Monday, October 17, 2005

Mysteries of Mithras:

Mysteries of Mithras: the pagan belief that shaped the Christian world. By Payam Nabarz,
Inner Traditions, 2005 isbn 1594770271 $14.95 approx £14.99, 230pp, heavily illustrated.

This is an engaging and entertaining book encompassing the author _ s personal journey into the magick of a Roman mystery cult. The author, who has an Iranian background, was drawn to the schema of initiatory work, as set out in Aleister Crowley _ s Liber Astarte. The idea of this particular practice is to counteract the overly intellectual character of the western mystoi, to thereby activate a more devotional mind set. Many on this path find it useful to work in a tradition that already possesses some form of cultural resonance. It was for this reason that the author chose to work with Mithraism. This book is one of the fruits of that labour. Not surprisingly the book therefore presents a lively combination of mystical insight and academic research.

The first half of the book sets out the basics of the Mithraic history and iconography. This section is a mine of interesting information, perhaps a little breathless in delivery; only occasionally inaccurate, well illustrated and often thought provoking. It is here that the author sets out certain facts concerning the influence of Mithraism on Early Christian iconography. In reality this is a minor component of the book, although the one that the publisher, rather misleadingly in my opinion, chooses to make the book _ s chief selling point. Personally I wasn _ t too convinced by this line of reasoning. I agree that Mithraism had some impact on Christianity after its rise to Roman state religion in the third century. However I cannot see how this justifies the conclusion that it shaped the Christian world _ surely if anything, Christianity shaped the Christian world?

The book _ s real core is the revivalist material, where over several chapters, the author sets out the main components of the cult. Here it adheres as much as sources will allow, to the inner workings of the Roman cult. Thus there is a chapter on the celebrated _ Mithras Liturgy _ _ a sorcerous rite used by the mage, whose library of magical books was only discovered in the last century, after two millennia buried in the sands of the desert. Into this mix, the author adds some material from the Persian manifestation of the cult, with a chapter on the pre-Zoroastrian goddess Anahita. This does much to correct the false impression that the cult of Mithras is only for the macho.

Some of these themes continue in what is undoubtedly the core of the book, a modern reconstruction of the seven fold initiatory schema of Mithraism. Archaeological and textual records demonstrate that the cult shared the classical world _ s obsession with the symbolism of the number seven _ seven stars in the starry plough, seven steps to heaven, seven Hathos etc., etc. Perhaps we shouldn _ t be surprised that the actual details of a mystery cult are now lost to us. So the author uses whatever is to hand, grafting material from classical and Persian sources, and indeed where necessary reusing contemporary magical material, until the result is a pleasing revivalist version. I sometimes found it a little hard to see the join. Also, although the material works well as a literary fugue, I wasn _ t sure how it would pan out as an actual set of ritual workings? The rubric was a tad confusing. But I for one was happy to just read it as a literary creation - which is indeed a form of trance or meditation work. Anything else and I wouldn _ t be sure if I was supposed to be breaking off from the train of thought, to put more wood on the bonfire. Seen this way, this book did take me on an interesting and thoughtful excursion into the uncharted territory. - [mogg]

Saturday, October 01, 2005

The Ninth Arch by Kenneth Grant

‘a rush of mephitic air from the unsealed depths’

Kenneth Grant, The Ninth Arch (Starfire Publishing 02) £30
available from

‘Can you in good conscience recommend "The Ninth Arch" to someone who is only familiar with some of the early work of Grant? That is, is the new book comprehensible to a neophyte of Grant's work or should I resume investigation elsewhere in his canon, in the improbable event that copies can be found? I've read "AC and the Hidden God" and part of "The Magical Revival".’

Umm good question. I regard myself as a child of the first trilogy, Cults of the Shadow, Magical Revival and Aleister Crowley and the Hidden God. I never really expected the second trilogy to even appear – Nightside of Eden, Outside the Circles of Time and Hecate’s Fountain; and I never even looked at the third trilogy, Outer Gateways, The Mauve Zone and now the Ninth Arch. So perhaps I am a bit of a guinea pig and give it a go. I was surprised how intriguing the Ninth Arch can be. I found it, to use KG’s own words ‘a rush of mephitic air from the unsealed depths’, a ‘Kamsin blast.’ truly something different in a word of publishing mediocrity.

