You’re Probably Not Chosen, and That’s Okay

Last night on Twitter, I found a tweet thread that I thoroughly agreed with pertaining to the notion of spirit animals and how it’s culturally appropriative to use the term, and outright disrespectful when people say “unicorns are my spirit animal” or “whiskey is my spirit animal”:

I’ll let you read the whole thread, written by an Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) person with actual claim and propriety to speak on the matter, because the thread is a little long and it deserves reading.

It’s a sensitive topic for many people, but she makes fine points all around, and I can’t really disagree with them in any reasonable sense.  There are good comparisons between how people in popular occulture and New Age scenes use the word “spirit animal” with the word “shaman”, which originally applied only to Central Asian steppe-based Mongolian or Turkic tribal religions; unless you’re practicing a form of Tengrism, technically speaking, you’re not a shaman or working a shamanic path.  However, the term was adopted and adapted by anthropologists (who, I might add, typically are from Western Europe and take on a subtly colonialist-universalist view of every culture that isn’t theirs) to be applied across the board to countless religions, traditions, and cultures far removed in time, space, and language from those Central Asian priests based on perceived or superficial similarities.  In general, the word “shaman” is used wherever “priest” would normally be used, except for cultures that were deemed more “primitive” or “undeveloped” as, say, something more established, formalized, structured, or civilized as in the West.  As Kalagni shared in a related discussion on my Facebook page,

When (white) people go on about how there are analogs in other cultures, and that “spirit animal” is generic, they really mess up their history. Yes, “spirit animal” is generic and in English, but the term was coined in English to refer to Native beliefs as part of their persecution and eradication. Also, as part of another side rant, if wypipo also want to harp on about how “we have culture”, then use the goddamn names from your our culture then and prove it.  Then again, white (North American) culture did steal a lot from Native folks…so it’s part of their culture in that way.

I’d say shaman is a better case, because it’s not an English word, so despite being applied to “shamanic” traditions everywhere now, you can point and say “This is the language and culture it came from.” People have trouble grokking that with spirit animal because it’s in English, so obviously it’s a white people thing.

And, of course, as is commonly joked-not-joked?

There’s so much that can be said about this topic, and how the line is hazy or non-existent between cultural appropriation and syncretism, what the best term to describe something is depending on circumstance and originating context, whether fylgjas or totems or tutelars or paredoi or other concepts are similar enough to be clustered together (typically they aren’t except by people who don’t understand them), and so on.  Honestly, while I thought about writing about this discussion, I really don’t have much to add at the present time besides “don’t do it, and understand what you’re actually describing before you open your mouth and why you should or shouldn’t say it a certain way”; that wouldn’t make for a very exciting blog post, though, would it?  Besides, I’ll let people from the actual originating cultures speak for themselves, and keep my own mouth shut.

But there is a related topic that I can speak about, and don’t think is spoken about enough in Western occulture, New Age, and pagan thought.  People (think they) have spirit animals because they feel that the animal has chosen them; some people have patrons or matrons/patronesses (I’m not sure why “matron” isn’t the default term here, but okay, whatever) in this pantheon or that system, and all around people claim that they are “chosen” by some big-name entity or to do some monumental task.

People go on about how they’ve been chosen by some thing for some thing to do some thing, and…in general?  I don’t buy it as much as others do, or as much as I did.

I suspend my disbelief out of politeness, and see how far it goes for the person in our conversations, but for the vast majority of people and the vast majority of cases, they’re not chosen. And that’s okay!  Not only is it the norm to not be chosen, but in many of these traditions, there’s no notion of “choosing” that the gods or spirits do for us.  Moreover, any such notion is generally a recent Western overlay, much how “shaman” is used for African, Native American, and Central Asian religions despite their differences in context and origin.

I would think that the notion of having a patron in general comes from Catholic influences, where people can have a patron saint, or where a certain profession, area, or trade is associated with a saint who’s related to the thing in some way.  By being involved in that profession or trade, you can petition that saint for special help above and beyond a general-purpose spirit, sure, but you can also do the same by having your own patron saint.  Sometimes this is found based on the day of the year of the calendar of saints you’re born on, sometimes this is based on where you’re born, and sometimes it’s simply something you choose (note that it’s you doing the choosing of the saint, not necessarily the other way around) at baptism or confirmation.  This saint helps intercede for you through their unceasing prayer, not as a mediator of prayer to God but to pray alongside you to better live a better life here and in the hereafter.  This is a pretty common practice in Catholic and close-to-Catholic traditions, and seeing how that undergirds much of the past thousand-ish years of Western European philosophy and religion…well, it’s a common notion, to say the least.

So now we have all these new or newly-reborn traditions and religions, some invented out of whole (old) cloth, some reconstructed from historical and religious research: Hellenism, Heathenry, Kemeticism, Religio Romana, Rodnovery, and so on.  There are also living traditions, such as Vajrayana Buddhism or Shinto, that never died out and are extant, vibrant, and practiced to this day in their own ways.  In each, there are often an abundance of deities, demigods, heroes, saints, spirits, and whatnot.  Okay, good, cool, excellent!  The more, the merrier.  Each has its own cultural background, historical context, linguistic reliances, and so on; sometimes those who are in the know of more than one tradition can syncretize parts of them, sometimes parts of different religions ought to stay separate and far from each other.  Something I can say, however, regarding many of these traditions?  The notion of a spirit “picking” or “choosing” you is…uncommon, if not absent entirely, without having been previously syncretized with Western Christian or modern neopagan (which has some Western Christian elements) ideas.

Let me offer my own experience with something personal to me.  In La Regla de Ocha Lukumí (or Santería, as is commonly known, the Yoruba diasporic religion as it developed in Cuba with Catholic influences), there is a notion that everyone has a patron saint of sorts, an orisha that claims the head of everyone.  You don’t really get a say in who owns your head; that comes out in a special divination reading where humans don’t get to choose, but the orisha themselves choose.  In my case, it came out (surprisingly to me, at the time) that Ogun owns my head; that is a case where I was, in fact, chosen to have that connection with him in a way that other people don’t necessarily have, even if they work with Ogun or have other connections or relationships with him.  However, unlike the orisha who owns my head, it was not chosen for me to be initiated.  Some people are told that, yes, they are meant to initiate as a priest in Santería, that it is indeed an already done deal where they don’t really have much of a say in the matter if they want to continue living their destiny as it was written for them.  That wasn’t the case for me; regardless of what orisha owns my head, it was not chosen for me to initiate, and I was not told that it was necessarily part of my destiny nor that I must initiate.  Instead, I made the choice to initiate; I chose to have that relationship with Ogun, and I chose to have Ogun put on my head.  The fact that I have Ogun on my head doesn’t preclude me from working with other orisha; I still have vows and pacts made with my courts of orisha, and I can and do work with them in ways that others can’t or don’t.  Even then, however, Ogun may have been my patron saint all along in that system, but it was I who made that relationship real and tangible by my own volition and sacrifice.

