Thursday, August 11, 2011

Does Culture Influence Occultism and Spirituality?

I have been pondering this theme for some time now, and it really boils down to a question of what is evil, what is good, and if our culture says something or someone is evil, can that belief be overturned or ignored? Do what the masses believe have any power over what individuals believe or practice, even if what those individuals believe or practice goes completely contrary to what the masses believe?

This may seem a bit nebulous, but I would like to bring this line of questioning into the frame about the debate about whether witchcraft and paganism are endemically or intrinsically evil (which, of course, I adamantly deny), and whether such religious characters such as Satan or Lucifer are indelibly stained by cultural contagion. Social movements can supposedly reclaim culturally accepted definitions, or redefine them, and over time, those movements can actually have some success in changing the public mind about certain things.

This has certainly occurred in the religion of modern witchcraft, where due to a persistent and continuous effort, the public opinion has altered and changed its mind about this topic. The witch has gone from a feared bogey and social pariah, to fairy tale nemesis, and finally to whimsical fantasy figures. Reclaiming had to deal with a thematic character who was no longer believed to exist in the real world and therefore, rendered harmless, except to those who espoused more fanatical (fundamentalist) religious beliefs.

Reclamation has not quite had the same success with the devil, since many people, even educated and sophisticated individuals, still believe in a force of evil of some kind operating in the world, even if it is often divorced from the usual religious based theology or characters, such as Satan. This would assume that Satanists or devil worshipers would even want to reclaim their deity and eliminate the notoriety or bad press associated with the Devil. Calling oneself a witch is not as big a deal in our culture and society as declaring oneself an adherent of Satanism. While there is some push-back in the more orthodox religious communities against allowing the reformation of a religious witchcraft, there is much more controversy for anyone who espouses devil worship regardless of other people’s religious beliefs.

The fact that some Satanists actually enjoy the notoriety and cultural disharmony that their declared religious beliefs have caused in public has also made reclamation to be a difficult and nearly impossible feat. Successfully reforming the Devil so that he is perceived in a positive light would probably be counter-productive anyway, since then the appeal and fascination (as well as power) would likely completely evaporate. A thoroughly white-washed devil would be pretty boring and indistinguishable from any of the other more obscure savior or spiritual intermediary types. Besides, as Anton La Vey was so fond of saying, the Devil has kept the Christian church in business for most of its lifetime. So I would doubt that anyone in the Christian community would ever agree to allowing others to redefine the nature of Satan and thus rob them of an important theological foil.

These considerations can also be used in thinking about the reclamation of demons as well, since Satan is believed by Christians to be their leader and lord. It would seem that because of this powerful and longtime association, that anyone who traffics with demons would be considered by some to be a Satanist, whether or not they declared that as true, or just vehemently denied it. This singular painting of the world as either black or white has the effect of judging everything that is not in strict alignment with what is defined as good, proper or orthodox in Christian organizations must be, by default, considered evil, improper and unorthodox.

While it may be tempting or even justifiable for some Christians to either declare or hide the fact that they traffic through ceremonial magick with demons, the rest of us who don’t share their beliefs or faith are left in the unenviable situation of having to deal with these myths and their associated social powers and stigma. Since many of the grimoires and other books of ceremonial magick that propose trafficking with demons are typically wedded to the theme that demons are evil, it could be assumed that someone who whole heartedly believes in these books and uses them as they are written would experience some of the blow-back associated with socially empowered myths. How much of an impact this phenomenon would have on a would-be goetic practitioner is dependent on whether that operator is open minded and flexible, or closed minded and sectarian. I would suspect that the latter operator would find himself or herself in the unenviable situation of performing goetic work with a guilty conscience, others wouldn’t be so afflicted.

What would seem to be the determining factor is both the intent and spiritual alignment established by the practitioner. Does the operator intend to do “evil” to others through a malefic demonic based cantrip (justified or not), and if so, are the demons that he or she engages with considered inimical and spiritually toxic? Those who stand between an alignment to Christian spirituality and an indigenous native pagan-based belief system might find themselves in either situation, or perhaps even on both sides of the issue at once. Spiritual alignment is the key to identifying whether someone is functioning as a Christian diabolist, as a pagan-Christian heterodox, or completely through a pagan magickal perspective.

