Arbor Crystallina

Most students of the Ogdoadic tradition know that our primary texts – Denning & Phillips’ The Magical Philosophy – were initially published in five volumes, then republished in a combined and updated three volume edition. The differences between these editions are rarely explored, and are not, in themselves, important. But part of my training is in critical bibliography – the study of publication histories, textual differences, the physical qualities of books and manuscripts, and what they might tell us about the world in which they were made, and what their authors and publishers might have intended by them. So, naturally, I’m curious about the differences between these versions.

A caveat: those attracted to ritual magic, high magic and western occultism in general tend to be mildly bookish; as a specific body of learning, correspondences and spiritual technologies, magic falls under the sephirah Hod, the pre-eminent sphere of intellectual knowledge. But sometimes – and the internet does not really help with this – that book knowledge can turn arid, substituting the abstract and formal learning into a substitute for the living knowledge of magical practice. The qliphotic cohort attributed to Hod is the teraphim (תרפים‬), the idols: perhaps this suggests that this kind of book knowledge can all too easily become a paralysing substitute for real practice. Better the most tentative and humble honest attempt at magic than false wisdom derived only from books!

That said, there is plenty interesting in a comparison: while, for instance, the vast majority of material between the two editions is the same, the chapter on the initiatory structure of Aurum Solis is absent in the earlier volume. Were I taking a book historian’s approach, this new chapter between editions might be the most interesting: does it tell us that the authors just felt more comfortable talking openly about initiation rites, or does it suggest there had been some internal development and change to those rituals between editions?

For the most part, the changes matter little, but I think it a little sad that the rather lovely illustration of the Arbor Crystallina didn’t make it to the second edition. Though definitely very 1970s in its execution, I think it rather better than some of the other illustrations mid-70s occult books had.

 

 

The image is accompanied by a Latin hymn-like invocation, which runs as follows:

Consistit columna in barathris
unde res occultæ donec prima ultima fiet non ostenderentur.
Sedem regiam qui ibi tenet ubi pendent inter ramos stellæ?
Silentes eæ gressus omnia invisæ decorant.
Ibi asylum, ibi umbrifera nox.
Ut in silvis immortalibus ibi innumera folia.
Ibi numen: ibi mortalitatis nihil unquam intus incolet.
Unus autem intus manit:
exornans matrem flamma.

With its translation given thus:

Established is the column in the depths,
whence secrets shall not be shown forth until the first becomes the last.
Who here holds the royal seat, where stars hang amid the branches?
She is not seen, but all things adorn her silent steps.
Here is sanctuary, here is shadowy night.
As in immortal forests, here are numberless leaves.
Here is divine presence: that which is mortal shall never dwell within.
But one is within:
Adorning the Mother is a Flame.

The context given suggests this evocative and mysterious invocation concerns the mystery of adepthood explored in The Triumph of Light, the relationship between the supernal powers and rational mind – and we might consider it an invocation of the primeval mother. Though quite sufficient on its own, the text is (I think) inspired by an ancient Akkadian hymn, CT 16 46. The hymn was translated by the 19th century philologist A.H. Sayce as part of a speculative essay on primordial Eden, the world-tree and the cult of Tammuz. The translation he gives is as follows:

1. (In) Eridu a stalk grew over-shadowing; in a holy place did it become green;
2. Its root ([sur]sum) was of white crystal which stretched toward the deep;
3. (Before) Ea was its course in Eridu, teeming with fertility;
4. Its seat was the (central) place of the earth;
5. its foliage (?) was the couch of Zikum (the primeval) mother.
6. Into the heart of its holy house which spread its shade like a forest hath no man entered.
7. (There is the home) of the mighty mother who passes across the sky.
8. (In) the midst of it was Tammuz.
9. (There is the shrine?) of the two gods.

(A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the origin and growth of religion as illustrated by the religion of the ancient Babylonians, (London, 1888) p.238)

There is much of interest here, but most striking is the image of the living Tammuz, burning like a flame in the crystal tree, the roots of which stretch to the primordial waters of Apsu, and whose branches cover the heavens. It is easy to see how this mytheme resonates with the account of magical development given in The Triumph of Light, with the dying and resurrected Tammuz, the living power of the sun, suspended in the primordial tree – the ruach united with the neshamah, the power especially attributed to the primordial mother. The A∴S∴ version of the hymn unites the symbol of the tree with the column, perhaps gesturing toward some of the foundational magical practices of the Ogdoadic tradition, many of which concern the activation (through meditation and ritual practice) of the central column within the body of the magician.

As an interesting addendum, Sayce gestures to a story told in an Arabic text, purporting to be a record of Babylonian practices, concerning Tammuz. It concerns the centrality of the dying-resurrected sun to the ancient mysteries. The same story is mentioned by Maimonides, in whose version it runs (with ‘images’ evidently referring to the pagan gods):

In that book the following story is also related: One of the idolatrous prophets, named Tammuz, called upon the king to worship the seven planets and the twelve constellations of the Zodiac: whereupon the king killed him in a dreadful manner. The night of his death the images from all parts of the land came together in the temple of Babylon which was devoted to the image of the Sun, the great golden image. This image, which was suspended between heaven and earth, came down into the midst of the temple, and surrounded by all other images commenced to mourn for Tammuz, and to relate what had befallen him. All other images cried and mourned the whole night; at dawn they flew away and returned to their temples in every corner of the earth. Hence the regular custom arose for the women to weep, lament, mourn, and cry for Tammuz on the first day of the month of Tammuz.
(Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, cap. XXIX)

 

32nd Path: Katabasis

Bruno Perramant, Trois chevaux, Apocalypse noire n°2 (les dieux obscurs), (2006)

Some reflections on the 32nd path of the Tree of Life, occasioned by recent work and meditation.

