Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Occult History, Part Two: The Purposes of History

Like most things in life, the fusion of dubious history and occult philosophy discussed in last month’s post here on The Well of Galabes is overdetermined; that is, it has more causes than the situation really requires. There are in fact quite a few reasons why occultism is well stocked with misplaced continents and the other hardware of alternative history; some of those reasons are quite sensible, but others are frankly rather embarrassing. The sensible ones are the main focus of this month’s essay, but it’s only fair—not to mention entertaining—to talk about the embarrassing ones first.

We can begin with simple salesmanship. Up until quite recently, if you wanted to attract new members to your occult school or magical lodge, or get favorable attention for your occult teachings, you pretty much had to claim some suitably ancient and romantic origin for whatever you were pitching. That’s why, for example, Dion Fortune made so much of  the supposed Atlantean origins of the system of magical work her Fraternity (now Society) of the Inner Light taught and practiced. If you know your way around the British magical scene of the 1920s, you know exactly where that system came from, and Atlantis had nothing to do with it.

What happened, rather, was that Fortune took the standard Golden Dawn system, ditched those parts of it that had turned out to be problematic in practice, and patched and filled the resulting gaps with an assortment of building materials she got from Theosophy, Masonry, spiritualism, Freudian psychology, translations of Sanskrit writings on the chakras by John Woodroffe aka Arthur Avalon, and the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. The difficulty, of course, was that if she’d been forthright about the process of occult bricolage that produced her system, she wouldn’t have had any students to speak of.

In the same way, when Julius Evola spoke of Tradition, what he meant by that word was an ideology he duct-taped together, out of raw materials from the pop culture of his own time, to suit his spiritual and political agenda. From Nietzsche and the the Italian Futurists to Otto Weininger’s Sex and Character and J.J. Bachofen’s Mother-Right, if it was considered edgy and interesting in the early twentieth century Italian alt-right scene—and yes, there was such a thing—Evola found a place for it in his supposedly timeless Tradition. What’s more, if you sort through Evola’s version of Tradition and toss out everything that had a straightforward pop culture source, you’ll have very, very little left.

Mind you, Evola knew exactly what he was doing; his invented Tradition was a tool meant for a specific and serious purpose. Fortune seems to have been somewhat less deliberate, and that leads us to the second embarrassing source for alternative history in occultism, which is an overly literal belief in the products of the creative imagination.

Used intelligently, the imagination is one of the great tools of the operative mage. One of the features of the golden age of occult alternative history, in turn, is that using the imagination intelligently was made very, very difficult by a range of unfortunate ideas. The most important of these was the claim, very common in Theosophical literature at the time, that any sufficiently advanced occultist could tap into the “akashic records”—the enduring traces of all past events in the akasha, the subtle fifth element of the Hindu system—and witness exactly what happened at any given point in the past. Of course plenty of people were convinced, or convinced themselves, that they were sufficiently advanced, and proceeded to take the products of their own imaginations far too seriously.

It does sometimes happen that people using standard occult methods get remarkably clear and exact information from the past. It happens much, much more often, though, that they get a mishmash of material from pop culture and the media, thickly interlarded with various kinds of mental static and stray imagery of the sort that plays so prominent a role in dreams. Combine that with a lack of critical thinking skills and a serene conviction that whatever happens to swim before your mind’s eye got there straight from the akashic record, and you have a playground where the most florid sort of make-believe can, and does, romp to its heart’s content.

It’s from this source that you get those vastly detailed, novel-length accounts of life in Atlantis et al. in which wish-fulfillment fantasies of one sort or another play all too obvious a role, whether it’s the spiritual-utopia kind of wish-fulfillment, the hero-with-a-bloodstained-sword kind of wish-fulfillment, or what have you. On a lighter note, that’s where you get Lemurians taking pet plesiosaurs for walkies on leashes, and the other lively touches that grace Scott-Elliot’s once-famous The Story of Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria.  It’s all great fun, so long as it’s treated as wish-fulfillment fantasy, and of course it’s not accidental that it lent itself so readily as raw material for pulp fantasy fiction. As a way of knowing anything about the past, though, it’s about on a par with treating The Flintstones as an accurate portrayal of Paleolithic humanity.

Dion Fortune’s Atlantis wasn’t anything like that silly. Like most English Atlantises of its time, it had a lot to do with sex, and it also got turned into pulp fantasy fiction—fans of lurid fantasy may recall a trilogy by Peter Valentine Timlett, The Seedbearers, Power of the Serpent, and Twilight of the Serpent; it’s entirely set in the imaginary past of Dion Fortune’s visions, with a double helping of brawny-thewed heroes, clothing-optional priestesses, rivers of blood, and the like sprinkled on top. In Fortune’s original version, it served as the alleged ancient source for her idiosyncratic and effective system of magic, but there’s no reason to think she faked it deliberately; quite the contrary, she used the standard methods of active imagination to see what she thought were the akashic records, saw Atlantean priestesses doing her kind of magic, and took that as confirmation that she was on the right track.

Alongside the demand for historically based sales pitches and the habit of taking the products of the imagination a little too seriously was a third factor, which I’ve discussed at some length in the other blog—the problematic fit between scientific claims to authority and the tentative and by no means infallible nature of scientific knowledge. In every era, a good many of the claims presented as proven fact by scientific authorities simply aren’t true, and will be discarded in due time as a result of further research. What’s more, people outside the scientific community very often know, and even more often have a well-founded suspicion that certain of the claims being presented to them aren’t true. Much of what passed for nutritional science in Dion Fortune’s time, for example, was known to be nonsense by anybody who paid attention to the relationship between their own diet and their health.

The difficulty here is simply that people who notice the gap between the pronouncements of scientific authority and the realities they experience too often fall into the trap of assuming that the gap is wider than it is. From that comes the habit of thinking that anything scientists denounce is probably true—a habit that gets a lot of use in today’s alternative culture, and got just as much in the days when Dion Fortune and Julius Evola were busily backdating their freshly invented notions to the dawn of time. Practitioners and aficionados of various forms of alternative thought and practice also tend to run in similar circles, and very often find room for each other’s beliefs in their own worldviews—it makes for more pleasant conversations at parties and the like—and so you end up with lost continents straying into occult philosophy, and vice versa, along with many other exchanges of the same sort.

Those are the three main embarrassing reasons why occult traditions have ended up festooned with dubious history. Those account for a great deal, but there’s another, far more serious reason for the Atlantises et al. to be where they are. To make sense of that, it’s going to be necessary to talk about the meanings and uses of history.

The commonsense notion that history is simply a record of what happened is as misleading as it is mistaken. A record of everything that happened in any small town in any normal one-week period would fill volumes; anything beyond that scale would be unmanageable. The task of the historian, rather, is to provide a record of important things that happened—and “important,” of course, is a value judgment, presupposing such questions as “important in what context?” and “important to whom?”

Every account of history, in other words, either is or implies a narrative, and assembles a sequence of past events that are important in terms of that narrative. The most common such narrative in today’s industrial societies, of course, is the narrative of progress—the story that tells us how we left the supposedly primitive and superstitious past behind us and marched onward and upward to today’s pinnacle of sophistication and enlightenment. Another popular historical narrative these days is the tale of the fall from the Golden Age—the story that tells us how we strayed from a supposedly blissful state in the distant past and sank deeper and deeper into today’s morass of corruption and misery. There are other such narratives, of course, but those are the two most popular.

Notice how these narratives impose specific value judgments on the present. From within the narrative of progress, the current state of affairs is good, because it’s the latest result of the march of progress, and all we have to do is keep going in the same direction we’re already going—the direction of progress—and we’ll be on the right side of history, on our way to something even better. (Of course there’s a constant savage struggle among pressure groups to get their agendas recognized as the next step in the march of progress, but that’s quietly swept under the rug by the narrative.) From within the narrative of the fall from the Golden Age, by contrast, the current state of affairs is evil, because it’s the latest and furthest result of our decline, and our only hope is to turn things around and try to head back up the slippery slope we’ve descended. (Here again, exactly what changes count as climbing back up out of the morass are the subject of constant savage struggle, but that’s not something believers in this narrative like to talk about, either.)

