In the issue of Hermetic Tablet (Summer 2015), Jake Stratton-Kent has published an essay entitled, “The Other Magicians and the Goetia,” (adapted from an Internet post simply called, “The Other Magicians”), and I am about to spoil the hell out of it. It’s not that I want to steal Jake’s thunder, but I think this is a topic that needs discussion, and I’m not against shining my own spotlight upon it—especially since the subject matter has become rather important to my own path. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself, so let me begin with a bit of explanation.
When modern students look at the most popular texts of classical Western occultism—such as the Key of Solomon, Lemegeton, The Book of Abramelin, Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, etc,—we often come away with the impression that they represent how magick was done at the time. However, we can easily forget a rather simple fact: the medieval/Renaissance European grimoires only reflect how one specific group of occultists did their work.
I talk about this at length in Secrets of the Magickal Grimoires, where I discuss the origin of the Solomonic tradition among a class of clerical exorcists. Without a doubt, the methods of spirit conjuration outlined in the Solomonic texts reflect this origin: the view of all chthonic and nature spirits as “evil,” the imperious and arrogant manner in which the spirits are addressed, and the harsh methods used to force the spirits’ compliance—all of this arises from a culture of people who spent their days casting out truly demonic entities of sickness and ill-fortune from their clients.
Yet, the grimoires themselves have given us clues that this was not the only method of working with spirits—perhaps not even the predominant one. These clues reside in the condemnations the grimoires often make about… well… other grimoires. It would seem that each Solomonic mystic was convinced he was the real deal, truly connected to God and doing holy work, while “everyone else” was just engaging in diabolical enchantments. Here are a few examples:
- “All the books which treat of characters, extravagant figures, circles, convocations, conjurations, invocations, and other like matters, even although any one may see some effect thereby, should be rejected, being works full of diabolical inventions. …and which be truly the inventions of the devil and of wicked men.” [Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, Book II, Chapter 4: That the greater number of magical books are false and vain.]
- “There be certain little terrestrial spirits that are simply detestable; sorcerers and necromantic magicians generally avail themselves of their services, for they operate only for evil, and in wicked and pernicious things, and they be of no use soever.” [Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, Book III: Essential remarks upon the foregoing symbols.]
- “No man is ignorant that evil spirits, by evil and profane Arts may be raised up as Psellus saith Sorcerers are wont to do, whom most detestable and abominable filthiness did follow, and accompany, such as were in times past in the sacrifices of Priapus, and in the worship of the Idol which was called Panor, to whom they did sacrifice with their privy members uncovered. Neither to these is that unlike (if it be true, and not a fable) which is read concerning the detestable heresy of old Church-men, and like to these are manifest in Witches and mischievous women, which wickednesses the foolish dotage of women is subject to fall into. By these, and such as these evil spirits are raised.” [Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Book I, Chapter 39: That we may by some certain matters of the world stir up the Gods of the world, and their ministering spirits.]
- “Berith is a great and terrible Duke, and hath three names. Of some he is called Beall; of the Jews Berith; of Necromancers Bolfry…” [The Goetia of Solomon, Spirit #28]
- “There is extant amongst those Magicians (who do most use the ministry of evil spirits) a certain Rite of invocating spirits by a Book to be consecrated before to that purpose.” [The Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy, Liber Spirituum: a Book of Spirits]
As I stated above, these passages can make it appear as if each author was merely repudiating all of the other grimoires besides his own. However, as Jake points out in his article, the truth is a bit more complex. If we take all of the above quotes together (and these are only a few examples!), we can see a common thread running through them: there was a specific group of “other magicians” out there. They are commonly called “sorcerers,” “necromancers,” and “witches,” and they are accused of employing evil and diabolical spirits to achieve their ends.
Now, if you follow my work and/or that of Jake Stratton Kent, you already have an idea where this is headed. The word “goetia” is not merely the title of a late Solomonic text, but is in fact the name of a very ancient spiritual tradition. It originated with ancient Greek shamans (called goen) who became famous for their funeral services and magickal work with chthonic deities. Later, when the Olympian cult arose, the ancient magick was dismissed as an ignorant and primitive practice. As often happens when one cult supersedes another, the goen were demonized even as their practices were plundered for the newly urbanized religions. Thus were the “Western Mysteries” truly born—epitomized in such schools as the Eleusinian Mysteries.
By the time we reach the European grimoires, we find evidence of the ancient goetic tradition dispersed throughout the texts. The ancient religion of the goen was long gone, yet their magickal practices persisted and those who engaged in them were still being demonized, now with the terms “Necromancer,” “Sorcerer,” and “Witch.” (By the time the Goetia of Solomon was written, the word “goetia” had come to mean “witchcraft”—or working directly with spirits.)
