Friday, September 25, 2009

Reviewing the Reviewer - Another Clueless Article from the Esoteric Review

Review of Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick - Grimoire - by Nina Lazarus

Back in the Spring of this year, my first book in the series “Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick” received an unwarranted and blistering review that fully demonstrated how ignorant the reviewer was of general occult principles and of ritual magick specifically. I was reviled for producing a book that did not attempt to explain all of the details of the techniques of ritual magick, even though the book was thoroughly promoted as being an intermediate level book that was not for beginners. This was stipulated on the back of the book cover, in the title itself, and the introduction. The basic understanding of who the book was written for, and what it should contain was completely missed by the reviewer, so one had to assume that the real issue was the reviewer and not the book.

That being said, it’s now several months later and the next book in this series has been released. Yet another poor review has burbled up from the yawning pit of the Esoteric Review. Although this reviewer seems to have at least looked over the book and attempted to analyze its contents with some degree of intelligence, the basic message of the book, printed plainly on the back cover and throughout has been missed. This book contains the rituals that go with the series, which is why it is called “grimoire”, but these rituals are to be rewritten and developed into a personal system of ritual magick. In fact that is the whole purpose of the series, also stated now in both published volumes. This is what’s on the back of the book:

“Building upon the work begun in Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick: Foundation, this book contains nine rituals that are core to this system of magick. These rituals are customizable to work with a variety of pantheons for the purpose of building a personal system of magick for solitaires, groups or combinations thereof. “

Also, in the introduction of the book:

“Few books contain rituals to customize and re-write, show how to group rituals together to form workings, or even build up a complete discipline of practical ritual magick. This book used in combination with the first, does that and much more.”

And also, this quote:

“As you look over the rituals in the grimoire, you will see that I have deliberately left blanks, inserted boiler plate examples and left omissions in the text so you will be able to fill in the blanks and build your own personalized rituals.”

So based on these examples, one would expect to find rather rudimentary examples of ritual text (speaking parts) and other mechanisms to fill out what are actually just examples of ritual, not completed nor fully developed ones. This is why there are blanks for the various god names and other defined ritual parts. What’s important are the ritual structures themselves, not the actual speaking parts. These are to be customized by the student using this series to build their own system of ritual magick. A simple examination of any of the rituals will allow one to easily determine that they are incomplete and require development.

Yet based on Nina’s critique of the book, there is no mention of this fact whatsoever. So despite writing this explanation in several parts of the book, including the back (which she dryly comments on), the reviewer doesn’t comprehend the purpose of the book. That should in and of itself disqualify the reviewer and the review, but there is unfortunately much more to read and puzzle over.

In the first paragraph of the review Nina states that “The subtitle of the book is somewhat misleading, as the use of the term grimoire here is indicative of the current trend to use the word to somehow validate books as being more genuine or of greater provenance, when they are in fact completely unrelated to the Medieval and Renaissance grimoires, which form a distinct tradition of their own.”

Of course the dictionary defines grimoire as a book containing a collection of spells, incantations and rituals, and since this book is intimately associated with the “Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick” series, one would not associate it with the old grimoires of the Medieval and early Renaissance periods. It’s just a book containing a collection of rituals and spells, so perhaps the more simpler explanation should suffice. Nina is looking for reasons to judge this book harshly, and one can see this also in the first paragraph, where she says:

The back cover of this book informs us that Frater Barabbas has almost four decades of practical experience of the occult arts. I therefore assume that he is in his fifties, as anyone claiming to practice magick seriously before the age of twelve or thirteen in my experience is usually a deluded fantasist. ”

If one were being generous, then the correct assumption is that the author is in his mid fifties, which is correct. To also state that most claims of a lifetime’s worth of experience are the mark of a deluded fantasist is to imply that I am somehow deluded and fantasizing my role as a ritual magician of some experience and knowledge. It’s an implied ad hominem attack on me, setting up the review for a systematic demolishing of what has been judged as an adequate book on ritual magick by other more objective reviewers. So if the title of my book is poorly chosen and my claims of being a magician for 35 years the raving of a lunatic, then the contents of the book must be easily dismissed as just more occult rubbish.

