Monday, December 21, 2015

The Scope of Occultism, Part One: Traditional Operative Methods

Last month’s post on occult philosophy was in some ways very timely, at least for me. Twelve years before I posted it, I was poised on the brink of one of the more unexpected twists my life has taken so far—two months into a three-month transition that would see me, twelve years ago today, advanced to the Northern Chair as the seventh Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America.

The title certainly sounds impressive but, as I liked to remark thereafter, that and $3.50 would get you a cup of coffee. When I became AODA’s head in 2003, the order had fewer than a dozen members, no bank account, no public presence, and rituals and traditions that consisted of fading memories in a few elderly heads. It had managed to survive the long winter of pop Neopaganism, rathert than ending up as a stack of rotting papers in a landfill somewhere as did so many other occult schools of the older kind, but that was all. The handful of surviving members made me Grand Archdruid because they thought I might be able to get AODA on its feet again; they were familiar with the books I’d published, and knew that I’d also helped revive a couple of nearly defunct fraternal lodges—and it didn’t hurt that I was the first person to express any significant interest in AODA for decades.

Since then, as the Grateful Dead used to sing, what a long, strange trip it’s been. With upwards of 900 new members, an adequate treasury, a regularly updated website, a publishing program with three books to its credit, and an annual journal gearing up for its third issue, it’s fair to say that things have changed a bit. At this point I’m pretty sure that AODA is about as well positioned as it can be to move forward into whatever the spiritual landscape of North America might become after the twilight of pop Neopaganism. Thus it’s as good a time as I can think of to hand in my resignation.

Yes, I’ve resigned as Grand Archdruid of AODA, effective today. I’m staying a member of the order, of course, with the slightly less fanciful title of archdruid emeritus, but the big chair and the funny hat are going to my sucessor, former Archdruid of the West Gordon Cooper. Why? Partly it’s because the order these days has no shortage of people who are at least as capable of guiding it as I am, and someone else ought to have the fun for a change. Partly it’s because I’m tolerably familiar with my own strengths and weaknesses as a leader, and my judgment is that the order will benefit more at this point in its history from another hand on the tiller.

Partly, though, it’s a personal matter.  Much though I value AODA’s teachings and traditions, there are things I’d like to do in occultism that don’t really fit within its ambit. In particular, the system of magic I put in my 2013 book The Celtic Golden Dawn has become central to my personal practice, and the magical order I founded with minimal publicity that same year for students of the book, The Druidical Order of the Golden Dawn, has grown to respectable size and could use more of my time. I’ve also got major projects in the fields of astrology and sacred geometry that I want to pursue. (Mind you, there’s also the career as a writer of science fiction and fantasy that I’d hoped to start three decades ago, and which to my considerable surprise has finally begun to take off in earnest, but that’s another matter.)

That, in turn, leads to the theme I have in mind for the next few posts, which is the sheer scale and diversity of that gargantuan grab-bag of philosophies, teachings, and practices we call “occultism.” 

Even experienced occultists tend to underestimate just how much territory that single word covers. In some ways, experienced occultists are more likely to do so than anyone else, since it’s a common bad habit of occult traditions to treat whatever double handful of philosophies, teachings, and practices their founders scooped out of the bag as the entire contents thereof. Half the squabbles between different schools of magic happen because school #1 has the letters EFGH and school #2 has the letters FGHI, both of them are convinced that what they’ve got is the whole alphabet, and the sparks start to fly when E and I get denounced by the groups that don’t have them as “fake letters.” (The other half are spawned by collisions between oversized egos, which are as common among occultists as elsewhere.)

When we talk about occultism, then, exactly what are we discussing?

One pitfall that needs to be avoided right at the start of any such inquiry is the mistaken notion that “occultism” is some kind of inherent quality that certain traditions, teachings, and practices have and others don’t. This label “occult” is rooted solely and squarely in history; it literally means “hidden” or “secret,” and refers to certain things that had to be hidden away and kept secret because, for rather too many centuries, those who were too public about them in the Western world faced an assortment of really ugly fates. Many of the things that belong to occultism counted as ordinary parts of mainstream religion or everyday life before Christianity and Islam split the corpse of the classical world between them, and still have the same comfortable status to this day in many cultures elsewhere in the world.

The occult, then, is what was rejected—primarily, what was rejected by Christian religious authorities in medieval and early modern Europe, and oddly enough is still rejected by secular scientific authorities who think they’ve cast every trace of Christianity’s heritage out of their minds. Other cultures have their own modes of rejected knowledge, and most of them also have teachings and practices like those that are part of western occultism. Especially in recent years, there’s been a lot of two-way traffic between western occultism and these other traditions, and we’ll talk about those in due time.

Occultism also has a complicated relationship with those things that have been rejected more recently by the secular scientific authorities just mentioned. Plenty of things belonging to the more recent body of rejected knowledge are of no interest to traditional Western occultism, and vice versa.  On the other hand, the older and newer bodies of rejected knowledge have some interests in common, and since the beginning of the modern occult revival in the 1850s, there’s been a certain amount of two-way traffic across the resulting bridge, and we’ll talk about those, too, as we proceed.

The field is large enough, though, that we’re going to have to spread this discussion over a number of posts. This month, we’ll talk about traditional operative occultism—the basic toolkit that got handed down to occultists from the Renaissance and points further back. Next month, we’ll go on to some of the more recent additions to the operative toolkit, and after that, it’s on to the symbolic, contemplative, and philosophical side of occultism.

Let’s begin with the thing that most people think of first when someone mentions occultism:  yes, that would be magic. The current magical toolkit includes things that were old hat when the temples of Egypt were still open for business, things that were brand spanking new (though backdated to those same temples of Egypt) a hundred years ago, and a lot in between. This month, we’ll limit the discussion to those branches of magic that were already in the tradition by the end of the Renaissance. A very rough taxonomy might run as follows: 

Astrological magic. One of the core elements of traditional Western occultism is astrology, the science of the cycles of time. (Before my rationalist readers leap up to insist that I can’t apply their sacred word “science” to astrology, let me point out that the word means an organized body of knowledge, and was applied to astrology long before most modern sciences existed.)  We’ll be talking more about astrology in a bit; the point that’s relevant here is that much of traditional Western magic uses astrological influences as the essential source of power for magical workings.

Natural magic. That’s the traditional label for magic that works with the inherent properties of natural materials. The lore of natural magic assigns certain effects to specific substances—this herb is for love spells, this gem protects against violence, and so on—and prescribes procedures for putting those substances to work. In traditional Western occultism, natural magic usually but not always drew on astrological theory, and very often on astrological practice as well.

Evocatory magic. Western occultism accepts the existence of a galaxy of intelligent beings who don’t have the same kind of physical bodies we do, but with whom contact and communication is possible.  Christian fundamentalists, and some others, like to think that evocatory magic (or, more precisely, the kind of evocatory magic that deals with the creepier sort of disembodied beings) is the be-all and end-all of magic; they’re wrong, of course, though of course it makes good fodder for scare stories. Ways of working magic that focus on summoning spirits are a significant part of some occult traditions, though they’re strictly forbidden in others.

Invocatory magic. To evoke is to call forth, to invoke is to call in. Invocatory magic works by calling into oneself the power and influence of those beings we might as well call gods and goddesses. That can involve trance, but it can also be done in full consciousness. As you might expect, invocatory magic has generally had close ties to religion, which after all provides the standard human toolkit for dealing with deities; both Judeo-Christian and Pagan religious traditions have been drawn on for this end of the magical continuum.

Another major branch of traditional Western occultism is alchemy, which is again far more complex than most people realize: as complex, really, as modern experimental science. The parallels are actually quite close. Just as there’s a scientific method—more precisely, a set of methods that share a family resemblance—there’s an alchemical method; and just as you apply scientific method to different subjects and get different sciences, you apply the alchemical method to different subjects and get different alchemies. Here’s a sketch of the most common traditional approaches:

Spagyrics. The most popular form of alchemy since the second half or so of the Renaissance, spagyrics is the alchemy of plants, and works with herbs to produce substances that affect human health and consciousness. Its obvious practical dimension is the creation of natural medicines; its subtler but, in many ways, more important dimension is as a toolkit for the transformation of the alchemist.

Mineral and metallic alchemy. This is what most people think of when the word “alchemy” comes up. “Our gold is not the common gold,” the old alchemists said; a great deal of speculation surrounds what they were actually up to, but laboratory work with minerals and metallic ores certainly played a central part in it, and several different approaches are still known and practiced today.

Psychospiritual alchemy. This is the sort of thing Carl Jung worked with, though it goes considerably beyond the territory most of today’s Jungians have found it advisable to discuss, and it was a significant force in alchemical circles many centuries before Jung’s time. In this branch of the art the substance that’s transmuted is the mind and consciousness of the practitioner. Some versions of this work with explicit religious imagery and practices—there’s a rich tradition of Christian psychospiritual alchemy, for example—while others use less theologically charged symbols.

