VITRIOL or The Moving Finger, A Very Chaotic, Autobiographical Scrapbook is the latest offering from Ray Sherwin, doubtless best known to most for his key role, alongside Pete Carroll, in originating Chaos Magic and co-founding the Illuminates of Thanateros. As publisher of The New Equinox magazine and later Chaos International, author of such key texts as The Book of Results, The Theatre of Magick, and (pseudonymously as ‘Paula Pagani’) The Cardinal Rites of Chaos – as well as publisher of the first ever edition of Carroll’s Liber Null – Sherwin was certainly one of the prime movers. In more recent years he has also produced a couple of CDs of music, and written an aromatic and magical memoir, Strange Smell In The Car, which concentrated largely on the career he had built from his lifelong passion for aromatics. A fascinating compendium of information about essential oils and incense, their histories and usage (therapeutic and otherwise), it also gave us one-or-two snapshots of the beginnings of his magical interests, meeting with Pete Carroll, and the Leeds occult scene of the 1980s, all told in an avuncular, conversational, easy tone that was totally in keeping with Sherwin’s reputation as the ‘Mr. Nice’ of the occult world.
VITRIOL is quite a different offering, however: even just a first glance at the book’s title and cover-art – with its not-quite-subliminal anarchy sign in a pentagram, V for Vendetta/Anonymous Guy Fawkes reference, and two fingers up (to whom, exactly?) – invite a sense Ray has come out fighting this time. Turn to the index, and it is immediately apparent the gloves have come off to get to grips with some of the Big Issues of today’s ills: global conspiracy, political corruption, international banking and Zionism, 9/11, Big Pharma, vaccination and health scandals, institutional child abuse – it’s ALL here.
The book opens with an Author’s Note giving definitions of his use of such terms as Hebrews, Israelis, and Jews as they relate to the situation in Palestine, and clearly placing Zionism centre-stage for at least part of what is to come. Next up is a more personal Introduction, and let no one say that Ray Sherwin does not have a sense of humour. Straight away he disarms the reader with his candid picture of the ageing male body, of what it is to be man of a certain age, succumbing to the unnerving forces of gravity and the earlobe drooping horror of “elastin-depletion.” It has not, however, made him ungrateful and say, with the likes of Bob Geldof, “Is that it?” His approach – as he says almost casually – has been more in the spirit of Aleister Crowley’s acronym, Visita Interiora Terrae, Rectificando Invenies Occultem Lapidem (‘Visit the Interior of the Earth, by Rectification you will find the Hidden Stone.’) Sherwin calls it “an agreeable mantram.”
It is only a prelude, though, for what is to follow, the real meat of VITRIOL.
After the preamble, the book’s first chapter (subtitled in a nod to Austin Osman Spare ‘Another Sermon to the Hypocrites’) poses a conundrum: why should one of the founding-figures of Chaos Magick and the IOT be so obsessed with Control? Control, and in its wake, Conspiracy, are everywhere, it seems: they are the villains of the piece, and exist at all levels. One would have to make a closer study of which aspect of CHAOS in particular Chaos Magic embraced, but presumably it does not stand for ORDER by any means. However, as Alan Moore has said with regard to Conspiracies: “Yes, there is a conspiracy, in fact there are a great number of conspiracies that are all tripping each other up … The truth is far more frightening, nobody is in control, the world is rudderless.” Is it perhaps more reassuring to fight an evil Control than have no Control at all, to have primarily Disorder, not to mention Chaos?
Nevertheless, in a territory where ethical conduct is entirely down to the individual and his or her conscience, people who do not labour under such constraints will take what they can if they can get away with it: for a start, world politics is riddled with ‘Control’ and the Zionists are singled out as being top of the list – banking alone is controlled by them to such a degree that no fewer than “four heads of state were executed on [their] behalf.” And the state of Israel is – of course – “based on a fiction.”
