Eightfold

MYSTERY AND REGENERATION

Steps of the Foundation III: The Wards

Wolfgang Paalen, Les Cosmogones (1944)

This is the third in a series of ‘deep dives’ into the foundational rituals of the Ogdoadic tradition. As in earlier essays, everything in here is the fruit of my own work: it is entirely unofficial. It might help to read the essay on the Calyx, especially, prior to reading this one, as it is an essential part of the Setting of the Wards of Power. Practice of the Wards represents the student’s first step into ritual proper; like the Calyx, it is a deceptively simple ritual which repays practice and contemplation.

The ritual text of the Setting of the Wards of Power (hereafter ‘Wards’) can be read on the ORS website. It is, of course, also available in Denning & Phillips’s classic presentation of the rituals of the Aurum Solis. Any half-educated magician will notice its similarities with – and perhaps its differences from – the Golden Dawn’s pentagram ritual. We will come to these. I’ve appended some practical notes on ritual performance, culled from my own diaries, to the end of this post.

On visualisation and practice

Magical visualisation is a frequent stumbling block for beginners. Many occult groups instruct the student to undertake a battery of exercises, like maintaining the mental image of a red triangle or a green square for a period of time, in order to build up the faculty. I’ve used those exercises myself: they’re helpful in developing a skill often atrophied today, but they can also be immensely (and unnecessarily) boring. If such exercises are used, they should be alongside actual ritual performance, rather than for a period of months before doing any actual magic. 

Why? Visualisation is not just about the use of mental muscle, but the opening of the subtle senses. The power being invoked ought to form a feedback loop to reinforce – or even change – the visualisation. This does not obviate the need for training and developing the skill, but it does speed it along. Because visualisations can be difficult to hold, it’s also tempting to conduct much of the ritual with eyes closed, but this risks making the ritual too much a mental abstraction and weakening its effect. Even if it is useful to reinforce the visualisation with closed eyes, opening them and affirming its reality in the sensible world is a good idea before moving on to the next phase. (This may initially make the ritual slower than it would otherwise be. The skill of standing between the worlds comes with time, but it comes.)

Needless to say this is not a hard and fast rule: there are very few of those in magic. There are also techniques – pathworking, meditation, some middle pillar-like exercises, empowerment of a ritual space – which work well with closed eyes and withdrawal from the senses. But in general, the embodied and physically present form of the ritual will provide a stronger foundation should it one day become necessary to perform it with no outward sign at all. It is always best to learn through doing.

But what does it do?

Like its Golden Dawn analogue, the Wards serves as an exorcism, balancing and sanctification of place. In their notes on the ritual, Denning & Phillips write: 

“The purpose of the present ritual is to demarcate and prepare the area in which the magician is to work, with astral and Briatic defenses. The ritual consists of both banishing and invocation: the four Elements having been banished from the Circle in their naturally confused and impure state, the mighty spiritual forces ruling the Elements are invoked into symbolic egregores, to become Guardians of the Circle.”

Banishing and exorcism of the place of work are de rigueur in ritual magic: the grimoires offer a proliferation of exorcisms of both elements and places. As the equal emphasis on the invocatory part of the rite suggests, this is more than just a simple sweeping of the astral floor. Just like the Calyx, there are levels to this little rite which are not obvious at first glance, and only open out through practice and reflection; though it works on the working space as described, it also works on the magician herself. There are two obvious functions of the ritual according to the quotation above: cleansing the space and defending the magician. I would add a further two: establishing a rectified and perfect miniature cosmos, and by doing so balancing and empowering the magician. These two also make it, implicitly and subtly, a ritual introduction to theurgy.

Banishing, purity and spiritual fear

Perhaps it is worth spending a little time on a modern problem. A friend who runs a prominent occult shop mentions to me that the most frequent request they get at the counter is for a spell, or a ritual, or a guide on how to purify and cleanse; browsing the magical internet, similar questions about dangerous energy, astral parasites, or ever more elaborate forms of purification are very common. Fears about maleficent spirits or curses abound, as do hawkers of expensive bits of rock or pewter offering to rid you of them. This is not new – anti-curse magic is abundant in all historical periods – but it is a little alarming that it’s so prominent, sometimes to the exclusion of much else. We live in an anxious age, but even that doesn’t suffice to explain it. 

A culture (or individual) with a hypertrophied sense of purity, and a deep fear of contamination – and which thinks of all interactions with the world and with other people as an opportunity for such contamination – is a very damaged one, prey to paranoia and obsession. Perhaps some of the emphasis laid on banishing in 20th century magical curricula is responsible for this, albeit dilutely and at some remove. Tacitly received ideas about a fallen world and personal sin might also be at play, and such received ideas are harder to break with emotionally and instinctively than many believe. Of course malicious magic exists – nor is it that rare – but this is a warning against an occult version of scrupulosity, once recognised as a serious spiritual disorder. (Phil Hine has written recently and perceptively about ‘astral hygiene’ in a similar context.)

The phrase quoted above, about the ‘naturally confused and impure state’ of the elements, should not be read as articulating a moral abhorrence of the sensual world. (Denning and Phillips are clear elsewhere in rejecting that kind of cosmic pessimism.) We might think of it as being closer to chemical rather than moral purity, or that the little universe that the magician constructs in the circle represents the perfected cosmos, free of the mutability and admixture in which we usually encounter the elements. I will have more to say on the symbolic cosmos below, and return to the question of ‘the fall’ and how to think about the material world in a later piece. Briefly, ideas about impurity or fallenness describe something obviously very common in human spiritual experience – suffering the flux and reflux of the sublunary world – but the primary key in which western seekers feel this is a useless and toxic blend of guilt and shame, or (through negation) a shallow hedonic antinomianism. Neither is useful for the magician. Magic, though it has its periods of abstraction and withdrawal, ought generally involve us more in the many wonders of the world, even while ceasing to be beholden to them.

A well-executed daily practice of the Wards, then, does have clear effects on the magician as well as the space in which it’s performed. Along with the other foundational practices, it strengthens the will and thus brings to awareness our habitual, programmed or automatic behaviours – and what lies behind them. It also strengthens the intuition, which means it combines well with a daily divinatory practice. Naturally, it is very useful as an all-purpose exorcism, whether in a place haunted by terrible events or simply somewhere stress and difficulty have left an imprint. It is safe and even beneficial to practice it where you sleep, and in my experience this means a richer dream life.

On the Magic Circle

‘Nigromantic’ Magic circle with strong quaternary elements, including the names of the four demon kings of the directions. Sloane MS 3853 f.74r

The Wards bear the imprint of the Victorian occult revival, but the concept of the magic circle is far older. Scattered (and mostly ambiguous) examples of magic circles survive from the ancient world, but it is in the grimoires of medieval and early modern magic that they are most recognisable to us. A full examination of the history is beyond the scope of this essay, but there are two traits worth noticing in the older traditions. The first, and most obvious, is the stress laid on the protective function of the circle, e.g. in the preface to the English version of the Heptameron (1655): ‘they are certain fortresses to defend the operators safe from the evil Spirits.’ But the tradition also hints at why a circle is used by the magician, and these discussions present many useful avenues for deepening magical practice. The locus classicus is Agrippa, in his chapter on geometrical figures (II.xxiii):

A circle is called an infinite line in which there is no Terminus a quo, nor Terminus ad quem, whose beginning and end is in every point, whence also a circular motion is called infinite, not according to time, but according to place; hence a circular [form]1 being the largest and perfectest of all is judged to be the most fit for bindings and conjurations; Whence they who adjure evil spirits, are wont to environ themselves about with a circle.

1 – The translation here is more than usually haphazard; Agrippa’s Latin means essentially ‘the form of a circle is the best of all lineal figures’, thus my small emendation.

A scholar might detect distant echoes of Aristotle’s Physics in this passage, or perhaps the aphorisms of the medieval Book of 24 Philosophers. Most striking for magicians, though, is that Agrippa also goes on to discuss the pentagram as well as the significance of the quaternary, the ‘most firm receptacle of all Celestial powers’. This sequence of chapters is especially concerned with the resonances between microcosm and macrocosm, the secret signatures and sympathies by which magic operates. And it suggests one of the keys to the many designs for circles in the grimoire tradition, which combine the infinite symbol of the circle with the fourfold symbol of the material world – usually by cardinality of some kind, whether at quarters or cross-quarters. The circle for the infinite, the square or the cross for the material. That is, the circle itself is a miniature kosmos. (Ancient defenders of pagan theurgy also argued this about the circular design of temples: see Sallustius, Peri theon§ XV.)

Two quite distinct qualities of the practicing magician come out of the grimoire material on magical circles. Firstly, that he or she is powerful: amplified by standing inside a living symbol the magician can call up – or down – Agrippa’s ‘Celestial powers’. But, second, that he or she is vulnerable: that those powers may harm, obsess, derange as much as heal, transform or enlighten. The juxtaposition of these qualities reveals a truth: magical practice involves a risky opening of the self to the cosmos; the openness that makes us vulnerable is also the route through which power comes and spirits are called. One goal of magical training is to cultivate and direct this openness while learning to protect against its risks. But at its core is that openness and vulnerability: magic that risks nothing achieves nothing. The second power of the magician is to dare.

Agrippa is often a useful prompt for meditation, but is also a useful because Victorian occultists often turned to him when developing their grand and sometimes unwieldy magical syntheses. Much of the foundation material for modern ceremonial magic was drawn from Agrippa’s own early modern synthesis. Transmission of this kind is usually textual, but one might also speculate about the impact of the illustrations in De Occulta Philosophia. A few pages on from our quotation above, a reader will find a mysterious and evocative illustration in the chapter on the human body (II.xxvii), which combines the circle, the quaternary and a human being wielding pentagrams in both hands. Did this image linger in the minds of the eventual redactors of the Golden Dawn’s pentagram ritual, who must have stared at it, entranced, under the lamplight in the reading room at the British Museum?

