On the One True Geomancy (or Astrology, Alchemy, Etc.)

Within reason, of course, I enjoy fielding questions from my readers through social media, whether it’s through @s on Twitter or messages on Facebook.  I do my best to answer them as they come, and I generally have an answer, though it might take me a bit to compile it in full.  Sometimes, the answer just can’t be made simple enough for a quick message, and we need to engage in a proper conversation to flesh everything out.  However, on occasion, some of those questions or the discussions we have over them raise something up in my mind that I think needs to be explored more, and this is just one such an occasion.

One of my friends on Facebook—introduced to me by a mutual friend over (what else?) geomancy—had some questions and problems with reading over some of my posts, specifically where I catalog an assortment of geomantic texts’ attributions of elements to the figures.  Basically, in that post, I go over how there’s a lot of talk in books modern and classical about how to reckon the elemental rulerships of each of the figures, and there are a surprising number of variations about how to go about just that.  Modern confusion can arise from John Michael Greer’s use of a dual system of outer and inner elements of the figures, outer elements based on Zodiacal attributions and inner elements based on structural concerns, and I’m sure that I haven’t much improved on that with my own system of primary and secondary elements (though I find it increasingly useful).  My friend was happy to scrap the outer element system of JMG, but after reading my post, things only got more confused and muddled for her.  She vented a bit to me about some of her frustrations in learning geomancy from my blog:

I think I am a bit disheartened.  According to your work even the planetary rulerships vary from Agrippa to the Golden Dawn.  When I found geomancy, I was excited because it was based on numbers and my study of sacred geometry, and it made me hope that this system was at root based upon the same principles.  After reading a lot of your work. I am left with “everyone does it different, good luck!”

You know what?  That’s completely fair, and it’s easy for me to have lost sight of that.  I appreciate her bringing me back down to earth a bit by sharing her feelings with me on this.

As you may have noticed, dear reader, the Digital Ambler is my blog.  Yes, it’s a website where I advertise my services and ebooks and share my research and rituals and make myself available for a variety of consultations and readings, but first and foremost, the Digital Ambler is my blog.  I write about what I want on my blog at the rate I want with the focuses I want in the way I want; it is, after all, my blog.  However, I write my blog for the public to read not just to keep track of my own notes, experiments, projects, ideas, and studies, but also to help others in the occult, Hermetic, and geomantic communities as well.  Over the years, my blog has become something of a resource for many, and I take a bit of pride and satisfaction and fulfillment that I’m able to help at least a few people through my writing.

One of the ways I think I help is that I share my research and notes, and when it comes to geomancy, there’s a lot to research—about a thousand years, to be precise, across Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Europe.  Even with my limited resources, I have access to texts by John Case, Robert Fludd, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, Christopher Cattan, John Heydon, Bartholommeo della Parma, Gerard of Cremona, and Pietro d’Abano, to say nothing of more modern authors ranging from Franz Hartmann to Stephen Skinner and JMG himself.  As time goes on, I hope to get access to even more obscure materials that exist in undigitized, microfiche, or manuscript form.  And, I expect, as I get access to more such resources, I’ll learn more about how geomancy was practiced by a variety of practitioners across the millennium it’s been in use.

As a researcher, it’s evident and plain to me that geomancy is not a single, fixed subject.  Yes, even from its inception and introduction into Europe, there have been many things fixed and stable about the art: the basic meanings of the figures, the basic use of the Court and Shield Chart, how to use the House Chart, what planets the figures refer to, and so forth.  However, there are a great many things that vary between one author and the next: whether this technique or that is more useful, how many variations on a single technique there might be, how to assign the zodiac signs to the figures, how to assign the elements to the figures, how to do this or that and…well, as can be seen across many of the posts on my blog where I document classical techniques, there’s a fair amount of variation in geomantic practice.  For me to introduce that into my blog is part and parcel of my research: I research to document what was done, no matter how it was done, so I can figure out what was kept back then and why, as well as what I might keep that works and how to make what works work even better.

Why is there so much variation in what was done?  Simply put, it’s because geomancy is not a monolithic tradition: there is no canon, no centralization, no governing authority that says “this is proper geomantic practice” and “that is not proper geomantic practice”.  We in our modern age are used to such centralized authorities certifying what’s in and what’s out or what’s good and what’s bad to the point where we take it for granted, and we expect to see that such centralization would be present in previous eras.  It’s simply not the case.  Sure, there were commonly-available resources and texts, especially after the invention of the printing press and the beginning of mass-produced books, but it still was nothing like the scale of today’s “Art and Practice of Geomancy” or “Geomancy for Beginners” or “Geomancy in Theory and Practice”.  What was available were texts produced on a much smaller scale available to a smaller percentage of wealthier people who could afford books within a much more localized region; besides those, there were actual, living, breathing geomancers who not only practiced, but taught as well.  Though I’m sure some students of geomancy kept in touch with others, each geomancer was likely to be left to their own devices, see what works, and see what doesn’t, then develop and refine their own practice on their own.  Couple a few decades of that with books that may not always be 100% correct or vetted for typos and clarity, and minor variations are bound to result.

The commonalities between different geomancers and texts vastly outweigh the differences between them, to be sure, but many of us who like to investigate the details and ply those for whatever we can might be foiled by encountering so many different ways to assign figures to elements or what have you.  As my friend said, it can often come across that, when I present my notes on how geomancers of the past practiced this art, it might just come across as “everyone does it different, good luck”.  To an extent…yeah, actually.  Everyone did do it different.  Heck, everyone still does it different; I don’t do the same exact geomancy that Stephen Skinner or JMG or Al Cummins or Eric Purdue might do.  We all understand the basics of geomancy, and the commonalities of our practices far outweigh our differences, but there are definitely differences to be had.

To be fair, though, this isn’t just a thing with geomancy.  Astrology has the same variations across its many thousands of years of practice and development based on era, land, language, and author.  Today, you’ll still find arguments about which house system is best, how to allot certain things to certain houses, whether the modern planets have any purpose in horary astrology, and so forth.  You’ll find the same thing in general Hermetic magic (Golden Dawn or Thelema? Lemegeton or Grimoirum Verum? Heptameron or Trithemius?), in ancient Greek religion (Hesiod or Homer? Attic or Doric? Delphi or Dodona?), and really in any ancient tradition.  No tradition is ever truly monolithic unless it was designed that way, and even then, if it’s at all taught and carried on by successive generations of students, there are bound to be variations.  That’s how we ended up with Theravada and Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism from a single teacher, and within each vehicle of Buddhism all the different sects and schools thereof.  That’s how we ended up with Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant Christianities, and all their own sects and denominations.  Spiritual traditions, sciences, and lineages are inherently messy in their development; as I said to my friend, “if it’s confusing, it’s because there are a lot of different voices shouting different things under the same big tent”.

So what do we do about it?  Is it really as simple (and confusing) as “everyone did it different, good luck”?  Well…yes, actually.  In my research-related posts on this blog, I don’t often just document what was done, but I also give my thoughts on what makes the most logical sense or what has the strongest justification, as well as share my own thoughts, experiences, and preferences on the variations on technique.  I do my best to show my own practices and why I do things the way I do and where I get the things I do from, but at the end of the day, it’s a combination of study and experimentation that informs my practice: study the things that are common and fixed in the tradition, experimentation to see which variations work best.  The way I teach geomancy is going to be different from other geomancers past and present because it’s going to be informed by my own practices, experiences, and experiments; consider that I find (much as Robert Fludd himself did) that the techniques to predict letters and numbers are crap. Heck, even among geomancers today, what I consider vital and important to the art (as far as details go, at least), Al Cummins may find ridiculous or nonsense, and vice versa.  That’s fine!  We each have our own opinions informed by our own studies, and that’s great!  It’s not going to be as simple as 2 + 2 = 4 where there’s only one right answer, but it’s going to be “which art movement is better to understand the 19th century occult movements, Pre-Raphaelite or Art Nouveau?”.

If you’re looking for the One True Geomancy (or One True Astrology, or One True Solomonic Grimoire, or One True Alchemy, etc.) with all and only the right techniques, well, you might be disappointed.  There’s really no objective, centralized, certified Manual of Geomantic (or Astrological, Solomonic, Alchemical, etc.) Practice out there, nor will there ever be.  The best you can do is find a single teacher and study what that one teacher teaches, and even then, they might change their views over time, just like you will.  In the meantime, though it might be a rough road to follow, learning what was done and seeing all the variants out there of a given technique is helpful because it informs you of what was done before to give you an idea of what works and what options you have when working your own practices.  In doing so, you have guides that point in useful directions (maybe not always the right directions) to show you where you should focus your practice or steer your practice towards or away from.  Experimentation is a must in this and every kind of occult art, but you can and should listen to your peers and colleagues and teachers to see what was done before so you don’t invent the wheel all over again and again and again.

