A Plea for Occult Philosophy

I gather, from conversations I’ve had with occultists younger than I am, that few people who weren’t there at the time have any clear idea what things were like before the dawn of the occult boom that’s now fading around us. It really was a different world in those days, and not in any of the ways that so many of today’s occultists seem to think.

A large part of what drives the collective amnesia in question is the historical mythology with which Wicca, far and away the most influential of the Neopagan faiths, tried to surround its own origins. Until relatively recently, when straight talk about Wiccan origins finally became acceptable in Neopagan circles, the received wisdom in the community was that Wicca had been around since before recorded history, and various attempts were made to carry out retrospective Wiccanizations on any number of figures in the history of magic, or to come up with reasons why this or that famous mage wasn’t a Wiccan even though everyone else was. I recall one earnest author who claimed that Aleister Crowley refused to be initiated as a Wiccan because he didn’t want to join an organization that was run by women—which is very much in character for the Beast, granted, but didn’t happen to be true.

The actual reason why Aleister Crowley never became a Wiccan, of course, is that Wicca wasn’t invented until after his death. Gerald Gardner, who was one of Crowley’s students, tried to take over from Crowley as titular head of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), the magical order-slash-sex club that Crowley had more or less hijacked from its founder Theodor Reuss, but found out very quickly that Crowley had left such a bad taste in the mouth of the English occult scene—and yes, you can read that any way you wish—that nobody was interested. As Francis King pointed out trenchantly, a magician without an order is like a politician without a party, and so when Gardner’s attempted revival of the OTO fell flat, Wicca appeared promptly thereafter.

It’s not as though Gardner didn’t have access to all the necessary raw materials, after all. He was a close friend of Margaret Murray, the British archeologist whose books popularized the claim that medieval witchcraft was actually the survival of a Pagan fertility cult.  Another of his close friends, Ross Nichols, had introduced him to the Druid Revival, which Nichols was busily redefining along Pagan lines in those years.  He also had connections in Woodcraft, a back-to-nature movement launched at the beginning of the twentieth century by Ernest Thompson Seton, which had taken on a decidedly Pagan flavor in its English manifestation.

For that matter, it’s entirely possible, as Gardner later claimed, that he had been initiated some years previously into a Pagan-flavored sex cult of the sort discussed in an earlier post.  Gardner, like many Englishmen of his generation, liked to be flogged by unclad women, and that sort of entertainment was very often pursued in sex cults at that time. Thus it’s quite possible that he was initiated by Dorothy Clutterbuck into some such group dating from before Gardner’s return from Sumatra, and in the usual way—fake origin stories were basically de rigueur in the sex-cult scene in those days—claimed descent from some suitably romantic source dating back to at least six weeks before the beginning of time itself. As already noted, there were plenty of groups like that in England before the sexual revolution of the 1960s made the whole point moot.

The problem was that this was not the way that American Wiccans thought about their history, or wanted to think about it, when the great Neopagan boom got under way. Quite the contrary, to the great majority of participants in the glory days of that boom, Wicca was the Old Religion, the original and universal faith of humankind that had been handed down unchanged by an unbroken succession of high priestesses since the Stone Age. Any evidence that Wicca had borrowed something from some other source was turned into the claim that the other source had borrowed it from Wicca. Evidence? We don’t need no steenking evidence—and of course they didn’t; in ordinary conversation, assertion is more powerful than argument, and there was never a shortage of assertions, from the nine million witches supposedly put to death by inquisitors in the Middle Ages (scholars agree that the actual figure was around 50,000) through to the dubious historical pedigree already mentioned.

There were any number of awkward consequences that unfolded from the gap between Neopagan faith and the crass realities of actual history, but one of them was a near-total failure to take into account the differences between the Neopagan mainstream and all previous occultism. At most, you got to hear a great deal of grumbling about “ceremonial magicians”—that is to say, operative mages in the Golden Dawn and OTO traditions. Those of my readers who want to sample the sort of rhetoric Neopagans liked to direct at ceremonial magic in those days may wish to read the early fantasy novels of Mercedes Lackey, in which the heroes and heroines are basically practicing American pop Neopaganism in fancy-dress costumes borrowed from the Society for Creative Anachronism, while the villains are for all practical purposes modern ceremonial magicians dolled up in Ming the Merciless outfits.

What made this all the more damaging is that the ceremonial magicians—the people who were working with the Golden Dawn, the OTO, and so on—adopted, usually without noticing it, a good many of the attitudes and approaches of the Neopagan mainstream. On those rare occasions that people in the occult scene became aware of older modes of occult study, these latter were rejected with a great deal of heat by pretty much everybody. I can testify to that, as I was no exception to that general rule; after some initial dabblings in the older mode of occultism, I picked up the common attitude from the books I studied, and it took decades of experience and reflection before I realized just what it was that I’d failed to understand at the time.

The core of the older mode of training in magic can be summed up simply: “occult philosophy first, occult practice later.” If you enrolled in one of the old-fashioned occult schools, as I did for a while, your weekly or monthly lesson was mostly philosophy, with a few very basic practices—relaxation, breathing exercises, some rudimentary form of meditation—to keep you occupied, and not incidentally show your tutor whether you could be counted on to follow instructions and actually set aside time for practical work. You did that for at least a year, more usually two or three years, before you started getting more practical work to do, and even then it was doled out a little at a time: this month you learn the Cabalistic Cross ritual, a month later you learn how to trace a pentagram, the other pieces of the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram come over the next two months or so, and then you do that for a year while studying more philosophy before the Middle Pillar exercise comes your way.

What was the occult philosophy that occupied so much time and space in these courses? The details depended very much on the school in question, but it normally started out with a very basic summary of the magical view of reality, and went on from there to touch on at least some of the core elements of the Western esoteric tradition—the Cabala, astrology, Tarot, alchemy, maybe sacred geometry or music, maybe the myths of Egypt or Greece or the ancient Celts—in whatever order and degree of intensity the founder of the school thought you needed in order to make sense of the practical work later on. Somewhere in there you were pretty much certain to get a great deal of potted history which was very questionable in terms of factual content but extremely rich in terms of its symbolic meaning, which you were supposed to unpack by daily meditation. Somewhere in there, too, you were just as likely to learn the rudiments of at least one system of alternative healing—the cell salts, which I’ve discussed in an earlier post here, were among the most popular choices, but you might instead, or also, get herbalism, or  energy healing of the sort more recently popularized by Reiki.

The practical training, though it took its time coming, generally covered a pretty fair selection of the options as well. The major divide among schools was whether or not you learned operative magic—most schools didn’t teach this, though there were always some that did. Aside from that, you could count on learning and practicing meditation, at least one form of divination, and some kind of healing practice; you might also learn a set of physical exercises to help keep you in decent health. If you persevered, and could get to a place where the school had a local lodge (most had at least a few of these), you could pass through initiation rituals and then learn how to perform them yourself, and there were usually other kinds of group workings a lodge could perform as well. All in all, if you finished the course of study offered by a competent school of occultism, you ended up with a good general grasp of the Western occult tradition and a toolkit of practices that would serve you well for a lifetime.

That’s the system that was rejected, generally with quite some heat, by almost everyone in the occult scene as the magical revival of the Seventies got under way. Nobody objected to the practices—well, not to the fun ones, the magic, the divination, and those alternative healing practices such as herbalism which had a boom at the same time as Neopaganism, though meditation got short shrift, and cell salts and sacred geometry got dropped like a hot rock. What people objected to, more than anything else, was the philosophy. The claim generally circulated at that time was that all this was just padding, meant to stretch out a correspondence course to absurd length and keep those monthly checks coming in. In some cases, mind you, that may have been true, but a lot of what drove that reasoning was a failure to grasp the point of the philosophical studies.

Another force at work, I’m sorry to say, was one of the less helpful legacies of the Theosophical movement. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the colorful occultist who helped found the Theosophical Society in 1875 and took it over thereafter, took the “occult philosophy first, occult practice later” rule to its extreme, and insisted that students of Theosophy should study occult philosophy, but steer clear of occult practice altogether. Theosophy’s massive presence in the occult scene guaranteed that this attitude would become very widespread. To this day, if you take up Theosophical study or any of its galaxy of offshoots, you’re encouraged to meditate, and in most cases you can study astrology or an alternative healing system with the genial permission of your instructors, but if you let them know that you’ve taken up any kind of magical practice—no matter how spiritual its focus—you face instant pushback, and in many cases, potential expulsion.

Mind you, every school has the right to determine who it will and won’t teach, and what behaviors it will or won’t consider acceptable in candidates for advancement. For all I know there are elements in the higher levels of Theosophical training, communicated in secret by the Esoteric Sections of the various offshoots of the original Society, that react disastrously when combined with operative magic; such things definitely happen. The difficulty here is simply that a great many people took the Theosophical rule and applied it wholesale to every kind of esoteric spirituality, whether it made sense there or not. Thus you could readily find occultists who insisted loudly that the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram, say, was a tremendously dangerous ritual that couldn’t be done safely by anybody who hadn’t yet become an ascended master—I received portentous warnings along these lines more than once, long after I’d learned the ritual in question, begun practicing it regularly, and had learned from personal experience that it’s a good safe practice for beginners.

That sort of thing doesn’t exactly build confidence in the portentous warnings in question, and the effect is considerably worsened when the people offering the portentous warnings go on to tell you that instead of doing such basic practical work, you should read the collected works of Alice Bailey and wait patiently for the ascended masters to contact you, which they would doubtless do at some point in the next three lifetimes. Yes, that’s advice I got more than once—it wasn’t always Bailey’s books, to be sure; I also got pointed toward the collected works of Rudolf Steiner, who is at the very least a more interesting writer, and once to the collected writings of Maurice Doreal, whose real name was Claude Doggins and who ran a occult school out of a small town in Colorado. (These days I wish I’d followed up with Doreal/Doggins; he was among other things a lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy, with a world-class collection of the same gaudy paperbacks I adored, and it’s at least possible that a lively correspondence might have ensued once that common interest surfaced. Still, the ascended masters apparently had other plans for me.)

So the idea of studying occult philosophy as a useful, or even necessary, preparation for occult practice got dropped by the great majority of American occultists. It never found its way into the main currents of Neopaganism in the first place, and got shoved aside in those older traditions that once had that approach hardwired into their structure. I mentioned earlier that the revival of the Golden Dawn tradition here in the United States got drawn into Neopagan habits, and this is one of the places this happened most obviously. In the original Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, you joined the Outer Order and spent about two years there, passed through a series of gloriously gaudy initiation rituals, studied occult philosophy, and got given a few basic practices—the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram, a simple form of meditation, and the divinatory art of geomancy—to keep you occupied.

At the end of that time, if you’d shown sufficient commitment and interest, you got into the Inner Order, and found yourself handed an extraordinarily complex and effective system of operative magic among many other things. If that didn’t happen, or if you didn’t choose to pursue the path of operative magic, you could stay a member.  There was plenty for you to do, from taking part in the Outer Order initiation rituals through studying various kinds of occult teachings to practicing astrology, alchemy, or some other practice distinct from magic, and no small number of people made the Outer Order their spiritual home and never saw a need to go on to operative magic.

Nearly all of the Golden Dawn lodges in America during and after the 1970s revival, though, saw things differently. The Outer Order training was redefined, and packed with magical practices of various kinds; the reprinted books of traditional occult philosophy the Golden Dawn used as recommended reading to supplement its knowledge lectures, the Collectanea Hermetica series, vanished entirely from the collective imagination of the Golden Dawn scene; and a great many temples adopted an “up or out” rule, whereby if you didn’t keep progressing through the grades at whatever pace the temple chiefs thought was appropriate, you were tossed out on your ear.

Outside of the Golden Dawn tradition, things went even further in the same direction. A very large majority of the magical orders founded during and after the Seventies revival made operative magic the be-all and end-all of their training programs, and limited the study of occult philosophy to the minimum that would allow students to do magic—very often no more than a book or two on the necessary symbolism. The rejection of occult philosophy became a point of pride in many cases and, as usually happened, people who wanted to be antinomian and edgy did it by rebelling against something everyone else had rejected too, and vied with each other in displaying their hostility toward a collection of things that nobody actually approved of any more.

The difficulty with this was at least threefold. First, it meant that a great many people who took up magical training in the United States after 1975 or so have a stunningly narrow idea about what occultism is, what it does, and what it includes. The sort of broad general education you got in the old occult schools, whatever its vices may have been, unquestionably gave students a background that helped them make sense of the raw diversity of occultism, and very often pointed them toward classic texts and gave them the context needed to read them intelligently. Many competent mages these days lack that context, with results that range from the unfortunate to the simply embarrassing.

Second, studying occult philosophy isn’t simply a matter of packing your head with disconnected facts about Atlantis and the like. Dion Fortune let the cat out of the bag in her own deceptively slender book of occult philosophy, The Cosmic Doctrine, when she noted that “this book is designed to train the mind, not to inform it.” That’s true, actually, of any kind of education worth the name; learning to think through unfamiliar thoughts trains the mind to move in ways it would not normally move, and can significantly expand the ability to do certain things with consciousness. The student of an old-fashioned occult school, as he or she studies the weekly or monthly lectures and meditates on the contents, is getting a subtle but powerful training in how to think like a mage, which is a crucial step on the road to becoming a mage. Lacking that training, the way to the same goal is a good deal rougher, and not so easy to complete with any certainty of success.

The third difficulty, though, is to my mind the most critical. Not everyone who is interested in occultism is cut out to be an operative mage, nor should they be. The occult traditions of the Western world, like their equivalents in other cultures, include a wild diversity of practices, disciplines, and fields of study, most of which have nothing to do with operative magic, and a system of training that makes magic the one and only road that’s available leaves no room for the many gifted people who might otherwise bring their talents to the community in other ways. If your interest and talents lead you to focus on astrology, for example, and you have no interest in ritual magic and no gift for it, there’s no point in requiring you to practice it.  On the other hand, a good general background in occult philosophy, and some exposure to meditation and other basic occult practices will give you a useful toolkit and a broad understanding of the overall occult field, and membership in a school that provides these things also gives you a community and a network of friends and associates with which you share a common language of symbolism and ideas.

That broader context is what the Outer Order of the original Golden Dawn was meant to provide, and the great majority of the occult schools of the early and middle twentieth century made it their business to do the same thing. It’s neither necessary nor useful to go back to the other extreme and try to convince people that occult practice ought to be replaced by occult philosophy—most people who are interested in occultism know better at this point. Still, there needs to be a place for old-fashioned occult philosophy and its study, for the sake of those who are attracted to the broader realm of occultism but don’t happen to be interested in becoming operative mages, and of those who are interested in becoming operative mages and want to do the thing properly.


  1. I am totally ignorant of occult philosophy as you describe it, except for what I've read of Dion Fortune's nonfiction works. Except THE COSMIC DOCTRINE, which I could not make head nor tail of. So any suggestions on where to start are extremely welcome.

    BTW – if you're talking about Lackey's My Little Pony series , still a guilty pleasure read for all it's aimed at people 65 years younger than I am, it gets more serious as it goes on. OF course, they were her juvenilia; she is from Northern California and of that generation which was steeped in the sort of beliefs you describe. Not to mention she was a member of the Greyhaven nest; and MZB never did deal with her stuff up front for all her claims of being a skilled occultist.

    In fact, Lackey's Mage Storm trilogy is a very close analogy to the situation with peak oil, including the fact that the nations (Valdemar) and individual landowners (Tremane) who did things the old-fashioned way, with essentially medieval-level mechanical technology (which was actually quite high tech for the sort of power it had at hand) ended up the best equipped to survive the Mage Storms. And the end, where the magic in her world becomes so diffuse only the smallest things can be done with it, and they'd better get used to it.

    However, magical philosophy they were not, and that's quite obvious.

    And I'm up past my bedtime. Buenos noches.

  2. “becoming operative mages and want to do the thing properly.” My my my, “properly?” As in “the correct way?” Neglecting the uncountable people over many thousands of years on every continent except for Antarctica who have practiced magic just as fluidly as anyone from the western tradition, without having any contact with it? One must always guard against conflating “the system that works really well for me” with “the proper way to do things.” If your focus on this system is because it is the one you work with and feel best qualified to explain and instruct within, of course. But that just makes it “proper” for you, not the cosmos. And I dare say, even within the western tradition, I'd be loathe to proclaim which is the “proper” way to learn. What is the “proper” way to learn Russian? Well it depends on who you are, how your mind works, what your background is, etc. etc. etc. And I am not sure that Slavic grammar is all that much less complex, arcane, and challenging than the Occult!

  3. Can the line between occult philosophy and operative magic ever blur? Case in point: for about a year I've been pursuing the program of meditation you recommended in your excellent “Paths of Wisdom”, while doing little or no operative magic (a sigil, some natural magic, the middle pillar, an invocation of Hod consciousness by visualizing the magical image and reciting the relevant name of god — I'm not sure what counts as “operative” here). I'm assuming that the meditations fall firmly on the “philosophy” side of the line. But I've noticed some spillover from the meditations into everyday life. When starting on a new sphere I always get cold-like symptoms, as Dion Fortune says might happen. Events sometimes conspire to highlight issues relevant to my current path or sphere.

    These effects are no doubt the result of suggestion and the shaping of my attention by the meditations. Perhaps the same might be said of some operative magic.

    There's a practical side to my question. I'd like to start learning a magical system in earnest. I don't want to abandon the meditations, but I worry about interference between the meditations and the exercises for whatever training program I embark on. I've read dire warnings about mixing systems, but it's not clear to me whether a meditation program counts as a “system” in this sense. In any case, I wouldn't want to weaken the impact of either the meditations or the new system.

  4. You use “operative magic” and “operative mage” frequently throughout this blog, but I don't think “operative” was ever defined, or, if it was defined, I missed it. I wonder if you can elaborate on what you mean by operative?

    For example, in the above post, you said “The major divide among schools was whether or not you learned operative magic—most schools didn’t teach this, though there were always some that did. Aside from that, you could count on learning and practicing meditation, at least one form of divination, and some kind of healing practice…”

    One could argue that divination and (say) energy healing are forms of magic, so if you can do them, you're presumably operative…? Or is the distinction strictly about ceremonial magic? Or something else?

  5. This gives me a broad basis to know what is going on here as crowley, blavatsky, steiner, theosophy and wicca are known to me but not their relationship to one another in an historical context.

