Saturday, September 19, 2009

Myth of the Magus - Initiatic Cycle of the Great Work


“--And my ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer;
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.”

From The Tempest - Prospero’s Epilogue - W. Shakespeare

Thus Prince Prospero delivers his epilogue at the end of the play, The Tempest. He gives himself up to fate and final judgement, hoping for a reprieve. We can only feel sympathy for him, for he used his formidable magical knowledge and powers to redress the terrible injustice done to him by his brother. Yet he is still guilty of being a magician and commanding the elements through his familiar spirit, Ariel, whether or not the outcome is all for the good. Prospero knows this to be true, hence his acknowledgment of guilt at the very moment of victory. The puzzling reason for this guilt and shame is that it represents the uneasiness which Renaissance culture had for the deliberate practice of magic. Times have changed somewhat today, and perhaps your average person would greet such victories, even those won by trickery and treachery, as shamelessly justified. Even so, there is price to be paid for using questionable powers that has its echo even in our present time. We are still expected to believe that ill gotten gains, whether justified or not, can only result in some kind of catastrophic loss. We see this motif constantly reoccurring in the news, movies, music and novels.

Prospero is a fictitious character, likely modeled on a real historical individual known as John Dee, Shakespeare’s own contemporaneous countryman. However, Prospero’s story is not John Dee’s story, and their similarities are hardly more than superficial, except where their legendary occupation is concerned. Prospero is a characterization of the archetypal magus, the man of power and mystery. For Prospero, magic has served a wondrous but costly purpose, even though he has championed himself as a seeker of truth, justice and the instrument of God’s will. Such was Prospero’s piety and vanity that he attempted always to be above diabolical temptation. Yet we can only interpret this as a man driven by guilt associated with all things magical, since magic is the reputed instrument of heresy and apostasy. There are, of course, the terrible lessons of other great legendary magicians, such as Simon Magus and Faust. These are sobering stories because of their uncompromising moral lesson, but they are a Christian affectation rather than a denigration of the magician. The magus is an ancient mythic archetype, one who is seemingly timeless and steeped in mystery and miraculous wonder. His fall from grace has been recent and his subsequent redemption more recent still.

Like many other themes, the myth of magus is one that has had a long history of relevance and reoccurrence. From the earliest founders of today’s religions and perhaps even long before that in the shrouded mists of earliest times, to our present century, the myth of the magus has been told and retold with many different personages and with slightly different outcomes. The only other mythic cycle that has as venerable an age and power is the hero’s journey. Yet the myth of the magus contains within it the hero’s journey as one of the points in the rising and falling fortunes of the great magician. However, this mythic cycle has such a compelling power and relevancy today that merely calling onself a magician has underlying repercussions. Therefore, as occultists and practitioners of magic, we should carefully examine the mythic cycle of the magus, understanding and perhaps reinterpreting the generic fate for ourselves; since by calling ourselves magicians, we unwittingly invoke that destiny.

The best presentation of the myth of the magus, and perhaps the only one, was expounded upon by the eminent scholar Elizabeth M. Butler. Her book, The Myth of the Magus, published by Cambridge University Press (1993), is an exhaustive examination of this historical and fictional character, the Magus. More importantly, she has identified the mythic theme in its archetypal formulation. Like the stages in the hero’s journey identified by Joseph Campbell, Butler has clearly revealed the stages in the life cycle of the magus, showing how all of the legendary and historical stories of the various magicians in history have more or less adhered to this pattern. Since Butler originally wrote this book in 1948, her last two subjects in chronological succession were Blavatsky and Rasputin. Her study seems to lack the more modern and recent additions to this famous group. She didn’t examine the life histories and legends of such individuals as Aleister Crowley and Gerald B. Gardner, and she did not discuss other individuals, such as Hockley or Mathers, who although obscure, would have been known to her. In our present time we have such occultists as Dion Fortune, Franz Bardon, Doreen Valiente, Alex Sanders and Michael Aivanhov Omran as more recent representations of the magus. Other individuals are already in the process of making themselves into a legend, and may also join this prestigious group once they have shed their mortal coil and myth replaces historical fact.

