Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition
No. 21, Vol. 3. Autumnal Equinox 2011
Michael Psellus on the Operation of Dæmons, Marcus Collisson with introduction by Stephen Skinner. Golden Hoard Press (distributed by Llewellyn). 95 pages. $65.00 USD.
review Samuel Scarborough
There are some older esoteric writings that are often overlooked in this modern age of Internet, e-books, and instant access to material in one form or another. Michael Psellus’ On the Operation of Dæmons is one such classic that has long been in obscurity. This work was originally written circa 1050 C.E. in Constantinople within the Byzantine Empire.
The writer, Michael Psellus, was a man of great intelligence, serving as a political advisor to a succession of several Byzantine Emperors. He was the leading professor of the then newly founded University of Constantinople, bearing the honorary title ‘Consul of the Philosophers’. Psellus was also schooled in law, religion, and philosophy, astronomy, medicine, grammar, physics, and magic, using these to help him to be a driving force behind the University curriculum which specialized in the Classics of the Greek classics, especially Homeric literature. Michael Psellus was a real Renaissance man, nearly 500 years before the Renaissance.
Psellus provides a link between the Classical view of the Dæmon as a helpful guiding spiritual being, and the later Christian view of all demons as evil.
Marcus Collisson was a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, who lived in various parts of New Zealand and Australia. Collisson moved from Sydney to Adelaide, Australia immediately after publishing On the Operation of Dæmons in 1843, being the first translation of this important work into English. Collisson is rather free with his praise for Charles Nicholson, who apparently helped with the translation from Greek to English.
Okay, so enough about history and previous editions of this particular work. The work of Psellus is laid out as a dialog or discourse between Timothy and Thracian. This is very much in the classics of Socrates and Plato, both of whom were strong influences on Psellus himself.
Throughout this discourse, both Thracian and Timothy discuss the various points and beliefs concerning the diverse types of spirits, angels, and beings; and how these beings can affect humans. There is an obvious Christian bias in some aspects of the writing, considering the time the work was originally written, but Psellus is able to also convey a great deal of thinking in relation to how the people from the pre-Christian eras thought about the relationships of these spiritual beings.
Stephen Skinner provides an all-embracing introduction which goes into the history and writings of Michael Psellus; how he was an influence on several Byzantine Emperors, the legal system, and the University of Constantinople. Skinner also goes into some biographical information on Marcus Collisson and the first English translation of Psellus’s work. In addition, Skinner discusses the various differences between the diverse types of angels and spirits which would have been in classical times been categorized as Dæmons.
This of course leads into a reprint of Collisson’s original 1843 book. Here again, Skinner has added in additional footnotes to Collisson’s already extensive footnotes. In some places within the text Skinner edits the language to be an easier read for the modern reader.
Essentially, Skinner has kept the original work of Collisson, added to it and cleaned up some portions so that this edition of Psellus’ work is understandable for most modern readers. Skinner is clear to show his edits and which footnotes are his.
Skinner provides a detailed bibliography of source works consulted in the creation of this edition. Unfortunately, Skinner cites himself often, especially in his own works and those written in conjunction with David Rankine. Skinner does provide a very nice list of Classical references to Dæmons, which the reader can further explore to see how the Classical writers viewed the concept of these particular spiritual beings, especially most of the Neoplatonic writers such as Plotinus, Porphyry, Proclus, and Iamblichus.
There is a thorough index as well. This is something that is often missing from most esoteric books these days.
In general, Skinner provides access to a classic with his unique commentaries, in the form of the Introduction and in the copious footnotes, so that any person interested in Dæmons, Demons, Angels, Holy Guardian Angels, and the like is able to see how they were once viewed and how they became what they are today. This is a service to the esoteric community, as Skinner’s writing is clear and concise showing a developed interest in the esoteric and spiritual beings in general.
This book is a new edition of a classic and would benefit every occultist, esotericist, and magician today to read and draw from. It may seem a bit pricey, but there is a lot of relevant information within these pages that can aid a person in their understanding of this often extremely confusing topic – the Dæmon and how it applies to the person, and particularly to the Magician. This book is one that should be read and used by every serious esoteric student studying today.