Thursday, August 27, 2015

Thelema, Magic, Witchcraft and Crowley

I decided to write this article up while I am recovering from contracting Lyme’s disease. Last month my lady got it, and late this month I have been the recipient. It’s been a summer of sickness interfering with nearly everything we wanted to do, but at least there are medical solutions and little possibility of permanent damage. Even so, exerting myself only marginally is quickly tiring, but I just wanted to post my opinions about the topics of Thelema, Magic, Witchcraft and Aleister Crowley. All of these topics fit together, particularly since they have been discussed on Face Book by various pundits and opinionators. Some of these opinions are quite off-base, so I felt I should publish some of my own perspectives responding to what I think are erroneous beliefs.

One of the first discussions that I wanted to tackle, and that has been promoted by various individuals, is that Aleister Crowley, far from being the be-all and end-all of the 20th century WMT (Wester Magical Tradition) was really a hack and not much of magician at all. It seems that it is now quite popular and fashionable to trash the founders of the various occult and magical traditions and thereby diminish their contributions to our present magical knowledge. If you want to get some attention from other internet occultists, just trash-talk one of their founders. It will get you lots of attention, oddly both supportive and also quite hostile. It also stirs up people’s emotions and sets up yet another controversy that is discussed endlessly to death - sometimes for months on end. When I see these kinds of inflammatory pronouncements, it leaves little doubt in my mind that some people have far too much time on their hands.

Dismissing occult and magical founders is a popular pastime, but it’s also where some folks get to rewrite history and enter into a world divorced from reality. Trash-talking founders is the equivalent of spreading misinformation about them, and for the authors of such obnoxious opinions a not-so obvious personal edification. The fact is that Crowley wrote quite a number of books in the first half of the twentieth century that are still being read, studied and used today. Many of these books are considered classics, even though they were written nearly 100 years ago.

Aleister Crowley was a controversial individual when he was alive, but to this day I feel that few biographers have ever really captured what the man was really like. Everyone who had known him (and either loved or hated him) “painted” a different picture of this man, and some of these descriptions were completely different or contradictory. He was a complex man who had many virtues and also many failings. Some have condemned him for his immorality, others have pointed to the fact that he died a drug addict. His followers have praised him as the prophet of the New Aeon and the greatest magician of all time. I am less sanguine about Crowley, but I do believe that he deserves a lot of credit for the current and on-going occult and magical revival.

It is my belief and opinion that Crowley is solely responsible for bringing the practice and study of magic from the 19th century into the 20th, which was no small feat. He also started a trend that led to the creation of the modern pagan religious revival. Those who would denounce his accomplishments should look to their own meager legacy and potential impotence. If I were able to at least produce a quarter of his literary output and have some impact on magicians in the next 100 years I think that I would consider myself quite accomplished. I will likely leave this world without achieving even that modest level of accomplishment.

Even though Crowley left behind a large and deep legacy of his occult and magical writings, his work stands as incomplete and lacking in certain areas. Of course, this is true of all founders, and it is up to those who follow afterwards to pick up this lore and expand it so that it becomes comprehensive and complete. The fact that this has not happened yet is only because it has taken many individuals decades to fully understand and master the legacy that he left behind. I suspect in time that many individuals will begin to write up the fruits of their years of study (if they haven’t already) and incrementally expand the knowledge and practice of Thelemic magic until it is a more thorough and complete system.

However, many of the Thelemites that I have personally met seem to have a grasp and practical knowledge of the entire spectrum of both thaumaturgy (low magic) and theurgy (high magic). Compared to many individuals that I have met or read about working other traditions, it would seem that Thelemites are more knowledgeable and capable regarding the arts of magic and the occult than anyone else. This is, of course, my opinion, but I think that Thelema and the OTO/AA have a better record of teaching individuals how to be real and functioning magicians than any other organization. Keep in mind that the teaching part is what naturally happens in an OTO lodge and is not a part of any official regimen. The AA, however, is a tradition that specifically trains individuals to be magicians. I have compared it to getting a PhD in practical and theoretic magic.

This brings me to the next controversy, and that is the criticism that Thelemites in general have to branch out and acquire other magical techniques from other sources (such as Hoodoo, the old grimoires and the PGM) in order to perform thaumaturgy or low magic. I think that I have touched on this topic in the previous paragraphs, but it still seems like an innocent observation that has some pretty damning ramifications. I guess the complaint is that Thelemic magic is somehow hollow, incomplete and missing the whole standard mechanisms for making magical changes in the material world and thus changing the outcome of one’s fortunes. I don’t know where this argument started, but it is specious and completely wrong.

I happen to know plenty of Thelemic magicians who can work magic on all levels, both thaumaturgy and theurgy without having to pillage from other sources. Crowley’s descriptions of Golden Dawn magic are probably the most cogent and practical explanations available, even in the present times. His writings on Enochian magic were less thorough, but in combination with them and the actual Dee diaries, a number of Thelemites have produced a comprehensive system of Enochian magic that is completely usable. Essentially, any magical system that has the mechanisms for Elemental, Planetary and Zodiacal magic should be able to perform operations that can impact the material plane.

If Thelemites have also been culling other forms of magic, such as the PGM, the old grimoires and other ethnic or cultural sources (Hoodoo, Voudoun, Palo, Tibetan, Hindu, Chinese-Taoist, etc.) it is because they are fascinated and engaged with all things magical. A truly gifted magician will leave no stones unturned in order to fully master the Art of Magic, and that is my interpretation of what they are doing. To promote an interpretation that discredits Thelemic magic because its members don’t remain within their own supposed traditional boundaries is patently ridiculous. All of the various systems of magic in use today have been borrowed, appropriated and modified from other systems of magic at some point in time. Some have kept the traditional exponents pure (as far as they know), some have invented wholly new ways and techniques, while others have pulled various rites and workings from various traditions together to build hybrid systems relevant to the individual, locale and the times. All of the these approaches are legitimate because they all work and achieve the desired results. So, I think that I have pretty much debunked that spurious opinion and showed that it is misinformed at best, and even malicious at its worst.

Now we come to the final point of this article and that is the relationship between Thelema and British Traditional Witchcraft. Some have persisted in declaring the urban myth that somehow Crowley wrote the Book of Shadows and was therefore, the author and godfather of Modern Witchcraft. This has been shown time and again to be completely false. While it is true that Gerald B. Gardner visited Crowley twice some months before his death, and he might have been given the rites and the permission to start up an OTO lodge, there wasn’t any further collaboration between them.

I also doubt that Crowley gave Gardner any rituals or an OTO charter, particularly since a few members of the OTO have shown that the charter owned and displayed by Gardner was likely a fake. Considering the terrible spelling and grammar errors in Gardner’s original work and those amplified in the Book of Shadows, I greatly doubt that Crowley had any hand in writing the rituals used by Gardnerian Witches. The two initiatory ordeals were obviously based loosely on the Masonic Entered Apprentice and Fellowcraft initiations. I know this to be true because I did an in-depth analysis comparing these initiatory rites. Gardner needed prototypes upon which to develop his own Witchcraft initiations, and these two rites were perfect. If Gardner would have had copies of the OTO initiations in his possession he would have likely used them as templates instead.

The Great Rite, however, was based on the Thelemic Gnostic Mass, and in fact, Gardner rather shamelessly plagiarized the section where the priest adores and kisses the priestess residing on the altar. Later renditions of Gardnerian rites in the Book of Shadows tended to remove the obvious references to Crowley’s lore, but some of the original lore was still kept around for the sake of posterity. We can look at this lore today and see where it originally came from.Gardner had access to some of Crowley's writings, and he likely had a copy of the Gnostic Mass in his collection of papers at some time.

So, while the writings and lore published by Aleister Crowley had a powerful impact on Gardner, and that he sought to appropriate some of it for his own rituals, doesn’t mean that he either had in his possession the initiatory lore of the OTO or that somehow Crowley wrote up the rituals used in the Book of Shadows. I believe that had Crowley wrote up the lore for Gardnerian Witchcraft it would have been far more elegant and lyrical than it is today. (Certainly the spelling, vocabulary and grammar would have been impeccable.) What lyricism can be found in some of the lore of Modern Witchcraft was added a bit later by Doreen Valiente. This is just another case of someone being strongly influenced by Crowley’s published writings and seeking to use them in emulating their own magical and pagan perspectives. I think that many of us have done this at some point in our magical and occult careers.

