Dictionary of Occult, Hermetic and Alchemical Sigils by Fred Gettings
Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, 1981 

 

 “When the wise men of old (whom we call in the Greek tongue ‘Philosophers’) found any arcana, any hidden things, either of a natural kind, or resulting from the activities of man, they were accustomed to hide these in various ways and with the aid of figures.”
— Crollius

 

As I was perusing my university’s library the other day, I was thinking, “My, for a Catholic school, this place sure does have a lot of occult books” which seconds later was followed by, “Oh, right…” Regardless of any preconceived notions I might have had about what books can be found in which locations, I’m quite happy to have found this one. At least now, despite the odd looks I received while signing it out, I can read it for free, as opposed to spending $500 to $1000 and buying it used off Amazon.

 

For a dictionary, it’s fairly readable, in part because each entry is so brief. The first paragraph of the author’s introduction describes the book as a “reference, guide and source-book for those involved in general occult studies” (7). I must disagree. It’s for obsessive geeks working through old texts on alchemy. And maybe a demonologist or two. Beyond that, it’s simply far too extensive to be more than a curiosity in a collector’s library. (I desperately want a copy of my own.)

 

As for what it contains, the author gives “the meaning of over 9,000 sigils which appear in European alchemical, astrological, geomantic and related hermetic sources, along with a unique graphic index by means of which the majority of such sigils may be identified” (7). This index is especially useful if you’ve found a sigil but have no idea what it might mean. It’s organized by how many pen strokes it would take to draw the sigil, and whether the drawn lines are straight, curved, enclosed, or contain circles or other shapes. The appendices contain lists of sigils drawn from specific texts, which is helpful if you want to compare sources and dates.

 

Besides drooling over the bibliography, I was also interested in the collection of ‘secret scripts’ (read: magical alphabets) presented. Having been a victim of Bad Neo-Pagan Referencing (or would that be The Bad Referencing of Neo-Pagans?) for a number of years, it was nice to see the sources of some of the alphabets that I’d found randomly tossed into New Age books. I enjoyed just picking the book up and reading random pages, though I haven’t found much practical use for the information. Unless you belong to one of the categories in paragraph two, I’d recommend looking for a copy in a library rather than hunting down and buying the book.

 

Oh, and for a more intellectual review, click here.

Damned: An Illustrated History of the Devil by Robert Muchembled
Translated from the French by Noël Schiller
Éditions du Seuil, 2004 (Chronicle Books)

“Hell is other people.”
— Sartre

 I’m happy that I bought a used copy of this book rather than shelling out about $90 for a new one. It’s not that I don’t like it, on the contrary, 200 glossy pages of devilish artwork is exactly what I want on my coffee table. I just was hoping for something a bit more in-depth for the history side of things. 

Each chapter in the book begins with a few double columned pages relating the main themes of the following pictures. It’s beautifully illustrated with everything from early woodcuts to luscious watercolours and oil paintings to modern comic book art. Beginning around the twelfth century, the author traces the “thread of evil” that has been “interwoven in the evolution of Western culture” (6) up until present times. Mirroring LaVey’s statement that Satan is the Church’s best friend, having kept them in business all these years, Muchembled shows the devil acting as a “catalyst for saints and evangelizers to develop” (6).  

Starting with the ‘invention’ of the devil and his development through to the fifteenth century, Muchembled touches on the various traditions that gave rise to so many images of the devil. He mentions Satan’s rather undefined identity as a bad angel in the realm of monastery-dwelling monks and theologians before being formally attached to surviving folkloric traditions of pagan spirits. (Again, the author doesn’t go into any sort of detail. The information given is an overview, nothing more).  

Chapter two deals with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and contains a lot of nice pictures of the supposed Witches’ Sabbath. (Goya’s goat is sadly missing.) Each image has a couple paragraphs beside it that places it in context in view of its time period and place of origin. The pictures themselves do not follow the chronology of the chapters (the art is taken from a wide range of dates), though they relate to each chapter’s theme.    

