On Fireballs and Pharmakeia

So, as I sit here at my desk trying to ignore the urge to smoke more cigarettes and replace it with eating (way too many) Oreos, I’ve been trying to find simple things to occupy my time with.  Working on my book requires focus, and I’m still working up the courage and energy to go work out (which I need to get back on the ball with after three weeks of chaos and travel and religion, but I’ll get back on that this week all the same), so I’m just trying to find low-effort things to keep my mind and hands occupied.  One such thing is gaming, specifically playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, because why not?  It’s a pretty good game, after all, and though I know there’s huge replay value in it, I can never seem to muster up the tenacity to try out different builds on multiple playthroughs, keep characters limited to particular questlines, or whatnot.  It’s always satisfying, after all, especially with a few mods here and there to spice the game up (and, hopefully, refrain from breaking too many quests, which unfortunately keeps happening).

Of course, me being me, I always end up playing a mage-assassin, incinerating everything quietly and from afar.  I was never much fond of close-up fighting classes no matter the game, so of course I would lean towards the more mage-based classes.  Big surprise, I know.  Of course, if only magic worked in our world like it does in so many fantasy games!  To shoot fire and lighting and ice from one’s hands, to control wind and earth and water with a word, to heal and harm for weal or woe with a thought and a gesture miraculously, wondrously, and instantly would be satisfying, indeed.  Alas, fantasy is fantasy, and reality is reality, for the most part; there are still plenty of miraculous things one can do with thoughts, gestures, and words, and a good bit of my own practice is heavily informed by fantasy, as are a number of my friends’ and colleagues’.  Sometimes, the fantastical has very straightforward implementations in reality, with much the same ends and effects, though, perhaps, with fewer explosions.

In Skyrim, for those who are familiar with the game, I lean heavily towards the Destruction skill tree, which empowers the player-adventurer to wield a variety of elemental-based spells for causing mass…well, destruction.  Being Skyrim, one of the most effective elements to wield is that of fire, given the high number of highly-flammable undead, furry creatures, and elemental tree spirits, as well as because ice tends to be resisted more commonly than not, and lightning…eh, it’s cute.  Anyway, fire is awesome!  I think we can all agree on that, right?  Of course it is.  And, of course, the use of fireballs is incredibly well-known across so many fantasy games and settings, and the general practice for using them is something like this:

  1. Adventurer-mage spots a hopeless victim, or is otherwise accosted by a foolish victim.
  2. Adventurer-mage casts fireball on the victim.
  3. The fireball may or may not explode on contact with the victim to cause damage to nearby collateral damage.
  4. The fireball may or may not catch the victim(s) on actual fire.  However, the fireball will cause significant damage to the victim’s (or victims’) health, and if strong enough, will outright kill the victim(s).

Given how many fantasy games work, unless you’re playing a rather free-form one or a tabletop game that isn’t bound by game engines, such fireballs don’t often incinerate the victim(s) to literal piles of dust, and if they’re of the exploding kind, they don’t often actually explode the victim as if they were touched by a grenade or bomb.  In Skyrim, using the non-explosive Firebolt spell, what this usually looks like is:

 

Okay, straightforward enough to understand, and due to the limitations of video game engines, pretty simple: make ball of fire, shoot it at a target, it damages their health, and if their health drops below the minimum threshold, they die.  All fantasy, of course.  What bothers me most (at least within the context of Skyrim) is how, at higher levels or on weak-enough enemies, all the enemies do when being attacked with such a fireball is that they drop dead with a few fancy effects.  No incineration, no screams of prolonged pain, no gear-turned-to-ashes, no burn marks, no explosions, just “whoop-poof” and body-drop.  For being such a fantastical mainstay, such fireballs are…underwhelming.  Surely, a real fireball spell would cause more collateral damage, both to any nearby items or environmental factors!

So, that got my head-gears turning.  What exactly is going on here when the adventurer-mage is casting a fireball spell on such a victim?  The naïve answer is that the adventurer-mage is literally manifesting a ball of sufficiently-materialized fire energy, which is then directed forward away from the caster and towards a victim in a more-or-less ballistic fashion, which then explodes and releases its fire energy upon contact with any solid-enough object that it collides with that significantly interferes with its inertia.  In other words, we’re basically making a magical Molotov cocktail from etheric scratch with more-or-less physical behavior; after all, if it were just pure energy, we might expect it to not be as…well, flamey or explosive or bright, as well as having it pass through solid objects like how thought or astral bodies might.  I suppose fireballs might better be considered more of a Conjuration school technique than a Destruction one, but then, the Elder Scrolls view of magical schools has always been flexible, and calling it a Conjuration spell would only make sense after…what, five seconds of thought?  Clearly too much to put in for a casual not-actually-magical gamer, I would think.

