Thursday, March 28, 2013

What I Don’t Like About Wicca

This article will undoubtedly upset some people, but I felt that I needed to clearly state my opinions and insights on this topic so there is no confusion as to where I stand. While I am a member of a lineal tradition of British Traditional Witchcraft, also known as Wicca, I feel that there are definite pros and cons to engaging with this tradition. Perhaps what I have a problem with has more to do with how covens and groups are managed than with the actual lore that is practiced by them. My readers should be aware by now that even though I am a member of this tradition, I believe that it should be reformed, revised and constantly updated. My reasons for believing this is because Wicca is a very new religion and it has not yet achieved a level of development or depth required in order for it to take its place with the other world religions. I don’t see that as a bad thing, in fact I see it as an opportunity for the Witchcraft movement as a whole to continue its evolution and development. There is still so much more to know and experience in regards to defining witchcraft and linking what we do know about the past with the present.

First of all, I would like spend a few paragraphs detailing what I like about Wicca and why I think that it is worth reforming and evolving. I haven’t given up on this tradition, but I suspect that my ideas and insights are probably contrary to the way that it is practiced or adhered to in the present times. I don’t disparage my tradition and I don’t like other writers referring to it as the McDonald’s of Witchcraft, or “McWicca,” as some have decided to call it. There is more than enough that is good and useful in Wicca to build a greater foundation over time, but other practices and traditional lore deemed erroneous or irrelevant should be changed, modified or discarded to help further its evolution and deepening its religious significance. Instead of discarding the whole tradition as some in the Old Craft Tradition would have it, I believe that reform, revision and adding new lore would go a long way to making Wicca into a continuing, viable and cutting edge religious tradition.

Here are some of the points that I would like to make in defense of Wicca, showing that there are some things which are very useful and good to be found in that religious tradition. Let me list them here for your consideration.

1. Everyone has to start somewhere. Since the magnitude of books and materials that are available to the general public is quite massive, it would seem that anyone who wishes to engage with a nature-based spirituality as popularly defined in our culture would find themselves involved in Wicca. Many of the people now engaged in Wicca are either solitary practitioners or informally involved in a group. These groups and individuals represent the uninitiated or self-initiated masses who likely represent the larger proportion of the total adherents. Sometimes these individuals will form groups and declare themselves to be a coven, but whether or not they receive recognition from the formal groups and traditional lineages is another matter altogether.(More about this later.)

2. There is a certain consistency within the beliefs and practices that make up Wicca, whether in formal or informal groups. Since much of the general lore of the Book of Shadows (and other sources) is either published or available online, then if a group of practitioners desire to form a coven and practice as a group there is more than enough material to help them build a basic foundation. They might not have an initiatory pedigree to establish their legitimacy, but their overall practices are consistent with vetted individuals and groups within the legitimate coven-based traditions. What this means is that Wiccan training has a certain consistency and conformity whether or not individuals and groups are practicing within an initiatory lineage. The difference, in my opinion, is that those witches who are operating within an initiatory lineage will have a bit more depth, intensity and (hopefully) the advantage of experienced and mature teachers. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

I have found over the years that to discredit a practicing witch because he or she lacks a proper traditional initiation seems more like a terrible conceit and a means of discrimination than really evaluating what that person has actually accomplished. Instead of basing an evaluation of a practicing witch on talent and merit, they are judged by who initiated them and from what lineage, if any. I have met both competent and incompetent spiritual leaders (High Priestesses and High Priests) in my own and ancillary traditions, and I have met some truly gifted individuals who are wholly outside of the traditional initiatory lineage structure.

So, it would seem that having a good pedigree and an iron clad vouch doesn’t determine whether a witch is capable or competent. I sometimes think that pedigrees appear to be more of a status symbol or a place to harbor the markings of an elitist cadre within the larger group of adherents rather than an indication of any amount of actual superiority. Having access to great teachers and working within a coven of experienced and spiritually mature individuals would doubtlessly further any beginner’s spiritual growth. Yet there is no guarantee that any traditional coven operating within a verifiable lineage will be more capable of providing this kind of quality guidance than a group that is outside of any verifiable lineage. One the best covens that I have ever had the grace to work with consisted of individuals who were not part of any established lineage-based tradition whatsoever. They managed to make traditional lineage based witches and covens look poor by comparison.

3. Classical witchcraft establishes a good foundation for the acquiring and adopting of both high and low forms of magic. Even though some religionists within Wicca are seeking to erase magical practices from their liturgical work, witchcraft is fundamentally a system of working magic as well as a system of pagan nature worship. They seem to go hand to hand. I have found that witches make really good ritual magicians once they are able to make the transition from performing initiations, esbats and sabbat rites to experimenting with different kinds of energy based or spirit based ritual formulations.

4. Wicca is grounded in earth-based religious beliefs and practices. Witches learn to love and venerate nature, and they have an innate grounded-ness that is often missing from ceremonial magicians. Nature is also the source from which they acquire an understanding of the meaning of life and the mysteries of birth and death, whether in plants (and the seasons), animals or humans. The cycle of light and darkness represents the changing diurnal cycle of night and day, the lunar and the solar cycles, and the oceanic tides. These cycles represent the basic and most fundamental pattern that is used to establish an overall spiritual and magical discipline, and this pattern is likely the oldest known to humanity.

5. Feminine based spirituality has its natural roots in classical witchcraft, and a woman’s power to create human life is regarded as one of the greatest and miraculous occurrences in nature. Thus, women in witchcraft are given a special honor and veneration that is rarely found in other western religious organizations. There seems to be a natural connection between women, the earth, the cycles of the moon, tides and the seasons, and the magic of sustaining and maintaining all life where required. Life and death are seen as just parts of the greater cycle. The concepts of evil, sinfulness, or that nature is somehow bad or corrupted, causing the modern stigma of conscious duality are completely absent from this creed. There is no devil nor is there any hell. Worshipers are not held in ransom to otherworldly punishment, and that all of the positive elements of life are seen as the grace of the earth perfectly balanced and imbued with spirit.

6. Believe it or not, Wicca does offer an authentic portal into the earth-based mysteries of life and death, light and darkness, and the spiritual evolution of all living things. This earth-based spirituality defines life and the greater world as a living part of the manifestation of the Deities who are fully invested and integrated into the material world. Spirit and matter are joined together to formulate the powerful mysteries that operate in the earth. Sacred sexuality and sacral nudity are the required tokens for admittance into this domain. Darkness is the veiled shroud of the mysteries and the underworld, marked by the Stang, is the place where they are depicted in myth and ritual allegory. The key that opens the gateway of the mysteries is, of course, ecstasy, and there are an unlimited number of ways of achieving that sublime state (and all of them are holy). In that underworld are to be found all of the treasures of the earth, the potentials of individual and collective fate, the revered ancestors and their hidden teachings, and the source of all life, which is known as the well or grail-cauldron of our spiritual and material beings.

Now that I have covered all of the things that I consider to be important and authentic in Classical Wicca, let me now discuss those things that I consider to be either erroneous or counter productive. From the list of six things listed above you can see that there is a great deal which makes Wicca relevant, beautiful, inspiring, and also empowering. However, we have just started our journey and there is so much more to this religious and magical tradition than what has been determined so far. Obviously (at least to me), we have many more discoveries and advancements to make before Wicca becomes a fully matured religion.

What I don’t like about Wicca:

1. Covens are usually organized into a hierarchical structure where one or more individuals rule (whether benignly or tyrannically) over the rest. In traditional lineage based covens, these positions would be held by a High Priestess and a High Priest. However, this traditional structure was put into question (in the late 1970's) by the Reclaiming Tradition of Witchcraft, and also by many individuals who are currently working through informal groups or as individuals. There is something to be said for an egalitarian approach to organizing a group, where consensus rather than rule by fiat is practiced. Since I have been really burned in the past by having to deal with either incompetent or power-crazy coven leaders, I have decided that the only group structure that I will tolerate is one that is based on consensus. I have defined how such a group would function, and I have given it a name - a Star Group. (You can find where I have previously defined this kind of group in one of my articles here.)

