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.