It’s an understandable question For a very long time, a great deal of occult literature treated sex magic as the zenith of the magical path, the thing that you talk about in hints and whispers and surround with a haze of ornate symbolism when you happen to mention it in print. Exhibit A here might as well be Israel Regardie’s early opus The Tree of Life, which most operative mages read at some point in their studies. There are good reasons why it’s so widely read; despite the amazingly stilted prose—Regardie apparently thought at the time that any serious book on occult philosophy had to read like something penned by Arthur Edward Waite, and managed a terrifyingly good imitation—it’s a good solid guide to the Golden Dawn magical tradition, as well as a better introduction to Aleister Crowley’s ideas than anything Crowley himself ever wrote.
Despite the prose style, it presents the teachings of early twentieth century English magic about as clearly as anybody ever has—with one notable exception, which he’s honest enough to flag for the reader’s attention. The sixteenth chapter of the book is devoted to “one secret formula of Practical Magic of such a tremendous nature” that he can’t bring himself to speak of it openly, and resorts to a flurry of symbolic hints, nods, and winks instead. If you know your way around the standard magical symbolism of the time, it’s instantly apparent that he’s talking about a particular kind of sex magic, and once you figure that out, the rest of the chapter is a tolerably detailed account of how to use sexual intercourse in operative magic.
It’s not a particularly complicated operation, either, though it does require a few somewhat uncommon skills. For best results, both partners need the kind of magical training that enables them to concentrate fixedly on a single idea or symbol no matter what distractions pop up, but it can be done with only one partner so trained as long as the other knows the basics of magical practice. Working together, the two participants—normally clothed in ritual robes at this stage of the process—perform whatever opening ritual their tradition uses, and invoke whatever magical influences are appropriate.
At that point the robes come off, and the two participants have sex in the magical space established by the opening ritual, while one or both keep unbroken focus on the intention of the ritual, straight through to orgasm. At the moment of orgasm, both partners pour every scrap of will and imagination they can muster into the intention, and then let go. After an appropriate interval and whatever winding-down activities seem relevant, the participants put their robes back on, release the magical influences they’ve invoked, perform the closing ritual, and then settle on the sofa, sip tea, and cuddle, or what have you.
Got that? You’ve just had communicated to you the supreme secret of the innermost sanctuary of the grand gnosis of the mystery temples of—well, you can pile on the overblown verbiage just as well as I can. That is to say, what I’ve just outlined here used to be the stock in trade of the highest level of initiation of any number of old-fashioned magical orders.
There’s rather an interesting history behind that. As far as anyone has been able to figure out, the first Western occultist to teach this particular kind of sex magic was that astonishing force of nature, Paschal Beverly Randolph. Randolph was the most influential figure in nineteenth-century American occultism; he was one of the most influential figures in nineteenth-century occultism, period—and he was, by the way, African American, born out of wedlock in 1825, and raised in a desperately poor, crime-ridden slum in New York City. Every scrap of his considerable education and his even more considerable fame was earned the hard way.
There’s plenty that could be said about this remarkable figure, but the point relevant to this month’s post is that sometime around 1850, he started teaching his best students what he called the Ansairetic Arcanum—basically a simplified form of the working described above. Where he got it, if he got it from someone or somewhere else, is an open question. He himself had at least three different stories on the subject. At times he claimed that he’d been taught it by the al-Nusairi, a heretical Muslim sect in Syria. (That’s where “Ansairetic” came from—“Ansaireh” was how al-Nusairi was mispronounced by Westerners in those days.) At times he claimed that he’d received it along with the supreme degree of Rosicrucian initiation from untraceable Rosicrucian masters in Europe. At times he insisted that he’d made the whole thing up himself.
Wherever it came from, the Ansairetic Arcanum had a long trajectory ahead of it. After Randolph’s death in 1875, some of his advanced students in England put together a magical order, the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor or H.B. of L., which purveyed a mix of Randolph’s teachings and other bits of occult lore in the mail-order occultism market. When the H.B. of L. went under—it got into the equivalent of a flamewar with the Theosophical Society, and lost catastrophically—two H.B. of L. initiates in Germany named Karl Kellner and Theodor Reuss decided to launch an order of their own, the Ordo Templi Orientis (Order of Templars of the Orient), with the Ansairetic Arcanum as the secret revelation of its higher degrees.
