- Victorian Occultism and the Making of Modern Magic: Invoking Tradition by Alison Butler
Victorian magic, occultism, Golden Dawn, Mme Blavatsky, Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Egyptian Magic
Alison Butler’s Victorian Occultism and the Making of Modern Magic examines the cultural history of Victorian occultism. Focusing primarily upon the textual and social elements that surrounded the development of the Golden [End Page 94] Dawn, Butler alternates her focus between key figures in the movement, contributing texts, and the cultural frameworks of the Order. In some ways covering similar territory to Alex Owen’s important 2007 book, The Place of Enchantment, the primary goal of Butler’s work is to provide a historical analysis of Victorian magic through the thick description of the individuals, texts, and cultural forces that played a role in its development. However, Butler seeks to further expand Owen’s perspective through a more detailed treatment of the actual and invented origins of the Golden Dawn, as well as offering a more detailed occult topography of the organization.
The book may be divided into three strands: the personal, the textual, and the intercultural (the last meant to indicate the reappropriations of antique and extra-European magics through which Victorian occultism worked). As regards the first strand, Butler introduces us to the Golden Dawn members who represent the “usual suspects” that one might anticipate in such a study (Wynn Westcott, MacGregor and Moina Mathers, William Butler Yeats, to name only a few). In tandem, Butler treats persons outside the Golden Dawn, including important precursors like Eliphas Lévi, and others, like Madame Blavatsky, who rejected the “occultist” label entirely, but who nevertheless help us to understand the cultural situation of occultist societies with which she is concerned. She relies heavily on the correspondence between these figures allowing them to speak in their own words—often, of course, about each other.
With regard to the textual strand of the work, Butler’s most interesting analysis may be Chapter 5, “Magical Libraries: What Occultists Read.” This chapter analyzes two libraries—that of the midcentury occultist Frederick Hockley and the Hermetic Library of Wynn Westcott—in order to provide for us a sort of cross section of the sources Victorian occultists were drawing upon. Butler engages works of philosophy, science, and fiction from these libraries, providing a broader picture of the textual world in which such individuals moved than might be provided by a study of their magical sources alone.
With regard to the intercultural strand, Victorian Occultism operates on two levels. First, extra-Victorian cultural frameworks that informed the Victorian organizations are examined, specifically Freemasonry, Egyptian magic, and Rosicrucianism. Then, Butler illustrates the way in which Victorian occultism appropriated these older frameworks as a means of discourse for Victorian issues: gender equality, morality, group practice, and the role of the imaginal. In so doing, Butler paints a rich picture of how the Golden Dawn created a magic that was culturally Victorian by transforming magical practices performed by the solitary male elites, and often perceived as amoral, into a moral [End Page 95] endeavor, performed in groups, and accessible to both sexes and the middle class. Through this elaboration of specifically Victorian concerns, Butler further shows how the Golden Dawn presented itself as an essentially middle-class alternative to Christianity and scientific naturalism “by positioning Victorian magic as a worldview encouraged by the cultural and intellectual debates of the century in which it emerged” (161).
Some portions of Butler’s book seem better thought through than others: while her treatment of persons and texts is engaging enough, her treatment of the ancient and medieval worlds often seems overgeneralized. For instance, when considering the ways in which Egyptian magic contributed to the Golden Dawn, Butler draws upon current scholarship to describe the practices of Egyptian magic, but this removes her analysis from the context of the Victorian period. Butler would have been better served—and the results of the study would probably have been more interesting and informative—if her assessment of Egyptian magic had been more focused on the sources...