Genius in the Picatrix: The Ritual Itself, and Why Do It Anyway

Last time, we started talking about a particularly interesting bit of the Ġāyat al-Ḥakīm, the “Goal of the Wise”, sometimes just known as the Ġayah, but definitely better known in the West as the Picatrix, most likely written in Arabic sometime in the middle of the 11th century CE.  Everyone knows the Picatrix, everyone loves the Picatrix; it’s a fantastic text of astrological magic, and among the earliest of true grimoires in Europe.  Although focused on what we’d nowadays call stellar image magic, the creation of astrological talismans bearing magical images and scenes made under particular stellar configurations, the text is famous for its wide inventory of bizarre magical concoctions and confections for a variety of purposes, its lengthy invocations to the planetary spirits, and its preservation of older pagan practices from the Hermetists, Sabians, Nabataeans, and various other Mediterranean peoples.  It is not, however, a particularly theurgical text on the whole, even though it contains a wealth of information on philosophy, spiritual and cosmic frameworks, and the like in how and why magic works the way that it does.  Yet, in book III, chapter 6, we encounter an interesting section on the “Perfect Nature”, a sort of guiding spirit or genius, originally encountered by Hermēs Trismegistus himself.  The last post discussed some of the symbolic components and associations we can make to the four powers of Perfect Nature; if you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

Anyway, at this point, we now have everything prepared for the ritual, including ourselves.  Once the ritual area has been prepared with the candy confection made, the altar and braziers/censers have been set up appropriately, and the Moon has entered the first degree of Aries (ideally at the very moment of the Moon entering the first degree of Aries), perform the ritual:

  1. Light the candle, then put it in the middle of the dish with the candy confection (if the candle is encased in glass or another foodsafe material, or if the dish itself has a space for the candle), or immediately next to it towards the east if this is not possible.
  2. Fill the two braziers/censers with burning coals or otherwise light the coals in the braziers/censers, and set frankincense and mastic in the one to the north and aloeswood in the other to the south.  Alternatively, if using self-igniting stick/cone incense, light those now in the same order.
  3. Stand upright to the west of the altar facing east towards the altar.
  4. Recite the four names of the spirits of Perfect Nature seven times, whether using the Latin Picatrix version:

    Meegius, Betzahuech, Vacdez, Nufeneguediz

    Or the Arabic Picatrix version:

    Tamāġīs, Baġdīswād, Waġdās, Nūfānāġādīs

  5. Recite the following prayer (my own version, synthesized from the translations of Greer/Warnock, Attrell/Porreca, and Atallah/Kiesel):

    I call you, o high and powerful Spirit of Spirits, o Wisest of the Wise, o Intelligent of all Intelligence, o Knowledgeable of the Knowledge of the whole world!  It is from you that the knowledge and understanding of the wise proceed, and it is by your virtue that the desires of the wise are accomplished.  Hear me, answer me, come to me, be present here with me; unite me with your powers and draw me close to your knowledge; strengthen me with your knowledge, and grant me to understand what I do not understand, know the things I do not know, and see the things I do not see!  Remove from me and protect me from all blindness, corruption, forgetfulness, and disease.  Lift me up to the level of the ancient sages, those whose hearts were filled with intelligence, wisdom, understanding, and insight.  Let all this abide in my heart forever; imprint and affix these things in my heart, that they may never depart from me!

  6. Engage in communion with the Perfect Nature.

That’s it.  For all the complexity of much of what’s in the Picatrix, as far as ingredients or elections or supplies are concerned, this ritual is surprisingly simple and straightforward.  Let the candle burn out on its own, then disassemble the altar and ritual area.

After the directions above, the Latin Picatrix and its translations then say that one is to proceed to the table and partake in the wine, oils, and confection as desired as a sacred feast.  This suggests to me that the altar (or another table in the ritual area) may also have other foodstuffs on it in addition to the wine and oils, e.g. breads, cakes, and the like, but with the candy confection being of primary importance.  More than that, however, the Latin Picatrix and its translations say that the one who performs this ritual is to proceed to the table and feast “with their friends”, indicating that this is a sacred feast to be held and shared not just with one’s own Perfect Nature, but with others who may wish to commune with them as well, or with one’s students or colleagues in the Work.  Because multiple people might be involved, all potentially having different planetary rulerships, having this ritual timed along to a particular planet’s hour/day, rising/culminating, or its sign(s) rising or culminating or having braziers/censers intentionally made with a particular planetary metal may not be advisable, depending on who will be there participating in the ritual.  If on your own or with people who share the same ruling planet, then this could be a good idea for all involved, but otherwise, it might be better to forego such a consideration.

However, I should also note that, although this notion of a sacred communal meal is appealing, it is entirely absent from the Atallah/Kiesel translation—and thus, likely from the Arabic Picatrix in general.  The Atallah/Kiesel translation says nothing about proceeding to the table to partake of whatever is on it, nor anything about sharing a meal with one’s friends.  In fact, later on in the Atallah/Kiesel translation, there’s even a bit that suggests that doing this communally may not be a good idea in general:

Aristotle mentioned in his book also that the first philosopher that worked with these talismans and had the spirits appear to him and led him to the wonders of talismans and made him connect with his perfect nature and opened his eyes to the mysterious secrets of creation.  Also those spirits that told him will never appear to anyone else but you, unless they call our name and present a gift of sacrifice in our name.

This is made all the more confusing, given that the Perfect Nature (or “familiar spirit”) of Caraphzebiz told him in the Latin Picatrix:

“I will remain with you, but do not reveal me to others or speak of me, and make sacrifices in my name.”

In this light, the Picatrix strongly seems to suggest that it would perhaps be best that this whole ritual be done individually, or as an act of sacrifice to one’s own Perfect Nature, whether or not a teacher or mystagogue was present to direct and arrange the ritual for you, and even then, that would probably be best up to that mystagogue’s own Perfect Nature.  In this light, the offerings of wine, oil, and candy may all be a sacrifice to this spirit, not to be consumed by the person performing the ritual.  I suppose, however, at that point, you’d be listening to the directives of your Perfect Nature, who may invite you to partake in it all the same.  It’s unclear; it’s interesting that the Latin Picatrix would include such a shift in ritual directives that the Arabic Picatrix does not, while still holding to the same overall idea elsewhere.

Also, would it be strange that Perfect Nature should give Hermēs Trismegistus a prayer that seeks to make him like “the ancient sages”, given how ancient Hermēs himself is and given how Hermēs is considered to be the founder of so much of philosophy and science?  Not really; we find references in the Asclepius and Stobaean Fragments that the Hermēs we call Trismegistus is but one in a line of Hermai, and likewise for Asclepius from the earlier and more famous deified Imhotep.  Hermēs Trismegistus himself in the Hermetic writings is not just the author of ancient wisdom, but an initiator and preserver of wisdom that was established even before his time.  And, in a much later Abrahamic cultural milieu that, despite ennobling and praising him, still puts him down as a mere pagan, while Islam and Christianity were seen as pristine and purer forms of philosophy and religion dating back to the beginning of the world, this prayer allows for both a connection deeper into the Hermetic mysteries as well as more generalized divine ones that go back to the beginning of all Creation.  Depending on how you look at it, of course; given how the Picatrix also preserves outright pagan and non-Abrahamic practices, holding to an Abrahamic interpretation of what Perfect Nature can tie into is not necessarily a given.  All the same, it is something neat to pick up on here.