After the massive first chapter of over 110 pages on the deplorable state of world politics, next up is the one that we suspect most of the book’s potential audience will want to read it for. Entitled Chaos Magick, it tells us of the origins of Ray’s esoteric interests (like so many true seekers, beginning with spontaneous experiences in childhood, as it turns out) – seeking out and collecting occult books, discovering the works of Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare, and reprinting rare material in the journal he published, The New Equinox, through the selling of which he would connect with the Atlantis Bookshop in London and The Sorceror’s Apprentice in Leeds – and, even more significantly, come into contact with one Peter J. Carroll, who became a significant contributor. There follows an account of the first meetings between Pete ‘n’ Ray, bonding over beer, ether, homemade explosives, magic mushrooms in the woods, and plenty of talk about magic – hatching plans for a new kind of non-hierarchical, non-masonic order – which is certainly more detailed (and down to earth) than any that have appeared previously. It gives a glimpse of the enthusiasm and camaraderie there must have been at the beginning, but shortly after, what emerges is evidence of a disgruntled falling-out between the two Founding Fathers. Sherwin writes that in spite of him and Pete getting on “like a house on fire” to begin with, he “nevertheless had an inkling that any group of people which gives itself a name will eventually succumb to the individuals who seek to control it and that a hierarchy will, sooner or later, begin to crystallise.” It brings to mind the fate of cult rock bands that split up over ‘musical differences’ – with inevitable fallout like a bad divorce, and arguments over non-existent royalties.
As for the ‘naming-of-names’ – anticipated anxiously in certain quarters and with a prurient glee in others, no doubt (“Sherwin was there – he knows where the bodies are – is he gonna dish the dirt?” etc.) – if anything, it is all a bit of an anti-climax. The harshest possible criticisms that emerge in VITRIOL are of a certain poor taste and two-facedness, such as when Ray alleges that in a recent email, Pope Pete of The Pact confided in him: “I have very little to do with the UK IOT at present as it seems to have fallen into the hands of third rate people that I wouldn’t invite to lunch.” If these are the worst skeletons all concerned have in their closets, they’re not exactly anything to lose sleep over …
Moving on, Health is a big issue, as it should be. More’s the pity, then, that most of us are far too easily led by what the large pharmaceutical companies tell us we should take for our myriad ills and aches and pains, and worse, so they can become hugely and grotesquely rich. An evil belief system – complete with ministry – stalks the land, and many are literally buying into it: “We have been deceived into believing that we are the victims of our genes and that the pharma priesthood is the only way to change our biology.” Vaccination in particular is singled out for severe criticism, the suggestion being that its machinations act more as a cause than protection against the illness it is supposed to prevent. Sherwin himself was a martyr to various complaints when young: asthma, hay-fever, severe eczema. We get a melancholy portrait of him hobbling about with sticks, his legs bandaged from ankle to groin, presumably because he had scratched his itchy skin till it bled. He tells us there are photographs of him up to age sixteen looking miserable, with eyes streaming. Ray writes himself that many health problems stem from the emotions. He may well be right. One wonders at the emotional climate surrounding him as a child to cause such ailments and suffering.
A harsh note is struck in Health – during a discussion of smallpox and the pros and cons of vaccination – when Ray suddenly shares:
“I remember hearing the news that smallpox had been imported from Pakistan. At that time, every public bus stank* of Pakistanis. This is a comment on ethnicity – not a prejudiced one. The smell, which I’ve never detected since the late 1960s, was overpowering and immediately identifiable, even though, to this day, no-one, including Pakistani friends, has satisfactorily explained its component(s). I have never smelled anything similar in North Africa, Palestine, India or anywhere else.”
The asterisk, by the way, is to a footnote that reads:
“*I struggled with this word for a while – it seems pejorative. However, it is grammatically correct. The word smell is a noun and, strictly, is not applicable here. I eventually decided to go with the grammar and not the political correctness. As an aside, I remain perplexed by that smell.”
