Book Review: Aleister Crowley and the Temptation of Politics

Aleister Crowley, the so-called Wickedest Man in the World,  is quickly becoming a subject of serious academic study. No doubt this is greatly aided by the number of scholars working on the Great Beast, but certainly the quality of scholarship produced must also be affecting perceptions about this controversial figure—for the better!

Of course, you’d be hard-pressed to delve into the field without bumping into Marco Pasi, a professor at the University of Amsterdam who’s also an expert on all things Crowley. His recent book, Aleister Crowley and the Temptation of Politics, looks at Crowley through the lens of—you guessed it—politics, and examines the relationships Crowley had with various movers-and-shakers in the political world. It goes without saying that the book provides significant insight into this specific dimension of Crowley’s life.

I had the opportunity to review this book for The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies. If this sounds like your thing, book reviews can be read for free over at the website. Here’s a snippet for those of who you can’t wait:

Throughout Temptation, the reader meets a cadre of well-connected media figures, political agitators and bonafide spies with whom Crowley cavorted during his pragmatic period. These “illuminated politicians,” such as J. F. C. Fuller, Thomas Driberg, and Gerald Hamilton, sought Crowley out as a spiritual guru, and Crowley in turn sought their connections to bring his new religion to the masses. Crowley’s lobbying in this regard has led to much speculation about his relationship to totalitarian regimes (Fascism, Nazism, Communism). Crowley emerges, however, as an ideological chameleon who appealed indiscriminately to large-scale movements which could serve his missionary purposes.

Since this is my first “scholarly” book review, I want to thank Christopher Chase and Chas Clifton over at The Pomegranate for giving me the opportunity to review what is no doubt a very important work for this field. I would also like to thank the folks at Acumen Publishing for generously supplying me with a review copy of the book. Huzzah!

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Similia Similibus: Sympathy in Magic and Cursing

This article is cross-posted from AncientCurses.com, a research project about curses and cursing in the ancient world. If you would like to read the full article, or would like to know more about cursing, I invite you to visit the website!

Scholarship on curses often explores the significance of cursing rituals—how did performers of curses expect them to work? Did they believe that the malicious things they wished upon their target would come true? For example, a famous “voodoo doll” at the Louvre depicts a female figure with nails driven into various points on the body. Did the person who made this curse hope that the woman would literally suffer from being pierced, or was something else at work?

A Case of Sympathetic Magic?

The term “sympathetic magic” was popularized by Sir James Frazer, an anthropologist who released his influential book on magic and religion, The Golden Bough, in 1890. While much of his work has been questioned (for example, the idea that certain stages of belief were more primitive than others), there can be no argument that his work laid the foundation for investigating magic. For example, it was Frazer who first described how the “magician’s logic” worked:

“From the first of these principles, namely the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second [the Law of Contact or Contagion] he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not.”

“Both branches of magic, the homoeopathic and the contagious, may conveniently be comprehended under the general name of Sympathetic Magic, since both assume that things act on each other at a distance through a secret sympathy, the impulse being transmitted from one to the other by means of what we may conceive as a kind of invisible ether, not unlike that which is postulated by modern science for a precisely similar purpose, namely, to explain how things can physically affect each other through a space which appears to be empty.”

(Frazer, The Golden Bough, III.1.1, III.1.2)

Fritz Graf observes that the concept of sympatheia did not originate with Frazer. In fact, ancient thinkers such as Plotinus and Theocritus also believed that everything in the universe was linked and that some things were more connected than others due to sharing similar properties or what not (Graf 205-206). Nevertheless, modern scholars dispute that instances of sympathetic magic indicate a straightforward equivalence on the part of the practitioner, or that a magician is manipulating an “invisible ether.” While there is something to the ideal of similarity, Frazer’s view has generally fallen out of favour, and we’ll see why shortly.