Then she examines each of the nine rituals, looking to judge them as interesting, unique or just more of the same (wicca 101 or ceremonial magick 101). She gives the readers a clue as to how she views magick with the comment:

“The latter includes the words “to manifest and appear” for the summoned watchtower guardians, which seems incredibly optimistic. Then four emissaries of the deity are invoked, which seems somewhat superfluous, not to mention a little crowded! Why do people always assume that spiritual beings want to come and watch their rituals anyway when they offer no incentive for them to do so, but I digress. ”

The text for summoning whatever the student has finally chosen as occupying the four Watchtowers is loosely based on what one would anticipate in a ritual used to summon something. I would expect this verbiage to be completely replaced with whatever the student has decided is more relevant. So a critique of the specific language used is sort of misplaced - since the important part is the pattern and not the actual ritual language. She fails to notice that the circle is being squared, adding a unique layer to the circle consecration rite, and this is where the four emissaries are invoked - becoming the sides of the square. A circle squared is an important factor in a ritual based on energy - it produces a charge. She also doesn’t seem to realize that the watchtower guardians and the emissaries are not named - gee, I wonder why?

The whole basis for this system of magick is two-fold - it uses the energy theory of magick, and as a methodology of ritual magick, it requires the assumption of the godhead. In fact the personal godhead of the magician is also directly connected to the magician’s magickal persona and the four emissaries. So the mere process of assuming that persona implies an indirect connection to the deity, which is why the magician may summon the associated spirit guardians of the Watchtowers and the four emissaries without being presumptuous or overly optimistic. This system of magick was rigorously defined in the first book and repeated in the second as well.

The scope of this system is pretty well defined in the book, and I quote it here:

“A magician must have a material base of operations, and therefore, he or she must satisfy basic needs before considering more lofty or exalted pursuits. However, a successful material life is not the end goal of this system of ritual magick. It is the beginning.

I believe working ritual magick to gain an edge in the material world is always the place where a magickal discipline has its base. “

From these two statements, one would expect that this system of magick would focus on a material based magick that would be used to assist one in bettering their material situation. This is not a system of theurgy nor is it a system that uses spirits in its workings. It is a simple system of magick with some moderately complex parts and it is fully modular, meaning that one can use the nine rituals to formulate ritual workings and develop a magickal and spiritual discipline.

Then we come to Nina’s critique of the Grove Consecration ritual, and she says this bit about the blessing and consecrating the sacraments through the agency of the magician’s godhead (unnamed, of course).

“Then we come to the consecration of the magick grove. This was of similar ilk, however summoning the spirits of the elements into the cakes, oil, milk and honey and wine, and then burying them in the earth and putting a stone over them is not in my opinion a very smart move. Other elemental spirits will know you are the one who trapped their compatriots and have no desire to help you with anything – why should they?”

Let’s look at the blessing of the wine as an example. The magician first blesses the wine using this boiler plate blessing:

I bless this Wine as the Spiritual Blood of the Great Mother, the Earth. In the Name(s) of [Deity(s) Name].”

Notice the word “as”, because it is an important key in the magickal sentence. So this looks like a typical blessing in the name of some deity.

Then there is the follow up exhortation, which Nina finds so objectionable.

I summon the Spirits of Fire, as the Liberating Power of Wine. ”

Once again the word “as” is being used. This use of the word “as” in both cases is a kind of simile, and not to be confused with an equivalency. Anyone taking English 101 in college would be able to parse the difference between “is” and “as”, since it is used extensively in poetry, religion and in ritual and ceremonial magick.

What is happening here is that the sacraments are being blessed and consecrated by the godhead and the sacred element. Then part of the sacraments that are blessed and consecrated are given back to the earth from whence they came, and the rest is consecrated again in the Assumption of the Grail Spirit rite, if it were performed as part of the outdoor grove working. There is no mention that these sacraments are imbued with spirits, just blessed and consecrated by the powers of the godhead and the sacred elements. Yet Nina somehow thinks that by doing this, one is forcing element spirits into the sacraments and then dumping and trapping them into the earth - such a rude and mean thing to do! All I can say to this comment of hers is that she knows nothing about the simple art of blessing and consecrating sacraments, or what they become after they are so blessed. To restore some of them to the earth is to feed it, since the Grove is the earth, and it is alive! This is a very proper and pagan oblation.

Nina then goes on to the Pyramid of Power rite, which she dismisses as derivative, even though there isn’t anything else in print that is quite like it, but that doesn’t seem to matter. She has this to say about the “Mantle of Glory” which is a simple and abbreviated method of self crossing.

