The Discarded Image

Those who are interested in the esoteric and the occult tend to read books written by others in the field. I did this myself. Back in the early 70s I read a great deal by Crowley and Levi and the various authors of Golden Dawn teaching material (mostly S.L. Mathers).

It happens that occultists are rarely good historians. Often they are dreadful historians. They receive an occult tradition like an old coat, with holes at the elbows, its gilt buttons gone, and patches added by who-knows-whom.

“The great and noble Hermes wore this coat” they announce. “This is his original coat, preserved through the ages by the secret academies of the Wise!”.

When we are young and don’t know any better, this might sound convincing. Indeed, some part of the coat might have been worn by Hermes. I find that many of the techniques of High Magic (and of Low Magic) have been well preserved, but the original context and background to these techniques has not been passed down. To make another analogy, it is as if all the techniques of Chinese cookery have been preserved among people who know nothing about China. People who are instructed to use bamboo shoots but have never encountered bamboo.

To give a specific example, one can find many books describing techniques for evoking planetary spirits – their seals, their names, their kamea, colours, perfumes and so on, but little about the culture and worldview that gave rise to these operations.

As a corrective to this tendency I wrote my book on Hermetic Kabbalah with the specific goal of tracing the modern tradition back to genuine historical roots.  “Too Jewish” one reviewer responded. Er … yes … if there is one fault in my treatment of Kabbalah, then grounding it in medieval Judaism would be that fault.

And now to the point of this article. The worldview of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance has been almost entirely lost to popular culture. It is this period that gave rise to grimoires and ‘black books’ of practical magic and sorcery, texts that are still published and collected and studied. Paradoxically, the beliefs, theories, and models of the period are not studied. Not in my experience. We have the Chinese cookbooks but know nothing about China. What manner of being is a planetary intelligence or spirit? Does it have a body? How is it constituted? Does it have a soul? Does it possess a rational intelligence? Are these spirits divine or demonic?

One of the most brilliant scholars of the medieval period was C.S. Lewis, and he has left us The Discarded Image. The cover states “An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature”. The title does not do justice to the contents. It is in fact a reconstruction of common metaphysical beliefs based on a document tradition that Lewis carefully uncovers. He provides the cosmological context for ritual magic. It is very eloquent, lucid and beautifully written.

I have left a copy of it here.

I feel no guilt about this. I enjoyed it so much I bought a copy, and I hope you will too.