Cx72 Interview: Jake Stratton-Kent
October 02, 2018
What sparked your original interest in the occult – how did you get involved with it?
It was a very long time ago, really. It was pretty spontaneous, maybe a little bit crazy: something somebody said to me sparked a brainstorm in my head about my identity, my purpose on the planet, etc. The very next day I got ahold of some magical manuals and started practicing. I picked up Mastering Witchcraft, began to practice and study at the same time. It was like I knew some of the rules already, but had not been thinking about them until then. It was quite odd.
For those who are unfamiliar with your work and approach, how do you define what you call ‘Archaic Goetia’?
Well, I should have a definition as I’ve more or less coined the term [laughs]. It’s trying to excavate what it was that theurgists, Platonists, etc., got hold of and updated. What was it before they got ahold of it, and updated it, and put this new philosophical overlay on top? It seems theurgy, whether you’re talking about the Chaldean theurgists or the Neoplatonists, they were interpreting a pre-existing primitive magic, putting a philosophical overlay on it, and then later on saying “Oh yeah, those primitive people doing magic – shocking, isn’t it?” I’m trying to see through the overlay and recover what’s beneath. It’s not that I’m not sympathetic to the Neoplatonists, etc. – that’s a huge slice of the Western tradition to be dismissive about, and I’m totally not – but we’re trying to get to the roots of Goetia, as I was some years back. The more primitive side seemed to be reinterpreted, and the more I looked at it, the less the transcendental, Neoplatonist model – with an unknowable, unmanifest god outside it, on top of everything – the less it seemed to fit where that stuff came from and how it came about. Archaic Goetia is like the predecessor, before the philosophical overlays, before the transcendental, monotheistic overlays that we think of in connection to Goetia now, where we conjure “in the name of God,” and so on. So that’s about it, really [laughs].
When I first became interested in Goetia, I noticed a lot of pushback and judgment from magicians with a more dualistic viewpoint: “I only do angel magic; I don’t work with Chthonic spirits.” Did you encounter many obstacles in the process?
It’s a bit like stripping layers back. I have worked more Golden Dawn magic, more Thelemic magic and so on in the past – very structured and essentially derived from the Neoplatonist model, even if they’ve reinvented it. And it’s not like I haven’t worked with angels – it’s a bit of an in-joke when I say “I don’t do angels.” I work more or less exclusively with the Grimorium Verum, wherein the superior spirits are themselves demons. There is very little call for angels. However, some of the traditional prayers that are involved certainly name up to 32 angels – in the most complete form of one particular prayer. But the thing is, many of those angels are fallen angels, and you’ll find that even in the thwarting angel paradigm. When you actually examine the evidence, the Testament of Solomon for instance, it supports the thwarting angel approach. One of the most important angels there is Azael, who is certainly one of the chiefs of the fallen angels. So, yeah, traditional grimoire angelology is a little bit less than black-and-white. Grimorium Verum just happens to be one of the less angel-oriented grimoires – you still get the seven Penitential Psalms, and stuff. I don’t advocate people making silly changes to rituals to make it more amenable to their personal aesthetic – but it’s important to understand the process of ritual before we start switching components. Make sure that what you put in does the same job as what you took out.
Yes, absolutely. Have you experienced much pushback with regards to your approach?
I’ve certainly had my share of criticism, some of it fair enough and some of it ill-considered. The way I presented the Grimorium Verum was that I just presented the system pretty much as it is. People told me I should be a bit more moral about it. But this is historical analysis – the truth is that my personal morality doesn’t come into it, although I certainly have one. I’m talking from my own experimental background where I accept a certain amount of burnt fingers will come into things. And you will have to sit and ponder, occasionally, “Is there some kind of test here? Do I go this way or that way?” And that is more or less native to Goetia anyway. I think people don’t like when I say that about Goetia – and the chances are they don’t really approve of Goetia anyway. But I’d be out of a job if I listened to them.
How does morality factor into magic?
