Alexander Cummins (Ph.D) is an historian, a poet and a divinator whose work is mainly concerned with folk magic, nigromancy and divination. He is one of the editors and among the authors of Cypriana: Old World, an anthology of writings exploring the myth and the practices of the Saint Patron of necromancers and magical books. Doctor Cummins has also authored a series of articles on the English tradition of Fairie, as well as a number of articles online and in print. Amongst his interests are love magic, planetary magic and the relationship between emotions and magical practices. On these topics Al also holds a series of webinar, the latest of which deals with planetary incantation. In this interview we discuss grimoire magic, the Fairie tradition and the Good Saint Cyprian. We are thankful to doctor Cummins for lending us his words and his time.
Hamelin: “What brought you to the study of grimoire magic and nigromancy? Was the academic interest born before the practice itself, or vice-versa?
Al Cummins: I would say my academic interest and my personal practice sprung up more or less at the same time, and have certainly continued to inform each other. I could attribute this partly to being very interested from a young age in history – I wanted to be an historian from about 5 years old – and in the magic of books themselves. It is probably not surprising to reveal that I was a very bookish child! This love was fed by those broader fascinations with myth, legend, drama, poetry, story, and ritual. As I grew older I began realising that some of my experiences were not terribly well explained by materialist models, and began exploring more fully the poetry of more occult perspectives on human experience.
Academically, I got into the history of magic via study of the history of revolution, specifically the English Revolution. Amongst the many radical experiments of ‘the world turned upside down’ (i.e after Charles I was executed) were those emerging from a zenith in the variety and availability of magical texts. This process is sometimes referred to as the ‘democratisation of magic’. So by the time I was at university I realized I could actually combine my passions of radical history and magic. I haven’t looked back since.
H: We have seen, over the past ten years, quite an important resurgence of the lore of St. Cyprian and St. Justina. In the introduction to Cypriana, you write: “[Cyprian and Justina] stand at the crossroad of the so-called Old World and New Worlds, forming an intermediary nexus of Christian thaumaturgy and older pagan mysteries”. Could you briefly tell our readers how ‘they got there’, how they went from legendary Christian martyrs to patrons of necromancers and magicians in Northern Europe and in the Iberian peninsula?
A: It certainly seems the Good Saint Cyprian is making his presence far more felt in recent years, doesn’t it. We should however bear in mind that this notion of a revival is very much concentrating on Cyprian in the Anglophone world. In Spanish and Portuguese milieus, he arguably never went away! Interestingly, this current Anglophone revival doesn’t seem such a historically unique situation either – there looks to have been a previous “Cyprianic revival” in the European grimoires of the fifteenth and especially sixteenth centuries, although arguably he doesn’t really ever completely stop haunting such magical books.
What we can say is that our dear Saint Cyprian (and, to a lesser and perhaps more complicated extent, Saint Justina) casts a forked shadow across Europe through two main means. Firstly, his story – of the wicked pagan love-magician who is brought to the light of God by a holy virgin exorcist and renounces his evil books of sorcery – is spread by the monumentally important and popular Golden Legend: a text that compiled various folklore, history, and myth including hagiographies and other saint-lore. The second means is via the whispered legends of Cyprian’s own magical book. Such was his patronage of not just a particular system of magic, but of simply all magic written in books, that some grimoires began to be called Cyprians themselves. These books were thought to combine old pagan sorcery – Cyprian was alleged to have been initiated into the Mystery schools of Apollo, Hekate, and others – and pious and righteous Christian (counter-)magic.
I am especially fascinated by the process by which a good Christian martyr becomes a patron of black magic. Richard Kieckhefer speaks of a certain ‘inverse hagiography’ whereby local stories of nameless evil necromancers begin to be attributed to more famous names, and I think Cyprian may be one of the best examples of this. Similar things happen to other well known occultists – Roger Bacon, and even Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa – whereby rumors of their diabolic dealings and questionable power circulate and cohere posthumously. When it comes to the so-called ‘New World’, along with a brisk trade and increasingly international distribution of Iberian books of witchcraft attributed to Cyprian, many families exiled from Spain for heretical practices brought their family-owed Ciprianillo tomes with them. These events added to various other local traditions which identify Cyprian as in some way African. He comes from afar, travels across the sea: he becomes the learned magician-stranger, leaving a trail of looseleaf nigromancy in his wake.
“Such was his patronage of not just a particular system of magic, but of simply all magic written in books, that some grimoires began to be called Cyprians themselves. These books were thought to combine old pagan sorcery – Cyprian was alleged to have been initiated into the Mystery schools of Apollo, Hekate, and others – and pious and righteous Christian (counter-)magic.
H: Cyprianic magic, like much christian magic, often refers to concepts that contemporary occult practitioners tend to avoid. When I read the Formaning and renounce all devils, I cannot help but look sideways to my horned figurines, and gasp. I think I can speak for several Italian occultists when I say that our taking distance from the Saint and Catholic practice of our grandparents was a way of re-casting the good/evil divide, and to escape what many saw as a patriarchal, and ultimately oppressive, framework. How do you think this kind of magic fits into contemporary sensibilities? Should we re-evaluate our stand towards Catholicism?
