Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Word that Made the Fields Flourish

One of the things that makes the occultist’s life interesting, in several senses of that word, is the sheer random diversity of what’s been handed down from past generations under the label of occultism. It’s only in the imaginations of the overenthusiastic that it all adds up to one coherent and neatly defined whole. That’s not just a modern thing, either.  As far back as you want to look, occultism has been an utter gallimaufry of teachings, traditions, practices, wild surmises, and spare daydreams muddled up together, having little in common besides the fact that they’ve been rejected by the mainstream of Western culture and carried on thereafter by eccentrics like me in fringe venues like this one.

It really is a jumbled mess. The occult traditions of the Western world got their start when a subculture of ancient Greeks got hold of assorted half-understood chunks of the traditional magical lore of Egypt and Babylon, and tried to make sense of it using the tools of Greek philosophy. From there it ramified and rambled, borrowing freely from every other source within reach. There have been plenty of losses—when the Roman Empire embraced Christianity, and fell over and died promptly thereafter, a great deal of classical occultism vanished forever; when Europe and the countries of the European diaspora embraced scientific materialism, with results that may not turn out that much better, a great deal of Renaissance occultism vanished forever—but all the while there’s been no shortage of new material emerging, not to mention imports from around the globe and throughout time.

Over the last century and a half, furthermore, occultism has ended up sharing space out on the fringes of social respectability with a great many things that don’t actually have anything to do with the old occult traditions at all. Atlantis, for example, wasn’t an issue for occultists until Madame Blavatsky made it one. Her two massive books, Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, were playing a subtle game—rather more subtle, in fact, than either her critics or her more uncritical admirers seem to have realized.  Her deliberate embrace of a range of memes from the alternative culture of her time, Atlantis among them, was part of the underlying strategy of that game, which probably deserves a post here one of these days. Thereafter, though, speculations about Atlantis, varying from the intriguing to the goofy,  have been a running theme in quite a bit of occult literature.

Similarly, if the American pharmaceutical and medical industries weren’t so frantic about trying to squeeze every possible source of competition out of existence, the biochemic cell salts I discussed in an earlier post here would never have found their way into correspondence courses issued by half a dozen major twentieth century American occult orders. Because they were exiled into the dim and fabulous regions where occultists lurk, though, occultists and biochemic healers struck up a variety of conversations, and cell salts became something a lot of occultists used.

Now of course plenty of bits of rejected knowledge that found their way out to those same dim and fabulous regions were neither as lurid as the Atlantis myth nor as useful as cell salts. There was a while when perpetual motion machines and free-energy motors, for example, had a certain cachet among American occultists.  Similarly, there was an entire subculture of American occultists, of whom Meade Layne was probably the most famous, who went whole hog into the UFO business—oddly enough, beginning several years before the famous “flying saucer” sightings that kickstarted the whole business in 1947. The occult scene dropped UFOs like a hot rock in the 1960s; I sometimes wonder if they had noticed just how consistently “UFOs” resembled whatever aerospace technology the Air Force wanted to keep most secret at the time, from the silvery dots of the era of secret high-altitude balloon tests to the black triangles of the era of the first-generation stealth prototypes.

Not everything that’s gotten mixed up with occultism over the years, in other words, is occult in any but the original, literal sense of the world: occultus, “hidden.” The irony is that it’s entirely possible to go hunting for something that’s part of occultism in the full, classic sense of the word, and end up instead with something that probably doesn’t belong in the category of rejected knowledge for any but historical reasons. That’s been on my mind of late, because the research that resulted in my latest book went down exactly such a rabbit hole, and came back with a rather unusual rabbit.

I think most of my readers are aware that I’m a Freemason. Down through the years, there’s been a vast amount of chatter about the secrets of Freemasonry, but there’s a detail that—though it can be learned readily from any number of sources—generally gets left out: the Freemasons don’t have the original secrets any more. Brethren of the Craft will recall that when they were raised to the sublime degree of a Master Mason, they were given substitute secrets, in place of the real secrets which are lost. To this day every Master Mason is, at least in theory, pledged to the quest for the Lost Word.

Now of course there’s no shortage of claims about what the real secrets must have been. Devil worship, political subversion, kinky sex, the legacies of a prehistoric civilization on Mars, you name it, no matter how lurid, how pedantic, or how absurd, it’s probably been identified as the real meaning of the Lost Word. After I became a Master Mason in 2001, I was curious enough to do some fairly systematic reading into the various supposed meanings of the Lost Word. Later on, when I went in for the various high degrees of Masonry—the degrees that follow Master Mason, each of which has its own teachings, secret handshakes, et al.—I ended up being taught three more words, each of which purports to be the original Lost Word. This didn’t exactly clarify things any.

So I started from first principles. The Master Mason rituals used in regular Masonic jurisdictions today come from an original that appeared around 1720—three years after the founding of the first Grand Lodge in London. Nobody knows who introduced it or where it came from, but it tells a story about the building of the Temple of Solomon, and that story includes—indeed, centers on—the business about the Lost Word and the substitute secrets, which are to be kept until the real secrets were recovered.

So around 1720, at least, three linked ideas were sufficiently important to leading Freemasons that they put them into the Craft’s most important ritual. The first was that Masons of some earlier period had known some important secret; the second was that the Masons of 1720 no longer knew what the secret was, but thought they had some hope of recovering it; and the third is that it had something to do with the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, which is described in quite some detail in the Old Testament, and in far greater detail in the Talmud.

That sent me to a variety of books on the Temple of Solomon, of which Raphael Patai’s Man and Temple in Ancient Jewish Myth and Ritual was the most useful. That’s when things started getting distinctly weird, because Patai noted blandly that there are references all over the relevant parts of the Talmud to the idea that while the Temple of Jerusalem stood, there was a significant improvement in agricultural fertility in the land surrounding it. That stopped, again according to the Talmud, when the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, and it started up again when the Temple was rebuilt after the Babylonian captivity—there are references to that in the Book of Haggai, one of the very minor prophets at the tag-end of the Old Testament.

That was odd, but it didn’t seem to lead anywhere. I decided to pursue a second tack. According to a persistent body of traditions within the Craft, Freemasonry can trace at least part of its heritage back to the Knights Templar of the Middle Ages. The Templars—the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, to give them their original name—were founded in 1118 by nine French knights who had gone to Jerusalem with the First Crusade, and dissolved by Pope Clement V in 1311 amid a flurry of charges of heresy and sorcery.

The Templars got their name because the original nine knights were housed on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, atop the ruins of Solomon’s Temple; by the time of their abolition, they had landholdings in most of the countries of Europe, including a very large presence in Scotland. The Masonic tradition has it that those Templars who were in Scotland at the time of the order’s dissolution offered their services to King Robert the Bruce, who was busy fighting a war with the English just then and needed every competent soldier he could get; they fought for him at Bannockburn and elsewhere, and in return, he let them go quietly to ground.

The tradition proceeds to claim that since the Templars had their own master builders and stonemasons—they had to, since they themselves built the castles, churches, and other structures on their landholdings—some of these Scottish Templars ended up supporting themselves as master masons in the original sense of that term, and from that source, certain Templar legacies found their way into Freemasonry. It’s a matter of historical record, finally, that Freemasonry as we now know it was in existence in Scotland most of a century before it appeared anywhere else.