Ritual Roots

Like the Golden Dawn’s pentagram ritual, the Wards maintains the defensive and symbolic aspects of the magic circle mentioned above, but adds to it techniques of mental concentration, visualisation and vocalisation. Whereas before the symbols and divine names may simply have been drawn on the floor, these rituals ‘activate’ them through the magician’s body, in a way very typical of late Victorian occultism and its 20th century descendants. (I’ve written about this before, and noted that in the earliest extant GD manuscripts these inner techniques are absent; whether they were passed mouth-to-ear or developed a little later I leave to the reader’s judgement.) The centrality of these techniques puts the rituals of the 20th century Aurum Solis and the Ogdoadic tradition firmly in the mainstream of post-Victorian revival magic – just like the Stella Matutina, the A∴A∴, initiatory Wicca and many others. 

Is this, then, just the pentagram ritual with the serial numbers filed off, gussied-up in Greek drag? No: it draws influence from other sources, and includes significant changes to the structure and function of the ritual. For instance, the flinging of the pentagrams into the quarters suggests the influence of Crowley’s Star Ruby (first published 1913 but known to most magicians from 1929’s Magick in Theory and Practice.) Unlike many ceremonial magicians of their period, Denning and Phillips do not share the dislike for Crowley common among their peers; their mentions are rarely overt but are complimentary. Other influences on the implicit cosmology of the wards – explored below – allow us to date this recension, at least, to the mid-20th century. (This is not a suggestion that the predecessor occult societies to the Aurum Solis did not exist; I am fairly certain they did.)

That is what textual criticism tells us, what of magical experience? I have already indicated some of the rite’s beneficial effects, but it also feels subjectively distinct from the pentagram ritual. The two have a similar effect in clearing the space, of course. But the cosmogonic symbolism is stronger in the Wards: it is a ritual drama creating a symbolically complete universe in miniature, a form common to many diverse spiritual traditions. In particular the interplay between the body of the magician as the axis mundi, the medium through which magical work happens and link between above and below, is much more strongly emphasised in the Wards. Unlike the pentagram ritual, the Wards is not modular: the tradition uses other methods for elemental invocation. It does, however, teach a great deal of basic ritual structure and regular practice will help develop an intuitive sense of fitness about other rites. With every performance of the rite, the magician recreates his universe, stepping out of linear time into the circular time of ritual; it is a daily practice of rectification of the microcosm. This symbolic balancing invokes real powers, which act on both the magician and the space in which the rite is performed.

N.B.: When magicians talk of the symbolic we do not mean it in the sense common today, as the opposite of actual or real. In a tradition that stretches as far back as Iamblichus, symbols are living things, connected in secret bonds, and magic of all kinds depends on their use. For us, the world is alive with powers and connections, and much of the art of magic is learning how to use those symbols to connect to the forces they embody: the world is a great, living theophany. We might easily understand the pentagram or the circle as symbols, but in this sense so too are the colours, scents, stones and names used in magic. Ancient magicians sometimes called them συνθήματα, sunthemata. In modern magic there are also special symbols which connect the magician to the powers of a particular tradition. The Tessera, which sits on the altar of every Ogdoadic magician, is one such symbol.

The Wards as Cosmogonic Ritual

Let us think about the Wards as a cosmic drama. First the magician empowers and orients himself with the Calyx. The tracing of the circle of mist recalls the infinite pre-creation waters – the deep – common to ancient myths. The circle itself is, of course, a symbol of infinite potentiality. The Greek invocation that follows is of two ancient images generative cosmic potential, recalling Orphic myths and, implicitly, the White Goddess and Black God of the Ogdoadic tradition. Then, in each quarter, the pentagram is made and the divine name of each element called: like all creation myths, it begins with division and ordering of the infinite. Note that this moves counter-clockwise, and by its conclusion the magician has effectively traced a circled cross in the space – a figure uniting the circle and the quaternary, and a traditional symbol of the manifest world. By another Greek invocation he affirms his position as the link between the celestial and the material, the axis mundi. An invocation of the four rulers follows: the great powers disposing and ordering the material world, again affirming the quaternary. The creation accomplished, the magician reaffirms his relation to the divine and concludes the rite with the Calyx.

Other lenses can be fruitfully applied to this rite – Kabbalistic, Hermetic, or according to the House of Sacrifice formula. All complement each other. All of them inform my thinking about the cosmogonic aspects of the rite. It’s my intention in the following to offer – rather than everything possible to say on the matter – cues and readings which flow back into practice and deepen our appreciation of what’s happening in the work. While I offer these as fruits of my own practice with the rite, I would also suggest that practice must come first, to feed in to reflection and meditation, which feeds back into practice. There is a danger, when simply reading texts on magic, to become overwhelmed by details or to feel one has understood simply by reading. I hope these are spurs to deeper practice rather than arid intellectual completion.

The Calyx has already been examined in detail: here it opens the rite with the descent of spirit into matter, at the centre of the space. The still point of the turning world. It corresponds to the inspiring breath, Pneuma.

The Circle. (Principle: Sarx)

Little more needs to be said about the circle itself, the symbolism of which is covered above. Note that the circle is visualised as a wall of mist surrounding the magician. This is helpful because mist is a good analogy for the pliable, shifting medium through which magic works – called by some the ‘astral light’. Similar willed visual-imaginative work is done when learning the first stages of astral projection, emitting the nefesh as a mist from the solar plexus. Whatever this medium is called, it is responsive to human will, thought and consciousness; reflecting on this it is easy to see the clearing effect this rite might have on old habits and ideas the magician might be carrying around.

This mist is also the primordial waters of creation, and as in all creation myths the magician must divide the waters and give order to them. (The ancient historian Eudemus records a trace of Orphic myth that puts fog, along with time and desire, at the very start of the universe [fr. 150, qtd. Dam. Pr. III.163.19].) Kabbalistically-inclined magicians may feel here a distant echo of tsimtsum, the process of deliberate withdrawal of the godhead from itself to form the space of creation. There is a deep chain of symbolic linkages between the astral substance, the primordial waters, and the moon as governess of the tides and ruler of magic; these repay meditation.

A textual and ritual note: in the first edition of The Magical Philosophy, instruction is given to perform the circle widdershins, i.e., counter-clockwise. In later editions, the instruction is given instead to perform it clockwise. This reflects a change in the practice of the original A∴S∴. The magical effect is relatively slight, but having done it both ways, I find the widdershins turn helpful if the rite is preceding works of negation, diminution, banishment or disguise. (Denning and Phillips lay out the use of widdershins circumambulation in Paper XIV of Mysteria Magica.) As a complete daily ritual, though, I turn with the course of the sun, clockwise.

The First Invocation.

The magician vibrates two Greek phrases, which translate as ‘The Dove and the Waters’ and ‘The Serpent and the Egg’. These are two images of primordial generation. Though no instruction is given to visualise anything, the images are naturally suggestive, and can cause visuals of great intensity to rise in the mind, along with a sense of enormous latent power and potency. Both images allude strongly to Orphic creation myths, though their resonance is not purely Orphic – the spirit moving over the waters (or the void) is of course also a key part of the Genesis creation myth. The story of Phanes, or Protogonos – the first-born god emerging from the cosmic egg – is fairly familiar. Worth stressing here is that Protogonos is co-extensive with the entire cosmos: in one myth the universe blinks out of existence when he is swallowed by Zeus. M.L. West, for this reason, among others, compares him to the Vedic Prajāpati. (Many of the fragmentary details concerning Phanes-Protogonos are worth meditation: for instance, Damascius’s assertion that he is the first god knowable to human beings.) Through the use of these symbols, then, the tradition makes an explicit link to the Orphic mystery cults of antiquity, their later Neoplatonic interpreters, and their apparent central themes – especially resurrection and regeneration.

But the images also have specific resonance within the Ogdoadic tradition: they symbolise Leukothea and Melanotheos (lit. ‘the White Goddess’ and ‘the Dark God’), two of the deities central to Ogdoadic magic – the third, the Agathodaimon,  appears slightly later in the ritual. They also suggest the two pillars, black and white, of the magical temple – between which the whole tapestry of the universe is woven. It is unsurprising that the parent deities are invoked at this stage of the rituald. It is not, however, a full and direct invocation of these powers.

A textual note: the images, though most are Orphic in ultimate derivation, are also clearly influenced by Robert Graves’s imaginative and idiosyncratic reconstruction of a ‘Pelasgian’ creation myth in his Greek Myths. Graves’s insistence that the ancient myths recorded fragments of a pre-Olympian cult of the Mother Goddess was, of course, hugely influential on the course of modern neopaganism, druidry and witchcraft. Such influence suggests that this particular recension of the Wards is unlikely to predate the mid-1950s. (It is possible, and quite likely, that other versions of this ritual preceded it.)

Although I am not particularly inclined to ipsosephy – the Greek equivalent of gematria – there are some resonances worth drawing out in these phrases: πέλεια, the dove, shares its value with ἱέρεια, meaning ‘priestess’. The Peleiades – doves – were also the sacred women of the mother goddess Dione at Dodona, the most ancient oracle in Greece. The total value of the second invocation sums to 12, suggesting the belt of the zodiac and the great cosmic serpent with which Melanotheos is associated.

