Clarifying Magic, Religion, and Ways of Life

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been making good use of some of my Christmas presents (books on magic, religion, and the like) and heartily absorbing some of the points they make.  While many of the texts talk about specific ways to implement ritual practices or the general cultural milieu occult practices take place within, the overarching theme that’s being presented is that it’s really really hard to make clear distinctions between magic and religion based on the evidence we have of ancient cultures.  Sure, we might call ourselves “magicians” or “priests” nowadays, but the worldview we have when we apply these labels to ourselves is kinda weird when we consider what the ancients and our ancestors would have done.

For instance, a magician nowadays might set aside some time every day for magical work, but beyond that doesn’t do a damn thing; no prayers, no offerings, no involvement of “magic” beyond their set rituals.  Someone we might call devout or religious might go to church every week and occasionally get involved in scripture study with their friends, but outside of that barely involves themselves in religious activity.  We basically consider ourselves part-time magicians; part of the time we’re magicians, and the rest we’re just our normal mundane selves.  This is such a modern way of thinking, and so prevalent around us, that it’s hard to consider that it might have been any different for the people who have gone before us.

What would the ancients have done?  Rather than set aside times for doing magic or being religious, they involved these things literally all the time in everything they did.  Not one single thing was separate from magic or the gods or religion; not one single act had explicitly mundane purposes completely detached from the spirits.  Every herb picked, every meal served, every trip made, every speech spoken invoked the gods or spirits in some way, or was performed for some spiritual purpose no matter how small.  Rather than clearly thinking of something as magical or non-magical, or religious or non-religious, their entire lives were lived by incorporating the spirits in every action.  Of course, there were atheists and people with different beliefs doing the same thing as others who might be more canonical or traditional in their works, but that didn’t matter.  Everything actually done was the important thing, and even those who didn’t believe in a particular spirit or the efficacy of the spirit still performed the rituals just as everyone else did.

We might call this all the “religion” of ancient peoples, but it’s unclear whether they would have considered it so.  To an Athenian, their style of Hellenistic belief was simply what was always done; there was no set reference of texts, no central hierarchy, no canon.  The only things that were set were the festivals, the rituals, and the observances of the gods that, as far as they were concerned, sustained them in their livelihood and lives. There was no “religion” beyond daily life itself, and all the observances and stories that gave importance to their lives.

What do we consider “religion” nowadays for ourselves, though?  We might consider a set of canonical scriptures, a defined set of beliefs, some sort of priesthood or hierarchy, and regular observances of ritual or significant times.  We generally consider religion to follow an orthodox (literally “right teachings”) model, where belief is the core part of religion.  After all, given the past 2000 years of Christian development and influence on Western culture and philosophy, where Christians were more concerned with “what is the real word of God” or “what is heretical and against us”, this isn’t too surprising.  Christians have had a set of four gospel texts with a number of other texts appended on and deemed canonical by central authorities, with any deviance from these texts considered heretical.  A central authority deems whether a particular text is worth studying, or whether a particular person has been initiated into the priesthood, or whether a particular ritual is acceptable or not for use within the church.  It’s all very centralized and set in stone, and any deviance from the approval of the authorities is bad.  What the authorities believe is “religion”; what they don’t is deemed heretical or magical.

But this sort of central authority simply didn’t exist for most of human history, or even in a majority of world cultures.  Take Hinduism for instance; while there are a few central texts crucial to the understanding of Hindu philosophy and beliefs, there is no central hierarchy to determine what’s right and what’s wrong.  Local communities might practice their festivals or rituals differently, or might place more emphasis on one practice than another.  Different communities might hold different stories or myths to be more important than others.  They might add more scriptures, or consider fewer.  None of them dispute the correctness of each other, since other practices can augment or reflect one’s own in useful ways depending on need and practice.  The ancient Greeks are another good example; they might have had the Odyssey and Iliad to reflect ancient myths, or other bodies of myth and stories, but there was no central hierarchy to determine whether this temple had illegitimate practices or priests initiated incorrectly.  Even within the same city, the same god might be worshipped any number of ways, and that was alright.