A lot of effective magic goes back a long way. It goes back before urban society and having strict rules. In much more tribal, hunter-gatherer societies, you looked after your own. My morality, to a large extent, is based on that. I look after my friends and family. I consider myself duty-bound to that. It doesn’t mean I’ve got no time for the rest of the human race, but you don’t do so much heavy lifting. Compassion requires a certain degree of strength or resources to spare. So yeah, I have morality, but my relationship is with spirits who don’t have the same rules or needs as human beings. Maybe I’ve picked some of this up from them, and it’s part of the chemistry of working with spirits: “Why do you want this stuff?” “Well, it’s because my friend needs something, or my family needs something. They need looking after.” It’s very primitive, this approach. It’s certainly some form of morality: you can see how society was built on these types of urges. So yeah, my morality is a bit messy. Make it up as I go along, but am usually consistent about what I value.
Something I’ve come to appreciate about you is your willingness to speak about taboo subjects beyond magic: your class background, punk sentiments, and sympathies with anarchism. Could you talk a little bit about how your politics influence your magic and vice versa?
I don’t really like political language much. It gets spun narrowly, whether it’s applied to right or left wing narratives. I wouldn’t choose those words. But on the other hand, I do have strong class loyalties. I do have strong feelings for the underdog, having been one occasionally myself. It’s more anarchist, if we have to use words other people understand. But I’m not carrying any flags particularly. I don’t join groups to go out or anything, but it doesn’t mean occasionally I don’t do it personally. That’s a bit too punk rock, possibly, for this interview. [laughs]
In terms of when you were a bit younger, did you encounter any barriers due to class background, getting into magic and the occult?
Well, yeah. In the strangest places. In hippie communities, the idea was “do your own thing” – but I suppose they found “my thing” a bit too shocking. “Do the approved thing.” And I thought, well, no, I’ll do my own – thank you! But, no, I’ve usually found ways around most obstacles. I’m pretty good at organizing even limited resources to get quite a lot done. I’m a bit sneaky and I’ve learned tricks from people who flout convention, people who aren’t exactly “top of the pile.” People think about winners in a certain way… and it’s great to be like that, but if you’re not – which physically I’ve never been – perhaps you need to learn things from other sources: women, children, animals, just observing nature. Through observation, you can learn some new tricks.
Punk rock is about deconstructing, in a lot of ways. It’s very anti-authority: “I know these three chords; let’s pick it up and get it going.” Punk and chaos magic coincide, at least in the UK – is it punk, or is it chaos [laughs]? I’m quite sympathetic to chaos magic. I have my ups and downs with Pete Carroll, but I certainly really respect him and have been influenced by chaos magic. Not just in conversation but in my magic, I go off on tangents: I’m going to do six months of this, whether it’s chaos magic, or W.G. Gray or something else, when I need to look at things differently. I do like the older stuff – the Greek Magical Papyri, certain grimoires, and so on, but I occasionally go off and try something brand-spanking-different. And yeah, I’m quite sympathetic to the experimental attitude of chaos magic. I just think perhaps they should be a bit more whole-hearted when adopting a new paradigm – why not choose one that’s not goofy?
I’ve definitely gone off on a tangent in this conversation. I love tangents. Tangents are good. It’s a great way to slip sideways around an obstacle rather than trying to smash your way through it.
You speak a lot about what you’re calling a living tradition. I’m really interested in your ideas about when and how to bend the rules within an established tradition.
I do stick within a pretty narrow framework, for practical purposes. I work mainly with the Grimorium Verum and its ritual language, and in large part stay within it, but I find it extremely flexible. And I think that’s one of the marks of a good tradition, whether it’s living or not – that you can do variations on a thing and still recognize and be working within the same tradition. It’s not like, “Well, we’ve only got six rituals left – because we’ve only got half a book left from the middle ages.” And if it hasn’t got what you want in it, it’s just tough luck, you can’t devise something on the basic principles, that’s not allowed. I just find that preposterous, and not really traditional at all! Purists in a lot of ways are the least traditional people. The rigidity is not a mark of a real living tradition. There are always variants. As in mythology: which version of the supposed parenthood of this important character do we accept? There are four different versions within the same body of mythology. Maybe they all have something to tell you!