Instances of Sympatheia

So what would constitute sympathetic magic? I mentioned the figurine at the Louvre (pictured here), but there are other ways a curse could be considered in sympathy with its target. In addition to figurines, many curses also included what is called ousia, a Greek word that literally means being or substance. In this context, it refers to physical objects that belong to the victim—things like hair or bits of clothing which stood-in for the persons they represented (Gager 16-17). For example, one “love spell” from the Greek Magical Papyri specifically requests the “magical material” of ousia:

“Wondrous spell for binding a lover: Take wax [or clay] from a potter’s wheels and make two figurines, a male a female. Make the male in the form of Ares fully armed, holding a sword / in his left hand and threatening to plunge it into the right side of her neck. And make her with her arms behind her back and down on her knees. And you are to fasten the magical material on her neck…” PGM IV.296-466

I left out a lot of the rest of the spell, but it would be fitting to disclose it here. Copper needles are stuck in various places on the figurine and supernatural figures are appealed to in order to bind the target and compel her affection. Many of the pin placements (brain, mouth, genitals, etc.) correspond to specific requests that the victim lose her appetite, have restless thoughts, and be hindered sexually. Can we say there is a correspondence? If so, to what extent were such effects expected? Graf argues that “sorcerers did not wish to wound the victim’s members in the same way that they pierced the members of a figurine” (Graf 145). So what was going on then?

Read the entire post at AncientCurses.com!

Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

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Advanced Greek Resource: Hansen and Quinn

Greek: An Intensive CourseAt the upper levels of ancient Greek, it’s easy to focus on translating material and ignore the nuts-and-bolts grammar that underlies the words on the page. I must admit, I am a bit of a cowboy when it comes to translations—I jump right in and translate the words as they are, devil may care!

Of course, the problem with this is that I often occasionally get things wrong. Lately, I’ve been trying to slow down and understand not just the gist of a given sentence, but also how each word is working to generate that meaning.

In other words, I’m paying attention to grammar.

On a practical level, knowing the finer grammatical points helps to smooth out those more bumpy passages, for sure. Plus, professors usually aren’t only looking for one’s translation abilities; they want to see you know your stuff. In the end, being able to distinguish between a natural result clause and an actual result clause simply makes one’s life easier all around.

So I’ve been spending some time brushing up on those areas I’m not quite so firm on. Luckily, my tutor recommended an advanced textbook by Hardy Hansen and Gerald M. Quinn called Greek: an Intensive Course. Unlike introductory textbooks that often have oodles of vocab and practice readings, Hansen & Quinn focuses on grammar. All of it.

There are a few things I really enjoy about this text. First, each section clearly explains the concept at hand and provides the sorts of clues you need to diagnose similar material in the wild. Second, the examples all use a similar (relatively simple) vocabulary. Instead of trying to learn a ton of vocab, you can focus on  syntactical structures and grammatical concepts—noting how small changes can significantly affect otherwise identical sentences. Finally, each section has a set of drills which are very useful and adhere to the textbook material. Again, the focus is on practicing the concept, not on learning vocab, reading, etc. Not that vocab and reading aren’t important—they are!—but working with the examples as they are presented in Hansen & Quinn helps one to better diagnose primary source material.

Best of all, the exercises are of reasonable length. It’s enough to get the concept down, but not so much that you spend all day on it!

If you are in a similar situation, I recommend you get yourself a copy of Greek: An Intensive Course. Even if you don’t work through the exercises, you’ll find it helpful as a general resource. I hope you’ll find it as valuable as I do!

Learning Greek? Here are a few other posts you might find helpful:

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Curse Words

This article is cross-posted from AncientCurses.com. If you would like to read the full article, or would like to know more about cursing, I invite you to visit the website!

Cursing as a practice is looked at from several different angles by scholars. On the one hand, some look to the historical import of cursing to understand the societies that produced material objects such as curse tablets (someone like John Gager fits this bill). Others attempt to categorize curses by the language they use or the subject matter addressed (Christopher A. Faraone, who attempts to categorize cursing formulas fits well here).

It seems fitting that we take a step back and a look at curse words themselves in order to understand the world of of cursing. This is only a partial list—there really are so many terms that a single list would inevitable miss something! Nevertheless, I will do my best to introduce some of the terminology that is associated with curses and the practice of cursing. Think of it as a starter kit for the study of cursing!

The Terms

Anathema A term for a curse used by the Roman Catholic Church. It originally referred to book curses (curses inscribed in books to prevent thievery), but later came to refer to curses in general (Drogin 60).

Ara (ἀρά) Like many “curse words,” this Greek word is a bit ambiguous as it means both a prayer and a curse.

Defigens Someone who creates a defixiones or attempts to bind another person. [see below] (Faraone 5)

Defixiones Curses which are usually inscribed on a lead tablet, though other mediums might be used (Gager 3-4, 14-15). The word indicates that the primary goal of such a curse is to “bind-down” a person.

Epoidos (ὁ/ἡ ἐπῳδος) An ancient Greek term which refers to someone who recites an incantation in order to heal the sick (Dickie 24-25). Also means “wizard” or “witch.” Note also that some funerary curses are composed in meter, perhaps suggesting a similar performative aspect (Strubbe 41-42).

