The Sweat Lodge: Ancient Shamanism in the Modern Age

The Sweat Lodge: Ancient Shamanism in the Modern Age

Not long ago I had the chance to participate in my first sweat lodge. I thought it might be useful to set down my impressions of the experience, for others who have never undergone it but who are curious as to what is involved, or may be thinking about undertaking the ordeal for themselves.

The sweat lodge is an ancient part of shamanism that is widespread around the world in various forms. It was the ritualized spiritual custom for many of the native peoples of North America. A modern secular derivative of the practice is the Scandinavian sauna. In the sweat lodge the body is subjected to prolonged exposure to high-temperature steam. This causes abundant perspiration, hence the name.

The lodge in which I participated was overseen by a group of shamans in my part of Eastern Canada, among them some of the Mi’kmaq tribe, which is the Indian tribe native to the province of Nova Scotia, and to other areas of the north-eastern part of North America, such as New Brunswick and northern Maine.


Prior to undergoing the sweat lodge, I had no first-hand knowledge of what it would involve, and did not know what to bring with me. I wondered if I would have to be naked in the lodge during the ceremony. Not to worry, everyone wore clothing of some sort. I was told that an old pair of jeans would be fine, but that I should bring along a change of clothing, since whatever I wore during the ceremony would get wringing wet. I wondered if I should wear shorts instead of long pants but was told by one of the people who planned to participate that, no, jeans would be fine. Mistake — but not a fatal one. Shorts are the clothing of choice for the sweat lodge.

The men generally wear loose shorts, and undergo the experience naked from the waist up. The women wear loose dresses or light tops, and skirts or shorts. In the sweat lodge ceremony I attended, the women were not naked from the waist up, which hardly seemed fair to me. Why should the men get to strip off their tops, but not the women? None the less, that’s the way it was. There is a general custom of modesty in the sweat lodges that are held across North America. However, everyone goes barefoot inside the lodge. No exceptions to this rule.

We were asked to arrive at the sweat lodge an hour before the beginning of the ceremony, which took place in a small clearing in a wooded valley at the end of a long private road, far from any human habitation. The result was complete privacy for the ceremony. Two lodges were being run simultaneously — one for men only in the smaller of the two sweat lodges, and another larger mixed group of men and woman in the bigger lodge. The men’s group consisted of about half a dozen men and the shaman who led the ceremony. I attended the mixed group, which had around eighteen or so participants, plus the person leading the ritual activities.

When I got to the clearing, a huge bonfire was blazing over a pile of stones. It was a nice, mild pre-spring day in Nova Scotia. Most of the snow was gone from the open patches of ground but the winter-browned grass and the sod were still frozen solid. The breeze was fitful and tossed the rising smoke of the fire in all directions, so that it was impossible to avoid it no matter where I stood or sat. Benches had been arranged around the fire, but the smoke was so capricious, no one could use them. We stood around talking while the stones got hot.

One of the organizers of the sweat lodge took me aside and gave me the low-down on what was expected. She told me that I would have to take off my boots and socks to enter the lodge, that it was necessary to crawl through the door and that I should not stand up while inside the lodge. All movement in the circular lodge was sunwise around the central fire pit. She warned that I should take off any jewellery as people had sometimes found that wearing jewellery during a lodge could result in burns on the skin when the metal of the jewellery became hot. She also told me to remove my contact lenses.

The larger lodge was a round, hut-shaped structure about twelve feet across and six feet or so tall. It was made of a frame of slender poles bent together, and was covered in fabric similar to blanket material. It had no windows of any kind, and a single door in the north side facing the fire, so low that it could only be entered by getting on hands and knees. This doorway was closed by a flap of fabric. Inside, the floor was bare turf. I noticed a small vent at the very top of the hemispherical lodge, which I presumed was there for ventilation, to prevent us all from suffocating.

I have to admit, after the recent disaster in the autumn of 2009 concerning a sweat lodge in Sedona, Arizona, in which three participants were killed and 21 others sickened, being able to get enough fresh air was a concern in my mind. I was glad to see this vent, small though it seemed to be. It was baffled to prevent the entry of any light.

In the center of the floor there was a circular pit around three feet in diameter and about a foot deep. I knew in a vague sort of way what the pit was for, but did not have a clear idea of how it would work during the ceremony itself.

All these features of the inside of the sweat lodge I learned only when I crawled inside for the first time. Before that happened, we performed a brief ceremony while standing in a circle around the bonfire. Each of the six directions of space, and the center, was acknowledged successively in prayer. This was done in an interesting way. Volunteers were asked to speak for the directions. Those who volunteered did not recite a prepared script, but spoke spontaneously from their hearts as the impulse arose within them at that moment. This resulted in uneven prayers, some better than others, but it had a spontaneity that I liked.

When we addressed the east, we all turned to face the east; when we addressed the west, we turned to the west. When we gave thanks and acknowledgment to the earth, the downward direction, many of those present knelt and touched the ground, although this must have been voluntary since many remained standing. I chose to crouch as a mark of respect.

A little mix-up occurred in the sequence of prayers. It was supposed to be the gods of the center that were acknowledged last, but the person speaking for the center jumped in too early, and we ended up praying to the sky last. The leader of the ceremony joked that she was sure the gods would understand, and would not be angry.

Inside the Lodge

We all took off our shoes, lined up on the frozen grass, and crawled into the sweat lodge. The men took up positions on the right side, and the women on the left side, from the viewpoint of the door facing inward. There was enough space to crawl around the lodge sunwise between the seated participants, who had their backs to the wall of the lodge, and the central fire pit.

It was pretty cramped in there, and uncomfortable. The ground was cold and hard, and more than a little damp. The wall of the lodge was uneven. I found that I could not lean back against it without having a ridge of wood dig into my spine. There was very little room to put our legs. I tried sitting cross-legged for a while, but in the end extended my feet toward the fire pit. That seemed the most comfortable position. Nobody wanted to press against those beside them, so everyone was trying to avoid contact by scrunching up, but there was so little room in the lodge, contact was unavoidable. This may have been deliberate on the part of the leaders of the lodge. We were told that the sweat lodge is an ordeal, and that it is supposed to be uncomfortable.

It was time for more warnings. If anyone could not stand the heat a moment longer, they were to call out in a loud voice “open the door! open the door!” which was the signal for the door to be opened. It would have to be called out loudly because there was going to be a lot of noise during the ceremony. Anyone who could not take the heat would be allowed to leave the lodge, but we were all asked not to give in to the heat unless we absolutely thought we were about to die, because it was very disruptive to have to open the door in the middle of the ceremony. We were also cautioned not to crawl into the fire pit in the darkness of the lodge by mistake, because the stones in the pit would be very hot. Well, duh.

I sat there a little nervously, trying to adjust my legs to a comfortable position, but found that there was no comfortable position. I tried to keep the sharp edge of wood on the side of the lodge from digging into my back, but every time my shoulders slumped, there it was again. Even so, I was glad I was sitting on the outside rim of the lodge — some people were sitting in a second circular row in front of me close to the fire pit. I was glad for the coolness of the side of the lodge at my back, and for the coolness of the earth under me. I wondered if I would be the first one to crack from the heat and call out “open the door!” That would be embarrassing.

I wore a T-shirt and jeans. Most other men were naked to the waist and wore shorts. I wondered if my extra clothing would make the ordeal more difficult for me. The person beside me told me that I could strip down to my underwear – nobody would mind – but I kept my clothes on. I wondered if the wedding ring on my finger would burn my skin, or if my metal belt buckle would burn through my jeans. We had been told to drink plenty of water, but I had only swallowed a single mouthful.

Part of the spiritual energy stimulated during a sweat lodge comes from this uncertainty as to what is going to take place. It is strongest the first time, when the person undergoing the lodge ceremony has no idea of what is about to happen. I was primed for a peak spiritual experience. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to come out of the lodge alive.

How the Sweat Lodge Works

The way a sweat lodge works is this — stones from the fire that are called “stone people” are carried into the lodge and placed one by one into the fire pit in the center of the floor. About eight stones are used, and each is around ten to twenty pounds in weight. They are so hot from the bonfire, that when they enter the dimness of the lodge, they glow red in their centers, and you can feel the heat radiating from them even from a long distance.

Since I’d never undergone a sweat lodge before, I had assumed that the heat came from the rocks directly, by radiation. Not so. The heat is in the form of steam, which is generated by pouring water from a bucket over the hot rocks using a ladle. The rocks are so hot, that when the water touches them it is instantly converted to steam. I was afraid the boiling water might splash over my feet, which were close to the pit, so I covered them with a towel, but I did not need to worry. The rocks are so hot, the water does not boil or splash, it is all turned to steam instantly. The water comes from a large bucket that holds around four gallons, which is set beside the fire pit next to the person in charge of the ritual. That person controls the steam.

There are three levels of heat in a sweat lodge, as I soon learned. There is the first level, when a stone is being lifted through the open door on the tines of a pitchfork to the warning call of “rock!” and then blessed with a scattering of herbs, which burst into little sparks of fire and smoke the instant they touch its glowing surface. All the rocks together radiate a large amount of heat that can be felt on the face and skin like the heat from a blazing fireplace.

The second level of heat is when the first ladle of water is poured over the rocks in the pit, and a cloud of white steam rushes upward with a great hiss like that of a giant serpent. It is many times hotter than the heat from the rocks alone. The steam rises upward to the roof of the lodge, and then rolls around and down the sides in a moving curtain, so that it first touches the participants on the head and the back of the neck. It is easy to feel on the exposed tips of the ears.

The final and most intense level of heat is when the door flap is sealed tightly so that no trace of light or air can enter, and the inside of the lodge is plunged into absolute darkness. The ventilation from the open door prevents the full effects of the steam from being felt, but when the door flap is shut, there is nothing to cool the inside of the lodge. The level of heat is magnified several times over. It is most intense a few seconds after the water is applied to the rocks, when the curtain of steam has had time to fly up to the roof and roll its way down the walls.

Each ordeal lasts as long as the water in the bucket. The faster the water is applied to the rocks, the hotter it gets. I half-expected the rocks to explode and scatter hot fragments over all of those sitting around the pit when they were hit with splashes of icy water, but was told that the rocks were basalt and very old, excellent for holding the heat without breaking down. And indeed, none of the rocks cracked.

We did not just sit there in the dark and suffer the heat. All the while the door was shut and the water was being applied to the rocks, the air was filled with the sound of a rattle being shaken and often with the rhythmic pounding of a flat shamanic drum. The leaders of the lodge chanted and sang songs, some with words that were recognizable, and others native songs that seemed to have no words, or only a few words repeated over and over. Everyone was encouraged to join in. Many people began their own chants and songs when the initial song was dying down, so that a continuous noise of singing and chanting was achieved. In part, I think this chanting was designed to distract the mind away from the ordeal of the heat, but in part it was an invocation to the spirits of nature that were being honoured by the ceremony.

Four Sessions

We did four sessions in the lodge that afternoon — by that I mean four times when the door was sealed shut and the bucket of water ladled over the hot rocks. New rocks were placed into the pit for each session, so that they would be hot enough to turn the water to instant steam. The first session was devoted to honouring the Mother Earth and women’s mysteries. The last was free-form, during which we were invited to pray and speak as the impulse arose within us. Each session lasted around half an hour, and we opened the flap of the lodge and exited to cool off between sessions, and to drink water.

In the middle of the second session, the leader threw ladles full of icy water over the people inside the lodge. I think it was designed to shock us into a more intense self-awareness of the time and place. We didn’t know it was coming because of the pitch darkness. The first ladle-full caught me square in the face. It was quite a surprise. I suspect the leader of the session aimed it at me, because the experience was completely new to me, and I would have no idea it was coming, but how he managed to hit my face so accurately with the first shot in total darkness, I don’t know.

During the hottest part of the sweat lodge experience, it is difficult to breath easily. The steam is so hot and dense that it burns the insides of your nose, and if you try to breathe through your mouth, it burns your lips and tongue. We were told to breath through out bared teeth at those times. I found that this did not help much. It made my teeth too hot. The best approach, for me, was to breath very, very shallowly through the nose, and very slowly so that the steam was drawn in gradually, not fast enough to burn. The steam in the air can become quite dense. When the door-flap is first opened after a session, admitting light, the steam is so thick in the air inside the lodge that you can barely see across to the other side.

Needless to say, I got soaked to the skin at each session. Standing outside in front of the smoking bonfire served to half dry me off, but I was never completely dry before we crawled in for the next session. My bare feet on the frozen ground had the hardest time. They became numb but I was able to warm them by holding them up close to the bonfire, and that prevented them from being frozen too badly.

I learned that many of my fears had been groundless. My wedding ring did not burn my skin. Maybe this was because I took care to shield my ring from the direct contact of the new steam as it rolled around the lodge. I could probably have worn my contact lenses, because I kept my eyes closed most of the time inside the lodge. Since the darkness was total, there was not much point in keeping them open.

The herbs that were mixed with the water poured over the stones left a curious taste at the back of my throat for a time, but no ill effects. Apparently, it is possible to modify the effects of the steam by putting various herbs in the water. Each shaman has his or her own recipes of herbs to use with the water.

The Peace Pipe

After the four sessions in the lodge, participants were invited to sit around the fire pit inside the lodge with the door-flap left open, and share a peace pipe. Many chose not to do so, including myself, because they did not smoke and did not wish to expose their lungs to tobacco smoke, and this was fine with the leaders of the lodge. No aspersions were cast on those who stayed outside during the pipe ceremony.

The general mood inside the sweat lodge throughout all four sessions was one of joyful exuberance. Everyone was encouraged to sing, chant, and release their emotions, and everyone seemed to do just that. There was nothing heavy or forbidding in the ceremonies — it was all child-like happiness that comes from living in the moment. Prayers were given, spirits were seen by many of those who participated, and prayers were answered. A good time truly was had by all.

©2010 by Donald Tyson.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.

Donald Tyson is the author of Sexual Alchemy: Magical Intercourse with Spirits, Familiar Spirits, and Soul Flight: Astral Projection and the Magical Universe, among other works. You can visit his website here.