The Wards (Principle: Dike)

In each quarter, proceeding anti-clockwise, the magician performs a complex gesture – first bringing his hands to form a triangle at his brow and visualising a blazing pentagram, then flinging this pentagram outward into the mist wall. The hands should spread, and the pentagram should be seen to grow before bursting in shimmering light in the mist. The spreading hands resemble the horns of a great stag, and so this gesture is called ‘Cervus’. At each point he vibrates the appropriate divine name: first that of spirit, and then that of the element as the pentagram is flung. This is the banishing part of the ritual proper, and thus its correspondence to the principle of justice, Dike.

This action is similar to the many exorcisms and prayers involving the four directions which recur across many religious traditions when marking out sacred space, or calling for protection – the common Jewish Shema before sleep, or St. Patrick’s Breastplate (sect. 8) spring to mind. The specific genealogy of the Wards is ultimately from Eliphas Lévi’s ‘Conjuration of the Four’, and – as suggested above – influenced by the pentagram ritual and Crowley’s Star Ruby. This ritual sequence banishes and fortifies the circle: it really is a sweeping of the astral floor. It is also the first part of the ritual structured by the quaternary, and thus symbolically addressed to the tangible world, rather than the circular or axial focus of preceding steps.

The symbolic lore of the pentagram is vast: it is the pre-eminent symbol of command and magical power. Here its aspects as a symbol of protection, the magus as microcosm, and the government of spirit over and through matter are especially relevant.

Some brief notes of interest: the assignment of the elements to the quarters is the same as in the Golden Dawn, and are taken from Ptolemy’s elemental attributions of the winds (in Ptol. Tetr. I.10). This attribution is shared by virtually all post-Victorian ceremonial magic, though other modes of assigning the elements to the quarters are possible: using zodiacal attributions, as in Agrippa, and placing fire in the east – sometimes still deployed in some planetary workings – and a Kabbalistic tradition stemming from Zohar II.24a, which has never to my knowledge been used by Western magicians. 

The Cervus gesture should flow naturally with the rhythmic breath – it is also the first training in the projection of magical force. Notably the divine name of spirit – Athanatos or Ischuros – always precedes work with a particular element. (The two divine names for spirit is, I think, another legacy of the Golden Dawn – though like many Victorian innovations there is precedent for it in the wider tradition.) 

Again, some brief examination of the divine formulae may be helpful. The two Spirit names, Athanatos and Ischuros mean respectively ‘undying’ and ‘mighty’. The name for Air, Selaê-Genetês, means ‘Father of Light’, an epithet of Apollo and appropriate for the rulership of the East. The name Theos for Fire means simply ‘God’, but ultimately derives from words related to a proto-Indo-European root meaning ‘shining’ (cf. the holy and formless shining fire of the Chaldaean Oracles). Pankrates, the name for Water, means ‘All-Powerful’ – a name especially appropriate for water’s power over physical and emotional life. Earth is assigned the name Kyrios, meaning ‘Lord’, mirroring the Hebrew assignation of Adonai to the same element; its value in isopsephy is 800, the value of the letter Omega (assigned to Saturn) and ὕπνος, hypnos, meaning sleep. There is food in all these names for meditation; in magical practice one ought to be entirely absorbed in the vibration of the name itself.

The Second Invocation

The circle banished and warded, the magician now stands in the centre of the place of working, upright and vibrates a Greek phrase translated as ‘Earth and the Blood of Heaven’. This is a moment of great symbolic importance in the ritual, for multiple reasons:

  • Like the preceding invocation, it is delivered in the centre of the place of working, but the invocation calls on the Agathodaimon, the Ogdoadic deity attributed to Tiferet, the sun, and tutelary spirit for the magician’s theurgic development. As with the previous calling, the invocation is indirect but significant; the previous images of potential are followed now by the image of the descent of spirit into matter. The Agathodaimon is central to the magical work of the system, and this moment of daily contact with him is vital.
  • The phrase continues the Orphic resonance of the ritual, recalling not only the ancient myth that human beings were created from the blood of the Titans (see West, p.165) but the initiatic phrase inscribed on the Orphic lamellae to be used as a password in the afterlife: Γης παις ειμί και ουρανού αστερόεντος – ‘I am a child of Earth and Starry Heaven…’ It is also worth noting that the ancients thought ichor a distinct substance from human blood.
  • The axial moments of this ritual are of great interest – all those at which the magician is at the centre of the circle with his attention directed towards the divine. The literature here is vast and uneven, but closely linked to the cosmogonic aspect of the ritual. The fundamental practices of the tradition all involve work through the central column of the magician’s subtle body: the Calyx, these moments within the Wards, and all the formulae of the Clavis Rei Primae (similar to the Middle Pillar exercise) – and from this perspective it can be seen how they interlock and reinforce each other. When I have meditated on these moments, I have often seen the magician as a great cosmic tree, its roots deep in the darkness and its boughs entwined with stars. Significantly, one of the more advanced magical practices involves the assumption of the godform of the Agathodaimon as a serpent rising along the spinal column. (I will say more on this in my notes on the Clavis Rei Primae.)
  • Students of the Kabbalah may find meditative resonances in the sequence of actions here: first the banishing of confused and chaotic elements, then the descent of the spirit – as with the Kings that were in Edom. This parallel is suggestive, not direct.
  • The Agathodaimon is a solar deity, and it is striking that this allusion to him should precede the invocation of the elements in their pure and rectified form. The traditional Ogdoadic design of the Disk, the magical weapon of Earth, shows the colours of each element governed and illuminated by the rays of the sun.

The Four Regents (Principle: Eleos.)

Raising his arms to the Tau posture, palms down, the magician invokes the four Briatic Regents, or Archontes, governing the elements. These regents are equivalent to the Archangels in Hebrew working, i.e. extremely potent and pure facets of divine power. Denning and Phillips give specific elemental forms for visualisation, but also give notes for contemplation – the winds of the east and the spiritual aspiration they carry, the divine intoxication of the southern fires, and so on. (These are reproduced at the Citadel of Pharos website.) Getting all these layers in place at the same time is a serious exercise, and may at first take several cycles of breath to establish each figure fully: it is worth paying attention to whether one in particular is causing difficulty, as it may indicate special work is needed on something governed by that element.

The Tau position occurs frequently in ritual: it is a sign governing the material world and the magus at its balancing point. Most frequently, with palms upturned, it is used in invocation of the highest powers – the divine name governing an operation, or as in the Ogdoadic formula The Magician, the divine spark above the head. Here, with palms down, it is a gesture of materialisation – manifesting the power of the elemental regents. It is worth noticing the way the orientation of the body changes by assuming the posture and changing the position of one’s hands. The body is the instrument through which we do magic: its movements matter.

The invocation of the four regents completes the symbolic cosmos: the four elements are present in their pure forms. In another sense, the four elements have been rectified: i.e., the ritual action symbolises one of the fundamental steps of magical development, mastery of the four elements – including their microcosmic reflections in the psyche. Many magical systems place this work in their first grade, but it is often neglected or scanted because it is unglamorous and requires honesty and self-examination. ‘Adepts’ who then proceed to blow their psyche apart are testament to its importance. No temple stands without a firm foundation. The Wards is an excellent basis and aid for this work; meditation and invocation of each of the regents in turn also helps.

The names of the four regents are also titles or epithets: Soter, meaning ‘saviour’ applied to many gods but especially Dionysos and Zeus (and for theurgists, in its feminine variation, Hekate); Alastor, ‘avenger’, with varying shades of moral significance in antiquity; Asphaleios, ‘foundation’, an epithet of Poseidon understood as referring to him as giver of safety on the seas; Amyntor, ‘defender’, and note that the elemental weapon of earth is sometimes called the shield. Denning and Phillips refer to the forms they give for these four regents as symbolic egregores, i.e., general-purpose symbolic forms specifically pertaining to their rule over the elements. The symbols are very obvious, though it should be noted that the sickle held by Amyntor instances the strong connection between Saturn and Earth that runs through the system. It is my experience that continued use of these forms will individualise them to some degree. They should not be deliberately altered by the magician’s imagination, however. The reason for this is worth stressing: they are not just symbolic forms of the elemental kings, but they are specifically forms used by magicians within this tradition every time we perform this rite. It is one way of linking our individual work to the wider work and power of the tradition, or like following tracks already made for us. This is one reason behind the strict instruction sometimes given in early training not to change this-or-that specific part of a rite or programme. It’s an instruction usually worth heeding.

The rite concludes as it begins, at the centre of the place of working, as the magician centres himself on the divine spark through the Calyx, and the final principle of the House of Sacrifice: Kudos.

The Uses of the Wards

The two primary uses of the Wards have already been indicated: as a ritual that clears, sanctifies and prepares a space for magical work, and as an individual rite which – through daily repetition – contributes to the spiritual transformation of the magician. This latter effect is greatly enhanced by also practicing the Clavis Rei Primae, akin to the Middle Pillar exercise: all the foundational practices inform and reinforce each other. It is also the rite that the magician will most often perform to open more elaborate workings (one variation, The Setting of the Wards of Adamant, elaborates and makes explicit the symbol of the circled cross as a representation of the specific divine powers of the tradition.) It is easy to take for granted, but honed and mastered it can change a space very rapidly; appreciation of its hidden depths develop through practice.

