Tuesday, July 3, 2012

To Change or Not to Change?

Continuing in the same vein as my previous article (where I defended making a talismanic variation of the Portae Lucis working), I would like to further explore the issue about changing (or not) traditional magical lore. I think that this is a complicated issue, and it is one that seems to have produced a polarizing disagreement amongst members of the ritual and ceremonial magical communities. So I would like to look at all sides and see if there is a responsible and ethical way of resolving this issue.

One of the most complicated and difficult considerations for anyone who follows a specific spiritual and magical path is to be able to determine when certain rituals or methodologies need to be changed, revised or augmented. I think that except for the purist (who would be loath to change anything for any reason), the rest of us realize that lore can age and degrade over time, or even become ineffective or irrelevant. Change is a constant and relentless process, and in the material world, nothing ever stays the same. People and cultures are constantly changing too, so it would seem that rituals and magical methods or techniques would also need to be changed and updated as well. What is relevant today might not be relevant tomorrow, and I believe that it’s important for ritual lore to reflect the times in which it was developed so that it’s current and can thereby represent the cutting edge in magical thought.

Even my own magical lore, which was first developed and written by me in the 1980's, requires a periodic reworking or rewriting to make it more relevant and efficient. If I just left it where it was back when I first developed it, then the rituals would not be as elegant or esthetically pleasing as they are today. However, since I wrote most of this lore in the first place, then I can assuredly make changes without having to consult anyone. I am free to take this perspective to its ultimate conclusion, where I can seek to perfect what I have been developing over the last three decades.

So if you own the lore that you are using, then there is no argument that it’s yours to conserve or change as you see fit. But what about occultists who have been given ritual lore as part of their initiation into an established tradition? Do they have the same right to change, revise, augment or adapt their magical lore? Answering this question is much more difficult because there are a number of important considerations to make before individuals should seek to change an existing tradition. Was the lore given to you without any restrictions on its use? Did the initiating authority give you the right and privilege to make changes? Is the lore owned by an organization and therefore, it would require anyone who would change it to go through proper channels?

These are a few of the questions that must be asked when the lore that you hold is not owned by you. It’s important to know the answers to these questions when anyone agrees to accept an initiation into a tradition and receive specific teachings, rites and liturgy. If the initiating authority doesn’t explicitly tell their initiates when, how or with whom they might share this knowledge, or whether or not they might change, revise or adapt it for any reason, then it is the responsibility of the initiate to get that information officially documented. It’s important to understand that a strict adherence to a tradition is just that; it is strict and undeviating. Such a regimen, once imposed, will automatically require the body of initiates to preserve the lore exactly as it has been handed down, including all of the obvious mistakes, errors and omissions. If the tradition that you have been initiated into imposes this regimen, then you will have to obey it or violate the very principles of your own initiation. Because of this, it’s important to know what you are getting yourself into before accepting an initiation. You might find that such rigorous requirements are more trouble than they’re worth, and often it represents the fact that a given tradition has become dogmatic and its lore, ossified.

Additionally, we should also consider who might be capable or privileged to make changes to the existing lore of an established tradition. Often, those who are allowed to even consider changing ritual lore are individuals who have many years of experience and a great depth of knowledge. Such individuals have either been entrusted with this privilege, or it might be wholly vested in the approval of a committee or a group of adepts. In other words, changes might be accepted on any given lore for the tradition if a majority of the group agrees to them. Obviously, a new initiate or unproven member wouldn’t be given that privilege, since such work would have to be entrusted to someone who actually knew what he or she was doing. Someone who would seek to change or revise lore within a tradition should also be someone who is competent at doing so, and enforcing this regimen ensures that the lore would have a certain continuity between individuals and groups. Making changes for their own sake in the lore of an established tradition could be deemed either unacceptable or unwarranted. A person who would change traditional lore is someone who is authorised to do so. Of course, we are talking about officially changing the lore, which includes passing it down to others in its changed format.

Still, if you want to tailor a working or to experiment with a new technique, even a conservative occult tradition should allow its students the creative flexibility to do this, so long as they don’t try to pass on these changes or augmentations to others as the original lore. All of the original rituals and liturgy should be kept apart from the magician’s work to make certain that none of it is permanently changed. The original lore is also there in its pristine state so that the initiate will have them to compare and examine at any point in his or her evolution. Also, it is this original lore that should be passed to a new candidates when they are initiated. If warranted, the initiating celebrant can pass down any augmented lore to the candidate, as long as it is documented as having been changed (including when and by whom), but this might require authorization from the tradition’s lore keepers.