Veiled Issues – The “-ism Schism” – Comments on Atheism vs Faith

Veiled Issues - The "-ism Schism" - Comments on Atheism vs Faith

Veiled Issues

“Death to all fanatics!” — Ho Chih Zen

Donald Tyson’s rant in an earlier issue of Rending the Veil1, calling for a united Pagan/ Christian front against the spectre of encroaching atheism has led to several interesting comments — notably from Psyche2 (who points out the range of atheist positions is far wider than Tyson claims), and Grey Glamer3 (who makes a strong case that atheism and a magical perspective are not necessarily opposites).

I think all three writers are missing an important point.

If there is a tendency that needs to be strongly opposed by people of good conscience who seek common ground in these matters, that foe is fanaticism. Fundamentalist thought. The certainty that your view of the universe is not only the One Truth, but that all those who do not share it are deluded, stupid or actually evil.

This is not a viewpoint exclusive to one belief system. It is rather a habit which can appear in any faith — or lack of it4.

Many years ago, I had a long conversation with a friend and work colleague, who happened to be a committed Christian. Nice guy. We talked at length about our different experience of the Divine, our beliefs and how we acted on them. At the end of it all, he smiled, thanked me for the talk. . . and added sadly, “. . . it’s a shame that you’re going to Hell anyway.” For all that he was in my view a good person, he was a fanatic. A polite one, perhaps — but still fundamentalist, unable to move from his dogma.

Last year, I had an incredibly similar conversation with a friend on a comic book forum (you’d be surprised — or perhaps not — how often such matters turn up among fanboys). Only difference was, he’s an rationalist atheist. And instead of saying I would go to Hell for my viewpoint, he insisted I was basically either delusional or foolish. Which I suppose is slightly better. . .

Needless to say, these two examples are not representative of their belief systems. The majority of folk I know of both Christian and atheist tendency are perfectly capable of discussing matters without retreating to claims of absolute certainty — indeed, many of them have adjusted their views as a result of such discussions (as have I).

But some people simply can’t make that adjustment. Whether due to personal experience, the culture they were raised in or some other factor, they are utterly certain that they have the Truth.

I can understand how this happens. In religious folk, their faith is a bedrock of their entire personality and often their culture. Doubting this is risky, scary — and mentally difficult to even find the words for5. In those of the rationalist tendency, there is the added fear of a return to the horrors of the theocratic world which (in their mythology) was banished by the Light of Reason, and that their worldview has a lot of material support. (Of course scientific work is far from the immaculate quest for knowledge they think it is. . . and often those who work in the field have their own beliefs which are far from rational, and which strongly affect their theories.)

Certainty is an important thing for everyone. I think on some level, we all see our points of view as “true” and those which differ as wrong in some way. There’s also a strong tendency in people to conform to a given status quo, the consensus reality of our culture. Some folk, though, go that little bit further. . . even the possibility of someone having differing views to theirs is seen as a threat, terrifies them. And fear so easily turns to hate.

My own view — and of course I could be completely wrong about this! — is that people who can allow a little slack in their beliefs, some flexibility in their world-view, are not only better adapted to the complex, changing times we live in, but are actually better company. I can honestly say that if I met a person who shared my belief system in every single way — except that they were certain it was The Truth rather than a working model to be adjusted as time and experience dictate — I would dread them.

Fanatical certainty, fundamentalist beliefs and the hatred of those who do not share them, are one of the worst parts of the human world. It is that habit which leads to persecution and atrocity. It seems far more important to me that people of all beliefs and systems ally against that than to pick fights among themselves.

It’s a dark world out there, full of things to fear. Each of us has a small candle, a light in the darkness. Surely it’s a better idea to share our light than argue over what colour the other persons candle is?

“Convictions cause convicts.” — Hagbard Celine


  1. Tyson, “Atheism — the Real Enemy,” in Rending The Veil.
  2. Psyche, “Ignorance – the Real Enemy. A reply to Donald Tyson’s Essay,” ibid.
  3. Glamer, “Does Materialism Threaten Paganism?“, ibid.
  4. Vincent, “The Woo, the How and the Why,” in “Oddities and Mutterings.”
  5. Vincent, “Guttershaman — Meanings and Patterns, part 1,” ibid.

(As ever, I am indebted to the work of Robert Anton Wilson.)

©2009 by Ian Vincent.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.

Ian Vincent was born in 1964 in Gravesend, England to lower-working-class parents. Due to an early manifestation of psi ability, he began study of mythology, mysticism and the occult before he was ten years old. After school, Ian found himself on his first “ghost-busting,” aged nineteen. Ever since, he has found himself in many situations where his ability for dealing with aggressive paranormal activity (human and otherwise) was useful. He founded Athanor Consulting, a specialist paranormal protection consultancy, in 2002. He closed Athanor in 2009 to better focus on studying and writing on the wider aspects of the Art. Ian lives in Bristol, England with artist Kirsty Hall and shamanic healer Jolane Abrams. He blogs on magical theory (under the title “Guttershaman”) and related Fortean matters at

Veiled Issues – Ignorance: The Real Enemy

October 22, 2009 by  
Filed under atheism, mysticism, semi-regular, veiled issues

Veiled Issues - Ignorance: The Real Enemy

Veiled Issues

In an absurd tirade ludicrously titled “Atheism — The Real Enemy,” Donald Tyson misrepresents atheism and atheists in general, portraying us as fiendish creatures out to dispel the glamours of religion and spiritual belief from the credulous but duped masses.

Tyson appeals for Christian and Pagans to unite in their common belief in god(s) (of some kind or another) against the rising atheist threat. This simply isn’t necessary. If Christians and Pagans want to be friends, let them be friends for the right reasons, and not simply to become united in hatred against a common enemy, fabricated though it may be, as in Tyson’s vicious portrayal of The Atheist.

Defining Our Terms

We can begin by correcting the definition of atheism Tyson presents in his essay:

The new enemy is atheism. It is the belief — the unfaith — that there are no gods, no spirits, no angels or devils, no paranormal abilities, and no magic of any kind.

Leaving aside the aggressive tone (for now), let’s break down the word and see if we can come to some sort of reasonable understanding of what is meant. The word atheist comes from the Greek; the prefix a- meaning “without” and theos meaning “god.” While at its simplest, theism can be defined as the belief in the existence of at least one god; atheism can be described as the absence of belief in the existence of any gods. To assume that this excludes other “energies” or entities is misleading.

In response to similar misrepresentations, and as atheists become more vocal about their (non)beliefs, a growing movement have began calling themselves “brights.” This of course follows in the tradition of homosexuals coming out of the closet embracing the term “gay.” As non-gays are not (necessarily) glum, non-brights are not (necessarily) dim. Even so, Daniel C. Dennett (Dennett, 2006, p. 21) has proposed a lively new term for theists who might otherwise feel left out. He’s suggested they can call themselves “supers,” because they believe in the supernatural. Now everyone can have a peppy new name: gay, straight, bright, super.

Personally, I have difficulty embracing the term “brights.” It feels overly self-conscious to me, but I like the spirit that inspired it. In the meantime, I’ll continue writing essays dispelling the Evil Atheist myths that people such as Donald Tyson love to threaten theists with. (We’re really quite friendly.)

While we’re defining our terms, there is often a lack of understanding about the philosophical stance of agnosticism, and I’d like to clear up the distinction between atheism and agnosticism for readers who may have the two ideas confused.

The word agnostic comes from the Greek agnostos, meaning “unknown, unknowable”; the prefix a- again meaning “without,” and gnosis meaning “knowledge.” Therefore, literally, agnostic means “without knowledge,” but tends to refer specifically to one who is “without knowledge of god(s).” The term was coined by Thomas Huxley, a British scientist in the nineteenth century who believed only material things could be known with any precision.

To be clearer, atheism is the absence of belief in gods, and an agnostic believes one cannot be certain about the (non)existence of gods. It is possible to not believe in gods (the atheist position), but allow for the possibility of being wrong (the agnostic position). Indeed, most atheists could technically be considered agnostics, but this would be splitting hairs that really need not be split.

For instance, in The God Delusion Richard Dawkins identifies a seven point scale of belief with absolute belief in (at least one) god at 1 and complete rejection of any possibility of any gods at 7. Position 4 is the perfect agnostic, completely impartial, believing that the existence of gods is exactly as likely as not (Dawkins, 2006, 73-74).

Most people would fall in positions 2 or 3 (fairly sure that there are gods), or 5 or 6 (fairly sure that there aren’t any gods), and therefore could technically be classified as agnostics, but most religious people with moments of doubt would be unlikely to classify themselves as agnostics. Likewise, most atheists who allow it’s possible there might be a god, but astonishingly unlikely, would not identify themselves this way.

What does “astonishingly unlikely” look like? Consider Bertrand Russell’s Celestial Teapot:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time. (Russell, 1952)

The existence of the Celestial Teapot is sufficiently absurd that one cannot be expected to believe in it. With this example, Russell intended to demonstrate that the burden of proof lies with those who would posit and promote such absurdities, rather than those who elect not to believe things which cannot be proved. It’s simply not good enough to suggest that because one person believes in the Celestial Teapot in the absence of any evidence, its existence must be allowed as a reasonable possibility. It’s not reasonable, and I’ve no qualms about calling myself an a-Celestial Teapotist.

The Gods Are Made of Phlogiston

We are constantly learning more about what it means to be human, redefining ourselves through our ever expanding understanding of the planet around us, and reinventing our place in it. Rather than rejecting what we don’t (yet) understand, we would do better to learn what we can of our world and ourselves.

In the seventeenth century a chemist named Georg Ernst Stahl “discovered” a new element he called phlogiston, after the Greek phlogistos, “to set on fire.” Stahl’s phlogiston theory was proposed to explain combustion. When a substance burns, it was thought to release both “vapours” and phlogiston into the air. The flames and smoke from a burning log suggest the wood is releasing some substance into the air, this, of course, was phlogiston.

Yet the phlogiston theory wasn’t entirely satisfactory. Metals heated in the air do not lose, but gain weight. Therefore it was reasoned that phlogiston must have a negative weight. There were other complications, but, in the absence of a better explanation, this theory won support for much of the eighteenth century.

In the 1780s Antoine Lavoisier recognized and named a new element, oxygen. This “new” element better explained what came to be known as oxidization. As Philip Ball writes in The Elements:

The discovery of oxygen did not just make phlogiston redundant; the two were fundamentally incompatible. Oxygen is the very opposite of phlogiston. It is consumed during burning, not expelled.

Though early in its discovery, some scientists were reluctant to abandon the phlogiston theory entirely, and attempted to work elaborate proofs to try and demonstrate phlogiston could still somehow be involved. Eventually, of course, these were rejected as oxygen and its properties were better understood, and found to better explain what was really happening.

We can see parallels between the story of phlogiston and oxygen and the fantastic creation myths of various cultures and evolution. We no longer need creation myths to explain how the world came to be, or how we came to be on it. Science has provided solid, verifiable answers to these former mysteries, and it continues to regularly improve our understanding.

In 1859 a British naturalist named Charles Darwin “first put together a coherent and tenable account of why we exist” (Dawkins, 1976, p. 1). On the Origin of Species revolutionized our understanding of the natural world and our origins: invisible sky gods were no longer required to explain how we came to be.

Natural selection not only explains the whole of life; it also raises our consciousness to the power of science to explain how organized complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without any deliberate guidance. A full understanding of natural selection encourages us to move bodily into other fields. It arouses our suspicion, in those other fields, of the kind of false alternatives that once, in pre-Darwinian days, beguiled biology. Who, before Darwin, could have guessed that something so apparently designed as a dragonfly’s wing or an eagle’s eye was really the end product of a long sequence of non-random but purely natural causes? (Dawkins, 2008, p. 141)

Tyson warns that “with every day that passes there seems to be more evidence that atheism is a growing movement.” While it’s not as organized as Tyson might fear, certainly more people are open to discussing atheism, and finally the stigma is beginning to lift. Indeed, part of the reason atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have become vocal about their atheism recently is to help raise consciousness, so people realize they have a choice. Too often children are unthinkingly indoctrinated into the beliefs of their parents and left in ignorance of alternative ways of thinking, or worse, actively discouraged from questioning what they’ve been taught.

Yet, in his paranoid essay, Tyson froths:

Atheists don’t regard their opinions as beliefs, of course, but rather look upon them as reality. That this same opinion has been maintained by every fanatical and exclusionary religious cult that has ever existed down through the centuries seems to escape them. All fanatical movements proclaim themselves possessors of the only truth, and are aggressively intolerant toward other beliefs – so it is with atheism, which is really a kind of fanatical cult of science that worships godlessness.

On the contrary, as Jordan Peterson so succinctly puts it in Maps of Meaning, “Adherents of the mythological worldview tend to regard the statements of their creeds as indistinguishable from imperial “fact,” even though such statements were generally formulated before the notion of objective reality emerged” (Peterson, 1999, p. 1).

Indeed, this is perhaps the biggest difference between religious conviction and scientific theory. Certainly, scientific theories are constantly being revised, but religions aggressively resist critical thinking with appeals to “mystery” and “faith”. These smokescreens should no longer be assumed sufficient. Dennett, in Breaking the Spell, gets it right when he says:

Who is right? I don’t know. Neither do the billions of people with their passionate religious convictions. Neither do those atheists who are sure the world would be a much better place if all religion went extinct. There is an asymmetry: atheists in general welcome the extensive and objective examination of their views, practices, and reasons. (In fact, their incessant demand for self-examination can become quite tedious.) The religious, in contrast, often bristle at the impertinence, lack of respect, the sacrilege, implied by anybody who wants to investigate their views. (Dennett, 2006, p. 16-17)

Appeals to “mystery” rather than reason effectively remove these arguments from the table and cannot be entertained in debate.

