Tag Archives: occult

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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Why I Am Not A Hermeticist

Eventually, I’m sure, I will tire of attacking the Hermetic basis of the vast majority of the Western Occult Tradition, but for the time being I am too caught up in my analysis thereof to simply content myself with what I have so far written. I realize that I have placed myself philosophically emphatically against Magico-Spiritual systems that rely upon essences, and, in doing so, strike out a broad swath of Magical Practice within the Western Tradition.

I think that part of the reason for the apparent dominance of Hermetic Style work is largely a result of the occult and pagan publishing houses. Hermetic Style Magic is appealing to a lot of people because it promises results straight out of the box. Indeed, for myself, that is why I have had a very difficult time abandoning the Golden Dawn rituals which I sharpened my teeth on. I do think that such sorts of Magic, properly practiced, being based so heavily on formulae and repetition can guarantee a certain sort of success without much other work. That said, I find a great deal of the underlying rhetoric to not only be reductive, but frequently offensive. I think it is too easy for a Hermetic Magician to reach beyond themself, and fail to apprehend the mechanisms in action behind their actions. I would argue that the foundations of Hermetic Magic are built on an abstraction at several removes from the basic functioning of magic, and the the power upon which it draws emerges from a source which is refined and denatured by the Hermetic frame work, to the point that the source itself is disguised beneath so many distortions that, to the practitioner, it becomes invisible. The framing of Hermeticism removes the ground from which it emerged.

I am so easily frustrated with the framing of a great deal of Occult and Spiritual writing that I find myself turning to Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty for spiritual advice (or Foucault, when I’m in a particularly black mood). I suppose that in the end I am too aware of social and historical constructs which have produced the very specific sort of knowledge which we have recognized as Occult to ever be willing to accept such writings as either true or honest. I find something reprehensible as well in the very naming of such knowledge, which aims at truth and honesty, as Occult, meaning hidden, occluded, secret. The tradition which produced such themes relies primarily, even today with the great power of the internet, on restriction. That which is Occult only maintains its intensity as such by the maintenance of its secrecy. Surely the truth and honesty of being are immediately accessible regardless of the socio-historical frame which seeks to contain them. Being must subsume all such knowledge and be the primum mobile behind all such knowledge. Today’s Occult Knowledge is merely a rarefied and refined sort of secret entirely dependent upon the discrete cultural forces which shunted such knowledge into a very particular category: that which must not be known by the majority of society; that which is dangerous.

I think, today, that many people are content to assume that Hermeticism is and always was a discrete, intact, and perfectly recognizable system which, while it may have influenced the cultures around it, was entirely pure and uninfluenced throughout its emergence and refinement. I recently read a book, lent to me by a friend, The Secret Source, by Maja D’Aoust and Adam Parfrey, which I think quite succinctly encapsulates this issue. The first half of the book aims to reveal the late Victorian Occult origins of the Prosperity Gospel and the wave of self help demagoguery typified by The Secret, which I feel it honestly does quite well. However, the second half then delves into the deep history of the Hermetic Tradition which influenced Victorian Occultism, and hence a vast majority of the Modern Western Spiritual and Occult Movements, and in doing so, seeks to reinforce the basic Hermetic Myth that this particular form of knowledge predates all others and was handed down directly from the gods to quasi-god-men who maintained and secreted this knowledge through the ages to preserve it against the corruption of mankind in expectation of some Great Work yet to come. In that way, such a system is, by its nature, Apocalyptic, perpetually revolving around a system of secrecy and delay. Those who know where chosen to know, and it is incumbent upon them to protect and preserve such knowledge, while simultaneously using it to manipulate the world around them to their own enlightened ends toward an us yet unknown and potentially unknowable final agenda.

Enlightenment is incumbent upon secrecy. One can only become enlightened once one has gained the secret knowledge which they can only gain through the beneficence of those already enlightened. Such a system resembles a pyramid scheme: a spirituality of a knowledge which must be controlled and contained. Knowledge, then, is the root of spirituality in this system. A particular knowledge must precede spirituality. Spirituality is thus a secondary effect. One cannot be truly spiritual without first having access to a rarified and refined tradition which places itself at direct odds against the world in which it is embedded.

