A Syllabus for Magic: Crossing the Intermediate Chasm
My friends and I complain a lot about the occult section at the bookstore, mostly because hanging out at a bookstore and complaining is cheaper than a movie, even with the latte. Our favorite complaint is that there are no advanced books on magic.
Our second favorite complaint is the music they play, but that’s irrelevant.
I’ve kicked this idea around over and over, asking why there are no advanced books on magic. The question itself is faulty. There are advanced books on magic (I even wrote one). But the question fails in another way: It betrays a misunderstanding of the field.
Most books on magic are textbooks, because textbooks sell. People want to learn how-to, and if you ever find yourself in the enviable position of writing a book on magic, you might as well put the exercises in from the beginning because if you don’t, the publisher will suggest you do.
Publishers and readers have expectations for what a book on magic contains. A book on magic has exercises (which nearly everyone who reads the book ignores), and offers the same exact rigmarole — here’s how to move “energy” (rarely a critical discussion of why we’re using that clumsy and out-dated model); here’s how to relax; here’s how to see auras (two-thirds of the time, the books actually teach you to see retina burn, a not very mystical, and entirely useless, skill). Wiccan books will tell you how to ground, center, cast a circle, call the quarters, and eat cookies, in that order. Ceremonial magical books will have a chapter or a section on each of the sephiroth, planets, and elements. And all of this repetition and sameness is absolutely okay.
In fact, it’s necessary. Everyone learns differently, and every writer offers a new perspective on the old topics — at least, if the writer is doing his or her job. Some readers will want a step-by-step, logical approach without many frills. Others will want reassurance or an open-ended, experiential approach. The techniques of magic can be reduced to a small number — perhaps a couple dozen — but the application and presentation of those techniques is as manifold as those who practice magic.
The other reason that there aren’t many advanced books on magic is that there aren’t many advanced textbooks in anything. When one gets to the point of advanced study in any academic field, textbooks become less and less useful. In about seven years of graduate school (gods!), I bought an average of ten books a class every semester, so sixty books every year, and of those, maybe five were textbooks. The rest were primary sources, or anthologies of primary sources.
Similarly, economic factors influence the books that get published and, more importantly, distributed. A large chain bookstore is unlikely to carry advanced books in magic, just as it is unlikely to carry advanced books in physics. The markets for such books are small. Writers do produce works of magical critical theory, philosophy, or experimental results. But those sell slowly, if it all, so bookstores rarely carry them. You need to hunt.
This lack of advanced study materials leads to an interesting situation for those who study magic. Learning the basics is easy. Moving on is hard. It’s doubly hard because most people who study magic do so themselves; they’re autodidacts. An autodidact can learn a topic perfectly well; in fact, I’m mostly an autodidact in magic. But an autodidact faces specific problems of assessment, organization, and even emotional reactions that a teacher can support a student through (or, conversely, make worse).
What we need, then, is not necessarily better books on magic (there are lots of good ones), but a guideline for how to study this art in order to get over that chasm between beginner and expert. Such a guideline, in academia at least, is called a syllabus.
Most syllabuses are written by professors for their classes, but some universities have program-wide syllabuses adopted by the whole course. Most universities mix the approaches, with some parts of the syllabus coming from department or program-wide initiatives and some from the professor’s own mind. Writing a syllabus for self-study might seem a bit odd to those used to the university syllabus. After all, the university syllabus is written by an authority in the topic and offered to students as a guideline and, in a legal sense, a promise. But a syllabus is really just a plan for how to learn, and anyone can construct a plan, even without necessarily knowing much about the topic beforehand.
Writing a syllabus for magical study is much like writing one for any other topic, but there are specific features of magical study that complicate the basics. Nevertheless, every syllabus, regardless of its origin or subject, has three sections: objectives, a set of goals for the course of study; learning activities, a set of assignments or actions to be taken to achieve those goals; and assessment, a description of how the success of the student will be measured, as well as the success of the learning activities in promoting the desired outcomes. All three components, whether in mathematics, literature, or magic, are interdependent. A syllabus missing one of these elements is not a complete or effective syllabus.
A syllabus needn’t be a rigorous and complex document, however, especially for self-study. For example, I am currently learning the piano, and while I do have a teacher I have a syllabus of my own. Here it is in its totality:
- Objectives: I will learn to play the piano well enough to read, memorize, and improvise music. To enjoy the piano.
- Assessment: I’ll know I can read to my satisfaction when I can play a song through slowly with few errors after only practicing it for a short time (one or two weeks); I’ll know I can memorize music when I can play at least three classical pieces and five or six short folk pieces from memory; I’ll know I can improvise when I can play music from a fake-book at sight.
