Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Review: The Key to Solomon's Key by Lon Milo Duquette

Freemasonry is probably the oldest fraternal organization in the Western world and certainly the oldest of any significant size. At the end of the Nineteenth Century the Masonic fraternity brought together the founders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, who assembled what I believe to be the most impressive Hermetic magical system of its day. In movies and media, Masonry has been long associated with occultism and esotericism, and one might reasonably conclude from those accounts that Masons do indeed practice something like the system of magick published by Israel Regardie in his account of the rituals of the Golden Dawn. That assumption would be profoundly erroneous.

I am a Mason myself, a Past Master of Braden Lodge #168 in Saint Paul, and currently serve as Chaplain. I happen to be lucky in that my lodge has a number of members who share my interest in esoteric practices, but for the most part Masonry is about fraternity. The initiation rituals are beautiful (especially the Master Mason degree) but at the institutional level modern Masonry has nothing to do with magick or occultism. There are no secret Masonic rituals aside from the degrees themselves, secret blasphemous practices, or even coordinated conspiracies. Hollywood producers would find regular Masonic meetings hopelessly dull, with motions to pay bills and accept minutes of the previous meeting.

Lon Milo DuQuette is one of my favorite writers on the Western magical tradition. His work is practical and his writing style is funny and engaging. Interesting, he is also a Mason and like me serves as Chaplain of his lodge. The Key to Solomon's Key connects the story of the building of Solomon's Temple as it is told in the Masonic degrees with the European tradition of Solomonic magick as recorded in the Goetia or Lesser Key of Solomon, one of the most popular of the European grimoires. A friend of mine commented that there "wasn't a whole lot" to this book, which worried me a bit. Could Lon have actually written a bad book? I've read most of his work and enjoyed it all. The answer, of course, is that the book is excellent, but it is not primarily intended for experienced ritual magicians.

Reading through the book I can see why my friend didn't find it very useful - the first half of the book talks briefly about the history of the Knights Templar, the rise of the Masonic fraternity, and the basic narrative of the Masonic degrees. The second half is an introductory overview of Goetic magick targeted for the novice who knows little of the system. Between these sections, Lon discusses the basic principles of ritual magick, again targeted for beginners. For a serious ritual magician who has been practicing for a long time, the book is more like a "Magick for Dummies" than an arcane volume filled with the ancient magical lore of the largest esoteric fraternity in the world, and anyone coming to the book with the latter expectation will probably be disappointed.This is not a book that is intended to push the discipline of magick forward in terms of metaphysics or techniques.

Lon does put forth the intriguing theory that the Knights Templar were able to become so powerful so quickly in Europe because they found documents in the ruins of the Temple at Jerusalem that demonstrated the Bible was not historically accurate or at least disputed, which is an idea that I had not previously encountered. The idea makes sense given the political position of the Church during the Medieval period, and such discoveries were made elsewhere during this century - namely the Nag Hammadi Library and the Dead Sea Scrolls. He also postulates that this led the Knights Templar to encode some of this information in the Masonic degrees and lectures.

The book does overstate the absence of historical evidence related to David and Solomon, in that it states that there are no inscriptions or archaeological records documenting that they even existed. In fact, there are a handful of inscriptions naming David. Less evidence for the existence of Solomon has been found so far, but archaeological investigations continue. I personally think that David and Solomon likely existed, but that the vast majority of stories about them were embelished and that the lives of the real people on which they were based probably had little in common with the biblical narrative. Much material that appears in the Torah was only written down during the second temple period following the Babylonian Captivity, and it is interesting to note that the story in Exodus has more in common with the escape from Babylon than it does any documented events in Egyptian history. Similarly, the stories of the early kings of Israel could have been exaggerated to enhance the apparent greatness of the Israelites' ancestors and justify their claim to most of Palestine. In fact, Palestine was mostly a collection of city-states during the period in which David and Solomon were supposed to have reigned, and their actual "empire" may not have extended much further than Jerusalem and the immediate surrounding area. If the Templars indeed found documentation proving the relative insignificance of Israel, the Church would indeed have been very interested in silencing them to prevent anyone from questioning the biblical story.

According to this hypothesis, the greatest Masonic secrets of all are essentially critical thinking and freedom from dogmatic literalism regarding the Bible and other spiritual texts. When the Masonic fraternity was founded there was no public schooling and much of the information in the lectures would have been new to the aspiring Mason, whereas a modern person finds much of it familiar. Moving beyond literalism points in the direction of the universality of religion, which is one of the Ancient Landmarks of the Craft. The main argument against Masonry put forth by conservative Christians is that Masons pray together to open and close meetings even though they may be of different faiths, and anyone in the lodge who is not an evangelical Christian is worshipping a demon or the Devil himself. Incoherently, these are the same people who advocate prayer in public schools - you would think that praying at a public school function would be subject to the same criticism.

Lon's overview of the basic principles of magick should not be new to an experienced practitioner, but it is explained in clear language that does not require a technical magical background or esoteric vocabulary. This is one of Lon's biggest strengths as a writer (besides humor, of course) - explaining complex ideas in simple, practical terms. There has been a lot of pompous metaphysical speculation put forth over the last hundred and fifty years or so as "things you need to know before you try any real magick" and this section of the book really cuts through the nonsense. I think I may have a couple of small technical quibbles (so small and technical, in fact, that I can't be sure they're quibbles until I talk to him) with Lon's explanations, but they will give any beginning magician a really good start.

The overview of Solomonic magick will allow a would-be magician to get started right away without buying any other books, which is nice. It is again introductory, though, and has little new material for magicians like my friend who are long-time practitioners of Goetia and know the system well. It makes for an excellent handbook, though, and even though I am not that familiar with Goetia I could pick it up and do an evocation using only the material presented within. If I ever get really serious about working with the Goetic system I will need more, of course, but it makes for a good start.

The brilliance of this book is that its target audience seems to be Masons with some interest in magick but no real practical experience. Most Masons are open-minded about spirituality and have at least been acquainted with the power of ritual in their initiations, so it seems reasonable to think that many of them might be interested in a book like this. It starts off with the history of the Knights Templar that is familiar to most Masons and then slowly moves into the territory of ritual magick, which few Masons practice, and finally into a practical exposition of the Goetia. In addition, I have encountered one or two ritual magicians who are more interested in Masonry after reading it, which may be a secondary audience.

The bottom line: for a beginning magician, especially one who is already a Mason, it is excellent. It is, however, an introductory book and experienced magicians should expect to find a lot of things in it that they already know.

Want to buy your own copy of The Key to Solomon's Key by Lon Milo DuQuette? Order from my Books and Media page and you can help support Augoeides.

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