Now, let me compare the similarities of that to my work with Hermes.  There are lots of things in my life that I do or that I have going on that do, in fact, relate well to Hermes’ domain: linguistics, languages, mathematics, programming, astrology, divination, conjuration, magic, trickery, trade, and on and on.  I work in a building that used to be one of the grandest post offices in the United States, and is designed with caducei and paeans to Hermes-Mercury on the pediments.  For all this, it makes sense for me to work with Hermes, because the things of his influence are already around me.  However, that does not mean I’m chosen by him to work with him, any more than a person who grew up in a family of chefs and bakers is chosen to be a culinarian themselves.  Rather, I chose to establish a shrine to him and offer sacrifices and honor in his name; I chose to have his emblem tattooed on my mortal flesh; I chose to work with him.  He did not chose me, not only because the notion of having a patron deity is unfamiliar and foreign to Hellenism, but because he…well, didn’t.  All these things in my life that are under his influence are things I chose to have in my life; he didn’t send them in my way to lure me to him, but I chose them.  Just so did I choose him, and I continue to choose him.

Another example I can offer is my own connection to what I may have called my “spirit animal” in an earlier time.  (Forgive me for declining to say what it is, but those who know me will already know what it is.)  This is an animal that I indeed feel a connection to, and which seems right and proper for me to work with.  But, that said, I’ll be honest with you: I went out of my way to find this animal, and I formed a connection with it of my own volition.  I can’t say that it’s my totem (because that’s more of a clan/lineage/family thing) or my spirit animal, because I don’t belong to the tradition that came up with the idea or that uses those terms; I rather say that it’s my tutelary animal or that I simply work with that animal spirit, because that’s more accurate and descriptive of what I do.  Moreover, this is a connection that allows for other connections to be formed with other animals as the case may be, sometimes as strongly as my primary tutelar, sometimes not so much, sometimes stronger as the case may be; I work with the spirit on my own connection, and listen to it if it needs something, but this is a spirit that ultimately I chose.  I may have encountered it in a strong way, but it was I who chose to stay with it and not pass over it.

I see that distinction a lot like how an astrological magician might view their own horoscope.  For instance, it was not a matter of my choosing when I was born; I am a Libra by virtue of my birth, and so could be said to have been “chosen” to be born under that sign.  It does not necessarily mean that Venus is my ruling planet, nor does it mean that I have to work with Venus or any of the deities associated with that planetary sphere except by my own volition.  Nor, for that matter, does it mean that I can’t work with other planets, or that I have some past-life connection with Venus, or that I am specifically chosen to do Venerial things in the world above and beyond other people, especially other Venus-ruled people (whether or not they’re Libras, Tauruses, Pisces, or another sign entirely).  I know of some people who live lives that would seem to run directly counter to their zodiac sign or almuten, often to great effect and purpose, but that’s because they often chose that path in life and worked for it.

Some people have certain entities that they work with closely and intimately, sometimes to enhance their own works; a photographer, for instance, could petition Saint Veronica because she holds special significance for photography and photographers generally.  Other times, they work with a certain entity because it enhances their own personal development, like a mask they can adopt to adapt themselves to the traits and characteristics of that entity that, over time, they can better facilitate and embody, like someone working with the spirit of the Wolf to be stronger, more cunning, braver, or more ruthless.  We can easily and properly say that we work with these spirits or entities because we’re already involved in their sphere, but that’s not because they came to us and made us work in their sphere.  Consider: at a banquet where you’re presented with multiple dishes, you don’t say that the first dish that was presented with you is what “chose” you, or that whatever dish you most like “chose” you.  You choose what you want to eat or pass over, and you choose what you want to take home and try to recreate in your own kitchen to make your life tastier.

In some cases, yes, someone is, in fact, chosen by some entity to do some sort of work.  The more I see, however, someone being chosen like this is actually kinda uncommon; more people who claim that they’re chosen aren’t, and are rather describing something they chose of their own volition as being out of their hands.  I consider this a kind of false modesty, ascribing one’s own choices in something to the work of the gods, and I…it twangs my sensibilities.  Some people might ascribe such choices to fate or predestination, which is not only a kind of false modesty but also handwaving away their own choices to something that can’t be proved.  Rather, people may feel a draw to some practice or divinity, but be honest: is that because they’re actually being lured to it by the divinity, or are they acting on an impulse and drive that they themselves have and want to explore because it’s actually something that clicks with them?  Are they told that they need to work with some deity or entity, or are they doing so because the person has their own needs given the themes and motifs in their lives that that particular entity can help with more than others?  Are they chosen to work with that deity, or do they chose to work with that deity?

There is no harm in saying that you chose a connection, relationship, or patronage with some spiritual entity.  While it may be an honor to have been chosen, it is also exceedingly honorable to willingly make that choice yourself, if not even more honorable, because it’s you who’s forming the connection, doing the work, making the sacrifices, and going above and beyond the normal level of devotion one might have into something truly special, rare, and powerful.  To do something of one’s own free will and unbidden by the gods that pleases them is almost always a sweeter sacrifice than any fumigation or libation or festival than they demand.  There’s no shame in saying that you chose this animal, this saint, this deity as your patron; if you’re earnest about it, and actually dedicate (literally giving over) yourself, I would say that you’re doing both you, the spirit themselves, and the world an honor by it.

So be honest with yourself.  Did the spirit you claim chose you actually choose you, or did you choose the spirit and choose to form that relationship with them?

