Persecution of Heresy - Beginning of the Great Divide Between the Old and Modern World
Every day there seems to be another grimoire manuscript that is being published by some high quality book publisher, and it would seem that the volume of published and available material hasn't in any way diminished the demand. It would appear that an important factor for the popularity of the old grimoires is vested in the magical idea that somehow we should emulate the magical practitioners of the late middle ages and early renaissance. In fact, there is a movement within the practice of ceremonial magick that stipulates that all anyone really has to do is to choose an appropriately antique grimoire and practice it exactly as it was written, with no substitutions or revisions.
There is also the mind-set that such works were written by masters of their craft, and that they should therefore be wholly adopted without any changes or revisions. Thus, in the discipline of high magick, we seem to be overrun these days with individuals who are purists and nearly fundamentalistic in their approach to working with the old grimoires. Happily, I can state that I am not one of them, and I think that such an attitude is problematic at best and an insufferable arrogance at worst. Let me explain what I mean by this loaded and opinionated statement.
It’s my opinion that these purists are the occult absolutists in our field of magick. They are the ones who vow a strict adherence to their sources and who condemn others who are not so strict, in other words, those terrible gadfly revisionists - of which I am a proud member. I believe that flexibility and mutability are the hallmarks of true creativity, and their opposite are often the sign of a complete lack of imagination and creative insight. This is quite an unusual state of affairs in the annals of magick because I believe that each magician must create his or her own magical practice from whatever material and lore is available. Certainly, we have an abundance of materials available now that weren’t available just a few decades ago, yet to be hidebound to any one single source is to be, in my opinion, quite self-limiting.
I suspect that the magicians of the previous epoch had no problem borrowing their lore from multiple sources, and the diversity of antique grimoires even with the same title is a remarkable testament that this was so. With ever greater resources at our disposal, we live in a time when we can craft our own system and technique of magick from many different and diverse sources. Doing so is nothing more than following an age old technique of borrowing and appropriating the occult lore and practices of a previous age. I suspect that the magicians of the past age, both great and obscure, borrowed and appropriated their lore from whatever sources they had available to them. Should we be so different? (Of course, this presupposes that one knows enough about magick to be able cobble together a magical system, but that is another topic altogether.)
There are at least three different approaches that one take to utilizing the material found in the old grimoires, and four, if we count the approach of not using them at all. These approaches can be labeled traditionalism, reconstructionism and revisionism. I have talked about these three different approaches several times before, but I want to discuss them in context of the old grimoires. Of these three, the traditional path is the most problematic, since only if one has access to an initiatory lineage that incorporates this lore would it be possible to call oneself a traditional grimoire magician. Nearly all of us must rely, one way or another, on the public materials available. We can attempt to develop a magical practice based on the best historical information available and through that method, we can approach the full employment of one or more of the antique grimoires. There are a lot of problems with this approach, but it should be noted that grimoire reconstructionism is based on an assumption that whatever is unknown or omitted in that lore can be developed using modern sources or one’s creative imagination.
One other key point is that the further we go back in time, the less details that we know about the culture, people’s basic beliefs, basic language used, assumed religious practices and a myriad of other minutiae. Reconstructing a magical system must also include reconstructing the cultural matrix from that specific time period in order to be really effective, and even with the most painstaking research, only fragments exist for cultures that existed merely half a millennia ago. Therefore, reconstructionism, by definition, must always be incomplete and filled out with suppositions and even one’s creative imagination. Thus they become more like an “as if” proposition rather than a perfect reflection of what once existed.
This is why I consider revisionism to be a much better and simpler prospect than attempting to reconstruct an antique practice. You can even start out with a tradition, like for instance, the Golden Dawn, and upon that foundation, build and add appropriate various materials, techniques, themes, tropes and practices from the old grimoires. A magician needs to know and understand what is needed to build out a new magical functionality, and armed with this knowledge, then choose the appropriate grimoire and harvest from it whatever is needed. In this manner, material is extracted and placed into a proper occult discipline where it will become more or less redefined and used appropriately within of the context of an already established magical practice.
