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.
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 A∴S∴ or any of the post-A∴S∴ 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.
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 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.
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:
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.”
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.
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…
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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!’
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:
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.
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’.)
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!
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 ChāndogyaUpaniṣad. 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!’
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!
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.
The sefirah Binah, the third emanation on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, is a focus for numerous magical traditions. As the ‘nearest’ of the supernal triad, it represents and transmits the highest and most abstract powers down to the mental and physical world. In the great compilation of Kabbalistic wisdom, the sefer ha-Zohar, Binah is often referred to as a fountain or an ocean from which run seven watercourses, the seven lower sefirot. She is also frequently called the supernal mother; Moses Cordovero refers her to the heart, the organ of understanding and intuition. In the words used in the AS’s consecration of the grail, she is ‘the mother of all living, and the womb of rebirth.’
As Sophia, and as the supernal aspect of Saturn, Binah is of special interest to the Ogdoadic tradition – especially in the resonance between Saturn and Earth, Binah and Malkut, the Heavenly Mother and the Veiled Maiden. The Reiya Mehemna, a late stratum of the Zohar says of her, ‘if she were to distance herself from the world for a moment, all that exists would be destroyed and void’. In magical traditions, the attribution of Saturn to Binah divides into two distinct forms: one, the limiter, bringer of death, and the other the great teacher of wisdom. Marsilio Ficino says of Saturn:
‘Saturn is also neighbour to the innumerable (i.e. fixed) stars; and indeed, he is very similar to the Primum Mobile because he travels a lengthy circuit. He is the highest of planets; hence they call that man fortunate whom Saturn fortunately favours. And although most people are terrified of him as alien from the ordinary life of man, nevertheless the Arabs consider he is agreeable even to the common life whenever he has very great power and dignity as he ascends, or his Jupiter (who tempers Saturn – ed.) aspects him favorably or receives him well in his terms. Otherwise, unseasonably received in matter, particularly gross matter, his influence is like a poison, just as by putrefaction or adustion an egg may become poisonous. From such influence, certain people are born or become impure, lazy, sad, envious, and exposed to impure daemons. Flee far from the company of these. For in other places the poison of Saturn lies hidden and dormant like sulphur far from flame; but in living bodies it often blazes up and, like kindled sulphur, not only burns but fills everything around with noxious vapour and infects the bystanders. Against this influence of his, generally alien to, and in a way unsuitable for, human beings, Jupiter arms us by means of the following: with his natural quality, with certain foods and medicines of his, with images (as they think), and with behavior, business dealings, studies, and affairs properly pertaining to himself. But it is not only those who flee to Jupiter who escape the noxious influence of Saturn and undergo his propitious influence; it is also those who give themselves over with their whole mind to the divine contemplation signified by Saturn himself.’
(De Vita Libri Tres, Book III, Ch. 22, emphasis mine)
There’s a lot going on in this passage, and I only want to dwell on it briefly. The two faces of Saturn I mentioned above are present – predominantly as the classic astrological malefic, but also as the remotest power from human experience, and guardian of the transcendent realms. This doubleness preoccupies Ficino, who was born with one foot in and one out of the world, who suffered terrible melancholia (Saturn’s ailment), and fixed his eyes on the stars in search of truth. Here and elsewhere it is Saturn’s remoteness from human affairs which Ficino understands as inimical to a settled and conventional life. But to mystics, magicians, those given over to contemplation and artists, Saturn might show quite another face. Ficino warns elsewhere in this chapter that the advantages Saturn bestows cannot be won by whiting a sepulchre: fraud, hypocrisy and deceit, a pretence at the contemplative life, will cry out for the sickle.
Saturn and Binah for the modern magician are deeply linked. But we might multiply the ways we think about the sefirah of the great mother: as reflected and refracted in the lower sefirot traditionally assigned feminine deities, the green fuse of life in Netzah, the lady of mirrors in Yesod, or the great earth mother of Malkut. All have their root in her. Rittangelius says of Malkut that it will be uplifted on the throne of Binah, in one of the deepest and most concise images of spiritual integration. (It is why, in a shared ritual meal, we might dip bread into salt: bread made of the bounty of the earth, dipped in the salt of the great ocean from which all things come.)
Too often in twentieth century writing on magic there is a lot of bravado about the ordeal of Binah, the ‘crossing of the abyss’ and the various high grades it entitles one to blather about. All that has its place. But too often the deep intimacy between heaven and body, Saturn and earth, is missed. The poem below, by Kathleen Raine – herself an initiate – is one of my favourite ways of redressing that. It contains beautiful images of anamnesis, a kind of intuitive spiritual ‘unforgetting’ which is sometimes a gift of Binah.
Lifelong the way — I never thought to reach her throne In darkness hidden, starless night Her never-lifted veil; Too far from what I am That source, sacred, secret from day; But, suddenly weeping, remembered Myself in her embrace, In her embrace who was my own Mother, my own mother, in whose womb Human I became. Not far, I found, but near and simple as life, Loved in the beginning, beyond praise Your mothering of me in flesh and blood. Deep her night, but never strange Who bore me out of the kind animal dark Where safe I lay, heart to heartbeat, as myself Your stream of life carrying me to the world. Remote your being as the milky way, Yet fragrance not of temple incense nor symbolic rose Comforted me, but your own, Whose soft breasts, nipples of earth, sustained me, Mortal, in your everlasting arms. Known to the unborn, to live is to forget You, our all, Whose unseen sorrowing face is a farewell, Forgotten forgiver of forgetfulness. Lifelong we seek that longed-for unremembered place.
