Monthly Archives: February 2016

Writing Lines on Magic

Prior to the invention (or, at least, the western discovery and adoption) of the printing press, medieval monasteries necessarily reproduced books by hand. This was undertaken in a specially designated room called the scriptorium or otherwise in the monks’ individual quarters. Silent working was typical: naturally this would have been the case in isolated quarters, but scriptoria also operated under an enforced silence. Therefore, the closest comparison with the modern world is unfortunately the practice of having naughty schoolchildren write lines. Indeed, many monks complained about their task: perhaps their assigned work was to copy a particularly boring book, to copy the same book multiple times; or perhaps the scriptorium/their quarters happened to be the coldest room in the monastery, or was within earshot of a fervently desired practice.

However, there is a lot to be said for the necessity of paying rapt attention to a subject in order to accurately reproduce it. What insights could be gained from slowly progressing through a book, by dwelling for longer than usual on specific sections, metaphysical language, repetitious or unique terminology and, if the scribe was particularly talented, by finally embellishing the words with representative surrounding illustrations.

This sacred reproduction reached a greater level of importance in cultures other than western Christianity. For example, medieval Islamic scribes continued to reproduce the Koran by hand because the use of a mechanical printing press for such was considered heretical. Incidentally, this is one of the major reasons why the technology of the printing press took longer than it otherwise might have to reach Europe from its Chinese origins. However, the work of the scribe was elevated to its pinnacle by Judaism, some of whom claimed that a single error in reproducing the Torah literally changed the word of God – naturally a supreme blasphemy.

Two such practices are undertaken in the Star of Azazel. Both, of course, are voluntary, although the first of these has a much more practical application, namely the translation and editing process of reproducing Finnish works into English. Currently, the most significant example of this (at least by members of the Star of Azazel) is a forthcoming translation of Johannes Nefastos’ Writings on Magic (Kirjoituksia Magiasta). Such work is typically undertaken by two people – in this case Raktazoci (Finnish) and Jiva (English) – which complicates the process somewhat, but is necessary for more accurate results. The intention is also the same for both people: how to, not only translate a text, but also retain the style of the original author. This poses some difficult and interesting questions:

  • What is the author trying to say?
  • Why has (s)he used certain vocabulary?
  • Has (s)he personalised vocabulary?
  • What sources has (s)he used as influences or comparators?
  • Does his/her writing style in the original language differ from his/her English writing style?

These are far from revolutionary questions to pose when reading a book, but when focussing on a single word in a single sentence and attempting to contextualise it within a text of many thousands of words – to say nothing of an author’s wider bibliography and influential source material – then associations come to the fore that the comparatively rapid speed of normal reading does not allow. To attempt to understand these questions and associations essentially entails a postmodern Deconstructive analysis of active research and cross-checking. This results in the personal interpretation a translator and editor must construct in order to understand the book in the first place. By itself, this is necessary and what one would hopefully attain upon reading a book. However, the fact that these will act as gauzes through which the original book will be seen is reminiscent of the Biblical phrase of “through a mirror darkly.” Yet the impossibility of fully resolving these problems should not preclude any attempt to do so – as frustratingly futile as this sounds – as it ultimately ensures the level of accuracy. The irony of untranslatability and loss is that it is paradoxically productive and, assuming the essential ideas have been understood, a positive thing on a subjective basis.

Therefore, aside from the practical result of producing a publishable book, translation and editing also act as a method by which one can examine their own thought patterns, those of the original author, and the sources the author utilises in their text and any others an individual brings to the table in minute detail.

The second scribal practice within the Star of Azazel – which is far less formal – is to identify a particular text and to copy sections (stanzas of poetry or chapters/sections of text) at assigned times during the week as a purely meditative or spiritual practice. The text, the language of reproduction, the regularity of copying, the physical matters (particular pens, paper etc.) are left to individual discretion, as is a ‘forfeit’ for missing a session, either deliberately or accidentally. Between 5-10 people have undertaken this practice (some multiple times) by using a wide range of sources, and have experienced a wide range of positive and negative results. Returning to the introduction and the happiness medieval monks took in their task, whether this has been considered a positive or negative practice has basically depended on whether members enjoyed the text they had set about copying – some chose their texts blindly.

Much of the same benefits from translating and editing a text can be found in this less formal, meditative practice, although the orientation is somewhat different. Although a personalised version of the text is the physical result, there is no literal, written interpretation but rather an inward holistic development and attachment to the text and others it may link with, either factually (e.g. a link between two Eddic poems) or entirely unrelated documents (e.g. a link between an Eddic poem and a Kabbalistic text). There is accordingly a much more existential emphasis where things can be freely connected on a subjective level.