Message of the Old Sod
Message of the Old Sod

Message of the Old Sod

I have just finished reading Alan Richardson and Marcus Claridge’s biography of Bill Gray “TheOld Sod” Gray has to be one of the most influential magicians in UK magic, but the biggest problem that Richardson and Claridge had is the fact that the subject was an erratic racist and the fact that he managed to anger almost everyone at some point and the fact he cursed some of his best students cannot be glossed over.
Their’s was a worse than the problem I had when writing a biography of Samuel Mathers King over the Water in that you have to admire what your subject does, while at the same time can’t escape their human weaknesses, which at times hijack their greatness.
Bill Grey — photo from Wikipedia 
Fans of Gray and Mathers who want them to be seen as gods will claim you are doing a hatchet job on them for not praising their greatness while those who know about your subject box you into a corner for being a naive apologist. Richardson and Claridge do a good job and I really love Richardson’s writing style. After reading “The Old Sod” you can understand his genius but know that he marred a lot of his good work by being an intractable arsehole who only later in life modified his racist views, very slightly.
I just missed meeting Gray as he died around the same time I came to the UK. His reputation was handed to me by his students, who had all gone on to become “names” themselves. Marian Green, Bob Stewart, Gareth Knight, Alan Richardson, Jacobus Swart all had stories to tell about Gray and usually ended in some row which resulted in them being cursed into outer darkness by the man.
One of my other friends got on quite well with him when he discovered that him and his wife were a “foxhunting couple who had their honeymoon in South Africa.”  At the time Grey felt that the South Africans had the best way of dealing with “natives.” 
 Yet, one thing none of his students never denied was that Grey was on to something and they were all influenced in some way by him. This is unusual. When leaving any teacher under bad circumstances the student generally project all sorts of rubbish on them (often based on the relationship they have with their parents) and in Bill’s case his students would have been fully justified. He usually ended the relationship with a particularly nasty magical curse to remind the student that they had pissed him off for years afterwards. It would be enough to earn many people’s hate. Few ever really did hate him.
The biography paints Bill as a real magician, not as a fantasy fluffy new age type which most students expect. Real magicians always have a problem in relating to Muggles or fellow magicians who do not take the path seriously. Bill’s life was hard but he always was focused on magic. This is what a magician should be. You get some know it all kid telling you that the 15th Aeyther could not be like you describe it because Crowley saw a demon there covered in bacon fat, or claiming your ritual was “full of mistakes” because you typed “their” instead of “there” once, is likely to piss off a real magician. But Bill had the ability to take this frustration with his fellows to an extreme.
However his philosophy is one which is in many ways an antidote to much of the magical fundamentalism which exists. A belief that because something was written down once it must be perfect. He always said that a magical lives their life as a question mark. A student should be constantly asking questions, and a teacher should always be answering them usually (in Bill’s case) with another question. Magic to Bill was not something that just existed in the past. The symbols and ideas that it was based on must be constantly reviewed and worked on in every generation. There never can be a real fundamentalist magician as they are a contradiction in terms.
Bill’s other big contribution was to force students to be practical in their approach to symbolism and teaching. It is not enough to know what a wand does intellectually, you have to be able to use it to unlock more symbols associated with it. One of his greatest books MagicalRitual Methods , is all about this and is one book that all magicians should read.
Bill’s other contribution was his Ladder of Lights book, which he wrote under the influence of his Dion Fortune contact. There is a lot of good material in this book even if it moves away from traditional Golden Dawn style Cabbalah. Israel Regardie loved this book and the two corresponded for years.
The Old Sod” does allow Bill some movement in his personality, which was not apparent to those who I have spoken to. The racism which caused him to leave the Inner Light (after his first initiation) was the inspiration to concentrate on a British Tradition. In this he was the antidote to the tendency amongst Western Occultists who were lookingto Indian and Chinese systems of magic at the time.
Later in life he started to admit that other nations had their own traditions which were equally as important. His Sangreal Solidarity movement came close to talking about racial harmony, even if Bill could not see that was where it had to take him. As Gareth Knight put it “he could like foreigners so long as they stayed where they were”. But his movement was suggesting that If people were all part of one god they were all united by the same blood. But ironically Bills racism did actually create and develop the idea that a British tradition not only existed, but it needed to be cultivated. In that life’s purpose he actually succeeded.
I have made it clear that I do not think that a racist can ever really be an adept or link to the One Thing. Bill provesme wrong in that he was certainly an adept. But many of the people he worked with tend to say that while he could do his stuff, his darker side nullified a lot of the good. Over time it looks that Bill would have had to have modified his views even more, but unfortunately life is short. Bill could have been a great adept with a line of stable students but his disconnection from humanity was too great and he was too erratic.
Reading this life, you can’t help feel that Bill is a lesson for everyone. Firstly people need to work on their personality so that the darkness does not overwhelm them and contaminate their work. Secondly that if you work hard, ultimately the universe will give you experiences that will prove that your personality had a purpose — Bill’s function was to allowed for the development of the British Mystery Tradition. That desire was correct, the hatred for another race was wrong. But equally the universe will also give you experiences to show where you are going wrong. The challenge is that you have to change and Bill did not quite make it. 
The Old Sod is a really important book and one which I highly recommend.


