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.

49 Days of Definitions: Part VII, Definition 2

This post is part of a series, “49 Days of Definitions”, discussing and explaining my thoughts and meditations on a set of aphorisms explaining crucial parts of Hermetic philosophy. These aphorisms, collectively titled the “Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius”, lay out the basics of Hermetic philosophy, the place of Man in the Cosmos, and all that stuff. It’s one of the first texts I studied as a Hermetic magician, and definitely what I would consider to be a foundational text. The Definitions consist of 49 short aphorisms broken down into ten sets, each of which is packed with knowledge both subtle and obvious, and each of which can be explained or expounded upon. While I don’t propose to offer the be-all end-all word on these Words, these might afford some people interested in the Definitions some food for thought, one aphorism per day.

Today, let’s discuss the twenty-fifth definition, part VII, number 2 of 5:

And the species of every living (being) is (only) in one part of the world, but the sole species of man (is) at once in heaven, on earth, in the water, and in the air.  Just as the body is marvelously molded in the womb, likewise the soul in the body.

The last definition began the talk of what exactly makes Man Man, what the essential quality of Man is that enables Man to be made distinct from other animals or forms.  Simply, the essence is the essence itself.  There is an idea, a “species” of Man, that all humankind have that enables them to be made in the form of Man.  Individual humans may differ, but they all share that essential Man-ness, much as how all chairs are different but all share an essential chair-ness.  However, one cannot use or see or sense the essence of chairs; one senses and interacts with and sits upon the actual manifestation of chairs.  The idea of something is perfect and immortal, while the manifestation of that idea may be mortal and temporary and corruptible.

This definition talks about “species” again, but this time about other kinds of species aside from just that of Man.  First, “the species of every living being is only in one part of the world, but the sole species of man is at once in heaven, on earth, in the water, and in the air”.  The idea of something created is much like a design for software code: it specifies its behaviors, qualities, and natural environment.  If Man belongs “at once in heaven, on earth, in the water, and in the air”, then we know that there are these four parts of the world; other living creatures belong to only one.  We might assume that fish and other aquatic animals belong to the watery parts of the world, birds and aerial animals to the airy parts of the world, terrestrial and subterranean creatures to the earthy part of the world, and the heavenly beings only to the heavenly parts of the world.  Mankind, however, partakes of all of these natures, and can go anywhere and everywhere.  After all, “man’s possession is the world” (VI.1).

This weird tetraphysical form isn’t necessarily just related to our physical bodies, but also to our ability to sense.  Recall that “man has at once the two natures, the mortal and the immortal” and “only man understands the intelligible and sees the visible, for they are no aliens to him” (VI.1).  We are the only ones that can comprehend both the solely-intelligible and sensible-intelligible; this distinguishes us from other living beings, especially those down here in the material part of the world.  Consider a fish: a fish, living in water, has no awareness of what fire is like, nor what air can do for the body.  In fact, both would kill the fish, since it requires water to live; its awareness is limited to its life and its natural environment.  (Of course, this starts to break down when we consider that some animals can be amphibian or change “modes” in life, but bear with me here.)  Generally, the four types of living creatures can be broken down into four groups, generally by element:

  • Fire: Heavenly beings (angels, gods, planets)
  • Air: Aerial beings (birds, flying insects)
  • Water: Aquatic beings (fish, squid, crabs, swimming animals)
  • Earth: Terrestrial beings (most beasts, livestock, crawling animals)

Cornelius Agrippa gives a similar division (book II, chapter 7):

  • Fire: Walking creatures
  • Air: Flying creatures
  • Water: Swimming creatures
  • Earth: Crawling creatures

It’s interesting to note that “walking creatures” would certainly include humans, linking us to the heavenly creatures in another scheme; this isn’t wholly unfitting, as Man is the closest of the living mortal creatures to the heavenly immortal ones.