“The Pyramid of Power contains the first occurrence of the “Mantle of Glory”, which is a straightforward derivation of the Qabalistic Cross, minus the visualisations [sic] which actually empower it. ”

She assumes that this ritual action is from the Golden Dawn ritual, the Qabbalistic Cross, gutted of its more effective parts and ineffectively pasted into the rite. Yet this is not where this ritual action comes from, it’s actually distilled from the Alexandrian version of the “Drawing Down the Moon” rite. It’s also done in the middle of a complex set of ritual actions (the ritual climax), so developing it more fully (as is the case in the Qabbalistic Cross) would detract from the actual flow of the ritual. But this is not important to Nina. Copying things exactly is more important than properly integrating important ritual actions into the flow of a ritual. Since Nina didn’t bother to experiment with this ritual and try to use the full blown Qabbalistic Cross at that point, she wouldn’t know that it’s too cumbersome to be so accommodated.

She also complains that I didn’t adequately describe the “Osiris position”, but of course, this pose is described in the first book, which Nina didn’t bother to read. And she compares the Rose Ankh vortex rite to fantasy role playing, missing that there is a specific operation in that rite that works with energy fields and pulls them together in a unique manner. If I had made as many mistakes in my book as Nina has made in her critique, then the book would never have been published, at least not by Megalithica Books.

The icing on the cake of this poor review is where Nina pokes holes in the spirit attributes of the Qualified Powers of Air. I admit that I used my own system to create a nomenclature for the angelic level names for the ten attributes of the Deity, and I did not draw much from traditional sources to craft this list. Yet it works and it’s functional, and the bottom line is that the tradition that Nina uses to critique it is based on only one of several different systems in use over the last thousand years or more. Since these are just attributes and overly simplified, one could perhaps let this slide, especially if the angels are not being used for theurgy nor in anyway invoked. This is probably one area where I should have stuck to the books, since it was certainly going to bother someone out there who is a purist, although, as I have stated there are several systems of determining angels and sephiroth, and I have added one more. Here is Nina’s exact words on the subject:

“Unfortunately the author’s knowledge of Qabalah seems somewhat rudimentary, and when I reached his attributions of the angels this was made very clear. He has mixed the traditional grimoire orders of angels with the Qabalistic ones, resulting in some bizarre attributions and the introduction of new orders of angels not seen in either – the Benefactors and Intelligences! The latter term is sometimes used interchangeably with Angels, as seen in the Planetary Intelligences, but that would not fit here. Neither would the Aralim (should be Binah) with the Ten of Swords, Dominions should be Jupiter and Four, not the Three of Swords, and the list goes on.”

Of course, since I took liberties with what Nina thought was “traditional”, and that the rest of the chapter on the Qabbalah was written for individuals who were not Qabbalists, I don’t think that my knowledge is either rudimentary or substandard. Anyway, she basically judges the whole system as suspect and contrived, since I had the audacity to craft my own version of the list of angels attributed to the ten sephiroth. Like I said, if you aren’t invoking the angels by name, what difference does it make? This is not a book to perform Theurgy! There were no sources sited for the list of angels nor did I say that this was a traditional system of angel magick. Still, Benefactors being compared to Chesed, which is Mercy - is that so far out? It’s not traditional, certainly, but so what! I think that deriving angelic names based on the qualities of the Qabbalah is certainly not a crime, nor does it brand me a moron. But that’s a guaranteed “gotcha”, which she could have just said the following and it would have been appropriate:

“Frater Barrabbas seems to have put together his own list of angels attributed to the Qabbalistic World of Yetzirah. This list does not compare to any that would be used in traditional grimoires or would be a part of the traditional Qabbalah. I don’t agree with his use of the derived angel list, but since he is describing an energy or force, it probably doesn’t detract much from what he is attempting to describe. Readers should take note of this discrepancy.”

But that would have been much too generous and would have implied a certain degree of acceptance. If Nina’s objective is to harshly judge my book, than any excuse is warranted, and disagreements become outright objections. Objections lead to Nina saying that the book is not worth buying by anyone.

However, Nina did like the chapter on the Assumption of the Godhead, ironically the newest piece of writing that was added to the book, so I guess one could say that there is yet hope for me as a writer. The rest of text was originally written over 12 years ago, and has been extensively edited. It is readable, which is a remarkable accomplishment.

Then Nina throws in this nice gem of a critique, thinking that the bibliography has a glaring error in it.

“I was slightly puzzled by the bibliography, where “The Qabalah of Aleister Crowley”, “Liber 777” and “777 and Other Qabalistic Writings of Aleister Crowley” were listed as three separate books, when they are basically all the same thing (ok Liber 777 doesn’t contain Sepher Sephiroth but that is a minor quibble). However perhaps this is thrown in to see if you are still paying attention.”