The third core element of traditional operative lore in Western occultism, and the source of a great deal of the traditional theory, is astrology, which we can define for working purposes as the study of the cycles of time, using the movements of Sun, Moon, and planets against the backdrop of the stars. In dealing with it, it’s worth recalling that the sort of thing you see in newspaper astrology columns has as much to do with real astrology as Mel Brooks’ movie Young Frankenstein has to do with real medical science. The major branches of astrological practice are these:

Natal astrology. This is the astrology of the birth chart, which takes a snapshot of celestial positions relative to the Earth at the moment of birth and uses that to assess the strengths, weaknesses, likely experiences, and probable challenges faced by the person born at that moment. This branch also includes progressions, which riff off the birth chart to show when in life various events shown in the birth chart are likely to manifest, and synastry, which relates two natal charts (for example, those of lovers) to trace out the strengths and stresses of the relationshipbetween the people in question. .

Mundane astrology. Relatively neglected these days, this is the oldest branch of astrology, and uses celestial movements to gauge the potentials and challenges facing nations and communities. Like natal astrology, a mundane chart shows tendencies, not certainties; it functions like a weather prediction, which doesn’t tell you what people will be doing on any given day, but can give you useful guidance on what conditions will be like and may suggest to you that one day is better for a picnic than another!

Horary astrology. In astrological theory, nothing is actually random, and every moment contains a snapshot of everything happening at that place and time. Horary astrology uses this to answer questions. If you want to know where you left your wallet, you cast a chart for the place and time when the question occurs to you, and the chart gives you the answer. Improbable? Traditional astrologers do it all the time, with considerable success.

Electional astrology. If, as astrologers teach, each moment is good for some things and not so good for others, it makes sense to choose an appropriate moment to begin anything of importance. That’s the job of electional astrology. (The word “election” literally means “choosing”—a political election is how we choose our public officials.) Astrological magic is actually a subset of electional astrology, using a carefully chosen moment to create an object imbued with a particular combination of influences, which will radiate those influences thereafter.

Geomancy. This isn’t actually a form of astrology at all, but it evolved along with astrology, shares much of astrology’s theory, and functioned all through the Middle Ages and Renaissance as the poor man’s horoscope. Geomancy—the name, literally “earth divination,” is a deliberate contrast with the “sky divination” of astrology—uses various random or semirandom procedures to generate patterns of single and double dots, which are interpreted in much the same way an astrological chart is interpreted. It’s mostly used for the same purposes as horary astrology.

Magic, alchemy, and astrology-plus-geomancy: those are the three core modalities of traditional operative occultism in the West. That doesn’t mean that every occult tradition drew on all of them—quite the contrary. As a rule, an occult school that includes traditional operative occultism at all (and not all did) includes one or more approaches to magic, a single version of alchemy, and some astrology, and then a similar selection from the more recent forms of magical practice. Much more than that and you quite literally have more practical techniques than anybody can really master in a single lifetime—and it’s what you can master, not what you can skim over briefly and think you more or less understand, that matters in occult practice.

I suspect some of my readers will be surprised not to see certain things on this list. It has to be remembered, though, that before the magical revival of the nineteenth century, Tarot was just an Italian card game, theories of vital energy had found their way into Western magical practice only in a handful of traditions, the sort of alternative health care modalities found all through modern occultism weren’t alternative yet, and the whole kit and caboodle of lodges and initiation rituals was still mostly the property of Freemasons and members of other early fraternal orders—the occultists hadn’t yet gotten very far beyond saying “Whoa, this is cool!” and adapting Masonic ritual patterns to magical use. Even without those, the traditional toolkit gave students plenty to work with.

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, still the most influential of the western world’s operative occult schools, is a case in point. Golden Dawn magic is invocatory magic that dabbles in evocation, astrology, and natural magic—if you’re a Golden Dawn mage, that is, you do magic by calling divine energies of various kinds into yourself, and everything else is secondary to that, though there’s admittedly a lot of “everything else.”. Alchemy got a small amount of dabbling in the original order, though alchemical symbolism was studied and some basic alchemical texts were on the recommended reading list, and some current Golden Dawn temples have taken things further. A basic grasp of natal and horary astrology, and just enough electional astrology to be able to choose good times for magical ceremonies, were also on the curriculum. All by itself, even without bringing in the post-Renaissance material, that’s enough to give you a good ten years of hard work if you actually want to master it all.

There’s nothing absolute about the selection made by the founders of the Golden Dawn; other occult traditions made their own choices, and there are plenty of modern occult schools that don’t use any elements of the classical triad—for example, none of these things are part of the core curriculum of AODA. As we’ll see next month, the options really are remarkably broad.

Speaking of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, I’m pleased to announce that the new seventh edition of Israel Regardie’s massive collection of Golden Dawn papers, The Golden Dawn, is now available for preorder. I spent a good part of the last year editing it, hunting down typos, and working with Llewellyn Publications and the very gifted artist and GD initiate James Clark, to make this the definitive edition of Regardie’s classic—arguably the single most important book on occultism published in the twentieth century. Copies can be preordered here.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

A Plea for Occult Philosophy

I gather, from conversations I’ve had with occultists younger than I am, that few people who weren’t there at the time have any clear idea what things were like before the dawn of the occult boom that’s now fading around us. It really was a different world in those days, and not in any of the ways that so many of today’s occultists seem to think.

A large part of what drives the collective amnesia in question is the historical mythology with which Wicca, far and away the most influential of the Neopagan faiths, tried to surround its own origins. Until relatively recently, when straight talk about Wiccan origins finally became acceptable in Neopagan circles, the received wisdom in the community was that Wicca had been around since before recorded history, and various attempts were made to carry out retrospective Wiccanizations on any number of figures in the history of magic, or to come up with reasons why this or that famous mage wasn’t a Wiccan even though everyone else was. I recall one earnest author who claimed that Aleister Crowley refused to be initiated as a Wiccan because he didn’t want to join an organization that was run by women—which is very much in character for the Beast, granted, but didn’t happen to be true.

The actual reason why Aleister Crowley never became a Wiccan, of course, is that Wicca wasn’t invented until after his death. Gerald Gardner, who was one of Crowley’s students, tried to take over from Crowley as titular head of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), the magical order-slash-sex club that Crowley had more or less hijacked from its founder Theodor Reuss, but found out very quickly that Crowley had left such a bad taste in the mouth of the English occult scene—and yes, you can read that any way you wish—that nobody was interested. As Francis King pointed out trenchantly, a magician without an order is like a politician without a party, and so when Gardner’s attempted revival of the OTO fell flat, Wicca appeared promptly thereafter.

It’s not as though Gardner didn’t have access to all the necessary raw materials, after all. He was a close friend of Margaret Murray, the British archeologist whose books popularized the claim that medieval witchcraft was actually the survival of a Pagan fertility cult.  Another of his close friends, Ross Nichols, had introduced him to the Druid Revival, which Nichols was busily redefining along Pagan lines in those years.  He also had connections in Woodcraft, a back-to-nature movement launched at the beginning of the twentieth century by Ernest Thompson Seton, which had taken on a decidedly Pagan flavor in its English manifestation.

For that matter, it’s entirely possible, as Gardner later claimed, that he had been initiated some years previously into a Pagan-flavored sex cult of the sort discussed in an earlier post.  Gardner, like many Englishmen of his generation, liked to be flogged by unclad women, and that sort of entertainment was very often pursued in sex cults at that time. Thus it’s quite possible that he was initiated by Dorothy Clutterbuck into some such group dating from before Gardner’s return from Sumatra, and in the usual way—fake origin stories were basically de rigueur in the sex-cult scene in those days—claimed  descent from some suitably romantic source dating back to at least six weeks before the beginning of time itself. As already noted, there were plenty of groups like that in England before the sexual revolution of the 1960s made the whole point moot.

The problem was that this was not the way that American Wiccans thought about their history, or wanted to think about it, when the great Neopagan boom got under way. Quite the contrary, to the great majority of participants in the glory days of that boom, Wicca was the Old Religion, the original and universal faith of humankind that had been handed down unchanged by an unbroken succession of high priestesses since the Stone Age. Any evidence that Wicca had borrowed something from some other source was turned into the claim that the other source had borrowed it from Wicca. Evidence? We don’t need no steenking evidence—and of course they didn’t; in ordinary conversation, assertion is more powerful than argument, and there was never a shortage of assertions, from the nine million witches supposedly put to death by inquisitors in the Middle Ages (scholars agree that the actual figure was around 50,000) through the dubious historical pedigree already mentioned.

There were any number of awkward consequences that unfolded from the gap between Neopagan faith and the crass realities of actual history, but one of them was a near-total failure to take into account the differences between the Neopagan mainstream and all previous occultism. At most, you got to hear a great deal of grumbling about “ceremonial magicians”—that is to say, operative mages in the Golden Dawn and OTO traditions. Those of my readers who want to sample the sort of rhetoric Neopagans liked to direct at ceremonial magic in those days may wish to read the early fantasy novels of Mercedes Lackey, in which the heroes and heroines are basically practicing American pop Neopaganism in fancy-dress costumes borrowed from the Society for Creative Anachronism, while the villains are for all practical purposes modern ceremonial magicians dolled up in Ming the Merciless outfits.