All of this was familiar ground, and didn’t seem to point anywhere, until I reviewed the charges leveled against the Templars at the time the order was dissolved. Much of it was the same sort of canned libels that would be used not quite a century later in the first major round of witch trials; some of it had intriguing parallels to the actual practice of heretical Christian sects in ancient and medieval times, which deserve more attention than they’ve gotten in the historical literature to date; but then there was the claim that they worshipped a mysterious idol named Baphomet, which made the crops grow. There was the issue of agricultural fertility again.

A third expression of that same theme came almost instantly to mind. The first surviving version of the story of the Holy Grail was written down around 1190 by Chretien de Troyes, who claimed he’d gotten the story from Count Philip of Flanders, a notable Crusader who had close connections with the Knights Templar and the royal house of Jerusalem. Between 1190 and 1250—that is, during the golden age of the Templars—the Grail got a huge amount of play in the popular literature of the time; most of the Grail legends note explicitly that there are secrets associated with the Grail; and of course the reason King Arthur’s knights went out in search of the Grail, according to the legends, is that it alone could restore the barren Waste Land to fertility.

I’ll spare you a blow by blow account of my researches from that point on, as they involved a great many dead ends. What I found, to summarize, is that certain religious structures—not all of them, just those designed, built, and used according to certain common principles—were traditionally associated with crop fertility. Broadly speaking, there are two apparently separate traditions involved. One of them uses structures shaped more or less like a stair-step pyramid: large ones, like the ziggurats of Babylon or the pyramids of the Mayas, or small ones, like the earth-deity altars that used to be found near every village in China before the 1949 revolution. The other uses rectangular structures oriented toward specific compass directions. This latter tradition, which is the one the Temple of Solomon followed, is also found in the divine temples (but not the funerary temples) of ancient Egypt; in the classic temples, or naoi, of ancient Greece and the classical world generally; in the temples of India; in the Shinto shrines of Japan, and finally, and surprisingly, in Christian churches in western and central Europe between the late Dark Ages and the Reformation.

That latter tradition was the one I focused on, since it was the one that was relevant to my search. There are, of course, immense differences between the religions involved. Shinto has curious similarities with ancient Egyptian religion, to the extent that a worshipper of one who was suddenly transported to a temple of the other would be able to figure out pretty much everything that was going on; Hinduism and ancient Greek religion, for that matter, have certain similarities; and then there’s medieval western European Christianity, which is sitting pretty much out there by itself.

Yet if you look at the religious architecture of each of these traditions, you’ll find rectangular buildings oriented very precisely toward specific compass directions, often though not always on an east-west axis, and laid out according to specific geometries in which that same axis plays a crucial role. You may well find the axis extended for quite a distance across the landscape, always in a straight line, unitl it ends at a body of water or a sacred site. You’ll find the worship space itself divided into an outer area for ordinary worshippers (which may be outdoors if the climate’s suitable, an inner area for clergy, and a sanctuary that’s reserved to the presiding divinity except on special occasions, and these again are normally along the same axis. You’ll find the building surrounded by a green belt—that’s spelled “churchyard” in Christian Europe—with some kind of barrier, usually a low wall, surrounding the periphery. All of these features, by the way, were found in the Temple of Solomon.

Follow the worshippers as they enter the sacred space and you’ll see them purifying themselves with water before they go in.  You’ll find the space itself full of aromatic plant resins—from incense in most cases, but in Shinto shrines, it’s from the fragrant hinoki wood of which traditional Shinto shrines are made—and when certain traditional services are being performed, you’ll hear chanting in which prolonged vowel tones play an important role. Wildly different theologies, similar practices—and in each case a little bit of research turned up the specific historical linkages by which a body of lore could have been transmitted from Egypt, which seems to have been the original source of the tradition, to each of the others.

And of course there’s that link to agricultural fertility—explicit in all but one case, and implied, as a hope waiting to be fulfilled, in the medieval Christian legends of the Holy Grail.

The final piece of the puzzle was how a building, however precisely sited and structured, however exactly its interior was arranged as a resonance chamber, however curious the activities performed in it, might influence agricultural fertility. That was actually the easy part, as I’d stumbled across two possible causative mechanisms early on in my hunt. The first was terrestrial electricity and magnetism. There are currents of electricity and lines of magnetic force, closely associated with one another, moving through the body of the Earth, and several researchers noticed quite a while ago that these can have remarkable effects on plant growth. What’s more, back before chemical fertilizers became standard, experimenters with what was then called “electroculture” found that crops grown in soil that had a slight electrical charge in it yielded significantly better than average. A building properly sited atop an electrical discontinuity in the earth, by the way, can build up a substantial charge of telluric electricity, which then streams outward through conductive areas in the soil.

The second possible mechanism involves certain frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum. Entomologists have found that many flying insects perceive electromagnetic radiation in wavelengths on the border between infrared light and microwaves; they have little wax-covered spines called sensilla on their antennae that resonate to those wavelengths. Most plants have tiny spines on their leaves, called trichomes, that are also the right size to pick up the same wavelengths, and many of the pheromones emitted by insects and the aromatic compounds released by plants will radiate in those wavelengths if stimulated by movement, light, or sound.

To a moth, in other words, a meadow is a tapestry of colors and sensations that you and I will never know. Shimmering veils of pheromones aromatic compounds glow in a vast spectrum of unearthly colors, which communicate to the insects who perceive it through their sensillae, and also to the plants who sense it through their trichomes. This hue tells male moths that a female of their species is near; that hue tells plants that a common parasite is in the neighborhood, and stimulates the production of defensove compounds. It’s all part of the normal flow of information through any healthy ecosystem.

Now imagine a structure designed to contain highly concentrated aromatic compounds, which radiate certain wavelengths when stimulated by movement and sound. Imagine that the same structure also builds up a strong charge of terrestrial electricity, and sends it streaming out again through conductive areas in the soil. What effect would such a thing have on the surrounding fields? Nobody knows, as the tradition that guided the building of the old temples has apparently been lost, and the relevant research that would allow scientists to determine the effects has never been done.

What I think I’ve found, in other words, is an archaic folk technology linked to specific traditions of temple building and worship, which used natural forces to improve agricultural productivity in fields near the temple structure. That tradition likely emerged over thousands of years of trial, error, and lucky accident; it was in existence early in the first millennium BCE, when the Temple of Solomon was built; as a secret lore traditionally linked to religious mysteries, it was lost in various corners of the world when religious traditions changed; bits of it may still survive in traditional lore in India and Japan, despite the tumultuous modern histories of both nations; it came to Europe in fragmentary form in the Dark Ages, and later, in much more complete form, as part of the secret lore of the Knights Templar; it passed out of use in Europe during the Reformation, but lingered among the old operative stonemasons for some centuries thereafter; it was lost irrevocably by the Craft in the ghastly civil wars of seventeenth-century England and Scotland—and it might just possibly still be recovered.

That’s my hypothesis. Have I proved it? Not a chance. The Secret of the Temple, the book of mine mentioned earlier in this post, is a first speculative reconnaissance of a vast and poorly understood landscape. It’s entirely possible that my working hypothesis is wrong, and that the secret hidden behind the legend of the Lost Word is something else entirely—but I think it’s also possible that I’m correct, and that further research might just turn up the Word that made the fields flourish.

