[NOTE: A Byzantine Catholic author reviews a guide to magical creatures written by a learned and practicing Druid. The author undertook the monograph purely for reasons of academic inquiry and theological dialogue, and only after consulting his confessor. He strongly advises that Christian readers approach this text and others like it with similar caution and advises against practical magic as incompatible with Christian cultic and ritual restrictions.]
John Michael Greer’s Monsters: An Investigator’s Guide to Magical Beings is a book which assumes that the reader has already made a certain amount of intellectual progress in cosmology. There are, I think, three basic assumptions about the universe which one needs to read this book profitably. First, the universe is alive, not dead; second, in both its material and spiritual components, the universe is significant (that is, it signifies), not insignificant; and third, it is full, not empty. To attempt a serious reading of Greer one has to thoroughly disabuse one’s self of the philosophical notions of scientific (really scientistic) materialism, nihilism, and anthropocentrism (at least in its more toxic and egotistic variations, which reduces all intelligent phenomena to a function of the human mind). The materialist has no category for the monstrous as Greer understands it, which is always, imaginatively, reduced to a particular sort of material phenomenon; nor does the nihilist, for whom the distinction between “monstrous” and “mundane” is itself illusory and arbitrary, even at the imaginative level. The secular humanist has no tolerance for such a view either, since the human consciousness is the greatest thing he can imagine (if he can imagine it at all).
But Greer’s challenge, I wager, is not merely for the modern reader: it is also, and distinctly, for the Christian reader. For the Christian reader, Greer’s monograph is something of a gauntlet throw. This challenge is not made at the Christian Tradition writ large (for which Greer, despite being a practicing Druid and accomplished occultist, seems to have considerable respect in places), rather, it is to the modernism that contemporary Western Christians have imbibed in their everyday assumptions about the world.
Most 21st century American Christians are, consciously or unconsciously, theistic materialists, reducing everything other than God (and oftentimes God as well) to a material being. Most acknowledge no deeper meaning inscribed in the movements of the natural world, and if they do acknowledge such meaning, it almost always revolves around me, my life, and God’s “wonderful plan” for it. Greer is rightly, though mostly implicitly, critical of this naturalist, de-sacramentalized, and selfish Christianity. Such is a Christianity that cannot discern, cannot explain, and cannot fully engage with the universe. And for Greer, such a Christianity cannot be the intellectual and religious peer that it was for those he identifies as his magical forbears, nor even the raw material that later Western magicians were able to make of it in his own traditions. Greer struck me, for this reason, as similar to a man reproaching his friend for the loss of a shared topic of vigorous mutual interest: the enchantment of the cosmos that once united Christians and pagans.
The book is split into four parts:
Part by part, then. Greer defines a monster (Lat: monstrum) very specifically as an epiphanic being: a “spiritual,” “mental,” or, more often, “astral” or “etheric” being with an inconsistent or tenuous presence in the material realm. Such beings are “monsters” in the truest sense because they reveal something, especially to disenchanted moderns, about the nature of the world and their place in it, and they also may or may not reveal something particular about the divine or spiritual order dependent on their relationship with it. Because they are not wholly material (but are nevertheless corporeal, on which see below), monsters are also epiphanic insofar as they can only be perceived by a rational or noetic mind, that is, something which can perceive and articulate a reality that is not wholly material. Greer’s monsters reveal the primacy of consciousness as the foundation of reality in which finite minds meet and meld, to sometimes beneficent and sometimes maleficent ends. In choosing this definition, which, as he notes, has the value of etymological clarity, Greer excludes, not as unworthy of study but as irrelevant to his concern, the usual objects of contemporary monster lore, that is, cryptids (“hidden” animals, like Bigfoot) and alternative rational animals, including modern distortions of some such monsters as rational animals (Stoker’s Dracula and Tolkien’s elves earn his disapproval). To some extent, this is putting the cart before the horse: Greer asserts more than proves throughout the book that his monsters are always beings of questionable material or sarkic embodiment. For some of these monsters, the suggestion that they do not have an ordinary material body of some kind seems logical, or at least intuitive, and for others, the suggestion is at least interesting; but for some, I wonder whether it is not a hasty assumption.
