Tag: london

Why I Love the Ogdoadic Tradition

‘From the Gates of Night I have come to the sill of day,
I have passed the Brazen Door. She has grasped my hand–
The Goddess, my Queen–
and has bidden me still seek truth on the inward road 
of knowledge, while opinion roams the world.’

–– opening invocation of ‘The Magician’, after Parmenides.

A friend asks about what first attracted me to the Ogdoadic tradition, what moves me in it, and what I find sacred in it. It is a difficult question to answer, because it has come to shape everything I think about the world. With the opening of the Citadel of the Caduceus here in London, I thought it might be helpful to attempt an answer.

Choosing – or being chosen?

One of the guilty secrets of western magic is that it doesn’t matter all that much where you get your basic training – as long as it’s good training. Mine, at what now seems a ludicrously young age, was in the general common magical framework of post-Golden Dawn ritual. It was with this background that I happened across a reprint of the first volume of The Magical Philosophy while browsing at Watkins. I can recall the sense of thunder dropping down my spine. I saw the kind of magical techniques I already knew, mixed with something else: love for the history of western magic, an immersion in ancient and renaissance Hermetic thought, clarity and ambition about magic’s purpose, a strong presence of the divine feminine, and a seriousness matched by emphasis on practical experiment. I loved its sense of literacy and love of culture. I sensed a living tradition radiating off the page. I soon picked up their Planetary Magick, too, and started to put it to work.

Much of what I love most in the tradition I sensed right at the beginning. Other things I came to grasp only later. It answered a need I had only half-understood. I loved the magicians and theurgists of late antiquity, their sense of a living cosmos knotted and crossed with desire and life; I loved the magi of the renaissance too, Ficino above all. I found the Masonic style of working cumbersome, yet valued the grace and power of ritual magic at its best. I found the tendency of many ‘respectable’ occultists to eschew proper magic altogether irritating; I also longed for the Gods. The tradition found fertile soil in me because I was longing for it. It was already at work in me.

A full magical autobiography would be tedious to recount. But I mention the above because, in retrospect, it’s sometimes hard to separate personal choice and being pulled towards a tradition by something deep inside. Causation seems circular. Synchronicities abound. Many practitioners have similar stories.

The Goddess

Behold, Lucius, I am come, moved by your prayer, I, mother of all Nature and mistress of the elements, first-born of the ages and greatest of powers divine, queen of the dead, and queen of the immortals, all gods and goddesses in a single form…

I love the tradition for the strong presence of the divine feminine. In the twentieth century a powerful impulse visible in mainstream and esoteric spirituality (as well as in art and literature) produced a turn to the divine feminine, usually in a creative synthesis of ancient tradition with personal revelation. Gerald Gardner’s devotional recreation of the witch-cult is only the most obvious example. Only our proximity to these movements prevents us seeing the wide sweep of divine influence in this remarkable change. Our tradition is no exception, and especially bears many traces of Melita Denning’s devotion to the Great Mother; its insistence on the sanctity of the body and nature come from the same impulse. (It is notable, and personally important to me, that the Aurum Solis and its successor orders were never prone to the homophobia and other bigotries common among old-school lodge magicians in the mid-to-late 20th century.)

Although much of our individual magical work centres around the Agathodaimon – the solar, theurgic initiator – Leukothea (lit. ‘White Goddess’) is of profound, even mystical, importance. It is She who brings forth the rays of the sun. She is called on as the ‘mystic grail, virgin of light and mother of ecstasy’; in one of our most beautiful workings the magician invokes her concluding: ‘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.’ Devotional praise ‘as her love­-inspired and dedicated child’ and the total dedication of the work to her tutelary power are central to The Gnostic, one of the tradition’s core rites of spiritual elevation.

The Shape of the Sacred

I love the tradition’s sense of order and coherence. One of its key patterns, called ‘The House of Sacrifice’, is at once a way of understanding the interplay of divine forces, the dynamics of the individual magician’s psyche, and of structuring ritual work. As with the tradition’s approach to Qabalah, this sense of pattern is not flattening or artificially restrictive but generative. The House of Sacrifice is a pattern of great simplicity but infinite modulation, depth and refinement.

This sense of the shape of the sacred is tangible in its ritual work, which involves the creation of such a shape through the deliberate action of body and mind. Ritual actions always have meaning and purpose, nothing is superfluous. Elegant and classical, it is far from sombre. A grasp of its principles is profoundly freeing. When the shape of ritual is clearly understood, a great variety of tones and actions can be achieved effectively – from stark simplicity to abundant festal joy, from wordless invocatory dance to high conjuration.