Beyond whatever practical use or entertainment value that might have, there’s also a point of much broader applicability here. The knowledge of the past that’s been rejected by the present contains a vast array of things, and not all of them fit comfortably into the categories to which modern thought likes to assign them. It took Joseph Needham, the great researcher into Chinese scientific traditions, to notice that a certain potion made by Chinese alchemists was an impure but effective extract of human sex hormones, which was being used medicinally for hormonal insufficiency many centuries before Western doctors figured out the same trick. There are likely to be plenty of similar things mixed up in the vast and crowded attic of occult tradition, and I’d encourage those of my readers who like such things to go looking. If their experience is anything like mine, they’ll be in for an adventure.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Speech of the Stars: An Astrological Interlude

Last week’s post on divination, for the sake of simplicity, finessed a distinction that’s actually of some importance—the existence of different categories of divination. Most of the divinatory oracles in use these days belong to a single category, which is technically called “sortilege.” That’s what you call any oracle that involves the (apparently) random selection of one or more symbols out of a predetermined set. Tarot cards, runes, geomantic figures, Ogham fews, the hexagrams of the I Ching, the letters of the Coelbren alphabet, and the list goes on: all these are methods of sortilege.

Sortilege is the most popular approach to divination these days, but it’s not the only game in town, and a brief glimpse at some of the other options is appropriate here. The oldest of all methods of divination, as far as anyone knows, is omen divination: you watch for something unusual to happen, and when it does, you interpret it.

That was the most prestigious method of divination in classical times.  Before any important event, such as the founding of a temple or the beginning of an official’s term of office, an augur—a professional omen reader—would sit down in the appropriate location, facing south, and wait for an omen to happen: the appearance of a lucky or unlucky bird, thunder from this or that direction, or what have you. We still talk about the inauguration of a president or other elected official, even though nobody but birdwatchers notices what’s perched in the trees beforehand. 

Mind you, omens still happen, even if there’s a shortage of augurs to interpret them. The news media in America just before the recent election, for example, carried a story from Florida, where two bald eagles, one male, one female, got into a fight in midair and plunged together into the gutter. After a few minutes, the male flew up and away, leaving the female eagle to be rescued by the local animal-control department. Any ancient Greek augur worth his salt would have known exactly how to read that omen.

The difficulty with omen divination, though, is that omens don’t necessarily show up when required. I suspect a lot of augurs spent a lot of long hours staring south at an empty sky waiting for something, anything, to happen. The other approaches to divination all get around this by making an omen happen when required. Sortilege is one of these, but there are three others in common use.

The first of these doesn’t have a common name, but without too much distortion it could be called Rohrshach-blot divination. Tea leaf reading is the method of this kind that most people know about, but there are other practices of the same kind—for example, wizards in Finland used to pour molten lead into cold water, wait until the lead congealed, and read the future from the blobby shape produced. Methods of these kind generally use no-holds-barred free association to interpret the results, so their accuracy depends entirely on the intuitive gifts of the diviner.

The same is true of the next kind of divination I have in mind, which is scrying. That’s what the stereotypical Romany seer is doing when she stares into a crystal ball and sees a tall, dark stranger coming into your life. Crystal balls aren’t the only option; any more or less reflective surface will do. People who have the gift of scrying can put themselves into a light trance as they gaze at the surface, and then they begin to see things. It can be an extremely effective method, but it depends on having strong intuitive gifts and also the talent of going into the light trance, which not everyone can do. For example, I can’t manage the thing at all.

Then we go to the other extreme, to those systems of divination that require no special states of consciousness, because they rely on cyclical phenomena that, at least in theory, have objective effects on human consciousness and thus on human affairs. There are a number of divination systems in this category, but the one that I plan to discuss—partly because it’s the one with which I’ve had a decent amount of experience, partly because it has had an immense role in the occult traditions of the western world—is astrology: “the speech of the stars,” to give the combination astro-logos its actual meaning in ancient Greek.

I should probably be more specific here, because there are four broad traditions of astrology in the world. There’s Mesoamerican astrology, Chinese astrology, Indian astrology, and the Western tradition, which had its roots in ancient Mesopotamia and went from there through Greece and the Arab world to Europe and the European diaspora. There are important similarities among these four traditions, but also important differences, and it’s not safe to generalize from one to the others. Thus I’m talking about the last of the traditions just named, Western astrology.

What’s more, all four traditions are full of the same lively process of competition between different schools of theory and practice that you find in, ahem, every other science. What I’ll be discussing here is the kind of astrology used by the great majority of practitioners in the English-speaking world: more specifically, the particular version of that kind of astrology that emerged in early to mid-twentieth century America, as taught and practiced by Llewellyn George and Ivy Goldstein-Jacobson, the two writers I’ve studied most closely.

It is, to begin with, tropical astrology. No doubt this phrase suggests to many of my readers that it ought to be practiced under a palm tree with a pina colada close at hand, but that’s not actually what the term denotes. To understand the difference between tropical astrology and the other kind, sidereal astrology, it’s useful—surprisingly so—to turn to one of the standard criticisms of astrology.

This is the claim that astrology can’t work because the precession of the equinoxes—the slow wobble of the Earth’s axis that takes 25,920 years or so to complete a full cycle—has moved the groups of stars named Aries, Taurus, etc. out of the regions of the sky that share those names, and astrology hasn’t taken that into account. It’s a very common sound bite flung by self-proclaimed skeptics against astrology, and like most such sound bites, it seems to make sense so long as you don’t know the first thing about the subject.

In point of fact, the very first surviving discussion of the precession of the equinoxes that has survived is in a book by the Roman astrologer Claudius Ptolemy. Pick up any astrological textbook that’s beyond the babytalk level and odds are you’ll find a detailed discussion of precession. Many of my readers may have heard the phrase “the age of Aquarius” in an astrological context—what defines that age is, again, precession. So, yes, astrologers know all about it.

Why hasn’t the shifting of star groups affected the location of those regions of the sky that astrologers call the signs of the Zodiac? It’s really quite simple. The signs are not the constellations.

As seen from the Earth, the Sun appears to move across the background of stars at a little less than one degree a day, following a track in space called the ecliptic—the name comes from the fact that eclipses happen when the Moon crosses that track. There are four important points along the ecliptic: the two equinoctial points, where the ecliptic crosses the celestial equator (the projection of the Earth’s equator into space), where the Sun may be found at the spring and fall equinoxes, and the two solstitial points, when the Sun is as far from the celestial equator as it gets, up against the Tropic of Cancer or Capricorn at the northern hemisphere’s summer and winter equinoxes respectively.

Those four points are at right angles to each other, marking out four ninety-degree wedges of space. Astrologers divide each of those wedges into three, to produce the twelve signs. Each sign got its name from the constellation that was there in classical times, when casting a horoscope usually involved noting the angle of the Sun with an astrolabe at the moment of birth, then waiting until after sunset to see where the planets were; the constellations were convenient signposts back then. As mathematics improved, tables of planetary positions took the place of the astrolabe, and so nobody cared much when the constellations drifted out of the signs to which they’d lent their names.

The signs are not the constellations. The signs of the zodiac are thirty-degree wedges of space defined by the relationship of the Sun and the Earth, with the thin point at the center of the Earth and the base along an arc of the ecliptic, like slices of celestial pizza. Each wedge has its own distinct flavor or character, and when the Sun, the Moon, or one of the planets is in a given wedge, its influence on Earth takes on some of that flavor.

Take a moment to imagine the Earth in space. Spread out in the middle distance are an assortment of other celestial bodies: the Sun, blazing at the center of the solar system; the Moon, circling the Earth; the other planets moving along their own orbits. Each of these bodies is either on the ecliptic or fairly close to it, and so each one falls into one of the signs, the thirty-degree wedges of space I’ve just described, which are established by the relationship of the Earth to the Sun. The constellations and the individual stars? For all practical purposes, they’re just background decor.

