Monday, January 18, 2010

Foundation of Practical Magick

I have been pondering the nature of magick and how it appears to work. Often, when you come up with ideas and theories about magick, something comes to your attention later to show you that you were wrong, or that your theories were incomplete. What amazes me the most about magick is that in regards to a ritual working, even the most incompetent execution and the poorest design can be successful. I am not advocating any kind of sloppiness or laxness in the design, creation and execution of ritual magick. In fact, I believe in crafting the best rituals possible, studying and then performing them to the highest level of my creative ability. One could say that I am a perfectionist, so there are no doubts as to where I stand in the practice of ritual magick. However, perfection is not required for ritual work to be successful.

I have lived in many locations over the years and I have attended quite a number of gatherings. I have worked magick with individuals and groups, both large and small. I have been exposed to a wide range of ritual and ceremonial practices. I have witnessed truly astonishing ritual workings, absolute bone-headed abominations and everything in between. What I have found in these many experiences is that the threshold for success in the art of magick is actually quite low. Rituals that are poorly designed and executed, and from an esthetic standpoint, truly stink, seem to work anyway. I have often wondered why this is true, and now I think that I can pull together some of my ideas and beliefs to explain it.

All of these points are anecdotal and quite subjective, but if you can trust that my judgment is grounded in years of magickal experience, then perhaps my opinions can be accepted as a kind of provisional truth. Not every ritual that I have witnessed has worked, and many don’t work very effectively, in other words, they don’t precisely define the parameters for determining success. Nebulous and disorganized ritual design typically produces nebulous and chaotic results. Perhaps that is the first rule that we can take to heart.

So it would seem that we could make the following statements about the practice of ritual magick.

  • Rituals can be simple, intermediate or complex - all levels of effort seem to work.
  • Rituals can succeed or fail, depending on certain criteria, although that criteria is very basic.
  • Rituals require a certain level of belief, imagination and enthusiasm in order to be successful.
  • Clarity and focus are important factors in designing and performing successful ritual magick.

Now let’s look at each one of these points and expand on them. By doing so, we may actually determine and identify what makes a ritual successful.

Complexity or simplicity have no bearing on how effective a ritual will work. Often times, complex rituals may become too difficult to perform or may be too redundant or cumbersome. Efficiency is often more desired than complexity for its own sake. A ritual magician is best served by constantly editing the rituals that are part of his or her repertoire, cutting down the extraneous and unnecessary parts and tightening the strategic elements. A ritual is seldom in its final form, there can always be additions or deletions. Editing and reformatting can make a ritual far more effective. My advise is always to start with a set of simple rituals that can be chained together, later on you might then take the chaining of smaller rituals and produce from them a larger ritual that is more efficient and effective.

Rituals succeed or fail because of certain criteria or basic rules. In other words, all rituals have to possess certain elements or they are guaranteed to fail. So what are those rules that are essential to a successful ritual? They are actually quite simple, straightforward and few in number.

1. Establish sacred space and prepare the “self.” This can be accomplished in many different ways, but it builds a base for the practice of magick. Simply stated, sacred space is that the area where you are performing ritual has been altered and prepared for magickal work. Self preparation is nothing more than getting yourself into the right mental attitude. This is a combination of exuberance for the work and obtaining a certain altered state of consciousness. Altered states of consciousness are achieved through techniques of meditation and trance induction. Assuming one’s magickal persona is also very effective, providing that the magician has one.

2. Establish an energy field or summon (invoke) the assistance of spirits, or a combination of both. This, of course depends on the kind of magick performed and the model of magick that one is employing. This step is actually nothing more than preparing the elements of the ritual for the core of the rite, which is the next step.

3. Define the objective of the magick (usually in symbolic form) and focus on it with great intensity, imprinting it with one’s desires and affirming it as a part of one’s will. If the energy model is used, then the energy field is imprinted with this objective. If the spirit model is used, then the spirits are constrained in some manner to carry out the objective. Sigils can be deployed to symbolize the objective or other tools can be used, such as a spirit bottle or medicine pouch. The magician must also use his or her imagination to visualize the objective and how it should be realized.

4. Project the resultant energy field or the constrained spirits from the focus of the magick circle or sacred space out into the material world. I call this step, exteriorization, since it represents the phase in magick where the focused elements and components of the magickal rite are projected outward into the material world, where it is impacted by the charged enthusiasm and boundless optimism of the magician’s magick.

