Sunday, August 21, 2016

Foundations of Magical Practice: Ritual

Last month’s post, as I noted at the time, was meant as a backhanded introduction to magical training. That sort of introduction is necessary just now, because of a certain bad habit common among those who don’t know a great deal about operative magic. If, like me, you write books and give talks on magic, you can expect to meet plenty of people who have never worked their way through a curriculum of magical training, but are convinced that they can put together such a curriculum on the basis of their own likes and dislikes, and that the system thus constructed will be as good, if not better, than a system constructed by an experienced mage.

Not so. Magic is not whatever you want it to be; it’s a difficult and demanding craft, and like all crafts, it requires the development of a great many skills that are not obvious to those who haven’t practiced it systematically. Nor—and this is crucial—is it without risk. There are methods of training and practice that most people can follow in relative safety, but it takes a certain amount of practical experience and technical knowledge to recognize the differences between these and other methods that are far from safe. Where the rewards are significant, the dangers are real, and certain wrongheaded ways of approaching magical training can mess you over in significant ways.

That’s what my look at Julius Evola’s brief and ineffectual foray into magic was meant to suggest. To be fair to Evola, things could have turned out much, much worse. I’m thinking here of the fad for kundalini yoga that flared and burnt itself out in Californian occult circles during the 1920s, in the last years of Theosophy’s boomtime. Manly P. Hall, a sympathetic observer as well as a major occult teacher in his own right, described the consequences in one of his books. Young healthy Theosophists launched into practices they thought would make them enlightened masters; one by one, they turned pale, sickened, and died. (Mishandle kundalini training and you risk screwing up your endocrine system; my guess is that’s what killed them.) That was an extreme case—most other forms of magical dysfunction are noticeably less terminal—but it’s worth keeping in mind that we’re not talking about harmless forces.

That said, there are certain courses of training that can be done in perfect safety by most people, and I propose to talk about one of them here.

A few caveats are in order. First, the training program I’m about to outline is not intended for those who simply want to practice a little helpful magic to improve unsatisfactory aspects of their own lives and those of their friends. If that’s what you want out of magic—and though there’s been a lot of prejudice against such things in occult circles, my experience is that it’s a valid option—you don’t need the kind of training I’ll be sketching out.  What you need instead is a good introductory book on some form of folk magic, such as old-fashioned Southern conjure. The magical training I’m discussing aims at the awakening of the higher potentials of human consciousness; while it also involves practices that can fix a lot of unsatisfactory things in the student’s life, that’s more or less a useful side effect.

Second, the training program I’m about to outline is not the only option, and the practices I plan on exploring aren’t applicable to every kind of magic. In the western world these days, there are broadly speaking three major currents of ceremonial magic.  There are other kinds of magic , of course, and the traditions of folk magic just referenced are among them; there are also a good many smaller traditions of ceremonial magic, far more than any one person knows about. The three main currents are simply the ones you can count on seeing pretty much anywhere in the Western world.

Broadly speaking, there’s an English current, which runs from John Dee et al. to the Golden Dawn, with an infusion of Eliphas Levi en route; from there to Dion Fortune and her pupils and associates, of whom Israel Regardie was one, and from there to most modern Anglo-American ceremonial magic. There’s a central European current, which runs from the 18th-century Rosicrucian movement, also with an infusion of Eliphas Levi, through a great many names unfamiliar to my English-speaking readers; the one well known in England and America is Franz Bardon, whose works are of very high quality. Finally, there’s a Traditional current, which has emerged in recent years, and seeks to resurrect such older magical practices as goetic evocation and Renaissance astrological magic.

I’m talking about the first of these three options. If you’re practicing one of the others, or one of the less well known systems of Western magic, or for that matter a system of magic with its roots outside of Europe, my advice can be summed up in one sentence: ignore what I’m saying and follow the path you’re on. Similarly, if you’re studying magic in what I’ve called the English tradition, and your teacher says something that differs from my counsel, that same sentence applies.  These posts are meant for people who want to follow a magical path, find the English tradition appropriate to their needs, and don’t happen to have access to a teacher or a school they feel they can trust.

Finally, operative ceremonial magic isn’t for everyone. It’s a specific path of training and practice within the wider field of occultism, and there are other paths of training and practice within that wider field that pursue their own routes toward the absolute. With those caveats in mind, we can proceed.

Learning magic requires the mastery of a great many unfamiliar skills. Fortunately for the student, they can be grouped together into practices that exercise a range of magical skills at once. Half an hour of practice every day, divided among the three basic practices I’ll be setting out, is enough to take a total beginner without a single clue about magic and lead him or her step by step to the summits of the art.

Every day? Yes, every day.  A lot of people balk at this. These days, especially, a lot of people want to think that they’re so magically talented, they don’t have to put in the practice. “Magic pours from me like sweat”—yes, I’ve actually had someone tell me this. Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way. Learning magic is like learning to play a musical instrument: the only way to get good at it is to put a great deal of time into studying and practicing it, and the best way to do the latter is to make time for practice every single day. I have yet to meet a competent operative mage who didn’t practice daily, and I have yet to meet anyone who practiced daily who didn’t become a competent operative mage.

With that in mind, let’s move to the first of the three categories of practice, which is ritual.

Ross Nichols, the founder of the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD), called ritual “poetry in the realm of acts.” That’s a good first step toward understanding, because just as a poem is a way of using language to focus consciousness in unexpected ways, ritual is a way of using embodied actions to do the same thing. Put another way, ritual is one of the few performing arts whose performers are also its primary audience. . To perform ritual, you coordinate physical motion, vocalization, imagination, and intention to form more or less complex patterns of meaning, which shape your consciousness.

Repeated regularly, that shaping becomes a potent force for the transformation of personality. It also, and not coincidentally, teaches you a bunch of skills that you’re going to need to develop in order to become a competent operative mage. You need, for example, to be able to build up visual imagery in your mind with a great deal of intensity, and coordinate it with your physical movements and senses; you need to be able to vocalize words of power in a distinctive way, called “vibration” in magical textbooks, which sets up palpable buzzing sensations at any chosen point inside or outside your body; you need to be able to hold an intention firmly in your mind through a series of ritual activities—and you need to be able to do these and a number of other things all at the same time. How do you learn that? By taking a single, relatively short ritual that includes all these things, and doing it once a day until the skills in question become second nature.

You can get those benefits from any short ritual you like, for any purpose you can imagine. There’s another important factor, though. When you begin magical training, you’re entering into contact with unfamiliar realms of being. You’ve been surrounded by those realms all your life, and they’ve shaped your consciousness and your behavior in ways most people never notice. Once you begin to notice those realms, your relationship to them will change; you’re likely to attract attention on the part of some of the beings who dwell in those realms, and not all such beings have good intentions.

You’ll also begin to notice that not everything that moves through those realms is good to have on and around you. The inner planes, to use a convenient phrase for these unfamiliar conditions of being, contain influences of sickness as well as health, hatred as well as love, madness as well as sanity. There is also, due largely to the conditions of modern life, a great deal of plain old muck that it’s good to get off you. As English is not well equipped with terms for such things, I like to borrow a Japanese word from the technical terminology of Shinto, and refer to the muck in question as kegare.

According to Shinto priests with whom I’ve discussed the matter, kegare—the word, by the way, is pronounced as though it rhymes with “the car, eh,” not as though it rhymes with “she-bear”—is one of two kinds of impurity that can get in the way of harmonious interactions with the realm of the kami, the spiritual potencies revered in Shinto. Tsumi comes from wrong relationships with other people and the environment, and thus has an ethical dimension. Kegare, by contrast, has nothing to do with ethics; it’s not a synonym for “sin;” it’s simply a matter of coming into contact with substances and influences that cause an assortment of problematic reactions when brought into the immediate presence of the kami. Do you have kegare on you? If you haven’t purified yourself, you can bet on it.

Concepts very closely equivalent to kegare are found in traditional religious and spiritual systems around the world, and so are methods for getting rid of it. Those methods vary, and again, if you’re already working in a tradition that has such methods, keep on doing what you’ve been taught. In the traditions of operative magic I’m discussing here, though, the standard method for getting yourself clean of kegare is the daily practice of a banishing ritual.

This habit has come in for a certain amount of criticism of late in the Neopagan scene, most of it from people who don’t practice operative magic themselves and so have no particular reason to know what they’re talking about. These critics claim, among other things, that performing banishing rituals is disrespectful, hierarchical, chases away friendly spirits, and implies that there’s something wrong with a space that hasn’t been banished. To be quite frank, this is nonsense. They might as well insist that washing your hands after you’ve used the toilet is wrong because it’s disrespectful and hierarchical toward fecal bacteria, chases away microbes that would be perfectly happy to inhabit your mouth, and implies that there’s something wrong with dysentery.

The comparison is tolerably precise, as it happens.  Banishing rituals are to magical sanitation what soap and hot water are to physical sanitation, and in both cases, they should be applied regularly, as well as on specific occasions, for optimum health. In the practice of operative magic, before you perform any magical working, you need to be able to establish a state of balanced clarity in the working space, and you need to be able to restore the working space to the same state of balanced clarity once you’re finished, to keep the influences you’ve summoned from bleeding over into the rest of your life and that of anyone else who lives with or near you; that’s the specific application. A state of balanced clarity, on the other hand, is a good thing to inhabit as a general rule, and the daily practice of a banishing ritual is one effective way of getting there; that’s the general application—and of course it’s also relevant that practicing a banishing ritual every day is a very good way to be sure that you can do it to good effect when it’s really needed.

