Apocalyptic Witchcraft by Peter Grey (Scarlet Imprint, 2013.)
In recent years, the Scarlet Imprint press has staked a valid claim for being one of the most significant modern occult publishing imprints. Their reputation for challenging, passionate and exquisitely crafted books is well-deserved. Of these, perhaps the most impactful was their founder Peter Grey’s work The Red Goddess - a personal, heartfelt, deeply-researched and truly magical work about the origin, worship and power of the whore-goddess known as Babalon. It’s one of my favourite magical texts of all time - and so getting a copy of Grey’s second book Apocalyptic Witchcraft was something I looked forward to.
It’s certainly as passionate, literate, sincere and powerful a book as The Red Goddess... but overall, I have reservations.
First, as to the physical book itself: I bought the Of The Doves regular edition (cloth-bound, archive-grade paper, limited numbered edition of 1000, £40) as the £200 for the no-doubt gorgeous Of The Crows version (Moroccan leather, edition of 81) was out of my price range, and I wasn’t prepared to wait for the coming-soon paperback or ebook. And it’s lovely - a striking cover design of flocking doves revealing the face of the Devil in relief. Sadly, the pure white doves soon became black-speckled due to colour flaking within a few days of receipt, and that the cover (perhaps aptly, given the subject matter) is a veritable magnet to cat hair! Also, I noticed quite a few typos in the text.
(I must note here that Scarlet Imprint took impressively swift action when they heard about the cover flaking issue, which was not isolated to my copy. The issued an immediate explanation and apology and sent free dust covers to anyone who wanted one.)
The book itself is not a sequel to The Red Goddess as such - Grey calls it "its secret heart." He also calls it a polemic, which it certainly is. Grey’s stated intention is to find a new interpretation of witchcraft as both a concept and a practice, in the face of the turmoil and natural disruption of the modern world.
On the very first page, Grey says;
This is a perilous book, and one that does not aim to please.
This is certainly true. Grey sets out to explicate a perspective on the familiar symbols and stories of witchcraft in the West which has little truck with the formalities of scholarship, the sensibilities of the Wiccan paths or the white-light Newage perspective. His is a witchcraft both messy and impudent, one that stinks of mud, blood and spunk - in a good way. One where the oft-ignored or sidelined aspects - the legends of human sacrifice, poisons, curses and The Devil Himself - are both represented and, on some level, embraced.
Within its sixteen chapters, Grey sets out a poetic history/mythology of the witch as outsider, mirror and opponent to the status quo... and poetry forms the heart of its telling. He draws heavily here from the works of Peter Redgrove and Penelope Shuttle (whose remarkable books The Wise Wound and The Black Goddess and the Sixth Sense are far too often neglected) and, especially, Ted Hughes. He also intersperses the text with ten poems in praise of Inanna, whose worship is both his deep personal work and whose archetype his nominee for the prime ancestor of the witch Goddess.
The majority of these chapters focus on various parts of the witchcraft myth - the Devil, the Sabbat, the Wolf, child sacrifice - and reinterprets these with a piercing combination of deep research and personal gnosis. The overall effect is of a coherent new version of the story of witchcraft - as Grey puts it;
"What I am describing is an ideal abstraction, a myth which is within my remit as a storyteller."
One chapter which especially moved and interested me is Grey telling of his visit to the Greek isle of Patmos, and his entering the tiny cave where the Apocalypse of Saint John was written. His encounter with the spirit of that place, and his sense of the perspective John may have brought to his end-times vision, felt weighted with purpose.
For, make no mistake, Grey has a purpose. He sets out clearly his feeling that witchcraft is a necessary, and Goddess-blessed, opposition to the forces which have poisoned Nature and caused the turmoil of the modern world. He sets his response out clearly, in his 33-statement Manifesto of Apocalyptic Witchcraft (in Chapter 2) and many times in the text - this is a War, and the enemy the hierarchies and technologies of our modern world.
His later chapters reinforce the proposition made in The Red Goddess, that the primary Goddess of witchcraft, and the direct source of the entity now named Babalon, is the Babylonian deity Inanna - a proposition I have no problem with at all. (The chapters on this are best read in conjunction with this article by his partner Alkistis Dimech, especially in reference to the other-world or kur which is Her realm - and which bears to my eyes a striking resemblance to Alan Moore’s theories about Idea-Space.)
The book ends with providing a working perspective for the reader who wishes to take the model presented into personal praxis. Grey is smart enough to eschew the idea of forming a new cult or religion - rather, he provides a set of tools and perspectives, combined with a small but potent symbol-set for an Apocalyptic Witch to use.
I have no doubt that this book will inspire many, will possibly be for some that book - the one which shifts their perspective, forms the new core of their belief.
But not for me.
Grey specifically rejects the modern world many times in the text, treating it solely as a blight and a defilement of Nature Herself. He says, for example, that in order to fully free one's dreaming potential,
…get rid of your television. Next step, delete yourself from the digital.
Later, he refers to
...the myth of myths, that of the healing quest, which is in direct conflict with technology and Christianity which only destroy
...and then quotes favourably from perhaps our most notorious living Luddite, Ted Kaczynski.
To my mind, and from my perspective, Grey seems to be simplifying the problems of modernity in a needlessly dualistic fashion, fleeing, Future-Shocked, to a mythic, simpler past - despite his own insistence that
Witchcraft is meaningless if we use it to retreat into an imagined past and play at being the very different people who inhabited it.
Grey clearly has his biases: the rural over the urban, the poem over the comic book. But there’s a difference between following the path one’s perspective sets and ignoring the consequences of privileging them above all other perspectives.
There’s also a tendency for Grey’s thought to be restricted to simple dualism - male and female, war and peace, nature and artifice - which leaves out the excluded middle. It also tends to push aside the gay & bisexual, the trans* and many others who don’t fit the tribal structure he espouses. (Grey does refer to “the queer” as fellow-travellers a couple of times, but the male/penetrating, female/menstruating deep symbolism he considers the root of witchcraft leaves little room for them within his system.) Grey’s only methods of dealing with these dualisms are by either opposition or simple inversion - a system of black and white solutions, aching for some colour, for the possibility of resolution.
To be sure, there are many aspects of modern life which are in need of criticism, are problematic, even toxic - but in my view, any solution to these wicked problems must also be complex, considered and respectful of the lives of those involved.
I cannot help but think; just how much technology is Grey willing to lose to see his vision enacted? For, make no doubt, the cost of dropping the modern world back to anything close to the pre-agricultural level Grey seems to wish for would be the deaths of billions.
I have my biases too. I’m an urban kid, a Cunning Man self-raised with fiction, Forteana, comics and movies and the telly. I live in this world and, though I dream of a better one, it’s not one of the past. My magic embraces the modern, the digital, the connected. My hero figure is not the poet, but the cyborg, the Technomage. Grey’s witchcraft specifically rejects me and my kind... but I worship that same Whore-Goddess. And I also see her as Inanna; but I see the one who descended to the Underworld to bring back the me, the techne... the mental technologies that the first city sprang from and are her power as the Goddess of Cities. And, generally, whores are not noted for their rejection of artifice...
This is a challenging and significant book - and for all that I reject its core premise, there is much of note here and I have no regrets about reading it.
As this went to post, I found my colleague and fellow Grinder Damien Williams had posted a very timely piece at The Breaking Time of the problems inherent with violent opposition to the modern technological state. It fits here nicely.