We know that uttering any opinion on race-relations, no matter how calm and considered, runs the risk of becoming an instant target – no matter what! – but we have been told that East Asians in North America think that African Americans all smell overpoweringly of beef, and that, likewise, Japanese people find most Western Caucasians have a ‘sour dairy’ odour about them. When we have eaten nothing but Indo or Thai cuisine for a week, our friends can certainly smell it on us. All to do with diet. It seems strange that a man so aromatically aware (at least on previous showing) would not apparently think of the possible bearing that simple dietary factors might have had – especially in an immigrant population trying to adjust in an environment where their usual foodstuffs might not have been readily available?
The North of England where Sherwin was born and bred, like most of the country, underwent a process of severe and deep change after WWII. It wouldn’t be too hard to imagine Ray’s parents and grandparents having seen their world alter beyond recognition, and not for the better either, in their opinion. Unfamiliarity, particularly if tinged with a sense of economic and social injustice, can breed fear. It can also bring out the Little Englander. VITRIOL may go too far for some in the chapter Multi-Culti? What the F***? wherein blame for “traditional communities [which] have been deliberately destroyed” is laid at the doors of policies of racial equality and multiculturalism which were intended to protect “the incoming population which was forced onto my community … from an industrialised region of Pakistan which appears to have little traditional culture of its own but which becomes more bellicose and ridiculously militant with the passing of each year.”
The subsequent chapter, Scientology, but not as we know it. A personal experience, gives us a unique insight from Sherwin’s time working for the church as editor for their in-house magazine. It is perhaps as well to remember that when Scientology was first created by former pulp sci-fi writer and self-styled explorer and adventurer, L. Ron Hubbard, for a while – at least in certain more radical, forward-thinking circles – it was considered to be a potential breakthrough into a kind of self-empowering, liberating, accelerated analysis, and was not initially perceived of as the “mind control cult” that it is seen as now as a consequence of endless tabloid speculation about troubled Hollywood celebrities. It is this present (and some would say all-too-deserved) image of the movement that causes such difficulty regarding almost any discussion of or reference to – well, pretty much anything to do with Scientology – but it is at least interesting to get a glimpse behind the curtain, so to speak, from someone who’s been there and come back.
In an interview for Chaosphere magazine (Volume 3, 2011) Ray remarked:
“I went there originally because Her Majesty’s Government was giving Scientology a hard time which indicated to me that there was something interesting to be discovered.”
He was clearly intrigued enough to see what use he could get out of the methods, or ‘tech’ – and indeed, in his The Book of Results, made interesting and original use of ideas sourced from Dianetics about engrams and the Reactive Mind with regard to sigilisation – while intelligent enough to remain independent from the personality cult around Hubbard and its various intrigues [as he certainly should have been, being someone who “became a member of Mensa at the age of fourteen with an IQ of 178” as he obligingly informs us in the same chapter.] His decision to turn down an invitation aboard The Apollo – the flagship of Scientology’s elite ‘Sea Org’ and Hubbard’s seafaring sanctum – because it clashed with the chance to play support at a Hawkwind gig turns out to have been the parting of the ways, a smart move which raised a chuckle to read about.
In addition to all of the above, there is a closing chapter covering Ray’s adventures making music – most recently with long-term collaborator Nigel Mullaney, with whom he has produced a couple of CD albums, first as Best Before and, more recently, as Mazmoneth – a helpful Appendix on How to extract cannabis oil for health and, lastly, his Review of the recent anthology, Women of Babalon.
VITRIOL will certainly challenge a lot of readers’ preconceptions, we don’t doubt, likewise test the limit of many a comfort zone: the Grand Wizard Morton Press has taken a look at the state of the world today and, frankly, is not happy with what he sees – but then, who would be? In VITRIOL he attempts to outline what he considers to be the worst of the many ills facing us, examines probable causes, and looks at possible solutions. As such, VITRIOL makes for difficult reading in places – unsettling, even – but how could it be otherwise? There’s a fair bit of history explained, the links in the chains of a lot of sinister, murky business looked at unflinchingly, and a certain amount of setting-the-record-straight. It is also by turns entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking.