I know this can press some people’s buttons, and this can easily lead to a topic of debate that borders on insult and aggravation.  Plus, there are definitely problems of destiny, fate, free will, and the subtle machinations of spirits that can influence what we “choose”, but in our limited human consciousness, we have to take responsibility as much as we can for our actions.  By all means, dear reader, share your thoughts and experiences in the comments, but please be respectful towards others if you do so.

Data, Information, Knowledge

As an initiate in La Regla de Ocha Lukumi (a.k.a. Santeria), I’m trying to wrap my head around all the different things we do and the proper way to do them.  The most straightforward method for this is to simply show up to ceremonies, watch what’s done, listen to what’s said or sung, and follow along; in this manner, I learn the things we do, how to do them, and why we do them.  I learn primarily from my godfather when I’m in a one-on-one situation, and under his watch and guidance more generally when I’m in the broader community.  This is the simplest way for me to learn, but even then, there are so many complications in this alone.  For one, since we’re all learning, there are things my elders will occasionally shift when they find a better or more proper way to do things, so occasionally the things they show or tell me can change over time, which isn’t even bringing up the matter of things that I can’t formally know yet, based on my own experience or initiations within the religion, without which I formally can’t know about certain things without having undergone the mysteries thereof.  For another, there’s the issue of different houses within a lineage with their small variances, and different lineages within the religion with their larger ones, which becomes more evident when we have people from other communities visiting and participating in our ceremonies or vice versa.  There’s also the issue of the “stuff out there”, books and blogs and personal notes of other people in the religion, which really should be vetted thoroughly before even being given an ounce of credence since some of it may not apply to us and some of which may just be outright wrong.

Trying to take all that in and form a useful body of knowledge that I can use is…daunting, to say the least.  Thank God and the gods for my godfather, but even by his own admission, it can be bewildering and confusing even at the best of times.

The situation is a little different in Western occulture, but many of the same issues still apply.  Consider all the grimoires we have available to us nowadays from the medieval and Renaissance Solomonic traditions; heck, just consider the books Gordon over at Rune Soup goes over in in his grimoire course.  Each book, while still belonging more-or-less to the same overall tradition of magical study, has its own variations of practice, theory, and internal logic; some things are clear inventions that start with one grimoire and continue forward form there, while other things that were present from the beginning slowly fade out over time.  Then, based on all those texts, consider our modern (largely derivative) texts and how those vary both in philosophy and praxis due to the time and location wherein they were written.  Then, for an additional twist, throw in everybody’s UPG that they love to make dogmatic Truth far more often than is good for them (or us).  If one were to study magic, then, how would you go about reconciling all these differences?  Between all the details and variations, between all the similarities and commonalities, where does one even begin to make coherence out of the mess?

Let’s talk about how we come across such facts and tidbits in the world we live in.  I like to draw a threefold distinction here: data, information, and knowledge.  All have their role to play, but all are slightly different in terms of delivery and scope:

  • Data is a Latin word literally meaning “things that are given” (where, yes, the singular of data is datum, but I won’t fault you for using data as a singular noun in English).  Literally anything that exists or that is said, witnessed, or perceived is data.  The world is full of data, but much of it doesn’t make sense or even matter.  Literally the entire world, if you’re receptive to it all, is full of data.  Data is, in many ways, boring and meaningless without some sort of structure or methodology to process it by.  If data is a set of raw materials, then the form of raw materials produces information.
  • Information is, in the words of one of my old computer science professors that stuck with me, “data that makes a difference”.  Differences can only be shown when you have some sort of rule, method, structure, or form to pit two pieces of data against each other with.  Information is another Latin derivative meaning “to educate”, but more literally meaning “to give form to”.  Information is a structure of data that literally informs (builds within) a body of knowledge.
  • Knowledge is synthesized, coherent structures of information.  When we “know” something, we have a context to put information within, and we can link it to other bodies of information to see even bigger trends that connect both within and outside a single system of information.

To use an organic metaphor, consider an animal body, which is composed of organs, which are composed of cells, which are composed of chemicals.  Those individual chemicals at the lowest level are data, and they can occur anywhere both within an animal body and outside them.  When arranged in certain structures (such as nucleotides in a strand of DNA), you start to get cells.  When the cells are organized together according to function and purpose, you get organs.  When your organs are put together in a coherent, symbiotic way, you get a complete animal.  Similarly, our minds are composed of different bodies of knowledge, which are themselves composed of structures of information, which are themselves composed of data.  The data are arranged in certain ways to form information; the information are arranged and structured in certain ways to form knowledge; different bodies of knowledge are linked together to form our intelligible minds.

To give a more concrete example, consider a school of students.  At testing time, each test score of each student gives us a single point of data.  We can point and say that we know that Tom’s score is 74 and Abby’s score is 95, which is nice and all, but individual points of data don’t really mean anything.  We can see that 95 is a higher score than 74, but more than that, we can’t say anything unless we start looking at a broader picture, a structure to fit these data points within.  Consider Tom’s trends of scores across the school year; while 74 may not seem like a particularly great score, if we see that that’s his highest score across the entire year, then we can say that Tom is getting better, while Abby might be having an off day with 95 being her lowest score across the whole year.  We can evaluate how well Tom and Abby are doing amongst their peers by taking the average or median scores of their class, or the whole school, to see whether Tom’s situation is common compared to his classmates or whether he’s underperforming.  We can split the types of test up by subject and see whether these scores are indicative of Tom or Abby excelling in certain subjects but not others.  All these methods to analyze data produce information, which is “data that makes a difference”.  Going one step further, we can take how this given school performs on tests to our bodies of information about education methods generally that we might’ve picked up from our own classes, the psychology of children and adults in learning and performing on evaluations, how obscure the material is on the tests compared to both what is commonly known and what is specialized expertise in a given field, and other things that we’re informed of to come up with a general, broad-view understanding of the performance of the school and the context in which it takes place.  From that knowledge, we can make further judgments that we might not be able to make reliably when we’re focused only on one system of information, because we lack sufficient context or experience in order to extrapolate.