Living Tradition

I love the tradition’s deep rootedness in the wider current of western esotericism. A synthesis of that current is presented throughout The Magical Philosophy, but it is most apparent in the ritual work. A broad framework inherited from the Victorian occult revival is streamlined and modified by Hermetic and Gnostic material, its Qabalah enriched and deepened, suffused with planetary and spirit magic of the grimoires. Twentieth century advances in understanding the mind – as well as the history of magic – are brought to bear on the work. It is, however, decidedly not eclectic: it is not buffeted by the winds of esoteric fashion, precisely because it knows the rewards of deep practice. At its heart burns a living flame; as a living tradition, its research and evolution continues.

It is a mystery tradition. That is, it prepares candidates for, imparts, and empowers them to transmit particular and profound spiritual experiences. Such experiences transform us in ways both hoped-for and unanticipated. The central theme of our mysteries is the Regeneration. As Denning and Phillips describe the Third Hall initiation: “He is gathered to the dim blue stillness of the vault; he hears the voice which placidly utters imperishable words, in even tones declaring changeless Truth as if no such thing as he had ever been; he is dissolved as if to naught; then, after silence, amid light and Memnon-cry of light’s triumph, he is drawn to his feet and forth.”

The Regeneration is a spiritual principle with many expressions and aspects. Our times – ecologically and socially, as much as spiritually – cry out for it. But if the phenomenon is in some measure universal, its form of transmission and manner of integration is particular – the wise fruit of long practice. 

I love that I stand before my altar every day and place myself in a great chain of magicians ‘who were, and are, and are to come’. It is in their legacy and with the aid of those magical ancestors and discarnate powers that we work.

Hands-on Magic

I love that the tradition retains a strong place for practical magical work alongside works of spiritual development. This rectifies a disproportionate ‘spiritual’ emphasis in some traditions, which treats practical magic as grubby or vulgar. From relatively simple planetary rites to high-octane talismanic and Enochian spirit conjurations, the tradition provides many eminently practical methods for making change. It is not simperingly pious: it sees no contradiction between spiritual transformation and magic directed to concrete ends. Indeed, the one requires the other.

The Beloved

I love that the system centres on the encounter of the magician with The Beloved. Holy Daimon, Divine Friend, Higher Genius, Holy Guardian Angel: the name is various but the experience one. Tiphareth is the heart of all the worlds. All the magical training – from the alchemy of the Body of Light to the invocation of divine powers – prepares and empowers the magician to seek The Beloved, the primary quest of the new Adept. I love, here, the tradition’s emphasis on divine love, stressing that vision of the cosmos alive with love shared by ancient and renaissance magi before us. But I love, also, its emphasis on freedom, the recognition that the attainment of the Angel is unique for each magician and could not be otherwise. The point of our mysteries is not to churn out magical carbon copies, but to bring each individual into their own unique fullness and flourishing. 

It follows from this that the tradition is a unity in diversity: it shares fundamental techniques, a corpus of ritual, and is centred around specific divine powers – and yet its realisation differs in emphasis for each magician. Just so, while the training ensures a broad familiarity with western magic and its practice, special concentrations call to the blossoming soul. One might feel the call to perfect the meditative subtle body work, or devotional god-form identification; another the formulae of spirit evocation or scrying the Olympic planetary powers. This diversity, managed well, is a great gift.

The Greatest Gift

Marble votive of Demeter and Persephone. 5th century BCE. Eleusis.

Scholarship on ancient mystery cults stresses, these days, that they were specialised adjuncts to mainstream religion, not straight competitors or replacements. And yet the Mysteries they revealed were central to their initiates’ sense of the world and their purpose in it. Modern mystery traditions tend to articulate somewhat more complete worldviews and ethical frameworks than their ancient predecessors, though too much contemporary work on magic still adverts to basic technical discussion. I love the tradition’s integration of Jungian insight into its account of spiritual change, and the risks such change carries – as much as its high possibilities. (This is important: rapid spiritual change, and intense magical work, always carries a risk of psychic fracture and ego inflation . The art of integration is difficult and essential.) More, I love that it avoids the ‘psychologising’ trap that plagued so much of mid-century occultism while retaining its deep wisdom.

I love, and am thankful for, the gifts that the tradition has given me: a thorough grounding in magic, practical and spiritual; skill in meditation, and the wholeness of mind which arrives with it; powerful psychic, evocatory and magical experiences which filled-out, and altered, my view of the world; a healing rediscovery of inner joy, and joy in the natural world; ecstatic and mystical experience of divine powers; the experience of the world as a great theophany. The deepest, and most profound, gift the tradition has given me is a kind of metanoia – an inward turning of the soul towards the light. That sounds simple, and yet it is so far-reaching there is no area of my life it has not affected. I relish that there are more and deeper mysteries to discover.