I’ve suggested above that one of the effects of the Wards is an increase in self-awareness, and in particular awareness of habitual actions which have outlived their usefulness. This is one consequence of a more general fortification and charging of the magician’s subtle body. Daily invocation of the kings of the four elements will also likely work to transform the parts of the psyche under their rule – leading some practitioners to a difficult early confrontation with acquired habits, dogmas, or empty forms of life which no longer suit them. This work is all to the good, but it conceals a risk – delaying progress in the work for an endless cycle of self-analysis, or frequent sharp and ill-considered changes in direction. It is worth thinking of oneself with love – and remembering that you are offering all of yourself for transformation and irradiation by divine power, not only the parts you think already worthy. One method I suggest: delineate the natal chart as a key to psychic makeup, paying attention especially to elemental distribution. Construct the sigils of each of the four regents using the elemental presigilla and the kamea of Malkuth (all given in Mysteria Magica.) Continue the daily regimen as normal but time  each ritual to begin in the appropriate elemental tide, dedicating a week to each, decorating the space appropriately and adding in a daily meditation on the element, its regent, and in particular its effect in one’s life. This is both a helpful exercise as well as a nice training in gathering appropriate correspondences and decoration for the working space.

This elemental practice of theurgy points us towards the development of the light-body. The next post in this series will examine the set of practices related to the subtle body: the charging and development of the centres of activity, and their centrality to this form of magic.

Appendix: some notes on practice

I thought it might be useful to add these very practical notes, which are culled from my own magical diaries, to supplement the instructions. They are, I think, useful principles for ritual work in general.

  • Confidence and clarity of purpose is more important than perfect visualisation. Visualisation will come in time, as the magical senses open up. It may also come in different ways, including auditory phenomena, or a sense of something akin to pressure: I often experience the closing of the circle as a satisfying, almost audible clinking sound.
  • Self-doubt is lethal. Relaxation and trust in oneself, the powers, and the efficacy of the ritual is essential. This is not a state that can be achieved by trying for it, or indeed by telling someone else to strive for it. Take the internal policeman off duty for the duration of the work. A period of ten minutes of meditation prior to the work can help induce this at first.
  • As the pentagrams are flung rather than physically traced, it’s useful to build them up – and specifically their motion when flung – in the visual imagination. What does each phase of process look like? What does it feel like to have a symbol of power burning between your hands and then flinging it out to a quarter? Revisiting these questions with the experience of practice is helpful.
  • The ritual should be led and timed through your breath, ideally neither rushed nor languorous. Allow your breath to guide you. It is worth walking through it several times using the rhythmic breath to ‘pin’ the visualisations to certain sequences of breathing.
  • Vibration of the divine names should be treated as a kind of personal transubstantiation: you are taking the name into your body and activating it, becoming more like it. (See the previous essay on the Calyx for more on this idea.) Again, it may take some time at first to build up the technique. Experimentation with the vibratory exercises given by Regardie can help as well, although it is not necessary to import this technique into the rite itself.
  • The Archontes – the four elemental guardians invoked at quarters – are not ciphers, but real and individual spiritual presences. They are not extensions of the individual will. Meditation on their forms, and seeking out experience of their elements in the world, will help strengthen the invocation.
  • Stick at it. Self-punishment for missing a day here or there early on is counterproductive. (But if you are inclined to self-punish in this way, or drawn to demanding structures which provide you an opportunity for self-punishment, you might find regular practice forces you to confront that.)
  • In memorising rituals, I often find it helpful to draw or paint diagrams, which lay out the rite schematically; these figures can even sometimes become mandala-like themselves. They might be made with great and colourful elaboration and careful calligraphy, or they may tend to the more schematic. Though I would never share a photograph of my personal grimoire, this digital diagram suggests what the more functional version might look like. The letter Psi in the centre represents the magician with arms upraised, ready to receive the divine influence, as in the Calyx.

Silence and Secrecy: On Oathbreaking

This little essay is prompted by a discussion with a friend about the seriousness of magical oaths and obligations, the duties they entail, and when – if ever – it’s permissible to break them. This is a funny area. It’s the sort of thing practitioners occasionally speak about with each other but which less often makes it into the books, unless to burnish one’s own credentials by insisting everyone else is a terrible, illegitimate oathbreaker. I think it worth writing a little about, though, because a number of interesting questions – about magic, about spiritual change – come into focus through it. I will return to the ‘steps of the foundation’ series very soon.

Some context and definitions: said friend and I both have wide and varied experience in traditions that teach practical magic, but which also teach the use of magical techniques for spiritual development, and put candidates through initiation ceremonies which (when worked correctly) induce new states of consciousness and help accelerate that change. These span ecstatic witchcraft and formal – if at times no less ecstatic – ceremonial. Beyond my consideration are the oaths and pacts individual magicians might make with spirits, but some parallels will be obvious. When I talk about the ‘magical community’, I mean everyone engaged in magical practice who is also connected in some way – however slight – to others doing the same. (This includes, for instance, just reading their output, or lurking on an email list, as well as participation in covens, groups, or orders.) 

Silence and Secrecy

Magicians are terrible at keeping secrets. Which is to say several things: first, that the ‘magical community’, which has no central authority, functions by exchange of gossip and stories, and like any other human community prurience and strategic misrepresentation are rife. Second, there are rewards – sometimes monetary but more often prestige and social power – for seeming in the know. Third, magicians are nosy: we’re typically curious about how other people do things, some of us because we get off on telling people they’re wrong, others because we like stealing things that work. Fourth, magicians are inveterate teachers: we like passing things on, and we like keeping things alive. Combine all these and you get a community which values secrecy rhetorically but delights in its breach.

Motives are mixed, as separating them out thus shows us. The historical study of magical traditions and the great wave of publication of occult material in the 20th century brought many benefits, not least of which it is much harder to trade on ancient and secret lineages to profit from or abuse a sincere but naive seeker. But the power of silence is still taught as one of the cardinal virtues of magical practice. (In one tradition of ceremonial magic, the candidate is supposed to meditate daily on the four powers of the magician – to know, to dare, to will, to keep silence – in turn for the four weeks prior to their first initiation. It is no accident that silence is the theme of the week preceding the ceremony itself.) Why do we still value silence and secrecy?

  1. Social prudence: even if you are able to be open about your practice, others that you meet in magical groups will not be. Although some parts of Europe and America pay lipservice to a distinction between personal belief and public or professional life, in reality there are unpleasant consequences for an interest in the occult. In Britain, the tabloid press remains hungry for stories which expose witches and magicians, as happened sporadically to members of Gardnerian and Alexandrian covens in the postwar decades. Such exposés are frequently devastating for people at their centre. I also expect the social penalty for interest in the unorthodox to increase as this century unspools. 
  2. Psychological commitment: a commitment to remain silent about magical work frees the magician in two ways: freedom from the interest of others and thus the human need to impress, and freedom to be honest about and absorbed in the work itself. This is especially important in the early days of building magical discipline, and unlearning the common compulsion to show off or brag. 
  3. Magical efficacy. This can also be split into two branches. It is generally helpful to remain silent about practical magical workings (at least) until they have achieved their ends, partly because the knowledge someone is working magic to a particular goal might trigger unwanted complications. But theurgic magic directed towards personal transformation, vision, or ecstasy also benefits from silence: an urge to communicate these experiences too quickly can cause us to too readily ‘fix’ them, rather than allowing them to properly transform us and unfold their deeper implications. (The consequences of these experiences – ‘initiatory’ in the fullest sense, but only sometimes taking place in rituals of initiation – can take years to fully unfold.)

The association of secrecy with magic and the mysteries is ancient and venerable. In one of the surviving fragments of On Philosophy from Oracles, Porphyry warns against too easily publishing mystical secrets, and specifically pays attention to the motives for doing so: “do not […] cast them before the profane for the sake of your reputation [δόξες] or for the sake of gain [κέρδους] or for the sake of any other unholy flattery [κολακείας].” (in Euseb. PE IV.8) So specific a list of motives has the odour of experience in it. It is usually argued that the ancient Mediterranean observed the taboo on disclosing the mysteries very closely, given how little evidence survives of their content: perhaps here we see a record of a more complex story. These three motives remain useful goads to self-examination – and to bear in mind when reading other authors.

It’s well known that the ancient world made a distinction between two different kinds of occult secrecy: aporrheton, a communicable secret which it is forbidden to communicate, and arrheton, a secret of the mysteries which can only be experienced rather than directly communicated in language. Porphyry, in fact, uses the latter term immediately after the passage I quoted. This distinction persists: you can sometimes hear occultists claim the only real secrets are the latter kind, or even that these are the only secrets they are obligated to keep. (An easy job, if they’re not linguistically communicable.) But aporrheta can include a vast amount of information – the identity of participants, ritual content, magical records, methods and techniques, recipes – and this is what is usually guarded by oaths of secrecy. One of the word’s other applications in antiquity provides a suggestive metaphor: it sometimes referred to commodities forbidden from export, essential to the functioning of the city. The circle of trust formed by magical secrecy is as important as a city’s supply of grain.

The Obligation: Why do we swear oaths?

Although it has some arguable ancient analogues, and writers on witchcraft in particular claimed that witches swore dire oaths to conceal their Satanic gatherings, the modern magical oath ultimately springs from Freemasonry. Typically it contains a commitment to keep secret all the secrets of the group, a commitment to magical work (often replacing the social commitments of the Masonic oath), and a section committing oneself to various grand guignol punishments should that oath be broken. In consonance with its Masonic origins, it is also sometimes called ‘the obligation’, and this is a useful way to think about it: it is a series of commitments made, with utmost seriousness, to one’s own spiritual development, and to the people in the group and tradition in which one works – including the chain of dead magicians who preceded you. ‘Obligation’ shares with ‘religion’ a root meaning ‘to bind’, and to take a magical oath is to voluntarily bind yourself to something greater than yourself. It ought to represent a serious commitment of time and energy. It is not a light matter, though oaths are sometimes made lightly. There are many wise folk tales which should warn us about lightly-made oaths.

