Arbatel: Concerning the Magic of Ancients
Joseph Peterson (translator)
This is a guest review by Sannion, who graciously offered to help me clear out my review shelf as I’m on hiatus.
A while back, Lupa put out a request for guest reviewers to handle some of the overflow she’d gotten through her Pagan Book Reviews blog. Being the shameless book hound that I am, I answered the call and snatched up a couple choice titles to read in between my usual Greco-Egyptian fare. The choicest of the choice was undoubtedly Joseph Peterson’s new translation of Arbatel de magia veterum. Just holding the book in my hands was a pleasure. This is a handsomely designed volume by people who take pride in craftsmanship. The illustrations were lovely; the notes added much without being overwhelming; and the original Latin text was provided for comparison, something I always appreciate in a translation.
Although I had never read the Arbatel before, I’d read plenty about it. It’s one of the classic texts of Renaissance magic, influential in the development of the system of planetary or Olympic spirits so important in modern CM. Most of the passages I’d seen quoted from it were fairly dense and dry and a little difficult to follow. They also employed hopelessly archaic language. If ever a book was in need of a clear, concise, and modern translation – it was this one! (After all, the previous translation, from which most of the quotes I’d read had come, was done in the 17th century.)
And Peterson’s translation does not disappoint. He makes this important esoteric text come alive through his simple yet elegant prose. It almost gives one the impression that they’re sitting in at a lecture of learned scholars discussing magic, philosophy, religion and history. In fact, that was probably the most surprising thing about the Arbatel. Most of what I had read about it had led me to believe that the Arbatel was something along the lines of a philosophical grimoire. And there are parts of it like that, but mostly it seems concerned with Neoplatonic theology, providing an overview of the history of magic, and driving home sound ethical advice. In fact, a sizable portion of the aphorisms which make up the Arbatel are devoted to that last topic, which gives a very different impression of magic than many people often have. As Peterson points out in his introduction, throughout the text there are admonitions “to help our neighbors, be positive and grateful, and use time wisely. Above all, it teaches us to pay attention, looking for the wondrous and miraculous. In fact, to the author this virtually defines the magus.”
Peterson’s introduction was one of the most enjoyable parts of the book, and would almost be worth the price alone. He traces the history of Renaissance magic back to Late Antiquity and the Neoplatonists and Hermeticists, with a lengthy discussion on the preservation, use, and adaptation of these important texts. Although none of the information was new to me, considering my interests, I think he handled it well and I’d definitely recommend it to someone who was curious about authentic pagan survivals during this time period.
Of course, the Arbatel being a product of the Renaissance as it is, the “paganism” that it presents is of a very curious sort. There are nymphs, and daimones, and magical creatures and even gods and demigods as part of its cosmology – but these are all subordinate to the one true god of the Christians. The author may quote Homer and Hesiod as authorities on certain matters, but he defers to the Holy Scriptures above all else. Still, if you can manage to skim past the pious interjections, I think you’ll find a lot of genuine worth and historical curiosity in this text. I’m sure I’ll be reading it a couple more times.