Jake Stratton-Kent’s ‘What is Goetia?’ is making the rounds. His approach to doing magic, centered in the individual rather than the art, the cthonic rather than the celestial, is familiar (in the sense of being resonant with my way of doing things; see the witch / wizard discussions), but I’m going to suggest that there is a better way to approach the matter than he does in that essay, one that takes the work outside the (to my mind stultifying) conventions of talking about a Western Magical Tradition ™.
By orienting the discussion toward answering what constitutes that Western tradition, Stratton-Kent falls into an unnecessarily conservative mode. His linguistic analysis is characteristic of this, rooted in the accidental adoption of a strategy with deep imperial and colonial roots. I am almost certain that Stratton-Kent employs it without that in mind, but this is a “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” moment.
The strong difference drawn between the use of the terms goes and magi is false and alienating. Magic derives from magi, in much the same way that goetic derives from goes. They both have clear ties to, for the lack of a better term, ‘priestly’ bodies of knowledge that became something else with the death of the original social worlds that supported them. They both entered into a lively and intertwined long diaspora.
Picking on people for using phrases like ‘goetic demons’ is similarly problematic. The word has an established horizon of meaning which makes phrases like ‘goetic demon’ entirely intelligible. As the Oxford English Dictionary helpfully tells us, it is “of or pertaining to goety.” Which means that if you are summoning demons or devils using a grimoire identified with goety, you can meaningfully call them goetic demons. There is nothing inaccurate about that.
Stratton-Kent doesn’t need to rely on this to make his (quite good) point that we can relate to spirits directly, developing technical means from the relationship, just as well as we can learn technical means first.
By privileging the goes over the magi to make this point, he does much to suppress the distinctiveness of the grimoire material and the distinctiveness of his own re-emphasis to orient it toward the cthonic. In identifying the historical goes with his modern goetic approach, he also misrepresents his own observation that the goes of antiquity were precisely defined by the technical nature of their art, namely:
‘wailing’ or ‘lamenting‘. There is a large group of related words in Greek, the majority of which refer specifically to ancient funeral rites. The tone of voice used in these rituals distinguished the practitioner of goetia, and the concern with the Underworld was equally explicit.
The technical dimensions remain primary, too, in the substance of the grimoires (though the specific techniques vary more widely). In projecting what he does backward, Stratton-Kent seems to undersell how much he achieves by shifting the focus to personal potency and relationships.
The way in which celestial and goetic mingle in the grimoires can be best understood as a result of their long diaspora, broken free of the social structures that would maintain their distinction from each other. That long diaspora makes it a little nonsensical to even talk of them as a tradition because they have taken many different traditional forms based on the circumstances in which members of that diaspora found themselves.
We can talk of certain patterns that appear again and again, but if we cast our eye toward the horizon, we’ll notice that those patterns are not unique to the Western magical tradition, either celestial or goetic. Those patterns seem to be sustained more by their relationship to basic human modes of experiencing the spiritual world than to some line of tradition stretching back through the ages.
The attitude/potency Stratton-Kent claims as ‘goetic’ isn’t a special aspect of the Western magical tradition. It is more basic, resting in our humanity. When it manifests, it manifests in a magpie fashion, laying hold of whatever it can to anchor itself into the fabric of the visible world. Trying to establish a historical lineage for it misses the point that it has an allegiance to the atemporal. Throw away every book with the word ‘goetia’ and the potency would manifest again and again in some other avenue.
It doesn’t need a special history (though it can be informed and illuminated by history). It doesn’t need a special operator (though it can be well-served by a savvy worker).
Consider, for a moment, this report on Angolan quimbandas from the 1600s that I have had in my thoughts for a while:
“There is also among the Angolan pagan much sodomy, sharing one with the other their dirtiness and filth, dressing as women. And they call them by the name of the land, quimbandas, [and] in the district or lands where they are, they have communication with each other. And some of these are fine feiticeiros (sorcerers), for they beget everything bad. And all of the pagans respect them and they are not offended by them and these sodomites happen to live together in bands, meeting most often to give burial services…. This caste of people is who dresses the body for burial and performs the burial ceremony.—Captain Antonio de Oliveira Cadornega in the year 1681 (qtd. by James Sweet in Recreating Africa)
Notice there the similarities with what Stratton-Kent essentializes under the notion of goetia. There is the primary relationship to burial and the secondary relationship to magical operations. The Kongo region more broadly also had a rich stellar tradition connected to pacts with spirits aligned with stars, one with clearer ties to hunters, blacksmiths, and kings…there is probably a longish aside that could go here. Maybe I’ll come back to that another time.
Which makes it seem like the celestial-cthonic axis Stratton-Kent talks about rests in some basic dimension of the human spirit. We don’t need a continuous tradition to approach that human birthright. What we need to appreciate is that the diversity of manifestations are an essential part of the process, not an accident to be erased by a return to a primal root. The diversity of negotiations being done by people all over the world, in all kinds of cultural context, forms the basis for understanding how profound the unity that joins them is.
There are more forms of unity than those envisioned in contemporary esoteric neoplatonism.
I would suggest that Stratton-Kent’s mode of working the goetic tradition derives its scope more properly from that core human modality than it does from a (fictive) goetic tradition that joins him to antiquity. Even though that goetic material provided much of the material for his work, his way of coming at it reflects a sensibility independent from the material.
Trying to link this sensibility tightly to ‘goes’ seems like a repetition of the last century of occult thinking which we would do better to leave behind. We don’t need a Stratton-Kentian ‘goes’ to replace the Gardnerian Witch and Golden Dawn Wizard at the top of the heap. We don’t need another “the primal origin of the entire Western Tradition of magic.” We need something bigger than that, if for no other reason than that the future that seems on offer is going to rend these sorts of categories to pieces and scatter them on dead ground.
The urge to lay hold of a ‘Western’ tradition itself seems a bit ghastly, a matter of archival accident stitched together with suppressed transmissions and animated with some dim nationalist impulse. It is a little too much necromancy and not enough burial. A proper tradition needs more intimacy than that, it belongs closer to the level of kinship than to the level of the nation-state.
Abandoning the struggle to achieve a Western tradition helps reveal those elements that feed into it, the ones conscripted to march under its banner. It reveals the way in which the long exposure to African, Arab (especially important since for a good long while Europe was just a backwater on the edge of the civilized Arab world), American, and Asian practices shaped the development of these practices.
It is also a step toward acknowledging the lengthy and unequal colonial and mercantile relationships through which many of these influences have come to the attention of Europeans over the last few centuries. It is a step toward a more just magical practice. Just a step, but a step nonetheless.