Dangers of forgetting the past
Gareth Hewitson-May in Dark doorway of the Beast (New World, 1992) starts with the following paragraph which I feel is very relevant to people such as myself who are interested in taking things apart to see how they work.
The utter devastation that has swept through the esoteric fraternities for the last two thousand years has unfortunately completely dissolved the coherence of attitude that is necessary to the understanding of the system. It is therefore of monumental importance that all attempts to recover such complete doctrines should be abandoned as futile. The very fact that language, understanding, communication, terminology, relevance of material are now so very different, that it is plainly obvious that the 'return' of any such 'recovered doctrines' in today’s culture would only serve to confuse, rather than to illuminate.
I feel that this paragraph is very important and it does point out that there will be (at best) problems if we try to truly recapture, recreate and practice an ancient tradition exactly as it was practiced in the past. We have changed, the world has changed and so our interface with magic must also change. We have moved away not only from the mental processes which our ancestors followed, but even our physiology has changed – we are very different to our ancestors.
An often quoted example of this transformation concerns Homer’s reference to the wine-dark sea. In no way can the Mediterranean Sea be said to be “wine-dark”. Part of this “evolution” seems to stem from how our thinking processes have changed from being a tribal consciousness (which was perhaps closer to a group mind) to an individual consciousness. In antiquity perhaps this shift was still happening and we did not necessarily have the same consciousness then that we have now. This transformation is continuing and even within the lifetimes of our grandparents we can spot differences.
As another example, consider how our use of the English language is always mutating and we use different terms and phrase things differently in modern times. I remember that at school during the 1980s the word “wicked” was used to describe something which was totally brilliant, nowadays “wicked” just means very bad again and like people using “swell” or “fab” its use in the schoolyard has thankfully declined.
For another example of this consider how we find different things funny. Modern sitcoms have a very different humour to sitcoms written only 30 years ago and (for example) Terry and June is vastly different from say One foot in the grave even though they both involve a middle-aged couple living their life. Perhaps I am speaking personally, perhaps not, but the older comedy seems much more dated and arguably less funny that the later. In 20 years time One foot in the grave will also seem dated compared to whatever is shown in our future. It is sobering to contemplate that many people from the generation reading this blog will be the generation satirised in that future comedy.
As a final example, Victorians used to entertain themselves in the evening by watching jellies wobble. To our minds that seems to be the formulae for the most inconceivably tedious evening. And whilst cannabis was perfectly legal, acceptable and obtainable in the Victorian era I don’t think that can account for this mad behaviour.
Some of this change is driven by technology. For example before the creation of gas lighting, human sleep patterns were very different to what they are today, with people commonly going to bed at around 6pm, waking up for an hour or two around midnight and then returning to bed until morning. Literature referred to people having a first and then a second sleep. Interestingly the liminal period between first and second sleep was the “witching hour” where people were more likely to see ghosts. I suspect that this is due to the effects of the first sleep on brainwaves.
Author and Enochian magician Scot Stenwick recently gave a fabulous interview on the awesome Deeper down the rabbit hole series of podcasts. He makes the point in relation to Enochian scrying that a short burst of alpha/theta from a mind-machine prior to scrying makes everyone a seer. I suspect that this is the state many people are in between their first and second sleep and thus being highly psychic are able to pick up on anything which may be around them. Similarly the entities which people pick up on during sleep paralysis are detected because whilst the brain is in a highly receptive state when awake; even though the body is “asleep” – actually paralysed by the body in order that dreams are not acted out. The paralysis is purely physiological and definitely not supernatural.
So, we have changed and we will continue to change as our past recedes into the distance and we humans are continually reinventing ourselves.
So, I am not sure what to think when we read about modern magicians seeking to recapture an authentic tradition and attempting to reconstruct it exactly as it was. Could this be the equivalent of trying to compile and run a computer program written in say Java 1 with a Java 7 compiler? Sure you may get something working but also lots of errors given that we are so substantially different to the magicians of antiquity.
I feel that one engine of change which affects us is language and perhaps this is the most fundamental driver of all, since we frame our thoughts in language even though it is in a continual state of flux. Whilst our true selves are deeper than just a conscious layer which processes the input from our perceptions on a linguistic/semantic level and which equates to our everyday conscious selves, researchers since Freud and Jung have shown that we are far deeper than that. So there is the question as to how much our language influences our thinking? This idea is referred to in linguistics as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which proposes that a person’s language sets constraints upon how they think. This idea is by no means universally accepted, but it does seem to be partially accepted as one of the factors which influences our thought processes.