Pathworking is a technique much abused: sometimes it seems to mean any kind of dreamy reverie or confused guided meditation. In the Ogdoadic tradition – and in ritual magical traditions generally – it has a specific technique and referent: the meditative exploration of the paths of the Tree of Life, with specific transformative intent. The AS published their sequence of guided pathworkings in Magical States of Consciousness, a rich resource and worth exploring. Notably, guided meditations are given for the paths from Malkut to Tiferet, as part of a full, sequential work on the way of return.  I understand that there were once even cassette tapes available – I’d love to hear those – but I can recommend self-recording as a useful stopgap.

These reflections arise not as a direct consequence of full ritual pathworking, but out of study and meditation on the 32nd path. I have long felt that magicians who spend much time meditating and working with sefirotic energies – that clear and shining decad of light – can miss out on the paths as subtler and specific gradations, concerned with mutability and transformation, often speaking closely to the rhythm of life outside the temple room. Having recently moved house as well as embarked on a new phase of my magical life, it’s natural I’ve found myself drawn heavily to the 32nd path in particular – a path of new beginnings, under Saturn with all its ambiguities.

RITTANGELIUS

One of the prime texts used in study and meditation on the paths of the Tree of Life is the ’32 Paths of Wisdom’, a collection of short texts published as a preface to a 1642 edition of the Sefer Yetzirah by Johann Stephan Rittangel (Latin: Rittangelius), a convert from Judaism to Christianity, and professor of Oriental languages at Königsberg. Far from a small addition to the Yetzirah, Rittangelius’ text takes up a good 140 pages of his edition, with texts given in Hebrew and Latin, along with extensive cullings from Kabbalistic authorities and his own commentary. This text made its way into the Hermetic tradition by way of William Wynn Westcott, who published a translation of the Latin texts without commentary – to my knowledge no translation of the commentary exists. There is much worth study and reflection in there.

The translation given by Denning and Phillips for this path adjusts Westcott’s translation thus:

‘The 32nd Path is the Governing Intelligence, so named because it governs and co-ordinates the seven planets singly and collectively, each and all in their proper orbits.’

Substituting ‘governing’ for Westcott’s ‘administrative’ (from the Latin adminicularis) makes sense – thinking of the path as a vehicle of transmission and ordering for all the powers made manifest in Malkut. But it is also worth going deeper: adminiculum means a prop or support, a stake hammered into the ground – an appropriate image for this path, as one might think of the ancient stakes used to measure out boundaries and borders, or by which the tents of nomad peoples are pitched. But the Hebrew gives us another aspect too: נֶעֱבַד, navad, which carries the sense of cultivation, as in tilling the land – thus the 32nd path governs the powers made manifest in the world around us, and the Hebrew gives us a sense of the material, earthy and intimate nature of that power, the matrix from which the sensible world springs.

TAU

The traditional attributions to this path are the letter Tau and the planet Saturn, both speaking of finality and transformation, of death and terror. Yet the Talmud (Shabbat 104a) says Tau stands for truth, אֱמֶת, emet – with its last letter rather than its first, for truth is found not at the beginning but at the end of the journey; setting foot on the path, its thread can be hard to trace except in momentary glimpses. But Tau also means ‘a sign’, the cross (the ancient form of the letter) painted over the doors of the elect so that the angel of death might pass them by; it reminds me of a remark made by Denning and Phillips, that to step one foot on the way of return is to commit entirely, though its fruition may not be in this life, it marks a decisive moment in the life of the soul.

The stanza attributed to this path in the AS ‘Song of Praises’ captures this power well:

‘Thine is the Sign of the End,
Sum of existences:
Thine is the ultimate Door opened on
Night’s unuttered mystery:
Thine, the first hesitant step into the dark of those but latterly
Born to the Labyrinth!’

REFLECTION

The mystery of this path is reflected in the winnowing sickle of Saturn: it is the path of initiation, calling the candidate forth into the darkness. The journey is an ancient one, yet utterly individual. Like all true magical secrets, it is secret not because it is bound by an oath, but because it cannot be divulged – only experienced.

At the threshold of the mysteries, why do we descend rather than ascend? (The way up and the way down are the same way, said Herakleitos.) The heroes of ancient myth so often underwent katabasis, the descent into the underworld – Orpheus for Eurydike, Odysseus seeking Teiresias’ wisdom in the land of the dead, Aeneas crossing the Styx in Charon’s boat. They have sent me in search of the dazzling dead, the heroes who lived before us, against whose measure we fear to be revealed as their lesser children.

Nekyia: the name for our whisperings with the dead. Western magicians too rarely think of the spirits of the underworld, the dead who have gone before us: our ancestors, and our ancestors not only of blood but spirit. Those who shaped us, who gave us our first taste of the world; either the nameless number who shaped the world out of the wild earth, those who did magnificent things, those who did terrible things – or those individuals who shine in memory, having gone before us under Saturn’s scythe. The magician, too, can think of her lineage among the dead, the great chain of adepts gone before her, whose words, written and otherwise, shape the path before her.