Most banishing rituals in common use these days follow much the same pattern, and can be traced back by one route or another to the Conjuration of the Four, a ritual presented (in typically evasive form) in the pages of Eliphas Levi’s Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic. In all its many variants—the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram practiced in the Golden Dawn, the Sphere of Protection practiced in the Ancient Order of Druids in America, and so on—it sets out a circle or sphere, defines the center and the boundary, invokes a balanced and potent spiritual influence into the center, and establishes certain points on the periphery (the four directions in a circle, those plus above and below in a sphere) as representations of certain other spiritual potencies. The operative mage typically begins at the center, goes to the periphery, and then returns to the center.

I’ve used the somewhat vague term “spiritual potencies” here, and that’s a little evasive. In most traditional banishing rituals, you’re invoking either the Christian God and his angels, or some set of Pagan gods and goddesses. There are exceptions—the Sphere of Protection in particular was designed by its creator, Dr. John Gilbert, to work with impersonal spiritual powers as well as with divine persons—but by and large, ceremonial magic invokes deities. It doesn’t require belief in them, but it does require openness to the possibility that when you call, something might just answer, and it’s not a good idea to go around invoking deities you actively dislike. Half the reason so many people have had very mixed experiences with ceremonial magic, I’m convinced, is that a lot of people who can’t stand the God of Christianity have been performing rituals that constantly invoke him by his traditional names!

There’s more going on than this, of course, and those who know their way around the literature of psychology will already have guessed part of it. One of the things that made Swiss psychologist Carl Jung famous was his focus on mandala symbolism; he found that people under certain kinds of serious psychological stress tended to dream, daydream, and doodle images with some resemblance to the traditional mandalas or sacred diagrams of Hindu and Buddhist lore—that is, circular diagrams in which the center and the four quarters are of symbolic importance—and he also found that encouraging patients to follow out that habit, and draw or paint mandalas in as much detail as seemed appropriate, seemed to help them resolve their inner conflicts. He insisted, though, that these images had to be spontaneous, and that it would do no good simply to enact them according to some formal pattern.

There, as it happens, he was quite wrong. A Jungian mandala—a circle with symbolic emphasis on the center and the four quarters—can be just as effective when done to an established pattern; all that’s required is that it be repeated over and over again, using concentration and certain other methods to get the mind moving spontaneously along the patterns thus drawn. That’s what a banishing ritual does. It establishes a Jungian mandala in space, and then places the mage at the center, the place of mingled powers, where the forces of the four directions are in perfect balance. That same balance among the powers then, over time, manifests itself in the physical body, subtle body, and mind of the mage.

As noted above, though, that’s only part of the picture. Another part comes from the spiritual potencies that are being invoked in the ritual. One common misunderstanding of banishing rituals is that they somehow chase away all spiritual influences, leaving a vacuum. Not so; when you perform a banishing ritual, you’re doing quite a bit of invoking, and it’s the influences you invoke that do the heavy lifting of bringing the space into the state of balanced clarity mentioned above. A space that’s been properly banished is full, not empty—but it hasn’t been filled at random. The influences you’ve brought in are in a state of balance so precise that you can build anything you like on the foundation they provide.

Two other notes may be worth inserting here. First, it’s not at all uncommon for students in the very first stages of practice to be taught to alternate two different forms of the same ritual, one banishing, one invoking. The difference is straightforward. When you perform the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, let’s say, you establish the four elemental energies at the periphery of the circle, but the main influence that fills the space is the influence you’ve invoked into the center: in the version of the ritual practiced by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and its many offshoots, the Christian God; in the version we practice in the Druidical Order of the Golden Dawn, the transcendent Godhead whose name is concealed behind the letters O.I.W.

In the Lesser Invoking Ritual, by contrast, you’re calling in the forces of the four elements, and so those are the primary influences that fills the space you’ve marked out. The difference is worth experiencing, as it helps the beginner get a handle on the way that different influences feel. After the basic stages of training are past, though, the usual practice is to go to daily banishings, and bring in other modes of ritual in which specific energies are invoked—and there are other rituals, such as the Sphere of Protection, which include formal invokings and banishings in the same ceremony and so take care of the process that way.

The second note that’s worth putting in here is a reminder that practicing a banishing ritual isn’t the be-all and end-all of magic. It’s a basic exercise done daily, like playing scales on a piano or horse stance training in a traditional kung fu style. You start with that, and you keep doing it, but you add other things as you develop the necessary capacities—and exactly the same thing is true in magic.

So that’s what a banishing ritual is, what it does, and why you should plan on practicing one of them every day, preferably first thing in the morning, if you have any interest in learning the kind of magic I’m discussing here. As for where to learn the actual nuts and bolts—well, for that we turn to...


There are some hundreds of books that cover basic training in the kind of ceremonial magic I practice, and most of them teach a banishing ritual. For a variety of reasons, not all of them crassly financial, I do tend to recommend my own books. If you’re comfortable invoking the Christian God and his angels, the Hermetic version of the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram, which does that, is covered in Learning Ritual Magic; if you would prefer to invoke the British deities of the Druid Revival tradition, the Druidical version of the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram is covered in The Celtic Golden Dawn; while the Sphere of Protection, which can be used to invoke any set of deities you happen to revere, and can also work with impersonal powers, is covered at length in The Druid Magic Handbook.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

How Not to Learn Magic: An Introductory Note

Lately I’ve been sorting through my collection of books on occultism and deciding which of them still need a place on my bookshelves. That’s a useful chore at intervals, if only because new books are always coming out and bookshelf space is regrettably finite; still, it has a little more importance this time around, as this sorting comes at something of a turning point in my occult career.

A bit of autobiography may be useful here. From my first tentative dabblings in magic in the mid-1970s until 1994, when I was initiated into the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD), I worked pretty much exclusively with the Golden Dawn tradition of practical occultism, as interpreted by Israel Regardie on the one hand, and Dion Fortune and her students W.E. Butler, William Gray, and Gareth Knight on the other. That was partly a choice of necessity, since the Golden Dawn system was very nearly the only thoroughly developed curriculum of occult study and practice you could get in those days—if, that is, you happened to be a geeky young man with very little money, no connections in the occult scene, and no access to occult literature except via a few not very impressive bookstores and the kind of mail order catalogues that carried Anna Riva’s Magic Oils, photocopied talismans out of the Key of Solomon, and what passed, in those rather more innocent times, for manuals of racy sex.

Even after I found my spiritual home in Druidry, I continued my Golden Dawn studies and practices. My completion of the OBOD study course in 2001, though, marked a turning point. By that time it was a good deal easier to get access to a wide range of magical instruction, and I’d also picked up a reading knowledge of Latin and French, which opened doors to a range of traditions most people in the American occult scene have still never heard of. By that time, too, I’d worked my way through the Golden Dawn system in its entirety, and while there was still plenty of work there for me to do—you can easily spend an entire lifetime working through the possibilities of any reasonably complex system of magic, and never run out of things to do—I was ready to explore something else for a while.

Exploring something else, in turn, occupied the next fifteen years. I sought initiation in two other Druid orders, and duly became a Druid Adept in the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA) and a Third Order priest in the Reformed Druids of North America (RDNA), but my vagaries weren’t limited to Druidry by any means. Among other things, I completed extensive study programs in Renaissance astrological magic and old-fashioned Southern conjure, practiced radionics using a homebuilt Hieronymus machine, devoted some serious time to laboratory alchemy, dove headfirst into sacred geometry, geomancy, and both traditional and modern astrology, got competent at two systems of alternative healing with important ties to occultism, and put ten years into earning instructor’s credentials in one of the old temple styles of t’ai chi ch’uan.

Then there were the books. My idea of a good time tolerably often amounts to a quiet room and a good book, so I worked my way through most of the occult literature of the western world, from ancient Greek Neoplatonist theurgic writings (thank Zeus for good translations!) straight through to the latest oozing-edge products of post-post-postmodern (insert one: C, K, X)aos magi(insert one: c, ck, k, que).  There were plenty of things I never got around to doing—I’ve never felt the least attraction to Wicca, for example, so I remain cheerfully ignorant about its inner teachings, and a certain discomfort with the role of clueless white guy has kept me from seeking initiation into any of the Third World magical religions available in America these days—but all in all, I think my wanderings managed to give me a tolerably good glimpse at the landscape of possibilities open to the modern occultist.

That led me to the turning point mentioned above. In the wake of my resignation as Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America last December, I gradually woke to the realization that I’d done as much roaming across the magical landscape as seemed appropriate, and it was time to settle down and get back to work on something approximating the traditions I’d originally learned. Druidry, as noted above, is my spiritual home, but fusing Golden Dawn practices with Druid Revival philosophy and symbolism was done successfully in the early twentieth century.  Even though the teachings of the orders that accomplished that fusion are apparently lost, I had no trouble reverse engineering them back into existence—the first results of that act of reinvention have already been published as The Celtic Golden Dawn, and other volumes are in preparation. Some of the things I studied during my fifteen years of wandering have also contributed to the resulting synthesis, but plenty of others haven’t, and one consequence is that a lot of books I collected in my journeys have outlived their usefulness and are being released, by way of a convenient used book store, into the hands of others.