On Gender in Magic, or, What to Rename Puer and Puella

Twitter is always full of fun people.  Yeah, the platform is garbage and full of Nazis, white supremacists, TERFs, and a variety of alt-right douchebags, but it’s also been the platform I’ve been on for the longest sustained period of time going back to…god, mid-2010, I guess.  In that time, despite its changes for the worse and the increases of awful people, I’ve also made many good friends on the platform, ranging from furries and fanfiction authors to astrologers and occultists and any number of people in between.  Lately, I’ve been enjoying the company of a good number of (somehow all bewilderingly attractive) astrologers and diviners, which gives me endless entertainment and education (and gawking over how insultingly good they look in their photos).

Not that long ago, one of my mutuals started up a conversation among this very group that struck a chord with me:

This, yes, absolutely, forever.

Even from an early date in my occult studies, stuff about gender has always not set exactly well with me, e.g. the whole bullshit Law of Gender from the Kybalion, yet another reason why I hate and detest the damn text.  I mean, while I am gay, I’m also comfortable in my cisgender identity as a man, but I have quite a few other friends and colleagues who aren’t but who are transgender, genderfluid, nonbinary, agender, or otherwise.  That so much in traditional magical literature relies on a system of gender that doesn’t work for so many of us is…troubling, honestly.  It’s nothing insurmountable for me, and I would hope that it’s likewise not a total obstruction for others, but that it poses a problem for many of us can’t be denied.  Like, for me, who has no sexual or romantic attraction to women, the notion of an element being “feminine” would logically suggest that it should be cut off from me as something inherently foreign, which is certainly not the case.

Time and again we come across scientific evidence and studies that show that there aren’t even always two physical sexes per species, or that the roles and responsibilities of each physical sex shift and change between species or even between stages of life in a species, or which change based on the environment around and hormones within the members of that species.  If occult philosophy is rooted in natural philosophy, i.e. if studying the occult is grounded in studying the world around us, then shouldn’t we actually respect what we find in the world around us rather than imposing a really simplistic view that doesn’t even work for us as a species or a civilization?  To be fair, I do understand and agree that most humans are cisgender and heterosexual, and most animal species reproduce sexually in a way that we can identify as being carried out by something resembling heterosexuality in humans.  That, however, does not mean that it is any more natural than variations seen in gender, sex, or sexual behavior, because those are as natural as the more common set.  Being uncommon does not mean being abnormal.

There’s also the argument that oh, even as a gay man, I should be in touch with my “feminine side”.  Tell me, what is a “feminine side”?  What are the essential qualities that make something feminine?  I know many women who don’t have such qualities, and many men who do.  I know that much of what one culture describes as “feminine” is considered masculine by another culture, or vice versa.  I know that much of what nontoxic masculinity is could easily be described as expected feminine behavior, and vice versa.  To me (and I speak only for myself in this), gender is a role that one plays based on cultural norms, with nothing essential about it; there can be no “masculine side” and “feminine side” because both of those are meaningless terms that just play out in a given context or arena of culture, society, and communication.  To be sure, these things have power and meaning as far as such things do, but there’s nothing essential, fundamental, or elemental about them that needs to be carried into a fair amount (maybe all?) Western magical practices.

I know that it’s certainly traditional to refer to the elements of Fire and Air (and all their corresponding tools, symbols, planets, zodiac signs, and other correspondences) as masculine or male and to Water and Earth (and all their correspondences) as feminine or female, but we can do so much better.  For one, knowing that each element is a combination of heat and moisture, a system going all the way back to Aristotle:

Dry Wet
Hot Fire Air
Cold Earth Water

What quality immediately jumps out at us that links the “masculine” and “feminine” elements?  It’s heat!  The “masculine” elements Fire and Air are both hot, and the “feminine” elements Water and Earth are both cold, so why not just call them hot and cold, or warm and cool, instead?

This and so many other alternatives to “masculine” and “feminine” were proposed in the conversation on Twitter, some of which I like and others I don’t as much care for, including:

  • solar and lunar
  • diurnal and nocturnal
  • odd and even
  • independent and communal
  • fast and slow
  • electric and magnetic
  • celestial and terrestrial
  • light and dark

(Personally, when not using the celestial and terrestrial dichotomy from my Mathēsis stuff, I absolutely adore the electric and magnetic dichotomy, because electricity and magnetism are really the same underlying force that operate in two different ways.)

There is also, of course, the almost-as-traditional “active” and “passive”, but this is dispreferable in another way, because “passive” has some unfortunate connotations that also doesn’t exactly work.  For instance, if I throw a large amount of water onto a fire, well, fire is supposed to be an active element, right?  So it should act upon the water, but what happens is that the water puts out the fire: the “passive” element acts upon the “active” one.  Not exactly helpful in that light.  Plus, the connotations of “active” and “passive” play into the traditional male-female roles during sex, where the “active” man is on top penetrating the “passive” woman on bottom.  Okay, boring.

You could reframe this “active” and “passive” issue using, for instance, “convex” and “concave”.  Consider the Chinese characters for these words: 凸 and 凹, respectively (as might be evident).  Like…you can see it too, right?  It’s not just my mind in the gutter?  If we equate “convex” with “active” and “concave” with “passive”, well…let me tell you that anyone who’s receiving in sex and is just remaining passive is doing sex wrong and should be ashamed of themselves.  You can take it and still run the show.  Being “passive” does not equate with being inert, boring, or ineffectual; being “receptive” or “concave” does not equate with being submissive, unassuming, or calm.

Personally?  I’m all for getting rid of the notions of gender in our elements, tools, zodiac signs, and other correspondences.  You can include them if you like, but I don’t care to have a system or cosmos that’s inherently structured and built upon them, especially when everything has an undivided, indivisible, undifferentiated Source.  You can have polarities and dichotomies and spectrums without having gender, and gender is not the be-all end-all of polarities.  We don’t have to reduce all dichotomies to a socially-bound, Western categorization of how certain people with certain physical differences should behave.  We can be so much better than this. We can do so much better than this.  We don’t have to be locked into a procrustean bed of gender-locked magic and cosmology when we can literally see and interact with cosmic forces that do not follow laws of gender and, indeed, break the very systems that gender tries to support and maintain.

Then I take a deep breath, and I go outside, and I…look at geomancy, and I’m reminded of the figures Puer and Puella.  And I frown, because we have this very gender/sex issue embedded in two of our figures, going back to the founding of geomancy itself.

I’ve gone on at length about these figures before, describing how their elemental structure suggests and effects their divinatory and occult significations, and so much else.  Yet, here it is, the male-female dichotomy itself staring at us in the face.

Geomancy itself is a system built upon dichotomy.  Dichotomy literally means “a cutting (categorization) into two”, which is the fundamental aspect of binary systems.  Geomancy, as a binary system, has rows that have one point or two points.  In this particular case, I think the use of “active” and “passive” is useful to describe such an arrangement, because it’s referring to the literal existence or non-existence of a given element within a figure.  For instance, if Fire is active, then it can cause a change in another figure’s Fire line (odd to even or even to odd); if Fire is passive, then it preserves and takes on whatever is in another Figure’s fire line (odd stays odd and even stays even).  This is how I interpret odd or even as far as numbers go, and to me, the mere presence or absence of an element has nothing to do with that element being “male” or “female”.  Again, gender/sex is just one kind of polarity, if it even is to be reckoned having two poles at all.

So, what to do about Puer and Puella?  Well, I know that the names of figures aren’t fixed.  Throughout the history of geomancy, many sets of names have been applied to the figures, even within the same language.  Stephen Skinner in his Geomancy in Theory and Practice gives a huge table of all the names he’s been able to document for the figures across multiple manuscripts, books, and traditions.  For instance, the figure Fortuna Maior (literally meaning “Greater Fortune”) has also been called:

  • Auxulium intus (interior aid)
  • Tutela intrans (entering assistance)
  • Omen maius (greater omen)
  • Honor intus (interior honor)

Still, despite the variation in names, they all have more-or-less the same meaning.  But then we come to figures that don’t have any similarity with their common names, such as Imberbis (beardless) for Puer.  Such names come from a much older, Arabic-inspired tradition that uses similar names for the figures, which tie into the meanings through other symbolic means; “beardless”, for instance, refers to young men who are yet energetic while still not old enough to have the full features of maturity.  Other names for Puer include Flavus (blond, perhaps referring to the bright golden hair color associated with young children?), Belliger (warring), or even Gladius Erigendus (erect sword, which…mmhm.)

What I’m saying here is that the names of the figures have gone through quite a lot of change and variation over the centuries, and what matters is that the names are descriptive of the meanings of the figures in divination and magic.  Puer means a whole lot more than “boy”, of course, as does Puella than merely “girl”, but a whole set of personality, physical, temperamental, and situational traits that go far beyond merely what might be considered masculine or feminine as determined by medieval European society.  So, why not think of other names for these two figures that can decouple them from a reliance on the male-female distinction?

