Our Failing Shadows – Book Review

The surest sign, to my mind, that we are experiencing a renaissance of Western esotericism is in the verdant flourishing of occult art. From the music of Hawthonn to the visual art of Glyn Smyth, to name just two among many brilliant artists, the quality of esoteric artistic output is surging. This is as vital to the movement as the grimoire revival and serious research into our magical heritage. The two are not disconnected. Indeed, independent occult publishers have supported this flourishing by commissioning illustrators and, in the past few years, releasing volumes of poetry and fiction alongside non-fiction texts.

The newly founded Nemglan Press is dedicated to this very endeavour. Their focus is, refreshingly, on fictive prose and poetry as a means of engaging imaginatively with the occult. This is not to create a false distinction between works of occult fiction and non-fiction, but rather to highlight the power of storytelling and poetry in inspiring gnosis. Their first Black Chapbook, Our Failing Shadows by Alexander Menid, has just been released and may be freely read in its entirety here.

I was fortunate to receive an early printed copy of the chapbook, and can confirm that those who prefer ink on paper will have much to look forward to in Nemglan’s future print editions. A great deal of care and attention has gone into the design and presentation of this work, which is both minimalist and evocative. The text is accompanied by sigils, echoing the poems in layers of symbolism drawing on a variety of spiritual traditions. They are well worth studying alongside the poetry itself.

Our Failing Shadows is a twilight text, best read at dusk or dawn. Indeed, many of the poems call on themes of liminality, the unseen and the shadowy presence of the dead within the land. Few spirits are named, and those that are not draw power from their ambiguity. The poems vary in voice and style, some are invocatory, others bold statements of identity from the otherworld. The spirits are called and given a voice, and sometimes that voice whispers things uncomfortable to hear. The poet engages with concepts of sin, both religious and ecological. ‘Anticosmic’ and ‘A Curse (for Humankind)’ confront us with the fact that however much we other ourselves, we cannot escape our humanity.

My personal favourites in the collection were ‘A Folk-Song for Midsummer’ – which begs to be set to music, ‘The Spirit-Ways’ – which engages the sort of ancestral memory we sometimes experience when walking old roads, and ‘The Watcher’ – an antidote perhaps to the sins explored in other pages.

For those who do not reach for poetry automatically, rest assured that you will find this work both engaging and eerily familiar. It draws in form and style on ancient hymns, spells, psalms, charms and folk music. It is also a text that can be worked, including invocations to spirits and even a solitary rite, with full instructions. This is not a passive book about someone else’s spiritual experience, but one which the reader too may become involved in.

This is an exciting start for Nemglan Press and I eagerly anticipate the next in their Black chapbook series. The only challenge I perceive ahead for them is to match the quality of this first volume.

Human Exceptionalism and the Source of Magical Power

In medieval Europe ‘good’ and ‘bad’ magic were defined rather differently than they are today. While we may be concerned with the intent of the practitioner, our ancestors were more interested in the source of their power. Influential authorities claimed that all magic worked by the influence of demons, and was thus dangerous to the souls of those involved. A¬†handful of intellectuals argued that at least some magic was fulfilled by the influence of planetary forces and/or the occult virtues placed inside plants, stones and animals by God or Nature. Practical manuals of magic included invocations to God, saints, angels, fairies, demons and Roman deities. There is rarely any suggestion that magical power is found within the magicians themselves. If the practitioner is able to gain some personal power, it is always acquired through an outside force.

I’m struck by the contrast between this attitude and that of modern popular magic. Most introductory books insist on the power we have as individual humans ‘inside us’ — untapped psychic potential and the ability to manipulate the universe through our will. We are told that, through training, meditation, focus and ritual, we can increase our own power over other humans and the world around us.

We’ve inherited this concept from the occult revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; a movement born in an imperial culture that saw personal power and dominion over the natural world as its birthright. Furthermore, the decline of religious belief and rise of atheism in the West led to an increasing deification of the human. When you place humanity just under God in the hierarchy of being – and then start to question God, it doesn’t take long for our enterprising species to assume the top rung. Influences from the emerging science of Psychology and the influx of Eastern philosophy played their part in this re-investment of magical power. All of a sudden you get suggestions that we, puny mortals – are actually gods in disguise, if only we realised our own potential. Such ideas are evident in the work of Crowley, Franz Bardon and Dion Fortune – all of whom inspired the founders of Wicca and the Neo-Pagan movement. Magical traditions may be counter-cultural, but they are still a product of their time.

The idea of personal magical power is also prevalent in the stories we tell about witches, wizards and humans with superhuman powers. In late 20th century fiction and films, magic is often depicted as a form of energy that some special humans can draw upon to gain even more power over the world around them – a neat analogy to fossil fuels perhaps. Half a century of this fiction, and the rise of the New Age movement has helped cement the idea that, if magic exists, it is inside of you. The stones, plants, words – even the Gods – are only window dressing. They help you to feel magical and access your own power. They are interchangeable and a really powerful magician can do without them altogether. This is a projection of our own desire for dominion and the belief that we, as humans, are somehow more sentient, more resourceful, more supernatural than the other beings we share our world with. It is human exceptionalism in the extreme.

As a philosophical experiment, I want to see what happens when we reject this idea completely and return to a pre-modern perspective on the source of magical power. In this world view, humans are mortal, fairly short lived and limited by their own physical and intellectual abilities. However, they inhabit a world full of spirits. Whether these spirits are conceived of as angels, demons, the dead, fairies, planetary intelligences or the animist divinities of place – it is they, and not us, who have magical power. If common plants, stones and animals have occult properties that can help you, and the most powerful being you know is not yourself, but a spirit – then how do you access this power? You ask for help.

The asking can take many forms, and I am by no means suggesting that medieval magicians were polite about it. They were as likely to command, demand and adjure as petition, but whether they asked ‘nicely’ or not – there was the inherent acceptance that other beings had power and agency beyond our own. The magician worked through contracts, pacts and allegiances, or through petitioning a saint or herb. Magic required communication with the Other. To my mind, there is nothing more beautiful than the early medieval, Anglo-Saxon herb charms, in which the spirits of the plants are addressed by name and asked for their aid:

Remember, Mugwort, what you made known,
What you arranged at the Great proclamation.
You were called Una, the oldest of herbs,
you have power against three and against thirty,
you have power against poison and against infection,
you have power against the loathsome foe roving through the land.

(The Nine Herbs Charm)

How have we come from this to ‘You can replace almost any herb with Rosemary’ ?

If the magic is not ‘inside us’ – but out there, in a world populated by non-human beings, then we cannot work alone. In fact, we cannot achieve anything more than the ordinary¬† humans we live with. I do not believe that magic is forcing our Will upon the world. Such an attitude, far from being empowering, is full of hubris. We have been forcing our will on the world, without magic, for the past two centuries and it has led us to the brink of ecological collapse. Perhaps we have been too focused on finding our own power to realise that it is not inside us, but all around us? It is time to step back down from our pedestal, and go humbly among the fields and hills, not shouting our demands, but open once again to their needs and wants, to working with beings older, wiser and stronger than we are. A witch or magician is only as powerful as their allies.