All of which brings me to the hefty and slightly battered paperback sitting on my desk as I write these words. Its title is Introduction to Magic, and it was written by members of the UR Group, a circle of Italian occultists betweeen the wars who worked more or less under the headship of the celebrated and notorious Julius Evola. Though the book on my desk, a capable English translation by Guido Stucco of the first of the three Italian volumes, saw print at the peak of the modern occult boom in 2001, it made only the tiniest splash in the English-speaking occult scene on its publication, and pretty much sank without a trace thereafter.

Part of that was due to its chief author. Few people these days can read a book by Julius Evola without feeling, at least once, the urge to fling it across the room. If Evola is watching his posthumous career from some cold Hyperborean summit, he must be laughing mordantly, because this is exactly the reception he wanted. He loathed the modern world and everything it stood for, and his icy contempt for modernity led him to construct an ethos and a spirituality that flies in the face of everything the modern western world considers good, valid, and true. It doesn’t help, of course, that he condemned Mussolini’s government for not being fascist enough, spent the last part of the Second World War as an officer in the Waffen-SS, and became a major source of inspiration for neofascist political, cultural, and spiritual movements once the war was over.

It’s common these days for biographical data like these to lead people to insist that books by any such author should never be read, discussed, or even mentioned. As I noted in a recent post over in the other blog, though, I consider that attitude to be somewhere on the notional spectrum between self-defeating and just plain silly. For the serious student of occult philosophy, in particular, an encounter with Evola’s ideas and personality—the two are very much of a piece—is essential. This isn’t because I agree with the man; I don’t. Neither, though, do I agree with a good many of the attitudes and ideas he chose to attack. Evola is among many other things a near-perfect case study in one of the rules of magical philosophy I’ve discussed here and elsewhere: the principle that, far more often than not, the opposite of one bad idea is another bad idea.

At some point in the not too distant future, in fact, I plan on devoting several posts here to a discussion of Evola’s magnum opus, Revolt Against the Modern World. This month’s post, though, has a different theme. In recent months, several readers of this blog have raised questions about what constitutes an effective and balanced course of magical training, one that guides the student step by step toward the awakening of the higher potentials of the individual without causing the sort of emotional and psychological imbalances so often seen among failed occultists. As I paged through Introduction to Magic, trying to decide whether to give it shelf space or sell it to the used book store mentioned earlier, it occurred to me that one very good way to start that conversation is to take a close look at a system of magical training that is neither effective nor balanced.

The fact of the matter is that Evola’s UR Group was a wretched flop, and the inadequacy of its system of training is a very large part of the reason why. The Group was founded in early 1927 and blew itself apart in late 1929, having achieved none of the goals Evola so confidently set out for it; the cause of death was a series of internal crises that will be wearily familiar to those who know their way around the more dysfunctional ends of today’s Neopagan scene.  Furthermore, according to the useful preface contributed to the book by Renato del Ponte, two later groups of occultists who attempted to revive the UR Group’s teachings crashed and burned in exactly the same way. Part of that is a phenomenon occultists call the “tainted sphere,” which we’ll discuss in a later post, but there’s another factor at work: the practical instructions for training given in Introduction to Magic are mediocre at their best moments and seriously problematic at their worst.

It probably needs to be repeated here that I’m talking about the practical instructions for training, not the philosophical and symbolic essays included in the UR Group papers, which are generally of a very high quality. Evola himself was profoundly erudite, with an extraordinary if one-sided grasp of mystical philosophy, and some of the other UR Group members—Arturo Reghini arguably first among them—were his equals if not his superiors. (Reghini deserves to be much better known in the English-speaking world than he is. Good translations of his writings on the Pythagorean tradition, in particular, would be extremely valuable.) The difficulty here is that a profound grasp of esoteric philosophy is not the same as a practical working knowledge of the requirements of magical training.

Consider the parallel predicament of a theoretical physicist who decides that his physics Ph.D. from Stanford qualifies him to rebuild his home’s sewers. In theory, this is quite true:  an education in theoretical physics covers all the forces that affect a sewer system, from gravity and pressure through adhesion, thermal expansion, and so on. The fact remains that there are a great many practical tricks to rebuilding a sewer system that are not obvious from the perspective of a purely theoretical education. Thus a theoretical physicist who sets out to rebuild his sewer system on the basis of abstract principles is almost certainly going to end up, at some point, covered from head to foot in raw sewage. That’s basically what happened to Evola and the other members of the UR Group.

Turn the pages of Introduction to Magic and it’s not hard to see why. Setting aside the philosophical and symbolic essays—which again are generally of high quality—and the turgid rhetoric that seems to have been de rigueur for occult authors in that era, what you get, in terms of practical work, consists of: (a) standard advice on developing consciousness and will in everyday life, mostly cribbed from Eliphas Lévi; (b) an assortment of exercises in meditation and visualization, not well integrated with one another; (c) a few exercises with a magical mirror, for one or two persons; and (d) a simple ritual centering on Pietro d’Abano’s invocation of the archangel of the Sun, without any of the preliminary training needed to make rituals work.  As a set of basic practices, that has serious problems: it leaves out a number of things essential to the novice in operative magic, and it’s imbalanced in ways that will produce (and in fact did produce) predictable problems.

The gaps in the training the UR Group provided its members are best described by contrast with a more complete and systematic course of training, and so that discussion will take place in a later post. The imbalances are quite another matter. It was fashionable in Evola’s time for avant-garde intellectuals to adopt a pose of ruthlessness, hardness, and icy indifference to humanity, and Evola went in for that with the same thoroughness he applied to every other subject that interested him. He seems to have found the pose congenial—and of course he was hardly the only one.

A comparable figure in many ways, though intellectually Evola’s inferior, was an older contemporary of his, the English occultist Aleister Crowley.  Unlike Evola, Crowley studied magic in an established tradition, that of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but blew out of that Order and reworked its teachings to fit his own sense of what magic (or as he insisted on spelling it, “magick”) ought to be about. Like Evola, Crowley set out to revolt against the modern world; like Evola, what he actuallly revolted against was the world of his parents’ generation, in favor of the latest fashionable ideas of the modern world—it shows some of the core differences between English and Italian culture that Crowley rebelled especially against England’s sexual repressiveness, while Evola rebelled especially against the grand Italian ideal of umanità, humanity or humaneness.

Both men cultivated the same trendy pose of icy ruthlessness et al.; both, interestingly enough, were mountain climbers; both thought they could transform the world through magic, and failed completely. Crowley just kept at it, with a prodigious lack of success—the posthumous emergence of his teachings as a major theme in modern occultism is almost entirely the work of Grady McMurtry, who picked up the disorderly heap of material Crowley left behind, reworked it into a coherent system, and reinvented the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), an order Crowley hijacked from its original founders and ran into the ground, as a vehicle for that system.

Evola, for his part, responded to the parallel failure of the UR Group by turning from magic to politics. His entire involvement with magic began and ended in the three years the UR Group functioned, and these were very early in his life—when the UR Group was founded, he was only twenty-six years old. His decision to turn to political action, and from there to cultural politics, was a sensible one. Since he was not the sort of person who could submit to another’s guidance and instruction, he was never going to get the kind of systematic education in magic he needed to accomplish his goals—and the lack of a systematic education in magic lay at the heart of his failure as a teacher of that art.

It’s a failure that stalks everyone who tries to come up with an original system of magical training without first mastering some existing system from top to bottom, and finding out what systems of magical training are supposed to accomplish. One of the goals of magical training, to turn to technical language for a moment, is the equilibration of the lower self:  in less opaque terms, the balancing out of the habitual imbalances of the personality, so that the aspiring mage can use his or her habits of thought and feeling rather than being used by them. Magical systems cooked up by people who haven’t had such a training inevitably miss this; having projected the habitual imbalances of their personalities onto the cosmos—and we all do this, until appropriate disciplines teach us how to stop—they end up reinforcing their imbalances rather than equilibrating them.

Evola’s choice of a basic magical ritual is a good example of this, though it’s hardly the only one, and it also demonstrates one of the common problems with trying to work out a system of magical training on first principles. From a metaphysical and symbolic perspective, it’s entirely appropriate to treat the Sun as a symbol of the Absolute, and so Evola pulled a solar invocation out of its original context in a carefully designed set of Renaissance-era invocations of the planetary archangels, on the assumption that his students could use a ritual based on that invocation to attain the Absolute.

The difficulty here is that novice mages don’t operate on the plane of the Absolute. They operate on the planes of form, and if you invoke the Sun on the planes of form, you won’t get the Absolute; you’ll get the kind of solar influence that astrologers, for example, know well; and if you invoke the Sun only, without equilibrating it with the other planetary forces, you can pretty much count on pushing your personality in the direction of too much solar influence, which will make you behave like an arrogant blowhard—the astrologically literate may imagine a really out-of-control Leo here.  If your personality already tends toward arrogance and self-glorifying egocentricity, furthermore, this fate is going to be all but impossible to avoid, because the energies of the ritual and the dysfunctions of the self form a feedback loop that drowns out the signals that something’s gone wrong.