These are in fact three different books containing a compilation of material, some of it duplicated, and some of it unique. They aren’t identical copies of exactly the same thing, and the earlier version of 777 published by Level Press is probably no longer available and could be omitted from the bibliography. However, they aren’t the same books, and they or may not be available at present. Some older books are now online and the new versions are out of print, so for this reason, I included all three of them. However, they are listed, and once again, why is this such a large issue for Nina? It’s just another “so what?” Nina caught this “so called mistake” and she criticized me for crafting my own angel list, but she didn’t even get why the book was written. That does say volumes about her ability to nit pick but miss the whole point of any conversation. Talking with her must be dull and annoying, too.

So that’s the review of the reviewer’s review. How about a review of the reviewer? What can we judge about her from her writings?

Nina Lazarus is obviously an afficionado of the old grimoires, and since my book had the word “grimoire” in the title, it fell to her to critique it. All well and good, except that the book is about ritual magick and has nothing to do with the old grimoires. She has very little knowledge of classical witchcraft, paganism and is probably not an initiate. She doesn’t know much about the liturgical actions of blessing and consecrating sacraments and certainly knows nothing about magick that uses the energy theory. Her domain is obviously working with spirits, so everything is seen in that guise, whether or not the book deals with that subject - and it doesn’t. So, it would seem that Nina is hardly the expert to review my book, and that she should either state her limitations in the very beginning or just not bother reviewing something that is not in her subject of expertise.

What bothers me about bad reviews and poor reviewers is that they have to dig and find things to trash someone else’s work. We are all brothers and sisters of the same over-all path, and we face a world that is hostile to our practices and beliefs. Even though the number of wiccans and pagans in the U.S. is growing very rapidly, it is still a small minority, and one that is subject to potential persecution and discrimination. For those who are struggling to write and to publish their books for the benefit of others of like mind, I have the greatest respect and admiration - even if I don’t agree with their views and practices. Occult authors don’t generally make much money, even the popular ones have to hold multiple jobs to survive. To write a bad review about someone’s book in our community by one of its own members shows a kind of small mindedness and spitefulness that is astonishing to me. It speaks volumes of the reviewer’s over inflated ego and says nothing about the book and the author that they just smeared for no real reason.

I find this state of affairs both sad and tragic.

Frater Barrabbas


  1. I personally find it most frustrating and sad that the magickal community appears to be revealing, tolerating and breeding more and more mediocrity along with the egocentric, and delusional if not just plain nuts.

    It gets harder and harder for me to give respect and credibility to a lot of people holding titles behind their names (such as in the case of the first reviewer, Little Miss PhD) because it seems too many people with titles are far too egotist and lack spiritual maturity. Could it be out of jealousy that people judge authors or our elders so harshly? Perhaps.

    I personally don't believe the Esoteric Review is worthy for anything to be taken seriously, and I'm not saying that just to defend a friend. It seems as if those in charge of it are comfortable asking the inadequate to review books that they really should not be reviewing. To me it's like asking a first grader to review Shakespeare. One would have better luck with more intelligent and fair reviews appearing on, in all honesty.

    If ever I get the chance to smear that website, you can count on it. Browsing thru other reviews on the site - very unimpressive and disappointing even for the books that they gave good reviews for. The Esoteric Review as far as I'm concerned is crap.

  2. Really weird when as her background I found the following:
    Nina Lazarus (Nina)
    Nina is an academic with far too many qualifications for her own good. When she is not lecturing or reading, she enjoys doing gardening and cooking to ground her in the mundane world. Her specialist subjects include: Traditional Witchcraft, British Folk Magic, Herbalism and the Tarot. She contributed an essay to Hekate Keys to the Crossroads in 2006, and writes for a number of journals, academic and pagan.

  3. Academics can be so incredibly astute at judgement and verbal masterbation.

    In reading all this, I am reminded of Owl from Winnie the Pooh -- one who is so smart that he knows nothing.

  4. Thanks - as for Nina Lazarus specializing in Traditional Witchcraft (non-Gardnerian or Old Craft) and British Folk Magic - not knowing the first thing about making offerings and oblations is kind of amazing. Obviously an academic and not a practitioner. What we need are more arm chair magicians and witches?

  5. Frater B, re: 'reviewing the reviewer'. that back stabbing fellow occultists is an unhelpful habit is a given. However, this reviewer at least read your book, rather than misrepresent a two volume thesis on the basis of the publishers blurb. One has to wonder at the motivation of that approach, perhaps a little self-examination is in order? ;p