  1. ian

    I do have to say that when I was starting to get interested in the GD Tradition in the 60s, it was Gray and Butler who I found the most useful (Regardie hadn’t yet been published).

    Butler’s works are still useful, I think :

    Butler, W.E., Magic : its Power, Ritual and Purpose, Aquarian Press, London, 1961
    idem, The Magician : his Training and Work, idem, 1963
    idem, Apprenticed to Magic, idem, 1965
    idem, Magic and the Quaballah, idem, 1968

  2. Great review, and wonderful analysis, Nick. 🙂 As a young magician I loved Gray’s works as a counterpoint to the more restricted GD I was then learing. Each book was a revelation. I struggled with the implicit and sometimes explict racism and imperalism within his words, but I could not deny the writing. Sometimes, I wrongly, assumed he was saying ‘nothing much’, without realising his work had already influenced me, and so therefore I could see nothing new.

    I have never really thought about how he could have been even greater, if he had changed his thorny aspects… very interesting. Thanks, again 🙂

  3. Hi Nick I am somehow unable to find a mail address to write to you and Google+ somehow doesn’t let me 😉 So I want to ask you what you think about my idea about the Golden Dawn Grades:

    When you read The Practice of Magical Evocation by Franz Bardon you can see that the idea of the “evolution” of the Magus by magical practice is simply to visit each plane or sephira, become familiar with its vibrations and friendly with some beings there who are called by their sigil or name – the sigil is simply a graphical representation of the name which you can make up easily f.ex. with the Rose Cross Sigliization technique or use more traditional ones like in Agrippa etc.

    So I think – and this is confirmed by Bardon’s book – that “grade” simply means the level of the Tree of Life to which you are able to rise and communicate. So f.ex. “7=4 Adeptus Exemptus” simply would mean you can talk and walk on the Jupiter Plane viz. Chesed. The paraphernalia like amulets, incense, colours, simply sets the mood. Crowley said something in this vein too, and you can look up these correspondences in his Liber 777 if you like or use the ones from Heptameron, Agrippa, etc.

    So, Zelator would mean to visit each element although the sequence is unclear, but maybe the Temple Layout helps: Here we have – from north to east counterclockwise – this order: Earth, Water, Fire, Air. Which is interesting insofar as it totally corresponds to the order of the chakras to which the kundalini is supposed to rise: Root Chakra (earth), Sexual Chakra (water), Navel or Solarplexus chakra (fire) and Heart Chakra (Air).

    After this comes the Astral Plane which corresponds nicely to the timeless Element of Spirit or Akasha (Space). Then the planes of the Planets follow in the traditional order given by Agrippa, Bardon and the ancients: Luna, Mercury, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn which are the appropriate Golden Dawn Grades, too.

    I posted this on the Golden Dawn Forum, too, but I don’t think they’ll cheer at my idea 🙂

  4. Speaking as someone who has a wife that is black, and children that are of course mixed race, it is amazing that he was able to hold back much (nearly all) of his racism from sullying the work. Indeed the lack of any ego attachment to the Sodality system is pretty remarkable when one considers how close to the vest many other teachers sought to keep their orders/groups.

    I have worked with a Sodality here in NJ for over 10 years now and it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I have been doing magic for 20+ years and have traveled to 19 countries and have never met a totally perfect human being. That has not stopped them from being very fine mystics and magicians.

    Old Sod did a wonderful job of giving a full picture of the man. At least as much as could ever be given in print.

  5. Hi Jason…. in my view the book shows that the Sodality was Gray’s turning point on the matter of race but I am not sure if he realised it himself. My view has always been that you cannot make stances which rule out others as been “other” because that is counter to the idea of the One Thing being reflected in all. This is exactly what the Sodaity teaches. However this is not what Gray was saying even in later life. It is like he bought through an important realisation, but it had not registered in his personal life yet, although it bought lots of wisdom to others.

  6. Gray was a character that can be compared to Crowley in many respects. Both were arseholes at times. AC was also not above making racist slurs, although it’s questionable he took any of it how seriously. Both were adepts and adept at pissing people off. Yet, on the positive, both wrote with a fire in their veins and understood that magic was basically all about energy and harnessing it to a willed end (Both used the phrase “Do What Thou Wilt” in their writings). Both understood that magic was really about doing stuff and taking action, and not just intellectualizing, although intellectually understanding what action you were taking was a big part of what they were both about. Both understood that all things come from one universal spiritual Source, even if they often acted like they had never heard of the concept. Both had unique insights and a total passionate dedication to magic that makes their books such interesting reading.

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