Priesthood in the World We Live In

Readers of my blog know that I’m a stickler for proper terminology, sometimes expounding on the subtle and nuanced differences (sometimes even those that I impose) to distinguish between different terms that are largely used the same, even for words that historically were interchangeable with each other.  I like to be extraordinarily precise with my language, if for nothing else than to save words or to have certain concepts ready to go, though even I acknowledge that it can be difficult with overly-precise language to actually, yanno, communicate with others.  I see this problem frequently in discussions many occultists have—even those I myself have—and why I spend so much time first trying to understand exactly what someone is talking about (with or without snarky remarks about their clearly awful use of terminology) before coming up with a response.  I might spend a goodly chunk of time on just clarifying something, but it prevents the even larger waste of time that happens when someone says one thing but I was thinking completely another thing due to a misunderstanding of what they mean.  Getting lost in translation is a serious problem, especially when so many people don’t have the same research, education, training, or standardization as other people.

Up until recently, I would have held a distinction between the words “priest” and “minister”.  This is a distinction I found online from some blogger or another, though the exact source escapes me at the moment.  Under such a distinction, while both priests and ministers can be considered part of a clergy that works with God or a god, their role and focus would differ: priests focus on serving, understanding, and working with their deity, while ministers serve, understand, and work with the people.  In other words, priests primarily work in a ritual context, and ministers primarily work in an activism context.  The priests and ministers, then, work amongst themselves and with each other so that the ministers help the words of the gods reach the people by the instructions and divinations of the priests, and the priests help the words of the people reach the gods by the complaints and needs communicated to them by the ministers.  Consider the various ministries in Christian churches that feed and clothe the poor (when they can actually still be found); they’re not really preaching or performing Mass for the poor, but they’re carrying out the will of their God by being activists for the sake of the people.  Meanwhile, the priests proper tend to the rituals of Mass, absolution, baptism, exorcism, and the like, but relegate themselves (for better or for worse) to their ritual expertise and less to activist tasks that would infringe on their time and energy carrying out their priestly duties.  Priests only work with the people insofar as to carry out spiritual ritual for them, and ministers only work with the gods insofar as to carry out their worldly aims; beyond that, the two offices don’t really mix.

But here’s a question: if we neglect our fellow human beings, our pets, our lands, our trades, our environment, we leave the world to its own self-destructive devices.  If we neglect the world, we do nothing to prevent its eventual breaking-apart and wasting-away.  In that light, what good is a broken, wasted world to a god?  They receive no sacrifices, no respect, no honor, and no priests; just as we have an investment in seeing the world do well so that we can live well in it, the gods have an investment in the world to make sure their children do well so that they can do well towards the gods.

What I’m starting to realize is that a priest has a vested interest in both their gods and their people; to tend to one necessitates tending to the other.  A priest does not become a priest merely by studying and becoming an expert in ritual; anyone with half a semi-functioning brain can do that, since it’s not hard to memorize a dozen or four established speeches, read out of special books, and make particular gestures with particular tools at the right times under the right circumstances (it’s what most office workers do mindlessly for eight hours a day five days a week, just with different sets of words, books, gestures, and tools).  A priest must be an expert in ritual but must also show devotion to their gods, discerning their wills and carrying it out.  It’s that last part, carrying out the will of a god, that often necessitates the external world of persons and people, though, sometimes to the great distaste of the priest.  In order for a god to be pleased, they need their needs met and satisfied; given that the world we live in has so many people in it, and affecting so many things to such a great extent, many times these needs call for the interaction and direct communication with people.  With no people, many needs of the gods cannot be met; it is often better, for example, for a tribe of people to raise their voice together in joy and honor of a god rather than just one person alone.  Sometimes, it helps our gods carry out their work by performing acts of charity; a god of lepers and diseases who was cast out of his kingdom, for instance, quite often smiles upon money given to the homeless in his name, and a goddess of love and beauty can appreciate her priest helping others feel beautiful for their own sake as much as being recited her own hymns of beauty.