That’s the universe of the tropical astrologer. It’s only fair to note that there’s also a system called sidereal astrology, which is used by a small minority of Western astrologers, and which assigns those wedges of space according to the location of the constellations rather than the location of the solstices and equinoxes. (Again, this sort of disagreement between competing theories happens in every science.) There are various systems of sidereal astrology, and apparently some people get good results with them.  The one I’ve explored, the one used and then discarded by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in its early days, produced inaccurate predictions and embarrassingly bad personality readings when I used it, which is why I went back to tropical astrology. Still, your mileage may vary.

Skeptics of the sort who like to rabbit on about how precession disproves astrology also like to insist that there’s no way that the stars, all those light-years away, could affect events here on Earth. With this claim the tropical astrologer has no disagreement at all. The universe of tropical astrology stops at the limits of the solar system, and even scientists admit that the planets are much, much closer than the stars and thus able to exert measurable effects on this planet. The thesis of tropical astrology is simply that there are more effects of this kind than modern science has gotten around to noticing, mostly because it doesn’t want to look—and that these effects can be tracked by the tools of astrology.

Some astrologers of the last century who were also students of occultism suggested what, to my mind, is the most plausible explanation for the way that astrological influences reach the Earth. We’ve already talked about the astral light, the subtle whatever-it-is—not energy in the sense that physicists give that word, and probably not matter either—that, ahem, “surrounds us and penetrates us, and binds the solar system together.” In occult theory, the Sun is the source of the astral light—presumably every star is the source of astral light in its own system—and as the astral light from our Sun streams out to the edges of the solar system, it forms complex patterns of resonance and reverberation around each of the planets, which then react with one another in predictable ways.

If that were the case, you’d get the strongest effects either from the body that was the primary source of astral light, or from a body that was really, really close to the Earth—and in astrology, that’s exactly what you do in fact get. The Sun and the Moon are far more powerful in a chart than the planets. If you know somebody’s Sun sign, Moon sign, and rising sign—the wedge of the heavens that was on the eastern horizon at the moment of birth—and nothing else, you know much more about them than if you know the location of all the planets in their birth chart but don’t know the three points just named.

What’s more, the planets are more important in a chart than smaller bodies.  After the discovery of the asteroids, astrologers went to work trying to figure out what they meant; the astrology of the asteroids is a field for specialists these days, though, because the influence of these little lumps of rock turned out to be fairly minor most of the time. The discovery of the Kuiper Belt objects off beyond Pluto has launched similar investigations on the part of today’s astrologers; while everyone’s pretty sure that Eris, Sedna, and the other glorified snowballs out there in the frozen outer reaches of the solar system have some effect, it’s doubtful that they’ll have much more influence than asteroids.

So you’ve got the Sun, Moon, planets, and a variety of minor bodies, each of which seems to lend a specific force to human consciousness and life, moving through the pizza-wedges of the signs, each of which has a distinct flavor or character that it seems to impart to any celestial body that, from our perspective on Earth, passes through the sign. There are three other sets of factors. The first are the houses, which are twelve more pizza-slice wedges of the sky, defined not by the solstices and equinoxes but by the location on Earth for which a chart is cast. There are various ways to calculate the cusps (dividing points) of the houses, each of which has its partisans—again, the sort of competition of theory and practice usual in every science—but in most systems, the four cardinal points are the same:   the ascendant at the eastern horizon, the descendant at the western horizon, the midheaven at the ecliptic’s greatest elevation, and the nadir at its lowest point. It’s the fine points of dividing the quarters into three slices each that are still up for debate.

Where the planets have their specific forces and the signs have their flavors or characters, the houses relate to the different aspects of human life. The first house, which is just below the ascendant, relates to personality, and so any celestial object in that house will exert its force, flavored by the sign it’s in, predominantly on the personality. Similarly, the tenth house, which is just east of the midheaven, relates to career, and any celestial object in the tenth house will influence the career in accordance with its force and the flavor of the sign it happens to be in.

That’s the first factor. The second factor is that each celestial body relates to the signs in its own idiosyncratic way. The Sun, for example, has a special connection with Leo; its influence is unusually strong there, and if the cusp of one of the houses is in Leo, the Sun will influence the part of life governed by that house, even if it’s in a different house in the chart. Astrologers express this by saying that the Sun rules Leo. Correspondingly, the Sun is very weak in Aquarius—in its detriment, in astrological jargon. In Aries, the Sun is exalted—that is, it tends to express its influence in an unusually beneficial manner—while in Libra it’s in its fall, and expresses its influence in an unusually negative manner. The Moon and the planets have their own rulerships, detriments, exaltations, and falls, which work exactly the same way.

The third factor, finally, is that celestial bodies can affect one another if their positions form certain angles when seen from the standpoint of Earth. At some angles—especially 60° and 120°—they reinforce each other; at others—especially 90° and 180°—they conflict with each other. What if they aren’t at one of these angles? In that case, they don’t have a thing to do with each other. These angles are called aspects; there are major aspects, which have strong effects, and minor aspects, which have less obvious effects.

Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? It is. It’s an intricate, extraordinarily complex, and rather fussy form of divination that has had more research, experimentation, retrospective analysis, and testing put into it than all other Western systems of divination put together. One of the downsides of astrology is that it takes a lot of study and practice to get good at it. I got to the point of being able to do clear, accurate Tarot readings after about six months of steady practice, and it took me less than that to become a good geomancer; by contrast, I’ve been studying astrology pretty systematically for getting on for seven years, and there are still entire branches of theory and practice relating to the speech of the stars about which I still basically don’t have a clue.

(One of the things I haven’t mentioned yet is that you can use astrology for much, much more than birth charts. You can take a birth chart and progress it, to give year-by-year predictions about the life of the chart’s subject; that’s predictive astrology. You can choose a time to start something in order to give it the best possible start; that’s elective astrology. You can cast a chart for the moment a question is asked, and read the answer to the question right off the chart; that’s horary astrology. You can cast a chart for the moment you first feel ill, and use the chart to figure out the cause, course, and result of the illness; that’s medical astrology. You can cast a chart for one of the equinoxes or solstices for the capital city of a country, and get a very clear sense of the mood of the country and the course of political events for the following three months; that’s mundane astrology. Birth charts? That’s natal astrology, or if you prefer a more ornate term, genethliac astrology.)

Another downside is that astrology is inherently “fuzzy.” An astrological chart, whether it’s a birth chart or something else, talks in general categories. That doesn’t mean that anything goes; if you know what you’re doing, you can draw hard and fast conclusions from a chart—but there’s a gap between the conclusions you can draw and the exact details of the way they’re expressed. For example, I have Uranus in the first house of my natal chart. That’s the classic placement of the eccentric, the person who instinctively veers left where everyone else veers right, whose interests are at right angles to other people’s and gets bored with anything that’s too popular—and I’m unquestionably that sort of person.

What couldn’t be told from the chart is exactly what kind of eccentric I would turn out to be. A good Tarot reader or scryer could have gotten details; an astrologer, by and large, has to settle for “eccentric, with a taste for old things” (the latter due to my Saturn placement). Mind you, there are astrologers who can read a chart the way a Tarot reader reads the cards, and extract all kinds of improbably accurate data from it; I suspect what’s going on here is that intuition’s being applied on top of astrology.

