Saturday, July 27, 2013

Of Shadows and Darkness - Future Path of Witchcraft

Modern Witchcraft has been around for almost 70 years, and yet it is still in its infancy compared to other faiths and religious practices. For those of us who have been involved in witchcraft since the early days in the 50's, 60's and even the 70's, we have seen it evolve from a coven based religious magical movement to the edification of conservative imbedded traditions and lineages, mostly with a broad appeal to the tastes and sensibilities of middle class adherents. While witchcraft is still ambiguously associated with uncanny and fringe types of practices and beliefs tinged with a tenebrous taste of darkness, it has now become the tamed, toothless, friendly, happy and harmless pagan religion that is not so different than other religions (like Christianity).

Still, the ancient heritage of witchcraft, or at least cunning-craft and sorcery, is still something that is imbued with “other-ness” and dark mysteries. Modern witches might be able to distance themselves from the shaman-like witch of ancient folklore fame, but in doing so they will only castrate the very tradition that they are seeking to vitalize and conserve. Actually, instead of castrating witchcraft, they will create something new, and many have begun to call this new religion, bereft as it is of the potent dark magic and mysteries, Wicca. Others have called it derisively McWicca, but I believe that it is just the outer religious practices and beliefs without any of the deeper mysteries, magical practices or psycho-spiritual lintel crossings. It is, in fact, a form of religious Wicca without the witchcraft. Everyone has to start somewhere, and Wicca is as good a place to start as any, as long as one quickly progresses beyond it. Those who linger will never know the greater secrets and be forever mired in mediocrity. 

What this means is that the pathway of witchcraft has already bifurcated into two basic groups; one that is open to new possibilities and is attracted to the dark history of witchcraft and pagan practices, and another that is seeking to create a modern pagan religion for the masses. I, for one, have accepted the former and eschewed the latter. Since I believe that most modern pagans in the West lack even a basic understanding of what it is to be a pagan, at least from the standpoint of antiquity, then I have no problem being part of the smaller population who is progressing to that place where the future beckons. That future doesn’t include any of the practices, fetishes or tropes of the BTW, and in fact it is beyond the comfortable domain of Gardnerian based modern witchcraft altogether. The real future of witchcraft (if it is to have a future) is to revitalize elements of the past and merge them with practical workings of today. The real future path, in my opinion, is to master archaic forms of sorcery and a kind of chthonic shamanism, and therein, to discover anew the dark mysteries pervading the ghost enshrouded domain of the earth.

As I have stated previously in other articles, the place where the mysteries occur in regards to modern earth-based mystery traditions is within the darkness of the underworld. You won’t find pretty unicorns, lovely, soft and cuddly images of nature’s critters, or pointy eared elves with lovelorn eyes and feminine features. Where there is light, it would seem, that is where we are most comfortable and complacent, of course. Instead, deep in the underworld you will find all of the things that exist under the physical top-soil, rocks, dirt, clay, water, worms, serpents, centipedes, beetles, various roots and tubers, dormant seed pods, and also the rotting and stinking carcasses of the dead; and a host of other horrors (such as forbidding underground caverns), all of which constantly show the mortal nature of everything that lives. There are also ancestral ghosts, buried treasures, precious things lost, the spirits of heros, the souls of the damned, demonic entities, and the Gods and Goddesses of the Underworld. There can also be found within it the powers of dreaded diseases and corporal corruption, and also the power to heal, renew and be reborn. All fertility and death are intermingled in this place, and everything that ever was or ever will be - the veritable well of all potential - has its residence in this place of darkness. Here is the place where transformative initiations really occur, and where the seeker discovers the true meaning of life - the key to all of his or her personal mysteries. The underworld is the domain where magical power has its collective source and the door to the spiritual world resides. One has to gain access to this world before any other world can be entered. This has been an age old truth going back to the earliest stirring of our shamanic past.

What, then, is to be salvaged from the state of modern witchcraft today? Certainly the entire contents of the vaunted Book of Shadows is to be put aside once it is fully mastered. Mastery of the actual existent lore is a task of short duration, taking only a few years to complete. Coven based initiations consisting of the ordeals of the first and second degree as well as the calendric cycle of eight sabbats and 13 esbats are to be left aside, along with the rigid perspective of the dual theology of Goddess and God. Depending on whether the rites are performed in a temple or out in a grove, the opening of the self to sacred space would vary, and in fact the calling of the quarters could be dispensed with or replaced with something that is more sensible. So, if we discard most of the contents of the Book of Shadows, then what is left? The answer is, of course, earth-based magic, techniques of ecstasy, chthonic spiritual alignments and sorcery. The goal is to become a shamanic and goetic based witch who has access to the underworld and all its great wealth, terror and fascination.