Raising consciousness about better, verifiable explanations regarding our place in the universe hardly seems “militant” to me, nor are (most) atheists any more (or less) intolerant than theists, many of whom actively seek to recruit new followers (consider “witnessing” and “missionaries,” for example). Atheists, like vegetarians, are often content to let the other side do as they will, however foolish or unappealing it may seem.

A Place for the Numinous

We may no longer need origin myths to explain why and how we got here, but this does not invalidate their meaning. As Peterson writes:

Myth is not primitive proto-science. It is a qualitatively different phenomenon. Science might be considered “description of the world with regards to those aspects that are consensually apprehensible” or “specification of the most effective mode of reaching an end (given a defined end).” Myth can be more accurately regarded as “description of the world as it signifies (for action).” The mythic universe is a place to act, not a place to perceive. Myth describes things in terms of their unique or share affective valence, their value, their motivational significance. (Peterson, 1999, p. 9)

Religion may be outmoded, but mythology certainly isn’t. Many atheists understand the importance of mythology as a part of literary culture. It helps us define who we are and its stories can provide structure to our lives. Richard Dawkins, for example, believes religious education is fundamental to understanding modern culture. He even goes as far as to state that “we can retain a sentimental loyalty to the cultural and literary traditions of, say, Judaism, Anglicanism or Islam, and even participate in religious rituals such as marriages and funerals, without buying into the supernatural beliefs that historically went along with those traditions. We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage” (Dawkins, 2008, p. 387).

Even while we may retain sentimental attachment to tradition, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, it’s true many atheists will reject the possibility of disincarnate entitles, the paranormal, and magick. Many theists also reject these possibilities (with the exception of their personal god[s]).

There are those of us, however, who do not reject the spiritual out of hand. We recognize the importance of numinous experiences in identity and self development. Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, (somewhat surprisingly) allows that “there seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena,” which he feels “has been ignored by mainstream science” (Harris, 2004, p. 41).

So how can an atheist practice magick? It turns out there are many ways of looking at what magick is and how it works — without abstracting ourselves away from its core. Atheism and the numinous can — and often do — peacefully co-exist.


Further Resources & Reading

©2009 by Psyche
Edited by Sheta Kaey

Psyche is the curator for the occult resource, blogs esoteric at, and runs a tarot consultation business at She has been published in The Cauldron, Konton, newWitch, Blessed Be, Tarot World Magazine, and her essay “Strategic Magick” appeared in Manifesting Prosperity: A Wealth Magic Anthology, published by Megalithica Books in February 2008.

The Black Book

The Black Book

At this witching time of year, in the chill of lonesome October when the leaves turn brown and pile in drifts, and the frosted pumpkins begin to rot in the fields, we turn our minds to elongated shadows and gloomy pits, deep willow woods and gaping cavern mouths, secret places that elude the sun, chill haunts where spring the roots of black magic. It has always been a part of the Western esoteric tradition, but it is something that is seldom talked about in polite circles. It carries a taint of decay, a discoloration of disease, and most practitioners of the arts are leery of contracting its infection by casual contact.

Central to the black arts is the fabled Black Book that was referred to in hushed and horrified tones by the Christian demonologists of the Renaissance period such as Boden and Remy. It went under various names according to various learned authorities, but its qualities were always the same. It was a book of damnation that taught occult practices for the spreading of evil abroad across the land. Inspired by the Devil himself, it had but one purpose, to corrupt and destroy all those who fell under its influence or used its methods. Even to open the Black Book, or to hold it in the hands, or touch its binding of human skin, was to become a lost soul forever barred from entry into heaven, forever damned to hell.

The reason the book had many names is because it never actually existed in a material form. Various real grimoires, having titles well known but which few men had actually read, were chosen by the Christian demonologists to represent it. Works of dire reputation such as the Grand Grimoire, the Goetia, the Picatrix, the Key of Solomon, were vilified in harsh terms as corrupting tomes to be strenuously avoided, lest those whose idle curiosity led them to read within should be forever lost in the coils of the Evil One, he who is called the prince of shadows and deceiver of the flesh.

The Victorian occultist Arthur Edward Waite studied these books and many others of a similar foul reputation during his researches in the British Museum Library, and he observed rather dryly that when the grimoires were actually read, it turned out that their contents were not nearly so damnable as the references of the demonologists would lead one to suppose. Indeed, the common effect of reading them was more apt to be tedium than damnation. Waite was not the first to condemn and dismiss the supposed black grimoires — the student of Cornelius Agrippa, Johannes Wier, had done much the same two centuries earlier in the course of defending the reputation of his former master.

But these men had actually read the grimoires — it seemed that those most apt to condemn such infamous occult books as soul-searing one-way tickets to hell were those least likely to have actually studied them — the learned divines and inquisitors of the Catholic Church. The fabled black book of the Devil had the uncanny property of becoming smaller and less significant the closer one examined it. The reality was just not up to the task of sustaining the mythology.

Even so, the myth of the Black Book persisted down to modern times. The celebrated writer of horror stories, H. P. Lovecraft, created it anew in the early part of the 20th century in the form of his Necronomicon — which is perhaps the most well-known of its incarnations. In part, Lovecraft’s imaginary black book of evil was based on the equally imaginary book The King In Yellow, invented by the writer Robert W. Chambers and used in several of his supernatural stories. We may have left the era of the quill pen and the ox cart behind us, but the fable of Satan’s Black Book has followed us. Yet always it remains an illusion that vanishes like a mirage when it is approached and investigated.

Even those modern writers who have attempted to actually create the Black Book must be judged to have failed in their purpose. The self-proclaimed Satanist of San Francisco, Anton Szandor LaVey, made such an attempt in his The Satanic Bible, published in 1969, but it was weak plant that bore scant fruit. Several intrepid writers, myself among them, have written versions of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, but no actual book can begin to approach the mystery or power of the original that existed in the imagination of Lovecraft alone — and perhaps, also in the akashic records of the great library of the astral world.

The Black Book does not yet exist in a cohesive, tangible form despite these attempts, and has never existed intact and entire in our material world. It is an enduring myth that from time to time has been associated with an actual but poorly known text, or a lost text, or even an imaginary text, and that is all. But in this gloaming of the year, when we hang suspended between summer and winter, when the dead are said to leave their graves and walk among us, unseen but not unfelt, we will imagine what the Black Book would contain in its pages, if there actually were such a book.

It is supposed to have been inspired or actually written by the Devil, who is reputed in Christian theology to be the father of all lies. Therefore it must be designed to deceive and mislead those who read it. The grand promises it makes of wealth and power and beauty and eternal life should all be presumed to be untrue. Yet they will be phrased in such a seductive manner that the susceptible reader will find himself unable to resist their siren allure. They will be designed to play upon the weaknesses and impulses of certain human beings who are open to deception and to spiritual corruption, by triggering character flaws in their natures such as greed, lust, envy and hatred.

If these sound familiar, they should — in past centuries they were known as deadly sins — deadly to the soul, not the body — an archaic term we distance ourselves from today. Who talks about sins anymore? Almost nobody, not even the priests and ministers. Yet these weaknesses of human nature still exist and are just as apt to cause the downfall of human hopes as they were when clouds of dark smoke arose from the blackened, crackling flesh of burning women in public squares.

In exchange for the offer of power, wealth and other things desired by the impressionable reader of the Black Book, the crafty author will demand a pledge of obedience and loyalty. In the lore of European witchcraft, as assembled from the confessions under torture of women accused of the black arts, this pledge took place at the sabbat gathering of witches, when the Devil presented his Black Book and demanded the neophyte of witchcraft to impress the print of his thumb in blood beneath the oath. This is all very fanciful, of course, but if the Black Book actually existed, the confirmation of the pledge would take a different form — it would be the requirement that the reader commit some initial act of unspeakable evil and perversity, as a confirmation of his sincerity in his oath, and to forever bind him to evil and prevent him from turning back to the light.

We see something similar among modern street gangs, where the new member of the gang is required to commit a crime, such as a random murder, in order to confirm his sincerity. This may be largely an urban legend, but it illustrates the necessary initiatory act that would be near the beginning of the black book.

The instructions of the text would teach practical methods of black magic, but woven among its rituals and techniques would be a path leading the reader progressively further along in his descent into hell, which in not a locality of space but a state of mind. The reader would be induced by the text to deliberately break all bonds of love and friendship with other human beings by betraying and injuring those he loved. In order to weaken his conscience, he would be encouraged to take “strong drugs” that would open his mind to illegal and immoral acts.

Drugs were used in this manner by Charles Manson to shape the members of his Family, prior to the murders he induced them to commit. Drugs were used in a similar way by Aleister Crowley to weaken the resistance of his followers to sexual acts considered sinful or perverse by society as a whole. Crowley used drugs to aid in destroying his own sense of conventional morality — although he needed little enough help in this effort.

Sexual perversion would play a crucial role in the working of the Black Book. Sex has a powerful hold over most human beings. By inducing its reader to break his sexual taboos, even the strongest taboos among them, the book would addict the reader to such sexual acts, since normal sex seems tame by comparison. When the sexual taboos are broken, it is easier to break other taboos, such as the one against murder.

One of the texts that exists in the real world, and which comes nearest to being a genuine Black Book, is the 18th century work 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade. This book is a catalogue of all the sexual perversions of mankind, arranged in an intensifying level of severity. De Sade was guided in his ordering of the perversions by his own sexual desire over the course of his life. When a perversion ceased to arouse him, he moved on to a stronger perversion, and in this way the catalogue of human depravity was graded from mild to unspeakably vile.

De Sade was a very clever man. He arranged his detailed descriptions of his sexual perversions so that in between each set was a moral diatribe designed to weaken some scruple or moral principle in his reader. Thus, he first sexually aroused his reader, then taught a lesson mocking virtue and faith. In this way he established a conditioned reflex similar to that of Ivan Pavlov’s famous salivating dog, which salivated at the ringing of a bell, because it had been trained to associate the sound of the bell with food. De Sade trained his readers to associate sexual pleasure with mockery and indifference to accepted moral standards. His intentional purpose was to deprave the sexual appetites of his readers and to use that depravity to turn them away from religion.

The final perversions in The 120 Days of Sodom are all descriptions of sexual pleasure derived from torturing, mutilating and slowly murdering innocent victims. This is the final state De Sade hoped and intended his reader to achieve — the state of morals, or lack of morals, that he himself had attained after a long life of debauchery and crime.

The central ritual of the Black Book would also be one of violation, mutilation, and murder. This would be its Great Rite, so to speak, the final and absolute confirmation in evil that is the underlying purpose of the Black Book, its very reason to exist, in comparison with which all its promises of power and wealth, all its teachings of practical magic, are insignificant. The true Black Book is first and last a book of damnation — the damnation of the self, and the spreading of damnation among others by lies and evil acts.

We see an allusion to this Great Rite of damnation in the mythology of the child sacrifice at the witches’ sabbat, where gathered witches were supposed by their Catholic inquisitors, and by the demonologists who wrote about witchcraft, to have sacrificed a baby in order to drink its blood and to harvest its fat for their flying ointments. The French novelist of the 19th century, Joris-Karl Huysmans, described a somewhat similar scene in the climax of his novel Là-Bas (usually translated into English as Down There), which details the descent of a curious man into the depraved practices of Satanists.

As the Devil is the spirit of lies, the promises of the book are all lies, but by the time the reader discovers this to be so, he is already damned in a very real sense — cut off from normal human feelings and normal social interaction by his perversions and crimes. His perverse desires act as an addiction holding him down and preventing the arousal of spiritual feelings or impulses. By his graded initiation into evil, the voice of his good angel is rendered mute to his ears.

As you can see, were the true Black Book to exist, it would be a very wicked text indeed. It is perhaps just as well that it exists only in fable, or at most, only in various detached fragments scattered far and wide, each of them possessing a limited power to do evil. Let us hope it always remains so, and that no individual possessed of sufficient creative ability, and having open communications with the spirit world, ever decided to bring this myth of the true Black Book of the Devil into our world.

©2009 by Donald Tyson
Edited by Sheta Kaey

Donald Tyson is the author of Sexual Alchemy: Magical Intercourse with Spirits, Familiar Spirits, and Soul Flight: Astral Projection and the Magical Universe, among other works. You can visit his website here.

Veiled Issues – Does Materialism Threaten Paganism?

Veiled Issues - Does Materialism Threaten Paganism?

Veiled Issues

Before I begin my critique of Mr. Tyson’s essay concerning the threat posed by atheism, which appeared in last season’s issue of Rending the Veil, I should like to convey I have nothing but the utmost respect and gratitude for Mr. Tyson’s contributions to the occult community. The author’s Portable Magic has been an especial mainstay throughout my work with elemental evocations over the past year. Moreover, I do not intend for my essay to be an outright refutation of Tyson’s position, though I do call for greater clarity upon certain points which Tyson makes; I humbly suggest the modification of others. And I thank Mr. Tyson for initiating what I hope might prove a most fruitful discussion here on Rending the Veil and throughout the occult community.

With all this said, we should first make one key distinction of terminology which is crucial to understanding my position: What Mr. Tyson calls “atheism” throughout his essay, I term “scientific materialism” throughout mine. Narrowly defined, atheism denotes merely a disbelief in any deity or deities, whereas Mr. Tyson broadens the term to include a denial of the existence of “angels [and] devils, [and all] paranormal abilities.” I agree with Mr. Tyson there is an intellectual current which denies all these things, yet I believe this broad denial of what cannot be seen, felt, and measured more properly falls under the broader umbrella of scientific materialism, which says all things are material, and that which is incorporeal is essentially unreal. The most extreme variations of this position rather absurdly suggest since our conscious experience is essentially subjective in nature, then consciousness itself must be unreal. This sort of radical skepticism I will term scientific materialism throughout this essay.

Additionally, there exists a not inconsequential subset of occult practitioners who would probably self-identify as atheists. LaVeyan Satanists and related schools of thought spring to mind here, although I should think many schools of magical thought could jettison, more or less comfortably, the belief in deities without thereby losing the belief in magic. Such atheism neither questions nor condemns the efficacy of magic, though its magical paradigms circumvent the very gods which theological Paganism would doubtless incorporate. Regarding the existence — if not the nature — of magic, we Pagans have little quarrel with our atheist sisters and brothers across the occult community.

