Tag Archives: magic

Reflecting on Pagan Identity

It seems silly so late in that game to ask, “What is Paganism?” and yet, in my continuing interaction with the Pagan community I find that, honestly, I have very little idea of what Pagan actually means. The problem largely seems to be that we, as Pagans, have too many different ideas of what that actually means. Consider how many of us try to subsume Hinduism under the umbrella of Paganism, when Hindus themselves are largely disinterested with our attentions and frequently oppose the classification.

The most common generic definition of what classifies a Pagan religion is a non-Christian Earth based faith. However, that description includes faiths like Shinto, Hinduism, and potentially Buddhism which have long lasting traditions quite distinct from Modern Paganism, while at the same time excluding African Diasporic Traditions, like Candomblé and Vodou, and frequently leaving no place for Appalachian Conjure and Rootwork. Let’s not forget, either, how heavily Christianity influenced Modern Occultism. The Golden Dawn and its antecedents are positively dripping with references to Christianity. What exactly, then, is Paganism? Can we really exclude Christian influence from Paganism?

So, perhaps we introduce another definition. Paganism refers to belief systems which incorporate elements of magic into the core of the faith. Now we need to define magic. Simply said, magic is the manifestation of change in the world according to will. So, what does this definition produce? Now we seem to be able to exclude some of the problematic religions incorporated into the first definition, but have we sufficiently narrowed field to the point that we exclude the Judeo-Christian Faiths? I remain unconvinced. Attend a Catholic Mass and tell me that magic is not built into the very foundation of that ceremony.

I think that it has become apparent that we need to back off and approach this conundrum from another angle. So many of us Pagans have emerged from Christian Faiths, frequently as a result of trauma, and we seek to distance ourselves as thoroughly as we can from those traditions, while at the same time never really coming to terms with the ramifications of our conversion. I propose that Modern Paganism is, in fact, a spiritual revival movement beginning with the birth and subsequent rapid growth of Wicca in the 1940’s. Modern Paganism has progressed in a fairly straight line from the Occult Revival of the Victorian era. I do not believe that it is in anyway controversial to assert that Wicca is the touchstone of Modern Paganism. Wicca itself is a modified form of Golden Dawn teachings combined with various other traditional and fictitious English Hedgework and witchcraft teachings.

I, therefore, assert that Wicca is a heresy of the Golden Dawn. The basic foundation of Golden Dawn ritual is preserved wholly in Wicca. The great innovation of Wicca is to reorient the gender of the Godhead and place the feminine divine at the center of its ontological structure. The male is preserved as a divine consort, in relation to the feminine. This ontological shift is the springboard of Modern Pagan thought. It is precisely this shift, with the maintenance of Golden Dawn structure that shows Wicca to be precisely what it is, a Golden Dawn Heresy.

The Golden Dawn itself is a Christian Heresy. There can be no real doubt of that, any substantial exploration of Golden Dawn teaching reveals it to be a very strange mixture of Christianity, Egyptian mythology, and a rather messy port of John Dee’s Enochian. The roots of Modern Paganism are fundamentally intertwined with Christianity. It may be a bit of a stretch, but a good deal of Modern Paganism could be described as simply a Christian Heresy. The story of Modern Paganism is tangled and full apocryphal tales, but with a little research it is fairly easy to tease apart the strands.

Of course, I do not mean to say that we, as Pagans, are still essentially Christian. We are not. What I am saying is that our community has its roots in Christianity, and it has grown and developed out of a society that is heavily infused with the Christian worldview. Christianity, after all, can be viewed as simply a Jewish heresy, but it would be patently ridiculous to say that we are all, secretly, Jews.

I think that we, as Modern Pagans, tend to forget our roots. We forget and disguise our history to our detriment. Knowing where we came from helps us to understand who we are now, and to see where we have yet to explore. Paganism is growing tradition, still very much in a stage of flux and transformation. It is important that we hold on to our history, our true history: history that we can verify and source. Every faith, every tradition needs its mythology, but we must understand how mythology and history function separately of one another and learn how not to mistake one for the other.