Personally, I like going with Hero and Host, playing off not just the initial sounds of the words, but on the dichotomy of hostility and hospitality, rough and smooth, or as my mutual above phrased it, “gall and grace”.  They tie into my own meditations and visualizations of the figures, too.  On Puer:

The young man dressed in rags and armor, riding his horse, drops his armor’s visor, raises his sword, and plunges into the fight.  All he’s in it for is to fight, and the fight is real, especially if he’s the one to start it (he usually is).  If he’s on the right side in the fight, he’ll lay his enemies bare and clear the field to pave the way for future foundations; if not, he’ll live to fight for a hopeless and regretful day later.  But that doesn’t matter to him, anyway; he lives for the fight, the struggle, the excitement, the passion, the heat, and the war that never ends for him.  His visor limits his vision, cutting out peripheral vision entirely and causing him to focus on what’s right ahead of him; just so does he only care for the current day and the current battle.  He’s young and without experience of victory, or even finesse in battle, his rashness and recklessness giving him all the flailing speed and power he needs, but he’s fighting not just to fight but also for that experience he lacks.  And, after all, he’s fighting because there’s one thing he’s missing: someone to really fight for.  Don’t expect him to be your ally when you call, but expect him to call on you or pull you into the fight.

And on Puella:

…I saw myself walking into a massive pyramidal hall, an ancient temple with smooth golden sandstone walls neatly fit together rising up to a square hole in the ceiling, with a light shining down into it illuminating everything the temple with a rich, warm, delicate light.  The whole of the temple was filled with treasures, rich tapestries, delicate statues and figurines, and piles of paintings; it was a temple in the old style, a warehouse and storeroom for all the holy treasures a temenos or church would’ve accrued over the centuries.  At the end of the temple, meandering through a forest of statues and stacks of gold, kneeling down in prayer was a young maiden, dressed in the finest dress, modest but alluring, sweet but experienced.  I approached her, and she looked up at me with the most genuine, kindest, warmest smile I’ve ever seen; she stepped up, took my hand, and walked me around the temple.  It was bliss, even for me who doesn’t go for women, but she told me about how she had been expecting me, preparing all this for me, watching out for my arrival; she told me that she wanted to make sure I was alright.  I told her that I was, and by then, she had led me to the entry of the temple and gently guided me out with the kindest and warmest of farewells.  I left with a smile on my face, both in my mind and in my physical body.

You can just as easily swap out “young man” for “young woman” in the former, and “young maiden” with “young prince” in the latter.  Neither of those rely on gender or sex.  There might be an argument for the dot patterns of the figures: some say that Puer represents an erect phallus and Puella an open vagina, and I can agree with those!  But dot patterns are fickle things, and they can be interpreted as any number of other things, too: Puer can represent a sword and Puella a mirror (a la the original forms of the glyphs for the shield-and-spear of Mars and the handheld-mirror of Venus), or Puer could represent a person with their arms low in a defensive fighting stance and Puella a person standing with their arms out in embrace and welcome.  If you’re troubled by the notion of Puer representing a woman because of its emphasis on erection, don’t forget that the clitoris also swells with blood when its owner gets aroused—a.k.a., an erection.  As for men worrying about being seen as womanly by being associated as the Host (née Puella), don’t forget that some of the greatest role models we have for nontoxic masculinity in the West include Mr. Rogers and Bob Ross, the perfect neighbor who welcomed all to his neighborhood and a stunning artist who found beauty in all scenes and spread it to all who wanted it.

As for the new terms, I can also hear some saying “well, hero has a feminine version, ‘heroine’, and host has a female version, ‘hostess’, these aren’t gender-neutral terms!”  Sure, I suppose, if you want to use the French, Latin, or Greek roots of the words we have, where the language was inherently gendered along grammatical lines.  But, at least in English, we don’t really have gender on words unless we force gender onto those words; “host” suffices just fine for men or women, as does “hero”.  We don’t need to specify “hostess” or “heroine” unless we want to emphasize that someone is hosting and is also a woman, or that someone exceptionally brave and courageous is also a woman; we can use the unmarked forms of the words as being applicable to any (or no) gender just fine.  After all, we call women “director”, “doctor”, “administrator”, and “aviator”, not “directrix”, “ductrix”, “administratrix”, or “aviatrix”, which are the proper feminine versions of those words.  We can drop the gendered endings because they’re not necessary unless we want to absolutely reinforce the notion that someone’s gender must be specified at any and every given opportunity.

Will I start using and enforcing the terms Hero and Host on my blog?  For the sake of communication, probably not.  Chances are I’ll just keep them to myself and refer to them that way in my head, using the more popular and common names that have been in solid use for five centuries or more in public for the sake of communication.  Still, when teaching these figures, I think it’d be useful to have an alternate set of names for them as well, which most texts are already liable to do.  Adding another pair of names to help decouple gender from magic isn’t too hard an effort to make, but the results are worth it, I claim.

On the Arbatel’s Principles of Magic

As I’ve mentioned before, the Arbatel is a funny little text.  Its structure is broken down into seven sets of seven aphorisms, each set called a septenary.  While many of them are simple and to the point (in the elaborate, circumlocutory way only a Renaissance grimoire can do), some of them are actually quite complex, and it feels like the author of the Arbatel sometimes bunched a bunch of separate tiny teachings into one broad aphorism with multiple subdivisions.  The most famous of these are aphorisms III.17 (which lists all the Olympic spirits along with their general natures and summaries) and IV.24 (which lists the three types of secrets along with their seven major kinds, as well as seven biblical verses about secrets and their bounties), but there are a handful of other aphorisms that can be broken down into subsections.  Interestingly, it’s these combined-type aphorisms that give some of the clearest pictures into the mind of the author regarding the function and practice of magic itself, which I thought I’d simplify and flesh out here, along with a handful of other observations.

Why do I bring this up now?  Honestly, because it’s a good reminder to myself of some of the things to focus on for magical practices.  Not everything is explicitly applicable, but it is a good reminder and refresher in how to conceive of certain things when it comes to my spiritual practice, especially as it changes and becomes enhanced over time.  I figure this reminder is timely for many of us, especially as the Sun begins its descent into the southern skies, but also because I found this post languishing in my drafts folder for…about a year now, and I figure it may as well be time to start working on some of those drafts.  This is a good one, and good for us all to remind ourselves what it is we’re doing and why we’re doing it, even if we’re not a Paracelsean or Christian magician.

Before anything and everything else, understand that the Arbatel is fundamentally a Christian occult and esoteric work.  It’s been described by some academics as “the first book of white magic in Germany”; it is fundamentally about using one’s inborn gift for magic (if any), given by God, for the glory of God by the grace of God in accordance with the word of God.  Aphorism II.14 says, perhaps in the most terse way throughout the entire book, “truly you must help your neighbor with the gifts of God, whether they are spiritual or material goods”, which is nothing more than the Great Commandment itself.  However, even though the Arbatel is very much a work in the vein of esoteric or highly-spiritualized Christianity, it can also work in a Deistic or just generally divine context; despite the use of verses of the New Testament and the invocation of Christ from Aphorism II.14, the God of the Arbatel does not need in practice to be the God of the Bible so long as one comports themselves in a more-or-less equitable fashion.  That said, practices and worldviews that diverge heavily from standard Western models of ethics and morality might not be so amenable to adopting the principles from the Arbatel, especially when it comes down to how certain magical practices are split up.  Your mileage, as in many other things, may vary.

So, let us start at the best of all places: the beginning.  The first whole septenary, which aphorism IV.28 exhorts the reader to read and reread constantly in the pursuit of all secrets, is a collection of simple moral imperatives that are taken pretty much entirely from the law of Christ.  We can break these down into roughly two groups of directives, those that focus on religion and God and those that focus on living a proper life in general.

On living a divine life:

  • In all things call upon the name of God.
  • Begin nothing without first invoking God.
  • Live in peace for the honor of God and for the benefit of your neighbor.
  • Live according to the life God gave you.
  • Use the gifts God has given you.
  • Always keep the word of God on your lips and your mind.
  • Trust in God above all else, including yourself.
  • Love God and your neighbor as yourself, and God will love you and keep you safe.
  • Call upon God for help.
  • Glorify and thank God.

On living a proper life in general:

  • Know what can be discussed with others and what can’t; keep secret things secret.
  • Know the value of things and don’t take them for granted, because others will.
  • Live for yourself and for the sake of beauty, wisdom, and truth.
  • Avoid being too sociable or concerned with other people.
  • Jealously guard your time and use it wisely.
  • Listen to and heed good advice.
  • Avoid procrastination.
  • Don’t be frivolous or stupid.
  • Act and speak seriously and focused.
  • Don’t indulge in vice or temptation.
  • Focus on what is spiritual and elevating.
  • Avoid what is mundane and carnal.
  • Study, repeat, and review whatever you learn.
  • Learn a lot about a few things, not a little about a lot of things.
  • Learn how to specialize and focus on what you’re good at.

Seriously, read the whole septenary.  In such seven short paragraphs, the Arbatel offers a pretty solid moral framework for living a fairly upstanding, Christlike life.  Would that more of the world would do so.