One other point to consider is that Witchcraft magic is incompatible with Thelemic or Golden Dawn magic, even though Gardner appropriated the GD Opening by Watchtower rite to fashion his own circle consecration rite. Because he mixed antique pagan ideas about sacred space with the concise mechanism for opening a GD temple for magic, he produced a hybrid system that has a completely different perspective. Some GD magicians have complained that the invoking pentagrams in the circle consecration rite are performed incorrectly at the watchtowers and that the whole thing should collapse and be rendered useless because of the flaws in its construction. Of course, as in many cases the intent of the magician can trump a poor design, so even the Wiccan circle consecration rite works quite well although it is not as elegantly constructed or written as the GD version.

The purpose and function of these two rites are different enough that the rules of one doesn’t apply to the other, which is something that confounds a lot of the dialog between magicians and witches about magic today. Needless to say, if Crowley had written this ritual it would have been a lot more like the GD version, and the purposes for its use would have been analogous to the rite practiced by them. They are quite different, and that makes Witchcraft ritual magic and GD/Thelemic ceremonial magic quite distinct, at least in my opinion.

Frater Barrabbas 

New Rules #1: If you are going to advertise that you can teach and initiate magicians so that they may be elevated to an Ipsissimus (the highest degree possible: 10 = 1) then learn how to spell that word before you post the advertisement. Not being able to spell this word certainly doesn’t give your potential students (or anyone else) the confidence that you know what you are talking about.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

More Thoughts About Evocation and the Reality of Spirits

Recently, someone had a problem with my statement that encounters with spirits occurs in the imagination and can emerge into fantasies that make them meaningful and powerful. What struck them was when I used the terms “imagination” and “fantasy” as opposed using the word “real.” I think that there is some confusion when I use these terms in a magical context that causes others, particularly those who are not very adept at ritual or ceremonial magick, some confusion. This is because I am in no way devaluing these experiences by saying that they “appear” and “manifest” to our conscious senses through the artifice of our imaginations. What I am referring to here is the magical imagination, which is quite different although analogous to the imagination that all people employ.

The issue is that some folks think that I am saying that these spirits, whether earth spirits, angels, demons, or even deities, aren’t real. They are imaginary somehow because I have said that they are fully perceptible through the imagination. That means that I must believe that spirits aren’t real, and that relationships with them are not as fulfilling or meaningful as relationships with people. Of course this is not at all what I believe, nor is it what I have said in my various articles. Therefore, allow me to once again define what I think is a spirit.

Experiences of spirits are subjective experiences. They can only be objective to the point where other individuals can encounter them in the same context, which is typically but not always some kind of magical ritual or other kind of mind altering phenomenon. Even when the evocation of spirits are performed with a group of magicians, each one experiences something somewhat different. In some cases the experiences can be profoundly different, in other cases they are quite similar. Still, each person experiences the phenomena of spirits in a unique and different way. Such experiences are always subjective because they can’t be isolated from human experience and subjected to scientific proof or scrutiny. They remain in the anecdotal domain of subjective experiences. I have also found that an individual who is trained or naturally sensitive can have a sensory experience with a spirit under certain and specific conditions. Because of the consistency of these experiences and the fact that individuals can and do have encounters with spirits, we can at least state that such encounters are real. This is to say that from a subjective perspective such experiences are valid and represent a kind of objective reality.

However, the nature of spirits is that they are typically unseeable and unnoticeable until some kind of shift of consciousness occurs in a human being that allows them to be perceived. That perception, though, varies considerably due to the fact that individuals who do encounter them have certain capabilities to perceive spirits. Some individuals can see and observe spirits under certain conditions, while others can hear them and still others can physically sense them. Some individuals who are highly trained or naturally visually sensitive can completely observe, hear and sense spirits. 

Still, there is the problem that needs to be answered and that is whether spirits occupy space, have a material mass and exist in some kind of parallel world. My experience has shown me that the full realization of spirits is very rare for untrained individuals, and that in most cases the phenomenon of spiritual encounters is often subtle and barely perceptible. Only under certain conditions does a spirit seem to have all of the qualities of form and material mass, but such manifestations have never been objectively recorded by such unbiased means as a video camera. There are plenty of fake or mistaken apparitions caught on camera, but there have been no verifiable captured images of spirits. Why is this so? It’s because the very subtle nature of spirits can only become fully realized by a human observer when that user employs his or her imagination in a very focused and disciplined manner. This method of wielding the imagination in a disciplined and focused manner is what I call the magical imagination. It also indicates that spirits do not independently possess a material body that contains mass and location in space, or at least not in any way that has been objectively observed or measured by science.

Someone who has an accidental encounter with a spirit could be in a very unique state of consciousness that allows for a full realization of this spirit. This is an incidental occurrence, and it might also be considered abnormal for someone who is neither trained nor actively sensitive. For a magician (or a psychic), the cultivation of exalted states of consciousness is a requirement to consistently encounter spirits and even enter into their domain. This is because the phenomenon of spirit encounters is not a physical one, but one that is perceived through a shift in consciousness.

Spirits are not merely mental constructs or a product of our chaotic imaginings, they have a kind of objective reality in a subjective manner, and they also have a symbolic and archetypal component to their being. When asked if spirits are objectively real (like material objects), I will answer that spirits are both within our minds and also outside of us. They have a reality in our world of consciousness as disembodied beings wholly immersed and resident in that field. Some occultists have said that spirits (as well as magic) are all in our minds, except that our minds are far greater and vaster than we could possibly imagine. Perhaps this is a reference to the world of consciousness where individual points and collective clusters exist, as well as the union of all being that functions as the ultimate foundation and background. There is much that we don’t know about regarding consciousness, and I think that this is still one of the last great mysteries left for humanity to plumb. 

This brings up the next point of interest, and that is that spirits exist in a domain that is concurrent but distinct from our own domain. We live in a world that is filled with spirits of every different kind, but we are seldom aware of them because it requires an altered state of consciousness and a disciplined focused perception to even perceive them in a subtle and ephemeral manner. This parallel world is called the domain of spirit, and while it could be said that it occupies the same world that we exist in, we are only aware of it in rare circumstances. Those who can perceive this world readily and in a controlled manner have mastered their ability to sense the different streams of consciousness that are invisible to most people; those who can see this world without any self-control are judged to be insane by society. This is the subtle but distinct difference between magicians and madmen. A magician sees this world and perceives spirits in a controlled manner and at a set time, where otherwise he or she would not sense them.

Magicians apply the environmental stimuli of lamp or candle light, incense, consecrated robes, tools and specialized occultic regalia, various evocations employing foreign and barbarous languages, strange and exotic rituals, and hours or even days of preparation. Yet the one tool that is essential for a successful conjuring is the magical imagination and the foundational state of consciousness established by meditation and trance. If spirits were so easily perceived and encountered then why would a magician have to go to such lengths to summon and make them appear on command? It is because we live in a very mundane material world typically devoid of magic, miracles and spiritual encounters. We can break through the barriers of that world through a disciplined approach at mind control and the engagement of the magical imagination. The psychological power of possibility, the veritable “what if” has the potency to remake the world through the artifice of the empowered and unleashed magical imagination.

While it is true that we live in a world that is bounded by the limitations of physics and natural law, our minds are not so bounded, particularly when higher states of consciousness are achieved. Through inspiration, and particularly through ecstasy, we are able to breakthrough into the domain of magic, spirit, deity, myth and infinite possibility. This is because spirits and deities don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist in a colorful and emotionally empowered world that has a context of mythic and symbolic meaning. Where everything is connected together into a singularity of union - the One. Only because everything is connected together into a tight web of meaningful associations and thereby imbued with spirit is magic even a possibility. In the cold material and autonomous universe without life and consciousness, there can be no magic and no possible connectivity. Such a world is grey, flat, undifferentiated, disassociated and lifeless - but introduce life and consciousness into that world and everything profoundly changes.

In the Old Testament book of Genesis, it is said that Yahweh created Adam so that he might give all the things that God created a name - to fashion a meaningful semantic web that untied all things together. He thus created Adam to add consciousness to the universe, and thus bring the world to life through magic, myth, spirit, and the power of the word. Adam was not content to just passively engage with this world - he hungered for self-knowledge, in other words, to name and know himself. The original sin was therefore not really a sin, it was the beginning of the divinization of humanity that continues to this day. This is because the ultimate aim of self-knowledge is to know that within each human being is a Deity, the Atman of the Hindus. To fully realize that powerful Deity within is to become fully and consciously enlightened in life - to become like a God, and to defeat mortality when death finally takes the body but not the conscious deity within.

Therefore, the key to any kind of spiritual encounter is to know the deity within one’s self, since it functions as the Eye of Spirit that allows human beings to be fully aware of the spiritual domain and all that is within it. Attaining this level of enlightenment is certainly one of the ways that a magician could master the domain of spirit and not require any of the tropes or external mechanisms to summon a spirit or encounter one. He or she would live in both the material world and the spiritual domain simultaneously - there would no longer be any distinction. That, in my opinion, is the ultimate objective of the ritual magician. A magician pursues this objective so that he or she will become all-magic and fully conscious as a god-mind.