Above all, then: the gradual sense of the dawning inner sun, even the first rays of which work a deep, inner, alchemical transformation. This is no claim to perfection, nor even ‘advancement’, so much as a humble thanksgiving for a spiritual practice which has allowed me to become, in every sense, fully human.

No Part of Me That is Not of the Gods: A Memory

I’ve been thinking about this tweet since Jack Chanek sent it the other day. (I don’t know his work, but I’ve been dipping my toes into the world of online occultism for the first time in a decade, and so discoveries abound.) I said in reply that I don’t think the gods necessarily perceive us temporally, at least in the way we do. I’m sure the observation was prompted by the fact we’re entering the dying end of the year, and one of the things I had in mind happened around this time of the year too. I thought it worth remembering.

I’ll leave the people I’m talking about anonymous, though anyone who has been around London occultism for a while will probably recognise it. The story isn’t about the personalities, though, really – whether important or little-known – but about what ritual can do.

It’s just a house, I tell myself – one of those tall, imposing Victorian affairs in North London. It’s 2004 and I’m nervous. It’s before Google Maps – I used to carry around a pocket A-Z and addresses scribbled on scraps of paper – and I’m early. I’d been invited, along with my initiators, to a Gnostic Mass to be held at the home of a well-known but discreet couple who had been performing it privately for many years; both would at that point already be over seventy years old. I like to be on time: it’s courteous, and respects other people’s time as equally important to your own. (It is also a rare quality among occultists.) In fact, because I’m nervous, I’m early, which is nearly as bad as being late. Knowing where the house is, I find a place nearby to sit and drop into some meditative breathing, the anchor of my daily practice then and now. Despite the chill in the air I can feel my shoulders relax, smell the woodsmoke on the breeze.

Yes, it’s just a house. Writing nearly two decades later I’m more aware of how much postwar occultism depended on domestic spaces like that: detached, or with thick enough walls and big rooms, which might be given over, semi-permanently, to ritual work. Twist the perspective a bit and it could be something out of a horror flick, or a Sunday tabloid exposé: the ingenuous neophyte lured into obscene rites hidden behind the doors of a house just like yours – or your neighbours’. So many magical groups owed their persistence to the simple fact they had somewhere suitable and guaranteed for regular meetings – it’s hard to resist a comparison between witches’ covens and ancient clandestine house churches. (You might write a parallel history of chaos magic and squatting, too.) Some of the initiations I would take in the following years would be in very grand settings, or outdoors in some secret place, but by far the majority – and some of the most significant – would be conducted behind unassuming doors like this.

Nervousness is often excitement wedded to risk. To understand why I was excited you have to understand something of the way the occult community in Britain worked back then: a variety of public or semi-public discussion groups, social events or beginners’ classes with various groups – publicly admitted and less so – hovering in the background. There was an elaborate dance of hinting and nudging, of feeling out and testing, and (sometimes) waiting for someone to have the courage to ask. It gave the sense that there was a lot going on behind the curtain; I’d say in retrospect that perception both was and wasn’t true. I was very young, but assiduous in my own personal work, and I had taken my first initiation; I was active in lots of the public email groups and social ‘scene’ – but this felt like the first invitation into a more guarded and trusted part of the community. I wanted to be worthy of it, and I wanted to impress; that was the risk. Thus the nerves.

Max Ernst, Rose de Noël (c. 1965)

I’d also been intensely interested in the Gnostic Mass itself for a couple of years, though I had no interest in the OTO. It is a beautiful and powerful ritual, subtly patterned and constructed. I’d used portions of its invocations in other rituals, meditated on its structure to try to understand it better. I though I knew and understood the powers involved, but I would be surprised that evening.

It turned out I didn’t have to go in alone: I met my initiators (through whom the invitation had come) just down the road from the house. Here’s a measure of how much I wanted to make a good impression: I’d been told to bring a robe, but the instructions were otherwise vague. So – in a move almost parodically in keeping with my Virgo ascendant – I’d hand-washed and ironed both my black and my white robe, and folded both carefully in my bag. (It turned out black was the order of the day.) A benefit of long spiritual practice has been to ease, even if only slightly, this somewhat neurotic tendency to overprepare; it is also why I had to spend a bit longer than most novices mastering the apparently elementary practice of relaxation. We robed and we were led into the temple.

Have you ever had your consciousness changed just by walking into a room? It happens. Some of it is just what the psychonauts call ‘set and setting’, sure: the rising haze of incense smoke, the light of candles, the two pillars and the diaphanous veil hanging between them. But sometimes walking into a room in which magic has been practiced regularly can be like opening the door on a hot oven. Do magic in a room for long enough and the brickwork gets haunted. You might have felt like that when someone starts an invocation and something plunges through the long run of your spine, and pulls at the back of your neck. It was like that that night.