The final part of this definition is another comparison between the soul and body with the body and the womb: “just as the body is marvelously molded in the womb, likewise is the soul in the body”.  We’ve seen this before in section VI of the Definitions, but those all dealt with the body leaving the womb (or the soul leaving the body), or the body forgetting the things in the womb (soul forgetting the body’s experiences), and the like.  This definition gives us the missing “first half” of those comparisons: before the body can leave the womb, the body must first be developed in the womb.  Likewise, before the soul can leave the body, the soul must first be developed within the body.  But why?  Because the soul “is a necessary movement adjusted to every kind of body” (II.1), and more importantly, it “keeps up the figure while being within the body” (I.3).  The soul is necessary to allow the body to function as an animated being, something more than an inanimate rock, metal, jewel, or plant.

It’s technically true that, even at birth, the human body has all the muscles it needs to write, sing, run, and the like.  The muscles themselves may not be that strong, but there’s nothing inherently prohibiting these actions starting right from birth (indeed, myths of gods like Hermes have them doing this and more right out of the womb).  But if we consider the motions and actions of the body to be provided by soul, then we might say that the soul is that which needs to develop first before writing, singing, running, or the like can be done.  Without a developed soul that can make use of the entirety of a body, pulling on all its experiences and memories and senses, the body is not being used to its full capacity.  Likewise, the womb is not being used to its full capacity until the fetus inside is fully grown; once the fetus is fully grown and ready to leave, it will, but not before lest the fetus be premature and undeveloped.  Similarly, the soul should leave the body only when it is fully developed, lest it be deprived of the experiences and richness it needs to be perfected.

How can this be done?  Look towards the first part of the definition: while other creatures and other bodies are suited to only one part of the world, Man is suited to all parts: the earthy, the watery, the airy, and the heavenly/fiery.  While a fish is only intended to live and develop in the water, Man is intended to live and develop across all parts of the world.  We need to pull on and develop all the parts of ourselves, the earthy physical body, the watery emotional soul, the airy logical breath, and the fiery heavenly Nous.  It is only in this way can we properly develop the soul, which allows us to get ever closer to bringing our material manifestations of Man into the ideal perfection of our species.

49 Days of Definitions: Part V, Definition 1

This post is part of a series, “49 Days of Definitions”, discussing and explaining my thoughts and meditations on a set of aphorisms explaining crucial parts of Hermetic philosophy.  These aphorisms, collectively titled the “Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius”, lay out the basics of Hermetic philosophy, the place of Man in the Cosmos, and all that stuff.  It’s one of the first texts I studied as a Hermetic magician, and definitely what I would consider to be a foundational text.  The Definitions consist of 49 short aphorisms broken down into ten sets, each of which is packed with knowledge both subtle and obvious, and each of which can be explained or expounded upon.  While I don’t propose to offer the be-all end-all word on these Words, these might afford some people interested in the Definitions some food for thought, one aphorism per day.

Today, let’s discuss the eighteenth definition, part V, number 1 of 3:

(Reasonable) speech is the servant of Nous.  For what Nous wants, speech in turn interprets.  Nous sees everything, and eyes all corporeal (things).  And yet Nous does not become an observer for the eyes, but the eyes for Nous.

The last set of definitions investigated the different types of living beings, and most significant among them is Man.  Man has a body, so Man is a living being.  Further, Man has soul and spirit, enabling Man to grow and move of its own accord.  Because it increases and decreases according to the element of earth within its body, Man can die, so it is mortal and not immortal.  We know that living beings with body, soul, and spirit also have voice, but Man has this in addition to Nous.  This distinction from IV.1 is important, and the clarification between living beings with voice with Nous and living beings with voice without Nous now becomes apparent.

For one, “reasonable speech is the servant of Nous”.  Thus, Nous as God or Nous as possessed by Man enables any living being or entity or non-entity to be reasonable; Man is, after all, a reasonable entity (I.1, IV.1).  Now we find that speech, which is made possible by voice that animals and Man possess, serves Nous, and above all reasonable speech.  This is made a little more clear in the Greek word logos, meaning many things, but among them speech, reason, discourse, order, logic, science, knowing, and many other things.  The concept of logos is pretty complex and has been used in many traditions and philosophies, but suffice to say that here it refers to the power of languge and utterance.

