Saturday, October 13, 2012

Magical Sacraments, Relics and Reliquaries

(Reliquary of St. Cyprian and St. Justina)

The topic for this article might sound kind of odd for an author who is supposedly a pagan and a witch. Normally, you’d expect a Catholic to talk about these things, but that is because in the area of magick, there is some overlapping between liturgy and magical rituals. It is also true that I have expropriated the mass and the benediction rites for purely magical as well as liturgical practices, but I have rewritten them to express a purely pagan spiritual perspective. I also used the old Tridentine Mass as the pattern for my magical and pagan masses, and that rite was abolished in the 1960's when the Vatican II reforms were fully adopted. Therefore, what I wish to present here is a discussion about sacraments and other sacramental based tools from a magical and pagan perspective.

So what are pagan sacraments? The word sacrament comes from the Latin “sacramentum,” which means sign of the sacred. A sacrament is a sign of a material offering from the Deity to the devotees. (In the magic symbology that I work with, a sacrament is denoted by the inverted pentagram, showing that the One can be realized directly through the four elements.) In the Catholic church there are seven sacraments, and I would agree that these could be seen as sacraments in paganism as well. Let’s first list them and see how they apply to pagan beliefs.

1. Communion (Eucharist)  - sacral wine and a bread host. This could also be analogous to cakes and wine (in the witch’s sabbat), bread and ale (the red meal), or any food and drink. Substances such as these don’t become sacraments until they are blessed and imbued with the power and presence of the Godhead.

2. Baptism - this sacrament is more problematic because it seems to be wholly within the realm of Christianity. However, sacral ablutions and rites of purification are not unknown in paganism. However, baptism and the use of holy water (or lustral water) is a staple of some various factions of witchcraft and paganism. In these circles the rite is called “Seigning” or it is also more commonly referred to as a Wiccaning. Some pagans don’t bother to use this kind of rite in their work, and instead prefer to use another method. However, the sacrament involved in these works for the magical bath of purification and the purification aspurging of the magic circle is a magical holy water. This holy water can be produced from any number of sources of water (rain, spring, or even tap water), but it is then joined with a few pinches of (charged) salt and blessed, often with the breath of the celebrant and signs are made over it.

3. Confirmation - this sacrament is where a person is formally and publically brought into the church and receives their first communion. In pagan circles this would be known as the rite of naming, where a person assumes a new name and recognition that he or she is a member of that community. It could also be a kind of lay initiation or dedication into an outer court of a coven or grove. In some cases the rite of naming is used instead of the Wiccaning rite for young children, but it might also include a later re-naming when that person becomes an adult within that tradition.

4. Reconciliation - also confession and penance. Since the whole concept of sinfulness and impurity are not readily accepted in most Pagan and Wiccan circles, reconciliation might seem to be completely unnecessary. However, amongst pagan groups in antiquity, there were a number of taboos that if broken required the guilty party to do something to atone for that trespass and be re-admitted to the community. Blood guilt for committing murders even if fully justified was a common theme in Greek pagan spiritual beliefs. Yet how I would see this sacrament purely from the standpoint of modern paganism, witchcraft and magic is to instead use the term “alignment” instead of reconciliation.

Spiritual alignment would therefore be all of the devotional things that a pagan or witch would do to maintain a seamless and powerful religious connection to his or her Deities and ancestral spirits. Often in the course of these practices of devotion, the devotee would be required to give something to the Deities, either to maintain that connection, to redress imbalances or a state of disconnectedness, or to receive a greater share of grace and bounty when needed. Specifically, pagans of old called this a sacrifice, yet I believe that today we are not bound to the ritual killing of animals, although for some, this would be an option. However, giving something up to one’s Deities and making votive offerings is definitely something that would satisfy the need to remain spiritually aligned.  

5. Marriage - the Catholic church considers the union of a man and a woman, called holy matrimony, to be a sacrament. On the lighter side, some might consider it more like a curse, and still others would define it more loosely as the union between two consenting adults. I don’t believe that having a union between two people blessed by some religious institution will make it more successful, stable or long-term. However, hand-fasting as found in Wiccan and Pagan religious groups pretty much seeks to make a formal union between two people. However, I am unaware of any pagan-based group that would agree with the typical inequality of a standard marriage ceremony as found in traditional Christian churches. This is why many individuals, including Christians, want to either write their own marriage ceremony, exchange vows and token rings, all under their own terms. Those terms typically specify that the partners are co-equal and share in the duties and responsibilities for their publically acknowledged union.