Variation is a mark of richness; you have to be able to negotiate it. Occasionally, it’s more like stepping stones rather than a nice broad highway, but it’s certainly possible. Many traditions depend on experimentation and cross-fertilization to a large extent. Things get tried and tested by thousands of people. So a punk ethos, yes. Experimentation: sometimes the only way to learn the rules is to actually start doing the stuff so it really makes sense to you. You’ve done it real time, in three dimensions, rather than trying to figure it out on the page.
So a bit of hedge witch, a bit of chaos magic, dabbling, experimentation – lots of it. Getting back the to first question, got hold of Mastering Witchcraft and started using it within hours. Preparing the instruments, you need to learn how to do your holy water and your incense… and then you’ve got the nuts and bolts of a whole bunch of stuff. Learning on your feet, practicing, getting your fingers burnt from day one… especially if you’re getting into magic when you’re young, while you’re good at learning. Starting out on a practical and theoretical basis from day one, I think, is really important. It’s worked really well for me.
The first writing I read of yours was the Testament of Cyprian –
That’s my favorite!
I wasn’t expecting it to be what it was. I was struck immediately by one particular passage, and I’ve always wanted to ask about it. You wrote, “Primal ‘religion’ is shamanic, shamanism is magic, and therefore the context of magic is wider than manipulation of supernatural entities for purely mundane results.” How do you place the concept of low magic within the larger context of magic as a whole?
Getting paid and laid, making sure that your boy is bringing back some meat or whatever, that’s important magic. Survival magic is important magic – I’m not belittling it at all. But there is, and always was, more to ground level magic than that. Because one of our most pressing considerations is death, and it always has been. Death in the tribe can be catastrophic: you lose your best hunter, it’s a catastrophe for everyone. There’s a certain amount of shared consciousness in any tribe. And magicians have always dealt with the underworld. It’s not just weird and spooky, even if it has gotten into the B movies – those are authentic devices.
Magic has always dealt with bereavement and coming to terms with loss. On a very practical level, you talk about low magic… the attitude today is that death has to be convenient – it has to be out of the way. But the stakes are incredibly high for a tribe, or even for a city-state. How do you deal with death – and the balance between life and death? Before it turns into religion, tribal belief or whatever, where the way that things are dealt with is ritualized and mythologized, it’s not childish. It’s fucking essential! Death is kind of the big deal that low magic has always been prepared to take on. And that is really where low magic comes from. Without the idea of the underworld and the afterlife, we would have never evolved magic in the first place. Necromancy is absolutely ground zero for the development of the entire Western tradition… It’s getting a bit punk rock again, I’m sorry! [laughs]
Death is a major blind spot for a culture as well, if they’re carrying that cultural baggage. Most of us do carry a heck of a lot of cultural baggage – there are many parts we aren’t even considering. Death is a major part of the picture, and always has been. Well, conversations with a necromancer can actually get a little morbid – that’s kind of how it goes.
Who are some of your biggest influences? Do you have any style icons?
Style icon: Tank Girl. Role models, not too many. A couple occultists do spring to mind, big name occultists even, those who were quite pugnacious and unafraid to tell people they were idiots. Paracelsus, for instance, and Guido Bonatti. My one Oriental role model, influence, and icon would be Miyamoto Musashi. I don’t consider my Western sorcerer’s brain to be particularly good at dealing with Oriental traditions, but he has an influence on me. The 'Way of the warrior' is still the Way. He was certainly a master, absolutely a master – a major influence on me. And his western counterpart would be Cyrano de Bergerac. As well as a swordsman he was also a critic, a playwright, a philosopher, and he wasn’t for sale. He was absolutely, 100%, not for sale. He lived his own life, beholden to nobody else. That’s the real Cyrano de Bergerac. In many ways the fictional one is a condensation…the historical one was an even bigger character. Miyamoto Musashi also lived outside approved society, while doing calligraphy, writing works of philosophy, he still wasn’t your typical, well-turned-out samurai… He was prepared to rough it. So yeah, those are a couple of my role models.