We need to understand two things about data, the things we encounter in the world:

  1. Any given data point is a fact on its own terms.  This doesn’t mean that every bit of data we have is true, but it is a fact in and of itself.  Consider this book on Santeria I have before me; it is a fact that the book says such-and-such about a particular orisha.  That is a data point, and it is a fact that the book says so.  Whether such a fact is true depends on other factors that cannot be validated on its own terms; if I have other bits of data that say the opposite of what the book says (such as what other santeros say, what my godfather says, what my own experience has validated, etc.), then I can consider the data in the book to be false, but the book still says it all the same.
  2. Any given data point may or may not be meaningful.  Consider a generator that produces random numbers or words.  No matter how you pick them, any given item from that random set is just that: random.  Nothing in it makes a particularly big difference either way, since any comparison you use between one item and another will be meaningless.  It’s only when data are structured together and compared can a trend be (possibly) produced; the data that produce that trend are meaningful, and the data that don’t may or may not be meaningful, depending on whether it’s an “exception that proves the rule”, a once-off exception that can be explained contextually, or another random result that doesn’t have any bearing one way or another on the trend.  When we talk about people having “bullshit thresholds”, this is what we mean: it’s a boundary above which we can accept data as meaningful, and below which we can consider it to be no better than random noise.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to amass a large set of data, but it’s correlating that data into information that’s difficult.  In order to produce information, we need some sort of guidance to arrange, compare, and distinguish the data we have available to us.  For this, we use models, structures of data, sets of axioms or rules, and reliable methods of comparisons.  While this sounds numerical and mathematical, it doesn’t necessarily have to be.  For me in my education in Santeria, I have the religious, philosophical, and practical models imparted to my godfather which he’s expanded on in his own way, which he has passed down onto me.  For instance, if a particular santero says X and Y (two pieces of data), and the model my godfather has established allows for X and not Y, then I can accept X into my information model but not Y.  By understanding the model, I can often see why X is allowed and not Y, and if I can’t understand the model’s rules well enough to account for those, then there’s something my godfather hasn’t yet told me or there’s some other limitation that hasn’t yet been conceived of yet in the model, whether it’s arbitrary or not.  For a run-of-the-mill Solomonic magician, those models might be produced by a combination of analyzing the commonalities between grimoires over the centuries and the accounts of their uses from other magicians, forming a set of rules of “here’s what’s essential, here’s the expected results, here’s what can be added to good effect, here’s what can be removed without harming the overall results, etc.”; based on this understanding of the grimoires, one can perform a ritual and see how the methods of the ritual impacted the result, what the result was, whether the result can be trusted, and so forth.

Knowledge is a little more difficult to sift through, because it’s more abstract than a single structure of information.  Information structures, moreover, tend to be coherent and consistent within themselves; they each have their own sets of rules that permit some data but not others.  However, when you have more than one structure of information, it can happen that they each have a set of rules that can conflict with other systems of information.  One example I can pick out in my own experience is the role of the planets in my life.  In the system of information I have regarding astrology and Western magic, the planets (and the objects of the celestial world generally) are paramount in effecting certain things in this world.  In Santeria, on the other hand, so far as I can discern (and that’s a big disclaimer!), there’s no such corollary to that; I haven’t yet found any astrological component to the religion, besides some associations of the Sun and the Moon and a few star-based images, but there’s no role for the planets, aspects, houses, signs, and so forth.  Astrology, simply put, doesn’t matter or even have a place in Santeria.  So, then, if in one system of information I can say that Mercury retrograde is a poor time to do ritual, but in another it’s a moot point because “wtf even is Mercury or a retrograde”, what should I do?  This is an example of a conflict between different systems of information within an overall broader body of knowledge.

According to Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, you can have a system of understanding based on rules that can be either consistent (anything that is provable by the system is true) or complete (anything that is true is provable by the system), but not both.  If you’re consistent, then you must be incomplete, where whatever you can prove is true, but there are true things that cannot be proved by the system itself.  If, on the other hand, you’re complete, then you must therefore be inconsistent, where the system can prove everything that is true, but will also necessarily prove things that are not true.  I find this a useful model for understanding how things work.  Any given system of information, for us, is almost always going to be consistent, and therefore incomplete.  Thus, we rely on other systems of information that are likewise consistent and incomplete to fill in the gaps left by any one system.  By linking them together by means of context, comparison, metaphor, and allusion, we can have an overall more-or-less (we hope) complete system of knowledge that is based on multiple systems of information.  Just like we have to pick and choose the data we use to create information, we have to sometimes limit ourselves to what information we choose to link together in order to form knowledge.

Eventually, our end goal should be having knowledge.  Data is easy to get, and information is almost as easy, but neither are entirely usable by a complete being such as ourselves.  It is knowledge that declares and defines the contexts of information, but how do we go about getting knowledge?  It’s a lifelong process and largely automatic for human beings, and different traditions and philosophies have written endlessly about this, so it’s probably best for me to not wade into that set of eternal debates here.  Still, there are a few questions that you might want to consider:

  • What are my models for understanding data as information?
  • From where do my information models come from?
  • How do my experiences relate to what I already know, both as information and as knowledge?
  • How do I evaluate data as meaningful for a given system of information?
  • How can I explain data that do not fit a system of information?
  • How can I refine my models of information to weed out more untrue pieces of data while permitting more true pieces?
  • How can I link one system of information to another?
  • What sort of knowledge can I get by linking one system of information to another?
  • In what context should I analyze a system of information as a whole?
  • What system of information is best to take in new data to produce useful knowledge?

I’ve never been one for the whole “nothing is true, everything is permitted” thing.  There are indeed things that are true, if not generally for all people than specifically for individual people or contexts, and those are useful in and of themselves.  It’s the problem of determining the false chaff from the true wheat that’s the problem, and the rules for that can fluctuate at any given moment depending on what system of information is most useful at that moment.  Plus, when dealing with a number of occultists, it’s hard to keep track of who’s reliably honest and useful in their results, who’s good but crazy, and who just exaggerates for the sake of self-aggrandizement; I know I’ve had that problem in figuring out where to set my bullshit thresholds with certain people, and I’m pretty certain most of my readers have, as well.  We filter data through our bullshit thresholds all the time, but it’s always worthwhile to recalibrate that threshold once in a while and analyze why it’s set where it is for us, and whether it’s too high or too low for our own needs.

End of an Enchiridion

I can’t believe it’s come to this.  It’s been four years, and I cannot even, I literally cannot.  I knew this day would eventually come, as all finite things must come to an end, but I’m confused at the fact that it’s here.  It’s been so slowly coming that I never realized how fast this moment arrived, and I’m…not quite at a loss, but nonplussed all the same.