(In many traditions, the seriousness and scope of the oath changes by degree, as the candidate is woven deeper into the mystery and takes on more responsibility for it. It is also useful to stress the obligations ought to be two-way: if a candidate takes on duties, he or she is also entitled, for instance, to clear instruction, attention to his or her development, and good and thoughtful supervision. None of this need be arduous, but this is one reason some traditions are cautious about hurrying people towards initiation.)

The magical component of the oath is also worth mentioning very briefly. Oaths of magical commitment are often made by solitary practitioners, classically as part of the pursuit of the Holy Guardian Angel. (Some traditions, including some branches of the A∴A∴, associate an oath to complete a particular magical work with each grade.)  When these are included in initiatory oaths, they can be thought of as swinging the group’s egregore behind that work, but also as demonstrating that the group’s rituals, rules, workings – much of its aporrheta, that is – exists ultimately to further that goal. 

There is also a much more down-to-earth reason for combining magical and initiatory oaths. Oaths are not especially important in periods where everything works, for the initial burst of enthusiasm, where one can’t wait to get in the circle. They matter in the dry and dark periods because they are commitments to other human beings as much as commitments to spiritual development – and it is those commitments which can bring us through the fallow. Often periods of magical difficulty can be akin to feeling overwhelmed with responsibility, of truly being responsible for one’s own life with everything that entails: one of the functions of the oath is to establish a bedrock for those periods, one decision which you have already taken out of your own hands.

Wallace Berman & Jay DeFeo, Untitled, 1959.

Of Oathbreaking

The development of magic in the 20th century owes a great deal to oathbreakers. The shape of western magic was changed profoundly by Aleister Crowley and – far more so – Israel Regardie’s disclosure of the materials of the Golden Dawn. (Many others have disclosed previously private material with varying degrees of legitimacy, but those two stand apart simply for the breadth of their influence.) Regardie is the more interesting case than Crowley, whose disclosure owed as much to his titanic narcissism as it did a serious esteem for the GD corpus. Regardie narrated his experience of the order, and his rationale for breaking his oath of secrecy in What You Should Know About the Golden Dawn. The book is still worth reading as an account of a moribund magical order, and for the obvious admiration Regardie had for a magical system ill-stewarded by the ‘inepti’.

Regardie took his oaths seriously, but believed he was in an emergency. Faced with a choice between allowing the system to die out and publishing its papers to allow it to be reborn, he broke his oath for a higher end. The many groups and individuals who drew from that treasure house – some tacitly, some openly – testify that his judgement was correct. (I am aware of one British Golden Dawn group which disparaged Regardie as an oathbreaker but used his books extensively. They will not be alone in that.) More than simply making material available, Regardie’s other work significantly changed how it was received: it encouraged people to pick it up and work it, with the result that almost every candidate seeking initiation in a magical group today will have had far more magical experience that their Victorian equivalents. Arguably it is this experimental attitude which led many of his readers to generate new approaches to ritual magic, like shedding its masonic accoutrements or the generation of entirely new systems. (The approach of the OSOGD, now sadly closed, is also worth highlighting.)

Regardie is an interesting case of more fundamental obligations prevailing over oaths, and he was clear about his motives. Even administered half-heartedly, the vows Regardie would have made in his Adept initiation – while strapped to the cross of obligation – could not fail to strike him as serious. It’s clear he took the ethical problem seriously. It is all the more striking, then, that he took the decision to publish the GD papers fully, rather than circulate them in private. There’s much to reflect on in this decision: publishing opened the material out to many more interested parties than could ever be part of private networks, allowing greater experimentation, and guaranteed preservation of the material – allowing it to be rediscovered. It also perhaps reflects how few – even among interested parties – are interested in really pursuing the work. Appearing to break his oaths, Regardie instead sparked a magical renaissance.

Obligations to others

What about our other obligations? In Regardie’s case, obligation to the tradition itself prevailed over the formal vow. There are, conceivably, situations where somebody’s partial disclosure and profit from secret materials (or careless publication of techniques without safeguard or context) might prompt others to publish. There are also, sadly, situations where abuse inside a tradition may confront us with the need to disclose not only material but identities. Both cases can be understood as acts of greater fidelity to the tradition itself.

The other major obligation many feel is historical. This includes professional historians who are also initiates, but also initiates who feel compelled to work with interested historians. Reasons for such collaboration are manifold, but include: desire that magic should take its proper place in western culture, revisionism of inaccurate history, a hope that truthful magical history might help us to avoid some of the mistakes our predecessors made, a kind of ethical obligation to history itself. It’s a commendable desire to want to know more about where we come from, and to insist on those answers being true. In general, proper historical attention to magic is a boon: it’s dispelled harmful myths, mostly rid us of the worst excesses of lineage-mongering, and gone some way to demonstrate the breadth and persistence of magic in western culture. Much of this has been accomplished by careful textual and archival work, but has also relied – especially in the history of witchcraft – on disclosure by initiates, particularly of the names and identities of dead (and, less often, still-living) practitioners.

For many, those disclosures have become very easy to make, even to the point that I’ve met initiates who very freely disclose who’s involved in what, even in fairly public settings. (The borders between knowledge, gossip and rumour are not well-policed here, either.) Public magicians, or those who are generally open about their practice, sometimes fail to remember their ethical obligations to others who do not have that luxury. This touches directly on the third component of magical oaths: not about personal practice, not about secret material, but about personal identity. Even in close-knit magical groups it is hard to gauge what consequences someone might suffer as a result of their practice being made public – familial, social or professional. This goes doubly so for people to whom we are less intimately connected. People are rarely killed for an interest in magic, at least in Europe and North America, but lives are still blighted, careers ruined and families torn up for it – more so than might widely be known.

There’s no point in pretending the ethical issues here aren’t real, or are easily solved. Like many others, I am eager for better-sourced, clearer histories, especially of postwar British occultism. But in deciding if, and what, to disclose, perhaps we ought to return to our oaths rather than simply shrug them off. Nothing in any magical oath says it is purely context-dependent, something that somehow doesn’t apply simply because you’ve decided to write a book. Our obligations to others do not disappear simply because we have decided they are now too cumbersome. The point of any oath is that when we feel it chafe, we are reminded of the commitments and high intentions we made when we took it. To shrug it off isn’t a neutral act, especially when undertaken without consultation with others – what does it suggest you think about the people and powers with whom you stood when you took that oath? About how reliable your word is? Group magical work also depends on trust: to damage it needlessly is an act of spiritual vandalism.

But there are times when disclosure of the identities of past initiates is either unavoidable or even desirable. Some useful questions to ask in that situation include: is this my secret to give away? What do my oaths say? What good comes of disclosing this identity? What harms? What did this person want while they were alive – and do they have any surviving magical colleagues I can talk with about it? What about their surviving family? Do they know – and would it harm them for it to come out? Can we use pseudonyms and achieve the same end? What do others think? It is no accident that these are all ethical questions, which should focus us on our obligations, remind us of our involvement in a community, and involve us in thinking about others’ comfort as well as our own. Incorporation into the historical record is not the sole good, impossible to gainsay.

Jay DeFeo, Jewel, 1959

Magical ethics and spiritual athletics

This is one area where magical practice brushes up against worldly concerns, and prompts ethical problems. It’s far from the only one. It’s a different category of ethical problem to, for instance, whether it is a good idea to work magic for someone without their knowledge, or the justifiability of curses. It’s far closer to questions like how one handles an initiate who has recently taken an initiation and then decides it is time to quit everything, leave their partner, sell their possessions and live in a cave – or how one recognises such crises in oneself. These are questions experienced magicians ought to talk about among themselves more often than we do. It is my contention that the western esoteric tradition – patchwork, rickety and ill-transmitted though it can be – contains many resources for answering these questions within it.

One reason these are overlooked is because oaths are sometimes made in the heat of the moment, during an initiation, with very little preparation of the candidate. Of course, this is sometimes just initiators passing on what was done to them: one of my very first initiations was done this way. But it would be helpful in building a firm foundation if initiators encouraged their candidates to think about commitments, oaths, obligations – even if in general terms – before the ceremony itself.

My above emphasis on magical oaths – and the four powers of the magician – means to stress the resources the tradition offers us. Meditation and reflection on them will reveal great and unexpected depth. Western magical traditions sometimes portray the practitioner as a kind of spiritual athlete, honing common capacities to unusual levels. There is, of course, a lot to that: magic arrives through unusual means, entails strange practices, and transforms the practitioner in unexpected ways. This can at times be daunting or seem isolating. The oath – the ligatio, and the obligation it entails – reminds us that we do not do it alone. It reminds us that in our quest to be more deeply and more fully human, we do not cease being human in every other respect, in need of others and needed in our turn. Our discipline is not always easily attained. To make time on the anniversary of an initiation to reread one’s oaths is an askêsis, not in the sense of mortification or self-denial, but of personal discipline and self-fashioning. Given those oaths often contain some of the very highest aspirations of western esoteric tradition, perhaps we could do with reminding of them more often.

Things Broken, Things Fixed

The Tower, Leonora Carrington. From her Major Arcana, recently printed by Fulgur.

My apologies to those watching this site, especially through an RSS reader or similar, who have probably just had a series of post notifications. While I was away conducting some business – and taking the opportunity for a brief magical retreat this late summer – there was a bit of a hosting crisis on the server, which wiped much of the site. I didn’t notice until much too late to fix it on the backend – a rarely checked folder of my email full of increasingly dire notices. Restoring some of my work here, I’ve taken the opportunity to give the site a little facelift as well. There’s a lot more magical writing to come over the next few months.