So, all that being said, that’s the approach one should take to understanding and communing with the Perfect Nature from book III, chapter 6 of the Picatrix.  At what point should one do this?  I mean, yes, this can be done anytime the Moon is in the first degree of Aries, and judging by the various forms of the Picatrix, this should be done at least once a year by everyone, but at what point in one’s spiritual practice, especially if one takes a Picatrix-heavy or -centric approach, should one undertake this?  I’d argue that it should be one of the very first things actually done, as opposed to study alone.  After all, if what the Picatrix says is true, that:

  • nothing “in this science” can be perfected, done, or accomplished except when the virtues and dispositions of the planets and stars allow it
  • Perfect Nature strengthens the intellect and wisdom of those who seek to do these works
  • each sage has their own proper virtue infused into them according to the works of Perfect Nature in conjunction with the powers of their own ruling planet
  • that perfecting one’s Perfect Nature grants knowledge, understanding, success, increase of wealth and station, protection from harm, and “many other things”

…then communing with and perfecting one’s Perfect Nature is essential for spiritual works, and not just in the Picatrix.  The Picatrix is tapping into a long-standing cross-cultural tradition of communing with and learning from one’s own agathodaimōn, genius, paredos, tutelar, guardian angel, or whatever you want to call it, yet it also takes on a specific association with the particular “powers of the sage” here that furthers mere education into something much, much more.  Note that the Picatrix says that the sages of old “taught all knowledge and subtleties of philosophy” before giving their students the means to work with Perfect Nature, indicating that the students of the wise first needed to understand what things are before how to make the best use of them, and that while the sages could certainly teach what can be done and how they do it, it’s one’s own Perfect Nature that teaches the how, what, and why of what each individual should best do for themselves.  Perfect Nature is the solution to the intractable problems of life that no sage, philosopher, or teacher can answer: as Hermēs says, Perfect Nature is that “by which is understood that which cannot be otherwise be understood at all, and from which workings proceed naturally both in sleep and in waking”.  The Perfect Nature is the perfect teacher, the one teacher who can truly teach us what is best and in the best way above and beyond any other.  It’s just that the Perfect Nature still needs us to learn about the world first so that we know how to properly interact with it; after all, you can’t build if you don’t have raw materials to build with.

In this, there are intensely strong parallels between Perfect Nature and True Will, as well, from a modern perspective.  If the Thelemic concept of True Will is “the true purpose of the totality of one’s being” and that “its discovery is initiation….and its nature is to move continually”, that it is “the true expression of the Nature, the proper or inherent motion of the matter concerned”, then to live according to one’s True Will is to fully realize the purpose, method, means, and aims of one’s proper and best life, as accorded to us by Divinity.  This, too, then is also what Perfect Nature does in virtually the same way, taking the influences of our ruling planet and refining them, joining them with divine methods to accomplish that which is best for us.  And, if we’re to take Hermēs at his word at the end of this chapter of the Picatrix, Perfect Nature really is the solution to all the problems of the wise: how science and philosophy can be joined, what the root is of science and philosophy individually and together, and how the secrets of science and philosophy may be opened to us.  Not just how or what, either, I suppose, as the Perfect Nature does more than merely tell us these things; it informs (forms within) us, it instructs (builds within) us.  After all, as Ṭumṭum al-Hindi says in the Atallah/Kiesel translation of the Arabic Picatrix (this doesn’t appear to be in the Latin Picatrix, minor edits for clarity and structure):

…when you first start to look inside of yourself to your managing spirit that connects you with your star—and that is the Perfect Nature that Hermēs the Wise mentioned in his book saying “the microcosm”, in which he meant the human—his soul would be in a similar position to that of the stationary Sun in the sky that shines with its light on the whole world.  Just so does the Perfect Nature spread in the soul so its rays connect with the power of Wisdom and pulls it until it is centered in the soul in its own proper place, just as the Sun pulls and directs the rays of the cosmos to hold itself up in the heavens.

Remember what we said earlier about our inverted vignette, how instead of Hermēs digging in a pit for the four powers of Perfect Nature, he looks to the four pillars of Heaven (or the four corners of the World) to obtain them?  If Hermēs attaining the power at the top of the heavens to still the winds is effectively him reaching his Perfect Nature, and if the top of the vault of Heaven is supported by its pillars, then we see that the relationship one has with one’s Perfect Nature is reliant upon building and refining those four spiritual powers, “just as the Sun pulls and directs the rays of the cosmos to hold itself up in the heavens”.  The Perfect Nature is self-sustaining, providing its own support, much like a spiritual singularity: once you have it, so long as you do not utterly shut yourself off from it, you’ll be set on your proper path to perfect your nature and fulfill your true will.  This, however, is still Work—it is the Work, which is why this ritual is not just a once-and-done thing, but something to be done periodically to continually maintain a relationship with your Perfect Nature in an intimate and personal way, as opposed to the subtle and suggestive ways.

This leads me to think about one more thing about the image of the City of Adocentyn from book IV, chapter 7 of the Picatrix: the central color-changing citadel.  Consider the similarity we have here with our vignettes: a deep pit with a central image and four secrets buried around it (or, rather, the apex of Heaven with the four pillars of Heaven supporting it), and a central citadel in a beautiful city guarded by four powerful gates.  To me, the symbolism would link the Perfect Nature itself with that central citadel, being able to harmonize to the planets (though always linking one most to one’s own ruling planet).  Protected by the four gates and empowered by the central citadel, “the inhabitants of the city were made virtuous and freed from sin, wickedness, and sloth…its people were most deeply learned in the ancient sciences, their profundities, and secrets, and in the science of astronomy”.   Doesn’t this all sound awfully similar to the benefits of communing and working with one’s Perfect Nature?  While I’m not sure whether or not it was written to this intent, it’s starting to sound a lot like that the City of Adocentyn, the Spiritual Hermopolis/El-Ashmunein/Khemenu, while it may well have existed in the mind of the author of the Picatrix and in myth generally, can be read as a strong metaphor for the perfection of one’s own spiritual life.  In working with and living in accordance with our Perfect Nature, we build our own internal Adocentyn of the soul, lush and abundant in life, wisdom, and wealth.

There is one final lingering problem, though: what do we make of sleep?  We know that Ibn Khaldūn in his Muqaddimah gives the four names “Tamāġīs, Baġdīswād, Waġdās, Nūfānāġādīs” (really, a variant thereof, “tamaghis ba’dan yaswadda waghads nawfana ghadis”, which may or may not be Aramaic in origin) as an incantation one uses before sleep to obtain a vision of Perfect Nature, apart and away from any rite of communion or sacred feast, and we also know that Hermēs Trismegistus received his first vision of Perfect Nature in a dream.  Dream/trance states are important for continuing one’s work with Perfect Nature, just as it was for Hermēs and Poimandrēs all the way back in the Corpus Hermeticum, and gives us a means to continually remain in contact beyond a yearly or semiyearly ritual.  It’s the constant work, the constant development, the constant communion we remain in that allows such a relationship to truly flourish—again, we see similar ideas crop up time and again in any culture or magical tradition that involves the presence and aid of an agathodaimōn, genius, tutelar, guardian angel, etc.  Big rituals are good, but it’s the small, quotidian stuff that should never, ever be neglected.

Despite the relatively late text of the Picatrix, at least as far as classical Hermetic stuff goes which the Picatrix does not properly fall into compared to other works like the Corpus Hermeticum or Asclepius or Stobaean Fragments, we find in this chapter of the Picatrix something that’s so starkly, obviously Hermetic, both in tone and content, augmented with a culturally-shifting evolution from classical pagan to (then) modern eclectic practices of spiritual works, here combining the secrets of divinity with astrology, alchemy, magic, and many other practices, almost in a seamless way.  Sure, the Perfect Nature of the Picatrix may not be the Poimandrēs, but the sentiment here is so close and familiar as to be easily understandable.  The Perfect Nature of the Picatrix is the Picatrix’s own take on one’s genius spirit, and as such, should certainly be considered one possible route to attain this crucial relationship so vital to the well-being, spiritual development, and ultimate success of any magician, philosopher, or sage—or, indeed, anyone at all.