Modern pagan themes would seem to indicate that unions between consenting adults are not absolute, eternal or limited to just two people. There is quite a bit of variation to be found in pagan communities, so it would seem to me that traditional marriage ceremonies are all well and good, yet they might not be the pagan version of holy matrimony. To find this in modern paganism we have to examine the role of the hierosgamos in antiquity, and expand the concept of the sacred marriage as that which can occur between a human being and a god. This brings the whole spectrum of sacred sexuality and western sex magick into the religious purview of modern paganism. Since Godhead assumption is not only allowed but even encouraged in many groups, then when a couple assumes their own aspects of Deity and then join together sexually, this certainly represents what is meant by a sacred union in modern paganism. I would then consider that the assumption of Godhead (called by some witches, the Drawing Down) and the sacred sexual union between two who have assumed their Godhead (called the Great Rite) as two distinct but related practices.

6. Holy Orders - these are the ceremonies whereby an individual is vested with the duties and responsibilities of being an anointed intermediary between the Godhead and the congregation. Holy Orders are the initiation ceremonies of the Priest and the Bishop, and they have their analogues in paganism and witchcraft. However, unlike the rites of ordination (priesthood) and consecration (bishopric), there is also a magical transformation included as well as the assumption of certain magical powers and abilities. In the recent past Catholic Priests and Bishops were considered to have certain powers, and amongst some of the faithful, this belief is still active. Still, one of the primary purposes of the typical witch or pagan religious leader (priest or priestess) is to work forms of ritual magick as well as liturgical rites. What this does is make all of the liturgical practices performed by Pagan and Wiccan leaders simultaneously magical, or at least that is what one would assume based on the mixed practices of magick and religious rites.

7. Extreme Unction or Last Rites - this ritual is used to send the shriven and anointed dying adherent into the afterworld, and to console the grieving family members with that immanent loss. Other ceremonies following the Extreme Unction are the Requiem Mass and the grave-side rites of interment. All of these rites have variations and analogues practiced amongst pagans and witches, except perhaps for Extreme Unction, although that could be easily included.

However, pagans and witches have different perspectives on death than Christians, and that the concept of death doesn’t have the same aspect of finality, either. Ancestor veneration, as I have pointed out in a previous article, is an important practice to modern paganism, since it ties the living with the dead and makes for a greater continuity of one’s family and spiritual lineage. That a kind of death and rebirth can be experienced by the living in pagan rituals, particularly the more extreme initiation rites, is something that is also part of the practices of modern paganism. To be able to enter into the domain of spirits and dead ancestors is a true sign of someone who has mastered both the world of the living and the dead.


So, it would seem that there are two kinds of sacraments to be found in the practices of pagans and witches. One involves an actual physical substance that is imbued with supernatural force and the other is a practice that brings one into direct contact with the Deity. There is a third item that we haven’t talked about just yet, but let us list the two kinds of sacraments.

Sacraments as transformed substances:

Host and wine - also, bread and beer, cakes and wine (any food and drink to be publically consumed), lustral water, oils, balms, lotions, perfumes, incense, flowers, food and drink, and candles (for devotional offerings - to be consumed by the Deity).

Sacraments as liturgical and magical practices -

Communion, purification, sacrifice and devotional offerings, godhead assumption, Great Rite, initiation ordeals, ancestor veneration, supreme ordeal (death and rebirth)  and the last rites.

Relics and Reliquaries

Additionally, there is another kind of sacramental tool, and that is called a reliquary, or a relic. A reliquary is a special container for a relic, allowing it to be displayed to the public, and thereby transmitting its powers into magical and liturgical workings. Relics are to be found in many different religions, whether Christian, Pagan or Hinduism and Buddhism. A relic is defined as something that is directly associated with a venerated avatar, saint, teacher, ancestor or some miraculous manifestation of the Deity in the material world. 