Rather than following an orthodox model of religion, many cultures place more importance on orthoprax models, literally “right practice”.  So long as you do the rituals to spec (whatever that “spec” might have been), you’re in the clear.  You might think that the god is really some other god, or that the ritual has this importance and not the one others think is important, but that doesn’t matter so long as you actually get your hands dirty and do the work.  Even if the community is just a tightly-knit family with ten people, the rituals and practices and customs done would be considered legit by them, and that’s all that matters.  There is no standard to determine which practices or beliefs are right or wrong, beyond what’s done for a good reason.

Partially, this lack of orthodox standard is influenced by the presence of “set texts”.  Oral traditions, like the classical Hindu or modern Santería or other religions, don’t have any particular set texts.  They’re all spoken aloud, passed down by word from one generation to the next; while the songs may be the same, they’re ephemeral, and require people to memorize them.  Changes, especially if the songs are lost or misheard or inappropriate for further use, are organic and allow different communities to develop their own flavors of the original religion that reflect their own cultures and communities.  There’s nothing to compare against besides each other, no “canon”, to say that something is right or wrong.  If something simply isn’t done anywhere else and contradicts every other surviving practice, it might be weird, but if it works and gets the same stuff done, it’s hardly “wrong”.  It might not be acceptable to one group, but if it works within the group in which it developed, there’s nothing “heretical” about it, so long as it pleases their gods and gets the job done.

So what’s the big difference between magic and religion?  Honestly, there isn’t one as far as I can see.  Even to define the two is difficult enough, but might better both be put under a broader header of “spiritual customs” that a group or individual makes use of to accomplish certain goals.  Whether gods are invoked by name or a simple announcement of intent is made, these customs are something “extra” to the purely mundane causes and effects that somehow make the action fit in better with one’s life.  It would seem that religion is simply the approved practices of the majority or a central hierarchy, and magic is anything outside that realm within the same culture, but this definition is kinda weak.  What would we make of a curse tablet that invokes the gods of the underworld in a purely prayer format?  Is that magic, or religion?  Many people employed curse tablets, and there’s nothing overly disapproved of the wording.  The grey area between magic and religion is so large that it incorporates both magic and religion.

Within a particular pantheon or philosophy, so long as you do what’s done, you’re pretty much set.  Just because some central authority detached from your culture and need says that your actions are wrong doesn’t make it so, but not all authorities are completely detached on the matter.  For instance, if you try to invoke the Santería orisha Chango in a ceremonial magic working or use symbols and offerings that are more appropriate to the Greek thea Aphrodite, that’s probably not going to end up too good.  Why?  Because that’s not how Chango has ever been treated, nor how Chango ever grew by those that worship him, and it’s also likely that Chango himself wouldn’t agree with the practices.  It’s not bad to innovate, but it’s also not bad to listen to custom and tradition.

Those two words, “custom” and “tradition” have important etymological roots that can clarify and guide our practices.  Custom ultimately comes from the Latin word “consuescere”, meaning “to become used to with oneself”.  Anything that is done over time that has been adopted or integrated into a community, family, culture, or even individuals is a custom.  Tradition comes from the Latin word “tradere”, meaning “to hand across, to hand down”.  Anything that we are taught to do, or picked up from others, or passed down from one generation to the next is a tradition.  Between these two, we already have a good body of things that can help us build our practice and educate us: the stories we’re told from birth, the tricks and quirks our parents show us in the kitchen or around the house, the polities and courtesies we show others that we were taught to show, all these things are customs and traditions that help us build ourselves into the people we are.

Neither customs nor traditions preclude changes to them or innovations of new practices, but customs and traditions should guide us and offer a sounding board for these new practices.  Thus, if a particular kind of fruit offered to Chango in Africa cannot be found in Cuba where he’s also worshipped, a substitute can be made if the new fruit is appropriate (similar color, taste, texture, etc.), or the practice might be eliminated entirely.  Offering Chango something entirely different with no connection or relationship to the original offering or anything Chango is known to like, however, may not be recommended unless Chango asks for it.  Similarly, if one’s traditions involve calling upon Chango with another set of gods that have been passed down by one’s family or culture (e.g. native American religions or pre-slave trade Caribbean faiths), asking for Chango’s presence with another god can be good if the two gods are known to get along well.  On the other hand, asking for Chango’s presence with a Celtic or Slavic god, when these gods are new to the family or culture and no connections between them have been formally made yet, may not end up too well unless one asks Chango and the other god how they might interact with each other.  Overall, it’s a respect thing.

