If you admire and appreciate the oeuvre of Austin Osman Spare – Artist & Magus – there would be several ways you might have first encountered his work. You might have come upon it like this for instance:
‘The Vampires are Coming’
Which was used as the cover for the famous ‘Man, Myth & Magic’ magazine in the early 1970s, and appeared in adverts and on posters at bus-stops and in newsagents.
Or like this:
‘The Strength of My Tigers’
Illustrating one of his Sigil Magic experiments (of which more later!)
Or perhaps like this:
AOS in the basement
A photo taken in his dark damp basement flat, at 5 Wynne Road, Brixton, in 1953. This was just a few short years before his death, when he was leading an almost liminal existence on the poverty line.
There are many other possibilities of course. You might have heard of Spare through occultist writer Kenneth Grant for instance, seen in this photo here, also his wife, Steffi, and Spare around that time
AOS, Steffi Grant, and Kenneth Grant – all taken August 1949.
My own first eye to eye with Spare was The Isis picture, which appeared, strikingly, on the cover of Francis King’s Magic: The Western Tradition in 1975.
Called ‘Isis Unveiled’ it’s from 1954 and Steffi Grant was the model – it’s definitely her face. Kenneth Grant almost certainly requested it as an altar piece for his Nu-Isis lodge of his Typhonian O.T.O.
The irony is though that if you were a fine art student with a talent for drawing and an interest in the human figure, with a bend towards the erotic and esoteric, you would have had to be extremely fortunate to have heard of Austin Spare. At art-college nobody mentioned him, nobody knew about him (at the very place you might have expected to learn about him.)
Self-Portrait as Satyr
(a theme that was very close to his heart)
Satyr and Woman
But maybe you had a friend who knew someone in the occult-inspired bands of the 1980-‘s, such as Psychic TV or Coil, or the subculture that had sprung up around them, in which Spare was celebrated, rightly or wrongly, as an ‘outsider’ hero for apparently turning his back on the mainstream and embracing his life of poverty, like some sort of Cockney ascetic. You might have become aware that he was admired and his work collected by such unlikely figures as Barry Humphries, or guitarist Chris Stein from Blondie or Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. And there was the emerging Chaos Magic movement, which claimed Spare as a kind of spiritual forebear: an artist shaman, a spiritual currency with ever-increasing status. The near-mythic image of Spare the arch individualist, who had thumbed his nose at authority and worldly success and gone his own way, living only for his visions and his art, had something for almost everybody.
He was very precocious and when still in his teens –after a stint as an apprentice in a stained glass factory in South London –he became the youngest exhibitor (since Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais) at the Royal College of Art.
Prodigy – Spare at 18, for Tatler magazine.
This is the well-known portrait of Spare, all of 18-years old. The picture was taken at his home for a story in ‘Tatler’ magazine; don’t know whose idea it was he should have his eyes closed. It may well have been his own. It looks forward to his ‘entranced’ or automatic drawing.
Steffi Grant, the occultist artist and wife of Kenneth Grant would later quote her art-teacher Herbert Budd who had studied alongside Spare and remembered the myth that had already begun to grow up around him at that time:
The artist struck “a god-like figure of whom the other students stood in awe, a fair creature like a Greek God, curly headed, proud, self-willed, practising the black arts, taking drugs, disdainfully apart from the crowd.” We have to take some of this with a pinch of salt but he must have made a strong impression.
‘And Now For Reality’ (c 1920)
He was born 1886, the son of a City of London policeman – it’s a matter of record (shortly after four in the morning). But Spare liked to weave a story round his time of birth, as Kenneth Grant says in The Magical Revival: “He told me he was not sure whether he was born on the last day of December 1886: or on New Year’s Day, 1887; whether, as he put it, he was Janus backward-turning, or Janus forward-facing. But whichever aspect of the deity he more closely represented, it is a fact that his life was a curious blend of past and future.” And Grant takes a leaf out of H. P. Lovecraft, writer of Weird Tales and creator of the infamous Cthulhu Mythos. Grant suggests that Spare’s nature was like those ‘entities’ “which have their being ‘not in the spaces known to us’, but between them. They walk calm and primal, of no dimensions, and to us unseen.”
He got married, to one Lily Gertrude Shaw, a ‘Dancing Girl’, in 1911 when he was 24. He tried to play along at being a fashionable Mayfair artist for a while (which was what his wife wanted) but it didn’t last and they separated. He would spend most of his adult life south of the River Thames.
Frank Letchford befriended him as a young man in the 1930s and became a longstanding supporter and a life-line when Spare was struggling. Letchford later wrote a biography called Michelangelo in a Teacup, in which he writes that the Spare’s parents knew a clairvoyant, a ‘friend of the family’, a woman who had once been a gypsy and was now too old to travel. She lived in his street and he would have been in and out – people didn’t lock their doors in those days – between 1894 and 1897. She may have seen something in the boy that no one else did; he certainly saw something in her.
In his boyhood Spare loved to roam Kennington his neighbourhood; he loved street life where he would have seen hawkers and tinkers and chimney sweeps, mendicants and one-man bands, the almost Dickensian kind of pageantry of characters living on the margins. And Mrs Patterson was one of them. She taught him how to read the cards, do some fortune telling; this is how she probably earned a pittance for she was poor to the point of destitution. It was almost a foreshadowing of what his own life would become after the early golden days of being a prodigy were over.
That is one side of the story. Mrs. Patterson definitely was a real person but in Spare’s imagination and in his art she came to embody something else also. He would call Witch Patterson his “Second Mother” and she would become his Muse – and a very unusual one at that! She introduced him to Magic and Witchcraft, to which he was naturally receptive. She would give him a treasure trove of creative visual ideas, a kind of metaphorical Sabbath. In the account given by Kenneth & Steffi Grant in Zos Speaks! Spare would describe the Sabbath like this. The ‘Sabbath’ he said, “is always secret, communal and periodic; an enforced consummation for almost unlimited wish-fulfilment by lengthy voluntary abstinence, repression and sacrifice until release by mass sexual saturation, for one purpose: the exteriorization of a wish by a great saving and a total spending.” He called it THE FORMULA OF ZOS VEL THANATOS. It was his unique conception of a/his Superabundance.