2. Classical Witchcraft, or BTW Witchcraft, tends to be conservative and inflexible in regards to managing and maintaining their lore. While it’s good and marginally useful to document one’s core tradition and distinguish it from additions and modifications, ultimately, this historical exercise fails to keep a rigid distinction between core based lore and innovations. Also, considering that the supposed “core” was someone’s innovation developed at some time in the recent past, religiously maintaining that core becomes an exercise wholly irrelevant and prone to errors. I know for a fact that many of the witches of late 60's and early 70's weren’t really very careful when it came to documenting their lore, especially the Alexandrians, so what is being conservatively maintained now was someone’s innovation just a mere 40 years ago or less.

However, what I think is really important is based on authenticity rather than legitimacy. Does the lore work and is it sensible? Can you explain it simply and easily to others. Does it require some convoluted narration or has to be bolstered by the excuse “we have always done things this way - it’s our tradition.” If the lore works, where it can be easily explained and there isn’t a better way of doing it, then it should remain as part of the core; but if it doesn’t work, then it should be replaced or discarded. You can keep an extensive record of everything that is kept or put aside if that is your desire, but what is practiced should be powerful, elegant, useful and relevant. In this guise, revisionism and reform are not only possible, they are most desirable.

3. High Priestesses and High Priests for life. In the BTW, when someone is elevated to the third degree and becomes an officiating priest or priestess, then it is expected that they hive off and form their own coven and group. Their elders have vested in them the privilege and the responsibility to be a spiritual leader over their own group. Now, whether those elders made this judgement based on a real insight into their students’ personalities, or ensured that they would behave appropriately through rigorous testing and training, or that the elevation was merely given due to excessive flattery, obsequiousness or forms of bribery would be completely unknown to those individuals who decided to be members of that coven. It’s often like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’ve got until you take a bite, and by then it’s too late to put it back. You either chew it up and swallow or spit it out.

According to the by-laws in Classical Wicca, coven members are supposed to vote with their feet if they find their coven leaders to be wanting. Yet no one seems to talk much about the pain that they have endured, the overall bad feelings they have towards the system, or even that they can get black-balled out of their tradition by vengeful and unscrupulous leaders. In my opinion, hierarchy should be abandoned in Wicca for consensus and the flexible role of facilitators acting for the group instead of authority figures. Mentors or teachers should be temporary arrangements, and every member of a group should be considered equal regardless of their achievements.

4. Part of the theology of Classical Wicca is dependent on a Goddess and a God, and this can be quite limiting. This is a religious formulation that has been called a Duo-theological system. Some have tried to argue that this deity pairing is quite ancient, but it is actually a very recent and modern rendition. Ancient pagans believed in many deities, both named and even unnamed. Their religious practices had three levels of activity that consisted of state sanctioned deities and rites associated with the city-state or mystery traditions, family deities, ancestors and spirits associated with the home and hearth, and personal deities associated with the individual. A pagan might be devoted to one specific deity (called henotheism), but seldom was he or she strictly devoted to two deities, or a male and female pair. Additionally, the triple goddess was never mother, maid and crone, and there is no ancient record of the oak king battling the holly king to mark seasonal transitions. 

These are modern adaptations, and while they might serve a useful purpose, the more ancient and historically verifiable facts of western paganism are more compelling and likely more powerful. I have found the duo-theology of wicca to be a useful model for defining a kind of monism, which consists of the union of all being. This is because the Goddess and God are in perpetual sexual union and thereby through their ecstasy, they are perfectly emulating the One. However, the ancient pagan deities were typically omni-sexual, representing a richer and more complex model that more accurately emulates nature and human behavior. What modern witches need to do, in my opinion, is to incorporate more of the actual ancient practices into their modern core praxis.

5. When I started my religious career of becoming an initiated witch back in the 1970's, the historical gospel was that Witchcraft was the “Old Religion.” We believed that we were engaging in an ancient practice more venerable and legitimate than Christianity itself. We saw the burning times as the attempted unsuccessful conquest and persecution of pagan witchcraft, even though it was much more complex than that. Yet over the years, this belief in an ancient providence has been pretty much shown to be erroneous by historians, especially in regards to British Witchcraft. Ronald Hutton has shown in his book “Triumph of the Moon” that witchcraft in the U.K. is a recent creation, and that witchcraft as a religion didn’t exist in the previous ages. What did get transmitted down from antiquity to today are the artwork, folk traditions and the occult and magical practices, but even these have been modified and revised over the long centuries.

Wicca is a modern religion although it has pretensions of being based on antique pagan spirituality, but in some cases, actual antique lore is only now finding its way into the modern practices. What I would like to see is a lot more of this activity occurring, perhaps even rivaling what has been going in Heathenry for the last 20 years. Also, if Wicca is a modern religion, then witches acting as conservative religionists in these still formative times would seem to be highly misplaced and misdirected. In my opinion, our work has only just begun, and there is much that we can learn from studying and researching history as well as experimenting with new lore in a coven setting.

6. In the BTW, coven politics, self-glorification (Queening), and divisive inter-coven witch wars have marked the community pagan turf of a number of large cities. All of this can be shown to be rooted in the cult of personality that lies in the foundation of the hierarchical coven structure. When there is one or two absolute rulers in a group, then the members of that group jockey with each other for status and power. It seems like a common behavior amongst us hominids, and Classical Wicca tends to bring out the worst in some people. Over time, I found that I learned to hate the internal politics of such groups because it always got in the way of getting anything done. This was true even when I was supposed to be the High Priest, since like parenting, it required the consistent agreement between the two leaders in order for something to get done. Decisions from the defacto leader were usually ram-rodded into place regardless of the opinions or feelings of the members, which the leaders could ignore if they thought it prudent to do so. Believe it or not, ruling by consensus is actually so much easier because everyone is eagerly united in the work that must be done.

In some traditions of Wicca, it is proper for a High Priestess who has hived off at least one coven from her own to wear a garter with two buckles, representing her own coven and the one that hived off from her. Over time and with the accumulation of more buckles, a High Priestess could be elevated to a Witch Queen, and such an elevation included a kind of coronation, called a Queening. Of course, there is always a lot of politics involved in a coven hiving, such as strings attaching the new coven to the old coven hierarchy. In the domain of a chain of seeming ownership, no one is free except for the highest ranking Queen, and the individual initiates in any of these linear covens don’t even own their initiatory grades and spiritual progress.

The High Priestess has become a surrogate mother who coddles or punishes her brood as she sees fit. She has the habit of treating her initiates as children regardless of their previous knowledge or experience. Of course, what goes along with this overweening pride is a greater estimation of personal worth and authority. Ironically, when such egotistical individuals deal with each other in the greater community outside their organizations then the potential for conflict is greatly magnified, since each is striving to be a greater power and authority than the other. At some point something has to give, and the results are often an acrimonious exchange occurring over many months or even years. This conflict is called a “witch war” and it is often a sad and tragic event in the life of any community. Yet such conflicts occur only because of the oversized egos of the local coven leaders.