And yes, the ritual is up on its own page for easy access under the main menu: Rituals → Communion of Perfect Nature

Mathētic Order of Offerings to the Theoi

One of the longest spiritual practices I’ve maintained more-or-less continually, or at least kept around in one form or another, is that to the Greek gods.  I have a shrine to a few of them in my temple, and though the form and shape of it has waxed and waned over the years, I’ve kept venerating and offering to them since I got started, pretty much.  From my apartment after college where I had Hermēs in one corner of my bedroom and Asklepios against the wall, and after with Dionysos joining Asklepios; then moving into a house with my boyfriend and having an entire room for my spiritual stuff, with an elaborate set of glass shelves for the theoi, with separate spaces for Zeus and Aphroditē and Apollo and Hephaistos and even Hadēs at one point; now into the house I moved in with my now-husband and having another room set up with different qualities and things got downsized a bit.  Hestia, of course, has been around in every house in one form or another, and Dionysos has gone from having an entire shrine dedicated and decorated to him to being…reduced in size but not in presence to a special contraption I set up just for him.  All the same, throughout all these changes, I’ve still kept up my worship of the theoi.

My practices have changed somewhat between moves from house to house and temple to temple; for instance, in the last place where I lived, my temple room was across from the hallway bathroom and had a window outside, so it was trivial to dump offerings out or get water anytime I needed.  Now, however, my temple is in a basement room with no easy access to either external ventilation or a sink or drain of any sort.  This makes disposing of old offerings and libations a little different, and given the lack of ventilation and general light, it’s easy for libations set out to evaporate really quickly or get mold faster than I would’ve thought otherwise.  That makes, for instance, the use of many small libation vessels for each theos I have enshrined a pain, because they all have to be hauled up the stairs to the kitchen to be emptied and washed then all hauled back downstairs, and so forth.  Besides that, I used to open the window during ritual as a symbolic act as a means to “let the god in” and for incense offerings to reach the heavens, but I can’t do that at this point, so I have to adjust my processes for that.

As I’m getting back to my daily practice (and struggling to find out how to make things more efficient and effective while still making things count), I’ve also been digging through my notes to see what insights I had before, what my proposed methodologies or practices were, and how I managed to get by before and how I did things.  I suppose that’s one benefit of blogging so much, because I found two such posts on my method of offering to the theoi, specifically within the context of Mathēsis, one post on general daily mathētic practices, the other on a specifically mathētic procedure to make offerings to the gods.  The former is good for me to review anyway, because it’s something I need to get back on as well, either by reworking it to be less-than-daily or by incorporating it into my general daily practices, and because it recommends a regular, daily offering or invocation of the god of the day according to my Grammatēmerologion calendar.  The latter is actually useful, because it documents one such way that an invocation and offering to a god might be done, whether associated with a particular day or otherwise, and whether it’s a grand offering or just a small quick invocation.

However, as I look back on this procedure, there are things that I really would feel more comfortable changing than keeping the same.  (That’s one good benefit of writing my own blog; I get to make the claim that anything I write can be improved on later!)  Between my own experiences and interactions with the theoi on their own terms and by bringing in other ideas that I’m comfortable with applying across the board, there are some things I’m getting into the habit of that I wouldn’t’ve considered before.  For instance, while in the past I would often (but not always) make a perfunctory and preliminary offering to Hestia while also saying that it’s not strictly necessary, nowadays I’m definitely on the side of always making an offering to her to start with before any others, though I’m not entirely convinced that every offering must also conclude with another one to her, as well.  Rather, I’m now in the habit of honoring Zeus in every offering, regardless whether he’s the focus of my prayers or not, due to his role as divine cosmic king who rules over the three realms; at first I had his name praised and made a perfunctory offering to him before any other god (besides Hestia), but after some conversation, I make him last.  Or second-to-last, if Hestia gets a final offering as well.

So, let me draw out my process and my thinking.  It is true that many of the theoi operate independently in some respects, but it is also true that they are all part of the same pantheon and part of the same cosmic schema.  Just as you can’t remove a single number from the Decad and have it still remain the Decad, you can’t really remove a single theos from the theoi and have it remain the pantheon.  However, not every individual theos needs to be worshipped at all times, but a few key ones that allow for worship to happen at all makes more sense.  For that, the general order of invocation and offering that I use nowadays goes like this:

  1. Perfunctory initial offering to Hestia.  Hestia should always get the first offering, because she’s the goddess of the hearth and home itself.  Without her, we would have nowhere to live, build, or establish shrines; it is only by her support that we can make such offerings in our own homes, dwellings, and temples.  If one is living in the wild and makes offerings in a pristine place untouched by civilization with offerings that are not the products of agriculture or animal husbandry, then I would make an argument that an offering to Hestia is not needed, but it would still be appreciated as she is still rightly the eldest of the first generation of the Olympian Theoi.
  2. Perfunctory offering of wine to Dionysos.  This step is sometimes skipped depending on what I’m offering.  If I’m offering wine in this ceremony, and I’m either going to run out of an existing bottle or if I’m opening a new bottle of wine for any reason, I open it up here and pour a small amount for Dionysos, giving him thanks for his own sacrifices and allowing us to partake in his sacrifice of flesh and the grape which allows us to perform our own sacrifices.  In many ways, Dionysos is the god of wine as well as the god in wine; by opening a new bottle and giving him the first pour, we recognize his presence and dedicate our sacrifices to his own.
  3. Perfunctory offering to Hermes.  Hermēs is important to always recognize, and by calling on him, we ensure that our prayers can be heard by any and all the gods.  Hermēs is the messenger of the gods, to be sure, but he’s also the messenger between gods and mankind; it’s by him that we come to know the will and desires of the gods, but it’s also by him that they come to know our prayers and supplications.  Hermēs is, indeed, the god of prayer and ritual in general, just as Hestia can be said to be the goddess of shrines in general and Dionysos the god of sacrificing wine in general.  Plus, this helps with the notion of “bringing the god in” for when I call upon the presence of a particular deity; before, I’d open the window as a formal “opening of the gate”, but since I don’t have a window anymore, this seems to suffice as well.  It’d still be great to have a window or some other aperture, but I simply don’t have that option available to me.
  4. Main offering.  This is where the actual invocation to the god begins.  All their prayers and invocations and offerings and whatnot take place after all the initial offerings are made.
  5. Perfunctory concluding offering to Zeus.  At the end of the ceremony, once the other offerings are made, Zeus should also always be honored, as the divine ruler of the cosmos, the father of gods and men, and the supreme king of all.  In honoring Zeus who rules over the three domains of sky, sea, and land, we also honor all those who live within them, both mortal and immortal.  This suffices not only to render tribute to the god of gods, but also to recognize the divinity of all the other gods who fall under Zeus’ domain.
  6. Other perfunctory concluding offerings.  As Hestia is the first-born of Rhea and Kronos, she is also their last-born; she was born first from Rhea’s womb, and torn out last from Kronos’ belly.  The Homeric Hymn to Hestia (#24) says that “without you mortals hold no banquet, where one does not duly pour sweet wine in offering to Hestia both first and last”.  However, I don’t think that this sort of concluding offering is strictly needed after that of Zeus, but it can certainly be done; if it were, I think it would also be appropriate to honor both Hermēs and Hestia both for both their roles as divinities of prayer-speaking as well as that of shrine-keeping.  In other words, after the main offering and offering to Zeus, we work backwards: if we start with Hestia and Hermēs, we end with Hermēs and Hestia.  It’s something I’m still working out, admittedly.

This idea of a ritual process, going through multiple divinities in order to sacrifice to one, may seem needlessly complicated; I know I thought that at one point, and before, I’d just go to my Apollo shrine and do my thing and be done with it.  That said, I think of my other traditions where there is absolutely an order to worship, where certain divinities must be honored before others; this idea works for the Greek gods, too.  Plus, there are other examples of having such an order; consider the Hellenist reconstruction group Elaion and their ritual templates shared by Elani Temperance over at Baring the Aegis, where every ritual begins with a libation to Hestia, to Gaia, and to Themis before proceeding with the main event, and all of which conclude with a final offering to Hestia.  This also makes sense: just as we honor Hestia for being the goddess of hearth and home and shrine, so too do we honor the Earth for supporting all that happens and to divine Law and Order for that which is proper that all might continue to be proper.  Sure, it might seem easier to just make offerings to one god (and a lot less use of wine and oil and incense), but the more I think about it and the more I practice it, the more sense it makes to really go in for the process and proper sequencing of things in a formal offering.