    I did yoga hatha asanas with a simple mantra meditation for 3 years from a book and read background literature and ate vegetarian before going to a kriya yoga initiation. They had first initiation with asanas, breathing exercises, meditation with mantras and a one year pause. The third initiation a year or two later gave samadhi techniques and magical instructions, if you will, using inner sight, hearing, other senses.

    Before I went to such training my body was purified, nervous system trained. I felt 3rd eye due to asanas for
    example, surprised at this.
    I am working through your books. I use Iching occassionally for divination when I just don't know what to do or think. Whether i will actually practice your system I do not know. Perhaps due to my pevious disciplines I can understand the essence of operative magic from the descriptions. My latest feeling of where I am at is sort of being an empath or sensitive regards to people I encounter and get to know well. I feel their energy through various chakras, each person having a different emphasis. I guess at their astrological sign and make assumptions on what I feel accordingly. As I know my own horoscope well it is easier to say why a certain petson effects me in a certain way. A pisces is near my sun, a virgo by my mars or a taurus by my moon. Each person is unique and has very interesting effects on my energy system. This is sort of my personal path at the moment and since my chakra strength is growing quickly, stabilizing, growing again week to week, month to month in connection with those I meet, whose energy stimulates mine, allowing further growth, I am content that I have enough of a spiritual practice in addition to asana, tai chi, mantras and my family life and my physical job which leaves my head free.

    That early magicians last century were sex clubs, pre 60s makes some sense in light of my current experience, whereas I keep these sensations to myself and feed off them internally, being a late bloomer of sorts, very shy and withdrawn, crowley and co. like many tantric clubs tried to increase their consciosness through sexuality in the physical sense.You discussed this technique in 3 posts recently. I take it lots of your magic has to do with affecting moods of people or of a particular space to attain greater self control of life. My yogic instructions had techniques for seeing, hearing things at a distance, amongst other things. Like theosophists, this sort of practice was not inteesting to me. My interest is self development. When I grok someone and later think of them I can feel this energyand develop and use it to integrate energy from someone who I have recently absorbed osmotically, so to speak. Keeping distance emotionally is problematic when so lmuch energy is involved but I am learning to live with this. My hope would to be able to just feel empathically what anybody feels, if they are depressed or lying, etc. In a group where I very gradually get closer to many in this way it is perhaps conceivable but for complete strangers I think lots of practice over many months and with trusted people is necessary to hone the technique.

    Reiki also sounds interesting as it has to do with energy flow through hands. As I have no practical application, being a janitor, I don't know how I could develop such talent even though it is clear my heart chakra, for example sends energy to my hands and consciously increasing and directing the flow would be a matter of training. Obviously operative surgery is often necessary but chronic pain can be caused by blockages of energy flows. So you see I have two ideas to positively use my talent, physical and psychological healing. Of course by every usage of energy or 'magic' one changes oneself so great maturity and growth is necessary for proper application.

  6. Hi JMG,

    I clearly recall that many schools of thought have attempted to alter history to fit a preferred narrative. The flat Earth proponents seemed to have tried to pull off that trick, if my memory serves me correctly?

    Gardener's preferred choice of chastisement says much about his internal discomfit at his personal status and actions!

    Quote: “assertion is more powerful than argument” – weren't we discussing this point recently on your other blog? My gut feeling is that people rely on heavy assertion when they are standing on some very unstable ground… It is a constant source of amazement to me just how many topics are off the table and considered to be taboo. I recently had dialogue with a media thingee to talk about the realities of renewable energy and when they heard what I had to say about that topic – to say they recoiled from the topic is an under-statment. Here's this guy that says: we're up the creek without a paddle! I dunno…

    Quote: “occult philosophy first, occult practice later.” All I can add to that is that it is a hard process for people to learn how to learn. We are programmed to be so busy just doing, that we forget the why of it all and in pursuing that strategy we also fail to learn. My gut feeling is that it is a corrupt form of ritual – but then it also occurs to me that maybe most people don't want to learn either? Seriously, I don't know the answer, but I have worked with a whole lot of people in the business world and some want to learn and for those people it is like opening their eyes to a whole different world.

    I had this little flash when you mentioned the portentous warnings and I'll tell you a little story. The funeral I went to earlier in the week was for a very high achieving person. Mate, his achievements scare me. You may be interested to note that he was also a Freemason and an organ player of considerable note for both the Freemasons and the Christian Church. I spoke with his son afterwards and he recounted to me a tale that the son said that he had considerable flair with the piano as a child, but his father (who was deceased) made it difficult to explore that talent and so he went and did something else. I remarked to him that I would not speak ill of the recent dead, but I have heard similar stories and recounted one to him. There was much in that story regarding the portentous warnings that you wrote about and I have been considering that frank admission ever since. Good to see that actually read those collected works too, I'm unsure whether I would take such advice at face value. Nice to read that the ascended masters had other plans for you and I salute their good common sense (plus maybe drink them a toast or two)!

    Well yeah, wasn't the whole thing driven by a desire to recruit members? Do you reckon it may have been a drive that simple because my belief on the matter is that arduous and long initiation periods make for more resilient organisations, but easier initiation periods with more fun activities make for larger groups? Dunno but I was left wondering whether such light understanding of complex topics led to strangeness filtering into the community such as the entirely daft tome: “The Secret”.

    Like any field of knowledge worth knowing: It's a long road and there is no getting around that. I am used to extensive study and far distant goals and this lot is no different as there is no easy path, it's a long road.



  7. John Michael Greer:

    Greetings from a stirring seed of the Lakeland Republic.

    Firstly, I ask for Mercurial daemons to incline the minds of you and I and all friendly readers of this blog to states of mental fitness suitable for avoiding and escaping sticky misunderstandings of terms so often endemic in these studies.

    Secondly, I offer this link to a short and sweet primer of Platonic philosophy as told by the remarkable Thomas Taylor. A likewise remarkable group in England called The Prometheus Trust makes it available online. Look for Platonic Philosopher's Creed.


    Lastly, I wish to share a brutally summarized quote from Julius Evola's The Hermetic Tradition. I think this quote could help some practice-biased being who reads this blog to see a reason for studying occult philosophy:

    “Moreover, it is not just a question of intellectual understanding. We have to bear in mind that ancient man not only had a different way of thinking and feeling, but also a different way of feeling and knowing…

    “Only then [after learning these ways] will we be conducted through them to new heights of human realization and to the understanding that will make it possible for designated rites to confer magical and operative power…”

    May the esteemable author of this blog and all friendly readers of it thrive between Heaven and Earth.


  8. Greetings all!

    This see-saw effect between theory (occult philosophy) and practice (occult rituals) is, I must admit, very bizarre.

    After all if I want to be a competent practitioner in any field I need to understand the theory and to back it up with vigorous practice. Each in effect strengthening the other.

    This is the way competent engineers, doctors, opticians, lawyers are trained worldwide. I see no reason why training in the occult sciences should differ and be at variance with the above mode of professional training.

    My naive question is whether theosophy alone can explain this shift? Or are there other factors?

    Maybe the collapse of neo-paganism is a good thing after all as it allows a more sensible approach for occult studies.

  9. As an Ovate and then a Bard in the Celtic Golden Dawn group, I've often wondered why we spent so much time on geometry and herbalism and the philosophy of occultism. Now that I'm working on the Druidic curriculum, I very much see why. Achieving lasting results requires a fair bit of philosophy. Dion Fortune, in another of her books, The Training and Work of an Initiate, spends several pages discussing the importance of not trying to do serious work before one is done learning what should have been learned in school. All through the bardic work on geometry, and through my own extensions of that work,I felt that way: learning to draw pentagons, decagrams, squares, nonagons, and heptagrams struck me as 'stuff I should have learned in school' because it was about understanding proportion and relationship, beauty and alignment. There was a precision and a grace of thoughtfulness that came out of that work that has come from no other subject I've ever studied.

    It also has immediate practical applications, too: I've learned to be a modestly-skilled amateur carpenter recently. But the quality of my work is suffused with my love of geometry. People do not believe I've only been doing carpentry work for about a year, because the geometry underpinning my efforts is so good. Someone said the other day, “it's like magic,” and I could only nod and agree. 🙂 Not everything is perfect of course — I still have a lot of learning to do about carpentry… but the occult philosophy from Golden Dawn Druidry has served as a better-than-adequate pre-training for this entirely-different skill set.

  10. Speaking as one of those young whipper-snappers (early 30s still counts, right?), this post opens a window to let some air and sunshine into the creaking structure of neopaganism.

    That core of “occult philosophy first, occult practice later” pretty much describes my modus operandi, which has always left me feeling somewhat ashamed at a less than direct path through the OBOD coursework–wander over to read the PGM or Agrippa, or take a college crash course in Anglo-Saxon to better understand the culture of the runes, or spend a couple of months meditating with a beneficial native herb or…And yet, according to an older teaching philosophy, it's exactly the right track. Why learn Anglo-Saxon? Precisely because it trains the mind to think in an unfamiliar way. (There's nothing funnier than watching a bunch of English-speakers try to wrap their heads around declensions; I'd venture to say that's a magical act in and of itself!)

    It often seems that people are so interested in the tech (or in this case, operative magic), they forget to learn the science (occult philosophy) behind it. That science isn't padding–it's fundamental to the functioning of the technology.

    Thanks for encouraging some much needed appreciation for theoretical background as much as practical work.

    –Catriona McDonald

  11. Greetings Archdruid,

    I have a been avidly interested by your various writings for a number of years, and was very excited when you started this blog. I am rather shy, though, and it took this particular post to make me come out and say thank you.

    When I first discovered your other blog and your various books a few years ago, I was utterly engrossed, and found myself quite eager to join the AODA. Every time I attempted to delve into the curriculum, however, I found myself lacking in one area or another, unable to push forward. The experience was extremely revealing. I have found though that I was gaining the most from the pieces of deeper philosophy scattered throughout your works, rather than the more concrete subject matter. Mystery Teachings of the Living Earth would be the most clear cut example, though Part One of The Druid Magic Handbook is packed with staggering amounts of deeper content and I have been working for several years simply to build the foundation needed to address it properly.

    At first I felt like a failure for being unable to engage in the practices presented, but eventually I realized that my weaknesses revealed by the attempt were a more important matter. Thank you for this post affirming that, from the mouth of the teacher himself. I have become an “armchair occultist”, for the time being, and I am glad to hear that as long as I keep learning, that is fine.


  12. This post hit closest to home for me of any you've written so far. Thank you for this.

    As a member of the generation raised on Harry Potter, the institutions you're describing sound logical, necessary, and eminently desirable from my perspective. I think I can see why the first generation raised on Neopaganism would reject formal curricula- it seems from what I've heard that people were learning in those days to be sceptical of institutional constraints. Forty or so years later, my generation is so all-around sceptical that we can't really allow ourselves to do anything except fantasize about Hogwarts and how cool it would be if kind older wizards and witches took us under their wing and taught us a systematic philosophy and practice of the kind you're talking about.

    If such institutions of hidden knowledge still exist, then where, if I may be so naive as to ask publicly, does a young person hungry for understanding look in this day and age?

  13. (Can't really explain it, but I've got a gut feeling that 'Study Occult Philosophy Today' isn't something you type into a Google search).

  14. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge of the modern history of occultism – I learn so much from each one of these posts. Currently, I am working through Learning Ritual Magic as a solo practitioner. (I've never joined a group and I'm not sure I want to yet, but I'm open to it.) After years of reading tarot cards and keeping an altar, I just got tired of my hodgepodge “pretend” religion and wanted to take my beliefs more seriously as a study. You are really the Hierophant for me right now, because I'm such an avid reader of your blogs and then I'm also working through a book that you co-authored. Learning Ritual Magic does offer some amount of ritual right away, and I do enjoy it, but I want to assure you that I am taking everything very slowly and doing all of my reading. It's too bad that the idea of tradition has to be so distorted. In my opinion, there's nothing lacking in the historically accurate stories of how occult practices have developed.

  15. Patricia, no question, the Cos. Doc. (as Fortune's students used to call it) is very much a matter of jumping in the deep end! I'll put some thought into a reading list of occult philosophy, as you're not the only one who's asked for that. As for Ms. Lackey's fiction, well, I did specify her early fantasies. I wssn't actually thinking about the telepathic horsies with big blue eyes — as you noted, she was quite young when she wrote those, and I wrote equally silly things in my youthful days (which, unlike hers, were not sufficiently well written to get published.)

    Nah, I was thinking mostly of the Diana Tregard books, another early series of hers. Once, quite a few years ago now, I wrote a short story parody of those titled Flaming Koolaid — it was mostly an irritable outburst aimed at the condescending and ignorant attitudes Wiccans I'd encountered had toward those of us who preferred Hermetic magic and the like, and fortunately it never saw print. A little while later, with more detachment and a bit more of a sense of humor, I penned Lady Pixie Moondrip's Guide to Craft Names and felt much better. 😉 (I'm sorry to say I had nothing to do with Lord Ooky Hellwrought's Sixteen Unspeakable Utterances, though.)

    Bill, that's quite a bit of outrage to heap on one inoffensive adverb, you know — especially since “the thing” in question is learning operative magic in the old-fashioned early 20th century Anglo-American manner, as I think is tolerably clear from the context. As for Slavic grammar, maybe it's just me, but I did three years of Russian in high school and found the grammar highly intuitive; of course I'm fond of the subjunctive even in English (would that it were more common!) and find Latin a bubbling fountain of clarity.

    Paul, of course! Operative magic is a subset of occultism, and you can do a lot of the things magic does without actually practicing magical rituals, using other modes of occult practice. If you're having good results with Paths of Wisdom, by the way, I'd encourage you to pick up my cowritten book Learning Ritual Magic and my book Circles of Power, which are designed to provide the operative magic that goes with the specific system of Cabalistic practice given in that book.

    Mark, well, I'd certainly start it with Eliphas Levi's Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie… 😉 I'll have to give that question some thought, and see what kind of list I can create.

    Mann, I use the term “operative magic” simply to mean magical praxis — an operative mage is a mage who sets up the altar, picks up the wand, and does magical ritual on a regular basis, in the same way that an operative mason actually builds things out of stone. In both cases, the alternative is a speculative mage or Mason, who contemplates the symbolism without doing the specific, practical work — and yes, there's a place for that too.

    Ed, stay tuned and we'll be getting into more history. A tolerably large subset of people in occultism, btw, have the same interest in self-development and the same lack of interest in distance viewing et al. that you do; it's a recognized subset of the tradition.

  16. Cherokee, Gardner's fondness for being whipped by underdressed women was common enough in England just then that it was known all over Europe as “the English vice.” I could speculate as to why that was, but will pass on the opportunity. As for the portentous warnings and the long reading lists, I think it was partly about recruiting members, but it was also a matter of people simply believing what they'd been taught, and passing it on in good faith. One common problem you get in subcultures is that cherished beliefs don't always get the testing they deserve. Happens in larger cultures, too, for that matter…

    SunBindsBlackStone, thanks for the Taylor link — now there's a man who deserves much more attention than he generally gets. As for Evola, while I'm not generally a fan, he was no fool, and that quote in particular is spot on.

    Karim, you'd think so, wouldn't you? All I can say is that it was a strange time.

    Andrew, one of the reasons I inserted sacred geometry into that project, and some of my other magical writings as well, is that it's among the most useful of the neglected branches of occultism — superb training for the mind and hand, and it underlies so much of magical practice as well! I admit I didn't know it would help develop skill in carpentry, but hey — if the world ends up with a few more good carpenters who also know magic, I figure that's a plus. 😉

    Catriona, early 30s definitely counts as whipper-snapperish; I'm in my early 50s, and got exposed very early on to the last tag-end of the old way of doing things. Me, I think a background in Old English is a very good thing to have if you're going to get into the runes — well, that or Old Icelandic, depending on your tastes. Half of what got me out of the rut of paint-by-number generic Golden Dawn magic was learning Latin and French, and getting some idea of the colossal amount of interesting magic that's wholly unknown in the English-speaking world.

    Dylan, that's a very difficult question to answer. A couple of the old correspondence schools still exist, but I have no personal knowledge of whether they're being run honestly or have just been turned into a moneymaking scheme — that's one of the things that happened all too often as the serious practitioners died off and the new generation wasn't interested. As noted above, I'm going to try to get a decent list of readily available books on occult philosophy together and list them here; reading those might be a workable substitute for now, though it won't give you mentoring — just the information.

    Aron, you're welcome and thank you! I appreciate more than you probably guess how many people are actually willing to take the work seriously and use that book, and my other practical guidebooks, for the purpose for which they're intended: that is, as guides to doing the work.

  17. (Deborah Bender)

    I think the question worth asking is not why Gerald Gardner was a naturist, or why he got a kick out of being whipped by women, but why the made naturism and flagellation so prominent in his ritual system. These days people are untroubled by the nudism but think ritual scourging is creepy. I suggest that beyond the sexual frisson, he had a practical reason.

    In Wiccan covens of the traditional sort, the participants in a group ritual are expected to get into an altered state of consciousness, maintain it for awhile, and get out of it by the time the ritual concludes. The desired depth of trance depends on a number of factors and some people will be more proficient than others, but the character of most of these rituals is such that if you remain in the state of consciousness you would be in riding the bus without a book to read, you won't be able to contribute much, you will miss the point, and you will be bored.

    Wiccan rituals are relatively brief and are usually held in private homes with the furniture cleared out of the way, so methods of consciousness alteration that take a long time to induce, fancy equipment, or that result in the individual needing a minder for the whole time, are not useful.

    The limited number of ways that human beings can achieve altered states of consciousness were discovered thousands of years ago. Some people prefer methods that work directly on the mind. Some prefer methods that affect the body, which indirectly produces the desired change in the mind. E.g, some people sit and meditate, some run marathons, some chant, some get drunk.

    Gardner's writings do not show evidence of a deep and regular meditation practice. He knew about hypnosis but wasn't trained in it. His career in the British foreign service included a stint as an inspector of the opium trade, so he had some familiarity with drugs, but he was wary of them. Gardner states in one of his books that he is not musical. He had severe asthma, so he couldn't dance. He was retired and in fragile health when he took up witchcraft, so the more extreme kinds of physical ordeals were out. Sensory deprivation takes too long and is too disorienting to be useful in group ritual.

    Gardner relied on whipping because for him it was simple, safe, reliable and quick.