Cliff Pickover in Sex, Drugs, Einstein and Elves gives several examples of how language shapes and constrains things. In one example he illustrates how language compartmentalises words. Let us consider the words “Strawberry, Raspberry, Mulberry and Blueberry”, all words linked by the suffix “berry”, which we can use to link these as examples of “berries”. Thus through the English language we can process these words and categorise then as examples of “berry” without any further information. We will know without actually needing to examine the objects exactly what class they belong to.
Now let us consider the French equivalent of these words – “Fraise, Framboise, Mure, Myrtille”. Clearly they do not share any common parts such as a “–berry” suffix. Any thinking processes working with these cannot unify them except with a knowledge that is larger that the words themselves, a meta context which places them into an information-order.
We frame our thoughts in language, and so without any form of mystical practice, our thoughts become very much limited by that language. Mysticism is accessing the ineffable, takes us to places where language cannot describe because these are places not visited by evolutionary humans developing language; and so we often come back “mind-expanded” but at a loss for words to describe the experience, often in trying to reach for the language we have to stretch to metaphor and/or take the risk of sounding nuttier than the average squirrel’s dinner. Our languages have evolved, growing out of the human experience and so are strong in describing deeper experiences; concepts such as food, sex, fight, flight etc. They are however weak in describing deeper spiritual encounters which are rarer and less embedded within our day-to-day consciousness; particularly now since we have grown more materialistic over time.
Perhaps we can learn something from the emerging culinary art of molecular gastronomy. Chefs such as Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria are true alchemists literally applying the alchemical processes of “salve et coagula”; divide and recombine; to create new experiences that push the limits of taste into creating interesting new sensations. Whilst I think that in pure food terms what these researchers are achieving is phenomenal, I also think that we can learn a lot from them and apply these ideas back to magic.
As an aside (which may or may not be relevant) I don’t think we can eat food such as Heston and Ferran cook every day. As ever a good diet based on organically grown natural produced ingredients seems to be the key. Whether this also applies to magic remains, I believe, to the discretion of the magician.
Just to give you a taste of what I am on about, here is an article on Ferran which I think is particularly profound in that it discusses Ferran's thoughts.
Most importantly from the clip:
He kept referring to a new language and that to create a new language you need a new alphabet, new grammar, new tools and processes. He argues that his style of cooking is this new language and that, with every new technique, he's building up the alphabet.
I think that this is vitally important; taking things into a modern direction needs this sort of mentality, this sort of fresh angle. Austin Osman Spare wrote about an alphabet of desire; this is exactly what chefs like Heston and Ferran Adria are doing, breaking their “reality” down into base ingredients and processes and building things up from there – solve et coagula.
Let us go back to Hewitson-May’s original quote. How much of this do I actually accept?
Part of the problem with magic is that unless one were lucky (or unlucky!) enough to have been born as a natural psychic producing a continually repeatable result is actually very difficult, especially for a beginner. So whilst with chemistry we know that every time we mix hydrogen and oxygen we will get an explosion and water, this does not happen so readily in sorcery. The magical arts are not repeatable in the same way that a scientific process is.
This makes it incredibly difficult to quickly and efficiently build up a toolbox of magical techniques where one can go from meditating one day to raising demons a week later. These things take time whilst we learn to meditate, tune our visualization abilities and begin working with an energy practice such as opening our chakras (or using the Middle Pillar exercise enough) that we then start realising that our psychic awareness is tuned enough to then begin making contacts and eventually obtain useful and practical information from spirits. This is the point where we really begin to become a magician and can change the universe.
It has taken humanity a very long time to work out the above usually in scenarios where the trailblazers had much more free time on their hands to think and to practice. I very much doubt that we will get very far at all if we literally bin everything we know (or think we know) and say something like “Ok how do I make the universe do this” then work out how. It will be easier for a Stone Age society to discover physics and then decide to build a rocket to the moon.
The problem with discovering physics however is that I suspect it is like working with the operating system of the universe. Once you start working with that however you are also limited to its rules. With magic I very much see us learning how to hack the machine code which underlies but is not dependant upon physics. You will not be limited by annoyances such as the speed of light or the Planck length and I feel in principal that one is able to do absolutely, literally anything; however it is very very difficult to get out of the fact that we ourselves are composed of matter which is part of (and therefore limited by) the operating system, by physics itself.
So I have to disagree with Hewitson-May up to a point. I do not think that we should bin the past and of course to forget the past is also to forget the lessons of the past. I do agree however that we are different now that we will need to recalibrate our knowledge to reflect the fact that we are different.
