The title certainly sounds impressive but, as I liked to remark thereafter, that and $3.50 would get you a cup of coffee. When I became AODA’s head in 2003, the order had fewer than a dozen members, no bank account, no public presence, and rituals and traditions that consisted of fading memories in a few elderly heads. It had managed to survive the long winter of pop Neopaganism, rather than ending up as a stack of rotting papers in a landfill somewhere as did so many other occult schools of the older kind, but that was all. The handful of surviving members made me Grand Archdruid because they thought I might be able to get AODA on its feet again; they were familiar with the books I’d published, and knew that I’d also helped revive a couple of nearly defunct fraternal lodges—and it didn’t hurt that I was the first person to express any significant interest in AODA for decades.
Since then, as the Grateful Dead used to sing, what a long, strange trip it’s been. With upwards of 900 new members, an adequate treasury, a regularly updated website, a publishing program with three books to its credit, and an annual journal gearing up for its third issue, it’s fair to say that things have changed a bit. At this point I’m pretty sure that AODA is about as well positioned as it can be to move forward into whatever the spiritual landscape of North America might become after the twilight of pop Neopaganism. Thus it’s as good a time as I can think of to hand in my resignation.
Yes, I’ve resigned as Grand Archdruid of AODA, effective today. I’m staying a member of the order, of course, with the slightly less fanciful title of archdruid emeritus, but the big chair and the funny hat are going to my sucessor, former Archdruid of the West Gordon Cooper. Why? Partly it’s because the order these days has no shortage of people who are at least as capable of guiding it as I am, and someone else ought to have the fun for a change. Partly it’s because I’m tolerably familiar with my own strengths and weaknesses as a leader, and my judgment is that the order will benefit more at this point in its history from another hand on the tiller.
Partly, though, it’s a personal matter. Much though I value AODA’s teachings and traditions, there are things I’d like to do in occultism that don’t really fit within its ambit. In particular, the system of magic I put in my 2013 book The Celtic Golden Dawn has become central to my personal practice, and the magical order I founded with minimal publicity that same year for students of the book, The Druidical Order of the Golden Dawn, has grown to respectable size and could use more of my time. I’ve also got major projects in the fields of astrology and sacred geometry that I want to pursue. (Mind you, there’s also the career as a writer of science fiction and fantasy that I’d hoped to start three decades ago, and which to my considerable surprise has finally begun to take off in earnest, but that’s another matter.)
That, in turn, leads to the theme I have in mind for the next few posts, which is the sheer scale and diversity of that gargantuan grab-bag of philosophies, teachings, and practices we call “occultism.”
Even experienced occultists tend to underestimate just how much territory that single word covers. In some ways, experienced occultists are more likely to do so than anyone else, since it’s a common bad habit of occult traditions to treat whatever double handful of philosophies, teachings, and practices their founders scooped out of the bag as the entire contents thereof. Half the squabbles between different schools of magic happen because school #1 has the letters EFGH and school #2 has the letters FGHI, both of them are convinced that what they’ve got is the whole alphabet, and the sparks start to fly when E and I get denounced by the groups that don’t have them as “fake letters.” (The other half are spawned by collisions between oversized egos, which are as common among occultists as elsewhere.)
When we talk about occultism, then, exactly what are we discussing?
One pitfall that needs to be avoided right at the start of any such inquiry is the mistaken notion that “occultism” is some kind of inherent quality that certain traditions, teachings, and practices have and others don’t. This label “occult” is rooted solely and squarely in history; it literally means “hidden” or “secret,” and refers to certain things that had to be hidden away and kept secret because, for rather too many centuries, those who were too public about them in the Western world faced an assortment of really ugly fates. Many of the things that belong to occultism counted as ordinary parts of mainstream religion or everyday life before Christianity and Islam split the corpse of the classical world between them, and still have the same comfortable status to this day in many cultures elsewhere in the world.
The occult, then, is what was rejected—primarily, what was rejected by Christian religious authorities in medieval and early modern Europe, and oddly enough is still rejected by secular scientific authorities who think they’ve cast every trace of Christianity’s heritage out of their minds. Other cultures have their own modes of rejected knowledge, and most of them also have teachings and practices like those that are part of western occultism. Especially in recent years, there’s been a lot of two-way traffic between western occultism and these other traditions, and we’ll talk about those in due time.