These four steps must be a part of the ritual working or it will fail. The sequence is not important, but it does help to start with a good foundation and to build to a climax from that point. Ironically, the most omitted step in rituals that I have witnessed is the final one - projecting the power or spirits summoned into the mundane sphere. However, even a poorly designed and executed ritual, if it has all four of these steps, will succeed in some manner.

Belief, imagination and enthusiasm are the glue that holds all of the parts of a ritual together and can make it work even if it’s poorly contrived. These elements are qualities of the mind of the practitioner and they are characterized by the all-powerful “As If” mental proposition. If you passionately believe something to be real, then for you, that something has a certain reality. Being excited and passionate, and having a powerful imagination, help to make the ritual effective despite anything else that it is lacking. However, the “As If” proposition has some limitations. It can’t make an incomplete ritual complete and it can’t turn a failed working into a successful one, unless the magician is willing to completely forgo all objectivity. Of course, forgoing all objectivity is the beginning of the path of confusion, delusion and perhaps, even madness. Conversely, even a masterpiece of ritual design and construction will fail if these powerful elements are missing, so they, too, must be considered integral to performing a successful ritual working.

Finally, clarity and focus are important factors in making certain that a ritual produces the effects that one is seeking to produce. Often the bar for working magick is very low. If the ritual produces any effects, even if they are completely irrelevant to the objective of the working, then the ritual is deemed a success. Of course, what this means is that the ritual had all of the elements necessary to produce an effect, but the objective was poorly defined and not researched. Clarity helps one to properly focus the magick on the exact objective that the magician intends. As I have said previously, nebulous objectives produce nebulous results, clear objectives can at least be measured in regards to success or failure. One very important factor is reducing the number of items that are part of the objective down to the absolute minimum - preferably, just one solid objective. Meditate on that objective and ask, “Is it reasonable?” “Can it be accomplished in the allotted time and with the means at one’s disposal?” Perform divination on that objective and carefully examine all of the various parts of that goal. Are there any internal blocks that need to be removed? Do I have all of the mundane actions listed that are required to make this goal successfully realized?

The more time that one spends in answering these questions and refining the magickal objective before doing any magick, the greater likelihood that it will be successful. Once the magick is performed, then divination can aid one in determining if everything is moving in the direction required in order to be successful. Are there additional mundane actions that need to be accomplished or does one need to perform additional magickal rituals? These questions need to be answered after the magick is performed. The old adage is that knowledge is power, and divination gives the magician that kind of power and more. To work magick without careful consideration, meditation, contemplation and divination means that the magick will be performed in a blind and contrived manner. This will also ensure that the magick worked will fail to produce the desired objective.

All of these elements characterize a kind of approach to life that is practical, open minded, flexible and dynamic. Using these kinds of qualities in the practice of ritual magick will ensure that the rites that one works will be successful and personally empowering. Rituals don’t always work all of the time, but often learning why a ritual failed can be the best tool for improving and adapting one’s magick so that it becomes successful.

Frater Barrabbas


  1. How about "intention"? I was surprised to not read that specific word in the analysis.

    I suppose in working magick, I use intention vs. objective because I experience objective as something specific and concrete and intention as more flowing and open with regards to outcome -- which allows for something greater than objective to manifest.

    Any thoughts?

  2. Intention is the initiating decision or reason to work magick for a specific objective or goal. I have not found that anyone has ever lacked an intention in their magick, whether it succeeds or fails. However, the intention may be unethical. I have already written an article on "magickal ethics", such considerations do impact the intention of the ritual. Yet if the other parts of the ritual working are intact, the rite itself may still work. So for this reason, intention is not specifically dealt with in this article.

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  4. One of the things I've been realizing over the years is that the elephant in the room for practical magick is often talent.

    New agers are especially hostile to this idea because according to their perspective it all is thought and so anyone should be able to do it just as well, but think about it - how many natural human abilities are such that every single person is precisely equally good at them? I'm good at practical magick myself, but I could have trained from the age of two and still wouldn't be able to run a forty yard dash in four seconds like a pro athlete. That's an are in which I just lack the natural talent necessary to excel.

    If you have a group ritual, even an objectively bad one, that manages to inspire a couple of talented people in the group that may be enough to make the ritual a success. But take those couple of people away and the ritual could be a failure. I'm convinced that's why results from many public rituals are so spotty.

    You also make a good point about complexity. There's no "one size fits all" rule for this - anyone watching you and I perform rituals should easily be able to see that each of us has a different "cadence" that we prefer in terms of speed and emphasis. Mine is quite fast compared to a lot of ritualists, which is why you probably won't ever find me doing your more mythic and reflective sort of ritual work even though I find your models and ideas interesting.