Essentially, I suspect that the question, “What is Paganism?” is a question that we are very much in the process of answering. We are looking for our identity as a community, but in doing so, we must resist the urge to allow our personal history, our pain and transformation, from blinding us to the history of the community that we are building.

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I have always been aware that I am susceptible to the emotional states of those around me. As I child I was both very emotional and very empathic, some times cripplingly. Over the years as I grew up, I gradually closed myself off. However, I have always been, as they say, sensitive. The silly thing is, that now, as an adult, I had all but forgotten about how heavily the emotions of others press on me.

These last few weeks I have felt bogged down and listless. I have had a hell of time motivating myself, I haven’t seemed to have any energy to get things done; even my creativity has waned. A few days ago, I realized that this wasn’t just a phase. I decided to make a conscious effort to improve my mood and motivate myself.

I always get a little irritated with the people who tell you to “think happy thoughts,” as though being happy were as easy as that. As someone with depressive tendencies, such advice always struck me as vapid and hollow. It’s patronizing. If I’m sad, I have reason to be sad, and when I don’t, I know that it’s my brain being weird and I work around it. Well, I realized that this long stretch of ennui wasn’t for any good reason, and I have to work around it. Thinking happy thoughts doesn’t work, so what does?

A few months ago, Emjay suggested a book to me, which I promptly forgot about and then only again remembered when she posted a review of it on her blog. I promptly bought and read Sophie Reicher’s Spiritual Protection, and then, as I do, filed it away as useful information to return to later. Well, as it turns out, I’m kicking myself for not having immediately put the ideas in that book into effect. As I said previously, I tend to forget how susceptible I am to the moods and emotions of those around me. Also, working at a coffee shop, I encounter a lot of less than lovely people who range from casually cruel to actively spiteful. I simply hadn’t thought, as a spiritually aware and active person, how much of the negativity of other people was beginning to collect around me and weigh me down.

So, earlier this week, I pulled out my chunk of black tourmaline and after grounding and anchoring myself, charged it to deflect and absorb the negativity, petty viciousness and outright cruelty and malignancy of the people and forces that I encounter. I have taken particular time to strengthen this charge before going to work. As silly as it is, I have to say that these last few days I have been feeling quite lovely.

Now, I am always hesitant to ascribe a magical/spiritual cause to anything. It is possible that the effect is entirely psychosomatic. I have this stone in my pocket that I touch occasionally when I feel pressed upon, and I am taking time every few hours to control my breathing and center myself. Already that is enough to ease my tensions. I have found my head to be clearer and my energy levels to be much improved with no other real changes to my routine.

One of my very few objections to Sophie Reicher’s book is the immediate assumption that you are under spiritual attack. The entire text is written as though you are under siege from malign forces, as though you are surrounded by malign practitioners bent on making you suffer. On further reflection, however, I find myself largely agreeing with her position. Though I think that your average spiritual practitioner is hardly likely to be under active magical attack, my experience of the last few weeks has certainly led me to believe that for the spiritually aware person, the world is quite overflowing with things that we need to protect ourselves from, be they conscious attacks or casual unpleasantness. I would hardly say that I am under attack, but I do know that there are people around me who enjoy provoking and antagonizing those around them. I have come to the conclusion that for my own well being it is necessary for me to take steps to protect myself mentally and spiritually from such malefic influences.

I have been thinking, recently, that as we become more spiritually aware of ourselves we become more, and I hesitate to quite use this word, but I shall, vulnerable to the spiritual influences around us, for good or for ill. As much as I flex against the idea that we are constantly under attack, I’m not certain if that it actually a bad metaphor. While we may not be the direct targets of negativity, we are certainly besieged by it. I have come to realize, lately, how vital it is that I be aware of and combat these forces in my life. I think that it is important to come to terms with the fact that we don’t live in perfect little spiritual bubbles. We are influenced by the world around us and we need to be capable of protecting ourselves. The world is not sunlight and roses and puppy dog kisses, and no matter how good a person you are, no matter how enlightened you may be, that won’t protect you.