Some of the towns that I have previously lived in had a history in its pagan community of some witch war that had occurred between the leaders of different groups. What remained afterwards was a splintered and shattered community of opposing groups who would never have anything to do the other factions. Pagan community gatherings were segregated by faction, and each would spend a lot of time vilifying the other faction. It was all a terrible waste of time and effort, and instead of having a wonderful unified pagan community, that town had instead two or more bitterly opposed factions. Still, the source of the conflict was usually just a few individuals or less, and I believed at the time that if the rest of the community rejected them, then there wouldn’t be any conflict or factions. It was all based on self-glorification, which I think is inherent in hierarchical organizations that don’t have any kind of accountability to its members. If there was anything that I would change in BTW Wicca, it would be this fascination with hierarchy and self-glorification. In my eyes, all witches are equal, and all witches are just witches, nothing more.

Self-glorification can also create a barrier between a coven of initiates and a group of students who are studying and preparing to be initiates. I am referring to the so called inner and outer court structure, which seems to be a way of extending and glorifying the grade of initiate. Back in the 1970's there was no inner and outer court as far as I am aware. You were either initiated into a coven or you weren’t. Uninitiated members could be invited to attend sabbats and lore sanitized esbats; but usually a person was either elected to be a member or rejected within a lunar cycle. The first degree was a trial initiation, and if someone found that Wicca wasn’t their cup of tea, then they could leave with no harm being done.

From what I understand, an outer court is a holding area used for training dedicants and keeping an eye on them for a year and a day to make certain that they will turn out to be proper witches. Someone could spend a year and a day preparing themselves and then get deferred or rejected when it came time to be initiated into the coven, perhaps just because of politics or someone’s ill will. I have heard arguments from some High Priestesses that the outer court is necessary to ensure that an initiate doesn’t embarrass or shame the coven leadership with bad judgment or outrageous behavior. Of course that assumes that the reputation of the coven leadership was a sacred commodity to be maintained at all costs, and that the initiate wasn’t capable of being responsible for themselves.

What it really says is that the initiate doesn’t even possess his or her own initiatory process. They are treated as children, and in the case of an outer court, there is even a kindergarten or pre-school level to undergo. Needless to say, if I were starting all over and was presented with an outer court requirement in order to join a coven, I would just tell them thanks but no thanks. If they didn’t think I was good enough to be an initiate, then I would find some group who would want me to be a member of their tradition. I could also remain solitary and not experience any huge loss or missed opportunity. Being solitary is far better than being in a bad coven, and trust me, I know this to be true. This might also explain why so many witches are solitary and self-initiated, since there is little to be gained by the possibility of being degraded and dis-empowered by some overly self-important coven leader.

Anyway, I have discussed in detail what I don’t like about Wicca, and I have balanced that assessment with those things that I do like. I still consider myself a Witch in the BTW arena, but I greatly doubt that I would ever be a member of a Classical Wiccan coven. I would be happy to help facilitate a Star Group anywhere and anytime, but not a hierarchical coven structure. I believe that human nature being what it is, there is just too much temptation to abuse the absolute authority inherent in the priest/ess role associated with Classical Wicca. These are, of course, my opinions, and you are free to agree or disagree with them. However, these opinions are based on many years of experience as well as experimenting with different kinds of group structures. Since I am at heart a revisionist, I have felt that experimenting with different group structures and dynamics was just as important as trying out new magical techniques. I believe that I have profited by these experiences, and I seek to share them with you so you might profit as well.

Frater Barrabbas

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Five Trials in the Path of the Magician

In a recent article where I talked about the differences between magick and mysticism, I said that the dark night of the soul wasn’t a crisis factor in the life and path of the magician. It is a real ordeal for the mystic, but not for the magician. Allow me to quote the pertinent sentence in that article, since it is going to be the topic for this article. (You can find that article here.)

Magicians usually don’t experience the Dark Night of the Soul. They have plenty of other types of spiritual crises to deal with. I’ll talk about those in a future article.”

So, the time has come to talk about the fundamental spiritual crises in the career of the magician who is following the Western Mystery Tradition. I have determined that there are five major ones but there could others, although not quite as severe but no less difficult to resolve. These five trials are: fear, arrogance, indolence, grandiosity and hubris. These issues may seem innocent enough and certainly many people who are not magicians are afflicted by them. However, to the magician who is actively seeking to fully realize and unite his or her spirit with the absolute Godhead, these five trials are quite poisonous and deadly.

 Unlike the mystic’s terrible “Dark Night of the Soul” these trials are forever ongoing and represent a potential pitfall to all magicians following the western path. What that means is that you don’t overcome one and never have to experience it again. These are not singular events, but they are singular issues that plague most magicians throughout their lives. The severity of these issues is dependent on the personality of the magician. In some cases a magician may have a much more difficult time resolving one of these key trials than any of the others. In some cases one or more of these trials may never become a pivotal issue in the life of the magician. In my opinion, this is the norm for the typical practicing magician - most of the trials are minor affairs except one of them becomes a really “big deal” at some point.

You could also assume that the more psychologically flawed magician will experience a series of spiritual crises involving many more of these trials than what would be typically expected, and that those crises will be more severe and difficult to resolve, if they can be resolved at all. Sometimes at least one of these five spiritual crises will be so severe that it will force the magician to cease all magical activity and make a hasty exit from being a real magician, or it could just stop cold all of the spiritual and magical progress that a magician has made over the years of practice.

Maturity and discipline are important antidotes to most of these trials, as well as openness, integrity, positive intent and personal objectivity. Yet it often seems that many magicians lack these mitigating qualities, and some seem to be far more flawed than the average person. You could say that magicians are colorful and unusually eccentric individuals, amusing to know and to socialize with, at least until they hit one of these trials and it causes them to undergo a spiritual crisis. Then they aren’t so amusing or fun to be with.

Failure to resolve one of these trials completely and to keep it in check is a certain prognosis for overall magical failure. Sometimes a magician must retire from magick for a while in order to allow his or her personality to resolve internal struggles and issues before attempting to continue. Often such a failure will transform a viable practicing magician into nothing more than an armchair magician, where he or she will attempt to hide and obscure this shameful fact from other magicians. Ironically, such an armchair magician will then begin to display still other excesses as he or she begins the slow, slippery, painful descent into illusion and later, self-delusion.

Now that we have discussed the importance of resolving these five trials, let us now examine each one in turn, and also discuss the pertinent manner in which a magician might overcome such a pitfall. All of these trials can be overcome with some effort, objectivity and even a bit of humility. Self study and analysis is an important key, and so is peer review.

Fear - this is really broken into different trials yet both are related. There is the fear of failure and also the fear of success. Often this issue reveals itself to someone who is more apt to read about magick than actually performing it. Such a one will have succumbed to either one of these fear-based trials. However, once the magical practitioner has experienced a successful working or two, then the fear of failure soon passes. A good mentor can help the beginning student overcome his or her fear of failure, and instill in them personal confidence and belief in the magical process. However, the fear of failure can haunt even the most experienced magical practitioner, and it can become so strong that it will cause him or her to be incapable of working magick.

Fear of success is more troubling and difficult to resolve. I have known a few occultists who have shown a great deal of fascination with magick but who would never work a single spell for any reason. The idea that magick is real and can actually make things happen is just too much for their world views to integrate. These kind of people are just not cut out to be magicians, and happily they usually know it. When someone like this engages with a group magical working they often claim to have experienced nothing of import, or sometimes the opposite happens, where it actually scared the living daylights out of them. My advice is to leave such individuals out of any teaching group or group working since they will only frustrate and annoy even the most advanced teacher.

Perhaps one of the most mitigating aids for the practicing magician who is afflicted by a fear of failure is to understand that not all magical workings will succeed, and that there can be many reasons for failure. While it’s easy to blame the tool, technique, timing, intention, or the will of the magician or that of the associated Godhead, sometimes the probability of something happening is just too low to make any effort successful. Also, all magical actions need to have associated mundane actions in order to properly bend the laws of probability. You can’t just work a spell and sit on your butt expecting the results to miraculously drop into your lap. Another consideration, which is seldom discussed, is that a single magical action, such as a working, may actually require a battery of workings performed over a longer period of time. Trying something just once and then giving up when it fails to produce the desired result reveals a certain amount of ambiguity within one’s intent and a lack of passion and discipline to see it through.    