But there’s an upside that goes along with that: you can surf the waves of astrological influence, to a much greater extent than you can surf other divination methods. If you find something in your natal chart you don’t like, once you know about it, you can work around it. If you have a bad transit—that is to say, a planet moving through a position where it’s in a difficult aspect to something in your birth chart, and thus influences your consciousness and life in some unwelcome way—you can deliberately counter its influence. You take fewer risks when Mars is afflicted, allow more time when Saturn is being difficult, decide not to order that second piece of pie when Jupiter’s in a bad position. Equally, when you have a favorable transit, you run with it.

All this suggests to me that there really is something objective behind astrology—something that more or less corresponds to the occult teaching referenced earlier. That’s a possibility I’d encourage readers to keep in mind as we proceed.

It’s been a while now since I proposed a contest, asking readers to write stories about magic that dealt with magic as it actually works, rather than the cheap imitations that fill the pages of fantasy novels and Hollywood movies. I received in response some first-rate stories—but, I’m sorry to say, not enough of them to make an anthology along the lines of the four After Oil anthologies. I want to thank everyone who wrote a story in response to my challenge, and since a good many of the stories in question deserve publication, I’ve forwarded them to the editor of MYTHIC Magazine, who has promised to consider them for publication. MYTHIC is a new magazine of fantasy and science fiction, and a paying market; I’ve got a story slated for publication in the first issue—and to be quite frank, I would be honored to have my story appear alongside some of the stories that were submitted in response to the contest.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Foundations of Magical Practice: Divination

The last two monthly posts here on The Well of Galabes have outlined two of the three basic elements of magical training—ritual and meditation—and this one will predictably enough proceed to the third, which is divination. Here we pass from the relatively unknown onto familiar ground. Plenty of people who couldn’t tell a banishing ritual from a toasted bagel, and whose notions of meditation more or less amount to tying one’s legs into an overhand knot and chanting “Om, Om, on the Range,” know that astrologers are supposed to be able to predict someone’s destiny from the position of the heavens at the time of birth, tarot readers claim to do the same thing by dealing out funny-looking cards, and so on.

Such practices are extraordinarily common. To the best of my knowledge, there is not now, nor has there ever been, a human society that hasn’t practiced at least a few forms of divination. What’s more,  as societies become more complex, literate, and technologically sophisticated, the availability and popularity of divination go up, not down. Modern industrial society is a case in point. There has never been another civilization in recorded history in which so many different forms of divination were so assiduously practiced by so many people. It’s worth noting that astrology programs were among the first programs that became available once those original clunky home computers hit the market. I still have a copy of my birth chart made in those days, calculated on I forget which pre-TRS-80 machine and printed out on a daisy-wheel printer.

The popularity of divination, now as in past times, is entirely understandable. Most of us would like to get at least a few questions about the future answered in advance. In times of crisis—and when in recorded history have those been far apart?—the desire to glimpse the shape of things to come, and gauge the prospects of different courses of action in advance, is even more self-evident. Fashionable pseudoskeptics of the Carl Sagan variety have trotted out any number of ad hoc hypotheses and question-begging maneuvers to explain why divination, rather than other ways of gauging the future, is the standard human response to that desire. One possibility they haven’t considered, for obvious reasons, is that divination is so popular because it works.

Let’s take a closer look at that unmentionable possibility.  Every form of divination yields a sequence of symbols that have been chosen by some seemingly random means. The word “random,” to be sure, begs a boatload of questions; whether or not anything in the universe is actually random is one of the big questions of philosophy; the crucial point regarding divination, though, is that the sequence of symbols must not be chosen by conscious deliberation. They may be chosen by shuffling cards or yarrow stalks, by pulling pieces of stone out of a bag, by tapping a stick on the sand a random number of times and seeing whether the resulting number is odd or even; they may be determined by the state of the heavens on the moment a person was born, or the moment an astrologer is asked a question; they may be determined, for that matter, by the number and type of birds that fly past a given place—anything that’s outside the control of the conscious mind is fair game for divination.

That’s the thing, of course, that reduces fashionable pseudoskeptics of the Carl Sagan variety to spluttering incoherence the moment divination gets mentioned. It’s an article of faith these days that a sequence of symbols generated in any of the ways just mentioned, or anything like them, can’t possibly communicate anything useful about the future. Let’s turn that faith-based presupposition into a question: how can a symbol generated by what most people call chance yield useful information?

There are at least three relevant answers to that question.

First, it’s a commonplace of experience that human thought almost always runs in ruts, and that a vast number of the problems each of us faces in our daily lives come about because we’re stuck thinking about some issue in ways that make solutions invisible. Very often all that’s needed to solve even the most longstanding personal or interpersonal problem is a willingness to accept a different way of thinking about the problem. This, in turn, divination can readily provide.

Consider a Tarot reading in which the diviner turns up the Six of Swords upright in a position that relates to the querent’s employment. (A querent, in traditional diviner’s jargon, is the person for whom a divination of any kind is cast.) The Six of Swords upright has the traditional meaning of “journey by water,” and a competent diviner will take that in as metaphorical a sense as necessary to make sense of the querent’s situation: say, as an indication that the querent’s job is transitional, a way to move from one “shore” to another. It may well be that the querent has never thought about her job in that light, and the reframing of the issue allows her to see possibilities that had never occurred to her before.

More generally, John von Neumann showed in his famous study of game theory that a strategy that includes a random factor will generally beat a strategy that doesn’t, because the random factor makes it impossible for opponents to anticipate and counter your moves. Divination is among many other things a very effective way to insert a random factor into your actions, and since so many things in life depend on successful competition, the person who includes divination in his or her decision-making process will, all other things being equal, have a greater chance of success than the person who does not.

That’s the first answer. The second unfolds from a detail of divination that’s common knowledge to those who practice it, which is that the more mechanical the interpretation is, the less useful it is. A Tarot reading, again, that’s interpreted via the canned readings in the LWB (“little white booklet”) that comes with the deck is usually pretty useless; a Tarot reading interpreted by an experienced diviner is something else again. Clearly something more than the random dealing of cards is going on here.

Cognitive science has shown over and over again that we know more than we realize we know. The conscious, reasoning human mind, in evolutionary terms, is a late and still poorly debugged addition plopped down over the top of a superbly adapted social primate nervous system, which constantly processes far more information than the reasoning mind can handle in its more laborious way. As our imaginary diviner and querent sit facing each other across a table strewn with Tarot cards, for example, the diviner’s nervous system is picking up a torrent of information from the querent’s posture, movements, voice, pheromones, and much more.

Are these things important? Why, yes; as someone who has Aspergers syndrome, and so basically lacks access to these sources of information, I can tell you from direct experience just how much of normal human interaction depends on them! Under normal circumstances, though, the primate mind talks to the primate mind, and the reasoning mind only notices the emotional tone that results. In order to get more information up into the conscious mind, it’s necessary to do an end run around the normal ways by which the conscious mind gets (and filters out) data.

How do you do that? Ask any old-fashioned psychoanalyst, and he’ll tell you that free association based on arbitrarily chosen symbols is a very effective means. That’s what the diviner does when she deals out the Six of Swords in the place that represents the querent’s employment, considers the card, and calls to mind the traditional meaning of the card. The idea pops into her head: “the job’s not an end in itself, but a transition to something else.” Where did it come from? From a thousand little cues, some verbal, most nonverbal, that let her primate mind know that the querent is unhappy with her job and would be interested in moving to something else if she thought that was possible. So the diviner interprets the card in accordance with the intuition, and the querent’s eyes widen as the unexpected possibilities make themselves visible.