It also leaves me with a funny divinatory story. Every morning I draw a simple three-card tarot reading for my day ahead, both as a way of keeping my senses sharpened and of deepening my associations with the cards: typically I will very quickly review the day’s events before bed, and make a note of anything that looks retrospectively related to the reading, but which I failed to see in advance. This is a good way of personalising the cards, or noticing patterns of relations between cards which crop up together, or in daily sequences.

On the day the hosting for this site failed – quite catastrophically, and with me quite unaware – I drew a Three of Cups, Six of Swords and The Tower. I was quite puzzled by this reading, being unaware of the emerging digital crisis. I thought, perhaps, some interpersonal crisis was indicated, maybe involving one of the collaborative work projects I’m involved in. And though there was some grousing through the day, nothing quite as disastrous as suggested by The Tower came to light. My journal entry for the evening has scribbled at the end: ‘…divinatory misfire?’

A few days later, realising what had happened, and clocking the date of the fatal backend failure, I ended up cackling to myself. Both minor arcana in the reading are ruled by Mercury, governor of all communications and writing, electric deity of the internet – and certainly the Cups card suggests the sociability and genial outwardness of public writing. What a fool! The cards had been near enough clobbering me over the head with a message I had been too hurried, or simply too unreflective, to grasp. At that point, all you can do is laugh. Sometimes the experience of divination is such that it reminds you of the most important lesson of all: however mighty, you are still human – and humans make mistakes. Learn to laugh at them.

Steps of the Foundation II: Calyx

Piet Mondriaan, Evolution (1911), Kunstmuseum Den Haag.

This is the second post in a series of ‘deep dives’ into the fundamental rituals of the Ogdoadic tradition. Find its predecessor here. These analyses are the product of practice and meditation on the forms, but they also draw on historical research and resonances within the wider magical tradition. Needless to say I don’t speak for the AS or any of the post-AS groups or orders: it’s all me. (And as such reflects my own idiosyncrasies and interests, which are wide but not universal.) This extended meditation will take us through the relation of magical force to the body, the work of the ancient Hermeticists, and the cultivation of the body of light – all latent in this simple little formula.

The Calyx has a claim to being the first properly magical ritual an aspirant practices – but because it is a simple little rite, it is often overlooked or subsumed into a broader discussion of the Setting of the Wards. But that would be to miss its potency. Its basic dynamic and symbolism are capable of significant elaboration – and it is intimately connected to some of the most powerful advanced work in the curriculum – but even by itself it is a powerful tool. Unlike the solar adorations, which connect the aspirant to the rhythm of the day and year (a useful sense to build ahead of learning planetary magic), the Calyx is magical: it draws divine force into the body of the magician with the intent to transform it. How? By breath, voice and image.

Breath and Body

In my last post I suggested that one of the hallmarks of magical techniques descended from the Victorian occult revival is an emphasis on visualisation, especially the visualisation of the body of the magician overlaid with concentrations of light or fire in symbolically important places, which vary slightly according to tradition – thus awakening powers or states of consciousness associated with this-or-that centre, or ‘charging’ the magician with the appropriate energy for a ritual. Of course this was partly the result of the revival of interest in esoteric yoga prompted by Bennett, Blavatsky et al, and really came to fruition through the popularising work of Israel Regardie –but there’s plenty of at least circumstantial evidence from the writings of late antique theurgists, some sections of the Graeco-Egyptian Magical Papyri and the more charming and disreputable parts of Late Platonism that such techniques were historically part of magical practice.

But my concern here isn’t really historical. It’s about what we do when we do ritual magic. One of the most attractive features of The Magical Philosophy, when I first read it, was the consistent emphasis on the physical body: from the careful attention to the basic gestures (and the flow between them), or the distinctive planetary gestures, and especially the stress on the ritual power of dance (which I know now to have been a deep love of Melita Denning’s.) This is good: one thing that has often puzzled me is the apparent neglect with which some magicians treat their physical bodies, or the odd, only half-inhabited relationship to the body some bring to ritual – self-conscious or half-hearted in gesture, shrunken in, afraid to properly grasp their own power. The body is the first and most powerful of tools.

Why might this be so? Sedentary lifestyles are part of it: serious magical practice helps break much of the appeal of screen-based life, but even then we moderns are historically aberrant in how little we move. In Don Kraig’s manual – still the first workbook for many would-be occultists – he recommends the ‘five Tibetans’ as part of daily work, but the details of the choice matter little. In truth, the issues go deeper than sedentarism – or rather, it’s the fruit of a more pernicious mind-body dualism set deep into our culture. Working away at that cultural pattern – taking the work of the body as seriously as we take the cultivation of the mind – is sometimes a tall order for ritual magicians, who are often by inclination bookish and retiring. It takes work and time to unlearn cultural patterns of disdain and neglect; in doing so you might learn how memories can lie hidden in muscle, or that what appears as instinct can reveal itself as conditioning. You might weep. But the rewards are many, because the body is the instrument through which we do our magic.

It is also the reason magicians are encouraged to learn their rituals by heart. The phrase itself is revealing: when we learn the words of a ritual – really learn them, not so that we can occasionally stumble through them but so that they flow from us like heat from a flame – we have made it part of ourselves. This is true in the trivial, physical sense of course: we’ve altered the material of our brains to hold the memories. It is also true in a magical sense: we can then allow the words to move us into gesture, or pay attention to the hum and resonance of the words in our body, the change they produce in the temple room. It is therefore also a kind of transubstantiation: dead words are given life through the body.

This may all seem like a digression in an essay purportedly about a very simple little rite. I am stressing it because breath and body are the key to unlocking these foundational practices. It is why, for instance, the study plan in the combined edition of Foundations instructs the aspirant to take a couple of weeks to really learn how to breathe, and even how to sit, stand and lie prone. (Just like the use of the robe and ring, these all become bodily cues that, combined with actual practice, become rapid ways of shifting one’s mind into the proper magical state, opening the senses, focusing the will.) Each of the foundational practices is carefully keyed to the breath, and so, when mastered, the visualisations and vibrated words should flow along with it. There is a reason that two of the names we give to the pillars of the temple are ‘breath’ and ‘body’: without them the temple cannot stand.

On Vibration

In many magical textbooks, instruction is given to ‘vibrate’ this-or-that magical name. Details beyond that are usually sketchy: effectively vibration is a form of chanting pitched in just such a way as to make the chest cavity resonate, with tingling physiological effects that can be felt throughout the body. Denning and Phillips provide a useful exercise in ‘finding the magical voice’ [TMP combined edition, I. pp. 295-6], which should help absolute beginners: once found it is easily relocated. Importantly, vibration is not shouting, bellowing or badly projecting the voice; many a novice magus has injured his (it is usually his) vocal cords this way, an injury which is not always immediately obvious. (There is, in fact, a place for shouting in ritual magic – as there is for most affective states. But it is rare.)

Is it just a physiological technique, then? No. Used correctly, it is the most tangible part of a magical action taking place on multiple levels, bringing the power of a given divine force into the body of the magician – and the temple space. This is why some magical traditions instruct students strictly to vibrate only divine names. It is hard to describe this technique without reaching for metaphorical language: I’ve just used metaphors of force and power, and a family of other metaphors about charge and energy are also frequently employed. Metaphors of music, tuning and resonance also help. I often find myself thinking of it like the physics of a lightning strike: building the small upward charge that creates a channel for the vast answering charge we thinking of as lightning proper. Fully developed – through familiarity with the physical technique and mastery of visualisation and concentration of the will – the effects of vibration can be brought about with very little noise at all. This is a matter of some relief when a magician might be staying in, say, a hotel room.

I spoke above of memorisation as a kind of small-scale transubstantiation; we can also think of vibration as a mode of deliberate magical transubstantiation, where the divine name is intentionally taken in to the body of the magician and allowed to transform it. Thus some authorities write of envisioning the name in white fire over the heart, or hearing the name resound to the ends of the universe. (This relatively simple technique can be elaborated into a system of mystical contemplation, prayer and ecstasy very similar to Orthodox hesychasm or Merkavah mysticism.) Thinking of it this way also lets us think about what should be vibrated and what not: what do you want to take into yourself? What power are you making way for, or bringing through your body? How central is it to the rite? And where does this leave us with the Calyx, which does not call for the vibration of divine names or nomina barbara, but a small formula, a magical doxology?

The Form

The text of the Calyx is available on the Citadel of Pharos’s website. For readers more familiar with the magic of the Golden Dawn, this is indeed very similar to the Qabalistic Cross. It invokes similar divine power – the same, in fact – from above to below, and distributes it in a symbolic balancing, ending at the heart centre; the Kabbalistic symbolism is the same, as are the words, save in Greek rather than Hebrew. Nothing to see here, then? The GD with the serial numbers filed off? Not quite.

The differences are small but meaningful. When presented in full, the Calyx comes with clear instructions for visualisation; the exact form of visualisation used in GD traditions varies slightly, partly as a result of never being clearly systematised in the order’s papers, at least in its earliest forms. (Very early adept papers don’t instruct on visualisation – see, e.g., Ayton’s copy of the pentagram rituals, now in the library of Freemason’s Hall – some claim this is a sign that it was communicated only orally.) Many recensions will instruct the practitioner to imagine growing to cosmic size, then to perform the cross by visualising three beams of light – following his gestures, one for each axis of space – to converge on his heart. The Calyx is similar, save that it lays greater stress on the descent of light from crown to feet: that invocatory movement, and its balancing, are the fundamental actions of the rite. Though the symbolism of the cross is present, in the Calyx it is secondary to the symbolism of the cup – which gives the rite its name.