What is our reckoning with the dead? With the ancestors? The questions this path puts before us take bravery to ask and answer. The first of the magician’s powers: to know. Not the dry knowledge of books, but the living knowledge of the self, austere, with no corner for hiding. Who are you? How were you formed? Where do you come from? What do you believe? There is a pitiless aspect to Saturn in the katabasis: as Inanna descending to the underworld, each piece of finery given up, winnowed away until only the essential remains. That winnowing is also part of speech with the dead: what have you given me that I will carry no more? What parts of my heritage will I carry with me, no longer as an imposition or reflex, but embraced with conscious joy – and which do I need no longer, to be thrown off like the crutches of the miraculously healed?

*

The esoteric schools talk, on this first path of the initiatory sequence, of the Watcher on the Threshold, sometimes with only little explanation. What is the Watcher? Some in magical orders speak of it as if it were the specific guardian of their current and particular mysteries, but its guardianship is more general. One might think of it as a kind of filter, rebuffing dilettantes and the unready. Its manifestation will be familiar to many: the lassitude that sets in after a burst of enthusiasm in magical work, a dryness, perhaps an accompanying worry that something is wrong, or frustration that you cannot yet call spirits from the vasty deep.

The advice given on confronting the Watcher is generally simple (and, at first, frustrating to hear): persist. Persist in your daily practice. It is no accident that life will often throw up sudden obstacles after the first few steps on the path: did you expect to churn up the deep seas and feel no turbulence? But what of the lassitude that seems to come from within, the truculence and resistance within the self, the bridling at the discipline? Confronting this aspect of the Watcher – its microcosmic aspect, which seems to come from within us – is part of the mystery of the 32nd path.

The descent into hell, the reckoning with the dead, the bridling at the path: who are you? One of the secrets that this path uncovers for us is fear, and the fear, especially, that comes from that question. To answer it fully, we must offer up our illusions and their comfort, all the lazy habits we acquire from our culture, the reflexes which short-circuit our perception and ability to think for ourselves. Yet fear is not a useless emotion: it can teach us what we cherish, what really matters. And we might therefore call fear the secret name of the Watcher. For all the ambivalence and riddling doubt of the rational mind, levels both below and above the conscious self know the profound transformation promised on the path, the burning up of the dross and transformation of the prima materia. Hesitation and fear at the gate might be an instinctive response: but to know this truth is to possess the ability to move beyond it.

This path, from Malkut to Yesod, governs the waking of the psychic, magical senses, the world of shadow and half-light in which the creative faculty of the magician plays. Thus the perhaps surprising austere government of Saturn over this path: to avoid the madnesses and kaleidoscopic self-aggrandisement that the astral light can bring, the ability to tell truth from falsehood, to pass through the underworld unflinching, is essential. No-one emerges from the katabasis unchanged; not even the gods of myth. But the magician should emerge with the sign of Tau on her brow, a mark of the willingness to transform – and with the heavens shining before her eyes.

Thus the ancient Orphic initiates said, in their descent to the underworld, demanding not lulling oblivion, but the cool water from the fount of memory:

Γς πας εμι κα Ορανο στερόεντος,
ατρ μο γένος οράνιον!

I am a child of Earth and starry Heaven – but my race is of the heavens alone!

A Fragment of ‘Certain Strange Visions’

 

When work happens to take me to the great libraries of the world, I usually try to set aside a day or two to spend some time digging around in old manuscript collections for anything that might pique the interest of an undercover occultist. In my ‘home’ library – the British Library – many of these have been examined by our magician predecessors. It’s hard not to feel the shades of Mathers, Crowley or Yeats – and countless other less public magicians – lurking at one’s elbow in the calm silence of its manuscripts room. As someone whose exoteric training allows him to read crabbed and difficult secretary hand – as well as Greek and Latin – with reasonable facility, the hours can pass very rapidly, in a half-trance of fascination.

Despite the attentions of both magicians and, more recently, scholars of magic, the manuscript collections of even great libraries still have much to give up – not to mention the even more scattily catalogued collections of great cathedral foundations and minor libraries. The gradual emergence of serious scholarship on grimoire traditions, and the welcome revival of interest in practical grimoire magic outside the system-building mania and constraints of Victorian occultism, mean that ever more serious (and occasionally eccentric) editions of these texts are coming to market. But should you have the privilege and access to examine manuscripts in the flesh, I recommend it – nothing quite beats holding in one’s hands the record and work of our predecessors, or the pleasure of deciphering their abbreviated notes and practical emendations.

A recent trip to the BL allowed me to set aside some time to examine two relatively well-known manuscripts: Additional MS 36674 and Sloane MS 3583. The former particularly interested me because it contains, alongside a relatively conventional instruction manual, the record of visions, spirit communications and interactions achieved by the authors. As those who have trawled through magical manuscripts know, practical records are far less common than handbooks and grimoires. We can speculate as to why this might be: most likely, perhaps, is fear of persecution – possession of grimoires being one thing, proof of practice quite another – or perhaps it’s only with nascent experimental scientific mentalities such records seem desirable. It should be understood that there is no clear, bright line between grimoire and record: many grimoires, including the instructional part of this manuscript, bear the traces of practical revision and innovation in the light of practice. But an unadulterated record is a relatively rare thing.