- Activities: I will take weekly lessons, practice at least a few minutes daily, and play for pleasure at least twice a week.
Obviously, I will not meet the objectives of this syllabus easily or even necessarily quickly. But notice that each objective can also be broken down. After all, I can memorize pieces one piece at a time. Notice also how flexible I am with the activities. If I really wanted to be good at piano I’d set myself a set goal, say, an hour a day. Of course, my second objective is the most important: to enjoy the piano, and I know how I would best enjoy piano, and that is at my own pace.
When writing a syllabus for your own self-study of magic, it can be as complex or as simple as you need, and this complexity comes ultimately from the objectives you choose. Therefore, a wise autodidact starts with objectives, which can be things you wish to know, things you wish to be able to do, or even attitudes you wish to develop. And keep in mind as well that you can think of it as a single course, rather than the whole totality of magic. A syllabus with objectives like:
- Learn to evoke spirits
- Learn to invoke gods
- Learn to heal
- Learn to make talismans
- Learn the Cabala
- Learn the runes
is a more overarching syllabus than one with objectives like:
- Learn the sephiroth of the cabala
- Learn the Hebrew alphabet
- Perform an invocation of each of the ten sephiroth
And the second set of objectives is more likely to lead to a manageable set of activities. By all means, begin with your overarching goals — what you really want out of magic — but narrow them down into specific courses of study to make the next steps more manageable. Any time you find yourself struggling with the next steps, go back and narrow your objectives, keeping in mind that you can always come back to the other objectives later.
Your objectives are always and only yours to define. But if you are new to the study of magic you may be unaware of what sorts of skills a magician needs, and so you might become stuck. At this point, those introductory books can be useful. You can head to a bookstore or library and browse through some of them, getting a sense for what they cover and defining a set of objectives from that.
Once you have your objectives, you need to skip ahead to assessment. How will you know you have achieved these goals? You should be able to come up with some indicators that are measurable and more or less objective. I don’t recommend giving yourself grades (most professors would avoid them if they could). Assessment and grading aren’t the same thing: assessment is determining two things: (a) am I learning what I set out to learn? and (b) is this method working to teach it to me? With regard to the first, remember that you cannot always easily judge your own improvement, especially by memory. Keeping a journal of your activities and reflections on your skills can be useful, therefore, so that you can go back and see “ah, yes, I really didn’t get that but now I do.” I find that a sense of embarrassment for how dumb I used to be is a fairly good sign: it means I’m just a little smarter.
You also want to assess your activities, but doing that requires having some. Activities include materials and exercises. Materials are those very books I’ve talked about earlier. At the beginning, you may wish to start with a fundamental text (some are listed in the bibliography). Later, in more advanced classes, you will find yourself looking at primary sources more and more, and less and less at the introductory textbooks. If you find these sources boring, or simply incomprehensible, keep in mind that no one says you must study advanced magic. It is not as if you’ll get a Ph.D. in it. Go that far only if you find yourself passionate.
You need to evaluate material before using it to learn from, especially because so many books on magic are, in fact, pretty awful. A lot of them are good, but some are — not. Ideally you’ll want to create your own set of criteria for judging an introductory book. (Once you have some practice down, it’s fairly easy to discern good advanced texts from bad — most people prefer the Arbatel to the Black Pullet, because it’s easy to tell which is real and which is nonsense.) To help you create your own criteria, here are mine. Remember that I am a grumpy man with a stick up my nose for critical thinking and good writing, and take that into account.
Criteria for Evaluation of Learning Materials
- Can I understand it? Is it written and organized well enough to comprehend, or is it filled with jargon I do not know and convoluted sentence structure? Is it often, like some theosophical materials, complex but reducible to simple statements that are often obvious or clearly untrue?
- Do its claims match with what I already know or suspect about the world with greater or lesser certainty? Obviously, I can be wrong and I need to occasionally read stuff that disagrees with me, but a text that tells me that science has discovered that Atlantis used crystals to power their machinery is wrong.
- Will it address one or more of my objectives?
- If I read a chapter, can I put the book down and summarize what things the chapter argued, or am I left with just a vague feeling? Vague feelings have their place — I actually think one of the chief purposes of occult writing isn’t instruction, but encouragement. And I might want one or more such materials. But if I’m trying to learn something concrete from a book, I need to be sure I can take something concrete from it.
- Does it have solid arguments and citations of its information, or does it just plop authoritative-sounding stuff in the midst of the text with no indication where it came from? My favorite of these is a book that lays out the totality of Druidic magical practices — without ever citing a single source, and making multiple factual errors (the druids did not have pumpkins).
