My first exposure to the idea of a license to depart was in the first Neo-Pagan magic book I read. It focused on the idea of invoking deities, and by invoking it intended something along the lines of assuming god-forms or calling divine energies into yourself and channeling them to your desired goal. It made a big deal of dismissing the energy afterward so that you didn't get overtaken by it. The Golden Dawn would have described this as developing an impure magnetism, the Catholic church would likely link this to the idea of Obsession. Essentially a person being overtaken by the influence of a spiritual force, drawn into its current to the point of an unhealthy imbalance, but not specifically possessed by it. Personally as a child, around the age of 12 or 13 I got to experience this imbalance by way of forgetting this step. This idea isn't a bad one for that type of magic. Disconnecting from a force you're working with in a non-initiatic context is healthy. Opening yourself up to immersion into any random force without reason is probably not so healthy.
But, this isn't exactly what the license to depart is about.
When we get into Modern Ceremonial Magic we start to see a focus on banishing spirits. Now for some people these spirits aren't spirits but are parts of their psyches they are externalizing in order to integrate. So while I don't believe in that world view, I would question the logic of banishing. If you're going to reify a piece of your mind into an external manifestation with which to interact so you can take an uncontrolled potentially chaotic or problematic part of yourself and make it into a controlled and beneficial piece of your consciousness it would not make sense to then banish that piece of your consciousness.
So what if we're looking at spirits as spirits? The license to depart still seems to take the form of a banishment. I attended a ritual sometime a few months ago where the magician giving the license to depart gave this aggressive, nasally, sonorous, angry and condescending to the point of hateful sounding license to depart. He was dealing with an angel. In general this reflects the belief common in modern magic that the magician must command the spirits by virtue of intense and stern authority. The magician is an “exorcist” and so he has to command the spirits like an “exorcist” would in terms of a Catholic priest exorcising a malignant spirit...regardless of the nature of the spirit in question.
In regards to angels, generally the communication between the spirit and the magician in historical manuscripts is pretty chill. It's not a power or dominance struggle. If we go back to the oldest texts of angel magic they serve the magician because God is the arbiter of magic and he tells the angels to help mankind (Yuval Harari's Intro to the Sword of Moses explains this). In the Sworn Book of Honorius the magician and the angels recognize that they share a love for God. By later medieval magic the magician just asks God to send an angel and the angel and the magician work together because they serve the Lord together. It's never about the magician being the dominant bad ass.
I think some of the confusion which comes up is because magicians engaged in Modern Ceremonial Magic are primarily influenced either directly or indirectly by the Mathers version of the Greater Key of Solomon and by the Goetia of Solomon as published by Mathers/Crowley. In those the spirits, regardless of which spirits, are conjured with curses and threats and angry biblical references. So it colors the impression of what magicians working with spirits looks like. While some of the older grimoires approach the spirits this way, it doesn't always show up this way in earlier texts. In the Testament of Solomon, one of the oldest Solomonic texts, the demons are conjured by way of thwarting angels, divine grace, and a magic ring rather than by angry threats of damnation. In the Heptameron there is a brief reference to depriving spirits of their places and binding them to the inferno but most of the conjuration is based on the authority of divine names and symbols.
While demons are still infernal in older texts of demoniac magic they still work within a particular structure of hierarchy which doesn't require cursing and torment as its primary means of work. We see this more in later texts.
That being said even as we get to later texts, the license to depart doesn't get to be this extreme cursing of the spirit into submission, nor is it an actual banishment, it is a release.
So let's look at a few.
The Sworn Book of Honorius does not seem to license the spirits to depart. But it works with angels, aerial spirits, and terrestrial spirits rather than infernal ones.
Another older text, the Heptameron gives this license to depart:
“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, go in peace unto your places; peace be between us and you; be ye ready to come when you are called.”
No cursing, no terrifying language, no banishment, no hatred and condescension. Their are wishes for peace between the magician and the spirit and a request for future readiness for service.
The Greater Key as presented by Mathers, despite some of the aggressive conjurations, gives a similar license to depart:
“In the name of ADONAI, the eternal and everlasting one, let each of you return unto his place; be there peace between us and you, and be ye ready to come when ye are called. ”
The Veritable Key of Solomon gives this as a license to depart for the Olympic spirits:
“Faithful minister, go in peace in the Name of the Great God, your Master, who has sent you to be sympathetic towards me”
This one in particular seems to suggest a sort of friendship between the magician and the spirit.
The Goetia of Solomon gets more wordy:
“O Thou spirit N. Because thou hast very dilligently answered my demands and was ready and willing to come at my first call I doe hear licence thee to depart unto thy proper place without doeing any Injury or danger to any man or beast depart I say and be ever reddy to come at my call being duly Exorcised and conjured by ye sacred rites of Magicke. I charge thee to withdraw peacebly and quiet1y, and the peace of God be ever continued between me and the [thee]. Amen.”
There is still no intense sense of dominance, but the adjurations not to do harmful or dangerous things give it a different feel. There is a little more feeling of banishing with “depart I say” and there is less of a “hey lets work together” in noting that the spirit should be ready when “exorcised and conjured.”
Over all, the license to depart is typically not a banishing so much as a commitment to peace, a release to return to ones own abode, and an acknowledgment of future work. The license to depart is largely about a relationship between the magician and the spirit. The license to depart is an important part of the magical work between the spirit and the magician. When the magician licenses the spirit to depart, if it has work to do for the magician beyond that immediately performed during the conjuration (such as answering questions or consecrating a talisman) the spirit has to go do that work now. So if you banish the spirit you're not sending it to do the work you're kicking it out of your sphere. You're taking away the locus you are lending to it to aid in its ability to operate in the world. If you release it to return to its work and its natural place REMAINING IN A STATE OF PEACE WITH YOU then it is still in the state of cooperation achieved in the ritual and therefore is still able to operate in its appointed task within its region of influence.
The license to depart is reflective of the relationship between the magician and the spirit. John King, who I am not typically on board with, expresses a view that this promise of peace and cooperation is a means of redemption for the spirit. The magician and the spirit swear a bond of peace, which implies that at the final judgment the magician will be at peace with the spirit and not stand in condemnation thereof, but rather speak for its redemption. The editors of the Book of Oberon suggest a similar view in the introduction: “The BoO also gives another reason: that the spirits hope to redeem their fallen state by doing good deeds for mortals.” Certain parts of the work of Eliphas Levi reflect this view, and my own work with elements of alchemy, Kabbalah, the grimoires, and the Sacred Magic suggest this, but this is something for which I would rather devote a future blog post.
All in all, the license to depart presents an important moment in spirit work from a magical perspective regarding the relationship with the spirit. Do you want a relationship in which you are the evolved magician shining with NeoPlatonic virtue, reflecting the light of the Creator, and inspiring the spirits to work with you, or do you want to be the cobbler pulling together charms and curses and yelling at spirits on the basis that they might easily be fooled into fearing you and temporarily tow a strained line of obedience?
Whichever you choose your license to depart should express that character. It shouldn't be a show, but rather an inward feeling swelling up and channeled out in your words, posture, actions, thoughts and feelings as you speak to the spirit. If you are a friend, a servant of the same lord, and they serve you because of this, you should embody that presence and communicate that. If you are the stern task master who wields the scourge of divine power against celestial and infernal alike you should embody that and communicate that. But you have to understand which you are, what you're doing, and why in order to do either with true success.