What made this all the more damaging is that the ceremonial magicians—the people who were working with the Golden Dawn, the OTO, and so on—adopted, usually without noticing it, a good many of the attitudes and approaches of the Neopagan mainstream. On those rare occasions that people in the occult scene became aware of older modes of occult study, these latter were rejected with a great deal of heat by pretty much everybody. I can testify to that, as I was no exception to that general rule; after some initial dabblings in the older mode of occultism, I picked up the common attitude from the books I studied, and it took decades of experience and reflection before I realized just what it was that I’d failed to understand at the time.

The core of the older mode of training in magic can be summed up simply: “occult philosophy first, occult practice later.” If you enrolled in one of the old-fashioned occult schools, as I did for a while, your weekly or monthly lesson was mostly philosophy, with a few very basic practices—relaxation, breathing exercises, some rudimentary form of meditation—to keep you occupied, and not incidentally show your tutor whether you could be counted on to follow instructions and actually set aside time for practical work. You did that for at least a year, more usually two or three years, before you started getting more practical work to do, and even then it was doled out a little at a time: this month you learn the Cabalistic Cross ritual, a month later you learn how to trace a pentagram, the other pieces of the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram come over the next two months or so, and then you do that for a year while studying more philosophy before the Middle Pillar exercise comes your way.

What was the occult philosophy that occupied so much time and space in these courses? The details depended very much on the school in question, but it normally started out with a very basic summary of the magical view of reality, and went on from there to touch on at least some of the core elements of the Western esoteric tradition—the Cabala, astrology, Tarot, alchemy, maybe sacred geometry or music, maybe the myths of Egypt or Greece or the ancient Celts—in whatever order and degree of intensity the founder of the school thought you needed in order to make sense of the practical work later on. Somewhere in there you were pretty much certain to get a great deal of potted history which was very questionable in terms of factual content but extremely rich in terms of its symbolic meaning, which you were supposed to unpack by daily meditation. Somewhere in there, too, you were just as likely to learn the rudiments of at least one system of alternative healing—the cell salts, which I’ve discussed in an earlier post here, were among the most popular choices, but you might instead, or also, get herbalism, or  energy healing of the sort more recently popularized by Reiki.

The practical training, though it took its time coming, generally covered a pretty fair selection of the options as well. The major divide among schools was whether or not you learned operative magic—most schools didn’t teach this, though there were always some that did. Aside from that, you could count on learning and practicing meditation, at least one form of divination, and some kind of healing practice; you might also learn a set of physical exercises to help keep you in decent health. If you persevered, and could get to a place where the school had a local lodge (most had at least a few of these), you could pass through initiation rituals and then learn how to perform them yourself, and there were usually other kinds of group workings a lodge could perform as well. All in all, if you finished the course of study offered by a competent school of occultism, you ended up with a good general grasp of the Western occult tradition and a toolkit of practices that would serve you well for a lifetime.

That’s the system that was rejected, generally with quite some heat, by almost everyone in the occult scene as the magical revival of the Seventies got under way. Nobody objected to the practices—well, not to the fun ones, the magic, the divination, and those alternative healing practices such as herbalism which had a boom at the same time as Neopaganism, though meditation got short shrift, and cell salts and sacred geometry got dropped like a hot rock. What people objected to, more than anything else, was the philosophy. The claim generally circulated at that time was that all this was just padding, meant to stretch out a correspondence course to absurd length and keep those monthly checks coming in. In some cases, mind you, that may have been true, but a lot of what drove that reasoning was a failure to grasp the point of the philosophical studies.

Another force at work, I’m sorry to say, was one of the less helpful legacies of the Theosophical movement. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the colorful occultist who helped found the Theosophical Society in 1875 and took it over thereafter, took the “occult philosophy first, occult practice later” rule to its extreme, and insisted that students of Theosophy should study occult philosophy, but steer clear of occult practice altogether. Theosophy’s massive presence in the occult scene guaranteed that this attitude would become very widespread. To this day, if you take up Theosophical study or any of its galaxy of offshoots, you’re encouraged to meditate, and in most cases you can study astrology or an alternative healing system with the genial permission of your instructors, but if you let them know that you’ve taken up any kind of magical practice—no matter how spiritual its focus—you face instant pushback, and in many cases, potential expulsion.

Mind you, every school has the right to determine who it will and won’t teach, and what behaviors it will or won’t consider acceptable in candidates for advancement. For all I know there are elements in the higher levels of Theosophical training, communicated in secret by the Esoteric Sections of the various offshoots of the original Society, that react disastrously when combined with operative magic; such things definitely happen. The difficulty here is simply that a great many people took the Theosophical rule and applied it wholesale to every kind of esoteric spirituality, whether it made sense there or not. Thus you could readily find occultists who insisted loudly that the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram, say, was a tremendously dangerous ritual that couldn’t be done safely by anybody who hadn’t yet become an ascended master—I received portentous warnings along these lines more than once, long after I’d learned the ritual in question, begun practicing it regularly, and had learned from personal experience that it’s a good safe practice for beginners.

That sort of thing doesn’t exactly build confidence in the portentous warnings in question, and the effect is considerably worsened when the people offering the portentous warnings go on to tell you that instead of doing such basic practical work, you should read the collected works of Alice Bailey and wait patiently for the ascended masters to contact you, which they would doubtless do at some point in the next three lifetimes. Yes, that’s advice I got more than once—it wasn’t always Bailey’s books, to be sure; I also got pointed toward the collected works of Rudolf Steiner, who is at the very least a more interesting writer, and once to the collected writings of Maurice Doreal, whose real name was Claude Doggins and who ran a occult school out of a small town in Colorado. (These days I wish I’d followed up with Doreal/Doggins; he was among other things a lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy, with a world-class collection of the same gaudy paperbacks I adored, and it’s at least possible that a lively correspondence might have ensued once that common interest surfaced. Still, the ascended masters apparently had other plans for me.)

So the idea of studying occult philosophy as a useful, or even necessary, preparation for occult practice got dropped by the great majority of American occultists. It never found its way into the main currents of Neopaganism in the first place, and got shoved aside in those older traditions that once had that approach hardwired into their structure. I mentioned earlier that the revival of the Golden Dawn tradition here in the United States got drawn into Neopagan habits, and this is one of the places this happened most obviously. In the original Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, you joined the Outer Order and spent about two years there, passed through a series of gloriously gaudy initiation rituals, studied occult philosophy, and got given a few basic practices—the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram, a simple form of meditation, and the divinatory art of geomancy—to keep you occupied.

At the end of that time, if you’d shown sufficient commitment and interest, you got into the Inner Order, and found yourself handed an extraordinarily complex and effective system of operative magic among many other things. If that didn’t happen, or if you didn’t choose to pursue the path of operative magic, you could stay a member.  There was plenty for you to do, from taking part in the Outer Order initiation rituals through studying various kinds of occult teachings to practicing astrology, alchemy, or some other practice distinct from magic, and no small number of people made the Outer Order their spiritual home and never saw a need to go on to operative magic.

Nearly all of the Golden Dawn lodges in America during and after the 1970s revival, though, saw things differently. The Outer Order training was redefined, and packed with magical practices of various kinds; the reprinted books of traditional occult philosophy the Golden Dawn used as recommended reading to supplement its knowledge lectures, the Collectanea Hermetica series, vanished entirely from the collective imagination of the Golden Dawn scene; and a great many temples adopted an “up or out” rule, whereby if you didn’t keep progressing through the grades at whatever pace the temple chiefs thought was appropriate, you were tossed out on your ear.

Outside of the Golden Dawn tradition, things went even further in the same direction. A very large majority of the magical orders founded during and after the Seventies revival made operative magic the be-all and end-all of their training programs, and limited the study of occult philosophy to the minimum that would allow students to do magic—very often no more than a book or two on the necessary symbolism. The rejection of occult philosophy became a point of pride in many cases and, as usually happened, people who wanted to be antinomian and edgy did it by rebelling against something everyone else had rejected too, and vied with each other in displaying their hostility toward a collection of things that nobody actually approved of any more.

The difficulty with this was at least threefold. First, it meant that a great many people who took up magical training in the United States after 1975 or so have a stunningly narrow idea about what occultism is, what it does, and what it includes. The sort of broad general education you got in the old occult schools, whatever its vices may have been, unquestionably gave students a background that helped them make sense of the raw diversity of occultism, and very often pointed them toward classic texts and gave them the context needed to read them intelligently. Many competent mages these days lack that context, with results that range from the unfortunate to the simply embarrassing.

Second, studying occult philosophy isn’t simply a matter of packing your head with disconnected facts about Atlantis and the like. Dion Fortune let the cat out of the bag in her own deceptively slender book of occult philosophy, The Cosmic Doctrine, when she noted that “this book is designed to train the mind, not to inform it.” That’s true, actually, of any kind of education worth the name; learning to think through unfamiliar thoughts trains the mind to move in ways it would not normally move, and can significantly expand the ability to do certain things with consciousness. The student of an old-fashioned occult school, as he or she studies the weekly or monthly lectures and meditates on the contents, is getting a subtle but powerful training in how to think like a mage, which is a crucial step on the road to becoming a mage. Lacking that training, the way to the same goal is a good deal rougher, and not so easy to complete with any certainty of success.