    I think that everyone needs to figure out what their "cadence" is if they want to be most effective, and one of the challenges of group rituals is working one out that is acceptable for everyone involved.

  5. I must agree with Ananael Qaa. Having the gift is pivotal. Without talent all the well thought out ceremonies in the world would not do much. You don't need a lot of talent but enough to make the thing lift off, mind you.

    Then there is another very important aspect that you left out:

    The power of *things*, materia-magica: tools, bones, herbs, roots, flames, doors, dirt, blades, thorns, honey, animals, stars, chains etc. The list goes on and on. Things have power and special things have special power. It seems to me that the malaise of much western magic is centring everything in the mind of the practitioner. Magic from this point of view is trick of the mind, a psychological process. Its a destructive assumption I think. That assumption would make all use of materia-magica pointless window-dressing - because, after all, its 'all in the mind'.

    The egoity of that position not only robs magic of power but dilutes older traditions easily favouring easy sloppy substitutions motivated by sheer laziness and the notion that it makes no difference anyway. It really does.

    Very interesting post!

  6. @Ananeal Qaa:

    I could just as easily make the blanket statement that ceremonial magicians would be especially hostile to the idea of practical magic, since most rate power according to book learned knowledge and don't actually practice magic, and look down on those foolish enough to do so. After all they are where the term armchair magician comes from. At least New Agers actually practice something.

    I think therefor it is, is an end goal of New Age practices. It's not something that can be achieved without a great deal of discipline, learning, practice, and enlightenment.

    It's not like New Agers came up with this idea either. If you read Regardie's information on the LBRP the end goal is to become so used to the ritual that you're able to cast it by doing nothing more than thinking about it. For a variety of reasons Regardie chose that ritual to illustrate a process whereby a magician reduces a ritual to its most basic component, simply thinking about it, and it still proves as strong and successful. Regardie wasn't claiming this to be a unique property of the LBRP, but rather that this same process could be performed on any spell or ritual.

    As for your arguements about being able to run like a pro athlete and talent and such, to quote a New Ager, "Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they're yours."

    Onto complexity, less is always better. Any part of the ritual that doesn't need to be there should, ideally, be done away with. It's energy expended on something useless. In the same way time hurts a ritual. It's more difficult to stay focused and stay in trance for long periods of time. Manipulating energy over long periods of time takes a lot out of a practitioner. And after energy is raised, the more time that goes by the more energy that has dissapated and is wasted.

    Most times the rituals a practitioner is performing utilize so little of the total available energy that a few superfluous parts won't matter much. But from a purely objective perspective of how efficient or powerful a ritual is, less is always better (I think this was touched on in the original article).

  7. @Balthazar:

    When you start looking at items, and the power they hold, and also the power gained via ritual symbolism, you start getting into internal vs external power. Utilizing tools and ritual can give you a decided edge over purely psionic work as far as focus and power, but if that's the extent of your magical work you'll weaken yourself psionically, to the point that you're considerably weaker without the rituals and tools, and ultimately hitting ceilings that you can't surpass even with them.

    With special items of power this becomes an even greater issue. Whether you make them yourself or come across them these types of tools are really nice to have. But its also borrowed power. True power should come from within, and this is the only kind of power that brings enlightenment and a higher attainment. I'm not opposed to using these things, but I would be opposed to becoming reliant upon them.

    A lot of magicians, especially those with a strong background in ritual work, like to create an imaginary temple. This is a sacred space they create with meditation that contains all the tools they'll ever need. Properly trained they can, at any time, enter this temple and perform whatever ritual they want despite whatever limitations may be imposed on their physical selves.

    This is still just an extra layer, the same as a physical ritual, it's just a more versatile one. Any magic could be performed through thought alone. In fact this is an ideal situation since it gives you the most versatility. At any time, place, or situation you'll have your magic at your disposal.

    The key is striking a balance between ritual work, which will a lot of times give you the little bit of help you need to make a spell succeed, and purely psionic work, which will help you strengthen and build yourself.

  8. Rob, I agree that developing spiritual skill is important and with training a little bit of inborn talent can be developed - like any other gift can.

    What I reject is the post-modern narcissistic fantasy that it's all happening within the subjectivity of the practitioner. That the tools and temple and all that stuff are really on the 'inside' wherever that is. No: there are spirits, stars, plants and *things*, special things, real forces that have been the axis magic for millennia. These extend beyond the vanity of magician's ego project. The inside/outside dichotomy is false.