However, not all utterance is reasonable.  Animals, for instance, utter many different kinds of sounds and patterns of sounds in a way that modern biologists and zoologists would classify as language, but this is a pretty far cry from how humans communicate using their utterances.  We can get by using grunts and cries, it’s true, but that’s still a marked change from the language used to describe, say, Hermetic philosophy.  It’s by this sort of high-minded “reasonable” speech that Man makes use of when he uses Nous, since reasonable speech serves Nous and not Man.  This also implies that all reasonable speech, used everywhere and by any human, also serves Nous; after all, Nous is with each member and entity belong to Man, which connects all of us to the Nous itself that is God.

Continuing the definition, this makes sense: “what Nous wants, speech in turn interprets”.  Thus, whatever Nous desires to happen, this is made clear and reasonable (and, thus, intelligible in a way unique to humanity) by the power of reasonable speech, by the power of logos.  The idea of reasonable speech, or what we might call the Word, is what enables Nous to act.  Consider the first words of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”.  Word and Mind go together very tightly.  The relationship between Nous and Logos was clarified by Hermes in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter 9, part 1):

Now sense and thought do seem to differ, in that the former has to do with matter, the latter has to do with substance. But unto me both seem to be at-one and not to differ—in men I mean. In other lives sense is at-oned with nature, but in men thought. 

Now mind doth differ just as much from thought as God doth from divinity. For that divinity by God doth come to be, and by mind thought, the sister of the word (logos) and instruments of one another. For neither doth the word (logos) find utterance without thought, nor is thought manifested without word.

When “speech in turn interprets” what Nous desires, this allows Nous to make its intelligibility known to those who can reason.  Man reasons due to the presence of Nous within Man.  Thus, Nous can communicate with Man through Logos, and vice versa.  However, this is often done by means of Logos itself, since Nous contacting Nous doesn’t really work, since Nous is Nous.  Reasonable speech is what bridges the gap between intelligibility and sensibility; it’s what allows things from outside heaven without body to communicate and interact with things inside heaven with body.  All things are part of God, but it’s impossible to sense what is not sensible.  Speech allows such a thing to happen; speech is an important intrinsic mechanic that allows the different parts of God to work in harmony with each other.  Voice is a sensible thing; reason is an intelligible thing.  Combining both to obtain reasonable speech allows both to interact, and allows the intelligible to become sensible.

The next part of the definition essentially makes a comparison to drive this point home using sight and observation.  Consider that “Nous sees everything”; after all, “God is Nous” (I.4), “nothing is uninhabited by God” (III.1), and “every move of soul is perceived by Nous” (II.2).  Thus, all things both in heaven and out of heaven are seen by Nous, or God.  However, the eyes that living beings have can only see that which is “corporeal”, i.e. sensible since sensible things possess bodies of some sort.  The set of observable things is greater than and includes the set of visible things; for instance, Nous can perceive soul, which is invisible (I.3), but living beings cannot see soul.  This is made extra powerful by the fact that light is what reveals visible things (II.6), and the eyes react to light in order to witness or observe a visible thing; however, being visible requires something to be sensible, and that which is only intelligible cannot be seen, i.e. the bodiless and intelligible God.  Thus, in this sense, Nooic observation is to corporeal sight what reasonable speech is to utterance: that which involves Nous is broader and more transcendent, and that which serves to aid Nous.

However, the definition clarifies that “Nous does not become an observer for the eyes, but the eyes for Nous”.  What this means is that Nous does not exist to observe for the sake of the eyes; Nous and observation are not the result of seeing.  Intead, seeing is a means by which the Nous observes.  The eyes serve the Nous; the Nous does not serve the eyes.  In another sense, this also means that the eyes cannot see the Nous or by means of the Nous, but the Nous can see both eyes and by the means of the eyes.  Hermes said as much in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter 7, part 2):

No ear can hear Him, nor can eye see Him, nor tongue speak of Him, but [only] mind and heart.

