In Stealing Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Modern Western Magic, author Nevill Drury attempts to chronicle and contextualize contemporary magical practices and practitioners. For the most part he succeeds, and offers the, um, uninitiated an introduction to current magical thought. He covers ground from the (relatively) well-known to the fairly obscure, stopping along the way to probe a little deeper into some of the philosophies and personalities involved. It is only as his history approaches the current day that his choice of subjects begins to appear arbitrary and his arguments unsupported, almost as if he wrote his conclusions prior to seeking any evidence to support them.
Drury’s focus is on the “Western esoteric tradition in the twentieth century,” but of necessity begins with a crash course in the overall history of western magic. This includes primers on kabbalah, alchemy, and tarot, as well as introductions to some of the key players, such as Eliphas Lévi and MacGregor Mathers. This is perhaps the strongest portion of the book, with balanced discussions of magical theory and its practitioners, resulting in a solid introduction to Western magic.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (“widely acknowledged as the key source of the modern magical revival”) was in full swing, and it is with this magical fraternity that Drury begins his history in depth. The Golden Dawn evolved during the 19th-century magical revival in Europe, and the history of this occult fraternity is fodder enough alone to fill several history books (which, in fact, it has). The importance of the Golden Dawn’s synthesis of myriad practices and philosophies into a single, comprehensive magical system cannot be overstated, a magical equivalent to what J. G. Frazer accomplished with world myth and religion in The Golden Bough.
Drury identifies the two dominant post-Golden Dawn magical philosophies as those of Aleister Crowley’s Thelema and, later, Wicca and Goddess worship.
Aleister Crowley—possibly modern magic(k)’s most reviled and misunderstood, but most influential, pioneer—was an initiate (and key player in the fragmentation) of the Golden Dawn. During a trip to Cairo in 1904, his largely non-magically-inclined wife channeled a mysterious intelligence named Aiwass, who transmitted The Book of the Law, a dense, frustratingly cryptic but poetically powerful work heralding the dawn of a New Aeon. The central tenant of this New Aeon is that of Thelema, summarized as “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” This idea—as oft-misunderstood and oft-abused as Nietzsche’s “That which does not kill me makes me stronger”—was spread via Crowley’s teaching order, the A∴A∴, and later by the Ordo Templi Orientis, another turn-of-the-century (and still active) magickal fraternity, of which Crowley became the “Outer Head” in 1922. In the process of spreading the idea of Thelema, and through a keen sense of self-promotion (in truth, Crowley was not half as evil as many—including, depending on the audience at hand, himself—would have you believe), Crowley also became a pop icon, even appearing on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Modern witchcraft, though ostensibly a continuation of ancient practices, is rooted in the 1930s, and rose to popularity in the second half of the 20th century, “following the repeal . . . of the British Witchcraft Act forbidding the practice of witchcraft”—in 1951! The author most responsible for the spread of Wicca was Gerald Gardner, who was initiated into a coven in rural England in 1939; “Gardnerian” witchcraft carries on even today. (Drury even indicates that Gardner’s grimoire The Book of Shadows was influenced by the writings of Crowley, and some suspect that Crowley himself might have written some of the rituals found therein—a prime example of the constant exchange of ideas and influences between occult schools.) The rise of Wicca was crucial in the eventual adoption of feminism and Goddess-energy by current magical thought.
Of course, not all in the post-Crowley magickal world is as benevolent as Wicca, and Drury also examines the evolution and current practice of Satanism. Taking the tenant of “Do what thou wilt” and running with it, the various shades of Satanism exalt the power of the individual. Most Satanic sects are not actually theistic, nor are they using the idea of Satan within a Christian context (many Satanists are quick to point out a decided difference between Devil worship and Satanism), but are using the idea of Satan as representative of empowering selfishness. Popularized in the 1960s and 70s by the consummate showman Anton Szandor LaVey, Satanism has since spawned various separate camps, such as today’s Temple of Set, which spurns showy group ritual as antithetical to the starkly personal focus of Satanic practice.
Drury takes a chapter to profile Dion Fortune, Austin Osman Spare, and Rosaleen Norton, “three magical visionaries” who left indelible marks on the development of modern Western magic. Dion Fortune, a Golden Dawn alumna and founder of the Fraternity of the Inner Light, was instrumental in emphasizing feminine archetypes (such as that of Isis) in modern practices. Austin Osman Spare was an art prodigy whose ideas on sex magick, sigil creation, and automatic art were tremendously influential in the eventual development of Chaos Magick. And eccentric Australian witch Rosaleen Norton’s unrepentant celebration of Pan in her paintings (which, at the time, were deemed pornographic by some) blazed trails in pagan visionary art.
Unfortunately, as Drury’s chronicle approaches the present day, subjects begin to feel increasingly arbitrary, shoehorned into arguments not supported by the facts presented. Admittedly, definitions and divisions begin to get fuzzy with the counterculture’s greater embrace of the occult in the 1960s and 1970s, when Timothy Leary merged psychedelics and Crowley; Carl Jung and, later, Terrance McKenna put their own spins on the idea of the collective conscious (or, to put it in Hermetic terms, the union of the Microcosm with the Macrocosm); and when the piss-take became a key component of the magical thinking with such groups as the Discordians.
The high points of recent and current practice are hit, such as the aforementioned Chaos Magick and Discordianism (albeit with nary a mention of Robert Anton Wilson!), Voodoo, and Neopaganism. However, by the end of the final chapter he has also roped in Second Life and LARPing as examples of current magic, and even included a head-scratchingly irrelevant profile of H. R. Giger (“he is not a magician in the conventional sense. He says he does not perform rituals, engage in invocations, or summon spirits”) into a throw-it-all-out-there-and-see-what-sticks finale. Granted, attempting to contextualize the present is hazardous, but given how well-ordered and well-informed the first four-fifths of the book are, the conclusion feels all the more sloppy.
The information in Stealing Fire from Heaven is broad but not deep, which is forgivable given the amount of ground it covers. There are some crucial oversights—for instance, there is only a cursory mention of the influence of pop culture’s embrace of the occult—but for anything missing you will also find something unexpected present. All in all, Nevill Drury has written an informative and entertaining history of contemporary Western magic.
Mark Reynolds is the editor of the magickal review, Scroll of Thoth. He lives in New York City and makes a racket with his band, Some Awful Bridge.