The narrative of progress justifies the present, that is, and the narrative of the fall vilifies it. Other narratives put other spins on it—and alternative history of the sort found in occult writings is very often a way to put a different spin on the experience of the present.

That’s what Julius Evola was trying to do, for example, with the potted history he presents in Revolt Against the Modern World. His is a classic example of the narrative of the fall from the Golden Age; his “world of Tradition,” manufactured as it is out of a lumberyard of early twentieth century pop culture motifs, is Evola’s notion of what the world ought to be like, and he uses the time-honored myth of the fall for its usual purpose of castigating the present for its departure from an imaginary past: the same thing that neoprimitivists do, for example, when they bemoan humanity’s abandonment of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, or your classic rock-ribbed American conservative does when he compares the present day to an imaginary, apple-pie American past when everyone went to church on Sundays and all the gays and lesbians were safely interned in New York City.

The narratives of progress and fall aren’t actually all that common in occult literature, though. Far more common are cyclical schemes of history. That’s what you get in Dion Fortune, for example: Lemuria rises and falls, Atlantis rises and falls, Egypt rises and falls, and so on; in each age the schools of the Mysteries—that is, the people who are practicing Dion Fortune’s kind of magic—rise and fall with their societies, and then send out seedbearers to carry the wisdom of the ages to the future.

Blavatsky’s sprawling Theosophical vision goes well beyond this sort of simple cyclical pattern. From her perspective, the peoples of Europe and the European diaspora are offshoots of the fifth of the seven root races who will emerge during this cycle of time; most other peoples are offshoots of the fourth, or Atlantean root race, and there are still some descendants of the third or Lemurian root race around, too. The time of the fifth root race began after the convulsions that finished drowning Atlantis, and will continue until another round of vast natural disasters dunks much of our land surface under the waves and pushes up a different set of continents—by one estimate, this will happen by the 26th century, when the sixth root race will begin its history in what’s now western North America.

These are just the smaller cycles, by the way. When all the souls presently incarnated as human beings finish working their way through all seven of the steps marked out by the seven root races, we’ll head on to the next world in the sequence—Jupiter, where we’ll be incarnated in bodies very different from the ones we have now—leaving the Earth to the next batch of souls in line, who are currently going through a similar sevenfold sequence on the Moon. (We were there during the last set of seven steps.) There’s a chain of seven planets, and each batch of souls goes through a sevenfold series of races on all seven of them seven times before it’s off to other modes of spiritual evolution.

Notice how this sort of thinking redefines the present into a shape very different from the ones we’ve just surveyed. From Dion Fortune’s perspective—which is very common throughout occult alternative history—our civilization is rising and falling like everyone else’s did before it, and so the schools of the Mysteries had better get a move on and make sure the wisdom of the ages is in good condition and thoroughly practiced when it’s time to hand it over to the next set of seedbearers.  The turmoil of the present is of practical interest, as the schools of the Mysteries have to pay their rent and keep out of the way of the usual waves of persecution, and it can also function as an early warning system for the time of the seedbearers, but what matters is working the magic and teaching the next generation.

From Blavatsky’s perspective, by contrast, the basic message is “don’t sweat it.” Of course there’s every incentive for individuals to busy themselves with occult study, to practice meditation, and to take up such standard Theosophical sidelines as a vegetarian diet—all this racks up good karma for your next incarnation and moves you up the line toward your destiny as a student and initiate of the Masters, which probably won’t happen for many lives yet. From within the Blavatskian worldview, though, the commotions of modern politics and culture are just the normal hurly-burly of souls going through the fifth cycle of the Earth phase of the fourth round on this planetary chain, nothing to get upset about, while our technology gets a glance of fond amusement from the Masters—oh, look what the little dears are playing with now! I do hope they don’t sink their continent ahead of schedule...

Of course both of these ways of looking at the past, and all cyclical theories of history, have something in common that makes them just as offensive to believers in progress as to believers in the fall from the Golden Age: our age doesn’t really matter that much. It’s not the cutting edge of humanity’s march to the stars, nor is it the festering swamp in which fallen humanity flounders nose deep and sinking fast; it’s simply a well-known stage in a familiar historical cycle, chugging through the usual stages toward an endpoint marked out ages in advance. That’s offensive, in turn, because one of the most jealously defended beliefs of modern industrial culture is blind faith in our own privileged status. We’ve got to be special; we’ve got to be headed for some sort of unique destiny—uniquely wonderful, uniquely horrible, it doesn’t seem to matter that much as long as it’s unique.

That, in turn, is one of the things that occult philosophy is meant to challenge: the frankly childish insistence that we, as one set of intelligent beings living on this particular planet in this particular instant of its long history, are of vast importance in the overall scheme of things. That’s a hangover—very much in the head-pounding, stomach-churning, clinging to the porcelain while repatriating all last night’s party snacks sense of the word—from the great prophetic religions that reshaped the Old World’s spiritual environment starting a little more than two thousand years ago. The idea that the great wheels of the cosmos revolve around the salvation of human beings (or of all sentient beings who, in orthodox Buddhism, can only be saved while in human incarnation) was doubtless worth exploring, and it made a great sales pitch in its time, but it’s played a huge role in feeding the overdeveloped sense of entitlement that shapes so much thinking these days.

All things considered, then, there’s a real point to the use of alternative history as a tool for helping people reshape their understanding of the present, and of their place in the cosmos. I tend to think, though, that other tools might have been used for the same purpose. Cyclic visions of history aren’t limited to occultism, as readers of the other blog will doubtless have noticed by now; there are perfectly sober and secular versions of the same teachings. There are also some very interesting scraps of evidence that suggest that there may have been entire cycles of civilization before the ones we know about, which could be used to undercut the myths of uniqueness on their own, without any need to drag in tame plesiosaurs and priestesses in their underwear.

Next month’s post, though, will explore the cycles of time in a different sense. A previous post talked about the role of astrology in traditional occultism, and the discussion in the comments that followed made it clear that many of my readers would be interested to see more about that. Thus we’ll welcome in the new astrological year on March 21 with a classic mundane chart, cast for Washington DC at the moment of the Sun’s entrance into Aries: the traditional place and time to forecast the influences that will shape the history of the United States over the following six months. See you there!


Kutamun said...

Surely it must be Toynbee and Spengler of whom you speak when you refer to cyclical view of history toward thr end of your post. Toynbee gets a dishonorable mention as a German Illuminati or Deutsche Vieterdigungs Dienst (German Defence Service or DVD) in MI6 intelcom agent Michael Shrimptons recent book "Spyhunter ".
He is a private school boy god save the queen died in the wool pom , and clearly Toynbee is classified as an intelligence operative and a threat.
Speaking of occult theories , he blames the mysterious DVD for everything from the sinkng of the titanic to the assasination of lady Di and just about every plane and train crash in between . Having said that he seems like a nice man who writes a ripping good yarn , and was thrown in jail recently dor attempting to warn the Brits of an impending nuclear terrorist attack.
I realised that intelligence operatives live their lives in some outer layer of the unconscious and that it is entirely possible that they may begin to suffer the prsence of the dweller at the thrshold and lose track of whats real and whats imagined after a while . Guess it would make it all the more important for them to have a spiritual practice.
If they dont , and they become lost or paranoid or both , it is possible that they could take political leaderships and entire nations down the garden path to ruin .
They have probably never been more numerous than they are now.

Curtis said...

Fascinating post! Your description of how occult practitioners convinced themselves that anything they imagined came straight from the akashic records reminds me of the phenomenon of late 19th and early 20th century American Christian evangelists "speaking in tongues," and being convinced that God had inspired them with the ability to speak "the language of the Hindus," or Chinese...etc. Some of them had quite the rude awakening when they went off to evangelize people in far-off places using their newfound linguistic abilities!

On another note, I've taken quite a liking to the practice of geomancy, and am wondering if you (or anyone else) has good suggestions on resources. I've got your "The Art and Practice of Geomancy," a book in French from the 1990's, and am looking into Christopher Warnock's renaissanceastrology.com. Any other good resources to suggest? I'd love to find a few more high-quality books or other sources, and especially would love to connect with other practitioners. The internet seems rather sparse on this particular topic. Thanks!

Avery said...

