I was presented with a copy of the Epoch months ago – it had already been delayed many weeks by the South African customs bureaucracy, so I was keen to review it immediately. But this turned out to be very difficult against a backdrop of considerable work pressure plus an accident that has left me handicapped for a couple of months.
However, the main reason it has been so difficult to review this book is that it throws up so many interesting and stimulating ideas that I kept having to stop, rethink and start again.
My first reaction on receiving and skimming my copy of The Epoch was: “The Epoch goes beyond magic. It is a Work of Art. And that in no way diminishes its magical content – which I am still reading and absorbing.” This was not just my response to the beautiful artwork and layout, but to the whole structure and scope of the book. That lead to a lengthy discussion by me about the nature of art and magic, but this first attempt said little about The Epoch, so I decided to try again. And again. And again…
So, this time I begin with a straight outline: The Epoch is in three parts. The first part addresses elemental magic dating back to ancient times (“The Circle of Imaginary Forces”). This is the magic of earth, air, fire, water and aether with roots in shamanism and pre-history. The second part addresses planetary magic and the systems that grew up in the Roman era with astrology, neo-Platonism, alchemy etc (“The Sphere of Imaginary Allies”). The third part addresses stellar magic (“The Hypersphere of the Imaginary Adversaries”) and the Elder Gods that I associate with Lovecraft and the work of the Typhonian OTO.
What is remarkable to me is the way that these different magical systems have been presented in their essence and related to each other. Firstly as a developing historical sequence and then structurally. The elemental magic is relatively straightforward, with a description of each element in turn and summarising table of correspondences. But the attributes are brought up to date with correspondences for Jungian archetypes, physics and other modern thought structures – also the inclusion of aether in the scheme allows it to align with the pentagram and could make it easier to relate to the Chinese elemental structure. Five also matches the five basic operations of magic – enchantment, divination, evocation, invocation and illumination. So there is no question here of elemental magic being relegated to the past – instead it is presented as an evolving magic for today, with roots in antiquity.
The second grimoire on planetary magic takes the traditional seven planets but adds Uranus to make a convenient ogdoad, and deities are ascribed to each of these eight planets and described in detail. But the traditional system is greatly extended – as in Ebertin’s book Combination of Stellar Influences – by taking them in pairs: so that Uranus becomes subdivided into Sun-Uranus, Moon-Uranus, Mercury-Uranus and so on to provide a whole extra level of distinction. To each of these pairs a deity has been ascribed – for example Thor for Mars/Jupiter. The authors acknowledge that these deities are just suggestions and subject to future revision, but they do represent an attempt to refine planetary magic from being a rather coarse 8-fold system to a much more targeted 8x7 = 56-fold system. So, for example, the Mercury/Solar Bob-Legba should be invoked “for protection against salesmanship of religion and other products…. For use in tricky negotiations” and so on.
My main problem with this scheme is that, having added Uranus to the classical seven, I sorely miss Neptune, Pluto and maybe even Chiron. As I explored in my 2011 Arcanorium course on the Supernal Planets, those three or four outer planets do form a coherent extension of the system, even though astronomers do not recognise Pluto and Chiron as planets. And the Epoch itself refers to “the Plutonic and Trans-Plutonic outer darkness” as the realm of the Elder Gods (on page 23). This absence is awkward for me, but not disastrous – simply because of the extra fine-tuning made possible by the subgrouping in the Epoch system. So, taking Uranus as a representative of all further planets, one might be able to substitute, say, Uranus/Venus (Apophenia in this scheme) for Neptune as the principle that melts clear boundaries and allows illusion; Pluto is harder to associate with the Uranian deities and is closer to Baron Samedi (Saturn/Solar in this scheme); however Uranus/Mercury as Thoth the healer and teacher of language is a good stand in for Chiron. Some such scheme might extend to cover some of the asteroids too.
The third grimoire on Stellar Magic was especially valuable for me, because I had never paid great attention to the Elder Gods. They always struck me as too far distant and “not the sort of deities one would invite around for tea”. What The Epoch has done is given them a rightful place in the scheme of things, seeing them as representing very fundamental principles underlying the whole physical reality – and this makes a whole lot more sense to me. This strikes me as a real innovation – but that might be simply because I am not au fait with what has already been written about such magic? The Epoch describes the various recent attempts to create a Necronomicon and how they reflect a real yearning for something weird and terrible that reaches beyond our solar system to encompass the vastness of the universe. So we find, for example, Shub-Niggurath addressing the fundamentals of life emerging from matter, Hastur manipulating entropy/negentropy and so on.