It’s probably not an accident, in other words, that the thing that wrecked the UR Group was a rising spiral of clashing egos among the leading figures.  That’s what you’d expect to see happen with a group of people who are busy performing solar invocations without any other planetary influence to balance them.  Crowley, it bears noting, managed the same thing in a somewhat more diffuse and roundabout way, though here again an excess of solar symbolism seems to have played a role—one of the booby traps hidden in the standard Golden Dawn system is an excessive focus on the solar symbolism of Tiphareth, the sixth sphere of the Tree of Life, which again can lead to overinflated egos.

There are ways around that pitfall, in or out of the Golden Dawn system, but you have to know that the pitfall is there in order to avoid it. You also have to be willing to recognize a pitfall as a pitfall, and avoid the temptation to convince yourself that the dysfunctional emotional state you’ve gotten yourself into isn’t a sign of your own profound spiritual specialness. That’s not always easy—but then nobody who knew what they were talking about ever said that magic was easy.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Three Lessons in Operative Magic

I really did intend to talk about something other than the vagaries of the Neopagan scene this month. The politics of contemporary Neopaganism deserved a passing glance, if only because those of us who are still practicing magic when the Neopagan wave flows back out to sea will have to deal with the social consequences of its vagaries for years to come, and there’s also a wry amusement to be gained by watching people insist rhat the best way to create a diverse and tolerant Paganism is to use bullying and ostracism to enforce rigid ideological uniformity on the Pagan scene. Still, such entertainments are peripheral to the purpose of this blog.

It so happens, though, that one of the other tempests currently raging in the Neopagan teapot offers something a good deal more relevant to the concerns of The Well of Galabes. Operative magic—the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will, to use Dion Fortune’s definition—is one of the core disciplines of the occult philosophy I’m exploring here, and the tempest in question provides three really quite solid lessons in certain basic elements of operative magic. This is less of a compliment than it sounds, but we’ll get to that.

A little background might be helpful. Early last year, a Stanford undergraduate athlete named Brock Turner raped a woman outside of a college party. Unlike most rapists, he got caught and was brought to trial. He was convicted on three counts of sexual assault, but the judge—not coincidentally, perhaps, a Stanford graduate and former athlete—sentenced him to a much shorter sentence than usual. This was seen by a good many people, and not unreasonably, as a flagrant miscarriage of justice.

Enter certain members of the Pagan community. On June 8, an article on a popular Pagan website called for Pagans to join together en masse to cast hexes on Turner, the judge, and Turner’s father, who had made some gratuitously offensive public remarks in defense of his son. The idea seems to have been that since the justice system had failed to punish Turner, the Neopagan community would do it instead, by cursing him and the others involved with various colorful forms of misery and misfortune. 

Those of my readers who follow the Pagan blogosphere know how the resulting debates shaped up. It was all phrased in ethical terms; critics of the project insisted that those who participated in it would be punished by karma, the threefold law, or what have you, for engaging in what was, after all, magic meant to cause harm to others—that is to say, evil magic.  Proponents of the project insisted with equal heat that they didn’t believe in the things their critics spoke of, and that any action other than taking part in the hexing amounted to sitting by passively while Brock Turner got away with rape.

Are there important ethical issues in the situation? No doubt there are, but I don’t propose to get into them here. Nietzsche’s sly definition of ethics as the art of propping up inherited prejudices with bad logic has lost neither its sting nor its relevance since his time. In the Neopagan scene or out of it, furthermore, there’s no ethical consensus of the kind that would allow those issues to be settled in any meaningful sense, so ethical disputes inevitably come down to people with irreducibly different presuppositions talking past one another.

What hasn’t been addressed, as far as I know, are the issues of practical operative occultism that are raised by a project of the sort under discussion. That’s what I propose to talk about here.

It’s probably necessary to start off by noting that magic is not whatever you want it to be. It’s an ancient, subtle, and delicate art backed up by a body of knowledge—a science in the older sense of that word—that’s been gathered from something like three thousand years of practical experience in the Western world, and longer than that in the East. One consequence of this is that the laws of magic, like the laws of physics, don’t care whether you believe in them. In magic as in physics, some things work, some things don’t, and some things quite reliably blow up in your face and leave splinters in your flesh.  Learning which of these is which is an important part of a magical education—something that you can study with a teacher, in a magical lodge, or in that venerable institution, the School of Hard Knocks.

So let’s take a look at the campaign to hex Brock Turner from the point of view of operative magic, and see what we can learn.

The first task in any magical working is deciding exactly what it’s supposed to accomplish, and here a simple but immensely important rule holds sway: your working should focus on ends, not means. If the thing you want is X, in other words, your working will be most effective if you focus all your efforts on X itself, and let the magic sort out the intermediate steps that will get you X. 

This works because magic gains power from unity of focus. The more precisely you concentrate your efforts on a single goal, that is, the more likely you are to achieve it, while the more you diffuse your efforts in multiple directions, the more likely you are to fail to achieve any of them. If you concentrate everything you’ve got on the end, as a result, you’re much more likely to achieve it than if you divide your concentration between the end and the means you think you need to get the end.

What if you put all your concentration into the means? Embarrassingly often, this results in achieving the means, but in a way that doesn’t contribute toward achieving the end. There’s an old and famous story of a man who tried to become rich by doing a series of workings in which he visualized himself handling vast stacks of money. Shortly thereafter he lost his job, and the only job he could get was a position at a bank, where he labored eight hours a day at a modest wage counting vast stacks of other people’s money. He’d focused on the means—money in his hands—rather than the end—a lifestyle of wealth and financial comfort—and gotten the one and not the other.

Now of course the difficulty here, and it’s not a small one, is that in order to focus your working on ends rather than means, you have to know what you actually want. That’s not a straightforward thing, as human beings pretty much by definition are bundles of mixed motives and misunderstood desires. Half the reason that most people never manage to achieve happiness in life is that they never get around to figuring out what would make them happy, and so they keep on chasing the things they think they want rather than the thing that would actually satisfy their innermost needs. When dealing with a working like the Brock Turner hex, though, we can set aside these perplexities and simply ask: what is this working supposed to accomplish?

The purported intention offered by the proponents of the working is to bring justice to a situation in which it is clearly lacking. That’s a laudable intention, but something very curious happens when—as has already happened—someone asks, “Then why are you trying to cast a curse? Why not instead do a working focused explicitly on bringing justice to the situation?”  The standard response on the part of the proponents of the working is to dismiss this as a namby-pamby, milksop sort of half-measure, and to insist that only fullblown malevolent magic will do.  It’s an odd answer, all things considered, but it’s not new to this case; I’ve seen it in quite a few similar debates before now.

It’s not as though justice is actually a namby-pamby, milksop sort of thing, you know. Strict retributive justice is scary stuff. It’s the opposite of mercy; it means that what you do gets done to you, no wiggle room, no leniency, no second chances. In astrological symbolism, retributive justice is assigned to Saturn, the Greater Malefic, the cold and implacable planet of time, fate, and hard limits. In Pagan religious symbolism, justice corresponds to as tough and intransigent a set of deities as you’ll find anywhere. In the Cabala, justice is a correspondence of the terrible fifth sephirah Geburah, the sphere of severity and strict judgment. So...why isn’t this an adequate intention for the working?

I suspect the reason has to do with one of the unmentionable realities of contemporary American social life—the fact that so many Americans these days long desperately for a good excuse to hurt someone. Watch the way that Americans behave toward anyone they’ve decided it’s okay to hate, and you can count on seeing a really impressive degree of viciousness in action. This is why we fetishize vampires and zombies, why mass murderers occupy so large a place in our collective imagination, why policies that punish the poor for their own destitution enjoy bipartisan support, and so on.

The media circus around Brock Turner’s sentencing has brought this same reaction down on him. The people who are calling for malevolent magic to be flung at him clearly don’t want justice, since they’ve rejected the concept as an explicit goal for their magic, and as far as I’ve seen, they show only the most pro forma concern for the woman he raped—where are the mass workings to bring her healing and justice?  Rather, they want to take part in the magical equivalent of the kind of Old West lynch mob that used to haul unpopular felons out of jail, tie rope around their feet, drag them behind galloping horses over rough ground for ten miles or so, and then splash kerosene onto what was left and set it on fire.

Mixed motives, for reasons discussed earlier, are a hindrance to effective magic. If you want to bring justice into a situation, you need to direct your magical efforts toward justice. If you want to drop the facade of bland plastic niceness that governs most social interactions in America, on the other hand, and wallow in the delights of beating and bullying someone, then it’s probably a good idea to admit that to yourself and drop the pretense that justice has anything to do with the matter.

It’s at this point, though, that we move to the second lesson that can be drawn from the campaign to hex Brock Turner. Another important rule of magic is generally called the law of repercussion, though I prefer to call it the Raspberry Jam Principle. Just as you can’t spread raspberry jam on a slice of bread without getting at least a little of it on your own fingers, that is, you can’t work with magical forces without those forces having some effect on you.

I probably need to note again that this is not a matter of ethics, any more than it’s an ethical judgment to point out that drinking drain cleaner is bad for your digestion. The law of repercussion doesn’t mean that somebody up in the clouds is passing judgment on you; it’s as impersonal, automatic, and pitiless as gravity. Nor, by the way, do you have to believe in it for it to affect you; the laws of magic, like the laws of physics, don’t care if you believe in them or not. The reason this principle works is simply that your own mind and body are the vehicles for the influences you summon and direct in magic. Whatever influences you bring into manifestation in your magical work will thus set corresponding patterns going in you, which will then work outwards into your life: as in the macrocosm, so in the microcosm.