Let’s be a little more misanthropic about this, shall we?  For a more Machiavellian take on this, consider people as tools, as means to an end.  Any good craftsman knows that you need to take care of your tools so that they can take care of you.  If your tools are crappy, you’ll need to make up for it with more work on your part, and we have tools for the express purpose of making our lives easier.  If your tools fall apart, you risk botching a work in progress and can no longer make things you need to make, and if something is broken, you can no longer fix what needs to work.  Getting high-quality tools is an investment, but you can get better results with them faster, easier, and more reliably than with crappy tools, but even crappy tools are better than no tools at all.  If people are tools, then they need to be taken care of the same way: they need food to sustain them, homes to protect them, clothing to dress them, medicine to heal them, teachers to instruct them, pastimes to relieve them, and communities to engage them.  If people are not taken care of, they will die, wither away, revolt, or outright destroy; in general, people that are not taken care of take away from a Good World, and without a Good World to live in, our lives become harder, our hearts weaker, our tongues more bitter, our minds more dejected, our prayers more hollow, our Work less focused.  We are, all of us, in this thing together.  We, too, are tools to be used by our higher powers, and we, too, need to be taken care of.  It’s very much a “wrench in the machine” kind of situation; so long as the entire machine works properly, then each individual part does well, but if even one gear is out of place or if something is put where it doesn’t belong, the entire machine will break down and explode.

To that end, even the most people-hating of priests has to admit that other people will, nearly always, play a part in their own tending to their gods.  There are exceptions, of course; sometimes there is something we can do on our own to tend to our gods’ needs, and sometimes a god has no need of dealing with other people, but these are only ever exceptions to the otherwise vastly-normal situation where the gods have plans and aims and needs that deal with other people.  Communal celebration, tending to our own towns, helping those in need, and making donations where they help are as much priestly duties as are the successful and proper execution of ritual, sacrifice, and devotion.  We must build up ourselves as much as we build up those around us; it’s only when everyone is enlightened can the bodhisattvas themselves catch a break, and it’s only when one person is elevated that everyone can be brought up to their level.  Priests must be ministers, because the priest is the intermediary between the other realms and this world we live in; ministers can help, but it’s the priest who really stands at the crossroads of divinity and humanity, of eternal immortality and fatal mortality.  If there is a distinction to be made between priests and ministers, then it’s just that ministers focus on a non-ritual, non-spiritual subset of the duties of a priest but still in the same service to the same powers.  It’s not that they’re mutually exclusive categories, but that the functions of one is a subset of the other.  Of course, you could very well cut yourself off from people in the ritual service of your deity or deities, but then that would make you a hermit or a monk, which I would indeed reckon is a distinct category from priest.

A distinction I’ve held before (and still hold to) is that we live in three realms: the physical universe, the spiritual cosmos, and the world, which is the intersection between the two linked together by humanity and the human experience; after all, the word itself comes from old English literally meaning “the age of man” (Proto-Germanic *wer + *ald).  We cannot live purely in either the universe or the cosmos, but in the human-made human-filled realm between them.  To be a priest in the world means mediating between the two by the necessary means of the third element: people itself.

Clarifications on Terms for Symbols

It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine when people badly use terms in an occult context.  To be fair, different traditions may use certain terms in particular ways that are specific to that particular tradition, which may or may not differ from normal use.  Other groups treat some terms completely interchangeably when, strictly speaking, the terms signify different things.  Generally, however, there’s not much rigor in how people use specific terms, and end up misusing them (through their own ignorance and confusion) or abusing them (to intentionally mislead or annoy others).  I’d like to clear up a few things and offer some of my definitions for particular terms used in an occult context, this time focusing specifically on terms used for different types of symbols.

For any of these terms, “symbol” is the highest-level term I can think of for any of these following terms.   If you’re not sure what kind of symbol a particular thing is, just say “symbol”.  Everyone understands that.  Not everyone understands what a particular person means by “sigil” or “rune”, however.  Granted, these words are given with my personal definitions, and again, may not be those used by other traditions.  However, for the sake of having a regular inventory of words with specific, unambiguous meanings, here’s how I use these particular things.