It is my experience that such differences, though apparently small, can significantly change the feel and effect of a ritual. Why the difference? In general, where there are analogues with other forms of ritual magic, the version presented by Denning and Phillips is usually de-Christianised: that is certainly the case here. More substantially, the Calyx accords with the central symbolic structure of the Ogdoadic tradition – the House of Sacrifice [.pdf]. The drawing down of the light in its first two points (the major magical action of the rite) relates to the two pillars, the breath and the body; the subsequent three points represent the equilibration of that force through invocation of the triune superstructure. The emphasis is on the reception of divine force: properly achieved, the rite ends with the operator standing with arms crossed over the chest – in a symbolic position of resurrection and rectification – focused on the heart centre shining at the balance point of the microcosm.

There are already several threads to pull on there when thinking about the Calyx, then: the symbolism of the cup, the subtle motif of resurrection, the interplay of the breath and the body, the predominantly receptive and microcosmic orientation of the rite (i.e., the operator is doing something to himself), and the conclusion at the heart. All repay meditation. To dwell a little on the last: a fair accusation sometimes levelled at Anglo-American ritual magic traditions is that the solar focus of many of the initiatory orders, when improperly applied, can lead to ego inflation, narcissism and spiritual derangement. There is far too much evidence to deny this – many cases bearing similar hallmarks – and it is a serious risk especially for anyone writing, thinking about or teaching magic publicly. That so many orders now lay special stress on self-knowledge in their early training is one beneficial outcome: some work through analysis of the natal chart, others through exposure to a balanced variety of magical energies, usually the four elements. Personally I’ve found an exercise originally published by Norman Kraft useful: taking a six month chunk of your magical diary, use four coloured pencils to attribute elemental (or, properly, humoural) properties to the predominant moods across the period. This gives an excellent way into beginning the work of rectification and balancing. The Ogdoadic tradition is certainly not without its egos and public contretemps, but much of the ritual material demonstrates a special concern with keeping the operator well-balanced (for instance, the published pathworkings feature balancing rites for when they are employed out of sequence for magical purposes.) It is no surprise to find that feature in the Calyx, therefore: though it ends with a focus on the spiritual sun at the heart, there is a heavy accent on receiving, balancing and allowing oneself to be transformed by divine power. This rite, likely the rite a magician will perform most often through his life, is also especially a prayer – and can inspire humility alongside empowerment. It is a reminder, at the start of our work, every day, that the power we invoke does not come from us, is not the property of the ego, and is no more ours than the sunlight.

Ernest Page, in initiatory robes and pentacle, performing either the Calyx or the Arista. Painted by Melita Denning, undated.

The Cup: From Hermes’s Vessel of Mind to The Grail

Why the symbol of the cup? On one level it is simple: the cup receives liquid as we receive divine power – it is a symbol of receptivity. It would be an excessive digression to spend many words disentangling the knot of spiritual paranoia, cultural dogma and genuine insight that led many magicians of a century or more ago to make dire warnings against ‘passivity’. Suffice to say the Calyx involves the active concentration of the mind and the will, and like all genuine invocation it can contain moments of weightless stillness and surrender to the current. Perhaps modern magic might be in a better state had those virtues been less scorned. Nonetheless,purely passive it is not: perhaps it makes greater sense to think of it as internally focused, especially when paired with the outwardly-directed ritual drama of exorcism and creation that constitutes the Wards. 

Yet it is more than a convenient symbol for the calling down of divine power. One of the less remarked but powerful features of ritual magic is that its fundamental symbols gradually unveil deeper layers over time. The motif of the cup will recur and deepen in the course of the work: this is not the elemental cup of water, but the greater cup, the grail.

The grail is a distinctive magical weapon used in the Ogdoadic tradition. Denning and Phillips say of it that though it “is not in one sense the ultimate instrument of the magician, [it] is the one used in the highest operations, for, being a symbol of the passive and receptive aspect of the Work, it may be used at those high levels where the magician cannot presume to command but only to situate himself so as to receive.” (TMP, combined edition, I. p.269) The consecration of the the Grail is one of the most beautiful of our consecrations, and there is much that may feed back into the practice of the Calyx from meditation on this ritual invocation of the ‘Virgin of Light and Mother of Ecstasy’, who declares herself thus:

‘Myrrha am I, and Marah am I, and Mem the Great Ocean
Within me mingle time and eternity:
I am the Mother of all living, and I am the womb of rebirth.’

The Calyx is not the Grail, of course, but I think it is right to see it as a prefiguration, and one of the ways the powers of the supernal mother are woven through the tradition. 

The resonances of this cup are many, though: the protean object of medieval grail romance – at once stone of heaven, dish, or crown – or the regenerative, superabundant cauldrons of Welsh and Irish myth. Depending on background one might also hear chimes with the alchemical vessel, or the graal-work of many 20th century British occult orders, or even the Cup of Babalon of Thelemic mysticism. For me, though, most striking is the echo of ancient Hermetic texts, which speak of the krater full of mind. A krater is a large cup or bowl in which wine was mixed with water (or sometimes snow) before consumption; this social and domestic metaphor was given cosmic weight by Plato, who described the demiurge’s fashioning of the world-soul and human souls via mixture in a krater. Taken up by the Hermeticists, this becomes both an explanation of the different types of human souls in the world (a tripartite division is most common: divine, reasoning and those locked in the animal sense-circuit of stimulus and response) and the means of rising, freeing or divinising oneself. The texts sometimes seem to allude to a ritual drinking from the krater, and sometimes to a practice of immersion; a symbolic layering that has caused great confusion to scholars but will cause none to magicians. Its most prominent use is Corpus Hermeticum IV.4:

—κρατῆρα μέγαν πληρώσας τούτου κατέπεμψε, δοὺς κήρυκα, καὶ ἐκέλευσεν αὐτῷ κηρύξαι ταῖς τῶν ἀνθρώπων καρδίαις τάδε· βάπτισον σεαυτὴν ἡ δυναμένη εἰς τοῦτον τὸν κρατῆρα, ἡ πιστεύουσα ὅτι ἀνελεύσῃ πρὸς τὸν καταπέμψαντα τὸν κρατῆρα, ἡ γνωρίζουσα ἐπὶ τί γέγονας.
ὅσοι μὲν οὖν συνῆκαν τοῦ κηρύγματος καὶ ἐβαπτίσαντο τοῦ νοός, οὗτοι μετέσχον τῆς γνώσεως καὶ τέλειοι ἐγένοντο ἄνθρωποι, τὸν νοῦν δεξάμενοι· 

He [God] filled a great krater with it (i.e. mind, nous) and sent it down below, appointing a herald whom he commanded to make the following proclamation to human hearts: “Immerse yourself in the mixing bowl if your heart has the strength, if it believes you will rise up again to the one who sent the krater below, if it recognises the purpose of your coming to be.”

All those who heeded the proclamation and immersed themselves in mind [ebaptisanto tou noös] partook of knowledge [gnôseôs] and became perfect humans when they had received mind.

[tr. copenhaver, amended.]

There are many interesting features to this passage, including the divine initiator, the resolution and will of the candidate, and the emphasis on the heart – they are worthy of meditation. The text goes on to disparage those unable to understand the message, or those given over to the appetites of the world; it is one of the more ascetic and negative of the Hermetica. The theme was clearly thought central by ancient Hermeticists: Zosimos, father of Alchemy, makes pointed reference to it in his exhortation to Theosebia to plunge into the krater; his own visions contained a dramatic transformation in a vast altar-vessel. Recent scholarly attempts to reconstruct the initiatory practice behind the Hermetica have assigned this tract to an early, ascetic stage of the candidate’s progress, and its world-hating rhetoric is understood as specific to that stage – a preparation for the more exalted palingenesis [rebirth] of CH.XIII, in which Hermes hymns the presence of the divine throughout the material cosmos

The cultural foibles of late antique Alexandria are not ours, and the confusion of the flesh with a prison has done much and enduring harm – especially when severed from that later vision of the god-breathed kosmos – but there is still great wisdom here. Given how often references to the krater are accompanied on the one hand by exhortations to self-knowledge and withdrawal into silence, and on the other contempt for the ways of the masses, I think modern scholarship is right to accord it an early position in the Hermetic way; the most perceptive scholars have also noticed that the symbolism transfers back and forth between the vessel full of mind and the candidate as a vessel to be cleansed before receiving divine power. Both valences are present at once in our ritual. (Similar exhortations to states of mental emptiness and receptivity are, as Eric Dodds noted decades ago, also present in the Chaldaean Oracles.) All this – for me – is hidden under the deceptively simple surface of the Calyx, a rite which I therefore regard as one that links me not only to my ancestor magicians who raised their hands every day in the same ritual, but further back to the Hermetic seekers and Gnostics of Alexandria plunging themselves into the well of mind.

What might the Hermetica teach us about the Calyx? It bolsters our sense that it is a rite of the reception of divine force, and one intended to transform the magician. The exhortations to practice self-knowledge, meditation or asceticism which appear in krater texts make intuitive sense as part of a foundational modern magical regimen. The disdain for the masses and the hierarchy of souls are less comfortable topics for modern sensibilities: without seeking to make ancient culture conform to our own, one sense in which this might be understood is as a description of the results of magical training. A consequence of repeated practice of the Calyx, alongside the other foundational rituals, is simply a greater awareness of – and control over – mental processes. Sometimes this can prompt a paranoiac reading of the world when one notices how many products and people seek to manipulate others’ psyches; more often it brings the candidate face-to-face with unpalatable truths about his own compulsions, self-excuses, or simply poor habits. It also frequently dims their attraction, and offers the possibility of stepping beyond them – if the magician is willing to embrace change. Given how much like death real change can appear, it’s hardly surprising that this often prompts the first serious crisis of the magician’s path. And from this position, it is easy to share the ascetic scorn of CH IV: all the more so in our age of new and more gleaming snares of the mind. But as the Hermetica also remind us: that’s not the whole story.