In a sense, ritual acts might be considered “wrong” only if they’re disagreeable with the forces that they call upon.  If other people don’t like it, they don’t have to practice it or go along with it, especially if their traditions and customs dictate they act in certain ways that don’t agree with this other ritual.  If the spirits are okay with something and its continued use, there’s nothing wrong with taking that and passing it on for others to use.  If a ritual act gets something done or spiritually completes an act without harm and with benefits, it should be maintained and practiced by those who can use it.  That’s really the only difference between “wrong” or “heretical” acts and “right” or “proper” acts when it comes to ritual.  Acts that are deemed heretical and magical by central authorities, then, can be of no less use and efficacy than those that are deemed religious and proper, so long as the acts themselves don’t conflict with the customs and traditions that help build someone up into the person they are within the community that was also shaped by those customs and traditions.

So what’s the difference between magic and religion?  There isn’t one besides what’s deemed “proper” by someone who probably doesn’t matter.  What’s the difference between these and ways of life?  There shouldn’t be one for those who are serious about either.

49 Days of Definitions: Part IV, 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 sixteenth definition, part IV, number 1 of 2:

The living (beings) in heaven are constituted of fire and air, and those (which are) on earth of the four elements.  Man (is) a reasonable living (being), for he has Nous; but all of the other living (beings) which are endowed with voice have breath and soul, since all that decreases and increases is a living being.

At this point in the Definitions, we know that there are multiple parts of the world, from the meta-world of God to the pale blue dot of Earth where Man resides, at least for a part of it.  All things within God are intelligible, indicating that they can be known.  Within the meta-world of God, we know that there’s a place referred to as heaven, within which there are the four elements which constitute all of the bodies.  Things with bodies are not only intelligible, but they are sensible, which is a necessary quality of existing within heaven.  However, all things both intelligible and sensible and non-sensibile are all part of the One, the All, the Whole that is God; everything is interconnected, even if some parts of the worlds are outside and seemingly unconnected to other parts of the worlds.

Although the definitions have mentioned living beings before, now we finally get to what those beings are composed of and what they’re all about.  First, just as we know that there’s a distinction between heaven and earth (II.2), we also know that there are “superior beings” and “inferior beings” (III.3), or entities that are of heaven but not of Earth and entities that are of Earth within heaven, respectively.  According to this definition, the superior beings or “living beings in heaven” are made of “fire and air”, while the inferior beings “which are on earth” are made of the “four elements”.  So, while superior beings are made of fire and air, inferior beings are made from fire, air, water, and earth.  This makes sense: we know that air is the glue that binds the earth and heaven together but is of neither heaven nor earth (II.2), and we know that fire is sterile and the “perpetuation of immortal beings” (II.5).  Earth and water, however, support each other (II.3, II.4) but are much denser than air or fire.

Knowing that the superior beings are made of only air and fire, we also know that they cannot die nor can they reproduce by growing; these are qualities that fire prohibits.  Fiery beings without earth must be immortal, since earth exists to be changed as well as to hold both life and death, while fire is the life itself of immortal beings.  In addition, without earth to be changed, heavenly beings inherently are incapable of change, since there’s nothing to change within their bodies; this is not the same thing as increase and decrease, however, which fire and air both permit them to do.  Air, however, allows the heavenly beings to move around both in the heavens and between heaven and earth.  By including water and earth into fire and air, we obtain inferior beings, who have the capacity to be born, grow, increase, decrease, and die.  However, inferior beings also have air and fire, which give them some of the qualities of the superior beings, but not all of them; indeed, the fire itself within an inferior being may be the seed of its downfall and death, since fire is the “destruction of the mortal [bodies]”; fire will, over time without proper maintenance, burn out the rest of the body and kill it.

However, even though heavenly bodies can travel between the upper heavens and lower earth, the same is not true of earthly bodies.  This is due to the earth within the bodies themselves; we know that, from the Poemander, earth and water were left behind when the Nous separated the elements.  Fire rose up first and highest, and air followed the fire underneath it, but water and earth remained below, being heavy and dense.  Due to this, without removing all the earth and water from an earthly body, it will be too dense to rise higher than the earth itself from which it was made and grown.