Glyphs are symbols used to indicate a basic thought or sound.  In other words, a glyph is much like a written-down word.  Individual letters communicate sounds; individual numerals communicate numbers; individual Chinese characters communicate sounds or concepts or words; the glyphs for the planets, zodiac signs, elements, and alchemical concepts communicate those things and only those things.  Glyphs are essentially a generalized notion of a letter in an alphabet; they are characters in a writing system that includes letters, numbers, punctuation,  labels, and so forth.  Glyphs may or may not be used in an occult context; for instance, these words you’re reading right now are composed of glyphs (letters and punctuation of the English alphabet), but so is an astrological chart (the symbols used to denote the planets and Zodiac signs) or a computer science textbook (punctuation and numerals and diagrams to indicate logical connections or mathematical operations).  Glyphs may be used one at a time (using the symbol for the Sun) or in combination with other glyphs (multiple letters to spell out a name).

Seals are symbols that are invented as a complete unit or are received from a spirit.  Seals cannot be decomposed into more basic things, but are a whole unto themselves.  They are symbols that are not generated according to a particular rule or composed according to sacred geometry.  They are simply abstract symbols that refer to something.  Importantly, especially in my own work, seals are “revealed” or given unto someone by a spirit or person to refer to themselves; seals are an abstract “body” to give an idea a graphical or visual form.  Consider the symbols used to refer to spirits in the Lemegeton Goetia; these are not composed of more base units or other symbols, but are whole things unto themselves.  These are seals, and often have no origin besides “this is what I was shown to use and has no rhyme or reason beyond that”.  Seals are to constructed diagrams what barbarous words of power are to words in the dictionary; they may not have any communicable meaning that us humans can understand, but they work.

Sigils are symbols that are constructed according to a particular algorithm.  Think of the standard way of creating a letter-based sigil according to Agrippa (book III, chapter 30) or as used in modern chaos magic, or like with my own shorthand system.  Alternatively, consider the sigils used for the planets with their planetary intelligences and spirits from Agrippa (book II, chapter 22), which are lines drawn over the qameas of particular planets and playing connect-the-dots with the gematria values of individual letters of a name or word.  Sigils are symbols created according to a defined set of rules (combine these letters, connect these numbers on this qamea, etc.).  They are not always artistically made, although the algorithms used to generate a sigil may have some leeway for style and innovation.  A painting may incorporate sigils, but a sigil is not made of pictures; a sigil is a geometric, abstract form composed or generated from glyphs.

Runes are letters of the writing systems used for Germanic languages prior to the introduction of the Roman script.  In other words, runes are no more than letters of a particularly old style of European alphabet.  These can be classified, generally speaking, into two families: the Scandinavian futhark (both Elder and Younger, together used between the 2nd and 11th centuries) and the Anglo-Saxon futhorc.  There were medieval runes used in some astrological contexts, but generally runes stayed out of Hermetic and Western ceremonial stuff.  However, a particular alphabet known as Darlecarlian runes was in use until the 20th century in a small province in Sweden, but this was certainly the exception to the historical abandonment of runic writing.  There are other systems of writing and symbols that are runiform, such as Old Turkic and Old Hungarian, but these bear only a superficial resemblance to Germanic runes, and are not technically runes on their own as they belong to a different writing system, culture, and geographic area.

Pentagrams are five-pointed stars.  That’s it.  Nothing more than that.  You can only really draw a pentagram one way, regardless of orientation.

Hexagrams are six-pointed stars . Again, nothing special here, but there’s a bit more complexity.  The Star of David is nothing more than a hexagram composed of two overlapping equilateral triangles, which is what’s usually meant by “hexagram”.  The unicursal hexagram is another type, though it’s not original to Crowley by any means; the mathematician Blaise Pascal depicts it in one of his works from 1639.  The “elemental hexagrams” shown in the Key of Solomon (book I, chapter 3) are not, strictly speaking, hexagrams (with the exception of one); they are configurations of two triangles each that do not, necessary, combine to form a proper hexagon.