Aphorism VI.38 lists seven different “divisions”, or types of magic that can be performed.  Although the introduction to the Arbatel lists nine chapters, with chapters II through IX supposedly being focused on different types of magic, this aphorism seems to breach those divisions into something different.  Rather than being “schools” of magic, which implies more of a tradition with philosophy and history, this is more a list of how magic can be generally effected through different means and techniques.  Arbatel says that the first kind of magic (innate blessing from God) is the best, then the second when done properly, and the third when calling upon Christ by Christians.

  1. Magic that comes directly from God to his creatures, the powers of each being made by God for a specific purpose in their existence.
    • The powers given by God to “creatures of light”, i.e. angels.
    • The powers given by God to “creatures of darkness”, i.e. demons, but used to carry out the will of God for benediction and empowerment of the worthy.
    • The powers given by God to “creatures of darkness”, i.e. demons, but used to carry out the will of God for destruction and deception of the sinful.
  2. Ritual magic.
    • “With visible tools through the visible”, i.e. what we normally expect as ceremonial magic, done strictly in the physical world with physical tools.
    • “With invisible tools through the invisible”, i.e. astral magic or a ceremony performed in one’s astral temple.
    • A mix of techniques and tools, e.g. using energetic constructs as tools in the physical or using a physical focus for astral work.
  3. Magic where secrets and miracles are performed solely through the invocation of divinity.
    • When calling upon the one true God, this becomes “Theophrastic” (referring to the works and teachings of Paracelsus), which is “partly prophetic and philosophical”.
    • When calling upon false gods, this becomes “Mercurialistic” (heathens or pagans, but Peterson says that this refers to alchemists).
  4. Magic performed by invoking the spirits of God and carrying out works through the power of the angels as intermediaries.
    • When calling upon the good spirits of God, this is akin to the magic of the “Baalim” (Peterson suggests “idolators”, but could also be “worthy pre-Christian magicians” generally).
    • When calling upon the evil spirits of God, this is akin to the magic of the “minor gods of the pagans”.
  5. Magic performed through directly interfacing with spirits, either through conjuration, dreams, divination, or other means of communication.
  6. Magic performed through magical creatures (not immortal spirits per se, but elemental beings).
  7. Magic performed without actually invoking or requesting anything, but which is effected through spirits who help of their own free will and accord.

Aphorism IV.25 brings up seven verses of the Bible related the blessings and boons that can be obtained from God through the use of magic.  Essentially, “the true and only way to all secrets is that you return to God”, to wit:

  1. “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33)
  2. “And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares.” (Luke 21:34)
  3. “Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee: he shall never suffer the righteous to be moved.” (Psalms 55:22)
  4. “Thus saith the Lord, thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel; I am the Lord thy God which teacheth thee to profit, which leadeth thee by the way that thou shouldest go.” (Isaiah 48:17)
  5. “I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye.” (Psalms 32:8)
  6. “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” (Matthew 7:11)
  7. “Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.” (John 14:23)

The Arbatel describes in aphorism VI.39 seven preparations the magician should observe when getting ready for a magical operation.  In order:

  1. Study, contemplate, and integrate the teachings, doctrine, and word of God into your life.
  2. Know thyself.
    1. Meditate and contemplate yourself.
    2. Learn what phenomena are internal to yourself and what phenomena are external to yourself.
    3. Learn what the different functions of one’s faculties are and their proper uses.
  3. Always focus on the divine in your life.
    1. With the higher faculties, focus on the grace of God.
    2. With the lower faculties, carry out the works of God.
  4. Only those called to magic are truly magicians, but everyone should learn their proper path in life.
    1. This is the Great Work, one’s True Will, one’s purpose as written in the Book of Life.
    2. Learn what that path is for yourself and live according to it.
    3. If magic is your calling, then you must learn how to carry out the specific types of works called for in your life, and then do them.
  5. Always endeavor to carry out the magician’s true calling: the Great Work.
    1. All magic and all works aided by spirits are to be done for the sake, honor, and glory of God.
    2. By neglecting God, ignoring one’s Great Work, or by carrying out shameful works, one risks their utter destruction.
    3. By carrying out works but without the honor for God, one will only ever carry out minor tasks without accomplishing their Great Work.
  6. Keep silent when possible.
    1. What is given to you spiritually is given to you and you alone.
    2. Secrets of the spirits are as mysteries of the ancients, not to be revealed to the masses.
  7. Always be virtuous and just both in mind and body, for by this all vice and wickedness will flee.

The next aphorism, aphorism VI.40, has another seven statements, which the Arbatel describes as laws for a magician to abide by when he “determineth with himself to do any incorporeal thing either with any exteriour or interiour sense”, i.e. anything magical.  Basically, it offers guidelines for conducting yourself and protecting yourself when interacting with spirits, either in a conjuration or no:

  1. All spirits that appear in conjuration do so only by the grace and order of God.
    1. Spirits only show in conjurations of Hermetic or Solomonic traditions according to the will of God.
    2. Any spirit revealing itself in any context, conjuration or otherwise, does so by the will of God, such as in predestination or in a holy mission.
  2. Whenever spirits are near, pray for a strong, holy spirit, and deliverance from evil.
    1. The Miserere and the Lord’s Prayer are of special and powerful use in this.
    2. Variations on such prayers are found in a number of Solomonic conjuration formats.
  3. Always test the spirits to ensure their truth and to prevent folly or harm.
  4. Do not fall into superstition.
    1. Be intelligent and wise about your works.
    2. Be proper in your actions only as much as they are called for.
    3. Remember that God is the source of all works.
  5. Do not fall into idolatry.
    1. Only God is God.
    2. God is the source of all spirits and all power.
    3. Objects do not have power apart from God.
  6. Do not fall into deceit.
    1. Avoid becoming mislead or misguided.
    2. Always remember that God is the true origin of power and all works.
  7. Always seek the gifts, grace, and glory of God.

Αphorism VI.36 (emphasis mine below) admonishes the reader such that each single magical operation should be “simple”, i.e. focused on one and only one purpose:

Care is to be taken, that experiments be not mixed with experiments; but that every one be onely simple and several: for God and Nature have ordained all things to a certain and appointed end: so that for examples sake, they who perform cures with the most simple herbs and roots, do cure the most happily of all. And in this manner, in Constellations, Words and Characters, Stones, and such like, do lie hid the greatest influences or vertues in deed, which are in stead of a miracle.

So also are words, which being pronounced, do forthwith cause creatures both visible and invisible to yield obedience, aswel creatures of this our world, as of the watry, aëry, subterranean, and Olympick supercelestial and infernal, and also the divine.

Therefore simplicity is chiefly to be studied, and the knowledge of such simples is to be sought for from God; otherwise by no other means or experience they can be found out.

Aphorism VII.44 (emphasis mine below) contains a startlingly modern exhortation to meditation, especially awareness meditation, so as to know what the “inner voice” sounds like especially when compared to the “outer voices”.  This section sounds like something pulled directly from Jason Miller’s blog (like this old post of his).  Beyond that, it also implies knowing what your own will is, and what the manipulations of others are upon your will and thoughts, as Peterson notes in his translation of the Arbatel.

The passage from the common life of man unto a Magical life, is no other but a sleep, from that life; and an awaking to this life; for those things which happen to ignorant and unwise men in their common life, the same things happen to the willing and knowing Magitian.

The Magitian understandeth when the minde doth meditate of himself; he deliberateth, reasoneth, constituteth and determineth what is to be done; he observeth when his cogititions do proceed from a divine separate essence, and he proveth of what order that divine separate essence is.

But the man that is ignorant of Magick, is carried to and fro, as it were in war with his affections; he knoweth not when they issue out of his own minde, or are impressed by the assisting essence; and he knoweth not how to overthrow the counsels of his enemies by the word of God, or to keep himself from the snares and deceits of the tempter.

For being such an incomplete and short work on magic, the Arbatel is actually pretty solid in its advice, even by modern standards, especially with the rise of Christian esoteric traditions in the public sphere (case in point, I can see some strong similarities and outright parallels between Arbatel-style thinking on magic and traditions like Kardeckian spiritism).  Really, most of the Arbatel is filled with this sort of advice, and it’s unwise to simply go through and rewrite every single aphorism or summarize it all simply because it’s already such a simple work.  I’ve only highlighted what I thought was immediately relevant, but the entire work should be reviewed time and again for guidance and support by any magician, especially those with a more devout or religious bent in their work.

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?

Experiencing Eternity in a Moment

It’s been just under a week since I stopped smoking (again).  This time, I’m gonna try to make it for good.  I’ve been smoking more-or-less since college, though before 2012 it was really just in social situations like parties or for magical purposes, much like how I use alcohol.  Since 2012, however, I actually picked it up as a habit, and have basically been smoking habitually since.  I’ve stopped for a few times before, especially before big ceremonies, but at this point, it really does behoove me to kick the habit of smoking.  For me, it’s not the nicotine addiction that kept me going (the nicfits passed in the first three days), but the actual habit: the socialization and quality time with friends, the going out to the porch or down to the garage, the flicking-on of flame and fire, the residual smell of tobacco in the air.  The buzz is nice and all, but it’s really the motion and action of smoking that I enjoy, and without it, I admit, it’s kinda boring.  In a few weeks, that’ll pass, too.