Intent is also important, although it becomes less so if the operator has decided to willingly abrogate any kind of Christian morality. If the operator has revoked Christian morality and approaches all deities and spirits with an open mind and a generous disposition, then that individual would readily and easily pass through the threshold of judgement and socially based stigmas to arrive at a place of pragmatic truth. Such individuals would find their own ethics and learn their own limitations, often the hard way, but inexorably so. I would refer to such a place of pragmatic truth as a domain beyond the simple values of good and evil.

This brings me to the real core of my article, and that is to question how useful the old grimoires are in regards to trafficking with goetic demons. Probably the most illustrative point that I have encountered recently was found when I was reading over the newest addition to the published grimoire collection, which was the Scarlet Imprint edition of the “Crossed Keys.” This newly published book consists of two classic grimoires, the more obscure Black Dragon, and the more famous Enchiridion of Pope Leo III. The Black Dragon is concerned with a system of demonic magick that is driven by the four Infernal Princes, and the Enchiridion is a grimoire of psalm and prayer magick. How these two could be combined into one book is one of the more interesting questions, but I found that the book seemed to work well as a unit despite the differences in the two systems of magick. (Crossed keys could be seen as a symbol of the keys to heaven and hell, but I will defer any comment until I actually review the book.) I will assemble a review of that work sometime in the near future, but something that really caught my attention was the apparent dissonance that the writer/translator experienced when attempting to work with the Black Dragon. In the original preface to the work, the following couple of introductory paragraphs pretty much define the spiritual alignment and character of the demons that the magician is supposed to evoke.

Indeed, it is no trivial matter to have direct relations with demons, for they are our greatest enemies, yours, mine, and all of humanity, and each time they are able to bring us misfortune, there is relief and joy for them.”

They will reveal themselves according to your character - that is to say, in accord with your weakness, whether you are submissive, thoughtful, polite, courteous, or loud, ostentatious, quick tempered and threatening - with the intention of deceiving or intimidating you always for your loss and for their relief. Be composed, resolute and upright and it will be easy to avoid their trops.”
(Crossed Keys - Black Dragon, p. 4.)   

Reading this introduction, and also examining the invocations will lead one to presume that demons are really irredeemably evil and toxic entities, but that they are also weak, cowardly and able to be commanded if one is composed, morally astute and resolute - in other words, beyond being corruptible. In looking over this grimoire and judging it from the standpoint of its obvious spiritual alignment, there is nothing surprising about anything contained within it. Demons are the enemy of mankind, but they can bullied, coerced and commanded through the words of power and the authorities of the Christian Deity and his representatives.

However, when the author, Michael Checchetelli attempted to perform these invocations, carefully following the directions and intoning the memorized invocations exactly as they were written, he discovered that not only did the infernal lords find his invocations offensive, but that they felt no loyalty or fealty to the entire spiritual hierarchy through which the grimoire was invested. The demonic spirits only materialized out of curiosity and interest in the operator, and perhaps lured by the offering of his own blood. How did this happen and what does it mean? Are the old grimoires somehow terribly flawed and deliberately misleading? Is the purist doctrine espoused by some writers that the old grimoires should be used exactly as they are written faulty and specious?

Somehow, I think that Mr. Cecchetelli had the experiences that he had due more to his own personal spiritual alignment than to any fault or discrepancy involved in the grimoire. He did discover that there were some omissions and mistakes in the versions of the grimoire that he possessed, which interestingly, the demons helped him to remedy, but the whole spiritual theme of the grimoire didn’t match up with the operator’s internalized spiritual perspective.

The reason for this occurrence is subtle, but it should have been obvious to all magicians (including me). When the grimoire operations were magickally realized, then Michael’s internal spiritual alignment was also activated, and these two processes fused in union to form an energized domain. Yet within the matrix of that energized domain, the pious sentiments and clear theological dictates written into the grimoire had become completely irrelevant, since they were not relevant or meaningful to the operator. If Michael had been a very strict Christian who would have fervently believed in the theology of the Black Dragon, then everything that would have happened would have been part of the “empowered” script. What Michael actually discovered in his working was the core of his own spirituality, merged and animated as it was with the grimoire working. We can also assume that this would likely be the outcome for any modern person who would seek to use one of the grimoires for the purpose of demonic or even angelic magick. The outcome would be dependent on the deeply held belief system of the operator, and that is the key to whether or not any magickal practitioner should engage with supposed demonic or angelic spirits.