While we could rehash the details of the lives of magicians in the West, both legendary and historical, this work has already been brilliantly done for us in Butler’s wonderful book. I could also attempt to extend her work by doing a similar study of those members of group that she omitted or who were unknown to her. I will refrain from doing so at this time. I will instead limit this article to discussing the basic pattern of the myth of the magus and how it impacts those who study and practice magic today. This is something that has not been discussed, and I feel that it should be carefully examined.

Ten Stages of the Mythic Pattern of the Magus

In Butler’s book, The Myth of the Magus, we find the ten stages of the mythic pattern in the introduction, succinctly outlined and occupying a mere two pages. This pattern is used throughout the book as a tool to examine the various legends and history of magicians, beginning with Zoroaster and the Magi (as the priestly cast of the Persian empire), and proceeding down through the ages with Moses, Solomon, Dionysus, Pythagoras, Apollonious of Tyana, Jesus, Simon Magus, St. Cyprian, Faust, St. Germain, Cagliostro, and numerous others. Each life is compared to this pattern, and amazingly, most if not all form a perfect fit, proving its worth.

In addition, Butler has noted that a degradation in the pattern occurred after the west became Christian, and that the magus was transformed into a fraud and a diabolic antagonist, reaching the height of this fallen state with legend of Faust. This is because magic itself became an offense against Christian doctrine, and that by the time of the Renaissance and the Reformation, it was perceived as being solely diabolical and achieved through the artifice of a pact with the devil - an agreement that offered one’s soul for the price of questionable knowledge and power. This is not to say that there were no magicians who were righteous and pious in their practices, in fact most intelligent men during that time at least discretely examined and studied occultism and magic, if not practiced it in secret. However, Christianity had judged the magus to be of questionable moral character, and this stigma stuck with him for centuries, until the advent of the 18th century and the age of enlightenment, when orthodoxy began to give way to science.

By the end of the 19th century the magus had undergone another transformation, and had become the hosts of the secret chiefs and mahatmas that populated the organizations based on Masonry and the Theosophical Society. The magus had become the super-human ascended master, ageless and untiring in his work as the spiritual custodian of humanity. One could see that the role of the magus had become even more grandiose than what he had been in antiquity. (The one exception being perhaps Rasputin, whose legacy has not yet been revived and redeemed.)

However, the pattern endured despite the fall of the magus and his subsequent elevation. One could consider this pattern a model for the great work of any and all those initiates who take upon themselves the practice of magic and the path of the magician. There are indeed pitfalls in this mythic pattern, being a mixture of triumph and tragedy. We should note that this pattern is archetypal, and therefore, subject to our interpretation. Some parts of it are epic in their expression, and other parts are decidedly ritualistic - we will examine these and note how they can be applied.

Perhaps the most important quality to the mythic pattern of the magus is that he must no longer be amongst the living, having translated his existence from the historical world to the world of legend and myth. Even despite the sometimes voluminous historical record for some of the later individuals who are a part of this mythic pattern, history gets either rewritten or ignored altogether, and legends and stories, even completely apocryphal become associated with the magus’ revised history. They are seemingly lifted out of history to become wholly mythical and legendary, and even their reported death is conveniently forgotten and overlaid with a godlike resurrection and multiple reported appearances, occurring long after the reported time of their demise. Popular imagination takes over and rewrites their history, and there is little left of the original person when this task is completed.

We can see this having affected the legendary lives of such historically recent individuals as Aleister Crowley, Franz Bardon and Alex Sanders. Even those who knew them and have published their memories seem to have little effect on the legend making process. Ultimately, urban legend, superstition and even imagined stories get circulated about these individuals, obscuring and erasing their historical presence, until only the myth of the magus remains. They become prophets, masters, secret chiefs and mahatmas, and their mortal history is reconstituted into that of a religious avatar, filled with the numinous powers of their gods, miraculous accomplishments and holy writings; they are then adopted to become some saintly personage in a cult or occult organization. Their failings and personal disasters are conveniently forgotten, and only their superhuman role and accomplishments are left to posterity.

