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Saturday 6 October 2012

Book review: Madeline Montalban The Magus of St Giles by Julia Philips

Madeline Montalban (8 January 1910–11 January 1982) was a fascinating character in the field of 20th century magic. Stories swarmed around her until the real Madeline disappeared leaving only the stories. Writing a biography about her, as Julia Philips has done is nearly impossible, even her close friends had difficulty getting past the stories that surrounded her.
In 1998 David Goddard told me one such story about how he and Maxine Saunders met Montalban to discuss her legendary Angel Magic course. He said he had never met her before and it was a late at night meeting. He believed that she was a woman in her late 40s. They sat up talking until dawn and when the sun came into the room he suddenly realised that she must have been about 80 and he believed that she must have been casting a glamour.
Philips' book then is a collection of stories about her told through the people that knew her and there are a lot of them. In her life it is hard to find a notable occultist who was not connected to Madaline at some point. Phillips has done a good job tracking down and interviewing her students and friends and this manages to give us a good picture about the sort of person she was.
From my perspective I was interested in Madeline's connection to the Order of the Golden Dawn. Madeline formed a magic order called the Order of the Morning Star and I had worked with some of that material. There were elements of it which could be seen as being inspired by the Golden Dawn.  When I met him, the French occultist Nicolas Tereshenko told me that he was a member of Madeline Montalban's Order of the Morning Star and he said that this had links to the Golden Dawn. On a web site connected to him it claimed that he had the grade of Adeptus Maximus in her order.
I was also aware that my former teacher David Goddard had been teaching material based around the Order of the Morning Star which he described as a system of Angel Magic which pre-dated John Dee was was more reliable because “it did not come through a tainted scryer like Edward Kelly.” He also claimed he was one of the few in an ancient line of Angelic initiators who had the right to teach it.
Phillips shows that Montalban was a different sort of magician from those who were following the Golden Dawn line. Indeed she looked upon them with contempt. Her magic system, which was self created and based on her researches at the British Library, was deliberately less dramatic and simple. It was also based on her own story of Lucifer the Light Bringer. Instead of a dramatic ritual she would use an altar, talismans, tarot cards and a clearly written intention translated into a magical script. This would then be activated by working with a planetary angel on the correct day.
All this was placed in a series of 42 lessons which were a correspondence course. Promising students were sometimes given extra training but the Order of the Morning Star was the same course of Angel Magic which David had talked about. There were no initiations, no grades, it was exactly the magical path that Montalban wanted. It was certainly not connected to the Golden Dawn or any method of Angelic initiations.
To clarify this I contacted the author who told me that there was was no link she could find between Madeline and the GD.
“She was scathing about GD-style lineage and initiations so I can't imagine she would ever have any real connection to any GD group. Going along as an invited guest is another matter - she would totally do that and then ridicule it all later!” Phillips wrote.
Madeline Montalban 
All I can think of is that Nicolas Tereshenko thought the Order of the Morning Star was an English translation for the Stella Matutina. However it would be difficult how he could claim a high grade in an order that despised grades and certainly did not have an Adeptus Maximus grade.
The book also looks at Montalban's influence on Wicca. The Angel Magic system found its way into the teachings of Maxine Saunders where it was treated with a reverential awe. It is one of the few times I saw a senior Alexandrian witch throw his toys out of the pram was when he discovered that I had some parts of the course and I was not an initiated witch.
But Montalban also had a close connection with Wicca's founder Gerald Gardner and was probably his ghost writer for High Magic's Aid. As a journalist, writing regularly for Prediction Magazine on Tarot and Astrology,  she was well equipped to adapt the book from his notes. Later in her life she did not seem to hold him in much regard.
Like the “Old Sod” which was a biography about Bill Gray which I reviewed earlier, this book has to tackle the fact that its subject had a reputation for being difficult. Montalban appears to have thrown temper tantrums just because she was bored and also tended to embellish her stories.  She could also be manipulative of her students.  In the case of her stories it was because she often wanted to make a point, but sometimes it was just for the joy of telling it. Julia Phillips deals with all this in the polite way of someone who admires her subject -- calling her "mercurial". But this attitude appears to be backed up by Montalban's students, such as Leo Vinci, who feel the same way.
For the reader there is a message. Madeline's path made her the Avatar for the self initiate. Not only did she managed to prove that such a path was possible, she convinced a lot of people that it was a better way. But Madeline was different from many modern occultists. Her self initiation system was harder than many would bother with and was built on countless hours of study and thought. However it is the way of magic that if one person manages to do it, and built their own system, then it should be possible for others.
The book is well worth it.  My only problem with it is that it is a little short and I would have liked to have seen more stories of Madeline's magic in action. 
There are not many copies of Magus of St Giles available. The print run is limited to 400 signed copies which are available from AtlantisBookshop  in the UK. Given that the shop's owner Geraldine Beskin is quoted in the book, and the shop was one of Madeline's haunts it is probably the most appropriate place to buy it. I bought it online from them. I am told that Weiser Antiquarian in the US has a few copies too.