Arrogance - this is where power corrupts and intoxicates the practicing magician. Once magicians have demonstrated a certain competency in their art, and other magicians appear to admit that fact as well, then there is the possibility that they will start to think of themselves as superior to others. A magician who is succumbing to arrogance begins by assuming that non-practitioners are somehow inferior, and it later grows to include everyone else who is a practitioner. They will denigrate the practices and opinions of other magicians and elevate themselves above and beyond all other human beings. They will close themselves off from their peers and even their friends, lovers and family. I actually once knew a magician who referred to those who weren’t magicians as “mortals,” as if to say that he was somehow immortal. I didn’t try to put him to the test, but I did remark on his misplaced and extreme arrogance.

The experience of magical power can be quite intoxicating and personally gratifying, but all magicians must exercise a certain amount of restraint, and they must understand that the glory of magical power can actually be a distraction from more important things. The difference that magick makes in the material world is actually slightly better than average. While it is possible to produce a “black swan” moment, it is not very probable that such a thing will happen by itself, or even after a great deal of effort over a long period of time. The evolution of a magician causes him or her to realize that wisdom is more important in the long run than material gratification. Wisdom becomes in itself a powerful tool that helps the magician to deal with the burdens particular to his or her path. In time, power becomes far less important than spiritual realizations, insights and the accumulation of personal wisdom. The difference between a young magician and an old magician is that magical power is longer important or even a factor in magick to the mature practitioner. It often seems to be the proclivity of the young and immature magician, who fancies that power is the solution to all of life’s difficulties.

Indolence - this is a subtle issue that usually affects the undisciplined or the older and experienced magician. Fatigue, boredom, procrastination, excuses and idleness are the bane of anyone, but they can stop a magician’s progress dead in its tracks. While it is true that life can and often intervenes into the magician’s magical process, delaying and putting off important projects, it can also become something of a terrible barrier. After having worked magick over a long period of time, a magician can run into dry periods of inactivity, or an all-consuming activity in other areas of one’s life. This does happen, especially if the magician doesn’t have the privilege (or onerous burden) of being able to function as a magician all of the time.

However, like dealing with breaks in concentration during meditation (or ritual work), it is important to be able to pick things up again after the busy times are past. It is also important to maintain some kind of disciplined practice, even if it's just a few minutes a day, or some simple ritual celebrations briefly done over the weekend. Losing the groove of a magical discipline will require the magician to re-establish it, and that will not be easy to do. Inertia is always a force that magicians must reckon with when they seek to perform any kind of lengthy set of workings. It is pernicious and not so easy to overcome, but it is more often the trial of an older experienced magician than one who has just begun his or her magical journey.

Grandiosity - this trial is often much more obvious to others than one’s self. Because a magician is so engaged with his or her art, and with the extension of the self into Godhead, it becomes very easy to slip into a state of narcissistic ego-inflation. We are human after all, and we all suffer from human weaknesses and vices to a lesser and greater extent, but the petty ego can and does engage in magical phenomenon to the extent that it glorifies itself at the expense of anything and anyone else. We have all witnessed individuals who are elevated to higher classes or positions in life, and then observe as it all goes to their head. For those of us who have been in witchcraft covens, we have heard of or experienced first-hand spiritual leaders becoming egotistical and overbearing. Yet this also happens to the magician as well, and in fact, all too often! The intoxicating effect of personally and periodically experiencing spiritual phenomenon, and also directly engaging and assuming a Godhead, can and does completely go to one’s head.

Additionally, claiming great accolades and spiritual accomplishments can make you feel like a god amongst mortals, but the truth is that spiritual and magical accomplishments are relative and only make sense to the individual who has achieved them. Claiming to have crossed the Greater Abyss might impress your magician pals, but it’s something that can’t really be objectively evaluated, and often the one claiming it is possibly self-deluded. I have found that such high level accomplishments are usually so subjective and inexplicable that someone who has truly undergone them is seldom able to talk about them, let alone brag about them. Proof of such accomplishments is often subtle, and ironically they cause one to show a greater overall compassion, sensitivity and personal humility.

Grounding is very important in these situations where ego-inflation occurs, and also a bit of peer review helps, too. Other magicians can spot ego-inflation a mile away, but only if it’s someone else who is behaving so. Keeping oneself in an objective state is difficult, but certainly not impossible. Delusions of Godliness can be easily mitigated if one believes that everyone has within them an aspect of Deity, which the Hindus call the Atman. We are all equally a part and one with the absolute Godhead, so none is more gifted or entitled than another. If the spirits are bowing before you and telling you that you are indeed God Almighty, then you can sagely nod your head and reply “and so is everyone else.” Effectively dealing with this issue is perhaps one of the reasons why I believe that it is so important for each and every magician to have some kind of peer group to judge their work and objectify their experiences.    

Hubris - this is the illusion of wisdom, or what I call, the false-wisdom acquired by dint of age. Over a long period of time each and every magician faces this trial, and if they fail, then they succumb to over-confidence and a belief in their own infallibility. This issue is usually accompanied by the statement “I can do anything” or “I can do no wrong.” These might sound silly to the average magician (and even more silly to the non-magician), but it represents a long period where the magician has either wittingly or unwittingly avoided being challenged by something or someone. He or she has become something of a fossil, and while it might be true that anything could be accomplished, nothing ever really is accomplished ever again.

After many years of piling up magical pedigrees and the personal accolades of others, it seems only natural for such an esteemed magician to just rest on his or her laurels and assume that he or she is infallibly competent. Whether by indolence or a long period of arrogance, sometimes a magician just succumbs to his or her own fame and glory. There doesn’t seem to be any need to be challenged nor does there appear to be any kind of formidable challenge on the horizon. Of course, this is an illusion, since there are always challenges and new things to discover or try.

Yet sometimes magicians begin to believe in their own social propaganda, and it becomes for them something of a final monument to their own supposed greatness. They have retired to the magical monastery and because there is nothing left to learn or try, they ossify and dissolve into the legend they have become and also, I might add, the delusion of who they are. Their words are pompous, full of obvious and trite “truthiness” and their active spiritual and magical practice ceases to be relevant or even useful to others. In fact it just ceases to be altogether. Such individuals hide behind their published works and media personalities while their inner worlds crumble and fall to waste.

Eventually, the world catches up to them and shows them to be shallow, incapable of change and ineffective curiosities of a by-gone time. If they are greatly challenged by someone or something, they naturally fold up and attempt to escape to their place of retreat, although not without experiencing a fair amount of humiliation for themselves and their followers. I have seen this happen a number of times to famous people in witchcraft, paganism, magick and the occult. It is sad and poignant, but it isn’t necessarily a product of old age; it is just hubris, plain and simple.

The way to escape this plight is to never give up growing or seeking out new challenges. When you have mastered a particular path or tradition, then move on to another tradition where you know very little. Never be afraid of being humbled or experiencing what it’s like to be a beginner all over again, because you will profit greatly by periodically having this experience. Additionally, having a real peer group (or a group of equals) is far better than having a group of sycophantic followers. While a peer group will tell you when your ideas are stale or that you are a presumptuous old windbag, followers will never engage in such a discourse simply because they want something and have to be ingratiating in order to get it. A peer group has nothing to lose if they tell you that are suffering from hubris, and that you, so to speak, need a good swift kick in the ass to get moving again.