What this means for speech is that Nous uses speech to further the aims and desires of the Nous; Nous can use logos itself, the concept behind speech, as well speak as any word.  However, those who speak cannot do the same to Nous: those who speak cannot speak Nous for their own benefit, nor can they directly speak of the Nous, nor can they speak pure logos itself, though it manifests in reasonable speech.  Reasonable speech comes about as a result of Nous, but Nous does not come about as a result of reasonable speech, just as observation of the intelligible does not come around from sight of the visible alone.  Consider what Hermes taught Asclepius regarding his own words in the Corpus (chapter 9, part 10):

My word (logos) doth go before [thee] to the truth. But mighty is the mind, and when it hath been led by word up to a certain point, it hath the power to come before [thee] to the truth.  And having thought o’er all these things, and found them consonant with those which have already been translated by the reason, it hath [e’en now] believed, and found its rest in that Fair Faith.  To those, then, who by God[’s good aid] do understand the things that have been said [by us] above, they’re credible; but unto those who understand them not, incredible.

There, Hermes has used his reasonable speech of logos to serve the Nous in bringing Asclepius forward to it.  However, the mind (Nous) is more powerful than words, and words serve the mind only up until a certain point, when the mind is able to act and work directly instead of by servants or media such as words.  The Nous works in the world by means of Logos, just as a wealthy landowner uses his servants to work outside or even within his land; however, only when the servants bring something to his attention and presence directly does the landowner work directly.  This requires the servants to work for the landowner, and not vice versa; the landowner speaks, and things are done.  Thus, the Nous employs Logos, and things are accomplished.  Hermes was indeed employed by the Nous, through the guide of Poemander, to spread the word to guide others to Nous (chapter 1, part 27):

Why shouldst thou then delay? Must it not be, since thou hast all received, that thou shouldst to the worthy point the way, in order that through thee the race of mortal kind may by [thy] God be saved?

The comparison with sight and eyes in this definition brings up another interesting thought to my mind here.  With sight, we have two components: the act of seeing (sight) and the faculty of seeing (the eye).  The two are very tightly coupled; the eye sees, because that’s what the eye does.  In a sense, the eye is embodied sight.  Similarly, there’s Nous and Logos, the Mind and Word; the Mind makes Word because that’s what the Mind does.  Thus, the Mind is a kind of divine Word, since it is what it does.  This brings to mind the phrase “I am what I am” from Exodus, the reply of God given to Moses when asked for the divine name: “EHYEH ASHER EHYEH” (aleph-heh-yod-heh aleph-shin-resh aleph-heh-yod-heh).  However, if we change the “Y” in the second “EHYEH” from a yod to a vav, we get “EHYEH ASHER EHWEH”.  As it turns out, there’s a grammatical relationship between “EHWEH” (aleph-heh-vav-heh) and “YAHWEH” (yod-heh-vav-heh), the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable name of God in the Torah; this holy name has a meaning something similar to “I make to be” or “I create”.  Thus, the hypothetical name “EHYEH ASHER EHWEH” can be interpreted as “I am what I do” (using the obscure Hebraic root heh-vav-heh).  Thus, the One who is what it is is also what it does; this is both faculty and act at once.  The Mind spoke the Word in the beginning to create, and since the faculty and the act are one because God is what God does, the Mind is the Word.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Animal Sacrifice: a bloody mess of a topic

Based on the comments from Ancient Cans of Whoop-Ass, I figured I may as well compile some of my own thoughts on the topic of animal sacrifice.  The topic came up because, in the process of bringing up a ritual from the PGM, it was noted that the use of the blood and head of a donkey (an animal sacred to Set-Typhon) or any animal was abhorrent to some people.  I have my own points of view on the matter, as surely we all do, and it’s definitely a touchy or messy subject for a lot of us to think clearly about.  To be blunt, I don’t have an issue with it.  For some people and paths, it’s not only a good thing to do, it’s the right thing to do.  For others, it’s the wrong thing to do and can cause more harm.  Like everything else, there’s no clear-cut answer, and the acceptability of animal sacrifice depends on the context in which it occurs.