Another viewpoint on this would be less creating a manifestation of a flammable grenade and more about tweaking the actual physical activity on a molecular level; instead of conjuration, this would by pyrokinesis.  In other words, by means of spiritual action, we’d be influencing the vibration of molecules and atoms such that they would increase dramatically within a localized area.  This wouldn’t really have the same ballistic effect the conjured-Molotov-cocktail approach would, as it’d be taking effect at a distance immediately, but it would have a similar effect: a sudden and dramatic increase in the molecular vibrations would increase the heat at that location, whether air or metal or fabric or any other substance, so long as it’s not an empty vacuum.  At high enough activities, even air would combust, and if sustained long enough, then a sufficiently hot “mass” of energy that could be sustained magically can be directed to travel through the air, combusting more air along the way, which then could catch other things on fire, which would indeed get us our fireball.  This wouldn’t be as extensible to other elements (how would you cast an ice spell, or a water spell?), but as far as fireballs go, this approach is just as viable as the earlier one, and just as fantastical.

Still, if we were to be conjuring Molotov cocktails between our hands or turning into living microwaves, we’d expect the whole burning-to-death process to actually follow suit, wouldn’t we?  In other words, in order to do any damage, we’d expect that things should actually catch fire first, then be on fire long enough to scald, scorch, burn, incinerate, and calcine so as to actually cause harm to living targets and general destruction to inanimate targets.  Instead, what we’re seeing is that once the fireball comes in contact with a target, that target immediately takes a hit to their health, if not immediately dies, so something else is going on here besides an overblown catch-on-fire spell.  This is what caught my attention after a few…dozen dozen enemies being killed, I guess, in a moment of reflection after having to unload a few hundred potatoes and apples unto my loyal follower in the middle of an ancient tomb filled with fresh produce and lit candles.  I do so love video game logic, after all, and Skyrim is…well, special.

Anyway.

So, if casting fireballs at people isn’t actually just setting them on fire, what’s actually going on from a magical perspective?  We’re obviously condensing a sufficiently harmful amount of energy attuned to Fire, which is then released in a directed way at a target to cause them harm, which may not actually be set on fire or exploded, yet still suffers as a result.  What’s going on?  This is where things get interesting to me as an actual mage, and which can perhaps lead into a less-than-fantastical implementation of casting fireballs as a kind of offensive magic in our world where magic works.

Consider the human body from a spiritual perspective.  The health of the human body is a fine balance between subtle forces, which historically in the Western world have been associated with the four elements and, in the body, the four humours: Fire manifests through choler (yellow bile), Air as blood, Water as phlegm, and Earth as melancholy (black bile).  It is only when these four humours are balanced—none in excess and none in deficiency—that the body enjoys health.  If there’s too much or too little of any one or more, you start getting health problems.  The balance of the humours could be affected by any number of things: the food and drink we consume, the music we listen to, the airs and climate that surround us, the physical and mental activities we engage in, and of course the spiritual influences on us from beyond our worldly realm and which do not necessarily have roots in the physical, manifest world we interact with.  This is why certain types of energy work can encourage health when done properly or damage health when done improperly, and why certain energetic practices are recommended for magicians to regulate the spiritual forces we interact with so that our bodies and health aren’t impacted in a negative way.

Heck, one can even use simple energy work to remedy simple physical problems.  I recall one winter night when I was getting a tattoo with a magical friend of mine, and I had to run down the block and across the road to the nearby shopping center for some cash from the ATM.  Being young, courageous, stupid, and enjoying of winter, I decided to do so without my jacket or coat.  Admittedly, I did enjoy the brisk dash outside in roughly freezing temperatures, but it’s only once back inside the warmth of the tattoo shop that I had to deal with warming myself back up.  To encourage my body to get on with it, I had the idea to use my personal geomantic mudra of Fire (Laetitia, which is geomantically pure Fire), conjuring up some Fire-based energy within me and circulating it through my body.  Even though I had never done such a thing before, it worked; the cold more-or-less instantly dissipated as I began to circulate it, and I was back to comfortable levels in no time.  It even caught my friend off-guard, who picked up on the energetic shift I put on myself and noticed the change in temperature from across the room.  Instant results and immediate external confirmation—what more could I ask for as a magician trying something new out?

Energy work, well, works.  Thing is, you have to be careful with it; as the Renaissance magician-pharmacist Paracelsus once said, “Alle Dinge sind Gift, und nichts ist ohne Gift, allein die Dosis macht dass ein Ding kein Gift ist”, or “all things are poison, and nothing is without poison, the dosage alone makes it so a thing is not a poison”.  The only thing that really transforms any given drug into medicine or poison is how much you use; I was able to work enough Fire energy into my system as I needed, and no more, to fix my problem of there being too much cold.  If I had overdone it, I could easily have introduced health problems into my system, such as rashes, flushing, ulcers, headaches, fevers, heartburn, heart problems, and the like.  Heck, if I were otherwise normal and focused too much Fire energy into a part of the body that didn’t need it, I could cause localized problems, or it could dissolve into the rest of my body raising my overall Fire levels, which again could cause systemic issues.  Sola dosis facit venenum; the dosage alone makes the poison.

