Thursday, October 7, 2010

Ancient Greece - Sole Source of Goetic Magick?

I have recently read an article about a forthcoming book from Scarlet Imprint that touts the revelation of the source of Goetic magick as being a purely Greek phenomena. The book that is promoting this perspective is the much anticipated second installment of the Encyclopaedia Goetica, written by Jake Stratton-Kent, which has the title, “Geosophia: The Argo of Magic.” You can find the announcement of this new book here – I will certainly buy it, at least to thoroughly acquaint myself with Jake’s thesis.

While I must wait just like everyone else for this book to be printed and distributed, which will occur some time later this autumn, I can at least make a few comments about the reputed theme of this work. I will have to read it thoroughly before I can accurately gauge its usefulness and judge the plausibility of its principle theory. I have to admit that I am a bit skeptical about this claim. I feel this way because I have read the book “The True Grimoire,” and found within it some of Jake’s pronouncements about the historical authenticity of that grimoire compared to the Goetia of the Lemegeton. These comments seemed to be quite personally biased, and in my opinion, without much merit. I have found that what Jake has said contradicts what David Rankin and Stephen Skinner have proposed in their book “Goetia of Dr. Rudd.” Jake has some strong opinions about Goetic magick, its history and evolution from the early Renaissance to the 21st century. Jake seems to believe that the actual history of Goetic magick goes all the way back to the practice of necromancy in ancient Greece, and that the Goetic tradition, represented by some grimoires, has an unbroken lineage of practitioners.

While there is little doubt that there is a Greek source to the Goetic tradition, there are other cultural elements that were mixed in as well. I also don’t agree with any argument that proposes an unbroken lineage based on very sketchy circumstantial evidence. However, Jake is a brilliant writer and occultist, even if some of his arguments don’t seem to be very plausible to me. However, his opinions are often controversial but also compelling, so they are not easily dismissed or overturned. Instead, they offer quite a bit of material to ponder, analyze and compare against what others have said - practitioners and scholars.

The main theme of the book is quoted from the pre-sales text found on the publisher’s web page. I would like to discuss this theme and add some of my own questions and thoughts about it for my readers to ponder along with me.

“Geosophia is a very important text. Tracing the development of magic from the Greeks to the grimoires it lays bare the chthonic roots of ritual. By exposing the necromantic origins of much of modern magic we are able to reconnect with the source of our ritual tradition. There is a continuity of practice in the West which encompasses the pre-Olympian cults of Dionysus and Cybele, is found in the Greek Magical Papyri and Picatrix and flows into the grimoires.”

While I might be intrigued by the ideas promoted in this book’s advertisement, some of Jake’s opinions are both puzzling and appear to go against the grain of what academics have established as a basic understanding of the period of late antiquity, and the various occult ideas that were flourishing at that time. We should keep in mind that the time period and culture that we are talking about existed over a couple of thousand years ago. Existing source material is scarce, even for popular writings of such philosophers as Plato and Aristotle, or even the plays of Aristophanes, some of which are lost to time. Obscure grimoires and occult writings are nearly nonexistent. Modern occultists have had to reconstruct these ancient systems using very meager literary sources enlivened with a great deal of imagination. For instance, to this day, we still know very little about the mystery cults practiced in antiquity, and in most cases, not enough information exists to accurately replicate them.

Using single sources, such as the “Greek Magical Papyri” as representing the whole of the tradition of magick in late antiquity could also be a problem. Often, practical magick is a regional phenomenon, related to place and time. The bulk of the “Greek Magical Papyri” are a collection of Graeco Egyptian magick spells, whose place would be Hellenized Egypt, and whose time would be from the first two centuries before and after the common era. Location is an important consideration, since the original massive scroll that makes up this work was supposedly found in the tomb of a rich man who was buried in the Karnak area (Thebes). This should inform us that the collection of spells are particular to Egypt during and after the Ptolemaic period. While there are identifiable sources in that collection from Jewish, Greek and even Persian sources, it should be considered mostly an Egyptian collection, with a particularly Egyptian perspective on magick.