So the significance for me of the third Stellar Magic grimoire, was that a whole magical current, that I had never had much time for in the past, suddenly came to life, seemed to be coherent and related in a meaningful way to the evolution of human knowledge since the days when stellar magic evolved.
The Epoch does not just present these three updated Grimoires as standalone systems, it also integrates the three into a greater whole by relating them both historically – in the sections expanding on Carroll’s aeonics – and structurally in the “Chobalah” diagram presented as the chaoist version of the cabalist’s Tree of Life. It is explained how this “Arte of Magical Cartography” is an attempt to make maps of inner space and that this particular map is to be compared with a neural network without any implied orientation. This non-hierarchical approach is useful because it allows one to choose one’s own orientation according to need: taking historical evolution, for example, on could line it up like a timeline with elemental magic on the left and stellar magic on the right as the path towards the future.
Just as the pentagram can be either drawn upright – with spirit at the top in a model that suggests spirit as the origin out of which the four physical elements are condensed – or inverted in a model that suggests that the physical elements came first and spirit was born out of them – so does the Chaobalah allow one freedom to choose any suitable orientation. It is not that a non-hierarchical flat structure is innately “better” (as people used to insist in the 1980s), but that it is useful to be able to line up a hierarchy according to your own practical needs rather than have society impose its rigid hierarchies. Human reason does tend to work best using hierarchies – eg classifying things into groups, and subgroups, and so on – but it is good to be free to line them up in the most useful way.
I was especially fascinated by the historical outline and analysis presented in Epoch – and this is largely to blame for my taking so long to complete a review. One mysterious property of this book is that each time I read it I make mental note of certain comments in it that I want to address when I write my review; then each time I sit down to write the review I can no longer find the comment I was going to address. The book seems to shape shift and re-write itself with each reading.
However, this time, thanks to a wounded leg, I am tied to my desk and I will drive a stake through the heart of Epoch to pin it down and stop it morphing before my eyes so that I can at least present one example of the sort of distracting thoughts it has invoked in me, causing me to take so long to review it. Once more, I struggled to find the bit that, in my memory, seemed to suggest that the scientific worldview was at odds to the Platonic view, and this is the nearest I can come to it now: “the whole idea of Platonic style ‘forms’ and archetypes underlying or controlling material reality has become redundant from a scientific point of view” (page 139).
Before I outline my disagreement with this, I should first point out one important difference between the Epoch history and my version. Whereas the Epoch is talking about what one might call “Science Proper”, “Religion Proper” and “Magic Proper”, in SSOTBME I was rather talking about magic art, religion and science as four broad and blotchy cultures, and I was emphasising the cyclic repetition of these cultures rather than the progressive historical view.
In such terms The Enlightenment – normally understood as the start of a forward leap in human understanding – can also be seen as the time when society turned the clock back two thousand years to rediscover an era when, following five centuries of religious ferment (the so called ‘axial age’ that birthed Judaiism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism etc) there was a surge in rational thinking expressed, for example, in atomic theory, a single time dimension, heliocentricism and an attack on traditional magic and religious ideas, extending from Greece to China. So, following the more recent five centuries of religious ferment that saw the rise of Islam and the Catholic church and the Protestant revolution, we again found established religious and magical ideas being undermined by a revival of rationalist and humanist thought that marked the Enlightenment.
According to the popular “end of history” view – where scientific thinking is seen as the culmination of an evolution of human thought through magic, art and religion towards the truth – once people had woken up to the reality of science, then all earlier beliefs should shrivel away. However, what happened at the end of the five centuries of the classical era was the rise of the Roman Empire and a rebirth of magical thinking as described in the Epoch – for this was the time of alchemy, astrology, neo-Platonism and the whole foundation of today’s stellar magic. However, I do not myself associate this change with a rise in Platonism, but rather its decline in the popular imagination.
The Platonic model that I am thinking about is the popular one that compares the everyday world of sensual experience to a shadow play on the wall of a cave: an illusion that “the people” take for reality, whereas the Platonist would invite them to turn around, see the light at the entrance of the cave and the actual moving objects that are casting those shadows. Hence the idea that our world of subjective sensory experience is but an illusion, and we need the wisdom of Platonism to reveal to us the objective and timeless reality that lies beyond our senses and can explain everything that we experience.