So let us examine this pattern and see what we can learn from the process. Perhaps we may see a way to elevate ourselves, or to avoid the more terrible fate that awaits the magus as he walks his path between history and legend.

The ten stages in the mythic cycle of the magus has been encapsulated by Butler in the following manner. I have distilled her words and added some of my own observations. (See The Myth of the Magus, p. 2 - 3)

1. Supernatural or mysterious origin of the magus. The circumstances of the birth of the magus must be either completely obscured, unknown or shown to be remarkable in some manner. The mythic qualities that replace the humble origin are that the magus is of divine origin, semi-divine (half human and half god), royalty, diabolic, strange or mysterious. The less that is known about the historical birth and childhood of the magus, the more mysterious and intriguing he will seem to others.

2. Portends at birth that vouch for or prove the supernatural nature of the magus. Often there is a catastrophic event at or immediately following the birth of the magus, or an auspicious sign, such as a new star shining on the birth place, etc. Prophetic announcements of the birth of the magus are accompanied by a kind of spiritual anticipation.

3. Perils menacing his infancy, from evil wishers, members of the status quo or manifestations of the powers of evil. These are a kind of lesser trials that test and build the character of the magus. There are obvious obstacles that the magus in training must overcome in order to realize his true vocation and identity.

4. Some kind of initiation or transformation occurs or is described - this may be into the mysteries of the cult that the magus founds, or into occult or even diabolic wisdom. There is a period of preparation, consisting of tests, austerities, temptations and other ordeals. The magus passes these tests with unreserved ease, displaying the beginning of legendary powers and abilities beyond the expected normal level of achievement.

5. Far distant wanderings - the magus seeks to acquire and/or spread wisdom. The voyage may be supernatural and include a descent into the underworld and an ascent into heaven. In later times, the voyages represented the magus seeking to know all things, to accumulate all knowledge, and often brings with it meetings with remarkable individuals. The journey into the underworld and the ascension into the domain of angels and gods may occur in the middle of the magus’s life (as a kind of climax) or at the end, representing a kind of apotheosis.

6. A magical contest occurs, usually derived from ritual, but it can also be established in reality. It is the point where life and legend meet, mingle and become indistinguishably one. This may also be represented as numerous and miraculous achievements, even the ability to raise the dead and overturn the natural physical laws governing life and the world. This event can also be represented by the greatest achievement in the life of the magus, such as producing prophetic writings, utterances or teachings that become his signature legacy.

7. A trial or persecution. This generally occurs because of the contest or the magus’s greatest achievement, where the forces of evil, orthodoxy or the status quo seek to reduce or eliminate the magus’s accomplishments. The magus always wins the contest, but then loses the trial or the persecution, which has the affect of bringing him down or formulating his doom.

8. A last scene, of a certain nature occurs (although it is not required) just prior to the magus’s final translation from life to death. It may be sacrificial or sacramental, a prophetic farewell, confession of sins and repentance. This stage became more important with the legend of Jesus and his last supper, and grew to larger occurrence in medieval times and later. It may be literary (as with Aleister Crowley’s written confessions) or it may be an oral restatement of belief. Repentance may not be required if the magus is judged to be righteous and good, or represented as acting through the will of some god.

9. A violent or mysterious death, followed by a descent into the underworld. In some cases the death is quiet and unremarkable, or even unnoticed by history. In some cases it may be an execution by the authorities, but death is only the beginning of the legendary occupation of the magus.

10. A resurrection and/or ascension into heaven. Reports of individuals meeting and seeing the magus occur long after his supposed death, yet these reports are often made by spurious or delusional individuals, grief stricken followers or are completely fictional. In modern times these reports have been replaced by a kind of literary revisionism and renewed popularity, sometimes even greater than the popularity that the individual had while alive.

