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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Visible Appearance and Physical Manifestation in Spirit Magic

Recently I was at a pretty cool lecture and the presenter made the comment that perhaps it's time to toss out the idea of evocation to physical appearance because it just isn't real. He suggested it was an example of something in magic where people are either lying or fooling themselves. The thing is, with the exception of Crowley, and Joseph Lisiewski, there aren't many magicians who I've gotten the impression meant to suggest that they conjure spirits to physically manifest as material creatures. Most magicians don't talk about visible appearance often or physical manifestations, but when it comes up and people are open about their experiences it's usually pretty clear that we're talking about sensory experiences and physical occurrences that are signs of the presence of the spirit rather than creatures building bodies out of nothing.

As far as conjuring spirits goes the important part has never been whether or not you conjure to physical appearance but whether or not you get results from your spirit work. If anything that is what I would stress. Visible appearance is so not an issue that when we look at historical magical works we don't see this concept clearly presented as a criteria for judging success, in fact we see crystallomancy frequently presented as a means of interacting with spirits. So yeah, results, not spontaneous generation of physical bodies.

That said, some pretty cool, pretty clear things happen sometimes which indicate the presence of spirits or the reality of their work. I was talking with a friend the other day and he asked about physical stuff with spirits. It seemed useful to him to hear some stories, and I figured talking about stuff that happens and what physical manifestations are might help newer conjurors who are worried about whether or not they're missing out by not having partial legs materialize in their triangles.

So let's tackle evocation to visible appearance first. Spirits making bodies out of incense. This is kind of true, but not in the sense of turning smoke into flesh. Since Poke Runyon a lot of people have interpreted the incense, and the mirrors, and the crystals as a way of tricking the mind and allowing for a psychological projection that we can interpret as a spirit. But, spirits aren't just psychological projections, and the results of real conjure work are more impressive than squinty distorted misapprehensions.

Incense is traditionally burned as an aromatic offering for spirits. There is a traditional view that prayers were carried upward on incense, but intermediary spirits were also once thought to be the means by which this is done. So incense has a traditional connection to the working of spirits. Traveling through the air also being a traditional association of spirits incense connects back to this nature giving substance to the otherwise insubstantial air. It connects to three of the four abodes of spirits, aerial in the smoke released, terrestrial in the material burned, and infernal in the fires which stir the smoke from the body of the incense. As an offering, with its intermediary spiritual nature, incense becomes a material focal point for the spirit which is gifted to the spirit and therefore feeds the spirit adding a material component to the force of its manifest interaction with the physical world. So no, the incense doesn't give a materium from which the spirit can build a physical body, it provides a physical substance the spirit is able to draw on in strengthening its anchor to act in the world. Crystals and mirrors likewise have physical and esoteric properties that allow them to serve as links between the spirit world and the physical world making them, like incense, useful tools in interacting with spirits. But not tools for transubstantiation ala Weird Science.

So what things happen when a spirit shows up? Sometimes the temperature changes. I've been in rituals where it's gotten dramatically warmer typically, but a few where it's gotten cold. Sometimes the incense will shift and start to form a more consistent cloud in one area rather than become diffuse through the room. Sometimes there is a shift in the air, almost like when you see rippling from heat off a black top. I was leading a conjuration once where afterwards I spoke with several people who attended and they noticed the same thing I noticed, a particular part of the room where the spirit showed up during a particular part of the ritual (not near the designated area or when he was called directly) and initially he seemed to give off a sense of criticizing the method we were using until we got to the God names, at which point he moved to the appropriate spot and seemed more attentive. About 5 people all had this same response and discussed it independently, but nothing visible or physical happened on this particular conjuration. I've had stuff turn off or on, fall over, candles produce concerning amounts of fire, things like that. But usually it's mostly just a “Hey, I'm here, what's up...oh, ok finish conjuring me and then we can talk” kind of impression that cues me in to the presence of a spirit rather than the cool physical signs.

Much cooler than those kinds of physical signs are ones that occur as a sign that stuff is going on rather than announcing the presence of the spirit.

A really neat one I had several months back actually had to do with the spirit leaving. We had finished the interaction, there was fire burning as a place for the spirit to be present. When we were wrapping up the interaction I wondered about if it was appropriate to just put out the fire or let it burn out. When the spirit left, the fire immediately went from a decent size fire to sputtering and going out.