The third difficulty, though, is to my mind the most critical. Not everyone who is interested in occultism is cut out to be an operative mage, nor should they be. The occult traditions of the Western world, like their equivalents in other cultures, include a wild diversity of practices, disciplines, and fields of study, most of which have nothing to do with operative magic, and a system of training that makes magic the one and only road that’s available leaves no room for the many gifted people who might otherwise bring their talents to the community in other ways. If your interest and talents lead you to focus on astrology, for example, and you have no interest in ritual magic and no gift for it, there’s no point in requiring you to practice it.  On the other hand, a good general background in occult philosophy, and some exposure to meditation and other basic occult practices will give you a useful toolkit and a broad understanding of the overall occult field, and membership in a school that provides these things also gives you a community and a network of friends and associates with which you share a common language of symbolism and ideas.

That broader context is what the Outer Order of the original Golden Dawn was meant to provide, and the great majority of the occult schools of the early and middle twentieth century made it their business to do the same thing. It’s neither necessary nor useful to go back to the other extreme and try to convince people that occult practice ought to be replaced by occult philosophy—most people who are interested in occultism know better at this point. Still, there needs to be a place for old-fashioned occult philosophy and its study, for the sake of those who are attracted to the broader realm of occultism but don’t happen to be interested in becoming operative mages, and of those who are interested in becoming operative mages and want to do the thing properly.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Twilight of the Neopagan Era

I think most people with any kind of connection to the contemporary American occult scene have noticed by now that the great wave of pop Neopaganism that came rolling up the beach in the early 1980s, and crested right around the turn of the millennium, is flowing rapidly back out to sea. That should come as no surprise to anybody who knows the history of American alternative spirituality.  Thirty to forty years is the average lifespan of a spiritual movement once it finds its way into pop culture, and the Neopagan scene, having dutifully passed all the other milestones along that overfamiliar trajectory, is reaching the one marked “Road Ends Ahead” right on schedule.

The latest data point to come my way arrived via a Druid friend who visited last weekend, and who mentioned that all of a sudden people she knows are starting to describe themselves laughingly as “recovering Pagans”—not, please note, in the sense of Pagans recovering from something else, but in the sense of people recovering from Paganism—and giving away their Pagan books and trinkets to their remaining Pagan friends. Again, that’s standard. In the 1930s and 1940s, you could find any number of people who laughed and said, “Yeah, I used to be into Theosophy back then.” The cycle before then, the object of those reflections was the apocalyptic liberal Christianity—yes, there used to be such a thing—that reached its embarrassing conclusion of the Great Disappointment of 1844; the time before that, it was the evangelical Protestantism of the Great Awakening that kicked off in the 1720s and kicked the bucket in the 1760s, and so on.

The same cycle of emergence and decline happens in radical politics, and there’s an interesting synchronization between the two. By and large, they alternate in popular culture. Thus a great many of those people who used to be into Theosophy in the 1920s got into political radicalism of the left or right during the 1930s, just as a good many former political radicals of the 1960s and 1970s ended up in some kind of alternative spirituality in the 1980s—Protestant fundamentalism, the New Age movement, Buddhism and other Asian religions, and Neopaganism all got their share. It’s a regular rhythm in  the history of American popular culture, going back as far as there’s any distinctly American popular culture at all, and it can be charted more or less like this:

1720s-1760s: Great Awakening era (spiritual focus)
1770s-1800s: Revolutionary era (political focus)
1810s-1840s: Transcendentalist era (spiritual focus)
1850s-1880s: Populist era (political focus)
1890s-1920s: Theosophical era (spiritual focus)
1930s-1970s: Socialist era (political focus)
1980s-2010s: Neopagan era (spiritual focus)
2020s-2060s: ??? (political focus)

These names are somewhat arbitrary.  The Transcendentalist era, for example, was also the heyday of Unitarianism, Millerism, and the first wave of Mormonism, just as the Theosophical era was also the heyday of American Freemasonry and of a dizzying assortment of magical and fraternal lodges. In the same way, “Populist” and “Socialist” are broad labels, the first embracing everything from abolitionism and classic populism to first wave feminism, the second covering everything from Roosevelt’s New Deal to the New Left of the late 1960s and early 1970s. There are always political movements in eras that fixate on spirituality, and spiritual movements in eras that fixate on politics; the point at issue is how the center of gravity of certain modes of pop culture moves between these two poles.

Oceanographers will tell you that the waves that sweep the ocean don’t actually carry water with them. The water rises and falls with each wave, but it normally ends up pretty much where it started. The same thing is true of most of the people who get caught up in the waves of collective enthusiasm that sweep through human societies from time to time. There’s always a certain very modest number of people who are drawn to alternative spiritualities, just as there’s always a slightly larger number of people who are attracted with equal force to radical politics of various kinds.  At intervals, those cultural minorities suddenly find crowds showing up on their doorsteps, eager to take part in what they have to offer, and then after a certain period the crowds head elsewhere and the people left behind get to clean up the wreckage resulting from what normally amounts to a thirty-year binge.

That’s not an easy thing to do, especially if the people left behind have bought into an ideological stance that defines them as the cutting edge of the future, or what have you. Still, there are benefits to those who stick around for the cleanup, and one of them is that it becomes possible to repair some of the damage and distortion that always befalls an alternative spiritual tradition when it gets redefined and relaunched as a pop culture phenomenon.

I’m not sure how many of my readers realize just how drastically the currents that became modern pop Neopaganism got remanufactured for their debut on the mass market. Until October 31, 1979, to be precise, Wicca and witchcraft—the two were, and are, not quite the same thing—were two rather similar flavors in the sprawling ice cream parlor of contemporary occultism, much less sharply differentiated from the other flavors on offer than their proponents today generally like to think. To the extent that they weren’t simply sex clubs with exotic decor, they filled a recognized niche in the occult scene of the time, and functioned in ways that didn’t have a lot in common with their equivalents today.

For example, the claim that Wicca could trace its lineage to the witches of the Middle Ages, or for that matter the goddess-worshipping civilization of ancient Crete—I’ve been told that this latter point was one of the secret teachings of quite a lot of Wiccan and witchcraft groups in the 1970s—didn’t have the same emotional loading it’s had for a great many Neopagan groups since the 1980s. Now of course occult traditions in those days, by definition, claimed ancient origins. There were groups whose origin stories traced their lineages back to just about any romantic source you care to name: ancient Egyptian mystery temples, conveniently untraceable Himalayan monasteries, the sages of lost Atlantis, seventeenth-century Rosicrucian mystics, the Knights Templar, the Pythagoreans, the Essenes—why, even the ancient Druids!—and the list goes on.

Medieval witches and Cretan priestesses were just two more colorful imaginary heritages to choose from, with no more cachet than any of the others. Though novices sometimes took such claims literally and the management of the various orders and traditions tended to stand up stoutly in defense of their truth, serious occultists knew that such claims are meant to energize the imagination and jolt the mind out of its ordinary ruts. In other words, they’re cut from the same cloth as the notion that Masonry started among the builders of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem; they’re tools for work with the self-image, not supposed statements of historical fact.

One measure of the distance between this approach and the less nuanced habits of later years can be seen in a rarely remembered fact:  before that day in 1979, it was quite common for practitioners of magic and Pagan spirituality to also be ordained as Christian priests and bishops. It may come as a shock to many of my readers to learn that there are alternative Christian churches, a fair number of them, that are comfortable not only with magic and occultism but also with other gods and goddesses. Some of them are still around, but they could be found much more easily back in the day, and a great many occultists took that opportunity to add the distinctive Christian style of occult philosophy and sacramental ritual to their toolkits. 

Thus Gerald Gardner—yes, that Gerald Gardner, the inventor of Wicca and student of Aleister Crowley—was ordained as a Christian priest by one esoteric Christian church while he was busy promoting Wicca. Later on, while he was still very active in Wicca, he was consecrated as a bishop in another such church.  Dion Fortune, whose work with the goddess Isis was ancestral to much of modern goddess-centric Paganism, was also a devout if eccentric Christian who wrote a book of mystical meditations on the Collects of the Anglican service, and Ross Nichols, the founder of the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids and one of the most influential figures in 20th century Druidry, used to invoke Celtic gods and Christian archangels very nearly in the same breath. That sort of thing was routine among occultists.  Being a witch or a Wiccan in those days, like being a Druid, a Rosicrucian, an Essene, a Christian, or what have you, was a matter of study and practice rather than of personal identity, and so you could be more than one thing at once without any sense of contradiction. 

There were many other differences, of course. The movements that turned into modern Neopaganism were, like nearly all other occult groups at the time, initiatory orders in which candidates had to work their way up a ladder of degrees—and “work,” by the way, was the operative word; if you wanted to advance, you had quite a curriculum of studies and practices before you. They kept a very quiet public presence for a variety of good reasons, and they were generally fairly strict in deciding who to admit to membership, but they weren’t that hard to find if you were looking for occult instruction. Pick up a copy of any of the mass-market magazines that once catered to the American public’s taste for the weird, and you’ll find plenty of quiet advertisements telling you that a letter to Scribe Z at PO Box mumble mumble will get an informative pamplet and an application for membership by return mail.

