Month: October 2022

No Part of Me That is Not of the Gods: A Memory

I’ve been thinking about this tweet since Jack Chanek sent it the other day. (I don’t know his work, but I’ve been dipping my toes into the world of online occultism for the first time in a decade, and so discoveries abound.) I said in reply that I don’t think the gods necessarily perceive us temporally, at least in the way we do. I’m sure the observation was prompted by the fact we’re entering the dying end of the year, and one of the things I had in mind happened around this time of the year too. I thought it worth remembering.

I’ll leave the people I’m talking about anonymous, though anyone who has been around London occultism for a while will probably recognise it. The story isn’t about the personalities, though, really – whether important or little-known – but about what ritual can do.

It’s just a house, I tell myself – one of those tall, imposing Victorian affairs in North London. It’s 2004 and I’m nervous. It’s before Google Maps – I used to carry around a pocket A-Z and addresses scribbled on scraps of paper – and I’m early. I’d been invited, along with my initiators, to a Gnostic Mass to be held at the home of a well-known but discreet couple who had been performing it privately for many years; both would at that point already be over seventy years old. I like to be on time: it’s courteous, and respects other people’s time as equally important to your own. (It is also a rare quality among occultists.) In fact, because I’m nervous, I’m early, which is nearly as bad as being late. Knowing where the house is, I find a place nearby to sit and drop into some meditative breathing, the anchor of my daily practice then and now. Despite the chill in the air I can feel my shoulders relax, smell the woodsmoke on the breeze.

Yes, it’s just a house. Writing nearly two decades later I’m more aware of how much postwar occultism depended on domestic spaces like that: detached, or with thick enough walls and big rooms, which might be given over, semi-permanently, to ritual work. Twist the perspective a bit and it could be something out of a horror flick, or a Sunday tabloid exposé: the ingenuous neophyte lured into obscene rites hidden behind the doors of a house just like yours – or your neighbours’. So many magical groups owed their persistence to the simple fact they had somewhere suitable and guaranteed for regular meetings – it’s hard to resist a comparison between witches’ covens and ancient clandestine house churches. (You might write a parallel history of chaos magic and squatting, too.) Some of the initiations I would take in the following years would be in very grand settings, or outdoors in some secret place, but by far the majority – and some of the most significant – would be conducted behind unassuming doors like this.

Nervousness is often excitement wedded to risk. To understand why I was excited you have to understand something of the way the occult community in Britain worked back then: a variety of public or semi-public discussion groups, social events or beginners’ classes with various groups – publicly admitted and less so – hovering in the background. There was an elaborate dance of hinting and nudging, of feeling out and testing, and (sometimes) waiting for someone to have the courage to ask. It gave the sense that there was a lot going on behind the curtain; I’d say in retrospect that perception both was and wasn’t true. I was very young, but assiduous in my own personal work, and I had taken my first initiation; I was active in lots of the public email groups and social ‘scene’ – but this felt like the first invitation into a more guarded and trusted part of the community. I wanted to be worthy of it, and I wanted to impress; that was the risk. Thus the nerves.

Max Ernst, Rose de Noël (c. 1965)

I’d also been intensely interested in the Gnostic Mass itself for a couple of years, though I had no interest in the OTO. It is a beautiful and powerful ritual, subtly patterned and constructed. I’d used portions of its invocations in other rituals, meditated on its structure to try to understand it better. I though I knew and understood the powers involved, but I would be surprised that evening.

It turned out I didn’t have to go in alone: I met my initiators (through whom the invitation had come) just down the road from the house. Here’s a measure of how much I wanted to make a good impression: I’d been told to bring a robe, but the instructions were otherwise vague. So – in a move almost parodically in keeping with my Virgo ascendant – I’d hand-washed and ironed both my black and my white robe, and folded both carefully in my bag. (It turned out black was the order of the day.) A benefit of long spiritual practice has been to ease, even if only slightly, this somewhat neurotic tendency to overprepare; it is also why I had to spend a bit longer than most novices mastering the apparently elementary practice of relaxation. We robed and we were led into the temple.