For me, though, the worst thing about quitting smoking by far is that my sense of smell returns in full force.  My smell is, after six-ish years of constant smoking, still my most sensitive physical sense, and it extends into spiritual sense, as well; where some people see auras, I taste and mouthfeel them.  The last time I quit smoking for a sustained duration of time, I didn’t realize how much I wasn’t smelling until I went on a walk around town one early autumn morning for some fresh air.  I was relieved to get back inside, because there were too many smells in the air.  I could smell the individual spices someone was using to make fried chicken three houses away; I could smell the exact brand of carwash soap someone was using a block down the road at the intersection over there; I could smell individual types of pollen and differences between diesel and regular car exhaust and the differences in mold and rot between different kinds of grass or leaf clippings and so much else.  There were too many smells in the air, enough that there was no chance for me to get “fresh air” to clear out my poor beleaguered olfactory senses.

Well, that’s starting to come back again, and now that I know what to expect, I’m more prepared for it this time around, so at the very least I’m not caught off-guard by it, pay more attention to it coming back, and enjoy it this time instead of being accosted by it.  I still would like to smoke, but I guess that’s just habit-whining talking.  Of course, other parts of the habit haven’t gone away just yet: I still carry around a lighter with me, just in case I need a source of fire, and I still drive with my windows down, which, of course, brings in more air and more smells into my car when I drive.  With the windows down, at least in the mornings on the way to the train station when the Sun is barely risen and everything’s still dewy and cool, it’s a rather pleasant experience.

Earlier this week, the pleasance of it all hit me in a different way.  Driving with the windows down on a cool, dewy morning with a light breeze outside, the yellow-golden Sun no higher than my own eyes off to the side, all the trees and fields lush with that late-summer, dense, heavy green, some mildly peppy music from an old playlist playing in my car, my arm out the window feeling the wet air slide past my skin and through my fingers…and the smells.  That vibrant, fresh, sweet, teeth-windy smell of such a morning.  The overwhelming power of olfactory memory, combined with all of that, slammed into me harder than anything, and brought back pretty much every single glorious moment of Joy I’ve had…many of which share this same setting.  While the act of it has decreased with age, driving with wind whipping around me has always been a source of soul-satisfying pleasure; driving in twilight, especially that of the dawn, in cool airs laden with humidity of ocean and river and fresh-fallen rain.  It was like, this one morning driving to work, I got to experience every joyful moment I’ve ever been in any similar situation all at once.

And yet, it went so far beyond that, too.  Something…slipped, it felt like, and instead of it being “I love driving in weather like this”, it became something much grander, more profound.  It went from “I enjoy this” to “I rejoice”; this moment of driving-joy touched every instance, every experience, every moment of Joy I’ve ever had in my life, and brought it all to bear right then, and hard.  It was like time stopped having meaning, and there was no difference between me-driving-to-work-at-29 and me-driving-after-work-at-17 and me-driving-to-my-boyfriends-at-20 and me-moving-into-my-dorm-at-19 and me-leaving-my-graduation-party-at-20 and me-visiting-friends-at-an-anime-convention-at-16 and so many other events and memories and times; it was like they were all happening simultaneously, like they continued to happen.  They weren’t distinct, discrete events in some temporal flow, but like my perspective of them changed, like how you can’t see something around a corner if you walk too far down the block.  It’s still there, object permanence tells us that it is, we just can’t see it anymore—you can still hear the echoes of the sounds it makes, you can still smell it, you can still feel it.  It’s still there, you just can’t see it anymore.

In that moment of unbridled Joy, a prayer of praise bubbled up unbidden through my lips:  “Glory to the Eternal Moment”.

Every moment of joy I had experienced—hell, each and every moment itself—collapsed into a single Moment, a single instance, a singularity of Life that seemed to be both forever, yet completely atemporal.  I guess this is why it came out as “Eternal Moment”.  After all, eternity, commonly understood, refers to an infinitely long period of time, something with no beginning and with no end.  However, in classical philosophy, this is not entirely true: that concept, of something that exists throughout time, is properly called sempiternity.  Eternity refers to something that exists outside time, something that transcends time, while sempiternity is immanent within time (it just so happens to be immanent within all of it).

What I saw was a brief, divine glimpse of my life as how we might see every side of a square while a two-dimensional being might only see one side at a time.  What I saw about my life was not a series of moments that changed from one moment to the next, where one thing happened then the next thing then the next as distinct events, but the whole collection of my life happening—always happening—as a single unit, a single Moment, happening all together like how different things can go on in the same town all at the same time, all occupying the same town.  I felt like I was both immanent in and transcendent of this view of my life, where I was able to experience all this happening all at once where I was (am) there, as well as able to look at it from outside myself like how a person watches a movie, like how we watch our own memories.

And just like that, the profundity, the immensity of that sensation passed away, and there I simply was, driving on my usual route to the train station on a regular weekday morning with the usual music playing in the background.  But, I tell you, such an experience couldn’t not have an effect on me, and the afterglow of it has stuck around ever since.  It’s almost like getting to experience the first time I heard and sang the Hymns of Silence again, except…so different, yet still the same glory.  And, in that awful, awesome, awe-inspiring light of glory shining forth from within and without, a realization: truly, just how inifinitely many events can happen at the same time at different places, likewise infinitely many events can happen outside time together at different times.  They might be distinct, sequential moments, but they are all part of the same Eternal Moment within which all things happen—not will happen, not happened, but do happen.

There’s much placed on the notion of interconnectedness, or Buddhist emptiness (cf. the core teaching of the Heart Sutra), where all things exist because of all other things, so in a sense, there is no independent existence because everything relies on everything else to exist.  Likewise, there’s another kind of interconnectedness, except instead of it being entities, it’s events: all events are tied up together, all events depend on each other, all events happen with and because of each other.  It’s not interbeing, it’s interhappening.  All events of the past have an influence on the present, and without the present, none of those events could have happened; likewise, all events of the future depend on this very moment in time, and without them to happen, neither could the present time.  Just like how I cannot be an author without you being the reader, then I cannot live now if I never lived before, and I cannot live now if I never live in the future.  Time, too, is interconnected just as places and entities are.

I’m not sure why such a realization, such a revelation happened.  Could be my brain adjusting to not having a constant supply of nicotine, plus the power of olfactory memory hitting me in an already good mood in a comfortable, receptive state.  I’m not sure what I did to experience or receive such a thing, if anything at all.  All I know is that it Made Sense, and it’s given me a new way to praise divinity and all its works of the cosmos.

Glory to the Eternal Moment.

 

Soapbox Time: Animal Sacrifice and “Black Magic”

I tried to not put a post out about this again.  I really did, you guys, especially since I was fortunate enough to completely miss the recent Internet debacle-argument about this topic, and moreso since I wrote one post on the one topic and another on the other years ago and was hoping to not have to succumb to this particular urge again.  But, then again, it has been like five years since I wrote those posts, and though quite a lot has happened, my views on these two topics hasn’t particularly changed much except for being refined.

So, the other day, I put out my write-up on PGM XII.201—269, which I’ve entitled the Royal Ring of Abrasax ritual, a consecration of an engraved ring of power that protects the wearer and also ensures their success in magical workings, a sort of forerunner to the Ring of Solomon found in later centuries.  Part of the ceremony calls for the sacrificial offering of seven birds—a pure white goose, three roosters, and three pigeons—but since I’m fully aware that not everyone is willing, trained, or able to perform such a ceremony, I also offered an alternative approach using sacrificial, animal-less cakes made to symbolize the offering of the birds instead.  I think that it’s a wonderful ritual that I’m eager to try at some point in the future, using the cake substitutions instead of bird sacrifices, not because I’m unable or unwilling to use birds here, but because I want to keep things simple for a first honest attempt, along with other personal accommodations for my own circumstances and situations.

Well, shortly after I shared it on one of the social media platforms I use, the ritual got a particular comment that rubbed me the wrong way, which was all of: “Whoa. That’s some serious black magick“, complete with a sadface. Granted, with such a terse comment that gave no justification for saying what it did, I honestly can’t say why that particular person commented that this was “black magic”, but I’m pretty certain I can hone in on it.  And I just…I just can’t, y’all.  I did make a reply to that comment, but since this particular thing set me off sore on two volatile topics at once, I figured if I was gonna get this urge out my system, I may as well get it out in full, in depth, and at length here.

First, let’s get the easy bit out of the way: “black magic” is a ridiculous term that we should have abandoned long ago, right along with “white magic”.  For some, it’s an issue of racism; for others, an issue of not understanding other traditions; for yet others, a shaming mechanism to get people to “evolve” into “higher states of spiritual being” from “backwards” or “primitive” or “dark” places.  Whether for these or other reasons, “black magic” is a deplorable term that’s often used to (a) make someone seem way more spooky than they are (b) market themselves as an edgelord sorcerer a la E.A. Koetting (c) shame the practices, rites, and occulture of others because one is uncomfortable with what they do.  Yes, I know the world is wide and full of awe, things that are both awesome and awful.  At the same time, you generally don’t have the right to judge other practices and cultures, especially those which are foreign to you or those which are from antiquity, unless you can also claim some measure of expertise in the context, development, and reasoning behind those practices of those cultures.