I’ve set up this blog in order to share with the internet a wide range of reflections on ritual magic, coming from a tradition sadly underrepresented online – the ‘Ogdoadic’ tradition. But there will be plenty of material of interest to an outside practitioner or those simply interested in occulture as well, as I plan some forays into history, translation, and the odd bit of creativity as well. That is to say: because magic is the shadow-twin of western culture, far from respectable, with more than its fair share of hucksters, narcissists and madmen, magicians can sometimes lose the sense of being full participants in a rich cultural tradition which extends beyond the few dusty shelves marked ‘occult’. (And this sometimes leads to some truly heinous aesthetic choices.) Hopefully I can do a little to change that here.
What’s an ‘Ogdoadic’ when it’s at home, anyway?
‘Ogdoadic’ – admittedly a bit of a mouthful – means ‘pertaining to the number eight’. It can be thought of as defining a philosophical and magical tradition running like a golden thread through Western culture, with its keyword being regeneration. It finds its roots in the ancient Hermetica, especially the ‘Secret Sermon on the Mount’ (CH XIII) in which Tat asks of Hermes how to achieve regeneration, and resonates in alchemical symbolism, Jewish and Christian Kabbalah, and Florentine Hermetism. Why the number eight? Eight is the octave, the base note transformed but resonant; it is the traditional number-symbol of the baptismal font, the sign of new life; for Gnostics and astrologers alike the symbolism multiplies.
It’s important for me to point out that in calling this a ‘tradition’, I don’t allude to an unbroken mouth-to-ear secret line, but rather a clinamen, an inward turning which leads one generation to discover the work of a previous generation and build on it, either together in person, or, more often, out of books and texts. Ours is a literate and literary tradition as much as a practical magical one. Thinking of it this way avoids much foolishness.
In the contemporary world, the term mostly refers to the work of husband-and-wife team who published under the names Melita Denning and Osborne Phillips, who published a major series of books called ‘The Magical Philosophy’ with Llewellyn in the 1970s (initially as five hardbacks, then reorganised into three paperback volumes). These books are major achievements in magical synthesis – including Kabbalah, magical symbolism, the relation between magic and psychology, and a presentation of the magical system of their order, the Aurum Solis. The system has been called a ‘Greek Golden Dawn’, although that conceals as much as it clarifies. It uses Greek divine names and formulæ, and is avowedly pagan and Hermetic in orientation, rather than Christian and Rosicrucian; its central divine powers are the White Goddess, the Black God and the sun-serpent, Agathodaimon. Its style of working is simpler than, and quite different in feel to the GD’s heavily Masonic style of work; for personal work, much emphasis is laid on the creativity of the individual magician.
Denning and Phillips claimed descent of the AS from a 19th century antiquarian society, though evidence for that has long been a matter of allusion to private archive. There is little public evidence of it, or its predecessor organisations, before the mid-20th century, and a ‘genetic’ reading of the organisation’s magical techniques suggest influence by the post-Golden Dawn organisations, including the Stella Matutina. I don’t find it hard to believe that the two came into a relatively moribund order and revitalised it significantly, and used everything around them to do so. Melita Denning’s breadth of occult knowledge, and her special dedication to the Divine Female, is visible throughout the published work.
The order’s post-publication history is full of sudden changes and turns, and leaves us today with two distinct groups, one (the Astrum Sophiæ) with succession from the old order, working the system close to that practiced by the Aurum Solis until recently. The latter, under new leadership, has changed its curriculum to focus on a blend of Platonism and third-hand Iamblichean theurgy, and seems quite far from what it once was. Denning died in 1997. Phillips moved to focus on Christian mysticism and hesychasm in 2003, and is today part of a mystical, heterodox ‘Catholic’ church. He has recently become involved in a new revival of the Christian form of the Ogdoadic mysteries. But we will have more to say about the tradition’s history in time – especially the post-war magical ferment in the UK, which is now beginning to pass out of living memory.
So is this all going to be dry magical theory and history, then?
No. One thing that comes across from just reading about the tradition is its insistence that all of life is the prima materia for magical work, including art, dance, music and full participation in the world around us. For instance, the first full ritual a student learns is the ‘Setting of the Wards’, similar to the GD’s pentagram ritual. In order to really call on the great powers guarding each of the elements, the student should be out walking and feeling the sun on his face, the sharp cold of the sea lapping between every crack or blown in tempest, or the wind on a mountain peak – and that is brought back to his temple. If we hold the world is bound in secret knots, then the magician’s attention should be directed as much to the world around him teeming with life and boundless mystery as to his inner self. A starved soul feeds only on itself.
That means as much as there will be history and theory and personal magical or spiritual reflection here, there will be forays into art, nature, literature – whatever in the broad array of wonders I think is useful. I am writing here, lastly, because I think in dark times to write about regeneration is a deep human need. I hope to meet just a little of that need here.
And who the hell are you, anyway?
I am a magician living in London in the UK, with a broad magical background – including in GD, Thelemic and witchcraft traditions. I am lightly sceptical and a little sardonic by nature, rarely given to believe people who add preposterous titles after their names or humour those who want to swap charters and lineages. I speak several languages well and read others reasonably. I prefer to remain mostly anonymous, the world being what it is, although I very much welcome serious correspondence.