Frater Barrabbas

Friday, July 17, 2015

Sexual Fantasy, Magic and Demonic Sex

One of my most popular blog articles of all time is one that I wrote on the Incubus and the Succubus. For some reason this article has gotten the most attention on the internet compared to any other, despite the fact that I have basically dismissed this kind of encounter as a poor surrogate for the real thing - sex with a human lover. I was bemused by this strange popularity and I couldn’t figure it out, until I found by accident that there is a whole cadre of lefthand path magicians (mostly male and typically young) who are advocating and even boasting about these kinds of encounters. Not being a Christian or a member of the Abrahamic faith (nor an avowed Satanist), I find these kinds of sidelines to be strange artifacts of a previous epoch. Really, if it wasn’t for the fact that we live in the post-modern age I would swear that the middle ages are alive and well.

So it seems that getting your kicks from an incubus or succubus encounter is something of a fad amongst some young LHP magicians, and it is even advocated and hotly advertised by someone with the stature of Eric Koetting. I discovered a rather hyped You-Tube video where Eric expounds on the topic of how to have sex with an incubus or succubus. You can find it here. There are, of course, plenty of other examples out there in the Internet (such as the Goetia Girls et al), but I will leave the gratuitous searching to those who are looking for amusement or titillation. This is a subject that doesn’t particularly interest me, most likely because I have found that “real” sex with a real woman is for me much more profound than engaging in some form of mental (or real) masturbation. I would also have to say that a long-term relationship is much more interesting and rewarding in life than some sweaty, quickie grope, grind and release. I am not against sex, and in fact, I am really quite in favor of any kind of “real” sexual encounter that is legal and based on mutual consent.

Don’t get me wrong, I am also a fan of erotica in its various forms, and in fact, my lady and I engage in the sharing and perusal of such media. However, we see it as stimulating fantasies not to be confused with the reality of human sexual relationships. I would suspect that this kind of reality is foundational to all persuasions and types of legal and natural human interactions. Sexual activity can be a great good, and it is also healthy for people to engage in it and thoroughly enjoy themselves. Sex can also be the means to higher states of consciousness, and there is such a thing as sacred sexuality. Since we all have within us an aspect of Deity, then consensual sex between loving individuals takes part in the union of Deities in sacred emulation of the One. That is how I see and personally define sexuality.

Fantasy, and sexuality in the mind, is an important and powerful component of physical sex, as well as many other creative endeavors, such as magic. It is often said that good sex starts in the mind where is it is empowered and amplified over time before it becomes a reality. Some fantasies, though, should probably remain in the mind and not be pursued in physical reality. I will leave that kind of judgement and discretion to the reader to ponder for themselves.

I do admit that I have had powerful erotic experiences in my magical workings, particularly when I have encountered various aspects and manifestations of the Goddess, to whom I am a spiritual and magical devotee. Most of those kinds of events occurred when I was younger and more sexually vital, but it is something that I have experienced in later times. However, that is an encounter with Deity, and the love relationship between the Goddess and myself is an important and powerful part of my spiritual and magical work. It can be inspiring, thrilling and it can even be terrifying, but throughout, it is a component of Deity that I can only experience through my own particular Godhead, or Atman. It is not a surrogate for a real human relationship, and it is not something that I can even talk about in any detail because it is so intimate and profoundly meaningful to me.

Perhaps that is what Eric and other LHP magicians are talking about when they get into discussing their sexual encounters with spirits. Angels and demons have a mythological history of cavorting with human partners, and there are many other examples in the religions of the world today. Still, without the same degree of reverence and sacralization, I doubt that these experiences are the same as what I have experienced. For me it is the conscious realization of the union of human and deity, occurring as it does through the medium of the higher self, or God/dess Within. I now realize that it is a manifestation of my Atman through which I have had powerful visions of sexual union. It produces in me a kind of exalted spiritual ecstasy. Through these experiences the poetry of Rumi, Kabir, Hafiz and others is powerfully acknowledged and realized. I am exalted by these occurrences, but I must also admit that they happen to me without necessarily being sought or pursued. The spiritual lover that Rumi discusses in his poetry is, of course, God, and it is the profound submission to this love that brings forth spiritual ecstasy and the visionary experiences of the highest states of consciousness.

Having had these kinds of experiences, I still sought for a life partner and life-long love, and I feel lucky and grateful that I found her. Receiving the love of the Goddess is a profound experience, but living in a loving relationship with a woman is a profound fulfillment of that spiritual connection. I believe that this is also true for anyone who is a lover, both on a physical and spiritual level, and their beloved, whether of the opposite or the same gender. Love is love, and the freedom to love is the greatest of all freedoms. Yet true love, especially the love of God, requires the lover to submit to that love in order to be exalted. It is a profound paradox, but it is also a great truth.

What I don’t see happening with the LHP obsession with the incubus or succubus is anything remotely like what I have experienced in magic or in life. I have received comments from readers telling me about their passionate encounters with spirits, demons, angels, or whatever, and yet they don’t seem to be exalted, transformed or even fulfilled by the encounter. It makes me sad to read these comments and emails because what it says to me is that there are some very lonely and desperate individuals out in the world who are seeking love and have only found it in their imaginations. They seem to project that imagination somewhat into the physical world, but it is not reciprocated by a real human lover - it remains a shadow of reality. 

I know what it is like to be desperate for love, and I know what it is like to be hurt and betrayed by false lovers. But I find this kind of encounter with a quasi fantasy spirit to be poor and meager fare for the body and soul. Maybe I don’t understand, that’s always a possibility, but maybe the world is full of a lot of lost souls who can’t find real love in any other manner.

Anyway, I can’t judge such individuals because I am not wired in the same manner. What I do believe is that what they are doing and experiencing is not even meaningful to me. It would be like having a romantic evening with a blow-up doll, and not a particularly good one, either. It is just ego inflating and seems like just a form of mental masturbation. I guess that I have failed the test to become a bad-ass LHP magician because I find this kind of activity to be silly and juvenile. Maybe others see it as cool and spunky, but to me it is empty and vain.

I hope some of the folks who have been avidly reading my article on demonic sex will realize that I think it’s not cool and awesome. It is, in fact, nothing more than some moronic juvenile activity that allows those who pursue it an excuse for seeking and obtaining a real relationship with a human being. I rest my case.

Frater Barrabbas

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Another Look at the Purpose of Magic

[I took a sabbatical from writing over the last couple of months, and then I thought that I should at least write something on a semi regular basis so that folks don’t forget who I am or what I have to offer the erstwhile student of ritual magick. So, I decided that short articles are better than no articles, and I will try to write short articles on a more frequent basis. We’ll see how that plays out in the weeks and months to come.]

I have written on this topic previously, but it is something that I should discuss again because I often hear someone saying that they have achieved everything that they need from their magical system and there is no need to pursue anything further. This, of course, is referring to magical-based material acquisition or at the very least, control over (most) occurrences of one’s destiny. It is a form of self-empowerment that can deceptively put someone into a comfortable niche and then keep them from aspiring or gaining any new perspectives.

Whether magicians use forms of simple or complex elemental magic, planetary and zodiacal magic, invoking and evoking spirits or performing various forms of thaumaturgy (or a combination of all of these forms), he or she ultimately comes to that great stumbling block of complacency and inertia called comfortable self-empowerment. The logic behind this complacency is that when something works well and consistently then why change it?

When magicians strive to become proficient and they have the tenacity and endurance to over-come failure through a period of years, to research and analyze that failure and to start over, and do this cyclic process many times over, they will eventually develop a magical system and methodology that will gain for them some modicum of success. Ah, there’s nothing more dangerous and problematic as becoming a successful magician. Let me explain why I think that this is so.

After all, life is something of a gamble, and the only thing that one can say about it for certain is that good fortune and bad fortune are part of the process. Like death itself, the joys, sorrows, and yes, even the boredom, are all a part of life whether one works magic or not. If you are experiencing a long period of material and psychic stability, and you feel like you are in control of the various capricious elements of fate, then you are likely due for some challenges or even some misfortune. Thinking this way is not pessimism, it is just a matter of odds, of course. Yet truly, if you live in a stable and dull part of the world then it will be more likely that you will lead a stable (and dull) life. Living in an unstable part of world can increase the odds for adventure and excitement, but also misfortune for nearly everyone, even those practicing magick. Instability can be caused by natural phenomena or the hazards of man-made conflicts and destruction. Nowhere on the planet is there a place that is indefinitely immune to either human or natural causes of instability.

