Many of our modern Pagan festivals are titled for their implied or specific themes: a goddess-focus is suggested by PantheaCon; TheurgiCon deals with theurgy and hermeticism and the traditions which derive from these; Pagan Spirit Gathering is apt to be understood in all the variety of ways which the first two words of its title can imply. But, a gathering that draws a crowd of occultists, magicians, hermeticists, alchemists, gnostics, and quite a few Pagans (whether they are one or more of those things additionally) as well, is Seattle’s Esoteric Book Conference. As Pagans are said not to be “people of the book, but people of the library,” this conference has a great deal to offer many modern Pagans indeed. The diverse Seattle occult, alternative religious, and Pagan scene’s members are the major attendees of the event, though an increasingly national and international crowd is also attending as the conference has progressed.
2013 saw the fifth Esoteric Book Conference take place again in mid-September at Seattle Center. I have attended them from the beginning, and presented on a panel about modern occult publishing at the first conference in 2009, and likewise presented a session in 2012 on the Ekklesía Antínoou Serpent Path. I hope to make yearly attendance at the conference a reality for the foreseeable future, as it has always proven to be informative, inspiring, a great temptation towards bankruptcy with the beautiful books (and art of various sorts) on offer at the exhibit hall and art show, and a chance to not only increase communal contacts and friendships, but to maintain them with the many individuals and groups I already know in this area that I often don’t get to see at other times of the year.
I cannot possibly do justice to all of the nine presentations that occurred this year in a summary, so I will simply discuss a few highlights for me personally that I feel qualified enough to comment upon. Those who I do not discuss below did excellent presentations, and I suggest you consult the conference website for fuller details of those presentations and the fascinating and accomplished biographies of the presenters as well.
Saturday’s sessions opened with one of the EBC’s hosts and its ever-resourceful technical coordinator, Joshua Madara, who was also described as the “Tony Stark of modern occultism,” with a presentation on “Interactive Media for Occult Book Makers.” This one likely would get the award for “Most Shiny” session, as the various book arts, both throughout history and of more recent vintage, which were shown in his slides were awe-inducing, as well as “aaah!”-inducing. The use of transparencies, pop-up art and models, computer-enhanced books with sound capabilities, and a huge variety of other possibilities was highlighted and presented as a kind of challenge to the audience, and a spur to even greater creativity with future occult-specific creations. Madara asked us to be more child-like and fun in our approach to these matters, and memorably noted (paraphrasing Arthur C. Clarke) that “Any sufficiently advanced work is indistinguishable from play.”
At least one of the sessions at each EBC is dedicated to a biography of an important occultist, artist, or scholar, and this year, Dr. Aaron Cheak presented on René Schwaller de Lubicz in a session entitled “The Call of Fire.” Schwaller was a multiply-talented, interested, and connected individual in literary, artistic, esoteric, and academic circles in the early-twentieth century, and was part of the Parisian alchemical revival, as well as a practicing Hermeticist. He spent fifteen years in Egypt studying the temples of Luxor in particular, and while he has not always found a good reception amongst Egyptologists, he (along with his wife Isha, who was with him in Egypt) is still the luminary of Egyptosophists, and many of his books on these subjects are available in English translation from Inner Traditions. He had theories on art that included elemental correlations with colors and number, both of which have alchemical implications that would be of great interest to a large number of modern Pagans.
An extremely enticing look at a future publication by Ouroboros Press (the occult publishing company founded by one of the Esoteric Book Conference’s organizers, William Kiesel) was provided by Nick Koss’ presentation, “Use of Cryptography in Magical Books: Deciphering the Triangular Book of St. Germain.” Koss’ background in linguistics, mathematics, and computer sciences aided him in being able to decipher the two Getty collection manuscripts, Hogart 209 and 210, which are triangular books written almost entirely in a cipher. Koss was able to decode the entire manuscript, which was an encrypted 18th century French magical ritual designed to extend one’s life, gain wealth, and learn ancient secrets. As these were all things attributed to the authority for the manuscript, the Count of St. Germain (about whom Voltaire is misquoted as having said that he “lived forever and knew everything,” but in reality he said something more like “he knows everything but never shuts up”!), it seems likely that the text for the ritual either did come from him, or from his general circle of associates.
The “hangover session” on Sunday morning went to M. Isidora Forrest, and this particular presentation, “Isis: Goddess of Magic, Patroness of Magicians,” is the one most likely to have resonated with the broader Pagan and polytheist audience. Her presentation discussed magic in the general as well as specifically Egyptian contexts, and emphasized that magic and religion were essentially inseparable concepts in Egyptian culture and language. While the presentation was focused on Isis, prominent also was Heka, the Egyptian god of magic, who is not merely a deified abstraction, but instead is an active and personified being with whom one should cultivate a relationship if one wishes to do effective magic at all. Indeed, in one of the Egyptian cosmologies, Re-Atum’s first creation is the god Heka, by whom all else in the universe is created. Isidora’s presentation ranged widely, and ended up spending extended time on the myth of Isis’ gaining of supreme magical power by extorting Re’s secret name, but also dealt with one of my favorite stories (and one important for Antinous-related lore as well!), Lukian of Samosata’s final tale in the Philopseudes, which is the first literary version of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tale, familiar from Goethe, Paul Dukas’ musical piece, and Disney’s Fantasia film. Isidora also launched the expanded tenth-anniversary edition of her magnum opus, Isis Magic: Cultivating a Relationship With the Goddess of 10,000 Names, which I’m looking forward to digging into soon!
The Esoteric Book Conference also usually features someone notable from the local esoteric community each year, whether it is Brandy Williams in 2009, Denny Sargent/Aion 131 in 2010, or Erynn Rowan Laurie last year. This year, the “local act” was a double act, with Kate Merriweather Lynch (who was also the conference’s volunteer coordinator and registration goddess, in addition to having some of her art on display!) and Aron D. Tarbuck, who presented a session on “Comics as Grimoires.” The “usual suspects” like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Neil Gaiman were all addressed, though of particular focus was not Moore’s Promethea and the like, but instead Swamp Thing, and how it changed the comics medium forever by ignoring the Comics Code Authority and launching DC’s imprint Vertigo. The conversation and questions after their presentation were the most lively of the entire conference, and were punctuated by rolls of thunder in the distance as well! Also, of potential interest to some modern polytheists who may be reading this and were involved in the recent “superheroes as deities” debates, was their mention of the Shinto Shrine in Japan that is dedicated to Manga characters.
It would be hard to honestly suggest that the Esoteric Book Conference has “something for everyone,” since the nature of the subject and the specific topics of the various sessions themselves are far more limited in appeal than what might be on offer at other events. However, for those who love books–not only for their content, but for their beauty as objects and as instantiations of human craft and skill in conjunction with divine and spiritual inspiration; or, as Robert Ansell put it at the first EBC in 2009, as physical expressions of the meeting between Chronos (Time) and Kairos (Opportunity)–the middle weekend in September in Seattle should be a time set aside to share your love of books with those members of your wider interconnected communities whose devotion to the book makers’ arts equals your own.
Next year in Seattle…!