Goaw (γοάω) A Greek word meaning to wail, lament, or mourn. This word is related to several terms such as goeteia (γοητεία) which means sorcery or witchcraft; goes (γόης) a sorcerer “who howls enchantments”; and goeteis (ὁ φοήτης), a term modern persons tend to take as synonymous with sorcerer or magician, but according to the LSJ actually means “wailer.”

Katadesmos (ὁ κατάδεσμος) The Greek counterpart to defixiones with the same linguistic implications of binding. Literally means a tie, band, or “magic knot.”

Euxomai (εὔχομαι) A Greek word with the dual sense to pray and to boast.

Imprecation
A curse.

Judicial Prayers/Prayers for Justice A category of curses defined by H.S. Versnel wherein a person who is wronged inflicts a curse on the unknown guilty party, this curse usually appeals to the gods directly and/or placing the goods in question within their care (Versnel 68-81).

Jussive A grammatical term used by some to describe the wording of curses. (For the grammar nerds out there this refers to an independent use of the subjunctive in the subjunctive mood.) A jussive command is rendered by the formula “Let them…” See, for example, the biblical passage in 1 Samuel which literally commands that the author’s enemies be cursed (1 Samuel 26:19).

Magos (ὁ μάγος) A term which originally referred to Persian fire-priests, but as early as the fifth century BCE it becomes a pejorative term used to refer to those whose religious practices were not easily understood, such as magicians or charlatans (Dickie 27). See also goaw.

Malediction A curse. From the Latin meaning “to speak ill” (male dicere).

Similia Similibus Formula A cursing formula which uses an analogy to effect an outcome. For example, comparing the target’s efficacy to that of a corpse (Faraone 5).

This list is certainly not exhaustive of the many terms which are used to discuss curses and cursing in the ancient world. By all means, if you know of one that was left please contribute in the comments!

Sources:

Blank, Sheldon H. 1950. “The Curse, Blasphemy, the Spell, and the Oath.” Hebrew Union College Annual 23: 73-95.

Dickie, Matthew W. 2001. Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World. New York: Routledge.

Drogin, Marc. 1983. Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses. Montclair, NJ: Allanheld & Schram.

Gager, John G. 1992. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Faraone, Christopher A. 1997. “The Agonistic Context of Early Greek Binding Spells,” in Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion. Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

J. H. M. Strubbe, “Cursed Be He That Moves My Bones,” in Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink, eds. New York: Oxford UP, 1991, pp. 33-59.

Photo by Adam Rosenberg.

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Modern Maledictions: The Curse of the Billy Goat

This article is cross-posted from AncientCurses.com. If you would like to read the full article, or would like to know more about cursing, I invite you to visit the website!

In a recent post at AncientCurses.com, we took a look at sports-related curses—i.e. curses which were employed by athletes and their fans to ensure victory against a competitor. While the ancients were busy “putting the fix in” for various sporting events, the tradition of sports-related curses is no less pertinent today.

In 2012, during an NFL play-off, New England witches provided a bit of, uh, spiritual support for the New England Patriots by supernaturally boosting Tom Brady’s mojo. No less effective were the rumours that pop superstar Jessica Simpson, then dating Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo, had inadvertently cursed the Dallas Cowboys, after the team suffered a string of losses while Simpson sat in the bleachers. More recently, NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick was said to be hexed by a fan of a rival racer. This time, the curse was no rumour, as the person apparently brought their own monkey skull to channel some evil forces.

While we may chuckle at these ideas, a study from the Public Religion Research Institute suggests that half of all Americans believe that sporting events are influenced by supernatural forces. Clearly, sports-related curses were not just limited to the ancient world. Even in modern times, these curses are everywhere.

As someone who grew up in Chicago, my favourite sports curse is that of the Curse of the Billy Goat, which is believed to be responsible for the Cubs’ inexplicably long run without a World Series pennant. (The White Sox, however, defeated their “Black Sox Curse” when they won the Wold Series in 2005. Southside!)

For those of you who are not aware of the Curse of the Billy Goat, I’ll provide a bit of background…

Read the full post at AncientCurses.com!

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The YUFAFUS

A few weeks ago, a letter arrived in my mailbox from the University notifying me that I had been “selected as the fall/winter 2014-2015 recipient of the York University Faculty Association Foundation Undergraduate Scholarship.”

