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 !
A smell to drive out even evil spirits . . .
Asafoetida is a perennial herb that grows in the deserts of Iran and the mountains of Afghanistan, but is mainly cultivated in neighbouring India. It is also known as asant, food of the gods, giant fennel, jowani badian, stinking gum, Devil’s dung, hing, kayam and ting. It has a very strong smell (hence the ‘foetid’) but it contributes a lovely smooth flavour to certain, especially Indian dishes.
It also has other properties:
One is medicinal – it’s known to be beneficial against indigestion and flatulence, it helps with influenza, and is a remedy for asthma and bronchitis, to name a few.
Below: the plant, Ferula assa-foetida, in full bloom
It has occult uses as well:
It repels spirits and is used in magic spells. The devil’s dung is one of its names. In Graeco-Egyptian Magical practice, the Magician would have it at hand to help drive out spirits when necessary.
Leonora Carrington, at age nineteen, while still studying at the Amédée Ozenfant Academy in London, had already started to explore the inner world of her imagination and its ‘hypnagogic’ vision – that state where consciousness and unconsciousness merge. When she met Max Ernst, 26 years her senior, and came into contact with Surrealism, she felt, not surprisingly, an immediate kinship.
Max Ernst & Leonora Carrington, Lee Miller in the foreground – photo by Man Ray.
In her Introduction to Leonora Carrington’s collection of short stories, The Seventh Horse and Other Tales, Marina Warner writes that the predominantly male Surrealists were enchanted by the combination of youth and aura of ‘knowingness’ Carrington carried about her. Warner then provocatively states that they – Breton, Eluard, Ernst, and others – cast her as “a kind of hierodule – a holy and erotic nymph who uniquely knew by instinct certain delinquent mysteries which old men – or older men – could not reach without her help.” Warner goes on to say that, in spite of its ‘exactions’ (which are reflected in the stories of 1937 to 1940), its calling was not unappealing to her. With her background – had she not, for instance, like a Henry James heroine, been ‘finished’ at Miss Penrose’s Academy in Florence? – was she not already practiced playing the role? How much was she playing along? It is a somewhat troubling question, and the photo above illustrates this.
After Carrington’s ordeal in Spain (which she writes about in Down Below), she made her way to Lisbon and married Mexican diplomat, Renato Leduc, who had also been one of Picasso’s bullfighting cronies. At the time Peggy Guggenheim came to the rescue of many of the Surrealists who were stranded in Marseilles. Included among them was Max Ernst, with whom Guggenheim had fallen in love and would marry. She later wrote how, after her terrifying adventure in Spain, Renato Leduc looked after Carrington “like a father,” unlike Ernst who “was always like a baby and couldn’t be anyone’s father” – even when “carrying out his genital responsibilities elsewhere” (Leonora’s words.) By then Carrington was no longer susceptible to Ernst’s charms. It is difficult not to notice the subtle ironies in these words, when looking back to the days when Leonora played the child-like erotic nymph to the ‘mature man’ Max Ernst was at the time.
The young Leonora Carrington
Some Thoughts on
Stephen Skinner’s Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic
(Golden Hoard Press, 2014)
Firstly, despite what might be inferred from the title, this is not a practical handbook of magic in its own right, and certainly not a replacement for the Papyri Graecae Magicae – indeed, how much you get out of this book will be in direct relation to your familiarity with the source material, and you really will need to read it side-by-side with a copy of Hans Dieter Betz’s The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation for maximum benefit and effect.
We are told in the Acknowledgments at the start of the book that Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic derives from one-third of the University of Newcastle thesis for which Dr. Skinner received his PhD. This – and the fact that the book is not in a limited edition of six hundred and sixty six copies, printed with bat’s blood and bound in toad-skin, or suchlike – should immediately alert us to the fact that this is not another one of those copy-paste would-be ‘grimoires’ but is, in fact, a serious piece of academic work. It is, nonetheless, also a fine volume: a large format hardback of getting on for nearly 400 pages, with a sewn-in red ribbon bookmark, stitched binding, and a handsome dust-jacket [see illustration] – and for the real book fetishists, there was a leather-bound edition of 100 copies, but it is no great surprise to read that this has already Sold Out.
