On the “watering down” of magickal technique


Disturbing trends.

This is a somewhat disturbing trend I have been noticing in the years I have been studying and practicing magick. Disturbing for me at least.

I certainly cannot claim a “traditional” magickal career… no learning into a secret magickal lodge or traditional coven, no personal master-apprentice thing… But I truly AM dead serious about my practice. I did my best to find the most qualified and talented teachers avaliable, I documented myself to the point of obsession and (more to the point) I practiced for countless hours. By now I have over two hundred formal rituals (counting public, closed-group and personal ones) and around fifty different “special purpose”, unique, practical magick works under my belt. I keep a detailed set of journals, and I slowly gained the trust of my fellow witches and magicians. But…

The origins of our Art.

I come from a technical and scientific background. There are things I cannot ignore. Proper understanding of technique and its historical origins is one of them. When I need to learn something, I often start by learning where did it come from, what are its uses and developments, and only later I move to its practical applications.

When I started my journey into Neo Paganism and magick I did it that way too. I was surprised to find out that most modern Pagans have only a very scant knowledge about their origins. Entry-level books are full of spurious fictitious tales about “ancient origins” and “the burning times”. More often than not, a tiny spark of true facts lies buried in these texts, but to the untrained eye it’s very difficult to find.

It gets worse when you try to find out what do we know of the origins of our techniques. Who can say from where do we get our element/direction correspondences? There is a lot of airy theory in this (are they truly geographical? I do not think so.). The Circle? You would be surprised to know you cannot trace it beyond the Renaissance, and that only if you allow for a great deal of freedom of interpretation. Our tools… Mostly, they are no more ancient that the late 19th. century. The “watchtowers”? If you are generous, you can link them to Enochian angelic magick, but they are truly derived from the Golden Dawn’s “Opening by Watchtower” ceremonial technique (from around 1900).

A rather simple line of succession.

What I am saying in this small article is politically incorrect. I know. But isn’t political incorrectness a hallmark of a true Witch? It should be. After all, witchcraft is all about transcending limitations.

Modern Wicca came to existence thanks to the works of Gerald B. Gardner and his later close associates like Doreen Valiente. We owe them an immense debt… one we seldom acknowledge these days. But what were their sources? The tale Gardner tells about the New Forest coven is probably bogus, and even if it were true, documentary evidence can show his published rituals more in line with the state of the magickal arts during his time than to ancestral teachings from a traditional coven.

Let me give you a name: Aleister Crowley. The Mufasa of the new age. The “wickedest man in the world”. Yes, that one. Gardner was an initiate of Crowley’s magickal brotherhood. And Crowley himself “inherited” via initiation most of the “secrets” of the Heremetic Order of the Golden Dawn and its inner organization: the Ordo Rosae Rubae et Aura Crucis.

A careful (and none too complicated) analysis of traditional Wiccan materials can show you the striking resemblance of these three sets of techniques. I have done it myself. All you need is a clear mind, an Internet connection and a few books. Write me if you need to know (but is it not more fun if you find out by yourself? ;) ). This line of passing down of knowledge can be easily drawn:

Pre 19th century magick (including the rudimentary Enochian system, synthesis of grimoric material and Renaissance magick) led to characters such as Eliphas Levi to “summarize” what was known. He was not alone, but he is the most famous of the period. Later came the Golden Dawn and the Ordo Rosae Rubae…: William Wynn Westcott and MacGregor Mathers (mostly the later) did an outstanding job… they created “the” system that is at the heart of almost all later magickal constructions.

Crowley came next… he was a highly prolific author, a very serious student and a hard core magickian. He transformed and published the Golden Dawn materials in a usable form. Between his writings and the excellent work of Israel Regardie we have a privileged window into the esoteric inner workings of our magickal system.

Later we can find the effects of the first wave of the “new age”. Wiccan ritual technique was developed from all those sources. The religious and theological aspects of it are quite another matter… one that is beyond the scope of this little delirium I call an article.

The “new dark age”.

I call the “new dark age” the period between the publication of “The Golden Dawn System of Magic” by I. Regardie and the later part of the 1990s. It is both dark and “new age”: it is marked by the growth of our faith, but also by a step back in the quality of our work.

Practicing magick before the 50s was a dead serious matter. Invoking planetary spirits, demons and angels is not for the faint hearted. Even the Victorian era magick is not to be taken lightly. This is power beyond this world. And those who used either knew what they were doing, or died trying to escape insanity.

What happened later is that we started trying to get magick to the masses. This is not wrong per se, but it is also not to be taken lightly. First it was simplification of form. Then the denial of the origins of the techniques (replaced with a fairy tale instead of true historical perspective). Later more simplification and mix ups. And more. And more… up to the point where only “white light” and a ton of fluffyness turned what was a very deep and powerful religious-magickal system into a mere shadow of itself and multiplied it by millions.

Lately, there has been some minimal tendency to reclaim a little of our heritage. We started looking back again, re learning our history and our underlying philosophy. Not an easy task.