So, for that reason, I prefer a peer group. If I take on students, I quickly let them know that I am just a student like them. I also tell them that it is likely that they will out do me and acquire greater knowledge than I have ever done if they at least start at the point where I am right now. They can stand on my shoulders and push the envelope of occult knowledge to even greater heights than I ever did, standing on the shoulders of other great men and women who I learned from in my past.

Another important thing to realize is that you are never really done with your studies or practices. There’s always something new to learn, experience or realize, and nothing stays the same - everything is always changing. Because of this, we, too, must change, always and continuously until our last days. I hope to be still working magick, reading, studying and writing to the very last day of my life. I hope someday in the future, while taking my last breath of life, to be saying to myself, “but there is so much more to learn and master, if only I could live a little bit longer.” Thus to quote the infamous starship captain on Galaxy Quest, “never give up and never surrender!”

Frater Barrabbas

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Afterthoughts - Paganicon 2013

A Bitter Cold Vernal Equinox to you, too.

 Well, I made it through another Paganicon, although this year my attendance was very brief compared to last year. I didn’t get a room at the hotel, and I was only able to stay a few hours on Saturday and Sunday. Weekends are usually the only quality time that my girlfriend and I have together since she started her clinical training in a town that is a two hour drive south from our home. Also, I had other responsibilities to attend to, such as getting back to feed and let out our dog. As long as Grace is undergoing this educational process, my ability to go on any extended trips is quite limited. The weather was also pretty odious, even for the Twin Cities, and it was yet another factor. I have never been a big fan of the northern winters, and this year my patience has been really taxed.

I only got to attend one workshop besides my own, and that was one presented by Brandy Williams on the topic of “Pagan Theurgy,” which also covered a brief history of Neoplatonism. I missed out on Orion Foxwood’s workshop, “Candle and the Crossroads” because of a need to tend to some mundane concerns. I managed to sneak in and get around 10 minutes of his talk, but then didn’t want to disturb the talk by trying to go back, and by then it was nearly over. I also got to talk a while with Brandy and share some thoughts and ideas about magic, occultism, Thelema and being a part-time author. I didn’t get a chance to chat with Orion, which was disappointing. I would very much like a chance to chat with him, but there have been few opportunities when we have met previously, mostly at Pantheacon. He is an inspirational individual, and I have many questions to ask him and topics of mutual interest. Perhaps some day we will get that opportunity, particularly if I continue to make myself available for gatherings.

Brandy Williams is quite an excellent author and writer. I have secretly modeled my literary ambitions after hers, and I have often admired her, at least from a distance. So she has kind of functioned as a role model for me, starting out as an Immanion author and continuing to write and publish for other publishers as well. I was very delighted to spend some of my precious time talking with her about various subjects. Her approach to magick, paganism and occultism is nothing short of inspirational. I got a number of ideas and thought provoking insights in my mind just from attending her class on Theurgy. I was happy to acknowledge to myself that the system of magick that I use has all of the points of Neoplatonic Theurgy amply covered, including statue animation. It appears that a number of us are getting very deeply into Iamblichus and the writings of the late pagan Neoplatonists, knowing that they represent the point in time where we should pick up their work and continue moving it into the far future.

I got to tell her that my pet idea is that the Indian esoteric philosophers of the golden age of Indian culture, which occurred as Rome slipped into the dark ages, seemed to continue on where the Neoplatonic philosophers had left off in Harran. Where Iamblichus stated that the human soul can never be of the same substance or level of being as the Gods, the discipline of Advaita Vendanta showed that the Godhead in every man and woman is commensurate with the absolute Godhead (“there can be no difference between Brahman and Atman”). I sense that there is a continuity of the esoteric strain of philosophy from Europe, to Harran, and thence, to India, where it continued to thrive and grow. Perhaps we in the West can finally complete Neoplatonism by considering Indian esoteric philosophy to be its crowning achievement. I will have to think more about this interesting insight. 

Lunch on Saturday was spent with my friend Steven Posch who I consider to be one of the living pagan treasures in our community of Paganistan (a term he has famously coined). He is a pagan poet of great renown, an excellent public liturgist, rabble rousing Jewitch and all around excellent gadfly. He is also avidly pursuing the secrets of the late demise of Baltic paganism only recently becoming available to the west, and in this area, he is acquiring a great deal of authentic pagan lore, ostensibly to pad out his own particular linage and witchcraft practice. He’s one of the few who actually knows how to count to 20 using the Witchcraft language. Lunch with Steve is always full of interesting conversation and banter.

My friend Paul Rucker, who is something of an illuminating pagan artist, along with Helda HedgeWalker and others hosted a visual presentation at the Sacred Gallery Space. While Paul was quite busy and I only saw him in passing, the Sacred Gallery was quite an exquisite exhibition of pagan artists. I sat in the gallery, which was a converted suite, for a short while fully galvanized by the beauty and artistry of the paintings and works of art carefully placed over most of the wall space. It was done tastefully and to great effect. I am only sorry that I couldn’t tell him how much I liked and appreciated what he and others had accomplished.

I also got to hang out for a little while with a group of young friends. In talking with them and spending my last lunch with them, I found that perhaps I am not so much a dinosaur as I had thought. In the beginning of my autumn years, I probably do have something of importance to pass on to younger members of my pagan and wiccan community. We will see if I have any relevant thoughts or ideas in the decades to come when I am nothing more than a forgotten monument in some graveyard.

My class was very sparsely attended, but at least those who attended were very engaged with what I was teaching and understood what I was attempting to communicate. They were a bright group of individuals, and they also bought a number of my books as well. I have been selling my copies of MARM volumes 1 though 3 at a huge discount because the MARM Omnibus edition should be coming out in the next few weeks. In the next couple of months I will reprise a more extended version of my Practical Qabalah in Brief workshop at the local occult bookstores and see if more people will be interested in attending. Based on that experiment, I will either move forward with putting together a weekend long intensive workshop, or I will consider the Qablah not be a good topic to try to teach in the Twin Cities.

A final note - my travels to and from the Paganicon hotel were made more precarious by a freak winter storm that happened on Friday. I had to leave quite early Saturday morning to make the 32 mile trip to the hotel, and the roads were not sufficiently cleared to make the trip easy. In my neck of the woods (literally) the roads were hazardous and even the freeway system was not completely clear. Thankfully, the traffic was light, but it was a slightly harrowing trip to get to the hotel in time to deliver my presentation. After that morning trip, the roads were quite clear and bare, even though the weather was quite cold. Here it is nigh on the Vernal Equinox add it feels more like January weather. I have noticed no signs of spring and it is likely that winter will continue well into April, which is not an uncommon thing. Only the brightness and warmth of the sun betrays the lateness of the season, and then it can only be experienced while sitting in a car, where the inside heats up to coatless temperatures rather quickly.

I have to say that I am quite over winter, even though nature hasn’t caught on to my mood or up to my expectations. Such a winter that we have had only makes me long for warmer climates. I guess you could say that I am wishing to leave the Twin Cities and when I have these kinds of impressions, the reality is not too long in coming. I sense that I might just get an opportunity to move somewhere else in the next couple of years. I had not previously felt that way, but I do feel it now. I will take it as a kind of omen and as I have said, time will tell how it all turns out.

Frater Barrabbas

Friday, March 15, 2013

Mysticism and Magick

There has been another discussion about the distinction between magick and mysticism, and I wanted to weigh in on the subject just so my readers don’t make the mistake of thinking that magick should be completely distinct from mysticism, or that the greatest magick doesn’t have a bit of mysticism included in it. I think that David Griffin has eloquently responded to what he perceives is problematic in a recent blog article posted by Donald Michael Kraig and if you are curious about the discussion, you can find it here. Anyway, onward with the presentation of my point of view on this subject.