Your penultimate paragraph about the uses of history helped me make a connection that I had completely forgotten about last month. (To all: I wrote a book a few years ago about occult history in Japan.) There is an ongoing debate in Japan about how to divide the line between history and fiction. Both genres are rather recent inventions in Japan, as the old way until 1800 or so took a more integrative and ambiguous attitude towards experience and imagination -- all stories are a mixture of both, no matter how you tell them. When the Enlightenment Europeans taught Japan about the importance of reliable sourcing, their initial logic was that the most reliable sources were "official histories," including the mythical stories of ancient Japanese empire. These days nearly everyone knows better, but if a story totally lacks imagination, why tell it?

This debate comes up most prominently in debates about Japan's history textbooks, which have little narrative structure but focus on memorizing names and dates, like British textbooks of the prewar period; anyone familiar with 1066 and All That knows what I'm talking about. A counter-argument goes that history becomes more relevant to students when we tinge it with value judgments and emotional emphasis, for example including personal testimonies about the Nanking Massacre. But academic historians reject this, because straying from strictly determined facts would mean imposing the values of the author onto students.

This is a very live and heated debate, as I learned in a rather shocking incident last year -- I read a bestseller that offered a female writer's personal take on Roman history, lionizing the heroes of the Empire and demonizing weak-willed Christians. I described this book to two feminist academics as mundane (fairly similar to Gibbon, after all) but somewhat amusing. Both women were extremely personally offended and blocked me on Facebook and Twitter. After a shocked apology I learned that my feeling of "amusement" on reading such a disgusting perversion of historical science was apparently an irredeemable black mark on my own reputation as a scholar, and put severe doubts on my ability to do neutral historical work. One of the women has still not forgiven me for my offhand remark and avoids me when she sees me.

So, from the perspective of neutral historical science (Geschichtswissenschaft), most of actual written history, by people who had skin in the game and cared about what future generations would think of their kingdom's or empire's accomplishments, is more like a novel and should be treated with maximum skepticism and disdain by Real Historians™. If we assume, however, that perhaps there is no such thing as neutral analysis without some end in mind, then occult history really makes a lot of sense. Were the writers of the past cynically shilling for the status quo, or did they detect some elements of truth and beauty in the world? The question of whether we are declining from a Golden Age, or moving in cycles or in a spiral, helps us know what books we ought to read, what stories we should go looking for in the past, and what sort of knowledge we should consider "reliable" in the first place.

So, although both you and I might consider the more imaginative aspects of occult history ridiculous, perhaps we should accept that it comes from a mindset that lies between modern history and modern fiction, where the imagination takes precedence as a creative energy that works on people-- as might, indeed, be the case.

Alvin Leong said...

It's interesting to compare this to the way other magical traditions also combined bits of history and creative imagination. In China, you have the transformation of Jiang Ziya, Laozi and other characters in the mists of Chinese history into Daoist magical adepts. In Tibet, very early on during the dissolution of the Tibetan Empire, you have the importance of Padmasambhava and his role in bringing Buddhism to Tibet and his magical acts there which extended into the later period of recovery. These are all usually called "myths" by academics, but I am not sure it's the right word. I think as you put it, these are all just alternative views of history which help reshape people's understanding of the present and their relationship with the cosmos.

On a side note, an interesting omen happened in New York: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/bull-on-the-loose-nyc_us_58ac7581e4b06b61e61e3cf7

jessi thompson said...

Archdruid Greer,

Your essay definitely got me thinking more deeply about the stories we tell ourselves. I certainly fall into the "fall from the golden age" category! Now I will have to rethink that, thank you! :)

I can't believe you left such a cliffhanger for us though!!! You mean I have to wait a WHOLE MONTH for your chart of Washington DC? Now I'll also be contemplating whether I can learn astrology in a month haha!!! Looking forward to the next post!!

Jessi Thompson

John Michael Greer said...

Kutamun, er, Toynbee as a German agent? Whatever Shrimpton was smoking, he needs to lay off it. Toynbee was a 100% over the top God-Save-the-Queen British imperialist -- where his writing runs off the rails, it's almost always because he's trying to find some way to allow Britain to dodge the lessons of history.

Curtis, there isn't much else available at this point. There's an email group, geomantic_campus@yahoogroups.com, but it's not very active these days; geomancy just isn't that popular. (I think a lot of the reason for that is that it's a no-nonsense kind of oracle; ask it if you'll achieve your dearest dream, and it may just say no. What's worse is that if it does, it'll generally be right!

Avery, good. And of course there is no such thing as neutral historical science; there's simply the spin that you're not supposed to question, which is treated as neutral. (And of course whether or not an author of histories has the relevant terminal degree and is employed in the academic industry is also hugely important -- in history as in most subjects, the academy has a vested interest in maintaining a closed shop.)

Alvin, I'd be willing to call them myths, too, so long as the same term gets used for our culture's historical narratives, such as the myth of progress!

Jessi, delighted to hear it. If you can find a copy of Raphael's Mundane Astrology, by the way, that should help you follow along!

A Rat in the Walls said...

JMG-- I wanted to figure out what time to cast the chart for (I want to work out my own interpretation before next month for comparison) and Google tells me the Sun enters Aries on 12:30AM of March 20. Is that the time you will be working from?

On the subject of occult history, I wish I could brand something like "Inner Plane Experiences Are Not Journalism" onto the heads of half the people I meet in California. One of many examples- I recently had someone explain to me with a straight face how diseases are caused by angry ghosts leftover from the fall of Atlantis. This person is relatively intelligent and not a bad energy healer, but it's very hard to take them seriously after that.

Jeffrey Kotyk said...

"...you pretty much had to claim some suitably ancient and romantic origin for whatever you were pitching."

Interestingly, it works like this in several Asian traditions as well.

For example, long story short, Indians imported a great deal of astronomical and astrological knowledge from Sassanian Persia around the late fourth to sixth centuries. Some Indian authors from around that time even recognized how much the Yavanas (literally "Greeks", but more nebulously referring to foreigners) knew about such topics. However, a bit later we see literature attributing all this originally foreign knowledge to various gods, who then bestowed it unto the virtuous (Indian) sages.

Ancient Indian histories were also unaware of any Mahayana Buddhism from the Buddha's time, which is why Mahayana Buddhists invented all sorts of stories to explain their origins, such as the Buddha having actually taught it, but then it being subsequently forgotten by later generations. Fortunately, we're told, a disciple went to the Himalayas for a few centuries and returned to reintroduce the teachings. If Mahayana authors admitted that they were making up stories and putting words into the mouth of the Buddha, they'd have been unsuccessful, we might imagine.

I think that a "suitably ancient and romantic origin" is a very common way to legitimize any spiritual tradition, in any culture really!

Mark Mikituk said...

Dear John, as it happens, Papus's chapter 7, which I will be sending off to you soon, is all about the history of the earth. He does a rather decent job of it in fact, based on what you wrote here, without going into the overly fantastical (Atlantis is only mentioned in passing, and he gives no description of it).

I am very much looking forward to your next installment on Astrology by the way. *Sigh* ...a month is such a very long time.

John Roth said...

The stories people tell change over time, and most of them aren't told for idle amusement. While it has little to do with occultism, one purpose is to document the relationships among families, clans and tribes. There's a stunning example of this in the Old Testament book of Genesis: the story of the Patriarchs supposedly shows a family thorough several generations. A close reading, though, shows that each "generation" lived in different places and kept its flocks in different places. This is incredibly unlikely if it's really one family through four generations. It's much more likely to be a record, told as a story cycle, of the relationships between three (or maybe four) clans coded as father, son and grandson.

Another example I heard comes from British colonial Africa. The overseers in one area very carefully documented the stories people told that gave the relationships among the different families and clans. Then, a couple of generations later, there was a dispute that went to court, and the families brought their family histories to back up their claims.

They had changed, to the great confusion of the judge, who was going from the written records.

John Michael Greer said...

Rat, no, it's 5:28:34 am Eastern standard time on March 20; that would be 12:28:34 am seven time zones further west, if that's where you are, but you need to cast it for the location of Washington DC (or the capital city of any other nation of interest) if you want a mundane chart to check the political weather for the following six months.

Jeffrey, hmm! None of this surprises me.

Mark, I'll look forward to it!

John, that makes perfect sense. Every society has its own conception of history, which does not necessarily mesh well with ours.

