The Black Arts by Richard Cavendish

The cover illustration on my copy of this book features a spooky skull, dagger, black candle, pestel & mortal, all sitting on what is presumably an occult grimoire. Along with the title, The Black Arts, this is presumably meant to mislead the would-be magician with the promise of forbidden secrets, and to perhaps evoke outrage from the “moral” majority, which is always good for popularity. Neither the title nor the illustration factored into my reasons for reading. First, Richard Cavendish is a well respected name as a researcher, and secondly the book was first published in 1967. Students of the occult will know that the Church of Satan (the first above-ground Satanic organisation) was founded in 1966, by one Anton Szandor LaVey, who published The Satanic Bible in 1969. Since then, LaVey has been the defining voice of what constitutes modern Satanism. It was my hope that Cavendish’s book would, on the other hand, provide an insight into pre-LaVeyan Satanism, if there even was such a thing.

The first thing I noticed about The Black Arts was that there’s nothing very black about much of the content. Cavendish devotes chapters to explaining the magical theory of the universe, numerology, the Cabala (or Kabbalah), alchemy and astrology. Only the last quarter of the book is devoted to ritual magic and devil worship. Cavendish does not appear to put much credence in occult theories, judging by his occasional critical anecdotes. Most of the time, however, he is completely dispassionate, simply offering us the historical facts and allowing us to make of them what we will. This is the real strength of the book. Key occult figures like Aleister Crowley, Eliphas Levi, John Dee are mentioned frequently, but in a scattered fashion. I would have loved a more comprehensive outline of their lives. H.P. Blavatsky is notable by her complete absence.

Regarding medieval Satanism, it is impossible to separate truth from lies, as it was an unfortunate habit of the Christian Church to brand heretics with the label “Satanist” and to accuse them of strange practices. In fact, the term “Satanist” would seem to have originated with the Church, and there is no evidence of the word being used to denote an actual ideology before Anton LaVey actively embraced it. In medieval times, accusing Satanists of stealing unbaptised babies for ritual sacrifice is a pretty sure way of ensuring that mothers baptised their infants fast. Satanists were, at least to some extent, the boogeymen. Although the spread of “devil worship” was certainly not nearly as prevalent as the Church made out, there remains some evidence of witchcraft afoot – an inversion of Christianity, where the devil is worshipped in place of God. The extent of witchcraft, and its exact nature, are lost in the mists of time.

I got a great deal out of this book. Much of the occult is based on flimsy ideas that don’t hold water when examined rationally. If there can be said to be any power in the speaking of incantations during ritual, it is not in the words themselves, but in the magician who chooses to invest power in the words. In other words, the magic is inside you, not in dusty old grimoires. One interesting anecdote for modern Satanists is the term “Shemhamforash,” which is quoted in The Satanic Bible during ritual, without explanation for what it means. According to Cavendish, the word is a name of God, arrived at through a numerological calculation on the Bible passage Exodus 14:19-21 (where the Israelites cross the Red Sea). These three verses are said to be significant because each contains 72 letters (in the original Hebrew). Interesting how LaVey, who put no credence whatsoever in the Bible, would use something derived from the Bible in his own Satanic rituals. That should tell you something about magical lore; it is all unneccesary fluff, borrowed from elsewhere. Its effectiveness is only in the effect you choose to give it upon yourself.

Magicians wishing to find powerful secrets will no doubt be disappointed by this book. Those who value separating truth from error will appreciate it. I think this handy volume has allowed me to avoid a lot of future disappointments and dead ends in my own research. Well worth the time invested.