Interview with Jeffrey S. Kupperman, editor of Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition
Jeffery Kupperman lists some of his areas of study interest as Neoplatonism, Kabalah, Western Esotericism and Renaissance Occultism. He is the editor of Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition.
Christopher: How would you describe yourself as a person?
Jeffrey: Mostly, I describe myself as a curmudgeon, or, on good days, a realist. I am a traditionalist in that I think that the present can and should be informed by the past. A past that still has value today, a past without which today is somehow less meaningful. This belief extends beyond my interest and involvement in esoterica, though it certainly permeates those aspects of my life.
That comes out in my curmudgeonliness, and my insistence that people in general, and students of religion and esotericism in particular, pick up a history book or twelve. It is also perhaps noticeable in my love for the interchanges possible between myth and history, an area I worked on in my doctoral studies, but also my general dislike of historical revisionism for the sake of revisionism rather than mythological exposition. All of this, I think, further comes out in how I’ve generally edited the Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition and the direction I’ve tried to steer it via issue themes and the like.
But I think, or at least would like to hope, all of the above is itself pervaded by a deep spirituality if not some, admittedly ill defined, significant religiosity.
Christopher: How old do you describe your own practice?
Jeffrey: I think that depends on what you mean by “how old.” I’ve been practicing some form of esoteric for about twenty-two years. The various traditions that make up my spiritual and esoteric practice, as if those two things can really be separated, are relatively “ancient,” with the most significant streams coming from the theurgical Neoplatonism of Iamblichus and Pseudo-Dionysius as well as Jewish kabbalistic traditions ranging from R. Abraham Abulafia’s hitbodedut to the cosmology of R. Moshe Cordovero, the Ramak.
My ultimate practice is, though, is a relatively modern approach to these that attempts to both synthesize the underpinnings of these streams, which are largely Platonic and Neoplatonic (Abulafia was an Aristotelian, but I forgive him) while remaining as true as possible to the important historical and cultural differences that differentiate the various traditions with which I’m engaged. Or at least understanding them well enough to decide whether or not I should ignore them.
Christopher: In the Western Mystery Tradition, what briefly is the history and stages of its development?
Jeffrey: I don’t know that there is any academic agreement on this, and I would hedge at considering some sort of unified tradition, ignoring the fact that I publish a journal, the title of which suggests otherwise. Rather, there have been multiple streams of thought, theology, philosophy, etc., some of which have come together, and been synthesized, into the “western mystery tradition,” while some have not. And even those that have, have also continued along their original trajectories, as it were, within their unsynthesized traditions.
But, if we were to hypothesize such a creature, I would say that its underpinnings are largely Platonic and Neoplatonic in origin. Over this is a veneer of Hermetism, replete with Egyptian seeming, but Hellenistic sounding, concepts It’s filled with alchemy and astrology, which would then attach to itself a Christianized, and eventually post-Christian qabalah.
While the beginnings of this stem back some 2,500 years, further if we consider the Pythagorean influence on Plato, much of this was synthesized in the Renaissance, in which case we might put a lot of the development of what is recognized as the Western Mystery Tradition at the feet of Marsilio Ficino and those whom he influenced, such as Pico and Agrippa, both of whom brought in a great deal of kabbalistic thought, and Dee, famous for the development of what is now usually called Enochian magic.
Christopher: Everything starts from somewhere, did our ideas of magic start in the West or did we borrow some of the ideas from elsewhere?
Jeffrey: Yes. There is certainly a great deal of Hellenistic thought at the basis of the western mysteries, for instance, as well as a great deal of Latin and Greek-based Christianity, not to mention other forms of pre-Christian European religion, all of which had various forms of what we’d today call magic. But, for instance, much of the astrology practiced in Medieval Europe came from the Arabic Middle East and Renaissance kabbalistic thought did a great deal of its evolution in Israel. Even the Platonic dialogues came back to Europe through Islam and ancient Alexandria acted as a sort of philosophical and theological melting pot for both eastern and western peoples.