Probably the most disturbing image is Félicien Rops’ Calvary, which depicts a nude Magdalene about to be strangled with her own hair. Dirck Bouts the Elder’s bat-like demons are a close second. Okay, and Max Ernst’s The Robing of the Bride. This book isn’t bedtime reading material (unless, of course, you enjoy Bosch-esque nightmares).  

After a brief interlude of Devilish Women, the author returns to his timeline with the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. Although one would expect that after the Enlightenment Satan would fade along with the religious institution to which he belonged, the devil was rescued by both literature and art as the ultimate rebel. Finally, the author ends with a chapter devoted to images of Satan in film, modern art, and comic books. 

As far as art books go, I’ve never seen anything like this one. The Satanic imagery is great, but what this book really shows us is our fear (or, in some cases, the historical Church’s fear): Fear of our supposedly ‘base’ instincts, fear of women, fear of homosexuality, fear of heresy and freedom of thought, fear of nature, fear of each other, and fear (however laughable) of an oppressive, unjust, omnipotent god. It shows us ourselves as we do not like to be seen, bringing a bit of edge to what is, at first glance, just a collection of macabre art.

The Devil’s Apocrypha

February 10, 2008

The Devil’s Apocrypha by John A. De Vito

Writers Club Press (iUniverse, Inc.) 2002

 

And what should I be? All but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater?”
— Milton

 

Although originally intended as a work of religious satire, I’m not surprised that this book spawned (however temporarily) groups of devoted followers using it as a religious text. Despite the rather overused ‘secrets revealed in hidden manuscript that is now lost/destroyed’ ploy at the start, The Devil’s Apocrypha then kicks it into high-gear with a retelling of the stories of the Bible, and goes far beyond the God=Evil Satan=Good dichotomy that could easily occur when someone proposes to tell the Other Side of the Story.

 

I’m not up to date on all of the various alien/god/seeding conspiracy theories, but this one’s a doozy. The basic premise is that various highly evolved spirits escaped their dying universe by jumping to this one, and then realized that in order to survive here, they needed to feed off the “power of sentient faith.” These spirits, called Angelica and led by the Trinity (read: God), manipulated the evolution of humans so that they would fear and worship them as gods. The catch being that in doing so, humans developed souls, which gave them the potential to one day evolve into Angelica themselves. And if they’re Angelica, they’re not worshipful and subservient humans. No problem, says the Trinity, we’ll just make sure that they can’t evolve beyond their bodies and keep them enslaved forever. And that’s when Lucifer stands up and says, that would be a really shitty thing to do. For defending the free will of all humanity, Lucifer becomes the reviled Satan, forever trapped with his loyal legions in the darkness beneath the earth.

 

Besides making me even more wary of organized religions, this novel forced me to ask myself some big questions, not only what I thought about the origin and fate of the universe, but also who is in control of my life, and am I thinking for myself? Who is impinging upon my free will and am I letting them? The chapter entitled The Book of Philosophies offers better advice on living than anything else I’ve read.

 

That said, I do have a few contentions. Okay, just one: I despise the pseudo-archaic language and find it distracting. Thee and thou do nothing for me.

 

After a grand revision of the Biblical-era tales, the book offers its own Revelations. It is a call to arms against blind faith and ignorance. It makes you confront your beliefs, and skewer them, if need be. I lent this book to a friend and he lost his faith. It made me reassess what I thought about these spirits themselves, and their place in our myths. If there are gods, do they need our worship to survive? Does faith have a place, so long as it is tempered by reason? Of all the concepts in this book, the fact that Satan isn’t as bad as we’ve been told was probably the easiest for me to accept. I guess I’m just predisposed that way. And although I’m not sure if gods exist, or where they might be if they do, I’ll light a candle for the Adversary, just in case he needs it.