Two further small and useful points from our dip into the ancients. Where we instinctively reach for the word ‘energy’ to describe what we use in magic, we might equally reach for the ancient equivalent of ‘mind’ in the Hermetic sense. That is not to ‘psychologise’ magic, but to say that we live in a cosmos utterly permeated by noetic power, in infinite modulation and variety – and that we are part of it, and it part of us. This is the basis of our work. What is this mind? CH X.23 tells us οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἀγαθὸς δαίμων – ‘this [mind] is the Agathodaimon’, a figure of immediate interest to Ogdoadic magicians and other Hermeticists, and who will prompt a return to the Hermetica in a few posts’ time. The second point is this: though the word ‘calyx’ puts us in mind of the cup, the word has other harmonies as well, derived ultimately from καλύπτω, to conceal. Thus the calyx – the thick, green protecting leaves – conceal and protect the rose as it grows. The grail, too, is often depicted as a covered cup.

The Mirror of the Kosmos: Inner Alchemy and the Body of Light

You might very well ask, then, what is happening inside the calyx? Or what effect its repeated practice is supposed to have? Here is what Denning and Phillips say:

“As in all magical operations involving the central column energies, whether visualised as the downward-coursing light or as the Centers of Activity themselves, the primary domain of controlled function is the astrosome. Initially, therefore, the effect of such practices is likely to consist solely in the increase and harmonization of energy patterns within the astral body. But this is only the beginning of the process, for through continual and regular use of these practices, higher and more inward faculties of the psyche will become increasingly involved in the work, and a true harmony and interaction of forces will thus be wrought through all levels of the psyche.”

(TMP, III.9n.)

Note the emphasis – consistent through their work – that it is only repeated practice which allows the fullness of the rite to unfurl. There are two additional implications that are useful to note. First, the stress on the astral effects of the rite underscores the link between the explicitly magical works and the programme of mental training (meditation, scrying, astral projection) which make up the foundational work of the tradition. Regular invocation of divine force should and does aid in the opening of the subtle faculties. The second implication is that the Calyx is the first of a series of techniques that cleanse, fortify, open and empower the subtle body through the use of its central channel: most obviously this is true of the Rousing, a close equivalent to the Middle Pillar, but the same basic technique is modified into methods of rapid empowerment, projection, consecration and even invocation and assumption of god-forms. One development not outlined in TMP is into a form of healing, a method for which becomes obvious after some practice; the formula has also been developed into a method of sublimation and transformation of difficult or unwanted forces.

The Calyx is therefore the first step in a work of inner alchemy, one which awakens the microcosmic reflections of the powers and begins to move them towards equilibration. I will explore this inner alchemy more when we come to focus on the Rousing itself. Some of its effects have already been sketched above, so it is perhaps worth noting a few others. Increasing awareness of the way much of the world seeks to stimulate us (generally for profit or control) via our instincts is a particular instance of a more general sharpening of a sense of how our instincts work; one may also become aware of the way our thinking has bent to this or that dogma, that certain habits are not in our full control, or that one’s taste for various forms of passivity has diminished. It is also not uncommon to notice certain physical pains or tensions that that one had until now kept repressed and unconscious. Changing these is all to the good, though very public announcements of grand changes to one’s life (or The Great Reordering of The Universe, Shattering of the Aeons, Revelation of The Sole Mystic Truth) are best avoided, if only because these may in retrospect appear embarrassing. An undervalued power of the magician is silence.

The other result of unfogging one’s personal magic mirror is a greater sensitivity to people and places. Sometimes this manifests as auric perception, but sometimes as a clear and unmistakable gut feeling about individuals: inner discrimination ought to be ruthlessly applied to hone this faculty and free it of the dross of prejudice, because rightly used it is invaluable. The faculty extends beyond people to buildings and spaces; for magicians living in cities, especially, it can start as a strong and undefinable impulse to find greenery and nature, and it can be developed into an ability to properly feel the land (this can be, however, quite an overwhelming experience.) These effects perhaps underline the value of the Setting of the Wards of Power in ensuring the opening of this faculty is under our control, rather than the reverse.

On the Magical Use of the Calyx

All of the foregoing is taken from practice and reflection on this little rite: it is my belief that meditations and elaborations of this kind feed back powerfully into the ritual form. Perhaps that appetite for detail and history is no surprise, given my ascendant sits on the cusp between the first and second decan of Virgo. One Virgo quality, which can be set to use by the working magician, is a willingness to practice and perfect – but in its unbalanced form, that inclination to perfection can be paralysing and even disrupt the state of relaxed awareness needed for magical practice. (As a magician with lots of strong Air placements, too, it was the work of relaxation and letting go of the endlessly diffractive analytical mind which was by far the most difficult and rewarding lesson of early practice.) Though I think the magical use of scholarship – that is, reading serious work with a magician’s eyes as well as a scholar’s – is immensely useful for us, I would not want to give the impression that any of the foregoing is necessary to work or even to perfect the Calyx. It is simply one way of deepening the practice. I therefore conclude with these brief notes on practical applications.

First, Denning and Phillips’s comments on the rite: this ‘fundamental technique … aligns the practitioner with the forces of the cosmos and awakens awareness of the counterparts of those forces with the psyche.’ It thus encapsulates the ‘chief method and purpose’ of high magic. The formula is ‘variously employed as a psychic energiser, as a mode of adoration, or as a preparatory formula for the bringing through of power’ – they go on to highlight its use in the advanced formulae of transubstantiation or evocation as a gratulatio, a thanksgiving and a balancing at the end of magical work, and stress its use as a ‘complete “spiritual toner” in its own right” and commend its frequent use. Study of the advanced ritual formulae help develop this sketch: it is notable, for instance, that in work calling for the projection of force (as in a consecration) a different method is used, which draws power up as well as down the central column. These differences are not haphazard.

In my own practice, I have used the Calyx in most of the ways outlined above. That is to say, I usually use it as a prayer to begin and end the day; it combines well with the practice of solar adoration. I have also used it as an empowerment: obviously it is used as such daily in the Setting of the Wards, but personally I have also found it useful ahead of difficult mundane situations, or prior to events where I’m aware there is likely to be either conflict or hostility (here it is useful to conclude with a certain ‘hardening’ of the edge of the aura in visualisation.) Perhaps paradoxically, I have also found the Calyx useful in sensitisation – so I tend to use it prior to divination, or scrying, or when opening my senses to the land in a given place. (I should mention that it is also my experience that a well-performed Calyx might wake up presences which have been passive, resting or waiting.)

The form may also be developed into a slightly more sustained meditation than it currently is. The column of light may be sustained for several cycles of breath, arms extended, allowing awareness of the descending light – infinite, brilliant and unburning – to flood through the body, drawing to mind awareness of the twin powers of mercy and severity, warrior and lawgiver, on either side. After several cycles of this, the rest of the Calyx should proceed as normal, without further suspension, though some greater time may be spent in contemplation at its end. This simple expansion is – in my experience – quite powerful. It also brings us to a theme I will develop more fully in the future, but which is worth noting here: for this meditative expansion to work, the other practices of the central column – especially the rousing – need to be properly developed. With a little work, that is, the subtle body practices form a magical virtuous circle, in which they deepen and enrich each other, and reinforce each other’s power.

This tour around a very simple ritual has been extensive but not exhaustive: I hope it has given food for thought, and suggested that there are depths to be found in the contemplation and practice of even the simplest rites. In our next discussion, we will look at its use in a ritual of exorcism, which is also a miniature ritual drama of the creation itself –– The Setting of the Wards of Power.

Steps of the Foundation I: Of Sources, Of Breath, Of 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, 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 Ruby, 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.

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)

Katabasis: 32nd Path

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 A∴S∴ 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. 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 A∴S∴ ‘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:

Γῆς παῖς εἰμι καὶ Οὐρανοῦ ἀστερόεντος,
αὐτὰρ ἐμοὶ γένος οὐράνιον!

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

At Salomon’s Howse: 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 3853. 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 – probably Gabriel Harvey – 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’ or ‘in’, given the dot above it, but it could be many other things besides. The last digraph looks like a ‘k’ and a terminal ‘e’, or possibly ‘es’. 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. One might also choose to read it as ‘chinkes’, for instance, which picks up on the imagery of locks and key holes, but it makes little sense to think of the charactery as a series of keyholes (… or does it?) Other suggestions welcome!

Note: between the first publication of this post and its reuploading on this new site, the above section of the manuscript has been published in a beautiful edition by the legendary Scarlet Imprint. The edition comes with super critical apparatus and some very penetrating essays by the scholar-practitioners Phil Legard and Al Cummins. (Legard, incidentally, reads the palaeographical mystery – I assume by Occam’s razor – as ‘chinkes’.)

Pour Out the Sun!

Olafur Eliasson, Tate Modern, 2003

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 neo-Egyptian pantheon), 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, but very much shorn of elaboration. 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, usually with a suggestion 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: Occult Ephemera of the 1970s

Hilma af Klint, Svanen (1915)

I thought it might be interesting to some occult history nerds – of which I am certainly one – 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, which has its own sleights-of-hand about the identity of some people referenced in it, 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. 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!

***

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.

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