The ideas ranged from the most abject and grotesque which he would bring to vivid life on the page, like no one else had ever done, such as the series called The Ugly Ecstasies – here’s an example:
Adventures in Limbo
She even gave him the confidence to take his line for a walk in the dark, his ‘automatic drawing’ – many of which were produced in near-trance states, allegedly.
Automatic Drawing, an elemental
From the Ugly through the Eerie through to the glamorous:
He made a series of these ‘sidereal’ portraits – thus named for “sidereal” – pertaining to the stars in astronomy. Frank Letchford’s wife had a pile of magazines with photos of the movie stars of the day, great and small and he would borrow an image and subtly distort it so they would inhabit their own unique astral dimension.
Stele – Forces of the Sigils
He would make steles, often, though not exclusively, with an Egyptian theme; he would sometimes make them for friends, as a present, a magical picture board usually made of wood. They were a kind of amulet or talisman, for good luck or health, or as with the Grants and the Letchfords, to bless a marriage.
The impression is that The Great Witch ravished him with Magic.
He would draw her – Mrs. Paterson – on the instigation of Kenneth Grant. Here are a few examples:
Quite a daring, frank representation; it says: “Witch of 101 years and still potent.” He was not put out nor put off by Mrs. Patterson’s great age. Kenneth Grant, in his inimitable way, puts it like this: “the Witch, usually old, usually grotesque, libidinously learned and as sexually attractive as a corpse, was necessary for transmutation.” She would be old, she would be young, ugly or beautiful.
As his Muse she could enchant and ‘project a glamour’ and make forms originating in his mind appear as if they were real. It is an instinctive TANTRICA you might say: in order to gain insight, overcome fear etc. You go to graveyards and embrace corpses, have intercourse with people who repulse you, and so on. Power is liberated in confronting taboo. Crowley did something like this when he placed an advertisement for ‘ugly, deformed and unusual models’ during his ‘Dead Soul’ phase in New York.
Witch and Glamour
In this picture you see the still-potent witch contemplating the projection of her own pneumatic existence, which Spare claimed she actually rendered visible to him.
But Witch Patterson also opened eerie enchanting places up to him, transporting him there, and with his exceptional creative gifts, he could actually make them appear; he could draw these worlds, often ancient, primeval, dark worlds. Letchford tells how he would sometimes drop in on Spare and find him sitting in a chair in a trance, often in near darkness, sketchbook in his lap and oblivious to the world around him.
Spare sleeping on chairs, circa 1948.
Mrs Patterson opened portals and gateways to him, to other times and places, she gave him access to the astral plane, to out of the body experiences. Here are a few examples:
Astral Body and Ghost (1946.)
Above: Life ‘on the other side’ where ghostly figures appear and see deep into an immaterial realm where the Sun is ‘in Amenta’, an Egyptian term meaning the Underworld or Land of the Dead. It’s as if you get a glimpse into the Spirit world.
Atavistic Resurgence 1
Spare’s brilliant take on how we may carry all life-forms within us, from things that slither and creep on the Earth, under the Earth, though animal existence, primitive existence, male-female-western-colonial existence. He called it ‘Atavistic Resurgence.’
And here he’s seeing these primitive figures in his mind’s eye, but he’s also saying to the viewer that these figures dwell in him as they might live in us – they are our instinctual selves (perhaps?)
Aerial Vampire, or ‘Man Is A Bundle of Ids’
Now the above picture is one of his strangest visions, sometimes called ‘Aerial Vampire’, sometimes ‘Man is a Bundle of Ids’ – the latter title perhaps provided by Kenneth Grant.
There’s a thick demarcation, a rainbow coloured red, yellow and blue, which snakes diagonally across the paper, dividing the painting in two and separating two realms: one light, the other darker. On the left of the picture, in the lighter part, we see the “aerial vampire” of one of the titles of this work: although her inhuman feet seem to touch the darkness where the demarcation is incomplete and doesn’t reach the edge of the paper; perhaps that is where she slips through? Or if she isn’t actually a vampire, she is definitely not of this world. It’s difficult to imagine a stranger creature, in spite of the legions of monsters and grotesques that people the imagination of many an occultist today. Maybe she’s related to this goddess, Astarte/Ishtar – there’s something about the feet:
Spare’s vampire or demon– who hasn’t burst into flames, or decayed into a nasty puddle on the floor when exposed to the light, as in the usual vampire lore – is a potent creature of the Night, which has somehow strayed or made it into the light of Day, where she stands revealed and transformed. She has become uncharacteristically immobile: unlike her sisters in the other sphere, whose bodies bend and blissfully contort themselves, as you can see. For this isn’t her element. Instead she has acquired an impossible hour-glass figure, with a sigil marking the spot where the stomach is supposed to be, even though there hardly seems to be room for it. She’s under terrible constraint, but still holds her own.
Her new, unfamiliar surroundings are scored by mysterious lines of sigils and geometrical glyphs – like the otherworldly “Non-Euclidean geometry” H. P. Lovecraft writes of – where the ghosts, or embryos, of aspiring life forms are flattened. Depth has been obliterated, unlike in the other half of the picture, where forms swim in and out of the shadows, and the heads of a trio of men seem strangely disembodied. If we could see them complete with the rest of their bodies, they would dwarf the female shapes which exist in the same realm. Are they captives, victims of the maenads we see displaying themselves naked in impossible positions? Have they been seduced and are now lost? Are they now trophies? Or spirit presences who perhaps remember their mortal lives. They all bear a mark on their forehead.
On the other side, where the Vampire resides – in a space which is more a diagram of a space than a real one – a cartouche of sigils occupies the top right of the drawing. Are these linear signs an attempt to contain Her or put a spell on Her? It is said that the model for this was the infamous Water Witch, Clanda, who was the subject of a “magickal duel” of sorts between Kenneth Grant’s New Isis Lodge and Gerald Gardner and his Wiccan coven. Who knows . . .