First of all, the spiritual disciplines of ritual or ceremonial magick and mysticism are completely different and nearly contrary to each other. Mysticism requires an ego-less factor of devotion and surrender to the Deity in order to foster spiritual union. The whole purpose of mysticism, whether Eastern or Western, is to completely empty the self of all personal engagement with the world and the self. What remains is a void that is to be filled with the spiritual being and essence of the Deity once a certain combination of selflessness and a passionate desire for union with God has been achieved. A crisis can and often occurs when this revelation doesn’t emerge soon enough, leaving the depleted self to feel empty, loathsome and worthless while it is painfully waiting for the promised spiritual redemption - it’s called the Dark Night of the Soul. (Magicians usually don’t experience the Dark Night of the Soul. They have plenty of other types of spiritual crises to deal with. I’ll talk about those in a future article.)

Mysticism might seem to be passive, but it’s actually quite active if we are to consider spiritual desire and an aching, hungering passion for union to be powerful drivers of the personality. A mystic is often not sequestered from the material world, but he or she has indeed renounced it in favor of the spiritual world. In many cases this spiritual path achieves union with the Deity at the cost of the self and the world at large, since there is little desire nor any need to re-engage with the world once the mystic has achieved his or her goal. In some cases, though, the spiritual impetus of the Deity itself will push the mystic to reach out and teach others what he or she has achieved. However, selfless service to the greater good and an ego-less state is required for this work to be properly engaged within the material world. Even so, a spiritual vocation in the outer world is always looked upon with suspicion by an avowed mystic, since it is all too easy to relapse to the previous unsanctified state.

Magick is completely the opposite of mysticism. Instead of eliminating the ego, the task of magicians is to identify and merge their essence wholly and completely within the heart and core of the Deity; to amplify their identities until there is no difference between Godhead and the human psyche. A magician has the audacity and temerity to directly approach the Deity on an equal footing and to aggressively seek union with it. Such a direct approach has a very high price, too, I might add. While the mystic is typically tolerated by mainstream religions, the magician is considered an apostate and avowed blasphemer. He or she is seldom tolerated, and is often aggressively prosecuted, since the fully developed path of the magician would completely abrogate all of the tenets or practices of organized religion. I might also add that if the magician fails in his endeavor, then often a kind of terrible ego inflation and temporary madness can ensue.

Instead of renouncing the material world, the magician exults in a mastery and complete emersion within that domain. Magicians approach the world with unbridled optimism and an anticipatory joy, since they believe fully in themselves and their abilities to engage with the world. The material world is the magician’s resource of a myriad of possibilities - it is the solution and not the problem. I have often remarked that Thelemites make really good magicians because they understand the necessity of being bold and dynamic in their magick, due in no small part to their allegiance to the Godhead Horus and the Aeon of Horus. Magicians, like any good pagan, also see the world as being in a sacralized state of grace, and that material work is also the work of the Deity.

So, it would seem that magick and mysticism, treated as distinct spiritual paths, are quite startlingly opposed to each other. However, there is a difference between mysticism as a spiritual path and certain mystical elements. Of course, this must be in regards to the powers and reality of the Deity who must be the magician’s primary source of inspiration and power in the material world, whether that fact is realized or not.

Pure magick without any mystical elements whatsoever is lot like thaumaturgy or hoodoo magic. It is a methodology consisting of exercising a specific formula to acquire a given end, without much or any recourse to the Deity or the world of Spirit. This kind of magic is completely divorced from spirituality or the concerns and considerations of the Godhead, and so it is also completely portable from person to person without any consideration to their particular religious beliefs. Thaumaturgy is loosely defined as the magic of performing specific operations with selected material items to gain some kind of magical effect that is almost always focused on matters in the material world. Although this kind of magic is quite powerful if used by someone who potently believes in its efficacy, it doesn’t typically change, or for that matter, challenge the practitioner. This kind of magic, in my opinion, is as far from any type of psychic or spiritual transformation that one could possibly perform, so it is lacking an important quality that I feel is essential to the art of magick. That quality consists, of course, of mystical elements.

If I were to compare the magick that I work with pure thamaturgy then I would have to say that the most glaring difference is that I work with and through the Deity. While that personal Cult of Deity that I work with in my magick is actually my higher self elevated to the level of a Godhead, it still represents a powerful religious activity that completely opens me up to the World of Spirit. When I work magick, I am undergoing, however brief, a transition between my human nature and the nature of the Godhead that I am also assuming.

Since all of the magick that I work is through that developed and assumed attribute of Deity, then I am also open to all of the transformative possibilities that such a connection has the power to produce. I combine psychic and spiritual transformations with specific magical operations that I call ordeals. This is a type of magical theurgy, so it is not at all like the magic that is performed just to gain some material end. The ultimate goal of theurgy is to become one with the Deity, and in this case, that Godhead is nothing less than the Unity of All Being, or the One. Its trigger point is my higher self, also known as the God/dess Within, and through this artifice, I seek to become one with the ultimate Godhead. Everything that I do from a magical standpoint is focused on that greater goal, even when I perform such a humble task as writing an article for my blog, which is yet another form of magick.

So what are the mystical elements in the magick that I perform? That’s a good question, but it is simply given that my magick requires a complete and comprehensive spiritual alignment in order to be effective and capable of transporting me (or anyone else) ultimately into perfect union with my Deity. Keep in mind that while my goal might be union with the Deity, it is done on my terms and through my own individual process. I am the one approaching the Deity, and instead of destroying my ego I am working through a godhead assumption to make it one and the same with that Godhead. Instead of renouncing the world, I see it as being more sacralized and imbued with spirit every step that I take, until someday the two worlds will merge into one world. Additionally, I suspect that this union of magick and religion is due to the fact that I am a witch and a practitioner of ritual magick. My expectations were long ago grounded in a blended mixture of religious liturgy and high magick, and this is how I function today in the world.

Spiritual alignment consists of just four important practices, and one could easily see them as religious based and perhaps even a bit mystical. However, they are done in the service of a spiritual discipline oriented to ritual magick, and that makes all the difference. These practices are devotion, invocation, communion and assumption. I will briefly describe each of these practices, but avid readers of my blog will have encountered these definitions previously.

We need to keep in mind that I am referring to the specific Deities associated with the magician’s personal religious cult, and chief amongst those Godhead forms is the crystalized imago of the godhead reflection of the spiritual self, higher self, Atman, or God/dess Within. When I focus on the pantheon of my personal cult, I do so as chief celebrant, congregation and deified intermediary, or demi-god. All actions of spiritual alignment done through this pantheon are neither narcissistic nor are they egotistical. The self that is being glorified has nothing to do with what I call the “petty” ego, or the lower self. That self which I glorify is my higher self, and according to Eastern philosophy, there is no real difference between my true self as Godhead and the ultimate Godhead - they are one and the same! (The problem is learning to master that lesson in the real world and not become something of a raving lunatic.)

Devotion: These are the primary liturgical practices that include offerings, sacrifices and spiritual service done in the name of the Deity. Offerings include votive offerings, along with prayers and intentions to connect and to dwell in the spiritual essence of that Godhead. Sacrifices are gifts given directly to the Deity, or things that are given up for that Deity. Offerings and sacrifices can be in the form of flowers, incense, food and drink. Fasting is also a form of sacrifice, and so is the isolation of goods and implements to be used solely for the services to that Godhead. Spiritual service is fundamentally what is given first to the shrine of the Deity in the form of upkeep and work, and secondly, as service to the community. These services are done without compensation, so they could also be seen as a form of sacrifice.

Invocation: This is where the chief celebrant summons the spiritual essence of the Godhead into some kind of material manifestation, however subtle. Invocations can be commands, but they are more often enticements, flattery and adoration (like the talk of a lover to his or her beloved). Invocations are therefore often hymns, paeans, orisons as well as summoning with words of power and glorification. This is usually directed to a statue lovingly placed on a shrine or even to a person masquerading as the Deity. Such a focus of invocation and devotion is to a magical being called an Eidolon, and it is often a very magickal occurrence.   