Greer assumes throughout a basic posture that all of these creatures are real, but he expresses the remarkable intellectual acuity and honesty to consider contemporary anthropological explanations of monster lore and to happily concede them a certain portion of explanatory power. When discussing fays, for instance, Greer is clear that their folkloric profile is etheric in character and that their material appearances as elves, dwarves, sprites, UFOs (on which see below), and what have you are the product of magical glamour to appear to humans in ways they find believable; but he is equally open to the idea that displaced rival human communities or hominids stand behind the ancient memory of fays (as is the standard hypothesis in the scholarly literature), and even considers whether the fay might not be the disembodied spirits or souls of those early displaced hominids. Greer, in other words, is not a dogmatist: he readily admits in most chapters that hard and fast rules about the creatures he has in view are not possible, even for practicing magicians like himself, since those creatures are by their very nature elusive and inhuman. Likewise, when discussing demons, Greer notes that the work of the psychologist and the demonologist overlap and intersect at many points, without either being reducible to the other; both disciplines are legitimate in their sphere. (This fundamental openness to and appreciation of the sciences is, I might note in passing, typical in my experience for those who inhabit an enchanted cosmos and atypically reciprocal among those who do not.) Interestingly, where Greer ends up being the most reductive is within the range of options opened up by his non-materialist, otherwise fecund cosmology: when he stakes his ground it is almost always against other cultured forms of esoterica, under which rubric Christianity seems to be occasionally included.
The monsters themselves are all worthy of some comment. Greer’s description of the vampire as a leftover etheric body struggling to avoid dissipation denotes something of the archetypically ravenous: evil is more often born of petty hunger than of intelligent pride. Similarly, Greer’s description of ghosts as etheric vestiges not simply of souls but of psychic patterns, imprints, and events of great emotional consequence (positive or, more often, negative) seems to me a helpful taxonomy in deciphering a phenomenon of increasingly visible acceptance in the wider scientific community.
The regional specificity with which Greer approaches monsters like zombies and werewolves, both of which are products of culturally specific traditions of magic, is, I think, a helpful reminder in a popular Western culture that is inundated with Hollywood lore about these entities. Here again, too, the line between something scientifically identifiable and magically perceptible is ambiguous without being nonexistent, since, on the one hand, the creation of a zombie requires a particular potion concoction and werewolves must undergo a kind of magical initiation that most anthropologists would simply identify with the “wild man” archetype, but on the other Greer means to suggest that there is a real kind of magically described living death and animal body of transformation assumed, respectively.
Greer’s treatments of chimaeras, mermaids, and dragons come the closest to transgressing his stated distinction between monster and cryptid. As mentioned, for Greer, each of these creatures is etheric or astral in their primary bodily location, and are only secondarily or phenomenally material; but it does seem that, at least in the classical and mythological lore with which I myself and most familiar, each of these creatures is a material and sarkic being with great magical power and quasi-divine status in the cosmos. Nor is it clear to me that, to think inside the wide universe Greer constructs, these beings could not have once been biological entities that now only exist in some etheric, astral, mental, or spiritual manner. Why could their etheric bodies not simply be their own ghostly afterlife in a world where they once lived, but now no longer? Or why could they not be the etheric or astral bodies of fixtures in the natural world like rivers and winds, with which they are associated frequently in some mythologies?