Occultism also has a complicated relationship with those things that have been rejected more recently by the secular scientific authorities just mentioned. Plenty of things belonging to the more recent body of rejected knowledge are of no interest to traditional Western occultism, and vice versa. On the other hand, the older and newer bodies of rejected knowledge have some interests in common, and since the beginning of the modern occult revival in the 1850s, there’s been a certain amount of two-way traffic across the resulting bridge, and we’ll talk about those, too, as we proceed.
The field is large enough, though, that we’re going to have to spread this discussion over a number of posts. This month, we’ll talk about traditional operative occultism—the basic toolkit that got handed down to occultists from the Renaissance and points further back. Next month, we’ll go on to some of the more recent additions to the operative toolkit, and after that, it’s on to the symbolic, contemplative, and philosophical side of occultism.
Let’s begin with the thing that most people think of first when someone mentions occultism: yes, that would be magic. The current magical toolkit includes things that were old hat when the temples of Egypt were still open for business, things that were brand spanking new (though backdated to those same temples of Egypt) a hundred years ago, and a lot in between. This month, we’ll limit the discussion to those branches of magic that were already in the tradition by the end of the Renaissance. A very rough taxonomy might run as follows:
Astrological magic. One of the core elements of traditional Western occultism is astrology, the science of the cycles of time. (Before my rationalist readers leap up to insist that I can’t apply their sacred word “science” to astrology, let me point out that the word means an organized body of knowledge, and was applied to astrology long before most modern sciences existed.) We’ll be talking more about astrology in a bit; the point that’s relevant here is that much of traditional Western magic uses astrological influences as the essential source of power for magical workings.
Natural magic. That’s the traditional label for magic that works with the inherent properties of natural materials. The lore of natural magic assigns certain effects to specific substances—this herb is for love spells, this gem protects against violence, and so on—and prescribes procedures for putting those substances to work. In traditional Western occultism, natural magic usually but not always drew on astrological theory, and very often on astrological practice as well.
Evocatory magic. Western occultism accepts the existence of a galaxy of intelligent beings who don’t have the same kind of physical bodies we do, but with whom contact and communication is possible. Christian fundamentalists, and some others, like to think that evocatory magic (or, more precisely, the kind of evocatory magic that deals with the creepier sort of disembodied beings) is the be-all and end-all of magic; they’re wrong, of course, though of course it makes good fodder for scare stories. Ways of working magic that focus on summoning spirits are a significant part of some occult traditions, though they’re strictly forbidden in others.
Invocatory magic. To evoke is to call forth, to invoke is to call in. Invocatory magic works by calling into oneself the power and influence of those beings we might as well call gods and goddesses. That can involve trance, but it can also be done in full consciousness. As you might expect, invocatory magic has generally had close ties to religion, which after all provides the standard human toolkit for dealing with deities; both Judeo-Christian and Pagan religious traditions have been drawn on for this end of the magical continuum.
Another major branch of traditional Western occultism is alchemy, which is again far more complex than most people realize: as complex, really, as modern experimental science. The parallels are actually quite close. Just as there’s a scientific method—more precisely, a set of methods that share a family resemblance—there’s an alchemical method; and just as you apply scientific method to different subjects and get different sciences, you apply the alchemical method to different subjects and get different alchemies. Here’s a sketch of the most common traditional approaches:
Spagyrics. The most popular form of alchemy since the second half or so of the Renaissance, spagyrics is the alchemy of plants, and works with herbs to produce substances that affect human health and consciousness. Its obvious practical dimension is the creation of natural medicines; its subtler but, in many ways, more important dimension is as a toolkit for the transformation of the alchemist.
Mineral and metallic alchemy. This is what most people think of when the word “alchemy” comes up. “Our gold is not the common gold,” the old alchemists said; a great deal of speculation surrounds what they were actually up to, but laboratory work with minerals and metallic ores certainly played a central part in it, and several different approaches are still known and practiced today.
Psychospiritual alchemy. This is the sort of thing Carl Jung worked with, though it goes considerably beyond the territory most of today’s Jungians have found it advisable to discuss, and it was a significant force in alchemical circles many centuries before Jung’s time. In this branch of the art the substance that’s transmuted is the mind and consciousness of the practitioner. Some versions of this work with explicit religious imagery and practices—there’s a rich tradition of Christian psychospiritual alchemy, for example—while others use less theologically charged symbols.