Have you ever had your consciousness changed just by walking into a room? It happens. Some of it is just what the psychonauts call ‘set and setting’, sure: the rising haze of incense smoke, the light of candles, the two pillars and the diaphanous veil hanging between them. But sometimes walking into a room in which magic has been practiced regularly can be like opening the door on a hot oven. Do magic in a room for long enough and the brickwork gets haunted. You might have felt like that when someone starts an invocation and something plunges through the long run of your spine, and pulls at the back of your neck. It was like that that night.

Before that evening a friend had said to me ‘well, they’re getting on a bit – don’t be surprised if they can’t quite pull it off any more.’ How short-sighted and arrogant youth can be. At the start of the ritual, the priest comes forth from the tomb, as if dead: it is the priestess who will restore him to life. He says: ‘I am a man among men. How should I be worthy to administer the virtues to the Brethren?’ Those words have particular resonances in Crowley’s magical system, but they chime differently when spoken by a man in his mid-70s emerging from the grave – called out of the tomb by the voice of a priestess with whom he has built a practice over decades, whose voice must be more familiar to him than his own. Age makes the combination of frailty and strength in that question more apparent. Just the length of any life, with its inevitable alloy of failure and success, adds gravity to its simple premise: I am a man among men. True rituals, you might say, make meaning in excess of their authors’ intentions. 

Participating in a ritual in which one has, apparently, nothing to do can sometimes be difficult. It requires cultivating generous and absorbed attention to the action, a ‘presentness’ that almost every contemporary cultural imperative pushes against. I found no difficulty, though, because I was transfixed by the priest and priestess: the Mass depends on that current of intensity between them, a basis, a kind of tuning note for the powers they are bringing down. But I was also seeing something else, an intimacy at once public and yet inaccessible to anyone else in the room, at times as if there was no-one else in the temple.

Crowley doubtless envisaged his priest and priestess younger, perhaps more obviously virile or stereotypically buxom. His erotic imagination tended toward the cliche. As the ritual continues, the priestess is seated on the altar behind a veil – in this case a sheer gauze – and she disrobes as the priest makes his invocation, justly famous and beautiful:

O circle of Stars whereof our Father is but the younger brother, marvel beyond imagination, soul of infinite space, before whom Time is Ashamed, the mind bewildered, and the understanding dark, not unto Thee may we attain, unless Thine image be Love. Therefore by seed and root and stem and bud and leaf and flower and fruit do we invoke Thee. 

It’s hard to account for the sublimity of that moment. She was regal behind the veil, absolutely beautiful, and I was absorbed, certain I was in the presence of a mystery. We use words that aren’t really precise to describe that moment – overshadowing, presence – but as she recited the exultant invocation in reply I found myself profoundly moved: ‘I am the blue-lidded daughter of sunset; I am the naked brilliance of the voluptuous night-sky. To me! To me!

Part of what moved me was the age of her body: marked by time and age and work, the kind of body usually invisible, disliked, undesired enthroned on the altar. It recast all those words of sensual ecstasy – the naked brilliance, the voluptuous, the daughter, all pleasure and purple – which alway risk being bywords for instrumental personal gratification. I felt afterwards like a constellation of words and their meanings had slipped their shackles, expanded and rearranged themselves.

I want to be precise, because it was this moment that has been on my mind. The divine beauty I perceived was not a brief image of the beauty of youth emerging as a trace through an aged body, as if to redeem the fact of age. It was instead a beauty particular to, constituted by, age, and – importantly – no less sensual because of it. As a very young adult, it displaced and refashioned what I thought about beauty and the body, a matter of particular struggle for a young gay man. All that stood unrealised and unexpressed but dawning when I stood before that altar just a little later and declared, feeling the depth of the words with new meaning: there is no part of me that is not of the gods.