‘The Ninth Arch is an ancient Masonic concept relating to the legend of the three Grand Masters engaged upon the erection of King Solomon’s Temples. After it was completed, the three deposited therein those things which were important to the craft, such as the arc of the covenant, a pot of manna, the rod of Aaron, the book of the law etc.’ Inscribed about it was the lost or unutterable Word.’ The purpose of Grant’s book is to explain this mystery and reveal the word.

The heart of Grant’s book is a 924 verse Book of the Spider, a mystical text channelled to Grants New-Isis Lodge in the 1950s. Around this sutra, Grant weaves almost six hundred pages of comment, mainly in the form of mini essays. It sounds an unpromising structure but it really works and is well suited to the lucid dreamers or to use Grant’s parlance, the inhabitants of the mauve zone to whom this books is addressed. Having no acquaintance with Grant’s earlier work might actually make this book even more evocative. There were some very obscure sections that would only really make sense if I totally entered into Grant’s system, but there were many comments that seemed to throw light on almost any style of magick.

After all it is the books central thesis that something out there is trying to tell us something using a whole variety of mediums and modes of communication. Crowley, he tells us, ‘with prophetic acumen [ ] presaged the massive interest in alien phenomena which erupted soon after his death and which was caused by Kenneth Arnold’s ‘flying saucer’ sighting [in 1947]. Whatever one’s attitude to such phenomena – positive, negative or indifferent – there is no just denial of the fact that the wave initiated an era of psychomythology unparalleled since man conceived the idea of the ‘gods’…. unless, therefore, we are to write off the entire ‘myth’ as an unprecedented mass delusion, we have to accept the fact that something approaching a seemingly new and inexplicable nature began slowly and insidiously to disturb the world in the year 1947.’. (p xix)

Acting on the assumptions that ‘Many a true word spoken in jest’; ‘the ‘ritualists of the New Isis Lodge utilized certain novels and stories as other magicians might use paintings or musical compositions to effect perichoresis and astral encounters’ xxxvi. Apart from the usually occult litany, H P Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood et al Grant primary source is Richard Marsh’s novel The Beetle which contains the only published account known [to Grant] of the Children of Isis who emerge in the channelled text in rather startling form.

I haven’t read Marsh’s novel but guess that Grant’s reworking of it is likely to be far more evocative. Really Grant’s books are a new artform what I have in the past called ‘auto-romance’. I picked it up near the end of the day, not expecting a factual hit, although there are some fascinating facts here somewhere – but more as a collective grimoire. I take a little snort and am then primed to enter the mauve zone. Here’s a little taster.

The oracle
31-2 below the tunnels of the spider hanging athwart the network of alleys choked in the mud, the sand of the Mokkatam hills …

The comment
The spider is here symbolic of the web of alleys that existed at the time Crowley received from Aiwass “The threefold book of the Law”, not far distant from the Mokkatam hills. This verse sets the scene for a series of events concerning the Children of Isis, of whose activities a fragmentary account was given in fictional form by Richard March writing in the 1890s. It is assumed that he was oblivious of the actuality of the events he described. It may not be so easy to assume that he was not an indirect descendant of that Obed Marsh of who Lovecraft writes in The Shadow over Innsmouth. It is also not impossible that he was related to Dr. Phineas March Black, a great uncle of the present commentator. Details of Dr. Black’s mysterious life are given in Against the Light, which contains much information relevant to this Book OKBISh. Note that the present verse constitutes verse Thirty-One of the Books as a whole.’

Kenneth Grant’s numerology may be suspect, his historical sources unreliable, but his poetical intuition is strangely prescient. I may not want to be part of the only true order but I can’t help admiring his eclecticism, his culture, his generosity towards other artists and writers. So this book is not be quite the triumphal arch many were hoping for to top out the edifice of previous books, but it is a final act from a highly creative magician and writer who has done more than any other living adept to explicate Crowley’s magical universe and to initiate us all into some very sinister mysteries.