Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ceremonial Magic and the Power of Evocation - A Critique

This is a three part critique and analysis of the book Ceremonial Magic and the Power of Evocation: A System of Personal Power, written by Joseph Lisiewski.

Recently, I made a comment that criticized the writings of Joseph Lisiewski and referred to anyone who proposed that ceremonial magick must produce verifiable material results in order to be considered successful. I decided to dust off and edit the critique of the book that started this whole movement. It is a rather long article, but I think that it’s important and represents my opinion in regards to the camp of materialistic forms of evocative magick. The problem that I have with Lisiewski’s book is that he states that a successful evocation must produce outstanding psychic phenomena, such as poltergeist activity, howlings, fire and brimstone, full physical manifestations or else the working has failed. Unfortunately, he has spawned quite a following, so now there are some other practitioners who taken up this argument. I believe that it is my duty as a magician to dispute this movement and point out its obvious flaws.

A while ago, when I read over Joseph Lisiewski’s book, Ceremonial Magic & The Power of Evocation: A System of Personal Power, the first thing that came to my mind is that he has decided to focus entirely and completely on the physical manifestation of evocative magick. He has stated that such physical manifestations are guaranteed if the magician chooses a suitably older grimoire (like the Heptameron) and faithfully performs all of preparations, practices and rites exactly as they are written, without substitutions or omissions. The determinant for success is that the old grimoires will operate as they did hundreds of years ago, and the magician need only look to them as the final authority in all of his operations. He has also proposed that evocative magick must produce verifiable and physically quantifiable results, such as a fully manifested physical entity and its associated psychic perturbations. He makes the distinction that his book and methodology alone fulfills the promise of gathering treasures in this world for the practitioner instead of in the spirit world. However, his methodology is simple and compelling - just use the grimoire as it was intended to be used and all will be well.

 I don’t really understand what Joseph is referring to when he seems to imply that other systems of evocation only gather together “spiritual” treasures for the practitioner. Certainly, goetic magick, like elemental and talismanic magick, are effective forms to obtain and acquire material results. Any experienced magician worth his salt would be able to affect the material plane in some degree, otherwise, what would be the point in working magick? However, in my estimation, the ultimate goal of working magick is enlightenment and at-one-ment with the Godhead, and through that exalted state, to aid in the manifestation of the world’s destiny. Throughout this process, whether working high or low magick, a magician engages the material plane. As a practicing magician, I find the accusation that I am somehow just interested in “spiritual” treasures to be absurd. I may have mystical pretensions, but I am not a mystic. 

During the renaissance, a classical magician would spent a great deal of time and effort engaged in the first stage of magickal evocation, which was “consecratio.” The magician would gather together all of the tools, materials and regalia that were to be used in the working and assemble them at the chosen place where the rites were to be performed. He would then spend time sequestered from the mundane world, obtaining through prayer, fasting, self-denial, abasement, atonement, purification ablutions and other pious activities, the correct degree of spiritual refinement necessary to perform the work. He would thus gain great spiritual treasures in order to have the power, authority and legitimacy to invoke and summon spirits, whose aid he would seek to enrich and empower himself in the material world. Perhaps that is what is meant by spiritual treasures. Since the world that the renaissance magician lived in was economically and socially restrictive, only magick or miracles could dramatically change someone’s lot in life, otherwise he was doomed to remain in his station of life and so were his children. The magician dared being discovered and persecuted as a heretic in order to gain advantage in the material world through supernatural means.

However, in today’s world, life in one of the developed societies is not ruled by a rigid class system or a tyrannical nobility interested in maintaining its status quo at all costs. The possibility of upward mobility is far greater today than it was during the renaissance or earlier. While material based magick is important, it no longer has to have miraculous capabilities in which to reward the magickal practitioner with tangible results (unless the magician is seeking a windfall). What is needed is persistence, intelligence, flexibility and a good work ethic. The old magick was used to make changes in the old world order, which by its nature was very difficult to change. A magician in that previous time would have sought to discover buried treasures or gained some kind of royal patronage as a sooth sayer. Goetic demons also performed many tasks that we take for granted today, such as fast and efficient transport, flying to and from a destination, sending picture, images, thoughts and ideas instantaneously over long distances. Much of that no longer seems relevant today. Would I like to be rich and famous? Of course, who wouldn’t want to be? Yet there are many mundane ways to achieve this goal, all of which don’t require a knowledge of theurgy. What it does require is a kind of singular ambition, a mono-mania, if you will. I have other interests and commitments besides money, so I opt instead to be comfortably well off in my career and station in life.