My Moleskine is full.

This isn’t just any journal, mind you, as Moleskines are hardly ever wont to be.  No, this particular journal is my εγχειριδιον, my vademecum, my Book of Shadow, my spellbook, my grimoire, my personal book of prayers and rituals and seals that I have been writing and maintaining since my first days in Fr. Rufus Opus’ courses.  The cover is worn, and certain pages have all but fallen out, and some already would have if it weren’t for the masking tape holding them in place.  Pages with exceptionally well-used prayers are tissue-soft, and others are dog-eared for quick reference so that I don’t have to flip through a chaotic mish-mash of traditions and systems.  Among pages of my best efforts at Roman and Greek script mixed with my personal shorthand, annotated with origins of each prayer and ritual, I have poured countless hours into keeping track of the words and acts I use in my work as a magician as an aide for ritual, supplementing my memory when my memory alone hasn’t caught up.

And it’s full.  Fuck.

I knew this day would eventually come, and I made plans years ago to digitize it into a more easily accessible format, first copying whatever I wanted from a source to my Moleskine, and from there into LaTeX files to be compiled into a fancy PDF which, for various reasons, I haven’t kept up with lately.  And, while that’s still a good way to go for future use (heck, maybe even dissemination to students?), I’m…not sure that’s what I want to do for myself.  Lord knows I still need to keep track of rituals, and even though this particular book is filled, I question whether a digital format or some other means is the best way to keep an enchiridion.

I’m no stranger to journal-keeping, after all, and I’ve filled a number of them over the years since my first attempts back in elementary school, ranging from the mundane goings-on between classes or meetings to the most arcane theorizing of the cosmos, and this blog is just another manifestation of that; as such, I know the paradoxical heart-wrenching elation that comes with filling a journal.  Still, even this particular one is…jarring.  I’ve carried this book with me around the country, and found myself sometimes going into a minor panic when I realize I may have left it at home.  That book has had oil, water, ash, dirt, spit, and even the occasional blood spilled on it.  That book has grown up and full and worn with me as I’ve grown as a magus.  Even though this all seems rather sentimental for a glorified notepad, and even though I’m unusually attached to such a thing, I’m still somewhat at a crossroads with how to proceed.  Do I get a new one, and retranscribe everything?  Do I go for the binder-and-printout method, so that I can more easily manage and organize the thing on the fly?  Do I just want to use a document I can edit on the fly and get an e-reader or tablet to do the same?

I need to do something, obviously.  Just because this journal is full does not mean my Work is complete, not by any sense.  There will still be prayers to practice, rituals to record, and designs I deign to copy for clarity’s sake, and I will still need somewhere to write them and keep a ready index of.  But…I can no longer do it with this book, which already has so much in it and cannot accept any more.  This is a problem that demands a solution, but…perhaps it’s best to review what I’ve learned from keeping such an artifact first.  What do I know now, after filling up a whole book with my rituals and prayers, that I wouldn’t have expected years ago?  What does such a book become and do for the magus?  Based on my own experience, how should one approach the process of writing in an enchiridion?