But it’s not that simple. As I’ve taught my anthropology students, cultures intermix and intermingle, they always have and they always will. An idea that might have originated in Persia will be altered to fit the culture within which it is planted. A Persian idea in Greece quickly becomes a Greek version of that Persian idea. And the flow of cultural exchange is never mono-directional.
Christopher: Even as far back as the ancient Greek culture doesn’t magic have a mixed reception, some considered acceptable and some that was considered not acceptable, perhaps even fraudulent? Was this partly because of what political leaders, the upper class and religious leaders thought?
Jeffrey: Even the word “magic” has something of a mixed reception, which is one of the reasons Crowley added (or re-added) the “k” to the end of the word! From what I recall, magia, the work of the Persian Magi, who were, possibly mistakenly, associated with Zoroaster, was originally considered quite positive in Greek culture, and would have been distinguished from goetia or sorcery. How the Magi were viewed changed over time, as did the Magi themselves, and there are certainly periods where magic was considered to be nothing more than charlatanism. There is a distinct connection, prevalent at least by the late Antique period, between a magician and juggler, suggesting a slight of hand aspect to magical practice, even when that practice was seen in a positive light.
I don’t know that it’s possible to place the changing views surrounding magic at the feet of any particular social class. Indeed, if we include sorcery in the overall category of “magic” then there have always been aspects of magical practice that were considered unacceptable by all classes. At the same time, religious magical practices, such as the healing incubation associated with the temples of Asklêpios don’t seem to gain the same sort of taint of unacceptableness we’re talking about.
On top of this we could add theourgia, theurgy or “god working,” developed perhaps by the Julianus responsible for the Chaldean Oracles and brought into Neoplatonism largely by Iamblichus. Iamblichus was at pains to separate theurgy, which was about uniting the human soul to God and the gods, as much as possible, and participating in the divine act of creation, from thaumaturgy and sorcery.
Christopher: Christianity seems to be anti-magic, but was there magical practice within the early church, perhaps even in the earlier Judaic religion?
Jeffrey: “Seems to be” is an appropriate phrase. First, of course, there is no monolithic Christianity, and the various forms of what is frequently termed “esoteric Christianity” are frequently pro-magic, however it is we’re going to define magic in this instance. If we’re talking about what would eventually become “mainstream” Christianity, the relationship between magic and that is a bit more difficult, especially as there were aspects of pre-Christian European society that were anti-magical as well, such as the sorcery I mentioned.
Loosely speaking, Christianity recognized three kinds of magical practice: natural, astral and demonic or daemonic. Generally, natural magic involved employing the inherent magical properties of a natural object, such as herbs, gems, animals and the like. Astral magic involved astrological timing and images and so was at least partially artificial in nature. Demonic magic was any magic that involved the use of spirits to accomplish a goal, regardless as to what kind of spirit it may be.
For a very long time, until the closing out of the Renaissance perhaps, natural magic was left alone by the Church. Astral magic held a median place, sometime condemned, sometimes not and demonic magic was almost always seen by religious authorities as dangerous because the magician could never quite be certain that the spirit they’ve conjured wasn’t a demon in disguise.
Of course, it wasn’t as simple as that. Both natural and astral magic could easily cross over into demonic magic, especially when invocation or charms had to be recited in order for the magic to work. After all, if a spell has to be spoken then something had to activate the magic of that spell, which could be a demon. At any rate, we start seeing a general crack down on all things magical by the 16th and 17th centuries. Sometimes that was even aided by practicing magicians, such when Ficino, in the late 15th century, wrote against certain astrological practices, even though it seems clear he was a practicing astrologer and astrological theurgist.
As for Christianity inheriting magical practices from Judaism, this invariably happened, as it also acquired some from Islam and the paganisms of Christian converts. One especially finds similarities between the Jewish mystical practice called merkavah mysticism and mystical practices and scriptures in early Christianity, including, for instance, the Apocalypse of St. John, more commonly known as Revelations.
Christopher: After being condemned and driven underground, how does magic make such a comeback in the Renaissance, such that you have magicians working for the Nobility and the Monarchs?