To the right of her inhuman feet some weird entities stretch and twist upwards – they seem to have slithered out of the darkness. These snake-like entities, whose predatory heads – they seem equipped with sharp appendages – each contain an eye, are an example. They seem to probe and feel their way. They have come up out of the darkness on the other side, and are viewing the strange being rising up from it, almost clinging to her. They could snake in anywhere, meander up or down, twist round corners, and enter the secret places . . . For Spare the Divine Artist seems to possess unique dispensation to show what he – and his Divine Eye – had seen.
There are more sigils on her body, and they are delicately drawn, one above her pubes, and one above each breast, and one on her brow.
She has wings for arms but it is doubtful they could ever lift her into the air, being small and ineffectual. Still, it would appear that with the top half of her body she’s reaching upwards, for apart from wings she has also acquired a pale halo, and a sickle of a moon is visible above her right wing. It goes with her mournful, oval face, morbid eyes and lanky hair. A halo is usually an attribute of a saint, or at least someone sacred or heroic, though they’re not naked as a rule. In Sumerian literature there exists the concept of melam, meaning “a brilliant visible glamour which is exuded by gods, heroes and kings.” Spare’s halo for his Vampire is pale and almost moon-like: She does not qualify for god, hero or queen, but the glamour, in all its repellent strangeness, was very real to him.
Except for a brief period when he was very young, lauded and feted as a prodigy, which indeed he was, Spare gradually disappeared from public view. He lived and died in poverty and squalor, a virtual unknown in the art-world, with only a few friends to keep him from destitution. It was as if society had drawn an invisible circle round him, to protect itself from the artist’s dangerous mana and magic. He had become strangely untouchable, his magical art creating an eerie sexual iridescence round his person which could not be seen except by a few.
Spare’s Muse would become the infinite ‘I am’ of his primary self-divinizing Imagination, replacing the ‘I am’ of the Christian God. She initiated him and gave him his inalienable right to self-assertion as an artist. She didn’t give him his prodigious talent and draughtsmanship but she did give him creative ideas and inspired him so he knew what to do with them. Spare would call her his Second Mother. Letchford tells how Spare would refer to Her as the Great Goddess. The poet Dante, whom he knew very well – when he was young he had been a vociferous reader; something which is often overlooked or just not well known – said of the Virgin Mary-and this is what Spare remembered-that “She was Mother of Her own Father, Daughter of Her Own Son.” But Spare lived many centuries later and Christianity is waning, or at least found wanting. Spare ads what had been missing for a long time: that the Great Mother also has a Dark Dimension. She is also a Devourer of souls, a Vulture. He completes the picture.
Ah . . . SIGIL MAGIC
In The Book of Pleasure, Spare introduces his Alphabet of Desire. One of the earliest methods that Spare evolved for communicating with his own very powerful unconscious or “subconscious” was via his use of the formula of “Sigils.” The word sigil, from the latin meaning “little sign,” has a long history in western magic. The members of the Golden Dawn were perfectly familiar with it (they said – and I paraphrase – that if you combine the letters, the colours, the attributions etc of a spirit or some entity you wish to conjure, the sigil will serve you to trace the current in order to move a certain Elemental Force to work on your behalf. The sigil is its signature or sign.
Sigil Magic is a manipulation of Signatures
Sigils – The Death Posture
There is something some people in the past have always understood, mystics, visionaries, hermits: that if you sacrifice the child of your loins (or your womb), in other words, sublimate your desire, it may yield something very valuable, such as a vision, it may fulfil a wish, or reveal a special knowledge and insight. Kenneth Grant said that Spare “urges us to will insatiety, brave our self-indulgence and primeval sexualism, for belief freed from conception, merges desire with the Infinite.” “Spare’s whole training is submissive and obedient to the Witch until, by cold amoral passion, he can transmute, control and divert himself when desired.”
Now how would you do this? Well, you may “Inflame yourself With Prayer”: (Advice given in the grimoire The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, and adopted by Crowley.) You may create an amulet or talisman and ‘charge’ it (with some sacrifice you make.) Or you may take a more sensual route, which Spare often did. “Let this be my one excuse: I pleasured myself.” And he said he “copulated merely with the atmosphere, or rode whores, witches and bitches of all kinds, there being few virgins.”
Much of the ‘know-how’ concerning sigils seems to have been lost to Spare between the wars, however. After the break-down of his marriage and general fall-out from WWI, sigils hardly even appear in his work as a decorative device, and there is little evidence that he was still using them. If he was, it must have been in a fairly small private way, to encourage the sale of a painting perhaps, or improve his chances on the race-track: even his infamous Arena of Anon surrealist gambling cards don’t appear until as late as 1936.
Not long after he got to know the Grants, Kenneth asked him for a self-portrait, and shortly after received a letter with this drawing:
Self-Portrait at 18
He called it ‘Self-portrait at age 18’. It shows one, or maybe even the central, concern in his nature: his Phallic self. He himself said that “Everything in Nature fornicates all the time.” Yet, in spite of being pretty virile, he recognized his masculinity was under constant threat. The emphasis on the phallic was also a compensation and a defence against being overwhelmed by the power of this Muse, the Great Mother, and being swallowed up by Her.
In some of his pictures you can see this, for instance in the strange hybrid creature, the “Bearded Lady” on the left of the drawing he gave Grant (Self-Portrait at 18) or in the one below: here are men with breasts; men without genitals or with female genitals, or sexual attributes of both sexes. They appear quite often in his work.
Hermaphrodites – ‘Efflorescence.’
He intuited the nature of his art, how armed with the gift of his eye and hand he had to draw the phallic tract of his mind through the entanglements of Nature every time he started a picture.
Steffi Grant described meeting him for the first time; she was literally “speechless” when he opened the door. “He was old, bent, decrepit-looking, dressed in tattered clothes which he perhaps slept in; he was unkempt; his hands trembled.” His diet was terrible. He would live on just milk for days. He lost his teeth.
He lived in a dark dank flat below stairs. Arriving in the basement Steffi describes the front room which was full of junk and frames and pictures he hadn’t managed to sell. He truly didn’t care enough.