  18. @JMG – Oh, the Diana Tregarde books. Not her best work, no. The Elemental Masters of a series she started running as a riff on the standard fairy tales in Edwardian England/social commentary thereof actually are ceremonial magicians. But of course, the Elementals all LOOOOVE the good-hearted Elemental Mages/Masters/Adepts because they are, indeed, good. But we get the heroine of Deerskin serving as a volunteer nurse in the trenches of WWI, etc … however, I also like Terry Pratchett.

    Anyway, I did study Old English and started, alas, with their poetry. NEVER take a new foreign language in Spring! Unless you are deeply into the technicalities of Poetics. And linguistics etc. And if I use runes, it will be from the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem for sure. IN fact, my professor is a well-known scholar in the field, Dr. Helen Damico, and her class was work. Lots of work. “As Deor said, this, too will pass. Will I?” You learned to analyze your authorities in her class, too!

    Oh yes. If I were up for taking any more technical subjects, I'd round out my Latin, but everything takes so fracking LONG to do these days!

  19. Inoffensive adverb? Oh my dear JMG, you can hardly be unaware that “proper” and “properly” have been two of the most important tools of oppression and suppression in the English speaking world for many centuries!

    Your Russian example actually just makes my point — it is fluid and obvious *for you.* Many other people who sit down and try to learn it exactly the same way you did will utterly founder.

    I'm curious about the term “operative mage.” I googled it, and there are very few hits, most of them to your own writings, a few incidental hits on stuff that appears to be connected to role-playing games. Is this an expression of your own coinage?

  20. On an unrelated note…

    You may recall last December I commented on how I was tempted to post a sign that said “This Property Patrolled by Dead Vikings, Trespassers will be Blood Eagled” but I was not sure I wanted to deal with the possibility of finding the body of my ginseng-poaching neighbor with his lungs ripped out by a sharp stick that he “accidentally” fell on. For the record, I did not post the signs but I certainly though the thought.

    Well.. I just found out that right at that time said ginseng-poaching neighbor had emergency surgery for an abdominal aortic aneurysm. They basically split him up the belly with a sword… I mean scalpel. Well, he was sitting at home recuperatying, and his incision opened up and his body essentially began disembowling itself. After a helicopter ride and over $100K in uninsured medical expenses he is fine, now.

    Some might take this as a warning to “be careful what you ask for.” But I am already well aware of that caveat (hence I actually did not put the sign up). I take it more as the dead vikings telling me, “You know, we will do it if you really want, just let us know…”

  21. I always wonder at how invisible these groups seem to be. I mean, I live in Santa Cruz, an epicenter for countercultural weirdness, and I never see groups of magicians out doing things – at least, except the ones who've been so crippled by undisciplined magic that they live underneath bridges. Even if I wanted to join a magical group I'm not sure where I'd turn to do so. And I don't feel like wasting years of time only to discover that whatever secretive group I've joined isn't actually interested in the praxis I'm interested in, once I've finally been allowed into the inner circle to learn all the ~seeeeecrets~.

  22. Unknown Deborah, perhaps so, but I suspect it's also relevant that so many Englishmen of his generation enjoyed flagellation as part of lovemaking, and lovemaking of various kinds was the core of what sex cults had to offer in those days. If today's Wiccans have transformed that into a means of altered consciousness, well, there you are — wouldn't be the first time that a given practice has changed focus that way.

    Patricia, I haven't read anything Lackey's written since 1990 or so — I pretty much dropped new science fiction and fantasy at that point, as so much of both genres had gone in directions I found tiresome at best. (Don't even get me started on Cyberpunk — I lived in Seattle in those years and had enough exposure to hacker-and-slacker culture outside of fiction, thank you very much!)

    Bill, I believe I invented the term — it's a borrowing from Masonic terminology; Masons distinguish “operative Masons” (people who build things out of rocks) from “speculative Masons” (people who do rituals and use symbolism that was invented by people who build things out of rocks). Kudos to the local dead Vikings — that was certainly an elegant way to do the thing, and at least the guy survived.

    Dammerung, you bet they're invisible. If you're an occultist and people can find you too readily, you can count on hearing from every wackjob in the region or on the internet — between the fundamentalists who love to insist that anybody who belongs to a different religion than theirs must eat buttered babies for breakfast, the less orthodox wackjobs who want you to teach them how to summon Great Cthulhu to devour everybody who doesn't treat them the way they think they deserve, and the unfortunates whose mental illness has taken a pseudo-occult form and want you to save them from the orbital mind control lasers operated by Them, it gets pretty busy. That's why I keep my personal contact data relatively hard to find.

    On the other hand, it's unfortunate that so many magical schools have kept their teachings so secret that you really have no way of knowing what you're getting into. That's one reason why AODA under my poobah-ship has published everything I could talk the other archdruids into putting into print, and why my other and (so far) quieter order, the Druidical Order of the Golden Dawn, will be publishing everything — initiation rituals, instructional material, you name it, it's all going to be out there in public. Of course that means that those who want to do the work and aren't interested in joining an organization can do so, but then that's hardly a disadvantage.

  23. Magic is the sharpest tool in the workshop. Spend time reading the instructions, make sure you know and use the proper safety precautions, then begin building with it.

    My first (and only) curse was cast when I was very new to the craft. All tools, no skills, so to speak.

    One day I was excessively upset about capitalism in general with heavy emphasis on the oil industry in particular.

    I created a sigil and working specifically targeting the profits of companies the gained off of the sale and consumption of oil. (I wrote some code.)

    I performed the working to the best of my abilities. (I executed the code I wrote.)

    It worked. Too well.

    My car ended up in the shop a few days later after filling up. Water had leaked into the underground gas reservoir at my local filling station and I had pumped it directly into my tank.

    I wasn't the only one with broken fuel injectors either. I called the filling station with an $800 bill from the mechanic and they promptly agreed to pay it along with about a dozen or more similar claims.

  24. Shawn, that's a great story. I thought it was particularly appropriate that the backlash landed directly on the place where you yourself were supporting the profits of the oil industry, by owning and fueling an automobile! As for the FTT page, I sometimes think that may be my most important innovation in the field of occultism; it's done wonders to keep the trolls away. I'll be updating it shortly, as there have been some other very colorful tantrums that deserve a place on it.

  25. JMG, I'm glad you mentioned the correspondence course money-making schemes. Between secret societies that don't want to be found and secret societies that really, really want to be found, it's a tough fun game trying to nose out what's trustworthy and what's not. I picked up a book by Robert 'Skip' Ellison recently to add to my reading list, mostly because you're quoted on the back and he's quoted on the back of one of your other books. I reckon I could get a fair distance hop-stepping through name associations like this, but I'll look forward to your suggested reading list as well.

    You mentioned in an earlier post that occultists today are like scavengers in the ruins of much greater ancient traditions. If this is the state of the landscape, it makes sense that prospective mentors aren't jumping around in public looking for prospective students- they've got their hands full trying to recover what's useful and screen out wannabes. A philosophical reading list as a 'workable substitute' is very welcome in such circumstances.

  26. I look forward to some new Frequently Thrown Tantrums!

    As for the carpentry… geometry is quite useful at figuring out how to turn a nominally-2D object like a sheet of plywood into a nominally 3D object like a bookshelf or a table. Of late I've gotten into building single-system automata, like a vertical-cam powering a horizontal-cam, or a vertical cam powering a cam follower. My single greatest accomplishment so far was building an all-wood, working ratchet gear. The results are fun and charming… and when hooked up to a whirligig and set in the yard, they become intellectual puzzles to passers-by in one frame of reference, and prayer wheels in another. I'm looking forward to making some Hermetic and Druidic whirligigs sometime in the near future.

    It's not sex magic, the 'ahem' Highest Form of Magic there is!!! … but it's still interesting. And as various authors of books classified as Goetic can attest, asking for spiritual assistance in the mechanical arts is not unknown. A whispered prayer to Hermes shortly before opening the dryer to re-attach the pulley and belt is not an altogether unknown precaution in my house, every bit as important as unplugging it from the 220 V outlet before breaking out the screwdrivers…

  27. I'm glad to see OTO portrayed in a positive light in this post!
    The OTO body I most often attend has a wonderfully academic/theoretical slant to meetings and I always find myself profoundly mentally stimulated just by trying to keep up with some of the senior members' textual analysis and arguments. I also end up with a gigantic list of books I find myself wanting to read, which is always something I appreciate.

  28. Dammerung and JMG re: secrecy — it is also my experience than many traditional magical groups, of course, use magical means to maintain invisibility and secrecy. I recall a couple of decades ago one fellow who was trying to teach what he had learned in the group he used to belong to, but he would become strangely incoherent whenever he got much beyond the basics that were widely available in public sources. It was almost as if he had a binding spell on his tongue…

    Ironically if you already know some magical practice, you can do work to make yourself visible to the secretive practitioners who might be interested in working with you. But first you have to learn enough to be able to do that…

  29. This has had me thinking about back when I was new to all of this, and was fumbling with the typical Wicca 101 books from the 90's – early 00's. The thought that was constantly nagging at me was a sense that the authors did not seem to read anything but each others books…

    For the past couple of years now I have been doing this thing you talk about, combining a study of occult philosophy books with the trivium of meditation/divination/basic ritual, and I must say it has a lot more going for it than the abovementioned alternatives. It is probably not incidental then, that I kinda share Catriona's relationship to the OBOD work. You know, John, I would actually like to know your perspective on that particular material, its strengths and weaknesses, and your own experiences of working with it.

    Good post, as always. Looking forward to see how the discussion will shape up this month (and yes, the FTT is indeed priceless).

  30. In another blog I came about the following:

    “We probably already have more than enough of data and theories from which we could distil a much more accurate and useful description of the universe. However the trick lies in intuiting what to select from it all, and how to interpret the bits which apparently don’t fit in a way that they might.”

    How do you see this data and theories integrating with the occult philosophy revival you are proposing? (there's a tentacled ancient being joke in the whole revival bit, but it's not fulling coming out yet…alas Nyarlathotep is not cooperating tonight.)

  31. An incident that has been hovering in my mind since you began focussing in these essays on the last half of the last century.

    I was at a Pagan festival in 1986 that included an open meeting of discussion for everyone at the festival who wanted to listen and talk. It was quite a crowd.

    Isaac Bonewits got up and made some remarks that could be summarized as saying we should be competent at what we do. It seemed a commonplace to me, but a majority of the crowd immediately voiced its disagreement.

    I did not think that was a good sign.


  32. I guess I don't need to feel guilty about confining my magical practice to part one of The Druid Magic Handbook and taking a couple of years to work with the Sphere of Protection and the other daily practices while I try to get some occult background (my reading has admittedly been ad hoc; I'm another reader who would appreciate a list). My biggest need was to stop having my energy drained by those around me and to reduce the amount of intuitive information coming at me somatically. That didn't happen overnight, but it is happening. I've finally reached a point where, after sort of hiding inside my sphere for a couple of years, my intuition is opening up — mostly without the side effects. It's a work in progress.

    You mentioned energy healing in your post. I've been interested in it for quite a while, but needed to work on the aforementioned situation. Also, I've done some looking around, and Reiki is the only thing I can find. At least in my area of the country Reiki appears to be dominated by pop psychology and The Law of Attraction. Is it possible, Archdruid, that you could point me toward something old fashioned, uncool, and effective?

  33. This past year, my wife, our one year old son and myself were living with my parents on the family farm while I worked my engineering job at the local float glass plant and chipped away at building us our own home with my own hands. Come Spring, the glass plant announced it was closing and I would be laid off, and months of accumulated greivences between my wife and parents were coming to a highly stressful, relationship threatening head. During this time, I turned to regular practice of the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram as described in The Celtic Golden Dawn. I was and still am a novice mage, as this regular practice was my first stab at any type of magical practice. Over the two months that I practiced regularly, I focused on strengthening myself to fix the situation with my job and my family, and as the weeks passed I became increasingly desperate. Finally, I got a job offer to work at a glass plant in Toledo, OH (yes, future capital of the Lakeland Republic – I've greatly enjoyed watching the story unfold in my new home city). If I accepted the offer, I'd solve the job and family problems in one fell swoop, but I'd give up the life I'd been building for my family on the farm. I continued my magical practice and meditated on the choice, ultimately deciding ton take the offer in Toledo. Within days of accepting the offer, all of us at the farm began to catch glimpses of twin albino white tailed deer fawns, who eventually became mainstays on the farm for the few weeks before we moved. According to my online research, the probability of twin albino fawns is incomprehensibly miniscule. I felt deeply at the time that their appearance was related to my magical practice. What happened next affirmed that further and has caused a great deal of worry for me. One month after moving to Toledo, my mother passed away on the autumnal equinox. She had been in remission from stage 4 ovarian cancer for about a year. Two weeks after we left she got the news that the cancer was back and she'd need chemo again, and within another few weeks there was a complication and she was gone. In the days before she died in hospice, we began to notice only one of the white fawns coming out to eat in the evenings. Sure enough, the second fawn was never seen again after my Mom passed. The other still lives on the farm with my Dad, who is now all alone. I have not practiced much snice these events, as I'm horrified that somehow I was reckless in practicing too soon before preparing my mind, and that I somehow influenced the timing of my mother's death. To keep sane, I tell myself that it would have all happened anyway, and the albino deer are only symbols from land that I loved my whole life but decided to leave. Thanks for letting me share this story, as I don't have anyone else to tell it to besides my wife who wouldn't look at me like I escaped from the local mental institution. Even if it doesn't get posted, writing it all out has helped.

  34. In “the older mode of training in magic” was it customary to provide a syllabus/course outline/summary 18 months into the first section of study – pointing out what we had just been through?

    “to train the mind, not to inform it.” Indeed. Or as my spiritual mother used to say: “Not a gnosis that is studied but a gnosis that is experienced/endured”.

    Not linear but organically branching. A preparation for philosophy.

  35. To William Gabonay, my condolences, and may peace be with you.

    JMG, while there must be many reasons behind the disrespect for occult philosophy beginning in the 1960s/1970s, perhaps the feminist movement of the time was an important factor. If I'd read the Kybalion during the time I was learning about feminism, I might well have lumped it in with, in the phrase of the time, the rest of the male chauvinist pigs we were fighting, and turned away from occult philosophy in disgust. I'm much older now and hopefully wiser. Even so, when I read the Kybalion for my AODA studies, I was startled at first by what seemed to be an old-fashioned sex-role prejudice. After meditating on it I came to see how it wasn't that, but I did have to do quite a bit of mental rearrangement to fully appreciate what the Kybalion was saying.

  36. William Gabonay, I did a reading on your behalf using an online I Ching, and I got this answer: “you are a stranger to this situation.” If you have access to a copy of the I Ching, the hexagram I drew was 56 Lu/The Wanderer. I don't think you had anything to do with your mother's death. I'm so sorry you experienced this, and I hope you can find some peace about it.

  37. @william, what if you performing the LBRP gave your mom more time? Think about the wonder and happiness that all of you experienced and think about the fact that your dad has now a companion that may have lost a love as well.

  38. @SLClaire, thank you. @tori, thank you so much for taking the time to do that. I'm totally unfamiliar with I ching, but I'm encouraged by the results of your reading. @nano, thanks – great advice. We drove the five hours back to the farm last night for the holiday (first time since my mom's funeral), and after getting this off of my chest yesterday, seeing the albino fawn again this morning and taking a long walk in the woods, I feel much more at peace and more that the positive take you've outlined is more the reality than my misplaced guilt.

  39. I have several questions. Recently I had the wonderful experience of playing the entire Planets by Gustav Holtz (which if you have not heard live, and ever have the opportunity to, go and experience: the instrumentation is unusual so much of it is rarely performed). Mars, Bringer of War is the first movement, and pretty much classical mythology. But in all the myths I read, I never heard of Venus as having much to do with peace–which is her subtitle in this work. Nor Uranus as a magician nor Neptune a mystic. So I suspect the intentions of the composer were other than classic mythological reference here, and I seem to recollect having read many years ago that Holtz was involved in the occult. Where would I find information about the philosophy of magic in music? What is the difference exactly between a magician and a mystic?
    In regards to the various stories told over the last year here, at one point someone mentioned that magic could ease the path to an accomplishment, getting others more on board. How do you avoid abrogating others' free will in that process? (Specifically, we have a remodeling project some four years in the pre-planning stage here, I am downright tired of the waffling and arguing. However, another family member seems to delight most in being obstructive. Smoothing this person's participation, if I understand correctly, is a function magic is well suited to perform. How would doing so not be a moral violation? Furthermore, is it possible to ensure that such smoothing would be the actual result of the use of magic, and not something rather more bloody, as Bill Pulliam's incident described above hinted at as a possibility?) I am quite aware that doing any such thing is far beyond my abilities, having progressed only to the fourth exercise in Experience of the Inner Worlds (best to take my time and get it right), and have no intention of trying it: this is a purely hypothetical question.

  40. As for studying occult philosophy I am (slowly) translating Mebes works. It's fascinating to meditate and see how complex the ideas are. Still, I find it to be different than my primary source of study – Bardon and I don't know if it's at all useful to learn, contemplate/meditate on two different set of “metaphysical maps” or to just concentrate all my effort on mastering one and then add second (and third ect.).

  41. To say that a particular ritual is “safe” implies that it it possible for some to be “unsafe”. Is the subject of safety in general something that you will be addressing at some point? One thing you mentioned in an earlier post (I can't remember which one) mentioned that practitioners of the Golden Dawn tradition had a tendency to develop mental heath issues. Why would this be? Also, in a documentary about Aleister Crowley, at least a couple of wives/mistresses of his ended up fairly unhinged.

    I think I have been guilty of inappropriate/unguided dabbling, and I feel that harm has been caused by this. The kind if things I mean are a complete addiction to rune/ogham divination, and also trying the odd “chaos magic” ritual I read about on the internet. I though it would be freeing and empowering, but found myself feeling helpless, weak and imprisoned. A couple of years ago I decided the best thing for me was to simply stop, cold turkey, and learn to be a normal human being.

    I would be very interested to learn more about this issue – the kinds of harm that can arise, and how.

  42. Bill Pulliam said:

    “it is also my experience than many traditional magical groups, of course, use magical means to maintain invisibility and secrecy. I recall a couple of decades ago one fellow who was trying to teach what he had learned in the group he used to belong to, but he would become strangely incoherent whenever he got much beyond the basics that were widely available in public sources. It was almost as if he had a binding spell on his tongue…”

    This has a strange resonance for me, but in a different context. I have a friend who is a Revolutionary Socialist who is very clear and forthright in putting forward his views (which normally involve copious quotations from Lenin and Trotsky). Whenever I attempt to challenge what he says, I suddenly find that I have a mysterious inability to think or express myself clearly, and if I do manage to make an objection, it tends to be exceptionally weak and feeble – barely worth the effort of batting aside.