There are quite a large number of obvious spells and rites in the PGM that use Jewish formulations, in fact a number of sections of the papyri are devoted exclusively to these cultural artifacts. The editor of this scroll assembled a large number of the spells together from many sources, and seemed to be more driven by their reputed power than if they were Greek, Egyptian, Hebrew or even of Persian derivation. The mixture of cultures, god names, heros, and cultural sources represents a phenomenon that was characteristic of the times - cultures, languages, religious beliefs and superstitions were melted together to form a massive heterodoxy, much like gnosticism. The magickal language consisting of words of power also seem to meld various words from several languages together to form a strange polyglot, what scholars have called a verba ignota (unknown tongue). It’s interesting to note that the verba ignota was a feature of some Christian European grimoires, but not the Greater and Lesser Keys of Solomon, or the Grimoirium Verum.

A further quote from another website that Jake has authored presents his opinions in a clearer manner. It’s taken from Hadean Press’s “Mark Ye Well the Dead Underworld of Hadean Press.”

“The Hellenic sources of the Picatrix are indicative of the real roots of the entire genre. The form and style of the grimoires were determined millennia in advance by magical texts in Greek. This far predated the influx of Christianised Kabbalah into Western magic in the late 15th century; erroneously credited with supplying the basis of Western occultism. ”

I would agree that the Picatrix, an Arabic grimoire from the 11th century (translated into Latin in the middle of the 13th century) drew its sources from earlier Greek manuscripts and practices. The original source of this grimoire, now lost, was very likely produced from the occult tradition that thrived through the various writings and teachings of Neoplatonism. How Neoplatonism found its way into Arabic culture of the early middle ages could be explained by the transition of Greek philosophy and the academy in Athens to Harran (529 CE), and the building of a university there by the Caliph, Umar II (717 CE). The Neoplatonists thrived in their new location and continued their work until the around the 11th century, and two centuries later, the Picatrix was translated in Spain.

During that time, Jews lived and congregated in the Persian and Parthian areas of influence, and later managed to continue to thrive within the newly established empire of Islam. Since Jews were expelled from Alexandria during the Christian era, it is possible that they sought refuge in various parts of the middle east where they had been living for centuries, including Mesopotamia, which would have also placed them in Harran at the same time as the Neoplatonic philosophers. It is possible, and even likely, that magickal and occult practices continued to blend together, with Judaism supplying a large share of the derived lore. The Qabbalah would have had its birth during this time (Sepher Yetzirah - 4th century CE), and the first example of a grimoire working with both angels and demons (Testament of Solomon). 

We can see the same kind of blending occurring in the earliest writings of the Qabbalah, where the obvious Neoplatonic concept of emanation became a critical part of that occult system. The Qabbalah as we know it today is a thorough mixture of Hebrew occultism, Neoplatonism and Christian theology. If one were to attempt to purge one or more of these strains from the Qabbalah, it would cease to be useful or perhaps, even recognizable. There were obviously a lot of ideas being passed back and forth between occult scholars over the past two millennia, and this exchange powerfully impacted the various practices of Qabbalah, alchemy, astrology and ceremonial magic. I believe that to attempt to extract and remove Christian and Hebrew influences from the various ceremonial magickal grimoires would be not only an impossible task, but one that would undoubtedly produce a whole new system of magick. It would be something contrived and derived, not representing the more original source, which is obviously lost to time.

Whatever was practiced in ancient Greece and called necromancy had already been contaminated by Pythagorean beliefs and practices at the beginning of the classical period. Pythagorean philosophy probably had eastern sources and influences, as the belief in the transmigration of souls appears to attest. Not much is known about Pythagorus or his philosophy, and what is known was probably written a couple of centuries after his death. However, Pythagorean philosophers were reputed to be able to see the ghosts of dead people, and were able to call them up and talk to them. This appeared to be a grafting of Pythagorean teachings with more primitive shamanic practices involving divination of the dead, or necromancy. Pythagoreans were often conflated with goetic magicians who specialized in necromancy.

How we get to the conjuration of demons from the summoning and incubation of the spirits of the dead is probably a bit of a logical over-reach. I have already written two articles that explore this idea from two different perspectives, but it would seem that the Greek concept of the invocation or summoning of daimons would be quite different than the ceremonial magician conjuring demons - they represent cultural perspectives separated by more than fifteen hundred years. There is also the consideration that Jewish and Christian religious influences have had a huge impact on this system of magick, making it nearly impossible to retrieve the earlier system intact.