  1. It becomes a ritual tool in and of itself, rivaling the importance of any wand or shewstone or oil.
  2. It is a physical object made of paper and thread and cardboard and, if you’re fancy, leather.  Even with careful and delicate use, the book will rip and tear and fall apart, and so should be given all the respect due to any magical tool for as long as it is used.
  3. It gains power in its own right, not only by virtue of the words and seals and patterns inscribed within, but by the constant use and reuse in ritual, as well as by the spirits and powers it comes in contact with.
  4. It offers a way to prototype and practice a ritual without ever performing it first, by recording all words said and motions made, before ever putting them to use.
  5. It provides a useful way to learn what is important and what is not important in ritual, gauging by how little one needs a particular prayer or ritual.
  6. Conversely, it provides a way to note what ought to be learned by heart, gauging by how much one needs a particular prayer or ritual.
  7. The fact that one is writing, actively putting in words, as opposed to typing gives the book a different feel and different (more) power.  Yes, the information may be the same, but the method makes the difference.
  8. With written words, one has the book indelibly and permanently made in one’s own kind of typographical image, as our handwriting is as much us as any photograph or depiction.
  9. It forms a record of one’s progress by virtue of the order and type of rituals written inside.  Even without records of ritual or proceedings of meditations, the prayers and rituals themselves show the state of the magus when they were first needed, as well as their exploration by the variety of text added over time.
  10. It is a testament to one’s activity and work as a magus, and as such is best kept private and secret lest anyone find it and, thus, find you out as a magus.
  11. Depending on your sources and your teachers, the text inside may be the last time those words are ever written, with you the last magus ever to use them.  As long as those words are around, at least in your own book, the traditions and rituals you use can stand the test of time and survive to be practiced by yet another generation.
  12. Organization from the outset, when keeping track of these things, is overrated.  When you’re still learning, the best order is chronological; by flipping through over and over to find the same things, you get used to the physical location of the text you need within the book.
  13. Presetting certain boundaries, so that this set of pages will be dedicated to conjuration rituals and that set of pages dedicated to Hellenic prayers and so forth, potentially wastes pages since you never know exactly how many or how few pages you need for a given topic, should you even get into that topic, which may not always be determined from the start.
  14. It is a finite object with a limited amount of space.  It will eventually become full, even if you keep only the most important and sacred words in it with nothing extraneous written and no space wasted.
  15. It is a tool and an aide.  It is to be used as much as it can be, so that the paper and ink inside is not wasted on idle copying, but made to work as much as you Work.
  16. When first copying things into it, you will use up a lot of space; only a year or so into my work, I had already filled up over a third of the pages, but it took me another three to fill up the other two thirds.  The rate at which you add things in will almost always decrease over time as you settle into a particular tradition and use the same rituals over and over.
  17. Not everything can be memorized.  While memory can always be improved, there are some things that one will keep forgetting without regular, almost daily use.
  18. A written text is crucial for smooth, repeatable work, so that one can read when memory can fail.  There’s a reason Catholic priests literally focus on the Missal while they perform their ritual, that they don’t slip up and jumble words or forget the order of things.
  19. What you write in the book, you write in your spirit.  The act of transcribing prayers is an important and powerful form of kinetic meditation.  For a similar reason, I find it helpful to say aloud every word that is to be said aloud in prayer or ritual (a la the tradition of soferim in Judaism), and to visualize the action when writing down instructions for actions.
  20. The art of handwriting is not doing too hot nowadays, and I don’t claim to have a good style of penmanship by any means, but it is a crucial aspect of maintaining the book.  Clear handwriting bespeaks a clear, methodical, premeditated mindset, and involves as much art as any skillful orison or profound prayer, not to mention making reading off the paper easier in dim lighting.
  21. It is useful to keep rituals and processes separate from records of using those rituals and processes.  I do not mix the two, and maintain a separate journal for keeping track of spiritual seals, conjuration conversations, and after-effects of ritual.  This is because the same ritual may work at some times and not at others through no fault of the ritual at all, and sometimes a ritual needs to be edited even though it works well-enough so that it can work better.
  22. It is useful to keep practice separate from theory.  Theory and philosophy and theology are nice to know and learn and discuss, but they do not come into play on the ground when the ritual is being done and the only thing that matters is the result.  Save space and keep the theory for another place, and focus only on what is necessary to complete the task at hand.
  23. It is useful to keep practice separate from recipes.  While oils, incenses, and the like may definitely be done in a ritual manner, the ingredients, conditions, and processes may often take up a lot of space that isn’t needed when doing the chanting or other ritual actions involved.
  24. It’s good to get a good-quality journal for this, neither poor nor great.  Something cheap and trashy is easy to fall apart and destroy, and something expensive and rare is too precious to waste a working text with errors, emendations, and errata in.  Settle for sturdiness, not for style, and save the pricey stuff for an heirloom calligraphied masterpiece that will be complete in and of itself.
  25. When there are a series of texts one may wish to transcribe, such as the Orphic Hymns or the Book of Psalms, it’s often better to get a separate text that contains those prayers as a complete set.  Transcribe only the ones you use most frequently, like Psalms 51 and 23 without the other 148 psalms.  An urge for completion is natural in many magi, for whom a perfectionist streak often runs strong, but you’ll ruin your hand with painful cramps and fill your book up faster than you need to.
  26. Be terse in the text for your instructions, and thorough in the text to be said aloud.  Only say what is absolutely necessary for instructions, as that can take up far more space than you need.  Laconic brevity is a virtue in the process of ritual, as is completion and wholeness in the prayers.  So long as you’ve written down enough to perform all steps of the ritual, you’ve written enough, and in the process allow yourself with room to grow and experiment and customize steps of the ritual.
  27. Even if you think they’re demanded of only by the bitchiest of middle-school teachers, get a bookcover or some sort of protection for your book.  You want to keep the book as intact and safe for as long as you possibly can.  Moleskines fit perfectly in a variety of leather car manual three-fold cases, as it turns out, and even includes a little loop for a pen and a pad of paper for quick notes and visions.
  28. Once you’ve started writing, do not stop until you’re done.  Do not leave something unfinished; if it’s part of a whole, write it wholly.  Do not begin writing until you know you can complete it in a single go, but if you need to write it, write it then and there.
  29. Generalize rituals when appropriate; think rubrics for ritual, not specific instances or implementations of ritual, and leave blanks and bracketed spaces for names or other things to be inserted when necessary.  Make a note when a particular prayer may be modified from its original intent or purpose.
  30. Only include tables of correspondence when absolutely necessary, such as when making a reference for how to fill in a ritual rubric.  Times when needing to use a table of correspondence in ritual are few, and usually only serve to take up space.  It’s better to commit the system of correspondence to memory, and that only what is necessary.
  31. Plan for rituals to be as modular as possible.  Build and conduct rituals using multiple prayers and acts, and record each one separately rather than writing the same invocation over and over for multiple rituals.
  32. The word enchiridion literally means “in the hand”, and vademecum “go with me”.  The book itself should be small enough to fit conveniently in a knapsack, but big enough to hold and read from comfortably.  If you use something too small, it’ll fill up too fast and will be hard to read from; if you use something too big, it’ll be hard to hold and hard to carry around.
  33. Never tear anything out of the book.  You will never make a mistake so egregious that you cannot write around it, and all rituals, even if needed just the once, will help you learn.  There will always be spare paper or media available to write on for things that cannot go in the book.  Keep the book intact as much as possible, since it’ll weaken on its own over time without any extra help from you.
  34. Get a good pen, and keep to that same type of pen when you write in the book.  Whether it’s a fountain pen or ball-point pen, you can never have too good a pen.  Carry it around with the book.  Keep it a neutral color, like black or blue, using other colors for specific purposes like corrections or particular symbols or watchwords.  And yes, it has to be a pen, one that isn’t erasable.  The point of the book is to put things in and keep track of what you practice, not to change the past and remove it.
  35. It doesn’t matter how you write in your book, so long as you can read it.  Your book is primarily for you and your eyes; everyone else takes a very, very distant second, although the day will come that someone else will need to use your book.  If you use a shorthand or type of code to write in the book, include a key somewhere hidden just in case you or someone else needs to decode it.
  36. Do not lose the book.  Do not destroy the book.  Do not get rid of the book.  Once finished or rendered to a point where it is unusable through age and wear, keep it somewhere safe, and only if you absolutely cannot keep it with you should you even begin to consider entrusting it to someone you can trust.
  37. It doesn’t matter whether your book is a journal or a sketchbook, i.e. lined or unlined.  I find lines helpful since I’ve never been able to develop a steady baseline for handwriting, and it helps with drawing out patterns and diagrams, but many people prefer an unlined paper to write on.  Go with what’s best for you.
  38. Once you start writing in a book, keep the book and keep using the book until it’s filled or you cannot use it any longer.  Just because you don’t like a ritual you wrote doesn’t mean the whole book is trash.  Just because you’ve changed traditions doesn’t mean you forget your history and past rituals.
  39. Take the book with you and read from it in as many rituals as you need to do.  You may not always need the book, especially if you’ve memorized the rituals and prayers needed, but take it with you just in case.  If nothing else, you help the book build power.

I suppose I had more thoughts on keeping and maintaining such a book than I expected.  I guess I wanted to be thorough, in a kind of “what would you tell a younger version of yourself” kind of way.

