Steps of the Foundation I: Practice, Sources, Breath and Fire

Jean-Antoine Idrac, ‘Mercure inventant le caducée’, 1878. Musée d’Orsay

 

After an unforgivably long time – an absence prompted by the turbulence much of the world is going through at the moment – back to writing a little more, and a little more publicly, about magic. For those watching this little website, hello: I’m sorry to have been away for so long. I’m pleased that in my own period of silence, my own practice has deepened and expanded. 

I’ve found new depth and a surprising degree of spiritual solace in my daily practice. Magicians sometimes talk about daily practice as if it were some arduous task or a simple matter of exercise and training – like ensuring you cycle for half an hour a day, or get your gym session in. There are dry days of course, and in one sense it is like training: of the will and concentration, and learning to unforget our subtler senses, which many of us will have had educated out of us as children.

But the analogy with physical training falls down when it becomes a dry matter of developing psychic aptitude, without accounting for the joy, transformation and – above all – capacity for surprise that magical training brings with it. What experience is analogous to losing yourself in the recitation of the Secret Hymnody? There are times prior to practice where one might feel grouchy, irritable, lazy, or like the whole thing’s a chore –  but that’s something to bring to the chair in meditation, or to offer up for transformation at the altar. Am I ever really too busy, or is busy-ness covering for something else? (Was that meeting really necessary? Can’t this work wait until tomorrow? Are you in danger of thinking about magic as somehow separate to life?) Long ago I learned – and I think this is a common affliction in the modern west – that I can get in my own way by making myself ‘too busy’ to pursue things I want. And, almost always, curled inside that habit is fear: fear of transformation, fear of change, fear of what that might really entail. It is, paradoxically, a fear resolved best by admitting it and carrying on.

(If you wanted to think about this in the technical language of the Kabbalah, you might say this solution is the ruah turning its rational and loving gaze on the the nefesh, the passionate and instinctive part of the soul: thereby reversing the all too frequent situation, where powerful fears which rack the nefesh unconsciously pattern the activity of the rational soul, manifesting diversely as largely harmless contradictions and self-deceptions or terrible forms of self-destruction.) 

That digression aside, I have found myself thinking and reflecting on the simple rituals which make up much of my daily practice at the moment: the foundational practices of the Ogdoadic tradition, the Setting of the Wards of Power, the Clavis Rei Primae, the Solar Adorations – on which I’ve already written a little – among others. In these simple and powerful rituals there is much that repays study. New adepts of the Golden Dawn were sent back to study the inner dimensions of their first, 0=0 initiation ritual; I have heard that certain contemporary Golden Dawn orders also instruct closer study and meditation on the pentagram ritual as well. That makes sense, as the LBRP and the 0=0 ritual are respectively chamber and grand symphonic magical masterpieces. They repay meditation: so too do the foundational rituals of the Ogdoadic tradition.

Over the next few posts – which I am calling, perhaps somewhat grandiosely, ‘steps of the foundation’ after the lowest parts of our central magical formula – I want to explore some of the fruits of practice of and meditation on these rituals. The analyses will bounce around a bit between history, scholarship, the experience of magical practice and the fruits of meditation. Over the next couple of posts, I’ll consider our very simplest ritual, the Calyx – which might also be our most profound. That will also set us up to talk about the tradition’s basic banishing ritual, the Setting of the Wards of Power – although, as we will see, it is much, much more than that. But first… 

On Sources 

Some years ago now, when I first flicked through Mysteria Magica – which was harder to get in those days than it is now – I was thrilled and impressed and excited, but my initial reading of these foundation rituals was that they were altered and retooled versions of the fundamental Golden Dawn rituals. That’s not a bad instinct: they serve similar purposes, and as I’ve written elsewhere, the English magical world is and was comparatively small, and cross-pollination between groups and currents is inevitable. Not all of this is visible in public – very little of it is, in fact. My own suspicion – informed, but just a suspicion – is that what emerged as the Aurum Solis drew from a distinctive Hermetic inheritance – probably a rather more Christian one than that to be found in The Magical Philosophy books – including papers from old, non-Rosicrucian antiquarian societies, but likely drew heavily from Regardie’s and Crowley’s publications, and probably contact with small, post-Stella Matutina magical groups to augment their own techniques. It would be unusual had they not. 