“Black magic” is a phrase that’s often more in line with really spooky witchcraft, devil-working, demon-summoning, cursing, and other outright maleficia in the sense of magic that’s intended to cause harm, pain, suffering, or death to others, generally out of a sense of wrath, greed, malice, or other vice-fueled emotion.  Then again, the term “black magic” is used at best when it “accurately” refers to these things as they are actually done; just as often as not, if not more so, the phrase “black magic” is used to describe any type of magic that one might find transgressive, dangerous, unpalatable, or frightening.  This is ridiculous, to be frank about it; the use of magic in general is transgressive and dangerous, and to anyone who isn’t familiar with anything in magic, it’s all unpalatable and frightening.  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve scared off by saying I conjure angels, much less work with ancient subterranean deities, and those are generally the more appealing and “kinder” spirits we work with (though angels are terrifying as shit, too, and we should never forget why the first thing they say in biblical literature is “be not afraid”, nor should we ever forget our place amongst the gods lest we fall into hubris and suffer the extreme penalties for doing so).  If you call something “black magic” because it’s unpalatable or frightening, it’s because it’s unpalatable or frightening to you.  Others, for whom it’s their bread and butter, may find it normal and natural, even holy and sanctified in its own right.  It’s much like how many Christians think of a variety of non-Christian religions as “evil”, “wicked”, “witchcraft”, or even “black magic”; to call the practices of another that you don’t understand “black magic” is just as farcical; consider Mark Twain’s The War Prayer, which would be an example of maleficia that’s otherwise grounded in normalized, culturally-acceptable religion.  Heck, even if you do understand it, call it what it is: is it a curse, or devil-working, or maleficium?  Call it that, and be clear and accurate about it!  But don’t call it “black magic” and think that by being judgmental you’re preserving your pristine ethics and morals, because you’re not, and you end up making yourself look ridiculous.

So, the Royal Ring of Abrasax ritual got called “black magic”.  Why might that be?  Considering any of the “accurate” meanings of what “black magic” might mean (and I use the term “accurate” very loosely here), we simply don’t find any of that in this ritual.  In fact, we find a pretty standard, pretty pious hymn to the Agathos Daimōn, the “Good Spirit” of Hellenic influence that became a sort of personalized almighty God figure, much as how many modern Christians conceive of God as not just the God of all the cosmos but also their own personal, private God that watches out for them.  We find the preliminary invocation calling upon all the beneficent gods who rule over the world in all its forms and in all its ways, almost in an animist worldview rather than a polytheistic one, so as to establish the authority of the magician in mythic terms with the right to call upon them.  We find the consecration of the ring to be such that the magician “may wear this power in every place, in every time, without being smitten or afflicted, so as to be preserved intact from every danger while I wear this power”, so that “none of the daimones or spirits will or can oppose” them.  If it weren’t for the explicit Egyptian references and comparatively outdated terminology in the ritual, we might be forgiven for thinking this was something from one iteration or another of the Key of Solomon.  I think we can pretty solidly establish that whatever type or field of magic might be referenced by “black magic”, the Royal Ring of Abrasax doesn’t fall into it.

If you want good PGM examples of maleficia, you don’t have to search hard: PDM xiv.675—694 (the Evil Sleep of Seth; much of PDM xiv has similar recipes and poisons for causing “evil sleep” i.e. catalepsy, as well as blindness or death), PGM IV.2622—2707 (the Slander Spell of Selēnē), PGM IV.3255—3274 (Seth’s curse of punishments), PGM VII.396—404 (for silencing, subjecting, and restraining), PGM XII.365—375 (for inflicting the separation of Seth and Osiris or Seth and Isis on two friends or lovers through strife, war, odiousness, and enmity), and PGM CXXIV.1—43 (to inflict illness), to say nothing of all the other restraining and binding spells, as well as all the love spells which verge on domination, subjection, and inflicting pain so as to make someone love the magician.  Then there are also the curse tablets, also known as defixiones or katadesmoi, which we find across the entire western Old World across many, many centuries (more information available at Ancient Esotericism).  Those are all undoubtedly maleficia of various types and kinds, which may or may not have their justifiable uses; the Royal Ring of Abrasax, however, bears nothing in common with these.

The only objectionable part of the Royal Ring of Abrasax ritual, then, must be the use of animal sacrifice, which is seen as a generally distasteful thing amongst…well, let’s be honest: urbanite or suburbanite, middle-class or upper-class, Western-centric practitioners who are separated from the cycle of life and death present in agriculture and animal husbandry as well as social, religious, and magical practices that go back literal millennia across every culture and continent.  On the other hand, I’m a proponent of animal sacrifice, for the ceremonies that call for them, when there’s a recognizable need to incorporate them in those ceremonies, and when performed by someone who is properly capable of carrying out such an act of sacrifice.

Before I continue, I want to mention a bit about the gravity of animal sacrifice.  While a staple of the religious and magical practices of most (not every) culture at some point on Earth, it’s a pretty big deal to sacrifice an animal; more than fruit or grain, raising animals is an investment.  Sure, agricultural goods are investments, too, but the nature of animal sacrifice is different because they’re expensive and, more importantly, have the blood and breath of life in them.  This is what makes them far more potent than offerings of libations, incense, foodstuffs, or other votive gifts, no matter how rare or intricate.  To sacrifice an animal is truly a sacrifice, because you have to come to terms with the cycle of life and death that enabled you to come into the presence of such a sacrifice as well as the process by which you cease its life for the dedication and offering to a divinity, or using its life force in a directed way for magical ends that cannot (whether easily or at all) be accomplished through the use of non-animal means.  It’s not like setting out a cup of barley grains for Hermēs or a plate of pears for Obatala, then tossing it out the next week; the process of animal sacrifice is not to be taken for granted, and neither is the life of the thing to be sacrificed.

Given that, I recognize that there are a variety of reasons one might choose to abstain from animal sacrifice, many of which were brought up in the comments on my original post on this topic from 2012:

  • One takes an egalitarian animist view of the cosmos: everything has a spirit, nothing is spiritually master or owner of another.  In this light, the notion of “dedication” and “sacrifice” become moot, because there is no point in dedicating a sacrifice to an entity that cannot own anything.
  • One takes a strictly pacifist, nonviolent approach in all their works: no harm done to anything as a result of ritual or as part of it.  This may or may not overlap with animal rights activism and vegetarianism/veganism out of concern for the well-being of animals.
  • One has a sincere love and care for the well-being of animal life, whether they are people, pets, or livestock.  This may or may not overlap with animal rights activism and vegetarianism/veganism out of concern for the well-being of animals.
  • The rules and restrictions of one’s own practices and religion forbid it (e.g. Orphism).
  • The gods and spirits one works with insist on or mandate bloodless sacrifice for their worship and works.

One common argument I see against animal sacrifice is that “you wouldn’t sacrifice your pet dog or cat, so why would you sacrifice a chicken or goat?”.  You’re right; I wouldn’t sacrifice my pet, because pets aren’t livestock.  Pets are animals we raise for support, companionship, protection, and entertainment; for all intents and purposes, pets are family, and I wouldn’t sacrifice a member of my family.  Livestock, on the other hand, do not fall into that category.  They are raised for food, for breeding, for their hair, for their eggs; livestock are animals for consumption.  To cross the semantic boundary between pet and livestock is…even I find it distasteful, but I also recall myths and stories where such things were done in times of extreme need or revelation (e.g. Baucis and Philemon about to sacrifice their pet goose when they realized that it was truly Zeus and Hermēs visiting them in their hovel).

Heck, even if one is okay with animal sacrifice, there are plenty more reasons why one might not do it:

  • Lack of skill in safely and, as much as possible, humanely slaughtering an animal
  • Lack of funds for animals
  • Lack of appropriate space or privacy to keep animals, whether on a short- or long-term basis, as well as to conduct the ceremony
  • Lack of means or skill to properly process and butcher the animal for ritual or personal consumption, if applicable to the ceremony
  • Lack of means or space to dispose of any non-sacrificial and non-processable parts
  • Lack of knowledge of the proper ritual procedure for conducting such a sacrifice

That said, farms that raise livestock for personal use are often quite skilled in quickly and safely slaughtering animals, and butchery is a time-honored profession that overlaps significantly with slaughtering animals.  So long as one is willing to get their hands and apron bloodied, it’s not hard to learn these skills at least to a rudimentary, acceptable level, and make accommodations where needed for processing, disposal, and the like.  Most humans eat meat to some extent, and for many people, it’s a necessary part of their diet and culinary culture.  (Some might argue that nobody needs to eat animals and that everyone should be vegan, but it’s not a sustainable practice for many parts of the world, and it negates the fact that the human body does not operate on a one-diet-fits-all approach.)  Many people don’t get any sort of glimpse into the process of raising, slaughtering, or processing animals for consumption nowadays, especially in the Western urban world, but we can’t lose sight of the fact of where our sliced deli meats, Thanksgiving turkeys, grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, and pork chops come from, especially considering how many people thoughtlessly and mindlessly pick up such animal products from their supermarkets and grocery stores to eat them later.  More people in the past were far more familiar with what it takes to process animals from field to plate; heck, if your grandparents are still alive, ask them what it was like to pluck chickens.  It wasn’t that long ago that many people killed animals on their own properties for their own benefit and sustenance in many Western first-world countries, either, and many still do, especially outside the Western first-world sphere.