    As far as I am concerned this notion is part of the pseudo psychological babble that has been adopted by contemporary occult discourses in an effort to legitimise what they are doing on some scientific materialistic basis using this new 'science' of the mind. It breaks magic and its boring.

    In my opinion, ceremonial magicians should investigate the living traditions of the world more closely instead of parroting Israel Regardie ad nauseum. Actual results might follow instead of trips to the imaginary temple.

  9. Thank you all for your comments - greatly appreciated.

    For myself, I have witnessed supposedly talented magicians make mistakes and botch a magickal operation. I have seen Hoodoo magicians work very simple spells that are incredibly potent and successful. Elaborate ritual work requires both theatrical talent as well as the ability to write, behave in a structured disciplined manner and possess a powerful imagination to make complex ritual magick work effectively. A practitioner of simple spell workings needs none of these qualities to be successful. The only requirement that I have ever seen demonstrated across all practices and disciplines of magick is the power of belief and imagination.

    As for whether tools and relics possess an inherent power, or whether spirits are real or just aspects of the mind or even the "collective unconscious" is something that can never be proved one way or the other. I believe that it is a paradox - both premises are true, but the reality seems to be larger. So I would have to agree with all of you. For me, Spirits are real, but I also know that the entire spiritual domain could be perceived as being archetypal as well - these two perspectives don't contradict each because of the power of the paradox. This is similar to the theory of light being either particles or waves - the reality is far more complex.

    I use many tools, sacraments, offerings, talismans, sigils, statues of my various godheads, etc. I can also work magick entirely in my head or out of doors, picking up and using whatever is at hand. I believe that my tools have powers, but to others, that perception may not even exist. A burglar could steal and pawn my magickal equipment and maybe even get completely away with the deed. To him, my tools are an oddity, something to be sold to a fence, to me they are precious, but not irreplaceable, since I can always make or collect more tools.

    I didn't want to get into a discussion of these topics because I have already discussed some of them, and future articles will attempt to address the rest.

    Highest regards to you all -

    Frater Barrabbas

  10. @Balthazar:

    I actually think the origins of the subjective magical universe (as opposed to the older objective magical universe) stem not from scientific (at least in terms of psychological) need, but rather is the end conclusion of certain practitioners who were looking for cohesion in the way magic operates. If Christian mysticism and even just the power of prayer, based on a very rigid monotheistic world view, is successful, and so is magic based on a completely contrary polytheistic perspective, something is either broken or missing that prevents cohesion between these two acts.

    Cohesion is a very logical endpoint. So long as we assume an objective reality (that the world exists external to us and exists the same for everyone), we know there must be some cohesion within the way the universe operates. You can't believe there is one god where I believe in many gods and both of us are right and able to prove this with evidence, unless there is some missing fact that we haven't yet uncovered that brings it together.

    The theory of a subjective magical world explains everything. So does a giant spaghetti monster that routinely changes the laws of physics because it thinks that it's hilarious to do so. That doesn't mean either theory is right. The problem with a subjective magical world theory is that it was brought about by people who just didn't look hard enough to identify the illusions and discover the truth that brings cohesion to everything. In fact one of the problems is people generally won't dig too deeply into systems that run contrary to everything they believe to be true, and instead just see how successful they are. For example you don't see very many Wiccans trying to pull apart Christian Mysticism and figure out the secrets to the system, no matter how successful it is, because it deals with a central belief in a one true deity that most Wiccans do not believe exists.

    The subjective magical reality also provides its believers with a sense of saftey that they lack. Not everyone can deal with the idea that there are strong and horrible things out there they may come in contact with and there exist people who could easily kill them with little more than a whim and a thought. Many religions, like Christianity, offers a saftey net in the form of a loving supernatural force that will protect you if you surrender to its protection. Many people need that and can't live without it, and an objective magical universe doesn't offer that.

    That aside, I'm in complete agreement with you that there is an objective magical universe. Angels and demons and gods exist as external entities that populate the universe and are not an internal projection outward. There are some very powerful things out there.

    However I disagree that a practitioner should become relient on these things for power. If an entity is giving you power, that's a gift, and that signifies the power of the entity. Even if you're manipulating primal forces of the universe to meet some end, like with astrology, you're still just working with power outside yourself. True power comes from within. An adept should be able to stand on their own and perform magic, if need be, with nothing more than their own internal power.

    And there is no upper limit, at least a concievable one, to how powerful you can eventually become. Herakles, Perseus, and Orpheus were all men who became gods. If they did it, so could you, so divinity is an achievable goal, and there are further achievable levels of attainment beyond that.