So, if you have achieved magical competence and you feel empowered and it seems like you are in control of your life then you might also be succumbing to hubris, complacency, inertia and even a bit of self-delusion. Why stop progressing when you have finally become competent, since that should be the opportune place and time when one’s spiritual process could accelerate and thereby bring one to greater ascendency? I guess the real issue is more general and even foundational in regards to the art and practice of magic.   

This brings me to ask the most important question that one could ask regarding magical techniques and systems, and that is, what is the purpose of magic? Why do we work magic, and what do we do after we achieve enough material gain to consider ourselves competent and perhaps, even content with our lot? This question had eluded me for decades because until the last decade or so, magic was often hit or miss. It wasn’t until I had practiced magic for nearly thirty years that I finally felt that I could accomplish whatever I needed to accomplish. My career was in great shape, I had money, the means to acquiring a successful relationship, and I was able to develop and practice any kind of magic that my mind sought to experience. I even wrote up my own versions of the Abramelin ordeal, the Portae Lucis ordeal and numerous others.

I was quite successful at performing invocations and evocations, and I had a system of magic that could be developed to accomplish nearly any goal I could imagine. It just took time and effort to research, develop and to practice, but nothing seemed outside of my ability or scope. However, all during this time, I understood that magic should cause psychic transformations and push the ritual magician into ever greater states of conscious being. My ultimate destination was to experience full union with the One, although it took me many years to understand that concept as clearly as I do today. That was the goal, but the foundation that I spent so much time on was developing one’s internal and personal godhead. Without that most important component, one would attempt to realize the One in vain, or even worse, in complete delusion.

Therefore, over many years, I had determined that the purpose of magic was to achieve union with the One, and that it required me to realize the most intimate aspect of godhead within myself. I was a God, fully and completely (as are everyone else), and I was a seeker attempting to realize that Godhead within myself, and to ultimately understand that it was one and the same with the Union of All Being, which I call the One. I implicitly and intuitively knew this from my earliest days, but I was unable to articulate this truth for many years. That is what I have come to believe, and it becomes an important consideration for me when I have reached and achieved that point of magical and material competence, since that is the starting point for achieving the highest level of spiritual and magical being. The object is there within grasp, if only we can extract ourselves from that most comfortable of ruts, which is magical and material success. 

Despite the comfortable place that I find myself in these days, I force myself to action and to not cease in my magical work. I must continue seeking to undergo magical ordeals that challenge me to the very fiber of my being from time to time, or else I will the lose the path that I have spent so much effort to build. My life’s work really doesn’t end until the very day that I die, but until then I must seek to realize the holy God/dess Within. Full realization of this internal Atman is the key to realizing full cosmic consciousness and complete at-one-ment with the All. I believe that it is the key to full enlightenment and also to a form of conscious immortality.

I believe that each and every one of us can attain this pinnacle of accomplishment in a single life-time. It is, in fact, our destiny, and it is one that we are all programmed to achieve, but only if we remove all of the obstacles in our path, especially the ones that we have placed there ourselves. As the old saying goes, we are our own worst enemies, and this is especially true when considering the highest forms of magical and spiritual attainment.

So next time you find yourself thinking how much you have accomplished or that you have all that you need as a practicing ritual magician, I would hope that you begin to ponder about your own complacency and hubris. Thinking this way just seems to invite adversity and calamity, as if the point of earned stability is just a calm period before another storm blows through. It is as if the Gods have an evil and pernicious sense of humor, and they don’t take lightly to anyone who thinks that they have it made.

I have previously written on articles on this subject, and I would urge you to examine them if you haven’t read them previously. The first is about the five archetypal trials found in the path of the ritual magician. What I have discussed in this article would cover trial number 3, which is Indolence. Trial number 5 might also apply, which is Hubris. You can find that article here. Also, I wrote an article some years ago where I discussed the relevance for working ritual magic in the post-modern world. It could also shed some interesting light on why we work magic and what we expect to gain from it. You can find that article here.

Frater Barrabbas

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Without Any Teachers - A Way to Transformative Wisdom

Recently there has been some heated discussion about how the Millennial generation (and some members of Generation X) don’t have respect or the proper behavior towards the older, mature and supposedly wiser members of the Western Magical Tradition (WMT). It started out with Nick Farrell telling potential students that they should basically shut up and meekly listen and learn from their elders. Of course, Nick comes off as something of a dick, but he did give plenty of examples of his own past foolishness, and supposedly he is advising his younger audience to not act like he did many years ago. Still, others have chimed in giving their support to Nick’s premise or vehemently decrying what he wrote. It has created quite a controversy, and I have been loath to comment on it because I am unfortunately not one to talk about either the traditional role of occult teachers or the responsibilities of idealized students or followers. That is because I consider myself mostly a “self-made” man regarding my practice of magick and my approach to occultism in general. 

I have had very few experiences with supposed “great” teachers, but I have painfully learned to eschew the advances and self-promotions of anyone who is a charismatic leader or teacher in some established occult organization. Those few experiences that I have had revealed to me that “great” teachers are really a social mirage, and that those who promote a charming and attractive front are likely hiding egregious flaws and possibly even sinister motives. Many of us are suckers for the guru confidence game, but typically cold hard facts and the power of dispassionate and unbiased reason will reveal a fraudulent master teacher eventually.

Ostensibly, we are really on our own. We alone are responsible for what we achieve regardless of what someone else does for us or against us. We might be an initiate of some great magical tradition or perhaps even received the exalted teachings of some spiritual master, but what we ultimately achieve is due to our own efforts. Typically, membership in an occult organization can be helpful or even inspiring, but if students don’t attempt to take the teachings and knowledge into themselves then it is little more than a distraction at best, a roadblock or daunting trap at worst.

Instead of writing up a homiletic about teachers and students and how they should comport themselves, I can only reach into my own many years of experience and declare that it is actually better for one to be solitary than to belong to an established occult group. At this time in my development I have the considered opinion that the only group that I would bother to belong to is one that is either a loose confederation of fellow magicians or a Star Group. If neither of these types of groups are available then I am quite happy to continue my work alone and intensely focused.

What I don’t need is to be distracted or have my time wasted by some bloviating teacher who thinks he or she has a monopoly on truth. While I am willing to share my experiences and knowledge with others, I do expect people to reach out to me and also be ready to do the work by themselves and for themselves. If someone wants me to share my knowledge with them then they need to make an effort to arrange the time and the intentions for such a working. I refuse to beg people to work with me who won’t make their own effort to set things in motion. So, I am indeed willing to share what I know with others, but I have found very few that are really interested in what I am doing. No one is knocking on my door to gain whatever knowledge I supposedly possess, and I have my own work and efforts to keep me quite occupied. I need people to socialize with and to share my ideas and also to listen to what they have to say, but I don’t need a teacher or a guru.

It is for this reason that I strongly believe that everyone should be responsible for their own spiritual and magical progress. It is a personal responsibility that has nothing to do with anyone else. No one can do this work for you and no one has the answers that you are looking for. You might occasionally meet remarkable men and women on the transformational path of enlightenment, and at times, these people can function as teachers and mentors, but only temporarily and only if you are willing to do the work. However, only you can do the work and only you can discover the answers to the questions that you might have.

I must admit that I am not a big fan of Krishnamurti, but in some cases he had some of the best advice to give to those who were seeking the lonely path of self directed personal and spiritual mastery. I also admire the fact that he repudiated the heads of the Theosophical Society who tried vainly to make him into their vaunted world teacher, and then he forged his own path, developing naturally over the decades. He was a font of wisdom and was one of the brilliant few who bridged the spiritual practices and wisdom of both the East and the West from the standpoint of the East.

Here are some quotations of his where he talks about the solitary path of self-knowledge and self-directed spiritual evolution. His words seem to advocate a spiritual path toward truth that belongs to no one group, creed or organization, and I find them profoundly deep and meaningful.

I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. ... The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth.”

Self-knowledge is not something acquired from a book or from a guru or teacher. Self-knowledge begins in understanding oneself from moment to moment, and that understanding requires one's full attention to be given to each thought at any particular moment without an end in view, because there cannot be complete attention when there is condemnation or justification.”

Self-knowledge has no beginning and no end. It is a constant process of discovery, and what is discovered is true, and truth is liberating, creative.”

First of all, each and every person has their own spiritual process and lifetime trajectory. They alone are responsible for whatever happens to them, most particularly on how they react to both good and bad fortune. As spiritual seekers we must ultimately follow our own trajectory regardless of those individuals whose paths we might briefly intersect. Our own evolving spiritual process is the great hidden teacher and master, but it is not someone or something exterior to ourselves - it is within us and it also transcends our egoic selves. Experience and experimentation help us to acquire self-knowledge that ultimately leads to powerful realizations and self illumination; so long as we avoid the illusions and traps that we or others might set for ourselves.