Pentacles are not stars.  They are not necessarily pentagrams, nor are they necessarily hexagrams.  Pentacles are more of a system of symbols that work together in unison for a particular goal; they are something usually, but not always, more elaborate than a sigil and are not necessarily combined in an algorithmic way.  Consider the pentacles from the Key of Solomon (book I, chapter 18), or the Elemental Weapon of the Earth as used in the Golden Dawn, or the protective lamen with the pentagram and extra symbols used in the Lemegeton Goetia, or that used in the Heptameron of Pietro d’Abano.  Pentacles are, essentially, the physical version of a graphic design composed of one or more symbols, often including letters and names, and arranged in a method more akin to sacred geometry than algorithmic combining or tracing.  Pentacles are tangible objects, things you can hold and touch and wear.  All pentacles are talismans, although not all talismans are pentacles.  For instance, a talisman engraved in a circular stone may have the design of a fish surrounded by Hebrew words can be considered a pentacle, but a talisman of a stone fish with words engraved on it is not a pentacle.  Pentacles are generally round, flat objects such as a circular piece of paper or a metal disc that have a design engraved, painted, drawn, or otherwise inscribed upon it as a graphic design of a system of symbols.  Pentacles are not oddly-shaped things like carved statues or rings or wands, despite its talismanic properties or designs on them.  Although the words “pentacle” and “pentagram” are related and were originally used interchangeably, the word “pentacle” started to be used for any magical talisman in the form of a pentagram or hexagram starting in medieval French.  An alternate etymology combines this with an older French word for pendant, pentacol or pendacol, or something worn around the neck.  Indeed, most pentacles are typically worn around the neck as lamens, which is probably the most correct use of this word in my opinion, but can easily be expanded to other (typically circular and flat) objects with a system of magical symbols inscribed upon it.

Tetragrammaton (more properly the Tetragrammaton) is another word for the four-letter name of God, Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh or Yahweh or Jehovah or whatnot.  The word is Greek and literally means “the thing of four letters”.  It is a title to refer to the sacred name of God, akin to the Hebrew haShem “the Name”, but is often used in Hermetic and Solomonic work as itself as a sacred name of God.  However, this is nothing more than a word composed of individual letters; the word “Tetragrammaton” does not refer to any pentacle or other occult design.

A Correction on Terminology: On “Omieros”

In the last post, I described my method of a general spiritual bath for purification and the removal of spiritual impurities, and in the process used the term “omiero”, which has caused a minor stir online for some people.  Let me talk about this term here, and if you’ve used it or seen it used in the past and you’re not an initiate in Santeria, then please read this.

I first encountered the term “omiero” in a post by Aaron Leitch, one of the better-known ceremonial magicians of our time.  In that post of his, he described the method of making a blood substitute for Solomonic workings for those who are unwilling or unable to obtain blood from animals for the use in certain rituals, like the consecration of the black-handled knife which calls for the blood of a black cat.  Sometimes, getting blood from animals can be a problem for one reason or another, and many people (“especially those of American WASP heritage”) disprefer the use of blood generally in ritual.  I’m not one of those people, but I know of many who are.  To get around these problems and still continue on with Solomonic ritual as traditionally as possible, Leitch talks about making a substitute using water, herbs, and prayer.  He calls this a “Solomonic ‘omiero'”:

Omiero is a liquid used in Santerian traditions, whenever an Orisha (or  god) is born into a new vessel.  (These vessels are urns, filled with consecrated items, that become the center-pieces of altars to the Orishas.)  The Orisha will quite literally live inside the vessel, and offerings and sacrifices will be made to him or her upon the altar.  However, the Orisha’s very first meal is not blood at all – it is omiero.  Because of this, omiero can be considered even more potent (in its way) than blood.

Of course, the secrets of making true omiero are a closely guarded secret. I only know it involves the ripping and tearing of sacred herbs and plants beneath running water, so that a green-tinted water is collected. And there are mystical songs that must be sung during its preparation.

Meanwhile, the concept of herbally-infused holy water is not unheard of outside of these mystery religions. We can especially find it within the practice of Hoodoo – a folk practice that originated in the American south, and was itself heavily influenced by the ATRs. In this case, the process is much simplified – usually involving little more than steeping sacred herbs in water to produce a “tea” or extracting the scent of a plant and infusing it into water (such as the very popular Florida Water – which is named for its sweet floral scent, not for the US state).

He goes on to describe how one might make such a “Solomonic omiero” with the praying of psalms and the like, which is indeed a useful substitute for ritual magic.  After all, it’s basically the same thing I did for my rituals when I can’t get blood from a certain animal.  After getting involved with several African diasporic traditions, including Palo and Santeria, I’ve encountered the term “omiero” in a proper context, though I’ve also seen this same term used in ceremonial magic and other Western traditions since.  Since it seems to be part of the lingo, I used this term in my last post to describe an herbal wash one might use after or during the process of a spiritual bath.