With our terms thus more narrowly defined, we must consider the ways by which one intellectual current can threaten another, and herein we discover a second distinction necessary for the discussion at hand. First, one current can threaten another by the sword or by the purse, cutting off or burying the physical means by which we express or communicate some especial belief. In its least subtle guise, this sort of intolerance tears down the temples of the rival belief, and puts anyone espousing the old beliefs to torture, and often to the gallows. Witness the vicious fanaticism of the Christian Inquisition of yesteryear, or today the repressive regime once (and still) imposed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The more subtle approach pours money into political advertisements and lobbying, attempting to bury the opposing viewpoint through public opinion, which in democracy often translates into legal proscriptions. (Prop Eight, I’m looking at you!) Adopting for one moment the information paradigm championed by Patrick Dunn, one might say the belief which threatens does so by flooding the channel of the opposing belief with the noise of fear and distractions. If you can make the rival paradigm physically, legally, and financially difficult enough to follow, reasons this line of attack, you can choke another belief to death.

Now the good news: Across the contemporary Western world, this strategy usually fails, sometimes backfires, and every now and again backfires spectacularly. Genuine democracy contains within itself a belief in the free marketplace of ideas. Given enough time and reflection, people will come to embrace “good” ideas and reject “bad” ones. Critically, we might observe there is disagreement even upon the heading of what constitutes good and bad; here I can only reply that I am an optimist about human nature, and deep down I believe there is something life-affirming in all beings. Now I would rather be an optimist and right than a pessimist and wrong, and yet whether I am right or wrong, there remains the widespread belief in the free marketplace of ideas, recognized in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and elsewhere. This principle protects beliefs, even and especially crazy beliefs, from the sword. Given enough time and good will, life-affirming ideas can overcome the purse.

Barring some unforeseen and catastrophic political revolution, scientific materialism cannot wield the sword. There are no lions awaiting the Christians, and no burning pyres for we who call ourselves Pagan. The very modern developments which enabled the rise of materialism depend upon the free marketplace of ideas, and materialism knows this. More cynically, scientific materialism might simply find the purse more efficacious (or at least less messy) than the sword, since the sword tends to generate martyrs and saints among those who resist. Saturate the airwaves, and one can convince many — though crucially not all — to regard the Witch and the Magician with derision. Pour enough money and technology into the pipeline, and one can theoretically drown out the voices of theism and magic. (Funny aside: I was reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods when Mr. Tyson’s essay came out; I would highly recommend Mr. Gaiman’s novel for those interested in the clash between Paganism and materialism!) Fortunately for the occultist, contemporary technology as likely as not enables the spread of magical beliefs; the very presence of Mr. Tyson’s essay and my own upon this website is itself evidence for this!

Mr. Tyson’s argument falls squarely against the militant variety of scientific materialism, something which doubtless exists throughout the intellectual world, yet here I would argue the real quarrel is with militancy itself, and not with scientific materialism. Militancy is the cancer which threatens with the sword and suffocates with the purse, whether that militancy embraces Christian fundamentalism, Islamist extremism, or even radical materialism. The existential danger to Pagan belief comes not from the content of an intolerant belief system, which can take many forms, but rather from the intolerance of the world view itself, which really comes in only two forms, the sword and the purse.

There are actually two means by which scientific materialism might threaten the existence of occult thought generally and Paganism specifically; the second occurs within the hearts and minds of individual occultists. Superficially, this line of attack can resemble the coercive approach of the sword or the persuasive tactics of the purse, yet the difference here is plain: Whereas the sword and the purse threaten existentially and from without, the explanation — the essential option — proposed by scientific materialism threatens essentially and from within. Nevertheless, there is little new found within this line of attack, though perhaps the argument has gained a certain coherence across the contemporary period. The choice remains the same: To believe or to disbelieve. Doubt is no option here, though doubt exercises profound influence over how we choose and apply one explanation over another. Every moment in time, we stand at the crossroads anew, confronted with sensory data which we can neither confirm nor explain with absolute certainty. There arises the choice: How will we explain our world upon this especial moment? We can choose to explain our world as one capable of magic, or as one completely devoid of paranormal influence. We can choose to believe, or to disbelieve. One choice may be more consistent with the law of parsimony — that is, require less leaps of logic — yet the inescapable choice remains. Always and across every moment — and regardless of our external circumstances — we must choose how we will explain the world which we observe.

Mr. Tyson frames the choice of belief as one between Magic and the Void, and I agree with Mr. Tyson’s contention that Paganism and Christianity share certain broad theological propositions, points of common agreement which make these two schools of thought natural allies against an outright disbelief in things which defy scientific measurement. Still, to regard all scientific materialism, much less all atheism, as the enemy of the Old Ways does a grave disservice to both sides. The Void of which Mr. Tyson speaks is something terrible — this much is true — yet this Void contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, since nihilism offers no essential hope which could sustain those who would believe in disbelief. One might counter that to know the Truth is balm enough, yet the Void is no more (upper case) Truth than any other explanation. The nature of our existence confounds every attempt at certain explanation, including the nihilistic narrative proposed by the scientific materialist. Ever the choice remains.

There exist variations of scientific materialism which reject militancy, schools of secular thought which seek to heal and even to elevate humanity, only without reference to Deities. Do I disagree with their theological starting point? Of course I do, yet as an advocate of religious freedom I acknowledge a common philosophical cause which can serve as the basis for meaningful dialogue. If the Pagan, the Christian, and the secular humanist can all agree upon the need for compassionate and courageous action, then this common ground can defy the divisive and destructive power of militancy. Ultimately, neither the militant materialist nor the benign humanist can remove the essential choices we constantly make, the eternal Crossroads guarded by Hecate: Do we believe?

May the Goddess of Crossroads smile upon you. Blessed Be!

©2009 by Grey Glamer
Edited by Sheta Kaey

From the Editor – Avoiding Bias in Reviews

July 21, 2009 by  
Filed under books, from the editor, reviews, spotlight

From the Editor - Avoiding Bias in Reviews

I had originally intended to write a review for Donald Tyson’s Necronomicon Tarot, to be published alongside Lon Sarver’s review in this issue. As I read Lon’s perspective and reflected on my relationship with Don — who’s been a close friend of mine for nearly a decade — I realized that my bias was firmly in the way of composing an objective review.

I’d been confronted with the issue of bias once before, when I’d considered reviewing an anthology by Taylor Ellwood, a colleague of mine at Immanion Press. Such a dilemma was a new experience for me. I bowed out of reviewing that book, and never gave the matter much further thought. Now that it’s happened again, I have to consider that reviewing the works of anyone who has previously contributed to this magazine (or whom I already know) is a conflict of interest. For this reason, I won’t be reviewing any of Tyson’s works, now or in the future. I apologize to anyone who may have been expecting one, and direct you to Lon’s review instead. He did a good job.

— Sheta Kaey

From the Editor will be a semi-regular column by Sheta Kaey, concerning issues confronting Rending the Veil, its management, and its future. Sheta is Editor in Chief of Rending the Veil and is working on her first book.

©2009 Sheta Kaey

Veiled Issues – Atheism, the Real Enemy

Veiled Issues - Atheism, the Real Enemy

Veiled Issues - Editorials, Opinion, and Debate

For decades witches and other modern pagans have been in a war of words, which sometimes escalates to a war of fists, with the Christian churches. Christians are berated in the most uncivil language on New Age Web sites and in Wicca zines for being malicious fools incapable of thinking for themselves, who allow their pastors, priests, and other Christian spokespersons to tell them what to think about the practice of magic and the worship of pagan gods.

The most withering contempt is always saved for the Fundamentalists, who are taught by their charismatic preachers that all forms of magic, and all worship other than their own beliefs, will result in damnation. Pagans regard Fundies, as they are derisively called, with loathing and view them as their greatest enemies. But is this really so?

There is another enemy, common to both Christians and pagans, that has been quietly gathering strength over the past few years. Its presence on the Internet has expanded exponentially, so that whereas not long ago it was almost impossible to locate, today it is equally impossible to avoid. It is a militant movement with its own dogma and it will tolerate no discussion or debate, except under its own terms – and those terms make true debate impossible.

The new enemy is atheism. It is the belief – the unfaith – that there are no gods, no spirits, no angels or devils, no paranormal abilities, and no magic of any kind.

There is nothing particularly wrong with individuals holding such a view. Everyone should be free to believe what they wish. It becomes a problem for Christians and pagans alike when atheists begin to promote their agenda as a movement with militant insistence, and with intolerance toward other beliefs. They are not content to allow others to believe what they wish, but must seek to convert them.

Atheists don’t regard their opinions as beliefs, of course, but rather look upon them as reality. That this same opinion has been maintained by every fanatical and exclusionary religious cult that has ever existed down through the centuries seems to escape them. All fanatical movements proclaim themselves possessors of the only truth, and are aggressively intolerant toward other beliefs – so it is with atheism, which is really a kind of fanatical cult of science that worships godlessness.

For a couple of decades, atheism has attacked the New Age movement under a different guise, that of scientific skepticism. The Committee that was started by prominent skeptics such as the Amazing Randi has systematically assaulted those who practice magic, or who believe in psychic abilities, and has called its campaign of harassment and intolerance “debunking.” Its more famous members have generally avoiding attacks on mainstream religion, although they target charismatic Fundamentalist preachers who employ magic (under another name, that of miracles) for healing purposes. Nor have all of them overtly proclaimed themselves to be atheists, but the writing is on the wall.

Their creed is unbelief, or rather a fanatical belief in the unreality of all spiritual things. They maintain that there is no magic in the world, of any kind – no spirits, no angels, no miracles. The universe they believe in with such fanatical and absolute certainty has no room for the occult or the paranormal.

The debunkers are only the leading edge of the growing atheist movement. The ultimate goal of atheism is to destroy all forms of religion, and this includes both Christianity in its many varieties, and all types of New Age beliefs that worship pagan gods or use magic, such as modern Wicca and Druidism, and even occult movements that arise from traditional Christianity, such as Spiritualism.

This essay is a plea for tolerance and unity. Pagans should reflect that in spite of their long history of conflict with Christianity, it is still a supernatural belief system that acknowledges magic, even though it refuses to call it by its true name. Christian miracles are a form of magic. The healing done by Jesus was done with magic. The exorcism rite still used by Catholic priests to drive out demons is a form of magic rite. Pagans know this even if Christians do not.

The differences between pagans and Christians are not really so deep as they appear. Both believe in higher supernatural beings. Both groups believe that such beings have servants or messengers who mediate between these beings and humanity. Both recognize that such beings can initiate or enable acts that seem to transcend the normal laws of nature. Both are focused upon spiritual discovery, spiritual evolution, and spiritual perfection as the highest goals in life.

It is unfortunate that Christians have been taught for so many centuries to hate and despise pagans, because at root, both movements are engaged in the same kinds of activities, and hold similar views concerning the survival of consciousness after death, the importance of intangibles such as the soul and non-physical realms of experience, and the possibility of intervention by benevolent higher powers in our lives, who act to guide and protect us.

By contrast, atheists reject God and the gods alike. They reject angels, the existence of the soul, life after death, supernatural intervention, ghosts, poltergeists, channeling, possession, divination, miracles, the paranormal, nature spirits, and any higher morality or code of conduct that is communicated to mankind by wise teachers not of the flesh.

What the atheist faithful worship – and make no mistake about it, worship is the only word for their fanatical and intolerant devotion – is the Void. It must be capitalized because the Void is their anti-god. They worship a lifeless mechanism, a cosmic clockwork with no Maker, a world devoid of hope or inspiration, a world purged of all traces of magic both Christian and pagan.

With every day that passes there seems to be more evidence that atheism is a growing movement. You probably remember the campaign of bus signs proclaiming that God does not exist. Such campaigns cost money. Somebody organizes them, and somebody funds them. Make no mistake, atheism is more than simply a collection of skeptical individuals – it is a cohesive unfaith that has as its ultimate purpose, not only the eradication of all religious beliefs and practices, but the destruction of all forms of magic and the supernatural.

Atheism has the potential to become a much greater threat to witchcraft, paganism, and New Age practices than Christianity ever was, even in its darkest and most intolerant days, because even then, when witches were being burned at the stake throughout most of Europe, both pagans and Christians shared a belief in higher spiritual powers and in supernatural agencies.

Atheism is a kind of many-tentacled monster of the Void that will eventually devour all forms of faith other than its own merciless, unforgiving worship of what is dead and empty. If allowed to grow unchecked, it will do immense harm to the human race, by cutting off avenues of communication between human beings and spiritual beings. As we all know, belief creates reality in the astral realms, and the fanatical belief of atheism is in sterility and non-existence.

Not all Christians are Fundies. Many are open to belief in various forms of magic. It is time to stop indiscriminately attacking Christians, and to attempt to find a common ground with them against the growing threat of the atheist movement. It is no longer a case of which god we worship, yours or mine, but whether we are allowed to worship the gods at all, or are forced to abandon them through a misguided ignorance that masquerades under the guise of scientific rationalism.

Science was never designed to deal with spiritual issues, and it is no more capable of commenting on things of the spirit today than it was five centuries ago. Yet atheists have seized on the jargon of science to promote their fanatical unfaith in the Void, and their increasingly militant movement of anti-spirit.

Once atheism is recognized as a threat to spiritual belief as a whole, a threat to all faiths and creeds and practices both Christian and pagan, it can be effectively countered, because at root atheism has nothing to offer – nothing but nothingness, not hope but hopelessness, and as we have all come to understand in our lives, there is more to the universe than the empty worship of the Void, the anti-god of the atheists.

Veiled Issues is a semi-regular column featuring opinion and debate topics. If you’d like to write a rebuttal for this article, send your proposal to and if accepted, we’ll feature your opposing article in the next issue of Rending the Veil.

Donald Tyson is the author of Sexual Alchemy: Magical Intercourse with Spirits, Familiar Spirits, and Soul Flight: Astral Projection and the Magical Universe, among other works. You can visit his website here.