Without an authentic source document written from that time period (predating Christian and Jewish influences), I believe that no one could reconstitute the ancient Greek system of Goetic magick. It’s also very likely that ancient Goetic magick was an oral tradition practiced by individuals who couldn’t read or write. However, this is all speculation, since records of what was actually practiced don’t really exist.

What we have are just intriguing fragments and literary constructs, possibly derived from a combination of realistic observation and fantasy. The fragments of actual magickal workings consists of curse tablets and various bits and pieces of parchment and papyri. The PGM is the only complete source scroll from that time, and relying too heavily on a single source is problematic. So the task of deriving a pure source of occult and magickal practices from antiquity to the compilation of the grimoires in the 16th century is likely a fool’s errand, since none of this would pass the inspection of historians, archaeologists and anthropologists. What we are dealing with here is an “As If” approach to reconstruction, where we use creativity and our imaginations to fill in the huge gaps in actual evidential knowledge.

Even an examination of the various names of the goetic demons reveals that there are Hebrew, Greek and Latin elements merged together. Some names are taken directly from Hebrew folk traditions, gathered together from many Semitic sources (Akkadian, Canaanite and Egyptian), and then there are the Greek and Latinized names whose source is completely unknown. Attempting to put together a list of demonic names reclaimed from ancient Greek sources would be nearly impossible, since some of the names are obviously of Semitic derivation. What we would have to do is to detach the list of goetic demons from the infernal princes and put them into a chthonic pagan context, a task that I have promoted in my previous articles about this subject. 

Perhaps a clue as to what Jake is proposing can be found in his article published in the anthology “Both Sides of Heaven.” In the article entitled “Grimoires for Pagans,” Jake lays the foundation for establishing a pagan chthonic perspective to goetic grimoires, such as the Grimoirium Verum. The principal infernal triumvirate that rules over the demonic hoards are Lucifer, Belzebuth and Astaroth, and to these demonic princes, Jake has attributed the Greek gods Hermes, Hades and Persephone.  One would also want to add Dionysus, Cybele, Circe, Orpheus, Isis and Osiris (from the mystery cult), and most importantly, Hecate, to the assembly of gods, goddesses and demigods as well.

To alter and exchange the demonic princes with these three Greek gods is a startlingly revelation, certainly one that could begin an entire process of reclamation. I have long sought to encourage this kind of complete rewriting of the goetic magickal tradition using a completely pagan perspective, since dealing with the infernal princes through their ambassador (Scirlin) assumes that one has bought into the whole Judeo-Christian theological premise of demons being evil fallen angels. Some proponents of goetic magick have maintained that only those who are piously associated with the “Abrahamic” traditions should have a right to work this magick. At least I can agree with this approach, since I am not a adherent to this tradition.

What all of this seems to mean is that Jake is in the process of creating a whole new tradition, starting at the top and working on down to the very foundation. When he is finished, in my opinion, he will have created a completely new and unique magickal perspective, not unlike others who espouse either a chthonic pagan perspective or outright demonalotry. Jake will then take the Grimoirium Verum out of it’s Christian environment, and put it into a newly derived context, one that will integrate old and new elements together. Thus, we can expect that the end result will be a whole new approach to goetic magick and very likely, a new set of grimoires to replace the ones that were first printed in the previous epoch. I very much look forward to that day, since that will certainly end the debate in various magickal circles between Neopagans and Christian occultists, both of whom claim the goetic tradition as their own.

So we can look forward to the publishing of Jake’s new book “Geosophia: The Argo of Magic,” regardless whether we agree with the whole of his premise, or not. 

Frater Barrabbas


  1. cheers Frater B ;)

    a few random points: the Papyri aren't unique: defixiones and other ritual remains found in Italy and Britain reproduce very closely, exactly in some cases, the prescriptions of the 'Egyptian' texts. (It is interesting that you note yourself the inclusion of Jewish materials, thus underlining the cosmopolitan rather than local nature of the genre and its culture).

    The editor of the published papyri states very clearly that despite their location they represent a primary source for far older Greek cults in near pristine state. He is supported by other academics speaking of how they emerged when 'the whitewash of classicism begins to peel off'. These are radical ideas, but rather than mine they are those of the foremost academics in this field. That occultists have yet to fully engage with the implications is part of my purpose in writing.

