Apocalyptic Witchcraft by Peter Grey
Published in 2013, Apocalyptic Witchcraft by Peter Grey is a book on witchcraft that combines polemic prose, poetry and a manifesto. It is a rather slim volume, yet within its pages one finds a rich work that discusses related subjects such as nature, politics, dreams, feminism and various mind-altering substances. Central to the book is the ongoing environmental destruction, and the ever-continuing oppression of witches. According to the author, the apocalyptic age that we are in demands an apocalyptic witchcraft. Bold and courageous, his book intends to lead us out of our current deadlock.
Grey is a British writer, publisher and practitioner of magic and witchcraft. Together with Alkistis Dimech he runs publishing company Scarlet Imprint. While they mostly specialise in occult books in lavishly designed hand-bound editions, their titles are also released in paperback via their publishing branch Bibliothèque Rouge, from which this review of Apocalyptic Witchcraft was written. Described on their website as egalitarian and libertarian, Bibliothèque Rouge is Scarlet Imprint’s “propaganda wing”. These paperbacks are thought of as working copies for students of the esoteric arts regardless of income.
A particularly strong point of Apocalyptic Witchcraft is Grey’s ability to bring his themes into a contemporary context. For example, this is evident when he discusses the way the State and the church use the Devil for their own malevolent purposes: “We have already seen Baphomet as a cipher for Mohammed, and Islam will not be the only bedevilled enemy. Ecologists, feminists, psychonauts, shamans, will continue to be decried in these terms, ” he writes (Grey 7). Furthermore, when it comes to examples of contemporary witch hunts Grey includes the war on drugs: “As witches, our use of entheogens, plant medicine and even organic and home-grown food places us on that watch list” (Grey 80).
Although contemporary witchcraft and present day psychedelic culture are looked upon as two separate cultural expressions, Apocalyptic Witchcraft serves as a reminder that there is actually much common ground between the two. Besides the obvious fact that both are associated with mind-altering substances, they share a mutual interest in shamanism as well as the preservation of the environment. Moreover, there is a strong yearning to go “back to nature” in witchcraft as well as in psychedelia.
Peter Grey is clearly critical against western consumer society. Not to mention one of its foremost tools for turning us into consumers, namely the TV: “Get rid of your television. Next, delete yourself from the digital,” he writes (Grey 43). Interestingly, Terence McKenna suggested pretty much the same thing in one of his lectures when he encouraged his audience not to watch TV, and in his 1992 book Food of the Gods he describes television as an addictive drug (McKenna 1992, 218-219). Although McKenna is never mentioned in Apocalyptic Witchcraft, some of its content is actually similar to certain ideas expressed by the late psychedelic bard. This is clear when it comes to how the respective authors perceive femininity. Grey’s book is very much a celebration of what is thought of as feminine, and, incidentally, the author is a follower of the goddess Babalon. As for McKenna, he believed the west was moving towards an “Archaic Revival”, which would entail a rejection of dominator culture and a “rebirth of awareness of the Goddess” (McKenna 1992, 92).
Seeing that technology has brought us even further from nature, the anti-technology trait seen in contemporary witchcraft and certain layers of psychedelia makes perfect sense. We live in an age where television and social media has turned us into “junkies” hooked on reality shows and newsfeeds. Yet it is perhaps not always technology itself that is the main problem but rather the mindless and irresponsible way that we tend to use it. This is something that writer and Reality Sandwich co-founder Daniel Pinchbeck touched upon in a recent Evolver newsletter: “Our biggest problem is not the technology, but our social technologies – our political and financial system – as well as outmoded ideologies and negative beliefs” (Evolver newsletter, September 2014).
While witchcraft and psychedelic culture have many similarities, there are also important differences. For one, witchcraft is closely linked to dreaming, which cannot be said of psychedelia. In Apocalyptic Witchcraft, Grey defines witchcraft as “the art of navigating dream.” The author is critical of the way movements such as the Surrealists are “pre-occupied with accessing dream, but not necessarily moving within it.” According to Grey this critique also applies to today’s psychedelic culture, which he feels can seem little better than tourism (Grey 35).
Witchcraft and psychedelia also differ when it comes to mind-altering substances. Instead of psychedelics such as psilocybin and DMT, which are typically linked to psychedelic culture, witchcraft is often associated with hallucinogenic psychoactive plants like henbane, belladonna, mandrake and datura. These four deliriants – as they are called to distinguish them from the aforementioned psychedelics – all belong to the Solanaceae family. Despite the fact that the “hexing herbs” have played a comparatively marginal role in psychedelic culture at large, they are fairly often discussed in psychedelic literature. For those looking for a comprehensive work on these psychoactives, Witchcraft Medicine by Claudia Müller-Ebeling, Christian Rätsch and Wolf-Dieter Storl is an excellent source.
One of the highlights of Grey’s book is a piece titled A Manifesto of Apocalyptic Witchcraft. Written in a straightforward yet poetic style, the manifesto contains many of the concepts that are also found throughout the rest of the book. Obviously, the destruction of nature is a major theme in the piece, exemplified by its opening line: “If the land is poisoned then witchcraft must respond” (Grey 14). Also evident in the manifesto is an appealing subcultural and anarchistic thread. For example, Grey sees witchcraft as rhizomatic as opposed to hierarchic (Grey 15). Ideally, manifestos like these deserve to be widely shared and discussed. This is also true of the book as a whole. The message in Apocalyptic Witchcraft has an urgency that may very well spark its readers – few as they might be – to take direct action against the ongoing destruction of our planet.