The Scholar’s Mistress: The Speckled Bird

William Butler Years

William Butler Years

As an English major at Reed College, I experienced a semester-long combined seminar on William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot. To be honest, I probably liked Eliot’s poetry more, and I wrote a just-slightly-tongue-in-cheek paper on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, although I did not have the chops to turn it into a Broadway musical, which is why I am not rich and famous.

Maud Gonne

Maud Gonne

Nevertheless, I knew that Yeats was important too. We discussed him only as poet and advocate of Irish cultural identity, not as ceremonial magician,  as prose writer, nor as Irish senator.

I heard something about A Vision, his esoteric Compleat Theory of Everything, but when I found a copy in the library, I bounced off it like a brick wall. I lacked the background to understand, quite simply, and of course I knew next to nothing about the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which he joined in the early 1890s.

I picked up a lot more over the years, including reading about his long, sexually frustrated (for twenty-odd years) romantic friendship with the beautiful Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne — who was a magician too, at least until the gunfire of the 1916 Easter Rising drowned that out.

Unknown to Yeats, Gonne had an affair with a French journalist and secretly gave birth to a boy, who died at the age of 2; she returned with her lover to the child’s tomb to conceive again, believing that reincarnation would bring back the lost son.

Then last November, in a session of the Western Esotericism Group at the American Academy of Religion, Thomas Willard of the U. of Arizona mentioned an unfinished novel by Yeats that I had never heard of, The Speckled Bird [for the title’s origin, see note below].

Between 1896-1902, “at a point in his career when he was dramatizing his occult experiences in fiction [such as] The Secret Rose, a sequence of stories that embody the conflict between the natural and spiritual worlds,”  Yeats made four attempts at this autobiographical novel [General Editor’s Introduction, The Speckled Bird].

Its central character, Michael Hearne, “is dominated by three passions: his love of Margaret [Maud Gonne], his desire to gain access to the invisible world by means of occult knowledge and techniques, and his wish to devise an appropriate ritual for the inauguration and practice of the Celtic Mysteries” [ibid.].

Michael and Margaret plan a series of rituals based on the quest for the Grail, and in a letter he tells her, “We will only make a beginning, but centuries after we are dead cities shall be overthrown, it may be, because of an air that we have hummed or because of a curtain full of [magical] meaning that we have hung upon a wall.”

And when Michael and Maclagan, the character based on S. L. Mathers, are walking in the British Museum’s Egyptian Rooms, Maclagan says, “The old gods are worshipped still in secret and what we have to do is make their worship open again.”

In the most-developed version, Michael Hearne abandons the plan for a Celtic esoteric order and sets off on a journey with Maclagan to Arabia and Persia — which did not occur in Yeats’ real life.

Yeats and Gonne’s Celtic-mystery groups never happened. Outer-world events — the First World War (1914–18), the Irish rebellions (1916, 1919–21) foundation of the Irish Free State (1922), and then its subsequent civil war (1922–23) — were just a little too distracting.

Some would argue that the Fellowship of the Four Jewels carried on something of Yeats’ and Gonne’s idea, and in the person of Ella Young, it has a slight connection with the development of West Coast Pagan movements in the 1960s.

*  *  *  *  *

Note: I am not sure what “the speckled bird” meant to Yeats, although he knew that it came from Jeremiah 12:9. Christian commentators regard the bird as emblematic of the church.

Eurasian eagle-owl

The metaphor is of small birds mobbing an owl or other raptor. Jeremiah seems casual about bird identification, but maybe his audience knew if he meant a Eurasian eagle-owl or some kind of large hawk.

That passage also provided the name of a well-known hymn, here sung by country star Kitty Wells and also by Lucinda Williams.

Chant like the Beast

A vinyl LP record is available of Aleister Crowley chanting in Enochian — and more

Recorded onto wax cylinder in the early 1910s, and later transferred to 78 RPM discs, this material has been unavailable on LP since the first limited edition of <500 copies released in 1984 through the efforts of Mr. David Tibet of Current 93 infamy. The tracks include Crowley’s recitation of the first two Enochian Keys, original poetry, incantations, and songs. An absolutely essential piece of occult history reissued on LP.

Purchase information here. The seller is in the United Kingdom, so you may have to ask about shipping to other countries.

Advice for Twenty-Something Magicians

I was one of those, briefly — it didn’t take. But this is pretty good.

On the other hand, I suspect that there will be a few of you—maybe less than a handful, maybe just one or two—who will stick with it, and make the transition into hardcore, practicing magicians, and it is to you in particular that I feel a certain responsibility to write this essay for. As a member of the generation immediately preceding yours, I kind of have a duty to pass on some hard-won information. Most of you will probably ignore it, or not even be ready to listen to it, but I feel like I should put this out there for whatever greater purpose it serves.

Pentagram Pizza without External Validation

pentagrampizza• Pharoah Tutankhamun was a lot more important dead than he ever was during his short life. So for him, can we say that the embalmers and craftsmen did give him immortality?

