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The Book of Ceremonial Magic

The mystic tradition in Christian Times is preserved, apart from all questions and traces of Instituted Mysteries, in the literature of Christian Mystical Theology; it is a large and exceedingly scattered literature; some of its most important texts are available in no modern language; they stand very seriously in need of codification, and–if I may be so frank–even of re-expression. But if, for other reasons, they are in their entirety a study which must be left to the expert, there is no person now living in Europe who has not close at his hands the specific, simple, isolated texts–much too numerous to name–which are sufficient to give some general idea of the scope and aims of the tradition. If I were asked to define the literature shortly and comprehensively as a whole, I should call it the texts of the way, the truth and the life in respect of the mystic term. It is not only full but exhaustive as to the way–which is that of the inward world, recollection, meditation, contemplation, the renunciation of all that is lower in the quest of all that is higher–but perhaps the most catholic word of all would be centralisation. It is very full also on the fundamental truth, out of which it arises, that a way does exist and that the way is open.

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2 comments on “The Book of Ceremonial Magic

  1. Ian Myles Slater on: A Standard Old Study, Under Any Title Arthur Edward Waite (1860-1942) was a professed mystic, an historian of mysticism, alchemy, magic, and secret societies, an industrious translator, and a man unusually willing to turn 180 degrees from a published opinion when faced with new and better evidence. His variously titled “Book of Black Magic and of Pacts” (first edition, privately printed 1898; public edition, 1911), or “Book of Ceremonial Magic” (etc.) shows Waite rejecting the misinformation and misrepresentations of his old source and model, “Eliphas Levi” (real name Alphonse Louis Constant, c.1810-1875) and his sometime-associate in the Order of the Golden Dawn, S.L. MacGregor Mathers (1854-1918), and trying to offer the interested public a responsible survey of the literature of ceremonial magic. The book in question is frequently reprinted, under a variety of similar titles, although it is now very badly dated; I have reviewed another edition, published as “The Book of Black Magic,” and repeat my observations here. Under any title, it contains a number of oversights and errors of fact, but it retains considerable value and interest, and is worth reading with care, and *critical* attention. Some titles do raise (various and different sets of) false expectations, however. I have not seen all editions; with the exception of the recent Weiser edition as “The Book of Black Magic,” which appears to reprint the shorter, and apparently less (or un-) illustrated, 1898 edition, those I have seen seemed to have identical texts (but there may be differences I’ve missed). Waite makes interesting points on the presuppositions of the genuinely early grimoires (books of spells and rituals) which he describes and excerpts, and useful comments on the (un)reliability of the then-current translations, many of which have been reprinted in recent years. Anyone attempting to use it as guide to practicing such magic should heed Waite’s warning that he has taken care to present an incomplete or corrupt form of any ritual involving harm to animals, rendering the spells, by the magical hypothesis, ineffective; entirely out of concern for the animals, not the would-be-magicians, he explains. Indeed, Waite has little patience with the operative magician in general, and with those who supply the demand for spellbooks in particular. He points out that, in terms of procedures and intentions, the magical literature allows no real distinction between “white” and “black” magic; indeed, what is presented as “white” magic, is, by making direct use of religious rites and objects, sometimes the more objectionable. He also points out that the medieval and early modern magicians generally seemed unaware that what they were doing could be considered blasphemous. Among its other merits, Waite’s book provides extended excerpts and illustrations from the leading pseudo-grimoires published in cheap editions in (mainly) France in the nineteenth century. He points out the origins of some of these tracts in more respectable “occult” writings of the eighteenth century. (A rather wavering line probably could now be drawn back all the way to the Hermetic enthusiasts of the Renaissance, and ultimately to Hellenistic Egypt, but all genuine Egyptian content, except mention of the Pyramids and Pharaohs, had vanished along the way.) Waite attempts, albeit with inadequate data, to establish the medieval date and Christian origins of the various “Books” and “Keys” of Solomon, a task still not complete in detail, and compares these texts to explicitly Christian works, some masquerading as highly effective devotions. The book is concerned with the relatively elite practice of ritual magic, including its many vulgarizations, and not with European witchcraft, nor with Satanism as such. As Waite points out, the grimoires promise to teach how to compel, bribe, and trick devils, not worship them (although from a theological point of view, as he makes equally clear, the distinction is meaningless). Pacts are attempts to force supernatural beings to serve humans, not promises of one’s own soul — except where the intention is to break the pact. The nearest successor to Waite’s book to appear in English was Elizabeth M. Butler’s “Ritual Magic,” first published by Cambridge University Press in 1949, and recently reprinted. It shows a dependence on Waite for materials unavailable to its author in wartime and post-war Britain, but has considerable additional material on actual and supposed magicians (including Gilles de Rais), and on nineteenth century magicians, pseudo-magicians, Satanists, pseudo-Satanists, and hoaxes, and provides an invaluable context for understanding Waite’s writings, not just this book. Her book can be read as a follow-up, but also as an introduction. Butler, more importantly, fills a gap in Waite’s coverage. “Ritual Magic” offers a good discussion of the various German (and generally Central…

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