Given the effort taken by some authors to warn us away from them, we must assume these “other magicians” still existed in medieval Europe and were still doing their thing. Abraham the Jew, in the Book of Abramelin, gives us several anecdotes wherein he meets with these necromancers. A few of the grimoires, too, make no apologies for their goetic content: such as the Key of Solomon the King, the Grand Grimoire, Grimoirum Verum, the Goetia of Solomon, etc. Of course, all of the grimoires have elements of goetia woven into them—making the “non-sorcerous” texts look a hell of a lot like sorcery and thereby compelling their authors to loudly proclaim they “aren’t those guys.” In the grimoires, the goetic tradition is not a separate cult from the dogmatic Christian tradition, but is in fact a tradition hidden within the latter. One book (like the Key of Solomon) will freely tell us how to conduct rituals of necromancy, while another book will assure us such practices will mean the loss of our souls.
So what were the necromancers and sorcerers doing that so offended the Catholic exorcists? Check out the passage from the Three Books… I quoted previously (see here). Therein, Agrippa reveals the mystery: the sorcerers were engaging in the same kind of “detestable and abominable filthiness” as Pagans worshiping Gods like Priapus and the Idol of Panor. That’s right! What makes goetia “evil” is the simple fact that it utilizes ancient Pagan methods of honoring the spirits, rather than treating them like infernal garbage as would a Catholic Exorcist. It is really nothing more than yet another example of the religious intolerance that characterized much of the Roman Catholic empire. It was evil only because it was Pagan.
Rather than brow-beating the spirits and threatening them with torture and hellfire if they do not comply, goetia erects altars to them, feeds them with offerings, and enters into mutually-beneficial pacts with them. Where the later Solomonic magician approaches the spirits to conquer and rein over them, older methods called for establishing lifelong friendships with the forces of nature. And, of course, goetia does not conflate “chthonic” with “infernal”—and thereby does not classify all spirits of nature, Pagan deities, etc. as demonic.
Jake Stratton-Kent gives some great examples of this dichotomy in the grimoires themselves. For example, the Grimoire of Pope Honorius (Wellcome MS 4666) explains that the magician may conjure Leviathan after struggling with him—using the strongest of prayers, a firm will, fearless heart, and a well-constructed magick circle for protection. Yet, the very same passage goes on to say witches, who make a pact with him, ride Leviathan to their sabbats. It doesn’t sound as if they struggle with him, and they sure don’t seem to require a protective circle. Why not? Because the witches honor the forces of nature and bond with them. They ride upon the winds, rather than attempt to defeat them. (Jake goes on to give further examples in his article. Don’t pass it up!)
Not only does this give us further proof that goetic magick was still in use at the time, it also indicates that the sorcerers and witches were finding it much easier to invoke the very same spirits. In fact, some of the grimoires make a point of this, such as the Book of Abramelin, which tells us several times that the spirits will dislike being ordered around like slaves, but will “fly with haste” to serve those who employ the proscribed methods. We are told such methods will work, and very well, but that we must never avail ourselves of them. Why? Because we aren’t dirty Pagans!
In The Key of Solomon the King, the two traditions seem to blend entirely together. Part of the book relates a typical Catholic exorcism-style evocation method—complete with brandished swords and daggers, curses, and threats of torture for disobedient spirits. Yet, later in the book, we find descriptions of setting up offering tables (it never goes so far as to use the word “altar”), calling spirits from books, and no hint of weapons or threats. Even a magickal circle is stated to be unnecessary unless the magician has some particular reason to fear the spirits he would summon to the table. Plus, The Key… does not shrink from giving us instructions to work with the dead, the spirits of nature, etc. without once declaring these practices “evil” or “abominable.”
Jake suggests in his piece that these “kinder, gentler” methods are in fact the older methods, the ones that can be traced back to primordial sources like the goen, the Picatrix, and the Greek Magical Papyri (all Pagan). The blades and curses only came into the picture later, after medieval Roman Church dogma had taken its toll. These are the folks who re-classified the entire underworld as “Hell” and all spirits of nature to be “evil demons.” As I have stated many times in the past, the grimoires present a befuddled and broken cosmology—clearly an ancient Pagan worldview with a dogmatic Christian overlay upon it. They don’t match up very well, and that is because we are in fact looking at two traditions competing for space in the same books.
Slowly but surely, modern occultists are re-evaluating our assumptions about “goetia.” Just a decade ago, the word was merely the title of a particular grimoire—an evil book that good magicians leave well alone. Now, we know it is in fact the name of an ancient spiritual tradition that underlies much of our Western mysteries.
I believe we are currently witnessing a goetic revival—and I do not mean among so-called “left-hand path” and “demonolatry” types who are mainly interested in sounding dark and scary, and typically know little about the spirits they claim to invoke. I’m talking about the community of Old Magick practitioners who are coming to understand the true role of chthonic entities in the grimoires. And we know that this tradition continued to live on, in one form or another, until the time of the Solomonic grimoires and (now) even until today.
Besides this, we are also coming to understand that goetia does not focus entirely upon the chthonic realm. For example, I work primarily with angels—yet I erect altars to them, give them food offerings, make pacts with them, and generally conduct myself toward them in the manner of a dirty, dirty Pagan.
That’s goetia. And Abraham the Jew was correct—it does work better.
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