Materialists and Spiritualists

One of the blogs I’ve recently added to my blogroll recently posted about his problems when people define being religious, spiritual, and spiritual-not-religious.  To a large degree, I agree with him; it’s simply not true that you can’t be spiritual and religious at the same time, though one can be “religious” without doing much spiritually and vice versa.  It’s complicated, but it does have some truth to it.  I know that I myself (way back when I was younger and a little more pompous than I am now) described myself as spiritual-not-religious, but now that I think back on that, I can’t say that I’d mean now what I meant then by that phrase.

Being a Hermeticist, I like to classify things into large groups.  When it comes to beliefs or the lack thereof, I go by two big classifications, materialists and spiritualists.  I define these terms specifically for how they perceive the world:

  • Materialists believe that there is nothing except the physical, tangible world around us; in other words, to them there exists only Malkuth as the whole of existence.  Among others, atheists, agnostics, and “hard science-only” people fall into this category, either believing that there is nothing else besides the material world or having the lack of belief that anything immaterial exists.  Everything that exists only exists in terms of matter and material processes, having material starts, material ends, and material changes.
  • Spiritualists believe that there exists the physical and tangible world around us in addition to other non-physical, or spiritual, worlds around, involved with, or separated from us; in other words, there are other sephiroth besides Malkuth that make up the whole of existence.  This includes people of faith, magicians, mystics, and other such people.

I further break down that group of spiritualists into three further groups:

  • Conventional religionists believe that there is more to existence than the material world, but focus only on the material.  Most common people of faith such as Christians who go to church only on Sundays or just on Christmas and Easter but are otherwise uninvolved with spiritual matters, fall into this group.  For all intents and purposes, these people are pretty much the same as materialists with a veneer of spirituality.  No explicitly spiritual action is taken by these people.
  • Mystics believe that there is more to existence than the material world, and endeavor to go to and through other spiritual places so as to reach the Divine Source/God.  This is their sole or primary purpose; in qabbalistic terms, they’re interested only in bringing things from Below to Above.  Monastics, holy men, prophets, and theurgists fall into this group.
  • Magicians believe that there is more to existence than the material world, and endeavor to go to and through other spiritual places so as to change the world down here using spiritual or material means.  This is their sole or primary purpose; in qabbalistic terms, they’re interested in bringing things from Above to Below.  Magicians, sorcerers, witches, and the like fall into this group.

Of course, I’m defining the terms “mystic” and “magician” completely on a whim for the sake of classification at this point, and it’s entirely possible that someone spiritual but not a conventional religionist is either at any given point; it’s like the difference between theurgy and thaumaturgy, or doves versus snakes; even I myself switch modes depending on what needs to be done.  This isn’t to say that a mystic or a magician can’t be faithful as would normally be reckoned, either; I know many witches or ceremonial magicians (or “magicians” in the scheme above) who also have devout practices to particular gods.  In a way, the mystics and magicians could be combined into bigger group of “active spiritualists”, while conventional religionists might be called “passive spiritualists”.

The big difference between conventional religionists and magicians/mystics is the property of spiritual action; religionists believe but do nothing, while mystics and magicians believe and do things.  Of course, if you count prayer as spiritual activity (as one should), then many conventional religionists may be considered mystics (e.g. for salvation and purity); then again, depending on the nature of the prayer, they might also be considered magicians (e.g. for financial wealth and children).  Most American Christians I know, for instance, who don’t really do much of either fall into the conventional religionist/passive spiritualist category.  This is a pretty large group, and like I mentioned before, it’s basically the same as the materialists but with a veneer of spirituality; they’re otherwise the same.  That said, being seen as religious or involved at a minimum with social religion can be very useful for some people, and I can’t fault them for that, whatever their reason may be.

So whither the spiritual-not-religious people in this scheme?  It depends on the nature of their activity.  If they do work, they’re an active spiritualist and are likely a mystic or magician (in the scheme above), either in terms of bringing good stuff up there to down here or in terms of bringing themselves and others up there from down here.  If they don’t do much at all, then they’re a passive religionist, and no better or worse than a Sunday-only Protestant.  And, perhaps more obnoxious, that’s really not saying much more than if you were a materialist with an extra social connection.

Plus, a lot of the terms many people use are colored by Christianity’s definition of spirituality and religion; not all religions, faiths, or paths use these concepts.  For instance, when performing a religion census in China and Japan, it’s incredibly difficult to classify people as “just” a Buddhist, or a Taoist, or a Shinto practitioner, or a Confucianist.  Many people are all at once, depending on their work and upbringing, and instead of asking “to what faith do you belong” when many people would say “all of the above” (which is a concept shockingly different from what most of the Western world believes), such census questions ask instead whether one has read a particular canon of texts, whether they’ve taken refuge in the Three Gems of Buddhism, whether they go to a particular temple or set of temples, whether they’ve performed priestly or monastic work before, and the like.  The answer may still be complex, but then, nobody said this was a simple matter.

So, I suppose the big question in defining someone in terms of spirituality is: what do you Do?