Of all the living beings, there also exists Man, the reasonable, sensible, and destructible world (I.1).  Man is reasonable because “he has Nous”, meaning that Man has Mind.  More importantly, the definition doesn’t say that Man has “a mind”, but that he has “Nous”, being God.  Thus, Man possesses or carries with him “the invisible good” of Mind with him, allowing him to reason as Nous or God itself reasons.  However, “all of the other living beings which are endowed with voice have breath and soul”.  This shouldn’t be taken to mean that Man only has Nous and no soul nor breath, since we know that all bodies must possess a soul of some kind (I.3), and that Man has both soul and breath (I.4), and now that Man has soul, breath, and Nous.  Other living beings, though, have only soul and breath, though they have “voice”, which is something we can expect that Man also has, but what this function is relative to the other attributions is as yet unknown.  After all, without Nous, something can still be a living being if it has soul and breath and is composed of at least some of the elements, since “all that decreases and increases is a living being”, and all things down here under heaven perform that function by means of the interactions of the elements.

Because Man alone among the living beings possesses Nous, Man is the only reasonable living being, or the only living being capable of understanding God and the cosmos as God does.  This is huge in anthropocentric ideas, and begins to clarify some of the meanings from before.  We know that Man was made after the “species of” God (I.1); this is because we were made with the same reasoning, mental capabilities that God has.  We know that Man, although mortal due to his body, is “ever-living” (I.5), because the Nous is immortal, eternal, and immovable; we owe at least the immortal part of ourselves that cannot be touched by death to God through the Nous we have.  Thus, Hermes’ speech to Tat in the Corpus Hermeticum becomes a little clearer (chapter 13, part 13):

Tat. Tell me, O father: This Body which is made up of the Powers, is it at any time dissolved?

Her. Hush, [son]! Speak not of things impossible, else wilt thou sin and thy Mind’s eye be quenched.  The natural body which our sense perceives is far removed from this essential birth.  The first must be dissolved, the last can never be; the first must die, the last death cannot touch.  Dost thou not know thou hast been born a God, Son of the One, even as I myself?

Because of our godly creator and who gave us a godly component, we too are not only part of God but we are, in a sense, many made in the image of God or the likeness of God.  And it’s all because of our reasoning, mental, thinkable capability; it’s not due to our physical form, though that may also be true through a highly indirect path via the heavens, Earth, and elements.  Thus, though we are a living being capable of death, we are unlike the other such mortal living beings because of Nous, which makes us, in a sense, immortal-but-not-in-the-normal-sense.

49 Days of Definitions: Part II, Definition 3

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 eighth definition, part II, number 3 of 6:

Earth is the support of the world, the basis of the elements, the nurse of the living (beings), the receptacle of the dead; for (it comes) last after fire and water, since it became what (it is) after fire and water.  What is the power of the world?  To keep up for ever the immortal (beings), such as they came into being, and to always change the mortal.

While the previous definition described the role of air in the cosmos, this one describes the role of earth, which is good since the earth was the only part of the previous definition that was left undefined.  Again, this whole part of definitions describe the cosmos, and now we’re getting into the nitty-gritty of the parts of the cosmos and what its constituent parts are: the elements.  Air is that which conjoins the highest parts of the cosmos with the lowest, which is earth.

Earth is “the support of the world”, and here this provides an interesting comparison with the relationship between bodies and souls generally.  In definition 1.3, the soul is said to support or “keep up” the body, and that all bodies require souls.  Similarly, the breath (or spirit, which may or may not be the same thing as air) is said to be the support or the “column” of the soul.  The thing that supports another is what enables it to work: the soul animates the body, and the spirit facilitates the motion of the soul.  Earth is a part of the cosmos, which is the sensible world, and earth is said to be the support of the world.  Earth is the element responsible, then, for making the cosmos what it is as distinct from the world of God: earth enables the cosmos to be sensible and movable.  Earth is the foundation of the sensible world, the foundation of the cosmos itself.  Indeed, just as the cosmos is made from the four elements, if earth is the foundation of the cosmos, then earth is also the foundation for everything made from the elements; earth is “the basis of the elements”.