©2009 Donald Tyson
Edited by Sheta Kaey

Book/Tarot Deck Review – The Tyson Necronomicon Series

Book/Tarot Deck Review - The Tyson Necronomicon Series

Donald Tyson’s Necronomicon Series, including

Reviewer: Lon Sarver

Stars rating pending.

H.P. Lovecraft, a writer of weird fiction for the pulp magazines of the first quarter of the twentieth century, created for his fiction a pantheon of demonic deities and their debased cults. This collection of beings and lore are known today as the Cthulhu Mythos, and have been expanded, first by Lovecraft’s friends and fellow pulp authors, and also by later generations of fantasists. Lovecraft and the others did the job so well that even now there are still people who believe that Lovecraft was writing fact disguised as fiction.

Even those who do not believe that Lovecraft’s writings are on some level literally true feel the dread pull of the Cthulhu Mythos, finding therein powerful symbols of strangeness, fear, and alien mystery. As with anything that grabs the attention and provokes the emotions, the Mythos has found its way into several serious works of magick.

Don Tyson’s Grimoire of the Necronomicon (Llewellyn 2008) is an attempt at one of these. Along with its companion volumes, Necronomicon: The Wanderings of Alhazred (2004), Alhazred: Author of the Necronomicon (2006), and the Necronomicon Tarot (2007), the Grimoire presents a new look at the Cthulhu Mythos as workable magickal system.

As such, the texts can be evaluated three ways: as contributions to the overall literature of the Cthulhu Mythos, as contributions to occult scholarship, and as a functioning magickal system.

Necronomicon: The Wanderings of Alhazred, the first to be published, presents itself as a version of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, detailing the Mythos as discovered by Abdul Alhazred, a medieval Arab sorcerer. Alhazred: Author of the Necronomicon is a much longer work, describing the life and journeys of Alhazred in the form of a novel of adventure and occult mystery.

From his surviving letters and non-fiction writing, we know that Lovecraft believed in using fragments and hints to fire the reader’s imagination. Dread and horror would thus be created in the reader’s mind far more effectively than they could be in complete descriptions on a page.

Unfortunately, Tyson’s writing does much to remove that kind of mystery without replacing it with anything worthwhile. While Necronomicon could easily be excused as an occultist fan’s labor of love, perhaps, Alhazred could not. The novel would read and feel exactly the same if one were to change the names of the protagonist and the monsters so as to remove all allusions to Lovecraft.

Also, the attributes Tyson ascribes to the Mythos and its entities are so changed from Lovecraft’s work that it seems, at times, as if the author is writing about entirely different things, and only borrowing the more famous names. This would give the books a hollow feeling to any reader familiar with the other stories that make up the Mythos.

This is important to the magickal value of the Grimoire and the tarot deck. Insofar that the point of writing a work of Cthulhu Mythos magick is to tap the current of energy created by generations of readers of this kind of fiction, departures from that fiction weaken the link, and the power that can be drawn through it.

The Necronomicon Tarot suffers heavily from this. The descriptions of the various Mythos entities used in the deck frequently do not match their presentation in works of Mythos fiction, and often do not match the meanings of the cards upon which they appear. For example, Azathoth is described by Lovecraft as a blind, idiot god dancing at the physical center of the universe. The deity is generally understood by Lovecraft scholars as a metaphor for Lovecraft’s existential dread of a blind, uncaring universe far too large for humans to comprehend.

In the Necronomicon Tarot, this deity is used as the image for Trump 0, The Fool. While the traditional divinatory meanings of innocence, child-like wonder, and gullibility are kept for the card, the deity is described as a filthy, insane being squatting in its own excrement. Use of the deck for divination, or really for any purpose other than rounding out a collection of Mythos paraphernalia, would be impaired by such internal dissonance. It certainly was for me.

The Grimoire of the Necronomicon itself suffers on many levels. Stripped of all of Tyson’s Lovecraftian pretentions, it is a simplified system of planetary/astrological magick. In brief, particular beings from the Mythos are ascribed to the seven “planets” of classical astrology, whose energies are held to rule various aspects of life. Communing with these beings through ritual brings these energies under the magician’s control and perfects the magician’s soul. Additionally, Tyson created twelve beings to represent the signs of the zodiac, for similar use.

Stripped to its bones, the system isn’t bad, just incomplete. Much of the material is borrowed from other, better works of planetary magick, without the context or depth that the original systems provided. In place of this is a narrative which attempts to explain how the various deities of the Cthulhu Mythos are related to the planets, why they would work with the magician, and why such an alliance is a good idea in the first place.

The narrative begins with the creation of the physical world as the aftermath of a cosmic rape. Nyarlathotep, a malign trickster god, attempts to usurp Azathoth’s throne and rapes his daughter. Azathoth is blinded and driven insane, and his daughter flees the divine court and wraps matter around herself, becoming the Earth. Nyarlathotep and the other deities then vow to extinguish all life on Earth and destroy the planet, to “free” the goddess in order for Nyarlathotep to force himself on her again and complete his usurpation.

It should be noted that this is original with Tyson. Except for the characterization of Nyarlathotep as a malign trickster, none of this appears in any Mythos fiction of which I am aware. Thematically, the story is entirely counter to original stories. What made the entities of the Mythos horrible in the original stories was that they were undeniable proof that the Earth is not special and that the powers that be do not care if humanity lives or dies. It is, so far as I can tell, a rather loose adaptation of certain Gnostic ideas about the corruption of the material world and the human spirit’s fall from grace.

The text of the Grimoire is ambivalent about the myth at its center. Sometimes, it seems to hint that the tale is about the redemption of a fallen world, and that the “good” magicians work to restore Azathoth to health and power. Most of the time, the text suggests that there is nothing one can do but go along with a bad system, repeating that those who will not serve Nyarlathotep will be destroyed with everyone else.

Perhaps the only saving grace of the Grimoire is that it does not pretend to be a revelation of the “real” magick behind Lovecraft’s fiction. The introduction is candid about the text being a fusion of fiction and bits and pieces of magickal systems. Despite this, however, it never quite makes a case for why a magician would want to choose this particular modern synthesis over all the other more complete, and less offensive, systems of planetary magick available.

So these four texts contribute nothing original or useful to the literature of either the occult or the Cthulhu Mythos. The question remains, though: Does it work?

Yes and no.

In order to test the system, I performed an evocation of Yig. In the original fiction, Yig was a snake-god in the American west who took horrible vengeance on anyone who harmed a snake. In the Grimiore, Yig is the god associated with Saturn, the keeper of forgotten and occult secrets. This seemed to be the appropriate entity of which to ask questions about a magickal system.

The ritual for contacting the Great Old Ones detailed in the Grimiore is not complex. One goes to a lonely place, preferably one at altitude and with a view of the night sky. A circle of seven stones is made, with four rods painted the colors of four of the Great Old Ones marking elemental directions. On a central altar, three more colored rods representing Azathoth, Nyarlathotep, and Yog-Sothoth form a triangle. Candles are placed at the points of this triangle.

The magician then sits or stands to the south of the altar, facing north, and recites the Long Chant. The Long Chant is a fairly standard invocation, customized to the narrative of the Grimiore. The chant is presented in both English and Enochian, for the convenience of the magician.

Once the chant is completed, one calls upon the chosen entity to appear in the triangle. Any offerings or sacrifices are placed on the altar inside the rods. The text does not provide invocations for the deities, though many of them have personal requirements of location or timing the magician must observe.

What is supposed to happen next is left vague. The magician is to meditate, and will, if all goes well, receive some kind of communication from the entity called. The gate is closed, the candles extinguished, and the rite is over.

For me, a circle of stones on a hilltop was not practical. I substituted a room on the second floor of my home, with a large, open window through which I could see the night sky. In the place of a stone circle, I created banners for the cardinal points according to the instructions in the Grimiore, and hung them in the appropriate directions. As the Grimoire stresses that the “true” circle exists on the astral, I felt comfortable in simply visualizing the standing stones.

I read out the Long Chant four times, first in English and three more times in Enochian. After, I improvised an invitation to Yig, praising his wisdom and asking for contact. In my mind’s eye, I saw a snake curled up in the triangle. Meditating on the altar, I did receive a vision of Yig and his realm, and heard the god’s answers to my questions about the system of the Grimiore.

To summarize the wisdom of Yig, the beings contacted by the magick of the Grimiore are not, in fact, the beings written of by Lovecraft and his peers — but they could be, given time and the effort of magicians using this system. In any case, the specific names and images of the system are only tools for achieving contact with whatever it is magicians are contacting, so it doesn’t matter whether or not the deities are fictional or historical.

I thanked the old snake and closed the rite.

So, did the magick work? Yes, in the sense that the ritual induced a vision. However, the ritual did not evoke any of the sense of dread or cosmic vastness associated with the Cthulhu Mythos. This is for the best, really. The folks who seek experiences with real-world magick based on the Mythos are most likely not imagining what it would feel like to be living out one of Lovecraft’s stories. Instead, they’re probably recalling what it felt like to read those stories, and seeking to tap into that emotional current.

While the system seems to produce results, it doesn’t actually do anything better or differently than any other system of magick I have ever worked. The Lovecraft pastiche doesn’t seem to interfere, but it also adds nothing.

One might wonder how useful it is to make contact with a fake snake god. To quote Alan Moore, author, magician, and worshiper of the late Roman snake god Glycon; “If I’m gonna have a god I prefer it to be a complete hoax and a glove puppet because I’m not likely to start believing that glove puppet created the universe or anything dangerous like that.1

Approached this way, the Grimiore of the Necronomicon might be useful in maintaining a healthy skepticism about one’s magickal work. Those seriously interested in planetary magick with an old-school feel would be better served to study the systems of the Golden Dawn or the The Key of Solomon The King: (Clavicula Salomonis). Those seeking to evoke the mood of the cosmic and alien in their spiritual lives would do very well to track down a copy of The Pseudonomicon, by Phil Hine2 .


  1. Quoted from an interview, “Magic is Afoot,” published in Arthur magazine in May 2003
  2. New Falcon publishing, 2004

Review ©2009 Lon Sarver
Edited by Sheta Kaey

The Rapier’s Edge – Follow-Up Interview with Donald Tyson

The Rapier's Edge - Follow-Up Interview with Donald Tyson

The Rapier's Edge - Exclusive Interviews with Extraordinary Individuals

Nearly a year ago, I interviewed Donald Tyson regarding his then new book, Grimoire of the Necronomicon. Since then, my review partner, Lon Sarver, and I have been working with Tyson’s system and we’ll present our findings in this the next issue. Mr. Tyson was kind enough to agree to a follow-up interview; you’ll find it just below.

Sheta Kaey for Rending the Veil

How did you first become acquainted with H. P. Lovecraft’s writings?

Donald Tyson

Pure accident. Way back in 1967 I bought a Lancer paperback titled H.P. Lovecraft: The Colour Out of Space and Others. It was a collection of seven stories by Lovecraft, including “The Call of Cthulhu,” which is generally regarded as the initiator of what is now called the Cthulhu Mythos, although I prefer the term Necronomicon Mythos myself. The stories impressed me with their strangeness — they weren’t like the usual horror stories I was reading at the time. Over the years I read as many other stories by Lovecraft as I could find.

Sheta Kaey for Rending the Veil

Did you ever think back then that someday you would write books about Lovecraft?

Donald Tyson

It never even entered my mind. At that time I didn’t even know that I would become a professional writer. I just enjoyed reading his stories.

Sheta Kaey for Rending the Veil

Why did you decide to write your own version of the Necronomicon?

Donald Tyson

It was pure hubris. I was participating in a newsgroup where different versions of the Necronomicon were being talked about, and I suddenly thought to myself, “I can write a better version of the Necronomicon than this.” So I did.

Sheta Kaey for Rending the Veil

What makes your version better than, say, the Simon Necronomicon?

Donald Tyson

Whether it is better or not is ultimately for readers to decide, but I tried to make my version better by posing the question to myself, “If the Necronomicon really existed, what would it contain?” I figured that it would not be just a collection of spells and sigils — that is not how Lovecraft described it, and it doesn’t match up with the quotations from it that he included in his stories. I figured it would be more of a history of the earth before the rise of the human species, describing all the alien races that had existed on it back then, coupled with a description of the strange places the author of the book, Abdul Alhazred, had encountered during his wanderings around the ancient world.

Sheta Kaey for Rending the Veil

So you don’t like the Simon Necronomicon?

Donald Tyson

It’s not that I don’t like it — the Simon Necronomicon is fine for what it is, a grimoire associated with the Old Ones. I just don’t believe it is very much like what the real Necronomicon would be, if it existed in our world.

Sheta Kaey for Rending the Veil

There are monsters in your Necronomicon Tarot that don’t exist in any of Lovecraft’s stories. Where did they come from?

Donald Tyson

The short answer to that is, I made them up. As you know, the Necronomicon Tarot is closely based on my version of the Necronomicon. I didn’t want my book to be limited to only what Lovecraft had written about the Necronomicon, because for one thing, Lovecraft didn’t write all that much about it. The total number of words that Lovecraft put into his stories as supposed direct quotations from the Necronomicon doesn’t amount to more than a few pages — it’s not enough for a book. Also, I’m a creative writer, and I wanted my version of the Necronomicon to reflect some of my own creativity. I did try hard to avoid directly contradicting anything Lovecraft had indicated to be in the Necronomicon, and I tried to include in my book everything that he had written about it. In those respects my version is more faithful to Lovecraft than any other version. It contains all that Lovecraft wrote about the Necronomicon, but it also contains a lot he never imagined.

Sheta Kaey for Rending the Veil

Talk about some of the monsters you created for the Necronomicon Tarot

Donald Tyson

Well, there’s I´thakuah, an ancient crone who works a kind of witchcraft in front of her fire in the dry cisterns deep under the ruins of the lost city of Irem. She is so old it’s almost impossible to tell whether she is male or female, or even whether she is human. Her hands are like great claws and her arms are long and powerful, the better to catch the rats upon which she feeds in the total darkness. She has lived under the ruins of the city for so long, even she doesn’t remember when she first entered the cisterns. She serves Nyarlathotep, one of the seven Lords of the Old Ones, who communicates with her through his deep-dwelling inhuman agents when they approach and converse with the old hag.

