The Great Work (Starts Again)

Oh well, I knew it couldn’t last… As from now I’m working for myself. I’ve left the London book shop and struck out on my own. You can’t buy all the lovely occult books that come your way with someone elses money for ever – now I’ll have to use my own somewhat lesser buying power.

This blog will continue of course – still plenty of gorgeous and intriguing books to show you – but there might be a bit of a pause while I get my business up and running. I’ll add links to my new site soon. Wish me luck!

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“This book is for all…”

Continuing my (unplanned and unheralded) theme of ritual magic books, let’s take a look at a book Aleister Crowley actually wrote himself (rather than sneaking round his library): Magick in Theory and Practice by The Master Therion (being part III of Book 4). Paris: Lecram Press, 1929:

It's not black! It's orange!

It’s not black! It’s orange!

The genesis of this work was quite a few years before. The part of the title in brackets is the clue: a dissemination of the Great Work over four books. Travelling with his ‘Scarlet Woman’ of the time, (a magical partner – he went through quite a few of these, some he was with for much longer than others. The concept had a long history: the alchemists Nicolas Flamel and Thomas Vaughan both worked with their wives for example, but the big influence for Crowley I think was the partnership of S. L. MacGregor Mathers and his wife Moina – but we’ll save that spurious theory for another time…) Mary Desti, in 1912, he received channelled instructions via her good self to publish a Book IV in four parts.

Magick in Theory and Practice in its first issue form.

Magick in Theory and Practice in its first issue form.

Anyway let’s get back to 1929. Aleister finally gets Magick published in 1929 in France in the four sections of orangey loveliness you see here. He designed the talismanic cover after much trial and error (which he was pleased with) and also added a colour plate (which didn’t please him):

The offending illustration...

The offending illustration…

As frequently with Aleister’s projects this didn’t quite work out. Book Four Part I, an excellent treatise on yogic practice as it happens, was published soon after; quickly followed by Part II around 1913 (both works are undated) which covered the use of objects in ritual magic. Part III, Magick (the book what we have ‘ere) took a further 10 years or so to finish and as you see was not published until 1929. But what about Part IV I hear you cry? Well that didn’t come out until 1936 (Equinox of the Gods), was regarded as part of his ‘Equinox’ series and didn’t mention Book or Part 4 anywhere.

One of Crowley's favourite pieces 'Hymn to Pan' appears at the beginning.

One of Crowley’s favourite pieces ‘Hymn to Pan’ appears at the beginning.

Note the reference to Alice through the Looking Glass - next week the use of Enochian Calls in Wind in the Willows...

Note the reference to Alice through the Looking Glass – next week the use of Enochian Calls in Wind in the Willows…

Signs of the Grades baby!

Signs of the Grades baby!

The physical aspects of each of the parts of Book Four were also important to Aleister from a talismanic point of view: size of each part, it’s price, and in this case it’s publication in four sections (see ‘Books of the Beast’ by the utterly fabulous Timothy d’Arch Smith for more on this). However the first issue was soon scrapped and re-issued in a one volume quite normal rectangle size. Without the colour plate. Which in all honesty I can see why he wasn’t happy with it, as it look like an original facsimile of itself (if that makes any sense…).

Salmon coloured dust jacket? Welcome to a whole world of fading.

Salmon coloured dust jacket? Welcome to a whole world of fading.

This was released in 1930 and called the ‘Subscriber’s Edition’ even though nobody actually subscribed to it in the first place. It’s basically the first issue sheets, trimmed down and lumped together in one, with a new title page:

BY THE MASTER THERION!!! (oh that's Aleister Crowley I see)

BY THE MASTER THERION!!! (oh that’s Aleister Crowley I see)

Actually this is rightly regarded as Aleister’s great work. You could argue it was the first new (and not a rehash of medieval grimoires), generally published work on theoretical and practical magic published in England for nearly 300 years (Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy was published in English in 1651). It contains some of his best prose writing and is a genuinely impressive didactic tome. He continued to promote this work for the rest of his life, using such techniques as this broadsheet:

I truly love this!

I truly love this!


You see the thing is, as well as going the extra mile to the outer edges of Magick on our behalf, old Aleister had that very rare thing in the esoteric landscape: a sense of humour. Everyone from Hermes Trimegistus to Chumbley is so bloody serious it’s a welcome hot wet flannel to the face that Al could laugh at not only the world but himself too. Amen to that.

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Take of myrrh in tears, one part…

A man in his early twenties is clambering up the rocks on the shores of Loch Ness. On reaching the highest point, he turns to survey the rugged, elemental Scottish countryside. His eyes rest on a wide, low house on a little hill overlooking the brooding Loch…

‘I think I should buy that at once and perform a six month magical operation’ is his first thought. Obviously.

Yes, it’s our old friend Mr Crowley back in 1899, clapping  his eyes on Boleskine House for the first time. He goes on to offer the startled owner £2000 pounds (twice its worth) and soon becomes the self styled Laird of Boleskine. And the magical operation? That’s where our next book comes in: The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin the Mage, as Delivered by Abraham the Jew unto his Son Lamech, A.D. 1458. London, John M. Watkins, 1898:

Another black book, full of ceremonial magic and published in 1898? Yes, I'm afraid so...