The award was very substantial. However, I wasn’t quite sure what it was for. Usually I can figure it out, but this one left me stumped.

So I did what any rational person would do in such a circumstance. I googled it. Sarah Veale YUFA Imagine my surprise when I learned that this award is given to the student with the highest GPA in their faculty! (Each faculty has one.) In other words, I had the highest GPA of all students in the Liberal Arts and Professional Studies faculty—a division which houses over 20 programs and awards over 90 types of degrees and certificates. To further put that in perspective, York has 65,000 students overall, divided into eleven faculties. Somewhere along the line, I beat out an awful lot of people for this.

Usually this is the place where I thank my professors for helping me out along the way. While I am certainly grateful to my awesome profs, I hope they understand that I’ve worked really hard, so I’m going to take the credit for this one! Huzzah!

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Make Him Powerless With the Horses: On Sports-Related Curse Tablets

Sports-related curses were extremely prevalent in the ancient world. In fact, it was assumed that those who competed in public contests regularly employed curses. Moreover, this was not just some literary fantasy—material evidence of lead curse tablets (defixiones or katadesmoi) bears this opinion out. To get specific, these curses were inscribed on lead tablets which were consigned to a strategic location, such as a water-well, a grave, or a victim’s main locus of operation. For example, a curse that targeted a chariot race might be buried in the arena, so as to have an immediate effect on its victim (Gager 18-21).

Needless to say, games were an important feature of ancient Mediterranean life, one which overlapped with other significant areas. Many religious festivals involved a competitive dimension where athletes, dramatists, and dancers competed for glory. One thinks here of the Athenian Dionysia, or even the Pan-Hellenic Olympic games as examples of civic-religious events that involved a sporting component. Christopher A. Faraone suggests that sporting curses are evinced as early as the writings of Pindar, a poet from the 5th Century BCE (Faraone 11). He cites Pindar’s Olympian, which depicts  a charioteer named Pelops calling on Poseidon to not just give him the advantage in a race, but to damage his opponent as well (Faraone 11).

When games became both more numerous and more frequent in the Roman era, so too did sports-related cursing…

Read the full post at the Ancient Curses blog!

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Is Cursing a Magical Act?

In a recent post at the Ancient Curses blog, I talked about the categorical difficulties inherent in the term “magic.” I took the view that many of the distinguishing features which scholars use to define magical practices often apply to normative religious phenomena in antiquity. Thus, when talking about the ancient world, it is not so easy to separate magic from religion. Indeed, many of these constructions are contextual.

It does seem, however, that some practices could be considered more “magical” than others. Cursing, with its definite goals and specific practices, would appear to be an instance of “real” magic.

However, even cursing turns out not to be so magical. In fact, curses were used by nearly everyone in antiquity, and were even somewhat common place. In this way, cursing was one practice among many that could be used to address difficult life circumstances. Furthermore, in many cases it is hard to distinguish cursing from religion. The practice of cursing, thus, does not offer a clear-cut case of magic, but rather illustrates how problematic the category of magic is.

Read the Full post at AncientCurses.com!

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Defining the Magical Practitioner in Antiquity

When we think of curses, we think of a magician, or even a witch, who’s up to no good in the dark of the night. Ancient literature teems with this figure: the witch of Endor, Medea, even followers of Jesus figure into this portrait of the evil magical practitioner (Gordon 253).

I want to set aside the specific question of cursing for a moment, and look at how we define the magical practitioner in antiquity. I would argue that we can’t define such a person—or at the very least, that it’s hard to pinpoint such a figure.

While I may not draw a hard and fast line between religion and magic, others have attempted to define what separated magicians from their religious counterparts. I want to look at some of these categories and determine whether or not they are useful for analysing magic in antiquity. In many ways, these categories reflect the similarities between the two spheres rather than any inherent differences.

Read the full post at Ancient Curses…

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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Curses as Divine Authenticator: The Wrath of Moses in the Book of Numbers

Much of the Hebrew Bible (aka the Old Testament) is devoted to Moses—who he was, his miraculous deeds, and stories which affirm his leadership in the Israelite community.

The Book of Numbers, in particular, highlights this last dimension of Moses’ leadership skills. Time and again, Moses is depicted as having a special relationship with the Hebrew god, one that reaches an intimacy not afforded to other Israelites or other worshipers.

I want to look at two examples where God curses those who dare to question Moses’ primacy: These events are recounted in Numbers 12 and 16, and detail what happens when Moses leadership is challenged…

Read the full post at the Ancient Curses blog!