When it comes to the religious use of animal sacrifice, we need to think about the role religion plays in our lives.  In some cultures, mainly the Greco-Roman ones I’m thinking of, there was no word for “religion” in the sense of a distinct field of human activity; there were words to describe particular modes of worship, but they struggled with a way to define the role of religion in their lives, because they couldn’t separate it out from the other things they did on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis.  More than just religious festivals and rites of passage, religion was intertwined with every breath of every day.  In that sense, if we’re going to kill something that took time and effort to raise, why not honor the gods by it and give them their fair share?  Also consider the Jewish practice of shechita, the kosher-permissible ritual slaughter of animals for consumption, which ties in with the practice of qorban, the acts and regulations of sacrifice permitted within the Temple of the Jews.  Then, bring in the long-standing and vital role that animal sacrifice plays in a variety of African religions, both practiced to this day within Africa as well as in the diaspora in forms such as La Regla de Ocha Lukumí, Candomblé, Vodou, and so forth; in these moments, animal sacrifices are often special occasions, celebrating a particular divinity, festival, or other sincere need, and are often communal celebrations where the meat is shared.  Indeed, in many traditional cultures, it’s more often than not that people got a substantial amount of their meat intake from participating in religious ceremonies.  And, more recently, some reconstructionist and revivalist pagan traditions are reincorporating the practices of animal sacrifice in their modern practices as was documented to have been done before Christianity knocked them off the map.

There are lots of schools of thought on the exact, precise role animal sacrifice plays (and, moreover, ought to play) in religious works, and generally these are limited to at most a handful of practices and traditions that involve them; I wouldn’t use Neoplatonic views on the appropriateness of animal sacrifice in Santería, nor would I try to impose Jewish ritual practices in a Hellenic ceremony.  Likewise, I would find it unconscionable for someone to judge the practices of another to which they don’t belong.  The most that I would personally agree with would be, if you have an issue for one reason or another, do your best to neither participate or benefit from it.  That’s fine!  In that case, you don’t need such practices, and they don’t need you.  If it comes to pass that you do, for some reason, need such practices as requires animal sacrifice, on the other hand, follow their rules, because they’ve been doing this a lot longer than you have and, simply put, still don’t need you to change, judge, or opine on the appropriateness of their ritual process.  There are a variety of legitimate needs and purposes for animal sacrifice; heck, even in a Neoplatonic setting, Porphyry and Iamblichus are in agreement that it has its place, and for some people, it’s a valuable and useful part of worship and theurgy to make use it in the right circumstances (cf. this excellent paper by Eleonora Zeper on the subject).

Then, on the other hand, we have magical practices.  Rather than following the institutions of religion and their practices that are typically carried on for many generations, magical practices may overlap with religion, take on religion as an independent and asocial activity, or have no overlap whatsoever.  Because of the variety of these practices, it’s hard to say anything about them in general besides the fact that they exist: they’re in the PGM, they’re in the Picatrix, they’re in the Key of Solomon, they’re in the Book of St. Cyprian, they’re in pretty much any and every pre-modern tradition and source text we have (and a number of modern ones, too).  Ranging from frogs to falcons, swine to swans, there are endless purposes for a variety of particular animals, some of which require no more than some hair or a feather plucked from them, some which require blood but without killing the animal, which require their whole burning once sacrificed (as in the Royal Ring of Abrasax), some require torture and deforming (such as a variety of frog-based spells in the Book of St. Cyprian), and so forth.  If you’re able and willing to do such acts for the sake of ritual, do it; if not, don’t do it and move on with your life.

There’s also the case of substituting blood sacrifices with bloodless sacrifices.  I give one example of this in the Royal Ring of Abrasax ritual, where instead of sacrificing seven birds, one sacrifices seven specially-made cakes that represent those birds.  Substitution of one ritual process with a similar-enough stand-in is a longstanding practice both ancient and less-ancient; we have records of Egyptian rituals where this was done, we know many folk practices across the world that once relied on animal sacrifices have come to use substitutions instead, and similar substitutions are made in particular traditions of Tibetan and some (but not all) other Vajrayana or Vedic practices, as well.  If done appropriately, done with the right intent, and done in a situation where a bloodless substitute is deemed acceptable by both the magician/priest and the forces they’re working with, then there’s no reason to worry for those who wish to perform a ritual but who are either unable or unwilling to perform the animal sacrifice for it: just use the substitute instead.  However, as Jason Miller points out in his recent post about animal sacrifice and using substitutes, this isn’t always possible: if the use of substitutes is not deemed necessary, whether because there’s a sincere need for a proper animal sacrifice or because the spirits reject bloodless substitutes, then you’re out of luck with substitutes.  I’ve heard stories of at least one modern ATR community that insisted on using bloodless sacrifices for their ceremonies until one of their gods came down in the flesh and demanded it of them, lest he take it from them by force; this type of thing can happen, though hopefully though less extreme measures such as through ceremonial divination and regular check-ins with the spirits you’re working with.

There’s also the possibility of reworking the format and structure of a ritual that calls for animal sacrifice to avoid using it entirely.  Consider that the Royal Ring of Abrasax ritual given in PGM XII.201—269 has a parallel, closely-related consecration ceremony of a phylactery later on in PGM XIII.734—1077, where no animal sacrifice is required (though an offering of sweetbreads is called for along with bread, seasonal flowers, and pine-cones).  It is entirely feasible to use this alternate ritual procedure, or adopt and adapt the methodology of one with the prayers and purposes of the other, to come up with a blend of ritual praxis that can (but not necessarily promised to be) as effective as either.  Additionally, consider that one may try to avoid the use of sacrifices entirely and simply use the prayers of the Royal Ring of Abrasax ritual in an otherwise usual, normally-conducted consecration ritual according to one’s regular process.  Is this always acceptable?  Not necessarily; the more you change the format or requirements or implements of a ritual, the further you get from being able to claim that you “did” the ritual, and the less likely you’ll end up with the expected results.  However, it is possible to come up with a new version of an old ritual, so long as you know what you’re doing.

This is a lot of digital ink to spill on something, but in short?  Animal sacrifice does not equate to “black magic”, and “black magic” is a ridiculous term that shouldn’t be used anyway.  If you find the practice distasteful, consider your own dietary habits, your own cultural heritage, your own biases about such practices, and whether you really think you know better than both age-old religious institutions and the gods and spirits they work with before you voice such opinions.  Don’t disparage the works and methods of others from a place of privilege, naiveté, and badly-conceived ethics; if you absolutely have to be judgmental about something, judge on the purpose and merits of the ritual.

On Want and Work

So much for working on my book over the past month; between ceremony and office work, as well as starting to go to the gym (finally, after far too long), turns out that I didn’t have as much time set aside, even after not working on my blog as much.  Fah.  Ah well, time goes on, and work will continue.  But, of course, writing is just one part of my work; I love to research, to construct rituals, to make connections, and to put them down on paper (physical or electronic).  Writing for this blog, helping others out in figuring out their own ceremonial or magical problems for solutions and workarounds, doing divinations, and writing my book (slowly) are all deeply satisfying for me, because it feels productive and, moreover, makes me feel helpful to others.  There’s also the research aspect of the Work that I love: studying the prayers and songs and chants, planning out ceremonies and rituals down to the individual motions and seconds, and seeing how individual motions and moments connect across a ceremony to produce a single, unified result.  That, too, is valuable and worth our time.

But we don’t call it the Writing, or the Research, or the Lesson, or the Study.  We call it the Work, because without Work, the rest of it doesn’t matter much.  You can study and research and write all you want, but if you never put paper to practice, you don’t get much of anywhere.  And, from time to time, I catch myself slipping back into the comfort of the armchair and realize that, well, one position maintained too long starts to get uncomfortable, and eventually, the whole body becomes sore from sitting down so long, and the only way to stop that soreness is to…well, get out of the chair, stand up, and do some Work.  And yet, once you sit down for too long, it’s easy to forget what, exactly, to do once you stand up again.

One way some astute readers of mine can figure out what sorts of projects I’m doing, if any at all, is to note the rate at which I post stuff, what the focuses and trends are on the things I write about, and how much I say about it.  Looking back over the years, it’s easy to note the slow periods of my writing, and there’s a definite correlation between the things I do and the things I write: if I’m doing a lot, I tend to write a lot, and if I’m not writing a lot, it’s generally because I’m not doing a lot.  It’s not always true, of course, as there are always things I can find to write about (assuming I’m in the mood for writing and have the words to put to paper for it): between managing a geomancy group on Facebook, keeping abreast (sometimes) of conversations on social media, seeing particular issues crop up in people’s lives, and finding neat tidbits to talk about from the PGM or other source texts, there’s plenty to be said in general, but when it comes to an actual impetus for writing, it’s often tied up with having an impetus to Work.