    It never occurred to me that there was any kind of magic involved here, but Bill's comment suggests that this is very likely to be the case. It could be that my friend has inadvertently or subconsciously placed a magic barrier around himself so that his ideological views (which I suspect are actually quite fragile) are never seriously challenged, or, what I think is more likely, is that the ideology he has adopted is inherently magical. I'd never thought that all ideology might simply be a form of possessing, binding magic, but now that I think of it, I can't think that it is anything else….

  43. @luna, I'm about to write one of the most powerful words in the chaos magick Arsenal. Ready?


    this word has the power to free your mind and also bring forth the destruction of your current BS (belief system)

    My recommendation is love and laughter and as a wise ol pope once said “it's all in your head, you've just no idea how big your head really is”

    I would highly recommend getting JMG's books, his writings are clear and take you on a journey that I think would benefit your magickal workings, if you so choose to take them up again.

    Btw: the LBRP or any banishing ritual that resonates with you is a great tool to have.

    Good luck!

  44. This is off-topic… but I went to watch the latest James Bond movie on theater.
    The plot itself comes back to classical James Bond clichés, which is a relief because the self-referential ironic jokes in the last couple of movies in the series were almost as lame than the cliché it was deriding. The plot tries to tie into the whole series'plot, and the interesting twist is that the war against change conducted by the lone hero, this time, revolves around a fight between two paradigms, one of intelligence as a global, technologically superpowerful surveillance network… and one of intelligence as conducted by a few shining stars, basically individual humans. Interesting… Something's definitely in the air, as we could note from the record number of comments fielded by your last two 'technological' posts.

    Another, more subtle and more intriguing, was the graphics in the musical intro theme sequence. It features an aesthetics of tentacles that looks a LOT like what fans have carved out of the mythos invented by a certain Providence-born horror writer staid in posterity. it is interesting because I believe it reflects a certain, very accurate symbolic perception of the times. Times where the threats we face are global and very diffuse (terrorism, corporations destabilizing entire economies or regions, pandemics, overly complex and globalized systems).
    That idea of a set of diffuse threats is after all the whole point of the image, supposed to mimic the fictional global crime organisation giving its title to the movie.

    But I suspect that the ocean will become a potent symbol in years to come : it can be both a very brutal force, and a source of ressources, it can embody at the same time the maternal womb of life on Earth, and the colossal, unstoppable awesome enemy that will ultimately bury all of humanity… and it features a lot of unknown (imaginary or real) dark subterranean places.

    Just like the Sun, it is probably a good metaphor for some of the concepts in occult philosophy. Maybe you would have insights to bring.

  45. Dylan, exactly. I've decided that the reading list is important enough to merit a post of its own — that'll be in January, as I have something else lined up to say in December.

    Andrew, I have to admit that “the Hermetic Whirlygigs” sounds like the name of a very avant-garde 1960s jazz group…

    Charles, the OTO is a mixed bag — of course the same thing can be said about any magical order, present company very much included. I'm glad to hear that your local group is on the better end of the spectrum.

    Bill, of course! One of the advantages of starting out your magical career with a basic ritual practice along the lines of the Pentagram ritual and the Middle Pillar exercise is that this makes you easy for serious mages to notice in a crowd.

    Sven, my experience with the OBOD material is powerfully shaped by the fact that I did the old version of the course, and the new version is rather different (and, frankly, rather less to my taste — though that's a personal matter, of course). I'll consider discussing my experiences in some context later on.

    Nano, that quote is a massive understatement — we already have far, far more data and theories than anybody can integrate into a meaningful image of the world, and much of the incoherence of modern thought is, I think, a response to that state of data surfeit. Occult philosophy is a set of narratives that allows our experiences to be organized in ways that encourage certain capacities for causing change — it's not about data or theories. More on this when the stars are right…

    Gaianne, I've encountered the same thing rather too often, and no, it's not a good sign. Unless you prefer make-believe and dress-up games to real magic, that is!

    Maria, I don't know what's being taught out there in the world — I learned a system of energy healing by way of one of the old orders connected to AODA, but I don't know anywhere it's currently being taught. I'll look around and see what if anything I can find.

    William, the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram doesn't kill people, or even contribute to their deaths. All it does is put you in a state of balance with the cosmos, and in the process expel harmful influences from what the Golden Dawn tradition calls the Sphere of Sensation and a lot of other traditions call the aura. It's one of the common pitfalls in the early stages of magical training to start taking credit for everything that happens to you — something good happened, that must have been my magic; something bad happened, oh, no, I must be meddling with forbidden powers! Relax; it takes a lot more in the way of concentrated will and imagination to make things happen by magic.

    Brother G., depends on the school. A lot of schools present you with a syllabus up front; others delay that for a while. Your spiritual mother is quite correct, btw: the Greek word gnosis means personal, experiential knowledge, not book learning. Some scholars prefer to translate it “acquaintance” — it's the kind of knowledge you have of someone with whom you're well acquainted.

  46. Phil, many thanks for the link!

    BoysMom, Joscelyn Godwin has written extensively about the relationship between music and magic — you might look into his books and see if any of them appeal to you. The relationship or lack of same between magic and mysticism could keep us talking for a month — I may do a post on that one of these days.

    As for the ethics of magic, the thing to do is focus on ends, not on means. Don't direct your magic toward changing the obstreperous person's behavior; direct it toward getting the remodeling project done, and let the appropriate means emerge.

    Changeling, my take is that it's fine to study many different magical systems, but it's generally best to practice only one at a time. If Bardon is the basis of your practical work — and that's a solid choice, as you well know — then keep all your practices focused on Bardon for now; read Mebes, translate him, but leave his specific practices and meditations for a later time. That would be my advice, at least.

    Luna, that's probably going to want at least one post of its own, which I'll plan on doing not far into the new year. The very short form is that, yes, you can mess yourself over with magic. I'm not a great fan of chaos magic for beginners precisely because it's so easy for beginners to mess themselves over using it — one of the more systematic methods, with practices that focus on balancing and strengthening the subtle dimensions of the self using some established formal set of symbols, is generally a good deal safer.

    Jean-Vivien, maybe I would. A lot of them, though, are best communicated indirectly at this point, which is one of the reasons why fiction plays so large a role in my writing right now. In particular, fiction about tentacled horrors that don't turn out to be horrors at all…

  47. Sven,

    Of course, ideology is the vilest sort of black magic 😉

    Yes, I should have seen that. To me it seems that ideologies are sacred narratives that appear to be internally consistent and provide a universal explanatory function, but are policed by taboos, and the only way to see through the ideology is to grapple with the taboos. This is difficult because once a taboo is approached a certain univeralising thought process emerges that ensures that the taboo is not confronted.

    For example, if you were to suggest to a Neoliberal that “protectionism can sometimes have its uses”, what s/he will in fact hear is “protectionism is always useful” or even “protectionism is always a good thing.” Suggest to a Marxist that “not all class relationships are exploitative” and they will in fact hear “class relationships are never exploitative” or even “there is no such thing as class relations.”

    I've been having fun recently with some online proponents of “blowback” theory, which is a classic sacred narrative. I've dared to suggest to them that “not all Islamic terrorism is a response to Western intervention” and they have of course interpreted this as me saying “Islamic terrorism has no connection to Western interventionism” or even “Islam is inherently violent.” These are guys who consider themselves to be open-minded, nuanced and sophisticated, but it's remarkable how quickly the tension rises as soon as the narrative is even slightly called into question.

    The other thing that is notable about this mode of thinking is that it seems that the more intelligent somebody is, the more likely they are to become a victim of it.

  48. Dear Mr. Greer:

    I enjoyed this month's post, as I enjoy many of them, and I also look forward to your January post on recommended reading of esoteric philosophy. I intend on taking up a correspondence course on Christian qabalistic magic (a la the works of Gareth Knight and Rudolf Steiner) sometime between Midwinter and Lady Day, so this list could prove to be of additional foundation.

    I appreciate your comment about studying one esoteric system at a time, my question is does Masonry fall under this as well? I sometimes give serious consideration to joining the Craft, but I'm uncertain if it would conflict with the course I plan on taking. I know Masonry is not in itself an esoteric order or magical system, but it has still been a major influence on Western esotericism.

    Also, I’ve heard that Israel Regardie, W.E. Butler, and Robert Anton Wilson argued that some form of psychotherapy should occur either before or in the early stage of esoteric studies; if it’s not too much to ask, what’s your take/advice on that point?

    I do apologize if I’m being a pest asking basic questions, or any irrelevant questions. May the Boundless Mystery bless and protect you and your loved ones.

    “Christopher Kildare”

  49. To some extent mysticism and magic stand in tension: one might think of some magic as operative mysticism, and some mysticism as speculative magic — riffing off the trms speculative and operative Masonry. The two may share the same cosmology, of course, which can also put them into a relationship with one another.

  50. My most recent post was too brief for real clarity. Mystical experiences are *not* all cut from the same cloth, nor are they all experienced as variants on the same thing. Some come with emotion (or what some theorists speak of as an “oceanic feeling). Others are wholly dispassionate, reminding the experiencer of Robinson Jeffers' “inhumanism.” Yet others are gnostic, conveying knowledge beyond words. This third kind can yield something of a wordless cosmology or perception of the Whole, on the basis of which one can then in some cases do a sort of wordless, propless magic. Here one “tugs” gently on some part of that perception of the Whole as one, just enough to change some other part of it slightly. That change, done competently, may then yield a corresponding slight change in the material world. Here the contrast is rather like the opposition between speculative and operative.

  51. JMG,

    My apologies up front if I am hopelessly off topic or my question/comment is simply too specific to me.

    I took your advice to take up a magical system and try it for a year. On the basis of such you had suggested I would have some questions I had about the value of magic (and it reality) answered by my own experience.

    So I did … and I haven't.

    I used your Celtic Golden Dawn system. I was reasonably consistent in its practice though I didn't make it much further than about 4/5ths through the Ovate Grade. I recently stopped actual practice; though, I have continued with exploration of the history of western magic and some research on other magical systems; chaos magic in particular. I suppose I would give up altogether had I not had considerable (and unnerving) success with geomancy divination.

    I think two things have led me to stop (for now?). One reason is that I have no experience that suggests a reason to continue; no clear insight based on my experience. The other reason is an almost complete lack of understanding of why I'm doing what I was doing.

    The practice was not unpleasant. Typically I practiced outside in a beautiful natural environment. It was nice. I just didn't get the point. I understand the intention not to poison the well or “situate the estimate” by stating what to expect. But an honest assessment of my experience didn't suggest a reason to continue.

    I have found no shortage of information on magical technique i.e. how to conduct various magical operations; but little on why any of it should or could work. Each technique seems to have its own (possibly dodgey?) theory. Each such theory seems to be based on a different (though not necessarily mutually exclusive) premise.

    What's missing, I think, is some intellectual framework to indicate why one performs a specific ritual or practice. What is it supposed to achieve or inculcate and why? A clear occult theory on such that includes all (or at least most) magical traditions would be helpful: a general theory of magic if you will. I have yet to find one, though chaos magic theory does seem to at least attempt such in its own quirky and irreverent way.

    So yes, an education in “occult philosophy”, in so far as this is the same as a “general theory of magic”, would be a great idea.

    Does such a coherent general theory of magic actually exist?

  52. JMG,
    Thank you for the explanation; that makes good sense. I suppose I should have realized that a man who just wrote a plea for a more disciplined, thoughtful approach to learning magical practice would not put a ritual that had the potential to go so awry in the first chapter of his instructional book. My apologies, and please excuse my naivety. I plan to resume practice and mindfully move forward through The Celtic Golden Dawn.

  53. John Michael Greer is Lady Pixie Moondrip?!! Oh, my! I bow deeply to you, Lady Pixie/JMG. I still laugh when I read the Guide, and occasionally post links to it when I am feeling particularly irritated with some of my co-religionists' pretensions — which is more and more often these days.

    I think my first exposure to occult philosophy was Alan Leo's Esoteric Astrology, which I read back in the late 60s or early 70s. That led me in all kinds of interesting directions — since I lived in Manhattan at the time, the direction was usually south, to Weiser's, and to Mason's Bookshop on Lexington. Then I got into science, and didn't get back into studying occultism for years — not until the mid-80s. Then I owned a bookshop myself in the late 80s & early 90s and spent 7 years indulging my curiosity by ordering every occult/magical/spiritual book I ever wanted to read. (I managed to sell most of them, too.)

    I really enjoy this blog, John — dare I say it, even more than the Archdruid Report. Your perspective is refreshing and the depth and breadth of your knowledge often astounds me. Thank you for writing it. And thank you for Lady Pixie!

  54. JMG & BoysMom: “focus on ends, not on means.” My favorite example of this, which I have probably quoted before, was a friend who wanted to find students, but all she ever got was people who flaked out and went away after a few weeks. “I keep doing magic to attract students, but it doesn't seem to work.” We pointed out the obvous: her magic was working perfectly, she had a constant supply of students. Maybe she should focus her magic on more fundamental goals, like having a sucessful and sustained working group?

    One thing to note about my example, I specifically backed away from the targeted and explicit threat, and left it to the powers whose protection I had requested to chose their own path to keep trespassers from exploiting and damaging the small bit of land we have been granted stewardship of under our current legal system. I trust that the events that happened to the neighbor were cosmicly tuned based on many factors, my own request being only one among them. Indeed I might not have even been the major infuence, he very well could have been doing far more nasty things than just poaching a bit. But the particular event was clearly shaped also for my “amusement” (the great cosmic egg most definitely has a sense of humor, often a rather twisted one!) and information, confirming to me that the neighbor was indeed guilty of the rumored crimes and that yes, most definitively, the guardians are on the job.

  55. @Phil Knight

    Yes, exactly.

    That experience you cited is all but universal, and you will doubtless have noticed that it is the same regardless of whatever topic happens to be under discussion. To get under the hood here, try to see how this apparently serves the need for solidity and control that emerges out of identifying exclusively with what is often referred to in magical teaching as the lower self. The self that knows naught but form seeks first and foremost to solidify what it thinks of as itself and control what it perceives as its world. I think I've commented quite a bit about it before, so I'm not going to hammer on to much more about it, but the point I want to make is that the purpose of ideology is to establish control over what “this” is causing whatever “that” through a sustained narrative. If you take a look at the various belief systems being mass marketed as absolute truth in our society, this is the pattern that is endlessly perpetuating itself underneath, when the content is stripped away from the structure. That project is inherently doomed because, let us whisper now lest they hear us, we don't actually live in a universe where any “this” causes any “that” in any linear fashion.

    Tension and anger arises when the narrative is actively questioned, or when events simply fail to occur in accordance with the narrative (which they constantly do). The self in question then perceives itself as threatened with annihilation simultaneously both from outside by a universe beyond its capacity to control, and from within by the emergence of certain powers of awareness far beyond its limited ideas of itself, the latter as a potential result of dropping the narrative and the need for linearity that the narrative serves to enforce.

    As for your final remark, perhaps a slight reevaluation of what to actually consider “intelligence” would be helpful? Don't know bout you, Phil, but where I come from the word seems to denote the capacity to believe, memorize and regurgitate narratives (or alternatively the ability to solve puzzles arbitrarily created by people who actually believe that solving arbitrarily created puzzles makes you intelligent…). As such, I've never managed to buy into the idea that “intelligence” is all that intelligent 😉

    Best wishes,


  56. Sven,

    Yes, I think what you've said is very pertinent. By the way Oswald Spengler had something to say about intelligence:

    “What makes the man of the world-cities incapable of living on any but this artificial footing is that the cosmic beat in his being is ever decreasing, while the tensions of his waking consciousness become more and more dangerous. It must be remembered that in a microcosm the animal, waking side supervenes on the vegetable side, that of being, and not vice versa. Beat and tension, blood and intellect, Destiny and Causality, are to one another as the countryside in bloom is to the city of stone, as something existing per se to something existing dependently. Tension without cosmic pulsation to animate it is the transition to nothingness. But Civilisation is nothing but tension. The head, in all the outstanding men of the Civilisations, is dominated exclusively by an expression of extreme tension.

    Intelligence is only the capacity for understanding at high tension, and in every Culture these heads are the types of its final men – one only has to compare them with the peasant heads, when such happen to emerge in the swirl of the great city's street life. The advance too, from peasant wisdom – “slimness”, mother wit, instinct, based as in other animals on the sensed beat of life – through the city-spirit to the cosmopolitan intelligence – the very word with its sharp ring betraying the disappearance of the old cosmic foundation – can be described as a steady diminution of the Destiny-feeling and an unrestrained augmentation of needs according to the operation of a Causality. Intelligence is the replacement of unconscious living by the exercise of thought, masterly, but bloodless and jejeune. The intelligent visage is the same in all races – what is recessive in them is precisely, race.”

  57. Agent Provocateur asked (at the end of an insightful post):

    “Does such a coherent general theory of magic actually exist?”

    If by this, you mean a general theory that covers all the many kinds of magic that have ever been effectively used by anyone at any time and any place, then I would say that no such general theory exists, or can exist.

    Much of Western magic since the end of the 1800s builds on a foundation of the magician's Will — his Strong Will, his True Will, or whatever. This is true of the propless magic of Charles G Leland or William Walker Atkinson; it seems true also of Aleistar Crowley's magic and the magics that build on his foundation.

    But there is another sort of magic that builds on the (temporary) abnegation of all Will, all Personaity, and all Individuality on the part of the magician. Then one ceaases to exist, for some mundane span of time, except as a single small knot in the vast Web of the Whole (of Indra's Net, if you like that term). In this state one can to some small extent produce change in some other parts of the Web — though only to some small extent, because one is a mere single knot, and not the entire Web (or, one is not Indra, if you like to think of it in that way).

    I have never been able to figure out any way that these two very different sorts of magic can be subsumed under single general theory of magic.

    (In this, it somewhat resembles the difficuty — I think, the impossibility — of subsuming all varieties of mystical experience under any possible common Theory of Mystical Experience.)