In my opinion, the most important factor for any initiate who is making use of ritual lore is that the lore must be made a part of his or her personal magick. What that means is that the rituals should be completely understood in regards to how they work, when they should be used, and what other ancillary practices should be employed to make the working fully functional. The magical and spiritual disciplines practiced by a ritual magician are always tailored to the magician’s specifications and personal tastes - there is no way around this fact. You can’t take a body of ritual lore and just adopt it without giving it a personal context.

One of the most important questions that occultists can ask about their ritual lore is to question themselves with this insight: “What do the symbols and philosophic verbiage contained in these rituals actually mean to me?” If they are meaningful and individually relevant, then the ritual will have a powerful effect when it’s performed, otherwise it will hardly function as it should. In order to grasp the symbols and verbiage of ritual lore, the practitioners must study and also work to make them meaningful and important. They must use the technique of contemplation to focus and powerfully activate that symbology within them. This operation is best accomplished by focusing on each key symbol independently, one at a time. Through a concentrated effort, the symbology of a tradition must become the active symbology within the mind of the practitioner. If an initiate fails to internally incorporate the symbology of a tradition, then it will make the adopted ritual lore empty and meaningless. Most traditions will teach this key technique to their initiates, but sometimes, due to omission or neglect, this important operation will not be passed on. That omission would represent a critical handicap to anyone who is seeking to practice ritual lore that they haven’t themselves written.

In order to be proficient at working ritual magick, magicians must own, in some manner, the rituals that they are using. You could say that ritual magicians are not fully functioning practitioners unless, or until, they own the rituals, and they are owned by being wholly internalized. If in order to achieve that end, ritual magicians must add, amend, revise or create the rituals contained in their personal grimoire, then such modifications become part of the overall process of magical mastery. In other words, ultimately, every ritual magician will create their own ritual lore, either based loosely or tightly on that tradition which they have acquired through initiation and revelation. Every magician has their own way and sense of style about how they work magick, and this individual praxis is the magician’s personal lore. Magicians can’t easily pass on their idiosyncratic methodologies to their students, and in fact, for various reasons, they shouldn’t. Instead, they should instruct them in the basic lore that represents the common foundation for their own work.

When I decided to teach others how I worked magick back in the eighties, my system of magick was too personal and idiosyncratic. I had to rewrite my personal magical system into a more generalized lore so that my students could more ably adapt this lore to their own personal style. If I had been initiated into a magical tradition, then the original lore that I would have been given would have been passed to my students. Whether fortunately or unfortunately, I did not have any traditional ritual lore to pass on, so what I gave them instead was a generalized distillation of what I was then using as my personal magical lore.

In fact, when the members of my first proto-temple came together, they insisted that the lore that I possessed be rewritten so that it would thematically fit into the overall scheme of the lodge and order that we formed. I happily complied with their request, and the results became the burgeoning ritual lore for the Order of the Gnostic Star. However, unlike traditions that require strict adherence, I allow anyone who joins the Order to modify the rites and liturgy according to the desires and consensus of their group. However, I do ask that the original material be kept, and that changes to the lore for that temple be documented. Otherwise, I have absolutely no problem with anyone adapting the lore that I originally developed. In fact, I not only expect it, but I also urge it as part of an initiate’s training.

I may be a proponent for allowing individuals to modify, change, revise or even create their own magical lore, but I also believe that they should be completely transparent and ethical in how they go about this task. Magicians tend to borrow, copy or even steal whatever they like for the ongoing purpose of building up their ritual and occult lore. I don’t have any problems with this activity, since even if I did, it wouldn’t stop it from happening. Ideas are like easy money, and they quickly pass from one magician to another, often without their sources being citing or credit being given to fellow magicians. I believe that imitation is the highest form of flattery, so I wouldn’t be bothered if someone borrowed a few of my techniques and added them to their own lore. That is how ritual magick evolves over time, and if a bunch of ritual magicians were to copy my ideas and incorporate them into their magick, I would actually be quite pleased. Perhaps this is the only way that any magician can acquire a kind of immortality.