In his book, Joseph decries all of the current magickal methodologies in print, condemning them as inaccurate and unworkable as they are currently written. Although he does not name any names, we can be sure that he is taking aim at anyone who has written about magickal evocation and who offered their own methodology instead of deferring to the old grimoires. He has stated in his book that the current works on evocation propose systems that consist of someone else’s personal system of magick, which only works for them. He goes on to say that because of today’s inherent confusion between the physical and spiritual worlds and their rewards, these personalized systems are hopelessly muddled and incapable of producing any tangible results. What Joseph means by tangible results is a fully manifested physical entity and the product of that amazing appearance, which is the seemingly miraculous occurrence of material wealth.

I can deduce from this statement that what Joseph is saying is basically all of the existing and modern systems of evocation and theurgy fail to produce any tangible results. Practitioners may see things and sense things, but the working produces either very subtle manifestations or nothing at all. One gets the impression that the subtle phenomena is actually the delusions of the magician unable or unwilling to admit that what he or she is doing is fatally flawed. 

Joseph does seem to miss the irony of his statement accusing magicians of cobbling together their own personal idiosyncratic system of evocation, since what he is proposing is a personalized methodology that would accompany and aid in the use of one of the old grimoires. This is not so much different than what almost everyone else has determined in their own magickal research and practice. The only difference is that Joseph believes that exclusively employing one of the old grimoires (and ignoring all of the other more recent lore) is the only avenue available to the magician who is seeking a successful result to an evocation process.

Prior to this book being published, there were only a few books in print that proposed to reveal how to perform magickal evocation. What we have are basically two approaches; to base one’s magick on the Golden Dawn and its various ritual techniques, or to use the old grimoires as they exist in print. However, the Golden Dawn had rituals to perform most of the workings required for practical magick, but evocation appeared to defer to the old grimoires as well. Mathers passed around manuscripts and published a few of the old grimoires in English for the members of his order. Since that time, many have used both approaches, but anyone who has sought to master the art of magickal evocation has managed to put together a system of magick based on experimentation, research on the old grimoires and other published materials, and the ritual structures of the Golden Dawn. Whether a magician is a Thelemite, pagan, witch, member of the OTA (“Poke” Runyon’s organization), or some other occult persuasion, he or she will use these sources, since there are few if any other sources to examine.  What seems to happen is that anyone who masters evocation has to have first developed their own personal system. I honestly can’t figure out why this is such a bad thing. I, myself, have gone this route, and I produced a system that not only worked for me, but also worked for others as well.

Joseph also makes a great deal of noise about the inaccuracies that appear to plague the writings of the Golden Dawn, and that those errors came about from the misspellings and omissions found in the book, The Magus, by Francis Barett, which was the supposed source of occult lore for that organization. Of course, The Magus was a poor plagiarism of Henry Agrippa’s four books on Occult Philosophy, but for many individuals in the 19th century, it was their only source book for that material.  Joseph goes on to say that because of those errors, the entire body of lore belonging to the Golden Dawn is spurious and suspect, and so is all the other lore based on the Golden Dawn, including all of the writings of Aleister Crowley and his spiritual descendants. That would implicate Lon Milo DuQuette as well as yours truly. Joseph has determined that the reason why modern systems of evocation or theurgy don’t work is because of these errors.

To impugn all of the writings on practical and evocative magick, from the Golden Dawn to the present, because they contain the errors and omissions first presented in the Magus would assume that no one ever went back to Agrippa’s work to find a better source for their material. It would also assume that such errors, if they occur, are either relevant or even important. Occult publications and manuscripts are notorious for containing errors. I had to fix some of the squares that I wanted to use in the latest version of the Book of Abramelin because they had errors in them, and this book was produced from a supposedly purer source, a German version of the same genre that was superior to the original produced by Mathers.