I was planning on writing a fairly detailed review of Spiritual Protection, but honestly, I don’t think that I have much more to say than Emjay already said, and so suggest that you go read her review instead. Now that said, I’m not necessarily, after that long preamble, advocating that you cling to every word that Sophie Reicher wrote. Spiritual protection is incredibly important and Sophie Reicher’s book is a very good, concise and detailed volume describing various techniques for various situations, but, as in all things, every individual is going to have different view points. I suggest detailed research and investigation, and Spiritual Protection is a good place to start, but it is by far not the only text available. In the end, all that matters is that we be aware of the forces around us, that we understand ourselves well enough to recognize when we are feeling the effects of forces outside of us, and that we are able to act appropriately. It’s not so much that we are under attack, I think, as we are surrounded.

They’ve Got Us Surrounded!

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Under the Blue Moon

This Friday past was the blue moon. I decided, on the cuff, to get some friends together and go moon gazing on the hill top in Frick Park. We picked up a few bottles of wine and around 10:30 wandered off into the park. Now, I will admit that my initial intention was to perform some sort of experimental group ritual, though with the final composition of the group it became apparent that was not going to happen. In the end, though, I think we all had an enjoyable, variously enlightening experience.

There is something quite interesting to me about the blue moon: unlike other astronomical events, the blue moon is an entirely calendrical artifact. The blue moon only has significance because of the way that we decided to carve up time, a sidereal calendar wouldn’t produce blue moons. Yet, something about the approaching full moon at the very end of August felt somehow special, alluring. I wanted to use this as a chance to experiment in fairly low stakes environment. If the ritual ended up as nothing more than a silly pantomime, or failing catastrophically, well, it wasn’t marking anything in particular, save an occasional calendrical oddity: the full moon will come again.

I have been deeply interested in the function of ritual, lately, and particularly given my own spiritual orientation, I find a good deal of group rituals to be less than thrilling. I admit, that I have attended relatively few group rituals, and that there has only been one local organization which has consistently impressed me not only with the precision of their rituals, but also with their scholarship, a local chapter of ADF. The reason that I have been repeatedly drawn to the open rituals of this particular group is because of how engaged they are with the theatricality of ritual. They seem to recognize how important it is to capture the attention of the participants and viewers and engage with their spirituality through their imagination. The rituals of theirs that I have attended included a lot of story telling, singing, chanting, divination and  costume. All of this has gotten me thinking on what is actually necessary in ritual. If you recall a prior post of mine, I have taken a semi-phenomenological approach to materia magica, and I think I similar approach is useful here.

For my birthday, a friend danced a blessing for me. Her spiritual practice is sacred dance. No words, just movement. In absolute honesty, I was shocked by how much power she was able to draw upon, by how much energy she worked up by dancing. In the Western Occult tradition we are repeatedly told how important the words, the words, the words are, and never shall you ever tamper with these spells handed down from times immemorial. Of course, modernity has struggled with this concept, and intent has krept in, weaseling around the edges, acknowledged but poorly explored. Intent, we are told, again, is vital and perhaps all of magic reduces to intent, so maybe all you need to do is intend really, really, really hard, and then, whizz bang, magic! Intent itself is a tricky subject, as a great deal of human experience is bound up in intent, and if we are going to have a functional definition of magic, shouldn’t it be precise enough to exclude the mundane intention of paying your cell phone bill from the uncanny intention of warding your apartment? Intent alone is insufficient, just as the word alone is insufficient. The dance succeeds because it looses both word and intent in the action.

I want to pull in here, as well, my previous musings on art as something which pulls you back to pure surface, to the act of perceiving. Indeed, I think ritual operates in a very similar way. Frequently one encounters descriptions of the importance of trance states in magic. Thusly, I posit that trance operates as a restoration of perception to itself. Descriptions of emptiness, of the perceiving of nothingness, of the evacuation of I, the ego, the subject, the cogito in the trance state, I suggest, are descriptions of perception returned to itself, reflexively engaging with itself. When one is in deep trance one is perceiving oneself perceive. I argue, then, that ritual aims to bring its participants fully into the state of pure perception. Magic, will, intent, may then spring up from that perceptual reflex.