What all of this means is that there just isn’t one way of judging or evaluating everything that is spiritual or religious. If you believe strongly in the Judeo-Christian spiritual themes, then for you those themes are relevant, powerful and compelling. A magician whose spiritual foundation is Christian theology is going to experience blessed angels and perfidious demons, yet all conforming and being commanded through the authority of Jesus Christ and his proxies. Yet on the other hand, if you don’t believe strongly in the Judeo-Christian spiritual theme, or if your beliefs are mixed with other beliefs, or if you completely and passionately reject it, then your magickal and spiritual experiences are going to be quite different. This means that the old grimoires are completely correct and relevant only for those whose spiritual foundation matches that of the old grimoires. It also signifies that the old grimoires must be adapted, redacted or even completely rewritten for those individuals who are unable or unwilling to adopt the conservative and pious religious views upon which they were founded. I also believe that it is nearly impossible for anyone to completely reconstruct the spiritual sentiments and world view that someone had over five centuries ago, so the result of working with Renaissance themed grimoires (even if they were posthumously written in the late 18th century) will be quite variable even for a devout Christian.

The question of good and evil therefore becomes a relative question instead of one that is steeped in universal principles. In order to intelligibly speak about demons, devils and spirits of the dead, we need to first define our own spiritual foundation, and based on that alone, establish our judgements on the nature of these spirits, their use in magick, and their overall spiritual characteristics. This is why individual practitioners who have vastly different spiritual foundations will also have very different experiences when they perform magickal operations using the same spirits. An operator’s spiritual context should always be stated first before he or she opines about any kind of magickal working and its results, especially when an occult topic as loaded with expectations like a goetic working is being discussed. While universal doctrines are useful for categorizing spiritual beliefs and organizing a religious creed, they can’t be taken literally and presented as universal truths. That means that a demon is one thing to me, another thing to another person, and it all depends on the foundational spiritual belief system that one espouses.

If what I have said is true, then what are we to do about the old grimoires? That depends on our core spiritual beliefs. If a magician is a pagan and witch, such as I am, then a lot of the themes and pious sentiments are completely irrelevant and need to be changed in order for the magick to be optimally successful. It means that a grimoire such as the Goetia would have to be completely reworked if you are not an adherent of the Abrahamic faith, and it also means that a grimoire like the Grimorium Verum would lend itself as a better model for someone who sought to develop a system of pagan based goetic magick. It also means that substitutions, redefinition, and extracting the basic system and putting it into a completely pagan based religious architecture is something that pagans and witches would find quite rewarding. Some grimoires would not easily lend themselves to this kind of revisionism (such as the Grimoire Armadel), others would easily enable such a rewriting. As far as engaging with chthonic deities, spirits of the dead (ancestors, heros, etc.), and even goetic demons, this would be completely up to the pagan or witch. However, assiduously avoiding the darkness has its own problems, since attempting to be an exclusive white-light wiccan practitioner would be to gut witchcraft and paganism of its power and mystery. As I have said to many of my students in the past, the mysteries are not to be found in the light, they are to be found in the darkness, where reside all of the hidden things.

I think that another book recently published by Scarlet Imprint succinctly says everything that I have been trying to say in this article. I am referring to the book on Palo Mayombe, written by Nicholai da Mattos Frisvold. I recently bought this book at my favorite occult book store, and happened to stumble across this quote when I was superficially examining it. The quote encapsulated my whole point in a simple statement, much to my pleasure. I haven’t read this book yet, but my attention has been powerfully captivated. I will quote the pertinent text here so you may enjoy it as well.

You cannot have the day without the night and otherness is always around us, like an invisible mirror leading to the land of death and ancestry.”

Given the cruel history of the Palo Mayombe, it is amazing to see how this movement towards unity and connectedness is still at work.” [This because unity and connectedness are central to all forms of magick. -FB]
(Nicholae da Mattos Prisvold - Palo Mayombe, Scarlet Imprint, p. 30)

When we approach any religious or magickal system, we have to put away all of our prejudices and biases in order to truly understand how that system functions. We shouldn’t judge that system or evaluate it using our own spiritual beliefs and values. This is especially true when examining a religion that is quite different than our native faith or beliefs.