While it is true that there are errors and omissions in a lot of the occult material in print, does it follow that whatever is based upon these writings, errors and all, are themselves egregiously in error? Joseph uses this logic to propose that we should all use the original occult sources, particularly the old grimoires, since they were used by generations of practicing magicians and were therefore, tried and true. Yet anyone who knows anything about the old grimoires will quickly realize how facetious and misleading this statement really is. First off, every manuscript of a given grimoire genre had differences, some had more and some had less - the variances could be quite startling. Secondly, most of the published works are from manuscripts that were much later than the originally proposed dates of origin. What has gotten into print is often from a poor surviving manuscript or redacted from multiple copies. Often, published grimoires are edited and produced by individuals who are historians and not practicing magicians, so errors and lacunae are reproduced so they can be examined from a historical perspective, not a magickal one.

So is Joseph saying that we should go back to the actual manuscript in its native tongue? How many occultists can speak archaic written forms of French, German or Italian, and then, have access to rare books that would be kept in special collections under strict environmental controls. Only certified academics would have access to such works, since few of these books have been electronically reproduced and disseminated. Most occultists and magicians are reliant on those works that are published and made available to the general public, so getting back to the source has its limitations. 

Another example of how erroneous this claim is can be found in the example of the grimoire Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin, which was translated and published by Mathers in the late 19th century. This book has been revered by occultists and practicing magicians. The book even has urban myths associated with it, that the magical squares contained in it are so potent, just having the book in one’s possessions can cause all sorts of phenomena to occur. However, recent scholarship has revealed that the original manuscript used by Mathers was incomplete and full of errors. A new version of this book, which was derived from an earlier and more complete German manuscript, shows, when compared to the older version, just how incomplete and flawed it was. There are more magick squares in the German version than the French version, all of the magick squares are complete (although some have errors) in the German version, and an entire chapter was omitted in the French version that is faithfully reproduced in the German. The ordeal in the German version is 18 months, while it is only 6 months in the French version - the list goes on and on.

Despite all of those numerous errors or differences in the French/Mathers version, many magickal practitioners have attested to the potency and efficacy of this grimoire, even though the version that they have used was published from a flawed and incomplete source manuscript. Were the magicians who used it delusional? Can we trust a published book version of one of the original grimoires without recourse to the spectrum of different original manuscripts used to produce it, ensuring that what we have is correct and authentic? Obviously, the answer to both questions above is “no”, so it can’t really make much difference. This example alone shows the fatal error in Joseph’s declaration, and we must acknowledge that all occult lore has errors, typos and omissions, but that doesn’t negate the potency of the magic produced.

Perhaps it might be just as easy to just fix the errors wherever they are discovered. Maybe that would alleviate the problem, although from the perspective of the purest it would make the magickal workings that relied on them doubtful, whether the errors were fixed or not. However, that being said, errors and omissions can’t seem to completely negate the efficacy of the grimoire. It comes down to the fact that nothing is perfect, not even the old grimoires had that distinction. Yet Joseph seems to believe that if a page is missing, a letter transposed or a name misspelled, then somehow the whole operation will produce nothing. 

I find his logic to be quite challenging even though I strongly disagree, and with, I might add, extreme prejudice. It would seem his opinion is well founded in the older practices of ceremonial magick, where even a minor mistake could nullify the whole operation. However, my experience with magick has shown that such attention to detail is superfluous and even irrelevant. There is an important reason why this is so, and it is simply stated that the domain of Spirit is neither described nor defined by occult symbols even in their most abstract or absolute form, so a variance in them will not alter the outcome. So it would seem that the intent has a greater relevance to the practice of magick than the perfection of ritual execution or the purity of the source of ritual lore.

If someone invokes a spirit named “Duke Imos”, and instead calls him “Duke Inos”, will that cause the rite to fail? One might expect that something as important as a spirit’s name would have to be correct in order for the invocation to succeed, but actually, it does succeed anyway. I have witnessed individuals invoking Welsh pagan deities, massacring their names in a manner that would set a Welshman’s teeth on edge, but it doesn’t seem to mar the ritual or keep those deities from appearing in some manner. Are such productive outcomes delusions? Are the individuals who made such glaring errors and the people who were also in attendance, mass hallucinating? Of course not! The question that this issue begs is this: Is it the form or the intent of the rite that is important? A medieval magician would say it was the form, but then if he made a mistake and didn’t know about it, the magickal operation would probably have worked anyway. I would say that the intent is far more important than the form and experience has shown this, time after time, to be true. Joseph decries minor discrepancies between variations in the lists of spirits and correspondences and deduces that only the use of correct versions will guarantee a successful outcome. This rule has been proven to be wrong, so either Joseph is being highly disingenuous or he is showing a decided ignorance about how magick really works. 