Eclecticism versus laziness.

What has characterized the New Age is the concept of eclecticism. Again, the idea is not bad. We are failing mostly in our methods, though. Eclecticism claims “if it works, use it”. That’s fine. It’s simple. But it is also terribly irresponsible. Magick is not “safe”. It is not confined to a sandbox. It is a key to the very essence of the Universe, to the creative (and destructive) power that is primordial. Through magick you can see the threads that form the weave of reality and twist them or order them to your Will. Through magick you discover that reality is rather plastic and elastic than determined and fixed. How often do we forget this? Read this paragraph again. Read it out loud. Do it. Now tell me… if you receive a working system of magick… a set of techniques that truly works, that synthesizes more than two thousand years of experimentation and hard work and countless lives… a system that allows you to alter not only your perception of life but life itself… would you “just change it” because having a knife offends your sensibility? Didn’t the knife serve a purpose? Did you truly understood that purpose? Did you? Completely? Because if you didn’t, at least were you aware of what was at stake if you disturbed the balance of the ritual? These are not idle questions. They demand some very sober answers.

Change is good. We are masters of change, we wizards, magickians, witches and so on… Growth is good. Diversity is even better. What is not so good is the abundance of lose cannons, mad/insane people, cults, irresponsible leaders and ignorance.

Where is the key difference? How do we allow for growth and change without going all the way to the other side? I think the keywords are: knowledge, responsibility, open minds, experimentation and honor. From knowledge we get our background and framework… it is the tool and weapon we use to grow and move forward. Responsibility is the cornerstone to survival and self preservation. We absolutely need an open mind, free of prejudice, to accept new ideas and new points of view… otherwise, we degrade into dogmatism and kill the life out of our Art. Experimentation is the key to new developments. And honor… the least understood of the virtues of the modern world… honor forces us to be truthful in reporting our findings, to give the best out of ourselves and to accept when we are wrong. What must underlie all of these nice ideals is a sense of love: love towards the Universe, towards our fellow travelers of this slow evolutionary road… and love towards our Art. As Uncle Al said: Love is the Law, love under Will.

Eclecticism and evolution are often used as excuses to laziness. Excuses to sloppy or non existent research that leads to fundamental lack of knowledge. Want to change something? Fine, tell me why and how. But you cannot change what you do not understand. DO YOUR HOMEWORK and understand it. If you cannot do that… often something as simple as reading and understanding what you read… then think twice before saying that the system needs changing.

Notice that I did not even require you to perform any kind of experiment, or to go fasting and meditating to the top of a mountain… I just asked you to do some research, to read, and to justify, in a plausible argument, the meaning and measure of what you say you want to do. This should be almost second nature to us, citizens of the world in the 21st century… strangely, it is often too much to ask… so people become lazy, and a whole lot of things get simplified to the point that they are either non functional or plain dangerous to use. No wonder most people think that magick just doesn’t work.

The age of information.

Forty years ago, finding information about magick or paganism often required a lot of money, hunting down difficult to get books, and more often than not, a lot of background and education to understand what we read. It could also be a matter of knowing the right people, or having born in the right family. The main limiting factor was information.

Today it is the opposite. We can, with a minimum investment in books, technology and education, gain access to more information we can hope to read, let alone understand, in more than a hundred lifetimes. And what was taken for granted in the previous paragraph (the ability to process information) has degraded to the point that most people become unsatisfied if the answer is not quick and easy.

A simple web search, or a search with a peer to peer networking software can lead you to gigabytes of magickal information. Almost everything from the middle ages forward is digitized somewhere. Even really ancient sources are available. And comments and summaries… virtually all you need to learn is at your fingertips. So why do we not see all this knowledge in action?

Because it’s easier to believe that all you need is white light and positive thinking than to truly work with your mind, body and soul to transcend your limitations. And that’s plain sad. At least to me.

Sometimes, this really pisses me off. Other times, it just annoys me and I find it disturbing.

What can we do?

Well… if you are trying to learn magick, or if you are an experienced practitioner it is the same: treat the Art with the responsibility, respect and honour it deserves. Treat your fellow humans the same way. This means knowing what you do, doing it in a responsible way, not letting your own limitations get in the way, experimenting with your ideas, and truthfully acting according to what you have learned. And inspire others to do the same, not because of some power trip or need to satisfy your ego, but out of love to the Art, to those others and to the Universe at large.

When asked, answer truthfully. When approached by those not yet ready, help them (or at least let them) find their way. When you meet someone who does have a sincere need and is ready, point them in the proper direction or share your experience. Knowledge is not to be hoarded, but it is not to be fully free either, it carries within the weight of responsibility and love.

We are keepers of our Art. We have been entrusted with it by our ancestors, and we are to entrust our descendants with it. And so we need to make sure they receive it in a better shape we did. It is a living thing, magick. Let’s treat it with the respect it deserves.

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