Jeffrey: I’ve actually written about this a little in a paper that should be published in issue number five of The Gnostic, which I think comes out in February of 2012. While this can’t all be placed at the feet of Marsilio Ficino, I’m going to do so anyway. Ficino, famous for the founding of a Platonic academy that probably didn’t exist, was responsible for the first translations of Plato, many of the early Neoplatonists, from Plotinus to Iamblichus to Pseudo-Dionysius, and most famously the Corpus Hermeticum, from Greek into Latin. Ficino would go on to influence important esotericists who would in turn influence other important esotericists. Much of this would happen under the guide of philosophy or the so-called “perennial wisdom,” and would be connected through strange and interesting machinations to Judaism and Christianity, or as being forerunners of both or either, and thus made “safe” for Christians to practice.
Christopher: Considering the long mistreatment and distrust of the Jews, when does the Kabalah become part of the Western Tradition?
Jeffrey: First, it’s important to recognize that, strictly, or at least academically, speaking, kabbalah is a medieval Jewish development, coming out of other practices that were not, strictly speaking kabbalah, such as merkavah mysticism. That being said, even from the 11th or 12th century we see dialogues between the intelligentsia of Judaism and the intelligentsia of Christianity. You have Jews such as Abulafiah, who actively attempted to gain audiences with the Pope, and Christian scholars who learned Hebrew either from Jews or Jewish converts to Christianity in order to understand kabbalistic thought.
The reasons for Christian interest in this vary, of course. For instance, Johann Reuchlin, one of those people influenced by Ficino I might add, was a great proponent of studying Judaism and is considered by some to be the originator of Christian kabbalah. He also was actively involved in trying to convert Jews to Christianity by showing that everything predicted by kabbalistic thought had come true in Christ.
Agrippa, on the other hand, wasn’t interested at all in converting Jews but was rather engaged in creating an essential universal compendium of esoteric knowledge, which placed the sefirotic system in the highest level of his work, which was, overall, Platonic and Neoplatonic in scheme. Terri Burns, whom you’ve interviewed and who has many papers in the JWMT, has seen connections between the kabbalah of R. Isaac Luria and the Enochiana of John Dee.
This doesn’t even begin to go into the great amounts of pseudo-Judaism that has gone into late Medieval and then Renaissance occultism, especially of the grimoire tradition.
Christopher: Why such an upwelling of Magical thought and practice just as Scientific thinking is beginning to progress? Is there any connection between Magic and Science?
Jeffrey: I think they ultimately came from the same place. In the Renaissance, the intelligentsia was seeing connections between, well, everything. Both the scientists and the esotericists, who were frequently the same people, were trying to understand the nature of those connections and how they could be used. I think one of the big differences was that ultimately the sciences went in the direction of Aristotle while the esotericists went in the direction of Plato. Some were able to reconcile those differences, as the Neoplatonists since at least Iamblichus did. Isaac Newton, who was a practicing alchemist, is a good example of that.
Christopher: Isn’t there a second upwelling in the Victorian period, and does that influence modern day magical thought?
Jeffrey: Yes, though that was itself influenced especially by things happening on the continent, especially in Germany and France. But what you’re talking about is the development of the Order of the Golden Dawn at the end of the 1800s, which would lead to the creation of Thelema, the popularity of Dion Fortune (a former member of the Golden Dawn (GD)), all of which, along with Theosophy and Free Masonry, go on to influence the development of Wicca and descended Paganisms.
The streams the GD drew upon were many and varied, including just about everything we’ve talked about already and the kitchen sink, but, and this is important, all placed within a particular context and methodology that frequently stripped the original practices and beliefs of much of their original depth in order to create a new kind of content. And the founders of the Golden Dawn, and to various degrees their successors, were wildly successful at this and it is still very influential, directly or indirectly, today.
Christopher: Are we just rehashing old ideas, or has magic continued to move forward? What would be some of the newer ideas in magic? What areas are there left to explore?