It’s only fair to note that I’ve met a certain number of operative mages who insist that this isn’t the case and that they can do whatever they want without any risk from repercussion. Their lives are smoking craters. I’ve watched some of them stumble for years from one miserable mess to another, with buckets of bad luck far beyond the normal measure landing on their heads over and over again. Ironically, if you suggest to them that maybe the cascading miseries of their lives might be the normal working out of well-known magical principles, you can expect to field an angry insistence that it just ain’t so.

I also know plenty of operative mages whose lives are, by and large, happy and successful. They have prosperous careers, enjoy generally good health, have little trouble maintaining whatever kind of relationships they prefer, and so on. All of them, without exception, pay careful attention to the law of repercussion in their magical work. They aren’t necessarily paragons of virtue in any other sense, but they know that the Raspberry Jam Principle has its flipside, which is that you can improve your own life substantially by making a habit of directing influences of healing and benediction toward other people. Namby-pamby? Call it what you like, it works.

You’ll notice I haven’t used words like “shouldn’t” in this discussion, and that’s deliberate. Once again, we’re not talking about ethics. If you like lots of suffering in your life—some people apparently do—you now know a very good way to get it.  What’s more, if you want to hurt someone magically, and don’t mind taking the hit from the inevitable repercussion, then I’m not going to tell you not to. One very effective way to work malevolent magic, in fact, is to resolve firmly that what you’re about to do is so important that you’re perfectly willing to embrace whatever the repercussions happen to be—though if you do that, it’s crucial to stick with it when the ugly stuff starts to happen. If you start whining at that point, it’s just going to mess up the working.

It’s probably also worth noting here that a working for retributive justice also involves repercussion. If you’re behaving unjustly in your life—and which of us isn’t?—you’re going to get it in the neck as the energies of retributive justice take shape in your own body and mind, and seek the nearest available outlet in your life. One proven way around this effect is to choose some situation in which you’re behaving unjustly and, as soon as you’ve done the working, do whatever you have to do to make it right. That provides a channel through which the influence can earth out, and thus gives you some control over the shape of the repercussion. On the other hand, you could choose instead to do a working to bring healing and restorative justice to the woman Brock Turner raped, in which case the repercussion is going to be to your benefit.

So should you run right out and post something on Faceplant or your favorite Pagan networking site trying to organize a group working along the lines just suggested?  At this point we move to the third lesson that can be drawn from the campaign to hex Brock Turner.

Eliphas Levi, whose knowledge of older magical traditions was considerably more extensive and subtle than that of many later mages, wrote that four virtues are paramount in magic:  to know, to will, to dare, and to be silent. (One of my teachers used to rephrase this in his inimitable style:  “to know, to will, to dare, and to shut the f*** up.”) That last virtue is much more important than it looks. The more you talk about the workings you’re doing, the less power they have: that’s a reliable principle of magic, and once again, you don’t have to believe in it to be affected by it.

The same thing, interestingly enough, affects many other kinds of creative activity. Most writers learn early on in their careers, for example, that talking about a writing project is a great way to bleed the creative energy right out of it. Still, with magic, and especially with magic in the age of the internet, there’s another issue of equal importance, which is that not everyone who reads your Faceplant post will necessarily share your goals and support your magical intentions.

A few years back, for example, friends of the Druid leader Isaac Bonewits organized an internet spell to try to save his life when he was dying of cancer. For a while there, just about every internet forum frequented by Druids had posts splashed all over it asking people to do workings that made use of a typically clunky ditty:  “Isaac’s tumor goes away, thirty more years with Phae.” (The latter reference was to his wife Phaedra.) Despite the fact that some thousands of people participated in it, the working failed, and Bonewits passed away a short time later.

I’ve long suspected that there was a simple if brutal reason behind that failure. Bonewits was not an uncontroversial figure. He made plenty of enemies—it might even be fair to say that he delighted in making them—and some of those enmities, to judge from conversations I heard at a variety of Pagan venues over the years, ran very, very deep. If some of the many people who disliked Bonewits wanted to, they could quite easily have done workings of their own, chanting a ditty of their own on the order of “Tumor, tumor, grow and spread, thirty days and Isaac’s dead,” or what have you. Since he was already gravely ill, they wouldn’t have have to carry the weight of a full-blown death spell; all they had to do was interfere with the working that was being done to save his life—and interfering with a magical working is fairly easy if you know the details of the working in advance.

The attempt to hex Brock Turner runs exactly the same risk. I’m not sure how many of my readers are aware of this, for example, but there’s an organized movement of neo-Nazi magical lodges, the so-called darkside lodges, scattered over various corners of the Western world. (Those who are interested in the grubby details can find them in Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s excellent book Black Sun.) I have no contact with members of those lodges, nor have I the least interest in having any; thus I can’t be sure of their opinions on the subject, but on first principles I’d tend to suspect that they’d favor Brock Turner’s side of the case over that of the woman he raped.

Thus it’s quite possible that at this point, every detail of the proposed hexing campaign is now being discussed in the private forums that neo-Nazi occultists frequent. It’s equally possible that one or more darkside lodges are already planning or performing ritual workings to interfere with the hexing—again, this isn’t hard once you know the details of the working you want to counter. The internet is not a private space, it bears remembering, and it’s unwise in the extreme to assume that the things you post there will only reach people who agree with you.

To sum up, then, if you’re going to practice magic, it’s a good idea to be honest with yourself about what exactly you want to accomplish, and then aim for your actual goals rather than some intermediate step that you think will get you there. It’s a good idea to keep the Raspberry Jam Principle in mind, and work with magical influences whose repercussions you’re willing to tolerate in your life. It’s also a good idea not to talk about your magical workings, partly to keep from diffusing your intent and partly to keep those who might not sympathize with your goals from messing with your workings. Those are three very solid lessons to take from the situation here anatomized—and if those of my readers who happen to be operative mages choose to put those lessons to use in performing workings of healing and restorative justice for the benefit of the woman Brock Turner raped, and for all victims of sexual assault, that strikes me as a very, very good thing indeed.

On an unrelated note, I'm currently in need of decent quality scans, in JPEG format, of the artwork from Eliphas Levi's book Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic, usually mistitled Transcendental Magic in its English translation). If you have access to these, please put through a comment headed "not for posting" with your email address and other details. Many thanks!

Saturday, May 21, 2016

On the Separation of Coven and State

Last month’s post here on The Well of Galabes, which examined a recent outburst of demagogy in the contemporary Neopagan scene, could also be considered a case study of a phenomenon that has a much broader presence in today’s Neopaganism. It’s a phenomenon that’s seen some discussion here already from a historical perspective, but it deserves a broader exploration in its own right, as it’s likely to have a considerable impact on the way the alternative spirituality scene shapes up over the next few decades. The trend I have in mind?  The abandonment of spirituality in favor of politics across a tolerably wide section of the Neopagan community.

Now of course the process in question isn’t described in these terms by those who engage in it. Indeed, my experience is that those most committed to that act of replacement are most likely to deny that this is what they’re doing.  Thus I’d like to start with a thought experiment that may clarify things a bit.

Let’s imagine, dear reader, that you’re involved in an organization that has a political goal—let’s say, engaging in lobbying and protest to better the lot of the homeless. After your organization has been established for a while, it gets an influx of new members, who seem to be very enthusiastic about the organization and its mission. In a discussion about strategy not long thereafter, though, the new members all say, “I think that what we ought to do to help the homeless is to praise Jesus.”

When one of the other members points out that praising Jesus is a spiritual activity rather than a political one, one of the newcomers says, “But praising Jesus is my politics.” When another member suggests that maybe the newcomers could practice their spirituality on their own time, another newcomer says angrily, “I’m not going to let you stop me from praising Jesus.” A third newcomer insists, “If you won’t let this organization praise Jesus, you’re giving up on helping the homeless.”  Around and around it goes; the newcomers insist at the top of their lungs that they’re committed to helping the homeless, but what they want to do always works out to replacing the political activities for which the organization was founded with the spiritual activity of praising Jesus.

Reverse the signs and you’ve got a good first approximation of what’s been happening in a great many Neopagan organizations in recent years. Most of those organizations were founded explicitly to engage in such spiritual activities as invoking deities and practicing magic. Of late, though, a significant number of newcomers have begun to insist that the organizations should reorient themselves toward political activities, and downplay or even discard their spiritual activities, all the while insisting that they aren’t actually changing anything.

That’s taken place in parallel with an influx of atheists, agnostics, and secularists who want to think of themselves as Pagans even though they don’t happen to believe in, and often are unwilling to tolerate, invoking deities and practicing magic—the things, as already noted, that most Neopagan groups were established to do. Some of the loudest voices among these have insisted that the Neopagan community had to be “inclusive,” and what “inclusive” meant in practice, of course, was that the Neopagan community was supposed to stop doing those things that atheists, agnostics, and secularists don’t like, such as invoking deities and practicing magic. (For some reason “inclusivity” never seems to mean that atheists, agnostics, and secularists should become more inclusive themselves, and tolerate practices that aren’t their cup of tea. Funny how that works...)