Were there abuses? Sure. Were some occult orders in it for the money, or for other dubious ends? You bet—though it’s probably worth noting that Neopaganism has had no shortage of either of these. Despite these familiar difficulties, the groups that kept America’s occult traditions alive during an era of general neglect formed a stable, tolerant, largely functional community with its own networks of lodges, private libraries, correspondence courses, magazines, and book publishing programs.

Then came October 31, 1979. On that day, publishers in San Francisco and Boston simultaneously published Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon and Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance, the books that invented modern pop Neopaganism. I use the word “invented” intentionally; I’ve lost the reference, but Adler admitted in print that while her book presented itself as an objective survey of Pagan groups in America, it was written to push the nascent Neopagan scene in specific directions she thought it ought to go, a goal it achieved quite handily. The Spiral Dance pursued the same goal in a considerably more direct manner—it simply presented, as “the ancient religion of the Goddess,” a near-total rewrite of Wicca that scrapped most of its traditional content in favor of second wave feminism, California goddess spirituality, and self-empowerment psychology.

Both books were massive commercial successes, Starhawk’s at once, Adler’s a little further down the road.  They were followed by a torrent of similar books, as other authors and publishers tried, with no little success, to cash in on the shift in the zeitgeist. Old classics, and old not-so-classics, were promptly hauled out of cold storage and reprinted. By 1985 or so, for the first time since the heyday of Theosophy, you could go into a big bookstore that catered to a general audience and count on finding an occult section that had something other than cheap astrological annuals and collections of scary stories for the Halloween market.

Two previous trends in the publishing field helped pave the way for Neopaganism as a pop-culture movement. The first was the explosive growth of paperback nonfiction (and, shall we say, pseudo-nonfiction) as a mass market publishing phenomenon. The paperback revolution that rattled the American book publishing industry to its core in the 1950s focused on fiction; entire genres, such as science fiction, that had been published almost entirely in pulp magazines up to that time suddenly found a niche in 25-cent paperback novels, which sold by the boxcar to literate, affluent postwar readers. The late 1960s saw speculative nonfiction invade the same dime-store 25-cent paperback novel racks. 1969 was in many ways the watershed year, with Carlos Castaneda’s wildly popular hoax The Teachings of don Juan and John Michell’s engagingly weird treatise of visionary landscape mysticism The View Over Atlantis just two of the alternative-reality bestsellers that year.

The omnivorous appetite for marvels that made these and many like them successful was probably kickstarted by Sixties drug culture, but it zoomed off in a galaxy of different directions, and occultism was among the many things that got swept up in the resulting publishing frenzy. Most of the books on magic and the occult that appeared in mass market paperbacks during the 1970s were astonishingly bad, focusing on the cheap-thrills end of the subject to the exclusion of nearly everything else. There were occasional gems—the first serious book of magical instruction I ever owned, Techniques of High Magic by Francis King and Stephen Skinner, first appeared in a lurid mass market paperback edition meant for those same paperback racks—but they were few and far between. That fed the appetite for explicit instruction in magical spirituality that made Starhawk’s book a roaring commercial success.

There was, however, a second and even larger trend in publishing that fed into the same phenomenon, and it’s one that contemporary Neopagans tend not to talk about in this context. Still, if you attend a Neopagan event, you can see its stigmata everywhere: just look for dragons, unicorns, and faux-medieval clothing. What do dragons, unicorns, and faux-medieval clothing have to do with magic or the worship of Pagan deities? Nothing at all, but they have everything to do with the other pop-culture phenomenon that drove the rise of Neopaganism: the great fantasy fiction boom of the 1970s.

It can take a remarkable effort these days to remember that until the early 1970s, fantasy fiction wasn’t a genre of its own yet. When JRR Tolkien’s sprawling trilogy The Lord of the Rings first saw print, for example, at least one American reviewer hailed it as an interesting new work of science fiction, and most of the other pre-1970 works that get lumped together as fantasies were simply part of the broad current of general literature when they first appeared.  The overwhelming commercial success Tolkien’s trilogy had in its US paperback release basically created the genre; an assortment of older pieces that all featured swords, wizards, and faux-medieval settings, even if they had nothing else in common, were drafted to provide it with a prehistory, and legions of avid fans proceeded to start writing stories full of swords, wizards, and faux-medieval settings, which were promptly added to the genre.

I can testify to this with unusual clarity, as I was one of the fans in question, and wasted way too many reams of paper on embarrassingly derivative hackwork fiction packed to the groaning point and beyond with swords, wizards, and faux-medieval settings. I also played Dungeons & Dragons and an assortment of other fantasy roleplaying games, in which swords, wizards, and faux-medieval settings were de rigueur, and got underfoot in those same years in the Society for Creative Anachronism, which was short on wizards but had an ample supply of the other two; and it was no accident that I also took up magic in those same years.

It took me quite a few years—most of my teens and the first few years of my twenties—to extract myself from the resulting tangle, and see clearly that magical training is not about wallowing in faux-medieval anything, nor is it a matter of make-believe and dress-up games. Mind you, I don’t have anything against make-believe and dress-up games, nor in wallowing in the faux-medieval whatnot of your choice; I still read plenty of fantasy fiction, and enjoy it hugely; but these things aren’t magic in the practitioner’s sense of the word, and I don’t confuse them with magic. There are people in the Neopagan scene who are clear on the same distinction, but I’m far from sure they’re in the majority.

The interpenetration of popular fiction and popular occultism is actually a very common feature of periods in which American pop culture swings in the direction of magical spirituality. The heyday of Theosophy saw plenty of examples of the same sort of thing; Marie Corelli, John Uri Lloyd, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton were among the authors back then whose work helped shape the pop spirituality of the era. Nor, of course, does the influence go all one way; toward the end of each such era, you start seeing plenty of imaginative fiction that takes the imagery and ideas of the pop occultism du jour and feeds it back to audiences eager for more of the same. Robert E. Howard, who set the stories of Conan the Cimmerian against a backdrop drawn largely from Theosophical writings, was an example from the last time around; Marion Zimmer Bradley, whose bestselling The Mists of Avalon rehashed Arthurian legends against a backdrop of generic California Neopaganism, is an example from this cycle.

The problem that arises when fiction becomes a driving force behind any kind of pop occultism is twofold. First, of course, fictional magic quite reliably has fictional effects, rather than real ones, when people try to practice it. I’m convinced that one of the core reasons why there’s currently a movement in the Neopagan scene to dismiss magic as useles superstition is that too many people have taken too many of their ideas about magic from fantasy fiction, and this has accordingly brought about a steady decline in the capacity of too many Neopagans to magic their way out of a wet paper bag. (There are other factors pushing in that same direction, too; we’ll get to one of those next month.)

There’s a subtler problem, though, which is that fantasy fiction by and large reinforces the idea that magic belongs to places full of dragons, unicorns, faux-medieval clothing, and the like, rather than to the world we inhabit here and now. That, I’m convinced, is why the trappings of fantasy are so thick on the ground at Neopagan events, and why they’ve penetrated some distance into other branches of the occult scene as well: if magic needs the trappings of fantasy, providing those trappings can be one way to get past that mental block temporarily and try to do some magical work. That’s a trick with limited applicability, though, and it’s a much more useful tactic to get out from under the mental block—but for a variety of reasons, that latter option hasn’t been very popular of late.

The detritus of fantasy fiction is just one part of the refuse that’s going to have to be hauled out by those of us who are still around and still practicing magic as the Neopagan era draws to its close, and the crowds who’ve thronged Neopagan festivals and kept suppliers of faux-medieval clothing in business go rushing off toward whatever political movements take center stage in pop culture hereafter. I don’t think it will do any harm to the unicorns to see them returned to their natural habitat in fiction, and it may be a lot of help to aspiring mages, who will no longer be tempted to confuse wallowing in a romantic medieval haze with the hard work of studying and practicing operative magic. Still, there’s another thing that will have to be done, and that’s the rehabilitation of occult philosophy and its study—something that was thrown out with the trash early on in the Neopagan era, and will have to be hauled back out of the dumpster, given a good scrubbing, and put back in its proper place. We’ll talk about that next month.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Sex and Occultism, Part Three: Getting Closer to Reality

The two previous posts on this blog will doubtless have occasioned a certain amount of frustration on the part of some of my readers. I can hear the distant muttering from here: “Okay, you’ve talked about Hiram Burler trying to become immortal by keeping his legs tightly crossed; you’ve talked about sex clubs dressing up ordinary nookie in fancy robes and occult symbolism as a marketing gimmick; you’ve talked about adepts of the Dion Fortune tradition exchanging erotic energies through their palms at a distance of twenty feet, with their clothes securely on their bodies and an altar in the way: got it. Now what about the ultimate secret of practical occultism? What magic?"
It’s an understandable question For a very long time, a great deal of occult literature treated sex magic as the zenith of the magical path, the thing that you talk about in hints and whispers and surround with a haze of ornate symbolism when you happen to mention it in print. Exhibit A here might as well be Israel Regardie’s early opus The Tree of Life, which most operative mages read at some point in their studies. There are good reasons why it’s so widely read; despite the amazingly stilted prose—Regardie apparently thought at the time that any serious book on occult philosophy had to read like something penned by Arthur Edward Waite, and managed a terrifyingly good imitation—it’s a good solid guide to the Golden Dawn magical tradition, as well as a better introduction to Aleister Crowley’s ideas than anything Crowley himself ever wrote.