On other hand, the words demon, devil and evil spirit are loaded with obvious Christian values, and if we accept them into our own workings without critically re-evaluating them, we will unwittingly build up egregious errors into our understanding and our magickal practices. We should first approach these various entities in a neutral manner, understanding that we must eventually join them within the context of our own belief system. I have made this mistake myself in the past, and now I must mitigate that mistake when re-approaching this material. As a pagan and witch, I am not obligated to see reality as a pious Christian, and so when I work magick using material from the old grimoires, that magick should be based on a pagan spiritual definition - to do otherwise is to add to the overall confusion.

Frater Barrabbas


  1. This is a good analysis of the traditional grimoire perspective. I agree with you that if, for example, a grimoire practice involves the reciting of Christian prayers and the operator happens to be Pagan those prayers are much less likely to work.

    In my new book that's coming out soon on the Heptarchia Mystica I address this in the context of the Enochian system. The book includes Dee's original Christian prayers, but I also have put together versions of them for operators like myself who approach the system from a Thelemic perspective. Many of the revised prayers are probably generic enough to work well for Pagans, but in the end it's up to the operator. He or she needs to be comfortable with the spiritual worldview that the prayers espouse.

  2. Question: in the long run, does it really matter if a certain spirit is classed by one Pagan/witch operator as a "caco-daemon" and by a Christian-based magician a "demon"? They both have the same potential dread and danger attached to them. And they both function along similar lines, do they not?

  3. @Ananael Qaa - Thanks for your comments. Glad to see we agree on this topic, and thanks for your advice and help in getting to the essential idea. My discussions with you helped me get over the hurdle so I was able to write this article in the manner that I did.

    @Jack Faust - As I stated in the article, the nature of any spirit must be based wholly on the magician's spiritual perspective. This will even determine how the spirit will behave and act towards the one who summoned it.

    For instance, a demonaltor sees demons as various gods and goddesses and deals with them accordingly. In such a perspective, demons are not uniformly spiritually toxic or destructive. In fact they are perceived as being wholly good and positive.

    A devout Christian, on the other hand, can only see a demon through his or her spiritual perspective, so they are defined as being uniformly negative, destructive and evil. Performing goetic evocation therefore becomes a dangerous gamble, and a test of one's fortitude and personal integrity.

    So with this in mind, the answer to your question is that if you are a pagan and a witch, then a demon could be positive, neutral or negative, to be determined on a case by case basis. A uniform definition, especially if it is based on a devout Christian spiritual perspective, is useless, and the definitions of the spirits found in the old grimoires must be revised. The only thing that is useful is the spirit's name and the seal used to summon it. Even the invocation will have to be changed.

    Hope that helps.

    Fr. Barrabbas

  4. Brother B.: Sir, I follow you. I am not sure you grokked the nature of my comparison, however, so I will try to clarify. The designation of a spirit or daemon being a "caco-daemon" in the classical world was of a malignant spirit. The magician would not have wished to deal with such a spirit, except through avoidance tactics (exorcisms, etc) unless he or she was similarly malignant. This is as close to the idea of a "demon" in Judeo-Christian eschatology that we can get. What spirits, specifically referred to as such, may change but the effective class of spirits and warnings that go with that class of spirits remain grossly similar. If we choose to see things along those lines, might we not day that there are plenty of middle ground for comparisons beyond paradigm and personal practice?

    If I am missing something in your entry along these lines, please feel free to correct me.

  5. @Jack Faust - I believe I did "grok" what you said in your previous comment. If you believe that Cacodaemons are malignant spirits (without exception), then that will be what you experience, if you summon any of them. But don't expect that to be true for everyone. A chthonic pagan may have an entirely different experience working with the same spirits.

    What I am trying to say is that there is no universal value system that would work in all cases, and that's because magickal experiences, especially with spirits, are not objective phenomena. Performing a ritual may produce one result for one magician, and an entirely different result for another magician. What I am trying to do is to isolate what exactly might impact a magician's experience.

    Fr. Barrabbas

  6. Brother B.: I understand. I look forward to further discussion on this topic from yourself. I apologize if my response came across as trite or annoying, that was not my intent. Best wishes.