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.