Those of my readers who know their way around the radical politics of an earlier era may recall the term “entryism.” That was the tactic, much practiced by Marxists back in the day, of joining some other group under false pretenses, and then using all available means to turn the group into a front for the entryists’ political ambitions. It’s at least possible that some degree of deliberate entryism is involved in these efforts to transform Neopagan spiritual organizations into political cadres.  It’s equally possible that it’s a matter of sheer opportunism—it’s hardly surprising, after all, that would-be demagogues who aren’t willing or able to take on the hard work of building a political cadre themselves might jump at the chance to hijack an existing group for their purposes.

All this presupposes, of course, that there’s a meaningful difference between political and spiritual activity, and it’s become fashionable in some circles—not all of them committed to the sort of entryism just described—to insist either that there is no such difference, or there shouldn’t be. On a common-sense level, of course, there’s an obvious difference between praising Jesus and lobbying the city council for funding for homeless shelters—or, for that matter, between invoking Pagan deities in a group ritual and posting screeds on the internet denouncing capitalism as the source of all evil. Still, let’s go deeper. Is there, and should there be, a difference between spirituality and politics? Is there a point to the separation of coven and state?

Two arguments routinely get brought up in Neopagan circles to defend the fusion of spirituality and politics. The first is that the civil rights movement in 1950s and 1960s America was spearheaded and organized by African-American churches. While this is quite true, there are at least two points to that historical example that generally get neglected in this context.

First, the reason civil rights organizers in the African-American community used churches as their organizing basis was that in the 1950s and 1960s, in large parts of the United States, a church was one of the very few places where large numbers of black Americans could gather without risking harrassment or worse from the authorities. For them, it was a counsel of necessity. For today’s Neopagans, that’s simply not the case—they have plenty of options, up to and including founding brand new radical political parties, which African-Americans in the South at the time of the civil rights movement didn’t have at all.  It’s thus unnecessary for them to encroach on organizations founded for a completely different set of purposes.

Second, when African-American churches provided space for civil rights organizing in the 1950s and 1960s, they didn’t give up their religious activities. Quite the contrary, the same churches where CORE and NAACP members helped put together civil rights protests were also having church services every Sunday morning and Bible study sessions every Wednesday night. The civil rights organizers weren’t trying to supplant spiritual activities with political ones, as so many of today’s political Pagans are.  A great many of them, in fact, were devout Christians for whom church services and Bible study sessions were at least as important as political activities. Their example thus can’t be used to justify a forced replacement of spirituality with politics in Neopagan traditions.

So much for the first argument. The second is considerably subtler. It argues that the separation of spirituality and politics was an invention of the Enlightenment—the great secularizing movement of eighteenth-century Europe and the European diaspora—and therefore has no conceivable relevance to Neopagan traditions, which hearken back to an era before the Enlightenment.

The difficulty with this claim is that the separation of spirituality and politics isn’t unique to Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment societies at all. The Enlightenment thinkers who argued for the separation of church and state, in point of fact, were inspired by an earlier example of the same separation—the grand tradition of religious tolerance in the Roman world, which gave citizens the freedom to practice any religion and worship any deity they wished, and distinguished these spiritual commitments from their political allegiance. 

My Christian readers might object to this characterization, but theirs is the exception that proves the rule. What brought down occasional bursts of persecution on the early Christians was their refusal to burn incense to the genius (i.e., guardian spirit) of the emperor, an act that had the same role in the Roman world that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance has in modern America. Jews were exempt from this requirement, but that was because they were a familiar presence in the Mediterranean world—they had a social status rather like the Amish and Mennonites in today’s America. As a strange cult founded by a man who was executed by a provincial governor for crimes against Rome, Christianity was politically suspect from the start, and the refusal of Christians to burn incense to the emperor’s genius proved, in the eyes of most Romans, that they must be involved in political conspiracy.

The tolerance Rome extended to other spiritual traditions, and the functional division between religious and political affairs, have been commonplace in many other places and times, when a single political structure has united people of many religious beliefs. In China from the T’ang dynasty onwards, for example, a policy of religious liberty allowed religious Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, various strands of folk religion, and imported faiths such as Christianity and Islam to function side by side, while the government itself stood comfortably aloof from theology and practiced a set of archaic rituals that were old before Rome was founded.

In Japan, Buddhism and Shinto worked out a similar modus vivendi under the impartial patronage of the government; in India, immense religious diversity has been the order of the day for more than two millennia, and even the arrival of militant Islam was able to bring religion and politics back together only for a short while. Even in so intolerant a society as medieval Europe, there were times and places—the great age of the Hohenstaufens in Germany and Italy among them—where religious diversity was a viable option because politics and religion were kept separate.  These are just the obvious high points in a long history of cosmopolitan societies in which religion was a matter of personal choice, unconnected to issues of political allegiance and political identity.

All but the last of these societies count as Pagan by the usual modern definition of the term—and a strong case could be made for assigning that term to Frederick II, the greatest of the Hohenstaufens! Thus it’s hardly accurate to claim that there’s something fundamentally un-Pagan in drawing a line between the spiritual and the political. As already noted, examples from the Pagan past were a massive influence on the Enlightenment thinkers who spearheaded the separation of church and state in the modern world, and shaped their activities in ways that can still be traced in our collective life today.

Ever wonder, for example, why American political architecture from the Revolutionary War on down borrowed so heavily from Roman public architecture of the late Republic—why fluted Corinthian pillars, triangular pediments covered in sculpture, domes like that of the Pantheon, and all the other bric-a-brac of Rome can be found all over Washington DC and most state capitals, wherever government buildings are supposed to symbolize the American political order? It’s because the founders of the United States, scions of the Enlightenment to a man, saw themselves as creating an equivalent of the Roman Republic:  an equivalent in which toleration of personal religious choices, and the separation of church and state this required, was an essential part.

The Enlightenment, mind you, was a complex phenomenon, and it contained many different themes and currents. Some of those rejected the ideas of tolerance, diversity, and individual choice in favor of a supposedly ecstatic unity of all in some idyllic common vision of truth, and we’ll talk in a bit about where this sort of thinking led. In the currents that played a primary role in shaping American political philosophy in its early period, though, a critical, skeptical, and humanistic perspective led to the emergence of a set of ideas we can call the doctrine of separate spheres.

The core idea here is that there are many different spheres of human life, which are incommensurable to one another—that is to say, each one can’t be collapsed into any of the others without erasing its essential nature. Politics forms one of these spheres.  Spirituality is another. The arts are another separate sphere; the sciences are another; the private life of the individual is yet another. There are others—as many others as there are distinctive commitments in human individual and social life.

One of the things that makes these spheres distinct from one another is that expertise in one does not transfer to others. A saintly religious leader can be utterly clueless when it comes to science—the fulminations of conservative Christians about issues such as evolution and the age of the Earth are good examples here. Equally, a capable scientist can babble nonsense whenever he opens his mouth about religion—Richard Dawkins has spent much of his career proving this point. Each of the other spheres is subject to the same rule. Occasionally you do find someone who turns out to be gifted in two or more spheres, but he or she will have had to develop competence in each sphere separately.

One valuable result of differentiating these spheres was precisely that this made it easier to tell experts in one sphere to mind their own business when they started laying down the law in a sphere about which they hadn’t a clue. One obvious example at the time of the Enlightenment, of course, was the repeated attempts by religious authorities to tell scientists what they were and weren’t allowed to discover. Another was the equally persistent attempts by political authorities to tell religious people what they were and weren’t allowed to believe. Since that time, there have been plenty of other examples—the attempts by political and religious authorities alike to tell consenting adults what they are and aren’t allowed to do in their own bedrooms may occur to some of my readers.

The one place where these spheres intersect, according to this way of thinking, is in the individual. Each of us has the freedom to choose how we relate to each of the spheres of human life. We can pick and choose as we wish—this set of political opinions, that religious belief, these tastes in music and literature, those involvements in the sciences, and so on. If we wish to, we can make one of these spheres primary and place the others in a subordinate role—for example, by taking up a set of religious commitments that imply corresponding political, esthetic, scientific, and personal commitments—but no outside authority can force us to do this.  We choose to do that, or choose something else instead. That’s the meaning of the much-abused word “liberty.”

This is the doctrine of separate spheres, one of the core concepts of what I’ve called the critical, skeptical, and humanistic currents in Enlightenment thought. There were other currents, as already mentioned, that approached the same issue—the fraught relationship of the individual to the many aspects of human society—from a very different angle. To these latter thinkers, the cosmopolitan realities of a complex culture were a nightmare from which they wished to awaken.  Their goal was to find some way to restore a simpler way of life in which everyone naturally thought and felt the same way, and shared the same religious, political, artistic, scientific, and personal impulses.

There are at least two ways to pursue this. One of them is traditionalism—the belief that returning to some clearly defined set of beliefs and ways of life anchored in the past is the way out of the perplexities of modernity. That’s the vision underlying the continental European tradition of conservatism: the craving for a golden age in the past, redefined freely though covertly in the image of the unfulfilled desires of the present. That project is almost always awash in ironies; it’s common, for example, for people on the extreme racist right these days to glorify the Ghibelline ideal, when that was exactly the ideal of the cosmopolitan, religiously and ethnically diverse society headed by the tolerant Hohenstaufen monarchs I mentioned earlier.