Those who promote the idea of a strict adherence to any tradition or body of lore, be it archaic grimoires or even recently developed lore, are likely to find my opinions about this matter to be quite problematic. You see, because I believe that magicians are required to own their own magical lore, it becomes nearly impossible to do that while at the same time preserving the written lore as if it were holy writ. I don’t agree with what I call “cook-book” sorcery, and I am steadfastly against the popular movement of “grimoire-only” praxis. These two methods are analogous since they both promote a strict adherence to the actual written formulas and texts.

Someone can swear that the grimoire that they are using is pristine and perfect, as it was hundreds of years ago, and that the best results occur when the practitioner literally follows what is written in that book. First of all, nearly every grimoire has anywhere from a few to over a hundred different variations, some of which are completely unrelated except in their titles. Secondly, unless the magician has a facility for archaic languages and special access to either the original texts or good facsimiles of them, then the published book that he or she is using is based on a synthesis or amalgamation of those different texts. To be a real purist, then the would-be magician would have to read and use the grimoire in its original language. The belief system (as well as the culture) behind antique grimoires has long since passed out of this world, so in order to produce a reliable reconstruction, the magician would have to engage in imaginative speculation to fill in the unknown elements. Even so, if the purist is not an orthodox adherent of Christianity or Judaism, then much of what passes for the spiritual foundation of the grimoire would be missing, and such an omission would likely cause the working to fail, at least initially.

Since practicing with an incomplete reconstruction of a grimoire-based magical system would hardly give anyone an excuse to be an elitist, I find the whole reconstructionist creed to be no better than having to invent a magical system from scratch. In fact, unless the purist magician was able to completely “own” that reconstructed grimoire based system, then the invented system would be superior. In my opinion, there isn’t a person on this planet anywhere who has the Medieval mind set of an early renaissance magus, so adaption is the real rule of the path of ritual magick, whether one uses the old grimoires or not. So my opinion of the strict adherence “grimoire-only” crowd is that they are actually a bunch of pretentiously fake elitists who seem to know less about real magick than someone who is just a beginner. They have artfully created a series of myths about magick that make learning and mastering it far more difficult and complex than it ought to be. I am, of course, referring to Joseph Lisiewsky and his book “Ceremonial Magic and the Power of Evocation,” which has created a minor movement within the ritual and ceremonial magick communities. I have already commented extensively on this tome (and its author) and I have found it to be unconvincing and unrealistic.

Since that book came out, a number of magicians have jumped on the Lisiewsky band-wagon, and they have solidified into what I call the “Grimoire-only” purist movement. This is because Lisiewsky has promoted the idea that the only thing that magicians have to do is unerringly follow the written text of an antique grimoire, and “poof,” a real spiritual materialization will occur. Of course, one of the elements of that line of reasoning is that one must also faithfully engage in an orthodox religious faith, such as Catholicism, to gain the necessary spiritual foundation required to perform this kind of magick. Because I have no desire to become a Catholic, I think that I will completely pass on Lisiewsky’s methodologies. However, I have little patience for anyone who declares that the Grimoire-only methodology is the one, true and perfect methodology, and other systems are to be suspected as fraudulent. I don’t like being called a fake by anyone, so I think that I will let everyone know that this supposed “cutting edge” type of magic is, in my opinion, just hyperbole.  I wish anyone luck who seeks to get this methodology to work in a consistent and practical manner, since they will surely need a lot of luck and maybe some powerful hallucinogens as well.       

So I have covered the full spectrum of considerations for whether one should or shouldn’t change their lore in accordance with their own praxis. I have also demonstrated that magicians should have a certain flexibility in how they adapt their traditional lore to their own personal work. I am probably quite lenient in this regard, but it’s really up to the individual, and also, to the members of the tradition to which they belong. Ethical behavior in regards to passing on lore to students is very important, but so is allowing those students the latitude to adapt what they are using and thereby succeed in owning it. I have also recommended that the student use contemplation techniques to focus on the symbology and strategic verbiage of the ritual lore so that it might become internalized and fully active. I have also shown a certain degree of contempt for what I call a strict adherence to written lore, since I think that it’s impractical, dogmatic and too restrictive. Magicians are artists, so they need to have the flexibility for adaption, revision, modification and even creation when it comes to their adopted ritual lore. Restriction and inhibition are the killers of true creativity. Avoid them wherever possible.