Reuss then sold the English-language franchise of the O.T.O. to Aleister Crowley, a move he came to regret bitterly not that long afterward. Crowley taught it to Regardie, whence its appearance in The Tree of Life, and also to Gerald Gardner, who studied with the Not-so-great Beast in the latter’s inglorious final years; this is why the Ansairetic Arcanum features in traditional branches of Wicca as “the Great Rite.” Meanwhile, of course, Randolph and the H.B. of L. both had plenty of other initiates, who spread the Ansairetic Arcanum through the whole gallimaufry of magical lodges and esoteric secret societies that thronged Europe and America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
By 1920 or so, as a result, it was a poor excuse for a magical order that didn’t have practical teachings about sex magic to hand out to its inner initiates—unless, that is, it was one of the explicitly Christian magical orders that got as much mileage out of not teaching sex magic as the competition got out of teaching it. Of course that was the beginning of the end; a supreme secret of the innermost blah blah blah just doesn’t have the same cachet once everybody knows what it is. I’m pretty sure that one of the reasons why Dion Fortune’s Fraternity of the Inner Light got so much traction in the British occult scene of her time is that she’d figured out something to do with sexual energies other than the obvious.
There was also the ongoing intercourse, so to speak, between serious magical orders and the sex cults discussed in July’s post. The tendency, also mentioned in that post, that leads people who reject one part of the conventional wisdom to be open to a broad spectrum of alternative ideas is a potent force; back in the day, it led a lot of people who liked extramarital sex to dabble in magic and other forms of alternative spirituality, just as it led a lot of people who were interested in magic to dabble in whatever sexual alternatives were readily available. The resulting overlap between occult orders that taught sex magic and sex cults that taught magical practices made the distinction between these two rather hard to trace; that’s how Gardnerian Wicca, which pretty much started out as a sex cult, ended up teaching the Ansairetic Arcanum and a range of other magical practices, and it’s also how a great many occultists ended up with the idea that having sex in a ritual context was the ultimate magical technique.
So that’s the history behind sex magic—or part of the history. I could go on at great length, not least because pretty much every sexual activity you care to think of, and some you very likely don’t, ended up being labeled by somebody as the really really supreme secret blah blah blah. Crowley, in one of his magical orders, made anal sex between men the blah blah blah. Several other traditions assigned the same role to oral sex of one kind or the other. Then there was Austin Osman Spare, who created a magical system called the Zos Kia Cultus. “Zos” symbolized the body, and was represented by the hand; “Kia” was the “atmospheric I,” the soul or spirit, represented by the penis; and the blah blah blah of the Zos Kia Cultus was, shall we say, the rhythmic union of the two representations just mentioned. One gathers Spare didn’t get out much.
(It’s only fair to note that Spare was by no means solitary in his enthusiasm for the occult dimension of solitary vice. One of the occult orders mentioned earlier, for example, made the magical use of masturbation the great secret passed onto initiates of its eighth degree. As a result, in some American occult circles to this day, “brother of the eighth degree” is a common if sly way of saying “wanker.”)
There’s no shortage of other sexual variations that have been put to use by one magical system or another, but we can leave those alone for the time being. Two questions, instead, are relevant here. First of all, is sex magic an effective technique—in other words, can you cause changes in consciousness in accordance with will that way? Second, is sex magic the supreme magical technique, as it was so often billed—in other words, can you cause changes in consciousness in accordance with will more effectively that way than using other methods?
To some extent, both those questions have to be answered by each individual. In magic as in so many other things, it’s meaningless to compare systems and techniques in the abstract; what works well for one person may get mediocre results for another and no results at all for a third. That said, since the technique in question has been tolerably well known and practiced among operative mages for more than a century now, it’s not unreasonable to sum up their experience in the form of general answers to those two questions. By and large, for a great many mages, the answer to the first question is yes, and the answer to the second question is no. That is to say, for many people, sex magic works and works well, but for most of them, it isn’t sufficiently more effective than other methods to live up to its old reputation as the supreme magical technique.
I suspect that back in the day, for people in the Anglo-American cultural sphere, it was considerably more powerful than it is today. Sex in those days was so hedged around with taboos, and so tangled in thickets of unexpressed fears and desires, that having sex in a ritual setting was guaranteed to release potent psychological forces that could readily be channeled into the intention of the ritual. Nowadays, though sex hasn’t yet become the ordinary part of life it is in many other cultures, the worst of the old Victorian hypocrisy has mostly passed off, and so the potency of the technique has accordingly waned. A gain in general sanity has been paid for in part by a loss of magical power.
Yet it’s worth noting that for many mages, sex magic still does work well, and there are many cultures around the world that never went through a Victorian period and still have traditions that use sexual intercourse in a ritual setting as a way of working magic. I want to explore that for a moment, because it leads toward a useful insight about magic—and also about the nature of reality.
Sex isn’t the only biological activity that’s been ritualized to good effect in various systems of magic and spirituality. Eating has been even more commonly put to work in the same cause, yielding magical and religious rituals in which the process of ingesting food becomes a vehicle for the transformation of consciousness. I hope I won’t offend my Christian readers too drastically by pointing to the sacrament of communion in the Christian tradition as one of the classic examples of this. In the course of the Mass, the officiating priest and the congregation alike come to experience bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ. To judge from what I’ve been told by Christian friends who belong to sacramental churches, this quite reliably causes powerful changes in consciousness.