Then there is the Beast of Babylon that lives in the ancient brick sewer tunnels under the ruins of Babylon in Persia. It was upon the folklore of this Beast that the Biblical beast of Revelations was based. It is a great animal the size of a horse, with massive wings that allow it to fly through the air, when it emerges from beneath the ground at sunset to hunt its human prey, and seven heads on seven long, snake-like necks that ceaselessly bud forth and then shrink away by turns. The heads are formed from the heads of all the human beings the Beast has captured and consumed over the millennia, and they are conscious and babble in their own languages about their pain and sorrow, laughing and weeping and screaming during the brief periods of their presence on the necks.

Those are two of my creations, I´hakuah and the Beast.

Sheta Kaey for Rending the Veil

Did you scry any of the strange creatures in the Necronomicon Tarot using a crystal or a black mirror?

Donald Tyson

Not in a formal sense, no. I never sat down before my crystal ball and saw images of these beings. But over the months it took to write the book, I had my mind on Lovecraft and Alhazred and the Old Ones night and day. They started to creep into my dreams, and I even began to notice strange things happening around me.

Sheta Kaey for Rending the Veil

What sort of strange things?

Donald Tyson

Noises that had no cause. Movements at the corner of my eye that were like flashes of shadow sliding past. Objects that disappeared with nobody around to move them, and then just as strangely reappeared days or weeks later. Strange looks or words from complete strangers I passed in the street.

Sheta Kaey for Rending the Veil

What do you think was happening? Were you under some kind of attack?

Donald Tyson

I don’t know. I got the sense that something was trying to communicate with me, but that it was so alien, it didn’t quite know how to even make the attempt. It kept fumbling around, using whatever was available as a conduit. It didn’t so much feel malicious as it felt unnatural — like something out of place, or something that didn’t quite belong in our world. I think maybe when I started to write the Necronomicon, this intelligence took notice of me, and that maybe it communicated psychically some of the creatures I wrote about. But no one can prove a thing like that, it’s just a sense you get, like a kind of feeling.

Sheta Kaey for Rending the Veil

Do you believe the Necronomicon really exists in some form?

Donald Tyson

At one time I would have said no, but today — yes, I believe that the Necronomicon does exist. It was never published in the usual way as a book, of course, but I believe that Lovecraft didn’t invent it from nothing. He was a sleeping seer. When he dreamed, he saw visions of astral planes that are deeper and stranger than most people ever visit during sleep, and he brought things back from those planes that he put into his stories.

Sheta Kaey for Rending the Veil

What kinds of things?

Donald Tyson

Like the Old Ones, who are invisible creatures that inhabited the earth long before the evolution of the human race. They are so strange, so unlike anything we know in this world, that our eyes can’t even see their color. They floated through the air, and lived in black stone cities without windows — they didn’t need windows because they had no eyes. They perceived the world with senses we wouldn’t even comprehend.

Sheta Kaey for Rending the Veil

There is more than one kind of Old Ones in Lovecraft’s stories, isn’t there?

Donald Tyson

Yes, several species are called Old Ones or Elder Things or The Elder Race by Lovecraft. He used the term Old Ones as a general term for those intelligent alien species that inhabited the young earth before the coming of mankind.

Sheta Kaey for Rending the Veil

Did the Old Ones write the Necronomicon?

Donald Tyson

According to Lovecraft, the Necronomicon was written around the year 730 by an Arab poet of Yemen named Abdul Alhazred. He went insane, and he wrote the book based on what he had seen in the desert, in abandoned cities and old tombs and caverns deep beneath the sands, and what the creatures that have always lived in these remote desert wastes and deep places whispered to him when he talked with them.

Sheta Kaey for Rending the Veil

Maybe writing the Necronomicon drove him insane.

Donald Tyson

The book was written when Alhazred was an old man, so he must have gone insane at some earlier stage in his life, since he was known as the “mad Arab” in Lovecraft’s stories. But whether the process of writing the book drove him mad, or whether it was his madness that allowed him to gather the information that went into his book, there’s no way to know.

Sheta Kaey for Rending the Veil

You talk about Alhazred as if he were a real person.

Donald Tyson

That’s how Lovecraft wrote about him, and about his book. That’s one of the reasons they seem so real to us today. But I believe that maybe Alhazred did write the Necronomicon, not while he was awake, but while he was asleep, in his dreams. That is how Lovecraft was able to see the book so clearly. Alhazred created it in the dreamlands, as Lovecraft called them, and Lovecraft in his explorations of the dreamlands was able to see the book and learn its Greek name.

Sheta Kaey for Rending the Veil

Your Necronomicon and the Necronomicon Tarot are only two parts of a trilogy of works from Llewellyn Publications. What is the third part?

Donald Tyson

The third part of my Necronomicon Trilogy is my novel Alhazred. I refer to the three works as a trilogy because they are all based on the same content, the text of my Necronomicon. The Necronomicon Tarot illustrates pictorially the things I wrote about in that book, and my novel Alhazred relates the events in the book from Alhazred’s point of view, as he experienced them during his wanderings.

Sheta Kaey for Rending the Veil

What about your other book, the Necronomicon Grimoire?

Donald Tyson

The Necronomicon Grimoire is not a part of the trilogy, but it is closely linked. I wanted to create a practical grimoire based on Lovecraft’s mythology of the Old Ones, with a ritual structure that could be used by serious magicians for practical purposes. I based the grimoire on information in my Necronomicon, so the two books are in harmony with one another, but whereas the Necronomicon concerns strange monsters, alien races, and hidden places of the ancient world, the grimoire lays down the precise details of a system of magic, and sets forth the outline for an occult society based on its rituals that I’ve named the Order of the Old Ones, or OOO for short.

Sheta Kaey for Rending the Veil

Is the Order of the Old Ones an actual occult society?

Donald Tyson

It will be, if enough people want it to be. I look upon it in much the same way that I regard the Necronomicon of Lovecraft — both are real in an astral sense, and that reality can bring them forth into the world if enough individuals seriously want them to exist.

Sheta Kaey for Rending the Veil

Are you planning to write any more books based on the Necronomicon?

Donald Tyson

Yes, I have two more in the works, which I won’t talk about in detail here. It seems that Lovecraft hasn’t finished with me yet.

Sheta Kaey for Rending the Veil

Do you get the sense that Lovecraft is telling you to write these books?

Donald Tyson

I get the sense that his ghost is standing at my shoulder as I’m writing, reading what I’ve written. What he thinks of it, I don’t know, but I hope he approves. I’ve done my best to honor his memory and his mythos, and to add to its occult current rather than merely drawing from it. A lot of writers had reason to be thankful to Lovecraft while he was alive, because he was unfailingly generous to young authors. He would write endless letters encouraging them to write, and giving them helpful advice about how to improve their stories. Today, in a strange way many writers still have reason to be thankful to Lovecraft, because they are building upon the foundation he laid down, writing books that are part of a mythos that would never have existed without Lovecraft’s genius.

Sheta Kaey for Rending the Veil

Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.

Donald Tyson

I always enjoy talking about the Necronomicon and the Old Ones. It’s the thoughts and dreams of all of us that give life on the astral level of the dreamlands to both the book and the things it describes. As long as people continue to read Lovecraft’s stories, the Necronomicon will never die.

The Rapier’s Edge is a semi-regular column featuring interviews with our contributors, other occult authors, and celebrities of interest to RTV readers. If you’d like to be interviewed, please contact and we’ll be pleased to consider such an interview (especially if you have suggestions for questions!).

Donald Tyson is the author of Sexual Alchemy: Magical Intercourse with Spirits, Familiar Spirits, and Soul Flight: Astral Projection and the Magical Universe, among other works. You can visit his website here.

Sheta Kaey is Editor in Chief of Rending the Veil and is working on her first book, Infinite Possibility. You can read her blog here.

©2009 by Sheta Kaey
and Donald Tyson.

The Magic Circle

The Magic Circle

Purpose of Circles In Magic

There are two opinions about the purpose for the circle in ritual magic — the first view is that it is to keep something out, and the second view is that it is to keep something in. Both are correct, and although they may seem contradictory, both views are based on the same principle — the circle is a barrier that divides inside from outside.

Take a pencil and a sheet of paper. Draw a line segment on the paper. The line seems to divide one side of the paper from the other, but it has end points, and it is possible to go around those ends — the line segment is not a true divider. However long you imagine the line to be, it is possible to imagine the paper it is on to be larger, so that the line never truly divides the plane.

Draw a circle on the sheet of paper. You will see that the division made by the circle between inside and outside is absolute. Enlarge the circle, shrink it, distort it, and it makes no difference — as long as the circle is unbroken, it creates a perfect barrier. There is no way around it.

You might argue that in our first example, we could limit the size of the imagined sheet of paper, and then it would be possible to draw a line completely across it, and divide it in an absolute sense. Yes, but to limit the size of the paper we must first draw a mental circle around it, that defines its edge. The actual physical sheet of paper is limited in just this way — its edge is its boundary circle.

What can we say about the nature of a circle, based on this little thought experiment? We can say that a circle surrounds, encloses, contains, and excludes. It defines the edge of something, and by doing so, it gives what it defines a shape. Everything we see has a circle around it. If this were not so, we would not be able to distinguish one thing from another — they would all run together and merge in our minds.

That brings up another aspect of the circle — it exists in the mind. We draw a mental circle around any thing we chose to separate from all other things. When we look at an apple tree and consider the tree as a whole, we draw a circle around the tree that divides that tree from all other trees, from the sky, the earth, from all other things that are not the tree itself; but if we choose to narrow our attention and focus it on a single apple hanging on a branch of that tree, we mentally draw a circle around that single apple.

All circles are by their inherent nature magical. They define order from chaos. There is no separation in the natural world, there are only the separations we choose to impose upon our perception of the natural world. We construct our reality piece by piece when we draw circles of identity around objects and concepts.

If you have followed this line of reasoning, you will understand that names are magic circles. This is the fabled occult power of names. When we name a thing, we separate it from everything else. It comes into discrete existence in our mind at that moment. Everything we perceive has been divided in our mind from chaos by an enclosing circle, and that circle defines the name of the thing enclosed. The subsequent process of assigning an arbitrary word sound to the thing is secondary. We have already named it the instant we recognize its existence. That recognition makes the thing real for us — brings the thing forth into our personal reality. This is a magical act, even though it is seldom recognized as such, because it is so basic to the way our minds work.

The magic circle is usually understood in a narrower sense, as a circle drawn for the purpose of working ceremonial magic. It defines a space within which magic is facilitated. Exactly how the circle aids the working of magic has been a matter for debate.

In traditional Western spirit evocation, the circle was used to guard the magician from the malicious actions of evil spirits, who were excluded from the circle while the magician remained safe within its boundary. In modern Wicca the belief is that the circle retains and concentrates magical energy raised by ritual work, making it easier for the leader of the ritual to direct and release that energy for a specific desired use.

If you consider what was written above about the nature of circles in general, you can see that these two views are not incompatible. A barrier can simultaneously hold one thing out while holding another thing in. A fence around your back yard will keep your dog inside the yard, but at the same time it keeps other dogs out of the yard. The key point is that it cannot be crossed so long as it remains undivided.

The magicians of the Middle Ages and Renaissance were mostly concerned with calling up demons and spirits of a mixed type, for the performance of tasks that would have been beneath the dignity of angels, and unsuited to their natures. These tasks included such work as the finding of treasure, the harming of enemies, inducing love or lust in other persons, gaining social position or power, inducing a glamour of false appearance, and so on.

By their very nature these kinds of low spirits are not inclined to help or obey human beings. Yet they are more suited for selfish tasks than the benevolent angels. The magician got around this awkwardness by calling demons and spirits of a mixed type up outside the bounds of the magic circle, while he commanded them from the safety of the space inside the circle. This protective use of the circle is unnecessary when dealing with angels of a more spiritual nature, since they never seek to do harm.

Even so, the circle was drawn for other purposes than the evocation of low spirits. Wiccans employ it to contain and concentrate the power they raise by their changing and dancing. When the occult energy within the circle has filled the circle to such a degree that it can be felt on the surface of the skin as a kind of heat or electricity, the leader of the ritual releases it like an arrow from a bow toward its intended function.

You may ask how energy can be released from the circle, when the circle by its very nature is an unbroken barrier. This is an occult secret that until fairly recently was never explicitly revealed. I wrote about it in my first book The New Magus, which was published by Llewellyn Publications in 1987, and that may have been the first time this secret was clearly explained to a large number of magicians.

The circle by its nature cannot be broken and remain a circle. No point on the circumference of a circle can be singled out as an aperture without destroying the integrity of the circle, since all points must remain undifferentiated and undivided if the circle is to stay whole. The only way in or out of a circle is through the point at its center, which by the nature of a circle is defined. Yet all points within the area of a circle are the same – one mathematical point does not differ from another mathematical point by its nature, but only by its position.

The center is relative. Any point in space that the human mind chooses to make its viewpoint becomes the center of the universe for that consciousness. We think of ourselves as looking outward through our eyes from some point within our skulls, but this is arbitrary. We can just as easily regard the world from the tip of our right index finger, or from the cat lying on the fireplace hearth across the room.

The practical consequence from a magical standpoint, with regard to the circle, is that any point within the circumference (but not on the circumference) of a circle can be regarded by the magician as its center point, and used as an aperture in or out of that circle.

When the high priestess of a Wiccan coven releases from the circle the accumulated occult energy of a ritual to the fulfillment, she does so by opening the point doorway at the center of the circle. This happens even if she is unaware of what she is doing. There is only one way in or out of the circle, so to release the pent-up energy, the high priestess must open the center — that point within the circle that she chooses, by the focus of her will, to represent the center-point of the circle.

