Thursday, 10 May 2012

From the Greeks to the Grimoires: A Review of Jake Kent's Geosophia by Aaron Leitch

An indepth and independent review of Geosophia by Aaron Leitch, whose own work we also highly recommend. This underlines just how important this monumental work by Jake Stratton-Kent is.  

  I am quite proud to review this new book from Scarlet Imprint.  It is not merely because Geosophia is a well written historical analysis of a subject near to my heart.  Nor is it entirely because the author is someone whose scholarship and worldview I respect.  I am proud because this is a truly important book, and there is a subtle connection between it and my own Secrets of the Magickal Grimoires.  Before I give you my review, I will explain that connection – which I believe will establish a context for the rest of the review:

    One of my primary agendas in writing Secrets... was to "reform" the reputation of the Solomonic grimoires.  (That is, books such as the Key of Solomon, Lemegeton, Arbatel and Grimorium Verum)  Among western occultists, the grimoires had long been equated with lodge-style ceremonial magick - such as practiced in Golden Dawn or Thelemic temples.  Yet, the content of the grimoires does not bear the mark of such quasi-Masonic magickal systems.  What we find in the grimoires is decidedly more shamanic - bearing a stronger resemblance to systems like Santeria, Voodoo, Palo-Mayombe or even Hoodoo from the American South.  (After Secrets..., I would publish an essay directly linking these New World traditions to the grimoires.)

    In order to illustrate this point, Secrets... focused upon the shamanic elements found within the grimoiric texts.  I then cited parallel examples from ancient cultures to drive the point home.  (Including but not limited to examples from the ATRs, the Merkavah Mystics, the Baalim Shem and even the Biblical Prophets.)  I was doing this merely for illustration.  It was not my intention to point to any specific group of ancient shamans and say, "These are the guys who originated the grimoire tradition."  Of course, I knew about the links to Arabic, Greek, Egyptian and Jewish mysticism, but these were threads of a broad historical outline without a specific story to go along with them.  That is to say, I couldn't name the actual culprits who had originated the unique “style” of magick that eventually culminated in the grimoires.

    Mr. Kent, upon reading my work, was keenly aware of this shortcoming.  His studies of goety and its historical origins had made him aware of several groups of ancient shamans who can be directly implicated in the formation of the grimoires.  I say "formation" rather than "creation", because these ancient shamans did not write the Solomonic grimoires, but they certainly founded the traditions which would later result in them.  Mr. Kent rightly felt their story needed to be told if we are to truly understand the heart of the magick found in books like the Heptameron, Arbatel, Key of Solomon, Goetia or Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy.  I whole-heartedly agree - and as I read Geosophia I found myself often repeating the phrase "Oh!  So that's where that came from!"

    I am quite tempted to make this an essay about these ancient shamans, and the lasting influence they have had on Western religion and esotericism.  After reading Geosophia, I was inspired to begin looking into them on my own – and though I have barely scratched the surface, I am already deeply fascinated by them.  However, this is supposed to be a review of Geosophia.  Therefore, I will try to be (somewhat) brief, and give you the information I believe will help you better grasp Mr. Kent's book when you read it:

     The author begins, in chapter one, by discussing the art of goetia in the grimoires.  Rather than analysing the usual Solomonic texts - such as the Goetia, or Grimorium Verum - he chooses instead to share an excerpt from The Life of Benvenuto Cellini, wherein the autobiographer (a non-occultist) shares his experiences attending a goetic evocation ceremony.  This was an interesting choice, as it grants us a view into how such magick was actually practiced in the Renaissance era - described by an eyewitness - rather than trying to read between the lines of a set of written magickal instructions.  This allowed Mr. Kent to highlight certain themes within the goetic ritual, which he would later trace to their ancient origins.

    Those origins are to be found in the area of Greece and Asia Minor, in the pre-Classical times before Homer and the Olympian cults.  The religions that gave rise to the goetic tradition were indigenous chthonic cults, whose mysteries were already old when the first Greek city-states were founded.  Like many tribal cultures, their relgious leaders were shamans who specialized in healing, protection and issues of death and the afterlife.  Here is where we find the 'Goen' - a shaman who specialized in funerals, exorcism and dealing with spirits of the dead.  In that time and place, if you held a funeral for a loved one, you would have called a Goen (or group of them) to officiate it.  At the same time, if you needed to consult the dead for divination, you would also contact your local Goen.