I’ve since amended my post to remove the term “omiero” because, in short, I was wrong to use it.

The same Tata Quimbanda I mentioned is also a Santero, an initiate in Santeria, and I noticed shortly after my post that he started a discussion on Facebook about what an omiero really is.  After reading that discussion and talking with several other Santero friends of mine, I’ve since learned that what Aaron Leitch describes as an “omiero” is no such thing.  The term is strictly relegated to the practices of Santeria and Ocha, pretty much, and it is something far more than an herbal wash or herbal water.  Even with the praying of psalms or other incantations, it’s not an omiero unless it’s done in a Santeria manner.  To call something a “Solomonic omiero” is crossing the streams too much to be correct, and it’d be like saying something is a “Tibetan rosary” (the rosary being relegated to Catholic practices) or a “European shaman” (shaman being relegated to Central Asian religions).  Yeah, you might get your point across, but it’s not a proper use of the term.

What I was describing was an herbal wash or an herbal water: water with herbs crushed into it, perhaps with prayers said over it as one might do with many things in many traditions.  An omiero isn’t just that: the process of making an omiero and the precise nature and uses of it are oathbound knowledge kept by initiates in Santeria, but it’s made in a specific manner that isn’t found outside Santeria.  Plus, while an omiero can be used as a bath for some purposes, that’s not what it’s usually made for, and can be described as a type of “amniotic fluid” for the orisha in Santeria rituals.  If you’re not an initiate in Santeria, you’re pretty much guaranteed to not know how to make an omiero and are not supposed to use it on your own.

I admit I was wrong to use this term, and I’d like to correct the use of this term in the broader occult blogosphere, much as Kalagni over at Blue Flame Magick did with the term “tulpa” (if you think you know how this term works, think again and read Kalagni’s post).  It pays to be correct, guys.  Appropriating this term isn’t really doing yourself, your work, or the original tradition it came from any favors.

What is a deity?

So, recently a friend of mine who’s getting his legs in working with the occult and spiritual worlds was talking with me and my boyfriend, and it caused a bit of a debate amongst ourselves, mostly due to semantics and differences in worldview that can complicate things when describing How Things (Can/Should) Work.  Part of that was that my friend had said that me and my boyfriend “traffick in gods”, and that he himself doesn’t like working with gods but does like working with forces of nature.  This caused a bit of confusion between all of us until we pegged down exactly what he meant by that generally, and also what he meant by gods.  This is where my boyfriend and I disagree a bit, but then, we can attribute that to different worldviews and paths in spirituality.

As for myself, the question of what the nature of a god is can be complicated, especially when describing specific instances of spirits and how they might be or might not be gods.  For instance, we can easily point to Zeus and say that he’s a god, and we can point to my little Air elemental ally and easily say that he’s nowhere near as godlike as Zeus may be, and you’d generally be right in saying that my elemental ally isn’t a god.  But what about river spirits, like that of the Mississippi or Ganges?  Or spirits of a forest or a mountain?  Or spirits ruling over an entire element?  This is where the ontology of godhood and spirithood can get tricky.  I present below my understanding and use of the words “god” and “spirit”.

First, to talk about gods, let’s back up a bit and talk about a broader class of entities, that of spirits.  To me, a spirit is any nonphysical entity that can be meaningfully interacted with.  Let’s unpack that phrase bit by bit.  A “nonphysical entity” (NPE) is a being with a more-or-less independent consciousness and nature, which exists without corporeal form or body, and which communicates or interacts with the world through nonphysical or noncorporeal means.  Thus, humans and animals are not NPEs, but ghosts, souls, and angels are.  Elemental and animal spirits, though they may be present within actual objects or animals, are still NPEs.  (Sometimes an NPE can be incarnated or take corporeal form; this is an exception and handled elsewhere.)  To “meaningfully interact with” means that we, as human beings, can witness and observe an NPE and its effects on the world, can communicate or work with the NPE, can receive communication from the NPE, and can potentially work together or through the NPE to achieve some desired end.  So, working with Zeus or God or an angel or an animal totem would all constitute meaningful interaction; working with gravity or lightning or time would not, since these can be manipulated in certain ways but not communicated with.