Easily of greatest interest is Greer’s discussion of the more intellective monsters, fays, spirits, angels, and demons. Every chapter here has something worth pondering. Greer makes the important observation repeatedly throughout these chapters that the category of “fay” is only distinguished from that of demon, spirit, angel, or god with some difficulty, since in the folkloric traditions “fay” is often a catch-all for the spiritual world that was never fully conceptually Christianized. As mentioned above, he takes issue with Tolkien’s fay folk—the elves, dwarves, and (corrupted) orcs of Middle Earth—for their sarkic rather than etheric constitution. Here I think folklorists and students of myth are likely bound to disagree about the physics of the fay: Tolkien was, of course, no pushover in his knowledge of such things, and actively sought to construct the Legendarium as a kind of English portion in Celtic, Germanic, and Norse mythologies; one wonders, then, whether it really is the case that Tolkien’s fay are as disloyal to the folklore as Greer alleges. Lewis, of course, would come here to Tolkien’s defense, as his discussion of longaevi in The Discarded Image asserts the possibility of rational animals other than humans as a fundamentally open question in the medieval mind.
More interesting, and controversial, is Greer’s acknowledgment of the relationship between fay and the UFO phenomenon. Here I think Greer has hit on something important—namely, that extraterrestrials in flying saucers tend to do for us nowadays what elves once did for Europeans, culturally, and that the two kinds of entity share many distinct phenomenological commonalities is nothing short of suggestive—but again I do not know that he has proven his case. That fays and UFOs might well be the same thing seems clear enough; but whether fays are the ancient UFOs or UFOs are the modern fays is the real question in that line of inquiry. Less clear to me are what the recent legitimation of ufology through the New York Times reports on Pentagon investigation of UAP (“unidentified aerial phenomena”) and alleged recovery of craft mean for Greer’s thesis; and still less clear to me is why it could not simply be that fay and ETI alike exist and coexist in a world that is certainly plenty big enough for both of them. This is my general criticism of Greer, I think: where the cosmology he embraces opens up a myriad of possibilities, he sometimes settles for his own reductionisms, simply of a different, enchanted sort.
Greer’s discussion of spirits investigates the important categories of “Intelligences,” Elementals, and Larvae, and tacitly suggests that the whole cosmos is enforced by spiritual beings of ever-increasing personality and noetic ability. Greer does not mention it, but here he hits from a different intellectual tradition on the same point increasingly dominating contemporary scientific discussions of cosmology, namely that consciousness and mind are fundamental and primary, pluriform and diffuse throughout the universe, while matter is secondary. It is not merely for phenomenal reasons that we tend to predicate personality of the material world around us, on this reading: rather, matter manifests to us mental realities which reaching out to and finding home in our own minds, realities which grow in personality and noetic quality the further up the chain of being one goes.
The lines between spirits, angels, and demons in the magical perspective that Greer elucidates are ambiguous and increasingly thin. What the realistic difference is, for example, between an “angel” and an “intelligence” (especially given the patristic habit of referring to angels sometimes as simply “intelligences” or “noetic powers,” νοεραι) is as unclear to me as is the distinction between Greer’s concept of the fay and the spirits, and between any of these creatures and what ancients would have simply recognized as a “god” or a “daimon.” Is the salamander in the hearth or the undine living in the bird bath distinguishable, really, from the lares or penates that once adorned the Roman fireplace or Priapus who observed their gardens? To his credit, Greer himself acknowledges this ambiguity; but his intellectual honesty here stands at odds, to some extent, with his attempt to construct a firm taxonomy of the monstrous.
Angels are, for Greer, beings of the supreme finite, contingent power, unable to be magically compelled or controlled by humans, with entirely inhuman sensibilities, motivated by charity but not, per se, by “compassion,” so understood; they are “monstrous” more in the epiphanic than the traditional sense, insofar as they reveal the divine providence which they serve in its power and life. Greer expresses a preference for the medieval Jewish kabbalistic angelic hierarchy over the traditional Christian one, as this is the system which came to influence Western magic; notably in this system humans are listed as the lowest of the angelic choirs, belonging to the material sephirah of malkuth.
