MASKS OF BABALON:
Emma Doeve talking to Matthew Levi Stevens
It seems strange of course that the resurgence of Babalon – a goddess of female empowerment, after all – should come to be known through men. The first instance was none other than Queen Elizabeth I’s “noble intelligencer,” Dr. John Dee, and his skryer, Edward Kelley. Famously, they had a vision of a goddess clad all in gold – bare-breasted, like the Minoan snake-goddess found at Knossos – the “Daughter of Fortitude,” who declared:
“I am deflowered, yet a virgin; I sanctify and am not sanctified... I am a harlot for such as ravish me, and a virgin with such as know me not...”
It is also interesting to compare and contrast the transmission received by Kelley and Dee with the early Gnostic text, Thunder, Perfect Mind – a significant part of the Nag Hammadi library, which makes similar explorations of such paradoxical themes:
“I am the honoured one and the scorned one, I am the whore and the holy one, I am the wife and the virgin...”
Dee and Kelley had enough trouble over their researches, even with Royal patronage under Elizabeth or Rudolph of Bohemia, so one can only imagine what it would have been like for some poor woman trying to announce Visions of the Return of a Pagan Goddess! Undoubtedly there were some who did indeed receive Visions – one only has to think of Hadewijch of Brabant in the 13th Century, or about a century earlier the better-known Hildegard von Bingen – but even they had a tremendous job trying to modify their Visions so that they could be accepted or even just heard within the prevailing Christian paradigm, and stay one step ahead of the Inquisition.
Then, of course, in the 20th Century, it’s Aleister Crowley who picks up the baton, as it were, after skrying the Enochian Aethyrs with Victor Neuburg in the Algerian desert in 1909. As we might expect from Crowley, the imagery gets raunchier, and plays into-and-with his whole ‘Scarlet Woman’ fantasy of a suitable consort for The Beast:
“Lo! I gather up every spirit that is pure, and weave him into my vesture of flame. I lick up the lives of men, and their souls sparkle from mine eyes. I am the mighty sorceress, the lust of the spirit. And by my dancing I gather for my mother Nuit the heads of all them that are baptized in the waters of life. I am the lust of the spirit that eateth up the soul of man. I have prepared a feast for the adepts, and they that partake thereof shall see God.”
Crowley’s work is the catalyst for Jack Parsons, of course, his ‘Babalon Working’ – a rather dubious collaboration with the even more dubious L. ‘Ron’ Hubbard – which may not have invoked Babalon to actual physical incarnation (Marjorie Cameron notwithstanding), but certainly had all manner of side-effects of some sort or another. Interestingly, as Paul Weston has recently pointed out, a curious ‘prequel’ to the whole affair is this peak experience Hubbard claims to have had – an Out-of-the-Body, or Near-Death Experience, which was the inspiration for his infamous Excalibur! writings (precursor to his breakthrough work, Dianetics, and a text so potent that it could allegedly send mad or even kill those who read it unprepared, like something out of Chambers’ The King In Yellow.) Hubbard always said that the source for this cosmic revelation was a powerful female entity he referred to as “The Empress.”
At the same time as The Beast and his would-be followers were trying to pursue the Logos of the New Aeon of Horus, the Shakti of the Age, Dion Fortune, was trying to call back into Being an older, more primeval female force that she believed was sadly lacking in our Modern Age:
“I was of the Cult of the Black Isis, which is very different to that of the green-robed Goddess of Nature to whom the women prayed for children... the Black Isis is the Veiled Isis, upon whose face none may look and live... Some equate the Black Isis with Kali, and say that She is evil; but I do not think She is, unless one counts elemental force as evil, which I do not. She is indeed the Breaker in Pieces, but then She sets free...”
It is clear to me that Babalon is of the lineage of Sekhmet – also of the likes of Astarte, Inanna and Ishtar, who were Goddesses of Fertility and Love and Warfare – and in this She is closer to the primordial Black Isis of Dion Fortune and the Nu-Isis of Kenneth Grant, than She is the all-embracing Mother of the New Age...
Coming myself from a background in Fine Arts – drawing and painting, with an emphasis on the figurative – but also being an occultist, I suppose it is fair to say that first and foremost my attention was drawn to women with a strong visual sense, but who also drew much of their inspiration from esoteric sources. I have been delighted to discover a number of these among the women artists who were, in one way or another, associated with the Surrealist movement. Particular personal favourites include Remedios Varo, Leonor Fini, and Leonora Carrington – who is fast becoming everybody’s favourite Witchy Grandmother! As well as her paintings and a number of quirky Surrealist short stories, her novel, The Hearing Trumpet, explores ideas of Female Grail Mysteries and the Return of the Goddess...
Although a number of the men involved in Surrealism paid a kind of lip-service to notions of the occult, a lot of it wasn’t really much more than window-dressing, part of the general engagement with the irrational, the subconscious, and so on. The more I studied, the more I found that it was the women who tended to have the more authentic engagement. A number of them found the ideas of Jung more empowering than the same old Freudian sexual clichés. Carrington and Varo had both studied alchemy and the qabalah, and by the time they were living as expats in Mexico City, they would also visit with local brujas, or cunning women, incorporating folk magic and remedies with their more esoteric studies – wanting to root it in actual practice, as well as inspiration for their art.
Although it is fair to say I concentrated more on the painters to begin with, I have also discovered a great deal of kinship in a figure like Joyce Mansour: born in England to Jewish-Egyptian parents, who then ended up living in Paris and writing 16 volumes of uncompromising and sometimes visionary verse, very much juggling themes of Eros and Thanatos, and drawing heavily on Egyptian and Middle Eastern themes:
“I made away with the yellow bird / Who lives in the sex of the devil / It will teach me how to seduce / Men, deer, angels with double wings...”
Mansour was raised a Sephardic Jew, reading the Torah and studying qabalah, lived in Alexandria as a young woman during WWII, and could have been the reincarnation of Cleopatra to look at her. She was also a Leo, which I can identify with, and was suitably Babalonian in attitude! Like Leonor Fini, she was feline and naturally regal, but men don’t always know how to deal with this – they like their pussycats and their sex-kittens, but fully-grown lionesses can be a bit of a challenge!
Another example – although not particularly a Surrealist – would have to be the pioneering film-maker Maya Deren: her anthropological field-work broke all the rules, but with her film and book, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, she left behind an important document of direct encounter with the Voodoo mysteries... And although it may not have been Babalon in so many words, in her experience of possession by the loa Erzulie, Deren surely had a direct and empowering experience of the Female Divine.
Most of these women were either quite independent, going their own way, and sometimes paid the price for that, or else chose to hold their own in predominantly male circles – often with little-or-no ‘female solidarity,’ beyond, perhaps, one-or-two close friends. Almost like the witches of old... I know from private correspondence with a lot of contemporary would-be Babalons that this is still very much an issue...
This is one of the reasons I was more than happy to be invited to contribute to the anthology, Women of Babalon, because it was an opportunity to be a part of something that would present images of Babalon from an exclusively female perspective – and being experienced NOW. There’s quite a range represented, from shall we say the more ‘orthodox’ Thelemic position, to those influenced by Tibetan Buddhist practice, exploration of ‘the Nightside’ a la Kenneth Grant, even Luciferian and Voodoo points-of-view. And they don’t all agree, not by any stretch of the imagination, but the important thing is that they are all personal, individual experiences of Babalon by women living and working in the Present Day: so, hopefully, the examples and suggestions will encourage other women – and maybe even men! – to get to grips with Babalon themselves.
This has to be the way forward.