Proper Spelling

I spell it “magic”.  Not “magick”, not “magik”, not “majiq” (which I have seriously seen used before, probably by some McWiccan tween on reddit).  No K, no lack of C, no Qs or Xs.  “Magic”.  I understand it’s a really minor, trivial quibble to have, but I just wanted to make my own thoughts known.  As usual, I like to resort to etymology and historical usage to inform my choice.  From

magic (n.): late 14c., “art of influencing events and producing marvels using hidden natural forces,” from Old French magique “magic, magical,” from Late Latin magice “sorcery, magic,” from Greek magike (presumably with tekhne “art”), fem. of magikos “magical,” from magos “one of the members of the learned and priestly class,” from Old Persian magush, possibly from PIE *magh- (1) “to be able, to have power” (see machine). Transferred sense of “legerdemain, optical illusion, etc.” is from 1811. Displaced Old English wiccecræft (see witch); also drycræft, from dry “magician,” from Irish drui “priest, magician” (see druid).

Only in Greek do we find the use of a K in magic, only because Greek doesn’t have the letter C.  We find the use of a Q in French, only because the phonological evolution of French uses “que” to indicate a hard C or a K sound.  Latin uses “magia” or “mageia”, depending on how Greek it wants to seem, since it got the word from Greek, which got the word from ancient Persian.  You know, the home of the old astrologers, Chaldaeans, and the like, the Urheimat of most Western occultism.  Only in some nonstandard spellings in older texts do we find the variant “magick”; this doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but it’s definitely not my preferred spelling any more than “shoppe” is for “shop” or “ich” is for “I” or other Middle English spellings today.

The distinction between “magic” and “magick” that I’ve seen is that “magick” is reserved for the “real” stuff, i.e. conjuration, alchemy, theurgy, thaumaturgy, and energy work.  This spelling was invented (or supposedly “revived”, depending on whom you ask) as a reaction to the use of the word “magic” to refer to prestidigitization, stage magic, optical illusions, and other practices that are often tied up with swindling, begging, and fraud.  This supposed debasement of a holy word to something common and vulgar is tripping us up from being the established, respected wise people we should be seen as.  Heavens forbid that people take us for some conjurers of cheap tricks!  We’re not trying to rob you, we’re trying to help you!

So what?

I don’t find the difference between magic-like-conjuration and magic-like-stage-magic to be that important, really.  In fact, working with illusions, tricking people, and providing them shocks is part and parcel of the work of the magician, no matter the altar or stage or field he chooses.  Magicians have always played the role of wise sage and street performer, providing help or harm as needed to people in any number of ways.  Keep in mind that, especially for Hermeticists, magicians fall at least partially under the archetype of Hermes and definitely within that sphere’s power.  Even the powerful and mystical Gandalf had fun and trickery with his fireworks for idle entertainment, despite that he was tasked by the gods of Middle-Earth for one of the gravest tasks of all.

Consider Trump I of the Tarot, often called the Magician in modern decks.  In older decks, like the Marseilles Tarot, he was called le Bateleur, “the Juggler”.  He had his Sword, his Cup, his Coins, and his Wands on the table, sure, but he also had his dice, his hat, his magic bag of holding.  With his baton he points out what to look at, distracting us from his hands while he juggles things behind the scenes before us.  He’s a trickster, and he’s inviting us to a show.  He sets up his altar, his portable playing-card table, out on some random spot on the road that’s natural, rugged, and completely real.  He wears brightly-colored, fun, and floppy clothing, wild hair tangled about in his lemniscatesque hat, partially to draw crowds, partially to distract, both of which are sources of his power in addition to the holiness of his garb.  He’s a holy fakir and wholly a faker, and that’s the whole point of being a magician.  When you’re wielding the forces of the cosmos, you need to have some way to relate it to other people here on Earth, whether it be through insightful metaphor or playful card trick.  Then again, what else is Tarot but both metaphor and trick played out on the same deck of cards?

It’s only later when the professionally fraudulent theurgic magicians wanted to separate themselves out from the fraudulently professional stage magicians that people started affecting a difference in appearance and spelling.  It corresponds more-or-less with trying to keep the occult science a science, much how astrologers have wanted to keep their art up to speed with discoveries in astronomy.   Thus we see an evolution from Marseilles’ Bateleur to Rider-Waite’s Magician: instead of a wild mane, we find a well-maintained solemn coif; instead of a roadside stand, we find a to-spec altar in a trimmed garden; instead of tools and gimmicks and toys filling the table, we find just the bare minimum and duly consecrated Weapons; instead of a playful hat indicating his connection to the cosmos, we find only symbolic metaphor.  We find utter seriousness where before we had fun.  This isn’t wrong, but it cuts out the liveliness and livelihood of the magician in the process for trying to obtain priestly acceptance and sacrosanct privilege.

