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Group Book Review: Esoteric Studies

For this post I’m going to briefly review four scholarly texts dealing with various aspects of esoteric studies which I’ve read over the last year or so.

victorian occultismAlison Butler’s Victorian Occultism and the Making of Modern Magic (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) focuses on what for some readers will be familiar territory; the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn – its antecedents, influences, and key personalities. Butler is concerned with highlighting that whilst the Golden Dawn can be situated within a continuous history of magic, the magicians of the period not only sought to recover older traditions, but they also radically transformed Western Magic. Butler sees the key changes as: a shift from magic as a predominantly individual enterprise towards magic as a group activity; the institutionalisation of the transmission of magical knowledge into a school-like setting (and the first magical “correspondence courses” emerged in this period); a move away from the use of “intermediaries” (angels, demons etc.) in ritual practice; the emphasis on the role of imagination and will in magic; a move towards magic as a tool for spiritual development as opposed to material gain, and the increased participation and equal status of women as magical practitioners. In respect of this latter point, Butler pays close attention to the influence and ideas of women such as Florence Farr, Anna Kingsford, and Annie Horniman.

Butler contextualises these developments in terms of wider cultural discourses of the period – such as the theory of evolution and the social doctrine of self-improvement; the tensions between Naturalism and Materialism, and attempts to unify science and religion. She also draws attention to how esoteric groups and ideas were influenced by the growth of disciplines such as anthropology and folklore (in response to colonial expansion and industrialisation) and how far Victorian magic reflected middle-class aspirations.

The reform of timeThe central concern of Maureen Perkins’ The Reform of Time: Magic and Modernity (Pluto Press, 2001) is the tension between free will and determinism – particularly, how the belief in personal agency, progress and optimism for the future developed throughout the nineteenth century. Beginning with a fascinating account of the centralisation of time and the calendar, The Reform of Time presents an engaging and thought-provoking account of Victorian cultural discourse in relation to time, progress, and self-management.

The second chapter explores nineteenth century attitudes to fortune-telling – for example, how reformist groups such as the Society for the Suppression of Vice made a link between beliefs in fate and lack of self-control (and vice), and how astrologers were prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act. Alison Butler, in Victorian Occultism notes how astrology was generally excluded from Victorian magic (other than the use of symbolism) – it’s possible that this may well have been due, in part, to the withdrawal of astrology from public life and its association with crime, as much as the increased emphasis on self-responsibility for one’s future. Chapter 3 continues this theme, with an examination of attitudes towards dreams – that there was both a burgeoning interest in dream interpretation and a good deal of condemnation of dreams as indicators of ill-health and mental disorder (particularly for women) from scientists and doctors. For Chapter four, Perkins turns her attention to the temporal politics of colonialism; how “temporal backwardness” was linked to cultural stagnation and decline – and how abberant understandings of time were applied to Britain’s own “wandering tribes” – gypsies and tramps as well as Australian Aborigines. Perkins shows how nomadic lifestyles were often characterised in terms of an escape from useful employment, and self-indulgence.
Chapter five considers the image of the “Calendar Girl” – the apperance of which Perkins relates to both sexual themes and youthful optimism – as signs of national pride and progress.

Early Modern SupernaturalJane P Davidson’s Early Modern Supernatural: the Dark Side of European Culture, 1400-1700 (Praeger, 2012) provides a fascinating and sympathetic view of Early Modern attitudes to witchcraft, magic and demonology. Departing from the common view of the Renaissance as a period of advancing rationality and science and an associated departure of superstition, Davidson argues persuasively that Early Modern scientists approached “supernatural” topics such as witchcraft and demonology with the same care and attention to detail that was coming into vogue via other learned disciplines – “No distinction was to be made, for example, in studying the Devil or studying a West Indian iguana. Both were to be carefully analysed and depicted with great detail in writing and imagery” (p11).

With chapters on the Devil (including lesser devils and “almost-demons” – such as kobolds, faeries and elves), Witches, possession & exorcism, Black Magic, Ghosts and Werewolves, and drawing heavily on print culture, iconography, literature and art, Davidson shows how these subjects were deeply embedded in the fabric of European culture. This is a warm and engaging book, with occasional vignettes to remind the reader that historical subjects were “real people” – “Like everyone else, artists and scholars were shaped by their pasts, their families, and their cultures. They were intelligent and stupid, and those factors are part of how they approached and recorded the supernatural as well. Why, for example, did Jean Gerson write at length about sexuality for his monks? Was he tempted by those very “beautiful girls” he mentioned? Did he have erotic dreams too?” (p177).

Early Modern Supernatural also includes two useful appendices – a guide to Early Modern artists who depicted “dark side” themes in their work; and brief biographies of some key figures such as Rossell Hope Robbins and Joseph Glanvill.

The Starry RubricFinally, Alexander Cummins’ The Starry Rubric: Seventeenth-Century English Astrology and Magic (Hadean Press 2012) focuses in on astrology in seventeenth-century England. In doing so, Cummins makes three key points: firstly, that astrology both presented and operated upon a unified worldview – in which all phenomena was interrelated; secondly, that astrology and magical operations and theories were mutually supportive; and thirdly that astrological knowledge and action were themselves fused and interrelated. Cummins shows how important astrology was in seventeenth-century English culture; explaining how it was used interpret events both personal and historical; for determining not only auspicious times for agriculture but a wide range of other life-events. Neither astrology or magic were seen as distinct from theology in the way that we tend to think of them nowadays. Cummins contends that astrology “operated as a practical Christian theology – as a parallel to the Church rather than a competitor” (p134) – and that astrological practitioners acted to both manage and effect favourable outcomes. Astrology also played a key role in Early Modern medicine, in both diagnosis and treatment.

I was particularly interested in Cummins’ account of astrology as political practice – he points out, for example, that calculating the life expectancy of a living monarch was illegal – which in itself attests to the power accorded to such practices. Astrology was widely used as an interpretive tool for assessing the character (and flaws) of political leaders, and as a tool for propaganda. Although I approached The Starry Rubric with some initial hesitation – not having read much about the history of Astrology in a European context, or for that matter much concerning the Early Modern period either; but I quickly found myself drawn into the text and wanting more. Like Jane Davidson’s book, The Starry Rubric opens a window on our magical past and brings it alive.