I claim that all gods are spirits: they are both nonphysical entities (though are sometimes known for taking corporeal form in some circumstances) and can be meaningfully interacted with (though sacrifice, prayer, scrying, visions, and the like).  Thus, gods constitute a subset of spirits; are there spirits that are not gods?  This is where things get interesting, and I have a hard time trying to figure out where any meaningful distinction might lie between godly spirits and non-godly spirits.  If it’s a matter of scale or grandeur, then we end up with a kind of divine sorites paradox, where distinctions may be arbitrary and meaningless.  For instance, if we define a god as a spirit that has at least 10,000 worshippers, then what about spirits that have 9,999 worshippers?  Does that make the spirit any less godly, especially as seen and experienced by their worshippers?  Same thing goes with age; if we consider a god to be a spirit worshipped for at least 1000 years by some group of people, what about Christ in the first millennium AD, when he was recognized as divine even before his birth?

In many animistic traditions, there simply is no distinction between a god and a spirit, and all gods are spirits and vice versa.  Consider the Shinto term kami (神), where all of the phenomena, spirits, souls, and manifestations of cosmic order are considered a type of god, though the term “god” itself does little justice to encompass the meanings of the term kami.  Similarly, looking at Hindu and Greek polytheistic traditions that likely evolved out of animistic ones, we find both a kind of ruling group of gods with connections and children to other gods, which although lesser are still considered gods, even down to the level of individual rivers, mountains, forests, and trees.  Even the Greeks considered individual people to have their own agathodaimon, or personal spirits, which were so strong or powerful that they would be on the level of the gods themselves (implying greatness or grandeur, but no otherwise fundamental difference).  Sacrifices and prayers were carried out to the big Olympians as they were heroes and nature spirits, indicating that ritualistically the spirits were treated the same as the gods, or nearly so to the point where it’s just about meaningless to consider gods fundamentally different from spirits.

My boyfriend suggests a difference in function and level: gods are NPEs that are worked towards but not worked with, while spirits are NPEs that are worked with.  So, for instance, I might call on the aid of a saint to achieve an end (thaumaturgy) but I might work myself up to rise to the level of the Almighty (theurgy).  Thus, Olodumare/Olorun in Santeria or Yoruban religion might be considered a god, since he’s not directly worked with, but the other orishas like Chango or Babalu Aye would be considered spirits since they’re directly present and able to work directly with someone.  In Abrahamic terms, we might consider God the Father the “god” and his angels the spirits, but then this gets into more complicated issues when you consider that God the Son is directly worked with as is God the Holy Spirit, who are not God the Father but are also not apart from God in a weird non-panentheistic way.  Because of these problems, I disagree with my boyfriend, but then, it’s a minor, minor thing.

Based on all this, I contend that there is no fundamental difference between a god and a spirit: gods are spirits, and spirits are gods.  Thus, the term “god” is merely a label we use to separate out a particular set of spirits we (either as individuals or as traditions) find especially worthy of reverence, devotion, and sacrifice.  For instance, I consider myself dedicated and a priest to Hermes, but not to the local land spirits around my house.  I make them both offerings, but not in the same way, and I hold Hermes as greater and grander than the local land spirits.  Then again, I also consider the local land spirits as genii loci and thus children of Gaia, sharing in her presence and power and thus representative of her; in this sense, the genii loci can also be considered gods by other people.  And even I might consider some genii loci especially worthy of reverence, and thus would be elevated (in my mind) to the status of gods.  Likewise for Shinto, the big kami like Amaterasu or the Emperor get bigger rituals than the kami of smaller things like boulders or waterfalls, but both are considered kami.

In other words, the term “god” is merely a functional term, much how we consider the terms “stationery” and “paper” different: they’re both ultimately the same, but one has a little more decoration than the other, and that decoration is all in the eye of the beholder.  It’s a lot like how the gods of one tradition might be considered devils or illusions by those of another, so it’s tradition- and worldview-specific, but these help define one’s practice and methodology in working with the spirits.  So, for my friend who got me thinking about this to begin with, we might say that going with the animistic idea that there is no fundamental difference is probably best, especially in getting over any hang-ups on the terms used by others.