Revolutionizing Victorian Magic to Conquer the Spirits

Alison Butler

Alison Butler

The significance of these origins is demonstrated in the lasting status of the final creation. Victorian occultism was no passing fad. Its creative and odd conglomeration has resulted in a most enduring and suitable magical system; one that has been found appropriate and efficacious to occultists of the past two centuries.

The Golden Dawn took this particular Victorian synthesis and moulded it into an instructional format that has proved to have both great appeal and applicability for modern magicians. There are some specific changes which Victorian magic made to the magical tradition it inherited that are responsible for its subsequent popularity.

The first of these changes is the shift from solitary magical practice to group participation in ritual. This shift was a radical one in the history of Western magic. In reflecting upon the forms of magic encountered so far, we can recount the solitary practice of the Egyptian priest/magician, the lone medieval ritual magician and his methods as outlined in grimoires such as the Key of Solomon, and even the expectations for magical practice expressed in Francis Barrett’s ‘Magus’ at the beginning of the nineteenth-century. All refer to magic as an individual undertaking.

In many of the texts translated by MacGregor Mathers, including the ‘Key of Solomon’ and ‘The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage’, this tradition of the lone magician is evident. The magical rituals in these books rarely refer to the presence of anyone but the magician, and when another is referred to, it is an assistant or a disciple whose role is minimal. These servants or disciples are a support staff for the magician or the “Master of the Arts” and have no direct role in communicating with spirits. The language used in the following extracts from the ‘Key of Solomon’ makes clear the relationship and status of these others.

“The Master should afresh exhort his Disciples, and explain to them all they have to do and to observe; the which commands they should promise and vow to execute […] When the Master shall have arrived at the place appointed, together with his Disciples, he having lighted the flame of the fire, and having exorcised it afresh as is laid down in the Second Book, shall light the Candle and place it in the Lantern, which One of the Disciples is to hold ever in his hand to light the Master at his work.”

The status and role of these disciples is further clarified by the claim in MacGregor Mathers’ translation of the Key, that they can easily be replaced by a “faithful and attached dog”. In a section of this translation, titled ‘How the Companions or Disciples of the Master of the Art Ought to Regulate and Govern Themselves’, it is also suggested that a little boy or girl would also make an adequate substitute for a disciple or companion. If the magician does, however, make use of disciples, then they must be three, five, seven or nine in number and they must “implicitly obey the orders of their Master; for thus only shall all things come to a successful issue”.

As for the magic in ‘The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage’, the only other person required in the rituals is a child or “innocent being” of six, seven or eight years. The child’s role is to see the guardian angel of the magician and to act as a go-between in the initial stage of the ritual, prior to the magician beholding his guardian angel himself.

The solitary magician is not an image that disappears in Victorian occultism. Golden Dawn rituals such as those of the pentagram and hexagram were still described as individual exercises. It is in the ‘Flying Rolls’ that examples of magical group practice can first be found. ‘Flying Roll IV’, illustrates a magical experiment in November 1892 of two Golden Dawn magicians, Florence Farr and Elaine Simpson, in which both shared the same vision. In the text, the authors recommend that such experiments be carried out with at least one or two others.

In another manuscript in the Yorke Collection, a magical experiment in astral travel is described by Annie Horniman. Astral travel and its techniques were one of the more advanced forms of magical learning in the Golden Dawn. In astral travel, the individual magician would concentrate on certain symbols in order to prepare the mind for the subsequent trip. These symbols would represent the desired “location”.

Horniman documents having visited, along with fellow Golden Dawn member Frederick Leigh Gardner, different astral planes through the invocation of the hexagram ritual. This series of experiments began in September 1898 and continued until December that year. During the course of this experimentation, the two travelled to astral planes invoked through the planets Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury and the Sun. Horniman describes their first port of call: “We floated in a paler air but of a blue tint. We alighted on some great mountains where there was no life nor vegetation. The rock was the colour of dark slate but the texture and substance like granite. Passing a little further we saw a small glowing lake far below us […]

Horniman goes on to describe how the group encountered a tall, male figure with large indigo wings who told them that they had come to an old and dying world. This figure took them on a flying tour to a gloomy city populated by psychic, sexless citizens who lived on yellow and bluefish, and coarse grain. In all Gardner and Horniman went on seven trips to six locations; Jupiter proved to be such a draw a repeat visit was required.

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