Ironically, I have found myself in agreement yet again with Jake Stratton Kent when he has said that modern witchcraft must become immersed in the practice of Goetic magick. Certainly, the goetic demons span the interstices of heaven, hell and earth, and represent the gateway and hidden potential of the godhead that resides wholly in the underworld. Therefore, goetic conjuring is the true sorcery, in my opinion, of archaic post-modern witchcraft, and it must be investigated and re-established as a core discipline in witchcraft. The images and artwork of Austin O. Spare have revealed the vision of this domain and has shown that this pathway is to be found in all cultures in the world, throughout the entire history of the human race. It is, in fact, our true legacy.

Additionally, modern witches need to develop deep and personal relationships with the chthonic root Goddesses and Gods in all of their variations. Hecate comes to mind, also Persephone, Hades, Dionysus, Orpheus, and the Sybil in her various guises and forms.  Still, all of the Gods and Goddesses of pagan antiquity have a hidden chthonic face, or dark-side, and this represents the very core and origin of their being. Interestingly, the one thing that all of these entities have in common is the all-pervading underworld - the place of universal origin and final repose. Following the “ghost-roads” of our ancestors into this world, the post-modern witch can revitalize the practices of witchcraft, but at the great cost of social acceptance and a plurality of human support. This path is obscure, lonely, and known only by those rare individuals who have the courage to move far beyond their social comfort zone. These isolated individuals would be too far and too few to populate a coven, but they could come together for the rare Grand Sabbat, held in secret in the dark and obscure places of the earth.

When an initiated priest or priestess of modern witchcraft (Wicca) decides to seek out the greater truths and the mysteries that reside in the underworld, then he or she will begin the task of determining a kind of witchcraft that will have more in common with the ancient past than what is being passed off as Wicca today. So what might that path of post-modern witchcraft be like? What practices would it contain? Allow me to indulge in some speculation, based as it is on my own experiences.

The foundation of Wicca is either a self-initiation into the basic attributes of a modern pagan religion, or the initiation into a kind of pseudo family based coven within an overarching tradition. There are the various celebrations, periodic workings and a focus on nature as the ultimate ground of the spiritualized world. Human acts in accordance with nature become sacralized, such as establishing sacred space, nudity, dancing, assuming the masks of godhead, sacred sexuality, feasting and drinking, making offerings and sacrifices, worshiping the old gods and goddesses and intimately engaging with nature itself. A form of earth-based magic develops in this environment as well as a keen insight into the changing of the seasons, the cycle of flora and fauna, the phases of the moon, and the rising and falling of the stellar ecliptic. If one lives near the oceans or seas, then a sense of the changing tides also becomes part of that opening of one’s self to nature. We grow up in this family and learn all that there is to know, and then at some point, a few of us find ourselves drawn to something greater and also, darker.

Where true initiation actually begins is in the place of the mysteries, so all previous initiations, whether performed by others or by oneself, are abrogated by this new awareness. We begin this path stripped of all our previous knowledge and achievement, just as we are stripped of everything when we die - for such an initiation is also analogous to death. Our path leads us beyond the sunlit fields where nature is tamed and docile, and leads us into the darkening deeper paths that branch into the essential and integral core of the mystery of life and death.

I have previously defined the mysteries as the five different elements that impact a material and life-centered existence. There is, first of all, the diurnal cycle of night and day, sleep and wakefulness; this seamless polarity represents the essential mystery of terrestrial life. From the polarity of light and darkness comes the polarity of life and death, along with the changing of the seasons (if one lives in the further northern/southern latitudes). Additionally, there is the cycle of the Moon and the Sun, representing the further power and projection of the cycles of darkness and light. Then finally, there is the paradoxical nature of Deity itself and its all-consuming mystery, which is the deity that resides in each and every one of us.