    Also, before the last three centuries, much of magic was built on yet another philosophical basis, which was very well laid out in Henry Cornelius Agrippa's _Three Books of Occult Philosophy_. (Yhe only published English translation was first printed in 1651.) The Llewellyn edition of this translation, modernized in its spelling and paragraphing by Donald Tyson, is a reasonably good presentation of Agrippa's grand synthesis of magical philosophy.

    I recommend Agrippa to my own students, if they are up to understanding him. The Three Books are not an easy read, and his philosophy is so complex that no easily read (yet adequate) summary of it seems possible to me.

  58. @Robert Mathiesen: I think the idea of the Will-based systems is that they are about subsummation of the personal, “small-w” will under the divine Will, which is itself a part of the greater divine. I've even seen authors describe the (very protracted) process of becoming an “Ascended Master” or “Secret Chief” as being one of total surrender to the divine Will, at the end of which there is nothing left of the magician's original personality. Under that interpretation, this is very similar to the idea of abnegating the personal, lower will to the Web of Indra which you describe.

    Maybe this could help you in reconciling the two systems?

  59. Kiernan, there certainly are will-based kinds of magic that fit your description very well. But there are also others that do not, for instance, the systems of Charles G. Leland and of William Walker Atkinson. Nor does Agrippa's system of magic really fit either of these two kinds, nor again do(es) the sort(s) of magic recorded in the Greek Magical Papyri. I'm not too well informed about the nuances of, say, Marsilio Ficino's system of magic from the 15th century, but the little I know of it does seem to fit in with the sort of magic you describe. So this diversity of systems of magic is a very old diversity.

    It is, of course, entirely possible that there is no single over-arching system of magic that can be articulated as a theory of magic. In the natural world the assumed (and observed) consistent operation of all the so-called “Laws of Nature” allow one to construct an over-arching physics and chemistry, for example. But effective magic may not have this sort of internal self-consistency. It might be the case — I think it is the case — that effective magic does not have any internal consistency at all.

    A hypothetical analogy from physics would be if the gravitational force did operate at times, and also did not operate at other times, and that nothing determines whether it operates or does not operate in any given instance. In fact, this analogy from physics is counter-factual; and if it were factualin the material world, the universe would not cohere. But one cannot argue from the consistency of the physical or material world (the world of matter and energy, as physicists use those terms) to the consistency of the “imaginal” world (Henri Corbin's term), which is where much of magic finds its field of operation.

    [Note: Corbin distinguishes between what we call “material,” what we call “imaginary,” and what he calls “imaginal.” (1) The material world is our world as the physicists and chemists (try to) comprehend it, self-consistent in its existence and operations. (2) The imaginary world has no independent material existence and no internal consistency, but comprises anything and everything that the human imagination can come up with. It has little or no impact on anything in the material world (apart from the human body that embodies the mind that is imagining it). But (3) the imaginal world, though it has neither independent material existence nor self-consistency, can have considerable impact on the material world. For most people, the clearest example of something imaginal is the state of being in love. Almost anyone can tell whether a friend has suddenly fallen in love, and there are very extensive material consequences of having fallen in love. So it is the work of some kinds of mystic and magician to explore the imaginal world, learning how one might use the fruits of their explorations to effect change in the material world.]

    Deep waters here, of course, but these deep waters are very much worth a magician's attention — or a mystic's.

  60. Christopher, you're not being a pest — and this is a good place to ask basic questions! In my experience, Masonry is highly compatible with almost any kind of Hermetic, Cabalistic, or esoteric Christian training; I know brother Masons who have worked extensively with Knight's system, and I know of others who are deep into Anthroposophy, so that shouldn't be any kind of problem. As for psychotherapy, it's not necessary — I'd be delighted sometime to work with a Jungian therapist, but I've never had the money to spare, and the vast majority of operative mages and occultists I know haven't been through that process either, so I wouldn't worry about it.

    Robert, true enough. One of these days I'll have to do a post on magic and mysticism, using some of Dion Fortune's ideas as an anchor point, and yes, the raw diversity of mystical experiences will be an important element of that discussion.

    Agent, there is no general theory of magic, nor will there ever be, for the same reason that there will never be a general theory of philosophy that applies to each and every philosophy. Magic and philosophy, as I hope to show in a future post, have a great deal in common; each system of magic, like each philosophy, proposes (and presupposes) a unique way of organizing experience — and since a theory is a way of bringing out the presuppositions inherent in an organization of experience, theory is always secondary to a philosophy (or a magical system), and only has meaning within the context of the latter.

    As for the Celtic Golden Dawn system, well, there you are. Magic is not for everybody; I hope you enjoyed your experiences with it, and perhaps even learned something from it, but if the core of what you learned is that there's no reason for you to keep going, that's also a valid lesson to be learnt.

    William, I understand where questions like that come from! Not to worry, I don't take them personally.

    Dio, I have that Alan Leo book — a quarter century ago I decided to leave astrology until I hit middle age, and about five years ago I looked at my face in the mirror, considered the graying beard and receding hairline, and decided that it was time! As for Lady Pixie, good heavens — I thought it was common knowledge at this point that that was one of my youthful follies. I'm glad that it's worth a laugh.

    Bill, that's an excellent example of the “ends, not means” rule — may I quote it sometime?

    Unknown Deborah, I find the Wombat Wiccca laws funny, too, but I'd probably find them even funnier if I'd ever been initiated into Wicca. Clearly there's something very specific being parodied here.

  61. JMG — Of course! The magician in question smacked her forehead and laughed heartily when we pointed the situation out to her, so even if she somehow ever recognized herself in a tale I expect she would continue to be amused.

    Sven — Actually I find they like Tennessee Moonshine pretty well, too. They seem to be fond of traditional southern cooking also (everyone likes fried chicken…). But even the world's best mazer won't get too far if he or she does not also build respect and trust in other ways. When you are dealing with any magical intelligence (define that term however you like) the process has things in common with dealing with human and other living intelligences. The tasty treat just gets you an introduction. Good mead won't overcome a bad reputation.

    And every one is different. I have a new piece of magical jewelry that my wife recently gifted to me. The talisman and are still working out our relationship. It is connected to a potent force with which I have a deep and long-standing connection, so it hardly surprises me that it (he) hesitates not one instant in expressing some of its (his) desires quite strongly, mostly pertaining to making sure I behave like neither a wimp nor a hypocrite, two things that rarely garner respect from the sorts of intelligences I strive to be in relationship with.

    And I suppose reaching some comprehensible notion of what a “magical intelligence” might even be is a significant part of what JMG has described here as occult philosophy, isn't it?

  62. Hi JMG and Deborah,

    Wombats have their own sort of magic. I'm struggling to make time for daily meditation – that is my big stumbling block – because I'm dealing with the very real impacts of climate change on the physical plane here. I suspect that many parts of the US and Europe have a bit more fat in such matters than us down here where every month or two a weather record gets smashed and this spring was a big one for the entire continent. That is sometimes why I hear so much rhetoric around the 2 degrees danger zone in terms of climate shifting. Anyway, I deal with things as they are and not how I want them to be.

    On a positive note, I spotted a baby wombat a couple of nights back enjoying the plants here and that perhaps is a good sign (maybe) because wombats like a lot of the marsupials are clever enough not to reproduce if they reckon the future seasons are going to be not conducive to raising young. That is a good sort of wombat magic.

    Incidentally, have you got any advice for someone struggling to attend to daily meditation practice?



  63. MG,

    Fair enough concerning a general theory of magic. [It may be that your response makes a distinction between theory and philosophy. If so, I don't think I have fully grasped that distinction. Sorry if this muddles what follows.]

    Lets take the very specific practice of the creation of a magical circle as an example as this seems a common practice among the family of magical systems derived from Greco-Egyptian magic common in the western tradition of magic. And hey; Its also pretty much as far as I got in your system anyway.

    Why do it? What function does it serve and why? Not having good (or reasonably certain) answers to these questions has let me to stop the practice. This is not a criticism of your system, or magic in general. I need to study more to find a reason to continue. Basically I need more magical/occult theory/philosophy to complement the practice. I think this was the point of your essay.

    As you created a system of magic that uses this practice, you must have some idea why you included this practice. Assuming this reason was more than “It seemed like a good idea at the time” or “Its traditional”, that reason would speak volumes about the underlying assumptions i.e. the implied magical/occult theory/philosophy.

    Let me take a stab at the reason for the circle. In ceremonial magic, the imagined is real; and the stronger and more fixed the imagined reality, the more real it is. One technique for creating such realty is to physically enact it because we humans tend to regard the physical as real. Thus if you imagine a circle of protection, made more solid in your imagination by the daily physical/ritual act of its physical creation, then it becomes real and so really does protect you when created. But I don't really know. It would be nice is I could get some independent confirmation of my guess.

    There is a book of implications and questions packed into the assumed reason I just gave. For instance: “Where is the circle 'real'?” and “Why is protection necessary?” There is also a wealth of testable corollaries … some of them probably none too safe in this case as the matter is presumed to be about protection.

    I suspect my assumed reason has fairly wide application. Indeed, if correct, one expected corollary is that it applies to all magical systems that feature imagination.

    The next obvious question: “Are there any magical systems that do not feature imagination?” The answer is probably “yes”, but only those that do not involve ordinary discursive thought (because all such thought involves imagination). This then leads to “What forms of non-ordinary waking thoughts are there?” I think the answer includes trance (non-discursive thought borne of no object of experience i.e. no thoughts but the experience of being) and ecstasy (non-discursive thought borne of intense direct experience). Both these “squeeze out” discursive thought as does intense imagination in ceremonial magic. These first two are just the techniques found in some (most? all?) forms of non-ceremonial magic.

    Oops. Maybe I just discovered a tenent of a general theory of magic when there isn't supposed to be one! Hmm.

    Further, the general (universal?) idea is that the next step is to insert an intention/desire into the “crack” so created by generating forms of thought at the extremes of normal waking experience. I just gave three such extremes (hyper-imagination, trance, and ecstasy) but there are probably more. All seem to circumvent discursive thought … and so off we go again … “Why is this necessary?” etc.

    Are you smelling what I just stepped in and does it smell right?

  64. There are at least three theoretical purposes that a magic circle may accomplish.

    First, it may act like a castle or fortress, to protect and shield the magician(s) inside it. It may do this an an imaginal construct (according to some), or it may do this (according to others) “ex opera operato,” quite apart from any imaginative ability or power of the magician who has drawn it.

    Second, it may act like a sort of magical “Leyden Jar,” to retain and concentrate the energy produced (from the bodies) of the magicians inside it. (In the mundane world, Leyden Jars are containers that can store static electricity until an electrical experimenter discharges it for his purposes, often in the flash of a powerful spark.)

    And third, it may function not wholly unlike a Buddhist mandala or a Navajo sand painting or a Chinese geomantic compass, as a sort of map or cosmogram for an imaginal world. In Western practice, it is usually a symbol and pattern of the entire cosmos, and its center is the place of greatest power. Purely by his/her standing at the center of such a circle, the magician raises his/her own power to its maximum potential. Alternativelly, the scryer places his/her gazing crystal or dark mirror at the center, the most suitable place for a device meant to open a “window” into the heart of the cosmos. Thus the frame in which a gazing crystal is mounted, for instance, should bear at least one small element of this overall pattern, such as the names of the four archangels associated with the four points of the compass.

    I suppose one might try to reconcile these three purposes into a single theory, but most people who write about drawing a magic circle seem have just one or another of these several purposes in view.

  65. Magical Leyden jar and, rather than castle or fortress, magical Faraday cage. And of course, diagram of the four directions plus up, down, center.

    Thanks for the tip about the scrying device having the 4-fold pattern repeated. Easy enough: get the Sacred Source catalog (images, statues, etc, made in Crozet, VA)and clip the pictures. From archangels to elements, SS sells the statue/candleholder/plaque/whatever, and catalog pages glued to index cards make a very handy pocket reference/altar image.

    P.S. Many of the statues, while not inexpensive, nonetheless tend to be cheap.

  66. Robert Mathiesen, (J)MG, and all

    Thank you for your responses.

    You've covered the “Why do this ritual” part of my example question. I understand there are a number of possible reasons depending on the magical tradition and intent of the mage.

    Though I gave a specific ritual and a specific reason for it, my question was a little deeper and more general than just the one case. I could rephrase it as “Why does imaginative based ritual work?” and more generally “Why does any type of magic work?”

    I suppose one could take the engineering approach of “well it just does so get on with using it”. This approach is not uncommon even in physics (quantum mechanics in particular) i.e. “Just shut up and calculate”. So it has precedence in fields assumed to be on firmer ground than magic.

    Nonetheless, a good substantiated theory can lead in interesting directions. First we built steam engine, then we came up with thermodynamics to build better steam engines, and by golly just a hop and a skip later and we had a theory to explain the direction of macroscopic time. If magic is real, a reasonably coherent magical theory could take us in similar and very profound directions.

    That an imaginative act, backed up by physical actions, could/has an effect in the objective world is a very curious thing. It suggests much less of a barrier between objective and subjective experience than commonly supposed.

    The best I can guess at this point is that the left brain/unconscious/subconscious is a good deal more connected to the rest of things than usually supposed. And that access to this connection is possible by bypassing or supressing right brain type thought. The use of rituals and symbols is one such technique as these are the language of that part of human experience.

    Everyday experience suggests there is a filter/barrier between left and right brain activity. We mostly only dream when discursive thought is attenuated. Drugs, boredom, and exhaustion can attenuate discursive thought. Excepting lucid dreaming or so called “path work”, the dream experience is largely receptive not directive.

    Magic seems to be a means to lower the barrier/filter and be directive or at least allow more active participation. An experience (not usually considered magic – mostly because it is so common) is trying to recall a name or locate an object. More conscious focus on the problem usually yields poor results if the answer is not forthcoming from your memory fairly immediately. Consciously leave the problem (after experiencing a true desire for the memory object) and in a minute or two you will often have the eureka moment. My guess is that magic has a similar if not identical mechanism.

    Once interesting feature of the foregoing is that at least one part of the universe seems dedicated to fulfilling your desires and that its working are largely outside of your awareness. This is so common as to seem silly to bother remarking on. Your body is clearly part of that part. Your memory is another. Magic suggests it doesn't end there. Common experience suggests there are plenty of limits though.

    It is my hope that a reasonable theory of magic (however limited or provisional it may be) would include these phenomena.

    I detect, in the various responses so far, a reluctance to touch this level of the problem. This isn't a setup. Maybe its just an alien way of thinking. Or maybe its all been done before and the results have been disappointing to all concerned. Or ultimately its a left brain approach to a right brain problem and few people excel at both types of problems.

    Anyway, thanks or the responses so far.

    NB/ to be clear, I'm really just taking about enchantment so far. No doubt divination would worked in at some point.

  67. Agent Provocateur,
    Are you looking for the kindergarten level explanation of how and why? ('You hold my hand when you cross the road because you are short and car drivers can't see you.')

    I suspect one reason why we aren't told up front and clearly what exactly the experience of each exercise is, is to avoid the placebo effect. A good number of those who want to believe in magic, as opposed to those seeking out information because of experiences they've had, seem to be very impressible people. Probably another, as was covered here some time ago, is that we sense magic in different ways. So one magician will hear the result, another will see the result, another will feel it, another will smell it. Same result, but we're using a different neural pathway to experience it. What good would it do for your teacher to tell you that you will 'see' a physical boundary, if you actually will 'feel' it like a wall?

  68. My own suspicion, Agent Provocateur, is that an “imaginative based ritual,” repeated with all identifiable factors, circumstances and possible causes of effectiveness held constant, will sometimes be highly effectve, and sometimes not. Or, to put it more bluntly, magic is (or is not) effective not through the operation of constant “laws of magic” alone, but also there is some purely random factor(s) at work in determining its effectiveness.

    Of course, this has as a consequence that the results of experiments in magic will never — in principle, not just in practice — be unvaryingly replicable.

    It seems as if there is at least one whimsical, willful factor (or sentient agent, other than the magician?) at play whenever one tries to do any magic. This factor or agent may without determinate cause or warning sometimes upset any magician's ritual (or divinatory) apple-cart. Just for the sheer fun of messing with the magician, as it were! We don't seem to have to reckon with any such whimsicality or willfulness when we carry out experiements in the realms of chemistry or physics (above the quantum level). This is why, IMHO, there can be no complete principled answer to the theoretical question(s) you are posing.

    That doesn't mean, of course, that you shouldn't try to work one out. You might prove my hunch wrong. Or someone else might. But if not, then with magic we have a randomness that hitherto we have had to deal with mostly in quantum physics. In magic, however, that randomness is not limited to the micro-level within which quantum mechanics operates, but operates on the meso-level of our own daily life.

    That granted, of course one can say a lot about the physical and mental equipment of human beings that allows them to do magic and — at times — even to do magic that works. And much of what you say seems to me to be on the right track there. More can be done along the lines of the ethnographic theory of communication proposed and refined by the late Dell Hymes, on the basis of earlier work by the linguists and anthropologists Roman Jakobson, Franz Boas, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf.

    But that's a different theory. We have to distinguish between the two theoretical domains. Is this clear enough?

  69. MomsBoy,

    I accept your point of a teacher not “situating the estimate” by suggesting what the experience may bring. I mentioned this in my first comment. Certainly some conformational experience would be nice but that is not really the point of my questions.

    Re. your “Are you looking for the kindergarten level explanation of how and why? ('You hold my hand when you cross the road because you are short and car drivers can't see you.')”

    Maybe. But I think I'm asking a question more along the lines of “Why do they ask me to do such silly things at school?” or “How does the car you drive work?”

    I can't possibly be the first person to ask the question.

    Now a brusque pull on the arm and “Quit your doddling and come along!” may be the only answer most neophytes receive but I suggest such would simply be an example of poor parenting/teaching.

    I'm sensing a reluctance to give a direct answer. Could this be one of those things adults can't talk about because, actually they don't really know themselves?

    If so, that's OK. A simple “I don't really know but here's my best guess …” earns more respect and less petulance in the long run.

    So again. Its sounds like you drive the car called magic. You have never asked yourself how it works? You must have. What is your best guess.

  70. Robert Mathiesen and all,

    I'm uncertain of the relevance of ethnographical theory of communication so, no, its not clear. I googled Dell Hymes. Nope. Still not clear.

    It is good to hear someone with (presumably) some experience with magic say it doesn't always work reliably. However, to continue to bother with it, presumably enchantment must work often enough to make it worth the trouble.