Of course, all that above is just the general template, and templates change in certain circumstances.  For instance, if I were to just make an offering to Hestia for Hestia’s own sake, I wouldn’t really bother with Hermēs or the other gods, because Hestia is already right there present in my home, so Hestia is one of the very few (perhaps the only) divinity I could just sacrifice directly to and not get the rest of the gang involved and not feel bad about it.  In general, however, there’s always going to be a process, and there are certain rules to how that process might change in certain examples.  Let’s consider a few examples, with the main event in bold text and anything unexpected in italics:

  1. Hestia
    1. Dionysos (if new bottle of wine), Hestia, Zeus
    2. Because Hestia is always first no matter what, she still comes first.  However, as she’s immediately present and we’re already making an offering to her, we don’t need the messenger/interpreter presence of Hermēs.  If a new bottle of wine is to be opened, a perfunctory offering to Dionysos should come first before Hestia, though this is really more a respect gesture than anything else.  Likewise, Zeus can still be honored afterwards, but beyond Hestia and honoring the hearth itself that even the gods honor, there’s not too much that needs to be done.
  2. Dionysos
    1. Hestia, Hermēs, Dionysos, Zeus, other conclusions
    2. Normally, we’d have a perfunctory offering to Dionysos before Hermēs if we’re opening a new bottle of wine.  However, if I’m offering to Dionysos himself, I’d skip that stage and celebrate him entirely in his own part of the ceremony.  Instead of being given just a token, perfunctory offering, he gets his own full thing going on.  After Dionysos is honored, then we’d give a perfunctory offering to Zeus, and if desired, any other concluding offerings to e.g. Hermēs and Hestia.
  3. Hermēs
    1. Hestia, Dionysos (if new bottle of wine), Hermēs, Zeus, other conclusions
    2. Pretty straightforward here; Hermēs takes his usual place after Dionysos (if needed) and before Zeus, but as there are no other gods to be worshiped, Hermēs himself becomes the focus.  Instead of giving Hermēs a perfunctory offering, he gets a full offering here.
  4. Zeus
    1. Hestia, Dionysos (if new bottle of wine), Hermēs, Zeus, libation to all the gods, other conclusions
    2. Like with Hermēs, instead of just getting a perfunctory offering, Zeus himself is celebrated in full.
    3. However, remember that Zeus is normally celebrated in every ceremony to remind ourselves of his divine and cosmic importance, and by him, we can honor all the other gods and goddesses of the cosmos.  However, if we’re worshiping and offering to Zeus as Zeus alone, then we’d need something to step in to formally recognize all the other entities of the cosmos, hence a separate step for the “libation to all the gods” after Zeus.  This would be perfunctory, as the offering to Zeus any other time would be.
  5. Apollo
    1. Hestia, Dionysos (if new bottle of wine), Hermēs, Apollo, Zeus, other conclusions
    2. This is the basic template, using Apollo as the main offering.  Nothing unexpected here.
  6. Asklepios
    1. Hestia, Dionysos (if new bottle of wine), Hermēs, Apollo, Asklepios, Zeus, other conclusions
    2. This is essentially the basic template, with Asklepios as the main offering, but note how we’re also honoring Apollo immediately before him.  This is because, as I reckon it, Asklepios is not sufficiently independent or major of a god in his own right.  Sure, he can be offered to independently and on his own, but I find it more proper to recognize his father Apollo first.  In other words, to use a royal metaphor, Asklepios is a noble in the royal court ruled by Apollo; as Apollo is the ruler of that court, he gets first honors, and then any
    3. A similar case would go for any other minor god that is clearly part of another god’s “court”, such as Hēbē under Hēra, Eros under Aphroditē, Tykhē under Zeus, Nikē under Athena, and so forth.   Recognize the primary god of that court first with a perfunctory offering, then the minor god as the main offering.

Although the Greeks may not have conceived of their gods as belonging to “courts” per se, I think it’s still a useful classification of the minor gods and goddesses around central rulers who were more well-known.  For instance, I would consider all the thalassic deities Triton, Nereus, and the Nereides and Naiadēs including Thetis to all belong to the court of Poseidon, who either is the father, husband, brother, or conquering usurper of the other gods.  In sacrifice and myth, this may not really be true, but it’s a really useful way to organize “groups” of the theoi for the purposes of my Grammatēmerologion calendar, which assigns the letters of the Greek alphabet to the days of the lunar month, and by the letters, to individual signs of the Zodiac or other powers, which are associated the major gods of the Hellenic pantheon.  For instance, in the Grammatēmerologion, the twenty-third day of the lunar month is given to the letter Tau.  Tau is given to the zodiacal sign of Pisces, which is associated with the theos Poseidon; thus, it makes sense to cluster the worship of all the oceanic deities onto the day of Tau, just as all the deities associated with Hēra like Hēbē and Eileithyia are given to Hēra’s day of Sigma and so forth.  If nothing else, honoring the “court ruler” of a minor god also counts as honoring the primary god of the same day that minor god would be worshiped on, which fulfills part of my daily mathētic practices.

So, when I say “perfunctory offering”, what exactly do I mean?  Basically, a token offering, a nod, something I give just enough to recognize the divinity I’m making such an offering to.  It’s really little more than a very quick pour of wine or clean water, no more than an ounce or a few drops, accompanied by a few words of honor and veneration, calling upon their aid.  If I feel like it, I’ll recite the entire Orphic Hymn or one of the shorter Homeric Hymns to them, but in general, what I’ll say is something short, like:

Hestia, as you were first born of Rhea and last born of Kronos, so too do you receive the first offering and the last!  Queen goddess of the hearth, without you we could not live nor could we offer to the gods.  Right and proper it is to honor you first in all such rites.

Dionysos, roaring lord of reborn life, yours is the blood of the vine which we cut and rend that we might live and live well.  As you spilled your blood that we might partake in it, I give you the first offering of this bottle that you might always be honored in every pour and spill.

Hermēs, you are the messenger of gods and men, to whom we all turn in all our rites.  Hear my prayers, take these sacrifices, and carry them aloft to divine ears and immortal hands!  May all the righteous ways of worship be opened for me and for the gods!

With that, I’ll pour out a bit of wine and olive oil out—not a lot, because it’s better to give a little so that we always have something to give, and if we’re going through the process, then we’ve already got a lot to give.  From what I’ve been doing, it seems that a standard set of offerings will take around half a normal 750ml bottle of wine and maybe an ounce or two of olive oil.  While before I was pouring straight from the wine bottle into individual vessels for each individual divinity, which was fine when I could more easily wash them or empty them without having to schlep them up and down stairs, I’m now in the habit of using a large white bowl I set before my entire Greek shrine, and pouring in libations into that from a smaller white bowl.  That way, I can partake of the libation and give a toast to each of the gods as I offer, and I replicate the old practice of pouring a libation out on the ground itself.  The bowl, of course, keeps it all contained instead of splashing everywhere, and is easier to carry up instead of four or six silver or glass chalices full of wine and oil.

Of course, all of the above—the process, the order, the perfunctory offerings versus the main offerings, the courts, etc.—only really count if I’m making an actual offering to the theoi.  On days when I don’t, either because I don’t want to or don’t need to, there’s no need to go through all of that.  Instead, a simple invocation will suffice.  For instance, say that it’s the day of Gamma; Gamma is associated with Taurus, and thus with Aphroditē.  If I’m going to make a full offering to Aphroditē that day, then yes, I’ll go through the process of Hestia, Dionysos, Hermēs, Aphroditē, Zeus, &c.  However, if I’m not, whether because I’m too tired or don’t plan on doing an offering to Aphroditē that day, then I’d just call on her and give her a simple prayer; rather than giving her a main offering in the midst of a bunch of perfunctory offerings, I’d just give her a perfunctory (or bigger) invocation with no other process involved.  In other words, if all I’m doing is verbally honoring and recognizing the god of the day, then there’s no sacrifice or offering, so the whole process of offering doesn’t apply.  Easy, indeed, and if it’s all I need to get by for a daily practice, then all the better.