Points are opened by expanding them. The expansion of a point is accomplished by means of a spiral. Only spiral energy can move through a point. Wiccans raise what is known as a cone of power within the circle. The cone has a spiral energy and it focuses upon a point, which is the center point of the circle. It is through this expanded point that the concentrated energy of the ritual is released, to fly like an arrow to its target, where it accomplishes its purpose.

Necromancers working with demons from within a protective magic circle sometimes pierce the circle with a sword to manipulate objects, or to compel obedience from the demons they have evoked outside the circle. They seem to pierce the side of the circle with the blade of the sword. Probably they themselves believed that they were piercing the side of the circle when they extended the steel blade beyond its boundary.

This is not the case. As pointed out, a circle only remains a circle for so long as it is unbroken, and were it broken even for an instant, its protective power would cease. No, the blade of the sword actually extends through the point chosen by the necromancer as the center of the circle. This occurs on the subconscious level. By choosing a place from which to project the sword blade, the necromancer defines the center point, distinguishing it from all other points within the circle, and by projecting the blade he opens that point with spiral energy.

Circles of Stone and Dancing Rings

Mention magic circles to the average person and the first thing he will think of is Stonehenge. The sheer beauty and mystery of that ancient ring of standing stones on the Salisbury Plain has so captured the modern mind that it has become iconic. Yet it is far from unique. Similar stone rings of widely varying sizes and degrees of sophistication are to be found not only across England, or even across Europe, but throughout the entire world. The most ancient that has been discovered to date are probably the rings of curious T-shaped standing stones that have recently been unearthed in Turkey.

The place is called Gobekli Tepe. It is near the city of Sanliurfa, which lies around ten miles to the southwest. The unique T-stones were discovered in 1994 by a Kurdish shepherd, who happened to notice some curiously regular stone blocks poking up from the ground while tending his flock. What he discovered has been called the greatest archaeology find in history.

The stone circles excavated from under their covering of earth turned out to be over 12,000 years old — 7,000 years older than Stonehenge. There are an estimated twenty rings of stones, although only four have been completely excavated to date. Most of the stones are about eight feet tall, but one has been found in a nearby quarry that was 28 feet long, so much larger stones may wait to be uncovered.

The discovery at Gobekli Tepe shows that human beings were building elaborate complexes of stone circles even before they began to settle in villages and farm the land. That is how important the making of circles was to these early cultures. Undoubtedly they were used for religious rituals, but for ancient man there was no clear separation between religion and magic. Shamanism is an almost perfect blending of the two. The shaman is both priest and magician.

Some researches have contended that these stone circles were built to mark the windings of the stars and planets in the heavens — as a sort of elaborate form of sundial. But if this were their only function, or even their primary function, it could have been accomplished just as well with much less massive or elaborate constructions. Imagine how much labor went into the construction of Stonehenge, or Gobekli Tepe.

No, the circles of stones served a magical purpose that was of the highest possible significance. They defined a sacred space, concentrated ritual energies within that space, and protected it from defilement by disharmonious forces. The maintenance of these sacred spaces must have been more important to the peoples who built these great stone rings than any other purpose in their lives. They devoted generations of their lives to building them. The only comparable act of devotion in historical times is the construction of the great cathedrals of Europe.

A ring of standing stones defines a permanent circle to sanctify and empower a specific spot on the surface of the earth, but magic rings of an impermanent kind were also constructed for ritual purposes. The most ephemeral form of magic circle was that formed by the bodies of dancing witches, or the seated ring of chanting shamans. This sort of magic circle could be formed anywhere a nomadic tribe stopped for the night, and although its locality was always different, its manner of formation was always the same, and leant the ritual practice a continuity that persisted in spite of the ceaselessly changing landscape.

We can catch a faint echo of this kind of nomadic ritual practice in the books of the Old Testament that describe the early Hebrews wandering in the desert. Each night they erected a tent to house the Ark of the Covenant. The walls of the tent became the magic circle that contained the occult power of the Ark, and also excluded those who were considered unfit to approach the Ark.

Still more primitive nomadic peoples could accomplish the same ends without a tent, by defining the magic circle with their own tribesmen gathered into a ring. At its center a fire was probably maintained, and around this fire a shaman danced and sang to raise occult power. By dancing around the fire, the center point of the circle was opened, and the energy released to fulfill its function.

European witchcraft descended from shamanism. This is self-evident — there are too many parallels between shamanism and witchcraft to reach any other conclusion. Although we can only conjecture as to how primitive nomadic tribes must have formed their magic circles, we have a much clearer idea how the witches of the Middle Ages went about it. The practices of witches are described in the transcripts of the European witch trials.

These court records are to be viewed with the utmost skepticism. The confessions of witches were extracted under torture, or the threat of torture, and accused individuals tried to tell their captors exactly what they wanted to hear. Even so, the general consistency in the descriptions suggests that they are based upon some collective cultic activity — that there were indeed witches, and that they did indeed gather for the practice of magic and for worship.

This was the conclusion of Margaret A. Murray in her highly controversial yet influential book The Witch-Cult In Western Europe. Murray’s findings have been dismissed by most mainstream anthropologists yet her central contention, that the mythology of witchcraft represents an echo of a surviving pagan religion, or at least a kind of cultic set of magical practices with religious elements, cannot easily be dismissed.

We read in the testimony of accused witches that they gathered at their sabbats to perform works of magic and worship. Those recording these matters were Christian priests, so naturally in the transcripts of the witch trials, the works of magic are invariably supposed to have been evil, and the worship always to have been devil worship. Yet we have only the assertions of the Christian priests that this was the case. It seems more likely that the magic worked by witches at their gatherings was of a mixed nature.

Witches danced in a circle at their gatherings. This was known as the round dance or ring dance. Margaret A. Murray wrote in her 1931 book The God of the Witches:1

The ring dance was specially connected with the fairies, who were reported to move in a ring holding hands. It is the earliest known dance, for there is a representation of one at Cogul in north-eastern Spain (Catalonia), which dates to the Late Palaeolithic or Capsian period. The dancers are all women, and their peaked hoods, long breasts, and elf-locks should be noted and compared with the pictures and descriptions of elves and fairies. They are apparently dancing round a small male figure who stands in the middle. A similar dance was performed and represented several thousand years later, with Robin Goodfellow in the centre of the ring and his worshippers forming a moving circle round him.

(Murray, God of the Witches, pp. 109-10)

Concerning the ring dance of witches, J. M. McPherson wrote in his 1929 book Primitive Beliefs In the North-east of Scotland:2

The ring dance usually took place round some object. Thomas Leyis with a great number of other witches “came to the Market and Fish Cross of Aberdeen, under the conduct and guidance of the devil present with you, all in company, playing before you on his kind of instruments, ye all danced about the said Cross, the said Thomas was foremost and led the ring.” These danced round the Cross. Margaret Og was charged with going to Craigleauch “on Halloween last, and there accompanied by thy own two daughters and certain others, ye all danced together about a great stone under the conduct of Satan, your master, a long space.” Here the stone was the centre round which they danced.

(McPherson, J. M. Primitive Beliefs, p. 169)

Discounting the slanders of the Church Inquisitors concerning the presence of Satan in the gatherings of witches, we can see in these ring dances the formation of a kind of dynamic, movable magic circle. As is the case with modern witchcraft covens when they form a circle for ritual purposes, the center of the ring had a focus for its concentrated energies. Usually this was the leader of the ritual, but the dances might also take place around a standing stone, altar or other object of power. The rotation of the dancers provided the spiral energy needed to focus upon the center of the circle.

The close correspondence between the ring dance of witches and the ring dance of fairies is part of the whole complex of strong ties that exist between the lore of witches and the lore of fairies. Fairy rings, naturally occurring circles that appeared in the grass of meadows and in woods, are the result of the growth of fungus under the surface of the ground, but they were thought to be made by fairies dancing with their hands joined. Other names for these circular phenomena were sorcerers’ rings (French: ronds de sorciers) or witches’ rings (German: hexenringe). By some rural folk they were thought to be formed when witches gathered at their sabbats to dance.

European witches met out of doors, under the moon and stars, and gathered in grassy meadows on in clearings in the forest. They danced on the ground, which was unmarked with symbolic patterns, forming the patterns of their rituals with their own bodies and with their movements. It shows how important the circle is for magical practice, that even under these conditions witches felt a need to define a circle with their dance.

Magic Circles in the Grimoires

The round dance of witches is perhaps the purest form of magic circle. European magicians did not have the option of using a dozen human beings with linked hands to form a circle. They worked alone, or with one or two assistants, and usually performed their rituals beneath a roof on a floor of stone or wood. It was the usual practice to draw or inscribe a magic circle on the floor of the chamber of practice prior to beginning the ritual, using charcoal or chalk. There were other methods for defining the circle – it could be laid down in the form of joined strips of fur or skin, or defined by a rope laid out on the floor, or even painted upon a canvas or rug that was unfolded across the floor – but the usual way was to draw or inscribe the circle.

The term “circle” is used here in its occult, not its mathematical sense. Ritual circles were seldom perfectly circular, or simple in nature. They consisted of concentric circles within a square, or multiple circles, or more involved geometric patterns such as pentagrams, hexagrams or octagrams. These complex patterns on the floor of the ritual chamber are still magic circles, in that they were used to divide inside from outside with a continuous and unbroken line, or set of lines.

One of the oldest of the grimoires, and the most authoritative, The Key of Solomon the King, describes the making of a complex circle. It is evident from its size and manner of formation that this circle is to be made out of doors on the ground.

The magician takes a cord nine feet in length and uses a sword to fix one end to the center of the working space. With the cord pulled taunt, he uses the other end to inscribe with a knife the line of a circle on the ground that is eighteen feet in diameter. A cross is drawn through the center of the circle to divide it into four quadrants – east, west, south and north. Into each quadrant is placed the symbol of that direction of space.

This is the actual magic circle — the magical barrier that protects the magician. Beyond this initial circle, which is called the Circle of Art, other elaborations are to be inscribed which are part of the compound magic circle but not its essential core. Three more concentric circles are to be drawn, each one foot larger in radius than the initial circle, so that three bands are formed by the four circles. Within the outermost of these circular bands, pentagrams are to be inscribed, along with the names and symbols of God.

A square is drawn outside these three bands, or four circles, and outside the square a larger square, so that the corners of the smaller square touch the midpoints of the sides of the larger square. The squares are to be oriented so that the corners of the larger square point in the four directions – east and west, north and south.

It should be noted that the illustration in S. L. MacGregor Mathers’ edition of the Key of Solomon (figure 81) does not match the description of how to make the circle (bk. 2, ch. 9). The confusion arises with regard to the concentric circles — how many there are to be, and what is to be put in them, and where it is to be put. The illustration in Mathers’ book shows only three circles, not the four described. I will quote the relevant passage of text from Mathers’ edition, then explain where the confusion arises. The numbering within the square brackets is mine, and has been used for the sake of clarity.3

Then within the Circle mark our four regions, namely, towards the East, West, South, and North, wherein place Symbols; and beyond the limits of this Circle [1] describe with the Consecrated Knife or Sword another Circle [2], but leaving an open space therein towards the North whereby thou mayest enter and depart beyond the Circle of Art. Beyond this again thou shalt describe another Circle [3] at a foot distance with the aforesaid Instrument, yet ever leaving therein an open space for entrance and egress corresponding to the open space already left in the other. Beyond this again make another Circle [4] at another foot distance, and beyond these two Circles [2 and 3], which are beyond the Circle of Art [1] yet upon the same Centre, thou shalt describe Pentagrams with the Symbols and Names of the Creator therein so that they may surround the Circle already described.

(Mathers. Key of Solomon, p. 99)

The first circle with a radius of nine feet is the Circle of Art. The second concentric circle has a radius of ten feet, the third concentric circle a radius of eleven feet, and the fourth concentric circle a radius of twelve feet. A gap is left in the north of each circle for the entrance of the magician after he has finished completing the drawing of the pattern. The magician closes the gap once he stands inside. This gap is not mentioned explicitly for the innermost and outermost circles, but it is implied. In some of the older illustrations of magic circles this gap in the north appears to be a permanent part of the circle — a kind of corridor for entry and exist (see Skinner & Rankine, The Veritable Key of Solomon, p. 70).4

The text seems to indicate that the pentagrams are to be drawn within the outermost of the three bands, between circles 3 and 4. It is not specified how many pentagrams are to be used, but Mathers’ diagram shows four. However, in the diagram they are located upon the square that surround the four circles, not within the outermost band of those circles. Based on the text, these pentagrams should be placed between circles 3 and 4, along with divine names, so that the band of pentagrams and divine names surrounds the inner circles. The text seems to imply that the divine names should be written within the pentagrams, but I believe this is misleading – the names should probably be written within the outermost band of the circles, between circles 3 and 4, beside the pentagrams. A pentagram should be located between each divine name. The symbols of the Creator may be the four Hebrew letters of Tetragrammaton, IHVH.

There is no indication in the text what names are to be written within the bands of the circles, apart from the outermost which does not even appear on Mathers’ diagram. The diagram shows in the innermost band the Hebrew divine names (which I have transcribed into Latin characters) AVIAL, ADNI, IHVH and TzBAVTh. The second band contains the words MI KMKH BALIM IHVH. These are the only Hebrew words shown on Mathers’ diagram.

The vast size alone of this complex magic circle would make it all but unusable. The smallest part of it, the Circle of Art, is a full 18 feet in diameter. The size of the larger square outside the concentric circles is around twice that width. To draw this circle indoors would require a room some 32 feet across, at least, in its smallest dimension. Many modern houses are not this wide.

Fortunately for magicians, the circle in the Key of Solomon is only one such design that may be used. At the opposite size extreme, some older woodcuts show the magician working within a circle so tiny, it is barely large enough to contain him. A few of these older illustrations even show the demons evoked into the circle while the magician stands outside it unprotected, but this is contrary to the usual use of the circle and should probably be considered an error. Malicious spirits are evoked outside the Circle of Art, usually into a triangle, but sometimes within a smaller circle with the magician safely within the larger circle. As is stated in the Key of Solomon, those who work within the Circle of Art “shall be at safety as within a fortified Castle, and nothing shall be able to harm him” (Mathers, p. 100).