     The Goen were professional mourners.  The Greek word goes basically means "to howl" - which modern authors have attributed to the "howling of demons" heard when one opens the gates of hell.  However, a more proper definition of the term might be "to wail" - not as a beast, but as one struck with grief.  In the ancient world, mourning - in and of itself - became a religious specialty.  Ritual mourning accompanied sacred rites to deities such as Osiris, Tammuz and Dionysus (marking the seasons) as well as funerals for mortals.  The Goen were quite famous for this, and are described as reciting their invocations in the form of mournful laments.  (In Secrets... I argued that the term 'goety' actually means "witchcraft" or "sorcery" - which was eventually true.  However, the word became associated with sorcerers somewhat later in history.  Originally, it was the regional word for "shaman", and indicated his or her vocation for funerals and necromancy.)

     As often happens, the Greek urban-dwellers began to denegrate the beliefs and practices of the country folk outside their city walls.  By the time of the Classical authors, such as Plato, we already see a distinction being made between Magia and Goety.  Magia is described as an enlightened practice reserved for the educated, while Goety is described as base and vile.  It is here that "goety" begins to take on the definition of "sorcery" - to distinguish it from the theurgy popular among the Greek Olympian cults.  This characterization of ancient shamanism and necromancy became standard in Western esotericism - and we see the same attitude carried into Agrippa's Three Books... and the entire Solomonic tradition.  Sadly, the same bias continues to this very day - though we are seeing it weaken as we learn (and accept) more about the origins of our modern traditions.

     Another important group - likely connected to the Goen - was the Orphic movement.  This, too, was a chthonic cult whose primary prophet had visited Hades and returned.  They venerated underworld deities such as Persephone and Dionysus/Baccus - both of whom were also known to descend to and return from the grave.  It may be proper to suggest that Orpheus himself - famous for his poetry and the mournful songs he played upon his lyre - was in fact a Goen.  Fragments of Orphic funerary texts depict an afterlife jouney similar in concept to what we find in the Egyptian Pert Em Heru (Book of the Dead) - giving the recently deceased instructions for safe passage through the obstacles of the underworld, the proper manner of addressing the underworld deities, etc.  This certainly suggests a shamanic core for the Orphic movement - wherein its priests would officiate funerals and guide the soul of the dead to its final resting place.  This would have also associated them with healing - which often involved shamanic trips into the underworld to rescue lost souls.  That was, after all, why Orpheus had descended into Hades in the first place.

     The next group mentioned in Geosophia were a shock to me - both because I had never heard of them, and because they appear to have had a massive impact on Western occultism.  These are the Chalybes, also known as the Chaldoi.  They lived in northeastern Asia Minor, on the shores of the Black Sea, in a country called Chaldia - which is an interesting point, but shouldn't be confused with the Chaldea (aka Babylon) of Mesopotamia.

     The Chalybes were one of the few ancient peoples credited with the discovery of iron - and it is from them we get the Latin word for steel: 'chalybs'.  They were world-famous metal-smiths, who jealously guarded the secrets to their art.  Kent suggests they created the worlds first guilds - secret societies that not only facilitated the teaching of the art, but also preserved its trade-secrets from spreading to other tribes.  In order to become an apprentice, one had to undergo the guild's initiation ceremonies - which (I'm sure it is needless to say) was essentially joining a religion.  The initiate would be introduced not only to the tools and techniques of blacksmithing, but also to the gods and spirits in charge of it all.

    For this reason, the very practice of metalworking was considered a magickal art.  Therefore, the Chalybes were considered wizards and any weapon, armour or other tool made by them was considered inherently magickal.  (This is no surprise, considering the advantage iron weapons gave warriors over their more primitive opponents.)  I found it interesting to note the author chooses this point to mention the famous sword Excalibur (or "Ex Chalyber"?) as a possible reference to a magickal sword made by none other than the Chalybes.