The reason why I am much more inclined to taking a revisionist perspective to all magical lore from the middle ages and the renaissance is that I believe that there is a massive gulf that lies between us, who are living in the post-modern age, and those who lived in the previous epoch. That gap has made a powerful difference between not only how one works magic today versus those previous times, but it also makes a great difference between the post-modern magician and the magician of middle ages and early renaissance. Our beliefs, expectations, approach to religion and spirituality, and our cultural determinants are all completely and radically different. Thus, a modern magician is not at all like his or her peer from the earlier epoch, nor is the world that we live in and our cultural matrix in any manner similar.
If we were to go back in time to the period of the late middle ages or early renaissance when the grimoire system of western magick was being formulated, we would find ourselves in a much different world. Roman Catholicism would be the dominant and primary faith, and all its beliefs and practices would be commonly known and engaged in by nearly everyone, from serf to the highest aristocracy. The whole notion of a secular approach to governing or to a knowledge of the world would not yet exist. So, too, would the notion of an existential individuality and self-determination. The Pope would be the absolute spiritual authority throughout most of Europe, and it some cases, he would also be a temporal authority. The aristocracy would be just beginning to exercise their independent authority, but no one would be foolish enough to directly countermand episcopal dictates. The lords who ruled the various kingdoms and principalities owed their temporal authority to the church, who sanctioned their rule through the artifice of their various offices. This was not too surprising, since these lords were from the same dynastic families that also held positions of power in the church. It was often prudent for the aristocracy to promote their offspring into positions of temporal power as well as within the church hierarchy.
The world of the greater Catholic domain was a complete, seamless and total world view, encompassed by an annual festive calendar and dominated by a monolithic religious belief system promoted by continuous and periodic religious practices. Nearly everyone participated in it, and it would be mostly inconceivable for anyone to exclude themselves from participating. It was considered a universal faith and practice, which is what the word “Catholic” literally means.
So, what would the typical literate magician of the late middle ages or early renaissance be like? First off, he would be a devout Catholic and fairly conservative in his religious beliefs. He would see visions of angels, demons and experience the powers of the saints first hand and it is also likely that his piety and zeal would have pushed him into the study and practice of ceremonial magick. Since he was literate (and often in more than one language), then he was either a member of the upper class or a trained cleric, since literacy had a certain power, mystery and prestige all by itself, especially to the greater masses of the population who were illiterate. He would have had access to enough resources to be able to equip himself and to acquire the privacy to be able to work his rites alone and unobserved. A poor man would have neither had the time nor resources to practice magic, and certainly, being alone and unsupervised would have been something of a great privilege. To outsiders, the ceremonial magician would have appeared to be no different than anyone else, he would have been the very model of religious piety and class privilege, and therefore typically beyond suspicion in regards to impious or heretical behavior.
A magician from that period would have been proficient in the inherent disciplines of discursive meditation, contemplation, the Holy Office with its eight daily periods of prayer and meditation, and the use of special mass rites to charge and empower his regalia and fortify his work. He could do all of these things, including ceremonial magick and likely get away with it because he was a member of a protected and privileged elite. Even Agrippa was a member of the (petty) nobility and no commoner. He had certain privileges and responsibilities associated with his station. His life, with its service to liege lords, training and social expectations associated with his class (from social etiquette to military training), his religious education and continuous engagements with a pious religious practice, all of this, would be quite foreign to us today.
It is also my opinion that an educated man living in that time would have been easily able to attribute to his life and its various occurrences as being the outer manifestation of the grace or doom of God and his saints, angels or even, the Devil and his minions. A magician would have made use of the Catholic liturgy (including the techniques of reversed exorcism used for invocation) and the monastic discipline to be able gain the proper mind-state necessary to see and thereby command the spirits to be found nearly everywhere in the world. The domain of Spirit was not difficult to access for the average person and in fact, it wasn't seen as a separate world at all. So the methods used to fulfill the need for the first stage of an evocation (spiritual purification) were simply a variation of what was already practiced in the typical monastic discipline.