I’m sure, given enough time, this proposed method will continue to change.  What is becoming clear to me is that it’s easier for me to bundle my already-existing Hellenic/Greek practices into my overall Mathēsis work, which is fine by me; the less I have to arrange as separate “practices”, especially when one directly comes from the other and is going to subsume it anyway, the better.  By refocusing my Hellenic work into my Mathēsis work, I can better focus both together and synthesize them in a way that reduces stress and conflict while still being able to expand and expound on both.  Plus, if this Mathēsis stuff is actually going to head in the direction I want it, having processes for this sort of thing are definitely a needed and beneficial organizing principle.

Soapbox Time: Animal Sacrifice and “Black Magic”

I tried to not put a post out about this again.  I really did, you guys, especially since I was fortunate enough to completely miss the recent Internet debacle-argument about this topic, and moreso since I wrote one post on the one topic and another on the other years ago and was hoping to not have to succumb to this particular urge again.  But, then again, it has been like five years since I wrote those posts, and though quite a lot has happened, my views on these two topics hasn’t particularly changed much except for being refined.

So, the other day, I put out my write-up on PGM XII.201—269, which I’ve entitled the Royal Ring of Abrasax ritual, a consecration of an engraved ring of power that protects the wearer and also ensures their success in magical workings, a sort of forerunner to the Ring of Solomon found in later centuries.  Part of the ceremony calls for the sacrificial offering of seven birds—a pure white goose, three roosters, and three pigeons—but since I’m fully aware that not everyone is willing, trained, or able to perform such a ceremony, I also offered an alternative approach using sacrificial, animal-less cakes made to symbolize the offering of the birds instead.  I think that it’s a wonderful ritual that I’m eager to try at some point in the future, using the cake substitutions instead of bird sacrifices, not because I’m unable or unwilling to use birds here, but because I want to keep things simple for a first honest attempt, along with other personal accommodations for my own circumstances and situations.

Well, shortly after I shared it on one of the social media platforms I use, the ritual got a particular comment that rubbed me the wrong way, which was all of: “Whoa. That’s some serious black magick“, complete with a sadface. Granted, with such a terse comment that gave no justification for saying what it did, I honestly can’t say why that particular person commented that this was “black magic”, but I’m pretty certain I can hone in on it.  And I just…I just can’t, y’all.  I did make a reply to that comment, but since this particular thing set me off sore on two volatile topics at once, I figured if I was gonna get this urge out my system, I may as well get it out in full, in depth, and at length here.

First, let’s get the easy bit out of the way: “black magic” is a ridiculous term that we should have abandoned long ago, right along with “white magic”.  For some, it’s an issue of racism; for others, an issue of not understanding other traditions; for yet others, a shaming mechanism to get people to “evolve” into “higher states of spiritual being” from “backwards” or “primitive” or “dark” places.  Whether for these or other reasons, “black magic” is a deplorable term that’s often used to (a) make someone seem way more spooky than they are (b) market themselves as an edgelord sorcerer a la E.A. Koetting (c) shame the practices, rites, and occulture of others because one is uncomfortable with what they do.  Yes, I know the world is wide and full of awe, things that are both awesome and awful.  At the same time, you generally don’t have the right to judge other practices and cultures, especially those which are foreign to you or those which are from antiquity, unless you can also claim some measure of expertise in the context, development, and reasoning behind those practices of those cultures.

“Black magic” is a phrase that’s often more in line with really spooky witchcraft, devil-working, demon-summoning, cursing, and other outright maleficia in the sense of magic that’s intended to cause harm, pain, suffering, or death to others, generally out of a sense of wrath, greed, malice, or other vice-fueled emotion.  Then again, the term “black magic” is used at best when it “accurately” refers to these things as they are actually done; just as often as not, if not more so, the phrase “black magic” is used to describe any type of magic that one might find transgressive, dangerous, unpalatable, or frightening.  This is ridiculous, to be frank about it; the use of magic in general is transgressive and dangerous, and to anyone who isn’t familiar with anything in magic, it’s all unpalatable and frightening.  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve scared off by saying I conjure angels, much less work with ancient subterranean deities, and those are generally the more appealing and “kinder” spirits we work with (though angels are terrifying as shit, too, and we should never forget why the first thing they say in biblical literature is “be not afraid”, nor should we ever forget our place amongst the gods lest we fall into hubris and suffer the extreme penalties for doing so).  If you call something “black magic” because it’s unpalatable or frightening, it’s because it’s unpalatable or frightening to you.  Others, for whom it’s their bread and butter, may find it normal and natural, even holy and sanctified in its own right.  It’s much like how many Christians think of a variety of non-Christian religions as “evil”, “wicked”, “witchcraft”, or even “black magic”; to call the practices of another that you don’t understand “black magic” is just as farcical; consider Mark Twain’s The War Prayer, which would be an example of maleficia that’s otherwise grounded in normalized, culturally-acceptable religion.  Heck, even if you do understand it, call it what it is: is it a curse, or devil-working, or maleficium?  Call it that, and be clear and accurate about it!  But don’t call it “black magic” and think that by being judgmental you’re preserving your pristine ethics and morals, because you’re not, and you end up making yourself look ridiculous.

So, the Royal Ring of Abrasax ritual got called “black magic”.  Why might that be?  Considering any of the “accurate” meanings of what “black magic” might mean (and I use the term “accurate” very loosely here), we simply don’t find any of that in this ritual.  In fact, we find a pretty standard, pretty pious hymn to the Agathos Daimōn, the “Good Spirit” of Hellenic influence that became a sort of personalized almighty God figure, much as how many modern Christians conceive of God as not just the God of all the cosmos but also their own personal, private God that watches out for them.  We find the preliminary invocation calling upon all the beneficent gods who rule over the world in all its forms and in all its ways, almost in an animist worldview rather than a polytheistic one, so as to establish the authority of the magician in mythic terms with the right to call upon them.  We find the consecration of the ring to be such that the magician “may wear this power in every place, in every time, without being smitten or afflicted, so as to be preserved intact from every danger while I wear this power”, so that “none of the daimones or spirits will or can oppose” them.  If it weren’t for the explicit Egyptian references and comparatively outdated terminology in the ritual, we might be forgiven for thinking this was something from one iteration or another of the Key of Solomon.  I think we can pretty solidly establish that whatever type or field of magic might be referenced by “black magic”, the Royal Ring of Abrasax doesn’t fall into it.

If you want good PGM examples of maleficia, you don’t have to search hard: PDM xiv.675—694 (the Evil Sleep of Seth; much of PDM xiv has similar recipes and poisons for causing “evil sleep” i.e. catalepsy, as well as blindness or death), PGM IV.2622—2707 (the Slander Spell of Selēnē), PGM IV.3255—3274 (Seth’s curse of punishments), PGM VII.396—404 (for silencing, subjecting, and restraining), PGM XII.365—375 (for inflicting the separation of Seth and Osiris or Seth and Isis on two friends or lovers through strife, war, odiousness, and enmity), and PGM CXXIV.1—43 (to inflict illness), to say nothing of all the other restraining and binding spells, as well as all the love spells which verge on domination, subjection, and inflicting pain so as to make someone love the magician.  Then there are also the curse tablets, also known as defixiones or katadesmoi, which we find across the entire western Old World across many, many centuries (more information available at Ancient Esotericism).  Those are all undoubtedly maleficia of various types and kinds, which may or may not have their justifiable uses; the Royal Ring of Abrasax, however, bears nothing in common with these.

The only objectionable part of the Royal Ring of Abrasax ritual, then, must be the use of animal sacrifice, which is seen as a generally distasteful thing amongst…well, let’s be honest: urbanite or suburbanite, middle-class or upper-class, Western-centric practitioners who are separated from the cycle of life and death present in agriculture and animal husbandry as well as social, religious, and magical practices that go back literal millennia across every culture and continent.  On the other hand, I’m a proponent of animal sacrifice, for the ceremonies that call for them, when there’s a recognizable need to incorporate them in those ceremonies, and when performed by someone who is properly capable of carrying out such an act of sacrifice.