I suspect, though, that like sex magic, the sacrament of communion has lost some of its impact due to cultural changes. When Christianity first emerged, after all, it did so in a world where the practice of animal sacrifice was a normal part of religious worship; everybody knew from personal experience what was involved in killing an animal in honor of a god and feasting on its flesh. In that context, reenacting the sacrificial death of Christ and ritually eating his flesh and drinking his blood must have packed emotional force of an intensity and concreteness that can barely be imagined today. Even now, though, the Mass is edgy stuff; the symbolic cannibalism at its heart reaches straight down into primal desires and fears about eating and being eaten—and that’s an important part of what gives it its power.
May I go on to a subject that’s likely to offend even more people than the one just mentioned? You can use defecation as a framework for a certain mode of magical action. No, that’s not usually practiced in the middle of a magical temple! The irrepressible William G. Gray, in one of his books on occultism, gives a simple but effective method of using the end of the digestive process for magical purposes.
Here’s how it’s done. When you first feel the urge, settle on something you want to let go of—some attitude, some opinion, some habit or behavior, that’s served its purpose in your life and needs to be released. Using imagination and will, localize that thing in what you’re about to excrete. Think about what you’ve learned from it, what benefits you’ve gained from having it in your life, and so on, while you feel it flowing out of you and into the contents of your colon. Keep up the concentration as you settle yourself on the seat, and as you let go, let go of it. Feel it pass out of you entirely. If you’re using a composting toilet, treat the peat moss you toss into the pot afterwards as a banishing; if you use a flush toilet, treat the act of flushing in the same spirit; then walk away—and watch what happens to the attitude, opinion, habit, or behavior you’ve decided to release.
(Any of my readers who find themselves utterly squicked out by this little ritual have an advantage over the rest of us, by the way. The emotional reaction is a sign that this mode of working will be even more effective for them than it is for those who treat defecation more casually.)
Sex, eating, and defecation, in other words, all make effective frameworks for magical practice. So do certain other activities that may seem as though they have nothing in common with the things just listed. Chanting names and words in languages you don’t know, for example, is a more effective way to get magical results than using a language you do know. “Change not the barbarous names,” the Roman-era Chaldean Oracles proclaim, “for they have in the sacred rites a power ineffable.” It’s still good advice nearly two millennia after it was written: that’s why the grimoire magic of the late Middle Ages used incantations packed with long strings of incomprehensible names, why Japanese occultists for the last millennium have relied on chants in garbled Sanskrit, and why so many Golden Dawn adepts are fond of the Enochian incantations of the great Elizabethan sorcerer John Dee: “Zodacaré, eka, od zodameranu!” simply packs more punch than the English equivalent “Rise, therefore, and appear!”
What does an Enochian invocation have in common with sex magic, the sacrament of the Mass, and Gray’s “esoteric excretion”? Precisely one thing: each of these things focuses on an activity that shifts the focus of awareness away from abstract verbal thought. Lovemaking, eating, and defecating all require attention to resolutely physical realities, and generally tie into strong emotional patterns as well. Chanting incantations in a language you don’t know gets you out of the thinking mind in a different way: since your mind doesn’t instantly translate the sounds into meanings, you can experience the sounds as sounds and respond to them on that wordless level.
Everything that makes for effective magic serves to focus the mage’s awareness on the wordless. Physical actions do that, especially if they’re actions that have strong biological resonances; scents, colors, rhythms, chanted words that don’t instantly communicate meaning to the mind all do the same thing; so does the deliberate cultivation of emotional states—for example, the practice of love and devotion in religious ritual, or the generation of emotions corresponding to the seven traditional planets in planetary magic. Abstract verbal thought, by contrast, is a waste of time in operative magic. Don’t get me wrong, it’s of the highest importance when you’re outside the temple; a solid grasp of occult philosophy, which functions at a high degree of intellectual abstraction, is essential for success in ceremonial magic…but once you set foot inside the temple, raise your hands, and begin the opening ritual, how well you succeed will depend on how well you can set aside abstract thinking for the time being and participate fully, nonverbally, emotionally and sensuously in each moment of the work.
That recognition leads into deep waters, which will have to wait for some other time. For the moment, though, I’d like to point out—as I’ve pointed out here before—that abstract concepts are further from reality than the experiences they attempt to describe and explain. In moving from thinking to experience, in magical practice or out of it, we’re moving closer to what’s real, and getting closer to what’s real seems to be essential to the effective practice of operative magic. I’ll close with a question: what does it imply about the universe if getting closer to reality makes reality more open to change?