This individual path of self-knowledge has no beginning nor end. Whatever objectives we might start out with change over time and eventually become overall, meaningless. It is merely the sake of journeying freely on our own path of self-knowledge that is our one and only compensation. Understanding ourselves from moment to moment, and fully engaging our attention in this task is a powerful state of mindfulness that can lead to full self-realization. Even so, this path is neither quick nor is it glorious. It is a life-long process from spiritual adolescence to full maturity and self-mastery. It is full of joy and sorrow, ascent and decline, pain and pleasure, wonderful dreams and horrifying nightmares - the very stuff of life.

When I consider these thoughts and ideas it makes my feeble attempts to write and teach seem nearly useless and without merit. What impact or effect can I possibly make on the soul and life path of someone who is a spiritual seeker for truth? I can share a few moments of comradery and even intimacy, but in the end, that seeker moves on regardless of what I do or say. I don’t wish to distract anyone for too long or keep them from their appointed destiny, just as I wouldn’t want someone to do that to me.

In the end, all I can say is that I am merely a student and still in the process of learning and growing just like everyone else. There is little difference between me and the young beginning student, except that I am probably a lot more jaded, less curious and quite set in my ways. To some I might even seem to be rather boring and self-absorbed, since there is little that I can boast about or claim about my achievements without having to establish a meaningful context. While I might preen for a moment at all of the books that I have digested and the magical workings that I have accomplished and even the books and articles I have written, what I have accomplished in a life time of work seems diminished when compared to the totality of spiritual and occult knowledge. What we collectively know seems quite vast, and yet the last words haven’t been written on the subject of magic or occultism, nor will they be written for ages to come. Thus what I have managed to accomplish in my short and brief life is rather small and humbling, but I continue on my travels because life is still good and there is so much yet to experience and learn.

The path of the sorcerer is endless, without beginning nor end, and we few magicians travel its dimly marked path knowing that the adventure of traveling is our only compensation. There is no objective that is a permanent triumph and there is no final destination except exhaustion and death. The majestic vistas that we see along the way are beautiful and inspiring, but they all too soon pass away leaving us with fleeting memories as we endlessly walk in the twilight. Birth is a vaguely acknowledged beginning to our path, but death and its mysteries will be encountered while fully conscious and aware. I suspect that the personification of Death will be the final and greatest teacher that one could possibly meet, and also the greatest challenge. I am both fearful of it, and I also look forward to it, since it will either deify or destroy me, or probably both.

Frater Barrabbas

Monday, April 6, 2015

Are Coven Organizations Dead?

Bad coven leaders are like Ming the Merciless.

I have been a Witch for over 40 years, and I have seen the various traditions of Witchcraft grapple and deal with inter-personal issues occurring within and outside of the group organization called the “coven.” I have been a High Priest for a few covens, an elder, and a member of others. I have witnessed a lot of abuses and experienced the terrible consequences of investing authority in individuals who are either too flawed or incompetent to lead, or too unscrupulous to trust. Perhaps I have been unlucky with the covens of which I have been a member or leader, and certainly there were cherished moments that I experienced in all of them, even the ones that went seriously off the rails.

I also believe that I am an ethical and responsible person, but as a human being with the all too typical weaknesses, I am liable to be manipulated and made a fool of just like everyone else. I have no lust for power over others, no hidden agenda or passive aggressive impulses, and I don’t feel the calling to either lead or control people within a hierarchical organization. These days my only interest is sharing what I know and what I can experience with others magically and liturgically. I don’t belong to a coven and I have no plans for forming one either. Still, I consider myself to be a Witch, and I believe that you can be a competent Witch without having to belong to a coven.

There are also many positive examples that I could describe of good coven leaders who are humble, trustworthy and quite willing to help their members deal with the vicissitudes of life and their spiritual growth. These good leaders act like true spiritual guides who take responsibility, are accountable to their group and who do the work without complaint or a desire for compensation. Despite the fact that there are plenty of good role models for the offices of High Priestess, High Priest and Elder within the coven hierarchical structure, the possibility of abuse and its all too often occurrence shows that the problem is with the model itself and not necessarily with the individuals who take these roles.

We have also seen the unfortunate recent public revelations about sexual predation and abuse, and these individuals are people that many of us thought we knew. We have learned about the unaccountableness of a few Pagan celebrities (I won't name any names) who perpetrated serial sexual abuse on others and got away with it for years. We act shocked by these revelations and there is a lot of serious talk about accountability, consent and transparency; but for some reason we don’t talk about the hierarchical model that allows leaders and celebrities to get away with their excesses while covering up their crimes through intimidation and black listing.

Human nature is what it is, and giving unearned or unattested positions of authority and power to some would-be leaders to rule over their peers can make them behave in a vile and pernicious manner. Power in groups has an intoxicating and corrupting influence unless the leader is either a sterling example of humility or operates under the influence of checks and balances unofficially incorporated within the group. That forbidden taste of social power is likely what drives some to seek positions of leadership within their groups and communities, which ironically makes them the worst candidates for such an office. Still, the primary problem with this social structure is that it grants one or a few individuals too much power over their fellow group members. Even a benign dictator is still a dictator, and without any input from the other members of the group, such an empowered leader can easily become a tyrant.

Someone who is used to this unquestioned authority and power will attempt to wield it in greater social circles once he or she becomes a public celebrity. These abuses, if they existed in the coven, will be amplified and carried into the Pagan community, since a celebrity will assume that he or she has a kind of immunity due to their own vested power and unquestioned adoration of their community. Such individuals will seek to keep the lid on their excesses through threats, intimidation and by the fact that their voice is heard from a position of power and vested interest. It takes quite a bit of courage to reveal to the public that you have been exploited or abused by a celebrity, and even then there is no guarantee that you will be either heard or believed. I have seen this kind of potential scandal play itself out time after time, and it usually takes some kind of civil or legal action to get the truth out. Once such a celebrity is knocked off their pedestal, then the many victims start to come forth and reveal the truth, but by then, it is too late. This kind of phenomenon is not limited to the greater Pagan community; it appears to happen in many public arenas, from politics to show business.

Recent revelations have made many Pagans question what can be done to curb these excesses? How can we avoid the pitfalls of emotional and sexual exploitation? Are we not a more enlightened group of people who should know better than allow such things to happen to members of our own community? What is the overall cause for these abuses and how can they be stopped?

I have heard these discussions but I feel that the problem is to be found in the fundamental social structure of our various groups and the kind of behaviors that it encourages. As I have stated previously, we have no community wide temples and institutions. We have no state or city sanctioned religious protocols, nor do we have mystery colleges or cult centers. All we have are small groups structured like families, loose sodalities or solitary practicing individuals. Covens are like family based structures, with a father, mother, grandparents and older and younger sibling type roles. If actual families have problems with dysfunction and abuse the members can at least be comforted by the sole fact that they are all tied together by blood. This is not the case with the coven, so it is quite an artificial group structure instead of an organic one.

Coven membership is always voluntary (so they say), although with the caveat that coercion, blackmail and intimidation can often make them seem not so easy to voluntarily leave. Leadership is often assumed by the members, at times vouched for by other leaders in the tradition, though seldom is it earned through a rigorous regimen of education, testing and actual spiritual achievement. In my opinion this is a real problem. Putting someone in a position of spiritual leadership who doesn’t have the experience nor any real spiritual achievement is a recipe for disaster. Some may learn to be good leaders over time and avoid the excesses associated with the abuse of power, many more will ultimately show themselves to be not up to the challenge. Such an experiment can produce many victims over time before these leaders are finally outed to the community at large. Thus, it is my opinion that the old coven group structure has exceeded its usefulness and is therefore, quite dead. It might continue to exhibit signs of life in certain quarters, but it has been existing on life support for some time now, waiting for someone to finally pull the plug.

It is for these reasons that I have abandoned the group model of the coven and I feel that if any kind of group organization is to be used that it should be based completely on democratic principles. We are all adults of varying levels of knowledge and experience. Some of us have prior initiations into the same or other traditions, and some of us have achieved a spiritual understanding without even being initiated. What draws a group of like-minded individuals together are a common set of interests and goals. As long as those goals and interests are common to all then the group will continue to function and the individual members will profit from this sodality. This should be the foundation for any group of individuals seeking to practice magic and a Wiccan or Pagan liturgy together as a formal organization.