Much as I have argued against the incompatibility between science and magic elsewhere on this blog; science has and will continue to push human development for the foreseeable future and most importantly science has lead us down a path where humanity does not and should not take things as gospel, but rather we must ask, question and evaluate then more on. This is true for every field we look at, as true for physics as it is for sorcery and whilst I still stand by my argument that physics and sorcery are incompatible and we will never arrive at an explanation of one using the other, the “method of science” to quote Aleister Crowley is still valid in all human endeavours since it is a methodology, a way of thinking rather than a solution or an explanation within itself, even though paradoxically the method of science can be limiting when its light is fully turned onto psychic experience which is holistic in nature and dependant upon a human and the universe; a reductionist interpretation required by Popperian science erodes the magic.
There is still a massive value in researching and understanding the past. There are fragments of lore which we still need to learn, things to rediscover and reweave into our practice; not forgetting that our practice is constantly new. The power in Andrew Chumbley’s reboot of traditional witchcraft in the Azoetia is that it itself is not traditional but rather it is contains traditional elements which have been reformulated to be of relevance to the modern mind. Perhaps even more prominently work such as the corpus left by the respected Kenneth Grant gives us keys to sort the information and understand what worked in the past ready for us to mould ready for future work. Grant powerfully left us whole connected strands of interpretation which not only shows how concepts evolved, but how concepts stretch from our deepest unconsciousness out to the light of our everyday right-brain selves.
Similarly we can inherit a lot of techniques which have been knocking around for millennia such as the qabalistic middle pillar exercise, Austin Spares method of creating sigil-entities (which actually goes back to Agrippa) or even reformulate a practice of creating a tulpa based upon Tibetan Bon techniques but using a qabalistic rather than a Bon/Tantra paradigm. There are massive differences between a true Tibetan style Tulpa and a thoughtform as I will be examining in a future post. These techniques are still present and waiting to be practices and understood from a modern magical mindset, something humanity has yet to fully achieve.
However I feel that we must be mindful always that a lot of what we have inherited are dry techniques, divorced from their spiritual underpinnings. Communication and interaction with spirits may not be the only component in magic, in fact it may not be the most important component. However it is an important component of all magical practice and whilst I feel that this is somewhat downplayed by the Golden Dawn and its inheritors this is something which needs to be remembered.
I feel that one of the biggest points to be almost lost is that we are in danger of losing contact with the spirits; and these always mediate the magic. Magic as taught by the offshoots of the GD seem more about visualisation and banishing rather than actually learning to still the mind and speaking to those presences which are around us. As I dig deeper and learn to effectively use practices such as Enochian and Hoodoo I find that taking this as literally true becomes more useful than an abstract idea that this may be my subconscious talking; an idea which I do not accept. Ultimately it does not matter but for someone like me who gets bugged by the tiniest details it is important and whilst it does go against my scientific knowledge, accepting the literal existence of spirits is the most honest way I can move forward. It doesn’t really matter if I am wrong since acting in this way creates results, which is definitely the most important thing.
This avoidance or even fear of spirits seems endemic to many modern groups. Newbies then either go goetia crazy and try to hold everything in a triangle of art – a barbaric offshoot of a medieval mentality which leads to a nasty albeit symbolic (at least on our level) torturing of spirits to compel them into obedience. This always ends very badly and I feel that authors such as Joseph Lisiewski are particularly wrong here. His background is in physics and it seems that he is trapped in a philosophy which leads him to act as if magic is a recipe book such as depicted in Harry Potter. He does not understand the underlying principals and so is stuck in the medieval mindset which the writers of the grimoires existed within.
There are other examples here, Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki of the Servants of the Light in her “Ritual magic workbook” instructs students not to investigate ghosts or touch Enochian, despite these activities being two excellent ways in which we can learn to reach out and touch the spirit world. How can people learn to be mediators and magicians if they are forbidden to speak to spiritual entities! I find it interesting that Dolores then goes off to recount her own Enochian experiences – a classic case of “do as I say, not as I do”.
This spiritism is a vital part of magic and whilst I have no idea as to what the underlying “physics” is as to what is happening (if that is even a valid question – perhaps it is liking asking about the physics of the dream world I found myself in last sleep!), working with entities whether we are talking about contacts in the sense that the esteemed WE Butler describes, venerating the Vudou Loa or pestering ghosts to see what happens is vital stuff. This approach gives a range of results ranging from inner knowledge to outer experiences and at the very least helps to develop ones psychic perceptions. That alone is vital since it teaches one to realise that personal experience is important, regardless of what sceptics such as Susan Blackmore might say.
So let us remember that we have changed, the past is past and not totally relevant to us. However it is still very important and digging through ancient practices and techniques will give us a vast wealth of otherwise impossible to obtain knowledge which we might not be able to rediscover today. Ultimately this will help us to grow into a new understand of magic, tempered by modern concepts and consciousness and really evolve as individuals. We must never however forget that in missing out the spiritist perspective we are potentially ignoring half of creation.