Drawing the Physical Circle

Do not be alarmed if you cannot make out the letters of all the obscure names in the magic circles of the grimoires. Some illustrations of these circles are so corrupt, it would take a Solomon risen from the grave to decipher them. The Hebrew and Greek characters have devolved into nothing more than meaningless squiggles. Happily for the modern magician, there are an infinite number of possible patterns for the magic circle, and all of them will work effectively provided the magician who creates them follows a few basic principles, which I propose to give you. A circle you design yourself, if it is rightly designed, will always be more effective than a circle you copy out of an old book.

The first consideration of a magic circle is that it must be an unbroken line the end of which joins up with its beginning. It does not necessarily need to be perfectly circular in shape, although rightly made circles will usually contain at their root a single unbroken circle, beneath whatever elaborations have been added. Bear this in mind — base your magic circle on a simple, unbroken ring, and it will serve you well. It should be made as large as necessary so that you can work comfortably within it. A traditional size is nine feet in diameter, but for a single person working without an altar, a circle as small as six feet across will be fine. If you can make the circle nine feet across, you will be able to set an altar at its center, and you will have enough room to move around it.

The world is usually divided into four directions or quarters. The magic circle is similarly divided into four quadrants — north, east, south and west. It is not essential to physically mark these quarters of the circle, but you should be aware of this division, which is the most fundamental division of the magic circle. The magic altar is often placed at the center of the circle, and the altar has a square top with four sides. Each of its four sides should face one of the four directions. The room in which the magic circle will usually be constructed will likely have four walls. Again, these walls may be referred to the four directions and four quarters of the world. The wall that is closest to the east can be used for the direction of east, the wall closest to the south can be used for the direction of south, and so on. Align the sides of your altar with the walls of the room.

The divine names that are generally used to act as guardians of the circle are four in number, one name for each quarter of space. It does not matter which specific divine names you choose. The grimoires generally use Hebrew names of God culled from the Bible, either written out in Hebrew characters, or in Greek or Latin characters. IHVH, Adonai, Eheieh and Elohim are serviceable. You do not need to use divine names from the Bible if you have an aversion to conventional religions. Pagan divine names will serve equally well, provided that they are names or titles of the supreme god of the pagan pantheon with which you are working. If you were to use classical Greek mythology for your pantheon, you would choose four names for Zeus. If you were to use the Nordic pantheon, you would choose four names for Odin, or Woden. You will find that supreme gods always have a multitude of names and titles from which to choose.

These four divine names are applied to your inner circle, the root of your magic circle, which is called in the Key of Solomon the Circle of Art. Draw a second circle outside the first, so that there is from six inches to a foot of distance between them, and mark the names in this ring. They are your strongest final line of defense, your ultimate authority by which you command spirits of a malicious or mixed nature. Like the greatest artillery, they are powerful but not versatile.

Outside this first ring you should construct a second ring by drawing a third, larger circle, in which you should place the names of four lesser gods, or if you are working with the Jewish or Christian systems, the names of the four archangels, Michael, Raphael, Gabriel and Uriel. Each lesser god, or archangel, should be chosen to serve as the active arm of the divine name to which it corresponds. The archangel executes the will of God that is defined by the divine name of that quarter. It is the extension or projection of that power.

All the names should be written to be read from outside the circle, not from inside. This important detail is usually overlooked in the grimoires. It is the spirits beyond the boundary of the circle who will be barred from entry by the power of the names, so the names are written for their benefit.

A third line of defense should consist of a third ring, defined by a fourth larger circle, in which are inscribed four names of lesser or earthly spirits that are under the authority of the archangels or lesser gods of the second circle. These earthly spirits will execute minor and mundane tasks assigned to them by the archangels of the four quarters. In traditional Western Judeo-Christian magic, there are four elemental kings that may be used for this purpose, Djin, Nichsa, Paralda and Ghob. Sometimes the nature of the archangels is too elevated to effectively deal with material concerns, and when this is the case these earthly spirits act as their arms, just as the archangels act as the arms of the divine names.

If you have followed this division, you will now have three rings defined by four circles, each ring with four names written in it, one name for each quarter of the world. You may place whatever elaborations you will outside these circles, but the basic circle has already been made, and will serve any purpose to which it is put.

I’ll give the Golden Dawn arrangement for the four sets of divine, archangelic, and kingly names on the quarters, just as a reference. Other names may be used with equally good results.

  • East: IHVH — Raphael — Paralda
  • South: Adonai — Michael — Djin
  • West: Eheieh — Gabriel — Nichsa
  • North: AGLA — Uriel — Ghob

An attractive elaboration you can use, if you have sufficient space, is to draw a heptagram outside the outermost circle so that the circles fit within its open center. The form of the heptagram that has a line which reflects from every second point has a large space at its center. The names of the seven planetary angels can them be written at the bases of each of the seven triangles that form the points of this heptagram. This circle is excellent for planetary magic.

The question of what to use to mark the magic circle on the floor always arises. In past centuries a piece of charcoal from the fire was used, or sometimes a piece of chalk. Floors were usually rough boards in those times, or flagstones. Charcoal or chalk do not work well on a modern carpet, or even on polished hardwood.

A popular method is to lay out the circle with colored tape. This can be bought at any craft store. You can be conservative and use white tape for the entire circle, or if you wish, you can differentiate the fourfold division of the circle by using tapes that are colored the four elemental colors. The Golden Dawn correspondence of colors for the four directions would be: east — yellow, south — red, west — blue, north — black (or green).

Projecting the Astral Circle

Now I must tell you the most important part of casting a magic circle. What you have just made on the floor of your ritual chamber, this elaborate construction of three rings with its divine, angelic, and elemental kingly names, is not a magic circle. It is only the physical husk or shell of a magic circle. It has no life, no reality on the astral level, until you infuse life into it, and make it real.

It is for this reason — because the circle you have drawn or laid out on your floor is a dead thing — that I have not written about making a gap in the north to enter the circle. The circle does not exist until you empower it, so making a gap in the north is not necessary. You may just step across the edge of the physical circle to enter it.

To empower and bring the circle to life, it must be projected or cast on the astral level. This is done in the imagination, by a process of successive visualization, at the start of your rituals. The circle you envision on the astral plane will not correspond in every respect to the circle you have drawn on the floor, any more than the astral temple you have erected in your mind will match exactly your physical workspace.

To cast the circle on the astral level, you stand within the physical circle, visualizing yourself standing in the astral temple you have built up in your imagination, and then mentally walk around the inner edge of the physical circle, projecting the astral circle above it with astral fire so that it floats in the air at the level of your heart. If your physical circle is small, it is sufficient to turn on your own axis while projecting the astral circle in the air at heart level.

After you have projected the astral circle, you must sustain it in your imagination for the remainder of the ritual. It is not an empty exercise — when you make the astral circle, it remains in existence in your mind. The more clearly you can visualize it, the more potent its working. Never step through the astral circle once it has been projected.

The astral circle is projected from the right hand, the side of the body that projects. The right side is projective, the left side receptive. You can use an instrument such as a wand to project the circle, or your right index finger. If you use your finger, it is good to have a magic ring on that finger, the better to channel your energies. The astral fire of the circle is drawn out of your heart center and ejected from your wand, or index finger, in a continuous stream, as though it were a stream of burning liquid.

You can visualize this fire to be of any color, but a glowing yellow-white flame is neutral in a magical sense, and will serve for most ritual purposes.

I have developed a very specific way of projecting occult energies. I lay my left palm flat over my heart center at a comfortable angle, as though taking a pledge, and extend my right index finger. I then visualize astral fire shining from my heart-center the way light shines from a flame. I draw this fire out of my heart-center through the palm of my left hand, up my left arm, across my shoulders, and then project it strongly down my right arm and out through my right index finger. The astral fire traces an expanding spiral course through my body.

After projecting the magic circle on the astral level, you should invoke the names of the gods, archangels and kings by turning to face their directions successively, or by walking around the circle to stand in their quarters successively. Start in the east and turn sunwise. Call forth the power of IHVH in the east, then Adonai in the south, Eheieh in the west, and AGLA in the north. Return to the east and invoke the archangel of the east, Raphael, then go to the south and invoke Michael, then Gabriel in the west, and Uriel in the north. Return east and invoke the king Paralda, then the king Djin in the south, the king Nichsa in the west, and the king Ghob in the north. Return to your starting place in the east, or face east if you are turning on your own axis within a small circle.

In this way you will have gone around the circle three times, once for the names of God, once for the names of the archangels, and once for the names of the kings. This turning creates a whirl or tourbillion — a kind of occult vortex — that draws down magical power into the circle and fills it with astral light. If you have done the invocation rightly you will see this light strongly glowing in your visualized astral circle, and you may even see it in the physical circle, glowing on the air with a soft radiance.

You have in this way cast the circle and energized it. You are ready for whatever ritual work you intend to perform.

Breaking the Circle

When that work is finished, you must deliberately break the ring of the astral circle before you leave the physical circle. I say again, do not walk through the astral circle. Nothing so terrible will happen if you do, but by walking through it you demonstrate that it lacks substance. This is not a good practice. You want to make the astral circle so real, to tangible that it would be physically impossible for you to walk through it without breaking it.

Before breaking the astral circle, banish the four regions of space that lie beyond its barrier. By the authority of the God names of those quarters, command any spirits who may be lingering there to depart in peace. Do this in a quiet but resolute voice, or if you are performing a silent mental ritual, with firmly focused thoughts that are sub-vocalized in your throat. Pay attention to how the air of the ritual chamber feels after you banish the quarters. Does it feel calm and empty? Or does it have a waiting, watchful feeling? If it does not feel empty, perform the banishing a second time, or even a third time, with greater emphasis.

After the four quarters have been banished, it is safe to break the astral circle. When you have divided the circle you may draw it back into your heart center by reversing the steps with which you projected it. Break it in the east (that is the usual starting point used by most magicians, although I start my rituals in the south). Draw it into yourself by walking around it widdershins if it is a large circle, or by turning widdershins if it is a small circle. Draw it back into your heart through your extended left index finger, the side of reception.

Ring, Sash and Circlet

Various articles are worn by the ceremonial magician that are in themselves magic circles that enclose and protect the body, by which different forms of occult force may be concentrated or projected.

The magic ring is a standard article for traditional Western magicians. It is customary for a familiar spirit to be bound to the ring, so that the spirit lends its power to the ring, and may be called forth from the ring at need to perform services for the magician. A magic ring is described in the Key of Solomon, showing how ancient this instrument must have been. The Greek writer Philostratus described magic rings worn by the sage and magician Apollonius of Tyana, who lived around the time of Jesus, and the use of magic rings must have been old even in the time of Apollonius. Cornelius Agrippa was supposed to have worn such a ring.

In addition to serving as the receptacle for a familiar spirit, the ring is used to project power through the finger on which it is worn. Usually this is the right index finger, the most willful and potent finger for projection. As energy runs around the circle of the ring, forming a vortex of power, it is directed out through the point gateway at the center of the magic circle defined by the ring, and channeled along the axis defined by the extended finger.

Another magic circle worn on the body is the sash. This is usually wrapped three times around the waist of the magician and tied, although sometimes the sash is closed by a fastener in the shape of a serpent biting its own tail, so that the sash forms a symbolic ouroboros. The sash is sometimes made from seven bands of colored fabric or ribbon that are the seven colors of the rainbow and correspond with the seven planets of traditional magic. The sash I use is made of seven braided cords, each cord died one of the rainbow colors.

The function of the sash is manifold, but one purpose is to contain and concentrate vitality within the center of the magician’s body. It also offers protection against possession attempts, or other intrusions into the body by spirits. Different sashes sometimes form marks of rank within occult orders, just as different colored belts are ranks in the martial arts.

The third magic circle often worn on the body by Western magicians is the circlet, a band of metal worn around the head. Mine is in the shape of a serpent swallowing its tail, and is fashioned from copper. Silver and gold will also serve for making the circlet.

The circlet concentrates occult energy in the head, the seat of the will and the reason. It has the function of strengthening and focusing the mind. Its physical pressure on the forehead helps to awaken and open the ajna chakra, the third eye which is located between the eyebrows. The circlet is helpful during scrying for this reason.


There is no aspect of ritual occultism more ancient or more essential than the magic circle. Indeed, it is difficult to find systems of magic that do not use the circle in some form, and when they are found, they seem incomplete and naked. The magic circle is older than Solomon, older than Moses, and occurs throughout the world in all religions and systems of witchcraft and thaumaturgy. It divides, excludes, protects, attracts, focuses, and concentrates, as these functions are needed by the magician. It is used not merely for evocations, but for invocations, for charging of talismans, for scrying, for projecting accumulated occult energy, and even for meditation. A correct understanding of the circle, not only how to project it, but what it signifies symbolically, is the most basic knowledge any magician can possess, and no magician can be said to know anything of importance about magic who has not mastered the use of the circle.


  1. Murray, Margaret A. The God Of The Witches [1931]. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.
  2. McPherson, J. M. Primitive Beliefs in the North East of Scotland (International Folklore) [1929]. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1929.
  3. Mathers, S. Liddell MacGregor. The Key of Solomon The King: (Clavicula Salomonis) [1888]. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser Inc., 1989.
  4. Skinner, Stephen & David Rankine. Veritable Key of Solomon (Sourceworks of Ceremonial Magic Series). Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2008.

Donald Tyson is the author of Sexual Alchemy: Magical Intercourse with Spirits, Familiar Spirits, and Soul Flight: Astral Projection and the Magical Universe, among other works. You can visit his website here.

©2009 Donald Tyson
Edited by Sheta Kaey

Donald Tyson is the author of Sexual Alchemy: Magical Intercourse with Spirits, Familiar Spirits, and Soul Flight: Astral Projection and the Magical Universe, among other works. You can visit his website here.

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