These five mystery elements exist within a domain that consists of three worlds - the sky, the earth, and under the earth. Yet in the most archaic cycles of self-transformation (that can be found in shamanism), the first point of entry into the mysteries is the underworld - from there one might ascend to the heavens on the branches of the world tree. Still, all that is relevant to terrestrial life resides in the underworld, and only the sun, moon and the stars, as well as various indifferent celestial deities reside in the heavens. So, we begin our journey away from the sunny fields of our pagan childhood and seek the gateway or lintel threshold into the underworld, where we shall undergo the ancient initiation rite of dissolution and reconstitution. We will be remade by the underworld mysteries, and transformed into a being who walks both the daylight and nighttime pathways.

Once we become initiated into the domain of the underworld, then we achieve the methodology of gaining access to that place whenever required. Even so, the key to the underworld is ecstasy, the lock to that threshold is trance (or pharmacology), and chthonic nature itself is the doorway. Our book of shadows becomes filled with all the new unwritten things that we will be taught by the various tenebrous godheads of the underworld. We will talk to the ancestors and learn from them the dark ways of the world of the spirits of the dead. And, we will resurrect and revitalize those occult practices and methods of sorcery that are in alignment with our new powers of initiation and our deep spiritual perspective. Certainly, engaging with the root Gods and Goddesses will be a preeminent part of our practices, but so will the re-establishment of the goetic conjuring of demons who have now been re-established as important underworld demi-gods.

Of course, the tool-set of modern Wicca will be completely replaced with the tools of a shamanic witch and goetic conjurer. The dual theology that is so prevalent in Wicca will be replaced with a much wider variation and selection of root Gods and Goddesses, along with demi-gods, ancestor spirits, and a host of earth-based (and under-earth based) spirits. These deities and spirits will require a constant and periodic engagement. The post modern witch will easily pass from this world into the underworld, and she will bring back all of the associated treasures (and curses) from that place of darkness. The eightfold calendric sabbats will be replaced with natural and seasonal phase changes, and the lunar cycle will become the sacred lintel light that harkens the opening and closing of the underworld. Initiation will no longer be defined by two ordeals, but rather by a continuous state of inner revelation, and the seamless blending of magic and earth-based mystery within a single hybrid practice. A veritable technology of ecstasy will become the foundation of these works, since it will assist the witch in gaining access to the underworld, and also taking others to that place.

All of the pieces of this post-modern approach to witchcraft have now become revealed to me, piece by piece, over a very long period of time. I have been inspired by the many books that I have read, the posting of other occultists, and by my own inner revelations. Now that this new path is becoming ever clear to me, I realize the importance of the writings of antiquity as well as the orthopraxis of just doing the work. As if I didn’t already have so much to do, and I am now entering into the autumn years of my life. May I succeed in making this transition and fully engaging with this new vision, thereby making it a reality before my allotment of life reaches its end.

Frater Barrabbas


  1. A question: what does all of this get a person, in the end? When you've consorted with all the goetic spirits and the dark, chthonic spirits of the Underworld, and mined those mysteries, and conjured all the conjurations ... where does it leave one? I'd say, material riches and longevitiy, but I'm not seeing a lot of long-living, rich shamans or witches of any stripe. (In fact, often the opposite.) Worldly power? Illuminati rumors notwithstanding, worldly power deals seem driven more by the boardroom and the backroom than the underworld.

    Peace of mind? Feeling at one with all creation? Certainty of one's place in the scheme of things? The ability to have deeper, sweeter and more meaningful relationships?

    I mean, it all sounds very sexy, but what's the point?

  2. Wow. Insightful post, Frater. Very thought provoking. Well said.

  3. Thank you for voicing these insights. Your observations of the shift that is happening is so accurate.

  4. Having read Marlowe's version of Dr. Fautus, what would having access to all this knowledge do for others? As you remember, all Dr. Fautus did with his knowledge and power was conjure grapes for a princess.

    At the same time, do I want to interfere with the world? As I travel my little path, I often wonder if I should butt in. I see the necessity of the slowness of change in society. The in-fighting and compromises made on a short-term and long-term basis enables a stronger foundation to be built through the development of alliances rather than tyranny.

    And what of my attitude. I'm more of a dilettante rather than devotee. I've spent many decades at this stage. But the unicorns and wizards costumes have become trite and childish. Where were I fit in this new cosmic world?

  5. @Anna and @YowYow - the hint to where all of this leads is in the realization of the God/dess Within and it association with the One. Achieving union through the spirit and material worlds simultaneously is the overall aim. I will talk more about this on the next article - to be coming a couple of days.

