Tuesday 18 August 2009

The History of Magic in the Modern Age

When I finish a book I've really enjoyed, I often find it difficult to decide what to read next. That was certainly the case with The Book of English Magic, which I reviewed on A Bad Witch's Blog a couple of weeks ago.

Then, when I popped into my local library, I saw a book on the shelf that The Book of English Magic recommended for further reading - The History of Magic in the Modern Age. My local library is very small and mostly stocks romances, thrillers and stuff for kids, so I took this title being there as potentially more than a coincidence and borrowed it at once.

The History of Magic in the Modern Age actually came out nine years ago, in 2000, so it isn't a new book and perhaps a better title for it would be Magic in the 20th Century - because that's really what it covers. Apart from the very first chapter, that is.

The first chapter is a whistle stop tour of magic before the modern era, and it is a bit condensed and hard going. If words like Gnostic, Hermetic and Kaballah set you running to Wikipedia to find out what they mean, you'll be running there often. But get through that first chapter and the book is a delight (although you might still have to creep back to Wikipedia occasionally).

In some ways, it is a Melodrama of Modern Magic; full of larger-than-life characters forming occult orders and secret societies, doing amazing rituals together then falling out and feuding. There is sex, death, black magic, psychic warfare, power struggles and politics. But there are also tales of love, endeavour and success against huge odds.

People developed amazing magical systems and powerful techniques, produced great art and even changed the world and the way we think. And all of this took place as a backdrop to what the book sees as the goal of modern magic - the quest for personal transformation, whether the transformation we desire is to be truly ourselves, to be one with the spirits or to become like a god.

The History of Magic in the Modern Age includes details of actual rituals performed by The Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley, Wiccans, The Church of Satan and modern shamans. It covers the occult art of Austin Osman Spare, Rosaleen Norton and HR Giger. And if sometimes Nevill Drury sacrifices a little academic rigour at the altar of Good Stories, I can forgive him - I like the books I read to be entertaining.

The last chapter is called Archetypes and Cyberspace and, when it was written, nine years ago was ahead of its time. It talks about techno-pagans who create online temples in virtual space years before the creation of Second Life and the ability to explore the role of mythic heroes in online games years before World of Warcraft.

I agree that the internet allows us to explore the global collective consciousness in ways we never have before, perhaps eventually raising the human race to that state of spiritual enlightenment sought by magical and religious groups through millennia.

However, I would have to say that judging by viral internet memes and most popular searches, the global collective consciousness is still quite immature. Start typing into Google "World's largest..." and you will find the most desired result is "the world's largest boobs". This is followed by the largest dogs and then the largest economies. Collectively, we are most interested in sex, pets or perhaps companionship, and then money.

Us modern magicians and our searches for transformation still have a long way to go, I would say, and I'd be very interested to find out what Nevill Drury makes of techno-magic a decade after this book was written.

Nevertheless, The History of Magic in the Modern Age is still a fascinating read. I wouldn't really recommend it for a beginner to start off reading - you'd be better with The Book of English Magic or one of the books I recommended on A Bad Witch's Blog under Wicca and Witchcraft: Finding Out the Basics, but if you do know the basics and want to delve a bit deeper into the history of magic, I'd definitely say look to see if your local library has a copy.

The History of Magic in the Modern Age by Nevill Drury is also available to buy through Amazon

The Book of English Magic

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