The MS records the work of one ‘H.G.’ – Humphrey Gilbert – and his skryer, John Davis, as well as Adrian Gilbert, the magician’s younger brother. As the one scholarly discussion of this manuscript notes, there is very little in the lives of these men, all competent and practically-minded men of the Elizabethan world, to suggest an interest in ritual magic. Yet for an intense period in early 1567/8, Gilbert undertook an intense series of operations in which they conjured the fallen angel Azazel, and through him summoned the spirits of great dead magicians, including Solomon and Agrippa, to learn secret magical techniques and receive a great book of magic.

There is much of interest here, not least the focus on the great fallen angel Azazel, often associated with magical learning, the sudden appearance of uncalled spirits (Luke the Evangelist and John the Baptist) as well as the obvious debts to earlier necromantic handbooks. Much of the instruction is familiar – requirements for sexual abstinence, ritual purity, the presence of the four kings – though blended with some directly received magical prayers. It is the visions themselves that are most captivating, however. As is occasionally the case in John Dee’s records, many of the visions seem to involve not only the skryer but the other participants as well, sometimes quite actively. Personally, I don’t believe this to be mere literary artifice, but a probable effect of the operation. Many of the visions are the skryer’s alone, however, and take the form of lights, clouds, and so on. But often they are extremely striking.

Here is a transcription of one such vision, at sunset on the 24th February 1567/8:

Jo[hn] sawe a great woode, having a greate howse in the middes of
it, with a little howse by yt most strongly bylded; having an iron
dore, with 9 key holes. these being written on the dore these caractes
following,

And in this howse
he saw a chamber richely hanged with gold, in which chamber there was
a tre of christale which was written upon very well, having many branches
with a dore on hym as it were with 7 key holes, which had the 
[ch***] written on yt; with in the which there ware many bookes, whereof
one had a christall cover, an other with the heary syde of a skyn out-
ward; with divers other goodly bookes; this tre sprede, & grewe as
on the next leaf followeth …

(Add MS 36674, fol. 59r.-v.)

(NB: see the palaeographic note below for the difficult word in square brackets.)

There’s much about this vision that is of interest: first, the shifting and repeating psychic geography of the place – a tree inside a chamber inside a house inside a wood, and a tree of marvellous shining crystal which itself grows and spreads. These kinds of experience will be familiar to any practical magician. The obviously symbolic nature of the vision – nine keyholes for the heavens? seven for the planets, or the seals of the book of revelation? – and its setting cry out for interpretation. (A later annotator, interpreting the vision, puts the astrological symbol for the sun in the margin next to the description of the golden inner chamber.) Most of all, the motif of hidden knowledge – in the form of secret books, here – runs throughout the visions, and is key to Gilbert’s efforts. Obviously, hidden magical books have a long pedigree, from the famous stelae of Hermes Trismegistus, which the magicians of ancient Alexandria believed to be kept in a pristine temple near the source of the Nile, or, later, the mysterious book buried with Christian Rosencreuz in his sealed tomb. Here the magician wants to cut out the terrestrial middleman and go direct to the spirits of ancient magicians themselves for the best book. Commendable.

There is much else of interest in the visions (and I can recommend working with the sigils dutifully recorded above, too). Three great dragons make an appearance, and at one point ‘H.G.’ is menaced in the course of a vision by a demonic spirit taking the guise of a great and sinister dog. Being an Elizabethan magician, made of sterner stuff than some of today’s, he shouts ‘O thou wicked and rebellious spirit, God confound thee!’ and casts his dagger at it – an eminently sensible and practical use of magical tools. At other points the spirits give practical advice – such as the need for the skryer to dress as the magician, in a black robe and cloak, or the wisdom to be learned from Solomon in calling spirits. The record ends with a tantalising note in April of the same year: ‘my boy went to Solomon’s house in the morning, & came home to me … and brought me from there a booke, written by St Luke the Evangelist’. H.G. had found his book.

(Image: the House of Solomon as illustrated by the later annotator. I understand a full transcription of this section of Add 36674 is forthcoming as ‘Liber Assaselis’ from an occult publisher soon.)

 

 

 

Palaeographic note

The hand in the ‘visions’ section of the MS is distinct from the hand in the instructional manual, and it is reasonable to assume it was prepared by an amanuensis from H.G.’s notes (internal evidence like doubling and miscopyings suggest this). It is a competent and typical secretary hand of the period, and only occasionally crabbed or hurried. The difficult to read word above looks in manuscript like this:

The first digraph gives no trouble: it is a fairly standard secretary ‘ch’. The second mark looks like a series of minims – possibly ‘mi’, given the dot above it, but it could be many other things besides. The last digraph looks like a ‘k’ and a terminal ‘e’. Together this gives us a tentative ‘chmike’, which we might be tempted to amend to ‘chymike’, despite the obvious absence of a ‘y’. This might accord with Adrian Gilbert’s interest in alchemy.

But the internal structure of the sentence suggests against this: why preface it with a definite article? ’the chymike’ makes little sense. Knowing the folio was prepared by an amanuensis, probably working at speed, who made some errors in the copying, I propose to read the word as ‘charaktes’, i.e., a repetition of the characters previously seen. Perhaps a messy secretary hand ‘r’ could be misread as a series of minims, or a ’t’ get lost. Nonetheless, this is a highly conjectural note. Other suggestions welcome!

 

Pour Out The Sun!