Despite the prose style, it presents the teachings of early twentieth century English magic about as clearly as anybody ever has—with one notable exception, which he’s honest enough to flag for the reader’s attention. The sixteenth chapter of the book is devoted to “one secret formula of Practical Magic of such a tremendous nature” that he can’t bring himself to speak of it openly, and resorts to a flurry of symbolic hints, nods, and winks instead. If you know your way around the standard magical symbolism of the time, it’s instantly apparent that he’s talking about a particular kind of sex magic, and once you figure that out, the rest of the chapter is a tolerably detailed account of how to use sexual intercourse in operative magic.

It’s not a particularly complicated operation, either, though it does require a few somewhat uncommon skills. For best results, both partners need the kind of magical training that enables them to concentrate fixedly on a single idea or symbol no matter what distractions pop up, but  it can be done with only one partner so trained as long as the other knows the basics of magical practice. Working together, the two participants—normally clothed in ritual robes at this stage of the process—perform whatever opening ritual their tradition uses, and invoke whatever magical influences are appropriate.

At that point the robes come off, and the two participants have sex in the magical space established by the opening ritual, while one or both keep unbroken focus on the intention of the ritual, straight through to orgasm. At the moment of orgasm, both partners pour every scrap of will and imagination they can muster into the intention, and then let go. After an appropriate interval and whatever winding-down activities seem relevant, the participants put their robes back on, release the magical influences they’ve invoked, perform the closing ritual, and then settle on the sofa, sip tea, and cuddle, or what have you.

Got that? You’ve just had communicated to you the supreme secret of the innermost sanctuary of the grand gnosis of the mystery temples of—well, you can pile on the overblown verbiage just as well as I can. That is to say, what I’ve just outlined here used to be the stock in trade of the highest level of initiation of any number of old-fashioned magical orders.

There’s rather an interesting history behind that. As far as anyone has been able to figure out, the first Western occultist to teach this particular kind of sex magic was that astonishing force of nature, Paschal Beverly Randolph. Randolph was the most influential figure in nineteenth-century American occultism; he was one of the most influential figures in nineteenth-century occultism, period—and he was, by the way, African American, born out of wedlock in 1825, and raised in a desperately poor, crime-ridden slum in New York City. Every scrap of his considerable education and his even more considerable fame was earned the hard way.

There’s plenty that could be said about this remarkable figure, but the point relevant to this month’s post is that sometime around 1850, he started teaching his best students what he called the Ansairetic Arcanum—basically a simplified form of the working described above. Where he got it, if he got it from someone or somewhere else, is an open question. He himself had at least three different stories on the subject. At times he claimed that he’d been taught it by the al-Nusairi, a heretical Muslim sect in Syria. (That’s where “Ansairetic” came from—“Ansaireh” was how al-Nusairi was mispronounced by Westerners in those days.) At times he claimed that he’d received it along with the supreme degree of Rosicrucian initiation from untraceable Rosicrucian masters in Europe. At times he insisted that he’d made the whole thing up himself.

Wherever it came from, the Ansairetic Arcanum had a long trajectory ahead of it. After Randolph’s death in 1875, some of his advanced students in England put together a magical order, the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor or H.B. of L., which purveyed a mix of Randolph’s teachings and other bits of occult lore in the mail-order occultism market. When the H.B. of L. went under—it got into the equivalent of a flamewar with the Theosophical Society, and lost catastrophically—two H.B. of L. initiates in Germany named Karl Kellner and Theodor Reuss decided to launch an order of their own, the Ordo Templi Orientis (Order of Templars of the Orient), with the Ansairetic Arcanum as the secret revelation of its higher degrees.

Reuss then sold the English-language franchise of the O.T.O. to Aleister Crowley, a move he came to regret bitterly not that long afterward.  Crowley taught it to Regardie, whence its appearance in The Tree of Life, and also to Gerald Gardner, who studied with the Not-so-great Beast in the latter’s inglorious final years; this is why the Ansairetic Arcanum features in traditional branches of Wicca as “the Great Rite.” Meanwhile, of course, Randolph and the H.B. of L. both had plenty of other initiates, who spread the Ansairetic Arcanum through the whole gallimaufry of magical lodges and esoteric secret societies that thronged Europe and America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

By 1920 or so, as a result, it was a poor excuse for a magical order that didn’t have practical teachings about sex magic to hand out to its inner initiates—unless, that is, it was one of the explicitly Christian magical orders that got as much mileage out of not teaching sex magic as the competition got out of teaching it. Of course that was the beginning of the end; a supreme secret of the innermost blah blah blah just doesn’t have the same cachet once everybody knows what it is. I’m pretty sure that one of the reasons why Dion Fortune’s Fraternity of the Inner Light got so much traction in the British occult scene of her time is that she’d figured out something to do with sexual energies other than the obvious.

There was also the ongoing intercourse, so to speak, between serious magical orders and the sex cults discussed in July’s post. The tendency, also mentioned in that post, that leads people who reject one part of the conventional wisdom to be open to a broad spectrum of alternative ideas is a potent force;  back in the day, it led a lot of people who liked extramarital sex to dabble in magic and other forms of alternative spirituality, just as it led a lot of people who were interested in magic to dabble in whatever sexual alternatives were readily available. The resulting overlap between occult orders that taught sex magic and sex cults that taught magical practices made the distinction between these two rather hard to trace; that’s how Gardnerian Wicca, which pretty much started out as a sex cult, ended up teaching the Ansairetic Arcanum and a range of other magical practices, and it’s also how a great many occultists ended up with the idea that having sex in a ritual context was the ultimate magical technique.

So that’s the history behind sex magic—or part of the history. I could go on at great length, not least because pretty much every sexual activity you care to think of, and some you very likely don’t, ended up being labeled by somebody as the really really supreme secret blah blah blah. Crowley, in one of his magical orders, made anal sex between men the blah blah blah. Several other traditions assigned the same role to oral sex of one kind or the other. Then there was Austin Osman Spare, who created a magical system called the Zos Kia Cultus. “Zos” symbolized the body, and was represented by the hand; “Kia” was the “atmospheric I,” the soul or spirit, represented by the penis; and the blah blah blah of the Zos Kia Cultus was, shall we say, the rhythmic union of the two representations just mentioned. One gathers Spare didn’t get out much.

(It’s only fair to note that Spare was by no means solitary in his enthusiasm for the occult dimension of solitary vice. One of the occult orders mentioned earlier, for example, made the magical use of masturbation the great secret passed onto initiates of its eighth degree. As a result, in some American occult circles to this day, “brother of the eighth degree” is a common if sly way of saying “wanker.”)

There’s no shortage of other sexual variations that have been put to use by one magical system or another, but we can leave those alone for the time being. Two questions, instead, are relevant here. First of all, is sex magic an effective technique—in other words, can you cause changes in consciousness in accordance with will that way? Second, is sex magic the supreme magical technique, as it was so often billed—in other words, can you cause changes in consciousness in accordance with will more effectively that way than using other methods?

To some extent, both those questions have to be answered by each individual. In magic as in so many other things, it’s meaningless to compare systems and techniques in the abstract; what works well for one person may get mediocre results for another and no results at all for a third. That said, since the technique in question has been tolerably well known and practiced among operative mages for more than a century now, it’s not unreasonable to sum up their experience in the form of general answers to those two questions. By and large, for a great many mages, the answer to the first question is yes, and the answer to the second question is no. That is to say, for many people, sex magic works and works well, but for most of them, it isn’t sufficiently more effective than other methods to live up to its old reputation as the supreme magical technique.

I suspect that back in the day, for people in the Anglo-American cultural sphere, it was considerably more powerful than it is today.  Sex in those days was so hedged around with taboos, and so tangled in thickets of unexpressed fears and desires, that having sex in a ritual setting was guaranteed to release potent psychological forces that could readily be channeled into the intention of the ritual. Nowadays, though sex hasn’t yet become the ordinary part of life it is in many other cultures, the worst of the old Victorian hypocrisy has mostly passed off, and so the potency of the technique has accordingly waned. A gain in general sanity has been paid for in part by a loss of magical power.

Yet it’s worth noting that for many mages, sex magic still does work well, and there are many cultures around the world that never went through a Victorian period and still have traditions that use sexual intercourse in a ritual setting as a way of working magic. I want to explore that for a moment, because it leads toward a useful insight about magic—and also about the nature of reality.

Sex isn’t the only biological activity that’s been ritualized to good effect in various systems of magic and spirituality. Eating has been even more commonly put to work in the same cause, yielding magical and religious rituals in which the process of ingesting food becomes a vehicle for the transformation of consciousness. I hope I won’t offend my Christian readers too drastically by pointing to the sacrament of communion in the Christian tradition as one of the classic examples of this. In the course of the Mass, the officiating priest and the congregation alike come to experience bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ. To judge from what I’ve been told by Christian friends who belong to sacramental churches, this quite reliably causes powerful changes in consciousness.