After the rite, we ate and drank together, with much conversation among longstanding friends and – yes – some occult luminaries. I’m sure I was intensely earnest as I often was back then. I was so worried, so often, that people wouldn’t see how seriously and sincerely I took things. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was also in the foothills of a serious spiritual crisis of the kind sincere young people sometimes go through. Part of that was wondering how to do what I wanted to do in the world, while also maintaining a spiritual life – given the social and professional taboos involved in open practice. Another part was the realisation – which I was running from – that the initiatory route I was taking was one I didn’t want. That what was calling me was elsewhere. There were other contingent factors, too boring and personal to write about here.

I don’t know whether the priestess saw this in me, intense and serious as I must have been. I know now that these things are often more visible to others than one expects. Later in the evening, she took me into the temple and put into my hand the sword that had been used in the ritual, one that had been passed down from a founder of one of her magical traditions. It is again hard to describe the meaning of that small gesture, which was one of trust and kindness, freely given. I realised then, and it remained true in all the consternation of the following years, as now, that my commitment to the mysteries was absolute. That remained true even when doubting my place in them, or the tradition I found myself in. That there was nowhere I would rather be, that it felt as right, as familiar and solid, as that sword in my hand.

I never got to thank either priestess or priest properly for that evening. Both now are dead, though their legacy continues. It’s hard, really, to know how I could have done so adequately. I hope this short note also goes some way to conveying my gratitude.

The Angelical Stone: ‘an Oraculous Method or Instrument for the Seeing Opening & Discovering of Spirits’

Sloane MS 648 f. 77v: an account of visions seen in Prague.

My work often takes me to some of the great libraries of the world, and when I’m in one I try to look through its manuscript collection, and maintain a list (ever-growing and rarely diminishing) of papers and lines of inquiry to follow, should I ever get a chance. One thread I’ve been following through the manuscript labyrinth of my home library in London is the interest in stones of various kinds by early modern magicians, diviners and alchemists.

This is partly motivated by my own practice: I use various stones and mirrors for spirit-calling and scrying (including a very beautiful mirror I saw in a dream and commissioned The Hermetic Workshop to build for me.) But it also comes from an interest in the historical practice of magician forebears and the odd status of stones and stone-gazing in early modern magic. Stone or crystal scrying is a practice which moves between elite and popular contexts in the period, and I don’t think it’s always clear what direction influence travels in. That aside, of course, ‘stone’ in an early modern magical context can always have alchemical as well as visionary qualities, and in a few texts it’s not always clear which property is intended (and it could always, perhaps, be both.) This line of inquiry is also prompted by a long-standing personal interest in a group of angelic magicians whose extensive journals survive, and who used a variety of glasses and stones to communicate with the entities originally described in John Dee’s diaries – in fact, one of the group appears to have owned a glass business. More on those magicians at a later date.

The unpublished text transcribed below is an anonymous letter in a collection of Hartlibian manuscripts in the British Library, Sloane MS 648. The Hartlib Circle has been extensively studied (most famously by Charles Webster in The Great Instauration from 1975) though the magical and alchemical interests of many of its members has tended – in my view – to be underemphasised. Sloane 648’s interests tend towards the mystical, prophetic, apocalyptic and Rosicrucian end of things and gathers many odd little texts of interest to historians of science, magic and religious politics of the period. Our text is catalogued as a ‘vision’ although it isn’t: it’s a text of spiritual alchemy, and outlines the properties of two stones, the Lapis Angelicus and the Lapis Evangelicus, which its author accounts far above the more familiar alchemical stone. The passage on the Lapis Angelicus – the Angelic Stone – is especially interesting, because it refers to it as an ‘Oraculous Method’ by which the user can see spirits. Quite what this stone is – seeing instrument, alchemical product, spiritual technique – seems at moments to shimmer, unclear.

The text below is a semi-diplomatic transcription. The hand – probably that of a Hartlibian copyist – is a very clear and elegant italic and very easy to read; the hands vary through the collection, which is a collation of many different original items.