A couple months back I was about to get cozy with someone on my couch, reached in my pocket to grab the Venus talisman I carry, and at the time I had just recently done work with Hagith, the Olympic spirit of Venus, and Hagith's seal was still on my altar, with my crystal sphere sitting on it. The sphere sits there every day undisturbed, the planetary disk on which it sits has a ridge to hold it in place. With nothing disturbing the altar when I reached to grab the talisman in my pocket the sphere rolled off the disk, off the altar, and across the floor to the coffee table in front of us.

Years ago, and this one is one of my favorites, I was leading a conjuration of Raphael in his office of Archangel of the Sun, for my local OTO lodge. We were focusing on healing in the community. The ritual left me pretty drained, it was one of my first few Solomonic conjurations and the first one of an archangel. I believe it was my first public one as well. We went to a Pagan coffee house event afterwards. On my way home, in the three miles or so between getting off the highway and driving across town to my house I passed six ambulances. Not only were there six, the number of the sphere of Tifaret, but all six were at homes actively helping people. Usually when I see ambulances while driving they are driving around, but in this case all six were stopped at homes with medical personal deployed into these homes. Clearly not a sign of “physical manifestation” of the spirit during the conjuration, but a neat manifestation of that force within the community surrounding the place where we did the invocation. Also, several people reported their healing intentions having worked out...but, numerologically significant ambulances are WAY cooler.

Last fall I was building an altar for a spirit I was working with who resides in some liminal places. I had gotten most of what I needed but he wanted a walking stick. I couldn't find a good one in the places I went and so I resolved to get it within the next few days. The next morning I was heading to work, got to the end or my street and in the middle of the cross roads was an old black wooden cane which was exactly what I needed.

Sometimes it's pretty physical signs that work is being done to fulfill what you asked for. Another recent incident involved asking the gnomes for money for some stuff and the next morning getting in my car to go to work and finding a $50 bill in the door. Sometimes you do work with a spirit and then find something which is a traditional emblem or offering for them. Sometimes they teach you stuff and then books turn up, or you find stuff you weren't looking for in books you happen to be reading that confirms or further explains what they were showing you.

I'm not someone who goes on a lot about synchronicity. I think if you lead a magical life in the sense of developing yourself and your world to be harmonious and in synch yeah you'll start having a lot of synchronicity because the work you're doing will be harmonious with how your world is moving.

Work with spirits is different.

You'll have stuff happen that is a byproduct of the spiritual presence (like the ambulances), but you'll also have stuff happen that is the direct hand of the spirits showing you they're doing the work you asked for even if it isn't immediately done yet (like with the gnomes).

Personally I think having invisible friends who can make cash appear in my car and throw rocks across a room to high five my efforts to get it on is way cooler than having an Owl wearing a crown of diadems astride a crocodile with ape fur manifest in a ball of smoke.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Of Saints and Sorcerers

Rufus Opus recently posted about people upset over the Roman Catholic Church making Mother Theresa a Saint (honestly we all knew Sainthood was in the works for both her and for John Paul II prior to their deaths), with the assertion that it was ironic that magicians who worship ancestors including relatives who they knew in life to be shitty people, would take issue with the canonization of Mother Theresa.

Honestly, I have no dog in the fight over whether or not Mother Theresa was a Holy woman of good works or a shill for a corrupt mafia like abuse factory. (These seem to be the prevailing extremes of the debate). I like for people to do good in the world, and I like for others to inspire people to do good, but I don't know enough about the realities of the situation, and at this point can't know enough, to form a meaningful opinion on the person of Theresa of Calcutta, and even if I could it wouldn't matter, I don't have a say in whether or not she's a Saint. Not my farm, not my pig. In the end, this is ok, because the person, warts and all, is not what will matter in fifty years, and even less so in a hundred and fifty. The canonization is an institutionalization of the ideal image expressed by the good people perceive, so glorifying here won't serve to glorify the bad things people allege; in the future, hopefully, it will just be an inspiration towards goodness. That said, again, I don't particularly care about the Theresa argument. I care about the sub-argument which Rufus Opus spawned, the debate about ancestor worship versus Sainthood.

In the short discussion I found myself agreeing with someone who, 90 percent of the time I find to be incorrect, and the other ten percent I can usually agree to disagree. Conversely, I disagreed with someone I respect a lot, who I know has experience with both Saints and the Dead. I was surprised in both cases. Some of the views of people who I know are mostly edgy lodge magicians weren't surprising because they don't seem like they'd work with either ancestors or saints. But I was surprised by the distinctions people were making which to me seemed artificial or at least not useful. So it seemed like a good time to put out some more thoughts on chillin' with dead dudes.

