- Stealing Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Modern Western Magic by Nevill Drury
Modern Western Magic, Golden Dawn, Ordo Templi Orientis, Aleister Crowley, Freemasonry, Kabbalah, Rosicrucianism, occultism
In the prefatory material, Nevill Drury describes his latest book as an “overview history” in a “field that has already been well served by some outstanding research and scholarship.” He is entirely correct in these assessments. Furthermore, he asserts that this latest of his several-dozen popular and practical books on magic and occultism of various sorts is the result of his protracted doctoral work; without, however, going out of his way to inform readers that the text that structurally covers almost exactly the same historical figures and material as his earlier The History of Magic in the Modern Age: A Quest for Personal Transformation (sometimes nearly word-for-word). In his online vita he does so concede, with the claim that the reworking is “a more rigorous academic presentation.” Regardless, readers who are familiar or began their studies with his earlier work, and who have continued to research, read, and use Google in the intervening decade, may safely pass over this latest offering.
This being admitted, Stealing Fire from Heaven is a good book. It is an easy read that does provide an adequate introductory overview of a key handful of modern magical ideologies and the usual suspects associated with them: The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Ordo Templi Orientis and other offshoots of Aleister Crowley’s disciples, Dion Fortune, A. O. Spare, Rosaleen Norton, Gerald Gardner, Alex Sanders, Anton LeVey and Michael Aquino, shamanism, voodoo, and magical cyberspaces. Drury is not Joscelyn Godwin. Stealing Fire from Heaven is not designed on the scholarly scale of Thorndike’s History of Magic and Experimental Science, nor even Cavendish’s encyclopedic Man, Myth, and Magic. It does have something of the episodic feel of the later text (and Cavendish’s other works), like a skipping stone [End Page 113] flung over the surface of a large, deep lake. Thankfully, however, Drury does not make Cavendish’s mistake of equating nearly all Western magical practices to some form of “devil worship.” Stealing Fire from Heaven is exactly the sort of text that one could profitably use in a lower-division undergraduate survey of modern occultism, magic in literature, or even the history of magic—with the more in-depth primary and secondary sources put on reserve in the campus library.
The broadest strokes of Drury’s historical argument are to be found in the thumbnail sketches of Kabbalah, the Hermetic tradition, Freemasonry, and Rosicrucianism. This is indeed old ground, gone over hundreds of times in previous publications, and Drury makes no novel or shocking connections. The real foundation of the resurgence of magical beliefs in the twentieth century he attributes—again unsurprisingly—to the activities of MacGregor Mathers’s Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. His coverage of the Golden Dawn, however, is also merely a thumbnail sketch, divided about equally between explanations of the Order’s foundational history and symbol system. As this symbol system has been explained and adapted in numerous popular and scholarly publications—and one cannot deny that its practical ideology has percolated into the systems of innumerable other groups—one might wish that Drury had chosen to dedicate a bit more analysis to the various Golden Dawn splinter groups and factions. Instead, he transitions directly to Aleister Crowley, and stays there for considerable time.
His portrait of Crowley’s achievements is unbiased and sympathetic to the degree that it is not Crowley the Golden Dawn renegade and oath-breaker, nor Beast of the Apocalypse, who emerges in the end. It is true that it was through Crowley’s original publications that many people were exposed to the Golden Dawn’s variety of syncretic Kabbalistic hermeticism, although he is more often than not treated as the straw-man “black magician.” However, occasionally, Drury’s portrait of Crowley is selectively one sided. Chapter 4, for example, is a bit top-heavy on the subject of sex magic, as if...