I have a thing for liminal gods and spirits. Not in some weird ‘sexy times’ kind of way, but there’s definitely a draw
there for me. The same goes for places too. I love those liminal in-between places in which the Other almost feels close enough to reach out and touch. The kind of places where you wouldn’t be all that surprised if it reached out and gave you a quick grope either.
So as you might imagine, the concept of ‘gatekeepers’ (or beings connected to boundaries in general) holds a high level of fascination; after all, you don’t get much more liminal than a gatekeeper.
But whenever we talk of gatekeepers, especially within the context of Indo-European Paganisms, there is this sense that they’re a borrowing from outside and don’t belong.
It all started with a book review…
Recently though, I came across a blog post that discusses the role of the gatekeeper spirit within the Western Occult Tradition and its possible uses and origins. Well ok, the post wasn’t *really* about that, it was a book review of Jake Stratton-Kent’s Encyclopedia Goetica. The post is a very concise and well-done review of a series of five books examining the origins of the magical tech and spirits of the Grimoires, and even though the combined cost of all the books together would be around $140, I have a mighty need to buy them like you wouldn’t believe.
I’m a big believer in figuring out the origins and meanings of things, in deconstructing things like old charms in order to figure out the underlying mechanisms. I’m not a fan of simply copying and taking the (arguably) easier route of having a tradition handed to me. I like to do the work, and then take that work and try it out ‘in the field’ so to speak. So it goes without saying that I find all of this work being done within the occult community to dig for the meanings and underlying mechanisms very, very exciting.
Of Pagan Origins and Christian Veneers
From what I understand from the review, Mr Stratton-Kent’s general argument is that the grimoires represent a survival of ancient Pagan religious and occult practices. But you know, with this covering of Christian and Qabalistic stuffs. The main of Stratton-Kent’s work in his Encyclopedia then, is in stripping away that covering, and revealing those ancient practices as much as possible. At the root of it all, Stratton-Kent argues, are the Greek goetes, those wandering magicians of the pre-classical period from whom we derive the word goetia. Which, if Stratton-Kent is right, has massive implications for not only Western esotericism, but for any magically inclined Pagans in general. (Again, I haven’t read these books yet so I’m being cautious with my language here. Like I said, I have a mighty need.)
Scrying and Survivals
In the first book of the Encyclopedia,The True Grimoire, Stratton-Kent examines the use of a gatekeeper spirit as intermediary between the other spirits and us. More specifically he focuses on the ‘Armadel’ method, a method of scrying in which spirits are called into the surface of the water. It is this method of scrying that Stratton-Kent argues (at least as I understand it from reading the review), is our tie back to the scrying methodology of the Greek Magical Papyri and the Pagan world. For Stratton-Kent, the ‘Armadel’ method reflected in the Greek Magical Papyri of calling a spirit into the surface of whatever you’re scrying with, is a piece of magical tech reflective of the decline of the Pagan period. It was a particularly clever work-around for the problem of how to interact with the old gods without all of the traditional Pagan religious apparatus. The magician or seer would call an intermediary spirit into the surface of the scrying medium. This intermediary spirit is then tasked with setting up a ritual scene in preparation for the arrival of the bigger spirits. The reviewer Kadmus, points out that often the request is focused on setting up the right number of chairs for a kind of banquet for the spirits. This is reminiscent of some of the earliest methods of religious ritual among the Indo-Europeans. After this feast, the magician or seer is then at liberty to ask for a boon; do ut des and all that. By shifting the celebration of a Pagan rite to the Other that lies beyond water, the practitioner can fulfill the exigencies of ritual in a far more discreet and less dangerous manner than if he or she were to set up such a ritual scene in the physical world.
Papyri and Lines
When dealing with the Greek Magical Papyri (or PGM), there is always the question of what comes from which tradition. The PGM date from between 200 B.C.E and 500 C.E, and are the product of intense cross-cultural interaction and blending in the Mediterranean. Kadmus sums this up best when he writes in his review that the PGM are “just as much Egyptian Magical Papyri as Greek ones”.
This is where things become complicated and where we must not only ask ourselves which part of that PGM heritage the use of a spirit intermediary or gatekeeper draws from, but also where we draw the line when it comes to consideration of which sources are ‘ours’. If Stratton-Kent is correct in his assertion that the grimoire tradition has its roots in these origins and that there is a high degree of conservation when you scrape away that Judeo-Christian veneer, then the level of complication is compounded. Perhaps more so for groups who have an expressed IE focus like ADF, for then there is the added task of teasing out the IE influences from non IE – and as we have seen with the Armadel method, that is not always so clear (especially when it comes to magic, Greece, and Egypt).
Continuities and Threads
We all tend to gather in our respective boxes and behind our respective labels, we like to think of cultural traditions as being handed down relatively unchanged for millennia – after all, the world is easier to think of that way. But even without the benefit of reading the Encylopedia, I think that if there’s one thing the grimoires teach us, it’s that the world was never so simple. Cultures interacted, people traveled, aspects of the ‘not us’ found their way in to the ‘us’, and the world marched ever on. Traditions grew, metamorphosed, and sometimes even died. The Armadel method was transmitted, spirit lists persisted (reportedly showing a high degree of conservation), and a newly controversial saint from Antioch found his way into Scandinavian grimoires where he was cited as the author of numerous black books of magic. Going back to those gatekeepers, maybe they *don’t* belong in the strictest sense of the word, but their usefulness can hardly be denied within these settings.
In many ways, magic is like those fleeting shadow figures that disappear when you focus upon them – those liminal figures that are often spied out of the corner of your eyes. This butterfly seems to defy attempts to systematize and classify it, but it makes little sense to ignore what we do have because some parts of it may look a little ‘moth-like’. Because as has been demonstrated time and time again, you can often learn a lot about the bits of something you do like, by looking at those you don’t.