    Some types of divination are certainly reasonably testable. That's why I started with divination. Its the on the basis of my results so far that I have ventured to look at enchantment.

    Enchantment is more difficult to test because pre-enchantment probabilities are less well defined than those for certain types of divination. Still, there is a subjective impression of the likelihood (probability) of an event happening without enchantment that encourages a mage to believe enchantment is worth the trouble.

    As a rule, there are at least four ways of being wrong for every one way of being right (and 90% of all statistics are made up on the spot). If so, the probability of a desired event occurring without your direct (non-magical) efforts are generally less than 20%. Do enchantments that average a 40% success rate and you could say it was worth the effort.

    Now if you have an agent that appears to be willfully monkeying with the results, that in itself is a theory. Still if the results must be significantly better than chance or why bother enchanting?

    My questions weren't really about unreliable results or testing though. Basically I'm asking how magic works when it does work. Different types of magic may have different theories that may even be mutually exclusive. Not a problem. Science has plenty of those.

    Thanks for your rely.

  71. Agent Provocateur,
    I hope I did not come across as talking down. I couldn't think of a clearer way to say what I meant. And no, I don't drive the car called magic. I think I'm at the how to perform the pre-driving walk around stage. I am learning a very little, very slowly. I am mainly hanging out in these parts because of a hereditary (appearing) ability to dream futures. Not The Future, because it can be changed, but possible futures. It ranges from marginally useful, to amusing, to downright annoying. There's nothing in science to explain that, let alone make it either cease or be useful. And it runs in family lines, so my kids got hit with it too–it's one thing to endure a nuisance yourself, another thing for your kids to have to.

    So, given that background, what I'm seeing (and I'm not using the same course of study as you are), is that the early training is much more like “We hold our pencil this way so we can write clearly” without going into the risks of Repetitive Stress Injury from holding the pencil incorrectly. Maybe it's because I am using a different course of study: I am certainly getting the 'write clearly' part of the analogy part. Mr. Knight (author of Experience of the Inner Worlds) includes such lines as “We have delineated a pure place of working with the Sphere of Light, we have dedicated ourselves with the Spear, we have invoked our latent powers with the Rod, and we have opened our hearts to the Will of God for us in the formulation of the Holy Grail within our hearts.” That's pretty straightforward. Is your course of study not that clear as to purposes of the exercises? Or am I still entirely on the wrong track?

    As far as actual magic, and much to my children's dismay, I seem to have become impossible to move behind, even in another room, without noticing their presence (eyes in the back of my head, if you like), and there seems to have been a non-physical entity hanging around that would get caught by the same effect. Whether or not that latter is still about and has learned to be unnoticeable, or it has relocated, I couldn't say.

  72. MomsBoy,

    Re. your “…Is your course of study not that clear as to purposes of the exercises? Or am I still entirely on the wrong track? …”

    No its not quite as explicit (or perhaps I'm not paying enough attention). But even if it were, it wouldn't really answer my question. To push the driving analogy further:

    “The right pedal makes it go faster.” is one level of answering the question “How does it work?”. A much deeper level (the one I'm looking for) is along the lines of:

    “Energy is the quality that allows stuff to be moved. We get most of ours from ancient sunlight that is stored by long dead plants trapped in the earth. We takes what's left of these plants and refine them into a liquid called gas that can explode if combined with air. The right pedal controls how much gas air mixture goes into the cylinders of the car engine. The mixture is sucked into the cylinder as the piston goes down. On the upstroke ….”

    Given we humans didn't create the “machine” we use in magic (the universe), we can't be expected to know for certain how it works. But we must have some ideas.

    To go back to my original example of a magical circle. Just to say it is for protection or whatever is not of itself terribly helpful. How does it provide protection and from what. I proposed the imagined is in some sense real in such a case and physical actions (ritual) helps make it more real.

    To take this a little further. My guess would be that the mage is projecting parts of his own psyche into the quadrants of that circle so as to interact and engage with them. Implied in this is a theory of self and/or multi-selves. This then implies issues of psychic integration and coordination. Health implies wholeness and appropriate coordination of constituent parts. Here is the danger? How dangerous is it? etc.

    Perhaps ritual is like music. Your mind can be entrained or in sympathy with the type of music it listen to. Imagine balance, power and knowledge and your minds takes on these qualities to some small degree?

    To use another analogy: One level of understanding allows you to follow the recipe and make a half decent meal if you have the ingredients. A deeper understanding allows you to know what spices go together with what meat, how to substitute ingredients, how to mix and match, what ingredient you can do without, what is essential, in order to create something new that works … how to be a real chef in other words.


  73. To build on your analogy, Agent Provocateur, what if it turns out that some cars move by the means you decribe, others because small immaterial creatures that require no food or drink or other enr=ergy input are endlessly walking on internal treadmills, others because they leave our universe where our journey starts and (without traversing any time or space) reappear where our journey is to end three nanoseconds before our journey begins. And there are an unlimited number of other possibilities, too, some of which are so far outside the world of our senses and instrumentation that no human language can describe them, no mathematics capture their regularity. And what if, in addition, any particular car is propelled now by one of these mechanisms, now by another, entirely at random. In that case, since at least two of proposed mechanisms I mentioned are theoretically impossible in any universe where the law of conservation of energy holds, you can't have a general theory of how cars go from one place to another. you can try, but wait long enough and you may run into some car that cannot possibly move under your theory, but nonetheless moves.

    That's just a thought experiment, but it illustrates two of my own sneaking suspicions.

    One, that effective magic (like effective divination) often actually does violate the law of conservation of energy — but the quantities are usually so minute as to be undetectable with ordinary instrumentation. (Of course, under conservation of energy I include the energy manifested as mass, per E = MC².)

    And two, that some magic in our world operates by also existing in a realm outside of all time and space, outside of our universe, which cannot be expressed in any mathematics our nervous systems can formulate or be described by any human language. We humans work there by virtue of organs and body-parts that also do not exist within our own Einsteinian universe, and that our ordinary embodied senses cannot perceive at all — though occasionalkly a mystic can perceive it in some other, direct, non-sensory way.

    I'm not trying to be difficult here for the sake of an argument, but to suggest that your quest may prove to be theoretically impossible. It does seem, from your posts, that you are taking on faith the adequacy of the human body and mind to make sense of magic, and not merely just to work it on occasion. The latter possibility does not imply the former.

  74. About the ongoing discussion of “how this all works”…

    Y'all are tending to use metaphors and analogies taken from the realm of scientific and scholarly investigation, and physical accomplishments. The magical realm does not function in ways that are very similar to these arenas, however. The analogies to music, seasoning food, etc. come a bit closer, but still they are rooted in the everyday waking human mind and its perceptions of the physical realm.

    Many Wiccans experience the Circle as a second home, a place of comfort and security where they spend time with old friends and meet new ones, corporeal and non-corporeal. On the other hand, many Neoshamans view their circle as an essential protective device to keep the physical body safe, while the spirit and conscious awareness are moving through other realms. Ceremonial magicians likewise will be all over the map in their personal experience of the circle and relationship to it, even when they learned the same methods of generating it.

    The magical realm is learned by experiencing it. Sure this is also true of weightlifting, carpentry, and dance. But it is more like love. There is no universal theory of love because there is no universal experience of it. Like love, magic is exceedingly resistent to “objective” analysis.

    I expect this is why most traditions begin with very simple exercises, and continue them so the student can eventually come to magical awareness through experience. You may notice that advanced practitioners will not tell you “how” they do something. This is not only because of ethics and secrecy. It is also because you can't really “explain how” unless the person you are explaining to has the experiental knowledge. And if they do have it, your explanation is likely to be very short, or even unnecessary. Some of the “weird stuff” I have described here would be impossible to explain to most people, and utterly unnecessary to explain to experienced mages. They might acomplish something quite similar through what seems like entirely different means, but neither they nor I would likely see any problem with that.

    And then we get to the fact that humans have highly varied congtitive functioning, and highly varying magical interactions. You might think of physical analogies for this, but I think it is much more extreme than most appreciate. It is not like “what I see as red you might see as green.” It is more like “What I see as green you might feel as sadness.” Again, these are metaphors and they are still much too limited in their scope.

    Just remember, there is a reason why people have never come to universal agreement about any of this stuff!

  75. @Agent

    Man, don't take it the wrong way, but you seem to be making honor to your online handle here.

    I love that you are very curious, which is always a good trait for those that seek knowledge. Just please remember that (for most of us) life's a marathon, not a sprint. To follow your example, you cannot seriously expect a child to understand in detail what an internal combustion engine is, and what photosynthesis is, and what nuclear fusion is. And even if you could, you would do him a diservice by refusing to teach him useful practical skills until after he has mastered all the relevant abstract concepts. So, the correct answer the child needs to here is “put your seat belt on” and “give me your hand to cross the street together”. More knowledge can always be acquired later, as long as you make reasonably sure that he will be around by then in a form that is able to learn.

    Regarding on how magic works, perhaps the reasons are literaly unknowable, or perhaps they are theoretically knowable but too outside the sphere of our ordinary senses that nobody has ever though about that yet. Let me share an example from trashy literature. From the fanfiction work “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality”.

    Harry discovers something called “comed tea”. It apparently works like this: you drink it and something hilarious will happen that causes you to spit-take. Initially, Harry thinks the darned thing is all powerful and can alter history to provide the comedy setups… and expects to attain godhood status once he figures out how to alter his sense of humor at will. To his disappointment, he later finds out that the tea can detect funny events in the near future, and then it makes you thirsty. Which arguably nobody would think about since ordinary experience dictates that causes precede consequences in time.

    I am telling this story because it resonates with my personal experience too. I don't want to go into much detail… but, I can either believe that I have the power to control the weather, or I am trying to project meaning into a bunch of coincidences over the last year (think of El Niño and Hurracaine Patricia for the most salient examples)… or maybe I have developed the sensitivity to work with a higher entity that helps me organize my affairs in ways that are aligned with weather patterns that are not immediately obvious to me.

  76. What Bill said, especially his comparison of magic and love in his fourth paragraph!!! Thank you for putting it so well!

    And thank you, too, Raymond. — Apropos of which, who in his right mind would want to attain godhood? (That's just a piece of rhetoric, not a serious question.) I would not want godhood under any conditions, even if some Deity pushed me hard in that direction. I know myself well enough to know that I do not have close to the wisdom and strength it would take to function as a god! Ditto for immortality — you couldn't pay me enough to make me take on immortality, The very real burdens of life only would get heavier and heavier with each passing decade and century. And it wouldn;t be fair to my children, who will someday need to be the eldest generation in our family if they are to reach their full stature as people.

  77. Cherokee, I wish I had an easy answer to offer! Meditation is just plain hard — in some ways, the hardest thing I've ever done — and it takes patience and sheer stubbornness to set up a regular meditation practice and stick to it. I really don't know of any other way.

    Agent, you're picking up the wand from the wrong end. If you try to find an intellectual explanation for what the ritual is about, you'll just chase your own tail endlessly down a hall lined with mirrors. The meaning, purpose and value of the ritual has to be experienced through the process of doing the ritual, so that it's not just a label slapped on experiences, but an experience of a distinctive kind. It may be that you're not able or willing to do that, that you think you have to have an intellectual explanation before you can do the practice, or — and this is very often the case — that you're made uncomfortable by the work and are using the lack of an intellectual reason for it as a justification for backing away from it. (If so, that's entirely your right — as previously noted, ceremonial magic isn't for everyone.)

    I could go on at more length, but that usually turns into a long back-and-forth about whether there's an intellectual explanation of the fact that intellectual explanations aren't useful in magical training, and so on recursively into the night. If you want a reason for any given magical act, you have to find that reason for yourself in and through the repeated performance of that act, or you'll forestall the possibility of getting anywhere magically through that act. Your willingness to do that is the sign and password that gets you through the first gate of the temple of the mages.

  78. Agreed, Robert. I'd not even trust myself with the inmensely more limited power of being a millionare, which is a feasible goal for humans to pursue but probably not good for most of us.

    I know the question is rethoric, but let me answer anyways. The mentioned work has a bunch of pretty interesting ideas, but overall is Religion of Progress propaganda of the worst kind. I would not recommend anyone younger than 21 to peek at it.

    And the main character is an insuferable know-it-all, though there is a plot relevant reason for it. 🙂

  79. @ Patricia Mathews: I live fifteen minutes from Crozet. Thank you for that surprise! 🙂

    And thank you *all* for the amazing discussion!

  80. JMG,

    Yes more or less.

    The practice itself doesn't make me uncomfortable; its quite pleasant. What makes me uncomfortable is the lack of understanding. Without that (for any extended period), it is difficult for me to trust that there is a value to the practice.

    If I understand you correctly, you mean a reason to continue would come not through intellectual inquiry (which would prevent progress) but on the basis of some sort of confirming experience?

    Don't reply if the answer is “Yes.” I take the hint not to continue the discussion. A quiet nod will be sufficient. I have already given a guess as why intellectual inquiry is not always helpful.

    For my part, I think I've demonstrated willingness to pursue the practice and accept it on its own terms over the last year so I'm at a bit of a loss in the absence of an experience confirming its value.

    I'm also at a bit of a loss of where to place the value of occult philosophy. Perhaps it is not an intellectual pursuit as I had supposed. Perhaps it is an adjunct to practise more because it is a toolkit of associations. It “trains the mind not informs it”. Just another guess. No need to respond.


  81. As an addendum, as a lifelong scientist of course I do have hypotheses about intersections between the science of the physical universe and my experience with the magical realms. These hypotheses are utterly untestable so they cannot be considered scientific, of course. And they are just my own personal conceptions that help me unify my own individual universe, I do not consider them to be truths. And yet, I do deal with them as “truths” in my own internal mental games. All of which I have likely mentioned on this blog before.

    I feel that magic is more closely aligned with scientific notions of “information” rather than “energy.”I believe subjective self-aware consciousness is perhaps the most “tangible” manifestation of the magical realms' interactions with physical nature. As such I would never be so arrogant as to believe it (consciousness) is a property just of humans, or mammals, or vertebrates, or living things, or material things, though its various manifestations are so diverse that many of them have great challenges recognizing and communicating with each other.

    I strongly suspect that magic hits physics in the wave function. I think it is extremely telling that after 100 years physicists still have not reached consensus on whether the wave function is “real,” or what that question even means. I think physical manifestations of magic perhaps come about when that information meets a consciousness that touches the wave functions.

    And it certainly appears that these rippling fingers can travel “either direction” along “the arrow of time,” appearing to influence past events so long as you have no conscious knowledge of the outcome of those past events at the time you send out the magical impulse (i.e. the wave function in the past is not yet collapsed in your unique reference frame, all possible outcomes are still in the game for you). So if it is possible that something important may have already happened, or some window of opportunity may have opened or closed, so long as you do not yet actually “know” you can still do magic about it. But make sure no one interferes by telling you things you need to still not know! Once you open the letter or answer the phone call or read the email subject line or look at the medical test result… well, then, your universe has changed, chunks of the past have “crystalized,” and an infinity of possible futures have vanished beyond an event horizon in an instant. You and your magic can no longer reach them. If it is powerful enough, you can literally feel the change happen — “the world shuddered, and it was never the same again!”

    But this is just something that works for me, here, now, which has assembled itself in my psyche from all the sources I have encountered and experiences I have had. It would be meaningless gobbledygook, fluffy bunny nonsense, or pseudoscientific abomination to many others. Not a problem for me at all!

  82. Agent, it's not a confirming experience but something rather different. Let me use the nearest approximate metaphor…

    Imagine that we live in a society that's terrified of sound, and teaches children from birth not to notice any auditory experience at all. The official party line is that sound doesn't exist and that anybody who claims to experience it is a fraud or a crackpot, and most people agree with that, because they've been taught so thoroughly not to notice sound that they simply don't perceive it at all.

    Now imagine that there's this underground tradition called “sonic,” which claims to teach people how to experience this entire realm of phenomena that the mainstream culture insists cannot, does not, and must not exist. If you take up the study of sonic, you'll be asked to do a bunch of strange actions that seem to make no sense at all — hitting metal objects with a little hammer, blowing through the apertures of odd tubular devices, and so on. Because those actions don't seem to make sense and don't seem to do anything, many people who take up sonic discard it shortly thereafter — after all, nothing seems to happen — and many of those who persevere are constantly asking their teachers if they can just point out the thing that they're supposed to be seeing; and then of course they get frustrated when the teachers reply imperturbably (the conversation is in sign language, btw) that it's not something you can see.

    You also get people who take up sonic and are waiting for a confirmation experience. The difficulty here is that their ideas of such an experience all come from the part of the world they know, and thus have to do with sight, touch, taste, and smell — you know, the four senses. It happens not uncommonly that these students concentrate so intently on whether they're getting the sort of confirmation experiences they expect that they miss the possibility that something completely different might be going on.

    If you're a teacher of sonic, the thing you wait for is when a student looks very puzzled and says, “You know, I think something happened but I have no idea what.” It doesn't correspond to anything the student recognizes; it's not a sight, a texture, a flavor, or a scent; the student might use some vague word such as 'feeling,' or just admit complete incomprehension. Depending on how traumatic a process of desensitization to sound he went through as an infant and young child, there may also be outbursts of absolute stark panic from no known source, or simply an edgy, worried, “I don't get this and it bothers me” mood.

    It's those who stick with the training through the long period of not noticing anything, and the shorter but more difficult period of noticing something wholly outside their understanding of the world, who gradually learn to notice what they'd learned not to notice, and acquire strange powers such as being able to communicate without moving their hands, while experiencing unknown realities such as birdsong and the rushing of wind in the leaves…

  83. Agent, and all, good morning.

    I don't think I could possibly add much to what others have said already as far as trying to explain what you are asking to be explained is concerned. But maybe my own experience might be of value to you, and maybe others:

    You are not alone.

    I am a trained scientist. Following John Michael's metaphor, more than “trained not to use sound”, I would say that I have trained to tune my “seeing” in such a way that anything I experience is almost immediately translated in images. I have explored the ontological maze very deep indeed, trying to “see” what I was feeling, and dismissing the reality of what I was feeling because I couldn't “see” the objective model that would hold all this together. If that's your path, so be it, and you have all my compassion, for, from my experience, it is far from a pleasant ride. But at least in my case, it is a ride that I find very worth the effort, for all the frustrations, depressions and sheer moments of blank lack of grasping what all that was about that pave it. Not saying that you should pursue, but I think that knowing that you are not the only one struggling in those specific quick sands might be of some interest to you.