While it may not be required that a reputed magus pass through all of these stages, one can usually identify a variation of some if not mostly all of them. The magus experiences a super human rise in powers and abilities and a corresponding fall that typically but temporarily ends their career.

Aleister Crowley lived out his last years in humble surroundings and quietly passed away, his legacy hardly noted and his works seemingly lost to disinterest and obscurity. Yet due to the work of his followers, his legacy today has a greatly renewed popularity, that he has become a prophet in Thelemic organizations, such as the O.T.O., and his writings are treated by some as holy writ, most notably his Liber Al vel Legis, or the Book of the Law. I would not be surprised if Crowley’s troubled history was rewritten in time, expunging from it anything that would detract from his mission and status as a prophet of the New Aeon.

This is also true of Franz Bardon, and is beginning to occur with Gerald B. Gardner, Alex Sanders and Doreen Valiente, since the religious or occult organizations that they founded continue to grow and thrive. In time these individuals will also be legendary and acquire a kind of immortality and omniscience they never had while alive.

However, this pattern is troubling to those who aspire to be magicians, since few would want to experience the tragedy and the doom that appears to be a required part of this mythic pattern. There are other ways of interpreting these stages so as to mitigate the more harsh or punishing aspects of this pattern. A rule of thumb is to understand that the higher one climbs on the ladder of fame and fortune, the greater the fall when it occurs. We can also realize that what usually precipitates the terrible fall is that the magus’s kingdom is found out to be a house of cards, that it is supported by fraud and hypocrisy. If magicians can ensure that they build their magical empire out of rationally supported doctrines, documented and properly referenced teachings and corroborated claims they may not have to experience such a calamitous fall. Yet the world is governed by entropy, and this is true in the works and pursuits of individuals and groups - all things fail, and all individuals pass from the living to the dead. As mortal individuals we will experience a failure of vitality and energy, and our works will be passed on as a legacy or as a forgettable collection of prior belongings. How we establish our works in life will greatly effect how our legacy of thoughts, beliefs, opinions and practices will be judged by posterity.

Certainly, those who practice magic and act as the magus in the world are very special individuals. We don’t need to emphasize this distinction, except to note that actually everyone is special in their own particular manner. From birth to death we are in a constant war with the powers of orthodoxy and the status quo, who would suppress our beliefs and practices, even in a so called free society such as ours.

The most important stages in the mythic cycle of the magus is the transformative initiation and the travels to distant and exotic locations. The transformation is particularly important because it incorporates the hero’s journey projected into the unconscious mind and the domains of the spirit world. The magical contest is nothing more than all of the achievements that one has assembled together representing the larger than life cycle that the spiritual seeker and magus has undergone. The trial and persecution can be nothing more than the status quo and the opinions of authority that are arrayed against the propagation of the practice of magic. What we do in life, and the legacy that we leave behind will either burnish our legend in the times after our personal epoch have passed, or sink it altogether into mediocrity and oblivion.

The instrument in our present age for notoriety and for the communication of one’s beliefs and practices is the media. To write and to promote one’s self, to pass on peerless ideas and thoughts, and to get others to appropriate and use them is the one true path that we have to gaining immortality and legendary status. Many fail and only a few succeed. Yet the mythic pattern is always there, touching our lives and powerfully influencing how we live and what we do with the time that we are allotted. Great and unique ideas will live on, and trendy and mediocre accomplishments, however popular they may seem today will fade away and be forgotten. That should be our guiding wisdom as we progress into our future vocations and do what we have to do in order to be remembered and perhaps even become the stuff of legends and myths.

We now know the challenge, and the mythic pattern is still alive and fully functioning. May you find the way to immortality and lasting fame, avoid the terrible fall, and not leave behind a huge social impact crater in the process.

Frater Barrabbas Tiresius

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