The other end of the same pursuit of social uniformity projects the golden age into the future. This is the converse of traditionalism, which Karl Popper usefully called historicism. The core of historicism is the claim that history naturally marches toward the predetermined end of a perfect society.  There have been plenty of ideologies that have pursued the historicist dream down through the centuries, but most of them have long since vanished into the history books. The one that remains a living presence these days is Marxism, with its messianic fantasies of the perfect Communist utopia of the future.

The problem with both traditionalism and historicism is simple: neither one works as advertised. The golden age, whether handed down from the past or hanging luminously in the future, never manages to arrive, because in a cosmopolitan society, there’s no way to get everyone to “naturally” think, feel, and act in unison. When you try to force that to happen, what you get is totalitarianism.

That’s a word that gets bandied about far too often with little sense of its meaning. What it means is the abolition of the separate spheres in favor of one, which is then supposed to contain the sum total of human society. Some totalitarians—the jihadi zealots of Daesh are one example; their precise Christian equivalents in the Dominionist movement are another—collapse everything into the religious sphere, erasing the independent existence of any of the others. Other totalitarian systems—Marxism is the classic example here—collapse everything into the political sphere, and erase the others in that way.  Thus you get the Marxist rejection of religion, and a cascade of other intrusions from the political sphere into the rest of life. All of these are inevitable expressions of the totalitarian impulse that’s inseparable from Marxism in practice.

It’s been objected frequently by devout Marxists that there has never actually been a truly Marxist society, and so criticism of Marxism based on the hideous results of previous Marxist regimes—Stalin’s, Mao’s, Pol Pot’s—is unfair. While the first point is correct, the second is not. There has never been a truly Marxist society, in the sense of a society that functions the way Marx said it should; what’s more, there never will be, because Marxist theories inevitably flop when applied to the real world. That’s why every Marxist revolution in history either promptly dissolved in anarchy and counterrevolution, or just as promptly installed a grim bureaucratic dictatorship that enforced its decrees by prison camps, mass murder, or both.

Other totalitarian schemes have their own histories of failure and slaughter. Once a society has become complex enough that there’s more than one religious option, more than one political option, and so on down the list of separate spheres, an approach centered on tolerance and individual choice is the one choice that doesn’t reliably end in brutality and despotism.  This implies, in turn, that attempts to collapse the various separate spheres into one another are worth opposing, even when they appear far out on the cultural fringes—for example, the fringe where today’s Neopaganism is found.

With this in mind, I’d like to suggest that those of my readers who are involved in Neopagan traditions of any kind might consider turning their backs on any attempt to enforce political conformity or to substitute politics for spirituality in Neopagan settings. I’d also like to encourage those who are in leadership positions in Neopagan groups to consider adopting a formal declaration that their members have the right to whatever political affiliation they choose, and defending that right from zealots and entryists who try to infringe on it. From the acorn grows the mighty oak—and from the sloe, the clawed and twisted blackthorn. Let us be careful what seeds we choose to plant.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A Wind that Tastes of Ashes

I'd meant to devote this month’s post here at The Well of Galabes to discussing some of the things that were part of the old Renaissance magical synthesis, and haven’t yet been hauled out of the rubble and dusted off for modern use. Still, the present has as much to say about the project of this blog as the past, and just at the moment there are patterns taking shape in the present that deserve close attention.

I’ve speculated more than once, in these essays as well as on my other blog, about the ways that the current Neopagan scene might wind down once it finishes up the thirty to forty year lifespan that’s normal for popular religious movements in American history. As I’ve noted, it might imitate the old soldier in the saying, and just fade away; it might also shed the mass following but keep enough of itself intact to allow one or more enduring religious denominations to come into being.

Those were never the only options, though. It’s at least as common for popular religious movements to end messily via some of self-induced disaster. The collapse of Spiritualism at the end of the nineteenth century in a torrent of blatant fraud and chicanery is one example of the type; the near-total implosion of Theosophy in 1929 after the failure of the messianic fantasies once reposed in Jiddu Krishnamurti is another, and a third is the catastrophic own goal the New Age movement scored against itself when December 21, 2012 turned out to be just another day. Still, it looks just now as though a somewhat different form of self-immolation is waiting in the wings.  With a fine if unconscious sense of historical irony, the Neopagan scene seems to be gearing up for its very own witch hunt.

You know the story already, dear reader.  It’s as old as the hills and as tacky as half-dried blood. You’ve got a community trying not to face the gap between cherished visions of a grand future and the gritty realities of decline in the present. You’ve got a few vulnerable minorities within the community, set apart by easily recognized differences in belief and behavior. You’ve got an aspiring demagogue who recognizes that a witch hunt directed against those minorities will not only distract the community from troubles it doesn’t want to face, but can also become a springboard to unearned power.

Then, of course, you get the inflammatory rhetoric, full of all the usual tropes of subversion and invisible evil, followed by a range of weasel-worded half-retractions intended to give the demagogue a semblance of plausible deniability. You get a brief burst of outrage from the community, followed by another set of weasel-worded half-retractions noting that, sure, the demagogue used language we should all deplore, but his intentions are no doubt good and the issues he’s raised ought to be taken seriously, blah blah blah. The rest of the story? That’s on its way, and will doubtless arrive in due time.

The community in question, of course, is the modern Neopagan scene. As I noted in the other blog this week, that’s a far more diverse community than most people outside it realize, united by certain details of history rather than by shared beliefs or practices. It’s also far less organized than most people outside it realize. There are organizations, but none of them can claim more than a tiny fraction of American Neopagans as members; there are specific systems of practice—“traditions” is the term used within the scene—but here again, no one of these accounts for more than a tiny fraction of the community. More influential than these are certain broad groupings with different historical origins.

The largest of these, the main current of modern popular Neopaganism, is the eclectic Pagan movement that sprang into being in the very early 1980s in the wake of two hugely influential books, Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance and Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon. This isn’t the same thing as the Wicca Gerald Gardner invented in the late 1940s, and he and a range of followers and imitators publicized in the following decade; the differences between British traditional witchcraft as it’s now generally called, and modern eclectic Paganism are on a par with the differences between Judaism and Christianity.

Eclectic Paganism is the sort of thing you’ll find on display at most Pagan festivals, community Full Moon celebrations, and the like. Gendered ditheism—the worship of two deities, “the God” and “the Goddess”—provides the most common theological basis; . The eight festivals of the Wheel of the Year provide the religious calendar, celebrated by rituals freely pasted together from a mix of standard elements, local customs, and personal improvisations.

Organization in eclectic Paganism is egalitarian in theory and charismatic in practice—what this means is that formal organization is minimal, and it’s up to aspiring Pagan leaders amass as large a personal following as their talents for showmanship, leadership, and politics allow.  Membership is usually just a matter of showing up, though scraps of initiatory ritual appear now and then as a legacy from the past, and members move easily between one tradition and another. At its best, to borrow an acronym from Starhawk’s writings, it’s EIEIO: “eclectic, improvisational, ecstatic, inspired, organic,” features it shares with most other popular religious movements.  At its worst, it’s make-believe and faux-medieval dress-up games, festooned with some of the worst poetry in the history of English literature.

That’s the mainstream. Most of the minorities fall into two categories.The first consists of older initiatory traditions. British Traditional Wicca is the most important of these; some forms of Druidry belong here as well; then there’s a penumbra of initiatory orders such as the various Orders of the Golden Dawn, the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), other kinds of Druidry, and so on, whose members aren’t really part of the Neopagan scene but shop at the same bookstores, attend some of the same events, and interface with the scene in various ways. The initiatory orders are structured, formal, and often rather fussy, with multiple levels of initiation that have to be earned by good old-fashioned hard work. That’s my spiritual home turf, and most of what’s discussed on this blog relates to it.

The other category is best understood through its history. Back in the early days of the Neopagan era, a good many people got involved in eclectic Paganism thinking that it was an ancient as it claimed, and then discovered that its roots were about as steady as those of Birnam Wood. Some went looking for a more historically authentic option, and many of those found it in the worship of gods and goddesses of Pagan religions from the past. The rise of polytheist Paganism is a story of its own, and one I should probably tell here one of these days, as it may just be a major turning point in the religious history of the West. The current stage in that story, though, is a movement as loose and unstructured as eclectic Paganism, but oriented to the very different traditions, customs, and vision of ancient polytheism.

Until fairly recently, all things considered, the eclectic Pagan mainstream didn’t greatly concern itself about the existence of the minority movements in its midst. There was a certain degree of animus back in the day toward old-fashioned occultists like me; I’ve mentioned before how a great deal of Pagan-themed fantasy from the 1980s and 1990s had all the good guys practicing eclectic Pagan magic and all the bad guys practicing ceremonial magic. Still, most of that got shaken off as eclectic Paganism found its feet as a significant presence in American popular culture, and its leaders began to dream of the day when they would be salaried clergypersons ministering to big congregations, leading prayers at city council meetings, and being taken seriously by the rest of society.

Unfortunately for those daydreams, and also for the relative tolerance of the turn-of-the-millennium Neopagan community, two major obstacles stood between eclectic Paganism and its supposed future as a large, respected, and profitable denomination. The first is simply that the central reason the eclectic Pagan scene was lacking in paid clergy was that the great majority of participants wanted it that way.  The model of religion to which many Pagan leaders aspired, in which parishioners handed over regular donations for the privilege of attending weekly services directed by paid clergy, was exactly the model that most participants in the Neopagan scene deliberately rejected when they walked away from the religious mainstream.  They weren’t interested in returning to it, much less on their nickel.