BL Sloane MS 648 ff. 99r-100r


October 19. 1660

For the Lapis Angelicus & Evangelicus, as they are onely
Analogicall expressions, & are soe much each of them greater
then the other, & the lower so much greater then the La-
pis Physicus, as the Lapis Physicus is above Gold itselfe.
The explication of both wch is onely thus;

That as the more noble use of the Lapis Physicus is
rather as it is applyable to Medicine, the Metalls; soe the
most noble of all is in 2. other respects not yet knowne
to the world, but to some of the choysest of the Adepti, in
wch sense they doe now enjoy it, it may be in a more singu-
lar manner then any or ye most of them that went before
him. Vizt As from the foundation & light of this
the Visible Creation, & the whole structure & frame of it
cometh to be enlightened. 2dly As the Corruption & Male-
volency not of the Metalls onely, but it may be of the Plan-
etts themselves, & of the Aire cometh to be much corrected
& retunded, if not wholly purged by it. & the Beasts to feele
also the effects of it, who must & will finde the Benefit
of the Restitution of things.

The Lapis Angelicus therefore is an Oraculous Method
or Instrument for the seeing opening & discovering of
Spirits in generall, & of such invisible Powers & Substan-
ces, as the Eye can noe way see. And hath this certaine
effect upon man, more much & higher then the Lapis Phy-
sicus, that it purgeth ye spirit or minde of man as from
darkness & the power of sense, soe from dead workes.
Yet wherein the Lapis Aurificus is weake, this is power-
full & strong. For though ye Lapis Physicus may give Riches,
yet it giveth noe more; This not onely Wisdome, wch is 
above Riches, but such a wisdome, as ye very lustre &
presence of it, not onely dischargeth the soule from care
& all feares actually & really, but from all covetousnes,
ambition, & all other more sensuall & lower passions, as
use notwithstanding the common & acquired wisdome
incident to the best of men, to be turbulent, distracting



& disturbing of them; & therefore soe much of a higher &
more nobler Nature then the other, by how much content &
satisfaction is much higher then bare plenty or possession.
It is called Lapis Angelicus not from any feigned, but from
a reall ground, as standing in that substance, wch is Abstract
& Immateriall, like as the Lapis Physicus in that, wch is Tan-
gible & Materiall; And in that also wch is also common to
the Angells themselves with man: Beeing the admirable
& stupendious Harmony, Power, & deepe magiks arising
from the profound speculation originall, & connexion 
of number simply, essentially & wholly, abstractedly &
by itselfe considered.

The Lapis Evangelicus is yet more stupendious,
more immediately Divine, more ravishing, bright 
& Glorious, requiring & giveing a heart larger then the
Sand of the Sea; yea larger then that of Solomons, to 
discerne it (And if you may judge me at all serious,
or these things serious of wch we are noe speaking, I
do neither mocke nor hyperbolize with you), and 
you may therefore beare with me, If I either want 
a fitt name, or a fulnesse & clearnesse of phrase, or
expression to intimate or describe it by. Its use being 
for the opening the Threasures of Revelation, the sure &
infallible rootes of all sciences in men, the exquisit
beauty & structure of the true Pansophicall Temple,
the true ends, ordinations, series & orders of all things
as proceeding form the Divine Minde of the Father, through
the Spirit into the Mediator, & by the Mediator brought forth
into that actuall Existency & Beeing, as they are.
By this onely is discovered therefore the true state, true
Life, Nature, Dignity, Potentiality, Glory & Headship
of man, his ineffable Union & Priviledges in, by, & 
with the great Lord the Mediator; The Way unto the
Tree of Life, & Garden of Eden, lying open unto man
through the mystery of his Union, & through the



nature of the Mediator with other mysteries touching ye
Father, blessed for ever, not here to be named or enquired.
The actuall Sight & Possession, of wch in some measure the
said Adepti have, makeing their Peace, Joy & Pleasure
in the Lord, when with him in the mount to be unexpressible.
And yet all that I have now said of this Excellent Stone
I should judge nothing, were one thing wanting in it,
wch this Stone, & this Stone onely can give, vizt The
Palpability, Security, & irrefragable certainty conveyed
to the minde by it, that this rich, glorious, & beautiful 
order or series of things that they see, is what it is, 
& what it is discovered to be; & can be noe other.
Heaven, Earth, ye Scriptures, Word & all things in their
Severall natures & effects signing, sealing, & wittnessing
to the truth of them.