Kristoffer Kavallin said...

I am currently trying to work my way through Gregory Shaws book, Theurgy and the soul.
Most of what is discussed feels way over my head and the religious-academia-lingo is making it a rather taxing experience. :)
However, it's very fun getting a picture of philosophy, religion and magic at that time.
And I think it's a nice parallell, how Iamblichus tried to make his work more appealing by almost the same approach you explain here. (willfully or not?)
In his book "De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum" he writes under a pseudonym about ancient knowledge. And this was almost 2 millennia ago!
Incredible how little things really change.

Not really related to this post, but to Schopenhauers conception of different types of will, I found this quote in the book. Not sure if it corresponds, but guided by morphology I share it none the less!
"The powers of the soul and its modes of being are several, and following a measured chronology in which the developing body is appropriately disposed from one period of time to the next, it participates first in a vegetative life, then in sensation, next in an appetitive life, then it participates in the rational soul, and finally in the intellectual soul. (Stob. I, 381, 7-13)"

Roberta said...

How important IS the history of a lodge? My group is the result of a contentious schism, but wouldn't it be better for our egregor if we don't make a "thing" of the "break-up"? That means we have "no history" so we simply start writing it now for some future members to reflect upon. Does this sound like the correct approach?

Eric S. said...

This was a fascinating piece this month, and really highlighted some of the things I'd been struggling with from last month's post. The sort of visional experiences that come with occult practice, especially early on can be overwhelming and shape your perception of reality to the degree that if you don't have the basic training in the underlying philosophies and in the types of meditative practices that can help ground and contextualize those experiences, even sane and balanced people can go flying off the deep end. I know I did when I first got swept onto the path before I found competent teachers (it didn't help that my first introduction to anything on this path in my late teens/early twenties was through someone with dissociative identity disorder and a very loose grasp on reality which did rather the opposite of helping me work through the things that were happening).

Now, one other observation that this post leads to is the way that many of the modern magical communities have responded to the tendency of occult perceptions of history to go off the rails in the past by running as far as they can in the opposite direction, insisting on rejecting all of those older traditions as even being worth looking at (due to those embarassing elements), and emphasizing a focus exclusively on primary sources and archaeology. One of the things you very often see, especially in modern polytheistic traditions is the attempt to dichotomize religious knowledge into "the lore," which consists solely of primary sources, archeological evidence, and respected social theories, and "UPG" or "unverified personal gnosis" which is where everything that is a product of visional experience gets tossed... and the assumption there is that if it comes through "UPG" it is meant for the receiver alone and should not be written in a book or turned into a magical system or have anything done with it other than inform the private journals of a single practitioner. It's kind of an "opposite of a good idea is another bad idea" sort of situation... because taking visional experiences too literally led to all kinds of embarrassment in the occult circles of the 19th and 20th century, many modern people have decided to rush in the other direction and reject anything that comes out of visional experience as useful. There are clearly third options to be worked with... one idea that I've seen make headway here and there is to suggest that if a common visional experience is had independently by enough people, it eventionally becomes verified gnosis and can be explored... but even that doesn't leave much room for those times when something really potent, useful, and powerful comes down through a single person... (which is how many of the great works of occult literature have come about)... The obvious direction to push is careful unpacking through discursive meditation combined with reasoned study of both the traditional lore, and occult philosophy... But that's a hard sell, especially when people distrust the idea that meditation can produce anything other than more UPG...

avalterra said...

I think I am slowly getting a grip on the inculcated modern reflex to think of the times we live in as special/unique. My first response to the idea that our time is just not that important was to think, "ah, but what about fossil fuels"? We are the civilization that will be defined by the discovery and consumption of fossil fuels! Surely that will be an act that will set us apart in history.

But then I thought about an ecotechnic future where perhaps the main technology is (for example) bioscience. They might look back and view burning through the fossil fuels as about as "special" as the Victorian era nearly making the sperm whale extinct, or creating acid rain burning coal or conquering most of Asia and Europe on horseback or other ridiculous acts of the past.

Dammerung said...

There is, of course, a synthesis option in existence - the positive feedback loop. An evolving pattern which occasionally reaches escape velocity and makes a quantum leap into a self-similar cycle in a larger probability space. A place where what we call free will or choice has more dominion over what is experienced? This is the option which has the most appeal for me personally. I suppose that's what the reincarnation on Jupiter option is supposed to represent, though I can only assume that's more than a little metaphorical.

fantomaster said...

Very well argued and in fact the best piece on history and the Occult I have come across in a long, long time. Thanks for this.

Fred Ficklefinger said...

Just wanted to say that I enjoy your writing whether I agree with it or not (which when I often do, simply adds to the enjoyment). I compare you favorably in this respect to William F. Buckley, who could invent a credible hell and keep you not wanting it to freeze over at the same time. Thank you!

Ron M said...

“I tend to think, though, that other tools might have been used for the same purpose.” Indeed, JMG. In my youth, when I was searching for my spiritual path, I was sufficiently acquainted with Theosophy and the likes to be turned completely off due to their obviously (to me) fabricated histories. I preferred to stick with the classical Hindu view of history as it spoke the language of myth and therefore “suspended my disbelief” while depicting time as cyclical and human civilization as much older than the claims made by the half-blind archaeologists. Until this post, I had not considered the merits of these “alternative histories” to the Western mind – so thanks for that!

Thanks, also, for making note of Dion’s mistaken belief in being able to accurately tap into the akashic records via active imagination. Having read her books on the Qabalah and psychic self-defence, I have immense respect for her as an occult writer and practitioner. Your observations serve as a cautionary tale re: the excessive/exclusive use of one “tool” (active imagination) in the mage’s toolkit.

@Curtis – if I may add to JMG’s response, geomancers who used to use “geomantic campus” on yahoogroups migrated over to Facebook when the main moderator of geomantic campus (Sam Block) created a FB group “Geomantic Study-Group”. This group is still quite active and has a few hundred members (in case you’d like to join). I don’t know if geomantic campus is still being moderated, but you can try to join it - if for no other reason than to read the numerous discussions and chart interpretations, as well as resources, contained therein.

Catriona McDonald said...

One of the biggest challenges in adopting a more nuanced view of our culture's place in history is not giving in to the urge to throw one's hands up, saying "It's all been done, it's all too big, why do I even bother." The philosophical whiplash is real when bouncing from the predominant cultural myths to the classic cyclical occult ones.

Nihilism is easy, I'm thinking. Holding these multiple paradigms while remaining an engaged being is where the hard work is.

Patricia Mathews said...

Clinton's wardrobe - advised by someone who knows a thing or two about magic? Shakes head - and what impression were they trying to convey? Because I don't think it did her any favors. Of course, one works with what one has to work with, and nobody expected a Hollywood star. Okay - elucidate.

Cherokee Organics said...


I am seriously looking forward to reading your so called "mundane" chart next month. It should be very interesting and I can't recall you writing about such a thing before - although for all I know you may be casting charts in your yearly predictions on the other blog. No need to reveal your secrets, I was just curious.

As a disclaimer, I do actually have a rather over-active imagination. However, I've never been turned on by flights to extremes as the middle ground seems like a much safer bet to me. That middle ground also seems to be reflected in my studies of ecology over the past few years plus what I observe actually going on here in the orchard and garden.

However, I was rather wondering if during a solstice or equinox celebration, how the heck do you actually know who turns up? My gut feeling is that you can't really know, other than by long term relationship. Which is possibly a very disturbing thought for those people who seek enlightenment by undertaking a two day intensive weekend course! ;-)!

Thanks for taking the time to discuss where ideas come from and also importantly why they are represented to us consumers of ideas as they are. It is interesting stuff.

You may be interested to know that the climate has shifted here over the past day or so into a warmer, sunnier, and drier phase but with less intense UV radiation. With that in mind I'm spending the next couple of days feeding huge quantities of manure into the orchard and then chopping and dropping all of the herbage. Those two actions combined with the shifted climate should make the fruit trees in the orchard put on huge amounts of new growth over the next few months. Make hay whilst the sun shines, as they say. Oh incidentally, I reckon Dion Fortune's concern with the physical realities of the day is a pretty good concern for ones self. I feel change is in the air.



A Rat in the Walls said...

