On Fitting Rituals Together

Most of the posts I write are written in one fell swoop, more or less, but on occasion, I’ll save something as a draft to finish later, especially if I feel like I don’t have enough information yet or if an idea hasn’t come through clearly.  The thing about these drafts is that they’ll either be finished in a few days after some more research and thinking it through, or it’ll get shelved indefinitely until I remember that I have drafts backed up waiting for another look.  I have more than a few such drafts from my blog-quiet Year in White, and a few more from before that, that I never really bothered to complete or, if they were complete, publish for one reason or another.

Recently, I went through my drafts and found a post on a PGM conjuration ritual, PGM IV.930—1114, which had a bunch of notes and comments ready for review, that I hadn’t previously touched since June 2014 (jeez).  I decided to pick that one to see where I was, and while it was mostly complete, it had plenty of room for expansion.  I decided to finish out that post, take a deeper look at the source material with a slightly more trained eye than I had before, and finally put it up; seeing how I’ve been on a roll with taking all the old prayers and rituals I’ve posted over the years and putting them into finalized, polished, published pages on this blog (which you can view using the updated navbar at the top of the site), I decided to forego the post and just put out the page.  Thus, if you’re interested, take a look at my write-up on PGM IV.930—1114, the Conjuration of Light under Darkness (under Occult → Classical Hermetic Rituals, with the rest of the PGM/PDM/Coptic stuff).

It’s a pretty nifty ritual, if I do say so myself; it’s a straight-up conjuration of the god Horus Harpocrates, and it bears a huge number of parallels to a proper conjuration ritual in the Solomonic tradition that arose after the PGM period, including prayers of compulsion and formal ritual closings.  One of the more fascinating parts of it is that, instead of performing the ritual on an altar, it uses a sort of anti-altar: a lamp held above the ground on the intersection of two ropes suspended from the ceiling of a room.  Reading deeper into the ritual and Betz’s notes on the source text, the ritual as recorded in the PGM is actually a combination of several earlier rituals: a prayer for divine alliance with a deity, a lamp divination ritual, and a conjuration of a god.  The fact that there are some parts of the ritual that seem duplicated or don’t read as a single flow of a ritual written in one go indicates that it is, indeed, cobbled together, but it also feels somehow familiar to later texts like the Key of Solomon in that same not-quite-jarring, not-quite-disharmonic sense.  It still works, though you can clearly see the distinct parts that make up the whole.

A few days back, Scott Stenwick over at Augoeides wrote a post titled The Template Works for Everything, which I encourage you to read.  He starts out by packing quite the punch:

One of the best things about modular ritual templates is how versatile and effective they are for all different kinds of workings. If there’s a “magical secret” out there, how to put the various rituals and forms together into a coherent operation is probably it. Many published books on magick include instructions on how to do the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram. Some include the Lesser Ritual of the Hexagram. Some include the Middle Pillar. And so forth. But there’s little instruction on what to do with them aside from recommendations that you practice them daily. …

At any rate, what I found when I published Mastering the Mystical Heptarchy is that nobody else publishes that stuff, either. I was told time and again how useful my book was because it laid out the whole structure of a ceremonial operation including the basic components that go into actually getting stuff done. I’ve gone ahead and published the whole magical and mystical series here on Augoiedes for precisely that reason. We really don’t need any more occult books that teach the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram and then don’t really even tell you what it’s for or what it’s supposed to do.

Stenwick talks a lot more about his operant field theory of magic over on his blog, which should be damn-near mandatory for anyone in a Thelemic or Golden Dawn system of magic to read.  Suffice it here to say that Stenwick puts into no uncertain terms that there are certain components for ritual magic—for any kind of magic within a coherent system—that plug into each other in a modular fashion, and by swapping out certain parts as needed according to a particular template of ritual, you can get anywhere you need to go.

The fact that he put this idea into such bald, direct terms shocked me, because it makes so much sense and I wish I had written about it sooner myself.  He’s absolutely right: every tradition of magic has its own kind of template, and builds rituals up according to that template from smaller actions and rituals.  No matter what it is you’re trying to do, no matter what system you’re using, every complete ritual is a machine built from parts that fit together in a more-or-less cohesive whole, and by swapping those parts out as needed, you get a different ritual as needed.  If it seems like there’s something missing, it’s because there is, and you’re not using all the parts you should.

Yes, rituals that are complete unto themselves from the PGM or any number of grimoires of your choosing are a dime a dozen, but consider: those are snapshots, isolated incidents from within a tradition.  If you actually study the tradition from which such an instance of ritual comes, you’d get a more complete view of the preliminary stuff that would be expected to happen before it, the concluding stuff that would be expected to happen after it, how that ritual can be used as a part of an even larger ritual, and (if you’re exceptionally skilled, and for particular rituals) how to break down a ritual into its constituent parts and repurposed for other rituals.