Though it’s not usually discussed, any beneficial, health-encouraging practice can be twisted to be harmful and malicious; just as one can use reiki to resolve blockages, one can also use it to introduce them, and just as one can modify the body’s humours to encourage health, one can also modify them to wreck it.  In a sense, you can energetically heal someone by using energetic medicine, or you can energetically harm them by using energetic poison.  This is essentially bringing modern spiritual medicine back in line with the ancient traditions of pharmakeía. Although this word literally refers to the administration of drugs, it’s far more famously used in the Bible to refer to magic and sorcery.  It’s not an either-or thing here; it was quite common back in the day, as it is in ours, to administer magic through the use of ingested or applied substances.  Consider how we might use certain herbs and plant parts in magical drinks, adding a few drops of this oil or that powder in someone’s meal to influence them, or rubbing this salve or that ointment on our skin for protection, flying, or simply fixing a health problem.  I mean, consider: without an understanding of modern pharmacology, how could it not be seen as magic to take some sort of occult virtue of a plant, boil it in some oil, then using the oil on my head to cure a headache when eating the plant or using the oil alone would otherwise have no effect?

To influence and modify the state of the body through spiritual means, then, could be considered pharmakeia, and since spiritual factors influence physical forms without necessarily requiring physical means, purely-spiritual pharmakeia would be an option just as much as physically-administered pharmakeia.  This means that energy work and other energy-based forms of magic would fall under pharmakeia for both healing and harming, and this is where we can tie pharmakeia into fireballs.  Recall my little Fire experiment from above; one might consider that applying Fire energy to resolve a physical problem, so what would stop me (besides my scruples) to apply Fire energy to cause physical problems?  After all, poisoning someone with Fire energy is essentially what’s going on in Skyrim and other such fantasy games when outright Molotov cocktail-like behavior isn’t seen: you’re overloading the victim with too much Fire energy, which causes them to suffer and die, sometimes dramatically so.  That’s what a real implementation of a fireball would do: energetically poison a victim with an overload of too much Fire energy/ether/etc.  Likewise, an Ice attack could be conceived of as not only depleting a victim’s Fire energy but also encouraging too much Water and Earth energies, fixing both to induce an overabundance of cold with no Fire to ameliorate or defend against it.

In this sense, such an approach seems a lot less fantastical and way more effective to be taken.  I mean, none of this is particularly surprising; I know I’ve done similar things in the past, and it’s just another way to encourage someone to act or adopt a new set of behaviors and patterns of health.  But, when viewed in a fantastical light as “casting fireballs or ice spikes”, this sort of phrasing of how magical acts afflict the delicate balance of the body’s health makes a lot more sense.  I dimly recall some Hermetic author or other having written an article online about a ceremonial magic implementation of basically casting fireball, but I wasn’t able to find it on my own, since I had read it years ago and it was already old by the time I got to it.  Happily, my friend John Umbras of Cross the Dark helped me out and reminded me that it was called the “Chaos Bolt” ritual.  Though it doesn’t exist on its original source of ChaosMatrix anymore, it’s since been replicated across the internet in a variety of files and PDFs.  One such PDF on Combat Magick, including the Chaos Bolt ritual, is available here, courtesy of the chaos magic and left hand path blog Arauto do Chaos.  Even though it’s not exactly being constructed as a Fire-based ritual, the Fire elements (heh) are absolutely there, and it’s not hard to see how, much less how to make it even more fiery.  I recommend reading it to get a glimpse of what such an implementation of energetic attacking could be like, and then interpret it as taking effect through energetic poisoning of a victim’s body instead of just fucking with their circumstances or life generally.  Beyond that, I’m sure you can figure out how to design and direct such elemental offensive spells on your own, dear reader.  After all, we don’t call them “elemental weapons” for nothing.

Who would have thought that getting bored during a video game could be so productive for analyzing new ways to view old magic tricks?

5 responses

  1. I interject while reading this to mention that yes, Skyrim, lord I am a huge elder scrolls fan. I just try to keep it under wraps and avoid playing often.

    • Honestly I need to take a break, because between mods breaking the game (let’s just not start the Potema questline when we enter the Blue Palace! Svaknir can just stand there in Dead Men’s Respite, it’s fine, no problem, we don’t need King Olaf’s Verse or the word wall in there!), I kept getting too frustrated. Once my friend is able to in the next few weeks, we’re just gonna have a weekend to ourselves where we trade off and play a gigantic Skyrim drinking game.

  2. Pingback: On the Elemental and Geomantic Epodes « The Digital Ambler

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