The first practice a student of the Ogdoadic tradition undertakes is that of solar adoration, preceding even the banishing rituals and middle pillar-style rituals one might expect to form the foundation of a magical curriculum. The adorations are not unique to our tradition: even strictly within the ambit of occultism, Crowley commends the same practice in Liber Resh, though he prefers a pattern of four adorations, adding the sun at noon and midnight to dusk and dawn. But the practice of marking the beginning and end of the day’s light with a prayer, sacrifice or adoration extends across all religious traditions. Why is it the first thing we learn?

There are obvious answers: it is useful for the student of magic to become acclimatised to regular, daily ritual practice, and the adorations are relatively simple, easily memorised and adopted into daily use; at the same time, structuring them into the rhythm of the day, beginning and ending with the adorations, embeds spiritual practice into everyday life. Their ever-shifting times give the practitioner the bodily experience of the days lengthening and contracting – the year’s breathing, like our breathing in meditation; they allow us to begin and conclude the day turning to the symbol par excellence of our spiritual ideal. And, of course, the Sun is at the centre of the mysteries celebrated in the A∴S∴’ initiation rites.

The texts given by Denning and Phillips include options for adoration in the Egyptian style (perhaps an echo of Crowley’s preferences, though these hew more closely to Wallis Budge than his), and an adoration loosely derived from the Īśa Upaniṣad. I use a version of the latter. The text as given in Denning and Phillips is as follows:

‘Salutation and praise unto thee, O life-enkindling sun, child of creation’s lord!
O thou lone, all-seeing eye of the vault celestial, extend thy light that I may see, but dim thy glory that I be not blinded.
Unmask thy countenance, O God of light, for I am a lover of truth and would behold the spiritual essence concealed by thy golden disk.
So reveal unto my perception thy shining and inmost nature, even that high spirit which infuses thee and is one with the primal flame of mine own being.
O life-enkindling sun, child of creation’s lord – salutations and praises unto thee!’

That text is perfectly serviceable, if a touch too consciously archaic for me – ‘mine own’ especially – so after much use I decided to refresh and edit it a bit, which involved looking at some translations of the source. Here, for reference, is Olivelle’s in The Early Upaniṣads:

 The face of truth is covered
with a golden disk.
Open it, O Pūṣan, for me,
a man faithful to the truth.
Open it, O Pūṣan, for me to see.

 O Pūṣan, sole seer!
Yama! Sun! Son of Prajāpati!
Spread out your rays!
Draw in your light!
I see your fairest form.
That person up there,
I am he!

 The never-resting is the wind,
the immortal!
Ashes are this body’s lot.
OM!
Mind, remember the deed!
Remember!
Mind, remember the deed!
Remember!

O Fire, you know all coverings;
O god, lead us to riches,
along an easy path.
Keep the sin that angers,
far away from us;
And the highest song of praise,
we shall offer to you!

(vv. 15-18)

All of the elements of the other version are here, shorn of elaboration, but it struck me that the two things disemphasised in the A∴S∴ version are the strange apostrophe to Yama, and the emphasis on memory in the rather knotty and difficult third verse. About the latter I don’t have anything conclusive to say, save that the command to remember occurs throughout religious traditions and can perhaps be thought of as a healing act (literally re-membering) – and we might hear an echo of the chain of regressions through forms of knowledge and cosmic principles which shroud ātman in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad. The reference to Yama, the Lord of Death, is more explicable: often in the Vedas, the identity of Yama and the Sun is asserted, often with an allusion that this identity will help the devout pass beyond the Sun. And this identity is explicitly linked to the simplest rite, performed at dusk and dawn, in an endless link – the agnihotra, the libation of milk into the fire – and the suggestion that this rite helps transcend death.

What is a libation? It is a gesture which connects all Indo-European cultures, the pouring out into a fire or on the ground, some ordinary liquid, milk or wine. Homer’s characters offer libations, so do figures in Minoan art, they are mentioned in Ovid, left untheorised and unexplained, so ordinary they escape notice. Even the gods, on many vases, themselves offer libations. (No-one knows why they do this.) Libations are preludes to sacrifices and the simplest sacrifices in themselves. The flowing liquid is the closest ritual analogue to the passage of time: the libation is a gesture of loss, pure and irrevocable, a gesture of yielding.

In the Fasti, Ovid attributes the habit of making offerings at altars to Dionysos, as a god of the orient, before whose advent no offerings were made at the hearth-fires of the Greeks. Hesiod commends the practice of libation at dawn and dusk. So our classical antecedents and authorities. But only with regular practice do all these references come together in the body: anyone who has traced the course of the sun through the heavens over a year will know not only the way ritual repetition creates something indivisible, but the sense of the fragility and mutability of the body, its architecture of sometimes-stiff or tired muscles as the sun creeps above the clouds or sinks on the horizon; will feel the temporariness of the body as the breath rushes through it; will feel too the ecstasy of identity between the great golden disk and the self. All these things together.

Our libation at morning and evening is a libation of words, not even of water or milk or blood. We pour out our words as the Sun pours out its light upon us. And it is a gesture of libation in the pure sense, an acknowledgement of loss, a yielding to the absolute, a grasping by not-grasping as the riddling, punning Brāhmaṇas suggest. It is as if it contains in nuce the core of the advanced and elaborate rituals of spiritual development we encounter much later in our training.

