The hand of God scatters demons flying over the Ile de la Cite. From the opening prayer of Vespers of Pentecost, Les Heures d’Etienne Chevalier, 1452-1460. Tempera and gold leaf on parchment.
In certain galleries of the British Museum, visitors are allowed to hold ancient artifacts with their own hands. This piece in my hand is an inscription in cuneiform from the 21st Century BCE Ziggurat of Ur. The Ziggurat, which still partially stands, was a temple complex dedicated to the Moon god Nanna (Sin). He was described as the father of all gods, and the “Lord of Wisdom”. The main sanctuary at Ur was called E-gish-shir-gal, “house of the great light”.
In some legends, Nanna begat the goddess Inanna (also known as Ishtar), who governed love and beauty and was associated with the planet Venus. She was called the “Queen of the Heaven”, and her religious influence has stretched into the present day: later known by the Phoenicians as Astarte, then to the Greeks as Aphrodite, all of whom share many similarities to the Virgin Mary of Christian worship (also a Queen of Heaven).
We are all heirs to great Mystery. None of our modern religions have ever stood on their own. They are built on the shoulders of giants, ever more ancient and nebulous because of the vast gulfs of time that stand between us and them. As I held this precious and unique artifact in my hands, I had a true sense of awe as I contemplated these ideas in my heart. To many of my friends, history is boring. I have always found that history is alive and we are surrounded and formed by it in every single way. Perhaps in another 4,000 years, this tablet will still be preserved next to artifacts from our own times, where other people will delicately hold them and wonder at what was…
My recent trip to London included many points of historical interest, especially the day I spent strolling through the British Museum. I had one object in mind, however, as I was searching through the Enlightenment Gallery, the magical shew-stone of John Dee. This piece of polished obsidian likely came to England after the exploits in Mexico of the conquistador Hernan Cortez.
Dr. John Dee (likely an inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero) was known across Europe both as the astrologer for Mary I and Elizabeth I, but also for his spirit work with the notorious Edward Kelley. Together they used their magical expertise to contact the Enochian spirits, whose language and alphabet Kelley scried and Dee transcribed. The Enochian language is said to contain great power and its full meaning remains mysterious even today. Still over the centuries many great magicians used Enochian magic in their work: Crowley, Mathers, and even Anton LaVey.
To look into this same mirror with my own eyes, to see my own reflection looking back through it, was a profound moment in my own life as a student and historian of magic–also as a disciple of John Dee!
Facsimile of a fresco by Traini, exposed to nature for centuries but severely damaged in WWII, located in Camposanto, Pisa.
“A scroll warns that ‘no shield of wisdom or riches, nobility or prowess’ can protect them from the blows of the Approaching One. ‘They have taken more pleasure in the world than in things of God.’ In a heap of corpses nearby lie crowned rulers, a Pope in tiara, a knight, tumbled together with the bodies of the poor, while angels and devils in the sky contend for the miniature naked figures that represent their souls.”
-Barbara Tuckman, The Black Plague
Detail from the Offices for the Week, compiled by Andrea Matteo Acquaviva (1458-1529), Duke of Atri. This manuscript is delicately ornamented with Italian red morocco and gilt throughout. Currently property of the Huntington Library. View it in full detail here.
Reverend Adam Campbell and Satanist Stephen Staniszewski discuss historic points on the magical use of familiar spirits, as well as their application in modern Satanism and popular magic.
In The Witches’ Ointment: The Secret History of Psychedelic Magic, Thomas Hatsis takes you on a roller coaster ride through history in search for the mysterious origins of the legend of the witches’ flying ointment. Through story telling and by using primary historical sources, Hatsis presents the way in which the village healers and folk medicine practitioners of the Middle Ages became the most hated and feared of creatures to Christian Europe–witches! This book explores the historical use of psychoactive substances in both medicine and magic, and sheds much light on the Inquisitors who reacted to these practices with fear. Thomas Hatsis’ academic work, shown expertly in this book, is truly, truly impressive. Did he find the fabled recipe for magical flight? You will have to read to find out!