    Oh, and one last little thing that helped me: A sound heard is not “a compression wave of air”, not more than seeing red is “the impact of photons of a certain wavelength on the sensitive cells at the bottom of the eyes”. I hated Goethe's book for a long time, until I got it.

    “Of course, it is the decoding of the nerve influxes caused by the aforementioned effect.” didn't do it neither. Sitting in front of a trivial piece of red paper, and considering “I see red” did it. But if now you asked me “how do you see this red ? What is this red you see ?” the only answer I could really think of is to show you the red piece of paper.


  84. I'm going to suggest that the sound analogy only works if, among these people, hearing is one of those subliminal senses of which they only get hints in the course of daily life. I have long thought that the explanation for why working mages are rare, other than cultural factors such as an intense concentration on the printed word above all else, is that our Othersenses are simply not very strong in most people and are easily drowned out. That they have to be cultivated through practice under the right conditions – you can't learn to see out of the corners of your eyes in dim light, frex, in a brilliantly floodlit shopping center!

    Does that make sense?

  85. I'm currently reading “The wisdom of insecurity” by Alan Watts.
    My path toward this book comes from starting a spiritual journey reading TADR and later being introduced to this blog.
    I have made a start in The Celtic Golden Dawn, since Paths of Wisdom annoyed me with all the christian names.
    I did run into problems immediately however, since I couldn't finish the meditation assignments with anything remotely like success.

    I have now had at least some success rooting my constantly wandering and anxious mind in the present.
    These where two videos that was of great help to me, and if there are others who has similar problems they too might find them helpfull.

    The second one was from a lecture of Watts, and thats the reason I'm now reading his book.

    If it wouldn't be too much to ask, I would like to hear of your opinion on Watts work.
    I think you would finish the said book in an evening.
    Apart from that, I as others look forward to some other hinters at “Archdruid approved reading on occult philosophy.” :o)

  86. John Michael,

    This is priceless: “If you take up the study of sonic, you'll be asked to do a bunch of strange actions that seem to make no sense at all — hitting metal objects with a little hammer, blowing through the apertures of odd tubular devices, and so on.”

    I will be telling the tale of the people who don't have sound and the rebellious 'sonics' in my next bedtime story for my son.

    I was at Powell's in Portland while on vacation last week after reading this post and while I was pretty overwhelmed (I'm used to much more humble used bookstores) I did eventually follow a vibe that led me to 'the Cosmic Doctorine', which I bought. I am very grateful for this unfolding education you are providing us on occult philosophy. My experience with a part of the Bardic grade OBOD coursework was similar to Catriona's, I kept needing to follow divergent threads trying to ferret out and connect the dots to the philosophies I'd had tastes of but weren't the focus of the course. Part of what drew me to druidry in the first place was that when I read about OBOD, as well as your Druidry Handbook, I found philosophies that resonated strongly with those I'd found while studying systems theory and sustainable design (philosophies as heretical to business as usual as 'sonic' is to the soundless).

    Thank you for the continuing inspiration, and for the lively ride!

  87. Indeed, regarding so-called tentacled “horrors”, I understand your line of thinking. Mine is that somehow part of the appeal in Lovecraft's novels came from the supposed “horror” aspect. Nowadays they are just an excuse for loving in secret things that are forbidden or repressed by society at large. It's a bit like… mental self-touching, sort of. There is a certain beauty in the tension between what the reader is socially supposed to feel regarding the stuff described, and the secret forbidden fascination that the reader can actually indulge in… being authorized to do so by the “horror” label. The horror genre nowadays still works a lot like that, take the 80s' slasher movies and their pretty girls being chased by bloodlusty killers… the “horror” label making it socially acceptable to enjoy the things that would otherwise would not be acceptable.

    But it does not lead one to personal changes, it's more like Plato's cave except that one is projecting her/his own mental images to oneself. In the end, the lone viewer never leaves her/his own self-created mental cave. How we can turn the tension, the tentacled buddies from a loner's self-indulged secret fascination into a vision that brings wisdom and constructive change is probably up to you to figure out. I have no clue about that…

    In light of last week's archdruid report blog post, the process would be similar to that of leaving the cave of bright glossy screens and entertainment technology to climb out into the sunlight. When you talk about occult philosophy, it seems that you are interweaving that into both of your blogs, that is, using the process of personnal growth to apply it to broader changes in our societies. Interesting…

    PS : I've got the beginning of an intuition. Let's imagine for a brief moment that the Lone Hero arrives, after overcoming many hurdles, to the forbidden secret should-not-exist-but-so-important temple of the Ancients, in the middle of the vast, unexplored, threatening ocean…. only to realize with a shock that there ARE monsters that should not exist according to any socially-sanctionend wisdom, that they ARE ugly-looking, but that right now, in front of her/his eyes, at that very important moment for the fate of the vast hidden unexplored universe, they are actually having a GIANT PARTY and that it looks fun as hell to join in !
    At this point of the story, indulging oneself to have fun with other people would certainly be harder, scarier to the reader than the prospect of facing tentacled monsters, but maybe a bit more rewarding in the end. Thus the readers could move on with their lives, and go look for that part of mystery somewhere else after having had a lot of fun with their tentacled buddies.

  88. Seb, excellent! One of these days I need to do a post on the generally unnoticed fact that “the impact of photons of a certain wavelength on the sensitive cells at the bottom of the eyes” is itself a sequence of thoughts in human consciousness, just like “the decoding of the nerve influxes caused by the aforementioned effect” — and so are “matter,” “energy,” “space,” “time,” and all the other abstractions that so many people today think of as real things that form the building blocks of an objective cosmos. (What does the word “objective” actually mean? That which is the object of perception for a subject.) The making of maps is a worthy activity, but things get really confusing when the mapmakers come to think that their maps are more real than the territory, and the lived experience of walking along a street is less real than the line of ink that symbolizes that lived experience on a map…

    Patricia, well, I did say that the society in my metaphor was one that feared sound and taught people not to use it. It would follow from that, in turn, that people in that society wouldn't use sound to communicate, or for any other purpose, and would make themselves unaware of sound by sheer inattention reinforced by childhood training and social pressure. My experience is that most people have tolerably clear and strong magical “hearing” — they've just been taught not to notice or think about that whole range of human perception, and have to break through the wall of inattention to notice consciously what they've been noticing subliminally all along.

    AlnusIncana, I read Watts in my teen years! It's been a very long time since then, though. I'll have to see if I can make time to reread some of his books. As for a reading list, I'll see what I can do.

    Harvester, the “Cos.Doc.”, as Fortune's students used to call it, is very concentrated stuff! I recommend taking it one chapter at a time, and thinking your way through it over and over again until the “nearest approximate metaphors” make sense to you.

    Jean-Vivien, exactly! Who cares in the least about Lovecraft's protagonists? Most Lovecraft fans don't even remember the names of the characters who investigate this or that bizarre series of events and end up face to face with tentacled horrors. It's the tentacled horrors that everybody loves, and the horror is, as you've pointed out, simply the excuse that allows the reader to say “Yes, I know, this is all very horrifying,” while covertly delighting in the presence of something bigger, badder, older, wiser, and much more tentacular than humanity.

    I'm really coming to think that a huge number of people today are bored, frightened, and sick of their officially assigned status as Conquerors of Nature, Masters of Creation, Cutting Edge of Evolution, blah blah blah. They've begun to come to terms with the reality of deep space and deep time, of a universe that can't be shrunk down and flattened out to human scale, and Cthulhu and his pals allow them to experience humanity's real importance in the great scheme of things vicariously, through fiction. “Join the Esoteric Order of Dagon — we throw better parties!” — not a bad recruitment pitch, all things considered.

  89. (formerly posting as ourgreattransition – too long a name!)

    Thank you for these words. I must echo what Dylan said earlier, that being of the same generation as his, I have yearning for the older ways, the slower, traditional, gradual ways of past. Perhaps being a child of the 90s/00s leaves one with a giant hole gaping where tradition is meant to be found. And with Capricorn having a strong influence in my chart, then it is no wonder that I crave the type of process you describe above. So thank you for helping me to accept that and also reminding me to stick by it. I greatly look forward to your January post with the reading list.

    @Phil and Sven

    Such a timely conversation thank you! This speaks to me strongly, and I will need to go away and meditate on the theme of ideology, being a form of magic. I mean it’s obvious now we’re talking about, but yes complex ideological language can be such a simple form of mind control. I’ve had the same experience as you Phil, whereby, I know I can reasonably eloquently argue against a said theory when not with the persons themselves, but with them struggle and flounder and sound wholly inarticulate. A strange phenomena that has always frustrated me! Hmmm – I need to think about this some more, but enjoying the conversation between the two of you as it’s definitely opening some doorways.

  90. Granted, John… once you've Said all of that… since humans like to find meaning and importance to their existence, the actual challenge will not consist in taking them down from their thrones – they might even do this of their own will as you are pointing out – but in enabling them to find meaning and importance once they are scraping the palace floor.

  91. Some of the recent comments on the “metaphor of sound” reminded me of a fascinating essay I read by Jeremy Naydler called The Restitution of the Ear which opens a fascinating point that the nature of each of the senses is different. We, in the western world, tend to treat sight as primary, as the main metaphor – using words like 'insight', 'vision', 'I see what you mean'. Other cultures have not always treated sight as primary in this way and their cultures reflect a different mode of thinking as a consequence.

    I wonder if this is related to some of the discussions here.


  92. Since no topic is off topic on this blog, here´s a question (a fairly wide one, I know). What´s your take on Emerson, Thoreau and Muir? Or the Transcendentalists in general? There seem to be a family likeness between your esoteric/”nature romantic” outlook and theirs, but I never seen you mentioning them.

    Personally, I find Thoreau´s style impenetrable and Emerson´s nearly so, but I´m currently reading “The Spiritual Teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson” by Richard Geldard. I´ve also read pieces on him by Arhur Versluis. I find it fascinating that Emerson was a kind of esotericist – having grown up with thoroughly de-esotericized books on all subjects, I didn´t realize until recently that German Romanticism was esoterically inspired! And Emerson, of course, was inspired by Romanticism. I always assumed that Emerson was some kind of total bore Unitarian-pantheist (for “pantheist” think “Spinoza”)… It´s also interesting that Anthroposophists consider Emerson a precursor to their own Steiner. I haven´t read Muir, but I´ve read “God´s Wilds” by Dennis Williams, who attempts to claim Muir for Christianity.

    Is there some kind of important difference between your perspective and that of Emerson-Thoreau-Muir? At least to an outsider, you seem relatively similar to them… 🙂

  93. I am working through discussion prompted by Agent.

    I used to do scientific work and to engage with discussion of what we knew and could reliably rely on, and in my line of work much that we could not rely on. 'Question' for me was always a 'scent in the air' – a tilt of the nose thus: “?” as William Golding notated it in his novel 'Inheritors'. Sometimes a 'sense of judgement' cut in, which was more or less useful: thus next move with the white stick.

    Despite the above work I have never considered myself 'a scientist'. Like I did not know enough to be 'a teacher'.

    Lots of strange things have happened to me. Some intense experiences left no conscious memory behind, though I am very conscious still of the events and of the gaps.

    I found the following from AP helpful. Thank you AP. Quote: “One interesting feature of the foregoing is that at least one part of the universe seems dedicated to fulfilling your desires and that its working are largely outside of your awareness. This is so common as to seem silly to bother remarking on. Your body is clearly part of that part. Your memory is another. Magic suggests it doesn't end there. Common experience suggests there are plenty of limits though.”

    Phil H

  94. Cherokee-
    I hope you don't mind if I chime in on your conversation about the difficulties of attending to a daily meditation practice. I struggle with the same thing.

    A couple of things that have found helpful: I turned my before-bed glass of water into an opportunity to set my intentions to meditate the next morning. I do a simple active working of water as described in the Druid Magic Handbook, charging the water with orange light and calling on anybody listening (including me!) to support me in getting myself out of bed the next morning and protecting the time to meditate, and then drink it down. It may seem odd, but I really have found this to work- I feel the “help” of the orange light the next morning, and I sense that there are somethings or somebodies willing to support me in getting started on this important work.

    Another simple thing I have found helpful is to keep a running (written) list of meditation topics as they occur to me, and to choose one before bed for the next morning. This helps with the motivation- one part of the work, involving a decision which I might find difficult in my pre-caffeine state in the morning, is already done- and my brain and whatever other entities might be involved have the chance to “prime the pump” while I am sleeping. The choice of topic the night before is recommended by JMG in one of the books, but keeping the written list is the part that helps distractible me to be more efficient in making a choice, and when I wake up I already feel like I'm kind of in the middle of a conversation, which I want to continue in meditation.

    I know these are not original or earthshaking ideas, but I hope they might be helpful nonetheless. If nothing else, know that you are not alone in the struggle!

    –Heather in CA

  95. I like the sound analogy. I suppose the 'freak out' period is only shorter if you don't chicken out for an extensive period at that point hehe!!

    I was thinking about the new religious sensibility you talked about on the other blog before. I didn't really get it then but reading up on the bible and the koran in an attempt to understand Islam I get what the old sensibility is now and what the new one is basically about. What I was wondering is, is there any way to hasten (peacefully) the death of the old sensibility while waiting for the new one to take form? Or of speeding up the arrival of the new? Or is it dangerous territory trying to push these things?

  96. Two thoughts – first that I've been reading Mysteries of the Living Earth this month, and I want to thank you for it, because it provides precisely some of the occult philosophy missing from so many popular books on magic, and thus makes the entire concept make *far* more sense. Without a grounding in the principles that connect magic to other systems/forces, it always looked too much like the mage was meant to be demanding, “Laws of the universe, bend for my convenience!” And that sounded absurd to me. Now I'm starting to understand magic as a part of a whole system, rather than an attempt to go outside the system and “cheat” for better responses, and that's so much easier to accept both rationally and emotionally.

    Second, regarding the psychotherapy question brought up by an earlier commenter – from my own experiences with it, I think I can see where it could be *useful* for a novice occultist, since it involves individual coaching in self-awareness and self-reflection, understanding the ways that one's habits, assumptions, and history affect consciousness. But it's hardly the only way to learn that discipline — like with so many other things, A path rather than THE path.

  97. JMG,
    Wanted to relate two incidents lately that made me think of the astral light. Both incidents involve cats, ha.

    While walking my house cat, we strayed over to a neighboring business; a bed and breakfast that also hosts meditation in a carriage house. Along one wall of the structure is a statue of Buddha. My cat was walking along this wall when he came upon this statue and had a very sudden and visible reaction, a similar reaction one would expect if a cat suddenly came upon a living entity that it did not know was there. He looked a the statue, quickly jumped back, and hurried past. I have never seen a cat recognize a statue as anything more than a rock before.

    The second incident involves a pair of strays. This small orange cat that lives outside here has managed to charm and befriend my better half, who lets him in for snacks and naps. One day last week, another stray cat came to the door. Amused, I let her in. She came in and acted as though she was retracing the orange cats steps, difficult to describe, but seeing makes it obvious. Whereas most cats are very cautious explorers in unfamiliar territory, she came in, and though it was clear by how she was glancing about, she very quickly retraced his exact footsteps to the food. It looked for all the world as though she was following the steps on a path she could see.

  98. (Deborah Bender)

    @Justin W. McCarthy–I'd like to recount an experience that might tie in to your cat's reaction to the Buddha statue. First, let me congratulate you on having a cat who likes to take walks with you. I had a cat who taught me to escort him on walks, and when I got a second cat, he taught that cat to come along with us.

    I was brought up by parents who belonged to a congregation of a liberal religious denomination, but whose general outlook on life was rationalist. There never was any discussion of spirits, the afterlife, psychic phenomena, or any other sort of woo-woo in our home. I was not and am not particularly sensitive to psychic phenomena, but I had an experience at a fairly early age that I paid attention to and remembered afterward precisely because it was unusual and unexpected. I don't remember exactly how old I was, but probably in elementary school.

    My father and mother took me along on a tourist trip to San Francisco which included a visit to the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. If you have ever visited there, you might have noticed a life sized bronze statue of the meditating Buddha along one of the pathways. I certainly noticed it because when I got near to the statue, I had a strong sensation that an energy was emanating from it, perhaps a live presence. Nothing more specific than that. This was an entirely new experience for me. I paused by the statue for a moment to take a good look at it and verify that I was feeling what I was feeling. I said nothing to my parents, who I knew would have dismissed what I felt. I had no previous ideas or opinions about the Buddha or about statues that would have led me to expect such a sensation. The religion I was brought up in does not venerate statues.

    Decades later, I fell in with some witches and was introduced to the idea that objects can acquire an energetic charge if human attention or emotions are directed at them, and later to the idea that there are techniques for persuading conscious entities to take up residence in objects. I discovered on my own, as a result of doing daily devotions at an altar that happened to be set on top of a metal filing cabinet, that some metals have a propensity to acquire a psychic charge from that kind of work if it's repeated. All of that gave me a satisfactory explanation for my childhood experience with the statue in the tea garden. Before being taken to the park, it probably had spent a long time in a shrine or temple where it received offerings or served as a focus for meditation. What I had felt was not necessarily the presence of the Buddha, but very likely the stored residue of a lot of strong mental energy.

    Among cat lovers who take psychic energy seriously, cats have a reputation for being energy whores. If I as a naive child could pick up a strong hit from proximity to a Buddha statue that had been activated, I see no reason why your cat would not have a similar sensation.

  99. Alex, that's good to hear. Fortunately tradition is a perpetual process of reinvention, and so reinventing traditions is wholly appropriate. More on this as we proceed!

    Jean-Vivien, of course. On the other hand, those who get off the thrones before the latter collapse under them, and, shall we say, avoid the rush, are going to have a lot easier time making that transition.

    MCB, hmm! I'll need to put that on the to-read list.

    Tidlösa, I haven't actually read that deeply in the Transcendentalists, which is something I'll have to get around to sometime in the not too distant future. When I do that, I'll be able to respond.

    Phil, good. Take your time; for anyone raised in a modern Western culture, this stuff can be very challenging.

    (Dot), what you resist, persists. Instead of trying to speed the demise of the old sensibility, concentrate on expressing the new one in your daily life as fully as possible — after all, the kind of teaching that makes the most impact is teaching by example.