Here, in quite another form, is a record of one of the mystical realisations of solar adoration, in its curious physicality and transcendence. It was written by the poet and Buddhist Allen Ginsberg as a record of a profound spiritual experience had while on a train between Kyoto and Tokyo in 1963. Its conclusion:

‘…In this dream I am the Dreamer
and the Dreamed I am
that I am Ah but I have
always known

[…]

Let the dragon of Death
come forth from his
picture in the whirling
white clouds’ darkness

And suck dream brains &
claim these lambs for his
meat, and let him feed
and be other than I

Till my turn comes and I
enter that maw and change
to a blind rock covered
with misty ferns that
I am not all now

but a universe of skin and breath
& changing thought and
burning hand & softened
heart in the old bed of
my skin From this single
birth reborn that I am
to be so—

My own Identity now nameless
neither man nor dragon or
God

but the dreaming Me full
of physical rays’ tender
red moons in my belly &
Stars in my eyes circling

And the Sun the Sun the
Sun my visible father
making my body visible
thru my eyes!’

ECCE HOMO! Some 70s Occult Ephemera

I thought it might be interesting to some occult history nerds – of which I am one, sometimes – to transcribe the below article, which marks the earliest substantial appearance of the ‘Hermetic Order of the Sacred Word’ in print. (I say ‘substantial’ because I believe there may be an offhand reference in an early edition of Francis King’s history of ritual magic in England, but I only have a later revised edition to hand.) The short article is somewhat strange, and sections of it were later adapted as a manifesto of sorts by the Aurum Solis as it came in to public view; it is a brief summary of why one might be interested in ‘Qabalistic’ magic, and shows some of the hallmarks of Denning & Phillips’ later books, namely an insistence on the creative rather than restrictive and dogmatic aspects of Qabalah, an appreciation of the overlap between magic and religion, and a strong interest in Jungian analysis and related psychological or analytic literature.

The article was published on pp.139-145 of a handy pre-internet gazette glorying in the title The Aquarian Guide to Occult, Mystical, Religious, Magical London & Around (ed. Françoise Strachan, The Aquarian Press: London, 1970). The Guide is a colourful cheap paperback snapshot of occult London in 1970, and it is well worth glancing through just to get a sense of the riotous array of creeds, techniques and credulity-stretching backstories on offer. Its editor’s preface gives a very brief sense of how enduring and exasperating internecine squabbling and mutual enmity is on the occult scene: it’s hard not to think of the inclusion of an entry for Neurotics Anonymous as an unsubtle hint. But the Guide doubtless gave any number of curious seekers an entry-point to an otherwise sealed-off world: an address to post a nervous letter to, or, for the especially bold, a phone-number to ring.

And what if your appetite had been whetted by the mix of modern spiritual transformation and ancient Kabbalistic know-how alluded to in the article? You would search the pages of the Guide in vain for the details of the ‘Hermetic Order of the Sacred Word’, and end up frustrated. Perhaps you would write directly to the publishers, or ask around at the Atlantis bookshop. Perhaps you’d end up doing something else, following off one of the many other leads between the Guide’s psychedelic covers.

But if you paid attention to the occult press, you might notice the first editions of Denning and Phillips’ The Magical Philosophy rolling out from Llewellyn Press a few years later in 1974. The first volume contains a purported history of the Aurum Solis, and the Order of the Sacred Word, which is said to have split from the AS in 1957 and returned in 1971, after a difference of opinion or taste over the use of Masonic structure and method in esoteric work – with the Sacred Word favouring the somewhat cumbersome Masonic style rejected by the AS. The traces of O∴S∴V∴ (the abbreviation is of ‘Ordo Sacri Verbi’, the group’s Latin name) ritual and instruction which remains in the published work is interesting, and I’ll refer to it in a later post about some of the AS’s magical techniques.

Yet if you were still curious about this group and had picked up, a year later in 1975, Ithell Colquhoun’s book Sword of Wisdom, you might find something intriguing. Ostensibly a biography of S.L. MacGregor Mathers, a founder of the Golden Dawn, most of the book actually traces the fortunes of some of its successor groups and personalities. Colquhoun is not averse to recording gossip and passing judgement (both qualities I rather like) and a somewhat vague section on the Sacred Word occasioned a reply in high dudgeon from Denning and Phillips, at pains to deny any Golden Dawn or Stella Matutina descent, or any substantial links with Druidry – both claims levelled in Colquhoun’s book. That reply can be read here.

Were they protesting too much? It doubtless made sense to stake out clearly how different the system of the AS was to the Golden Dawn, and they do happily admit the presence of GD influence in the Sacred Word. As for the claimed links with Druidry, well – no-one could mistake the system presented in The Magical Philosophy as Druidic, but Melita Denning had great sympathy and periodic involvement in Druidic organisations. Indeed, the former Chief Druid of the A.D.U.B., Thomas Maughan, was claimed as a former Grand Master of the AS and was the dedicatee of Book III of The Magical Philosophy. What to make of this? Not much, of course, other than that Denning, certainly, had a great love for the Druids and the Celtic gods (as much can be guessed from her poems for the Celtic gods’ quarter days, and the extended discussion they receive in the books), and that the history of magical groups, especially in England, is rarely as pure and simple as it’s presented – that groups share members, influence each other, ‘borrow’ and appropriate from each other – and the bits that do make it to print can make tenuous connections seem too solid, and temporary experiments much vaster than they really were.

Nonetheless, the article below is a nice piece of AS ephemera, so – enjoy!

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ECCE HOMO

Magic is a phenomenon co-extensive with the human race. Qabalistic magic is magic ordered logically and philosophically to the doctrine of the Qabalah. To speak of Qabalistic doctrine is a necessary statement of fact: to speak of Qabalistic dogma would be to misinterpret the whole nature and spirit of the system.