This leads me to two thoughts: the first is that the rise, decline and fall of the original Golden Dawn and its wider roots in the Victorian occult revival is well-documented and widely written about; its afterlives in England rather less so. Many histories sketch out some trajectories, most regard one or the other of the world wars as the natural terminus of that history – as so many groups closed or died off during them. The definitive magical history of postwar England remains to be written: it would be a fascinating one. Ithell Colquhoun’s sharp, gossipy Golden Dawn history – which includes a somewhat garbled, probably third-hand mention of an Aurum Solis antecedent – is still indispensable. (Denning & Phillips’s equally sharp rebuke to Colquhoun is not as straightforward a denial as it seems – it contains its own sleight-of-hand as well.) 

Second, away from the minutiae of occult history, I wonder in retrospect about the wisdom of laying claim to long, unbroken traditions of magical practice – rather than acknowledging the truth, that esoteric lineages are amalgams of myth and reality, that they ebb and flow, die back and regenerate, and because they are living, change in the hands and hearts of each new generation. I know the reasoning, of course: an ancient lineage impresses an aspirant sufficiently to induce them to take whatʼs being taught seriously, the need for that crutch will fall away in time – and a few decades ago it also worked as a neat sales pitch. It also alludes to a deeper truth: anyone who has practiced magic seriously will at times feel the long chain of practitioners behind and around him, a kind of real Invisible College. Ogdoadic ritual even makes explicit provision for that in its ‘Catena’. If nothing else, feeling that wisdom is a bit more wise if it comes from long ago or far away is a habit as old as the ancient Greeks; Hermes, god of magic, is also god of trickery. 

Still, this lineage-mongering isn’t just a harmless initiatory trick. The history of magic in the 20th century is replete with crises precipitated either by claims to have the real, true, more authentic lineage, or by someone’s discovery that the ancient lineage that so impressed them was drawn up on the back of a napkin. Both of these are inevitable consequences if a tradition’s authority depends solely or largely on its pristine antiquity, and while the internal politicking of esoteric groups can be very funny if approached with sufficient detachment, one might think it a tragedy that the original G∴D∴, say, didn’t have more time to work out the kinks in its system before imploding. (And great as the Mathers-Westcott synthesis is, it does have its problems: its uncertainty about what the elemental grades are doing, or the sketchy nature of its adept curriculum – and its habit of producing fissiparous adepti!) Rather sadder is the repeated story of spiritual seekers disillusioned to discover that what allured them seemed to be a historical confection, and who drop away from practice in that disappointment: this still happens in magical orders, but is more particularly pronounced in neopaganism and witchcraft. It is something which ought to give leaders of magical groups pause. 

Pleasingly, I think the worst days of lineage-mongering are behind us. Partly because it’s harder to get away with, and partly because it seems less important to contemporary seekers. And yet it’s worth reflecting on what this desire for ancient, far-off or secret tradition might tell us. For instance, that many people drawn to the mysteries feel that there is something profoundly incomplete, profoundly limited about the way they have been taught to think about the world and their place in it. Such a realisation, taken seriously, can be profoundly disorienting – as if you were sitting of an evening, watching the light fade on a mountain ridge-line in the distance, only for the mountain, suddenly, to rear up and move. In such a situation, a scrabble for authority of any kind, a secure place to anchor one’s conception of the world, can be easily understood. The best outcome in these scenarios is that the student transitions from the mythic foundation story to a deeper, mature appreciation of the ebb and flow of esoteric currents; the worst-case scenario, frankly more common, chips away at the aspirant’s confidence, or seduces leaders into narcissism, vice or simple abuse justified by the borrowed grandeur of their lineage. Everyone has seen those wreckages. 

Pentagrams and Quarters 

You might think that the foregoing is setting the stage to say that, for instance, the Setting of the Wards of Power is nothing more than a Greek clone of the pentagram ritual. Nothing could be further from the truth. I donʼt doubt that the Wards formula was influenced by both the published form of the Golden Dawn ritual, as well – perhaps – as Crowley’s Star Sapphire, in which the pentagrams are flung into each quarter rather than traced. Both mark out a space for ritual working, banish anything unpleasant, decayed or stagnant that might be hanging about, and invoke the rulers of the elements in their pure forms; both effectively establish a symbolic, magical microcosm in which any subsequent work may be accomplished. It is surely right to say, too, that both the Wards and the Pentagram ritual at least share a common ancestor in Eliphas Levi’s Conjuration of the Four – as well, perhaps, in the standard Jewish night prayer, found in just about any Siddur, which calls on the four archangels to guard the sleeper through the night. 