I think, at this point, I’ve decided on what I’m going to do.  I may not stick with Moleskine, but I am going to get another blank journal for myself.  I can always digitize the stuff as I need to in case I need a digital copy of my book, but…in all honesty, I can’t bring myself to care as much about that as I will about having a handwritten copy of my rituals with the ability to add in new rituals at a moment’s notice.  For me, and I speak only for myself, I will need to write by hand my enchiridion, and I will do this again, word by every painstaking word, for as many times as I need to.  I can’t say I’m looking forward to the coming weeks as I start this process again, but for me and my practice, it’s absolutely worth it.

Beginner’s Practices

Recently, I’ve been getting more requests for consultations, which I’m happy to do for people.  (Yes, I charge, and you can find my rates on my Services page.)  Normally, people book a consultation for the purpose of an extended divination reading, where I do as many questions as time will allow and talk them through problems or offer advice as the situation calls for it.  However, a few consultations lately haven’t been anything of the sort, and fall under a type of consultory category that I personally love to do: ritual advice.  This is where, essentially, you ask me questions about practice, methodology, technique, or philosophy when it comes to magic and the occult, and I share with you my experiences, research, and the like, kind of like a 1-on-1 tutoring session.  I personally love doing this, since I typically learn as much from people as they learn from me, and we’re both better off for it.

However, I’ve also noticed that I’m seeing an uptick in the number of people who are new to magic and the occult asking for advice, like people who are in Fr. Rufus Opus’ new Seven Spheres classwork who want another view or advice from one of his other students.  Some are just studying on their own and want to know where to go or how they might accomplish something with a bare minimum of resources, while others are just wondering where to begin at all.  This is awesome and flattering, because even though I don’t consider myself a teacher (I’m still pretty damn new to this all myself as it is), I’d love to share my own experiences and lessons (sometimes learned the hard way) so that others don’t have to bungle things or get a slow start when they can hit the ground running.

For people who are utterly new to the occult, seeing all this stuff about grimoires and conjuration and sacrifice and Greek/Hebrew/Latin/Sanskrit/Egyptian terms and whatnot can be downright pants-shittingly frightening, not to mention bewildering.  I know that, when I first started, I was a little overwhelmed myself trying to figure out where to begin or what texts to read (assuming I could read them at all in modern English), but also what it is I should be doing to start.  That’s a crucial thing for a magician, and the line that divides an armchair magician from a practicing magician: what is it that you’re doing?  It’s all very well to rattle off the history of a particular incantation or memorize all the variations of the seals and designs from the Lemegeton Goetia, but if you’re not putting them to use, why are you doing this at all?  Magic should, in my opinion, be more than just a hobby of curiosity, but something that mixes a good way of living with a method of helping yourself and others in this world and all others.

Still, there’s a lot to do, and there’s always more to do even when you think you’ve done what you need.  So, if I had to suggest some basic practices that anyone interested in practicing magic or any spiritual way of life, what might I suggest?  Three things, all of which are pretty simple but which are endlessly profound and rewarding.

1: Learn two forms of divination.
You can’t figure out shit if you don’t know what’s going on, and I don’t always mean by talking with spirits.  Divination is an excellent way to get your foot in the door with magic; it’s how I got started, and this is my view on the subject.  Back in the day, I considered myself only a diviner and a seer, because I didn’t want to get involved with all that magic stuff.  I just wanted to see what was going on and help others make good decisions with new information they couldn’t get on their own; actually changing that stuff was out of my scope, as I considered it.  Then again, one thing led to the next, and I found myself researching what the planets and elements could be used for instead of just what they meant in astrology or Tarot, and the transition was so subtle that I became a magician without even really recognizing it.  Divination was the gateway drug for me, and it makes sense, because it helped inform me every step of the way, and still does as a matter of fact.

Now, I say that you should learn two forms of divination, if only to increase your skill set and to broaden your horizons.  These can be any two, but I recommend two different forms: a simple one that focuses on yes/no answers, and a complex one that can describe a whole situation at length and help provide detail as well as judgment.  The complex one is considerably easier to find in modern use: Tarot, runes, geomancy, astrology, I Ching, grammatomancy, astragalomancy, and the like are all good examples of what I mean by “complex divination”.  The easier one is more like child’s play and some diviners find it beneath them to just focus on yes/no queries, but at the same time, this is a vital skill to figure out.  Sure, you could use one divination system for both purposes, but I find it better to have two methods that complement each other.

Add to it, there’s an added benefit to learning two forms of divination like this.  The complex divination method you choose is excellent for understanding a whole system or situation when you need the guidance and detail that such a divination system can provide.  The simple divination method can be used for this, too, if a simple answer will suffice, but the real purpose I suggest the simple method is for communicating with spirits and discerning their will.  Having a yes/no method of divination, like chamalongos or coin tosses, is amazing to figure out how to proceed with offerings or rituals involving a particular spirit in conjunction with actually listening to them and getting the proper feeling of action.

2: Learn psychometry.
Psychometry literally means “measuring souls”, but it’s basically a fancy way to describe getting the “feel” or “vibe” off something.  It’s one of the first distinctly magical practices I picked up from my sister years ago while I was in college, a few years before actually getting into Hermetic stuff, since she’s more attuned to it than I am, but it’s turned out to be a valuable skill and one of the ones I recommend beginners to pick up ASAP.  Although the notion of reading the energy off objects seems simple and underneath some people, it’s one of the most vital skills a magician can develop, since it can be used in so many instances and is far more applicable than mere objects alone.  The point here is that you’re not just getting the impressions, charges, memories, and the like off of objects, but that you’re actually measuring the soul-stuff of a thing, and it doesn’t have to be tangible; in other words, you’re learning to sense magic itself.

The process of psychometry is simple: focus on a particular object, and figure out what it “feels” like.  How do you perceive the stuff in the object?  That’s really basically it; it’s no more complicated than touching something or coming into contact with it and getting information of the color, weight, temperature, or texture of an object, except that it doesn’t rely on the physical senses.  My sister’s advice for psychometry made a distinct impression on me and guides me to this day, not only in matters of psychometry but in pretty much all magical endeavors: “it feels like you’re making it up, but you’re not”.  The information pretty much pops up in your head, and to a less discerning mind, it would feel just like normal thoughts arising and coming and going.  The thing is, though, that these thoughts aren’t yours; they’re no more “your” thoughts than the sensation of your keyboard or phone in your hand is “your” sensation.  This is information, energy, spirit, presence, whatever that is simply coming in contact with your own sense abilities; there’s not much active practice to go with this, just like how seeing or hearing isn’t an active process but merely light or sound entering into your eyes or ears.