My intention on the hill top under the light of the blue moon was to begin exploring these ideas in a group setting. In the end, though, everyone so inclined wandered off from the group, found a quiet patch on the greensward and offered themselves up to the beauty of the moonlight. The moon, that night, was truly beautiful. It shone brighter than I have seen in a long time, and the entire park was uncannily lovely. Myself, I offered up a libation to the moon and praised its beauty, its clarity, its radiance. Strangely enough, all our private adventures on that hill top provided a comforting sense of community. Some of us worshipped, some of us prayed, some of us simply enjoyed the beauty of the evening, and others chatted quite happily in the cool breeze, enjoying the companionship. It wasn’t a group ritual, but the space became special, spiritual, regardless.

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Materia Magica

Over the last few months, my personal practice has come to include more and more materia magica. The particular functioning of these things (stones, herbs, bent pins…) has become something of a fascination for me. I have encountered several different explanations for the operation of materia magica, and, honestly, I find very few of them to be satisfying.

I simply cannot accept the idea that materia magica function solely as a focus for the will. A great deal of the discussion of modern magic places power entirely within the operator. While I certainly do think that there are certain forms of magic which work in this way, such as Chaos Magic, certain types of contemporary Hermeticism as well as certain strains of contemporary Alchemy, I find the idea that all magic is of the subject rather … off putting. In the case of materia magica, it seems to me as though if it were the case that the materia possessed no special properties, then the particular materia are of no importance: ritual baths could be assembled out of anything as long as the will of the operator was correct. There is a rebuttal, then, that particular materia are required for generating the correct mental state, but then, again, it seems as though one is shifting the power out of the subject, or at least splitting it with the materia.

High Ceremonial magicians rely on particular atmospheric effects, of incense, color and various paraphernalia, yet are frequently quick to denounce the necessity of such accoutrements. It seems to me that either the materia magica is vital, or else absolutely unnecessary. I may be making too harsh a distinction, but if one is determined to achieve a certain mental state, does that not imply that the mental state alone is sufficient? Now, to say that the various materia are an aid seems unsatisfactory. From a phenomenological perspective, the changes which the necessary materia induce on consciousness can only be achieved through the lived experience of those materia. The embodiment of the operator is inescapable. So, then, the accoutrements of High Ceremonial Magicians are the source and fulfillment of their power. All the window dressing is as absolutely necessary to their success as their intent, as all of the complex atmospheric effects are caught up in the spell craft, regardless of their individual powers.

It appears, then, that I am moving toward a basic supposition: materia magica is effective because of the particular effect it has on perception. However, I feel like this is far too basic to be of any real use. All objects, being perceived, produce effects within perception. The use of materia magica relies on the assumption that they possess some special qualities which make them particularly suited to magical acts.

Now, I must shift slightly. I do think that there are some materia which do operate predominantly on a symbolic level: the bent pins in a Witch’s Bottle or the sword of a ceremonial magician. These things operate largely within the subject, their effects are interior. These sorts of materia are intended to act predominantly within or upon subjects (the magician, in the case of the sword, malign spirits, in the case of the pins). That materia which is is actant upon the Subject need not possess anything more than the power assigned to it by the operator/Subject. Therefore, symbolic power is power which manifests within the Subject, and that materia which acts predominantly upon the Subject need not possess anything more than symbolic power, fulfilled in the Subject.

Now, what makes basil a good luck charm? I must say that there is some quality possessed of basil that attracts good luck. It seems to me that magic pretty much must be a thing in the world, possessing formal qualities. If we, as subjects, are able to recognize and manipulate it, it must share some properties with other things which we manipulate. That is to say, magic must always react in the same way given the same circumstances. Magic must be as formal as the rest of the world. I may be making a mistake in naming magic as the thing manipulated. Magic may be a frame in which things are manipulated. However, my argument still holds. Objects, being bound by formal relations and bound as well by magic, so, if such is the case, magic must be a formal relation. Magic is shifted into the world itself, as gravity or strong nuclear force. Magic, however, remains somehow unique, as it appears to be a force accessible only to the Subject.

So, I recognize that these musings are largely incomplete: I’m really just trying to air some ideas. It seems to me like magic must be more than just an effect of will, and, if so, then materia magica becomes incredibly important.

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