Let’s finally have a look at this picture, called The Death Posture, one of a number so-called:
We see Spare sit behind a kind of huge tray or table-top, covered with folded cloths and full of strange and wonderful articles which are clearly art objects but which seem to be alive at the same time. They’re like homunculi, possibly his familiars, and the tray is like a portable Cabinet of Curiosities. This tray sits on top of another one underneath from which all manner of figures try to escape as they are being squeezed by the weight above. The artist himself has his fingers over his nose, partly restricting the flow of air, while his other hand is holding his drawing tool. He may have heard of
and adapted it for his own use. He’s staring into the distance, though he also seems to be staring at us.
All the religions and magical cults of the past have laid emphasis on the idea of Death as a pre-requisite for a new Birth and another plane of existence where you might acquire new knowledge and insight. In the case of Spare it would be to open his Memory Palace which is spread out there in front of him. Things he’d read and seen, fantasies and fears and dreams. He would take himself to the brink – how far he went we don’t know – but when he’d reached a trance-state – he would communicate with a state in himself, an ‘INBETWEENNESS’ as he called it, Kia. It would release what we see in front of him in the picture: homunculi, familiars, strange magical objects.
Inevitably, as he grew older, Spare’s sex drive began to wane but not his creative urge, which was only cut short by him dying.
Grant gave Spare a motto: Zos vel Thanatos, based on his magickal name. Spare took to it happily but he had to ask what it meant. Zos was Spare’s own term, of course, and meant the entire body, including the ordinary mind – which he had paired or contrasted with his Kia or “atmospheric eye” (hence Zos Kia Cultus.) He liked Zos and would refer to himself as Zos; it brought the biological, animal and esoteric together under one name. Vel meant simply ‘or’; and Thanatos of course means Death, after the Greek god. Zos or Death! Or “All-or-Nothing”, you might say!
I’m sure people have different takes on what Sigil Magic is. I’ve read business manuals which claim ‘sigil magic’ as the base of running a successful business and use language that makes your eyes water. It has its own life now, out in the wider occult community.
Austin Osman Spare was primarily interested in creating his fantastic art and was certainly not very successful in creating material wealth, with or without sigil magic. He used his Magic for creative purposes and was spectacularly effective at doing so.
(25th July 1928 – 27th August 1986)
“I am earth when water has left it
I am love when God created
I am myself
I am the enemy
Alone . . .”
Born Joyce Patricia Adès in England to wealthy Jewish-Egyptian parents, Joyce Mansour was raised a Sephardic Jew, reading the Torah and studying qabalah. At age 15, she lost her mother to cancer, and then her first marriage at 19 ended after only six months when her husband succumbed to the disease also, aged only 21. She lived in Alexandria as a young woman during WWII, and could have been the reincarnation of Cleopatra to look at her. Later, she remarried to Samir Mansour in 1949 and moved to Paris, where she became “the best known Surrealist female poet” – although it is shocking how few anthologies or studies she is included or even acknowledged in. Moving in largely male-dominated circles but not afraid to meet them on equal terms, she was a particular favourite of the self-appointed Pope of Surrealism, André Breton, who declared “your gift is that of genius.”
Joyce Mansour with André Breton (1960)
Mansour went on to befriend such erotic extremists as Hans Bellmer and Pierre Molinier, and also the Chilean abstract expressionist, Roberto Matta, all of whom frequently illustrated her work. Her friend Molinier described her once in a letter as a “mysterious being, airial, who awakens the feeling of an ‘ascending’ fall.”
Mansour went on to write 16 volumes of uncompromising and often visionary verse and prose, very much juggling themes of Eros and Thanatos:
“I made away with the yellow bird
Who lives in the sex of the devil
It will teach me how to seduce
Men, deer, angels with double wings,
It will take away my thirst, my clothes, my illusions,
He will sleep,
But me, I’ll nap on the roofs
Murmuring, gesturing, making love violently
With the cats.”
[ From Déchirures (‘Torn Apart’), 1955. ]
Drawing heavily on Egyptian and Middle Eastern themes, Mansour was happy to make use of the umbrella of ‘surrealism’ on her own terms, but frequently tapped into something much older: a very ancient, fierce, primordial Spirit indeed. The Goddesses Hathor and Sekhmet definitely preside over her first collections of the early 1950s (“The nail planted in my celestial cheek, The horns that grow behind my ears”), and some of her writing can be disconcerting, falling as it does between male-directed Surrealist fantasies of the erotic muse femme-enfant and sorciere and later early Feminist discourse – defining a Sadeian, sex-positive, Surrealist temenos all of her own.
Although rightly celebrated in her adopted homeland of France, there is still surprisingly little available in English. The definitive starting point has to be Essential Poems and Writings of Joyce Mansour, translated and with an introduction by Serge Gavronsky (Black Widow Press, 2008.)
Diagram of the Ptolemaic System, showing the spheres of the Seven Classical Planets, Zodiacal Belt, and the Realm of Fixed Stars.
I dare say most of you reading this will have at least some familiarity with the idea of Sigil Magic as has been attributed to Austin Osman Spare – or at least the version popularised via Chaos Magic, and the endless oversimplified reiterations that have made their way round the World Wide Web ever since – like a watered down copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy, ending up with something as crude and basic as the “make a wish and have a wank” formula popularised by the likes of Grant Morrison.
Truth is, Sigil Magic did not, in fact, originate with Austin Spare – there were definite precursors, and ones that he would have been well aware of. Apart from the tradition of artist’s monograms, usually consisting of their initials combined or intertwined in such a way as to form a distinctive logo – the example of Albrecht Dürer, a known favourite of Spare’s, springs to mind – there were also more occult precedents.
The word sigil, from the Latin meaning “little sign”, has a long history in Western Magic. The members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn were perfectly familiar with it – they said; and I paraphrase – that if you combine the letters, the colours, the attributions, etc., of a spirit or some entity you wish to conjure, the sigil will serve you to trace the current in order to move a certain Elemental Force. Golden Dawn figurehead MacGregor Mathers devised a method he called Sigils from the Rose, created using the characters of the sacred Hebrew alphabet arrayed around the 22 petals of the Rose+Cross emblem.
