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.

De Conjuratione et Compulsione

A good chunk of the work I do is conjuration: the summoning, evocation, and invoking of spirits to communicate with me and help me out in my Work, either by having them do something for me externally or empowering or educatingme internally for a particular aim.  Conjuration is definitely a primary tool for me: divination, simple energy work, astral sight, and the like all have their place, but I wouldn’t be where or what I am without chatting with the spirits I’ve called up. 

The word “conjuration” means “command on oath” or “constrain by spell”, from Latin conjurare, “to swear together, conspire”.  It’s a pretty forceful term, come to think of it, and it’s not hard to see why.  Look at any text in the Solomonic tradition and you’ll find that the prayers and incantations used to evoke the spirits can be pretty heavy-handed, if not replete with threats, curses, and ultimatums.  (For a real good example of this, check out the Bond of Solomon from the Munich Manual, which is ridiculously long and uses basically every divine act in the Old and New Testaments to convince a spirit “hey you, do this now”.)  Between “behold your conclusion if you do not obey me”, the Spirit’s Chain, and various other orations from the grimoires, it’s not hard to picture the conjurer or magician as someone in charge of an “enhanced information extraction” torture chamber.

Of course, given that a lot of spirits referred to in the Solomonic tradition are demonic or outright harmful to the magician, you probably do want to be stern with them, but are they harmful because of the magician’s threats, or does the magician threaten them because they’re harmful?  It’s an interesting chicken-and-egg problem, not helped any by the fact that most Solomonic magicians in the Western tradition were likely priests or devout Christians who saw any spirit not explicitly an angel of God to be a lacky of Satan.  And, as Fr. MC from the Lion’s Den noted in his Crossed Keys, a lot of these spirits are ancient and benevolent, having only committed the crime of not bowing down to the Judeo-Christian God.  To be honest, I can’t blame them.

Now, a good occultist friend of mine says that while she likes the work I do, she dislikes that I use conjuration to do it.  She’s a big proponent of free will and the ability of choice for all entities (save for predator/prey situations, defense, and necessary facts of life like that), and is barred by her own tradition and powers from doing anything like conjuration.  Instead, she appeals to the spirit directly and builds up a relationship with them to ask for their help and favor, or, if something’s causing a serious issue, she appeals to her own higher powers to take care of it.  From that point of view, I can certainly understand: it’s often better to ask for permission or help than just outright command something you have no apparent connection to to get something done.  It’s more respectful, kind, and appropriate, especially since most of these spirits I deal with are far older than me, my family name, or even humanity, not to mention more powerful.

In other words, it’s as if you worked for a certain company, and I was your boss’ child, and I told you “Get your ass over here and show me this internal report or I’ll tell your boss you done fucked up”.  It disrespects you, disregards your tenure in the company, elides the previous work you’ve done, and assumes that it’s in your purview to even do what I asked (or demanded) you do.  It also presumes that your boss would even bother listening to me, which may not be a valid assumption based on relevance, acceptibility, and how favored I am with your boss.

At the same time, from the Hermetic point of view, that’s actually exactly what’s going on, but in a different light.  From that perspective, we are made in God’s image (ultimate infinite all-encompassing God, not this God or that God) through and through, and even though all things come from God, we’re the only ones to be made like God.  Because all things bear a love for God (even if it’s in some crazy, harmful, or demonic way), when they see us, they see a small part of God, and so will obey us as they obey God, though perhaps not as readily or happily.  However, as we descended through the spheres and gained more and more density, we also gained more and more power from the spirits of those spheres who wanted to help us and empower us out of love for the First Father.

In other words, it’s as if you’re good friends with my parents, and since you like them and I remind you of them, you’d be willing to help me out if I were to call upon you for a favor or request.  It’s really similar to the case above, but phrased and seen like this, it’s not that blatantly disrespectful; I wouldn’t ask you to help me out unless there were already a strong connection and willingness to help.  However, I wouldn’t rightly demand that you do something for me, either, since that’d be taking advantage over you who would only want to do me good; disrespecting you would reflect poorly on me by means of my parents, who would disapprove of the way I’d treat you.

In a recent chat with the angel Michael of the Sun, I asked for his thoughts on conjuration in magic and the Work.  Now, granted, he’s coming from a soldier’s point of view (right-hand man of God, prince of the heavenly host, etc.), but he made a pretty good point:

All things have a job to do.  You can ask them to do it, and if they do it willingly, it is good.  When they do not and their job needs to be done, you need to make them do it.

The cosmos is a complete system where everything plays a part, no matter how minute or how grand it may be.  If something isn’t doing its job, it needs to get a swift kick in the rear or languish about until it finally decides to do it on its own.  In this light, I can see how the efficiency of a well-ordered cosmos would demand the occasional slap on the wrist of a lazy person, but that isn’t always what’s happening in conjuration.

For angels and the like, conjuration’s a fairly straightforward deal.  Supposedly (and I’m unsure how much I buy this idea, but let’s go with it), they don’t have free will but only act as emissaries, mouthpieces, and actors for God, hence their etymology as “messenger”.  If I ask for something that’s absolutely right out of bounds with God, or not in line with the Will of the Father, they’ll decline, but that’s about the only reason they have for declining.  They don’t seem to mind being conjured in the name of God (or in one of the various godnames from the Tree of Life), but that’s because it’s really similar to just directly calling on God and interfacing with a more concrete, non-infinite form of Divinity that’s easier for the human mind to handle and geared specifically for the task at hand.