Communion: This where material objects are imbued with a spiritual essence, making them into sacraments. Generating sacraments can only be done through the mediation of the Godhead, so that spiritual presence must first be tangibly materialized before the process of sacramentation can be performed. It is also assumed that the sacraments represents something material associated with the body of that Godhead. Although salt and water, wine and cakes are the typical medium for sacraments, representing the tears/sweat, blood and flesh of the Deity, other materials can be made into sacraments as well. These would include oils, balms, perfumes, lotions, and even certain types of food. All of these are considered to be products of the Body of the Godhead or at least the abundant products of that Deity’s grace. Sacraments can be used to charge other items, such as magical tools, vestments, sigils, talismans, or even the body of the magician itself through a sacramental bath and anointing. Rituals of communion are often variations on the magical Mass rite 

Assumption: The greatest test of any spiritual alignment is the sacral rite of Godhead assumption. This rite can assume many different forms, but the end result is where the celebrant assumes the identity and character of the target Godhead through the use of an intense trance technique, identification process and the magical techniques of opening the gateway of the soul. What actually occurs is that the Yechidah emerges into consciousness in the guise of the spiritual essence of the target Godhead. In this manner the magician’s higher self as God/dess Within becomes fully embodied within the conscious being of the magician, however briefly and to whatever depth. Other assumption rites would include the Bornless One invocation, the Rite of the Beautification, and the Abramelin Ordeal (either solar or lunar based). All of these rites are of a strategic magical character and could hardly ever be a part of a monotheistic religious rite or a mystical religious rite, since they would be considered spiritually arrogant, idolatrous or highly blasphemous in nature. (Hindu and Western Paganism, of course, would be exempt from this consideration.)

So, these are the four practices of alignment which I use in my theurgistic form of ritual magick. While some of them might be considered rather pious and mystical in nature, but taken as a whole and within the context of the higher self as the primary Godhead and the obvious artifice of ritual magick, they are decidedly antithetical to religious orthodoxy and contrary to a mystical spiritual discipline. Still, such practices, although highly magical, also incorporate mystical elements, therefore, I can say without any guilt or contradiction that I am a magician practicing a form of ritual magick that blends religious liturgy with the techniques of high magick. Yet and even so, I am not a mystic!

Frater Barrabbas 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Paganicon 2013 - March 15 - 17

The third annual Paganicon will be held in the Twin Cities this coming weekend. The guest speakers are Brandy Williams and Orion Foxwood. I consider both of these individuals to be quite excellent speakers and a real draw for this year’s convention. I am looking forward to catching at least one of their workshops.

I will be giving a short workshop called “Practical Qabalah in Brief” on Saturday, March 16, at 9:00 am. It will last for an hour. I will also be doing a book signing on Sunday, March 17, at 11:00 am. Unfortunately, I won’t have a lot of time to socialize, attend workshops or do some shopping at the vendor’s room, but at least I will have a little bit of time to do some of these things. Scheduling issues, and the fact that my girlfriend will be out of town most of that day will shorten the time that I can spend there. Last year I paid for a room at the hotel for two nights and got to spend a lot of time at the convention. This year, I will be traveling from home both days and I will have to miss out on the Saturday night ball. It will be good to see some friends that I haven’t seen in quite a few months, and to see if the Twin Cities are ready for a real serious examination of the Qabalah. I will also get see if my book “Magical Qabalah for Beginners” has any legs, since I will be bringing some books with me to sell at the workshop and the book signing.

It is now the ides of March, and there isn’t even a hint of spring yet, which is sort of like the picture above. There is some snow melting during the day, but the nights are bitter cold and the melted snow turns to ice. On Sunday it’s supposed to be cold again, with a high temperature of only 19 degrees F. As is typical up here in the frozen tundra, spring comes slowly, and March is still a winter month for the most part. While I seem to licked most of my physical ailments this winter and I have begun to exercise again, I can’t seem to shake the “blues” that I feel because of the cold and heartless winter endures without a sign of going away. Now all I need to do is to get back into my magick, and perhaps then I will once again experience the warmth of Spirit lighten my earthly burdens. (These things always come in cycles, and it is always important to persevere.)

Once the convention is over, I will write up a short article highlighting some of things that I saw and enjoyed. Until then, have a wonderful weekend and stay warm.

Frater Barrabbas

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Early Days in BTW Witchcraft - Innovation or Conservation?

Recently, I wrote a blog article that examined whether or not I am relevant, and I looked at how things had changed over the decades, and that in my opinion, traditional witchcraft within the Gardnerian lineages had changed from being innovative to ultra conservative. Someone who goes by the moniker of “MP” somewhat disagreed with what I said, and also pointed out that innovation for the sake of innovation is no more commendable than mindless preservation and rote mimicry.

I would have to agree with some of what MP said, but since I was a witch in the early 1970's, and I was also aware of what was going on in the very late 1960's, I recall a different kind of activity than what MP said regarding the BTW propensity for conservation. As an Alexandrian, I represent a very different kind of witch from the rank and file Gardnerians, especially the American branch, which has it own peculiarities. Here is the article and MP’s comment.

MP wrote in the comments section:

Also, the emphasis has changed from experimentation to the conservative preservation of the core practices and beliefs.

“A number of BTW people I know, who date back to the 70s, as you do, I believe, would disagree that this is a change ... their point is that they have always been focused on orthopraxy, and retention of core practices, and ALSO noting where additions have been made to their praxis, and where it diverges from core.”

When lineages, pedigrees, lineage vouches and staunch, mindless preservation of the lore become far more important than modification, revision and experimentation, then I think that religious conservatism has become the preeminent force in that tradition.

“Again, they would tell you that preservation of the lore, though not mindless preservation, knowing who taught you, and who you taught, are not changes - that they were always there, and that, yes, they are conservative - in that they are conserving, like conservationists, their craft so that it might continue on.

Innovation for the sake of innovation is no more commendable than mindless preservation and rote mimicry.”

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of what was going on during the late sixties in the Witchcraft arena can be summed up by watching a video that has recently been made available. It is called “Legend of the Witches” and I wrote up an article some months ago that examined that film in detail - you can find it here. Needless to say, what the film shows is that Alexander Sanders and his coven at that time were very experimental in their approach to discovering what witchcraft was.

They were not alone, since quite a number of witches were doing the same thing. The reason is very simple, the amount of actual preserved lore in Witchcraft was quite small and for the most part, inadequate for any kind of in-depth practice. The Book of Shadows was not much more than an outline of many of the liturgical rituals (basic coven rites, the Esbat, initiations and the eight Sabbats), but it lacked any kind of theology or specifically, magical rites. Not every tradition used or followed the witches’ law, also known as the “Ardanes,” so there wasn’t really much depth to the basic Book of Shadows.

Typically, a practicing witch had to research and re-write many of the rituals, including writing in the specific coven-based or tradition-based variations. An initiated witch had her Book of Shadows and some lineage specific lore, but the rest of her practice was culled from many different sources. Becoming a witch wasn’t the end but literally the beginning of a master research effort, and that also consisted of a lot of experimentation. If the witchcraft tradition had been a complete and comprehensive system of religion and magic, then very few individuals would have had any need to incorporate other sources. In fact, it was quite incomplete, and in my opinion, it still is. This is one of the reasons why some witches have referred to themselves as being the “people of the library” instead of the “people of the book,” like their Christian and Jewish counterparts.  