Even in religious settings where the lines between priest, shaman, and magician are blurred, vulgar illusionry and divine experience both have their place.  Using hidden gears and wires to cause statues to move, pipes through walls to make rooms boom with unseen voices, and even ancient primitive batteries to provide devotees and dedicants with a shocking experience in multiple senses.  Jedi mind tricks and other mental stimuli can help produce trances, sometimes by brief distraction and sometimes through powerful hypnosis.  These illusions help move people out of the day-to-day, drawing them off the well-worn path just for a second to see that whole fields and lands exist besides just their already-familiar destination.  They might be for profound revelation of the spirit or for a brief distraction from daily toil, but illusions help people break out of their normal headspace and into a wider, more magical one.

We shouldn’t forget that just as stage magicians work in a world of illusions, so too do “real” magicians work in a cosmos of them.  We have to build and destroy illusions for both other people and ourselves, for profit greater than mere coin but by no means excluding it (the Weapon of Earth is, after all, the coin and all that it implies materialistically).  We aren’t necessarily priests, authorities, or establishment, and we don’t need to follow suit by filling the suit they expect their people to wear.  We need to do our own thing, use our own set of tools, and start playing games with the world and cosmos, wherever we may find ourselves.  Just as God made the planets to fly around the spheres, we need to learn to juggle those forces just as we juggle our own affairs down here.  All this isn’t even touching on those who live in more dangerous parts of the world for occultists, where magicians need some way to disguise themselves so that their phenomenal cosmic powers can fit into itty-bitty living spaces and social roles that push them to the social role of “silly entertainer” instead of “dangerous heretic”.

Still, it always trips me up when I read someone using the spelling “magickian”, because then I end up pronouncing it “mah-jik-kee-an” instead of “magician” and it crashes my train of thought.  I think we should just all use “magus” or “magos” instead, and save ourselves the keystrokes and quibbling.  (Kalagni, hon, you get a pass because you’re Canadian.  Nobody else has an excuse.  ♥)

Also, it’s spelled “altar” (n., a raised or prepared surface for worship and sacrifice), not “alter” (v., “to change or make something different”).

Labels and Definitions

Granted that a lot of people who practice magic and exploration of the higher realms are pagan nowadays, not all pagans do magic, and not all magicians are pagan.  Magic is something that isn’t tied to any one religion or spiritual path, and magic comes in so many forms, languages, shapes, and contexts that it can never be relegated to any one word or definition.  So, it always confuses me and gives me (longer-than-conversationally-permissible) pause when people ask whether I’m pagan or call me such without checking.

“Pagan” nowadays often refers to polytheistic, earth-centered, environmentally-conscious people.  Although “pagan” is usually synonymous with “Wiccan” in most popular contexts, this is far from being the actual case, with hundreds of varieties of “pagan” out there.  The word “pagan” comes from Latin paganus, meaning “country dweller” or “rustic”, or someone who lives according to an older or less sophisticated way of life.  It’s a blanket term, and synonymous in etymology with the word “heathen”, or “someone living in the heath” or the desolate back country.  Both terms came to mean “not Christian or Jewish”, and are both very broad blanket terms.  In this sense, Buddhists, Hindus, and even Muslims and Mormons (being polytheistic and not trinitarian) may be called “pagan”.  “Neopagan” is an improvement, but doesn’t cover all the bases, either, since it only covers contemporary revivals or new spiritual paths.  What about people who practice Bön on the Tibetan plateau, or the Ainu who practice their own form of animistic faith in northern Japan?  These are certainly pagans, but definitely aren’t neopagans.

Myself?  I consider myself a magician, specifically a Hermetic and/or ceremonial magician.  I don’t really operate in terms of religion or spiritual orthodoxy; instead, I work in terms of practice, experience, and experiments.  I come from a loosely Jewish background, I believe in the One God, and that Christ is an aspect or physical emanation of the Logos or Son of God and/or a pretty cool dude.  I also believe that Muhammad (PBUH), the Bahá’u’lláh, all of the Jewish patriarchs, and the like were prophets ordained by God to do work in his favor, and all likewise pretty cool dudes.  I’m also starting a priesthood role to Hermes, have worked with Avalokiteśvara and Bhaişajyaguru from Vajrayana Buddhism, honor the planets and their attendants, picking up practices with some other gods from the Greek and (as a faint possibility in the future after some chats with friends) Aztec or African pantheons, and work under the tutelage and with the assistance of my Holy Guardian Angel.  I’m so far over the place, hither and thither, that I break a lot of people’s definitions, preconceptions, and labels.  In other words, as befitting my Hermetic nature, I’m a trickster and don’t fit into any one bin, since I’ll just flit right out and into another one.  I’d be like a Schrödinger’s Cat of traditions, except with less neurotoxin.

So, next time you ask what path I’m on?  I won’t have any better of an answer than “I’m working on my own”.


From my instructor’s blog, Rufus Opus on Head for the Red:

And don’t worry about those people who will think you’re crazy for talking to inanimate objects. I mean, you already qualify as insane in their eyes because you really believe you’re a magician with the power and destiny to change the world as you see fit. Fuck them and their sanity.

Yeah, that about sums up my practice so far.