MacGregor Mathers, Sigils from the Rose
In the paper Mathers wrote on the subject, only made available for candidates who had been invited to the prestigious Second Order or Inner Circle, he explains:
“The inner Three Petals of the Rose symbolize the active Elements of Air, Fire, and Water, operating in the Earth, which is as it were the recipient of them, their container and ground of operation . . . The seven next Petals answer to the Letters of the Seven Planets, and the Twelve Outer to the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac.
“If thou wilt trace the Sigil of any word or name either in the Air, or written upon paper, thou shalt commence with a circle at the point of the initial letter on the Rose, and draw with thy magical weapon a line from this circle unto the place of the next letter of the name. Continue this, until thou hast finished the word which the letters compose. If two letters of the same sort, such as two Beths or Gimels, come together, thou shalt represent the same by a crook or wave in the line at that point.”
Rose Cross emblem with English characters
Likewise, there were also the planetary letter-and-number squares known as Kameas. Even as far back as Agrippa’s Books of Occult Philosophy, the Kameas attributed to the seven classical planets* could be used to derive signatures of angelic or celestial intelligences, as are found throughout the later grimoires.
*Being the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn – each of which were believed to inhabit there own distinctive and ascending orbit, as per the Ptolemaic Cosmograph shown at the top of the page.
The most common use for these kameas is to provide a pattern upon which to construct the sigils of spirits, angels or demons; the letters of the entity’s name are converted into numbers, and lines are traced through the pattern that these successive numbers make on the kamea – but of course, there is no reason why you could not instead convert and trace a phrase signifying your wish or desire, thereby creating a sigil resonant with symbolic planetary forces.
You might even be surprised to learn that Hoodoo practitioners make use of these planetary squares and Solomonic seals for talismanic magic, along with their more traditional Voodoo Vévés.
Vévé for Papa Legba
Spare certainly devised his own quite unique and aesthetically charming and distinctive rendition, however – but even the version he put forward is nowhere near as simple as what has later been promoted in his name.
Apart from some later manuscripts, unpublished in his lifetime and mostly written at the encouragement of Kenneth Grant, also a few scattered references in letters to close friends like the Grants or Frank Letchford, almost all that Spare had to say on the subject of Sigils was published in The Book of Pleasure, written between 1909 and 1913 – when he was all of 23 to 27 – and published the year before The Great War broke out. Although other writers are usually quick to draw attention to the sexual methods of charging or firing Sigils, emphasising the convenience and simplicity of auto-erotic methods, Spare himself is somewhat vaguer, almost coy – as if not wanting to be pinned down – and the one method that he is quite definite about, his ‘Death Posture’, is more about a kind of single-pointed mindfulness.
From The Book of Pleasure – The Death Posture: Preliminary Sensation Symbolized
There is something some people in the past have always understood, mystics, visionaries: that if you – metaphorically speaking – ‘sacrifice’ the child of your loins (or your womb), in other words, sublimate your desire, it may yield something very valuable, such as a vision, it may fulfil a wish, or reveal a special knowledge and insight. Kenneth Grant said that Spare “urges us to will insatiety, brave our self-indulgence and primeval sexualism, for belief freed from conception, merges desire with the Infinite.”
Now how would you do this? Well, you may “Inflame yourself With Prayer” – advice given in the grimoire The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, and adopted as a personal motto by Aleister Crowley. You might also create an amulet or talisman and ‘charge’ it (with some sacrifice you make) – this being the more traditional route, perhaps, utilising the kinds of seals and signatures found in grimoires such as the books of Abramelin, Goetia, Key of Solomon, Picatrix, etc. There are plenty of more modern examples as well – Franz Bardon has a whole book full, in his The Practice of Magical Evocation – and there are Crowley’s signs for the Dayside and Nightside of the Tree of Life in Liber CCXXXI, later developed by Kenneth Grant in his Nightside of Eden and from there by Linda Falorio with her Shadow Tarot. Or you may take a more sensual route, which Spare often did. “Let this be my one excuse: I pleasured myself.”
Austin Osman Spare, Satyr and Woman
Austin Osman Spare, The Death Posture
All the religions and magical cults of the past have laid emphasis on the idea of Death as a pre-requisite for a new Birth and another plane of existence where you might acquire new knowledge and insight. In the case of Spare it would be to open his Memory Palace which is spread out there in front of him. Things he’d read and seen, fantasies and fears and dreams.
The artist himself has his fingers over his nose, partly restricting the flow of air, while his other hand is holding his drawing tool. He may have heard of pranayama and adapted it for his own use.
He would take himself to the brink – how far he went we don’t know – but when he’d reached a trance-state – he would communicate with a state in himself, an ‘inbetweenness’ as he called it, Kia. It would release what we see in front of him in this picture: homunculi, familiars, strange magical objects.
All techniques the world over, from culture to culture, down through the ages, ultimately fall into one of two categories: excitatory or inhibitory. You’re either whipping yourself up into a frenzy – perhaps quite literally! – with chanting, dancing, drumming, or sexual arousal; or else stilling your mind to concentrate it to a laser-beam point, through fasting, meditation, and methods of restriction and internalisation.
Women of Babalon is a new anthology from Black Moon Publishing, based in New Orleans and Cincinnati. But do not make the mistake of thinking this is a solely American affair – or else because of the Babalon theme or New Orleans connection, all of the material sings from an exclusively Voodoo or Thelemic song-sheet. There are some obvious common sources and inevitable parallels between a number of the works herein, but the range of material gathered across the book’s (almost) 200 pages gives a rich and varied cross-section. As you might expect, the stories conveyed through the words and pictures gathered here are as individual as the journeys of the women telling them, reflecting the diversity of ages, backgrounds, desires, ethnicities and experiences. Sexuality and spirituality are the keys held in common, of course, in a sense forming the crossroads at which these Modern Witches meet to compare and contrast notes about what it means to be a magickal artist-practitioner – and also a woman – in today’s world.
It makes for a heady brew indeed.
Contributors include Linda Falorio, Charlotte Rodgers, Mishlen Linden, Lou Hotchkiss Knives, Emma Doeve, Diane Narraway, Geraldine Lambert, Semirani Vine, Lorraine Sherwin, Dianne Mysterieux, Lilith Dorsey, Ayahna Kumarroy, Madeleine Ledespencer, Maegdlyn Morris, Sarah-Jayne Farrer, and Sharmon Davidson-Jennings.