Emma Doeve & Matthew Levi Stevens.
VITRIOL by Ray Sherwin is available through Amazon:
“I make my pictures for what Hollywood spends on lipstick.”
– Maya Deren (29th April, 1917 – 13th October, 1961)
“I am not greedy. I do not seek to possess the major portion of your days. I am content if, on those rare occasions whose truth can be stated only by poetry, you will, perhaps, recall an image, even only the aura of my films.”
Maya Deren was in born 29th of April, 1917, as Eleanora Derenkowskaia, in Kiev, Ukraine. Her family were Jewish, and in 1922, they fled the country because of anti-Semitic pogroms, settling in Syracuse, New York, where the family surname was typically shortened to “Deren” but at least her father was able to pursue his work as a psychiatrist.
After earning a Master’s Degree in English, and having married the Czech photographer and film-maker Alexander Hammid – himself better known as ‘Sasha’ – under his influence and inspiration, Deren began to make the transition from would-be poet to film-maker. She also felt that another change was in order, as Hammid would later explain:
“Maya wasn’t always Maya. She used to be called Eleanora. Her mother used to call her Elinka, in Russian. She confided in me that she was unhappy about her name, and she asked me once to find a name for her. So I just went to the library and looked through a lot of books, mainly books on mythology. I came across the name ‘Maya’ in different connections, for instance with water – but Maya also was the name of the Mother of Buddha. In Hinduism, Maya was the name of the goddess who wove the veil over our eyes – a veil of illusion that prevents us from seeing spiritual reality behind it . . .”
Maya with Sasha and cat
Maya became personal assistant to Katherine Dunham, an African-American dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist, whose fieldwork was largely concerned with Afro-Caribbean culture. Deren traveled with Dunham’s dance troupe as they toured around segregated America, and the racism she witnessed during those trips left a deep impression on her. It was during this time that she was also introduced to the interwoven relationships between dance, ritual, iconography, and metaphysical transcendence in Haitian culture, which would become such a major influence in her later life and work.
Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe
Speaking of the transition from poet to film-maker, Deren wrote in 1953:
“It was like finally finding a glove that fits. When I was writing poetry, I had, constantly, to transcribe my essentially visual image . . . into verbal form. In motion pictures, I no longer had to translate . . . and I could move directly from my imagination into film.”
Dance also had always been an integral part of Deren’s sensibility, long before she came to film.
“My reason for creating [films] is almost as if I would dance, except this is a much more marvellous dance. It’s because in film, I can make the world dance!”
Speaking of dancers, a close friend and collaborator was the African-American actress Rita Christiani, who as well as appearing in such Hollywood fodder as Road to Morocco alongside Bob Hope & Bing Crosby, and the 1943 shlock-horror I Walked With A Zombie, featured in Deren’s Ritual In Transfigured Time (1946), along with dancer Frank Westbrook and a somewhat desultory Anaïs Nin.
Rita Christiani in Ritual in Transfigured Time, with Frank Westbrook in the background
Years later, interviewed about her friendship with Deren, Christiani remarked:
“I came from Trinidad at five years of age, and later on I found out that Maya had come from her country at five years of age, and on a boat also – so that was a commonality that might not have been expressed, but was felt by some psychic mean between the two of us . . . Because coming here, at that young age, unless you’ve experienced it you don’t know what it is: everything is new to you, and everything is so frightening to you – the people, the places, the way people talk, the way they act – and then you had to speak English, to become an American, and that was the goal: that you become American, you know?”