Thus you see, I am not unwilling to gratifie you,
nor will I tye you up from communicating it to any,
you think it fitt, sober or worthy to receive, & to en-
tertaine such mysteries & freedomes; onely doe it with
Election & Discretion, & to all men whatsoever conceale
the name of

There is much that is interesting in this very short text: its author’s interest in the restitutive or healing effects of the first stone on parts of nature and even the planets themselves, for instance. This might be taken as an interest in remedial work on the dispositions of the planets in the birth chart, but it may also reflect a more general desire for restitution of a world marred by religious violence and conflagration. Unsurprisingly for a Hartlibian text, the later invocation of the ‘Pansophical’ Temple suggests its author was interested in Comenian schemes for universal peace and the reformation of education. It is likely the writer was Benjamin Worsley, and his desire for anonymity comes not only from his subject matter but the recent restoration of the monarchy and his former association with Cromwell.

The Angelical Stone, according to Worsley, is ‘abstract and immaterial’ and along with its power of spiritual sight it also gives access to particular spiritual states, a kind of adept-like apatheia – freedom from government by the passions. This distinguishes it from any shew-stone, of course – which are very much tangible and material – and leaves us thinking of a particular technique or inner state. Various modern spiritual paths which use the language and images of alchemy would recognise this state as a step on the initiatory way, though I would be wary of too much retrospective projection on these texts. Nonetheless, Worsley does also seem to suggest these ‘stones’, or at least knowledge of them, can be passed on.

Obviously, Worsley is more interested in the spiritual states offered by the stones – in keeping with his sincere if heterodox Christianity – than the opportunity they offer to speak with spirits. But it’s worth noting that there obviously was a tradition linking the products of alchemy with the possibility of spiritual conversation: Boyle’s fragmentary ‘Dialogue on the Converse with Angels Aided by the Philosophers’ Stone’ offers one nod to it. (Boyle was one of Worsley’s correspondents.) Wider references to the Lapis Angelicum in the period are much rarer, but the most notable occurs in Ashmole’s preface to the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (1652, B1r ff.)

Lastly, as touching the Angelicall Stone, it is so subtill, saith the aforesaid Author, that it can neither be seene, felt, or weighed; but Tasted only. The voyce of Man (which bears some proportion to these subtill properties,) comes short in comparison; Nay the Air it selfe is not so penetrable, and yet (Oh mysterious wonder!) A Stone, that will lodge in the Fire to Eternity without being prejudiced. It hath a Divine Power, Celestiall, and Invisible, above the rest; and endowes the possessor with Divine Gifts. It affords the Apparition of Angells, and gives a power of conversing with them, by Dreames and Revelations: nor dare any Evill Spirit approach the Place where it lodgeth. Because it is a Quintessence wherein there is no corruptible Thing: and where the Elements are not corrupt, no Devill can stay or abide.

Ashmole, of course, was deeply interested in angelic conversation – and all kinds of magic – as well as alchemy. And though these texts seem to take us far from crystal-gazing, they are good testament to the desire to speak with spirits that preoccupied many curious, experimental minds in the late 17th century. Perhaps in conclusion it is worth emphasising, too, that both Ashmole and Worsley see this power not simply as a mantic skill but a spiritual gift, fruit of the inner equanimity and self-realisation stressed in both their texts.

Theatrum p.379, an emblem closing a transcription from the Ripley Scroll.

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