• Magic is a way of living: or why Dion Fortune got it wrong, from Anne Hill.

• Sannion on why you do not need external validation in your practice . . .

• . . .  followed by Galina Krasskova on the same topic: “How can you ever find your way, or center yourself fully in the road of devotion if you’re endlessly willing to change your path on the whim of a random person’s say so? How an there ever be integrity in what you do if you’re constantly worried about how others are going to respond?”

“Magic Shows” at Lapham’s Quarterly

Via Invocatio: Check the Summer 2012 issue of the online magazine Lapham’s Quarterly for an issue devoted to magic, small-w witchcraft, wonder-working, spiritualism, and carnivores versus vegetarians.

Then go back to Invocatio for more news on the study of Western esotericism.

The Top Ten Grimoires

The British newspaper The Guardian spins an article off historian Owen Davies’ recent book, Grimoires: A History of Magic Books.

But newspapers and magazines love “top ten” list stories, and here is The Guardian’s. (Obviously, I missed the original publication.)

Number one on the list?

1. The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses

Although one of the more recent grimoires, first circulating in manuscript in the 18th century, this has to be number one for the breadth of its influence. From Germany it spread to America via the Pennsylvania Dutch, and once in cheap print was subsequently adopted by African Americans. With its pseudo-Hebraic mystical symbols, spirit conjurations and psalms, this book of the secret wisdom of Moses was a founding text of Rastafarianism and various religious movements in west Africa, as well as a cause célèbre in post-war Germany.

But a certain American writer from Providence, Rhode Island, gets a shout-out too.

The Babalon Working and the Rise of New Paganism

Today I listened to a podcast by California ceremonial magician Carroll “Poke” Runyon about Jack Parsons, himself a magician and rocket scientist of the 1940s.

Runyon argues that the Babalon Working of 1946 in which Parsons participated prefigured on the astral plane the rise of Goddess-centered contemporary Paganism in North America.

If you are not familiar with this corner of American occult history, including Parsons’ connections with L. Ron Hubbard, Aleister Crowley,  Philip K. Dick, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the podcast will bring you up to speed.

A Different A.E. Waite Tarot Deck

Mary K. Greer discusses a forgotten Tarot deck designed by ceremonial magician A.E. Waite, whose collaboration with artist Pamela Coleman Smith produced the Tarot deck probably most commonly used in the past fifty years, at least in the Anglosphere. A new publication with commentary is planned.

The commentary will be based on Waite’s unpublished and extensive commentary on the images, which has led to a complete mapping of Waite’s “secret” correspondences to the Tree of Life. Marcus [Katz] says that this set of correspondences is so blindingly obvious and “makes sense,” such that he believes we will be astounded. It will be interesting to see if the mapping corresponds with the revised Tree of Life described in Decker and Dummett’s book. Also, this clears up a long-running controversy about whether the Rider-Waite-Smith deck was designed with Golden Dawn Tree of Life Associations in mind. My feeling is that it was, as Waite clearly uses these associations in some of his Order papers, but it’s also clear that he wasn’t really satisfied with them.

R.J. Stewart and the Old Ones

In this essay from 2006, R.J. Stewart discusses some of his teachers in occultism, particulaly Ronald Heaver (that’s Mr. Heaver to you), also known by the pen name of “Zadok.” (Bill Gray also figures in the essay, hence the plural.)

Before recounting my meetings with Ronald Heaver, I would like to share some brief insights regarding the teaching methods and general consciousness of the older generation of mentors in Britain. I am referring to those who, like Ronald Heaver, had come through both the 1st and/or 2nd World Wars. Few of them are left now. Many people today do not understand how different their methods were from those familiar to us in the last 20 years of spiritual, pagan, and New Age revival. There is, as a result, romanticizing, even fantasizing, about some of the founders of our spiritual and magical revival, and especially that powerful branch that relates so strongly to Glastonbury and the Sacred Mysteries. . . . .

Some of the methods of that older wartime generation of spiritual mentors may seem strange to us, but were essential to them in their day. This background, both individual and cultural, is helpful to our understanding of Ronald Heaver’s life and work, as he was of that generation, though in many ways he rose above it, despite a most difficult and dramatic life.

Firstly, many of these older generation teachers, mentors, and mystics of the British inner tradition, be they known or unknown, would teach different, even contradictory things, to different students. Therefore, students learning individually from one teacher, would each receive variations or even contradictions of the core teachings. This method was widespread, and was not as frivolous as we might think. Another method, which was well known, though supposedly secret, was to give an initiation or a confirmation of spiritual power, then tell the recipient that only he or she had received it. Years later, the recipients (plural) would find others who had had the same experience! There are typically certainly key secret phrases and dramatic unique subtle sensations, so no one (but no one) can fake receiving such spiritual empowerments.

In other words, you didn’t download the “Glastonbury” app and have instant knowledge, apparently. (Grumble grumble.)

Interesting stuff, worth reading.