I suspect, though, that like sex magic, the sacrament of communion has lost some of its impact due to cultural changes. When Christianity first emerged, after all, it did so in a world where the practice of animal sacrifice was a normal part of religious worship; everybody knew from personal experience what was involved in killing an animal in honor of a god and feasting on its flesh. In that context, reenacting the sacrificial death of Christ and ritually eating his flesh and drinking his blood must have packed emotional force of an intensity and concreteness that can barely be imagined today. Even now, though, the Mass is edgy stuff; the symbolic cannibalism at its heart reaches straight down into primal desires and fears about eating and being eaten—and that’s an important part of what gives it its power.

May I go on to a subject that’s likely to offend even more people than the one just mentioned? You can use defecation as a framework for a certain mode of magical action. No, that’s not usually practiced in the middle of a magical temple! The irrepressible William G. Gray, in one of his books on occultism, gives a simple but effective method of using the end of the digestive process for magical purposes.

Here’s how it’s done. When you first feel the urge, settle on something you want to let go of—some attitude, some opinion, some habit or behavior, that’s served its purpose in your life and needs to be released. Using imagination and will, localize that thing in what you’re about to excrete. Think about what you’ve learned from it, what benefits you’ve gained from having it in your life, and so on, while you feel it flowing out of you and into the contents of your colon. Keep up the concentration as you settle yourself on the seat, and as you let go, let go of it. Feel it pass out of you entirely. If you’re using a composting toilet, treat the peat moss you toss into the pot afterwards as a banishing; if you use a flush toilet, treat the act of flushing in the same spirit; then walk away—and watch what happens to the attitude, opinion, habit, or behavior you’ve decided to release.

(Any of my readers who find themselves utterly squicked out by this little ritual have an advantage over the rest of us, by the way. The emotional reaction is a sign that this mode of working will be even more effective for them than it is for those who treat defecation more casually.)

Sex, eating, and defecation, in other words, all make effective frameworks for magical practice. So do certain other activities that may seem as though they have nothing in common with the things just listed. Chanting names and words in languages you don’t know, for example, is a more effective way to get magical results than using a language you do know. “Change not the barbarous names,” the Roman-era Chaldean Oracles proclaim, “for they have in the sacred rites a power ineffable.” It’s still good advice nearly two millennia after it was written: that’s why the grimoire magic of the late Middle Ages used incantations packed with long strings of incomprehensible names, why Japanese occultists for the last millennium have relied on chants in garbled Sanskrit, and why so many Golden Dawn adepts are fond of the Enochian incantations of the great Elizabethan sorcerer John Dee: “Zodacaré, eka, od zodameranu!” simply packs more punch than the English equivalent “Rise, therefore, and appear!”

What does an Enochian invocation have in common with sex magic, the sacrament of the Mass, and Gray’s “esoteric excretion”? Precisely one thing: each of these things focuses on an activity that shifts the focus of awareness away from abstract verbal thought. Lovemaking, eating, and defecating all require attention to resolutely physical realities, and generally tie into strong emotional patterns as well. Chanting incantations in a language you don’t know gets you out of the thinking mind in a different way: since your mind doesn’t instantly translate the sounds into meanings, you can experience the sounds as sounds and respond to them on that wordless level.

Everything that makes for effective magic serves to focus the mage’s awareness on the wordless. Physical actions do that, especially if they’re actions that have strong biological resonances; scents, colors, rhythms, chanted words that don’t instantly communicate meaning to the mind all do the same thing; so does the deliberate cultivation of emotional states—for example, the practice of love and devotion in religious ritual, or the generation of emotions corresponding to the seven traditional planets in planetary magic. Abstract verbal thought, by contrast, is a waste of time in operative magic. Don’t get me wrong, it’s of the highest importance when you’re outside the temple; a solid grasp of occult philosophy, which functions at a high degree of intellectual abstraction, is essential for success in ceremonial magic...but once you set foot inside the temple, raise your hands, and begin the opening ritual, how well you succeed will depend on how well you can set aside abstract thinking for the time being and participate fully, nonverbally, emotionally and sensuously in each moment of the work.

That recognition leads into deep waters, which will have to wait for some other time. For the moment, though, I’d like to point out—as I’ve pointed out here before—that abstract concepts are further from reality than the experiences they attempt to describe and explain. In moving from thinking to experience, in magical practice or out of it, we’re moving closer to what’s real, and getting closer to what’s real seems to be essential to the effective practice of operative magic. I’ll close with a question: what does it imply about the universe if getting closer to reality makes reality more open to change?

Friday, August 21, 2015

Sex and Occultism, Part Two: The Pitfalls of Polarity

It’s always struck me as rather odd that so many people think that occultism is inseparable from sex. The habit goes back a long way; the Jewish prophets, when they denounced their fellow Israelites and neighboring peoples alike for worshipping somebody other than the storm god of Mt. Sinai, routinely mixed accusations of sexual deviance with the magico-religious kind, and that same rhetoric was adopted lock, stock, and barrel once Christianity brought out a pirate edition of the Jewish scriptures as the first two-thirds or so of the Bible. To this day, if you care for that sort of thing, you can read plenty of denunciations of  magic from the more bigoted end of the religious-literature market that don’t seem to be able to mention magic without talking about kinky sex in the same breath.
This seems odd to me because occultists, in my experience, are no more obsessed with sex than anybody else. You do find people in the occult scene for whom polymorphous perversity is a way of life, but no more of them per capita than you’ll find elsewhere, and the various orientations and kinks are no more common in occultism than outside it. Quite a few occultists, for that matter, have very tame sex lives, and you also get occultists who don’t have sex at all, due to an asexual orientation or for any of the other usual reasons. It’s rather like the equally odd insistence that anybody who practices magic must by definition worship the Christian devil; that’s not even remotely true, and fifteen minutes of unbiased research will show that it’s not true, but the rhetoric keeps churning away. One gathers that “thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” somehow got left out of a lot of Bibles.

Still, the lushly imagined connection between magic and hot sex has had certain effects on the history of occultism, if only because there have always been a certain number of people who took up magic because they thought they could get laid that way. The sex cults discussed in last month’s post drew much of their success from that fact: an aspiring sex cult entrepreneur who set up shop in a reasonably large city and made appropriately veiled hints about phallic religion, Tantric mysteries, the cult of Venus, or what have you, could count on a steady stream of customers of both sexes whose interest in occultism was a filmy garment covering plenty of bare and sweaty flesh. Between the sex cults and the pop-culture confusion between occultism and sex, that sort of thing was inevitable.

It was equally inevitable that the same sort of thinking would start shaping some of the more innovative currents in serious occultism. In June’s post here, I mentioned the remarkable Hiram Butler, who came to believe that redirecting sexual energies through strict celibacy and appropriate spiritual exercises would result in physical immortality. There were also people such as Paschal Beverly Randolph, who convinced himself—with somewhat better evidence—that simultaneous orgasm was the ultimate key to magical power. (He reached this conclusion, mind you, at a time when the medical profession insisted that women were incapable of having orgasms, and had come up with something called a “hysterical crisis” to explain what it was that women were having when they appeared to be having an orgasm. The modern scientific habit of insisting that facts must be made to conform to theories, rather than the other way around, goes back a good long way.)

The interpenetration, so to speak, between sex and occultism that I want to discuss this month took a different route. It was the creation of the remarkable Violet Firth Evans, better known by her magical nom de plume Dion Fortune, who was by most measures the twentieth century’s most influential and innovative occult theorist. Fortune, as we may as well call her, found her way to occultism by a long and winding route, and one of the places she visited on the way was Freudian psychology, which she studied intensively—I don’t think she ever practiced professionally, but she had the credentials to work as a therapist in Freudian depth psychology.

Freud himself deserves much more attention than he usually gets these days. His was the awkward fate that awaits somebody who cures a disease that nobody wants to admit they have. Before Freud, all through Europe and America, one of the most common mental illnesses among women was called hysteria—its link to the hysterical crises mentioned earlier will become clear in a moment. Countless thousands, perhaps millions, of women suffered from it. It had bizarre symptoms—“glove anesthesia,” in which one hand would suddenly go numb and lifeless and stay that way indefinitely, was one; sudden crippling phobias were another—and nobody could figure out what was going on until Freud.

What Freud figured out was that hysteria was what you get when a person who can’t bear the thought of having sexual feelings has sexual feelings. A woman who’s sexually unsatisfied for whatever reason gets the hots for the handyman, masturbates, and then gets so caught up in guilt, shame, and a range of other unhelpful emotions—heavily larded, of course, with the conviction that God was going to give her the boot in the face forever for having sexual feelings, which was being screamed at top volume from every pulpit in those days—and the hand she used to masturbate freezes up completely: result, glove anesthesia. Another woman, let’s say, is walking in the park and happens to notice that she’s sexually attracted to another woman; she freaks out completely, and thereafter can’t set foot in a park because it reminds her of the feelings she can’t bear to think about: result, phobia. The annals of early twentieth century psychologists are packed to the bursting point with such cases.