Once you identify a set of materials that you wish to use, go request them from the library or buy them from a bookstore. Most introductory texts contain a set of exercises, but if you are an intermediate learner you need to make your own. An intermediate learner of magic has the task not just of building the skills of magic, but synthesizing them. So let’s imagine you have learned elemental pore breathing (a technique of drawing in elemental “energies” through the breath, promoted by Franz Bardon and stolen by nearly everyone else), the twenty-two path/letters of the Cabala, and the chakras. This rather hodgepodge approach now opens up doors for the intermediate magician to experiment with breathing the elements into particular chakras, or breathing the letters instead of the elements, or permuting the letters into chakras. The overwhelming proliferation of magical techniques that this mere synthesis can create is staggering.
Once you have your materials and your exercises determined, it’s wise to plan how you will assess your development. The single most productive way to do this is with a magical journal. Most people, however, do not understand the purpose of this journal. It is not merely a diary of your practices, although it can be. It’s also a critical reflection on your development and learning. Exams, papers, and so on work well enough if there is a teacher, especially in a university setting where a numerical grade must be assigned. But for an autodidact, the only measure of success is success. If, for example, you wish to learn practical talismanic magic, you may regard yourself successful when you have a 80% success rate, or when you have three successful talismans under your belt, or any other largely arbitrary measure. But if you are trying to learn something less concrete — if you’re trying to learn advanced techniques of theurgy, how do you measure your successful invocation? Obviously, if you find yourself levitating around the room, probably you did something right (or very, very, very wrong), but more likely you’ll end up after an invocation thinking, “was that just a fantasy, or real communication?” If you can record your experiences and your doubts in one place, you can reevaluate them later and see how they fit together with later experiences.
When it comes to devising a practice schedule, I suppose it’s customary for me to become stern and demand that you spend forty-five minutes a day doing magical exercises. What a hypocrite that would make me. You are better off setting modest goals, perhaps even tiny ones. Otherwise, you will simply skip lessons and feel guilty. Guilt is not educational, contrary to Puritan beliefs. Instead, if you decide that you will spend just ten minutes a day meditating, you’re more likely to do so without guilt — and before you know, you’re meditating for an hour as a habit.
When you finish a syllabus, it is time to look again at your overarching goals and define a new one. Skills build on each other. Once you get the hang of talismanic magic, what can you use it for? How can you combine it with other magical techniques that you’ve learned? The usual method of learning magic — studying with this person here, that dubious person there, this book, that book — can work for some people. Other people will prefer a more organized approach, even if they scribble their syllabuses on napkins and keep their magical notebooks on the backs of receipts.
People pay professors a lot (well, not that much) to offer them a hand over the intermediate chasm of their fields of expertise. We have, unfortunately, no professors of magic, and when we come to the chasm we need to find our own way across. The good news is, we can build our own bridges, especially if we’re willing to do a little planning.
A Tiny Bibliography
Introductory Books I Like
- Christopher, Lyam Thomas. Kabbalah, Magic, and the Great Work of Self-transformation. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2006.
Covers some of the same ground as Kraig, but from a somewhat different angle.
- Dunn, Patrick. Postmodern Magic: The Art of Magic in the Information Age. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2005.
This wasn’t meant to be strictly a beginner’s book, but I wanted to rethink the common conceptions of how magic works from the ground up, which necessarily involves a lot of beginner stuff.
- Kraig, Donald Michael. Modern Magick: Eleven Lessons in the High Magical Arts. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 1988.
This book is a very good introduction to a particular kind of magic — Golden Dawn style ceremonial magic. It comes with the advantage of having a syllabus built in, although most people who have read the book have, unfortunately, ignored it. Not ignoring it is a very, very good idea.
Intermediate Books I Like
- Agrippa, Henricus Cornelius. Tyson, Donald, ed. Three Books of Occult Philosophy. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 1992.
I know magicians who live by Agrippa, and there are worse ways to go. This text is a core source text for most of western magical tradition.
- Dukes, Ramsey. SSOTBME: Revised. The Mouse That Spins, 2002.
Perhaps the single best book on advanced magic I have ever read. Explores the nature of knowledge, the structure of magical theory, and the role of magic in culture.
- Dunn, Patrick. Magic Power Language Symbol: A Magician’s Exploration of Linguistics. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2008.
Magic’s about language. Or maybe language is about magic.
©2009 Patrick Dunn
Edited by Sheta Kaey
Patrick Dunn has written two books on the occult, Postmodern Magic: The Art of Magic in the Information Age and Magic Power Language Symbol: A Magician’s Exploration of Linguistics. He lives near Chicago, where he teaches and writes. You can find his blog here.