So, for example, if I go to a Reiki master or homeopath and they cure my backache, a Christian Platonist might tell me that this is just an illusion, a trick of the devil, because only God can heal and the Church knows the spiritual truth about this world of illusion. If I ask whether the Church might itself be deceived by the devil, they point out that the Church’s knowledge is a consensus that has been built and tested by many learned people over many centuries. My doctor, however might say that the healing is an illusion caused by a placebo effect resulting from deficiencies in the brain’s processing of sensory data, and that medicine has built a consensual understanding of the physical reality behind my sensory experience based on many years of laboratory testing (as opposed to scriptural analysis). In either case I am told that I must not entirely trust the illusion presented by my senses, but need to accept advice from a more learned establishment that has access to a more perfect objective reality that underlies my sensory experience. Similarly, if I see fairies or experience an amazingly revelatory tarot reading, the experts will be able to explain it away in terms of an objective spiritual or physical reality beyond my senses.
However, Plato’s pupil and successor, Aristotle, argued that human knowledge should be grounded upon this world of the senses, for that is the data that we are given. It is the difference between faith and experience: faith in a world that lies beyond our senses (and the need to consult experts or be trained to perceive this world), versus the everyday experience provided by our senses. So, after five centuries of rationalism, people were growing distrustful of such experts and began to accept their own experience at face value. Whereas classical medicine had so removed itself from human interaction that Greek doctors were discouraged from speaking to their patients and told to focus purely on the symptoms, the people were turning to philosophical and magical healers, just as people are know finding healing in alternative therapies that take a more holistic view. At the same time people were growing bored with official wisdom and began to test magical ideas in the laboratories of their own experience rather than trust the experts who were becoming increasingly divided in their opinions.
The reason for this fragmentation was partly because the rational philosophy, that had hoped to explain all phenomena in terms of mechanical interaction between finite particles moving in a single time dimension, had hit a problem. It was becoming clearer that the world presented by our senses embraced concepts that could not exist in such a pure rational world: for example a right angled equilateral triangle requires an irrational hypotenuse (ie its length a multiple of the “non existent” square root of two). Atomic reality could not accommodate the uncountable infinity of a continuum, and so rational thinkers were forced to embrace absurdity, in the form of “irrational numbers”.
A similar crisis happened two millennia later when the supposedly “real numbers” had to be enhanced with the addition of “imaginary numbers”. So rationalist philosophy has been forced to embrace the imaginary and irrational in order to provide a sufficiently complex Platonic reality to explain away our everyday subjective reality.
Then, as now, the populace is opting for the multidimensional continuum of subjective reality in place of the limited Platonic “explanation”. Going back to Plato’s original model: we can put on a DVD of Avatar and enjoy a life-enhancing 3-D sensory experience of another world and a story full of human and extra terrestrial interaction, and not feel terribly impressed when a Platonist says “let me show you the reality behind that illusion” and reveals that all we have experienced is no more than a shadow cast by a long sequence of dots on a plastic disk. The experience of a love affair or mystical revelation can offer infinitely more to the subject than any objective explanation of the experience.
In these terms, without denying the progressive historical narrative of the Epoch, I am also seeing a cyclic pattern that involves around five centuries of religious ferment, followed by five centuries of triumphant rationalism, followed by another five centuries of magical thinking – and this is where we are now in the cycle: rediscovering, reviving and building on the roots of magic. The Epoch is a very fine example of this rebirth.
What also interests me is that I am able to see such a cycle, for linear time would not allow this. Heraclitus is credited with the saying that no man can step twice into the same river: you would need two time dimensions to allow any such loop in time. I recently illustrated this by presenting a unicursal line drawing of three sunflowers in a vase together with the question; “how many circles are there in this picture?” There were three suggested answers: “none”, because one squiggly line cannot be a circle; “one”, because any art critic or infant would point to the central sunflower and recognise it as a circle; or “three” because any intelligent person would realise that, seen as an image of a 3-D object, it would contain three such sunflowers when viewed from different angles. Magical thinkers (eg astrologers) can shift perspective in this way and see not just one or two but any number of different and overlapping cycles throughout history – and that could only happen if there were at least three dimensions of time in our subjective space.
I especially like that thought, because it accords with ideas expressed in the chapter on “Omnality”, and yet I have approached the subject from a very different angle.
Next I would like to express my utter delight at the glorious dynamics of the beautiful Elder Sign shown on pages 144-5. But then I have already written over 2000 words and am in danger of once more leaving this review unfinished for several more months…
The fact is that I am still not satisfied with this review, because there is only one possible way to do justice to a book like this: it is to repair alone to a deserted island and dedicate at least a year to working with the pack of cards that comes with the book and practicing its rituals. But I am now too old and pre-committed to attempt that.