    The original practitioners of goetia were not illiterate. They were closely linked to the Orphic movement, a tradition transmitted specifically through books (the first such tradition in history. The nature of this literature is important to the history of the grimoires, and precedes the papyri.
    Whatever the shortcomings of my commentary the essential premise and the source material are valid. While this is the first such book produced by a modern practitioner, I recommend the extensive academic literature on Greek and Roman magic that has appeared in recent years. These, with the papyri, represent an as yet under-employed source of new insights into the origins of our traditions. This indicates both a direction in which it is legitimate to re-orient and develop while simultaneously regaining contact with our real roots. There are other implications also, one of which is that a productive comparison can be made of this earlier phase of Western Magic - rather than the early modern Revival and its immediate predecessors - with Living Traditions in the New World. Regardless of individual opinions, in the wider world a trans-cultural synthesis is occurring. We may consciously engage with this cultural evolution in a more meaningful fashion by re-examining earlier phases of Western Magic, where presences precede important absences.



  2. Wow. What a post. Can't wait to read the book (and the discussion!).

  3. "The common Greek word for magician in Jesus time was goes (plural goetes) It was usually, but not necessarily, abusive. Plato, writing in praise of the demon Eros as the intermediary between men and the gods, had said in the Symposium: "Through him all divination is made possible, and the science of the priests and of the specialists in sacrifices and initiates and spells, and all prophesy, and goeteia" Here goeteia (what goetes do) is one special technqiue like the others named, a recognized and legitimate function. It seems to have been a sort of Greek shamanism, a form of mourning for the dead in which the goetes became ecstatic and were thought to accompany the dead on their journey to the underworld. Such goetes were evidently popular - their ability to "charm" their hearers (perhaps with songs of mourning, perhaps with descriptions of what they saw) was such that deceitful but persuasive speakers were called both "sophists" and goetes (This may account for the use of both terms to describe Jesus.) Goeteia could also refer to physical magic. According to Herodotus, men thought to turn themselves into wolves may be goetes (IV. 105) The followers of Euripides and Socrates, who detested siphistry no less than superstition, came to use goeteia as a general term for "deceit" and to equate goes with "beggar," "deceiever," and "impertinent scoundrel." A passing reference in Meno (80b) indicates that by Plato's time, in so cities goetes were liable to arrest."
    - Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician (Chp. 4: What the Outsiders Meant.)

    He goes on to explain that later in his life, Plato himself came to detest and revile the goetes. There's a lot of tempting tidbits in that information that may or may not coincide with Stratton-Kent's views on the subject. I'm certainly more interested in the work now than I was before.

  4. @Jake - excellent points as usual.

    I guess I need to bone up on what is more current in academia than what I have been exposed to in my own researches. Alas, most occultists only get to read the books already in print, skipping (due to time and convenience) the various academic papers and journals.

    If the PGM is considered by academics to be a complete representation of the magical practices in antiquity, then it is even more valuable than I had previously estimated. However, my argument that there was already a mixture of different cultures going on at the time the PGM was originally assembled would make removing those influences completely out of that lore quite difficult, perhaps impossible.

    So I would vote for a path that used the old lore and new creative perspectives to fashion something that is completely new and relevant to our modern times.

    Also, my perspective on goetic shamanism was based on my interpretation of the writings by the author Daniel Ogden in his book "Greek and Roman Necromancy." Goetic shamans, according to what he wrote, were dirty, dressed in rags and were unlettered. Later on, when that tradition merged with Pythagorean practices, perhaps then it became lettered. However, I would be willing to bet the typical Greek sorcerer would still have been unlettered even down to the times of the Roman empire.

    I suspect that there was indeed a massive and diverse tradition of magickal practitioners for hire who would have been unlettered, plying their trade for untold centuries for money. We know next to nothing about them except through literary clues, here and there.

    Literacy was for the elites, even in Roman times, and more so in the middle ages. Witches and wizards in antiquity didn't have to be literate as their much later brethren, the cunning folk, had to be.

    As for the African diaspora and its practices, Christianity still has a powerful hold on those cultures. Those who traffic with malefic spirits and rites of "black" magick (Petro rites) are both feared and reviled in their communities. I doubt that this is a good model for someone like myself, a witch (non-Christian) and pagan to follow - just my opinion. So, although I find these practices and systems interesting, I feel no attraction myself to practice them.