This might go back to the Theosophists, but it's definitely popular today to insist that a particular teaching is not only impossibly ancient but altogether Eastern, with no European admixture whatsoever. In recent decades indigenous American and African have been added to the list as well, with again the insistence that the teachings come to us pure and unadulterated. This can have funny results, as when a college recently banned yoga classes for "cultural appropriation," completely unaware of the blend of 19th century New Thought ideas and European calisthenics in modern yoga.

Actually now that I think about it, this idea, that any esoteric teaching must originate in an "Other" culture, seems to have deep roots in the West. Do you have any thoughts on why this might be?

Scotlyn said...

The following interview with Michael Hudson (both audio and transcript found at link) who is a rather scholarly historian of the Ancient Near East, connects only tangentially with this post on history, but also put me in mind of your previous post on temple and monument building.

It seems there was a knack to organising the labour for such projects - and it's beer parties!


John Michael Greer said...

Kristoffer, Shaw's book is a good place to start, though I hope you're also going to be reading Iamblichus himself. Yes, there are strong foreshadowings of Schopenhauer in a lot of the old magical texts...

Roberta, you'll want to make significant changes to your symbolism and ritual forms so you don't simply reproduce the old conflicts in a new lodge, the way the Golden Dawn has done over and over again. If you make such changes, yes, you can start history all over again.

Eric, that's a huge issue, and one of these days I'm going to have to write something on the current fetish for academic respectability. Still, it's going to take at least one full blog post to take apart the mess, and point out that CAF (Current Academic Fashion) is no better a guide than UPG...

Avalterra, excellent! Once you can get out of the fantasy of our specialness, the world really does become a bigger and more interesting place.

Dammerung, the vast majority of positive feedback loops end in catastrophe. Remember that the word "positive" in that phrase does not mean "desirable"! As for reincarnation, I'm not sure why you associate that with Jupiter; I was taught to see that as being under the rule of Saturn, the lord of time and fate.

Fantomaster, you're welcome and thank you.

Fred, thank you.

Ron, exactly. A project I'm nervously considering is the prospect of presenting a view of the history of the Earth, using scientific data, that provides a working history for occultism: a Secret Doctrine for those who don't want to have to believe in plesiosaurs on leashes.

Catriona, it's a challenge, but you can also look at it as a dance. Sure, this dance has been played before, but you can still participate in it with all your heart...

Patricia, I hadn't heard about Clinton receiving magical advice. If so, whoever it was clearly flunked out of Thaumaturgy 101.

Cherokee, you don't. All you know is that you use the name and enact the rites, and something happens. I've long thought that there must be scores if not hundreds of different beings answering to the name of Jesus: some of them very exalted and wise, some of them earthy and gentle, some of them athirst for human blood. You get the one with whom your soul resonates most...

Rat, that's an interesting point, and I don't have an off-the-cuff answer to it. Hmm! Some research is called for.

Scotlyn, interesting. Thanks for the link.

grisom said...

Off-topically, I just discovered that the new Circles of Power and Paths of Wisdom are available for pre-order from the publisher, and The Celtic Golden Dawn is being given away literally for free?! Free delivery worldwide! Go snap 'em up, people!

Eric S. said...

"That's a huge issue, and one of these days I'm going to have to write something on the current fetish for academic respectability. Still, it's going to take at least one full blog post to take apart the mess, and point out that CAF (Current Academic Fashion) is no better a guide than UPG..."

I'll definitely be interested in seeing where that leads. It's a hard balance to find, and one I struggle with myself. One of the conclusions I have come to is that the modern sources are as much a part of the conversation as the more ancient sources. When you reflect on the idea that we're currently separated by The Barddas and the Myvyrian Archaeology by the same amount that it was separated from the writing of the Red Book of Hergest, that during each of those 300 year periods lore was being written, traditions were being followed, and stories were being told, you realize that there isn't a clean break in tradition and that the Bardic tradition we're drawing on in Druidry was an ongoing evolving phenomenon, an ongoing conversation with the spirits flowing through those stories that never actually ended, then the more modern sources that have stood the test of time and become part of popular tradition take a place right alongside medieval texts and archaeological discoveries as different points in the same dialogue. And ideas that emerged late in the conversation (concepts like the Oak and Holly King that emerged from Frazer and Graves, the three circles of creation that emerged from the Druid Revival writers, or the various applications of agricultural cycles, sex, and sacrifice that were a fixation of 19th century scholars) all take a place within that dialogue. With that approach, new discoveries, rather than shining light on the obscure past that we're trying to uncover, simply reveal earlier points in that same conversation that can inform and enhance the other stops along the way.

With that approach, Blavatski's Atlantis, Gardner's burning times, and other such things can be viewed in the context of their own time with regard to the society and concerns of their authors, rather than being rejected for not fitting into antiquity since that's not where they fit on the timeline. The real Atlantis, if there was one, remains lost in the mists of time to resurface in another future origin myth (or be discovered by a lucky band of explorers who can shed light on an even earlier piece of that ongoing dialogue) without needing to be grounded in objective reality.

That also opens the way for accepting or rejecting ideas that emerge. Rather than asking people to offer objective evidence to your claim, you simply have to make sure that they know where their claim originated and can safely say how old it is and where it came from. You don't have to reject the Oak and Holly Kings, you simply have to admit that they came out of 19th and early century observations of mythic archetypes, and work from there (possibly by working with stories in which that motif seems to emerge and seeing what you get). And if you're using channeled wisdom, you need to be ready to own up and admit that, saying "in my vision I saw an ancient society and they were doing X," rather than stating "ancient societies did X" as a flat fact.

Ron M said...

Welcome back, JMG, and thanks for the reply and the tantalizing news! To riff on the tagline of an iconic TV show (which I know you don’t like), it looks like you are contemplating to “boldly go where no occultist has gone before”! If you do, I believe you will be doing the occult world (at least in the West) a big favour. What could credibly pass as alternative history in 1875 hardly passes today. Others in this group are no doubt better able to judge than I, but based on my limited experience, I have long thought that rather than serve as a “flake filter”, such absurd alternative histories now serve as a “flake attractor” whereby if the recruit can stomach such nonsense they are “putty in the Master’s hands”. A book such as what you are contemplating may well help to attract potential mages who are unwilling to abandon their intellect before entering the lodge! Best wishes for success if you at on it!

Yucca Glauca said...


Are you sure that's for real? I thought the Celtic Golden Dawn was published by Llewellyn.

John Michael Greer said...

Grisom, thank you -- you got to it before I did. The Celtic Golden Dawn isn't being given away for free, though -- that's a glitch, about which I've emailed the publisher.

Eric, exactly. I had a run-in with Ian Corrigan of ADF over the weekend just past, and he was doing the usual snobbish "Iolo wasn't a real Celt" routine, which I find irritating as all get-out. In his honor I'm going to move up the discussion of UPG and CAF, probably to April, and the logical fallacy at the heart of the routine just mentioned will get the endearing name "Corrigan's Fallacy." More soon!

Ron, that's more or less why I have it in mind! Lots of other things to do, but that one probably needs to move up the stack a bit.

Yucca (if I may), Aeon's bringing out a licensed hardback edition of The Celtic Golden Dawn, having bought the rights to same from Llewellyn. As soon as it's available for preorder, I'll be talking about it in more detail.

Eric S. said...

"I had a run-in with Ian Corrigan of ADF over the weekend just past, and he was doing the usual snobbish "Iolo wasn't a real Celt" routine, which I find irritating as all get-out. In his honor I'm going to move up the discussion of UPG and CAF, probably to April, and the logical fallacy at the heart of the routine just mentioned will get the endearing name "Corrigan's Fallacy." More soon!"

