Reprinted with permission
What is Goetia?
By Jake Stratton-Kent
Firstly, a word about what goetia is not. Many people with some acquaintance with occult literature will associate goetia with the first book of the Lemegeton, the so called Goetia of Solomon the King; which deservedly or not is nowadays perhaps the most famous of the grimoires. Indeed, in Crowley’s Book IV, all the references to goetia involve this grimoire and nothing else. However, this first book of the Lemegeton dates to the mid seventeenth century, whereas the term goetia is ancient Greek, so clearly there is some distance between the date of the grimoire and the origins of goetia.
This significant distance is often overlooked in popular usage, and even among many modern authors. It is not uncommon to hear such expressions as ‘goetic demons‘ or even ‘goetias‘ when referring to the spirits of this grimoire. This usage is inaccurate in several ways, one in particular is of interest here. In European languages the words magus or magician derive from magic, the person taking their name from their art. By contrast, the term goetia derives from a word indicating a person, a somewhat unique case of the art taking its name from the artist. This person was called a ‘goes’. In short, goetia is related first and foremost to the identity of the operator, and secondarily to the nature of their art.
The word ‘goes’ relates to terms describing the act of lamenting at funeral rites; the mournful howling considered as a magical voice. These magical tones can guide the deceased to the underworld, and also raise the dead. This is the root of the long connection of goetia with necromancy, which has come to be seen as ‘black magic’.
Authors from Cornelius Agrippa to Mathers and Waite use the term goetic of most of the grimoires, particularly the darker ones. It is only the relative fame of the Goetia of Solomon that has overshadowed the long association of the term with supposed ‘black magic’ generally.
From Agrippa the negative associations of the word goetia go back beyond the medieval period into classical antiquity. So it could be said that goetia is a very old word for black magic. But in Greek use magic was a term derived from a Persian root, whereas goetia was already present in the Greek language. In the history of Western Magic not only did goetia come first, but it possessed a character that distinguished it from many later forms. In its original form goetia did not involve the same worldview or assumptions as later magic. To be specific the differences concern the worldview of so called primitive religion, as opposed to the later more civilised forms.
Franz Cumont’s book on Chaldean Magic speaks of Persian magic entering Greek use around the time of the Persian Wars. He says that a Book of Ostanes ‘was the origin of the magic substituted from that time forth for the coarse and ancient rites of Goetia’. The rites of the Magi known to the Greeks seem in the main to have been pre-Zoroastrian, and no less ‘coarse and ancient’ than Greek goetia. The Book of Ostanes may then represent a partial transformation of goetia towards the form in which we now know it. In any case Goetia certainly did not die out with the advent and evolution of these ‘Magian’ rites, even though at that time much of the meaning and significance of the old Greek rituals had already been lost.
The goetic strand within western magic essentially represents survivals of more primal elements within host traditions of another character. Invariably such brief attempts as have been made to define goetia are from the viewpoint of such host traditions, or from viewpoints hostile to magic in general, rather than the viewpoint of goetia itself.
It is difficult to speak of goetia in its own terms when competing with the accumulated assumptions of so many intervening centuries. For the last two thousand years our civilisation has lived with the assumptions inherent in Revealed Religion. The civilisation of Classical Greece, and all other civilisations of the ancient world, were built on a tradition of thousands of years of what is known as Natural Religion. Whereas Revealed Religion is delivered from on high by a revelation represented by a Book - Natural Religion is built up from below, the result of observation of and interaction with the visible world, including perceived supernatural or numinous forces. At the heart of these two approaches to religion are two entirely different worlds.
These two worlds, the cores of two opposed worldviews, can usefully be defined as celestial and chthonic. These are not the limits of the worldviews concerned, but their centres. That is to say, while Revealed Religion has as its ‘base’ the Celestial or even Super-celestial realm, it does not exclude considerations of other regions, such as Earth, Hell and the physical universe in general. Similarly, while Natural Religion has the Earth and the Underworld at its heart, this does not prevent it dealing with gods of thunder or the Sun and Moon.
In the same way the source of the Revelation of Revealed Religion is Celestial, and this is the centre of its worldview. By contrast, the chthonic realm was considered the source of oracular power at all stages of Greek religion. In later magic the celestial or transcendental realms were all important, not least as the source of the magicians authority.