Another expat who had made America into her adopted home was the born-to-Cuban parents French bohemian Anaïs Nin, an erotic adventuress who had poured out her encounters, fantasies, and observations in short stories, novels, and essays – but it was the many volumes of journals [kept over 60 years, and at least 15 volumes published within her lifetime] in which she gave detailed accounts of her friendships and often intimate relations with writers such as Antonin Artaud, Lawrence Durrell, Henry (and June) Miller, and Gore Vidal, as well as her therapist, Otto Rank, and very probably her own estranged father – that had really made her into the notorious celebrity she had always wanted to be.
In the summer of 1944, when she and her friends were taking a walk on the beach of Amagansett, New York, Anaïs Nin encountered a strange scene. A woman was lying on the shore, letting herself be pummeled by the waves while two people filmed it. Later, Nin found out the woman was Maya Deren, already making a name for herself as an avant-garde filmmaker, who was filming the opening scene of At Land (1945). Nin was naturally attracted to Deren, and eventually got so involved with her films that Deren wrote a part specifically for her in Rituals in Transfigured Time (1946).
Typically, Nin – who can be seen positively pouting in her one-or-two brief appearances in the finished film (not perhaps realising, as with her comparable misadventures with Kenneth Anger and Marjorie Cameron, that her time had simply been and gone) – would characteristically attempt to have the last word, as usual, grumbling in one of her indeterminable diaries for May 1946:
“We gave (Deren) our time, our energy, and even our money . . . We believed in her as a filmmaker, we had faith in her, but we began to feel that she was not human . . . We were influenced, dominated by her, and did not know how to free ourselves.”
Anaïs Nin, as she appears in Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946)
One wonders if Nin had ever been aware of this unpublished poem that Maya wrote before the filming even began:
For Anaïs Before the Glass
The mirror, like a cannibal, consumed, carnivorous, blood-silvered, all the life fed it.
You too have known this merciless transfusion along the arm by which we each have held it.
In the illusion was pursued the vision through the reflection to the revelation.
The miracle has come to pass.
Your pale face, Anaïs, before the glass at last is not returned to you reversed.
This is no longer mirrors, but an open wound through which we face each other framed in blood.
(By Maya Deren, August 19, 1945)
“Myth is the facts of the mind made manifest in a fiction of matter.”
The Point of Departure:
“Myth is the twilight speech of an old man to a boy. All the old men begin at the beginning. Their recitals always speak first of the origin of life . . .”
Her anthropological field-work broke all the rules, but with her film and book, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, she left behind an important document of direct encounter with the Voodoo mysteries:
“All ceremonials begin with the salute to the guardian of the Crossroads, the Loa principle of Crossing, of Communications with the Divine World . . . but that World of Les Invisibles is also the cosmic cemetery of the souls of all the Dead.”
She was actually welcomed, invited in, so to speak, when she went to Haiti to make her film – and was permitted to become an authentic initiate, because the Voodoo Community recognised her sincerity – and, more to the point, they felt she had been called by the loa.
Although it may not have been Babalon in so many words, in her experience of possession by the loa Erzulie, Deren surely had a direct and empowering experience of the Female Divine:
“What I do in my films is very – oh, I think very distinctively – I think they are the films of a woman, and I think that their characteristic time quality is the time quality of a woman. I think that the strength of men is their great strength of immediacy, they are a ‘Now’ creature, and a woman has strength to wait – because she’s had to wait: she has to wait nine months for the concept of a child. Time is built into her body in the sense of Becomingness – and she sees everything in terms of it Being in the stage of Becoming. She raises a child knowing not what it is at any moment but seeing always the person that it will Become . . .”
The lovely though fierce Maya Deren was not only capable of being a personification of Erzulie, but was also told by her mambo that she had a warrior spirit in her as well. Once, she was invited to administer Voodoo Rites and lay on a Reception for the Wedding of a Haitian dancer, but as the day progressed Deren became increasingly angry that the loa were not being properly honoured. Jane Brakhage Wodening – at the time the wife of Deren’s fellow experimental film-maker, Stan Brakhage – describes what happened:
“And so, when all the people were gathered at the Recepetion, Maya Deren became possessed by the voodoo god Papa Loco. She went into the kitchen and she started to roar and she picked up the refrigerator that weighed several hundred pounds and she threw it across the kitchen.”