    Laylah, glad you like the book! One of these days I need to do an introductory book on magic in general, if only to put the New Age misunderstanding of magic to rest once and for all (preferably with a stake through its heart).

    Justin, comparative neurologists figured out a long time ago that cats don't see the same world we do. Their brains process visual stimuli in a completely different way, which is one of the reasons they things we don't. When we talk of “the astral light,” one of the things that may be behind that convenient label are all the things going on around us that our primate sense organs and nervous systems filter out, because they weren't useful to our distant ancestors. Of course there may be other things as well!

    Cherokee, the arrival of Peak Blockheadedness would be very welcome! Still, I ain't holding my breath…

  100. Varela, Mauratana and Rosch wrote an excellent book detailing the many flaws, unknowns and simplistic assumptions made in neuroscience, computer simulations of vision and philosophy around what are often thought of as given or obvious truths about perception and cognition in their text”The Embodied Mind”.

    Edwin Land demonstrated in 1959 that our perception of color is far more complex than had been considered, and spent his life trying to get neurologists and opticians to follow up on his demonstration that images formed from 2 colors, even two very similar shades of the same color are all that is needed to create an image that is perceived as having a full color gamut.

    The very dense and important text “Optics, Painting and Photography” by Pirenne details how perception has to be taught-students looking through a microscope have to be shown how to look at and draw even the simplest shapes and organisms.Until they are shown what the object is supposed to look like in a sketch, they can't actually see it!

    In short, perception is learned and is not “native” to our species, or probably any others that have complex processing. My anthropology mentor David Eyde spent the last 40 years of his life trying to puzzle out whether or not there was some sort of taxanomic mapping of shape, color and image in nature that cultures used, similar to language or number system or boolean classes.

    If two entities of the same species cannot (and do not) agree on fundamentals of perception (let alone interpretation) it is probably an act of supreme hubris to think that the half-cantaloupe sized organ in our head can dependably report on subtle phenomenon accurately to another, let alone say anything meaningful about squid-entities that transcend the dimensions we perceive.

  101. A few weeks ago, my older son graduated from his 8-week police academy training. It seemed important to him that I attend the graduation ceremony, so I overcame my confident belief that it was all a waste of time for all involved. “Why don't they just mail out the certificates of completion?” But I was mildly curious about the composition of the rest of his class, and he did want me to attend. As the lights dimmed in the auditorium, the “color guard” was announced, and two men marched in, very formally… “left… left… left, right left… left (and so on)” , bearing a national flag and a local flag, which were installed at opposite ends of the stage. “Hey!” I thought. “They're doing MAGIC here! This is a ritual space, and the flags set the boundaries.” I sat up and paid attention. “Now, what sort of consciousness are they intending to alter?”

    I think it has something to do with creating a willingness to run TOWARD danger, instead of AWAY from it.

    Unfortunately, one of the prominent participants in the ritual was plainly distracted by interactions with her mobile telecommunication device. That really impaired the solemnity of the ritual. Fortunately, one of the color guard members was wearing hard-soled shoes, so we could hear the marching. It wouldn't have been the same if both were wearing sneakers.

  102. I went to look up “The Embodied Mind”, and the Amazon description brings up the Buddhist concept of “no-self,” which seems to be Western materialism's favorite thing about Buddhism.

    Does occultism have a response to Buddhist ideas of no-self and the impermanence of all things? As far as I can tell they seem to be directly opposed to the Neo-Platonist view outlined in this blog.

    I ask because something in me wants to reject the concept of no-self, but I don't know if there's any grounds for that rejection beyond the ego's fear of its own destruction.

  103. Hi JMG,
    I was wondering if occult philosophy deals with the fear of death. I recal you saying that we mature towards death as a fruit ripens and matures.

    I've been reading a book called “The Worm at the Core: on the role of death in life” by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski. They work in experimental social psychology and inspired by Ernest Beckers work “Denial of Death”, make pretty convincing arguments that THE motivating factor in all human activity is an attempt to transcend death.

    I was wondering if the occult philosophy will be touching on dealing with the fear of death, or with one of the ways humans try to manage that fear, by finding meaning in their presence in the universe.

    This quote in particular made me think of the current comments section – “The same cognitive capacities that enabled our ancestors to be self aware-…- also brought the potentially paralyzing realization of death to mind. And paralysis was a recipe for extinction; so early humans, instead of succumbing to existential despair, placed themselves in the center of an rxtraordinary, transcendent, and eternal universe.”

    From this perspective humans put themselves at the center of the universe in order to cope with the terror of facing their inevitable death.

  104. Nwlorax, exactly. We create our surroundings out of the raw material provided us by those handful of sensory details that our primate ancestors found useful to their survival, and assemble that raw material according to blueprints provided by our evolutionary and cultural heritage.

    LatheChuck, good. Yes, most kinds of ceremony started out as magic, though they vary drastically in how much magical efficacy they've kept.

    Cliff, I tend to think the whole quarrel between the Buddhist “no-self” doctrine and the alternatives in Vedanta, Neoplatonism, et al. is more a matter of semantics than anything else. Everyone agrees that this thing we each call “me” is a temporary construct generated by the limitations of human consciousness, and that the reality behind it is something very hard to talk about (since all our language shares those same limitations). Beyond that, it's a matter of what terminology you like to use and what strategies work best to communicate what you're trying to get across to your students.

    Candace, that theory assumes, without ever discussing it, that the modern materialist concept of existence is the truth pure and simple, and tries to find some way from within that assumption to explain why the vast majority of human beings throughout history have experienced their world in ways that materialism can't understand. A society that insisted that sound didn't exist could no doubt find similar arguments to explain why people came up with this weird realm of experience — of course they couldn't simply have been paying attention to a reality that the sound-denying culture refused to recognize! In the same way, many human beings routinely experience aspects of the world that modern materialism can't handle, and the materialists have responded with incredibly elaborate arguments to explain why people must be making it all up. I find it rather more useful, not to mention more convincing, to take that wider world seriously.

  105. I would love to see that general introductory text! Relative to most of the field I expect you'd provide a much more satisfactory helping of “why” to go along with the usual what, when, and how.

  106. Candace– It's also worth mentioning that not all human cultures or “religions” (not always a helpful term) “placed themselves in the center of an extraordinary, transcendent, and eternal universe.” That's an assumption based on the recent history of Abrahamic religion and in particular Christianity.

    Many hunter-gatherer “religions,” insofar as there is such a thing, are much simpler, and beliefs about the afterlife are not at all universal. I recall reading a Kalahari bushman claiming that “when we die our souls dry up and blow away on the wind.” More recently, there was an essay that made the rounds on the internet about a Christian missionary who converted to Atheism after his experience with a hunter-gatherer tribe in South America. The peculiarities of his subjects' language gave them no way of understanding claims made about something that the speaker did not personally experience– thus they were immune to conversion.

    Something that was highlighted in the article but that went unmentioned in most of the discussion that I saw was the fact that the people in question do believe in strange doppleganger spirits that live in the jungle and trick people by impersonating other members of the tribe. They believe in these beings despite being unable to believe in or even understand Christianity for the simple reason that they all regularly encounter them.

  107. Well, that makes sense. I've been reading James Hillman and Bill Plotkin, and they've helped me put the ego and its demise into a healthier context, one of service to a greater cause.

    So I suppose it's the sense of meaninglessness in materialism and Buddhism (or maybe just the current Western interpretation of Buddhism?) that I find myself reacting against.

  108. The thing we call me is an interesting concept, in particular if it is temporary, and what if anything is the underlying and possibly more persistent reality (soul?). I am thinking of people who suffer severe amnesia or Alzheimer's disease. Is the person left after the memories are erased closer to the underlying reality? Also if one believes in reincarnation presumably the residual reality is what is passed. Or, our souls could just dry up and blow away in the wind. Strangely I do not have such a strong aversion to that. I sometimes think that some of these puzzles are related to our Newtonian linear and separate perception of time. In relativity, time is more like one of the spatial dimensions. An event with time and space coordinates simply exists in the space-time continuum that makes up the universe. The passage of time may be a kind of illusion or just the way our brains make sense of (recreate) reality.

  109. (Deborah Bender)

    PhysicsDoc writes, “I sometimes think that some of these puzzles are related to our Newtonian linear and separate perception of time. In relativity, time is more like one of the spatial dimensions. An event with time and space coordinates simply exists in the space-time continuum that makes up the universe. The passage of time may be a kind of illusion or just the way our brains make sense of (recreate) reality.”

    In common parlance, “eternity” and “forever” are treated as synonyms. However, I gather that the original meaning of eternity is the space-time continuum as described in the quotation above. Eternity is the “place” or “mode of existence” “where” (I'm not using “place”, “existence” or “where” literally) there is no linear time with a fixed direction. Our sensory apparatus allows us to view distant and far objects at once and to hear many sounds at once. For an eternal being or consciousness, events are not perceived serially any more than objects are. From that perspective, a life arising and ending surely would have a different feel, since the beginning, duration and end may be perceived all together or in any sequence.

    In Western monotheism, this viewpoint is attributed to God and angels. It may be that one needn't be an immortal being whose consciousness does not depend on inhabiting a body in order to perceive eternity. Human beings seem capable of experiencing it, but only fleetingly in mystical altered states. I suspect that direct perception of eternity is a distraction from keeping one's body alive long enough to reproduce, in which case natural selection would find that ability expensive to maintain and weed it out. Natural selection is ruthless about eliminating abilities that don't contribute to reproductive success; that's why we can't regenerate limbs and penguins can't fly.

  110. JMG wrote: “… materialists have responded with incredibly elaborate arguments to explain why people must be making it all up. I find it rather more useful, not to mention more convincing, to take that wider world seriously.”

    It’s interesting in this context to see mention of doppelganger phenomena (see reported HG experience mentioned by Steve).

    Back in the day an old friend of mine got me to sign up to the Journal of Scientific Exploration (Bob Jahn, Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake among others published articles in that journal).

    There was a most convincing account (Vol .16; No.4; 621-634, Leiter, 2002) of what the author believed to be a Vardogr (Norwegian term). The author and his wife sound an impeccably level-headed American couple (he was a R&D professional mechanical engineer and he describes his wife as the most level-headed and practical person he knows) in the late 1970s when Philadelphia and America and technology seemed mostly straightforward enough to a mid-career guy with a couple of teenage kids. He, David was not interested in parapsychology. Vardogr appears to be a specific variation of the doppelganger phenomenon.

    David was impersonated (my word) such that his wife both saw and heard him arrive home (and his son heard him) 10 minutes before he actually came in from parking the car. She had noticed, but not reacted to it, some unusual behaviour in that he went straight up the stairs even after she had spoken to him.

    Nearly 10 years later a friend/colleague at work saw him walking in the car park, though from the ‘wrong’ direction, not dressed in the usual manner and more than hour late. David was actually at the time driving to a memorial service for his elderly favourite aunt.

    His stories were very thoughtfully told and David had researched the phenomenon as best he could. Apparently these occurrences were he thought “rare in our modern times”. Some accounts he had found though suggested similar experiences seemed to have been better known in Norway. David personally had no Norwegian connections.


  111. Hi PhysicsDoc–

    Very interesting speculations. I've been thinking about the self-concept a lot lately also.

    I find the practice of meditation– both the Buddhist type and discursive meditation as JMG teaches very helpful for grappling with the Self, for a couple of reasons…

    I find that my natural inclination is to identify my “self” with my thoughts, or with my emotions, or possibly even my history isn't correct. Upon reflection most of my thoughts turn out to be automatic. A lot of what I feel and think is simply responses to whatever I've had for breakfast. Seemingly more complicated thoughts often turn out to be re-iterations of ideas that I learned accidentally from stories that are popular in the culture, especially on television.

    I was just reading Bertrand Russel's essay “Why I am Not a Christian.” What struck me was how the entire essay assumed the narrative of the “Religion of Progress” that JMG describes. I doubt that Russel ever sat down and worked out those ideas; they're ambient in the culture, and he simply picks them up and regurgitates them. You see people do this all the time. It's like these ideas out there simply use us as puppets to repeat themselves.

    Of course the body and its sensations are impermanent. Buddhist vipassana meditation has you scan the body up and down over and over, noticing the way that the whole thing is just a mass of sensations that arise and fall away.

    So the body isn't permanent. And the deeper self of thoughts and feelings turns out to be part automoton, part puppet. I think that that's where materialist science stops, except for how they're pretty sure that, despite being puppets, they've somehow and entirely coincidentally stumbled onto the real truth about the real nature of the cosmos that the rest of us need to shut up and accept.

    But that, of course, ignores our own ability to learn to shape our responses and think our own thoughts, instead of letting popular stories speak through us. For me, both types of meditation reveal this ability– In mindfulness or vipassana meditation, the body sensations are revealed to be impermanent, ever changing– but what about the sense of attention itself, and the will that directs its movements? Meanwhile, practicing magic and discursive meditation allows me to take control of the contents of my mental life– in other words, to create my own self, instead of allowing it to be created for me.

    JMG hasn't gotten into magical theories of personality, but I think this is where the idea of the Higher Self comes in. Because the question becomes, who is it that learns to shape the contents of the mind and control the intention and the attention?

  112. Hi Unknown, These are hard concepts to wrap one's head around (at least I have a hard time). Your idea of eternity makes sense but then I started thinking about how even the space time continuum in cosmology is dynamic and may expand forever or at some point start to collapse back in on itself with the end point being like the reverse of the initial inflation. In this picture the dimension of time in our universe starts and ends or may undergo endless cycles each of which are new universes. My monkey brain can only think of such things in terms of models or mathematics (also models). Interestingly in physics time has a direction often referred to as the arrow of time. It shows up in many different branches of physics where basically the symmetry in forward and reverse time flow is broken. In the case of special relativity for instance it is possible to time travel into the future but not into the past. Entropy is another arrow of time, and there is even a time arrow in nuclear physics, and cosmology due to the expansion of the space time continuum. JMG once described the concept viewing all of the universe, the entire time and space continuum and all the contained events, similar to what you describe.

  113. Hi Steve, Interesting thoughts. The concept of meditation has come up in my life from many difference sources (a kind or synchronicity). I have avoided it all me life but maybe this is a sign to give it a try. By discursive meditation that JMG teaches are you referring to the sphere of protection ritual and things like that or something else. That is probably a dumb question since I have been reading this Blog.

  114. Haven't read all the comments yet, but I'll just offer, from a very 'commercial' source, i.e., Deprak Chopra :)…. ” our true Self is found in the space between our thoughts ” (paraphrasing ;).

  115. Have enjoyed the tour of interesting thoughts – PhysicsDoc, Steve, Deborah. The word that pops up for me from Deborah's take, though she does not use it, is 'constellation'. Constellations in the sky are indubitably 'there', but the actual light points are remote from one another in time and space and could only be 'seen' as connected from a unique point of view. (The exception I read somewhere is the Pleiades which truly is a cluster, and very beautiful.)

    I have guessed a similar situation for the inside of our heads together with the interconnected brains of our heart, optics and so on. Now our data points are actually connected and even develop and enhance their own connections; evolution has seen to that. Do they 'activate' however to resemble 'constellations'? I am that which is searching for my points of view! 😉


  116. Hi PhysicsDoc–

    Not to worry, I'm sure I know less about special relativity than you know about mysticism. I sometimes forget that the vocabulary isn't universal.

    The Sphere of Protection is a magical ritual. I don't personally practice it, but I practice the Ritual of the Pentagram every day. These are of a similar type– the goal, basically, is to create a space in which the magician can work.

    Discursive meditation is different– it's the type of thing one would do in the space created by the Sphere of Protection or the Pentagram Ritual. It is a type of meditation in which, instead of trying stop thinking altogether, you try to focus the mind on a particular topic. Here are two articles on the topic:



    In theory, anything could be a topic for meditation. A passage from a holy scripture, a stone or a seashell or other natural object, a mathematical formula, special relativity, one's own death… The trick seems to be to let the mind reach as far as it likes without losing focus. So meditating upon the stone could be a linear and very verbal recounting to oneself of the processes by which sandstone is formed, a visual “daydream” through the stone's history, a reflection upon the stone-like qualities in one's own mind and personality, an imagined dialog with the stone itself– or all of these over successive nights.

    I find a lot of people have a lot of anxiety about meditation, even though they've been hearing lately that it's “good for you.” Discursive meditation can be a much gentler way to dive in to the practice. You can always add one or two minutes of mindfulness-type meditation onto the end if you want to experience that.

    Hi Phil– That was very interesting, thank you.

    Some thing I think about doppleganger-type beings… Watching insects is probably the closest thing we get to a “God's-eye-view” of another world. And when we watch that world, we see all sorts of monsters. There are spiders who look and smell just like ants and live inside ant colonies, preying upon their unsuspecting fellow citizens. There are other spiders which can precisely mimic the smell of the female moths of a certain species and thereby lure the males to their deaths. What would beings that could observe our cities in the same way that we can observe ant colonies see?

  117. Thanks Steve – for the references to the articles on discursive meditation and added explanations. Phil – interestingly even constellations eventually change in appearance, although it usually takes about 50,000 years or more (results may vary depending on the stars involved). The pattern changes but the underlying reality (the stars) stays the same over those time scales.

  118. Thank you for this posting.

    I'm probably an Outer Order type. I'm grateful to be along for the ride but have not been able to visualize myself as an operative mage. Knowing that it's not “all or none” is helpful as there is much to learn and this is a pleasant company. And who knows, the skill set of a master carpenter might come in handy.

  119. Laylah, I'll certainly take that under consideration. I've recently placed a project with one of the big New York publishing houses, and an introductory text on magic might be a good second project for that firm.

    Cliff, I'd say the issue is the current Western interpretation of Buddhism. Buddhism in its natural habitat, at least in my experience, has no shortage of meaning.

    PhysicsDoc, excellent! Were you aware that philosophers back in the 18th century pretty solidly demonstrated that space, time, and causality are hardwired into the structure of human consciousness, and projected onto the “outer world” we create out of the raw material of sensation, rather than found “out there”? From that standpoint, linear time is simply the way our minds sort out experiences, as you've suggested.

    Phil, exactly. The world really is a much weirder place than the official version of reality permits. Someday I need to do a post about the flight from wonder that drives so much contemporary thought.

    Nancy, that's an old and honorable approach among mystics.

    Larry, master carpenters and other craftspeople are valuable members of any sensible occult school. Somebody has to make the ornate altars, elegantly furnished lodge halls, etc.!

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