Hermeticism is essentially a spirituality of The Word. Hermeticism derives from a particular sort of knowledge which is not experienced, but acquired linguistically. The magic of Hermeticism is one which relies powerfully on linguistic abstraction and repetition. The speaking of words themselves is magical and all power is channelled through their annunciation. Hermetic Magic seeks to pronounce the world into a particular way of being: from abstraction to instantiation. The action of Hermeticism is profoundly based against the World.

Indeed, I would argue that systems such as Hermeticism posit language as preexisting the world. One would be hard pressed to find a text which better describes Hermetic thought than this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. – John 1:1, King James Bible

Yet, how many Hermetics would accept a Gnostic Christian basis for their beliefs? Very few in my experience. The argument could be made that Hermeticism pressed into early Christianity, but the reverse of that argument is equally powerful. The earliest sources of the most basic of Hermetic texts, the Emerald Tablet of Hermes only dates to the tenth century. We have no reason to believe that Hermeticism is anywhere near as ancient as it claims to be. Nor do we have any reason to assume that it is anything more than the product of a complex Magico-Spiritual milieu resulting from the cultural blending of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Near Eastern thought during the expansion and proliferation of the Roman Empire.

Hermeticism is a primarily gnostic practice. It posits a linguistic world against the world of experience. Indeed, it seems to emerge from a culture which produced a variety of gnostic faiths. Hermeticism is just as bound by its cultural framing as any other religion. It is only useful as a spiritual practice as long as one maintains that awareness: whatever truth it contains is a very particular truth emergent from a very particular set of circumstances, and it can only speak within that framework.

The framing of Hermeticism also allows it access to a devouring syncresis, as particularly typified by the work of Dion Fortune. A friend and I were recently discussing Dion Fortune’s role in Modern Paganism in this regard. I think that one of the more destructive strategies of Modern Pagans striving for acceptance has been largely derived from her work. Within the Hermetic frame, all Divinity derives from the single Hermetic God, all other gods being mere aspects of that One Great God. Dion Fortune expounds these principles in great detail in her book The Mystical QabalahWithin that text, Fortune explains how all the various pagan deities relate to the Qabalistic Tree of Life, and thus seeks to unify all pantheons into not simply one pantheon, but One Great God in various emanations. Here, again, we have a vast array of Spiritual Experience being rewritten and altered to fit within a single framework which forcefully disregards the traditions and cultural backgrounds of each under the baseless assumption that Hermetic Knowledge preceded all other forms of knowledge, and is, therefore, the only true knowledge.

Unfortunately, a great deal of the traditions of the ancient world which Modern Pagans are attempting to return to have been so degraded and damaged by the incursion of Christianity that we simply do not have enough data to accurately reconstruct them. However, I do not think that justifies then turning to Hermetic and Golden Dawn based work, as such work is innately at odds with the individual power and cultural constructs which produced all of these discrete traditions. I know that it is asking a great deal to turn away from the structures to which we have become accustomed, but I also think that it is incumbent on us to understand the way these various institutions, spiritual or otherwise, interact, and the agendas which they carry with them.

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Foremost, the Flesh

If it is not yet obvious, I have a great deal of difficulty with the traditional foundations of Occult Philosophy. My own philosophical leanings are strongly influenced by Post-Modernism (and by this I don’t mean the pop philosophy watered down bullshit that reduces the complex actions of Post-Modernism to nothing more than vapid relativism and moral disintegration, but the rigorous political and literary critiques of Deleuze and Foucault), as well as Phenomenology, with a fair dose of Queer and Feminist Theory thrown in. All of which is poised, emphatically, against Ideal Forms and Absolutes.

In no small part, the thrust of these various philosophies has been to dismantle the work of Plato and Aristotle in establishing the realm of the ideal, which, it just so happens, is also the frame work for, well, all of Hermetic Philosophy (and before we try and pretend that modern Paganism is its own discrete thing from Hermeticism, let us recall how many key texts for today’s large Pagan communities were written under the influence of the Golden Dawn and the Victorian and Early Twentieth Century occult organizations that made no secret of their Hermeticist connections). Ideal forms and hidden realms of truth pervade Occult Philosophy, and I frequently wonder, given their ubiquity, whether it is possible to derive a properly Occult Philosophy without them. Indeed, the very meaning of occult is “hidden”, the foundations of the philosophy rely upon the unseen before you even get past the name.