That’s the second answer. The third one moves all the way out past game theory and psychology into the territory that modern thought has marked with big red signs saying DO NOT ENTER and operative mages have marked with smaller signs saying this way to the party. At the core of modern magic is the theory of the astral light—the thesis that there exists a subtle substance not currently known to science that pervades the universe, affects consciousness in predictable ways, and can be deliberately shaped by means of magic. (Yes, we’re talking about the Force; operative mages, and a great many other people such as martial artists, were talking about it millennia before George Lucas was born. Where do you think he got the idea?)

The astral light, according to traditional occult philosophy, is the medium through which astrological influences shape life on earth; it’s the medium through which magical workings propagate their effects across space and time; it’s also the medium through which acupuncture and a good half of the other alternative healing modalities work, just as it’s the medium through which the subtler and spookier martial arts accomplish a good half of their techniques. It’s also something every living thing perceives all the time, but human beings in modern Western industrial societies are pressured, beated, and bribed into ignoring by the time they reach adulthood.

So we have at least three possible ways by which divination can work. Which of them is actually responsible? Why, all of them, of course, and there may be other factors feeding into it as well. The notion that every phenomenon must have one and only one causative mechanism is one of the most widespread superstitions of our time. Of the mechanisms I’ve proposed, the first two are probably the most useful for the casual diviner or the client of an amateur or professional astrologer, card reader, or the like. For the operative mage, though, the third is where the real payoff lies.

One of the central tasks of training in operative magic is learning to perceive the astral light directly, and one of the primary ways of doing that is the regular practice of divination. The mechanism here is the same one that gets a workout in the psychological dimension of divination mentioned above—free association based on a chance collocation of symbols—but the source of information is different; instead of tuning into body language, the diviner tunes into the flow of information through the astral light. What’s more, with practice, the astral light also affects the subtle movements of the body that control the outcome of shuffling cards, or what have you. (Lucas again: “You mean the Force controls your actions?” asks Luke; “Yes, but it also obeys your commands,” says Obi-Wan. Once again, operative mages were there long before the Jedi got around to it.)

It’s with this in mind that the operative mage in training makes regular divination a part of his or her half hour or so of daily practice.

Here’s how it works. Every morning, before you have to tackle the events of the day, you cast a simple reading with whatever divinatory oracle happens to catch your fancy, asking some straightforward question such as, “What do I most need to understand about the events of this day?” You then interpret it, and set it aside. That evening, when the day’s over with, you go back to the reading and interpretation, look it over, and see (a) what you got right, (b) what you got wrong, and (c) what you should have noticed but didn’t. You then do the same thing the next day, and the next, and the next, through the entire course of your magical training.

Please note that in doing so, you’re not trying to prove whether divination works. When you start learning to divine, for you, it generally won’t. You’re trying to learn how to do it, which involves the development of certain very complex skills you probably don’t have yet, and the opening up of certain subtle capacities of perception you probably don’t have yet either. That’s why you cast a reading every morning, and why you compare your readings to the events of the day every evening: the practice becomes a self-correcting process by which you learn through repeated experience what each divinatory symbol is trying to tell you in terms of your daily life.

Three things, broadly speaking, will happen as you pursue this practice on a daily basis. The first is that you’ll get very, very familiar with whatever set of divinatory symbols you happen to be using. Whether it’s Tarot cards, runes, Ogham letters, Lenormand cards, the obscure but fascinating Welsh bardic alphabet called the Coelbren, or what have you, casting a simple daily reading will teach you the symbols and their meanings more effectively than any other method I’ve encountered. This has uses that aren’t limited to divination; many forms of operative magic require a solid grasp of a set of symbols for nondivinatory purposes, and when you’ve cast daily readings using the symbols in question for a year or so, you’ll be more than ready.

The second thing that will happen is that you’ll get really good at casting and interpreting readings, and getting accurate information about the future from those readings. After a certain point—the length of time varies from person to person—you’ll notice that pretty reliably, when you look back over your daily reading, you caught the most important things going on that day. After another point—usually but not always further on—you’ll learn to guide your actions on the basis of insights from your divinations: if your Tarot reading turns up the Seven of Swords, for example, you’ll keep an eye out for dirty tricks on the part of some rival at work, and if it turns up the Two of Cups instead, you’ll know that tonight’s date has romantic possibilities you hadn’t expected, and act accordingly. As a result, your life will improve: not drastically, and not all at once, but you’ll find yourself dodging problems and making use of opportunities more often, and more effectively, than you used to.

It’s the third thing, though, that’s the real payoff for the operative mage. When you’ve been practicing divination regularly for several years, you’ll begin to find that you don’t always need to cast a reading to get the same sort of useful hints from the cosmos that divination provides. The sprawling assortment of human capacities that we lump together under the term “intuition” includes many things, but one of them is a sensitivity to the astral light. (Traditionally, this is said to be mediated through the pineal gland.) As you exercise that capacity through divination, you also develop the capacity to use it without benefit of oracles; you simply know what’s happening, and act accordingly. Am I talking about omniscience? Of course not; the astral sense is no more limitless than any of your other senses, but it can bring you information that your other senses can’t.

So there’s your sequence of basic magical practices: a daily banishing ritual; a daily discursive meditation; and a daily divination. Most people can do this in around thirty minutes a day, give or take a bit of wiggle room—five to seven minutes for the ritual, ten minutes for the meditation, and the rest to cast and interpret the divination. That’s all it takes to set yourself on the path of operative magic.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It isn’t. If you decide to give it a try, I promise you that your mind, your body, the people you live with, and the entire rest of the universe, right out to the comets of the Oort Cloud and the distant stars of the Magellanic Clusters, will spend the next year or so handing you every conceivable reason to do something else with that thirty minutes. It’s amusing in retrospect, though rarely so funny at the time, just how many obstacles get thrown up (in any sense of the phrase you prefer) in the way of those first tentative steps toward magehood. There’s nothing you can do to prevent it—fleeing to a hermitage and barring the doors has been tried, and no, it doesn’t help—and only one response that matters, which is to Just. Keep. On. Doing. Your. Practices. Eventually, if you keep going despite all obstacles, the obstacles fall away, the doors swing wide open, and the fun begins.


Please note, before we proceed, that all the caveats mentioned in the last two posts apply to this one as well. The recommendations I’m making here aren’t meant as quasi-divine commandments that apply to every conceivable system of magic, and anyone who treats them as such will be fed to the first school of arthrodires I happen to encounter. They’re the advice of one longtime practitioner of magic to those who are considering taking up a specific form of that art—the ceremonial high magic of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and certain of its offshoots—and don’t have a qualified teacher handy.

With that in mind, I’d like to start with a simple note: if you’re working with a specific system of teaching, and it asks you to practice a particular kind of divination in a particular way, for heaven’s sake, do that kind of divination in that way. The curriculum of a magical tradition isn’t just thrown together at random; it’s meant to develop specific skills in a balanced manner, and each step along the way lays groundwork that will be needed later on.

If you’re doing this entirely on your own, on the other hand, without a specific tradition to follow, you really can apply the approach discussed in this post to any system of divination you like. I’ve used it myself over the years to get a good working knowledge of Tarot, geomancy, my ill-fated (so far) Sacred Geometry Oracle, the Irish Ogham alphabet, and the Welsh Coelbren alphabet, and I’m currently tracking astrological transits over my natal chart daily with an eye toward the same sort of learning process, with good results. There are literally hundreds of different methods of divination available on the market just now, so choose an oracle and get cracking!