Before that evening a friend had said to me ‘well, they’re getting on a bit – don’t be surprised if they can’t quite pull it off any more.’ How short-sighted and arrogant youth can be. At the start of the ritual, the priest comes forth from the tomb, as if dead: it is the priestess who will restore him to life. He says: ‘I am a man among men. How should I be worthy to administer the virtues to the Brethren?’ Those words have particular resonances in Crowley’s magical system, but they chime differently when spoken by a man in his mid-70s emerging from the grave – called out of the tomb by the voice of a priestess with whom he has built a practice over decades, whose voice must be more familiar to him than his own. Age makes the combination of frailty and strength in that question more apparent. Just the length of any life, with its inevitable alloy of failure and success, adds gravity to its simple premise: I am a man among men. True rituals, you might say, make meaning in excess of their authors’ intentions. 

Participating in a ritual in which one has, apparently, nothing to do can sometimes be difficult. It requires cultivating generous and absorbed attention to the action, a ‘presentness’ that almost every contemporary cultural imperative pushes against. I found no difficulty, though, because I was transfixed by the priest and priestess: the Mass depends on that current of intensity between them, a basis, a kind of tuning note for the powers they are bringing down. But I was also seeing something else, an intimacy at once public and yet inaccessible to anyone else in the room, at times as if there was no-one else in the temple.

Crowley doubtless envisaged his priest and priestess younger, perhaps more obviously virile or stereotypically buxom. His erotic imagination tended toward the cliche. As the ritual continues, the priestess is seated on the altar behind a veil – in this case a sheer gauze – and she disrobes as the priest makes his invocation, justly famous and beautiful:

O circle of Stars whereof our Father is but the younger brother, marvel beyond imagination, soul of infinite space, before whom Time is Ashamed, the mind bewildered, and the understanding dark, not unto Thee may we attain, unless Thine image be Love. Therefore by seed and root and stem and bud and leaf and flower and fruit do we invoke Thee. 

It’s hard to account for the sublimity of that moment. She was regal behind the veil, absolutely beautiful, and I was absorbed, certain I was in the presence of a mystery. We use words that aren’t really precise to describe that moment – overshadowing, presence – but as she recited the exultant invocation in reply I found myself profoundly moved: ‘I am the blue-lidded daughter of sunset; I am the naked brilliance of the voluptuous night-sky. To me! To me!

Part of what moved me was the age of her body: marked by time and age and work, the kind of body usually invisible, disliked, undesired enthroned on the altar. It recast all those words of sensual ecstasy – the naked brilliance, the voluptuous, the daughter, all pleasure and purple – which alway risk being bywords for instrumental personal gratification. I felt afterwards like a constellation of words and their meanings had slipped their shackles, expanded and rearranged themselves.

I want to be precise, because it was this moment that has been on my mind. The divine beauty I perceived was not a brief image of the beauty of youth emerging as a trace through an aged body, as if to redeem the fact of age. It was instead a beauty particular to, constituted by, age, and – importantly – no less sensual because of it. As a very young adult, it displaced and refashioned what I thought about beauty and the body, a matter of particular struggle for a young gay man. All that stood unrealised and unexpressed but dawning when I stood before that altar just a little later and declared, feeling the depth of the words with new meaning: there is no part of me that is not of the gods.


After the rite, we ate and drank together, with much conversation among longstanding friends and – yes – some occult luminaries. I’m sure I was intensely earnest as I often was back then. I was so worried, so often, that people wouldn’t see how seriously and sincerely I took things. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was also in the foothills of a serious spiritual crisis of the kind sincere young people sometimes go through. Part of that was wondering how to do what I wanted to do in the world, while also maintaining a spiritual life – given the social and professional taboos involved in open practice. Another part was the realisation – which I was running from – that the initiatory route I was taking was one I didn’t want. That what was calling me was elsewhere. There were other contingent factors, too boring and personal to write about here.

I don’t know whether the priestess saw this in me, intense and serious as I must have been. I know now that these things are often more visible to others than one expects. Later in the evening, she took me into the temple and put into my hand the sword that had been used in the ritual, one that had been passed down from a founder of one of her magical traditions. It is again hard to describe the meaning of that small gesture, which was one of trust and kindness, freely given. I realised then, and it remained true in all the consternation of the following years, as now, that my commitment to the mysteries was absolute. That remained true even when doubting my place in them, or the tradition I found myself in. That there was nowhere I would rather be, that it felt as right, as familiar and solid, as that sword in my hand.

I never got to thank either priestess or priest properly for that evening. Both now are dead, though their legacy continues. It’s hard, really, to know how I could have done so adequately. I hope this short note also goes some way to conveying my gratitude.

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