    The author also suggests that the mystery guilds of the Chalybes were the origin of the most ancient Greek mystery schools.  Sure enough, the deities invoked in such schools often have strong ties to fire, the forge and metalworking:  such as the Dactyls, Telchines, Curetes, Cabieri (Kabieroi) and Korybantes.  (These groups are often considered interchangeable - though this is not intended to obscure the unique origins of each of these deities.)  In many cases, you will find links between these gods and Hephaestus, the Greek God of metalsmithing, fire and volcanoes.  Interestingly, these same beings are often invoked for healing as well as for protection (especially for sailors).

     At the same time, the deities of the Greek mystery schools are associated with the underworld - such as the Eleusinian Mysteries, where Hades, Demeter and Persephone were worshipped.  In fact, there appears to be a direct relationship between the underworld and cave-dwelling volcano/fire gods like Hephaestus (worhsipped by the Chalybes in a pre-Olympian form), the Dactyls, Cabeiri, etc.  Therefore there is a relationship between the Chalybes' mysteries and those of the Goen - both of whom existed at the same time, in the same place, previous to the foundation of the Greek city-states and the Classical Olympian religion.

    All of this comes together in Geosophia to suggest an astounding premise: Goety is not merely the root of a class of Solomonic texts dedicated to necromancy; it is, in fact, a primary origin for much of the Western Mystery Tradition!  Everything that came from the Greek and Roman mystery cults – which we today collectively refer to as "theurgy" (god-working) – in fact has primitive Greek shamanism (goety) as its parent.  (We might also note the focus upon alchemy and metallurgy that pervades Hermeticism and Rosicrucianism to this day.  Not to mention our common focus upon Osiris – a god of the underworld.)  The separation between "Magia" (or "Theurgia") and "Goety" in the Classical texts is a false separation - made by city-dwellers who did not want their arts associated with the pagana (hicks, bumpkins) who lived in the wilderness, or with the ancient religions that had been supplanted by Olympus.

    Moving on from these ancient pre-Greek cults, Mr. Kent takes us to a new time and place:  Hellenic Egypt.  Here, he explores the famous Greek Magical Papyri - which preserve the syncretic forms that Grecian-Egyptian folk magick took in that time and place.  The material in this section wasn't as new to me, but I was thrilled to see that Kent had not passed over it in silence.  If we are discussing the ancient Greek origins of the grimoires, then we simply must include discussion of the Magical Papyri.  It is in these texts (along with another Greek text called the Testament of Solomon) that we see the form and style of the later grimoires established.  We also find herein a focus upon chthonic deities - some already established as such, and in some cases celestial gods are re-assigned to positions in the underworld.

     The spells recorded in the Magical Papyri are a mish-mash of occultism from Greek, Egyptian, Jewish, Christian and other traditions.  There is some argument over whether the Magical Papyri are better reflections of Greek or Egyptian occultism - though I find such arguments rather silly since we are discussing Egypt after the invasion of Alexander the Great - when the lines between Greek and Egyptian culture were blurry to say the least.  The Papyri were created within a melting pot of ancient Greek, Kemetic, Hermetic, Jewish and Gnostic mysticism and philosophy – a list of sources that should be familiar to students of the Solomonic texts.
    The author (or compiler) of the Magical Papyri was apparently interested in collecting magickal wisdom from any source available – another hallmark of the medieval grimoires.  The form the spells take, and the results they promise, are also similar to what we would later see in the medieval era.  That modern students continue to find links between these ancient texts and the grimoires simply does not surprise me.  Mr. Kent dedicates three chapters to the subject in vol. II of his work - and I think he only barely scratched the surface.

     Finally, the author takes us still further east - this time to Mesopotamia.  Here, he introduces us to a tribe of star-worshipping shamans who appear to have had more to do with the formation of the grimoires than any other:  the Sabians.  This is another group with whom I was unfamiliar, yet whose role in the saga of Western occultism is truly inspiring.  Their traditions are purported to be the origin of the Picatrix – an Arabic grimoire which, in turn, is the sourcebook for much of the Solomonic tradition.

     Historically, there are three groups who answer to the name "Sabian", "Sabean" or "Sabaean" - and only one of them concerns us here.  Mr. Kent does not include this info in his book, so I'll do you the favor of making it clear here:

1) The Sabaeans:  These are the inhabitants of the biblical land of Sheba (or Saba, modern Yemen), and claim to be descended directly from the Queen of Sheba herself.  This is the same queen who famously visited and (some say) married King Solomon.  Legend holds that she was Solomon's feminine match in many ways – including in her extensive knowledge of magick.  Jewish midrashim even suggests that she was no one less than Lilith, come to test the great king.  Though it is tempting to see a connection here with the medieval Solomonic texts, the people of Sheba have nothing to do with the authors of the Picatrix or the grimoiric tradition.