The collection opens with a substantial contribution from Linda Falorio, best known for The Shadow Tarot, and her emphasis is refreshingly practical. Here are suggestions for meditations and visualisations, the preparation of the Astral Temple, and explorations of orgasm at each of the chakras:
“Manual magick is the formula for those who wish to dance with demons and with Jinn, to seduce the Loa and the serpent Nagas of the earth, and to create for themselves familiars to carry forward their desires.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, much of this is rooted in Falorio’s work with the Nightside energies – and images from her Tarot do appear. Other highlights include suggestions for working with the Zar spirits of Egypt or Voodoo Loa, guidelines for conjuring the Demon Lover “by invoking your Holy Guardian Angel (HGA) into the body of your lover via the sexual act”, and a ritual to that proto-Babalon, Sekhmet – with a recipe to make your own Kyphi incense – all giving further food for thought.
Next is Emma Doeve, with two articles accompanied by her own original artwork. The first profiles Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington (fast becoming everybody’s favourite Witchy Great Aunt, and currently subject of a Retrospective at Tate Liverpool), in particular her engagement with the occult, and also explores her harrowing experiences of breakdown and incarceration during wartime as a kind of crisis initiation. The second boldly follows on from Carrington’s boast that she “didn’t have time to be anybody’s muse” to look at the struggles women have had to confront and overcome mostly male authority – summed up here by Robert Graves’ infamous “Woman is not a poet; she is either a Muse or she is nothing” – and then to find their own equivalent to the Muse, or Daemon, as Doeve would have it. She gives numerous literary points of departure for further consideration, from Coleridge’s Kubla Khan and Percy Shelley, to Camille Paglia, Sylvia Plath and Emily Brontë – but these issues are just as relevant for the female occultist as for the artist or writer. Details of a more personal nature reveal the dilemma for the potential Babalon of being a woman in what is still largely a man’s world, but also that solidarity with other women may not be that forthcoming: “I would be branded, and often made to feel like an outsider among my own sex” writes Doeve about her formative years, and affirms “mine has been a more organic and solitary journey.” She describes spontaneous Kundalini awakenings, Nature rites, and study of Tantra and Yoga, and “the whole Tradition of Western Sex-Magick: of Crowley, and Evola, and Fortune, and Grosche, Parsons-Cameron, Randolph, Spare” – and, like some of the others here, reveals a special affection for the works of Kenneth Grant!
Diane Narraway presents her own very distinctive answer to the question of the Daemon Lover, examining the figure of the Adversary through the different aspects of Lucifer, Satan or the Christian Devil, the Shaytan Iblis, Baphomet and Pan, and gives an intriguing insight into what it is for a woman to engage with such figures, magickally and erotically.
Charlotte Rogers resumes a trajectory taking in animism, Crowley, promiscuity, work in the sex industry, and the use of orgasm “not just for the charging of sigils, but also as a way to aid astral projection.” She describes shifting gender definitions and sexual delineations, working with bodily emissions – then what must have been a series of radical re-evaluations post hepatitis C and menopause – and ends with the declaration that “True Magick does Not Exist Without True Love.” As with Emma Doeve, there is an acknowledgment that to be a Babalon may be a doubly antinomian path, not just at odds with the mainstream but even with other women occultists. Rogers tells us also that her “shift from bisexual to heterosexual to celibate” was actually “considered deviant and close minded” by some of her friends, suggesting that even now, the last taboo of Sexual Empowerment – especially for a woman – may still be the right to say NO.
Editor Mishlen Linden provides the lengthiest and most intimate contribution, a substantial excerpt from her personal Magickal Record, which details sex-magickal workings with a new priest-lover that she meets unexpectedly after the death of her Beloved. An account of exploration – with practical hints & tips on asana (both sexual positions and gestures of prayer), cautions about the care of your Priest, and possible attitudes needed (“Those around you will call you a whore, and that is exactly right! But you are a Sacred Whore”), also of discovery of possibilities for further exploration (“There are five chakras above us, and each brings us closer to the stars”) – in the end, it is a revelation of healing through the acts of love and acceptance.
On a personal note, I was struck by Linden’s observation in respect of the fact that she is 58, her new lover only 28, her description of the Crone Wisdom, the build-up of power that can come when a woman is no longer subject to the release that comes with the monthly cycle of bleeding:
“We simply build the power up inside ourselves… it just grows with age. A younger man, at his peak of sexuality, and an older woman, who has crone wisdom, is arguably the best combination for this work. Of course, it’s not likely you will hear this from a man!”
Speaking as a former graduate (the pun is there if you want) of just this form of initiation, let me go on record as saying that here is the answer to the dilemma posed by Nema, quoted at the beginning of the book:
“What happens when Babalon gets old?”
Answer: She keeps on growing in power, initiating, loving – Herself, and Others…
By contrast, Lou Hotchkiss Knives clearly represents the younger Babalon, writing with an eager enthusiasm as she weaves together a tale of growing pains from the loss of an unplanned-for child and exultation as she struts her ripped-fishnet hour upon the Sex ‘n’ Death ‘n’ Punk Rock stage – delivering a roll-call of Outsider Heroines, from Emily Dickinson and Nell Gwyn to Patti Smith, The Slits, Courtney Love and beyond, all wrapped around enough Cabala, Dee & Kelley, Parsons & Hubbard, and Crowleyan Sex-Magick to keep occultist fanboys happy. My only caution would be a certain unease at the easy juxtaposition of rock ‘n’ roll rebellion with references to “codeine dreams” or “Nancy Spungen’s opiate-fuelled romance” (I defy anyone to find meaningful role-models in Sid & Nancy’s short, squalid, tragic affair and its ghastly end) – but Hotchkiss makes it clear in her arch comparison of Aleister Crowley and Kurt Cobain that she is all too aware that for “a Witch with a foot on the punk rock scene… shadows lurk in every corner.”