First, let’s clear up a few terms:

  • Sacrifice is the ritual offering of something to a god or spirit.  It literally means “to make holy”, and refers to the dedication of some act, object, or intent to a higher purpose.  A material object, a physical action, an emotion, invention, or discovery of thought or resource can all be sacrificed and made holy to a god.
  • Animal sacrifice, then, is the ritual offering of an animal to a god or spirit.  This can take two forms: giving a live animal to a god, such as the Asclepian snakes living in the temples to Asclepius back in the day, or killing an animal to dedicate its life and blood to the god.  For the purposes of this post, I’ll be referring to the latter method of killing an animal.
  • Animal sacrifice is not the same thing as the use of animals, animal parts, or animal life in magical rituals, especially “low magic” that doesn’t involve the gods but relies on the animal’s own occult virtues.  Of course, things always get hairy when discussing the differences between magic and religion, but I hope the difference is clear.

There’s a lot of drama between people who support animal sacrifice and those who don’t, and even those who aren’t against animal sacrifice and don’t properly belong in either group (but for some reason or another often get thrown into one side by the other).  Emotions run high and a lot of assumptions remain hidden, and it’s often these basic philosophical ideas and assumptions that are at the real root of the matter.  Here’s a rough sketch of the Hermetic and Western philosophical background I’m coming from:

  • All things descend from the divine Source.  This means that humans, animals, plants, metals, stones, angels, demons, and everything from the lowest hell to the highest heaven share the same spark of holiness.  This does not, however, mean that all things are on the same level of holiness or that all things share equally in consciousness or power.
  • Animals have spirit and intelligence and consciousness; nobody’s debating that.  What would the point of animal sacrifice be of something without spirit, intelligence, or consciousness?
  • Animals are connected into the cosmos as humans are; we all have our part to play.  Just as animals fight and kill other animals for their survival and betterment, humans fight and kill animals for their survival and betterment.  Let’s assume that we’re not talking about intra-species killing, e.g. wolves against wolves or humans against humans.
  • Even though (individual?) animals have spirit and intelligence and consciousness, they’re on the same level of spirit, intelligence, or consciousness as humans.  In terms of activity, spirituality, and food acquisition, humans are higher on the food chain and have been for most of our evolution.  We don’t interact with them in the same ways as humans, even humans whose languages and cultures are utterly different from our own.  Likewise, some animals treat predators on their level in similar ways or fight them for dominance, and predators treat prey further below them as, well, prey.
  • Humans are higher than animals, and as humans made in the image of God and act as an intermediary between the physical and metaphysical realms, we are entrusted with the care and use of the world and things around us in the cosmos.  If something works for us in a way that brings us what we desire, we’re enabled to go ahead and do it according to our means and power, which we should be increasing anyway.
  • Just as humans are higher than animals, the gods are higher than humans; so, the gods will make use of humans for their power just as humans will animals.  However, because we’re higher than animals and operate in different ways, this means that the gods have the option to make use of us in different ways than animals, and may appreciate the slaughtering of animals and not that of humans, accepting the worship and service of humans instead.

Am I saying that animal sacrifice is kick-ass awesome and everyone should get in on it?  No.  For one, there are other means to achieve the same ends that animal sacrifice obtains; it’s far from the only method of raising energy or empowering devotional or magical acts, though it’s certainly a powerful one.  For two, not all sacrifices have to be made with animal life, and sometimes an offering of plant life or symbols of prosperity will suffice.  Not everyone should kill, or even can; Pythagoreans were prohibited from killing or eating animals, and Buddhist and Jain monks are prevented from killing any living thing, though other devotees may make use of killing in trantric paths.  People involved in African diasporic religions make frequent use of the ritual killing of animals, and those involved with seriously reconstructing any number of ancient pagan paths from the Hellenic to Nordic to Semitic will eventually have to come to terms with the fact that the gods accepted, approved, and desired animal sacrifice.  This has happened across almost every culture, especially Indo-European and Abrahamic ones, for thousands of years, and for thousands of years into prehistory before or as cultures were coming together into civilizations.