Jeffrey: Actually, I would be happy to see modern magical practices do a little more rehashing of the old and ancient ideas. Much of the old ideology has been lost and, I think, frequently to the detriment of modern esoteric practitioners. The number of hermetic magicians who have never read the Corpus Hermeticum and the number of qabalists who haven’t read anything beyond William Westcott’s purposefully altered translation of the Latin, rather than the Hebrew version, of the Sefer Yetzirah is staggering and dismaying to a traditional curmudgeon such as myself.
That’s not to say improvements have not been made. The Golden Dawn’s use of invocation to, well, invoke the powers of the elements, planets and zodiac is of great benefit to magical practice, over and against the having to wait for very specific astrological times for the creation of talismans. And yet it seems that few have made the connection between those very powerful astrological alignments and this kind of invocation. Instead, a more simplistic, and some might argue significantly less effective, astrological magic is employed and many magicians appear to be unfamiliar with astrological timing beyond the planetary hours and days. Chaos magic is another newer idea, but one I’m not particularly fond of, so it’s probably better that I don’t get into it.
As for new areas left to explore, there likely are, but, again, I think an exploration of the past is not only in order, but necessary before that can go on effectively. Almost every time I’ve encountered a “new” thought in the magical world I later find it to have already been thought of a few hundred, or a few thousand, years ago. For instance, many of the ideas behind Chaos magic, not to mention mass marketing, were already developed by Giordano Bruno in the 16th century.
Christopher: We are in the 21st Century. What should magic be working on to be of continued use now and in the future?
Jeffrey: I think you’ll be able to guess this answer. An exploration of the past to better understand where we are today and where that has been leading towards, if anywhere. Not that this hasn’t been done, by the way. In the last decade especially there has been a resurgence in traditional grimoire magic as well as Renaissance occultism, as well as Neoplatonism and Gnosticism. In the modern Paganisms we’ve seen the rise of Reconstructionism, first Germanic but then also Celtic, Egyptian, Roman, Greek and others. This seems to have lead to many of those practicing Paganisms that arose during the magical revival to develop a new interest in the sources they’ve been drawing from, to understand those sources within their own context, not just within a modern Pagan one.
And, importantly, none of this has been kept moribund. In fact, I would say that a hallmark of esoteric thought has always been innovation, even if that innovation has been hidden within the language of traditionalism, like the Neoplatonists (or the Confucianists) did. This is possible because another hallmark of esoteric thought is its universality, which it to say it tries to understand everything, on all levels of reality. As knowledge has improved over time, the traditional esotericists, those engaged in that perennial wisdom, have strived to understand it and bring into the context of their greater knowledge of reality.
All that being said, I’d personally like to see a greater exploration of subtle anatomy to occur outside the language of the East and/or Theosophy. Astral bodies, the vehicle of the soul and the like have a long history in western religion and magic and I think can be fully understood in those terms.
Christopher: Where can people find out more about the Western Mystery Traditions? What do you think are serious and useful sources of information?
Jeffrey: Oh, well, there are a lot of resources out there. I would first of all perhaps not so humbly suggest the Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition (http://www.jwmt.org), which I have been publishing for over a decade now. After that, I tend to recommend the dialogues of Plato, the writings of Iamblichus and then a whole lot of history books and academia. I could easily provide a reading list if you’re interested, though academic papers are harder to get a hold of without the presence of a university library. Beyond that, the field of esoteric studies within the academy has grown greatly in the last couple of decades and there are now professional societies, such as the Societas Magica (http://www.societasmagica.org/), the Association for the Study of Esotericism (http://www.aseweb.org/) and the European Society for the Study of Esotericism (http://www.esswe.org/). The ASE’s conferences are open to any member and at least when I joined many years ago, there wasn’t a requirement to be a professional academic to do so and they are connected to the journal Esoterica (http://www.esoteric.msu.edu/)
Christopher: Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers?
Jeffrey: Though perhaps a shameless plug, the Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition is working towards hosting its first conference, hopefully in the summer of 2012. Please watch our website (http://www.jwmt.org) for more information, including a Call for Abstracts.