Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Three books With The Word "Magus" in the Title: Part II: The Magus (A Different One)

Part II: The Magus, or Celestial Intelligencer, by Francis Barrett.

Subtitled A Complete System of Occult Philosophy, this one is not a novel. I got this one in a used-book shop in our local library for $1, which was a bargain. Hey, it's a Complete System of Occult Philosophy! For a buck!

This one fascinated me and I read it with thorough enjoyment. If you don't enjoy reading about how to make the Philosopher's Stone out of those things from toads heads and piles of dung, or how to conjure Saturday's demons, and more specifically if you don't like Neil Stephenson, then it's probably not a book for you.

My edition is a reprint with an awesomely sixties-colored cover, a sort of avocado green. It's in that familiar style of facsimile reprints that Dover uses – I can't remember what it's called – but this one was published by University Books in 1967. It is not the same edition as the Amazon one above in the link. This one doesn't have f's for s's and is consequently much easier on the eyes. Francis Barrett published the original in 1801.

The table of contents gives three books inside as The Science of Natural Magic, which includes Alchymy; Talismanic Magic, or the Constellatory Practice; and Magnetism, including Cabalistical or Ceremonial Magic. There's no resetting the page numbers between the first part and the second part, and the front cover only mentions two books.

Natural Magic includes all the sorts of bollocks you'd expect, like how to use Hare's Fat to pull a thorn, or the explanation that the hairs of a menstruous woman, put under dung, will breed serpents.

Talismanic Magic discusses the stars and their correspondences, like the numbers and colors associated with them. It also gives the method of deriving the magickal seals (talismans) themselves from number tables (which it gives) and wraps it up very prettily with descriptions. There are a lot of illustrations.

Magnetism and Cabalistic Magic describes what most of us Dennis Wheatley/Hammer Horror fans think of as magic, or Magick – how to conjure things like familiar spirits using circles, pentacles, and swords. (And how to get rid of them again.) In order to get there, it has a great digression into the Cabala. Assuming you've done all that – learned Hebrew, studied the Cabala figured out all these relationships, learned the names of God and the angels and memorized all the other ancillary information, you're ready to start fasting, purifying, meditating and finally to do some magick. The illos here are very nice too, including some drawings of demons that look like ordinary people down the pub, except with more bat-wings than average. There's a couple of cautionary tales in here about what happens if you don't get this correct, and I particularly liked the story of the guy who summoned something in someone else's house and got killed. When the others returned, wanting to destroy the evidence, they made the hapless spirit animate the dead man's body and walk it a long distance away and leave it there. Clever, I thought. Barrett says it most likely isn't true.

Reviews on Amazon from people who may or may not know what they are talking about suggest that you should skip this, as it is a rip-off of Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy. Unless you find that in a library book sale instead, I wouldn't. It's $26 from Amazon. Mind you, that in itself is fascinating, since this was genuinely occult (i.e. hidden) knowledge not long ago. Now you can order it with 1-Click®. Another work they recommend is Crowley's 777, if you're going to study Cabala; that's on the shelf next to this and so I can reveal it doesn't have such pretty illustrations. It's more likely to be accurate, though, as Crowley really did believe in experimentation, whereas I suspect Barrett believed everything he was told.

What is most appealing about The Magus is the era in which it was put together. 1801 was a little late for studying Hebrew simply because it is the language of God and mankind before the fall and therefore contains all truths, or for assuming that the planets are running on some sort of cosmic roller-coaster track. The foreword puts this down to the Gothic revival sweeping Britain at the time, when all things medieval seemed so much more true and fundamental than things which were scientific. The practical Scotsmen, northerners and Cornishmen building iron bridges and railways and heavier-than-water ships at that time must have produced quite a backlash; I suppose they should be proud of themselves. We see this denial also in the Gothic novels such as Frankenstein so popular at that time, and work of the romantic poets.

The difference between the type of man who can look, without irony, for stones in toads' heads, and the type of man who uses experimentation and seeks out "a complete system" like some premature ISO standards board, is normally so great that Barrett's book is an exercise in cognitive dissonance. In fact, it reads like a modern Steampunk work, or more precisely, like the postcyberpunk novels of Neil Stephenson. As you may recall, Stephenson's early book Snow Crash was about computer viruses and Sumerian gods; A Diamond Age was a Victorian novel featuring nanotechnology. Although I have never actually managed to get more than 100 pages into any of Stephenson's subsequent doorstoppers, I have read enough to know that entire paragraphs of them are not dissimilar from this book.

See if you can tell which is which:

"So, when you think about the spoon, is your mind manipulating the spoon?"
"No. The spoon is unaffected, no matter what I think about it."
"Because our minds cannot manipulate physical objects – cup, saucer, spoon – instead they manipulate symbols of them, which are stored in the mind…now, you yourself helped Lord Chester devise the Philosophical Language, whose chief virtue is that it assigns all things in the world positions in certain tables – positions that can be encoded by numbers." (…)
"Suppose the number three represents a chicken, and the number twelve the rings of Saturn – what then is three times twelve?"
"Well, you can't just do it at random," Liebnitz said.

"The doctrines of mathematics are so necessary to and have such an affinity with magic, that they who profess it without them are quite out of the way …. For whatsoever things are, and are done in these inferior natural virtues, are all done and governed by number, weight, measure, harmony, motion and light, and all things which we see in these inferiors have root and foundation in them. … So there are made glasses (some concave, others of the form of a column) making the representations of things in the air seem like shadows at a distance."

Well, obviously the one with the funny multilayered science joke and the direct speech is Neil Stephenson (from Quicksilver). The one with the angels is Barrett. But they're drawing water from the same well. Stephenson is making wine with his water, and Barrett is spreading cholera with his.

If you can find it for a buck, here's your magus for your bookshelf, right here.

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