As an example, consider Rufus Opus‘ now-discontinued Red Work series of courses.  I used to half-joke that he was a one-trick pony and that the only proper ritual he taught in his courses was his version of the Trithemian conjuration ritual, because he did.  Heck, he even wrote a whole book on planetary magic, Seven Spheres, with that being the only real ritual.  It’s true, but that’s the whole point of the system of magic he teaches.  His angelic banishing ritual he teaches, the first actual ritual in the text that isn’t making holy water or learning how to meditate, is just a Trithemian conjuration ritual that substitutes a full charge of conjuration with a half-charge that invokes the angels only so far as they banish one’s sphere; his conjuration of a genius loci is a pared-down version of the Trithemian ritual with a charge of conjuration modified specifically for a spirit of the land; his conjuration of one’s natal genius is almost identical to any other angelic use of the Trithemian ritual with the exception of a heavily-modified charge of conjuration; all the conjurations of the elemental and planetary angels are virtually identical except for the time of conjuration, the name of God used in the charge of conjuration, and the name of the angel being conjured.  Rufus Opus got the modularization of the Trithemian ritual down to a science well beyond its original purpose for conjuring the seven planetary angels, even down to adapting parts of it for his own take on goetic conjurations of demons.  When viewed from a naive perspective, sure, Rufus Opus may only have taught one ritual, but what he was really teaching was a framework, a template, a process of ritual and how to adapt that process to any particular need, just not in explicit terms.

On the other end of the spectrum, consider a text like the Arbatel.  This is a text that teaches about a system of magic, including some of the major spirits and types thereof in the system and what they do, but the text gives you next to nothing in the way of a ritual template; while it provides some prayers and suggestions for working with the spirits it discusses in its aphorisms, the text largely assumes either that you already have a framework of ritual you’re comfortable with, or that you’re spiritually developed enough and suited to the work that one will be revealed unto you.  Those who can read between the lines can divine something resembling a framework, vague as it might be, like I have on this blog before, but it’s just as likely (and just as well) that an experienced magician can take the information of the Arbatel, look at a framework of ritual they already know works, and plug in the few parts that the Arbatel provides to get as much out of it as one can get out of a fully detailed text like the Key of Solomon or Grimoirium Verum.

Now take a look again at PGM IV.930—1114.  It’s apparent that this ritual is composed of parts that were, at some point by some author, cobbled together from earlier rituals written by earlier authors that just so happened to fill the needs of that later author for a coherent purpose, combining the prayers, tools, and processes from each into a single whole ritual.  That magician had a good grasp of what he needed, and tried to keep as true as he could to the parts of the ritual without sacrificing any one benefit for the whole thing.  He had a framework for ritual that would match with that of any Renaissance Solomonic conjurer, and he used whatever parts at his disposal to come up with a complete whole.  Can the ritual be augmented with other preliminary work, or concluded or continued with other rituals?  You bet!  The author even included a part for further extending one aspect of the ritual, which is unfortunately lost in the source material, but not only is the possibility there, it’s a certainty that it’s there.

This is why it’s important for magicians to study the small, routine stuff like simple energy work, basic prayers, attunement and banishing acts, and other simple rituals.  While they all have importance on their own for their own sake, it’s not always said how profoundly important they really are as framing rituals or other ritual components in a wider system of magic.  These small building blocks are used to build larger rituals, and without having a solid grasp of the small parts, it makes having a solid grasp of the larger whole all the more difficult.  It’s not just that the smaller stuff produces a firmer foundation than might otherwise be achieved for later works, but it’s that each part must be able to be carried out smoothly and powerfully so that when they’re incorporated as parts in a larger ritual, the whole shebang is smooth and powerful in a way that treating it as a single unit unto itself wouldn’t be able to achieve.  Every ritual isn’t a single note, it’s a harmonic symphony unto itself, and each part is a movement that must flow from one to the next.

Every tradition has its process and framework, from Russian Orthodox ceremonies to Cuban Orisha ceremonies, and if you pay attention, you can easily pick up on the structure of how things flow, what should come next, what can be changed, what should stay the same, what can be considered an indivisible part, what can be broken down into smaller parts, what can be modified or tweaked to come up with a whole new part, and how to put parts together.  Every system of ritual work has a template, and as Stenwick says, “the template works”.

Tools and Progression

Though it might be shocking to some, even though I’d like to have my professional title on business cards be “mage”, I’m a software engineer by trade, having gotten a B.S. in computer science from a well-established engineering school, with a focus on metrics in the software engineering process.  I run a Linux system (or three) at home, and prefer to stick to working with UNIX systems in the otherwise Windows-dominated environment at work, and *NIX systems have been my primary platform for a number of years now, even dating back to when I was using Mac OS.  Basically, I’m a geek in more ways than magically.