Before I continue, I want to mention a bit about the gravity of animal sacrifice.  While a staple of the religious and magical practices of most (not every) culture at some point on Earth, it’s a pretty big deal to sacrifice an animal; more than fruit or grain, raising animals is an investment.  Sure, agricultural goods are investments, too, but the nature of animal sacrifice is different because they’re expensive and, more importantly, have the blood and breath of life in them.  This is what makes them far more potent than offerings of libations, incense, foodstuffs, or other votive gifts, no matter how rare or intricate.  To sacrifice an animal is truly a sacrifice, because you have to come to terms with the cycle of life and death that enabled you to come into the presence of such a sacrifice as well as the process by which you cease its life for the dedication and offering to a divinity, or using its life force in a directed way for magical ends that cannot (whether easily or at all) be accomplished through the use of non-animal means.  It’s not like setting out a cup of barley grains for Hermēs or a plate of pears for Obatala, then tossing it out the next week; the process of animal sacrifice is not to be taken for granted, and neither is the life of the thing to be sacrificed.

Given that, I recognize that there are a variety of reasons one might choose to abstain from animal sacrifice, many of which were brought up in the comments on my original post on this topic from 2012:

  • One takes an egalitarian animist view of the cosmos: everything has a spirit, nothing is spiritually master or owner of another.  In this light, the notion of “dedication” and “sacrifice” become moot, because there is no point in dedicating a sacrifice to an entity that cannot own anything.
  • One takes a strictly pacifist, nonviolent approach in all their works: no harm done to anything as a result of ritual or as part of it.  This may or may not overlap with animal rights activism and vegetarianism/veganism out of concern for the well-being of animals.
  • One has a sincere love and care for the well-being of animal life, whether they are people, pets, or livestock.  This may or may not overlap with animal rights activism and vegetarianism/veganism out of concern for the well-being of animals.
  • The rules and restrictions of one’s own practices and religion forbid it (e.g. Orphism).
  • The gods and spirits one works with insist on or mandate bloodless sacrifice for their worship and works.

One common argument I see against animal sacrifice is that “you wouldn’t sacrifice your pet dog or cat, so why would you sacrifice a chicken or goat?”.  You’re right; I wouldn’t sacrifice my pet, because pets aren’t livestock.  Pets are animals we raise for support, companionship, protection, and entertainment; for all intents and purposes, pets are family, and I wouldn’t sacrifice a member of my family.  Livestock, on the other hand, do not fall into that category.  They are raised for food, for breeding, for their hair, for their eggs; livestock are animals for consumption.  To cross the semantic boundary between pet and livestock is…even I find it distasteful, but I also recall myths and stories where such things were done in times of extreme need or revelation (e.g. Baucis and Philemon about to sacrifice their pet goose when they realized that it was truly Zeus and Hermēs visiting them in their hovel).

Heck, even if one is okay with animal sacrifice, there are plenty more reasons why one might not do it:

  • Lack of skill in safely and, as much as possible, humanely slaughtering an animal
  • Lack of funds for animals
  • Lack of appropriate space or privacy to keep animals, whether on a short- or long-term basis, as well as to conduct the ceremony
  • Lack of means or skill to properly process and butcher the animal for ritual or personal consumption, if applicable to the ceremony
  • Lack of means or space to dispose of any non-sacrificial and non-processable parts
  • Lack of knowledge of the proper ritual procedure for conducting such a sacrifice

That said, farms that raise livestock for personal use are often quite skilled in quickly and safely slaughtering animals, and butchery is a time-honored profession that overlaps significantly with slaughtering animals.  So long as one is willing to get their hands and apron bloodied, it’s not hard to learn these skills at least to a rudimentary, acceptable level, and make accommodations where needed for processing, disposal, and the like.  Most humans eat meat to some extent, and for many people, it’s a necessary part of their diet and culinary culture.  (Some might argue that nobody needs to eat animals and that everyone should be vegan, but it’s not a sustainable practice for many parts of the world, and it negates the fact that the human body does not operate on a one-diet-fits-all approach.)  Many people don’t get any sort of glimpse into the process of raising, slaughtering, or processing animals for consumption nowadays, especially in the Western urban world, but we can’t lose sight of the fact of where our sliced deli meats, Thanksgiving turkeys, grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, and pork chops come from, especially considering how many people thoughtlessly and mindlessly pick up such animal products from their supermarkets and grocery stores to eat them later.  More people in the past were far more familiar with what it takes to process animals from field to plate; heck, if your grandparents are still alive, ask them what it was like to pluck chickens.  It wasn’t that long ago that many people killed animals on their own properties for their own benefit and sustenance in many Western first-world countries, either, and many still do, especially outside the Western first-world sphere.

When it comes to the religious use of animal sacrifice, we need to think about the role religion plays in our lives.  In some cultures, mainly the Greco-Roman ones I’m thinking of, there was no word for “religion” in the sense of a distinct field of human activity; there were words to describe particular modes of worship, but they struggled with a way to define the role of religion in their lives, because they couldn’t separate it out from the other things they did on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis.  More than just religious festivals and rites of passage, religion was intertwined with every breath of every day.  In that sense, if we’re going to kill something that took time and effort to raise, why not honor the gods by it and give them their fair share?  Also consider the Jewish practice of shechita, the kosher-permissible ritual slaughter of animals for consumption, which ties in with the practice of qorban, the acts and regulations of sacrifice permitted within the Temple of the Jews.  Then, bring in the long-standing and vital role that animal sacrifice plays in a variety of African religions, both practiced to this day within Africa as well as in the diaspora in forms such as La Regla de Ocha Lukumí, Candomblé, Vodou, and so forth; in these moments, animal sacrifices are often special occasions, celebrating a particular divinity, festival, or other sincere need, and are often communal celebrations where the meat is shared.  Indeed, in many traditional cultures, it’s more often than not that people got a substantial amount of their meat intake from participating in religious ceremonies.  And, more recently, some reconstructionist and revivalist pagan traditions are reincorporating the practices of animal sacrifice in their modern practices as was documented to have been done before Christianity knocked them off the map.

There are lots of schools of thought on the exact, precise role animal sacrifice plays (and, moreover, ought to play) in religious works, and generally these are limited to at most a handful of practices and traditions that involve them; I wouldn’t use Neoplatonic views on the appropriateness of animal sacrifice in Santería, nor would I try to impose Jewish ritual practices in a Hellenic ceremony.  Likewise, I would find it unconscionable for someone to judge the practices of another to which they don’t belong.  The most that I would personally agree with would be, if you have an issue for one reason or another, do your best to neither participate or benefit from it.  That’s fine!  In that case, you don’t need such practices, and they don’t need you.  If it comes to pass that you do, for some reason, need such practices as requires animal sacrifice, on the other hand, follow their rules, because they’ve been doing this a lot longer than you have and, simply put, still don’t need you to change, judge, or opine on the appropriateness of their ritual process.  There are a variety of legitimate needs and purposes for animal sacrifice; heck, even in a Neoplatonic setting, Porphyry and Iamblichus are in agreement that it has its place, and for some people, it’s a valuable and useful part of worship and theurgy to make use it in the right circumstances (cf. this excellent paper by Eleonora Zeper on the subject).

Then, on the other hand, we have magical practices.  Rather than following the institutions of religion and their practices that are typically carried on for many generations, magical practices may overlap with religion, take on religion as an independent and asocial activity, or have no overlap whatsoever.  Because of the variety of these practices, it’s hard to say anything about them in general besides the fact that they exist: they’re in the PGM, they’re in the Picatrix, they’re in the Key of Solomon, they’re in the Book of St. Cyprian, they’re in pretty much any and every pre-modern tradition and source text we have (and a number of modern ones, too).  Ranging from frogs to falcons, swine to swans, there are endless purposes for a variety of particular animals, some of which require no more than some hair or a feather plucked from them, some which require blood but without killing the animal, which require their whole burning once sacrificed (as in the Royal Ring of Abrasax), some require torture and deforming (such as a variety of frog-based spells in the Book of St. Cyprian), and so forth.  If you’re able and willing to do such acts for the sake of ritual, do it; if not, don’t do it and move on with your life.

There’s also the case of substituting blood sacrifices with bloodless sacrifices.  I give one example of this in the Royal Ring of Abrasax ritual, where instead of sacrificing seven birds, one sacrifices seven specially-made cakes that represent those birds.  Substitution of one ritual process with a similar-enough stand-in is a longstanding practice both ancient and less-ancient; we have records of Egyptian rituals where this was done, we know many folk practices across the world that once relied on animal sacrifices have come to use substitutions instead, and similar substitutions are made in particular traditions of Tibetan and some (but not all) other Vajrayana or Vedic practices, as well.  If done appropriately, done with the right intent, and done in a situation where a bloodless substitute is deemed acceptable by both the magician/priest and the forces they’re working with, then there’s no reason to worry for those who wish to perform a ritual but who are either unable or unwilling to perform the animal sacrifice for it: just use the substitute instead.  However, as Jason Miller points out in his recent post about animal sacrifice and using substitutes, this isn’t always possible: if the use of substitutes is not deemed necessary, whether because there’s a sincere need for a proper animal sacrifice or because the spirits reject bloodless substitutes, then you’re out of luck with substitutes.  I’ve heard stories of at least one modern ATR community that insisted on using bloodless sacrifices for their ceremonies until one of their gods came down in the flesh and demanded it of them, lest he take it from them by force; this type of thing can happen, though hopefully though less extreme measures such as through ceremonial divination and regular check-ins with the spirits you’re working with.

There’s also the possibility of reworking the format and structure of a ritual that calls for animal sacrifice to avoid using it entirely.  Consider that the Royal Ring of Abrasax ritual given in PGM XII.201—269 has a parallel, closely-related consecration ceremony of a phylactery later on in PGM XIII.734—1077, where no animal sacrifice is required (though an offering of sweetbreads is called for along with bread, seasonal flowers, and pine-cones).  It is entirely feasible to use this alternate ritual procedure, or adopt and adapt the methodology of one with the prayers and purposes of the other, to come up with a blend of ritual praxis that can (but not necessarily promised to be) as effective as either.  Additionally, consider that one may try to avoid the use of sacrifices entirely and simply use the prayers of the Royal Ring of Abrasax ritual in an otherwise usual, normally-conducted consecration ritual according to one’s regular process.  Is this always acceptable?  Not necessarily; the more you change the format or requirements or implements of a ritual, the further you get from being able to claim that you “did” the ritual, and the less likely you’ll end up with the expected results.  However, it is possible to come up with a new version of an old ritual, so long as you know what you’re doing.

This is a lot of digital ink to spill on something, but in short?  Animal sacrifice does not equate to “black magic”, and “black magic” is a ridiculous term that shouldn’t be used anyway.  If you find the practice distasteful, consider your own dietary habits, your own cultural heritage, your own biases about such practices, and whether you really think you know better than both age-old religious institutions and the gods and spirits they work with before you voice such opinions.  Don’t disparage the works and methods of others from a place of privilege, naiveté, and badly-conceived ethics; if you absolutely have to be judgmental about something, judge on the purpose and merits of the ritual.

De Regnis: Approaching Spirits, Offerings and Sacrifices, Identification and Authentication

Although most of my writing is visible and accessible through my blog and my ebooks, there are a bunch of writing projects that I don’t necessarily intend for public release.  When I was recently going through my old documents folder on my computer, I found a writing project I had intended to be a compendium of Hermetic and Neoplatonic knowledge, guidance, and advice that would serve to document my understandings and work as a textbook unto itself, both for my benefit and any who might come after me.  This project, De Regnis or “On Kingdoms”, got pretty far along before it got abandoned, though parts of it serve as seeds or are outright cannibalized for some of my other works.  Though I have no plans to continue writing this text, I want to share some of the sections I wrote that can act as a useful introduction to some of the practices of Hermetic magic in a modern context.  My views and practices and experiences have grown considerably since then, but perhaps it can help those who are just getting started or are curious about how to fortify their own practices and views.  If you have any views, comments, suggestions, or ideas on the topics shared in this post, please feel free to share in the comments!

Today’s selection will be on the topics of approaching spirits, offerings and sacrifices to the spirits, and spirit identification and authentication.

On Approaching the Spirits

Respect and permission should be the rule to approach, interact with, and work with spirits. In short, if one respects the spirits, the spirits will respect them. This will not always be the case,of course, especially given some instances of particularly offensive spirits or spirits who have been specifically sent out to cause harm. However, even in these circumstances, working with respect and permission is often better than reckless vitriol and domination.

Respect towards a spirit can be effected in many ways, but generally the Golden Rule applies to spirits just as it would humans and animals. The crucial difference is that things that happen to humans, such as death or disease, do not happen to spirits or happen in ways hard for humans to comprehend. If a spirit reaches out to someone, it suggests that the spirit has learned about the person enough to engage in communication. It is similarly proper for magicians and all spiritual workers to learn about a spirit they wish to contact before trying to make contact. Learn about the tradition the spirit comes from, the languages and prayers and songs used to contact the spirit, the traditional offerings and acceptable sacrifices to be made to them, what the spirit finds appealing or desirable, and so forth. Such learning is a mark of respect to the spirit, which generally makes the spirit more amenable to working with a magician and hearing them out. Similarly, any vows,promises, or offerings made to the spirit should be held and followed through. Contact with the spirit, once made, should be continued in an agreeable time frame such as once a week, once a month, or so; simply dropping off the radar and ignoring the spirit is a mark of disrespect.

Imagine two people approaching a third. One of the two people is someone the third has known for decades, a good friend from youth whom the person knows is honorable and trustworthy. The other person is someone the third has met only yesterday, and though the person may have heard rumors, they are effectively still strangers. If the third person were asked to lend money to each of the others, the person would be more likely to lend money and more of it to the friend rather than the stranger due to the relationship built up between the person and the friend. Likewise, it is important to build up a relationship with the spirits based on respect, honor, trustworthiness,and the like. Although magicians often seek vassals or servant spirits for their work, respectful magicians seek to befriend rather than control spirits, since it provides them with something much more important than a servant: an ally. Servants perform work because they are ordered to; allies perform work because they want to.

Similarly, seeking permission from spirits is important to understand their capabilities and whether a particular action is the best action for all those involved. The notion of license from the spirits is another matter of respect, but also connects to the matter of what one is cosmically allowed to do. Indeed, many matters of trespassing, breaking prohibitions, theft, or similar crimes against spirits and the places and things they hold sacred can easily be avoided or eliminated entirely by asking for permission. Instead of making an adventure through a known haunted forest, ask for permission first to enter; instead of simply taking a pretty stone from an ancient tree, ask for permission to take it; instead of calling on an angel or a god to smite one’s enemies, ask first to see whether they will deign to do so. By acting out of pride and self-importance, magicians often neglect to ask for permission from the spirits and gods of the world. Asking for permission first ensures that we will be held in line according to our station without overstepping the boundaries laid for us or for others.

To ascertain whether one has received permission, always be sure to ask. Either through a simple yes-or-no divination method invoking the spirits or communing with the spirits directly,there are many methods available depending on the spirit to communicate and see whether one should or should not do something. This should not be regulated to every minute and single action, however; not all things require the permission of the spirits, such as brushing one’s teeth or making silent prayers in a particular location. However, anything that might infringe upon the hospitality, respect, and honor of the spirit should be questioned. After building respect and honor with the spirits, some magicians may find that spirits generally or specifically are more inclined togive permission to more things; this is a mark of trust upon the magician, which should be kept sacrosanct and unbroken if possible.

Building respect with one spirit tends to build up respect with many spirits, especially those similar to the ones already respected. Much as humans have their own social networks and cliques,spirits communicate and interact amongst themselves in myriad ways, sometimes as family and sometimes as enemies. Spirits talk, and spirits let other spirits know when a particular human is notable or remarkable for good or for ill. By respecting one spirit, rumors and news of one’s respectability spreads, which makes it easier for spirits to trust them. This also works in the reverse: if one disrespects a spirit or makes vows that are never upheld, other spirits also know about this and may decline to ever work with the magician.

There are times when spirits themselves are unable to uphold the vows and bargains they make, or lie to magicians, or even act offensively against humans and the world. Spirits who habitually lie, deceive, and cause harm should be avoided since they cannot be trusted. Spirits who fail in a single task or are unable to bring results despite a history of having good results should be forgiven and inquired about why they might have failed or how other things might have affected them. Keep in mind that all the rules of respect and permission that apply for a magician towards a spirit also apply for a spirit towards a magician: if one is harmed or acted against without permission given,the harmful spirit should be reprimanded or punished, especially if the harm was caused without prior warning or need. In these cases, it helps to appeal to higher powers, such as patron deities or strong spirit allies, to act on one’s behalf in addition to using one’s own measures to fight against and punish the spirit.

On Offerings and Sacrifices

An important part of building relationships and working with spirits is the process of making offerings, commonly known as sacrifice. In sacrifice, a Latin word meaning “to make holy”, an object, substance, or action is given and dedicated to a spirit; the thing given to them is effectively theirs. The nature of a sacrifice can vary based on tradition, the means of the sacrificer, and the desires of the spirit in question, and can range from a bottle of alcohol to a whole animal roasted in a special fire to a simple song sung in public or private. Games thrown in the honor of a spirit,certain ordeals of the flesh or spirit, whole lands or properties, and poems or books written with a special mention of a spirit can also suffice. The honor given to a spirit can take many forms, and care should be taken that offerings are given properly.

Typically, only deities receive sacrifices, while other spirits are given offerings. Just as the distinction between a deity and a spirit is merely a functional one, so too is the distinction between sacrifices and offerings. Some spirits eschew offerings entirely or find them unusual and unwarranted,such as angels who work merely to carry out the will of the spirit employing them. Other spirits require offerings like payment in exchange for any work to be done. Deities, being worthy of worship and sacrifice, may require or demand sacrifices so as to be worshiped properly.

The first step to learning what to give to a spirit is to learn more about them. Whether one learns about a spirit from old myths or traditional resources involving them or whether one asks the spirit directly, this constitutes an act of respect to further the relationship between somebody and a spirit. After discovering what a spirit generally likes, the sacrificer should ask whether a particular offering is to their tastes. After this, the sacrificer should make or procure the offering and officially dedicate it to the spirit. How this might be done is up to the sacrificer, but is often influenced by tradition and practices made by other institutions or cultural groups. If no such tradition exists or survives, then the sacrificer is more or less free to innovate and create a new ritual to make the offering.

Not all offerings are equally good for all spirits. Some spirits prefer a particular type of alcohol or no alcohol at all; some spirits prefer blood sacrifice of animals or the entire animal itself, while others may prefer bloodless non-animal sacrifices entirely. Such preferences are often deduced from tradition and mythology, but one can always ask the spirit to see whether something is preferred or not. Offering something to a spirit that does not wish that thing offered is often seen as a sign of disrespect, even done unknowingly; an example might be to sacrifice the sacred animal that represents a spirit to the spirit itself. This is similar to giving someone bouquet of flowers grown and pulled from their own garden, though this may not always be the case. Care should always betaken to ensure that a particular sacrifice is both appropriate and desired to a spirit, since a spirit may demand different things depending on the circumstance or aspect of the spirit.

It is important to note that once something has been given to a spirit, it cannot be taken back or simply replaced with something else. The act of dedication, another Latin word meaning“having been given”, is permanent, and it is considered a high offense to steal anything from a spirit; moreover, stealing or removing something that one has already given to a spirit is a dire sign of disrespect and untrustworthiness. Spirits tend to rightfully harm or otherwise punish those who steal from them, even if it was an unknowing act. If anything is to be removed from a spirit’s possession, permission should always be obtained and any conditions the spirits impose on the removal, use, and replacement should be followed through.Despite these warnings, one should not attempt to make needless or extraneous offerings to the spirits. Once accustomed to receiving a certain amount or repetition of offerings, spirits will continue to expect them implicitly; making offerings is a sign of a relationship between magician and spirit, and to overdo it is to raise the relationship to someplace the magician may not want.Giving something extraordinarily rare to a spirit may similarly change the preferences of the spirit to similar things, narrowing the availability of offerings down significantly. Spirits should be given offerings as rewards, while gods should be given sacrifices as due honor. Even the devout warriors of ancient Sparta made comparatively meager sacrifices to their gods so that they would always have something to offer, in stark comparison to the lavish Athenians who gave bombastic offerings and rituals.

On Spirit Identification and Authentication

Unlike humans, whose appearance and identification others can immediately verify based on sight and appearance, spirits require refined technique and discernment to understand who and what they might actually be. Calling upon a spirit can be a dangerous act in its own way, since it can attract the attention of any local spirit who happens to hear the call, and not all spirits have the best intention of the caller at heart. Just as human systems for communication, commerce,and intelligence have systems of protection and authentication set up to prevent undesired or unwarranted access, working with the spirits should be similarly protected to prevent undesired spirits from interfering.

Every spirit has two primary markers of identification: a name and a seal. The seal is essentially the sigil, mark, or glyph that represents the spirit. The two form a pair, and are identical with the spirit in every way. In other words, where the name is spoken or seal is written, the spirit itself is there as well. The name and seal of a spirit may be considered the audible and graphical “bodies”of a spirit, much as their presence may be considered their ethereal one. A spirit may have multiple names and seals, but only one name and one seal will ever be the spirit’s true name and seal. With the knowledge of a spirit’s name and seal, the spirit may be called upon and worked with, even to the point of commanding and controlling the spirit. Although many texts, including this one, list the names and seals of some spirits, other spirits may have another preferred name or seal entirely different from the one publicly known.

Knowledge of the spirit’s name and seal is crucial to ensuring that a spirit being worked with is the spirit called upon. In some cases, trickster or deceiving spirits will try to fool a magician into thinking that the spirit is someone else, either for harmless fun or for malicious intent. Although work at properly consecrated or dedicated altars, especially those for deities, tends to permit only the proper spirits called due to the consecration and sacredness of the altar, other work can some-times bring in wandering spirits or tricksters. In such cases, every spirit worked with must undergo authentication to truly know whether a spirit present is the spirit desired. Calling on the spirit to swear by some holy order or name of the Divine that they are who they say they are is a crucial act that should precede any other work or communion with a spirit. Have the spirit say its name and reveal its seal, or have them swear by the seal known to the magician that their own seal is the seal known. By doing this, one can reduce the likelihood of undesired spirits and tricksters. Although some spirits may take offense at having to undergo authentication, spiritual allies tend to understand why this is done.

The first act of working with a new spirit should be to obtain its name and seal. If the name is not known, the name should be asked for and written down; often, the language or writing system used to write the name is a choice left up to the magician, but this should be carefully selected and kept consistent throughout working with a spirit. Thus, if a spirit’s name is written in Hebrew, it should be written in Hebrew for the rest of the work with the spirit. Based on the name, a sigil maybe obtained as might any other word or name, but often the spirit has a separate seal that they prefer over the use of a sigil. In addition to asking for the spirit’s name, the seal of the spirit should also be obtained, with the image mentally or otherwise received used for as long as one works with the spirit. Some spirits have their names and seals change over time, similar to their appearance or manifestations, though this usually only happens for elemental or other low spirits. Thus, then name and seal should be reevaluated for use every so often according to the work with the spirit, especially if one has not engaged in work with the spirit in some time.