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Announcing the Ancient Curses Project!

Ancient CursesI’ve been very fortunate in my time at York to work with some amazing professors who have encouraged me to research areas that are not always accessible to undergraduates. This year is no exception, and I am currently undertaking a directed research project on Curses and Curse Stories with Professor Tony Burke. Obviously, this fits in well with my general research interests and gives me the opportunity to pursue these phenomena from a variety of angles. Part of my course mark involves a digital humanities component. So yes, this means that there is a companion website to by research project. Of course there is. So without further ado, I am happy to announce AncientCurses.com! This website will serve multiple purposes. On the one hand, it will act as a repository for the material I collect as I move through this project. As such, you will find handy resource guides to curses found in classical literature, Biblical stories, and other materials. It also provides research resources, such as bibliographies, online digital libraries, and other relevant websites. There is also a blog where I explore in more detail some of the more interesting curses I find and also sort through some of the issues which surround the study of curses. While some of the pages are admittedly sparse, the website is already up-and-running. Obviously, what’s there is a work-in-progress and I’ll be adding to it throughout the year (and maybe even thereafter). Here’s an excerpt form the first blog post:

This blog will mostly cover curses and curse stories as I encounter them in my research and attempt to understand the role of curses in ancient society. The study of cursing in antiquity is fraught with methodological issues. How do we define curses? Who practiced them? Why are similar phenomena labelled differently depending on the context? These are just some of the questions which confront those who study this area. The editorial colour which shades these practices must be noted, for what often lies underneath the rhetorical veneer are many shades of grey. My approach is a bit minimalistic: A curse, is a curse, is a curse. My view is that plenty can be said about curses and the societies that produced them without resorting to caricatures, hagiography, or convoluted taxonomy. Thus, this project will cover a large range of material in an attempt to comprehensively survey the subject matter and find points of convergence as well as roads of departure.  Among the sources are Near Eastern curses, literary curses (from classical and Biblical literature), and materials such as curse tablets and other forms of sympathetic malediction practices.

I hope you have the chance to stop by and let me know what you think of the site. In my opinion, the best part is the random curse generator on the sidebar—so you can get cursed anew with every visit.

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Associations in the Greco-Roman World, a Sourcebook

GRAI wanted to bring your attention to a book that may be of some interest to readers of this blog. It’s by a professor I’ve worked with at York, Philip Harland, and since I was hired as a research assistant on this project, I can personally vouch for its contents!

The book, Greco-Roman Associations: Texts, Translations and Commentary, is the second volume in a series (The first volume can be found here). It collects inscriptions from Asia Minor and the north coast of the Black Sea and is a valuable resource for those seeking to understand antiquity from the ground up. Topically, this volume focuses on associations, a broad category which includes religious groups, trade guilds, and funerary associations among others.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction on the topic of religion and associations:

While immigrant, occupational, and familial associations are sometimes easier for the social historian to identify, others are less so. In particular, with many groups, all we know is that numerous individuals joined together regularly to form a society, to honour a particular deity, or to be initiated into the mysteries of a deity. And in many of these cases no further information is available concerning how these individuals may have been connected before the formation of the association. This latter situation has often led to the rather unhelpful scholarly category of the “cultic association” or “religious association,” with, in some cases, scholars debating whether or not this or that group was “religious” enough to be called a “cultic association,” or whether a particular group was merely a “club,” or a “political association,” or what have you. Although it is true that a given group may have focussed more on honouring certain deities than some other group, these distinctions are, now, largely unrecoverable for the historian. We shall see that immigrant groups, occupational guilds, neighbourhood associations, and others were similarly concerned with honouring the gods, so virtually all groups discussed in this work had a cultic function and were, in some sense, “cultic associations.” (Harland, 3)

What I think is really valuable about this text is that this material is not the most easily accessed of ancient sources—the translations can be tricky and the source material is often partial, and they lack the “star power” that our regular sources, such as Livy or even (ugh) Tertullian, possess. It is this latter aspect that I think provides the most value to scholars in that these inscriptions offer a glimpse into the everyday lives of those living in the Hellenistic era and Roman Empire.

If this sounds like your thing, you can get the book at the DeGruyter website, though be warned it’s quite pricey.

This being my blog, I am going to take a moment to highlight my important work on this book: I indexed sections IX and X, as well as did a bit of proofreading. Perhaps one day I will also have my own book of translations, but until then I’ll content myself with a nice mention in the acknowledgements section.

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