    Thanks everyone for your comments.

  6. A thought proviking article. What you describe sounds like the task of the Adeptus Major, mastering the averse forces once the positive forces have been mastered.

    I may not share your vision for the future of Pagan faith, but I am pleased to see that you do have one - and a coherent one at that.

  7. Anna: The representation of Goetia as only serving 'material' ends is relatively recent. The term - from Antiquity - referred to Shamanic-type magicians who wandered around putting the Restless Dead (who were seen as potentially problematic for ANYONE that did not have the skills to deal with them) to rest. The skillset needed to deal with such problematic spirits also required such a practitioner to be capable in what we would today call evocation.

    By the time of the PGM, we find that such an approach to spirits has apparently evolved. While there are again plenty of material prospects - from love to wealth - which could be made use of, we also see the consistent use of 'Theurgical techniques' (making alliances with one's Daimon or other daimons, 'stepping in' to the sphere of an appropriately empowered Daimon to have access to more 'authority' to command other, lesser, daimones, etc.) It is quite clear that these theurgical steps are required for the work. For example in the 'Magical Papyri of Paris,' the author of that particularly Daimon alliance ritual says that the acquisition of such a Helpful Spirit is 'essential' to the work.

    There are other factors that are commonly misunderstood: the Cthonic forces, particularly the Gods of the Underworld regions, were seen as intrinsically linked to oracular states and abilities. This is part of the reason that the Pythoness - who did Oracular work on behalf of Apollo (who had Cthonic elements despite being a sun god, and Cthonic cults) - was so similar to the Necromantic oracles found in Greece. These oracles were used frequently, well respected, and thought to be one of the primary reasons that massive spiritual problems (like being haunted by a vengeful, restless spirit of the dead) could be dealt with.

    Finally, quite a few of the Cthonic deities were also seen as protective and helpful. This is at distinct odds with the 'they only aid in material exploits' view that is trumpeted by many. Hekate Soteira (literally translated as "Far-shooting Savior/ess"), for example, was called upon when children were being born because of her intense protective aspects and the way some types of the Restless Dead were thought to target children.


  8. Fr. Barrabbas also mentions Orpheus - who is essential in tying together the strands of Goetia and the emerging Orphic cultus in terms of mythos and treatment. Orphic religion was NOT focused on the mindless accumulation of wealth, nor power. Rather it was a means of escaping the endless cycles of rebirth (metempsychosis), with the Orphic cultist working with Cthonic and Olympian Gods and Daimons in conjunction in a natural way. One need only look at the Orphic Hymns to get a clear, pure view of how the cultists saw even the most dreadful of the spirits. BUT THAT ISN'T ALL! For in GRS Mead's "Orpheus," we find a 16th century thinker that blantly tells us:
    “Although it is not permitted us to publicly explain the secrets of magic, which we in the first place extracted from the Hymns of Orpheus, nevertheless it will be of advantage to indicate their nature by hints drawn from the leading ideas of his aphorisms, in order to engage the attention of contemplative minds. The names of the gods, of whom Orpheus sings, are not the titles of deceiving demons but the designation of divine virtues. Just as the Psalms of David are admirably designed for the 'work' of Kabalah, so are the Hymns of Orpheus for natural magic. The number of the Hymns of Orpheus is the same as the number by which the three-fold deity created the aeon, numerated under the form of the Pythagorean quaternary.... The Curetes of Orpheus are the same as the powers of Dionysius. The Orphic Typhon is the same as Zamael of he Kabalah. The Night of Orpheus is the En Suph [Ain Soph?] of the Kabalah,” etc.” (Picus Mirandulanus, as quoted in GRS Mead's Orpheus, P. 59-60).

    In short: Goetia isn't what it has been presented as by a great many of the authors of the Occult revival, and while the goals in the Grimoires are often focused on material possessions, this does not necessarily present the limits of those books, nor nullify the factors that brought Goetia into the fold in the first-place.

    The first step in bringing Goetia back into practice to acknowledge:
    1. What it actually did in antiquity.
    2. What the goals of the individuals who practiced it seem to have had.
    3. How these practices survived in Europe, and where they show up.
    4. What practices we retain today that reflect these ancient chains of ideas.


  9. Thanks Jack for your excellent comments. I will be writing a response to this article, since it did seem to get a couple of questions and other perspectives.