How should such a group comport itself? What are the basic principles that should govern such a group? Here is where I would like to introduce some rather obvious and practical ideals that will ensure that the group functions in a just and fair manner. These ideals are the basis to many democracies and democratic organizations, and I think that they are important for any collection of Pagans or Wiccans to seriously consider if they want to form a group. These words are consent, consensus, equality, accountability, egalitarianism and of course, transparency. If these six words become the backbone of the group then it will last as long the members want to continue working together; but it will be overall fair, equal and democratic. Let’s examine each of these words to see how they would help to shape a good practical working group.

Consent - agreement. Consent functions in both a group and a community where two or more parties agree to doing something. Consent also implies that the parties to this agreement are on equal footing socially and psychologically, and that there is no coercion or pressure to agree. It allows for a complete openness between individuals, it is neutral and completely voluntary, and it represents that all parties are in mutual agreement. Mutual is the key-word to an operational use of consent. Neutral means that there is neither manipulation nor threats used to gain leverage for any one of the parties. Consent is the basis for forming a group, and it also governs any kind of cooperative effort. It also avoids exploitation, coercion and aggressive manipulation.

Consensus - a general agreement held by all or most. Rule by consensus is where everyone either agrees or where most agree and no one disagrees. If you think that ruling by consensus makes getting anything done nearly impossible then you haven’t really tried it. If a group can no longer find consensus for doing anything then it’s time for that group to break up and reform itself into smaller and more agreeable factions. Consensus only works when there is a mutual agreed upon direction among the members. When group consensus is established for a specific enterprise or goal, everyone feels that they have had their say and they are all united in their effort. This kind of group zeal is a far cry from efforts that are directed, coerced or ordered by an authority figure within a hierarchical group. 

Equality - everyone is equal, and each has an equal share and responsibility in the governance of the group. While it is obviously true that individuals are all different, and therefore they have different virtues and liabilities, group equality is where no one individual has more authority, responsibility or carries greater weight than anyone else in the group. It also means that roles such as facilitator (as opposed to leader), teacher, mentor or even elder are temporary. Authority and responsibility is shared equally amongst the members of the group. Everyone has an equal status in the group, and everyone is therefore, empowered and considered an important facet of the overall group organization.     

Accountability - everyone is accountable and subject to the checks and balances of peer review. Since no one person has any vested authority within the group, and that all of the members of the group are considered equal, responsibility for specific tasks can be given by the group to specific individuals. However, their actions and how they undertake their tasks as well as how they interact with the other members of the group are subject to peer review, and when necessary, peer intervention. This openness and peer based accountability is not an invitation for crass criticism or domination by one or more individuals against someone attempting to perform their group sanctioned duty. All criticism should be constructive and it should also include alternatives and possible better solutions. Individuals should also not judge the work of others until that work has been achieved, thereby giving someone the chance to at least complete their efforts. Help can be given when requested, and everyone has a vested interest in seeing that the group’s objectives are optimally met. Respect for another person’s dignity is just as important as getting the job done efficiently and to the best of the group’s overall ability.

Egalitarianism - everyone shares in the responsibilities and also in the achievements. Group resources, work and achievement belong to the group, not to any individual. Certainly, a single member’s contributions can be extolled and celebrated in the group, but outside, it is a group action, event or project. Getting something done often calls for the effective combination of the efforts of various individuals in the group. Some are better at certain tasks than others, and some have more resources that they can bring into the group. However, all property, resources, work and achievements are owned by the group. If a member of the group donates property, equipment, money, or other resources for the group to use then those resources properly belong to the group. Giving anything to the group is a sacrifice in the sense that once given, it becomes the common property of the group. However, when groups disband, then resources and property can be equally divided or given, by consensus, to other individuals who will use it in the forming of a new group.

Transparency - nothing is hidden, and everything is communicated and discussed. Transparency is nothing more or less than establishing trust within the group. There is nothing more poisonous to a group than hidden agendas, passive aggressive behavior by one or more members, and secret sub-groups with their own special agendas functioning within the group. Transparency doesn’t mean that everyone has to reveal their deepest and darkest secrets. It just means that group related activities, decisions, objectives and work are performed by everyone in an open and above-board manner. If someone wants the group to engage in a certain activity then their reasons and intentions for promoting this activity should be known by everyone in the group before consensus is sought. Omitting anything will destroy the trust upon which the group was supposedly found, putting every previous decision into question. This is often a difficult thing for many individuals to do, but it is very important to represent oneself in an open and transparent manner in the group. It is therefore important to be truthful, conscientious and open to other group members. In establishing trust, all members can thereby assume positive intent for each and every action by any member, even if what occurred was wrong or produced negative results.

These are the six ideals that can promote a group culture that is truly democratic, fair and empowering to all of the members. It eliminates the worst abuses of power and authority and it promotes a progressive environment of mutual effort and trust. Such a group culture will not tolerate exploitation and coercion by the power elite, since no one individual has any real power in which to abuse others. A group culture based on these six democratic principles will not only be lasting and satisfying to the group, but it will also function as a powerful curb to all of the weaknesses and flaws in any one individual member.

By extension, if this kind of group culture were dominant in our Pagan and Wiccan communities then we could expect groups and individuals to behave differently towards each other. There wouldn’t be any abuse of power within groups, and celebrities in our community wouldn’t have the opportunity to abuse or exploit anyone either. We would have a community where there would be “zero tolerance” for coercion, exploitation, abuse and emotional and social predation. Scandals would be very rare occurrences and we would see them as anomalies, since our overall community would function with the very best of democratic principles empowering all individuals and treating everyone with dignity and honor.

While this is an idealistic presentation of how groups should be established and governed, and that human nature tends to fail whenever ideals are attempted to be implemented, using them will put into place self-correcting social instruments that will ensure that whatever flaws or failings we have they won’t destroy what we are collectively trying to achieve.

Still, I have discussed this topic previously in previous articles. I have referred to this kind of group as a Star Group, and you can find a host of articles listed here.

Frater Barrabbas       

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Perspectives on Modern Paganism - Part 2

This is a two part series article on Perspectives of Modern Paganism. I have written this article to examine not only the phenomenon of our culture after nearly two millennia of monotheism, but also to examine and contrast that to what the ancient polytheists practices and believed. From this contrasting analysis, I believe that Modern Pagans, such as myself, can better understand the task of creating a real world religion and navigating the problems and pitfalls that monotheism has placed before us. The second part of this two part article looks at ancient polytheism and how we can incorporate aspects of what we know about those religious practices into a Modern Paganism so as to make more authentic and less like modern monotheistic faiths. 

Ancient Polytheism

The most important question is what were the ancient polytheistic religions like and how were they different from monotheistic religions today? First off, calling the ancient polytheistic religious practices a “religion” is very misleading. They didn’t function as unified institutions back then as they do today. Despite the fact that there are different factions to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, these monotheistic religions have a far greater uniformity than supposed polytheistic religions of antiquity. The very concept of “religion” as we understand it today is a recent creation promoted by the monotheistic religious culture. The habit of grouping things into monolithic aggregates and structures even affects the modern theories of science.

A pagan religious organization in ancient times was centered wholly within the cultic shrine. The fact that there were many of these cultic centers in various locations, and sometimes in the same village, town or city-state, represented the fact that the overall cultural religious perspective was polytheistic. Still, the cultic center or shrine was usually focused on one or a couple of deities, even though other lesser deities were also represented within it as part of the cultic family. Polytheistic cultic centers were very sociable regarding their deities and mythic personages, and no deity was ever depicted as being alone, isolated or without a cosmic context that included practically everything.

Nature was believed to be the emanation of the many deities, and instead of being apart from it, they were very much participants in nature and imbued in it. In fact, cultic centers were like machines that every day engaged in the nurturing, caring and worshiping of the many images or statues of the gods ensconced within them. Ancient people believed that the cultic centers kept the intimate connection between the deities and humanity viable, and this led to a harmonious balance between humanity and nature itself. They also believed that if this continuous activity failed to be enacted faithfully and perfectly then the harmony between nature and humanity fostered by the constant intercession of the gods would be lost, and that chaos and world destruction would follow.

Another interesting fact about polytheism is that all ancient religious cults had a simultaneous perspective of many gods and also one god. They could speak on one hand about a specific deity and then also talk about a God that is supreme. They may have a name for that preeminent deity or they may have just called it God, such as the ancient Egyptian word “Neteru” that was used as a determiner for the ultimate godhead. (Later on, many polytheistic religions made their chief deity into a representative of the one supreme deity.) There is an excellent quote from Professor Assmann in his book titled “Search for God in Ancient Egypt ” that I would like to share with my readers about this apparent phenomenon of monism in polytheism.

