for those who possess the skills and secrets that alert what historian Ronald Hutton estimates may be the one out of every four or five of us who may possess a readiness for magical powers. 

Essays by adepts enrich this volume. Adrian, a modern Druid in the Order Carr-Gomm helps to lead, admits how he sometimes asks himself “why I am standing in a field in the middle of the night, covered in sheep shit, but, for me, the spiritual experience of connecting to a sacred place is truly extraordinary.” Contributors often confess their early yearning for more meaning than organized religion or psychotherapies could provide; throughout this book, a calm sense of being at home within this realm pervades their testimonies. Far from the sensationalism of such as Aleister Crowley (who garners half of a chapter), those sharing their motives in these chapters profess an ethical rather than exploitative motive for their alliances with occult, hidden energies.

Brian Bates, a psychologist and shamanistic researcher, laments the superficiality of how magic is treated. “People nowadays will happily read Harry Potter, but are wary of the real stuff.” Vivianne Crowley (“no relation to the infamous Aleister”) tells how the modern pagan religion was invented by Gerald Gardner in the middle of the last century as Wicca. As with Professor Bates, she has a doctorate in psychology. A priestess, she reminds readers how as children, an openness to magic is often shut off when they enter school. Wiccans try to retrieve an innate connection with the spiritual plane where change can be enacted. She conveys the pleasures of Wicca, but not those that media misunderstand. “Nakedness, which is often dismissed as a license for sexual abandon, is in fact nothing of the kind. Instead it is a symbolic removal of barriers to friendship and intimacy.” The reclamation of what popular culture distorts, while protecting the secrecy of lore and rituals entrusted to true initiates, characterizes many who guard their mystery traditions.

Some still remain anonymous here. One, a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn that once attracted W.B. Yeats as well as a man whom he detested, Aleister Crowley, explains his search “for the mystery of being.” He reasons that magic is both objective and subjective. It is created by the imagination and then takes on its own life; it is real and separate from human beings at the same time. 

Few contributors claim, as earlier witches did a few decades ago, to inherit magical skills. Instead, they seek out the few who control them, who create them, and who teach them. One alchemist in Wales tells what he knows, but he remains nameless. Most identify themselves, but caution remains. Carr-Gomm and Heygate warn of the easy lure of spell-casting; the love charm they include should be used to bring love into one’s life, but not a particular lover. For, he or she once enticed may turn out to be the bane of one’s existence. Charlatans from Chaucer to now delude unwary newcomers. Plenty of others delude themselves, and certain practices, as the authors explain, are not to be taken up by the perfectionist, the obsessive, or those unable to take on the responsibilities that accompany entry into the other side.

Websites, reading lists of novels and manuals, experts, locations, and schools append each chapter. While some oversight may be inevitable (I missed James Blish’s erudite novel on medieval alchemist Roger Bacon, Doctor Mirabilis, and the fiction of J.C. Powys and Iain Sinclair), the authors succeed in navigating between the skeptical and the credulous among those whom they address and whom they include. For those wishing to find out about such lore, such guidance remains necessary. Nigel Pennick, a prolific scholar-practitioner, laments how people “no longer do things because their ancestors did them; it is no longer part of our culture to pass things on to the next generation.”

New generations concoct new practices. Gerald Gardner’s Wicca, Crowley’s “left-handed” manipulations of black magical powers and Dion Fortune’s “right-handed” control of white magic mingle in Tantric traditions. These twentieth-century characters, even if what some of what they claimed to know may have been invented rather than discovered, helped quicken the contemporary revival of paganism. The repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951, Swinging Sixties appeal, and the ecological threats that increased awareness of earth-based religious practices in the 1980s contribute to the shift in perception among many English people that welcomed pagan or alternative forms of ritual and belief. 

Music, touched briefly upon by Carr-Gomm and Heygate, plays a role. “Freemasons prefer classical music and opera, pagans folk rock, Wiccans Gothic music, with Chaos magicians and Thelemites preferring heavy metal and Punk.” Genesis P. Orridge (Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV) with his own movement The Temple ov Psychic Youth and his involvement in Chaos Magic, epitomizes the gender-bending, utterly non-conformist models that confound even fellow magicians. Chaos combines Sufi, Buddhist, medieval, or scientific influences and then discards them, transcending any one belief system’s limits. It regards demons as mental projections, even as it may spark a raw force that may zap those not able to resist such a current. As with other challenging styles addressed in this book, all the same, Carr-Gomm and Heygate offer the neophyte gently phrased words to progress with care, patience, and commonsense into realms where the unwary may be at deep risk. 

This sense of adventure, for perhaps more wary seekers, accounts for the rise in public perceptions of esoteric, and formerly shunned or banned, practices. The impact of film and television portrayals of magic, oddly, is absent from this survey. Compared to Margot Adler’s magisterial account of American New Age and neo-pagan movements, Drawing Down the Moon, this English counterpart appears more grounded in the living history which connects the English varieties directly to their dolmens and fields, their hideaways and chambers. This, after all, is the strength inherent in the English magical legacy. 

The festivals that fill the English calendar of the ritual year--its two equinoxes, its two solstices, and the four quarter-days adopted from the Celtic reckoning--testify to the enduring power of revived respect for chronological commemorations. While most of the Western world clutches only at Halloween in a degraded form, every six weeks or so, English inheritors of charms and covens look locally for the world that they may not, after all, have lost. If long burned up or buried, it is revived, renewed, and reborn. 

This book closes movingly, acknowledging the eclectic, syncretic nature of the corpus of a resuscitated English magical tradition. Deep down, the authors advise, one knows if one or more of the paths sketched in this book may direct one to fulfillment. This magical quest draws on a depth of awareness that contemplation and study may reveal.

(P.S. Edited and reduced on Amazon US 10-30-10 & Submitted at PopMatters 11-5-10 as above with the exclusion of the parenthetical second paragraph. Book website

P.P.S. Oíche shona Shamhna agaibhsa/Happy All Hallow's Eve's (eve) to you all, depending on your time zone when you read this. Cleas nó cóir/Trick or Treat.)


Romer said...

Thanks for the nice and comprehensive review. Did you figure out which of our magicians was Irish. Very best wishes

Richard Heygate

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

I need to put into practice some tips at the end of a chapter or two, as my powers of divination or bibliomancy dim, Sir Richard!

Tony Bailie said...

I like the sound of this. Interesting that Iain Sinclair is mentioned... I went through a phase a few years ago of reading alot of his stuff., although much of his prose is dense and daunting. Did you ever read Initiation into Hermetics by Franz Bardon, which is more a user manuel?

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Tony, my Londonophile friend's reading Sinclair's "Lighting Out for the Territory" right now. I only read one of his novels, but he seems tuned in to the John Dees types of vibrations in a couple chapters herein. Hermetics, and a lot of occultism, I admit leaves me about as listless as Theosophy-- but this spirited compendium gathers up a lot of relevant data, overviews, and suggestions nimbly, and in as lively a fashion as you'd expect, by insiders-as-observers.

(There's a bit in the English Book of Magic about gnosticism too; also see Ronald Hutton's excellent history of how the British invented modern pagan witchcraft, The Triumph of the Moon, even if it barely mentions gnosticism.)

Check out the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism site sometime; they sponsored the Alternative Religions in Ireland conference last Samhain at Maynooth; the published proceedings are now being edited, I am happy to say. Hope your publication of Ecopunks proceeds apace aligned with happy forces this Samhain month and semi-season.