It is not always clear, I might add, whether Greer, often respectful of the Christian Tradition, understands or appreciates to what extent Christian angelology, or cosmology in general, are indebted to the conceptual world of Second Temple Judaism: he seems to put the Jewish angel system against the Christian one in a way that seems to ignore the substantial continuities between them, and their common origin. Demons, by contrast, are, on the Hermetic Qabalistic reading, empty husks of spiritual intelligences from another universe. They are more dense than we are, physically and noetically, and their malice is the product of an evil that has long since dulled their capacity to think with the lucidity of an angel, a spirit, a fay, or a human. Greer insists, at the close of his chapter on demons, human superiority to them in strength and reasoning power. Here I suspect that the Christian Tradition will qualify or object to Greer to the extent that it admits of the possibility of angelic ignorance, incompetence, or malice –that is, their capacity to “fall”—and to the extent that contemporary Christians continue to draw the distinctions between fallen angels and demons as related but separate categories (as Early Jews and Christians traditionally did).
Part Three held little interest for me, not enterprising upon a monster-hunting career, and so I will offer no comment on it here. Part Four is the real instruction manual of the book, walking the reader through the protective Natural and Ritual Magic appropriate to monster defense. It is here that the Christian reader will have the greatest difficulty with the work; I will simply offer a few general comments on its contents. I have never been more convinced than after reading this book of the general uselessness of defining “magic” over against “religion.” Greer identifies with magic and its cognates often to distinguish himself from mainstream cults, religions, and the like, but as far as I can tell “Magic” for him constitutes simply a certain inculturated, traditioned posture of relationship to the cosmos (cult), utilizing ritual to draw upon and manipulate its existing laws in ways that seem appropriate to the magician. But this is also to describe religion; and so, as most scholars know, the distinction between the two is more constructed than real.
So what to do with such recommendations? With respect to Natural Magic, I wonder about the simultaneity of certain natural materials to traditional cultic practices and magical practice, such as frankincense (used by magicians to cleanse and bless) or myrrh (used by magicians to banish evil spirits). But then this should be unsurprising: if something has potency, it will be recognized and accounted for by those who have the capacity to recognize such things. And in Christianity, there are historic examples of incorporating “natural magic” at the level of folk practice, especially liturgically. Christian use of mistletoe in Yuletide or of basil leaves on Holy Saturday each, in their own ways, exemplify the manner in which God’s apocalypse in Christ “baptizes” certain inborn magical potencies in the cosmos.
Things are more complex when we consider “Ritual Magic,” for at least two reasons. First, if we confess the distinction between religion and magic to be constructed and therefore of questionable and inconsistent utility, then there is a sense in which in speaking of ritual magic we are just speaking of ritual: and so, for the Christian reader, the same standards of liceity that apply to all ritual will apply here. But also, second, the examples of ritual magic Greer describes bear clear conceptual and cultural debts to Judaism (especially in the form of Kabbalah) and Christianity. Christians and magical practitioners inhabit more or less the same cosmos, conceptually speaking, but do so with distinct rules of engagement for that shared world. It is not so much that the Christian does something called “religion” and the magician does something called “magic”; as I have tried to show, this is a meaningless distinction at bottom. Christians do plenty of “magical” things, from the theurgy of the Christian liturgy explained in detail in the late antique and medieval mystagogies and rubrics (that is, the divine-human cooperation by which water becomes spiritually regenerative, consecrated oil becomes the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the bread and wine of the eucharistic sacrifice are metamorphosed into the crucified, risen, and ascended flesh and blood of Christ, etc.), to the sanctification of special hours of the day with prayer, to mantra-like meditative states, to habits of asceticism, to exorcisms, and so forth. It is more that by adhering to the Christian Tradition with its arcana, there are other arcana that we cannot licitly put to practical use. There are, for the Christian, cultic and ritual restrictions upon the kinds of communion and interaction we can have with the spiritual order that the magician simply does not deal with. Christians, for example, cannot offer cult in the sense of adoration to any other God than the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, consubstantial with his only-begotten Son and Spirit; and Christians are given in Scripture and Tradition particular ritual forms both for the adoration of the Godhead and for the licit veneration of lesser divine powers (the Blessed Virgin Mary, the angels, and the saints). True, this has sometimes meant that Christians operate with a somewhat impoverished vocabulary for the spiritual order, and with an improper sense of cosmic etiquette: as Greer points out repeatedly, the Christian habit of reducing the entirety of the monstrous to either the angelic or the demonic is neither accurate nor useful. Thankfully, as he also admits, there are precedents for a wider horizontal scope to the Christian universe. But no less, Christians know how to reverence an angel or to rebuke a demon; they do not typically know how to greet the fire sprite that lives in the household hearth or how to ward off the vampyr. Knowing, of course, is half the battle, and as far as this goes, Greer can be quite a helpful read; but many of his recommended remedies for monstrous affliction just are not legitimate options for Christian make use of, even when they are drawing explicitly on Jewish and Christian textual sources and practices, precisely because of the manner in which they are constructed, transmitted, and so forth.