Another black book, full of ceremonial magic and published in 1898? Yes, I’m afraid so…

Aleister really liked this one too (see previous post) and wanted to perform the extended preparatory rituals (indicated as being six months long in the book) hence the purchase of Boleskine, the layout of which fitted the pattern proscribed. This work was translated by Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, one of the co-founders of the Order of the Golden Dawn, from a manuscript found by him in the Bibliotheque de L’Arsenal, Paris (he had previously bothered the staff at the British Library for every magical manuscript they had, so it’s nice to see him branching out).

I particularly like the modest 'Special and Copious Introduction' bit.

I particularly like the modest ‘Special and Copious Introduction’ bit.

Sam had moved to Paris in 1892 accompanied by his wife Moina (Mina Bergson, sister of Nobel Laureate Henri Bergson) and as the Head of the Order, was the mentor of the young Aleister, who had just joined the Golden Dawn in November 1898. Sam had already published three occult books: The Kabbalah Unveiled (1887), a slim volume on the Tarot (1888) and his translation of the Key of Solomon the King (1889). This one nearly didn’t make it, as he apparently lost his only copy of the working manuscript on a train and put ‘Lost Dog’ type posters up around Paris: did you see a man in highland dress mislay a magical manuscript anywhere? I can’t remember if it was found or not. I think he had to start all over again.

The Illustrated title page.

The Illustrated title page.

Moina was an artist (as well as a gifted seer and co-author of many of the Order’s rituals) and she contributed a marvellous illustrated title page, printed in a golden shade of ink.

Moina MacGregor Mathers - Priestess of Isis. Lucky Isis I say - swoon...

Moina MacGregor Mathers – Priestess of Isis. Lucky Isis I say…

Now this picture is a strange thing. On the magical side of things the Mathers related that during the drawing the picture kept changing of its own free will – particularly the small casket being offered to the Magician:

This place is getting mighty crowded

This place is getting mighty crowded

And later, various owner’s of the book have reported similar strange goings on and some have thrown the book away or destroyed it in fear. Apparently.

On the non-magical book dealing side of things it’s a fact that, in my experience, less than half of the first edition, first issue have the picture at all. In many copies this page has been removed. Not torn out but neatly excised by a knife. Nobody knows for sure why this is – in fact many people are not even aware of this. It’s become a bit of a personal obsession of mine.

'I very cleverly found this big Library that you had all missed...'

‘I very cleverly found this big Library that you had all missed…’

My theory (oh no here he goes…) is that it could be to do with money. Not very occult you say! Indeed it lacks that certain esoteric mystery, but bear with me. The Mathers were somewhat challenged financially and were living mainly off a stipend provided by another Golden Dawn member Annie Horniman (actually it was for her friend Moina because like many of the Order’s upper echelons she mistrusted Sam) and the money for researching and publishing this book was being increasingly grudgingly given by another member, Frederick Leigh Gardner. Sam kept demanding more and more money (ironic since certain magic squares in the book are  ‘To find and take possession of all kinds of Treasures…’) and I think he may have thought his wife’s picture deserved a ‘bit extra’. I also think Gardner may have said nope.


In a fit of ‘it’s my ball and I’m going home with it if you don’t play the game my way’, I wouldn’t put it passed him to declare that the image was ‘copyright’ to Moina and the publisher had no right to use it at all. Sam had instructed Aleister to be his London representative, particularly with the distribution of this book, in 1899. I like to picture the eager Aleister, seated in the basement of the publisher’s bookshop (Watkin’s – it still exists in the wonderful Cecil Court, London), with a steel ruler and a craft knife busily cutting out the picture from any copies that hadn’t yet sold. Pure conjecture of course, but interestingly enough the second issue (the same sheets, just a new title page dated 1900 ) was re-issued without the picture.

My favourite squares. If only...

My favourite squares. If only…

The book is in the form of a letter from Abraham to his son Lamech (perhaps magical heir rather than actual son). It tells of his travels in Egypt, where he meets Abra-Melin, who reveals these rituals and magical squares. After a six month process of prayer and purification, the practitioner attempts to contact their HGA or Holy Guardian Angel. With this new found power, demonic spirits are invoked, dominated and put to work and magic squares can be used for a multitude of tasks like help with mining, being invisible and good chemistry. Oh and talking to the dead (of course).

An underworld address book.

An underworld address book.

Unfortunately, after all this effort, it seems Sam got it wrong. The manuscript he was working from was incomplete. There are four parts to the work and not the three he published. His magic squares are hardly filled in at all and he had underestimated the length of the preliminary rituals by a whole year. In fact the complete work had been published quite sometime before in German in 1725 by Peter Hammer. It’s amazing this was unknown not only to Sam but to all the other members of the Golden Dawn, who between them had noted and collected just about every occult and esoteric work ever published in whatever form by whoever and wherever.

This is not the stupidly rare 1725 first edition, but the 19th Century reprint, which is pretty damn rare itself.

This is not the stupidly rare 1725 first edition, but the 19th Century reprint, which is pretty damn rare itself.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sam never published another book. Aleister, on the other hand, never seemed to stop. I’m sure we’ll have a look at some of his soon.

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