A: Certainly saints seem to be making a comeback in modern magical discourse and praxis. While some practitioners seem to gravitate towards a saint with such a pagan background, as a sort of bridge between modern and ancient magics, we also see a fair few magicians emphasising that one must engage with Christian mysteries to work with the Good Saint.
I can certainly empathise with those who are uncomfortable with certain political positions and historical actions of the Catholic Church as an institution, but I would say there are many ways of approaching an engagement with Christianity and Cyprian. Catholicism itself can be considered historically as much as a culture and a worldview – a profoundly universalist one, to consider the meaning of small-c ‘catholic’ – as a particular set of political positions. More broadly, so-called “folk catholic” approaches are far less concerned with official Vatican doctrine than they are with actual devotional practices. Cyprian and Justina are not even technically on the official list of Vatican II’s approved saints anymore; theirs is no longer a necessary feast in the universal calendar anymore. This of course does not stop more regional and local cultus being celebrated, even “officially” by Church leaders of that region. In specifically Italian contexts, the work of Michael P Carroll has shown that local devotion to a patron Saint and/or Madonna seems at least as important historically to Italian practitioners as reverence paid to the Nazarene, perhaps even more so. It was rarely statues of Jesus paraded through the fields to ward off famine like San Rocco, or covered in live snakes to protect from teeth troubles like San Domenico.
A further approach one could apply – and one that speaks to my own Irish and certainly Irish Catholic family – is to treat Catholicism as “the Old Religion” that it is, and to engage with it through a lens of ancestor veneration. To pray the Latin words breathed by one’s forefathers and foremothers, to attend the kind of services and festivals of the year they would have, can be incredibly powerful points of contact with our dead.
“In specifically Italian contexts (…) [I]t was rarely statues of Jesus paraded through the fields to ward off famine like San Rocco, or covered in live snakes to protect from teeth troubles like San Domenico.
H: Cyprianic practice is also part of a more general resurgence of grimoire magic, which was often considered by contemporary practitioners (especially in neo-pagan circles) as just a weird European curiosity or blunt nonsense, sometimes too ‘corrupt’ to be used practically. However, it seems that they were the backbone of many folk magical practices. What’s the place of grimoire in European sorcery and witchcraft? Why are they still relevant?
A: I think the older modern assessment on grimoires was that they were works of high ceremonial magic (at least the ones deemed worthy of attention), requiring one to pay a small fortune to afford all the ritual trappings of ceremonial garb, magic furniture, and a six-month sabbatical. This was a tricky attitude, because most nineteenth-century lodge-based magicians seem to have intensely disliked the grimoires themselves! I think of Arthur Waite moaning about how they are impossible to work; considering them too corrupted, or deciding that they were never really meant to be actually worked in the first place.
The recent revival of grimoire work can in large part be considered in terms of relocating such practices as looking more like real lived folk magic – with the cultivation of deeply personal spirit relationships and the spell-craft to deal with tangible earthly concerns – than strict Masonic ritual structures and silly hats. As for witchcraft, many of the (shall we say) spicier grimoires are explicitly about dealing with the Devil and his minions, often by attempting to carefully navigate the Byzantine bureaucracies of Hell. Does this mean pre-modern witches and sorcerers worshipped The Devil? Not necessarily. But if the harvest failed, your child was sick, or plague loomed, certain deals at certain crossroads with certain powerful entities might be deemed a necessary evil…
H: Has animism a place in the grimoric tradition?
A: I think it has a central place. For a start, in European grimoiric conjuration, we are dealing with entities from spirit-lists stretching back at least two millenia – some apparently are far far older. Certainly the notion of objects having an indwelling spirit to which one can appeal crops up a lot. Various formal consecrations of incense, fire, and other tools all speak of ‘the creature’ of the item, tool or substance. Certainly the life and spirit of plants and other materia are also regarded as having agency and requiring certain magical protocols to be observed when working with them. Even in a divination system like geomancy (a less well known Western tradition, but one close to my heart) early modern authors such as John Heydon – an “astromagus” and self-declared Rosicrucian – spoke not simply about the answers and interpretations that fell in a reading, but of working with spirits of the signs and answers. These are also closely based in the various angels, daimones and ‘Intelligencies’ of various astrological forces, which themselves have long and illustrious histories.
H: You are also the author of an ongoing series of articles on the English Magic of Fairie. If you had to briefly explain it to someone who is completely new to the topic, how would you describe fairies to them?
A: Fairies are people from Somewhere Else, an Otherworld; Elphame or perhaps even the Underworld. One pre-modern conception of fairies (and to an extent elementals and other spirits) that is important to emphasise to modern thinkers and practitioners, is that these kinds of entities were considered to have their own ordinary lives, societies, laws, rulers, culture, even agriculture. They were not necessarily wispy immaterial shades, they could be quite tangible and alive like we are – with the proviso that they may mainly live in a dimension in some way tangential to ours; a dimension from which one could be kidnapped or into which one could accidentally stumble.
Exactly how dangerous fairies are depends who you’re asking and where you are: historically, in most urban areas they are more simply mischievous, whereas in more rural areas they can be downright murderous.