Miyamoto Musashi as depicted by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Edo period, Japan.
What have you been listening to lately, music-wise?
It changes, there are some consistent themes. Garage punk, love a lot of metal – not so keen on the cookie monster vocal style but I do love a lot of metal. Also, there are a couple Czech composers I like quite a lot recently. It does vary enormously. The last bit of music I heard before this interview was Link Wray.
What projects are you currently working on – is there anything new on the horizon?
There is a book in progress, but it’s not writing itself the way the previous ones did. I’m not hammering the keys, searching through files every day – it’s like I’ve got to process quite a lot of stuff before I can write things with this one. So I did a couple of trips to the Czech Republic, which has been enormously helpful. It’s really hard to explain why it’s helpful. To get my emotional and intuitive responses in line with my intellectual ones, there’s just something about central Europe which speaks to me. Because it’s unfamiliar – it’s not the Latinate world, but it has some of the same currents within it which one can engage with. We have a conflict within modern occultism – the Protestant or post-Protestant secularism, Catholic traditionalism, and this amorphous thing we call Paganism… whereas in the Baroque period in central Europe, firstly things were concurrent. They weren’t cohabiting nicely, they were often in conflict, but they were all concurrent. And the form that Catholicism comes in there is Baroque. It’s very different than walking into an English or even a Spanish church. This difference has helped me to process stuff – to get over my residual neopagan Christophobia, for want of a better word. Christophobia! [laughs] Within the the grimoires, and indeed with two thousand years of Western occult traditions to take on board, you can’t be too Christophobic. Just acknowledge that mythology is mythology. And mythology is something that never happened that is true forever.
I was just having a conversation with a friend about just how much easier it is to make peace with the more archetypal or symbolic elements of Christianity (as opposed to fighting it), in the interest of accessing greater depths of information.
If I take my English experience, or my British experience, or the Anglican Church, and Methodism – and there are some positives in there – but they’re not really connecting with my magical self. Whereas the Catholic world, it’s enormously important in Western magic and in New World magic but it’s not my own experience, I’m not connecting with it. And I’m not admiring at a distance. In order to process my Christophobia, which I need to do – nevermind how I do it – why do I need to do it? Well, one of the best definitions of ‘magician’ that I’ve across was in Betz' analysis of the Papyri – the term “ritual specialist” turns up. And it’s better than “ceremonial magician”… as a “ritual specialist,” it’s not healthy if you can’t handle looking at Christian rituals and Christian iconography dispassionately. That’s why it has to be dealt with. For me this means going to the Czech Republic and getting some Baroque culture, and Slavic folk culture, face to face. Yeah, this is really wonderful stuff, and I can totally engage with it. You’ve got Faustian and other undercurrents running around. And you’ve got this Pagan-Catholic-Orthodox history happening within that part of Europe. So yeah, it just helps me process it, it’s totally distinct.
Was there anything specific that you saw while in the Czech Republic that was particularly stunning?
Lots of churches, and cathedrals, and shrines… but also some absolutely fabulous rock bars. Getting out in the sticks, checking out the churches and cathedrals and places connected with historical magicians, or reputed magicians, was absolutely fabulous. And there is tons of it – absolutely tons of it – if you’ve got yourself a decent driver, which I certainly have. One of my best mates on the planet is an excellent driver who just happens to live in that area. Whatever it’s about, my experience was very positive – with culture, magic, and just feeling at home.
Do you have any words of wisdom for young and developing magicians, those new to the path?
Don’t wait until you know it before you start, because then you’ll never start. Start practicing from day one. Make some mistakes, get your fingers burnt. Never mind what others say, they don’t know. Experiment, get back to the old punk rock ethos. Start with three chords. It will get better as you go along.
Jake Stratton-Kent is an author, grimoire specialist, and advanced Goetic magician based in the UK. His books are available for purchase here and here. Interviewed by M. Elizabeth Scott, Fall 2018. Photograph provided by Jake Stratton-Kent.