But most polytheisms known to the history of religion are complex in the sense that they reckon - or better, live - with a divine realm beyond which there is a ‘god’ or ‘higher being’ who created the world and its deities. This coexistence is always problematic, but therein lies the complexity of genuine, living traditions as opposed to scholarly theories that deprive polytheism of its divine plurality, such as the ‘original monotheism’.., or go to the opposite extreme and deny a concept of ‘god’ beyond the plurality of deities.”  ("The Search for God in Ancient Egypt", Assmann, p. 11)

Thus one of the most important concepts is that ancient polytheism was never merely the worship of an arbitrary collection of gods. Since it was a complex system of interrelationships, there was always an inherent perspective of monism imbedded within it. This is evident today when Hindus in India can talk about specific Gods to whom they worship and give offerings to, and also their overall singular expression, “God.” Adherents to the ancient polytheistic religions understood the concept of monolatry (serving a single deity) as well as serving many deities within a cultic center along with an underlying monistic perspective; but they would have been perplexed by a monotheistic theology that excluded all of the deities except one. To them it would have been like denying the variety of nature itself. Nature is abundant and so are the manifestations of deity. We live in a world that proves this hypothesis to be true every single day, as people of all different faiths, cultures and nationalities successfully experience manifestations of their respective deities within their chosen religious faiths.

Perhaps one of the most important distinctions between monotheism and polytheism is the difference between implicit and explicit theology. Monotheistic religions have as their foundation a form of explicit theology, in other words their sacred writings represent a discourse about the nature of God and the divine world as philosophical arguments aggregated into religious laws, public doctrines, liturgy and mission statements. While polytheistic religions did, over time, develop their own explicit theology, most notably in ancient Greece and Rome, the basis of polytheism is an implicit theology.

Implicit theology are the practices and beliefs that are not documented or established as laws or doctrine. It is represented by three different dimensions integrated together consisting of cultic or political activity, sacred cosmos and the sacred language of symbol and myth. The entire focus of an implicit theology consists entirely of the praxis of the cultic center managed by the priests, and how they engaged that praxis within their community. The temple shrine and the cultic center represented the political core of the village, town or city-state, and the principal deity within that center was considered the lord or lady of that place. Being an active member of a town obligated one to participate in the festive community of the deity, which was the outward manifestation of the internal and secret workings of the cultic center. Thus the cultic center was the focus of the divine presence within the community as well as the source of the social, political and religious sodality. Therefore, an implicit theology doesn’t consist of external doctrines and statements of belief, religious based laws or sacred history - there is no book of sacred writings. Instead, polytheism relied on the beliefs and practices deeply imbedded into the very culture and language of the place where the cultic center resided.

According to Professor Assmann, we can define ancient polytheism as having three different forms of divine presence or manifestation. The first consists of shapes, the second, transformations, and the third, names. These exist within the interlocking domains of the cultic center and its practices, the divine cosmos and the mythic and linguistic foundation.

Shapes - Divine Statues and the Cult

Shapes refer to the images, statues, or the various symbolic representations that are used to depict the form of the deity in the cultic center. Ancient polytheism did not believe that the statues or images that they worshiped were in fact the actual deities, but served instead as a marker or point of manifestation of a deity into a specific location. Of course, such an image would have been properly prepared, invested and powerfully charged with the association of the deity, and then treated to daily activities as if it were the actual deity itself. Temples were truly houses for the deified statues, and only later became accessed by select members of the community. Otherwise only the priesthood and their servitors resided in the temple to serve the deity. The social dimension of the deified statues and shrines were the many festivals and special occasions when the deified statues (or their proxies) were brought forth from the temples on elaborate conveyances where they mingled with the populous in joyous processions. Sometimes the deified statues were taken to other temples to visit with the deified statues worshiped there as a kind of social reunion between deities. Still, the hourly, daily and weekly rituals performed for the deified statues were accomplished mostly in complete privacy and typically unobserved by the common populous. Much of this same kind of activity still occurs in the same manner in the various cult centers and temples in India. 

Typical layout of an ancient Egyptian temple

Houses of worship today built for the various sects of monotheistic religions were not built to house replications of the deities, but instead serve as meeting places for the faithful. There might be sanctified statues, as in Catholic churches, but no one worships them as exclusive representations of God, since such an act would be condemned as idolatry. The church, synagogue, or mosque is a place for the public to gather together and give worship to an invisible and transcendent deity whose actual place is beyond the boundaries of that building, or even the whole universe. Despite the elaborate buildings and decorations, and the aesthetic nature of modern houses of worship, the God that they worship is not physically present in them. Their God is unbounded and transcends all physical limitations. A church, mosque or synagogue might contain the symbology of their Deity, but it a special place where the faithful meet to steep themselves in the accouterments of a God that is inseparable but distant from them.

Such a distant and transcendental concept of deity would have been unthinkable to the polytheists of antiquity, because for them the houses of the gods were their respective location points of emanation - the places where they were immanent, and therefore, resided. While polytheists saw their deities as taking part in the never ending drama of the cosmos, they also had a toe-hold on the earth where their followers could physically encounter them - the cultic center. It was where they lived and belonged so long as the constant rites that made them resident were continuously and perpetually enacted. The distinction between monotheistic religious houses and the temples of ancient polytheists were quite profound. Since most of us were raised in a monotheistic creed, attempting to create a cultic center would be quite difficult. There would be the problem of getting enough people together who could agree on a common faith and all the particulars of housing, decorating and empowering the shrine with daily rituals and periodic festivals. And then the idea of sequestering this temple so that only a qualified priesthood would be engaged with tending to the statues of the gods would be something that most Modern Pagans would find difficult to fathom and respect. 

The cult, by its very complexity, makes the gulf between the spheres of the holy and everyday life, which it is meant to bridge, all the more palpable. On the occasion of a feast, however, these boundaries between secrecy and publicity, sacred and profane, inner and outer, were suspended. The gods then appeared in the public outside the temple walls.” (“Of God and Gods,”Assman, p. 16)

The theme of this feast, as the theme of all such public events, is the union of heaven and earth and the coming forth of the god. While the deity resides in the temple it passively receives the adoration, veneration and nurturing of the priesthood; when it emerges into the public domain it is activated and empowered by the common people and the ruling class who witness and participate in the feast. Without the continual secret activity of the priesthood the empowered presence of the deity would dissolve and its outward projection into the public sphere would cease to be possible. We can easily imagine the cultic center as the perpetual power generator for the immanent presence of the deity that allows it to briefly and periodically emerge forth, illuminating and empowering the rulers and the people, imbuing their lives with structure and meaning, giving them a place of belonging and an identity as a unified people. All of this occurred long ago without the need for declaring any kind of universal philosophic doctrine, sacred laws or liturgical dogma.

Transformations - Cosmos and Nature

Transformations refers to the specific and cyclic cosmic changes of nature itself. We are talking about the cycle of light and dark (day and night), the changing of the seasons (cycle of the Sun), the Lunar cycles, wind and rain, the occurrences of birth, growth, harvest, death and rebirth (so-called fertility), and the ever pervading and mingling of the spirits of deity enmeshing with everything, human, animal, vegetable and even mineral. There is no distinction between nature and deity, since deity manifests itself as nature. This overall cyclic process is the cosmotheology that Jan Assmann talks about, and it is something indeed that modern Pagans must develop into a perfected system of Polytheistic theology. Thus, cosmos is not a locality, it is a process. Order within the cosmos is determined by over-coming chaos, the primordial condition. The deities of a pantheon jointly participate in maintaining the cosmic order. The process of cosmos manifests as the regular cyclic changes of time. While the cosmos has a point of origin, i.e., the first day, once established, it is eternal and without end.

Therefore, the emanations of cosmic processes, such as the diurnal cycle of day and night, the lunar cycle, the cycle of seasons and the solar cycle, the regular occurrence of constellations and their apparent positions, as well as the perceived motions of the planets, represent a sacralization of the divine world. The deities, who were once an important part of the primal earth (chthonic), are embedded into the cosmic process. Yet because they are also a part of the earth, they also simultaneously manifest in specific locations or cultic centers. These are the five basic occurrences of this cosmic process: day and night or light and darkness, waxing and waning of the moon, the changing seasons of the sun and the growth and harvesting of crops, and the longer cycles where living creatures are born, achieve their purpose in procreation and then die. Amongst these many manifestations is the all-pervading occurrence of the many deities and their specific powers and mysteries (the fifth occurrence), as well as the underlying manifestation of the One.