Thus, because all things that are composed of the four elements require earth, earth is “the nurse of the living beings”.  Anything that arises in the cosmos does so because of earth; anything that has a body does so because of earth; anything that is able to move and be moved in the cosmos does so because of earth.  Everything that exists in the cosmos with a body comes from earth in at least some sense; as in Ecclesiastes 3:20, “all go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.”  And, indeed, according to the definition, earth is also the “receptacle of the dead”; all things that die or are destroyed return to earth.  However, bear in mind that nothing ever truly dies or is destroyed, but only changes form from one thing into another.  As such, when this definition says that earth is the “receptacle of the dead”, it refers to the ultimate nature of all material entities and bodies: when all water is evaporated out, all head dissipated, all breath expired, all that is left is earth.  (This leads into something like the Black Work and White Work of the alchemists, but that’s for another day.)

Earth is said to come “last after fire and water, since it became what it is after fire and water”.   Here we have the beginnings of a cosmogony: in the beginning was God, who spoke the Word and somehow created the cosmos and eventually Man.  Within the cosmos, the elements were formed at different stages, not all at once: fire and water and air came first in some manner, and earth was last.  Earth was made unique, partitioned out, or “separated” out from the cosmos last.  Something similar is said in the Poemandres of the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter I, part 5):

[Thereon] out of the Light . . . a Holy Word (Logos) descended on that Nature. And upwards to the height from the Moist Nature leaped forth pure Fire; light was it, swift and active too.

The Air, too, being light, followed after the Fire; from out the Earth-and-Water rising up to Fire so that it seemed to hang therefrom.

But Earth-and-Water stayed so mingled each with other, that Earth from Water no one could discern. Yet were they moved to hear by reason of the Spirit-Word (Logos) pervading them.

Earth is often seen as the heaviest of the four elements.  Fire rises up, air moves around, water flows around; earth sinks and compresses into itself.  Earth is often exemplified as the rocks, boulders, crystals, metals, soil, humus, loam, and dust that is lowest on the ground, that which falls from the sky or from trees down through the air and water.  If one mixes up a batch of mud, over time the water will rise to the top and the earth will sink to the bottom; the earth is what comes out last when all else is formed, and when all else leaves again to return to its natural elements.  Fire can burn earth to produce brittle earth, but it’s still earth; air can break earth to form dusty earth, but it’s still earth; water can moisten earth to produce sloppy earth, but it’s still earth.  Earth is the last element, and the one that is always produced from any interaction with the other elements.  Plato discusses the nature of the element of earth in similar terms in the Timaeus:

To earth, then, let us assign the cubical form; for earth is the most immoveable of the four and the most plastic of all bodies, and that which has the most stable bases must of necessity be of such a nature…

From all that we have just been saying about the elements or kinds, the most probable conclusion is as follows : earth, when meeting with fire and dissolved by its sharpness, whether the dissolution take place in the fire itself or perhaps in some mass of air or water, is borne hither and thither, until its parts, meeting together and mutually harmonising, again become earth ; for they can never take any other form…

In essence, where the world is (and by “world” here I mean the sensible world of the cosmos), earth must necessarily be, because earth is the “support of the world”, its core and defining element that forms the foundation for all other elements, including itself, to interact amongst each other.  The cosmos is made because of earth; without earth, nothing tangible or visible could exist.  This is what makes the cosmos separate from the rest of the All as God; basically, the cosmos is earthy, and because of this, the question “what is the power of the world?” is essentially “what is the power of earth?”

To that question, the definition gives “to keep up for ever the immortal beings, such as they came into being, and to always change the mortal”.  The first part, “to keep up for ever the immortal beings”, indicates that all things that live forever (note the use of “immortal” here as opposed to the “ever-living” of Man) live by means of earth, which supports (“keeps up”) these creatures.  Anything that exists forever in the cosmos does so because of the imperishable, indissoluble earth that it consists of.  The Earth (not the element, but the planet) is something that can very well be considered immortal, as can the other planets, as can mountains or similar.  These things are called “immortal” since their bodies always were and always will be (modern notions of physics being laid aside for now).  Mortal things, however, are those whose bodies pass into existence from and within the cosmos, and whose bodies will pass out of existence from and back into the cosmos.  These things suffer the increase and decrease appropriate to physical bodies, with the element of earth that composes them taking the hits, so to speak.  Earth, being the densest and most plastic of the elements, is what is physically acted upon by the other elements; the other elements act together upon the body, changing it and reacting with it, eventually causing deterioration, decrease, death, and destruction.  Again, though, the element of earth that composes these bodies only ever decomposes back into the raw elements that they consist of; mass and elements will always be conserved within the cosmos, since nothing comes from nothing.