In unrelated news, a new translation of Eliphas Levi’s The Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic, by me and longtime Well of Galabes reader Mark Mikituk, will be released in early April of next year. I’m looking for podcasters and bloggers who would be interested in reviewing it. If this is up your alley, put through a comment marked NOT FOR POSTING with your name, email address, and blog or podcast URL, and I’ll see if I can pry loose a review copy for you.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Foundations of Magical Practice: Meditation

Before we get into the second element of basic magical training—if you will, the second foot of the bubbling three-footed cauldron the novice operative mage, like little Gwion, must keep stirring—a brief glance back at an earlier subject is in order. Regular readers will recall a post in April about the emergence of a witch hunt in the Neopagan scene. I’m pleased to say that the post came to the attention of the wannabe witch hunter, Rhyd Wildermuth, who posted an entertaining screed insisting that it was absurd to talk about witch hunts when he hadn’t yet managed to get anyone burned at the stake.

He needs to work on his sense of timing, though.  His screed appeared while one of his allies had a rant on the Neopagan web calling for a campaign of harassment, intimidation, and violence—that is to say, a witch hunt—against people in the Pagan community whose politics she didn’t like. (It’s been taken down and put back up at least once already, but you can find a screen capture here.) Connoisseurs of historical ignorance will find much to ponder in Wildermuth’s risible claim that violence is only ever committed by leadership figures against the masses, never the other way around.  Admittedly, if you’re a demagogue trying to whip up mob violence against people you hate, it’s probably a good plan to go around insisting that mob violence doesn’t exist; given the abysmal state of education these days, you might even be able to get away with it.

In the meantime, as this sorry business lurches toward its destiny and we wait to see whether it will drag the entire mainstream Neopagan scene down with it, there are more interesting things to talk about.  One of them, as noted above, is the role of meditation in magical training.

(Please note, before we proceed, that all the caveats introduced in last month’s post apply to this one as well. The recommendations I’m making here aren’t  meant as quasi-divine commandments that apply to every conceivable system of magic, and anyone who treats them as such will be beaten with a pterodactyl’s colon. They’re the advice of one longtime practitioner of magic to those who are considering taking up a specific form of magic—the ceremonial high magic of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and certain of its offshoots—and don’t happen to have a qualified teacher handy. Thank you, and we now return to our regularly scheduled Well of Galabes post.)

There are, as it happens, two common misconceptions about meditation that are best gotten out of the way first, and both of them can be overturned neatly enough by a glance at the word “meditation” itself. The first misconception is that meditation is something foreign, something “Eastern” (whatever that word means on a round planet), invented and practiced by strange people in strange robes far away. The second is that meditation, by definition, is about turning off your thinking mind.

So let’s take a look at the word. “Meditation” isn’t borrowed from Sanskrit, Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan, or whatever the imaginary language was called that Madame Blavatsky claimed she was translating out of when she made up The Book of Dzyan. It’s a perfectly ordinary English word and, like about forty per cent of English vocabulary, comes originally from Latin. This may suggest to you that Latin-speaking people in the Middle Ages and English-speaking people thereafter knew what meditation is—and if that suggestion has indeed occurred to you, dear reader, you’re quite correct.

In English, though, this word “meditation” only got the meaning of mind-emptying exercises quite recently. You can see this by considering other words in which it’s an element. When we say that a crime was premeditated, for example, that doesn’t mean that the perp spent half an hour in lotus posture chanting a mantra before he did the crime. It means, quite the contrary, that he thought it through in advance. Notice that premeditation isn’t just thinking, it’s focused, purposive thinking.

That’s what meditation has traditionally been in occultism: focused, purposive thinking. That’s actually a tolerably common approach to meditation in Asian spiritual traditions, for that matter; it’s just that the traditions that have been most enthusiastically imported to Europe and America since the latter years of the nineteenth century have been the ones that don’t use that approach. In some Buddhist traditions, for example, it’s quite common to meditate on the four noble truths or the twelve stages of dependent origination, thinking them through, understanding every detail of them, applying them to one’s own experience, and thus learning to think like the Buddha. It’s just that those traditions aren’t the ones that caught on big here in America.

What’s more, this sort of meditation—discursive meditation, to give it its proper name—used to be standard practice in Christian churches. Though I originally encountered it by way of the very sparse instruction given in the knowledge lectures of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, I learned a great deal more from the writings of Joseph King, who was an Anglican bishop in the seventeenth century and whose earnest and detailed books on the subject, at a time when the internet didn’t exist yet, could be read on microfilm in the Wing collection of early English printed books in the basement of the University of Washington library. It was a common habit from the Middle Ages straight through until roughly the First World War; books of themes for meditation were popular and widely available once the printing press was invented; so was another kind of book, to be discussed a bit later, which hasn’t usually been recognized as a resource for meditation.

Let’s go into a little more detail at this point. To get the best results, discursive meditation requires the same sort of preliminaries that the more familiar forms of meditation do. The standard advice among old-fashioned occultists was to sit in a chair with your spine comfortably straight, not leaning against the back; your feet are flat on the floor; your legs are parallel to each other, and bent at a right angle; your hands rest on your thighs close to your knees, and your elbows are at your sides. Every muscle you don’t need to use to stay upright is as relaxed as you can get it. Having assumed the position and deliberately relaxed the muscles just mentioned, you breathe slowly and deeply for several minutes, paying attention to the inflow and outflow of the breath, and turn your mind away from every topic of thought except the theme of your meditation.

The theme? That’s the thing you’re going to be exploring with the focused, purposive thinking we talked about earlier. We’ll get to the choosing of themes in a bit. Whatever the theme is, you hold it before your mind for a while, simply being aware of it; if it’s a bit of text, you might repeat it silently to yourself, while if it’s a visual image you might visualize it as though it’s standing in front of you, and so on. You then think about it in a general way for a little while, find some aspect of it that interests you, and follow out the train of thought all the way to its end. You don’t let your thoughts wander onto other subjects. If, as happens all the time in the early stages of training, your thoughts get away from you, go grab them by the ears and bring them back to the theme. Repeat as necessary. When you’ve gotten all you can out of the train of thought you were following, take a few deep breaths and then shake your muscles to loosen them; that finishes the meditation.

Now let’s talk about themes. You choose your theme before you meditate—in fact, in some occult schools it’s standard practice to choose the theme for each day’s meditation the night before, and go to sleep while turning it over in your mind, so that when you start your meditation first thing in the morning, the theme’s been enriched with all the considerable ingenuity of your subconscious mind. Anything can be a theme for meditation, and what you choose will depend on your personal beliefs and the occult or religious tradition that you’re studying.

In the writings of Bishop Joseph King, for example, verses from the Bible were the automatic go-to default option for meditation themes. (The numbered verses of the Bible are in fact very nicely sized for use as themes. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”—a Christian occultist who can’t get at least one good solid session of discursive meditation out of that, if not considerably more, simply isn’t trying.) People who come to discursive meditation from other religious backgrounds can choose texts better suited to their own interests, and some magical texts are specifically set up for this practice. Those readers who wonder why Dion Fortune’s famous textbook The Mystical Qabalah is divided into numbered paragraphs can draw their own conclusions.