Frater Barrabbas


  1. I'm in agreement here that students should be able to modify rituals and so forth to fit their personal practice. Aleister Crowley said it best in Liber O:

    These rituals need not be slavishly imitated; on the contrary the student should do nothing the object of which he does not understand; also, if he have any capacity whatever, he will find his own crude rituals more effective than the highly polished ones of other people.

    It may very well be this quote that resulted in Lisiewski classifying Crowley as "New Age" along with all the other nonsense that he dismisses in his book (and, of course, many of the completely valid techniques he dismisses as well).

    With rituals intended to produce a mystical effect it can be difficult to determine how well a modified version works in an objective manner, but with any practical ritual it's easy. You do probability testing and compare the old version to the new one. If the new one gives you a better shift, keep it. Otherwise, you need to work on it some more no matter how logical your modifications seem.

    In fact, while I belong to a tradition (OTO) with oathbound initiation rituals and understand why those need to be kept secret, the idea of secrecy regarding magical methods and technologies has always struck me as not only ridiculous but completely counterproductive. The old idea that revealing a magical technique somehow undermines its power is as silly as believing that if you publish the blueprints for your dishwasher the dishes will stop coming out as clean.

  2. @Scott - From our perspective (as two revisionists), it would seem that this issue is really a no-brainer. Yet you would be surprised at the popularity that the new strict adherence idea has amongst certain Pagans, Wiccans and the grimoire-only crowd.

    It would seem that this is a kind of new orthodoxy which is supposed to lend a certain amount of prestige to those who espouse it. They believe that you shouldn't change even one jot or tiddle, and this is to be found within religious traditions that are simultaneously religious and magical.

    I think that this new and popular perspective is poisonous to the occult as a whole. Experimentation is vitally important to the art of magick, and orthodoxy is a senseless proposition within this context.

  3. My limited experience in magick makes me believe that rituals should be changed for personal purposes, up to a point. There is some delicate balance between acceptance and application of a certain ritual, or doubt caused from a change, and final rejection. It’s as if there is some kind of “critical mass” taking placeon the aspirant’s beliefs and understanding , that makes or breaks a ritual, sometimes even unconsciously.

    I also believe, and maybe Frater Barrabbas you agree with me, that for a beginner it is very important that he/she adheres strictly to a magical methodology, until they advance to a point they realize that the external “paraphernalia” are just props and they are able to working with abstract ideas, symbols etc.

    Relatively recently, I was dabbling with chaos magick through Pete Carroll’s Arcanorium college. I’ve learned quite a few things about magic (I always believe it’s worth reading Carroll’s books), but I was soon in some kind of trouble. Chaos magick advocates that there is some kind of “fake it till you make it” mentality concerning choices of entity selection for magical work. There is still some kind of structure in their rituals, like statement of intent, Spare style sigilization techniques, ritual performance via gnosis and through altered states like mental or physical fatigue, orgasm etc. However, the choice of invocation of a magical entity, or the production of a servitor is randomly chosen, according to the aspirant’s tastes and, if not done carefully, it could become counterproductive or even detrimental. Giving an example to illustrate my point, someone who wants to win a running sprint, invokes the essence od Road Runner. However, after sometime, this choice might have repercussions on a subconscious level, like TV entertainment while a child, laughter etc. Quite soon, doubt creeps in and the invocation results with failure. Here, the considerable freedom of choice, and a final poor choice admittedly renders the whole work ineffective. I admit that I haven’t been a chaos magick adherent for long , and that my limited experience and understanding may have lead me to wrong conclusions, in which case I apologize to any chaote who reads this. At the moment though, my understanding is that placebo pills are quite ineffective if they taste too sugary.

  4. Hi Nik64 - That's one area of Chaos magick that doesn't interest me. I believe that identifiable spirits with names and a traditional history are very important. I don't think that names are interchangeable and that one can as readily worship a fictitious Deity like Yog Sothoth as any other. Chaos magick is supposed to be a meta-system, but isn't normally practiced as such. Anyway, that's my two cents on this issue. I prefer traditional spirit lists with their associated history, and Deities that I can easily relate to.