Some of the contributors even manage to go beyond conventional Thelemic notions of Babalon: Lilith Dorsey, comparing Her with Voodoo’s Erzulie, plus the insight that while possession might be central to Voodoo and Santeria, they tend to keep sex separate from their spiritual practice – Sarah-Jayne Farrer, introducing the little-known spectral seductress of Scottish folklore, the Glaistig (illustrated with a delicate, finely detailed drawing from Lorraine Sherwin) – and Madeleine Lesdespencer, who takes us into the trans-human realm with her sadomasochistic icon of gender as biomechanical process. Her strange angel is fitting accompaniment to the piece that follows, by Maegdlyn Morris, in which she celebrates a “Warrior Babalon” that is an intriguing mix of sexualised Our Lady of Sorrows and Belle Dame sans Merci. With a background in BDSM sex-work, Morris puts forward perhaps one of the most challenging images of all, that of the “Babalon of Severity” and tells us that her “secret weapon is the knowledge of her infinite selves” – a clarion call to women of all ages, places, and times.
So: Women of Babalon, a diverse and dynamic collection, but I would have to take issue with the subtitle, A Howling of Women’s Voices – I appreciate there may just be a pun intended here, along Goetic lines – but these assorted women’s voices don’t just howl: they educate and initiate and inspire, they startle and seduce and sing.
May the voices of the Women of Babalon be heard far and wide!
Ian Cooper, for WhollyBooks.
Women of Babalon is available through Amazon or else direct from:
Coming up to the anniversary of the centenary of the birth of William Seward Burroughs, and the year of the “Burroughs Century” that got under way in 2014 shows little sign of abating just yet . . .
Our main contribution, The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs by Matthew Levi Stevens, was published last Halloween by Mandrake of Oxford, and continues to attract positive attention with a number of Five Star Customer Reviews on Amazon (where it also made the Top Ten in their list of Magicians Biographies, ahead of a reissue of Lawrence Sutin’s Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley and just beaten by Derren Brown’s Confessions of a Conjuror !)
One such Review was from Sandy Robertson, former music journalist, Penthouse editor, author of The Aleister Crowley Scrapbook, and co-founder of the Montague Summers Memorial Society, who wrote:
Five Stars, “It’s Magic!”
Matthew Levi Stevens is an underappreciated cultural excavator whose latest work is deserving of high praise – no Burroughsian pun intended.
Known primarily as a Beat genius who explored the limits of language and the evils of our masters from a junkie/queer perspective, perhaps only the more hardcore of Uncle Bill’s admirers are aware of his interest in the interstices of art and the occult. Stevens’s book explores this aspect in some detail, and as is his wont coming up with hitherto unknown (to me at least) details of dabblings and strange encounters in the process.
If you are a Burroughs fan, a magickal madman, or simply an aficionado of the marvellous byways of literature, this is a must-read volume.
A slightly unexpected addition was the detailed and in-depth examination, Curses, Cut-Ups, & Contraptions: The “Disastrous Success” of William Burroughs’ Magick, by James J. O’Meara that appeared on the website of Counter-Currents Publishing. Although we were not too sure about Mr. O’Meara’s comparisons with the “New Traditionalism” of Right Wing esotericist Baron Julius Evola, it was nonetheless a well written and thought-provoking article:
. . . Stevens’ unique contribution is using [that] material, and his own experiences with Burroughs and his acolytes, such as Phil Hine, Peter Carroll, Malcom MacNeill, and Genesis P-Orridge, to locate in and explain through his life, the magical beliefs and, more importantly, magickal practices therein.
This makes the book required reading for anyone interested not just in Burroughs, but in late 20th-century literature, music (from the relatively popular Bowie, hip hop, ambient, and trance to the unfriendly extremes of punk, Industrial, and Noise), film (again, from the relatively mainstream David Cronenberg to Anthony Balch) and even painting.
Apparently James studied Buddhism at Naropa College 1976-77, during the time that Burroughs was teaching there [ which was also when WSB was sharing an apartment with Cabell McLean in Boulder ], so his perspective on matters is interesting. His article can be read in full here:
Another delightful surprise was to find out that The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs had been included in the round-up of The Best Films And Books Of 2014 by Gordon White on his Rune Soup blog. He says :
. . . let me tell you… this is the page-turner on the list . . . This is a must-have for anyone slightly interested in the following: the Beats, New York, magic, cut-ups, Burroughs’s weird relationship with Scientology, art in general . . . Dozens of ideas and magical possibilities spun out of reading this book . . . some really detailed and sophisticated opinions regarding magic and the universe . . . Really excellent work.
Other titles on the list include Peter J. Carroll & Matt Kaybryn’s Esotericon, Jake Stratton-Kent’s Testament of St. Cyprian the Mage and Carl Abrahamsson’s Reasonances, so it’s in pretty good company !
You can read the whole of Gordon’s Round-Up here :
Finally, for now, author & poet Paul A. Green was kind enough to write a review for Lawrence Russell’s Culture Court:
Matthew Levi Stevens, however, has chosen to explore a previously taboo zone of the Burrovian mythos – not Burroughs’ interest in guns, nor the accidental shooting of his wife Joan Vollmer, nor his cameo role in the events surrounding the death of David Kammerer, as dramatised in the recent film Kill Your Darlings. Instead he has created a map of the private Interzone in which so many of Burroughs’ practices and preoccupations overlapped – the Occult.
There’s overwhelming evidence, from the materials that Stevens has gathered and analysed, that exploration of the magical realms was the central focus of William Burroughs’ journey as a writer – which in itself was a quest for some ultimate truth about himself and his place in the universe. Given the lifelong intensity of his preoccupation, it can’t be written off as a posture.
Stevens has woven the complex strands of Burroughs’ magical adventure into a highly readable narrative. It’s illustrated with numerous photographs and original art work by Emma Doeve and Billy Chainsaw. Whether you read it as a psychological profile, a striking literary biography or as a Magical Record of a Master, it offers unique insights into Burroughs’ inner space.
It can be read in full here:
A year on from the Burroughs Centenary, we don’t doubt that we haven’t heard the last of The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs. Rest assured, we will do our best to keep you posted . . .