I don’t mean to say that all modern Metaphysical Traditions (let’s drop Occult, for the time being) rely on these constructs. Hedge witchery, hoodoo, rootwork, and various other earth and land based practices take for granted the innateness of magic and the divine. For these sorts of practices, Divinity and Power are directly manifest in the world at large. It seems to me that these more, dare I say, naive (and by naive, perhaps I mean pre-analytical) practices are closer to an actual description of the function of the Divine within the world. They derive, foremost, from experience and interaction, and use that as the basis for their reflection and analysis, rather than the inverse.

I would never assert that Hermetic Magic is ineffective, I have am fully aware of its power, however, I do not feel like the foundations of its philosophy adequately reflect the function of the world (though they do, I charge, reflect the power and function of the word). As an aside, I grow easily frustrated with Hermetic Philosophy in its frequent assertions that it contains the only truth, that all else is an illusion, that all gods are merely reflections of the Great Hermetic God. These sentiments are widespread throughout early modern occult writings, particularly those of Dion Fortune (who is also terribly homophobic. Don’t believe me? Read the Mystical Kabbalah. She calls gays pathological, flat out).

However, I also think that these sentiments of single truth are a manifestation of the Platonic world view, which relies on a truth which is always distant and inaccessible (save to the truly inspired and initiated) that governs and directs the physical world. As such, the physical world has no power, no substance: all is removed and separated from that which we experience, for we experience nothing but the shadows of the divine cast upon the wall of our flesh. This kind of logic is flatly offensive and dehumanizing.  The divine cannot be present in the world by such a philosophy if, by its very nature, the flesh cannot contain, experience, or manifest divinity.

We are, before anything else, embodied. All of our knowledge, all of our experience, everything that constitutes us derives entirely from our fleshliness. Therefore, this must be the starting point of all philosophy. A proper Philosophy of the Spirit must, then, begin with the flesh and move through experience until the Spiritual is encountered manifestly.

Case in point, the concepts behind the practice of sacred geometry hold that all is an instantiation of divine mathematical principles. However, such a starting point ignores the key point that mathematics is itself a construction of consciousness and has no force in the world at large. What we define as mathematics are relations which first require an active subject to observe and codify. Without the mind, there is no math. Math does no press forth into the world, the mind constructs and utilizes math to describe the formal relations which it perceives around it. The symmetrical growth of a crystal is not a result of divine principles, it is a result of mere formal relationships which demand that it must, given its nature, form in a particular way. The symmetry, the perfect geometry, of its growth is not pressed upon it, it is present in its very nature at all moments and merely named and categorized once the mind encounters it. Indeed, the crystal does not recognize its growth, nor is its growth recognized by the world itself. The crystal grows because it must given its nature and the nature of its environs. There is no divine principle governing such growth, merely formal relations.

The insertion of divine principles here more obfuscates and confounds the issue, particularly when dealing with irregular patterns and distorted forms. If all is a reflection of divine principles, one then must account for why the crystal rarely grows in geometric perfection. Surely, if the divine were absolutely guiding from beyond all physical instantiation, then all instantiation would be a perfect reflection of the divine. However, we do not possess that total mathematical purity that our invented geometry demands, therefore the world must be somehow fallen, declined, degenerated from the divine. In order for this mathematical purity to hold, the world itself must be, again, removed from divinity, which is always elsewhere, always removed, always beyond. And, again, this is obviously and patently the wrong move. So enamored with the idea of purity, the world is cast into shadow to salvage the bizarrely idealized divine.

The distorted crystal reflects divinity just as powerfully as the perfect form grown in a vacuum. Each, being instantiated, being encountered by the mind, is enriched and enlivened with the power of the subject. From the flesh, from the complicated growth of the subject, springs all spirituality. That which is Spiritual means nothing without first the subject out of which such experience blossoms. How can we remove the Spirit from the Man? In doing so we evacuate not only Man, but Divinity of Spirituality, for suddenly the spiritual is no longer subjective, and if it is not subjective, it is nothing at all.

There for, foremost, the flesh must dominate our reflections. It seems to me that Spiritual reflection must grown out of an experience of the world, and that Spirituality should manifest in and enliven the world itself. As the subject forms out of interaction with the world, so Spirituality blossoms from that same source.

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