Now, once you get the hang of getting the feel or vibe off a particular object, it’s not a hard leap in any sense to go from small hand-held things to bigger things.  The size of the thing ultimately doesn’t matter, but what does matter is the power inside the thing.  (That’s what he said.)  The more something has been carried around, used, loved, or hated, the more power increases in the thing.  Animate things, like people and animals, naturally have a strong power in themselves, and one can detect how they feel or what they know but also how energy and power flows through and within them.  That said, I would recommend the following general process to practice learning psychometry:

  • Small objects (pebbles, jewelry, cell phones, writing utensils)
  • Large objects (cooking utensils, computers, cars, machines)
  • Places (graves, buildings, fields, forests, mountains)
  • People and animals

Not everyone will get the same type of vibe off an object.  My sister gets emotions and physical states (angry, happy, caffeinated, sweaty, etc.) off of objects, especially worn objects, but I get memories and impressions of place or use.  Some people will find that they get impressions or vibes in the form of colors or images, while others get sounds, yet others get temperature, and others just get pure thoughts or verbal statements arising in the mind.  This is important to recognize, since how you get impressions and sensations the best indicates how you best perceive magical presence and energy.  Not everyone will “see” stuff; I myself don’t have a strong psychic visual sense, but my psychic taste and smell are excellent, and I get the same information as others would but delivered in a different way.  I just have to translate them into the same ideas that others might get in a different “language”.

Just as it’s not a big leap to go from small inanimate objects to larger animate ones, it’s also not a big leap to go from tangible things to spiritual entities.  This is why psychometry is vital: the ability to perceive information spiritually is what we use to sense and detect spiritual presence, energetic flows, and the like.  If you can’t detect the presence of a spirit in conjuration, why bother calling them up?  If you can’t get a feel for where a strong place of power is, why bother tracking ley lines?  The ability of spiritual/energetic perception is vital for anyone who works with spirits/energy, since if you can’t perceive what’s going on, you won’t be able to react to it.

3: Meditate.
This is big, and even though I’ve listed it here last, it really should be first and foremost in everybody’s lives, and not just magicians.  Jason Miller, Rufus Opus, and any number of magicians, occultists, priests, monks, and spiritualists have gone on at length about the importance of meditation, so I won’t describe the nuances or details here, nor will I talk too much at length about why it’s so important.  But I will say this: meditation is the art and practice of understanding and working with your own mind.  If you don’t understand how your mind works, and if you don’t know how to react to your own mind’s actions (especially the involuntary ones), you won’t know how to best use your mind.  Seeing how your mind is literally the place where everything happens for you, if you don’t have a basic grasp of how to work with your mind, you won’t be getting far in anything.

Meditation is basically mental exercise.  I’m not talking about strengthening the logical faculties with puzzles or the emotional ones with empathy, but strengthening how your mind itself acts underneath any other action.  The mind is crucial to everything we do.  Writing a novel?  You’ll want to organize your thoughts and focus on the story.  Coding a program?  You’ll need to form a clear design and take into account abstract and obscure exceptions.  Working in retail?  Keep your cool with people and don’t try to let them influence you when it’s your job to influence them.  Running a marathon?  Don’t let your body dissuade you from completing your goal with pessimism despite it being within your body’s ability.  Literally everything we do, from thinking to planning to seeing to hearing to wanting to getting to creating and beyond, takes place in the mind.  If your mind isn’t strong, you don’t have a strong foundation to build great things.

There are so many ways to meditate and any number of traditions have ten score more methods to do so, but I’m a fan of the simplest and most bare-bones way:

  1. Sit comfortably.  Wear relaxing, non-constrictive clothing and sit in a way that allows you to maintain focus without getting sleepy or sore.
  2. Observe your mind.  Just watch how thoughts come up and do their thing, but let them go on their own.  Let those random thoughts arise and fall without getting attached to them or following any train of thought.  If you realize you’re following a thought, become aware of it and let it go.
  3. Continue for a reasonable length of time.  If you’re just starting out, try five minutes.  Work your way up from there.
  4. Repeat daily.  You don’t need a lot of time for this, but I recommend it in the morning when you first get up before you even look at your phone.  If you want, try twice or more a day, but always regularly at least once.

You might get bored.  You might get distracted.  You might get worried or angry or sad or any number of things.  Good; let that happen and keep going.  I’m going to warn you: even the Dalai Lama sucks at meditation, and even the Buddha and the Christ themselves kept meditating because there was always more to do.  The thoughts that arise will, eventually, begin to slow down and relax until they stop arising entirely, even if it’s just for a split-second, and that’s awesome.  Over more time, those periods of thoughtlessness will continue longer and longer.  Over more time, those periods of thoughtlessness will themselves pass away into something deeper.

The more you meditate, the healthier you’ll be, both mentally and physically; you’ll be able to focus more, have a better grip of your emotions, direct your thoughts better, develop more complex thoughts more easily, manage your body and its voluntary and involuntary actions, remember more things that happen to you, and so much more.  Add to it, the spiritual benefits aren’t to be neglected, especially for magicians; with meditation, you’ll be able to understand what “your” thoughts are versus “something else’s” thoughts, which is crucial when spirits communicate with you (because there’s going to be a mental part of this, and if you can’t discern what they’re saying from what you say to yourself, you’re not going to get very far).  You’ll be able to discern what a thought is from a perception from an idea from a want from a need from a physical lust from an emotional attachment from a logical prerogative from a spiritual command.  You’ll be able to work with spirits better and develop other spiritual and psychic powers that you’ve only heard legends and myths about.  All from just sitting down and shutting up.

So what are you waiting for?  Go do your thing.  Experiment with what you like, read history, study techniques, talk with other occultists, take notes and journal entries, make a plan for what you want to accomplish, develop some crafting skills in a medium that catches your eye.  Conjure spirits, sacrifice to the gods, appease your ancestors, take an astral journey, go into the underworld, open your mind with entheogens, prophesy in the name of your patron, heal with energy and prayer.  For the sake of the gods, of the cosmos, and of your own self, just get to it!