Another approach, very common back in the day, was to have students read a chapter of a textbook or a lesson from a correspondence course once a week, and while reading it, look for “seed thoughts”—short passages, from a phrase to a sentence in length, that sum up a detail of magical teaching that catches the student’s attention. Each student would write down seven seed thoughts from the assigned reading, and use those for the themes for the next seven days’ meditation sessions. It’s an effective approach, and it has the advantage that when you’ve finished the book or the correspondence course, you can turn around and go through it again. I promise you that if the material’s any good, you’ll find a completely different set of seed thoughts the second time around.

Texts, though, aren’t the only game in town, not by a long shot. Those of my readers who’ve had any exposure to traditional occultism will know already that there’s quite the plethora of odd symbolic emblems and imagery to be found there. From the enigmatic pictures on the 22 Tarot trumps through the ornate allegorical emblems of the old alchemical literature to the tracing boards used by initiatory orders, there’s a lot of puzzling imagery out there. Various people have explained those in various ways, but even in modern occult literature, you have to look long and hard to find a discussion of the practical application these things used to have, which is as themes for meditation.

It’s in dealing with these images, and with the elaborate symbolic narratives that so often accompany them, that discursive meditation really comes into its own. Most of the older occult schools encoded much, most, or all of their teaching in these emblems and narratives, and then handed them to the student to unpack through discursive meditation. To use a contemporary metaphor, these things are zip files from which pages and pages of documents can be extracted, and the extraction program—yep, that would be discursive meditation. That was partly a security measure and partly a method of training.

If you pick up one of the more ornate alchemical texts—the Book of Lambspring, the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, the Trinosophia of the Comte de St.-Germain, Fulcanelli’s La Mystere des Cathedrales, or what have you—and try to make any kind of sense of it without discursive meditation, your choice of destination is limited to the Slough of Despond on the one hand and La-La Land on the other.  Get a good basic knowledge of alchemical thought by way of the less cryptic texts, and then go through your chosen book one detail at a time using discursive meditation, and doors to very interesting places start opening.

That brings us to the third source of themes for discursive meditation in the occult traditions, which is initiatory ritual. In a ritual of initiation—a subject we’ll be covering in much more detail down the road a bit—the candidate goes through what amounts to a symbolic narrative, in which words, emblems, gestures, and a variety of other things are woven together in much the same way as incidents in one of the alchemical tales just mentioned. When it works the way it’s supposed to, initiation furthers the awakening of previously inaccessible states and capacities of consciousness—but these days, it very often doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, and the reason behind that is the collective amnesia that swallowed the practice of discursive meditation in the early part of the twentieth century.

In earlier times, before the term “meditation” got redefined as mind-emptying, it was standard for those who had been through an initiation ritual to go over it in meditation, one detail at a time. That helped get the effects of the initiation solidly fixed in the initiate’s awareness, and it also gave him or her a head start on learning the ritual to as to be able to help confer it on others. There were other things done in occult schools to help make the effects of initiation stick, and some of them are still in use today, but discursive meditation used to be an important part of the initiatory toolkit. The same approach works just as well, by the way, when applied to the sacramental rituals of the religion of your choice.

Finally, there’s another important item in the traditional occultist’s toolkit that needs regular doses of discursive meditation to keep it from running off the rails. It has a variety of names: the Golden Dawn traditions call it “scrying in the spirit vision,” for example, while Carl Jung and his followers call it “active imagination.” (One of these days I’m going to have to do a post about the awkward fact that Jung wasn’t a psychologist who dabbled in occultism, but rather an occultist—an extremely learned and competent one—who successfully managed to pass off a system of occult philosophy and practice as a school of psychology; still, that’s a topic for another day.) Under any name, it’s the use of the trained imagination as an instrument of perception.

The very simplest version of scrying in the spirit vision is an exercise most people who’ve dabbled in occultism have done at least once. You take a symbolic image—a Tarot trump, let’s say—and imagine it expanding, until the frame becomes a doorway and the scene it shows becomes three-dimensional. You then imagine yourself walking through the doorway and having a conversation with the person or people on the other side. Because we know more than we consciously realize, this sort of exercise routinely turns up insights the conscious mind can’t get at in other ways; furthermore, with regular practice, what starts out as a simple daydream evolves into an intensely experienced journey through vivid dreamscapes packed with unexpected meaning and power.

There are, of course, downsides. The most common, as Israel Regardie liked to point out, is that this sort of work can very easily degenerate into a kind of astral tourism in which junketing around in the spirit vision becomes an end in itself rather than a tool for the attainment of knowledge about the self and the universe. Rarer though far more problematic is what happens when the scryer forgets that the things perceived by the trained imagination are symbols of inner realities rather than realities in their own right, and takes the symbolic experienced literally.

That’s problematic enough by itself—it usually means the end of any significant magical development—but when you mix in the very common desire to feel important, the results in extreme cases can range from the founding of a new religious cult demanding absolute faith in the visions of the self-proclaimed prophet, on the one hand, to a rapid descent into acute schizophrenia on the other. More common, if less colorful, is the sort of pseudospiritual gossip that fills so many well-meant tomes, in which bits of visionary experience with obvious symbolic meaning get turned into chatter.

Here’s an example. A long time ago, when dinosaurs strode the earth, I used to get away from the tawdry realities of a suburban adolescence by taking classes on occult subjects in some of the hip neighborhoods of Seattle. At one of these, the speaker earnestly informed us all that Jesus had traveled to Britain during the years not discussed in the New Testament, and married a Druid princess. Her evidence was of course some mode of inner experience—I honestly don’t recall whether she got that from a channeled entity, saw it while scrying, or what have you—and since there were at that point in the late 1970s, by a conservative estimate, eleven godzillion minor mystics in North America who all had their own visionary accounts of where Jesus spent those undocumented years, and each of these accounts contradicted all the others, I smiled and nodded and suppressed an impulse to roll my eyes.

Look at that as a symbol, though, and it stops being a bit of pseudohistorical gossip and turns into something meaningful. It may have been meaningful on a personal level—the vision may have been trying to tell her that she needed both the values symbolized by Christ and those symbolized by the notion of a Druid princess, or it may have been trying to tell her that she needed to balance and harmonize worship of Christ with reverence for the elemental powers. It may also have been meaningful on a transpersonal level—the vision may have been suggesting that modern Christianity needs to face up to the values that the symbol of marriage to a Druid princess represents, such as reverence for nature and a less prudish sense of the relationship of masculine and feminine principles. A few sessions of discursive meditation on the vision might well have told her how to make sense of the symbol, but since she apparently never tried that, we’ll never know.

Like ritual, finally, meditation is best done daily. The standard habit is to do your daily banishing ritual and then, in the space cleared and cleansed by the ritual, do your meditation. The ritual will take you five minutes or so, and fifteen minutes of meditation, including the initial relaxation and breathing, is enough to start with; that accounts for twenty minutes of the thirty minutes a day I mentioned earlier will be enough to make you a capable operative mage. We’ll get into the last ten minutes next month.


Discursive meditation is kind of a hobby horse of mine, as the above has probably demonstrated! The upside of that is that nearly every book of mine that discusses magical training at all has at least a brief discussion of discursive meditation, and most have much more. Readers who are interested in the classic Hermetic Golden Dawn system will find a good account of discursive mediation in my cowritten book Learning Ritual Magic; those who prefer the system of Druid practice associated with the Ancient Order of Druids in America will find a detailed discussion in my book The Druidry Handbook, while those who fancy the hybrid Druid/Golden Dawn system I mostly practice these days will find a similar discussion in The Celtic Golden Dawn.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Foundations of Magical Practice: Ritual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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