That obstacle was problematic enough. The other, though, was considerably worse: during the first decade of the 21st century, after several decades of steady growth, the Neopagan movement in the United States peaked and began an uneven but steady decline.

You can measure that decline by any number of variables. Sales of books on Neopagan subjects peaked in 2007, right about the time the New Age market peaked, and have been falling ever since. Attendance at Neopagan festivals, which swelled through the 1980s and 1990s and plateaued after that, began a ragged decline thereafter which has accelerated sharply in the last few years. People are starting to refer to themselves jokingly, or half-jokingly, as “recovering Pagans,” having dropped out of the scene and given away their Pagan books and trinkets, and high-profile defections have begun—those who follow the Pagan blogosphere will remember the flutter in an assortment of dovecotes a little while back when a rising star named Teo Bishop got a lavish profile in one of the few remaining Pagan magazines, and while that issue was still on the stands, announced that he was returning to Christianity.

There are doubtless any number of reasons why the Neopagan wave has crested and begun to flow back out to sea.  The most important may well be simply that popular culture has a short shelf life. That said, I’d like to propose another reason, which is the abandonment of the religious dimension. These days, a great many people in the eclectic Pagan scene have stopped believing in the existence of the God and the Goddess as divine beings. Atheist Pagans, Secular Pagans, Humanist Pagans—these are increasingly popular labels at this point, and many of those who embrace such labels have also embraced the denunciatory hostility of contemporary “angry atheism,” and fling spluttering tirades against those people in the Neopagan scene who still do take the gods and goddesses seriously.

History shows that when a religion discards its deities, politics fills the void that the gods leave behind. The result does not keep well. Liberal Christianity in the United States made that choice in the 1960s, discarding its faith in the Risen Christ in favor of agnosticism and social-justice activism, which is why churches that dominated the American religious scene in the middle of the 20th century are now selling their buildings, going to part-time unpaid clergy, and facing extinction once the remaining parishioners die off or get bored and wander away. That’s beginning to happen to eclectic Paganism right now. 

The result will be familiar to anyone who knows the dynamics of religious sects in decline. Demands for conformity, inevitably presented as calls for unity, have become common—I’m thinking especially of one prominent blogger who insisted that everyone in the Neopagan scene needed to be under one big tent, singing “We All Come From The Goddess”—an eclectic Pagan hymn, please note, and inevitably an eclectic Pagan tent as well. Meanwhile politics increasingly takes center stage, the former religious focus quietly gutters out, and the decline continues. It’s an explosive combination, waiting for a spark.

This is where our demagogue enters the tale. His name is Rhyd Wildermuth, and he’s a Pagan anarchist Marxist—yes, I have trouble parsing that one, too. Late last month, he put up an anonymous screed on a website he manages—he later acknowledged it as his—purporting to warn the Neopagan community about the threat of what he calls the New Right. Care to guess which parts of the Neopagan community he called out as potential vectors for New Right subversion?

Got it in one.  It’s the groups that deviate from the eclectic Pagan mainstream: initiatory traditions such as Druidry, Hermeticism, and British traditional witchcraft on the one hand, and Reconstructionist and devotional polytheism on the other.  He also targeted the Dianic movement, which originated alongside eclectic Paganism but is forthrightly woman-centered, goddess-worshipping, and—like the initiatory traditions—insists on its right to decide who to welcome to its circles and who to ask to leave. By contrast, eclectic Paganism gets a free pass; so does one Druid group, the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD), which is the largest Druid order in the world today, and thus is probably too big a fish for Wildermuth to risk targeting this early in his campaign.

I encourage anyone interested in the future of the Neopagan movement to give Wildermuth’s screed a good close reading. Mind you, there’s a certain wry amusement to be taken from his sidelong muttering about “‘Long Descent’ druids”—ahem—who are insinuating Oswald Spengler’s ideas into Druidry.  Spengler is suspect, in turn, because he’s “a favorite among many New Right theorists.” I gather Wildermuth doesn’t happen to know that Spengler was also a favorite author of the Beat poets—Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, and their friends—who, by the same logic, ought to be suspect too. Guilt by association is a dangerous game to play, but Wildermuth is clearly willing to play it.

Beyond the amusement value, though, there’s much to be learned from Wildermuth’s tirade. It really is a fine piece of demagogy. Note how he wields the classic tropes of threat by subversion, painting the New Right as a malevolent influence worming its way into the heart of Paganism rather than, say, noticing that Pagans embrace as many different political options as they do spiritual ones, and leaving it at that. Pagan traditions, he claims, can be infected with New Right ideas even without knowing it—a claim that makes it easy for him to find those ideas anywhere he chooses, and just as easy to dismiss out of hand any disagreement with his accusations. Note also the way that he glides smoothly from “New Right ideas” to “New Right aligned Pagans,” who are “hiding their political goals behind claims that they’re ‘apolitical’.” It’s the logic of Stalin’s show trials and the witch burnings: deny that you’re influenced by the New Right and that just proves that you must be hiding your real agenda.

There’s very likely an agenda being hidden here, mind you, but I don’t think it belongs to sinister New Rightists out to pollute the precious bodily fluids of Paganism. The kind of rhetoric Rhyd Wildermuth deploys in his rant shows up over and over again in history:  it’s the classic tool of the demagogue. It’s interesting in this context that in here and in his other writings—you can find plenty of those on the Gods and Radicals website—he consistently identifies illegitimate power with hierarchy, and only with hierarchy. That’s a common evasion, and a telling one.

After all, there’s another kind of power that’s just as illegitimate and destructive, and that’s the power of demagogy:  the brute force of a frightened and furious mob whipped up into a frenzy by rhetoric of the sort we’re examining. Robespierre and Marat, who condemned thousands to the guillotine in the frenzies of France’s revolutionary Terror, didn’t get their immense and brutally wielded power from positions in a hierarchy; they got it from their ability to incite mob violence. Matthew Hopkins, the “Witch Finder Generall” who hanged three hundred women for witchcraft in England in the 1640s, had no official position at all. He owed his power to his ability to convince thousands of ordinary men and women that they were threatened by a creeping evil that only he could detect.

It’s thus of a piece with Wildermuth’s other thinking that when he gets around to telling his readers what to do, he urges them to challenge the traditional roles of Pagan elders and leaders, and to break down boundaries between different traditions. If you’re a demagogue out to bully and bluster your way to unearned power, the respect others give to community leaders and elders is a major obstacle.  The tendency of different groups within the community to look to their leaders and elders, rather than to you, is another. Breaking down these particular obstacles is also, by the way, standard Marxist strategy, which suggests where Wildermuth may have gotten his grasp of the demagogue’s trade.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, to be sure, and evidence for or against my take on Rhyd Wildermuth’s agenda will come only with time. If I’m right, it’s early days yet. denunciations of the New Right menace supposedly slithering through Paganism’s crawlspaces, innuendoes targeting this or that figure or organization on Wildermuth’s list of suspect traditions, veiled demands that leaders and organizations in the eclectic Pagan scene fall in line behind the witch hunt or risk being targeted themselves: those are likely to be the next steps. If those things happen, I trust those of my readers who belong to the Neopagan community will pay close attention, and act appropriately.

The next few years will also determine how the Neopagan community responds. Since that community has so little in the way of organization, that decision will be made one Pagan at a time, and will show whether the values publicly embraced by Pagans—values of tolerance, compassion, and unwillingness to harm—are more than skin deep. If most of the Neopagan community rejects the witch hunt being urged on it, then I think there’s good reason to hope that the twilight of the era of popular Neopaganism may see the best achievements of that era handed on to the future, embodied in traditions and organizations that have a good chance of surviving for the long haul.

If not—if enough Pagans join the hunt, and enough others shrug and do nothing to oppose it—the results will be nothing like so pleasant. Those of us of an age to recall the suicide of American Marxism in the 1970s and 1980s already know how this story ends. One demagogue inspires others, and the result is a vicious spiral of competitive heresy-hunting, in which anyone at any time can be accused of secretly harboring the Wrong Ideas. When that happens in a community that people must choose to join, and can leave whenever they wish, pretty soon the only people left are those who enjoy that particular blood sport, and finally even they get bored. That would be a sorry end for a movement that, whatever its failings, has inspired and delighted many people over the last three and a half decades.

While that decision is being made, I hope that the traditions and individuals currently being targeted by Rhyd Wildermuth’s attempted witch hunt will take appropriate steps. The old initiatory traditions will be fine; most have been through this sort of thing before, and many are already backing away from the Neopagan scene in response to its other problems. The Dianic movement, which has long had its own networks and infrastructure, is unlikely to be harmed much. The polytheists—well, I don’t belong to their community, though I share their belief in the real existence of many gods and goddesses, and their decisions are theirs to make, not mine. I hope it won’t be out of place, though, to suggest that the only way to win this game is not to play, and that completing the process of building their own networks, infrastructure, and events may well be a better way to ensure the future of polytheist religion in the West than continued dependence on a failing and increasingly hostile Neopagan scene.

There’s a cold wind blowing through the Pagan community these days, and it tastes of ashes. With luck, they’ll only be the ashes of failed dreams; they could be something rather grimmer, if things go as badly wrong as I fear they might. Still, we’ll see.