Sometimes a supposed relic is a forgery, like a splinter from the true cross upon which Jesus died, or dried blood from his wounds, or any number of the bones, skulls or other belongings to the greater hosts of holy and venerated individuals. Sometimes the relic is a purely a thing of legend, like the Holy Grail. What is important is that the religious adherent believes that the item is authentic, and thereby acting as a kind of link, it can channel the power and holiness of the individual that it represents. So, the relic doesn’t have to be an actual piece of human remains (it can be a possession or something associated with the source of the relic). A relic doesn’t even have to be legitimate. It can be a deliberate forgery, a symbolic representation or an erroneous affiliation. Still, the power of a relic is wholly vested in the faith of those who believe it to be authentic, and that belief alone often has the power to make it a fact.

Since I am not a member of any antique religious organization that has a long historical continuity, I don’t have access to what would be considered the actual (or assumed) remains of any avatar, holy person or teacher. I do possess a few practical items from the my departed ancestors, but they would not be something that I could make into a relic. For instance, it would hardly be either acceptable or magically powerful for me to take one of the silverware implements from my great aunt and make it into a relic. Whatever virtues my great aunt might have had when alive (and even beyond as a venerable ancestor), anything having to do with magic and paganism would not have been one of them.

What might be an appropriate relic would be to possess some item from an ancestor who was into the occult or magic, but I don’t have anything like that. It would seem, then, that the whole concept of using relics in magic would be something of a bust for me if I didn’t possess anything associated with anyone magical or spiritually significant in my life. However, there is the third definition of a relic, and that is anything that would represent a miraculous manifestation of the Deity in the material world, this could also be considered a relic. It is within this definition that I can say I do possess relics, and I make it point to manufacture them when and wherever needed. Also, a picture of an avatar, teacher or ancestor, whether a photograph or an illustration, as well as statues and idols can also function as relic-like representations of the actual entity. This leaves quite a lot of room to chose appropriate relics to populate one’s temple or shrine.

One of the most potent (and often used) tropes in my magical work is to enshrine a host or part of a host from a specific magical mass performed to a specific Godhead and spiritual alignment at an auspicious time. I can take the consecrated host and place it into a metallic foil wrapper and then use it as a tool for sanctifying and empowering a temple or shrine environment. I have placed such foil wrapped host fragments at strategic locations, such as the watchtowers and angles, or in front of a statue or upon a trigon to empower whatever is in their proximity. 

If I were a priest in a wealthy church I would use an elaborately decorated monstrance, but metallic foil works quite well because it is a highly conductive material. By placing these kinds of relics at the four watchtowers, angles and the central altar, each point of the magic circle is profoundly charged and sacralized, even before performing the circle consecration ritual. I have my own version of a benediction rite that is used to install those host fragments and sanctify and empower the whole temple. It’s truly marvelous to start out with a temple already fully charged to do the work even before the ritual is performed. If ever a magical construct could function as a kind of battery, then a relic is the logical choice.

Another kind of magical relic is a specially consecrated crystal used to “witness” and thereby absorb the powers and ritual actions associated with a special kind of magical working. Used for this one purpose (and no other), the crystal then contains all of the powers and spiritual intelligences associated with that working. When displayed in a container or placed in a special place, it continues to radiate its power and influences into the magic temple or shrine. I have used such crystals to capture the climax of an important ritual ordeal, and then it becomes an important relic of my magical achievements.

I have already covered the art of animating statues so that they become living repositories of the powers, spiritual essence and intelligence of a Godhead. Such animated statues are yet another form of reliquary, and they can channel the power and majesty of a Deity into the sanctity of one’s own temple or shrine. Having such a sacred object in a temple allows the magician to possess a direct and active link to the Deity itself. You can find my article on animating statues here.

So, that’s my perspective on sacraments, relics and reliquaries as practiced in a pagan magical and liturgical manner. I have covered all seven of these sacraments and their associated mysteries, and I have shown how they can be used to charge and empower any magical working. All of these examples represent practices and techniques that I use in my own magick, so they represent the fruit of many years of experimentation and exploration.

I have taken what are nominally Catholic theological and ritual ideas and expropriated them into a completely pagan and magical context. Some might even say that I have reclaimed them back into a context from which they were originally appropriated by Christians centuries ago. Who really knows what the nature of the original source was, but I feel that the sacraments and their use as relics works quite well within a pagan religious system. I have also never felt any guilt nor have I had any issues with using them as such for more than thirty years. May you find them useful and profitable in your own work, too.

Frater Barrabbas

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