2) The Sabeans, aka the Mandaeans:  Mandaeism (or Mandaeanism) is a form of Persian Gnosticism that post-dates Christianity but pre-dates Islam.  In the Quran, Muhammad mentioned the Sabeans as one of the acceptable "peoples of the Book."  His detractors also accused him of being a member of the group.  For quite some time there was confusion over which group of "Sabeans" was intended by these Quranic references (see below), but today it is generally accepted that Muhammad was referring to the Mandaeans.  Their sect still exists - but thanks to the war in Iraq they are quickly vanishing.

3) The Sabians, aka the Nabataeans.  This is the group discussed in Geosophia - though Mr. Kent chooses to spell the name "Sabean."  (Either form is acceptable.)  They lived in the area of Harran in south-eastern Asia Minor and northern Syria.  I would hazard to say that the Sabians were the last hold-overs from ancient Babylon.  Like the Babylonian religion, the they honored and worked magick through the seven classical planets via invocation and sacrifice.

    They were not, however, always called the Sabians.  An older name for them is “Nabataen” and one of the few sources of information we have on them is called The Nabataean Agriculture- one of the purported sources of the Picatrix.  They were also called "Chaldeans" - which suggests their neighbors also recognized their connection to ancient Babylon or Chaldea.  By the time they became known as the Sabians, they were already an "Abrahamic" people who practiced baptism, considered Noah their prophet and their primary holy book was the Zaboor (aka the Book of Psalms).  However, their practices - especially their praying to angels in the stars - were still considered very much pagan.

     The story of how they adopted the Sabian name is worth briefly relating here:  In 830 CE, the Caliph al'Mamun of Baghdad embarked upon a military campaign against the Byzantine Empire - and his journey toward the battle ground took him through Harran.  There he noticed the peoples' dress was distinctively different from their neighbors.  The Caliph questioned them on their religious identity - asking them if they were Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Magian (Zoroastrian).  They answered in the negative.  He also asked them if they had a prophet or a sacred book (both requirements of a legitimate religion at the time) - which they also denied.  (That latter part of the story seems strange, if they in fact considered Noah their prophet and the Book of Psalms their sacred text.)  The Caliph then informed them that they were infidels without official protection.  Therefore, he would give them until he returned from his campaign, during which time they must convert to one of the approved "religions of the Book", or be put to death. 

     The approved religions of the time were those I listed above:  Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Zoroastrianism.  None of these suited the Nabateans of Harran, so they consulted a religious lawyer.  That lawyer discovered that another group was also mentioned in the Quran as an acceptable "people of the Book" - the Sabians.  Today, we suspect Muhammad was actually referring to the Mandaeans, but in 830 CE no one knew this.  The identity of the Quranic "Sabian" people was a mystery, and therefore the Harranians decided to become them. 

     When the Caliph rode through again, he found the people of Harran had "converted" to Sabianism.  (Interestingly, one of the interpretations of the word "Sabian" is "one who converts.")  They had adopted Hermes Trismagestos - the prophet of Hermeticism - as their prophet, and the Corpus Hermeticum became their sacred book.

    And this brings us firmly back to the subject-matter of Geosophia.  The author does not spend much time telling us exactly who the Sabians were.  He instead follows the thread of Greek philosophy from ancient (pre-)Greece, through Hellenic Egypt and finally into Harran.  One of Islam's very first universities was founded there in the 8th century, and it became the entry-point for classical Western knowledge and philosophy into the growing Islamic world.  Harran was a center of culture and learning, and became a gathering place for astrologers, hermeticists, alchemists, neoplatonists, etc.  Thus we can see why they might adopt Hermes and the Corpus Hermeticum as their prophet and book.