For other spirits and things that assert their own will and choice, things get a little more hairy.  Sure, being made in the image of God definitely gives us a natural boost in authority, and moreso if you actually work for divine might-makes-right.  However, we’re also pretty young when it comes to creation, and being the favored child doesn’t always cut it.  Personally, I’d always go with an ask-first approach, always paying respect and kindness and understanding to the spirits unless they actively try to initiate harm; in that case, the gloves come off. 

For instance, the first time I met the local nature spirits in my neighborhood, it wasn’t through a conjuration; instead, it was just by taking a walk and calling out to the forest itself, and letting the genius loci appear to me on their own.  In my adaptation of the conjurations from the Lemegeton, I’m only planning on using the first conjuration; I’ll respectfully call upon the goetic spirit (in the name of their rulers and higher powers, yes, but not in an overtly belligerent way), maybe twice or thrice if they do not appear the first time, and after that just be done with it.  At the risk of sounding like a fluffy whitelighter, unless the spirit is being a real prick, I don’t want to bust out anything more offensive than “Hey, I’m calling you here, please come, I have the authority to ask for you”.  I’ve got no compunction against using weaponry when I need it, but until I get more warlike and experienced in this sort of stuff, I’d rather delay the need for them as long as possible until nothing else will cut it.

What do you think?  Do you consider conjuration to be useful for all spirits, even when a polite summons and invitation will do?  Do you find conjuration to be anathema and overly heavy-handed in all circumstances?  Do you use conjuration for some spirits and other techniques for others?

So many dead people

I’ve been feeling extra lazy and lethargic as of late.  I think it’s my body finally saying “Fuck you, kiddo, Imma catch up on the sleep you’ve been denying me for a year”.  I think my body’s being a wuss, but I’ll play its little game.  For now.  In the meantime, less candy and takeout meals, more water and simple foods.  Gotta be strict somehow.

Well, I finally got off my ass last night and made a trip to the local graveyard.  As most of you may have noticed, Halloween was recently, as was All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days.  The veil between the worlds is a little thinned right now (astrologically exact on 11/7, when the Sun is at 15° Scorpio), so I thought it appropriate to do what I’ve never done before and make an offering to the dead.  Despite my learnings and inclinations as to such, I’ve never actually done much work for or with the spirits of the dead, and left that to my naturally necromantic mother and other spirit workers.  I figured it was time to change that.

So I dressed all in black (both for the circumstance and because I didn’t want people to see someone walking into the town cemetery at 10 p.m. on a Wednesday), put a pomegranate, some beer and cookies, and a candle into my bag, and headed out for a pleasant evening walk.  I took my black-handled dagger just in case, but since it hasn’t been consecrated yet, it was more for self-confidence than anything else.  On the way, I asked my elemental familiars for some help (making sure nobody noticed me, opening my ears to hear and eyes to see the dead, that sorta thing), but also for some reassurance and comfort.  I’ve never actually been to this graveyard (or many others, for that matter), though I’ve driven by it a number of times since moving here.  Add to it, it’s nighttime, and there are no lights in the graveyard, and it’s All Souls’.  All told, I was plenty spooked when I got there, and being there didn’t do much to alleviate the fear upon me.

It felt…I dunno.  I’m still getting used to “feeling” places and sensing shit, and this place definitely felt unusual to me.  I suppose I don’t often hang out in places filled with the departed, but hey, new experiences!  In my mind’s eye I could sorta see these guys lining the areas, and a good number were curious about me.  It was mostly benign curiosity, though still kinda stark.  The graveyard had this circular mound with an obelisk in the center, which I circumambulated a few times out of respect for the dead of the place.  I then walked around the graveyard on the roads provided, taking in the sights in what little light the half-moon gave off, and just feeling around the place respectfully.

When I got back to the mound, I got out my offerings and placed them on the curb of the mound.  I lit the candle, and instantly the trees rustled from a noticeable wind (which, when the rest of the night was calm and windless, I was like “oh god oh god wtf”, but since I didn’t feel anything negative from it, I continued with my offering).  I offered one beer, the food, and the candle to the spirits, then shared the other beer with the spirits in a toast.  I made a small oration and dedication to the dead of the place, the dead I knew, the dead of my friends and family, and that sorta thing.  After I made the offerings, I noticed I could see my breath much clearer than before, which implies that the temperature dropped.  Yikes.

After I made my offerings, I got up and walked out.  I felt things around me sorta close in on me, not offensively, but…I dunno.  I “heard” a voice call out to wait, and so I turned around (making a point to not look back at the center mound, Orphically) and kinda saw the presence of a child walk up to me and, I guess, hug me.  I smiled and wished it well, and it thanked me and walked off.  I then promptly GTFO of the place before my welcome was up, since I still felt closed-in by things around me in an otherwise open space.  The walk home was uneventful and I sprinkled some water on myself later to wash off anything that might’ve clung to me, but otherwise the rest of the night went pleasingly and restfully.

Not gonna lie, I dunno if what I did was reckless or enthusiastically honoring the dead, but it was intense either way.  It was my first time, too, working with spirits of the dead as opposed to the elements or of a particular place.  They didn’t quite appear to be the listless shades of Hades, but they weren’t the most active conversationalists, either.  I’ve heard real ghost stories of some of my friends who’ve gone to real messed-up places before where the spirits there were all like “NOPE” and did what they could to get them off their turf, but this wasn’t like that either.  I suppose I might want to tread carefully whenever I work with the dead since I’ll likely not know what I’ll be brushing up against, but investigating how to work with them in the future is definitely going to be a line of research for me.