And yet. Beyond those surface similarities, what look like small changes impact sharply on the feel of the ritual. Unlike the LBRP, the Setting cannot be modulated for work in a particular element: it does not provide a structuring formula for other magical works (though it is itself very clearly patterned according to the fundamental ritual formula of the old A∴S∴) Elemental, planetary and zodiacal workings are undertaken rather differently in the G∴D∴; the theurgic uses to which expansions of the pentagram ritual are put are also covered by different forms of working, as in the Ogdoadic ritual formula called ‘The Magician’. The Setting, then, always establishes a sphere of perfect, dynamic balance, both in the place of working, and in the magician’s own microcosm. Of course, it also does so while placing the operator within the current and symbols of the Ogdoadic tradition. In combination with the Rousing of the Citadels, this act of microcosmic balancing, done regularly, can (and I can attest, does) have profound effects. 

There is one further similarity between the modern pentagram ritual and the Setting that we should reflect on, and it is one that is so fundamental it can easily be missed. If you were asked how you could tell that both rituals were descended from 19th century magical revival, you might point to their obvious ultimate textual roots in Levi’s Conjuration, or their relation to particularly elaborate rituals of purification, exorcism and opening which blossomed in that period. (There are magical traditions that do very little of this, and manuscript records of magical operations in the preceding centuries suggest experiments would often proceed directly to spirit invocation after a brief general prayer.) But few magicians who learned their magic from one of our fine modern manuals – Kraig, Greer, DuQuette, King & Skinner etc – would even notice the most obvious connection between them: that they lay particular emphasis on the use of breath control, visualisation and embodiment through the operator to achieve their magical effect. (By ’embodiment through the operator’ here, I mean both the imposition of visualised energy on the magician’s own body, as well as the physical vibration of words etc.) 

This may well have been a relatively late development within the GD: many MSS of the pentagram ritual mention no or very scanty visualisation; it is also sometimes claimed that many of these techniques were taught ‘mouth-to-ear’ in the second order, and not committed to paper. As a systematic technique, though, visualisation had been largely in abeyance in western ritual magic for a very long time, and it is my suspicion that it was only a renewed encounter with non-European esoteric systems which prompted its rediscovery. That is not to say that earlier magicians did not either use visualisation or seek visual phenomena – the very long history of crystal scrying should scotch that idea – but that it was neither systematic nor thought of as foundational. It is only in the late nineteenth, and a fortiori the twentieth, centuries that it becomes so central – thanks in part to the assiduous systematising and popularising work done by Israel Regardie on the Middle Pillar technique. 

Sometimes this leads to the claim that visualisation-heavy magical techniques are novelties within western magic – unnecessary imports which can be shrugged off in favour of other modes of consciousness alteration. Not so fast: if such techniques had been in abeyance for centuries, there is at least some evidence to suggest their presence among both the magical specialists whose resources come down to us as the magical papyri, and in the literature of the late antique theurgists. (Sometimes as instruction that ‘in such a direction you will see a particular beast’, or on the emphasis on perception of divine fire in parts of the Chaldaean Oracles.) In the case of regulation and use of the breath, that is even more emphatically the case – it is abundantly clear magical breathwork was part of the basic repertoire of the theurgist seeking the divine. This is less foreign import than patching together a badly degraded magical patrimony – more than anything a rediscovery of vital magical techniques. 

It is therefore of particular interest that the foundational rituals given by Denning and Phillips give such careful and detailed instructions on breathwork and visualisation. From the scholar’s point of view this marks the A∴S∴ as descending from a very particular magical milieu, and in conversation with the whole great stream of magical work that comes out of the late Victorian occult societies. This suggests two things of use to practitioners: first, that differences in technique will often be the result of years of practical experiment. For instance the standard meditative breath is given in a ratio of 2:1:2:1 – i.e., where both in- and out-breath are twice the length of time spent with the lungs held either still or empty. The standard G∴D∴ breath is 1:1:1:1 – the ‘fourfold breath’, of equal duration in all phases – a form other traditions reserve for works of healing or trance induction. Such adaptations are the fruit of long magical work. Second, that familiarity with the wider corpus of European ceremonial magic, and especially the work of the G∴D∴ and its heirs, is helpful in understanding Ogdoadic ritual. Again, this is as much about divergence as similarity: why do we not – unlike G∴D∴ magicians – typically repeat a banishing ritual at the end of our work? Why do we use the heptagram instead of the hexagram when working with the planets? Why is the placement of psychic centres in the equivalent of the middle pillar different? All of these questions require and repay reflection and meditation – they certainly inform a lot of what I will be writing about these rituals and techniques.

What kind of magic is this?