Moreover, as regards defense and safety in interacting with the noetic cosmos, essential to the Christian narrative is Christ’s cosmic victory by means of the cross. Christians place their faith in the cross as shield and sword in the etheric, astral, mental, and spiritual universe. Shields and swords may be used for chivalrous decorum as much as for battle; the cross need not always be a sign of enmity to the monstrous. The cross, as it were, discerns its own enemies; Christians may be fay friends and demon foes. The cross is our protection, if we will cling to it: as the tree of life its sacramental fruits provide the immortality and wisdom which earn us the marvel of the angels. It is for this reason, too, that for millennia Christians have often found something as simple as making the sign of the cross with intention to be a bulwark against the demonic. (Notably, Greer would agree in the efficacy of the cross, though doubtless he might insist that this is not because of Christ’s death upon it but rather because of some universal magical potency to which the crucifix merely happens to allude. I do not wish to speak for him, of course, but here we must part ways: the cosmic power of the cross unfolds from the one who died upon it, and not the other way around.)
Magic, as “alternative” to the mainstream religion, then, has historically surged when mainstream religion fails to provide something, alternative religion is often pursued or invoked to make up the difference. Often, that “something” is a cosmology broad enough to evoke wonder and detailed enough to explain some of the stranger aspects of human experience. Much of the time, what alternative religion can provide on this topic are the vestiges of what once commonly belonged to the consciousness or at least the esoterica of the mainstream religion; and when the alternative religion does provide something genuinely new, that knowledge can often be absorbed into the mainstream religion. The Christian reading Greer will find some that is forbidden her, but much that is useful.
In closing it is worth answering why cosmology should be considered “useful.” I will assume in charity that my readers have not dismissed this book and an attempt at a serious review of it as naïve, silly, or, worse yet, blasphemous; but I can still see such a reader wondering how, in the midst of a pandemic, a looming climate catastrophe, a political crisis in the world’s most powerful empire, a growing exodus of "nones" from mainstream religious communities (especially the Christian churches), and mass Christian infidelity to our traditional moral theologies, reading about fays and dragons is an appropriate use of the Christian intellect. But to me, it seems, the manifold troubles which afflict the mundane world of our experience are precisely the reasons to push the boundaries of our picture of the world as far as we can. This is a universal human instinct: it is not accidental that in the midst of our nation’s decline, for instance, public interest in and governmental transparency about the UFO phenomenon have grown immensely.
Cosmology helps us to contextualize our mundane struggles: a dead, meaningless, and empty cosmos leaves us with problems we can neither escape nor understand, whose resolution or irresolution make no difference to an indifferent universe in which we are, anyway, an epiphenomenal accident. The struggles of the human world are, in that case, all there is, and so the whims of fortune oppress us all the more. Conversely, a living, sacramental, and full cosmos both invests our human social illnesses with meaning and relativizes them within a wider drama. Christianity must, here, as everywhere else, be at the table, shining the light of Christ on the dark corners of the world, where there be monsters. For Christ himself is the monstrum of God, in whose theophany the ground of all such beings is seen.