     It was this atmosphere that would produce the Picatrix in the 10th century - a mixture of ancient Chaldean and classical Hermetic magick and philosophy.  Any medieval grimoire that focuses upon the seven planets, magickal hours, planetary/stellar intelligences, magickal images, calling down Stars via invocations, the creation and use of talismans, etc. can claim the Picatrix as its parent or grandparent.  I must admit that I have yet to dedicate myself to a full study of the Picatrix - mainly because I have been waiting for a good translation that stands up to peer review.  Meanwhile, Mr. Kent has translated a few sections for us in the second volume of Geosophia - and I would be hard-pressed to find any significant difference between their methods of planetary invocation and my own strictly Solomonic methods.  Thus, if any group of shamans can be singled out as the culprits behind the grimoires, I would say it must be the Sabians of Harran.

     I have sacrificed a fair amount of space discussing the various peoples mentioned in Geosophia.  It is not only a mark of how fascinating I find the subject, but I also hope the above will help you better grasp the material in Mr. Kent's book.  Now, let us return to a more critical review of Geosophia itself:

    The author uses a curious literary device to connect the chapters and volumes his work.  Beginning in chapter two, we accompany the ancient Greek heroes Jason and his Argonauts upon their famed quest for the golden fleece.  The author uses the exotic locations visited by the Argo, as well as the ritualistic actions of its crew, as launching-points for discussions about ancient shamans such as those I described above.

    At the same time, by following the path of the Argo's voyage, we are essentially given a tour of Hades - the Greek underworld.  Along the way, we encounter a large number of Greek and pre-Greek gods, demigods, heroes, oracles and witches – focusing upon those associated with chthonic cults like the Chalybes, Phrygians, Thracians and the Dionysian and Orphic movements.  Exploring these non-Olympian religions introduces us to a radically different relationship between Man and underworld than we usually see in post-Christian Western society.  Rather than an underworld full of hateful demons and hellfire, which must be avoided or heroically endured, we find an underworld populated with gods, heroes and the spirits of our passed loved ones.  Man invokes its gods for the mysteries of death, but also for divination, healing, fire and protection.
    Geosophia also highlights a curious point in classical history when elements of the underworld were "promoted" to celestial status.  For example, we see this in Plato's The Myth of Er - where the protagonist ascends into the heavens to visit locations clearly associated with Hades.  This fluidity between the chthonic and celestial realms has become a hallmark of the Western Mystery Tradition.  Some Gods, such as Osiris, Apollo, Hermes and even the Archangel Michael have played both celestial and chthonic roles in their histories.  We see the same trend in the Greek Magical Papyri, where commonly celestial deities suddenly take on beastly underworld aspects.  And we see it in the medieval grimoires, where nearly any entity might be classed as an angel in one text and a demon in the next.  The entities Cassiel, Uriel and Samael (with countless variations upon their names) are classic examples of this ambiguity.

     I previously noted Mr. Kent's thesis that even theurgy and high magick has roots in the most ancient forms of goety.  The inexplicable confusion between the higher and lower realms is certainly at the heart of this - right alongside the city-dweller's prejudice against country-dwelling cunning-folk.  Where goety had once been a socially-established and perfectly acceptable practice, the newly-emerged theurgist wanted to distance himself from those practices.  Yet, as is always the case, this didn't mean the theurgist came up with anything new to replace the older goety.  He just re-named and re-cast the old magick into a new "acceptable" form.  Rites that had once been strictly goetic were adopted and made theurgic.  The process of contacting gods and spritis from the underworld where - much like the underworld itself - simply shifted to the gods and spritis of the celestial realm instead.  (And in many cases, it was the same gods merely re-assigned to a new home.)

     It certainly did not appear that Mr. Kent was suggesting we are all, unknowingly, playing with the Goetia.  His goal, as I understand it, is to re-cast the very subject of goety - to free it from containment within the first book of the Lemegeton and from its reputation as an art of "summoning demons."  Goety, in its original form, was chthonic rather than infernal - much like what we see in the Greek Magical Papyri.  The same practices wrere eventually adopted into high magick - aimed instead at celestials - and the term "goetia" was (long before the medieval era) demoted to a pejorative against those who worked with demons or the dead.  Even worse, by the classical era, the word "goen" could just as easily mean "fraud" as it did "sorcerer."