Freud’s clinical work was something of a mixed bag by most accounts. His writings, though, made it impossible to ignore the link between hysteria and sexuality, and as a result millions of respectable middle-class women came to terms with the fact that they had sexual feelings. Hysteria went from a massive public health problem to a condition so rare most psychiatrists these days have never seen a case. The return of the repressed being what it is, though, one consequence of the Freudian revolution was that sex went from something nobody talked about to something everybody talked about all the time, and its importance came to be as overrated as it had previously been underrated.

That was the background to Fortune’s theory of polarity magic. The magical lodge in which she had her original training had members of both sexes, which was a little unusual in those days; the magical order she founded after she finished her training, the Fraternity (these days, Society) of the Inner Light did the same thing; and she apparently noticed, in the course of ritual work, that rituals abruptly became much more powerful if one of the two main officers was male, the other was female, they were sexually attracted to each other, but they didn’t do anything about it on the physical plane.

We should probably pause here for a moment and talk about magical power. In lodge work, it’s not an abstraction; when a ritual’s finished and everyone heads out to the dining room or the nearby Chinese buffet to wind down and talk it over, everybody knows just how much power got raised and how well or poorly it was handled. The participants don’t have to judge this by secondary effects, either: what’s called magical power is a tangible reality in the most literal sense of that word.

Try this experiment before we go on. Rub your hands together vigorously for thirty seconds or so, and then shake your hands with loose wrists so they flop freely. Then extend your arms to your sides, stretch your fingers gently outwards—not enough to tense them, just so that you can feel the muscles extending them—and breathe slowly and deeply seven times. When you breathe in, imagine that the breath is flowing in through your hands and arms to your lungs; when you breathe out, imagine that the air flows out through your arms and hands.

When you’ve finished the seventh breath, bring your hands forward and hold them before your chest, arms gently bent and relaxed, and hands cupped as though you were holding a basketball. Hold them perfectly still and take three deep slow breaths, without imagining anything in particular. Once you’ve done this, move your hands slowly toward each other and away again, repeatedly. Notice the sensation in your palms and the inner surface of your fingers—for some people it’s a tingling, for others it’s a feeling of pressure like the repulsion of two magnets, while others have other sensations. That’s a very mild version of what magical power feels like in a lodge working.

(I’ve noticed with some amusement, by the way, that when scientific materialists do this exercise, one of two things generally happens. Either they immediately lurch around trying to explain away what they just perceived, or they turn as white as a sheet and refuse to discuss the subject ever again. If this is your reaction, dear reader, please take several deep breaths and relax. Nobody’s going to tell your atheist friends that you just experienced something that’s not allowed to exist.)

In a lodge doing polarity magic a la Dion Fortune, there are various ways of working with magical power, but there are certain things commonly done as a first step. You have, let’s say, a male officer sitting in the big chair in the east, and a female officer sitting in the big chair in the west. The altar is in the middle between them, and not coincidentally covering all of them from the waist down. They are, by the way, fully clothed, and not in anything particularly alluring, either—plain loose robes are pretty standard. The two officers find each other sexually attractive, but don’t have sex with each other. They raise their hands to shoulder height, palms turned forward, so that the male officer’s left palm is directly facing the female officer’s right palm, and vice versa. If the two of them know what they’re doing, the lines of force linking palm to palm make the air crackle—and that energy is then directed into the ritual working, producing a rush of power that accomplishes the purpose of the ritual.

That’s a glimpse at Fortune’s method. The model of magic she developed on that basis assumed that what was going on when the two officers raised their palms must be all about sex, and she developed an entire theory of polarity magic based on that assumption. In the process, being who she was and living when she was, she imported a great deal of the then-standard English notions of sexuality into her theory. Thus she insisted, for example, that heterosexuality was essential in lodge work, apparently because she didn’t find gay men or lesbians attractive enough to get a polarity reaction with them. Remember what I said earlier about many occultists having fairly tame sex lives? She seems to have fallen well over toward that end of the spectrum.

You can still encounter her rules for polarity being passed on as though they’re inviolable truths. The interesting thing is that at least some lodges that work in her tradition have learned in practice that there are many other ways to get the same result. I recall one magical lodge I worked with for several years that used a variant of Fortune’s methods. There were two women who belonged to the lodge who couldn’t stand each other; they were both perfectly decent people, but their personalities grated on each other unbearably. Being sensible individuals and competent occultists, they kept their mutual irritation under strict control so it didn’t interfere with the working of the lodge.

The presiding officer of the lodge, who was very well aware of their mutual hostility, now and again put them in the north and south of the lodge, facing each other across the altar, so they would work in polarity. It was amazingly effective; their animosity was just as powerful as sexual attraction in generating magical power, and the two main officers in east and west were able to pick up that energy and bring it to bear on the focus of the ritual, with incandescent results.

I’ve been told, though I don’t happen to know this from personal experience, that there are plenty of lodges that do polarity work with people of the same sex who are attracted to each other. The lesson I’ve drawn from my own experience, though, is that you don’t have to use sex to get polarity. You can do the same thing with any shared emotion.

That’s the real secret of polarity. The only requirement is that the emotion isn’t being expressed on the physical plane. If the two members of the lodge just mentioned had had screaming fights on a regular basis, they couldn’t have raised any amount of power between them. Have you ever, dear reader, been in a really explosive, yelling, screaming, crying fight with someone you care about, and felt after it was over and done with that some charge of energy had somehow drained away? That’s a discharge of polarity; a fight releases animosity the way that lovemaking releases libido. Magic can also release either one, but it does so indirectly, and depends for its effect on the buildup of pressure you get by denying the emotion a direct release.

I’m pretty sure that the reason Fortune came to see polarity as a matter of sexual force, pure and simple, was partly her Freudian training, and partly the fact that the British occult scene in the 1920s and 1930s was full of people who had come to terms with the fact that they had sexual feelings but hadn’t yet gotten to the point of being willing to act on those feelings outside of marriage. That meant that at any meeting of her magical lodge, she could count on having plenty of members who were sexually unsatisfied and attracted to one another, and so that was the strongest readily available shared emotion. Under other conditions, other shared emotions are more convenient. You can do it just as well with nonsexual modes of affection; you can do it with admiration; you can do it with a shared passionate commitment to a project or a cause, or what have you.

You can also establish polarity by way of what’s called mediation. Let’s say your lodge uses Egyptian symbolism and you have two main officers. One of the officers uses standard magical methods to invoke the presence of the god Osiris into himself, visualizing and feeling and experiencing himself as a vessel for the living presence of that deity; the other does the same thing with the goddess Isis. Once that’s done, it’s the two deities who raise their palms toward each other, and their love for each other that sets the air crackling. That’s harder to do because mediation takes plenty of skill and practice, but the results are worth the investment of time and effort.

You don’t have to mediate deities, by the way. I’m aware of lodges working the Arthurian mysteries, in which each of the participants mediates some figure out of Arthurian legend, and the polarity you get from the love, loyalty, and admiration of Arthur’s knights for their king and Arthur for his knights is potent stuff. You can mediate impersonal forces, though it’s a good deal harder than mediating real or fictional persons, since the emotional dimension is much easier to get going when you’ve got personality to work with. Still, anything—absolutely anything—that stirs the emotions in a common direction, and directs the emotions of each participant on someone else who is feeling the same emotions, will get the power flowing.

Is there any advantage to be gained by using sexual attraction rather than any of the other available emotions? As with so much in magic, it depends on what you want to do, and what the available toolkit happens to contain. If the two most skilled members of your lodge are sexually attracted to each other but for whatever reason don’t choose to have sex, doing the straightforward sexual polarity thing is very likely your best bet. If you don’t happen to be in that situation, something else might be a better option. The most important thing here, as elsewhere in magic, is to be clear about your purpose and your priorities, and choose accordingly.

Our culture’s tangled relationship with sexuality being what it is, though, achieving that sort of clarity when sexual attraction is involved seems to be more difficult than with other emotions. Very often, in fact, when a magical lodge or other working group starts getting into the sexual dimensions of magic, things very quickly turn into slap-and-tickle in funny robes.  That’s all very well if slap-and-tickle is what you’re looking for, and funny robes are no more shocking these days than any other paraphilia you care to name; still, it’s not necessarily helpful to confuse this sort of entertainment with magic.

I’m thinking here, among many other things, of a book on polarity magic published a few years back that includes a ritual in which the two participants, one male, the other female, go into the ritual space wearing nothing but jewelry. He lies down on his back, representing the bed of the river Nile. She wiggles over him from head to foot, representing the waters of the Nile flowing over the bed. I doubt many of my readers will have any trouble at all figuring out where this will end up. Again, if a hot night in bed is your goal, there’s nothing at all wrong with that, but it confuses communication to take a bit of ornate foreplay and call it magic.

If, as Dion Fortune liked to say, magic is the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will, that last word—will—is not to be neglected. Every magical working starts with a specific, clearly defined purpose and ends with the fulfillment of that purpose. Getting laid is a valid purpose; there are entire realms of magic devoted to that highly traditional goal; but there are also things you can do with sexual and emotional energies that don’t have that goal. Polarity working is one of them, or it can be one of them, if the participants can stay out of the pitfalls noted above.