So, what of the contents of the book?
In Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic, Stephen Skinner brings a great deal of clarity to the mysteries of the PGM, which, at first glance – even in the English translation of Betz & co – can appear confused and confusing.
Skinner begins by offering some definitions of just what he means by magic and magician, his assertion being bold and original enough to warrant quoting in full:
By using the term ‘magician’ there is no implied or overt claim for special powers on the part of the practitioner, simply an assertion that the people so designated were practitioners of magical techniques. Just as the terms ‘carpenter’ or ‘priest’ define a trade or a profession, rather than a claim to special skill or special sanctity. (p.14)
He then argues for the consistency and transmission of specific identifiable techniques, nomina magica, and implements – and that the PGM, not some unknown Hebrew antecedents, are the true source of the Solomonic magical tradition, medieval grimoires, and later European magic in general. Also, that despite the corpus being more commonly known as the Greek Magical Papyri, Dr. Skinner is quite emphatic that the roots of the material are in Dynastic Egypt.
What Stephen Skinner puts forward that really helps to open up the PGM is a system of categorisation based on certain key head-words in the original, thereby ordering the material beyond the sometimes haphazard sequencing of the physical texts. Here he does an excellent job of trying to restore the precision and discrimination of the Greek and Demotic, showing that much of the confusion has arisen via the generalities of previous translations: for example, where numerous different and often quite wide-ranging terms for phylacteries or even magical procedures have been simply glossed as “amulet” or “spell.” Instead, Skinner categorises the texts according to common approaches or elements: gods invoked, materials and methods employed, words of power used. There has been a painstaking examination of such names, terms, and words, resulting in numerous tables throughout the book that present indexing and cross-referencing of the material in a clear, easy-to-follow, form.
In addition to a careful examination of the various aspects and constituents of the magic of the Papyri – from angels, daimons and demons, to gods and spirits, incense and inks, perfume, rings and robes, to wands, weapons, and words of power – Dr. Skinner raises numerous points of interest:
- Within the PGM, there is hardly any mention of or allusion to the use of a protective circle, with one or two notable exceptions – phylacteries are more often specified – but we should not conclude from this that the Magician did not habitually use such a powerful and effective protection. Skinner argues that the circle was so well-known that its use was implicit, and gives a close examination of an example (PGM VII. 846-61) – which he says “has a strong Egyptian flavour with no admixture of Greek words or gods, suggesting an early usage” – in support of this.
- The acquisition of a paredros or magical assistant, a modus operandi which has long been part of the professional magician’s repertoire, perhaps comparable to the “witch’s familiar” in the popular imagination. The paredros can range from the angelic to the demonic, and when ‘tamed’, serves as a helper and mediator between the magician and the spirit-world. Skinner inspects its origins and workings, and cites some fascinating examples.
- Judeo-Christianity viewed magic as a genuine threat, so its prohibition prevented the development of an adequate dialogue between magic and religion. There has been a serious misapprehension of the relationship between the two. They are not oppositional, there is no dichotomy between them, and the controversy that has long simmered among scholars (even to the point of being judged ‘unsolvable’) has been caused by a ‘missing third’: the Mystery religions, of which we no longer have the experience. As Skinner says: “they do not exist anymore in any form in any Western culture.” And even historical accounts are very hard to find: by the very private, and largely secret, nature of the rites, initiates would not reveal proceedings, and to have any testimony at all is rare indeed.