My point is that the world that the magician of the previous epoch lived in was one where magick flourished, and the many varieties of grimoire magick had their origin in those times. According to the sparse historical data available, everyone seemed to practice some kind of religious based magic, which later would be considered to be steeped in religious superstition, but at the time, religious faith was a very powerful element in the world. Science and religion were interwoven in a manner that would be strange to us today. A magician in the previous epoch could easily employ one of the many grimoires secretly available and he would also know how to activate the spiritual practice behind the book, since he could merely perform the religious rites and practices already available to him, and it would be sufficient. However, this is no longer true, and there are some compelling reasons why that is so.
The first thing that happened that began to radically change the European culture was the reformation. Over a period of fifty years, beginning early in the 16th century, the entire religious perspective permanently changed with the advent of Protestant Christianity. Catholics, faced with such a challenge, zealously promoted what became known as the counter-reformation, and the periodic but constant warfare between Protestant and Catholic ideologies indelibly changed both religious traditions. Suddenly, Catholics and Protestants alike became highly intolerant of any kind of spiritual deviance, heresy or assumed apostasy. It became a dangerous time for anyone to practice ceremonial magick, still the books were still clandestinely produced, circulated and elaborated upon despite the risk. However, piety and conservative opinion, which would have tolerated a certain amount of magical practice, now had no tolerance whatsoever and this resulted in the persecution and execution of many who once were a part of the protected elite. What this ultimately did was to purge from both traditions of Christianity many of the techniques and tropes that were used in ceremonial magick, transforming the typical magical practitioner into anything but a pious and conservative religious adherent. It also had the effect of removing all magic from the practiced liturgy, a process that continues today.
Still, we can assume that ceremonial magick was likely practiced by some individuals, even though there is scant proof of that. However, from a more realistic perspective, it would seem that the literature itself had a certain sensational vogue amongst savants and affluent collectors who helped to spread it all over Europe. Over time, the social calamity of the reformation began to lose its passion on both sides, and the power of the Catholic church began to diminish while the power of temporal authority slowly became greater. By the end of the 17th and through the middle of the 18th century, it is likely that ceremonial magick was being practiced by a greater population of select individuals, most of whom would be considered more like occultists (or eccentric antiquarians) as found in our modern age than pious exponents of the religious status quo.
Even so, while ceremonial magick was having its own kind of renewal during this period, two more events occurred that made the gap between the previous epoch even wider, and these were the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, to be quickly followed by the Age of Science in the 19th century. By the end of the 19th century, only occultists had an interest in the magical writings and practices of the previous age, and the materials that they studied became ever more rare and difficult to acquire. The rest of the European world had become secularized, literate, educated and indoctrinated into science and socially empowered by democracy, and in the process, the late medieval mind-set of ceremonial magick and its cultural context were irreparably lost. It became the provenance of individuals like Mathers, Westcott, Crowley, and Fortune to resurrect the art and practice of magick, but what they derived from their studies and experimental practices was something that was quite new and infused with modern sensibilities.
While the times have profoundly changed from the previous age, magick has once again become relevant. However, the mechanisms and techniques of performing evocation now require a considerably greater effort to achieve the proper initial mind-state. Thus, we modern practitioners are forced to adopt a regimen of mind control that is considerably more elaborate, deeper and engaging that what the practitioner of the past age would have employed. In fact, to engage the Spirit world, we are forced to adopt ecstatic methodologies more reminiscent of shamanism than the merely pious practices required of the magicians of the previous epoch. Times have changed, and so has the discipline and practices of the ritual or ceremonial magician. So it would seem logical that in order to appropriate the lore of the old grimoires, we must first have developed and mastered a modern tradition of magick. It would also seem to be folly to expect that the old grimoires can be effectively practiced as they once were, given all that has happened in the last five hundred years.