Continue reading “ECCE HOMO! Some 70s Occult Ephemera”

Binah


(Bruno Perramant, Notre Dame No.2, [2005])

The sefirah Binah, the third emanation on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, is a focus for numerous magical traditions. As the ‘nearest’ of the supernal triad, it represents  and transmits the highest and most abstract powers down to the mental and physical world. In the great compilation of Kabbalistic wisdom, the sefer ha-ZoharBinah is often referred to as a fountain or an ocean from which run seven watercourses, the seven lower sefirot. She is also frequently called the supernal mother; Moses Cordovero refers her to the heart, the organ of understanding and intuition. In the words used in the AS’s consecration of the grail, she is ‘the mother of all living, and the womb of rebirth.’

As Sophia, and as the supernal aspect of Saturn, Binah is of special interest to the Ogdoadic tradition – especially in the resonance between Saturn and Earth, Binah and Malkut, the Heavenly Mother and the Veiled Maiden. The Reiya Mehemna, a late stratum of the Zohar says of her, ‘if she were to distance herself from the world for a moment, all that exists would be destroyed and void’. In magical traditions, the attribution of Saturn to Binah divides into two distinct forms: one, the limiter, bringer of death, and the other the great teacher of wisdom. Marsilio Ficino says of Saturn:

‘Saturn is also neighbour to the innumerable (i.e. fixed) stars; and indeed, he is very similar to the Primum Mobile because he travels a lengthy circuit. He is the highest of planets; hence they call that man fortunate whom Saturn fortunately favours. And although most people are terrified of him as alien from the ordinary life of man, nevertheless the Arabs consider he is agreeable even to the common life whenever he has very great power and dignity as he ascends, or his Jupiter (who tempers Saturn – ed.) aspects him favorably or receives him well in his terms. Otherwise, unseasonably received in matter, particularly gross matter, his influence is like a poison, just as by putrefaction or adustion an egg may become poisonous. From such influence, certain people are born or become impure, lazy, sad, envious, and exposed to impure daemons. Flee far from the company of these. For in other places the poison of Saturn lies hidden and dormant like sulphur far from flame; but in living bodies it often blazes up and, like kindled sulphur, not only burns but fills everything around with noxious vapour and infects the bystanders. Against this influence of his, generally alien to, and in a way unsuitable for, human beings, Jupiter arms us by means of the following: with his natural quality, with certain foods and medicines of his, with images (as they think), and with behavior, business dealings, studies, and affairs properly pertaining to himself. But it is not only those who flee to Jupiter who escape the noxious influence of Saturn and undergo his propitious influence; it is also those who give themselves over with their whole mind to the divine contemplation signified by Saturn himself.’ (De Vita Libri Tres, Book III, Ch. 23)

There’s a lot going on in this passage, and I only want to dwell on it briefly. The two faces of Saturn I mentioned above are present – predominantly as the classic astrological malefic, but also as the remotest power from human experience, and guardian of the transcendent realms. This doubleness preoccupies Ficino, who was born with one foot in and one out of the world, who suffered terrible melancholia (Saturn’s ailment), and fixed his eyes on the stars in search of truth. Here and elsewhere it is Saturn’s remoteness from human affairs which Ficino understands as inimical to a settled and conventional life. But to mystics, magicians, those given over to contemplation and artists, Saturn might show quite another face. Ficino warns later in this book that the advantages Saturn bestows cannot be won by whiting a sepulchre: fraud, hypocrisy and deceit, a pretence at the contemplative life, will cry out for the sickle.

Saturn and Binah for the modern magician are deeply linked. But we might multiply the ways we think about the sefirah of the great mother: as reflected and refracted in the lower sefirot traditionally assigned feminine deities, the green fuse of life in Netzah, the lady of mirrors in Yesod, or the great earth mother of Malkut. All have their root in her. Rittangelius says of Malkut that it will be uplifted on the throne of Binah, in one of the deepest and most concise images of spiritual integration. (It is why, in a shared ritual meal, we might dip bread into salt: bread made of the bounty of the earth, dipped in the salt of the great ocean from which all things come.)

Too often in twentieth century writing on magic, there is a lot of very masculine bravado about the ordeal of Binah, the ‘crossing of the abyss’ and the various high grades it entitles one to blather about. All that has its place. But too often the deep, bodily intimacy between heaven and body, Saturn and earth, is missed. The poem below, by Kathleen Raine, is one of my favourite ways of redressing that, and contains in it a beautiful images of anamnesis, a kind of intuitive spiritual ‘unforgetting’ which is sometimes a gift of Binah.

 

BINAH
Kathleen Raine

Lifelong the way —
I never thought to reach her throne
In darkness hidden, starless night
Her never-lifted veil;
Too far from what I am
That source, sacred, secret from day;
But, suddenly weeping, remembered
Myself in her embrace,
In her embrace who was my own
Mother, my own mother, in whose womb
Human I became.
Not far, I found, but near and simple as life,
Loved in the beginning, beyond praise
Your mothering of me in flesh and blood.
Deep her night, but never strange
Who bore me out of the kind animal dark
Where safe I lay, heart to heartbeat, as myself
Your stream of life carrying me to the world.
Remote your being as the milky way,
Yet fragrance not of temple incense nor symbolic rose
Comforted me, but your own,
Whose soft breasts, nipples of earth, sustained me,
Mortal, in your everlasting arms.
Known to the unborn, to live is to forget
You, our all,
Whose unseen sorrowing face is a farewell,
Forgotten forgiver of forgetfulness.
Lifelong we seek that longed-for unremembered place.