- Skinner excavates and then examines three self-contained texts which belong to neither magic nor religion, and supports his conclusion that they are a Mystery rite, or part thereof. They were once separate books, before they were copied into the papyri by the magician who owned them. It is probable that such magicians, particularly if they were Neoplatonically inclined, would themselves have been initiated into the Mysteries. They would have considered their work theurgia, “divine work”. They concerned themselves with “purifying and raising the consciousness of the individual practitioner to the point where they could have direct communion with the gods.” A case in point: the so-called Mithras Liturgy, which Skinner asserts is neither a liturgy nor particularly Mithraic. Instead, he proposes that it is, in fact, part of a Mystery rite, and puts forward some crucial criteria that it answers to be so: for instance, the language indicates it is not meant to be performed in public, but that the occasion is a private one; the range of entities addressed is limited; and, rather than some worldly desire, the primary benefit is immortality requested by a father for his only daughter.
- A straightforward explanation of the code-of-concealment is given that clarifies the true nature of many of the more obscure ingredients and “magic materials” that recur throughout the PGM, with handy tables revealing, for example, that the blood and semen of various gods called for are, in fact, the juice or sap of plants such as dill, house leek, or wild lettuce, or that the testicles of a dog or a fox are actually types of orchid (but apparently “semen of a lion” is actually human semen.)
- We should not be misled by the presence of apparently Jewish and even Christian material: the magicians of the PGM would appeal to any power or include any technique that they thought might work, including calling on the names of foreign gods or even foreign wise men if they were famous for having commanded gods or demons, or worked miracles. Even the relative newcomer, Jesus, was called upon in some of the later material – but this is really just a reflection of the increasing cultural diversity of the world and client-base that the magicians both drew on and sought to serve. Unlike so much of the material that has come down to us on Gnosticism, which is largely pejorative because it was written by orthodox critics condemning the Gnostics as heretics, the material of the PGM was written by practitioners, for practitioners.
- In the world of the PGM, the magician does not cower before the spiritual beings he conjures, but stands before them with dignity, even if sometimes this amounts to little more than a kind of “dressing to impress” with the magician putting on the trappings of power and authority. The notion of coercing the gods – or even threatening them – is no doubt the origin of the practice of “constraining the spirits” in the later grimoires.
- The chapter on Necromancy (Dealing with the Dead or Divination by the Dead) provides some absorbing insights into its long-standing fascination, surviving from Dynastic Egypt through Classical Greek and Hellenic times, to the Present Day. As Hans Dieter Betz wrote, with the exception of the Mystery Rites, most of what is in the PGM deals with “negotiations in the antechamber of death and the world of the dead. The underworld deities, the demons and the spirits of the dead, are constantly and unscrupulously invoked and exploited as the most important means for achieving the goals of human life on earth.”
Stephen Skinner makes it abundantly clear that the material contained in the Graeco-Egyptian Magical Papyri is not for beginners, that there is little here for the dabbler or dilettante. Likewise, Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic is not a book for the casual reader or the armchair occultist, but for the serious student who is prepared to really engage, get to grips with the material, and work it.
In The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Hans Dieter Betz relates how the German Classical philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff remarked “I once heard a well-known scholar complain that these papyri were found because they deprived antiquity of the noble splendor of classicism.” Ironically, Betz neglected to report that Wilamowitz-Moellendorff went on to add: “That they did so is unquestionable, but I am glad for that. I do not want to admire my Greeks but understand them, so that I can judge them fairly.” We would have to agree with him, and insist that time has proved his unnamed colleague wrong. If anything, the spells, hymns and formulae of the PGM, with all their strange and sometimes barbaric beauty, their splendid and unsettling power, provide an invaluable adjunct to our understanding – adding the shade to complement the light, if you like – and furnishing us with a more fully rounded, more truly three-dimensional understanding of the lives and loves, hopes and fears, of the peoples of Antiquity.
In Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic, Stephen Skinner has provided an equally invaluable key to unlock the magic of that world.
Emma Doeve & Matthew Levi Stevens, November 2014.
Stephen Skinner’s Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic is Available Now from The Golden Hoard Press. For more details, please see their website: http://www.goldenhoard.net/