What transpires in the cosmic process has a direct impact upon the material world because they are one and the same. It is my opinion that neolithic cultures in general, and some of their decedents like the Egyptians, were deeply concerned with the occurrence of regular and recurrent natural phenomena. Through this continuous scrutiny of nature they ultimately formulated a sacred cosmology. Other Bronze age civilizations, such as the Mesopotamians, and the later Iron age cultures, such as the Greeks and Romans, were divination cultures that observed the exceptional and the unusual in nature in order to determine the will of the gods. This, I believe, was a later adaptation of a sacred cosmology. Still, these divination cultures had their own perspective that was based on a foundation of sacred cosmology, and their focus on abnormal natural occurrences was grounded in a keen understanding of contrasting natural processes. 

Names and Sacred Language

Names refers to the names, titles and appellations of all of the various gods and goddesses, spirits, heroes, monsters, the whole host of divine beings that make up the spiritual fabric enmeshed in the physical world. Included are the myths, stories, rites, parables, riddles, jokes, and even the songs and recipes for food and drink. These are the linguistic representations of nearly everything that exists in the material world, the mind or the imagination - it is the foundation of the language of the sacred. It cannot be expressed wholly in books since that would represent something that is too objective and concrete. Ancient polytheists would have understood it as something that could only be experienced directly through the senses of the soul. Sacred language is used to engage and summon the divine presence through the use of descriptive flattery, eulogies, praise, songs and poetry, recited at the right time, place and by the right authority. It would have caused the gods to take a material form and to occupy their sacralized representations (statues), thereby becoming an immanent presence perpetually maintained.

Sacred language also functions as the overall semantic binding that draws the three forms of divine presence together so that the human, social, political and cosmic domains are integrated into a single holistic, cultural system. The sacred language of myth and story makes the mysterious powers of the divine cosmos into an intelligible and tangible phenomena, which can be apprehended by the individual and used to bolster the power and prestige of the state.

Myth is not merely a story about the gods but a form of thought, a way of world making, a deep-structural generator of stories.” (Assmann, p. 19)

When we examine the religious myths of ancient polytheists we find that the stories about the deities reveal them to have human-like characteristics, but these sentiments are within the context of interrelations between other gods and demigods in a world of the divine. Myths represents the social networks of the various gods and goddesses within a pantheon and how they are interconnected. Thus, myths are a form of divine history that is restricted to the divine world (not the world of mankind). Myth is a narration of an implied or underlying theology, therefore, myth is the primary representation of an implicit theology.

All of this symbolism, sacred theater, images, rites, pageantry, clothing, smells (incense), the songs and music, food and drink are the triggers that open the adherent into the super-symbolic world of the divine. What transpires therein are the personal and subjective mysteries of the individual - the meaning of life and the knowledge of death as intimately communicated between deity and worshiper.

These three dimensions of cult, cosmos and myth were the basic elements of polytheistic religions that incorporated an implicit theology as their foundation. However, the missing dimension or element was the dimension of history, or sacralized history as first revealed by Judaism, and then incorporated by Christianity and Islam. It became an important and significant part of monotheism. Sacred history, according to Professor Assmann, consists of the encounters and communication between the one true God and mankind. Sacred history takes the place of myth and even cosmos, becoming the true stories of individuals and their privileged relationship with the Deity, showing God as the author and creator of all things material and spiritual, the giver of laws, supreme judge and scourge of all transgressors, and the giver of redemption and forgiver of sins. This sacred history is written down as holy scriptures inspired or even written by the hand of God. Instead of kings writing their histories on the walls of their palaces, the sacred history as recorded in holy scriptures is written by the prophets, and it is mostly focused on God and his actions, while everyone else, whether king, prophet or humble shepherd, are secondary and peripheral.

A sacred history is the principal cause and motivator of everything that has occurred in the past and everything that will happen in the future. Instead of an endless and eternal cycle the world view shaped by sacred history has a beginning and an end - it is a linear construct of time. One could consider this mental transformation from an eternal cycle to a finite linear sequence of events as something of a breakthrough in consciousness. However, there is also a problem associated with sacred histories, and that is that they must be true in all particulars in order to be valid. If any event or sequence of events is shown to be mythic and without any corroborating physical proof, or even shown as impossible occurrences, then the whole linear sequence of events must be considered mythic and legendary instead of true occurrences.  

While myth tends to rely on narration and allegory, sacred history declares what truly transpired, from the time of creation to the time of the final revelation - the verifiable end of time and of the material world. Sacred history has a beginning and also an end, and all of it is orchestrated and fore-ordained by God. This becomes a problem, however, when sacred history is shown to be mythic when compared to a secular and scientific explanation of the origin of the universe and actual historical events as confirmed by secular historians and anthropologists. While this might not be a problem to mainstream adherents of monotheism who have softened their interpretation of their holy scriptures so that they can be seen as allegories or parables of God’s hidden and mysterious truth, those who interpret these same scriptures literally will find themselves at odds with the secular institutions of science and even government.

This is especially true for religious fundamentalists who interpret their sacred texts as the literal truth. They do not allow for subtle nuances nor do they attempt to sequester their religion from science, allowing each their own separate intellectual domain. They publicly insist that patently absurd myths are literally true; such as the Earth and all of its creatures were created in seven days, the Great Flood of Noah occurred as described or that the earth is only 6,000 years old. They will also feel oppressed by these same secular organizations and institutions and seek some way to overcome them, since they alone possess the absolute truth in guise of their holy scriptures. Only a monotheistic faith with its emphasis on exclusivity could grant its followers the legitimacy to interpret its holy scriptures as the literal truth. And, only a monotheistic faith would empower its followers to combat the very secular institutions that have granted them the freedom to worship as they see fit in order to establish for themselves a theocracy.    

Ancient polytheistic religions didn’t have sacred writings or books of laws, tenets, decrees or a deified history of their race; what they had instead was the actual doorway to enter into the world of the deity and revel in the mystery of one’s own being. The priesthood and the cultic center provided the environment and the means to achieve this experience, since they kept this connection to deity alive and the doorway to this world accessible to their faithful followers. Perhaps the only valid representation of what holy books might have been like if ancient polytheists had written down their religious practices can be found in the Vedic and Upanishadic texts of India. These works contain the liturgical rituals, hymns of praise, and the myriad of myths and stories within the underlying theme of an eternal, cyclic and divine cosmos. Later on, a more explicit theological philosophy on the nature and mystery of God emerged, but still the underlying features of Indian polytheism is an implicit theology imbedded in the culture and an immanent presence of Deity manifesting from the various cultic centers and shrines. 

Modern Paganism needs to somehow capture this ability and bring it into the modern world, indelibly shaped as it is by monotheism. It will not be an easy task, but certainly there are examples that can be followed in the real world, such as a local Hindu Puja ceremony if the seeker happens to live amongst the diaspora of a transplanted Indian community. Also, experimentation will certainly guide the Pagan adherent to that point or place where they might acquire a significant personal relationship with one of the many Gods.

Modern Pagans may lack the resources to build community temples or cultic centers with dedicated priests and priestesses, but they can at least install a temple or shrine in their own home. They can approach the gods as individuals or small groups, but there are some considerations as to whether it is either necessary or desired for Modern Pagans to build a massive cult center and perform perpetual rites of adoration, sacrifice, and the basic daily rites of tending and caring for a fully vested image or statue of the Deity and its associated divine family.

The emphasis of psychological and spiritual transcendence in our culture might make it less necessary for a temple cult to engage in constant and perpetual ritual activity in order to ensure a continuous immanent presence of the deity, since there is always the possibility of being able to achieve this kind of connection at any time or place once it has been experienced and fully understood. I have also discovered that this connection can be quickly re-established if for some reason it has lapsed over a period of time. During that lapse, the world didn’t end and the Gods were still there, fully invested in their temple niche when I re-approached and recalled them.

Modern Pagans encounter their Gods and Goddesses as beings that are both immanent and transcendent, since that is the nature of deity itself within our post-modern world. In this manner, modern Pagans can engage in monolatry and establish a personal relationship with a God or Goddess, or they can worship a group of Gods and Goddesses socially related within a mythic constellation called a Pantheon. They can acknowledge the various Deities of other faiths and cultures, and they can also realize that all Deities are one unnamed source. They can experience Deity as a personal and intimate force and glory in their lives, and they can also experience the vistas of higher consciousness and spiritual transformation. It is because of the cultural influences of a transcendental deity that gives modern Pagans the flexibility to be open to all aspects of religion, spirituality, transformative magic and a myriad manifestations of Deity.    

We live in very different times now than did our ancestors, the ancient polytheists, and the nascent religions of Modern Paganism as well as the ascendancy of ritual and ceremonial magick represent a whole new chapter in the perennial philosophy. It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out. Yet we must first understand the past before we are fully capable of building a new religion for the future that will pass the tests of longevity and overcome the obstacles of adversity, not to mention the pitfalls and trials of intransigent monotheism.

Frater Barrabbas