Last question for this post, and in some ways the most important one. There’s no point in just summarising the contents of Foundations, so I will simply try to bring the matter up to date. Usually practitioners of ‘high’ magic are at pains to disclaim any suggestion it is better than low magic. The distinction is typically explained in one of several ways: echoing that between ‘high’ and ‘low’ Anglicanism, i.e. by the amount of formality, elaboration and ritualism involved; or by the degree to which its mechanism of activity relies on invocation of higher powers, or, contrariwise, relies on exploiting sympathy, correspondences without explicit invocation of powers; one is learned, the other much more intuitive; one directed towards spiritual ends, the other much more materially inclined. That last is rather frowned upon as a definition now, but really all of them break down on contact with the magpie reality of magical practice. Show me even the most spiritual of magicians who hasn’t waved a mortgage application through some incense – or some such – and I’ll show you a liar.

The point of troubling those boundaries is to show how arbitrary they often are, even if they’re sometimes useful. Since Denning and Phillips were first writing, much has changed. Popular occultism has gone through various cycles of boom and bust, not least successive iterations of pop-witchcraft in both its saccharine American variant and its scare-the-parents goth club mode. Among more committed practitioners there has evolved a greater seriousness about learning from other, less damaged magical traditions, exploiting greater access to long-forgotten – or at least hidden – aspects of the European magical tradition, and the rediscovery of the many treasures of the grimoires – and a resultant stress on spirit work. I have learned a great deal from listening to some of those magicians – like Al Cummins – wearing the crown of Solomon anew. Every magician, surely, is thankful for the work of Golden Hoard or Joseph Peterson.

There is a kind of oedipal error, though, which I think is sometimes visible in the pronouncements of cruder grimoire enthusiasts: that the efforts of the late Victorian occultists, and much of 20th century ritual magic, was a kind of category error, which attempted to merge too much into a single entity. In this reading, magic is primarily concerned with calling spirits, religion with ethical propriety and moral purification, and – perhaps – something awkward called the mysteries concerned with direct spiritual experience and personal revelation. Under this definition, in Europe, religion in the form of Christianity grew to nearly obliterate magic and strangled the mysteries; insofar as either survived, they did so in degraded, secret and privatised forms – and like all privatised things, more available to the powerful than the common. The objection that emerges from this reading of history is that, in an attempt revive magic, the great Victorian occultists simply put too much into their synthesis, expected it to do too many things, and that magic proper has nothing to do with spiritual transformation: that it needs disentangling from the mystery tradition in order to really come into its own.

This is a superficially attractive reading, but one that’s hard to sustain given how often the practice of magic draws on prayer and invocation of divine powers; how frequently the records of historical magicians oscillate between the appetite for concrete change and fervour for spiritual knowledge and transformation; how often in practice the practical magician is borne along to the threshold of the mysteries. The real strength of this critique, in my view, is the series of questions it raises about the practice of ritual magic. That might be about the need to leave greater space for contact with spiritual beings, or how to shed some of the unnecessary Victorian cultural encumbrances, or the mildly imperialist habit of treating the kosmos as an array of ‘systems’ to be harmonised into the One True Map (and jamming them in if they don’t quite fit.) Ironically, the curriculum outlined in The Magical Philosophy obviously has questions like this in mind, with its cleaner ritual forms, the emphasis on physical gesture or dance, with none of the baroque elaborations of its predecessors on its Enochian material. But it is emphatically a curriculum that sees the value in the synthesis of magic and the mystery tradition, and wants to rescue and restore that synthesis; the two are entwined in even its most fundamental rituals. And that sets us up nicely for our next discussion: The Calyx.

3 Replies to “Steps of the Foundation I: Practice, Sources, Breath and Fire”

  1. Good to see you writing again. Here’s a question: don’t you think it would be better if we just dropped talk of lineage entirely? At least in public?

    p.s. – I hope you keep the personal bits in your writing. I like hearing about how it works for YOU, because as you know I found the GD system too suffocating and unecstatic…

    M

    1. Thanks – it’s good to hear from you too! On lineage, I kinda go both ways. I basically get suspicious of anyone who goes on about their tremendous lineage in public, especially if there’s nothing else to go with it. (Like I said in the post I think it can have value for inducing motivation in certain initiatory contexts, but in general I think we can leave that particular crutch aside.) All lineages are broken at one point or another, and that should be liberating rather than depressing. There are maybe two situations where they’re useful, if they’re honest and not mythical: as transparency about where your teachers come from, and as a way of getting a quick grip on what another practitioner might have under their belt, and how they might approach things. But as a matter of public contention, you’re right — it should be the last thing anyone wants to talk about…

      And yes, understood! X

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