Previously the earth as source of life, and the underworld as the abode of the dead, were central to religion and magic. More to the point, much of the magic of later times, particularly that characterised as goetic, was an adaptation - one might even say a distortion - of the older type.
The chthonic connections of goetia are exemplified by the roots of the word itself. Whereas goetia is commonly translated ‘howling’, following the precedent of nineteenth century authorities which are too often unquestioned, a closer translation would be ‘wailing’ or ‘lamenting‘. There is a large group of related words in Greek, the majority of which refer specifically to ancient funeral rites. The tone of voice used in these rituals distinguished the practitioner of goetia, and the concern with the Underworld was equally explicit.
This earliest manifestation of goetia is principally concerned with the dead. At the same time it has no real connection with the aristocratic ‘Olympian’ religion of Homer, despite some parallels and later syncretism. Its primary role was benign in that it served a role in the community, that of ensuring the deceased received the proper rites to ensure they left the living alone. Alongside this were additional roles. These included laying ghosts, including those where proper burial had not been possible. Such ‘restless spirits’ were troublesome, even hostile and dangerous. Their existence was a major reason for the practice of funeral rites in the first place.
Another aspect of goetia’s involvement with the dead was necromancy. This, the art of divination by the dead, correlates naturally with the ability to guide the dead to the Underworld. Those who could guide souls to the Underworld could bring them back, at least temporarily. In its original religious context necromancy was not perceived as anti-social, and some major necromantic oracular centres existed throughout the Greek world.
The most sinister aspect of this involvement with the dead was the ability to summon such spirits for purposes other than divination. Like necromantic divination this is a natural consequence of the role of guide of souls. However it also relates very closely to the ability to deal with hostile ghosts of various kinds. The arts of exorcism and evocation are intimately related. It is from this aspect of its past that goetia is associated with demonic evocation. Distinctions between underworld demons and the angry dead have always been vague. Additionally, expertise in rites concerning the dead necessarily involves the gods and guardians of the Underworld. Consequently, in various guises, raising spirits has been associated with goetia for much of its history,
The impression caused by the confusion between the Goetia of Solomon and goetia itself is that goetia concerns evocation alone. There is a stereotyped image of the conjurer calling up spirits into a triangle from within a circle, and bidding them to perform this, that and the other thing. This seemingly reduces all goetic operations to the same format, which is not the case at all. Goetia involves methods of every variety. It is true that goetic magic involves the participation of spirits in virtually all its operations, but these operations are varied. The Grimorium Verum is clear that all operations are performed with the assistance of spirits, but its methods include what we would call spells, and also methods of divination. Most often in these operations the sigils of appropriate spirits are involved in the procedure. There is for instance a traditional method of causing harm to an enemy through their footprint. In its Verum form this involves tracing the sigils of spirits and stabbing a coffin nail into the print. Some of this methodology is reminiscent of modern applications of Austin Spare’s sigils, although rather more results oriented than the uses the artist himself employed.
In general Verum employs evocation for one main purpose, which is to form a pact with the spirit or spirits concerned, precisely so they will be willing to assist the magician in other types of operation. I say spirits in the plural for a reason. In contrast to the methodology of the Goetia of Solomon as popularly understood, Verum’s process envisages the possibility of summoning more than one spirit at a time for the purpose of forming pacts. While any evocatory process is demanding, in terms of time and effort expended, this multiple evocation process is considerably more economical, and far more productive. Modern understanding envisages the conjuring of a single spirit in order to achieve one specific result, and the spirit concerned may never be met with again. Verum on the other hand envisages calling upon one or more spirits in order to commence a working relationship, so that on future occasions the same spirits may assist the magician repeatedly. In these subsequent relations the full procedure of evocation is rarely necessary; and will usually only be employed to initiate relationships with additional spirits.
Such exhausting operations therefore are not the be all and end all of goetic sorcery. The magician and the spirits with whom they are involved will be active in a variety of other procedures. These will involve a range of different skills and activities, alongside a more minimalist conjuration.
So what have we learned from this survey? That the identity of the operator makes goetia what it is, not the nature of the spirits. That goetia concerns earth and the underworld, and involves no authority from the celestial regions, but the innate power of the magician. That it has its own worldview, and far from being a specialised sub-discipline, it is the primal origin of the entire Western Tradition of magic.