About Fragments as Materials for Art

About Fragments as Materials for Art November 23, 2015

Aradia and the Books of the Sacred Marriage, which I have now released through the benefits of POD technology, is a novel in the form of nonfiction, woven from the fragments of information we have about historical Witches, and about the “Gnostic” and other varieties of Christianity that existed before the Council of Nicaea gave governmental power to the Roman church. It is one volume in a trilogy that will include The Road of Excess, in the form of autobiography, and Principia Metanoia, in the form of theological and philosophical speculations.

I have long been fascinated by the potential of fragments as raw material; that is, I always wonder if one can work with them to discover what their complete original might have been like.

My first such experiment was carried out in 1965, when I was an assistant editor at Stanford University Press and therefore had stack privileges at the Stanford library. One day I found myself wondering if I could use the fragments of Sappho’s poetry to see what her complete poems might have been like. The library gave me all extant translations of the fragments. I hadn’t learned Greek yet, but translation requires mastery not of the source language, but of the target language. A dictionary will give one all the secondary meanings and connotations of the source word, but finding an English word with a similar set of associations requires a creative leap that no dictionary can provide. I began moving the fragments around, much as one might with pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. After some months of work, I arrived at my Aeolian Transformations. Every word and phrase in the seven poems is hers, and her unmistakable voice is in them. I believe they are poems she could have written.

The second experiment took place in 1967, when my beloved Sarah asked me if I thought I could write a “Witches Sabbath” for her graduate arts seminar on ritual at San Francisco State. Having discovered Leland’s myth of Aradia in 1955, I had been gathering fragments of information about what Witches actually did from whatever sources I could find during the next dozen years: Gardner, Murray, Graves, and so on. Setting to work, I realized that, although I knew in general what Witches did, I had very little information on what they said. So, being in the last year of my MA program in poetry writing, I created little mnemonic verses to string the fragments of ritual together, the legomena to unify the dromena. What I arrived at was the first draft of what became the standard Sabbat ritual of the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn, as we named ourselves. I detail the subsequent history in Hippie Commie Beatnik Witches.

The third experiment was in 1971, while I was an editor for W.H. Freeman/Scientific American Books in San Francisco. I had learned the basics about the “Gnostics” from R.M. Grant’s Gnosticism and Early Christianity and from Richard Cavendish’s The Black Arts. When I discovered a complete set of the Ante-Nicene Fathers at Holmes Books, kitty-corner across Third and Market from the Freeman offices, I immediately bought it for $50 (which had the buying power of $500 in 2015 dollars; it was nice being well-employed), because I knew the works of the great heresiologists included in the set were the major source of what we knew about the “Gnostics” and other “heretics.” After perusing the set, I wondered what the writings of the “Gnostics” themselves might have been like. I gathered all the fragments of quotations from the “Gnostic” writings together and turned the negative descriptions of “Gnostics” by the Church Fathers into positive statements. I wove all that together into The Gospel of Simon and Helen, essentially as it stands in ABSM. I think I made out a better case for their theology than they ever did for themselves.

The fourth experiment extended from 1974 to 1976. Considering Gerald Gardner’s claim in Witchcraft Today that he had taken the fragmentary system of the coven he had been initiated into in 1939 and built it up into (the in-fact new religion of) Wicca, I wondered what he had started with and what he had added to it. It seemed unlikely that I could ever see the needed primary materials. Then two different versions of the document known variously as the “Craft Laws,” the “Old Laws,” or “The Ardanes” were published in 1971, one in Lady Sheba’s Book of Shadows, one in June Johns’ King of the Witches, her biography of Alex Sanders. The document fascinated me, because it is the only one in the Gardnerian Book of Shadows that implicitly claims to be historical. Since I was being initiated into the arcana of classical and Biblical textual criticism, I used those techniques to deduce the characteristics of the original document that these two versions might have been derived from.