H: It seems to me that, especially thanks to Emma Wilby’s work, we are starting to put fairies back where they belong: with the dead, in the Underworld, and that’s also the subject of your latest article on the subject. What do they do there? Do you have a hint of what their role and functions are in relation to those who have passed?
A: So many hints! I am a huge fan of Wilby’s work, and would especially recommend her excellent book Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits. There are several early modern opinions that spirits like familiars and fairies (which British folk-ways seem to have considered potentially linked or at least both responsive to similar approaches) were in some ways intimately connected with the dead. They are found in similar places – under hills, and at ancient burial mounds. Both ghosts and fairies are (or can be) invisible and can thus speak to each other. We have details of operations where the ghosts of suicides are summoned to bring forth fairies, even a Queen of Faerie herself. And certainly some familiar spirits are actually called (or at least speculated to be) the ghosts of dead witches. The exact details of these kinds of fascinating and inspiring hints remain to be codified and more thoroughly explored…
H: That of Fairie is an eminently British and Irish tradition, but it seems at times to show similarities with similar lore elsewhere – I think of the Sardinian Janas or of the Sicilian Donne di fora (they also move in an ‘unseely court’, they often resides under tombs or mounds and they’re often connected to the dead). Do you think fairies are a particular kind of spirit, or that they are a particular kind of spirit linked to the British Isles?
A: The urge to classify fairies – to distinguish and pigeon-hole such beings into various taxonomies – seems to be a prevalent one throughout the history of folklorists studying faerie. Many of those supposedly species-level differences, read from the wealth of different names for these beings we have, are merely local-regional variations: “pixie” being but one example. It also seems especially strange to attempt such an objective scientific taxonomic exercise when the reality of fairy encounters and experiences so frequently cohere around their fleeting, mysterious and subjective nature. So I am wary of dividing fairies into too many sub-genres.
That said, I do think there is a particularity that emerges from specific regions – the traditions around how the Fair Folk are considered, what we do for them, what we expect them (not) to do, and so on. The old pacts between humans and the otherworld/s stay in place, and carry a weight. Certainly the fairy beliefs, traditions and practices of the British Isles are somewhat unique. But on a practical level, I certainly would not object to spirits from outside the British Isles that looked and behaved like fairies being called such. I also accept that every version of these spirits – whether in the forests of West Africa, or the heaths of Cornwall, whether from the other side of the world, or merely the other side of a village green – are going to behave slightly differently. The terroir from which they spring – the land and its peoples, culture, and magic – prompts a wealth of variety, a rich ecology of spirit.
“every version of these spirits are going to behave slightly differently. The terroir from which they spring – the land and its peoples, culture, and magic – prompts a wealth of variety, a rich ecology of spirit.
H: Your doctoral work focuses on ‘magical approaches to the emotions’, but you also seem to take distance from the psychology-based approaches to magic that were popular in some new age circles. What’s the role of emotions in magical practice, and vice-versa?
A: I rather think the modern divide between so-called ‘psychologising’ models and those models that permit the agency of nonhuman intelligences or dynamic affective energies – a divide often unconsciously replicated in the assertion that it must either be objectively real or is all in your head – would look pretty alien to our pre-modern ancestors. Just because they believed that ghostly haunting could drive one to suicide does not mean they disavowed psychology or psychiatry. Rather, they incorporated things like ghostly hauntings into their diagnostic and therapeutic endeavours. This is certainly true of the emotions – or the passions, as they are more commonly known before the Enlightenment – which were considered an expression of an interrelating and somewhat porous mind-body-soul complex of the pre-modern Self. So, a melancholy temper could attract oppressive sorrowful spirits, as well as upset one’s stomach, or encourage deep cogitation.
The passions are arguably at the very heart of magic. One of the most crucial occult principles, by which most other principles can be considered, is sympathia. Agrippa held that magic is the ‘the differing, and agreement of things amongst themselves’: that things affected other things through their love and hate for one another, that the universe itself moved through this in-breath and out-breath of friendship and enmity. Furthermore a passio is an unbalancing, something that moves us – indeed, this movement is from whence we get the term e-motion. Specifically, a passion was conceived as a movement of the sensitive faculties of the soul, moving through the occult principles of sympathy and antipathy towards the objects and concepts it perceives and reacts towards or against. So the passions themselves are reliant on a fundamental magic too.
Various magical practices are built around mapping, managing and manipulating the emotions: the personality typing of astrology and other divinations, magical medicaments and therapeutic talismans, and of course the evil eye and various forms of love-magic. And of course even the stuffiest of early modern occult philosophers considered the imagination – inflamed by impassioned cogitation and emotional experience to affect change not only in the individual but in the wider world – to be one of the most powerful means to work sorcery. Thus proper incantation of magical speech, coming from having sufficiently “worked oneself up” into an appropriately impassioned state, is more effective than merely reading the words flatly. This is not simply a matter of “drama”, but of galvanising and directing occult virtue through the choreography of the movements of our souls. It’s with this basis that I’m currently teaching a webinar series on Planetary Incantation, examining the practical techniques of magical speech in planetary ritual.