Oh My. You do love to stir the pot don't you? I am very much looking forward to that conversation, because it's an important one. (Though, since it's one I'd probably be bringing forward into discussion in my own little ADF grove I hope you'll try to be nice...) I've had that particular conversation with Ian Corrigan myself, since I'm a Druid who walks both the Revivalist and Neo-Druid paths (I find it very interesting that, as much as those two sides like to shout at each other, your replacement in AODA is a major figure in the Celtic Reconstructionist movement, so they aren't nearly as diametrically opposed as so many people try to make it). My feelings toward him tend to be complicated. On one hand, he is one of the most orthodox, in the box thinkers I've encountered in the occult world, and has an absolute allergy to any ideas that challenge the conventional wisdom about pretty much anything, except when you get down to the old hippie aspects of his personality. At the same time, he is a brilliant occultist and I've been very interested in the systems he's been working on adapting ceremonial and goetic magic into a neopagan polytheist context. I alternate pretty consistently between annoyance and admiration (which are almost my exact feelings towards Isaac Bonewits... Isaac was funnier though, and a little more willing to toy with intellectual heresies from time to time). As for Morganwg not being a real Celt... I'd say that being not only a native Welsh speaker, but also the person who single-handedly created the Welsh Gorsedd, revived the Welsh language from the brink of oblivion, and helped bring works like the Taliesin cycle and the four branches into the public eye a century before Charlotte Guess touched them qualifies you as about as Celtic as it gets. I'm curious, have you ever had a chance to talk to Kris Hughes about Iolo Morganwg? He is a wealth of information and inspiration when it comes to placing the Druid Revival within the context of both its time and the broader Welsh Bardic tradition.

Cherokee Organics said...


Thanks for the clear reply. I had to meditate on your reply for a few days, but your reply would explain why people have such differing experiences, beliefs, and understandings from a single religion or spiritual beliefs. The concept matches up very well with the facts on the ground doesn't it? Wow. Who would have thought that that would be a likely scenario?

You know, I haven't mentioned it for a while, but reading the book Overshoot has left me feeling less irritated about the ways of the world and feeling far more humble. In some respects I feel far more gentle about some things and far harsher about other things and on Friday I found myself making hard decisions about how best to spend my time. Dunno, it is complex.

I'm interested to read about your "Corrigan's Fallacy" as I had no idea about what you wrote about in your reply above.



Gottfried Wilhelm Melvin Hicks-Leibniz said...


Thanks for your last two posts on the subject of Occult History.

It should be a useful reminder to everyone that the subtlety stares at us, "hidden in plain sight" -- hiSTORY. And, I always thought it interesting that the Germans use the same word "Geschichte" for both "story" and "history".

As you basically highlight, history is narrative that is not always non-fiction. Is that not the essence which makes it magical?

Karim Jaufeerally said...

Greetings all!

JMG wrote:"You get the one with whom your soul resonates most..."

That is damn scary, I must admit, whilst at the same time, somehow reasonable.

Presumably the same applies whenever one invokes any other immaterial beings: You get what your soul asks for!

Karim said...

JMG wrote: " a working history for occultism"

Please....go ahead.

Jordan Famularo said...

I am seeking help understanding a specific passage in Picatrix about surface, or plane (Latin "superficies"). In the spirit of the original blog's discussion about the writing of history, I am an art historian who is trying to draw out the importance of the occult at a particular moment in history, 1503, specifically as it relates to practices of art-making. In my field, sometimes historians place artificial divisions between art and occult practices. I am building a hypothesis about conversations among artists, astrologers, and other persons interested in the making of talismans around the year 1503 in northern Italy. I would like to learn more about the Picatrix discussion of surface as an extension of force or influence. Mr. Greer, your name came to my attention when I was using your English translation of Picatrix alongside the Latin and French versions. I would be most grateful to learn more about "superficies" in the passage (Picatrix book 2, chapter 7, which addresses magical images). It would be wonderful to know whether any commentators on the Picatrix addressed the idea of a talismanic surface at any time leading up to the year 1503. I understand that this concept of surface relates to Aristotle's discussion of continuous quantities, but I am seeking to know more. Thanks to anyone willing to help.

Warren said...

Obviously hypothetically ... If someone was able to go back in time and learn all of the lore of the ancient Celtic druids and come back... would it all still work and what would the various branches of the druid revival be likely to do with the'new'information?

John Michael Greer said...

Eric, like most people in the Revival scene, I've had to put up with constant put-downs from the arrogant end of the Reconstructionist spectrum since day one, but yes, I'll try to be nice anyway. The fallacy I'll be discussing doesn't have anything to do with the validity of Reconstructionist paths -- well, not directly -- but rather with the common Reconstructionist claim that they have exclusive rights to decide what is and isn't Celtic, and to condemn those who don't measure up to their inquisitorial standards. More on this as we proceed!

Cherokee, Overshoot has that effect on me also. I think it's partly that it's so effective an antidote to fantasies of human omniscience and omnipotence.

Gottfried, history is a variety of storytelling differing from novels in that all the incidents included in the story actually happened. To my mind, that makes it one of the great branches of literature!

Karim J., yep. The universe is a scary place.

Karim, I'll keep that in mind!

Jordan, I don't know of any discussion of that issue at all, but then I don't know the literature particularly well. Good luck!

Warren, my working guess is that if we somehow got a complete cache of the lore of the ancient Druids, the vast majority of it would be irrelevant today, for the same reason that very few people in modern industrial societies practice the traditions of people from New Guinea or the Amazon rain forest. Except for their use of metal, the ancient Celts were about on the same technological level as these latter, and their concerns, interests, customs, and habits will have been geared to life in an illiterate tribal society in which lethal hand-to-hand violence was a routine event, slavery was normal, and most of the notions concerning human rights and duties we have today had never been imagined. That doesn't make us better than they were, please note, but it does make them different -- and I suspect a lot of people who like to put "Beam Me Back, Merlin" bumper stickers on their cars would be aghast were they actually to encounter the people they think they're lionizing.

This is actually true of every tradition, btw. I suspect that if today's Christians were to encounter Christians from, say, 150 CE, they'd be appalled -- and vice versa...

Warren said...

Good Morning Master/Mr Greer and thank you for all of your work on both blogs.

[part 1]

I have a question – and I don’t know if it is one that can be answered but this is the most likely place I am going to find one…

My religious background is Christianity of various flavours but mostly on the evangelical end of the spectrum with an ongoing personal appreciation for the views presented by C.S. Lewis encountered as a teenager which you brought up in a previous post.

I am starting with ‘Experience of the Inner Worlds’ by Gareth Knight (again from your response to a Christian asking where to start in one of the comment’s sections). Would I be correct in assuming that the ‘Sphere of Light’ counts as a banishing ritual?

I can see how the Sphere then becomes a clean/safe space for focused meditation.

Divination wise I am thinking initially maybe Geomancy (at this point this is a private journey not one shared with the other members of my household and as soon as it comes out it would require forthright defending … which is hard if you don’t know what you are talking about) and have arranged an inter-library loan of “The art and practice of Geomancy” which I believe will give me the guidance I need to start to learn the system. I am imagining using dice (odd/even) for the casting at the end of the meditation and then working out the results during the morning train commute.


Warren said...

[Part 2]

Anyway I assume there is no test you can do to work out where your affinities and abilities lay so you know which paths of the many out there to tread … in lieu of that (or anyone I know who has that kind of discernment) I thought to share some of the experiences I have had in the past / things about me and see if they resonate with you to imply anything…

- When I used to pray for people in church I would imagine the power of God coming down from heaven to my head which I would then feel … I would guide that power down through my shoulder to arm to hand and then send it into the other person. On one occasion I got to the point where the power was in my hand but there was no one to pray for so I put it on my own forehead and went down.

- If I am rolling dice in a game or playing cards and call the numbers/cards I want to get (or the ones I want the other person to get) more often than not it will work … to the point where people consider I am cheating (or calling on demons in one person’s case) if I open my mouth that way.

- I have distinct memories of being able to fly as a child but being strongly discouraged from doing so by my mother (who is no longer around to follow up on this with)

- Pretty much all animals like me – including trained guard dogs who are not supposed to let me do certain things without the command words they had not received.

- I am partially Aspie (I am told / it would appear) and my wife likes to refer to my OCD (not clinically correct) – when I am cooking I follow recipes exactly and if I change it I do it one bit as a time to see if it works.

- Recently I mentioned to my wife the difference between ritual magic and the more laissez faire kind (sorry the right term is not coming to mind there) and which one did she think would be more me and she unhesitatingly put me in the ritualist category not the Harry Potter end of the scale.

- Sometimes I am walking around and it is like I am about a centimetre inside my body all over – I am moving the body but it feels like it belongs to someone else and it feels like I am looking out through someone else’s eyes.