In early 1974 I mentioned the resulting essay to Isaac Bonewits, who was on his way to become the editor of Llewellyn’s Gnostica magazine. He encouraged me to send it to him; I did so; he published it; and as a result Carl Weschcke remembered that Charles Clarke in England had sent him some Gardnerian materials. When Isaac saw them, he realized that they were Book of Shadows pages typed and annotated by Gardner himself. He immediately sent me copies of them and of several letters typed and handwritten by Gardner. I visited St. Paul in June 1974 to autopsy the originals and began to construct a history of how the Book of Shadows had been written.

In June of 1975 I was invited by the Ripley’s Corporation to visit their offices in Toronto in order to inspect the holdings of Gardner’s Witchcraft Museum on the Isle of Man, which Ripley’s had bought from Gardner’s heirs, Campbell and Monique Wilson. In Toronto Derek Copperthwaite showed me the manuscript book titled “Ye Bok of ye Art Magickal,” which, I deduced, was the prototype for the Book of Shadows. Given the clues in the documents and dates from the fragments of rituals and concepts in Gardner’s four published books, I was then able to revise my first draft and establish a chronology for the writing of the Book of Shadows spanning the years 1947 to 1961. A popularized version of the book was published in 1991 by Llewellyn as Crafting the Art of Magick. A revised edition, reincorporating much of the original research, was published by Tom Clarke of Thoth Publications in 2007 as Inventing Witchcraft.

The fifth experiment began with the publication of The Nag Hammadi Library in English in 1979. I had learned Coptic as part of my doctoral program (1974-1980) at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley; one final exam was a cold translation of a page from the Gospel of Thomas. I had begun tackling the problem of how the gospels were actually written in 1971. Now I had a huge pile of fragments to use for that purpose. I brought to this project my perspective as a Creative Writing major: you don’t actually know how a poem or a novel or a play is written until you can write one yourself. I began to work on the possibility of constructing a complete Gospel According to Mary out of the fragments about her in the canonicals, the Coptic documents, and the legends. I have been working on that project for more than thirty years, taking it through many mutations. One such is the Gospel of Mary and Acts of Mary incorporated into my novel, Goddess Murder. The latest and perhaps the last appears in ABSM as The Sacred Marriage of Jesus and Mary.

The sixth experiment began in 1991, when I wondered one day if the myth of Aradia, which, as recounted by Leland, can be written out in three pages, could be expanded into a more comprehensive foundation myth for Witchcraft. I began gathering materials that had the same sort of antinomian flavor and worked with them, sliding the jigsaw pieces around. When I made a difficult decision about vocabulary, suddenly I went into the altered state often called the “visitation by the Muse” that I had been trained to cultivate, and found myself hearing the voice of (as I later deduced) an Italian noblewoman, a hereditary Witch, writing about the history of her family and her beliefs, around the time of the Italian Civil War in 1870. This became The Gospel of Diana.

When I had finished it, I sent it off to Otter Zell and Diane Darling, to see if they might be interested in serializing this “gospel for Witches” in Green Egg. They did not like the gospel format and asked me to say it all in my own voice—and I realized I could not. Diana, as the matriarch of a family that had been persecuted by a corrupt institution, could speak bluntly, passionately, and clearly. But I, with at least a few pretensions to scholarship, would have needed so many qualifications, quibbles, and footnotes that there would be no story, and no power.

I created my novel Goddess Murder as a shorter version of the story in about 2011, then still suffering from the literary agents who had insisted back around 1990 that the novel I was planning could never be published. During 2015 I completed a companion volume, titled The Books of the Sacred Marriage, set in the same fictive universe in about 1995. However, as soon as I published it on Amazon, the Muse began whacking me about my head and shoulders, saying, “No, integrate them into the novel as you envisioned it in 1995.” I have done so. In addition, during four more years of thinking, I had arrived at very different conclusions about the roles of Peter and Mary in the original events.

Aradia and the Books of the Sacred Marriage is thus composed of real fragments, genuine theological reasoning, and relatively few inventions that are entirely my own. I thought about adding footnotes—there would be hundreds of footnotes—to cite the source of each fragment, but they would so dilute the story, so much make it look like a textbook for religious studies, that it would fail as an aesthetic experiment. So I will be magnanimous: I leave the task of identifying all the sources of fragments in it for some future scholar to carry out in, I suppose, his or her doctoral dissertation. It would not be an overwhelming task.

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