MYSTERY AND REGENERATION

Tag: occult history

Silence and Secrecy: On Oathbreaking

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

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

Silence and Secrecy

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

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

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

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

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

The Obligation: Why do we swear oaths?

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

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

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

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

Wallace Berman & Jay DeFeo, Untitled, 1959.

Of Oathbreaking

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

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

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

Obligations to others

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

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

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

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

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

Jay DeFeo, Jewel, 1959

Magical ethics and spiritual athletics

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

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

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

Steps of the Foundation I: Of Sources, Of Breath, Of Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Sources 

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

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

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

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

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

Pentagrams and Quarters 

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

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

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

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

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

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

What kind of magic is this?

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

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

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

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

Arbor Crystallina

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

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

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

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

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

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

With its translation given thus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At Salomon’s Howse: A Fragment of Certain Strange Visions

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

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

A recent trip to the BL allowed me to set aside some time to examine two relatively well-known manuscripts: Additional MS 36674 and Sloane MS 3853. The former particularly interested me because it contains, alongside a relatively conventional instruction manual, the record of visions, spirit communications and interactions achieved by the authors. As those who have trawled through magical manuscripts know, practical records are far less common than handbooks and grimoires. We can speculate as to why this might be: most likely, perhaps, is fear of persecution – possession of grimoires being one thing, proof of practice quite another – or perhaps it’s only with nascent experimental scientific mentalities such records seem desirable. It should be understood that there is no clear, bright line between grimoire and record: many grimoires, including the instructional part of this manuscript, bear the traces of practical revision and innovation in the light of practice. But an unadulterated record is a relatively rare thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palaeographic note

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

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

But the internal structure of the sentence suggests against this: why preface it with a definite article? ’the chymike’ makes little sense. Knowing the folio was prepared by an amanuensis, probably working at speed, who made some errors in the copying, I propose to read the word as ‘charaktes’, i.e., a repetition of the characters previously seen. Perhaps a messy secretary hand ‘r’ could be misread as a series of minims, or a ’t’ get lost. Nonetheless, this is a highly conjectural note. One might also choose to read it as ‘chinkes’, for instance, which picks up on the imagery of locks and key holes, but it makes little sense to think of the charactery as a series of keyholes (… or does it?) Other suggestions welcome!

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

ECCE HOMO: Occult Ephemera of the 1970s

Hilma af Klint, Svanen (1915)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

ECCE HOMO

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

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