One commentator summed up the perceived distinction pretty succinctly. No one is worshiping Mother Theresa as an ancestor, but as a literal Saint.

Well I think there is confusion in what each means.

Ancestor worship in ancient pagan religions has a lot of similarity to Sainthood and I would like to say it's where Sainthood comes from, but we find this same concept in most cultures and religions, so I think it's sort of just a universal thing. Those who are great in the eyes of the people, or the leaders of the people, become venerated as particularly Holy and powerful after death. They get remembered and honored with special occasions and memorials.

Contemporary sorcery and witchcraft work with ancestors in a way that I wouldn't always equate to ancestor worship. It doesn't involve the same kind of honoring, or elevating, it doesn't necessarily have festival like feast days or memorials and temples for an individual great ancestor. It is much more of a working relationship, a partnership, or an alliance.

But still, all of these concepts work together in their basic idea, even if execution and exterior details may change. In the end, in ancestor worship, ancestral magic, and in the cult of the Saints, the basic idea is that someone died, and that dead person now resides in the spirit world. Because they are in the spirit world they have some ability to intercede on our behalf with the spiritual powers and forces that may affect our lives. Because they were once living they have sympathy and understanding for our plight as people and are more willing to help us, and better able to understand our needs than other spirits might be.

It doesn't matter if we're dealing with Saints or ancestors, the basic function is the same. They're an intercessor who helps us because they were on the same team as us at one point.

The fact that the Catholic Church selects a Saint came up as a differentiation. But if we look at ancient paganism, where ancestor worship was a little more evident than in a lot of modern Neo-Paganism, we see the same thing. Leaders of the community selected particular deceased figures as institutionalize ancestors for the whole community to venerate. You still honored your own deceased family, but as a personal and more intimate thing. The community at large had its mighty dead, or great ones, who were selected to be remembered. We do this in modern magical systems too. The EGC adds former OHOs of the OTO to the list of Gnostic Saints, the whole list is in fact a selected list of magical “ancestors” to the philosophical and occult current being channeled. In Afro-Carribean religions we find spirits who are held in common by many lines and houses who are traced to particular legendary figures rather than to particular gods. So again we have magical ancestors who are selected by the community rather than who are natural ancestors to us.

The idea that your ancestors are your own because you have their DNA...well, I like that on one end because it connects to one way in which I explain the concept of witchblood, but it isn't always true. In witchcraft and sorcery you seek out and make connections with particular spirits. Some ancestors may be your blood relatives, some may be other people who were important to you in life but weren't related, others might be important to your work as a magician. They become your magical ancestors when you seek them in the world of the dead and make alliance with them, and when you tend to them and feed them and keep communion with them. They become the spiritual lineage that you pass along. If you are a witch brought into a family, or as I understand it, a sorcerer brought into a house, you take on the ancestors of that practice whether they are your ancestors by birth or not.

So the fact that Saints aren't related to you doesn't change the working parameters. In fact, to me it only makes sense to work with Saints similarly to how one might work with an ancestor. You could, if working in a Catholic context, work with them without seeking them out for an alliance, they are spirits established for that purpose already with modes for approaching and working with them. But you could seek them out and approach them like ancestral spirits as well.

Another distinction that came up is that Catholics suggest that by naming someone as a Saint they have intercessory power that no other spirits have. This isn't true, and is particularly not true in the sort of folk Catholicism that would be most related to Saints in magic. Catholicism frequently recognizes that we pray for the elevation and comfort of the dead in the afterlife, and they likewise pray for our well being on earth. They are intercessors. “Someone up there is looking out for you,” is a reference to this idea. Prayers asking dead parents or grandparents for guidance or the idea that they are up there looking out for you is this same intercessory model that is applied to Saints. Saints are the guys who have easy access to the royal court, and know the people in charge, so they have a little extra pull, but everyone who is deceased and goes to heaven is a saint with a small S, and they all can go pray for their homies here on earth, within the Catholic worldview. So with that in mind, Saints entirely fall within the realm of ancestor worship and ancestral magic. Even if they Catholic worldview did accord them some special status though, that would only matter within the Catholic worldview and wouldn't change that the idea is still basically the same.

So yeah, Saints, ancestors, magic, it all goes together pretty easily.

I don't really care who the Church makes a Saint. It doesn't affect my magic. I do think it's useful for people to see how the cults of the Saints and folk traditions of the Saints can reflect living systems for working with the dead outside of a necromantic context.