Not all gods will want this to happen: some gods have begun to accept other sacrifices despite being accustomed to animal sacrifices over the centuries, while others are too young to ever have developed a taste for it.  However, to assume that all gods in every path and pantheon have “evolved” with humanity (a gross misuse of the term) to live without animal sacrifice is both short-sighted and hubristic.  Evolution does not suggest improvement, but only change and adaptation; the gods, being eternal and (usually) immortal, don’t have to evolve if they don’t want to., and the gods don’t have to change along with humanity if they don’t want to.  If anything, humans are changing faster and more than the gods ever will, and it may very well be that humans are changing in ways disagreeable to the gods rather than the gods ever having done disagreeable things.  Further, if you’re assuming anything on the part of the gods, you may have to answer for it if you happen to assume differently than how they actually think, and historically as well as mythologically this has ended poorly.  Consider Abel and Cain: they each made their offerings to the Lord, one of meat and one of grain, and Abel’s offering of meat was accepted while Cain’s wasn’t.  Cain thought that sucked, and so killed Abel; he assumed that this would be okay, and it wasn’t.  Consider, also, the siblings Antigone and Creon: Antigone wanted to obey the gods’ injunction to bury their deceased brother who had unfortunately committed treason, while king Creon threatened death against anyone who would dare it.  Antigone buried their brother; Creon had her buried alive as punishment.  Since it was the will of the gods that their brother should be buried as due to him, and since Creon hubristically decided otherwise, Creon got smacked and hard by the gods.

As for respecting animals and their spirits, that’s to go without saying.  Being the caretakers of the cosmos, born into it both as natives and visitors from the Source, we can’t just say “take it, rape it, it’s yours”.  That’s ascribing too much to ourselves and is dangerously prideful, and denies the holiness of everything else in the cosmos.  Animals are to be respected, honored, and cherished, but (based on the above cosmological framework), not put on the same level as humans.  I’m not saying you should grab any old cat or dog or raccoon off the roads, break their backs or skin them alive or douse them in lighter fluid, and drop them whole onto an altar; that’s disrespectful and needlessly painful.  When an animal sacrifice is to be done, it should be done to respect the humanity of the officiant, the divinity of the divine, and the holiness of the animal sacrificed/made sacred.  This is how we developed ritual acts of killing to begin with, done in prescribed ways to provide as clean and painless a death to the animal as needed, from which we have laws of kosher and halal butchery (which are known for being among the most sanitary, efficient, and respectful ways to kill animals for food and sacrifice).  Even then, some gods and practices require extreme forms of sacrifice, such as the tearing apart of goats in the Dionysian mysteries or the aspersion of blood in ancient Judaism, but these are also acceptable in their own contexts, because they’re allowed and supported by the gods that ask for them.*

Nothing’s stopping you or anyone else from respecting animals as humanity’s equals, if that’s your philosophy or cosmology, but by doing so in the Western framework you may be elevating animals to a position they may not have earned or lowering humans to a level they may be beyond.  Some (many?) humans are indeed on or below the level of animals, and some animals are indeed on or above the level of humans; these entities are exceptions to the rule, and again have their own context to consider.  Just as one wouldn’t be casting pearls before swine, one may want to think twice before sacrificing a certain animal that’s exhibited far and beyond normal animal qualities.