Part of the joy about using *NIX systems is the use of the command line interface (CLI) or terminal, which is by no means an old, obsolete, or archaic way of dealing with the computer, though it might be a little arcane or intimidating for a newbie.  In some ways, it’s more powerful than using the graphical user interface (GUI), since things are entered in directly as commands with well-specified parameters and arguments.  This allows programs to be chained in a way that normal execution through a GUI does not allow; I can output several lines of text from a file, search for a word, make new files with the lines of text that contain those words, and copy them to multiple places around the computer in a line or two of commands, versus spending 20+ minutes doing it by pointing, clicking, typing, dragging, copying, pasting, etc.  Though it might take a little practice or thought, the ability to script or link commands together is a powerful tool.

However, this relies on crucial assumptions that most *NIX programs make as a matter of philosophy, which dominate programming and development for *NIX systems and have for decades now.  Some of the more important ones relevant to this conversation include:

  • Modularity: write simple parts connected by clean interfaces.
  • Composition: design programs to be connected to other programs.
  • Extensibility: design for the future, becasue it will be here sooner than you think.

Basically, design programs to work as tools for other programs.  This is what allows the commands grep, ls, cat, and echo to be so simple yet so powerful, and lets the CLI be so honored and respected even after decades of GUI use.  There’s a learning curve, sure, but so does any art, and when one has a thorough understanding of one’s tools coupled with a bit of ingenuity and inspiration, one can wield tremendous power using relatively little effort.

It’s like that with the occult, too.  In my practice, I have a multitude of tools from wands to planetary talismans to swords to bottles of oils and blessed water and any number of other things.  Some of my tools include ritual arrangements, some include energetic processes, and some include lengthy prayers and orisons to be used, but they all accomplish something or are intended for a purpose.  The real force of ritual doesn’t rely on any one tool, but the use of at least one tool in conjunction with others to accomplish something: the use of a wand and a prayer to invoke an angel, setting up crystals and an orgone generator to charge a ritual, or the use of incense, prayers, candles, and talismans to bless an event at an astrologically elected time.  In other words, tools are meant to be used together, much like *NIX programs in the CLI.  Incense of benzoin and storax on its own is nice, as is an invoation to Hermes, as is a bit of orange cloth that’s easy on the eyes, but it’s using them together to create a ritual and accomplish a goal that any one of them could not that shows the real beauty of modularity and composition.

What’s beautiful about the use of tools in tandem to accomplish a goal is that they permit flexibility and innovation.  A tool that does one thing might be able to be used in a way completely unexpected from its original intent: a wand, for instance, was originally a cane to beat people up with, but was viewed by some as a symbol of authority, thence to Will, thence to directing and enforcing things in a ritual.  Though some tools may act as if they have a mind of their own, they have a function and are committed to carrying out that function, no more and no less.  This means that some tools can be used together in really stupid ways to do things that might end up no better than doing something simply another way, or maybe even worse than not doing it at all.  But, by the same token, this allows tools to be used in creative, clever, and potentially groundbreaking ways that were never originally envisioned.

As my HGA once told me, by coming up with, building, or obtaining tools for ourselves, we build new doors, which leads to new and better tools, which leads to new doors, and so on.  Tools are an essential part of my (our?) work, because they permit access to new places, new powers, and progress.  Even if an idea or function is well-understood on the theoretical level, the implementation of it is just as necessary in order to use that idea with other ideas.  This matter of experimentation is crucial in the Art, since it too is a kind of science (literally “knowing”); theorizing and hypothesizing is necessary, but it cannot fully show the implications and materializations of an idea until it and its side effects are fully explored.  This is similar to why Frater RO suggests kinetic meditation in making one’s tools by hand, or meditating and drawing out a spirit’s seal multiple times prior to conjuration, or similar practice so that one can really integrate the tool into one’s sphere.  It’s this integration that allows for clever creativity, which generally leads to more success and newer avenues of exploration than dumb luck made from blind execution.

In a sense, magic cannot alone be done astrally, lest it stay astral; there has to be some materialization, some grounding, some building involved down here to make the process complete.  One may have an etheric nayati or astral temple or whatnot, complete with tools and pentacles aplenty, but without having physical counterparts, it’s much harder to grok the complete use and functionality of something when it’s never been experienced in the flesh.  Don’t forget that humans, as material, physical creatures, need to work with things materially and physically in some way in order to make sense of the cosmos, which is also at least in part material and physical.  The use of physical tools and an altar is not absolutely necessary, just as a toolbox and spare lumber isn’t needed to build a shelter, but the difference between using tools and not using them can be like that between stringing up a tarp in an alleyway and a decked-out palace.  They both accomplish the same goal, sure, but one has a lot more potential and strength when you’ve got something to build with.