I also think it's important to recognize that your ancestors in magic don't have to just be some relatives you know who weren't exceptionally magical, or relatives you didn't know but heard weird stories about. There is a lot of power in connecting with the dead in your own family, but you still have to connect with them and make them your allies in magic. Nothing is stopping you from expanding that garden of ancestors and tending some souls that might be willing to help you, and might have extra power and insight to offer even if they weren't your blood relatives.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Great Work is a Thing Not a Catch Phrase

Amongst contemporary occultists it's pretty common for the words “Great Work” to come up randomly in every day use. It makes sense, The Great Work is a central and important theme in the Western Mystery Tradition. It's also pretty self-affirming. Referring to things we do as “the Great Work” makes it sound epic and important. It makes what we're doing sound like it has validity and meaning.

Unfortunately some of the quotidian use of the term belittles the meaning. Again, that feeling of importance makes people want to use it. We live in a world where we're encouraged to repurpose things to whatever our own personal interpretation of them is. Where we're told that we're special and so everything we do is special. So it doesn't matter what something means, or what it's purpose is all that matters is that we feel good and empowered by it. Right? No. That's bullshit and makes our lives full of weak sauce. As I've said in a bunch of previous posts though, that sort of attitude is kind of at the center of the motivation for a lot of people who claim to be magicians but neither do nor really believe in magic as a real and effective force in the world.

When people say things like “your particular Great Work” and mistake Great Work as a synonym for True Will it reflects not understanding at least one of the concepts. Another common one around magical groups is for senior members to say things like “we really did the Great Work today!” or “You all really contribute to the Great Work!” when they want to thank other members for sweeping the floor or washing glasses. As an officer of an OTO lodge, I will take a second and stress that it's super important for people to sweep the floors and wash dishes, or make food, or do all the other non-glamorous tasks associated with putting on lodge events, but, in most cases, it doesn't really connect to doing the Great Work. It connects to being a helpful participant in a community that provides support and friendship, and sometimes, guidance or inspiration. (In a way...this could bring it back doing the Great Work,but we'll talk about that in a minute.)

The Great Work is the process of perfecting the self through a series of refinements that deconstruct and rebuild the self, but this process only becomes the Great Work when your refinement starts refining and perfecting the world and people around you as well. Alchemy creates medicine in the sense that the result of alchemy improves the alchemist and world around the alchemist. The same way the perfection of the material undergoing the alchemical processes is reflected in the alchemist performing the process he also projects that process into those around him.

The Western Mystery Tradition involves this idea of improving the world through the work of the initiate in several of its various strands. The Kabbalah has the Tikkun Olam, or reparation of the world. The Kabbalist improves his soul so that he is able to find sparks of divinity within the depths of the world and free them through proper application of the observance of the laws of the Torah. The idea is to bring about the Messianic age by bringing the world closer to the state intended at the creation. So again, the Work involves making ourselves better so that we can make the world better.

Even grimoiric magic hints at this idea. We usually think about the grimoires as explaining ways to get spirits to go do stuff for us. But, a handful of sources reference creating redemption for the spirits by allowing them to work with us to do things in line with the divine order. So even in this case, while we're getting things done to help us and improve our lives, we're also reordering occult forces within the universe to reestablish the divine Harmony.

Throughout the Western Mystery Tradition we see this trend of engaging in actions which improve ourselves and the world around us. This is what the Great Work is. It's not just some random words. It's not just a way for us to feel good about what we're doing. It's what gives the work we do importance, the fact that it accomplishes something that has an impact bigger than ourselves. We shouldn't belittle that by taking meaning away from the words that describe this importance.

So sweeping the floors? Maybe it can support the Great Work. If you're doing initiations, or ritual work that helps improve you and the other people around you then you might be doing the Great Work, especially if you and the others involved take the work out into the world and make a difference beyond your group. Sweeping the floors and doing the dishes helps make that possible. So it's still support that's necessary. You're still doing something useful. Unless sweeping the floors is teaching you something or engaged as a transformative experience it's probably not the Great Work. But we do a lot of things that aren't the Great Work. We wake up in the morning, take a piss, shower, eat breakfast, brush our teeth, probably not doing the Great Work with any of that. But if we didn't do those things we couldn't do the Great Work.

When we know what we're doing we can focus on doing it more completely. When we recognize that value isn't just about what we call things but about what they do we can do what we need to do without trying to make it into something more epic than what it is.