- I am accused of always and unrelentingly thinking but if so it happens without my conscious awareness.

- The two places I feel most comfortable / where I would go if I wanted to think etc are 1) walking along the beach in about ankle to calf deep water in the early hours of the evening ideally with a gentle sea breeze and the moonlight streaming in across the ocean and 2) on stage. I feel most *me* when I am talking about something I really believe in (and I am very very bad at it when I don’t) or writing the same. Many have said I should write books but, as you know, you have to have something worth writing about and I have never found my place/home.

Not sure if that forms any coherent or useful pattern and if you have any clarifying questions I would be happy to answer but any insights / suggestions will be gratefully received.

Kevin Price said...

For the past few years I've slowly been buying copies of all of your books (no easy task). I would go to great lengths (and pre-order a few copies) to read your "working history for occultism." I'm grateful for your work primarily because it has allowed me to go deeply into an interest in the occult that I've always had but could never find a path into that made sense to me. Your work has allowed me to begin a dedicated practice while understanding the context that I'm working within. I'm sure this potential "working history for occultism" would help many others break through the suffocating thought paterns of scientific materialism.

Due to your influence I've been happily working in a magical lodge for a little while now. This order has its own version of lodge history as you describe in this essay. My qestion for you is how do you typically respond to people who take these occult histories as literal, factual truth? Do you try to have a discussion bringing up some of the points you've made here, or do you let it lie. It seems like having a more nuanced understanding of these histories would be helpful in moving things forward, but people often respond poorly to having their stories changed. Thanks for any advice!

John Michael Greer said...

Warren, I'm glad to hear that you're working with Knight's book! The world could use more capable, ethical Christian occultists. Yes, the Sphere of Light fills the function of a banishing ritual in Knight's system. I can certainly recommend geomancy as a divinatory method -- I've studied many others, but it's still my go-to system for important questions. To integrate it with your religious and magical practice, you might consider making a habit of praying for guidance and insight before you cast the chart.

As for your particular talents and predilections, you're right that there's no test -- there's not even a particularly useful set of categories -- and in any case, the basic training is pretty much the same for anybody: ritual, meditation, divination. Knight's book will take care of the first two, and geomancy the second; as you proceed through the work, you'll find that the right doors will open for you.

Kevin, the occult history of the biosphere is a huge project, and of course it runs the usual risks -- as scientific opinion changes, every narrative stops being up to date sooner or later. (Lemuria was scientifically respectable when Blavatsky wrote about it, after all.) Still, it feeds into the broader project of an ecological occultism, or an occult ecology, to which I want to devote some serious time and effort in the years ahead.

With regard to lodge history, I don't challenge people's faith in the narratives that give them meaning; especially in today's climate, which has been so thoroughly poisoned by pseudoskeptics using debunking as a way of flaunting their supposed superiority over everyone else, it leads nowhere useful. I'd encourage you to let it lie. It takes a certain somewhat unusual kind of intellectual maturation to get past literalism and start thinking about what stories mean, and that can't be forced; that's why, according to traditional occultism, all religious teachings have an exoteric literal meaning for the masses and a esoteric symbolic meaning for those who are capable of getting it. Elitist? Sure, but it's also a reflection of reality.

A Rat in the Walls said...

"I don't challenge people's faith in the narratives that give them meaning; especially in today's climate, which has been so thoroughly poisoned by pseudoskeptics using debunking as a way of flaunting their supposed superiority over everyone else, it leads nowhere useful. I'd encourage you to let it lie. It takes a certain somewhat unusual kind of intellectual maturation to get past literalism and start thinking about what stories mean, and that can't be forced; that's why, according to traditional occultism, all religious teachings have an exoteric literal meaning for the masses and a esoteric symbolic meaning for those who are capable of getting it. Elitist? Sure, but it's also a reflection of reality."

It occurred to me that this is a good way of relating to the history of nations as well as religions, lodges or whatever else. And I wonder what it says that debunking the other side's myths and heroes is a major part of political discourse in the US, whether it's right-wingers attacking the civil rights movement or leftists recasting the Founding Fathers as villains in Peoples Histories.

And on a different subject--

"You get the one your soul resonates with."

Since I began practicing magic (four years ago), I've slowly-- very slowly-- begun noticing the ways in which I resonate and reflect other people, especially their emotions. It first really became clear to me when I was teaching a person a qigong exercise. I was practicing the exercise myself, and was in a state of deep relaxation. Then suddenly I began to feel overwhelming frustration. This made no sense, since I wasn't frustrated-- and I realized that it couldn't really be my frustration. I looked up, and sure enough, there was my student with shrugged shoulders and gritted teeth, straining to "feel the energy" he imagined must come easily to me. I started paying attention, and noticed that this happens all the time. I resonate with other peoples' emotions, and very often misidentify them as my own. Now I am making progress with this-- especially when I'm in a mentoring or teaching position with someone, I often feel their emotions and am able to identify them as "not mine, don't act on."

Recently I realized I feel the presence of other peoples' gods as well. I was riding in a car with a friend of mine who is a devout Catholic. I have a fraught relationship with the church-- I grew up in it, have some gratitude toward it and attend mass with my family at Christmas, but otherwise prefer to keep my distance. But when I'm around this friend or a few other Catholic friends, I feel strongly pulled back toward the church. But the other day, sitting in my friend's car, I realized-- It's not that "I" feel "pulled toward the church." It's that I feel the presence of the church within him, in the exact same way that I feel my students' emotions. This realization has helped me (begin to) make more sense of my spiritual life. I often feel pulled toward various traditions, and my book shelves overflow with writings from the Christian, Taoist, Buddhist and Hindu traditions as well as several rows of Golden Dawn occultism. On various occasions I feel myself strongly wanting "to be"-- a Catholic, a Taoist, a follower of Vedanta. I've found that these feelings generally subside if I let them be for a time. Now I am beginning to consider that the feelings aren't just endogenous to me-- I feel the presence of the particular current in others and, maybe, in the local community or the mental spaces that I inhabit or even the world as a whole. Does that make sense?

Warren said...

A couple of questions if I may ...

1) Is there an inherent or hidden benefit (apart from portability and future proofing of course) to calculating out the shield chart each time ... as opposed to putting the mothers in at the top of a spreadsheet and having all of the calculated figures appear immediately? I am kind of thinking that it would help you learn as you went and help you think about the relationships as you go (despite the interpretation going from the bottom up).

2) Is there a difference between handling four appropriately coloured dice, rolling them, and recording the odd/even results vs clicking a recalculate button on the spreadsheet (where each of the 16 cells of the mothers are randomly choosing between 1 and 2) in terms of divinationary utility or growth?

[ok make that a few questions]

3) You said "The world could use more capable, ethical Christian occultists." I could read into that that there are incapable or unethical (why am I thinking of televangelists atm) ones but I am more interested in what you see that a Christian occultist can bring to the table that a non-Christian occultist of a non-occultist Christian do not for the world's benefit?

As an aside - the first week I could start 'rolling the dice' the weather here is 80-90% rain and lots of thunderstorms expected for the next 7 days <-- helpful that

Bogatyr said...


"Eric, exactly. I had a run-in with Ian Corrigan of ADF over the weekend just past, and he was doing the usual snobbish "Iolo wasn't a real Celt" routine, which I find irritating as all get-out. In his honor I'm going to move up the discussion of UPG and CAF, probably to April, and the logical fallacy at the heart of the routine just mentioned will get the endearing name "Corrigan's Fallacy." More soon! "


I came to this blog via TADR (sob!) and, as previously mentioned here, my path is Buddhist/Daoist rather than formally Druidic, so I haven't previously heard of either Ian Corrigan or ADF (whatever that may be).

But, I *am* from the same place as Iolo, more or less. He was actually from the hamlet of Flemingstone, but I was born and bred in the nearby town where he had his shop (and where he refused to sell West Indian sugar). There's a plaque there in his memory to this day (I wonder if I might be able to dig up a photo?). He drank in the same pubs where I started drinking, and he probably sat on the very same stone seats that I've spent evenings on. To say that he wasn't a real Celt....? Who on earth are these people, and what reality do they think they're in?

More to come on this? Can't wait to read it! Sheeesh....