The third core element of traditional operative lore in Western occultism, and the source of a great deal of the traditional theory, is astrology, which we can define for working purposes as the study of the cycles of time, using the movements of Sun, Moon, and planets against the backdrop of the stars. In dealing with it, it’s worth recalling that the sort of thing you see in newspaper astrology columns has as much to do with real astrology as Mel Brooks’ movie Young Frankenstein has to do with real medical science. The major branches of astrological practice are these:
Natal astrology. This is the astrology of the birth chart, which takes a snapshot of celestial positions relative to the Earth at the moment of birth and uses that to assess the strengths, weaknesses, likely experiences, and probable challenges faced by the person born at that moment. This branch also includes progressions, which riff off the birth chart to show when in life various events shown in the birth chart are likely to manifest, and synastry, which relates two natal charts (for example, those of lovers) to trace out the strengths and stresses of the relationshipbetween the people in question.
Mundane astrology. Relatively neglected these days, this is the oldest branch of astrology, and uses celestial movements to gauge the potentials and challenges facing nations and communities. Like natal astrology, a mundane chart shows tendencies, not certainties; it functions like a weather prediction, which doesn’t tell you what people will be doing on any given day, but can give you useful guidance on what conditions will be like and may suggest to you that one day is better for a picnic than another!
Horary astrology. In astrological theory, nothing is actually random, and every moment contains a snapshot of everything happening at that place and time. Horary astrology uses this to answer questions. If you want to know where you left your wallet, you cast a chart for the place and time when the question occurs to you, and the chart gives you the answer. Improbable? Traditional astrologers do it all the time, with considerable success.
Electional astrology. If, as astrologers teach, each moment is good for some things and not so good for others, it makes sense to choose an appropriate moment to begin anything of importance. That’s the job of electional astrology. (The word “election” literally means “choosing”—a political election is how we choose our public officials.) Astrological magic is actually a subset of electional astrology, using a carefully chosen moment to create an object imbued with a particular combination of influences, which will radiate those influences thereafter.
Geomancy. This isn’t actually a form of astrology at all, but it evolved along with astrology, shares much of astrology’s theory, and functioned all through the Middle Ages and Renaissance as the poor man’s horoscope. Geomancy—the name, literally “earth divination,” is a deliberate contrast with the “sky divination” of astrology—uses various random or semirandom procedures to generate patterns of single and double dots, which are interpreted in much the same way an astrological chart is interpreted. It’s mostly used for the same purposes as horary astrology.
Magic, alchemy, and astrology-plus-geomancy: those are the three core modalities of traditional operative occultism in the West. That doesn’t mean that every occult tradition drew on all of them—quite the contrary. As a rule, an occult school that includes traditional operative occultism at all (and not all did) includes one or more approaches to magic, a single version of alchemy, and some astrology, and then a similar selection from the more recent forms of magical practice. Much more than that and you quite literally have more practical techniques than anybody can really master in a single lifetime—and it’s what you can master, not what you can skim over briefly and think you more or less understand, that matters in occult practice.
I suspect some of my readers will be surprised not to see certain things on this list. It has to be remembered, though, that before the magical revival of the nineteenth century, Tarot was just an Italian card game, theories of vital energy had found their way into Western magical practice only in a handful of traditions, the sort of alternative health care modalities found all through modern occultism weren’t alternative yet, and the whole kit and caboodle of lodges and initiation rituals was still mostly the property of Freemasons and members of other early fraternal orders—the occultists hadn’t yet gotten very far beyond saying “Whoa, this is cool!” and adapting Masonic ritual patterns to magical use. Even without those, the traditional toolkit gave students plenty to work with.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, still the most influential of the western world’s operative occult schools, is a case in point. Golden Dawn magic is invocatory magic that dabbles in evocation, astrology, and natural magic—if you’re a Golden Dawn mage, that is, you do magic by calling divine energies of various kinds into yourself, and everything else is secondary to that, though there’s admittedly a lot of “everything else.”. Alchemy got a small amount of dabbling in the original order, though alchemical symbolism was studied and some basic alchemical texts were on the recommended reading list, and some current Golden Dawn temples have taken things further. A basic grasp of natal and horary astrology, and just enough electional astrology to be able to choose good times for magical ceremonies, were also on the curriculum. All by itself, even without bringing in the post-Renaissance material, that’s enough to give you a good ten years of hard work if you actually want to master it all.
There’s nothing absolute about the selection made by the founders of the Golden Dawn; other occult traditions made their own choices, and there are plenty of modern occult schools that don’t use any elements of the classical triad—for example, none of these things are part of the core curriculum of AODA. As we’ll see next month, the options really are remarkably broad.