    Before I bring this review to a close, I would like to issue a couple of warnings to the reader of Geosophia.  Be prepared to endure an avalanche of unfamiliar names - humans, gods, spirits and places - especially from Greek regional mythologies.  Unless you specialize in that area, you will likely begin to feel quite lost after only a few chapters.  However, do not allow this to intimidate or confuse you!  It is not necessary to memorize every name or term the author uses along the way in order to grasp the premise of the material.  Usually, if a name or place will become important later in the text, the author will tell you.  Then, once you've gained some familiarity with these subjects (looking up terms in sources exterior to Geosophia helps – so keep Wikipedia and Google open while you read), a second reading of the books should seem less overwhelming.

     The same is true especially for the chapters on the Greek Sybils in volume one.  I actually got bogged down in this section for some time - mistakenly thinking I needed to read every word there in order to understand the rest of the book.  However, I eventually found this section was more like reference material.  Having provided every scrap of available info on each of the Sybils, Mr. Kent continues to outline a medieval Solomonic rite that actually summons one of them.  I suspect his intent was to provide us with a grimoire, of sorts, by which we could choose which Sybil we would like to summon.  My advice is to read through the descriptions of the individual Sybils quickly and get on with the rest of the book – but definitely come back and read carefully if you intend to perform the Sybil evocation rite.

    If I have any real criticism, it would be for the last few chapters in Vol. II.  This is where we are finally introduced to the Sabians (Kent: Sabeans) and the primordial grimoire known as Picatrix.  The information found here is exceptional – including portions of the Picatrix itself, translated by the author and a friend.  My criticism is only that he leaps rather abruptly into this subject.  I put the book down and researched the Sabians myself (including figuring out which group Mr. Kent was actually refereencing) and then continued reading.  To be fair, the author does make it clear that the Sabians were the primary entry-point of Hellenism and Hermeticism into the Arab world, so we are not left to question why he suddenly leaps from ancient and classical Greece over to Mesopotamia and the Picatrix.  However, the Argo never visited the Sabians, so that literary device did not leave much rrom for their story.  (This is why I devoted so much space to them in this review.)

    The final couple of chapters make a similar leap – this time to the ATRs (African Traditional Religions) of the New World, and their relationship to the modern Solomonic movement.  Once again, this is not a blind leap – the author explains his reason for discussing the ATRs:  that they are a living tradition both similar to and connected with the grimoires, and thus comparison between what they do and what we (Solomonic types) are doing, or should do, is a productive line of study.  This is something I've written about – including in Secrets of the Magickal Grimoires and the followup essay Modern Grimoire Magick.  (And several essays besides.)  I fully agree with the author's inclusion of ATR material in his work, but – like the Sabians – we aren't given much of the story behind its relationship with the modern Solomonic movement. 

    Then again, I have written on that subject extensively – and Geosophia gives you the parts of the story that I missed.  So perhaps the author can be forgiven for keeping the ATR material light in his books.  You can grab my work for the story behind the ATR/Solomonic connections.  For now, though, I absolutely recommend you get a copy of Jake Kent's Geosophia from Scarlet Imprint.  It will, without a doubt, affect how you view magick.  And, perhaps, it will even affect how you perform magick

Aaron Leitch
June 2011 

Bibliotheque Rouge
paperback edition and digital edition of Geosophia is available here:


westernmagick said...

Okaaay....on the positive side the content of the review is good and interesting....on the negative side the reviewer comes across as a self-centered, self-promoting, vainglorious, blowhard and seems to speak down to the author of the book as if he was a mentally challenged child...amusing in a creepy sort of way

Valeyard said...

I observed no such disrespect, just an earnest scholar and teacher of the Art rambling on as they do - and I love them dearly for doing so! I can't see JSK being upset by any part of this review.

Scarlet Imprint said...

That will be the problem of blank text. Different readings can be projected onto them. Ah, the joy of the internet..
Perhaps worth looking at who Aaron Leitch is before reaching for your pistol!
JSK and Aaron do get on, and his book is also a pivotal text in the seismic shift in understanding of the grimoires.
But, glad you enjoyed the review, Geosophia is a very important work, and not an easy one. Reviews such as this are needed, especially by well regarded peers.

Aaron said...

I suspect that westernmagick was simply unaware that Jake and I are friends, and that Jake himself has said my work on the grimories was one inspiration among many for the writing of Geosophia. ;)

I'm quite proud to have been even a small inspiration for the creation of these awesome books - which, at least, doesn't *feel* self-centered to me.