(Ar nodyn gwahanol, pob lwc i chi a'ch gwraig tra bo'chi'n mynd trwy'r newidiadau mawr).

Brother Guthlac said...

"The world could use more capable, ethical Christian occultists."

Indeed. and a few more capable, ethical occult Christians would help too.

John Michael Greer said...

Rat, it makes perfect sense. It's only in the dogmas of strict materialists that human consciousness is cooped up on the inside of the skull; phenomena of the sort you've described are pretty much universal, since thoughts, emotional states, and other phenomena of consciousness slide fairly easily from mind to mind. (Members of a certain generation will remember, as I do, the phenomenon of the "contact high;" this is another function of the same thing.)

Warren, I know people who like computer geomancy, but I find that it's easier to learn if you do the whole thing by hand, from tossing the dice (or whatever instrument you use) to calculating the chart. As for my comment about Christian occultists, first, you're quite right that there are far too many incapable and unethical Christian occultists out there! Second, I've met many Christians who were capable and ethical people, committed to doing good in the world; to have more of them equipped with the insights and practical tools of occultism would, I think, be of benefit to everybody -- and provide better role models to those Christians who are drawn to occultism, and have no idea which way to turn.

Bogatyr, diolch yn fawr! ADF is Ar nDraiocht Fein, "Our Own Druidism," one of the larger American Neopagan groups; "these people" generally are the fundamentalist wing of Celtic Reconstructionism, who like to preen themselves and put down others with rhetoric of the "more Celtic than thou" variety. (I have yet to meet one of them who grew up in a Celtic community, learned a Celtic language in the cradle, or the like; if you're familiar with the Wannabe tribe of faux-Native Americans, you know the type.) Those of us in the older Druid Revival movement have had to put up with an endless stream of bullying from them over the years, and my run-in with Corrigan was just that one time too many. More on this soon!

Brother G., I ain't arguing.

Paul von Hindenburg said...

I LOVE this stuff! I'm ecstatic that the latest iteration of the esoteric revival doesn't throw out its epistemological razors with the materialist bathwater.

Cyclical views of history of course were the norm worldwide. Maybe because the seasons, the movements of the stellar bodies and the patterns of biological reproduction all occur as cycles. The evolution from cyclical views of events to linear views is explored in a fascinating way in Jan Assman's "The Mind of Egypt" - well worth a look, as he gives a breakdown of the change in a society that most westerners view as ancestral to their own. (Sumer/Akkad don't quite capture the imagination in the same way, do they?)

Jordan Famularo said...

Thanks anyway!

LunarApprentice said...

This is my first posting on this blog, so, Hi. While you all might recognize me as the orphan that I am from the ADR, I have slowly, unevenly been cultivating a spiritual practice that might be considered occult. I have trepidation about my current ability to add value to this blog, and I'm not up to speed.

Anyway, Hi Warren. I'm responding to your comment about letting the computer roll the dice, as it were, for you. Computers do not generate truly random numbers; they typically use a software pseudo-random number generator. While they do generate a random distribution, the algorithm is DEFINITELY NOT(!) a random process, it is as deterministic as counting 1, 2, 3 .... Here is a helpful wiki if you want to wade into details:


Personally, I would never trust such a generator for divination. I can't envision how the anima mundi could in principle "do" anything to influence the outcome. I'm planning on getting granite dice; it just seems to me that the anima mundi would resonate more readily with granite than plastic. Besides, I want to show a little respect if not reverence, not unlike Christians when they wear their Sunday Best.

Brother Guthlac said...

Warren, If Knight's "Experience of the Inner Worlds" suits you, then you might be interested in his association with Anthony Duncan as Knight describes in "Christ & Qabalah".

"The difficulty, of course, was that if she’d been forthright about the process of occult bricolage that produced her system, she wouldn’t have had any students to speak of." ... "Used intelligently, the imagination is one of the great tools of the operative mage. One of the features of the golden age of occult alternative history, in turn, is that using the imagination intelligently was made very, very difficult by a range of unfortunate ideas."

JMG Forgive me, but it seems that recognizing and admitting the actually sources of one's "tradition" might actually be beneficial at times. Identifying the distinction between imagination and simple fantasy might be an example. As you say, There could be other "tool(s) for helping people reshape their understanding of the present, and of their place in the cosmos."

Cyclic rather than linear history, or diverse adaptive development rather linear progressive "evolution", good manageable ideas. As you frequently remind us Toynbee embraced the idea as well as Fortune and Blavatsky.

"one set of intelligent beings living on this particular planet in this particular instant of its long history, are of vast importance in the overall scheme of things." - - perhaps not of vast importance to Quazar 3C 273 or Tau Ceti II, though perhaps significant to some local varieties of Cetacea or cephalopod mollusc if we mess things up enough. And perhaps quite important to those "entities" who happen to currently be incarnate as this particular variety of potentially self-conscious primates. Admittedly, some ideas that came out of the southwest Asian deserts may no longer be so adaptive today.

James M. Jensen II said...


Re: pseudorandom number generation

That's not entirely true. Modern operating systems provide sources of (nearly) true randomness that programs can tap into if the developer chooses. The randomness is generated whenever users provide input through key presses or mouse movements. As this is impossible to determine in advance, generating numbers sufficiently random that they're considered "cryptographically secure" -- that is, useful for generating encryption keys.

Even pseudorandom number generation is not entirely deterministic: the number generators are seeded with the value of the computer's clock, which determines what numbers are produced. Again, it's impossible to determine in advance when a user will run the program or request random numbers, so there is a measure of genuine randomness to it.

While I definitely consider doing charts by hand to be better for multiple reasons, rolling dice by hand is not entirely random, since the quantum fluctuations that would generate genuine randomness are pretty much cancelled out at any macroscopic level. What makes a dice rolls effectively random is simply that we don't keep track our hand movements or consciously control every detail of them as we're rolling the dice.

As to how the anima mundi could influence the events with a computer: we don't know how it influences events when rolling dice! I wouldn't worry about it.

Unknown said...

JMG, I would have given a different answer to Cherokee Organic's question, "However, I was rather wondering if during a solstice or equinox celebration, how the heck do you actually know who turns up? My gut feeling is that you can't really know, other than by long term relationship."

I don't disagree with what you said about beings who seem to have different personalities or characteristics answering to the same name. However, there are ancient and modern techniques to exert some control over who shows up when invited. One of the ancient methods is related to what Cherokee mentioned, the cultivation of an ongoing relationship. The relationship need not be purely personal; it can be communal. Many deity invocations are specific and detailed. They may address the being by multiple titles, or one particular one. Often they recount some of the history of the relationship between the being invoked and the community; reminding the deity how he or she has favored the community in the past and how the community has honored the deity. Some Greco-Roman invocations and Jewish prayers do this and I think the purpose is to remind everyone exactly who is expected and invited.

Icons, symbols and other images that depict a particular aspect of a deity, such as Green Tara or Our Lady of Guadalupe, put the entire congregation in mind of the specific being invoked, and this must exert some psychic force. Aniconic religions have to resort to other methods.

Traditional offerings or sacrifices which are different for different beings are a filtering technique used by ancient Greeks and contemporary Afro-Diasporic religions; if a particular offering is unappealing, the entity will stay away. This kind of ritual elaboration is in the interest of priests who need to justify their jobs, but I think it also works at least sometimes.

Another method is to erect a barrier or a filter to keep out undesirables. Sculptures of apotropaic beings at temple entrances, invocation of guardian beings at the compass directions of a Wiccan circle.

blue sun said...

Oh my oh my! Your response to Greg about your "Faceplant" plans had me laughing out loud for a good minute or two! Thanks for that one.

I usually post comments on the other blog (sad to see it end) and I pay close attention to which comments go through and which do not. I tried to post a comment not too long ago that was critical of both "Faceplant" as well as the company that hosts Blogger. I suspect it was no "computer glitch" that the comment never got through, despite repeated tries. It made reference to discoveries of censorship on the part of those two outfits.

I'd be curious to see if we commenters will have the freedom to be critical of tech giants on the new blog (good luck with that endeavor, by the way). I hope so. It concerns me that these corporate giants have so much influence over the masses, and what information filters down to them.

Sheila Grace said...

post script: not enough coffee this morning. I meant March for the Virgo full moon in Pisces.

got ahead of myself.