Joseph decries the “march to your own drumbeat” mentality of the New Age that has allowed some gross and vulgar practices when it comes to ritual writing and performance, and these include sloppy research, poor substitutions, a lack of practice and shoddy execution. I find that I must agree with his opinion to a certain point, since I often find poor ritual practices exacerbated by the mixing of different spiritual or occult systems with no regard to esthetics, simplicity, continuity or elegance of form. These rituals sometimes even work, although not as effectively as they would if they were written in a consistent manner. Yet this often occurs from a lack of expertise and practice, which can only be gained by experimentation and the evolving of one’s work over time.

There are a lot of people working at a beginner’s level of expertise in magick and when one examines their rituals, their lack of sophistication is glaringly obvious. However, for some reason their rituals can still work as long as the intent is clear and simply expressed. This is a paradox, but as I have stated, magick is not based on the existence of absolutely and verifiable truths, even in symbolic form. One can actually make a lot of erroneous substitutions and the magick will still work, if the intent is clear. So magick relies first and foremost on the intent of the magician, secondly on her will, thirdly on her imagination and passion, fourthly on her personal practices and mental disciplines, etc. Somewhere down the list of important criteria, one might find that the symbology should be consistent and that the magician should not mix systems, but that is not particularly important. I have seen individuals perform powerful rites using nothing more exotic in terms of magickal regalia than their own index finger and their mundane clothes, and the magick worked. Where Joseph lays down absolute rules about the practice of theurgy, I would make suggestions and establish guidelines for esthetically superior rituals. Unlike Joseph, I am not a snob nor am I a purist - and still, the magick works anyway!

Joseph then gives a rather gloomy analysis of the history of magick, which is interesting but proposes questionable ideas, such as that each age of magick laid the ground work for the next age, and that there is a continuous tradition practiced down through the ages, from the Hermetic Era in antiquity through the Gothic Revival of the 19th century. I don’t believe that at all, and there is little to verify any kind of actual unbroken historical lineage from antiquity to today. In my opinion, each age reinvents magick, certainly using ideas and material from previous ages, but in a way that makes it completely new.

For instance, anyone who has examined the Greek Magical Papyri of the Hermetic Era currently in vogue amongst modern practitioners of magick will find that the rites and spells are quite different than anything practiced today, since they represent a very different, if not, lost way of perceiving the world. Whatever is used from these archaic documents must be intensely reworked and rewritten in order to make them useful. Joseph seems to think that the process of rewriting such a ritual is an egregious sin, since the original ritual is lost amidst the rewriting. He gives as an example, the Bornless One rite, which was remade by the Golden Dawn members into one of the most beautiful and powerful rituals in our current arsenal of modern lore. The original ritual is inelegant, crude and was used as a means to perform a powerful exorcism. Yet the new version corrupted some of the words of power or omitted some of them altogether. A modern magician could extract a version of the “Headless One” rite from the original text and make it work, and the Golden Dawn version can be performed, and it works as well. Of course, the magician who uses the original rite isn’t actually reading and performing the rite in Koine Greek, but that doesn’t seem to matter at all.

This example supports my argument above, that the old rites are given new life by being rewritten and reformed into something new. It is a process that has been used for untold centuries and represents how new ritual lore is developed from the old lore of a previous age. But according to Joseph, we lost our way in the last two centuries, and the magick used today is groundless and ineffective. Of course, I don’t agree with him, and I find his statements rather strange. Has he ever tried to use any of the modern rites that he so caustically condemns? The fact that they work is proof enough for the modern practitioner, and if they didn’t work, they would have been discarded and replaced with something that did work many years ago.

Frater Barrabbas


  1. For instance, anyone who has examined the Greek Magical Papyri of the Hermetic Era currently in vogue amongst modern practitioners of magick will find that the rites and spells are quite different than anything practiced today, since they represent a very different, if not, lost way of perceiving the world. Whatever is used from these archaic documents must be intensely reworked and rewritten in order to make them useful.

    Wait. Wait. Wait. What? I've used the PGM extensively, man. Never had a single issue, except that time I botch the VM really badly...