And, lately, I haven’t been Working much.

Sure, I can point to a variety of factors as to why I might not be doing as much of my own experimentation and ritual: my three hours a day commuting, the time I spend on an almost weekly basis working ceremony for the Lukumí/Santería community (and all the study and obligations that go along with that), household upkeep, going to the gym, trying to spend time with friends, staying in the office doing actual work to bring in money while I stay in my manager’s good graces, and so on and so on.  Still, some of this sounds…more like excuses than anything else, because heaven and hell know that I’ve been able to do quite a bit more with as much on my plate as I have now.  And that doesn’t change the fact that, if one were to think that Lukumí is becoming my primary “mode” and Thing now, that I’m not doing much outside of ceremony for myself; sure, I spend time with my orisha, but I’m not really going to them either for much of stuff that I want.

And that’s the crux of it all: I don’t want much.  It’s not that I don’t want much, it’s that I don’t want much.  I don’t know how it is for others, but for me, Want is the drive for Work.  It’s all well and good to practice one’s conjuration skills with the angels or demons of your choice and flavor, but to me, I feel somewhat bad about conjuring them for its own sake without a purpose.  I could practice sigils or candlework, but if it’s just for the fuck of it, how can I really put any intent into it besides half-heartedly, half-assedly saying some prayers and throwing some energy around?  It seems like, without having a goal or purpose or need or…really, a Want to drive my work, everything I could think of doing seems empty and pointless, and so that reduces me to simply studying about things, and even that tends to be scattered and unfocused.

I mean, as far as modes of living go, I lead a pretty good life, and definitely among the most privileged in the world, too.  I’m in good health overall, I’m college-educated, I have a home and a mortgage payment, I have a car of my own that’s paid off, I have clothes and finery aplenty of my own, I’m married to the love of my life, I’m gainfully employed in a stable and well-paying job, I have family and friends and godfamily and colleagues that I care about and who care about me, and I make some good side-cash out of my hobbies of writing, crafting, and occult work.  I’m not shitting on myself by saying this: I’m basically living a middle-class dream, which is rare for US millennials nowadays, and my life is easily the envy of billions of people across the world.  (Many of the lives of my readers, too, as a matter of fact; the fact you have a computer and are educated enough to read my blog attests to having at least a few successes of your own, even if by the grace of luck and birth.)  To put it bluntly, many of my needs are met, as far as the needs of normal human beings go.

But…well, you and I are not normal human beings.  We’re not satisfied merely by being successful in this world, are we?  The usual middle-class dream is definitely nice to live, but that’s not our real dream, is it?  The adventures and situations of sitcoms and television dramas might be enough for some to aspire to, but even I have to admit that they bored me to tears; no, it’s the adventures and mishaps of fantasy and sci-fi novels that would satisfy me.  At heart, I admit that I want to go above and beyond the normal, mundane, humdrum existence of human life, to experience what few to no others experience, see what few to no others see, go where few to no others dream of stepping into, speak what few to no others dare to utter.

It might be said that an ideal life is a buffet: you get your plate, you get what you want from the buffet (if it’s available), you sit back down, you eat, and you continue eating until you’re full.  I suppose that metaphor works well enough for most people, but again, you and I aren’t most people, are we?  For us, we don’t really have a finite stomach that can be filled with a plate or three of simple food you can find at a buffet.  Remember that, etymologically, the word “appetite” comes from Latin “ad + petere”, meaning “to seek out”; for us, life isn’t an appetite we want to simply satisfy, but a longing to seek out, explore, and flush out as much as we can.  Most people are content with a small, finite number of finite types of food, but you and I know better, don’t we?  There is no such thing as a finite set of experiences, a finite set of places, a finite sets of ideas, a finite set of words; all we have is a finite length of time to live, and we better do our damned best to sample shallowly from or dive deeply into whatever we Want out of the infinite patterns and arrangements of Life.

Sure, I can be content with my life; after all, I’m doing pretty well.  But why should I be content with what I have, when I have so much more out there that could be gotten or sampled?  Yes, the things I have are good, but they’re not perfect, and they can always be improved.  Yes, the life I live is sufficient for most people, but it’s only if I shut off the magician-trickster part of my mind that I could stand to consider it “enough”; after all, I have a better idea than “most people” about the depth and breadth and height and width and girth of possible reality and irreality; why be happy confined to this little tiny tower of mine, when there’s a whole world out there to explore?

It’s easy to slip into a mindset of “this is enough” or “I shouldn’t ask for more”; it’s easy to fall into a pattern of commonality, of vulgar banality, by simply accepting things the way they are and making yourself content with it.  True, there are things in the world that we cannot change, for which we must accept them as they are; it’s a good mindset to have where one should think “change this, or change myself”.  However, I don’t think many realize exactly how much there is in the world that we don’t have to simply accept, how much there is in the world that we have the power to change.  And, for the things we cannot necessarily change and which we must accept that happen, there are many things we can change, barter, bargain, or tweak about how it happens.  Yes, the walls of Troy were indeed destined to fall, but the city could have lasted another ten years in safety and prosperity, if only Aphrodite had asked Poseidon who built them.

In any software engineering project, an application isn’t really “finished” once it’s deployed.  Sure, the design may have been implemented to the letter in code and compilation, but just because it’s out being used doesn’t mean that it’s perfect.  There will always be people who have problems using the program, and changes must be made to accommodate them; there will always be bugs lurking in the code, and corrections must be made to eliminate them; there will always be areas of inefficiency in the program, and improvements must be made to optimize them.  So it is with life: no matter how good or complete you might think it is, there are always things to improve on, because there’s always some quirk, some annoyance, some inefficiency, some blindspot that can be found and improved on.  For those who have rough lives, magic is easy to learn and put to practice; for those who have good lives, what few problems they have can still be resolved using magic.  The Work makes the lives of all better, no matter where you start from, so long as you do the Work.  Having dire needs is easy to fire up your Want to fuel your Work, but for those who don’t need much, it’s harder to build that fire of Want.

Summer’s a lovely time for bonfires and to stock up on fuel for the coming, lengthening nights.  So, whether you think you’ll need to keep warm by a rusty trashcan fire or enjoy the light from a gilded fireplace, let’s start gathering while the gathering’s good, eh?

No matter whether you’re a ceremonial magician, neopagan, academic philosopher, or someone who’s just sorta interested in the occult, I’d like all of my readers to try a little exercise with me to figure out what it is we Want out of our pathetic lives.

  1. Get two pieces of paper and a pen (not a pencil, but a pen or some other permanent writing tool).  At the top of one sheet, write “DO”.  At the top of the other sheet, write “HAVE”.
  2. On the “HAVE” sheet, write out all of the things you already currently have, enjoy, and accomplish in your life.  Everything you’re satisfied with, everything you’ve worked to attain and then attained, everything you’re content with, everything you think you should be happy with, write them down, item by item.
  3. On the “DO” sheet, write out all of the things you want to do that you have not yet done, or get that you don’t yet have.  It could be big, it could be small; it could be meaningful, it could be trivial.  It doesn’t matter.  Write them down anyway, so long as it’s not already on the “HAVE” sheet.
  4. Go back to the “HAVE” sheet.  For all the things you already have, branch off each item and add onto it the things that can be improved on.  If you already have a home of your own, what can you do to improve it, or would you instead want a better, nicer home?  If you already have a car, what about trading it in for a better one, or souping it up on your own?  If you already have a job, what about getting a promotion, or moving to a new career, or changing how you get income entirely?  I guarantee you that each and every thing you already have can be improved on in at least some fashion; aim for at least two things to improve on for each and every thing you have, or cross it out entirely if you genuinely cannot think of how to improve on it, if you even have any desire to.
  5. Go back to the “DO” sheet.  For all the things you already want to get, make it more specific; improve on the improvements.  Make the things you want to get more concrete, more actualized, more detailed; think not only of purpose and goal, but of means and method as well.  Be specific.  If you find that something you want to get is already an improvement of something you already have, cross it out.
  6. Once you’re done with the “HAVE” and “DO” sheets, copy all the new items over from the “HAVE” sheet to the “DO” sheet.
  7. Look over each item on the “DO” sheet.  This is the time to judge whether you want to devote the time and energy to something; if you have anything to reconsider about a given item on it, cross it off, but leave the remnant of it there.
  8. Burn the “HAVE” sheet with intent to start off your own fire of Want.
  9. Use the “DO” sheet as your high-living to-do list, and keep it sacred as a special text for you to follow.

It doesn’t matter how good you think your life might be, because your life can always be improved.  The Work isn’t done until your life is done, and I claim with some certainty that we’re not done yet, so why waste our time sitting in an armchair that makes us sore?  Let’s get to Work.