One more thing: karma.  Though a useful concept in the contexts in which it arose (with different definitions for different dharmic paths), karma doesn’t have a place in Western traditions.  It’s an import, it doesn’t make sense when used by a lot of poorly-understanding laypeople, and it doesn’t quite fit with a lot of other things even when well-understood.  In Western philosophies and paths, we often have the notion of a divine, infinite Source, and when you throw anything infinite into the mix, all notions of balance and zero-sum games get thrown out of the window.  The physical universe and metaphysical cosmos is not limited, in the Western framework in which I operate, and so there is no need for ancient actions to have to have effects except for those allowed by those involved, though it may be difficult to escape them.  When you have infinity on your side, you really can do anything, and it’s hinted at that devas, bodhisattvas, and buddhas in dharmic paths are enabled to act without generating karma.  Even in Vedic Hinduism in which the notion of karma first arose, there were common thoughts of karma being dispensed by the gods themselves which could be placated into dealing less punishment or more blessings.  Hinduism, too, also allows and supports animal sacrifice in some contexts (primarily those worshipping Shakti, the divine feminine), and if they with their notions of karma can get by with it, I don’t see why others can’t.  Saying that animal sacrifice is “karmically bad” or “continuing suffering” is short-sighted; this ignores the past karma of the animal that led it there to be sacrificed, whether its karma warranted a more severe or painful death than the one given to it, whether the combined karma of animal and officiant was overall a good or bad thing, whether the animal sacrifice was an expedient means to solve bigger problems, and so forth.  Again, generalized and myopic use of misunderstood terms won’t help here.

You’ll notice that I keep using the word “context”, and it’s important you recognize what I mean when I use it.  I refer to the culture in which something occurs, the reasons and circumstances for something, and the people and entities involved with it.  Cultural appropriation is the act of taking something from one context and using it in a radically different one, dogmatic purity is the restriction of allowing any externally-derived innovation in a certain context, and so forth.  When I say “context”, I’m really saying “it depends”, because a lot depends on how, when, where, why, for what, and by whom something occurs.  Calling something “barbaric” or “abhorrent” disregards the notion of context, and is a kind of appropriation and judgment that often cannot be reasonably or reliably made from outside the relevant context; it’s a different story if you’re operating within that context.  Blanket statements cannot be made except at the highest, most general level, and at that level you can’t get much more specific than “it is” or “shit happens”; when you get any more specific or specialized than the cosmos taken as a complete whole in which everything occurs as it should, you’re going to run into different paths with different notions of acceptability.  Just as I wouldn’t use Solomonic conjurations to get the Greek gods to do something for me, so too would I not use animal sacrifice for a god that didn’t want it.  Different people have different views of divinity, and have different relationships with their gods than you may have; telling them that their practices are wrong when they’ve got it on good authority (assumingly) that they’re right is, simply, disrespectful and ignorant of their context.

As for my own practice, I do not make use of animal sacrifice, but am generally not against it.  I offer praise, wine, food, candles, incense, and the occasional flowers to the gods and spirits I work with, and while sufficient, I also don’t work with gods or spirits that I know demand animal or blood sacrifices (that I know of).  The god Hermes, with whom I’m starting a much closer relationship than I had expected to, has said that he would appreciate the sacrifice of small birds or larger animals, but understands that I am not in a place or position to do so; this may change when I move out of an apartment into a place with my own land and yard, and when I learn the proper procedures and handling involved.  The use of animal blood, organs, or other body parts are well-attested in Solomonic, ceremonial, and Western magic generally, and are not always some “witch’s code” or blind that swapped out names of herbs or bodily fluids with exotic names of animal parts.  Sometimes substitutions can be made, like this nasty mixture I’m setting for consecrating the Solomonic black-handled knife to stand in for the blood of a black cat; sometimes, the use of animal fluids, parts, or life cannot be substituted without a much greater cost.

I understand that even a position as mild(?) as mine will get some people riled up, angry, vitriolic, and downright spiteful of my very existence.  Some people, like militant vegans or extreme PETA activists, will vociferously argue against the use of any animal life for personal gain in any way; that’s okay, though I find their arguments against killing animals in any case to be more emotionally than logically or philosophically driven, not to mention ideologically oppressive.  Honestly, if a topic like animal sacrifice is all it takes to set someone off and think less of me, I’m sure they’d find more unsavory and disagreeable things to hate me over.  If you’d like to discuss this further, privately or publicly in the comments, feel free to, but keep it respectful, reasonable, and rational.

*  Remind me to work out my own notion of holiness and fix Socrates’ issues with piety later.