  2. Also, you mean like this: The Daemon of Protection?

    As for reworking them extensively, I still disagree. The reasons to do it are to help you understand the manifestations, but you're presupposing that worldview existed harmoniously for all the Greco-Roman magicians practicing their art. It certainly did not, imo. Just look at the rituals themselves, and the conflations. The picture that emerges is very different from Neo-Platonism at the time...

    What they did seem to do that modern magicians and neo-Pagans don't? Sit their happy asses in the Land of the Dead until they got it.

  3. Just to make a point, to start, many of the people who do an evocation are looking for physical manifestations of angels and demons and poltergeist activity. For a lot of people, the evocation ritual isn't about doing something magically or talking to a spirit, it's about seeing something real. This isn't a subtle manipulation or odds or drawing something into your life, it isn't feeling the energies around you, this is Harry Potter/AD&D/Charmed/Buffy/Fantasy Novel type magick where stuff really happens.

    As for Liwieski, he's a good representation of what's wrong with parts of the community. I could talk about how his history of magic is outright wrong (a quick look at the Greek and Roman magical texts that are still in existence show that during those periods magical practice was very diversified, at least as much as it is today if not moreso). But it's easier to point out that the actual, and deeply studied, European history in his book is wrong and doesn't comply with the views of any professional living historian (see for instance his description of the Dark Ages).

    Then there's the idea that old magic is somehow better than new magic. This is actually a Christian perspective on spirituality. The bible is an old book that is believed to be infallible and inspired by an omniscient creator, therefor it is superior to everything that comes after it.

    More importantly, as competent magicians, we recognize that these old tomes didn't appear out of thin air, they weren't gifted to us by extra-terrestrials, and we weren't given them by an all-powerful god. They were created by adept magicians, like ourselves, centuries ago. Nothing has changed in that time that has somehow made modern magicians unable to achieve at least the same results as their ancestors.

    Liwieski also has the same personality as the leaders and elders most of us hate. You know who they are. The people who tell you that you can't do something the way you're doing it or that you're wrong, and they use an appeal to some book or authority figure, not their own experience and power, to prove you wrong. Liwieski is using Agrippa and Abano instead of Crowley and Cunningham, but it's the same douche-bag personality.

    And his book is a useless piece of garbage, something that is wrong with a lot of the magic books out there. He provides no new information. I can easily download all these old grimoires for free, they are public domain works after all. The only validity Liwieski would have is if he added something new to them (which goes against his beliefs) or he was a highly regarded translator (which he is not, for that I'd buy Peterson's books). He's not selling us anything useful, he's just repeating the information of others, information that is available for free no less.

    But I think what pisses most people off is that Liwieski has an attitude of "you can't do this" and "this shouldn't be done" and "you're ruining magic". Luckily though, being an adept means we can do whatever the hell we feel like, Liwieski be damned.

  4. @Jack - You take a spell that has been translated (by a non-occult scholar) from Koine Greek, Coptic or Demotic to English, maybe omit the sentences that are incomplete or fill them in, extract that spell from out of the context of the 1st century CE of the interior of Egypt and perform it, and that's not extensively changing it from how it was originally performed two thousand years ago, then I don't know what is. The key here is not the ritual, it's the ritualizer. Whether you want to admit it or not, every time you work magick, you generate something new. I believe that to be a fact, and it's the basis to what I am trying to communicate in this article.

    @Rob - perhaps many who work goetic magick seek an apparent physical manifestation, but what they are experiencing when such a working is successful is probably more subtle than that, whether or not they seek to admit it to others. I just don't buy that there is some mysterious process that allows something to be miraculously generated into matter from nothing.

    Thanks for your comments, both of you. They are appreciated.

  5. @Brotha B.: Gotcha! That I agree with entirely!

  6. is it possible to gain heavenly harmony from the angels for musical purposes? Enochian magick opens you to angelic beings so they may guide you right?...yet youre supposed to use an Enochian system of language and speech, this is all interesting and all but im a little confused. In Mcgragers (or however you spell his name) translation of Abremelin the mage i believe it's the second book where it says any chants in a tongue foreign to man is diabolical since God and his angels can perdectly understand whats natural for us to speak ... this is quite a rut for me since i have no teacher. Im all for the idea behind enochia its just you have to be careful idont wanna channel any dark forces. Oh and the keys of Solomon please explain in detail ( if you could)its differences and similarities to Enochia. Thanks peace and love to all!