Luckily, some members of the Wedding party who understood voodoo carried Maya upstairs to her room and stayed with her, where she sat rolling her head from side to side and roaring:
“She asked for rum to be brought and set aflame . . .
“Stan went up to Maya’s room and she was sitting up in her bed and rolling her head and roaring. The other people there, Haitians, were caring for her and not afraid because they knew it was Papa Loco. And the rum was burning with blue flames in a bowl beside the bed and Maya put her hands into the bowl of blue flames and flung them all over Stan . . . and blessed him in the name of Papa Loco.”
Arguably, this tremendous drive helped her to get her work done – often against the odds – but undoubtedly contributed to her early burn-out.
Maya Deren died in 1961, at the age of 44, from a brain haemorrhage.
According to Mark Alice Durant, writing in a special feature for the film & photography magazine, Aperture, No. 195, in Summer 2009, Deren might not have adjusted very well to the changing times of newly-emerging underground film that she herself had unwittingly helped to create:
“As the 1950s wore on, the taste for Deren’s careful, literary, Old World aesthetic was overshadowed by less formal approaches to experimental film, such as the irreverent Pull My Daisy (1959) by Robert Frank, Alfred Leslie, and Jack Kerouac. Such films were anathema to Deren’s work. In both words and pictures, she did not indulge in casual spontaneity; it is as if, to borrow her phrase, she choreographed her life for camera.”
Luckily, we at least have the legacy she left behind of films, field recordings, and her marvellous book, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti.
The Voodoo Gods – Paladin paperback edition (1975, U.K.) of Deren’s The Divine Horsemen
THE LEGACY OF MAYA DEREN :
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) – with Alexander Hammid.
At Land (1944) – with Hella Heyman, Parker Tyler, Philip Lamantia, Gregory Bateson, John Cage, Alvin Lustig, and Alexander Hammid.
A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945) – with Talley Beatty.
Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) – with Rita Christiani, Frank Westbrook, Hell, and Gore Vidal.
Meditation on Violence (1948) – with Chao-Li Chi, music by Teijo Itō.
The Very Eye of Night (1958) – in collaboration with Metropolitan Opera Ballet School, music by Teijo Itō.
Stills from various films by Maya Deren
Among the archives of the New York Film-Maker’s Co-Op, lovingly preserved by Jonas Mekas, there are also a number of short, unfinished works, such as Witch’s Cradle made with Marcel Duchamp in 1943, the touching 1947 home-movie with Sasha Hammid, The Private Life of a Cat, as well as lost and unfinished fragments such as Medusa (1949), Ensemble for Somnambulists (1951), as well as something called “Lascivious Folk Ballet” – apparently the only surviving sequence from a project entitled Ritual & Ordeal, which is notable if only for the fact we get to hear Maya sing, in her smokey, late-night, husky voice, a kind of proto-Blues Rock, whose lyrics run:
“I got stones in my head,
I got pebbles in my bed,
In my head they rattle,
In my head they pound,
Cant ya hear ’em ?
Stones . . .
In addition, she also released an LP of the wire-recordings she had made during various ceremonials while travelling in Haiti, and of course there were the many, many hours of footage she had recorded during her numerous visits over 18 months – mostly funded by the Guggenheim Foundation. These were eventually edited together from Deren’s extensive notes by her former husband, the composer Teijo Itō and his new wife, Cherel Winett Itō, with considerable financial assistance from Deren’s close friend, the wealthy philanthropist and poet, James Merrill.
NB: A free and legal version of both sides of this album, converted to mp3 form, and with the excerpted liner-notes from the cover, is currently available as part of the excellent U B U W E B : S O U N D online archive here :
Maya Deren’s sleeping quarters in Haiti, c.1947-1952
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: