Unlocking the Observatory: Dramatis Personae and the Great Cabala

Where were we? We’re in the middle of discussing the obscure Telescope of Zoroaster (ZT), a manual of divination and spirituality originally published in French in 1796 (FZT) at the close of the French Revolution, which was later translated into German in 1797 (GZT) and then again in an abridged form as part of Johann Scheible’s 1846 Das Kloster (vol. 3, part II, chapter VII) (KZT), with Scheible’s work then translated into English in 2013 as released by Ouroboros Press (OZT).  Although OZT is how most people nowadays tend to encounter this system, I put out my own English translation of FZT out a bit ago as part of my research, and while that translation was just part of the work I’ve been up to, there’s so much more to review, consider, and discover when it comes to this fascinating form of divination.  Last time, we talked about  why ZT gets attributed to the French erotica writer André-Robert Andréa de Nerciat. If you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

※ For those following along with their own copy of ZT (get yours here!), this post does not touch on any specific chapter of the text.

In the last post, I mentioned that there’s no explicit authorship of ZT to anyone; the closest we get is an obscure signature of “Baron de N……” at the end of the introductory Epistle.  While an attribution of ZT to Nerciat does make sense (at least to an extent), the text itself still remains anonymous on its own terms.  Putting aside the historical identity (if any) of such a Baron, let’s take a step back and consider the dramatis personae of ZT as a whole.  Because FZT provides the most complete version of the text as a whole, we’ll use that as the basis for this and all subsequent discussions unless a particular example from another version is necessary.

  • The Epilogue (properly titled “Epilogue from the Editors”) suggests that the publisher of the book is not the author.
  • The Epilogue mentions that the editors were in contact with the Redactor, who provided the actual text of ZT for the Editors to publish.
  • In some of the footnotes and paragraphs in the Supplement chapters (especially the First and Second Supplements), the Redactor notes that he was taught by other initiates and teachers, who entrusted him with the primary sources in manuscript form.  Notably, such a text was:

    …a confused collection of orations, invocations, and quotations from pagan philosophers or Fathers of the Church, as well as a series of descriptive reports of operations, where such-and-such a state of the Great Mirror had announced events which had been verified in such-and-such a manner. We would have been given permission to copy this cabalistic journal in vain, for we would never have taken care of it like that. If ever this Key should become public, we would be ungrateful for having given it away in the hodgepodge from which we had great difficulty in extracting it.

  • The Epistle, on the other hand, is written by the “Baron de N……” and addressed to “One Privileged to be Placed at the Highest Rank in the Social Order”, an anonymous (presumably French) nobleman addressed as “My Lord” or “Your Lordship” (Seigneur, which, properly speaking, was a title of respect for a landlord but not always a sure indication of being a noble in the formal sense). Abbé Barruel’s Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du Jacobinisme (part I, chapter XI “New Proofs of the System and Mysteries of the Occult Masons”) says that ZT (according to the English translation, and which the 2008 Alexandre de Danánn book goes on at length about):

    …was adopted by certain Lodges of Rosicrucians in France a few years before the Revolution, and particularly at Bordeaux.  To prevent, however, all possibility of being mistaken, whatever we shall say on this subject shall be grounded on the Cabalistic lectures lately printed under the title of Telescope de Zoroastre.  They are dedicated to one of those Princes whom the author does not name, but whose zealous pursuits in these mysteries are sufficiently known by public report.

  • A handful of oblique references to unnamed “cabalistic initiates” who were also practitioners of ZT who used it for various purposes in various ways.
  • A mythic origin story, particularly established in the Epistle but also touched upon in the Third Step and Fifth Step, that establishes the origin of ZT with the eponymous Iranian prophet Zoroaster and the caste of the Magi (i.e. priests in Zoroastrianism and related earlier religions in ancient Iran).
  • A small cast of divinities, spirits, and angels (that we’ll get around to covering later on).
  • The Candidate or Aspirant, i.e. anyone who would study ZT, including the reader themselves who is addressed repeatedly throughout the book.

Based on the above, with the mythic exception of Zoroaster and the Magi and the possible exception of the Baron, it is not clear who, if anyone in particular, many of these personae are supposed to be or represent. As with countless other occult texts, it may well be that all these characters are just fictions made as character in the writing of a play (which may well be in line with an attribution of FZT to Nerciat), and thus meant to evoke a romantic notion of ancient wisdom passed down in secret, forming secret societies and arcane brotherhoods meant to preserve long-lost techniques of divinity and divinization—in other words, omitting the sinister connotations of the word, a cabal, the word itself being tied to the related notion of “cabala”.

On that note, let’s talk about ZT’s repeated use of the phrase “the Great Cabala” and how it teaches ZT as a “cabalistic art”, because we see this phrase all the dang time throughout ZT.  Here are just a few disconnected examples plucked from throughout (my translation of) FZT:

The Great Cabala, from which I shall lift one of its veils, has nothing in common with the spirituality of the relationships which may exist between the celestial intelligences and humanity. Nothing has been able to define these relationships or prove them, but, on the assumption that it would be possible for God to permit them, nothing could demonstrate it any more than believing in it would be a chimera.

On these grounds, the Cabala indicates a formula (traced back at least to Zoroaster) by means of which it is in the power of the privileged either to seek out superhuman intelligences when one needs to consult them or to easily understand their language when, of themselves, they have the kindness to apprise the vow of confidence placed in them.

But let us return to what concerns the Great Cabala more particularly as a method and vehicle for arriving at the result of divination. By means of the booklet through which I dare to pay you respectful homage, my Lord, we shall know how one might establish for oneself, so to speak, a place of rendezvous, where the advocate enjoys the favor of being in the presence with superhuman beings and can there receive their benefit.

…before taking the first step in the path of a science infinitely more intellectual than rhetoric or music, one must learn the language of the immense land which one sets out to travel. The Great Cabala, which we are setting out to treat upon, is this science; the country where we set out to travel is the future. The Great Cabala, so as to make itself understood, has an equivalent of an alphabet, exclusively its own. From the combination of what here takes the place of letters also result words, periods, speeches, and ultimately precise fragments by which, in taking all they can from it, one can take what they can from the immeasurable record of the future. At first one will find it quite easy to read and trace our cabalistic characters, but one would still not be able to hear the language; even upon hearing it, one would still not yet possess it. Even after much reading and much writing, one might still remain ignorant of the Great Cabala for a long time, perhaps even forever.

The Great Cabala only gives us to hold what is human within it, i.e. its physical forms or conventions, more narrowly restricted than those of the most futile forms of divination and much less doubtful, for example, than the practical principles of judicial astrology. As to what is superhuman (which does not mean “supernatural”) in the Cabala, the mere idea contained in the word “superhuman” establishes in proof that we cannot lay hold onto what it expresses, and therefore we cannot give it away. It is a definition that can make its own existence felt.

Of the two Principles, Sisamoro is infinitely good, while Senamira is infinitely wicked. These names prove that our Cabala comes to us from the Persians: “Sisamoro” is the reverse of “Oromasis” and “Senamira” of “Arimanes”, both so powerful against each other according to the religion of this ancient race. All doubts about the origin and antiquity of our divinatory masterpiece are dispelled by this respectful tradition which transmits to us, under a fine veil, names so authentically indicative of its origin, although so many sects have since applied themselves to the same notions, which we Christians call “God” and “Satan”.

Judicial astrology, at first, took part in a great deal of the Great Cabala. It was the astrologers who, imperceptibly but inevitably, disfigured an ingenious convention and stole a source of pure truth in all the abuses that charlatanry needed to successfully cast mystifying nets. This is the same use that profane people would try to make of our Great Cabala, those who would try to seize an inanimate doll without being in good shape, without even worrying about looking for the spark that gives life to such an immense automaton. Some would seek in its alleged arithmetic patterns a way to fall upon the lucky chances of a lottery; others would want to know use the same uselessness that card-shooters know so well of teasing out magical emblems from a game of spades. Others would have the good sense to see in our Cabala only a formless (or deformed) supplement to mathematical recreations. Some especially (who affect a profound admiration for the Great Cabala) will employ it to flatter the passions of their patrons, to distill into a credulous and naïve sex the poison of licentiousness, to instill fear into a few weak souls, and ultimately to make dupes of them all. Good God! Let not this Key fall into the hands of such cheats!

And on and on and on and on.  (And yes, ZT has some hilariously caustic language against Tarot/cartomancy, geomancy, palmistry, and all other forms of divination, but it saves its sharpest barbs for “judicial/divinatory astrology”, even saying that “modern astronomy” is more useful and true, which I find deliciously ironic.)

So, the Hebrew word ‫—קבלח‬transliterated as qabālā, kabbalah, cabala, qabalah, or any other number of variations thereof—literally means “reception” or “tradition”, in the sense of something handed down from one generation to the next generation, received by one generation from the one preceding it. Of course, to most people even slightly aware of religion or spirituality in the West, this word refers more specifically to a set of esoteric methods, disciplines, and schools of thought in Jewish mysticism. Although various strains of mysticism and mystic practices have come and gone throughout the millennia in the long history of Judaism such as those evinced by hekhalot or merkabah literature from the classical to early medieval periods, it can be argued that kabbalah as such arose only starting in the medieval period properly with the development of texts like the Zohar. Although plenty can be said regarding the development and reception of such a tradition, this would easily dominate and sidetrack any discussion I’d want to have currently, and is way outside the scope of a discussion on ZT. Suffice it to say that the development of Jewish kabbalah was a watershed moment that permanently changed Western esoteric traditions through the present day, and will likely continue to be a permanent fixture in the future for a long time to come.

Although so much can be said regarding the similarities and differences between Jewish kabbalah, Christian cabala, and Hermetic qabalah, as well as who might or might not have the right to study or engage with any such disciplines of mysticism and how such a thing should be done, none of that would adequately explain the “Great Cabala of the Magi”, “Great Divinatory Cabala” or (most commonly) just “Great Cabala” as ZT talks about it.  I mean, beyond a few scant superficial similarities involving a general astrological flair and some sort of importance attached to numerology, anyone’d be hard-pressed to detect in ZT’s “Great Cabala” anything that would instead be found more commonly found in the aforementioned historical traditions. In that light, what exactly does ZT refer to by “Great Cabala”, and how does it conceive of such a thing?

To answer the first question, let’s consider the history of the term “Hermeticism” (some of you can already see where this is going, I’m sure). Since its inception in classical Egypt some 2000 years ago (give or take a century or two), this word has been used to refer to a vast assortment of esoteric phenomena, disciplines, practices, and studies. In the strictest sense of the word, “Hermeticism” refers to the classical quasi-movement of Greco-Egyptian mysticism whose teachings on philosophy, theology, theosophy, and the ascent of the soul are attributed to Hermēs Trismegistos, a sort of heroified syncretism of the Hellenic Hermēs and Egyptian Thōth, and even today, many still use this term in this sense (myself especially, though I find “Hermetism” to be a nice alternative at times). However, over the ages, especially after the classical period when the philosophical Hermetic texts were no longer being produced but other texts (more alchemical, magical, and technical in nature) were being more commonly associated with Hermēs Trismegistos, “Hermeticism” began to be broadened and reoriented to the point where it referred to most aspects of Western esotericism that focus on attaining some measure of divinity or divinization, and then after that to most Western esoteric stuff in general whether or not it had anything to do with divinity or divinization. However, as more and more such texts began to be produced, another usage was coming into play: that of calling things “Hermetic” in the sense of it being not simply esoteric knowledge but specifically knowledge claimed to be passed down from one initiate to another in a quasi-secret manner; in other words (as Dan Attrell over at The Modern Hermeticist has pointed out), “Hermetic” is a descriptor less of what is said and more of how it is said. In this lattermost light, the Kybalion can claim to be Hermetic, despite its utter lack of anything resembling Hermeticism proper, as it states in its own first chapter:

Even to this day, we use the term “hermetic” in the sense of “secret”; “sealed so that nothing can escape”; etc., and this by reason of the fact that the followers of Hermes always observed the principle of secrecy in their teachings. They did not believe in “casting pearls before swine, but rather held to the teaching “milk for babes; meat for strong men,” both of which maxims are familiar to readers of the Christian scriptures, but both of which had been used by the Egyptians for centuries before the Christian era.

In much the same way, the term “kabbalah” does refer specifically to a particular brand and systematization of Jewish mysticism, but as time went on and it became more popular and influenced other aspects of mysticism and esotericism, the term became broadened in use. Over the course of its development, kabbalah was at times divested or appropriated from its original Jewish context and reapplied in Christian contexts or in even more broadly Western esoteric (i.e. “Hermetic”) ones, at some times as a means to use the same models of mysticism for the same goal without having to undergo conversion to Judaism, at other times as means to apply the same framework of mystification to one’s own non-Jewish religion. Over time, the notion of what kabbalah was became even more broad, leading to terms like “cabal” in the sense of “a secret group meeting privately”. As with “Hermeticism”, the term was at times used to refer not to the what, but the how.

It’s in this light that ZT uses the term kabbalah, spelled in a Latinate manner as “cabala”, to refer to an ancient system of mystic wisdom passed down from one generation to the next, availing itself of the word’s literal definition in the process as referring to its popular conception apart from any meaningful content. ZT never actually defines clearly what its Great Cabala actually is or consists of except in broad strokes and vague references, and that it has something to do with the divinatory method of ZT as well as some cosmological content dealing with celestial intelligences and anthroposophical musings on life and living. Except for what’s strictly necessary to impart as instructions to learn the divinatory method of ZT, ZT never gives us the fundamental tenets of the system of the Great Cabala, nor meaningful advice on living a spiritual life so as to better approach God except through means of practicing this divinatory method (and, as part of that, learning to restrict one’s diet and sex drive). Considering how the text often refers to this same thing as (specifically) the “Great Divinatory Cabala”, it may well be that the divinatory method is the sum total of the whole thing, or at least its crowning achievement and its fundamental groundwork. At any rate, it’s clear that ZT’s Great Cabala has nothing substantial in common with kabbalah as the latter is generally understood and considered; we’re dealing with something else entirely, and should not think that ZT seeks to engage with or support such a tradition on its own terms.  This is where a lot of modern occultists go wrong, I think, when they begin to get into ZT and see all these references to “Cabala”—it is talking about a cabala, just not the one people assume it would be.

Despite the idiosyncrasies of ZT, both in how it considers its astrological content as well as its own divinatory method that sets it apart from nearly all other esoteric works of its genre and context, ZT still participates in a blend of perennialism and orientalism common to many such texts all the same, which combine together to form the “Great Cabala”, the teachings of which are what ZT claims for itself (and, for that matter, so many other esoteric practices and mystical systems) to derive from. Although these claims are delightfully quaint to a modern reader, especially given how many assertions of antiquity are no more than a tired cliché that’re as old as the asserted antiquity itself, we do have to wonder how compelling such a system might have been to someone several centuries ago. It’s true that ZT never seems to have caught on particularly popularly, perhaps justifying its own warnings regarding how few people there are to properly receive its Great Cabala or how many there are who would rather stick to the childish games of reading cards or points or palms. Then again, what better way to preserve the esoteric quality of something esoteric than to remain obscure, a single gold thread hidden amongst all the many fibers of jute in a sheet of burlap?

So, in that light, where exactly does this “Great Cabala” come from?  ZT itself speaks very little regarding the origin of the Great Cabala and its accompanying systems and practices, only claiming its unsurpassed antiquity, that it is somehow tied to ancient Persia by means of some nominal references to a small handful of Zoroastrian religious concepts and figures, and that it is the source of so much else of esotericism (however debased such esoteric practices may have become in the process of their falling away from the Great Cabala). In order to go beyond this, however, we can turn to the Epistle, which gives a brief history of the origins of the Great Cabala:

  1. In times long past, there existed in ancient Persia the Magi, holy priests devoted to spiritual pursuits and the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom, and one of these number (if not their leader) was the famous Zoroaster himself.
  2. Over time, the association of Magi and their temples became assailed with disaster and collapse, leading to their destruction and the pillaging of whatever secrets they had.
  3. Those who were able to steal and plunder (or scavenge and preserve) such secrets were able to engage in similar work, albeit with less purity and perfection than their Magian forebears.
  4. Over generations, such secrets continued to be debased and corrupted even further, leading to the present-day illusory and false practices that misused and abused the true teachings of the ancient Magi.

Against this trend, however, the author of the Epistle falls back on the spiritual equivalent of the law of conservation of mass: because nothing can ever be truly lost, then neither have the mysteries of the Magi been lost, and therefore they can be reclaimed in all their glory, if only one knows where to seek and how to make use of it, as inspired by the “Pure Spirit” and guided by celestial and spiritual intelligences so far as is proper for such a person engaged in such restoration. One need not have a direct tie or lineage to the Magi in order to participate in their Great Cabala, though what ZT presents would be a sure way of attaining such a thing by means of a spiritual reconnection, at least for those who are able to engage with it. This can hardly be said to be a tradition (a word itself derived from the Latin word for “to give over”, representative of the core of kabbalah itself); even ZT’s own introduction says, because the Great Cabala deals with things that are beyond humanity, “we cannot lay hold onto what it expresses, and therefore we cannot give it away”. Rather, while ZT could be described as a discovery or even recovery of the Great Cabala, were it merely a system of human invention, ZT would be more inclined to describe it as a spiritual blessing, grace, or even a charism.

Of course, it goes without saying that there’s nothing historical regarding the origins of this system; the story above can only be understood as occurring in mythic terms, given the glaring lack of evidence that any such system as ZT existed prior to the French Revolution (much less in any stage of antiquity), that the Magi were given to such practices as described in ZT, or even the strangeness of incorporating the primary deity and their enemy of a whole religion as little more than game pieces in a process of sortilege. Then again, as the author of the Epistle writes, a fable is “only a history of ancient truth diluted in an allegorical mess, the primitive meaning of which is unfortunately lost to us”—perhaps (but only perhaps) the divinatory method of ZT is not just the creation of a single person or small cabal at the end of the 18th century after all. Even then, even if the specific method of arranging tiles into compositions and determining futures by them is unique to the development ZT in early modern France, ZT still relies on a long tradition of astrology and numerology that ties it into the broader tradition (however defined) of Western esotericism.

Although it would be a fool’s errand to attempt to make a historical foundation out of ZT’s own orientalizing pseudohistory, we should definitely remember that ZT itself recalls a variety of biblical events and stories as being “cabalistic symbols”, worthy of contemplation and philosophical consideration. In that light, understanding the myth for what it implies and suggests rather than what it states and declares, we can start to grasp the grander religious and spiritual goals that ZT impels the reader towards. It’s not that we should think of there being literal ancient temples in Persia dedicated to the Great Cabala, pillaged and looted by later invaders, the loot and booty of which was degraded and debased by unscrupulous charlatans—rather, ZT encourages us to look towards the pristine knowledge of a purer and simpler state of humanity before our present fallen state, to gather together the scraps of esoteric knowledge and wisdom that can still be salvaged from low-grade pop-occult texts and streetside “teachers”, and to cultivate what we can into a system of accessing truth facilitated by the guidance of helpful and directing spirits. This is the legacy of Zoroaster that is promised by ZT: not a philosopher’s stone by which one can attain to physical immortality or worldly wealth, not a ring to command the many demons and spirits of the world, but a telescope by which one may pierce the most profound heavenly mysteries, the heart of which is a mirror that itself provides the visions we seek.

Labeling Myself as a Follower of the Way of Hermēs Trismegistus

Another day, another rant about the Kybalion.  No rest for the weary nor comfort for the correct, I suppose.  Readers here and my good followers and friends on Twitter and Facebook will know that I have no love for the Kybalion for any number of reasons, the biggest of which is that it claims to be a Hermetic text when it just, flatly, isn’t.  All it has going for it is that it claims itself to be and describes itself to be Hermetic, despite that the “real” text that what we have as the Kybalion claims to be an exegesis of doesn’t exist, that none of the quotes attributed to Hermēs Trismegistus in that text appear in any of the literature of philosophical or technical Hermetica, and that none of the cosmology, framework, or spiritual “infrastructure” that the Kybalion describes lines up with that which the Hermetic canon does.  The more one reads the Hermetic canon of texts and the more one reads the Kybalion, the more obvious and more numerous the differences become.  (Eventually, I have in mind to write a blog post series, “A Hermetic Refutation of the Kybalion”, but that’s something that even I’m dreading to write, honestly; that’ll be no small work, that I already know.)

And yet people are still surprised to hear any of this, if not outright disbelieving, because all they’ve ever heard is that the Kybalion is a Hermetic text.  It says right there that it is, after all; why would we not believe it?  Whole Hermetic orders of magical lodges and communities praise and promulgate the Kybalion, and generations of magicians and spiritual seekers uphold it and keep it fondly next to their hearts.  I’ve been called a sham and a liar and a poser for saying that the Kybalion isn’t Hermetic—because, I reiterate, it’s not—and that I should be ashamed of myself for misleading both myself and others about such a venerable ancient text (written about 110 years ago, as opposed to the 1700 years that the Corpus Hermeticum was written, give or take a century), and how dare I call myself a Hermeticist when I would oppose such a useful, informative, enlightening text.  It’s so accessible!  It’s so concise!  It’s so inspiring!  It’s such a good text!  (So many people harbor such a rabid love for the text, I wonder if there isn’t some deeper egregore at work here that makes so many place it atop such an esteemed pedestal with almost cult-like fanaticism.)

Like, I really don’t know what else to say besides the same thing over and over again: the Kybalion is not a Hermetic text, nor is it even derived from Hermetic texts.  Nowhere in the Hermetic canon of texts do we find a notions of “seven principles”, “three planes”, “the ALL is mental”, or whatever.  It’s all very clearly New Thought, and all derivative at that.  It’s not ancient, and it’s not Hermetic.  Whenever someone claims that it’s either of those things, that’s a good sign that they don’t know what they’re talking about.  Even if it is good for opening a window—not even a door—to let in a fresh breeze of spiritual awakening in, I can’t seriously consider that enough to give it such praise as it’s given.  I mean, we all go through embarrassing phases—I started off my PGM work with Stephen Flowers’ “Hermetic Magic”, which was good to spark my interest but which I haven’t touched in years because it’s such a dreadful text, to say nothing of my fondness for Scott Cunningham’s “Earth Power” and “Earth, Air, Fire, and Water”, which actually are useful if not awkward to admit it as such—it’s okay to let crappy things die in the past, especially as we find newer and better things to study.  Even if the Kybalion is an easy-to-digest introductory text to thinking in spiritual terms, unless you’re going to continue to go down the path of New Thought or the various other paths of mish-mash derivative New Age messes, there’s so much unlearning to do to actually properly understand Hermetic philosophy and spirituality in its own terms.  At that point, whatever good the Kybalion can bring is negated and made worse by the harm it can do; it’s like how sugar-processed white bread buns with faux-grilled misc-meat-product hamburgers are good for a quick burst of calories on the go when you’re hungry, but holding to that diet over time will give you severe health problems later on.  Even if the actual Hermetic texts are more difficult to read and ponder?  Good!  Like sex, better hard and slow than fast and bad.

Heck, even the word “Kybalion”, which looks Greek, isn’t even a meaningful word; it’s either meant to dimly recall notions of kabbalah (which, as a Jewish system of mysticism, also isn’t Hermetic), or perhaps the goddess Cybele (what connections that might have with Hermeticism is beyond me).  The only two Greek words that are extant that bear similarity to “Kybalion” are κυβαλικος (like a rascal, knave, or rogue) and κιβδηλος (fraud, counterfeit)—both of which are fitting, I suppose, for this text.

Let me clarify something, I suppose.  When I refer to “the Hermetic canon”, I refer primarily to the source texts of Hermeticism attributed to Hermēs Trismegistus written in the classical period (between 100 and 700 CE) that all Hermetic philosophy, theology, cosmology, and practices descend from.  These texts are largely broken down into two categories, the philosophical Hermetica and the technical Hermetica.  The technical Hermetica consist of a truly wide variety of texts, ranging from astrology and (proto-)alchemy to medicine and scribecraft and everything in-between; the Greek, Demotic, and Coptic Magical Papyri are good examples of this, though not all of those would necessarily qualify as “technical Hermetica”.  On the other hand, the philosophical Hermetica consists of, well, more philosophical, spiritual, and devotional texts, the most famous of which is the Corpus Hermeticum, the first book of which is sometimes taken to be the title of the whole thing: “The Divine Pymander” (or whatever variant spelling of Poimandrēs one wants to take).  When people ask about resources for the philosophical Hermetica in modern English, I typically share the same list of resources:

There are, to be sure, other translations of these texts, especially of the Corpus Hermeticum and Asclepius, but I find Copenhaver’s and Salaman’s to be the best currently out there.  Salaman’s translation is a little easier and smoother to read, though he makes more editorial and translator’s decisions for the sake of an easy read; Copenhaver is more critical and exact, which is better for study and comparison.  Salaman’s “Way of Hermes” is excellent for the translation of the Definitions alone, and Litwa’s text (though unfortunately rather pricey) is a fantastic resource on so much of the “miscellaneous philosophical Hermetica” that covers at least as much ground as the Corpus Hermeticum and Asclepius do themselves—to say nothing about the Korē Kosmou, which itself is part of the Stobaean Fragments.  I’m sure there will be future translations coming out, too, especially one rumored by Christian Bull whose works on Hermetic philosophy are priceless to us in the modern day—to say nothing about the extreme hope we have for other Hermetic texts to be discovered that we’ve otherwise lost over the passage of time—but for now, these are what I stick with.  These collectively form my starting point for Hermetic philosophy and, more generally, the “way of Hermēs”, which is perhaps a better way to understand the material given in the philosophical Hermetica.  But I claim that these are the starting point, or should be the starting point, for anyone and anything that claims to be Hermetic—else, if what you’re doing or writing about has no connection to nor root from Hermēs Trismegistus, what sense does it make to call it Hermetic?

It’s true that I am limiting myself in my own personal selection of “the Hermetic canon”, with my own cutoff point being the Emerald Tablet (which, I should note, only first appears in Arabic between the 500s and 700s CE); it’s not like people just forgot about Hermēs Trismegistus after the fall of the Roman Empire.  Far from it!  Although the tradition of the philosophical Hermetica may have fallen by the wayside, the tradition of technical Hermetica lived on strong, especially in the fields of astrology and alchemy (though theurgy and other spiritual works, at that point, were either taken over by other religious systems or just outright quashed as a form of heresy and paganism).  However, that’s not where my focus lies: between my personal focus on the philosophical and contemplative side of things, as well as the fact that after the Emerald Tablet so much of Hermetic literature gets mixed up with other religious and spiritual traditions, it gets harder and harder to make out a firm outline of Hermetic content like we could in earlier texts.  While they’re still valuable as part of the Hermetic tradition, we do start to see branching-off into various kinds of “Hermeticisms”, leading to such wide-ranging differences in the term such as the “Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn” or Franz Bardon’s famous “Introduction to Hermetics”.  Easier and clearer for me, at least, to consider the original texts that they all come from before this branching-off as the root that we can all at least agree on are Hermetic.  And if something outright builds up a radically different framework and cosmology and philosophy that either doesn’t talk about what those texts does, contradicts it constantly, or talks about things that the original texts didn’t care to discuss or outright said was a distraction, can that really be called Hermetic?  No—which is why I claim that the Kybalion isn’t a Hermetic text.

But you know what?  It is true that there are a variety of Hermeticisms around nowadays, and that Hermēs (whether as Maiados or as Trismegistos) is a pretty promiscuous character.  It’s not at all beyond the pale to consider Hermeticism to have “sects”, much as Christianity or Islam, and while all these Hermetic sects may trace or claim some origin with Hermēs Trismegistus as the prophet-sage-teacher-god-hero-initiator that resulted from Hellenicizing the Egyptian Thoth and Egyptianizing the Greek Hermēs, let’s be honest: so many of these sects and groups that claim the label of “Hermetic” can often be so far away that they’re anything but.  As one of my Twitter friends noted, it’s like how many Mormons call themselves Christian online without every having read the actual Bible and only swearing by the Book of Mormon: sure, I guess it’s derived from Christianity and does claim Jesus Christ as the (or a) central figure, but it’s so far removed from the rest of Christianity that it may as well just be its own thing.  I mean, it’s not uncommon that I have to explain that, no, I have no connection to the Golden Dawn and that my magic is not derived from or influenced by them, yet the Golden Dawn is the first thing that pops into their mind when they hear the word “Hermetic”.  It’s good marketing, I suppose—which is the most likely reason why the Kybalion tried to claim that title for itself so as to sell more copies and spread the word of New Thought further—but considering the depth and breadth of Hermeticism outside the Golden Dawn, to simply think of Hermeticism as Renaissance-derived Rosicrucian blends of Solomonic magic and (very distantly-derived) Jewish mysticism with Egyptian window-dressing in a Freemasonry lodge structure is…pretty far off the mark, if you ask me.

So, okay.  If people want to claim that I’m not Hermetic because I don’t like and discourage people from reading the Kybalion?  Alright, sure.  Though I’d rather they stop using the term Hermetic when they’re not discussing anything of the sort, sure, I’ll drop the label first.  From now on, I won’t call myself a Hermeticist except in the extremely broadest sense of meaning “something to do with Hermēs Trismegistus” (whether legitimately or spuriously, because words do have meaning after all), and for anything more specific, I’m going to adopt the label of “Hermetist” for myself, and “Hermetism” for what it is I study.

Hermetist, Hermetism?  These are terms I find in academic literature discussing the classical Hermetic texts over and over, and although some do use “Hermetic” and “Hermeticism”, there’s a subtle distinction being made here.  The bulk of modern academia is, as ever, focused on distancing itself from the occult, spiritual, magical, and anything considered “woo”, for better or for worse (though there are increasingly more and more researchers and writers and professors who don’t care about that, especially once they get tenure).  Because the word “Hermetic” is fraught with magical tension, they often use the term “Hermeticism” to refer to post-classical alchemical and magical texts and orders, and “Hermetism” to refer to the actual texts, traditions, and groups that we know had weight as being written and taught by Hermēs Trismegistus.  In that sense, the Corpus Hermeticum is (or ought to be) a text of both the Hermetist and Hermeticist, while the unrelated texts of the e.g. Ordo Aurum Solis would be more for the Hermeticist.  All of this would be considered Hermetic (as that is the proper adjective to use for things pertaining to Hermēs Trismegistus, as opposed to “Hermaic”, which is more for the god Hermēs himself apart and away from the other trappings), but as far as the path, framework, and the rest is concerned, there’s quite a gulf that separates Hermetism from Hermeticism more broadly, indeed.

I know there are some people who get upset at someone deciding to label themselves, because waaah limits or waaah you’re cutting yourself off from the truth or waaah why can’t we all get along or something.  But you know what?  Labels are words, and anyone who has any knowledge of Egyptian models of magic is that words are power, whether written or spoken, because words have meaning.  If people want to insist that something that claims to be Hermetic isn’t Hermetic even after there being abundant and well-agreed-upon evidence, like the Kybalion, or want to use the word “Hermetic” to describe something that has evolved and shifted so far away from its Hermetic roots that there’s no clear connection or silhouette between the two anymore?  Okay, fine.  Then what those people are doing isn’t what I’m doing, and there are clearly more of them than me out there, and a distinction in terminology is called for with good reason and impetus.  I’m aware that the Hermeticism/Hermetism distinction is not well-understood yet, hence this post being written: perhaps those who see such a distinction and agree with it can take the word on as well, and get on with our practice and lives without being dragged down by people who don’t care much for such trifling things such as coherence, cohesion, or correctness in the choice of words we use to describe things or in the worldviews and spiritual frameworks we apply ourselves in.  No shame nor shade to those who prefer a more Hermeticist than Hermetist path, as I know a good deal of people who do good work in modern Hermeticist traditions, but they aren’t doing what I’m doing, and perhaps that needs to be made more clear.

So, yeah.  As a follower on the Way of Hermēs Trismegistus, taking the classical philosophical Hermetica as the backbone of my cosmology and the classical technical Hermetica as the (ever-widening, ever-deepening) foundation of my magical practices?  I’m a Hermetist in the practice and ideology of Hermetism, and those are the terms I’m going to use from here on out.  This isn’t to say that I’m disavowing anything that came after the classical period or that more modern Hermeticist stuff is worthless or pointless—the Trithemian rite of conjuration is still excellent, to be sure, and I have a number of other practices that have origins in a number of other time periods—but as far as I consider myself and the core of my practices, I’m a Hermetist.

May as well save some of my own breath, even with that one syllable removed, given how much others waste theirs.

EDIT: Another friend of mine on Twitter reports that there was no term “Hermetic” or “Hermeticist” or even “Hermetist” used as such back in classical times as a distinct label for people who also followed the Way of Hermēs Trismegistus, but “Trismegistici” or “Τρισμεγιστικοι”, as opposed to Ερμαιοι or Ερμετικοι.  This would make the modern term for them “Trismegistist” and the adjective form “Trismegistic”, although “Trismegist” sounds a bit nicer, I have to admit.  It’s so pomous and immodest, but yanno what?  I do kinda like it, even if it a bit more obscure and opaque than “Hermetist” would be.  So there’s another option for terminology: Trismegistism, Trismegistic, Trismegist(-ist).  Or, as she later suggested, “Altrismegest” in a not-so-subtle nod to the Almagest, which I have to admit makes me melt a little inside.

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.

You’re Probably Not Chosen, and That’s Okay

Last night on Twitter, I found a tweet thread that I thoroughly agreed with pertaining to the notion of spirit animals and how it’s culturally appropriative to use the term, and outright disrespectful when people say “unicorns are my spirit animal” or “whiskey is my spirit animal”:

I’ll let you read the whole thread, written by an Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) person with actual claim and propriety to speak on the matter, because the thread is a little long and it deserves reading.

It’s a sensitive topic for many people, but she makes fine points all around, and I can’t really disagree with them in any reasonable sense.  There are good comparisons between how people in popular occulture and New Age scenes use the word “spirit animal” with the word “shaman”, which originally applied only to Central Asian steppe-based Mongolian or Turkic tribal religions; unless you’re practicing a form of Tengrism, technically speaking, you’re not a shaman or working a shamanic path.  However, the term was adopted and adapted by anthropologists (who, I might add, typically are from Western Europe and take on a subtly colonialist-universalist view of every culture that isn’t theirs) to be applied across the board to countless religions, traditions, and cultures far removed in time, space, and language from those Central Asian priests based on perceived or superficial similarities.  In general, the word “shaman” is used wherever “priest” would normally be used, except for cultures that were deemed more “primitive” or “undeveloped” as, say, something more established, formalized, structured, or civilized as in the West.  As Kalagni shared in a related discussion on my Facebook page,

When (white) people go on about how there are analogs in other cultures, and that “spirit animal” is generic, they really mess up their history. Yes, “spirit animal” is generic and in English, but the term was coined in English to refer to Native beliefs as part of their persecution and eradication. Also, as part of another side rant, if wypipo also want to harp on about how “we have culture”, then use the goddamn names from your our culture then and prove it.  Then again, white (North American) culture did steal a lot from Native folks…so it’s part of their culture in that way.

I’d say shaman is a better case, because it’s not an English word, so despite being applied to “shamanic” traditions everywhere now, you can point and say “This is the language and culture it came from.” People have trouble grokking that with spirit animal because it’s in English, so obviously it’s a white people thing.

And, of course, as is commonly joked-not-joked?

There’s so much that can be said about this topic, and how the line is hazy or non-existent between cultural appropriation and syncretism, what the best term to describe something is depending on circumstance and originating context, whether fylgjas or totems or tutelars or paredoi or other concepts are similar enough to be clustered together (typically they aren’t except by people who don’t understand them), and so on.  Honestly, while I thought about writing about this discussion, I really don’t have much to add at the present time besides “don’t do it, and understand what you’re actually describing before you open your mouth and why you should or shouldn’t say it a certain way”; that wouldn’t make for a very exciting blog post, though, would it?  Besides, I’ll let people from the actual originating cultures speak for themselves, and keep my own mouth shut.

But there is a related topic that I can speak about, and don’t think is spoken about enough in Western occulture, New Age, and pagan thought.  People (think they) have spirit animals because they feel that the animal has chosen them; some people have patrons or matrons/patronesses (I’m not sure why “matron” isn’t the default term here, but okay, whatever) in this pantheon or that system, and all around people claim that they are “chosen” by some big-name entity or to do some monumental task.

People go on about how they’ve been chosen by some thing for some thing to do some thing, and…in general?  I don’t buy it as much as others do, or as much as I did.

I suspend my disbelief out of politeness, and see how far it goes for the person in our conversations, but for the vast majority of people and the vast majority of cases, they’re not chosen. And that’s okay!  Not only is it the norm to not be chosen, but in many of these traditions, there’s no notion of “choosing” that the gods or spirits do for us.  Moreover, any such notion is generally a recent Western overlay, much how “shaman” is used for African, Native American, and Central Asian religions despite their differences in context and origin.

I would think that the notion of having a patron in general comes from Catholic influences, where people can have a patron saint, or where a certain profession, area, or trade is associated with a saint who’s related to the thing in some way.  By being involved in that profession or trade, you can petition that saint for special help above and beyond a general-purpose spirit, sure, but you can also do the same by having your own patron saint.  Sometimes this is found based on the day of the year of the calendar of saints you’re born on, sometimes this is based on where you’re born, and sometimes it’s simply something you choose (note that it’s you doing the choosing of the saint, not necessarily the other way around) at baptism or confirmation.  This saint helps intercede for you through their unceasing prayer, not as a mediator of prayer to God but to pray alongside you to better live a better life here and in the hereafter.  This is a pretty common practice in Catholic and close-to-Catholic traditions, and seeing how that undergirds much of the past thousand-ish years of Western European philosophy and religion…well, it’s a common notion, to say the least.

So now we have all these new or newly-reborn traditions and religions, some invented out of whole (old) cloth, some reconstructed from historical and religious research: Hellenism, Heathenry, Kemeticism, Religio Romana, Rodnovery, and so on.  There are also living traditions, such as Vajrayana Buddhism or Shinto, that never died out and are extant, vibrant, and practiced to this day in their own ways.  In each, there are often an abundance of deities, demigods, heroes, saints, spirits, and whatnot.  Okay, good, cool, excellent!  The more, the merrier.  Each has its own cultural background, historical context, linguistic reliances, and so on; sometimes those who are in the know of more than one tradition can syncretize parts of them, sometimes parts of different religions ought to stay separate and far from each other.  Something I can say, however, regarding many of these traditions?  The notion of a spirit “picking” or “choosing” you is…uncommon, if not absent entirely, without having been previously syncretized with Western Christian or modern neopagan (which has some Western Christian elements) ideas.

Let me offer my own experience with something personal to me.  In La Regla de Ocha Lukumí (or Santería, as is commonly known, the Yoruba diasporic religion as it developed in Cuba with Catholic influences), there is a notion that everyone has a patron saint of sorts, an orisha that claims the head of everyone.  You don’t really get a say in who owns your head; that comes out in a special divination reading where humans don’t get to choose, but the orisha themselves choose.  In my case, it came out (surprisingly to me, at the time) that Ogun owns my head; that is a case where I was, in fact, chosen to have that connection with him in a way that other people don’t necessarily have, even if they work with Ogun or have other connections or relationships with him.  Then there’s also the fact that some people are told that, yes, they are meant to initiate as a priest in Santería, that it is indeed an already done deal where they don’t really have much of a say in the matter if they want to continue living their destiny as it was written for them.  For me, I took the plunge and made the decision to initiate; I entered willingly into that relationship with Ogun, and I had Ogun put on my head.  The fact that I have Ogun on my head doesn’t preclude me from working with other orisha; I still have vows and pacts made with my courts of orisha, and I can and do work with them in ways that others can’t or don’t.  Even then, however, Ogun may have been my patron saint all along in that system, but it was I who made that relationship real and tangible by my own volition and sacrifice.

Now, let me compare the similarities of that to my work with Hermes.  There are lots of things in my life that I do or that I have going on that do, in fact, relate well to Hermes’ domain: linguistics, languages, mathematics, programming, astrology, divination, conjuration, magic, trickery, trade, and on and on.  I work in a building that used to be one of the grandest post offices in the United States, and is designed with caducei and paeans to Hermes-Mercury on the pediments.  For all this, it makes sense for me to work with Hermes, because the things of his influence are already around me.  However, that does not mean I’m chosen by him to work with him, any more than a person who grew up in a family of chefs and bakers is chosen to be a culinarian themselves.  Rather, I chose to establish a shrine to him and offer sacrifices and honor in his name; I chose to have his emblem tattooed on my mortal flesh; I chose to work with him.  He did not chose me, not only because the notion of having a patron deity is unfamiliar and foreign to Hellenism, but because he…well, didn’t.  All these things in my life that are under his influence are things I chose to have in my life; he didn’t send them in my way to lure me to him, but I chose them.  Just so did I choose him, and I continue to choose him.

Another example I can offer is my own connection to what I may have called my “spirit animal” in an earlier time.  (Forgive me for declining to say what it is, but those who know me will already know what it is.)  This is an animal that I indeed feel a connection to, and which seems right and proper for me to work with.  But, that said, I’ll be honest with you: I went out of my way to find this animal, and I formed a connection with it of my own volition.  I can’t say that it’s my totem (because that’s more of a clan/lineage/family thing) or my spirit animal, because I don’t belong to the tradition that came up with the idea or that uses those terms; I rather say that it’s my tutelary animal or that I simply work with that animal spirit, because that’s more accurate and descriptive of what I do.  Moreover, this is a connection that allows for other connections to be formed with other animals as the case may be, sometimes as strongly as my primary tutelar, sometimes not so much, sometimes stronger as the case may be; I work with the spirit on my own connection, and listen to it if it needs something, but this is a spirit that ultimately I chose.  I may have encountered it in a strong way, but it was I who chose to stay with it and not pass over it.

I see that distinction a lot like how an astrological magician might view their own horoscope.  For instance, it was not a matter of my choosing when I was born; I am a Libra by virtue of my birth, and so could be said to have been “chosen” to be born under that sign.  It does not necessarily mean that Venus is my ruling planet, nor does it mean that I have to work with Venus or any of the deities associated with that planetary sphere except by my own volition.  Nor, for that matter, does it mean that I can’t work with other planets, or that I have some past-life connection with Venus, or that I am specifically chosen to do Venerial things in the world above and beyond other people, especially other Venus-ruled people (whether or not they’re Libras, Tauruses, Pisces, or another sign entirely).  I know of some people who live lives that would seem to run directly counter to their zodiac sign or almuten, often to great effect and purpose, but that’s because they often chose that path in life and worked for it.

Some people have certain entities that they work with closely and intimately, sometimes to enhance their own works; a photographer, for instance, could petition Saint Veronica because she holds special significance for photography and photographers generally.  Other times, they work with a certain entity because it enhances their own personal development, like a mask they can adopt to adapt themselves to the traits and characteristics of that entity that, over time, they can better facilitate and embody, like someone working with the spirit of the Wolf to be stronger, more cunning, braver, or more ruthless.  We can easily and properly say that we work with these spirits or entities because we’re already involved in their sphere, but that’s not because they came to us and made us work in their sphere.  Consider: at a banquet where you’re presented with multiple dishes, you don’t say that the first dish that was presented with you is what “chose” you, or that whatever dish you most like “chose” you.  You choose what you want to eat or pass over, and you choose what you want to take home and try to recreate in your own kitchen to make your life tastier.

In some cases, yes, someone is, in fact, chosen by some entity to do some sort of work.  The more I see, however, someone being chosen like this is actually kinda uncommon; more people who claim that they’re chosen aren’t, and are rather describing something they chose of their own volition as being out of their hands.  I consider this a kind of false modesty, ascribing one’s own choices in something to the work of the gods, and I…it twangs my sensibilities.  Some people might ascribe such choices to fate or predestination, which is not only a kind of false modesty but also handwaving away their own choices to something that can’t be proved.  Rather, people may feel a draw to some practice or divinity, but be honest: is that because they’re actually being lured to it by the divinity, or are they acting on an impulse and drive that they themselves have and want to explore because it’s actually something that clicks with them?  Are they told that they need to work with some deity or entity, or are they doing so because the person has their own needs given the themes and motifs in their lives that that particular entity can help with more than others?  Are they chosen to work with that deity, or do they chose to work with that deity?

There is no harm in saying that you chose a connection, relationship, or patronage with some spiritual entity.  While it may be an honor to have been chosen, it is also exceedingly honorable to willingly make that choice yourself, if not even more honorable, because it’s you who’s forming the connection, doing the work, making the sacrifices, and going above and beyond the normal level of devotion one might have into something truly special, rare, and powerful.  To do something of one’s own free will and unbidden by the gods that pleases them is almost always a sweeter sacrifice than any fumigation or libation or festival than they demand.  There’s no shame in saying that you chose this animal, this saint, this deity as your patron; if you’re earnest about it, and actually dedicate (literally giving over) yourself, I would say that you’re doing both you, the spirit themselves, and the world an honor by it.

So be honest with yourself.  Did the spirit you claim chose you actually choose you, or did you choose the spirit and choose to form that relationship with them?

I know this can press some people’s buttons, and this can easily lead to a topic of debate that borders on insult and aggravation.  Plus, there are definitely problems of destiny, fate, free will, and the subtle machinations of spirits that can influence what we “choose”, but in our limited human consciousness, we have to take responsibility as much as we can for our actions.  By all means, dear reader, share your thoughts and experiences in the comments, but please be respectful towards others if you do so.