    With high regards -

    Frater Barrabbas

  5. @Barrabbas::
    "Alas, most occultists only get to read the books already in print, skipping (due to time and convenience) the various academic papers and journals."

    Academics do publish in book form, you just need to know where to look.

    Eisenbrauns is the best source I have found, you might find this book of interest:


  6. "Those who traffic with malefic spirits and rites of "black" magick (Petro rites) are both feared and reviled in their communities."

    Where did you get that impression? From everything I've read, it is quite clear that the Petwo loa are honored at all hounfours.

    To pull just a couple of quotes from the Wikipedia entry (because it's convenient, and agrees with all of the sources I've read--both academic and practitioners):

    "The Petro and the Rada contrast most with one another, because the Petro are hot or aggressive and restless, whereas the Rada are cool or calm and peaceful."

    "After a day or two of preparation setting up altars, ritually preparing and cooking fowl and other foods, etc., a Haitian Voodoo service begins with a series of Catholic prayers and songs in French, then a litany in Kreyòl and African "langaj" that goes through all the European and African saints and lwa honored by the house, and then a series of verses for all the main spirits of the house. This is called the "Priyè Gine" or the African Prayer. After more introductory songs, beginning with saluting Hounto, the spirit of the drums, the songs for all the individual spirits are sung, starting with the Legba family through all the Rada spirits, then there is a break and the Petwo part of the service begins, which ends with the songs for the Gede family."

  7. Do the original Greek Magical Papyri still survive?

  8. @ Anonymous

  9. @ Frater B: some of what you apparently want to happen in occultism is precisely what my works are geared to facilitate. This makes for some bafflement when considering your response to my work. It is possible that I have anticipated some of the steps on the way yet to become obvious to others. Certainly some of the points you raise in advance of reading it are more than amply covered in the text.

    It is not however intended as a potted system, but as a major reappraisal that can be developed in various ways according to the requirements of the individual or group concerned. This is both more useful and more realistic than a simplified manual, no matter how commercial that might be.

    I am specifically *not* promoting a historical re-enactment approach to magic on Greek lines. (BTW The term 'Greek' is qualified as more a cosmopolitan linguistic and cultural label than an ethnic one. I also make no attempt to diminish the cross-cultural elements, quite the contrary).

    Regarding the dress of goen Ogden describes: bear in mind that the state of their clothes, hair etc. was specifically prescribed for chthonic evocation, in contrast to the cleanliness required for invoking the gods. Whether all goen were literate is hardly relevant, the papyri were written, defixiones were written - so we know some of them were, highly literate in fact.

    I look forward to reading what you have to say after reading the book, and discovering whether your pre-emptive position has been revised. ;)

  10. To be clear, I make no claims to infallibility, there are doubtless elements of my wide-ranging thesis that will be tightened up in the course of time. I suspect that such tightening will enhance rather than detract from the main thrust of my work. Either way a pre-emptive and misleading statement like that above is not the way to go about it.

    In the meantime some more random notes on Frater B's pre-emptive assumptions:

    Q. Why does conjuring Scirlin in order to work with other spirits necessarily involve Judaeo-Christian concepts?

    A. It doesn't, the idea of an intermediary spirit (such as Hermes, Ganesha, Janus etc.) is cardinal to many pagan systems, many of them far older than Christianity. It is also a major feature of African derived traditions, which while often syncretised with Christianity do not derive this feature from it. This approach is represented in Verum and no other grimoire, a fact that plainly underlines its importance.

    Q. Why should not endorsing Rudd or Rankine & Skinner's 'adversarial angel' approach be automatically wrong?

    A. It isn't, though traditional enough it is only one approach, and not one represented in the whole grimoire genre (beside which, Rudd's bizarre take on Enochian shows him to be less than reliable, as various authors have noted). It is also not a feature of - say - the magical papyri, which are at least as old as the Testament of Solomon which underlies Rudd's approach. It seems peculiar to me and to others that anyone endorsing a 'pagan' approach to spirit work should latch onto this particular approach, and object when alternatives are presented.

    Q. Apparently disagreeing with Rankine and Skinner is a problem. Why then is there an issue surrounding my *agreeing* with them (among other historians, such as Hutton) that the grimoires represent the *only* continuous strand of magical practice in the current revival?

    A. Barabbas is as unaware of this continuity as I am of the canonical status of Dr. Rudd!