In the meantime, The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs by Matthew Levi Stevens is still available from Amazon, or direct from the publisher, Mandrake of Oxford:
Out Now from Black Moon Publishing:
WOMEN OF BABALON
A Howling of Women’s Voices
Featuring contributions by Linda Falorio, Charlotte Rodgers, Mishlen Linden, Lou Hotchkiss Knives, Emma Doeve, Diane Narraway, Geraldine Lambert, Semirani Vine, Lorraine Sherwin, Dianne Mysterieux, Lilith Dorsey, Ayahna Kumarroy, Madeleine LeDespencer, Maegdlyn Morris, Sarah-Jayne Farrer, and Sharmon Davidson-Jennings.
From the publisher’s website:
‘. . . This is a book of sexual magicks in both theory and practice from the feminine power zones and from their own points of view. Very little has been written on this. It is a compilation composed of the text and art of sixteen practicing female magickians through which the vital character of a Babalon is explored.
Both the elder and younger Babalons write here in order to expand upon this almost taboo subject. Linda Falorio, one of the writers within, says “Men, read on if you want to know our deepest secrets.” This book focuses on the ‘what,’ the ‘who’ and the ‘how’ of the practice . . .’
• Blood Rites of Babalon by Linda Falorio
• Qulielfi: From The Shadow Tarot — Art by Linda Falorio
• Characith: From The Shadow Tarot — Art by Linda Falorio
• Hemethterith: From The Shadow Tarot — Art by Linda Falorio
• Strange Birth — Art by Emma Doeve
• A Darker Magick by Emma Doeve
• At the Heart of the Labyrinth — Art by Emma Doeve
• Mistress of Eros — Art by Emma Doeve
• The Dæmon Lover by Emma Doeve
• Gestation — Art by Sharmon Davidson–Jennings
• Lucifer’s Lover by Diane Narraway
• In Honor of the Lightbearers — Art by Geraldine Lambert
• Lucifers Child — Art by Semirani Vine
• Babalon and the Beast — Poem and Art by Lorraine Sherwin
• Sexual Magick: Point to Point by Charlotte Rodgers
• Lilith — Art by Mishlen Linden
• In the Garden of Earthly Delights:
From the Magickal Record of Mishlen Linden
• Babalon — Art by Dianne Mystérieux
• Watch Her Wrap Her Legs Around This World:
Babalon, Sex, Death, Conception, Punk Rock
and the Mysteries by Lou Hotchkiss Knives
• Untitled — Art by Ayahna Kumarroy
• Sex and Possession/Voodoo Love
The Gede We Always Knew Was There by Lilith Dorsey
• And you shall see the shades which she becomes —
Art by Madeleine Ledespencer
• The Warrior Babalon by Maegdlyn Morris
• A Love Letter by Sarah–Jayne Farrer
• Chant d’Automne — Art by Sarah-Jayne Farrer
• Spirit House/Womb: A Place for Things to Grow —
Art by Mishlen Linden
• Glaistig — Art by Lorraine Sherwin
• Glaistig by Sarah-Jayne Farrer
• Notes on Glaistig — From Wikipedia
• Outro by Lou Hotchkiss Knives
• En Finale by Mishlen Linden
• Babalon Community Contacts
• Nuit — Art by Mishlen Linden
ISBN-13: 978-1-890399-49-8 : 192 pages : 8×10 : Softbound
Available in the US at Amazon.com
Available in the UK at Amazon.co.uk
Or DIRECT from Black Moon Publishing at: contact us.
A God of Many Parts
In contrast to the ugly-yet-homely, more user-friendly Bes or Besas – a helpful dwarf-god, known to assist in both magic and matters pertaining to childbirth – Bes-Pantheos [literally meaning “Bes all-gods”, pictured above] is cast more as Master Magician, or Master of Spirits.
If one sought blessings from Bes-Pantheos, an effigy of the god would need to be “deified” in the following manner:
“. . . sacrifice to it a wild white-faced falcon, and burn this offering entire; also pour to it, as a libation, the milk of a black cow, the firstborn of its mother, and the first she suckled . . . And now feast with the god, singing to him all night long the names written on the strip of papyrus put in the hollow inside it. Wreathe the little temple with olive and thus you will prosper throughout life.”
[ Excerpted from PGM IV.3125-3171. ]
A Greek Interlude
The glamorous Glycon
Dating from the mid-2nd Century CE, the snake-god Glycon was both an intriguing composite and a figure of some controversy : the Greek mystic and oracle, Alexander of Abonoteichus (c.105 – c.170 CE), was said to have foretold a new incarnation of the god of medicine, Asclepius – and when the eager crowds gathered in the marketplace to see the promised miracle, he produced a goose egg and sliced it open to reveal the god within.
Contemporary critics such as Lucian dismissed Alexander as a false prophet and utter fraud, but in the classic manner of miracle workers and magic men, he was said to have “made predictions, discovered fugitive slaves, detected thieves and robbers, caused treasures to be dug up, healed the sick, and in some cases actually raised the dead.”
As for the newly-born god, Glycon soon became the centre of a thriving cult : by 160 CE it had spread as far as Antioch, where graffiti has been found reading “Glycon protect us from the plague-cloud” – that same year, the governor of Asia married Alexander’s daughter, and pledged himself to protect Glycon’s oracle – emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius sought guidance from Alexander and his god – and even satirist Lucian’s revelation that the snake-god with the human head and flowing golden locks was, in fact, a glove-puppet did not diminish the cult’s popularity . . .
In Modern Times, celebrated Graphic Novelist and Magician, Alan Moore, has cheerfully remarked :
“I earn a living by making up stories about things that have never actually happened. When it comes to my spiritual beliefs, that’s perhaps why I worship a 2nd century human-headed snake god called Glycon, who was exposed as a ventriloquist’s dummy nearly 2,000 years ago . . . A live, tame Boa constrictor provided the puppet’s body, while its artificial head had heavy-lidded eyes and long, blonde hair. In many ways, Glycon looked a bit like Paris Hilton, but perhaps more likeable and more biologically credible.”
May Glycon protect us from the plague-cloud indeed !