I can remember that one thing that characterized my coven experience is that we had to research and build up our own Sabbat rites from the skeleton structures found in the Book of Shadows. We discovered a rich source of lore in British and European Folk traditions, and in many cases, had to write our own Sabbat songs, food recipes, and even music and dances - all of this was missing from the Book of Shadows. We also discovered that the full moons were characterized by the seasons as well as by astrology, and this moon lore was collected and became the foundation for the Esbat. In the BoSh there is no distinction of the different seasonal full moons, there’s just the outline for an Esbat rite, including the various Charges of the Goddess, some of which had been added by Doreen Valiente but seldom credited to her.

When it came down to magical workings, there was also very little in the way of techniques and recipes. Many Gardnerians and Alexandrians embraced the book Aradia, Gospel of the Witches and the Mabinogian, not to mention many other sources, like the Key of Solomon, as representations of additional lore. To master the techniques of meditation and contemplation, we used Eastern techniques, since there wasn’t any traditional techniques elucidated in the Book of Shadows, other than dancing the circle dance. In fact, there wasn’t any directions for assuming a basic trance, but there was a rite used to gain altered states through binding and scourging - although few were a fan of that working.

I could easily point out many other important elements that were missing from either the BoSh or the lineage based lore. During the sixties and seventies, we few members of the BTW were inventing the various traditions that are now being assiduously conserved. I should state that I know all of this first hand and that it is true, because I was there during that time. I lived through it, so I should know what things were like back then.

In the many years that I have been a witch who also practices high magick, I have extended my knowledge and lore of liturgical withcraft to include many different and diverse rituals and practices that were never a part of my original teachings. In fact, I have used the foundation of witchcraft to build what I consider to be a hybrid system of high magick, which is completely harmonious to witchcraft practices and beliefs. I could never have gotten this far with my work if I had been more interested in preserving and perfecting merely what I had been given by my elders. This is especially true since my elders had invented quite a lot of their lore as well, and while I dutifully noted all of this down, I also ceaselessly engaged in researching, building and developing my own new lore. This process continues unabated to this day, and I can say that I am within a decade or so of building a comprehensive system of witchcraft-based high magick. I also believe that this was one of Gardner’s objectives, and he seems to allude to it in his fictional work “High Magic’s Aid.” In that book, ceremonial magic is mixed with pagan witchcraft to produce a methodology that is greater than both traditions. I took that as my guide, and I have proceeded on that pathway ever since.

So, to respond to MP’s statement that conservation was happening at the very beginning of the craft, I believe that this is quite misleading. While it is true that we had to copy our BoSh exactly as the master copy owned by the High Priestess and Priest and we had to learn the basic liturgical lore in order to be elevated to the priesthood ourselves, we understood that we also had begun a spiritual and magical journey that was unprecedented - what we received and learned was just the beginning. We all felt that we were under a powerful obligation to expand our knowledge and add many more pages to our BoSh and lineage lore. Our purpose was to rediscover antique witchcraft and paganism in our own practices, and I believe that process is still mutating and evolving today. For those who believe that their lore is perfected and complete and that the only task that they should and must engage in is to preserve their lore in it’s purest expression, I can only shake my head at their obvious hubris and narrow-mindedness.

Modern Witchcraft is a very young and new religion, and as Ronald Hutton has stated in regards to British Witchcraft, there isn’t likely to be any vestiges of the Old Religion to be found in the historical records. What we have today was cobbled together from various sources a mere sixty years ago. Therefore, we must invent, create, and experiment in order to forge a full and complete tradition. Until that day comes, preservation is nothing more than an historical exercise. It has its value, but the work of creating a fuller and more complete tradition is much more important in my opinion. If the work is halted for any reason or any excuse, then the tradition will begin to die and that death will happen all the more rapidly since Wicca is still in the process of growing and becoming a mature religious tradition.

Now if that seems to be invention and innovation for the mere sake of doing something new and different, then so be it! It is what was done in the sixties and seventies, and there is now more than enough reason to continue this process of development. It is also the unwritten rule that I have followed all of these years, much to my profit and self-mastery.

Frater Barrabbas

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Magical Heirloom Weapons

Recently I acquired a very expensive athamé or magical dagger, and I wanted to discuss where such tools can enhance the effectiveness of the ritual magician’s magick. I know that my stated perspective is that a tool is merely the extension of the magician, and that its effectiveness is determined by the magician’s competency. I still believe that, of course, but esthetics does have an impact on the overall effectiveness of the magick. If a very competent magician works magick with the very best tools and temple furniture available, then he or she will be that much more effective. This is not to say that the same magician could produce excellent magical results using the cheapest props and meanest of temple furniture, but I do believe that esthetics plays a part.

Back in August, my lady Grace, along with my elderly father, made our annual pilgrimage to the local Renaissance Festival, and we found ourselves at the booth of a sword and dagger maker by the name of Daniel Watson, a renown sword smith and owner of a sword making smithy called Angel Swords. You can find the website here. Anyway, Daniel had quite a collection of swords and daggers for sale at this booth, and all of them, I might add, were quite expensive. Most of these weapons are made for martial artists or for the historical re-enactment crowd, like those who attend or work at the Renaissance Fairs. However, Daniel also makes magical tools under the kind of regimen called for in the old grimoires, and these weapons are just as beautiful and incredible as the others. In fact, I would wager that Daniel probably knows something of the ancient art of putting a “soul” into a weapon, because his weapons seem to have a powerful emanation even without the typical charging and consecration.

So, Grace and I were talking to Daniel about some of his magical weapons and I admit that I was already pretty much turned off by their cost despite how beautiful they were or how impressive they felt holding them. However, Daniel took out a truly incredible dagger and had my lady Grace hold it in her hands. Now Grace is not really that much into weapons, magical or not, and it was obvious that Daniel was trying to impress upon her how incredible this dagger looked and felt once held in her hand. I saw her light up the moment she put it into her hand, since she could feel the spirit in the weapon and felt an immediate bond with it. This dagger had a beautifully textured blade, and the hilt was fashioned from Diamond Black Oak and Amber rings.  (In candlelight the blade actually looks black with a thin shining edge all around it.)

It was a truly magnificent weapon that was already fully charged and spiritually empowered. She looked at me with those big beautiful hazel colored eyes of hers and asked me if I would consider purchasing this wondrous tool. Well, the price was a lot higher than anything that I had previously paid for a magical dagger, but I decided that if such a blade could talk to her, how much more would it resonate in my own hand if I used it for my magical work. I decided that we would share this majestic blade, so I bought it. At over $1,500, it certainly wasn’t cheap, and I could only afford to put a down payment on it as part of a convenient lay-away plan. I continued to make payments on it during the autumn and early winter, and then after the Solstice, I made the last payment and it was immediately shipped. When it arrived, I presented it to Grace, who fell in love with it once again.

On a cold and dark evening in January, my lady and I went through the process of properly charging and consecrating the blade in our temple, although it was largely a superfluous action on our parts. The dagger was already quite changed to begin with, so it was neither negatively or positively effected by our operation - it was just something that we have done with every weapon used in our magick. The core of the charging regimen is where Grace and I nakedly embraced each other with the cold steel blade held between our bodies. We were very careful with this operation so that neither of us would be cut by the very sharp blade on that dagger.

Since then, I have occasionally used that peerless magical dagger in my work, and I have found it to be profoundly effective. Holding it in my hand, I can feel it slightly vibrate and resonate with the “soul” of the weapon, responding eagerly to my will to lay down lines of force or draw geometric devices in the air. It is a true delight to use this tool, and it will undoubtably be an heirloom that Grace and I will give someday many years in the future to some spiritual and magical heir. What a wondrous behest that will be to some deserving magician and witch. Until then, Grace and I will use this beautiful dagger with great care and discretion, ensuring that it is properly cared for and honored as one of our great treasures.

Frater Barrabbas