A Beginning

I’ve set up this blog in order to share with the internet a wide range of reflections on ritual magic, coming from a tradition sadly underrepresented online – the ‘Ogdoadic’ tradition. But there will be plenty of material of interest to an outside practitioner or those simply interested in occulture as well, as I plan some forays into history, translation, and the odd bit of creativity as well. That is to say: because magic is the shadow-twin of western culture, far from respectable, with more than its fair share of hucksters, narcissists and madmen, magicians can sometimes lose the sense of being full participants in a rich cultural tradition which extends beyond the few dusty shelves marked ‘occult’. (And this sometimes leads to some truly heinous aesthetic choices.) Hopefully I can do a little to change that here.

What’s an ‘Ogdoadic’ when it’s at home, anyway?

‘Ogdoadic’ – admittedly a bit of a mouthful – means ‘pertaining to the number eight’. It can be thought of as defining a philosophical and magical tradition running like a golden thread through Western culture, with its keyword being regeneration. It finds its roots in the ancient Hermetica, especially the ‘Secret Sermon on the Mount’ (CH XIII) in which Tat asks of Hermes how to achieve regeneration, and resonates in alchemical symbolism, Jewish and Christian Kabbalah, and Florentine Hermetism. Why the number eight? Eight is the octave, the base note transformed but resonant; it is the traditional number-symbol of the baptismal font, the sign of new life; for Gnostics and astrologers alike the symbolism multiplies.

It’s important for me to point out that in calling this a ‘tradition’, I don’t allude to an unbroken mouth-to-ear secret line, but rather a clinamen, an inward turning which leads one generation to discover the work of a previous generation and build on it, either together in person, or, more often, out of books and texts. Ours is a literate and literary tradition as much as a practical magical one. Thinking of it this way avoids much foolishness.

In the contemporary world, the term mostly refers to the work of husband-and-wife team who published under the names Melita Denning and Osborne Phillips, who published a major series of books called ‘The Magical Philosophy’ with Llewellyn in the 1970s (initially as five hardbacks, then reorganised into three paperback volumes). These books are major achievements in magical synthesis – including Kabbalah, magical symbolism, the relation between magic and psychology, and a presentation of the magical system of their order, the Aurum Solis. The system has been called a ‘Greek Golden Dawn’, although that conceals as much as it clarifies. It uses Greek divine names and formulæ, and is avowedly pagan and Hermetic in orientation, rather than Christian and Rosicrucian; its central divine powers are the White Goddess, the Black God and the sun-serpent, Agathodaimon. Its style of working is simpler than, and quite different in feel to the GD’s heavily Masonic style of work; for personal work, much emphasis is laid on the creativity of the individual magician.

Denning and Phillips claimed descent of the AS from a 19th century antiquarian society, though evidence for that has long been a matter of allusion to private archive. There is little public evidence of it, or its predecessor organisations, before the mid-20th century, and a ‘genetic’ reading of the organisation’s magical techniques suggest influence by the post-Golden Dawn organisations, including the Stella Matutina. I don’t find it hard to believe that the two came into a relatively moribund order and revitalised it significantly, and used everything around them to do so. Melita Denning’s breadth of occult knowledge, and her special dedication to the Divine Female, is visible throughout the published work.

The order’s post-publication history is full of sudden changes and turns, and leaves us today with two distinct groups, one (the Astrum Sophiæ) with succession from the old order, working the system close to that practiced by the Aurum Solis until recently. The latter, under new leadership, has changed its curriculum to focus on a blend of Platonism and third-hand Iamblichean theurgy, and seems quite far from what it once was. Denning died in 1997. Phillips moved to focus on Christian mysticism and hesychasm in 2003, and is today part of a mystical, heterodox ‘Catholic’ church. But we will have more to say about the tradition’s history in time – especially the post-war magical ferment in the UK, which is now beginning to pass out of living memory.

So is this all going to be dry magical theory and history, then?

No. One thing that comes across from just reading about the tradition is its insistence that all of life is the prima materia for magical work, including art, dance, music and full participation in the world around us. For instance, the first full ritual a student learns is the ‘Setting of the Wards’, similar to the GD’s pentagram ritual. In order to really call on the great powers guarding each of the elements, the student should be out walking and feeling the sun on his face, the sharp cold of the sea lapping between every crack or blown in tempest, or the wind on a mountain peak – and that is brought back to his temple. If we hold the world is bound in secret knots, then the magician’s attention should be directed as much to the world around him teeming with life and boundless mystery as to his inner self. A starved soul feeds only on itself.

That means as much as there will be history and theory and personal magical or spiritual reflection here, there will be forays into art, nature, literature – whatever in the broad array of wonders I think is useful. I am writing here, lastly, because I think in dark times to write about regeneration is a deep human need. I hope to meet just a little of that need here.

And who the hell are you, anyway?

I am a magician living in London in the UK, with a broad magical background – including in GD, Thelemic and witchcraft traditions. I am lightly sceptical and a little sardonic by nature, rarely given to believe people who add preposterous titles after their names or humour those who want to swap charters and lineages. I speak several languages well and read others reasonably. I prefer to remain mostly anonymous, the world being what it is, although I welcome correspondence.

Onward!