On the Arbatel’s Principles of Magic

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

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

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

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

On living a divine life:

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

On living a proper life in general:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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